Review: Meizu HD50 Hi-Fi On-Ear Headphones

When it comes to portable audio, users are increasingly enjoying their music on-the-go from portable music players and their mobile phones. While some of these products are bundled with included earbuds which seem to serve some people well enough, an increasing number of people are looking to upgrade to something a little better.

The market for Hi-Fi headphones and earphones is quite large, with many traditionally mobile-phone focused companies from China moving into this space. Meizu is one of them, established in 2003 and primarily producing smartphones, they have now entered the audio market with their Meizu HD50 on-ear headphones. With the HD50, they promise quality sound tuned by professionals, metal construction and stringent component testing with high levels of durability, artificial leather with memory foam earpads for greater comfort and low levels of harmonic distortion amongst other features.

This review was made possible thanks to the generosity of Gearbest, who supplied the unit for review and currently sells the Meizu HD50 for AU$87.92 at the time of writing, which puts them in-between the AU$60-70 “base” level and AU$120-150 “entry-mid” level consumer headphones.

Unboxing

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The box came shrink-wrapped, with a Gearbest stocking label indicating extremely fresh stock dated 16th January. The box itself was sealed with meizu.com transparent labels, and has a plastic hanger tag.

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20160203-1924-2331 20160203-1924-2332The box itself is configured as a nice full-colour display box for retail, and comes with selective glossy sections over the headphones on the front and back. The front shows the product itself, whereas the rear has several basic specifications and a frequency response graph. Even the sides look like headphones, which is a neat touch.

Basic specifications include a 32 ohm impedance, 220 gram weight, 100mW power-handling capability, 40mm diameter drivers, a frequency response of 20-20,000Hz and a 1.2m cable made of TPE plastic. Interestingly, a look at the frequency response seems to show a slight dip in the 8-10khz region, and response falling off by about 16khz which seems to be at odds with the specifications listed.

The box opens up by lifting the lid off the base. Then, you are greeted with a translucent plastic cover, with their motto.

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It’s another nice touch, but not strictly necessary. I suspect it is a marketing tactic to try and sell the story and inspiration in addition to the product. Once that is out of the way, we are left with the case itself which claims to be waterproof, and a Chinese manual in a plastic sleeve.

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The case itself is a bespoke design for this set of headphones, with its own model “tag” and custom zip. It’s is rare to find such accessories bundled with lower-end products, but Meizu doesn’t seem to have skimped at all.

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Folding open the case, we see that there are netted compartments at the top to store thin material (e.g. a tiny music player or a few sheets of paper).

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The bottom compartment houses the headphones in their folded configuration, the cable with included remote and microphone, a velcro tie, an aircraft adapter and a 6.3mm adapter.

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The adapters themselves are gold plated, and the cable itself comes neatly wrapped in plastic.

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The cable itself has rubber strain reliefs and a sand-blasted metal finished body. The actual plugs themselves are nickel plated rather than gold-plated which seems unusual where gold-plated adapters are supplied. The device end has a TRRS connector, suited for more modern devices including iPhones and Android phones with a CTIA wiring layout. The headphone end is also detachable, which prevents cable snags from damaging the cable and has red insulators.

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The remote itself has three buttons, which have a deep profile making them easier to identify by touch. The remote itself is fairly chunky and is not a one-piece construction with a visible seam around the rear panel. No strain relief is provided on either side of the remote.

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Now we move onto the main attraction, namely the headphones themselves, pictured above in the unfolded but swivelled configuration. The headphones have a relatively classy two-tone style finish, contrasting aluminium with black pleather. The headband itself can be seen to extend all the way around, and is rather plush with regular foam which improves comfort.

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Black stitching is used on the headband to blend in, and the top is marked with the brand name.

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Each earcup features the Meizu branding off-centre, with a fine concentric-ring finish, surrounded by a chrome ring and body with sandblasted finish. The branding is somewhat understated, which is nice. A distinguishing feature seems to be their hinge which only connects to the earcup at one joint.

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The headband itself is extensible, allowing for larger heads to be accommodated. The joint itself lengthens-and-contracts, swivels, and pivots for multiple degrees of freedom to ensure a good fit.

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The earcups themselves have a closed design, and have relatively well-fitted supra-aural memory foam based earpads with a very soft artificial leather surface. I like the somewhat deep shape and memory foam which ensures comfort, and the texture is also quite nice. The surface facing the ear has no stitching which also ensures comfort. However, the pleather used does have a slight plastic smell which fades over time.

