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Pro-Ject Audio Systems Hear It One headphones review: Good-sounding headphones just need a price trim

Pro-Ject Audio Systems' very first pair of headphones sound decent, but their $129 price is out of line for the nothing-special build quality.

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Steve Guttenberg
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Steve Guttenberg

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.

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Pro-Ject Audio Systems is best known as a leading manufacturer of affordable audiophile turntables, but now, with the $129 Hear It One, the company has entered the headphone market. You'd expect, then, to get an affordable pair of audiophile headphones -- and you mostly do. But while the company's debut model sounds decent and is comfortably lightweight, the headphone space has become extremely competitive, and the Hear It One design doesn't do quite enough to distinguish itself to measure up to its $129 price tag.

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6.3

Pro-Ject Audio Systems Hear It One headphones

The Good

The <b>Pro-Ject Audio Systems Hear It One</b> headphones are light for a full-size model, have an accurate tonal balance, and come with a two-year parts-and-labor warranty.

The Bad

Very similar design to models that cost less; don't fold up for compact storage; no inline remote/mic; the cable doesn't detach, so it isn't user-replaceable.

The Bottom Line

Pro-Ject Audio Systems' first headphones sound decent, but their $129 price tag is out of line given the nothing-special build quality.

Design and features
The Hear It Ones may be classified as full-size, over-the-ear headphones, but the earcups are smaller than the ones on the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 monitor headphones. If you have big ears the Hear It One's oval-shaped pads won't completely cover your ears. The headphones are unusually light, just 6.5 ounces, but the moderately high earpad pressure made for a fairly uncomfortable fit after a few hours of use, and the faux leather pads might make your ears sweat in warm weather. The closed-back design does a fair job of hushing environmental noise, and people nearby won't hear much sound "leaking." The mix of faux leather, glossy black plastic, and real aluminum caps on the earcups is attractive, but the Hear It Ones look like a near twin of the $30 Incipio f38 and $70 Fischer Audio FA-004 v2 headphones. (Note: the Hear It Ones do weigh more than the Incipio f38s -- 0.42 pound versus 0.36 pound -- so it's quite possible that the Hear It One model has higher-grade drivers and other components).

The Hear It Ones look very similar to a couple of other pairs of headphones that cost less. Sarah Tew/CNET

Like the Incipio and Fischer Audio models, the Pro-Ject's Hear It One model has earcups that slide up and down over steel wires that exit a plastic housing to compensate for differently sized and shaped heads, but a gentle twist of the cups revealed some play, and that didn't inspire confidence in the headphones' long-term durability. Then again, the Hear It Ones come with a two-year parts-and-labor warranty, and that's double the coverage of most headphones in this price range. It features 38mm drivers, which have a rated impedance of 32 ohms. It's an efficient design, so the Hear It One can play nice and loud with an iPod or phone.

The earcups are nicely padded. Sarah Tew/CNET

Some of the design choices made for the Hear It One are out of step with the competition, starting with the fact that the headphones have a permanently attached, fabric-covered cable, terminating in an all-metal 3.5mm plug. The 42-inch-long high-purity oxygen-free copper cable feels a little stiff and has a tendency to kink. We consider the non-user-replaceable cable a major design flaw, because when the cable or connector fails, the headphones will have to be returned for service (the two-year warranty might come in handy at that point). That's why most competing models have user-replaceable cables. Worse yet, the Hear It One's cable doesn't have a mic or phone remote controls.

Accessories include a 6.3mm gold-plated adapter plug and a very basic soft carrying bag. However, the headphones don't fold flat, so they're not as travel-friendly as we'd like.

The carrying bag is very basic.

Performance
The Hear It Ones' sound is smooth and clear. The headphones play a wide range of music genres without sounding out of place in any of them, but the bass isn't as rich as you get from the more expensive Audio-Technica ATH-M50s (around $160). The ATH-M50 headphones' superior bass definition also lets you hear the pitches of bass notes more clearly. The Hear It Ones weren't totally embarrassed by the comparison, but the ATH-M50s were clearly better, which is probably why I can't think of another pair of headphones that can challenge the ATH-M50s for the money.

The acoustic tunes on Wilco's "A Ghost Is Born" album sounded very natural and pure over the Hear It Ones. The bass-midrange-treble balance was excellent, better than balance of the Noontec Zoro headphones, which thinned out Jeff Tweedy's vocals too much, and had comparatively anemic-sounding bass. The Hear It Ones also were more comfortable to wear than the Zoros. Audiophiles take note: stepping up from my iPod Classic to the $99 Schiit Magni headphone amplifier firmed up the Hear It Ones' bass and improved overall clarity.

The Hear It One headphones do offer smooth and clear sound. Sarah Tew/CNET

I watched a Jack White concert on the "Austin City Limits" Web site on my desktop, and the streaming audio's sound quality was pretty marginal. The Hear It Ones let me hear exactly how dynamically compressed and crude the sound was. The treble was swishy and the bass lumpy. Listening on high-resolution headphones only reveals how lame streaming sound quality can be.

Watching DVD of a straight drama, "Game Change," about the John McCain 2008 presidential campaign, was a different matter. In an early scene that takes place on a plane, the Hear It Ones put me in the cabin with McCain (Ed Harris) and his team, and the whoosh of the air conditioning and the drone of the engines seemed to come from outside the earcups. Dialogue was clear and articulate. In fact, the Hear It Ones sounded great with all types of movies.

Conclusion
Despite the design missteps associated with the nonremovable cable and the comfort issues, Pro-Ject Audio Systems' Hear It One headphones' evenly balanced sound brings out the best in all types of music. That's great, but it's too bad the Hear It Ones don't look or feel like $129 headphones, and for a little more the "="">Audio-Technica ATH-M50 headphones would be a better alternative.

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6.3

Pro-Ject Audio Systems Hear It One headphones

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 5Sound 7Value 6