Review: Monster Nokia Purity WH-920 In-Ear Headphones
My first impressions of Monster's headphone style weren't good, with some outlandish cyan over-ear cans shown off by the Monster CEO at last year's Nokia World. Happily, the reviewed in-ear equivalents are a hundred times less garish, especially since they're black. There's plenty of photos and comment below, but in short the audio quality is superlative - depending on the playback device. Balancing this, device compatibility is distinctly spotty and the price is.... rather high. Review added to Dec 2012.
The 'WH-920 Purity Stereo Headset' comes in luxuriously designed packaging, with outer shell, inner box and multiple plastic struts and layers inside, all presenting the accessory contents to best advantage. In fact, it took me a good five minutes to unwind and untangle all the various wires and free them from the packaging - but I got there in the end.
There's a reinforced, zipped carry case for the headset when not in use - the WH-920 uses a 'flat' style cable which is effectively tangle-proof, thankfully. The in-ear buds themselves are beautifully made and fitted perfectly (though no less than five extra sizes of rubber outers are supplied in case you have extra small or extra large ear canals - or simply lose one of the originals).
The review headset was in black, but versions in cyan or pink are also available (for those who like showing off...!)
There's a somewhat minimalist control unit at throat level when wearing the accessory.
Also shipped in the box is a six inch "Nokia AV adapter", shown below, right. This is intended to help non-AHJ 4-pole jacks work with the headphones and I tried it with a selection of Nokia 'Nseries' Symbian-powered smartphones, including my N8. The Symbian handsets have superior audio circuitry to the Windows Phone chipsets, by some margin, meaning that to really push the Monsters, I had to test using this device and not the Lumia 800.
The first and most important test was audio quality - testing against the supplied (somewhat cheap) outer-ear headphones supplied with my Lumia 800 and the really rather good in-ear ones supplied with my Nokia N86. Booting up a range of tracks across different genres revealed a startling difference. As expected, the outer-ear Lumia 800 headset was by far the worst of the bunch, not helped by the way outside noises are allowed in so easily. The older Nokia in-ear headset was much cleaner, clearer and with better frequency response. But then I plugged in the Monster WH-920s and was blown away.
My previous experience of expensive in-ear headphones (with 'Ultimate Ears') had been rather inconclusive in terms of demonstrably superior quality, but I can honestly say that there was no such problem here. Overall volume (to the ears) was dramatically louder (easily double), bass was deeper and richer, treble was crisper and clearer, even than the older, high quality Nokia in-ears. In fact, I managed to partially deafen myself several times in testing these Monsters - they should come with some kind of health warning! In practice, you can run with your smartphone's music output many notches down from the usual setting (e.g. on 15/30 rather than 25/30, on a Windows Phone) and still get the right output levels at your ears.
There's no point in having fabulous headphone quality if the audio drivers and circuitry at the phone end aren't as good though. Testing the Monsters with the Lumia 800 and the HTC HD7 produced much flatter results and with less bass and vibrancy. Another area where both Windows Phone and its associated chipsets have a long way to go?
Update: Testing the WH-920 with more recent devices, such as the Lumia 920, i.e. the next generation of Windows Phone devices, audio quality was much improved, with similar presence and response to audio on my Nokia Symbian-powered N8.
Playback control and compatibility
Away from raw audio quality, the inline pod is Monster's 'ControlTalk Universal' and, together with the supplied 4-pole 3.5mm jack, represents Monster's implementation of the AHJ (American Headphone Jack) standard. With Monster working tightly with Nokia on the development of these new 'Purity' headphones (including the over-ear ones too), it's no surprise that they work faultlessly with the Nokia Lumia 710 and 800. The centre button picks up calls and pauses playback of music, plus volume '+' and '-' do the right thing. AHJ also specifies actions to take for double clicks of the button (next track) and triple (previous track), and these also work fine on the Nokia Windows Phones.
However, despite the box implying that the music control and volume functions work with other 'Windows Phones (AHJ)', I didn't have to look far to find handsets which failed to comply. My other Windows Phone device at the moment is a HTC HD7, fully updated with the latest Mango software, yet the control button simply failed to work with the Windows Phone music player on nineteen tries out of twenty. Rather curiously, once - just once - the button was picked up properly and I could happily pause music until the next removal of the headset. The volume buttons worked fine throughout, but not being able to quickly pause music to handle a real world interruption is a pain. Comments welcome, if you have this headset, on whether my Lumia 800 or HD7 experiences were typical.
Update: All Windows Phones have had several updates since the original review and headset remote functions now work reliably - I tested the Monsters again on the HTC 7 Pro with perfect results.
Rather sadly, even with the 'Nokia AV adapter' in place, neither the control or volume buttons worked for music playback on any of my Nokia Symbian-powered phones - in other words, the adapter passes through the audio properly but the appropriate AHJ control codes have no effect. This is understandable but something of a shame, in view of the quality match, audio-wise. Picking up phone calls did work, since this is hooked into the use of the 4 wires rather than through codes.
My final test was with an Apple iPhone, with perceived audio quality on a par with the Windows Phone devices. Rather curiously, the control button worked perfectly (Apple being something of a pioneer of the AHJ standard?) but the volume buttons did nothing. All of which left me rather frustrated (as, presumably, it does accessory makers like Monster) - I can cope with one standard (OMTP, as used by Nokia), I can even (just about) cope with two (i.e. add AHJ into the mix), but to have a completely mixed set of compatibilities even within the two standards is just a horrible mess. It's one reason why I always recommend matching the brand names of both device and accessory - and even that dictum would fall down here because of the way Nokia has switched systems for this new generation of Windows Phone devices. Music control compatibility aside, all the tested devices did at least pick up calls properly using the WH-920s, arguably the most critical function.
Now comes the tricky part, recommending the Monster Purity In-Ears... If you have a Nokia Lumia 710, 800 or (soon) 900, then they make sense and are a recommended upgrade from the originals supplied in the device box, albeit a pricey one at around £70 (depending on where you buy). If you have another Windows Phone then try them in a shop first, since the control buttons may well not work with your phone. And whichever device you own, recognise that the phone's own audio circuits are the limiting factor - the Monsters can boost volume and add a little extra clarity and isolation from the world, but they can't work miracles.
If you have a Symbian smartphone from Nokia's Nseries then the Monsters represent the best music playback quality I've ever heard from a phone - but there's no support for the controls and I doubt many Nokia Nseries owners will be enough of an audiophile to give up their existing multimedia control headsets for these, just to gain a bit more top and bottom end.
There's certainly no doubting the style, build quality and performance of the Monster WH-920 - I just wish we had a phone audio headset standard that was as comprehensive.
Steve Litchfield, for All About Symbian and All About Windows Phone, 20 February 2012, updated 31st Dec 2012.
Reviewed by Steve Litchfield at