THE PHENOMENAL: PHILIPS FIDELIO L2 (FEAT. FIDELIO M1BT REVIEW)
A lot of companies try to show how serious they are in developing their headphones, but all those efforts really mean nothing if they don’t have a successful product to show. Even though Philips have been involved in the audio industry for a while (making vacuum tube radios and inventing the CD among others) and also make plenty of consumer headphones, they’re quite new in the high end headphone business. Still their effort doesn’t embarrass, and when I reviewed their first Fidelio headphone, the Fidelio L1, last year, it definitely was a headphone that set a standard for the new generation $300 price bracket portable headphones.
What the L1 did to other $300 headphones (i.e making them look bad), the L2 is now doing to the L1. It’s true that there is a slight change in styling direction as the new L2 with the gunmetal and orange color combination somehow pulls off a more modern look while still being very classy, making the L1 look very old and outdated next to it. Comfort factor is also leaps better as the L2 easily matches and on my head is even more comfortable than the class-leading Sony MDR-1R. But on top of all of these, what I consider the biggest achievement, is the improvement in the sound department. Meet the second best headphone driver within the $1K bracket. And I would easily say the best if not for the Sennheiser HD700 being priced at $999.95. Yes, the L2’s driver is so ahead of the competitor that I highly rate it ahead of the Sennheiser Momentum, Sony MDR-1R, B&O H6, ATH’s ESW-11, ES-10, or even the famed Sennheiser HD650/600 line.
While I wouldn’t go as far as Mike in saying the L2 driver is the 2nd best driver within the $1K bracket I have to admit it is really good. We received these samples when we were visiting Philips in September and I’ve been using the semi-open L2 daily from that point on, and that means a lot. I even took it with me to the non-official European Canjam in Essen where I was the only one with the L2 as even Philips didn’t have it with them. To this day I don’t think the L2 is for sale yet in most parts of the world, price in the US will be $299 while we in Europe can already buy it for €280 right now.
Everyone, and I’m not just saying that, who I gave the L2 to for a while loved it. Not one single person didn’t like the sound signature and the looks. So not only did Philips achieve making a great sounding driver but they managed to incorporate it in a gorgeous design with an eye for comfort (347gr) . To be honest I do have two comfort/look issues with these headphones. First of all, Philips still hasn’t learned to use changeable ear pads which is a shame really, but they took note of that point of critic in our meeting and so I hope that will change in the future. Second is that when you have been using it as much as I have and for longer periods, the headband starts to hurt on the top of your head. Do note that we’re talking at least 4 to 5 hours of straight listening without even taking it of. I like my music, what can I say. People with big ears however will find the cups on the small side, it didn’t bother me too much, but they’re no Sennheiser comfort wise.
In short, not only did Philips develop one hell of a driver, it looks great and like Mike said it can easily compete with headphones like our beloved Sennheiser HD6X0 and Hifiman HE-400. I wouldn’t go that far in saying it’s a HE-500 or HD700 competitor but it’s getting close, especially for that price. One remarkable thing though is that while Philips with the Fidelio line has been targeting the better quality headphone and sound, they are still displaying their headphones under the accessories category on my local Philips website. Something I don’t find logic at all, but hey, details, right?
The L2 is a semi open design, houses 40mm drivers and has a removable cable and while it surely has a bunch of other features, we care especially about its sound. Back to you Mike.
Well, L is trying to stay away from controversy hence his statement “I wouldn’t go as far as Mike in saying the L2 driver is the 2nd best driver within the $1K bracket bla bla bla” but I’m here to tell the results of my evaluation, so I’m going to keep going. Just kidding, L, but not the part about how high I rank the L2 driver. It’s cleaner than the HD650/K701/DT880/RS1 generation of drivers. The sound is extremely clean, zero grain, one of the blackest background I’ve heard (think Fostex TH900 level black background — ahead of all the other dynamic drivers). In a way it’s very clear and clean sounding like say the Hifiman HE-6/HE-500 but the L2 is smoother than them and is MUCH easier to drive. I can drive the L2 direct from an Altmann Tera which usually only has enough power to drive a Koss Portapro, Sennheiser PX100 and IEMs. While the sound stage is not overly wide (narrower than the Beyer DT880, for instance) it has an extremely deep depth (and sound stage depth is always much harder to achieve than width) even with simple rigs like out of an Astell & Kern AK100 or again, the Altmann. So you get the sense of space, three dimensionality, the black background, all those good things, without having to spend $2K on an amp the way you need for say a Senn HD650. Also, while the Hifimans are extremely spacious and airy, the soundstage depth has always been weak even on the best rig I’ve listened them on, not to add that the Hifimans can only dream about the sort of black background and center image the L2 pulls so effortlessly. This is a world class driver and had they developed a flagship-class housing around it, a lot of $1K headphones better be prepared to get their ass kicked.
Of course Mike and myself talked about this difference in opinion and I see what he means. The L2 right out of the box is great, no amp needed. The HE-500 can of course, on several points, be better than the L2 but you will need a top DAC and a good matching amp for the HE-500 to sound its best. And that’s where Philips got it right: the L2 achieves (almost) the same level and you don’t even need a big and expensive setup to get there. But then again, the L2 was made as a portable headphone, and the HE-500 was developed to be used in a full sized desktop system. But anyhow, that’s how I translate Mike when he says the L2 takes on the HE-500.
