Review: Crossfade Wireless headphones offer quality wired or wireless listening
After a good deal of pre-release positivity from audio community reviewers and industry pundits, V-Moda's flagship Crossfade M-100 headphones were finally made available to buy at the end of 2012. Though many market competitors have since embraced the music-buying public's increasing desire for wireless freedom and added Bluetooth models to their ranges, V-Moda has stubbornly resisted the call to ditch the cable. That all changed in September, however, with the launch of the Crossfade Wireless headphones – the company's Val Kolton calling them the "best sounding and most versatile" Bluetooth headphones he'd ever tried. Gizmag has spent the last few weeks finding out if mobile convenience can be as sonically fulfilling as cumbersome cables.
Back in August 2013, in the midst of a lengthy head-fi thread, V-Moda's Val Kolton clearly confirmed his position on wireless headphone technology, saying "I am anti-wireless today and I am analog and vintage 'til I die ... I may believe in wireless some day in the future in about 2-5 years, of course every company on the planet has sent me proposals, but charging and sound is sub-par no matter what the marketing says ... a simple and cool cable is way less hassle to improve sound than wireless obstacles ..."
Having said all that, tinkering with wireless and digital technologies has been going on in the background, and just 2 years later V-Moda's CEO announced that he was prepared to eat his own words, adding that the new Crossfade Wireless headphones had managed to vanquish his anti-Bluetooth snobbery. Kolton declared to the head-fi community about 3 weeks prior to launch that "this is the wireless headphone that modern audiophiles like me can trust to replace your wired headphones for every day use."
As the new headphones are essentially a wireless upgrade to the company's flagship M-100s, let's take a look at the most notable design differences between the two. A quick glance at the new models reveals that V-Moda has opted not to include a CliqFold hinge at the base of the headband for collapsible, between use transport. This looks to have been a considered decision based on sales metrics and value for money.
"Although the CliqFold hinge is a V-Moda invention we're very proud of, audio quality and comfort are our main priorities for the Crossfade Wireless to ensure they come in at a price point accessible for all," Kolton told Gizmag. "The Cliqfold hinge now differentiates Crossfade M-100 from Crossfade Wireless and gives our customers a wide range of options. The Crossfade LP and LP2 on Amazon have over 3,200 reviews without the CliqFold with an average score of 4.5."
Even so, since the Wireless headphones are doubtless heading for a more mobile market than the M-100s, it is somewhat surprising (and, we feel, disappointing) that such a travel-friendly design element has been intentionally left out of a more portable version of the company's flagship closed back cans.
The signature sound has been altered, too. V-Moda's tuning team is reported to have improved on the M-Class Modern Audiophile signature, aiming to provide an almost identical listening experience in cabled and in wireless modes, with users promised bloat-free bass, lifelike vocals and crystal clear cymbals across a three dimensional soundstage. More on this aspect a little later.
The left earcup jack on the M-100s has been sacrificed for a micro-USB port, though the new headphones can still be cabled up to a source player by plugging in the supplied cable to the right earcup. The left earcup is home to a Li-ion battery, while the right plays host to the electronics. Though the battery is expected to last for years, the company is looking into starting a replacement program, and cautions against users replacing the battery themselves, as V-Moda techs will take care not to interfere with the sound seal and air flow dynamics.
Of course, the main difference between old and new is the addition of low power CSR BlueCore wireless technology, with a 33 ft (10 m) range and support for AAC+, AAC, MP3 and SBC audio codecs. On the choice of supported codecs, specifically the lack of aptX support, Kolton told the head-fi community that "there is only ~320 kbps bandwidth with Bluetooth so we optimized for AAC+ (what the head engineer of A_e told me to do) plus used a micro VAMP with our knowledge of VAMP DAC/Amps for wireless mode but without coloring the sound. 320 is 320, is aptX really that [much] better than AAC+ in 320? Not really, they are both compression algorithms that are damn good ...
"aptX has some cool features in the future, but now 99 percent of consumers cannot take advantage of it (like aptX LL of 40 ms). If you own a Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus notebook and are using WAV/AIFF/FLAC you can benefit from aptX if you can ensure it isn't using AAC/SBC somehow. Most iTunes/streaming apps now use AAC so we don't have to go through another two processing stages. This is why I believe it is the best sounding Bluetooth headphone for all devices, but it is even better wired and with a DAC/AMP. True to our analog heritage."
