For those of you not familiar with Dan Clark (a.k.a. Mr. Speakers on Head-Fi), his previous experience as a loudspeaker designer has recently given birth to more personal audio endeavors in the form of a custom headphone mod he likes to call the Mad Dog. The Mad Dog starts its life as the studio-famous, low-budget, DIY favorite the Fostex T50RP ($150). Perhaps one of the most popular headphones to mod given its low cost of entry, the T50RP delivers its sound via planar magnetic drivers. This is the same family of tech that is utilized in the higher-priced Audeze LCD line, which could also provide insight into its recent meteoric rise in popularity.
The “3.2” version that I received from Dan is the most recent to date. The Mad Dog mods usually include updated “Alpha” pads that augment not only comfort but also help improve a formidable cross-section of audio desirables. The Mad Dogs also feature an updated comfort strap made of leather that lines the inside of the stock rubber headband. The Mad Dog is now also offered in a “universal” variation that can accommodate both single ended and balanced cable configurations. You can even order a wide array cables from his website to swap out at your leisure via the slide-on connector. The available variations accommodate nearly every headphone style connection on the market including the portable balanced RSA connection used with Ray Samuels and ALO products. All critical listening for this review was done via the balanced XLR 4 pin connector. While the updated cable that was included was not as flashy as some aftermarket audiophile cables, it still accomplished its job with flying colors and was appropriately thick/durable for all intents and purposes. The connection at the base of the headphone slides on and off with remarkable ease, so those of you with multiple connection requirements may celebrate the diverse opportunity here.
The Mad Dog is a closed-back headphone, and as such is subject to a few acoustic drawbacks that accompany the exterior noise-reducing design. The tradeoffs for isolation usually come at the price of air and openness when compared to their open-back brothers. Bass punch can also have a very different feel to it across these headphone styles as well. My observations on the Mad Dog are perceptions based upon this context and these inherit limitations that accompany the design. Simply put however, it’s a great little headphone for $300.
Dan provided a little more color on the Mad Dog upgrades. “In general, we do two types of mods, sound and comfort. The sound mods are designed to smooth the frequency response, extend the range of the bass to the sub-bass region, and to improve the time domain response (e.g. no ringing in the mids and highs), which can cause fatigue. On the comfort side, we have worked hard to make a phone that can be worn for hours without hotspots or discomfort. We make our own lamb-leather ear pads, and the comfort strap across the top is made from vat-dyed leather, the type used for high-end leather goods.” Indeed the headphone is successful in its comfort endeavors. The pads are thick enough to keep the drivers from pressing directly on my ears, which can cause discomfort over the long haul. They are appropriately soft and feel very svelte to the touch. Isolation comes in a healthy dose for incoming extraneous noise, and bleed from the headphone output is nearly non-existent so you can feel free to wear these cans on the subway without bothering anyone – if you don’t mind a look or two from your fellow commuters. The clamping pressure of the T50RP is fairly strong, so the extra cushion provided from the updated pads on both sides is a welcome one.
While the 3.2 isn’t Dan’s first walk in the park, the latest update to his mod creation offers up a few augmentations to the sonics from his previous iterations, he explains. “The current tuning in version 3.2 is our most neutral in the mids and highs, and I also think our most fun. Compared to 3.1 and 3.0, we’ve increased the upper midrange and decreased the lower mids, so vocals, guitars and other instruments have a more natural and detailed texture to them. We’ve also increased the bass a little, so the bass has more slam, yet is faster and more textured.”
For $300 the Mad Dog excels at detail first and foremost (not a bad trait to have). This is narrated by a solid treble arrangement and eloquently allotted mid to bass presence. Compared to the well-balanced Sennheiser Momentum ($300) the signature feels a bit colored and leans on the treble a hair more, but transparency is clearly improved through the Mad Dog. Listening to the Joss Stone’s Killing Time revealed more timbre, texture and realism to the young singer’s smoky vocals that grace the track. The transition from lower mids to bass ends in more of the “thump” that is common among closed-back headphones, but is not inadvertently wooly or unnatural in its delivery. The overall result is a tone is entertaining as it is distinguished.
As with many things in hifi, the notion of discovering a product that outperforms for its pricepoint is a source of much deliberation and buzz online. Does the Mad Dog outperform its $100 roots? Definitely. Does it deliver at $300? I would argue that Dan has pooled together a collective mission that meets and/or exceeds many of the closed-back headphones in his range, quite a feat considering the wealth of quality headphones currently on the market. The next leap on the ladder that often emerges as a hot button topic is the relation of the Mad Dog to the premium priced Head-Fi darling, the Audeze LCD-2 ($1k). I think this correlation is a bit apples to oranges given the aforementioned differences between the diverging closed and open back designs of the two models. A more appropriate comparison could begin with the yet-to-be-released [closed-back LCD].
The Mad Dog v3.2 is a standout product in the sea of $300+ headphones. Transparency and detail are among its finest traits, as is the additional comfort that accompanies the modified earpads and headstrap. Dan has done an excellent job of presenting a wide range of connectivity options to satisfy even the most diverse collection of headphone amplifiers with the new “universal” edition. A frequent visitor to audio shows and Head-Fi meets alike, Dan makes it fairly easy to give his mods a listen, something I highly recommend if you are given the opportunity.