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Headphone Shootout #1 - The Details
Our first headphone shootout using the Crutchfield Listening bar featured a three-person panel: Dave Bar, audiophile and headphone expert; Marshall Chase, who writes about receivers and audio components; and Ralph Graves, blog editor and former writer for Crutchfield's headphone category.
For the shootout, each panelist was asked to submit a few comments about each set of headphones. But there was more they had to say! Here's the complete version of their comments, with an introduction by Dave.
First of all, I'd like to share some general thoughts about sound and headphones:
In a perfect, objective world the only real test of any transducer’s performance, be it microphone, speaker, headphone, or phono cartridge, is its unwavering ability to convey a ruler-flat frequency response from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz (or from DC to Light if you want to be REALLY perfect) with infinitely low distortion and zero energy storage. But in the real world, transducers are never perfect, human perception is subjective, and things like accuracy oftentimes take a back seat to personal preference.
This is especially true of speakers and headphones. One person’s meat may be another’s potatoes (or is that poison?). Even though we talk about holding accuracy up as the Holy Grail of speaker/headphone design, they all add coloration of some sort. Many people actually prefer this, leaning toward one type of coloration or another (bright highs, boomy bass, etc.)
Of course everyone’s physiology varies as well, so things such as age and exposure to damaging noise levels can affect people’s auditory sensitivity in different ways and at different frequencies. So, indeed, we don’t all even hear alike. In the end, it seems that people simply hear what they want to hear, and all the objective testing can be chucked out the window when it comes to something as personal as sound.
Transparent, fast, airy, neutral, detailed - these are all adjectives that sprang to mind when listening to the Senheisers. A wee bit bass shy, too. This slight lack of weight in the bass surprised me because listening to them at home on my own rig, I never got that impression. Guess it goes to show that different combinations of amps and headphones/speakers can yield surprisingly different results.
Listening to the HD 598 also reminded me that these open back headphones allow a fair amount of ambient sound to leak in (and out). They are not the ideal type of 'phones to use in a noisy environment, a fact that was made all too evident at our headphone listening station located on a noisy corner of our phone sales department. In a quiet office, others around you are also likely to partake in your taste in music as it emanates from the open backs of the earcups.
As for the sound, the HD 598 yielded shimmery, natural sounding high-frequencies, clear mids, and deep, articulate bass. To me, they were the most revealing and balanced in our group. They were also very comfortable and relatively lightweight. The oval shaped velour earcups stayed put, and the feel was never claustrophobic like some cans can be. Highly recommended.
Very comfortable wear, pressure-free on the glasses.
I found these headphones to be the most spacious in their sound, allowing me to imagine that I was in a room listening to good quality speakers. And they seemed highly detailed on the vocal side. I could just about feel the difference between Norah Jones amazing articulation followed by Ray Charles' gravelly blues.
They lost some detail on reeds, but gave Charles Mingus his due place of prominence on stand up bass. I could hear more than just the strings, but the actual tone of the instrument resonating. I don't think these phones performed as well with the Stones. The percussion was right on, with the drums sounding warm with depth, but the kit stopped at the cymbals, which sounded a bit shallow.
The Sennheisers did a good job with Bach. Good articulation of flute and strings, but a little less prominence of the harpsichord.
The Sennheisers had a very expansive sound across the board. I heard a lot of intimate details in the Norah Jones track, especially among the backing instruments. Ditto for the Mingus selection. The standup bass sounded full and expressive, and very natural. The solo instruments had a breathiness too them that was an integral part of the performances.
I felt I could hear deeper into the ensemble on the Bach and better follow some of the inner lines. The Stones sounded pretty good, although they didn't have the impact they did with the Beats. Of all four sets, I thought the Van Morrison/Ray Charles duet sounded best with the HD 598's. Although they did well with all the tracks, I thought the Sennheisers performed best on the more acoustic tracks.
A perfect candidate for a headphone amp, the K272 was the least efficient in the bunch - probably not a good choice for listening with a portable player. Surprisingly, I heard a fair amount of sibilance on Norah's vocals (which are normally very smooth), and a slight steeliness to all the high-frequencies. I found the sound balanced toward the mid and upper frequencies, with a distinct lack of bass punch.
The Van Morrison/Ray Charles track came across better, with Ray's piano sounding very nice indeed, but the overall sound was still somewhat hooded and dark. On the Mingus track, things smoothed out a bit on the highs, but the piano sounded recessed and the bass lightweight.
The Stones track felt hollowed out with very little bass or bass definition.
Ah, Bach! The AKGs really shined on this classical cut. Instruments sounded clear and well placed with plenty of low-level detail.
