Dazzling Scenery – ESS 422H Headphones Review
ESS 422H is a 200 USD new headphone from ESS, and it has both a good price and a very beautiful design, so their sound quality and build quality will be put to test, and they’ll be compared to other headphones in this price range.
ESS is quite an old company, having been around since 1970, and they have been making some awesome speakers along the way, so they surely know their way around sound. This being said, they relatively new to the headphones and portables industry, and their first two headphones, the ESS 422H and the ESS 252 are quite intriguing for many music lovers, since ESS uses real wood in their build, but they have also developed many technologies in the past, their first headphones being eagerly expected by many music lovers. ESS is also quite friendly, and they have good customer support, so you won’t be let down if you decide to purchase their speakers or headphones.
It should be noted that I have no affiliation with ESS (Electro Static Sound), I am not receiving any incentive for this review or to sweeten things out. This review is not sponsored nor has been paid for by ESS or anyone else. I’d like to thank ESS for providing the sample for this review. The sample was provided along with ESS’s request for an unbiased review. This review reflects my personal experience with ESS 422H. Every opinion expressed is mine and I stand by it, the purpose of this review is to help those interested in ESS 422H find their next music companion.
First things first, let’s get the packaging out of the way:
ESS 422H comes in a large cardboard box, being well protected during transportation. They also come with one cable, which has a remote / microphone, and they come with a carrying case, and a 6.3mm adapter for usage with larger amplifiers.
Given their 200 USD price, the package is good enough, and in line with what other headphones in this price range have to offer, except for very few cases, where manufacturers decide to include a set of spare pads.
What to look in when purchasing a high-end In-Ear Monitor
Hybrid Driver Unit: 40mm moving coil driver, 20*30mm multi-fold AMT Air Motion Technology
Impedance 32 Ω at 1KHz
Sensitivity: 110 +/- 3dB at 1KHZ
Power Capacity: 50mW, Max 100mW
Frequency Response: 20~20kHz at 1mW
ESS 422H is quite heavy, being one of the heaviest headphones I’ve seen to date, that are not planar magnetic. This being said, they are made of metal, leather and wood, so ESS did go all-out with the build quality.
There is nothing you can wish they did better in terms of their build quality, and it really shows when it comes to ESS 422H.
The leather in the earpads is soft and feels very high-quality, even better than most headphones in this price range tend to feel. ESS 422H is not too tight, nor too lose, having just the right amount of tightness for walking and light activities, but not being tight enough to create issues. The headband can adjust to various head sizes, and the adjusting mechanism is also reliable and high-quality.
The aesthetics are out-of-this world, with real wood and real metal in the build quality, but it all adds to a good weight, so if you were looking for a light and ultra-portable headphone, ESS 422H may not be the best for you. This being said, I managed to use them portably, take a long trip along my hometown, Campulung, and also take some photos, and considering I was also carrying my rather heavy DSLR with me, I’d say 422H isn’t too heavy for practical usage.
They can get rather warm during usage, especially if you live in a hot area, so you may want to consider this, I did sweat a bit, since they are a full wood and metal headphone with leather / leatherette pads and headband, and since they are a bit heavy, but in Romania it isn’t quite that warm at the moment, so people living in warmer areas may experience quite a bit more heat.
The overall isolation is quite amazing, especially since they aren’t quite that tight on the head, like an Ultrasone generally is, but the wood and earpads surely help 422H with that.
Overall, the build quality is outstanding, the aesthetics are simply incredibly, but the fit and comfort could be improved a bit by making them a tad lighter and if they didn’t get quite as warm.
Now, ESS has their own technology named AMT (Heil Air Motion Transformer), which is supposed to give a much larger soundstage and a much better instrument separation than its less intricate counterparts. This seems to be rather effective with ESS 422H, as they are quite wide and deep in their soundstage, but I haven’t had the chance to open them up and take a look whether this tech is similarly implemented to Ultrasone’s S-Logic, since in a headphone, the AMT would look quite different from their implementation in a speaker.
Now, the sound of ESS 422H can be quickly described as very dynamic, pretty balanced, with a clean, detailed and deep bass, with a slightly recessed midrange that is quite clear and juicy / emotions, and with a rather smooth and non-offending treble that is there to glaze the sound, but doesn’t go above in terms of presence.
