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Creative Aurvana Live! (aka "CAL")
Sells for $100 (or less).Review (Click to show)
Creative and Fostex partnered up to give us the relatively inexpensive Creative Aurvana Live. It shares most of it's design with the discontinued Denon D1001, with the same bio cellulose drivers, and very few, superficial differences. From what I have personally read, the Creative Aurvana Live has been known to be the slightly superior of the two sonically, made even better at the fact that the CAL was the less expensive of the two, and is still sold today. The CAL can be considered as the baby sibling of the incredibly popular and discontinued Denon D2000, D5000, D7000 headphones, all which came with bio-cellulose Fostex drivers.
Build Quality: The CAL is known as a small circumaural. Not as small as typical on ear headphones, but not as large as most full sized headphones. The CAL is incredibly lightweight. It has a classy piano black, glossy finish on the plastic cups with chrome accents, the only thing on the cups being Creative branding. The headband has both metal and plastic pieces, relatively thin as well. The headband padding is covered in some smooth but quality, synthetic pleather.
The pads are also made up of synthetic leather/pleather, and are quite soft. The pads are on the small side for a circumaural headphone, with a lack of width and depth for bigger ears.
The CAL's cable is personally what I find to be it's worst aspect in terms of build quality. Each cup houses a thin, somewhat flimsy cable which meet just over a foot down the cable's length. The cable is quite short, terminating into a small 3.5mm plug. Good thing the CAL comes with an extension cable. The cables are rubbery and will 'grip' onto everything, which I personally find quite annoying.
The Creative Aurvana Live! is a rarity for me in terms of comfort. I tend to hate headphones with pleather pads, especially closed headphones. I personally find the CAL to be quite comfortable. It is odd, as not only is it pleather padded (very soft pads), but the pads aren't wide or deep, so my ears press up against the drivers and the inner walls of the pads. This is usually disastrous for a headphone's long-term wearing comfort, yet, I don't find the CAL to be problematic. Perhaps it's due to how light the CAL is, and how the CAL doesn't exactly exert a lot of clamping pressure. That being said, I do know that a lot of people have issues with these very things, so keep that in mind.
As stated earlier, the pads are neither deep nor wide, so larger ears may find their ears pressing against the drivers.
The CAL comes with a small, cloth carrying pouch, an extension cable, and a gold-plated 6.3mm adapter. The carrying pouch won't offer any real protection from anything other than scratches/scuffs.
The CAL is exactly like the other Fostex/Denon 'marriage' headphones. They do not isolate that well for a closed headphone. They DO keep from leaking internal noise out to the world quite well, but aren't the best at keeping external noise from leaking in. Better than an open headphone, but far from the best at external noise control. Long story short, if you want a headphone that keeps noise OUT, the CAL is not it. However, if you want a late night headphone that won't bother other people around you (i.e. the sleeping girlfriend), the CAL is quite proficient in noise leak.
The Creative Aurvana Live is a wonderful sounding headphone. It's relatively warm, spacious, and detailed. It has a fantastic balance of bass, mids, and treble, not usually found in their price range. It's not a neutral headphone, but for a sub-$100 headphone, it's clearly one of the best headphones I've ever heard, if not THE best. Fostex knows their headphones. The CAL is warm, bassy (bot not overly so), with smooth mids, and detailed treble, without being overbearing. Mostly organic, and natural sounding, with few caveats.
The CAL's bass is warm, full, rich, organic, and soft hitting. Not particularly quick, but well integrated with the mids, giving the CAL it's deliciously warm tonality. It's emphasized, but never truly overbearing. One of the best I've heard in terms of ambience, emphasis, and integration.
The CAL has organic, fluid mids. Not incredibly rich or forward, but very well behaved, balanced, and again, expertly integrated. It in all honesty, the CAL puts some of the more expensive headphones to shame. Bassy headphones tend to ruin mids in some form or another. Not so with the CAL. If you like a good amount of bass, and don't want to sacrifice vocals, the CAL makes a WONDERFUL headphone for those purposes. The only real negative aspect to the mids is that the upper mids/lower treble may at times come off just a little thin. Not recessed or lacking, but not as organic and natural.
The treble is probably the weakest aspect of the CAL's sound. Note: I said WEAKEST. Not that it was bad in general. The treble has nice amount of presence and energy. Not particularly aggressive or sharp. It has a good mix of smoothness and sparkle. The lower treble may have just a hint of glare, but it's rarely ever problematic.
