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User Review: VISO HP20 In-Ear Headphones - Musical & Fun Headphones with iPhone Compatibility

January 1, 2014

Products: VISO HP20 In-Ear Headphones

I was shopping for an in ear headphone with iPhone compatibility. My requirements for a replacement were: Good sound quality, Great sound quality would be better Durable Quality Construction iPhone Compatibility Price - Under $200.00

The Short Version: These are great in ear monitors! Buy them. Read on for more details…

Qualify: I enjoy realistic music reproduction. Before I began traveling for work, I had home systems with electrostatic (Janzen) and later, planar drivers (Emminent Technolgy LFT-8). I am a fan of vinyl because it just sounds better than digital. Although, digital has come a long way. My listening is 98% digital files on the hard drive of my MacBook Pro. These are from iTunes downloads, ripped files or CDs I own and some 24 nitrate files from the web.

My listening tastes range from classical, rock, electronic and even some country. I look for good bass response for electronic and classical music. I also look for natural sounding mids and highs having been spoiled by analog audio. Natural sounding detail and micro dynamics make for more convincing reproduction. For critical listening I use Shure SRH840, SRH1440 or HiFiMan HE-400 orthodynamics. Usually through iTunes > Pure Music > Wireworld Starlight 7 Series USB cable to a Meridian Explorer USB DAC.

Not “top tier” gear but then again, it is for portable use.

In my shopping, I found the NAD HP20 accidentally when looking at a review of their HP50 full size cans. NAD has a reputation for building great sounding audio gear that outperforms the price point. So, I was intrigued because they seemed to fit the criteria mentioned above.

So, I began searching for online reviews. The only review on Amazon wasn't exactly glowing, but it really didn't have much in meaty detail. Plus, I have seen some really great sounding in-ear headphone/headset get panned in reviews because they are somewhat tricky because of the importance of a good seal in getting the best sound from. So, I began looking for other reviews. I was surprised to find only a couple of short reviews that were mostly positive, but not very detailed. These are too good not to share!

Unboxing: As always, Amazon did great job of delivering on time. No surprise here. The box is a step above my expectations. Much nicer than the Klipsch X7i set I purchased about the same time. Made out of heavy cardboard, it has a heavy outer sleeve with a slide out drawer that contains the headphones, a very nice carry/storage pouch, extra ear tips in four additional sizes (in addition to the tips that come on the headphones), a cable clip, an airline adapter, and a 1/4” adapter. A printed manual is included. The entire presentation whispers understated and tasteful quality. That is reassuring for a product that is more expensive than the vast majority of headphones on the market. The box is nice enough that you will probably want to save it for storage for the additional ear tips, and printed information.

First Impressions: Removing the headphones from the packaging reveals NAD's additional detail to the headphones themselves. The headphones deliver the sense of quality hinted at in the packaging. The flat cabling is above average and appears to be very durable. There is additional rubber stress relief where the cable enters the body of the earpieces.

The iPhone control/microphone feels good with a button of the play/pause/answer functions. This is the only “button” on the control. The entire control surface is pivoted below the central button. This makes raising or lowering volume very easy. Squeezing the top increases volume, and squeezing anywhere on the lower half, lowers volume. This makes it much easier to use that the standard three button arrangement on most iPhone compatible headphones. No fumbling to find the right button in the dark, for example. The earpieces are made of solid aluminum alloy that is nicely anodized. Left and Right are identified with a single “L” and “R” and can easily be seen even in dim light. The NAD logo is discretely placed on the ends.

The soft tips are a departure from most headphones I've seen. They are more of a slowly tapering “bullet” shape than most. Around the opening the color of the ear tip is a medium gray that contrasts with the black outer portion. I get the impression the lighter colored portion is made of a different compound. It grips the barrel more firmly than most ear tips I've seen. The plus is, they should not come off when you don't want them to. I've sometimes had a tip stay in my ear canal when removing headphones quickly! I don't think these will have that problem. I've also lost ear tips carrying them around. The minus is they require a bit more fiddling when changing them.

The plug is a “L” type that won't protrude from the body of your iPhone or other device. That protects the cable and jack in your device should the cable snag on something as you are moving around. The “L” shape doesn't give the cord leverage to cause undue force on the iPhone receptacle as do straight jacks if the phone is dropped or the cable gets snagged while you are moving around. First Impressions - The Sound Very analog sounding. When all is right, a good pressing on a vinyl pressing and better equipment, you hear a warm detailed an relaxed sound. Nothing sounds strained or unnatural. With superior analog kits, the speakers disappear and the presentation becomes an illusion of real performers occupying an acoustic space. There is a roundness to each instrument or voice. It sounds whole, organic and as if you are being transported to the venue and are sitting in front of real live musicians. A magical experience. The NAD HP20 Headphones create a similar experience. You don't get 100% of the 3D part. But, they do, move the sound mostly out of your head. But, you do get 75-85% of the rest of it. After all, they are in ear headphones. The Bass Tight, detailed and present. Acoustic bass sounds full, resonant and naturally proportioned. Synthesized bass goes very low and doesn't run out of juice as the frequency drops. Electric bass sounds like, well, an electric bass.

