User experience and connectivity
In terms of controls and physical features, the Panda has a fairly clear external profile with only a couple of hints that it’s a tech-laden pair of headphones. The sole feature on the left earcup is the 3.5mm female jack for powering via an external amplification source. The right-hand ear cup features the USB-C charging port, two small microphone openings, and the Panda’s ‘Joystick’ – the toggle-like device responsible for controlling most of its operations.
Pressing the Panda’s joystick powers-on the headphones (after what seems like an eternity of 5 seconds), chirping to life with a happy digital noise that’s immediately recognized as “ON” in your brain. Pairing with a breeze with my Samsung Galaxy S9+, recognizing ‘Drop Panda’, and syncing-up immediately. There is no companion app (yet, anyway) for the Panda, and so all controls are done either the joystick or via your device. ‘Forwards’ and ‘backwards’ control volume up/down, and ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ control track selection. A quick press of the joystick controls play/pause, as well as answering/ending calls. It’s simple, unobtrusive, and it works. I like it.
Many Bluetooth headphones will let you know they’re powered-on courtesy of a constant background hiss or noise-floor. Thankfully, there is no such noise evident on the Panda, and I did find myself having to turn it off and on again from time to time because I wasn’t sure if it was on or not (there is no LED or power indicator on the Panda). But, this is a nice problem to have in the scheme of things.
The Panda is designed first and foremost as a wireless pair of headphones, but they’re also designed to work extremely well in passive mode with an external amplification source. Working the Panda in ‘passive’ mode is no different to any pair of non-active headphones – plug them in, fire-up your source, and off you go. And with an impedance of 26 ohms and a sensitivity of 100dB, you won’t need much juice to get them singing.
One last form of connectivity I discovered (quite by accident) is that the Panda will also function as a ‘USB DAC’. When I plugged them into my Macbook simply to charge them, I noticed that Roon discovered the Panda as a digital output, and I was able to play bit-perfect music directly to them, however, I could only manage volume via the software volume control. This is great to know for potential compatibility and use-cases down the track.
I didn’t manage to give the Panda a proper endurance test with regards to the claimed 30-hour battery life, however, I did manage to go for a few two and three-day stretches with moderate use throughout the day, and didn’t experience a flat battery once.
I was relieved (and not really surprised) to find that the Panda impressed in the sound department straight out of the box. It has a rich, balanced sound that’s super-enjoyable with decent levels of detail. It’s not quite your classic ‘planar’ sound – if you’re expecting fast, lean and ruler-flat response, you’ll be surprised by how the Panda manages to somehow bottle the natural tonal warmth and decay more associated with dynamic drivers.
The Panda’s bass is done tastefully, with satisfying but not overwhelming quantity and impact. Steely Dan’s ‘Peg’ shows the Panda to have taut, agile bass performance balanced with nice texture and speed. There’s a slight hint of ‘bloom’ in the mid-bass area moving toward the lower mid-range, but that’s nit-picking – for a $400 close-backs headphone (let alone a wireless one) it’s superb.
The Panda’s mid-range reveals it to have a wonderfully lush timbre when it comes to instruments and vocals. Bob Reynold’s sax in ‘Sway’ is nicely intimate with no hints of recession and doesn’t highlight or wonky peaks or troughs. Intimate is an appropriate word when it comes to the overall sonic texture of the Panda. In terms of sound stage, it’s ‘ok’, but definitely not anywhere near the ‘concert hall’ end of the spectrum – the Panda simply can’t overcome physics when it comes to the fact that it’s a closed-back headphone. Listening to ‘Ghosteen’ by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, the sound-stage is more an area of ‘two-blob’ sound stage, extending to a small radius around each ear cup with a nice sense of centre-image. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the Panda, but rather it adds to its overall rich, cozy sensation.
The Panda’s treble isn’t the brightest nor is it out-and-out the most hyper-detailed, but (going from memory) the Drop team have definitely managed to extract more detail from the PM3 drivers to escape any sense of noticeable ‘darkness’. Listening to ‘Breathe Deeper’ from Tame Impala’s (excellent) new album ‘The Slow Rush’ is a treat on the Panda, serving-up a wonderfully creamy mix of synth and micro-detail from Kevin Parker’s obsessively nuanced mix and complex soundscape.
Can the Panda ‘rock out’ (a very important and not entirely ‘technical’ test from me)? Pantera’s ‘5 Minutes Alone’ immediately says ‘Yes’ – the Panda has terrific bite and attack and attack on the guitar tracks, as well as awesome speed and decay on the cymbals without the slightest appearance of any hint of sibilance. It’s real toe-tapping (headbanging?) stuff.
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