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

The Sennheiser HD650

The HD650 has received a lot of inaccurate branding, and it’s probably one of the most mis-understood headphones. One term that we associate the HD650 heavily with is that it’s dark and veiled. The reason that a dark presentation is preferable for music listening is due to the nature of music recordings. It’s no secret that most recordings are prepared for speaker playback. As you know, speakers sit at quite a distance from the listener, and because high frequencies get attenuated faster as it travels through the air, the recordings must attempt to compensate for the treble attenuation by adding a slight boost. On a headphone set up, the drivers sit very close to the ears and there is no treble attenuation from the air. As a result, recordings that sound right on a speaker often sound too piercing on a headphone. For a monitoring headphone, a neutral with a slight tendency to bright is probably fine, since the engineers need to have a zoomed-in view to the record. But for music listening, a dark headphone is most often preferred as it gives a better presentation for long term listening.

A lot of flagship headphones actually take on the dark stance, such as the Stax Omega 2 (Yes! The king of headphones is a dark headphone), the Audez’e LCD-2, and even the JH16Pro all belong to the darker sounding group. Likewise, the old kings of the vintage orthodynamics, including the Fostex T50v0, the NAD RP18, and the Yamaha YH1000, are mostly dark in their presentation. It’s interesting that as I compared the JH16Pro to the HD650 side to side for this article, I find the JH16Pro to be darker with less treble and more bass presence than the HD650. But the JH16Pro, as well as the other flagships, have never been blamed for their dark sound signature the way the HD650 often is.

My attempt to explain this phenomenon would be the components surrounding the headphones. At the level of the Omega2, the LCD-2, the buyers would always set aside a serious budget for a high end amplifier and a high quality source. The Omega2 doesn’t work out of a laptop headphone out, and likewise nobody would be plugging in the LCD-2 and the HE-6 into an onboard soundcard. The HD650 is different. You can get it on the streets for less than $400, and the buyers often don’t want to spend another $400-$500 for an amplifier. Well, the HD650 is dark, veiled, and very boring when underamped.

Once you start using good amplifiers like Woo Audio’s WA6, Burson’s HA-160, Lehmann’s Black Linear, or Grace’s m902, then the HD650 starts to really show its potential. The headphone awakens, and one of the thing that you notice is how it is not as slow and as boring as it was before. The nice thing about the HD650 is how it remains the only headphone among the three that can scale up very well, even close to the level of the $1,000 flagships. For instance, I don’t quite feel that the DT880 and the K701 has enough scalability to be paired to top end amplifiers like the Zana Deux or the Beta22. They improves, but it’s like they’ve hit a limit earlier down the road. On the other hand, the HD650 truly sings on high end systems, as I still enjoy the combination of a HD650 with the Beta22 very much, even while having the Hifiman HE-6 and HD800 around.

If we were to look at it from a different point of view, the Beyer and the AKG do give a more predictable sound and are less dependent on the components behind it. This is nice for newcomers, as they’re instantly rewarded with a great sound upon the purchase of the headphone. The HD650, on the other hand, can be very slow or very dynamic depending on the system it’s hooked up to. This may explain a lot of the conflicting impressions to the HD650. Some people would like to spend $300 on a headphone and be done with it. Some other would like a headphone that will continue to improve with every better components they buy down the road. So, this may be a good or a bad point, depending on where you’re looking from. I’ve personally have never heard of a bad report concerning a HD650 & a balanced Beta22 pairing, and this shows how tremendous the HD650 changes as you upgrade your chain.

One of the most controversial aspect of the HD650 is in its bass. People have gone into very intense discussions about HD650’s bass. One one hand, the weighty bass is very pleasant for music listening, and as I said earlier “midrange and bass lets you feel the music”. However, some people find the bass too muddy and too thick, contributing to the overall sense of slowness in the headphone and how it cannot keep up to faster paced music. The bass weight and punch is definitely one of the major score of this headphone, as it handily beats the K701 and the DT880 in this area, but in all fairness, the HD650 does struggle with presenting a good clarity and texture on the bass region.

