A lot of high-end headphones won’t even get out of bed in the morning without proper amplification. That’s an easy problem to solve for home listeners with desktop headphone amplifiers but it’s more of a conundrum for road warriors. Options are considerably more limited once we move away from the wall socket power and into the street where we might also require a closed-back model.
Want to take a pair MrSpeakers Alpha Dog out into the street? You’ll need a half-decent portable amplifier/DAC like the Chord Hugo (reviewed here) or the ALO International+ (reviewed here) to bring them to life. You don’t put unleaded petrol in a racetrack car.
But if you’ve dropped the best part of $2.5K on an Astell&Kern AK240 would you then be happy to learn that you’ll need another brick to properly nourish your favourite headphones? And that when you attach it to your AK240 the double-pack will no longer fit in your pocket?
Time to let the tail wag the dog.
We probably wouldn’t choose our loudspeakers based upon the power output of our amplifier but it’s different for owners of Astell&Kerns, Sony Walkmen and Ponos. Best to choose a headphone that’ll see proper nourishment from your portable device of choice.
There are plenty of options around the $300-500 mark – Sennheiser Momentum, KEF M500, Master&Dynamic MH40, NAD Viso HP50, AKG K550 et al – but the number of possibilities tails off sharply thereafter. If you’re not cashed up enough for a pair of Audeze LCD-XC (reviewed here) at US$1800, what to do?
Japan’s Final Audio Design started out with an MC phono cartridge in the 1970s after which they released all manner of two-channel products throughout the 1980s and 1990s. However, they didn’t get busy with headphones until the late noughties.
The Shinagawa-made US$699 Pandora Hope VI are full sized headphones specifically designed to work with portable digital audio players, even smartphones. They’re closed back so you won’t be troubling anyone with sound leakage on public transport or at work.
Right from the unboxing, you know that the Pandora Hope VI are different – they emerge from a (fake) fur-lined hexagonal case along with detachable cable. The chrome-gold finish connotes an ‘aspirational’ vibe. As does their weight, which is similar to that of MrSpeakers’ Alpha Dog; at almost half a kilo they’re not suitable for absolutely everyone.
With nominal impedance rated at a super-low 8 Ohms (and efficiency at 105db), I had zero issues driving the Pandora Hope VI with a Samsung Galaxy S5 but most of my listening tests were conducted with the Astell&Kern AK120 II (reviewed here) and the Sony NWZ-ZX1 (reviewed here). Stout SPLs were reached on each player at around their respective half-way marks.
Final Audio Design’s engineers have tempered power demands through a hybrid design. Inside each ear-cup are two drivers: a 5cm dynamic driver handles bass through upper-mids whilst an in-house-designed balanced armature drive takes care of the uppermost frequencies. (Balanced armature drivers are more commonly found in IEMs).
The latter lends the Pandora Hope VI a detailed presentation that pulls apart music layers; think of pulled-pork falling from the bone. Immediacy and intimacy emanate from a headstage that’s unusually wide for a closed-back design. Dan Clark’s Alphas still best the Pandora Hope VI for stage depth and tonality but they won’t come alive at the hands of the AK120 or Walkman standing alone.
The Sony has the more caffeinated treble of these two portables but it didn’t cause the Final Audio Design cans to become fatiguing. Switching over to the AK120, its superior midrange clarity really jumps at you. As does its weightier low-end, as much evident on the acoustic breeze of Giant Giant Sand’s Tuscon and the wizz-bang bleepery of Aphex Twin’s Syro. I suspect the Astell&Kern is just that little bit more powerful than its Sony rival.
Fans of electronic music will find themselves in awe of the Pandora Hope VI. Their ability to unveil the minutiae buried deep in the mix is immensely satisfying. That said, such skill would also be of worth to listeners forever mishearing lyrics. These headphones cleave a good amount of space around each performer.
Know that these are not romantic-sounding headphones; they represent a solid choice for someone who couldn’t warm to the Sennheiser Momentum but is looking for a little taste of the HD800’s way with inside-out illumination…without the hassle of deploying a third-party amplifier. But if you do eventually go that route, know that the Chord Hugo brings the Pandora Hope VI – and therefore the listener – to a higher state of consciousness with better rhythmic propulsion and lucidity.
And that’s where we came in. The Pandora Hope VI are one of the few high(er)-end headphones that are 1) closed-back and 2) easy to drive from a portable player. They’re more generous with detail retrieval and (the illusion of) transparency than any of the aforelisted sub-$500 models. The extra few hundred is worth the spend for those not seeking a lightweight or foldable solution. Little wonder Astell&Kern have developed close ties with Final Audio Design, often deploying a range of the latter’s products as partnering headphones at audio shows.
And if you think that a seven hundred dollar headphone’s price point is enough to preclude it from high-end classification, wait until you hear the Pandora Hope VIII; a (delayed) new model scheduled to arrive in stores in early 2015. I attended its official launch in Munich this year and I listened to both VI and VIII side-by-side with an original AK120 as source – I can confirm that the newcomer is a step up again.
Further information: Final Audio Design