ACOUSTIC RESEARCH AR-H1

  • TONAL BALANCE / NEUTRALITY 82%
  • PERFORMANCE FOR THE PRICE 100%
  • SOUND FIDELITY 91%
  • MUSICALITY 73%
  • BUILD QUALITY 88%
  • ERGONOMICS/COMFORT 91%
PROS

  • Very resolving for the price 
  • Excellent separation and soundstage
  • Superb clarity
  • Open sound

CONS

  • Not the most controlled in the bass
  • Slightly wonky tonality

MSRP: $599

INTRO

 

The AR-H1 is a headphone that popped out of nowhere from a company that I have never heard of before. As impressions below would show, they have done some research and produced a product worthy of a firm place in the market. A buddy of mine heard these at a meet and posted impressions of them. After a visit with him I brought his pair home for a demo and review. I do not have the box and all of the accessories so I encourage you to scour the internet for more information on those matters. 

 SPECS/FEATURES

SPECS

  • High-end Dynamic Headphones with Innovative technology, achieving high efficiency ultra-linear responses at high output and low impendence output

  • Lightweight open back circumaural design for comfortable listening
  • Genuine leather headband
  • Low resilience ear cushion
  • Interchangeable headphone cable
  • Connectivity options: 3.5mm audio cable or 6.3mm stereo adapter
  • 86mm planar driver with NdFeB magnet array
  • Frequency response: 10Hz to 70,000Hz
  • Total Harmonic Distortion: <1%
  • Sensitivity: 100dB@1Vrms
  • Impedance: 33 ohms
  • Inter-changeable cable interface: Dual 2.5mm
  • Weight: 14 oz

BUILD/DESIGN

ACCESSORIES 

“The AR-H1 comes complete with essential accessories, including a 1.2m audio cable (3.5mm 3-pole to dual 2.5mm 2-pole), a 6.3mm plug adapter, and a soft pouch for easy storage and portability.” Quoted from their website http://www.acousticresearch-hifi.com/AR-H1/

DESIGN

Acoustic research designed their first and hopefully not last, planar with an 83mm driver with a neodium magnet array. It is fairly easy to drive and sounds good even on tube amps in terms of its transient behavior. I found that the even though the grill is rather thick and other open back designs have less covering the driver, the AR-H1 is truly an open back design that provides little attenuation to outside noises. The robust build kind of embarrasses Hifiman releases in terms of ergonomics and the ‘hand to product‘ feel that the AR-H1 delivers. It is not breaking any barriers of innovation but the design is very practical with a look and construction that can embarrass cans at much higher prices.  

ERGONOMICS/COMFORT

With the AR-H1 you have very good ergonomics. Manufacturers should use this as a reference for ideal clamp force and ear cavity size. However, my ears do touch the drivers covering  a bit so I would desire it to be a little deeper. From pad rolling, I have seen thicker/deeper pads increase the bass response which may not have been what they are going for. The suspension strap makes for an easy fit with no issues settling down into a song and forgetting the headphones are being worn. Also there is a little less heat build up around the ears that didn’t seem to get hot after long usage. 

SOUND

  • BASS EXTENSION 89%
  • BASS BALANCE (ACCURACY) 86%
  • LOWER MIDRANGE BALANCE 89%
  • MIDRANGE PROPER BALANCE 92%
  • UPPER MIDRANGE BALANCE 82%
  • TREBLE BALANCE 79%
  • TREBLE EXTENSION 93%
  • BASS CONTROL 83%
  • TONE DENSITY (TIMBRE, BODY ASIDE FROM FREQUENCY BALANCE) 80%
  • MACRO DYNAMICS (SOFTS TO LOUDS) 80%
  • MICRO DYNAMICS (SMALL GRADATIONS OF VOLUME) 83%
  • SOUND STAGE WIDTH 89%
  • SOUND STAGE DEPTH 85%
  • BLACKNESS OF BACKGROUND 85%
  • TONE QUALITY (REFINEMENT) 88%

*please note that in the above bar counters I use the word balance instead of presence which is a percentage of how unbiased, accurate, and neutral that aspect is. Also those aspects are totally subjective and from my point of view. Yours may differ

TIMBRE

The AR-H1 timbre is a little more natural in decay than your average planar. It has a fluid type of timbre to it that reminds me of a dynamic drivers more elastic response. The transients are not sharp or edgy but a little more smooth than your average high end planar. My Blackwood Eikon has sharper transients that are a little harder and more aggressive. Tones have decent weight to keep from sounding elusive and overly diffuse but it is not going to sound as heavy handed and tangible as something like the Aeon Flow Open as this headphone has more finesse and flow. If the Aeon Flow open writes the music in bold black print, the Acoustic Research writes the music in cursive with a fountain pen. It is verges on thinness because of the frequency response as well as the timbre. There is a little bit of grain to the sound but not much at all as it sounds fairly refined. 

SOUNDSTAGE/IMAGING/SEPARATION

This aspect is an area the AR-H1 does really well in, especially for a planar. I can’t say that the sound stage is overly wide but it has decent width.  I feel that the dip that it has in the mids, the lack of a full bottom end, and the accentuation in the treble attributes to a sense of hollowness that makes the scenery seem larger than it really is. Compared to the stock HE-6 it has less depth and the layering is not as good but it sounds a little bigger, taller and wider. Depth is okay but the layering is very good. It reminds me of the Hifiman Edition X v2 almost but more distant and less tall.

