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Saturday
Jun222013

NuForce HP-800 Headphones Review

Reasonably priced headgear isn't hard to come by, but if you're looking to get great quality sound then that can add up quick. If there's one company that specializes in good sounding audio products that are reasonably priced, it's NuForce. Although NuForce is well known for its highly regarded desktop and portable amps, the company makes some of the more audio-attentive, audiophile geared in-ear headphones on the market. Our recent review of NuForce's NE-700M/X concluded that they are a hard pair of in-ears to beat at the $65-$75 mark as they offered excellent sound. 

NuForce's HP-800 are the company's first attempt at an over-ear headphone variant to join its acclaimed lineup of solid performing in-ear headphones - which the company claims to offer audiophile-grade, monitoring-class audio performance at a reasonably priced value. To a lot of us money is a big factor, and the question is can NuForce really deliver an affordable monitor-class pair of over-ear headphones? Can it once again deliver exceptional value for far less dough than the leading giants? You can count on us to give you the answer as we're going to be taking a deep and intrusive look at NuForce's HP-800 headphones.

We review loads of headphones, some which are costly and are outperformed by undervalued brands. So it warms our hearts when we come across a pair that isn't overpriced and offers a lot of value for money. And now, I've got that sensation about the HP-800. Dressed and only available in black, the HP-800 have audiophile written all over them. Garish it isn't, mundane it is. The design is on the outdated side arguably. It isn't flashy or unique, nor is it good enough to attract people who look for good looking headphones as much as they are looking for good sound to match. I'd say that elegant would be a good word to sum the HP-800's design wise.

My one pet peeve with the HP-800 is that they're bulky. They're huge, one of the biggest headphones I've ever reviewed and I thought AIAIAI's TMA-1 Studio were bulky. NuForce designed the HP-800 for studio comfort it seems because they've got enormous ear cups shaped like concave pancakes with a golden NuForce emblem on each of them, and I welcome that touch of gold on black contrast. NuForce implies these can be used on the go, but unless you're traveling on a tour bus, I'm positive you won't want to take these outside the home/studio space just because they're simply cumbersome.

Realistically the HP-800 are actually good looking compared to other studio monitoring headphones out there. And if you like what AKG has done with its iconic range of over-ear headphones, you'll really love the circumaural design shape of the HP-800. But what you'll love even more is how they actually sound, but more on that later.

Sorry to rain on your parade, but no, the HP-800 aren't wireless headphones. They do indeed require an audio cable and even come with two different types of cables for you to choose from. The first and most studio-ready cable is this lengthy, durable woven sleeved fabric one which has a threaded 3.5mm gold plated plug on one end, and a rather bulky 3.5mm plug on the other which is the one you connect to the left ear cup. It's not a smartphone case-friendly cable at all.

And for that reason, NuForce was awesome enough to include a secondary cable which is case-friendly and a lot lighter, shorter and more maneuverable which allows you to use the HP-800 on the go. But who are you kidding? You're not going outside with these. It's a very thin cable you can say is somewhat delicate which isn't at all as durable as the much thicker, woven fabric cable. There aren't any music or volume controls on this cable either.

Other items you'll find included in the box: a simple drawstring storage pouch to keep the HP-800 dust-free, and a gold plated 6.3mm adapter plug which screws onto the aforementioned woven fabric cable. NuForce claims these two cables have high quality OFC (Oxygen-Free Copper) copper conductors, sound good I guess but I wouldn't know the difference myself. Also, while NuForce hasn't mentioned this, I've found these cables to be tangle-resistant.

We have officially broken our usual format of running down the unboxing part of things, but do bare with us. Let me remind you of the $149 price tag, and now redirect your attention over to this magnificent packaging. A large fancy box you'd think would have been factored into the retail price of these headphones, but no. For once you're paying for sound, not design or packaging materials. Yet somehow you're pretty much getting all three here.

The build quality is basic and you won't find any oozing of quality. For a heavy set body, the HP-800 does have a substantially solid construction made with a really sturdy headband and aluminum ear cups. There's a meet and greet of plastic creaking noises when you pick up the HP-800 compared a set like the TMA-1 Studio which have none of this going on. Fortunately it all settles abruptly once they're placed on your head. The matte plastic hinges along with the rest of the plastic-made top portion of these headphones has got that undesired feeling of cheapness, and it isn't surprising that the sound of creaking plastic only intensifies the impression of unimpressive build quality. But do I feel all of this when wearing them? Not at all.

I honestly never noticed the aluminum part in the HP-800's construction until one morning when I touched them and felt the cold temperature compared to the plastic materials. In other words, NuForce hasn't done a very good job at implementing these aluminum ear cups in a noticeable way that users will immediately take notice of what has otherwise had been overshadowed sheer plastic.

With everything said, I would like to note however that the HP-800 do seem to be resilient, and that's all that really matters when these cans are meant to stay indoors at an air-purified recording studio or kept on some headphone stand. So they're not as impressively built as the Harman Kardon NC or CL headphones which also feature the same type of headband design, but let's not forget the price difference.

Let's begin with the headband, or headbandception if you'd like to call it that. One of my most favorite aspects about the HP-800 is the headband. It's a dual-band headband with a self-adjusting height inner band that provides you with the optimal and most comfortable fit your head can ever wish for. Simply put them on and forget ever having to adjust the height of each side. It's brilliant feature that sadly comes at a cost of bulk. Because the headband is designed to accommodate the largest head size, your headphones look like they're always set at their highest extended adjustment. We're starting to see more and more headphones adapt this self-adjusting headband style and I couldn't be more excited about that.

