Most audiophiles would be shocked and amazed that a whole other huge universe of stereo audio equipment exists outside the realm of the standard player/amp/speakers system. Most audiophiles would be amazed, not only that this alternate universe exists, but the size and scope of it and the staggering number of music lovers that populate it.

An interesting fact is that the center of their gear galaxy, their Capital City and home base on the web, is one of if not THE largest and most trafficed site in all of audio. Any audio. And that would be HeadFi.com. Surprised? Not if you ever attended a headphone meet or show. Rooms and tables are filled, aisle after aisle, with hundreds of different headphones, headphone amps and preamps in both tube and solid state, cables and accessories. And those venues are packed with people who worship at the thrown of wearable music transducers. There are many, many people who spend hours upon hours of listening to music on very high-end systems, but who do not even own a pair of convertional speakers.

Are these people crazy? Uninformed or just plain ignorant of the joys of listening to boxed sets of woofers and tweeters? Are they just plain idiots?

There are very distinct advantages to using headphones vs. speakers. First, the most expensive headphones, which many think are superior in terms of audiophile qualites to any speaker, costs less than a pair of low to medium priced speakers. 'Phone lovers certainly do not need megawatt amps to drive their "cans", so they don't have to spend big bucks there, though a top model headphone amp can run several thousand bucks.There is no real heat factor or large electric bills. 'Phones are very "green". Headphone enthusiasts don't have to worry about big speakers fitting their wive's decor or taking up a lot of space in their rooms. The WAF is nonexistant. In addition, and this is a huge factor, they never have to worry about how their "speakers" will interact with their room acoustics. It matters not whether their room is small or large, square or irregular and they certainly don't have to worry about where to "place" their listening devices in the room. They never have to measure to make sure they have a perfect triangle setup. They need no expensive and ugly room treatments.

Oh. An if you are thinking, "Yeah, but there's no soundstage or real imaging to a headphone. All the music clangs around inisde your head", then you have not heard a pair of decent headphones in years. You can get all of that and bass down to 10Hz with very little problem - and money. Try getting that low on regular speakers.

And last but far from least, try taking your Wilson Watt/Puppies or even your tiny stand-mount monitors on an airplane or into your hotel room on a business trip, or jogging or walking or riding a bike. A fine pair of Senn's or AKG's will go anywhere with their owners.

So. Are dedicated headphone listener's crazy? Or could it be that all the rest of us who struggle with all the disadvantages of owning speakers are the idiots?

 

Method

I used the New York Audio Society Reference CD for most of this review.  I did several rounds of listening to all headphones through both amps. I did an A-B comparison to highlight the differences in headphones, but mostly I listened to my reference CD one headphone at a time. I have written my impressions for each headphone played using the same music so that you can see how each headphone differs from the others. These are my impressions based on my listening preferences and system.

System

Source: Tube Research Labs Modified Sony NV900S CD Player, iMod (Red Wine Audio modified iPod)

Cables: Cable Research Labs, Black Mountain Pinnacle, Blue Jeans Cable

Headphone Amplifier: Mapletree HD2 (with special features and NOS tubes), Xin 4 LE battery powered

Headphones: Grado RS1 and GS1000 with stock cable, Sennheiser 600 with Equinox cable (Package from Todd the Vinyl Junkie), Sennheiser 650 with Cardas Cable (Thanks to Larry of NY Audio Society for loaning it), AKG 701 with Silver Dragon Cable from Moon Audio, Livewires IEMs

Two Channel Reference: Tube Research Labs (TRL) Pre and Power Amp, Acoustic Zen Adagio Speakers with Real Traps for room acoustics.

IMPORTANT NOTE

Changing the stock chord to an aftermarket cable will most like void the headphone’s warranty.

 

 

THE SHOOTOUT

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 100

Sennheiser HD 600 with Equinox Cable - $499 plus $289 for Equinox cable

Compared to the other headphones in this comparison, these sound like they are a Jack of all audiophile trades and master of none. Senn 600's are easy an easy listen and they do not distort or become bright when played loud. They are a very well behaved and balanced headphone. They are probably the best choice among audiophile headphones that lend themselves for background work and they are extremely comfortable.

