My first impressions of the sound of the thinksound On2 headphones (On2 hereafter) are based on direct comparisons to other headphones, particularly those that resemble its design (mid-size portable), and also to a few premium headphones for reference. I’ll describe how I relate to the On2 (i.e., my personal tastes and how I use the headphone) after covering all of the objective issues.
Conclusion: I’m stating this up front so you know where the rest of this is going (and it’s going good): The On2 audio quality is a warm-neutral that’s smooth and detailed. It sounds better than comparable Audio-Technica headphones (ESW9a and ESW11), better than comparable Beyerdynamic headphones (DT1350 and T51p), B&O H2, B&W P5, any Beats or Bose, M&D MH30, v-moda 80/XS, and so on.
Comparing to the Grado SR325, the Grado is weak on bass, forward on mids, and bright on treble, not to mention the disadvantage of being open-back. Comparing to the Sennheiser HD25 series (including Amperior), the On2 is somewhat similar, but has a better, less-emphasized bass, and a more neutral midrange and treble. I didn’t consider headphones like the Sennheiser Momentum on-ear, since that headphone’s response is pretty far from neutral. In the event that I do find a better-sounding on-ear headphone, I’ll report it in an On2 followup video review.
Sound quality: The On2 is a fairly neutral headphone, and by that I mean it has no significant peaks or recesses in the musical spectrum, compared to the average neutral headphone. There are few neutral or near-neutral on-ear portable headphones below $300 U.S., and I’m thinking of several premium brands that all begin with B. Adding to that the On2 is a wood-earcup design, which provides a musical warmth to the sound that doesn’t quite exist with metal and plastic designs, short of using a tube amp.
The bass is likely ideal for most users, but hi-fi perfectionists who listen to classical music (or possibly jazz) indoors, where it’s very quiet, may prefer a leaner bass like you get with many open-back headphones — the Sennheiser HD600 for example. The midrange seems slightly forward in typical upper vocal ranges, female vocals mainly, but I mention it just for the record since it won’t be especially noticeable to most users.
The On2 has great midrange/treble detail, which I expect with headphones that have a more-or-less neutral response, but I don’t always get due to the more typical high-end rolloff in this product class — the M&D MH30 being a representative example. Again, to be ruthlessly honest, users who are accustomed to typical portable headphone performance might not like the On2’s level of treble detail if they mostly listen to music tracks that have been mastered for a loudness emphasis, as is common with a lot of pop music today. Check the Loudness Wars references on the Internet for more information.
Concluding the description of the On2’s tonal qualities, I find the bass detail to be excellent, which is much better than I expected. See the music track listings below for more information. One of the more critical tests for headphone reproduction is piano music that has strong dynamics and better than average recorded quality, and the On2 performs very well in that regard.
The On2 build quality is excellent, with metal headband, wood earcups, and soft squishy earpads covered in a very durable and comfortable pleather. The headband has a modest padding, and for people who don’t like even moderate headband pressure on top of their heads, I recommend two things. Pull the earcups down just a bit more than where the headphone is most snug, to carry more of the weight on the earcups, and move the headband slightly forward and back on the head for best fit and comfort.
Since the earpads are the on-ear type, users needn’t be concerned about fitting different size ears. With some on-ear headphones that is an issue, if the earpads aren’t very compliant or the headband clamp is strong — not an issue with the On2. The headband range of adjustment is slightly more than 9/8 inch on each side, where my head fits within the smaller third of that range. That should accommodate a very wide range of head sizes.
Isolation is better than average for a closed-back headphone, i.e. good enough for detailed listening in most outdoor situations. Many of the finer details will be lost when using the On2 on a jet airliner. The leakage is nearly nonexistent, and should not be a problem in quiet offices or libraries unless playing the headphone at ear-blasting levels right next to another person.
This is a good opportunity to mention a headphone that specializes in noise canceling, the Bose QC35. The QC35 noise cancelation gives better isolation, which makes listening on jets, buses, and trains more useful. However, the sound cancelation feature adds some of its own background noise, as well as some artificiality due to the DSP (digital signal processing) the QC35 (and QC25) uses to achieve a neutral response. The On2 by contrast is pure analog sound, from precision-made wood earcups.
Another important thing to consider about wood-earcup headphones: There are one or more OEM’s (Original Equipment Manufacturers) who make low-cost wood-earcup headphones. eSmooth is one example, whose products sold under several brand names are not usually precision-tuned for high fidelity music. Besides thinksound, there are a few brands of more expensive wood headphones that are well-tuned for music. If you’re considering one of those, be sure to check reviews to see whether they qualify according to your needs.
