Pros: Tighter, clearer, punchier bass; FANTASTIC build quality (actual and perceived); aids in track separation; Shorter than stock cable
Cons: Sometimes loses a bit of the high-end sparkle and low-volume nuance; stiff cable ); can be considered pricey
After months of letting my obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) get the best of me with how to address the two major issues befalling the HD5x8 series (and much back and forth with Drew at Moon Audio), On October 19, 2015, I ordered a 5 foot Blue Dragon ($165 USD) with a 1/8” Oyaide gold-plated connector ($5 USD upgrade charge) for my HD598s (Total cable cost: $170 USD). On October 26, 2015, I received a double-wrapped envelope from Moon-Audio with my HD598-compatible upgrade cable. From start to finish, the support was impeccable, but let me go into why I ordered this cable and what it has done from the get-go.
THE HD598s (Independent of the Moon Audio Cable)
The Sennheiser HD5x8 series are in a bit of a bind as to what they want to be. On the one hand, they resemble slightly less robust HD6x0 series headphones that would not look out of place in a studio as basic monitoring headphones. On the other hand – per the side of the box that my HD598s came in – they're suitable for use on Apple and Android portable devices such as iPods, smartphones, and iPhones. This is due to a lower 50 ohm impedance versus the 300 ohm impedance on the HD600 / HD650 headphones. There are two major problems with the HD5x8's cables that keep it from being a viably portable headphone. First, the headphones come with a 10 foot long cable, which makes portable listening difficult. Second, the headphones terminate in a 1/4” connector, and while Sennheiser includes a 1/4” to 1/8” converter jack, the use of this converter on laptops, iPods, and smartphones can cause excessive torque on the connectors, while the long length of the factory cable makes it susceptible to being tripped on and the converted jack becoming a lever to rip connectors off of the boards they're soldered on (this happened to me twice, prompting me to get a shorter and less torquey cable).
Thankfully, the HD5x8 series (and higher) have removable cables to address this issue. Additionally, the HD598 is a very neutral headphone to the point that it can be considered “bass-light.” In the $150 to $250 market it competes in, where the main player is Beats, SOL, and other “bassy” headphones, this separation by tonality puts it more in the market with somewhat more pricey AKG's and Audio-Technicas. Thus, the distance in bass between the HD598s and headphones in this price range commonly worn by college-age students means that, at least in theory, enough room between the HD598s being tested and a pair of beats exists in the “Bass Department” that if the Moon Audio Blue Dragon brings out more bass, that the clarity and overall neutrality of the 598s will be preserved.
The Cable Itself (Outside of Sound)
Blue… Sonic the Hedgehog Blue… which goes about as well with beige and brown as the vest and jacket from a 3-piece suit would go with a pair of torn blue jeans. Thankfully, the outside color doesn't determine the sound, but rather the internals and build quality do. Comparing the Blue Dragon to the stock HD598 cable is like comparing a McDonald's burger to a fresh burger made at the local chophouse in look, feel, and quality. It's the first step in possibly figuring out why the HD598s are so lacking in bass. OK, so look and feel may not have a great deal to do with the bass issue, but they provide clues to the craftsmanship that a company provides. The blue dragon has a sleek appearance, with no bumps visible on the surface nor the shrink-wrapping at either end. Judging by the cut on the shrink-wrapping, I'm led to believe that the cables are largely handmade rather than made by a machine, and it shows in contrast to the HD598's stock cable, which was loaded with kinks, rough rubber jacketing, and that springy stress-tensioner that only gets more leverage with the converter jack on it. Additionally, the Blue Dragon is not a super flexible cable, which can be a benefit and an issue.
The 24AWG copper conductors in the Blue Dragon, along with the various shielding and jacketing properties, contrast to (I'm going to guess 40AWG at the largest with little to no shielding) the stock Sennheiser cable by having both a particular “wrap pattern” as well as quite a bit of rigidity. Whereas the stock cable basically flops on itself with or without the converter added to it if anywhere more than a 6 inch portion is held as an overhang, the Blue Dragon rises, apexes, and droops a tad. This cable is stiff, directional (it doesn't like to be wrapped against the grain, and I don't think it should be), and reeks of quality. The downside to this thickness and rigidity is that a) the cable cannot simply be “stashed” in a case because of its directional loop; and b) I find that the cable behaves best when the cable is allowed to flop naturally, then lined up with the HD598's earcup, then screwed in, rather than trying to be screwed in with the headphones upon one's head. So what we have is a phenomenally built, gorgeous looking, sensory-pleasing cable for $170… What good is that, if it provides nothing more than a shorter and more compatible cable for the HD598? Not… Much. Thankfully, early listening proves otherwise.
Burning in a Fire-Breathing Dragon for Ten Hours
Before I go further into my review with regards to sound, I'm going to outline my listening methodologies for replicability's sake. It's a portable setup that goes with me to work. Here goes.
Player: Pono Player (Clear Kickstarter Edition)
Music Files: 96/24 WAV or 192/24 WAV bought from HDTracks.com
Headphones: Sennheiser HD598s
Cables Compared: Stock HD598 Cable vs. Blue Dragon HD598 Cable.
