Technology

You cannot destroy these headphones

I hate buying something cheap. There’s nothing worse than that sinking feeling when you open something up and know it’s not long for this world. I’m also hard on my gear, which led me to buy these bulletproof headphones from an obscure company called German Maestro.

But to talk about these headphones, I need to talk about another pair of headphones first: the Sony MDR-7506 (and its discontinued brother, the Sony MDR-V6).

I edit a lot of videos and do voiceover work. And if you’ve done any video work, you’ve almost certainly used a pair of Sony MDRs. They are iconic. You can see the blue or red stripe and the twisted cable from across a set. When you go to film school, you’re basically issued a pair of MDRs as a service rifle, and for good reason.

The Sony MDR-7506s are an industry standard, a great value, and I hate them.
Photo from Amazon

First of all, they are cheap. They usually go for around 80 bucks if you look for sales. Their near-ubiquity on film sets means you can grab these phones at a huge discount, making them one of the better deals for people who need a headphone for work. Next are the closed-back headphones, perfectly isolated, allowing you to pick out imperfections in the mix. There’s a reason you see guys monitoring sound on film sets and video shoots wearing these. Third, they are quite “flat”, and without getting too technical and pedantic, they don’t try to dress up what you hear to sound pleasant. They’re not bass-heavy Beats. These are to get the job done. Finally, they are pretty well built for the price. They fold up and are durable, so you can throw them in a Porta Brace bag without worrying about them getting messy.

For what they do, the MDRs are okay. But they are not perfect.

First, they have an overly long, non-detachable phone cable that may be fine in a studio environment, but comical if you’re trying to listen to music on your phone. I hate this cable with every fiber of my being. In principle, I strongly believe that all headphone cables should be detachable, as cables can take tons of abuse. But what really drives me up the wall is that I hate the coiled cable style. I find it settles too easily on too many things, and every time it got a crack in it, it drove me up the wall.

The other thing is that the foam pads on the MDRs just suck up. It’s not just a matter of comfort; they are just really bad pillows. I almost always upgrade the pads on my headphones to either Dekoni or Brainwavz pads, but you’ll almost certainly need to replace those pads sooner than you think, especially if you use them in an unforgiving production context.

A pair of Sony MDR-7506 with severely degraded headphone pads.

The foam on these things is so bad, man. I have seen this and worse happen so many times over the years.
Photo: Alex Parkin, The Verge

In the end, I just don’t love the way they sound. How headphones sound comes into very subjective territory, but the MDRs are fine at best and too harsh at worst for me. They were work headphones, but there was something about the treble that made my skin crawl while listening to people talk. It’s unfair to ask more of the MDRs for the price, but at the end of the day I just wanted something a little nicer: a pro version of the MDRs with nicer foam, better and detachable cord options, and a less fatiguing sound. At the time (November 2020) this was not offered in America.

This led me down a long and winding path trying to find a pair of headphones that ticked all the same markers: flat, indestructible, closed back, better cable. When you get into the higher echelons of audiophile perversion, most of your headphone options outside of IEMs are open or semi-open. I researched some of the most respected studio headphones. A lot of people I know swear by the Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pros, and while they’re indeed a studio staple, durable and have some of the most comfortable standard cushions of any headphone in its range, they’re not what I’d call flat, and I couldn’t get used to how they sounded. The Audio-Technica ATH-M50x also checked a lot of my needs, but I didn’t like the sound and they didn’t feel special or particularly durable. A friend of mine swears by the Sennheiser HD 300 Pros and I want to believe him, but unfortunately I never got to test them. Sony also has another obscure but well-respected non-folding big brother to the MDR-7506s called the MDR-CD900ST, which has a flat cable, as well as an even higher-end model called the Sony MDR-M1ST, which has a detachable cable, but the former wasn’t available outside of Japan until very recently, and the latter you still have to import.

Finally, my answer came in the form of a 76-page thread on the Head-fi forums from 2009 to 2019 by a user named Acix titled “The German Maestro GMP 8.35 D monitor in the studio… serious about sound, INDEED !!” I had never heard of the German Maestro (formerly MB Quart), but from the jump I was intrigued. The headphones looked industrial. Solid. Effective. In short, they looked German. “Man I’m all about function (sic) over form but these have got to be the ugliest phones I’ve seen,” said user Bones2010. To me they looked beautiful.

