Studio monitor headphones are an interesting, refreshing breed. In this age of mega-boosted bass, the goal of a studio monitor pair, like the NuForce HP-800, is to reproduce sound accurately, not overwhelmingly. Thus, the $149 (list) HP-800 does not throttle your ears with sub-bass frequencies. Instead, it focuses on the mid-range content, producing an accurate, crisp sound signature that is ideal for many genres. Unfortunately, any genre that relies on deep, sub-bass content as a central part of its mix is bound to give the HP-800 some trouble. These headphones not only seem to lack much sub-bass presence at moderate levels, but they distort on these same frequencies at top volumes.
The circumaural (over-the-ears) design of the visually-striking HP-800 is basically a must for studio monitors pairs—on-ear pairs tend to bleed too much audio that could then be picked up by microphones. NuForce uses memory foam in the ear pads, adding a layer of comfort that is crucial for long recording sessions.
Two nice visual touches on the otherwise uniformly black frame: The drivers on the inside of the earcups are covered with bright red speaker grille cloth, and the square, gold-colored logo (which simply says “Nu”) on the outside panels of the ears looks luxurious, not tacky. An innovative headband design actually uses two bands. The one that rests on your head is flexible and adjusts automatically based on tension, while the top band is more rigid and helps stabilize the fit.
The detachable cable adds some value to the cost of the HP-800—cables are usually the most likely suspect when headphones malfunction. Being able to replace them, rather than send the unit in for a repair or buy a new pair altogether, could quite possibly extend the life of your headphones by years.
Of the two included cables, one has a thick, cloth-covered outer layer, and terminates in either 3.5mm, or ¼-inch for pro-gear jacks (a screw-on adapter is included). The other is quite thin, and is intended for on-the-go, non-studio use. It would’ve been nice to see phone controls included on this cable, but NuForce skipped phone controls, microphones, and remotes altogether, so this is a purely musical headphone pair. A black satin drawstring bag is also included.
NuForce more or less nails the flat frequency response most studio monitors need to have to be taken seriously. But the HP-800 lacks one crucial quality for a reliable pair of studio headphones: It can’t handle deep bass at high volumes without distorting. This is really a shame, because its crisp, articulate response is ideal for studio engineers seeking an accurate portrayal of their project. If the track has serious sub-bass, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” or highly resonant low-end, like Thom Yorke’s “Cymbal Rush,” you’re going to hear some very noticeable distortion at higher volumes.
In a studio setting, this is especially an issue because you’re typically listening to unmixed, un-mastered audio as you record, and deep bass is a part of many modern genres. Before it’s been tamed by an engineer, it’s often going to be loud in a mix. Unfortunately, one common aspect of studio monitoring, at least by musicians, is that the volume levels go up as the day gets longer, so this distortion is bound to rear its ugly head at some point.
However, at moderate levels, the HP-800 does not distort on those deep bass tracks. Its overall bass response is quite subtle—typical for a studio monitor, but if it wasn’t already obvious, this is not a pair for deep bass lovers. What the HP-800 focuses on is the midrange, and the highs, offering just enough sub-bass response to fill out the range. In this sense, it is unique in today’s landscape of bass-boosted headphones, like the Beats by Dr. Dre.
The focus on mids is ideal for engineers, but also sounds great on vocal-driven music. Bill Callahan’s “Drover” can sound murky on some bass-heavy headphones, but on the HP-800, the treble edge on his unique baritone vocals is sharp, pushing it to the front of the mix where it belongs. Meanwhile, the thunderous drum sounds that underpin much of the verse are not overly bass-boosted, and sound natural and powerful—and not like they’re the focus of the song, as they can sound if the lower bass frequencies are too intense.
On classical tracks, like John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” the lower register strings have an almost perfect level of resonance and depth to them. Because the strings’ sound signature doesn’t exist too much in the sub-bass category, the HP-800 is able to reproduce them with a nice sense of body; they sound anything but anemic. The higher register strings, brass, and woodblock percussion sounds crisp, bright, and lively here, as you’d expect from a studio monitor pair. While the focus is definitely on the mids, the depth of the lower strings and larger percussion is still part of the mix. It’s a very faithful, natural sound. Occasionally, things can sound a bit too focused on the hi-mids—some higher stringed instruments can sound a bit harsh at times, but this only really becomes an issue at top volumes.
The limited sub-bass presence is felt mostly on modern pop, hip-hop, and rock mixes. On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the sub-bass synth hits lack gusto, and the kick-drum loop, which is already treble-heavy, but relies on nice low-end sustain to round it out, sounds a bit too crisp, and doesn’t have much bass presence to it, either. The vocals come out clearly and nicely, and the occasional muddiness that can occur on a bass-heavy headphone with a dense mix like this one is never an issue. But the bass response here feels more implied than delivered, and for modern mixes, that eliminates much of a track’s energy.
If deep, booming bass is what you seek, the aforementioned Beats are an obvious place to start, but consider the more refined, yet still powerful, bass response of the Yamaha PRO 500. Hopefully, however, you’re more interested in an accurate response, perhaps with more low frequency push than the HP-800 has, but nothing over the top. Sennheiser has mastered that sound signature, and although it leaks too much to be a good studio pair, the Sennheiser HD 558 is about as good as headphones can sound under $200.
If you’re looking for an even more affordable studio monitor pair, the Shure SRH440 offers a solid, accurate response, and doesn’t suffer distortion issues. At $149, the NuForce HP-800 delivers an accurate sound, but its distortion issues on deep bass, and its limited bass response in general, make it a less-than-versatile studio tool. Basically, if you record music that has no sub-bass content, it’s a great find, and if that’s not the case, the HP-800 is not nearly as valuable to you.
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