Where is the "real sound" within the 'high-end headphones' category?
Feb 7, 2012 at 1:06 PM Thread Starter Post #1 of 21

Der Germane

100+ Head-Fier
Dec 27, 2002
Hi folks.
At the moment I own one pair of beyerdynamic T1, Sennheiser HD800, Sennheiser Orpheus [incl. amplifier] and Stax SR-009 (together with SRM-727 II).
[And some other cheaper mid-fi phones like K701, HD650, DT880, SR325, etc.]
Also I've tried out some orthos like LCD-2 and Hifiman.
All very good headphones, in my opinion.
I listen a lot to classical music and there is something that is probably really strange... at least for me...
First let me tell a short story:
The violins of every orchestra sound different, sometimes only slightly, but they sound different.
You'll often only hear it, if your're used to it.
That's no problem at all, it's more like a feature, since the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra does not sound like the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, etc.
When it comes to recordings, every recording adds its on characteristics to the sound of the violins.
Deutsche Grammophon recordings sound different to f.e. Decca or Telarc recordings, while there is also a difference between different years.
The 60s recordings of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra sound different to the recordings that are made today from the same orchestra.
Then there are different recording locations and recording engineers. This all will affect the recording as well.
But that's not complicated enough:
For example:
The violins then simply sound different with every headphone I own.
But now I ask myself: What is the "real" sound of the orchestra like?
Or -at least- what  is the real sound of the recording?
Some recordings sound best to me with SR-009, some with HD800, some with HE90 and some others with T1... only paying attention to the sound of the violins.
You easily could add the sound of trumpets, violoncello, etc. to this comparison to get to an even more complicated result... and maybe no final result.
But where or what is the real sound?
Yeah, well, these are strange "problems"... but you can clearly see -by using this example- that there is no "perfect" high-end headphone!
(Or at least it's me who thinks that there isn't such a headphone...)
No, IMHO it does not even come close, as long as nobody knows what the real sound should be.
This all also can be a lot of fun, as you'll listen to a very different presentation using f.e. the HE90 instead of the HD800 while listening to a musical piece.
Those are "high end" phones, and I can see why -compared to other headphones-, but none of the cans has the right to claim that it sound like "the truth/reality".
The "real sound" is only out there when I visit the Berliner Philharmoniker, London Symphony Orchestra, NYPh, Wiener Philharmoniker, Concertgebouw, etc. live on stage.
What do I want to say with this text?:
Well, you might get it, I'm kind of a confused Einstein (my hair at least
) and I'm not really used to write texts in English, but my statement in this point could be the following:
High end headphones are real fun because of their ability to sound so (damn) good and sometimes really seductive, so that you can't stop listening to music with them.
But on the other side, there is a "curse" that you'll never listen to the music as it is or was presented in real life, because it is simply limited and changed/transformed by the recording itself and further more by the headphone used to listen to it.
But if you think that you know headphones that sound (close to) "real", please let me know.
Also let me know what you generally think about the maximum quality sound that you can get out of headphones.
So far... Greetings from Germany!

Feb 7, 2012 at 1:45 PM Post #2 of 21


New Head-Fier
Dec 23, 2009
This is true and can be said at every stage of audio reproduction.  Every microphone sounds different and as someone in the business of music, you choose to your taste, really.  Some really love the sound of a Shure SM57 on electric guitar amps...  I don't and prefer condensors.  So it goes.
I recently joined the Stax club with a 007 mkII and SRM-007t II amp.  The sound is warm but very detailed.  It sounds great and have converted me to the stat side of things.  I say you have a nice problem with very nice gear.  Enjoy and use the one that makes the gear disappear and the music come alive.
Feb 7, 2012 at 7:50 PM Post #5 of 21


