Review: Master & Dynamic MW60 Wireless Over Ear Headphones

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The headband for the Master & Dynamic MW60 headphones feature solid stitching through the premium leather(Credit: Stanley Goodner/Gizmag)

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Master & Dynamic has been drawing attention in the personal audio market as of late, combining quality audio with sharp design. We were recently sent a pre-production review unit of its latest MW60 Wireless Over Ear Headphones to check out ... inside of a high-quality aluminum travel case from Zero Halliburton, no less.

Design & Connectivity

The Master & Dynamic MW60 headphones are made with wonderfully premium materials and precision machining. The look, feel, and smell is all there. Along with the cowhide and lambskin leather are satin-finish steel and aluminum, fabric, and even enamel-filled logos on the outside center of each cup. Only a meager amount of plastic can be found underneath the magnetically-attached ear cups. The construction feels industrial-tough throughout, especially when it concerns the hinges. Drop these and the most you'll have to worry about is collecting a scuff or two and/or wiping off dirt. The MW60 folds up compact, which makes it a little more portable and less bulky than many other over-ear headphones.

There are 19 steps for volume, with the max earning a "beep" and the min a hollow "thunk" as audible indicators. The minimum level on the headphones mutes all sound no matter what a connected device has set. Volume buttons located on the right are easy to feel with the thumb, click clean with only a faint "tick" being heard through the cups, and do double-duty for track skip/repeat with a press-hold. The center button handles play/pause and voice calls/activation. You'll also find the micro USB port for charging, which can also update firmware when available. The left ear cup has the power/pairing switch as well as 3.5-mm cable jack for wired purity.

The cups (housing 45-mm custom drivers) swivel but don't like flat, which can make the MW60 less than ideal for wearing/resting about the neck. The final production model will feature a slightly longer and better-curved headband, which may help this aspect some. The hinges have a semi-click feel when fully deployed, yet don't lock firmly into place. The piston adjustment of each arm is good and holds position once set, with the retail version promising even smoother motion. However, the vertical adjustment length is a scant 5/8-in, which can be problematic for those with larger head sizes (more on this later). The internal audio cables are practically invisible, tucked away for protection and aesthetic.

The Master & Dynamic MW60 features Bluetooth 4.1 that supports multiple codecs, including aptX. But the kicker is that these headphones are designed with a greater reach than your everyday wireless pair. The left ear cup features a trio of opaque lines, which are part of the external antenna system that is meant to give the MW60 its long-range wireless capability, up to four times the industry average (generally 33 ft / 10 m).

Unfortunately, this pre-production review unit was unable to maintain a connection beyond 31 ft under best conditions (outside in open space), let alone 120 ft. The indoor functional range (around corners, furniture, moving bodies, etc.) capped out at a tenuous 19 ft, which is about as standard as one can get. And even within range of a paired device, the connection quality suffered intermittent blips in the audio playback.

The MW60 headphones come complete with USB and audio cables, a cylindrical leather cable container, a zippered canvas case for the MW60, and a small drawstring pouch for the cables (to go inside the canvas case). If you want to draw attention while out in public, the Zero Halliburton case certainly makes a statement. The included cables are fabric-wrapped, which helps to make them very tangle-resistant. The cable memory is OK, so it takes a bit of time before they straighten out after being uncoiled. Although the cable does transmit some line noise, the audio effect is low and blunted.

Comfort

The leather-wrapped headband is thinly-cushioned on both the top and underside. It doesn't seem to need more than what it has, despite the MW60 weighing in at a hefty 345 g. Even though the production model will have an improved curve – one that follows more closely to a natural head shape – the headband can be gently reshaped to fit. More contact against the head leads to a greater distribution of force, so the MW60 doesn't feel like it's bearing down on one single spot. But even if the headphones may not feel as heavy as they are, looking down too quickly and/or too far will lead them to slip out of place, sometimes falling off.

Each ear pad is filled with comfortably spongy memory foam, with the production version promising more softness to it. The MW60's swiveling hinge design allows ample vertical and lateral movement, so the pads can conform to head shapes. It also helps to better evenly-distribute the clamping force, which provides a good grip without undue excess. If you happen to have small, cute ears, the MW60's foam-filled pads are likely to fit perfectly. But for everyone else with average size (or greater) and/or differently shaped ears, expect these oval cushions to be on the narrow and shallow side. Even those with average-sized ears may have to poke earlobes in.

The upside of narrow pads is having less material spread out on your face/cheek. But the downside is that some ears may have to squeeze in and experience constant touching against the insides. Not only that, human ears tend to angle back instead of aligning perfectly along the vertical y-axis. The MW60 headphones don't really factor this in, which makes the pads feel even smaller (depending). Pushing the band back in order to compensate usually leads to having the whole thing slip off. Those with small- to average-sized heads can expect this to happen on occasion, while everyone else with bigger heads may experience an entirely different problem.

