Sennheiser HD650

For a while now I’ve been enjoying great sound from a few different headphones. The problem with great sound though is that every time you get better equipment in one area, it makes you want to upgrade in other areas. That’s been the result of my purchase of the HFI-680s and then, more-so, the Shure SE535 LEs.

I loved my Audio Technica ATH-AD900s, but it was time for them to find a loving new home and for me to return to Sennheiser, a brand I’d previously sworn off due to some poor experiences at the lower end of their range.

I was offered the HD650s by a good friend of mine who is very knowledgeable in the world of head-fi. In addition to the stock 650s, he also had an after market cable for them. The cable is custom-made with silver-plated copper. There are plenty of options available on eBay and from companies like Cardas and Toxic Cables. Custom cables will generally set you back a couple of hundred dollars on top of the cost of the headphones, but they are often worth the cost.

To read this review, please head over to the new Passion for Sound website. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content. Don’t worry, the link will take you straight to this article.

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Shure SE535 Limited Edition

I have owned the HiFiMan Re0 earphones for about 2-3 years, but they recently succumbed to a broken connection inside one of the earphones so I decided it was time for an upgrade. It’s been quite a journey…

After much research, I had decided on a few potential options, but my decision came down to a question of availability. The fact that I could buy the 535s from my favourite audio shop made it a simple decision. Thanks as always to George and the team at Addicted to Audio for their assistance with advice, comparisons and of course selling me all these wonderful goodies!!

The contents of the SE535-SE box

The 535 LEs come with all the same accessories as the standard 535s, but they DO sound different. The key difference is a slightly stronger top end and that improves the staging produced by the earphones, but back to the accessories…

The 535 LEs come with a grey, detachable cable (more on that later), an airline plug adapter, an inline volume control for loud sources that need attenuation (e.g. airoplanes), 3 different sizes of foam tips, 3 different sizes of silicon tips, a tri-flange silicon tip and a yellow foam tip. There’s also a small, hard carry case just big enough for the phones themselves, and a 3.5mm to 6mm adapter for plugging the phones into amplifiers.

Read the rest of this review over at the new Passion for Sound site. It’s sexier and has lots of great new content coming soon.

 

Your Natural Equaliser

A few years ago, I had a problem with wax build-up in my ear (I know, it’s a bit gross, but I have no other way to clearly explain this). Anyway, after putting up with muffled sound in my ear for a few days and noticing it getting worse, I figured it was time to go to the doctor. The doctor made short work of the wax and I soon had squeaky clean ear canals again. So what’s that got to do with equalisers?

I noticed something amazing once my ears were cleaned out – I could hear better than ever before. This was not just a case of it seeming better than I was used to after a couple of muffled days, it was a significant improvement to the details I could hear in sounds. It was like everything had been turned up a few notches – I had bionic hearing!

Needless to say, the changes to my hearing soon passed, but it showed me something important – our brain and our ears adapt significantly over time. Having had the volume and detail levels of my hearing suppressed for a few days, my brain had adjusted its sensitivity to various incoming information, particularly in the upper frequencies that were more affected by the blockage. Once the blockage was removed, these higher frequencies remained more sensitive and gave me the sensation of super-accurate hearing.

When it comes to audio, this is important to recognise. If you’re listening to a new set of speakers or a new set of headphones, it’s important to give your brain time to adjust. Case in point was my recent purchase of some new headphones. Having decided to buy the Ultrasone HFI 680s as a closed alternative to my Audio Technica ATH-AD900s, I spent a lot of time listening to the 680s and I soon learned to love their sound. So much so, that returning to my AD900s left me a little underwhelmed – I suddenly really missed the bass of the 680s and longed for that warmer, fuller sound. And then I realised – I had adapted. My brain had said, “Oh, is this the new ‘norm’? I’ll just adjust to compensate.” Returning to the AD900s which have a more detailed, less bassy sound, my brain said “Where’s the bass gone – there’s a big hole in the sound!” But as I listened to the AD900s for longer, the bass gradually returned and my 680s then started to sound overly bassy when I returned to them.