I've been using the HP-800 for a little over a month now, and I could say that they're properly comfortable to wear even for 3-4 hours of extended, non-stop use. Clamping force is set to a bearable level which isn't very forceful against your ears. The circumaural shape of the ear cups while generously padded with memory foam and covered with a very soft and supple leatherette, aren't big enough to naturally fit around your ears. The fit is odd at first because you can feel that your ears don't entirely fit into the round void contrastingly marked with red fabric might I point out - as is with nearly all circumaural over-ear headphones, however, I'm still comfortable wearing the HP-800; albeit not as much as I am wearing the TMA-1 Studio.

You'd think the HP-800's massive ear cushions will block the outside from tampering with your listening pleasure, but they in fact provide very little noise/ambient background isolation. Considering comfort and audio quality, minimal isolation isn't necessarily a negative but more of a preference. 

Uncompromised high-end sound masked under low-key styling

It's clear to me now that NuForce has focused on sound more than it has on building the next Apple unibody MacBook. The result is a tremendous focus on sound quality which is really the centerpiece of all headphones. You can have great sound performance inside a mediocre package, but never mediocre sound wrapped with trendy marketing. A good example of this is the highly regarded but extremely ugly Koss PortaPro compared to the pampered and very stylish Beats headphones which are pretty on the outside but lack everything that is important to audio on the inside.

The first thing you think about when you start listening to music with the HP-800 is the huge sound that makes you think you've might actually strapped a pair of well padded speakers to your noggin. They're big, and as you'd expect the sound certainly matches in greatness. There's a wide depth of soundstage which strongly reminds me of one of our most favorite headphones, the monolithic TMA-1 Studio designed and made by the Danish. These are $250 headphones, and I'm implying that the $149 HP-800 sound nearly indistinguishable beside them. But with one exception which is that the HP-800 haven't got the same amount of depth and imaging. Instead, the HP-800 perform slightly better as they do have a clearer midrange which makes the TMA-1 Studio sound darker in comparison.

The HP-800 have a good balance between the midrange, highs and lows which all sound very clean and full of clarity. They have a pure, neutral sound which is still warm and rich because it is balanced. Treble has this enhanced clarity to it making vocals sound very bright and that's exactly what you would want. And the midrange is equally as pronounced as the highs without being constrained in a sonic sandwich. 

Bass sounds like it is coming from an external subwoofer. Its got a really nice kick to it that's full but still sounds very natural just as the artist intended. Meaning there isn't a strong bass presence at all times. Bass isn't blown out of proportion, and knows when to drop when called for leaving an understanding and uncluttered sound signature.

Surprisingly the HP-800 are easily driven without the need of external power boost which means they start to sound great even at low volume, albeit I'm sure that an amp can bring out an extra layer of detail and perhaps an even greater bass. Knowing NuForce and its devoted customers, the HP-800 will supposedly benefit from an amp/DAC and I can't imagine how much better these can perform when driven by one of NuForce's or various other types of amps. A basic little bass boost amp such as the cMoyBB amp really pumped up the bass response on the HP-800 to incredibly satisfying levels. If you really love clean thick yet controlled sounding lows, the HP-800 coupled with this $60 amp is a setup that's tough to pass up.

And in fact if we compare the two against each other in terms of size, you can clearly see just how big and respectfully more clunky the HP-800 are beside the TMA-1 Studio - which aren't small headphones by any stretch due to their oversized, molded foam ear cups. Funny enough, the TMA-1 Studio are actually bigger than the HP-800 if you only look at the size of the ear cups. If saying ear cups was strange to you all this time, you can literally call them cups now and not feel awkward saying it.

You might say it isn't fair to compare headphones that cost $149 against a $250 pair, but it is fair when the two share a common ground sound quality wise. The two sound very similar to each other it's hard to find a noticeable difference. I'm not surprised given that both were specifically tuned for referencing. Both have an extremely balanced, natural sound signature that oozes studio-esque qualities everyone can enjoy. Another note worthy over-ear headphones we personally adore, the $200 UE 6000, were bested by the HP-800 in audio performance. I guess it should be expected because after all, NuForce boasted their headphones offer a quality punch for a lot less. So far they're right on the money with these claims.

Although the two have entirely different styles as far as headphones are concerned, they both share similar capabilities when it comes down to raw audio performance. The difference is in the design and of course the price. On top of that the TMA-1 Studio have a better feel to how they are put together, which is essentially a one-piece streamlined design I really think is a winner quite honestly.

They may not have a flashy design you'd expect to see stocked at an Apple store, however, the HP-800 outperform and outclass their price considerably and that's what so great about them. We think they're a really great buy for the superb, unbiased balanced sound quality any audiophile will come to appreciate, and studio-grade all-day comfort for a terrific price. For that reason we can highly recommend them.

So after comparing the HP-800 up against the much more expensive TMA-1 Studio, what are you to do? You'd go with the TMA-1 Studio because you prefer a more modern urban design and are willing to pay for it, and you'd pick the HP-800 because you're on a budget and couldn't care less about high-end style when sound quality is all that matters. At $149, there is absolutely no chance of you regretting going with the HP-800. Well unless you had $250 and a taste for a slightly higher build quality and mainstream design. NuForce's HP-800 have got lots to show for, but its hidden behind a professional-looking persona which might come off as intimidating to trendphiles.

Nuforce.com

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