KEF M500 Headphones Hands-on Review
Adjectives I'd use to sum up and describe the KEF M500 headphones would include: detailed, articulate, honest, efficient, and comfortable. For $249 it's hard to not like these headphones. A lot.
Buy the KEF M500 Headphones
My first AV purchase was a Yamaha CDX-530 CD player. I had started my CD collection in anticipation of the new acquisition, having signed up with Columbia House (remember them?) to get a handful of discs all at once. I had not yet figured out how to afford a decent stereo amplifier and speakers, and so a pair of Sony headphones and a 10′ cable extender allowed me to sit on my bed and enjoy tunes from across the room. It was bliss, and that was the start of my love affair with headphones. Putting on the KEF M500 headphones took me back to those days, largely because they reminded me again of just how intimate an experience headphone listening can be.
KEF M500 Headphones Fit
The first thing you note about the new KEF M500 hi-fi over-ear headphones is that they feature a really soft, breathable, leather ear cup that doesn’t look like anything you’ve likely seen before. This is an on-ear headphone that almost magically conforms to your ear—regardless of shape. Instead of a “donut” style ear cup, KEF went with a “racetrack” ear cup that covers a memory foam insert and provides a better seal than almost any on-ear headphone I’ve ever listened to. Put them on without playing a thing, and you’ll instantly hear a noticeable drop in ambient noise.
Aiding the comfortable fit are the multi-directional aluminum smart hinges, which twist easily, and fold when you want to store the headphones in the provided half-moon case. The system works whereby the ear cups are center-hinged. That allows them to tilt as needed to match the particular angle and shape of your ears. Then, the rotating hinge further permits adjustment to the proper lateral angle of your face. Altogether you get a very comfortable fit which, combined with the gentle padding of the leather headband, delivers an enduring conformity. You can literally wear these headphones for hours and not get fatigued—high marks for comfort in my opinion.
One thing to note is that you do want to adjust the ear cups for a precise and comfortable fit. If you don’t center them, for example, you can end up applying too much pressure to a particular point on your ear which will reduce comfortable wear time. Properly, fit, however, the KEF M500 headphones are a pleasure to wear.
KEF M500 Headphones Drivers
The drivers used in the KEF M500’s are 40mm neodymium dynamic models that employ a light, copper-clad aluminum voice-coil. The following exploded view of the driver and ear cup assembly outline the simplicity of the design—which I believe is why these headphones will likely last a good long time, even when used on the road or after having been well-traveled for several years. Build quality on these headphones is nothing short of superb.
Listening Tests – CDs
For my listening tests I turned to the built-in headphone amplifier on my reference Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray player. This player features a 32-bit digital volume control feeding off a pair of ESS Sabre 32 DACs as part of a built-in headphone amp. It’s actually quite a capable headphone amplifier, and it did a great job driving the 32-ohm KEF M500 headphones. It also gave me a direct line to my CD, DVD-Audio and SACD collection without any interference.
This was, of course, the best part of our KEF M500 review. In homage to my roots, I went back and listened to some tracks that were popular during 1991-92, recollecting all of the youth and excitement I had when beginning my journey into audio and high resolution listening. I started with The Rippingtons’ 1989 album Tourist in Paradise, playing back the title track and just lying back in my chair while the driving keys and brass poured into my ears and took me back to my youth. Brandon Fields’ lead sax and accompanying skat singing by Carl Anderson felt very present and was perfectly positioned (just left of center in the mix). The KEF M500 headphones, perhaps because of their comfortable fit and over-ear design, didn’t exhibit that “between you r ears” effect that many phones are apt to do. Instead, sound was easy to image and took up position “out front”—not as far out as when listening to a good pair of bookshelf speakers, but further front in the way that a good pair of headphones can imitate a great live-sounding mix. “Aruba!” was a track, with its excellent percussion and deep sound really expressed how low these phones could dip. On a song like this you really want to listen for all of the detail present in the well-mixed track. The keyboard work by Rob Mullins was profound, and Carl Anderson sounded like he had a blast jumping in with random vocals to carry the tune through to completion. I loved the snappiness of the toms which really pick up on the back half of the song.
