Bluetooth headphones have literally flooded the market in the last few years. No wonder, since for at least half of the world the main source of music is a smartphone, laptop or tablet and wireless bluetooth connectivity is a standard in all these devices. The idea of wireless headphones that you can used not only at home (like older radio and IR wireless headphones), but also outside, sells really well. For most users it wasn’t even an issue that at first the battery life of these headphones was quite short, and the quality of sound transmitted via bluetooth left a lot to be desired – after all, the main target were people listening to music on their phones and laptop and while commuting to work, so convenience won with quality.
Fortunately, both the bluetooth technology and devices equipped with it have developed to the point where they can satisfy more demanding users. You can now find BT headphones that sound really decent (especially if they use lossless codecs, e.g. aptX), are equipped with active noise cancelling (ANC) and battery is enough for a long train journey, not a bus ride to work and back.
Better sounding, more functional and more comfortable over-ear headphones also tend to be more expensive. 300 euros for products from known brands is nothing strange. On the other extreme, there’s a pile of cheap Chinese cans that offers a minimum for 30 euros or less. In between, we have a bit more expensive and a bit better Chinese headphones, and less pricey but also less functional products from big brands. In short, you can buy crappy BT headphones for 30 euros or less, you’ll pay closer to 100 euros for fairly decent ones and around 300 euros (or more) if you want good BT headphones.
Late last year, Valco ads appeared on Facebook, praising their Valco VMK20 headphones that were supposed to be as good as the best big brand products (good sound quality, functionality, comfort, long battery life) – for less. Valco’s marketing is a mix of a sense of humour and appealing to the current social pro-eco and anti-capitalist moods; their message boiled down to “our headphones are as good those from big brand, we are cool, give your cash to us, not to a big corporation, and feel better about it because we will plant a tree for each headphone we sell”. I did a bit of digging, asked a few questions under Valco’s posts in the comments and checked their website (actually websites, they have an international site and a separate one in Finnish, with different content). It turns out that the tree planting was sort of uncertain and wouldn’t happen before the next summer anyway. Considering they started writing about planting trees in October 2019 and they haven’t planted any yet, my hopes are, well, limited. But the headphones themselves look good on paper and although there is no local distribution, shipping in Europe is free. The guys at Valco accept returns (the buyer does have to pay for shipping back to them), give a guarantee and claim that if necessary, they will send new earpads (and possibly other spare parts. I did not buy the headphones, but I did offer to test and review if they would send me a pair. I warned the Valco rep that the review would be positive if their headphones really deserved praise, and I would massacre them if they didn’t. That did not scare Valco off and they sent me their headphones for review, so respect.
VMK20 are the second according to their international website, and in fact (at least) fourth headphones sold by Valco. They are closed, wireless bluetooth headphones with active noise cancellation (ANC) and a passive mode (wired connection). As far as form is concerned, they strongly resemble the popular Bose QuietComfort 35 – they have a similar shape, headband design, 3D folding method, button control and similar, though slightly more modest functions (no phone app for ANC adjustment and extra functions).
Valco VMK20 is an improved version of the previous model VMK19. Again, according to Valco’s website, the VMK20 model has a new BT antenna, new microphone with noise reduction and new DSP settings; the cup finish has also changed (wooden lid replaced with a fabric finish) and better quality switches have been used. According to specs, the headphones use Qualcom QCC3008 chipset that supports BT 5.0 with aptX LL (very good), class AB amps and 40mm drivers. Analog Devices Inc. chip is responsible for active noise reduction (ANC), and the power source is a 1050 mAH battery (very good, the battery capacity in medium models from big brands is usually half that), which, according to the manufacturer, translates into 45 hours of listening with ANC on. In my test, with ANC turned off and with a fairly high volume level, the battery died after 50 hours of playing, which is a fantastic result. Charging via USB type C socket and takes 2-3 hours. Mechanical buttons on the right ear cup are used for BT switching on/off, BT pairing, volume, switching tracks, answering calls; noise reduction switch is on the left. You can also use the headphones in passive (wired) mode; the mini jack socket is located atypically in the right cup. In terms of form, the headphones are over ear, with medium-sized oval earpads and a cushion on the headband. Despite the medium-sized pads, the headphones are comfortable: my large ears fit inside and the pads’ depth is sufficient for them not to touch the baffle. I used the Valcos for 4 hours straight without discomfort. The headphones weigh 250 g. They fold flat and like glasses. Despite being mostly made of plastic, they seem resistant to mechanical damage. They easily passed my stress and abuse test, which involved a number of dangers headphones can suffer from a careless user: tugging at the earcups and headband, strongly bending and twisting the headband, sitting on the headphones and dropping them several times from a height of approx. 1.5 m onto a hard floor.
