Quick notes on the topic of Panda; an oldschool audiofool ‘chiming in’...
Firstly=> Congratulations Drop.com (community and contributors) for creating a space that these things might come about!
Planars are certainly considered a ‘step up’ product vs dynamic drivers of yesteryear.. And whilst a headphones comfort and style can easily affect the cost,.. the sheer product costs of doing planar right pushes them into mid-fi and above price points.
I have owned a few sets of entry level (and better) planars (and many dozens of flagship and lesser headphones over the previous few decades), and have some observations to contribute, that may actually be worthwhile of someones time.
Some opinions based on observation: (of headphones in general, and planars specifically;)
Headphones are the ‘lowest cost’ entry to HiFi sound vs an amplifier and speakers, for equal sound quality costing 10x more
People generally observe louder as better sound.
Someone new to audio will generally be looking for differences in bass delivery (its obvious and easily quantifiable).
Great equipment will make lesser kit reveal itself.
Flagship equipment from decades past will seriously flog modern ‘got lots of badges/logos/patents’ and lots of ‘five star reviews’ type budget solutions. Whilst this isn’t ALWAYS the case, I have a few flagship Dolby Digital parts that I would choose anyday over multi thousand dollar high end receivers that handle DTS Master Audio etc... Sound done right will always be exactly that! (and most often the five star reviewed budget equipment is ‘five stars’ for the category and PRICE BRACKET, many people do not understand this fundamental fact).
Training oneself to detect nuances/differences is a life pursuit and doesn’t happen overnight. (in the nineties I would listen at length to recorded distortion figures [0.1%,0.3%,1%,3%,10% etc], that combined with being around at the intro to compressed music (minidisc/low bitrate mp3s etc) has trained my ear to detect compression effects on the music.. (even much higher bitrates), and threshold of hearing variances in equipment being listened to. Listening to a massive range of equipment (from hi end dedicated headphone amps, to early 80’s NAD 3020s etc (and owning extensive hifi kit from the sixties to today)), means I have seen the waves of consumer products and understand that, with everything built to ‘a price point’, not all equipment matches well.
To this end: I like equipment that is flatline/studio in reproduction, even if it makes garbage recordings and codecs sound bad. [solution=>have better recordings and equipment]
A lot of ‘audio myths’ reveal themselves as ‘actual things’ when you have the kilobuck level equipment that reveals the differences. (It took an actuary friends’ wife to raise my awareness that USB cables mattered, as her blind testing consistently put the $1500 cable above the $500 one, and put the $50 at the ‘bottom of the heap’).
When I bought a few reference class CD transports (TEAC P700/highly upgraded Denon DCD-S10) sorting out jitter, and having DACs of sufficient quality to make use of ‘perfect sound’/reveal the differences of having ‘more errors’ in the stream; has all lead to an ear training that means I have to lock my PC sound card (a $500 shielded 2channel card, with more gold on it than I have given my long term partner) to the same sampling rate as the source file or else the ‘dither’ kills cymbal crashes etc and I feel that the ‘high fidelity’ has been robbed from the music recording.
Gist being- I am not a musician, and won’t define the timbre of an instument being correct (but find yourself a few reviewers who are and ‘know their stuff’/appreciate the same music types as yourself; their advice will prove GOLDEN), but from a scientific/technical perspective, I can really understand the tech, and its’ general relevance’ to the market, and potentially the ‘value proposition’ of a given piece of kit,..
Note: it has taken decades on constant training to learn my ‘skillset’, and most of the nuances I experience would be undetectable to most. That being said, I have built beautiful audio rigs that have revealed how poor a persons ‘perfect mp3’ catalogue isn’t, even with basic three piece bands.. These sorts of rigs need be fed well!
