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Move over, Beats: Master & Dynamic's MH40 headphones win on design, sound, and build quality

The Audiophiliac checks out a new company's headphones, and they're a knockout.

The Master & Dynamic MH40 headphones Steve Guttenberg/CNET

I readily credit Beats as the company that ignited and maintained a sales boom for the entire headphone market. Nevertheless, I've never been all that impressed with Beats. Marketing and styling were largely responsible for its success, so let's contrast and compare the new Master & Dynamic MH40 with the mostly plastic Beats Studio 2. The MH40 is beautifully crafted from forged aluminum, stainless steel, and real lambskin leather, and its sound is competitive with that of comparably priced models from established brands like AKG, Beyerdynamic, Bowers & Wilkins, Grado, Sennheiser, and so forth. That's an astonishing achievement from a brand-new headphone maker. The MH40 was designed and developed in New York City over the last two years; it's manufactured in China.

The MH40 is a closed-back, over-the-ear design with 45mm drivers and a 32-ohm-rated impedance. Weighing 12.7 ounces (360 grams), it's definitely heavier than most over-the-ear headphones. The upside is the MH40's build quality feels supersolid, and the supple leather adds a sensual side to the design. The headphone is currently available with black metalwork and black leather; or silver, with tan leather. Other finish combinations are in the works. Master & Dynamic also offers a weighted steel table stand for the headphones.

The right ear cup has a metal mute button, and it makes a satisfying click when you mute or unmute the music. You get two superflexible, cloth-covered cables, a 1.25-meter one with a remote & mic for iPod, iPad, and iPhone, and a 2-meter "plain" cable. They're remarkably tangle-free, and both are packed in a small, cylindrical leather case. The headband isn't hinged, but the ear cups fold flat for storage in the included canvas bag. Warranty coverage is two years -- that's double what most headphone brands offer.

The Master & Dynamic MH40 headphones, shown with table stand Master & Dynamic

Isolation from external noise is very good, but I did start to feel the headphones' weight after an hour of playing tunes. It wasn't a deal-breaker for me, because the MH40's sound is highly detailed, yet never harsh; bass is deep, without any boom or bloat. It's pretty incredible that a company's debut design is so well thought out.

NAD's Viso HP50 quickly established itself as the $300 audiophile headphone to beat, and it didn't take long for the MH40 to prove itself a worthy adversary. The HP50 sounded a little richer on vocals and made more bass, the MH40 was more transparent and spacious. Really deep bass coursing through the "Gravity" soundtrack was taut and precise on the MH40. Both headphones have beautifully detailed treble, but the M40 is a little clearer. There's no definitive winner here; they're both excellent headphones.

The Master & Dynamic MH40 is now available direct from the company's website and dealers for $399 in the US, £319 in the UK, and AU$499 in Australia. If you buy direct from the website, there's a 30-day return policy. Master & Dynamic has three other models: the ME01 and ME03 in-ear headphones, which are shipping now; the MH30 on-ear headphone will be available in about a month.