The interesting and amazing thing is that, once I switched back and forth a couple of times, my brain got quicker at adjusting and I found both sets of headphones more enjoyable almost straight away after switching. It’s like the brain creates its own set of situational EQs that it can switch between when it knows you’re using particular earphones, speakers, or listening in a particular environment.

For music lovers, this is important to recognise. When auditioning new gear, be sure to give yourself plenty of time for your brain’s EQ to adjust. Also, be aware that someone else’s opinion on their favourite speakers or headphones will be coloured by their brain’s EQ settings. What they find warm, but detailed, you might find muddy, especially if you’re coming from a different sounding piece of gear. In time you might adjust to the new gear’s sound, but it may also be beyond the range of adjustment. Our brain still needs to be able to differentiate sounds so it doesn’t try to make everything sound equal, just to balance things out to sound how we believe it should.

Generally, I find it takes up to half an hour of listening to really adapt to a new sound depending on how different it is. Make sure you give yourself that time when auditioning or adapting to anything new or you might just miss out on something wonderful!

$300 Headphones at a Glance

I had a great afternoon today, courtesy of the team at Addicted to Audio (www.addictedtoaudio.com.au) I spent about an hour and a half in their audition room checking out a bunch of closed style headphones for around $300. I’m not going to try to give you a full-blown review for all of them, but thought a little description of each pair might be helpful. Here goes…

Shure SRH840 (approx. $200)

Shure SRH840

Having read lots of good things about the 840s, I came in with them high on my shortlist and they didn’t disappoint. The 840s have a warm, but detailed and balanced sound. They’re very easy to listen too, but not boring. Of all the phones I listened to today, the 840s probably had the sweetest midrange. The sound of rim-shots (when the drum stick is used against the metal rim of a drum) sound very warm and woody – just like they should.

Pros: The 840s are easy to drive and ran perfectly from iPod and laptop. They’re also comfortable on the head and have good padding all around.

Cons: My only real issue with these phones is the small cable running outside of the body of the headphones. Just about each cup, a small cable comes out of the housing and then loops back into the cup. This is obviously to allow for adjustment, but leaves a potentially fragile piece of the headphones exposed to accidental damage.

Verdict: These are still very much on my mind and may yet be my final choice given they are so easy to drive. They’re not as exciting to listen to as the Ultrasones, but they are more comfortable and have a beautiful smooth sound signature while still being detailed and crisp. They’re also a great deal at just under $200.

Ultrasone HFI 580 (approx. $250)

Ultrasone HFI 580

I knew nothing about the 580s going into this afternoon, but considered them because of their price and the fact that they’re easier to drive than the 680s. I was told that they are more bass oriented than the 680s, but can’t say that I was overly aware of that.

Having already listened to some other headphones, the 580s weren’t as good and therefore left the shortlist fairly quickly. That said, they’re a very capable headphone and would definitely suit a lot of people, but I like a bit of extra high-end sparkle and detail. It’s a very subtle gap in the 580’s sound signature and it took direct comparisons to realise that the 680s gave me the sparkle that the 580s lacked – it’s very minor and those who prefer a slightly warmer sound will definitely like the 580s.

Pros: The soundstage is huge (for closed headphones) and the sound is lively, detailed and exciting.

Cons: Although solid, the construction is a bit plastic and they’re not as comfortable as some comparable headphones.

Verdict: The HFI 580s are off my shortlist, but only because they were outdone by their senior sibling, the 680s and that was only by a hair. They’re a great headphone with balanced sound, solid bass and a smooth, slightly less bright signature than some others.

