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ESS 422H Headphones – A Quick Take

11-22-2018 | By David Williamson | Issue 100

David Williamson, with additional comments from David W. Robinson

ESS 422H Headphones

Some days it's tough being the source for headphone recommendations among my friend group.

First, there's an overwhelming amount of digital advertisements for "premium" and "cutting-edge" headphones crowding everyone's Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds that one must contend with. Every social-media-derived question seems to be about a product that has never been peer-reviewed, cannot be procured from a reputable seller, and can only be ordered on a mobile device from a website that only accepts bitcoins.

Beyond such ridiculousness, it can be difficult to try and explain to the uninitiated the clear audio improvements a properly sorted headphone offers over the flash and bling of the myriad wireless/Bluetooth/foldable ear-shaped sound-providers currently saturating the "better-then-silence" budget headphone market. And it certainly doesn't help that some pairs of sonically lacking, plastic-fantastic headphones can run a couple hundred dollars or more, with no clear correlation between their sound and their cost.

ESS 422H Headphones

As with most worthwhile things, the average person who is looking for a solid pair of headphones is going to have to do some research before purchasing a pair, or risk spending too much money on a frankly abysmal product. This muddying up of the market may benefit the companies pushing product, but it masks some clearly fantastic options that I'd be recommending to the newly audio-curious. So as is my duty as the duly deputized audiophile of my friend group, I find that I'm constantly answering questions about all things that make noise and are placed on, over or in ears, good or bad, cheap and expensive.

Understandably, I was extra, secret-sauce excited for these ESS headphones. It's not often that a sub-$200 pair of over-ear headphones has this much initial heat coming off them. Beyond the potential for glorious sound output, I get all worked up over audio value propositions like the 422H from ESS, because it means I've got one more possible lure and enticement to dangle in front of my curious pre-audiophile friends. Headphones that are hopefully, you know, actually a good product that increases one's enjoyment of listening to music. Or something like that.

So, something good. How easy these headphones are to drive. With an Audioengine D3, the USB Audio Player Pro app, and an iFi USB OTG Cable, I spent a good deal of time using the 422Hs with my android phone. While not up to the performance level of one of my desktop DACs, I quite enjoyed listening to Tidal with the 422Hs and this audio-component chain. To the 422H's credit, I never once felt like the mobile setup was holding the headphones back. With such a wide soundstage, vocals (see my article Old Ears, New Tracks for some of the music I enjoyed listening to with the 422Hs) were clearly placed and complimented, as opposed to competed with, the instrumentation. While I tend towards open-back headphones at home, the closed-back 422Hs were the perfect companion for public and mobile listening, and for the most part the closed-backs helped keep outside noises outside.

There was an odd intermittent issue where the separation could be a touch…muddled, at times. To the point, while the soundstage placed sounds more firmly and in a wider variety of places than I can recall ever hearing with any other sub-$200 headphones, there was a repeated muddiness to the "layers" with some tracks. I expect that has more to do with the source's resolution and mix, but it bears mentioning.

Very top-notch imaging I feel though. In a similar vein, I'd be remiss not to mention the line harmonics I encountered with the 422Hs and my Cavalli hybrid tube amp that I was unable to replicate with any other amp/DAC/headphone combo. Only with this specific amp and headphone combo, and only very intermittently. While the list of possible causes makes it impossible to say precisely what the cause is, neither of these issues would keep me from recommending these headphones to a potential buyer. As with most things audio equipment related, your experience will lie somewhere between your component chain and your ears. Relatedly, the single-sided termination of the headphone cable could be a knock against it should one look to after-market cable companies, though it seems a mite early to say. I experienced no other quirks/issues/anythings with the 422Hs during my enjoyable time listening with them.

More goodness: for such a solidly built pair of headphones, I'm not finding my neck or head nearly as fatigued as when I go with something with both weight and clamping force (LCD-3's, I'm glancing in your general direction). The 422Hs prove that a well-constructed headphone built with heavier materials doesn't have to mean trading one's comfort for sound. On the comfort front, I was notified pre-receipt of the headphones that the earcups run to the smallish side and sure enough, they do. While I was able to wear the 422Hs comfortably for extended periods, I was occasionally reaching up to adjust them, subconsciously attempting to make them "fit larger". An impossibility but one I kept bumping into, literally, with my ears.

