Pros: These are very good sounding headphones.
JBL REFERENCE 420 HEADPHONES
There are many different types of headphones on the market today. They come in varying sizes, shapes, and styles. Some are designed for a specific use, such as for use in a recording studio, and some are designed for general use, such as for everyday listening to music at home. Prices can also vary from under $10 Dollars to shockingly expensive. Of course as a general rule, when you pay more, you will tend to get more. Headphones of relatively good quality can be found selling somewhere in the vicinity of $100 to $300 Dollars. It is not hard to find a really great pair of headphones if you are willing to go above that price range, but some very good sounding headphones can be found for less. If you are patient and willing to do some comparison shopping, specifically where you compare and contrast the features of some good headphones, you should be able to find a pair that will suit your needs and please your ears. Today I shall be reviewing the JBL Reference 420 Headphones. Read on and see if these headphones sound like something that you might be willing to audition the next time your are visiting your local musical instrument store or electronics store.
JBL Studio Monitors are found in some of the best recording studios in the world. Interestingly, none of the studios that I have worked in used JBL Headphones. This is a bit surprising to me, as these headphones were very accurate sounding to my ear. Perhaps, there are some people who feel that there are better headphones to use for studio monitoring purposes in this price range, or perhaps JBL has not put sufficient effort into marketing these headphones for studio use. Whatever the reason, I personally thought that they were quite accurate sounding headphones, and for the price, I was impressed with what they had to offer. The JBL Reference 420 Headphones have a list price of $149.95, but they can be easily found selling at a discount for $110 from some of the better large Internet dealers. The JBL Reference 420 Headphones are midsized headphones designed to be worn over the ear. In general, over the ear headphones will render the most accurate sonic reproduction. These headphones are also closed back in design, and as such they also have the added benefit of blocking out external noises. Thus, the JBL Reference 420 Headphones are what is known as circumaural headphones. The word circumaural is a term that is applied to headphones that have ear pads that encircle the entire ear, and form a seal. Yet although the JBL Reference 420 Headphones enclose the listener's entire ears, they feel comfortable to wear, and they do so without feeling too snug or tight. The headset and earpieces are made of a very soft and comfortable feeling leather, and they remained comfortable the whole while that I had them on. Closed back over the ear headphones are always very desirable in a studio environment, as they prevent sound from leaking out of the headphones and into a live microphone during live recording sessions. By the same token, they are also very good at blocking out external sounds, and that makes them good for listening to music in noisy environments. In general, closed back or sealed headphones also have a very good bass response, and the JBL Reference 420 Headphones were no exception.
The JBL Reference 420 Headphones have a frequency response of 10 Hz. to 20,000 Hz. The listed frequency response of a set of headphones describes the range of sound that can be reproduced without distortion under normal listening conditions. There are a number of comparably priced headphones, and certainly many higher priced headphones on the market with extended frequency ranges of 15 Hz. to 25,000 Hz. However, the reader should keep in mind that the average healthy, young human can only hear sounds that range between 20 Hz. and 20,000 Hz. So why would any one want or need headphones that are capable of reproducing sounds that only whales and dogs can hear? The answer is that headphones with a wider frequency response will lessen the likelihood of distortion, and distortion free listening is always desirable, especially in a studio or professional situation. However, there are no headphones that can make you hear sounds that are beyond the range of normal human hearing.
The JBL Reference 420 Headphones have a sensitivity rating of 91dB and an impedance of 32 Ohms. That is actually about average for a set of headphones in this price range. In general headphone sensitivity is measured by supplying 1 milliwatt of power to a set of phones and then measuring the number of dB in sound pressure level (SPL) that is delivered at the ear piece. The higher the sensitivity rating a set of headphones has, the better they will perform at different power levels, and the louder they are apt to be. These headphones are about average in their sensitivity rating. All else being equal, the lower the impedance, the louder the sound will be in the headphones, because they are able to draw more power. In general, I must confess, I am not one for obsessing over the impedance or sensitivity of a set of headphones, I am much more concerned with the quality of the sound, as compared to the loudness of the sound, and that is where the quality of the JBL Reference 420 Headphones shines.
