Disclaimer: The ESS 422H sent to us for the purposes of this review is a sample and does not have to be returned. Thank you to ESS for giving us this opportunity.
A while back, ESS (ElectroStatic Sound) sent over a dual package filled with their newer 422H and 252 closed back headphones. We will save the 252 model review for another time in the near future and focus on the 422H today.
This company has been around since the 70’s and has been producing excellent sounding speakers throughout the years. They are relative newcomers to the headphone game, so let’s see how the 422H stacks up against the $199 and under competition out there in Audioland.
The 422H is easily one of the heaviest closed back, non-planar magnetic driver type headphones that I’ve ever held. The entire frame is solid and very thick aluminum, complete with leather pads and headband.
According to ESS, no 422H’s look the same, due to their use of real wood in the earcup section. And yes, it does feel like a very nice quality, indeed. That wood only adds to the weight that I am already uncomfortable with.
From a purely build perspective, this headphone is among the best I’ve seen in the price tier. I don’t have a single thought or gripe on how to improve it with different materials, they really went above and beyond here. Everything feels dense, solid and top notch.
Cable and Accessories
The headphone comes with a very long and thin cable. I’d have preferred a fabric cable instead, due to the stock removable cable’s basic offering. With a headphone that looks this nice, I’d expect a much nicer cable.
The 422H also comes with a zipper case that will hold the headphone snugly, when the headphone is collapsed into a smaller position with its earcup swivel mechanism. There really isn’t much else going on here. For $199 though, I don’t expect too much anyway.
Heil Air Motion Technology (AMT)
ESS is known for their excellent speakers, this much is true. But, they are also known for their type of interior structure designs in the Heil Air Motion tech (AMT). They’ve implemented a version of it into the headphones, although I don’t quite understand it fully. I understand how it works in speakers, but not in headphones.
I was under the impression that it required more space than what a headphone could provide and I am currently still learning about the technology in my studies. Inside speakers, the type of driver is of a folded material that sits around a structure of metal struts inside of the magnetic field. (Editorial – you can find out more about AMT here in our oBravo EAMT-2C Review)
Why is that important?
Well, that type of a driver lends massive “airiness” and spaciousness to their speakers. So too, the idea was to, hopefully, create a massive sound field that felt natural. Imaging and sound field vastness is an important thing to me.
Actually, it is my number 1 required element to my listening experience in a subjective manner. To me, my personal gear must showcase the largest soundstage possible. I will sacrifice actual fidelity to get it. There are a lot of listeners out there who don’t want an intimate-sounding set that feels closed in. Many of us want a very large and open feel to the experience, or at least, for certain applications of usage via specific tracks we enjoy.
I am unable to use the headphone for more than 10 minutes, or so, without feeling the excessive heat building up. This is a leatherette, closed back woody after all. I knew it would be pretty rough from the get-go and it really is, sadly. If you aren’t in a nice and cold room or area, I think you are going to pour sweat from your head and ear area after a short time using the headphone.
I simply cannot handle it beyond 15 minutes. I’ve tried a few times and needed a break, which made it very hard to review the headphone delayed the process significantly. I need much more than 15 minutes using a headphone a time to really understand it over the course of the weeks I am with it. This was one of the most difficult to use headphones in a while that I’ve used.
This is a closed back headphone that has some very opinionated reviews out there that I simply don’t agree with at all. On a totally void and flat EQ (disabled), the 422H showcases a lacking quantity and physicality.
The actual response to depth is good, no doubting. The response isn’t the issue, as very low and bassy tracks can be audibly felt to my ear really dipping low enough when the track calls for it. Right now, the 422H is $199USD and it is a closed back.
For the price, the bass quantity is sub-par for me and requires a massive +9dB to get to where I am subjectively comfortable. For a closed back, this is good stuff.
As for purity and cleanliness, yes, for the price it is fantastic. This is a very dense feeling bass, once EQ is active. If not, you miss out on what the headphone can really do. Without EQ, it is simply lacking too much density and depth. That broadness is missing. With a solid +4dB, things start to change in depth factor. But, with that comes a price tag via my ears that some may not be willing to pay.
