Old School Trio: AKG K701, Beyerdynamics DT880, Sennheiser HD650

I still remember a few years ago when people used to wait for their turn to audition these “flagships” on a headphone meet. Back then, the headphone world was ruled by the trio consisting the AKG K701, the Beyerdynamic DT880, and the Sennheiser HD650. They were immensely popular back then, and everybody wants to have a piece of the three. Choosing the proper headphone become more than a simple decision. The headphone you choose ultimately would determine which “clan” you belong to, and you shall be prepared to defend the headphone’s reputation to the point of death. It wasn’t until Sennheiser introduced the $1,400 HD800 (and followed by the other manufacturer’s $1,000 offerings) that the trio quietly slides down into the background, compelled to give up their lordships.

These headphones may not command the same bragging rights they once had, and like everybody else, I too have moved to $1,000 headphones and $1,000 custom IEMs. And yet, I feel that I owe these guys a proper review, perhaps for sentimental or nostalgic reasons. Besides, what headphone site can be complete without a 701/880/650 review? Now that we actually have many other headphones that are better than them, it may be the best time to write an in-depth review of the three. After all, the new-toy syndrome and the subjective fanaticism should be long gone by now.

The landscape has changed considerably from the time when these headphones were still the “top-of-the-range” of the respective brands. Back then, headphone amplifiers were very scarce, and one of the problems that people had with these headphones is that they don’t run very well from an Ipod or a laptop’s headphone out. You’d often hear statements such as “without a proper amp, you cannot see the full potential of the headphones” and others like that. Now, we have more options on amplifiers than the actual headphones, and even entry level products such as the Matrix M-Stage or the Ibasso PB-1 can be used to drive these headphones with fairly good results. Additionally, good quality sources are also more common these days, making it easier to enjoy high quality hi-fi from these headphones.

Another change in the landscape is on the actual enthusiasts. I would say that the crowd is more mature and more learned these days. It’s common knowledge that the trio requires a good amp, and you almost never see these headphones being plugged into under-powered systems anymore. Finally, there is no denying that people’s preference on sound have changed. Three years ago, Grado was a big name among headphone enthusiasts. Perhaps one out of three headphone conversations would involve a Grado. These days, adjectives used to describe the Grado sound (i.e “bright”, “harsh”, or “piercing”) tend to reflect the negative vibes people have on the Grado brand. Many ex-Grado fans have actually turned to the Sennheiser HD650, which used to be the headphone they loathe. The phrase “Sennheiser veil” is less often used now, and people started to associate the HD650 with positive adjectives such as “smooth”, “pleasing”, and “refined”. The AKG K701 fan base has also been in decline, as the new detail-lovers seem to prefer the Beyerdynamic DT880 over the AKG. As I’m writing this article, I can probably say that the K701 have the smallest fan base today, compared to the DT880 and HD650.

A while ago, I wrote an article outlining the black and silver driver screen differences of the HD650. Today, I feel that the variations may be more complex than a simple black and silver version. Nonetheless, I am using the silver-screen version of the Sennheiser HD650 for this review. The Beyerdynamic DT880 that I’m reviewing is the newer version, since the older DT880 (2003) have been discontinued a long time ago. The newer DT880 comes in three impedance ratings: 32 Ohms, 250 Ohms, and 600 Ohms. The 600 Ohms is supposedly the most refined of the three, and that’s the version that I use here. The AKG K701 used is just a plain old K701. Although I heard rumors that the K701 also comes in two different variations, I’ve actually never heard of the “other” variants, and every K701/702 I’ve listened to sounds like the other.

A word of warning: this ends as a 4700 words article. If you are serious about these headphones, then you may be willing to read the whole thing, as every pages contain quite a deep evaluation about the headphones. If you don’t feel like going through six pages of content, you can skip all the pages and go straight to the last page for the conclusion. Then, if you don’t agree with the conclusion, you can go back to inspect the detailed report to see how I ended up with those conclusions.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/TO6NNU7WEEG3DTGPMJWAX6B67I I Will be your

    Hi Mike,
    This is a really nice and helpful review! You said that you event prefered the HD650 on an exellent amp than a $1000 headphone on an average amp. It is so excited to me cuz i have read that people could identify the most difference of sound by changing an old headphone more than amp or dac. So, how many percents of the HD650′s max-power do you think a sub-$300 amps such as Schiit Asgard and Matrix M-stage can make? instance HD650+beta22 is 100% power :D. Sorry for my bad English and thank you so much!

