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A headphone shoot-out from a speaker listener - Testing eleven headphones from £ 80 to £ 1,200

post #1 of 119
Thread Starter 

Testing six eight eleven headphones from £ 80 to £ 1,200 


 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introduction
 
When you listen from the loudspeakers, your right ear not only hears the sound from the right loudspeaker, it hears the sound from your left loudspeaker too and the same for left. When using headphones, you right ear ONLY hears the sound from the right headphone, nothing from the left headphone and the same reverse.  That’s why the music is always inside your head when listening through headphones.  But with loudspeakers, you hear sound coming from the front and around you just like inside a concert hall.
 
Many Headphone reviews you will read come from people who LIKE headphones and readily accept this presentation. They are easily convinced that some ‘can or other is nice.  As a result many headphone reviews have not been very useful to me. Because, you see, I do not like headphones.  To make me even say “nice” about ANY Cans, now that takes exceptional performance. 
 
Nowadays at home I by far prefer my setup speaker based and high end. I have SD Acoustic SD1 Speakers driven by Audio Innovations Preamp Monoblock Poweramp and a Naim CDS CD-Player. I have never been a great fan of headphone listening. I did have some headphones in my misspend youth, even the Sony Boodo Khan walkman with those full size Headphones, but I got rid of the lot quickly when I got my first decent pair of speakers. I hate the “in head”  feeling a lot of music has with Cans and let’s face it, most headphones have crap bass, either so much the rest of music is lost or too little to almost none at all. So maybe this makes an old fogie to most here, but I like it.
 
About the only Headphones I tolerate are Stax Electrostatic ones, but their cost and impracticality has always ruled them out for me. Yet being based in Maidenhead and commuting every day to the City using public transport and travelling a lot to conferences, courses and trade shows dictate concessions to reality if I want music on the move (and I do).
 
And a few years ago the powers that be at work decided that having music playing in offices was unprofessional and promptly issued a ban, lest it was via headphones. I don’t think they were thinking of full size over the ear types, but what the heck, that’s what I have. 
 
Hence it was headphones for me, or change jobs if I wanted any music (in this economy - yeah right).  So I am using headphones mostly in office and travelling, a nice pair of Audio Technica noise cancelling ones which also do a decent job on music, plus a pair of JVC “clip on” Headphones I picked up in Tokyo (did not really see them anywhere else, seems a Japan only product). Still, I didn’t listen that much to music anymore at work since they banned speakers.
 
Not being a great writer and not being very good in describing sound, I mostly lurk on forums and stick to reading.  This set of reviews is the result of a chance encounter with Headphone/Computer related audio gear that fits my Office and Travel needs rather well and has somewhat changed my view on Headphones and their utility as a means of listening.
 
At the recent National Audio Show in September I came across a refreshing new feature, the “Headzones”, even though the mostly shockingly  young people hanging out there made me feel a right old fogie. I rather enjoyed having a butchers at the latest top of the line Stax Headphones, but they are still no more practical, portable or less dear than ever. The so-so sounding entry level model is already 750 squid. 
 
I also rather fancied a dishy looking Headphone Amplifier called the SPL Phonitor.  It’s got lots of twiddley knobs and switches and those groovy meters. The guy on the Decent Audio stand was great, allowing to twiddle the knobs to my heart’s content. With all them knobs and switches set somehow right, the Phonitor was able to pull the music right out of my head, which is where it belongs. I never heard anything like it! But the price is a wee bit rich even for my salary…
 
Later I saw something else though, the iFi Components (iUSB, iDAC & iCAN) on Demo with a small Laptop and Sennheiser Headphones. I pulled out my own JVC’s and listened. The one good thing of Cans that I will begrudgingly admit is that you can take your Cans and have a personal demo there and then. You don’t need to take it home and set things up to see if you have a chance of liking it! 
 
These little boxes did the same “out of my head” trick as the SPL Phonitor, added some bass processing that the Phonitor lacks (did good on my JVC’s) and sounded generally the bees knees and the whole little set of components included not only a DAC and an extra upgrade power supply for the DAC (like my Naim CD-Player! ). Best is they came in for a bit over halve the cost of the Phonitor and included a DAC in the bargain. I was there when I overheard a guy from an e-zine and he seemed to really like the ifi sonics.
 
I was ready to splash out for a set and was a bit gutted when told I would have to wait for stock to come in. Worse, they said no haggling on the price either. Come on, this is England; we got to have a bit of a bargain! Anyway, I asked to be put on the list… I eventually took delivery of my set in late November, TWO MONTH WAITING TIME, BLOODY HELL! What a way to flog something. Well, I guess I ought to be chuffed to be one of the first in the UK to have a set… 

The little iFi stack provided a jolly decent upgrade of the audio from my Laptop.  Especially the iCAN headphone amplifier with its “3D Sound” and “X-Bass” helps me to enjoy music from my headphones EVER so much more. I again listen to music throughout much of the day. The little stack of iFi gear on my desk has quickly become a bit of talking point in the office and I occasionally get to demonstrate what they do to a colleague. 

