REVIEW: PJB H-850 headphones – why they beat Beats, and at a fraction of the price

With their roots in famous speakers and pro audio, these headphones deliver serious bass, and so musically they should be celebrated way beyond the studio or rehearsal room

PJB H-805 headphones

Products find their way to me for review in a variety of ways: some come as the result of a press release or are spotted at a show; others arrive as the result of a phone call from a manufacture or distributor; and very rarely does the process involve going to a jazz gig, clocking the unusual rig being used by the celebrity bass player over whom one’s better half is going all silly, finding out who makes it, realising he has a illustrious past (and present), and finally noting that the same company also makes an intriguing set of headphones.

OK, so not very rarely – just this once. We went with a friend in the industry to see composer/bandleader Kyle Eastwood (yes, son of…) play with his band for a second time at the excellent Watermill Jazz Club in leafy Dorking. Mrs E was even more starstruck than she had been the first time, so while she was getting her CD signed during the interval between sets, industry friend and I fell into conversation about the bass amp and speakers Eastwood was using.

Yes, that sad!

Kyle Eastwood

Y’see, Eastwood – like a number of leading bass players – uses not a huge rig with a quartet of 12in drivers in the cabinet, but a neat little set up using multiple miniature drivers to give the air-shifting power of fewer big cones, but without all the looseness and challenges of shifting and stopping dinner-plate sized diaphragms.

Tiny drivers, big bass
Interesting, and boy did the set-up sound good, so the morning after the gig before was spent in some internet research and – aha! – the rig was from Phil Jones Bass, and those little 5in drivers were the PJB NeoPower units: neodymium magnets to give the motor power, proprietary cones, and said to be good from 25Hz through to 15kHz.

Yes, that Phil Jones: British, bass player, founder of Acoustic Energy (in small premises just up the road from my grandparents’ house), designer of classics such as the original AE1 (with even smaller woofers!) and now based in St Louis, Missouri, where he runs Phil Jones Pure Sound, encompassing both the PJB pro equipment and the AAD speaker brand for home use.

And he explains the small driver philisophy like this: ‘Traditional bass myth glorified large drivers. On the surface, this seems sensible. Large drivers equal big sound and low bass. But look more closely. Like a heavyweight fighter, the big driver is inherently ponderous. It isn’t quick on its feet. It’s slow to start, even slower to stop. Its large cone is prone to flexing and distortion. It’s a kind of Neanderthal, brute and primitive – a slightly dazed clobber.

Phil Jones Piranha cabinets bring the true science of bass into the 21st century. They use large numbers of small drivers. How can small drivers reproduce bass? It’s surprising but pretty straightforward. Their output simply drops off more rapidly with distance. But parallel enough of them and they’re like a swarm of bloodthirsty Piranhas. Now their combined surface area equals or exceeds that of a single big woofer.

‘More importantly, an armada of motors powers this aggregate compound driver. The combined voice coils and magnets of all [the] individual drive units exert far superior control than the single motor of the equivalent giant woofer.

‘By sharing the workload, each driver operates only in the optimised part of its power band where torque is greatest. It never approaches redline where dynamic compression limits all conventional designs like the proverbial brick wall.

‘The result? Blinding reflexes. Stop and go with Swiss precision. True responsiveness of the cone translates the subtlest of input changes into real-time signal. No delay, no rhythmic drag, no woolliness.’

PJB Bass CubCovetable combos
Now I don’t play an instrument, let alone a bass, but even I find the PJB pro gear irrationally covetable. There’s the little Briefcase amp/speaker combo, using two of the PJB drivers and a 100W amp in a package just 15.5 x 6.7 x 17.3 inch (H x W x D) and with a carry handle on the top (hence the name), or the even smaller Bass Cub (right), with a similar driver/amp configuration in a package weighing just 6kg.

And let’s not go there with the striking Roadcase model, with a 750W amp and no fewer than twelve of the PJB drivers (ten firing forwards, two angled upwards). Think ‘bass amp’ and look at all those drivers and you’d think it was a tower, whereas in fact it stands less than a metre tall.