  • derbii

    Just a tip for people trying to find an amp for DT880 600 Ohm.  I think I might have found a perfect pairing.  It’s the Bellario HA540 tube amplifier. It’s got ridiculous amounts of power and gain, doesn’t break a sweat with 880′s, it’s a layout for easily swappable tubes, but even in stock form it sounds great. It’s a very warm and lush sounding amp, but still very transparent and natural.  It’s also got great bass presence and control. Paired with Musical Fidelity M1DAC and Beyer DT880 600 Ohm, it’s the best headphone combo I’ve had so far, and I’ve had Q701′s and HD650′s paired with decent <500$ amps.
    Bellario HA540 retails for 299$ , and is made in USA.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Thanks for sharing, derbii.

    • http://www.facebook.com/wilson.yee.7 Wilson Yee

      I have the Bellari HA540 with the Q701, it is indeed a nice tube amp, very warm and smoothing sounding. However, the Q701 headband is kinda annoying, and I agree with mike’s impression on the soundstage, too wide but not deep enough, I like how the mids are presented tho, I am wondering how they compare to the DT880 600Ohm? Mostly concerning about the mid..I have heard the DT990 paired with Schiit Lyr and the recess mid made the listening experience not quite enjoyable as I mainly listen to instrument like guitar and piano.

      • derbii

        I don’t have the HA540 anymore, I found a better amp for the DT880′s, the Onkyo A-5VL integrated speaker amp with a dual burr brown 24/192 DAC. Heaps of power, more than any headphone amp I’ve heard, and much more than any DAC/amp combo, better sound than all 500-700$ head amp/dac combos (CA Dacmagicplus, Teac UD-Ho1, Asus Xonar Essence One) I’ve tested A-B in the store. In comparison, DT880 vs Q701, I think DT880 is a better headphone in pretty much every way. As Mike said in this comparison, its got a clear direction in which its going with its presentation, unlike the Q701, which sounds like it doesn’t know what it want’s to sound like. Beyers have that feel of “perfection” to them, even though they have their own special signature. I don’t feel the mids are recessed, at least not so much to be able to call it a negative point. Highs are smooth and non fatiguing. They also sound fuller to me than Q701 and have much more bass.

        • http://www.facebook.com/wilson.yee.7 Wilson Yee

          Thank you for your reply, derbii. That makes me tempting to trade my Q701 for a DT880 :). Because I really can’t bare with the headband, it start hurting after wearing for 30 mins.I am not familiar with the speaker amp you mentioned, My current setup is Schiit Bitfrost+Bellari HA540.I just got the HA540 not too long ago, so I don’t think I will upgrade any sooner. When I do, it will probably be the Bottlehead Crack, always wanted to try DIY. As for the sound, I am guessing the DT880 has a more narrow soundstage than the Q701? and what do you mean by sound fuller?

