Ask a tone-head what makes his Fender Strat or Gibson Les Paul Goldtop sound so good, and there's a good chance the top answer will be "the wood." The acoustic benefits of wood are well known, yet many audiophiles enjoy their music through headphone drivers encased in plastic and metal. Californians Joe Huff and Bridget Hilton believe that this simply won't do, and have created a line of wood-flavored audio products to add that certain something to our personal music enjoyment. The lstn Bowerys are in-ear earphones, the Fillmores are on-ear headphones and the Troubadours are over-ear headphones, and all of the models are offered in beech, cherry or ebony. Gizmag was sent a pair of beech Troubadours for review, so let's find out how they performed.
lstn is not alone in thinking that the use of wood for the headphone housing adds that special warm and natural tone found in instruments such as guitars, violins, pianos and so on. Denon treated last year's AH-D5000, and AH-D7000 cans to some mahogany love, though there's something of a price premium to go with them. Closer to review unit home are the Stir it Up headphones from the House of Marley, which have similar-sized drivers as the Troubadours, and also use beech for the outer housings.
Officially launched in April, the Troubadours have a reported frequency range from 18 Hz to 22 kHz, a sensitivity of 101 dB (±3 dB at 1 KHz/1 mW), 32 Ohm impedance, and a rated input power of 30 mW. The sound signature for the Troubadours is said to be the same as the other models in the range, though the three woods can result in different listening experiences.
"We wanted a lifestyle headphone that reached all types of music lovers," says Hilton. "I often see headphones that are marketed towards one genre or type of person, which is what we didn't want. We found a hole in the market where no one was offering a product that sounded good, looked good and did good all at the same time. lstn is aiming to provide products that have a classic feel, like a Ray Ban or Levi's, mixed with great sound and an amazing charity component that's built into our company DNA. We wanted a product that didn't identify the consumer as just a fan of hip hop, or just as a gamer, etc. We didn't want a sound that was overly-anything."
That charity component takes the form of a percentage of the proceeds from every purchase being donated to the Starkey Hearing Foundation by the folks at lstn, to help efforts to restore hearing to those in need.
The ebony Troubadours are described as having a powerful bass with dynamic tones, vivid clarity and hi-fidelity in mids and high frequencies if you're listening to music. The cherry models are less bass-driven, but the mids and highs are said to be especially rich and bright for vocals. The beech units we were sent are claimed to have a very warm sound, where the entire graph is pretty balanced in low, mid and high frequencies.
The outer face of the 40-mm driver housing is fashioned from reclaimed beech, sourced from furniture and flooring companies and offered in a dye-free natural state. The blonde/light brown wood adds a touch of individually to the proceedings, since no two are likely to sport exactly the same grain. Two-tone, chrome and black plastic sits inbetween the wood and the plush synthetic leather and foam earpads.
At one end of the 1.2-m (4-ft), nylon-wrapped cable is an angled 3.5-mm gold-plated jack that plugs into your audio source. Follow the cable to the other end and you're presented with rather nice wood-wrapped audio jacks that plug into the headphones at the bottom of each earcup. Interestingly, the cable ends are labeled left and right but the earcups are not, leaving the channel choice to the user. There's an in-line microphone and simple control button in the center of the left cable.
Up top are a pair of brushed metal headbands, each with a thin layer of cushioning along the inner edge. At first glance, these strips look rather uncomfortable, but though they didn't provide very much at all by way of luxurious comfort, they weren't too bad at all. Size adjustments are made by pushing what look like snipped hose clamps through a mechanism partly hidden by triangular aluminum alloy casing topped by black plastic. The resulting aesthetic gives a rather pleasant old ham radio feel to the Troubadours.
Though the Troubadours are being sold as over-the-ear cans, the inner cup measures a little less than 2 inches from top to bottom. This means that rather than rest on the head, the headphones rest on the outer ear.
"If comparing our Fillmores vs Troubadours, the Troubadours are more of an over-ear headphone," explains Hilton. "However it all depends on the size of your head, ears, etc. For some people, the Troubadours are an on-ear headphone. We try to not market them too much on either side, as they are really in-between – smaller than the average over-ear headphone, bigger than the average on-ear. Eventually lstn will create a true over-the ear model, but right now these are our biggest ones."
Even though the earpads didn't form a perfect seal because of the rather awkward on- and off-ear placement caused by the size of the pads, those around me didn't seem too concerned about any audio escaping through the gaps. Wrapping them around the head of my nearest and dearest, I noted that music did manage to get free, but at such a level that fellow passengers on the busy train shouldn't be too inconvenienced by the tunes being thrown down your canals.
I can also confirm that with the audio playing at a comfortable level, the Troubadours did a pretty decent job of passively isolating me from the rumbling of the portable aircon unit. Not active-noise-canceling good, but not too shabby.
As you might expect, I've listened to an awful lot of music for this review. Most have been MP3 and FLAC digital music files, though I've also spent quite a bit of time with my vinyl and CD collections, and have watched some DVD and MP4 videos, too. In all cases, the source devices had the EQ flattened.