Knowing I had them, Gary from accounts, who is a bit of headphone fiend (he told me he has like four or five headphone Amplifiers, never mind counting the headphones!) asked me if he could do an audition of the iFi Gear at my office one lunchtime. He was rather dismissive about my JVC and Audio Technica ‘phones though. So one rainy Tuesday lunch time he came over with a load of his favourite headphones. Portability, you’ve got to luvre it.
 
After he had his time playing with the iFi stack (and taking a rather long lunch) he was seemingly quite taken. He was also kind enough to leave the Headphones with me for a while so I could listen myself. I suspect he wanted to convince me to get rid of these “cheesy jap phones”, we’ll see how that went later. Anyway I spend a fair few days of listening in the office and even at home (at home - headphones!?!).

In the chat I had with Gazza when I gave him back his treasures he felt I had it pretty much straight and told me to write it up. So blame Gazza, if you don’t like it…

 
Fanfares, Lightshow, Pyrotechnics, enter the Headphones
 
We have six contenders, all well luvred examples, to review (in order of street price):
 

Coming up:

  9) Micro Seiki MX-1 vintage Electrostatic Headphone System, (only used - out of production for decades)
10) Fostex T50RP, stock and with minimal modifications, at around £ 120
11) Audeze LCD-2, at around £ 1,025 retail
 
Note: AKG K701 & Shure SRH1440 are on page 4
 
The test system I used for all was:
 
Lenovo Thinkpad T410 with Win7, J-River, Fidelizer Audio Optimiser in “Extremist” setting 
 
iFi iDac powered by iUSBPower
 
generic RCA cables (the ones that come in the box)  
 
iCAN headphone Amp

(see www.ifi-audio.com for details on the gubbins)

The iFi stack complete with headphone and new cable. Normally I place the stack to the left, as the cables on my headphones go into the left side. But as I'm right handed and would plug around a lot of cables I put it on the right for the occasion. Inconvenient

 

Headphones with 6.3mm plugs connected direct, those with 3.5mm plugs via the adapter packed with the iCAN.

I made quick crosschecks against the audio from my HTC HD7 Smartphone and the direct headphone out of the Thinkpad for anything with 3.5mm plugs.
 
The music was in Flac format, mostly CD rips plus some HD Tracks. Here a list of the tracks I used for “formal” reviewing:
 
Friend & Fellow – Light my Fire
Tori Amos – Way Down
O-Zone - Jazz Variations
St Säens – Finale of the #3 (Organ) Symphony
Tchaikovsky – Hopak (176Khz/24 bit download from Reference Recordings)

WOW. What an understated credit sequence!
 
Now, can we have the main feature please!?

PLEASE!?

Added 21/02 - I just found this website with comparison graphs for headphones through another thread:

http://www.headphone.com/learning-center/build-a-graph.php

This is the dogs danglies! I will add graphs for each headphone found in this database and append short comments how I feel listening impressions and graphs relate.

Added 16/04 - ClieOS just posted a review of the iFi System I use which includes graphs for the XBass:

http://www.head-fi.org/t/659776/impression-ifi-audio-idac-ican-iusb-power-trio-of-goodness

The XBass function is shown here and can be combined with the headphone graphs to see what resultant frequency response is obtained:

 


Edited by bedlam inside - 8/17/13 at 1:21am
post #2 of 119
Thread Starter 
Grado SR-60 (£ 80) – pants or mutts nuts?

 

The Grado SR-60 is probably one of the cheapest “credible” set of headphones. You do not buy them for ultimate performance but because you want something that is a trifle better than the Apple Earpods that came with your iPhone and also something better than the “Monster Beats” ‘Cans’ endorsed by Dr Dre (“Peace!”). 
 
The ergonomics and build seem modelled on a 1920’s wireless operator headset, with a faux leather covered steel band holding the two speakers. To call the ergonomics basic is to make compliments. Well, at least your money gets spent on the actual acoustic system, not fancy plastic mouldings and big branding or celebrity endorsements (we hope).
 
As these ‘can’s are fairly light the basic construction is not that limiting. The foam earpads are to be expected at this price, though not very comfortable. Overall they are bearable, even for a good length of time, but I’d rather not wear them all the same.
 
These are open back headphones, meaning the outside is not closed. So you get to hear more of your surroundings and more sound gets out as well. Sonically, the open back nature compromises bass somewhat, there seems to be a bit of an emphasis in the mid bass, but low bass is AWOL. The open back system does rather reduce midrange colorations, human voice is quite natural.
 
The sonic balance overall is lightweight and bright, yet the sound is lively, detailed and initially quite engaging. High frequencies are a bit grainy. Sadly, especially with inexpensive drive electronics (say a Smartphone or cheap Laptop) this sound works against them, making them a little unpleasant to listen to in the long run. 
 
Using the iCAN Headphone Amp the smoothness of its Class A electronics is felt, the sound is much classier. The forward and grainy nature of the headphones (or is does it merely exposing the poor quality headphone outputs on the Laptop and smartphones?) is ameliorated quite a bit, so here we have a rather cheap headphone that only sounds good with an expensive headphone amplifier, which means it misses the point a bit.
 
