Fact: A good set of headphones can radically improve your music listening experience. They make you realise that there are more ways to enjoy music than just cranking up the bass. They give you clearer middle frequencies and trebles, bringing out subtle details in music that are often muddied by lower quality gear. However, the sad reality when it comes to audio equipment is that to get better quality, you likely have to pay more.
There are very few reasonably priced quality headphones generally, and these are almost impossible to find in Kenya. Factoring in the high shipping costs to Kenya, buying a decent sounding pair of headphones online could cost you upwards of Kshs. 12,000.
Thankfully, a local company has stepped up to solve this price vs. quality conundrum. PACE Africa, fronted by former Kilimall International marketing director Larry Liu, launched the first-ever Kenyan designed wireless headphones called PACE Focus towards the end of 2017. The main selling point of these headphones is the eye-popping price tag of Kshs. 5,500.
I ordered the headphones a few days after their launch and bought a second pair quite recently after gifting away my first pair. The following review is based on several months of using (and abusing) both pairs.
What’s In The Box
These headphones come in a good looking pull-up box. I was honestly not expecting the packaging to be that attractive, so unboxing was a pleasant surprise from the get go. In the box, you get:
PACE Focus headphones.
3.5mm audio cable.
Quick Start Guide.
Givinalis Omachar is behind the principal design of these headphones. The design is uniquely stylish but not too flashy. The majority of these headphones is built from a black plastic material that feels light. In addition to the metallic highlights on the headband frame and hinges, the ear cups have a metal matte silver finish, complete with the PACE logo. Even though you cannot twist the ear cups in/out, the lower half of the headband is foldable up/downwards, a useful feature for reducing the packing size.
The headband and the ear cups are padded with soft foam padding covered by synthetic fabric and leather respectively. As a result, these headphones are very comfortable to have on for long periods. Very little pressure is applied around the head and ears.
I felt that the ear pads should have been slightly thicker to improve on the listening experience (see Isolation + Leakage ). The build quality of the headband is also worrying. The only part of the headband that responsible for its structural integrity is the outer frame made of light, barely flexible plastic. The padding underneath the frame is held together by a very thin sheet of plastic, that’s it.
The metal bits that connect the headband to the ear cups create the illusion that they go all the way up and form part of the headband but they don’t. They merely end at the hinges. This means that handling these headphones aggressively could easily lead to the kind of wear and tear that ends up breaking the headband. If this was a cost-cutting measure then it was definitely a wrong one.
The PACE Focus delivers a level of sound quality only expected from headphones twice or thrice its price tag. The bass is not exaggerated and has just enough depth and thump suitable for a wide range of content. Users of brands such as Beats or Bose might find the bass on the PACE a bit tame, but it is in the higher frequencies where these cans truly shine. The mids and treble ranges are well-balanced, emphasizing the subtle details in vocals and lead instruments. If you want to experience the true nature of this beast, plug them into a dedicated sound card with a decent headphone amplifier. In the sound department, the PACE Focus is an absolute bang for your buck.
Isolation + Leakage
With no active noise-cancelling features, the PACE Focus relies on its over-ear design to keep out external noise. However, the headphones’ loose fit results in less than adequate noise isolation. The only way to properly enjoy these headphones in a matatu commute is to crank the volume up to near maximum. A tighter headband (denser plastic or metal frame) and slightly thicker ear pads would have really improved isolation issues.
The leakage situation is just as bad. The headphones noticeably leak audio at moderate volumes and gets worse past the 60% volume mark. They can easily become an unwelcome distraction to others around you in quiet environments. At full blast, the leakage will be so significant as to be audible even in a noisy setting.
If you are not in the mood of using the audio cable, the PACE Focus performs reliably on wireless mode. Connecting it with other devices via Bluetooth is a breeze and it maintains a strong connection even a number of concrete walls away. The battery life is even more impressive at 35 hours of continuous usage. A voice prompt will periodically alert you when the battery starts to run low. What’s more, you can still use the headphones while they charge.
An in-built mic is included for receiving phone calls. The power button and volume rockers also perform useful extra functions such as receiving/ending calls or pausing/resuming music with the power button, as well as skipping to the next/previous track with the volume rockers.
There is a very slight dip in sound quality when you switch from listening with the audio cable to wireless mode. This is an unavoidable drawback present in almost every other brand of Bluetooth headphones. You may or may not detect this change depending on the type of the hardware you usually plug the audio cable into.
Control buttons, microphone and LED indicator // Earpads with side labelling.
THE BOTTOM LINE
You will struggle to find headphones that sound as good as the PACE Focus within the Kshs. 5,000 – 12,000 price range. While no effort was spared to achieve a well-balanced sound, it seems that compromises had to be made with the build quality to keep the price down. I would not think twice about purchasing an upgraded version of these headphones with a more durable, more flexible headband and better ear pads.