In this world of mass-produced bland perfection, can one man bring old-world British charm to the headphone industry?
Hyland Headphones is a newcomer to the hand-crafted, boutique headphone scene. The owner, operator, and jack-of-all-trades in this one-man show is Alex Hyland. He describes himself as “…a 38-year-old full-time dad and part-time headphone manufacturer…” living in England.
- »Made with care, by a real, honest-to-goodness person.
- »The headband is fantastic and features lots of sizing options.
- »Very comfortable and light feeling on the head.
- »Full sound with good bass performance.
- »Hand-made, and low production numbers, means no economy of scale savings.
- »Oy-vey that stubborn cable.
- »A bit of harshness in the upper midrange.
Alex has a BSc in music technology (although he claims it “…is largely irrelevant…” to headphone making). He occasionally records and produces music for the Arts Council UK funded mixed media arts collective called VIDEOfeet, and has a “…passion for music, both as [a] listener and producer of electronic music.”
Hyland Headphones sold their first pair of headphones in January 2018. Alex started out modifying his own Grado SR60 headphones and “…happened upon the Grado modding threads on Head-fi and fell down that rabbit hole.” He started by addressing comfort concerns by hand making new foam ear pads. With that under his belt, Alex continued down the path of many an enterprising Grado modder.
“I ended up making some wooden slip on cups from a piece of oak I had lying in the garden – using a hand held drill and some cheap hole saws!
When I finally got to try the wooden cups I was blown away by the difference in sound quality with the wooden cups vs the original plastic cups – I first tried them just holding them to my ears and I was literally dumbfounded – it always amazes me when I read on threads that wooden cups are purely cosmetic as this is very definitely not my experience!” – Alex Hyland via correspondence
Alex considered making more wooden slip-on cups for sale, but, after a friend – who works for a Headphone distributor – was able to source a (in Alex’s words) “really fantastic driver”, he decided to try his hand at creating full pairs of headphones. Hyland Headphones was born!
Free-Range Gluten-Free Artisanal Headphones
Alex’s first creation was the Saturn (now updated to the Saturn Two) and I’ve now had the opportunity to spend a few weeks with his most recent handiwork, the Jupiter One. The Jupiter One are open-backed, over-ear headphones.
For better or worse, these are clearly artisan headphones.
There are definitely pros and cons to eschewing a traditional mass-market headphone manufacturer and choosing to support one of the little guys. If you are desiring traditional cans that are virtually indistinguishable from many others out there, then keep on looking.
The Jupiter One are made by hand and they look and feel the part.
There may be small imperfections in the wood and in the finish. There is tuning by ear rather than by a complex testing apparatus. There are 3D printing layers and a handcrafted look.
But in return, there’s something included that’s missing from the mass-produced options. Call it soul, or innovation, or plain old craftsmanship… whatever you will, it’s that special spark of something made by a real person and not just a machine.
Perhaps fitting to Alex’s Grado headphone modification beginnings, Hyland Headphone’s design and manufacturing process are reminiscent of Grado Labs. Grado has been hand-building headphones and turntable cartridges since 1953 and believes strongly in iterative improvement: judging and tweaking designs by how they sound, rather than simply by how they measure.
Another successful enthusiast turned headphone manufacturer, Zach Mehrbach of ZMF headphones has served as inspiration for Alex. Alex mentioned to me that few high-end headphones have ‘blown him away’, but, “Zach’s were the ones that did. I loved them straight away. And I thoroughly enjoyed and got a lot of value from chatting to Zach, he is a great dude.”
Alex strives for two goals with his headphone design, namely maximizing sound quality and comfort. He listens to his customers, product reviewers, and his own ears to change and improve each version. First came the Saturn One, then the Saturn Two, and now the Jupiter One.
Currently, he’s producing less than 50 pairs of headphones per year. How’s that for a unique and prestigious product?
Jupiter One Specifications
- Driver: 50mm dynamic driver
- Cups: Hardwood (*this pair is reclaimed Mahogany)
- Headband: Aluminum with a leather comfort strap.
- Impedance: 32 Ohm
- Cable: 160cm, braided rubber jacket, wooden y-split
- Cable Connectors: 2.5mm x2, 3.5mm Neutrik Rean
Hyland Headphones Manufacturing
To satisfy my own curiosity, I asked Alex how he physically manufactures the headphones. Turns out, he works on each pair individually from start to finish. No mass production here.
