Headphone System Review – HiFi v Apple

Summer is here in the UK and it’s hotting up into the 30s, which is all the excuse an Englishman needs to break out the BBQ and don some speedos.  In all seriousness, when it’s hot outside and inside, the idea of sitting in a sealed room with amplifiers kicking out even more heat, can lose its appeal. However, the audiophile desire for great sounding music never wanes.  In fact, I often enjoy music more on warm sunny days because I am in a better mood, and so I think this is when having a nice headphone setup really makes sense. I have been looking at what I think are two great and flexible very high performing systems and it’s very much a case of HiFi vs Apple.

Quad ERA1

Earlier in the year I visited the UK headquarters for Quad, one of the oldest speaker manufacturers in the world. While I was there we were talking about different setups and the topic of headphones arose. I was asked what I thought of the Quad ERA1 and was a little embarrassed to say I hadn’t listened to them.  It was pitched to me that they were designed to sound just like the famous Quad Electrostatic speakers. I know there will be a whole bunch of audiophiles whose ears just pricked up at the thought of that – portable personal quad electrostatics – it’s an intriguing prospect.  I came home with a pair, and I have been listening to them on and off with several different systems but mostly with the Chord Electronics Mojo 2. I realised this is a cracking sounding setup for about a thousand pounds. The Quad ERA 1 cost £595 and the Mojo 2, £495.

I need to be clear here that the Quad ERA1 are not electrostatic headphones, they are planar magnetic headphones which is a very different technology, but a technology that shares some of the strengths of Electrostatic drivers, such as having a thin membrane driver, human hair thin. This provides low mass for faster movement and clearer transients but with some distinct advantages electrostatics don’t have, such as low impedance which makes them easier to drive and, apparently, planar drivers can have a better bass response. Planar drivers therefore should have advantages over dynamic driver headphones also, such as lower distortion, but like everything in audio; the sound produced is often more than just the technology used alone.

I like the Quad ERA1, I like the look of them, the styling is excellent and the build quality is good, although not amazing.  I have one complaint which I want to get out of the way before I proceed. The pair I had creaked where the ear piece meets the headband strap, and it creaked a lot.  I will be honest, it was a little disappointing, but a small shot of WD40 fixed the issue.

Comfort is also very important to me and the ERA1 are very light headphones. I used to own some planar based Audeze LCD X. They weighed a ton and creaked far worse, my pair creaked from the drivers themselves if I moved about too much which I really didn’t like. There is none of that with ERA1.   Comfort is personal, especially for me as I have a big head – I mean physically and not in any grandiose sense of importance. The Quad’s have large, fully over ear designed ear cups and they fitted me fine. If you have a very small head, maybe the could be a little big on you.

Comfort-wise the ERA1 are OK, they feel a bit stiff overall and so don’t mould to, or cuddle, your head like some other headphones do. The Audeze LCDX are a great example of a headphone cuddling your ears and head more like a pillow, and I think that is partly why they cost a lot more.  The ERA1 do come with two sets of ear pads – one is a soft leather, and the other is a fleecy material.  I found that the fleecy material is less comfortable, possibly because of my stubble as I could feel the headphones touching on my face as I moved my hair was rubbed by them and so it was leather for me.  I do like that it’s easy to change the ear pads without the fear of breaking anything, you just pull them off, line up the studs and push them back on. Simple.

The different ear pads also change the sound of the headphones (by design) and that is cool in a way, but also sucks if you like the comfort of one but the sound of the other. That is why the Chord Mojo 2 is ideal here.

I reviewed the Mojo 2 when it was first released, and it is an exceptionally good headphone/DAC/amp for the money.  I am sure a lot of you have now had a chance to listen to one and compared it to other solutions and likely agree with me.  For me it is in the long term use of a product where its quality or otherwise comes through. I have been using the Mojo 2 as my daily office headphone setup that I use to make all my YouTube videos.  Before I was using the Chord Hugo TT2. I initially noticed a big step down and a big change in sound.  The mojo 2 is very neutral, probably more neutral than the TT2, in my opinion. Now I am used to the change I really like the neutrality for working on videos, I find the MOJO 2 sounds clean, really clean, with just enough of that Chord DAC special sauce.

