Sober & Stylish
At first sight, you can tell that the M1 and L1 are of the same stock. The M1 resembles a version of the L1 that has been carefully trimmed to become more compact. From the headband to the earcups, everything seems like a miniaturised version of the L1.
And like the L1, the look is stylish and sober. If you like a lot of bling in your headphones, these are not for you: the Fidelio brand is the opposite of flashy. The aluminium and plastic headband is lined with a dark, top-stitched leather and the adjustable parts on the headband and transducer earcup mounts are made of dark, anodised aluminium. All other parts (earcups, cushions, plastic covers) are dark black.
The whole may look hard and rigid at first, but after several hours of use, we reported no pain or discomfort whatsoever. In any case, it sits well on your head.
Philips went with perforated shape-memory padding for the cushions, like the kind you find on Bose and Sennheiser headphones. The advantages are appreciable in terms of both comfort and isolation: the padding seals off the ear quite effectively, more so than the average on-ear headphone, and distributes pressure coming from the headband better.
In true Philips form, the cable consists of a long extender cable with a remote control on a smaller, unmovable cord. While this may not be the most aesthetic solution in the world, it means that in the event of an unexpected tug the two sections simply unplug from one another, thereby avoiding any damage to the connectors or cable. That's highly practical.
The only criticism we really have is the storage pouch. It's just a bag made of thin fabric, where other brands give you a semi-rigid case.
A New Generation
This is something we've noticed with every product we've reviewed recently: this latest generation of nomadic headphones has made a clean break with the previous. Manufacturers have been scrapping their old models altogether and starting off with entirely new systems and components. This has made for an audio quality rarely heard on nomadic devices, which now have little to envy of hi-fi products.
The M1 uses the same transducer as the L1, although there have been some minor changes, surely due to the modified components surrounding it. The impedance has been reduced, the sensitivity increased and the bandwidth slightly decreased. This simplifies the task of controlling the headphone from nomadic device, which tend to lack verve.
Frequency response: low-end on the left, high-end on the right
These figures show a truly riveting sound quality, and that's precisely what you hear. The M1 is an impressively neutral headphone, to an extent rarely seen until now, with the exception of perhaps the Focal Spirit One. With the M1 on your ears, nothing sounds excessive—each part of the spectrum respects the others' boundaries. The balance is excellent, and the frequency response curve confirms it: from 20 Hz to 1.7 kHz, the deviations are kept strictly in line. While the curve does drop past the 1.7 kHz point, it's nothing drastic. And, more importantly, it's nothing observable. The rendering is crystal clear, without a trace of hissing or (necessarily, given the graph) any forced brightness to degrade the listening experience.
The sound is sharp and precise, the placement of each instrument easily distinguishable, and the soundstage immense for a closed headphone. The transducers have been given the bass-reflex treatment with a tiny hole barely a millimetre in diameter on each earcup, similar to the Bose Triport.
THD+N as a % (left) and harmonic distortion in dB (right)
Here, too, the harmonic distortion curves are remarkable. There is so little THD+N on either end of the spectrum that at first you think the graph's missing the curve. Only a few years ago this would have been unthinkable. The only potential problem we can think of would be a minor congestion in the low-end when playing particularly dynamic music at high volumes. Once again, the bass-reflex must have something to do with that. But it's hardly detectable and under ordinary listening conditions you shouldn't notice a thing.
There has been a good deal of doubt about Philips' return to the high-end audio business. But after the stellar L1, the Fidelio M1 only confirms the company's mastery. And whereas the L1's size necessarily makes it a part-outdoors, part-indoors headphone, the M1 offers nearly the same quality in a more compact and nomadic device. That's quite the feat. With the ante officially upped, it'll be interesting to see how the Focal/Philips battle progresses in the coming months and years...