That was then
Ive been a headphone listener for a long, long time. As a kid Id sneak a listen to my older brothers pair of Sennheisers, the model designation of which long escapes me as we are talking about something that occurred close to 30 years ago. Later when I was living on my own, I spent a good number of years as an apartment dweller. Though I always had a pretty good rig, at night I was the considerate neighbor who favored headphones.
After a couple pairs by Koss and a couple more by Sennheiser, I made a purchase that convinced even my best friends that I was nuts. It was the mid-1980s when I splurged for what most of the magazines had determined was the best personal listening device of the time: the Stax Lambda Pro electrostatic headphones and dedicated class-A amplifier. That system set me back about $800 at the time, but I put more hours on those things than any single pair of speakers Ive owned since. They were as light as could be, and I could wear them all night. They were transparent as all-get-out, smooth and non-fatiguing too. They seemed to be just about the perfect listening device -- until one day I tried a pair of Sennheiser HD 580s.
The 580s were difficult to drive, but they cost a fraction of what I paid for the Stax 'phones, which left room in my budget for a small Creek OBH-11 headphone amplifier. What a combo this was! By comparison, the HD 580s were not quite as clean and transparent through the midrange, though the difference wasnt huge. And the 580s were not quite as comfortable to wear as they did exert considerably more pressure on the head. But where the Stax just couldnt come close to matching the Sennheisers was in the bass. The 580s were warmer, punchier and seemingly more extended, all of which made the Stax sound absolutely sterile, flat and boring by comparison. The HD 580s could really rock and had a swinging and exhilarating sound.
I never went back to the Stax 'phones, and I eventually sold them to my brother-in-law for a song -- more family headphone ties. I just couldnt see getting what was probably a fair market price for them when the Sennheiser/Creek combo just stomped all over them. Once again, I thought that it wouldnt get much better. Then I received the newer Sennheiser HD 600.
This is now
Somewhat of a third iteration of the venerable HD 580, (the HD 580 Jubilee was the second), the $449.95-USD HD 600 incorporates evolutionary changes both cosmetic and functional. The velvet-lined ear cushions are the same and as comfortable as ever, even after extended listening sessions. Despite their countless encounters with my floor, the 580s hardware fittings that have retained their tolerances and solidity for these past several years also seem essentially unchanged. But stainless-steel screens on the outside of the HD 600s replace the plastic of the HD 580s, and the ear cup, which used to be plastic, is now replaced by one of carbon fiber, which is said to reduce resonance. Sennheiser also claims refinements to the driver elements, which they say are built to within a 1dB tolerance. The 580s tolerance was 3dB. The 300-ohm HD 600 is also said to be easier to drive, which I did find to be the case, although they still benefit greatly from a good headphone amp.
Setup (and tear down)
Tyll Hertsens of HeadRoom graciously loaned me a Maxed Out Home headphone amplifier for use in this review. Initially I was excited at the prospect of having a high-quality audio system located at my desk for both professional evaluation as well as those personal late-night music marathons. But things didnt work out as planned. On the corner of my desk I placed a Music Hall CD 32 CD player and on top of it I placed the Maxed Out Home separated only by a few Vibrapod isolation discs. The sound was dark, heavy-handed, and highly colored. After swapping out other headphones and a couple amplifiers and a bunch of cables, eventually it occurred to me that the close proximity to my computer, and to the monitor in particular, might be causing a problem. So I relocated the components to my main equipment rack across the room.
Blessed relief is how I can best describe what I heard. I cant say if it was the CD player that was the culprit, or if it was the HeadRoom headphone amplifier, or even the interconnects. But it would seem that the system (or parts thereof) was absorbing spurious RF and other kinds of grudge being emitted by the computer and/or monitor. Consider it a word of caution to those of you using desktop music systems. Without proper shielding, you may not be getting all the performance you paid for.
The HeadRoom Maxed Out Home was also connected to a Bel Canto DAC 1.1, which took its signal from a Pioneer DV-525 DVD player. The HeadRoom amplifier was plugged into an Audio Magic Stealth AC purifier. Interconnects were JPS Labs Ultra Conductor, and the digital cable was a DH Labs D-75. The HD 600 was used with its stock cable as well as the Clou Cable 212 Red Jaspis, which was used in the final stage of evaluation.
