Holiday 2012: Headphones for Audiophiles

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What is an audiophile? I’ll answer for myself and hope you agree; an audiophile is a music appreciater who demands and actively seeks out the most accurate listening experience available. Headphones are a strange area of this philosophy because the laws of physics prevent any set from being truly accurate. But does that mean that all headphones are created equal? Certainly not.

I disguised myself as an ordinary customer (removed my employee ID) and infiltrated the B&H SuperStore to evaluate the selection on hand. Knowing that audiophile-grade headphones often produce lower volume levels than ordinary headphones, my test utilized an everyday mp3 player, to be sure that each pair could survive out in the world. Six sets of headphones really stood out. I listened through a fixed selection of tracks, from a variety of genres, on each model. Following the product headings, I've added a single word to describe the overall sound.

Sennheiser HD 650: Warm

Sennheiser really knows how to balance the frequency spectrum, and the HD 650 headphones are an excellent example of this. These futuristic looking, open-back headphones feature neodymium ferrous magnets and aluminum voice coils. Like the flagship HD 800s discussed below, the HD 650s proportionally reproduce low-mid frequencies without becoming muddy. The highs shine through, defining each snare crack and cymbal smash. The lows don’t disappoint either, pumping you up without sounding “enhanced” or boosted. A folky song by the Everybodyfields was particularly enjoyable on these headphones; the HD 650s will showcase the warmth of any round-sounding recording.

Beyerdynamic DT 880 Premium Edition: Clear

The DT 880 Premium headphones look a little bulky at first, but the semi-open earcups are lavishly padded and very comfortable. The DT 880s created a suitable amount of volume while providing brilliant sonic clarity. The highs are smooth but defined. The high-mids slightly outperform the low-mids, adding to vocal presence and creating a great deal of spatial definition in warmer recordings. The lows are full, but not overbearing—a great set of headphones on which to hear Bon Iver’s first album.

Ultrasone PRO 900: Bright

The Ultrasone PRO 900s have an irresistible design; you want to pick them up immediately. They have a snug fit that provides a bit of isolation, while still retaining comfort. Their 40mm titanium-plated drivers provide a hearty enough signal level for street or subway listening. These headphones initially seemed a touch too bright for my ears, but as I got to the classical and jazz portion of the track list, the PRO 900s really displayed their value. A live performance of Mozart’s Requiem and an Ahmad Jamal recording from the 1950s really shone on the Ultrasones. Just beware of sibilant vocalists.

Sennheiser HD 800: Accurate

I didn’t expect much discrepancy between sets of audiophile-grade headphones, but the Sennheiser HD 800s instantly demonstrate performance worthy of their price tag. The open-back design, large drivers and stainless-steel housings are in perfect balance to create incredibly accurate sound. They excel at reproducing low-mid frequencies, where almost every pair of headphones (ever) comes up short. Furthermore, that retention of low-mids does not create any muddiness; they remain clear and precise throughout the frequency spectrum. The lows are surprisingly defined; listening to Outkast, I could easily make out each fundamental in the bassline. The Sennheiser HD 800 headphones are a surreal sonic experience. The only drawback is their gigantic frame.

AKG K 702: Crisp

The AKG K 702 headphones are just as comfortable as they look. The ear pads are well cushioned and the open-back design prevents them from heating up your ears. Rated at 62Ω, the K 702s are still able to produce adequate volume for listening in noisier environments. The highs are completely present and pleasant all at once. They seem to have a slight boost in the dead center of the mids, I would estimate it to occur between 750 and 1200 Hz. This boost gives a slightly boxy sound to heavy electric guitars while affording vocals a nice resonance. Norah Jones would love listening to herself in the AKG K 702s, and so will you.

Grado SR-80i: Big

These trendy headphones are straight out of Brooklyn, where competition is stiff among all things high-end. The Grado SR-80i's open-air design provides a very wide, enveloping soundscape. Additionally, they provide the highest volume level of the lineup; more than enough for mobile use with an iPod. A word of caution, the open-air principle is not exactly office-friendly, as they leak quite a bit of sound. If you work in quiet, close quarters, the SR-80i's will quickly annoy your coworkers. But for private listening, you’ll love their lush low end and smooth highs. The greater level of perceived space led me to take particular notice of snare and vocal reverbs, even on tracks I had mixed myself. The SR-80i’s comfortable fit, naturally venting design and uncanny depth will make you forget that you aren’t listening to full-size speakers.

In Conclusion

While we all perceive sound a bit differently, these six models have definitely proven worthy of a critical listen. So, if you’re ready for an audiophile-level experience, make your way to the Headphone Demo Area at the B&H SuperStore and see which pair best suits you.