Review: Phiaton's stylish MODERNA MS 200 earphones
By Paul Ridden
January 23, 2013
The Phiaton Corporation (a subsidiary of Korean audio veterans Cresyn) has added a new member to its purist-pleasing MODERNA Series headphones. The bold red and black design of the MS 200 half-in-ear earphones is certainly an attention-grabber and the carbon fiber panels are sure to provide conversation fodder, but how do these undeniably stylish phones actually perform? Gizmag has spent the last few weeks exploring that very question ... and we're suitably impressed.
What's in the box?
Before I dive in, a quick word about the packaging. The thick card box is kept closed by two small magnets on the lip of the lid. Inside, the MS 200s and accessories are hidden behind a branded sunken compartment tray with a plastic window to show off the earphones underneath. Removing that layer reveals the not-very-pocket-friendly cylindrical carry pouch, the molded plastic mount for the earphones and, beneath that, a red card container for the documentation. The whole ensemble effectively sets the scene, giving a taste of the quality to come.
The dual-chamber structure of the MS 200s may look a little odd to those not familiar with Phiaton, but the company says that when combined with the five tuning points (air vents), the design optimizes air circulation for enhanced crystal clear sound, rich detail and clean, highlighted bass. The body is double-shelled to help reduce leakage while minimizing unwanted vibration and echo, and the outer face is made from carbon graphite fiber for lightweight durability and a healthy slice of modern cool.
Each ear piece has a custom 14.3-mm dynamic speaker driver with an acoustic damper in front (there's another damper at the top of the body and a dual wave guide acoustic damper further down the tube), and the so-called half-in-ear placement allows these earphones to sit just outside the ear canal for improved long-haul comfort. There's a tangle-resistant (claimed tangle-free) oval-shaped cord in striking red, with a built-in iOS-friendly microphone and playback control midway between the Y junction and the right earpiece.
Phiaton reports that the MS 200s have a frequency response of 10 Hz - 27 kHz, a total harmonic distortion of less than 1 percent at 1 kHz, 100 dB (at 1 kHz) sensitivity, 32 ohms impedance and max input power of 30 mW. Without the 1.2 m (3.93-ft) cord and 3.5 mm jack, the earphones tip the scales at just 5.6 g (0.19 oz).
Are you ready to rock?
With the tech explained and the specs out of the way, it's time to get down to performance. Readers may remember that I was a little disappointed by the rather muddy bass end and somewhat weak lower mids offered by 50-Cent's STREET-by-50 in-ear model that I reviewed in October 2012. I spent an awful lot of time trying to find music which allowed the custom signature of these earphones to shine and, though I've also listened to hours and hours of music while putting the MS 200s through the mill, I have to admit that it was more out of pleasure than necessity.
For my first subjective tests in this review, I turned to the excellent Cowon C2 MP3 player with the EQ flattened and the direct phono output of my music system's CD player. Sonic output was compared with the aforementioned 50-Cent units, and my go-to Sennheisers. Pink Floyd's Money from Dark Side of the Moon was the first track off the starting blocks, from a still-pristine mid-1980s CD and an MP3 ripped at a bit rate of 320 kbps and sampled at 44 kHz.
The instantly recognizable bassline from Roger Waters feels warm, rounded and welcoming through the MS 200s, rather than aggressively punchy as can sometimes happen, and the mids and highs are very well represented indeed. The soundstage offered up by the Phiaton earphones is huge, kind of like the difference between listening to music in a small bar and then going to a concert hall.
Instrument spacing and separation brings a new level of enjoyment to the track and, even though I've been listening to this song for a good many years, I can't remember enjoying the sound of ringing cash registers quite so much.
The MP3 for The Ballad of John Henry from the album of the same name by Joe Bonamassa has a bit rate of 256 kbps and an audio sample rate of 44 kHz. This track was chosen mainly because I've listened to it so many times since its release in 2009 that I welcome it like an old friend. As with the Pink Floyd track, the MS 200s open up the recording and allow long forgotten or otherwise hidden subtleties to come through.
The audio is very clear and there's a natural feel to the reproduction offered by the sound signature, certainly less exaggerated than some of the rather bass-heavy earphones available.
Despite the distinct lack of instruments in Stanley Jordan's Forest Gardens (from the album State of Nature) – just the odd tinkle of percussion and the sounds of nature adding a pleasant backdrop to the hauntingly beautiful cello of Meta Weiss and Jordan's soothing guitar – the MS 200s treated me to an expansive sonic experience with both CD and MP3 (256 kbps/44 kHz). It wasn't exactly like hearing the track for the very first time, that might infer that the Phiaton signature had imposed too much of its own flavoring to the mix, but it was refreshing nonetheless.
An Apple a day ...
After pulling myself away from my music system and digital music player, I borrowed an iPod touch and started out on another sonic adventure. The first to respond to my voice command was Mistaken Identity by Vernon Reid from the 1996 album of the same name (in AAC format with a bit rate of 256 kbps and audio sample rate of 44 kHz).
On the funky title track of his first solo album, Reid's intricate fretwork is bombarded with more samples than you can shake a stick at. It's a sonic assault that few cans I've tried can handle with ease (even those at the expensive end of the market). Happily, this wasn't the case with the MS 200s. The track no longer felt cramped or walled in and was free to make the most of that huge soundstage.
Given the right setting, Cathedral in a Suitcase by Pat Metheny from the album Secret Story (AAC format/256 kbps/44 kHz) provides an evocative musical dreamscape where one could get easily lost for hours if the song wasn't over in just under five minutes. The MS 200s catered for just such a setting, allowing me to fully enjoy this production masterpiece.
Love the Way You Lie by Eminem (featuring Rihanna) from the album Recovery (AAC format/256 kbps/44 kHz) is the most recent of all of the chosen test tracks, and by far the most chilling. Dedicated lovers of thundering bass will likely think the MS 200s a little weak when faced with music of this genre but there's more than enough distortion-free bottom end oomph to satisfy almost everyone else. It was nice to hear the acoustic guitar and piano get a fair hearing, too.
The bottom line
The audio signature of the MS 200s is a little bass-heavy for my personal taste but probably not nearly enough for fans of the Beats by Dre sound. That said, it is a nice fat bass sound with plenty of presence. I engaged in some low end frolics with tracks from Grimes, Orbital and The Knives (and even plodded through a number of sub-bass samples) to see how the deeper than deep held up and was pleasantly surprised by the distinct lack of distortion, even at higher volumes.
The rest of the range seems very well balanced, though if I was going to be picky I would say that I did detect just the tiniest sliver of sibilance at the higher end with some of my older rock songs. There's impressive separation with a solid showing across the whole of the audible frequency range, spacing seems immense and signal clarity is up there with the very best I've tried.
The MS 200s are very light on the ear, I didn't have to force the tips into my ears like I've had to with other models in order to enjoy clear audio. Isolation from the outside world is quite good but not noise-canceling-good, but Phiaton makes no claims that these earphones will cut you off completely from what's going on around you.
The body also acts as a grip on the lower lobe to keep the MS 200s in place while bustling through the shopping mall, packed streets or busy train station. As someone who has often suffered from earphones dropping out unexpectedly, this is very welcome indeed.
At a suggested retail price of US$149, the MODERNA MS 200s are a little on the expensive side (almost twice the price of the company's basic PS 20 earphones) but, in the opinion of this reviewer, well worth the expense.
Product page: MODERNA MS 200