100+ Head-Fier
Oct 18, 2011
Months ago Jonathan Valin at the magazine The Absolute Sound labeled audiophiles with 3 different tags:
* the "True to the Performance" listener  who idealizes the "sound as recorded by the engineer for that performance", warts and all
* the "Music Should Move Me" listener, who prefers a more personal ideal of the sound, which may in fact be heavily colored depending on personal biases
* the "Absolute Fidelity" listener who feels that the recorded performance should appear as it was being performed live in front of them.
For example, take Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album which has just been remastered.  The 3 types listening to this may want the following incompatible choices:
* the True to Performance may want the exact copy of what Alan Parsons heard in the sound booth during recording, and may choose the latest 24/96k copy that's been favorably reviewed.
* The "Music Should Move Me" type wants each performance to sound like the very first time he heard it in his youth, in 1973 on a cheap turntable in his friend's house
* the "Absolute Fidelity" choice wants the impossible feat of Pink Floyd recreating the album in his small headphone space or listening room.
All 3 imply different demands on equipment and design (and designer), and all 3 cannot be represented simultaneously by the same system.
What does a "real" violin sound like? Well, it sounds like you are the 3rd type listed, the Absolute Fidelity type with the concert master there in front of you.  But since that type take music out of the concert hall it was recorded/produced in and places it into your listening space, without inherent reverb or other acoustic cues, then is that real? Real instruments must also have a place in space to sound like living, breathing music.  And you also clearly want it to "move your spirit" as well, which is the 2nd type. Oh, this is getting confusing!
So what you're getting at sounds like your frustration that the 3 types can often be independent of each other to various degrees.  Based on equipment choices, you can be based firmly in one camp, with a perhaps a touch of another.  But never will all 3 types be satisfied with one choice of equipment.  Never will they be happy with one source for that matter.
Your equipment choices lead me to believe you have done the next best thing, which is to set up different systems which can get the listener close to one of the 3 idealized choices, perhaps with some emphasis on one of the other types, and choose which system is appropriate based on the given moods at the time of listening.
Feb 7, 2012 at 8:17 PM Post #6 of 21


Headphoneus Supremus
Aug 19, 2011
When it comes to the natural realistic sound of classical instruments, I stand by Sennheiser - HD600, HD800, HD650 (too coloured). For the record, I've gone only to classical concerts - solo and orchestral. I wish I could go to a rock concert someday to taste the "real" rock performance.  

Feb 7, 2012 at 8:57 PM Post #7 of 21

Piotr Ryka

500+ Head-Fier
Sep 23, 2005
First of all, in nature doesn’t exist such creature like “true sound of headphones”. There is always true sound of all system. Music truth (always slightly broken) is always result of general tune of the system.
Orpheus is quite realistic with right source. Other realistic headphones are AKG K1000 and HE-6 with proper sources and amplifiers.
Very good record with realistic violins 
Feb 8, 2012 at 6:44 PM Post #8 of 21


New Head-Fier
Jul 3, 2010
Hello Piotr, I have to agree with you to some degree there. Not much 'true' sound of the equipment we discuss here at least. There's one exception though, that comes very close to that ideal. And that is the German system and recordings with kunstkopf technique Sennheiser is the most known one. Anything else is influenced by the headphones themselves, and all other gear. Yet with headphones we do at least get rid of the room acoustic of our home. So on this forum we're at least on the right track. :)
Feb 8, 2012 at 10:20 PM Post #9 of 21


100+ Head-Fier
Mar 5, 2007
Hello, Der Germane,
I too “suffer” from a similar “problem” when listening to music, especially “classical” music (e.g., orchestral music, chamber music, solo piano, etc.). I studied classical trumpet/music at a conservatory in the US for many years at one point, and so came to the audiophile hobby with very sharp ears, but tuned as a musician, vs. say, an engineer.  
The differences between string sections from one area of the world vs another, or even one orchestra over several decades/several concert masters is plainly apparent to me.  The ease with which I can hear the harmonics of the brass instruments when playing harmony is also apparent to me when listening to a recording. I notice without deliberate focus the difference between a recording that favors the room sound over the breath sounds/page turns of musicians on stage.
It makes for an interesting and involving listening experience for sure!
I think the input from Smeckles above is spot on. There do seem to be different listening camps, with members of each camp slightly drifting into other categories of preference, but remaining mostly true to one kind.  No one set-up will satisfy the different styles entirely. 
So, if sticking with one set-up is one’s goal, I imagine that finding the set-up that pleases you most of the time is probably the right choice.  It is funny how simple and/or obvious that advice may sound when put plainly.  Of course, why would someone stick with something that does not satisfy them most of the time?(!) (I guess the temptation of thinking there is a set-up that will satisfy one more of the time than the current set-up.)
So, I imagine that my listening preferences may be similar to yours, or at least my experience in listening to classical recordings is similar to yours. Being so, I’ll write my own preferences here. My experience has been that headphones that most prominently present as, what I would call, tonally accurate are the ones that I enjoy most often, even if I am disappointed with them from time-to-time.  The BeyerDynamic T1 headphones are a favorite of mine. Tonal accuracy, or the lack thereof, is something I notice within seconds of listening to headphones, especially if listening to classical music.  I suspect that if it was not for my musical training, it may not be the case that tonal accuracy would stand out to me as prominently as it does now. Although some cans may make easier to hear deep, fluid mid-range when listening to a Soprano sing Strauss’ Four Last Songs, for example, I’ll notice and be bothered right away if the voice does not sound quite natural. The only other cans that I have listened to that I suspect would grant me that naturalness/accuracy were a pair of 009’s that were amped with a well built KGSSHV.
Both set-ups are a bit “harsh” for some people, and I think some listeners might even call the upper extension of either cans a bit un-natural.  But, the overall tone seems quite accurate to me, and is most rewarding when listening to orchestral/chamber/solo classical recordings.
I’m curious to know what you think about that. For example, did you find that the LCD’s turned you off due to “color” at all? Do the HD800’s present as tonally accurate but distractingly false in the “sound stage?”
Feb 9, 2012 at 12:15 AM Post #10 of 21


