Review: Master & Dynamic MW60 Wireless Headphones
Audiophiles despise Bluetooth headphones for the same reason gourmands despise the Olive Garden: it is so inferior that it doesn’t even merit discussion. Like MP3s, Apple EarPods, and DACs that don’t play 24-bit/192 kHz files, Bluetooth cans are seen as an insult to an audiophile’s heightened sensibility.
Master & Dynamic MW60 Wireless Headphones
A headphone maker finally cracks the Bluetooth code. Phenomenal sound; ‘Wireless hi-fi’ is no longer an oxymoron. Luxe materials and construction. Advanced antenna design means rock-solid signal stability.
While the MW60 may set a new standard for Bluetooth range and sound quality, it also sets a new standard for Bluetooth MSRP: $549. More portable than they look, but still weighty.
True, the ubiquitous wireless technology has steadily improved. But audiophile-quality Bluetooth cans have proven elusive. When Sennheiser released a wireless version of its popular Momentum headphones last spring, the hoity-toity audio press raved. Customers did not. They reported all manner of skips, stutters, dropouts, and interference. Gizmodo’s Onion-esque review, “Sennheiser’s New $500 Wireless Headphones Only Work Well With a Wire,” was the final indignity. Sennheiser stopped production in May, reengineered the guts, and re-released them this month. The company says its latest cans should work just fine.
All of this goes to show that building the perfect wireless headphone is no easy task. Nearly everyone has tried and failed, some worse than others. If Sennheiser, with its fat R&D budget and award-winning wireless tech, can’t do it, who can?
A small New York startup called Master & Dynamic can.
Anyone who’s stepped into an Apple store this year has seen the M&D MH40s. With their retro-cool design, artisanal construction, and posh leather trim, they look like a WWII pilot headset by way of the Hermès atelier. This is more than suave design; critics praise the MH40’s clarity and dynamics. For its second act, M&D offers the MW60, a $549 Bluetooth headphone. WIRED snagged a rare prototype and put it through hell: drywall-and-door obstacle courses, RF interference stress tests, and every urban setting known to scramble wireless transmission. The results were a revelation. These cans aced every test and set a benchmark for Bluetooth fidelity.
Simply put, there is no better wireless headphone.
Built to Roam
The first thing you notice about the MW60s is the swaggy metal and leather construction, chronograph inspired buttons, brawny hardware, and the chunky ovoid ear pads. They are unmistakably a Master & Dynamic product. The second thing you notice is these headphones represent a considerable leap in aesthetic refinement. All the period design cues that made the MH40s so visually appealing to a tech-weary world—industrial rivets, knurled and numbered posts, exposed wires, those faux grills on the cups—are gone. This is the M&D design team in full frontal Dieter Rams mode. Compared to its predecessor, the MW60 is minimalist. Rendered in black and gunmetal (a signature “Brown/Silver” is available), the details are so subtle they fade into the background. All functions, from volume to Bluetooth pairing, are controlled by three discrete buttons and one tiny toggle switch.
The only nod to ornamentation is the M&D logo and the nearly invisible concentric circles surrounding it. The modernist approach is spot-on. In addition to being cordless, the other new twist is the MW60’s portability. Bend the ear cups inward and the unit fits in the palm of the hand. Now, it would’ve been easier to just churn out a Bluetooth version of the crowd-pleasing MH40. That’s what most startups would have done: Play it safe and exploit economies of scale. But M&D founder Jonathan Levine says he never considered it. “I’d make more money,” he says, “but it would feel like cheating.”
The MW60s have the heft of an Etruscan bronze. This robust build quality, all stainless steel, forged aluminum, and leather, has its advantages. No need to baby these cans, or worry about dropping them. Despite the heft, the MW60s are surprisingly comfortable, even during long sessions. The wireless model is actually 0.7 ounces lighter than the MH40. That’s a neat trick, considering the Bluetooth chipset and extra circuitry shoehorned inside. Mies was right: Less really is more. Also, the lack of a touch-sensitive control is a deliberate decision, says Master & Dynamic product chief Drew Stone Brigs. “It’s great on an iPhone, but a blind interface is awkward with headphones,” he says. “The same is true with noise canceling. If you have good isolation, you don’t need it. Feature creep can kill a good headphone.”
All the top wireless cans use the same Bluetooth chipset and the same top-shelf “micro-speakers.” Not M&D. The MW60 borrows its accurate 45mm neodymium drivers from the MH40. The file algorithms and tuning certainly makes a difference, but it’s more than that.
Look closely at that thin aluminum band encircling the left ear cup. Focus on the spot between the three small horizontal lines. That’s the antenna. It’s basically the same dual-antenna design Apple’s used on every iPhone for six years. You may wonder why M&D cribbed an old and “defective” design. Well, it isn’t defective, which explains why Apple still uses it. In fact, upon further review, studies revealed that the iPhone 4 antenna was 5 to 9 dB more sensitive (6.9 to 9 times) than the iPhone 3GS’s internal antenna. Voice clarity and signal reception improved dramatically.
