Urbanears is a Scandinavian design collective based out of Stockholm, Sweden whose mission, it would seem, is to build sleek headphones that combine—in roughly equal parts—chic Nordic industrial designs, genuinely high-quality sound, and absolutely killer value for money. My first exposure to the brand came through the firm’s delightful Plattan headphones, which I reviewed in Playback issue 29, but here we’ll turn out attention to the firm’s even smaller and lower-priced Tanto on-ear headphone/headset ($40). The Tanto, like many Urbanears products, is available in a plethora of fashionable colors, and serves—in a sense—as the modern day equivalent of one of the great on-ear headphones from the past; namely, the Sennheiser HD414. (Readers of a certain age may recall the 1970s-vintage HD414’s as the headphones that won the hearts and ears of an earlier generation of listeners seeking ‘phones that looked cool, felt good, sounded great, and were, for their time, very affordable.).
My thought is that the Tanto may play a similar role vis-a-vis a new generation of listeners that has grown up with devices that could scarcely have been imagined back in the 1970s; namely, iPods, cell-phones, tablet and netbook PCs, etc. In Urbanear’s own colorful words, the Tanto “is constructed for maximum mobility without the compromise of performance, adorned with a sleek, minimalist look. We designed it thinking you want the full sound experience in a lightweight and portable headphone made for everyday use to be taken along wherever you go, like a good friend.”
- The Tanto is an extremely light, compact on-ear headphone that features a slim metal headband with height-adjustable earpiece carriers. The foam padded, fabric-covered earpieces, in turn, attach to the earpiece carriers via clever ball-joint mechanisms that allow the earpieces to swivel both vertically and horizontally to fit the shape of the wearer’s ear.
- The Tanto sports what Urbanears touts as “40mm handmade drivers.”
- The Tanto comes fitted with a 47-inch long, fabric sheathed signal cord, which incorporates a simple mic/remote module with single-pushbutton call send/end switch. According to Urbanears, the Tanto’s mic/remote/send/end module is “compatible with most devices from Nokia, Blackberry, HTC and iPhone using 3.5mm standard.”
- Accessories include two adapter cables: a “neutral stereo plug” cable and a Nokia cell-phone compatible extension cable (both color-coordinated to match the headphone).
- The Tanto exudes a distinctly Nordic flare for industrial design and for the creative use of colors (think of the famous Finnish design house Marimekko and you’ve got the general idea). Many guest listeners commented favorably on the Tanto’s simple, “unfussy” industrial design ethos.
- The headphones are offered in twenty-one striking colors so that there’s literally a hue to fit most any taste.
Attention, Playback readers. In a moment, I’m going to offer some very favorable comments on the sound of the Tanto. But before I do, I need to tell you that with the Tanto’s sonic excellence is highly dependent upon finding a wearing position that enables the headphone’s earpieces to rest squarely and firmly against the surfaces of the listener’s outer ears. You might think that, since the Tanto earpieces are attached via swiveling ball joints, it would be easy to obtain an optimal fit, and for many listeners that is indeed the case. But for some listeners, the Tantos seem much harder to fit, so that they quickly slip out of position, causing a significant drop in sound quality. For this reason, I would urge prospective buyers to try a pair of Tantos before making a purchase—just to make sure the headphones fit properly and thus achieve optimal sound (which, at its best, is very good indeed).
What makes the sound of the Tanto special? For starters, the tonal balance of the Tanto is amazingly neutral from the lowest low-end notes right on up into the lower treble region (though some might find the bass slightly too lightly balanced). There is a narrow and relatively minor region of emphasis that falls around the 2kHz – 3kHz region, but it is so well controlled that it generally does nothing more than to very subtly highlight sharp, percussive midrange transient sounds (the sound of guitar picks on strings, for example). Way up high in the upper reaches of the top octave there may also be a subtle degree of treble rolloff, though I doubt that most listeners would even notice it. (Click here to visit a web page that shows Urbanear’s published frequency response graph for the Tantos.). My point is that the overall tonal balance of the Tanto is just shockingly good for a headphone that costs only $40 (you could spend a lot more, yet still wind up with ‘phones that were much less accurately balanced than the Tantos are.).
Overall neutrality is, as it turns out, only part of the Tanto’s appeal, because this headphone is not only accurately balanced, but also surprisingly subtle and capable when it comes to capturing delicate textural and timbral details. Serious sonic refinement is one quality you might not necessarily expect in an inexpensive headphone, yet the Tanto delivers in spades. The longer you listen, the more these compact headphones will pull you in to the inner recesses of the music, letting you hear how numerous small sonic elements coalesce to form a whole that’s greater than the sum of the parts. In short, subtlety, detail, and refinement are the qualities that enable the Tanto to sound considerably more expensive than it actually is.
Are there caveats? Yes, though they are pretty easy to forgive and/or overlook in light of the Tanto’s oh-so-modest price.
First, as is often the case with on-ear headphones that have small, dish-shaped ear pads, noise isolation is OK, but nothing to write poems about. For some listeners, though, limited noise isolation may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as the Tantos let you listen in, say, office environments secure in the knowledge that you’ll be able to hear any co-workers who need to approach you with questions, etc.