          • derbii

            You might wanna audition the DT880 before buying it, it’s a great headphone almost without faults sonically, but try it first. In terms of comfort its definitely FAR ahead of Q701. Ear pad foam on Q701 is pretty hard and it’s way too bulky, DT880 feels perfectly sized, and pads are nice and soft, like those teddy bear toys for kids, very fluffy ear pads. Headband has a lot of padding as well, and they’re extremelly light headphones. Even though according to specs they should weigh about the same as Q701 and HD650, it feels like the Q701′s cable alone weighs more than the DT880′s. The soundstage on DT880′s is I find much better than on Q701. I actually think the soundstage on Q701 is pretty poor. Yes, its very wide and big, but it has no height and depth. Its a very unnatural soundstage. Both DT880 and HD650 do a much better job at it IMHO. DT880′s soundstage is not as wide, but it is far deeper and higher. Imagine it like a big square room when you stand in the middle. Imaging is better as well. Sounds have a clear direction, and there’s a strong central image, vocals are in front of you, not inside you like with Q701. DT880′s also have considerably more bass presence. In fact, I’d say they have more bass presence than the HD650′s, apart from the HD650′s mid-bass boost, which sometimes make the bass muddy. They don’t have boosted bass, or bass that interferes with the rest of sound, its just that deep, very textured, very smooth and pleasant bass with extreme extension that Q701′s can’t even hope to match. Imagine Q701′s as being a pair of studio monitor speakers. Then imagine the DT880′s as being a pair of studio monitor speakers, paired with a very precise and accurate small studio subwoofer. That’s what I mean by fuller sound. It’s that solid bass foundation. But don’t think that DT880 have too much bass, they don’t. For me they have the perfect amount of bass with whatever music I listen to. Highs are also smoother than on the Q701′s, but mids are not quite as forward. Vocals won’t be as “loud” as on the Q701′s, but it’s not a negative point, it might even be positive because its more neutral. Basically, for me, out of all the headphone I’ve bought, DT880′s surprised me the most because they sound totally different than I had imagine from reading reviews. I thought they would be very bass light, very bright with very recessed and thin mids, but it’s totally not like that. As for Bellari HA540, if you keep it, make sure you replace the stock Ruby tube. Even though it sounds great for a 250$ amp, it’s rubbish really compared to better tubes out there. It’s holding your DAC back. The clarity and detail you will get with a better tube is really like upgrading to a much more expensive amp. Try getting the Mullard 12AX7, they’re about 18$ for a pair, or if you can stretch your budget to about 50$ for a pair of tubes get Gold Lion 12AX7. The difference compared to stock tube is like the difference between onboard computer soundcard and a high quality DAC.

            • NubTAM94

              I’m not so sure about the DT880 having more bass presence than the HD650 when driven from the Crack though, to me it seems that when amped properly the Senns are hands down in terms of bass quantity and decay

              • derbii

                Maybe HD650′s leave an impression of having more bass because it has a bit more mid bass, but as overall, especially low bass under 60-70 hz I think DT880 definitely have more presence. The biggest difference though is the quality of bass, which is really much higher in the DT880′s. Its a very textured and detailed bass, whereas the HD650′s have a bit soft and “boomy” bass.

  • http://www.facebook.com/destroysall Chris Allen

    I’m reading this while drinking coffee and listening to Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green” with DT990/600′s on my head and can’t help but wonder what would be the difference between the DT990s and the DT880s?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      I compared the two briefly, and felt that the DT880s were more linear, while the DT990 has a more pronounced treble and bass areas, making it more V-shaped.

      • http://www.facebook.com/destroysall Chris Allen

        So the DT880s also have a less recessed mids than the DT990s? I feel myself wanting a tad more power or pronouncement in the mids of the DT990s, so a V-shape does describe it almost perfectly. I do see in another comment that you have recommended a tube amp to help assist with the mids, but out of curiosity, is there a solid state solution that could do the same?

        • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

          Speaking from a simplistic point of view, yes a tube amp or a mid-heavy solid state amp (say the Graham Slee Solo SRG II) would help with the mids. In reality, however, it doesn’t really work that well as the mid-range “boost” doesn’t fill in the exact areas on the Beyer’s recessed mids areas.
          Hope that makes sense.

          • http://www.facebook.com/destroysall Chris Allen

            It does, thanks Mike. Hopefully I didn’t sound too confusing my self. Lol.

          • http://www.facebook.com/destroysall Chris Allen

            It does, thanks Mike. Hopefully I didn’t sound too confusing my self. Lol.

          • http://www.facebook.com/destroysall Chris Allen

            It does, thanks Mike. Hopefully I didn’t sound too confusing my self. Lol.