In true Fostex fashion, the CAL has a truly impressive soundstage. It is a closed headphone, yet instrument separation and a virtual sense of space this big is just unheard of in most closed headphones, regardless of price range. Sure, it's not going to trump the well known open soundstages of headphones like the DT990, K70x, and X1, but even next to those, the CAL's soundstage will still impress. Not the deepest, or widest, but very good all around.
The CAL has very good positional cues. Positional cues are very well defined, with plenty of virtual space to maneuver. Among the best closed headphones in this regard.
The CAL's clarity if quite impressive, especially considering the price. Despite the CAL leaning on musicality and not neutrality, the warm, bassy nature of the CAL does not detract from it's well presented mids and good treble range. Nothing is ever truly lost, making the CAL a solid gaming headphone if you want clarity without sacrificing musicality and overall enjoyment for the sake of sound-whoring.
The Creative Aurvana Live! is an efficient headphone, demanding minimal amping. It benefits more from a clean source, and not so much power. Mixamp owners will have no problem using the Mixamp alone to power the CAL.
At under $100, the Creative Aurvana Live is what I consider to be the epitome of bang for buck headphones. I have compared it directly to other, considerably more expensive headphones, and personally found the CAL to either meet or exceed their performance. If you want an inexpensive, efficient, and fantastic sounding headphone, the CAL is practically begging for your money.
Audio Technica ATH-M50: The CAL/Denon D1001 were always stacked up and compared to the M50 due to a somewhat similar price range and similar strengths/weaknesses. I personally find the CAL and M50 to be on a very comparable performance/technical level, though they aren't exactly similar.
The M50s are more aggressive, while the CAL is more laidback with a better sense of depth and width. The M50 has a sharper, faster attack in the bass and more bite in the treble, making it a bit more dynamic than the CAL, and better suited for faster genres like metal. However, the M50 has a smaller, more congested soundstage, which pales in comparison to the excellent soundstage on the CAL.
Ultimately, this means the CAL is a softer, more relaxed (but never boring), more polite, less fatiguing alternative to the M50. It is also clearly superior to the M50 for gaming due to a bigger soundstage and better positional cues.
The M50 has a much more rugged, durable, build quality, and can stand a bit more abuse than the CAL.
The Creative Aurvana Live! is a not so hidden gem in the headphone community. The secret came out years ago, and with good reason. Fantastic warm tonality, good bass presence, fluid mids, with a truly spacious soundstage, all for an incredibly affordable price. Then one true drawback on the CAL may be that it's comfort level may be good for some, not for others. I believe it's truly worth checking out.
Fun: 8/10 (Great. Full, warm, immersive, and entertaining)
Competitive: 7.25/10 (Good. Even for a warm and slightly reserved sound signature, the soundstage and positional cues are good for competitive play).
Comfort: 8 (Great. Even for a small circumaural, I find them to be very comfortable, with the only negatives being that the pads are shallow and small and may crush other's ears. I didn't have issues with it though.)
Sells for $129Review (Click to show)
I'd like to thank Wolfgang, NuForce's social marketing specialist for contacting me, and giving me the opportunity to test and review the Nuforce HP-800. Very much appreciated.
Okay, so the Nuforce HP-800. Prior to Nuforce contacting me, I must admit, I knew absolutely nothing about the HP-800. All I have known about Nuforce has been what I've read about the quite popular UDAC, UDAC2, Icon, and HDP dac/amps. I certainly had no idea that Nuforce had jumped into the headphone game. The HP-800 is Nuforce's first entry into full-sized headphones.
So the question is: How was Nuforce's first foray into full-sized headphones?
Before I get into the aspects of it's design, I'd like to address one thing: I believe the HP-800 may have been designed with portable use in mind, yet the HP-800 is not portable by any conventional means. It's large, and doesn't fold up in any shape or form. This betrays it's incredibly minimal power requirements. The design will easily place the HP-800 as a home or studio headphone, not a portable one. Quite some large head bling here. The HP-800 does fit well as a transportable headphone, like office or library use with a laptop.
