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  A Tale of Two Headphones from Canada by NAD VISO & Paradigm!

      Date posted: October 19, 2013

NAD VISO HP50 “ROOMFEEL” Stereo Headphone Sugg. Retail: $299.99CAD
Manufacturer: NAD Electronics: www.nadelectronics.com

Paradigm SHIFT H15NC Stereo Headphone
Sugg. Retail $299.99CAD
Manufacturer: Paradigm Electronics Inc. www.paradigm.com

Both of these Canadian companies have recently introduced quality headphone in-house designs for the audiophiile, at a price well above those of the junk that we associate with ex-rappers and tiny Chinese companies trying to cause premature deafness in young people all over the world. Thus, there is a somewhat Messianic quality about both of these products, and the cost of saving your ears (if not your soul), is perhaps higher than what many subway hangers-on might want to pay. Sonic truth and beauty, like Salvation and Grace, also have a cost and possible sacrifice, as we all know.

That said, these quite similar products are aimed at the serious listener who cannot crank speakers at certain times of day, rather than the commuter crowd, but do offer sufficient acoustic (and electronic, in the case of the Paradigm) isolation, which may be an important consideration for anyone on the go who does not want to reveal truly excellent or unusual taste in music, or just wants to do some serious listening at times when others in the household are sensitive to it or asleep. Oh, and there’s also keeping out unwanted environmental noise, like looming trucks and trains.

The Paradigm H15NC sits nicely on the ears, and offers electronic noise cancelling, while the NAD VISO fits snugly and comfortably around he ears, providing its isolation in a purely passive manner. Both have very soft and comfortable cushions surrounding the drivers. I have lived with both for some weeks now, and compared them with our current reference, the PSB M4U 2, already reviewed in these pages. The results were interesting, to say the least, and it is worth noting that both PSB and NAD phones were designed by PSB’s Paul Barton, using his vast experience in speaker design with, as touchstone, the NRC facilities in Ottawa. >Paradigm has their own acoustic research facility in Ottawa as well, where they’ve been developing their new SHIFT line of active and passive speakers, as well as this headphone and its non-NR sibling, the H15 headphone.

The NAD web site provides some promotional material describing their VISO HP50:

“RoomFeel™

Created to translate the warm, open sound of live performance directly into your private headphone experience. Countless hours were spent in one of North America’s most sophisticated audio labs in the research and development of RoomFeel™ technology, discovering a way to add back to the recording without altering the audio signal. The result is true headphone innovation that lets you sense the music around you, feel every beat, and hear a more open soundstage.

Apple Control

Take full control of your music with a simple touch of the 3-button multi-click remote. Compatible with all devices’ headphone output, iTunes music and full-featured call functionality is also right at your fingertips; play/pause, skip track, previous track, fast-forward, pause, skip, make and answer calls. It also includes a high quality inline mic for crystal-clear voice-calling and device control with Siri-compatible devices.

Science-Driven Sound

Fine-tuned with precision inside one of the quietest places on earth, with an expert team of sound scientists, the HP50s deliver the most advanced headphone technology for today’s detailed recordings. Acoustically optimised ear cups and specially-developed 40mm drivers keep the music sounding as accurate, clear, and natural as inside the recording booth.

Fashion-forward Style

The HP 50 doesn’t just lead the way in performance. A combination of extremely lightweight materials like smooth brushed metals, polished finishes, and lush leather fabrics, make for a perfect balance of extreme comfort and durability. The pivoting, ultra-soft ear cups are specially designed to naturally reduce distractions and increase clarity, leaving you with peaceful listening and all-day comfort.”

As far as the Paradigm H15NC and H15 are concerned, the Paradigm site also provides a profile:

Behind Our Headphones the Science is Sound

Who better to design headphones than a company that has been winning awards for sound innovation for 30 years. Our unique understanding of what makes a speaker sound magical in a listening room was applied in the design of our headphones. In our world class R&D facilities we used sophisticated measurement tools (including Angelina, our Brüel & Kjær Head and Torso simulator) to perfect such things as the noise-cancelling algorithms in our H15NC headphones. Undesirable noise is filtered out without compromising the purity of the signal. The H15NC’s dual microphone design offers balanced pick up and superb noise isolation/attenuation. Paradigm headphones deliver the full audio spectrum to the ear with crystal clarity and perfect tonal balance. The result is an intensely private, noise and distortion-free listening experience, one that makes music sound “live” and brings movies to life.

What is it? H15NC - An active noise-cancelling headphone with a dual microphone design. Equipped with in-line remote and microphone compatible with Apple devices and most smart phones.

