A friend who’s taken a short break from headphones recently called me on the phone, explaining his intentions to go back to headphones. He was interested in hearing my opinion on the Senheiser HD800 and the Beyerdynamic T1. I’ve lived with both headphones long enough, and so I gave him my clear cut one liner answer: Take the T1, it’s less fussy with system components and plays better with the majority of modern music.
Now understand that in my opinion, the HD800 still represents the ultimate in headphone driver technology. I told my friends that if you own a high end tube amp, the HD800 is the headphone you need to get. They all had negative impressions of the HD800 when they were early into this hobby, as they plug the HD800 into low end amps expecting to be blown away by it. But as they keep on improving the quality of their amplifiers and sources, they pretty much agree that the HD800 is the only headphone that has the scalability factor to hear every little detail a high end tube amplifier gives from its headphone out socket. So, this is a really good headphone and the one that I use mostly to evaluate systems, but when it comes to making a recommendation for it, I tend to hesitate.
A CRITIQUE ON TECHNICALITIES
Headphones should be a tool to get into the music, nothing more. And it doesn’t matter how much technicalities a headphone may have if it can’t make the music sound good. Headphone meets and audition sessions often falls victim to this phenomenon that you’re there to dissect every single inch of the system’s performance. “The bass is tighter on this amp”, or “the soundstage is wider on that amp” and the system with the extra bit of clarity and articulation would win people’s praise regardless of how it works with the music that you are listening to.
The moment you sit down at home, the technicalities matter very little because then it’s all about the music. “Does it sound good?”, is the ultimate final question we all should be asking. And surprisingly, I’ve found a lot of amplifiers that was built with strong technicalities to be out of touch with the musical aspects. There are a few amplifiers that have a ruler flat frequency response curve, but on real world listening the sound is stiff, dry, and lacking coherence. Now I don’t know what elements in an amplifier design guarantees a musical sound, but I know that graphs and measurements are not the whole story.
Now, back to the HD800. This is where the HD800 fails to impress. Clearly the frequency response of the headphone is not suited to a most modern treble happy mainstream recordings that also demands a full bass impact down low, where headphones like the HD650, the JH16, and the LCD-2 rock at. The HD800 excels with well recorded Classical and audiophile Jazz, but try playing Linkin Park and the headphone can’t be more wrong.
I tried to understand the logic behind Sennheiser’s tuning of the HD800, and looking at the high end speaker crowd, I think I know why. No conventional high end speaker manufacturer would bother addressing the Linkin Park crowd, and this also explains why most people I know who has a background in high end speakers tend to like the HD800 most. But on the internet, most of us don’t listen to perfectly recorded Rebecca Pidgeon with her Spanish Harlem or the Eagles with Hotel California. We listen to Radiohead, Nirvana, Incubus, Prodigy, the Beatles (with their crappy mono recording too), and whatever band/singer won the Grammy Awards that year. And with these music, the HD800 is just an utter failure. Hence, I told my friend early in the beginning of our conversation to just go with the T1, as in my experience it simply works with the music of the internet generation.
THE PRAGMATIST SOLUTION
I took the argument of musicality a step further and told him that it would actually be better to have several lower end headphones than one shiny flagship headphone. Say you have a 100 CDs. The shiny flagship is not going to sound right on all those different CDs as the recording and mastering process are very different from one to the next.
Let me give an example. I happen to be a big fan of Horowitz. This guy is THE classical pianist of the 20th century, and he has concerts all around the world, recorded by the best recording engineers with the best recording equipment the world has at that time. Mostly he plays solo piano recitals, meaning there is only one instrument in the recording, and that is the same Steinway & Sons brand piano. On all these different concerts, Horowitz seems to love playing the same pieces from Liszt, Chopin, and Schumann, over and over again. I wonder why I even bother buying all of these CDs since so many of the songs overlap. But guess what? The recordings are different from one to the next CD, even when the song is the same (and I’m not talking mono vs stereo or AAD to ADD versions either). The way the microphone is set up, the shape of the concert hall, all have different effects on the acoustics and ultimately the way the piano is rendered on the recording. On some Horowitz recordings I would enjoy the Beyerdynamic T1 more, while on some other I would enjoy the Sennheiser HD800 more. The same artist, the same song, the same genre, the same instrument, and yet two different headphones. Do you see how complicated things are now?
So you have a 100 CDs. Say the shiny flagship plays very well with 20 of those CDs. What about the other 80 CDs? Some are okay, some are plain unlistenable. Now, instead of spending $1,000+ on a shiny flagship headphone, you can get four $300 headphones (say a Senn HD650, Beyer DT880, AKG K701, and a Grado SR325) and would probably cover 99 of those 100 CDs better than one flagship headphone would. And for most people, I think this is the better way to go, because no matter how brilliant a headphone is, one it won’t cover all the different recordings you own, and two, you will get bored with it after a year of listening to just one headphone.
Of course the $1K price tag is not there for no reason. Yes, you’ll be able to hear things better, clearer and more distinct. But I have another analogy for that. You’re shopping for a car and the salesman takes you to a local race track with the mid-engine Ferrari V8 and shows you how fast the car can lap the track. At the end of the test drive session you said “wow” and wrote a check for the Ferrari. Then the next day you decided to take the family for a dinner. The traffic is jammed, the road is full of potholes from the winter, and worse yet you need to fit your wife and three kids on the two-seater Ferrari. Yes it can go real fast around the track, and yes it’s a big ego booster, but then you realize that what you really need is a Toyota SUV and not an Italian prancing horse. That, my friends, is real life. And likewise in headphone land, sometimes you don’t need to hear “what you’ve been missing” because what you’ve been missing are often ugly recording noise and artifacts.
If I wasn’t doing reviews for a headphone website, I probably wouldn’t have the exposure I have today with high end headphone systems. And just like you guys, I would probably still be looking into the next upgrade, thinking that I can enjoy my music better if I have a pair of more revealing headphones. But instead, let me tell you now that if you’re enjoying music with that $30 IEM, I would not worry about the higher up model and spend the upgrade money to buy more CDs instead.