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

The AKG K701

After the opposite polarities of the DT880 and the HD650, it’s time to take a look at the middle line approach from AKG. The K701 inherited a lot of nice things from the engineers who designed them. Between the bright DT880 and the dark HD650, the K701 easily sounds the most neutral with just a tad of warmth. The treble is smooth and inoffensive. The midrange is also smooth and with a good presence for vocals. The soundstage is big, the separation very clear. The presentation of the headphone reveals a lot of information in the music. Unlike the extreme monitoring stance of the DT880, the K701 seems to have a good potential to bridge the gap between monitoring and music listening. It’s revealing enough for monitoring, and yet not as dry and as sterile as the DT880. The K701 brings good technicalities without having to be very heavy on the amplifier requirements. It’s also warm enough to be used for more music listening. Yes, it doesn’t have the proper bass weight to maintain a good PRaT, but some people who listens to smooth jazz, slow female vocals, or easy listening instrumentals probably wouldn’t be bothered very much. I can see why people like it.

As I listened the K701’s sound further, I begin to see why the K701 has been going down in popularity. First and foremost, I see the K701 as not having a clear sense of direction in the sound. When isolated by its individual sound components, the K701 would do fairly well. I can probably give it a decent grade in a table-score system, such as 8.5/10 for treble, 9/10 for midrange, 7.5 for bass, and so on. But when evaluated as a whole, you don’t see the direction that the K701 is going with the sound. And I wouldn’t call it colorless either — that would be a better description of the Beyer DT880. The K701 is like the politician who tries to please everybody and ends up getting everybody upset because he can’t get anything done. I struggle to give a good analogy here, but the point is, I can’t get where the K701 is trying to go with the sound. The DT880 is a very focused monitoring headphone. The HD650 intentionally is very colored for medium paced music. Grados have that strong Grado signature sound that engage you with the midrange. Jerry Harvey’s IEMs have that “Jerry Harvey” signature as well. But the K701? I’ve seen it being branded as analytical or sterile, but I actually think the DT880 fits that better and for a good reason. The K701 sounds relatively warm to the DT880, so it’s not cold sounding either. Instead, the K701’s sound just give you a blank look, without trying to communicate anything to you.

On the technical side, the K701 is not without flaws either. Though it reveals the music very well, the K701 actually has the least low level detail of the three, while the HD650 and the DT880 is roughly equal with a bit of an edge to the HD650. The treble and bass extension is also rolled off in comparison to the HD650 and the DT880. Quite surprising indeed, considering the K701 is always synonymous with detail and technicalities. The K701 also have some resonance on the mid region, which I suspect leaves the impression of a “plasticky” sound. The HD650 has some small resonance as well in the lower treble, but not as noticeable as the K701 and only at loud volumes.

Perhaps the most famous aspect of the K701 is its soundstage. Indeed, the K701 has a very wide soundstage with clear separation of the instruments. The soundstage is very big, and instruments take a clear and distinct positioning within that soundstage. However, on live recordings, the small background detail is cut off in the K701, when they are more faithfully preserved in the DT880 and the HD650. And despite the famous “soundstage” of the K701, I actually rank the soundstage performance as the last of the bunch. Let’s take a look at how I come to that conclusion on the next page.

Old School Trio: AKG K701, Beyerdynamics DT880, Sennheiser HD650
2.56 (51.27%) 55 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 😉

    • 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!

      • 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.

    • 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).

        • 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.

            • 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.

    • 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.

  • Kay

    The AKG K701 is the true neutral headphone out of the three. Even Quincy Jone’s said that he has never heared a more detailed sounding headphone and trust me he know’s more about proper music and sound then some of us will ever know.

    • Lyander0012

      As much as I like Mr. Jones’s music, I believe his opinion may be somewhat suspect since he endorses AKG headphones, not to mention they named a line of cans after him. I have yet to give the 701s or any of its variants a proper at-home listen so I’m reserving judgement for now. The K550s were my daily-use cans for a good two years before I side-graded to a DT880 250Ohm, though, and they’re supposed to be a closed K702 with slightly more bass; the fact that I lean towards my 880s implies that I may prefer them to the AKGs in this shootout, but again, I’ll give them a proper listen before making any definitive statements.

