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Reviewer: Ryan Clarin
Source: Meridian G07
Amp: Ray Samuels HR2, Headamp GS-1
Headphones: Grado RS-1, Joe Grado HP-2, Sennheiser HD600 w/Cardas, Sennheiser HD650 w/Equinox, Beyerdynamic DT880 [on review]
Cables: VH Audio Pulsar w/ Eichmann Gold bullets, Grover Huffman Ultimate Reference, VH Audio Flavor 1 power cord on Meridian G07, standard hospital grade power cord on HR2 and GS-1
Review Component Retail: $259

Ah, the lure of headphones. It's a truly unique and intimate form of audio playback. How all the sweet subtleties and nuances become so clear. It sure beats waking up the family or disturbing the neighbors. On a more serious note, headphones have a way of bringing us close to the music in a special way that for many -- whether it be out of necessity, as supplement to our speaker rigs or even feeling partial to headphone playback to begin with -- have come to enjoy more and more as manufacturers have dedicated greater resources to this sector. The market's obviously there. A trip to HeadFi will not only demonstrate the wide diversity and sheer magnitude of headphone users but the considerable dollar amount that many sink into their headphone systems. Meridian, Wadia, Cary, Mark Levinson - these are source manufacturers we have come to associate with the audiophile world at large but their components are quite common in the higher-end systems that these headphone fidelity fanatics put their energy into.

Why? Other than the fact that we want to, headphones truly are microscopes that delve into the music we love. With that extra insight into the recording and the quality of the upstream components, pestilentia upgraditus demands that we seek better front-end components.Manufacturers are taking note. Grado, Sennheiser and AKG offer numerous headphones at various price points, each with its own interpretation of the music. The manufacture of headphone amps has blossomed as well in the past years. In the early 90s, we had Melos and Holmes-Powell. Now that prestigious list has grown to include SinglePower, Meier Audio, Headamp, Ray Samuels, Aural Acoustics and various DIY efforts.

Beyerdynamic is a German family-owned company that was founded in 1924 and has dedicated itself to headphones and microphone systems. The current top-line headphone offering is the DT880, priced at $259 at Headroom, the biggest on-line retailer dedicated to the headphone market. The DT880s are a semi-open headphone design with circumaural velour pads surrounding the ear. They have a nominal impedance of 250 ohms and feature a coiled umbilical that attaches to only one of the cups. Newer versions of the DT880 appear to employ an uncoiled cord.

The adjustable notches on each side are easy to use and make it simple to find the right settings to fit and conform to your head. Comfort is top notch. The velour pads have a plush, almost velvety feeling and my ears never got warm or itchy throughout my sessions. The headband is constructed of very comfortable strap-on synthetic leather. Apparently many users who experience discomfort with other headphones are actually using the Beyer headband. This speaks volumes about its comfort. The gripping force of the DT880s is enough for the headphones to stay on but nowhere near the vice-like death grip of the Sennheiser 650s. The DT880s are a nice, light, snug fit, with ear pads that are very soft to the touch. One issue I have is with the coiled cord. It prevents you from moving too far from the headphone amp as the cord doesn't uncoil as much as drag your headphone amp along with it. This would not be an issue with the uncoiled version and might be the very reason for the change.

As a reference, I use the Sennheiser HD650 with Equinox cable, Grado RS-1s and Joe Grado HP-2s. The real diamonds in this collection are the latter, having long since been out of production but they are still heavily sought after. They offer amazing transparency and neutrality, allowing the listener to hear the components at hand. Upstream changes become highly articulated, more so than via any other cans I have tried yet. These older Grados are great at getting to the core of one's system.

After the necessary burn-in of about 150 hours, the first thing that really jumps out at you with the DT880s is their treble. These cans seem focused at the higher frequencies. There's tons of treble energy. Even though we can't truly say what is dead neutral, these 'phones are clearly on the brighter side of white fence neutrality. The mids appear fine. There's nothing about them that calls any attention even though I did notice that the upper mids were slightly recessed and the whole vocal range appeared to favor a laid-back approach. Coupled with the prodigious treble energy, this resulted in a sibilance of various hot consonants such as s, sh and t. Solo voices as well as various solo instruments were very much upfront and in my face.

