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Master & Dynamic MH40 Review – Pure Decadence

Introduction –

New York City-based Master and Dynamic first emerged in 2014, making a big entrance into a market already crowded with portable headphones. Despite this, the company rapidly caught ground though their classic luxury designs and unique yet distinguished tuning. The company have since expanded their product line to include wireless and in-ear models, but the MH40 easily remains one of their most popular designs as the headphone that first popularized the company.

And much of the MH40’s appeal stems from its fully-featured design that holds an important place in the $400 over-ear portable headphone category. Of note, the MH40 offers luxury and quality that many competitors either don’t aspire for or fail to quite wholly encapsulate. But that’s not to discount the fierce competition offered by rivals Oppo, B&W, B&O and even Denon that all provide myriad acoustic flavours with strong combinations of build quality and distinct aesthetic design. Let’s see how M&D’s portable headphone stacks up.

 

Disclaimer –

I would like to thank Andrew from Master and Dynamic very much for his quick communication and for providing me with the MH40 for the purpose of review. I would also like to thank him for his ongoing support. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the headphones free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.

 

Accessories – 

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The MH40 has one of the most lavish unboxings I’ve experienced from a portable headphone and though it has quite a typical accessory set, the presentation is top notch. Master & Dynamic provide buyers with two cables, a 1.25m unit with a 3-button remote and mic and a 2m audio-only cable for use with desktop amplifiers and perhaps electric instruments.

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They also include a 1/4′ adapter, a very nice leather cable box and a soft pouch with an internal pocket that carries the cable and a few accessories.

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It’s a nicely comprehensive setup overall, I do usually prefer hard cases, but the MH40 is solid enough and the fabric pouch is sturdy and hard-wearing while consuming less bag space.

 

Design –

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Master and Dynamic harken back to the classic Grado style aesthetic with a twist of contemporary opulence; the MH40 is an absolutely gorgeous set of headphones with a timeless design realised through meticulous manufacturing. This starts with the forged aluminium earcups coated in a resilient cowhide leather and extends to the super supple lambskin earpads and stainless steel slider mechanisms. The MH40 implements a complex yet thoughtful combination of complementary materials to promote both hard wearing and ergonomic properties.

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Master & Dynamic’s particular choice of leather does lack the ultra-supple feel of B&W’s lambskin P7 but the MH40 has worn better over my past months of testing, this is a headphone designed to last well into the future. Moreover, the finish on each element is immaculate and the design is eye-catching in the best possible way. The right cup also has an additional button that mutes the headphones, a practical addition when attempting to hear alerts and co-workers.

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The MH40 makes use of a smooth slider with unlimited adjustment points over a traditional stepped mechanism. However, due to their design, they have an especially narrow range of adjustment so I would recommend interested buyers with especially large or small heads to try a set out in person. I usually set my headphones to roughly 2/3 of their maximum length though I had to fully extend the MH40 for a comfortable fit.

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Apart from this, the headphones produce a mostly ergonomic experience but run into similar issues as the B&W P7 due to a combination of weight (at an astonishing 360g) and a thin, inadequately padded headband. And though clamp force is well-judged, not too firm but with enough pressure to promote a stable fit, the MH40’s tended to form a mild hotspot at the top of my head after just half an hour of listening. After two hours I was always forced to take a break, the headband is simply too thin to support the weight of their metal housings.

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Luckily, the supple, plush and deep earpads delivered outstanding comfort as one of the few models that fully encompass my ears without contact. With dense memory foam innards, they easily conform to produce an incredibly strong seal. Fabric lines the inside of the pads making them a little scratchy at first, but they quickly wear in and are far more breathable than typical leather and especially faux leather competitors. Though my set has hardly worn at all over my 2 months of testing, the pads are also easily removable using a magnetic mounting plate and a replacement pair from M&D are a well-priced $49 USD. Those having issues with the stock pads may also want to look into the MW60 ear pads that are softer and more comfortable at the cost of sounding a little darker.

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The headphones are semi-open with rear facing mesh obscured by dampening fabric. This does affect isolation to a degree, but in my uses, their strong seal offsets their semi-open nature, producing similar isolation to certain closed sets like the P7 if not quite as much as the class-leading Oppo PM3 and B&O H6. None of these headphones attenuate nearly as much as a good set of noise cancellers like those from Bose and Sony but they do provide a considerably more engaging sound in low to moderately loud conditions and the MH40’s were sufficient for public transport.

