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REVIEW: Sennheiser HD650/AKG K701/Beyerdynamic DT 990 '05

post #1 of 35
Thread Starter 
This is my review of the above-mentioned three models of headphones. Over the last few weeks, I was fortunate enough to get my hands on all three pairs which, after reading reams of threads and reviews here and elsewhere, I decided were the probable best candidates as a place for me to start given their popularity and price points. I would like to say before anyone gets too disappointed, though, that the purpose of this review is to try to give people the benefit of some of the things I have learned over the last few weeks in auditioning and choosing a pair of headphones, not necessarily to tell you what these headphones sound like, or which of them I prefer (although I do do that).

The other thing I want to say before anyone gets too disappointed is that while I have almost three full pages of notes, front and back, of my listening experiences in connection with all three of these models of headphones, in which notes I detail certain characteristics of each can on "x" song, I am paring that down for a number of reasons. For one, there's the interest of brevity -- this review is already too long!; two, I now believe none of those particular individualized impressions on songs matters a great deal because you gotta hear the headphones for yourself in your system (see rule/law 3 immediately below); finally, I think a lot of reviews say a whole lot without actually being useful...if you are looking for long-winded ruminations on things like "sibilance," "attack" "decay" and "air" this review is probably not for you. Moving on...

First, the laws.

By laws I mean the rules of audio specifically as they apply to headphones. (BTW, I made all these up, so they aren't really laws.) I am new to the realm of headphones, but I have been a 2 ch./HT audio enthusiast for many years. It was shocking to me to learn when I first decided to go headphone just how different these two aspects of high-end audio really are. They are different. Way different. To me, the biggest and most striking difference in 2 channel audio reproduction with speakers versus cans concerns the fact that the sound reproduced by individual channels in headphones is fed directly into only one ear at a time. Through headphones the sound that is designated to the right channel is never heard by the left ear before it hits your brain, and as such, the sound of one channel never "mixes" with the sound of the other channel before "going in" which completely destroys the imaging of a lot of music. This is a big difference and IMO a big disadvantage in cans versus speakers. And depending on the mix of particular pieces of music, it may even make what you are listening to undigestable.

Second, whereas a good 2 channel rig can, under certain conditions, throw off such a good soundstage, give off such great imagery, and deliver such a big sound that it can maybe if you close your eyes fool you into thinking that you are listening to live music (ok, maybe not...but you get the idea, sometimes they can come close); headphones simply do not and cannot create sound that makes you think you are listening to live music. The reason for that I think is simple physics. The drivers in these things simply can't reproduce that room-filling bass drum thump that you feel in your chest, or the full satisfying sound of big cymbal crash. It just isn't possible. This is another big difference and another limitation of headphones. Good cans, IMO, will recognize these limitations and mitigate against them to the maximum extent possible.

Finally, one other thing I learned, which I think is more important an insight then the other two basic truths I mention, is that there is no way, ever, under any circumstance, that you can read about what these things sound like in reviews and in these forums and expect to have any good idea of what they sound like without actually hearing them for yourself. It just isn't possible. You may get some generalities down, like "bright" or "warm" or "bass monsters" or "irritating highs" or whatever, but as for truly knowing what they sound like, you are just going to have to try them for yourself to really understand. Each can has its own individual sound characteristic and worse, (very much unlike my experience with speakers), the sound of headphones is inextricably tied to the sound of your rig. Put another way, you can go to a speaker showroom and audition speakers and, for the most part, as long as you keep the gear driving them in the same general family, the speakers will sound roughly the same when you get them home. After switching my sources around, I am not sure that's true of headphones. They seem to me to be a lot more sensitive to changes in sources than speakers are. Bottom line, you have to hear what these things sound like for yourself if you want to know.

Speaking of sources.

My rig is listed in my sig. Since I don't know how long my rig is going to be my rig and this review may outlive my rig, here it is in its current configuration:

Dell 4600 dimension w/ EMU1212m audio card (I love this card's sound; the drivers are awful)
Canare digiflex gold I coaxial digital cable (giant killer digital link)
Art DI/O Bolder Mensa level DAC (this DAC smokes the digital output of the EMU 1212m)
XLO pro 100 IC's (I know, will be upgraded shortly)
Marantz 1060 amp (SS, but renowned for giving it up sweet and warm decades at a time)

The vast majority of my music is 256vbr AAC, but I got some FLAC's too! I listen to a wide range of music: all genres of rock, from classic to indie to punk (of course), to glam to garage to metal to you name it; I also listen to folk, techno, house, trance, jazz, blues, country, bluegrass, funk, some hip hop (not much) and pretty much anything else you can think of...except I don't have much classical...I think I'd be into it if I knew anything about it, but to be honest, I find the subject of classical music to be completely overwhelming. Anyway...

