Review, Teardown: Xiaomi (Mi) Headphones (ZBW4189CN)

Xiaomi has impressed me time and again by bringing a variety of quality products in both functionality and design at prices which are extremely affordable. Ever since they introduced their first audiophile grade over-the-ears headphones, dubbed the Mi Headphones, I have always wanted to try them. They are being sold at US$79.99, which is a very reasonable price for quality headphones. They definitely look fashionable, but they also come with interchangeable earpads of both circumaural and supra-aural types which I have never seen before. As a self-confessed mild audiophile, I am open to trying new gear in the hopes that it will impress from an audio performance perspective.

Despite having several opportunities to nominate products for review with several companies, I was never able to obtain a review sample of the Mi Headphones. Even though the price was not high compared to other audiophile grade products, my hopes were high based on the Xiaomi brand, and my curiosity would not let this rest.

Recently, Gearbest had a flash sale where I managed to buy a pair for US$82.59 or AU$124.91 shipped after the currency conversion. It’s a small premium over the Mi Store price, but it is a very reasonable amount to pay given that the global Mi Store does not ship to Australia at this time, and the fact I have some confidence in the authenticity of products supplied by Gearbest as they have formerly also supplied products to me for review.

With that, my curiosity can finally be laid to rest.

Unboxing

20160127-1923-2224The unit came in a white box with a shrink wrap covering. As it was bought from Gearbest, it comes with their stocking label which indicates this was stocked on Christmas Day of 2015, meaning it’s pretty fresh stock.

The box itself is quite large compared with other Mi products, and has the logo in the corner instead of in the center.

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The rear also lists some basic specifications of the product, including a 32 ohm impedance, 50mm Hi-Fi drivers, 1.4m cable, 50mW power handling capability, frequency response of 20-20,000Hz and a weight of 220 grams. This is another product of 1MoreDesign, as was the other Xiaomi branded in-ear products released earlier. Due to the handling, the corners of the box did take a little abuse, but the product inside was kept safe.

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The outer cardboard is merely a sleeve which slides off, revealing a series of inner boxes. The top box has two tabs to allow for easy lifting of the inner box from the outer box.

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Opening the box from the center, we can see that this top box contains the circumaural ear-pads.

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These earpads are covered with a perforated pleather material for better breathing. The earpad itself has relatively soft foam with a moderate depth. The rear of the earpad is attached adhesively to a plastic plate with bayonet connector ring which allows it to be 20160127-1928-2235fitted and removed simply by twisting the earcup. The plastic plate itself is solid enough, but doesn’t feel particularly thick or sturdy. Not pictured above is the cloth material inside the ear-cup, which is marked with a large grey L or R indicating left and right, so that you can easily determine the orientation without looking for small markings on the body of the unit itself.

The next layer down is a fold-out instruction leaflet in Chinese. That being said, there seems not to be much of a need for this as headphones are relatively straightforward devices.

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Removing the manual reveals the bottom layer, with boxes numbered two and three, and the semi-rigid carrying case.

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20160127-1930-2238Box number two contains two supra-aural foam earpads. Having never used foam earpads before, and not having seen them on products other than Grado headphones, it was definitely an interesting option to have. The foam itself has a doughnut or conical profile and feels like the foam you might find used as a microphone windscreen – not very dense but still with a little firmness.

20160127-1931-2240Box number three contains a folded black fabric drawstring pouch, marked with the Mi logo on the front and 1MoreDesign on the rear. This is included so those looking to use the larger earpads have a suitable carry option.

Now we move onto the very nicely finished black semi-rigid carrying case, also emblazoned with both logos. This case has a nice soft-touch textured exterior. It is a zip-up case with a reversed zipper. As supplied, this case is used as additional protection for the headphones themselves and some included accessories.