Second, the Tantos will play at satisfying volumes when driven by iPods and the like, though they will not play as loudly as some other competing headphones might. In part I think this characteristic has to do with the fact that the Tanto’s gently dish-shaped ear pads simply do not seal as tightly against ear surfaces as other types of pads do.
Third, it is important to bear in mind that the superior sonic qualities of the Tanto (and in particular its bass performance) are very much fit-dependent. When the fit is right, the Tanto’s sound will typically be rich and vibrant from top to bottom. But, if the Tanto should slip out of position then the headphone’s sound will become overly midrange-forward and bass performance will drop off dramatically. To optimize the fit, try tilting the headband strap of the Tanto either forward or backward by small incremental degrees until you find a listening position where all the elements of the sound suddenly “click” into place.
To hear a broad spectrum of the Tanto’s sonic benefits in action, check out Jen Chapin’s rendition of the Stevie Wonder tune “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” as captured on ReVisions [Chesky, SACD]. In this recording, you’ll hear jazz vocalist Jen Chapin accompanied by a saxophone and acoustic bass, where the performance is captured within the resonant interior of a church. Listen, first and foremost, to the subtle tonalities and inflections in Chapin’s voice, and particularly to the way she emphasizes certain phrases to underscore the biting, sardonic sense of humor Wonder has woven into the song’s lyrics.
Next, pay close attention to the acoustic bass, which serves both as a melodic and rhythm instrument on this track. Note how the Tantos capture the deep, earthy growl of the instrument’s sustained notes, but also clear renders the occasional sounds of the instrument’s strings being slapped against its fingerboard, or the manner in which the bassist varies plucking techniques to give some notes an extra degree of bite and “snarl.” (At some points, if you listen carefully, the Tantos will even let you hear the bassist softly singing/humming along with the music).
Finally, listen to the surprisingly deep, reedy voice of the baritone sax as it fills the church sanctuary; if you pay close attention, you’ll hear very faint traces of soft fingering noises and of saxophonist drawing breaths between phrases. My point is that the Tantos offer an unexpectedly rich, vivid, and pleasingly detailed rendition of well-recorded material. Inexpensive headphones aren’t thought to be able to sound this good, but apparently Urbanears didn’t get the memo—and thank goodness for that!
If there is any noteworthy drawback to the Tanto’s sound, it might be that bass—though clear and quite well defined—lacks a certain quality of low-frequency weight and gravitas that some (admittedly more costly) headphones are able to provide. To hear an illustration of what I mean by this comment, put on the track “No Sanctuary Here” from the late Chris Jones’ Roadhouses and Automobiles [Stockfisch, SACD]. The track is—or at least should—sound as if it is firmly anchored by a deep, powerful electric bass guitar line that moves forward inexorably with near locomotive-like force. Through the Tantos that bass line manages to sound articulate and energetic, yet it is missing the elusive quality of granite-like solidity and weight. While the Tanto’s bass performance is certainly creditable and appealing, bass is one area where more expensive ‘phones can and sometimes do offer superior clout, depth and punch. One saving grace, though, is that the little Tanto delivers remarkably good bass clarity and pitch definition, which counts for a lot in our book (this headphone never, ever sounds loose, boomy, or “out of control” when playing down low).
Consider this headphone if: you’ve longed for a light, comfortable, accurate headphone that offers a significant taste of high-end sound at a far less than high-end price. Frankly, I’ve not heard anything at this price point that can top the Tantos. Note, though, that the positive sonic qualities of the Tanto are quite fit-dependent, so do take some time to find a wearing position that works well for you.
Look further if: The only reasons to look further would be that A) you listen in noisy environments (where the Tanto’s noise isolation is OK but not great), B) you like your music LOUD, or C) you just can’t find a wearing position that allows the sound to bloom as it should.
Ratings (relative to comparably priced headphones):
Tonal Balance: 10
Comfort/Fit: 7-10 (depends on the wearer in our experience)
Noise Isolation: 6
Value: 10, and then some!
Assuming you can get a good fit with the Urbanears Tanto, you’re in for a treat where you’ll enjoy surprisingly accurate and sophisticated sound at a low, low price. The Tantos make a fine on-the-go headphone for budget conscious music lovers of all ages. Indeed, the Tantos are a screaming good deal.
Hint: If you’re an audiophile parent and want to give your kids a taste of the sonic good stuff without dropping a bundle of cash, consider buying them the Tanto (or perhaps Urbanears’ also excellent though slightly more costly Plattan ‘phones). Your offspring will appreciate both the sound quality and the way-cool Nordic style these ‘phones have to offer (plus the freedom to pick and choose from among twenty-one colors…).
SPECS & PRICING
Urbanears Tanto On-Ear Headphone/Headset
Accessories: As listed under “FEATURES”, above.
Frequency Response: 20Hz – 20kHz
Drivers: 40mm “handmade drivers.”
Impedance: 32 Ohms
Weight: Specified only as “super light weight” (which is indeed the case)
Warranty: 1 year, premium replacement warranty.