I'm in a search for sealed headphones to use during airplane flights and during recording (to lay down vocal tracks on top of previously recorded tracks). My current headphones are Sennheiser HD545, (which are sonically similar to the HD600, but are said to be less refined).
I ordered both the Onkyo HS-FC300 and the Sennheiser Amperiors. Both are sealed headphones with good sonic isolation (see the specs on InnerFidelity.com). The Amperiors were too good a deal to pass up. Tyll's review of the Onkyo HS-FC300 on InnerFidelity was intriguing and described a sonic signature I thought I'd like. The Onkyo was $149 and the Amperior, on close-out, $139. I played each headphone for about three days running off my iPod Touch run from a wall wart. I definitely noticed a difference in the sound of each headphone prior to the three day "burn in." The Onkyo started out shallow and tinny sounding. The Amperior sounded muddy, congested, right out of the box.
I really like the sound of the Onkyos, for the most part. I listen to a lot of acoustic music and jazz. I love hearing the human interaction with the instrument, the acoustic details that let you know a wooden or brass instrument are being played, the sound of fingers on strings or the palpably fleshy sound of a handclap. The Onkyo communicated a lot of more of this kind of musical detail and character, as well as more of the the atmospheric and spacial cues of the space in which the music was recorded. My two reference tracks were the Beatles "Here Comes the Sun" and Diana Krall's "Frim Fram Sauce." On "Here Comes the Sun", handclaps were more clearly recognizable on the Onkyos than the Amperiors. The opening, which features sweet chords played on an acoustic steel guitar on the left side, and a sort of sonic meteor that streaks over to the right side and ignites the sonic field, is just delightful on the Onkyos. Acoustic stand up bass has great slap, timing and woodiness on the Diana Krall cuts. On the down side, the sound could be too hot. At the risk of using terms I may not completely understand, the upper mids, at the high range of vocals, could get harsh. Listening to Diana Krall's "Frim Fram Sauce" from my second gen. iPod Touch, when I got the volume to the point where I really liked the body and impact of the music, the upper range of her vocals would get harsh enough to hurt my ears. And no one would describe Diana Krass's mellow voice as shrieky! Your ears may vary. However, on a number of women vocalists I experienced this dynamic, but only on some tracks. For example, Krall tracks from other albums were sometimes fine. On tracks with more treble energy, I found it very touchy to get the volume as loud as I preferred for most of the music, yet avoid painful peaks. To be fair, I'm spending disproportionate time in this mini-review describing the problem: I mostly loved listening to my music with these headphones, and found myself staying up late to listen to "just one more" song re-discovered through these headphones.
But the sometimes painful highs of the Onkyos combine with a difficult physical fit to make the headphone tough to wear for more than 40 minutes or so for me. I found them both sonically and physically fatiguing. Part of the problem is that even when in its smallest position, the headband is too big for me (I'm 5' 1" tall, with a reasonably proportionate head). I wrapped a washcloth around the headband and fastened it with a wire (not a great look, BTW), thinking I could buy an aftermarket headband cushion to wrap around. This at least let me experience being able to sustain the earcups in a somewhat "correct" position. The ear pads fit circumaurally on me, but rubbed the upper rear of my ears in a way that limited how long I could wear them. For $149, I felt that I wanted better comfort without having to futz and bodge. Even with these issues, I kept putting off getting the RMA code to send these back. I'll miss them!
The Amperiors are a low impedance variant of the longtime Sennheiser HD25. They were an experiment by Sennheiser to make an HD-25 that could be easily driven by iPods and the like without an additional amp, and they also feature aluminum (please don't flame me for leaving out the British 'i') ear cups. Though originally with a pricetag of some $300 or so, they are now being heavily discounted on clearance. These are lightweight, great for on-the-go listening due to a very secure fit, and virtually all parts are user-replaceable, with parts likely to be available through Sennheiser and third parties for a long time. The sound takes some getting used to for me, as it is very, very different from the detailed and somewhat airy sound of the Onkyos. My godson described the Onkyos as something like listening to music from the first row, while the Amperiors are like having the sound be very directly placed in your ear. The Amperior's sound seems to arise from a black velvet cloak. The sound itself is not muffled, but it is more weighted down than the quick-paced Onkyo's, to me. Understanding just what instruments are being played to create the sound I'm hearing takes some intellectual effort, as compared to the Onkyo's, probably because separation and detail are not as good. While enjoyable, I did not find myself entranced, as I was with the Onkyo's sound.
I enjoyed the Amperior's sound more when I used the iPod EQ settings, putting them to "acoustic" or even better "spoken word." I found myself almost constantly fiddling with the EQ from song-to-song when using the Amperiors. These two headphones, the Amperior and the Onkyo, made me really want to download a better EQ app so that I could control each band of response individually. Sadly, with the Onkyo, I couldn't find an EQ setting that could tone down harsh vocals without doing too much damage to the rest of the frequency response.
The fit of the Amperior was almost the opposite of the fit of the Onkyo. The Onkyo was like putting on slippers that felt good initially, but which created a blister in one spot after a while. The Amperiors were like having two tiny fists in two tiny, soft boxing gloves clamped to my head. Like lacing up stretchy but tight running shoes, putting the Amperiors on after wearing the Onkyos was sort of fun. But slipping into my big, plush velour Sennheiser HD-545s afterward elicited an involuntary, "AAAAhhhhhh." Leaving the Amperiors stretched over my sewing machine cover when not on my head really loosened the fit--but the headband has a strong memory, and within the hour would be back to its tight self.
I'm not sure if I'll return both these headphones, or keep the Amperiors while I keep looking, with the thought that I can always sell them later for not much less than I paid. I must admit, I'm tempted to return both, snag a pair of Sony 7506, and be done.
My apologies to those who may find this too long. And for those of you good enough to read to this end, I'll appreciate your thoughts both on these two mini-reviews and with what you think I should do in this particular headphone quest.
yours in music,