Hi all. I haven't posted a whole lot on head-fi so far but I had the opportunity to have a shoot-out of sorts this Labor Day weekend and I wanted to share with you fine folks. Thanks to Kinger and Mchuck for your Denons and beyers, respectively. Enjoy!
Associated gear goes like this:
Acer media PC running Windows 7 Premium
M2Tech HiFace USB/coaxial digital adapter accepting up to 192/24 bitrates
Peachtree Audio Decco2 preamp/DAC, coax digital in to line out
Burson Audio HA-160 headphone amp
Grado 15' headphone extension cable
And I decided to normalize things media-wise with the following 5 songs used as the demo material for this shoot-out:
Kelly Joe Phelps - Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues (Lead Me On album) - FLAC rip from CD via EAC
Jane Monheit - It's Only Smoke (Home album) - high-resolution 96/24 FLAC from HDTracks
Deftones - Digital Bath (White Pony album) - FLAC rip from CD via EAC
Pearl Jam - Of The Girl (Binaural album) - FLAC rip from CD via EAC
Sara Bareilles - The Light (Kaleidescope Heart album) - FLAC rip from CD via EAC
I chose these particular songs because a.) I like them all a lot and b.) they seemed to give a pretty good cross-section of musical styles and sonic challenges. I listened to each song with all 3 headphones in different orders so as not to skew results in terms of comparative order. I also level-matched each set of cans by ear to the best of my ability. For reference, the LCD-2's were at 0 on the Burson, the Denons were at -1, and the beyers were at -2 (that is, detents on the Burson's stepped attenuator).
And the cans in this particular shoot-out are all venerable members of their respective categories. The Denon AH-D2000's are a closed circumaural headphone currently going for about $350 online. The beyerdynamic DT880's are an open circumaural headphone currently going for about $300 online. And the Audeze LCD-2's are the Rev 1 version - open circumaural - which are no longer available but sold for $900ish online.
So here we go. I'll just go through each song and give the low-down on what I heard with each one. Each headphone will be listed under each song in the order I listened to them.
Kelly Joe Phelps - This is a very sparse recording with just Kelly Joe's voice, his guitar, and a stompbox for percussion. I like the recording because it's so simple and because it's a very raw treatment of what I consider to be very eclectic music that's part blues, part folk, and even a little bit of rock and roll, sonically speaking.
LCD-2 - The Audezes' very solid black background was evident from the beginning, putting the vocals ahead and slightly to the left, guitar in the middle, and stompbox slightly closer and slightly to the right. With these principal sound sources in their places, the LCD-2's are "black" everywhere else, setting a nice soundstage that never faltered. Transients were impeccable throughout the song. Kelly Joe's guitar work was entrancing, every strum and every bit of finger work brought out completely. The stompbox can be a bit distracting in some settings because its attack can be a bit dull and monotonous. But on the Audezes, the stompbox had the perfect attack and even a bit of decay, making it more of an instrument than an accompanying sound. Tones throughout the song were exact and very smooth, from KJP's gruff vocals to the metallic slide of his guitar strings. The overall presentation was up-front and very engaging, lending the ambience of a very personal and intimate medium-sized studio performance.
D2000 - The Denons did very well with the track as a whole. They don't have the smoothness or the background solidity of the LCD-2's but they present a very good, albeit slightly laid back presentation. Transients were a bit softer and there seemed to be a bit of upper midrange shyness with vocals and some of the more open guitar tones. The stompbox didn't have the "bounce" that I noticed with the LCD-2's and it retained some of the "thuddy" quality that reminded me of the monotony I mentioned earlier. The overall image was about the same size and the spatial arrangement of the sound sources were about equal to the LCD-2's but the presentation had a "pushed back" quality that made it more of a back-of-studio feel than a front-of studio one. Dynamics were just a bit on the polite side with the exception of the upper treble which was slightly forward. This gave some of the guitar slides and picks a harsher metallic quality.
