I’m not kidding when I say that the T1.3 is an extremely sensitive headphone when it comes to powering them. As counterintuitive as it seemed to plug a pair of ‘T1’ headphones into my Samsung S9+ smartphone, I couldn’t have the volume turned up past 40% without worrying about damaging my hearing – they get very loud, very easily. Running them on a modestly powered DAP in the form of the Cowon Plenue R2, the T1.3 needs only 70/140 on the volume scale for me to comfortably enjoy listening. This is great news if you don’t want to have to fork out to get a powerful amplifier to get your nice new expensive German headphones to get ‘loud’, but if you already have an amplifier on hand then things might get a little trickier. You see, the T1.3 is so sensitive that it will pick up the noise floor in certain equipment, which was definitely the case with the Rupert Neve Fidelice Precision DAC (but not problematically so). The Burson Playmate 2, however, is completely unusable with the T1.3. Why? It’s too loud on even the lowest volume setting (’01’) in low gain! Beyerdynamic states that the T1.3 has a maximum power handling of 300mW, and they really aren’t kidding (that much power actually sounds terrifying) – a modestly powered, yet quality amplification source is your best bet here, and we’ll see how pairings affect the sound a little later.
If you’ve heard previous models of the T1 before, then you’ll be in for a genuine surprise when you first listen to the T1.3. They sound strange, like really strange right out of the box – I actually had to check that I didn’t have a strange EQ setting in place upstream when I first hit ‘play’ on music. And once I had ruled that out, I next had to check that the cables were plugged in correctly – and they were! The T1 is a completely different beast to its forebears – it’s very bass-focused, extremely warm, has a distant-sounding upper mid-range, and a fairly tempered treble department (as T1s go, anyhow). So in other words, nothing like a T1. The T1.3 is certainly not a neutrally tuned headphone, and neutrality was certainly not the goal here. Beyerdynamic’s marketing material says “With this generation of the T1, the spatial sound gets a gentle bass boost for a warmer sound experience.” – I’m not kidding when I say that this is an understatement. It’s not like just one area of the low end is boosted, it feels like every EQ slider below 500hz or so was just pushed up as one entire bass shelf. The result isn’t just a hint of warmth to the T1.3’s voicing, but rather it adds a degree of ‘tubbiness’ to the sound that overwhelms the rest of the frequency range. I describe it as ‘tubby’ because while there is a large amount of bass, it’s rather gentle. The bass guitar in Steely Dan’s ‘Peg‘ doesn’t have the snappiness nor speed that it does with a planar headphone with the Audeze Sine DX, but rather it goes about recreating the notes in a laid-back sort of way, with a rather wooly sense of decay. It’s not really a case of ‘slam’ here so much as a sense of ‘whump’ in the low end – it’s like being gently hit with a big soft cushion.
Moving up the frequency response chart, I quickly got the sense that the T1.3 is not a linear sounding pair of headphones, by design. They aren’t exactly a ‘V-shaped’ tuning in that they have a dipped upper mid-range, but rather it sounds somewhat…distant. Whereas the Sennheiser HD600 feels like it’s whispering Flo Morrissey into your earholes, the T1.3 is just less upfront – the singers sound three steps back from their mic. I think this is somewhat intentional as it does give a more cavernous effect to the sound, placing instrumental and vocal parts further apart on a horizontal and front-back axis, but it does create a somewhat unnatural, hollow sound in the presence region that is more than a little jarring at first.
For me, the biggest departure from previous T1 models is in the treble. What I love about the 600-ohm T1s are their pristine, crystalline top end and the incredible sense of detail, clarity and insight that comes with their incisive tuning in the upper octave. The T1.3 does not share this. It’s almost like Beyerdynamic over-corrected to consumer feedback about the treble characteristics of the T1/T1.2, but in doing so they’ve clipped the T1.3’s wings while trying to tiptoe around the infamous ‘Beyer treble peak’. While it certainly makes for a more non-fatiguing listen, the result of this is a distinct lack of energy. Bon Scott’s snarl in ‘Walk All Over You‘ is reduced to a soft, breath-y rendition, and the attack of snares and cymbals, in particular, are noticeably muted. No, the T1.3 is not a headphone to ‘rock out’ to. The T1.3 is not ‘veiled’ per se in that there’s missing detail and information, but its back-foot treble presentation certainly doesn’t spoon-feed it to you. It’s still a nuanced pair of headphones, but the weighting towards the lower notes doesn’t lend itself to critical, insightful listening.
I might sound like I’m being extremely critical of the Beyerdynamic T1.3, and you’d be right – a $1K flagship deserves close scrutiny. But it’s not so much the choices that Beyerdynamic has made for this particular headphone’s tuning, but more so because it wears the ‘T1’ badge – and it’s just so starkly different from its predecessors. The thing that struck me most about the T1.3 during my review time with it is that it takes a long while to get accustomed to it. That wonky-sounding tuning is off-putting at first, but after a while, you actually do start to feel like it sounds correct in a pleasing sort of way. But, move back to another pair of headphones with a more deft bass to mid-range transition, and it quickly snaps you back into reality. I found that I had to stop thinking about it as a T1 in the mold of earlier models and to simply think of it as a warm, wide, and non-fatiguing pair of dynamic open-back headphones. They are very much a pair of headphones for those of you who’d rather lean back and enjoy your music rather than get all up in its grill. While they are pitched as an out-and-out audiophile pair of headphones, I found that they are absolutely superb when it came to two other things: watching movies, and gaming. Their enveloping soundstage, bass-oriented frequency response and restrained-yet-detailed technical abilities make for a highly engaging pair of cans when it comes to immersing in a video, or bringing the excitement of a 3D environment to life when jumping into a console game. Add to this their excellent comfort, and they make a solid case for themselves as a pretty versatile set of all-around headphones.