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Within this bean-shaped case, there is …

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… an area in the top to store accessories, and the headphones themselves at the bottom with supra-aural ventilated pleather pads pre-fitted, and a few adapters included. The three options of earpads should serve to cater for those looking for comfort, mobility and sound quality, and allow users to experiment and determine which they prefer. It also enables the potential for easy replacement should they wear out, provided there is after-sales support in supplying spare parts. Unfortunately because of the design of the top compartment, the earpads on one side are quite compressed and folded when received, and leaving them out for a few hours didn’t allow them to fully recover from the creasing. That was slightly disappointing.

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The accessories included the 1.4m cable, inside a milky grey coloured branded pouch, a 3.5mm to 6.3mm adapter, an aircraft adapter (although not gold plated like the rest) and a desiccant packet to keep everything nice and fresh.

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The cable itself has an interesting construction. It is terminated to a 3.5mm TRRS plug  which suits more modern phones and portable devices, but may not be compatible with some older TRS jacks. The plug itself has a milled metal body with a spring strain relief. The cable itself starts off with braided sleeving and is thicker than that on the Mi In-ear Headphones Pro, resulting in some shape memory. Once it meets the microphone, it exits as two individual plastic-coated wires terminating in two 2.5mm TRS plugs, colour coded for left and right. Technically, TS plugs would be enough, but their choice of TRS may have to do with their suppliers and available component choices. Rubber based strain relief is provided, and the plug bodies are also made of milled metal.

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The microphone itself has a metal body with a golden matte finish. One button is provided for remote control purposes, with CTIA wiring to be compatible with Apple and most Android devices. The build quality of the wire assembly is excellent, although the wires may seem a little thin. The use of detachable cables will ensure that snags won’t drag your headphones to the ground and should allow for easy replacement provided replacement cables are provided. The use of a separate left and right earpiece cable also means that there is no complex headband integrated cable from one side to another which can fail in a pivoting and folding headphone design (as I have experienced before).

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As with many of Xiaomi’s products, milled metal seems to be the order when it comes to exquisite finishes, and this one is no exception. Each of the earcups are made from metal, with finely milled grooves and nicely polished interior edge providing a very distinctive bright shine. The earcups themselves are gold, as well as the accent around the headband.

In the center, a golden metal grille covers the foam-covered semi-open headphone design. In some sense, it seems that the supra-aural shape, the grille and the foam earpads are all reminiscent of Grado headphones, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some design cues were inspired by them.

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The headband is finished in red-stitched pleather with their logo stamped into the band.

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The headband has quite a large adjustment range which should easily cater for larger heads. The earcups swivel and pivot to ensure a comfortable fit. Most impressively is the whole earcups, pivot joint, folding joint and headband extensions are all made from metal which should ensure long term durability – a common weakness of foldable portable headphones made of plastic.

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Rather nicely, the plastic around each of the earcups 2.5mm sockets is colour coded to ensure cable connection is a breeze. The sockets themselves are not positioned at the lowest point, and are actually set slightly backwards.

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Here is how the headphones look when the large circumaural earpads are fitted – to me, it looks a little strange, but they definitely are more comfortable.

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Teardown

Opening these up was not particularly difficult. Once the earcups have been removed by twisting them off, the front of the driver can be seen through a fine grille and an irregularly shaped plastic protection grille.

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Three small black Phillips head screws need to be undone for the cup itself to come out.

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Inside we can see the frame, with some wires at the edge to provide resistance to pivoting. The input socket is PCB mounted and fed by loose wire to the driver. The foam covering the rear grille port can be seen.

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The drivers themselves are not marked from the rear. Some effort seems to have been gone to in terms of tuning, with two end holes exposed, and a central hole partially cut through, and the rest covered by a fibrous tape. This is likely to affect the back-pressure on the driver and be configured this way for acoustic reasons.

