Back before the Sennheiser HD 800 broke the $1000 high-end headphone barrier and started a flurry of ground-breaking new reference cans, there were three staples for enthusiast searching for great sound: the Sennheiser HD 650 ($649.95 MSRP); the AKG K701 (now reincarnated as the Quincy Jones Q701; $399 MSRP); and the Beyerdynamic DT 880 ($313.95 MSRP). All three, in my mind, remain good value when properly chosen for your listening tastes. (HD 650 – warm and smooth, though somewhat lacking in detail; AKG K701 – articulate, but slightly hard; DT 880 – detailed with depth and air, but somewhat lacking weight through the mids.)
A rather cool and unusual feature of the Beyer DT 880 is that it is available in three different impedance values in order to give you better options in suiting them to your needs. I thought it would be fun to have a look at the three different versions, and evaluate their suitability to home, portable, and general use.
Read on for the techno-geekly details, but go ahead and skip to the summary if you just want the recommendations….
I remember my first experience with headphones. In 1960, I bought a set of Trimm dual 'phones (less than $5) and rewired them for stereo. The experience was remarkable for several reasons. First, it brought the sounds into my headI was thrilled with the impact. Second, stereo effects, especially with Enoch Light's ping-pong LPs (eg, Provocative Percussion, Command RS800SD), were striking. Third, I could play them really loud without bothering others. Of course, they had no bass, brittle treble, distorted at high levels, and their wire headband and Bakelite earpieces were uncomfortable. My fascination with this gimmick quickly faded.
Sennheiser's long-awaited (seven years) HD 800 sure isn't subtleat least, not in appearance. The HD 800's large earpieces are made from a combination of absorbing composites and functional metal accents, and are huge. Of course, they have to be to house the 56mm ring-radiator transducersand to mount them so they're firing "back" to your ears from the front. Also not subtle is the price: $1399.95.
Oh mama, was I ever excited when I heard rumors of the existence of AKG's K 701! If you're among the audiophiles who sneer at those of us who like headphones, you're probably rolling your eyes and thinking I must lack a rich inner life.
But hold on there, Skippy—some of us use those cans in our prosumer studios, in recording sessions, and even in barn-burning late-night critical listening sessions where we employ ancillary equipment that would beggar your jaded high-end sensibilities. We're not talking about the three-buck, upchuck disposable 'phones your friendly flight attendant flogs before your in-flight main feature. We're talking about serious tools that can reveal a flea fart in a cathedral.
You'd probably be surprised to learn that headphones are the most common means for listening to music. No, I didn't get that from a book, but from personal observation. I'm referring here to personal portable stereo listeningthe ubiquitous Jogman with which a whole generation has retreated into its own private world, isolated from traffic noise, muggers, and, at home, housemates or parents screaming "Turn it down!"
Audiophiles discovered the benefits of headphone listening years ago. I still remember my first set of Koss Stereophonesnirvana for a college student in a tiny, shared dorm room. This ability to listen privately without disturbingor being disturbed byothers remains the major reason audiophiles seek out good headphones.
While headphone listening remains secondary to that of loudspeakers for most serious listeners, it's still an important alternative for many. And while good conventional headphones exist, electrostatics are usually considered first when the highest playback quality is required. As always, there are exceptions (Grado's headphones come immediately to mind), but most high-end headphones are electrostaticsuch designs offer the benefits of electrostatic loudspeakers without their dynamic limitations. Last year I reviewed the Koss ESP/950 electrostatics (Vol.15 No.12), a remarkable set of headphones from the company that practically invented headphones for serious home listening. Here I listen to examples from two other companies, each known for its headphones since Pluto was a pup.
Love 'em or hate 'em, headphones serve a purpose. My first headphones were Kosses, and they were perfect for use in a college dorm. While I've always owned a pair or more over the years, somehow they never became my primary mode of listening, except in situations where using loudspeakers at satisfying levels risked eviction, bodily harm, or both.