Kurt Elling's voice on Man in the Air [Blue Note 80834] simply drilled into me. When he reached one of his dynamic passages, his voice really shook things up inside my head. Ditto for Coltrane's solos. I regularly found myself reaching for the volume control when his sax became too aggressive and intense specifically during peaks. Curiously, the attacks themselves were somewhat soft and diffused, not conveying a strong sense of that initial leading edge that leads into the body of the note.

This was far more of an issue with the bass and mids since the attacks on the high notes were very crisp, articulate and precise. Decays also were muted to a certain degree. I really didn't get a grasp on a natural decay in the bass and mid region. On lower and upper bass as well as lower midrange piano notes, the decay was softened as were they attacks, with the upper midrange doing a slightly better job, the vibrato of the human voice allowed to linger on and decay somewhat naturally. Highs were done very well in the decay department – cymbals and chimes sparkled and shimmered and disappeared into the void naturally, with the listener getting a truly palpable sense of the high hat and ride cymbal as they chugged along in the rhythm section.

I did notice some listener fatigue after a while so it might be best to keep the volume a little under than what you may be used to. On extreme fortissimo passages or close-miked recordings, I found my jaw tensing up. There was just a tad bit too much treble energy for my tastes and system. This is something to definitely keep an ear out for when looking to balance or synergize the DT880s.

Does it appear that we have an overtly bright phone with no sense of bass or mids? How easy it would be to simply dismiss
headphones based purely on a couple of CDs. I scoured my collection to find an ideal recording that would highlight the Beyers' strengths. The music that poured from my Telarc recording of the Rachmaninoff Vespers conducted by Robert Shaw proved to be a hit. I believe the major focus of any type of transducer that sends audio to our ears has to tonally render instruments and voices as accurately as possible. The extra treble energy on tap injected life into this recording. The sopranos simply sounded lovely and their high tessitura lent itself well to the upper emphasis of the DT880s. The sound here was magnificent to say the least. The upper harmonics of the tenors in E-flat above the middle C to G range were very strong and powerful. I could sense the support and resonance that a good professional men's choir provides. The altos had a very light and airy quality even during climactic passages, the sound complementing their naturally dark timbre very well. Tenors remained perfectly balanced with the extra treble energy. However, the basses still were slightly diffuse and lacked body in the lowest fundamentals. This is probably my biggest qualm with the tonal balance of the DT880s. The lower fundamentals are nowhere near as pronounced as the upper ones.

I next cued up a jazz affair with Chet Baker titled Chet in Tokyo [Evidence 221582]. This is one of his best live recordings and features Chet at the prime of his technical prowess roughly 6 months before his death. The hi-hat and ride were so present, I could almost touch and taste them. Chet is known for his warm, dark flügelhorn tone of his trumpet and the Beyers did a very nice job of injecting enough sizzle to make it sound quite good. The piano meanwhile had a light, brittle touch as if the performer was comping on a piano made of glass keys a powerful enough stroke would shatter - a very unique and interesting tonal effect and one that resulted from the overall upper harmonic emphasis apparent throughout the range. The bass could be hard to hear underneath at times. I could have wished for just a bit more body and texture
especially with the upright bass, an instrument so integral in the overall harmonic structure of the Jazz idiom. Not quite tight and tuneful but definitely not boomy either, the bass was simply there, light but detailed.

Let's talk about the notion that headphones are incapable of conveying a soundstage. With the transducers right next to your ear, they should theoretically fail to exhibit any credible soundstage to speak of. However, certain headphones are able to convey the illusion of a soundstage much better than others. Another term must be thrown into the mix, which is exclusive to headphone fidelity, a term that delineates between the actual distance and space of sound from your ears versus the illusion of distance and space that can be created by headphones by projecting sound outside of the head. That term is headstage, borrowed from HeadFi. It refers to the actual distance and space of sound from your ears. Soundstage is the illusion of sounds and images that extend beyond the in-head experience. With the Beyers, there are cubits of air around instruments. Placement and imaging are right on and instruments within this illusionary mass of what we call soundstage have clear and detailed outlines, each performer's place within the ensemble easily picked out by the listener. The recording space is clearly conveyed and with live recordings that feature clear ambiance of a large concert venue, the connection is truly very musical. The DT880s have an almost grandiose approach that makes them comparable to the Sennheiser HD600s and 650s in this respect. At times, however, there can be almost too much air when sounds lack cohesion on larger-than-life and distant recordings. Faraway images can become almost lost somewhere in the distance. The DT880s also project a very wide and tall headstage. Sound travels along a very wide X-axis, with plenty of height and depth along the Y-axis but a bit of narrowness on the Z-axis. Voices and solo instruments are very upfront but convey a nice sense of depth behind the occipital.