With the iCAN amplifier I dialled up X-Bass to the Max and would have still liked a bit more, but I could hear the headphone drivers (not the amplifier) overloading. So if you are a bit of a Bass-Pig, avoid these headphones.  I kicked up the 3D Sound Acoustic Simulator to the max, just to get the music mostly out of my head. I also tried the equaliser in J-River to tune down the “hot” and forward balance, while this is not magic; it made the headphones much more listenable.
 
I found I dialled up the volume on the iCAN to around 12…13 o’Clock for good, loud listening levels, suggesting these headphones are quite efficient. They do go loud enough driven by common portable players and smart-phones, though a higher power and quality drive, such as the iFi iCAN is clearly audible and welcome.  
 
Sonic high points, female vocals like those on the Friend & Fellow track are quite natural and believable. Once well equalised and with bass boost music becomes quite enjoyable, due to the rather open and transparent sound quality. It is the transparency that elevates them above lesser cheap headphones.
 
As low points, a lack of bass, a forward, high frequency emphasised sound unless equalised quite heavily combined with a certain graininess/grittiness spoil a lot of music, especially when driven by lower quality sources. I’d be hard pressed to listen to anything more challenging than banal pop while wearing these on the road and without EQ and 3D Sound.
 
Sound output from these towards the outside is quite high, like all open-backed ‘Cans’ so these are not recommended in an open plan office or other situations where the sound leakage will annoy others.
 
If you are looking for an affordable upgrade, they still beat the hell out of any earpod and cheapo set of ‘phones. Plus they work with your portable player/phone giving you enough sound level.  Many player software options offer an equaliser that can be used to tame the wayward treble and to even out the bass. In this case the clean and natural midrange may well work its magic well. 
 
These are the phones if you have a rather high quality system with a headphone connection and occasionally want to listen either very loud or loud late, but you do not want to spend money for a real set of headphones. If you can spend a little more, do so and look at another brand too.

added 21/02

The Headroom site gives the frequency response of the SR60 as follows:


We can see that the mid-bass region around 100Hz is overcooked but rolloff below around 50Hz is steep. Hence I felt that the sound lacked weight and impact. The midrange peak around 2.5KHz may account for my feeling these Headphones sound forward and further peak around 9KHz may be what caused me to feel the sound was grainy.

 

Ergonomics:     2 out of 5
Build Quality:   2 out of 5
Sound Quality: 2 out of 5
Practicability:   3 out of 5

Edited by bedlam inside - 2/21/13 at 6:54am
post #3 of 119
Thread Starter 

Audio Technica ATH-ANC7 (£ 140) - Stalwart of stalwarts



 


Okay, a confession.

These are my own headphones. I had them since 2006 and they clocked up enough air-, train- and car-miles to demand their own carbon footprint. I bought them because with many long haul flights to conventions, course and trade shows, I felt I needed a defence against noise. I spend a lot of time comparing specs and listening to the various options. These ones cut it best all around, beating out the much vaunted Bose by a large margin and making short work out of the Sennheisers I tried.

In terms of ergonomics and build quality they are big corporate stuff. You find smooth, svelte, steel re-enforced injection moulded plastic, I can wear them for several hours with minimal discomfort, weight is low. However they do make me aware I am wearing headphones, they are not “free as a bird” headphones.

I had them over six years in use or in their included travel case, they still look pretty much new. An included goldplated adapter for Airline style twin headphone sockets as well as high quality 6.3mm Adapter is not just thoughtful, but a lifesaver on a 14 Hour long haul from New York to Seoul non-stop. I do carry a spare battery for the noise cancelling system, they last so long, you expect them to last forever, so they pack up when least convenient and expected. One neat advantage is that there is no ‘off board power pack’ as the battery neatly inserts into ear cup! (Sennheiser, are you reading this?)

Sound quality – these are closed back, so bass is absolute killer, like the Koss AA of yore. Since I bought them, I heard many other headphones, up to now nothing much comes close for bass weight, slam and impact, except some DJ Headphones that sound rubbish otherwise and the HiFiMAN Planars reviewed later!

The overall balance leans towards “dark”, high frequencies are slightly subdued, so it is a headphone especially suited to commercial recordings with hyped and aggressive treble.  There is a very slight “nasal” coloration in the midrange, likely due to the closed back nature, but it is not very obvious and one can get used to it quickly.

 

With the smooth Class A sound of the iCAN headphone Amp even aggressively mixed music is very enjoyable, yet there is no apparent lack of detail with acoustic music, as shown by the Friend & Fellow Track.

 

With the iCAN headphone Amplifier I felt no need to engage X-Bass at all, bass was tight and suggested at physical sensations from large speaker systems, that where sadly not present (and missed hence). However I felt that I needed the 3D Sound Acoustic turned fully up (three dots). I do not like a presentation that has the band play right inside my head.

 I found I dialled up the volume to around 11..12 o’Clock for good, loud listening levels, suggesting these headphones are quite efficient. I can use them rather well with the measly few milli-watt common Smartphone’s produce, though a higher power and quality drive, such as the iCAN is clearly audible and welcome.

The sonic high points where with the Saint Säens track where they gave a pipe organ and the kettle drums some physical presence in ways that headphones rarely do. On the O-Zone track the rendering of the percussion was detailed but smooth, lacking the tendency for me to “wince and duck” on some of the very aggressive rim shots. Equally the impact of the massed strings playing low notes on “Hopak” is quite believable.