The Troubadours thump out enough bottom end to suit most modern tastes, though possibly a little too much for my liking. Low- and mid-range bass did have a tendency to merge into one with a few of the tracks I selected for this review, the lower register on guitars, the bass and the kick losing individual definition and punch as a result.
On such occasions, this centered bass end could also bleed over lower mid ranges and give the vocal performance less importance in the mix, and significantly weaken or thin down other instrumentation. Some of my older rock music was also prone to sibilance through these headphones, which was only made worse by any attempt at EQ tweaking.
The stereo image can feel a little cramped and uneven at times, with far too much prominence being given to a thick and sometimes pudgy low end. Although, some digitally crisp and clean tracks in the test bed did actually benefit from some of the warmth offered by these units.
One of the big surprises with these headphones was just how comfortable they feel in extended use. They're very light on the head (188 g / 6.6 oz) and, though difficult to shake off even in my most head-bopping, carried-away moments, they don't feel too bad against the ears, and didn't turn up the heat quite as much as I expected either.
The Troubadours don't collapse or fold down for ease of transport, though they do easily fit into the supplied bag (annoyingly, the carry bag does have a tendency to leave little bits of itself wherever you place it).
Revisiting each test track for subjective comment would take forever, so I've chosen a few tasty examples to give an idea of the kind of experiences I've had with these headphones.
First up is Bottle of Whiskey from the Allison, McCray, Weathersby and Peterson album Triple Fret. The wonderfully funky bass on this track is one example where the bottom end can bleed into the lower mids, overpowering some instrumentation and weakening the vocals. While in itself, this would probably not be serious enough to warrant a change of cans mid-song in order to fully enjoy this power blues track, the bass here was just a little too muddy for my liking and had me reaching for my Sennheiser HDs in double-quick time.
Next we head into a dark, shadowy world where electronica meets metal. Even on the best headphones I've tried, Out of Line by Device (featuring Serj Tankian) suffers from a touch of "tsh" and "sh" sibilance on the vocals (particularly backing vocals) and noticeable hi-hat/cymbal distortion. Both are handled pretty well through these headphones, however, resulting in a less annoying listening experience than with some of the more expensive models available. As with many bass-tuned headphones, other instruments can get a bit sidelined, but overall the Troubadours give this anthemic offering a pretty good run.
A bit of a lo-fi experiment coming up now, in the shape of a band that makes use of an old suitcase for a kick drum, a home-made guitar and a rather, ahem, "weathered" slap bass. Diddley Squat from the Hightown Crows features raw and energetic slide guitar to the left, bursts of distorted harmonica to the right, and pounding rhythms from drums and bass in the middle.
This low-quality recording has an old tape and Neve feel to it, and the Troubadours performed a mite better with this self-produced CD than they did with some of my older rock vinyls. If I was going to be picky, I would say that the bass and kick (suitcase) did get merged into one almighty thud at times, but by happy accident (though I'm certain purists will disagree), it suited the music well and added some extra authenticity to the performance.
I've found myself listening to quite a bit of Richie Havens recently, undoubtedly saddened by his death earlier in the year. Though there are a good many live versions floating around, including the famous Woodstock appearance, I've chosen a studio version of Handsome Johnny for this review, mainly because a punchy bass joins the powerful strumming and throaty protest of Havens. While said bass is perhaps given more limelight than is necessary, it's still complementary rather than overpowering and allows the singer's instantly-recognizable vocal power to shine.
Rounding these few musical examples off is If I Had A Tail by Queens of the Stone Age. Again, the sound signature places both kick and bass further forward in the mix than they would otherwise be. Where this can lead to other instruments fighting for space in the margins, the guitars and vocals here are well presented and given the room they need to breathe. Not exactly the thrill ride it should be, but not a bad performance.
Not being much of a gamer these days, I didn't have any play time during this review, but did get to watch a few DVDs, including the first series of Sherlock, some Red Dwarf X, and all three Back to the Future movies. The overall delivery was pretty similar to that experienced with the music. This resulted in a tad too much boom when scenes called for a big bang, but otherwise the Troubadours performed pretty well.
The Troubadours are a very good-looking pair of headphones. The sound signature is a little too bass-heavy for my personal taste and, despite the earlier words from company founder Bridget Hilton, I get the feeling that it was designed to please the hip-hop or modern RnB folks more than as a general crowd-pleaser, but that seems to be the way of the sound design world these days.
Performance at the bottom end can range from pretty good to quite disappointing, with soupy bass bleed cropping up from time to time to spoil the party mood. Elsewhere, vocals generally push through well, though instrumentation can feel a little marginalized at times. I also detected a touch of sibilance and distortion in the higher mids and top end on occasion, especially with old vinyl rock songs.
At the end of the day, choosing headphones can be just as personal as musical taste. My particular leaning is to a more neutral and precise sound than the Troubadours can offer. There are other models in this price range that might tick the boxes on my list better than these lstn units (my Beyerdynamic DT cans for example), but few (if any) are as visually arresting, rarer still are those made using reclaimed wood, and then there's that important charitable donation to consider.
The lstn Troubadours are available now for US$150.
The co-founders share what lstn is all about in the video below.
Product page: Troubadours
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