When Branding Meets Audio – Not Always a Good Mix

The other day I was in an electronics retailer that has a dedicated headphone room with plenty of models for demo. It’s a great idea, but I was disappointed with the lack of quality in their range. However, they were stocking a range I hadn’t seen before – House of Marley. I was instantly interested because of the status and legacy of Bob Marley, but I was equally wary because of my past experiences with musician branded headphones. Just because a musician’s name is used, it doesn’t mean the sound quality is top notch.

I was curious to check out the Marley range and listened to 3 models, the Destiny TTR, the Stir It Up and the Exodus. This isn’t a full review of any of them, but some initial impressions that might help.

Destiny TTR

House of Marley: Destiny TTR

My first impression of these phones was “wow!” Picking these up, they’re beautifully made with high quality metals and great design touches like the rasta red/green/yellow around the edge. The sound was punchy, the bass was tight and solid, but not overpowering and the detail was surprisingly good.

The TTRs are an active headphone – that little bezel you can see on the side of the phones is actually an on/off switch for the active amplification and noise cancellation circuit. The active style is what gives these phones their great sound signature and presence, but it also created the 2 issues that caused me to walk away a little unsatisfied.

Issue 1: In moments of silence I could hear a definite buzz from the circuit. I can’t confirm if the buzz was from the in-store source hookup or if it was the headphones themselves. If you’re looking at these headphones, just do a check with your music player plugged in, but the volume very low. If you can hear a buzz you might want to explore other options.

Issue 2: This is not a fault of the TTRs alone, but more a symptom of active noise cancellation. In order to stop us hearing the world around us, cancellation circuits use a microphone to capture the outside sounds and pump their exact opposite directly into our ears. As you know, -3 + 3 = 0 so the result we hear is nothing (or close to nothing), but that doesn’t mean there’s no sound happening. To create the pseudo-silence, the headphones are actually creating a certain level of sound pressure and this is my issue. If you have no music playing and switch the TTRs on and off you can feel a massive change in the pressure applied to your ears. For me, this pressure becomes fatiguing in time and I find the overall experience quite uncomfortable. I would choose a good pair of in-ear (noise isolating) earphones any day over noise cancellation.

Summary: As I said, this isn’t a full review, but the TTRs had a great sound signature and were fun to listen to across a range of music. They aren’t audiophile level by any stretch, but if you’re looking for good sound in a noise-cancelling headphone that looks awesome and is beautifully built then the TTRs could be just right. (Don’t forget to check for that buzz before you buy.)

Stir It Up

House of Marley: Stir it Up

Of all the Marley range, these were the ones I wanted to love. What looks yellow in the picture here is actually a beautiful real wood trim on each earphone cup. They feel like high quality headphones and they fit beautifully – comfortable with a good seal over the ear. Unfortunately the sound totally let me down. The mids were too forward and the sound felt muffled and stifled. The bass was solid, but there was just not enough treble detail and power to cut through the “mud”.

These are probably a great headphone for certain music styles where the high end isn’t a feature (R&B, hip hop, etc.), but I didn’t have time to test this specifically so give them a listen if you like those styles and please let me know your thoughts.

Summary: Great design and build quality, but disappointing sound signature. Not enough treble for the sound to come alive.

Exodus

House of Marley: Exodus

The Exodus phones were my last stop in the audition process because I wasn’t as much a fan of their design. That said, they’re still cooler than most other headphones I’ve seen. The top headband is wood with a second soft leather band that sits on your head. So far so good, but then the cups are covered in leather with a soft fabric over the hole to the drivers and here-in lies the problem.

When I put these headphones on, there was a slight bit of fiddling required to get the right stretch from the elasticised headband, but once that was adjusted correctly it was fine. What wasn’t fine was the feeling of the cups against my ear. The opening to the drivers has a rough edge. The leather’s soft so it’s not scratchy or anything, but I found the sensation of the flat surface against my ear was quite uncomfortable. I felt like the headphones weren’t fitted properly and I kept wanting to adjust them.

Another issue I had was that straight out of the sealed box there was a fault in the left earphone. There was some sound coming from the left, but not much. It sounded like the effect created if the headphone jack isn’t quite plugged in properly. All of that’s unfortunate, because it sounded like the sound quality would have been quite nice otherwise.

Based on the right side only (and a strange distant echo from the left) it seemed like the Exodus headphones have a really balanced sound with nice detail, but a smooth signature overall. The bass was still punchy and solid, but there didn’t seem to be any of the muddiness of the Stir It Up model.

Overall: These are probably worth checking out if you’re after a funky pair of phones with a good balanced sound, but make sure you try them on before you buy them. The ear cup design might be comfortable for some, but it wasn’t for me. Also, be aware of the cable quality. It may be that the fault I experienced is a sign of things to come in the life of these headphones. It could be a one off fault or it could be that the cable design is the weak link in the toughness of these phones.

Lachlan Fennen Written by:

Facilitator, training design consultant, blogger / writer and amateur photographer

2 Comments

  1. […] wondered what happens when you let musicians design an earphone? No, not branding exercises like Beats, Marley, or certain AKG models, but musicians having an actual say in the design and […]

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