With more powerful amplification such as the Grace m902, the HD650 improves on the bass clarity as it also picks up some speed. (I don’t mean speed as in transients, but rather, the ability to carry the pace with fast-paced music). It even carries the pace quite well with aggressive music such as Muse’s Uprising or Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire. With the Beta22 and balanced drive, the HD650 is even quicker, and improves the bass texture even more. However, at the end, the speed is still a tad behind the K701 and bass texture is far behind the DT880. So, in that sense, the HD650 is not the best headphone to choose if you like very fast Rock or Metal, but it should be fine for stuff like U2, John Mayer, the Beatles, and such. The DT880 actually has an ideal speed, pace, and control for such genres, but its excessive treble will cause serious problems as most of these recordings tend to be quite hot on the treble. As it is, none of the three headphones actually work for fast Rock, and we need to be looking at the Grado RS-1, Audio Technica AD2000, or the Hifiman HE-5 for that.

Old School Trio: AKG K701, Beyerdynamics DT880, Sennheiser HD650 2.88/5 (57.60%) 25 votes

  • Milko Georgiev

    Even HD600 has too much bass. R&B and other bassy music sounds like you are in a barrel. Mids are weak. AKG K701 and K712 give enough bass and still sound balanced, natural, nice, with no offence. Boom-tataa-boom is not the root of the misic 😉

    • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

      I thought the K712 was very nicely balanced. I’m surprised to hear that the HD600 has a warmer or bassier sound, but it’s been more than 10 years since I had the HD600, so can’t compare them. But the K712 is a much newer design, yes? I think the Sennheisers are just too old, and look what they’re making now!! Momentum, Momentum junior, and (gasp) the Urbanite!

      • http://realmegapixel.com Milko Georgiev

        Yes K712 is an noticeable upgrade of K701.
        I’ll try Momentum, thanx for the advice.
        In my opinion Sennheiser (as many others) gives people (what they want) more disco/club feeling.


  • Ritwik

    Hello Mike,
    First thank you for this great article. I am relatively a noob and just been 2-3 years in this business. Got hooked by cheap Sennheisers which are easily available here or any part of the world. From Senn 180 to PX90 to CAL! and then Logitech UE6000 to M50 and now again I was in lead for a deal this time a used K701. Honestly, I never intended to buy an AKG more so because it’s total absence from Indian market. As with almost every full sized headphone enthusiast I was too looking forward to upgrading to 600(again unavailable in India)/650. But, the added cost of an expensive amp is what is holding me down for a while. Out of the blue a K701 popped up for sale and got me interested for what great many things I have read in the forums. Still, hungry and need for a more informed decision landed me here. And, it’s been an eye opener. I actually can understand exactly what you mean by this article. Why people tend to exaggerate one or a few traits making them characterised into extremities. Now, I am clear headed. I am going with the K701 which can easily be driven unamped or might make a good pairing with my Fiio E11. I found the Fiio not to my liking on M50 or any other cans as they all have sufficient bass and Fiio sounds very closed so had put up for sale. I will keep the M50 for v-signature and K701 for vocal/instrument till I can afford a decent 650 based setup. Meanwhile, might soon upgrade to a better Fiio DAC+AMP like E17k if this pairing worked.

  • Peter Harlovic

    I really fail to understand why audio ‘reviewers’ always seem to obsess over products that produce a so called ‘warm’ sound and try to describe such products as being better for music.

    ‘Warm’ is a term people use to describe a product that overemphasiss the base and/or midbass (300hz down) which tends to drown out all detail and leave you with a completely unnatural sound.

    It also leaves me wondering when reviewers start to describe some speakers/headphones as being ‘rock headphones’ or ‘jazz headphones’ and the like.

    A speaker is a transducer – it converts electric impulses in to sound energy. A speaker does not know if it’s playing Rap, or Jazz, or Rock. It colours every piece of music / source in the exact same way.

    Ultimately the most linear a speaker / headphone measures, the more accurately it reproduces ALL source material.

    When it comes to sonic accuracy, the HD650 is very clearly the worst performing product of this trio. It’s the strongest exhageration from 200hz down, and it’s got easilly the weakest output above 3khz. It’s relatively accurate 300hz to 3khz, but even over that range ti’s no more accurate than the K701 or the DT880.

