Crafting an on-ear headphone is extremely difficult: Because they're smaller than their over-ear cousins, companies must create a smaller driver and deal with the discomfort from the headphone resting on your ears instead of around them. It’s not an impossible task to craft a great pair of on-ears – but, it does require some trade-offs to make them fit and sound great.
If there's one company who can do it, though, it's V-Moda.
A great example of this are the new V-Moda XS. These on-ear headphones offer an incredible amount of sonic joy while being relatively comfortable on our head. Don’t let the bold, fashion-forward design fool you – the V-Moda XS are an audiophile’s travel buddy. They’re not perfect but if you can live with some of its nitpicks, you’ll be treated to one of the best sounding on-ear headphones this price range.
While $180 (£150, about AU$270) is a lot to pay for a wired on-ear headphone but we think many listeners will enjoy the design, comfort and sound quality enough to justify the price.
V-Moda’s bold and angular design hasn’t changed with the V-Moda XS. The headphones feature diamond-shaped “shields” that can be replaced with customized ones. Buyers can customize their shields on the V-Moda headset to display whatever you want, like your favorite esports team’s logo or company logo.
The headphone’s headband is nicely leather-wrapped and features a cloth strip underneath to stop them from getting too steamy during long listening sessions. The ear cups are also leather and comfortable, though we wish they were more plush to hold onto our head better.
The headphone is comfortable, sure, but fits loosely on the head, making them less than ideal for working out. Simply tilting your head back and forth is enough to move the headphone on our head, which is quite annoying.
While it might not work as a workout partner, the headband is great as a travel companion – it can withstand being twisted at extreme angles and its metal forks ensure the headphones can withstand abuse. The metal forks also allow the V-Moda XS to be folded up for travel and there’s a nice hard case included in the box. However, that said, the headphones don’t fold flat – so just be sure to leave some space in your bag for the oblong hard case.
The XS features a 3.5mm jack on each side of the headphone so you can choose which ear cup to plug the included cable into. The included orange and black cable gives the headphone a nice splash of color on an otherwise all-black headphone. There’s an inline mic and single-button remote on the cable, meaning you can’t adjust volume. The cable is terminated in a 45-degree angle 3.5mm jack.
If you like neutrality with a slight hint of warmth, you’re going to love the V-Moda XS. Its neutral frequency response and tonal balance mean the XS sounds excellent with all genres of music. The V-Moda XS offer loads of detail, which gives instruments like guitars and violin a nice, natural texture.
Bass extends low and is tight, but we wished for slightly more impact on some tracks. However, we really enjoyed how extended and controlled the bass is on the XS. As a result, the bass doesn’t bleed into the mids. If you're a fan of EDM, rap or any other bass-heavy genre, however, you'll want to check out the equally well-built but slightly more bass-forward Master & Dynamic MH30 instead.
Mids are lush and slightly warm in the mid-bass region and highs are well extended without ever sounding sibilant. The overall tonal balance reminds us of the legendary Sennheiser HD 600. However, the V-Moda XS can’t match the resolution or soundstage of the HD 600, naturally. While the V-Moda XS opens up a bit with proper amplification, the headphone still sounds excellent straight out of a smartphone.
That’s not to say that the sound stage of the XS is bad. While soundstage is not as wide as open-back headphones, it’s acceptable for a closed-back on-ear. The slightly narrow soundstage is made up for by the headphone’s good imaging, allowing you to place where different instruments are coming from.
The biggest issue we have with the V-Moda XS is that the headphone doesn’t block out much outside noise, meaning commuters should look elsewhere – like, for example, the Sony WH-1000XM2. In comparison, both the Master & Dynamic MH30 a and Sony WH-1000XM2 do a much better job of blocking outside noise with its thicker, plusher pads with the latter featuring full-on ANC.
The V-Moda XS are a nice balance of sound quality, build and design for a reasonable price. We enjoyed listening to the V-Moda XS for its neutral presentation and slight warmth, which means all kinds of music sounds good over long listening sessions. While we wished for some more bass impact, that’s about the only nitpick we had for the headphone’s sound.
Other nitpicks include a loose fit on the head and poor noise isolation, which makes the V-Moda XS a poor choice for working out and commuting with. However, audiophiles on the go will enjoy using these in quieter environments like at the office or a quieter coffee shop.
In terms of competition, the Klipsch Reference On-Ear II are an excellent alternative that can block out more external sound. However, the trade off is the extended and exciting highs of the V-Moda XS as the Klipsch has more high frequency roll-off.