The Saga of Headphones IX- The End of an Odyssey?

For two years now, I’ve been listening to Denon’s AH D-5000 Reference Headphones, from a variety of sources. Finally, here is my review of them…

These came at what may be the end of my (relatively
short) search for the perfect headphones. Aside from listening tests and reading
endless reviews on the wallet-infamous site Head Fi, I also own the Sennheiser HD-595, (my former favourite) and the AKG K240 S, though I realise they are not really in the same league. Denon wasn’t
the first name that came to mind when it comes to headphones, but on hearing the closest competitor and
potential upgrade to my 595’s, the HD-650, I found that the latter coloured the
music too much and is too dark. It’s true, it’s a sinuous, intoxicating
darkness, but as my aim is for ‘all round’ listening, it lost out to the
comparatively neutral, yet still very musical Denon.

With decent amping, these just can’t be
beaten in my view. For one thing, they are far from bass-shy, which makes them
suitable for movie-watching as well as bass-dependent music. Now, I fully realise
that the world of higher-end headphones is often biased towards a leaner, detailed
sound, yet without warming said sound up it seems that
a lot of people fail to
attain the audio nirvana promised by them
. Here I am
thinking of the famous AKG K701, which with it’s analytical virtues apparently
leaves those seeking a more musical sound cold.

Now for the non-comparative, some would say
subjective part of the review. The first time I put these on, I was very
pleased with the soft feel on my ears. This is something I could never get from
inner-ear phones and hadn’t felt with the other phones I’d tried. There is
really no pressure on your head with these, due to the flexible design (note-
be careful, as one ear came off it’s screw when I listened to it too much lying
down on a pillow and it needed repairs, thankfully within the warranty period,
so the flexibility does seem to introduce a delicacy to it).

I listened to some jazz with it-
full-bodied, with incredible clarity to each small sound, the pluck of strings,
the hiss of snare drums. Voices also sounded very natural. I was impressed by
the sound-stage and still am- it very accurately reflects the recording and can
be absolutely huge. I was very pleased with the bass, going very low, almost
sub-woofer low, as I wanted headphones for late-night films as much as music. The
bass impact is also very effective, which is unique among the phones I have. As
I intended to listen to a wide variety of sources with the phones, these were
essential considerations. Narrow sound-fielded, bright headphones are probably
the worst thing to convey the gravitas of a good film. These continue to
satisfy in that regard, though I find they need some amping to really tighten
up the generous bass and keep it ‘fast’.

Then came the revelation that made me go
for these. It was on music that despite wanting to like usually hadn’t gripped
me- in this case, Handel’s water music. There, in the cosy chair but in a large
electronic store’s headphone section (Yodobashi Camera in Akihabara, Tokyo, if
you must know…) I was suddenly treated to a string quartet playing especially
for me. They were there, the music existing all around me. Not just sounding
nice or pretty, but physically present, if I closed my eyes, I could
practically see it.

The music was moving like water, flowing,
ebbing, alive in the room with me. It had an organic quality, despite coming
from a digital recording. I suppose such smoothness and warmth is why many
prefer to go to back to analogue sources- yet here it was restored for me. I
knew then that these are headphones with which I could not just hear the
details in music, but actually feel it’s presence. They can ‘bring music to
life’. Since I had previously only experienced this by listening to extremely
expensive speaker set-ups, in sound treated rooms, I was sold. I had found not
just a good headphone, but a revelation.

***

In terms of amping, which makes them sound a lot better, I am currently using an
Onkyo Wavio SE-U55SX USB dac/amp combo (I don’t think it’s exported outside of
Japan, but it’s based around their based around their esteemed SE-200 series of
sound-cards, which I had in my PC) and with this they sound fantastic. I have to admit, better amping
has made a huge difference and I am having an experience closer to that in the
original store, which had some very specialised equipment, in fact costing a
lot more than the phones plugged into them. So you could say that they ‘scale
well’ to what is fed into them, always bringing a musical smoothness to the
experience. Due to their low impedance, as I’ve heard from others, they are
very sensitive, their sound differing greatly from one type of amping to
another. One downside to this that the sound pressure quickly rises to a point
at which it can be hard on the ears- I often find myself tuning down the volume
even when it sounds really good, as the pressure is just too much.

