My trusty Sennheiser HD250 Linears have been quite adequate for my needs for a long time, but recently I’ve been getting a little stale on my monitors and decided to buy myself a pair of better headphones.
Now I reckon that “which headphones should I buy?” must rank alongside “recommend me a microphone” and “what preamp do I need?” in terms of persistence. And it’s pretty well unanswerable, so here’s the answer. Ahem!
Done? Good, then I’ll continue.
I read the article, did some online reading and shortlisted some headphones (Sennheiser HD600, HD650, Beyerdynamic DT880 Pro and AKG K702) to try. Problem number one, I didn’t find a dealer that I had time to visit that had all of them in stock. I managed to try a pair of HD650s and a pair of DT880 Pros, but in different locations on different days. I figured from this imperfect exercise that I preferred the sound of the HD650s, thought the DT880s were a little “scratchy” sounding (I use the “ “” marks because that’s actually a bit unfair, they’re not really scratchy, just a little harder and brighter – more on this later). I really didn’t want to make this decision into a major project so I decided that as I had tried the two top placers in the SOS magazine article I’d select between them and be done; I ordered a pair of HD650s from DV247.
The package arrived the following day, I prised the new babies onto my head (I can confirm that the headband does loosen-up after a few days use) and played some reference tracks that I use, along with a track that I’d been working-on, whilst I did some computer admin. They sounded gorgeous, even without being broken-in at all. I found a couple of bits that needed some attention in the track that I was working on, which pleased me, but mainly just listened to music for a while (until my head started to collapse under the pressure (they really do ease-off).
The following day I did some work on the bass end of the track and nailed a problem that I’d been struggling with for a few days. Ever so pleased, until I listened on my monitors and found that my perfect bass balance sounded light, as it did on my hi-fi and on the kitchen system. Read-up a little (as I did) and you’ll find that the HD650s are renowned for being warm, smooth, slow, relaxed, a little recessed in the highs, a little overblown in the low-mids and a little uneven in the bass; so why the hell did I buy them?!? Should have got the DT880 Pros! Apparently Bob Katz (much respected here) prefers the HD600s (as do many others) and there is a rabid contingent of K702 fanciers in the wings. Basically the three ‘phones I didn’t buy are much-loved, the one I did is considered to be pretty flawed. Simply wrote in my diary, “Oh Bugger!” and went to bed.
The next day I called DV247 to check the details of their 30 day return promise and found that it doesn’t apply to headphones (because they are designed for body-contact use) so my plan to order the DTs and do a proper studio comparison and return the loser fell apart. Oddly, having pretty well decided that I’d made a mistake and should have bought the Beyers (even though I’d decided that I didn’t like the sound so much) because of the internet communities almost unanimous love of them, and their superior analytical capabilities (because of that harder, brighter sound), I found myself actually rather relieved and with little choice but to push-on, I pushed-on.
Now here’s the odd, but telling thing. We all know that you need to take-time to get used to the sound of a new or different piece of kit, and that when you do you can “adjust” for its vagaries. Well a few days ago I revisited my difficult bottom-end (excuse me) with the HD650s. I tried again, got a result I thought was spot-on and switched to the monitors. Guess what? They sounded pretty well the same as on the HDs. Check in the living room – good to go, kitchen system – AOK. So what happened and so-what? This was not a matter of “the cans are bass heavy so I’ll allow for that”, I simply mixed to what I heard – to the sound in my head! If this seems a little new-agey then consider this; your eyes physically invert the images you see and your brain filters that image so that gravity causes things to fall downwards and trees grow upwards. In a perceptual experiment a test subject was equipped with a pair of spectacles that “corrected” this image inversion and following a period of seeing everything upside down his perception changed and he saw things the right-way-up again – he didn’t learn to “allow for it”, he saw it.
So what does this mean and why should we care? It means that when one poster on Gearslutz says that the HD650 is woolly and muffled and the HD600 is better in every way, and another says that the HD600 is thin and shrill and the 650 is perfect, and one reviewer says that the 650 is bass heavy, another thinks it’s bass light, they may well all be correct.
What, you expected a recommendation? OK, figure-out the mechanics of what you need (isolation, comfort etc), what you can afford, shortlist and try a few options in budget, and then just buy whichever you like. In a few weeks it'll probably make very little difference!