Summer is the season of getting pumped, and that doesn't just mean showing off all the work you put into getting in swimsuit shape. Summer is the season of the pop song, of high energy exploding from every open window, of Carly Rae Jepsen and Japandroids and Rita Ora and Calvin Harris and Passion Pit. It's all about audio that's toned -- but no matter how good a summer jam is, you need the right gear to make sure it's punchy, not paunchy. Thankfully, more audio gear manufacturers are working to make sure the top of the iTunes charts sounds good at both your desktop and the beach.
Less developed as an audiophile sector, the on-ear headphone has seen some true contenders emerge recently to balance convenience, comfort, and clarity. Grado Labs and Sennheiser (and to a lesser extent AKG) defined the category before the Beyerdynamic DT1350 was introduced a couple years ago to redefine the balance of portability and potency. (Note: We do not recognize Beats By Dre as a legitimate entry, as this brand greatly emphasizes bass energy over accuracy). At nearly $300, however, the artfully machined DT1350 remains a luxury item. Those looking for an on-ear headphone that's articulate and more economical have two newer $199 selections: the V-Moda Crossfade M-80, and the Bowers & Wilkins P3.
On the market since summer 2011, the M-80 still stands out both aesthetically and aurally. Cast in inky black with ruby accents, accompanied by an "exoskeleton" case, these are headphones for fans of True Blood and H.R. Giger. But the form is also functional; the steel construction and Kevlar-reinforced cables make for a nigh-indestructible build quality, and durability is a massive boon in transportable audio. Armed with 40mm dual-diaphragm drivers, the M-80 is a headphone with a striking capacity for drive.
Efficient right out of an iPhone -- provided you establish a proper seal with the ear -- the M-80 exhibits limber bass that's pronounced without encroaching on the slightly forward midrange textures. Treble is bold without being sibilant, and good instrument separation means the heavy music these headphones favor never sounds negatively dense. Baroness to Burial, the M-80 doesn't neglect detail nor heft.
Sporting custom 30mm drivers, the B&W P3 can't match the M-80's low end, but coming from a renowned speaker manufacturer, it puts forth a spacious soundstage and dynamic balance. And whereas the M-80's look is stylized, the P3 is stylish.
The best adjective for the P3 is tailored, in both look and tone. The finish on each element -- from the rubberized headband to the earcup's silver accents to the "bespoke acoustic cloth" that covers the cozy memory foam earpads -- integrates into a refined package that offers no distracting sparkle, and the same can be said for the sound.
Low frequencies on the P3 box a bit tighter than the M-80's fluid roll, and as previously stated, the P3 doesn't extend as far into the sub-bass. The midrange, however, has a warmth and lucidity that makes for an admirable equilibrium, and the treble is crisp without overextending. Resolution is pleasing, but never at the cost of poise. The P3 doesn't offer as much passive sound isolation as the M-80, but it also feels like you can push its volume further because of the lush, smooth range it maintains. The headphones fold trimly into their included hardshell case. Strap these on if you thought Rihanna's curves couldn't get more kickin'.
One good comparison as to what type of accessory these two headphones embody would be that the M-80 is a pair of Oakley sport performance sunglasses and the P3 is the Ray-Ban aviator; one is engineered for a more athletic response, while the other personifies timeless composure.
One thing that both headphones share, however, is that they are only as good as their source. Nowadays that often means digital files (MP3, AAC, etc.) or streaming audio (Spotify, Pandora, etc.) played out of an iDevice or a computer. The first solution to the cons of digital file compression is to negate it as much as possible, always seeking files encoded at the highest possible bit rate. After that, there are multiple products available that will provide better digital-to-analog converters and headphone amps than what a computer or iPhone will include.
Even something as small as the FiiO E10 (a USB device intended for laptops) or the E11 (meant to accompany an iPhone/iPod), Chinese devices that retail at Amazon for around $60-$75, can improve sonic definition. Those feeling spendy can score much better. V-Moda, working hard to establish its own vertical product line, offers the VAMP ($599), an iPhone 4/4S case sporting a digital-to-analog converter, headphone amplifier, and extended battery pack (if you're going to spend $599 on this thing you have to assume you need at least twice the listening time that the phone's built-in battery provides).
Meanwhile, Japanese brand Fostex offers the less integrated, but still pleasingly industrial design-friendly HP-P1 ($649), a curved, brushed aluminum box that doesn't offer any battery packs outside its own rechargeable internal power but does come with a case that straps the iPhone and the 32-bit converter/headphone amplifier into a bundle (albeit one for your bag, not your pocket). It also makes for a nice desktop unit, as it can pass a signal through its S/PDIF connection if you want to play your music on a larger audio system that accepts optical digital input.
And if you do more of your listening in a stationary position, or from an unwieldy iPad, NuForce offers the Icon iDo ($249), which is AC-powered so it isn't terribly portable, but adds a lot of connectivity to that standard Apple USB charging cord. Plug your device into the iDo and you have access to a relatively neutral headphone amp, a coaxial digital output, and analog RCA outputs. All of these headphones and devices will give your songs more headroom, improving precision and presence and making your summer audio even sunnier.