I recently purchased a new tube amp for my headphones and set it up in the study. However, my wife and I both work there at nights and I did not want to disturb her with gratuitous rock music blaring from my very open Grado headphones. So I needed a good set of closed cans.
I am a music nut (aren't we all?) and wanted headphones to really enjoy music, which ranges from guitar heavy alternative rock, 60's jazz, electronica and some classical. I especially like live music in a small to medium venue, and so wanted headphones that can reproduce certain qualities of an intimate performance, such as good frequency balance that makes all the instruments sound realistic without any undue emphasis, and good bass control and presence that can convey live drums, bass and crunchy guitar. Also important is a good soundstage with spatial differentiation, so that I can hear the instruments as if they were before me. These criteria color my preferences, so you should be aware of these biases.
I first purchased Beyerdynamic DT250-250Ω, wanting headphones with a reputation for an even frequency response and was impressed with their sound quality- they had great mids and highs without any harshness, and with good amplification, quite satisfying bass. These were all truly great features for crunchy guitar music. However, they did leak some sound, failing in their main purpose, and they had a near-total lack of soundstage that made music sound like it came from a painting. So I returned them and tried again.
Three well-regarded and inexpensive (<$200) closed headphones that seemed to fit my needs were AKG K271 MKII, Beyerdynamic DT770-80Ω, and Shure SRH840. I could not decide from just reading about them, so I just bought all three so that I could hear them myself. I also purchased the Denon AH-D5000. These cost more than the three other headphones combined and leak a fair amount of sound. So they do not qualify as inexpensive or closed headphones for my needs. But they will be included in the roundup to see what could be gained from a $450 headphone, and to get a sense of where the Denon series (e.g. D2000) might fit in this roundup, given what people have said about their similar sound. The DT770 were the very cheapest (97$ used) so were evaluated using Jmoney ear pads, which helped tame their sometimes painful highs, which was enough for me to not want go back to the original pads. They did not change their signature very much otherwise and so the description and rankings should still apply to the stock DT770. For a second reference, Grado SR225s will also be included in the rankings. They are open and very good headphones that can be had for a similar price, and can serve as a reference for appreciating what may be gained from open headphones.
The shoot-out will be in three rounds. The first will be with a 60 watt Denon stereo amplifier fed by the line-out of a D10 DAC with an optical input. It is not a dedicated headphone amplifier, but it dramatically improves sound of all the headphones over my portable amps, and so suggests what could be gained from solid state amplification with higher current drive. The second round will be with portable amplifiers: the Ibasso D10, Icon Udac and a 3G ipod nano. Finally, a Mapletree Ear+ HD tube amp will be used in a third round.
For music, I used representative albums of the music that I love from 4 genres: alternative rock (Sebadoh, Radiohead and some Nirvana songs that we all know), electronica (Goldfrapp), jazz (John Coltrane Quartet) and classical (Beethoven symphonies). Each of the bands were ones that I have also seen live from a close proximity (okay, I haven’t seen Nirvana or John Coltrane, but I did see his piano player in a quartet), so I have at least some sense of their sound in a live performance. All of these headphones have been reviewed extensively before, so the descriptions will be relative and will focus on the qualities and shortcomings that led to the rankings at the end of each roundup.
Round one: stereo amplifier
SRH840: They have very powerful bass that give music a warm and full sound that is very well integrated with the mids and highs. As a result, guitars are very crunchy and drums, cymbals and bass sound realistic, even if they are slightly caricatured by what sounds like an emphasis in the mid-bass. This makes them the most fun closed headphones for rock. They also have amazing detail and can clearly convey all of the instruments in a recording. However, the bass and drums sometimes dominate too much in classical, jazz and some rock music, which gives them intensity that makes them more tiring than the other headphones. They also have a slightly closed-in sound and a smaller soundstage, but those features are noticeable mostly when comparing them to the SR225 and D5000.
DT770: Overall there are quite fun headphones. Electronic and kick drums literally make the bass thump. However, the bass impact sounds of proportion with the rest of the low and mid frequencies which makes drums and bass sound less real. Likewise, the extreme highs are exaggerated, which gives them a slightly metallic sound and makes crashing cymbals almost unbearable. The combination of extreme highs and lows makes the electric guitars, contrabass, voice and piano sound less accurate and forward than the SRH840 and SR225. Their soundstage however is quite good for closed headphones which give jazz and classical a more immersive feeling than the other headphones.
