Long-term readers of Playback and those who downloaded free copies of the Playback Headphone Buyer’s Guide know that we think quite highly of Monster Cable’s Turbine in-ear headphones (priced at $150). They are generally well balanced, comfortable to wear, and expressive—in short, one of the better ‘phones we’ve heard at their price point. Since the Turbines have few shortcomings, and their “sins” are mostly minor sins of omission, it’s only in side-by-side comparison with even higher performance (and, of course, more costly) models that one realizes that it’s possible to push the sonic performance envelope even further than the Turbines can go. For me, this realization led to one key question: what might happen if Monster pulled out the stops to build an even higher-end in-ear headphone?
No sooner had I posed the question than I discovered, at CEDIA 2009, Monster Cables announcement of a new top-tier model called the Turbine Pro (MSRP, $299.95), which is billed as a product “designed for serious audiophiles and audio professionals.” From the outside, the Turbine Pros look for all the world like deluxe, gold-plated versions of the Turbines. If you are skeptical, as I sometimes am, this might lead you to ask: how different are the Pros, really? Monster Cable isn’t terribly forthcoming with detailed design information, but their basic description of the Turbine Pros does give some hints. Specifically, the new model:
- Features a “low-mass, ultra-wide bandwidth driver for superior accuracy.”
- Comes with so-called Supertip ear tips that appear slightly different in shape and consistency from the ear tips provided on the original Turbines, promising “maximum sound isolation.”
- Incorporates noticeably more substantial signal cables featuring “MicroStrand conductors with ultra-low impedance for subtle detail and clear audio reproduction.” The signal cable features Monster’s patented “Magnetic FluxTube” construction (as also used in Monster’s audiophile interconnect cables).
- Provides special heavy-duty cable strain reliefs on each earpiece, plus a more robust fitting where the main signal cable splits at a Y-junction to provide cable runs to the left and right earpieces.
- Offers a beefy mini-jack connector with gold-plated contacts.
Promising though these changes appear in theory, the real question is how or if these ostensible improvements enhance the Turbine Pro’s sound? And a good follow-up question would be, how do the Turbine Pros compare with the best models in their price class? I’ll address both questions in this review.
Consider this headphone if: you like the basic sound of Monster’s $150 Turbines but would appreciated heightened levels of detail plus even more extended bass and treble frequency response. Also consider the Turbine Pros for their robust build quality and their outstanding warranty, which provides for one-time free replacement should they ever fail (even if you break them). Finally, consider the Turbine Pros for their inherent comfort and noise isolation.
Look elsewhere if: you seek the very last word in sonic detail, nuance and textural finesse. Excellent though the Turbine Pros are in each of these areas, they nevertheless can be narrowly outperformed by some of the top competitors in their price class. Though it may seem like splitting hairs, some top competitors convey just a bit more low-level musical information, inviting you to savor subtle inner details in the music.
Ratings (relative to comparably-priced headphones)
- Tonal Balance: 9
- Clarity: 8
- Dynamics: 8
- Comfort/Fit: 9
- Sensitivity: 8
- Value: 8.5
If you compare the Turbine Pros to the original Turbines you’ll be a very happy camper because the Pros offer three welcome, across-the-board improvements. First, they offer significantly higher levels of detail and resolution, letting you extract more worthwhile low-level information from your favorite recordings. Next, the Pros provide even deeper and more solid bass than the original Turbines, which were no slouches in that department. Third, the Pros provide significantly more extended treble response, making it much easier to pick out high frequency harmonics and the elusive sense of “air” surrounding instruments. Finally, overall frequency response is very evenly balanced (also a great strength of the original Turbines), though perhaps shaded ever so slightly toward the warm side (that is, the more bass-prominent side) of strict neutrality.
Based on what I’ve written thus far, you might think the Turbine Pro would be among the top-tier performers in its price class, and you would be mostly (though not entirely) correct in that assessment. On the one hand, the Turbine Pros really do take worthwhile steps forward from the Turbines, which is very much to their credit. On the other hand, I found their performance was in some respects narrowly surpassed by the best $300 models from competitors such as Klipsch and Sennheiser.
In side-by-side comparisons with competing headphones, I found the Turbine Pros offered a very good measure of clarity, but perhaps lacked that elusive “Nth degree” of resolving power and definition that can sometimes spell the difference between very good headphones and truly great ones. While the Turbine Pros reveal most of the music most of the time, they occasionally miss the very subtlest layers of low-level musical information—layers of information their strongest competitors are often able to retrieve. Granted, I’m drawing a very subtle distinction here. Make no mistake: the Turbine Pros are extremely good headphones that do a fine job of precisely reproducing transient and textural details in the music; it’s better than the Pros do.
Two other tradeoffs, however, tend to work in the Turbine Pro’s favor. First, the Pros are among the most comfortable and easy to adjust headphones in their class, whereas several of their strongest competitors use somewhat cumbersome over-the-ear wire routing guides that can make it harder to adjust the ‘phones for a perfect fit. (With in-ear ‘phones, it is fair to say that good fit = good sound, so that ease of adjustment is a big plus). Second, the Turbine Pro’s slightly warmer than neutral tonal balance will, at least for some listeners, represent a better sonic compromise than the arguably more accurate but also slightly more lightly balanced sound of competing ‘phones.
