Brainwavz HM100 – Headphone Review

INTRODUCTION

When I heard about the Brainwanz HM100, the first thing I wanted to know was how closely it related to the HM5. The HM5 was a Yoga OEM clone from the CD-880, which quite a few branded headphone manufacturers used as a base for their own models. This included Fischer Audio’s FA-003, and others from Lindy and Digitech. The Brainwavz HM5 was a real contender for a relatively neutral closed back headphone, and one which in many ways was akin to the lauded Sennheiser HD600 in tonality. When Marlon contacted me to ask if I was interested in reviewing the HM100, the answer was an immediate yes. The HM5 was brilliant – just a little iffy on long term build quality. Could the HM100 maintain the stellar sound, and deliver superior build and overall performance?

ABOUT BRAINWAVZ

Brainwavz Audio was formed in 2008 as a subsidiary of GPGS Hong Kong. Their goal has always been to develop a full range of audio solutions (mostly earphones and headphones) that cater for a variety of different tastes, uses and price brackets. They originally started with predominantly OEM designs from other companies, and more recently have been working to develop their own stand-alone products.

In their own words:
At Brainwavz we have a simple mission, to produce innovative, high quality audio products with a dedicated focus on high-end sound. Our strength, success and product range is built on the unique relationship with our customers. A relationship that has produced a simple and obvious result, we give real users real sound quality.

DISCLAIMER

The Brainwavz HM100 headphone that I’m reviewing today was provided to me freely as a review sample. Marlon has asked me to keep it for my personal use, or for follow up comparisons, and I thank him for this. The retail price at time of review is USD 170 (normal RRP 199).

PREAMBLE

If you haven’t read any of my reviews, I suggest starting here, as it will give you an insight into my known preferences and bias.

For the purposes of this review – I’ve used the HM100 from a variety of devices including (among others) the FiiO X7ii, X5iii, M9, my iPhone and my iFi stack (iUSD, iTube, iDSD). I have also tested them amped (including the Q1ii, Q5, XRK-NHB, and E17K).

In the time I have spent with the HM100, I have noticed no change to the overall sonic presentation (break-in). This is a purely subjective review – my gear, my ears, and my experience. Please take it all with a grain of salt – especially if it does not match your own experience.

THE PACKAGE

The HM100 comes in quite a large retail outer measuring 250 x 275 x 135mm. The box is predominantly white with some good photographs of the HM100 and a list of specifications and accessories on the back. Inside the box is a sturdy fabric/mesh covered carry case (foam interior). Inside this is the HM100 and accessories. The full accessory pack includes:

  • A pair of HM100 headphones (fitted with pleather pads)
  • The hard carry case
  • 1.3m stereo cable to 3.5mm jack
  • 3.0m stereo cable to 3.5mm jack
  • Screw on 6.3mm adaptor (fits both cables)
  • A pair of velour earpads
  • User guide including warranty card

THE TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

MEASUREMENTS

The graphs I use are generated using the Vibro Veritas coupler and ARTA software. In this particular case, I used no calibration apart from an adjustment to take the 4k Hz resonant peak of the hardware out. I don’t have a headphone measurement rig, and have no ear simulator – so you can’t use the graph as a representation of how the HM100 sounds. What I use is a head width simulator coupled with a latex soft face (or the headphones) with a hole so the veritas can sit flush.

My main aim is to take a reference headphone – my HD600 – and then compare the HM100 on the same rig and under the same conditions, and show the differences. The graphs are provided merely as a point of discussion, and later in the review I’ve included measurements of different headphones using the same set-up. What is clearly obvious using this methodology is how close the HM100 is to the HD600’s default signature.

BUILD

External

The HM100 looks to me both retro and at the same time elegant. The darker tan of the wood cups contrasts nicely with the lighter tan of the ear-pads, and the silver and black highlights of the rest of the headphone. They are quite large on the head, and they have some heft – coming in at 435 grams (includes the 1.2 m cable).

The headband is nicely rounded with very good soft foam padding encased in the tan leatherette. When worn this sits nicely on my head with no obvious pressure spots. The top of the head-band has the Brainwavz name embossed and is machine stitched. The two ends of the headband terminate in a pair of chrome coloured plastic sockets which are screwed in place.

