The Sennheiser HD650:
I have owned the Sennheiser HD-650 for more than 3 years now and since the time I got them, I have been amazed about their sound quality and the way they scale with better gear.
In my opinion, the biggest weakness of these headphones is their relatively low price. When a non-audiophile buys the Sennheiser hd-650, they probably don’t realize that the work of getting a good sound out of them has only started. In my case, I paired my hd-650 for more than a year with the EMU 0404 USB and while I enjoyed the sound (at that time), it sounds nothing like it does today after I have built a proper system around it.
With the wrong amp, source or cables, the hd-650 can sound slow, dull, veiled, hazy, bass light, muted in the highs… But with the right equipment they can sound utterly transparent, fast, airy and musical.
Is it worth upgrading the stock headphone cable for the Sennheiser hd-650?
While the Sennheiser HD-650 can scale up very good with the use of a good headphone amp and a good source, they are significantly held up by the stock cable.
Of course, it is a matter of balance in a system. For example, if someone is using the Sennheiser HD-650 with a soundcard or something like the EMU 0404 USB, getting a good headphone amp will provide more increase in performance, than upgrading the stock headphone cable. At the mean time, I found that the stock cable becomes a limiting factor pretty quickly. Even an entry level DAC/headphone amp such as the Audio-gd FUN can benefit from upgrading. In fact, I would rather listen to the Audio-gd FUN with the artisan silver cable, than listening to my reference system with the Sennheiser hd-650 and the stock cable, but I am getting a little bit ahead of myself…
That is to say that the 3 headphone cables I tried (namely the Moon Audio Blue Dragon, Artisan Silver Cables, Stefan AudioArt Equinox) all provided a significant increase in the performance.
Foobar v1.0 --> Kernel Streaming --> M2Tech hiFace BNC --> Oyaide DB-510 --> Audio-gd DAC-19mk3 (DF1704 and PMD100) --> Artisan Cables "Ultimate Silver Dream" --> Audio-GD C-2C (w/ stepped attenuator) --> Headphone cable --> Sennheiser HD-650
Power related accessories:
Hi-Fi Cables & Cie PowertransPlus Power Cords (x2)
Hi-Fi Cables & Cie SimplePower
Bada LB-5600 Power Filter Plant
Essential Audio Tools Noise Eater Parallel Filter
E&T Spider Rack, Maple platforms, Sandboxes, Brass cones, Acrylic and Fiber carbon sheets, Yamamoto footers, Herbie's Audio Lab Tenderfoot, SuperSonic Component Stabilizer
Sources: EMU 0404 usb, Zero DAC, Audio-GD DAC-100
Headphone Amps: Little Dot MKIII, Audio-GD ST-3, Audio-gd FUN
Some of the reference tracks used for this review:
Mozart Violin Concertos - Marianne Thorsen – 2L – 24/96
Sol Gabetta - Schostakowitsch Cellokonzert Nr. 2/Cello
Mahler - Symphony n 5 – Decca
Vivaldi – Concerto for 2 violins – Carmignola/Mullova
Natalie Dessay - Italian Opera Arias - Emi Classics
Keith Jarrett - Paris / London – Testament – 24/96
Glenn Gould - The Goldberg Variations 1981
Hans Zimmer - The Dark Knight Soundtrack
The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Take Five
The World's Greatest Audiophile Vocal Recordings – Chesky – 24/96
Diana Krall - Live in Paris
Norah Jones - Come Away With Me
The Beatles – Beatles for Sale – 2009 Stereo Remaster
Soundrama - "The Pulse" Test CD
The comparison: Artisan Cable “Silver Dream” vs. Stefan AudioArt Equinox
Timber & Tonal Balance:
As upgrades for the Sennheiser HD-650, the Equinox is the closest sounding to the stock cable. The Equinox retains the smooth voicing of the original cable while subtly extending the bass and treble extension. The other two aftermarket cables I have tried both differ from the original sound: The Blue Dragon had a slight bump in the bass and was overly smooth at the highs while the Artisan Silver Cable is a lot clearer sounding than the original cable.
Bass quantity: Before getting the Artisan Silver Cable, my fear was that a silver cable would increase the high frequency extension but wouldn’t be able to reach a proper copper based cable (I was using the Blue Dragon at that time). I was very surprised when I got it and noticed an increase in the deep bass. Honestly, since the blue dragon has been described as “bass heavy” in many occasions, I wasn’t expecting much more output in the bass. So I was extremely surprised to find that the Sennheiser hd-650 was capable of so much more in the bass. Moving from the Blue Dragon to the Artisan Silver Cable was like adding a well set-up subwoofer that can be earthshaking when called upon and that also know to remain discrete when not needed. Before trying the Equinox, I didn’t know what to expect, but since it was a reference copper based cable, I thought it would have stronger bass than the Artisan Silver Cable I have been using. I was wrong again. Subjectively speaking, it seems that the stock Sennheiser cable starts rolling off the highs at 60hz, the Blue Dragon and Equinox seem to give up at 40hz while the Artisan Silver Cable to not start rolling off until the 20hz mark.
