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2014 Midwest Audiofest Tent Sale & Vintage Audio Swap
Phonon SMB-02 Headphones Review
“Do you want to review a pair of headphones that Jack is bringing in?” As questions go from our dear leader it was simple enough. It took me a little bit of time to answer though. The first reason was prosaic enough- I’m now at the stage of baby parenting where I operate superficially like a normal human being save for my inability to respond to simple requests in less than four hours (I’m assured the first eighteen years are the worst). The second was probably relevant. I review a lot of headphones. A quiet month is two pairs and most months see more than that. As a result, at the £300 price point, I’ve tested a great many different models and seen much of what there is to offer.
This means I know full well that BD Audio is pitching into a fearsomely competitive sector and even allowing for the ongoing boom in headphone sales, I didn’t want to be that guy that doomed the effort before it began. Having looked at the Phonon website though and some of the other material online, I was intrigued enough to want to have a look. The brand identity includes electronica DJs obsessed with making perfect products, former TEAC board members and a mysterious driver that doesn’t crop up in any other speaker. The whole thing seemed sufficiently weird that it would have been stupid not to listen to some. So here we are.
The SMB-02 is the only headphone that Phonon makes in what is otherwise a manufacturer of conventional electronics. ‘Conventional’ is a word that needs to be used carefully in this instance though. Japanese companies either seem to be monolithic and almost entirely straight laced or small and rather eccentric. While Phonon isn’t in the premier league placing of odd, it is still fairly singular in terms of origins and philosophy. The vision of Isao Kumano, Alex Prat and Yusuke Uchiyama, the company specialises in products that frequently make use of a mysterious device called the PHD.
The description on the website isn’t terribly helpful. I quote directly;
‘The PHD is a small, very sensitive vibrating metal device that connects to the + and – of your speakers (for pre-amplified speakers, you will have to open your speakers to connect it).
The PHD vibrates in harmony with soundwaves coming from your speakers, simultaneously transmitting ultrasound waves that compensate for the delay in transmission of some frequencies, causing all the frequencies to align. The original musical waveforms are replicated without changing the characteristics of the speakers.’
This sounds a little like some sort of very sensitive passive radiator, possibly an armature or maybe a small but perfectly formed slice of foo. All Phonon products with tranducers include PHDs and the SMB-02 is no exception. You can also buy them separately (in Japan at least) and the result looks like an executive desk toy you can place on top of your speakers but there are still precious few clues to what it actually does. No matter though, in the case of the SMB-02 (and I believe this is the only product that BD Audio is bringing into the UK), the PHD’s are present whether you like them or not and you will have to decide whether you can overcome the existential angst of having a mystery driver in your headphones yourself.
The SMB is effectively the same size as a ‘hybrid’- a headphone type currently doing solid business for many different companies. The idea is that you have a headphone that is small enough to wear outside on the move without looking like a care in the community case (although the upper limits for this threshold seem to be getting bigger and bigger) while still making a decent fist of being a decent home headphone. This means that as well as the PHD’s the SMB-02 is fitted with a pair of 40mm dynamic drivers of an unspecified material which is par for the course in a headphone of this size. The Phonon won’t collapse or fold flat but it will sit happily in a travel bag without too much of an issue.
Having made some definite concessions to use on the move, the Phonon then veers off tangent a bit. The cord on most hybrid designs is around a metre long, or in the case of some more sophisticated options from companies like PSB and Sennheiser, detachable and thus can be used with a long cord at home or a short cord- often with remote for a mobile device and a microphone- for use on the move. The Phonon is supplied with a fixed cord of three metres which is marvellous for home use but rather less ideal for use on the move. Jack’s helpful suggestion of tying the cable up with a cable tie notwithstanding, this does mean that the Phonon is really a small home headphone rather than a true hybrid.
It is a comfortable one though. The SMB-02 mounts the earpads on a pivot that allows them to move through a full 180 degree axis which when combined with a thoughtfully sprung headband and decent if not especially deep padding on the earpads themselves makes for a design that is easy to wear for long periods. Interestingly, the SMB-02 doesn’t have any rotation on the other axis- the earpads are fixed in place- but this doesn’t seem to be anything like the problem it is for some other headphones that work to this principle. I didn’t find that the backs of my ears tended to get squashed in the way that can happen with some designs. The final bonus is reasonable size adjustment. Unless you are John Merrick, you should get a reasonable fit.
