If you love headphones like we do, one of the most annoying things is trying to convince others that they can be objects of beauty. Where we see smooth curves, perfect headband design, and clever use of materials, others only see bulky plastic and weird sticky-outty bits reminiscent of torture devices. It’s not that headphone manufacturers make ugly cans; on the contrary, several of the newer models, and plenty of the older ones, are quite beautiful. But for a pair of headphones to break away from just being “a pair of headphones” and become something that even those not into audio gear would appreciate…well, that’s quite tricky. However, it’s definitely not a problem for the TH610 from Fostex. While they’ve definitely got their fair share of issues, which we’re going to talk about at some length, looking good isn’t one of them.
 

A close-up of the gorgeous wood grain | The Master Switch

Design:

There’s no denying that the Fostex TH610 look absolutely bloody amazing.

It’s something of a company signature to produce really glorious-looking headphones. There’s zero ornamentation to the design – just good craftsmanship and clever aesthetics. You only need to take one look at something like the Purpleheart variant of the TH-X00 to get a taste of it. And whatever you might think of wood’s acoustic properties – and we’ve certainly had our doubts in the past, back when companies like House Of Marley were foisting it on the public at large – there’s no denying that it makes for a seriously sexy pair of cans.

The TH610 housing is made of black walnut, covered with a matte finish, and it’s just fantastic. Not just to look at – although God knows, we could spend quite a long time getting lost in the sensuous wood grain – but to touch, as well. Closed-back headphones, as a general rule, are never going to be quite as good as open-back ones, but it would have been a massive pity if these had been anything else. You could make an argument that there are headphones out there that look just as good – we’re thinking of the Monoprice M1060s (full review) or the MEZE 99 Classics (full review) – but either the build quality doesn’t stand up to scrutiny upon a closer look, or the finish isn’t quite as spectacular. While we do adore the construction of something like the 99 Classics, we couldn’t keep our eyes off the TH610s.

There is a rigidity and robustness to the rest of the construction, too, that makes handling these pleasure. The headband adjusts in size with a pleasing click, revealing firm metal struts, and the cups are tilted at precisely the right angle. You feel you could quite happily drop these, or knock them about a bit, without any ill effects. They are completely detachable from the included cable (which we’re going to talk about more than a minute), and the connections for this are to chunky pieces of plastic at the bottom of each. Each of these has a raised marker on it, indicating whether the side is left or right, and which means you can find them simply by running your fingers over them. Little touches, people. Little touches.

If we had one complaint about the design – and it really is a very minor complaint – it’s that we wish the company’s logo wasn’t printed on the wood. When you’ve got something with this much confidence and design sensibility, it almost seems a shame to brand it. These are not a pair of headphones that need to advertise themselves; more than once, we were stopped by people to ask who made the headphones. Would it have killed Fostex to have just run their logo across the top of the headband? Maybe some discreet lettering along the edge of the cups? Whatever. These still look absolutely spectacular – among the best-designed headphones we’ve tested.

The TH610's pads are large and comfy | The Master Switch

Comfort/Fit:

You’d be surprised how often good design can be misleading about comfort levels. That’s particularly a problem with big, open-back planar headphones like the LCD-4, which are built like tanks and sound incredible but which can be very heavy. That’s not the case here. At thirteen ounces, they aren’t the lightest headphones we’ve tried, but they are comfortable enough to wear for long periods that we didn’t notice the extra weight.

The inside of the cups is capacious, capable of taking even large ears. While the covering isn’t real leather, it’s not something you’ll notice, and both cups and headband are sufficiently padded to make it easy to keep these on for quite a while. The clamping pressure feels precise and controlled, neither squeezing your noggin nor slipping off it at the slightest nod. 

All in all, then, these are physically pretty flawless. Maybe you could argue that there should be some actual leather in there, but it would feel churlish to do so. These look and feel fantastic, and we think they deserve top marks in this particular area.

The sound isn't as good as it could be... | The Master Switch

Sound:

This is a pair of headphones that really, really sets you up to expect great things. 

