German Flagship Battle: The HD800 and the T1
As of 2010, these are the two flagship models being offered by the two of the biggest headphone company in the world, Sennheiser, and Beyerdynamic. Both offers the latest technology in their drivers. Ring shaped driver in the Sennheiser HD800, and a Tesla driver in the Beyerdynamic T1. Certainly, the engineers at the respective companies believe that their product is the best the world has ever seen. And while I was reading the press releases of both headphones, my imagination really led me to think that the sound out of these cans would be nothing like I’ve ever heard before.
Having both cans in my possession right now, hooked up to a fairly premium system comprising the Grace m902 and the Burson HA-160 amplifier, I can tell you that the two flagships sound pretty much like, well, headphones. Yep, no sugar coated review here, and I can understand if your spouse questions the logic behind a $1,000 pair of headphones. Unless you play for the NBA, or you manage some big private equity funds, or you come from a royal Arab family, the price tag may not make a lot of sense. But it’s good to be able to taste what the best sounds like, and if I can’t yet afford a Mercedes SLR, a flagship German headphone is good enough for the time being.
The two headphones carries a noticeably different sound signature from each other. They are quite balanced sounding in their own sense, but the minute you wear them on your head you’ll notice that the two is very different. Both headphones are clearly very good, and they both deserve the flagship status of their respective brands. The T1 has a great feel of clarity that lets you vision the music better, while the HD800 has a smooth and analog sound that lets you get a better mood of the music. Of course both headphones are not the ultimate, end-of-journey headphones. And as you will see when I started comparing the headphones on different CDs, the T1 will excel at one music, where the HD800 will excel at another.
Holding both headphones in your hand, I have to give the extra credit to the folks at Sennheiser. Regardless of your personal preference in aesthetics and design, it is not an easy thing to design a new housing from scratch, especially considering the high acoustic expectations that’s placed on a flagship headphone like the HD800. The Beyerdynamic T1 does come in a premium build quality and craftmanship, and in some ways, it feels more solid than the HD800′s. But there is no denying that Beyer took an existing housing from the DT880 series, and sort of added the “premium package option” on an old chassis. Both headphones are comfortable on my head, but the HD800 scores an extra two points in comfort ahead of the T1. What’s important to mention is that both headphones have the driver placed in an angle to the ear, instead of the usual straight orientation. While this technology has existed in the lesser Sennheisers (HD555/595, for instance), I believe this is the first implementation by Beyer.
I think the build quality of both headphones are high enough, and I really have no complain with either one. However, they do cost quite a sum at $1295.00 and $1399.95 for the T1 and the HD800, respectively, and for the sake of the review, I think they deserve a closer scrutiny.
The alcantara fiber material found in the HD800 earpads and headband is definitely more luxurious than the leather and verlour pads found on the T1. The alcantara is very soft, and the feeling of it touching your skin feels very luxurious. The pads adjustment mechanism is also fancier and more precise on the HD800, while on the T1 is more or less the same as the lesser DT880 model. On the cables, the T1′s cable is very beefy and each channel runs on individual lines throughout the length of the cable. The HD800, however, is more luxurious, with fiber sleeving and the custom 1/4″ jack as opposed to the standard mass produced 1/4″ Neutrik on the T1. Again, just nitpicking here, as they both do a great job of serving as a conductor. I really can’t comment on the sound quality of the cables, but it’s nice to have removable cables like on the HD800, as I can swap the stock cable to aftermarket ones fairly easily and get an instant boost on sound quality.
When I first received the T1, the pads were a little small and somehow they didn’t accomodate my ears too well. My ears were pressing against the pads, and also the pressure of the headphone was a little uncomfortable. After roughly a week of intensive listening, the pads must have adjusted and now the T1 is quite comfortable, but it still doesn’t match the much superior comfort of the HD800.
For this comparison, I used a very neutral system that has no strong colorations to get the best view of each headphones’ personality. For personal listening, of course you can match them to amplifiers and source with certain characteristics to better match your music. The source I use this time is the Grace m902 DAC with the Ipod Classic and Onkyo ND-S1 dock as the transport. The amplifier used is the Burson all discrete solid state amplifier, the HA-160. In comparison to the Grace m902′s amplifier unit, the Burson HA-160 exhibits better imaging performance and so I did not use the m902′s amplifier unit.
The amplifier requirements of the two headphones are quite medium to high. The Sennheiser HD800 is 300Ω and the Beyerdynamic T1 is 600Ω. As long as your amplifiers have enough gain, it should be good for the two headphones. So in a sense, you don’t really need a lot of current like on the orthodynamics like the Hifiman HE5. They are very revealing of the component behind them, and so, make sure that your amplifier can produce good and clean signals, because any kind of distortions will sound ugly on these headphones. But far more than the amplifiers, the source requirement, I believe is even higher. And the better your source is, the better these two headphones will shine. I wouldn’t be surprised to see these headphones being paired with $2000+ sources.
I need to give credit to Hadi, one of our contributors, who helped me a great deal during the period of the review, and I definitely appreciate his inputs on how to put what we hear into words. He suggested that it’ll be a good idea to include a comparison notes, since these two flagship headphones rightly deserves a deeper scrutiny than the usual review format. And so I did. This is the first review that I wrote that includes comparison notes.
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