Beyerdynamic DT 990 '05's

At the outset here, I want to say thank you to member hifinthen for his gracious above-and-beyond accommodation of me with respect to these headphones. I am very grateful for what you did in offering to take them back when you learned that I was less than pleased and you deserve public recognition for it. As I have alluded to already, I will say up front that my audio equipment and I did not get along well with these things. I tried to like them. I tried hard for three or four days. In fact, from my reading in the forums and reviews elsewhere I had decided before I purchased them that these cans were going to be look-no-further "it" for me. But they weren't. They were close, but I had issues.

In general, I found the bass in the beyers to be good and full, perhaps at times, though, a touch on the too-much-of-a-good thing side. There were even a few times where I though to myself, "no way there is that much bass in this song!" -- the beginning of Massive Attack's Angel being one such example. The highs on the Beyer's were ok, as well; I found them to be clean, clear and articulate without ever once being annoying, although my notes do reflect some bad smilies and a question mark in connection with some symbol crashes. The Beyer's could use some help there. Finally, as a general matter, the Beyer's reproduced the widest range of sound of all the cans I tried out. The bass was by far the deepest, and, I don't know, they just give the impression that they are serving up more of the sound spectrum than the others I tried.

Where the Beyer's failed, IMO, was in two key areas. And before I say this, I want to say first, this is all MY OPINION and limited to MY EXPERIENCE on MY SYSTEM -- I am not blaming the cans! I like the cans! I am glad you enjoy the cans! They just didn't work for me. Two areas. One, the mids on the Beyers were below par, IMO. I am very big on subtlety in music -- the clever little things that musicians do in the background that puts layers and depth into the music...like some goofy and weird barely-audible sample that Beck adds to the way way back of one of his tracks that sounds like a animal's squeeky toy, or the way Lemmy bends his bass note just that little bit in some Motorhead song or comes in at a different note angle over two blaring guitars, or it could even be something simpler like Geddy Lee doing something on the foot organ when Alex Lifeson is off doing a 2 minute guitar solo...the beyer's didn't do that mid extra layer thing very well. I don't know whether it was that they were devoting so much of their driver energy to churning out the bass and they didn't have anything left for the subtlety of extra layers in the mids or what the deal was, but for me, I rate the mids as poor. When pressed they just lose all focus and just start to run everything together. True, they were a whole lot better at being well-rounded and keeping the mids together when all you asked of them was something like Ricky Skaggs or M. Ward -- pickin' strings music -- but it seemed to me like when it was time for the bass to come out on anything heavier, it was always at the expense of everything else. Completely.

The other problem I had with the beyers was that they bottomed out when listening to music at levels far below what I thought was a level where they should have been bottoming out. Not just on Judas Priest, mind you, on everything. And just to be clear, the issue for me was not necessarily that they bottomed out...all headphones bottom out when overdriven; rather, the issue was that when they did bottom out, it happened at regular, albeit loud, listening levels, and when they did, they made a very loud and distracting "ka-chunk" sound. I understand from a couple of posts in the forums on this subject that not many people have experienced this and that it might be more a function of my system. Possible. All I can say is I doubt it. Particularly after not experiencing anything similar with three other sets of quality headphones. Concrete Blonde's Joey from Bloodletting and Beck's Sexx Laws from Midnight Vultures are two examples of songs that would get me a "ka chunk" every time. I can almost understand the latter, but the former is primarily acoustic guitar and female vocals?!?? Crazy.

In the end, Their slight overemphasis of bass and lack of cognizant mids left me wanting to look elsewhere. I decided that I couldn't be happy with these headphones and hifinthen was extremely gracious in offering to take them back and return my money for them.

Sennheiser HD 650's

Here I need to publicly thank head-fi member minimauled who was kind enough to lend me his extra pair of HD 650's for an audition. I pm'ed him frustrated with my headphone situation on the day I sent the Beyers back to hifinthen and he straight up offered to send them to me without me asking, sent them to me that same day, and even refused to accept payment for the shipping! That was two weeks ago...I just sent them back today. Minimauled is the man.

