Somewhere around 2012, following the departure from longtime OEM Foster, Denon found itself in the tricky position of having to rebuild its headphone line from the ashes of its well-received audiophile headphones, the D2000, D5000 and D7000. This was, and still is, also a time in which the market of “high end” audiophile headphones was being reshaped and swiftly dominated by the ever-present Beats by Dre headphone line, instantly recognizable by its trademark lowercase “b” logo and glossy exteriors and famous literally for being famous, popularized by aggressive marketing that turned the brand into a household name practically overnight.
In this new world, sound quality has taken a backseat to good looks and features like noise cancelling and iPhone remotes. Denon, seeing it fit to enter this market more aggressively, released its “Urban Raver” line of portable headphones, designed to appeal to the mass audience and proudly wearing its “Made for iPhone” chops proudly on the front of the box. Before me is the AH-D400, the highest end headphone from the Urban Raver line.
But the real question is…how does it sound? Read on to find out.
Packaging and Accessories
The Denon AH-D400 makes a good first impression with a large, impressive looking box, with the headphones themselves inlaid in what looks like velvet (but isn’t) with the accessories, including the removable cable and a carrying pouch, resting below.
Yes the box is rather large and some might justifiably call it wasteful but it does its job well and looks pretty darned good on a store shelf.
Design and Build Quality
The D400 is a somewhat large over-ear portable headphone, dominated by its sizeable plush earpads and slightly pivoting earcups, which feature two large knobs jutting out on either side. The right side knob controls volume on iOS devices by way of twisting the knob forward or backward and can be pressed inward to answer calls and control music playback, much like every other 3 button iPhone remote on the market.
One might wonder why such a remote wasn’t just built into the cable rather than the headphones themselves. Denon says it’s “cooler” that way and saves you the trouble of reaching into your pocket for your phone or fumbling with a remote and, to a degree, that’s correct. While the volume control is easy to operate with a mere flick of the wrist, the button is somewhat stiff and difficult to press, making me wish for a simpler inline remote.
Another interesting feature is the built in amplifier, which runs on a built-in and non user-replaceable rechargeable battery (though the headphones will still function if the battery dies) and turning the amplifier on makes the bass and treble even more prominent.
So, the design is certainly…attention grabbing…and I’ll let you decide whether or not that’s a good thing. I’m sure the design will appeal to some but frankly, I was more than a little self-conscious whilst wearing them in public.
Comfort and Isolation
The D400 wins big points here. Whether or not Denon’s proprietary pentagonal earpads are actually better and more comfortable than traditional oval shaped pads, the plush leatherette pads were very comfortable on my ears. The headband is nearly devoid of padding itself but the headphones did a good job of displacing the weight evenly across my head, so it didn’t become much of a sore spot.
Isolation was good, better than many headphones I’ve auditioned, ranging from portable to home use cans.
The D400 is built with one thing in mind. Bass, and lots of it. With such an insane amount of bass, there’s not a lot of room for refinement and texture. Without a doubt, the D400 is one of the most bass heavy headphones I’ve ever heard, but it’s surprisingly lacking in the sub bass department, the absolute lowest of the lows, and the most difficult to render with authority in a set of headphones. The D400 does a decent enough job in its attempt to render these frequencies but they lack the depth I want to hear in a set like this, especially given my unabashed basshead leanings.
Midbass on upward into the lower midrange is hardly lacking. If you crave midbass above all else, this is about as much as you’re going to get out of a headphone without strapping a set of subwoofers to your head.
But what the D400 has in quantity, it lacks in quality and detail. Bass notes, though prominent, are a bit slow in attack and lack a solid edge, making the texture seem somewhat fluid.
The midrange is (unsurprisingly) warm and a bit recessed due in no small part to the huge low end. It is well detailed though, if somewhat dry and a bit grainy at times. The result is a mostly smooth and even handed midrange that sounds quite good, maybe even great, once you EQ the bass down a few decibels.
The high end is a bit uneven but rarely does it become sibilant or unpleasant, despite its dry character. It does sound grainy at times, like the midrange, but again, not unpleasantly so.
The whole of the D400’s sound signature and presentation is one that’s dominated by its bass. It should be noted that these impressions are with the built in amplifier turned off. Upon switching it on, the bass gets even more massive and bloated and the treble steps up a bit as well, giving the headphones a more “V-shaped” sound. But, the bass doesn’t get any more detailed in the process. If anything, there’s less detail to go around as the finer nuances are lost behind the sheer magnitude of the bass being pumped into your ears. Even as a basshead, I didn’t use the amplifier much, as the D400’s bass quantity was more than enough on its own.
For the original and, frankly, laughable $450 MSRP, the Denon AH-D400 is not worth the investment. It does have a pretty good amount of detail overall and probably sounds better than I’m giving it credit for but the idea that this headphone cost nearly triple the price of the venerable Audio-Technica ATH-M50 is ludicrous to me. Yes, it may be less portable and arguably less stylish (though it doesn’t have the gaudy lights or the Frankenstein’s monster thing going on), but to my ears, it sounds better, delivering deep, punchy and satisfying bass that’s well balanced with the rest of the sound signature in a way the D400 could only dream of.
But I get the sense that’s not really the point. This headphone is designed for the Beats crowd, not to impress the audiophile. It’s designed to look good (although that’s questionable) and sound just good enough to create the illusion of high end audio. The big, omni-present bass should be pleasing to most consumers. For the record, my cousin, who owns a set of Beats Executive headphones, said the D400 sounded “way better” from memory, so that’s something (He didn’t have them on hand for me to test, unfortunately, so I had to just take him at his word). The many gimmicks, like the side mounted volume and playback controls and the built in microphone and amplifier are decent enough features to list on the back of a box and make the D400 an easier sell to the casual crowd but much of this will be of little consequence to the audiophile, to which Denon would likely argue, that’s what their “Music Maniac” line, specifically the D600, is for.
However, much of this is said in consideration of the full retail price and these days, the D400 can be found for much, much cheaper. The pair I’m reviewing was acquired on sale for $80 and, all told, I don’t regret the purchase. Sure, I have better headphones on hand but the D400 is an almost prototypical “fun” headphone, some would even argue it’s probably fun to a fault. Denon fans will likely (and probably already do) hate this for being a step down from the legendary D2000.
Nonetheless, I’m not going to speculate any further. What matters is that the D400 is a decent sounding headset for its $120 or so street price and, according to at least one Beats owner, sounds better than Beats. So, if you’re in the market for a fun headphone that’s heavy on the bass and isn’t as tough on the wallet as Dr. Dre’s headphones, the D400 might be a good choice. But, if you can, audition it in a store first before you buy.