Sennheiser HD 650 with Cardas Cable - $549 plus $185 for Cardas Cable

They sound very much like the 600 but are more open, dynamic and detailed compared to the Senn 600. They never sound bright, but they do not sound like the 600's either. To me it took a little longer for me to get used to the Senn 650 sound.

Grado RS1 - $695

Grado's RS1 puts you right on the stage with musicians, which make them excellent for vocals and jazz and less so for classical. RS1's provide more immediacy than any other in the group. They are extremely fast and dynamic with fast, tight bass.

Since they are “over the ear” design instead of “around the ear” like the rest of the headphones in this shootout, they tend to put a little pressure on your ears. The have magical midrange and overall, they are very enjoyable.

 

Grado GS1000 - $995

These are Grado’s new flagship headphones. Are they like the RS1 with more Soundstage or an altogether different headphone? Both!

These dig deeper into the recording than any other headphone in the group. They are extremely detailed, so if there is sibilance in the recoding, the GS1000’s tend to highlight it. They have the biggest and widest soundstage of the headphones in comparison though vocals sound a bit recessed. They are good at low/lower volumes – maybe because of their powerful bass and extremely detailed midrange. They require careful amplifier pairing.

 

AKG 701 with Silver Dragon Moon Audio Cable

$449 + $225 for Moon Silver Dragon Cable

 

The AKG 701's (Silver Dragon cable) are reference level headphones that serve up what is on the source, albeit with light bass. They are very smooth and natural sounding; they sound more like listening through two-way monitors than headphones. 

The 701’s require serious burn-in, about 300 to 500 hours to open up. They do not sound smooth out of the box or immediately after re-cabling. AKG 701’s are like a fast runner – all muscle – no fat! They have speed, soundstage, smoothness and organic sound except for light bass. They really shine if you give them good amplification and some volume – at soft volume they sound a little dull or flat.

The 701’s are not as resolving as the GS1000, but they have the snap and bite without being irritating. They sound just right to my ears – right in the middle of the Senns and Grado.

 

THE SHOOTOUT TRACK BY TRACK


Track#1 Limehouse blues, Jazz at the Pawnshop

This is an audiophile classcs, perhaps one of the best examples of live Jazz recordings.

 

Senn 600

Overall, very pleasing sound, bass is full but a bit on the slow side. The fit is snug just like its intimate soundstage. The sound is quite relaxed and polite – they are not the last word in detail or air.

Senn 650

Compared to Senn 600’s, they very similar tone but they sound more open and detailed without sounding forward. The main difference between the two Senns on this track is a bigger and wider soundstage. Bass is full but a bit slow. Pace and Rhythm are right on.

Grado RS1

About 40 seconds of this track is nothing about ambient sounds of the local club, the Sennheisers were too polite to reveal this portion too much. Grado RS1’s definitely provided the “being there” experience. The tone is definitely different from the Senns, the RS1’s have sepia colored sound and they sound great. The RS1’s definitely dig deeper into the track, retrieving more information. It has the micro and macro-dynamics in spades. The imaging is excellent but the soundstage is quite narrow though without distracting from the music. RS1’s painted their own picture of the Jazz at the Pawnshop and it is enjoyable to listen to. Call them colored but they sound excellent.

Grado GS1000

On this track, Grado GS1000s sound extremely open and image quite well. There is tremendous sense of space and air around the instruments. GS1000s have the family resemblance with RS1 yet they sound very different. The GS1000 have the widest and deepest soundstage and they are the most open sounding of the bunch. They lack the warmth and to my taste, I would like to bring out the recessed midrange. This track sounds excellent through the GS1000 even though they have their own sound signature.

