Phiaton is a fast growing company that specializes in building sleek, stylish, affordable, and good-sounding headphones, earphones, and music docks. In a fascinating background statement found on the firm’s web site, Phiaton explains the origins of its company name in this way:
“In ancient Greece, the letter ‘PHI’ symbolized the ‘golden ratio,’ an elegant mathematical concept that has long fascinated great thinkers because it represents symmetry of form that is both structurally balanced and aesthetically pleasing to the senses. The golden ratio has inspired masterpiece works in the mathematics of Fibonacci, the architecture of Leonardo Da Vinci, and the musical compositions of Debussy. The use of ‘PHI’ in Phiaton defines a pleasurable listening experience made possible by expertly designed audio technology. ‘TON’ is used in many contexts, but in Phiaton, it has a double meaning. Its inspirations comes both from the English word tone, referring to character and quality of sound, and from the French use of ton to mean fashionable style.”
Obviously, Phiaton has set some ambitious goals for itself, and equally obviously it hopes to reach those goals through products that combine—in roughly equal proportions—both technically sound designs and a serious element of style. Given those dual objectives, how does the firm’s MS 400 headphone ($249) stack up? A perhaps equally important question is this: For what types of users or listeners has the MS 400 been designed?
We’ll consider each of these questions in a moment, but let me begin by hinting at a possible answer. Based on what I’ve heard from the MS 400, I suspect it was designed specifically for users whose primary (and perhaps only) audio source component is an iPod, iPhone, or iPad—one that will be expected to drive these headphones without an auxiliary outboard amplifier of any kind. When used in this context, the MS 400 is capable of giving astonishingly good results.
•The MS 400 is a decided compact yet still full-sized, closed-back, over-the-ear (circumaural) headphone.
•The headphone sports a matte black frame, gloss-finished and chrome trimmed carbon fiber earcups, plus a lipstick red leather headband pad and matching ear cup pads. Alternatively, an all-black version is also available (though as you might expect it is much less visually striking than the red/black version).
•By design, the MS 400 ear cups can be adjusted up or down, swiveled from side to side, or rotated to fold flat for transport.
•The overall look of the headphone is more than a little reminiscent of the design motifs and color schemes sometimes seen in accessories created for Ferrari or Porsche enthusiasts, though the MS 400s are of course priced to be accessible to those of us of more modest means.
•The MS 400 features, as noted above, “double-shell” ear cups made of carbon fiber.
•The MS 400 is a closed-back design said to “promote greater noise isolation.”
•The MS 400 provides “studio grade” 40mm driver diaphragms for “full-range high fidelity” with “optimized airflow drivers” said to deliver “concert hall sound quality.”
•Rated sensitivity is a relatively high 98dB, but quite frankly the MS 400 sounds even more sensitive (that is, easier to drive) than other headphones we have heard that carry even higher sensitivity ratings.
•The MS 400 comes with a semi-hardshell, canvas-covered carrying case.
•The MS 400 comes fitted with a gold-plated ¼-inch (6.3mm) phone plug that unsnaps to reveal an also gold-plated 3.5mm mini-jack plug underneath.
Let’s begin our discussion of the MS 400’s sonic character by focusing in on one the headphone’s most significant and noteworthy performance characteristics: namely, the fact that this headphone is remarkable sensitive and easy to drive. Rated sensitivity for the MS 400 is 98dB—a good figure, but far from the highest I’ve seen. However, what the specifications don’t tell is how effortlessly the MS 400 can be driven to very satisfying volume levels by most any iPod, iPhone, or iPad (and without necessarily turning volume levels on those devices up very high). In my view there is more to the phrase “easy to drive” that sensitivity, per se. This is because sensitivity ratings will tell you how loudly a given headphone will play for a specified amount of power (usually 1mW), but they won’t tell you how much power might be needed in order to enable the headphone to deliver truly good sound quality.
I have noticed, and you probably have too, that many headphones like for amplifiers to be turned up beyond a certain threshold volume level (the level varies from model to model) before they will seem to “come alive” and give of their best. One of the nicest things about the MS 400 is that it begins to come alive at fairly low power/volume levels, so that you never really need to lean hard on amplifiers in order to get this headphone to work well. I’m convinced this characteristic is one of the things that helps make the MS 400 such a perfect match for use with iPods and the like. Where many headphones sound subtly constricted or dynamically constrained when powered by iPods, the MS 400 really does not. It’s perfectly willing to deliver a dynamically expressive performance when driven by the ubiquitous Apple devices—something that can’t really be said of many competing headphones. Does the overall sound quality of the MS 400 improve if you choose to add a high quality outboard amp such as the ALO Audio Rx MkII? Sure it does, but my point is that its sound is not too shabby when driven by the iPod/iPhone/iPad on its own.
Next, let’s look at tonal balance. The sound of the MS 400 is tilted somewhat toward the warmer-than-neutral end of the audio spectrum, but in a pleasingly subtle way that complements most types of music. First, bass output—and in particular, mid-bass output—sounds just a touch warmer than neutral, though it is reasonably tightly controlled and offers a decent measure of pitch definition. For many listeners (and listening contexts), slightly enriched bass output, which is what the MS 400 delivers, is vastly preferable to overly thin-sounding bass, which can make headphones sound unpleasantly anemic.
Midrange is the area where the MS 400 arguably shines brightest, partly because its midrange frequencies are well-balanced, but also because the midrange of this headphone is highly dynamically expressive and full of energy and life. Where many mid-priced headphones sound slightly compressed in the mid-band, the MS 400 throws back its head, figuratively speaking, and sings with real brio. This quality, coupled with generally smooth midrange balance, is what makes the MS 400 special.
