January 7th, 2012


a constructive critique and comparison between two sets of monitor headphones

ascent vs. sony by jacob earl
ascent vs. sony, a photo by jacob earl on Flickr.
friends and followers: if you read my posts even semi-regularly, you know that i am DIY engineer and producer, regularly recording my own music and releasing it on the internet. so obviously, i have a vested interest in analysing the relative worth of audio hardware and software. however, realistically, i try not to give it too much thought, because my basic modus operandi is to work within my budget, which has never been huge.

as well, aesthetically, i like to experiment with what i can achieve with minimalist, cheap, and lofi tools. thus, i don't own a large amount of music equipment, and the stuff i do own is mostly entry level or middle of the road at best, and some of it is secondhand.

that said, i'm an (amateur) audiophile, and i appreciate equipment (and software) that works, and works well. i'm sure my fellow audiophiles will agree that a decent (or, at least, not crappy) set of monitor headphones is a vital tool to the self-produced, bedroom recording artist.

keeping all that preamble in mind, i submit to you a comparison review of two sets of headphones that i own; one which i hope to soon return for a store credit. here we go:

both sets are specifically designed and marketed as monitor headphones.

the first set, pictured on the left, are Ascent dynamic digital headphones. that is all that i know about them. they do not have a model number, i can't find them on Google, and i purchased them over 4 years ago at Zellers for about $23 including tax.

the second set, pictured on the right, are Sony MDR-ZX100s. most places online list them for $15-$20. i think i paid $20 or $25 for them at the source, and they were on sale marked down from $30 i think. overpriced. online ratings give them four stars. i give them a generous 1.5 maybe.

believe it or not, the Ascents are better in every way. here's how it breaks down:

tested both through my old Fisher integrated stereo amp, hooked up to my Tascam soundcard, listening to a new mix i'm working on in Sony Acid. kept volume on the amp around 20-25%. no discernible difference. in fact, if anything, the Ascents sounded brighter at some points, but i am willing to cede that to personal bias, as i have been working with the Ascents for years. in any case, both have a warm but slightly muffled quality, compared to the Panasonic earbuds i use when listening to mp3s on my phone. i suppose both the Ascents and the Sony headphones provide an equally decent enough baseline for listening comparisons when working on mixes.

the Ascents win, hands down. they are pliable, with well-placed hinge points, and fit my head nicely. the padding on the phones is comfy, and is only now starting to show signs of wear and tear after four and a half years. the Sony phones seem tight, press down on my head, are quite rigid (like they may snap if you pull them too far), and the lower positioning of the size-adjustment sliders makes them feel awkward and bulky, despite their diminutive size compared to many monitor phones.

like i said, the Ascents are only now showing wear and tear after over four years. i only just cracked open the Sony pair, but i've had a similar pair before, and the arm snapped, and the plastic cover over the foam pads (of course) ripped. the Ascents have a material mesh over the ear foams, which has not yet ripped.

let's face it, you want to be able to spin monitor phones around when you are doing a mix; this is a key function that i think most engineers and DJs appreciate. the Ascents' earpieces rotate more than 180 degrees. that is impressive, and very useful. in stark contrast, the Sony earpieces rotate maybe 95 degrees if i'm being generous. not a deal breaker on its own, but clumsy and poorly designed.

this is a big one. the Ascents boast a monitor standard 10' cord with a straight, gold-plated 1/8" adapter and accompanying, gold-plated 1/4" converter. the Sony phones have a 49" cord if i'm stretching it taught, with a 90 degree adapter. ugh. when sitting at my computer, my head is four feet away from my amp. i expect mobile headsets to have cords four feet or less; but monitor cords need to be longer.

on another usability note, it took me over a minute to figure out which Sony earphone was left and which was right! there is no L or R on the exterior plate of either phone, and i finally found a tiny, etched R on the inside of the phone arm, on the side that has the little red strip. aaaah, of course, red = R. uhm, that's an accessibility issue, Sony. not cool.

i don't know why i bothered to buy new headphones! my Ascents are working fine, and the Sony phones are sub par. i hope to return them for store credit, and perhaps invest in a higher pricepoint, maybe some sennheisers or m-audio monitor buds. but for now i will continue to mix with the Ascents, and hopefully they will do well enough to help me make good recordings.