Atlantic Technology has long been known for excellent value in home-theater speakers. This year, the company has applied its considerable transducer expertise to headphones, introducing two over-ear models and one in-ear offering.
The flagship FS-HR280 is designed for audiophiles. It has no wireless Bluetooth or active noise-cancellation functionality. Instead, you simply plug it into the source and listen to the best sound quality that Atlantic Technology knows how to wring from headphones. These are reasonably good headphones, but there’s room for improvement.
The FS-HR280 is a closed-back, over-ear headphone with super-soft, leather-clad earpads and headband. The earcups pivot to accommodate various head shapes and sizes, providing a good noise-isolation seal, and they fold flat for storage in the included hard carrying case.
I like the simple, elegant design, though the earcups and pivoting yokes are made of plastic, which feels a bit cheap. On the plus side, I’m sure it’s a lot lighter than metal would be. Speaking of which, the FS-HR280 weighs in at only 10.3 ounces.
Unlike many over-ear headphones, the FS-HR280 utilizes two drivers in each earcup: a 40mm thin-film dynamic bass driver with neodymium magnet, and a 20mm, rectangular, patented ceramic tweeter. This so-called Quad-Driver system is specified to deliver a frequency response from 20Hz to 40kHz (no tolerance given) with THD less than 0.5% (1kHz, 105dB). The nominal impedance is rated at 32 ohms (±15%) with a sensitivity of 105dB (1kHz/1Vrms) and a power-handling capability of 10-30mW, making this headphone easy to drive from just about any device.
The detachable 4-foot cable connects to the left earcup and includes oxygen-free copper conductors within a braided-nylon sheath that resists tangling. The 3.5mm gold-plated plugs on both ends have knurled no-slip aluminum housings with integrated strain relief. Conveniently, the cable also provides an in-line microphone with smartphone controls for answering and hanging up calls, playing and pausing music, adjusting the volume, and skipping tracks.
Before I did my formal listening, I used the FS-HR280 to monitor some simple recordings that I was working on with my wife, singer/songwriter Joanna Cazden, in preparation for a “virtual” Passover seder via Zoom, which was necessitated by the novel coronavirus pandemic. She commented about how good the sound was on the headphones, and I had to agree.
For my formal evaluation, I listened to the FS-HR280 using my iPhone XS playing tracks from Tidal’s Master high-res audio library. I also used the iFi hip-dac portable DAC/headphone amp I reviewed earlier, for its superior sound quality compared with the iPhone’s internal DAC/amp.
Starting with some jazz, I cued up “I Concentrate on You” as sung by Harry Connick Jr. with big band and strings from his album True Love: A Celebration of Cole Porter. I was immediately struck by a slightly veiled sound with indistinct bass, though the voice was clear and forward.
The same was true with “Since I Fell for You” sung by Al Jarreau on the album Double Vision by Bob James and David Sanborn. In this case, the bass was a bit bloated, though the vocal was nice and clear.
Moving on to classical, I listened to the third movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 as performed by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim on the album Beethoven Symphony No.7/Triple Concerto. The sound was a bit congested and thick with slightly bloated bass, though the delineation of instrumental sections was pretty good.
I also listened to some solo piano—specifically, Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 10, Op. 70 as performed by Yuja Wang live at Philharmonic Hall in Berlin on the album The Berlin Recital. As I had come to expect, the piano sounded slightly congested, especially in the low end.
Turning to pop, I listened to “Ruby Baby” by one of my favorite artists, Donald Fagen, on his album The Nightfly. Overall, the sound was a bit clouded, as if covered in a thin fog, though again, the vocals were quite clear. Likewise with “Love Shack” from the B-52s’ album Cosmic Thing (30th Anniversary Edition)—it sounded somewhat veiled with slightly bloated bass and good vocals.
Finally, I tried “Paper Tiger” from Beck’s album Sea Change. This track has a lot of low bass, which was a bit bloated, and the strings were quite thick. On this track, the vocals are mixed way forward, and they sounded quite good.
Comparison with Sony WH-1000XM3 and PSB M4U 8
I had two other headphones on hand in the same price range as the FS-HR280: the $299 Sony WH-1000XM3, which TechHive Video Director Adam, Patrick Murray reviewed, and the $399 PSB M4U 8 I reviewed for TechHive. Both are Bluetooth models with active noise cancellation, but they can also serve as passive wired headphones without turning their power on. In addition to the FS-HR280, I listened to each track with both of these headphones in wired, passive, unpowered mode.
The WH-1000XM3 sounded leaner and clearer in every case. However, its bass was always somewhat deficient. By contrast, the M4U 8 had better bass that was well balanced with the rest of the sonic spectrum, and the overall sound was clearer than the FS-HR280. I ended up preferring its sound over the other two.
I found that a bit surprising; in my review of the M4U 8, I had written, “Using the cable with the power off, the sound was more veiled and the bass was less well defined.” But that was listening to high-bitrate MP3s from an iPhone 6 with its onboard DAC/amp. Now, I’m listening to high-res audio from Tidal on an iPhone XS with the iFi hip-dac—a significantly better audio setup.
The Atlantic Technology FS-HR280 is a study in contrasts. Vocals sounded uniformly excellent—which is undoubtedly why my wife and I had a very good initial impression—and the delineation of instruments was quite good in general. Plus, it’s very comfortable to wear for extended periods. The overall sound, however, was always a bit veiled and often slightly congested, and the bass was slightly indistinct and a tad bloated in many cases.
That isn’t to say the sound was bad, just not quite as good as I’ve heard from other headphones, especially in this price range. And thanks to my experience reviewing many headphones over the last couple of years, I immediately noticed the slightly veiled, congested sound when listening to commercial tracks. It became all the more obvious in direct comparison with the Sony WH-1000XM3 and PSB M4U 8.
If you’re shopping for a pair of high-quality, over-ear headphones in the $300 price range, the FS-HR280 is certainly a decent choice. The Sony WH-1000XM3 is the same price, and it offers Bluetooth and superb active noise cancelling (ANC) as well, though its wired, passive performance was noticeably bass-deficient. The PSB M4U 8 is $100 more, and its Bluetooth and wired, passive performance are both exceptional—at least with a high-quality source—though the sound quality with ANC on is not quite as good.
Which is best for you? That depends on your specific needs and preferences. If you don’t need Bluetooth or ANC, the FS-HR280 is reasonably good, especially for a venerable home-theater speaker company’s first foray into headphones. But it ain’t cheap, either. I suspect there are better options in this price range.