Completing the design and functionality tour
To the top of the right earcup are three buttons. The middle plastic pusher is a multi-function button for playback control and taking calls, the other two are volume up and down. There's a three-way switch to the bottom rear which powers the headphones on and off, and puts them in Bluetooth search mode. Unfortunately, having a smooth surface, we found it a bit of a fiddle to use when on the head (and not much better in the hands). Textured metal or something similar may have been a better design choice here.
Powering on the headphones results in a short echo-like tone sounding. There are different tones for activating Bluetooth and connection confirmation, and for powering off – bringing back memories of a simpler time playing platform games on a Speccy in the 1980s.
A tiny hole can be seen bottom forward on the right earcup which leads to an omnidirectional microphone with -42 dB (at 1 kHz) sensitivity to facilitate phone conversations or conflabs with virtual assistants like Siri, Cortana and Google Now. This proved adequate for all but the windiest of conditions, but we could hear our own voice during calls. The inline mic on the supplied cable offered more telcon clarity, which can be boosted further by plugging in an optional BoomPro audio cable.
The earcups are home to patent-pending 50 mm dual-diaphragm drivers, with inner and outer rings keeping a claimed precise, deep bass from bleeding over into other frequencies. "We optimized the dual-diaphragm drivers for the new Crossfade Wireless and did additional airflow mechanics tuning due to the added electronics and battery," Kolton revealed to us. The frequency response is wide, at between 5 Hz and 30 kHz, sensitivity is given as 107 dB (at 1 kHz 1 mW) and the headphones have an impedance of 30 ohms.
Keeping the headphones in place is a "virtually indestructible" Steelflex headband coated in faux leather that's been found to exceed MIL-STD-810G test standards for durability and ruggedness. BLISS memory foam cushions help to ensure a good acoustic seal. The V-Port air flow system doesn't let too much ambient noise in, but does result in a little music leaking out. It's probably not enough to annoy fellow commuters, but may be worth keeping in mind.
Plugging the supplied Kevlar-reinforced SpeakEasy audio cable into the input jack on the right earcup, automatically disables the battery, Bluetooth, digital sound processing engine, Micro-VAMP and other active electronic components for a pure analog listening experience.
As our review units came directly from V-Moda, an extra pair of 3D-printed shields were included. Buyers can opt to design a custom logo for 3D printing or laser engraving, with shields available in a range of materials, including silver, gold and platinum (you can even choose different colored screws). The Wireless headphones also come supplied with a Giger-esque form-fitting carry hard shell case. Cables can be secured to the lid using a Velcro-backed accessory board and a carabiner clip is included to allow for hanging from a backpack.
On the head and switched on
The LP-like hinges allow the earcup to swivel, but there's no rotation so they don't lay flat when around the neck. The headphones can be adjusted by an inch on both sides and we didn't experience any biting or pinching during long-haul use. A good dose of aggressive head-bopping confirmed that the new Crossfades stayed securely in place.
Though we found the supplied pads to be comfortable, folks with larger ears may find that the driver shields come into contact with the ears. Optional XL pads will put some extra air inbetween.
Oddly, the new Crossfades felt lighter on the head than the M-100s despite being a few grams heavier (at 292 g/10.3 oz including the standard aluminum shields). And the memory foam/new vegan leather ear pad combination proved a noticeable improvement on the M-100s when it came to handling heat build up with extended use
At first power on, the low end thunder of the Clutch album Earth Rocker that kicked off the music marathon was surprisingly boomy, lacking clarity and detail and suffering some troublesome bleed into the lower mids. However, the bass tightened and cleared up as the hours ticked by and it wasn't too long a burn before the drivers began to deliver something approaching the signature V-Moda sound.
Though still very much V-Moda – with a fat, wholesome bass, solid mids and crisp highs – the signature is a little different to the M-100s. I fancy that the new Crossfades have a slightly more aggressive stance to the signature than the cabled flagships, with just a tad more definition and detail in the mid to upper registers.
It was rather refreshing to hear subtle (and sometimes lost) details over Bluetooth – from the vibrant pop of the strings on fantastic fingerpickers like Adrian Legg's Pass the Valium to the grit and growl dual vocal tracks on Tallahassee from Swamp Cabbage, or the rasp of air at the lower end of the tuba-driven Moving Stones by Hazmat Modine to the throaty groans accompanying the fine fret work of Stevie Ray Vaughan on his impassioned rendition of Little Wing. Also a tick in the positive column was a distinct lack of Bluetooth hiss, between track buzz, or active circuitry hum.