Overall impression: These cans are a real mixed bag that I couldn't seem to get a handle on. The best sounding track for them was the Bach Orchestral Suite No. 2, so I believe classical devotees could find happiness here. Comfort level was good to very good, but I couldn't get the self-adjusting earpads to stay put when I moved. Still, the pads were soft and would be easy to live with and wear long-term.
When I first heard the AKG's earlier in the day, they'd been disconnected from the DAC. When I returned in the afternoon, the DAC had been reconnected, and it was like listening to a different set of headphones. They turned out a LOT better than I thought originally for vocal. In fact, I found them to be the nicest headphones of the group FOR vocal listening. This was whether I was grooving on Norah Jones, or finding Mick Jagger pushed out front of the Stones where he belonged.
I was also impressed with their ability to flesh out the reeds in the Charles Mingus combo, and how the cymbals seemed to ring rather than hiss. They also provided nice balance on the Bach piece.
I found myself having to turn up the volume more for these headphones than the other sets. No problem with a headphone amp, but it could be if I just had it plugged into the headphone jack of my iPod.
With the AKGs the Norah Jones track sounded warm, with very soft edges. The room (studio?) ambiance was more audible, which contributed to that impression. That room sound was even more evident in the Bach. Although more present, it didn't distract from the music itself.
The Mingus cut sounded very good in the ensemble sections, but the upright bass at the beginning seemed a little undefined. Morrison & Charles sounded balanced and full, but the headphones did best (to my ears) with the Rolling Stones track. All the instruments and vocals sounded just about where I thought they should be in the mix.
In some ways, these were the most interesting (and difficult to pin down) 'phones in the group. I came into this listening session with a definite bias against the Beats because I always thought of them as being overly bass heavy. After listening to them and comparing them against the others, I came away far more impressed than I had expected.
Listening to the Norah Jones track, I could easily pick out each instrument in its own well-defined space. Jazz, rock, piano, everything came through loud and clear. As much as I love the Stones' performance on 'Exile on Main Street', the Beats clearly pointed out the somewhat less than stellar recording quality of this album. (I have to think this was intentional given their access to top quality recording studios. I guess they were simply trying to keep the recording raw and under-produced sounding to maintain that edgy bad-boy aura.)
Even the classical track shined, with a big wide soundstage and a good feel of the ambiance of the recording space.
But, I have two bones to pick with these cans. At the end of the day, as exciting as the big bass sound is for short-term listening, it did tend to overshadow the mid and high frequencies to a degree that I found unbalanced. I'm only comfortable recommending these phones to listeners who crave a LOT of low frequency sound (and there are lots of 'em, you know who you are).
Also, these 'phones have a higher-than-usual clamping force, that when combined with their substantial build and weight, make it difficult for a pencil-necked geek like me to imagine wearing them for long periods of time. Still, I found them intriguing and give them a qualified thumbs up.
When I put them on I felt like I should be driving a tank. Or that I was wearing one. These babies are heavy!
I thought the Beats were the best headphones overall for listening to the Stones. These were the only headphones to really give that kind of bass its due. But they went beyond boom, boom, to offer real distinction within the vocals.
They did an amazing job with percussion on the Mingus cut, not just with the prominence of the hit of a floor tom, but the ting, ting, ting of the crash and high-hat cymbals. I did have to turn them down when a trombone lick came to get me, but no guts, no glory.
Strangely, I didn't like the Beats as well for solo vocals from Ray Charles, Norah Jones or Van Morrison. I think they may be more "choral vocal" oriented, or at least wind up that way as a practical matter. In a manner of speaking, they do a great job of separating the wheat from the chaff. But when there's no chaff around, the "wheat" doesn't sound as good.
I knew these headphones were designed to Dr. Dre's specifications, and expected them to color the music to reflect that hip-hop artist's personal tastes. They did, but not to the extent I thought they would.
Of the five tracks we listened to, Tumbling Dice was probably closest to Dre's ideal and it sounded the best on these 'phones. The bass drum kicked with a visceral savageness, the bass guitar rumbled with authority, while Mick's vocals and Keith's guitar were coming through with knife-edged crispness.
While that was great for the Stones, those crispy highs and solid lows colored the other tracks with varying degrees of success (in my opinion). Norah Jones sounded a little too bright, as did the harpsichord on the Bach. The ensemble in the Bach seemed lose some detail (especially in the midrange). The live Van Morrison/Ray Charles duet seemed somewhat boomy, with the bass drum front and center (not the intent of the performers, I'm sure).
The Mingus track faired better, but seemed to have an electronic sheen to it, as if I was hearing not a live performance, but a live performance piped through a club's PA system. These headphones are great for the genres they were designed for - hip-hop, rap, rock, electronica, and other similar genres. For more acoustic-based music, though, I don't think they worked as well.