Headband parts are milled, shaped, bent, drilled, and tapped by hand. The leather headband is handmade and hand-burnished. The cups are turned from hardwoods and hand-finished using a hard-wearing lacquer. The cables are hand braided and soldered.
For the construction process, Alex uses a rotating stock of hardwoods, aluminum rods, spring steel bands, steel grill sheet, PLA (used in 3D printing), various hardware (screws), and components (drivers, plugs, and sockets, etc.).
How does the Jupiter Differ from the Saturn?
The Jupiter One uses a different pad than the Saturn Two and due to this change, it required a different cup design.
The Jupiter One and Saturn Two share the same 50mm, 32ohm dynamic driver, so the overall sound and tonality should be fairly similar. Alex feels that “…on a sound level, [the Jupiter] are more focused and I think tend more neutral than the Saturn. The Saturn I think tends wider and warmer.”
What Makes the Jupiter One Special?
Alex is a refreshingly honest and straight-talking fellow to deal with. He isn’t trying to ‘baffle his customers with bullshit’ or fall into the dreaded audiophile snake-oil category. While his intent was to make “…the best sounding, most comfortable pair of headphones I possibly can…” he speaks frankly about his designs and the Jupiter One.
Alex is upfront that these headphones are not for everyone. Priced at approximately 400 GBP ($480 USD), Alex realizes that “I don’t pretend to offer the ultimate in pure ‘bang for buck’ terms – there are plenty of great headphones out there… that are offering great sound quality at an amazing price. But that, I think, is not where my market is, or certainly not at this point.”
However, you do get something very special with each pair of Hyland Headphones. You get one man’s passion, care, appreciation, and support. Each pair is personal and unique.
Jupiter One Construction and Design
The Jupiter One is a nicely made pair of headphones. The headband is really outstanding, featuring a clever, unique and minimalist design. The logoed sliders really pull it all together, although they are obviously 3D printed with visible layering. Sizing is outstanding with nine drilled notches on either side allowing for a huge range of fitment options.
The cups swivel with sufficient friction to not fall victim to the annoyance of Grado’s spinning cups. They feel sturdy and well-constructed, but do seem to have a bit of wood ‘tear-out’ around the grill holes.
In addition, although not visible with the pads on, the cup face is not of the same finish as the visible parts. Alex says that “…it only gets a single coat of lacquer just to seal it, and is not polished. The exterior gets 5 coats and a polish!”
The only real complaint I have is with the cable. It’s a custom-made creation, with a unique clear rubber coating over a silver-colored braided wire, and wooden Y-split. The Neutrik Rean 3.5mm jack is of great quality (and one I use myself to build cables). The dual 2.5mm jacks are gold plated, color-coded per side and seem of decent quality.
On the cable, black heat shrink extends for a few inches around the Y split and connectors and just doesn’t look luxe enough for a headphone of this caliber. I feel the same about the wooden Y-split which is a bit chunkier than it needs to be.
These aesthetic issues aside, it’s the wire choice that I just can’t live with. The cable is bent and stays bent. It doesn’t hang, move or feel the way I want it to. It always seemed like it was actively resisting me. YMMV.
The version of the Jupiter One that I received is a reviewer tour model (and I happen to be the first stop). As such it slightly differs from the final retail version. The final production back grill will be made of a tighter mesh (purely an aesthetic change Alex assures me).
During my testing phase, Alex mailed me a modification that (in my opinion) made a huge improvement to the overall sound of the Jupiter One. It primarily consisted of a pair of heavy adhesive felt rings. When attached to the inside of the cup, these rings closed all the vent holes surrounding the driver. Also included were thicker filters for under the pads.
Alex says “…as much as possible, if I make an improvement I try to pass that improvement on to past customers as a retrofit mod for those that want it.”
All my sound impressions recorded here are using the recommended included smaller velour pads and the above modifications. This modified version will also be the one that goes on to complete the reviewer tour.
Jupiter One Sound
I asked Alex how he wants his headphones to sound. In brief, he said “…full. Generally neutral but falling just towards the warm side. Good separation. Non fatiguing. 3D head-stage.”
The Jupiter One are relatively easy to drive, and Alex doesn’t recommend anything outlandish to power them. He mentioned to me that the JDS Atom, or the Monolith or Drop THX solid-state amplifiers are good choices.
