The Momentum M2s aren’t as revealing as cutting-edge $2,500 to $5,000+ level electrostatic or planar-magnetic headphones, but they are sensitive enough—and revealing enough. If the quality of your digital source is harsh, edgy, or on the bright side, they’ll deliver these sonic shortcomings without mercy.
If water is irreparably polluted at the source, no amount of filtration is going to purify this water farther on down the line. Digital audio is no different. If the source is lousy, no headphone is going to make it sound like music.
At its essence, this is what the difference between low quality digital dreck and high quality audiophile sound is all about: it’s a resolute refusal to accept a poor sounding copy of your favourite songs that comes from low-rez digital downloads; and, instead, demand the far more natural and enjoyable sound quality of hi-rez files that keeps more of the heart, soul, and beauty of the original music intact.
My two reference caliber headphone & amp rigs are: 1), Grado RS-1 ‘phones driven by a modified Woo Audio WA-5 LE single-ended vacuum tube headphone amp; and 2), a pair of Audeze LCD-3 planar-magnetic ‘phones driven by a Cavalli Audio ‘Liquid Fire’ balanced headphone amp. The sound quality of both of these rigs has been further improved with exotic NOS tubes, upgraded power supplies, and ultra high-end cabling. Neither of these systems is portable.
Tested against these rigs in my $45K+ level 2-channel headphone system, the Momentum M2s offer about 65% of the world-class soundstaging, PRaT, and musical cohesiveness of the Audeze + Cavalli combo; and about 70% of the timbral accuracy, groove, midrange bloom, and mid-bass / low bass extension that the Grado + Woo Audio rig delivers.
The Momentum M2s were designed for use with portable digital audio players. Accordingly, I conducted the vast majority of my “real world” listening tests with portable 2-channel digital devices.
I had five different portable devices on hand for listening sessions: a 160GB iPod, an iPhone, a Dell laptop, a Calyx M player and an Astell & Kern AK240 player.
Listening to MP3-level source material streamed from on-line sites through my laptop caused listening fatigue in five to ten minutes. While the sound quality of the iPod and iPhone were both superior to the music available from most on-line sources, neither was sonically competitive with the Calyx M and AK240. As the Astell & Kern AK240 delivered the highest sound quality, I primarily used it for listening tests.
I first tried a hi-rez DSD file of Daniel Lanois’ Acadie [Opal/Warner Bros. W2 25969] on the AK240.
Lanois’ multi-layered production gifted the tracks on Acadie with a euphoric sound that evokes rambling and even delusional thoughts. There’s a colossal sense of space, depth, and endless echoes to these songs. The Momentum M2s created a decent soundstage that presented the guitars with a tactile timbral purity. Similarly, the lower frequency registers resonated with a palpable sense of the instruments’ size, weight, and tone.
With tracks like ‘Still Water’, ‘The Maker’, ‘Under a Stormy Sky’, ‘Silium’s Hill’, and ‘Ice’, using the AK240, allowed the M2s to deliver most of the harmonic richness that my reference headphone systems do. The soundstage was spacious and believable. The songs had a warm, organic, and cohesive feel to them that involved me on an emotional level.
The way in which Lanois mic’d, recorded, and mixed the instruments and vocals gives them a presence that is atmospheric; and haunting. Days after I’d listened to Acadie with the AK240 / M2 combo, I still had the rhythm of the songs and Lanois’ textured voice echoing around the back of my brain.
I next chose Van Halen’s Women and Children First [Warner Bros. W2 3415]. Released in 1980, this album contains such classic Mk#1 Van Halen / David Lee Roth era songs as “And the Cradle Will Rock”, “Everybody Wants Some!!”, “Fools”, “Romeo Delight”, “Tora! Tora!”, and “Loss of Control”.
Listening to a 1,411 Kbps WAV file ripped from CD of Women and Children First which I’d loaded onto the AK240, the Momentum M2s recreated the addictive PRaT, unstoppable groove, and hyper-active fun of the music. The M2s let the rhythmic beauty of these wonderful songs and the tone of individual instruments flow as freely as ice cold beer at a Motörhead concert.
All of the musical elements that made Van Halen one of the most successful ‘Big Rock’ bands in the entire world are showcased here. Eddie Van Halen’s nimble-fingered guitar solos and memorable, catchy melodies highlight this album. David Lee Roth’s smooth lounge-rat crooning, adrenalized yelping, and playful tongue-in-cheek banter are heard on every song. As well, Michael Anthony’s rock-solid rhythmic bass and Alex Van Halen’s perfectly timed drum and percussion work make the music on this album unforgettable.
I next listened to Patricia Barber’s Modern Cool (MFSL UD-SACD 2003) from a DSD hi-rez download. The AK240 / M2 combo cleanly—and clearly—separated and delineated the complex array of instruments on this recording. I could easily hear the subtlest nuances in Barber’s exceptionally gifted voice.
At the upper reaches of the frequency spectrum, cymbals and percussion work sounded airy and extended. The M2s also reproduced low-level sonic details in the highs without the usual fatiguing glare or digital hardness.
With songs like “Touch of Trash”, “Winter”, “Light My Fire”, “Silent Partner”, “Let it Rain”, and “You & the Night & the Music”, the Momentum M2s produced impressive clarity, tonal accuracy, and musicality. With palpable midrange purity, Barber’s vocals and the various instruments sounded real. The music engaged me on an emotional level.
With a retail price of $399 CDN dollars, the Momentum M2 headphones offer superior sound to most closed-back designs in this price bracket. Paired with a portable audio player that’s capable of playing hi-rez digital files, listeners can access audiophile quality sound anywhere they want.
One caveat with the M2s though: germane to their speed, timbral accuracy, and superb low level detail retrieval, they will replicate poor quality MP3 level files with painful accuracy. If any brightness, hardness, or compression exists in your digital files, these headphones will reproduce it with fatiguing honesty.
While the M2s don’t have as much natural warmth, organic texture, or layered soundstaging as reference-calibre electrostatic or planer-magnetic headphones, viewed as a product designed for use with portable digital players, the PRaT, clarity, and cohesiveness of the music they make is commendable. To get this high a sound quality at such a low price is a remarkable achievement.
For more info, please visit www.sennheiser.com