Review: Sharkk’s electrostatic headphones earn bravo for sound, boo for build

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With its precision, speed, and clarity, Sharkk's Bravo headphones highlight appreciable detail and energy across a wide selection of music genres(Credit: Stanley Goodner/New Atlas)

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Stick around in audio circles long enough and you'll likely find yourself in a discussion about electrostatic speakers or headphones. This technology is often considered the holy grail to devout enthusiasts for some very good reasons – electrostatic systems are far more advanced and capable of delivering higher-quality sound than ones using coils and magnets.

Despite the superiority, electrostatic audio products aren't marketed to the average consumer. Not everyone has over US$1,000 of disposable income for "budget, entry-level" electrostatic headphones that also require a separate amp for power. However, $300 for Sharkk's hybrid set just might hit the sweet spot for hi-fi sound and affordability. We recently put the Bravo hybrid electrostatic headphones to the test to hear what it's all about.

Design & comfort

Sharkk is currently running a highly successful Indiegogo campaign for its Bravo hybrid electrostatic headphones. Crowdfunded projects can be a mixed bag, but this company says it is ready to go with production units and retail packaging (always a positive sign). Technology aside, the Bravo headphones are pretty basic and come with an extra set of cushioned ear pads, a drawstring carry bag, sticker, and booklet. Nothing fancy.

In terms of appearance and construction, the Bravo headphones look and feel more like something that belongs around the $150 price point. The body is mostly matte plastic, save for the metal band, foam cushioning, and faux/vinyl leather. There are mould lines, unprotected wires, thin stitching, and screws are exposed, but they do feel at least well-enough put together to last through normal wear and tear for the price (we hope). We're not sure about the chrome accents, either, but you can't completely judge a book by its cover.

Underneath the skin all lies a duo of 40 mm electrostatic and cone drivers (hence hybrid). The latter exists to help drive the lows, which can be difficult for electrostatic technology to accomplish in a small size, especially without a separate (and often expensive) amplifier. And that's the other key aspect about the Bravo headphones – there is no need to use an amplifier in order to power the hardware, as with most electrostatic devices. Just plug in a smartphone and you're good to go.

The Bravo headphones connect to audio sources through an integrated 3.5 mm cable, which can be considered a poor design choice given that a damaged cord can't be swapped out, or a better one swapped in. The Bravo headphones' cable itself is hard and starts off kinky, but it does relax a bit over time. The L-shaped plug is much appreciated, and the cable doesn't transfer too much noise from movement, touching, or rubbing (that's left to the cups themselves).

The non-folding, closed-back over-ear cups have a good limit of extension, so those with small- or above average-sized heads should also be able to quickly find a comfortable fit. There are no clicks or stops for cup length, only smooth manual adjustment with the position held by tension. The Bravo headphones' wide, springy, yet thinly-padded band maintains decent contact with the head in order to disperse the weight. At 294 g, this set is somewhat lighter than many other over-ear headphones.

As for fit, the ear cups exhibit a decent range of vertical and lateral motion to conform to different head shapes. The point of rotation is functional and gives the headphones a unique, albeit tacky, look. The cushions land squarely about the ears with gentle, evenly-distributed clamping force that doesn't pinch or press too much at the temples. Those who wear glasses shouldn't feel too concerned with the Bravo headphones tweaking vision. Although filled with basic foam, the cushions are large and deep enough to cover ears and create a full seal.

Ultimately, these Bravo headphones are comfortable and wear like they're only half the weight (but all the bulk). There's barely any fatigue and heat, and even if you're sensitive to clamping force, a few minutes worth of rest is good for at least another several hours. And those who find themselves resting headphones on shoulders during brief music breaks will be happy to know that these can circle around necks without choking off the throat.

Audio performance

Since the Bravo headphones are wired in, volume and track control is handled by the source. In our case, it was a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 smartphone packed with a mix of 320 kbps MP3 and lossless FLAC audio files. The range of volume output is good, with the maximum being uncomfortable but just bearable for our listening purposes. The headphones exhibit impressively low distortion, but that's not something you'd really notice unless the volume is dialed up closer to the max – typically beyond what an average set of ears would enjoy.

The isolation quality is about what you would expect for wearing an average set of closed-back over-ear cups. Environmental noise is dampened to an extent, but you'll still hear louder sounds filtering through the exterior. However, most of the noise experienced with these headphones will be due to the cups themselves. Moving your jaw (e.g. yawning), turning your head, or adjusting glasses stems generates an unmistakable creaking. You won't want to listen while leaning up against anything either, as any movement against the exterior echoes plastic-sounding pings and friction noises throughout the ear cups.

As for leaking music, someone would have to sit uncomfortably close in order to hear what you're playing, even at moderate-high volume level. When maxed out you might have a librarian chide you, so not too bad for closed-back cans.

