Monster Cable Miles Davis Tribute In-Ear Headphones (Playback 30)

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Monster Miles Davis Tribute
Monster Cable Miles Davis Tribute In-Ear Headphones (Playback 30)

Playback readers who follow my blog series on AVguide.com will already know that Monster’s Miles Davis Tribute headphones are, along with their sibling models the Turbine Pro Copper Edition ‘phones, the top two models in the Monster Cable lineup. What, exactly, qualifies them to claim these two top spots? The answer, in simple terms, is that they offer greatly heightened levels of resolution—not just relative to other Monster Cable models but also with respect to most other in-ear headphones on the market. Billed as “the ultimate jazz experience headphones,” the Miles Davis Tribute models aim to dig deeper into the essence of good recordings than many of their competitors do.

When I first encountered the Miles Davis model, it occurred to me that they might in essence be a re-badged (but functionally identical) version of the Turbine Pro Copper Edition ‘phones. When I asked about this, however, Monster Cable founder Noel Lee told me that while the two products share similar technology they do not sound exactly the same. By design, the Miles Davis Tribute model offers a subtle touch of midrange emphasis, whereas the Turbine Pro Copper Edition offers a more nearly textbook-flat (or neutral) frequency response curve.

Anyone interested in the Miles Davis Tribute model will quickly grasp that it is more than a headphone, since it also serves as a collector’s item targeted toward those who cherish the musical legacy of Miles Davis. With this end in mind, the Mile Davis Tribute ‘phones prominently display Miles Davis’ signature (for example, on the earpieces of the headphones, on the yoke of the their signal cable, on the housing of their 3.5mm connector plug, and so on), and they even come with a special display case made to look like a miniature replica of Miles Davis’ trumpet case. To complete the package, the Miles Davis Tribute headphones comes with a copy of Columbia’s Legacy Edition, 2-disc CD set commemorating the 50th anniversary of the release of Davis’ jazz masterpiece, Kind of Blue.

Naturally, these memorabilia touches contribute to price of the Miles Davis Tribute headphones, which retail for $499.95 (by comparison, Monster’s Turbine Pro Copper Edition headphones sell for $399.95). But that said, a bit of price shopping reveals that the street price of the Miles Davis Tribute model is only about $40 higher than that of the Turbine Pro Coppers, so that if you prefer the sound of the Miles Davis ‘phones, there’s no good reason to let the price differential stand in your way.

In this review, I hope to give you a clear picture of the sound qualities that make the Miles Davis model so special, and that differentiates it from the Turbine Pro Copper Edition.  

OVERVIEW

Consider this in-ear headphone if: you seek an in-ear headphone that offers good sensitivity, very high levels of resolution, and generally neutral tonal balance, but that deliberately provides a subtle, gentle band of midrange emphasis that complements many styles of music (including—not surprisingly, classic jazz recording from the late 1950s and early ‘60’s). Also consider this headphone if you would enjoy a distinctive and functionally appealing piece of Miles Davis memorabilia.

Look further if: you like the general concept of the Miles Davis headphones, but would prefer a model whose frequency response curve does not include the MD’s light touch of midrange emphasis. If you are looking for more nearly textbook-neutral response, the Monster Cable Turbine Pro Copper Edition will be more to your liking (and a bit less expensive, too).

Ratings (relative to comparably-priced headphones)

  • Tonal Balance: 8.5 (note that the MDTs provide a light, deliberate touch of midrange emphasis)
  • Clarity: 9.5
  • Dynamics: 9
  • Comfort/Fit: 9
  • Sensitivity: 9
  • Value: 7.5 – 9 (depends on the buyer’s appreciation for Miles Davis memorabilia)

 

SONIC CHARACTER

If I might use an optical analogy, let me say that listening through the Miles Davis Tribute headphones is a little like looking at a very finely detailed photograph through the lens of a high-quality magnifying glass. Suddenly, small details and textures that seemed almost in focus beforehand become explicit, crystal clear and easy to see. It’s a heady experience, actually, since there can be (and often are) those moments where you hear new elements or aspects of recordings for the first time—even those you thought you knew quite well. The feeling is a bit like finding hidden treasure.

Bass performance is taut, solid and well extended—provided, that is, that you find a set of eartips that seal well. I achieved best results using Monster’s new double-layer, gel-type SuperTips (but see my notes under COMFORT/ACCESSORIES, below, for comments on using the SuperTips).

Highs are silvery, smooth and also well extended in a way that can leave some competing headphone models sounding just a bit “dark” or even slightly rolled off by comparison. More than many high quality in-ear headphones, the Miles Davis Tribute models reveal the high frequency air between instruments, the subtle reverberant sounds that reveal the acoustic qualities of recording spaces, and the “decay trails” of individual notes. At first listen, you might (depending upon your past listening experiences) find the Tributes seem a little bit bright, though I think the actual case is that they are not so much “bright” as they are informative and revealing.

The broad middle of the midrange is where the Tributes really come alive, and it is where—by design—they offer a very, very gentle touch of midrange emphasis. While this characteristic may represent a mild, calculated departure from strict textbook neutrality, it is also a quality that complements many styles of recorded music (especially early generation jazz recordings). To put these remarks in context, though, let me add that the midrange-forwardness of the Miles Davis Tributes is so subtle and carefully judged that these ‘phones actually wind up being more accurate than some competing models ostensibly designed for “ruler flat” response.   

MUSICAL EXAMPLES

By way of checking out Monster’s claim that the Miles Davis Tributes offer “the ultimate jazz experience headphones,” I put on “Dear Lord” from disc 4 of John Coltrane’s The Classic Quartet: The Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings to see what I might learn. The results were very impressive, with the MDT’s offering a beautiful if somewhat “zoomed-in” view of Coltrane’s soaring and evocative saxophone sound, which was amplified, in a sense, by the Monster’s ability to capture Coltrane’s mouthpiece, reed and breathing sounds, which made the performance all the more expressive. I was also struck by the sheer amount and depth of low-level sonic information the MDT’s were able retrieve as they reproduced the sound of Coltrane’s quartet members playing alongside him. In particular, the Mile Davis Tributes did a great job of capturing the taut, dry “skin sound” of the snare drum keeping time, or the silvery treble overtones and gradual decay of cymbal notes ringing out into the room. If I had to sum up the unique qualitative flavor of the Miles Davis Tributes in one word, the word I would choose would be “intimacy.” These headphones pull you in close to the performance, giving you the sensation of being to able to listen to the music from a privileged, “insider’s” point of view.

But so that I don’t leave you with the wrong impression, let me also mention that the Miles Davis Tributes are good for types of music quite different from jazz, so that it can fairly be said that these ‘phones will—when the occasion arises—boogie and rock with the best of them. For proof of this, try listening to a potent, down’n’dirty track such as “Mustang Sally” from the soundtrack album from the film The Commitments [MCA]. For those not familiar with the film, director Alan Parker crafts a story where a group of rough-and-tumble Irish musicians decide to form a band dedicated to appreciation (and reinterpretation) of classic American R&B and blues material. Parker chose to cast real musicians in the lead roles, which gives the film (and the music) an incredibly authentic, high-energy feel. From the moment the track starts, the Miles Davis Tributes latch on to the song’s hard-driving bass guitar and drum rhythm lines with a powerful iron grip, while simultaneously rendering each gritty texture and detail in lead singer Andrew Strong’s full-bodied and lovably gravelly voice. The Monster’s don’t so much play the groove; they become the groove in a way that makes listeners want to get up and move. Again, there’s that quality of musical intimacy—the sense of being able to hear and then become engaged with the music in much the way that musicians themselves do.

Are there ever moments where the Miles Davis Tribute’s midrange forwardness becomes problematic? I found the midrange emphasis so subtle that it was rarely bothersome, though there were moments—on solo piano material or certain songs featuring female vocalist, for example—where the MDT’s tended to shine a slightly too bright spotlight on the instruments at hand. But as I say this, I’m keenly aware that this “slightly too bright spotlight” has a definite appeal all its own, so that it can potentially be just the sonic quality certain listeners have been yearning for.

COMPETITIVE COMPARISON

Let me compare the Miles Davis Tribute headphones relative to three worthy competitors: the Etymotics ER-4P, the Klipsch Image X10i, and the Shure SE 530.

 

Miles Davis Tribute vs. Etymotics ER-4P

  • The Etymotics ER-4P’s retail for $299 while the Miles Davis Tributes are considerably more expensive.
  • Sonically, both designs offer similar strengths in terms of their high resolution and sheer sonic purity. That said, however, I think the Mile Davis model enjoys a noticeable edge in terms of retrieving even finer levels of detail.
  • Interestingly, Monster’s Noel Lee told me that he greatly admires the Etymotic ER-4 series headphones, and used them as one of his competitive benchmarks during development of the Monster headphones.
  • Bass performance: both headphones are capable of very good bass performance, but where the Etymotics tends more toward the taut and lean (some would say “overly lean”) end of the spectrum, the MDT’s bass is effortlessly powerful and full-bodied, yet still very tightly controlled. I think typical listeners would find the MDT’s bass superior overall—and much easier to achieve (see comments on eartips, below).
  • Both headphones come with an extensive set of eartips designed to accommodate a broad range of ear sizes and shapes, as well as user preferences. The Etymotic’s eartips can be a bit finicky and difficult to fit, whereas the Monster’s double-layer gel-type SuperTips were relatively easy to fit (in part because they come in five sizes) and offer the difficult-to-achieve combination of comfort, excellent isolation, and terrific bass response.
  • The Miles Davis Tributes carry Monster’s unbeatable “lifetime” warranty, which provides one-time free replacement of the phones “even if YOU break them.”  

