Not long ago I wrote a blog about a recent discovery of mine: the Urbanears Plattan headset/on-ear headphones, priced at $59.99. In my blog, I said the Plattans reminded of the first set of really good headphones I ever owned—the classic Sennheiser HD414s that arrived on the scene way back in the 1970s. In truth, you could draw a number of parallels between the two products, because the Urbanears, like their precursors, the HD414s, are affordably priced (even for college students on tight budgets), sound better than they have any right to for the money, and offer an unmistakable touch of style. Back in the day, you could personalize your HD414s by buying foam earpads for them in various colors, but Urbanears ups the ante in two ways: first, by constructing the Plattans of astonishingly upscale materials, and second, by offering them in fourteen different colors.
Of course, beauty is as beauty does, but the attractive Plattans offer a warm, sophisticated, and compelling sound, which means their appeal runs more than skin deep. While they are not, by any stretch of the imagination, state-of-the-art contenders, their sound is rich and evocative, flattering most types of music you might choose to play. In turn, their sonic “sins,” per se, are mostly those of omission meaning that the Plattans have both a welcoming and also somewhat forgiving quality, meaning that they have an almost uncanny knack for revealing the good stuff in most recordings—even those that tend to be a little rough-edged.
But two of the slickest aspects of the Plattans, which are very much 21st-century products, involve their iPod/iPhone/cell-phone friendly design. First, the Plattans are very sensitive and can be driven to satisfying volume levels by iPod or cell-phones without the use of outboard amplifiers of any kind. Second, the Plattans can function not only as headphones but also as headsets, because they incorporate a handy inline mic module with a built-in send/end button. Third, though the Plattans are full-sized on-ear headphones, they offer an ingenious collapsible design that lets them fold up into a compact, fist-sized package for in-pocket carrying.
For those of you unfamiliar with Urbanears, let me mention that the firm is based in Stockholm, Sweden, but manufacturers its products in China in order to contain costs. It’s one of those serendipitous marriages where the consumer gets to enjoy Scandinavian design and sonic sensibilities coupled with the precision and cost efficiencies that have, of late, made Chinese manufacturing options (or at least well-executed variations on that theme) so popular. By way of introduction, allow me quote from the Plattan owner’s guide, which reads,
“Urbanears is a collective out of Scandinavia, motivated by a common interest in global relationships and shared involvement in the relevance of the living brands. Urbanears promotes a deeper connection to color, form, and people while providing the freedom to transcend individuality and unify the sound experience.”
“Urbanears makes headphones that fit your everyday life. With a legacy in functionality, we supply the perfect listening device for anyone with a pocket full of music and a wish to make the most of it…”
“We designed Plattan to be the perfect classic headphone, utilizing innovative functions and performance with today’s technology. It is a full size headphone allowing for rich, secluded sound. You can fold it down to the size of your fist for maximum mobility. Plattan also comes with a “zound plug” on the earcap, allowing for a friend to plug in and enjoy your music.”
Consider this headset/headphone if: you want a product that offers very good sound quality, great flexibility, and a pleasing Scandinavian sense of style—all at a very modest price. Consider the Plattan if you respect designs that have chosen their points of compromise well—almost always erring in the direction of flattering the music, rather than deliberately and ruthlessly highlighting its rough edges.
Look further if: you don’t really need or want the Plattan’s iPod/iPhone/cell-phone friendly features. If you’re willing to invest another $20, you can get somewhat more sophisticated sound with an option such as Grado’s SR-60i headphone, though it will mean sacrificing the Plattan’s cool headset features and collapsible design.
- Tonal balance: 8
- Clarity: 9
- Dynamics: 9.5
- Comfort/Fit: 7-9 (varies from user to user)
- Sensitivity: 10
- Value: 9.5
- Low impedance 32 Ohm 40mm drivers represent and extremely easy load for iPods, etc., to drive.
- Includes in-line microphone module with built-in send/end button said to be compatible with “Nokia, Blackberry, HTC and iPhone.”
- Headband design affords good range of size adjustments and incorporates distinctive earcup hinges that allows “the headphone to fold down to a fraction of its size.
- Very high quality materials are used throughout. For example, all plastic parts use special “soft feel” materials that impart an upscale feel. Earpads are upholstered in what we presume is faux leather, done up with incredibly finely detail stitch. The Plattan’s padded headband is covered in two types of fabric: a close weave on the outside for sleek good looks, coupled with a coarser weave in the inner surfaces to help hold the headphone in place as the wearer moves around. The consensus among Nextscreen staffers was that the Plattans look far more costly than they really are which speaks volumes for the Urbanear team’s attention to details.
- The Plattan is supplied with a 47-inch signal/mic cable that is fabric covered.
- For those who have always wished for a clean and simple mechanism through which two listeners could enjoy an iPod (or cell-phone) simultaneously, the Plattan provides an answer in the form of its “Zound Plug.” The “Zound Plug” is, quite simply, a 3.5mm audio signal pass-through jack mounted on the Plattan’s right-side earcup; via the Zound Plug, you can “daisy chain” two set of headphones to be driven by one source device. It’s an idea so simple and so ingenious that you’ll wonder why someone hasn’t thought of it before now.
- The Plattans come with two small extension cords, one optimized for the special four-conductor plug used for most music-capable Nokia cell-phones and the other designed to provide a basic three-conductor “playback only” plug. Urbanears points out that most playback-only devices will work just fine with the Plattan’s standard four-conductor plug, but that some older devices may require the three-conductor plug, which is why it is included.
- Offered in fourteen different colors: white, grey, dark grey, black, red, chocolate (medium brown), yellow, sallad (an intense, bright green, and yes, they spell “sallad” with two L’s—go figure), army (olive drab), ocean (medium blue), light blue, navy (dark blue), purple, and pink.
