Review: 808 headphones

The 808 headphones prove I'm way hipper than any of our West Coast headphone testing panel, who range from 10 to almost 20 years younger than me. "You can tell from the name it's targeted to hip-hop fans," I told them. None-not voice actress Lauren Dragan, jazz musician Will Huff, or my fellow Tech^2 blogger Geoff Morrison-had a clue what I was talking about.

"Roland TR-808?" I asked. No reaction. "808s and Heartbreak?" Still no reaction. "The classic hip-hop drum machine?" Nothing but shrugs.

Clearly, even at age 51, I still have my finger on the pulse of today's youth culture. I did have the slight advantage of having played in a jazz group back in the '80s with a drummer who owned a TR-808, my memory reinforced by the fact that I wanted one of my own but couldn't afford the $1,200 price tag.

So even if most people don't get it, I think the 808's branding-like anything the cognoscenti grok but the masses miss-is cool. It's on-target, too. This $89 headphone clearly borrows the slick gloss of the Beats Studio. And not to spoil the ending, but the sound seems Beats-inspired, too.

A new brand from Voxx International, a company that mostly makes accessories under brands like AR and RCA, 808 currently offers only a single over-ear model, which is available in black gloss, white gloss, and black matte. All of our panelists criticized the design as plasticky and stiff. Indeed, the plastic parts creak when you don the 808, and a lot of the products we tried in last year's $59 headphone roundup felt more substantial. But considering that the 808 comes with a nice little zippered case, a detachable black/gray flat cord, and an inline mic/remote, it's hard to complain for $89.

We also didn't love the fit, which felt too tight, but perhaps it's optimized for smaller heads. The ear pads are pretty soft, though. I found I could tolerate them for about 2 hours.

Let's Rate the 808

I assumed the 808 was tuned (if indeed it was tuned; many inexpensive headphones aren't ) for hip-hop, so I made a point of not starting with hip-hop, to better get a handle on the sound quality. I began, as I so often do, with Steely Dan's "Aja"-not such a stretch, 'cause lots of hip-hop acts have sampled Steely Dan. I was shocked by what I heard. Yeah, as you'd expect, the bass sounded like one of the band members had accidentally leaned his elbow on the mixing board and bumped up the fader on the bass guitar by about +6 dB. But otherwise, I thought the 808 sounded surprisingly good. It conveyed the delicate cymbal work in the intro with nearly perfect balance and not a trace of edginess, a trick most hip-hop-oriented headphones can't match. Donald Fagen's voice sounded unusually smooth, perhaps a tad rolled-off in the upper mids, but I'll take smooth over harsh any day. The tune had a great sense of space, too.

Switching to another standby, Mötley Crüe's "Kickstart My Heart," I could hear that the mids were perhaps a little crude-not distorted or harsh, just a little coarse-sounding. But the guitars, vocals, snare, cymbals, and even the bass guitar sounded in balance. It did, though, sound as if I'd stuck my head inside Tommy Lee's kick drum.

Abruptly changing gears, to "Prometheus" from airy-fairy jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd's Rabo De Nube, I found the 808's weakness: upper midrange coloration. Lloyd's light, ethereal sound took on a canned tone, and while the drum kit sounded great, the other percussion instruments seemed overly crisp. Still, though, I didn't feel the immediate urge to switch to one of the other 20 or so headphones in my office.

Will had a similar take. "This thing's more moody than my ex-wife," he opined. "When I listened to Tool, it sucked-the mids sounded very muddy. But when I put on Santana's 'Black Magic Woman,' it came alive. The bass was melodic, the piano sounded clean, and I felt like I was in the studio. Maxwell was the same: tight and accurate bass, very distinct vocals. But on electronica, like the Samantha James tune I played, the headphone made the recording sound less organic and more mechanical." (Yes, he considered that a bad thing, even with electronica.)

Lauren-the only real hip-hop fan in the group-didn't really like the sound except on hip-hop. "It makes it sound like you're in a club. The treble is lazy and buried, like it would sound on a club P.A. system. It seems to enhance reverb, too. So yeah, it sounds like you're in a club listening to Kanye."

BTW, before I finished my eval of the 808, I did check out some hip-hop on it, specifically Wu-Tang Clan's "Duck Seazon" and Kanye's "Bad News." I can't say I liked the sound, but Lauren's right, it does sound like a club: big, muscular bass, but with very clean voices floating on top. I could have used a touch more treble to bring out the percussion, but overall I'd guess the tonal balance is about right for the genre.