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Best of EAR in 2021

The PHONON SMB-01L and the ML-2 have both been featured in Germanys top headphone magazine EAR IN  Best of 2021 edition.  Following is a translation. 

Of the many devices that we present to you at EAR IN, some devices always “stick” in our minds. We will introduce such products here and present them to you once again in the form of our “Best of EAR IN” award.

It’s amazing what happens in terms of headphones, headphone amplifiers, DACs and accessories within a year. Since last year, true-wireless in-ears have clearly been the focus of the industry and it’s exciting to see all the technology and features manufacturers are packing into the tiny housings. On the other hand, manufacturers are pushing the sonic performance of headphones to ever higher levels.

To keep an overview here, our test report offers a good orientation. However, we had to reduce many impressive devices to a few comparable data and aspects here. In some cases, class, price and scores only very inadequately reflect what makes a product so fascinating. That’s why we have decided to present our highlights among the tested products to you once a year. In addition to objective test criteria, we also include other aspects that can hardly be reflected in the figures of the Test report. We honour such products with the “Best of EAR IN” award.

Even though you will only find products in the test report that are worth reporting on, we would like to use the “Best of” award to highlight products that are something special.

        

Best of EAR IN 2021

April/May 01/2021

The company Phonon was founded in Japan in 2010 and has set out to enrich the world with unconventional audio products.
While the SMB-01L over-ear headphones still look conventional at first glance, the ML-2 near-field monitor is already special.

What I particularly like about Japan is that there are a lot of freaky scenes there. A hi-tech country where the music cassette still has a loyal following is special.
And Japan is otherwise a biotope for tech gadgets in and beyond the mainstream. As far as headphones go, a lot of really exciting products come out of Japan. I’m writing this to shed a little light on the background against which you need to view the comparatively young company Phonon. Phonon was founded in 2010 by a group of established music lovers, sound engineer Isao Kumano with other music creators DJ Alex and No Milk. And of course, the goal was to bring products to market that meet the sonic demands of music creators.

I found it exciting to compare Phonon’s current top model, the SMB-01L monitor headphones, with the somewhat exotic-looking ML-2 near-field monitor speaker, because Phonon claims to achieve the same sound quality here as over headphones.

SMB-01L Over-Ear Headphones Features

The SMB-01L is an over-ear headphone. The construction is interesting, because then thanks to interchangeable ear plates, you can operate the SMB-01L both closed and semi-open. Whereby even with the closed ear plates, it has a comparatively large number of compensation openings, as every closed headphone has them more or less hidden. I would rather speak of semi-closed and semi-open in this context. Be that as it may, the inserted drivers, which are comparatively large at 50 ml in diameter, seem to support both modes.
With an impedance of 32 ohms and an efficiency of 102 dB, the SMB-01L is well suited for operation on mobile devices. On the other hand, the detachable, three-meter-long cable with a 6.3 mm jack plug makes it clear that indoor use is more the focus from outside portable use. But since the cable is interchangeable and connects on the headphone side with a 3.5 mm 4-pin plug, you can also find other cables with different lengths and plugs at the corresponding providers. The headphones come in a nice, sturdy transport case, and the scope of delivery includes closed and open covers as well as a matching screwdriver and replacement screws.

Fit

At 343 grams, the SMB-01L has a more or less normal weight for a large over-ear. The well-padded headband absorbs some of this, while the rest is taken care of by the ear pads, which are also soft and comfortably cushion the pressure with which the headphones rest around the ears. By the way, the pads are covered with genuine sheepskin, which is pleasantly soft. The space under the pads is well sufficient for normal-sized ears. The headband’s adjustment range is large, and the mechanics of the wide-range swiveling headband joints are pleasantly quiet.

