The Sage of Headphones- Part III- Choosing a Set of Cans

For indoors, what I really wanted was a nice, open or semi-open headphone. I’d tried the Audio-Technica’s ATH-AD700 at Bic Camera when they first opened in Kashiwa years ago and it amazed me with its open, airy soundstage, something I’d never heard from headphones before. ‘Soundstage’ is the sense of the sounds around you, placed where the original instruments were, which is usually better on open designs. Headphone soundstage is something like surround-sound on your ears, and can be very refined, as there are an infinite number of directions and distances that the sounds can appear to come from, including above and below you. How this can all come from a stereo recording, I don’t know, but it really does.  

I auditioned a lot of cans before I made my choice, spending hours testing them one against another. The venue for all this was back at Dynamic Audio, where they have loads of models ready to try on the rack and a very nice guy helped me choose. At first I did it with my friends waiting patiently nearby (thanks to them for that!), but it was taking so long I ended up going back by myself to have another listen. I wasn’t just looking for the quality of sound they could offer (something which the higher end ones are obviously better at), but also the type of sound, one that would suit my needs and my ears. One issue I cam up against was the ‘impedance’ of them.  

Generally, the higher the ohm rating, the more amping they need to get a decent sound. Not all of them will sound good straight from an MP3 player or PC soundcard, especially the very best ones. (Interestingly here, some of the older portable CD players have good amps built in them and are still quite sought out and I find that my Nintendo DS Lite has fantastic sound, maybe something to do with amping it’s powerful little speakers.) Some also need more amping than others, so you can end up spending as much again on the amp- something I really wasn’t about to do! You can buy a Ferrari, but it’s no fun getting stuck in traffic jams in it.  

 

After seeing their rave reviews from the audiophiles on the ‘Head Fi’ site, I tried some very well-respected cans that some really love- like the Beyerdynamic 990dt and the Sennheiser HD 580, but they just didn’t have the right sound for my ears. The 990dt was separating the left and right signals just too much and there was hardly any soundstage (though the bass is gorgeous). Meanwhile, the 580 just sounded too boring to me, though I know many audiophiles like it for classical. Having done more research online since, the Beyerdynamic 880dt and the Sennheiser HD 595 seem to be more up my street. You kind of get to know how fussy you really are with these things and believe it or not, there are people far fussier than me out there! 

The model numbering system is a very strange thing, as there are so many types of headphones, you also need to know which series each one is in. Some go for a clear sound which is good for classical, others for an energetic, lively sound that rock or techno benefit from. In general, though, the higher the number, the more refined the sound, bringing with is the need for good amping to bring out the bass. At this level, the bass isn’t the blurry pounding that just makes music more enjoyable- it’s rich, deep and most of all, musical. Some people go even further, going for new cables and insisting on the very best CD and SACD players. For me, music without much bass is no fun at all, however accurate it is, which made the higher level cans and their attendant amps too expensive to consider. So I suppose I have to admit here- I’m no real audiophile on that level, it’s all about happy compromises for me. Still, I do love to listen to music and want something close to the original to listen to. I’d gone this far and I wasn’t going to go home in failure!

I was really very fond of the mid-ranking Sennheiser HD-555, for it’s smooth, warm laid-back feel and for just being so enjoyable to listen to, but just wasn’t happy with it’s blurry midrange. Apparently, according to online reviews I read, the 595 makes up for this shortcoming without needing too much amping and if I do get another pair, they’re high on the list (but pricy, ouch!). Another phone I tried again was the ATH-AD700, a fully open phone with an incredible soundstage and very good sound- but with not so much bass and also it seemed to be lacking a little in the higher frequencies. Having an amp made me want to reach beyond it and go for something remarkable. Unfortunately, it’s big brother the AD-1000 seemed to really need a powerful one, it just sounded too light without one.

