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Kef M500 Sound Quality and Conclusion

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I mostly used the KEF M500 headphones with the Emotiva Stealth DC-1 DAC/Headphone amp paired with my Mac laptop. During Christmas this year, Linn Acoustics gave away a slew of 24-bit, studio masters of songs. Not all of them are things I would listen to for pleasure, but the recording quality is about as good as it gets. On hand, I had the thinksound On1 on-ear headphones, the Denon AH-D1000 over-ear, and the V-MODA Crossfade M-100 over-ear headphones for comparison. The Emotiva DC-1 has dual headphone outputs so doing an A/B comparison was as easy as switching the headphones as fast as I could. The outputs don't have individual volume controls, however, so I had to make due with manually switching the volume during the comparison. While the Denons, when they were available, were about half the price of the M500s, the On1 and Crossfades both retail for about the same price (around $300 a pair).

KEF_M500_input

Input is located at the hinge, the earcups rotate forward and back for better fit

First I spent some time checking out the extension and frequency response of the KEF M500 headphones with some sweeps. I didn't notice any glaring abnormalities or noise in the sweeps. The M500s easily played down into the mid-20Hz range. The top end was clear and well extended without being overly harsh (this is hard to tell with sweeps but we'll get more into that during the listening tests). All in all, there was very little to complain about with the raw performance of the M500 headphones from KEF.

The listening tests, of course, took a lot longer than I had hoped. At the $300 price point, most of the headphones are all very good. The easy comparison was to the Denon AH-D1000 headphones. One thing I really love about these Denons is that they might not have the performance of the more expensive headphones, but they really don't have any of the problems that you'd expect. They don't try to have too much bass so they don't have bass bloat issues or low-end distortion. They don't try to have a high end that is overly dynamic so they don't have the fatigue issues other headphones in their price point might have.

KEF_M500_hinge

Hinge

 

The comparison between the KEF M500 and the Denon AH-D1000 made both look very good. If you reduced the extension of the KEFs on both ends, you'd have the Denons. As I know that the Denons are a very flat and neutral headphone, that reassured me that the performance of the M500s were similar. The KEFs were, surprisingly, a little easier to drive than the Denons which caused the Denons to be slightly softer. Compensating the best I could, I felt that the Denons, in general, sounded less clear than the KEFs. It was as if the dynamic range of the headphones were less and the quieter passages just didn't quite come through. The KEFs were punchier, a bit better extended at both ends, and generally more engaging than the aging Denons. At nearly twice the price, I would expect no less.

The V-MODA Crossfade M-100s were designed with the input of audiophiles. You can hear V-MODA's owner, Val Kolton, talk about it on the AV Rant podcast here. The Crossfades are a bass heavy headphone, in my opinion, that have top notch build quality and comfort. The KEF M500 headphones have a similar level of build quality and comfort though I may give the Crossfades a bit of an edge. When evaluating the sound quality, however, it was clear that V-MODA was after bass and KEF was after crystal clear highs. While, again, the KEFs were easier to drive, the top end of the Crossfades sounded veiled and subdued compared to the M500s. Bass was clearly in the V-MODA's favor and I can see how people that like specific music might pick one headphone over the other. To my ear, the KEF M500's clarity was much preferable.

KEF_M500_logo

Bendy headphones are fun to photograph

Lastly, I compared the thinksound On1 on-ear headphones. These were designed to be studio quality which suggests that they should have a very flat frequency response. I found in my review of them that they sounded very good but that I couldn't wear them for long periods of time. Clearly, KEF won the comfort war with the same type of headphone. Here, I really had to pick the nits (so to speak) to come up with differences. I felt that the On1's had slightly better bass extension but that the KEFs had cleaner bass. In some music, specifically female vocalists with minimal background music, the midrange was slightly richer with the KEFs than the thinksounds. Really, in the end, these two headphones sounded remarkably similar. If I could guarantee that I had level matched the two perfectly, I might have been able to make some claims as to which I liked better, but I couldn't. In the end, they were both great sounding headphones. But the KEF's are the ones I could wear all day.