They can be used unamped, in fact very
usefully the default plug is for 3.5mm outputs, with a screw-on cap for
1/4" inch use and thanks to their low impedance, they can be plugged
straight into an iPod if need be. It has to be said, they are not nearly as
good like this and the bass can be relatively flabby, but they are still relatively
full-bodied and detailed and have their trademark sound-stage. It may be a
waste to use them this way, but it does give them a lot more ‘ear-time’ around
the place. (This possibility is actually a must in all my headphone choices, as
it ensures that not only can you just pick up and use them with any source, but
less powerful amping is required for a fuller sound).

The cable itself is apparently one of the
main advantages over the AHD-2000. It is certainly thick and seems to convey
every nuance of the music. Seeing how many people get custom cables, I thought
it wise to start out with a substantial one. It’s also strong, flexible, long
and conveys absolutely no micro-phonics. I’m not usually a ‘cable guy’, but
having heard the difference between very cheap and half-decent ones, I realise
that it does make a difference. Of course, with headphones created to a
dac/amp, this can be the only cable in the entire chain, so it might as well be
an exceptional one.

***

So, are there other headphones for the price
which are just as good or even better? I’m sure there are, but to my mind none of
the competition matches them in their price-range, perhaps this being an
advantage of Denon’s late entry to the ’boutique’ headphone market. I also
realise that since the time I got these (mid 2008), they have had their own
upgrade, the AH-D7000, which is apparently even better, though costing around
$300 more (as has Sennheiser released their incredibly high-end HD 800). For
anyone choosing now, I suppose the lure of the AH-D7000 is there.

A note for upgraders….After being through a few pairs, I’d say that whatever anyone tells you about fantastic bargains, at the end of the day, headphones do tend to scale with their listed price, naturally taking personal taste as for the ‘type’ into account. If you after reading this are looking into upgrading, just buy whatever your budget will allow, you won’t regret the improvement. Even a relatively cheap set, like the Audio-Technica CK-M50A earphones will be a remarkable improvement over stock buds and can work fine just in the iPod itself. If you are going more upscale, be sure to check the impedance, as those with higher impedance (150 ohms upwards, especially those with the likes of 600 ohms) absolutely need a powerful yet efficient amplifier you are to have any chance of enjoying them, as they were designed for this (for studio use) in the first place. Even with lower impedance ‘phones, a good, specialised amp can help them to reach their true potential and you won’t look back.

Finally, some photos of what is probably one of the most beautiful headphones around, thanks to the Mahogany cups (if anyone minds these being used, please let me know and I’ll take them down!)


The Onkyo Wavio SE-U55SX dac/amp

The AH D-5000, as beautifully photographed by Shankeel Naim-

Some images found through Google-

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Leave a comment

5 Comments

  1. Carlos Hernan Manzano Lopez

     /  March 15, 2012

    Hi.I would like to know to use it with an ipod what amplfier do you suggest. All my library is in apple lossles .
    Thanks

    Reply
    • Hi Carlos, this all depends on your budget. I’d recommend a small, battery-powered amp. The one I use is a very small one, the Nuforce Icon Mobile. It certainly boosts the sound and bass levels a lot over the built-in amp of my iPhone. For home listening, I use a desktop amp that gives a lot more umph to the music, but I find small works best for traveling.

      There are much better portable amps, too, though most of these are heavier and bigger than the iPod and may well live in a lot of people’s living rooms much of the time.

      Good luck with your choice!

      Reply
  2. Gideon

     /  January 27, 2010

    Wot not every last word? Look carefully, there may be something written especially for you in there… maybe…

    Reply
  3. The Whitemeister

     /  January 27, 2010

    How many more parts are there to come in this headphone saga series (season?). how about season one and who knows, even a season two! Having just replaced my awful cheap temporary headphones I can only agree with everything you have said on the matter. Of course i say that having not actually read every word of your blogs!!

    Reply

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