So to the main event. Throw on some music and you'll find that the Bravo headphones excel at delivering extraordinary detail that is precise and clear with a slightly forward presentation. The dynamic range is fantastic, so you don't need to be a practiced audiophile in order to pick up on the explosive or gentle qualities of elements within each piece. You could hear a pin drop behind a metal guitar's angsty power chord, if such a track existed. And with the right song, you can follow the decay of sound as it slowly fades to nothing at the end.

Not only are the Bravo headphones capable of accurately portraying a wide contrast of instrumental pitch and volume, but notes come like the crack of a whip. Bravo's electrostatic technology showcases its strength of nimble transient speed, where the attack and decay of notes are precise as they are meant to be. In lesser headphones, a lingering decay tends to create a blur of sound, especially as track complexity increases. It's a joy to listen to fast-playing piano with the Bravo headphones, since the performances feel and sound quite real.

Cymbals and hi-hats are also done right by the Bravo headphones – crisp, bright, and full of character. You can hear the metallic tone of individual hits without shimmer or blur. Hard crashes bring the kind of metallic detail you'd expect to hear from a live performance, where each hit sounds slightly different before "shushing" smoothly on the finish. You can also hear the gentle, snappy taps of sticks on brass and the resulting ringing sound afterwards. And no matter how brash your tracks may get, you won't experience that piercing sharpness of highs that have slipped out of control.

Just about anything expressed in the highs exhibit a lush vibrance. String and wind instruments play quick and true, although the overall space leaves a teeny bit to be desired. But at least notes rarely nip at each other's heels, even with more complex layers. But along with all this precision comes complementary energy. Listen to some Adele, and you can hear how the Bravo headphones highlight the soulful passion behind her voice. Very rarely – considerably less than many other headphones – is there any detectable sibilance with female vocals in the upper registers. But you have to know your music intimately and listen closely in order to pick up on it.

The mids are delivered warm, rich, and maintain excellent tonal balance with the highs and lows. Part of this fullness of sound could be attributed to some slight coloration from the dynamic drivers. Either way, there's excellent separation of singing voices versus the instruments. If your favorite lead – let's say Jake Smith of The White Buffalo – happens to also be playing guitar, the voice will preface the instrument. And this kind of depth perception pervades most all tracks you'll enjoy. Background/harmony instruments/vocals sound where they should be and aren't obscured by other elements.

Sonic detail goes down to the level where you can appreciate the hit, scratch, and even vibration of guitar and bass strings. Fret squeaks? You got it. All of these little elements are present, even in tracks showcasing some hefty lows. The Bravo headphones deftly balance the bass against the mids and highs – it all sounds pretty darn good. Play the song Caribou by April March and listen to the drum line. You can hear the bounce and open fullness of hits without losing out on the subtle differences of each. The tone and depth of drums, synth, and bass are spot-on.

Given the electrostatic drivers, we weren't too surprised to hear crisp, excellent highs and mids from Bravo; it's the low-end performance that definitely exceeds expectations. You get the right amount of impact and weight behind notes without any of it sounding boomy or muddy. Punchy attacks and smooth decays deliver muscular yet musical lows, even with complex layers going on.

The verdict

Overall, Sharkk's Bravo Hybrid Electrostatic headphones sound incredible and are a true joy to listen to. With its precision, speed, and clarity, the Bravo's highlight appreciable detail and energy in music tracks across a wide selection of genres. And despite the materials, they're surprisingly comfortable to wear – one can go for hours without developing much (if any) physical or mental fatigue. These headphones are also exceptionally affordable for packing electrostatic drivers, and we love how the dynamic drivers pump out lows that are balanced with the mids and highs.

With all being said, the Bravo headphones don't necessarily outperform higher-end options. Or maybe even some in the same price bracket, especially for casual listening. Even though electrostatic technology is superior to that of dynamic drivers, Bravo's sonic performance is at a level akin to the likes of the Master & Dynamic MW60, Sennheiser Momentum 2.0, or Audio-Technica MSR7 headphones (at least where the highs and mids are concerned). Yes, these Bravo headphones sound fantastic, but they're not even close to the exaggerated "10X" extent expressed within the Indiegogo campaign.

Audiophiles with better-trained ears may be more capable of distinguishing the subtle differences expressed by Bravo's budget-oriented electrostatic technology. However, the noisy ear cups tend to offset most hi-fi gains (unless you sit still like a corpse while listening to music). And while many premium headphone models may cost more than Bravo, they make up for it through features (e.g. Bluetooth, ANC), quality materials, and durable design. Even the V-Moda Crossfade Wireless headphones check off all the right boxes for the same price as Bravo. Break/damage any cable on the latter, and you might wish you sprung for the MW60's tank-like build.

The Sharkk Bravo hybrid electrostatic headphones do offer a glimpse into a more economic realm of hi-fi audio. However, the modern mobile user may balk at the fussiness of an irreplaceable cord with zero option to use a wireless adapter (such as BTunes). Either way, one would still have to come to terms with explaining why the Bravo headphones sound amazing even though they look a little like a generic knockoff. For a super early bird price of $200, it's an easy deal. But once the Indiegogo campaign is over, paying $300 for retail might make some think twice.

Product page: Bravo Headphones

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