I'm a bit late to the game in talking about Phonon's SMB-02 studio monitor headphones. About six months ago, the folks at Mohawk General Store sent an email introducing the Japanese headphones to their in-store offering, alongside of vintage stereo components and their excellent selection of menswear. I was unfamiliar with Phonon, but quickly discovered a slew of rave reviews around their SMB-02. Many praised the exceptionally balanced sound it provided on play-through, even at low volumes.
Recently, Alex Pratt (Dj Alex from Tokyo), stopped by our New York office for a demonstration of the SMB-02 headphone. In speaking with Pratt, it became clear that Phonon is no ordinary audio company. Pratt and his two partners in Phonon came together in Japan with a common goal of delivering sound (and other products like their Komome paper speaker) that bring pure accurateness and representation of the music as it was intended, in almost any environment. The three men, all with heavy sound engineering and mastering backgrounds, wanted to better the market without the frills and gimmicks of other modern consumer headphones and do it on their own terms.
Launched in 2011, the Phonon SMB-02 Subtonic headphone takes a minimalist's approach to not only sound but also to packaging and marketing. Unless you roll in the world of high-end audio or live in Japan, chances are you likely have never encountered the brand. Even within their limited retail doors, the Phonon SMB-02 does not stand out much: the packaging is downright simple, shipping in a kraft paper box with minimal text and some specification notes printed in Japanese. The headphones themselves are classic circular over-the-ear headphones finished in all-black with only slight branding in white on the cups. Ten years ago, the Phonon headphones would have been considered ordinary in looks, but in today's over-designed headphone market, they look classic and clean.
What the Phonons may or may not lack branding and design, they give back in premium sound. Today, they are the headphones I turn to for long period listening. They are fantastic for my needs. The Phonon SMB-02 works and powers incredibly well through smartphones and laptops, without real need for amplification (though they will certainly benefit from them).
Users may notice a significant change in sound after a good week's worth of listening through the SMB-02, when the sound signature floats into its own. The upfront sounds of the headphones will balance out on both high and low ends with neither blemishing or coloring the other in excess.
I tested this by playing a high resolution vinyl capture of Digital Mystikz "Eyez," a track that have gleaming high-end stabs and some of the deepest controlled sub bass out there: nothing but success from the Phonons (Even the low quality YouTube stream sounds fantastic through them!).
At $350, the Japanese-made Phonon SMB-02 is certainly not the lowest priced full-size cup headphones on the block, but they are certainly one of the best for studio, home and especially portable use. They seal well and keep out the noise.
Finding a pair of Phonon SMB-02 headphones can be a touch challenging as their distribution is tight. In the USA, they are in Mohawk General Store, Turntable Lab, and Stereo Exchange. For the rest of the world, check the Phonon stocklist. Available now for $350.
Photography: Thomas Welch/Selectism.com