DT-880 - The beyers are a departure from the other two headphones for the most part. They have a wider soundstage and probably the most up-close presentation of all three. The vocals seemed to be a little bit more centered than on the other two sets. They excelled at bringing out the detail in the KJP recording. Inner details of vocals were amazing...I could hear subtleties like intakes of breath easily. Transients were also very good and dynamically, the 880's didn't disappoint. The only major drawback on this track was that the 880's tended to veer into scratchy, metallic treble in spots...the same spots as the Denons, not surprisingly.
Jane Monheit - Another sparse recording with only female vocals, male vocals (courtesy of Peter Eldridge), and piano. High resolution is the perfect treatment for this song...it's silky and buttery and all kinds of other adjectives to that effect. :)
DT-880 - I had high expectations for the beyers on this track and was slightly surprised at the outcome. Overall, they did a good job but I noticed a little bit of grain in male vocals and midrange in general seemed a bit shouty in spots. As quiet as the song is, there are plenty of spots where vocal dynamics increase and I think the 880's could have done a better job. On the positive side, however, movement within the soundstage was very good and separation was also very good. Tonally, the 880's did great. There are better vocal presentations but the beyers were a very accurate, albeit peaky contender.
LCD-2 - The Audezes did not disappoint. I put an exclamation point next to the word "smooth" in my notes and that's the essence of what I heard. The LCD-2's had a taller, narrower soundstage than the 880's but separation was still excellent and detail was fantastic. There was a slight push to the upper mids but not to an extent where they became harsh or strident. Piano notes were liquid and progressed with great pace and timing.
D2K - The Denons showed the same overall approach to the sound...the stage was pushed back noticeably and there was a bit of a U shape to the perceived frequency response. They were very smooth for the most part but the shy mids that have been their trademark were apparent at the outset. The somewhat bass-heavy approach to the sound left things feeling more "rounded", although not in an entirely bad way. The Denons are a very relaxing listen on tracks like this because even the dynamic passages seem blunted by the distance and softness that their sound imparts. That said, female vocals seemed a bit more prominent with the Denons. In terms of soundstage, even with the pushed back aspect of their sound, separation was very good and the overall impression was that of an intimate but dark medium-sized venue.
Deftones - This song alternates between loud, driving guitar passages and quieter, ethereal-sounding vocals. It's a great test for control in both headphones and speakers. As with most metal songs, it benefits a good bit from volume.
D2K - With their tendency toward deep bass and slightly hot treble, the Denons could be considered a good rock can or a bad rock can, depending on who you ask. On Digital Bath, they definitely bring out the crunchy guitars and they highlight Abe Cunningham's excellent drum work very well. They're dynamic when called upon but they still pull back just a tad overall compared to the other headphones. Cymbals don't shimmer quite like they should and vocals are very rounded and almost polite. There's not much of a soundstage here - it's more of a wall of sound - but what is presented by the Denons is presented very well, especially for closed headphones.
DT-880 - Along the same line as the Denons, the beyers' sonic signature could be considered either great for rock music or not so great. They definitely have an edge on the Denons in terms of texture and speed. The crunch of the guitars in this song was even more palpable with the 880's, almost edging into Grado territory in terms of up-close clarity. They also push the soundstage a bit higher and wider, making the guitars "soar" more than the Denons and creating more room between all that's going on in the recording (which is a lot). The shortfalls of the beyers seem to be in the usual spots. Kick drum is a little weak compared to more bass-heavy 'phones and while they bring out more of the cymbals' attack and sustain, there is also a bit of a brittle edge to the high frequency information throughout the song.
LCD-2 - Again, the Audezes make even a big rock song a very smooth affair. Guitars and cymbals seem a bit pulled back compared to the 880's but overall clarity and texture is excellent. Separation is superb and movement within the soundstage is as good as it gets. There is a point in the song where an effect emerges on the left side of the stage that sounds like digital "water" dripping (a great way to instill the "bath" atmosphere alluded to in the title) and the Audezes give you the "drip" and its echo in perfect space and with perfect impact. The macrodynamics of the song are also delivered in spades with no hint of compression or grain.
Pearl Jam - One of my favorite PJ songs. It has a very cool ambience that combines a plodding, uber-deep bassline and both acoustic and subdued electric guitars in what sounds like a barn-sized recording studio.