Vs Sennheiser HD800s
Whereas once these were fierce competitors, it hardly feels like these two German flagships really occupy the same space anymore. After spending a couple of weeks with the T1.3, putting on the HD800s again was like a mainlining a syringe-full of adrenaline. The difference between these two headphones is probably most apparent in live, acoustic music like Nirvana’s arguably best record, MTV Unplugged. Listening to it with the T1.3 is like having a very comfortable cashmere ski-mask pulled down over your head, but the HD800s, by comparison, gives you a front-row ticket to the actual concert – it’s just a more natural and convincing tuning, and leaves nothing on the floor when it comes to detail retrieval. The HD800s is undoubtedly a more aggressive and potentially fatiguing listen, and it certainly doesn’t have the same bed of big, cushy bass presence. I think it’d be an interesting exercise to play a track on both headphones to someone who’s never heard a high-end pair of headphones before – I’m sure that 90% of them would lean towards the T1.3, because they’ve come to expect that ‘bass = good sound’, and it would be more reminiscent of a pair of consumer-tuned headphones.
Vs Focal Clear
The original version of Focal Clear, to me, is an absolute masterclass in headphone tuning done right. Aside from an ever so slightly metallic timbre that rears its head occasionally, they just sound natural in a linear and coherent way that makes you forget that you’re wearing headphones. The difference between the Clear and the T1.3 is as distinct as it is with the HD800s, but reveals the T1.3’s qualities in a different kind of way. Steven Wilson’s excellently produced ‘Self‘ proves the T1.3 to have excellent staging qualities compared to the more immediate, intimate Clear. The T1.3 is like listening to a big, wide warm wave of sound, whereas the Clear has a laser-focused, fully-lit and revealed soundscape right in front of you that injects unadulterated information right into your ears, rather than it being distant and rose-coloured.
Vs Beyerdynamic DT1990
Now this one was an interesting pairing, as I find the DT1990 to be a classic Beyerdynamic through and through. The DT1990 is certainly aimed at the ‘Pro’ crowd and has a different use case in mind, but offers a distinct alternative to those looking for a more neutral, detail-oriented Beyerdynamic open-back experience. The DT1990, especially with the ‘analytical’ pads installed had a ton more treble energy, which is especially concentrated in an 8kHz treble peak (and possibly problematic to some), but it feels like a veritable detail monster compared to the more laid-back T1.3. The DT1990 doesn’t have quite the same sense of overall smoothness and refinement, but it is without question a more accurate pair of headphones, with better technicalities – especially in the low end. If accuracy and detail are what you value when you’re listening, then the 250-ohm DT1990 might well be Beyerdynamic’s ‘best’ open-back headphone…depending on which way you look at it. Sure, they do need a pretty good amp to work at their best, but for me, they’re just a more convincing listen top-to-bottom.
What was so interesting about the 600-ohm T1s was the way they behaved with certain source gear, and finding an amp that provided decent power and synergy was almost half the fun (depending on your definition of ‘fun’, anyway). With the T1.3, this really isn’t the case – much of that mystery and difficulty has been removed. I paired the T1.3 with a few different solid-state amplifiers that I have on hand, namely the Questyle CMA600i, the Burson Funk, and the Fidelice Precision DAC by Rupert Neve. Each of these only required a gentle twist of the volume pot to get the T1.3 humming, and certainly only required low gain on the Rupert Neve and Burson. I didn’t really find any discernable difference between each of these Class-A amps in terms of sonic differences when volume-matched and fed with the same digital source, meaning that eking good performance out of a discrete headphone desktop amplifier will yield great results without much by way of variance.
Tubing the T1.3 does impart a degree of ‘difference’, but careful impedance matching is obviously required and OTL tube amps are definitely out of the question with the T1.3 unfortunately. The Hagerman Tuba was an enjoyable pairing with the T1.3, giving a nice tweak to its sense of imaging, and added a little more bloom and ‘bounce’ to the low end. Being an already warm pair of headphones, my preference was to stick with a solid-state amplifier to keep that generous low-end controlled and in check.
The T1.3 is a viable portable proposition thanks to its low sensitivity, and did perform strongly with portable gear, including the Cowon Plenue R2 DAP and even the minuscule Earstudio ES100. The Plenue R2 didn’t have quite the low-end heft, tonal mass and sense of soundstage depth as its desktop counterparts, but it was a novel feeling to be playing a ‘T1’ while walking around the house.
The T1.3 was a slightly confusing, and slightly frustrating experience for me. I say frustrating, as I would have loved to see what a no-holds-barred take on a high-impedance dynamic headphone would look like, taking the fight to the likes of the Sennheiser HD800s and Audio Technica ATH-ADX5000. Instead, we have something on our hands which doesn’t really feel like a ‘T1’, and nor does it quite feel (nor sound) like a classic Beyerdynamic either. If Beyerdynamic’s goal was to bring high-end to the masses, well power to them. But to me, marketing it as the ‘T1’ really doesn’t feel right, as it doesn’t share much by way of family lineage with its predecessors at all sonically – the result feels too apologetic, and just too tempered to wear the ‘T1’ badge.
I also feel that it isn’t technically up to scratch for the asking price, perhaps because it’s being aimed at the tech/luxury crowd rather than at the audiophile crowd. On the other hand, the Beyerdynamic T1.3 is a brilliantly-made, comfortable, and pleasant-sounding headphone that’s likely to appeal to a lot of people – it just feels misaimed in terms of its name, pricing, and how it’s pitched. Time will tell, and I’m only too happy to be proven wrong.