Listening to music is serious business. Making music for others to listen to is even more serious. When it comes to critical listening, whether it’s an audiophile experience or deciding on a mix for your new CD, you really should own a set of quality headphones. You can find many great brands and models in the marketplace, and though I admittedly haven’t tried every set available, it’s rare to find a pair that covers all the bases: great sound, comfort and style. The folks at Blue Microphones have spent years perfecting their microphones to accurately capture what our ears hear: from a singer’s voice to a drum kit, an acoustic guitar, an amplifier and so on. Now they’ve turned their attention toward how our ears hear the sound with the introduction of MoFi- an audiophile quality headphone complete with the first built-in powered amplifier. After using a pair for the past several weeks in various situations, I must say that Blue’s entry into this field is an auspicious one.
Powered headphones seem like a product that should have been available for years. But just like powered PA speakers and monitors have only caught on in recent years, the market for a built-in amp in a headphone is just catching on, primarily due to the fact that the built-in amplification for mobile devices. Is pretty weak. And thanks to advances in technology, USB and recharging capabilities, you won’t have to carry a heavy power amp with you.
Blue has always looked to the classic designs of the past for the style and feel for their microphone line. MoFi’s design is appropriately retro-futuristic, the kind of look designers in the ‘60’s might have imagined headphones would look like in the early 21st century. In fact, I was watching an early episode of Mad Men, which is set in the cultural upheaval of the ‘60’s, and one of the ad agency’s team members was wearing a set of Koss headphones that were touted as a pioneer of a new look and style- ‘electrostatic’. The same can be said for MoFi. They look unlike any other headphone, with a multi-jointed headband, soft over-the-ear cups (shaped like your ears!) and adjustable tension knob that conforms to your head and ears. Their premium drivers and high-powered amplifier are designed for the punch of today’s music but the all-analog construction will also make an audiophile happy, whether they’re listening to vinyl, CD or hi-rez recordings.
A small amplifier in the left ear channel powers the phones, and it also operates in passive mode in case the battery runs out of charge. There is a three level volume switch on the left side where the cord attaches- passive, amplified on and then amplifier on with a bass boost, for that extra oomph when you need it. When either the ‘on’ or ‘on+’ switch is active, the amp will turn off automatically when the headphones are closed, saving battery life. Very cool! The hottest level is probably too much for most people. It’s primarily designed for modern recording with a lot of low-end bass, although I really only found a significant difference while playing some heavy R&B and hip-hop tunes. The middle setting was enough for my taste on those songs. Be careful too- just slapping them on and pressing play might hurt your ears if the setting is on amplified boost at full volume. These headphones can get loud! Overall I found myself mostly using the passive mode. It was the most natural sounding for my taste and gave me more output than other brands I’ve used in the past, and the sound quality was superb. After using and playing around with the amplified settings I will say I did warm up to using it more frequently. It’s really about finding the proper gain structure between your device and the Mofi preamp.
I took the MoFi’s on an airplane ride across the country with a packed cabin. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given up on watching a movie on a flight because my headphones (or heaven forbid the cheap dollar buds the airline supplies) just didn’t give me enough volume over chatty people and general flight noise to enjoy my entertainment. With MoFi I was able to shut out everything. They were like a favorite blanket wrapped around me. I was able to find a nice balance level between the volume on iTunes, my Macbook Pro output and the 3-position MoFi switch. It didn’t turn the mp3’s into beautiful-sounding WAV files of course but it did give me a very good volume level to enjoy the music.
Mofi is definitely made for the mobile audio crowd who listen to more modern recordings with lots of low end. I found the amplifier ‘on’ switch position to best accommodate music from Pink, Amy Winehouse and Eminem and others- music with a lot of thumping bass. A/B’d against another set of headphones revealed a clear difference- the MoFi’s made the music come alive, punchy, present rather than dull, lifeless and a chore to try and enjoy (the last thing you want music to be). The listening experience was fun with MoFi!
I also tested them with my Sony SACD player, a Philips CD player, a Tascam 202mkII cassette deck and a Sony turntable. Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs ranks as one of my all-time favorite records. It’s also notorious for a lot of hiss inherent in the recording, as is the case with many classic analog tape recordings. You’ll find the ‘tape hiss’ disclaimer on many CD pressings, and well, it’s true! There’s good and bad in tape hiss and without getting into the pros and cons, I will say, with a little finesse and level adjustments, the warmth of the poignant, acoustic “Thorn Tree in the Garden” made me feel a closer connection to Eric Clapton and Bobby Whitlock’s performance. Again, it’s about proper gain structure. Further diving into my record and tape collection let me revel in the masterful production and stereo imaging of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Radiohead’s OK Computer, both classic headphone albums. As previously mentioned, these headphones are loud! I ran them through the direct headphone outputs of the CD player as a quick test and it was way overkill without a master volume control.
Included in the beautiful box packaging are an assortment of modern audio life necessities that fit into a nice velvet plush carrying case: a 1.2 meter audio cable with Apple iPhone/iPad controls, a 3 meter audio cable, a 1 meter USB charging cable, AC to USB charger, the all-important 3.5 mm to ¼” adaptor and a two-prong airplane connector, plus a manual. The headphones are comfortable even after wearing for several hours. Its unique over the ear design allows it to properly adjust to each individual’s head.
Minor quibbles: I found the volume adjustor on the iPad/iPhone cable to be a bit awkward in maneuvering levels while on my head, but I was never a fan of the Apple volume cable either. I prefer the longer cable without the volume control, adjusting the levels on my device. I also had issues with the shorter cable not playing sound out of the left channel but as it turns out, it was my fault. I had it plugged into the Macbook Pro when I should have used the longer cable. At one point, I got up abruptly and yanked the cable out of the computer and damaged it, since it is short. Mental note made for next time! But since the cables detach at the preamp connection I didn’t ruin the entire headphone. Good design work on Blue’s part. A quick call to the company rectified the situation and a replacement was shipped immediately.
Some may find the headphones too bulky and heavy (just over one pound), since they don’t have the grab and go portability of other brands. But it didn’t really bother me. In a home studio recording setup, you would do well with MoFi as it seals off outside noise pretty effectively and sounds great. But use them on the passive setting to get a true representation of how your recording sounds- it won’t color the sound the way the amplified levels with bass boost might do. And given their cost, I probably wouldn’t supply them to a full band recording live in the studio. A cheaper set of headphones running through a powered headphone distribution mixer will likely suffice. For a sound engineer in a live sound situation where it can be very noisy in the room, the extra juice from Mofi’s volume selector and the closed ears design will do the trick for you.
I’ve used Blue’s various microphones over the years, so the brand name carries a certain amount of trust and quality for me. Whether you are using headphones for your own recordings or just want to get lost in the magic of music, it’s tough to beat MoFi’s sound.
Street price: $349