Sennheiser HD 600 headphones

Sometimes, the only thing that'll soothe the cares and lift the thoughts of man is kicking back and letting glorious music wash over you. Isn't that why we're all here? But no sooner do you sit yourself down in the sweet spot and cue up, say, Mozart's 40th, than you hear:

Duh-da-dee duh-da-dee da-du-dee-dah
duh-da-dee duh-da-dee duh-da-dah-dah
RNNRRRNNRR! beepbeepbeep!
Dee-da-dee da-dee-da dee-da...

Dag-nab it! The City's finally started repaving the street. Now what are you going to do for succor?

Headphones to the rescue!

Not just any headphones, of course. Being picky audiophiles, we demand uncompromised sonic reproduction. And, being hedonists, we insist they be comfortable for long listening sessions. And, since we were driven to this extremity because of all the din outside, the 'phones ought to provide some isolation from the environment, although not so much that we can't hear the telephone or doorbell—after all, you never know when Ed McMahon might show up with an oversized check.

Sound like a tall order? Nah, sounds like Sennheiser's latest state-of-the-art dynamic 'phones, the HD 600s.

An old head on young shoulders
The HD 600s are a refinement of two related models: the HD-580s, which have been John Atkinson's reference for several years, and the HD-580 Jubilees, which have been my favorites since 1995. The HD-580s (which I reviewed in Vol.17 No.12 and Vol.18 No.10) set a new standard in comfort and accuracy, but, superb as they sounded, there was room for improvement. At some frequencies, the materials from which they were made caused resonances that compromised their ultimate performance. Sennheiser also discovered that, by using computer modeling, they could focus the neodymium magnets to better drive the diaphragms—the '600s are built to a 1dB tolerance, as opposed to the '580s' 3dB.

In 1995, Sennheiser addressed both of these issues in a limited-edition 50th-anniversary model, the HD-580 Jubilee. The construction was beefed up at all points in an attempt to tame even the most subtle resonances: the headband framework and earpiece shells were constructed from carbon fiber, which does not transmit vibration readily, and the screens covering the transducers were steel, not plastic.

I heard a pair at Sennheiser's factory in Wedemark and was stunned by their lowered noise floor, impressive gains in perceived bass response, and a sense of air and sparkle that the regular HD-580s had never quite achieved. I ordered a pair on the spot, intending to review them, but by the time they arrived they were already in short supply. So I held off, especially as tantalizing rumors of an improved, not-limited edition were already wafting from Sennheiser USA.

That turned out to be the HD 600s. The only visible differences between them and the Jubilees are the finish of the carbon fiber, which is marbled as opposed to the earlier model's weave pattern, and the enamel color on the stainless-steel screens (a darker shade of gray).

The HD 600s seem built to higher tolerances than either of the '580s—everything seems to fit together tighter, which means fewer rattles from the git-go. This even serves to make them more comfortable, don't ask me why. Maybe it's because once they're adjusted, they stay adjusted.

Fill your head
While the Sennheisers can be driven by a walkperson, they really need a dedicated headphone amplifier to perform at their best—it's as though the relatively large diaphragm needs to be taken control of. The good news is that the High End no longer ignores those of us who listen to headphones. The number of stand-alone headphone amplifiers seems to be growing by leaps and bounds (see my review of Musical Fidelity's X-CANS in this issue), and several high-end manufacturers—such as Melos and Sonic Frontiers—have included high-quality headphone amplifiers on their preamps.

And let's not forget home theater—both Sennheiser and Virtual Listening Systems have produced surround-sound synthesizers for headphones. Choices now abound, but don't assume you've taken the measure of this transducer if you haven't heard it driven properly.

Head of the class
The HD-580s certainly sounded fast and remarkably uncolored, but the HD 600s have raised the bar considerably. Most people will probably notice this first in the bass. Although both headphones are rated as having clean response down to 16Hz, the '580s sounded less punchy. Could this be because the flimsier materials employed in the earpieces and the headband dissipate the bass energy? Beats me—although it does make sense. All I know is that very few speakers can match the HD 600s when it comes to bass response.

Despite this, some folks will miss the incredible physical impact that low bass transmitted through air can impart. That's not surprising, as we don't perceive bass only through our ears—the whole body gets involved, including the skin. Yet the '600s were extended and clean. If, like me, you tend to fall in love with two-way loudspeakers with limited bottom end, the '600s will definitely spoil you.

Yet as beguiling as I found their bottom end, I found their freedom from noise, tizz, and blur far more impressive. The '600s had no trace of "electronic" coloration—they sounded uncannily like live music.

About two weeks ago, as I write this, JA and I recorded violinist Ida Levin in Santa Fe's historic Loretto Chapel—a 19th-century Gothic-style stone church with a suspended wood floor whose timpanic response amplified the deliciously wet acoustic (footnote 1). Ms. Levin was performing Erwin Schulhoff's Sonata for Solo Violin, a marvelously lively work.

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