Review By Todd Warnke
In last months review of the HeadRoom Cosmic and Maxed Home headphone amplifiers I mentioned the breadth of the headphone market. In short, regardless of your budget, someone somewhere is making the headphone for you. In the US Grado and Etymotic make highly regarded headphones, with Grado having a very wide line that reaches from $49 to $695. In Europe AKG, Beyerdynamic and Sennheiser each offer a line of headphones that reaches from the affordable to the state-of-the-art, while Japan boasts the pro-based Audio-Technica, consumer-based Sony and super-audiophile Stax. To survey just these 8 companies would take more space that I am allotted in a year, so rather than do that let's take a look at three headphones that are roughly similar in price and perhaps in quality as well, but quite different in design, the Beyerdynamic DT831, the Etymotic ER4S and the Sennheiser HD600.
The Beyerdynamic DT831 is a circumnaural, sealed design. The primary advantage of sealed headphone design is isolation from environmental noise, and secondarily in shielding others from your own noise. This makes using the 831 perfect in moderately loud situations such as commuting or at work, as well as in very quiet ones, such as when you want to listen to music and the Significant Other needs to sleep. The main drawback to a sealed design is its susceptibility to vibration and a concomitant boomy sound. While making headphones of both open and sealed design, Beyer has specialized in sealed headphones for many years and has brought all their experience to bear on this, their top of the line sealed model.
With a sensitivity rating of 96 dB the 831 can be played way beyond reasonable levels by just about any source but with a nominal impedance of 250 ohms a dedicated amplifier is the best way to hear what they are capable of. And with a stated frequency range is 5Hz to 32kHz the specs say the 831 is capable of a lot.
Cosmetically, the 831 looks exactly like a large pair of headphones. The dark grey plastic ear cups are round and enclose the ears while the headband is a two piece affair, with a plastic, outer structure and a fabric, inner strap that rests on the top of the head. The ear cups are covered in velvet which allows the 831 to both achieve a good seal against the head while also breathing quite nicely. Many people, myself included, find the 831 to be as comfortable as headphones get, even though they are a touch heavy at 295 grams. Lastly, at $269, the 831 is the cheapest of the three headphones in this survey.
So, how do they fare? First, and most significantly for a sealed design, they do not boom, buzz or bang. Even more, the bass is tight, detailed and has a lively and direct rhythm. Listening to "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" from the Steely Dan Collection, Citizen Steely Dan [MCA 10981], the opening bass and sound effects are exquisitely delineated and delightfully punchy. Later in the song, the tom-tom is equally well done, with excellent skin and kettle separation. The drawback, and there is one, to bass through the 831, is not the typical sealed boom. Rather, and this must be how Beyer is able to make a sealed headphone that doesn't boom, the bass region is shelved downward ever so slightly. I want to be sure and deal with this issue, as well as the larger issue of bass with headphones correctly, so this is an excellent place for a little digression.
Headphone bass differs from stereo bass, and of course live bass in one important way, with headphones there is a distinct lack of impact, or at least of physical impact. Many consumer headphone makers compensate for this by purposely adding exaggerated and bloated bass. Besides conforming to the style of much of today's music, this false bass gives an enhanced feeling of power and impact. We, being supreme audiogeeks, eschew such frequency tomfoolery … but we still miss the impact. As much as any single item, more than even the lack of stereophonic staging, how you cope with this aspect of bass from headphones will determine how well you enjoy headphone listening. If you can set aside the need for feeling as well as hearing bass, then headphones will mostly likely deliver enormous joy as properly designed headphones can allow you to hear bass detail with stunning precision. But if not, then no headphone design, no dedicated amplifier, no external processor will make enough of a difference to make you happy. With that out of the way, let's return to the 831 discussion.
Rather than roll off the bass like a pair of LS3/5a loudspeakers, from about 80 cycles or so the 831 steps the entire bass range down a dB or two while retaining excellent extension. This compromise delivers the vibration free sound that the 831 is justly famous for. It also delivers exceptionally detailed bass, Of course, it cannot help but take a bit of the punch away from James Brown, but the loss is not so large that enjoying JB goes away as well. I found that all my funk, organ and bass workout discs were still enjoyable with the 831, just not quite as powerful as with other headphones.