 

Miles Davis Tribute vs. Klipsch Image X10i

  • The Klipsch Image X10i’s retail for $349.99 while the Miles Davis Tributes are considerably more expensive.
  • The Image X10i serves both as a headphone and as an iPhone-compatible headset, where the Miles Davis Tributes are headphones, only. The X10i inline microphone module incorporates a 3-button remote control for use with newer generation iPods.
  • Both the X10i’s and Miles Davis Tribute models emphasize resolution and detail (or sonic purity), though their tonal balance is significantly different. In terms of absolute resolution, the Miles Davis Tributes may go even further than the X10i’s do, though the difference is not terribly large. On the whole, the Miles Davis Tributes have a somewhat brighter, more midrange-forward sound, whereas the Image X10i’s have a slightly warmer, darker, and more “euphonic” tonal balance.
  • The X10i is, hands down, the lightest and most comfortable in-ear headphone we have tested, and its patent-pending elliptical eartips are remarkably effective. In contrast, Monster’s double-layer, gel-type SuperTips may enjoy a slight performance edge, though their somewhat stiffer composition makes them slightly less comfortable and also somewhat more difficult to fit than the Klipsch elliptical tips.
  • The Monster ‘phones offer a superior warranty, and appear more robustly built than the X10i.  

 

Miles Davis Tribute vs. Shure SE 530

  • The Shure SE 530’s retail for $499.99 without the push-to-hear control option, or $549.99 with the option, meaning they are roughly the same price as the Miles Davis Tributes.
  • The Shure is a two-way, three-driver design, whereas the Miles Davis Tributes feature a single, high-performance, full-range driver. Shure proponents argue that the three-driver design allows for driver specialization/optimization by frequency range, where Miles Davis Tribute adherents contend that its single-driver design eliminates any possibility of driver-to-driver textural discontinuities. My experience has been that the Shures handle driver blending as well or better than any other multi-driver in-ear headphones I’ve tried. That said, however, the sheer purity of a good single-driver design is tough to beat. Some listeners may find the Monster’s offer superior sonic purity to the Shures (I do), while others might not detect much, if any, difference.
  • The Shure’s greatest strength is rich, natural, and thoroughly neutral tonal balance coupled with a good measure of resolution and detail. Compared to the Miles Davis Tributes, I would say the Shure’s enjoy an edge in terms of overall neutrality (though the difference is not a large one), but that the Monster headphone offers higher levels of resolution as well as the elusive quality of “cut from whole cloth” sonic integrity from top to bottom.
  • The SE 530’s are designed to route signal cables up and over the ears, where the Miles Davis ‘phones do not. Some users are perfectly comfortable with over-the-ear cable routing scheme, while others find it uncomfortable and annoying.
  •  Again, Monster’s unique warranty gives added peace of mind.

COMFORT FACTOR/ACCESSORIES

The Miles David Tribute headphones come with two groups of accessories, one geared for performance and the other geared toward enhancing the product’s appeal as a collector’s item.

Performance-oriented Accessories:

  • Multiple eartips, including standard single-flange rubber eartips (sizes S, M, L); multi-flange rubber eartips (sizes S, L); compressible foam eartips (sizes S, L); and dual-layer, gel-tip SuperTips (sizes S, S/M, M, M/L, and L). Odds are that you will find one or more of these eartip options a comfortable fit. The size and shape of the Miles Davis Tribute earpieces makes it easy to insert the ‘phones in your ear canals and to achieve a good fit.
  • Important Note: For best sonic results, I would encourage listeners to try each of the five sizes of the double-layer, gel-type SuperTips, which I think offer the greatest performance potential overall. One caveat to note, though, is that the outer shells of the SuperTips are a bit stiffer and a little less resilient than most traditional silicone rubber eartips, making the SuperTips more “fit sensitive” than most. You’ll want to take some extra time to experiment until you find a “just right” fit in order to hear the SuperTips at their best.
  • “Revolver”-type eartip carrier with spaces for six pairs of eartips.
  • Detachable garment clip (to keep the signal cable from flopping loosely).
  • Two daily-use headphone cases, one a flip-top case with a magnetic closure hasp, and one a squeeze-to-open pocket pouch with a spring clasp.

Collector’s Item Accessories:

  • Headphone display case designed as a miniature replica of Miles Davis’ trumpet case (you could conceivably use this in day-to-day applications, but it’s really too nice for that; instead, I think it makes a better desktop conversation piece).
  • Columbia Legacy Edition 2-disc CD set commemorating the 50th anniversary of the release of Kind of Blue. Features outtakes from the Kind of Blue recording sessions, plus addition live performance material.

BOTTOM LINE:

Monster’s Miles Davis Tributes are not only cool collector’s items, but also genuinely excellent headphones that offer tons of resolution, plenty of dynamic expressiveness, and a generally neutral sound that is, by design, presented with a gentle touch of midrange emphasis. Only you can decide whether the voicing of the MDT’s will conform to your own musical tastes and preferences, but either way I think most listeners could agree that this headphone presents music with rare evocative power and intimacy.

 

SPECS & PRICING

Monster Cable Miles Davis Tribute In-Ear Headphones

Accessories: See above
Weight: Not specified?
Sensitivity: Not specified?
Impedance: Not specified?
Warranty: Limited lifetime warranty against manufacturing defects, plus additional coverage where Monster offers a one-time replacement of your Miles Davis Tribute ‘phones, “even if YOU break them.”?
Price: $499.95

MONSTER LLC?
(415) 840-2000?
www.monstercable.com

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