Pros: Smooth Presentation, 300 ohm impedance gives it a linear, stout sound at louder volumes.
Cons: build quality is meh! Overall sound is too recessed and lacks weight
The praise that has been heaped upon the Sennheiser HD650 headphone is something that probably every headphone OEM envies. The HD-650 is nearly a decade old and yet is still viewed by many as a top tier dynamic, worthy flagship and is the benchmark that many measure price to performance ratio against.
I personally was cruising along quite happy with my set up… Running almost exclusively between Denon D5000’s and Ultrasone Pro900’s I felt I had the best of both worlds. Since I love the visceral impact of good bass in my music, these two pieces seemed to be perfectly tailored to my listening habits.
The Denon gave me a little more reasonable treble energy and a little less sibilance when I needed it for something more complex and diverse, while the Pro 900 gave me that sub woofer for your ear feel that just flat out slams your ear drums. With a decent DAC/ desktop amp set up I am usually able to apply a 6kHz to 8kHz cut the smoothly equalizes the sound to eliminate that “ESSS” sounding ear razor that the Pro900 is so infamous for.
However somewhere along the way the constant gushing over the Sennheiser HD650 got to me. Specifically Mike from Headfonia repeatedly claiming that it was the ultimate king of bass impact…. He never said king of bass quality, quantity…. He always spoke of the HD650 in terms of “Impact”.This should get just about any hard core and well funded bass head’s juices flowing and so I began looking at the viable options for acquiring this apparent low frequency giant. And so after parting ways with most of my portable equipment, I was flush enough with cash to purchase my own set of the venerable HD650.
I will start out by saying that because of all the talk of the ‘luscious mids’, smooth highs and world class low frequencies my expectations with this headphone were near off the chart…. I have since done the same thing with the Audeze LCD2 prior to its arrival at my home. The LCD2 albeit a very good headphone, was so overblown in my mind that when I actually listened to it, I was rather disappointed. It has long since been shipped off to a more worthy and appreciative owner.
So by the time the Sennheiser headphone had finally arrived, it was competing with some extremely high expectation and was pretty much behind the 8 Ball.
Build & Design
The Sennheiser HD650 is certainly a dated design. There are dozens of headphones on the market in the same price point that are better dressed. Most $500 headphones have premium materials such as aluminum, leather and wood worked into the build. The Sennheiser headphone is almost exclusively plastic. It is a shiny, cheap feeling plastic on virtually every exterior surface sans the grill, ear pads, retainer ring and bottom of the headband. Detail items like the "Left" and "Right" indicators are simply cast into the grey plastic.... this specific nuance seemed unfit for such a legacy flagship.... obviously its been a long time since this headphone was brought to market and Sennheiser was working in the pre-Beats era back when they designed it, long before headphones were valued as a fashion accessory. And their HD800 shows they clearly can design a top tier headphone both in sonic character and design quality, but the HD650 is still asking $499 USD and doesn't give you a warm and fuzzy out of the box once you've got it in your hands, at least not me.
The headphone is extremely light. Many in the community would give it points for this and they are certainly entitled to their opinion. However I personally see this as a demerit. Speaking strictly in terms of assessing an items value from a subjective aesthetic viewpoint, the Sennheiser headphone appears to be made of cheaper, less durable materials. I am not going to strain my neck if a headphone is north of 400 grams. The Hifiman HE400 weighs in at a hefty 440 grams and is perfectly comfortable to me, the Denon D5k weighs in around 360 and is probably the most comfortable headphone I've ever worn. If one is spending $75.00 on a beater set of portable cans, an expendable gamer headset or a cheapie like Superlux or Porta Pros (of which I am a fan) then by all means they should be and can be as light as a feather without raising eyebrows. But at $500 out the door for a former flagship headphone that was intended for listening at home through a serious system... I don’t know.... I just expected something a little more substantial.
The other crux of this featherweight value is that in order to keep it properly seated on the listeners head, Sennheiser had to crank up the clamping force. Otherwise the light weight construction leaves it prone to moving too easily as it has little resistive value on its own. The clamping force is something that many have commented through the years as a supposed 'death grip'... Once again just like the HE400 won't break my neck, the clamping force on the HD650 is not going to crush my skull. It is certainly wound a bit tighter than most, but the clamping force seems to have been measured perfectly to counteract the lightweight construction's tendency towards moving easily.... this is a nod to the design engineers.
Right off the bat my delusions of grandeur were dispelled. It is certainly nicer looking than its faux marble clad brother the 600 however as a supposed flagship headphone of such universal praise, I was underwhelmed by the look and build quality.
The die-hard optimist says that this is simply an indicator that they chose to pour all their cash into sound quality. OK maybe this is true.... lets see.
Hook It Up! And Wait.
I did not want to be hasty with a plug and play attitude as I had heard that the out of the box, plug and play sound of the HD650 was disappointing (I heard this about 10 hours after I purchased it sadly) but that a 100 hours of burn in would get you a somewhat matured sounding headphone, so onto the vintage Realistic 64B it went. This older vintage rig is hooked up in a file cabinet at work and so can burn in a headphone out of site and outta mind while I still enjoy music on my main headphone rig…. A Violectric V100 tethered to a Laptop running JRiver via my Rega DAC with a Wyred 4 Sound uLink handling conversion duties to SPDIF.