Moving up the spectrum, the 831 renders the midrange with amazing fidelity. Piano, vocals and guitar have a new best friend with the Beyer cans, which of course, delighted this Joni Mitchell fan, as each and every album by her was a complete delight to listen to. Treble, perhaps because of the shelved bass, appeared to be just the slightest bit hot. Cymbals were splashy, as they can and should be, but with a touch added to the splash and a touch subtracted from the burnished sheen that accompanies the initial impact.
Overall, the Beyer headphones had a lively and dynamically involving sound. This, combined with the excellent midrange, offset the slightly bright presentation, giving the 831 an exciting rather than an analytical or fatiguing character. Coupled with its ability to separate you from the surrounding environment, the 831 allowed me to immerse myself in to sonic worlds completely. With a touch more bass and with an equal amount taken off the top the 831 would be as perfect a pair of headphones as I've heard for under $1,000. So, considering the price, the 831 is an altogether remarkable pair of headphones.
The Little Guy
Next up on our list is the Etymotic ER4S, which takes sealed design to a completely different level. Not a standard earbud design, the 4 is an "ear canal" set of headphones. Worn properly the ER4S is inserted into the ear canal and, with either the supplied foam or silicone earpads, cuts you off from the outside world by 23dB. It is this isolation, and how Etymotic accomplishes it, that defines the 4. But first the obligatory product description.
Etymotic ships a little pouch, about half the size of a cassette tape, to carry the 4 in, so, yes, they are small. The driver is not much bigger than the head of a pin and is enclosed in a plastic tube, over which you slide either a foam tube similar to an ear plug, or a silicone jacket, which is then inserted in the ear. From each ear phone a slender wire extends about two feet where they meet at an inch long hard plastic tube. On this tube is an alligator clip which you can use to stabilize the headphones. From there the wires feed about 4 feet back to a mini headphone jack. Coiled, the whole thing can easily be concealed in your hand, and at 28 grams, it has a tenth of the mass of the Beyer 831.
The 4 comes in three flavors, the S which is the model under review, the low impedance P, and the B which is optimized for binaural recordings. The S and B both present 100 ohm loads which makes them best driven by a dedicated amplifier. The P is a 27 ohm load, making it suitable for use directly from the output of the typical portable source. To compensate for the sound from the typical portable the sensitivity of the P has been raised by 9dB and the bottom end has been slightly pumped up. Each model retails for the same $330.
Now, about those isolation issues. First, almost everyone has some initial discomfort when using the Etymotics since they are inserted in the ear canal, and I do mean in. Not near, not beside, not peeking in, rather they are designed to be gently but firmly inserted a good quarter to half inch. The instructions are well written and urge caution about shoving them in too deep, and I echo those sentiments. However, most of us do not walk around with both ears stuffed, so even correct placement will, at first, seem odd.
Second, 23dB of environmental isolation a lot, roughly equal to the noise reduction you get when you shove your fingers in your ears after the Significant Other sees your mail order music charges on the credit card bill. This can create a safety issue if you use the Etys at work or other public places. On the other hand, where even a good pair of sealed headphones like the Beyer 831 can help with airplane noise while traveling, the Ety offers so much more isolation that using them on a plane is almost like using a pair of the Beyers at work. And using the 4 at a coffee shop creates an environment so quiet that is like using an open back headphone at home.
Lastly, the sound of bass is even further distanced from the normal stereo model as there is no physical impact at all, not even on the earlobe or side of the head. Of course, with the driver just fractions of an inch from your eardrum, this is good thing. Still, adjusting to this presents a problem for many listeners.
