Acoustic Research has just released their first ever planar magnetic headphone and they’re calling it the AR-H1 and that’s what we’ll be looking at today.
As planar magnetic technology becomes more widely adopted the benefits trickle down to the consumers in the form of more choices and lower prices. Now I’m not going to go into detail about how planar headphones work here or the pros and cons as there’s plenty of information on the internet for those curious to learn more.
This product was provided for the purpose of an honest review. I’m not affiliated with the company and all observations and opinions here are my own.
Very solid and durable build quality
Clear and resolving sound
Easy to drive for a planar headphone
Headband tension is a little strong
About Acoustic Research
Acoustic Research was founded in 1952 and has a long history of innovation in Hi-Fi speakers. In 1983 it was acquired by VOXX International Corporation, a Global manufacturer and distributor of lifestyle products. Since 2011 the company has had a “Renewed focus on High-End and Digital”. In 2015 they released their second generation M class Hi-Res audio player and USB-DAC. 2016 saw the introduction of the M20 as the third generation Hi-Res player. The company says they have:
A long term commitment to excellence” and wish to “continue to honor the vision of the founder and to build sound systems that most truthfully reproduce the information they receive from recordings.
The Acoustic Research AR-H1 has a suggested retail price of $599 and will be available for purchase soon directly from Acoustic Research’s website.
– Open back circumaural design – 86mm planar driver with NdFeB magnet array – Genuine leather headband – Low resilience ear cushion – Interchangeable headphone cable – Frequency response: 10 to 60kHz – Sensitivity: 99dB/V – Impedance: 33 ohms
Packaging and accessories
*Please note that this is the pre-production box and the final retail version may vary slightly. However, the headphones themselves ARE the final production version.
The AR-H1 arrives in a large box covered in a matte black sleeve. On the front is a glossy black outline of the headphones with some of the features listed. On the back is simply printed “TRUTH IN LISTENING” in white print.
Removing the sleeve reveals the box itself which is again a matte black with the AR logo embossed in silver on the front. The top section of the box opens up like a book cover and inside you see a flat black panel with a ribbon pull-up attached to the bottom. Lifting this up you’re presented with the headphones held securely in a soft black foam. On the underside of the flat panel pullout is a layer of protective foam with a small box attached at the top which is clearly labelled “ACCESSORIES”. Inside this are the cable and a grey coloured, soft, suede-like protective pouch and a screw on 6.35 mm adapter.
The cable is approximately 1.5 meters long and has a smooth, rubberized PVC sheathing. The cable feels to be of good quality and seems very durable. It’s supple with no sign of kinks and sits quite nicely. At the top are two 2.5 mm 2-pole plugs that connect to the headphones. Down further is a rubber Y-split with nice strain reliefs on at both ends. Finally, the cable terminates in a straight 3.5 mm gold-plated metal plug with an AR logo on it. The plug and adapter feel very premium and join together seamlessly.
As soon as you lift this headphone out of the box you can feel it’s very well built. The AR-H1 boasts an all-metal construction that feels well weighted (but not heavy) and robust. The metal arch connects to a metal clasp from which the self-adjusting leather headband extends. The yoke is really solid and has absolutely no flex or bend to it and feels particularly strong. This is of course attached to the rectangular earcup housing which is covered with a ventilated metal grill and contains the 86mm planar driver with NdFeB magnet array.
The yoke swivels back and forth to help achieve a comfortable fit and the earcups also swivel up and down and adjust themselves to your particular head shape. This means that you don’t really need to fuss with anything, you can simply put them on and they’ll sit correctly autonomously.
Silky smooth and soft pleather earpads adorn the driver’s front plate and feel very premium. They’re filled with a soft memory foam and are attached via a clip-on mechanism making them easy to replace should you ever need to.
Comfort & isolation
Personally, I find the AR-H1 very comfortable. The memory foam ear pads are nice and soft and big enough to fit fully around even my large ears and at the same time forming a good seal. The headband is nice and wide but there’s a fairly strong down-force and it’s quite stiff so I would have liked to see a little more padding on the underside. For the most part though I can wear these for a long time with no problems.
Being an open back style sound isolation is not very good as you probably can imagine so like most open back headphones you’ll need or at least want a fairly quiet environment. Noise leakage is present but nowhere near as much as I expected. It seems the AR-H1 lets in more noise than it lets out which could be good or bad depending on the situation.
The AR-H1 planar magnetic headphone has a fairly linear sound signature that is slightly mid-forward with great separation and clarity throughout. While being detailed and largely uncoloured it’s still very musical and entertaining. It’s quite dependent on the source as I found the properties of different sources to play a large factor in the final sound (more info in the “pairing” section below).