100 Hours - Impressions
After it had burned half the day on Thursday and all day Friday, Saturday and Sunday by the time I got in to work on Monday the 650 had clocked roughly 96 hours of burn in time. I plugged it into the Violectric V100 and listened to some newer redbook CD rips.
The HD650 is not a bass head can. That is my first impression. Where the hell is this supposed ultimate bass weight?
A couple of local Head-Fiers down here in the Southland told me the 650 was really amp picky and that I would do better with a tube amp like a Woo WA6 or Bottlehead Crack. However my amp is a Violectric amp which is what Sennheiser uses in their “Hall of Fame” set up and is one of Sennheiser’s Senior Project Manager Axel Grell's favorite amps for his own listening. A couple others mentioned changing the cable to a Cardas one, and one guy said I might need a different DAC to get the most out of it.
So in order to get the Sennheiser HD650 to sound good what I needed to do was:
- Get a different amp
- Get a different cable
- Get a different DAC
Maybe I should get a different source, different interconnects, a new power conditioner and stop using CD's while I am at it eh? Mind you I do see where some could see this headphone as all they need and build out their entire system around it.... searching for another .5% of improvement with each piece of the puzzle... but I have already built my system(s) and am not really inclined to do a whole lot of kit rolling in order to optimize the synergy with this lone headphone when I have a half dozen others that sound fantastic through the rigs as is.
So my immediate disappointment with the bass weight could’ve derailed this whole review. I was expecting Pro900 bass or Denon D5k bass with amazing mids and highs… veiled though they supposedly were. What I got was an all too polite rendition of everything.
The low frequencies are extended, there is textural information galore, you can really hear the stick or the tom on the drum skins, the full decay of bass strings, mid range is sweet and smooth, and there is plenty, and I mean plenty, of high frequency detail and sonic information. Anyone who says the HD650 does not have enough treble energy or detail is, to these ears, not hearing straight.
But that ultimate bass weight, that Mike implicates all the time, it is not here IMHO.
The low frequency, midrange and treble are all recessed quite a bit. They do not hit you in the side of the head with impact. They don't even touch you. If this is what people are speaking of when they say the 650 is veiled then yes, it is veiled, but not in the sense that a certain portion of the frequency range is somewhat blurry or hidden.... Its more about air pressure that makes a headphone felt as well as heard. Open architecture does limit this but I've heard better open backs at giving you punch.
I will hop on my soap box right here and say that one part of a headphone experience that is vital to me, is the overall weight of a headphones tone. I am not specifically talking about bass extension or articulation or even the bass frequencies in particular. What I am saying is that headphones with a tonal density to them…. A robust acoustic mass that move some air pressure to bring the music more to life…. That is critical for enjoying music in my book. Otherwise it sounds like music but doesn't feel like it.
It may not be critical for monitoring, mixing or mastering in a studio, or DJing or even for being an audiophile who wants to sample 24/192 and DSD audio tracks like they are a damn 10 year old Pinot Noir… but for the average Joe like myself who wants to simply strap on a set of headphones, cue up an album, hit play, sit back and enjoy some music…. The overall presentation doesn’t need to be “forward” but it needs to be felt as well as heard.
Oldies like Buddy Holly, Sam Cooke, and Bob Marley all have strong drums and bass rhythm that is presented most natural when the full weight of the instruments is presented... the kick drum and bass line at the opening of Dock of the Bay sets a strong foundation for Otis and the guitar to build off of. Alternative music like Smashing Pumpkins, The Pixies, Jawbreaker, Dirtbombs, and Blur all have bass and drums that need punch. Punk rock and other guitar driven music like Social D, Operation Ivy, Van Halen, Bad Religion, The Ramones, Rancid, The Strokes, Vampire Weekend, Weezer, Gaslight Anthem.... they all have rhythm sections, and natural timbre that is presented best when it is presented with a fully developed low end.
Most people would rather listen to music through a great set of speakers because the music can be felt in your bones and people go to concerts because the live performance trumps every other experience. I saw Muse at Staples Center a month ago and the bass and drums absolutely rattled my bones, the light show was stunning and their stage set was unbelievable but the drums, synthesizer and dubstep wobbles that they used a lot in 2nd law, they literally vibrated you right down to your spine.... Just vibrating you right down to your soul. And that is why 50,000 pack stadiums every night to see performances. Because the music will completely overwhelm your senses.
To me, listening at home through a set of headphones should be a far more tame extension of that experience. Obviously headphones can't give you want speakers can, and speakers can't give you what amps and guitars can.... but each should have a measure of the other. The HD650, although tonally wonderful, sweet and smooth and carrying some weight in its tone is similar to the Audeze LCD2, it just holds you too far back from the music for my taste. It left me wanting.
The HD650 often gets the compliment that "I could fall asleep with these on" and that to me sums up the HD650 perfectly.... It's kinda boring. I could fall asleep listening through these.
The HE400/ HD650 issue.
