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Alpine Headphones Review

by December 11, 2014
Alpine Headphones

Alpine Headphones

  • Product Name: Headphones
  • Manufacturer: Alpine
  • Performance Rating: StarStarStarhalf-star
  • Value Rating: StarStarStar
  • Review Date: December 11, 2014 06:30
  • MSRP: $ 299
  • Buy Now
  • TKR3 Full Frequency Immersion Technology: Unique sound field expansion that recreates a live concert like listening experience
  • 24-bit stereo audio analog-to-digital/digital-to-analog converter
  • Powered Digital amplifiers
  • 2 X 40 mm high performance drivers
  • Fully programmable audio processing for separate bass and equalization
  • Bluetooth Low Energy for easy-pairing with your iPhone device for user-programmable sound settings
  • Level Play application, an application that scans, analyzes, and organizes the listener’s music library into “energy” levels.  At Playback, Level Play presents the listener with a randomized song flow from a particular “energy” level
  • Fixed rechargeable Li-ion battery with 10 hour capacity
  • Dynamic circuitry allows for listening in case of fully depleted battery
  • iPhone, iPad, Mac, and iPod ready audio cable with remote and microphone
  • Available in Apollo White and Onyx Black
  • Comes with: USB Charging cable, Audio Cable, and Headphone pouch

Pros

  • Imaging
  • Soundstage
  • Pleasant overall sonic presentation

Cons

  • Build quality
  • Transducer silly and detrimental to sound quality
  • Recessed midrange

 

I can't honestly say why I choose certain products for review. Surely my history with a company or name recognition comes into play. If I've reviewed other products by a company and liked them, I'll likely want to review more so I can see what else they have up their sleeves. But I, more so than other Audioholics, tend to review the obscurer names. I'm more likely to give a shot to a company that I may not have heard of, or give a company making inroads into new markets a chance.

I'd like to say that was the case with the Alpine Headphones. You may have looked at the name and thought, "Is that the same company that makes head units for cars?" I didn't. I thought, "Hey, is that the same company that makes some of my favorite motorcycle gear? What the heck are they doing making headphones?"

alpinestars

This stuff

Obviously, you would have been right and I would have been an idiot (it is Alpinestars by the way). Regardless, I stopped on the email and started reading. The price point of roughly $300 is a popular one where many headphones start to distinguish themselves. I didn't hate the aesthetics, and I was also curious about the "TKR3 Full Frequency Immersion Technology." While it's supposed to recreate a live listening experience, I couldn't quite figure out what Alpine was talking about from the press release. In the end, I shot off an email and a few days later, I had a pair of Alpine Headphones in for review.

First Impressions

The Alpine Headphones came in a large, well-protected box. The box has a front flap that is held shut by a small magnet (very common in higher-end headphones these days). Inside I found tons of marketing material along with the headphones, a couple of cables, and nothing else. I searched high and low for a user manual or the promised carrying pouch, but my review sample had neither. For me, it isn't much of an issue as I have little use for any carrying pouch, but I imagine a regular consumer would feel differently about their $300 purchase.

alpine headphones box open

White on white is hard to photograph

There are two cables, the standard headphone cable with in-line and a USB charging cable. The charging cable has a micro USB at one end and a full sized USB connection at the other. There is no wall plug adapter but, by this time, you probably have a half dozen kicking around your house anyhow.

The cables are of the fabric-covered variety. I've had problems in the past with fabric-covered cables transmitting noise into the headphone. Fortunately, the Alpine Headphone's audio jack is well damped and transmitted little noise. The audio cable has 3.5mm plugs at both ends allowing for the use of many aftermarket cables. I tested the Alpine Headphones with the V-Moda Boom Pro Mic and they worked perfectly.