Bass quality: While the Stefan AudioArt cable improves upon the stock cable in bass depth and articulation, it is still far from the bass quality you can get with the Artisan Silver Cable.
In fact, the Stefan AudioArt cable sounds boomy while the Artisan Silver Cable sounds heavier but not in bad way. If I were to make a boxing analogy I would compare the Artisan Silver Cable bass to a very agile heavy-weight boxing champion that can strike very quickly with a lot of weight while the Stefan AudioArt cable would be a slower (and not as fit) man trying to compete with him.
Some interconnects and audio gears I have had the opportunity to listen to can indeed clear some of the mid bass bloat and excessive warmth but most of them do not sound natural. The reason behind it is that they lacked impact in the very low deep bass department.
On the other hand the Artisan Silver Cable sounds natural while remaining neutral in the bass department. It is one of those rare cables that do not need to add excessive warmth (maybe distortion?) to compensate for a lack of deep bass.
Midrange: The Stefan AudioArt cable improves a lot on the midrange of the stock Sennheiser cable, mainly by removing the haze and improving the transparency.
However, switching to the Artisan Silver Cable opens up a new window into the representation. Voices are lot cleaner and more diversified. It is like a thick blanket was removed between the headphones and the ears. There is a lot more going on.
Of course, on some recordings, the thick midrange of the Stefan AudioArt cable can be pleasing however as far as I could tell it is not as accurate or diversified as the Artisan Silver Cable. The highly detailed and natural midrange of the Artisan Silver Cable also allows that “being there” feeling. Voices and instruments seem to be more present and palpable.
Highs: Again the Stefan AudioArt cable improves on the highs vs. the stock Sennheiser cable but fall short of the Artisan Silver Cable cable. The Artisan Silver Cable cable is more extended lit up and sparkly on top. In fact, it is what you expect from a high end headphone. You don’t have to find excuses like when listening through the stock cable or the Stefan AudioArt cable. This better extension and definition of the treble doesn’t come at the expense of increased of sibilance. In fact, even on poorly recorded or encoded files, I would rather listen with the Artisan Silver Cable than with the Stefan AudioArt cable simply because the Artisan Silver Cable has a better separation of sounds, and less intermodulation which make listening to those recordings less annoying.
Soundstage & Imaging:
First of all both cables improve upon the soundstaging and imaging of the stock cable but to different degrees.
The Stefan AudioArt soundstage is slightly bigger than the stock cable and its imaging is much better than the stock cable (better instrument separation). The Stefan AudioArt allows the soundstage to be slightly outside of the head.
However, the move to the Artisan Silver Cable is quite significant. The Artisan Silver Cable has a lot bigger soundstage (in all directions), that is pushed farther back from the head. The soundstage is also better populated with the Artisan Silver Cable as there is air between instruments and singers. In comparison, the Stefan AudioArt cable simply lacks the low level details retrieval to depict a believable soundstage.
Musical example: Vivaldi - Concerto for 2 violins
With the Stefan AudioArt cable, the sound is very nice, you can hear distinctly the 2 violins played by Carmignola and Mullova and the background instruments
With the Artisan Silver Cable, the soundstage significantly grows bigger in all directions, and background instruments are more clearly defined in space.
While listening through the Stefan AudioArt cable, the background instruments are somehow blurred. It is not shocking and the listening session can be quite enjoyable compared to what you would get with the stock cable. However, the Artisan Silver Cable simply brings a much better instruments separation and better separation between the direct sounds and the reverbs, to make the recording sound totally different and easier to listen to.
If I were to make a visual analogy to describe the soundstage, I would say that using the Stefan AudioArt cable is like going from looking through a dirty glass in a small dark room while using the Artisan Silver Cable in comparison is like looking to no glass at all into a bigger lit up room.
There one thing I haven’t mention before is how loud each cable sound (at the same volume setting on my headphone amp). Similarly to what I have noticed with interconnects and power cords, better cables make the sound seem subjectively louder (while obviously there is no change in the measured voltage). The reason behind it is probably the difference in perceived clarity between cables.
In this case I found that the Stefan AudioArt cable sounds a little bit louder than the stock one (around the same as the Blue Dragon if my memory is correct) and the Artisan Silver Cable sounds the loudest. Since I am using a headphone amp that has a stepped attenuator, I am pretty sure that the volume control didn’t move by the time I switched cables.
When I compared a few months ago the Moon Audio Blue Dragon against the Artisan Silver Cable, I felt that the Blue Dragon hit “saturation” and “compression” in some very large dynamics swings. The Stefan Audio Art does not seem to suffer from this effect. But at the mean, I noticed something else on the Stefan Audio Art regarding the way it handles transients.