The low point where human vocals which have a slightly congested and nasal nature, as if the singer is just about coming down with a cold, however on the Friend & Fellow Track this was barely perceptible, many may never notice.

Unlike the rest of the headphones here they do have a secret weapon. Noise Cancellation. If you sit in the tail of the Airplane, there is a lot of noise. These headphones cut the roar down to a loud whisper with noise cancellation engaged. It makes all the difference. Noise cancelling is not perfect, but it places you in a bubble of quiet with your choice of music while the modern world is screaming its technological head off.  You can now sit next to a screaming baby and just engage the noise cancellation…well not quite but you get the gist.

Equally, when used without noise cancelling engaged they have a fairly low amount of sound leakage, something that can be important if you want to listen to music at work in a large open plan office or for listening in bed if your spouse sleeps. Engaging noise cancellation increases the emitted sound, but still not anywhere near to the levels experienced by some of the other headphones in this test.

Without the noise cancelling I would consider this a slick pair of ‘Cans’ with good, if by no means exceptional performance. On the plane, train, bus or in a noisy street they are what an ice-cold drink is to a muggy august afternoon stroll down Nathan Road in Kowloon, Hong Kong (moisture 80%, temperature 38 Celsius); calming, relaxing and way kool.

added 21/02

The Headroom site gives the frequency response of the ATH-ANC7B as follows:


I may be mistaken, however this graph would appear to be for the use with these headphones in "active noise cancelling" mode, which does add an overblown bass (and makes the headphones much louder). My listening outside very noisy envoironment is always in passive mode for which I cannot find measurements, however the bass subjectively is by far more flat. The midrange and treble region is shelved down, this is what I hear as "laid back" sound. It would be nice to see measurements in "passive mode". 

 

Ergonomics:     3 out of 5

Build Quality:   3 out of 5

Sound Quality: 3 out of 5

Practicability:       4 out of 5


Edited by bedlam inside - 2/21/13 at 7:05am
post #4 of 119
Thread Starter 
Sennheiser HD-600 (£ 300) – Cult item or Curates Egg?
 

 

 
These headphones look quite ordinary, like so many others from large companies. I’m not sure if the blue speckled finish is a good thing or not, it will depend on taste. Sennheiser calls them “Professional” Headphones. Weight is modest. The build is distinctly average and plasticky, with a spring steel band embedded in plastic headband and velvet covered ear pads that do not age too gracefully. The cable also looks and feels distinctly suspect for the money, though it can be replaced and aftermarket offerings exist.
 
Ergonomics are not great, I felt them a little heavy on the pads and with a greater clamping force than other headphone here, even giving a slightly uncomfortable “head in a clamp” feel. They rather lack the totally “not wearing headphones at all” feel of the HD-800 and despite larger ear pads that extend completely over the ears I find them less comfortable to wear over time than the Audio Technica ANC7. Sure, they are a step up from the bare-bone no comfort ergonomics of Grado and HiFiMAN, but not by that much.
 
The HD600 feel slightly claustrophobic in the long run and there seems to be no “maximum comfort” mechanical adjustment, while with most headphones I can find a comfortable adjustment. Some may feel I may make too much of the issue of wearing comfort, but if you are wearing headphones for several hours in a stretch (be it at work, during a long haul flight or for a long listening session at home), it becomes very important.
 
Sonically there are strong shades of the HD-800 at less than 1/3rd the price. While not presenting a soundstage quite as open and out of your head as the HD-800, these headphones do much better than most in this respect.  Still, engaging 3D Sound on the iCAN Headphone Amplifier took the naturalness of sound staging up several notches. Bass just like with the HD-800 is slightly subdued and I felt the need to engage the first level off X-Bass on the iCAN Headphone Amp to have an even balance.
 
Like the HD-800 these are 300 Ohm headphones and do not have great efficiency. So I needed to dial up the iCAN Headphone Amplifier to around 3 – 4 o’Clock for my preferred listening levels. Forget trying to use laptops, portable players or smart-phones, a dedicated Headphone Amplifier with high output voltage is a must to drive these. The smooth sound of the iCAN does harmonise well with these headphones, making the sound very non-fatiguing and natural, allowing long term, fatigue free listening, or would if the ergonomics were less uncomfortable.
 
One sonic highlight is that whereas the HD-800 can sound a little bright (to a fault so if using less than smooth sounding electronics) the HD-600 evidences less of this trait. On Light my Fire they produce very tactile, smooth, but well projected female vocals. In fact these headphones love female vocals. The drums on Jazz-Variations have impact (with X-Bass), great spatiality and a relaxed sound that renders rim shots precise and clear but without being overtly and unnaturally aggressive. The sheer scale and grandeur of “Hopak” is represented well.
 
The HD-600s are very good sounding Headphones with average build and to me below average ergonomics. With the HD-800, Sennheiser have shown they know better. Being open back you are not isolated from noise around you and equally you leak a lot of your own music into the environment, which can cause trouble. While sonically well above average, the lacklustre build and ergonomics of the HD-600 let them down big time. Or maybe the shape of my head is not Teutonic enough? At the price they command I’d expect better, maybe more in line with the Audio Technica ATH-W1000. 
 