They come in an absolutely enormous box, of which more anon. They have a cable that you could use to tie down Goliath. They feel substantial, and then of course, there’s that magnificent, warm, wooden glow. By the time you plug these in and queue up something, you are more than ready to have your mind blown. And why wouldn’t you be? When something this beautiful comes along, you’d expect it to deliver the full package… Right?

Which is why it was kind of a disappointment that the sound was just kind of…meh.

Last week, we reviewed a set of speakers – the KEF EGG – that had the same problem. They had sound that got the job done, that ticked all the boxes, but didn’t deliver anything new or exciting or unique. While we are not directly comparing the TH610s two set of speakers, which would be weird and unfair, we just couldn’t help feeling the same as we did when we listen to the EGGs.

There was less bass than we expected, which wasn’t necessarily a problem, but what we couldn’t get over was how lifeless the other parts of the spectrum felt. The mids felt muddled and undefined, and although the highs had a reasonable level of detail that brought to mind something like the Grado SR325e, they just didn’t feel like there was enough to back them up. Moreover, after a while, they started to sound harsh and sharp, as if that particular part of the frequency spectrum had had enough of us, and wanted us to move on.

The dynamics were mushy, almost indistinct, and even after a long burn-in, we never felt like the headphones were performing to their fullest potential. No matter which amp we tested these on, the 50mm drivers never produced anything surprising or even vaguely interesting. At first, we thought it might be a slight natural bias towards open-back headphones, which we’d been listening to a lot lately. But a comparison with our existing headphone stable proved this was unfounded. Both the 99 Classics and the wireless Bowers & Wilkins P7s (full review) did a better job, delivering sound that was exciting and lively, and which felt like it actively improved our music. This? This was boring as hell.

Again, it’s not like the TH610s are doing a horrible job. The audio quality is fine. It’s OK. They accomplish their goal of providing decent quality audio that is above and beyond cheaper headphones. But when you’re in a five-star restaurant, and the waiter sets down a charred, crusty steak in front of you, glistening with crunchy sea salt, it’s a bloody shame to cut into it and discover it’s overcooked. It’s still a steak. It’s still edible, and perhaps even enjoyable. But it’s not to your liking, and it’s never going to be one of your most memorable meals. 

Compare these to the TH900s, which we had a chance to hear recently, and which truly wowed us. With the TH610s - and if you’ll forgive our own sin of mixing food and sex metaphors in the space of two paragraphs - it’s as if Fostex blew their load on the design, and didn’t have enough energy to do anything other than shove in a pair of whatever drivers they had lying around. It’s the audio equivalent of a postcoital cigarette and a squeeze on the shoulder before dashing out the door. The job might have been done, but the lasting satisfaction just isn’t there. 

We can accept slightly slipshod audio quality from something like the M1060s, which are a study in competitive cost-cutting and a gateway drug to the world of planar headphones. They earn a pass because they’re trying to achieve something no-one else has. We can’t accept the same here. When something looks like a premium product, and is priced like one, you should reasonably expect it to sound like one, too. In the end, life is way too short to listen to headphones that are just meh.

Accessory game on point! | The Master Switch

Accessories/Packaging:

What is not meh is the packaging. Fostex’s audio designers might have made a whoopsie with these, but their box guys are on point.

The headphones arrive in a sizeable box which, when the cardboard sleeve is removed, reveals itself as an elegant black case. Lift up the lid, and you’ll see the headphones couched in a special insert. Normally, we don’t like headphones wrapped in plastic, but it works with these; the plastic is slightly opaque, and quite thick, leading you to feel as if you’re unearthing something precious that needs to be protected.

The cable is worth mentioning as well. It’s a near-ten-foot python: a thick, fabric-covered, coiled snake that feels like it could be used to lasso a charging bull. Again, the premium feel is enforced here, and this is definitely not a cable that is going to get tangled or knotted. On one end, you’ll find twin two-pin connectors that clip right into the headphones, and on the other, you’ll find a tough, sturdy 6.3mm jack. While it would have been nice to have the ability to switch this out to a 3.5mm one, for external digital audio players, it’s far from a dealbreaker. You can, after all, pick up an adapter on Amazon for less then a Starbucks latte, and these headphones aren’t really designed to be portable. Although that being said, at 25 ohms, they are quite happy being run off a smartphone. It won’t do much for the audio quality, but it works just fine.