A Tale of Two Earpads

So what happens when you pair the MOJO 2 with the Quad ERA 1? The answer is very good things – the sound is clear clean, solid and engaging. Beyond that it really depends on what earpads you are using because the ERA 1 will sound different, like totally different headphones, which is crazy when you think about it.  With the fleece earpads the sound is much warmer richer and bolder in the bass, and I assume this is the Quad “Electrostatic-like” sound.  There is a strong emphasis on tonality, grandiosity and presence to the music.  Listening to movie sound tracks they become very emotional and epic for their scale.  There is a touch of tube-like euphonic magic to this presentation that warms the soul and is massively gratifying.  Transients are presented cleanly, but with a softer more rounded edge. That means music has a wonderful sense of flow, and it makes for a very easy listen across a broad spectrum of music, with you being less fussy of its production.

There can be a real character to vocals too, with an emphasis on the lower mid-range having an added sense of bloom supported by a very full bass that is, in the main, tight and controlled. It is a sound where you can easily just kick back and get lost in the music.  If I was to be critical the soundstage and the presence of the music feels a little squashed at times and some big male vocals, like Colter Wall in his self-titled album, can sound overly thick and lacking some clarity due to the warmer or bolder lower mids on his already warm and bold voice.  You can adjust this a little with where you place the headphones over your ears, trying to keep your ear holes as central as possible. It is hard to tell this exactly, but positioning does seem to matter.

Changing to the leather ear pads, the sound totally changes. It sort of makes sense why, because the earpads are tapered and you must ensure that the thicker side is at the rear of your ears.  With these  ear pads the vocal region of the soundstage really opens up, perhaps because the balance is leaner through the lower mid-range and there is a less bloomy sound to the vocals.  There is also a greater focus on soundstage space and transients sharpen up a little. I do think that with the leather pads the ERA1 have a more neutral overall presentation. It is still a warm sounding setup but not as obviously so, but there is a little less character to vocals as a trade off.

Which do I prefer? It’s a tough one because I do like them both.  One appeals to my head and the other to my soul. If push comes to shove, I would pick leather.

The Brilliance of the Mojo 2 

What’s really cool about the Mojo 2 is that you don’t really need to choose your ear pad preferences based on a sound decision, you can choose based on your comfort preference and use the MOJO 2 to adjust the sound to your preference.  Firstly, with the MOJO 2 I engaged its crossfeed option to ‘green’ for the fleece pads and ‘blue’ for the leather pads.  Now the headstage (soundstage for headphones) grows from just to the sides of your head to being significantly more expansive to the sides and in front,  everything sounds more three-dimensional and ‘spatial’ to use a current trending word. It is a night-and-day huge improvement to the presentation quality.  However, there is a downside to crossfeed, in that it thickens the bass some which robs the sound of some transient clarity in favour of a warmer sound.  Using crossfeed with the leather pads sounded a little more like the fleece pads did without crossfeed so warmer and bolder in the lower mid-range.  That’s where the MOJO2 second great feature comes – its equalisation.  Dialling-in a little bass trim and a bit of treble push this downside was eliminated. Now we are cooking! This is an epic sound that is big, bold, warm, clean and clear, with nice transients, good detail and a terrific three-dimensional headstage combined with a sound that’s inviting and engaging to listen to for hours.

The Best Feature of Qobuz

I could easily have listened to this setup for hours and what I often do is play some music on Qobuz and then just let it pick more music for me ongoing.  What is great is that when I do this, I find myself mentally engaging with the music totally differently to when I know the music or who it is by.  In fact, I was really enjoying on particular song and when I checked what it was, it was from a remix of the ‘Angry Birds’ theme tune. I would never have picked that out to listen to. I’m glad it came up because it was fun.  Obviously while you are doing this you’re discovering new music and new artists. I find this amazing and the best feature of what streaming music offers.

I used the Qobuz app playing from my iPad Pro, as the music source but, of course, you could use your phone in the same way.  This a fairly mobile setup too, so on a nice evening you could easily sit out in the garden or on the balcony with a nice glass of gin and still enjoy awesome sounding tunes. I love that and I think it’s great!