Various micro detail and nuances that speakers resolve somewhat are made very clear on headphones. That's just the nature of the transducer being so close to the ear while avoiding room interactions. Headphones differ in how they approach this natural aspect of detail and resolution. The Beyerdynamic DT880s are very detailed. Extension is top-notch, extreme highs are clearly conveyed and bass extension is very good as well. On the Vespers, the bass extends all the way down to D-flat and it was clearly audible. Clarity and separation of instruments were also tops, another technical success that the Beyers seem to achieve as a result of their great air. Speech intelligibility is a very strong forte too, with clear articulation between words and phonemes. Bob Dylan fans unite; you can actually understand what the man is saying. The essence of the lyrical art and word play on Blood on the Tracks were kept intact.

One aspect I had slight qualms with was in the area of low-level resolution. Since headphone transducers are so close to the ear, it is beneficial to have excellent low-level resolution to sacrifice as little as possible during below-average volume sessions in order to listen longer and preserve our precious hearing. It took a little longer than with my other headphones to find the right volume with the DT880s, signaling a relative lack of overall micro resolution. At lower volumes, images became a bit distant, hazy and unfocused. With higher volumes, the treble could become sharp and biting.

As a music educator, one of the first things taught to elementary students in a general music class is the concept of rhythm. The Orff and Kodaly methods both stress the use of rhythm
instruments for young children. A sense of rhythm is crucial to later understand and perform music. As time goes on, a musician comes to understand that playing the rhythms perfectly on the page and playing with a sense of groove -- a feeling from within the pocket of the ensemble where pace, rhythm and timing simply flow throughout the musical composition -- don't necessarily go hand in hand. Any piece of audio equipment will reproduce whatever rhythmic passages are recorded the way they were recorded. However, some equipment is more adept at conveying the sense of groove where the hands must clap, the fingers snap and the toes tap. The Beyerdynamic DT880s quite excel in this department known as PraT. The emphasized upper harmonics make everything sound light on the foot, slightly ahead yet within the groove.

This extra sizzle on top lends itself very well to very fast upright bass notes and bass solos. Each bass note is clearly separated and delineated - rhythmically exciting, tonally somewhat lacking.

In conclusion, the DT880s offer a slightly brighter than neutral presentation with plenty of high-end detail and a slightly forward balance in regards to the solo performer at hand. Tonally, voices and instruments are rendered with a light and slightly yellow color that works wonders for some of the music. The DT880s convey a huge amount of space and air around each performer, with excellent image specificity. Once the listener finds the right volume, she will be treated to great clarity, detail and extension, with top-notch separation.

In comparison with the Sennheiser HD600s and HD650s, the Sennheisers are your stereotypical copper cable and the Beyerdynamic DT880 a silver cable, both silver and copper cable from the same company with a similar sound but different voicing. The Sennheiser HD600s and HD650s offer warmth, a texturally rich sound and an engrossing midrange with a certain euphonic quality that is pleasing to many. The Beyerdynamic DT880s, like a silver cable, are fast, clean, with great detail, clarity and separation, albeit somewhat lean in the lower and mid frequencies. It might be best then to pair the Beyerdynamics with a tube amp and avoid silver cabling.

Because of the finicky volume level, I would recommend that the DT880s be used exclusively with smooth volume pots. Stepped attenuators could prove to jump from too low to too high in one single step. Watch out for poorly mastered studio recordings - they may result in fatigue. Jazz became my favorite medium with the DT880s. Choral music was a close second, Rock didn't fare as well. Overall, the Beyers offer a lot when compared with the competition's top offerings (Sennheiser HD650s at $499.99, Grado RS-1 at $695). With careful matching of components in the upstream chain, one can achieve a very nice sound for the money.
Manufacturer's website
HeadRoom's website