H15 - Noise-isolating model equipped with in-line remote and mic and compatible with all Apple devices and most smart phones. [Editor’s Note: these are $100 less]

Who is it for? For those who know that better audio always makes for a better experience. H15NC and H15 headphones are for you if you want:
◦Superior sound quality
◦Sophisticated good looks
◦An established brand name with a 30-year track record of award-winning sound innovation.
◦Ergonomics that deliver comfort even during extended listening.”

So, we have similar claims and technology employed by respected Canadian designers and companies. It is a truism that the better all components sound, the more alike they should also be sonically. But, as we know from experience, the divergences are great, especially in speakers, many of which claim identical sonic purity and completely scientific design. Headphones are regrettably similar in a world where flavours predominate over purity in what’s out there in the marketplace. But we’ve already thrown out the doubly (physically and sonically), even multi-coloured junk in headphones, and before I proceed to say my bit about these examples of what appears to be good acoustic science combined with creature comfort, let me lay out my own biases about headphone design in general.

Maybe it’s geezer thing, but also based on long experience wearing headphones in radio studios and recording locations, I flatly refuse to put things in my ears. That is partly based on my own ears’ tendency to protect themselves by producing a more than average amount of wax, which periodically has to be cleaned out by my ear specialist. I have, on occasion, exacerbated this problem by the use of in-ear phones, and now refuse to use them at all, no matter how good they might be. I won’t review them, either, because, frankly, I consider them unsafe on several counts.

I’m not alone (and I don’t think it’s necessarily an age thing), but while we’re talking about science here, there is growing evidence from hearing tests of in-ear headphone users that suggests that a whole segment of mobile music listeners may be permanently damaging their hearing at an early age, which has to be of great concern to those of us in the audio industry who are promoting good sound reproduction. So, perhaps the phrase, “stick it in your ear” is more of a threat than you think. And if we have budding audiophiles who really can’t enjoy the highest frequencies and suffer from Tinnitus, there’s a genuine socioeconomic problem here, as well as a serious medical one!

Whatever the ultimate truth (and Apple’s recognition of this is to limit the audio volume capability of their products, which is probably side-stepped by the use of more efficient, louder headphones, that also usually emit more damaging amounts of mid- and high-frequency energy), it has to be addressed by those producing headphone designs. As noted, I refuse to put anything in my ears, except for the occasional carefully inserted Q-Tip, but prefer to grow my right little fingernail a bit longer as a safer alternative for aural exploration and casual cleaning. I do not recommend in-ear headphones, and urge young audiophiles to seek compact headphone designs that fit over or around your precious ears. There, I’ve finally said it!

Both of these models admirably fit my criteria and prejudices, and their sonic characteristics are quite interesting, and surprisingly close to my idea of perfection. I’ve owned a great many headphones, and auditioned more, of all sorts, from U-shaped things you hang on your head to cute little buttons on your ears (see previous reviews), but most of these have had both comfort and performance issues which made them short-lived in my collection, if they remained there at all. A classic of my younger days was the Koss Pro-IV-A in its various generations before that company, run by a new generation of family, went offshore for its manufacturing and off the rails in its product quality and excellence. Of course, every maker is now producing in Asia, but quality control and engineering have vastly improved, staying on this side of the ocean in such cases as are represented here.

Getting to the individual models represented here, let’s start with the NR-free NAD VISO HP50, which almost compensates for its lack of active noise reduction by offering very snug and comfortable fit around the ears, and does not leak sound out into the room either. Now all heads are different, as are ears, but this around-the-ears design should be very pleasant for long time periods for anyone not into the “cauliflower category” aurally. I liked its generally neutral frequency balance, with a nice sparkle at the top, and clean, well-defined bass to its lower limits, which are pretty much the ear’s as well. I found them quite speaker-like in the best sense, with an open presentation that was very free of cumulative listening fatigue. Physical comfort accompanied sonic, and I also liked the HP50’s excellent dynamics and open presentation, which basically indicate very low driver distortion.

The detail was definitely there, with very precise articulation of musical lines and instrumental and vocal timbres with all music. I found it more comfortable than our PSB reference, with nearly as good rejection of outside noise. That, of course, means that it is a home headphone, and should not be used in urban peripatetic activity if you value your life. Like the Paradigm, it is a little large for that sort of use, though if you keep your eyes open for your stop, you could comfortably use it on transit. And you’d be a little less acoustically isolated than with the other 2 models discussed herein.