Ultrasone HFI 680 (approx. $300)

Ultrasone HFI 680

The 680s were high on my shortlist after reading plenty of good things. They didn’t dissapoint. Plenty of punch, plenty of detail and that awesome Ultrasone soundstage. It’s important to note that the 680s really do need amplification. I listened to the Shure SRH840 and the Ultrasone HFI 680 side-by-side and alternated between them across a variety of music. Initially, I was listening through a dedicated headphone amp, but soon moved over to my iPod and then laptop so I could hear some music I was more familiar with. I wasn’t using amplification at this stage and started to be amazed at the difference between the SRH840s and the HFI 680s. At first I put it down to the music selection, but soon realised it was amplification. Once an amp was added, the 680s once again edged ahead of the 840s in terms of their lively detail and punchy presence.

Pros: Punchy, lively sound in a great big soundstage.

Cons:
As per the whole HFI range, the comfort isn’t as good as some alternatives and the build quality isn’t spectacular. Also, the significant difference between amped and un-amped performance means an amp is a must.

Verdict:
A great headphone for the dollars. I listened to some $1000+ phones today and kept coming back to the fact that I couldn’t justify the extra for the type of listening I do and for the minimal difference in sound. I’m not suggesting the more expensive headphones aren’t better, but the 680s do such a great job across the board that they’re ahead of most other closed cans in terms of bang-for-buck.
I’d highly recommend a listen to these if you have a device that will drive them effectively. I’m personally looking at something like a Nu Force uDAC-2 (approx. $200), but it takes the 680s up to around $500.

Audio Technica ATH-A900
(approx. $250)

Audio Technica ATH-A900

As a massive fan of the open style ATH-AD900s, it made sense to listen to their closed equivalent, the A900s. I’d heard that they have a “darker” sound, but didn’t yet know exactly what that meant – I had my theories, but it’s a very subjective term. I know understand exactly what those people meant. The top-end and bottom-end are just like the AD900s – crisp, detailed and awesome, but then came vocals… The closed design of the A900s make the mid-range sound very closed-in. The mid-range and vocals were muffled and crowded – not very enjoyable.

Pros: Beautifully made and insanely comfortable (like all similar style Audio Technicas with their 3D fitting system)

Cons:
The mid-range is so muffled and crowded that it completely smothers the rest of the sound – such a shame.

Verdict:
There are much better options out there for the price. I would take the Shure SRH840s anytime over the A900s.

Beyer-Dynamic T50p
(approx. $300)

Beyer-Dynamic T50p

I had seen these online, but knew little about them other than funky looks and a good, reliable brand. Straight out of the box they were the most impressive in terms of build quality and style of all the phones listed in this “At a Glance”. The only comparable quality of build is the Audio Technicas, but the T50ps are funkier in style (but that’s also a matter of taste).

Before talking about the sound of these it’s important to note that they were straight out of the box with no burn-in or general play time whatsoever so the following description needs to be taken with a grain of salt as it were…

The T50ps had an interesting sound signature. While detailed and neutral, there was something I couldn’t put my finger on at first, but after a few tracks I think the mid-range is a bit too forward and the top-end not quite forward enough. The bass is sublime for a small on-ear headphone. It’s tight, but with plenty of mass and presence and this continues up into the mids, but somewhere that outstanding start falls away. The T50ps reminded me of the AKG Q460 headphones which I’ll be reviewing very soon. They’re probably a touch better than the Q460s, but still lack a little sparkle at the top-end.

Pros:
They’re sexy, made of metal (i.e. high quality) and have a quality sound if you like warm, mellow signatures.

Cons:
The lack of sparkle at the top-end was a deal-breaker for me, but that was the only issue I could find so if you like the sound signature you’ll love these phones!

Verdict:
Probably a great option for some depending on your music and sound tastes. I’d love to own a pair from a design and quality point of view, but just not sure if I can justify it when I don’t like the sound style. That said, I haven’t had a chance to try them with slightly boosted treble.

