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Audio Ramblings - The Acoustic Research AR-H1 Headphones

02-18-2018 | By Dave Clark | Issue 95

One of the fun things to do at RMAF is to hit the headphone exhibits and see what is going on in terms of new phones, amps, and DACs. One of the booths that caught our attention was that of Acoustic Research. We sat and listened to what they had on display—the new-ish AR-H1 headphones and their line of amps/DACs—all of which brought a smile to our faces, not only in terms of the sheer musicality we were hearing, but at the affordable price. All true bargains in today's audio world. World beaters? For sure and why I asked for the AR-H1 headphones for review.

Acoustic Research AR-H1 Headphones

The AR-H1 ($599) are an open-back circumaural, or over-ear headphone, featuring an 86mm planar driver with a neodymium magnet array. Frequency response is measured at 10-70kHz, with sensitivity rated at 100dB/V, and impedance at 33 ohms.

Acoustic Research AR-H1 Headphones

In terms of use, I find these to be quite comfortable being both easy on the head and the ears. Nice. Too many headphones are either too heavy, causing fatigue, or are too large, resulting in itchy, sweaty skin. Or are both!

Yeah, but how do they sound and how do they compare to other headphones in their price range? Well I don't have any headphones here that pretty much are there in terms of price (the Oppo PM-1 at $1099 and the Focal ELEAR at $1000 when compared to $599 for the AR-H1), but that is the best I can do. Plus, the Oppo is also planar so there is something to compare in terms of apples to apples, as opposed to the apples to oranges with the Focal ELARs. But the question is, does the additional monies get you that much more?

Acoustic Research AR-H1 Headphones

Well the Oppo appears to be a touch more sensitive, in that switching between the two resulted in me needing to turn the volume down a smidge (the Oppo is 102 dB in 1 mW, so yeah). And the Oppo comes across going a bit deeper in the bass, but… over time I am not sure this is a plus. In listening to various tracks with deep bass, for sure the Oppo went a wee bit deeper with more oomph than the AR-H1, but this was ever so slight that I was never really aware of it unless I did the quick A to B comparison thing, and well… that is not how I listen to music. I like to put something on and let it take me away. Where it goes depends, but with the AR-H1 it was always rather enjoyable. These headphones at $599 do the deal.

I did find these two headphones to be more alike than different, though the AR-H1 might be a bit more laidback than the livelier Oppo PM-1. A case of the 2dB in sensitivity? Possible. In looking at these two headphones the shape of the driver (ear piece) is very, very similar, though the AR-H1 is a bit larger overall. I could live with either and be quite happy. No hint of fatigue in terms of use or volume, the H1 is clean and quite musical. In terms of how things "sound," I hear it pretty much as I do with my main system. The music has that same feel and engagement. Clean, articulate, tonally even with nothing jumping out… or running away to hide. A nice balance of attributes. Meaning that the AR-H1 pretty much won me over when compared to the more expensive PM-1 headphones.

Acoustic Research AR-H1 Headphones

AR-H1 to the left and the Oppo PM-1 to the right.

I will add that the H1 is a bit leaner than the warmer and richer PM-1, but that doesn't imply that the H1 is going to be the threadbare lean machine to reveal any and all in your music. No, I actually found it to sound more balanced and right on most tracks than the PM-1—especially so with the vocals on the track "Looking for the Rain" from UNKLE's latest, The Road Part 1. Simply stellar in how the emotion and the roughness of Mark Lanegan gravelly vocals came across. Captivating. Again, the AR-H1 won me over. Extended and airy… a nice big soundstage (in terms of what a headphone can offer that is) … yeah, the AR-H1 is way good.

Okay, but what about the way different Focal ELEAR? Well this is a bit different in that they are different. On the UNKLE track the ELAR offers more separation with what can best be described as a rock sound. Punchy as all get out with resolution up the road a bit. Bass extension and texture. Simply more slam and edge to the music. A different beast and depending on the music you prefer, perhaps not the best beast. Wonderful on Gary Numan's new album Savage. For sure the ELEAR offers more extension and clarity, though not at the expense of listenability. Meaning that they are not fatiguing in terms of sonics. But then, they are $400 more than the AR-H1 and after an extended listening session I did find them to not be as comfortable as the AR-H1. Not as rich and warm either, so if your music calls for that than the AR-H1 would be my choice. Even so it is all a matter of preference. I would be happy with either. 

I dunno, for $599 it is hard to go wrong with the AR-H1. I found them to be fun and enjoyable with all my music. Perfect? What is? For sure people might like like them and prefer something else, but then it is a big audio world out there with many options. Easy to drive and comfortable as all get out, I gave them an award for 2017. I still stand by that. Give them a try. Highly recommended.

Acoustic Research AR-H1 Headphones

System used for this review:

  • Dell XPS 8910 PC 8GB ram, i7 6700 CPU @ 3.4GHz
  • JRiver 22 Media Player
  • Certon C4 Integrita NAS
  • Audioquest Ethernet cables
  • Schiit Audio Jotunheim DAC/amplifier
  • Schiit Audio Wyrd
  • Schiit Audio USB cable and interconnects
  • Dynamic Designs Spirit C AC cord
  • Silver Circle AC conditioner

As an addendum, I did listen to the various headphones with their own stock cables as well as various aftermarket ones. The comments in the review are based on the stock cables, though I will add that using a WyWires Red Series headphone cable on either the Oppo or the AR really opened them up and took their performance up several notches. Something to consider. Actually, a real no-brainer. Do it.

Acoustic Research