The Fostex T50RP has been out for years and years and in that time just about everyone I know has had a go at some sort of modification or another to this sub-$100 headphone. It is the cheapest planar on the market and pure joy for the DIY guys from Smeggy and his glorious legendary Thunderpants to the less pricey Zach Mehrbach creation. However, it was Dan Clark and the team at MrSpeakers that have really capitalized on the sometimes uncertain “What if we do this?” mantra of the DIY lobby into a class-leading standard “Wait until you hear this!” with the Mad Dog last year. Now they are back with possibly the best iteration of the T50RP mod legacy yet in the guise of the Alpha Dogs, the world’s first 3D printed production headphone.
So what exactly do we mean by a 3D production headphone and why does it make a difference to the Alpha Dogs? Cast your eyes on the cups of the Alpha Dogs and you will notice they look as far removed from a stock T50RP as you can get. In fact, the visual imaging is more reminiscent of say an LCD-XC or a Fostex TH900 than your regular $100 stock planer. Even the highly rated Paradox and Mr. Speaker’s own Mad Dog still largely follow the classic semi-open form factor of the stock T50RP cups. The Alpha Dogs, on the other hand, go the full hog and sports rather bulbous yet very fetching closed cups made out of a very smooth and shiny hard plastic and finished in dashing wine red color. It has that “woody” cup looks without the grain if you look at it from afar and it certainly does not look cheap in any way. They also feel pretty solid to the touch. A casual soft knock on the shell of the Alpha Dogs yields a satisfying thud rather than a worrying echo.
It is not just in the looks department that MrSpeakers was able to push the envelope with 3D printing and the Alpha Dogs. The flexibility to be able to move away from traditional conventional injection molding in cup manufacturing allowed Dan and his team a bit of freedom to tweak the cups just to their liking. Remember these are closed cups so traditionally you come across common issues such as lack of soundstage, excessive reverb and lack of headroom or airiness. What MrSpeakers did was to produce the cups via 3D printing using what they called a “double wall with lattice” construction. In theory, this design should provide greater damping power on any reflected waves than regular closed cup molding and also keep the whole cup weight relatively lighter in doing so. Damping internally reflected sound is one major factor in providing a way out of that closed wall syndrome that many other closed back designs tend to suffer from.
Everything just looks far more integrated with the new cup design on the Alpha Dogs. The dual recessed Hirose cable terminations have a more natural almost seamless finish rather than the ‘bolted on’ look on the stock cups. The discreet opening or port for the bass tuning is barely noticeable on the side of the cups also and the gimbles have been dyed black from the stock silver to match the black headband and pads.
Speaking of the pads, the Alpha Dogs benefit hugely in terms of comfort and isolation with some excellent and very deep lambskin leather ear pads. I was a bit concerned at first if they would give me a complete fit on my ear given their thickness, but once on they just surrounded the ear so softly that I barely noticed the pressure. The seal is excellent. Some companies are quick to throw out a patented meme in relation to their closed can cup sealing capabilities, but the Alpha Dogs just nail it and then some. One of the best full size closed can seal I have experienced to date with a well above average passive noise isolation capability. I would advise though looking after the pads with some sort of conditioner. Lambskin is perhaps a higher end type of leather so it would be a wise move to find something to keep them from stiffening or excessively soft to the point where they start falling apart. The good thing is though they are replaceable via MrSpeakers for around $60 and pretty easy to remove also should they start dying on you.
MrSpeakers have also retained the original Fostex headband complete with the Fostex branding, but underneath an extra soft leather strap has been added for further comfort and fitting flexibility to avoid the “hot spot” during long listening periods. It reminds me of a bit of the AKG headband type system and having tried the original stock T50RP headband a few times there is a distinct upgrade in comfort and stability.
It does not end there though with just the headphone. The package also includes a nifty little metal headphone stand for the Alpha Dogs that fits snugly in the rather fetching black retail box. A neat little trick I found to prevent dust accumulating was to throw the accompanying velvet carry bag over the cans once rested on the headphone stand. I bet I am no the first to do this but I do find it incredibly useful for preventing dust from entering the headphones without shelling out for those dust bags you see on other cans. A small note of caution though, the headphone stand is quite low and if you rest them with the cables attached you can find the cables unbalanced the headphones a bit. My suggestion is to rest them at a slight angle so the cables are pointing away and not down to allow the Dogs to rest on the stand firmly.
