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As my experiments in headphone tuning and experience in testing headphones show, there’s no more effective way to tweak your headphones’ sound than by changing the earpads. My recent reviews of the Dan Clark Audio Æon 2 Closed and Monoprice Monolith M1570 headphones, which offer or include alternative sets of pads, showed that the right set of pads can transform good cans into great ones. The problem, which Dekoni Audio is working to solve, is that it’s tough to know if a set of pads will give you the sonic change you desire.
Dekoni not only makes pads for many popular (and not-so-popular) headphones, but it gives the headphone enthusiast all sorts of options for those pads. For example, the company makes six different replacement pads for the legendary Sony MDR-7506 studio headphones, including leather, suede, hybrid leather/suede, sheepskin, velour, and protein leather ($49.99, $69.99 for sheepskin, all prices USD). The same pads fit the Audio-Technica ATH-M series of headphones, such as the ATH-M50X, and the Dekoni website shows measurements with the stock ATH-M50x pads and each of the six Dekoni replacement models. I’d love to see the same for the MDR-7506 headphones, but still, this is a lot more documentation than most headphone manufacturers provide, and to see it from an accessories company is impressive.
Some may point out that $49 is a lot to spend for earpads for headphones that typically sell for $99 on Amazon (and replacement pads can easily be had for as little as $20), but the Dekoni pads are far better-made and sturdier than the stock MDR-7506 pads. Actually, that’s not saying anything, because the MDR-7506 pads are notoriously flimsy, and tend to disintegrate after a year of frequent use -- something you’ll realize if you visit practically any radio station or recording studio, because most of them have at least one half-rotted set of 7506es sitting around.
Especially after my experience with the Dan Clark Æon 2 Closed and the Monoprice M1570 headphones, I was eager to check out Dekoni’s offerings. In addition to the Platinum Protein pads for the MDR-7506 headphones, they sent Elite Sheepskin pads ($79.99) for the HiFiMan HE series and Choice Suede pads ($59.99) for the Audeze LCD series.
Note that Dekoni doesn’t offer six different pad options for every set of headphones; the HiFiMan options were limited to four. But in every case, the website, while it may not show measurements for your exact headphones, will probably show enough data for you to make an educated guess as to which pads will work for you.
Of course, ease of installation of the Dekoni pads depends on the design of your headphones. In the case of the Sony MDR-7506es, it took just a minute or two to pull off the old pads and slip the retention flange on the earpads around each earpiece. Not too tough. In the case of the HiFiMan Sundaras (which are the same size as the HE-series headphones), it meant popping some thin plastic clips loose and then bending the new pads around until they popped into their correct slots. Frustrating. With the Audeze LCD-X headphones, it meant peeling the old pad off, picking off the old adhesive with my fingernail, then sticking the new pads onto the earpieces. Fairly easy, but it’s practically impossible to go back to the old pads to make comparisons.
Comfort-wise, the old pads versus the new was a bit of a toss-up for me. The MDR-7506es and Sundaras are already comfortable headphones, and the Dekoni pads, for me, didn’t improve or detract from that. The Audeze LCD-Xes are big, heavy ’phones with somewhat stiff clamping force no matter what pads they’re wearing.
I chose five tracks for testing: Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” (Tracy Chapman, 16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Elektra/Qobuz), Holly Cole’s version of “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” (Night, 16/44.1 FLAC, Universal/Qobuz), Wale’s “LoveHate Thing” (The Gifted, 16/44.1 FLAC, Maybach Music Group / Atlantic / Qobuz), Steve Earle’s “Hillbilly Highway” (Guitar Town, 24/192 FLAC, MCA Nashville / Qobuz), and “IV. Orgy of the Brigands,” from Berlioz: Harold in Italy featuring Pinchas Zukerman with the Orchestre de Paris, Daniel Barenboim conducting (24/96 FLAC, Sony Masterworks / Qobuz).
I quickly realized that it’s very difficult to compare the sound of earpads unless those earpads have a mounting system that makes it easy to switch pads -- which wasn’t the case with any of these headphone models, unfortunately. But I did my best, and I hope the measurements I made will also reveal some interesting differences.