Limitations and a FRUIT Alternative

Of course, this combination has limitations, the MOJO 2 is mobile, but the ERA1 are not really travelling or mobile headphones. They feel designed more for a fixed position listening setup so when you finish your gin and need another, it’s a pain to take your tunes with you to the fridge. That is where Bluetooth headphones ‘destroy all others’ to borrow a phrase from Jays Iyagi YouTube channel.

I thought it would be interesting to do a comparison between the Quad / Chord setup and probably the world’s most popular “high quality” Bluetooth headphone system – the Apple Airpods Max. The pair I used were in a very summery, but still masculine of course, blue colour. I paid £449 for them off Amazon which is partly why I bought blue as they were cheaper and, of course, the Airpods Max cost less than both the Mojo2 and the Quad ERA1 individually. But no manufacturer has the economies of scale and the R&D budget of Apple so they have the potential to produce a product that’s next level good sounding and for them to sell it for next to nothing if they really wanted to, that doesn’t mean they will,  why would they.  Then there is the huge con in that Bluetooth transmission is still currently in 2022 a lossy audio format so all the CD quality and especially the high-res goodness of Qobuz is lost.  Still, you might think the huge benefit of being genuinely cable tether free, and what that offers, is enough to make you overlook the “potential” loss in sound quality.  But is there a loss in sound quality and by how much?

That is where things become really interesting because, in some ways yes, and some ways no. Obviously Apple have the advantage of this being a closed loop system so they know the driver behaviour and, in theory, can match the amplifier perfectly to the impedance of the driver.  It seems like they have done a good job with this because the bass is excellent from them in the main. If you like a full punchy and dynamic bass, and I do, and I think if you listen to a lot of modern music or dance music, “techno techno,” then you will likely prefer the Airpods Max to the Quad Chord setup.

I could get the bass close with the Quad Chord setup using the MOJO 2 EQ adjustment, but I couldn’t match it. If that was all the Apple offered, I would have understood but it is not. Their sound is balanced very nicely. Vocals are clear and present, their treble is precise and crisp, without any strain, and the full bass warms the whole presentation to create a very pleasing overall sound that is quite rounded off and so fairly smooth.  The soundstage is not bad either but mostly head width limited and had I not experienced the magic of crossfeed in the MOJO 2 and how it enhances the sound to be three-dimensional then I think I would be more than happy with the Airpods for head stage.

The Apple Max have all the other advantages too such as excellent noise cancelling, making phone calls, and they have a fancy smart case, strange design that one.

Comfort is ok, I did find it much harder to get them set to a position I felt was a good fit and I still don’t feel 100% happy with them on, maybe the will take some time to mould to my odd shaped head.

I think the biggest limitation for Apple is the lossy codec, if we could get full high-res music over Bluetooth/wireless, one day I am sure we will.

Which to Buy?

So, which of the two setups is better and which should you buy?  For me I really like the Airpods Max but more for shorter term music listening an hour to two hours. I found myself fatigued because the full punchy bass could be a little bit too much of a good thing in some music, especially in Lady Blackbird – Black Acid Soul – the bass is very full anyway in that album.  For that reason, I would like to see some sound tailoring options or controls for bass mids etc.

That is where the big strengths of the Quad / Chord setup come in. You could listen to that setup all day, and you have control over the sound presentation with the MOJO 2.  It is not as focused and resolving in some ways compared to the Apple but is more resolving in others and the soundstage you get from crossfeed just stops the headphone head compression soundstage you get without it. That is a game changer in my eyes. The Quads have a character to their sound that is a little special but in some ways, the Apple Max sound more technically well engineered.

However, with the Quad ERA1 there is no noise cancelling and there are cables to contend with. You cannot charge and listen easily simultaneously either and the cost is double that of the Airpod MAX. There is also the style and branding to consider, which setup is a 20-year-old going to choose regardless of the sound? If your 50 its likely a different story.  The Airpods Max are made simple if you use them with other apple gear, you don’t even have to connect them over Bluetooth you just hold them next to the Ipad or similar and they auto connect, a really great feature.

So, I cannot give you an outright winner. It just depends on where your preferences lie. I was expecting to sit here and say the Chord Quad setup destroys the Apple for sound quality but it is just not that simple.

Sorry, but you might just have to buy both of them to cover all your bases – using my affiliate links of course and for that I apologise for making this video and emptying your wallet.