A close-up of German Maestro's industrial logo.

“Seriously with sound, EXISTS!!”
Photo by Christopher Person/The Verge

Many of the reviews were glowing and the words “unrelenting” were often mentioned. Someone dropped the picture of a pair of black leather boots stepping on them. Another thread mentioned that they were often used in music store listening stations. People seemed to love their balanced, detailed sound and the fact that they were very sensitive and therefore didn’t need a powerful headphone amp to listen to them. In threads and elsewhere, reviews compared them favorably to the Sennheiser HD25-1s, but better and with a slightly darker tone. Close. Controlled. One user mentioned that they were better in every way for their MDRs, which is exactly what I wanted for the price.

As the thread progressed over several years, people started to get creative. Some didn’t like the stock pads and replaced them with lush ones from the aforementioned DT770s as well as the Brainwavez HM5s. Others drilled holes in them and made modifications to the trunk cable. Finally, German Maestro released a version with a detachable cable and an extra stock pair of pads called The GMP 8.35 Mobile specifically due to requests from customers with autism. It’s refreshing to hear a company welcome such feedback.

Oh thank goodness, a detachable cable.  That's all I ask.

Oh thank goodness, a detachable cable. That’s all I ask.
Photo by Christopher Person/The Verge

The phones seemed to tick every single box, but buying them proved to be a bit tricky. Aside from a drop.com release, no one in the US had them in stock, so I had to order them directly from the manufacturer and pay in Euros. I waited patiently and when they arrived they were exactly what I needed.

I was immediately struck by how sturdy they were. The plastic was thick, but it didn’t weigh the phones down. Everything made today feels cheap and flimsy. They felt like they were from a different era, not stuck in time when products were measured in decades, not years. These were headphone equivalents of English-made Doc Martens. I could throw these things against a brick wall, ride a bike over them, pry them from a dog’s teeth and they’d probably be fine.

They sounded like they looked: “controlled,” as one forum user put it. I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds of audiophile testing because that’s really not the point of this blog (although I’d be happy to lend my pair to crinacle or the folks at Audio Science Review for more extensive testing). They were clear and flat, with plenty of detail, but not particularly flashy. The bass was there, but not overbearing as I had found the Beyerdynamics to be. If there was something wrong with my mix, I could hear it immediately, like listening to a pair of Yamaha NS10s. I ended up preferring the velor pads, which changed the sound a bit, but recently I’ve been wanting to try other options. They’re not the best headphones I’ve ever heard, but within the parameters of what I need them to do, they’re unmatched.

Of course, they weren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Some people I’ve shown them to have found them a bit uncomfortable. Others did not like the sound. When I showed them to Alex Parkin on the video team (a certified MDR user with a well-worn pair who also despises the coiled cable), I could sense his concern. “I was definitely going to have to get used to these,” he said.

Built like a tank.

Built like a tank.
Photo by Christopher Person/The Verge

But even people who couldn’t get down with the sound agreed that they were robust, efficient and had great isolation. The Maestros are ideal studio headphones made by a small and obscure company that seems to really care about the product they produce. Are they worth the trouble of importing? I personally have no regrets.

At the corner of my desk I have two headphones hanging on a hook: a pair of Hifimans and my Maestros.

Hifimans are big and airy, with comfortable Dekoni cushions I replaced. These are my easy listening headphones. They’re big and flimsy, they’ve never left my desk, and I’ve still had to order a new headband from the manufacturer.

My Maestros sit next to them. They are my “work headphones”, sensible and robust, intended for durability and concentration like a Herman Miller chair. Every time I pick them up, I feel a sense of joy. I think of the thread forum that lasted for a decade where new people rotated in, discovered, loved and sometimes really hated these cans. I keep them and know there’s a very good chance they’ll still work for decades, possibly even after I’m dead and buried, and how rare it is to buy a piece of equipment that’s made to outlive you .

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