The HP-800 is a fully closed-back headphone which is made up almost entirely of very sturdy and solid feeling plastic in a full black matte finish. That means fingerprint resistant, which is always a good thing. I grow tired of high gloss plastic that looks good as long as you have psychic powers and never physically touch the headphones. The design of the HP-800 is quite minimalistic, which would feel at home next to typical studio headphones you can purchase from the musical instrument section of any major electronics stores like Best Buy. It is almost entirely black, with the only contrasts being the driver covers being red/orange, and a golden metallic 'NU' logo on the center of each outer ear cup.
The headband is of the auto-adjusting, tension/suspension type, similar to the popular AKG K70x line, as well as the recent Philips Fidelio X1. The headband portion that rests on your head is made up of a very rubbery material that has quite a grip. This is the first time I have seen such a material being used, and I'm not sure it was the best choice. I find that this rubbery material is prone to picking up dust and dirt from the air, and is not exactly easy to wipe off.
The top portion that holds the wires that sends audio to the right driver is all plastic, and as such, I wouldn't recommend bending it if you feel like the HP-800 doesn't have enough extension, in fear of possibly snapping the plastic. This makes the HP-800 a possible problem for bigger heads, as you can't really bend the HP-800 in any way, unlike the Fidelio X1 which has a metal band that is easily bent for more extension.
The pads are synthetic leather/pleather. They're quite large, and very soft. Personally (as you may all know by now), I have a strong aversion for pleather pads, so I'm not exactly thrilled by the abundance of it on the HP-800. The pads, while big, don't have the largest openings, and they compress quite easily, so those with larger ears may find their ears pressing up against the driver covers, and inner walls of the pads.
The HP-800's left ear cup comes with a standard 3.5mm input, no locking mechanism, so cable replacement is a breeze. Speaking of the cables, the HP-800 comes with two cables: A cloth-covered long cable that terminates into a 3.5mm plug, with an attached 6.3mm adapter which screws on/off. One of the better stock cables I've ever come across. The shorter, thinner cable doesn't inspire much confidence in it's build quality, and unlike the lengthier cable, lacks proper strain reliefs. I'd stick with the longer cable, or buy a more durable short cable for portable use.
The comfort will be a hit or miss. The HP-800 may be problematic for larger heads, in that there may not be enough clearance, due to the lack of extension. My head fits, but the strong tension causes the cups to want to ride up my ears ever so slightly. This could've been mitigated with a longer extension.
The headband portion that rests on the top of the head is covered in very rubbery material which can and will grip onto your scalp or hair, so any small adjustments will yank a bit. This is only an issue if you're constantly shifting and readjusting.
The pads are quite soft and plentiful. Being synthetic leather (which I'm not a fan of on ANY headphone), they will heat up and get a little sticky. As mentioned before, the openings aren't the largest, so larger ears may have to struggle between pressing up to the driver covers and pinching up against the inner pad walls.
The HP-800 is quite lightweight, so they shouldn't pose much of an issue for those with neck problems. All in all, the HP-800 will cater to smaller heads and ears. Everyone else should try and demo these first.
The HP-800 doesn't exude much clamping force, and the little it does have will keep the HP-800 from sliding off the head. Needless to say, the HP-800 has an ideal amount of clamp to my ears without being too loose, or too clampy.
Overall, the HP-800 is among the better pleather-padded headphones I have reviewed on this guide, in terms of comfort. That means, that if you don't have a particular distaste for pleather, you may find the HP-800 to be relatively comfortable overall. Personally, I find them okay in comfort, and mostly inoffensive, my main issue being the pads.
- Not particularly suited for portable use due to a very large frame, despite it's minimal amping requirements.
- Rubbery headband padding may grip onto the scalp/hair, potentially causing discomfort with every minor adjustment. Also picks up dirt/dust easily (the top side of the rubbery headband).
- Pleather pads, while soft, build up heat in a hurry, and will stick to the skin. They also do not have the biggest openings, so those with large ears, take note.
- Lack of extension for larger heads will cause the cups to pull and rise up towards the headband.
The HP-800 comes with:
- One long, durable, cloth-braided cable w/3.5mm plug with an attached screwed on 6.3mm adapter.
- One short, thin cable w/3.5mm plug
- Carrying pouch
The HP-800 as a fully closed-back headphone does incredibly well at keeping it's sound from escaping out into the world. This means that you can blast the HP-800 loudly, and very little will actually leak out, making it an ideal headphone for late night use when you're trying to keep your significant other in the same room from waking up. It's been quite some time since I've heard a headphone control noise leak as well as the HP-800, the last one being the Mad Dogs.