The build and appearance of the Phonon is best summed up as understated. As someone settling gracefully into middle age, these are subtle and sober looking headphones with just enough of a retro twist to avoid being boring. Phonon has also managed to carry off the tricky job of making the SMB-02 light but also feel reasonably substantial at the same time- something that is very hard to do. The wonky lettering of the Phonon logo is a bit weird but not unpleasant- I can see it possibly antagonising the more obsessive compulsive owner.
I’ve had the Phonons here a little over three weeks now and this section has to start with a confession. At no stage during critical listening, drowning out some of my wife’s less accomplished pupils, watching Game of Thrones or simply listening to a podcast did I have a moment where I was definitely able to say “that’s definitely the PHD I’m hearing.” The mystery driver has no definable sonic signature that I can make out. This is, from my perspective at least, not a bad thing. Whatever the PHD is doing, it is not proving a distraction from what is a very likeable headphone.
It is also a very civilised one too. My notes (such as they are- I’ve never been one for pages and pages of shorthand) keep referencing the exceptionally civilised way that the Phonon goes about making music. ‘Civilised’ should not be taken to be a polite word for ‘dull’ however. The SMB-02 manages to be detailed and usually very entertaining but it is able to get the best out of recordings that are a bit rough around the edges. The very fine Head Down by Rival Sons is a fine album but not a masterpiece of the recording art. The Phonon manages to capture the energy of the record while helpfully masking some of the roughest edges of the piece.
This means that the SMB-02 is very easy indeed to listen to for long periods. By avoiding any superficial excitement, you get a consistently rewarding presentation that has plenty of drive and attack when needed but is relaxed and refined when it isn’t. If you exist solely on a diet of speed metal and the most amphetamine fuelled drum & bass, you might find that the Phonon is a little too polite to truly deliver what you want but for a more varied musical repertoire, it does rather well.
This is helped in no small way by a neutral and effective presentation that is detailed and usually believable. There is enough bass to help larger pieces sound as big as they should and the low end has plenty of fine detail which is always a bonus. Voices and instruments are handled well and although the closed back design of the Phonon limits the absolute amount of air and space available to it but it never feels like the entire piece of music is hunched over you in a slightly oppressive way. The distance between your ear and the driver isn’t that large but it seems to be enough and serves to keep the housing itself reasonably small.
This size is at the heart of the most contentious issue of the Phonon. As before, with a three metre cord, the Phonon is more a home headphone than a hybrid one but the smaller size does mean that it cannot compete in terms in space and scale with larger dedicated home designs. The SMB-02 claws back some points by value of being smaller and lighter and as a result very comfortable but it fills a slightly unusual niche as a result. I’ve found that the Phonon is a an excellent partner for being used in a ‘semi portable’ sense- sat listening to them via an iPad or laptop, they are an ideal size but if you are looking to spend £300 on either a hybrid headphone or a dedicated home headphone, they are less ideal. I’ve no idea if this is a category or even if the Phonon team had any such thinking in mind but this is what they seem to be. Were a shorter or interchangeable cord be fitted though, this would be a superb hybrid.
I don’t want to end on a downer over trying to pigeonhole the Phonon on account of the size though. This is an excellent sounding and beautifully built headphone that consistently delivers a sound that is lively and powerful without being ruthlessly revealing of less than perfect or compressed material. I’ve no idea if I’ve been bowled over by the PHD driver but I do know that I’ve listened to the Phonon by preference over the many pairs of headphones in the house over the last few weeks and that has to count for something. If you are looking for a compact home headphone, you need to try a pair of these.
The Phonon has been used as a main home headphone with a Naim SUPERNAIT 2 and Cambridge Audio 751R and used with a variety of source equipment. It was also used via a Furutech ADL Cruise headphone amplifier and Lenovo T530 laptop. Material used included lossless and high res FLAC, Spotify and we material, Netflix and some other material on Sky.
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