Now, the bass is quite clear, deep and powerful. ESS 422H seems to like a bit of current, and using them with something that can feed them well, will result in a better overall result, than using them with a weaker / lower powered amplifier / source. They have a bit of added juice beyond 60Hz, so in the 30 Hz – 60 Hz area, and they can really deliver the punch and impact when it is called for, but they won’t add it, if it isn’t asked for.
The midrange is slightly recessed, but mostly balanced with the bass and the treble. There is a good amount of emotion, and they have excellent clarity and come off as very natural, and they sound quite amazing with guitar solos. ESS 422H also tends to have an excellent instrument separation, so you’re getting quite a large number of instruments and layers of music with them, being excellent for this price range. The textures in the midrange are very good, and the speed of the midrange is natural leaning towards quick, so you’re getting those crunchy guitar solos quite nicely, along the textures of blowing instruments like trumpets.
The treble is leaning towards a more relaxed and smoother state, without much sparkle, but this also means that it isn’t offensive nor harsh. They give an excellent impression with metal and rock, but they don’t take a lot of EQ in the treble before it becomes a bit too much, so if you prefer a brighter headphone, there are other options you may consider. On the other hand, they work well with older music, and they shine with bands like Pink Floyd, where they seem to have just the right amount of sparkle to sound natural and convincing. This being said, they aren’t overly smooth, nor overly, lacking in treble.
The soundstage and the instrument separation, both supported by the AMT technology, are very good for this price range, ESS 422H sounding rather large and airy, with a good amount of space between instruments. If you prefer a wider soundstage, and if you’re within this budget, they are a winner.
As noted earlier in the review, they can get a bit hot, which can be slightly detrimental to their usage. Replacing the earpads would yield large improvements in terms of comfort, although I really like the softness of their original pads.
I was able to take some longer walks, and even take some photos while wearing ESS 422H, so I’d say they are good enough for post practical uses.
The cable ESS 422H comes with is rather long, which may also impede a bit on their portable usage.
On the other hand, they are quite small, they come with a nice carrying case, and they swivel, plus the build quality is quite amazing, so you’re not likely to need to worry about taking them on-the-go, or at least carry them.
Since they are made to be portable, the longer cable and the weight may be slight issues, but still, their aesthetics alone may win them over for portability, especially if you like having a full wood headphone on your head while you’re out and about.
The comparisons are made with headphones either similar in price or that make sense for EHH 422H to be compared to. As such, I picked Brainwavz HM100, Meze 99 Neo, and AIWA ARC-1.
ESS 422H vs AIWA ARC-1 – AIWA ARC-1 is a headphone I reviewed recently, which relies on bluetooth to sound its best, and although it is mainly a bluetooth headphone, while ESS 422H is a traditional one, ARC-1 is priced at 170 USD, which is quite close to the 200 USD price point of ESS 422H. Starting with the package, they are quite similar, although ARC-1 comes with a hard carrying case, which may be better than the softer one that ESS 422H comes with. Going forward, the build quality is comparable, although ESS 422H have wood and more metal in their build, although ARC-1 recovers quickly by being considerably lighter and better suited for portable usage. The sound is quite different, with ESS 422H comes off as stronger in the sub-bass, having a more clear midrange, which is more revealing, with more emphasis on the textures, and with a similar treble presentation to ARC-1. This being said, ARC-1 was being used in Bluetooth mode the whole time, and by direct comparison, it sounds smoother on an overall level, less revealing, warmer in the mid-bass, with a warmer overall sound, sweeter and less emotional, with less sub-bass impact, but with a more forward midrange. Between the two, ARC-1 is the bluetooth one, if you want a bluetooth headphone, while ESS 422H is the more detailed and revealing one, with the only disadvantage being its weight, which is quite a bit heavy.
