I've recently received two crucial items for my inventory: a new Beyerdynamic cable for my crackly DT48 and new DT100 pads for my DT480.
What does that mean? It's time for the Vintage Beyerdynamic Studio Headphone shootout. Both of them are the 25ohm variants, and both have been driven by my desktop setup (FLAC->Foobar->Musical Paradise MP301 tube amp).
I've listened to the following tracks to do this comparison:
- Jamie Lidell: Multiply
- Bettye LaVette: Just Say So
- Dave Brubeck: Three to Get Ready
- Charlie Winston: My Name
- The Meters: Just Kissed my Baby
First, I might as well get this out of the way: if you are a basshead, neither of these headphones will deliver the kind of thump that you want out of your music. They are also both headphones that would be considered highly polarising in the audio world. They aren't for everyone, and definitely are only recommended for people who, like me, have discovered they are more interested in a precise and accurate studio sound to the more common "hi-fi" sound.
Now that's out of the way, I'm going to rudely spoil the suspense and share my findings: this one's a tie. I've been switching back and forth between these headphones all day, and I honestly can't say that one of them comes out clearly on top. If I were cornered, I would have to admit that the DT48 deliver a more technically competent overall sound, but I also have to admit that I find the DT480 more comfortable and more able to deliver an overall cohesive and pleasing sound.
Both are mid-centric headphones, which is the main thing that the DT48 does well. Indeed, it renders sound with an eerie precision. I'm not talking about the ability to pick out details that you've never heard before from a track of music: we're WAY beyond that here. With the DT48, it's like being able to close your eyes and visualize the room that the song was recorded in because you can hear slight reflections from the wall. This is especially true of tracks recorded simultaneously like Dave Brubeck, where I was able to hear not only every little drum sound, but the way that the drum sound reflects off the piano. Because of this, every instrument and voice on a studio recording sounds oddly separated, with a coherent space around them. While this is an astonishing feature of the DT48, it can also end up being a weakness, as it highlights the constructed nature of music a bit more than intended. It's almost like digital edge enhancement on a DVD, which makes everything look clearer on a first glance, but is ultimately distracting--it just doesn't natural somehow.
The DT480 also has an astonishing midrange, but it doesn't quite have the mystical clarity of its aluminum big brother. Compared to almost any other dynamic headphone, it's still impressively clear, though. That said, it's better able to deliver warmth and intimacy, because it is able to create the illusion of a performance from a studio track. It has an incredible ability to deliver flawless balance between the various voices and instruments, bringing them together while still delivering each one clearly. While the DT48 is the winner for vocals, the DT480 does truly beautiful things with brass instruments.
The soundstage of the two headphones is somewhat similar. The DT48 has a relatively narrow soundstage, but it's surprisingly deep. That ability to represent physical space helps source the sounds outside of the head. I never had that feeling with the DT480, but the wider soundstage is a benefit on some of the tracks, especially with the strings on the Charlie Winston track. Both of them have enough width and/or depth to do a great job of handling busy passages--from what I can tell any congestion I will ever hear on these headphone will be either from compression or the recording.
While the DT48 is the midrange king, the DT480 actually slides into the lead when it comes to bass and treble extension. I didn't use any bass heavy songs for my testing, but several songs benefitted from the additional depth and sparkle that the DT480 delivers. The bass helps on tracks like The Meters and Jamie Lidell, where that extra bit of oomph makes the bass sound a bit more rich. Likewise, the ride cymbal on Just Kissed my Baby pops a bit more on the DT480, and was a bit recessed on the DT48. This ends up being a bit of a tradeoff, and ultimately depends which is more important: the best vocals of all time or that extra little pop on either end. I kind of wish I could get both, but I think that would require a significantly more expensive headphone.
Either way, neither of these pairs of headphones are going to be leaving my collection any time soon. While I think the DT48 is often treated unfairly on head-fi (both by its prophets and its critics), it is the best headphone I've ever found for exploring how music is created and assembled. It is the x-ray of the headphone world, but it doesn't tolerate any laziness on the part of the listener. Whenever they are playing, they are pretty much impossible to ignore. The DT480, once a proper seal is acheived with proper pads, is a hugely underrated entry in the Beyerdynamic historical lineup. It doesn't specialize the same way, but it does a lot of things astoundingly, wonderfully well. The results? I can listen to almost anything with them and get swept away by the music. Arguably, that's just as impressive a feat.
While my orthos are getting quite a bit of listening time these days, both of these vintage Beyerdynamics are proof that dynamic drivers haven't come that far in the last 30 years. In fact, they remain an exceptional value for people who love music and love to explore what makes that music tick.