As I mentioned earlier, the Stefan Audio Art is noticeably slower and thicker than the Artisan Cable (but both of them are a lot faster than the stock cable). This means that the leading edges of notes are softened by the Stefan AudioArt. As a result, the dynamic impact is lessened on the Stefan AudioArt in comparison with Artisan Silver Cable.
This phenomenon is present in both micro and macro dynamics where the Artisan Silver has a speed and immediacy that the Stefan AudioArt (or worse the stock cable) simply cannot reach. If I were using the Stefan AudioArt as my reference cable, I would probably go looking for a faster or more dynamic headphone than the Audio-gd C2C I am currently using. However, with the Artisan Silver Cable, I don’t feel the need (for now at least).
To check the tonal balance and transparency of new equipment or new settings, I usually play the test CD Soundrama – the Pulse. It is a test CD that has been recorded at a very low level (to retain a realistic dynamic range) and contains a lot of well recorded natural sounds. The track number 7 is a recording of some big waves reaching the shore. With the Stefan AudioArt cable the bass seems strong and the sound of the water/wave seems believable enough. However switching to the Artisan Silver Cable is like listening to a whole new different track: it is like being transported to the event and discovering a whole set of new sounds that were just missing before. First the roaring of the waves seems a lot deeper and I was able to hear more distinctly the splashing of the water and the wind noise on the microphones. I was also surprised when I heard not only the sound (and direction) of the waves moving in but also moving out. The second part (moving out of the water) was totally missing from the Stefan AudioArt Equinox Cable.
In fact, that test CD confirmed what I already suspected when listening to some very well recorded material. The Stefan AudioArt cable masks a lot of low level information in comparison with the Artisan Silver Cables. If I were to describe the subjective noise floor of the cables I tried, I would say that the stock cable has around 40 db of dynamic range, the Stefan AudioArt Cable has 60 db and the Artisan Silver Cable has 100 db. It doesn’t mean that are noisier in the classical and measurable way. But it means that with the stock cable, you don’t get much information about low level details (ambiance of the room, echoes, reverbs, people turning pages in a classical music recording, …), while you start having some with the Stefan AudioArt. With the Artisan Silver cable, it is a whole different story; you get enough information that you feel like being transported to the recorded event. I also use my headphone system to watch movies and series and it is a thrilling experience every time because it is so real sounding.
When I first started my review, I was using going to end up concluding that the Artisan Silver Cable is a clear sounding cable. However, it wouldn’t be an appropriate description. At that time I was using the DF1704 filter on my DAC. When I put the PMD100, the change in sound was very big. Everything got warmer and softer. Switching back to the Stefan AudioArt cable, the difference between the 2 filters wasn’t as audible because the thickness of the sound of the cable was already colouring the sound. This little experiment showed me that the Artisan Silver Cable was probably more transparent than the rest of the chain and that. It was also my cable of choice when I tried experimenting with different upsampling options.
While the Stefan AudioArt improves on every parameter of the stock cable, the differences do not justify, in my opinion, the steep asking price for a new cable. The Moon Audio Blue Dragon which is much better built, is also selling for a lot less. So to me, neither the sound performance nor the built quality justify that this cable is more expensive than the Blue Dragon or the Artisan Silver Cable.
As you might have guessed (perhaps even pretty early) in the comparison, I personally find the Artisan Silver Cable a much superior cable that unleashes the true performance of the Sennheiser HD-650. Listening, through the Artisan Silver Cable, I get a sense of music realism that is greater than anything I have listened to before (even in comparison with $20,000+ speaker systems). The fact that the silver cabled Sennheiser hd-650 can be full and transparent sounding from top to bottom lessens the gap between the real thing and the reproduced music through my system.
Unfortunately, the Artisan Silver Cable had been discontinued. They realized that their cable wasn’t suitable for long term headphone use. Personally, I have used it in normal conditions for a few months, and didn’t notice anything.
According to Artisan Silver Cables they are looking into methods to improve the strength of the cable (by adding Kevlar…) but they aren’t sure, for now, if they will release a new cable.
Personally, if I were shopping again now for cables, I wouldn’t go for a new Stefan AudioArt (it is too expensive for what it is). Between a used Stefan AudioArt and a new Blue Dragon, I would probably go for Stefan AudioArt Equinox because it is better balanced than the Blue Dragon. However, if I were really shopping again for a new cable, I would rather take my chances and probably order a silver cable from Zu Cables or Double Helix Cables, even if I didn’t hear them.
Finally, I would like to thank rosgr63 that sent me for a few weeks his Stefan AudioArt Equinox cable. I had been curious for quite sometime to check the performance of the Equinox cable (which have received many good reviews), so it was a good thing I could borrow it before making a purchase decision that would have probably ended up in a resale.