Subjective Opinion

When it comes to music, being able to enjoy the recordings as clearly and as balanced as possible is my way of being able to fully experience the music. I realize that everyone’s opinion of how a set of headphones sound can be influenced by a wide variety of factors including their “headphone resume”, the state of their ears, how well the headphone fits their head, how they expect it to sound, and the gear they are using the headphones with. When reading this, please keep this in mind – I can’t say that my opinion is more valid than any others, but it is how I experience the product. If you have any disagreements, please feel free to keep them to yourself – I’m not in the business of debating or starting an online war over subjective opinions.

For reference, I tend to prefer more analytical sound signatures, some may claim to be harsh or too bright with a decent balanced amount of bass. My main reference is now the AudioTechnica ATH-M50x. Here are just some of the more recognizable headphones and earphones I have formerly used and owned, and in some cases, still own:

  • AudioTechnica ANC23, ANC7, ANC7b, ANC9, ATH-A900, ATH-M50x
  • Mi In-ear Headphones Pro
  • Sennheiser CX300-II, CX500, HD212pro, HD215, HD555
  • Sony MDR-10R
  • Technics RP-DJ1210
  • Ultimate Ears 100, 200vi
  • Vsonic R02 Pros

I spent the majority of a week using the headphones as my primary listening device under a range of scenarios. The headphones were driven from a variety of devices including my FiiO X1, Asus Xonar Essence STX, Creative Xtrememusic PCI and Zoom H2n Handy Recorder as a USB DAC.

Fit, Build Quality, Style and Included Accessories

On the whole, I found the physical fit of the Mi Headphones to be quite good. While it is mostly constructed of metal, its weight was not excessive and was very well balanced across the ears. The clamping pressure was adequate – not excessive, nor insufficient to keep them planted on my head during most listening situations. The innovation of interchangeable earcups seems to be a specialty of this model, and the printed letters inside the earcups and colour coded cable sockets make orienting the device very easy. Earcup interchanges were easily accomplished with the bayonet fitting, and the arrow indicating alignment.

However, it does seem to have a bit of an identity crisis when it comes to what it is trying to be. On the one hand, the Mi Headphones are trying to pass themselves off as a Hi-Fi audiophile grade headphone, and the choice of a semi-open design is definitely a step made in the right direction to fulfilling that. But on the other hand, it features a 3.5mm TRRS plug more suited for mobile devices, and comes with a compact folding design and two types of supra-aural pads which are less comfortable and less ideal for audiophile usage which is typically at-home. In addition to that, the 1.4m cable is a little short for home applications where a cable might have to reach from the back of a computer to a chair for example.

So, is it instead trying to be a Hi-Fi headphone for mobile use? I suspect it might be, but sadly, this is hardly an ideal situation. The semi-open design results in a very limited amount of isolation – almost all external noise will be heard and will compete with your music, resulting in the need to turn up the volume. This also applies the other way – other people around you will hear the sound leakage from the headphones and potentially get annoyed. The caveats get a little more complicated when we consider the sonic performance of each of the earpads in the following sections.

The build quality of the device is exquisite as normal, with copious amounts of milled metal and full metal hinge construction which should provide a much better service life. The cable connectors are also extremely solid which is very much a Xiaomi characteristic. Even the included accessories were impressive in number and in quality, with the semi-rigid carry case being specially designed for the headphones featuring a very nice exterior finish, and included carry pouch in case you prefer a larger circumaural earpad configuration.

Where things do get a little inconsistent is with the aircraft adapter which appears to be nickel-plated instead of gold-plated like the other adapters, and the front compartment of the pouch which seems to crush the sides of the earpads when the case is closed. Again, speaking of the semi-open design, despite including an airline adapter with the device, I would not recommend using this on a flight.

The style of the headphones seem to be Grado inspired to some degree, with the grille, circular supra-aural earcups and foam earpad options, however, the design is more striking with the shiny gold finish contrasting with the black pleather headband and earcups, along with the red stitching on the headband. In terms of aesthetics, I think the Mi Headphones are definitely a lot less boring than some of the other options out there.