As for the sound of the Etys, to my ears they are the most accurate set of headphones in this survey. That said, and harping on one topic with the consistency a three year old who wants to go to McDonalds, even confirmed headphone addicts have to adjust to the sound of the bass. I have talked with some people who never have, while others, after spending time with the Etys cannot go back to what seems like bass that is obviously colored from the ear cup with other headphones. Me, I find the bass through the 4 to be a balancing act. When inserted deeply, the bass is full, accurate, astoundingly deep and harmonically rich, without a doubt, the most accurate bass I have experienced with headphones. But when they are inserted that deep the highs seem to attenuate slightly, at least in my ears. Pulled out slightly, the highs come back and the bass loses a touch of warmth but the overall performance gain is worthwhile. By the way, if you pull them out too much all the bass goes away, which is one reason some people have found the 4 to lack bass. They don't, but the placement point for each ear is different and some may not feel comfortable with them inserted deep enough to get accurate response.
The mids are accurate, quick and detailed, if a touch analytical. Up top, the 4 has extension to match its bass. Dynamically, the 4 is Formula 1 fast and packs a nasty punch. Be careful with the volume control (as you should be with all headphones), because the absolute volume on dynamic peaks can startle you.
Overall, the 4 is an exceptional headphone, and one that takes a unique approach to the noise issue. With the 4 you need not worry about your music spilling out to bother others, nor about others interfering with your personal music experience. Comfort is an issue, but once you get used to the 4, it is incredibly light to use and easy to carry around. To get good sound you must use a headphone amp, but if you are willing to invest this type of money in a pair of cans, then the amp should follow automatically.
The Old Guard
Lastly, the Sennheiser HD600 is a circumnaural headphone. Like the previous two headphones, the 300 ohm impedance of the 600 dictates the use of a dedicated amp to sound its best. At 275 grams, the 600 is just under an ounce lighter than the Beyer 831. The earpads are oval with a hard foam pad covered with velour that makes a tight seal against the head. The band is metal with a segmented, soft foam inner liner that rests on the top of the head. Some have found the 600 to be relatively comfortable, but those with large heads, and count me among them (before the jokes start, I said head, not ego) have reported a bit of the vice effect. With a retail of $449, the 600 is the most expensive headphone in this survey, but it can easily be found for around $300.
What makes the 600 different than the Beyer and the Ety is its open back design, which has several advantages over a sealed design. First, as long as the drivers are up to it, an open back headphone can sound amazingly transparent since the ear cup is not subject to the vibration issues of a sealed design. Second, properly designed open back designs are relatively efficient, which in turn can make for a very dynamic headphone.
On the other hand, an open design is... well... open. The 600 allows enough sound through that I have held many conversations with the long-suffering Robin while wearing it, and I don't mean those, "yes, dear, whatever you say" conversations, of course several of those conversations have started, "Take those *#$)% headphones off!". For me, at least, this rules out using the 600 in a coffee shop or while commuting. On the third hand, it may make the 600 perfect for use at work where being at least partially connected to the rest of the world is normally a good thing.
Sound-wise, the 600 has spent several years as the sub $500 standard, and a brief listen will show anyone why. With rich, full bass, superb delineation of the mid-range and fast, detailed highs, it serves up a balanced sound with no obvious flaws. And long term listening will do little to change that opinion.
Starting with the treble, the 600 offers a clear sense of air around instruments, excellent bite with cymbals and a beautiful ringing tone with chimes and the like. Treble is also detailed, at times right at the very limit of truth and just peeking over into analytical territory. This sense of pushing the threshold between accuracy to the song and accuracy to the recording flows into the midrange as well. With an analytical amp and source you can spend hours dissecting how a recording was made, but because the midrange is also harmonically accurate, it is easy to shift back into deeply exploring the musical content. Better still, the presentation is slightly laidback which takes makes it fairly easy to lay back and let the music take precedence over the recording technique.
Bass, as I mentioned earlier, is rich and full, but also with a slight mid-bass hump. I found this hump to offer a touch of warmth that had many good qualities, not least of which was that it helped keep the music-lover side of my split audio personality happy even when the mids and treble were wandering close to geek-fi land, but that it also could slightly obscure bass detail, which confounded both sides of my personality. Fortunately, there is a cure for this, although it comes with a cost.