Sonically they offer enough of the HD-800’s magic to make them worthwhile trying on, to see if they fit your head better than mine. To me they are a Curates Egg, their excellent sound balanced by poor ergonomics and build, at too high a price, to others they may very well be THE headphone to take home.
 

added 21/02

The Headroom site gives the frequency response of the HD-600 as follows:

 


We can see the reduced bass output. Midrange is pretty flat, treble a little down but extended, basically a pretty flat response with a lack of bass. Much like what I heard.

 
Ergonomics:     3 out of 5
Build Quality:   3 out of 5
Sound Quality: 4 out of 5
Practicability:  3 out of 5

Edited by bedlam inside - 2/21/13 at 7:18am
post #5 of 119
Thread Starter 
Audio Technica ATH-W1000 (£ 450) – She's quite a looker, but can she satisfy?
 

 

These have been discontinued and a new version, the ATH-W1000X is now being sold, looking to my eyes less exciting, but largely identical.
 
Taking the ATH-W1000 out I gave a deeply felt “Wow”. These are a thing of beauty and another triumph of industrial and ergonomic design. The build quality is VERY, very nice.
 
The frame does use silver coloured plastic, but it is done very tastefully. The cherry wood covers on the drivers are extremely classy, as is the leather covering the large earpads. The 6.3mm Plugs barrel is also wood, the cable is cloth covered and gives a great feel. This is the Sonus Faber of Headphones, if I may be allowed to draw such a parallel. 
 
Ergonomically I am strongly reminded of the Sennheiser HD-800. These headphones fit easily, nicely and without feeling heavy, despite their subjectively substantial weight. There is nothing to actually adjust, you simply put them on and they fit themselves to your head shape, ingenious, to say the least. This approaches the “not wearing phones” feel of the HD-800 rather closely, only the closed back nature of these headphones means you still feel separated from sound field around you, they do isolate notably.
 
As a package the build quality and ergonomics bowled me over as much as the Sennheiser HD-800 did. Why are so many headphones generic shapes with poor wearing comfort? This pair of Cans as well as the HD-800 show that it does not have to be this way!
 
Surely you can imagine my anticipation as I put on the headphones and jacked them into the iCAN Headphone amplifier, especially knowing the rather good sound of my own pair of Audio Technica Headphones. 
 
Oh goodness gracious me, that’s minging! That was my immediate reaction. I only ever reacted like this before at a demo of a pair of Lowther Speakers…
 
Playing “Light my Fire” real bass was absent, vocals had a strong nasal coloration and extreme emphasis on upper harmonics and sibilants, the sound was very bright and forward. Kicking in the iCAN’s X-Bass as maximum did lead to a more palatable presentation, but still, even with X-Bass at the max the bass was not in the right proportion with the midrange. Even the smooth sound of the iCAN could not rescue this pair of headphones for me. 
 
On “Way Down” Tory Amos sounds nasal as if she has a bad cold. The midrange emphasis seems to do better with instrumental/orchestral works, highlighting solo instruments and giving extra spaciousness. Yet the relative lack of bass (even with X-Bass engaged at maximum) undermines this, for both “Hopak” and the “Organ Symphony”, but more so for the latter.

At least in my set of music used for the audition I could not find anything that was really suited to the ATH W1000. Kicking in 3D-Sound does its usual magic, significantly the “out of head” perception is much improved. 
 
These headphones are very efficient, in parallel with my ANC7. I dialled up the volume on the iCAN to around 11…12 o’Clock for good, loud listening levels. They do go loud enough driven by common portable players and smart-phones, but the forward and midrange emphasised tonality is not kind to low cost electronics headphone outputs  

I did not really find anything that I liked a lot in the tonality of these headphones, As low points, a lack of bass, a forward, high frequency emphasised sound. I’d be hard pressed to listen to anything on these for enjoyment or even background listening, personally speaking. I like them less than the by far cheaper Grado’s. As these are closed back headphones sound output from the headphones is lowered, which can be the deciding factor in some cases.
 
These headphones are an enigma to me. A lot of care and effort has gone into their design and I can only conclude that the tonal balance with all its faults and flaws was designed intentionally like this. Maybe this type of sound will appeal to some, in me it produced a strong rejection. 
 
I really wanted to like these headphones, they look great, I can afford them and wearing them feels great, but the sound quality is a total letdown to me. If only I could have the sound of the Sennheiser HD-600 with the build and price tag of the ATH-W1000, I’d go and buy one now.

added 21/02

The Headroom site misses the response for the ATH-W1000, but it gives the frequency response of the ATH-W5000 as follows:

 

I do not know if the W5000 response relates well to the W1000, but it sure looks like what I heard, criminal lack of bass, shouty midrange and overall bright sound.

 
Ergonomics:     4.5 out of 5
Build Quality:   5 out of 5
Sound Quality: 1 out of 5
Practicability:  3 out of 5

Edited by bedlam inside - 2/21/13 at 7:24am
post #6 of 119
Thread Starter 
HiFiMAN HE-500 (£ 700) – A Fakirs set of Headphones?

