Rumor had it that there was an unknown, finely developed headphone out there that sounded good and cost little. At first, none of us even remembered what they were called, but by that chance, the name Valco appeared in a discussion on social media.
That was the name we had tried to remember. They were called Valco, and they had made a pair of headphones, which received generally good reviews from users. Under normal circumstances, I would dismiss them as just ‘another headphone maker’, and leave it at that.
But then I clicked on Valco’s website.
There I met an unusual and fresh approach to how to develop headphones. The website was completely devoid of PR language and exaggerated twists and turns about how revolutionary these headphones were.
For someone who reads press releases written by marketing departments with hubris daily, Valco’s website was an oasis of sober, Finnish humor (yes, it exists), with twists that you will never find in any other headphone manufacturer. Even the instructions for use are like reading a short story by Arto Paasilinna, where you sit and chuckle at how unpretentious it is to be in the hi-fi industry.
Developed in Finland
The headphones are called Valco VMK20 and were developed in Finland, and are very similar to the Bose QC35, but they do not sound like a pair of Bose at all, which is good. The noise reduction is also not at the same level, which I am not similarly excited about.
The small earcups are completely tight, and fit nicely around the ear. The artificial leather ear pads form comfortably to the head, and the buttons are located exactly where you expect to find them. On a pair of Bose QC35.
However, they differ from other headphones in that you are not greeted by a subdued female voice that says powwa onn, with an accent, but a rough male voice that whispers powerr on, konnekted, still with an accent. But a Finnish accent.
But inside, Valco believes that they have succeeded well in creating the sound signature they like. They have used the mastering studio Kesthouse as a sparring partner for the sound, and the Bluetooth circuit comes from Qualcom and supports aptX HD and AAC. While the noise reduction is provided by Analog Devices.
Four microphones are used to measure the noise on the outside, and yes, there is also a hands-free call microphone for telephone calls. It also comes with a case, with space for wires, and the included flight adapter.
You can also use the headphones with cord (supplied), and the noise reduction can be switched on and off.
With and without
The headphones should be used as wireless with the noise reduction on. Because without the noise reduction, the sound image becomes slimmer, and the bass does not come out very well. It works better with a 3.5mm minijack cable, and on a Fostex HP-P1 DAC, the sound picture was large and full.
But then, wirelessly straight from the cell phone or laptop, that’s when they sound at their best. By the way, there is no need to worry about battery life. Expect just over 40 hours of music on one charge. That is enough for a return trip to the west coast of the United States.
The resemblance to Bose is in every way misleading. A pair of QC35s have better and more efficient noise reduction. Not to understand that it is bad on VMK20, but they let in a little more sound. However, it is better than Urbanear’s Miami, which costs about the same, and low-frequency rumbling (train and subway) is dampened better at VMK20 than at Miami. But as mentioned not as good as on the QC35.
But the sound is clearly better.
With the noise reduction on, you get a warm, full and pleasant sound image. It is not devoid of details, but they are a little more subdued than on a pair of Sony WH-1000XM4, which, however, is in a much higher price range.
The bass on Silk Sonic/D-Nice, Ne-Yo and Kent Jones No Plans for Love, almost shadows the vocals, but turn up the sounds a bit and the midrange – and treble, comes out better in the soundscape. The bass drum and bass guitar dominate the soundscape on just that track, but a switch to John Mayers Wild Blue, who has a J.J. Cale-esque drive and arrangement, shows that the headphone easily brings out nuances in the guitar solo midway through the song. Without sounding woolly or muted in relation to the bass.
The tambourine sound of Lauren Housley’s This Ain’t The Life, also comes out well in the soundscape, and the headphone shows itself from its very best side in pop, rock, blues, hip hop, R&B, and music with a lot of percussion and rhythm.
One can of course enjoy a beautiful ballad from e.g. Adele, but I missed more timbre and more nuances in classical music. Verdi’s (Messa da) Requiem sounded very, massive – and the orchestra under Riccardo Muti, sounded with a weight that made Confutatis – Dies Irae really sound like death was standing at his shoulder.
But the chorus sounded too shallow and a little flat.
A switch to the Keith Jarrett trio worked better. The piano sound harmonized well with the double bass and the weight and dynamics of the drums.
Valco VMK20 was an unknown name for all of us, but one should not underestimate the influence of social media. Without it, we would most likely never have ended up testing the Valco headphones. And we might have regretted it. For Valco VMK20 are really a pair of good, wireless headphones. With well-functioning noise reduction. Best of all, they sound better than expected, and are in our opinion the most well-sounding among the cheaper noise-canceling headphones. The long battery life is a welcome bonus, but these should first and foremost be bought if you are above average interested in good sound, and like warm and full sound better than slim and analytical.