Let’s start by describing the general sound signature of the three headphones. Sound signature is the most important thing when considering a headphone. It’s like choosing a car: you have the Sport coupes, the Roadsters, the Hybrids, the 4WDs, the Trucks, the SUVs, and so on. They are designed for different purposes, and likewise the sound signature of the headphone ultimately determines if it will fit a certain music.
It’s easiest to start with the Beyerdynamic and the Sennheiser, as they represent two extremely opposing sound signatures. The Beyer is bright, super-detailed, and almost colorless. The Sennheiser is dark, heavily colored, and laid back. The Beyerdynamic with its overwhelming treble presence very easily gives an impression of detail and transparency, and it’s very easy for a newcomer to be impressed with the treble presence in the Beyer. The Sennheiser with its dark sound signature has much less treble presence, but noticeably more midrange and bass weight for a more musical presentation. It is often said that “Treble lets you see the music, but Midrange and Bass lets you feel the music”, and we can see where Sennheiser is aming at when they tuned the HD650 to this direction.
The AKG K701 conveniently falls in the middle of the Beyer and the Sennheiser. Earlier descriptions of the AKG often uses the words “cold” and “clinical”, but I don’t think those are correct. The K701 is mildly warm, though not as warm as the HD650. It’s also in between of the HD650 and the DT880 in terms of bright/darkness.
The Beyerdynamic DT880-600
From the first moment that I hear the DT880, I can’t help but thinking that this headphone must have been tuned specifically for professional monitoring purposes. The sound is very clear, very sharp, and very detailed. The clarity and the sharpness is quite over the top, and recent discussions on this site point to some comments that the DT880’s bass is too clear to be realistic (you don’t hear that kind of a clarity on a live concert hall setting). It’s not that I prefer muddyness to clarity, but the clarity of the DT880 also comes with a sense of dryness. Every little dot in the music is also applied a sharpening filter (to borrow the analogy from photographers: to boost the apparent sharpness level of a photograph by enhancing micro contrasts in the image), and so everything comes out equally strong and detailed. Additionally, the DT880 comes with very little midrange and bass body that’s very important for a balanced music presentation. The treble is very prominent, even as I’m listening to the 600-Ohms version which supposedly have the smoothest treble of all the DT880s. The treble-happy nature of the DT880 makes it not only the brightest sounding headphone of the three, but also the most sibilant and the hottest sounding treble of the three. Even on recordings of live piano recitals, which in nature doesn’t contain a lot of treble presence, the treble still feels a little too dominant. In this sense a darker sounding amplifier helps to complement the sound, and tube amps with laid back treble and thick midrange and low end would be the ideal pairing for the DT880. But alternating between the Zana Deux and the Hifiman EF-5, I was not able to find a good match for the DT880 that will result in an ideal frequency balance for music listening.
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. But in many cases, a weightier body often results in less clarity, and that’s perhaps the reason that Beyer decided against adding more weight to the mid and the bass, in the pursuit of superior clarity. These decisions may not make too much sense as a music headphone, but it does make perfect sense as a monitoring headphone.