Three specific qualities define the sound of the Plattans. First, they offer rich and warm though perhaps just slightly forward-sounding mids. This characteristic gives the Plattans an engaging and sophisticated feel, since they seem able to tease out a fair amount more midrange detail and nuance than most other low-to-mid-price headphones can.
Second, the Plattans serve up taut yet very nicely weighted bass—especially mid- and upper bass. While the Plattans can’t plumb the subterranean low-frequency depths the way that certain state-of-the-art contenders can (we’re talking about ‘phones ten or twenty times the Plattans cost), they more than hold their own within their price class, offering plenty of “oomph” for bass guitars, kick drums and the like.
Third, the Plattans are dynamically responsive, so that they really make the most of the limited power output of the iPod or of cell-phones. More so than most mid-priced designs I’ve sampled, the Plattan seems to work well within the iPod’s constraints, rather than constantly making you wish you had sprung the extra cash needed for an outboard headphone amp. In this way, the Plattan is an example of good, solid, practical real-world design at its best.
The only noteworthy sonic drawback of the Plattans, though a “drawback” some listeners might potentially regard as a plus overall, is the fact that the highest upper midrange and treble frequencies are somewhat rolled off. While this characteristic is not, strictly speaking, accurate, it does have the side-benefit of softening raw or rough-edged recordings (of which there are far too many these days) to a point where they become more listenable. Accuracy mavens may be a little disappointed, but music lovers will, I think, find this minor flaw very easy to “listen through.”
One of the very best live blues recordings I’ve ever heard is Long John Hunter’s “Let’s Set the Time” from Untapped Blues Festival: 2004 Live! [Bluestopia]—a track that, for the most part, plays right in the strengths of the Urbanears Plattans. Part of what makes the track “click” with Plattans is the unmistakable energy and “bounce” of a live performance where a well-rehearsed band has latched on to a tight groove and is working it for all its worth. The dynamic liveliness of the Plattans really helps, here, letting the material breathe in a natural way, by allowing the bass guitar, drums, and initially choppy guitar riffs to propel the song forward with tremendous force and vitality.
The Plattan’s midrange and bass prowess plays its part, too, doing a nice job of capturing the saturated and slightly overdriven sound of the guitar amp, the deep and very well controlled growl of the bass, and the incisive “pop” of the snare drum keeping time. Long John Hunter’s voice is handled well by the Plattans, too, so that you can hear and feel not just the general shape of his notes and phrases, but also the attitude with which they’re delivered.
The only drawback is that some of the high harmonics of the various instruments (especially the cymbals, which are extremely well-recorded on this track) and of Hunter’s voice sound overly subdued—not so much unclear, but simply too recessed in the mix. This is, of course, due to the Plattan’s characteristic upper midrange and treble rolloff. Still, I think this flaw is far preferable to that of headphones that exhibit the opposite problem: namely, hard, biting and overly prominent mids and highs. Generally speaking, sins of omission are much easier to overlook than sins of commission, which tend to intrude on the music in more overt ways.
As noted above, the Plattan are supplied with two small accessory extension cords, one providing a special four-conductor plug as required by some Nokia cell-phones, and the other providing a three-conductor “playback only” plug as needed for use with some earlier-generation playback only devices.
On the whole, I found the Urbanears Plattans very comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. The faux-leather earcup pads are very comfortable, and the clamping pressures provide a just-right blend of low pressure with adequate grip.
The only caveat I must point out is that is that the Plattan headband design allows earcups to swivel in the vertical axis, but not the horizontal access. To achieve a good fit, then, some listeners need to rock the Plattan headband strap either far forward or far to the rear in order to get the earpads to seal firmly on their ears, which can be a bit of a pain.
For this reason, I would suggest that Urbanears look into adding a horizontal swivel feature to improve this already very good design.
Perhaps one the Plattan’s nearest competitors will be the popular and critically acclaimed Grado SR-60i, which, at $79.99, sells for about a third again more than the Plattans do. Here’s how that comparison plays out:
- While both headphones arguably offer a slightly midrange-forward sound, the SR-60i offers better balance overall, with better upper midrange and treble extension, and somewhat more resolution.
- The Plattan offers a somewhat warmer and slightly darker sound overall, with very well-integrated bass.
- The Plattan is the more sensitive of the two designs, making it great for use with iPods/iPhones, etc.
- The SR-60i design allows better overall fit (because the earcups can swivel both vertically and horizontally), though the Plattan is still quite comfortable.
- The SR-60i offers “any color you want as long as it’s black” styling, where the Plattan comes in multiple colors and exudes a sleek, Scandinavian design vibe.
- The Plattan provides clever and very useable iPod/iPhone friendly features, including headset functionality and the handy “Zound Plug,” where the SR-60i does not.
The Urbanears Plattan would make a great first headphone for an iPod/iPhone/cell-phone user who wants vastly better sound quality than stock earbuds can provide, yet who doesn’t have a huge amount of money to spend. The Plattans are solid performers, cleverly conceived and executed (with real-world features that actually work), and both styling and apparent build quality that make them seem more expensive than they really are.
Urbanears Plattan Headset/On-Ear Headphones
Accessories: two extension cables (one with a four-conductor plug for use with Nokia cell-phones, one with a three-conductor “playback only” plug for use with earlier-generation playback devices).
Weight: Not specified.
Sensitivity: 112 dB/mW
Impedance: 32 Ohms
Frequency response: 20 Hz – 20kHz
Warranty: One year premium replacement warranty
Urbanears/Zound Industries AB