Experience with Small Pleather Earpads

As these are the earpads that are fitted to the headphones as shipped, I presume these are the primary earpads they expect you to be using. From my listening, it seems that the heritage of 1MoreDesign shows through in the way the unit is tuned. It sounds that the frequency response is tuned to a consumer sound signature with a bass bump, relatively smooth midrange and somewhat rolled off treble. In some senses, it sounds very similar to the Mi In-ear Headphones Pro, minus the nervous frequency response deviations and with a wider but less pronounced bass bump. In some cases, the bass bump does overshadow the midrange entirely, and I find that I have to boost the high treble EQ slider (15khz) by about 2-3dB to achieve a sharp sound signature similar to that of my Audiotechnica M50x.

Rather than list individual songs, I would have to say that on the whole, the rolled off treble is quite noticeable in electronica and chiptunes where square-wave harmonics lose their harsh nature. The rolled off treble also reduces the audibility of most lossy encoding artifacts. The bass bump tends to work quite well with most pop and rock music, and the rolled off treble could be an asset for those who intend to do laid-back listening to avoid listener fatigue from being too bright. However, the bass bump itself can be fatiguing over time with some bass-heavy R&B tracks. Those with younger ears, who prefer a slightly less bright presentation would probably be fine with this, but this style of presentation is hard to claim as audiophile grade.

The soundstage is fairly detailed and well defined. As a semi-open design, it is easier to achieve good clean imaging and frequency response compared with fully closed designs.

Comfort wise, the small pleather pads do feel a little hard on the ears because of the seams and stitching which are on the edge of the faces making contact with your ears. After a few minutes of wearing it, the discomfort generally reduces, but the sealing does not seem to be quite perfect because of the circular shape.

Experience with Large Pleather Earpads

The large pleather earcups seem to have a close, if not indistinguishable sound signature to that of the small pleather earcups – namely a consumer oriented, slight bass bump with more rolled-off treble. The big difference with the large circumaural cups is that of comfort – despite the limited depth of the soft foam used in the earcups, they sealed nicely around my ears and distributed the clamping pressure in a way that was very comfortable. The material itself was also very breathable and comfortable to wear over long periods. It did look a little bit unusual however, seeing the small driver chambers connected to a large earpads.

The earpads themselves appear to be adhesively fastened to the plastic backing with the bayonet connector, meaning replacing the cushions with something else will not be as simple as slipping on a new set as with other headphones on the market.

Experience with Small Foam Earpads

The small foam earpads are arguably the best choice in my opinion. Initially, they felt itchy and were uncomfortable owing to their small contact area on the pinna and earlobe due to the raised conical profile of the earpad, however, after a little bit of wearing them, it seems the foam has slowly softened in the profile of the shape of my ears, relieving the discomfort. The foam itself is fairly breathable, and barring a few minutes of discomfort as the foam adjusts on putting on the headphones, is comfortable enough for extended listening sessions.

The airy foam results in a less perfect seal between the drivers and the ears, which results in more sound leakage and the need to use higher volumes. In return, the bass is more tamed, as it is lost due to the lack of a good seal, resulting in a sound signature which has a lot more treble presence. In fact, with the foam earpads, the sound signature is quite similar to the Audiotechnica M50x’s in the fact that they have sharp treble, making codec imperfections easier to hear. As a result, the sound is much more closer to the Hi-Fi which I expect with very few faults to name – the midrange still remains very smooth and the bass response is still generally sufficient for the most part. Some people may find the bass response is rolled off a little too much resulting in a more tinny sound. This might be remedied by modifying the earpads as other Grado owners have in the past, but as replacements are not available as of yet, I do not recommend it.

However, like velour earpads, foam earpads do pick up a lot of dust and are hard to clean. Another drawback is that foam earpads may not be as longlived as other types of earpads as the foam tends to erode away over time. It seems a little bit of a shame that they didn’t provide this level of sound signature with the more comfortable pleather earpads.

