The Phenomenal: Philips Fidelio L2 (feat. Fidelio M1BT review)

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Disclaimer: This is a double review by Mike and Lieven. We both got free samples of the Philips Fidelio L2 and the M1BT and Philips also sent us on a sponsored trip to their iLab facility in Belgium in September 2013. The first part will be on the L2 while we discuss the M1BT later. FYI: Lieven’s text is in Italic. Mike’s normal font.

 

A lot of companies try to show how serious they are in developing their headphones, but all those efforts really mean nothing if they don’t have a successful product to show. Even though Philips have been involved in the audio industry for a while (making vacuum tube radios and inventing the CD among others) and also make plenty of consumer headphones, they’re quite new in the high end headphone business. Still their effort doesn’t embarrass, and when I reviewed their first Fidelio headphone, the Fidelio L1, last year, it definitely was a headphone that set a standard for the new generation $300 price bracket portable headphones.

What the L1 did to other $300 headphones (i.e making them look bad), the L2 is now doing to the L1. It’s true that there is a slight change in styling direction as the new L2 with the gunmetal and orange color combination somehow pulls off a more modern look while still being very classy, making the L1 look very old and outdated next to it. Comfort factor is also leaps better as the L2 easily matches and on my head is even more comfortable than the class-leading Sony MDR-1R. But on top of all of these, what I consider the biggest achievement, is the improvement in the sound department. Meet the second best headphone driver within the $1K bracket. And I would easily say the best if not for the Sennheiser HD700 being priced at $999.95. Yes, the L2’s driver is so ahead of the competitor that I highly rate it ahead of the Sennheiser Momentum, Sony MDR-1R, B&O H6, ATH’s ESW-11, ES-10, or even the famed Sennheiser HD650/600 line.

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While I wouldn’t go as far as Mike in saying the L2 driver is the 2nd best driver within the $1K bracket I have to admit it is really good. We received these samples when we were visiting Philips in September and I’ve been using the semi-open L2 daily from that point on, and that means a lot. I even took it with me to the non-official European Canjam in Essen where I was the only one with the L2 as even Philips didn’t have it with them. To this day I don’t think the L2 is for sale yet in most parts of the world, price in the US will be $299 while we in Europe can already buy it for €280 right now.

Everyone, and I’m not just saying that, who I gave the L2 to for a while loved it. Not one single person didn’t like the sound signature and the looks. So not only did Philips achieve making a great sounding driver but they managed to incorporate it in a gorgeous design with an eye for comfort (347gr) . To be honest I do have two comfort/look issues with these headphones. First of all, Philips still hasn’t learned to use changeable ear pads which is a shame really, but they took note of that point of critic in our meeting and so I hope that will change in the future.  Second is that when you have been using it as much as I have and for longer periods, the headband starts to hurt on the top of your head. Do note that we’re talking at least 4 to 5 hours of straight listening without even taking it of. I like my music, what can I say. People with big ears however will find the cups on the small side, it didn’t bother me too much, but they’re no Sennheiser comfort wise.

In short, not only did Philips develop one hell of a driver, it looks great and like Mike said it can easily compete with headphones like our beloved Sennheiser HD6X0 and Hifiman HE-400. I wouldn’t go that far in saying it’s a HE-500 or HD700 competitor but it’s getting close, especially for that price. One remarkable thing though is that while Philips with the Fidelio line has been targeting the better quality headphone and sound, they are still displaying their headphones under the accessories category on my local Philips website. Something I don’t find logic at all, but hey, details, right?

The L2 is a semi open design, houses 40mm drivers and has a removable cable and while it surely has a bunch of other features, we care especially about its sound. Back to you Mike.

Well, L is trying to stay away from controversy hence his statement “I wouldn’t go as far as Mike in saying the L2 driver is the 2nd best driver within the $1K bracket bla bla bla” but I’m here to tell the results of my evaluation, so I’m going to keep going. Just kidding, L, but not the part about how high I rank the L2 driver. It’s cleaner than the HD650/K701/DT880/RS1 generation of drivers. The sound is extremely clean, zero grain, one of the blackest background I’ve heard (think Fostex TH900 level black background — ahead of all the other dynamic drivers). In a way it’s very clear and clean sounding like say the Hifiman HE-6/HE-500 but the L2 is smoother than them and is MUCH easier to drive. I can drive the L2 direct from an Altmann Tera which usually only has enough power to drive a Koss Portapro, Sennheiser PX100 and IEMs. While the sound stage is not overly wide (narrower than the Beyer DT880, for instance) it has an extremely deep depth (and sound stage depth is always much harder to achieve than width) even with simple rigs like out of an Astell & Kern AK100 or again, the Altmann. So you get the sense of space, three dimensionality, the black background, all those good things, without having to spend $2K on an amp the way you need for say a Senn HD650. Also, while the Hifimans are extremely spacious and airy, the soundstage depth has always been weak even on the best rig I’ve listened them on, not to add that the Hifimans can only dream about the sort of black background and center image the L2 pulls so effortlessly. This is a world class driver and had they developed a flagship-class housing around it, a lot of $1K headphones better be prepared to get their ass kicked.

