Sennheiser HD650 Review
Well, those that read my Sony MDR-SA5000 will note that I was a little disappointed in the SA5000’s small headstage and lack of resolution. I started doing some research on a headphone that could compliment them, something that would just let the music wash over me when I’m in the mood for that. Something that had a warmer, smoother midrange and a little more cohesion between musical passages, The HD650s were a major consideration alongside the Allesandro Grado Music Series Pro. When a fellow Headfier recently put up an ad seeking to trade his HD650s for the Sony MDR-SA5000s, I made an offer for us to cross audition headphones, to which he accepted. While I had these headphones, I figured I’d offer my sonic impressions of them as well as personal feelings on these highly controversial headphones.
First things I should mention…I listened to the HD650s exclusively with the foams that cover the drivers off, and thus all following impressions are with the foams off. The foams make a huge audible difference, so if you hear something different and have foams on, that alone can already account for differences, much less system differences. Also this is on the stock HD650 cable. Burn in time I would approximate at 200-300 hours.
Very smooth, laid back, with leading edges slightly softened, but none of this is at the expense of overall treble clarity. Cymbals never quite achieve a crisp, brassy sound, but nonetheless sound very airy and detailed. Extension and decay is excellent, and I can hear cymbals trail away to their extremities…there was never a sense that anything ever sounded truncated or missing. It is overall a very relaxing treble, never sounding forced, and practically never fatiguing.
Lower Treble/Upper Midrange
With the Sennheiser HD650s, I believe it’s important to make a mention of this tonal region, as one common trait of the HD650s that is often repeated is that they sound dark. The big problem though is that most people also commonly (and wrongly, IMO) attribute this trait specifically to the HD650’s entire treble presentation in general, which actually confused me at first as I listened to the HD650s.
Yes, I would consider the HD650s to have a dark overtone to them…it’s probably one of the most immediately noticeable things about the HD650s. Nonetheless, despite having this dark overtone, I found the extreme upper treble response to be simply excellent, with a high level of clarity. Never once did I feel something sounded muted or hidden away in the upper end of the treble region. Softened at the edges, yes, a bit laid back, yes, but definitely not dark. To make a headphone comparison, some ‘phones that I would consider to have a dark upper treble response would be some of Koss’ offerings, such as The Plugs, or the Sporta/Portapro. If the upper treble were “dark”, most likely everything playing up there would sound heavily dulled down and totally lacking clarity, which is not the case for me. So then, what exactly is responsible for this dark overtone the HD650s possess?
I believe that ultimately it’s the lower treble/upper midrange area, or rather a lack of it, that’s responsible for the darkened overtone the HD650s have. In a way, it makes sense in relation to the HD650s overall design. You don’t need a really long listen to come to the conclusion that the HD650s are tailored towards a more relaxed presentation rather than something that’s brilliantly bold and upfront. This is a headphone designed more towards long term listening sessions rather than something that quickly grabs your attention.
To that end, I believe that Sennheiser deliberately softened up the lower treble/upper midrange area in an effort to reduce any form of brightness or glare. Most of the headphones that are toted as being “bright” to the point of fatigue are all a little boosted in this very area. Most of the Grados and the Beyerdynamic DT-831/931 would be good examples of this. Usually it’s not the extreme upper treble detail that’s fatiguing, but rather the lower treble/upper midrange that ends up delivering the impact of any brightness or glare. By softening up this area, the HD650s become tremendously easy to listen to long term. The cost of this however is that if you prefer to have details be vividly presented, it’s going to feel as if something’s just missing, or just not right. Think of it as having an object placed in a dimly lit room, and you have just enough light to make out the object entirely. The HD650s present things just as they are in the dimly lit room, while a “brighter” headphone acts like an additional floodlight being turned on the object in the room.
