disclaimer: Andover Audio is both a new player in the market, and a long established company which takes a bit more explaining. Rob Mainiero, the GM at Andover, came from Cambridge Soundworks, and recruited team members from Apogee, Acoustic Research, Harman, and a/d/s among others in building the company. Since 2012, Andover has been designing audio solutions for the automotive, telecommunications, and consumer segment for other companies. Recently, Andover started releasing products under its own name in addition to their continued work behind the scenes for other outfits. I ran across some of the marketing material for their new headphone and being a sucker for a Planar Magnetic anyway, decided to request a sample for review. I received a loaner unit and will be sending it on to another reviewer when my notes are complete, so I have received no compensation for this review, nor do I have a financial interest in Andover or any of its distributors. For more information about Andover products, see their website or facebook page.
Unboxing / Packaging:
The PM50 comes packaged in a slip-cover with a line drawing of the PM50. Once removed, a lift top presentation box in black vinyl is revealed with the Andover name in silver. The box lid has a cloth tab at front for easy opening, but does not have a cloth strap so the lid will open a full 180º and may wear prematurely as a result. Inside the box we have headphones in a foam surround, a spare pair of pads (different style) , the cable, and a one page quick setup guide. The cable has a screw on 6.3mm adapter over a 3.5mm jack so no additional adapters are provided in the kit.
The PM50 has a very solid build with very little plastic anywhere and none at stress points. The headband is steel with metal couplers that allow the gimbals to rotate on the vertical axis roughly 15º in either direction (a trick Hifiman would be wise to learn). Gimbals allow the cups to rotate fully on the horizontal axis, but depending on which pad is in use, the pad will prevent full rotation as it strikes the gimbal. The cups themselves are figured walnut with a satin finish that appears very similar to a tung oil finish if it isn’t actually that. Drivers are affixed by an aluminum plate on the inside of the cup which also serves as the attachment point for the pads. Pads snap on and off and do require gentle pressure to install or remove. This is the one place where plastic is used and if twisted to attempt to remove the pads, I can see damage to the attachment studs being fairly likely so be aware that these are a straight push/pull operation. Two different styles of pad were provided with my preference being for the more squared off variety as I got a better seal with my glasses. Andover has also announced a 3rd type of pad will be available in the near future. Clamping force on the PM50 is much higher than that of similar models in my collection. While it is smart to set them up tight and let the customer loosen them, but be aware you may need to. The good news is after a conversation with Andover to confirm it, the headband is indeed metal all the way through and gentle pressure is all it takes to adjust the level of clamping force to the desired level. Other than a higher clamping force than I am used to, the PM50 was comfortable for long wear and didn’t feel heavy on the head.
If the name hasn’t already given it away, the PM50 is a 50mm square planar magnetic driver with a nominal impedance of 32Ω and a sensitivity of 102 dB/mW. Andover’s marketing material suggest the PM50 is designed to be run from a wide variety of devices including phones and tablets as well as more potent devices so I tested using some of both just to see how well the PM50 performed. Planars have come a long way in recent years as regards drivability, and the PM50 indeed does work well from lower powered sources and scaled qualitatively with improvements in DAC much more than quantitatively with increases in power. I was able to get comfortable listening levels out of android and iphone models as well as a couple tablets I had handy. With portable source gear, I tested with the Cayin N3 (specifically because of its 1V output), the DTR1, and the Sony WM1A. Desktop gear included the Burson Stack (Swing/Fun), the Auris Euterpe, and the Schiit Bimby/Valhalla to see how the PM50 would react to tube amplification.
The cable starts out with a 6.3mm Screw on adapter over a 3.5mm jack in black metal housing followed by a short strain relief before the cloth wrapped cable exits. The cable is roughly 4 feet in length between jack and splitter and is obviously designed for in-home use. The splitter is a matching black barrel housing before two smaller cloth wrapped cables exit and continue northward to the 3.5mm jacks that also have matching black housings, this time with L/R marked clearly in white on the sides of the barrel. The right connector also has a red strain relief for easy identification. The oddity here is that the PM50 itself is symmetrical and the pads are not angled so the cups themselves are not marked and the only quick visual indicator of L/R is the red ring on the cable itself.
The FR Chart was done with the Mini-DSP ears measurement rig using the RAW calibration.
The low end has good extension but is not emphasized so won’t make the bassheads to-get list. Sub-bass has good rumble when called upon with roll-off only becoming evident in the mid 40s and pronounced by the mid-30s. Mid-bass is only mildly elevated above the sub-bass and lower mids with a center around the 150Hz mark to my ear. Overall clarity and speed is very good which gives the bass good texture and more detail than average. Without getting heavily into comparison, I find the bass similar to the presentation of the LCD2c with slightly less layering.
The mid-bass gives way to the lower mids with no bleed or bloom and very little fuss in the transition. Here again, the PM50 is defined by the speed of the drivers with great clarity and separation at the expense of a bit of warmth and weight. Male vocals are articulate and well detailed, but don’t come across as quite as lush as some other models. This isnt a knock on the PM50 at all as technically it is a more correct presentation than those warmer, smoother sounding models, but some will find it less desirable as a result. Upper mids are emphasized and female vocals definitely take a step forward from their male counterparts as a result. Strings are well textured and gain a bit of extra energy from that same push. If a track tends to be a bit strident or contain sibilance, the PM50 does nothing to attenuate that so be aware that poor recordings will result in a poor listening experience as these are not particularly forgiving. Conversely, well recorded material can sound phenomenal on the PM50 as the mids really do have great detail and textures that the big planars are known for.
