With the arrival of the DT48, I now have three of the Beyerdynamic studio headphones:
DT48E (25 Ohm)
DT480 (25 Ohm)
It must be time for a three-way shootout.
For this comparison, I used Foobar playing FLAC out of my laptop via optical to my custom DAC/amp, which is my most neutral and revealing source. All of these headphones benefit from a tube amp, but I wanted to use solid state and get the clearest possible picture of what these headphones are really doing.
Because of the relatively light bass of the older two headphones, I picked out some music that is well-suited to all three headphones:
Damien Rice: The Blower's Daughter
Spoon: My Mathematical Mind
Sufjan Stevens: Chicago
Adele: Make You Feel My Love
The DT48 has always been Beyer's flagship studio headphone, and it's immediately clear why. They are fast, balanced, and musical, without ever sacrificing precision to bring that musicality out. Vocals sound especially beautiful on the 48s, bringing out whatever warmth is in the recording. The soundstage is not especially wide, but it's deep—there really is a sense of space around each instrument in the mix. Three of these songs have strings, and the DT48 managed to nail the sound of all of them—from violin to the double bass. Most impressively, the DT48s are capable of handling very complex passages without getting congested. Even in the busiest part of Chicago, each part of the mix was easy to pull out and identify. On the Spoon track, both the kick drum and snare had plenty of pop, though the kick drum lacked the impact I've heard on more bassy headphones. Still, I am finding they have far more bass than I was expecting given the descriptions I've heard. In fact, it's sort of hard to hear the problems that the critics of the DT48 often level. These are unbelievably great sounding headphones. They isolate as well as anything I've owned, and are quite comfortable compared to the other two headphones.
The DT480 didn't quite fare so well. I suspect I will need to get under the hood again with these and do something else to bring out the sound the drivers are capable of delivering. I tried listening to them with both the original pads, which are pretty darn flat, as well as my DT150 pads, which are really thick. The 150 pads kill pretty much all the bass, so I ended up back with the stock pads, even though they are pretty uncomfortable. The DT480s don't sound as natural to my ears as the DT48, though they are even more ruthlessly revealing. This could be partly due to the lack of bass, which rolls off pretty fast below about 60hz. What they do with treble, though, I have never heard with any other headphone. They are never sibilant, even though they have the clearest, brightest high end I've ever heard. The mids are not as strong as the DT48. They sound a bit flat and empty, and lack any warmth no matter what the source. They do a great job of keeping up with fast passages as well, though the sound is much more clinical and less musical. The DT480 also leaves and incredible sense of space around each instrument, and I find myself pulling out details that I don't hear with any other headphone. Piano benches squeaking, the sound of tracks switching over, these reveal everything except bass. The trumpet in Chicago sounded great, though, and I can't help but wonder whether these might be a great choice for fans of small jazz ensembles. The biggest problem is that there's a strange lack of coherence. Each part of the song comes through clearly, but it no longer feels like it's part of the same song. They probably sound better than I'm describing here, but they just plain aren't as good as the DT48.
The DT150 holds up well against the DT48, but it comes with a few downsides. The DT150 has remarkable bass, which serves well in songs like My Mathematical Mind. The kick drum has tremendous impact, as do the cellos and double bass in the other songs. In The Blower's Daughter, they actually have too much bass, and that third verse gets washed out by the arrival of the bass at the bottom. Beyond that they sound excellent, with nice warm, clear mids and that awesome Beyerdynamic treble. Unlike the other headphones, however, the DT150s do get congested in busy passages. It becomes difficult to hear the backup singers in Chicago, and I think that muddiness comes from the higher level of bass response. For many people, this will be a worthwhile sacrifice, but it is a sacrifice. The DT150s are definitely the easiest pair to listen to, which can be both a strength and a weakness, I suppose. I still think they are a hugely underrated pair of headphones, delivering a big, bold sound that still manages to be relatively balanced.
The DT770/880/990 series get a lot of attention on Head-fi, and I think some of that attention should shift to Beyer's studio line. These really are great, durable headphones, that are easier to drive than their premium equivalents. These headphones will quickly have anyone forgetting the midrange gaps of the 990/770 Pros, and the harsh high end that has become associated with the Beyerdynamic brand.