Headphones from Velodyne by Craig B.
Bass-ic expectations are high as I unpack the Velodyne vTrues. Will Velodyne apply some form of its trademark, industry-leading subwoofer technology to this flagship product at the top of its new headphone lineup? A clue appears on the back of the vTrue box, “Accurate sound is produced through a 50mm driver tuned to the exacting standards of Velodyne's trademark low-distortion bass reproduction.”
The vTrues sport what I would call Euro-sleek style. Stamped brushed aluminum housings sport tasteful brown leather-y ear and head pads. The 'phones are comfortable, are not too tight, and do a good job of isolating the signal from the sounds of the outside world. They're not small, but their sleek design makes them less geekily obtrusive than some studio units. But in the end what matters most, of course, is how the vTrues sound.
After a break-in of 40 hours, the vTrues are put to the test through a system comprising a MacBook Pro running iTunes with Audio MIDI Setup upsampling to 88.2/24 and feeding, via Toslink optical, a Benchmark DAC1 with the HPA2 headphone amps. Music files are mostly CDs ripped to ALAC or AIFF format and stored on the Mac. AudioTest 2.0 is used to generate test tones and noise. This software, by Katsura Shareware, is distributed through the Apple Store. It's a $4.99 download.
In the ring with the Velodynes, for comparison, are open-back AKG 702s and Shure SRH840s. Overall, very open and analytical sounds can be expected from the AKG 702 'phones. Razor sharp transient response and an emphasis of lower treble and treble can make the 702s rather bright at higher volume on some songs such as Tom Petty's mandolin-laden 1987 “It'll All Work Out.” But when it comes to retrieving detail, the AKG 702s will get you listening to your music collection in search of recorded cues you may have missed in the last 20 or 30 years.
The Shure SRH840s are similar to the vTrues in that they are closed-back circumaural 'phones. Accurate from top to bottom, they have a monitor quality that invites analyzing the sound while listening. As with the AKGs, it is nearly impossible to read, for instance, while listening to these 'phones—a quality that is not present with 'phones that render sounds in a more easy-going manner. The Shures present bass that is clean and clear, but that is not especially full or weighty.
BASS—Whether acoustic bass, electric bass, voice, synthesized sound, organ, or percussion, the Velodynes consistently deliver bass that is distinctly present, and that often seems to exceed what you thought was on the recording. It is bass that is rich, supple, and clean, preserving/revealing all the low-frequency air and space present—and that is an important and all too elusive quality of good bass. It is bass that lives up to the copy printed on the box, “…Velodyne's trademark low-distortion bass reproduction.”
Pulling up Willie Nelson's Teatro album I am blown away by the bass reproduction in the vTrues. The extraordinary quality of the bass plays out on Willie's (with Emmylou Harris) “My Own Peculiar Way.” The powerful, close-mic’d bass drum is conveyed through these 'phones like no other I've heard. The ambient quirky detail of the Lanois-produced sound, however, is not as ambient or as quirky overall through the Velodynes as it is with the other 'phones. Air and space are somewhat lacking.
The Velodynes do amp up the fun factor, though. Where the AKG 702s are overwhelmingly detailed, and the Shure 840s are monitor-true almost to the point of enough already, the Velodyne vTrues convey the fun factor of this work.
The vTrues show the same set of characteristics on “Do Nothing 'Til You Hear From Me” from Zoot Sims's Zoot At Ease album as reissued on a Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab disc. Pliant and articulate vTrue bass opens this track, with a full-bodied sax sound. The brushed cymbals, however, lack the shimmer that floats them in space and Hank Jones plays a rather distant-sounding piano. The bass remains prominent throughout—very forward with a robust yet supple quality. Overall the sound is integrated and blended, in contrast to a sound that opens up the spaces and allows inspection of every detail, as with, especially, the AKG 702s. In the AKGs Zoot's front and center reed sound is noticeably more whiffy and aspirated and not quite as mellow as it is on other 'phones. The Shure SRH840s present a clean, open presentation with a balanced mix of elements (tone, weight, leading edge crispness, and reed texture), but at the same time, a slightly clinical sound compared to the Velodynes. Bottom line: not all 'phones do everything perfectly but the quality of the Velodyne's bass carries the day for them.
MIDRANGE—Carole King said of Peter Keane: “What a perfect example of music for its own sake—pure and simple…” From his 1996 Flying Fish album Walkin' Around Austin, Texas-based Peter Keane spins a clubby, folksy sound that gives the vTrues a chance to show off their ability to present a full bass sound with nicely defined attacks and good pitch definition. The cello on “I Want You” is rich, with lots of body, but that last bit of the cello's rosiny buzz (present on the recording and audible with the other 'phones) is MIA in the vTrues.
