V-Moda spent a lot of time trying to develop the perfect successor to its popular Crossfade M-80 on-ear headphone. The fruit of all that labor is the XS, a $200 model that's both more comfortable to wear and arguably slightly better sounding.
At first glance, the two models look a lot alike, but there are a few key differences. For starters, the XS has a hinged headband that allows you to fold up the headphone like the company's larger over-the-ear M-100, which earned an Editors' Choice award from CNET.
Thanks to the new design, these headphones fit into a significantly smaller carrying case, a big plus. That ergonomically correct "exoskeleton" case is a shrunken down version of the the case for the M-100; it's nicely designed and comes with carabiner, so you can clip it onto your backpack if you want.
The other big change is to the "steelflex" headband itself. It remains are sturdy as ever but it sits more closely against your head, particularly in the temple region.
Most on-ear and over-the-ear headphones have a gap there, but V-Moda's co-founder Val Kolton has made it a mission, and perhaps even an obsession, to close that gap. The end result is a more comfortable headphone and one that V-Moda thinks will also appeal to women due to the visually less bulky, head-hugging design.
That said, we can't say this is the most comfortable on-ear headphone out there (that distinction probably belongs to the Bose's on-ear headphones). Still, it does fit snugly on your head without feeling too tight and overall I liked wearing them around and I'm not really a fan of on-ear designs.
Like most of these smaller types of headphones that sit on your ear, they don't offer very good sound isolation. They also leak some sound, though they do contain it relatively well for an on-ear model (most headphones do leak some sound, even over-the-ear models, when you play your music loud).
Of course, the fit of a headphone is a bit subjective, because after all, people's heads come in all shapes in sizes. But one thing can't be denied about the XS' design: it's easily among the best built headphones in its price class. There's lots of metal used in the construction, the cord is enforced with Kevlar, and these guys look and feel like they can take a beating (the company says they were "tested beyond military-level MIL-STD-810G quality standards").
It's also worth mentioning that the headphone comes with a two-year warranty and you can test drive it for up to 60 days (you can return it for a full refund within that time frame). Also, if some terrible accident befalls your XS headphones, you can get a replacement pair for 50 percent off.
V-Moda does offer up a couple of extras. The detachable cord has an integrated microphone with a one-button in-line remote (you can purchase an optional 3-button remote/cord that's Apple-friendly). That inline remote is swankier than your typical inline remote and has a nice feel to it. And call quality was decent using the headphone as a headset.
The metal faceplates on the earcups are removable and V-Moda has plenty of designs to choose from in its online store (yes, they cost extra). It's a little tedious to remove and refasten the faceplate's six screws, but when tightened, they definitely keep the faceplates on the headphones.
Lastly, each earcup has an input and you can daisy chain headphones with a friend (you can both listen to the same music) or mix two inputs. A "V-cork" cap is included to seal off and protect the unused input.
When unfolded, the XS may look like a clone of the old Crossfade M-80, but the sound has evolved. The XS' sound is more neutral and natural and takes the edge off harsh sounding recordings. At the same time resolution of fine detail is still quite good.
In short, the XS maintains just enough of V-Moda's weightier bass sound signature to keep the company's fans satisfied, but the XS should appeal to more audiophiles than the older model.
With Holly Cole's "Temptation" album, the prominent acoustic bass lines have more depth and body than what we heard from the M-80. Cole's vocals also benefited from the change to the XS; she sounded more natural and less canned over the XS.
We also compared the XS to V-Moda's over-the-ear M-100, which sounded like a much bigger headphone. The tonal balance tilt is weightier, fuller and rounder. Also, the soundstage on the M100 is bigger. But at the same time, the M-100 is a more laid back headphone than the XS, which is more forward sounding, with a little bit better detail. We liked both, but in some ways preferred the XS' fresher, more immediate sound.
To finish up we compared the XS with one of the best sounding on-ears on the market, the Beyerdynamic T 51 p ($289). That headphone is even warmer and richer sounding than the XS, its bass definition is better, and it's more see-through transparent. You hear details, like a guitarist's fingers sliding across the strings more clearly over the T 51 p. The XS blurs the subtle details, just a bit.
On-ear headphones offer the advantage of being more compact than over-the-ear the models and potentially better suited for mobile use. But finding a good pair of on-ears isn't so easy. They're a bit of a rare breed, though the number of recommendable models is increasing.
The V-Moda XS qualifies as one of the excellent ones. It's very well built, relatively comfortable to wear, and offers strong performance for a headphone in the $150-$200 price range. That it has a minimal gap between the headband and your temples is an appealing trait, though not everybody minds the gap so much. In our book, it's just as important, if not more, that the headphone folds up into a compact case that's easy to tote around.
Editors' note (June 13, 2014): The rating on this product has been updated to reflect changes in the competitive marketplace.