Technics T700 review: heart says yes, ears say no

Thursday, 15 June 2017, 05:04:14 PM. It’s hard to admit you are wrong, especially on the internet where any mistake gets deluged so quickly by the next thing to read, watch, or otherwise consume. But I have to confess my folly in e...

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Technics isn’t as widely recognized a Japanese brand as Sony, but for those who know it, it carries a lot of fond memories of high-end audio equipment. It’s for that reason that the brand was revived by Panasonic a couple of years ago, primarily to serve as the glorious label on a new line of throwback turntables. But in among them, the company managed to fit in a very premium (and promising) pair of headphones, which it called the EAH-T700 and unveiled for the first time at IFA 2015. By the spring of this year, the T700s were out on sale and I had a review pair in my possession.

Some truly impressive engineering has been poured into these aluminum and leather cans

On my first encounter with the T700s at CES, I was wowed by the clarity, detail, and impact of the music produced by them. Carved out of solid aluminum, padded out with leather-clad memory foam, and featuring not one but two speakers per ear cup, these were instantly impressive headphones. A little over-engineered, perhaps, what with their diversity of adjustments — the headband can be adjusted forward and back as well as up and down — but they certainly conveyed the sense of something befitting their price. I wasn’t aware of their cost when I first tried them, which served to reinforce my conviction that I wasn’t just interpreting a high price to mean high performance.

But.

The trouble with the T700s is not something you can easily detect on first, or even second, listen. They really do have great precision and Panasonic’s claims about a resonance-dampened construction that eliminates distortion stand up to close scrutiny. But these headphones’ frequency response is all kinds of weird — and that weirdness is rarely of the pleasant kind. They don’t have subsonic bass extension like, for example, the Fostex TH-X00s, but they do have a bass bump. Listening to episodes of Game of Thrones, every male character has a deeper voice than he should, and thin and rickety doors slam with the aural heft of a giant gate. That’s where I favor these Technics cans: their added emphasis on thumps, thuds, and masculine roars enhances the atmosphere of the TV show and lends itself well to action movies, too.

I’m not going to pretend to be able to detect something as precise as, say, a peak in the frequency graph at 5kHz, but beside their exaggerated upper bass and lower mids, the Technics T700s also have overly strident response in the treble region. Those are not necessarily bad features, as Beats headphones have made abundantly clear with their tuning — which, while not particularly faithful or linear when drawn as a graph, is exceedingly pleasing to the ear. But in the case of the T700s, the particular spots where the headphones diverge from a neutral reproduction of the sound are mostly unpleasant when trying to enjoy music. It’s basically like a finely crafted plate of fine dining where the flavors are all wrong.

There’s a part of me that still really wants to like the T700s. They represent so much obvious effort, meticulous attention to detail, and engineering expertise that it feels a waste not to celebrate them. But their tuning is hard, maybe even impossible, to love. A good pair of headphones picks up the subtle beauties of music and brings them a little bit closer, makes them a little more tangible for the listener. The T700s have none of that refined discernment and just throw music at you with weird irregularities that diminish rather than amplify the joy of music.

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While initially comfortable and neatly isolating of external noise, the Technics T700 also have an issue in their fit. Pressure begins to build up at the top of my head after I wear them for longer than an hour, and on a warm day my ears begin to heat up inside those leather pads within half an hour. Once again, full marks for effort and for quality of finishing, but much room for improvement left in terms of efficacy and long-term comfort.

I feel like the Technics T700s would have benefited greatly from heeding the feedback of someone wearing these headphones for extended periods of time. They feel like they were designed in a lab, matching up to some cold and clinical metrics about proper response and material composition instead of what people actually want and prefer.

Some of my favorite headphones of this year were produced by MrSpeakers, a company that prides itself on not taking measurements too seriously and trusting human testing — of both sound and comfort — over abstract quantification. On its website, MrSpeakers lists only the pithy "yes" next to "frequency response." In the case of the Technics T700, I’d just put "no" in the same box, and hope that Technics comes back stronger next year.

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