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Unlike most headphones, the cable joins the headset on the right side. This may or may not be beneficial depending on your pocket habits, as the cable may now be crossing across your body and with its slightly shorter 1.2m length, may make it easier for it to be tugged. The jack itself is coloured red to match the red plastic insulator rings on the cable.

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As a nice touch, the inside fabric of each earcup is printed with L and R to help distinguish the orientation of the headphones.

Subjective Opinion

What follows are my subjective opinion in regards to the Meizu HD50. I will preface this section with the usual disclaimer that my opinion may differ from others, due to reasons such as having different shaped ears, ears in different conditions, placement of the headphones on the head, experience and expectations of how things should sound based on their headphone resume, different driving device amongst others. I have quite a reasonable headphone resume which you can find in some of my other reviews. I generally prefer a sharper sound signature, with my main reference being the Audiotechnica ATH-M50x which some describe as analytical, and sometimes a little bright.

Sound Quality

On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised with the sound quality from the Meizu HD50 especially given its price and closed earcup construction. The sound signature of the HD50 does have a consumer flavour to it, with a slight bass bump. The bass bump is relatively even and spans a range of frequencies, so it isn’t just boomy, but even better is that the bass bump is relatively muted compared to others meaning less listener fatigue and a more neutral sound expression. The slight bass bump does work to cut through the background noise in commuting, but doesn’t overshadow the other frequencies in ways like the Mi Headphones with pleather pads does.

Unlike other consumer-tuned headphones, these ones manage to turn out a surprisingly decent performance treble-wise. The upper treble doesn’t lose its sparkle, and adds a nice sharpness to the music, if a little muted compared to the M50x. Its presence really makes instruments sound livelier. The lower treble does¬†fall apart a little and sounds a little recessed if not, even a little hollow. This inconsistency in frequency response is probably what distinguishes this from a much more expensive set of headphones. As a result, the treble doesn’t seem overly bright as to cause listener fatigue, but its presence is a much welcome change.

The midrange was generally quite smooth, although at times, some parts had a slight veiling or muffling. I’m not sure if that was slight resonance or something but it did make some male voices sound a little more barky. That being said, it was still very satisfying in the mid-range.

On the whole, I would have to say that this sound signature is much more preferable to some of the bass-head oriented and bassy options out there, and tries to offer a much more balanced sound without losing a little of the punchy character of the bass. The treble presence is very much a highlight and works well with electronica, whereas the smooth midrange and slightly bumped bass works well with pop and dance music. It is very much suited for casual listening on-the-go with its portable form factor and definitely compares well with entry-level audiophile headphones in the more expensive AU$120-150 range.

Fit and Finish, and Included Accessories

I have mentioned some points in the unboxing chapter in regards to this, but it probably is worth mentioning it again. On the whole, the finish of the headphones is quite exquisite. The construction of the earcups and the hinge uses fused metal construction with a very unique hinge design, which should ensure durability. One small concern is the use of a cable across the joints to hook up the left earcup to the cable coming into the right, which could wear over time. Even the remote and plugs on the cable have metal bodies which should ensure a good service life.

The pleather material used on the headband and earpads does have a slight plastic smell, but both are extremely soft to the touch and feel wonderful. The headband has regular foam, with the earpads having memory foam which definitely helps relieve the pressure and produce a good seal. With the closed construction of the headphones, a moderate amount of isolation to external noise can be achieved. It is comfortable for long term listening even though the ears do get slightly warm due to the supra-aural arrangement. I am especially thankful that the pads themselves have no stitching on the ear-facing side which promotes better comfort.

The headband itself is a little loose. It seems the clamping pressure is moderate to low with this set, and even with my larger-than-normal head, I find that using it at its smallest size, or two notches open, are the only options for me. At the smallest size, it is comfortable, but I have a persistent fear that the headphones may slip off my head if I get too engaged with the music and start moving my head. At the larger size, the headphones do move at the slightest tug of the cable. As a result, I think it might not be suited to those with particularly small heads.

The headphones themselves weigh 220 grams, which is a fairly average weight. They seemed to have relatively good balance on the head, although maybe a little more top heavy than some others owing to the thicker headband which may not help with keeping it firmly planted. They did not feel particularly heavy or fatiguing to wear.

The colour scheme of black and silver itself is rather elegant and mostly restrained. While the branding is on everything, it is well moderated and discreet.

