Brainwavz HM100: One with the Wood
Today we’re taking a look at Brainwavz’s newest full-sized dynamic driver headphone, the HM100.
Celebrating their 10th year anniversary this year, 2018, Brainwavz has cemented themselves as a brand known for bring quality sound to the audio community at a wide variety of price points. From entry level earphones like the Jive to neutral monitoring headphone staples like the HM5, they never fail to satisfy. While I never had the chance to hear the HM5 or any of it’s rebranded cousins, I was well aware of it’s reputation and the very successful series of ear pads that spawned from it. The HM100 seems to aim to build on the success of the HM5, enhancing the line with a new look, more premium build, and with the amazing sound they’re known for.
How did they do? Let’s find out.
A big thanks to Marlon with Brainwavz for arranging and sending over a complimentary sample of the HM100 for the purposes of review. While it doesn’t need to be sent back, it will be if requested. All thoughts within this review are my own based on a couple months spent with the HM100. They do not represent Brainwavz or any other entity, nor were they influenced by any form of financial compensation.
At the time of writing, the HM100 retailed for 199 USD. It is currently selling for 169.58 USD as part of their Christmas sale. You can check it out here: https://www.brainwavzaudio.com/collections/headphones/products/hm100-studio-monitor-headphones-with-wood-earcups
Despite a fairly high impedance and sub-100dB, the HM100 never came across as particularly difficult to drive, Still, it’s a full sized set of headphones meant for use indoors and as such it spent nearly all it’s testing time being powered by my TEAC HA-501 desktop amp. My Asus FX53V laptop, LG G6, HiFi E.T. MA8, and the Shanling M0 took turns running source duty. A few instances saw it being powered by the Radsone ES100 which wasn’t taxed at all by the HM100.
I listen primarily to various EDM sub-genres (liquid drum and bass, breakbeat, drumstep, etc.), hip hop, and classic rock. While I enjoy a variety of signatures in my headphones I generally lean towards slightly warm with elevated treble and sub-bass, an even and natural mid-range response, with reduced mid-bass. The HiFiMan RE800, Brainwavz B400, and thinksound On2 offer varied examples of signatures I enjoy. I generally listen at very low volumes, so keep this in mind when reading my thoughts on how an earphone sounds.
- Driver: 52mm dynamic
- Impedance: 64ohms
- Sensitivity: 96dB +/- 3dB @ 1mW
- Frequency Response: 10Hz – 40KHz
- Max Input Power: 1000mW
Packaging and Accessories:
The HM100 arrives in a sizable cardboard box. Dominated by a white color scheme, the front contains an image of the headphones mainly showing off the cups, yokes, and pads. Above that image is the usual branding and model information as well as a large logo advertising the generous 24 month warranty. Both left and right sides of the box contain profile shots of the HM100. On the back there is a description of the product along with a list of contents with supporting images, and the specification list. Inside the box is completely dominated by a massive hard shell carrying case holding the HM100 and all accessories. In all you get:
- HM100 headphones
- 3m cloth sheathed cable
- 1.3m rubber sheathed cable
- Spare velour pads (leatherette preinstalled)
- 1/4” adapter
- User guide / warranty card
The case is made with what feels to be a durable nylon exterior with a large rubber grab handle on the back for carrying the HM100 around. Inside on one half, the headphones are secured via a cushy foam cutout which keeps them from sliding around, protecting them from damage due to drops and bumps. The other half contains a mesh lining in which you store all of the accessories.
The shorter 1.3m cable is well relieved with color coded plugs so you know which cable goes where. It is thick but comparatively lightweight in relation to the 3m cable. It has a traditional rubber sheath and is definitely the one you’re going to want to use when sitting at your listening station, and outdoors should you be brave enough to wear these outside the house or office. The 3m cable is extremely thick with a dense cloth sheath protecting the wires within. To say it is pretty beastly would be an understatement. It wouldn’t be out of place attached to a home appliance. Strain relief is excellent, even if it’s probably not needed. This cable forgoes the color coded plugs of the 1.3m cable, intead relying on L/R markings to determine channel.