Even after manually adjusting and reshaping the headband, the MW60 ear cups won't reach down far enough for many with above-average-sized heads. This may still be as likely with the production version, depending on how much more length the band will have. Despite appearances, the MW60's piston arms extend by only 5/8 in, which (at best) can leave earlobes exposed.

But the problem with short headphone arms (respective to an individual's head size/shape) is that the insufficient length leads to aligning the clamping force above the ear's horizontal center. This means that the tops of ear pads will squish more than the bottoms, resulting in greater wearing fatigue. Even with the soft memory foam pads, the feeling against one's temple can range from a tolerable, pinching sensation to dull, directed pressure. And if you wear glasses, especially with wide or thick stems, this persistent, misplaced force can and will tweak with fit/vision.

Comfort isn't the MW60's only challenge. What may end up as the most significant issue with these headphones is the difficulty involved with achieving a full and complete seal. Even if the MW60's ear pads weren't designed to slope slightly back and away, you'd still have a finger's width of open space separating skin from the bottom parts of the pads. Head size, at least with this pre-production review unit, doesn't seem to make much of a difference. Whether these cans were worn by a big-headed adult or small-headed 10-year-old, the foam cushions weren't deep or thick enough to maintain contact against the neck area below and behind the ear. But that's all it takes to send music into a critical nosedive, bottoming out mids and lows into nothingness.

Hopefully, the production model addresses these fit-related issues. It's one thing to wear headphones that aren't particularly uncomfortable, yet are not even close to comfortable either. It's an entirely different thing to have the audio performance wholly contingent on how well the headphones fit.

Audio Performance

Assuming that the headphones are a fit/comfort match made in heaven, the volume gets plenty loud. Max volume on both the headphones and connected device land right at the cusp of painful (i.e. uncomfortably tolerable) while also developing an electronic buzzing noise (a few clicks down eliminates this). Volume-related distortion starts to creep in beyond the 75 percent volume mark on a device if the headphones happen to be maxed out. At its worst, highs sound wiry, the mids turn hollow as if they've run out of space to expand sound, and lows lose their bottom end. Compared to many other headphones out there, the MW60 handles distortion like a champ, which only happens if you like your music crazy/stinging loud. And no matter the volume, the Bluetooth connection is completely clean with no electronic hiss.

If you have issues with fit and seal, expect minimal isolation, increased audio leaking, and a significant lack of low-end richness. But with a good seal (hands/beanie had to hold the cups flush in order to accurately evaluate audio for this review), the MW60 blocks out ambient noise as you'd expect from a closed-back set of over-ear headphones. The ear cups dull the sounds of voice conversations around you and eliminate the low droning of computer fans or humming appliances. As for leaking, someone would have to be practically sitting on your lap in order to hear music playing at moderate volume levels.

Despite streaming through Bluetooth and headphone hardware, the MW60 delivers audio that sounds as though it were coming from a live performance. There's no electronic tinge, and music sounds very present and natural to the ear. You can hear the distinct layers and track complexity, and identify individual elements within each piece. The soundstage is open with a depth that complements the width, providing vocals and instruments with ample room and space enough to breathe. The left/right stereo movement is both smooth and spirited, which paints vivid imaging all across the stage.

The MW60's level of clarity and dynamic range is also excellent. In Hozier's song, To Be Alone, you can hear the jingle of tambourines at the fringes and rear of the stage just as clearly as you can the growling guitars and beating drums. Not only is the tambourine very present, but each hit sounds slightly different while retaining a distinct metallic texture. This is the kind of detail that can end up as background blur with lesser audio devices. The MW60 headphones are on-point when it comes to the characterizing instruments and highlighting such aspects of sound. You can hear the visceral slap of fingers against taut drum surfaces, noting the subtle changes of how the instrument is being played. And although the Master & Dynamic MW60 rewards for high-quality or lossless audio, all music (including those via streaming services) still sounds wonderful.

If you love bright and energetic vocals, the MW60 will plaster a smile across your face all day. Hozier's breathy words express soulfulness. Listen to Matisyahu, and you can hear the passion and inspiration within his voice. Axl Rose croons with melodic raspiness. Backup vocals, even the quieter ones, aren't ever marginalized or lost in the background. The MW60 headphones do an incredible job at delivering the same stirring effect from vocals, naturally, no matter if a whispered hush or anguished bellow. In some rare instances, depending on the artist and recording, vocals can seem a little too bright. But that's totally up to personal preference (and only if you really want to reach for something to nitpick).

With the overall clarity comes some crisp highs that really shine when playing strings or percussion (e.g. hammered dulcimer) instruments. Cymbal crashes and strikes against hi-hats are sharp, metallic, and without thin tinniness. There is some added focus, which tends to have instruments stand out a touch more than expected. But in a good way. The level of detail is welcome, especially for those who love to hear precise performances of classical or orchestrated music. But where the MW60 really nails it is how it delivers such clear highs without sibilance. You don't get exaggerated "ssssss" sounds or harsh consonants with vocals.