The separation is really good; picking out each note is an effortless task. I would say that the images are more spread out in width than in depth but the sound stage is pretty good.

Openness? I am sure that there could be some improvements but this headphone is definitely nice, airy, and open sounding because it is not over-dampened. 

Dynamics

This is not one of those headphones you would buy if you like the music to pop vigorously on the macro-level. Those large peaks in a recording are going to be easily heard because there is enough contrast but it is not going to catch you off guard or sound super potent. In this regards it is about average if not slightly better than most planar-magnetic headphones. I never really like planar stubbornness on this aspect and the AR-H1 is not going to buck that trend. However, drums do have an elasticity to them that sounds a little more natural and nimble than your average planar. Snares snap with good control and have decent impact

On the micro-level the AR-H1 is not that bad at all. I personally found the Acoustic Research planar to sound way more nuanced than I was expecting and at it’s price point I would say its micro dynamics are pretty good. Ofcourse it is not as good as an HE-6 there but it handily beats my T50 mod as well as the Aeon Open (by a little). 

Resolution/Details 

Very resolving for the price. Had my HD650 been here to prove it I would have called the H1 the most resolving headphones I have heard under a 800usd. I was listening to some guitar riffs and also to some electric guitars on a couple of rock and roll songs and the crudeness of the distortions came through clearly. Some decent crunchy textures were wrought out as well. Going to the AR-H1 from the all mighty HE-6 actually left crumbs on the table but if you didn’t do a direct comparison you wouldn’t know they were there.

Transparency/Clarity 

Very good. The background isn’t the blackest but it is fairly clean. Sometimes I hear a slight haze to the music but this is very subtle. The transparency is as good as anyone could ask for at this price and the frequency response with the elevated middle treble keeps things from every sounding stuffy or veiled. 

Tonal Balance Summary: A flat bass response with an odd dip in the midrange that makes voices sound a little distant followed by a rise in the middle treble that extends into the upper treble with good air and extension(at least it sounds extended to me because of its airiness).  

Bass 

I find the bass missing texture. Also its sustain is pretty weak to my ears. It can reach low but the mid bass seems more realistic than the sub bass that has a tough time rumbling or sounding hard and focused on some songs. If a track has extra bass in it with a hard kick, synth or acoustic, then the H1 can make it sound acceptably pleasant but not ideal, nor what I would call neutral. Bass purists should look elsewhere. Now it is not horrible, but just a little more control, density, and texture would really set this headphone in a special place. The Aeon Flow Open not only hits harder, has better focus, better control, and presence, but it also has better texture.

Midrange

Listening to Hiatus Kayote has the lead singers voice sounding a little dark, dim and distant. The Aeon Flow Open misses a bit of her upper midrange presence as well but brings her closer with much better realism and presence. There is a need for the upper midrange to be brought up but the problem is that with eq, bringing up an area also makes it clip faster and raises the distortion. On some songs, this hollowness is dismissible, others it becomes a problem. The lower midrange is decently balanced and has some good presence. I find that male vocals sound significantly better than female vocals. This impression of depressed vocals is only accentuated more by the slightly unnatural transition into the elevated treble. Listening to electric guitars and rock and roll has the crunch and textures still there compared to the Aeon Flow Open and it fairs okay there. There is no honkiness or nasal sound to voices though and the balance in the midrange is not ‘bad’ but it could just use a little more linearity. 

Treble 

The lower treble is not too much but there is a piercing kind of quality with the treble that sounds sharp. It is not hard or glaring because the timbre is not as strong as something like the He-6 but it is from the middle treble where high hats and cymbals have a bit of a sharpness to them without sounding splashy. The HD800 treble has a little more body and texture to it and is less pointed. I would bet the peak of the treble is higher on the H1 than it is on the HD800 by a little bit because it also sounds a little less splashy than the Senn but less realistic and detailed. I can listen to the H1 longer without annoyance settling in as quickly and I think that is because either the HD800 is brighter, or it has more upper mids, or both. The H1 is not far behind the Senn in overall brightness though. 

AMPING

The H1 while not the most scalable headphone, did actually show differences in the gear used without much difficulty. It is not demanding in terms of power and unlike a lot of planars it doesn’t benefit so much from having lots of power any way. There are only a few planar magnetic headphones like this and I would say the Hifiman HEX V2 and this would be one of them. I wouldn’t pair this with a bright and lean amp but something with good body and a full upper midrange. Definitely not a demanding headphone

CONCLUSION

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So what is the verdict? Am I impressed? Heck yeah! because this is what 599 should be performing like. Would I buy one? Heck no! On the forums I was a little over confident on the eq’ing because it worked on a few songs but after more and more listening the tonal balance began to irritate me and it would clip before I got it right. I couldn’t get into my songs as naturally as I could with my closed back T50 mod even if its performance wasn’t as impressive. Have I heard wayy worse? Yes indeed and from more expensive headphones! With this headphone I developed a love hate relationship. I would love to see more headphones come out at this price point performing like this, but I would hate to have to sell it after a month of owning one. Here is the thing though, some people will really like it a lot and I won’t blame them, I can totally understand that. Its not like the balance is horrible, or even bad. Other headphones that are my favorite (like the Atticus) may have too much bass and too little treble for the average person so to each their own.

I just give a round of applause to Acoustic Research for not overcharging, for giving you performance for your buck, and for making a quality product! Good job! Hopefully their next product will address issues I hear. I will be on the lookout. 

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