A big thanks to Blaine of Cascadia Audio for lending me this pair of Monolith M560 headphones so that I can share my thoughts.
It is my belief, that currently the $200 market for headphones is a market of compromises. There are a lot of good options in that price range, but they all come with some sort of issue that keeps them from being truly great headphones. It’s also a very exciting and ever expanding price category for headphones that is seeing a lot more interest and is being catered to by companies like Massdrop with their K7XX and HD6XX headphones. One of the newest entrants into this price category is Monoprice with the Monolith M560 headphones, advertised as a premium, portable on ear solution with an additional feature that I think was first commercially introduced with the Hifiman Edition S. The M560 is a closed back headphone where the backs of the cups are attached magnetically and can be removed, converting the M560 to an open-back set of headphones. It’s surprising that Monoprice has managed to build a headphone at this price point with these features using planar magnetic drivers, sort of fulfilling the original promise of the Edition S from Hifiman, which actually uses a dynamic driver. This is an interesting feature because of how difficult it is to design a headphone for good closed back performance, and I’ll be discussing the sound of the headphones in both states.
Fit and Comfort
The build on the Monolith M560 is quite nice. The headphone has a mostly wood and metal construction, with actuation points that all feel very sturdy and high quality. The cup “caps” are real wood and the magnets that have been set inside of them are flush with the surface to ensure that the cup really seals on the headphones when attached without any gaps. Despite being marketed as an on ear headphone, the pads are actually quite large and allow almost my whole ear to fit inside. The pad does rest on top of the top of my ear, but the bottom and sides are basically entirely sealed inside the pad. The pads are attached to the headphone magnetically and are easily removable and replaceable here. The suspension headband is great for comfort, however the elastics are bit too flexible and I have noticed that, on occasion, the cups can slide down the side of your head. The actual headband is metal and likely could be bent to increase clamping force to mitigate this issue, I did not try this however.
The M560 has an overall sort of warm tuning with fairly flat bass that has a smooth transition to mids in both configurations, open and closed. The treble is where the two configurations of the headphone seem to differ most obviously, though there are also some fairly noticeable changes in the bass and lower mid tonality. Based on the performance of the headphone I believe Monoprice probably designed this for open back performance and that the closed design is a nice feature that provides additional functionality at the cost of sonic performance. One of the questions with this headphone through this review is what those changes are and whether those changes are drastic enough to discount the closed back option as a genuinely useful feature.
The bass of the M560 is fairly well extended and has a good amount of impact. I don’t find the driver sluggish or woolly, it maintains good clarity and detail here. I do find impact falls short of my expectation and definition seems a bit lacking in the lowest registers, but I still generally find it satisfying. When closed, the bass seems to have less impact, hits soften and run together a bit more, seeming more like a one-note thud than a series of impacts and sounds. When opened, the bass tightens and gains back some of its definition, though still noticeably distorted sounding in the 20-40 Hz range. I also find that opening the cups increases the mid-bass quantity slightly as compared to the closed configuration, filling out the lower midrange and making the bass seem more linear overall.
The midrange of the M560 is probably the most affected by the opening or closing of the cups. Overall mids don’t seem especially distorted or unclear, I think the mids have good texture and clarity. I am able to feel the smaller impacts of instruments, though they are a bit softened, suggesting a fairly capable driver. I also don’t find it to have any additional and unwanted grittiness or grain. I find the mids are generally clean and have a pretty even tonality through the lower mids before recessing quite a bit in the upper end of the mids around 2-2.5kHz. When closed, the headphone seems to have a sort of shelf recession in the mids starting with the midbass and remaining linear going up to that 2kHz area where it then proceeds to recess quite a bit further. This has the effect of giving vocals a less natural, drier presentation and is also where that “cupped hands effect” seems to be the most pronounced, collapsing the soundstage. When taking the covers off the cups, the lower mids fill out, giving it the more linear, natural sounding presentation with vocals. However in either case, the extra recession in the upper mids can sometimes make vocals sound bottom heavy, or disjointed if they span that range so that some parts are more forward while other parts sound more distant. Guitars seem to suffer the most as a result of this large recession that continues into the lower treble, sounding distant and much less present than they normally would. Harmonics of instruments also get lost to this large recession that starts in the upper mids.
The treble of the M560 is also an area that seems to change drastically based on the opening or closing of the headphone cups. When closed, that dip that starts in the mids seems to end somewhere in the low treble around 4kHz where it comes back up to a level somewhat close to even with how loud it is at about 1kHz. With the cups closed, the treble overall seems somewhat uneven and has an audible mid-treble peak that has the potential to exaggerate certain background noises in music. This actually has the strange effect of making that large recessions at the top of the mids even more noticeable. When opening the cups, the treble doesn’t seem to rise nearly as much, and gives the headphone a somewhat darker balance, with less present treble and a more laid back presentation.
Separation is adequate on these headphones despite a somewhat small soundstage. I don’t have much difficulty in separate instruments or vocal tracks within a song, but everything does sound somewhat close together. With the cups closed, the stage collapses from what is already a rather small stage to one that is quite close together which can crowd imaging of instruments. When opened, imaging improves and the stage regains some of the wideness it loses by attaching the cup covers. The headphones also appear to be quite easy to drive, only requiring that I go about a quarter of the way up the volume knob on the Schiit Fulla 2 for example. I think that overall the headphones are at least somewhat revealing of changes in source, as I was able to recognize the differences in clarity and impact between several of the sources I have here including the Schiit Fulla 2 and the NFB-27H. Also a note on the isolation of the headphones with the covers on. Passive isolation seems pretty good for an on ear headphone, and sealing the cups does prevent sound leakage, however this is still an on ear and isolation is not going to be at the level of a IEM or a over ear closed back with a good seal.
With the M560, I stand by my statement about the $200 market as it exists today. There are a lot of compelling entries, but most of them do require you to compromise in some fashion and the M560 is no different in that regard. Monoprice has managed to build a headphone that really exudes attention to build quality and materials. They also have seemed to pick a very capable driver to use in their headphones. Despite making these two very right decisions, it seems they felt it was enough to put their nice driver in a nice housing and put it on the market instead of testing it and tuning the housing and damping to ensure that the driver performed at its best. As for the question of whether the closed configuration of the M560 is really is an added function or just a feature included for marketing, I believe it is somewhat legitimate. When closed, the headphone clearly doesn’t perform as well compared to when the cups are open, however, I think it still performs rather admirably for a closed back in it’s price bracket. Having the functionality of both is a nice added feature, though the headphone certainly seem to perform better when in open back configuration. The size of the cups is also a nice surprise, making it more comfortable than more traditional over ear headphones. The weight and size may make the M560 difficult to use as a portable however, and while it’s relatively sensitive, my phone, a Nexus 6P, while able to make it loud was not able to drive it satisfactorily, with a noticeable drop off in bass quality and quantity compared to dedicated amplification. For a first entry, I think Monoprice has done a more than admirable job of introducing a competitive product to the market in its first go around, but I also think there is a lot of untapped potential here that Monoprice could tap into with a revision, or that independent modders could tap into and use as basis for new headphones, similar to what was done historically with the Fostex T50RP. Despite some reservations, I am interested to see where Monoprice and the community go with this headphone.