EPISODE IV: HD650 (AND FRIEND)
I finally held them in my hand. I shook with anticipation. As I set up my system, I did notice that the build quality, although certainly a step up from the HD202, wasn’t quite at the level of the K550. It felt slightly more flimsy. As a paranoid measure, I gave the HD650 its own bed of feathers on which it still spends its nights.
As always with Sennheiser, the first time I put these headphones on, the death grip was in full effect, but after a few hours, the clamping force lightened up, and I found them to be very comfortable. My set-up here consisted of a HP laptop running jRiver media Center, a Dacport LX (which I had gotten as a Christmas gift) and a JDSlabs cMoy. I immediately recognized an upgraded HD202 sound signature. The sound has the same dark tonality, but with much more detail (I’ll take it), a more three dimensional sound (I love it), and a much stronger bass impact (YES!!!).
I should tell you now that I am a musicality over technicality kind of guy. As long as the technicalities don’t interfere with the enjoyment of the music, I have no problems. Things like a flat sound-stage or congested mids will take me out of the music, but even a respectable showing in technicalities is enough for me, so long as the tonality is what I am looking for. Of course, having both IS nice. You would be forgiven, loyal reader, for wondering why I took so long to get to talking about the HD650. Well, there are two very good reasons for that. First, I wanted you to see the time it took me to arrive at what I was looking for. I wanted to show my journey. I tried out a lot of different headphones, some I haven’t mentioned, looking for that one pair that would make my life complete. I want to show this for anyone reading who may just be beginning their journey into the world of audiophilia: take your time, and find the sound you like. It will be worth it. Unless you are rich, of course, then just buy everything.
Second, I wanted to make very clear that this is the audio world according to me. I don’t claim to speak for anyone besides myself. The things I write may be the absolute truth for me, but your mileage may vary. Although, you are wrong if you disagree. Just throwing that out there.
So, you saved up for the HD650 like I did, and you are wondering what is next. The cMoy (which I had so conveniently bought at an earlier date) should be your first stop. Even after listening to the HD650 with bigger and betterer amps, I am still amazed at the wonderful music made by this pair. The cMoy has no trouble driving the HD650 whatsoever. Together, they have a warm, semi-laidback sound with decent body, especially in the mids. The treble is inoffensive, and the bass has a fairly decent punch to it (although if you like your bass to growl, this won’t quite bring it). What’s best is that the cMoy has a surprisingly nice soundstage for its asking price. There is no sense of claustrophobia here, just some good width and decent depth. There is definitely some grain to the sound, but nothing to distract from the wonderful musicality. It did very nicely with classical, jazz, folk, and some indie rock, although when the tempo rose above moderate, I did find this combo to be less than ideal.
The best part about it is that the cMoy from JDSlabs, plus a 24v adaptor will only set you back 80-85 dollars. It simply is a magical combination with the HD650. As a plus, even when you have saved up and bought a better, desktop amp for your HD650, you will still have a very nice portable amp to use on the go.
EPISODE V: THE VALHALLA
Provided as a loner by the good people at Schiit, the Valhalla, an output transformerless (OTL) tube amplifier, is a beautiful thing to gaze upon. I love the look Schiit gives to their amps. It also feels like a solid piece of equipment, which I like. It gives me peace of mind when my two-year old is lurking about. There are two things worth noting here. First, the more recent Valhalla’s have been tweaked so that the input tubes are now rollable. This will give a certain amount of tweakability to the sound, which I am all for. The second thing is that the Valhalla needs some break in time to sound its best. Sixty hours in it was a much better sounding amp than it was at first plug in.
Now, talking about sound, the Valhalla is the polar opposite of the cMoy with the HD650. The first thing that jumped out at me was the leap in technicalities. The sound is much clearer and more detailed out of the Valhalla. Some of that detail comes from the noticeably more pronounced treble, but the clarity enhances all frequencies, not just the uppers: instruments, and their separation are more distinct; the bass is tighter and punchier compared to the cMoy. And as for the treble, it is very sparkly and well behaved. Clearly, the Valhalla is the more upscale product.
BUT, although the Valhalla dominates the early rounds, as the fight progresses, the cMoy starts to land some hard punches of its own. Although not as clear, the cMoy has a more full-bodied midrange. I found it to have a better vocal presence with the HD650 than the Valhalla. The cMoy also is smoother from top to bottom and is even slightly more spacious to my ears. I must admit to liking its tonality a bit better than the Valhalla’s.