The headband sliders are stainless steel with a lot of spring, and this is the likely cause of the quite high initial clamp force. The sliders are marked, but also glide smoothly – with no obvious click for each marker. The sliders terminate in another chrome coloured plastic socket which connects to the yoke assembly. The yokes are made from a lightweight but very strong alloy, and are reminiscent of Beyerdynamic’s yokes on the DT880/990 series. The yokes swivel side-to-side in their assembly about 20-25 deg both ways which allows easy seating of the cups onto your head. The yokes end with a black plastic swivel connector to the ear-cups.

The ear-cups are circumaural, and both large and comfortable. Internal measurements on the pads are approximately 75mm x 55mm x 30mm – so plenty of room for each ear. The outer cup measurement is approximately 110 x 85 x 75mm. The pads are attached to a removable plate (simple twist to rotate on or off) which makes pad changing very easy. The cups have a plastic frame, black trim, and wooden rear covers which are nicely finished and are embossed with the Brainwavz brand. At the bottom of each ear-cup is a socket for the replaceable cab’e. The sockets have red or blue internal connectors for easy identification of left and right. They are 3.5mm mono sockets (2 = stereo signal).

Cable(s)

Brainwavz supplies two cables – a 1.2m and longer 3m cable. Both are copper internals with an outer sheath, and terminate with a 3.5mm straight gold-plated screw threaded jack. This allows the 6.3mm adaptor to be screwed in place for a very secure fit. The 1.2m cable is encased in a dual side-by-side outer TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) sheath.

The end result is a cable which is very malleable, resistant to tangling, and has quite low microphonics. The 3m cable is encased in a cloth like fabric which is a little more difficult to manage, has higher microphonics (the cable material), but ultimately would be more likely to be used for a stationary listening position. The connector jacks are clearly marked left (blue) and right (red) with rings on the connector housings.

Pads

Brainwavz supplies two sets – the fitted tan leatherette, and a pair of black velour. The pads are easy to swap out (rotate mount, remove from headphone, change pads, reattach mount). The changes to sonic signature are smaller than expected (see graph). This may be more to do with the tighter clamp while new. I would expect as the clamp diminishes to see a slight roll-off in sub-bass with the velours. The pads appear well made and are quite comfortable.

All in all, I would describe the build as pretty good – with my only real concerns being with the chrome coloured plastic (IMO metal would have been a better choice). Only time will tell if this becomes a future issue.

COMFORT / ISOLATION

Isolation with the HM100 is about average for a sealed headphone. With them in place and no music, I can still hear the keyboard when typing, but it is muted. With music playing at my normal 70-75 dB level this practically disappears. While I find the HM100 quite good for isolation both ways (noise in and out) in a room with moderate background noise, I would not be recommending them as suitable for higher noise environments (ie planes, sub-way).

Comfort for me is personally is very good. The ear-pads fit completely around my ears, and the foam cushions provide softness without becoming irritable. The headband is nicely curved to minimise individual pressure points. I do find them a little on the heavy side, but to be fair I’ve had some several hour sessions with the HM100 and not felt stiff or sore afterwards.

Clamp is quite high, and as a glasses wearer there is some pressure from the cups (pushing the glasses to the bridge of my nose). I know that the clamp can be adjusted over time (HM5 were the same) simply by carefully bending the steel extenders, or by simply stretching for a few days across some books.

SOUND QUALITY

My testing for this section was done with the FiiO X7ii (AM3A module), no EQ, and the tan pleather pads. I used the X7ii simply because it provides both a very transparent window to the music with low impedance, and also more than enough power.

For the record – on most tracks, the volume level on the X7ii (paired with AM3a) was ~65-70/120 Single Ended (on low gain) which was giving me an average SPL around 65-75 dB (track dependent). Tracks used were across a variety of genres – and can be viewed in this list.

Relativities

  • Sub-bass – surprisingly good extension, but definitely starts to roll off a little into the sub-bass. The sub-bass rumble in Lorde’s “Royals” is definitely audible, and I find it quite balanced considering the rest of the signature. Definitely no bass bleed from the sub-bass.
  • Mid-bass – good impact, and elevated compared to the sub-bass. There is reasonable thump and my only comment would be that it is slightly resonant. Its not really muddy or anything – there just seems to be a little mid-bass hump, and this adds a slightly boomy quality overall. It is slight though, and does not stop me from enjoying the bass on the HM100 very much.
  • Lower mid-range – very tastefully done and perfectly balanced with the upper mid-range. Male vocals have good presence and richness in timbre and I’m not finding male vocalists thin or lacking.
  • Upper mid-range – elevated compared to lower mid-range (mainly in the 3-5 kHz area, which helps add euphony in the presence area for female vocals. This tuning isn’t massively overdone, but can benefit (IMO) in a cut with a reasonable Q (covering 3-5 kHz) by about 5-6 dB. Its not necessary, but I personally think this balances things slightly better. There is a very cohesive interchange from low to upper mids.
  • Lower treble – very good extension without dropping off, even after 10 kHz. Cymbals have good presence with a decent decay.
  • Upper treble – seems to be nicely extended. Its hard for me to judge this area, because my hearing tops out around 14kHz nowadays, and the measuring equipment is not accurate enough from about 9 kHz up. No signs of brittleness, and I personally don’t find anything missing.