The cans: my first initial impression after listening to the beyers was, "who threw on the brakes? -- dayyumm theese thaangs are sloowwww!!1" My impression after listening for two weeks was largely unchanged. Ok, we get it, Sennheiser you can be the one to win the award for pumping the most mushrooms into people's ear canals. Generally, I found the Senns to be very warm, skewed towards the lower end to mids of the sound spectrum, and anytime they were required to venture up into the higher frequencies, the impression was that it was against their personal preference; it was almost like they'd give up the high notes only because that's what they had to do to call themselves full range headphones, but then they'd return back down to where they were most comfortable, asap. As far as my impression of the mids and highs, I found the the sound to be clear, but there is no *pop* to it; they have accuracy, but little in the way of *sparkle.* And sure, the mids are there, and even the layers that I find to be so precious, but I just kept wanting to say "big deal," you know?

The veil. It's not necessarily a "veil," although that is an apt and fair description; instead, it is more that the sonic signature is so reserved, warm, dark, and caramel-like, that one perceives that a milky haze is draped over the entire sound spectrum. And something that I've given thought to, but am no closer to resolving now then when I first started thinking about it is that I don't know whether it's the lack of highs that leads to the overall impression of veil, or whether it's that the veil suppresses the highs...bottom line is that they are warm and they just don't have it up top in a way that suits my preference. The image I have of them in my brain is slow, maybe heroin-induced jazz, filling a dark, smoke-filled jazz club late, late at night.

On the other hand, the bass to low mids on these things is incredible. I never thought of it as being too much, or that it drowned out the other frequency sections as I did with the Beyer's. Instead, it always seemed just right. There was always plenty of it, it went way down low, and it was my kind of bass, too. Tight, well-defined, and punchy. I don't know. I can see why people like these headphones as much as they say they do, and I would probably be happy with them if I didn't know what other headphones sound like, but in the end I decided that I just couldn't be happy with these headphones because of their warm coloration and lack of snap. I never did get these to bottom out.

AKG K701's

I've got about 70 hours on these headphones so far, so they are still breaking in, but from what I have been able to hear so far, these headphones are more to my tastes than the other two headphones discussed above. If the 650's are a smoke-filled jazz club, these things are a gleaming white, minty fresh smile in cool mountain air. That isn't to say that they are perfect.

Where the AKG's really excel in their midrange to upper frequencies which, to my ear, is the foundation of presenting good imagery. It is jaw-dropping-ly good. The accuracy and detail is unrivaled by anything else I have ever heard -- speakers, cans, car stereos included. Little things that you are not sure you have ever heard before like some little string buzzing against the fret board on a fading note in a Willie Nelson song will come through just as load and clear as day with these things. Amazing. Breath on mics during pauses, same thing. Another example I heard was with a snare drum....you know how the wires will sometimes load up and start rattling when someone lets a bass note hang? It's a background noise that you probably never hear...clear as day. And there seems to be no end to the depth of the layers of the mids -- all of which is reproduced with a precision and accuracy that, again, is hard to fathom. These things never lose it. And female vocals on the K701's are simply magical. The mids and vocals have sparkle and snap, and I find the overall sound reproduction, on balance, to be more neutral and proportioned than either of the rivals discussed above. For me, they seem to do the best job of presenting a balanced, natural sound and in dealing with the imagery problem that IMO is the biggest problem with headphones. Imagery. That's what they do right.

On a side note, the bad side to all of this revealing detail, of course, is that it cuts both ways; if you have crappy source material, there is no hiding it. The fact that they are as revealing as they are will definitely give you a headache if your source material sucks. More than once I have turned off whatever I was listening to thinking, "wow, no way I can deal with that with headphones; that sounds horrible." But it's not just that you are listening to it on headphones; it's that you are listening to it through K701's. If you have music files with a lot of compression artifacts, you may begin to view these cans as the enemy.

The high highs for me on the K701's are ok, nothing crazy or too outstanding, but my philosophy regarding super high frequencies in music is the same as that for riding on airplanes...nothing to report at the end of the trip is a good trip. The same is basically true of high frequency reproduction in music. Nothing obnoxious happened; my ears never caught fire and everything seemed good. That's the high highs on the K701's. There is full extension, they are not annoying, good job, next.