Of course Mike and myself talked about this difference in opinion and I see what he means. The L2 right out of the box is great, no amp needed. The HE-500 can of course, on several points, be better than the L2 but you will need a top DAC and a good matching amp for the HE-500 to sound its best. And that’s where Philips got it right: the L2 achieves (almost) the same level and you don’t even need a big and expensive setup to get there. But then again, the L2 was made as a portable headphone, and the HE-500 was developed to be used in a full sized desktop system. But anyhow, that’s how I translate Mike when he says the L2 takes on the HE-500.

On the tonality side, I love the mid range on the L2. It has an extremely smooth, organic, full mid range that reminds me of the limited edition Audio Technica W2002 flagship headphone. It’s as if you’ve permanently attached a 300B or 45 vacuum tube to the drivers. Extremely clear mid range that’s full bodied, analog, and smooth. One of the best in the industry. The bass also follows the same smooth yet clear tonality as the mid range, full bodied, though doesn’t hit as hard as I would’ve liked (say Vmoda M100, Aedle VK-1, or Senn HD650 level) but still more potent than Sony’s MDR-1R. The treble is where my love and hate relationship happens on the L2. The L2 may not have a hot-recording proof tonality the way the Vmoda M100 is, but it’s definitely far from a bright headphone with proper recordings. I would’ve enjoyed less quantity on the treble, but that’s just my dark loving ears. Since Philips is targeting the L2 for the mainstream crowd, I think they’ve set the treble just the right amount. Though I do think that the mainstream crowd would appreciate a harder hitting bass.

I think Mike described the sound part correctly. The mid section is absolutely stunning, smooth and slightly warm and I do agree on the bass part. It could hit a little harder but as I’m mostly using my headphones with an amp, even on the go, it’s making it less audible. Personally I can appreciate  the extended treble of the L2 (I acquired that preference over the years), and as a result I can’t see any direct flaws in how it sounds.

Now, I need to make a note of distinction that a great driver doesn’t necessarily translate to a great headphone. Take the Sennheiser HD800 for instance, still the most resolving driver in the world, and yet not a very musical experience. The L2 is very warm, full bodied, and musical, far from the HD800. However, the fact that I’m praising the drivers as 2nd best below $1K after the HD700 doesn’t mean that I’m discounting the other headphones as being inferior. Ultimately, a lot of factors come to mind. Bass impact is pretty important and that’s one area that I think the L2 can be better. Tonality is also another thing, depending on your music preference, some headphone works better than the other. Also while I rank the Fidelio L2 as having a better driver than say a Hifiman HE-500, there is no discounting the impressive wow factor of the wide open sound of the Hifiman. Another example is the Shure SRH1540 that I recently auditioned in the Tokyo Headphone Festival. While it’s an impressive headphone and overall also a great headphone, again the driver quality of the L2 is simply a class ahead. Yet, I’m not saying that overall as a headphone, the L2 is better than the 1540. So, please keep that differentiation in mind. Still, the L2 is not a driver first, musicality second. It’s a very musical headphone, and I’ve gotten a lot of VERY positive impressions from the local enthusiasts who’s had the chance to audition it. It’s just that when I talk about the drivers, the ranking is a bit different than the headphone as a whole.

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Now, with a driver quality that high, hows the requirement on the source and recording? The good news is that the L2 is not as demanding as the HD800 or HD700, though still more demanding than the HD650, LCD-2, or Hifiman HE500/6. In a practical terms, those words mean that it runs good from a portable source, but please use something better than an IPod or a smartphone. The Fiio X3 and Ibasso DX50 would be good, though the AK100 would be more ideal. Those of you fortunate enough to get the Altmann Tera before the $2000 price update, try using it with the L2. I find the combination extremely sweet.

