De­cent fun­da­men­tal per­for­mance but poorly served by their ac­tive elec­tron­ics, says Jez Ford.

Australian HIFI - - CONTENTS -

Smate is a new Aus­tralian com­pany launch­ing into the on­line elec­tron­ics space. With TVs and sound­bars as well as head­phones, it is en­thu­si­as­ti­cally grow­ing a com­mu­nity of en­gaged users through of­fers and dis­counts such that, while we quote a full RRP be­low, we sus­pect you won’t have to search too far to save a good few dol­lars on the price quoted here.

We ‘re spend­ing time with the com­pany’s SMPSHPNC1 ex­ec­u­tive-style Blue­tooth noise-can­celling head­phones, which have 40mm neodymium-mag­neted driv­ers and nice ‘pleather’ earpads. And they boast, when in ac­tive mode, ‘world fa­mous’ Bon­giovi DPS (Dig­i­tal Power Sta­tion) tech­nol­ogy, for which a great many claims are made as ‘the ul­ti­mate au­dio pro­cess­ing so­lu­tion’, but which at heart seems to be a sys­tem that re­duces dy­namic peaks ‘so that im­por­tant sounds stay at a con­sis­tent vol­ume with­out los­ing their emo­tional im­pact’. A blue but­ton on the right head­shell tog­gles the Bon­giovi on or off.

It’s a fair bet that at some point dur­ing the de­sign dis­cus­sion for Smates’s model, some­one pointed to a pair of Bose QC35s—there are many par­al­lels in de­sign and op­er­a­tion. They look and feel sim­i­lar, they fold just as neatly into their car­rycase, and they of­fer the same va­ri­ety of us­age—ca­bled pas­sive op­er­a­tion, ca­bled ac­tive op­er­a­tion with noise-can­celling, or Blue­tooth wire­less op­er­a­tion with noise-can­celling. And they make, to my mind, ex­actly the same mis­take as the QC35s—you can­not turn off the noise-can­celling when us­ing Blue­tooth. Noise-can­celling is best kept for spe­cial oc­ca­sions; we don’t want it per­ma­nently on (which is why I don’t rec­om­mend the Bose QC35s un­less you plan to use them only dur­ing long-haul flights).

Three ways to lis­ten can make for a tricky balanc­ing act for sound tun­ing. I thought that was the case here, but found that the blue ‘Bon­giovi but­ton’ made all the dif­fer­ence. I en­joyed the pas­sive ca­bled op­er­a­tion of the Smates, where the sound was clear and well-balanced, just slightly cur­tailed in the treble, but able to de­liver a raspy Leonard Co­hen vo­cal with all its fre­quen­cies in the right place. The ca­ble has an in­line re­sis­tive vol­ume slider but no smart track con­trols.

En­gag­ing the ac­tive cir­cuits turns on two cir­cuits—noise-can­celling and the Bon­giovi pro­cess­ing. The noise-can­celling was ef­fec­tive enough in re­duc­ing ex­ter­nal rum­ble (plane, bus, train) but when work­ing hard it seemed rather one-sided, more ef­fec­tive in one ear than the other. When play­ing mu­sic this lop­sid­ed­ness isn’t too no­tice­able, but for a spo­ken-word pod­cast or just for si­lence on a plane, I found it dis­tract­ing and a lit­tle dis­con­cert­ing. A ‘Mon­i­tor’ but­ton stops the NC and feeds the ex­ter­nal mike through, so you can hear air­port an­nounce­ments, say, but on my sam­ple it also stopped the mu­sic play­ing (wired or Blue­tooth), so was of lim­ited use.

But I was im­pressed how well the tone of mu­sic was main­tained in ac­tive modes; a slight rise in pres­ence, a slight drop in the low­est oc­tave, but not the dras­tic shift that of­ten oc­curs. Go­ing Blue­tooth I could hear the drop in trans­mis­sion qual­ity, but again the tone held true, rolling back that pres­ence lift. It’s good tun­ing work.

How­ever, to en­joy this clean bal­ance, turn off the Bon­giovi DPS. This de­liv­ers an ar­ti­fi­cially en­hanced sound, louder, forc­ing up the bass to some­times throb­bing pro­por­tions, adding masses of pres­ence but at the same time in­tro­duc­ing peak­i­ness, sibi­lance and all man­ner of noise. Poor Leonard didn’t sound him­self at all, phasey and buck­ety. Deep bass or­gan bass notes started pro­duc­ing funny buzzing in both chan­nels, as did the bass on the open­ing of the new Olly Murs/Louisa John­son sin­gle ‘Un­pre­dictable’. The Bon­giovi can be su­per­fi­cially ex­cit­ing, but it proved op­pres­sively un­mu­si­cal. I kept it off.

So here we have head­phones with de­cent-enough fun­da­men­tal per­for­mance but poorly served by their ac­tive elec­tron­ics. The noise-can­celling could ben­e­fit from ad­di­tional mi­cro­phones, and I’d like to be able to turn it off. For my tastes the Bon­giovi DPS is a se­cret weapon that works against the ba­sic mer­its of the de­sign. I’d nor­mally sug­gest a care­ful au­di­tion be­fore pur­chase, but Smate be­ing cur­rently on­line only, that’s un­likely to be pos­si­ble. Yet it’s early days, and there’s no doubt Smate is aim­ing high in the pre­sen­ta­tion and qual­ity of its prod­ucts. Keep watch­ing, and I’ll keep lis­ten­ing. Jez Ford

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