I was recently in need of closed headphones and curious about what the market offers. I thought I might share my findings with someone in a similar situation.
I am a speaker builder with measurement equipment, so I know what is neutral and undistorted sound. Unlike speaker systems, most headphones have no crossover or frequency response correction circuit. So, it is critical to be able to know how much such uneven responses affect perception of their sound with respect to accuracy and neutrality. I have good sense of it since I have been measuring sound. But I do not have proper equipment for headphone measurement, mostly importantly a dummy torso/head, nor am I willing to invest time in making a DIY setup. This is the reason why my search and audition have been limited to headphones for which measurement data exist, with some exceptions (see below). I made use of three different sources for the data: InnerFidelity.com, Headphone.com, and en.GoldenEars.net. While there is consistency within each site's measurements, there is also inconsistency between them, due to different measurement conditions and compensation methods. So, I researched and took those into account.
One may say we can use EQ to remedy irregular frequency responses. But EQ has its own limitations. Some minor EQ'ing can help, but headphones that need too extensive correction should be avoided. The foremost reason is the loss of dynamic range. Theoretically, with EQ you can only limit, not increase, dynamic range in a certain frequency band. On the source side, you lose digital bit depth, and on the headphone side, you suppress the driver's efficient response range.
Below is the list of headphones that I have auditioned (in the order of their street prices):
- Tascam TH-02 ($30; no data available)
- Panasonic RP-HTF600-S ($32; semi-open headphones)
- Brainwavz HM3 / Incipio F38 ($35; no data available)
- Tascam TH-2000 ($50; no data available)
- AKG K518LE ($50)
- Sennheiser HD 429 ($65)
- Creative Aurvana Live! ($70)
- KRK KNS 6400 ($90)
- Shure SRH440 ($90)
My DIY speaker system (it measures very flat) served as a reference with respect to tonal balance. I also own some open headphones like Sony MDR-MA900 and Sennheiser PX100, which also provided a baseline when I evaluated tonal balance of the headphones under comparison. I used a desktop headphone amp that has flat FR and reasonably low output impedance.
I will give short, summarized impressions of each pair.
Tascam TH-02 (no measurement data available)
This is a really nice surprise. There is a little hump in the bass and midbass regions, and some wide, shallow dip in upper mids and lower treble (i.e., slightly polite presentation). Otherwise, these are relatively accurate headphones at a fraction ($30) of cost of headphones of comparable quality. Construction is good for the price. The pad size is between over-ear and on-ear, but comfortable enough.
Panasonic RP-HTF600-S (semi-open headphones)
Warm tone, deep bass. Treble is there, but upper mids and lower treble are lacking. Comfortable to wear. A good value, but not great for those looking for reasonably accurate sound.
Brainwavz HM3 / Incipio F38 (no data available)
Mid/upper bass ruins the sound which has otherwise good midrange-treble balance. Very uncomfortable to wear due to non-swivel cups.
Tascam TH-2000 (no data available)
Simply inferior to its younger brother TH02. Very dull and muddy presentation. The model uses the same ear cups as TH02 but contains different drive units. The driver may have better components but execution must be bad. Not worth the asking price.
You need to remove the thick foam pad at the driver's front (easily removable) to have better bass-to-mids balance. Even the pad removed, the phones still have bass-oriented sound, but not bad. Mids to treble balance is good. Somewhat similar sound signature to Tascam TH-02's. But the TH-02 sounds a little more natural. The headband can be too small for some people. The clamping force is a bit above a comfortable level.
Sennheiser HD 429
Anothter pair of headphones with bass emphasis. Not overly bassy, though. But a bigger problem is treble, which is a little too polite to be neutral. I would not consider these headphones a good value.
Creative Aurvana Live!
Smooth and warm tone. Bass is somewhat loose at times. Treble has sparkles and at the same time sounds smooth. But relative to bass and treble, upper mids and lower treble are somewhat recessed, making the headphones’ sound colored. Some people may feel them musical and full, but I prefer the Tascam TH02 at a lower price. The appearance is very good, though, with some feel of high quality. Very comfortable to wear with memory foam pads.
KRK KNS 6400
It has much more neutral sound than the headphones described above. Mid- and upper bass is somewhat lacking, and treble is a little overly presented. Good monitor-type sound. But there is one problem with these headphones. They are not very efficient, which means their usability is limited---you need a desktop headphone amp or a high-current capable portable amp to make them sound good. A little too bright treble is a weakness, too.
Without doubt, these are the best of the bunch. Perceived dynamic range is unbelievably wide. These are in a different league in terms of clarity as well---perhaps, the KNS 6400 is close but also with weaknesses (see above). Treble is sometimes a little on the bright side, but not as bright as the KNS 6400’s. Some people may find them bright with bright recordings, but the headphones should not be blamed for that. These produce very neutral and accurate sound. Bass is sufficient and often pleasantly strong in the mid- and upper bass regions, but deeper bass is not covered by these cans. Most music recordings do not contain this deep bass, anyway.
I summarize my findings with the following top two picks:
1. Shure SRH440: These are the headphones you can safely choose under $100 if what you are looking for is accurate, neutral sound.
2. Tascam TH-02: This is a secret gem. At $30, you get really good closed cans. Its overall presentation is not as clear as the SRH440’s, but with their price factored in, you cannot complain. They are definitely in the same league as the AKG K518LE (foam pads removed) and the Creative Aurvana Live. It may depend on personal preference, but among the three, my pick is the Tascam. The Creative has a better look and feel, but I’d choose the Tascam for its sound.
Another headphone model I wanted to include in my search was the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro ($90-$100), but after I listened to the Shure SRH440, I decided not to. According to HeadRoom's measurements and many people's common impressions, the HD 280 Pro has a little subdued treble compared to the SRH440 which has great mids to treble balance when compared to my reference speakers. The Sennheiser covers the lowest octave much better than the Shure, but that is not my priority.
I also considered the Koss ProDJ100 because of good reviews, but ruled them out because of their measurements. Their response might be flat in fundamental tones from most instruments but not with harmonics due to a large dip around 5-6kHz. Some people may think they sound good, but there is no way for them to sound accurate and natural by my standard.
Edited by Jay_WJ - 9/23/13 at 7:06am