Strike up the band
Perhaps the first thing likely to strike most listeners about the HD 600 is the bass response. Most 'phones dont come close to matching the warmth, depth, detail, clarity, and impact of the HD 600s bass. Of those few headphones that come close, even fewer will capture the HD 600's midrange transparency, which is itself somewhat paradoxical.
First, the HD 600s are a fine example of the ultimate in monitoring devices, which means that they completely remove all room-induced effects from the presentation. No more smearing side-wall reflections or standing waves destroying bass continuity, just to name two. First-time listeners wont believe the resultant heightened detail and presence. The HD 600s bring information to the fore that likely went previously unnoticed. Everything from instrumental textures to vocal harmonies are outlined with heretofore lost perspective. Spatial relationships, though not laid out on a stage before you (we are talking headphones here, after all), are nevertheless given new prominence through the increased resolution, which preserves often missing relationships among transients, reverberation and echo.
On the other hand, the HD 600s do not sound like your typical over-analytical speaker. There is no stridency and no etched characteristic to their sound. Their direct pipeline to the ear means that all they must do is preserve the signal; they dont have to exaggerate it. The effect is a surprisingly round and robust presentation that lends itself to long-term listening enjoyment. Put another way, the HD 600s can present razor-sharp detail without sounding laser etched.
I wanted to assess the deep-bass capabilities of the HD 600s, so I reached for James Horners soundtrack from Patriot Games [RCA 07863 66051-2] and played "Attack on Ryans House." The bass drums were obviously lacking the visceral punch of a good full-range speaker, but they sounded powerful, fast, and ominous. Still, without the concussive aspect, much of why Horner included them in the soundtrack was missing: They didnt fully provide the aura of impending danger that they would over a good full-range speaker.
Well, I may have come for the bass, but I stayed for the strings. "Electronic Battlefield" is a sublime piece comprised mostly of violins, violas, and harp. I dont think luscious is too strong a word to describe the HD 600s depiction: without any observable grain or edge, but full of body, detail, and just the right about of sheen. And when the basses creep in underneath, the sound is simply sublime. But the respite is brief, and by the time "Boat Chase" comes up, things are chaotic again. Frantic strings, lots of deep bass and various percussion instruments blend for a feverish affair. Here the HD 600s have a distinct advantage of not having to fight room effects as they preserve all the various relationships. It is only the very best speakers carefully set up in a dedicated room, and probably in the near field, that can produce and preserve this level of detail.
In that regard, Jennifer Warnes Famous Blue Raincoat [Private Music 01005-82092-2] proved revelatory, despite my having listened to it literally hundreds of times. Small details that had gone unnoticed were clearly in evidence over the HD 600, not only due to the aforementioned lack of room effects, but also as a testament to the 600s high degree of transparency. Bits of subtle reverb that surrounded Warnes' voice and provided a halo effect on "Bird on a Wire" was one revelation. On "Famous Blue Raincoat" that halo was replaced by a periodic and sporadic reverb/echo combination, which was equally evident. The swelling reverb that erupted from the saxophone and spread like rings on a pond was another, and it did a superb job of creating a real sense of the hall. High-frequency extension was clearly evidenced by the chimes at the beginning of "Joan of Arc." They were as tangible as with any speaker Ive used and more so than most. They have a fast and unfettered quality usually attributed to planar and electrostatic speakers.
Where the HD 600s stood out was in their presentation of body and texture. Bass may not flap the pant legs, but you can feel it though the head and jaw. Bowed double basses on "Take My Mother Home" from Belafonte at Carnegie [RCA LSO 6006] were subtle, tuneful and brimming with the texture of freshly rosined bows. Further, texture and articulation are also preserved via the HD 600s excellent microdynamics and speed. Subtle details are never glossed over or smeared.
Peter Gabriels Security [Geffen 2011-2] was one disc I thought may illuminate some of the HD 600's weaknesses -- thats how you approach such a pair of 'phones: you seek out what they cant do. This CD is plentiful in visceral bass and transient-rich percussion. As it turned out, Security was a good demo disc. First, the HD 600s did an excellent job with imaging. When required, they put up a wall of highly focused and amply delineated drum kits, rather than a mass if indistinct percussive sounds. Ditto the steel drums, which also demonstrated excellent transient snap and salient tonal color.
