Review: Pioneer HRM-7

These new models from the Japanese firm promise clean sound reproduction and ultimate comfort for producers, but what does Jerry Ibbotson think?

It’s not often I find myself distracted from the serious business of writing a review for Audio Media International by the very thing I’m supposed to be writing about. But as my fingers hit the keys on my laptop I’m wearing a pair of Pioneer HRM-7 headphones and Spotify is filling my head. Here comes Darius Rucker with Johnny Cash in hot pursuit. Passenger is limbering up in the wings. I know professional headphones are all about listening to material in a technical environmental but hey – they’re still headphones.

And if we look around us, on-ear cans are definitely enjoying something of a renaissance among consumers and that has a knock-on effect for audio pros. Half the occupants of my bus to work are regularly plugged into their phones (in both senses of the word). There’s a danger that any material, from music to audio books, that is mixed purely on mahoosive studio monitors might be out of place when it’s listened to on the number 12. So yeah, decent headphones are probably more important than ever.

Pioneer certainly thinks so: launching a new range of ‘Professional Reference Monitor Headphones’. They’re described as being “for producers”, which seems to be a tad prescriptive but I didn’t let it put me off.

These are closed-back dynamic headphones with a frequency response from 5Hz to 40kHz – from skull rumbling to something only a squirrel will hear. They have 40mm apertures and a maximum SPL of 97dB (enough to make me very deaf indeed). They’re fairly lightweight at 330g – you can bounce them in the palm of one hand – but are solidly built from a mix of high-grade composite material and metal.

First impressions are of a quality product: for a start they come with not one but two leads. There’s a straight three-metre cable and a coiled 1.2 metre version included. Both end in a minijack, with a threaded 0.25in adaptor included.

Even the ribbed insulating material around the leads is pleasing to the touch. It’s nice to see that aesthetics, while not a factor in overall audio quality, are still taken seriously. I get the impression that they’re built to last and won’t fall apart if I dare to take them out on the road. Oh, and a spare pair of ear pads is included in the box.

They’re a comfortable fit, even covering my larger-than average ears (I resemble the FA Cup from certain angles). It’s especially nice to see a warning in the included documentation that the adjustable parts may pinch my hair. Thanks for that.

Enough of the chatter about build quality and the like – as important as it may be, this is starting to sound like an episode of Top Gear from 1983. It’s all about the sound…

In Use

I have my own benchmark for testing headphones. It makes me sound like someone’s dad (which I am x3) but it’s AC/DC’s Back in Black. It’s just an album I know very well and is one way to gauge how something reproduces audio. The HRM-7s were hooked up to the Focusrite Scarlett audio I/O on my laptop and I slipped them on.

Oh my word. I’d previously been using a pair of large studio headphones for audio work and general listening (after previously testing them for Audio Media) and was pleased with their reproduction. But the Pioneers take things up another level. Or seven.

What hit me was not just the clarity of sound or their ability to reproduce separate frequencies without things ‘mushing’ together. It was the incredible stereo field and balance. Brian Johnson’s croak was not playing in my right ear or my left. The Geordie was singing in the centre of my head, smack bang in the middle of my grey matter.

Running through a range of music, the results are equally impressive. Instruments stand out from the crowd and voices are clear. And the stereo mix is fantastic.

I switched to some audio I’d been working on. Not being of a musical bent this was a project involving a series of interviews recorded in four different locations. The recordings had already been done and I was familiar with the material. But switching to the HRM-7s brought up a new level of detail.

Importantly, one recording had been made in a house in Cambridge with a small amount of traffic outside. I’d been aware of it at the time but there was nothing to be done to get round the issue, apart from close-mic and pause whenever something particularly heavy went by. I’d determined, as one does, to fix it later. The Pioneers gifted me with a new level of accuracy as I wielded the powerful noise reduction tools in Adobe Audition, sampling a bit of raw noise and running the process over chunks of speech. Normally I’d do this on speakers but I work from home and the rest of the family were asleep so I’d switched to cans.

The HRM-7s were not only easy to listen to for a sustained period but reproduced the audio in an accurate and unflattering manner. I wanted it warts and all and I got it. It may have ‘only’ been voice material but every little breath and woosh of a muffled passing car was there. It’s important with any noise reduction work not to overcook it and end up with ‘Space Monkey’ sounds. The HRM-7s were a definitely boost in this.

Well made. Nicely designed. Comfortable and great sounding with an amazing stereo balance. Highly recommended.

Jerry Ibbotson has worked in pro audio for more than 20 years, first as a BBC radio journalist and then as a sound designer in the games industry. He’s now a freelance audio producer and writer.