Before you order you can also choose between a regular 1/4 jack unbalanced cable, balanced 4-pin XLR or RSA type or a 3.5mm terminated cable at no extra cost. If you want more than one it will set you back $89 per cable. In fact, MrSpeakers has options for quite a few accessories and replacements such as pads, cables, and even a bag of doggie treats! The doggies treats give you a set of quick fit filters and tuning dots to allow you to adjust the tonality of the Alpha Dogs (or any dog for that matter in their range) for around $15. If you are worried about invalidating your warranty and messing around with that bass port then this might be a better option to try for next to nothing cost wise.
I expected better than the stock T50RP but I didn’t honestly expect a closed headphone such as the Alpha Dogs to be this good. It could well be my favorite closed headphone and at a third of the price of the LCD-XC, it might just have saved me a small fortune for that closed planer purchase. The tuning on this is just perfect for my personal tastes. It is almost razor flat, neutral in tonality and possessing one of the deepest soundstages I have heard in a closed headphone.
I read the warning regarding messing with the bass port but out of the box, the bass for me is exactly where it should be in terms of coherence and impact. It doesn’t dominate, it won’t overpower but it makes the whole presentation tremendously coherent. Those looking for mid-bass slam will be left wanting because the Alpha Dogs is not that type of headphone. The Alpha Dogs bass extends extremely well but you just won’t get a midbass hump. Instead, you get LCD-2 type depth, control and above-average texture and detail. Measuring up to other planer bass its quite unlike bass from the say the new Oppo PM-1 which has a more forward and colored bass signature designed for pure musicality or the HE400’s darker but still slamming bass presentation. The Dogs bass comes across as much more linear and natural and accurate in its response. When we actually took the Alpha Dogs to a few meets to gauge other people’s thoughts we got a chance to compare with some other modded versions of the T50RP. Most local members commentated that the bass felt much more planted and solid than the Paradox version of the T50RP and marked it out as a particular strength of note for the Alpha Dogs, especially when used with the HM-901.
If anything the only slight moment of dilemma you might have with the Alpha Dog is the treble response. This is more of a question of preference over weakness. Now for me, I didn’t find any particular issues with the treble using it with an EF6 or a Schiit Magni type of tonality. Both of these are known for their nice smooth tones, particularly out of the EF6. However when I moved it to the Schiit Mjolnir that slightly more peaky and brighter dynamic tonality in the treble of the Mjolnir lent a slightly brighter harsher tone to the upper range that took away from of that smoothness I prefer. Some did comment in the meeting that it could get a bit bright on some recordings depending on the source they used so I wasn’t going mad. On the flip side, those who complained about the unnaturally shelved down or darker treble response of the LCD-2 may find a more enjoyable experience with the Alpha Dog’s more forward and dynamic treble.
The Alpha Dogs mid range continues to remain relatively flat but it is fuller and thicker than the HE400 though loosing out a little to the more pronounced LCD-2 midrange. It doesn’t quite have the weight and forward engaging mids of the Oppo PM-1 one but certainly outdoes the PM-1 on clarity the further up the range you go. There is no bass bleed, everything stays quite linear allowing the mids plenty of room to breath and retain excellent levels of control.
The AD still requires a little juice though from amping to get the best out of it. We found the LCD-X driven balanced out of the HM-901 to be almost a perfect match but commented that in similar conditions the Alpha Dogs need a bit more juice to really shine. The Oppo-PM1 will totally outmanouvers the AD when it comes to amping since its 102db efficiency rating just does away with the whole amping equation altogether however the AD does not need HE6 power requirements. In fact, the AD scales really well and ran just fine from my Vali or Magni, even better with the Violectric V100 and just rock and pure roll with the EF6.
The Alpha Dogs reminds me of why I got into headphones in the first place. It was something just totally unexpected and made me feel “all kiddy: again. At $599 this is a bargain of sorts and a great representation for how far you can really go with those T50RP drivers. Credit where credit is due to MrSpeakers for the ingenuity and countless hours spent perfecting those cups and for also having the balls to bring in a 3D printer which no-one else had successfully done before on a commercial level. The Dogs have whetted my appetite for a high end closed planar headphone and delayed my quest to find out if the XC is within my reach. I can live without it for now. For everyone else looking at say a HE400, D7000 or even an LCD-2 I highly recommend you check out the Alpha Dogs first and compare.
Frequency response (+/- 3dB): 16Hz to 18KHz
Weight (without cable): 440g
Cable: Dual entry