        • http://www.facebook.com/dr.hilerio D.r. Hilerio

          I can confirm Mike’s recommendation. The DT990 sounds superb through the Graham Slee. I have the Ultra Linear though.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/gval0412 Alexander Valenzuela

    akg k701,dt 880 pro and sennheiser are all dependent on good amp and how much are you willing to spend.this are all brand.while audio technica ath-ad900 can perform w/o amp but paired with the right amp you will not be discussing the 701,hd650 and dt880 pro.do yourself a favor and compare this audio technica with those phones and listen blindfolded so you are not comparing brands.i have all this headphones and i listen to music 5 hours a day and this technicas trump them all in terms of quality and accuracy provided with properly recorded music

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  • http://www.facebook.com/nukiie.raffinato Nukiie Raffinato

    Good review, very useful and also remind me of what happened around the world of head-fiers.

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  • Frederic 77

    can anyone say something about the combination Schiit Asgard + DT 880 (600Ohm)?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=558524377 Barış Engin Sönmez

    We also should consider that Akg’s are sound best only and only if they properly amped.
    Original specs may mislead. I mean, you should pair them with a high-output power amplifier.
    Moreover, you should give a chance to Q701 too, as someone said before me.

  • Peter

    At Sound Liaison we have been using Beyer Dt 880 and Akg 702 to great satisfaction when checking for phase and such problems.

    We do the majority of the mix on our Grimm speakers but the 880′s and the 702′s are fantastic phones also for an alternative “view”

    This audiophile album was partly mixed on these HP’s. Carmen Gomes inc:”Thousand Shades of Blue”

  • donunus

    Just read this again. Great Review Mike! Now I am just checking if you would consider the hd598 a better allrounder against these three

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Thanks.. no I don’t consider the HD598 a better all rounder.

      Where have you been man?

      • donunus

        Been busy with my new Baby among other things :) Still lurking around though

  • chuck77

    Hi Mike, I currently have a Bottlehead Crack w/ Speedball and just picked up an AudioValve RKV MKII amp. Which headphone do you recommend? I see great potential with the AudioValve amp, as most people say they pair extremely well with the power hungry AKG K1000. I do not have the budget for a K1000, but the amp sounds pretty good with my only set of dynamic headphones I have now – the DT990-250. Is there a headphone that is a better match for either of these amps? It does not have to be one of the three headphones here!

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      I think you should try the HD650 with the Crack. I don’t know about the Audiovalve amp but the K1000 is mostly collector’s item. I don’t think the sound quality is that phenomenal, I did a review of the K1K here:
      http://www.headfonia.com/old-champ-the-akg-k1000/

  • Theo Mestrum

    Hi Mike,

    You stated the following above: “The DT880 shines with its superb clarity and detail throughout the frequency range. It would’ve been great if Beyer can add more mid and bass body, to add some weight to the otherwise “light” sound.” Well, my ears have done just that for me. At 57 my ears are swimming in the dark above 15kHz. So the DT880 and me pair up for a perfectly neutral listening experience. And if I want some veil I use the HD598 for that purpose. By the way, the HD598 is better for rock imho.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      You’re welcome Theo. If the Beyer works for you then that’s great. :) I’m here to help people discover their music better, not to push a certain brand to the readers. Of course, being human, we all have our preferences but that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to get the same things we like. Me and L for instance, we argue on so many different things.

      • http://www.headfonia.com/ L.

        But we agree on even more ;)

      • Theo Mestrum

        Thank you for your reply. You wrote a fine article on AKG’s K550. I have
        this phone in my collection for just about a week now. It is by far the
        best closed headphone that I ever listened to. Initially it took some
        practice to secure a good and comfortable fit. Here in Holland these
        cans are a true steal. You can have them for just under $ 200. They seem
        to need a long burn-in. But to me the sound is already great. Well, I’ll wait and see if it will sound even better after a few weeks.

    • Theo Mestrum

      Thank you for your reply. You wrote a fine article on AKG’s K550. I have
      this phone in my collection for just about a week now. It is by far the
      best closed headphone that I ever listened to. Initially it took some
      practice to secure a good and comfortable fit. Here in Holland these
      cans are a true steal. You can have them for just under $ 200. They seem
      to need a long burn-in. But to me the sound is already great. Well, I’ll wait and see if it will sound even better after a few weeks.