Alex has a special affinity to the Garage 1217 Project Sunrise hybrid tube amplifier and recommends it highly for extra warmth and smooth delivery of power. He also feels that “…in Garage 1217, something of a kindred spirit in terms of what they are doing.”
I tested with my standard gamut of sources including the Chord Mojo, XDuoo XD05 Plus, and desktop Hagerman Tuba amplifier. All of these are very good performers and I didn’t notice a huge difference between them in their ability to power the Jupiter One. All seem to pair well.
First impressions of the Jupiter One were that they are exceedingly easy to listen to. They come across as warm and relaxed. After acclimating myself to them, I decided to compare the Jupiter One to the most obvious similar headphone in my stable. Namely a custom pair of DIY Grado clones, featuring wooden cups and hardware from Shipibo Audio, leather pads from Beautiful Audio and v8 drivers from Symphones.
Compared to the custom Grado clones, the Jupiter One sound is deeper and fuller. Thicker. More syrup than crispy coating. The vocals jump out more with the Symphones, however, the Jupiter Ones sound more natural and have a much more satisfying low end. I have to give the nod in sound quality to the Hyland Headphones.
Initially, the Jupiter One appeared to be polite and reserved, yet when fed music that calls for it, they deliver bass with aplomb. They have decent sub-bass extension and a bit of a mid-bass bump. It turns out that the Jupiter One are fun headphones for my guilty pleasure genre of early hip-hop.
Other musical styles are equally well reproduced, with a solid low-end foundation that never takes over nor detracts from the sound quality. The Jupiter One aren’t what I’d consider bass-head headphones, but are simply capable of stepping up when the music requires it. They maintain decent texture and thump without unwanted bloat.
Digable Planets and their early-1990s Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) acid jazz/rap album was reproduced in all its glory. The Jupiter One delivered a buttery low end and the horns cut through with authority. The interwoven voices, trading between male and female vocalists, were reproduced naturally and with good depth.
The midrange on the Jupiter One is very full and conveys plenty of warmth, however, that all comes at the expense of a bit of delicacy. When things get particularly busy in musical passages, the mids can tend towards harshness. It’s not a deal-breaker, but rather just the unique flavor of the Jupiter One sound.
The overall impression is fairly natural in timbre, but hand claps or snaps in the upper midrange can come across a bit sharp.
This is a weighty, meaty sounding headphone. The Jupiter One has lots of presence and character, but its charisma is a bit more Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson than Benedict Cumberbatch. Charming as hell, with more brawn than finesse.
Treble is relatively rolled off on the Jupiter One. It’s got a reasonable response that feels smooth and not too bright. However, to some extent, it doesn’t quite deliver the extension and air that I’m expecting from a pair of headphones in this price bracket. It’s a matter of taste though, as plenty of folks see differently than I do on how treble should sound.
Just like The Rock can’t really sing falsetto, but does a fine job within his range (see the delightful Moana soundtrack), a headphone doesn’t need to be ‘everything for everyone’, to still be great.
The Jupiter One is a solid sounding pair of headphones. Think about slipping into the comfort of a warm bath, rather than the cold ethereal airiness and lightness of a cloud. Soundstage came across as middle-of-the-road, neither claustrophobic nor particularly spacious.
Thank you to Alex Hyland for providing the Jupiter One headphones for review purposes and for allowing me to be first on the list. I know the other reviewers on the tour are looking forward to hearing them. You can purchase them directly from Hyland Headphones for £399.99 (~ $493).
Ah, just the idea of ‘British tech’ conjures up images of small-scale manufacturers, skillfully applying their trade in specialized workshops, hand-crafting elegant products that marry exquisite design and old-world lavishness. In my mind’s eye, I see luxury cars festooned with leather, steel, and polished wood.
The Hyland Headphones Jupiter One is not far off this dream. I’m going to use a term to describe the Jupiter One that I don’t believe I’ve ever used to capture the essence of a pair of headphones before. That word is character.
Whether it be the quality and traits that distinguish one from another, or a commitment to moral excellence, Alex at Hyland Headphones imbues his creations with character. They simply aren’t like any other headphones out there.
These one-of-a-kind creations are, by their very definition, special.
Character also speaks of little imperfections that make things unique. The cups and dampening material are clearly made by hand rather than a machine. The (most excellent) headband is obviously hand drilled and 3D printed. The final sound is the result of one man’s tastes and tuning.
The most captivating faces are ones with points of interest rather than bland uniformity or soulless perfection. Turns out, so are the most interesting headphones.