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Though the headphones uses a single side entry cable, the bottoms of both earcups contain a 3.5mm jack, enabling users to choose their preferred side and daisy chain several headphones together. Of note, my newer revision unit has recessed plugs so I didn’t run into any of the issues outlined by Nathan or Tyll in their reviews though the stock units are still easily swapped with any case-friendly cable due to a lack keyed housings. The cable itself is also of very pleasing quality, one of the best included units amongst portable headphones. They instantly impress through their supple and flexible nature in addition to their tough fabric sheathing.

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The terminations are aluminium with tactile knurling and pleasing strain relief. The 1.25M cable has a clear mic and clicky remote. Interestingly, all 3 buttons functioned on both my Android (Fiio X7 II and HTC U11) and IOS devices.

 

Sound –

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Tonality –

The MH40 has an L-shaped tonality focussing on sub and upper bass with a sprinkle of added upper midrange and treble energy. They are a clearly sculpted headphone but one with tasteful and purposeful deviations in line with competitors like the Bower and Wilkins P7 and Bang and Olufsen H6. Of course, the MH40 doesn’t sound similar to either of these headphones but it does demonstrate a similar mastery of signature alteration and Master and Dynamic ultimately deliver a sound that is simultaneously full, clear and spacious. The MH40 focusses on smoothness, excelling during long-term listening; bass is full but doesn’t pound the eardrums and neither their midrange nor treble ever sounds forward without sounding veiled. This is an atypical headphone presentation that almost emulates a speaker style sound though results inherently differ due to form factor.

 

Bass –

The MH40 has a strong low-frequency response focussing on rumble, slam and an organic hump into the lower midrange. It’s a very unorthodox presentation, but one with plenty of appeal whether you’re looking for balance or engagement due to some interesting tonal weightings. Sub-bass extension is excellent with tight yet physical rumble that blitzes the looser P7 on tracks with double bass. Sub-bass is elevated above more linear sets like the Oppo PM3, granting enhanced slam, and deep-bass feeds quite evenly into the mid-bass frequencies. As a result, bass notes aren’t especially full or organic like portable Denon and Meze sets, but sub-bass sounds more defined and separated as a result. There also isn’t too much bloat spilling over the smaller details though a considerable upper bass emphasis makes bass sound somewhat tubby and the MH40 can drone on slower tracks.

That said, texturing is quite good, among the best I’ve heard from a portable headphone and definition is commendably high considering their tone, especially with regards to deep and sub-bass. Bass does lack separation between notes and the MH40 loses a fair amount of detail due to their uneven tuning, but they still sound noticeably more nuanced than the P7 and Sony MDR-1A, they just fail to match class leaders like the PM3. Resultantly, the MH40 sits within the middle upper pack in bass quality but with nicely tuned quantity and emphasis that will certainly find fans. Their notable lack of mid-bass warmth imbues a cleaner tone though they still sound coloured due to other emphasis. I’m not a huge advocate of their tubby upper-bass and lack of articulation and delicacy at times, but this is a highly dynamic and engaging headphone that doesn’t present as overly bloated or sloppy.

 

Mids –

The MH40’s upper-bass hump imbues lower mids with a warm, full character. This precedes rising emphasis into the upper midrange and some little frequency response bumps throughout that grant the middle and upper midrange with increased clarity. Mids still sits behind the MH40’s larger bass response though enhanced upper midrange clarity creates what is subjectively one of the more balanced tones among portable headphones. Lower mids are notably recessed and deeper male vocals can sound somewhat veiled due to some over-warming and bass spill. That said, though male vocals tend to sound thick and a bit distant, rising emphasis into the middle and upper midrange does prevent muddiness. Though this, instruments such as piano, higher male vocals and female vocals all sound considerably less coloured. In fact, the MH40 has clearly enhanced clarity within their upper midrange with smooth, present and layered female vocals and guitars.

Despite their brighter tilt, they aren’t the most resolving headphone with a presentation that lies on the smoother, more laid-back side. This is mainly due to their more relaxed upper-midrange/treble transition that lacks any aggression and enhanced bass that makes vocals and instruments sound fuller than neutral. As a result, they aren’t the most realistic or transparent sounding headphone on the market, but they don’t sound as unnatural as the thinner, more clarity orientated sets either. By nature of their tuning and semi-open form factor, the MH40 also provides notably strong midrange separation and space which benefits background detailing. So ultimately, this is a perfectly enjoyable presentation with fine balance that works especially well during longer listening. Resolution isn’t the headphone’s strong suit though the MH40 does retrieve plenty of detail, it just doesn’t bring it to the fore.

