The scorching-hot headphone market continues to welcome everyone from traditional electronics manufacturers to loudspeaker companies to cabling and even furniture makers. So here comes Velodyne, a company renowned for its subwoofers, to join the fray with a handful of headphone options. I spent some time donning the company’s vTrue Studio Headphones and vFree On-Ear Bluetooth Headphones.
These two models represent the top half of Velodyne’s offerings, at $299 for the vFree and $399 for the vTrue, with pricing that seems consistent for their spots in the market. Velodyne also has the vLeve On-Ear model, which looks similar to the vFree but without the Bluetooth for $199 as well as the vPulse in-ear headphones for just $99. There’s a bit of something at every level of headphone listener, whether it’s an upgraded performance over whatever earbuds were included in their mobile devices, untethering yourself from such Bluetooth-compatible devices, or have an audiophile-type experience where you can sit back and let the music overtake you.
Let’s start with the vTrue, which to the latter’s point, delivers on its aim and performance expectations. These are high-quality, well-constructed personal loudspeakers that extract major levels of musicality and detail from compressed MP3s to high-resolution 24-bit files.
In terms of specs, the vTrue features 50-mm drivers that Velodyne rates with a frequency response of 10 Hz to 20 kHz and 96dB sensitivity. It comes with two 4-foot braided cloth cables, one of which incorporates a control module for adjusting volume, skipping songs and such from your mobile devices, and the blue matches the inner-cup mesh covering the drivers. The overall design is a beautiful combination of rich brown leather and forged aluminum that, like the performance qualities, is on par for what you’d expect at this price level.
As “studio” headphones, the vTrue is meant for doing some serious listening sessions, whether you’re actually in the recording industry or simply plugging in at home (you can use the stereo adapter to connect to your home audio system components). That’s the preface to the one aspect I didn’t like about the headphones, which is that they felt too big and heavy on my head. On the one hand, I loved that slipping on the leather-laden headphones felt a bit like slipping into the front seat of a Jaguar, but at about 16 ounces (the website lists 10.6, but weighing them on my own scale confirmed that maybe the 0 and 6 were transposed) they did seem hefty and I preferred longer listening sessions with the lighter vFrees. The braided cloth cable is a nice detail that I’ve seen more of recently with headphones (including earbuds from RBH Sound and RHA).
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While I found the weight of the vTrues a tad fatiguing, I thought the music emanating from them was anything but. It didn’t take long to see why they’re intended for studio listening, as they produced super-clean, uncolored and well-defined results. And if you think that because Velodyne’s specializing in subwoofers means that its headphones will follow suit and emphasize bass as some headphones do, think again … though there was plenty of it, the bass sounded well balanced in the overall sonic signature and for all its thump it carried that same clarity and definition.
I did most of my listening with the vTrues connected to my PC via Meridian’s USB Explorer DAC to try and squeeze the most out of those files, and because I’ve used the little DAC for a while now as a digital source reference. Velodyne lists a similar USB DAC, AudioQuest’s DragonFly, as a “suggested accessory” for the vTrue on its web page. After seeing some serious audio setups at CES and T.H.E. Show that ran on Macbooks and DACs, the computer-to-DAC-to-headphone chain also seems like a nice, streamlined audiophile approach to this category, especially with the advent of high-res 24/96 and 24/192 downloads.
Rather than jump right into high-resolution recordings, though, I played an assortment of low-res MP3s first. With everything I threw at it, I kept reaching the same conclusion about the vTrues being well balanced and articulate, with lots of punch in reproducing bass and drums. Most of the time I was playing at moderate-to-low volume, but when I cranked things up a bit I was pleasantly surprised that clarity did not drop off and that higher volume levels accentuated the musicality—I’ve heard many other headphones crack under that pressure.
On Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, for instance, I thought the acoustic guitar playing on “Buckets of Rain” sounded lush and Dylan’s vocals—among the clearest of his career—very enveloping, while “You’re a Big Girl” produced a really warm-sounding tone that somehow culled every little detail from what seems like a roomful of musicians sitting right in front of me. At the same time, the drumming on both tracks is rendered appropriately gentle and nuanced yet with enough impact to serve as a solid foundation in the mix.
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Being familiar with the stage setups at live performances for Phish and guitarist Trey Anastasio’s side-project band, I thought the vTrues provided spot-on imaging while listening to live soundboard recordings from both groups. Here too, they delivered well-rounded prominence to seemingly every musician, including Phish keyboardist Page McConnell’s playing that I’ve found gets lost within the quartet’s recordings through other speakers but with the vTrues was a force coming out of the left channel during “Undermind” (from Aug. 31, 2012, Commerce City, Colo.). In a live cut of “Scabbard” from the eight-person Trey Anastasio Band, the resolution of instruments was impeccable, especially Cyro Baptista’s array of percussion jingling through the right earcup.
