Headphone Sessions 6/22/2011: Skullcandy Aviators- a Headphone for Audiophiles?!

After a hiatus due to HeadRoom’s travels to Newport Beach CA for T.H.E. Show, our Headphone Sessions are not only back, they’re back with fire. The headphones in the crucible this week are the Skullcandy RocNation Aviator ($149.99), which have received negative customer reviews on Headphone.com after we gave them a 4.5 star value rating. When our team gives something a strong rating only to see negative customer reviews, we begin to wonder if by some complete random occurrence involving an unforeseen alignment of stars and planets, we were wrong. We know, we know -- we can hear the gasps for air! But as it turns out, there have been no extraordinary galactic movements and...WE WERE RIGHT! Aviator ROCKS!

The Shoot-Out

For a thorough comparison, we put the Aviators against some popular contenders in the closed $150-$160 headphone category. The line-up included the longtime favorite and top candidate Audio Technica ATH-M50’s ($159), the Shure SRH750DJ ($149.99), the lesser-known but excellent-sounding KRK KNS 8400 ($149), and finally the Klipsch Image One headset headphones ($149.99). [caption id="attachment_2136" align="alignleft" width="240" caption="Klipsch Image One"]Klipsch Image One[/caption]

The Klipsch Image One, like the Aviator, provides iPod/iPad/iPhone 3-button control + mic. It’s also the model mentioned as being superior in one of our customer reviews, so we certainly wanted to weigh in on this comparison. After listening, we’re not sure if the customer heard properly functioning Aviators, because we think Aviators simply demolish the Image One. The Klipsch did out-perform in a few ergonomic areas, the cable feels beefier, and the 3-button remote is easier to use as opposed to the Aviator’s cheap-feeling buttons and thin (but light) fabric cord. However, the Image One’s one-note bass overpowers the rest of the musical presentation making the mids and highs almost nonexistent, whereas the Aviator, although slightly rolled off, is nicely extended into the upper frequencies, has a mid-range response that is natural and present, and bass heft with decent thump that maintains definition through critical mid & upper bass frequencies. The Aviator’s bass response does lack foundation extension into the lowest of lows, but -- at its given price -- it still fits for music with heavier bass and has won the heart of HeadRoom’s resident basshead (and toughest critic -- his reviews usually consist of something like, “These Headphones Suck!!”), who states he “absolutely loves the Aviator” largely because of their tight bass that doesn’t overwhelm the presentation, perhaps almost similar to the big full-size Denon AH-D2000 ($349) but with audibly less extension, of course.

[caption id="attachment_2137" align="alignright" width="240" caption="KRK KNS 8400"]KRK KNS 8400[/caption]

We all agree the KRK KNS 8400 remains a very strong contender at the $150 price point, with some listeners ranking it slightly higher than others. General consensus is the bass sounds nicely controlled and round, the mids are clearly detailed but ever-so-slightly recessed, and the highs are extremely well-extended without harshness, giving the KNS 8400 a highly engaging overall presentation. That said, the majority of the test group still said they would still go for the Aviator first, solely based on sound quality. Of course, the Aviator also has the usual Skullcandy bling factor featuring striking 'sunglasses-style' looks with optics-grade polycarbonate lens earcups, stainless steel & chrome accents, and leather earpads.

[caption id="attachment_2135" align="alignleft" width="240" caption="Shure SRH750DJ"]Shure SRH750DJ[/caption]

The Shure SRH750DJ, specifically designed for working DJ’s, has a sound tuned to bring out mixing cues. To our ears the highs are nicely extended and the bass engaging, yet controlled, but the soundstage is narrow, lacking musical separation, and almost sounds monaural. This presentation seems to lend itself to one-ear monitoring on stage more than casual listening, so for a true pro DJ can, Shure hit the nail on the head. But that’s likely why we all liked the Aviator better for general listening.

[caption id="attachment_2138" align="alignright" width="240" caption="Audio Technica ATH-M50"]Audio Technica ATH-M50[/caption]

The last comparison was against the Audio Technica ATH-M50, one of the cans that's never found on HeadRoom’s wall of headphones, one you always have to go office to office searching for, and once you find it, you’ll have to beg it’s your turn to listen to them for a while! As we did in our first tests upon receiving the Aviator, again, we all rated Aviators as a true contender and rival of the M50. The Aviator bass is thicker and warmer sounding, with the tonal presentation sounding a bit smoothed-over compared to the more neutral and accurate M50. That being said, when plugging into a portable player with lower quality mp3 recordings, the Aviator won’t spotlight the lossy compression of those music files like the M50 will, and there's little question the Aviators will also look much cooler on your head or hanging around your neck. Interestingly, this is amongst the first headphone that HeadRoom wives have truly shown interest in. Usually when we excitedly say they just must listen to a headphone, they’ll listen politely then comment on how ugly they are, or how the size rivals Princess Leia’s cinnamon roll hair buns (yep, we're geeks and proud of it). Wives’ reactions thus far have been a unanimous, “I want some!”. We like to hear that. But you don’t have to take only our word for it. Both Jude at Head-Fi.org and Tyll at InnerFidelity.com gave these cans positive reviews, and Tyll says the measurements are perfectly on par with all other solidly performing headphones in this price range. At T.H.E. Show in Newport we had both the ATH-M50 and the Aviator plugged side by side into a Total BitHead/iPod combo with lossless files. It was 50/50 on which headphone was chosen as better sounding, but even those who turned their nose up when we told them the cool looking cans were “Skullcandy” ended up smiling and giving a nod of approval while listening. So for those whose preconceived notions are negative, pretend they don’t say 'Skullcandy', plug them into your own source, and give them a fair listen. Also keep in mind that when you walk into a box store to ‘demo’ headphones, there's no telling how long those cans have been playing, at what volume level, how many times they’ve been dropped or how much soda has been spilled on them, so there’s a good chance you could be listening to defective, blown-out or under-performing headphones. In a period of a few months, display headphones could have more hours on them than any one person would do in many years. Our understanding is Bose airport kiosk headphones are replaced outright every 30 days for that reason! For us, it’s simple -- we’re fans of great headphones and supporters of manufacturers who make them. We've witnessed Skullcandy starting to put big audio R&D into producing good-sounding headphones well into the future but no doubt it will be a difficult battle for them to shed their negative image amongst some cynics. Hopefully, our headphone-loving community will eventually allow them the credit they’ve earned in the portable category with the Aviators. Things can often evolve and, in the case of the Skullcandy RocNation Aviator, nicely for the better.

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