Review: WeSC Chambers by RZA Headphones

We haven't made any secret of our general disdain for headphones endorsed by hip-hop artists. Not that we have anything against hip-hop artists, nor is there any good reason why hip-hop 'phones should sound bad.  It's just that many of them do.

In last year's celebrity headphone test, we didn't dig the Soul by Ludacris SL300WB at all, and had a mixed reaction to the Beats Pro and Skullcandy Roc Nation Aviator. But our not-unpleasant experience with the Sync by 50 SMS-WS got us thinking that maybe someone in the hip-hop world was starting to understand that while crazy, bass-heavy tonal balances may be initially impressive, they're not something most of us want to live with on a day-to-day basis.

Next up in the battle of the rapperphones is the $275 WeSC Chambers by RZA.

 I'll confess to never having heard of RZA before S+V webmaster Michael Berk assigned me this review, although everyone's heard of RZA's group, the Wu-Tang Clan.

As with all celeb 'phones, we can never really know how much input the artist had. If RZA made any real contribution to the design of the Chambers, then he just went up a notch in my book. It's a simple, minimalist look with elegant curves, that manages simultaneously to look hip and understated. It's comfortable, too. I can't think of a single adult human on whose head the Chambers would look or feel out of place. It's available in black for stealth or white for flash.

The elegance of the design carries into the functionality. To activate the built-in noise-cancelling circuit, simply turn a ring around the right earpiece. One of the tiniest white LEDs I've ever seen lights up on the left earpiece. Play some music and you'll see that the LED is just one of six, and that they act as a level meter, so the LEDs light up in time with the music. It's a totally useless feature that I and fellow contributing tech editor Geoff Morrison loved regardless. A cover on the left earpiece conceals a compartment for two AAA batteries and a switch to shut off the level meter function. The headphones work whether or not NC is on, so you'll still have music if the batteries run down.

The detachable cable inserts into either earpiece, and you can connect a second set of headphones into the unused 3.5mm jack. Two cords are included; one has an inline mic/remote for smartphones. The earpieces fold in, allowing the Chambers to fit in to the included hardshell case.

Enter the Chambers

I ran the Chambers through my usual subjective testing procedure, listening for hours at home then trying out the NC feature while riding the L.A. Metro Orange line. I also asked Geoff to give them a spin on his own. I used my Motorola Droid Pro smartphone, my iPod touch, and my Rane HC 6S professional headphone amp to drive the Chambers. But when the NC circuit is activated, it doesn't much matter what you use to drive the Chambers, because you're using its internal amplifiers. So even if you run it off your phone or your laptop, the Chambers won't suffer any ill sonic effects when it's in NC mode. (Nor, according to my measurements, will using a low-quality amp substantially affect the sound in passive mode.)

I've begun to think of the typical rapperphone as one with ridiculously pumped-up bass, and mid and treble response that's shaped to accentuate vocals and high-frequency percussion line snare and cymbals. I'm happy to say that's not the Chambers at all. With NC activated, it sounds more like the House of Marley Destiny TTR - an otherwise good headphone with somewhat mushy-sounding, exaggerated bass response.

It's a big, resonant-sounding bass, not a tight, grooving bass, and thus it lacks punch and a sense of groove. Great example: "Just Another Sunday" from The New Boss Guitar of George Benson (recorded back in 1964 when Benson was a hard-burning, up-and-coming 21-year-old) features a classic groove with a dotted quarter note on the first beat and another dotted quarter note right after. Through the Chambers, it sounds like whomp, whomp instead of bomp, bomp.

Geoff noted that the bass sounds especially mushy at higher volumes. As with the Destiny TTR, EQ-ing the sound to reduce the response in the midbass (say 60 to 80 Hz) by a few dB does wonders for the Chambers' tonal balance.

The Chambers' mids sound mostly pretty smooth. I heard just a trace of emphasis in the upper mids/lower treble, apparently around 3 kHz, that made voices subtly more distinct and helped them fight against the overpowering bass. Bebel Gilberto's "Aganju," which has a lot of low-bass content, really rumbled through the Chambers, yet still her voice cut through and most of the tune's awesome spatial effects survived. Electric guitars really ripped, too - Mick Mars' riffs on Mötley Crüe's "Girls Girls Girls" sounded extra-crunchy, and that's a good thing.

The high treble seems somewhat muted, but that's just a psychoacoustic effect of the overwhelming bass; I could still hear ultra-high-frequency instruments such as splash cymbals just fine when the bass wasn't pumping. But the upper mids and lower treble pack enough punch to keep the Chambers from sounding dull with most material. Geoff, while praising the smooth treble, noted that the booming bass seems to detract from the spaciousness and soundstaging of the Chambers' presentation.

When I review celeb headphones, I always like to listen to the music of the endorser. Sadly, the Wu-Tang Clan tunes I found on YouTube lacked sufficient nuance for testing audio gear. However, other hip-hop tunes I tried, including MIA's "Paper Planes," Missy Elliot's "Get Ur Freak On," and Das Racist's "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" gave me enough to go on. With hip-hop, the Chambers deliver a fairly colossal, undefined boom that I found annoying. But you know, I'm not the target audience here and hip-hop fans may well like that sound. What I did like is that the clarity of the voices, instrument samples, etc., in these tunes wasn't buried by the boom, nor was their tonality mangled the way it is with some rapperphones.

The noise-cancelling feature worked pretty well on the Orange Line bus, and also when I played a recording of airliner cabin noise through my home theater system. The low-frequency noise was substantially reduced by the NC circuit, and the over-ear design and the fairly tight seal provided by the softly padded earcups helped minimize leakage of high-frequency sounds into the headphones.

Without the noise cancelling on, the bass almost disappears and the sound becomes a bit thin and somewhat grating. The treble actually seems to become louder and much less smooth. I'm glad the no-NC mode is there for times when the battery runs out, but if you run out during a layover in, say, Denver, you'll definitely be scouting the concourse for some AAAs before your connecting flight leaves.

I still have the Sync by 50 around, so I got a chance to shoot it out between 50 Cent and RZA. (Bad choice of words, maybe?) The two headphones sound substantially different, but both have their pros and cons. Sync by 50 has a hyped-up, exciting sound and super-punchy bass that some listeners will really dig. Chambers has a more refined, smoother sound that some listeners will really dig. I found myself changing my preference for one or the other depending on the tune I was playing, but overall I preferred the RZA for its more natural sound.