Transitioning to some 24-bit/96 kHz FLAC downloads from Norwegian label 2L (you can freely download samples at www.2l.no/hires), the classical and jazz/fusion arrangements sounded huge and gorgeous, upping the already solid depth and sound stage from the compressed music. You could hear the breathiness and full-body detail of every trumpet note during the Hoff Ensemble’s Quiet Winter Night, set against the thumping of percussion and sinewy fusion guitar playing to create a haunting ambiance. For rich, deep frequencies, Iver Klieve’s church organ performance of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water” sounded stunning and clean as I turned the volume way up. On Vivaldi’s “Recitative and Aria Cantata” from Belleza Crudel, Tone Wik’s soprano fluttered about and soared effortlessly through the vTrues with no hint of strain in reproducing the incredible female vocal extension.
While the vTrue may represent Velodyne’s serious listening side, the vFree could be seen as its fun side. Bluetooth headphones are emerging as a convenient way to listen to devices such as smartphones and tablets hands- and wires-free, if you want, to go with traditional wired listening.
That’s not to say the vFrees are a slouch on the performance end—they’re very good, not quite on par with the vTrues, but clearly coming from the same engineering pool and delivering in many of the same ways. Driver size for the vFree is 34mm, with frequency response listed as 20 Hz to 20 kHz and sensitivity of 98dB. But what differentiates the vFree certainly stems from its feature set, which unlike the vTrue you need to consult the manual and memorize some things.
The vFree design features a gloss plastic finish (my pair is black, but it also comes in white or silver), and there are optional patterned “skins” you can wrap and protect the headphones in for $39. The padding on the earcups and headband is a soft black foam, more reminiscent of other on-ear headphones, and the vFree is collapsible so you can easily stow it in the included carrying pouch—which is about half the size of the vTrue carrying pouch as those headphones do not fold. Without all the forged aluminum and leather, the vFree weighs half as much as the vTrue, so for me felt more comfortable, though the materials make it more susceptible to wear and tear than the durable vTrue.
The vFree uses a rechargeable lithium-ion polymer battery, and you can juice it up by connecting the USB cable to the micro USB port and any compatible charging device (I used my PC). Velodyne lists charge time at 1.5 hours to deliver 10 hours of music playback time. The headphones’ LED status indicator will go from red to green when fully charged. The indicator also glows blue, which is the standard color when it’s powered on and leads us into the next feature, wireless Bluetooth playback.
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As a Bluetooth newbie, using the headphones in this manner was a blast, and I can certainly see the allure of the exploding Bluetooth headphone and speaker market. After I charged the headphones, I followed the relatively simple instructions for pairing them with my Bluetooth device, in this case a Droid Razr phone. In the phone settings I clicked the Bluetooth mode to “on” and then powered on the vFree (Velodyne says to keep the device and headphones within a meter for this process) by holding the power button until the LEDs flashed blue and red; I then had the phone search for Bluetooth devices, and the vFree soon popped up onscreen (along with a co-worker’s Macbook) in the “devices found” list; selecting that I waited as the vFree LED indicator flashed blue five times to let me know the process worked.
I tested the Bluetooth listening using to Pandora, YouTube and some MP3 files stored on my phone of the Dylan album and Live Phish tunes from my PC. This is where the headphone controls take some getting used to for you to appreciate the convenience of having them right on your ear (in this case, buttons are incorporated into the right earcup design). Up and down volume buttons are on the side, by the back of your ear. Three pieces of the earcup then provide the main controls—play/pause on the bottom, next/previous above that piece in the middle, and power/pair toward the front of your ear. The play/pause button also doubles for answering/ending phone calls, because you can use the vFree as a hands-free phone microphone/receiver.
It does take some repeated usage to get acquainted with finding and hitting the right buttons. I figured the next/previous track skipping function would be limited to local or cloud-stored music on my phone, but it worked with Pandora as well. Velodyne says the Bluetooth transmission is good to about 33 feet, and walking around my home and work office with the headphones it seemed to extend a bit beyond that until the signal got choppy.
The Pandora playback had me a little worried about the quality of the Bluetooth listening, because it didn’t sound very crisp, and actually got a bit crunchy as I turned up the volume. However, when I began playing YouTube music videos and concert clips and then moved to the Live Phish tracks the playback was solid and considerably smoother. It didn’t have quite the same punch as when I hard-wired the headphones into my PC for listening, with the wireless playback sounding a tad thinner and brighter. When plugged straight into the PC to hear some of the same MP3s and 24/96 files as I did with the vTrue, as noted the vFree achieved high levels of instrument definition and imaging, with ample dynamic impact and detail.
I’m definitely more of an in-ear headphone listener than on-ear, but Velodyne’s efforts with the vFree and vTrue headphones will certainly appear to those who seek an upgraded private listening experience. Unlike the company’s acclaimed subwoofers, there’s more to these products than low-end rumble, but they offer big impact just the same.