On the tonality side, I love the mid range on the L2. It has an extremely smooth, organic, full mid range that reminds me of the limited edition Audio Technica W2002 flagship headphone. It’s as if you’ve permanently attached a 300B or 45 vacuum tube to the drivers. Extremely clear mid range that’s full bodied, analog, and smooth. One of the best in the industry. The bass also follows the same smooth yet clear tonality as the mid range, full bodied, though doesn’t hit as hard as I would’ve liked (say Vmoda M100, Aedle VK-1, or Senn HD650 level) but still more potent than Sony’s MDR-1R. The treble is where my love and hate relationship happens on the L2. The L2 may not have a hot-recording proof tonality the way the Vmoda M100 is, but it’s definitely far from a bright headphone with proper recordings. I would’ve enjoyed less quantity on the treble, but that’s just my dark loving ears. Since Philips is targeting the L2 for the mainstream crowd, I think they’ve set the treble just the right amount. Though I do think that the mainstream crowd would appreciate a harder hitting bass.
I think Mike described the sound part correctly. The mid section is absolutely stunning, smooth and slightly warm and I do agree on the bass part. It could hit a little harder but as I’m mostly using my headphones with an amp, even on the go, it’s making it less audible. Personally I can appreciate the extended treble of the L2 (I acquired that preference over the years), and as a result I can’t see any direct flaws in how it sounds.
Now, I need to make a note of distinction that a great driver doesn’t necessarily translate to a great headphone. Take the Sennheiser HD800 for instance, still the most resolving driver in the world, and yet not a very musical experience. The L2 is very warm, full bodied, and musical, far from the HD800. However, the fact that I’m praising the drivers as 2nd best below $1K after the HD700 doesn’t mean that I’m discounting the other headphones as being inferior. Ultimately, a lot of factors come to mind. Bass impact is pretty important and that’s one area that I think the L2 can be better. Tonality is also another thing, depending on your music preference, some headphone works better than the other. Also while I rank the Fidelio L2 as having a better driver than say a Hifiman HE-500, there is no discounting the impressive wow factor of the wide open sound of the Hifiman. Another example is the Shure SRH1540 that I recently auditioned in the Tokyo Headphone Festival. While it’s an impressive headphone and overall also a great headphone, again the driver quality of the L2 is simply a class ahead. Yet, I’m not saying that overall as a headphone, the L2 is better than the 1540. So, please keep that differentiation in mind. Still, the L2 is not a driver first, musicality second. It’s a very musical headphone, and I’ve gotten a lot of VERY positive impressions from the local enthusiasts who’s had the chance to audition it. It’s just that when I talk about the drivers, the ranking is a bit different than the headphone as a whole.
Now, with a driver quality that high, hows the requirement on the source and recording? The good news is that the L2 is not as demanding as the HD800 or HD700, though still more demanding than the HD650, LCD-2, or Hifiman HE500/6. In a practical terms, those words mean that it runs good from a portable source, but please use something better than an IPod or a smartphone. The Fiio X3 and Ibasso DX50 would be good, though the AK100 would be more ideal. Those of you fortunate enough to get the Altmann Tera before the $2000 price update, try using it with the L2. I find the combination extremely sweet.
You can of course fall back to the ipod + Cypherlabs or any other iDevice but then we’re talking big budget for a sub $300 headphone. That however is how I prefer using it, owning the setup already. Just don’t get this kind of setup for the L2 and take Mike’s advice.
Recordings, the L2 is not pop-music friendly. Though it doesn’t demand Chesky/Stockfish level recordings. The average Jazz recordings would do. Please avoid recordings with hot trebles like Jpop for instance. Overall, the okay bass impact makes the L2 more limited to the slower and more relaxed music types that don’t require strong beat reproduction. Its a more mature headphone, if I can make a rough generalization. And the bass is why the L2 is not going to take over the Vmoda M100 as the king of portable headphone, despite having a genius driver inside it. In many ways it works good for the music that Grados, Staxes and Hifimans work well with. Its not a HD25-1 replacement and definitely not a Vmoda M100 replacement. But talking driver quality, I don’t think any of the other high end portable headphones can compete with it. Momentum, Sony 1R, ESW-11, B&O H6, etc. And I actually sell the Momentum, Sony, and the Audio Technica on my store! Of course given the positive impressions the local enthusiasts had over the L2, I am considering selling it as well, but I still don’t know if we’ll be able to get those headphones from the distributor.
My musical preferences are somewhat different from Mike’s and I never listen to Jpop, Kpop or hardly any popular TOP 40 music for that matter that’s been released after Y2K. To me rock, metal, classic, dance, jazz and even old school hip hop all sound extremely nice on this headphone. It’s price/quality ratio is very good. So where do I put Philips’s latest release? Personally I find it better than the Sennheiser Momentum, the H6, the P7, Aedle VK-1 and the Vmodas. To me it competes directly with the also very easy to drive HE-400 and it probably even has that one beat too. I follow Mike in his HD650 and HE-500 reasoning (needing quality amps ) so we can only conclude that Philips has created a competitor killer with the L2.
All the R&D work done by the Philips team certainly have paid off. I couldn’t be more impressed, and I hope that the fact that Philips sent me on a sponsored trip to their iLab facility doesn’t discount the fact that this is such a phenomenal headphone and even more a phenomenal driver that the Philips team have created.
Besides the L2, Philips also released a Bluetooth version of their M1 headphone, a unit we reviewed already in January. Review on the next page!
Disclaimer: This is a double review by Mike and Lieven. We both got free samples of the Philips Fidelio L2 and the M1BT and Philips also sent us on a sponsored trip to their iLab facility in Belgium in September 2013. The first part will be on the L2 while we discuss the M1BT later. FYI: Lieven’s text is in Italic. Mike’s normal font.