To hear many of the Turbine Pro’s strengths in action at once, try a vigorous and well-recorded live jazz track such as “Shake Everything You Got” from Maceo Parkers Roots & Grooves [Heads Up]. The track opens with a deep, punchy, rolling slap-bass groove that evolves against a backdrop of exuberant crowd noises until punctuated by the hard, sharp “pop, pop, pop, ker-swisssh” of three high-energy snare drum shots and a high-hat thwack that together mark the launch of the body of the song. In the past, the original Turbines would have done a very nice job with this passage, but Turbine Pros are better still, doing a better job of capturing the subterranean punch of the bass, the explosive crack of the snare, and the brilliant crash and closure of the high-hat.
Things get even better as the horn section enters, carrying the song’s melodic line above the prodigious grooves rumbling down below. The Pros do a wonderful job of catching the brassy bite of the horns swells while at the same time letting you hear and feel the locomotive like power and, well, “traction” of the musical foundation that the rhythm section provides. Unlike lesser earphones, the Turbine Pros keeps its composure in the presence of complicated and dynamically demanding material that requires the headphone to reproduce challenging bass, midrange, and high-frequency musical lines at the same time. If anything, the Turbine Pros seem to revel in this kind of stuff—something that can’t be said of all competing phones.
On very high resolution recordings, such as “ I Can’t Stand the Rain” from Sara K’s Hell or High Water [Stockfisch SACD], I found that the Turbine Pros sounded very good—in many respects delivering sound quality reminiscent of high quality, high-end loudspeaker systems. The Pros let you hear the plaintive power of Sara K’s voice and the strong and sure handed but never overblown performances of her veteran sidemen. But when heard through some of the Turbine Pro’s top competitors that same track can—at its very best—took on deeper dimensions, offering up an even more vivid and intense presentation that reminded me of what it’s like to listen to microphone feeds directly through a recording console. While the Turbine Pro gets all the basic elements of music reproduction right, some of its most accomplished competitors capture even more finely shaded textural and timbral details, giving you a more intimate, up-close-and-personal view of the music.
During my listening tests I compared the Turbine Pros against two of the strongest in-ear headphone I’ve heard in the $300 price class: the Klipsch Custom 3, and the Sennheiser IE7. I will sketch out the results of my comparisons, below.
Turbine Pro compared to the Klipsch Custom 3
The Turbine Pro is noticeably more comfortable to wear than the Custom 3. This is partly down to the fact that the Turbine Pros are small and compact and feature what I would call “plug’n’play” wiring, while the ear pieces of the Custom 3’s are larger and incorporate an over-the-ear cable guide that is somewhat “fussy” to adjust properly. Another differentiator is that the Turbine Pro signal cable features a smooth jacket whereas the cable jacket of the Custom 3 is made of a rough-textured fabric that can scrape on your skin or clothing, creating distracting “rustling” noises that sometimes get transmitted up to (and through) the Klipsch ear pieces.
Sonically, the Turbine Pro offers extremely smooth frequency response with deep, powerful bass, but the Custom 3 sounds even richer and more evocative, delivering superior highs, more nuanced bass, and slightly higher levels of openness and transparency—especially in the critical midrange. The Custom 3 is also somewhat more sensitive and therefore an easier load for iPods to drive.
Turbine Pro compared to the Sennheiser IE7
The Turbine Pro is substantially more comfortable to wear (and to adjust) that the IE7. Again, the difference is attributable to the Turbine Pro’s compact size and straightforward wiring. By comparison, the IE7’s have relatively large and somewhat awkwardly shaped earpieces and they use a relatively stiff over-the-ear cable guide that can make proper adjustment tricky to achieve.
Sonically, the Turbine Pro has a somewhat darker tonal balance than the IE7, which some listeners might prefer. The tradeoff, however, is that IE7 does a more accurate and expressive job of capturing low level details and small shifts in dynamic emphasis, while delivering exceptionally clear upper mids and highs, plus taut and very well-defined bass.
Differences between the Turbine Pros and its top in-class competitors certainly are not large in an absolute sense, so that the superior ruggedness and comfort of the Pros might tip the scales in their favor. However, careful listening will also reveal that top competitors in the $300 price class do offer some small but worthwhile sonic advantages.
The Turbine Pros come with a wide assortment of ear tips: three sets of single layer ear tips, two sets of triple layer ear tips, two sets of Supertips, and one set of foam tips. I found the new Supertip material to be very comfortable and sufficiently flexible to offer a good, airtight seal. The Turbine Pros, much like the original Turbines, are ideally sized to allow easy inserting and adjustment for a good fit in your ear canals.
The Monster Turbine Pros also come with two carrying cases, one that is a particular handy pocket-sized pouch with a magnetic closure.
Monster Cable’s Turbine Pro takes worthwhile steps forward from the firm’s already excellent Turbine, offering greater detail and broader frequency response with rock solid bass. Though not the last word in overall sonic resolution and refinement in its price class, the Turbine Pro will win friends with its well-balanced sound, superior comfort, and absolutely unbeatable warranty.
SPECS & PRICING
Monster Cable Turbine Pro In-Ear Headphones
Accessories: three sets of single layer ear tips, two sets of triple layer ear tips, two sets of Supertips, and one set of foam tips, plus two carry cases.
Weight: Not specified
Sensitivity: Not specified
Impedance: Not specified
Warranty: Limited lifetime warranty against manufacturing defects, plus additional coverage where Monster declares “we’re offering a one-time replacement of your Turbine Pros, even if YOU break them.”