 

Highs –

Treble assumes a similar presentation to the midrange with some subtle deviations similarly enhancing energy in certain areas. While extension is good, overall, the MH40 definitely falls into the more laid-back category through a somewhat smoothed-off transition between upper mids and lower treble. As aforementioned, details aren’t brought to the fore and the headphones can lack some edge to treble notes; noticeable through slightly softer cymbal impact and guitar strums. That said, they have a little extra middle treble zing that grants some air and shimmer to their high-end thereby retaining enough energy for genres like rock. Moreover, their rich low-end and spacious stage is thoroughly engaging and treble has sufficient attack when needed. So though the headphones sound immediately smooth and laid-back, they are never dull or boring in any way.

The MH40 can thus be categorised as a well-detailed and naturally presenting headphone but not a resolving one. Again, this isn’t to be taken as a negative, the MH40 is tailored for louder listening volumes prone to causing fatigue, which it never does, though certain competitors such as the Oppo PM3 and Denon MM-400 do carry a similarly smooth high-end but carry greater nuance due to a more linear tone. And that said, the MH40’s middle treble lift grants them with more air and space than either of these headphones and complex tracks do sound more composed on the M&D headphone as a result. This is a clean, lush treble presentation if one that doesn’t excel with lower-treble energy or absolute upper-treble extension.

 

Soundstage, Imaging and Separation –

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The MH40 creates a large stage through its slightly enhanced treble air and upper midrange clarity in culmination with its open design. It doesn’t quite extend and resolve like the P7 and H6, but its sound is similarly expansive in many circumstances due to a combination of these aforementioned factors. Imaging is good but not outstanding, its sculpted tone creating inconsistent instrument placement. Separation overall is commendable, their low-end is congested but their upper half is layered and spacious with clearly delineated notes. This is a very immersive presentation that eclipses the majority of portable headphones that tend to sound quite intimate even if it doesn’t touch the enthralling experience offered by full-sized open backs. Arguably, the MH40 finds a nice compromise between practicality and spaciousness while keeping things coherent and in focus.

 

Drivability –

The MH40 isn’t particularly difficult to drive on paper with a modest 32ohm impedance, but it is a headphone that benefits from some tonal synergy and clean amplification. And like the P7 and PM3, the MH40 scales notably well with higher quality sources, however, unlike those headphones, its mellower tuning can compromise enjoyment from inferior ones. Any decent smartphones like Apple’s iPhone or those from LG and HTC will serve the MH40 just fine, but more compressed or darker sources can make the headphone sound overly laid-back, even muddy. An affordable dedicated source like the Dragonfly Black can provide a noticeable step up and a nice transparent amplifier can similarly enhance the listening experience.

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My most preferred pairing was the iFi Black Label, an incredibly powerful, dynamic source that really opened up the MH40; low-end definition greatly improved and mids and highs were granted with extra clarity and resolution. The Fiio X7 II and Oppo HA-2 both provided a similar experience while the darker X3 and fuller X5 III subjectively sounded too warm. So they are susceptible to sounding a little muddy and closed in on certain sources and while a DAC like the $850 Black Label isn’t necessary to extract the potential from those 45mm drivers, I would definitely recommend some form of amplification or a neutral to clear source for an optimal experience.

 

Comparisons –

Meze 99 Neo: The Meze isn’t quite as solid as the MH40 nor as streamlined, but it is more comfortable during home listening due to a well-implemented suspension headband and larger, ultra-plush earpads. In listening, the MH40 is a little more balanced while the 99 Neo is bassier and slightly darker but also more linear and even in its tuning. As a result, the Meze is slightly more detailed and textured but sounds very full. The Meze is notably warmer with more bloat and a looser low-end though it is well-defined throughout, due to its linearity. The MH40 is tighter with greater sub-bass focus and a cleaner bass tone in general.