The HP-800 however isn't exactly great at keep external noise from leaking in, so it's not the best at passive noise-cancelling. It's not bad, but not the best.
The HP-800 is unlike anything I've ever heard upon first listen. It's quite warm/dark most of the time, yet spacious, which I usually find to be quite a contradiction. Very much so. Coming off more neutral and brighter offerings, the HP-800 will sound stuffy and muted (it even makes the well known Creative Aurvana Live! sound bright in comparison). In fact, prior to hearing the Sennheiser HD650, my perception of it's sound just based on impressions I've read online (which didn't turn out to be true), I would've thought it'd sound something like how the HP-800 actually sounds like. Dark, creamy, and smooth, if a bit veiled. The only difference being that the HD650 is known for it's stellar and intimate mids, which the HP-800 just does not have.
Quite bassy, with fairly distant sounding mids, and mellow treble that sounds pretty up to par with the mids. For a closed, dark, mellow sounding headphone, I feel the soundstage to be quite spacious, more than likely due to how distant the mids sound. To be quite honest, I was thrown off by it's sound signature. However, given some time, I adapted to it's tonal characteristics, and found it to have a charm I'd say is all it's own.
It isn't the most detailed headphone by a stretch, but it is relatively enjoyable, pleasant, and fatigue free. I feel it's best suited for hip hop, and general club music with most importance in the pulse of the rhythm. For this reason, I find the HP-800 to be very genre specific.
All of that being said, the HP-800 is almost a completely different beast for virtual surround gaming use. Even though the headphone is dark and mellow, the linearity between the mids and treble makes it easy to maintain a good mix for gaming purposes. Because bass is situational in gaming and not overly dominant, you can raise volume levels to put the mids and treble into better focus (not overly so), making the HP-800 a competent, fun oriented, gaming headphone.
Big, impressive, and dominating bass. It will be the first thing you immediately notice when listening to the HP-800. However, what sets itself apart, is that the bass is fairly linear (though quite emphasized from the mids and treble ranges). The sub bass is actually quite decent, and the mid bass is proficient in fullness, presence, and control. The bass is on the slower side, but doesn't creep into the mids. I expected this soft, yet full bass to swallow the mids, but the HP-800's control is pretty apparent.
The mids are a paradox on it's own. The HP-800's bass doesn't swallow up the mids, and the treble isn't by any means bright or emphasized over the mids, yet the mids are a bit recessed to my ears. Almost undoubtedly so. The mids are warm and full-bodied, yet...distant. I'm at odds with the HP-800 because of this. It takes time to get used to.
I'm not entirely against recessed mids on a headphone (I do generally like a mild v-shaped sound signature), yet when a headphone is clearly NOT v-shaped, you'd expect mids to be either in tune with the rest of the sound, or up front and center. The HP-800's mids are a little off putting at first. Not a gaping void, but noticeably pushed back.
The treble range is more or less in line with the mids in emphasis, meaning that they aren't in the spotlight, and are just a tad laid back, but not more so than the mids. They are in the comfortable range of being smooth, and sibilance free. Treble in instruments isn't exactly the sharpest, nor the clearest, ultimately making the HP-800 lack just a bit detail.
A bit glossed over, but completely inoffensive to the ears. I find the treble to be a strength when you play the HP-800 at a moderately loud volume, as it never gets harsh. Comparing the treble to the Creative Aurvana Live, I found the HP-800 to sound less detailed, but smoother, and less fatiguing.
The soundstage is a surprisingly good thing in the HP-800. It's wide for a closed headphone, and thought not excelling in depth, there is decent amount of virtual space. I'll touch more on this in the next section.
Positional cues are good. Not great but good. The HP-800 has a pretty good soundstage in width, but not necessarily the best in depth. Also, positional cues in certain angles sound a bit diffused. The HP-800's positional cues take up a bit more virtual space, and aren't as precise. In the end, the HP-800 gets the job done, but there are better, and cheaper in this regard.
Clarity isn't exactly a super strong suit in the HP-800. I do find it to be objectively clearer for gaming purposes in virtual surround gaming than it is for stereo/music use (or any non-virtual surround uses for that matter). Due to the fact that the HP-800 is pretty closely even in mids and treble, nothing is lost in between, so within a certain amount of volume, the HP-800 makes a pretty decent gaming headphone, and mitigates the overall darkness somewhat.