Accessories include USB-C cable for charging, a basic quality audio cable (3.5 mm jack), an airplane dongle and a fairly good quality case. All this comes in a cardboard shipping box and plastic bag; the headphones do not have their own packaging (cardboard or plastic), which is a plus for me, because planet.
According to Valco, a lot of effort went to programming the DSP (digital sound processor) settings. If you believe the frequency response graph on the website, the headphones are nearly flat from 20 Hz to almost 10 kHz, where we have a slight peak, and then a drop to 20 Hz. Unfortunately, there is no information as to which operating mode the graph applies to (passive, passive with ANC, BT, or BT with ANC) and I was unable to get an answer to this from Valco – and the headphones do sound different in each mode.
EDIT: Valco responded that the graph applies to headpgones with both BT and ANC on.
It’s not hard to figure out that the headphones are made in China (Valco does not hide this, by the way) and they are suspiciously similar to several models from Chinese brands. After a quick search I found headphones named Domax M1, Chaobai M1, Teeline M1, Awei A950BL, New Bee NB-11, Naztech Driver ANC 1000, which all look nearly identical except for the shell cap (which in their case is actually similar to the cap on the previous Valco model VMK19).
There are few differences in technical specifications, the main being that most Chinese “twins” support BT 4.0 or 4.1, and the few versions that do have BT 5.0 use a different chip (Qualcom QCC3003). But most of the features and data are identical. Called out on that in a thread, Valco’s representative dismissed the Chinese headphones as “very similar knockoffs” and “copy products” and in an email to me referred to them as “knock out ripoffs” and a natural consequence of someone coming up with a “proper design”. But it appears to be the other way around. If you scroll down on Valco’s Facebook page, you’ll find a post from January 2019, in which they offer “their” headphones under the mysterious name Pula Sorsat – and these headphones are clearly Chaobai M1. There is even a picture of the box in the post.
While you won’t find these headphones on Valco’s international website, you will on their Finnish website, along with the information that they are from a Chinese manufacturer.
So, it seems that the Chinese did not make “knockoffs” of Valco’s “proper design”, but rather Valco took Chinese headphones, improved them and they sell the result under their own brand. It is actually a very good idea, provided that the improvement was really big enough for the headphones to stop sounding like an average piece of Chi-Fi and begin to resemble a decent big brand product.
So, did Valco manage to do that? My curiosity got the better of me and I obtained Valco’s Chinese twin, Domax M1 headphones to find out.
Domax M1 headphones come in a two-piece cardboard box. Inside there are the headphones, packed in a similar case as the Valcos but lower quality, an audio cable and a USB charging cable. There is no airplane adapter.
On the outside, Valco VMK20 and Domax M1 are identical except for the earcup finish.
The headband and the cups appear to have come from the same assembly line. Not only their form is the same, but the materials as well.
The earpads and their fixing mechanism are also identical (except for the earpad filter fabric).
The headphones have different USB sockets (type C in Valco, micro USB in M1). The buttons look the same, but the Valco’s buttons work differently (more resistance, clearer stroke).
Once the pads are off, a skilled eye will notice another difference: the drivers are very similar, but the diaphragms of the Valco drivers are coated.
But the back sides of drivers are not different at all. You can see the same filters and vents.
The deeper we look, the more differences we find. The first one is noticeable immediately after unscrewing the baffle: Valco headphones have damping on the back of the cup (very simple, but it’s there), the Chinese twins do not.
The ANC (left cup) circuit boards in both hearphones have the same shape and are based on AD3508 chips, but the similarities end there. The ANC circuit in Valcos is much more complex. And behind the AND board there is an additional microphone, which you won’t find in M1.
There are more differences in the right cup. First of all, while the BT antenna is the same in both headphones, in Valco it is placed at the top of the cup, and in M1 it is on the side wall.
The battery is also identical in both models and its does have a capacity of 1050 mAH. We can expect a similar, very long battery life from both models.
On the other hand, printed circuit boards again have the same shape but differ in content.
Valco, as advertised, uses Qualcom QCC3008 chip, which supports BT 5.0 and aptX. In M1 uses CSR8635, which supports the older BT 4.0 and no aptX. I could also visually confirm that the buttons are of different types.