The audio cable has three-button in-line controls and a microphone.  The box for the in-line controls was a little over-sized, but it was easy to find and the buttons were large and rubber. You needed to press on them firmly, but you always knew when you had entered a command. They worked perfectly with my Mac laptop and my Android phone.

alpine headphones inline control

Alpine Headpohnes inline controls complete with shadows

The Alpine Headphones have a very distinctive look with diamond earpads and a very rounded headband. The bottom of the headband is covered in a soft rubber and is very soft and pillowy in all the places that don't touch my head. While that white band at the very top is also rubber, there is something underneath that is firmer than the rest of the headband. This created a pressure point that I didn't find very comfortable over long listening sessions. Clamping pressure was tight but not overly so. I don't think I could run in them without them shaking loose, but they were tight enough for normal use.

alpine headphones side

Alpine Headphones from the side - note the plastic pulling away near the bend. I had to snap that back on.

Branding on the Alpine Headphones has been kept to a minimum. If you don't know that those stripes on the earcups are part of Alpine's branding, you'll have no idea who made these cans. Oddly, Alpine decided not to put any indication of which side is left or right on these headphones. I searched and searched but couldn't find any sign. Eventually, I went to Alpine's website to see how people in their marketing material were wearing them. In the end, I'm pretty sure the one where the cord plugs in is the right.

Alpine decided to go almost totally with plastic for their Alpine Headphones. The white parts are all plastic, the chrome earcups are plastic with a chrome finish, and earcups are pleather. Rather than having an expanding headband for adjusting the fit, the earcups slide up and down (the chrome part). This makes for a headphone that is difficult to transport as it really never gets smaller. The earcup rotation is in one direction, and only 90 degrees. I often found that the earcups would rotate themselves back into their normal orientation if set down in any position other than flat.

Innovations

The Alpine Headphones have two real "innovations" - the first is their TKR3 Full Immersion Technology and the second is an app. We'll deal with the second first. The Level Play app organizes your music by "energy" levels (basically amount of bass), it has a 5-band EQ, and it syncs up to your Alpine Headphones via Bluetooth Low Energy.

You would be excused if you mistakenly thought of the Alpine Headphones as Bluetooth headphones. It was probably all the talk of the app, the Low Energy, and the 10-hour battery life. If you want to hear any music through the Alpine Headphones, you'll need to connect an audio cable. If you read their material (or watch some of their videos, you'll hear all sorts of "Wireless isn't good enough yet" excuses but it smacks of misleading advertising. Especially when second on their list of specifications is their 24-bit DACs.

No, the DACs are only to connect the EQ from the app to the headphones. The music needs to be transported the old fashioned way. I played around with the app a bit on a friend's phone (I don't have an iPhone and my iPad is too old for the Level Play app) and it was fine. The Level Play app allows you to choose your energy level via a sliding scale and plays songs that match randomly. Apple doesn't really let you mess with iTunes too much so using a 3rd party app always feels clunky to me. I don't often need my music organized by energy levels, but it was a novel idea. I could see myself using it from time to time, but certainly not as my main player.

alpine headphones flat

This is just about as flat and compact as they get

The main innovation that Alpine introduced with the Alpine Headphones is the TKR3 Full Immersion Technology. If you are still confused by what that could possibly be, let Alpine's description help you ... not at all -

Unique sound field expansion that recreates a live concert like listening experience.

Nothing yet? Okay, how about this -

Alpine’s patented TKR3 Full Frequency Immersion Technology delivers a unique sound field expansion that recreates a live event sensation so users can feel the beat in their core.

Still baffled? I was too. But it took me all of about 3 seconds to figure it out when I got the headphones. What Alpine is dancing around and trying not to tell you is that they have included tactile transducers in their headphones. When you press a button on the earcup near the cable, you hear a confirmation tone and the headphones start bouncing on your head.

alpine headphones button

From top to bottom - Button for TKR3, audio cable port, charging port

Okay, I'm exaggerating a little. But they do start to vibrate along with the bass. In addition, the bass sounds boosted. Now, I don't know what concerts you've been going to, but my definition of "live concert like experience" is not headphones that vibrate on your head. Maybe I'm going to the wrong concerts, but I don't think so.