Now, am I saying the cMoy is a better amp than the Valhalla? No. Were cost equal, I would pick the Valhalla. The punchier bass and sparkly treble are very nice. What I am saying, however, is that the Valhalla does not score a total victory over the cMoy, and that for $85 out the door, the JDSlabs cMoy represents a much greater value than the Valhalla at $350.
EPISODE VI: BOTTLEHEAD CRACK
Ah yes, the famous Bottlehead Crack. The scourge of expensive amps everywhere. It was with some glee that I opened the box from Bottlehead, anxious to plug in my HD650 and see if the Crack deserves its reputation as the king amp of Sennheiser headphones. But what the hell is this?! Parts?! Bottlehead expects me to build the amp myself?! Ahh, well, that explains the supposed price to performance ratio.
The building of the Crack was a nerve-wracking experience for me. If I screwed it up royal, I didn’t have the money to replace it. Fortunately, a coworker had some soldering experience, the tools necessary and the willingness to help me out, and it got finished. The best advice I can give here is to be methodical when building the Crack. Don’t rush it. Also, get an accurate part count as soon as the kit arrives. I had a few parts missing, and one of my LED lights ended up being faulty. Bottlehead was very easy to deal with on these matters and got the replacement parts to be within a few days of contact. Oh, and make sure your tubes are pushed in all the way. I was about to start weeping because of an obvious channel imbalance issue, till I noticed my input tube wasn’t in all the way. Finally, make sure you are comfortable with DIY work. This is no fault to Bottlehead, who I found very friendly, and the instructions provided are very good, but my big, sloppy hands are no good for this type of work.
So, I got this thing build, plugged in and ready to go. How did it sound? Did it do justice to my beloved HD650? At first, the honest answer was “not completely.” Although I started listening to the amp as soon as it was built, I didn’t do any critical listening until the amp had some good hours on it. However, unlike the Valhalla, I didn’t notice any huge improvements in the sound over that break-in period. The first thing I noticed was the amazing clarity and black background. It makes the Valhalla sound positively noisy at times. After that, it is the noticeably more three dimensional soundstage that impresses the most. Both the perceived width and depth are much improved over both the cMoy and the Valhalla. Add to this a more full-bodied midrange and the strengths of this amp become hard to overlook.
But the weaknesses of the amp were starting to bother me. The treble, which had great sparkle on the Valhalla and quite enjoyable, was sounding noticeably harsher on the Crack. Likewise, while the Crack had a bit more bass body, the Valhalla had the tighter, punchier (and ultimately) better bass presentation. I can’t lie, I was pretty disappointed at this. The hype on the Crack was great, and maybe I had expected a bit too much from this amp. Although I still would have given it the edge over the Valhalla, as that immersive soundstage can’t be underestimated, it wasn’t the homerun I wanted.
I realized, though, that ever with the cost of solder, the Crack was still quite a bit cheaper than the Valhalla, and it wouldn’t be unfair to invest the difference in another pair of tubes. I settled on a pair of Russian built new production tubes (dubbed the “Big Russian” and “Little Russian”), and upon installation and burn in, I found that homerun I was looking for. The Big Russian added a bit more body and punch to the bass, a slightly warmer, smoother midrange and less pronounced treble. The Little Russian added some sparkle back to that treble. The Valhalla still had tighter bass, and perhaps still slightly more punch, but that was now close enough to not matter. The Crack was now the real deal! The biggest surprise I had with the Crack wasn’t with classical music though, it was with rock. I had bought a Superlux HD660 to use for my faster music, and it’s a very nice, low cost headphone for rock. Both the cMoy and the Valhalla did well driving the HD650 with more mellow vocal music and pop, but neither were amazing with anything faster. The Superlux was preferred. When connected to the Crack, however, I found the Sennheiser besting the Superlux with even faster paced music. One of my favorite rock albums, Garbage’s Version 2.0, sounds better than ever with the Crack/HD650 combo. Not only do they keep pace, but they add even more romance and seductive power to the voice of Shirley Manson. Ahhh, I love that voice.
EPISODE VII: A NOTE ON TUBES
Note- At this point, it is no longer fair to compare the Valhalla to the Crack as I am not rolling any other tubes into the Valhalla, since I don’t own that amp and I’m not made of money. Sheesh!