The M&D is also noticeably more balanced with regards to midrange tuning where the 99 Neo is a little more recessed. As such, the MH40 sounds clearer and more present to both male and female vocals, it is slightly less coloured but still warm and smooth int he grand scheme of things. In terms of treble, the MH40 has a little more air while the 99 Neo has more energy to its lower treble and can sound crisper and more detailed as a result. Both stage very well, the MH40 sounds deeper and more coherent while the 99 neo is a little wider but some elements sound overly distant. The 99 neo images better but separation suffers due to its thicker sound.

Bowers and Wilkins P7: The P7 is perhaps most comparable, as it is similarly sculpted and has a matching leather/metal construction. The P7 feels softer in the hand, using purely lambskin leather, though it is also more prone to dents and scuffs than the hardier MH40. Both are heavy and wear on the top of the head over time with similarly poor headband design. Sonically, the MH40 is more balanced and subtle in its approach while the P7 is more V-shaped, utilising greater high-frequency presence to offset its powerful bass. The P7 focusses on great sub-bass slam with cleaner mid and upper-bass creating a slightly thin but very clear midrange.

The MH40 has a similarly clean mid-bass presentation but its upper bass is more pronounced, spilling more into the lower mids. Upper mids are similarly forward but even clearer on the P7 at the cost of sounding slightly more unnatural. Treble has a lot more energy and air on the P7, it extends further and retains quite a lot of detail and texture. It can fatigue but as a result, the P7 has perhaps the grandest stage I’ve heard from a portable despite its closed nature. Imaging is similar on both, perhaps slightly better on the more revealing P7 and separation also goes to the B&W due to its incredibly vivid sound.

Oppo PM3: The Oppo has the cleanest, most understated design and an excellent build that matches its western competitors. It is also one of the most comfortable of the bunch despite being one of the heaviest due to a well-padded headband, perfect clamp force and plush albeit shallow earpads. What makes the PM3 rather unique is its use of planar magnetic drivers that theoretically deliver superior transience to dynamic drivers; it was the first portable headphone to do so but a few competitors have since popped up. That said, the Oppo remains one of my favourites on account of its incredibly balanced, realistic sound that demonstrates refinement beyond its asking price.

Immediately, the PM3 is leaner and more defined than the MH40, it is more detailed throughout and almost neutral in tone besides a small sub and mid-bass lift that grants its midrange with sligthly greater body. The MH40 is warmer and fuller yet, mids sound less natural but smoother while the PM3 is more transparent with considerably greater resolution. The PM3 has a similarly relaxed high-end though it has a more linear mid/treble transition that retrieves more detail. Neither extend particularly well and neither excel with air and shimmer. The MH40 has a noticeably larger stage than the more intimate, slightly drier PM3 at the cost of imaging precision that the quicker, more linear Oppo excels with.

 

Verdict –

From perusal of their marketing material, Master & Dynamic’s prime selling point is undoubtedly design. The MH40 is a stunning headphone regardless of gender or age, with an industrial feel and intricate look offered in copious colour schemes all with their own unique charm. The headphones have also worn incredibly well during my months of testing which reflects well upon their ultimate longevity, a grossly understated factor integral to an expensive luxury product. They are also an ergonomically pleasing if not flawless headphone, with a thin headband suiting portable over lengthier stationary use. That said, during such usage, their breathable yet well-sealing pads create a far more agreeable experience than the majority of competitors.

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However, the MH40 is more than just a fashion statement and its sonic expression is far more profound than its superficial luxury may lead buyers to believe. This is a headphone that thrives on the duality of its voicing; a headphone that is concurrently smooth and lush, clear and layered. Its higher-frequencies carry plenty of nuance, a surprising amount at times despite its mellow tone, set to defined rumble and physical bass impact. This only improves with an energetic source that invigorates their laid-back tuning to provide more balance and immediacy. Of course, headphones like the purpose-built PM3 offers more detail and intricacy through their more balanced and linear tuning though few headphones engage quite like MH40 while retaining such balance and long-term listenability.

Verdict – 8/10, Where some manufacturers design the headphones around the sound, M&D tune their sound around the headphone, producing a charming and rather unique listening experience. They do lack that last iota of refinement and linearity but make up for it through class-leading design and construction. Despite some headband comfort niggles, the MH40 is an impressively well-rounded portable headphone.

The Master & Dynamic MH40 is available from Amazon (International) for $285 USD at the time of writing, please see my affiliate link for the most updated pricing, availability and configurations.

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