Review: Onkyo ES-HF300 Headphones

Onkyo is a well-respected, well-established name in the hi-fi industry. When they announced the release of the ES-HF300 headphone, it was surprising to realize that this is their first foray into headphones. While known more for their receivers and hardware, they have produced speakers in the past. It's amazing they shied away from the market for this long. If first impressions mean anything, the ES-HF300 is, well, impressive.

Anyone familiar with Onkyo products will recognize the design.  With an on-ear design, the headphone is inspired by the knobs on Onkyo's hardware – sleek, sturdy, and dare I say, sexy. Aesthetically, they have a luxurious look, a far cry from the glossy plastic look that's popular these days.  A brushed and burnished aluminum and PET housing and band with impact-resistant qualities protect your investment.  The headband is padded and adjustable.  In its smallest setting people with smaller heads might find them a bit loose. The "leatherette" cups are comfortable and moderately effective at blocking out ambient noises. This is in no way a noise-cancelling headphone.  With a price tag of $179.99, you expect them to feel sturdy too. And they do. It folds flat for easier portability, and comes with a nice carrying bag – although, a protective hard-shell case would be nice at this price point.

Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the ES-HF300 is the cable. I know, a cable should be just a cable, but these are different. Quite different, actually. While other headphones have removable/replaceable cables, they usually rely on a standard 3.5mm connector. The ES-HF300 uses a gold-plated MMCX connector to connect to the left and right cups – on the other end, there is an angled, robust 3.5mm gold-plated connector to plug into your playback device.  Even that is well thought out – the shorter profile helps protect the headphone jack compared to a connector that extends straight out. The ES-HF300(S) comes with a silver-colored connector and white cable, but replacement cables are available in red, black and violet. The connector isn't designed to be removed often, but it is great that if your cable is compromised, you can easily replace it instead of having to toss the whole enchilada. It lacks an inline volume control or microphone. Egad, headphones designed solely for listening to music – what will they think of next? Onkyo claims this omission is to make the headphone cable less prone to snag on things, but an alternate version is likely to be available soon. The cable material itself is noteworthy too. Unlike the cables that come with other high-end headphones, this tangle-resistant cable sheath uses an elastomer that significantly minimizes "touch" sounds. It doesn't completely eliminate them, but noises aren't as bad as they are with other headphone cables.  

Aesthetics aside, it's what's inside that counts. The ES-HF300 uses full-range 40mm titanium drivers along with a dual-chamber design to enhance the bass response.  The frequency response is listed as 10Hz – 27 kHz with a maximum input power of 1000 mW and an output SPL of 97 dB/mW. The nominal impedance is 32 Ohms. These play loud – louder than I would ever want or need.


It's refreshing to hear such a clean, uncolored high-end, although with the ES-HF300, it comes across as slightly harsh and abrasive. I started to check it out with P!nk's latest single "True Love" featuring Lily Ann Cooper. With two female vocals stacked up, along with a few very high-pitched synthesizers, the high end gets a bit overwhelming, but this also shows off the clarity in the treble range. The song has some retro album-scratches added, and with the exaggerated high-end of this headphone, it was just too much. However, the bass is very solid. Compared to earbuds, these rock. On this song, the kick drum and bass guitar are really cohesive.

While the upper bass lines are very detailed and pronounced, but it lacks that depth and detail in the really deep low-end. While this works on today's alt/pop styles such as Mumford and Sons, or Gavin DeGraw, on real bass-heavy hip-hop it's lacking, although it is better than most headphones out today, just a bit undefined.  Another nice quality of the ES-HF300 is that it has fabulous separation – really wide imaging with Alex Clare's "Too Close." The percussion is quite nicely spaced at the far reaches of the stereo sound field with a very open and spacious sound.

Ken Pohlmann, contributing tech editor: It's been a while since I've heard such a raw sound. One of my usual sound testing songs is Adele's "Someone Like You". The rasp in Adele's voice borders on painful, but you do hear the pain in her broken-hearted voice. Female vocals in general are a little too upfront. I do prefer a warmer, darker sound. The Onkyo were just a little too bright and crispy for my tastes

Brent Butterworth, contributing tech editor: It's an unusual headphone because while it's easy to nit-pick its flaws, the whole thing adds up to a fairly balanced and lively sound with a great sense of space. The bass is a little pumped-up and punchier than usual, but this is enjoyable with hip-hop, rock, and pop. (Not my favorite jazz 'phone, though.) The highs are a little spiky in places, sometimes resulting in mild sibilance, but this effect also livens up the sound. The mids are smooth but not all that detailed, probably because the bass obscures them a bit. All things considered, one of my favorite $150 to $200 headphones.


To measure the performance of the ES-HF300, 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. 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. I experimented with the position of the earpads by moving them around slightly on the ear/cheek simulator, and settled on the placement that gave the best bass response and the most characteristic result overall.

The ES-HF300's frequency response is textbook: a broad bump in the bass centered at roughly 100 Hz, a strong peak at 3 kHz, and a broader peak between 6 and 9 kHz. Although there's considerable controversy in the headphone world as to what constitutes the "right" voicing, this one is the one that seems most generally accepted as delivering a subjectively neutral response. 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 kicks up the bass by +1 to +2 dB below 50 Hz.

Total harmonic distortion (THD) at 100 dBA is significantly higher than average: 2% at 200 Hz, 4% at 100 Hz, rising to 24% at 20 Hz. I'd expect those numbers to be more like 1%, 2%, and 5%, respectively. Isolation is fairly typical for an on-ear headphone, at -7 dB at 1 kHz, improving to -15 to -22 dB at higher frequencies.

The spectral decay plot-a new chart I've recently added to show resonances in the headphone-looks very clean, with lower-than-average resonance in the bass and no significant resonance above about 1 kHz. (The blue areas in the chart indicate resonances.)

Measured impedance averages 35 ohms. Average sensitivity with a 1 mW signal at the 32 ohms rated impedance is 106.4 dB from 300 Hz to 6 kHz.-Brent Butterworth

Bottom line

Onkyo should be proud of their inaugural headphone.  Back in the 80's and 90's, Japanese speaker manufacturers were known to have really clean, bright-sounding speakers that didn't really appeal to Western ears. Times have changed, and the high-end of the ES-HF300 is mellow compared to those typical speakers without giving up that clarity. It's a great-looking headphone with a very high-quality cable system, and overall, a clear, transparent high-end. Plus, Onkyo fans finally have headphones to match their receivers.