Though they've been around for more than 60 years now, Acoustic Research is a relative newcomer in the personal audio world. A couple of years back, they made their first headway into the market with the Acoustic Research AR-M2 Hi-Res digital audio player ($999) – a capable, do-it-all player that many people felt measured up nicely against the popular Astell & Kern AK240 at less than half the price.
Last year, Acoustic Research began showing prototypes of their first over-ear and in-ear headphones. I heard early demos of these products and they were quite impressive, so I continued to follow along with the development with high hopes for some more excellent bang-for-buck products. Now, that long process has finally come to fruition with the debut of the AR-H1 planar magnetic headphone ($599), and two IEMs: the AR-E010 ($249) and AR-E100 ($149). I heard all three in their final form at last year's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest and a few weeks later, the AR-H1 arrived at my door.
The AR-H1 arrived in a very nice box, which can also be used for storage. Inside the box, I found the headphone, a soft carrying bag, the stock cable and a 6.35mm to 3.5mm adaptor. While the headphone, bag and box were quite nice; I was a little disappointed by the stock cable. I found it to be thin and rubbery, nowhere near as premium as the headphone itself. Acoustic Research had a nice cable on it at RMAF 2017, and I am quite certain there is a good bit of sonic potential that is being left on the table here with this stock cable.
The built of the headphone itself is much more impressive. Sharp and sophisticated, with tasteful coloring, a nice suspension pad and beautiful metal work. It's a look I would call "upscale gothic industrial" – it looks like a headphone that would be equally at home at both the Bat Cave and Wayne Manor. It also seems to be pretty tough and should hold up well long-term.
But the build isn't perfect. Comfort is decent in some respects, but not great overall. The main source of discomfort comes from the ear cups themselves. While they are sufficiently tall and the ear pads are made from a nice, soft memory foam, the cups are relatively shallow. I often found my ears mashed uncomfortably against the hard plastic grill protecting the drivers. This made it difficult to listen to the headphone for extended periods of time. It also seemed to have some negative sonic effects, which I'll touch on momentarily.
Another knock on the comfort is the clamping force. It is a little bit too strong for my taste out of the box. This can be alleviated somewhat by gently pulling the ear cups outward, but it's still pretty tight. I don't feel that this would be as much of a problem if the ear pads weren't so shallow. I hope that someone like Dekoni makes some aftermarket pads for the AR-H1, as I think it would be a boon for this headphone both ergonomically and sonically. Overall, I found the ergonomics to be disappointing, but for a smaller person with smaller ears, they might be just fine.
A Clean And Balanced Sound
Bass is clean, neutral and feels nicely flat across the midbass and most of the sub-bass before a slightly early roll off. For rock music the presentation down here is pretty ideal. Bass guitars and kick drums present with a nice sense of clarity and decay quickly enough that the pace stays brisk. Midbass impact is good, but a little more polite and "gentlemanly" relative to a more "fun" sounding headphone like the slightly warm-tilted MrSpeakers AEON Flow Open ($799) or the more colored MassDrop / Fostex TH-X00 ($399-$499). Relative to the similarly-priced Sennheiser HD660S ($499), the AR-H1 has a little more low end impact, presence and extension.
Way down in the sub-bass frequencies, the deepest notes start to roll off between 30Hz to 35Hz, with a much steeper roll off just below 30Hz. Listening to "Copy of a…" off Nine Inch Nails' Hesitation Marks, I found the big sub-bass hits had adequate rumble in the fundamental, but the darker bass of the lowest sub frequency below was stepped down in volume relative to some of my other planar magnetic headphones. It stripped the bass of a little of its natural color – albeit less so than most dynamic drivers would. Nevertheless, it was still present, clear and undistorted – just stepped down a bit in volume. Overall, I think the bass will satisfy most listeners, but may come up just a little short when trying to please the most demanding bassheads.
Moving on, the lower mids present in a fairly neutral fashion – neither thin nor bloated – right in the sweet spot coming off the midbass. But early on in my evaluation, I couldn't help but notice that there were are some odd colorations in the middle and upper midrange that give the AR-H1 a little bit of hardness. Vocals can occasionally become fatiguing and sometimes a guitar, snare or piano riff will come out as unnaturally loud or nasal sounding.
Going back to the aforementioned Nine Inch Nails example, when comparing the sub-bass, I noted the snare was often times a good bit louder on the AR-H1 relative to other headphones. I would speculate that some of this has to do with the soft and not-so-deep memory foam earpads, which were compressing more with certain head placements, pushing my ears closer to the driver and causing some less-subtle-than-average sonic changes.
