Pioneer launched an ultimate flagship headphone called the SE-Master 1 a couple of years ago. Open-backed, hand-crafted, built to order, made of unobtanium-wrapped fantasticium, with ear-cups made of unicorn eyelids… that sort of thing. There’s a waiting list, and we’re not exactly at the front of the line. Fortunately, Pioneer made a £1,000 closed back SE-Monitor 5 version for the rest of us, and very good it is too.
The SE-Monitor 5 actually pulls a lot of the technology developed by Pioneer in the SE-Master 1, and production engineers it so that it’s more regularly available and attainable. They were also designed from the outset to be comfortable enough to be worn at home for extremely long periods, despite their 480g weight. They are, however, quite large. This is actually the secret to their comfort, as they are very much ‘over ear’ designs: if you are small of head, ‘over ear’ means ‘covering everything from temple to jawline’. But this, coupled with very soft, very padded, yet very breathable ear pads and a very lightweight, but well-built frame and headband, means they really can be worn all evening with no real stress on the listener. Oddly, there isn’t a lot of padding around the headband, but this works in the Pioneer’s favour, as it lightens the load considerably. I wore these headphones for an entire evening’s Radio Three listening and never felt the need to even reposition them. OK, so they aren’t so comfortable that you could sleep in them, but they are comfortable enough that you can easily doze off with them on. However, the Pioneer comfort zone was enhanced by Winter-time listening; I suspect during Summer the density of the foam in the pads might prove a little sweaty, especially in a closed can design.
These are very much home headphones. Although the closed back design might lend them to portable listening on the move, the size of the headphone and its more sumptuous looks push it gently toward home use. In fairness, they do look good on the head (so long as your head is large enough) and great on the stand. I’m an occasional sucker for a piece of well-turned luxury and this has that very obviously luxuriant look and feel, but without too much overstatement. In other words, ideal for refined use in the home.
I’m also a bit of a sucker for good packaging and this is above average. A nice big box, with a presentation case and a spot of plush doesn’t go amiss. OK, so it’s not the kind of locking case found in the very top models, but it’s a lot better than a bubble-pack. The pack is also packed... with goodies. There are three sets of cables (3m long with jack, and two 1.6m long cables; one with a standard 6.3mm jack, one with a 2.5mm balanced connection). These are all very well made but loosely braided cables with a nice woven outer jacket. The connectors meet the headphones with two standard 3.5mm jacks, so replacements are not a problem. The cables again point to home use; they are not the kind of cable you can wind around your headphones (don’t, just don’t do that!) and throw in a bag, as that loose braid will catch and snag, and the strain relief on the wires doesn’t feel substantial enough. There are also two sets of ear-cups (3D memory foam and pleather) and these do have different loading and so slightly different tonal balance.