In short, the headphones are nearly identical when it comes to their design (apart cup finish, internal cup damping and membrane coating in Valcos), comfort and functions, but the electronics used in them are very different. How do these differences translate into sound?
I started Valco VMK20 listening test from the passive mode, with headphones connected to the sound source with a cable and with all active circuits turned off. I must admit that the headphones were not impressive in this configuration. The sound is not bad, but too bassy and with recessed highs. As a result, we get a rather pleasant, warm, dark sound, with a bit of depth, but not too detailed and muffled. It’s not bad, especially if someone likes big bass and restrained highs, but I would expect this kind of sound from headphones that cost 30-100 euros, not 169 euros.
In wired mode, the headphones can also be used while charging and/or with ANC on.
Bluetooth pairing was fast and easy with all the devices I used to test the headphones (two different smartphones, two laptops, a Fiio X1 II DAP). Voice announcements are in English and the deep, soothing “radio” male voice that delivers them is a huge plus for Valco. The headphones do not communicate that the battery is almost empty in any way, but considering that it takes 40-50 hours of use to drain the battery, this is hardly a problem. Most users will recharge them long before the battery is drained anyway. BT test software shows that the headphones do use aptX LL.
I didn’t notice any audio lag or sync issues while watching a movie. The connection is stable at home and at a distance of a few meters from the sound source (transmitter), provided that there are no significant obstacles, such as a thick wall, between the headphones and the source. Behind a wall, the sound can be intermittent or disappear completely, but the headphones do not lose their connection, the sound resumes immediately after returning to the room with the transmitter. During a walk outside in a frosty weather, there were also millisecond dropouts when I had my phone in my pants pocket. Moving the phone higher, into a jacket pocket, mostly solved this. Note this is not a particular problem with Valco, other BT headphones I used had similar problems (both in my apartment and outside).
My previous experience with BT headphones was that, compared to a wired connection, wireless mode meant a loss of sound quality – slight in the case of better (read: expensive) headphones, but usually quite significant. Consequently, at this point I did not expect miracles from Valco VMK20. I was in for a very nice surprise. Switching to BT mode was like putting on completely different headphones. In the wireless mode, VMK20 deliver a very clear, engaging and much brighter sound. They are just as generous with bass as via a wired connection, but bass is better controlled and more detailed. It’s still not on the level of good wired headphones like Beyerdynamic DT770 (250 ohm version), but much better than Valco wired. In the midrange, the emphasis moves a bit up the frequency range, pushing the mids out from behind the curtain and giving it more clarity (at the expense of warmth). But the biggest difference is in the highs. While they were far in the background with a wired connection, in BT mode they are front and centre, they are lively, intense and very detailed. This does come at the price of a slight sibilance, but its level is acceptable, similar to headphones like the Sennheiser HD700 or Sony MDR-SA1000 and only slightly higher than the Beyerdynamic DT990. This effect affects mainly vocals. Another aspect that gains tremendously when switching to BT mode is soundstage. While in the wired mode there was some depth, realized mainly by lower frequencies, in the wireless mode the sound is 3 dimensional, not only the depth of the stage increases, but there is also width. I would not describe these headphones as neutral; the mids are a bit recessed, the lows and highs emphasised, so we have a V-type sound. I certainly wouldn’t use these headphones for mastering. But for listening they are fun. They especially shine with instrumental music.
I have to admit that Valco’s claim about the effort put into tuning the active part of the headphones, especially the DSP settings, and thus improving the sound, is fully confirmed up by the headphones’ sound. They managed to transform fairly average cans into interesting, engaging and really good headphones. I could come up with a few ideas for modifying passive elements, but I cannot imagine that passive mods would have such good effects in these headphones.
The headphones change their sound again if you turn on noise cancelling (ANC). A bit of the low bass is gone, resulting in more forward mids emphasizing the vocals. There is also a slight reverb and a bit of background noise. Fortunately, this effect is not intense and the headphones still sound good with ANC on. The ANC itself is effective. Due to the epidemic, I was unfortunately unable to test the Valcos in the noisiest means of transport or in loud office conditions, but I took them for a short bus ride, walked along a busy street during rush hours and went into a store that had radio on. Even the passive attenuation is quite good, but with ANC on, background noise is completely unobtrusive. Both on the bus and in the street, the headphones eliminated most of the noise (especially its lower frequencies), and I was able to listen to music at a much lower volume level than I would use with relatively well isolating passive headphones (like Beyerdynamic DT770). The radio in a store, with ANC off clearly audible through the headphones and my own music, almost completely disappeared from the background after turning ANC on. The headphones also eliminated the noise of mild wind. I do not know how they handle stronger gusts, as luck had it, it was not very windy when I was testing the Valcos. In general, the ANC in Valco VMK20 is very good.
