OUR FULL REVIEW IS BELOW, BUT FOR THE ORIGINAL MAGAZINE PAGES, INCLUDING OUR INTERVIEW WITH PORSCHE DESIGN'S ROLAND HEILER, CLICK THE IMAGE TO THE RIGHT ►►►
It is unheard of us to wear a pair of review headphones daily for a month and not write a word about them. Yet that’s what happened with the Space One. Every commute, a couple of short flights — we normally note down tracks that show up particular characteristics of the sound. But really, what characteristics do you want? A pushy bass? An overladen midrange? Peakiness on high-mids? No, none of those. You want nothing extra at all — just the music thanks. And that’s why we didn’t write anything about the Space One. They weren’t doing anything wrong.
The Space Ones are over-ear wired headphones, with a button on the left shell to turn on active noise-cancellation, magically removing background rumble (plane, bus and train noise) by inverting sound captured by microphones on the headshells. ANC is a traveller’s friend; fly longhaul with ANC once and you’ll never fly again without it. Business travel is a key market serviced by Porsche Design with its own catalogue of products, and when the company decided to create a ‘Sound’ category, noise-cancellers were top of the list.
So with the Porsche Design name on the Space Ones, there’s a danger of thinking that the ‘design’ is adding style rather than substance, superficially Porsching up the exterior for the sake of brand cachet. But that’s not it at all. When CEO Dr Jan Becker talks about the Book One, or Chief Design Officer Roland Heiler talks about the ‘Sound’ portfolio, of which the Space One is part (for our interview, click the PDF link below), they’re not talking about mere aesthetics, but rather complete product design — all the performance, but nice-looking too, indeed function feeding form feeding performance. There’s nothing blingy about the Space Ones — nobody stared at our head on the bus commute. But classy yes, with black cups and headband, and cast aluminium for the body with a sandblasted titanium finish.
When we first saw pictures of them, we were struck by the resemblance to KEF’s previous M500 and M400 headphones, and were surprised that Porsche Design hadn’t indulged in greater differentiation. But we had forgotten that KEF had worked with Porsche Design on those M500s too, and on the subsequent M400s. Those were, remarkably, KEF’s first ever headphones, and we get the impression that back then it was KEF consulting F.A. Studio Porsche for its visual flair, while now we see Porsche Design using that connection to get KEF involved with sound for its own line of products. And the result seems a pleasingly even-handed collaboration — symbolised by the detachable cable for the Space Ones, which has a KEF logo on the plug at one end, a Porsche Design symbol on the other end, with no direction of insertion indicated. Nice.
The Space Ones are comfortable, and fit firmly but not excessively against the head. Indeed such is the excellent seal thus created, there is a high level of passive noise reduction even without ANC, and passive proved our preferred listening mode, as we’ll see.
But first, the battery insertion. This involves pressing a release catch invisibly hidden within the folds of the earcup, its position indicated only by a pictogram in the instructions. We could not find it, or work it. We pushed so hard we thought our fingers might go through the diaphragm; we can only assume a sticky issue with our review pair. Eventually we took the headphones to someone who already owned a pair, and after a few attempts, he punched through and the outer headshell popped open. We replaced the batteries.
We were keen to replace them because we weren’t fond of the tonal effect we were hearing when activating the noise cancelling, but this proved inherent rather than a battery issue. While the cancelling was certainly effective, it added a boxiness to the music and softened the sound’s delightful edge, which plays so well to their imaging abilities. It’s not wildly severe; it was more the clear difference when switching from one to the other — and it will matter not at all when you have them plugged into an inflight entertainment system for a movie. But for music or even spoken word, we much preferred just the passive isolation with the headphones’ natural sound.
Because that was so extremely enjoyable. Everything in its place. As mentioned at the start, they did nothing wrong. The bass, for example, is realistic rather than pushed — the full underpinning on the Barenaked Ladies’ Leave was presented with real thrum and firmness but no bloat, even when pumping over the rumble of the morning commuite. Similar richness was given the stringed bass on the Blue Chamber Ensemble’s wonderful version of Chick Corea’s Children’s Song No 16 (a Stockfisch recording), while the taps of percussion were crisply edged and the arrangement delivered with all its layers of complexity and rhythm.
Female vocals were a midrange thrill, whether the aspirated maturity of Joni Mitchell on the re-recording of Both Sides Now, or kd lang’s complex stacked chorus harmonies on The Air That I Breathe, while Leonard Cohen retained both his rasp and his deep bass content in a single vocal image on Going Home. And these are not highlighted performances of tunes that the headphones ‘liked’ — the Space Ones seemed to like everything. Rock rocked, jazz jazzed, classical got a full head of dynamics and a wide spread of well-toned orchestra. And spoken word was spot on — tonally accurate to the original miking.
Why no Bluetooth? In nearly all cases, Bluetooth transmission reduces quality and also limits available volume — and with the quality-first attitude of both companies here, that’s probably enough to explain the omission.
There’s no control lanyard on the cable here, but we rarely missed it, and while the earcups pivot flat for storage, their yokes don’t fold in for really compact storage, so the supplied hard carrycase will come in handy.
Try the ANC for yourself — it will be great for aircraft use in particular. But for day to day, you may find you don’t need it, which also saves on batteries too (though the quoted 50 hours with ANC engaged is very impressive). Meanwhile be assured that the Porsche Design input here is not merely skin deep; this even-handed collaboration with KEF’s voicing skills has delivered a great-sounding headphone that exudes competence and confidence across a full range of music.
+ Excellent passive sound across all music types
+ Comfortable and firm
+ Design and brand cachet
- Tonal changes with ANC engaged
Type: Circumaural closed-back with ANC
Impedance: 32 ohms
Quoted frequency response: 20-20kHz
Sensitivity: 89dB ±3dB (ANC off), 93dB ±3dB (ANC ON)
Quoted battery life: up to 50 hours