Sennheiser HD-580 headphones A Slight Return
To make this review of the Sennheiser IS-850 infrared headphone system interesting, I borrowed a pair of Sennheiser HD-580 'phones from Wes Phillips for comparison (he only whimpered a wee bit at the idea of two weeks of deprivation). While this wasn't a fair fight price-wise (the IS 850s cost $1295, the HD-580s $390), I tried to level the playing field as much as I could. Rather than use the ratty signal coming from the headphone jacks of one of my recorders, I gave the HD-580s the royal treatment, coupling them with a Home HeadRoom headphone amplifier I borrowed from Tyll Hertsens of HeadRoom. Still, the price difference between the IS-850s alone and the HD-580s with the Home HeadRoom amp is $599. That's a lot of CDs. As I noted earlier, these two 'phones look remarkably similar. The question is, do they sound similar?
After a few hours of home listening, it was clear that, while these two 'phones visually have a lot in common, they do not sound the same. The IS-850s may be more expensive and convenient, but they did not deliver the same level of sonic performance as the HD 580s with the HeadRoom amp. Both share a natural, non-fatiguing midrange and wonderful bass tonality, but dynamic contrast and impact were definitely superior through the HD-580s. Maybe it's the IS 850s' little battery-powered amps showing their lack of juice, but there's a point where, regardless of the music's dynamics, the IS-850s don't get louder.
The HD-580s also had a more extended top end than the IS-850s. While still not as open as the Stax Lambda 'phones, the HD-580s did have enough top-end information to satisfy. The HD-580s with the HeadRoom amp also had a lower noise-floor. The IS-850s had a low-level hiss that, while not obtrusive at normal listening levels, did obscure some low-level information. The HD-580s with the Home HeadRoom were dead quiet until I fully cranked the volume, during which only the slightest amount of noise was audible.
Unless I was in a situation where I couldn't use headphones with cords, I would choose Sennheiser's HD-580 'phones with a Home HeadRoom amp over the IS 850 headphone system.—Steven Stone
Wes Phillips returned to the '580s in July 1996 (Vol.19 No.7):
While I listened to a wide range of music during the audition period, I'm going to focus my comments on two songs: "Rasd al-dhil Bashraf Sammai," from this month's "Recording of the Month," by the Eduardo Paniagua group (see Les Berkley's review in this issue), and "Third Uncle," from Brian Eno's Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy), remastered and Super-Bit-Mapped on Virgin's Eno Box II (Virgin 3 V23Z 39114 3-CD set). Through the Grado Reference Series Ones, the Paniagua track had incredible impact. The drums sounded huge and RIGHT THERE!, while the oud floated, warmly sustained by the weight of the air in the reverberant space. Eno's "Third Uncle" sounded massive and irrefutable, as if cops could break into crack-houses with it. Kablam! and they'd be in the living room.
But listening to those same songs with the $450 Sennheiser HD-580 Jubilee revealed a few details that the Grado RS1s, as enjoyable as they are, obscured. The Paniagua Group's immense drum lost a lot of shuddering impact with the Jubilees, but hidden in all of the massive sound was telling minutiae, such as the rattles strung snarelike across the drum's membrane. The Grado, looser in the bottom octaves, emphasized that sense of slam, which, attractive as it was, did not truly reveal all that was on the recording.
Similarly, the attack transient on the oud, sounded spectacularly vivid through the Grados, but the rapid decay of the string tone lacked particulars. The Sennheisers did not have that same level of excitement on the attack, but they did bring out a lot of gut-string warmth and room-informed decay.
The Sennheisers clearly revealed the analog origins of "Third Uncle" by passing through tape hiss undiminished. It was barely audible through the Grados.—Wes Phillips