Review : Alpine Headphones

Punch and bass felt through the entire unit, but app, comfort hold the headphones back

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Product Manufacturer: Alpine

Price: $300

The Good

  • Amplifiers/DSP in the headphones
  • Equalizer tuning
  • Sound "feel"

The Bad

  • Application
  • Can't adjust sound without app
  • Comfort
Headphones have hit a point where there isn't much to differentiate one set from one another. Making a choice between Bluetooth and wired models ends up being the first decision, followed by the type of tuning or sound quality a user wants. Alpine aims to add another feature into the mix, the feel of the music. With the Alpine Headphones the audio company wanted to bring the feel of a concert home, packing technology into a set of over-the-ear headphones with an app for user control to accomplish it. But do the Alpine Headphones offer a new audio experience that is worth feeling, or would consumers be better served by something more traditional?

The Alpine Headphones feature a different design than typical offerings, utilizing a mostly plastic construction to accomplish it. Rather than use an adjustable headband, the Alpine Headphones are put together as one unit. Users adjust the fit by sliding the diamond-shaped ear cups up and down in one of eight positions. The ear cups swivel, allowing the headphones to be folded flat for storage. Rubber lines the underside of the headband to replace traditional foam padding, but also aiding the technology included in headphones.

Rather than rely solely on the processing power of a device or an external amplifier, the Alpine Headphones use technology to produce the sound "feel." Alpine includes amplifiers and digital signal processors inside the unit to assist the 40mm drivers, with an additional technology called Tuned Kenetic Resonance 3 (TKR3) full-frequency immersion. TKR3 solves a problem with traditional headphone drivers, according to Alpine, in that they can't move enough air for an "immersive low frequency experience" without causing damage to ears.

To address the issue, Alpine uses the TKR3 technology in the headband. Instead of leaving the headband as mostly wasted space, a unit at the crown of the band produces the low frequency missing from most headphone drivers, which is then blended in with the sound from the specially-tuned drivers. The result is perhaps a different experience than any other headphones on the market.

Saying that Alpine delivers the "feel" of a concert is understated, as the vibrations that the headphones can produce are significant. It's similar to the experience of standing too close to a speaker or amplifier at concert, only wrapped around the ears and with potentially less damage to ear drums. It's a peculiar feeling to get used to, as the vibrations can be felt throughout the entire headset. On virtually every song played through the Alpine Headphones and accompanying app, the vibrations are felt clearly in the headband. As the bass increases, the feeling intensifies. It's a unique sensation, but welcome at the same time.

Sound from the Alpine Headphones is hard to pin down. Not because there is anything necessarily wrong with it, but because it can be tuned to user preferences. The headphones can be used without the app that allows tuning, but the result is a bass-heavy sound. Highs are surprisingly bright, rising above the rest of the muddied mid- and low-end that the headphones produce. Using the headphones without the app also means that the additional low frequency through the headband isn't delivered.

Testing the headphones for a general-use situation, "Hunter" produced 96.7dB at 100 percent volume, with the ranges across the three testing songs dipping 22 percent to 24 percent between 100 percent and 25 percent volume levels. The lowest reading for "Notorious" at 25 percent was 71.3dB. "Hunter" produced the best overall sound, which isn't too surprising since the headphones are balanced with bass in mind. "Welcome Home" produced some less-than-optimal results, as vocals started to blend in with the bass. High pitched guitar notes were crisp and clear.

Readings weren't taken with the app in use, since it falls outside of the normal testing procedures, but when used most of the same things noticed in the general testing were amplified. All of the bass becomes stronger, with more punch felt behind it. "Hunter" delivers a tolerable assault with its persistent bass push, while the bass line in "Notorious" is clear and on point.

The wired headphones get the best results through the Alpine Level Play app -- available only on iOS -- since songs can be tuned to specific preferences with a five-band equalizer. The tuning is then transmitted to the headset over Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy, allowing the built-in technology to do its job. The result is a battery-powered headset that uses power only for the "feel," with a life of about 10 hours, and a charging time that nears 3.5 hours.

Alpine's app brings some neat features with it, such as sorting songs based on their "energy." Songs are sorted into three intensity levels by color, with blue being the least intense and orange being the most intense. The equalizer can be used to customize the sound for each energy level, with a quick reset option if something gets too far off balance.

Unfortunately, the app has issues. Whenever the iPhone 4s that the headphones were paired with had the screen clicked off, the music would pause anywhere from one to three seconds. The app scans for all songs on a device, even those held in iCloud, adding them to the energy playlists. There doesn't appear to be a way to filter out the songs, leaving any songs in the cloud to eat up data. A larger problem persists, as the app doesn't seem to pick up all of the songs on a device consistently.

During the initial setup, the app picked up songs from Coldrain in the cloud, but after closing it out and loading it again, the band couldn't be found. Other artists like One OK Rock and Andrew McMahon on the device never showed up in the playlists. It's possible that the app also has problems with special characters, as songs from Japanese artists like Deco*27 and the soundtrack for Kill La Kill couldn't be found at all. In fact, any song that used kanji in the title wasn't picked up.

Comfort is also a big issue for the Alpine Headphones. While the leatherette on the ear cups is soft, the padding isn't very dense. It squishes down with ease, which creates problems with the space for ears within the cups. Uncompressed, the padding is only about 0.75 inches away from the plastic over the drivers. Where some headphones use dense padding or deep cups to keep the ears from making contact with the interior, a large area of the helix and antihelix press against the plastic. The discomfort is marginal, but it ends up being compounded with the headband.

The rubber that lines the bottom of the headband doesn't offer nearly enough padding. Since the TKR3 technology is nested in a box at the top of the band, it's easily felt through the rubber. The edges presses against the head at certain angles, but the flat spot created by the box is the real issue. The headband needs to be shifted around to keep the discomfort at bay, but after 30 minutes the headphones need to be removed.

Alpine's entry into the high-end headphone market is a mixed offering. The ability to "feel" the music is a nice touch that sets them apart from the pack, but it comes at the cost of some basic needs - namely, comfort. While the vibrations that the entire unit gives off are something that users can grow accustomed to, the discomfort from the block at the top of the headband keeps people from wearing the Alpine Headphones for too long.

The best experience with the Alpine Headphones is using them with the Level Play app, but it puts itself at a disadvantage by being unable to find some songs. If it can't discover music that a user wants to hear, they are left going without the "feel" that makes the Alpine Headphones special. After shelling out $300 for the headphones, that's a bitter pill to swallow. Without the app and the headlining feature, Alpine has a middle-of-the-road set of headphones that focus too much on bass and not enough on comfort.