Personally, whilst I advocate cables changing system sound, I would NEVER have a customer dedicate budget to them. Sure cables can tailor a sound, and I could even describe the changes brought, nuanced as they are, with so much verbage as to convince some people as to how essential an upgrade a cable might be! (the reality is “buy a sound you like, and tweak the last X-factor, if the rig can benefit from it with hobby money down the track”)
So whilst many would say ‘burn the witch’ when I speak such heresy as ‘driver break-in’ or ‘amplifier quality’, the (subjective) reality I present will talk about such notions as being factual. (-based on decades of scientifically tested observable phenomenon, and more ‘play’ than many could ever find the time to ‘enjoy’.)
So whilst I DO NOT HAVE A SET OF THE PANDA’s, I am going to talk about mid tier planars a wee bit... and a few things to consider when sorting out a reasonable sound chain for ‘budget money’.
Firstly my opinion on the Panda; Buy!
Second opinion; Buy with confidence!
Back up statement: Just do it. Save yourself the time reading and comparing and ‘learning’, and spend more time enjoying your music and living your life. (and be able to wear/listen/enjoy them whilst sitting around reading about the product, like you are doing now)
When we Drop pundits first read about the concept of what the Panda would be, many of us felt the wait would be unbearable... We want it and we want it NOW, we thought. The last half a year has had the Pandas’ evolve beautifully, something that needed to happen for this product to not be ‘a flash in the pan’.
What has been created has legs. These things should go far. A more perfect design for low cost ‘audiofool’ quality couldn’t be found. These were to be, and are proving themselves as, the headphone to buy if you are after the one product to rule them all, no need to keep upgrading, set of high quality sound playback, it is true that many people on this planet have NEVER HEARD the quality that these give.
So Planar means ‘flat’, the driver is a whole moving surface, and this eliminates many of the design issues that regular headphones, read ‘dynamic’ driver headphones, have had for decades. Yamaha made some orthodynamics in the early eighties, but the tech has come ‘a long way’ is an understatement.. I sold my flagship yamahas off about a decade ago, as they were not good for portable use, and for home use I wouldn’t be willing to give up on full bass/persist with their relative discomfort etc. When I last auditioned them it was using a beaut transport into a reference DAC, feeding into a few musical fidelity seperates, and even the Musical Fidelity tube headphone amp couldn’t turn them into what most people would seek for sound signature.
Planars in the ‘modern world’, referring to the ‘naughties as aeons beyond the ‘eighties, brought so much manufacture process refinement, that planars could be made cost efficiently and light enough to sell them to the masses. Planars represented HIGH END sound. Fifteen years on and we have that product so well refined that now we can have them at budget prices, just about, AND drive them from low powered headphone amps as found on our phones and portable rigs..
This evolution has largely been with regards to making the planar surface thinner (lighter) and stronger rare earth magnets. The latest evolution has allowed the magnet arrays to be on the outside only of the planar surface (reduces efficiency slightly, but lowers weight of headphone) (/or) (lowers cost and raises comfort).
So efficiency (electrical) has evolved so much that super low powered amplifiers (ie the ones we would have to put in the ear cups of a bluetooth model in order to amplify the sound) will generate enough output to move the ‘WALL of’ driver, and allow refined controlled, nuanced music playback as a reality in a portable (planar) ‘can.
This idea hasn’t always been perfectly achievable.
To reference the Mobius, made by Audeze, as a competitor to the Panda is fair; they both do many of the same things, and there a a few areas that the Panda allows a hands down win with regards to much higher quality being possible, that the Mobius are a ‘toy’ by comparison. (for music, certainly)
Having compared two ‘closed back’ Audeze planars, both of a similar ‘entry price point’ (/vastly higher than the Pandas), the Mobius are massively held back in reproduction quality by the inferior amp module and potentially the lack of Apt-X HD bluetooth (a vastly better codec than the top tier LDAC 990).
When I feed my non bluetooth Audeze planars from a reasonable mid tier Digital Audio Player (DAP), they massively outflavour the Mobius, even vs the Mobius in hardwired ‘DAC’ mode. When fed from a better DAC/Amp, eg a Chord Hugo, the Mobius are held back so much in sound quality that they prove unlistenable, vs the sound that an entry level planar headphone would reveal in the same situation.
