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Comfortable acoustics: relaxing with the Sennheiser HD 598 headphones

Some people might think that it's fun to review headphones.

OK, it is.

Generally.

But sometimes I need a break. I've been wearing headphones pretty much eight hours a day five days a week for a couple of months now. Because of these extreme working conditions, comfort has become almost as important to me as audio fidelity. Earlobes are pretty tender to begin with — even more so after they've been squashed for any length of time by ill-fitting headphones.

So it was with great relief that I donned the Sennheiser HD 598 headphones. Their plush velour earcups settled gently against my head, while the padding across the top kept the 'phones from weighing heavily on my mind (or at least my skull). The HD 598's are made of good quality plastic, so they're lightweight without being flimsy — another plus.

OK, they feel great — but how do they sound?

The HD 598s were headphones I could definitely live with. They had a transparent, spacious sound that I thoroughly enjoyed. If you're like my colleague Marshall and crave big bass, you might be a little disappointed. It's not that the HD 598s didn't deliver bass at all. It's just that they reproduced what lows were already in the music without adding anything to it.

So, for example, Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love thundered with John Bonham's drumming and John Paul Jones' bass guitar. But the same song by Hayseed Dixie didn't. Which was fine. Hayseed Dixie is a bluegrass band (albeit a very strange one), and their stand-up bass shouldn't have the same punch as Jones' amped-up instrument.

What these headphones excelled at were revealing the details that were in there the mix. So selections from the Pebbles series of garage band compilations sounded about like what the by do through other headphones. Lo-fi, mono mid-1960's recordings that don't have a lot detail — which is exactly what they are. But put on music from modern garage bands, like Jet, and it's a different story. I could easily separate out each instrument (as well as the vocals), so I could listen deep into the mix and even just pay attention to what the drummer was doing if I wanted to.

Electronic vs. Acoustic

Some headphones are better-suited to electronic music — such as rap, metal, trip-hop, etc — while others do well primarily with acoustic genres. With the HD 598s I didn't really hear that much difference between those two categories. The headphones simply delivered the music as it was recorded. So Eminem's tracks had the bass that was mixed into them. It hit hard, even without any additional boost from the headphones. Leif Ove Andsnes' grand piano sounded clean and natural for the same reason. Ditto with Rebecca Pidgeon's close-miked and breathy voice. And so, too, with the heavily processed and compressed singing of Lily Allen. These are definitely the right headphones for someone with eclectic tastes (or in my case, eccentric tastes).

My rule of thumb for audio quality

I've gotten into the habit of looking at plug at the end of the cord to assess how the headphones were primarily meant to be used.. If the headphones have a minijack, then that suggests they're best suited for portable use, and I make sure I do extensive listening with my iPod®. If the cord ends in a 1/4" plug, then I do most of my listening with the headphones plugged into a headphone amp (in my case, a NuForce Icon 2 that connects to my laptop). I've found that those type of headphones — even if they come with a minijack adapter as the HD 598s do — generally need more power to them than a headphone jack can provide to operate efficiently.

The Sennheisers did well plugged into my iPod, but I had to boost the volume more than I normally do in order to hear the music, and even then it sounded a little rounded off on the top and the bottom. I have the same lossless files on my computer as I do on my player, but they definitely sound better coming from my laptop via the headphone amp. Of course, the amp's DAC (digital-to-analog converter) is processing the files with more accuracy than either my iPod's DAC or computer's soundcard could, so that's part of the improvement. But having enough power for the drivers makes a huge difference.

Great headphones for all-around — and all-night — listening.

I thoroughly enjoyed the long listening sessions I had with the Sennheiser HD 598 headphones. Even after four or five hours, they felt just as comfortable as when I first put them on. Regardless of what genre of music I chose, the headphones reproduced the songs with fidelity and clarity. And for active listening, that's all I need.

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