I think a great capstone to my thoughts here is what I experienced when I swapped in my Audeze LCD-3 after a long listening session with the 422Hs. The overall mastery of profile and output with the LCD-3s was not/is not challenged by the 422Hs, but that's never what I was expecting. What I was expecting was an immediate eclipsing of the 422Hs by the LCD-3s. And, well, that did not happen. I didn't know that I would be writing that the 422Hs were somehow lighter and maybe even easier to listen to, especially with tracks I was well acquainted with. They don't challenge, they just…sparkle. Oh, and have I mentioned their penchant for incredible reverb? I got giggly listening to it at times! They're fun! These are lively headphones that are equally comfortable out and about or at home in a chair.

Did I mention they come in a whole dollar below the $200 mark? Exceptional!

I'm thrilled to say that I've got another solid contender for the "I sort of need new headphones and so which headphones do you think I should buy and oh yeah I guess I've only got like $200 to spend right now and do you have any discount connections or anything super amazing you'll sell me for $200 because I asked nicely" question.

What a fantastic surprise!

David W. Robinson adds the following additional comments:

Very brief notes here, to buttress David Williamson's above, and Bob Levi's review back in Issue 97. I recommend that you read Bob's comments first, before completing this article.

It was Bob Levi who got me interested in checking out the ESS 422H headphones. He was really taken with them, as you'll see at his earlier cut-to-the-chase Positive Feedback review cited above. His enthusiasm led to me asking ESS to ship another review pair here, for David Williamson and I to evaluate. David, an avid 'phones phanatic, was quite happy to give them a spin. (No surprise at all!)

The 422H 'phones use a hybrid driver system, featuring a 40mm dynamic plus AMT Heil driver. The specs follow.

  • Hybrid Driver Unit: 40mm moving coil driver, 20*30mm multi-fold AMT Air Motion Technology
  • Impedance 32 Ω +/- 15% at 1KHz, 179Mv
  • Sensitivity: 110 +/- 3dB at 1KHZ w/Vrms input= 179Mv
  • Power Capacity: 50mW, Max~100mW
  • Frequency Response: 20~20kHz at 1mW
  • Comes with case and cable

So we have a low impedance, reasonably efficient pair here, with solid frequency response.

David Williamson's enthusiastic response is above. Clearly a $200 pair of headphones that deliver what the ESS 422H produces is a major breakthrough at this price point.

I spent time with the 422H headphones around the place here, listening to them mainly with my iPhone X/Tidal HiFi combination, since I wanted to check out what the 422Hs would do in the so-called "real world" of music in this price range. Additionally, I added my OPPO HA-2 Headphone Amp/DAC to see how additional power and finesse would affect the performance. Certainly the HA-2 improved the sound and dynamics of the 422Hs, especially when I went to high output and additional bass response. Any other high-end portable headphone amp should also provide improved sound, though in my experience this is so generally true as to be a truism. 

Since these are closed-back headphones, I also took them on a flight to Chicago in the fall, spending four hours each way with them. They certainly quieted the ride pretty nicely, and the performance boost of the OPPO HA-2 was a definite plus in the noisy environment of your typical jet. Even lower resolution Apple Music files sounded pretty decent with the 422Hs.

The one caution that I would give is the same one that I gave David Williamson:  The ear cups on the 422Hs are medium sized. If you have large ears, you'll have to adjust them from time to time to maintain the comfort. Of course, close-back headphones require adjustments and breaks from time to time to let your ears breathe anyway, so this isn't a significant problem.

In sum, having given the 422H headphones a whirl over several months, I would generally concur with Bob Levi's and David Williamson's enthusiastic remarks about the 422Hs. They've hit the highlights, and I'd echo their conclusions. These closed-back Heil transducers really do the job...and they definitely outpoint the competition in the price range, and will turn two C-notes into some great headphonic performance!

Just say no to Dr. Dre! Do the 422!

ESS 422H Headphones

Retail: $199


9855 Joe Vargas Way

S. El Monte, CA 91733





Product images courtesy of ESS Labs, LLC; portrait of David W. Robinson by John Robinson