Not so long ago I wrote a piece on how to choose between on-ear and over-ear headphones. What it didn’t include was any mention of hovering-above-your-ears headphones. That brings us to the MySphere 3.2 open headphones from LB-acoustics.
Indeed, you can wear the MySphere headphones without them touching your ears at all, or you can have them work almost like on-ear headphones. Your choice.
- “Open” headphones is a good name, because they are as thoroughly open as you can imagine
- Ear-sections are attached to the headband by hinges which allow their positions to be adjusted both for comfort and for sound
- Light metal frame designed for comfort. Pads secured magnetically for easy disassembly and replacement
- Come with sturdy aluminium case with sculpted foam to hold the headphones securely
- All internal conductors matched for length to ensure perfect matching
- Headphone connections on both left and right sides for convenience. Use 3.5mm TRRS socket for each cable replacement. 1.25 metre cable provided with 3.5mm termination and 3.5mm to 6.35mm adaptor
- Radial magnetic structure, fully vented, using neodymium N52 (N52 is the highest strength of magnetic field), 1.5 tesla
- 40mm by 40mm dynamic transducer
- Frequency response: 20 to 40,000 hertz (-10dB)
- 96dB for 1mW input, or 115dB at “ear-drum reference point” for 1 volt input
- 60mW maximum input power
- Rated impedance: 110 ohms
- A highly unusual design that provides an open, detailed and musical sound without unduly sacrificing bass performance. Should use an amplifier capable of delivering 2.7 volts to fully realise their potential.
- Designed and assembled in Austria, made in EU
- Price: $6,299
- Available: Fine specialist audio retailers and direct from here.
A bit more on these headphones
Most of the details on these headphones are in the previous section. But because they are so different from the norm, I need to explain a few things.
First, the whole point of the MySphere 3.2 headphones is that they don’t sit on your ears. The earpieces are designed to hover just outside your ears, with the surface material just barely brushing the faces of your ears. So it is the metal headband – it’s properly padded of course – which sits on your head. The earpieces are attached to this and are hinged. How all this works is best illustrated rather than described. Sadly, there were no photogenic models available:
Because all the bits are held together by magnets – strong magnets, they won’t come apart by accident – I could see how the unusual wiring arrangement is managed. Inside the headbands are four rails extending from one end to the other:
Contacts on each earpiece press against the rails. They can be simply slid up and down:
Because of this arrangement, the earpieces aren’t really self-locating with respect to your ears. You can tilt them in or out – we’ll see the effect of that later – and adjust the height. The headband has printed on both sides of it a scale so that you can note down the optimum position and easily slide the earpieces back into the same place should they be moved.
A point of interest: the designers were also responsible for the famous AKG K1000 headphones from a couple of decades ago.
Listening to music with the MySphere 3.2 headphones
It’s actually hard to fully characterise the sound the MySphere 3.2 headphones. And that’s because they really do give you a choice, according to how you angle the earpieces.
Basically, how you angle them will be your personal choice between how much of a sense of spaciousness you’d prefer in the sound, and how much bass. Bring the ear section in closer to your ears, and you get more of the deep stuff. Open them up wide and the deep bass disappears, the overall level diminishes, but a wider openness is manifested.
For this review, I settled on turning in the earpieces so that they barely brushed my ears. There was no distortion of the surfaces of my ears, eliminating one of the problems of on-ear headphones. I could get a little more bass by pushing them in that much more, but this made them less comfortable and surrendered too much of that glorious openness.
One of the early things that I was reminded of by the MySphere 3.2 headphones is that when reviewing any gear, be careful of your source material. I started by playing the second Dire Straits album, Communique – this one is considered the weakest by critics, but really do love the first side, which foreshadows Love over Gold. The first few tracks had a harsh, hard-to-tolerate, too-high-in-level vocals, when I’d set the volume for a pleasing level for the guitar. The bass was strong and full and completely engaging. But those vocals, perhaps the midrange in general, was a problem.
I’d been listening to this from TIDAL on a headphone amp/streamer that hasn’t quite been released yet, so I can’t identify it. So I switched to another headphone amp, this one being fed by DAC attached to a notebook computer. Again, the track was from TIDAL. The excess in the vocal midrange was tamed … just a little. That made no sense. From the earliest days, when I still owned this album on vinyl (oh that silly, silly, Dawson of the late-80s who flogged off his vinyl as he purchased CD versions) I’d found this to be a clean, balanced recording. Mark Knopfler is really quite keen about that stuff.
While I no longer have the vinyl, I do have the original CD version with which I replaced it. And the contents of that version reside on my network attached storage, carefully ripped with EAC (Exact Audio Copy) and losslessly compressed into FLAC. So I used the same computer, DAC and headphone amp to play that. Very, very, different. This version quite eliminated the vocal/midrange prominence. But it also diminished the bass level. A little research reveals that a remastered version of Communique was released in 1996, some years after I bought the CD copy. Presumably that’s what’s on TIDAL. The point of all this? These differences were obvious when using the MySphere 3.2 headphones. Day and night obvious.