AKG 701

On this Track, compared to GS1000s’ out of this world soundstage, the AKG 701 soundstage collapsed to a more realistic soundstage. Compared to the Grado's, AKG 701’s are a notch down in the clarity and immediacy department but they sound very well balanced. The tone is right on. They are very open sounding and conformable. I wonder how GS1000 managed to deliver so much bass. A little more bass would be nice. Like Senn 600’s, AKG 701’s are very well balanced headphones except they are more open sounding and have a bigger soundstage at the cost of a little less bass.

 

NO PHOTO AVAILABLE

Track #2 The Old Country, Music in the bottle

This track is very well recorded and provides a venue for extremely deep and wide soundstage.

 

Senn 600

The Senns 600’s nicely shows off the front and back of the hall but soundstage is not as wide. The bass is all there but is not as tight. They are missing the last bit of snap and detail and the speed is not as fast. Senn 600’s are not as revealing and miss portraying the glorious sense of space to really let this track shine but the overall impression is good.

Senn 650

Senn 650s reveal layers of music but bass sounds a bit disjointed compared to the rest of sound spectrum. Bass lacks speed and texture. Senn 650s share the veil with its 600 sibling. Senn 650's just fails to reveal the magic, like the 600's, of which this track is capable.

Grado RS1

Grado RS1’s do a nice job in showing layers of music on this track – from harmonica to guitar to drums but the soundstage is very narrow. RS1 created a space that is deep but narrow. RS1’s could not create the illusion of magic in this track but they sound good nevertheless.

Grado GS1000

The GS1000 created the deepest and most impressive soundstage on this track. The tone of harmonica is slightly different but they revealed layers of music like no other. They were successful in creating the illusion and magic on this track. They sounded less like headphones and more like a very good stereo. Brilliant!

AKG 701

AKG 701’s have a nice and deep soundstage but they are not as clear sounding as GS1000 but the bass impact and decay is excellent – if only they had a little more weight in the bass department. For the most part, they sound more like very good two-way speakers than headphones. They delivered most of the magic on this track and would have sounded just perfect if they had a little more bass.

 

 

Track #3: Over the rainbow, Jane Monheit — Best Audiophile Voices Vol. I

This is one of those audiophile recordings with very lush and little forward midrange.

One of my personal favorite CD's - publisher

Senn 600

Senns take the edge off the recording but shy away from providing intimate texture of Jane Monehit’s voice.

Senn 650

Jane Monheit’s voice sounds lush and intimate. It has that pleasant sibilance and you can even hear her breathe. Not the last word in detail and texture, but I do not find it begging for anything either. The 650 passes the critical midrange test in flying colors.

Grado RS1

RS1’s are knows for their magical midrange. Jane Monheit’s voice sounds as good as it gets, what more should I say.

Grado GS1000

The GS1000s dig deeper than any other headphone in the test. They revealed not only more music but also the flaws in the recording or in the connecting equipment. Sometimes it makes music unlistenable while other times exceptionally good. On this forward sounding track complemented very nicely with GS1k’s slightly recessed mids. During the initial break-in period, the GS1000 almost had a hole around midrange frequencies. After over 100 hours of burn-in, the midrange the mid-range hole is filled up to some extent but they still do not have the presence that other phones have. On this track, the bass is amazing, fast and full or should I say fuller. Everything else sounds just fine – including Muddy Water’s voice.

 

AKG 701

The 701’s stand shoulder to shoulder with any other headphone in critical midrange. They sound smooth and clear, never bright or forward sounding. Jan Monheit’s voice sounds smooth. The accompanying music is delivered in the background the way it should on this track. Just right!

 

Track #4: My home is in the Delta, Muddy Waters – Muddy Waters Folk Singer

A classic blues album that has been an audiophile favorite for years

Senn 600

Very easy and relaxed listen – doesn’t have the last bit of detail, the guitar lacks the snap but it doesn’t bleed your ears with the bite that some headphones can. The soundstage is not as big but the tone of Muddy Waters voice is right on.

Senn 650

Through Senn 650s, this track opens up with a nice sense of space. You can hear the brushwork distinctly, the bass sounds a bit slow and muddy. Muddy Waters voice sounds a bit veiled compared to the snap and detail of the guitar. This track is easily revealing its strengths (extended top end and nice soundstage) and weaknesses (slow bass and slightly veiled midrange).

