I'm not an audio engineer nor do I have 'golden ears' or for that matter any particular expertise as far as music is concerned. I was a guy looking to upgrade his classical music listening gear. In what follows I'm going to post a couple of impressions that some gear and explain the rationale behind my purchasing decision. My opinions are my own and worth what you're paying for them but hopefully someone who might find themselves in the same situation might gain some inspiration from what follows. I'm not affiliated in any way with any of the companies mentioned except as a customer.
I live/work in two places (Europe and India, about 2/3 of the time in India). Have the luxury of making my money from a well appointed office just above my residence in both locations and I'm a great lover of classical music, mainly instrumental, less vocal. Listen to concertos, chamber music, some opera, sonata's... Favourite instruments are violin, piano, oboe. Organ music too but in small doses.
This is important as I've found out that headphones and DACS/AMPS that tend to work well with one type of music (even within one genre) are no guaranteed match for other genres. So keep in mind: the following may not apply to rock, electronic music, metal etc. I listen to classical music for about 8 hours/day while working and at home I dedicate at least one hour/day to consciously listen to a selected piece.
Sound flavour preference:
In one word: neutral. I like to hear the music to approximate to the maximum extent what you'd hear sitting in a good spot in the concert hall/opera/church/room where it's performed.
Cutting through a long explanation, for me that implies a quest for good quality source material and a solid state setup + high quality headphones offering a good soundstage, accurate instrument separation and accurate rendition across the spectrum. No tubes, sorry. I feel that these by their very nature introduce a level of distortion and sound colouring far surpassing most SS gear. That might in certain cases be pleasing but nonetheless, I’m not a fan.
Macbook pro running Amarra 2.5.1, about 8000 tracks in FLAC-format, subscription to an online classical music streaming site, USB connection to a Fiio E17/E09K combo and the same to an Epiphany acoustics O2D in my other living/working location, then to a pair of BD-880 cans (600 Ohm).
Lowball, I know but keep in mind my lack of fixed home base and frequent travel. The dac/amp stays in the same place, the headphones travel with me. Incidentally: I'm not too sold on the FiiO (slightly warm signature and so-so quality) but I REALLY like the O2D and not just 'for the price'; I believe it to be good in absolute terms for my purposes. Anyway, I decided to upgrade, wanted first to get just one good pair of cans but ended up settling on quite some more gear *cough*.
Based on a ton of reviews read on this and other sites during a goodly number of nights I shortlisted the following headphones for an auditioning session:
- Beyerdynamic T1
- Sennheiswer HD-800
- HifiMan HE-500
- HifiMan HE-6
Incidentally, I'm quite satisfied with the performance of my Beyerdynamic DT-880, just wanted to see if I could find something a bit more specialised and higher quality, mainly for soundstage and instrument separation as I have the impression that the 880 tends to ‘clump together’ the midstage a bit in faster paced music and sometimes has treble that runs a bit too hot.
Of special note if you listen to music for long stretches at a time is that these are supremely comfortable to wear; I usually have them on for 2-3 hour stretches at a time and that’s absolutely no problem, the velours earpads fit well and don’t make me sweat which is saying something as in my Delhi office temperatures routinely reach 30 centigrade during summer even with the AC going full blast. I do find that the quality of the headband adjustment could be improved upon but that’s a minor thing. Also, the cables cannot be detached which might be an issue should they get damaged or if you’re into cable switching.
If you’re looking for a relatively low-priced good quality set of cans that cover a variety of music types then by all means, give the DT-880's a try.
When I was in Europe just a couple of days ago I drove 360 km to one store that stocked all of the above (and a ton of other gear) and spent 5 hours auditioning the various cans (all of which had been burned in for at least 250 hours according to the sound engineer). Following the suggestion of the shop's engineer I used a Burson conductor and a Violectric V800/V200 DAC/amp combo to feed the cans (*he was a bit on the fence regarding the HE-6 amping requirements but more about that later).
