The NAD Viso HP-50 springs from the same source as the most acclaimed headphone of the last year: the PSB M4U 2, named Product of the Year at Sound & Vision magazine. (Full disclosure: I freelance for S&V and played a large role in that selection.) The M4U 1, the passive version of the the M4U 2, was named Best $300 Headphone in an extensive test at The Wirecutter.
The M4U 1 and M4U 2 were designed by Paul Barton, the founder of PSB. PSB is a division of Lenbrook, which also owns NAD. So when it came time to do an NAD headphone, Barton was drafted.
The $299 NAD Viso HP-50 headphone isn't a rebadged M4U 1. In many ways, the HP-50 a very different headphone.
For full lab measurements of the NAD Viso HP-50, check out this image gallery.
• 40mm drivers
• 4.2 ft/1.3m cord with inline mic and play/pause/answer button
• 4.2 ft/1.3m standard cord
• Padded leather carrying case included
• Available in white, black or red gloss finishes
• Weight: 8.0 oz/226g
From an ergonomics standpoint, the HP-50 is as far above the M4U 2 and M4U 1 as, well, any operating system is above Windows 8. For starters, it's much lighter.
The earpieces on the HP-50 swivel so the headphone can lie flat, which makes it easy to slip it into a laptop case. It was impossible to fit the M4U 1 and 2 into most laptop cases, at least not without creating a huge bulge in the side. I don't know about you, but personally, I refuse to walk around an airport with my laptop case showing an unsightly bulge.
The swiveling earpieces also allow the HP-50's padded leather case to be much slimmer than the hardshell plastic case included with the M4U 1 and 2.
Thanks to an unusual headband design, the HP-50 also fits me better than the M4U 1 and 2 do. With most headphone earbands, the curvature of the band puts the clamping force at an angle to the side of your head, so you get more clamping pressure above your ear than below it. But the HP-50's band's somewhat rectangular shape gives it consistent clamping force all around your ear, making it more comfortable and providing a better acoustical seal on your cheek.
During a two-hour jaunt on Los Angeles's Orange Line, I found the HP-50's comfort above-average -- although like the M4U 1 and 2, the fabric covering the speaker drivers rubs against my earlobes a little, which can get a little scratchy and irritating after an hour or so.
Just one downside to the HP-50's ergonomics: the rectangular shape of the headband kind of makes you look like some sort of weird alien from Star Trek -- a Ferengi, maybe. "You look like a total dork wearing those," a visiting headphone manufacturer told me, recommending I instead wear the B&W P7 out in public. He had to admit he liked the HP-50's sound better, though.
While I was riding the Orange Line, I got much the same feeling from the HP-50 that I get when I commune with my Revel F206 speakers and Krell S-300i integrated amp in my acoustically treated listening room: that the sound was right, and I was free to just sit back and enjoy the music.
The #1 question for any headphone enthusiast reading this has to be, "How does it compare to the PSB?" I wanted to know, too, so I dropped by fellow electronics journalist Geoff Morrison's home to shoot out the HP-50 against his PSB M4U 1. The differences among the two headphones are modest, yet still readily apparent.
I'd describe both as sounding relatively flat. To my ears, the HP-50's bass is more pleasing; the M4U 1 has a comparatively pumped-up bottom end (what engineers would refer to as a "high-Q" sound). The HP-50's treble sounds mildly boosted compared with the M4U 1. This didn't significantly affect the spaciousness or detail as I thought it might, it just made it sound like someone turned up the treble knob on my stereo by +1 or +2 dB.
Check out my measurements to see a lab comparison of the HP-50 and the M4U 1.
Geoff agreed completely with my description of the two headphones' sound. But he liked the M4U 1 better, while I preferred the HP-50. Why? He likes more bass than I do.
I could cite all sorts of pieces of music to describe how good this headphone sounds, but I'll start with the Telarc recording of Joseph Jongen's "Symphony Concertante" by organist Michael Murray with the San Francisco Symphony, simply because that's what I'm listening to now. Not many speaker systems or headphones can convey the majesty of the pipe organ in Davis Symphony Hall, but with the HP-50, the sound -- and the feel -- was very much like being in the presence of an actual pipe organ. The deep, deep low frequencies sounded perfectly clean, without a trace of distortion.
I also got a terrific sense of the acoustics of the concert hall. The ambience wasn't exaggerated or hyped-up as it is with many treble-boosted headphones; it just sounded natural. On the loud sections, where the sound of the organ really fills the hall, the reverberance seemed to increase, as it would in the actual hall.
Audiophile-oriented, flat-response headphones like the HP-50 sometimes sound dull on hip-hop and metal -- at least when compared with hyped-up 'phones like the Beats New Studio -- so I decided to see how Wale's "Love/Hate Thing" sounded through the HP-50. In short: really, really good. I loved the way Wale and singer Sam Dew's vocals were anchored dead center, while the hand claps and finger snaps that keep the rhythm seemed to hover a few feet from my head and the backing vocals in the chorus sounded like they were echoing off the walls of a cathedral, about 40 feet away.
The bass on this track also sounded great, to my ears, at least. Maybe it didn't sound as pounding as a lot of people would like. But it sounded ample and full without seeming exaggerated.
Flaws? Well, the only one I heard was what sounded like a slight recess in the mid-midrange, which made some voices (James Taylor, for one) seem ever-so-slightly canned -- at least relative to the M4U 1, which has a more open-sounding midrange. Bear in mind, the vast majority of the headphones I review exhibit this character to some degree.
In my opinion, to get better sound than the HP-50 you'd have to go to an open-back design like HiFiMan's $699 HE-500. But that headphone is grossly unsuited to any kind of portable use: It's open-back (so sound leaks in and out), it's heavy and bulky, and it needs a separate headphone amp (or a really good portable music player) to perform its best.
I'm sure readers would love it if I proclaim a certain headphone to be "the best," but there are lots of headphones out there for lots of applications and lots of tastes. There are, especially, a lot of great passive, over-ear headphones for $300 to $400 -- the B&W P7 and the Phiaton MS-500, plus the Sennheiser Momentum and of course the M4U 1, too. Of these, the NAD Viso HP-50 is my personal favorite.
That doesn't mean it will necessarily be your personal favorite. I recommend you hear as many of these headphones as you can before you choose one. (Where can you do that? At the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest! You should go. You will not be disappointed.)
And for air travel, I'd still prefer the Bose QC-15, which is more comfortable and has the best noise-cancelling of any over-ear headphone. In fact, that's the one thing I'd really like to change about the HP-50 -- I want a noise-cancelling version. But I hear that might be coming.