It was an ear-opener to see the different qualities each phone offers, not only that they are better with particular types of music, though there may be something to that, but their various sound-stages, ways of handling bass and of course the effect their differing impedances have. Being able to try different amps adds another layer to the mix. Tube amps give the music a warm, smooth quality that none of the solid-state variety can compete with, for all their range and detail. Yet, at the higher levels that detail can be a real ear-opener, too. I wanted some cans that would sound even better as the amps went up in price, but still sound fantastic with a lesser amp. After listening for hours, with the very kind support and assistance of the shop staff, I narrowed my choice down to just one phone. It simply outshone the others in its range by a long-shot- to my ears at least. It had the perfect mix of bass and soundstage I wanted. I am pleased to say that it now has me speechless in amazement. Well, practically speechless, which is why I am writing this at all!

 

The AKG K-240s (‘s’ for studio) is a fairly recent remake of a 30-year old design, making a studio reference headphone that operated at a staggering 600w impedance; which is practically impossible for any usual equipment to drive; work at a mere 55w. That being said, having tried it unamped, though it has some impressive qualities, especially the level of detail and airiness, there just isn’t enough emphasis on anything to make for a pleasurable listening experience- a condition called ‘flatness’. However, amped, even with my little Dr Head, it is simply breathtaking. The phone seems to be fairly transparent and certainly has enough openness to show the differences between all the sources, without colouring them too much with itself, the warmth coming from the amp.

It is a semi-open design, so it has advantages of each type. The large, round cups make a great seal over your ear, such that I can only hear very nearby noises (though I’d never try these on a train!) and that the bass is full and powerful, but not especially deep. Yet the open element ensures a good sound-stage, most probably not as broad as its fully-open cousins, the K501-K701 series (which are said to faithfully reproduce whatever venue the recording was made in!), but nevertheless broad enough feel free and interesting. There was a rich, broad sound, without the issues that a lot of ‘better’ phones would have with my equipment. I had made my choice, so now it was time to go home and enjoy them.

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4 Comments

  1. I had a pair of the original K240m (well, still have, but in pretty sad shape), and the 600ohm thing was a hugggge pain… tons of stuff, even large equipment, couldn’t drive them past barely audible; I guess some equipment has a real headphone amp built-in, and other stuff just sort of routes the line-level outs to a headphone jack.

    You’re definitely right about the wonderful airily precise nature of the sound, but after owning them for a while, I found that they tended to be kind of fatiguing when listening for long periods; dunno what it is exactly. The “flat” sound can be useful, but it can also can make some music sound a bit boring. The materials are also maybe not the finest, as the plastic will start to break down after many years of use.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comment! Well I don’t use those phones so much these days, like you say, they aren’t very musical. They taught me the difference between monitoring phones and ones for musical enjoyment.

      At first it was a revelation to hear so many details in the music. Then the equal importance seemingly given to them created an unmistakably boring effect. You could hear the music, but it’s message was drowned in insignificant details. You could hear the notes, but not the beauty of their harmonies.

      That said, they do suit 70’s rock very well, with a kind of funky effect from the bass. Also their balance is good for nature sounds and the like. The newer version are easy to drive (poorly) but take to a little amping well. They ate good value, but unless you are a studio musician, better choices are out there for your search for audio nirvana.

      Reply
  2. Gideon

     /  April 21, 2007

    Well, it is indeed the end of the trilogy, but yes, there may well be six episodes all together. Unfortunately, since I started straight on Episode One, there\’s not much chance for prequels, unless I was to start with minus numbers or actually sell my headphones again and get an older model or something!
     
    As for the cost, about 18,500 yen which may sound a lot but believe me you can pay a lot more with these things! If you were to ask how much the sound\’s worth, though… I\’d have to say it\’s priceless.

    Reply
  3. The Whitemeister

     /  April 20, 2007

    Phew!! The whole world (or rather your readers) can now breathe a huge sigh of relief that you have finally got the headphones your heart desired. I hope that that is the end of the trilogy or will there be a part IV? Or maybe you will go back in history for a prequel or three on your previous cans!!
    One further thing; was it just me or did you fail to say how much these things cost you?!

    Reply

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