      Also, am I the only one here who prefers the Beyers to Senn’s HD650? I really can’t stand the lack of treble on the latter, though I can see why some would prefer them for extended listening sessions. The Senns may have a slight edge in comfort, though.

      • Check the NobleHiFi site by Edd, and his comments on the 880 – he’s a big fan. If you’re not listening to classical or similar genres, the 650 probably tames the shrill highs in pop music pretty well.

        • Lyander0012

          Thanks for the heads up! I do love listening to classical every once in a while (I need to be in a specific mood to really appreciate it), but I gravitate to rock and acoustic with the occasional industrial album thrown in for when I need a kick in the pants.

          And I have to agree about the 650s and pop. I listened to some J-Rock/J-Pop and they sounded much less shrill on them.

        • Lyander0012

          By the by, how do the DT880s stack up against the first generation T1s? I haven’t had a chance to try the latter out yet, but I’ve been told that I’d enjoy them as they have a similar sound sig to the 880s except with general improvements in imaging, etc. The revised version’s supposed to have more bass, which I’m not too keen on.


          • The T1 gen 1 has a fundamental superiority in sound quality in the sense of hearing more and better inner detail (or micro detail), but first you have to get past the treble peaks, or play music that doesn’t tickle its peculiar resonances. One golden-eared musician on ComputerAudiophile noted that the T1 he evaluated could not differentiate between a Steinway and a Bosendorfer. I equalized mine to net out the biases that occur with headphones having different frequency responses, so I could get past that issue and understand the basic sound quality. In the end I let it go, because the EQ just didn’t do the magic I hoped for. But I trust Edd’s long-term satisfaction and analysis – so maybe there’s not the ultimate detail with the 880, but overall it seems to be a better bet for most music.

            • Lyander0012

              Yeah, that more or less mirrors my opinion of the older Beyers. The 880s don’t do everything perfectly, but they’re nice enough all-rounders that I can use them for pretty much any genre. Glad to hear that the T1’s more finicky, as that gives me an excuse to forego getting one and try out some nice planars instead, haha. Thanks!

              • Stay tuned for longer-term reviews of version 2. There’s always hope.

                • Lyander0012

                  Haha! I suppose it’d be overly optimistic hoping that I’ll be able to get out of spending more on cans so quickly after getting back into the hobby. Looking forward to it, and thanks for all the advice so far!

  • Gene Bodio

    Got all three as well as a few orthos, HD800, HD600, IEMs …. I’m also a recording engineer & musician of 30y. Mostly multi trk mainstream rock, both digi & 2in analog. But I’ve also done a good bit of live to 2tk.. Jazz, Vox, Acoustic….
    First, let me say that I’m in the unique position to know what my mixes sounded like. And I know what other mixes/masters sound. To my ears, the Q701s are hands down doing the best job at reproducing tracks that I know inside & out. Over every headphone I have. Their role flaw, and it’s a minor one, is it tends to roll off a few db down in the 30-50hz area. Easily fixed or adjusted for taste with any basic eq on any DAP. I’ve been using FIIO’s X7 with their native player as well as HibyMusic & Neutron. All have adequate eqs.

    My comments re virtually every other headphone I own is that they are all flawed in one way or another, and require a genre of music to complement the flaw. Too much bottom, look for light acoustic. Too much top, stay away from cymbles & electronic. Mid issues, look for a vox complement.

    On the other hand you could get the most accurate/neutral/reference headphone aka boring. Then, depending on genre or mood, eq to taste. At the end of the day, you have Headphones that can morph into fitting any need. A better prospect than buying non-neutral, pre eq’ed/voiced headphones that only works well with a given genere.

    FYI, From the HPs that I’ve tested, the AKG q701 & HD800 come the closest to neutral. But I’d give a shout out to the Hifiman i400s. From my pov, it is everything the HD6*0 is suppose to be with that beautiful planar btm and enough top end to allow for a few db of 8k shelf to bring a little sparkle into the track and open the soundstage a tad.