Grado RS1

The RS1’s gave the attack, the impact that the Senns did not. The RS1’s brought me even closer to the performers than either Senns did. This track sounds best so far through RS1. Bass is full and tight and the guitar strings sound they way they should. Perfect!

AKG 701

AKG 701’s are fast, full, open and musical. What more could I ask for? The bass is fast but not big enough. Muddy Waters voice is right on. This track sounds as good as it should through headphones. The 701's had their own share of sounding thin or bright during the first few hundreds of hours of break-in. Yes, they take a few hundred hours of playing music before they show what they are made of.

 

Track #5: The Snow Maidens Dance of the Tumblers, Tutti! Orchestral Sampler – Reference Recordings label

 

StereoMojo Exclusive!

Right click here to download a free sample of this reference track in mp3 format.

This features HDCD encoding. It plays on regular players well, but sounds much better when played on an HDCD capable player

 

Senn 600

They faithfully reproduce large orchestra, they sound is grand. They have Macro dynamics in spades. It seems that this headphone is most suitable for Classical or orchestral type music. They are very engaging musically. The tambourine has a nice shimmer, and the triangle shows presence as well. They create a nice sense of the symphony hall. The soundstage perspective is from middle of the Hall seat. They are very satisfying and enjoyable.

Senn 650

Senn 650s do a nice job in creating the illusion just like its younger sibling 600. They sound dynamic with plenty of weight. They provide a tad more detail than the 600 on this track. Overall, they sound very satisfying.

Grado RS1

I was singing praises of RS1 so far until I played some orchestra. These phones lack the warmth and sense of space than the Senns have. No, they do not sound bad but for this track, the RS1’s came in the way and failed to connect me to the music. RS1’s were not able to engage me in this very enjoyable track. The sound is dynamic and detailed but they did not create the atmosphere and space for large-scale classical orchestra appropriately – its sounds like a large symphony cramped in a small hall.

Grado GS1000

GS 1000s open this track with nice speed and impact but I wish there was more richness, more body to the orchestra. Grado GS1000s are extremely open sounding and very comfortable. There is plenty of air and space but I prefer to have a bit more warmth on this track to bring it all together.

AKG 701

Gripping! Soundstage, imaging, tone, dynamics and ability to deliver complex music with ease – The 701’s get full score on all counts. Very musical and enjoyable!

 

Track #6: Feeling of Jazz, Wynton Marsalis – The Magic Hour

This is one of my favorite audiophile tracks. I often use this track to introduce friends to Hi Fidelity Audio

 

Senn 600

At the outset – they project a nice soundstage. Dianne Reves’s voice does not have that presence or power that makes this track super special. Missing her voice’s texture. The Trumpet riffs but does not bite. The drums and cymbals sound fast but the double bass sounds a bit slow or muddy. Piano is definite in the background where it should be. She sounds smoother or a bit distant. Senn 600’s sound good but they fail in bringing out the magic from this track for me. It just does not dig deeper. Some people say that Senn’s sound veiled – perhaps that quality also makes them easier to listen to for long hours and makes them sound polite.

Senn 650

The 650s sound cleaner than 600’s and provide more detail but they did not image right and the soundstage though wider than 600’s is a bit out of place compared to what I hear through my reference 2 channel and other headphones.

Grado RS1

This track opened with nice bass playing with slightly brighter cymbals in the background. The trumpet riff had the speed, bite and dynamics. Diane’s voice sounded a bit bright at regular volumes but she sounded fine at lower volumes. I could listen to this track through the Senns at higher SPLs without any strain, which I could not do with RS1’s per my listening preferences. Other than some spike in treble they sounded fine.

Grado GS1000

Through GS1000, bass has more weight and texture. Diane’s voice sounds relatively distant. Soundstage is wide. These phones don’t collapse the soundstage when I turn the phones down which happens with some phones – perhaps it has to do with the fact that these phones have excellent bass and overall clarity, especially up top. It served the music well but missed serving the magic on this track!