At a Glance Overview

After plenty of listening and switching between sources and music tracks, I definitely gravitated towards 2 options. The Shure SRH840s and the Ultrasone HFI 680s were clearly the best of the bunch. For non-amplified use I think the Shures are a winner. For amplified use, the Ultrasones take a slight lead. The tricky thing now is that I haven’t yet auditioned the Ultrasone HFI 780s, but will do so before purchasing because they’re easier to drive from a non-amplified source. I’ll keep you posted…

Audio Technica ATH-AD900 Review

Audio Technica ATH-AD900 open style headphones

Audio Technica ATH-AD900 open style headphones

The ATH-AD900s are a well-known headphone made in Japan. They’re recognised as a clean, accurate and possibly under-priced headphone. I very recently purchased a pair and they’ve really opened my eyes in a number of ways.

On first listen, the AD900s sounded a bit “thin” for my liking. I’m definitely not a bass-head, but I was worried I would miss the presence of a solid kick in the bass. As I’ve listened to the AD900s more and more I’ve actually found that I’m loving the clean and possibly slightly understated bass from these phones.

In my article about compressed audio I discussed the phenomenon of “masking”. Masking is what happens when a loud sound prevents us from hearing a quiet sound. I’d never thought about it in relation to speakers or headphones before, but I’m starting to think it plays a part in the detail of any reproduction device. I am hearing details in music with the AD900s that I’ve never heard through other high quality speakers and phones I’ve used. That’s not to say the AD900s are the best phones on the planet, but they are definitely very, very good. What makes them so good is their balance. Because the different frequencies are so nicely balanced, the bass doesn’t overshadow the mids and treble and vice versa. There’s no harshness in the top end to get in the way of the rest of the music and the vocals don’t jump out over and above the instrumentation. Everything is exactly where it belongs.

It’s probably important to note that the AD900s are an open style headphone which means that even though they cover your whole ear, they don’t cut out any sound from the world around you. It also means that people around you can hear what you’re listening to pretty clearly so they’re not a good choice for open offices or situations where others don’t want to hear your music.

Let’s look at the individual characteristics of the headphones:

Quick Specs

Speaker Driver : 53mm
Frequency Range : 5 – 35,000Hz
Power Handling : 700mW
Impedance : 35 ohms

Bass

Attack: The attack from the AD900s is beautiful, but understated. They’re a very sensitive earphone with a relatively high impedance which makes them very responsive (a bit like a powerful sports car with excellent breaks). They go fast when needed and stop just as quickly. The result to your ears is accuracy and energy. The AD900s sound exciting and lively at all frequencies and this means a good attack in the bass. During Wayman Tisdale’s “Take the Lord Along with You”, the bass is crisp and sharp with plenty of detail. There’s no muddiness or lag in the bass – it’s agile. However, there will be a lack of punch for some people and this means you don’t feel as much of the attack as you might like. The AD900s are probably more accurate than some of the more exciting earphones around, but that does mean they lack the up-front excitement created by the feeling of some good, hard-hitting bass.

Rating: 7.5 / 10

Mass: As you’ve probably already gathered, this could be the one weak point of the AD900s if you like bass, but this is where audio becomes such a personal affair. I love the fact that the AD900s are so realistic. If a track was recorded with lots of bass, the AD900s reproduce it, but they also shine a very bright light on tracks recorded without much bass. The result can be a slightly thin-sounding experience. Even though that’s more a reflection of the recording and engineering of the track, many headphones will lend a little extra bass to music and cover these shortcomings.

I tried listening to “Halftime” by Nas and there’s plenty of bass, but it’s not thumping on my eardrums like an angry neighbour. It’s very present, but not overpowering and I know some people enjoy the hard-hitting thump.

Rating: 5 / 10

Vocals / Mids

It’s almost difficult to review the mids and vocals from the AD900s because they’re exactly what they should be and perfectly balanced with everything else. They don’t stick out as a flat spot or a highlight. The mids and vocals are smooth, realistic and perfectly placed within the overall musical picture. There’s really nothing to report (in a good way) – they’re perfect.