K271: These sound very good overall, but after listening to such bass-heavy headphones (D5000, SRH840, DT770, even SR225) their relatively lean bass is their standout feature. This takes away from the sound of bone shaking guitars, and drums (real and electronic) and so do not satisfy my hedonic rock music needs. Mids are nice, but are edged out by the SRH840, largely because of their lack of support and integration with the bass. For example, electric guitars and Kurt Cobain’s voice sound less raw and aggressive than the SRH840 or SR225s. So to my ears, they do not do as well with rock or electronica. Classical music does sound sweet, but their gentle bass reduces the low attack of violin strings and cellos and so sometimes smooth over emotional passages in classical music. Their more laid-back character works very well with small jazz quartets, putting the saxophone, bass and drums in their place, compared to drum-heavy SRH840.
D5000: These headphones seem to reach both higher and lower than all the others. They have powerful bass and can sound deep and warm, and they make the SRH840 sound like they have a mid-bass hump. Their soundstage is very open, besting the (literally) open SR225 and making the SRH840 and K271 sound like they have a slightly closed and hollow sound. If I could quibble, the bass can lose definition sometimes and although the highs are very crisp and detailed, the D5000 do seem a bit bright on balance, a combination that can overshadow the middle frequencies. They are also a bit airy and soft, and so are just edged out by the SRH840 in electronica and almost in rock (but win that by a hair because of their better soundstage). They beat the other closed headphones in most other areas except, sadly, blocking sound leakage. Thus they fail for their intended use, which is a big disappointment because they are my favorite closed headphone overall. If the D2000 really do sound like these headphones, they could very well surpass the 3 other closed headphones in sound quality. But with their sound leakage the D5000 almost stray into open headphone territory where they can be challenged by many inexpensive and extremely good headphones (for example my Grado HF-1, which I prefer in every category except classical and cost $100 less).
Bass: SRH840 > SR225 > D5000 > K271 > DT770
Mids: SR225 > SRH840 > D5000 >K271 > DT770
Highs: D5000 > SRH840 > K271 > SR225 > DT770
Soundstage: D5000> DT770 > SR225 > K271 > SRH840
Blocks sound leakage: K271 > SRH840 > DT770 > D5000 > SR225
Rock: SR225 > D5000 > SRH840 > K271 > DT770
Jazz: SR225 > D5000 > K271 > SRH840 > DT770
Classical: D5000 > SR225 > DT770 > SRH840 > K271
Electronica: SRH840 > D5000 > SR225 > K271> DT770
Winner (by a technicality): SRH840
Round two: portable amplification
This will be a brief comparison, and will focus on the degree of impoverished sound that results from listening to the headphones with portable amplifiers and an ipod. The main effect of the portable amplification is to weaken the impact and presence of bass in all the headphones. The extremely weak current of the ipod further diminishes bass and overall definition in all of the headphones. Still, the D5000, SR225 and SRH840 sound quite good with portable amplification. The loss of warmth and mid- bass on the DT770 make their highs even more harsh and tiring at higher volumes. The K271 also lose their bass and have a much less full and rich sound. They suffer most from weak amplification.
D10/uDac/ipod: D5000 > SR225 > SRH840 > DT770 > K271
Round three: tube amplification
The third round is with a Mapletree Ear+ HD ear tube amp with a Sylvania 3 mica gray plate 5751 tube. All of the headphones have low impedance, and are played out the low impedance plug (<100 Ω) of the amplifier.
SRH840: These sound noticeably better with the tube amplifier. The bass is brought under control and sounds more defined and the highs sound a bit crisper, which gives them a less bass-heavy and slightly more open sound. Guitars and drums sound even better than before, and with a better bass and less closed sound, they edge out the D5000s in rock.
DT770: I take it all back. With tube amplification, the fuzzy bloated bass tightens up considerably. Likewise the highs, while still a bit brash and metallic do not hurt any more. This taming of the frequency extremes and the lush mids of the tubes balance out the sound of the DT770s and go a long way towards fixing their flaws. However other headphones (D5000 & SRH840) also improve with the tube amp, so the DT770 still fare relatively worse in most categories.
