Hello everyone and welcome to my review of the NAD VISO HP50 headphone. As regulars to the site may know, I’m not known as an expert on audio or audio equipment, video encoding is more my line, but our colleague Xercus has challenged me to put this review together and thus begins my painful descent into the depths, trying to find language to describe perception.
First a few words about the company that makes these headphones and their designer. NAD is a small Canadian electronics firm, founded in the 1970’s, and famous for their elegant and efficient amplifiers, receivers and other stereo equipment. The NAD VISO HP50 is their first headphone, and it is the creation of a well known audio researcher and designer, Paul Barton. The VISO HP50 is not his first headphone design, he has also made a similar one for PSB, another Canadian company best known for their loudspeakers. Both the PSB M4U 1 headphones and the VISO HP50 utilize what Barton calls “Room Feel” technology, which is his effort to recreate the sound you would hear from loudspeakers in a room, but now heard from headphones.
This “Room Feel” sound is based on the idea that a perfectly flat response from a speaker in a testing chamber will sound warmer in a normal room. This is called low frequency gain, and of course, it doesn’t apply to headphones, since they haven’t the same amount of space for the sound waves and there isn’t a “room response.” Most headphone designers have done very little to emulate this room response, they simply flatten the lower frequencies for a neutral response or give the headphones a bump in the bass for those who prefer a bass dominated headphone. Barton has attempted to recreate the sound and positioning that one might hear if listening to the music from loudspeakers instead, and some have described the soundstage of his headphones as recreating the sound of the instruments as if you were in the same room where they were recording.
Now that we have a grasp on the concepts behind the headphone, lets take a look at the physical design. The VISO HP50 is a full sized, circumaural (over the ears) headphone, with memory foam filled pleathor pads. The cups of the headphone are glossy plastic and come in one of three colors, black, white or bright red. My version is the white one. This headphone is unusual in that it has a removable cable that can be plugged into either cup. One thing that strikes you as you look at the headphones is the slim, almost tubular headband, covered in soft pleathor. The adjustment mechanism inside the headband is simple, but effective and made from metal. Once you have put the headphone into the position you want, it does not slip out of it accidentally, which is very much appreciated.
One of the main gripes about the headphone is the shape of the headband. Though it doesn’t look bad on its own, once you place them on your head, you can see that they seem to be designed to fit Frankenstein’s monster, and most people find the look very odd. The only place that the headband touches me is directly on top of my head in a very small area. I find I have to shift the headband occasionally to keep from feeling irritation from this design. I also have a large head (yes, I know, take your potshots here) and I have to use most of the adjustment available in the headphone to fit them properly. Clamping force is much higher than my other headphones, but not uncomfortable in itself, and it does help seal the pads against my head.
The foam pads are rectangular, to match the outer shape of the cups, but the interior space of the pads is smaller than what you might think. Instead of following the rectangular shape, the interior holes are oval, and if you have large ears like myself, you won’t fit inside them. So, for me, these pads fit on the edges of my ears, not around them. The interior space measures 40mm by 65mm at the largest dimensions.
This headphone does not fold up for portability, but the cups will swivel 90 degrees, and have a spring action to move them back to the proper position. I’m not sure how practical this feature is, but it does help somewhat if you want to carry them in the very nice bag that is included with the headphones. The VISO HP50 comes with a few accessories, including two 47" long flat cables (one plain and one with a remote control for Apple products), both having a straight 3.5mm TRRS plug on the headphone end, and a 90 degree angle 3.5mm TRRS plug on the player end. Also included are the bag mentioned earlier, with its quilted interior, a 1/4" plug adapter, an oval container to hold the extra cable and an airline adapter.
Though I will use them as an indoor set only, the VISO HP50 was really intended to be a high quality portable headphone, and with their light weight and 32ohm impedance, they could work very well in this role, provided you have a thick skin and don’t mind people asking why you have a handle attached to the top of your head. These headphones are very easy to drive, and will sound good from any type of portable equipment, including phones, tablets and laptops.