So, how do the Chinese “twins” Donax M1 compare?
In the passive (wired) mode, their sound is very similar, but not identical. Just like the Valcos, we get a lot of bass and shy highs, but the sound is a bit less clear and a bit boxy. These differences are due to the lack of cup damping and possibly membrane coating. But the difference is not big, when it comes to wired mode, Valco only managed to tweak the headphones a little.
On the other hand, while Valco VMK20 in the BT mode changed into completely different (and much better) headphones, in the case of Donax M1 we have a typical bluetooth headphones effect: they sound pretty much like in the wired mode, only a bit worse. The sound is a bit less clear and flatter. On the plus side, Donax M1 are is only slightly worse via bluetooth than in the wired mode, not much worse.
When it comes to pairing, connection and communication, Donax M1 behave just like Valco VMK20, except the announcements that are delivered by a slightly annoying female voice. Donax M1 do not support the lossless aptX codec.
Unfortunately, Donax M1 noise cancelling is not very good either. It does get rid of some noise from the outside, but turning ANC on causes a loss of more bass than in the case of the Valcos, ads a lot of reverb and there is clear own noise in the background. As a result, in my opinion, Donax M1 with ANC on are more suitable for listening to podcasts and possibly watching movies, than for listening to music.
To sum up, while the Valco headphones are slightly better than their Chinese “twins” in the wired mode, they are way better in bluetooth mode and with ANC turned on. Granted, I only compared the Valcos with one of many “twins”, but judging by the specs, this is most likely valid also for other Chinese headphones sharing the same looks.
There is one aspect where this lack of DSP tuning in wireless mode could prove to be a potential advantage of Donax M1. Since the M1 sound similar wired and via BT, they are a better candidate for modding, because the mods will translate into sound in a similar way in both modes. I tested it by sealing one of the driver magnet vents, which reduced the amount of bass and improved the headphones a bit.
In the case of Valco VMK20, similar mods unfortunately do not make sense. Due to the radically different sound of these headphones in wired and wireless modes, any modification that will improve the sound in one of these modes is likely to spoil the sound in the other mode.
Since Valco advertises the VMK20 as a cheaper alternative to big brand headphones without sacrificing quality, I also checked whether they could actually compete with products from large manufacturers. I compared the Valcos with Harman/Kardon HARKAR BT and Sony WH-1000XM2 (original retail price of each of these headphones was around 300 euros).
In the first case, the only win the Harman/Kardon HARKAR BT headphones could have over Valco VMK20 was the looks. Their design is impressive: very elegant, with rectangular ear cups and more expensive headband materials (metal and leather). Unfortunately, comfort and functionality do not go hand in hand with this elegance. The Harman headphones are less foldable (they only fold flat) and their earpads are too shallow, so the baffles rest against my ears, which quickly causes discomfort.
Operation in BT mode is realised like in the Valcos, by pressing mechanical buttons (which are smaller, making them less visible but also less convenient to use). There is no noise cancelling system. The Harmans are charged through the same socket as the cable connection to the sound source, a 2.5 mm jack, so not only the headphones cannot be used while charging (in neither wired nor wireless mode), both cables are non-standard and if you lose or damaged them (especially the charging cable) it can be a big problem. Valco VMK20, on the other hand, use separate, standard sockets, they can be used both wired and in the BT mode while charging, and a lost or damaged cable can be easily replaced. The battery in Harman headphones lasts for about 12 hours (in reality even a bit longer, but sound quality suffers when battery is low), which is a good result – but only a quarter of what the Valcos offer. When it comes to sound, Harman/Kardon HARKAR BT sound good wired and nearly as good in BT mode – but certainly not better than the Valcos. They, too, have a lot of bass, although it is a bit less detailed and can sound a bit boxy at times. On the other hand, highs are less intense (but very good). The midrange is a bit more forward than in the Valcos, but unfortunately it can be spoiled a bit by what sounds like digital compression. Another problem is passive isolation. The Valcos with ANC off still remove quite a lot of ambient noise; the Harmans do not isolate well and you can clearly hear sounds such as computer fan noise, which can be annoying between songs and during quieter passages. And then there are miccrophonic effects: the cup and headband own noises. The Harman headphones pop, crackle and sometimes even ring with every movement of the head and with every step. The Valcos barely have any problem with microphonics. All in all, compared to Valco, the Harman headphones are nicer looking and made of better quality materials, but their design and comfort leave a lot to be desired, their functionality is clearly worse than Valco’s, and they sound a bit worse to me in BT mode (but better wired). They also need to be charged more often.