ML-2 near field monitor loudspeaker features

The ML-2 reminds of a sound-bar from the first impression, but it is designed for a completely different listening situation. A sound-bar is usually placed under the TV and is supposed to provide a room-filling sound. With the help of many drivers, active electronics and a complex digital sound processing, the top models manage to offer a real surround sound impression. The ML-2 has a more pure sound.
On the one hand, because it is designed for listening to music in the near field.
This means that you sit in front of the speaker at a fairly short listening distance. On the other hand, Phonon has set itself the goal of offering the same, immediate and highly dynamic sound quality that one is used to from headphones. And for the Japanese, that means that only full-range loudspeaker drivers that operate unfiltered, i.e. without a crossover, come into question here. The complete sound tuning was done by constructive measures of the three-inch full-range drivers and the housing. It is clear that the ML-2 is an active loudspeaker. The built-in amplifiers have 2 x 13.5 watts.
The ML-2 receives the music signal via combined 3-pin XLR/6.3 mm jack sockets. You can choose via a switch whether you supply the device with balanced or unbalanced signals. Additionally, Phonon has equipped the ML-2 with Bluetooth, so that you can play music wirelessly, for example from your smartphone, via the Phonon near-field monitor. Thanks to aptX, the sound quality could work out – Bluetooth is otherwise hardly to be considered an audiophile signal path. An external power supply takes care of the power supply

Sound

Let’s start with the SMB-01L headphones. These are in a clearly ambitious price range and definitely meet all expectations that can be placed on them. They deliver a very finely resolved high-frequency range, which manages to be suitable for long-term listening despite the clear announcement – which speaks for its low distortion. The mids are transparent.
Tonally, there is a slight emphasis in the fundamental tone, which makes for a very appealing sound impression. Especially voices benefit from this slight friendliness in the fundamental tone. Since Phonon does this very discreetly, it is not sounding, but just a friendly tendency. The bass is naturally very dependent on whether the SMB-01L is used closed or semi-open.
With the closed housing ear plates mounted in the delivery state, the Phonon headphones give mighty bass in the low frequency. Yes, this is definitively a properly emphasized bass range, and that’s fun. For all the substantial energy that the Phonon pushes into the auditory canals here, it remains surprisingly clean and controlled.
This may be clearly too much for representatives of pure doctrine, but it is fun and inevitably brings a big grin to your face with the right music. I find that completely okay, because the Phonon SMB-01L can also do otherwise. To do this, you only have to modify the headphones and mount the open housing ear plates. In doing so, the bass essentially changes, recedes quite a bit, but without running the risk of sounding weaker. Half-open, the bass is still solid, crisp and very well controlled, but it is all in a much more moderate range.
Fortunately, even in semi-open mode, the crisp, immediate response as well as the inspiring dynamics, with which the SMB-01L acts, remain.

 

When switching to the ML-2 near-field monitor, the response inevitably changes first.
After all, the sound now really comes from the front. At this point, perhaps the biggest criticism of the ML-2 is that in order for the sound to lock in here, the drivers should be at about ear level. That is, the unit is at eye level in front of you and you look in front of the cabinet when listening. I think two separate speakers, which you can place to the left and right of a screen, for example, are more practical. Regardless of whether you find the concept convincing, Phonon has realized a really excellent sound here that comes quite close to headphone reproduction in terms of resolution and dynamics. The bass is less powerful, but it is sufficiently present for the overall sound image to be balanced. Mids and trebles come across cleanly, and the resolution is also okay.

Conclusion

The Phonon SMB-01L over-ear headphones show that Phonon is in the top league in terms of sound. Tonally on the somewhat fuller, sound side, they convince with high resolving power, inspiring dynamics and, thanks to the option of operating it closed or semi-open, with a turn-on accentuated or a solidly neutral bass range.

The Phonon near-field monitor ML-2 is a rather “nerdy” product and offers an appealing, headphone-like, balanced and dynamic sound from a compact, desktop-ready housing.

SMB-01L

(Bewertung) RATING (In Germany from 5 (the worst) to 1 (the best): 1.3
(Klang) SOUND 50% 1.2
(Passform) FIT 20% 1.3
(Austtatung) EQUIPMENT 20% 1.5
DESIGN 10% 1.5

ML-2

(Bewertung) RATING (In Germany from 5 (the worst) to 1 (the best): 1.7
(Klang) SOUND 70% 1.8
(Austtatung) EQUIPMENT 15% 1.5
(Bedienung) OPERATION 15% 1.5

FInd more information on the SMB-01L here

Find more information on the ML-2 Here

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