    The Beyer actually has (by a significant margin) the most accurate bottom end of these three products, with strong bass extension that’s around -3dB at 25hz. The HD650 by comparsion is -3dB at around 40hz, and the K701 is -3dB at around 50hz. Anybody who describes the DT880 as being ‘thin’ down low has no idea what they’re talking about, because no audio system that plays down to 25hz (i.e. below the typical human’s audible hearing level) at -3dB can be described as thin or lacking extension.

    If the DT880 does in fact sound ‘thin’ then that would be because of the 3-4dB dip in the midrange (between 1k-3k) and may well be made more prominant by the ~4dB peak in the highs up around 7k-9k.
    Overall, neither of these heaphones measures truly accurately, but the K701 is the closest to it. It’s almost dead flat from 600hz to 4khz (giving it by far the most accurate midrange of the three) the bottom end is not too overemphasised (as most headphones are) and the highs are much more ‘full’ than the HD650 without quite so much peakiness as the DT880.

    At this stage I’m still favourable towards the lower end K601, which probalby has the most neutral frequency response of any headphone i’ve heard – though it’s distortion levels aren’t quite as clean as the K701 and the DT880.

    I’m eager to hear the K702 however – it looks to be somewhat of a merger between the K701 and the K601, with the low distortion levels of the K701 and the more extended bottom end of the K601. Should be a fantastic model, and trying to find a place to get an audtion.
    I do really find it unfortuantely though, that so many manufacturers insist on product headphones that emphasise the bass range far too much. It really drowns out details across the rest of the audio spectrum, leaving the resulting sound coming across as very dull, overly heavy and lacking in fine details.

    • http://www.headfonia.com/ Headfonia_L.

      Not everyone wants the same kind of sound, A lot of people find the 880 or 70X extremely boring. Same goes for amps, the O2 in example is neutral sounding, to a lot of people that means it’s boring.

      People will always have different tastes and as long as that’s happening there will be differen sounding gear. Nothing wrong with that

      • Peter Harlovic

        The thing that’s wrong with it, so to speak, is that many reviewers give better reviews to products that they describe as ‘warm’ as if this is an objectively superior characteristic.

        Likewise reviewers will often describe a headphone that has a +5db rise in the bass as having better bass…and then go on to label another product thats closer to flat in the bass as “lacking bass” when that’s absolutely blatantly wrong.

        Reviews really should be more objective – call a product what it is. If it’s got a rise in the bass, but you happen to like that, then call it that way. There is nothing wrong with saying “productX does exhagerate the bass region slightly which is great if you like a more bass heavy sound, but if you prefer a more accurate low end then productY is more suitable”.

        Its like when reviewers try to describe one product as “great for jazz” abd another “great for hiphop”. What is up with that? A product will colour all sound in the exact same way. If you’re speaker has a 5db peak at 4khz, then your product is going to have a peaky lower treble / upper midrange regardless of what material you play through it. People say headphones with more bass are better suited to rnb – why? If the artist wants excessive bass in their track, then they tune that in to the track itself. Headphones with +10db bass will just further overemphasise the ALREADY overemphasised bass region.

        Also the use of these terms “warm”, “dry”, etc is insanity – i have no idea who came up with these silly ‘audiophile’ adjectives, but they tell you nothing factual about the sound. Everybody’s definition of “warm” is different to the next person’s. When you say warm, do you mean that the bass has a softly rising response down low? Or do you mean the treble rolls off more strongly than most up high? Or do you mean both? Nobody knows. People use these terms in reviews for headphones, car audio, hifi, you name it. Yet the terms are almost meaningless due to the ambiguity of their definition.

        When casual audio people use these methods to describe things i let it pass, but when its hardvore enthusiasts, industry professionals, etc, then it’s just…a little frustrating to those who actually want to know what the real traits of the product are (as opposed to trendy buzzwords).

        • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

          All very good points, but being purely objective (if that’s even possible), you’d be writing 5 times as much text to try to communicate to people who already are familiar with the review style and the adjectives used.

          The irony I see in this is that even in my own personal case, I’ll have a given headphone on hand for a long time – a few months to a couple of years, and at some point I hear it as rather warm, and a couple months or so later it may seem less than warm, as my current experience shifts toward warmer headphones.

          So going back to objective, I suppose I’d have to declare a certain headphone as the ‘standard’ for neutral, just for reference and all. But then, that headphone doesn’t sound neutral on all of my music. And so it goes…

          • Peter Harlovic

            But the if the headphone doesnt sound natural on all music, then its the music (not the headphone) that sounds unnatural.