Beyond that, the only other accessory is a simple bag, made of functional black fabric. Weirdly, we didn’t feel the need for a hard or semi-rigid case, as the headphones’ build quality was such that they didn’t look like they needed a good deal of protecting.

The headband is smooth and sturdy | The Master Switch

Verdict:

If this was a fashion site, if we spent our days endlessly Instagramming shots of glamorous headphones, then the TH610s would win every prize we had. They’d crack our Editor’s Choice section, easy.

But as you’re probably stunned to hear, this isn’t a fashion site. We have to take the full package into account, and that includes sound, and that means that unfortunately the TH610s aren’t going to get anywhere near that particular section. Simply because a pair of headphones delivers reasonable, unobjectionable sound doesn’t mean they should be applauded for it, and it definitely shouldn’t be the case when everything else they do is so spectacular.

If all you’d been doing is listening to music on headphones that cost less than, let us say, $200, then you’d probably be quite happy with these. The sound is enough of an upgrade on those that you’ll get a lot of mileage out of them, and the design is, as we said, top-notch. But if you’re even mildly familiar with the kind of headphones that populate the TH610’s price range, then these are going to come as a very lukewarm disappointment.

We had such high hopes for these, and it was heartbreaking to see them fall. Fostex have proved that they can make magic, and we can only hope that the next version of these keeps the wood, and gives a major overhaul to the insides. 
 

Good:

  • Exquisite wood finish.
  • Solid, rugged design.
  • Clever details.
  • Good cable and accessories.

Bad:

  • Disappointing overall audio quality. 
  • Gummy and uninspiring mids.
  • Unexciting bass.

See the Fostex TH610 on Amazon

Great looks. Unimpressive audio. | The Master Switch

Alternatives:

MEZE 99 Classics

Meze 99 ClassicsWe’ve got a real soft spot for these, and we think they beat the TH610s in just about every arena. Not just in price – at the time of writing, they are a full $200 cheaper – but in sound quality, too. While they don’t offer quite the same level of detail, they make up for it with exciting, rich, complex sound that belies their low price.

They are not as rugged as the TH610s, but they offer superb design, which includes wooden cups, and excellent comfort levels. In a straight out race between the two, we’d bet heavily on these. They are a magnificent pair of headphones.
 

OPPO PM-3

OPPO PM-3So these don’t look anywhere near as good. OPPO make Blu-ray players as their chief concern, and those somewhat dull design sensibilities carry across into the PM-3. But there’s no denying that in terms of sound quality, they beat the TH610s hands down. Admittedly, this may be down to their planar capability - and perhaps it isn’t fair of us to compare the two - but these are still a viable alternative.

They are also planar magnetic – one of the few closed-back versions available – and this lends an openness and airy quality to the sound that the TH610 is never going to beat. We still prefer the 99 Classics, but you should take a long, hard look at these if you want a taste of planar in this particular price range.
 

Audio-Technica ATH-W1000Z

Audio-Technica ATH-W1000ZPoor Audio-Technica. These too have wooden cups, and could also count as an object of beauty – if not for the oodles of unsightly plastic, and if not for the slightly cheap grain in the wood. Make no mistake: the TH610s use theirs a lot better.

When it comes to sound quality, there is very little to dislike here. Of particular note is the expansive soundstage, which more than goes toe to toe with the Fostex cans. Their price has dropped in recent months as new models have come onto the market, so you can normally pick these up for a bargain.
 

Specs Table:

Headphones Price Weight Type Drivers Impedance Sensitivity
Fostex TH610 $500 13.2oz Closed-Back 50mm 25Ω 98dB
MEZE 99 Classics $309 9.2oz Closed-Back 40mm 32Ω 103dB
OPPO PM-3 $399 11.3oz Closed-Back 55mm 25Ω 102dB
Audio-Technica ATH-W1000Z $399 11.3oz Closed-Back 53mm 43Ω 101dB


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