Rating: 8.5 / 10

Detail

Wow. If only I could give them a 12 out of 10. Detail is the AD900’s party trick. Their accuracy and agility is simply awesome so you hear every tiny detail in all of your music. Even driven straight from an iPod (5th Generation), the accuracy is outstanding. The iPod has to run at nearly 100% volume, but there’s still a little headroom to turn it up if necessary and the quality is still excellent.

When listening to “Learn to Love” by Harry Connick, Jr. there are some minor riffs and fills from the backing orchestra and a Hammond organ. On other earphones I’ve used, these riffs tend to get lost in the mix, but on the AD900s you can hear even the subtlest textures and details within the backing instrumentation – it’s quite an experience.

One of the best things about the level of detail the AD900s provide is that the music is exciting and energetic. There are so many different sounds and textures going on that you can really explore the music’s twists and turns. Even tracks you used to find boring can surprise you with a new detail or texture you’ve never heard before. This is true in all music, but it’s particularly noticeable in classical music. Listening to “Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen, Op.20” and “Capriccio Italien Op. 45” is quite amazing as you hear every pluck and pop and squeak from every instrument in the orchestra. I’m not a classical fan as such, but I love hearing the odd orchestral track just to experience all the textures and details I can hear through the AD900s.

Rating: 8.9 / 10

Staging

Staging was what initially attracted me to the AD900s. Other reviews I’d read suggested that the AD900s offered a broad and detailed soundstage and they really do. If you close your eyes while listening to a well recorded piece of music, the sound seems to come from a space outside of the confines of your head and the headphones. All that space also means that it’s easy to separate where different sounds are coming from.

I use Capriccio Italien Op. 45 to test for staging and placement of sounds because there are lots of quiet moments with individual groups in the orchestra playing. The AD900s paint a perfect picture of the orchestra. You can hear exactly where the horn section is placed and you can hear that they’re further away from you than the strings. The french horns are slightly to the right while the oboes and clarinets are more centred, but still slightly to the left. The detail is beautifully clear. I have heard headphones with slightly better staging (like the Ultrasone Edition 8s), but the AD900s are still extremely good, especially for the price.

Rating: 8.5 / 10

Overall

For around $300 you’ll have a very hard time finding a better pair of headphones in terms of accuracy, staging and comfort. I regularly wear these headphones all day (literally) and actually miss them when I take them off because they are SO comfortable. I have a shaved head so there’s no hair to add padding for headphones and most become uncomfortable in time, but the AD900s are hands-down the most comfortable thing I’ve ever worn on my head (including hats and beanies)!

If you love bass from a variety of music, don’t jump at the AD900s until you’ve had a good listen to a range of tracks to see if the “realistic” bass is enough for you. If accuracy, detail and clarity is your thing, do yourself a favour and check these out. If you’re not sure what you like you should definitely give the AD900s a try, but make sure you listen to them for a little while on a range of tracks before making your mind up. Most of us aren’t used to the kind of unbiased sound they give and you may feel a little underwhelmed at first, but give them some time, close your eyes and explore the music a bit – you might be surprised.

All-in-all I just love these headphones and often find myself turning to these instead of high quality speaker setups. I love the accuracy, detail and intimacy of the sound. If you’re buying headphones and have around $300 to spend you should definitely check these out. Even if you’re spending significantly more than $300, take a listen to the ATH-AD900s because they will embarrass many more expensive models.

Overall Rating: 7 / 10

Additional Note: The model below the AD900s is the ATH-AD700 and although Audio Technica completely missed the mark on the colour scheme (purple and gold), they’re an excellent headphone. There is absolutely no doubt that the AD900s are significantly better and are worth the extra $$$. The build quality and sound quality are both upgraded on the AD900s, but check out the AD700s if the AD900s are more than you want to spend.