            A natural audio system reflects the source, nothing more or less.

            Also frustrating is when people reply to a comparison like this I’ve for example, and then give their thoughts on the K701…based on their experience with the k712.

            These are two unique models, but little talk about them as of they are identical. Of you look at the measurements its clear that they are not. The K712 its way too heavy on the bottom end, the K702 is relatively neutrality low, and the k701 has a soft bottom end rise comparable to the k702, but doesn’t extend as low.

            So then i see people making comments like “the k702 lacks bass”, when in reality its about -3db at 30hz. For reference, that’s among the lowest any headphone will play at -3db.

            What These people really mean when they say it lacks bass, is that it doesnt overemphasise the bass – big difference.

            Many reviewers make such comments and it frustrates mean end because the consumers who read those reviews are going to potentially get the wrong impression.

            If like if reviewers were more accurate n their feedback. Instead of saying something sounds warm, just say the bass is a little over emphasised, and the treble doesnt extend especially high. Everybody understands what that means, and theres no ambiguity.

            I know it’s easier to stick to the cliche’s, but taking shortcuts wont always lead you down the right metaphorical path.

            • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

              Generally I agree, and it’s your first sentence that makes the case, for the theory at least. But, what really matters is the extant music after all. Let’s try a small experiment: We have all the world’s music, which all sounds good to OK on headphone A, but one track is not OK on headphone B. Then that track is remastered (in a good way) and now all sounds good to OK on headphone B, but not on headphone A. If we can “prove” that headphone B is still the fault because we can easily measure the midrange coloration that’s the difference, maybe we can sell that to people. But if the problem is in the treble, we don’t have any flat curves to investigate that. So we look for tonality to see if that’s accurate. Then eventually we realize that it’s very complicated because everything has minor faults all over the place, and judgements shift with every track. So I have to learn the reviewer’s tastes and judgements, and measure the reviews against that. Otherwise, I’d be comparing a thousand points of detail with every headphone, and lose the forest for the trees.

    • http://dalethorn.com dalethorn

      I would say, in defense of ‘warm’ that’s not a specific emphasis, that with certain gear that have very small rough areas that contribute to a more clinical or ‘technical’ sound, an equivalent item (a headhone for example) that uses wood in the earcups can often smooth the sound creating a sense of being warmer.

      Pardon my use of imprecise phrases here, since I’m aware that simple frequency response is far, far from adequate to describe an item’s sound, or even a part of that sound known as warmness – there are so many technical aspects of sound that no review can cover them in less than 3 month’s work on each item. Innerfidelity covers a little of that with lab measurements, but it’s just a start.

  • David Whitbeck

    I’ve owned all three headphones at one time or another. Many of the comments made in this shootout I think are apt, but some are not.

    The dt880s have amazing bass extension. It is also the most accurate bass reproduction I’ve heard from a headphone (at least in the sub-$500 price bracket). It does not sound thin. In fact the bass is slightly elevated and colors the music. It is is not the upper bass that is elevated like in Sennheiser headphones but lower to mid-bass. Also the peaks in the upper-mids and treble provide this headphone with a very unique coloration. Also it is never sibilant, not at all. I’ve never heard another headphone that sounded like it.

    The q701s don’t have a “blank look.” They’re warm and dark, just not as much as Sennheiser headphones but enough that they are not quite monitor flat.

    The hd650s are indeed warm and dark, but I think that it is a head-fi myth that they are slow or need expensive amplification. They actually require the least voltage of the three headphones (based on sensitivity and impedance) and sound great out of everything but mobile devices. They are the warmest and darkest headphone of the three, but not nearly as warm or as dark as it is made out to be. They have top class detail resolution in the mid-range, I would say that it is the most detailed of the three.

    All three are close to but not exactly neutral, and are each delicately colored in their own unique way. All three are capable of impressive sound stage and imaging (for headphones anyway). All three require a desktop amp to sound their best. And all three are excellent headphones without any single one possessing a significantly improved sound quality in comparison to the other two.

    For any prospective buyer: please refrain from reading that article. It can’t tell you which sound signature you would prefer, only you can. And all three are very close to each other in quality. If you can afford it, buy all three, listen to them and then pick one and return the other two.