You do have to somewhat tune out the abundant amount of bass that leads the mix, though because the bass doesn't smother other details, it isn't that arduous a task. All in all, not the clearest headphone, but relatively stable in the clarity it does have after the bass.
While the HP-800 isn't the most sensitive full-sized headphone I've tested, it truly demands very little amping with a maximum input power of only 30MW. This means that practically any device you hook up the HP-800 up to will drive them loudly, and authoratively. As always, clean power is the best power, so while the effect may be subtle, a decent portable amp will benefit the HP-800 especially in controlling it's dominant, and somewhat slow bass. For gaming use, I found the Mixamp alone to be just fine for the HP-800. The HP-800 is already full bodied as is, even unamped.
The MSRP of the HP-800 is $129. In it's price range, it fills it's own niche, and for that reason competes well with others in it's price range, if you're looking into a somewhat unique sound signature, even amongst other dark/warm headphones. Bassheads in particular should take note.
I feel the HP-800 is a solid (though polarizing) headphone for those who'd like a closed back, pleasant, fatigue-free, warm headphone, with big bass, and solid noise leak control. I feel the HP-800 is a fairly competent closed headphone for virtual surround gaming, fun-oriented gaming in particular. Just remember, the HP-800 is bass first, everything else second. So unless you value a substantial amount of bass presence above everything else in a headphone's sound, you may want to do your homework.
Fun: 7.5 (Very Good)
Competitive: 7 (Good)
Comfort: 6.75/10 (Quite decent)
Fiio E12 'Mont Blanc'
Sells for $130Review (Click to show)
+ Fully portable w/rechargeable battery (via micro usb port), sleek design, volume knob instead of digital button for volume control
+ Very clean, neutral sound, with optional bass boost (50hz range), and optional crossfeed (unheard of in the price range). Gain switch from 0-16db, capable of outputting illogically loud volume levels to practically every headphone short of electrostatics and harder to drive planar magnetics.
+ Very, very powerful portable amp, rivaling desktop amps like the Fiio E9K in power
+ Incredibly low output impedance for near universal compatibility with low/high impedance headphones
+ No need to hook up to a power outlet when using it to aid the Mixamp/other DH devices, meaning less clutter
- Lack of versatility (one 3.5mm input, no outputs)
- Inputs/usb ports placed in illogical positions (headphone jack in the center, not to the side of the front plate, next to analog input, making it difficult to adjust the volume knob, with an awkward side usb port)
- Difficult to stack with Fiio's own E07k and E17 dac/amps due to mismatched inputs (for non-gaming use)
- Slight noise/interference in the signal if used while charging (if problematic, unplug the E12 while in use, and charge when not in use)
The Fiio E12 is more or less ideal as the perfect amp to pair with the Mixamp/other DH devices when you need extra power. It's small, sleek, portable, and rechargeable. As mentioned, it doesn't need to be attached to a wall outlet like the desktop amps, making it highly ideal if you game away from a desktop setup.
It's a very clean, fast, neutral sounding portable amp (the most neutral Fiio amp). It has a generous amount of gain, so harder to drive headphone used with microphones for chat purposes won't be an issue (unless of course you're attempting to use something like the harder to drive planar magnetics like the HE-4, HE-5LE, HE-6, and electrostatics. It's not a desktop amp killer, but a desktop amp alternative.
The bass boost is really high quality from what I'm personally hearing, basically targeted at around 50hz, and not being a broad range bass boost which tends to be more intrusive. It will add a nice layer of warmth and impact. Though I don't find much use for the Crossfeed, it's there if you happen to own older recordings with really bad left/right stereo pannings which cause ear fatigue. Take note that crossfeed being on will noticeably reduce soundstage and merge the left/right channels slightly.
If you're OCD about having the quitest noise floor, bear in mind that usb charging may/will add some slight noise/interference. Slight.
I'd personally would still go for a desktop amp for 600ohm headphones, but anything 300ohm or less (again, with the harder to drive planarmagnetic/electristatic exceptions) should be fair game to the E12. That being said, the E12 is more than capable of at least driving 600ohm headphone like the DT990/600 to ear splitting levels.