Overall the vTrues, on this recording, show their proclivity for pulling the parts of a recording together into a whole. The AKGs sound clear and crystalline with superb definition of mids and highs, but fail to deliver quite enough of the recording's body. The effect is somewhat ethereal. More bass foundation is expected but never materializes beyond an outline form. The Shures, on the other hand, sound as if they are plugged in to the mixing board. You can't help following the different feeds, jumping from one to another—listening more to the parts than to the whole. The vTrues’ strong midrange wraps around the acoustic pieces of this recording pulling them together into a cohesive song.
The Eagles's live “Hotel California” from Hell Freezes Over gives components a chance to show, among other things, their ability to deliver what I call “attack force.” Definition of leading edges is one thing, but punching out energy on attacks is something a little different. The Velodynes deliver lots of attack force weight in percussion and string plucks and strums—overall a pulsing, energized sound that really draws you in to this live recording. Comparatively, the AKGs are thin sounding. There is little body or mass in the drum sound, only skin. But, as usual, with these 'phones the transients and attacks are very sharp. This track plays well, apparently, to the Shure's strengths. The sound is balanced with exceptional force and abundant spatial information. The sound is both open and immediate—the usual up-close perspective of the 840s. The winners here: the Velodynes for a balanced, forceful, natural presentation with realistic midrange body; the Shures for their ability to convey a live “space.”
TREBLE—“High Life” from Jazz At The Pawnshop is one of my go-to tracks for judging resolution. The tambourine that opens this track is a high frequency challenge for many components. The best systems will deliver clean definition in the metallic tambourine cymbals while preserving the percussive skin sound that underlies the tambourine's percussive quality. I’m thinking this recording will be a high hurdle for the vTrues—and I am right, sort of. Full metallic detail is not present in the tambourine, a clue to resolution. However, the applause sounds very natural, not high-pitched as it does through the Shures and AKGs. And the energy in the drumstick-cymbal strikes is very alive, as is the ringing as the cymbal strikes decay out. Overall the sound has realistic mass and presence, but the air and hence some of the ambience of the venue is subdued. Still, a very listenable presentation.
As is often said politely of good components that are a bit short in one area: it is a sin of omission rather than commission. And so it is with the vTrues. They don't deliver the upper octave air and resolution of some other 'phones, but they are careful not to put hash in its place. Many listeners may find that the vTrue's upper octave reticence is just fine. I enjoyed hours of pleasant listening.
AUDIOTEST 2.0—In order to compare the headphone trio in more absolute terms the AudioTest suite is rolled out. Each of the 'phones is set at a comfortable volume at 440 Hz . Tones are then generated at frequency intervals while assessing the relative perceived volume increase or decrease. This, of course, is subjective analysis, but useful under the circumstances as ancillary information.
The Velodynes produce weighty audible tones down to 32 Hz and very audible tones to 28 Hz, continuing but tapering off below that. Signal level is “even” up to 10 kHz, but at 12 kHz there is significant rolloff, and not much audible above that. For comparison the AKGs start to noticeably roll off low frequencies at 120 Hz. Significant output is gone at 60 Hz when compared to reference volume at 440 Hz. Tones in the 1600 to 3200 Hz range are emphasized. The Shure's bass output reaches down to 40 Hz. They seem fairly even throughout the range of frequencies with a slight bump around 3200 Hz.
Of all the tests the pink noise signal reveals the easiest-to-hear difference between the three headphone models. The AKGs, of course yield the lightest, brightest pink noise sound followed fairly closely by the Shures. The Velodynes are a world apart on pink noise, rendering a much darker, weightier version of the pink noise, with the range containing the static-y crackle noticeably subdued.
CONCLUSION—The packaging and marketing of the Velodynes makes no claim that these are intended to be professional monitoring headphones, and they are not. It may be stating the obvious, or at least the expected, to say that the Velodyne vTrues excel at bass reproduction—they do. But that high-quality bass is part of a package aimed at what I would call listening enjoyment—rather than brow-wrinkling analytical inspection of the music. If you want to play the role of studio engineer with your music there are many other 'phones that allow you to put on that hat. But when you want to settle back for an evening—even a quiet evening—of personal listening wherein you can enjoy ample, high-quality bass without cranking the volume knob, then the vTrues are worth your consideration. If you are a bass nut that demands quality to match bass quantity, you have a very good reason to check them out. Really, would you expect anything less from Velodyne?
--CraigB, Sierra Nevada Audiophile Society
- Written by Craig B.
Headphones from Velodyne by Craig B.