And he has a pair of headphones, designed for bass-players (but not just for bass-players), which is what you see before you here. The same company behind all these bass amps and speakers, and systems for other instruments, too, has users including the aforementioned Mr Eastwood, Pino Palladino, Nathan East, pianist Bob James – and makes the  H-850 headphones, yours from around £80.

It describes them as ‘a result of years of auditioning headphones for this purpose and analysing the mechanisms of what works for the reproduction of music and bass’, and says that ‘When it comes to headphones, not all are suitable for bass instruments. Many may sound good for music but plug them into the headphone jack of a bass amp and you will soon find their limitations.’

Hence the H-850s, which have a frequency response down to 20Hz (and up to 20kHz), will handle a 1W input, and deliver a maximum sound pressure of 96dB. That bass response is made possible by the use of high power neodymium magnets and a closed back design, the latter bringing the twin benefits of good isolation from external sound, and minimal outward leakage.

There’s a video here where Jones talks about the very cute little Bass Cub combination, then goes on (at about 7m 15s or so) to talk about the design of the headphones:

 

Of course, those qualities serve the headphones well in a studio environment, or for bass-players wanting to rehearse without waking up the neighbours, but the great thing about the H-850s is that they work just as well as all-round listening ‘phones, that hefty but fast bass being far from their only trick, and integrating extremely well with the rest of the frequency range.

Better than Beats
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you’re considering a pair of headphones promoted as delivering serious bass, let’s say from a company just bought for billions of dollars by Apple, think again: whereas the cans with the prominent ‘b’ on the side deliver a seriously coloured sound, all about ‘whoompa whoompa’ flabby bass and not much else, the PJB H-850s give you all of that bass, but with much better control and impact, along with a clean, involving view of the rest of the music, too.

I’ve been trying the H-850s with a range of headphone outputs, from direct connection to my iPad mini and Fiio’s X3 player, via Fiio Mont Blanc, Trends Audio PA-10 and Schiit Magni headphone amps, and from the very good headphone amp built-into the Naim Supernait integrated amp.

From all that listening, and with the note that these headphones really benefit from a spot of serious caning from brand new, I can report that while they have more than enough sensitivity for use with portable devices, they really kick derrière when used with an amp able to deliver a bit of juice.

Get that right, and they deliver a solid, growly bass, as exciting with electric instruments as it is with orchestral ‘floorstanding fiddles’. And that means big orchestral works sound a bit special through these headphones, not just hard-hitting rock or lovingly-recorded jazz bass.

In no small part that’s due to the open and attractive midband and treble the H-850s can offer, giving plenty of detail and insight without any hint of shriek, spit or excessive sharpness: instead they sound clean and highly informative, while really drawing the listener into the music being played, whatever the genre.

Mahler to Metallica
I’ve enjoyed everything from Mahler to the Metallica set from Glastonbury on the PJBs, while appreciating little touches such as the comfort of the fit, and the twist-lock to hold the detachable 3.5mm-stereo-plug-terminated cable in place on the headset (they come with the usual 6.3mm adapter for this with amps with big sockets).

They’re well finished, seem pretty much bombproof in use, and will go as loud as any of us could ever sensibly want without collapsing into distortion – although that clean, tight, detailed bass may just occasionally tempt you to inch the level a little higher!

I’d go so far as to suggest that these headphones, principally available from pro-audio stockists via UK distributor Synergy Distribution, are something of a find, and well worth tracking down as an all-round headphone buy. In fact, I think I know a jazz magazine for which I have just started writing whose readers would love these…

Phil Jones Bass H-850
Headphones | from around £80
Type Closed back, over ear
Impedance 32ohms
Max input power 1W
Cable 2m, detachable, with 3.5mm plugs, 6.3mm adapter supp;lied
Weight (w/o cable) 174g
www.philjonespuresound.com
www.synergydistribution.co.uk

Written by Andrew Everard

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