 

 
These headphones have been creating quite a stir. They are magnetic planars, meaning they do not have the classic “speaker” construction of the sound element found in normal headphones, but a flat very thin foil being vibrated, much like electrostatic headphones. In principle this should give these headphones a near unparalleled sound quality.
 
On a first blush, these headphones look very serious. The actual ‘phones are very big diameter and in your hand they feel extremely heavy. Looking closer is quite a disappointment. I understand the unit I looked at is a little early and current production is supposedly better, however given the fundamental nature of my complaints I doubt slight quality improvements are going to amount to much, excluding a full re-design.
 
Like Grado, the inspiration for this headphone was a 1920’s radio operator headset, but this time crossed with the kind of drivers you expect to find on a 1960’s tank intercom headset. At first you may fail to notice a simple steel band that forms the top (with a cover and minimal padding) and that the whole assembly is quite basic. Looking closer shows this clearly, as well as showing a rather crude assembly, with parts clearly not quite fitting well together, leaving notable gaps. I found that the ear-pads had a disturbing tendency to separate from the actual headphones at the slightest provocation. With respect - I have seen better quality of manufacturing from British single man outfits operating out of a garage.
 
Putting on these headphones feels instantly extremely oppressive and uncomfortable. The very large size of the actual speakers gives you a “Princess Leia” look, the one at the end of “A new Hope”, the first Star Wars Movie. Hey, if this floats your boat, who am I to argue?
 
No matter how I adjusted the phones, I had a lot of pressure on the upper rim of the phones (and my head upon which they pressed) and pretty much non at the bottom. The strap over the top of your head has to take much of the weight and in turn pushes down on the crown of your head. I suspect this could double as medieval torture device if you have some heavy cables attached.
 
At a cost of 700 quid I feel that these shortcomings are completely unacceptable, regardless of sound quality. A certain minimum of ergonomic design and build quality should be present at this price level. So, do these headphones have no redeeming feature? What is all the hype? Why do people buy them?
 
In short, the sound quality silly!!! (please excuse me as I’m talking to myself) 
 
When you hear them you forget, at least temporarily all the discomfort, poor build, warts and all. They do have a very large dash of “electrostatic Headphone” to their sound. They do not sound like normal headphones. They do not sound like common speakers either. 
 
It is really quite astonishing. As one listens longer it is possible to discern that the overall tonal balance is rather laid back possibly even slightly dull. Yet even with this the transparent and free sounding nature of these headphones is a revelation. In terms of sound quality alone, I could listen to these for ages without the slightest discomfort or need to take a break. 
 
The bass is simply awesome. In this they clearly beat the Stax and Koss Electrostatic headphones, there was no point engaging X-Bass on the iCAN headphone amp. I tended to dial up the Volume on the iCAN to around 1-2 o’Clock, these headphones need a bit more juice but they will still work acceptably with a standard laptop or smart phone headphone output. However to run them directly from such a source would be to miss out most of the glorious sound they make.
 
Sonic high points are pretty much everything. The bass is unbelievable in how it makes low notes believable. The low notes played by the massed strings in “Hopak” not only have weight and impact, but they also have a freeness and airiness no conventional headphone comes close to matching.
 
The only slight concern sonically is the perhaps a touch too laid back tonality. I did try to ameliorate this using the equaliser in J-River but not with enough success to recommend this. Still it is a rather minor niggle and will make the HE-500 more tolerant to headphone amplifiers with a slightly grainy, solid-state like presentation.
 
Overall these headphones are extreme. Ergonomics and build quality are as low as anything I have seen in many decades, outright amateurish. The sound quality is equally extreme; they are like almost nothing else I remember hearing in headphones, only electrostatic headphones I heard can compete (and may be still be a trifle ahead).
 
Again, these are open back, so a lot of sound leaks into the environment. Not up to standards of big Ghetto blaster toting sonic terrorists, but significant enough to preclude use in situations where your music may intrude on others.
 
Personally, they put in mind of the situation of Tantalus. I absolutely want the sound quality of these headphones, but I cannot stand to have them my head for more than a short period of time. So these are likely the most tantalising headphones out there and equally likely among the ones with the poorest comfort wearing them.

They are perfect for Audiophile Masochists and Fakirs seeking Nirvana in music. If you can detach your mind from your body so much that you do not feel the discomfort these bring with them, the music they play will take you to Nirvana. If you like Sound and Sadomasochism, you will positively lurv these headphones. If these headphones were a car, they would be an Alfa Romeo.

added 21/02

The Headroom site gives the frequency response of the HE-500 as follows:

 

The bass is dogs rude bits, flat down to 30Hz, most speakers don't even come close. The midrange is also flat, the indention in the upper mid's above 2KHz relates to my feeling that the sound was a bit too laid back, but I quite like this kind of sound.