You can of course fall back to the ipod + Cypherlabs or any other iDevice but then we’re talking big budget for a sub $300 headphone. That however is how I prefer using it, owning the setup already. Just don’t get this kind of setup for the L2 and take Mike’s advice.

Recordings, the L2 is not pop-music friendly. Though it doesn’t demand Chesky/Stockfish level recordings. The average Jazz recordings would do. Please avoid recordings with hot trebles like Jpop for instance. Overall, the okay bass impact makes the L2 more limited to the slower and more relaxed music types that don’t require strong beat reproduction. Its a more mature headphone, if I can make a rough generalization. And the bass is why the L2 is not going to take over the Vmoda M100 as the king of portable headphone, despite having a genius driver inside it. In many ways it works good for the music that Grados, Staxes and Hifimans work well with. Its not a HD25-1 replacement and definitely not a Vmoda M100 replacement. But talking driver quality, I don’t think any of the other high end portable headphones can compete with it. Momentum, Sony 1R, ESW-11, B&O H6, etc. And I actually sell the Momentum, Sony, and the Audio Technica on my store! Of course given the positive impressions the local enthusiasts had over the L2, I am considering selling it as well, but I still don’t know if we’ll be able to get those headphones from the distributor.

My musical preferences are somewhat different from Mike’s and I never listen to Jpop, Kpop or hardly any popular TOP 40 music  for that matter that’s been released after Y2K. To me rock, metal, classic, dance, jazz and even old school hip hop all sound extremely nice on this headphone. It’s price/quality ratio is very good. So where do I put Philips’s latest release? Personally I find it better than the Sennheiser Momentum, the H6, the P7, Aedle VK-1 and the Vmodas. To me it competes directly with the also very easy to drive HE-400 and it probably even has that one beat too. I follow Mike in his HD650 and HE-500 reasoning (needing quality amps ) so we can only conclude that Philips has created a competitor killer with the L2.

We’re fans!

All the R&D work done by the Philips team certainly have paid off. I couldn’t be more impressed, and I hope that the fact that Philips sent me on a sponsored trip to their iLab facility doesn’t discount the fact that this is such a phenomenal headphone and even more a phenomenal driver that the Philips team have created.

 

Besides the L2, Philips also released a Bluetooth version of their M1 headphone, a unit we reviewed already in January. Review on the next page!

 

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Lieven is living in Europe and is a full time Headfonia writer and the leader of the gang. Coming from a musical family he's always been interested in good sound. Unlike his family members the only musical instruments he plays are amps and DACs. He loves playing with old tubes and discovering new products while staying faithful to the good old Sennheiser HD650. Taking pictures is a real challenge but seeing happy readers in the end is what it's all about for him.

  • kameenadesi

    you guys really gotta hear the JVC SZ2000 Live Beat headphones. They have incredible synergy with the FiiO E12 Mont Blanc. I bet the drivers in the SZ2000 can be comparable to the Philips L2. Wanna try the L2 one day…

    • dalethorn

      The headfi review says the bass is “Like a club in your brain”, so if you’re after some *really* serious bass, check it out.

  • Sam Lim

    L2 Does not have the second Best Driver under $1000 =_=

    http://www.innerfidelity.com/images/PhilipsL2.pdf

    How can you tell that is the second best driver under$1000??? THD is higher than other well made headphone in this price range….like NAD HP50, Focal Sprite Pro, HD25 Aluminum, ETC

    impedance response shows L2 driver has electronic resonance at bass and low high. That is saying L2 has problem with damping….I have No clue how you can even say that l2 has the second best driver under $1000 =_=.

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

      Yes, you might need to read between the lines there. Don’t take it too literally I would say. On the other hand it is a great sounding headphone. On the other hand, who cares how it measures. I don’t.

      • Geoffrey Defosse

        No need to look at graphics to tell the l2 is not AT ALL on the same league as the big boys such as the He-500, LCD 2 ans so on, there is a workd of difference. When i go back to the L2 from my He 500 i feel the l2 so lacking in everything. It’s like going from a Oled big screen feed with blu ray to a mere 55cm old television with DVD. This review is just a big joke.

        • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

          You guys are missing the point of the review. don’t take it so literally

        • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

          It’s been a while since I read the review, but I read it again now, and there’s enough detail in the text to explain clearly what you get for $300. I had the L1, but not the L2 as yet, and compared to a lot of the junk that sells for $300, the L2 should be a pretty good deal for the price. (and I have a few $300 headphones that I wish I hadn’t bought)

  • Raskoln

    On pure sound, would you (any you will do) prefer the Fidelio X1 or L2? And would these be a distinct step-up from Senn 598s?