Lastly, Brainwavz has been getting some flack for their choice of pads on the HM100. I have set of their memory foam hybrid velour/pleather pads for comparison. Yes, the pads included with the HM100 are a slight downgrade in terms of construction quality, though in my opinion it makes absolutely zero difference when in use, and isn’t too noticeable until you start really poking around looking for problems. These pads are fairly deep, plush, and perfectly comfortable. They’re just fine and better than the stock pads on the vast majority of headphones I’ve got.
Build, Comfort, and Isolation:
From a style standpoint you can’t argue the HM100 is a classy looking headphone. The mix of browns and silvers, metal and wood, makes for an attractive and somewhat timeless product that’ll look just as appealing in ten years as it does now. While overall I think the material and build quality is good and will stand the test of time, there are a couple niggles I have.
Let’s start with their most defining feature, the wooden ear cups. Well, mostly wood. These ear cups are massive (~3” thick) and look fantastic, but only the rear half of the cup features the wood aspect. The stain is quite dark and does a good job of hiding the grain when the light isn’t ideal, but when it is ideal, you see the usual swirls and swoops you expect to see from wood. Still, the smooth, velvety finish feels great in hand and with the Brainwavz logo cut just off centre, they look outstanding. The inner portion of the cup is a matte plastic of decent quality. It doesn’t look or feel particularly premium, but it doesn’t emanate cheapness either. Feels price appropriate more than anything. On the bottom of each cup is the input port for the 3.5m plugs, color coded blue and red to indicate left and right channels respectively.
On either side of each ear cup is a plastic bracket connecting the cups the metal yokes. At first they don’t look like anything special, but on deeper inspection they can be unclipped, allowing the cup to fully separate from the headband. Why is this useful? Well, the ear cups are very easy to disassemble. Simply unscrew four Allen bolts and they’re apart. This is an excellent setup for modders since they can easily disassemble the HM100 and put it back together without causing any irreversible damage. I bet we’ll see some cool mods for these in the months to come.
Going back to the headband, the yokes are all metal similar is design to those from Beyerdynamic. The yokes connect to the rest of the headband via a pivot that gives the ear cups a wide range of motion. This pivot system uses a combination of metal and a stiff plastic. The plastics look pretty thick and durable, but plastic is plastic and stiff plastics break when enough stress is placed on them. They don’t bend. Just be careful not to wrench on these pivots too hard and they should easily last as long as everything else on this headphone. The headband seems to be coated in the same pleatherette material used for the pre-installed pads and is amply cushioned. This plus the puffy pads makes the HM100 very comfortable to wear for long periods, design being huge and a little on the heavy side. That’s a positive not only for the obvious reasons, but because these are being marketed as monitoring headphones and long listening sessions are par for the course.
The pads are fully replaceable. Pad swapping on the HM100 is as simple as gripping the base of the pad where the inner ring is and twisting is one direction or the other. The plastic ring inside unclips from the ear cups and the pad them lifts away. Remove the plastic ring from the pads you’re replacing, insert it in the new pads, set it on the ear cups and twist it into place. It’s a very easy system to work. It would have been nice if Brainwavz included a second set of rings to speed up the swapping process, but I can’t complain too hard. Removable/replaceable pads is too valuable a feature to complain about, regardless of the implementation.
If I’m going to levy any complaints at the build, it goes to the adjustment sliders. The sliders on my set are extremely loose to the point that simply picking up the headphones causes them to extend and exhaust most of their travel. Not a huge issue for me since I use the HM100 on it’s smallest size settings. Should someone use them on a mid-range length, however, they’re going to be constantly adjusting the size which I know from using the AKG K403 can be quite annoying. I could also nitpick the silver rings that separate the wood from the plastic. Part of the ring is smoothed and neatly chromed while the base has been cut with a rough, uneven presentation. I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be like this, but in my opinion if feels terrible rubbing against the fingers and adds a slightly unfinished look to the whole design. If the wood grain of the cups were more prevalent, it would be a better match to my eyes.
