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Premium headphones are all the rage these days, whether we’re talking reference-grade ultra-expensive pro models, or the trendy bass-boosted fashion-accessory types; pricey headphones are modern status symbols. But I prefer to steer your attention in the race towards the bottom, not the bottom-end but the bottom line, as affordable headphones deserve more discussion. After all, any self-respecting studio needs at least five or six pairs and headphones do simply wear out with use … so why spend too much?
Newcomer Status Audio is all about the price-to-performance ratio in their marketing where they declare their new CB-1 closed-back headphones to be the best under $100 and every bit as good as Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50X’s, the de-facto industry standard amongst musicians, producers, many consumers and engineers (like myself).
With a 30-day money back guarantee, a low $79 price and a one year warranty, I was intrigued enough to buy a pair of CB-1’s to get started on the review. Feature-wise there was a lot comparable to M50X’s … just slightly larger 50 mm drivers, a closed-back design, multiple cables (a long 3m straight one and a shorter coiled one, both terminated with a keyed twist-lock at the ear cup and an 1/8” mini-plug, as well as a 1/4” screw-on adaptor), a double fold-down design for portability, a low 32-ohm impedance (which encourages efficiency and loud output even with under-powered devices) … but no frills (modest packaging and no storage bag).
My initial reaction to using the CB-1’s was terrible, as they seemed uncomfortable and sonically imbalanced … but it was just a matter of newness, as they needed a good breaking in. The large ear pads really do surround the ear, not on-the-ear like M50X’s, but there was a bit of pressure on my glasses and behind the ears. After about two weeks of use they softened up, got comfy and still provided good isolation. These pads do lift the drivers away from your ears, so it’s kind of like listening to small head-mounted speakers. Typical of headphones with this design, the driver’s enclosures are a bit low-midrange resonant and loudly ping when tapped.
At first the audio quality seemed imbalanced and “tight” too, but it likewise softened up with repeated loud use. The end result was a reasonably well-balanced tone that falls somewhere between hyped-up consumer models and flat, color-less studio reference phones. The top-end is definitely on the smooth side, not overly bright or harsh, which is desirable for studio work more so than casual musical listening, as it means less fatigue and allows louder levels longer. The bottom-end is quite nice in its amount, not Sony-thin or Beats-fat, about as much bottom as M50X’s but with a different character to it. The CB-1’s have a round, pillowy, congealed bottom-end whereas the M50X’s are tighter and punchier. I prefer the punch, but it’s a matter of taste.
Bottom and top-end are important, but it’s more about the mids for professional use anyway. Here there CB-1’s are definitely not flat, but they’re not severely scooped-out like consumer models. Certain nasal frequencies seemed a little too accentuated, other areas a little hollow, BUT … this un-even midrange response varied with the playback device/amplifier driving the CB-1’s! Closer inspection revealed the CB-1’s to be rather finicky about their loading on an amplifier; they didn’t like my Samson or Behringer headphone amps, were OK with my SPL monitor controller, but sounded their best driven by my top-shelf Apogee Symphony II Thunderbolt converters. With the Apogee the CB-1’s opened up dynamically, maintained a genteel top-end, a pleasantly abundant bottom-end and a healthy amount of mid content that was more accurate. Stereo separation and imaging could be a little wider and more distinct and they’re not quite “reference flat” enough for mixing or mastering but are quite sufficient to inform musicians of their performances during overdubs.
And in fact, what these CB-1’s are now routinely doing in my studio is being worn by guitar and keyboard players. The healthy mids give their parts audibility at lower levels with the polite top-end reducing drum and sibilance fatigue. Even if I can’t mix with them, and even if they don’t really keep up with the impressive sonics of M50x’s, these CB-1’s are still ideal choices for an affordable fleet of studio cans, for hygiene or cost concerned musicians and for anyone tired of the punishing high-low frequency hype and fatigue of disposable consumer models.
-Rob Tavaglione owns and operates Catalyst Recording (est. 1992), Charlotte NC’s oldest recording studio.