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Circuit Breaker

Onkyo's headphones teach the folly of brand loyalty

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A few weeks ago, I came across a surprisingly lovely pair of in-ear headphones in the Onkyo E700Ms. Coming from a brand that's better known for building speakers and receivers, these ear buds seemed to assert Onkyo's credibility in personal audio too. I was encouraged enough to check out their on-ear counterparts, the H500Ms pictured above, and that's when I was reminded that each product should be judged on its own merits — and those merits are not necessarily as transferable as the company logo.

onkyo e700m

Let's start with the good, shall we? The E700Ms can be found online for $90 and they're a thoroughly worthwhile upgrade over a generic set or whatever was bundled in with your smartphone. Their twisted cable is terrific for this price point, successfully emulating the rugged and reliable wires used in professional and custom in-ear monitors. There's a white and pink (it looks more like copper in official photos, but is closer to baby pink in reality) combo and a fetching black and gold option. In either case, the E700Ms look classy, topped off with a hardy aluminum housing that accommodates a 13.5mm driver.

Pleasantly polite sound from a pretty pair

Onkyo uses a larger driver than the typical 9mm units present in most ear buds, and that pays off in delivering a clean and pleasing musical presentation. Nothing about the E700Ms wowed me, but then nothing irritated or disrupted me, which I think is the more notable aspect. There's no excess of bass, but no tangible shortage either. Treble response is inoffensive — which is important to avoid fatiguing the listener — but is still there when you turn the volume up on tracks with high sections. I get the sense that everything is slightly softened — I think the ephemeral audiophile descriptor for this would be polite — which has suited my tastes very nicely when looking to enjoy uncritical or absent-minded listening. In short, I like and recommend these earphones for anyone looking for decent sound out of a handsomely designed pair of buds.

Onkyo E700M

+ Clean, undiluted sound
+ Twisted wire is easy to untangle and very durable
+ Comply foam tips included in the box

- You pay for the looks as well as sound
- In-line microphone only has one button

My experience with Onkyo's on-ear H500Ms was almost entirely divorced from the positive vibes I got from the E700Ms. Okay, so this pair of headphones also has the cool twisted wire, and I give credit to Onkyo for making it detachable. But the aluminum shell on these cans is much less convincing than on their in-ear siblings, giving out repeated creaks as each ear cup is rotated around its metal pivot. There's also a lot less aluminum here — covering only the rear plate — and the use of plastic, fake leather, and fake brushed aluminum (at each end of the headband) leaves me unimpressed.

Pencil-thin soundstage and anaemic bass

But hey, creaks and cheap construction can be excused by great sound, and that's where the H500Ms truly fall down. Their soundstage is pencil-thin. When listening to them, I feel like all the music is condensed into a line no wider than my nose. It's actually an unpleasant and unnatural sensation, as if you've suffered a hearing malfunction.

Sound quality is not that much better, either, as high frequencies sound tinny and low-end extension is lacking in a big way. Sure, all on-ear headphones struggle with bass, but some are at least artful about the way they work around it (the Koss Porta Pros come to mind, being light on bass but heavy on musical awesomeness). Onkyo's H500Ms just don't do anything particularly well, turning the E700Ms inoffensive politeness into an unsatisfying tribulation. Priced at around $150, these are badly compromised headphones that look good, but sound awful.

Onkyo H500M

+ Detachable, twisted wire with in-line microphone
+ Comfortable and light
+ Pretty

- Extremely, unpleasantly narrow soundstage
- Creaky, unconvincing construction
- Absentee bass and unimpressive treble lead to overemphasized mids

When edifying friends about technology, I always underline the importance of judging each product on its own individual merits. Brands are a good indicator of expected quality, as you can probably trust Nikon to build a good camera or Apple to craft a great laptop, but they shouldn't be relied on for more than that. That's how people end up with Nikon's unsatisfying 1 system cameras (which have only recently improved) or Apple's compromised 2015 MacBook. It's also how someone who might have experienced Onkyo's pleasant E700Ms might end up with the far less praiseworthy H500Ms as well. Don't trust brands. Trust experience.