Conclusion

In the world of on-ear headphones, few can actually be called comfortable. The KEF M500 headphones are the only ones I've ever encountered that were as comfortable, and in some cases more comfortable, than over-ear headphones. For some, that would be enough to justify taking a closer look at these little beauties. Add the fantastic build quality, superior performance to other headphones in the same price bracket, and great noise isolation, and KEF has a winning package with the M500s. I won't say these are some of the best sounding and most comfortable headphones in the on-ear category, I'll say they are some of the best and most comfortable in any category! Highly recommended!

KEF M500 On-Ear Headphones

MSRP: $299

KEF_M500_glamour

www.kef.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
Ergonomics & UsabilityStarStarStarStar
Build QualityStarStarStarStarStar
AppearanceStarStarStarStarStar
Treble ExtensionStarStarStarStar
Treble SmoothnessStarStarStarStarStar
Midrange AccuracyStarStarStarStarStar
Bass ExtensionStarStarStarStar
Bass AccuracyStarStarStarStarStar
ImagingStarStarStarStarStar
SoundstageStarStarStarStarStar
Dynamic RangeStarStarStarStarStar
Fit and FinishStarStarStarStarStar
PerformanceStarStarStarStarhalf-star
ValueStarStarStarStarStar
About the author:
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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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Recent Forum Posts:

robertotey posts on July 22, 2014 07:36
KEF v Sennheiser v B&W v Final Audio Design

The semi-portable headphone market is becoming quite competitive and manufacturers are really trying hard. There's now a choice of nice models to choose from, all with different characteristics.

After some serious auditioning of the B&W P7, Sennheiser Momentum and Final Audio Design Pandora IV I went for the Pandora IV. I was looking for an over ear design, as I find on-ear fatigues my ears after more than 30 mins.

Sound with the Pandora IV is immersive, with the super-tweeters firing at you from the front they give a fully 360 degree sound (I've not heard this in other headphones). Instrument separation is truly amazing for a headphone.

Highly recommended that you addition the Final Audio Design before you buy.
israndy posts on March 27, 2014 16:36
Well it figures that Kef would finally come out with headphones JUST after I spend a fortune on B&W. I tested the Bose and the Beats, the Sennheisers, the Harman Kardon, and even the Sol Republics. I could not do better than the P5s by Bowers and Wilkins.

The P5s were just an amazing set of headphones. I have never heard such crisp music w/o any shrillness even at loud volumes. The bass was stable but not concussive, I could hear all that was recorded w/o requiring the speaker to add it's own sound like some hip-hop is recorded to do, shaking the car. I only heard the track in it's purist form. Every selection I played on them was flawless unlike EVERY other headphone I tried, always some problem stood out.

Well, I didn't test the Parrots, but I am not a battery powered headphones guy, and I really don't want noise canceling. Why suffer with distortion ADDED by your headphones. So I spent the money and got the P5s for regular use and the P3s because they were so close to the P5s, slightly less bass presence, but quite a few less dollars. Then if the wife wants to listen to something at the same time I got no complaints.

Then right after they arrived the P7s came out. I was so angry until I got a chance to listen to them. They were even less bass than the P3s, although not as clamped on your ears either. Hopefully overtime that will not be so harsh.

Now it has been half a year and the KEFs are out. I love KEF. My 104A/B stereo speakers that I have had since I was 17 (after my sister took her JBLs to college) are still my main speakers. When surround became a thing I got the KHT 3000 series with subwoofer, rocks my world when watching BluRay. The review you did was epic and sold me on buying the KEFs, I just wish you had ever done a review of the P5s when they were new, I think they would have impressed. Certainly nothing else on the marketplace of stores I can walk into and buy/return.

-Randy
jliedeka posts on February 10, 2014 15:54
I wish I would have seen this a couple of weeks ago. I have the same gripe with on-ear headphones. I was using Grado SR-60i with a gaming laptop. They get uncomfortable after a few hours. I picked up the Beyerdynamic T51p which sounds as good or better but can still be uncomfortable after a while although I think that is improving with age. I would have tried the KEF based on your comments.

Jim
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