Material used were FLACS with selected excerpts from Igor Stravinsky’s ‘the rite of spring’ (huge dynamic range), Georg Muffat’s concerto grosso nr. 8 in F, Christopher Willibald von Glücks ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ , Original version in Italian conducted by Hänchen (the aria from the 3rd act, scene 1, ‘Che faro senza Euridice’) and various organ works by J.S. Bach. All of these I have heard at least 3 times in live performances (2 times for the opera).
Preliminary remark: we’re talking about headphones that represent the summit of their respective brands in a price bracket ranging from 1000 to about 1300 Euro with the exception of the HE-500 which is cheaper at around 600 Euro and after having heard them I really feel there are no ‘bad’ phones here, just different flavours and interpretations of ‘very good’.
T1: As I said I was curious about this BD model as I own the 880 and wanted to see to what extent these would be improved upon. I’ve found the T1 to be basically an overall better version of the DT-880 but it definitely is a case of evolution rather than revolution. Build quality is higher although comfort wise I Ihave a slight preference for the DT-880 which can perhaps be chalked down to being used to it.
Soundwise and after comparison with the competition it’s clear that there really is something like a BD ‘house’ sound signature. I do have the impression that in comparison with the 880’s the T1 have been tweaked to place some extra emphasis on the bass as well as the treble which recesses the midrange somewhat. I feel that the treble can become harsh, this was especially noted when combined with the Burson conductor. There is however a considerable improvement in the level of detail one can hear and soundstage is both larger and more precisely defined. The thing is, for the premium being charged (about 990 EUR for the T1 vs 250 for the 880’s) I don’t feel that the improvements are sufficient. This is not meant negatively toward the T1 but rather indicates the value that the 880 represents imo.
Sennheiser HD-800 : Many detailed reviews the quality of which I won’t be able to match have been written about these cans. They brought a huge smile to my face almost the second the music started flowing: extremely wide soundstage, well defined, neutral with enormous detail and separation.
Of the headphones I auditioned I feel that (although this was probably not their intention) this one had been specifically conceived for classical music listening. They really displays EVERYTHING, which I like but also means that any grain or recording errors in the source material will be served piping hot.
That’s a tradeoff I’m willing to accept but if you have a huge collection of older recordings (the Glenn Gould 1955 recording of the Goldberg variations spontaneously comes to my mind) and detest recording artefacts to the point that they detract from your musical enjoyment then I’d recommend the Beyers (which also display these but less prominently).
Many reviews describe the HD-800 as ‘analytical’ and I wholly agree but in a good way, at least when paired with the right amplifier; with the Violectric this was nirvana but I have to say that with the Conductor and especially in the treble, analytical tended to turn to ‘cold and clinical’ on a couple of occasions, akin to witnessing a dissection rather than enjoying the music. I know nothing about amps and before setting out on this small quest I believed that any differences between ss dac/amps of good quality would at best be marginal, a position i've now revised.
At least for the HD-800 headphones I believe it’s essential to first try them with your setup before purchasing for precisiely that reason. Comfort was very good, on par with my BD-880’s and the build quality is superb with a finish that invokes associations with precision-manufactured aerospace components, also for this aspect it appeared to me as being the best of the lot by a substantial margin. I’m less convinced by their futuristic looks but ok, I don’t look at them while they’re on my head.
….and now on to the planars.
While researching I read lots of comments both praising or condemning HifiMan’s HE-6 planar magnetic headphones and a wide variety of opinions as to how to drive them ranging from ‘any reasonably powered amp can do it’ to people who feel that they require a nuclear reactor powered pair of monoblocks or else you migh as well not bother. There were also a lot of divergent opinions about wether the HE-6 were just an overpriced version of the HE-500 or if they represented a genuinly different and higher quality product. I was intrigued, generally not a good omen for my bank account.
These are my impressions:
The HE-6 was a really nice surprise. The audio specialist at the place were I went for my auditioning session was not convinced that either the Burson or the Violectric would be able to drive them correctly and tried to convince me into auditioning them with HifiMan’s EF-6 amplifier, fed by the Violectric V800 DAC or the Burson’s DAC stage.
