Something that has always been one of my favourite areas of the headphone community has been the DIY and modification scene and, when it comes to modifications, no brand has a more thriving base of tinkerers than Grado. Until now I have only demo-ed experimental creations carried out on Grado models, but by pure chance I have ended up in the possession of a more professional mod by British outfit, Demand Better Audio. What is now labelled as the HP-A Deluxe was originally an Alessandro MS1i and will retail for £400. Yes, this will be released as a conventional headphone akin to what Mr Speakers and ZMF Headphones have done with their modified Fostex lines. Considering that the MS1i is a $99 headphone there is quite the price increase with this headphone, so it will be vital to see whether or not they have transformed a successful budget headphone into high quality performer.
Demand Better Audio (DBA) are a British company that, without a mutual friend, I doubt I would have ever come across. Their headphones are either not currently released or very poorly advertised as, other than on their site, I just can’t find information or retailers of these cans. DBA’s speakers I have certainly seen before, but it was only when Greg Drygala of G-Point Audio said his mate has some headphone designs he would like me to look at that I was enlightened to these designs.
Headed by Daniel Burns, they certainly seem like an interesting company. Greg told me about his work in making materials for F1 cars and Daniel has told me of a rather glorious background in the audio sector.
“Perhaps I should have opened this paragraph with our backgrounds. Both myself and Dr Natanya Ford (my acoustic design partner) worked for Harman International for many years, myself for over 15 and Natanya for 6. Afterwards Harman Natanya moved to B&O in Denmark and became their ‘ears’ for their new Automotive division. While at Harman we were tasked with setting new standards in Premium Automotive Audio Systems. Working with many colleagues from around the world of Harman, it was Dr Richard Small that gave us the most intricate of directions in Physics first principles that led us to destinations in listening that one would never have forethought – he is the expert however and to this day I believe he sees the world like Neo in the Matrix! So, a great deal of our work was actually in understanding source media, once you do you can then establish the deficiencies in your physical environment (vehicle cabins of all shapes and sizes) and the physical locations and performance of drive units, or lack of. At that juncture you add the multi-channel USP of Harman’s signature LOGIC7 and believe me, by this point nearly all your hair has fallen out due to how many compromises are forcing their way into your development process – each with their own timelines and critical paths.
Not to send you closer to sleep with the explanation, it is the ‘source’ media element that has really defined the ‘demand better audio’ sound signature, because there shouldn’t be one. We’ve taken the refined digital sound-file, established the dominant frequency bands there-in and the relative amplitude that define the ‘artists’ or ‘producers’ signature and then mapped that into our speak development goals, the fun starts past the sheet of math and becomes tangible through listening trials (which both Natanya and I setup for all regions at Harman, also the methods by which we listen and ‘who’ would be our ears around the globe…long story).”
I personally did not find it boring or sleep-inducing in the slightest and really do think it is very important to see where a company come from, what motivates them and how they see their designs.
Obviously one of the super interesting parts of these types of products is what has been done to make a modified product special in its own right. Having looked at Grado mods in the past I often saw a trend of keeping the chassis but changing the driver to a custom made one. I also saw a lot of love for changing the housing to wood. DBA have gone for neither of these approaches, keeping the original driver and instead opting for Carbon Fiber, a signature material for Daniel and his company. I will hand you back over.
“We have made a number of changes to the Alessandro driver, in an effort to extend its capabilities NOT to alter its already great frequency profile. To take a journey outside to in there are a number of quite unique design elements;
- 80+% open grille with a 3dimensional profile – increased effect enclosure volume and a non linear reflection (especially helpful with pieces recoded with ‘height’ differentiators).
- Dual density wind-blocking foam helping the movement of air but not errant frequencies.
- 3 types of 3M natural and neoprene derived closed cell foam to dampen unwanted waves but enrich the increased low end of the spectrum.
- Improved diaphragm venting.
- Control of motor system vibration, F1 anti vibration material used in electronic boxes.
- Anti vibration 3part bonding process for the driver to the enclosure.
- Micro-grooving of the forward chamber to reduced localised diffraction before the ear canal.
- Dual ear pad design with venting to establish both comfort and a membrane for the performance to latch to.
There are other aspects, paints, CF lay-up construction, reduced friction coatings, etc. that are incorporated!”
It is already obvious that the mod is not small procedure, nor one that has little thought-process behind it. It has treatment that is used in F1 cars and both driver modifications and physical changes. It all bodes well so far.
Now the subject of the review is HP-A Deluxe but as you may have foreseen from the name, there is also a cheaper Standard version I do not have. The differences between these seem mainly comfort and aesthetic based.
”Our standard HP-A has a neoprene headband and chemically coated grille, whereas the Deluxe has a 4 layer foam headband with a tailored alcantara sheath and dipped grilles with paint that is used in F1 to decrease surface resistance of metallic parts, due to their micro porosities.”
More interestingly though is that there is another version I was given that is different again. It is classified as a development model and I am pretty sure by all accounts it is a higher end model. It comes in a big aluminium briefcase, has comfier pads, thicker cables and most importantly does sound better. While on technical level it does indeed sound better what is even more surprising is how different it sounds. It is obviously a different signature production to the HP-A and it just shows how much they are achieving with the treatments to the driver because while these two headphones look very alike, sound and comfort is very definable. Without doubt I will be trying to push Daniel to see this model come to fruition because I think with some tweaks here and there it could be VERY popular.
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