Onkyo ES-HF300 review
Onkyo is a brand that's very much known for being good value. It certainly changed AV receivers, offering a lot more features than most, at bargain prices. What's more, its cheaper receivers have always performed brilliantly, meaning that you don't have to spend the big bucks to get a nice-sounding receiver. This is a rarity in home cinema.
Like most companies with an audio heritage though, Onkyo now wants into the headphone market. This is - as far as we know - still one of the areas where you can make money in consumer electronics. Onkyo's arrival here, and in the just-shy-of-£200 price range isn't, we have to say, a massive surprise.
The cable is good, and bad
Onkyo has done something very interesting with its marketing of the ES-HF300 headphones, and that's to highlight the importance of the cable that connects them to your music. Most companies doesn't make a big deal about their cables, but Onkyo says it's a huge part of the sound.
And from the first time you see it, the supplied cable is a bit different. It has a clear outer shell, within which is an 6N oxygen-free cable. What does that mean exactly? We have no idea. We also don't care about anything other than sound and practicality. The sound we'll get too, but in terms of practicality, we quite like the feel of the cable, it also shouldn't snag on anything, and should last a decent amount of time.
There are, however, two problems with the cable though. The first, is that it's very expensive to replace should anything about it break. It's quite important to remember that headphone cables are the least durable bit about most headphones, so sooner or later you will need to get a news set. Replacement cables cost £50.
The other problem is that the supplied cable isn't long enough for home use really. These are audiophile headphones, so you'd sort of want to use them with your TV, hi-fi and such. The length of the lead means that's not really possible though. You'd need to sit very close to your equipment, and that may not suit you.
Of course, cable extension leads are cheap, but when so much is made of the quality of the lead, this seems like a bit of a pointless endeavour. We understand that Onkyo wants you to use these headphones out and about, and for that the lead is perfect, but for home use, it is impractical.
In a market dominated by headphones that have to look a certain way to sell, we're rather impressed by the HF300s. For a start, Onkyo sidesteps the issue by making the HF300s available only in black, with the audiophile lead included. The ES-FC300s come in black, purple and white and don't have an audiophile cable. So both audiences can pick a set that meets their needs,. If your needs change, you can upgrade the cable to the more expensive audiophile one, and get the best of both worlds. We haven't tested the two cables side-by-side, so we can't tell you how much difference the change will make.
The design is very cool though. They look utilitarian and kind of basic, but they also have a whiff of the distant future about them. We think they're just about the coolest looking cans you can buy, easily outdoing Beats and similar in style. That said, we're not rappers, so what the flipping heck do we know.
The way the headphone cable attaches to the cans themselves is interesting too. It's not the usual push in jack arrangement. It's a far more complicated, and awesome clip design that feels more secure. Headphones with simple jacks will always pop out, and sometimes with very minimal downward force. That's not a problem here.
In terms of comfort, there are no significant problems here to mention. The headphones do feel a little bit tight, which might grow tiresome after several hours listening, but your choice is either this, or to have them slipping off your head all the time. We've found the Onkyos to strike a good balance, although their "over" the ear, rather than "cover" the whole ear does make them fractionally less comfortable than the big hi-fi headphones.
The build quality seems solid too, and twisting and tugging doesn't give us the sense that eventually they will break, although only time will tell.
And that's pretty much all that needs to be said. We think Onkyo has got these cans just about right. Feed them a signal from a flat source, as it appears on a CD or lossless track from a computer or MP3 player and you'll hear it sound as authentic and detailed as the mastering engineer intended.
If, on the other hand, that flat sound isn't what you're looking for, then tweak the EQ on your player, and listen to them explode with extra bass. It's a nice touch that these headphones can work in both styles, because often we want clear, unadulterated music, and other times we want to have our skulls crushed by awe-inspiring bass. And, of course, different music demands different listening styles. Drum and bass is nothing without low-end oomph, but classical needs a much flatter sound to carry over all the detail in a "live" orchestra.
Speech is clear too, so if you're looking for a pair of headphones to listen to the TV, or watch movies on a tablet, they fit the bill too, with the proviso about the short cable still in place. Dialogue is nice a clear, and the brilliant range means that you will get to hear the low thump of explosions too.
We listened to some Game of Thrones using the HF300s to test their overall range for home entertainment, and there was plenty of solid bass during the title music, as well as the detail from that lovely arrangement. But as soon as the show started, we could hear the crisp rain falling on tents, with dialogue picked out in a way that even expensive speakers would struggle with.
The one thing we did notice though, is that if you give the HF300s anything but the best sound, they really get a strop on. Low quality MP3s and streaming audio from sites like Spotify and Napster can become an issue. Even though most streaming sites have good quality sound, they're still sometimes subjected to the odd rubbish track, and that's a real problem here. Some headphones can cover up for this, but they're generally not very good headphones.
There's nothing not to like here, besides perhaps the £180 price tag. But given that most headphones cost about that, and most have significantly less prowess than the HF300s, we don't think that price is too much to ask. Of course, that decisions is yours to make.
We think they sound stunning, look stunning and feel great to wear. The lead might not be a perfect length for home listening, but at worst case you can grab an extension lead, just try not to buy a super-cheap one, if you're worried about compromising the audio quality of that special Onkyo cable.
While we can't vouch for the added quality of the lead, not having heard the alternative, we'll leave the decision about which model to buy, but rest assured, these HF300s are one of our favourite pairs, and at a pretty decent price, considering the competition.