Going for some more of a pop music genre, I broke out Jon Secada’s self-titled 1992 album. The first track, “Just Another Day” starts off with a lot more bass than is present in the Rippingtons album, giving me a nice contrast and showing what the M500 headphones could do with a strong male lead in parallel with a drum track and punctuated bass line. Backing vocals were nice and wide, and I loved the super-expressive tone in Jon’s vocals. You could hear the strain and edginess in his second verse that can be easily missed on any speakers or phones that can’t put out enough fidelity. By the time I got to “Time Heals” I was ready to really settle in and listen for the gentle, but consistent, reverb that rolls off the verses before the thicker mix of the chorus kicks in. I wasn’t disappointed, and the 40mm drivers in the KEF headphones had enough resolution and finesse to allow me to hear ever minute piece of this track, while maintaining the excellent dynamic range between the percussion track, backing vocals, classical guitar, and Jon’s vocals.
Blind Melon was next (1992) with their most well-known track, “No Rain”. Reverb, which is ample on this song, was smooth and had a very natural decay that wasn’t cut short by either compression, or the intrusion of outside noise into the dynamics of the track. It was great to hear the isolation on this track—which let me really hone into the few breaks that exist in the song and explore the depths of the late Shannon Hoon’s passionate vocals. I finished up my 90’s flashback with a listen to Stone Temple Pilots’ Core album. “Creep” was first, and I loved how the KEF M500 on-ear headphones spread the mix perfectly out, with the electric guitar, bass, drums, lead vocals, and backing vox perfectly laid out in the imaginary space before me. Later, when the call and response begins and the guitar effects kick in, the mix still doesn’t “blow up” despite how thick it becomes. It definitely brought back memories of the time I spent listening with my Sony’s, but those phones didn’t have near the resolution of the M500’s—a fact not lost on me as I revisited these CDs from my youth.
Listening Tests – High Resolution Audio
OK, memory lane was a blast, but I also wanted to get in some quality time with some high resolution music tracks. To remedy this I placed Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (the original 5.1 SACD/DSD not the new version with Liam Neeson) into the Oppo and skipped to the “Forever Autumn” track. Aside from the eerie, but amazing voice over by the late Richard Burton, the acoustic guitar intro and wind instrument intro plus Justin Hayward’s strong, driving vocals just took me to another place. The texture on Hayward’s voice was nearly palpable, and the strings, bass, and synths powerfully drive in at the end, in a way that really let me know the M500’s could convey the power of this truly rich, full arrangement. Comparing this album to my reference Denon AH-D7100 headphones, I’d have to say that the high end is very similar, but the bass is more well-rounded (and slightly over-accentuated) on the Denon’s. With the KEF M500’s you get a more honest representation of the bass—which is to say that you may want more, even though I believe it to be very accurate to the tracks.
Another SACD favorite of mine is Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which I placed in the Oppo and skipped immediately to “Breathe”. My favorite experience with this song was from a Classic Albums Live concert here in town. After that, I’d have to say it was when playing back this album on a pair of $10,000 Legacy Audio Focus SE tower speakers. With the M500 headphones I was nowhere near either of those experiences, but I did like the incredibly intimate sense of the album (and this track in particular) which had the wide, flowing pans and deep, synthesized bass lulling me into a state of relaxed enjoyment of the music. I really like the low frequency response of the KEF headphones, and I was pleased that I could get that kind of performance from a pair of on-ear phones at this price. At $250, these aren’t just impressive—they’re a bargain.
If comfort, bass response, midrange detail and the ability to articular clear and detailed highs are your goal, you should definitely consider (and perhaps audition) the KEF M500 headphones. I have yet to find a type of music I don’t like on these, and I can wear them for extended periods of time without fatigue. I don’t think they’re perfect, mind you, but they sound like they should cost a whole lot more than $249. Adjectives I’d use to sum up and describe the KEF M500 headphones would include: detailed, articulate, honest, efficient, and comfortable. You can use an external headphone amp to drive these, but you probably don’t need to and can get a lot of mileage off a system that pays at least a little attention to what they’re doing (like Oppo’s BDP-105). If there’s a downside, it would have to be that these headphones can move around on you if you’re not careful. Recommended? Yes. A good value? Heck yes.
KEF M500 headphones Specs
- Driver: 40mm neodymium (dynamic)
- Frequency Response: 20Hz~20kHz
- Sensitivity: 103 dB ±4dB (IEC-318 @ 1KHz)
- Impedance: 32-ohms ±15%
- Maximum Input Power: 30mW
- Noise Attenuation: -20dB
- Cable length: 1.3m
- Connector: 2.5/3.5mm
- Weight: 7.3 oz. (208g)
- Includes: Tangle-free flat cable (1.3m) with 3-button remote and microphone, protective case, flight adapter, extra tangle-free flat cable (1.3m), 1/4″ TRS (6.3mm) converter