V-MODA is one of those firms that at first blush seems to be European—right up until you discover the marketing tagline that proclaims the company’s headphones are “inspired in Italy, designed in Hollywood.” That fascinating set of influences means that V-MODA headphones tend as a rule to offer Euro-chic styling but also to feature construction details that exude a robust and almost “mil-spec” vibe. A perfect case in point would be V-MODA’s new Crossfade M-80 on-ear headphone/headset ($230), which according to V-MODA CEO Val Kolton combines, “the durability of an M1 Abrams tank, timeless Vinyl sound, Italian-suit elegance and exotic motorsports materials.” And sure enough, the compact M-80 is a stylish beauty to look at and to hold in your hands, though the key question remains: “How does it actually perform?” This review will seek answers.
•Drivers: The M-80 is based on patent pending “dual-diaphragm” 40mm drivers said to “deliver multi-driver sound with the energy efficiency and consistent quality of a single driver.”
•Voicing: According to V-MODA a team of “select master musicians and producers” used a 31-band EQ system to develop an optimal target response curve for the M-80, where the objective, in part, was to create a sound “analogous to vinyl.” Then, using purely acoustic techniques (no batteries or digital signal processing), the V-MODA team crafted the M-80’s driver/ear cup assemblies to match the desired target curve.
•Beefy yet elegant design: some people expect that stylish products are also fragile, but the M-80 is, by design, an exception to the rule. It features what the manufacturer terms “a bespoke STEELFLEX headband and tactile arm extensions” for a headphone V-MODA promises, “can bend, move and twist like no other.”
⇒ Ported ear cups: While not a true open-back headphone in the usual sense of the terms, the M-80 uses V-MODA’s V-PORT V3 porting system—a series of three V-shaped ports found in each ear cup—that help direct air in and out of the ear cups, ostensibly improving openness and three-dimensionality of the sound while still maintaining a good degree of noise isolation.
⇒ Ear cups feature interchangeable brushed metal ear cup shields, with optional custom shields available (allowing users to personalize the M-80’s to suit their tastes).
⇒ Memory foam ear cup pads are soft and very comfortable for long-term wear.
⇒ Microfiber suede headband pad provides a firm gripping surface on the outside with comfortable, textured fabric padding on the inside.
⇒ Kevlar reinforced, fabric covered detachable signal cables with 24K gold-plated cable plugs.
•Rigorous quality control standards:
⇒ Some parts of the M-80 are subjected to MIL-STD-810G environmental tests “including high and low temperatures, humidity, salt spray and UV exposure.”
⇒ The headband can be bent flat 10+ times “without breaking and (while) retaining its memory and shape.”
⇒ The signal cable and plug strain relief “can each bend more than 1 million times”—a test said to exceed industry standards by 100x.
⇒ The entire headphone can survive “70+ drops on concrete from 6 feet”—a test said to be “approximately three times the industry standard.”
⇒ Driver matching: V-MODA claims “virtually inaudible sound variances across the spectrum of less than 2dB from unit to unit…”
⇒ “Exoskeleton” hardshell carrying case (trust us one this one: the case looks really cool).
⇒ Carabiner-style bag clip.
⇒ One signal cable set up with a three-button mic/audio control that is “Made for iPod, iPhone, iPad”
⇒ One signal cable set up with a single-button mic/audio control compatible with Android, Blackberry and Windows 7 smartphones.
I’ve sometimes encountered a bias in the headphone marketplace that goes something like this: “On-ear ‘phones are more for convenience-oriented users, while full-size, over-the-ear headphones are the ones geared more for serious music lovers.” The implication, of course, is that while on-ear designs have their place, they must typically make certain sonic sacrifices in the name of achieving a more compact form factor—or so goes the common wisdom. But in the case of V-MODA’s Crossfade M-80 common wisdom is wrong, and here’s why. The M-80’s offer sound quality that is fully competitive with some of the better over-the-ear designs in their price class, while also giving listeners something more; namely, the kind of sensitivity and free-breathing dynamics that enable the M-80 to sound just fine when powered directly from an iPod.
What elements comprise the M-80’s “core sound?” I would say the sonic character of the M-80 hinges on midrange and upper midrange response that is at once evocative, dynamically expressive, and detailed, yet very smooth. Building outward from that solid foundation, the V-MODA’s upper bass and mid-bass find that elusive sweet spot between richness on the one hand, and tautness and control on the other. Low bass is surprisingly good too, though perhaps not the last word in very low-frequency weight and depth. Up high, the M-80s are reasonably detailed, though perhaps not quite as finely or fully resolved as some of today’s better $200-range over-the-ear ‘phones (e.g., the Shure SRH-840). Even so, the M-80 highs enjoy the twin blessings of being sweet (but not cloyingly sweet) of timbre and delightfully smooth, which helps the V-MODA’s sound open and airy without veering into edginess or an etched and artificially “hyper-detailed” presentation.