While placement variation can affect the sound on any headphone, I found the AR-H1 to be noticeably more inconsistent than the average – sometimes it would sound phenomenal and feel great on your head, other times, it would smash up against your ears and present some odd colorations. As I continued evaluating the headphone, it became more and more apparent that a bit of care had to go into getting it properly seated on my head. The suspension pad exerts a fair amount of downward force, the pads aren't angled, and the ear cups don't always rotate a way that is most efficient for getting the ideal fit. So it's not quite as quick and easy as other headphones, but it's not hard to figure out what works and what doesn't.
With a little care in placement, the headphones sound quite good. With a proper fit and the mids don't leave much to complain about, save a bit of recession in the upper midrange. I personally don't mind this tuning choice, as it makes the headphone sound a bit more spacious, but sometimes instruments will be left lacking in immediacy if this area is recessed too far. In my opinion, AR dials it back before it gets problematic and it sounds well balanced overall, even if it's not perfectly neutral.
The lower treble is mostly pretty chilled out, followed by a couple of sparkly peaks in the mid treble and pretty good extension up top. Vocals tended to be pretty smooth and unproblematic, especially when paired with a good amplifier. As for the mid treble peaks, they did present some small annoyances at times however, particularly on cymbals. For example, Bernard Purdie's open hi-hats on Steely Dan's "Haitian Divorce" were unnecessarily sharp – particularly in the third verse – slightly marring an otherwise strong performance by the AR-H1. All of the other parts were absolutely grooving, and one gets the feeling this little annoyance could be easily remedied with a better cable and ear pads.
Minding The Details
The soundscape is very natural in size with very good height and pretty decent depth layering right out of the box. The problem however is that the stock pads aren't angled, so occasionally the stage image isn't always very stable.
Comparing the imaging of the headphone in stock form to well-modded HiFiMAN HE-500, the AR-H1 is clearly less defined in terms of both depth and horizontal placement. Listening to Snarky Puppy's "Jefe" from their 2016 album Culcha Vulcha, the percussion break at 3:00 showed some holes in the AR-H1's presentation. Drum placement felt much more specific on the HE-500 with precise locations in terms of both width and depth in the nicely bubble-shaped stage. Drums on the AR-H1 were less specific. They were placed in three relatively fuzzy blobs across the stage, failing to retain the same sense of object permanence that the HE-500 had. The placement on the AR felt a little bit more like a guesstimate than a specifically defined point in space.
I was able to test and confirm that the angle of the pads was the source of the problem by simply putting a little bit of foam underneath the rear side of the pad and angling the cups forward. The stage cohesiveness improved immediately. Hopefully some good aftermarket options will become available to alleviate the problem in a more elegant way. I also feel that a good cable would improve some of the depth and layering properties, which would make the staging truly impressive because the drivers are clearly very capable.
Moving on to the other technicalities, attack on the AR-H1 seems to be pretty good, but lacks some of the authoritative transient snap of a headphone with elite speed. Comparing against the Stax Lambda and the Sennheiser HD800, the AR-H1 had less joyful, sparkling immediacy to it, but it never seemed sluggish either. Notes were delivered in a slightly more mellow, relaxed manner that was perfectly consistent with the headphone's gentlemanly looks and tuning.
The decay properties seem to have a little bit more pep to them however, showing good control that never detracts from the natural PRAT of the song. I feel Acoustic Research dialed this in to a very nice sweet spot that most listeners will like. While it's not the fastest decay on the market, it has a snappy feel to it and it's definitely a headphone that can make you dance.
I wish I could say this headphone was perfect out of the box. It's close, but not quite there. The audiophile community has always had a strong DIY element, and any experienced modder can see that the Acoustic Research AR-H1 is a headphone that is absolutely teeming with potential. Like the aforementioned HiFiMAN HE-500, the OPPO PM2 and the Fostex T50RP before it, somebody on the forums is going to eventually figure out the perfect combination of mods that will turn this thing into an absolute beast. The cost of entry is reasonable and the problems out of the box are obvious, minor and easily fixable. It just would have been nice if they didn't need to be fixed in the first place.
Overall, the AR-H1 is very good for just $599 and in many respects, it seems like it should sell for twice its modest MSRP, but it's not all the way there. It certainly has the ability to reach down and extract a lot of information from the music. It just has a few limitations holding it back from true greatness.
Additional Equipment Used
During This Review
Chord Hugo 2
DanaCable Lazuli Headphone Cables
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