M&D engineers had a hunch the same might hold true for wireless headphones. They were right. The upshot: Zero dropouts on the MW60s while streaming from the phone in your pocket. And the range is astonishing. Pair the MW60s to a computer and wander aimlessly (up to 50 feet), without fear of signal attenuation and the hiccups and stutters that go with it. Close thick steel doors with impunity, turn corners, even climb a flight of stairs. The signal never wavers. It’s quite difficult and ridiculously expensive to manufacture a stealthy, high-quality antenna like this. That’s why most manufacturers stuff the antenna inside their Bluetooth cans. Weak.
In the dark ages of Bluetooth 1.0, long before eggheads figured out how to enhance compressed data signals to compensate for the massive fidelity shortfall, wireless cans sounded terrible since the first stereo Bluetooth headphone, the i-Phono BT420EX, appeared in 2004. The tech was a milestone, but the performance wasn’t, with FM-style static hiss cutting through each song like a dagger. Things have steadily improved since, and Bluetooth has achieved the hi-fi threshold with the latest version, 4.2. Transfer rates are faster, throughput has spiked, wireless artifacts have vanished, and the aptX codec has finally made CD-quality (16-bit, 44.1kHz) sound possible. All of this glorious technology has been realized and harnessed in the MW60.
The button layout is simple and intuitive: on/off, pairing, and battery status on the left; volume control and MFB on the right. Just toggle a switch for instant Bluetooth pairing. Type-A multitaskers rest assured: The MW60 can be linked with two devices simultaneously. The most stunning thing about these cans is that they pass the audio Turing test. Pitted against their wired counterpart, the MW40, the sound is so pitch-perfect identical during A/B testing that you involuntary feel for a cord. Self-induce an audiophile trance, strain your ears, and you might discern the slightest dip at the high- and low-end, but M&D promises the MW60 will be a sonic clone of the MH40 and says it will have the squiggly graphs to prove it.
With all types of music, these headphones sound crazy good, even better than some primo wired models. The highs are bright without sibilance; the mid tones blossom like hothouse flowers; and that fat bass line on the Seinfeld theme is tight and deep. If the warm, rich, and natural multi-genre-friendly M&D house sound is your thing, purchase with confidence. Bass-heads who prefer their Daft Punk served on a vibrating platter, however, might feel cheated.
Everything else about the MW60 mirrors the MW40 flagship: detachable memory foam ear pads wrapped in calfskin; 32 ohm impedence (efficient enough to be iPhone-driven, but scalable when corded); a braided, tangle-free cord (for serious DAC sessions and power outages). Not that power is a concern. A full charge, at medium-loud volume, yielded 14 hours of iOS audio. RF interference wasn’t an issue either. Whether listening in a room filled with bumper-to-bumper 2.4 gHz traffic (fluorescent lights, microwave oven, cordless phone, Wi-Fi router, and several synced Bluetooth gadgets, including an Apple Magic Mouse), or walking through Times Square during rush hour, the signal was rock steady. On the sidewalk, in the subway, standing in an open field, wandering through a forest, phone in left rear jean pocket, phone in right rear jean pocket (yes, that can makes a difference)—Nothing fazed the MW60.
M&D made the right skipping the noise-canceling. As with all audio, the less the signal is manipulated, the better the fidelity. A closed-back design with snug pads create a tight seal. Standing in front of a noisy microwave oven, or working in an office with a rattling dehumidifier, all you hear is music. Like all headphones, the garbage in/garbage out axiom applies. But the sonic gap between a lossless file and an MP3 isn’t as great as you might think. The M&D engineers spent hundreds of hours tuning these cans with high- and low-res streaming content. No worries about compatibility either. The nano DACs inside the MW60 accept multiple codecs, which means that whether you link to an iPhone or an Android tablet, the SQ is always optimized. Another difference between the MW60 and some other Bluetooth cans is the way they’re tuned. Many manufacturers add a digital equalizer, which further alters the signal. M&D takes a different approach, tuning the acoustic enclosure, which results in a more organic sound.
The Whole Can of Nuts
Should you drop $549 on these things? Absofreakinglutely. Hi-Fi Bluetooth headphones don’t come cheap, especially labor-intensive cans with luxe materials. And these things are nuts. That logo on the side, for example, isn’t plastic, or even cast metal. It’s die-struck brass with an enamel fill, coated with palladium.
What closes the deal, though, is that the MW60 is two products in one: an unrivaled Bluetooth headphone and a legit hi-fi corded rig you can plug plug into a headphone amp and enjoy 180-gram vinyl. That’s the best double-dip since some genius slapped two tonearms on a turntable. Cranky audiophiles may not embrace the MW60. Let them wallow in their dogma. For the rest of us, Bluetooth is the new black.