I have to admit that my heart sank when I pressed that button and those headphones started to vibrate. I felt cheated. I felt betrayed. I felt like Alpine had spent all their budget on a gimmick that I was never, ever going to use. As much as you might not believe it, I don't like giving bad reviews. I figured I was in for a doozy of one this time.

I was shocked to find out how wrong I was.

Alpine Headphones Listening Tests and Conclusions

I did play around with the tactile transducers from time to time but, as I predicted from my initial experience, I pretty much hated them. The vibration against my head was distracting, and with very repetitive beats I found it made my skin itch. The thing I appreciated was how the TKR3 Full Immersion Technology only worked with the bass. If a track had very little bass, the headphones wouldn't vibrate at all. At least Alpine didn't try to force the vibrations on all content.

I also noticed that the headphones vibrated most strongly with bass beats (like kick drums or bass notes) but not as much with bass sweeps. When listening to bass sweeps, however, I noted that the headphones had a resonant frequency. If I placed my hand on the headphones, during one part of the sweep, the sound character would change if I placed my hand on the top of the headphone band. This suggested to me that the bass boost I was experiencing was actually from the headphones resonating.

Alpine claims a 10-hour battery life on their Headphones. This is for the TKR3 Full Immersion Technology and the Bluetooth pairing. I couldn't tell you if that was the case or not. In three weeks, I didn't use the TKR3 full vibrational tech enough to drain the battery.

alpine headphones top

The top part of the headband was not as hard as it looked, but it's still less comfortable than the rest

With the TKR3 Full Immersion Technology turned off, I tested the Alpine Headphones with my Emotiva Stealth DC-1 DAC and headphone amplifier. I compared them to the V-Moda M-100 Crossfade headphones, the Oppo PM-2 Magnetic Planar headphones, the Denon AH-D1000 headphones, and a few others. The Emotiva DC-1 has dual headphone outputs making easy comparisons between the different sets of cans.

For content, I used a number of tracks that I'm very familiar with from the likes of yello, Tina Dickow, Jeff Buckley, Tom Waits, Lorna Hunt, Rusted Root, and many more. Recently, I downloaded Dr. Chesky's The Ultimate Headphone Demonstration Disc. This disc has a number of binaural recordings along with tests for treble, bass, and imaging. The imaging tests, in particular, I used to see how well the Alpine Headphones imaged not just side-to-side but front to back. The Dr. Chesky's disc can be downloaded in a number of resolutions. I have it in 192kHz/24-bit version.

Headphones these days tend to be bass heavy and I've gotten past blaming the manufacturers for this. Obviously they sell, so why wouldn't they make their headphones bass heavy? The Alpine Headphones have what I would call a bass emphasis, but I wouldn't push them all the way into the bass heavy category. During particular songs at particular times I would notice a bit of a bass bloat, but for the most part the bass was punchy without being too overdone. When comparing to headphones like the extremely linear Oppo PM-2 Planar Magnetic headphones, the bass emphasis was obvious; however, within their own presentation, the bass seemed balanced. Tracks like Seal's Crazy sounded full and rich. With bass sweeps, the bass sounded even down to around 30 Hz where I heard fluttering distortion start.

alpine headphones sticker1

Instructions were in sticker form

The top end was clear and very balanced. I've heard headphones with more detail, but usually that means that any high-end noise ends up being very noticeable. On Pelding & Joy Morgan's No Angel, there is a little background hiss in the recording (something you vinyl aficionados should love). The background hiss was well masked by the bass with the Alpine Headphones. Unfortunately, this also masked some of the top-end sounds. The track has some soft notes played at the very top of the piano. I could hear these notes, though they weren't as clear or as clean as I've heard with other headphones. For many, this is an easy tradeoff. The extra bass is something that many find pleasant and the rolled off or masked high end means the headphones are forgiving of most people's poorly recorded and heavily compressed music.

alpine headphones sticker2

Honestly, if you read the instructions, they seem out of order

The midrange was a bit recessed compared to the top and bottom ends, but it was still present. It reminded me of all those home EQs back in the 70's and 80's where everyone would make a smile with the sliders. I certainly heard enough of the midrange such that I wasn't wondering where it was, but when I compared the Alpine Headphones to other, more linear headphones, the differences were jarring. Clear treble and punchy bass were certainly the design goals. The midrange sort of got lost in the shuffle.

