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Oppo PM-1 Planar Magnetic headphones review (Part 1)

Oppo are a bit different. And not just because their name reads the same forward and back. Or because it insinuates both opportunity and opposition in the same breath. No, ever since their affordable universal decks prompted wholesale embrace by the Mod Squad—not to be confused with the merchants of death alliance of big tobacco, alcohol and firearms lobbyists in the Aaron Eckhardt flick Thank you for smoking—Oppo have exploited a rare form of crowd-sourcing.

How so? To start with, for years manufacturer forums hosted on AudioCircle.com have solicited fan and owner feedback about desired features for their upcoming models. Then LightHarmonic’s heavily publicised Kickstarter and Indiegogo crowd-funding campaigns for their Geek models used the direct connection with their audience to fine-tune feature sets, cosmetics and more. What Oppo have done for their digital decks was pay close attention to how the various boutique modifiers changed them. When the time came for new models or updates of existing ones, Oppo routinely dipped into their growing mod pool to apply those tweaks which best matched their own sensibility and target pricing. Soon this resulted in mass-market machines that were de facto pre-modified. Very clever!

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When it comes to scale, Oppo are different too. Unlike the typical cottage-industry hifi player, they’re big. For universal video players at sane prices, they’ve arguably wrapped up the global market with a pretty bow. With the introduction of the PM-1 and PM-2 planarmagnetic headphones, Oppo now resolutely press into contemporary audio’s busiest segment. For a company which can sell a technically very advanced play-all audio/video machine for $499, their £1099/UK and €1399/EU orthodynamic flagship aims high not only on price. One wayward glance at its styling suggests that it aims high, period. On cosmetics alone it could belong into Bang & Olufsen’s catalogue. Or be mate to Kef’s M500. Or be a Pioneer SE 500 reborn. A tulku headphone perhaps? But, the PM-1 means to be far more than natty city slicker. Oppo actively engaged audiophile beta testers in the US to help them perfect everything about their first entry into this segment. So crowd-sourcing and Oppo really are on the friendliest of terms. No designed-here myopia for this team. That’s a breath of fresh air in an industry which often equates one solitary engineer’s endless navel gazing with true innovation.

High on Oppo’s to-do list were wear comfort from low weight; sensitivity for more universal drive; and ultra-low distortion. The PM-1 thus gets a 7-layer polymer-film membrane with double-sided spiraling coils “to put twice as many conductors in the magnetic field”. To drive said diaphragm there is a Finite Element Method optimized concentrically arrayed very powerful push/pull Neodymium motor system with a symmetrical “evenly distributed” force field. Say hello to 102dB/1mW sensitivity and 395 grams weight. Say hello to hypoallergenic latex ear cushions for long-lasting shape; lambskin pads and headband for wearable luxury; alternate velour pads for a slightly more powerful low bass response; fine structural aluminum elements for strength; and convenient 2.5mm mono plugs on the 3m 6.3mm and 1m 3.5mm terminated Ohno Continuous Casting OCC cables for easy removal. On hard specs there’s 32Ω impedance, an oval 85x69mm driver surface and ambitious 10-50’000Hz response.

If we establish a rough time line, first there were Pioneer and Yamaha and their lot way back when this type of headphone was still called orthodynamic. Then transistors replaced tubes and dynamic headphones displaced vintage planars. Fostex though kept their faith into the 21st century. Then HifiMan and Audeze joined this new-again religion. The Mayan’s end of the world came and went. By now top planars had established themselves at the very apex of the headphone pile. The time had come for an outfit called Abyss to get into the act with an abysmally priced model – as in north of $5’000. Ouch. Finally the bells tolled 2014 and there were Oppo.

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It seems fair to say that this team under project leader Igor Levitsky command resources which dwarf all other players in this sector. It’s also fair to pronounce an obvious advantage for being late to this party. It presents you with plenty of opportunity to shove all your direct competitors under the electron microscope. Determine which bits and bobs could and should be improved. Read all of their reviews. Isolate common complaints and criticisms. Benefit from their mistakes so you needn’t make them all over again. Voilà, we’re back at too hard to drive; too heavy for comfort; too inconsistent from pair to pair; not reliable enough; and cosmetically klutzy. Of course not making other people’s mistakes all over again doesn’t prevent you from making your very own brand-new mistakes. If there are any, we’ll get to them.

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To take all things headfi opportunistic yet further, this team have already announced the imminent HA-1 as an ESS 9018-powered DSD-ready fully balanced headphone/preamp/DAC. Borrowing directly from their established Blu-ray decks, it’ll have coax, Toslink, AES/EBU and async USB inputs. Then it’ll get 6.3mm and 4-pin balanced headphone sockets and line-level RCA/XLR i/o. Digital iDevice compatibility is promised once the machine releases but obviously that’ll depend on Apple’s timely granting of the necessary license.
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According to early press teasers and first images of Oppo’s launch in Great Britain, it’ll also have a 4.3″ multi-mode display which can show a classic VU meter, spectrum display or simple data summary. Further there’s to be apt-x Bluetooth connectivity, analog volume and remote control. If the PM-1, lower-priced PM-2 and HA-1 trinity don’t look like a full frontal assault on our headfi sector, I don’t know what would.