ESS 422H vs Meze 99 Neo – Meze 99 Neo is priced at 250 USD, which is quite close to the 200 USD price mark of ESS 422H. Now, starting with the package, the hard carrying case of Meze 99 Neo is considerably more reliable than the softer carrying case of ESS 422H. In terms of build quality, ESS 422H has an advantage with their wooden cups design, but they are considerably heavier, which is not the best for portability. In terms of comfort, they are similar, although I’d give the slight nods to Meze 99 Neo for being lighter, and for having a better overall comfort. This being said, they both get similarly hot during usage, and 422H isolates more from the ambient noise. The sound is quite different, and this is quite important, because if you wanted a thick and warm headphone, 99Neo surely fits the bill more, with much much more mid-bass and upper bass emphasis, with a thicker, warmer more wooly and smoother midrange, and with a smoother, more relaxed treble, while ESS422H brings more deep bass, more sub-bass and impact, a more revealing and juicy midrange with more textures and emotion, and with a more sparkly and better extended treble, which makes them more balanced and more universal, if you wanted a rather universal and balanced headphone. On the other hand, there is something to keep in mind, that 99 Neo can take way more EQ than 422H can, so you can get 99 Neo to sound like 422H, or maybe even better, as their revealing abilities and clarity changes drastically with EQ, following the EQ curve I presented in my full 99 Classics review. Now, if want to take the time to tinker and play with the sound, 99 Neo can get better results with EQ, and they are a touch more comfortable, while if you prefer wooden cups, and if you want to get some of that juicy midrange, clear sound, and if you like AMT sound in general, ESS 422H sounds better out-of-the-box, especially if you don’t mind their weight.
ESS 422H vs Brainwavz HM100 – Here is where things get interesting, as HM100 is pretty much priced the same as ESS 422H, which is 200 USD. They are both made of metal, with real wood in the cups, and they both look quite good in person. Things start to differ when you factor in the weight, where HM100 is considerably lighter. The clamping force is quite a bit higher on HM100 though, so you’d have to decide if you prefer a heavier headphone, or a tighter one, between 422H and HM100. Other things to consider, are that the package includes a spare pair of pads for HM100, and they are velour pads, different from the leather ones originally put on the headphones. ESS 422H loves more current than HM100 does, but both are similarly hard, or rather easy to drive. In terms of sonics, HM100 has a stronger mid-bass and feels a touch boomy in comparison to 422H, but both have excellent dynamics, and an excellent overall impact. The soundstage is actually wider on HM100, where the midrange feels a bit more recessed. The treble is more sparkly, has more detail and is more clear on HM100, although 422H comes off as more relaxing, smoother and less fatiguing. They both have similar amounts of textures, although 422H is a touch more emotional on an overall level. Now, if you’re looking for a wooden headphone, with real wood in the cups, and with a good build quality, both offer it. If you’re looking for a clear sound, both sound very clear. But if you prefer a tighter seal, more noise isolation, and if you don’t like a heavy headphone, then HM100 would be your choice. HM100 comes with a much larger carrying case, but they also come with spare earpads, two sets of cables, and their package just feels more premium, but if you prefer a slightly more stylish headphone, and if you don’t mind a slightly heavier headphone, then 422H makes a really compelling choice, especially with the added benefit of being smaller and easier to carry around.
ESS 422H is easy to pair with sources and tends to like some current for their bass response to be at its best, so they don’t reach their full potential out of smartphones, and are better paired with a dedicated DAP (Digital Audio Player) or a DAC/AMP connected to your smartphone.
ESS 422H + iBasso DX120 – iBasso DX120 is quite a good pair for ESS 422H because it is a very configurable DAP sonically, it has two microSD slots, and it sports a very good battery life. Furthermore, it is a very stylish-looking Player that pairs well with the beautiful aesthetics of 422H. The sound of the pairing is very vivid, dynamic and punchy, has a good amount of sub-bass and impact, and with a warm and emotional midrand, and a smooth and fatigue-free treble.
ESS 422H + Opus #1s – Opus #1s is another DAP that pairs really well with ESS 422H, and which also has two microSD slots, and which also has an amazing battery life. The sound tends to be very wide and clear, very punchy, a bit less emotional and more forward, especially compared to DX120. The soundstage depth is slightly reduced, while the width is slightly increased. The treble is still fatigue-free.