Yes, the bass is very nice. But, when the recording has none, you don't hear any from the HP20s. A common complaint of many so called “good bass” headphones, is that the bass interferes with lower midrange. That is not a problem with these. I have the Cardas Clarifier app on my iPhone. I forgot to take the HP20s out of my ears when I used it. Not the first time I've done that. It's not unpleasant to listen to. It sound a lot like a signal generator that begins in the lowest octaves and slowly sweeps up to the highest. I immediately notices that the very lowest frequency was fully present and that the volume level remained unchanged as it made it's progress upward. The other headphones I've made that “mistake” with do not sound the same. When the lowest frequency begins, it is quieter and then increases in volume as the frequency increases. And that is with headphones that are rated down to 20 Hz or below! Most plucked or stuck instruments act and sound somewhat like a bell. There is an initial spike that forms the leading edge of the sound, then there is the actual note that follows. For acoustic instruments, the tones rolling the initial strike or pluck are made up of a combination of the fundamental tone plus a complex mix of overtones. For an acoustic bass or cello, you hear the sound created by the vibrating string plus the resonances created by the wooden body. With drums, there is the sound of the drumstick or hand striking the taught drum head which is followed by the sound made by the vibrating drum head and sometimes the body of the drum.

With the HP20s all of this is clearly evident. Lesser headphones don't always catch the intensity or energy from the initial strike/pluck. It may be there, partially, but the dynamics are missing. It sounds muted or sometimes blurred into the resonating/ringing portion of the sound. The HP20s successfully convey that excitement/energy/bounce/life that should be there. The second part, the ringing or resonance heard after the initial percussion is detailed and trails off naturally. Again, less articulate headphones tend to smooth out the sound, glossing over detail as the note trails off. Somewhat like the difference between a good photograph which reveals detail vs an impressionist's painting. In the painting, you can understand the idea (sometimes) but all of the minutiae seen in the photograph is missing.

So, yes, the bass is excellent.

The Midrange Natural sounding detail that is balanced. Most acoustic instruments create sounds that are complex. A saxophone, for example, creates sound by causing a reed to vibrate. Then there is the brass tube and bell at the end. The keys open and close in various combinations to modify the tone. In real life, the buzzy vibration of the reed is easily heard. You can hear the keys open and close. And there is the sound coming from the bell that has been modified by the tube/keys/bell.

Similarly, trumpets have their own unique mixture of sounds that combine to create their unique sound as do most other instruments. It isn't the fundamental tone created by each instrument that makes it sound unique, it is the overtones and textures made by the instrument and musician that makes it interesting. Otherwise, a tone generator could be programed to create a sequence of tones and the result would be as interesting as your favorite band playing your favorite song. The human voice is similarly complex. The chest, throat, vocal cords, tongue, lips and nose all contribute to what we hear when listening to vocals. That's why you can tell the difference between Lady Gaga and Beyonce.

When a headphone glosses over some of the sonic complexity of any of these, the result is something that sounds less than real. When certain aspects are exaggerated, the result may sound hollow or painfully loud when a trumpet or singer hits certain notes. When unable to reproduce finer textures and detail, you may not notice something is missing. Unless you have listened to live music recently.

With the HP20s nothing is exaggerated through the midrange. Voice or instruments don't suddenly become irritating when certain notes or ranges are played. Voices are naturally placed on the soundstage. They don't sound like the singer is too close or too far away. During a chorus or duo, individual voices are always distinct and separate.

A wonderful example is on Linda Ronstadt's For Sentimental Reasons, “Straighten Up And Fly Right.” With the exception of Linda's opening bars, the vocal is a duo. Even on some very good sounding home systems and headphones, I have heard the second voice only as an indistinct shadow. With the HP20's, the second voice is easily heard even though Linda's voice is mixed more forward. All of this while Nelson Riddle's Orchestra swirls, prances and effortlessly supports the vocals. (Note: I made these listening notes with the HP20s plugged directly into my 2013 Retina MacBook Pro. I'm distracted by the excellent sound an don't want to interrupt it by plugging in the Meridian Explorer!)

Highs The highs are consistent with the rest of the frequency range. Both in quantity and quality. Just the right amount of sparkle and air without sounding harsh or strident. Most headphones in this price range tend to error on the side of omission. That is, they are voiced with a extreme downward slope in the frequency response above 10 kHz while claiming ± 3db response from 20 - 20,000 Hz.

To be fair, this is a difficult range to engineer. And, from a practical point it is better to roll off more rapidly than to allow warts to start showing through. Keeping the response flatter when doing so degrades overall sound is counterproductive.

I'm not saying that NAD does not shelve down the higher frequencies. I have heard some speaker designs that try to maintain ruler flat high frequency response and they didn't sound as good as designs with a more downwardly sloping response curve. I haven't seen a response curve for the HP20s. It may be that NAD chose to move the “knee” where the response curve begins to roll off at a higher point than competing brands. What ever they did seems to work.

