Review: Skullcandy Navigator

I've heard Skullcandy 'phones ranging from the well-balanced RocNation Aviator to the heavy-handed Hesh to the hard-driving Titan, an inconsistency that led me to guess that the company wasn't making a serious effort to voice its headphones. But Skullcandy is changing. It's hired some real engineers and reportedly spent more than $100K on test gear.

Knowing that the company was raising its game, I was surprised to hear how bassy and dull the Navigator sounded when I received my first sample late last year. None of our West Coast listening panel liked it; Geoff Morrison could muster only profane comments.

Before I had a chance to write the review, one of Skullcandy's engineers mentioned at the January CES that they'd made a running change to the product and wanted to make sure I had "the right one." So I got the new sample, ran measurements to compare it to the original one, and ran it past our listening panel again.

For a $99 headphone, the Navigator is really slick. The design is similar to the Aviator's but seems much sturdier. The soft ear pads and the gentle pressure of the band keep the Navigator in place without mashing your ears; hour-long rides on the Los Angeles Metro were no problem for me.

A detachable cord with an iOS-compatible inline mic/remote makes it easy to wear the Navigator around your neck as a fashion item, if that's your thing. The earpieces fold up to make the Navigator compact enough to drop into your computer bag.

2nd time's the charm?

The improvement in the new Navigator sample was immediately obvious. "It's much more articulate than the original," voice actress Lauren Dragan said. "The lows are still a little bloated and soft, but the mids and highs are much clearer."

A recent stint as an alternate juror over at the Van Nuys courthouse gave me a rare chance to ride L.A. public transit like a real commuter for a few days-and every day I packed my bag full of headphones to try. I found the Navigator an agreeable traveling companion. Yeah, Lauren's right about the loose bass, but against the rumble of the Orange Line bus, it worked well.

The sound is more exciting overall than that of our current favorite $99 on-ear headphone, the Beyerdynamic DTX 501p. The guitars and voices on Led Zeppelin's "The Ocean" sound great through either headphone. With the DTX 501p, they sounded more neutral; with the Navigator they sounded more spacious and vivid. It sounds to me like Skullcandy's engineers kept some of the character of the bass when they revoiced it, but kicked up the treble to give the sound a better balance.

I even liked the Navigator's sound with music that's not what I imagine your typical Skullcandy customer listens to. On one of my commutes to the courthouse, I played most of jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd's Rabo de Nube live album, sourced from my iPod touch, and was delighted with the way the piano, sax, and drums sounded: not lush, exactly, but rendered with plenty of presence and clarity. The bass wasn't the tightest I've heard, but it didn't seem pumped up at all and in fact made Reuben Rogers' upright bass sound satisfyingly full.

Jazz musician Will Huff, who didn't hear the original sample, was lukewarm on the Navigator's sonic signature, largely because of the bass. "The bass is boosted yet somewhat rolled off [i.e., deep bass extension is limited] at the same time." (My frequency response measurements later proved him 100% correct.)

Measurements

I measured the performance of the Navigator using 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. Measurements were calibrated for ear reference point (ERP), roughly the point in space where your palm intersects with the axis of your ear canal when you press your hand against your ear. As with most on-ear headphones, I used the 43AG's clamping mechanism to ensure a good seal against the simulator's fake rubber ear. I experimented with the position of the earpads by moving them around slightly on the ear/cheek simulator, and settled on the positions that gave the best bass response and the most characteristic result overall.

It's obvious from the graph showing the frequency response of the new and old samples that the Navigator got a major and wise revoicing. The original has an essentially flat response up to 3 kHz, then the treble falls off fast from there. The new sample has a mild bass boost centered at 250 Hz, with the lower bass significantly attenuated. A large peak has been added at 3 kHz-a characteristic common in headphone voicing and generally thought to deliver the most balanced subjective response. Above that peak, the highs in the new sample are subtly boosted. This response did not change significantly when I added 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.

The spectral decay plot (a new and somewhat experimental feature of our headphone measurements) shows a very clean decay with a slight resonance around 1.2 kHz.

Total harmonic distortion (THD) at 100 dBA is very low, just 1.5% at 100 Hz and 2% at 20 Hz. Isolation is typical for an on-ear-as in, don't expect much. It's almost nothing at 1 kHz, improving to typically -15 dB from 2 to 10 kHz. Impedance averages about 35 ohms, while average sensitivity from 300 Hz to 6 kHz at the rated 34 ohms is comparatively high at 107.1 dB.

Bottom line

With its revised voicing, the Navigator becomes one of the most recommendable midpriced on-ears available. It's much cooler-looking than the Beyerdynamic DTX 501p, and about as comfortable, although it doesn't come with the DTX 501p's nice zippered case. Whether you prefer the DTX 501p's more neutral sound or the Navigator's more vivid sound is a matter of taste, but honestly, I'm happy with both, in the same way I can like both Ben Webster and David Sanborn, white wine and double IPAs, and Yorkshire terriers and Labrador retrievers.

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