When it comes to isolation, the HM100 isn’t too bad. There are six small vents on each ear cup, three on each side of the plastic clips that hold the ear cups to the yokes. They let is a bit of noise, quite similar in isolation and effect to a dynamic driver based in ear monitor actually. Sitting here typing, I can hear the dull snicking of my keypad as I type. If I have a video running through the laptop speakers, I can follow along just fine but everything is expectedly muted and muffled. Given how ridiculous these look on me, I didn’t take them for a stroll through the city or to my local coffee shop.
The HM100 is a great looking headphone with outstanding comfort that for the most part feels well built. There are a few aspects that give away that it was built to meet a certain price point, and they do stand out, but it still feels pretty nice overall.
Pads: Both pads are quite nice but the velour option is my personal pick. It gives the HM100 an airier, more open sound when compared to the pleather pads. It also seems to bring the mid-range forward, balancing out the signature further. Bass and treble didn’t really sound like they were affected much which was nice since they were fine as is with the pleather pads.
The HM100 is billed as an accurate, natural sounding headphone and for the most part I agree. It isn’t exceptionally bassy, it’s mid-range isn’t too forward or recessed, and minus some peaks in the treble comes across quite well balanced.
Treble is quite well extended without any significant roll off at the extremities that I can detect. For the most part, the balance is pretty even from the lower to upper treble. However, I do hear two peaks that I think sit around 4k and 7k which may bother some. For me, I like the 4k peak and do not find it tiring at all. The 7k peak though. That one is fine at the lower volumes I typically listen and help give the HM100 a very airy and open sound, but as the volume increases I find effects get a bit too shimmery, such as the opening cymbals on Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T”. If you are sensitive to treble and tend to listen loud, you might need to bust out the EQ to soften these peaks.
The mid-range on the other hand has a slightly warm tilt to it and outputs very sweet, detailed vocals. Paul William’s on Daft Punk’s “Touch” sounds memorizing with the 70’s-esque guitar work and strings singing along in the background. I don’t usually sing along or react much visually to my music, but through the HM100 I found myself mouthing the vocals along with the track. Female vocals work too without coming across shouty and abrasive. The HM100 foes a job job of the three vocal styles present in Jessie J.’s “Bang Bang”. Jessie and Ariana sound powerful and clear while Nicki avoids the nasal-ish sound that so many headphones apply to her vocals. All of this is done sibilance free too, and with a natural timbre that gives guitars a satisfying presentation and crunch.
The HM100’s bass digs deep and is quite even from the deepest depths to where you transition into the mid-range. I didn’t notice any bleed into or smearing of the mids, even on tracks where deep bass was thundering along during the vast majority of the track, such as on Getter’s “Head Splitter”. If you check out that track, make sure you watch it alongside the video which is weird as ever. It’s also plenty quick handling the double-bass of Havok’s “D.O.A.”, along with everything else for that matter, without missing a beat. I was not expecting this to be all that fun with EDM, but the HM100 was surprisingly versatile with this genre and met my sub-bass needs pretty easily.
For a closed back can, I found the HM100 to have a really nice sound stage. The airy treble gives notes lots of room to play and the distant (not recessed) vocals create a sense of roundness to it all. It comes across quite natural to my ears without any congestion or claustrophibic feeling moments. Channel to channel imaging is accurate and can really sent sounds far to the sides, though I found that happened more with media like movies and gaming than music. Instrument layering and separation is quite competent too with live tracks, like the rendition of King Crimson’s “Indiscipline” from the On Broadway compilation showing real depth and distance between artists. Everything about that track sounds pretty epic through the HM100 actually, but the imaging, layering, and separation are standouts for sure.