With that out of the way. NAD has succeeded in walking the fine line between strident and recessed highs. The result is a nicely balanced, detailed and never fatiguing high end. As with the rest of this review, assuming quality source material, is important in getting the HP20s to sing. To get the best out of the HP20s, higher bit rate files will sound better. Most mp3 files will sound OK, with some loss in high frequency smoothness and perceived air. That is, the sense of space from low level room acoustics won't be as present or as smooth. Your results may vary dependent on the files in your collection.

As with other more revealing equipment, you will be more likely to discover the warts in the recording chain. A good example of that is Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline, “I Threw It All Away.” Using the Meridian, the echo added to Bob's voice is immediately recognizable as added after the fact. The vocal and instruments seem to be disjointed since they seem to be occupying to different venues at the same time.

Soundstage One of my pet peeves with headphones is the sensation that everything is happening inside my head. Compared to listening to speakers where the soundstage floats between and (usually) behind the speakers plane.

The HP20s mitigate this to a certain degree. The soundstage seems to be just outside my head. As though it is floating at a point just in front of my eyes and extending out into space from there. Instruments farther away from the mikes float farther away with binaural and well engineered conventional recordings. Instruments panned hard left or right in the recording stay panned that way. Although, as though they are close to my ears, not int them. Well recorded high bit rate recordings through the Meridian Explorer expand and move the soundstage farther in front of my eyes. At the same time, using the Meridian increases the ambient room noises. So, that may help in moving the image farther out of the head.

Instruments and voices are rock solid. Both occupying a well defined “space” left to right and front to rear. That is, unless they actually move. On a Suzy Bogus downloaded file, Shady Grove, a practice session for her album American Folk Soundbook, she moves laterally to the right then left, the shifts are quite noticeable. Her husband recorded the files wearing a binaural mike setup on his head. The room was a typical living room and the intimate acoustic space is better than any other headphone in my arsenal. They are able to convey a sense of height quite well. I have a binaural recording of a thunderstorm in Oklahoma. The recording does a really good job of translating that the sound is overhead. Some of the bolts are the type that travel across the sky and this comes across. At the beginning of the recording a door closes with a solid and realistic feel that will make you jump if not expecting it! It is that realistic.

I'm pleased with the sound stage considering they are in ear monitor headphones.

Dynamics The HP20's possess a wonderful ability to make music sound alive, vibrant and bouncy. Music has a sense of drive and rhythm absent too often in speakers and headphones. Expect natural sounding drums that will sometimes surprise. Triangles, chimes and other small percussion instruments convey the strike and ring that trails off naturally.

Play something rhythmic like Rock, Blue Grass or World and your feet will be tapping uncontrollably in short order

Resolution I have already alluded to the resolving power of the HD20s. You will hear details and textures lesser headphones gloss over. You won't hear exaggerated or irritating false details that little peaks in the upper midrange and low highs present as detail. That kind of detail results in rapid listener fatigue. That is not the case with with the HP20s. After several hours you will still be eagerly picking out the next tune to play.

Don't start a late night listening session when you have to work the next day. You might miss the alarm. That is, if you fall asleep.

Conclusion I'm glad I trusted my instincts and purchased the HP20s. Based on the quality construction, I expect they will continue to last far longer than much of the competition. Even in the $200.00 range.

I didn't cover how well the microphone works because I've only used it once so far. I made a point to ask about the sound quality and they said it was clear. I had a question about buying replacement ear tips and contacted NAD through their customer service page on the web site. Even though it was a holiday, I received a quick reply.

The only regret so far is not ordering two pair. One to use now and a second pair to replace these when they wear out or I do something stupid to break them. Or, as has been the fate of some of my in ear monitors in the past, they fall out of my pocket or I leave them behind somewhere. So, I'm ordering the backup pair next month. If you are considering purchasing a set of in ear headphones in the $200 (or even $300) range, you should give these serious consideration. If there is a NAD dealer near by, find out if you can audition. Amazon and most retailers offer customer satisfaction warranties. But, I seriously doubt you will return them after giving them a listen. Just keep in mind that they, like virtually any in ear style headphone must have the ear tips fully sealed. If you don't hear what I've described - they sound bass shy, thin or distant, you probably are not getting a good seal. Play around with different tip sized to insure a good seal.

Keep in mind these are the last in a series of links between you and the musicians. If your music collection is mainly low res mp3 that you downloaded from file sharing sites, they probably won't perform as well as I've tried to detail. They are kind of like a saddle in a horse race. If you take a really great saddle and put it on an old, foundered Shetland pony, you probably won't win the Kentucky Derby. Will they sound good with an iPhone or other media player? They sounded good with my iPhone 5. They sounded better using the Retina MacBook Pro with a Meridian Explorer. Most mp3 files sounded good. The majority on my hard drive are from iTunes or were ripped from CDs I own. They sound good. I have a growing collection of High Definition files with higher bit and sampling rates. These sound great. You get the idea, I'm sure.

Buy these. If you have read this far, I know you are interested and can appreciate what these can do for you. You won't regret it. Except not getting that second pair…

Stan Kozloski - Phoenix, AZ

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