Speaking of remasters, I went back to Nina Simone’s debut album, Little Girl Blue, the 2013 remastered stereo version. The MySphere headphones presented this music with a beautiful intimacy. Of course, the 1958 recording equipment was not up to modern standards, but the music was delivered by these headphones with a remarkable freshness and a complete lack of any kind of dynamic compression. At times, it was like a live performance transmitted perfectly through more than sixty years.
Getting more than half a century up to date, I moved to Beyoncé’s 2016 album Lemonade, the opening bass chords were full and reverberant, suggesting an accurate bass performance. The next track, “Hold Up”, has a simple, but powerful and intense bass line, composed mostly of note pairs. Again, it was all there, including the frequencies that I would feel in my body were I listening at a high level with highly competent loudspeakers.
Can I just pause for a moment and note that this is a really impressive bit of engineering. I really was expecting at best a light-on bass delivery, given the lack of any attempt at a seal between transducers and ears. Pausing the music, I can hear the room around me, the quiet whisper of an electric heater across the room, a bird calling to its mate outside, beyond the glass of my office. These really are open headphones.
When I fired up the music again, it was with the 2006 album Mercury from the Alister Spence Trio: piano, drums and bass. This has an interesting mix, with the Toby Hall’s drums held back further than you’d expect. That makes for a beautifully layered sound, but with inadequate equipment you can miss some of the subtleties in the kit. Not with these headphones. The image was wide and all the elements of the music were presented in their proper place, almost layered. The drum solos really didn’t have their level increased, with the piano simply shifting to simple repeated chords to reduce distraction from the drum work. The clarity on the drums remained first class as they danced around the piano work.
How about some strings? My favourite is the Schubert String Quintet in C, and the best version of it I have is performed by the Alban Berg Quartet with Heinrich Schiff (for the additional cello). The strings were both sweet and detailed, especially the violins. Sweet and without the slightest hint of stridency. The rhythmic intensity of the opening Allegro ma non troppo had me swinging. This is great stuff, and I’m believing now that the MySphere 3.2 headphones are a truly great way of listening to all manner of music.
I experimented a little more with the angles of the earpieces on this one. Opening them up very slightly – just a millimetre or two – added more air and spaciousness to the mix, while having little effect on the power of the cellos.
You may have noticed that the headline sensitivity figure looks fairly low – 96dB for 1mW input. These days lots of headphones deliver way in excess of 100dB for 1mW input. However, the headphones are also specified at 115dB SPL (at your ear drum) for 1 volt input. Given that you can expect the Lightning to analogue dongle on your iPhone to deliver just short of 1 volt into an impedance of 110 ohms, that would seem sufficient. But I had trouble reconciling those two numbers. 1 volt into 110 ohms is 9mW, and 9mW is 9.5dB more than 1mW. So that would only bring the 96dB figure up to 105.5dB.
I think the 115dB SPL for 1 watt specification might be for the variant MySphere 3.1. This seems to be pretty much identical, except that its nominal impedance is 15 ohms instead of 110 ohms. 1 volt into 15 ohms is 66mW, which is 18dB more than 1mW. Adding that to 96dB comes to 114dB, which brings us close to that 115dB figure. I would expect that to achieve that level with the higher-impedance MySphere 3.2 headphones you would need 2.7 volts RMS.
In any case, the problem with low sensitivity is not how loud headphones can go with test signals, but with real world recordings. And real-world recordings are all over the place in level. As I’m writing this section, for example, I am streaming the Black Sabbath debut album from TIDAL using an iPhone and the aforementioned dongle. I have the volume maxed out. With a sine wave peaking at 0dBFS, the dongle would be delivering somewhere between 0.9 and 1.0 volts RMS, and the music would be peaking at somewhere around 105dB. But what I am hearing is a moderately loud, but still comfortable, level. If you want to really bang your head, you’re going to need a headphone amplifier with a bit of oomph. I should add that the recording does sound rather good through these headphones. It’s just that had I wanted it louder, it couldn’t be managed on this device.
The impedance of the MySphere 3.2 headphones varies significantly by frequency. It’s fairly even from about 200 hertz up to 20,000 hertz, but it rises significantly in the deep bass to peak at around 40 to 45 hertz. If you use these headphones with the headphone output design not uncommonly used in home theatre receivers and some integrated amplifiers – these place a 470 ohm resistance in line with the output – you can expect an 11dB lump in the output at that frequency. Here’s the graph:
The MySphere 3.2 headphones are a very different approach to headphone design, offering exceptional quality sound and a rare, open airiness, beyond that available even from open-back headphones. They deserve to be coupled with fine – and powerful – electronics.