Headphoneus Supremus
Dec 29, 2007
This reminds me of a Stereophile article from years ago, about the Koss ESP/950 and STAX LNS (which were the best at the time); their "test" was to use both headphones to monitor a live performance, and A/B with the live performance. If I remember correctly the results were either mostly inconclusive or they slightly favored the LNS. 
As far as reality - there is no absolute sound. All of the concerns you mention are exactly the reasons for such an absolute sound to not exist. And then add in that each headphone you've mentioned represents a fairly dramatic change from the one mentioned before it (in terms of FR, IR, etc). Personally, as far as "close to truth" goes - I find the ESP/950 and ESP/10 to be as far down that road as I'd like to go; the K701 (or SA5000 (and I'm sure there's a number of other models that could be dropped in here too)) is probably a very close second-place. There are improvements over the K701 with the ESPs, but they aren't universally realized (in other words, with some content, you're just throwing more money into the hole and getting the same result as before; some content there is actually a "wow this totally justifies the extra money" moment) - that's my personal take anyways. This is contrasting the K701 to "lessor" headphones (to pick on a random model, the Ultrasone HFI-2400; which is itself not a bad headphone) - the K701 do a lot of things "better" more or less across the board, and more or less anything you feed into both; the 701 will realize more accurately. 
Feb 9, 2012 at 12:11 PM Post #11 of 21

Piotr Ryka

500+ Head-Fier
Sep 23, 2005
Most important problem is, that almost all recordings are tuned for normal speaker system, not for headphones. I strongly recommend you all to listen to “Dummy-Head-Reccording” by Stax, particularly with Stax headphones. This is another world and another string music…
Feb 9, 2012 at 12:21 PM Post #12 of 21


100+ Head-Fier
Mar 5, 2007

Most important problem is, that almost all recordings are tuned for normal speaker system, not for headphones. I strongly recommend you all to listen to “Dummy-Head-Reccording” by Stax, particularly with Stax headphones. This is another world and another string music…

Agreed!  I had a chance to listen to such recordings on the aforementioned 009 - KGSSHV set-up not long ago.  It is almost disorienting!
Feb 9, 2012 at 4:41 PM Post #13 of 21


Headphoneus Supremus
Sep 7, 2002
I tend to agree with the various comments about there being no true "real sound.'  Even a comparison with live recording can be misleading since what you hear live with unamplified concerts varies with location in the hall.  
In my opinion  high-end  is more about  "resolution" i.e. the ability to differentiate different sounds and to hear details.  But some high-end systems may resolve certain details differently than others hence part of the reason the same material sounds diffferent on different phones. Der Germane has some of the best cans out there and I wish I had his problem.
Feb 9, 2012 at 6:19 PM Post #14 of 21


His amps are made out of recycled beer cans
and his source from tomatos.
Apr 13, 2009
Something worth thinking about as we all seem to think we hear what is really there......
Why Hifi Experts Disagree.
Taken from Stereophile Test CD STPH 002 2
Extracted from Stereophile  Vol. 1 No.4 March-April 1963.

"The high-fidelity initiate, bewitched, bothered , and thoroughly confused by the staggering selection of components he must choose from, often turns to a high-fidelity expert to assist him in assembling his dream system. The expert may be a local consultant, a dealer, or a magazine that the prospective buyer trusts as a source of accurate, down-to-ear information.

"If this seeker of high-fidelity truth is wise, he will consult one exxpert and no more. The more expert opinions he gets, the more confused he will become, because every expert opinion will be different from all other expert opinions.

"About the only thing that all high-fidelity experts agree about is that high-fidelity is supposed to be realistic sound reproduction. They may even agree that Marantz amplifiers are pretty good, and that Thorens makes a passable turntable. But try to pin them down about pickups, or other amplifiers, or tuners, or particularly loudspeakers, and one expert's preference is another's anathema.

"Of course, any expert worth his salt can tell you why there is so much disagreement.The reason? Well, the other experts, although very nice guys, don't really know what they're talking about. Oh, they're pretty good technical men, mind you, but they don't really have the perceptive ear that's needed for a truly valid musical evaluation of reproduced sound.

