Acoustic Research AR-H1 Headphones Review

Build Quality
PRICE $599

Oval planar magnetic design
Easy to drive
Nice and comfy
Cable lacks phone mic or inline controls

Acoustic Research knocked one out of the park with the AR-H1 — it’s a real contender.

Acoustic Research has a long, proud history dating back to 1954 with the introduction of the AR1, the world’s first acoustic suspension speaker. But rather than run through a model-by-model inventory of their innovative speakers and the brilliant AR turntable, let’s fast-forward to 2018 where the AR's current owner is based in Hong Kong and they’re getting serious about making audiophile headphones. Witness the AR-H1, an ambitious reboot for the brand.

AR took its time with the headphones’ development. The engineers weren’t even sure if they were going to be a dynamic or planar-magnetic model; but once they decided on planar, they spent nearly two years building and tuning prototypes.

The industrial design of the earcups is elegant. It’s hard to miss the AR-H1’s resemblance to the Oppo PM-1 planar magnetic headphones, and the AR-H1’s metal and real leather headband is a near twin of HiFiMan’s designs.

The AR-H1 headphones feature oval 86 x 60mm thin-film planar-magnetic drivers with neodymium magnets. They sport an over-the-ear, open-back design, and at 14 ounces, they’re lighter than most over-the-ear planars. Build quality feels robust.

By design, these headphones don’t even try to hush external noise, and people around you will hear sound coming from them. That’s true for just about every open-back design, and come to think of it, most of the best-sounding headphones are open — that’s just the way it is.

Included accessories are pretty sparse. Buy a pair of AR-H1s, and all you get is the headphones, a soft pouch for storage, and a user-replaceable 4-foot-long audio cable with a 3.5mm plug and a screw-on 6.3mm plug adapter. The cable lacks a phone mic or inline controls. I get the gist: AR sees these as stay-at-home headphones.

My listening time commenced with Trombone Shorty’s Parking Lot Symphony on the AR-H1. Recorded in a big studio in New Orleans, you know it’s funky, and the rousing big band grooves felt great turned up loud. The arrangements and live-in-the-studio sound threw a party for my ears — the AR-H1s took me there. When I moved over to a pair of AudioQuest NightHawk dynamic headphones, the soundstage opened up more than what I heard from the AR-H1. So even though the AR-H1s are open headphones, the sound isn’t all that spacious. The NightHawks were much warmer and sweeter, while the AR-H1s’ tone was more neutrally balanced. I liked both headphones for different reasons.

Streaming high-resolution MQA files on Tidal, the AR-H1’s transparency shined — these are very accurate-sounding headphones. That impression held up when I compared the AR-H1s with a pair of Oppo PM-3 planar magnetic headphones. The AR-H1s imposed less character onto the sound of the recording, while the PM-3s were closed-in and tonally darker and softer.

Season five of House of Cards has its detractors, as does Kevin Spacey at this point, but prior to his being booted off the show I spent some time with the AR-H1s keeping me company in the Oval Office while I binged. The sound of these Blu-rays is great: I could hear the ambience of the rooms in the White House, the ticking clocks, murmurs of people outside an office, and distant footsteps. The AR-H1s are easy headphones to wear for hours at a time.

I like that they’re also sensitive enough to use with my iPhone 6S, and I was knocked out by Tony Williams’ drumming on Miles Davis’s The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions album. His powerhouse rhythms ignited the band, and Dave Holland’s bass was no less revelatory over the AR-H1s. Oh, and Davis’s trumpet cut through the dense mix with startling precision.

Acoustic Research’s commitment to making innovative headphones is a positive move. They’ll have an in-ear model out in stores by the time this review is published, and a closed-back version of the AR-H1 is under consideration. AR is coming back!

Type: Open-back, over-the-ear
Driver: Planar-magnetic (60x86mm)
Impedance: 33 ohms
Sensitivity: 100 dB/1V RMS
Weight (Ounces): 14

Soundboy's picture

Is Acoustic Research (AR) still owned by Voxx International (formerly known as Audiovox)? Sounds like the brand has changed hands again.

hk2000's picture

Most of the HPs you review don't include inline controls or MIC, why is this a Minus here, but not on the other ones?