Treble tends to be the Achille’s heel of the planars as they tend to be linear up to a point and then all hell breaks loose. While I can’t say the PM50 doesn’t have some struggles with this, it does a better job of taming them than many. Lower treble is boosted as it follows the climb of the upper-mids but the climb is gradual and doesn’t really jump out at the user like some can. Above about 4kHz, the treble drops back to levels similar to the lower mids and mid-bass before rolling off above about 14kHz. Cymbals sound realistic and snare rattle has good realism as well. Highhat can be a mixed bag as it sits right on the border between normal and taking on that metallic click and largely depends on the recording in use. Overall, I have to commend Andover on the tuning as it is very solid for a first effort and makes me look forward to future releases.
Soundstage / Imaging:
Stage is a bit wider than deep but has good proportion and has some sense of height. While I don’t think it can compete with the bigger planars in overall stage dimensions, it is clearer larger and better proportioned than the EL-8 I used in comparisons and has a more 3D feel to the sound. Instrument separation is what we expect on a planar as well and seating the orchestra is straight forward with no major anomalies. Layering is also equally good with no notable compression or thickening as tracks get busier. Spatial cues are both easily identified and tracked during movements as well.
Audeze EL-8 (open) – I’ve made some sound comparisons to the LCD classic earlier, but the PM50 is a good bit smaller and fit is closer to that of the EL-8 than the LCD series with considerable clamping force and a more on-ear than over-ear style fit. The build quality on both is good, but the PM50 is a step above with solid wood cups instead of the rather ugly (in my opinion) veneer of the EL-8. The EL-8 is lighter than the PM50 but not by enough to feel the difference when in use. Both have a sound signature with the attack speed planars are known for but they use it differently. The EL-8 has a bit more warmth in the lower mids and is a touch more tame compared to the PM-50 that is a bit closer to neutral in the low end but a bit more aggressive especially in the upper range. Bass depth is better on the PM50 as well as that is one place the baby Audeze struggles to keep up with its larger counterparts. The PM50 also has a bit larger stage to my ear. Both are roughly the same as regards drivability with both benefiting some from amping but neither needing a ton of power. While my personal preference is for the PM-50 this one is going to come down to which signature the listener prefers.
Hifiman Sundara – Again not an exactly linear comparison but as close as can realistically be made to the Hifiman line based on matching features. I prefer the wood of the PM-50 to the metal frame of the Sundara in the looks department. I also prefer the headband of the PM-50 as the ability to rotate on the vertical axis of the PM-50 is something the Sundara cant match. The PM50 is smaller than the Sundara and fit is a bit more on-ear when compared to the larger Sundara. Clamping force is much greater on the PM50 and will make the Sundara a more comfortable wear at least until adjusted or broken in some. Sound wise, the Sundara is a bit more polite while the PM50 is a bit more aggressive. Those who argue that the Sundara needs a bit more attack in the mids will like the PM50. I do think the Sundara treble has more grain when compared to the PM50 as well. While I like the fit of the Sundara a bit better, the sound of the PM50 wins the day.
Fostex TH500RP – The price point on the PM50 will likely draw comparisons to the PM50 due to similarities in drivers and price point. The TH500RP is the closest as the TH610 is a couple hundred dollars more expensive and closed back, while the TH50RP is enough less expensive to invalidate the comparison. Like the Sundara, the 500 uses a metal frame and is a bit larger in circumference than the PM50, weight is similar on both. Sound wise, bass is better on the PM50 as the 500 rolls off a bit higher. Mids may be a hair more detailed on the 500 but are cleaner on the PM50 comparatively. Treble rolls off sooner on the 500 than the PM50 as well. While the price has slid some on the 500 in recent years, I would still rather pay a bit more and get the PM50 as the build and sound are both better in my estimation.
Thoughts / Conclusion:
For a first effort from Andover, I have to applaud the PM50. Its well built, well tuned, and fairly easy to drive. I has most of the features we expect from a planar, good transparency and speed, near linearity (up to a point), and better than average instrument separation. If there is a caveat, it is in the build of the PM50 where it fits more like an on-ear than an over-ear and the clamping force is excessive until adjusted. You will likely need to bend the headband slightly to mitigate the pressure especially if you wear glasses as I do. Those willing to make the adjustments are rewarded by a mature tuning with good extension on both ends, good detail throughout, and a boost in the range needed to bring vocals to the foreground. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the PM50, and have now sent them on to Ngoshawk so he can enjoy them as well. For a second opinion, I suggest you checkout his review here in a few weeks.
- Bass - 7/107/10
- Mids - 7.5/107.5/10
- Treble - 7/107/10
- Soundstage - 7/107/10
- Imaging - 7.5/107.5/10
Pros: gorgeous wood, solid build – all metal construction, very detailed signature
Cons: Clamping force is excessive initially, adjustments are slip-fit and may loosen with time