One caveat is that the M-80’s bass performance is absolutely dependent upon being able to achieve a good seal between the headphone’s comfortable memory foam ear pads and the wearer’s ears—something that is easy for some listeners to achieve, but more difficult for others. The limiting factor, here, is that the M-80’s frame is designed to allow the ear cups to swivel up and down, but not from side to side, which can make the ‘phones difficult to fit for some listeners. Bass is entirely adequate, and indeed quite powerful and satisfying, when the fit is right, but if the fit isn’t right then all bets are off.
Taken together, these sonic qualities make the M-80 expressive and engaging, with good foundational mid-bass support and a smooth top end that helps makes the ‘phones easy to enjoy for long listening sessions. After several good, long listening sessions, I found myself reflecting on the M-80’s performance and thinking that it simply seemed more sonically substantive, revealing, and accurate than many of the on-ear ‘phones I’ve experienced in the past. Indeed, with all factors considered, the Crossfade M-80 might be the most well rounded and best performing model in V-MODA’s entire lineup—one that could also change audiophiles’ perceptions of what on-ear ‘phones can be and do.
While writing this review, I’ve been listening to the Crossfade M-80s play Miles Davis’ classic Kind of Blue [Columbia], and it has been an instructive experience. Those of you who know this classic jazz recording well would probably agree that it is nothing if not nuanced, and the impressive thing was to hear just how much of that sonic treasure trove the moderately priced M-80 was able to unlock.
The track “So What” opens with a simple, contemplative and almost inquisitive-sounding theme carried by Paul Chambers’ bass and Bill Evan’s piano, and as that theme unfolds you can hear the M-80’s offer up a surprisingly powerful rendition of the bass’ lower register voice. The M-80 also does a good job with the much higher pitched, rising piano theme, and though it gives a somewhat subdued presentation of the piano’s upper harmonics, it does a beautiful job with the instrument’s fundamental voice. Later, the bass takes up a rhythmic vamp that will appear and reappear throughout the song, while Jimmy Cobb delicately keeps time on his cymbals and Evan and Davis on his trumpet supply the familiar and distinctive, descending two-note commentaries, which are repeated between bass phrases, and that serve in part as this song’s hallmark.
As Cobb plays his cymbals, the M-80’s highs are very smooth—not hot, sizzly, or overwrought as they might be on some headphones. While the M-80 does sacrifice the Nth degree of treble shimmer and extension that might be heard on more expensive ‘phones, the presentation is nevertheless rewarding, in part because it lets you hear the shimmer of the cymbals with overdoing things. Davis’ trumpet, in turns, sounds lovely, so that you can easily pick up on its at once incisive and yet profoundly melancholy voice, and the M-80 provides sufficient resolution to hear the subtle embouchure noises as Davis’ lips release each note. It’s that sort of sonic detail that sets the M-80 apart from many less refined on-ear competitors. And importantly, when Davis throws more energy (and air) behind certain of his solo lines, the M-80 breathes with him—letting the dynamics flow and expand precisely as they should.
The M-80 isn’t a “state of the art” headphone by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a very, very good one that brings you the essentials of the music in convincing way—even on acknowledged audiophile classics such as Kind of Blue.
Consider this headphone if:
•You like finely crafted headphones that combine—in roughly equal parts—high style, solid technology, and good old-fashioned ruggedness.
•You want one of the more revealing and better-balanced (i.e., more neutrally balanced) on-ear headphones we’ve tried thus far.
•You favor the go-anywhere compactness of an on-ear headphone in contrast to the relative bulk of over-the-ear designs.
•You value the convenience of having multiple headset cables that can make the M-80 compatible both with iDevices and Android/Blackberry/Windows 7 smartphones.
•You like the idea of a headphone that A) doesn’t need batteries, and B) also doesn’t require an outboard headphone amp.
Look further if:
•You want to stretch out to reach toward top-tier sound quality, in which case you’ll likely be looking at full-size, over-the-ear ‘phones.
•You have trouble achieving a just right fit with the M-80s (the M-80 ear cups swivel up and down, but not side to side, which makes the tricky to fit for some wearers).
Ratings (relative to comparably priced on-ear headphones):
Tonal Balance: 9
Comfort/Fit: 7 - 9 (fits some users well, but not others—would benefit from more flexible ear cup mounts)
Noise Isolation: 7 (good, but not great)
V-MODA’s M-80 is one of most capable, revealing, and best-balanced on-ear headphones we’ve tested. It also exhibits the sort of European style and careful attention to construction details that will appeal to many listeners looking for substance, value, and a desirable measure of design “spice,” too.
SPECS & PRICING
V-MODA Crossfade M-80 On-Ear Headphone/Headset
Accessories: As listed under “FEATURES”, above.
Frequency Response: 5Hz – 30 kHz (A frequency response curve provided by V-MODA also shows unusually well-balanced response from 20 Hz – 12 kHz. with tolerances competitive with those of more costly competing on-ear headphones).
Drivers: 40mm dual-diaphragm drivers (patents pending)
Sensitivity: 105 dB
Impedance: 28.5 Ohms
Weight: 180 grams
Warranty: 2 years, parts and labor, plus 50% off lifetime replacement guarantee