There’s a new Australian player in the headphone scene.
Smate is a new Australian company launching into the online electronics space. We‘re spending time with the company’s SMPSHPNC1 executive-style Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones, which have 40mm neodymium-magneted drivers and nice pleather earpads. And they boast, when in active mode, “world famous” Bongiovi DPS (Digital Power Station) technology, for which a great many claims are made as “the ultimate audio processing solution”, but which at heart seems to be a system that reduces dynamic peaks “so that important sounds stay at a consistent volume without losing their emotional impact”. A blue button on the right headshell toggles the Bongiovi on or off.
It’s a fair bet that at some point during the design discussion for Smate’s model, someone pointed to a pair of Bose QC35s – there are many parallels in design and operation. They look and feel similar, they fold just as neatly into their carrycase, and they offer the same variety of usage – cabled passive operation, cabled active operation with noise-cancelling, or Bluetooth wireless operation with noise-cancelling. They make, to our mind, the same mistake as the QC35s — you cannot turn off the noise-cancelling when using Bluetooth. Noise-cancelling is best kept for special occasions; we don’t want it permanently on (which is why we don’t recommend the Bose QC35s).
Three ways to listen can make for a tricky balancing act for sound tuning. We thought that was the case here, but we found that blue Bongiovi button made all the difference. We enjoyed the passive cabled operation of the SMATEs, where the sound was clear and well balanced, just slightly curtailed in the treble, but able to deliver a raspy Leonard Cohen vocal with all its frequencies in the right place. The cable has an inline resistive volume slider but no smart track controls.
Engaging the active circuits turns on two things — noise-cancelling and the Bongiovi processing. The noise-cancelling was effective enough in reducing external rumble (plane, bus, train) but when working hard it seemed rather one-sided, more effective in one ear than the other. When playing music this lopsidedness isn’t too noticeable, but for a spoken-word podcast or just for silence on a plane, we found it distracting and a little disconcerting. A ‘Monitor’ button stops the NC and feeds the external mike through, so you can hear airport announcements, say, but on our sample it also stopped the music playing (wired or Bluetooth), so was of limited use.
But we were impressed how well the tone of music was maintained in active modes: a slight rise in presence, a slight drop in the lowest octave of bass, but not the drastic shift that often occurs. Going Bluetooth we could hear the drop in transmission quality, but again the tone held true, rolling back that presence lift. It’s good tuning work.
However, to enjoy this clean balance, turn off the Bongiovi DPS. This delivers an artificially enhanced sound, louder, forcing up the bass to sometimes throbbing proportions, adding masses of presence but at the same time introducing peakiness, sibilance and all manner of noise. Poor Leonard didn’t sound himself at all, phasey and buckety. Deep bass organ bass notes started producing funny buzzing in both channels, as did the bass on the opening of the new Olly Murs/Louisa Johnson single Unpredictable. The Bongiovi can be superficially exciting, but it proved oppressively unmusical. We mostly kept it off.
So here we have headphones with a decent enough fundamental performance but poorly served by their active electronics. The noise cancelling could benefit from additional microphones, and we’d like to be able to turn it off. For our tastes the Bongiovi DPS is a secret weapon that works against the basic merits of the design. We’d normally suggest a careful audition before purchase, but Smate being currently online only, that’s unlikely to be possible. Yet it’s early days, and there’s no doubt Smate is aiming high in the presentation and quality of its products. Keep watching, and we’ll keep listening.