While they're less geared for mobile use, for $150 these headphones are among the better-sounding full-size headphones for the money.
NuForce is best known as a manufacturer of audiophile preamps, power amps, and digital-to-analog converters, but the company also offers a range of in-ear headphones and now its first full-size, "Monitor Class" headphones: the $149 HP-800 model.
With an understated matte-black finish and particularly large earcups, these headphones have sort of an anti-trendy design that seems geared toward audiophiles (maybe that makes it trendy). They're very comfortable and the sound is ideal for buyers seeking an easygoing balance that works equally well with all genres of music.
Design and features
The HP-800s have a closed-back design that offers a decent amount of noise isolation, though headphones with tighter fits do a slightly better job of sealing out the outside world (however, headphones with a tighter fit can end up being less comfortable).
What makes these headphones so comfortable is that they use a spring-loaded tensioner to keep the headband off the top of your head. The other neat aspect of this design is you don't have to slide the earcups up or down to optimize the fit; the headphones automatically conform to different-size heads. I found that approach more comfortable than a padded headband -- it worked perfectly on my noggin.
The build quality feels robust, and the die-cast aluminum earcups are definitely a step up from the plastic ones found on most similarly priced headphones. The inside of the earcups is bright red, and the round ear cushions are nicely padded.
The HP-800 headphones may be too large to use on the go, but they're easy to drive -- the 40mm drivers have a 32-ohm impedance -- and can play loud with an iPod or a smartphone.
The headphones come with two cables, a skinny 48-inch-long one and a thicker, cloth-covered 80-inch cable. Both cables are terminated with a 3.5mm plug at each end, and connect to the headphones' left earcup. Accessories are a screw-on 6.3mm gold-plated adapter (a phono plug) and a very basic nylon carrying bag.
To be clear, these headphones don't fold up or fold flat, so they will take up some room in your bag.
The HP-800s' sound is nicely detailed and airy, and the stereo imaging is spacious. As noted, these headphones play all music genres equally well.
I compared them with Audio-Technica's highly regarded ATH-M50 headphones, another "monitor" model that also costs around $150.
The M50s' sound is slightly more transparent and detailed, whereas the HP-800s' is more laid-back and richer. The HP-800s' bass is a little more powerful, but the M50s' low end is clearer and better defined. On recordings with acoustic bass, each bass string pluck was more distinct over the M50s. The comfort level is similar, and both headphones are extremely wearable over long periods without rousing listener fatigue. There's no clear winner here, but if you care more about bass oomph than clarity, go for the HP-800 headphones.
While the HP-800 and M50 are closed-back designs that seal off the listener from the sound of the surrounding environment, I wanted to compare the HP-800s with an open-back design, and I went with the Grado SR 225i headphones. These two models sound very different, and the open versus closed aspect of the designs wasn't the main story (though the SR 225i headphones do let in a lot more sound). The SR 225i headphones have a much brighter and more detailed sound than the HP-800s, and the SR 225i pair makes a lot less bass. There's an undeniable immediacy to the SR 225is' sound, but I suspect most people will prefer the bassier HP-800s.
All of my listening tests up to this point were conducted with the headphones plugged into my iPod Classic, but I watched "The Dark Knight Rises" on my desktop computer, with a Schiit Magni USB/DAC headphone amplifier. The HP-800s' plentiful deep bass provided a solid foundation for Hans Zimmer's ominous score and chief bad guy Bane's booming voice. These headphones' sound is well suited to playing movies.
The NuForce HP-800 headphones are ideal for buyers seeking great sound, high comfort, and rugged construction for a very reasonable price. The HP-800s' bass is unusually potent, though definition is a tad soft. Granted, this model is not a looker, it lacks an inline remote/mic for cell phone calls, and it may be too large to commute with. However, I think that's part of the HP-800 model's charm. It's not trying to be all things to all people. You have to take it on its own terms -- or not.