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ESS-422H Heil Air Motion Transformer Headphone review

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Youtube review: http://youtu.be/v5WyyNp5x70
 
Photos:
 
Sources: iPhone XsMax/iPad Pro 11-inch with Oppo HA-2/AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt DAC/amps, various computers using the Meridian Explorer2/AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt DAC-amps.
 
Review note: My first impressions of the sound of the ESS422H headphone ('422H' hereafter) are based on direct comparisons to other headphones, particularly those that resemble its design (Full-size closed-back), but also to a few premium headphones for reference. I'll describe how I relate to the 422H (i.e., my objectives and how I use the headphone) only after covering all of the technical issues.
 
I'll get right to the point here: Compared to "classic neutral" headphones like the Sennheiser 600/800 series and Beyer Teslas, I found the 422H to have an ~3 db emphasis in the upper bass, a fairly large (~6 db) emphasis between 500 and 1300 hz, and a large-to-modest recess in the mid-treble from 3 to 6 khz. After reviewing headphones like the AudioQuest NightHawk and Focal Elear (just two examples of many), I came to realize that their large mid-treble recesses were becoming popular, probably due to the Loudness Wars and the boosted "presence" in those recordings. But the combination of the mid-treble recess and large midrange emphasis here makes the 422H's overall sound quite hollow and dull.
 
Naturally, I stick to the High Fidelity standard** rather than any fashion standard, and so I equalized the 422H to its most natural sound. After doing so and playing some familiar tracks, I was amazed by the 422H's clarity, dynamics, and detail - particularly the superior bass detail compared to the popular brands sold at (for example) the Apple Store.
 
**When your headphone and music sound like live acoustic music, you're on the right track. Also note that while every headphone benefits from some period of burn-in, the better quality headphones are closer to their final sound right out of the box.
 
When using the 422H with a good DAC and headphone amp (taking note of the above), you'll really appreciate the difference with lossless and higher-resolution music tracks. Still, the 422H is very efficient, and plays well with decent bass quality from the better cellphones. Every popular headphone has some individual quality that leads to its popularity, and whether the 422H is popular or not, it does contain Heil AMT (Air Motion Transformer) drivers along with regular dynamic drivers. I hear enough detail with the 422H to suggest that the AMT drivers are responsible for that detail, but then again that detail would be missed without the EQ I did.
 
I won't spend more time on the 422H's sound for now, for these reasons:
1) The music tracks listed below, which were included in my tests of the 422H, feature a wide range of music tonalities that highlight any sonic weaknesses in the headphone.
2) The EQ'd sound is better than I expected, and far better than I expected at this price level ($150 USD).
3) The history of the 422H as well as its build quality and EQ'd sonic quality are a good heads-up as far as value is concerned, yet the current prices are not sustainable should ESS get serious about marketing the AMT-hybrid design in a class-leading headphone.
 
The 422H comes with high-quality pleather-covered earpads, which are my favorite because they don't tend to absorb sweat and oils that can change the sound over time. The soft squishy foam inside these earpads make for an extremely comfortable fit, assuming a user's ears aren't unusually large. The left earcup has a 3.5 mm socket for the headphone cable. The headband is scarcely padded and the headphone is heavy for its size, but the strong clamp and grippy earpads mean you'll feel that more than the weight from above. The size adjustment range is more than an inch, and given that my average head fits near the middle of that range, it should accomodate a wide range of head sizes.
 
Isolation is good - average or better for a circumaural closed-back design - good enough for most home use and outdoor use where it's not extremely noisy, but probably not good enough for public transport for critical listening. Leakage is very low - enough that playing music loudly in a quiet office might work, unless someone sitting very close-by hears the sound faintly and objects. The 422H comes with a thin 4.5 ft cable and a bulky zippered soft/hard case.
 
In previous reviews I've included the following music samples with comments about how the headphones sound with each track. My suggestion is instead of reading each one as an absolute unto itself, you could compare my notes here to those other reviews and see how the 422H compares with each individual track. These tracks were evaluated with the EQ settings linked above or on my website.
 
Animotion - Obsession (1980's New Wave/Techno): The upper bass synth has great detail and tone, and both male and female vocals sound natural without favoring either. The 422H plays this extremely well.
 
Bauhaus - Bela Lugosi's Dead (~1980): Strong midrange sound effects - this is a good worst-case test for resonant-type sounds in the most sensitive midrange area. Handled perfectly by the 422H.
 
Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Excellent overall sound. Of special note here are the bass impacts beginning around 10:30 of the fourth movement. Those impacts are soft and well in the background, but you can really feel the weight they carry with the 422H.
 
Black Sabbath - Iron Man (Classic Rock): Very good instrumental detail and the vocal sounds very natural. As with most classic rock tracks, there is very little or no deep bass. The 422H plays this music very smoothly, and the lack of deep bass doesn't unbalance the treble.
 
Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Great sound quality - this is a good test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled very well by the 422H.
 