It is nice to have a bespoke case included, although I couldn’t help but think it could be slightly more rigid for better protection. It is only vaguely-semi-rigid at this stage, and can be partially crushed in an over-filled travel bag. The other thing is that it probably isn’t as compact as it could be with its rectangular shape. I wasn’t willing to test their claims that the case is “waterproof”, but I suspect it might just be more water-resistant.

The included airline and 6.3mm adapters are a nice touch, although the gold plating does contrast with the nickel plated plugs on the cable. It would be nice to see gold-plating used consistently throughout. Furthermore, the included cable is just 1.2m long, which could be a bit short for home or computer uses – including a second, longer, possibly even remote-free cable would be nice to have.

Given the price, the inclusions and the finish are much better than I had expected and highly commendable.

Testing

As I am a hobbyist, and not a test lab, getting some objective results is quite difficult. What follows are tests of the microphone and headphone impedance which are more objective tests.

Microphone

The microphone integrated in the remote on the Meizu HD50 sits quite close to the face towards the right side. The remote itself has three buttons, and is suited for use with Android and iOS devices with CTIA wiring layout.

The testing of the microphone seems to show that the microphone has a fairly quiet background, with smooth midrange and bass emphasis, and a little less treble than others. It is sensitive enough, although marginally less sensitive than some others tested.

Headphone Impedance

The Meizu HD50 claims a 32 ohm impedance suitable for use with portable devices. In testing, it was seen to be about 37 ohms, which is very close.

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The impedance profile over frequency is more flat than some of the others, with slight peaks near 1khz, 3khz and 5.5khz, and a smaller one about 14.75khz. These very small peaks suggest that considerable effort was made in designing the chamber to avoid resonances which may alter the frequency response of the unit and is a good result overall. It also suggests that most portable devices will have no problems driving this unit to acceptable volumes and that the use of a headphone amplifier is unlikely to provide any significant benefits.

Conclusion

It is especially heartening to see the audacity of these Chinese companies in actively breaking into new markets and giving consumers more good-value choices. It is even more encouraging when you realize that, behind all the improved marketing blurbs actually lies some real substance and expertise. They realize that consumers are getting more discerning and actually demand a certain level of quality.

In the case of the Meizu HD50, it definitely satisfies in more ways than one. As a package, it is well-presented, and relatively complete with a nice carry case and even a velcro cable-tie. The headphones themselves deliver on the promise of quality construction with metal used throughout the folding hinge mechanism, earband and earcups. The artificial leather pads feel soft and the memory foam helps to relieve the pressure on the ears and achieve a good seal. Irritation was no issue on extended listening, although the ears did get a little warm. Even the cable is well constructed with metal plugs and a mostly metal remote. As it seems to target the “mobile” user, the choice of a closed headphone design is quite appropriate.

Sonically speaking, the “consumer” sound signature is here, but it is more muted than in others resulting in a more balanced presentation and less listener fatigue. The bass bump is very controlled and very acceptable, and treble presence is quite good for a headphone of this size and price-range. There is a little bit of hollowness in the low-treble, and a small part of the midrange seems to have a slight veil, but it does sound quite acceptable. It might not have the crispness of the Mi Headphones when using the foam-earpads, but it is both sonically and ergonomically preferable to the Mi Headphones when using the small supra-aural pads. This is quite impressive especially when considering its closed design.

There are some areas where improvements could be made. The headband, for example, seems to prioritise comfort over clamping force, resulting in a moderate likelihood of the unit slipping off your head if you are being particularly active. The headband also seems to be set for people with larger heads – I was using it at the smallest size adjustment notch, which was particularly unusual. The shorter cable length, and the lack of gold plating probably doesn’t suit “at home” use as much.

However, these criticisms are relatively small, and for the price, the Meizu easily delivers performance comparable to the entry-mid AU$120-level with a better set of accessories and better durability for less than the competition.

Those who are interested can purchase the Meizu HD50 from Gearbest.

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Project: Make a Netcomm RoadsterII USB Modem work in Windows 7 x64

Over the weekend, I had some hankering to get some voice-band dial-up modem action happening just for curiosity sake. I stumbled across my pair of old-reliable Netcomm Roadster II USB V.90 56k modems which seemed like good candidates for an easy set-up, not needing a power adapter and all.

