Pros: Neutral, balanced, detailed, airy, comfortable, well-built
Cons: Some might find the treble too peaky or the bass not present enough
I've had my DT880 for over two years now, and I figured it's finally time to give it a proper write-up. Of course the DT880 is nothing new. It was introduced into Beyer's Premium lineup in 2003 and got an aesthetic makeover, along with the entire Premium lineup, in 2005. This is the version I have (the 250 ohm variant). It competed with the HD6x0, and later the K70x, as one of the three top dynamic headphones in the world. The DT880 was the bright, airy one out of the bunch. Lots of headphones have come and gone since then, and Beyer itself has released a new (much more expensive) flagship, the T1. What kind of value does the DT880 offer today? Let's find out.
I'll save you reading through the detailed, long-winded part to follow and offer a quick summary of what I'm going to say. The DT880 is a member of the airy, buoyant, neutral class of headphones. It will certainly not satisfy bassheads or those looking for a smooth, thick, euphonic midrange, and those sensitive to treble had best look elsewhere. However, if you're looking for detail, openness, extended treble, texture, transparency, and speed, the DT880 might suit you. It's a comfortable, well-built, and IMO gorgeous headphone, whose understated appearance belies the energetic sound it produces.
What's in the box, Build Quality, Comfort, Ergo, etc.
The DT880 comes well packaged in a reusable, foam-padded leather carrying case. You get the headphone itself, a 1/4" adapter, and a booklet trumpeting the virtues of Beyerdynamic and attempting to sell you the T1 (thanks, guys ). The case is a nice addition, and while it won't protect the headphones from getting crushed, it's more practical than the aluminum box the original 2003 version used to come in and I've used it many times to transport my DT880 around the house.
The build quality is impressive. I like to joke that if I threw my DT880 at the wall, it'd break...the wall. I'm not actually going to do that to find out what would really happen, though. Walls are expensive. Anyway, the DT880 is constructed from mostly metal and tough, matte plastic, with some squishy padding on the headband and soft velour pads. All the seams are tight, nothing creaks, and after over two years of ownership my pair looks brand new. The cable is supple, decently thick, and is well relieved on both entry and termination. It has a 3.5mm mini plug which takes a threaded 1/4" adapter (though you can use a regular adapter as well). It's straight and 10 feet in length.
Comfort is exceptional. They truly disappear when I'm wearing them. The velour pads don't retain heat in my experience (though others report this as a mild issue), though they do absorb body oil and require a yearly cleaning in warm water and mild dish soap. The clamping force is just enough to keep the headphone on my head. Though they're of medium weight (290g), that weight is distributed evenly across the headband and pads. My only complaint, from an ergonomic standpoint, is that because of the sheer size of the DT880 and the way its earcup yokes stick out, it's difficult to lie back on a pillow while wearing them.
Overall, the DT880 is a well-balanced headphone, leaning somewhat toward brightness. Reports that it's a treble monster are exaggerated, IMO. The range and extension on either end are both impressive. That said, they won't be rattling your brain with bass or lulling you with forward, smooth midrange. They are accurate, to some perhaps to a fault, and if you've never heard such a sound before you might not like it. Let's do a breakdown:
Probably the weakest aspect of the sound, but still quite good. Typical of open dynamics of its vintage, the DT880 struggles with absolute sub bass extension. Despite this handicap it does manage to dig quite deep, but it loses texture on the way down and rolls off at the very bottom. The bass character is quick, taut, and even. It tends toward punchy rather than boomy. There might be the slightest hint of upper bass/lower midrange warmth, but it's faint if it's there at all.
Contrary to what is usually written about the DT880, I find the midrange the strongest aspect of this headphone. I don't find it recessed at all. There's a slight metallic tinge that comes from the treble (see next section), but this can be eliminated with precision EQ (see the relevant section). Either way, the DT880's midrange is highly revealing and transparent. It adds absolutely nothing to the recording and lacks the euphonic thickness and warmth that a lot of listeners prefer. It's what's known as dry, a term I failed to understand until just recently.