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

      X1 sound is warmer and has different bass (bigger?) than the L2. But the L2 overall has the best driver and sound. (but not the biggest bass). I would call the L2 a step up from the 598

      • Raskoln

        Thanks L, & where would you put the Beyer DT770s or LE version in relation to the L2? The Senns seem to my uneducated ears at their best in relation to the luxurious, laid back side of the spectrum but maybe are lacking in terms of drive & energy. My tastes are very broad so I’m not looking to specifically cover that side of things but it is part of the equation. Though to add, your mention of what you consider the L2 to go well with in the review would seem to satisfy me on that front.

        • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

          The Beyer is closed and the L2 is open, I would go for the L2 in that case, it’s a higher quality sound for sure

          • Raskoln

            Thanks Lieven, & with that I think I’ll quit reading reviews of this, that & the other & instead just go and order the L2!

            • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

              Amazon france and Italy often have great deals

              • Raskoln

                Thanks for the tip, and from looking weird the discrepancies on the different Amazons around Europe with the L2 – UK & Italian 100 or so euros less than elsewhere.

                • Raskoln

                  Ordered this morning – 200 euros after delivery.

                  • Raskoln

                    Arrived today. Won’t make a fool of myself trying to make observations other than I like them and some of Underworld’s mid 90s peak years are sounding very fine but, novice that I am, I’ve a question re cable. I’d certainly appreciate having a quite-a-bit longer cable for home use than supplied 1.2m. Do I need to be looking at something specific for these phones or should I be ok with virtually any generic 3.5mm/3.5mm?

                    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

                      Should be ok if you stick to a thin 3.5mm.

                    • Raskoln

                      Thanks

  • Munteanu David

    Where are the Philips Fidelio L2 made ?

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

      Let me check the box later

      • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

        couldn’t see it on the box but the box did have some asian language on it

  • Moshyo

    Thanks for the review guys. How would you compare the L2 with Soundmagic HP100 which is slightly cheaper but has been reviewed to punch much above its weight? How does the soundstage compare to the HP100 and ZMF? Also, L2 is marketed as a portable but it is semi-open – how bad is the sound leakage?

    • dalethorn

      I haven’t had the L2 but it should be similar to the L1 – warm and somewhat bassy. The HP100 is lean in the upper bass (quite different from Philips) but has a strong low bass.

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

      Hi. THe HP100 is closed and the L2 is an open headphone. Sound signature is completely different because the HP100 is a very neutral headphone with very tight bass. L2 soundstage is bigger, I haven’t heard the ZMF yet but the L2 is better than the HP100 IF you need an open headphone

  • Tibor

    Hi there. Can you help me to choose? I want to buy headphones to use on the go, I have a Meridian Explorer dac and was considering to buy Beyer T51p, but maybe those L2´s can be also a good option. Can you compare those two please? You will help me a lot. Thank You

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

      I keep being surprised how people want to compare different types of headphones. The T51P is portable. The L2 is a full size. the Beyer is on ear, the L2 is over ear. L2 is open, T51P is closed. Sound wise both are very good but the T51P is smaller for portable. I personally enjoy the sound sig of the Beyer more but it is clear the L2 has the “better” sound

      • Tibor

        Thank you, yes I can see those differences, but I can´t hear them. What I would like to know, which of those has better detail and depth across frequencies and which of them are more musical.

        • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

          Musical: Beyer. Detail and depth, the L2

          • Tibor

            Thank You :)

            • Patrick Michael Graf Murray

              Are you not an IEM kind of person? Because I was not but my situation called for it, and I ended up with the ER4PT IEM and I will say they are a fantastic portable ear phone, with my Rockbox Ipod and the C5 amp the music really does immerse you.

  • Nat PML

    If I tell you that I love the L2, but its trebles make me uncomfortable, which headphones would you advise (I mostly listen to baroque music, and I’m especially fond of bass voices) ? (I own HD650/700, K701, L2/X1, COP, Porta Pro) Thanks for the hint !

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

      doesn’t the 650/700 suffice?

      • Nat PML

        They do, but I’m looking for a lower impedance full-size headphone to use with Sony’s NWZ-ZX1 (forgot to mention this).

        2014-07-10 14:27 GMT+02:00 Disqus :

        • Dave Ulrich

          Mad Dog maybe?

        • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

          Have you tried EQ’ing or doesn’t the ZX1 offer that? ;)

          • Nat PML

            I totally forgot EQ, I confess : I used the head-fi tip to increase the output power (which disables EQ, and all “sound enhancements”). You’re right, thanks.

            I’ll look for the Mad Dog though, Dave, I was curious about them.

            • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

              Money saved! :)

              • Nat PML

                That’s the very first time you do this, L ;-P

                (about to buy the a20 for the HD650, which is totally your fault, admit it ! … still trying to find an already soldered BottleHead Crack, or wait for more Oppo ha-1 reviews though)

                • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

                  Yeah, you have to get a crack too.

  • Nat PML

    Oopps.

  • Rogier Schreurs

    My brother got this last week and I’ve been able to listen to it a little bit. Haven’t really come to terms with the totality of it’s sound, but one thing really stood out for me: It manages to replicate the sounds of fender guitars, Fender Rhodes piano’s and Hammond organ quite well! John Mayer and D’angelo really shine with these puppies!

  • Joël Bühler

    He there
    I just bought the Fidelio L1 for (120 Swissfrancs). They sound amazing!!! I can’t imagine that the L2 sounds better…
    Would you also buy the L2? Or a Beyerdynamics T51p?
    I own: Shure SE315, Fidelio L1, Bose AE2, 2x Phonak PFE 022 and Jays…

    Thanks guys

    • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

      If I had the L1, my next step might be the X1 or X2, or possibly the Beyerdynamic DT770-32 ohm. The T51p sound is way different from all of these, and I would recommend it for portable use, but not to switch back and forth between the T51p and L1 – the tonality is too different.

      • Joël Bühler

        Yeah the X1 sounds amazing!!!
        Why is the X2 so much cheaper than the X2?

        • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

          Once these models are discontinued the price tends to drop drastically.

          • Joël Bühler

            Haha I meant X2 cheaper than the X1 ;)

            • http://www.headfonia.com/ Headfonia_L.

              X2 is not even out yet and it’s more expensive

              • Patrick Michael Graf Murray

                The X1 had went from 180-210 to now being 300 -260 Which is a bit of a bummer, not to say that it is not worth the 260 and what not but I know I can find a slightly used headphone that is potentially even more to my liking for less in the forums and ebay. I remember people sellig their x1 for 170 now they are sellling them for 250. I really hope the x2 delivers something special because they have a decent amount to live up too. I currently am trying out two closed models and have been comparing my own HD600. The T70p and the modded T50rp the ZMF X Vibros. To be honest the they all sound amazing, and I am kind of in the air if I want to sell one so I can try out the X2 when it is out.

                • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

                  I would have a hard time giving up the T70p (Tesla), the ZMF vibro (planar), or the HD600. The HD600 is a reference headphone, and the other 2 are Tesla and a planar about to become a legend. The X2 could sound better than any or all of these for the first few weeks, but eventually you’d miss these 3.

              • Ege Özcan

                btw I tested the fidelio x2s at canjam today and they were awesome. after a side-by-side comparison with L2’s, it’s amazing that they had found so much room to improve.

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ Headfonia_L.

      Why not the T51P? Something different

  • willy vlyminck

    All the superlatives are justified, I have the L2 since a week, and it is almost frightening how much better this headphone compared with the overhyped Momentum,which by the way, I wanted to like, but it just didn´t work for me, not that I am a difficult person but the main demanding I have to headphones is natural sound, when I hear a Steinway it should sound like one and not like a Fender electric piano :-) It have the natural smoothness of my Grado GR10, and that says a lot if not all..I did just listen to some Steven Wilson works, and was extremely pleased with what I heared and the bass is also exellent in case anyone would doubt, altough I can not speak for the kind of bass required for today´s mainstream styles, but for avant-prog rock, the bass is topnotch. Can´t wait to hear the X2 :-)

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ Headfonia_L.

      X2 is darker, bigger bass, not as tight and fast. Technically I prefer the L2

  • http://www.alkopedia.net Biergourmet

    Hi, how is sound leakage on these phones? And is it possible to exchange the cable? I do’nt need a microphone.

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ Headfonia_L.

      It leaks quite a lot of sound actually. Yes the cable can be changed but you’ll have to find one where the 3.5MM plug fits

      • http://www.alkopedia.net Biergourmet

        Thanks, just noticed that it is a semi-open phone. Innerfidelity’s measurement says: Broadband Isolation in dB -8 dBr. Not really much :-(

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