Speaking of sound, we are now at the most important section of the review. I’ve tried to sample a few different types of music, and even listened to one movie to get some impressions of this headphone and its capabilities. Please take into account the fact that I do not listen to high end audio equipment very often, and these are the highest “audiophile” level headphones I have encountered. My equipment includes files on my hard drive, a USB DAC/Amp (the Fiio E10) and of course, the VISO HP50 itself.
We start with Joni Mitchell’s Blue album (1971) and the song, All I Want. Though I linked the Youtube version, I listened to a FLAC lossless file, taken from the CD. I selected this one to test female vocals for clarity and see if I could find any harshness or sibilance, but the VISO HP50 shines here. Soaring vocals, and it sounds like Joni is standing just ahead and above me somewhere. The plucked guitar strings are crisp and clean, coming in from the right and the dulcimer strums somewhere above my left shoulder.
Next up are The Bangles with the Simon and Garfunkel song, [I]A Hazy Shade of Winter /I. The voices blend well, but are still distinguishable from one another. The driving snare drum snaps sharply, but not harshly. The guitars take turns dominating the break, jumping from left to right, but soundstage on the voices is more closed in…just the way its recorded I think. I’m left smiling and tapping my foot, this song can get you revved up.
Now we try something different, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, another FLAC file from CD. I won’t try to take you all the way through it, but instrument separation is very good, there is no harshness in the highs, though sometimes I think they are rolled off a bit, or maybe just a little polite? Low notes rumble effectively, but the middle frequencies are where these headphones are best, with a rich presentation. The VISO HP50’s are dealing with the dynamic range well, with the softest notes still very clear.
In the same vein, looking for more dynamic range and the effects of the soundstage, I watched the first battle scene in Gladiator. The HP50’s work very well for movies, giving positional clues readily.
For a while I listened to Fleet Foxes, so I thought I’d try these headphones with their 2008 album and the song Ragged Wood. But this might not be the best combination for these artists and their music. The VISO HP50 doesn’t seem to be very forgiving and the drums and background to the vocals seemed congested. Also, every time the lead singer went flat at the top of one of his extended notes, it became readily apparent. Mistakes in the production stand out sharply.
By contrast, The Shins song, Kissing the Lipless from the album Chutes Too Narrow, sounds marvelous, with the guitars alternately buzzing then firing off in crisp crescendos. The dynamic range in this song is pretty large for a rock song, starting softly then hitting you hard with the high notes of the lead guitar and the vocals from the lead singer. But no unintended distortion is apparent, and the headphones are reproducing the music as intended.
Now lets try something with more bass. From The Black Keys album El Camino, the song Dead and Gone. Again I see the mids dominant, with good, though not great bass. These headphones are giving me a balanced sound, and I’m used to listening to this song with my Creative Aurvana Live! which gives an extra bit of reverberation to the bass notes. I have the feeling this is a more accurate presentation, but if you are a bass head, this might be a little disappointing.
So lets try another, this time its The Kills, from their album Blood Pressures, and the song Heart is a Beating Drum. Again, the bass seems more “polite?” than what I’m used to with the CAL! The intentional fuzz of the bass seems more pronounced, or more easily discerned, rather than being blurred or lost in the bass line, so this is a different sound for me on a song that I’ve heard many times. Interesting.
Time for conclusions. I’d have to say that these are excellent headphones in terms of sound quality. Clear, rich, never harsh, but a tad laid back in the treble range and the bass is accurate, but not overbearing. If you are using poor recordings, these headphones will tell you about it very quickly. And as for the “Room Feel” tech? I’m not sure I can distinguish much difference in soundstage between these and many other headphones I’ve tried. These certainly have very, very good soundstage for closed back headphones, but they may not be outstanding in this category when compared to open backed headphones in their class. Originally they were around $300, but have slipped down to $249 regular price and I got a huge discount off that when I purchased them, so they are well worth it for me.
These headphones premiered in 2013, and have had rave reviews since then, so I suspect NAD will be releasing a newer model to take their place. If they can address the look and feel without ruining the sound, they will have a product that is even more impressive than the HP50.