Surprisingly, the sounds presented by active and passive modes, digital vs. analog or whatever you want to call it, were pretty closely matched (when listening to source files of equal resolution and file type). The digitally-massaged sound was perhaps a touch crisper, especially at the higher reaches, and vocals had a sharper edge, while the stereo image was a touch more spacious, and the sound more rounded and warmer when cabled.
Ether way, the Crossfades delivered a vibrant, detailed, spacious and wonderfully clear listening experience (the main advantage of wired over wireless being the ability to listen to hi-res digital music with the help of a USB DAC or vinyl through the home hi-fi system).
Plugging in the supplied audio cable while the circuits are active will immediately shut the power off and the headphones flow straight into analog mode. Conversely, removing the jack will reactivate the circuits automatically, but the Bluetooth connection may need to be re-established – our Windows laptop and all-in-one computer didn't auto-pair, for example, but our iPhone and Android tablet did.
"Multitasking users can also pair the headphones with two sources at a time, such as smartphone and laptop for work or smartphone and smartwatch for a workout," said Kolton. "You can press play/pause on one device and the other will start." This functionality proved useful when friends or family wanted to share a new tune discovery.
On the downside, watching online videos in wireless mode can result in lip sync issues. Online content from sources such as YouTube and Vimeo faired much worse than optical media like DVD or Blu-ray, however, with hardly any noticeable lag on the latter. Where other Bluetooth headphones may leave you high and dry in this regard, Crossfade Wireless users can plug in the supplied audio cable for zero latency watching and listening. Lag-free use is also vital for media production work, mixing live tracks at a gig and intensive gaming, of course, so this is a welcome addition.
Who needs a wall outlet anyway?
V-Moda says that the Crossfade Wireless users should enjoy up to 12 hours of continuous streaming playback. A multicolored status light on the power/pairing button pulses red when charging, flashes lilac/blue when powered on or pairing and gives off a steady lilac/blue glow when paired with a source device.
A full charge using the supplied flat-wired (1.06 m/3.47 ft) micro-USB cable plugged into a spare port on a laptop took less than 2 hours, which offered a good 10 hours of continuous wireless playback at comfortable volume levels. This translated to two or three points higher than the power-on default level, with the volume of the source player set to 50 percent.
We got over 12 hours of continuous play when the headphones were left at power-on default level and the source player's volume was raised to make up the difference. Either way, not too shabby. Rather annoyingly though, the volume level resets to default every time the headphones are powered off.
Half an hour prior to battery death, a little tinkly tune sounds and the red status light starts pulsing. The tune repeats with increasing frequency until silence hits. Usefully, a quick 30 minute charge resulted in between 4 and 4.5 hours of continuous Bluetooth listening at comfortable levels.
There's supposed to be an auto power-save mode engaged after 4 minutes of inactivity. If we powered the headphones on and left them sitting there doing nothing, then the circuit powered down after 2 minutes. But if we paired the headphones with a Bluetooth source and simply paused the music player, the auto shut-off didn't appear to engage, even after over an hour of patient thumb-twiddling while waiting for the lights to go out.
The bottom line
V-Moda's CEO has described the Crossfade Wireless headphones as cabled models that also happen to have wireless capabilities. This is a fair description. Listening over Bluetooth is convenient and we found the sound quality offered by the digital magic at the heart of the Crossfades to be nothing short of impressive, but for lag-free precision, space and warmth we preferred to listen in cabled mode.
As premium wireless headphones go, the Crossfades undercut competition price tags by some margin. The new MW60 over-ears from Master & Dynamic, for example, come in at US$549, Bang & Olufsen's H7s will cost you $449, and Parrot's stylish and capable Zik 2.0 and B&W's P5 Wireless headphones are both listed at $400. By contrast, the new V-Moda Wireless headphones are available in a choice of four colors for $300.
Is it worth upgrading to the Wireless headphones if you already own a pair of M-100s? That's a tough one. The new Crossfades are darn good Bluetooth headphones, and even better wired headphones. The updated signature has a little more bottom and there's obviously been some fine tuning work done to the mids. Though we'd say the Crossfade Wireless headphones are definitely worth the money, if you like the sound of the M-100s (and why wouldn't you?) and simply don't have the cash to spare for the Wireless cans, maybe something like BTunes can help.
Product Page: Crossfade Wireless