written by Mike Shea on 6 November 2000
I have always admired the philosophy of the audiophile. This creature's devotion to such a simple goal, the accurate reproduction of music, seems so zen-like, but the way they follow it and the arguments they make are almost insane. I decided I wanted to have a really good set of equipment to represent two-channel music. I wanted the most accurate system I could get, but I wanted to follow my own advice of putting the right amount of resources into the right area. No $1400 cables for me. I came to the conclusion that the most cost-effective method would be with headphones.
Headphones offer many advantages over speakers. With a small set of single drivers, you can send signals from the lowest to the highest octave for relatively cheap. You don't have to worry about any room acoustical treatment or any external noise. You don't even have to worry about aesthetics. For very little money you can purchase a portable CD Player as your source, maybe a headphone amp if you want some external device to handle more than the typical 1-10 range on the player, and a set of nice headphones. All of this can run under $300. I know audiophiles who would spend this on different feet for their components to sit on to avoid any nasty vibrations.
So which pair of headphones should I get? I started by checking one of my favorite sites, Audio Review. It was obvious after looking at the number of reviews that one set of headphones really stood out, the Sennheiser HD580s. Having almost 80 reviews with the next highest being 12 really shows a lot of consumer attention on these. Having an average rating of 4.6 out of 5 showed that this attention was good. I didn't read all of the reviews, but the ones I did read all offered very high praise. Later I found out that not only did the consumers at Audio Review like it, but also Stereophile gave it a recommended component rating, and Audio Review also offered it as a staff recommended component.
Now the hard part, buying them. It seems that with every top-notch product offering a high dollar per value ratio is always under produced. I tried ordering it from my normal electronic and DVD ecommerce site, Express.Com, but they were out of stock. Most of the other sites I checked were also either out of stock or didn't carry it in the first place. They all had many other models, but none got as high praise as the 580s. Only the Sennheiser HD 600s looked to compare but at almost twice the price. Then after a Google search I found it. Audio Advisor, notorious for selling those shock resistant feet for speakers and $1200 speaker wire, were carrying the HD580s for $200 along with the Sennheiser DSP-Pro surround module. A quick order and they were on their way.
I tried the headphones a couple of different ways, but most of it was through an old Pioneer SA-950 stereo amplifier connected to a Philips portable CD player. It became apparent within about five minutes that the Sennheiser DSP-Pro module was better off used to crush almonds by a Bantu tribesman than be connected to these headphones. It didn't amplify at all and I am very against the use of artificial digital signal processing on source material by some crazy device. I always prefer to listen to music with as little modification as possible from the original source material. Something else became apparent through my initial setup. The Sennheiser HD-580 headphones require an external amplifier. Only with the volume at 10 was it audible from the CD player direct.
This basically removes them from the category of portable since you must have an amp with you at all times. This also adds to the cost if you currently don't have an amplifier, though most will be able to get a simple stereo receiver for little to no money. If you are a bit snobbier, you can purchase a headphone amplifier from Audio Advisor for about $200. When hooked up to the 1/4 earphone jack of the ancient Pioneer stereo amp I extorted from my boss, the 580s truly came alive.
Every music CD I threw at the headphones was reproduced as well as I have ever heard them. Over the weekend I spun my entire set of bookshelf CDs (ie, not my car tunes) including my reference CDs, Loreena Mkennitt's Book of Secrets, Madonna's Ray of Light, Madonna's Something to Remember, Jewel's Pieces of You and Sarah Mclachlan's Surfacing. All of them were reproduced perfectly. One song I always test with any new audio system is track 7 on Mckennitt's Book of Secrets, called "Night Ride Across the Caucasus" (the song to my favorite scene from Soldier). This song has a lot of bass but only as a base for the rest of the song, which is mellow and very detailed. The 580s reproduced it perfectly. Another song that most systems either destroy with too much or too little bass is track 2 on Sarah Mclachlan's Surfacing called "I Love You". Once again the 580s excelled giving just the right amount of punch without killing the rest of the tune. These headphones were so accurate that I was beginning to see where CD frequency ranges and 16 bit digital reproduction was beginning to fail. A couple of tracks on Madonna's Something to Remember sounded a little bitty in the extreme high end, sounding a lot like the mosaic you see when your DSS dish goes out. To be honest, I didn't notice this that much, but when hooked up to a higher end source, I might very well notice later.
Because I have been spending most of my nighttime hours in front of my PC, these headphones gave me the perfect way to listen to music while typing away. I also decided to try them as replacements to my multimedia speakers. Once again they did the job perfectly with the only problem being the fact that they pick up every instance of interference. They are so accurate that they will give you anything they manage to pick up. This interference was only when used for PC output, not when used for music from a dedicated CD player, but if you think you are getting high quality sound out of your PC, you are sadly mistaken. Spend the $70 on a portable CD player and listen to interference free music. For computer gaming, these do the job very well. Even in games with "3d sound" you are able to pick up audio in 360 degrees even with only two speakers. These headphones are definitely a good choice for a multimedia speaker replacement. Here is a Sharky Extreme article about the HD600 headphones for gaming. A lot of the quality they talk about can be transferred to the 580s at half the price.
As mentioned in setup, the DSP Pro was a miserable failure. It is constructed very well and seemed to work if you like DSP modes but I don't. Even though it has its own power supply (making it difficult to integrate with a portable system) it doesn't amplify at all. Your best bet is to either buy the headphones without it or just throw it in the closet when it comes in the same box.
I was very happy with the Sennheiser headphones. In a world of a lot of audio techno-wizardry that doesn't amount to much but sure costs a lot, it is one of the few purchases I made that I can really quantify. They simply sound awesome. When hooked up to an external receiver or amplifier that is fed from a CD player you are guaranteed a good listen. They are so accurate that they will blatantly show you any errors in the source material or in your setup, but they can hardly be blamed for being too accurate in their reproduction. For $200 they are a true bargain for two channel home listening. If this is what you seek, look no further.
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