Originally published on SoundStage! Xperience
Acoustic Research AR-H1 headphones measurements can be found by clicking this link.
The AR-H1 headphones are the last thing I expected from Acoustic Research. Audiophiles know AR as the pioneer of the acoustic-suspension loudspeaker, in 1952, and as the builder of widely varying yet generally quite good speakers created in the 1990s by teams that included such audio luminaries as NHT cofounders Chris Byrne and Ken Kantor, Infinity cofounder and current Artison CEO Cary Christie, and current James Loudspeaker CTO Mike Park. But for the last 15 years or so the AR brand has been applied mostly to accessories, such as inexpensive cables and Bluetooth speakers -- in fact, AR is currently owned by Voxx Accessories Corp. While it’s puzzling to see this once-revered, now-trashed brand name suddenly applied to high-end, planar-magnetic headphones, I have to admit that it gives me a bit of a warm feeling inside.
You probably won’t find the AR-H1s ($599.99 USD) at the mass-market outlets where most AR-branded products are sold, but when I first encountered them, among the generally pricey offerings at Munich’s High End 2017, they looked right at home. Like many of the best audiophile headphones, the AR-H1s use planar-magnetic drivers -- basically, thin diaphragms of Mylar overlaid with a voice coil and suspended between magnetized plates. Planars are known for delicate, spacious sound -- and, as AR’s website notes, their flat impedance curve makes them less sensitive to variations in amplifier output impedance. Thus, the sound of planar-magnetic headphones will be more consistent as you switch between using them with a high-quality headphone amp and plugged into your smartphone.
The design of the AR-H1s is loosely similar to that of Oppo Digital’s PM-1 and PM-2, two other well-regarded, open-back, planar-magnetic models with rectangular earpieces. The AR-H1s’ earpieces are about 30% larger, though, and don’t fold flat for easy packing into a computer case, as the Oppos do. Not that any open-back headphone is a great choice for portable use -- their design permits sound from all around the listener to leak in, and the music to leak out into public space -- but the AR-H1s’ design definitely makes them a product for use in the home.
Of course, no one associated with the fabled AR products of the past had anything to do with the creation of the AR-H1s, and it would be the height of folly to draw any conclusions about this product based on its brand name. Guess I’ll have to listen . . .
In the box
Surprisingly for a brand now best known for accessories, the AR-H1s include few: just a thin drawstring carrying bag of pseudo-suede; a detachable, 3.9’ (1.2m) cable with a 3.5mm stereo plug on the source end and a 2.5mm mono plug for each earpiece; and a 3.5mm-to-1/4” adapter.
I’ve already established that the AR-H1s aren’t a practical choice for portable use. But for home use -- e.g., long, relaxed listening sessions -- they’re quite nice. The earpads, to me, felt just right: soft but not mushy or itchy, and big enough to fit entirely over my outer ears. Though not super-light, the AR-H1s aren’t heavy enough that their weight would likely bother anyone.
My one complaint regarding comfort is that the clamping force of the ARs’ headband is a bit too strong for my taste; then again, my hat size is XXL 7-3/4 -- for almost all other humans, the fit won’t be as tight. And fortunately, the headband is a single piece of sheet metal -- I was able to gently bend it to reduce the clamping force to a more comfortable level.
While the AR-H1s’ sensitivity is specified as a fairly high 100dB, my Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphone was only just able to drive them to enjoyable volumes. If you use a headphone amp, a receiver, or an Apple iOS product, they’ll play plenty loud enough.
My favorite recording of 2017, jazz tenor saxophonist Camille Thurman’s Inside the Moment (16-bit/44.1kHz WAV, Chesky), is just the kind of thing you’d want to listen to through a pair of big, open-back headphones: an intimate recording with minimal audio processing, lots of dynamic range, and a realistic sense of the small club in which the recording was made. The best headphones make Inside the Moment sound a little spooky, as if you really were sitting dead-center in front of the Rockwood Music Hall’s stage (as the binaural dummy-head microphone Chesky used probably was). The little slams and knocks of people moving around the club can sound realistic enough to make me think someone’s in my house with me. That’s just the effect I heard with the AR-H1s -- I kept thinking someone was at my door or in the next room.
Of course, what matters is not bumps and burps but the sound of the music, and at that the AR-H1s excelled. I loved their portrayal of Thurman’s voice and finger snaps in Ray Noble’s “Cherokee,” and the way they precisely tracked her slight side-to-side movements around the mike. Even better was the reproduction of Ben Allison’s unamplified (I assume) double bass, which sounded wonderfully even from note to note, and exactly as full as a good, well-played double bass should sound. I could hear little details such as Allison’s clothes rustling against the body of the bass, but the AR-H1s didn’t highlight these details or make them distracting.