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The modems were model number AM5050 R3 and was made by Netcomm Australia, who have since changed to become Netcomm Wireless and no longer offer support for any of their older products. In fact, this product seemed to be a rush job in adapting their regular serial-based Roadster II that it retains the “Power Requirements: 7.5v DC 450mA” line which is not true for this model, and retains the case moulding cut-outs for DB9 serial (technically DE9) and 2.1mm DC barrel jack.

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The modem itself dates back to about 1999, and was a full-speed USB device. the other modem of my pair had a case so damaged that I just operate it “bare PCB”, hence the dust accumulation, but at least you can see what it’s made of.

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As we can see from the PCB, it is a Sirius product internally. Regardless, the last drivers available seem to be for Windows XP, and was archived by a member on Whirlpool. I had a copy of them myself. Knowing this modem is a USB-CDC device, I thought it would install just fine in Windows 7 x64 …

problem-driver… but alas, it wasn’t to be. Short searches online about this model didn’t give me hope, but I decided that it should work and there is no reason for it not to!

Getting Around It

Another device I know that is USB-CDC is the humble Arduino Leonardo. Looking at the .inf files gave me a clue – where it relies on usbser.sys, it is relying on Windows’ inbuilt USB-Serial CDC driver.

Another clue was this article by Portlandia Cloud Services which describes getting serial dial-up modems to work in Windows 7 – namely, .inf changes to allow for recognition as x64 capable drivers.

As a result, I set to work and made some changes to the inf – namely the highlighted lines were added (first one not entirely necessary):

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As it turns out, that was all there was to it – just those lousy lines and bingo! After accepting a stern warning that the driver is not signed, it installed and its working!

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This was mainly because the modem itself was USB-CDC compliant, meaning that the generic Windows-bundled x64 capable driver could be loaded in place to support the modem. The .inf changes were just to make Windows accept the configuration as compatible with x64.

It’s interesting to think that the vendor’s lack of support and updated drivers may have led to many perfectly good premium modems getting shelved because they couldn’t work with anything more modern than Windows XP.

Those who want to give it a shot can downloaded the modified .inf file as a .zip file.

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Repair: Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9 Noise-Cancelling Headphone Ear Cushions

For someone who travels a lot on public transport, having a good set of noise cancelling headphones is indispensable for making the trip a lot more enjoyable and stress free. By shutting out the external noise with passive cancellation, and actively generating phase-reversed waves to cancel the lower frequencies which can make it through, they achieve a much quieter noise floor which allows you to enjoy your audio more clearly and at lower volumes which reduces hearing damage and listener fatigue.

Noise cancelling headphones have been falling in price rather rapidly, however, have always carried a premium price-tag. To some extent, many people are happy with the isolation with in-ear monitors, making noise cancelling headphones a less popular option for travellers as they are bulky and require batteries. However, as I often get irritation after long-term use of in-ear monitors, and I really prefer the sound of an over-the-head headphone, I have stuck with the cans.

My Noise-Cancelling Quest

My first set was the Audio-Technica ANC7’s, which I was very happy with as it offered comparable performance to the other options, namely the Bose QuietComfort series, for about half the price. The one down-fall was its sensitivity to RF, namely that of mobile phones which would modulate the audio. The unit lasted me almost four years, when one microphone/driver had failed resulting in crackles and occasional loud squeaks.

I soon replaced that with the Audio-Technica ANC7b, which was an upgraded version with new looks and improved RF immunity. Unfortunately for me, this unit didn’t survive as well taking just two and a half years, with rattling on the swivel battery cover mechanism and periodic loss of audio from one side due to a failing mechanical change-over switch. Right at the end, I also got some strange squeals which had me fearing for ear damage.

Around the time I bought the 7b, Audio-Technica also launched their flagship ANC9 which I attended a store in Sydney at their launch to audition a set. They sounded slightly different, slightly more bassy, and slightly more detailed on the treble with a bit of a “hollow” in the midrange. The noise cancelling was improved, and the three-mode cancellation allows for some optimization of the background hiss to noise cancelling efficiency.

I eventually replaced the failed ANC7b with an ANC9, only to have that one fail quite badly with total loss of one driver and RMA hassles with the grey importer. The second set I received has a bit of an imbalance on the right side, but I’d rather live with that than to return it and go through the hassle again.

In all, it seems that quality is no longer a strong point of Audio-Technica’s ANC-series. Unit after unit seems to live for fewer and fewer years, first approaching the warranty and then failing within warranty even though my usage had not changed. I’m gentle with my devices, always using the included carry cases, but it seems the quest to improve profits and reduce costs has led to a reduction in quality. When my last commuting unit fails, I’m not sure I will be replacing it with another A-T product.