Resolution / Detail / Clarity

  • Clarity is absolutely excellent, and there is distinct detail in all of my usual test tracks. With Dire Straits “Sultans of Swing”, the micro details such as drumstick clicks are easily heard, and there is no signs of masking from the bass guitar. Pink Floyd’s “Money” is likewise phenomenal with every detail of the registers present, yet perfectly mingled within the music. I think this is attributable to the nicely neutral frequency response.
  • Cymbals hits (especially hi-hats and crash-cymbals) are present, and the trailing decay is audible. If I was nit-picking, I’d say that the decay can be a little splashy. My test track for this is Pearl Jam’s EWBTCIAST, and while good, the cymbals don’t have quite the shimmering tail off I’ve heard from some other headphones.
  • Portico Quartet’s “Ruins” is a good track for checking the overall balance on hi-hat taps and general cymbal decay, and the balance overall in this track is excellent. Cymbal brushes are again easily audible and sustained.

Sound-stage, Imaging

  • My usual first track for checking width, depth and shape of perceived sound-stage is Amber Rubarth’s “Tundra”. While there is projection outside my perceived head-space (violin), the overall impression is more of intimacy than space (so what I would normally expect from a closed headphone).
  • Directionally the track is consistent and stage shape has both depth and width (perhaps slightly more width).
  • Imaging of all 3 instruments is very precise with good sense of separation.
  • I use the applause sections of “Dante’s Prayer” and Lakme’s “Flower Duet” for a feeling of immersion. Very good headphones can give you a real sense of being in the audience. The HM100 manages this quite well with both tracks. There is a life-like sense of of flow around me, although slightly more left / right than front / back.
  • The last go-to track is Amanda Marshal’s “Let it Rain” which has a natural 3 dimensional feel (the way the track was miked). The HM100 handles it well. I also use this track as my sibilance test (its quite a hotly mastered track – and it is present in the recording). The HM100 does reveal the sibilance without any masking. This could be further evidence of a possible small 7-8 kHz peak?

Strengths

  • Overall balance end to end in the frequency response – quite exceptional.
  • Bass balance of impact, timbre and definition.
  • Imaging – very clean and easy to pick directional cues
  • Very good at lower volumes with good clarity
  • Female vocals have a wonderful touch of euphony. Male vocals are still reasonably rich, and display good timbre.

Weaknesses

  • 3-5 kHz peak may be slightly overdone, and may benefit from EQ.
  • Slight boominess / resonance in the bass (can be normal with closed back headphones).
  • Small amount of “heat” – possibly in the 7-8 kHz region. Its not bad, just perhaps slightly overdone.

AMPLIFICATION REQUIREMENTS

The HM100 is one of those headphones which looks harder to drive on paper than it really is. The on-line Digizoid Headphone Power Calculator tells me that at 64 ohms and 96 dB sensitivity, it requires 2.26 Vrms, 35.31 mA and approx 80 mW to reach 115 dB SPL (on the verge of pain). This halves if you’re simply wanting to top out at 110 dB. What this means is that virtually all of my current DAPs are easily able to drive the HM100 to very listen-able levels without distortion, and without needing extra amping. This includes my iPhone SE – which manages quite nicely at around 50-55% volume.

So does the HM100 get better with amping? For this I used the Q1ii, Q5, XRK-NHB, and E17K. With each of the amps I didn’t really notice any audible signs of greater driver control (once volume matched). What I did notice was that the slight added warmth of the XRK-NHB was a pleasant addition to the tonality, and with the other amps, some of the hardware EQ (bass boost or tone controls) were fun to play around with. But does the HM100 need a lot of amplification? In my opinion – not really.

RESPONSE TO EQ?

My first go to was the E17K’s tone controls and anything more than a +2 bass did become a little boomy, so for me personally I wouldn’t touch the bass too much. But a -4 treble adjustment (which affects upper mids and lower treble) did seem to nicely adjust the overall signature taking some of the splash out of the cymbals.