 
Ergonomics:    2 out of 5 (was 1, upgraded after comments that my pair may not be typical)
Build Quality:   2 out of 5 (was 1, upgraded after comments that my pair may not be typical)
Sound Quality: 4.5 out of 5
Practicability:  2 out of 5

Edited by bedlam inside - 2/21/13 at 7:30am
post #7 of 119
Thread Starter 
Sennheiser HD-800 (£ 1,200) – Light as a Breeze (except on the old wallet)

 

 
These headphones look quite Sci-Fi.  With the extensive use of silver accents they could be a prop right out of Star Wars. In fact, you can imagine perfectly Princess Leia wearing them as she chills out in-between each Star Wars ‘episode’. 
 
As I picked them up they felt rather solid and heavy – making me concerned that they may be less than comfortable. The opposite is true. They sit so light on my head and ears; it was hard to believe I was wearing headphones at all. This truly is a masterpiece of ergonomics, easy to adjust for my head and feeling light as a breeze. 
 
The build quality is not just German style; this is the Mercedes Benz S-Class of Headphones. You will know it the moment you hold them. They make the best Stax headphones look cheap and nasty. My friend’s pair clearly had seen a lot of use and had some dents in the silver marred the finish.
 
My next surprise came with the sound. As all of the headphones I started my audition with X-Bass and 3D Sound disabled. Totally unexpected to me the HD-800’s actually had significant “out of head” feel to them, yes there was even some imaging. Fritter my wig, UNBELIEVABLE. I did not know you could even DO THAT with passive headphones! 
 
After calming down some and listening more I still preferred to kick the 3D Sound Acoustic Simulator into top gear, this gave even more felt distance to the perceived sound sources, an even less closed in or close up sound. The presentation of space these headphones offer is something very special among headphones. 
 
After getting over that shock more listening revealed that the very low bass was slightly subdued, kicking in the lower (middle) setting of the iCAN’s X-Bass dealt with this nicely. The sonic  overall balance tends slightly towards bright, but nowhere near the way it does with the Grado’s. The midrange is extremely transparent. 
 
Only in the treble does the magic fade. Cone or dome drivers simply cannot match electrostats or magnetic planars for the “lightness of touch”, high frequencies sound slightly hissy and blurred, however mercifully not grainy. Had I not experienced the HiFiMAN HE-500’s I would happily declare the HD-800’s the best non-electrostatic headphones under the sun. As it is, the HiFiMAN HE-500’s with all its shortcomings, trump the Sennheiser Cans in this department and ONLY in this department by a large margin.
 
These are 300 Ohm headphones and not of the greatest efficiency either, I needed to dial up the iCAN to around 3 – 4 o’Clock for my preferred listening levels. Forget laptops, portable players or smart-phones, these need a serious dedicated Headphone Amplifier. But really, who lugs 1.2K headphones on the road and drives them from an iPhone?
 
Sonic highlights are simple. Space, space, space and more space, than even that Galaxy far far away. With these headphones I can feel the space in the recordings. I use Tori Amos’s “Way Down” to judge special rendition, without the 3D Sound Acoustic Simulator only these headphones can present anything that makes sense. Even with the 3D Sound Acoustic Simulator on all headphones these ‘can’s prove that their science fiction styling is appropriate – space is the final headphone frontier. The midrange is natural, uncoloured and transparent. These make great “monitors” for recording.
 
Downsides, sonically, the treble is merely adequate to these ears that are used to magnetic planars as tweeters from my speakers and have heard the HiFiMAN HE-500. The female vocals on Friend & Fellow has a slight touch of hissiness to them. The slightly attenuated low bass also dulled the impact, for example of the kettle drums in St Säens #3 sounded a touch lightweight.
 
The HD-800 are ALMOST the perfect set of Headphones. The ergonomics should be studied and copied or improved upon by each and every headphone maker. How these headphones manage to present a good image should be another topic of study. If it was not for the sound of electrostatic headphones like Stax, Koss and Jecklin or the old and new crop of magnetic planars from Audeze, Fostex and HiFiMAN, they might very well be the best headphones in the world, but these others exist and next to them the HD-800 misses quite a bit of “magic”, relegating them merely to very good. 
 
Their open back nature means you treat the people around you to a good dose of your own music and they do nothing to keep external noise out, though this adds to their charm and to their “I do not feel like I am wearing or listening to headphones” nature, which is really the reson de etré.
 
Like with the HiFiMAN Headphones these are tantalising. If they cost 400 squid and could be driven well by a smart-phone or laptop headphone output, I’d buy them on the spot. At three times the price and only suited to home use, I can neither justify the expense nor do I have the slightest inclination to do much headphone listening at home. And I want the “magic” the HiFiMAN planar’s weave too.
 
Combine the best of the Sennheiser and the HiFiMAN Phones, sell them at £ 700 and there is a good chance that the queues in front of the headphone shops start approaching those in front of Apple stores when a new iPhone comes out.

added 21/02

The Headroom site gives the frequency response of the HD800 as follows:

 

The bass is quite good, a little attenuated. The midrange droops and upper midrange is further depressed. Maybe my perception of brightness comes from overall boost in the treble. I wonder if the feeling of spaciousness is a result of this frequency response or something else.