  • STARSTERN

    maybe we can fill the mid and bass , to the dt880 ,with a good matching amp ?
    also wonder what would be a good neutral amp which would go well to all headphones ?

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      An amp would help but only to a certain degree.

      A good neutral amp try the Lehmann Black cube or SPL Phonitor/Auditor.

  • STARSTERN

    to get the transparency of which only a dt880 provides ,and still preserve the mid and bass ,” how about a EQ ? raising the mid and low to optimum ,while leaving the high at norm’ ,plus using a amp inclined forward mid and bass ? and for the sake of discussion ,found a bass booster gadget ,wonder whether anyone has any experience with it ? and…after adding all these …????

    the

    ZO2 Personal Subwoofer

    • dalethorn

      If the EQ doesn’t leave peaks and dips adjacent to the center point of the adjustment sliders, and the EQ doesn’t rob bits from the signal, and the EQ isn’t a lifetime of work adjusting 100 or 1000 EQ points, and …..

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Generally you can help EQ to do corrections but they are limited. The more adjustment point you do with the EQ, the worse the result becomes.

  • STARSTERN

    ZO2 Personal Subwoofer ” the more looking at reviews and forums about it am getting more kind of excited ,has excellent rating from all over ,it kind of supposed to align the highs and lows and mids ,so then when you raise the volume you getting them all “, and not overwhelming mids as usual

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      You can give it a try to boost the mids and lows.. still if it’s that easy to boost the mids and lows of a DT880 and get satisfactory results, everyone would’ve gone the same way.

      Here is the review I did:

      http://www.headfonia.com/the-smartvektor-digizoid-zo/

  • STARSTERN

    any idea about this one had seen one time at forums giving it a high edge ;

    leckerton UHA-6S MKII

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      I had a short listen, I think it’s a good amp.

  • STARSTERN

    it’s a good amp that’s absolute ? or rather relative ”
    in other words to get an idea of the level of good ‘it must be compared to something ‘now those which was good enough to earn you review ,to which of those comes the leckerton UHA -6S MKII closest to ??

  • Aaron Davidoff

    Hi Mike,
    Great review. Would go for the 650s if I had the money but I think i’m going to get the hd600s. any recomendation on a dac/amp? aune t1 or schiit mini combo? something under 300…
    thanks i really appreciate your opinion.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Aaron,
      I’d go for the Fiio E07K/09K.

  • Robert Burns

    HI Mike

    Just came across this article of yours, excellent comprehensive review, mirrors my observations to a “T”.
    Previously read your review on the HD700s and hopefully I’ll have the same impressions once they arrive, if they’re not held up in the XMAS rush.

    • http://www.headfonia.com Mike

      Thank you, Robert.

  • Guest

    Great review as always Mike

    Using dt880 (250ohm) for series,
    gaming (in my opionen a surprisingly good soundstage) and acoustic. The
    X1 (Philips) which was reviewed in an own article for edm, rock and co
    (what a lovely fun headphone ^^). But what makes me curious is the senn
    hd650. How is it compared to the X1? Does it really have this veil,
    which I’m gone notice and his probelm with good dacs/khv? (have at the
    moment fiio e17 and e09k, which you recommend in your X1 Article ;)

    Kind regards,

    Patirck

    • Patrick

      sry, doublepost

  • Patrick

    Great review as always Mike

    Using dt880 (250ohm) for series,
    gaming (in my opionen a surprisingly good soundstage) and acoustic. The
    X1 (Philips) which was reviewed in an own article for edm, rock and co
    (what a lovely fun headphone ^^). But what makes me curious is the senn
    hd650. How is it compared to the X1? Does it really have this veil,
    which I’m gone notice and his probelm with good dacs/khv? (have at the
    moment fiio e17 and e09k, which you recommend in your X1 Article ;)

    Kind regards,

    Patrick