"This is the crux of the matter. Measurements can help to describe a component's performance, but the final criterion for judging reproduced fidelity has always been the ear, and when we start to fall back on subjective judgements, we always end up with a diversity of opinions.

"A listener can train his ears to pick out all kinds of details in the reproduced sound -- peaks, dips, phase shift, imbalance and the like -- but many such trained ears have never heard a live orchestra, so they are hardly qualified to tell you what is and what is not realistic. Also, if they have never heard a system with really low distortion or really smooth response (which many "experts" have not), they will be oblivious to small amounts of muddiness or roughness that will be quite evident to someone who is accustomed to listening to a truly top-quality system.

"Listeners with identical hearing acuity and identical standards of judgement will usually be highly critical of different aspects of a system's performance. Thus, expert A may be terribly terribly critical of what happens in the high treble range, expert B may be hypercritical of bass, and expert C may have a Thing about mid-range smoothness or "coloration".

"We can see how this might influence their judgement of, say a loudspeaker system. If it is a bit rough at the top, smooth through the middle range, and bass-shy, expert A won't like it much; it will offend his critical ear  for treble. Expert C won't be too crazy about it either, because of the low-end deficiency, but expert B , even while admitting that 'the top isn't a smooth as I have heard', and 'the low end leaves a little bit to be desired', will just as likely sum it up as 'one of the most natural, musical-sounding speakers' he has tested.

They can all hear the speaker's shortcomings, in the sense that the treble peaks and bass thinness will register on their hearing mechanism, but each picks out that aspect of its performance that is of particular concern to him, and tends to judge it mainly on the basis of that aspect.

"No equipment critic worth his salt will judge a component solely by one criterion, but it is not at all unusual for an equipment reporter to 'slant' his evaluations on the basis of a few things he considers to be of particular importance. As a matter of fact, it is almost impossible for him to avoid doing this, at least to some extent.

"High-fidelity may be a science, but it isn't an exact science. There are enough things about it that aren't understood to leave room for a goodly amount of educated opinion. This is one field, though, where one man's opinion is not as good as another's.
"Many writers of books and articles about high-fidelity advise the prospective buyer merely to choose what sounds good to him. Certainly there is no sense in anybody's choosing a music system whose sound he doesn't like, but in a field where definite standards of quality exist, simply liking something does not necessarily mean that it is good, by those standards.
"A person who likes abstract art, for instance, may judge it by any number if criteria, but resemblance to the original scene is not one of them. If it were evaluated on the basis of it's 'fidelity', or resemblanceto the original scene, it would have to be judged a very poor copy. Similarly, the listener who prefers his sound shrill and brassy is perfectly entitled to his preference, but he is not choosing on the basis of fidelity, either.
"This raises the question of whether high fidelity can, or should be, better than the real thing. Certainly it can be made tosound richer, or bigger, or more highly detailed in a recording than it ever is in a concert hall, and the net result may be actually more exciting than anything heard at a live performance. The gimmicked recording may even, on occasion, serve the intent of the music better than a concert hall performnce, but whether it sounds better or worse than the original, it is not true to the original, and thus cannot be considered as a high-fidelity reproduction.
"Sound recording may eventually brcome a creative art in its own right, producing sounds that bear no relation to any natural sounds. Indeed, some branches of it -- pops and so-called electronic music == are already well on their way in that direction. This is not high-fidelity, though and there is no sense pretending that it is.
"As long as we are concerned with the realistic reproduction of sound, the original sound must stand as the criterion by which the reproduction is judged".

Feb 10, 2012 at 2:53 AM Post #15 of 21

Argo Duck

Formerly known as "AiDee"
Nov 6, 2007
Great original post, good thread.
As someone who used to play a lot of piano much of my perception of its sound comes from being right next to it, as well as feeling it vibrate and all the tactile feedback of feet on pedals and fingers on keys. I was interested recently on listening to two zenph recordings of the same 'performance', one "at the keyboard" the other "in the audience". I expected them to sound different, but not as different as in fact they did sound in these recordings.
So this is yet another variable to consider about what is the "real" sound.
Of course, I listen (and listened, when I was learning) to a lot of piano performance as an audience member too; but one at least partly 'hears' it as if one is performing it oneself. This changes the perception.
I'm sure this applies to any instrumentalist/singer - well, any 'performer' in any field in fact.
I certainly have no answer about which is the "real" headphone. I don't expect I ever will. The LCD2 gives me a very "convincing" reproduction of piano - far more so than the not very many other phones (original Stax Lambda pro; a Senn 5xx; Beyer T1; K701 auditioned for a few days; Grado RS1, HF2) I have experience with. But I say "convincing" not "real".
Indeed, I agree completely with the OP's concluding remarks.

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