Select Comparisons (volumes matched as best I could via my Dayton Audio iMM-6):
AKG K553 Pro: The K553 Pro has been one of my go-to headphones for years now and has a signature I adore. The HM100 is warmer and has less forward and more neutral mids, both in emphasis and sound stage placement. Where vocalists are singing to and for you through the K553 Pro, they’re set back and singing to an audience through the HM100. The K553 has more mid and upper bass punch and presence, rolling off pretty early as you head into sub-bass regions where the HM100 is still comfortably thundering along. Treble presence is similar with the K553 Pro showing slightly better extension and a touch more emphasis and sparkle. The K553 Pro definitely comes across skewed towards the middle and upper frequencies whereas the HM100 is more balanced and neutral-bright leaning. The K553 Pro has a pretty good sound stage for a closed back, but the HM100 surprised me by coming across much more spacious, especially in terms of width. I guess that’s the sort of difference that should be expected when comparing a relatively broad and flat cup to a more narrow, deep cup. When it comes to clarity and detail, I find the HM100 provides more information in the low end. The K553 Pro draws more micro-detail out of the the mids. Treble is again quite similar and quite clear on both. If you enjoy a strong mid-range the K553 Pro is a great pick, but if you want something more well-rounded the HM100 is the one to take.
Meze 99 Neo: The 99 Neo is a fun headphone less concerned about accuracy more than providing an entertaining listen. You mix on the HM100, then check it out with the 99 Neo. The 99 is slightly warmer than the HM100 with more emphasis placed on the low end. Bass extension feels slightly deeper on the HM100 but there is less mid-bass punch when compared to the 99 Neo. The Neo’s mids are similarly balanced but more forward in the staging leading to a more intimate sound. As with the K553, the 99 Neo signs to you while the HM100 sings in your general vicinity. Treble on the 99 Neo is rolled off and as a result lacks the definition and clarity of the HM100, but emphasis is similar in the lower regions. The 99 Neo is another closed back that I felt had a pretty good sound stage, also unseated by the HM100. The more distanced vocals of the HM100 give it an airy and open feel missing on the 99 Neo. This combined with improved imaging, layering, and separation, gives it a clear edge. Clarity and detail is in the HM100’s camp due to the extra upper range energy and more balanced signature while the 99 Neo’s mid-bass also hinders resolution slightly. If you’re less concerned about accuracy, detail, and sound stage and are more interested in a bassy, bouncy headphone with decent technicals, the 99 Neo is a good pick.
Brainwavz is no stranger to high quality audio. With the HM100 you’re getting a well balanced headphone with some strategic, though potentially polarizing, treble peaks that boost clarity and give the HM100 an airy feel. It’s a rewarding headphone to revisit familiar tracks with since you’re likely to pick up new details you might have missed the first time.
In addition to some competent sonic performance, the HM100 is a physically attractive product with a comfortable, timeless design, and good build quality. Add in that it comes with a great carrying case, two durable cables, and a two sets of completely different ear pads, and you’ve got yourself a great total package. Oh yeah, and there is also that two year warranty that you can fall back, just in case. As I’ve said numerous times in the past, a long warranty shows a company’s confidence in, and commitment to, their product.
Thanks again to Brainwavz for supporting my humble reviews with the chance to check out yet another of their products, and to you for reading and supporting my content. I hope you get something useful out of this, and should you choose to pick up an HM100, that you enjoy it even more than I did.
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Some Test Tunes:
Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid (Album)
Hail Mary Mallon – Are You Going to Eat That? (Album)
King Crimson – Lark’s Tongues in Aspic (Album)
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black (Track)
Supertramp – Crime of the Century (Album)
Infected Mushroom – Legend of the Black Shawarma (Album)
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach (Album)
Massive Attack – Mezzanine (Album)
Fleetwood Mac – Rumors (Album)
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels (Album)
The Prodigy – The Day is My Enemy (Album)
Tobacco – F****d Up Friends (Album)
Felt – Felt 2 (A Tribute to Lisa Bonet) (Album)
Michael Jackson – Thriller (Album)
The Crystal Method – Grace (feat. LeAnn Rimes) (Track)
Jidenna – Long Live the Chief (Track)
Skrillex – Ragga Bomb (Track)
Big Grams – Run for Your Life (Track)
Funkadelic – Maggot Brain (Track)
Aesop Rock – Fishtales (Track)