K271: These actually sound much worse with the tube amplifier. If it wasn’t for the amp’s ability to improve the sound of all the other headphones, I would have thought that it had a problem. The K271 sound much more sucked out and they have a tinny and hollow sound. They were clearly not made for my tube amplifier, and rank last every category because of this incompatibility. The only exception is jazz, where they still beat the DT770 with more natural cymbals. These headphones sound like they are made for solid state amplification and so may do best with a dedicated SS amp.
D5000: The tube amplifier really helps control their sometimes sloppy bass, bring the mids forward and make the highs sound crisper, much like it does for the DT770 and SRH840. However, they do still sound a little bright, even with a gray plate tube that smoothes the highs of the other headphones. They manage to beat the SRH840 in electronica in this round because of their expansive soundstage and tighter, more aggressive sound with the tubes.
Improves with tube amplification: DT770 > D5000 > SRH840 > SR225 > K271
Bass: SR225 > D5000 > SRH840 > DT770 > K271
Mids: SR225 > D5000 > SRH840 > DT770 > K271
Highs: D5000 > SR225 > SRH840 > K271 > DT770
Soundstage: D5000 > DT770 > SR225 > SRH840 > K271
Rock: SR225 > SRH840 >D5000 > DT770 > K271
Jazz : SR225 > D5000 > SRH840 > K271 > DT770
Classical : D5000 > SR225 > SRH840 > DT770 > K271
Electronica: D5000 > SRH840 > DT770 > SR225 > K271
Winner: SRH840 in all amplifier categories. They are incredibly versatile sonically, synergize extremely well with my tube amp, and have a full, detailed sound that satisfies most of my hedonic music needs. They also block sound leakage very effectively and thus succeed in their main mission to not drive my wife bananas with my music. However, I found the sound of the D5000 to be more satisfying with all the amplifiers, mostly because of their larger soundstage that makes music sound more spatially open and encompassing. And with my tube amp, they manage to sound better than the other closed headphones across the frequency spectrum. So they will stay in my headphone arsenal for times that I cannot listen to my leaky HF-1 headphones and want to listen to music very quietly, or want to listen to classical music.
Addendum: The SRH940 and HD 25
I was in Layton Audio in Montreal last week and finally got to hear two well-loved closed headphones that I have wished I included in my original comparison - the HD 25 and SRH940. They also had a SRH840, a headphone whose sound I am very familiar with and that handily won this original roundup. Now the winner of this first round can go against its successor, the SRH 940 and the HD 25, a headphone that wins top ranking in closed and portable headphone comparisons.
Comparing the SRH840 to SRH940 I was surprised at how different the sound was. Among their biggest differences was the size of their soundstage. Whereas the SRH840 can literally sound closed and congested, the SRH940 have a much more open and spacious sound. One source of SRH840's congestion is their emphasis on upper bass and their soft treble, which slightly crowds the middle range of the spectrum. The SRH940 in contrast have relatively reduced bass and much more treble, whose added emphasis seems to help open up their sound. The flatter response in the middle frequencies of the SRH940 also seems to provide more room for voices and guitar, which sound more natural and distinct on the SRH940.
I'm not generally really a fan of treble, and don't know if in time the treble on the SRH90 would grate on me, as it did on D7000 (which I ultimately sold for that reason). But on the whole it does seem better than the SRH840, which is slightly lacking in treble extension.
Bass on SRH940 was a bit soft- I didn't have enough time to judge if it is more natural than SRH840 but it did not sound excessively soft, like K271. Shure made a great headphone with SRH840 and actually managed to improve on their sound with the SRH940. They are also lighter and less bulky than SRH840, which is a bonus for anyone who wants to use them outside of the house or while reclining.
Sennheiser HD 25:
Where SRH940 sound more open than the SRH840, HD 25 have a sound that is much more flat and 2 dimensional. In addition to their shallow soundstage, their sound seemed centered on the bass and lower mids, making the headphones sound almost muffled. The bass was not painfully strong like the DT770 or D7000, but it was still out of proportion with the mids and treble, creating an overall unbalanced and unnatural sound. By any measure, their sound is less refined than the Shure headphones. They are very compact and do a great job of attenuating outside noise.
Final ranking of <$500 closed headphones:
Edited by eucariote - 11/14/11 at 8:01pm