Cantus - Danny Boy (Traditional/Male Choral/Acapella): The 422H plays the voices with enough low end warmth and weight to sound very natural, yet there is no added emphasis of the lower register of the male voices on this track.
 
Cath Carroll - Moves Like You (1980's New Wave/Techno): This track's percussion and voice are bright, crisp, and well-balanced, and there's a good sense of space or soundstage around the voices and instruments. The 422H reproduces the space and detail very well.
 
Catherine Wheel - Black Metallic (~1991): Goth with industrial overtones - I like this since it's a great music composition and the sound effects are smoothly integrated into the mix. This may sound distorted or mushy with some headphones, but the 422H renders the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.
 
Chris Isaak - Wicked Game (Pop/Rock): The 422H plays this high treble energy recording very smoothly - the voice and instruments are very detailed but not edgy - very musical in fact.
 
Chromatics - I'm On Fire (Synth-Pop, female lead): This track has a good amount of space around the voice and instruments, making for a very pleasant stereo image. The voice is excellent, and the tambourine sounds realistic - better than what I hear with most headphones.
 
David Hazeltine - Fur Elise (Jazz): A very high-quality recording from HDTracks. The 422H reproduces the instruments smoothly with a spacious ambiance. The wire-brush-on-cymbal harmonics are very extended and detailed, and the upright bass is excellent.
 
Grieg (Beecham-Royal Philharmonic) - Peer Gynt-Solveig's Lullaby (Classical): This very old (late 1950's) stereo recording must have been made on the most expensive gear in the world, since the overall sound quality and especially Ilse Hollweg's amazing voice are as close to "being there" as I've heard with some of the better classical recordings made since the year 2000. The 422H plays this music perfectly.
 
Hans Zimmer - Dark Knight-Aggressive Expansion (Soundtrack): The percussion in this track hits really hard, and the bass tones beginning around 0:45 have the ultra-deep "shuddery" kind of sound that indicates an excellent deep-bass response. Overall, the 422H plays this music very well.
 
Heaven 17 - Let Me Go (1980's New Wave/Techno): The bass instrument (guitar?) has excellent detail, and the voices and ambiance have a "you are there" quality that's uncommon in early 1980's pop music. The 422H plays this track extremely well.
 
Hugo Audiophile - 15-16 (Electronic): I'm not sure what the 15-16 stands for - perhaps track numbers from a CD album. The deep-bass tones that start around 33-34 seconds into the track reproduce very well with the 422H. This is a great recording for evaluating whether a headphone's bass will be sufficient for most environments, since for many headphones that have a weaker bass, the deep bass gets absorbed and mostly lost when the environment contains a lot of low-frequency energy.
 
Jimmy Smith - Basin Street Blues (early 60's): This track has several loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don't sound clean and musical with some headphones. The 422H provides excellent reproduction. Listen particularly to the second crescendo at 15 seconds in for best-case detail. I'd like to emphasize that these crescendos are probably the worst-case test I have for instrument separation and detail, and the 422H plays those extremely well.
 
Kellogg Auditorium, Battle Creek Michigan, Aeolian-Skinner Organ (1933) - Pedal, 32', Resultant, Arpeggio: This 16 hz organ pedal tone differs from other music tones in that you won't "hear" the tone - you'll only feel it. Although most music tones have harmonics (including this one), the harmonics from this tone will be too weak to provide any "feel", so whatever you actually hear would not be part of the fundamental 16 hz tone. There are ~30 hz sounds in the outdoor environment in big cities, generated by large trucks, buses, and subway trains, and they have a quality of "rumble" that's similar to some deep-bass tones found in music. This 16 hz organ tone is easily distinguished from those sounds when compared on a headphone that has good undistorted response at 16 hz. The 422H plays this with enough weight and detail that you can hear/feel the 16 cycle per second "beats" of the fundamental tone.
 
Mantovani - Sunrise Sunset (Easy Listening, ca. 1972): A master musician and conductor** who specialized in light classics and orchestral pop music, Mantovani's accomplishments were overshadowed by music critics who couldn't tolerate the notion of "light classics" or "semi-classical" music, even when those recordings were no threat to the classical music genres. In any case the later Mantovani recordings from the mid-1960's through mid-1970's had the advantage of being mixed for much better hi-fi systems than those which the music critics possessed at the start of the Long Playing (LP) record cycle. Here in 2015, at least some of those digital remasters have improved the sound further, although it's not always the case. This track as played on the 422H is a perfect example of the sheer musicality lurking in those later recordings, and is highly recommended for soundstage, instrumental tone, and musical balance.
 
**Mantovani developed the "Cascading Strings" sonic effect circa 1950, a famous "Wall of Sound" effect for mono hi-fi systems that predated Phil Spector's own famous Wall of Sound effect by 10 years or so.
 
