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Superlux HD681 headphones review: Rank and (audio)file

Despite atrocious cosmetic qualities, the insanely cheap Superlux HD681 semi-open headphones have a sound that aspires to greatness and only narrowly misses the mark.

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Ty Pendlebury
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Ty Pendlebury

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Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.

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While the words "audiophile" and "budget" are usually mutually exclusive, this is an area we're keen to explore here at CNET, especially in the Audiophiliac blog. Products like the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR bookshelf speakers and the Lepai LP-2020A+ demonstrate that good hi-fi can be had for a little more than pocket change.

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7.6

Superlux HD681 headphones

The Good

The <b>Superlux HD681</b> semi-open headphones approach hi-fi quality with a very detailed sound, and have a very even bass response; also, they are well-constructed, comfortable, and insanely cheap.

The Bad

So ugly; not very dynamic and can compress some music; can sound shrill with bright material; open design means they don't work well in loud environments.

The Bottom Line

Despite atrocious cosmetic qualities, the insanely cheap Superlux HD681 headphones have a sound that aspires to greatness and only narrowly misses the mark.

As far as the enthusiast community is concerned, the Superlux HD681 headphones belong in this list, and there are several sites dedicated to these incredibly cheap headphones. There is even a page detailing how to mod them (PDF) to squeeze even more performance out of your roughly $30 investment.

There are several versions of these headphones available overseas, the HD681F and HD681B with slightly different frequency responses and designs, but only the HD681 model is available in the U.S.

Design
The headphones are surprisingly well-built for the small amount of money paid, with a sturdy plastic frame and vinyl earcups that encircle your ears comfortably. The only issue is that these headphones can only be described as "terrifyingly ugly." They look like a sewing machine accident. Too many red knobs and strange mechanical gears. These are the steampunk soundtrack to an afternoon of stitching together a sweater.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Further reinforcing the "Dear God, stay at home!" aesthetic is the long 8-foot cable, which should snake across most living rooms to your stereo.

While you probably won't need it, the headphones also include a vinyl bag for transporting them -- presumably from room to room.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But what are these headphones for? The faint lettering on the bottom gives a clue: "Professional Monitor." These are for critical listening applications and so have a forward presentation that is designed to pick out details or flaws in music. However, note that the headphones are semi-open and so may cause sound leakage issues in a home monitoring/recording situation.

If sound quality and appearances matter to you then you might be interested in this pair's just-announced relative, the HD681 EVO headphones. Unlike the vanilla HD681 model, the EVOs look like a professional piece of equipment and supposedly have a flatter response. Like the HD681s they are semi-open, though.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance
The Superlux HD681 headphones may look like they cost $30, but they certainly don't sound like it. These are truly "monitor" headphones in that they are designed to expose details in the music, and hence can be ruthless with poorly recorded music. There is a definite boost in the upper-mids that adds a breathiness to vocals and accentuates high-frequency instruments like cymbals. While this can make music sound more exciting, the downside is this can make some music too bright and even uncomfortable to listen to.

"My Number" by British band Foals sounded overly compressed and splashy despite this actually being quite a punchy recording. In comparison, the Grado SR60i headphones sounded more natural, with less emphasis on the mushy hi-hat cymbals.

Despite the hyped upper register, the headphones are balanced elsewhere with a controlled bass response that isn't hyped like some of the other sub-$100 headphones out there. If you like anything with deep bass, dubstep for example, then these headphones will keep the music from closing in upon itself.

Likewise midrange is tight and to the point. Compared with the similarly priced JVC HA-RX700 headphones, the Superlux HD681s are a revelation: the JVCs are distant-sounding and made the snare drum of Future of the Left's "Plague of Onces" seem like it was coming out of a cardboard tube. The Superluxes are able to convey the -- frankly insane -- song in a much more natural and enticing way.

Conclusion
At $30 there isn't much to compare to the Superlux HD681: these are open-sounding, detailed headphones that are much more balanced than the equivalent JVC HA-RX700s. The issue is that they are not very dynamic and the treble can overwhelm the rest of the spectrum. If you spend a little more you can get a simply great set of headphones in the Sony MDR-V6 Studio Monitor Series, but they are much less comfortable.

Are the HD681 headphones a hi-fi bargain? Not quite, and their capacity for modification sounds like bloody-mindedness on behalf of the owner rather than a real benefit. They sound great for the money if you only have $30 -- they could be a "gateway drug" into the world of hi-fi. But if you are willing to spend a little extra I would strongly advise buying a pair of Sony MDR-V6 or Grado SR60i or SR80i headphones -- all better-looking and better-sounding.

Superlux_HD_681_35630372_03.jpg
7.6

Superlux HD681 headphones

Score Breakdown

Design 5Features 7Performance 7Value 9