With the HiFiMan Sundaras, the improvement with the Dekoni sheepskin pads was obvious, even though there wasn’t an overt change in tonal balance. With their stock pads, I think the Sundaras are among the best under-$500 headphones available, but with the Dekoni sheepskin pads, they start to sound more like many pricier models. I noticed when playing “Hillbilly Highway” that the sound with the Dekoni pads became more robust and exciting, with a couple dB more bass, better definition of bass notes, and subjectively clearer and more present upper mids and treble. It was one of those rare upgrades that made the bass and the drums and the guitar and the vocals all sound clearer. And these sonic pluses came with no minuses that I could hear.
With the Sony MDR-7506 headphones, the Dekoni Platinum Protein pads improved the sound, but they seemed to affect the tonal balance more. When I listened to Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” the Dekoni pads seemed to boost the midrange a bit, which improved vocal clarity and also took away most of the “cupped hands” coloration this vocal exhibits through many audio systems. With the stock pads, the bass sounded elevated, fatter and a little bloated -- a problem I’ve noted for years in the MDR-7506es -- and the vocals sounded a little more sibilant, but the response seemed flatter than it did with the Dekoni pads from about 300Hz all the way to the top of the audio spectrum.
On Wale’s “LoveHate Thing,” the Dekoni pads improved the sound of the 7506es even more, largely because of better handling of the prominent bass in this hip-hop/R&B tune. With the stock MDR-7506 pads, the bass tended to boom, somewhat obscuring the vocals with a big “whoom” sound that sounded more like 60Hz ground-loop hum than like a bass guitar or synth. The Dekoni pads got this more under control; I could hear the long bass tones more as musical notes.
The Dekoni Choice Suede pads improved the sound of the Audeze LCD-Xes a little versus the stock pads. I thought “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” sounded very good with the stock pads; I could find nothing to complain about except a slight trace of sibilance in the vocals. The definition in the double bass sounded about right, and the piano sounded big but seemed to lack “air,” or a natural sense of reverberance. The Dekoni pads tightened up the bass a bit (although they also seemed to bring it down in the mix by about 1 or 2dB), and they brought the vocals out more while softening them (and thus reducing sibilance) slightly. The piano didn’t seem to have any more air -- I guess that’s a characteristic of the recording -- but it did sound a little bigger, occupying a broader space in the soundstage. I also noticed that the direct sound of the voice seemed to be better distinguished from the artificial reverberance added in the mix. All good stuff.
I did notice, though, that the somewhat better-defined bass that the Dekoni pads brought to the LCD-X headphones made the already thin-sounding Berlioz recording sound a little thinner. Although I liked the little bit of extra clarity these pads brought to the strings, I got less of that big, swelling, thrilling bass sound that anyone who’s attended a few orchestral concerts knows well.
Keep in mind that the improvements I heard might not hold true for different headphones of the same brand -- e.g., I don’t know if what worked so well for the HiFiMan Sundaras will work as well for the HiFiMan HE400i’s.
Because there are so many different Dekoni pads for so many headphones -- and I tried only three, with three headphones -- I can’t make a blanket statement about the company or its products. But in my tests, for my tastes, they made an improvement three out of three times, and that’s pretty good.
If there’s something you don’t like about the sound of your current headphones, and you can roughly identify the frequency range where the problem occurs, the company’s site probably has enough information to guide you toward the right earpads. And while I didn’t have the chance to put any serious mileage on these pads, they all seem well-made and I expect -- especially in the case of the pads for the Sony MDR-7506es -- that they’ll outlast the stock pads.
. . . Brent Butterworth
- DAC-headphone amp -- AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt
- Headphones -- Audeze LCD-X, HiFiMan Sundara, Sony MDR-7506
Dekoni Audio Platinum Protein earpads for Sony MDR-7506
Price: $49.99 USD.
Dekoni Audio Elite Sheepskin earpads for HiFiMan HE series
Price: $79.99 USD.
Dekoni Audio Choice Suede earpads for Audeze LCD series
Price: $59.99 USD.
Warranty: Two years against defects.
Phone: (201) 870-1654