Where I wish the K701's were a little better is down low. The bass for me in the cans simply falls short. I like it; it's got definition and punch, but there simply isn't enough of it, IMO. They don't have the reach of the the HD650's and especially not the Beyer's. That bottomless bass at the beginning of Angel that goes to basement level 3 and that will tickle your ears when played through the Beyers up and quits at what seems like the ground floor on the AKG's. If the lower frequencies presented in the K701's could somehow be promoted or elevated just that little bit, I think the K701's would be look-no-further perfect for me. I know, hard to please, but there it is. Again, I found them to be, on the whole, the most neutral, balanced, natural and the least colored of the lot, but they just lack that last little bit of oomph, that little bit of punch that would make them perfect. I stated in another thread that I wish you could combine the middle to highs of the K701's with the killer treatment of the down low stuff of the HD 650's. What a wonderful can that would be! As they are, I can positively say that I like these the least worst among the ones I have tried so far, and that they are so close to good enough that I don't think I will be giving up on them any time soon. My plan is to try a recable and see if that doesn't help with the punch, maybe try a new amp....and if that doesn't work, AT here I come!

Again, thanks to hifinthen and minimauled for being such good sports and for keeping me real. Each is a credit to head-fi and the hifi community in their own right.
post #2 of 35
I am curious what you will say about SA5000 ..........
post #3 of 35
Wow coulda used this guide a week ago when I was looking for my first hifi pair of cans. Ended up going with the HD650's. I'm more than happy w/ my purchase!
post #4 of 35
Great summary - really helpful.

I'm also frustrated by the inherent lack of natural crossfeed in headphones vs. speakers which makes some albums downright annoying. I'm itching to try some amps with crossfeed although I'll start with the cheaper foobar2000 plugin and see how much that helps.
post #5 of 35

cans review

Good job jtizzle! If what you say is true, then my choice of the K701's based entirely on head-fi posts puts to bed any reservations. I had considered Grado 325i's also, but heard that some find these fatiguing after long periods. As you can see from my logo, I am firmly in the K701 camp. Someday I will want to try the HD650's, and the upper-end Grados just to know. Some users rave about the Grado mids for Rock. I am a techie, so part of my listening fun centers on building headphone amps. I almost forgot, Elephas reminds me with his post below, that I considered the Audio-Technica W5000's based on their wooden cups(resonance) and frequency response.

thanx again for the review!

lossless>tascam cdgt1>headbanger-deluxe>K701
post #6 of 35
I agree with your descriptions of each headphone. Of the three, I prefer the DT990-'05 the least (and don't own it), and prefer the the K701 the most.

I also like the HD650's warm and smooth sound. I agree with your description of the "veil" and the lack of treble and upper-midrange sparkle. They do improve with amplification and a cable change, but its basic nature remains the same. For reference, I use the HD650 with single-ended RnB G52 cable with the RSA Raptor or Lehmann Black Cube Linear, and with a Zu Mobius XLR directly from the Lavry DA10's XLR outputs.

I agree the K701's midrange and treble details and resolution are very good. To me, the K701 is the most "neutral-sounding" headphone I've heard. It can sometimes seem a bit bland and lack some flavor and excitement.

If you like female vocals and treble and upper-midrange accuracy and details, you might also consider the AD2000 and W5000. Both can't match the K701's large soundstage, though the W5000 comes close with a well-matched amp, a good source and upgraded cables. Both have excellent imaging and air (W5000 better imaging, AD2000 better air). And both have more bass quantity and better bass quality than the K701.
post #7 of 35
If you find the HD650 "slow" then you must be pretty much the neurotic type. jk

Btw, for curiosity, did you know that the HD650 is the "Best Headphones over £200" in HiFi Choice's awards 2006, and as they say "there's nothing to touch its deftly judged mix of skills at the price".
post #8 of 35
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by Moloko View Post
If you find the HD650 "slow" then you must be pretty much the neurotic type. jk

Btw, for curiosity, did you know that the HD650 is the "Best Headphones over £200" in HiFi Choice's awards 2006, and as they say "there's nothing to touch its deftly judged mix of skills at the price".
That doesn't surprise me at all. According to the rating system over at headroom, the sun rises and sets on these headphones. And I can certainly see it. They are great headphones. But knowing what I like, and especially when compared to other headphones, I could never be happy with them. Their coloration just doesn't suit my personal listening preferences. Which is why I say above several times, what someone else thinks of a particular set of cans is almost irrelevant; you have to try them for yourself in your system.