I’ve have had a few people ask me which I prefer. The HE400 on the surface has a little more low end rumble but its acoustic chops max out well short of the Sennheiser’s limit. That additional 260 Ohms of professional tuned impedance allows the 650 to fill out much fuller, more powerfully and more linearly when the volume pot starts rolling clockwise. This is where the 650 can start gaining back some ground.
At lower listening levels the HE400 is a far better choice. It gives you a tad more flesh to sink your teeth into. A bit more punch in the low end and a livewire mid range that’s tipped up just enough to make rock music sound amazing. But as we travel up the volume ladder the Sennheiser becomes more stable and stout in its presentation, everything fills in evenly. The lows get stronger as the mids get sweeter and highs get more…. high. The HE400 although good to a point, begins to get crispy and its budget level planar membrane starts to show. I could live with either, but if I could only have one, it’d probably be the 650. However if I had less current available in my amp and was working with a more budget system... I would probably lean towards the HE400.... even though it tends to get a little fuzzy and distorted when it is under powered. It's basic presentation with a modest amp is a little more enjoyable.
Johnny Come Lately – The X1 P
Phillips open back X1 is priced a hundred short of the 650. But there are obvious similarities. Open back design, midrange price point. But one would assume that its beautiful aluminum cups, velvet ear pads, and leather headband come at a sonic price.
The X1 is a gorgeous looking headphone. I dare say I prefer the look of it and feel of it over all my others. The only one that I’d chalk up as near even would be the Denon D5k. With wood, pleather, magnesium and aluminum, the Denon is another headphone that has a luxurious look and feel to it, but the X1 is simply gorgeous. People like to contrast it against the Sennheiser Momentum…. No, the Momentum doesn’t hold a candle.
The 650 is the technically superior headphone. For the same reasons the HE400 couldn’t hang, the X1 can’t either… It doesn’t have that same ultimate authority that the Sennheiser has when current starts flowing from the amp. But the X1 has a more impactful and bass head friendly tone. It is rich and creamy and fun. Its bass slams harder, it's musical vibe is just funner. It can also get a little crispy and sibilant in the upper register when volumes start creeping up whereas the 650 stays tight and smooth. The Sennheiser is still the “better” headphone. But for a music lover like me I am not sure how important that is. Lately the X1 has been getting a ton of head time and that speaks to its engaging tone. It gives me that 'felt as well as heard' sound that I crave.
VS. My Favorites
Against both of my closed back favorites, the Sennheiser once again has a very natural tone, very sweet mid range, and a nice open soundstage but the Denon D5k and JVC DX700 are simply more dynamic more emotionally engaging, and just plain more musical. The punch is there with both, but the JVC DX700 ups the ante by giving a sound stage worthy of an open back phone and providing not quite as linear but still fairly linear sound as things get louder and louder. I would choose the Denon and the JVC DX700 over the 650 every time. It simply doesn't give you as much of the song as they do. It is truncated in its presentation it sounds thin and lifeless compared to the two Japanese headphones. They are just too well rounded, dynamic and potent for the 650 (IMHO).
The D5k will get crispy and hot long before the HD650 does, but this only comes at volume levels well north of normal listening (even for young folk). Up until the point where the Denon gets speed wobbles it is, in my mind, a superior closed back design to the HD650's open back. At least from a music lover's perspective..... from a technical guy's perspective, yeah the 650 probably has it.... but I play music through my headphones, so the Denon would be the one I'd grab off a sinking boat.
WRAP IT UP!
In closing the Sennheiser is by most normal youthful standards a little light in the ass. Some would call that a veil or laid back but it’s not laid back to me… That denotes a mellow, relaxing sound.
To me it is a bit boring. It has all the info, all the texture, sound, detail, sweetness, etc…. But it is lacking in emotional engagement. There is plenty of music, but you are held back just a bit too far from the heart of the song to truly enjoy it. I dare say at the risk of being alienated even further from your average armchair audiophile, that the hype may be a bit overblown….. at the very least it does not line up very well with my taste. I personally prefer listening these day through the X1 if I want the open back sound.
Mind you I didn't write this review to deride anyone who loves the HD650.... and I hope those of you that are fans of it, that you continue to enjoy it. I didn't not mean the review as an insult or attack of those who enjoy it, but I do think there are a lot of normal people running around this site looking for answers, not wanting to spend their hard earned cash poorly.... and most people use this site to inform their future purchases and some use to it make them.... because of some of the descriptive words I have heard people use, I think someone could get the wrong idea about the sound of the 650... when people call it dark, warm and full bodied.... I don't know that these words do the phones tone justice. At least not without building your entire system around the HD650. Contrasted against the greater landscape it is a bit light and lacking in body. Someone needs to say that.
So I hope I do not get flamed but I think that someone out there deserves to get a little objectivity on this headphone rather than just more gushing about "greatest ever". No I am not a Beyer or AKG fan boy going subterfuge.. I am just an average consumer with average taste and listening habits trying to give others like me some reasonable perspective.
I think the one thing that tells the story with the HD650 for me was that after I listened to it over and over and over.... I am always left wanting more than it gives... If it had just a little more body, a little more punch, a little more..... a little more.