The On2 comes with two cables, each about 4.5 feet long and terminated on both ends with 3.5 mm miniplugs. One cable has a control box that does start/pause/previous/next, and includes a microphone. That cable has the extra connector (in addition to TRS — the tip-ring sleeve, or right-left ground) needed by the control box.
The On2 is an ideal portable headphone in that it can be pulled off the head when not in use, and worn around the neck with the earcups pulled all the way down and rotated flat against the chest. A canvas bag is supplied, but since the On2 carries so easily around my neck when I’m not listening, I don’t use the carry-bag unless I have to pack it away.
MyMac Review Rating is a rare 10 out of 10. Well done, thinksound.
In previous reviews I’ve included the following music examples with comments about how the headphones sound with each track. My suggestion is instead of reading each one as an absolute unto itself, you can compare my notes here to those other reviews and see how the On2 does with each individual track. All tracks were played for this review without tone controls or equalization.
Sources: iPhone6s+ with Oppo HA-2/AudioQuest DragonFly Black DAC/amps, various computers using the AudioQuest DragonFly v1.2/Lehmann Traveller DAC/amps.
Animotion; Obsession (1980’s New Wave/Techno): The upper bass synth has excellent detail and tone, and both male and female vocals sound natural without favoring either. The On2 plays this extremely well.
Bauhaus; Bela Lugosi’s Dead (~1980): Strong midrange sound effects; this is a good worst-case test for resonant-type sounds in the most sensitive midrange area. Handled perfectly by the On2.
Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Excellent overall sound. Of special note here are the bass impacts beginning around 10:30 of the fourth movement. Those impacts are soft and well in the background, but you can feel the weight they carry with the On2.
Black Sabbath; Iron Man (Classic Rock): Very good instrumental detail and the vocal sounds very natural. As with most classic rock tracks, there is very little or no deep bass. The On2 plays this music very smoothly, and the lack of deep bass doesn’t unbalance the treble, although the extra-bass switch definitely adds to the enjoyment.
Boz Scaggs; Lowdown (1976): Great sound quality; this is a good test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled very well by the On2.
Cantus; Danny Boy (Traditional/Male Choral/Acapella): The On2 plays the voices with enough low end warmth and weight to sound very natural, yet there is no added emphasis of the lower register of the male voices on this track.
Cath Carroll; Moves Like You (1980’s New Wave/Techno): This track’s percussion and voice are crisp and well-balanced, and there’s a good sense of space or soundstage around the voices and instruments. The On2 reproduces the space and detail very well.
Catherine Wheel; Black Metallic (~1991): Goth with industrial overtones; I like this since it’s a great music composition and the sound effects are smoothly integrated into the mix. This may sound distorted or mushy with some headphones, but the On2 renders the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.
Chris Isaak; Wicked Game (Pop/Rock): The On2 plays this high treble energy recording very smoothly; the voice and instruments are detailed but not edgy; very musical in fact.
Chromatics; I’m On Fire (Synth-Pop, female lead): This track has a good amount of space around the voice and instruments, making for a very pleasant stereo image. The voice is excellent, and the tambourine sound is clearly identifiable.
David Hazeltine; Fur Elise (Jazz): A very high-quality recording from HDTracks. The On2 reproduces the instruments smoothly with a spacious ambiance. The wire-brush-on-cymbal harmonics are very extended and detailed.
Grieg (Beecham-Royal Philharmonic); Peer Gynt-Solveig’s Lullaby (Classical): This very old (late 1950’s) stereo recording must have been made on the most expensive gear in the world, since the overall sound quality and especially Ilse Hollweg’s amazing voice are as close to “being there” as I’ve heard with some of the better classical recordings made since the year 2000. The On2 plays this music perfectly.
Hans Zimmer; Dark Knight-Aggressive Expansion (Soundtrack): The percussion in this track hits really hard, and the bass tones beginning around 0:45 have the ultra-deep “shuddery” kind of sound that indicates a solid deep-bass response. The On2 plays this music extremely well, but the ultra-deep bass tones aren’t as weighty as with some of my full-size headphones.
Heaven 17; Let Me Go (1980’s New Wave/Techno): The bass instrument (guitar?) has excellent detail, and the voices and ambiance have a “you are there” quality that’s uncommon in early 1980’s pop music. The On2 plays this track perfectly.
Hugo Audiophile; 15-16 (Electronic): I’m not sure what the 15-16 stands for; perhaps track numbers from a CD album. The deep-bass tones that start around 33-34 seconds into the track reproduce very well with the On2. This is a great recording for evaluating whether a headphone’s bass will be sufficient for most environments, since for many headphones that have a weaker bass, the deep bass gets absorbed and mostly lost when the environment contains a lot of low-frequency energy.
