A Fun Set o’Cans: Sennheiser HD 428s
“But I need new over-ears,” I pleaded.
“What do you want me to do about it?”
“Nothing, I guess. Maybe show some sympathy?”
It was getting serious. I was getting my drummer involved, but he didn’t care.
He didn’t care that my Sony MDR-V150s distorted at high volumes and always pinched out a chunk of hair from my balding scalp after I took them off. He didn’t understand that my favorite Grado SR60s (More SR60 links: Corey Greenberg’s review and Jim Austin’s review) had a broken earpiece frame rendering themselves un-wearable in stereo. Even some Grado SR125s that JA brought in for me to borrow were dead in one channel, and the headband on Stereophile’s sample of Monster Beats Studio had a crack down the center. I did not want to break them with further use. Listening to music in my cubicle had become near-impossible. My in-ear headphones hurt after an extended periods of use (that includes 8 hours at a desk); plus, the right channel in my Etymoic ER6s is silent. I always feel awkward playing music lightly through my desktop speakers, barely interrupting everyone else around me. I need it loud, and I need it to myself.
Then the Sennheiser HD 428s came into to my life.
Sennheiser prices these cans at $79, but they can be found on Amazon.com for prices ranging from $45 to $75.
Like the Grado SR125s, the HD 428s arrived via JA. He picked up them up as a parting gift from the commemoration of Sennheiser’s 20th Anniversary in the USA.
My initial thoughts when receiving the HD428s were…
My easiest guesses are: security (ie cannot be stolen from stores as easily) and also to reduce packaging costs. A quick Google search later, and the truth is revealed. Clamshell packaging is used as an anti-theft measure, a safe means of transport for fragile products, and allows for you, the buyer, to see the product prior to purchase. Regardless, whenever any product comes in the clamshell, I pray for my fingers. Comparatively, a set of TDK ST-700 over-ears ($149) recently arrived in a beautiful box, the ‘phones nestled within a felt lined shell, encased by an outer-cardboard wall, which slips into a larger sleek black box. The Sennheiser’s packaging was a bit more brusque. Instructions directed me to an ambiguous perforation accompanied by an image of scissors. This just meant, “Don’t use your hands or mouth or else you’ll end up bleeding.”
As instructed, I took scissors to the plastic packaging and cut along the top edge. JA yelped, “You’re ruining the packaging!”
I cried back, “I’m doing what it said to do!”
We both stared at each other in a deep, mournful gaze, tears gliding slowly down our cheeks.
After carefully cutting thin lines along the edges of the plastic encasement, the 428s popped right out. The reaction from both JA and I was unanimous: “Look at that long annoying lead.” It’s true. The HD 428s are one of those ‘phones that come with a long (3 meters = 9.8 feet) skinny lead, probably best suited for studio applications, where you might need to wrap the lead around tight corners into a tracking room or carry long distances to your production chair. Unfortunately, in my cubicle, the lead kept falling to the floor and getting caught in the wheels of my rolling chair. I had to wrap it around my iPhone at least nine times in order to be comfortable walking around New York City while listening and not worry about the cable getting caught on a stairway rail or a random passerby. I know, I know, coiling the lead around my iPhone puts undue stress on the cable (which it did, and made it more prone to tangling), but at the moment, I did not have a doo-hickey to wrap my lead around safely.
Fit and finish of the HD 428s are comfortable, lightweight, and secure. The earcups use a crosshair design which angles the top of the earcups at a 110 degree angle away from the front of one’s face, with the bottom of the earcups angled downwards toward the chin. When put on backwards, the earcup resting angle reverses towards the back of one’s neck, and the ‘phones slide off toward the front of your face. Friction from the crosshair angled ‘phones against the top of your head keep the 428s from falling off when worn correctly. Left and right channel earcup recognition are simple on the HD 428s. Left channel is on the same side that the lead emerges. The bottom side of the headband and earcups are padded with soft plushy leatherette filled with foam cushion. Each earcups’ cushions snuggles over one’s ears. Upon borrowing my 428s, my brother Alberto was overjoyed with their high level of comfort: “I barely feel them.” It’s true. Though a touch bulky, and not collapsible, the 428s make up for it by only weighing 208 grams (almost half a pound, or better yet, just plain comfy!). Finally, the 428s are rugged; rubber finishing on the outsides of the earcups reinforce the rugged appeal. They feel like tires. Protected by my hardy HD 428s, I wore these suckers plodding the Jersey suburbs through a blustering 10-minute rainstorm. I left unscathed and soaking, but the headphones still worked.
