In an era of boosted bass and wireless audio, studio monitor headphones can feel like artifacts from a bygone era, with their lack of mega bass, inline controls, or Bluetooth audio. All of this is true for the Brainwavz HM5 circumaural (over-the-ear) headphones, but they get the important things right: The audio is accurate, the cans don’t leak much, and the fit is comfortable over long recording sessions. Their $129.50 price is significantly higher than some of our favorite budget-friendly studio monitors, like the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro, but with that price increase comes added comfort, the convenience of an easily detachable cable, and a sharper focus on the mids, high-mids, and highs.
At first glance, the Brainwavz look every bit the typical studio monitors—gray and black colors, with functional, but not terribly sexy, blue and red lettering indicating left and right ear cups. The materials are plastic and nothing looks terribly luxurious… until you get to the padding. The circumaural earpads and headband here have to earn a spot in the over-padded, over-cushioned hall of fame. Comfort is not a word that often comes to mind when thinking of studio monitors—most are comfortable enough to wear for a long time, but more focused on functionality and accuracy. The HM5 headphones are lightweight despite their bulky frame, and the earpads completely envelop your ear and extend down almost to the corner of your jaw. The cushioning makes them easy to wear for extended periods, and they don’t seem to get too hot, either, which can be an issue with bulky studio headphones.
Internally, the headphones have a 42mm dynamic transducer in each ear, and are obviously closed, so leakage stays a minimum (assuming volume is kept to reasonable levels). Brainwavz rates the frequency range at 10Hz-26.5kHz, with an impedance of 64 ohms.
Despite coming with two cables, neither has an inline remote control. We’ve tested some studio/home-use headphones in the past that included inline remotes on one of the two included cables, and it’s always a nice touch. But it’s hard to knock a manufacturer for keeping things strictly business—these are, after all, studio monitors. Thus, your two cable options are long and longer—one is 4.2 feet and the other 9.8 feet. Both terminate in 3.5mm connections, but a quarter-inch adapter is included for studio gear.
Other than the cables, the headphones ship with an extra pair of earpads that can easily be swapped out—a thoughtful inclusion we don’t see all that often. There’s also a rounded hardshell zip-up protective case.
We tested the headphones using an Apogee Symphony I/O connected to a Mac Pro as our sound source. On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” they deliver accurate, reserved bass response. You hear the depth of the sub-bass hits here, but they aren’t booming, and they are well-balanced with the rest of the frequency range. We get an accurate, clear picture of the entire mix. At higher volume levels, the leakage from the earcups is minimal, making them ideal for tracking near sensitive mics.
Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better sense of the HM5’s general sound signature. In a word, the sound is flat, in the good sense: It favors clarity throughout the range. The drums on this track can sound overly thunderous on bass-forward systems, but here, they sound relatively tame—not thin and brittle, but certainly not heavy and round as they can sound when the bass is plastered onto the mix. The central focus is on the high-mids and highs—Callahan’s baritone vocals have a steady low-mid richness, but it’s more about the treble edge they get, and the snappy, bright presence of the acoustic strumming.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the kick drum loop receives the ideal amount of high-mid presence, allowing the attack of the loop to retain its punchy presence in the mix. The sub-bass synth hits are delivered with accurate depth—we get every bit of their deep, ominous low-frequency presence, but they’re not boosted and exaggerated as is typical on bass-forward pairs. This leaves room for the three vocal performances to take center stage unchallenged. The high-mids mean crisp vocals, but there’s no hint of added siblinace. These are ideal headphones for tracking vocals.
On orchestral tracks, like the opening scene from John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary, the lower register instrumentation doesn’t have as much push as they might through typical headphones, with a modest presence here. The higher register brass, strings, and vocals own the spotlight, and are delivered with crisp, bright detail. Things aren’t brittle, but this is not a bass-forward sound signature—mids and highs are favored.
The Brainwavz HM5 get just about everything right—accurate audio, an exceptionally comfortable fit, and some helpful replacement accessories thrown in for good measure. The price might seem a little high to some, compared with the HD 280 Pro but you’re getting a notably different listening experience that has a clearer focus on high-mid clarity that pushes less bass forward. That, along with the included accessories and the cushiony fit, will justify the HM5’s higher price for some. In the studio realm, we’re also fans of the Sennheiser HD6 Mix, the Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pro, and the Beyerdynamic DT 240 Pro . We’ll happily add the Brainwavz HM5 to the rotation of quality sub-$200 studio monitor headphones we’ve tested—those seeking crisp, clear, detailed mids and highs will find them useful tools in the live room and when checking mixes.