Very impeccably smooth, with great cohesion. It doesn’t quite have the see through, dry, naked clarity of headphones like Grado SR60 – SR325, the AKG K501, or the Sony MDR-SA5000, but neither does it have a deliberately heavy, colored warmth like the Grado RS-1. The midrange certainly isn’t as euphonically musical as some wooden headphones tend to be…it has a smoothness and flatness to it that still speaks of a slightly “electronic” sound. Some have categorized Sennheisers as being warm, but I feel it’s a rather flat sounding midrange that happens to sound very smooth and lush. The smoothness may lead one to think it’s deliberately warm, but I don’t find that to be the case. I find the midrange also to be quite clear sounding, although removing the foams helps to that end considerably. With the foams in place, the midrange sounded a little muffled and more warm. Instrument detailing in this area is excellent, and while it is easy to separate out instruments, they never, ever feel completely separated apart from the entire musical performance.
A lot of people have said the midrange is laid back, whereby everything sounds as if it were placed further away from you than, say, Grados, making this sound like a permanent trait of the HD650s. Interestingly enough, I’ve found this phenomenon is more recording dependent than it being a trait of the headphone itself. There are some recordings where the voices/instruments emanate very close to me and just leap out at me, making the midrange very forward and practically in between my ears, or right on top of my nose. Other times I’ve found a voice or instruments to sound a little further way, to the point where I could envision it playing a good few inches away from me, and in such cases, the midrange is a little more laid back.
If you’re the type of listener that likes visceral bass, the HD650s would not disappoint. They have tremendous upper bass impact, literally eye blinking impact at higher volume levels. You can really feel those bass notes hit, and hit hard. To me this bass trait is both a strength and weakness, so first let me highlight it as a weakness.
I think of this upper bass region as the HD650’s bass sweet spot. I notice that while I can clearly hear and feel the upper bass notes, I don’t really hear or feel lower bass notes. And I believe the simple reason for this is that the upper bass notes are tonally too “loud” in the frequency spectrum, which overwhelms the delicacy of deeper bass notes.
As an example, on certain tracks that have low piano notes playing throughout, the notes play throughout this “loud” upper bass region…and the end result is I hear a lot of upper bass decay bleeding into everything else playing. This goes for drums as well. This upper bass note “loudness” unfortunately destroys a lot of the low level bass details. I don’t hear bass notes cleanly extending or decaying away to their limits. They might be there for all I know, but it’s just drowned out by the upper bass notes.
Now, on a more positive note, having a heavy upper bass impact imparts a certain deep foundation to instrumental music that makes everything come through with a certain energetic power that headphones with weaker bass impacts can’t match. It really lends a bit of that live performance impact to the overall presentation. While the upper bass notes do have great impact and sounds “loud”, it remains tight and tuneful, never once sounding flabby. You can clearly delineate bass notes when they appear in that bass sweet spot…but anything lower gets a bit difficult to hear or delineate.
First on the HD650’s headstage. It’s good, but definitely not great. It has one big flaw that I’ve always felt was present in Sennheiser’s HD580/6X0…that is, a rather pronounced “three blobs in the head” effect. Let me explain a bit further.
Say the area directly in front of your nose is north, and the areas immediately to the sides of your ears were east and west. With the HD650s, I can clearly hear localize imaging taking place immediately to east and west, and also directly north…but there’s almost a complete lack of imaging to the northwest and northeast. The end result is that the headstage feels “incomplete”, and it doesn’t quite wrap around in front of your head entirely. This is normally the very thing that crossfeed is supposed to resolve, and yet even with both levels of crossfeed engaged on my PPA, the effect is still pronounced. So, to me, this is a bit of a flaw in the HD650’s headstage.
Those missing “parts” of the headstage aside, the size of the headstage is very good. It’s a good sized headstage, not unnaturally wide, but giving a nearly perfect amount of distance between you and the presentation. This distance remains fairly consistent from recording to recording, and it is one that remains a little distant at all times. Imaging is also excellent at the extreme sides and directly in front of you, absolutely no problems localizing instruments and cues in these areas of the headstage.