Sony WH-1000XM2, like Valco VMK20, are mostly made of plastic. Their appearance is slightly more interesting than the Valcos’, but comfort is similar (the Sony earpads are a bit narrower, but softer, so the comfort is pretty much of the same level) and they fold the same way.
The only buttons are the main switch (also responsible for pairing) and the ANC switch, the rest of the control in the Sony headphones is done by touch, which is both a plus and a minus: a nice gadget, more possibilities, but you need to learn the gestures first and that takes much longer than remembering the position of 4 mechanical buttons. The Sony headphones have 2 more functions that the Valcos don’t: NFC (tap pairing) and a smartphone application that allows to adjust the noise cancelling settings. The charging socket is standard micro USB. The audio connector is also standard (3.5 mm jack), but in a narrow recess, so not every cable will fit – a small win for the Valcos here. The battery in the Sony headphones lasts for about 30 hours of listening with ANC on and about 40 hours with ANC off – better than the Harmans, not as good as the Valcos. They, too, sound a bit better wired than via bluetooth. The Sonys support higher quality codecs aptX HD and LDAC and have a better frequency response (depending on the mode and codec, maximum range is 4 Hz – 40 kHz). Compared to the Valcos, the Sony headphones have a bit less (but not too little) bass, a fuller midrange with an emphasis on its lower parts and without the audible compression that I heard in the Harmans. The highs, like in the Harmans, are present, but not very intense and, at most, medium detailed. As a result, we get a nice, warm sound – different but neither better nor worse than from the Valcos. Like the Valcos, the Sony headphones do not have problems with microphonics and they passively isolate quite well. To sum up, compared to the Valcos, the Sony headphones have a slightly more interesting form; comfort is on a similar level; we get a few additional gimmicks (NFC, touch control), but the most important functions are similar and the battery life is a bit weaker. When it comes to sound, the headphones differ in character rather than class. People who like a warmer, more relaxing sound will like the Sonys more, while the Valcos will appeal to people looking for a more lively, engaging and detailed sound.
In this group, Valco VMK20 definitely have nothing to be ashamed of. They have less gimmicks, maybe a bit worse looks, average sound in the wired mode, but otherwise they can easily compete with the more expensive Sony headphones. They are much better than the more expensive Harmans in most respects.
The Valco VMK20 headphones are a very interesting example of how much you can now do with programming alone. In this case, a product with good functionality, but quite average sound, has been improved enough to actually be able to compete with more expensive, big brand headphones, and in some cases even win this competition. They will not appeal to everyone; firstly, they sound good in wireless mode but they are quite average wired, so it is very important how you plan to use them most of the time. Secondly, contrary to Valco’s claims and the frequency graph on their site, their sound, while good, is not neutral. Fans of lively, intense, detailed sound will definitely like them more than those looking for warmer and softer sound. Their great advantages include an exceptionally long battery life, a good ANC system, which effectively reduces noise while not spoiling the sound too much, a good comfort level and resistance to mechanical damage. They are certainly not among the cheapest BT headphones out there, but still clearly cheaper than (good) big brand products and clearly better than generic headphones, including ones that look just like the Valcos.
Disclaimer: We received Valco VMK20 headphones for review free of charge. Our great thanks to Valco for making them available to us!
Valco VMK20 – technical data:
Bluetooth: 5.0 APTX LL, SBC and AAC
Chipset: Qualcomm QCC3008 with custom DSP setup
ANC: Analog Devices Inc. (ADI) Active Noise Cancellation with 4 microphones
Amplifier: Class AB
Stereo elements: 40 mm
Weight: 250g / 8.8 oz
Battery: 1050 mAh
Charging time: 2-3h, USB-C connector
Battery time (manufacturer): up to 45 hours of constant listening on ANC, 40 hour on phone call
Battery time (our test): 50 hours of constant relatively loud listening with ANC off.
Siri and Google Home support
Handsfree phone calls, with CVC6 noise reduction (yes, it has a microphone for phone calls)
Package includes all the necessary cables and dongles (3.5 mm, airplane adapter and USB-C charging cable)
Valco VMK20: gallery