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Part 2 of the OPPO PM-1 headphone review runs here.

In Part 3 Oppo UK’s managing director Nigel Rich and technical officer James Soanes will hopefully provide answers to my background questions.

Further information: Oppo Bluray UK


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Comments
  1. Andy

    These new headphones sound (no pun intended) very interesting and early reviews are very favourable, but what really gales me is the cost, as yet again European purchasers are being stung with the dollar for euro/pound parity pricing. The PM-1 costs $1,099 in the USA which equates to £654 GBP, yet the quoted UK retail is £1,099 which is a £445 upcharge. How can this blatant profiteering by the European distributor be justified?!? No doubt there’ll be some disingenuous twaddle about import costs and additional taxes to justify this rip-off.

    • Harald

      Dear Andy,

      This difference in pricing has only to do with EU regulations. By importing US goods in EU one has to pay:
      -Shippingcosts
      -Bankcosts (international USD banktransfer)
      -Importfees (about 4%)
      -Taxes (19-25% depend EU country)

      So you see, USD pricing is almost same as EU-price. It’s NOT all extra margin ;-)

  2. Rob D.

    I love Oppo’s universal player BDP-105 and I wish I was in the market for headphones/headphone amp, but I already have a fine pair of cans and two headphone amps (not counting the one that is inside the BDP-105), so, this time, I will let these great Oppo items pass. But I have a feeling that there will be more new products soon to come, so, maybe then…

  3. Srajan Ebaen
    Srajan Ebaen

    Andy: The UK vs. Oz. vs. US pricing discrepancy is duly noted and something I’ll ask Oppo UK about. As a reviewer I’m obviously not involved in any company’s global pricing policies. Still, here it’s quite an offset to warrant an inquiry.

    • John H. Darko
      John H. Darko

      Local pricing is a recurring hot-button issue down under, increasingly more so now that the AU$ has been below parity with the US$ for the last few months. People are quite forgiving of a 10%ish discrepancy but when less so once the delta tips 30% or more.

      It’s interesting to note that Australia isn’t the only export market taking it on the nose.

      For a while, down under was the cheapest place in the world to buy a NAD M51 DAC and both the Peachtree and HRT gear will run you almost as many GBP in the UK as it will AU$ in Oz, making it considerably more expensive to UK consumers.

  4. Srajan Ebaen
    Srajan Ebaen

    Here the math works out to $1099 and £1’099. At today’s exchange rate that makes the GBP price a whopping $1’845 in US currency and $1’988 in Aussie dollars. Kinda hard not to feel Andy’s pain – or that of your landsmen and women if they were actually billed $2K AU.

  5. NevilleK

    In Oz, official full retail pricing of the PM-1 headphones is AUD $1699/- (USD$ 1570) though group buy had it considerably less for those that got in earlier (similar to US pricing plus local sales taxes).

    The full retail Headphone amp price has been set at AUD$1799/-

    This is as per the distributor website.

  6. B-Dub

    Srajen,

    One thing, if I could ask, is in your communique with OPPO or somehow in your review if you could drill down on specifics between the PM1 and the PM2.

    The OPPO sales copy is a bit ambiguous… Reads like its the same transducer save for the wooden box and lambskin… I am just curious if its a matter of ancillary jewelry or if its more of an LCD2 vs. LCD3 thing… So far even Headfi’ers chewing up every written word haven’t really clarified this.

    Respect,

    BW

  7. Srajan Ebaen
    Srajan Ebaen

    Good point. From what I’ve been able to dig up so far, the cost savings of the PM-2 will come from less fancy cabling; synthetic rather than real leather; and perhaps plastic or less luxuriously finished metal bits plus eliminating the shiny presentation box. The actual driver (diaphragm, motor assembly) supposedly remains identical. Since the cables detach with two 3.5mm mono plugs, it’d be child’s play to ‘modifiy’ a PM-2 with aftermarket cables of your choice to address that point of sonic difference. The rest of it should be just cosmetic. But I’ll try to get hard specifics if Oppo UK respond (so far they haven’t).

  8. Bernard

    Hi, is the PM-1 a movie oriented headphone?

    Would you recommend it to an audiophile with a good sounding music collection for non-mobile use?

    How about for mobile use? I have the Fiio X5 and Hifi-M8.

    I use the Auralis Taurus as my headphone amp at home.

  9. Srajan Ebaen
    Srajan Ebaen

    Not sure what a movie-oriented headphone is but doing videos via headphone is clearly possible. I cover your other questions in part 4.

    • Bernard

      Thanks for the reply. Look forward to reading Part 4.

      By “movie-oriented headphone” I meant that Oppo might have created a set of headphones that their market research suggests will be a good movie companion for their wealthier customers.

      My guess is that Oppo has created a whole new headphone category. A set of headphones over USD$1,000 that tries to capture the non-audiophiles: Classy; light; comfortable; high sensitivity; rich on the bottom end. There is absolutely no way their two years of research went into high quality sound in order to satisfy an active-listener with a good sounding music collection.