Oppo are a bit different. And not just because their name reads the same forward and back. Or because it insinuates both opportunity and opposition in the same breath. No, ever since their affordable universal decks prompted wholesale embrace by the Mod Squad—not to be confused with the merchants of death alliance of big tobacco, alcohol and firearms lobbyists in the Aaron Eckhardt flick Thank you for smoking—Oppo have exploited a rare form of crowd-sourcing.
How so? To start with, for years manufacturer forums hosted on AudioCircle.com have solicited fan and owner feedback about desired features for their upcoming models. Then LightHarmonic’s heavily publicised Kickstarter and Indiegogo crowd-funding campaigns for their Geek models used the direct connection with their audience to fine-tune feature sets, cosmetics and more. What Oppo have done for their digital decks was pay close attention to how the various boutique modifiers changed them. When the time came for new models or updates of existing ones, Oppo routinely dipped into their growing mod pool to apply those tweaks which best matched their own sensibility and target pricing. Soon this resulted in mass-market machines that were de facto pre-modified. Very clever!
When it comes to scale, Oppo are different too. Unlike the typical cottage-industry hifi player, they’re big. For universal video players at sane prices, they’ve arguably wrapped up the global market with a pretty bow. With the introduction of the PM-1 and PM-2 planarmagnetic headphones, Oppo now resolutely press into contemporary audio’s busiest segment. For a company which can sell a technically very advanced play-all audio/video machine for $499, their £1099/UK and €1399/EU orthodynamic flagship aims high not only on price. One wayward glance at its styling suggests that it aims high, period. On cosmetics alone it could belong into Bang & Olufsen’s catalogue. Or be mate to Kef’s M500. Or be a Pioneer SE 500 reborn. A tulku headphone perhaps? But, the PM-1 means to be far more than natty city slicker. Oppo actively engaged audiophile beta testers in the US to help them perfect everything about their first entry into this segment. So crowd-sourcing and Oppo really are on the friendliest of terms. No designed-here myopia for this team. That’s a breath of fresh air in an industry which often equates one solitary engineer’s endless navel gazing with true innovation.
High on Oppo’s to-do list were wear comfort from low weight; sensitivity for more universal drive; and ultra-low distortion. The PM-1 thus gets a 7-layer polymer-film membrane with double-sided spiraling coils “to put twice as many conductors in the magnetic field”. To drive said diaphragm there is a Finite Element Method optimized concentrically arrayed very powerful push/pull Neodymium motor system with a symmetrical “evenly distributed” force field. Say hello to 102dB/1mW sensitivity and 395 grams weight. Say hello to hypoallergenic latex ear cushions for long-lasting shape; lambskin pads and headband for wearable luxury; alternate velour pads for a slightly more powerful low bass response; fine structural aluminum elements for strength; and convenient 2.5mm mono plugs on the 3m 6.3mm and 1m 3.5mm terminated Ohno Continuous Casting OCC cables for easy removal. On hard specs there’s 32Ω impedance, an oval 85x69mm driver surface and ambitious 10-50’000Hz response.
If we establish a rough time line, first there were Pioneer and Yamaha and their lot way back when this type of headphone was still called orthodynamic. Then transistors replaced tubes and dynamic headphones displaced vintage planars. Fostex though kept their faith into the 21st century. Then HifiMan and Audeze joined this new-again religion. The Mayan’s end of the world came and went. By now top planars had established themselves at the very apex of the headphone pile. The time had come for an outfit called Abyss to get into the act with an abysmally priced model – as in north of $5’000. Ouch. Finally the bells tolled 2014 and there were Oppo.
It seems fair to say that this team under project leader Igor Levitsky command resources which dwarf all other players in this sector. It’s also fair to pronounce an obvious advantage for being late to this party. It presents you with plenty of opportunity to shove all your direct competitors under the electron microscope. Determine which bits and bobs could and should be improved. Read all of their reviews. Isolate common complaints and criticisms. Benefit from their mistakes so you needn’t make them all over again. Voilà, we’re back at too hard to drive; too heavy for comfort; too inconsistent from pair to pair; not reliable enough; and cosmetically klutzy. Of course not making other people’s mistakes all over again doesn’t prevent you from making your very own brand-new mistakes. If there are any, we’ll get to them.
To take all things headfi opportunistic yet further, this team have already announced the imminent HA-1 as an ESS 9018-powered DSD-ready fully balanced headphone/preamp/DAC. Borrowing directly from their established Blu-ray decks, it’ll have coax, Toslink, AES/EBU and async USB inputs. Then it’ll get 6.3mm and 4-pin balanced headphone sockets and line-level RCA/XLR i/o. Digital iDevice compatibility is promised once the machine releases but obviously that’ll depend on Apple’s timely granting of the necessary license.
According to early press teasers and first images of Oppo’s launch in Great Britain, it’ll also have a 4.3″ multi-mode display which can show a classic VU meter, spectrum display or simple data summary. Further there’s to be apt-x Bluetooth connectivity, analog volume and remote control. If the PM-1, lower-priced PM-2 and HA-1 trinity don’t look like a full frontal assault on our headfi sector, I don’t know what would.
Part 2 of the OPPO PM-1 headphone review runs here.
In Part 3 Oppo UK’s managing director Nigel Rich and technical officer James Soanes will hopefully provide answers to my background questions.
Further information: Oppo Bluray UK