Review: Kicker Valid Talk In-Ear and Cush Over-Ear Headphones Page 3

Cush

The cush, equipped with sizable 54 mm drivers, shares a kevlar-reinforced cable with its in-ear sibling. There's also a family resemblance sonically. But the big sibling is a much better sounding product, and in its class is a good bargain to boot.

Clamping pressure and overall fit I felt were right on, welcome at this price point, though personally I didn't care for the pleather earcups, which I found overly stiff and sweat-provoking. The Cush doesn't really live up to its name on this front, in my opinion, and does, to some extent, reflects its price point. That said, isolation was good, so this 'phone seems a good choice for those who like a full-size headphone for wearing out of doors (though there's no mic/control pod on the cable, detracting slightly from its general usefulness. The cable is permanently attached; again not uncommon at this end of the spectrum. That said, strain relief seems robust and if you treat your cans with a modicum of respect you shouldn't have any issues.

Like the Valid Talk, the Cush is a somewhat bass-forward 'phone, but it has better balance overall. In particular, it lacks the IEM's midrange honkiness, at least as I perceived it. Rather, it tends toward the warm overall, with a healthy sprinkling of upper-register pixie dust. A bit of a smile profile, to my ear, and really quite good sounding for the  $80 MSRP.

Bass is nice and tight, especially for a full-size headphone this low-priced. My usual bass torture test - the driving electric-bass dominated rhythm workout of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band's "I'm Gonna Booglarize You, Baby" came through with flying colors, though I felt the overall tonal balance was a little dark - but obviously I prefer a brighter headphone. Bass is plentiful, but not at all flabby. 

That said, the Cush might not be a great choice for heavier rock and denser instrumental tracks. Checking out Nick Cave's aggressive piano-driven rave-up "There She Goes, My Beautiful World," from Abattoir Blues, I felt the Cush couldn't really keep up with flatter sounding headphones - it sounded cluttered and tiring to my ear, with instrumental separation lost during the dense choruses. The title track from Steely Dan's Aja sounded dark and distant - veiled, as headphone aficionados might put it - though vocals sounded reasonably good and instrumental tones did OK, especially at lower volumes. Turning back to something perhaps more appropriate for the 'phones sonic signature, the grimy sampled beats of Madvillain's Madvillainy, I felt performance was more acceptable, though I still preferred a brighter headphone to the Cush.

Other listeners were a lot more enthusiastic, so take my notes with a grain of salt, as usual. Designer Steven Jacob (who's created a lot of the graphical elements of this site) really liked the Cush; he felt that compared to several other 'phones at a similar price point it's tonal balance - "full bass and nicely balanced highs" - worked well for film soundtracks (he checked out James Horner's score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), and for Sonic Youth's "Teenage Riot" (from Daydream Nation) but was a bit too bass-rich for some older rock material, like the title track of Iggy Pop's Lust for Life. Likewise, Dan Nosowitz (who covers headphones for our sibling publication Popular Science) felt the Cush was a nice fitting - and sounding - choice, especially given the low price point.

Measurements

To measure the Cush, I used a G.R.A.S. 43AG ear/cheek simulator, a Clio FW audio analyzer, a laptop computer running TrueRTA software with an M-Audio MobilePre USB audio interface, and a Musical Fidelity V-Can headphone amplifier. I experimented with slight differences in position of the earpieces to get the best seal of the headphone on the cheek plate and the most representative frequency response curves.

The Cush has a somewhat unusual frequency response measurements. There's a fairly broad bass boost centered at 200 Hz, followed by an unusual midrange peak at 800 Hz. The midrange response looks rather low above that, and the treble response is definitely much lower than average. Most headphones that sound subjectively flat would have a response peak somewhere between 2 and 5 kHz. Adding 70 ohms output impedance to the V-Can's 5-ohm output impedance to simulate the effects of using a low-quality headphone amp has no significant effect on frequency response.

Total harmonic distortion (THD) at 100 dBA looks a little high in the midrange, running 2% to 5%, but in the bass it's closer to average, peaking at 4% at 20 Hz. Impedance averages about 36 ohms through most of the audio range, but rises to a peak of 47 ohms at 80 Hz. Surprisingly, this doesn't affect measured response when a high-impedance source device (i.e., a Droid smartphone or a laptop) is used.

Isolation is about average for an over-ear headphone up to about 4 kHz, but remarkably low above that; most headphones allow a lot of leakage above about 8 kHz. This suggests the Cush will be better-than-average at rejecting conversation and high-pitched environmental noise.

I measured sensitivity with a 1 mW signal at the measured 32 ohms impedance at 99.9 dB from 300 Hz to 10 kHz, and 102.2 dB from 300 Hz to 6 kHz. - Brent Butterworth

Bottom Line

Slight quibbles aside, Kicker's done quite a good job with their initial headphone offerings. These may not be for audiophiles, but their bass-rich sonic signatures will likely do the job for those looking for reasonably good sound quality when out in public (where bass-forward means having bass to begin with), and their durable builds will appeal to those tired of replacing the earbuds supplied with their smartphones. The Valid Talk and Cush are both well worth a look and a listen.

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