LCD-2 - The bass drum on this track is VERY difficult to reproduce perfectly whether you're using headphones or speakers. Any unworthy driver will distort quickly and easily every time. But the orthodynamic driver in the LCD-2 is just not unworthy and it does its job perfectly, making the bass drum sound punchy, deep, and *real* all at the same time. Sustain on all of the instruments is also excellent. Throughout the song, there are lightly strummed acoustic guitars that "rain" diagonally from the top left to bottom right of the soundstage in a tinkling, silvery procession and the Audezes do this perfectly even among all the other dense instrumentation. In a thick but also very delicate song, the LCD-2's show why they're a reference-quality component.
DT-880 - On the same bass drum part mentioned above, the 880's are very close to perfect in terms of depth but the same beats come off feeling dull and abbreviated. As with other recordings, the sound is very up-front and all parts are very clean, vocals and electric guitars in particular. The 880's are light and fast throughout the song, giving great pace to the recording. The soundstage is a bit shallower and a bit "round"-sounding, the corners seeming a bit cut off compared to the other headphones. The acoustic guitar "shimmer" is also very good in its directionality but it gets buried ever so slightly behind the deeper, thicker rhythm section.
D2K - The Denons weigh in remarkably close to the 880's on this track, differing mainly in the degree of bass they are capable of. The bass drum is an abyss in terms of depth, offering a HUGE impact, but like the beyers, the Denons make it sound a bit dull and one-dimensional. Guitar tones are excellent throughout the song, especially during the "bloom" that happens at the beginning of each chorus, but the perceived distance put between the listener and the band by the Denons makes the rest of the delicate acoustic guitar transients a bit fuzzy and diffuse. Bass guitar texture is much better vs. the beyers (which almost bury the bass behind an otherwise intricate wall of sound).
Sara Bareilles - One of my guilty pleasure songs. In addition to being a great songwriter, Sara surrounds herself with very good musicians and has a very good production team on hand for her Kaleidescope Heart album. This song combines a mid-tempo "march"-style time signature with some nice atmospheric touches and a vocal track that grows to a soaring crescendo before fading out to its conclusion.
D2K - The Denons did an admirable job with this song. They have an amazing soundstage for closed headphones and achieve great separation throughout. The recording itself isn't perfect and because of this, the Denons tend to highlight some scratchy and brittle treble passages. A good portion of the midrange is a bit shy and while it's not a standout part of the instrumentation, Sara B's piano gets noticeably buried during the last half of the song when things are at their busiest.
DT-880 - Again, the 880's show themselves to be excellent detail-oriented cans with both the upper mids and treble being strong and very fast. Microdynamics are excellent. Soundstage was odd with this song...it seemed "zoomed"...and this caused less separation between instruments, lending an ever so slight muddiness to the overall presentation. But otherwise, the beyerdynamics did a very good job overall.
LCD-2 - There's that "smooth!" comment again. Macro- and microdynamics are again spot-on with the LCD-2's. The soundstage on them never seems to open up much but somehow the Audezes maintain amazing separation and clarity throughout. Tone is sublime in this song and as the tempo increases, the Audezes again show themselves to be masters of pace and timing. Piano is fluid and vocals are clear as day.
LCD-2 - Just a joy to listen to. They have a smoothness and an effortlessness that traditional dynamic headphones just can't match. They outperformed the other two sets of headphones easily in this shootout but that is to be expected. What wasn't expected, however, was how close the conventional drivers came to their performance. The Audezes are a reference-quality product for certain, offering a small but very noticeable improvement in just about all areas.
D2K - Extremely relaxing, "fun" cans. They aren't the most revealing or most accurate headphones in the world but between their physical comfort and the fact that it's very hard to experience listening fatigue with them, they're a bargain at their asking price. I would highly recommend the Denons to anyone looking for comfortable cans that perform very well with the vast majority of musical styles and that can also offer expensive home theater-quality punch.
DT-880 - If you really want to get into the music and you like your listening experience to be fast and light, the beyerdynamics are perfect. They're also incredibly comfortable physically. Some people will probably find them more than a little bright and/or forward but their soundstage and clarity are second to none in this price range. With the right amp, they have very few flaws and they will make even the most casual listener sit up and take notice of recordings that may have seemed less than exciting before.