Music has a very “clean” presentation, again with clarity being a word that keeps coming to my mind. However, the AR-H1 is not what I would consider a detail monster. It’s still pretty forgiving to poorly recorded music and doesn’t reproduce the most subtle of micro-details but tends to smooth them over a bit. That means it’s not the most resolving but personally, I find it a strength as it draws the line between musical and analytical and allows the AR-H1 to remain on the side of the former.
Bass is close to neutral with well a well-defined edge to bass notes but still has a natural decay. It can keep pace with busy/fast tracks just as well as it brings the “meat” in slower bass oriented hip-hop and electronic music. Sub-bass has a little less emphasis than the mid-bass and has good extension but is fairly low-key. Listening to Westside Connection’s “So Many Rappers in Love” the deep sub-bass notes can be clearly heard but don’t drown out everything else which can sometimes happen with less technical headphones. Bassheads will likely feel shortchanged but lovers of neutrality should be pleased.
Mids are lavishly articulated with great tonality and instrument separation. Vocals show no signs of graininess and are reproduced with accuracy. The vocals in “Quickly” from John Legend’s Evolver album are a joy to listen to with Brandy’s silky smooth voice, in particular, coming to the forefront. There’s great balance to be heard in “Seven 2 Eight” by Triosense with the piano just slightly taking the lead but leaving plenty of space for everything else to come through.
Trebleis close to neutral and is fairly polite. It gives a good sense of air and never becomes intrusive. Extends very well and the sheen of cymbals sounds very lifelike and natural. There does seem to be a slight peak in the lower treble that sometimes edges on sibilant and I would have liked to see a hint more of a dip there to keep that in check. Overall though there’s great texture and realism in the treble.
Soundstage: in Pink Floyd’s “Money” sounds are clearly outside the headspace. There’s a great sense of open space with the AR-H1 but the sounds don’t become distant and the imaging remains strong with positional cues. In Solar Field’s “Random Friday” the swirling digital sounds near the beginning of the track can clearly be sensed as if moving 360 degrees around your head.
While rated at just 33 ohms the AR-H1 does need some decent power behind it to bring out the best performance.
ATC HDA-DP20: With the ATC HDA-DP20 which has a rated maxumum headphone output power of 255mW@32 ohm on quieter tracks I can turn up the volume to 100% and it sounds good but there’s no leeway if you want to go balls to the wall so to speak. So ideally you’d want a bit of extra amplification with this particular DAP. Adding the Phatlab Sassy II tube amplifier to the chain brings this combination to life in a big way.
Acoustic Research AR-M20: Using Acoustic Research’s own AR-M20 maxing out the volume makes things louder than I’m personally comfortable with. The sound is smooth and full-bodied, which are inherent characteristics of the AR-M20. Perhaps unsurprisingly the synergy between these two components is really good.
Topping DX7: The DX7 is a very neutral DAC/AMP and probably not the best choice for powering the AR-H1. The sound is a little thin throughout although the bass has a nice sharp edge to it. This isn’t a fault of the DX7 at all, just that I think it’s better suited to headphones with a slightly warm tilt.
Arcam irDAC-II: An underrated DAC (IMO of course) especially in regards to the headphone output stage which was carried over from their flagship A49 amplifier. The irDAC-II is a great match for the AR-H1. It’s smooth yet highly resolving sound is the perfect partner for the linear tonality of the AR-H1.
The PM3 is slightly thicker in the lower midrange with some added warmth to the mids in general and the bass is a bit more forward in comparison to the AR-H1. It has a smoother presentation that still brings good detail with it. It’s lighter in weight and both have good build quality. Being a closed back headphone the PM3 doesn’t have the same airiness and the soundstage is more narrow and intimate.
The 860 has more sub and mid-bass presence. The AR-H1 has a bit more separation in the mids and mids are slightly more forward. Mids sound a bit more resolving on the AR-H1. Treble has more prominence on the AR-H1 and marginally better timbre. The open backs of the AR-H1 give a sense of more width in the soundstage. Amazing built quality on both these headphones and comfort levels are roughly the same. Two great headphones in this comparison with the main differences being the price and weight of the bass. 860 for those who want the bass and the AR-H1 who want that extra resolution.
If this is a sign of things to come from Acoustic Research I believe we can expect them to grab a decent chunk of the planar magnetic headphone market in the future. One of the things that stands out in my mind about this product is the quality of materials and manufacturing attention to detail.
The AR-H1 puts many well regarded veteran brands to shame in regard to build quality. Comfort is good and I’m able to wear these for long sessions without any issues whatsoever and I would only wish for the headband to be a bit softer or have a little more padding on the underside.
The sound that these headphones produce is fantastic, especially considering that this is the company’s first attempt at a planar magnetic headphone. All this comes at what I would consider a reasonable price for what AR is providing with the AR-H1.
So with that said, if you’re looking to purchase some headphones with an uncoloured and linear but still musical signature, definitely get your hands on one of these for an audition. These guys (Acoustic Research) mean business and they’re coming out of the gate strong.