Both the soundstage and resolution (cohesion between musical passages) are excellent. The “dark” overtone that the HD650 has gives the HD650s a very warm, enveloping soundstage that draws you right into the music. The high degree of resolution helps ensure that the musical presentation never feels splintered, helping to keep things together no matter how busy the presentation may get, and yet I never felt that things ever felt confused or blurred either. These two traits help make the HD650s wonderful for long term listening…this is one of those headphones where a lot of the time, I simply stopped analyzing them and just let the music flow. Pace, rhythm, and timing are simply wonderful. The HD650s just become more and more engaging the longer I listened to them in a listening session, which in turn led me to do the whole “just one more song” thing well into the wee early morning hours.
Veil or No Veil?
The million dollar question by far when it comes to Sennheisers. Well, for me, there’s no veil. Thing is, there was definitely a veil when I first listened to them. After about a day, I went ahead and removed the foam over the drivers, and from that point on, I never once felt there was a veil of any sort over the music.
Incidentally the very definition of what this veil is tends to differ from listener to listener. For me, a veil would be a deliberate obscuring or hiding of some part of the music. In my case, after removing the foams, I never once felt like I was missing anything from the music. The HD650s have a very high level of transparency and clarity pretty much throughout the tonal frequency spectrum, with perhaps the exception of the upper midrange/lower treble area. There is a slight softness at times to certain edges, such as cymbals, or some things may feel laid back at times, but this does not equate to a veil. And this perhaps is what some listeners are confusing to be a veil, when these things are more of a presentation issue.
Final Notes and Conclusion
There’s no doubting that the Sennheiser HD650s are very good headphones. I think they’re rather deceiving because their inherent traits are not traits that stand out and grab your attention immediately, unlike a lot of other headphones on the market. As audiophiles, a lot of us tend to prefer somewhat more “hi fi” traits, admittedly, even me. Things such as details, clarity, separation, huge soundstages, tight, deep bass…we want something that can leap out and capture our attention immediately, something that’s immediately different that can convince us that those couple hundred dollars we just spent on a headphone was well spent. In a world like this, the unassuming, laid back, smooth HD650s would indeed seem dull and boring. So why are they nonetheless so popular?
For some, it’s because they simply like a laid back, smooth presentation…the “Sennheiser house sound”. For some, it’s because they can scale to tremendously great heights with better and better equipment, turning them from merely very good headphones into true world class headphones (I personally haven’t come into contact with the associated gear needed for this transformation however). For some…it’s just the simply well established name that Sennheiser is among the audiophile headphone community.
Personally, by far and large the greatest impression that the HD650s have made on me is that they truly exemplify a dynamic headphone to my ears. If you will pardon the usage of what may be a bit of a stereotyped comment…the HD650s to me come the closest to sounding like a pair of speakers, only turned into headphones. The silky, extended highs, smooth, lush midrange and most importantly, the thunderous bass foundation just make these headphones truly energetic and sing like a pair of good speakers. At the end of a listening session, when I finally take off the HD650s, and just close my eyes and reflect on what I just listened to for a moment…it just doesn’t quite feel like I just listened to a mere headphone. It feels more like I just finished listening to something much bigger than that. The HD650s are truly worthy of being termed “earspeakers”.
Ultimately, the HD650s are headphones that are more musically inclined than analytical. I do find that they require a bit of an adjustment on the part of the listener, but once adjusted to, they can become very engaging and relaxing to listen to, enough to make me want to forget about analyzing them most of the time. I believe they work pretty well across lots of music genres, but those looking for a more aggressive, upfront sound will probably need to look elsewhere. Overall, I find the Sennheiser HD650s completely worthy of their popularity…I may very well end up owning a pair myself eventually.
Arcam FMJ CD23T CD Player
JMT Audio Maxed Out PPA Special Edition headphone amplifier
Zcable Live V5 interconnects
(2) Zu Mother power cables, 1 on CD player, 1 on amp.
Monster Power HTS-2000, (4) Audioprism Quietlines