Here's where the trouble starts. The treble is nicely extended and is certainly not shy. However, the tuning has a few issues. There is a very prominent spike at around 5.8kHz (my measurements indicate ~7.5 dB) and a few smaller (3 dB) ones above 10kHz. The former especially is responsible for the DT880's reputation as a bright headphone and manifests itself as a grainy sort of glare that overlays everything. In addition, because of the relatively strong baseline level, my resonance peak (for me it's 6 dB at 7.6kHz) tends to exaggerate sibilance and make cymbals and other treble elements sound overly shimmery. Depending on your preferred genres, these might not be detriments, since they add perceived clarity. For me, though, it can be too much sometimes. Thankfully, there is an answer.
Those who know me from around the forums know I'm a strong proponent of properly applied precision EQ. This is not the same thing as loading up a 10-band graphic EQ and playing with the sliders willy-nilly. There's a technique involved, one which is designed to produce repeatable results. I've linked the thread in my signature, but here's a link to it anyway. Basically, after notching out the 5.8kHz peak, the 7.6kHz one that's intrinsic to my hearing and which I perceive in all headphones, and the two small ones above 10kHz, the treble goes from peaky to merely energetic and well extended.
The remainder of the review is judged using my calibration curve, but since it's about the presentation it holds true regardless of whether or not EQ is applied.
Presentation - Macro
The three basic tenets of presentation are soundstage, imaging, and transparency. Of course there are lots of ways to describe sound, but these are the three I'm going to concentrate on in this section. Some folks also separate out the terms soundstage and headstage, which I don't bother doing since I've never quite understood the distinction.
The DT880 has a well-rounded soundstage. It's not the widest in the world, I'm sure, nor is it the deepest. It's well balanced, however, and gives a nice sense of both width and depth. It even manages to convey some height, which is rare. Sonic cues are well-distributed within the soundstage and layered nicely. The DT880 is adept at separating background from foreground and can even indicate when an element is in a state of transition from one to the other (e.g. an instrument steps forward in the mix and plays a solo, then retreats to the background).
Imaging is excellent. There's no doubt where sonic cues are coming from, and as mentioned before, layering is a strong suit of the presentation. Musical elements separate out cleanly and it's easy to follow any one or several elements as you like. My only criticism is that it's sometimes difficult to quite find the center image, though part of the problem for me is that I have a slight bias toward my left ear so everything is shifted in that direction.
The DT880 is a transparent headphone. Perhaps due to its lack of midrange warmth or sweetness, it doesn't feel like there's anything separating the listener from the music. Especially after EQ, the headphone completely disappears. Some folks like their headphone to add some color to the sound, and from what I understand, well-designed colored headphones can be transparent as well. I think there's an advantage, however, to starting with a neutral balance, and the DT880 certainly does just that.
Presentation - Micro
In both texturing and detail retrieval, I find the DT880 mostly excellent. Nothing is glossed over or lost, and even when a lot is happening at once the DT880 manages to separate it all out and deliver fine detail. The midrange in particular is well-textured, with detailed and realistic renderings of instruments and vocals.
All this said, the bass definitely loses some texturing on the way down, which isn't surprising for an early 2000s-era open dynamic. A look at the distortion figures shows a rising baseline below 100Hz, indicating a driver that is having difficulty controlling its output at those frequencies. Nonetheless, there's enough information returned from the bass to pick out different kinds of bass instruments.
Some might say that the DT880 has outlived its useful life, what with the flurry of new headphones that have come out after it and the raising of the bar (or the price, say the cynical) for flagship performance. To those people I can only point to DavidMahler's epic thread, in which he compares over 50 flagships and former flagships. Among the best headphones in the world, he places the DT880 at #25 out of 56 and gives it one of only four A+ value ratings. He's just one guy, yes, but he has access to the best of the best, and he says a lot of the same things I've touched on in this review.
The DT880 might be an older model, and with the DT770 being replaced by the Tesla-based T70 and the new T90 coming out, the writing seems to be on the wall for the eventual discontinuation of the entire Premium line. However, I still believe it's an excellent choice for those who would like a headphone with a neutral, airy, and detailed sound, all in a well-built and supremely comfortable design.