The Mobius are great headphones, and everyone can enjoy dancing around untethered with bluetooth so many great things are said about them all over the interweb,.. but they would be massively flogged in the sound quality department by the Pandas when used as ‘regular headphones’.
The exception might be if using a phone to output. The playing field would be levelled if the source kit was no better than the included DAC/amp module built into the Mobius. Sadly the Mobius have to redigitise any analogue sources (the Pandas do not) so the sound they output will be totally limited to the quality of the DAC/AMP modules inside, and feeding them ‘high power’ output (eg from an LG flagship phone), might simply break them/will only lead to distorted sound..
Audeze and Hifiman are considered some of the most dedicated and better planar headphone manufacturers on the market. Oppo were, but just like every market sector they turn their attention on, they come for a while, revolutionise the value/quality pricepoint, sell to everyone interested, and then pack up and go and do the same in another industry. (eg Video players, then Headphones, and presently Mobile Phones)
Drop taking the Oppo PM3 design, and ‘bringing it back’ for those who missed out, whilst giving it the ‘wireless treatment’, and making use of parts/product evolution, the Pandas make for an interesting proposition,.. One they succeeded in delivering!
By pairing them up with the trinity of requisite bluetooth wireless codecs (AAC/APTX/LDAC), and allowing them to have a defeatable DAC, whilst offering a solid amplifier module built in, means the Pandas can work with ANYTHING we give them, and make it shine to the best of its’ ability.
It is only in the last few years that quality ‘portable capable’ planar with lightweight comfort and a realistic pricepoint for the masses not into ‘summit-fi’ (top tier excellence & COST), has been a reality.
Drops industry partnership with people who make the technologies we demand, and bringing to market at prices we can swallow, is a fundamental game changer.
Sure, I have the patience to go to a dedicated audio shop and listen to a range of headphones using familiar equipment and music tracks, with an ear trained for specific issues i am looking for, but most people just want to feel comfortable in their next purchase and are willing to spend some time invested in the ‘right solution’, by reading others impressions of ‘said equipment’.
Without having the Pandas on my head, what can I offer, honestly, as important to those considering this next (big) purchase?
Planars are a big step up from most headphones in the lower tier price points (which I believe is typically <$350 US dollars), here in Australia, I have owned many many headphones that sell for ~$500 (australian), probably equivalent to the best bang for buck amount on headphones around the $350 US mark. The jump up in quality to the next price bracket, if not spending on fashion (eg leathers and nice polished metals etc), generally requires better AMPs and sometimes DACs to net the big sound improvement over the tier below.
Basically, without going headphone hobby crazy, something like the Panda proves perfect. Good enough amplification, matched, to its’ specific needs.
The ability to resolve massive amounts of detail (will scale to hi res formats/better sources), will prove reference to enjoy future hifi upgrades elsewhere in the chain. (remember, the Audeze Mobius(and replacement Penrose?) CANNOT DO THIS).
LDAC inferior to APTX HD? (yes this isn’t a bitrate thing, but simply Apt-X uses industry ’known for decades trickery’ to make the bandwidth much more practical than the numbers imply), combined with any ‘busy area’ (wireless frequencies saturation) not being able to sustain LDAC 990, and oft dropping back to LDAC 660, LDAC whilst technically sounding superior (on paper), in the real world Apt-X HD (at 660kbps) has enough resolution for acceptable wireless, whilst delivering superior sound playback than LDAC 990 (based on extensive personal testing, and over 100 hours spent reading the white docs on both formats).
I would want my bluetooth headphones to have BOTH of these codecs, (AAC as well to stop a whole extra conversion stage being done to Apple files over bluetooth if I was in an Apple ecosystem) and would choose APT X HD as the superior given the options.