Jimmy Smith; Basin Street Blues (early 1960’s): This track has several loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don’t sound clean and musical with some headphones. The On2 provides excellent reproduction. Listen particularly to the second crescendo at 15 seconds in for best-case detail. I’d like to emphasize that these crescendos are probably the worst-case test I have for instrument separation and detail, and the On2 does those very well.
Kellogg Auditorium, Battle Creek Michigan, Aeolian-Skinner Organ (1933); Pedal, 32′, Resultant, Arpeggio: This 16 Hz organ pedal tone differs from other music tones in that you won’t “hear” the tone; you’ll only feel it. Although most music tones have harmonics (including this one), the harmonics from this tone will be too weak to provide any “feel,” so whatever you actually hear would not be part of the fundamental 16 Hz tone. There are ~30 Hz sounds in the outdoor environment in big cities, generated by large trucks, buses, and subway trains, and they have a quality of “rumble” that’s similar to some deep-bass tones found in music. This 16 Hz organ tone is easily distinguished from those sounds when compared on a headphone that has good undistorted response at 16 Hz. The On2 plays the fundamental tone with decent weight, and enough detail that you can count* the 16 cycle-per-second beats of that tone.
*16 Hz tones are not generally audible as tones go, but are easily “heard” as weight, impact, rumble etc., depending on the source. How exactly we can “hear” the 16-cycle beats without hearing the 16 Hz fundamental tone I don’t know, but the On2 reproduction is convincing.
Mantovani; Sunrise Sunset (Easy Listening, ca. 1972): A master musician and conductor** who specialized in light classics and orchestral pop music, Mantovani’s accomplishments were overshadowed by music critics who couldn’t tolerate the notion of “light classics” or “semi-classical” music, even when those recordings were no threat to the classical music genres. In any case the later Mantovani recordings from the mid-1960’s through mid-1970’s had the advantage of being mixed for much better hi-fi systems than those which the music critics possessed at the start of the Long Playing (LP) record cycle. Here in 2016, at least some of those digital remasters have improved the sound further, although it’s not always the case. This track as played on the On2 is a perfect example of the sheer musicality lurking in those later recordings, and is highly recommended for soundstage, instrumental tone, and musical balance.
**Mantovani developed the “Cascading Strings” sonic effect circa 1950, a famous “Wall of Sound” effect for mono hi-fi systems that predated Phil Spector’s own famous Wall of Sound effect by 10 years or so.
Michael Tilson Thomas; Rhapsody In Blue (20th Century Classic): Great sound and soundstage, and terrific piano playing and tone. There are some very deep bass impacts starting around 38 seconds into the 17:24 length track, and the weight of those impacts is appreciable with the On2.
Pinback; Non Photo Blue (Pop-Rock): Crispy sound with “crunchy guitars and bashing drums;” the On2 renders this music as perfectly as I’ve heard an energetic pop-rock recording played with any headphone.
Porcupine Tree; Trains (Pop-Rock): This track opens with some nicely-detailed string sounds and a forward-sounding male voice with a higher-than-average register. There are a series of “clip-clop” effects starting at 3:19 that should sound like they were made with wooden blocks of some kind. The On2 reproduces the “clop” portion of that sound fairly well.
Richard Strauss (Mester-Pasadena); Also Sprach Zarathustra (opening) (Classical): The granddaddy of bass is in the opening 1:50 of this recording, and I’ve heard it only once on a large and expensive loudspeaker system in Cleveland. For most people, that experience would be indistinguishable from being in a fairly strong earthquake. The On2 conveys as much of that experience as I’ve heard with most stereo headphones, and unusually so for an on-ear design. The tympani also have good impact here.
Scarlatti-Kipnis; Sonata in E Major K381 (Classical, Harpsichord): The harpsichord here is fairly bright and highly detailed, and the On2 renders the tones and transients perfectly.
Tiger Okoshi; Bootsman’s Little House (Jazz): The trumpet here is recorded fairly close up and is somewhat bright with a significant “bite.” The On2’s reproduction is near-perfect, and the close-miked piano is also a treat. For comparison, I have several Maynard Ferguson tracks that feature a similarly strong trumpet with lots of brassy bite.
Trombone Shorty; Backatown (Jazz-Funk): The deep bass impacts here are strong, and work extremely well with the horns and other instruments. The On2 delivers the impacts with great weight and detail, and the horns have the kind of bite that gives them a wonderfully realistic sound.