Going back to the X7ii’s EQ I dropped the 4 kHz and 8 kHz sliders by 4dB, and for my tastes it was a noticeable improvement. But this will depend ultimately on preference.

COMPARISONS

I found this a really difficult section to write. Most of my other closed headphones have been sold or given to family members. I chose instead to compare directly to the HD600 and HD630VB, and to use FiiO’s A5 amplifier to ensure the HD600 was getting enough power.

These comparisons were all done without EQ, and volume matched using a calibrated SPL meter and fixed 1kHz test tone first. These are very subjective comparisons.

HM100 vs HD600

Build

Both headphones share similar qualities – high clamp when new, but otherwise very comfortable with good padding. Both are also quite modular in design. Materials appear to be well thought out with both headphones, although I would be wary of the chrome coloured plastic on the HM100 (hopefully it is as sturdy as it looks). Both have good quality cables with built in 6.3mm adaptors.

Comfort / Ergonomics

Both are extremely comfortable and very ergonomic – once you get over the new (high clamp) factor. The HD600 are lighter and probably nudge ahead in this area.

Overall Sound Quality

These two are quite close in overall signature. I noticed this also with the original HM5. Both are appreciably balanced / neutral with natural tonality. The HM100 are bassier and slightly boomier through the mid-bass. The HD600 is more open with both a wider and deeper sense of stage. The HM100 also appear to be slightly brighter / sharper. But really (and this is the greatest compliment I could give the HM100), the HM100 is as close (IMO) as you can get to an HD600 closed clone.

HM100 vs HD630VB

Build

Both headphones share similar overall build qualities – reasonably sturdy with a good selection of build materials. The HD630VB is slightly better built (metal hinges), but does not have the replaceable cables or ear-pads of the HM100. The HD630VB does have the variable bass and also the on-cable controls for portability. Both are relatively heavy headphones. I would consider the HD630VB to have better overall build quality, but both to have strengths in additional features.

Comfort / Ergonomics

Both are extremely comfortable and very ergonomic. I do find the HM100 has better headband padding, and is a little better for longer term listening. The HD630VB is better for overall portability – but ultimately the HM100 is more comfortable for me.

Overall Sound Quality

I originally thought these two would also be quite close and I was surprised with the overall differences. The HD630VB has more sub-bass impact but is also a lot weaker through the mid-bass and lower mid-range area. It is also brighter overall (likely to be as a result of the missing mid-bass). This can be corrected to a certain extent via dialling up the bass quantity. Probably the most obvious difference though is in overall tonality. The HM100 have a larger perceived head-space, and are less peaky and more natural sounding. It would be fair to say that before I tried the HM100, the HD630VB have been one of my favourite closed back cans. That spot now goes to the HM100. For my personal tastes – the HM100 simply sounds better.

VALUE

When you look at the overall package of the HM100 – aesthetics, comfort, build, and most of all sound – it would be easy to imagine this headphone in a considerably higher price bracket. For the RRP of $199 you’re getting a truly well balanced headphone with a timeless frequency response.

Yes, parallels can be made with the considerably cheaper HM5, and yes the two signatures are very similar. With the HM100 you get all that was good about the HM5 but in a classier looking overall package. The tweaks might be small but they are IMO worth it:

  • A little extra bass
  • Better overall build
  • Better aesthetics
  • Improved comfort

At the RRP this represents very good value. And if you can find the HM100 at promotional pricing (currently $170), the value proposition increases.

BRAINWAVZ HM100 – SUMMARY

When I first tried the HM5 from Brainwavz, it was an instant hit for me. A beautifully balanced headphone sonically, but with some small deficiencies (eg issue with headphone arms/hinges breaking longer term), and quite an industrial unattractive look. Fast forward to it’s successor today (the HM100) and Brainwavz have addressed a lot of those deficiencies.

The HM100 is an exceptional looking headphone, with a slight retro but still classy look coupled with some design changes which (hopefully) address the issues with overall build quality from the HM5. Couple this with added padding (increased comfort) and some slight tweaks in sound, and you really have a headphone which punches above its weight.

The HM100 is the closest I’ve heard to a closed back Sennheiser HD600, with a very balanced overall tonality, and very good clarity. For the overall package, I consider the asking price of $199 to be very good value, and if you can pick them up cheaper (promotions), they represent excellent value.

I just want to close with thanking Marlon for allowing me the chance to review the HM100.

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