Michael Tilson Thomas - Rhapsody In Blue (20th Century Classic): Great sound and soundstage, and terrific piano playing and tone. There are some very deep bass impacts starting around 38 seconds into the 17:24 length track, and the weight of those impacts is subtle but impressive with the 422H.
 
Pinback - Non Photo Blue (Pop-Rock): Crispy sound with "crunchy guitars and bashing drums" - the 422H renders this music as perfectly as I've heard an energetic pop-rock recording played with any headphone.
 
Porcupine Tree - Trains (Pop-Rock): This track opens with some nicely-detailed string sounds and a forward-sounding male voice with a higher-than-average register. There are a series of "clip-clop" effects starting at 3:19 that should sound like they were made with wooden blocks of some kind. The 422H's reproduction of the 'clop' sound is near-perfect.
 
Richard Strauss (Mester-Pasadena) - Also Sprach Zarathustra (opening) (Classical): The granddaddy of bass is in the opening 1:50 of this recording, and I've heard it only once on a large and expensive loudspeaker system in Cleveland. For most people, that experience would be indistinguishable from being in a fairly strong earthquake. The 422H conveys that experience pretty well. The tympani also have good impact here.
 
Scarlatti-Kipnis - Sonata in E Major K381 (Classical, Harpsichord): The harpsichord here is fairly bright and highly detailed, and the 422H renders the tones and transients extremely well.
 
Tiger Okoshi - Bootsman's Little House (Jazz): The trumpet here is recorded fairly close up and is somewhat bright with a significant "bite". The 422H's reproduction is excellent, and the close-miked piano is also a treat. For comparison, I have several Maynard Ferguson tracks that feature a similarly strong trumpet with lots of brassy bite.
 
Trombone Shorty - Backatown (Jazz-Funk): The deep bass impacts here are strong and work extremely well with the horns and other instruments. The 422H delivers the impacts with great weight and detail, and the horns have the kind of bite that gives them a wonderfully realistic sound.

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The ESS-422H has such a strong yet reasonably tight bass that it seems like a perfect choice for EDM music, and these are my usual test favorites:
 
Above & Beyond - We're All We Need (feat. Zoe Johnston): A strong impactful bass with crystal clear vocals - the 422H plays this with great ambiance.
 
Anamanaguchi - Planet: A complex mix of percussion sounds and hummed vocals. The bells and other high-frequency percussion are highly detailed, the bass line has good weight, and the bass detail is excellent.
 
Armin van Buuren - J'ai Envie de Toi (Orig Mix feat Gaia): Great bass impacts, breathy vocals, lots of fun noise - the 422H plays this perfectly.
 
Avicii - Feeling Good: Classic female vocal in movie-theme style - the 422H brings this to life like few other headphones I've heard.
 
Carl Kennedy-Tommy Trash ft Rosie Henshaw - Blackwater (Original Master): Nice strong tight bass impacts, female vocal, rendered delectably by the 422H.
 
Crystal Castles - Wrath of God: Atmospheric tune with vocal sound effects and strong bass line, plus some unique treble percussion sounds. The 422H brings these unique sounds to life.
 
Digitalism - Pogo: A driving beat with a detailed bass synth and great vocals ("There's something in the air...") - the 422H makes this very enjoyable.
 
Dino Lenny-Lino Di Meglio - We Will Make It: Atmospheric tune with mixed vocals - the female vocal is a special treat with the 422H.
 
DJ Shadow - Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt: High-pitched tones and strong deep piano chords with a hummed female vocal - ultra-cool with the 422H.
 
Fairmont - Poble Sec: Awesome detailed bass impacts with some nifty pingy guitar/synth effects. I discovered this tune at the time I purchased my 3rd v-moda M100 - the 422H makes this just as enjoyable.
 
Giuseppe Ottaviani - Lost for Words (On Air Mix feat Amba Shepherd): Strong bass impacts behind a female voice - a large-scale sweeping sonic image reminiscent of epic adventures in an exotic land. The 422H is playing on a whole new level here.
 
Hecq - Enceladus (With Skyence): Prodigious deep bass and clean at that. This tune's melody is more abstract than most of the others here, but the 422H makes it a real adventure.
 
Katy B - Crying For No Reason (Tom Shorterz Remix): Oh myyyyy, I love Katy B. The vocal mix here is awesome and the bass is very solid. This is the 422H at its best.
 
Ladytron - Destroy Everything You Touch: I first heard this in The September Issue film and soundtrack, as the backdrop for the opening catwalk (watch Andre grinning at 1:51 - all you need to know) - the 422H plays this amazing tune perfectly.
 
Lee and Malinda - Truth Will Set You Free (V-Moda Mix): Lee Kalt is the master, this is the masterpiece. The drum (or tom-tom) hits here have a very realistic skin-tone, the female vocal is seamlessly integrated into the driving beat, and the synth effects also blend well - the 422H just owns this.
 
Markus Schulz - Mainstage: The granddaddy of bass is in this track, and the 422H plays it smooth and clean.

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