Review: Pro-Ject Hear It One Headphone

I bet your average dude on the street can’t name a single audio company that’s not in the headphone biz now. For an audiophile, it’s easier. As I look around my listening room, I see lots of them: AudioControl, Canare, Hsu Research, Krell, Rotel, Sunfire, and Sonus Faber, none of which have (yet) entered the personal audio field. But that’s changing. The Pro-Ject RM-1.3 turntable sitting atop my audio rack now shares its brand with two headphones, the $129 Hear It One and the $79 Hear It Two.

It’s not surprising that Pro-Ject — a company revered as the biggest name in budget turntables — would break into the headphone biz with two relatively affordable models. The brand gives these new headphones something that their ordinary design can’t: audiophile cachet. Hit the subway wearing these, and that one other audio geek on the train will give you a knowing and approving nod — if he’s not too busy sneering at all the people wearing Beats and Bose.

To suss out the Pro-Ject headphones’ sound, I ran them both by our usual West Coast headphone listening panelists — jazz musician Will Huff and L.A. voice actress Lauren Dragan — plus my fellow Tech^2 blogger Geoff Morrison. These headphones are intended for use with portable products, so we used our iOS and Android smartphones as the sources most of the time. We also used my Rane HC6S professional headphone amp for direct comparisons with other headphones, and for more extended listening I used the HiFiMan HM-101 USB DAC/headphone amp, plugged into my laptop computer.

We’ll start by reviewing the Hear It One over-ear model, then follow up with a review of the Hear It Two on-ear model.

The Hear It One is generic-looking, with mostly plastic parts and a leather band and earcups. The earpieces don’t swivel; they rely on the flexibility of the band to adapt to your ear/head shape. The cable’s hard-wired and no case is included. You could describe it as utilitarian; Will described it as “like an appliance, like you’ve got a couple of toasters hanging off your ears.” Assessments of comfort ran from “pretty good” (Lauren) to “I could wear ’em for a couple of hours (Will) to “I like these about as much as the wire fox terrier I grew up with liked the miniature sombrero I strapped to his head” (me).

Audiophile brand? Check. Audiophile sound? Umm….

It’s usually unwise to generalize, but I seriously doubt anyone will argue when I say that audiophiles tend to prefer a fairly flat tonal balance and abhor boosted bass. If you don’t believe me, go to any audio show and see how many manufacturers demo with a subwoofer. I bet it’s less than 5 percent.

So we were surprised to hear that the Hear It One features a bass-heavy tonal balance. It’s not Beats-level bassy, but it’s bassier than the average headphones we test. (Granted, we tend to stay away from the mass-market, bass-on-steroids stuff that clogs the big-box stores.)

For Will, it was an appealing balance — he rated the Hear It One 4.5 stars out of 5 compared to other stuff in its price range. “It’s very warm-sounding, almost too warm at times,” he said. “It’s not airy; it sounds like listening in a dead room. But I really enjoyed male voices through it and thought the bass was nice and tight.”

For Lauren, though, the bass was just too much. “It sounds like there’s a hole in the midrange, probably because the bass overpowers the mids,” she said, noting that the big bass tended to blur the highs and mids in broad-spectrum recordings like Massive Attack’s “Teardrop.”

Geoff and I both assessed the Hear It One’s sound the same way: We felt the mids and highs were pretty good for the price, but agreed with Will and Lauren that the somewhat boomy bass often dulled the entire audio spectrum.

Music that doesn’t have a lot of bass let the Hear It One’s mids and highs shine. When I played saxophonist Sonny Criss’s ebullient take on “Up, Up, and Away,” the cymbals and the overtones of Criss’s alto sounded lusher and smoother than they did through the House of Marley Positive Vibration, which is the best $59 headphone I’ve heard and whose design closely resembles that of the Hear It One. Also, some bassy music, such as Soundgarden’s “Drawing Flies,” sounded appealingly ballsy through the Hear It One, even if the bass buried the cymbals. But on more typical pop music, like Todd Rundgren’s “Couldn’t I Just Tell You,” the nice midrange and treble had to fight their way past the bloaty bottom end, a battle the higher frequencies often lost.

Measurements

To measure the Hear It One’s performance, 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 various positions of the Hear It One’s earpads on the ear/cheek simulator and settled on the positions that gave the most representative results.

The Hear It One shows a fairly flat frequency response with a mild tilt toward a bassy balance, with a lot more energy between about 600 Hz and 2 kHz than most headphones exhibit. Adding 70 ohms output impedance to the V-Can’s 5-ohm output impedance to simulate the effects of using a typical low-quality headphone amp has almost no effect on frequency response.

Impedance runs 32 to 40 ohms depending on frequency. Total harmonic distortion (THD) at 100 dBA is unusually high, running between 5% and 18% below 100 Hz and showing a surprising 10% peak at 4.5 kHz, a region where headphone distortion is usually negligible. Above 1 kHz, isolation is pretty good for an over-ear design, but below 1 kHz, it’s minimal.

Average sensitivity with a 1 mW signal at 32 ohms rated impedance is 101.2 dB from 300 Hz to 10 kHz, 102.4 dB from 300 Hz to 6 kHz.

Bottom Line

The target market for the Hear It One has to be budget-minded audiophiles, ’cause who besides audiophiles has ever heard of Pro-Ject? Thus, the choice of a rather bass-heavy tonal balance for the Hear It One strikes us as surprising. The mids and highs can be appealing, but we (and, we think, the likely buyer of the Hear It One) would like it better if the bass were toned down by a few dB.

 Next up: the much smaller, $50-less-expensive — and completely different — Hear It Two.

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