Sennheiser HD 600 headphones Page 2

John and I have certain tools that experience has taught us we can rely on for location monitoring: though now I tend to use the HeadRoom Max headphone amplifier, in previous sessions I've relied on the Sennheiser HD-580 Jubilees. This time, however, I substituted the HD 600s, which led to a series of comic doubletakes through the two nights of recording. When you use headphones for hours on end, especially headphones as comfortable as the Sennheisers, you can almost forget you're wearing them—but usually there's a raft of sonic cues to remind you that you're listening to canned rather than live sound.

Listening to the direct feed from the Nagra-D into the HeadRoom Max and the '600s, many of those cues were missing. I kept forgetting I had the 'phones on—between takes, I would try to talk to John, or walk away from the Nagra, while wearing them. Am I saying that the Sennheisers were indistinguishable from the real thing? Of course not—for one thing, microphones "hear" events differently from ears, so even our direct feed was different from what I heard without the cans on. But the HD 600s minimized the cues that scream "artificial" to such an extent that the lines were quite easily blurred.

This meant I had to be careful when listening through them; many of the distortions that tell you you're listening to loud music were not present in the '600s. I found myself listening way loud through them—sometimes dangerously so. Use some restraint, or you may find out how aggravating tinnitus is.

Some people found the '580s rolled-off on top. (I found them quite liquid and free from grain, but, given my druthers, I'd sacrifice a small degree of airiness every time if that prevented the squawkiness that tipped-up highs can produce (footnote 2).) I suspect that the HD 600s will satisfy those people that there's more air, more sparkle on top. The Schulhoff sonata was filled with examples of lively string overtones, and Ms. Levin threw herself into these, filling the chapel with bright grace notes and swooping open stops. The '600s captured that effervescence effortlessly.

Head to head
No sooner had I reviewed the $1699 Stax Lambda Nova Signature/SRM-T1W electrostatic headphones combination (Vol.20 No.6) than I began to receive letters from headphone listeners asking me to compare the Lambda Nova with Sennheiser's HD-580s driven by a HeadRoom Max amplifier. I thought a comparison between the Stax and the $1732 Sennheiser HD 600/HeadRoom combo would be appropriate.

First, the Staxes are a bargain—their $1699 price has been established by Audio Advisor from a "list" price of $3200. (Something about this math disturbs me. I'm not at all sure "list" price has any meaning when the going rate is nearly 40% less. Maybe we should just call Audio Advisor's price the true price.)

Furthermore, the SRM-T1W is extremely versatile. It will drive three Stax headphones (two "Pro," one "normal"), accepts three inputs, and also functions as a passive preamplifier—an extremely good one. While the HeadRoom Max can also serve as a preamp, it's limited to just one input, which, even in these days of digital supremacy, is somewhat Spartan.

But when it comes to long-term comfort, the Sennheisers are far and away the better choice. The tight fit of the headband means that it won't budge once it's set, and the velveteen fabric that covers the earpads breathes (unlike the Stax's vinyl covering, which grows hot and sweaty during long listening sessions).

In many ways, the two headphone/amplifier combinations were startlingly close in character. Both were detailed, dynamic, and timbrally true, and at first I found it frustratingly difficult to perceive much difference between them. Over time, however, subtle distinctions began to emerge. The Sennheisers portrayed music with more heft—different from having superior bass response. Music just had more body with the HD 600/HeadRoom Max combo; through the Stax rig it seemed less substantial.

At first I thought the Staxes revealed more texture, but the longer I listened, the more I came to feel that that texture lacked specificity—it was more like a slightly grainy overlay that simulated texture, reminding me of the textured anti-glare glass sometimes used to frame photographs: While it gives the appearance of increased clarity, it comes at the expense of fine detail.

Maybe it's just me, but I experienced an odd sensation while listening to the Stax 'phones over long periods. I would become aware of the proximity of the diaphragm to my ear, but the sensation would disappear as soon as I paid attention to it. This felt like the aural equivalent of those optical illusions in which the foreground becomes the background when gazed at intently. By contrast, the Sennheiser HD 600 simulated music occurring in space better than any other headphone I have used—I was never conscious of its diaphragm's proximity to my eardrum.

Make no mistake, both of these units are superb—in my experience, only Sennheiser's extravagant Orpheus and Stax's out-of-production Omega have sounded better. But with products such as Sennheiser's HD 600 and HeadRoom's Max, dynamic headphone technology has finally come of age. Good as the Staxes are—they deserve their Class A designation—the electrostats no longer outperform their competition. Convenience and versatility to one side, I consistently preferred the sound of the Sennheiser HD 600/HeadRoom Max combination.

Head of the line
At $450, the Sennheiser HD 600 is fairly expensive for a dynamic headphone, although it's far from the costliest available. Yet it deserves to stand beside any component that inhabits Class A of Stereophile's "Recommended Components." Not every "improved" product turns out to be an improvement, but Sennheiser has kept all of the properties that made the HD-580 among the best of its breed, and in several areas has even managed to better it impressively. If you need to listen through headphones (or if, like me, you're one of the rare few who enjoys listening through them), then the Sennheiser HD 600s are a must-audition product—even, dare I suggest, a must-own.

Footnote 1: This session brought one of the current high-end debates into sharp focus. I recently had my dCS 902D, two-channel 24-bit A/D converter upgraded to offer 96kHz sampling, which meant that I had the choice of recording Ida's violin either in 96kHz-sample, two-channel stereo or in surround sound at the CD-standard's 44.1kHz rate. Much to my surprise, I chose the latter.—John Atkinson

Footnote 2: Usually this is not caused by the highest frequencies being elevated, but by an elevation somewhat lower on the scale.—Wes Phillips

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