 
Ergonomics:     5 out of 5
Build Quality:   5 out of 5
Sound Quality: 4 out of 5
Practicability:  3 out of 5

Edited by bedlam inside - 2/21/13 at 7:42am
post #8 of 119

What is so bad about the build quality of the HE500?

post #9 of 119
Thread Starter 

A conclusion of sorts

 

 

 


In many cases I have heard people assert that Headphone listening is much more representative, much less coloured and much clearer than listening via speakers, some going as far as claiming that ANY headphones are better than ANY speakers.

 

I have always found this to be a big load of tosh, tosh and more tosh. This round of headphone testing has done little to change my mind. Just compare the frequency responses of four of the headphones in this survey:



Just looking at this graph, frequency response is all over the place, 10dB differences at 100Hz, over 20dB at 30Hz nearly 20dB differences in the upper midrange. This is not accurate reporioduction and most of these headphones command a significant amount of money!


That said, the last decade or so has seen some advances in headphone technology and listening and only for the better. The best headphones nowadays are very good, but they do cost as much as a very decent pair of speakers. For all but the price and its small sonic foibles the Sennheiser HD-800 is near perfect, the AKG K701 is great if it's lack of bass is remedied.

 

I also hope we will see more magnetic planar headphones with a different grade of build quality to those we find today, but the same great sound.

Affordable, dedicated electronics for headphones with controls that mitigate against the problems that listening to recordings made for speaker replay with headphones brings, are an incalculably large step forward and for me at least the iCAN has made many of the Headphones in this survey enjoyable in a way that would not have been possible without these controls.

 

For anyone wanting to buy headphones, the great variation in both sound balance and quality and wearing comfort make it mandatory to me to test headphones in person. I cannot for the time being see myself buying a pair of expensive headphones unheard, unworn from some anonymous on-line shop. 

 

Given how few traditional hifi shops remain and how few of these carry a decent range of headphones it is time for me to go to the nearest Can-Jam and spend serious time, continuing to seek the right headphone for me, as a significant upgrade over what I have.

Cheerio Rich

Note, added graph and some more comments 21/02


Edited by bedlam inside - 2/21/13 at 8:26am
post #10 of 119
Thread Starter 

Hi,

Quote:
Originally Posted by nicholars View Post

What is so bad about the build quality of the HE500?


Put them next to the AT W-1000 or the Sennie HD-800 and you will know.

Instantly.

Screws and parts that don't fit, comes apart at the slightest provocation. PLEASE. Something that makes Grado's SR-60 "well made"?

At 100 squid I'd complain.

 

At 700? Pull my finger.

Cheerio Rich

post #11 of 119

Nice to see all these phones reviewed. Your assessment of build quality seems to be harsh and ergonomics, while a personal issue, doesn't seem inline with the masses.

post #12 of 119
Thread Starter 

Hi,
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Slaughter View Post

Nice to see all these phones reviewed. Your assessment of build quality seems to be harsh and ergonomics, while a personal issue, doesn't seem inline with the masses.


Maybe - I call them as I see them. 

My big stereo is all british stuff, almost all from one (or a few) man outfits operating from a garage or similar. So I am hardly used to excessive build quality.

But when screws stick out and nothing fits or I am asked to lay down a lot of looly for a bunch of plastic, I am not all that chuffed.

Ergonomics, well, maybe my head ain't "average" or of "the masses" (Green Street Londoner I am, I probably have a big 'ead).

Too bad. The best in this area do manage to make this a non-issue. The worst? Less said the better. 

Cheerio Rich

post #13 of 119

It does seem a bit harsh "1 out of 5"...

 

I would love to see you review some cheaper headphones such as HTF 600 or M audio Q40 LOL...

 

You would probably give the build quality and ergonomics -1000000000000000 / 5

post #14 of 119
Thread Starter 

Hi,

Quote:
Originally Posted by nicholars View Post

It does seem a bit harsh "1 out of 5"...

 

I would love to see you review some cheaper headphones such as HTF 600 or M audio Q40 LOL...

 

You would probably give the build quality and ergonomics -1000000000000000 / 5


I felt the 1 was justified. To me build quality means how well things are put together, not necessarily how much material was used.

Overall the build standards of the HiFi Man Headphone are way below the Grado SR-60. They are just not "well made" by design. Nothing fits properly.

Ergonomics gets such a low score because these are VERY HEAVY headphones and they are among the most uncomfortable of any I ever had.

I was not exactly chuffed with the Sennheiser HD-600 Build and Ergonomics, but next to the HE-500 these are absolutely smashing.

HiFiman have developed amazingly good planar drivers. If they had paid at least halve as much attention to how the things are build and making sure screws fit, wood does not split etc., maybe invested in plastic mouldings or cast aluminium, these would be the dogs danglies, as it stands, they are a bit of a dog, very sadly.

Maybe you have a newer manufactured model? I heard these are supposed to be better.

 

Do the ear pads stay in place? Do the screws at the ear pieces fit? Can you adjust them for even pressure around your ears and to support their weight only by this of does it feel like someone is using the medieval skull crusher on you when you wear them?

Cheers Rich

post #15 of 119

I dont have any but I was thinking of getting some HE400...

 

After reading your reports on build quality and weight I am having second thoughts....

 

Personally I thought the HD650 were well made except for the chipping paint....

 

Are the hifiman really THAT bad? like literally fall apart? What is actually wrong with them specifically?

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