Figuring “how much of a gain in sound could I get?” I set the volume on my Pono to 50% - my personal default level. Bad… bad… idea. The larger conductors and shorter cable length apparently acted like a “volume booster” for every single song I had on my Pono. 50% (which was usually comfortable) now hurt my ears and required a volume reduction back down to 35 to 40% volume. I emailed Drew at Moon-Audio, and wondered if this was merely an increase in bass compared to the stock cable, or if there was something else happening. Drew responded that because the Blue Dragons have a lower resistance (larger copper wire + shorter distance = less resistance), that there would be higher gain. With this info in tow, and newfound lower volume (so as not to go deaf at 30 years of age), I began testing.
The first song I tested was “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath (96/24 WAV). The reason for choosing this song was because with the stock cable, the bass line is thin to the point of being nearly non-existent. The Blue Dragon not only brought back the bass-line, but also made it easier for me to discern between the bass drum and the bass when the two played together. Unexpectedly, however, Paranoid's fuzz guitar solo cleanly split across the two channels. The left channel (where the headphone cable enters the headphone) delivered the “clean” track, whereas the right channel solely delivered the fuzz track. In contrast, the stock cable seemed to mush everything together, there was a bit of fuzz leakage into the left track, which concealed the overdub in Paranoid that the Dragons exposed. Some may say this “airy” behavior may detract from the loud and compressed nature of early metal, but part of music is to discover new things, and I'm all for that.
Heading a bit more in a prog-rock direction, the second song I tested was “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin (96/24 WAV). Why “Kashmir?” First, it's one of the most famous songs of the 20th century; Second, almost everyone at least knows the rhythm to Kashmir; and Third, it has many layers of synth, strings, electric instruments, and apparently vocal overdubs. Two things I noticed with the Blue Dragons that were not noticed with the stock cable were a very subtle bass line that melded with the bass drum beat (sometimes it was off by a little, which revealed it), and in the first verse of Kashmir (starting with “Oh let the sun beat down upon my face...”) there is a very faint do-do-do-do-do-do-do-doooooo (the keyboard bit that becomes more prominent in the second verse) that can be heard in the first verse, as though John Paul Jones is prepping his synth playing. Again, bass explosiveness is increased, although it does not “compress” the music in the same way as a Beats or SOL republic headphone would. For rock music, this is a great cable.
Moving to Jazz, Fusion, and R&B, there is a bit less consistency in the improvement of sound. For Fusion, I listened to “Chameleon” off of Herbie Hancock's Headhunters (96/24 WAV). This is a bass-heavy song, and the Blue Dragon absolutely ate it up. Splat-tones in the opening became much more revealed, the bass had a newfound intensity that made me blink each time I heard it, and even the higher keyboard notes were no longer tinny. Additionally, the headphone felt faster, as while the fadeout of notes was more linear, the impact was more dramatic. Note, the HD598 is NOT a fast headphone, so it can sometimes flub bass-heavy lines or lose them altogether. This was a welcome improvement, and improves listenability. I'm going to do more testing on other fusion albums such as Bitches Brew, but for a first impression in fusion, wonderful job.
In R&B, my test sample was “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” (192 / 24 WAV) by Marvin Gaye. Here we run into a slight problem. The song has a lot of highs, a lot of bass, and not very much in the middle (besides Mr. Gaye's voice). The opening bass line is complemented by the “ding” of a Triangle. Although the bass is far more focused and impactful, it comes at a slight cost to the clarity of the triangle “ding.” (Ironically, this issue was felt with the outro of “Children of the Grave” by Black Sabbath, where the blue dragon's bassiness made it a little more difficult to hear a faint hurdy-gurdy in the background.) Overall though, a very impactful listen, and truly enjoyable.
Lastly, “So What” (Stereo) (192/24 WAV) by Miles Davis. Already an EXCELLENT remaster for HDTracks (there's a video with HDTracks' backstory on this remaster), the Blue Dragon did not do very much for this album. I'm not putting any blame on the dragons, the player, nor the headphones because even with the stock cable Kind of Blue (the album “So What” is on) was fantastically remastered. When you get to more traditional jazz (or classical), I'm going to echo Drew @ Moon-Audio's sentiment to get the Silver Dragon. Although the Silver Dragon for an HD598 is cost-ineffective (the headphones are $150 to $250; the Silver Dragon is $275 minimum) to the point I'd almost be inclined to say save up for an HD600 and get balanced cables for the PONO to better serve its 300 ohm impedance.
If you're looking to buy this cable with the intention of turning your HD598s into “Stealth Beats,” just go buy a pair of Beats; these aren't the headphone for you. If you're looking to expand the clarity of traditional jazz and your source media and player are good, stick with the stock cable or skip the 598s and save up for HD 600s and possibly a cable upgrade. If your music tastes run from jazz, to rock, to early metal, you have quality media, and a quality media player that has only a single-ended output (Spotify at 128kbps doesn't count here… although Tidal @ 16/44.1 or Qobuz @ 24/96 will), then I absolutely recommend the Blue Dragon upgrade for the HD598. More volume at equivalent levels, a tighter and more present bass, and 99.9% of the neutrality of the stock setup, but does not tangle or have kinks like the stock cable. Now, the Pono player has balanced output capabilities… so about that HD650 / Blue Dragon kit with some nice balanced connectors for PONO… so, so very tempting after just how much improvement the Blue Dragon did to the 598s.