The mids are lightly colored, which adds a warm embellishment to instruments. It definitely makes for a more inviting and natural-sounding performance, especially when midrange vocals are thrown in the mix. Despite the subtle coloration, guitars remain balanced with respect to the lows, in that they play without sounding recessed or overshadowed by contrast. Brass instruments come lively with a vibrant, burnished tone that is felt as much as heard. With the right track recording you get more than just the music. The MW60 headphones convey the kind of clarity and detail that lets the listener imagine how instruments are being played. You can hear the valves working on saxophones, or the way guitar strings are being plucked or strummed with picks and/or bare fingers.

If hip-hop and/or EDM genres are your thing, the MW60 headphones can reach deep and bring the rumble. You can hear some powerful beats that maintain clarity and a proper balance with the highs and mids. And even though the lows can flex some respectable muscularity, they still express musical elements within each instrument. Piano keys played in the lowest octaves will strike with force and tone, yet you can still follow the notes and hear the sound change naturally as you would as if the real thing were only a few feet away from you.

Drums thump with purpose, delivering rich tones hand-in-hand with impact. The attack comes sharp, punchy, yet leaves with a clean decay. So if you play some death/speed metal with mighty thunderous drumming going on, notes end as they should with minimal (if any) blurring or bleeding over. The MW60 headphones sustain this deft grip even as song complexity increases. You can expect to still hear the purr of bass strings behind guttural vocals, lead guitar, and sticks banging against heads.

The Verdict

There is no denying the premium materials and craftsmanship of the Master & Dynamic MW60 Wireless Over Ear Headphones. Whether in gunmetal/black or silver/brown, these cans are set to impress with a modern, retro-throwback look. The MW60 headphones are well-built with some incredible engineering and attention to physical detail. And you don't have to be an audiophile to appreciate the sound that comes through these headphones. Whether you're just a regular listener, enthusiast, or anyone in between, the MW60 brings a level of clarity and detail to where it's almost like hearing your music again for the first time.

However, the wild card is going to be how well the MW60 headphones actually fit your head. The final (retail) version will have some design tweaks that are meant to alleviate issues and improve upon the comfort and clamping force. Even a small adjustment can make a big difference. But those with above average-sized heads may still find the ear cups to have insufficient length. And if not much is changed with the ear pad shape and/or depth, users may find the fit and seal a bit limiting. Without a proper seal, which may require having ideal head and ear size, shape, and positioning, the audio performance will suffer adversely.

Hopefully, the final versions improve upon the Bluetooth performance as well as the fit/comfort. The MW60 headphones are meant to pack a serious wireless range, which this pre-production review unit couldn't deliver. And even at a short distances with no interference, wireless audio streams were subject to occasional interruptions.

If you have an ear for music, eye for aesthetic, and the pocketbook to back it up, the US$549 will feel like money well spent. The Master & Dynamic MW60 headphones, available to purchase now, are the kind you wear when you want the world to vanish, leaving you with the sound and purity of your favorite music tracks.

Update (Dec 6, 2015): As a follow-up, Master & Dynamic sent us a final retail version of the MW60 headphones, and the small changes do indeed make a big difference. The headband is a little longer and more rounded, which (at maximum cup extension) guides the pads to sit squarely over the ears. If you happen to have an above average-sized head, you might have to angle the band back just a touch and/or poke your earlobes in to get that last bit of reach, but it's there. The clamping force is directed evenly – almost perfectly – significantly reducing any pinching sensation towards the top of the ear pads, at the temple. The retail version of the MW60 headphones are quite comfortable to wear (versus the pre-production unit), as designed.

The shape and orientation of the ear pads remain the same, but now they're capable of creating a proper seal without any tricks (e.g. holding the cups down or wearing a tight beanie over the top). The cushion makes full contact against the skin, neck and all, almost all the time. The only exception, which can apply to many over-ear headphones out there, is when you turn your head all the way left/right. Depending on how far your neck muscle flexes versus the ear pad depth, you may or may not notice a thing. But having this complete audio seal leads to maximum noise isolation, minimal leaking, and fullness of the music's mids and lows. And all of that counts for a lot.

As for the Bluetooth wireless range, the retail version of the MW60 headphones makes good on it's promise, with only a small caveat. Under ideal conditions (e.g. an open field or empty street), the MW60 toes a distance of approximately 123 ft (38 m) before losing the audio connection. However, music stops being listenable at around 105 f t (32 m) as the Bluetooth starts to sputter in and out. Although the MW60 headphones come in a little shy of having four times the range of a standard Bluetooth connection, Master & Dynamic still earn a pass. There are many Bluetooth devices that can't achieve a functional operating distance even half of their own listed specification.

But when it comes to real-world use in homes or offices, the MW60 headphones' Bluetooth wireless range lets you wander out of sight without losing the tunes. A connected smartphone can be left at the desk as you cross a couple of rooms (and walls) or go up/down a floor. And this is with all the typical furniture, appliances, moving bodies, and obstacles that tend to populate such places. Once you start enjoying this kind of Bluetooth freedom, it may be hard to go back to anything else.

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