The packaging promised high level of “bass”, a self-designated rating of 10 out of 12 hash marks on the “bass” scale as printed on the bottom half of the clamshell. So naturally, this was the first thing I listened for. Bass was not striking at first, but I figured I should probably give these cans some time. I put in a good 2-weeks of listening before making any more judgments.
Once broken in, the HD 428s started to show their “bass”. I had been listening to the Monster Beats Studios for at least 3 months prior, and if its anything the Beats promise, it is also “bass”, but between these two ‘phones were two very different kinds. The Beats Studios give you that thumpy yet fleshy with an accent towards the lower midrange/upper bass bass while the 428s have a more even distribution on their bass response. The HD 428s broken in offer an audible extension to as low as 31.5hz as heard using the test tones on the Stereophile Editor’s Choice CD. Further listening with the warble tone, the Beats provided a resonant rumble at 50 to 40 hz. At 31.5, the volume decreased but still a full bass sound. Audibility decreased significantly at 25hz. Through the Sennheisers, the warble tone was not as resonant and provided a softer attack. Audibility greatly faded at 31.5hz. On paper, the Beats do really provide BASS and those Sennheiser self-appropriated hash marks do not quite meet their own hype by modern standards. How this affects the ‘phones sound is a totally different story
On Gang Gang Dance’s “Adult Goth,” the Sennheisers the multiple levels of percussion struck crisply, with air surrounding. Through the Beats, the sound was darker, thicker, and with less delicate resolution in the bass frequencies, but the bass did go deeper and more resonant (more of a wallop than a gentle push).
The HD 428s bass characteristic complements electronic and ambient music nicely, where bass notes can either be sparse or extended. For example with the track “Pionier IOO” on Ryuichi Sakamoto & Alva Noto’s Summvs, the repeated electronic kick drum pattern is just deep enough to not be intrusive but crisp enough to establish a beat for the prepared piano to circle around. The HD428s provide bass with room to breath.
In comparison in retrospect while my Grado SR60s were textural and furry, the HD 428s were the smooth yet well-defined. The sound is natural, open and relaxed. Even frequency response all around. This could lead to a track sounding a little dead at times, missing that oomph that many headphone listeners may have grown accustomed to. The Sennheiser 428s could sound slightly unresponsive, or to put it in a positive light: emitting instead of performing and letting the music speak for itself.
Another quick note: the HD428s are a relatively quiet headphone. When comparing between the Beats and the HD 428s, I had to unfortunately adjust volumes just so I could listen to the two evenly.
While also enjoying the HD 428’s, I spent time with the TDK ST-700 over-ears which offered a different experience in terms of tonal warmth. When listening to Ryan Adams and the Cardinals’ “My Love for You is Real” from the stellar Follow the Lights EP, I motioned over to SM to come listen to the TDK’s in comparison to the Sennheiser’s. He immediately pointed out the TDK’s sounding darker and less open. Adams’s acoustic guitar exhibited more brightness through the HD 428s while the TDK’s focus was on the warmth and body of the acoustic guitar.
Although I wouldn’t call the HD 428s “bright.” Bright were my now busted Etymotic ER4s which had a tendency to make string and acoustic guitars shrill. The HD 428s are more polite than that, but lacking in super high-definition detail. Then again, these headphones are available at Best Buy for less than $100 so how much high-end definition to you expect from over-ears at that price bracket?
Another comparison between the TDK’s and Sennheiser taught me more about the individual ‘phones. With the ST-700s, the electric bass guitar on Neil Young’s “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” from After the Gold Rush, was woody and painted the fleshy tone of a Fender electric bass. In addition, fret noise and friction was well accentuated. Differently, through the Sennheisers, the bass response was deeper but not nearly as articulate. The physical wooden presence of Billy Talbot’s bass was substituted for a more well-rounded tone.
The first “wow” moment I had with these cans happened while listening to Big Star’s “St 100/6” off their debut album #1 Record. Alex Chilton and Chris Bell’s acoustic guitars bounced brightly off the walls of the recording space, which sounded like a church or sanctuary space, with background vocals floating solidly in space at the top. While the soundstage made by the HD428s is not necessarily wide nor deep, these ‘phones still manage to reproduce an illusion of the recording space and the air surrounding with each track. The neutral frequency response complements this by allowing the sound to rest easily. Nothing is forced. Sound and space exist together.
Most importantly about these cans though is that I cannot stop listening to them. Kind of like when I got my Grado SR60s, I just want to hear how they could make my music sound. Why do I love them so much? Because they let the music and sounds speak for themselves. Their lack of involvement in my music lets me get closer to the sounds and arrangements of all my favorite bands, and for that I thank thee, HD 428s. You are a keeper.
Now I can stop bothering my drummer.