Planars need break in. Some recent Hifimans I am still breaking in PER THE MANUFACTURERS REQUEST, changed so much in their presentation in the first fifty hours, I wouldn’t think they are the same headphone. These are subtle variations on the sound, generally the little nuances like air/echo that make the soundfield change in presentation. I won’t argue that ‘break in’ is so ‘dramatic’ as to register on a signal to noise test, or whatever arbitrary method we are using to evaluate musical reproduction as a nice neat number (an oxymoronic proposition at the best of times). Again, I state I am not a ‘muso’ and I have little opinion with regards to timbre of an instrument over its entire frequency range, I wholeheartedly have heard, first hand on dozens of large driver headphones (with appropriate playback chain) massive differences in sound playback that affect the enjoyment of said equipment. I have learned to NEVER review equipment during the ‘break in’ stage.
Those Hifiman planars, at the 100 hour mark, are just starting to get the full package sound. (out of the box their soundfield was right through the middle of my head, very little, if any, front-to-back soundstage. Also they had no ‘centre stage’, sounds transitioning hard from left to right. It took fifty hours to develop a ‘centre stage’. They are still noticeably improving, subjective to my decades of training, in ways that I find massive. Their actual sound output might appear relatively unchanged to a casual. Driver break in affecting their ultimate excursion/responsiveness might only measure 0.3dB on a chart and be considered irrelevant to an engineering student, but the human ear detecting sound pressure logarythmically, I would empathise that an increase in a particular bass note by THAT MUCH would be highly noticable, and if the song had a beat in an affected ‘boosted’ area, the sound change could easily affect ‘toe tapping’ enjoyment, and would be considered a substantial change.
At the very least, I can purport that decades of hearing audio kit vary after a ‘little bit of break in’, it is a phenomena that can prove itself in weird places, but the sound difference with large driver headphones is the most obvious BY FAR.
So a few tests with some planars lying around the house shows that whilst they can be made sensitive to be easily driven by small amounts of power (think: headphone out from a phone or a game consoles’ controller) they do benefit from much better driver control, inherent with bigger amplifiers/not driving amps out of their best range of performance.
a FIIO K5 dock (a wall powered headphone amp) bolstered the sound quality output from the FiiO X5version3 (a Digital Audio Player), itself nearly unlistenable vs the sound from the Chord Hugo (Cambridge Audio DAC MAGIC Plus et al), and eventually using the headphone output on a flagship Marantz receiver (would make a Vioelectic V100 headphone amplifier blush), the better quality amp used to control the planar, the better the sound.
Hence why my experience with the Audeze Mobius proved so horrible; it was a massive sound downstep from an entry level Audeze being fed from a better amp) In context, the Mobius vs other Audeze planar fed from a flagship phone, the differences were close to nil to care (=> yes; entry level Digital Audio Players generally flog the BEST phones, better DAPs are untouchable by even the BEST phones..)
Panda having some actual thought given to their matching power amp (and real bluetooth codecs), the combination is an unbeatable, droolworthy product.
One that will stay with us and allow a reference to high quality sound as any other part of our playback chain varies. Certainly these headphones will be reference enough to reveal weaker internet radio broadcasts vs hi res etc..
Note: I set my amplifier level, generally, to the level required for the vocolist to be singing at ‘the right volume’. None of these aforementioned amplifier upgrades was for ‘moar powa’ (’more power’ for those using translators) but for better driver control/better sound quality (not quantity). I understand many do not grasp this concept, so I allude to it briefly as a ‘stepping stone’ to all things audio.
The old adage that all amps BUILT RIGHT should sound the same. (the literature that came with my Quad 303 states it quite factually), but matching components it a ‘big thing’ in the modern world where MANY different pricepoints/tiers of equimpment exist.
The Pandas having a well matched set of parts pre selected by people who know what they are doing, is a match made in heaven. This product should top the tier of hifi considered at the crossroads of ‘best bang for buck’, and ‘beyond this point, price to performance ratio goes silly’.
They are worthy of high quality sources and sound files. (‘nuff said!)
<edited to fix typos>