A New Failure Mode

While my previous units have generally failed electronically, my ANC9 is beginning to show signs of physical failure on the ear cushions.

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As supplied, and in good condition, the inside edge of the ear cushion has a seam which is held together without stitches. As the cushions themselves are filled with memory foam pushing outwards, the seams are always under stress.

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It seems the seams themselves may have been welded together by heat, or maybe with some adhesive, but this arrangement doesn’t last. The overlap is a few millimeters, but after some time, it starts to spread apart. At the first sign of foam, it only takes a few uses for the seam to start seriously unraveling around the inner circumference.

Most people might see a failure like this, and their instinct is to replace the earpads entirely, it isn’t as simple as that for me. For one thing, if you do a cursory search online, the earpads on offer can be as cheap as AU$10 for a set, but they are not original. This will affect the quality of the sound, and also the comfort. Part of the specialty of the ANC9 cushions are the use of memory foam which is somewhat compliant and forms a good seal, evening out the pressure on your ears, and making it a comfortable seal. A listing which looks vaguely genuine seems to go for AU$90, which makes it a good slice of the price for a new set – seeing as this has done some miles, something else might fail, so economically it might make sense to dispose of it and replace it with something new. Sadly, this is terrible for the environment so instead, I decided to repair it.

The (Sticky) Repair

Before anyone goes and says “well that was damn obvious“, I’ll pre-face this part with a few qualifying sentences. Of course, I’m not someone who invented super-glue, and I’m not the first guy to come around and repair something, but I have actually repaired my ANC9 about half a year ago, and have again come around to needing repairs, so I have developed some techniques which you might find useful.

What you will need for the repair is a super glue bottle with a nice fine tip, and some fingernails. A bottle of acetone to remove excess superglue on fingers might be advisable, but not essential.

The key with the cushion repair is to do it as soon as possible as it starts unraveling. If it unravels more than half-way, you will find that repair is more challenging in terms of maintaining alignment between the inner and outer facing material, and you might get ripples turning up in your material.

Begin by securing the edge of the unraveled section.

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In the case of the earcup above, there is a section to the right which is under risk, but the open section is near the middle of the image. I applied super glue to the seam near where it is still closed.

The next step is to use your nails to pinch together the front and back cushions where the seam is. It helps to first squeeze together hard so that the memory foam compresses and takes its compressed form, then re-squeeze to make sure the glue spreads down the seam and takes a good hold.

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Repeat that for the edge of the seam at the other side, thus temporarily containing the possibility of further unraveling. The next step is to start compressing the visible foam by squeezing or pushing it in with your fingers, so as to reduce its volume to allow the seams to be glued together.

I generally go around and “stick” together portions about a finger width apart to smooth out alignment issues, ending up with something that looks like this:

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Once you have it resembling what it should look like, it’s simple to put some glue in the segments in between, and squeeze to produce a nice glued seam.

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It may not be as pretty as the original, but don’t be too concerned as the inner edge is unlikely to contact your ears or irritate it. In my case, there was a little too much glue, which results in the visible residue because I “pinched” the surfaces together for a short while, and then let them part to their “natural” orientation. You should let the glue set completely before wearing it to avoid any potentially embarrassing incidents.

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Here is an example of the repair on the other ear-cup that I made about half a year ago but never decided to document at the time.

What you will find is that over time, the original sections which haven’t been glued will begin to unravel, and I think it’s wisest to repair those sections as they unravel, rather than trying to tear it apart and repair it all in one go. By repairing small sections, the shape of the earpad is maintained and problems with the material surface separating from the rear (e.g. when you peel it apart) are avoided.

Conclusion

While I can’t say I’m impressed with the quality of the later Audio-Technica ANC products, I do advocate the use of quality noise cancelling headphones as essential travel gear. While my ANC9 has given me trouble of an electronic nature, it seems that even their physical build is beginning to fail.

That being said, outright replacement of ear cushions is the suboptimal result, because many of the replacements are not genuine, can change the character of the sound, and are not as comfortable owing to the use of regular foam as opposed to memory foam. Genuine replacements are expensive, making them less economically sensible.

As a result, I would advise that users should try to repair it themselves, especially when outside of warranty, as it’s a simple and cheap fix which seems to hold well.

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