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Review: Paradigm Shift H15 and H15NC On-Ear Headphones

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Paradigm Shift H15A full quarter of my closet is dedicated strictly to Lebowski Fest t-shirts. I own four pairs of shoes, half of which are flip flops, and one pair of which is covered with genuine imitation Astroturf. My ride is a 2001 PT Cruiser covered in Pastafarian propaganda stickers and an eighth-inch layer of dirt. I tell you these things to let you know that I’m not what you’d call a design maven. My sense of style is not one that anyone would or should aspire to. So when I say that I’m not exactly wild about the design of Paradigm’s new H15 on-ear headphone, you should salt that observation to taste before imbibing.

But when I say that I genuinely dig the sound of Paradigm’s new noise-isolating headphone and its noise-canceling brother (whose style I dig quite a bit more, by the by), hopefully that observation carries a little more weight.

Paradigm was kind enough to send over one of the very first H15 production samples for my thoughts, followed a few weeks later by the H15NC, and I’ll admit to being a little perplexed at first by the former. I’ve laid hands on the prototype of the H15NC a few times now at trade shows, and really like its grey die-cast accents, especially the way its dual-tone design breaks up the profile of the headphone. So when the H15 showed up all in black, with no die-cast bits, it came as a bit of a disappointment. I can see where Paradigm might have been going for a Beats-inspired aesthetic here, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t quite work for me. Combine that with the fact that its rotating ear cups don’t really make the H15 any more compact, and the headphone’s entire aesthetic left me scratching my head.

“These things had better sound damned good,” I thought to myself.

Thankfully, they do. If Beats were the inspiration for the look, they certainly weren’t for the sound. But before we get to that, first a somewhat-related aside: I’ve been taken to task quite a bit for my review of Paradigm’s original e3m, which many of my fellow reviewers—ones I respect very much, mind you, like Brent Butterworth—described as “somewhat muted” in the midrange, with “not much treble detail.” In a long quest to get to the root of why I was hearing such a radically different sound from the e3m than many (although certainly not all) reviewers, I’ve discovered that, with in-ear headphones, I’m incredibly sensitive to high frequencies. So an IEM that sounds well-balanced to me is going to sound dull to most. And an IEM that sounds balanced to most listeners is going to leave me clawing my eardrums out. That’s the main reason you haven’t seen an in-ear headphone review from me in a long, long time, and if you ever do again it’s going to be riddled with caveats.

Paradigm Shift H15

Thankfully, no such otological peculiarities affect my experience with on- or over-ear headphones (hence the continued appearance of such reviews on HomeTechTell), so I feel pretty confident in saying that the sound of the H15 isn’t going to be described as “dull” by anyone. There’s oodles of high-end sparkle here, and although I don’t have the sophisticated measurement equipment that allows Brent to do such wonderfully scientifically meticulous headphone reviews, I’m still hearing plenty of useful energy from the H15 all the way up into the 16kHz range (and all the way down to 20Hz). I wouldn’t call the sound entirely flat, since there does seem to be some emphasis on upper-mid frequencies—especially via the iPhone, although it’s less noticeable via the headphone amp in Emotiva’s XDA-2—but either way, it has the effect of giving the headphone plenty of presence, especially with the female vocals and acoustic instruments that define so much of Abigail Washburn’s sound on City of Refuge.

My favorite tunes with the H15, though, tend toward the Girl Talk/Fatboy Slim end of my musical preferences. Throw in something like “Gangster Trippin’” and you’d swear these headphones were voiced specifically to sound amazing with that track—the way its low-frequency extension rocks the bottom end, its forward midrange thrusts the vocals and instrumentation right into the middle of your noggin, and its high-end puts a razor’s edge on the track.

Despite my misgivings about the look of the H15—not to mention the less-than-refined feel of its “FlexiPoint” slider extension arms for size adjustment—it’s a quite comfy headphone, with a really snug fit, good noise isolation, and even if swiveling cups don’t really make it any more compact, they do help to assure solid noise isolation.

A lot of the H15’s design elements (and even its less-than-compact folding design) started to make way more sense when the noise-canceling H15NC arrived a few weeks later. It’s amazing how much of an impact the little things can have, but the presence of grey die-cast detailing on the H15NC makes all the difference for me in terms of looks. Unlike the H15, the H15NC wears its price tag proudly, and yet at the same time, it carries over all the elements that make the H15 so comfortable to wear. Paradigm Shift H15NC flexibilityIf anything, it’s more comfortable, but just as flexible, and if I have one complaint about the design of the H15NC, it’s that the slider extension arms feel just as rickety. But once you get them adjusted to length, they feel just spiffy. And given that the H15NC comes with a hard carrying case, not a travel pouch, its swiveling earcups actually do result in a bit of space savings, shaving at least a few fractions of an inch off the thickness of the case.

