Early on in my career, I realized that a good set of headphones was going to be crucial to my success. I was working at studios all over town, consulting for people on their basement rigs, doing broadcast work at a radio station and editing at home. There was no common denominator among the monitors or room treatment at any of the places I was working. I’d mix in a great-sounding pro studio one day, and a small glass-enclosed radio studio the next. It was a mess, and I realized I needed a common denominator to be successful.
I needed something with good fidelity that I could wear for relatively long periods of time without the dreaded brain squeeze. And it was then that someone pointed me towards Sennheiser and its tradition of high-end open-air headphones.
While I had heard some other great brands of headphones like Grado and AKG, I immediately took to the Sennheiser sound and settled on a set of the HD580s. They were particularly flat and extended, though not as well-resolved as the HD600. But I couldn’t afford the latter, and ended up getting a lot of great work done with those HD580s—they saved my proverbial butt many a time, especially on some rather high-pressure live radio mixing situations in less than ideal environments.
So when Sennheiser’s HD650 headphones showed up at the office, I was stoked. Would they be merely an upgrade to their flagship headphone, or a completely different model?
Outside and inside
The HD650s are understated and elegant with a glossy dark titanium finish. They aren’t flashy or particularly impressive in appearance and don’t give off a “look at my $500 headphones” kind of vibe. I quite like this as I don’t always want my tools to be shiny. They feature felt ear cups in line with the tradition of Sennheiser headphones, which were a little stiff when new. I realized, however, that I was used to my 6 or 7 year-old HD580s which have been ridden hard and put away wet. If these are a little tight on your head at first, keep in mind that they will soften up with wear.
The headphones also feature a detachable cable with a 10-foot cord and 1/4” connector like the 580 and 600 models. I think the detachable cable is fantastic for a couple of reasons. First, when your pet rabbit decides your headphone cable is a delicious snack, you’ll be able to simply replace the cable without the need of a soldering iron. Secondly, it allows you to get really fussy about your headphone audio and get something like the Cardas Audio replacement cable—to learn more about my experiences with these high-grade cables, see the Cardas sidebar to this article in our December 2008 issue.
The HD650 headphones claim a frequency response of 10 Hz–39.5 kHz, ±10 dB, which seems sort of unreal and superhuman for a set of headphones, but we’ll accept it for now. The real number we’re concerned with, however, is the HD650’s 300 ohms of impedance. As with other Sennheiser open-air headphones, they have a high impedance that requires not only a powerful amp, but a quality amp. To get the most out of these headphones, you’ll need something good. I did most of my testing and listening with my Grace 901 DAC/headphone amp, which is a fantastic sounding amp. I still got good audio with the headphone jacks on a couple of less expensive audio interfaces, but they wouldn’t get very loud and you do lose some quality.
Headphones and speakers almost always need some time in use before they sound optimal. The HD650s are no exception, though they didn’t seem to need an inordinately long run-in period. I just ran my iTunes library for a few days and checked in a couple of times. Things seemed to settle in and open up after a couple of days, so I’d suggest perhaps 50 hours when you get them out of the box—though a little more time certainly won’t hurt!
Having experience with the HD580 and HD600, I found it was a treat to put the HD650s through their paces. Turns out that these are not an upgrade to the previous models as questioned before, but a whole different animal. While they are more expensive, I’d say they’re not a replacement for the other models. They’re just different.
The HD580s are about really smooth and accurate mids without any hype in the top. For casual listeners they sound boring, but for professional work I think they’re great. The HD600s, on the other hand, have more extended high frequencies and maybe slightly better resolution and detail than the HD580. They are great headphones, but are “prettier” sounding than the 580s, which may or may not be a good thing.
And now there are the HD650s which have achieved the smooth mids of the 580s, the upper-end extension of the 600s, and now amazing low-end performance. Low frequencies are hard to do with headphones. Some headphones achieve big bottom, but at the expense of detail and articulation in those frequencies. The HD650s hav e a full low end that remains extremely articulate. When I listened to rock mixes with really strong low end I could hear the bass note clearly yet still feel the power. There was no “scooped” feeling in these headphones.
The HD650’s imaging is excellent. It wraps around your head without being euphoric. To me, this is critical for mixing—if my listening reference makes my crappy mix sound great, I won’t know about until I switch to something else... or I get a phone call from an unhappy client. The HD650s are merciless with revealing details and, in the context of the recording musician, this is imperative.
These aren’t in-your-face rocker headphones. Nor are they relegated to classical music and audiophile listening. Instead, I found the HD650s strike an incredible balance of presence, reality, resolution, and detail, all while still managing to be just plain fun to listen to. They aren’t clinical or sterile by any means, and that may translate to some as sounding a tad “colored”.
At that point it comes down to personal preferences, but I think that you’ll find the HD650s to be an excellent reference-grade tool for mixing, QC work and just good ol’ listening to music. The downside? They are expensive. And you’ll really need a good amp to drive them. The upside? The investment will last a long time, as it will be hard to eclipse this level of performance for some time to come.
More from: Sennheiser Electronic Corp., One Enterprise Dr., Old Lyme, CT 06371. 860/434-9190, www.sennheiserusa.com.
Justin Peacock is a producer/engineer/mixer based in Denver, Colorado, and is the Web Editor of Recording Magazine. You can check out his website at www.thehookfactory.com