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Sennheiser HD 650 headphones

A clear favorite

I spent some time with the Sennheiser HD 650 high-performance stereo headphones recently. I think I was most impressed with the impression they didn't leave.

Sometimes headphones color the sound that comes out of their earcups. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It can even improve the performance of the 'phones. And if you can match a musical genre to headphones designed for that music, the coloration can actually enhance the listening experience.

But there's something to be said for headphones that just get out of the way and deliver the music while contributing as little as possible. And that's the experience I had with the Sennheiser HD 650 headphones. I heard a lot of detail in the music I listened to, but I would be hard-pressed to say if there was an overall consistent sound to what I was hearing. Which meant the headphones weren't evening out the sound. I was hearing all the variations between each recording.

Transparent sound

My CD collection runs the range from some of the earliest releases in the format to some of the latest recordings. With some of the headphones I've auditioned, the coloration has given a greater uniformity to the overall sound. With the HD 650's I could hear the differences between the various recordings. A lot of the CDs from the 1980's I own have a somewhat harsh and odd sound, perhaps a combination of low sampling rates and engineers not being experienced with digital mixing.

With the HD 650's I heard the flaws in those early recordings — just the way they were mastered. On the plus side, for later recordings made in the early 2000's, I could hear all of the glorious detail that the engineers captured in the mixes. This was especially true with releases from audiophile labels like Telarc and Mobile Fidelity.

Solid construction

The headphones have a nice, open design that let the drivers breathe. Be careful, though — those mesh covers over the earcups protects the speakers, but they also let a lot of sound leak out. Even at a medium volume level someone nearby can clearly hear your music. That wasn't an issue for me at home. But if you work  in a crowded office setting, you might want to go with a closed earcup design to avoid disturbing your coworkers.

I logged a lot of of time with these headphones, so I was glad that the headband was generously padded. The 'phones felt comfortable on my head, even after several hours of listening.

Using the minijack adapter

One of the things that pleasantly surprised me about the HD 650's was how well they did when connected to my iPod®. High-performance headphones work best when they're fully powered. Usually that means a dedicated headphone amp is needed to get the job done. Portable devices like an iPod usually send out enough power to drive a small set of earbuds, but not much more (if they did, it would quickly drain the battery).

So I wasn't expecting much when I used the supplied quarter-inch plug-to-stereo minijack adapter to connect the headphones with my iPod. While the sound was a little soft, I could easily hear the difference in sound quality between my lossless tracks and my compressed 256kbps tracks. Once again, the headphones kept out of the way and simply delivered the sound that the iPod was sending. I only had to turn the volume level a little above the halfway mark to get a decent sound, but I had to push it to the three-quarters mark to get any kind of presence in the music.

For best results, try a headphone amp

Of course, these headphones are designed primarily for use with a home audio/video system. Plugged into my receiver, they did an excellent job with not only my CDs, but also the FM stations I tuned in and even TV viewing.

A colleague who tried them out remarked, "don't use these headphones if you can't handle the truth," and he was right. The transparency of the headphones let every imperfection in the recordings come through, whether it was a boxy studio the band recorded in, or a compressed transfer when I ripped the CD to my hard drive.

The best listening experience I had with the headphones was when I optimized their performance by pairing them with a NuForce Icon HDP  headphone amp and DAC (digital-to-analog converter).

The HDP plugged into the USB port of my computer and bypassed its DAC. The superior processing of the HDP's DAC made an audible difference — and one I could appreciate with the headphones fully powered by the amp and giving me every nuance in the music.

There are headphones that are more sensitive — like the Sennheiser HD 800s, which I've also tried out. But for the money, the Sennheiser HD 650s were one of the best set of headphones I've tried for serious listening.

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