ESS 422H + FiiO Q5 (AM03A) – FiiO Q5 is an excellent choice if you want to power up your headphones with Streaming and with a more unilimited music collection than you carry on your microSD cards. The pairing sounds very dynamic and punchy, with a good impact in the sub-bass, but also with a good amount of rumble. If you’re even more thirsty for bass, you can turn on Q5’s Bass Boost which should make your basshead day very nice. The treble has slightly more sparkle, and a touch more air, while the soundstage tends to be slightly more intimate and the depth tends to be a touch shallower compared to other pairings.
Value and Conclusion
ESS 422H is priced at 200 USD, which is a very fair price for this headphone, and considering their overall package and build quality, they are quite an amazing deal.
Now, starting with the package, they come with a carrying case, and with a cable, and a 6.3mm adapter, but there’s nothing else in the package. This is a very fair offering for this price point, although some newer models do go a step forward, like HM100, which includes two cables, and spare pads.
The build quality of ESS422H is truly outstanding, with real wood in the cups, metallic frames, and leather / leatherette in the pads and the headband, making them one of the most stylish, and best-looking headphones in this price range. On the other hand, they are a touch heavy and can get a bit warm, things which you should consider before getting them.
The sound is really punchy and vivid, very dynamic and detailed, with a clear and powerful bass, a juicy and emotional midrange, and with a slightly smooth and relaxed treble, but which still has a fairly good extension and sparkle. The instrument separation and soundstage are quite excellent, and they sound pretty much as you’d expect based on the AMT technology ESS builds the 422H on. Female vocals and male vocals both sound natural and have the right tonality, and guitar solos are juicy and enjoyable, even older music sounding pretty great.
On an overall level, if you’re looking for a very balanced sounding-headphone that can play both newer and older music well, which is very well built, and which has a good impact, good dynamics, and is priced quite nicely, and especially if you don’t mind a bit of weight, then ESS 422H is quite an excellent choice, and should make a trusty companion for a long while.
Full Playlist used for this review
While we listened to considerably more songs than those named in this playlist, those are excellent for identifying certain aspects of the sound, like PRaT, Texturization, Detail, Resolution, Dynamics, Impact, and overall tonality. We recommend trying most of the songs from this playlist, especially if you’re searching for new most, most of them being rather catchy.
Bats – Gamma Ray Burst: Second Date
Eskimo Callboy – Frances
Incubus – Summer Romance
Electric Six – Dager! High Voltage
Kishida Cult – High School Of The Dead
Dimmu Borgir – Dimmu Borgir
Breaking Benjamin – I Will Not Bow
Thousand Foot Krutch – The Flame In All Of Us
Gorillaz – Feel Good Inc.
Infected Mushroom – Song Pong
Attack Attack – Kissed A Girl
Doctor P – Bulletproof
Maximum The Hormone – Rock n Roll Chainsaw
Rob Zombie – Werewolf, Baby!
Escape The Fate – Gorgeous Nightmare
SOAD – Chop Suey
Ken Ashcorp – Absolute Territory
Machinae Supremacy – Need For Steve
Ozzy Osbourne – I Don’t Wanna Stop
Crow’sclaw – Loudness War
Eminem – Rap God
Stromae – Humain À L’eau
Sonata Arctica – My Selene
Justin Timberlake – Sexy Back
Metallica – Fuel
Veil Of Maya – Unbreakable
Masa Works – Golden Japang
REOL – Luvoratorrrrry
Korn – Word Up!
Papa Roach – … To be Loved
Fever The Ghost – Source
Fall Out Boy – Immortals
Green Day – Know The Enemy
Mindless Self Indulgence – London Bridge
A static Lullaby – Toxic
Royal Republic – Addictive
Astronautalis – The River, The Woods
We Came As Romans – My Love
Skillet – What I Believe
Man With A Mission – Smells Like Teen Spirit
Yasuda Rei – Mirror
Mojo Juju – Must Be Desire
Falling Up – Falling In Love
Manafest – Retro Love
Rodrigo Y Grabriela – Paris
Zomboy – Lights Out
Muse – Resistance
T.A.T.U & Rammstein – Mosaku
Grey Daze – Anything, Anything
Katy Perry – Who Am I Living For
Maroon 5 – Lucky Strike
Machinae Supremacy – Killer Instinct
Pendulum – Propane Nightmares