Perhaps a bit foolishly, I declined due to time constraints and because based on the Burson and Violectric specs (output of 2700 mW /11.6 V @ 50 Ohm for the latter) it should work just fine. Innerfidelity measures the HE-6 at 19.7 mW / 1.018 Vrms for a 90 DB SPL., Considering the specs of the V200 and calculating the Vrms, ample power (and then some) is on tap to do this. OK, this is a simplification as the values stated by innerfidelity are probably averages and classical music has a huge dynamic range but still it should be more than enough. And it was, I cranked up the gain and volume to way beyond my usual listening level and the sound remained just as good.
How to describe the sound? Very transparent and neutral to my ears with extremely good separation and detail rendering. Soundstage was large but just a bit less well developed than with the HD-800. The phones also brought something new which I find hard to describe: a sense of clarity/vibrancy that was not there with the other headphones; I’d call it ‘musicality’ but it’s hard to convey what I mean. If the HD-800 has the character of a tremendously accomplished but a bit remote, older technician then the HE-6 is his dynamic younger sidekick. Or picture the Microsoft vs the Apple guy back in the days that Apple was still doing cutting edge things.
I found them very neutral all over the frequency range –despite my ‘musicality’ remark, fast. To me the pairing with the Violectric seemed ideal, paired with the conductor I found the result overly analytic and bordering on harsh.
It was love at first sight….BUT…there’s one major area of concern: comfort. The cans are fine to wear for a while but I greatly fear that really extended sessions might become tiring , one feels the weight and there’s also a bit too much clamping pressure.
The HE-500, to my ears, is a different kettle of fish from the HE-6. Looking at the Frequency Response Curves and other data one might expect an easier to drive, more civilized version of the HE-6. However, although these are beyond any doubt very good headphones and despite the objective measurements, they sound very different to me compared to the HE-6.
The HE-500 paired with the Violectric dac/amp sounded decidedly warm and soundstage and detail level are less than with the HE-6. With the conductor however, my ears could detect virtually no difference between the HE-6 and HE-500 and I guess the ‘deformation’ introduced by that dac/amp is countered somehow by the signature of the HE-500. But we’re talking nuances here, subjectively witnessed in a single short test. Still, for classical music and absolute performance I clearly prefer the HE-6. Unfortunately the wearing comfort of the 500 exhibits the same issues as encountered with the HE-6
Before concluding, a short word on the DACS/AMPS.
I tried both the Burson conductor and the Violectric V800/V200 combo with each headphone. I found both to do really well. To my ears the Burson does a more detailed, fleshed out job with soundstage presentation and detail rendering, the Violectric combo releases a touch of ‘warmth’ and what I termed as ‘musicality’ overall.
My personal preference goes to the Violectric but I add that we’re talking about classical music and a highly subjective opinion. If you like electronic music or fast rock then I can imagine a different order of preference.
Of special note: I contacted Violectric with some very specific questions regarding their gear after the audition and received a prompt and very detailed reply from Mr. Fried Reim, their CEO. This shows a clear commitment and the fact that they stand behind their product, things that to me are as least as important as the strictly technical specs. Note that I did not say Burson doesn’t do this but as for me the matter was settled at this point I did not contact them.
My ranking keeping in mind how the headphones sounded:
HE-6 > HD-800 > T1 > HE-500 > DT-880
And keeping in mind my specific set of circumstances (living in 2 locations, impossibility to lug along all gear while shifting between locations etc):
HD-800 > HE-6 > T1 > HE-500 > DT-880.
I cannot possibly give a purchase recommendation; too much depends on the music you listen to, subjective factors and taste, not to mention budget and the gear you might already have, especially where the HE-6 is concerned due to its power requirement. I stand by my assertion that every single one of these headphones is by itself a very good product and worthy of serious consideration. You should really go out and audition them.
So what did I end up purchasing?
Choices, choices….I walked in expecting to purchase one set of cans and –possibly- one amp. I walked out with the V800/V200 dac/amp combo, the HD-800 and (against practical reason but because I absolutely love the way they sound) the HE-6.
Will post some more comparisons between the HE-6/HD-800/DT-880 once I’ve gained a couple of month of listening experience.