DT880 comparison with HD800 and SR-009
I will try to be concise because the difference between the three headphones is night and day. I hope this will let those who are hoping to upgrade from a mid-fi rig to a hi-fi one to put things in context.
The DT880s have a couple of hours on them but I've listened to a burnt-in pair at the shop for a couple of hours. I doubt that burn-in will make this much closer to the SR-009 or the HD800 though. The HD800 and SR-009 are fully burnt in and I have lived with them for months.
I have not had a chance to run the DT800 via the Woo WA5. I do not intend to do so. Besides, I do not think the comparison will be helpful to those hoping to build a mid-fi rig based on the DT880. If you have a top-end amp you should be driving top-end phones.
Tonal balance - All three headphones are extremely neutral sounding with a slight emphasis on treble (see below). For those who enjoy a more balanced tonality at the expense of some musicality would enjoy these cans. That said, for all three headphones it seems that the musicality can be added upstream (with tubes, tubes and more tubes).
Treble emphasis - The most striking sonic attribute of the DT880 is the treble sparkle in a way that gives a bit of tactile impact, much like the HE-6. This is present in the HD800 and SR009 but less emphasized because they are overall more all-rounded than the DT880 so there are other attributes that "jump" at you when you listen to them.
Soundstage - SR009 on my Woo WA5 (which is not the best pairing) is about 20% wider than the DT880 and the HD800 is 50%. Soundstage is really not too bad on the DT880.
Imaging - SR009 has by far the most precise imaging. You can identify each voice and instrument within the soundstage with great accuracy. This is to be followed by HD800, and far far behind, the DT880. Imaging on the DT880 sounds fuzzy. If SR009 is attending a concert when you are wide awake and sober, DT880 is the what the same concert sounds like after you've had a couple of pints of beer.
Transparency, detail and microdynamics - SR009 wins by a large margin, despite that I am not driving it with the best amp (the BHSE). Because of its detail, fast transients, attack and decay, it is highly transparent and makes you feel that you are "there". Voices sound like voices, instruments sound like instruments. The same can be said about the HD800 but to a lesser extent. As for the DT880, well, vocals and instruments sound like voices and instruments portrayed through a headphone. It is less transparent. It also sounds muffled in comparison.
An analogy that might be apt is one that photography hobbyists can relate to. HD800 sounds like applying a sharpening filter to a photo taken by a good lens and DSLR. SR009 sounds like it is using the best possible Leica system one can buy but without applying the sharpening filter. DT880 sounds like taking the same photo with your iPhone 5s - which is completely serviceable but not really there yet. For the sake of completeness, the HD600 sounds like taking the same photo with a iPhone 3.
Musicality - Given the transparency of the SR009, given my rather analogy sounding setup, my SR009 rig gives me lots of goosebumps and shivers down my spine. It can sound utterly musical and moving when the music calls for it. HD800 can but quite rarely moves me with the music. Nor does the DT880 because it is difficult to move me when I feel that I am listening through a pair of headphones.
Bass - DT880 has decent bass with some bass extension. I think burn-in will give it better bass but still, it is lacking in bass quantity and definition when compared to the SR009. The bass of the SR009 is absolutely first-class and I prefer it to the bass of the LCD-3 as it is more controlled. While HD800 has excellent and often underrated bass, I would say not as good as the SR-009 in terms of both quantity and definition. It is enough to have me fully satisfied. I cannot say that for the bass of the DT880. It falls behind the SR009 and HD800's bass by a fair margin, but not a wide one. It better controlled and defined than the bass of the HD600 (which is bloated) and K701 (which is non-existent).
Mids - I find that the DT880 has a slightly thin sounding but nevertheless pleasing representation of the midrange of the frequency spectrum. The mids do not slide into the highs or lows as effortlessly as the SR009 and HD800. But it is still very well done. Vocals sound natural with a slight bit of grain which should not be there. HD800 renders vocals with a similar but more emphasized "edginess" compared to the DT800 and SR009 but this can be alleviated by swapping cables and tubes.
Amping - DT880 (250 ohm version) wins hands down. The Little Dot Mk IV is a good match with great synergy. It can be driven very satisfactorily by my iPhone to nearly ear-splitting levels. SR009 cannot be driven with anything but a proper electrostatic amp or a speaker amp through a Stax energiser such as the Woo WEE. The HD800 is notoriously amp-picky but with proper amp synergy it can tame the treble and have amazing bass.
Things in context
Is the SR-009 worth that much more than the DT880? I think so. It is that much better.
However, we need to put things in context:
- DT880s are driven by the Little Dot Mk IV SE with the Emu 1212m as source. It costs about $900 in total.
- HD800s are driven by the Woo Audio 5 (premium tubes) with upgraded cables (SAA Endorphin) and AMR DP-777 as source (Audiophilleo1 pp as transport). It costs 10x more than the DT800 rig.
- SR-009s are driven by the Woo Audio 5 (premium tubes) with AMR DP-777 as source (Audiophilleo1 pp as transport). It costs over 10x more than the DT800 rig.
If you can afford it, get the SR-009 rig. For ten times less the price, however, you can get a very satisfying DT880 setup that will give you much musical pleasure. Although it does not excel in many areas, it does not do much wrong and does not have distracting flaws. Speaking for myself, I could stand a lack of soundstage, a lack of detail or even an absence of transparency. These are things that cost a lot and depend on technological advances. I can live without them.
The main thing that can go wrong for anyone's ears is tonality. I cannot listen to an overly bright or overly warm pair of headphones for more than one song. It will be either too fatiguing or fail to engage me because it has obvious flaws that detract me from enjoying the music. To me, Sennheiser and AKG headphones are prone to this problem, which can be fixed but at the cost of spending all the time and money to get the system synergy right. The HD650s are too warm and have bloated bass which are distracting in that they cover the music with a veil. The HD800 when improperly amped (and sometimes even when properly amped) can render female vocals annoyingly sibilant. These may or may not be solved by tweaking with the upstream components. But it seems the DT880 is a headphone that is so well put together that you do not need to tweak around with the source and amp to get a sound that does not have many flaws that distract you from musical enjoyment. And this is what impresses me about the DT880 (so far).
Thanks! I haven't heard the Stax, but I think your impressions of the HD800 vs DT880 pretty much match my own. Do you comment on the sibilance of the HD800 because it's 5x the price of the DT880's? I find sibilance more subdued on the HD800, but I only notice it on poor vocal recordings on either headphone. The main thing that blows me away about the HD800 is the soundstage and imaging. Tyll Hertsens at InnerFidelity claims the HD800 images better than the SR-009. Have you heard the HD800 on a solid-state amp?