Phonon SMB-02 Headphones, Gear Review – Holiday Gift Idea

by Shirk on December 11, 2015

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Earlier this year, a friend tipped me off on a Hi-Fi audio company that he was helping to get established at retail locations around the Chicago area.  Phonon, Inc. is the manufacturer that I speak of and the brainchild of mastering engineer Isao Kumano.  Phonon’s flagship product, the Phonon SMB-02 is their professional headphone offering.

I tried a pair of Phonon SMB-02’s late this summer and was immediately impressed.  You’ve probably heard stories about “the car test” that takes place frequently after an artist/producer/engineer finishes a mix at the studio.  Listening outside the studio in a real world environment or a different world altogether (i.e. headphones), helps to give the creator perspective on the decisions they made in the studio.  In addition to my dated car stereo, I’ve relied on a pair of Shure HSR840 headphones for this purpose for a few years now.  I know their sound inside and out and trusted them to a certain extent to evaluate my mixes as well as when casually listening to other recorded works.  However, I always felt that they told me something different about my mixes than the ProAc (Studio 100), ADAM (S3A) and Yamaha (NS-10M) studio monitors I use on a regular basis.  Once I tried the Phonon SMB-02 headphones, I was immediately hearing things consistently with how I hear them in my well tuned studio control room.  Sometimes I think I hear even more detail in the SMB-02’s than I do in the studio. There was very little adjustment time needed to get familiar with what the Phonon SMB-02’s were telling me.  Once I integrated the SMB-02’s into my listening and mix evaluation process, I was completing mixes quicker and with more confidence.  Now there is not a mix or recording that I do at SHIRK studios, that doesn’t get a check in the Phonon SMB-02’s. In fact, I helped master the new Hoodsmoke record, Rough Around The Hedges at The Drake recording studio, here in Chicago, and I brought the SMB-02’s along as a trusted reference.  They were an indispensable tool.

So what is the sonic difference the Phonon SMB-02’s provide over other headphones I’ve used?  The sound is pure and un-hyped.  Meaning, it is not coloring the sound to give it more bass or thump than what the creator originally intended.  And it is not brighter in the high frequencies to make things sound more shimmery or glossy.  The SMB-02’s are clear and neutral.  That’s not to say that you won’t hear deep, rich bass tones or sparkling highs with these headphones.  The Phonon SMB-02’s give it ALL to you in spades, if that was what was intended in the final mix/master the artist created.  You wouldn’t go to a museum or gallery to learn about and enjoy paintings with a pair of dark or color tinted sunglasses on.  You’d view the work with clear, unfiltered eyes. The music you enjoy deserves the same approach.  I’ve grown very tired of popular brands like BEATS promising “better sound” or “improved fidelity”, when all you get is big, muddy bass, harsh, crunchy high end and a bozo looking headband.  The purpose of speakers and headphones should be to accurately recreate what was originally created in the recording/production process.  If you start with a well produced track, you don’t need some cheap plastic marketing machine “trying”  to improve the sound.  Spend your money on something that delivers the music to you the way the artist intended.

The Phonon SMB-02’s deliver an incredibly wide stereo image.  With headphones I used before, instruments and sounds that I panned hard left or right felt…well,sounded left or right. But they felt like they were coming from exactly where the headphones sat on my ears.  With the SMB-02’s, the stereo image feels wider than the headphones themselves. Sources panned across the left -to-right stereo spectrum can be placed with pinpoint accuracy in the stereo field.  I hear this stereo width in my studio monitors but I’ve never heard it reproduced as well in headphones.  The wide stereo image really helps to draw the listener into the sonic space that the artist created in the mix.

The frequency response of the Phonon SMB-02’s is extended but never over-flattering.  These headphones deliver deep solid bass.  I noticed that I was hearing bass frequencies in the SMB-02’s that my Shure HSR840’s just could not deliver.  We’re talking deep sub frequencies, well down below 100hz.  These are difficult frequencies to accurately recreate in a headphone system and the Phonon SMB-02’s nailed it.  They completely changed my mix evaluation process by eliminating all the back and forth between studio control room playback to headphone playback to car playback in an attempt to get it just right.  Between my studio control room and the Phonon SMB-02’s, I now know exactly what my mix has in it.

The midrange and  high frequencies of the the Phonon’s are elegant and pure with an immense amount of detail.  I’m hearing small details and sounds in mixes that I didn’t think were there when listing on other headphones and some studio monitors.  For the casual music enthusiast, this just makes the music listening experience that much more enjoyable. And for the professional, it provides an extra layer of quality control to help spot noises and artifacts that you may or may not want in the final mix.

The ergonomics of the SMB-02’s are well thought out.  The (replaceable) circular ear pads are large enough to fit around my average sized ears.  This makes long listening sessions comfortable since my ear is never being pressed abnormally against my head..a problem that I find with most “on-ear” designs.  The headphones are light weight and the headband is plush and comfortable without being bulky.  The cable is long enough (3 meters) for casually listening at home without the need for an extension cable to get  you from the stereo to a chair.  It is also a nice hefty cable that isn’t coated with that cheap tacky rubber that catches on everything it comes in contact with.  The cable and plug feel solid and secure.  I should mention that the 1/4″ stereo jack can be unscrewed to reveal a smaller 1/8″ mini stereo plug for use when listening on portable devices.  I use the Phonon SMB-02’s when listing to music on my iPhone almost daily and it takes the mobile listening experience to the next level.

So whether you are a studio professional, a living room vinyl enthusiast or a music listener that enjoys music on the go, I highly recommend you check out the Phonon SMB-02 headphones.  Visit their webstore at http://phononstore.com.  They retail for $349 and ship out of Miami, FL so you’ll have them in a few days. If you have any questions, feel free to comment here and I’ll do my best to help you out.

 

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