The JBL Reference 420 Headphones come with a cloth covered single sided cable that is 1.5 meters in length, which is just a tad short of being 5 feet long. That is a bit long for use with portable audio devices, such as an MP3 Player, and a bit short for connecting it to your home stereo. Fortunately the JBL Reference 420 Headphones come with a 1 meter (about 39 inches) extension cable, which means that when hooked together, both cables will give your a bit over 8 feet of cord to work with. That means that you will still have to be in fairly close proximity to your home stereo receiver or tuner if you are plugging these headphones in to it. These headphones can be taken just about anywhere, and they will be able to be used. They come with a stereo mini plug, as well as a convertible quarter inch stereo phono adapter, and an Airline plug adaptor. Thus, it is easy to go from using these phones with a portable device such as an MP3 Player, a home stereo audio receiver, or even when flying on an airliner. I should also mention that I have always preferred headphones that have a single sided cable, as I find that there is less likelihood for tangles, wear and tear, and breakage, with this type of set up.
Now as far as the sound quality goes, these headphones were quite good. The JBL Reference 420 Headphones have a relatively flat and unsweetened response. Depending of the person who is using them, and depending on what they are being used for, this can be a good or a bad thing. In general, headphones that are referred to as being reference headphones are designed to reproduce a flat sonic response. For critical listening purposes, such as in a recording studio situation, a person wants a set of headphones or speakers that will have a flat frequency response, so that one can compare and adjust the levels of the musical instruments and the vocals with a good degree of accuracy. One does not want to have a set of headphones that will accentuate one set of frequencies at the cost of another. Many consumer headphones will accentuate the bass frequencies or the high frequencies in order to make the music sound more exciting or lively. The JBL Reference 420 Headphones have a sound that was relatively flat, and yet it was lively and exciting at the same time. The bass frequencies were punchy and clean, the mids were very clear, and the highs were pristine and not abrasive or overly harsh.
These headphones sounded quite good when listening to music on a good stereo receiver. However when listening to compressed music, such as would be found on an MP3 player, I really did not like them. It was all too easy to hear the false thin sound of music that was compressed and recorded in this fashion. When using a cheap set of headphones, the differences are not that apparent when listening to an MP3 Player or a home stereo receiver. But the JBL Reference 420 Headphones were so good, so accurate, and true sounding, that it made listening to compressed musical recordings from an MP3 unpleasant. It was very easy to detect the missing or compressed frequencies and sounds, and I found this to be troubling, and it bothered me. I found this interesting, as the JBL Reference 420 Headphones come with a stereo mini-plug, which is what is typically the type of plug that one uses on a portable listening device. Headphones in this quality range make the imperfection and compromise of compressed musical sources, such as MP3's, unpleasant to listen to, at least to my ear. Obviously, everyone's ears are different, and so are their musical tastes, and I am sure that there are those who may feel differently. To each his own. Personally, I prefer listening to real CD's with a portable CD player, as I feel the sound is superior. In that case, the JBL Reference 420 Headphones are good for use in a portable listening device, but it is important to also keep in mind that these phones do not fold up into a small ball, they are midsize headphones, and so one needs to weigh the benefits of the better sound, against the loss of ease in portability.
Given that many of the top recording studios use JBL Monitors, and given that the JBL Reference 420 Headphones are supposed to be studio quality, does that mean I am recommending that these headphones be used instead of studio monitors for home recording situations? The answer is a big "NO." No serious pro would actually rely on a mix that was made exclusively through headphones, so why should a person who is a serious home recording enthusiast be any different. If you are a person who is considering purchasing these headphones for studio reference purposes, remember that although they are quite good, one should always mix tracks over a set of good studio monitors, and only use headphones for backup, and for listening for subtle variations in balance and placement of different instruments in the sonic landscape of a track that is being mixed.
The bottom line for me is that I like the JBL Reference 420 Headphones. They yield a very accurate sound, and should be able please a variety of different listeners. I would feel comfortable in recommending them for home studio use, as well as for listening to music on a good home stereo. I have some reservations for their use with inexpensive listening devices and/or with highly compressed musical sources and formats, such as MP3's. For most music listening situations, the JBL Reference 420 Headphones are just fine, and since they have come down so much in price since they were originally introduced, they are even more appealing.
Well I would like to thank you for taking the time to read my review, but now if you will excuse me, I must get back to my practicing.