I did note, at first, what seemed like a slight over-emphasis in the mid-treble at around 4 or 5kHz, which made voices seem slightly brighter and cymbals a little more prominent in the mix. However, after my first few hours of listening to the AR-H1s, I became accustomed to it and couldn’t hear it even when I tried to. (I gave the AR-H1s about 20 hours of break-in before I listened to them.)
“Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Axe),” from Texas metal quintet Power Trip’s Nightmare Logic (VBR MP3, Southern Lord/Bandcamp), is not, I imagine, what most buyers of open-back audiophile headphones would listen to in their living-room lounge chair -- but in my opinion, great headphones should sound good with all kinds of music. Power Trip blends the energy of Metallica and Anthrax with the sonic density of more recent metal bands; to me, they sound kind of like the most kick-ass pink noise I ever heard. Surprisingly, the AR-H1s sounded as comfortable with “Executioner’s Tax” as they did with Thurman’s cover of “Cherokee.” With the headphones driven by the abundant power of my Audio-gd NFB1-AMP amplifier, the balance of bass to mids to treble seemed perfectly even, and even at very loud levels the ARs never sounded harsh, stressed, or distorted.
In comparison, the Oppo Digital PM-2s ($699) brought out a little more detail in the treble, which made Power Trip’s guitars sound slightly edgier, but there was also a subtle sizzle in the PM-2s’ treble -- something I very often hear in headphones (usually to a much larger degree), but didn’t hear in the AR-H1s. Here I had a slight preference for the AR-H1s, but it was pretty much a toss-up. I also compared the AR-H1s with HiFiMan’s HE400i’s ($449, often available for around $250); I like the HE400i’s a lot for their price, but compared with the AR-H1s and PM-2s they sounded a little bloated in the bass and recessed in the mids.
Those are all planar-magnetic models. I also tried Beyerdynamic’s Amiron Homes ($599), which have dynamic drivers, but they lacked midrange detail and presence compared with the ARs and Oppos. But these are all very good headphones -- which you’ll prefer will depend on your tastes in music and sound; I wouldn’t fault you for choosing any of them.
The comparison held up when I returned to more audiophile-friendly fare, such as “Without a Song,” from jazz singer Joe Williams’s At Newport ’63 (320kbps Ogg Vorbis, RCA Victor/Spotify). I thought the AR-H1s captured Williams’s ultra-distinct enunciation as well as his wonderfully mellow tone; the sound had that classic, detailed-yet-warm feel of the best jazz recordings of the late 1950s and early ’60s. The AR-H1s’ closest competitor, the Oppo PM-2s, had a very similar sound, with a little more bloat in the bass but a touch more vividness in the voice.
Listening through the AR-H1s to “Ball and Chain,” from Amber Rubarth’s Scribbled Folk Symphonies (320kbps Ogg Vorbis, Chesky/Spotify), is the kind of experience that got me into being an audiophile. Another Chesky binaural recording, this one was made in a much larger space than Thurman’s album, with Rubarth and a male singer, Jeff Taylor, accompanied by acoustic guitar and a small string section. Once again, the AR-H1s brought out all the details without ever giving me the feeling that they were exaggerating those details for effect, as too many audiophile-oriented headphones do. I could clearly hear the bodies of the stringed instruments (cello and viola, I think) resonating, and the voices sounded utterly uncolored and natural.
I enjoy a lot of the headphones I review, but it’s the rare pair that sounds neutral and natural enough for me to grab them for relaxed listening. Acoustic Research’s AR-H1s rank among that elite group. What I love about them is that there’s nothing spectacular or exaggerated about their sound -- just as there’s nothing spectacular or exaggerated about the sound of a great violin, tenor saxophone, or singer. If you want something spectacular, that’s fine -- but if you want headphones you can enjoy day after day with all kinds of music, I strongly recommend the AR-H1s.
. . . Brent Butterworth
- Sources -- Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphone, Apple iPod Touch (sixth generation), Musical Fidelity V90-DAC digital-to-analog converter
- Headphone amp -- Audio-gd NFB1-AMP
Acoustic Research AR-H1 Headphones
Price: $599.99 USD.
Warranty: One year repair or replacement.
Voxx Accessories Corp.
3502 Woodview Trace
Indianapolis, IN 46268
Phone: (844) 353-1307