The only true "portable" cans in our grouping, the P5 is extremely sensitive and can be expected to power up easily and effectively with a portable music player. A slight softness at the most extreme high-frequencies plus richness in the midrange and bass frequencies might actually put them at an advantage when listening to compressed music files — which can oftentimes sound a bit harsh on the top and weak on the lows — on an iPod.
I found the sound to be slightly forward with an intimate, up-close perspective that I liked. I think this also tends to be typical of sealed-back 'phones. They performed equally well with all of our test tracks, showing no favoritism with any one style of music. That's a trait I admire since I like a lot of different kinds.
Overall impression: Punchy, articulate bass. Not the ultimate in resolution or soundstage width, but clear and detailed enough to listen pretty far down into the mix. Super-durable construction and feel (loved the NZ sheepskin leather and high-density memory foam earpads). Very comfortable and lightweight. My ears did get a little warm at times, but never too bad. I really liked the comfort, style, and feel of these headphones, as well as the lush sound.
I found these headphones comfortable to wear.
They did an outstanding job on vocal clarity, which I think is one of the more difficult tasks for a set of headphones. This was consistent throughout the cuts, with a rich amount of detail, particularly on Norah Jones cut. I especially enjoyed the free-flowing tone produced by this set when I listened to Mingus. The brasses really came out front without being too sharp to the ear. I was a bit disappointed with their performance on the reeds. I expected a bit more detail than I could hear, but the stand up bass sounded natural.
I don't think the B&W performed as well on Tumbling Dice. Mick's front vocal got a bit lost in the crowd, as did the bass line, for a jumble that I really didn't care for.
I heard every note and articulation of the flute in Bach. And the B&Ws did one of the best jobs of balanced tone when the strings played. Even the harpsichord, which is rather low on this recording, found some accent.
The listening bar is on the sales floor here at Crutchfield, which means advisors are always talking on the phones. I expected the over-the-ear headphones to somewhat mute the cacophony, but I was surprised at how well the on-ear P5's did so.
To my ears, the headphones provided a lot of welcome detail on many of the tracks. Norah Jones' voice sounded warm and breathy. The instruments on the Mingus cut had an immediacy to them that made the recording sound intimate. The ensemble in the Bach piece sounded spread out across a spacious sound field. I thought the Stones sounded good, but not great with the P5's — perhaps it was the absence of deep, deep bass. And the live recording of Van Morrison and Ray Charles sounded a little muted compared to the other 'phones.
Overall, though they did well across all the genres, and their ability to diminish outside noise makes them a definite plus for portable listening.
The Bottom Line:
As you would expect for headphones costing $250 and up, each model here did pretty well overall in the sound department. At the end of the day, however, the Sennheisers won me over for their impressive transparency, balance, and detailed sound. I also liked their comfortable fit and relatively lightweight design. The P5s were a close second, and would be my first place pick if the majority of my listening were done on the fly with a portable player or iPhone. They have a warmth and intimacy that I find very appealing. Plus, they're built like little tanks with leather upholstery!
The Beats Pro sounded powerful and clear, with a lot of detail and spaciousness. But ultimately, their (too) strong bass output, weight, and high-clamping pressure just plain wore me out. I couldn't live with them long-term, but they sure are fun in short bursts. The AKGs were somewhat of a disappointment, a surprise given my previous experience and fondness of some of their studio cans. I found them too dark and closed-in sounding, and they definitely need an amp to get them off the launch pad. Not a good match with a portable player.
I have to say first, I didn't think much of the Bach recording, so I don't think I can judge any of these headphones fairly for classical instrumental performance.
If I had to choose a pair for my own listening, I would get the AKGs. While I loved the spaciousness of the Sennheisers, I think they were a bit offended by the Stones. And while I thought the Beats could cut it in my world, I'm afraid they'd cut a bit too deep into the side of my head. The B&Ws were really nice overall, but I didn't find the detail and accents in the music where I expected. I like a little spice. The AKGs were hot.
I listen to a lot of acoustic-based music. For my tastes, I thought the Sennheiser HD 598's did the best job. The Beats sounded great with the rock track, so if I primarily listened to that type of music, I'd be inclined to go with those. But I'm just as likely to follow a classic rock track with one for classical guitar. So for something that can handle those extremes with the same degree of accuracy throughout, I've lived with the P5's and they're my favorite for portable listening. But overall — and for the type of listening I normally do — I liked the Sennheiser's the best out of the four.
Bowers & Wilkins P5
Portable on-ear headphones with in-line remote and microphone