Both headphones feature detachable cables, which—unlike the e3m—are amongst the least microphonic I’ve ever heard. The flip side to that is that they tangle up into an impenetrable rats nest if the wind blows the wrong way. But that’s just the trade-off that headphone manufacturers have to make.

Amazingly, the active H15NC doesn’t sounds radically different from its passive little brother. Its bass is a bit warmer and more forward, which has the effect of evening out the sound even more. As such, I tend to prefer it with a wider variety of tunes. The presence that comes through in Abigail Washburn’s tunes is still there, with an added weight and clarity to the bass that makes the higher frequencies sparkle all the more. For all its forward midrange and rich bass, the H15NC is capable of generating quite a dynamic range of spaciousness, especially in tracks like Hendrix’s “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be),” and Beastie Boys’ “Hey Ladies,” whose first few bars sound more compact than I’m used to hearing—honestly, almost monophonic—before positively exploding out of the cranium when the phase shifts about nine seconds in.

Paradigm Shift H15NC lifestyle shot

Here’s the weird thing about the sound of the H15NC, though: engaging the noise-cancellation results in virtually no perceptible change in its audio quality. Major props to Paradigm for that. The tonal balance remains practically unchanged (like, seriously, you have to A/B for ages and really strain your ears to hear any difference at all), which is a nice surprise for an active NC headphone. Virtually every other active model I’ve heard sounds perceptibly different with the switch on and the switch off (if they even continue to deliver sound when off, which some don’t).

That may have something to do with the fact that the H15NC’s noise cancellation isn’t anywhere near the most aggressive I’ve ever heard. I compared it to both the Bose QuietComfort 2 (which, in its day, cost me about a hundred dollars more) and Audio Technica ATH-ANC25 (which retails for about two hundred dollars less), and both of those models did a much more thorough job of combating environmental noise across a broader range of frequencies. But, then, there’s the fact that both sound absolutely terrible with music.

The H15NC is mostly effective at canceling only low frequency noise, and I really wish I’d had a chance to try it out on a flight, but I put it to the test against lawnmowers and suburban traffic, and really dig the way it removes the rumble, if not the whine. (Oddly enough, when testing the H15NC out with a clip of white noise, the noise-cancellation circuit actually seems to amplify high-frequency noise. So if you work in an environment full of old analog TVs tuned to static and cranked to eleven, these might not be your best choice.)

Another peculiar (much appreciated, but peculiar!) thing about the H15NC is that its noise-cancellation doesn’t result in that disconnected, puffy-headed feeling that so many NC headphones give me. When I say that the noise-cancellation circuitry has no discernible effect on the audio, I don’t mean just in terms of tonality—I mean you really can’t hear it, unless you turn your tunes completely off. Or feel it, for that matter. Low frequency noise just seems to magically poof out of existence, without making you feel like you have a head cold.

Paradigm Shift H15NCOne other thing that sets the H15NC apart from other noise-cancelling headphones is that it doesn’t rely on store-bought batteries. The unit charges via a USB cable in a little over an hour, and on one charge I’ve been putting the headphone through its paces for the better part of a week now, with no need for a top-off.

So, here’s the $299.99 (and $199.99) question, though: would I spend my own money on these headphones?

As much as I lurve Paradigm to itty bitty pieces, and as much as I dig its unique sound, I have to admit I probably wouldn’t buy the H15. The simple, all-matte-black styling just doesn’t appeal to me (although, again, I remind you: I wear fake-grass-covered flip flops), and for the exact same amount of coin, I would probably opt for Bowers & Wilkins’ ultra-compact P3 instead.

But the H15NC? Yeah, even at a hundred dollars more, it feels like more of a value. I like the styling much better, I like the sound a good bit better, and the noise-cancelation—although, again, not the most aggressive I’ve ever heard—knocks out most fatiguing environmental noise frequencies, while still allowing you to clearly hear voices and even approaching cars, if you wear them out and about. And most importantly, it does so without impacting sound quality in the slightest.

Both the H15 and H15NC will be available soon from authorized Paradigm SHIFT Series dealers worldwide, as well as online at paradigm.com/shift.

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