Glad you all enjoyed the review.
post #9 of 35
wow fantastic review, my thoughts on the K701 mirror yours except the bass no longer lacks with my canamp (sorry just had to throw that one in there)

I originally would have suggested the DT880s but if the K701's bass doesn't satisfy then I doubt the DT880's bass would either.

Good luck in your journey! ATs could definitely be what you're looking for... or electrostatics =)
post #10 of 35
Originally Posted by jtizzle View Post
That doesn't surprise me at all. According to the rating system over at headroom, the sun rises and sets on these headphones. And I can certainly see it. They are great headphones. But knowing what I like, and especially when compared to other headphones, I could never be happy with them. Their coloration just doesn't suit my personal listening preferences. Which is why I say above several times, what someone else thinks of a particular set of cans is almost irrelevant; you have to try them for yourself in your system.

Glad you all enjoyed the review.
I especially agree with your last statement. Things is, all these headphones are equally coloured but in dramatically different ways. The key is being free to chose what coloration is more 'sympathetic' with your taste 'n music.

On a funny note, personally I don't find the HD650 coloured at all, at least not macroscopically (it sounds quite akin to my former British monitor bookshelves by AE, Harbeth, Epos...). Microscopically, maybe.
post #11 of 35
My compliments Chris, on a well laid out detailed narration of your experience with these high resolution headphones in your system. We can all agree that audition is the only way to know how each of these phones idiosyncrasys will respond with our other components and their idiosyncrasys, as well as our own tastes and material application.

From ownership of the three I can agree, the 990s are the most sensitive to downstream gear changes getting them to sound excellent; As well as being a can that does prefer to be played at lower listening levels than 89dbs. however, my problem with how they did sound in my previous system was their upper mids and treble brightness. No longer an issue with my NOS DAC upgrade, although they are still brighter than my RS-2s for instance.

Whereas on the other end of the spectrum , I too found the 650s as you described them unfortunatly. Again, that was two systems ago upon the entry of the k701s, which just simply does so much very right and only gets better with each successive improvement in my system; Here it shall always be the go to phone for its neutral , smooth and detailed revelation of the material choosen. That DAC upgrade made a substantial contrubution to their qualitative and quantitative bass response as well as further detailing their treble presentation with realistic cymbal brushes or crashes...

Thanks for your review adding to the knowledge base of how very tempermental headphones can be to the systems we place them into and how that is the deciding factor effecting our better choices. If one phone doesn't ring that bell, there are a great many to choose from. And of course, for many that trial leads to the HD-650 as well~

We must keep in mind these are high resolution headphones and that if compared to the high end high resolution speakers (think $5000) then the downstream gears then too play a critical role in in their presentation .

Thanks for your well presented views Chris and kind note of personal regards.
post #12 of 35
Nice review - thanks for taking the time!

post #13 of 35
Thank you. I'm refusing to buy something now %)
post #14 of 35
From what I read of the K701's, after 300+ hours of break-in the bass issue resolves itself nicely and the midrange enjoys further goodness. Still waiting patiently for mine to show up!
post #15 of 35
Very nice read! However, I disagree with one or two things:

Originally Posted by jtizzle
Finally, one other thing I learned, which I think is more important an insight then the other two basic truths I mention, is that there is no way, ever, under any circumstance, that you can read about what these things sound like in reviews and in these forums and expect to have any idea what they sound like without actually hearing them for yourself.
To say you won't have any idea what a headphone will sound like before hearing it yourself is a bit extreme. From what I've personally experienced, Sony has a sort of Sony sound, Koss has it's Koss sound, etc. By listening to various headphones and using them as reference points to define other pairs of headphones I feel we can get a good idea of what we can expect to hear. Of course these won't be definitive impressions that we can take for our own because we all have different preferences. That said, we can still look at a mere frequency response graph and sort of tell what's going on. Heck, even your three descriptions of these headphones seem to agree with MANY other people's opinions. After a certain amount of people find the same truth in anything, doesn't it become a relative fact? HD650's don't have the midrange of a K701, period, so don't expect to find it in them.

Granted, simply comparing headphone's with headphones is a bit ignorant as well because, as you said, there's many more variables to take into consideration such as source, amp, cables, etc.

I have to reiterate, however, it was a very nice read; extremely insightful. How long were you into speakers before moving on to headphones? I ask because you seem very well articulated, in an audio sense. (Far better than I at least ) I came in here thinking I was going to read some newb telling me what headphones sound like with a long rant about how burn in is the second coming of Christ Himself. Breath of fresh air.
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