The ATH-M50/X is perhaps one of the most widely recommended headphones for entry-level and portable use. And it’s not a huge mystery why–a fairly engaging sound signature combined with good technical performance is a definite crowd-pleaser. But that’s fairly old news. Let’s talk about something that’s new, something that’s a viable alternative to the M50X in the sub-200 dollar range. Let’s take a look at Samson’s flagship Z55 Professional Reference Headphones.
In the audiophile community, Samson is best known for its utilitarian offerings that provide good sound quality performance at highly affordable prices. Headphones like the SR850 have been known to punch well above their weight class by embracing a hardware centric design philosophy. When the Z55 was released, I was naturally rather interested in finding out what Samson could do with a two hundred dollar budget. In the course of the review, I had the chance to meet with Alan from Samson. I came to learn that the Z55 was produced with the goal of creating studio level sound quality, without the premium demanded by many other similarly styled products. I was also informed that a new manufacturer (not Superlux, mind you) with prior experience working with some well-known audio companies was handling the production of these new headphones. Naturally, all this was shaping out to be very positive. And let me tell you, the Z55 did for the most part, deliver.
DISCLAIMER: This unit was provided by Samson for the purposes of the review. We are neither affiliates nor employees of Samson. All media rights are reserved.
The Z55 comes in a simple cardboard box with a glossy photo of the headphones on the front. Opening this rather plain box, one encounters some product literature and a cardboard flap that lifts up to reveal the headphones. The Z55s are stored in a rather suspect egg-carton esque shell. I think in this respect Samson could definitely have taken a cue from Audio-Technica, a brand that always seems to strike a sensible balance when it comes to packaging on a budget. The included accessories are three cables –a 1.2 mm cable replete with a microphone, a 3m straight cable, and a 3m coiled cable. Also included is a 3.5mm to ¼ inch adaptor. Overall, not the most impressive and refined unboxing experience, but it’s good to see that most of the budget went into the hardware of the headphones.
The Z55 was designed as a studio monitor, and is therefore somewhat utilitarian in nature. Starting with the pleather headband, I was rather impressed by the fact that there weren’t weird ripples/ air bubbles appearing when the headband was stretched. This is definitely an improvement over the ATH-M50X’s headband in terms of aesthetics. The clamping force is strong, and can get a little tight, especially during long listening sessions. On the upside, the seal is very solid and noise isolation top notch. A minor annoyance is the lack of markings on the headband, meaning that adjustment has to be done by manually counting clicks or by eyeballing the headband.
The earcups are plastic with a metal accent plate on the front. Earcup size is good, but depth is somewhat lacking. The strong clamping force only further accentuates this issue. One thing I did notice is that the yoke does rub against the earcups at times, buffing it somewhat. You can easily smooth this out to return the surface back to its original black color, but this is inconvenient and problematic. Hopefully part tolerances are fixed so that this doesn’t appear in future models. The earpads are made out of lambskin, and are comfortable. However, due to the clamping force, they tend to heat up just as fast as regular pleather pads. Overall, the design aesthetic of the Z55 is clean and elegant, and I get the sense that these headphones were built to last for a long time.
The Z55’s sound signature is where the headphones really shine. Keeping with the theme of practicality and utility, the Z55’s SQ focuses heavily on coherence and detail. While it is marketed as studio tool, the Z55 is also tuned to allow it to extend into the general consumer market fairly easily. I say this because the Z55 has certain tendencies towards a more engaging and “fun” sound. I’m not much of an audio engineer, so I cannot, with certainty at least, comment on how well the Z55 would do for studio applications. However, what I can say is that the Z55 isn’t perfectly neutral. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the sound that the Z55 does have is most excellent.
Starting with the bass, it’s fairly obvious that the Z55 does have an enhanced lower frequency range. The quantity of bass will easily satisfy most listeners. Bass impact and punch lie mainly with the mid-bass, lending the Z55 a more engaging sound. On tracks like Wrong Club by the Ting Tings (Super Critical was an awesome album by the way), the bass really hits hard and brings a foot-tapping level of excitement to the song. The sub-bass is fairly good too, but it lacks the presence of the mid-bass, meaning that whatever gains it has in extension are mostly overshadowed. Normally, most headphones with the above description could probably be written off as being bass-heavy, but not the Z55. The beauty of the Z55 lies in its ability to control most of the lower frequencies with authority through excellent speed and detail. In a similarly surprising fashion, the Z55’s bass doesn’t bleed particularly much into the mid-range either, making for a pleasingly smooth transition.
The mid-range on the Z55 is best described as sweet sounding and full-bodied. There is very little “peakiness” to be found, which creates an overall presentation that is both smooth and very natural. While the bass performance does at times take center stage, the mids aren’t veiled and can display good presence when required. That said, those looking for a more mid-centric sound may be disappointed. The treble performance is sparkly and well separated, but without coming across as being particularly tinny or artificial. There is little harshness and the treble can be easily appreciated. One of the cornerstones of the Z55 is its fairly resolving sound that features a good amount of micro-detail. This helps to bring the many components of the Z55’s SQ together into a very coherent package. If there’s one aspect that lets the Z55 down though, it is definitely the soundstage and imaging. The soundstage is somewhat small, and this isn’t aided by the Z55’s rather personal imaging, which is also somewhat inaccurate. Larger, more complex compositions do not realize their potential with the Z55s.
Compared to the M50X, I found that the Z55 was definitely more refined and smooth, and generally more agreeable with a wider array of genres. While the Z55 may initially feel like it is lacking in bite compared to the M50X, for prolonged listening sessions, I ultimately found the Z55 more comfortable to use. The detail present in the Z55 means isn’t much of a slouch either. I’d say for pop / genres featuring more natural sounds, the Z55 easily comes out on top. However, with EDM, etc, the M50X still trumps the Z55.
The Z55 may not be the most technically accurate headphone, nor the most neutral in its class. It doesn’t have the best soundstage either. But what it does is provide a highly coherent sound that works seamlessly throughout the entire frequency spectrum to deliver a smooth and yet detailed sound. It’s an extremely enjoyable listening experience, one that rivals that of the ATH-M50X, and in some cases, surpasses it as well. Combined with a sturdy build, the Z55 is fast becoming one of my favorite portable choices. If you’re in the market for a sub-two hundred dollar headphone with an engaging and highly enjoyable sound signature, then I’d heartily recommend the Z55.