Like I said, I wasn’t too ecstatic about the tubes that came stocked with the Crack, a Westinghouse 6080 (power tube) and an unknown 5814a (input tube). The first alternate power tube I tried a Russian 6AS7 (Big Russian). Very similar in sound to the Russian, if not slightly better, was the new old stock RCA 6AS7g. Full bass and mids, controlled treble, very musical. If I had one recommendation to Bottlehead, it would be to use the RCA tube as the standard stock tube. It is cheap and easy to come by. It is a great starter tube. The best tube I used, however, is the Chatham 5998, by a long shot. Full, punchy, but appropriate bass. Clear, smooth mids. Detailed treble. Wonderful depth. A nice hint of warmth. Not only is this a fantastic tube for classical with its terrific clarity and soundstage, but it is amazing for pop, folk, rock, anything you can imagine. The way this tube does vocals is something else. It gives the singers that extra presence. Because of that, do beware this tube while listening to RUSH.
For the input tube, the first one I tried the Genalex Gold Lion 12au7 (Little Russian), which brought more sparkle and control to the treble than the 5814a of mystery. The only other input tube I tried, easily my favorite, was the RCA clear top. It has the same clarity, but i with a bigger soundstage with more body to the mids and lows. Mixing the clear top with the 5998 was Dave in musical paradise!
EPISODE VIII: THE SPEEDBALL (OR EVERY GOOD REVIEW NEEDS AN ANTICLIMAX)
The final step of this particular journey was to install the upgrade for the Crack, called the Speedball. This upgrade promises a tighter sound, more clarity, better resolution and improved mids. So, this should make the already awesome even more so, but see, there is just one little problem…
First, I should say that it is a testament to the designers at Bottlehead that even I, with my ten magical thumbs, could put this amp together, and actually make it work. If you ever have a problem with the build, and I did, the Bottlehead forums are filled with friendly, knowledgeable people who will help you troubleshoot your amp until the problem is fixed. It is a great community. At this point, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the great customer service at JDS labs and Schiit as well. Both are very easy companies to communicate with, honest and friendly.
Now, let’s get back to that one problem. Well, there does seem to be an extra bit of clarity to the sound, and an added sheen of refinement, but I can’t be too sure. See, when I should have been fawning over the increased resolution, I was cringing at the mids, they are much more forward than in the stock build. In the aforementioned album Version 2.0, what once sounded like a band on stage, instead felt like a band is circling around my head, singing right into my face. More damaging to my musical tastes is that the more forward sound makes the soundstage feel smaller to my ears. Considering how nice the sound-stage was with the Crack, I found this to be quite disappointing. I don’t want to be all doom and gloom about the Speedball, and if the Crack with a little bump in technicalities and a more forward sound sounds like just the ticket for your musical needs, then jump, and don’t look back. To be fair, I did adjust to the sound and still very much enjoyed my music, but it felt like a step back.
The problem is that I love the HD650’s laidback sound. The Crack in its stock form was the perfect amp. It opened it soundstage up huge. It supplied enough energy to make the HD650 sing with rock music, while still retaining the HD650’s signature sound. It seems like an oxymoron, I know. But the laidback energy of this combination cannot be denied.
Now, am I crazy here? (Yes). Anyone disagree with how the Speedball sounds? (Probably). Is there a sneaky problem with my build that caused the more forward sound? (I actually doubt that one as it’s unlikely else would doubtfully be spot on). Anyone here agree or disagree? I would love to hear what you think. Please post your thoughts here, or on the “Dave on headfonia is an idiot” head-fi thread that is sure to pop up. I have emailed Bottlehead to get replacements for the resistors I had to cut out in order to put in the Speedball. I intend to revert my Crack to stock. If at that point I find my opinion has changed, I will update the review, but I doubt it. I am never wrong.
EPISODE IX: THE END OF THE BEGINNING
Well, those are my thoughts. That was my journey, and a hell of a year that was. It may have taken me a while, and quite a lot of trial and error, but I met the headphone of my dreams and even found it a proper mate with the Crack. I said many words earlier about how I found the DIY work to be nerve-wracking, but I am finding myself wanting to build another Crack because I know I could improve my build quality now that I have some more experience. And just so there is no question about it, all of my observations were solely with the HD650. The Superlux HD660 I mentioned earlier, per instance, I thought was best with the Valhalla. I stink at conclusions, but I’m going to finish with a note that there is to come from this writer…