Imaging is where the Alpine Headphones really began to shine. The Dr. Chesky's disc has both side-to-side and front-to-back imaging tests. The side-to-side tests are usually not a problems for headphones. Even the back image most do okay with. The front, on the other hand is by far the most difficult. Even the Oppo PM-2 headphones had trouble with it. The Alpine Headphones managed to create an almost convincing front image. It sounded like it was in front of my face. It was elevated a bit, but it was there. I could only hear it with the Shaker test, but I've never heard it before with any headphones.

alpine headphones cables attached

Cables attached

In real world use, the width of the soundstage with the Alpine Headphones was mind-blowing. Left to right pans seemed to start outside the room, pass through the room, and exit stage right. Imaging with the Alpine Headphones was some of the best I've heard at any price point. I'm really surprised they were able to achieve this sort of imaging with just a couple of 40mm drivers. Maybe they hit lightning in a bottle, but whatever they did, they should keep doing it.

The transducer gimmick is something that obviously took up a lot of the budget on the Alpine Headphones. If the plastic construction didn't clue you in, the sound leakage would give it away. I have open back headphones that don't leak as much sound as the Alpine Headphones. If you are looking for a headphone for the subway where you can listen to your music and not bother others, the Alpine Headphones aren't them. I hope Alpine puts out another version of these headphones without the TKR3 gimmick and instead beefs up the quality of the materials and construction. At the $300 price point, these headphones clearly have the chops to be counted among the best with just a few tweaks.

Conclusion

I know I was all over the map with this review and that's because the Alpine Headphones have a lot of things I like, and a few things I don't. The pluses are that they image better than any headphone in my arsenal, and they have a bass accentuated presentation but still manage to present a fairly balanced sound field. On the down side, the build quality is lackluster, the midrange is a bit recessed, and the TKR3 transducer technology is silly and detrimental to the sound quality. In the end, these headphones end up as a buy for me because of their sound quality and, most of all, their imaging. With a few tweaks, Alpine could have price-point leader on their hands. We'll have to see what they do in the future.

Alpine Headphones

MSRP: $299

alpine headphones side

www.alpineheadphones.com

The Score Card

The scoring below is based on each piece of equipment doing the duty it is designed for. The numbers are weighed heavily with respect to the individual cost of each unit, thus giving a rating roughly equal to:

Performance × Price Factor/Value = Rating

Audioholics.com note: The ratings indicated below are based on subjective listening and objective testing of the product in question. The rating scale is based on performance/value ratio. If you notice better performing products in future reviews that have lower numbers in certain areas, be aware that the value factor is most likely the culprit. Other Audioholics reviewers may rate products solely based on performance, and each reviewer has his/her own system for ratings.

Audioholics Rating Scale

  • StarStarStarStarStar — Excellent
  • StarStarStarStar — Very Good
  • StarStarStar — Good
  • StarStar — Fair
  • Star — Poor
MetricRating
Build QualityStarStarStar
AppearanceStarStarStarStar
Treble ExtensionStarStarStarStar
Treble SmoothnessStarStarStarStar
Midrange AccuracyStarStarStar
Bass ExtensionStarStarStarStar
Bass AccuracyStarStarStarStar
ImagingStarStarStarStarStar
SoundstageStarStarStarStarStar
Dynamic RangeStarStarStar
Fit and FinishStarStarStar
PerformanceStarStarStarhalf-star
ValueStarStarStar
About the author:
author portrait

As Associate Editor at Audioholics, Tom promises to the best of his ability to give each review the same amount of attention, consideration, and thoughtfulness as possible and keep his writings free from undue bias and preconceptions. Any indication, either internally or from another, that bias has entered into his review will be immediately investigated. Substantiation of mistakes or bias will be immediately corrected regardless of personal stake, feelings, or ego.

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