One unusual thing about the 600 (some call it a flaw, but in best Microsoft-speak we'll call it an undocumented feature) is that the cable, where it attached to the ear cups, is designed to easily pop off. Sennheiser says this allows the cable to withstand stresses without damage. It also has allowed a small but growing aftermarket of replacement cables. I tried the $119, made in Sweden, Clou Cable Red Jaspis with the 600 and found that it made a significant difference. With the Red in place of the stock cord, bass, already a standout feature of the 600, was slightly tightened and slightly extended, both of which were good things. The mids were largely the same while the treble was slightly expanded in power and range. The differences are in the same style and just a touch greater than those from the Sennheiser HD580 to the HD600. In other words, the Red takes the top of the line Sennheiser and adds a new step up.
As a whole, the 600 is a well-balanced design that absolutely needs a dedicated amplifier and benefits from a quiet listening environment. It is a joy to listen to, as it deals with great equanimity with both sonic and musical information. The Clou Cable extends these virtues even further, while also addressing the largest weakness of the 600 by taming the slight mid-bass hump. Sure, the retail at this point is over $550, but with a bit of shopping around you can the combo for $450 or so, which, considering the sound quality, is a bargain.
All Together Now
Each of these headphones is a superb product that fills a slightly different listening niche, which renders some comparisons patently unfair, and yet it is still fair to compare them on sonic grounds. Of course the Etys are the best for travel, or any place where high ambient noise is an issue, while the Sennheiser is best used where the ambient noise is low, but those issues aside a headphone is a headphone, and its purpose is to allow intimate and private listening. So, which of these headphones offers the best sound?
Well, if by best you mean most accurate, then the Etys do. But keep in mind that while they extend the deepest and have best bass detail, they have absolutely no bass impact at all, even compared to the other two headphones. This is an odd sound to adjust to and I know many who have tried and failed. And the in the ear positioning is also a bit unusual as well. Some who have adapted to the bass have not been able to handle a headphone poking in their ear, and vice versa. But those two caveats aside, the Ety is remarkable. Clean, detailed, vibrant, it renders audio with clarity, if also with a wisp of sterility in the midrange.
If, by best sound you mean the most enjoyable, then the Sennheiser, especially with the aftermarket Clou Cable, moves to the top of the list, even though at that point it costs quite a bit more than the other two headphones. Undeniably accurate, the 600 is also expansive, harmonically rich and darn near as full range as the Ety. The 600 hews quite closely the line between analytical and euphonic, and with great success. The 600 will allow you to hear a source or recording for what it is, but will not thrust so much of the recording or equipment at you that inferior stuff will make you walk away. And, while not as comfortable as the Beyer, the 600 is not outright annoying as some Grados can be. If you listen in a quiet environment, the 600 is a real winner.
Finally, if you by best sound you mean best balance of quality, utility and value, then the 831 is the easy winner. Cheaper than the other two headphones, it offers sound that equals or betters its more expensive rivals in all areas, bass extension and a slightly bright top end excepted. It is also the most comfortable by a considerable margin. And, being a sealed design, it offers a significant amount of shielding from the outside world, if not quite the total isolation of the Ety which makes it quite versatile, being suitable for most work, home or travel situations.
In the final analysis, we have a bit of rock, paper, scissors here, with each pair of headphones holding a trump on one other model. But what they all share is true audiophile quality sound and design. And as a group they represent the bend in the curve for value. All three are clearly better than anything that costs less, and while headphones like the $1,000 AKG K1000, or the $4,000 Stax, or the $12,000 Sennheiser Orpheus are better still, they are multiples of the price of these fellas and only a few percentage points further up the scale. As a group, these headphones share a need for a dedicated headphone amp, but then we would not be true audiogeeks if we could not accessorize at bit. Best of all, at least one of these should fit about any occasion.
Beyerdynamic North America
Sennheiser Electronic Corporation