Testing

Unfortunately, as a hobbyist and not a “test lab”, there aren’t many objective tests I can provide. The ones that I can are in relation to the included microphone and the impedance of the headphones.

Microphone

The microphone was tested under the same conditions as the Xiaomi In-ear Headphones Pro with the Zoom H2n Handy Recorder as the recording device. The comparison recording is here.

On the whole, the sound was well received and life-like with some low-level hiss in the background as with the In-ear Headphones Pro. It seemed the bass response of the microphone on the Mi Headphones is a little less, and there is a small dip in response between the 4khz to 5khz region. On the whole, it is very satisfactory for mobile phone/tablet usage.

Headphone Impedance

The headphones claim a 32 ohm impedance. Using the same rig and methodology as the Xiaomi In-Ear Headphones Pro review, the impedance of this unit was measured.

mi-headphones-imp-plot

The Mi Headphones (black line) exhibited a measured impedance varying from about 33.6 ohms to 39.8 ohms. On the whole, the highest peak was in the bass (200Hz) reading, with multiple smaller bumps around 2.5khz, 5khz and 6.2khz. The impedance rises more sharply than the other units towards higher frequencies.

On the whole, this is a good performance as it indicates that some work has been done to tune the chamber so that the resonance peaks are not too strong. The more even impedance will ensure that a variety of devices will have more consistent performance with the headphones, and the impedance being below 40 ohms really makes it suitable for use with the standard outputs from portable devices that have lower voltages. Use of a headphone amplifier is hence not strictly necessary, and may not bring much benefit if used.

Conclusion

The Mi Headphones are another product of 1MoreDesign, and the way the headphones sound very clearly demonstrates their heritage, with a sound signature quite similar to the Mi Headphones Pro with less of the inconsistency. On the whole, the bass is present with a less “steep” bump, the midrange is smooth, and the treble is a little recessed if using the pleather pads.

The Mi Headphones definitely set a high bar when it comes to build quality and style. Copious amounts of metal are used in the construction, including the cups, foldable pivoting hinges, in the microphone and in the connector plugs on the cables. Exquisite detail in the milling are evident, and the included hard carry case and drawstring bag are both high quality inclusions. By far the biggest innovation was the interchangeable ear-pads which allow you to tailor the set to your liking – trading off portability for comfort, and altering the sound signature. The amount of inclusions were very generous of a product at this price point.

On the downside, it seemed the Mi Headphones have a little bit of an identity crisis. It has a compact folding design which seems to allude to a “travel” friendly package for use in mobile situations, however, it features a semi-open design which has poor isolation and easily lets both external noise in, and your music out. This could annoy fellow commuters.

The default small pleather pads give the set a “consumer” sound signature with a bass bump and rolled off treble, but because of the seam and stitching, were not as comfortable as the full sized pleather pads which have a similar sound signature but are more bulky and look a little strange.

By far the most balanced representation was with the foam earpads, which did not have the treble roll-off, but instead lost a little bit of the bass. Unfortunately, while these were most desirable sonically, they were less comfortable due to the supra-aural design and a slight itching from the texture of the foam. These had even less isolation, and were most suitable for home usage, where a better level of comfort may be desired. The short cable was also a slight hindrance to home usage.

As a result, I can’t confidently say that these pair of headphones are in the same league as the other Xiaomi products which were all easily “must-buy” or “sure win” products. If you prefer the consumer-style audio signature with slightly suppressed treble, with smooth mids and a slight bass bump, then this set with the pleather pads fitted would suit you just fine, and on the plus side, you definitely win on the style, build quality and inclusions.

However, if you are looking for a more balanced sound signature, Xiaomi faces stiff competition from other manufacturers at the AU$120 price point, where many “beginner” audiophile grade sets start. While they may not have the build quality and innovative features that the Xiaomi has, they might have more to offer when it comes to balancing comfort and sound quality. All it takes is a little research, as most established audio brands do have products in this price category.