Cleanliness takes a nose dive and, to a purist, I think too much is lost. However, to those with a taste for musicality and more bass than usual, they won’t mind too much. Subjectively and because I am a basshead, I am just fine with bumping it that much.
On portable players like the Hiby R3 or the newer Hidizs AP80, DAP’s that use MSEB DSP’s for EQ purposes, the headphone sounds excellent and very fun. But, clarity does become an issue when you start to bass boost. As mentioned, +9dB is currently active on my Foobar 2000’s realbassexciter DSP and that is a very high amount of bass boosting just to get the spectrum to feel more balanced for a bass head.
The headphone’s tech seems to be thwarting any possibility for intimacy factor on a disabled EQ. If you don’t’ have a magnificent EQ system (MSEB and similar) then just forget it. You won’t be able to toggle the midrange enough to justify your very intimate headphones known for excellent midrange.
Now, that really changed for me with the addition of the MSEB on my portable music player (Hidizs AP80), as I was able to achieve a noticeably more forward midrange without sacrificing bass or further increasing the treble to an overly potent appeal.
For purists, this is a very good headphone to opt for. Again, without EQ active, the experience is extremely natural feeling in tonality and presentation with a moderately relaxed formation to the void out in front of you. Meaning, the vocals are not forward, they are relaxed and a bit distant feeling for the most part.
The raw quality of them for the price is something I would rate into the excellent tier. For $199? Yes, this is a very good midrange. Tracks like “That’s All” by Dina Blade really showcase how well and adept the ESS 422H really is when it comes to female vocalists. The air factor is off the chart good for a closed back in this price tier. It competes with more expensive headphones, certainly.
Oh boy, well, thankfully clarity and purity is not the issue. Potency and dynamic kick/quantity is. Even with EQ disabled, the upper end feels overly powerful and striking. When very soft tracks are at play, the headphone truly shines best.
Density factor is superb, feeling closer to a Planar than a Dynamic driver. But, just like many Dynamic driver designs out there, treble can be overly powerful and slamming. Piano key strikes above Dina Blades’s gorgeous vocals are simply too powerful and annoying.
However, raw fidelity is again excellent for the price. It bested my HD650 from Sennheiser and even the K7XX from Massdrop, both similarly priced. Fidelity isn’t the issue, tone it down up there with your EQ and you will be fine. There simply is too much of it and the headphone feels overly unbalanced and top heady.
The AMT factor in the staging qualities of this headphone is what I suspect I am hearing. For a closed back, the void around me is very good. The naturalness factor is excellent and very aired out. I can’t name another $200 closed back that sounds as coherent and well-formed as this is 422H.
Airiness and overall spaciousness in depth of field are among the best I’ve heard for the price tier, no doubt there. Width factor is also very good. What surprises me is how well the headphone breathes for a closed design. It feels very effortless in that regard. ESS has done a marvelous job with imaging and sound staging in this model. Very well done, guys and gals at ESS.
ESS made a good $199 headphone here. True, the stock bass is a bit lacking but it can be bumped up a bit with EQ. The entire top end is too powerful for me and it was well within the parameters of being potent and too plentiful, but clarity was still good. In reality, I couldn’t really use the headphone as much as I wanted to, due to heat and weight factors beyond what I am comfortable with.
For what is there in terms of sonic prowess, at $199, this is a very nice headphone. It is probably one of the best in terms of staging properties that I’ve heard in the $199 and under closed back circuit. But, I think there are some other contenders out there for bass quality and response.
Density factor and physicality is absurdly good on this headphone. If you like Planar density, you will love this headphone. It sounds immensely solid. I think ESS did a good job here but needs to invest in pads that are more breathable and open, as well as tone down the treble factor and bump the stock bass a bit to make the headphone feel more balanced.
ESS 422H Specifications
- Hybrid Driver Unit: 40mm moving coil driver, 20*30mm multi-fold AMT Air Motion Technology
- Impedance 32 Ω +/- 15% at 1KHz, 179Mv
- Sensitivity: 110 +/- 3dB at 1KHZ w/Vrms input= 179Mv
- Power Capacity: 50mW, Max~100mW
- Frequency Response: 20~20kHz at 1mW
- Comes with case and cable