Noteworthy. Superb. Amazing. Take your pick, because the V-Moda XS headphones are each of those things and quite a bit more. I’ve found headphones that sound great but don’t look like much, I’ve found incredibly comfortable headphones with sound that leaves me wanting more, and I’ve found stylish headphones that put all their effort into being fashion accessories to the detriment of audio ability. V-Moda blends aggressively gorgeous and ergonomic design with outstanding audio engineering for headphones that look and sound like nothing else out there.
The Look that Thrills
I have mixed feelings about Apple’s recent audio acquisition…I’ve never liked the sound of Beats headphones, as they tend to favor a juiced up bass at the expense of everything else. Their design, while iconic, has inspired countless knockoffs and seems to have made zombies out of most headphone designers. Everything has to look and sound like Beats; those few holdouts like Sennheiser rarely descend to sell truly affordable headphones that deliver amazing sound, leaving the headphone market pretty bleak. Even V-Moda boxes feel like they were designed for fashion, with hobnails and a leather strap!
With a kickass industrial design that’s equal parts Batmobile and Italian catwalk fashion, V-Moda’s entire headphone line makes a statement. The XS is the smallest of the on/over ear line and shares its design language with its larger siblings, but the simple, V-shaped design elements and hexagonal ear cups scale down perfectly. I travel almost half of each month, so I took these with me through a lot of airports. Comments from fellow travelers were always in the same vein—”What kind of headphones are those? They don’t look like everything else!’
Hold Me, Thrill Me
While I prefer the superior sound of a good on-ear or over-ear headphone, I also find most of them uncomfortable for long use. Most headbands dig into the top of my head right at the crown, which hurts after a while. V-Moda’s “Mind the Gap” engineering takes the entire headband and distributes the weight of the headphones over the top of your head, while also minimizing the gap between the headband and the side of your head.
Because the XS better molds to the shape of your head, less pressure is required to hold the cups in place, while lightweight materials and better weight distribution mean the headband doesn’t put as much pressure on your head in the first place. I found them comfortable for listening during a full workday or cross-country flight, where most other headphones would require a break and scalp massage during that time. This lightweight material and the hinged ear cup design lets them fold down into a very portable package, which was also great for my trekking.
Portable Concert Hall
The XS stand head and shoulders above other competitors in the $300 range, period. There’s a pleasant dissonance between your expectations from such a small pair of headphones and the actual audio they pump out. The drivers are comparably huge at 40 mm, and the use of dual diaphragms is key to the XS’s excellent sound. These cans provide excellent clarity across the spectrum with a specific emphasis on natural sound reproduction. The soundstage is wide where it needs to be, such as symphonic recordings, but it’s never a forced or artificial sound. Pop tracks that were clearly recording and mixed one instrument at a time don’t sound like you’re listening to them in a concert hall. Live performances recorded in a concert hall do sound amazingly large, and you can actually hear the echo from the venue even when the performers were wearing mics.
I threw a variety of music at the XS during my testing and didn’t find anything they couldn’t handle well. If you’re looking for over engineered bass a la Beats, the XS aren’t the headphones for you. If you want to hear accurate bass supporting your overall music, however, V-Moda delivers. I loved the bassline in Filter’s Hey Man, Nice Shot, but it never muddied or overpowered the vocals. My two go-to tracks for high end, Howard Shore’s The Black Gate Opens and The End of All Things, were reproduced flawlessly. Both feature massive orchestral arrangements from which emerge a single soloist (Sir James Galway’s flute and Renée Fleming’s soprano), and the XS keeps everything in balance. The soloists soar above the orchestra with the same clarity as the supporting instruments and performers.
If I had to pick one thing to gripe about regarding the XS (and it applies to the entire V-Moda lineup), it’s their lack of a three-button remote. The one-button SpeakEasy cable works to play/pause, answer/end calls, and lets you do the double-tap skip forward, triple-tap skip back. I like to have volume control on my remote, and I feel there are enough iPhones, iPads, iPods, and Macs in circulation to make it a viable market. You can swap out the cable for any standard 1/8″ cable that does include a remote, so it’s not a big deal, but it would be nice as an accessory option.
Buy the V-Moda XS on-ear headphones
Provides: On-ear, noise isolating headphones
Minimum Requirements: Any audio source with a 1/8″ headphone jack
Price: $212 list, street price is $199