My thoughts on the Sennheiser 558
First, off, I would like to begin with the standard "I am not an audiophile" disclaimer.
The package came from Dahmart and on time - within 2 days of ordering with expedited shipping. The headphones were in mint condition but without the box. As I looked at them it became increasingly harder not to plug them in, and so I did. Thus starting my first lesson in "enthusiast grade" headphones. In the coming week I would learn a lot about the headphones I had ordered, sound signatures, and the kind of sound I was after.
Believe me, I spent hours scouring the internet for information on the 558, and there is plenty of it. And so far I have yet to find a review that truly shows the Sennheiser 558 for what they are. I stumbled upon threads about how to do the foam mod to make them sound like the 598, claims that they have the "Sennheiser veil", claims they are absolutely amazing, and claims they are over-rated. Lets sort through it all and dive into the HD 558.
When I put them on they were easily the most comfortable headphones I have worn, then I listened to them. One word comes to mind when I think of the first time I heard them: underwhelmed. I had a playlist of different music to try with them when I first got them. There was no aggression to the music, the bass was too polite (read passive and recessed), and I didn't feel engaged by the music. I close my eyes actively searching for qualities above my old headphones, a year old pair of Sennheiser HD202s. And there was. As I focused on the music I noticed the lyrics easier to hear and understand, and presented more harmoniously with the instruments. I try hard to imagine I am listening to a live concert, as I have read they sound like, but it doesn't work for me. They do sound more "outside my head" than closed headphones, but only just. If you try really hard you can try to convince yourself that the music is playing in the room, but even that takes effort. By this time I am frightened about my purchase. Within 15 minutes I desperately perform "foam mod" surgery on only the left side, and wore them for 20 minutes to see if I could tell a difference. I liked the results, it seemed to enhance what I then perceived to be the strengths of the headphones. They sounded a little more airy and detailed - although the bass seemed to take even more of a backseat it was amazing for some genres (Inception soundtrack comes to mind). I took the other one off and stuck the foam pads onto the top of a CD in one of those cylindrical plastic blank CD packages and put the lid on to keep dust out. I then proceeded to leave them running even when I wasn't listening to them in case they needed to "burn in".
By this time I was truly worried that I had made the wrong purchase. I checked the Dahmart return policy, which sucks by the way. They will gladly take any return for a 20% restocking fee. I wasn't about go for that. I tested my Sennheiser 202 again, and then it happened. They sounded sloppy, unrefined. The bass was boomy and didn't seem to know its place. It would impede on the other sounds. The vocals were not as clear. I realized then that what I first recognized as "lack of bass" was not a lack of anything. The bass on the 558 simply knows its place and isn't loose at all, it's tight and smooth; something I knew nothing about before I put on the 558's. In fact, the bass on the 558 is every bit as powerful as the HD202 - even with the foam mod. I spoke with StreetDragon and we shared thoughts about them. We largely agree the they are not in-you-face engaging, but they have a very musical, beautiful sound. He was kind enough to share some of his equalizer settings with me to bring out certain qualities that may be lacking for some kinds of music, like electronica. I am starting to realize that I might be a "basshead" due to what I want out of a headphone. I wanted a headphone that was clear, with prominent mids, and quality bass, and that's what I got, but the saying "be careful what you wish for" was prominent in my mind. The headphones were by no means bad, but not what I was expecting.
Fast forward 1 week of nearly constant listening....
I'm not sure if it's me or the headphones, but they sound better every day. Fuller, more detailed, more engaging. I don't know if I believe in burn-in, but the sound I get from them is different than it was when I first got them. I am accepting them for what they are, and what they aren't. They are good at most any kind of music with even with a flat EQ. They excel at music that is less aggressive and less dense. They seem to do best with laid back music. They are somewhat revealing, some music sounds bad due to sloppy mixing (read 50 cent "get rich or die trying" as a prime example). But, keep in mind no genre fails with these. If you have a hardware based EQ you should be able to make them sing with just about anything. With the EQ set as flat is a good way to start - these headphones are very mellow with a flat setting. I keep thinking about the "veil" because they sound very warm with some sacrifice to highs, but you can remove the veil easily with a simple EQ tweak.
Fast forward to today...
The headphones are getting warmer and warmer. I notice some of the otherwise great bass control in some songs, and I realize it's time to put the foam back on. I perform the necessary surgery, and find that the foam I put onto the CD has become very much fused to the surface. I had to be very careful not to tear the foam on account of how stuck it had become to the CD. Once again I did the mod only to one side (right this time), and I liked what I heard. The sound was more forward - more aggressive. The bass cleaned up and gained additional punch. The sound stage closed up a little, and it lost some of that "airy" quality it had. I whole heartedly agree with the opinion of a poster from another forum that the mod doesn't make it sound better, just different. As much as I would like to think that Sennheiser purposely crippled the 558's with the foam because it uses the same drivers as the 598, I'm not so sure that is the case. I'm taking the "Sennheiser knows best" route, and leaving them in for the time being. The undoing the mod makes them more up front and engaging. It almost seems like the mod tries to make the headphones be something they are not. I would suggest everybody who has a pair try them with the foam again if you have taken it out.
If you have read this whole post, I hope it was enjoyable and worth while. Now for a word on my rating scale: I don't rate on a curve. If the ratings seem low to you it's because I'm not rating them for their price, I am rating them for the criteria and the criteria only. I have seen $20 headphones get 10/10 and 5/5, I feel that reflects off the fact that they only cost $20, and I save the value rating for the value rating. So, without further ado, here it is:
Comfort 9/10 - The plush earcups and headband are great, they don't heat my ears up, and even my wife who thinks expensive headphones are a total waste of money gave a nod of approval and wanted to know more about them. They clamp ever so slightly on the firm side, but are very stable on my head. I don't think there is any combinations of movements I could do to knock them off save using my hands. I can wear them with glasses and/or a beanie without problems. Very nice.
Sound 7.5/10 - I am rating these on what they are, not what I think they should be. After almost 2 weeks of listening for hours every day I know what these are about, and they are quite good at what they do. The 558 includes listeners of classical, jazz, new age, etc. In fact, I would say they are geared slightly toward those listeners, as the sound is designed to be beautiful and relaxing, not aggressive and adrenaline-inducing. The 558 can be poured into just about any mold and successfully thrive with some EQ tweaking, but it seems to prefer to be mellow. If you listen to rock, techno and rap, and want a sound that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, there are probably better choices depending on the sound you are after because they lack what I will call the adrenaline element. Like I said, they are mellow and beautiful - you may be inclined to sway back and forth (as I frequently do) and hold your lighter high during some live performances because they are capable of truly making music sing, picky as they may be, as they are uniformly good, but every once in a while they make me pause and close my eyes to savor the sound. They are an easy 8 when in their element, a 6.5 or 7 for some fast, dense, heavy music.
***IMPORTANT*** Source is a Xonar DGX internal sound card streaming 320kbps music from the subscription service MOG. My opinions are based on this source.
Value 5/10 - I'm giving this a 5 for one reason: I bought them for $115 shipped, but I am assuming that the reader will pay the full price of $179. For just over $100 I am very happy with them and would gladly give them an 8 star rating. If I had paid full price for these I would feel like my money could been better spent. If you can get them for under $120 shipped then go for it, but if you are thinking about paying $179 for them I would make good and sure that you know what you are looking for in a headphone.