Highs are generally smooth, but also a little bit recessed relative to the MS 400’s midrange. Given that the MS 400 is likely to be powered by iPods, which have been known to exhibit somewhat dry and potentially edgy and brittle-sounding highs, subtly recessed highs may actually prove to be a blessing in disguise. The key here is that the MS 400’s highs are smooth, so that when playing less than perfectly recordings or used with modest electronics, the Phiaton is able to make the most of the material it is fed, and without painfully underscoring the flaws in recordings or ancillary components.
If you stop to think about it, the voicing of the MS 400 almost seems calculated to help compensate for the most frequently reported flaws observed in iPods. For example, iPods are thought to have thin and unconvincing bass, while the MS 400 offers slightly enriched but also fairly well-controlled bass. Next, iPods are said to deliver midrange frequencies, textures, and timbres that sound somewhat bleached-out and lifeless, while the MS 400 offers well balanced mids that sound quite detailed and dynamically expressive and alive. Finally, iPods are thought to err in the direction of highs that can sound over edgy, bright, or brittle, while the MS 400 offers smooth and ever-so-slightly recessed highs. Put all of these qualities together and you can quickly see why I think the MS 400 stands as one headphone that can give truly satisfying sonic results when used with an iPod alone.
Just to see how the MS 400 would fare when faced with a piece of delicate and revealing classical music, I decided to play the Hilary Hahn recording of the Meyer Violin Concerto [Wolff/St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Sony]. I regard this record as an acid-test of sorts for midrange and treble purity and cohesiveness, partly because it makes the sound of Hahn’s violin so completely exposed, and partly because it showcases the full range of the violin—from its lower registers right on up to the top, with high frequency overtones that reach higher still. The Phiaton passed this test with, for the most part, flying colors. Hahn’s playing style contains both elements of sweetness and incisiveness, with an overarching clarity, liveliness, and expressive forcefulness that are tricky to reproduce well. Even so, I felt the MS 400 did a fine job—especially for a headphone that is relatively moderately priced. The only things missing were the very finest layers of filigreed detail and the very highest of high-frequency overtones that would ideally let you hear the “air” surrounding the bow, strings, and body of the instrument. But the really good news is that the MS 400 did well in capturing the expressive vigor of Hahn’s playing style—a quality that is at once elusive, and yet beautiful to hear when it is properly reproduced.
Then, to give the MS 400 a further workout, I turned to a recording I regard as an old favorite: Holly Cole’s performance of Tom Wait’s “Train Song” as captured on Temptation [Blue Note]. The song is both anchored and driven forward by a loping, syncopated acoustic bass line that sounded terrific through the Phiatons. Pitch definition and weighting on the bass were both quite good, though levels did reflect a bit of the MS 400’s characteristic low-end enrichment. Even so, the headphone’s bass performance was well defined, capturing the earthy, textural growl of the bass, so that while presented from an up-close and therefore powerful perspective, the sound of the bass was rich yet by no means boomy or out of control.
At the same time, the song features a variegated mix of percussion sounds, including brushes on a snare drum and on cymbals of varying sizes, pitches, and textures, plus a delicious mix of small tinkling chimes and other small percussion instruments. What caught my ear was that the MS 400 offered sufficient midrange/treble detail to separate and clearly present the distinctive voices and tonalities each of the instruments, even when they played in similar or overlapping pitch ranges. Once again, the only things missing were a few extremely subtle low-level treble details and high frequency overtones.
Finally, the MS 400 did a great job of catching the breathy and at times sultry qualities of Holly Cole’s voice, which at a few points in the song, were complemented by brief, haunting accent notes played on a flute (whose sound mimics that of a train whistle). On Cole’s voice, the sheer expressiveness of the MS 400 really carries the day, conveying the evocative inflections that are so much a part of Cole’s singing voice.
Note: During my listening tests I fed the MS 400 directly from an iPod Classic (using lossless audio files, of course) and also routing the signal from the iPod through a Moon Audio Silver Dragon LOD (line out dock) cable to an ALO Audio Rx MkII amplifier. While the Phiatons did sound best with the ALO amp and specialty Moon Audio cable in play, the really amazing thing was to hear how good the Phiatons sounded when driven by the iPod alone—a testimonial, I feel, to the overall ease with which the MS 400 can be driven.
Consider this headphone if: you value a highly expressive and generally well-balanced headphone that sounds absolutely terrific when powered by iPods, iPhones, and iPads. While the MS 400’s overall balance falls slightly on the warmer-than-neutral side of the audio spectrum, its deviations from strict neutrality are comparatively minor, well controlled, and expertly judged. While you can use an outboard amp with this headphone, the cool thing is that you don’t really have to do so.
Look further if: you want strictly neutral tonal balance or are hoping to achieve that elusive “Nth degree” of treble extension and detail. The subtly subdued highs of the MS 400 can’t pull off those particular sonic feats, but they also help make this headphone more forgiving of less than ideal recordings or electronics.
Ratings (relative to comparably priced headphones):
Tonal Balance: 8.5 - 9
Clarity: 8.5 - 9
Comfort/Fit: 9 (though some may find the ear cups too small and confining)
Sensitivity: 9.5 - 10
Noise Isolation: 8 (good, but not as good as Phiaton’s marketing claims would suggest)
Phiaton’s MS 400 sings with a warm and dynamically expressive voice that consistently makes the most of the material it is fed. Most importantly, the headphone is delightfully un-fussy to use and sounds great when powered directly from an iPod or other small, portable devices.
SPECS & PRICING
Phiaton MS 400 Headphone
Accessories: As listed under “FEATURES”, above.
Frequency Response: 15Hz – 22kHz
Drivers: 40mm “Studio Grade” Drivers
Impedance: 32 Ohms
Weight: 6.5 oz.
Warranty: 1 year, parts and labor