Although the HD 600 is an improved version of the $259.95 HD 580, a direct comparison of the two headphones impressed upon me just how good both sets of cans really are.
Belafontes voice was rich and more immediate over the HD 600s. By comparison, the 580s placed Belafonte at the stages rear. His voice was thinner and a touch more veiled and considerably less tangible. Even the timbre of Belafontes voice was different -- a little lighter with less resonance. The 580s couldnt provide the depth and color that the 600s could. But at the same time the 580s did not sound wrong -- just different. They provided a slightly more remote perspective on the music.
The 580s did provide a lighter performance and also one that was airier. The 600s sounded a touch darker and more closed-in by contrast. The sound wasn't claustrophobic by any means, but the HD 600s didnt cast the expansive sense of space that the 580s do. The acoustic guitars on "John Henry" were more highly resolved over the 600s. They evidenced deeper tone, speed and presence. Where bass performance may be a matter of taste as to which 'phone is preferred, the midrange of the 600s is definitely superior.
Bass is excellent on both 'phones, but the 580s are just edged out in terms of weight and detail. Once again, the 600s present the acoustic bass accompanying Belafonte as just a little bigger and closer. The 580s placed the instrument further back on the stage and gave the halls reverberation a little more importance. The sound of the bass may not have had the weight and grandeur that the 600s provided, but the 580s placed it a bit better in the acoustic space.
Female vocals were reproduced by both sets with great similarity. The 580s did provide Sarah McLachlans voice on Fumbling Towards Ecstasy [Arista 18725-2 07822] with a touch more smoothness and a softer focus. The 600s actually sounded just a touch grainy in direct comparison. I strongly suspect that this may have been a matter of break-in though as it was completely out of character with the rest of the 600s performance. My 580s have thousands of hours on them, and the 600s had less than 100.
The 600s evidenced strong superiority over the 580s in the treble region where they were considerably faster and more detailed. Cymbals from McLachlans "Wait" were definably cleaner and much better detailed over the 600s. The 580s glossed over the individual cymbal strikes while the 600s clearly differentiated between the initial strike and ensuing purr. Ditto the opening bass on "Plenty." The 600s preserved the texture of the bass growl in a way that the 580s couldnt quite match.
Kicking it up a notch
A ten-foot length of Clou Cables 212 Red Jaspis replacement headphone cable that the good folks from HeadRoom sent along is a mixed blessing. First, the 212 is heavy, stiff and nowhere near as unobtrusive as the stock cord. It also transmits sound physically in a way that the stock cord does not. Give it a little thump with the finger and the thud is audible though the 'phones. Its propensity to kink will probably prevent most people from using it with one of HeadRooms portable amplifiers too. At $119 as sold by HeadRoom, it adds substantially to the cost of a headphone-based system.
It also adds substantially to the performance. Transparency took an important jump for the better -- Belafontes voice was now much more natural and the entire midrange opened up. Acoustic guitar, for example, sounded more delicate, articulate, and natural, with more of the quality that draws people to electrostatics. I didnt judge that the bass was improved per se -- not in the way I would expect, anyway. However, the cleaner and more open midrange resulted in bass harmonics that were better resolved, which served to clean up the perception of bass across the board. Acoustic bass guitar from the Belafonte disc was now slightly more musical, and it had a better-defined presence in space. Tony Levins bass from Peter Gabriel's Security had a newfound level of timbre and tonal purity.
With clean and transparent mids and smooth highs, the Sennheiser HD 600s possess many of the traits for which people gravitate toward planar and electrostatic speakers, and at a cost that's far lower. But the HD 600s do bass better than most planars and electrostats Ive heard, and they do not confine you to a small sweet spot either -- you can enjoy a great musical performance anywhere, and you will.
Somewhat surprising to me is that the HD 600s are not quite a slam-dunk over the HD 580s. I can understand how some may like the lighter and slightly more distant perspective of the 580s, but Id bet that most would gravitate toward the more robust and intimate presentation of the HD 600s. Either way, the buyer of these Sennheiser headphones is in for many hours of comfort and high-quality listening.
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