Disclaimer: The Headfonia Store sells Fostex, Audez’e and Hifiman orthodynamic headphones. The Thunderpants was loaned to me by Fostex Japan.
I don’t think I’ve ever written a title that bold, but this one definitely deserves it. Not only on the effort Smeggy has put into creating such a marvel from something so humble as the T50RP, but also the resulting headphone that comes out of it. The Thunderpants is an extremely special headphone.
When Smeggy first introduced the Fostex T50RP-based Thunderpants a few years ago, it was a very big hit among the head-fiers. Everyone talked about it and local orthodynamic enthusiasts tried to create their own version of the Thunderpants. Long before the Thunderpants, the ortho crowd has always been avid headphone modder, and I’ve listened to many many different modded orthos from Yamaha to Fostex and other smaller obscure brands (I’ve even done a feature on some models). The T50RP itself is a common base headphone that people would take and mod it to somewhat improve the tonality and sound quality. And most of these mods would usually succeed in improving the sound somewhat (though with the improvements, usually things are also taken out somewhere else). However, listening to many many different modded T50RPs, I came to the conclusion that modded headphones is usually limited by the quality of the original driver.
The most common modification usually takes care of the boomy bass and housing reverb problems which resulted from improper acoustics in the housing design. While taking out the boomy bass, housing reverbs, and altering tonal balance can improve an old vintage headphone, the end result was still easily vintage–at least compared to modern headphones. For instance, on one orthodynamic meet, I brought a lowly Sennheiser HD201 headphone and easily demonstrated that no matter how much tuning is done, vintage orthos can’t compete with the resolution and frequency of a modern driver, even an entry level beater like the HD201. For similar reasons, I suppose, Audez’e and Hifiman started coming up with modern orthodynamic headphones as today’s technology allows the construction of a better driver quality.
Going back to the Thunderpants, during its peak moments, people even started comparing it to the Audez’e LCD-2. A lot of people who’s observing the Thunderpants hype started to take a step back and question the validity of the testimonials, as it sounded pretty impossible that a modded T50RP can take on a modern planar driver like the LCD-2. Even more since a lot of our friends have taken on the path of modding a T50RP and they all hit a limit eventually.
Last year in 2012 we started seeing the rise of professional modder who all offered their own customised version of the T50RP. I was once the Indonesian importer of Mr. Speaker headphones who was the manufacturer of Mad Dog. Valentin also did a review on the Paradox headphones which basically is just another modded T50RP. The Mad Dog was nice and it certainly offered a repeatable quality control which we usually don’t see with DIY stuff, but the result of the Mad Dog tuning is not something that the local modder can’t replicate.
During the Headphone Festival, I met with Hiroaki from Fostex and we were talking about a lot of things (one being the subject of the TH900 and D7000 drivers) and we somehow drifted to talk about the Thunderpants. He was very generous when he offered to lend me the Thunderpants and even for a few weeks he said. Once I got back home, I demoed the Thunderpants at the Headfonia Store and all of us who listened to it were (and still is) shocked by the audio quality of the Thunderpants. One word is that it has a crystal clear and clean sound, and in that aspect even better than the LCD-2 and the Hifiman HE-400/500 perhaps only rivalled but the HE-6. Of course we were all shocked and our jaws dropped as none of the other modded T50RPs even got close of the quality of the Thunderpants. Crystal clean, clear, yet retaining the typical smoothness of Fostex orthodynamic drivers, all the instruments well arranged without the slightest hints of confusion in the soundstage.
The presentation is moderately laid back and the tonality is a very slight v-shaped. The midrange body is thinner than standard Fostex T50RP but not exactly sucked out like some Beyers are. Overall it’s a brighter headphone than the stock T50RP and the midrange is not as full as the stock, but in terms of technicalities it really is two classes above the stock T50RP.
The bass definitely doesn’t hit as hard as the LCD-2 and the HE-400, but it doesn’t feel thin either. One way to describe it is that it’s very close to a clean and neutral monitoring sound, but the smoothness of the T50RP makes it very enjoyable for music listening. Though the tonal balance is not the typical balance that I enjoy (dark sound, full mids and bass), I simply can’t avoid getting blown away by the Thunderpants. The tonal balance is perfect, there is no fault in the sound. Not the slightest hint of harshness and grain, not a peak noticeable anywhere. The LCD-2 for instance is more musical, hits a deeper bass, and sounds more open (it’s an open-back design). It’s a very successful product and we sell loads of it at the store, but I can’t get over the fact that the Thunderpants presents a cleaner sound and separation. The same can be said with Hifiman’s HE-400 and HE-500. I still have the stock Fostex T50RP here in the store and as me and the local folks compared the two, we all wonder could it be that Smeggy has used a different driver that’s not the T50RP’s? The difference is night and day!
Again, none of the other modded T50RPs I know come even close to this. I haven’t heard the Paradox (Valentin did the review) so I can’t comment on that one, but Thunderpants stand on a league closer to the $1K modern orthos rather than simply a modded T50RP. There is a reason, after all, that Fostex refused to sell me this Thunderpants as they specifically mentioned about using the Thunderpants for their research department.
The hype on the Thunderpants is long past but sometimes it’s good to evaluate a product after the hype period is gone. At this moment I’m not even sure Smeggy still makes Thunderpants (I’ve tried reaching out to him without any success), so I don’t know if you can still go out to buy one. This article, however, is not meant to be a typical product review; I’m writing this simply as a form of respect to one of the greatest headphone in existence.
We’ve had some reports from users who had a bad business experience when trying to order these headphones from Smeggy. Please read them and consider carefully if you have any intention of ordering (at this point I advise against doing that). Here are some of the comments from the discussion section: