Headphones And Me

Koss Pro4AA headphones, circa the 1970s.

The madness started in college, as it often does.

I’d gotten into my head that I wanted to learn a bit more about classical music. I’d pretty much ignored the genre until the start of my third decade, so figured it was time to learn a little more. The music library at Western Washington University offered a pretty good selection of 33RPM recordings, along with individual cubicles with headphones for listening. I started with Beethoveen’s 6th symphony, because of course. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I picked up an old recording of the NBC Symphony playing the 6th, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. While Toscanini was a dynamic conductor, the age of the recording meant limited fidelity.

Nevertheless, when the music began playing, I had to pick my jaw up from the ground. The effect was stunning. You see, I’d never used headphones before.

The headphones in question were Koss Pro4AA headphones — just about as good as it got for mainstream cans back in the day. I spent hours in Western’s music library, listening to a raft of recordings through Koss Pro4AA’s.

Your first listening experiences tend to shape your perceptions of audio quality. I owned a pair of Yamaha NS4 speakers, which offered a relatively neutral, low-key sound. The Koss Pro4AA’s audio sounded more forward, but still pretty neutral. To this day, that’s the sound I seek out in my speakers or headphones.

I’ve owned and listened to a variety of cans over the years, and don’t really want to review that history. Let’s instead talk about the headphones I own. Note that these do not include headsets with built in microphones, nor does this list include any in-ear monitors. Also, these are my listening impressions, not hard and fast reviews. You may not agree, but that’s the nature of audio output devices like speakers and cans. Also, I’m old enough now that my hearing trails steeply after 18KHz. On the other hand, I’ve been listening and critiquing audio gear for over three decades, so there’s that.

Grado SR80e
Grado SR80e

Grado SR80e

The name “Grado” generates a certain reverence in some audiophile circles. Back when I listened to Vinyl, my Thorens TD160 turntable included a Grado Prestige cartridge. Grado’s SR80 headphones have the reputation of offering an excellent listening experience for the price, so I bought a pair of relatively recent SR80e.

Once on my head, I remembered something I’d forgotten: I once owned a pair of the original SR60 headphones shortly after those were introduced in the mid-90s. I remembered them sounding very good for the price — and being quite uncomfortable after a few minutes.

Alas, the same holds true for the SR80e’s. They sound very nice — neutral, pleasant, not overemphasizing bass. The sound quality is particularly exceelent for cans that cost about a hundred bucks. In fact, for a hundred dollars, they sound amazing. I also find them painful to wear for more than about fifteen minutes. My pain turned out to be my older daughter’s gain; I passed them onto her, and she’s quite happy with them.

Sony MDR-7506

Sony MDR-7906
Sony MDR-7906

I bought these Sony’s on a whim, when I found them on sale for $40. I knew people so attached to their MDR-7906s that they carry them everywhere. I certainly found them adequate enough, but not particularly outstanding. The overall sound is neutral enough, I suppose, but they just sound… bland, for want of a better word.

On the other hand, they’ve been quite rugged, even given the coiled cord, which I’ve successfully destroyed on other headphone models in the past. I generally don’t like coiled headphone cords; every model I’ve ever owned with coiled cords seem to fail sooner than those with straight cords — but not these Sonys.

These phones are now part of my podcasting setup, and still see regular use, just not for music interesting. In addition to being pretty indestructible, they’re also comfortable for long use.

Sennheiser HD598
Sennheiser HD598

Sennheiser HD598

Whenever anyone sees the HD598s, they comment on the looks. The tan shell and reddish-brown ear pads look quite striking. These are the most comfortable headphones I’ve worn, except for a pair of Beyerdynamic DT770s I once owned, but whose cord proved to be pretty fragile.

The HD598s sound quality is classic Sennheiser: airy, clean, maybe a little forward in the midrange. I can listen to these cans for hours. At the same time, they’re not perfect. My overall impression is that the sound is just a touch too bright. The HD598s remained my go-to cans for a few years, until I discovered HiFiMan.

BeyerDynamic DT1350

The DT1350s represent an example of why you should never buy headphones without listening to them first. These particular DT1350s were

Beyerdynamic DT1350
Beyerdynamic DT1350

offered as part of a group buy on Massdrop. Since I have pleasant memories of my old DT770s, I thought these might sound pretty good. I also thought I could use a set of on-the-ear headphones. Both of these ideas turned out to be dead wrong. The DT1350s do offer clean, neutral sound. On the other hand, the soundstage lacks a level of detail I’m used to in the Senheisser, Grado, and HiFiMan phones.  I’d go so far as to say the $100 Grado SR80e sounds noticeably better.

The DT1350s are on-ear designs, which means they sit on your ear, and don’t fully envelope them. Toss in a fairly substantial clamping force, and these are painful after fifteen minutes. They make the Grados feel positively plush by comparison.

HiFiMan HE400i

I learned about HiFiMan headphones browsing through Head-Fi, an amazing site dedicated to passionate users of headphones and in-ear monitors, though they occasionally cover speakers. The posters on Head-Fi are deeply passionate about their cans. The problem with Head-Fi — and the same is true for other similar sites, like AVS Forum, is trying to make sense of amazing amount of conflicting information. You really need to know what you like to get the most benefit out of these sites.

But I digress — back to the HE400i.

HiFiMan HE400i
HiFiMan HE400i

The HE400i are “budget” planar headphones. Note that they cost $450 and up, depending on where you buy them, so “budget” is more about where they fit in the grand scheme of planar headphones. Planar headphones drive the entire flat surface of a relatively large diaphragm, rather than using a voice coil to then vibrate the driver. Planar headphones tend to be heavy and expensive, as well as requiring pretty substantial amplification. At nearly $500, the HE400i exceeded my budget, but when the priced dropped to $299 over the holidays, I took the leap.

HiFiMan tried to break the mold with the HE400i, shipping a set of planar headphones supposedly lighter and able to be driven by portable electronics. The Chinese company succeeded pretty well. The HE400i’s don’t get really loud when you drive them from an iPhone, but they get loud enough. When I plug them into the 1/4″ desktop jack attached to my Sound Blaster ZXR sound card, they’re plenty loud.

They also sound amazing. The sound stage is spacious, with an overall neutral, clean sound. The level of detail, though, is outstanding. I’m sure headphones exist that sound better, and probably cost more — more power to those dedicated enough to spend more. The HE400i’s sound fabulous to my aging ears. They’re comfortable for relatively extended periods, but are still heavy compared to the Sennheiser HD598s. But the sound keeps me coming back.

So these are the headphones in my life. I should also add I’m not the kind of person who walks the streets with large headphones on my head. My premium headphone listening occurs mostly at home. When I’m on-the-go, I use in-ear monitors. But that’s a subject for another day.

Of these five headphones, the HE400i is my go-to phone for most music listening. I really love them, but if on a tighter budget, the HD598s work just fine. Maybe I’m not critical enough, but really, I just want to listen to good music rendered well.




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