Audeze MM-500 Review - A Critical Take
Following in the footsteps of Audeze’s recent LCD-5 flagship headphone, which marked a significant departure from the brand’s house sound, the MM-500 (MSRP $1700) is a new breed of Audeze headphone. It is a collaboration with Manny Marroquin, award-winning mixing engineer, and it is targeted at similarly-minded professionals.
But I’m neither a professional mixing engineer, nor a headphone enthusiast (even though I’ve heard my fair share of headphones). I’m an IEM guy. Why? In general, IEMs have better tuning; IEMs often use multiple drivers, such as balanced armatures, which afford more tuning granularity. Again, I’m no industry professional, but tonality is ostensibly one of the most important characteristics of a headphone for mixing. So how does the MM-500 fare under the unique scrutiny of someone who’s heard (and prefers) some of the best-tuned IEMs? Let’s take a closer listen.
This unit was loaned to me for review by Super*Review. As always, what follows are my honest thoughts and opinions to the best of my ability.
Source & Drivability
All critical listening was done off of an iBasso DX300 with lossless files. The Audeze MM-500 is a relatively easy-to-drive headphone; I had no issues whatsoever hitting my usual listening volume of ~70dB. If you’d like to learn more about my listening methodology and beliefs in audio, then I would encourage you to check out this page.
The MM-500 unquestionably has one of the best builds of any headphone I’ve held; the chassis of the headphone feels rock-solid thanks to the majority of it being aluminum and steel. Aesthetically, I’m a big fan as well. It’s not too large and it looks visually pleasing when on the head. There are carbon fiber-esque inlays for the cups that complete the slick industrial look.
Unfortunately, the MM-500 might not be the best choice of headphone for listeners with larger heads. In addition to the headphone clocking in at ~500 grams, the leather cups are on the smaller side which means that some listeners’ ears will be pressed against the pads. There is also a decent amount of clamp force. I couldn’t really listen to it for more than an hour at a time. Then again, I only wear even the most comfortable of headphones, like the Sennheiser HD 800S (330 grams), for a couple of hours maximum. These things are always subjective, so take my impressions with a grain of salt.
An added touch that I do appreciate is the hard plastic case included with the MM-500. There is foam padding on the inside, a piece of foam to put between the cups, plus a slot to store the headphone’s cable. Like the headphone itself, it feels substantial—like it will truly protect your investment.
Headphones are notoriously difficult to tune due to the legwork of tuning often taking part on the chassis. Factors such as pad wear and placement on the head are other detriments to achieving consistent, or ideal, sound. To someone who has never found headphones to be tonally correct—most range between “well, this is awful” to the rare “this is tolerable”—I would say that the MM-500’s tuning falls closer to the latter. True to its mixing roots, the tonality of the MM-500 is best described as “balanced.” It has a fairly linear bass shelf, a conventional rise to the upper-midrange, and then a generally relaxed treble region.
Dialing in closer, the bass of the MM-500 is somewhat mediocre. It does not have the tight, snappy characteristic that I’ve associated with Audeze’s LCDi4 or some of their past headphones. It sounds more sputter-y and blurred. I don’t think this is entirely an issue of extension, as the MM-500 has reasonably good sub-bass depth like most planar headphones. Leaving aside what measurements depict, it sounds like there is a slight excess of mid-bass from around 100-200 Hz that overshadows those deepest sub-bass frequencies. This contributes to a sense of the sub-bass being more rolled-off, by comparison, masking bass lines.
The midrange of the MM-500 has a slight tilt towards warmth in the lower-midrange. Like the bass, I find it to sound slightly inflated and puffy with male vocals. Following this, it has a conventional rise into the upper-midrange from 1-3kHz before sloping off in the presence regions. This yields a more midrange-centric sound; vocals are upfront in the mix while foregoing sharpness or sibilance. For the most part, I’m a fan of the midrange on the MM-500: it's somewhat reminiscent of the Sennheiser HD 650 / HD6XX’s legendary midrange which is that headphone’s saving grace.
Treble on the MM-500 is something of a double-edged sword. Many planar headphones tend to lean brighter and more edgy up top. This sentiment doesn’t apply to the MM-500 at all. On the contrary, it’s almost too relaxed. Snares sound somewhat dulled to the way they initially “crack,” and to my ears there seems to be a decent amount of valley from ~8-14kHz that kills crash on cymbals. Still, I wouldn’t say that the MM-500 is necessarily rolled-off in the treble. It seems to re-surge in the upper-treble past 10kHz before gently tapering off. This all culminates in an inoffensive, if somewhat dull, treble response wherein listeners might struggle to discern what’s missing at first.
The MM-500 has odd transient characteristics for a planar headphone. This is in the sense that most planar headphones - at least the ones that I have heard - are generally characterized by a “plucked” characteristic to notes: notes have a sharp leading edge and decay quickly. This isn’t the case with the MM-500, which has a softer edge to the attack of notes. Decay on the MM-500 is also more elongated than most conventional planars which, to its credit, mitigates some of the “plucked” character some listeners might find undesirable. Unfortunately, this also seems to neuter the MM-500’s sense of finer reverb trails and texturing; I’d consider the MM-500 to sound more “smoothed over” than anything for detail.
As for what is responsible for these impressions, I would largely point to a combination of 1) the slight masking at 100- 200Hz, 2) the more relaxed lower treble, and 3) the recession that seems to be present from 8-14kHz or so. These types of tuning decisions are also usually synonymous with poor dynamic contrast and “slam” characteristics. This is true for the most part with the MM-500. It’s not egregiously poor in these departments, but it wouldn’t be the headphone for listeners who want a more exciting listen. In all fairness, the lack of these characteristics might be a good thing given its mixing inspiration.
Still, hits to perceived resolution are definitely not something that one wants to hear with a headphone this expensive. As for imaging, I would say that the MM-500 also leans more middling. It has decent separation capabilities, and sounds reasonably open, but it ultimately lacks center imaging or a gimmick, like the Sennheiser HD 800S’ incredible soundstage width, to distinguish it from the pack. Frankly, I find the MM-500 to be somewhat unremarkable for its overall technical performance, especially at its hefty $1700 price point.
The Bottom Line
Should the MM-500 be a headphone on your radar? Possibly. I love the construction of the headphone and I think it sets a new bar for what we should expect from the build of headphones at this price point. Furthermore, it at least has a palatable sound that most listeners would struggle to be offended by. Remember, I say this as someone who has very high standards for tonality. But I’d also be remiss to ignore its perceived technical deficiencies, and some listeners will be surprised by what is a marked departure from Audeze’s house sound.
If you’re curious about my thoughts on some other high-end headphones, then I’d encourage you to check out my coverage of shows like CanJam Socal 2021 and CanJam Singapore 2022. While I can’t promise that I’m any less critical or receptive of the headphones in these articles, they should at least make for an interesting read!