Once we enter the $300 price range for headphones, our expectations become quite high. The first pair of headphones we’ve ever reviewed from KEF, however, do not disappoint. The $299.99 (direct) KEF M500 is a comfortable, great-sounding pair with a focus on midrange frequencies. Deep bass is delivered cleanly, even at high volumes, but the lows are balanced by some sculpted high-mids and highs. Add to the equation a detachable cable with an inline remote and microphone for mobile phones, and the M500 starts to earn its price tag. Purists seeking flat response should steer clear, but if you want rich bass without gobs of it weighing down the mix, read on.
Visually, the KEF M500 joins the recent—and welcome—realm of sleek, on-ear designs that have made it socially acceptable to appear in public wearing a big chunk of metal with leather earpads on either side. Simply put, the supra-aural (on-ear) design looks cool, with a black leather exterior on either side of each earcup. The perforated surface of the earcups allows for a nice cushioned experience—the M500 is exceedingly comfortable, even over long listening periods. The ear pads can get a bit warm, but there’s never an issue with them exerting too much pressure on your ears, nor the headband on your scalp. The cups tend to let a bit of room noise in, however, since they are on-ear and not over-ear. This makes it a bit difficult to use the M500 in a noisy environment, like on an airplane.
An inline remote and microphone rest at about chin-level along the left ear, where the cable attaches. That the cable is removable adds to the overall value of the M500. It’s far less expensive to replace a cable than the entire system. Throwing in an additional separate cable (sans remote) sweetens the pot.
The M500 ships with a semi-circle-shaped, zip-up hard shell case, as well as the aforementioned spare cable and remote control cable, an airline headphone jack adapter, and a 1/4-inch headphone jack adapter.
On tracks with serious sub-bass content, like the Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the M500 delivers considerable low frequency presence. At top, unadvisable listening levels, it brings the big bass with no distortion, which is to be expected from a headphone pair in this price range. The low-end is not only clean, but has nice contour and definition—there’s definitely boosting in the low-end, but it’s met with a solid presence throughout the mids and highs.
On Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” baritone vocals receive an added bit of richness, and thankfully are also graced with a nice treble edge that helps them keep their overall definition and stay in the forefront of the mix. The drumming in the background sounds slightly, but not unnaturally or overwhelmingly, bass-heavy. Basically, this is a sound signature that favors the lows, but still supplies enough of a high-mid presence to keep things balanced.
Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church for the Wild” has a kick drum loop with an attack that slices through the mix, while a sub-bass synth punctuates the beat now and then, at least if things are delivered ideally. Through the M500, the attack is dulled a bit, and the depth of the sub-bass synth hits are not as powerful as they could be, but the balance between the two, as well as the vocals, makes things work. Nothing sounds too crisp, or too deep in the bass realm. You could call this a midrange-focused mix, but that wouldn’t quite do justice to the highs and lows that do get some representation. The M500 just doesn’t present them at an extreme level, as is often the case these days.
On classical tracks, like John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” the lower register strings receive a favorable amount of boost, adding a richness to the overall sound signature. The high-mids and highs are already dominant on this track, so they need little boosting to stand out, and they definitely rule the mix through the M500. Brass growls, wood block hits, and higher register strings all have a clear, crisp presence, while the added lows give the overall sound a bit more body.
If you’re looking for a bass-heavier pair, the SMS Audio Street by 50 DJ brings an abundance of low-end, but you’ll lose balance. Meanwhile, the Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro has an adjustable sound signature, so you can go bass-heavy or flat-response. If all of these pairs are out of your price range, there are plenty of capable, more-affordable options, like the exceptional Sennheiser HD 558 and the Editors’ Choice Marshall Monitor. The KEF M500, however, is a solid, comfortable option that’ll please bass lovers who want balance with their low-end.
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