That neutrality is also shared by the on-ear Paradigm H15NC with its electronic NR, and microphones built into it to cancel outside sounds. In many previous designs with this emerging technology, I have noted some tonal difference with the NR on, usually accompanied by a slight boost in overall gain, a slightly thinner sound, the attenuated midrange perhaps being an intended attempt to enhance the noise rejection capability. Not so, here, the H15NC’s tonal character remaining exactly the same with the NR on as off [writer’s update on this: the change in gain when selecting the NR feature on this phone actually will vary, as I discovered when listening on my new Parasound Halo P3 preamp’s headphone output, as opposed to that of my venerable Sony TC-755 tape recorder, which I use quite a bit to record from internet radio. I’m not sure exactly why this is, but I suspect that it has to do with the output impedance of the headphone circuit in each case, that having a lower impedance {the P3} providing more gain]. The on-ear design was also very comfortable for long periods, the cushions very soft and not very claustrophobic, though some wearers may beg to differ, and, in any case, hair and head shape are always factors with any headphone of this design.

I found the Paradigm sound a bit warmer in character than the NAD’s, but only slightly so. The NR did cut upper highs just a tiny bit, but often the treble was clearer with no extraneous noise interfering, anyway. There’s also a nice bright blue LED light, so your spouse, partner, or companion will know when you’re shutting them out; I’m not going to explore the possible sociological consequence of that here. It may be a beacon to prevent your being yelled at; however, a tap on the shoulder is probably more socially acceptable in such situations.

The Paradigm also has a slightly more in-the-head sonic character, but is equally transparent and revealing of the music. Its bass is also just a little more present, and equally extended, a slightly more traditional sort of headphone presentation, and certainly more intimate with the NR on. I will also add that, having owned and loved Grado phones over the years, that both of these are generations ahead in overall sonic performance, very effectively combining naturalness and musicality with sheer limitless frequency response and outright dynamics. They are also quite obviously more durable, my Grados having to be repaired more than once, and ultimately given up on

These two phones are also much better built than most of the other phones I’ve worn out over the years, which, to me, is a major selling feature beyond their superb acoustic performance. Durability does matter these days. In fact, I spent part of my Summer vacation the wilds of Northern Ontario, not only using the Paradigm headphone a lot (especially at night) both for music listening and nature recording. I did not have the NAD then, but did the PSB and Paradigm models, so, based on these and other “earspeakers” I had at the time, I sat down and articulated what I thought were the essential criteria for judging such products.

Here they are: 1] Overall Sound Quality, 2] Bass Performance, 3] Midrange Clarity 4] Top-end Accuracy, 5] Construction Quality, 6] Comfort, 7] Isolation, 8] Style & Size, 9] Open-Air/Sealed, 10] Cost. These are largely in order of importance to me, as a heavy and longtime headphone user, and perhaps I’ll apply them to future review samples to assemble out-of-100 scores. But the more I think about it, the less inclined I am to be so pragmatic about a product that is so personal. In other words, such objectivity seems almost obscene. Without resorting to complicated and possibly silly charts, I’ll simply say that both of these would score mostly 9s all around (nothing is perfect), with a further 1-point deduction in each case for Size, which is largely compensated for by excellent styling and comfort. And my caveats about mids and highs would balance each other out in the end, so, here we go getting subjective again. And size and type are very subjective, perhaps, but not necessarily qualitative characteristics.

There are a couple of other final things to note about these generally similar headphones: they both come with cords that allow operation of iPods and perhaps similar portable devices by little buttons near the ear end of the cable. I do not own an iPod, iPad, nor iPottie, and I don’t give a rats’s ass about this feature, since it also seems to make the cords too short for normal audiophile use. Whatever happened to the coiled cord? I have other headphones with cords that are 6 to 10 feet long. Since alternative cords are offered with both these models, why not one of a decent length? Inquiring audiophile minds want to know! And I haven’t seen readily available headphone cords with a stereo mini-plug at one end and stereo mini-mini (or micro) plug at the other to fit the H15NC; and a what about a coiled one so it doesn’t hang up on other things and people? Dream on…

Both models reviewed are similarly priced at a currently popular point for audiophile-quality phones, with better apparent durability than most out there, and provide the expected levels of isolation for their particular versions of sealed designs. And I guess I’ll conclude with an apocryphal comment by my wife of 40 years, at the cottage, as I enjoyed the wide-open Koss Electrostatic headphone in its magnificent excellence, an eon or so ago: “If you’re wearing a headphone, why do I have to listen, too?” Words to live by, which once again help define the whole purpose of the genre.

Andrew Marshall

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