In case you are interested in owning the Mi Headphones, I would recommend purchasing them from the Mi store where possible to ensure that you do get what you pay for. Where that isn’t an option, seek out approved reputable retailers – Gearbest is currently holding a limited-time promotion on headphones.

About lui_gough

I’m a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!

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7 Responses to Review, Teardown: Xiaomi (Mi) Headphones (ZBW4189CN)

  1. matson says:

    Question: is 2.5 mm TRS used strategically in earpiece leads? I mean, does right use Ring while left use Tip? Or is R not connected, or is both R and S common return?

    • lui_gough says:

      Using my trusty multimeter, it was determined that the 2.5mm TRS is wired as follows:
      Tip – Signal +
      Ring – Not Connected
      Sleeve – Ground

      This is a strategic connection in the sense that this avoids the immediate possibility of shorting out the source if the plug is unexpectedly disconnected while the source is still sending a signal. The problem with such phono plugs is that the wipers themselves tend to bridge across the insulating rings when it is inserted or removed, causing the short circuit. By having a “buffer” NC ring, it is less likely that both wipers are bridging across both insulating rings at the same time, reducing the chance of a source-to-ground short circuit. Granted, most headphone outs are short circuit protected nowadays, but it seems possibly deliberate to avoid any possibility of harm to the driving device.

      Thanks for your question.

      – Gough

  2. Raky says:

    This or Meizu hd50?
    Or there is something else that you would recommend up to 150$ (us)?
    By the way, i have read few reviews of yours, and must say that i like them a lot.

    • Raky says:

      Sorry, i did not wrote at first post, i need something just for listening a music from a phone while traveling, walking around… And have been thinking about Bluetooth solutions also, but in that case would give 50$ more, in case it’s worthy. (i know sound quality can’t be as good, but if it is near, i would be happy not to throw away headphones after 2 months, just because a destroyed cable. I know there is headphones thqt can use other cables,but it is easier without them…)

      • lui_gough says:

        The biggest disadvantage of the Mi Headphones is that they are an open design. While this theoretically leads to more natural and balanced sound, the problem is that it will cause sound leakage and allow for the noises from your commuting to disturb your listening pleasure. Because the Meizu HD50 is a closed headphone, it will seal out the noise better and prevent leakage disturbing your fellow commuters – so I think for your needs, it is probably the more preferred option. Of course, if your budget is a little greater, you might be able to afford some active noise cancelling models as well which might offer even better noise isolation. That being said, the Mi does have the upper hand of better comfort and some versatility in its form factor when used at home.

        Of course, you should also consider other options available in the market – Bluetooth headsets can be quite convenient, although sound quality is necessarily compromised by the Bluetooth link, many people do not notice it. However, the Bluetooth options I have tested generally don’t deliver anywhere near as much quality for the price compared with corded headphones, and needing to charge the batteries can be an inconvenience especially if you forget to do it and it runs flat just when you needed it.

        – Gough

        • raky_b says:

          tnx for replay.
          i bought this one, and after some months with them i must say i am very happy that i did that.
          to me sound is great, volume level can be higher, but it is more than ok(i guess part of a love level of volume can be addet to my phone, Mi4i)…

          only thing that i do not like is their microphone.
          While talking throug them, many of my collegs say they have problems with understanding me, and that they hear my steps while walkig better then my voice.
          other than that, they are not quite comfortable for us with glasses, but that’s the thing with all on ear headphones.

          big, big plus is sound isolation…they do not have active noise cancellation, but isolation on them are sooooooooo goood.

          they cant prevent not hearing airplain motor running, but
          many times i did not hear anything around me, while listening music on half volume….and there is no sound leak around, my familly often are supriced when i take them off, and they hear how loud i was listening music, since they did not hear nothin while they ware on my head.

          tnx for review one more time, and i am hoping for new reviews and recommondation 😉

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