Final Audio Design Pandora VI headphones
Final Audio Design (hereafter called “FAD”) is an interesting and in some ways, bizarre, company. They have had their hands in many aspects of audio over the years, but are probably best known today for their headphone/IEM products. FAD seems often to make little concession to practicality, marketability or even many folks concept of what “proper” sound should be in many of their products. Calling some of their gear an acquired taste is probably an understatement. They have described some of their kit as a intention to replicate the sounds characteristic of low power tube amp/horn systems, which it must be said is a unique niche for a portable audio company to cater to.
It was with some trepidation that a few years ago I bought their 1601SS IEM. Somehow, the talk about it made me want to check it out for myself. It turned out to be a heavy chunk of chromium-shiny metal that had to be shoved tightly in the ear and that what it did wrong sonically was immediately and blatantly obvious. I suspect that most folks would have given this a quick listen and bowed out and I this I can understand. But…
There are certain things the FAD did that were unusual in my experience for IEM’s. There were plenty of problems, no deep bass, an upper midrange hole, a rolled off treble with a bit of low treble peak sting. But, an articulate midrange, great dynamics (for IEM’s) and a spacious soundstage, uniquely so in my experience at the time (again, for IEM’s) were some compensation. To get what tonal accuracy they were capable of required a particular set of tips (the white ones with the slots, in my case) and careful insertion but when everything swung their way, it could be a really compelling listen, in my view.
So the 1601SS was a guilty pleasure, perhaps. But it turns out they could also make more “conventional” sounding IEM’s that also brought something interesting to the table, such as the FI-BA-SS. They made products at the costly side of things but made others that were relatively cheap, it seems like nothing is off the table or too avant-garde for them.
So, out of curiosity, I bought a pair of their Pandora VI headphones, their first over-ears since the ill-fated Muramasa XIII (which they seem to like to make believe never happened). I have been listening to them for a while now and the odd thing is there isn’t all that much odd about them! Not to say they have no colorations or peculiarities, just to say that they generally sound like a somewhat “normal” headphone, just a tad further out than the Sennheiser HD-650, for example. The Pandora’s sell in the $700/$800 range, pricey but not ridiculous.
Compared to the HD-650’s, the Pandora’s are a bit brighter and sound a bit more out of the head. The mids on the Senns may be a bit more tonally accurate, but the FAD’s sound more present and kind of “creamier” (funny, FAD products tend to produce more emotional response and more, ahem, colorful descriptions when reviewing). I liked the bass better on the FAD, the Senns tend to a slightly “fuzzier” presentation. All in all, I think the Pandora is a better and more beautiful sounding headphone (at around half again the cost, it should be said) than the admittedly fine HD-650’s. To me, it’s a bit telling that I handed the Pandora’s to a reviewer friend (no agenda, just because they were handy at the time) to do some stuff on his computer and he mentioned, unsolicited, how good they sounded.
Off topic but BTW, it’s interesting how I acquired my HD-650’s. I went on a vacation trip to a favorite place, Nice in the south of France, a couple of years ago and when I arrived I realized that I had my HD portable music player and a pair of decent IEM’s, but forgot to bring a conventional over-ear headphone. As I was walking through Le Vieux Nice (the old section of town where small shops, narrow sidewalks and restaurants proliferate), I came across what was basically a thrift store/pawn shop. I can never resist these kind of places, so in I went and in the used audio area, besides the usual junque, I found both a pair of Grado SR-325 and the HD-650’s! Some classy folks pawning stuff there in Nice. So I bought the 650’s (at a quite reasonable price) and was reacquainted with their classic sound while giving my ears a rest from the IEMs.
Well, back to the Pandora’s. Of course, being FAD, there has to be some idiosyncrasies here. When you reach in the box to take them out, you encounter…FUR! I best leave this alone at this point. They phones are a bit heavy (but float in space compared to the massive aforementioned Muramasa XIII, apparently) and the headband interface is kind of free-floating rather than stiff or click-stopped (though they somehow seem to stay in place on the head). To me, they are fairly comfortable, but YMMV. The construction is kind of chrome and black plastic chic, but not unattractive. One interesting technical feature is that these are, in a sense, “two way” headphones. In addition to the dynamic driver, a balanced armature driver such as used in many IEM designs is employed as a tweeter (!!!). Okay, so maybe they are more than a bit idiosyncratic…