AKG 701

Did I say – I wish the 701’s had more bass, well not this track – they sound excellent. Bass notes are all there except the weight around the deepest notes. Cymbals sound crystal clear. Ah! Finally, Diane Reeve’s voice is given the right tone and image. Just right! The impact of drums, the sound of trumpet, the tone of piano and the relative energy of each instrument in supporting Diane’s voice – just the right balance. They sound very accurate and very musical. I would not mind a little bit more bass but I am mentioning that to pick on them if they were supposed to be perfect headphones not just perfectly balanced headphones. They sound excellent.

 

Track #7: Riding with the King, B.B.King & Eric Clapton, Riding with the King

A popular Blues and Rock crossover Album

 

Senn 600

This Rock track with Blues roots has the foot tapping pace and the Senns do a nice justice. This track can sound harsh but not with these headphones. The Senn 600’s give nice detail and bass but the midrange could be smoother but you cannot change the way it was recorded and engineered. These phones Rock, but not in your face!

Senn 650

They rock just like the 600.

Grado RS1

The RS1’s sound extremely fast and provide more detail than the Senns, but they seem to be a bit tipped up on top.

Grado GS1000

The voices are not very clean on this recording and they reveal sibilance and peakiness through the GS1000, but the drums and crashing cymbals have plenty of shimmer and impact. If you are a detail freak then this phone could be a cure to your audiophile disease.

AKG 701

O yeah! They rock, no problem here. This track sounds better through the 701’s to me than any other phone. Rock on! They sound even better when you play them louder or give them more power – they do not break down under stress of either complex or loud music.

 

Track #8: I long for Vienna (J. Strauss Jr.), Richard Tucker, Essential Operetta

For a change – this piece of Opera / Operetta is sung in English

 

 

Senn 600

The male voice is very engaging; it has warmth and nice body. The accompanying music is not competing but complementing and flowing with the voice. Senn 600's get full points here; nothing to criticize. The power and passion shines through.

Senn 650

Senn 650's are made for classical music. These sound a tad more open than the 600 but I prefer 600’s pin point imaging that the 650s lack – may be because 650s have a wider soundstage?

Grado RS1

Grado’s are known for sounding good with both male and female vocals and it is no exception here.

Grado GS1000

On this track, GS1K served the music in layers – voice is separate from the accompanying music in a way that no other headphone could. The voice is slightly distant but I say that because the other headphones serve the midrange in a more intimate manner. They sound very good overall.

AKG 701

They do the justice in delivering the main course (Richard Tucker’s voice) with the right balance of accompanying music. Perfect? May be!

 

 

Track #9: What a wonderful world, Eva Cassidy, Best Audiophile Voices I

Eva Cassidy’s voice has the quality of transporting the listener to this Wonderful World whether it is real or imaginary

Senn 600

It is a very emotional track and Senn 600’s get full points in creating an illusion without any audiophile distractions. Extremely enjoyable! I could describe the lush voice or brush work on the drums or the sound of piano or the electric guitar but that would not be as important as the music conveyed that touch your heart. Senn 600’s did the disappearing act and allowed me to immerse in to music. It sounds like I am in the club. Her voice is so melodious – the sibilance is there to convey the club’s intimate setting. The piano is doing its job without going too much in the background. Nice brush works in the background. Perfect! The sound is very emotionally engaging and musical. She is telling a story and I want to forget that I am listening to headphones and want to follow her words and recreate the imaginative view of the world – this colorful and beautiful and loving wonderful world.

Senn 650

Compared to 600’s, the 650s sound, as if someone cleaned the window and now I can see/hear more. The 650s are clearly portraying more audiophile qualities compared to the 600’s but the 600’s sounded more balanced. The 600’s drew me closer to the music. Now should I find fault in 650s because they are cleaner sounding? The 600’s were better able to create the atmosphere of this live recording. The 600’s created a more suitable mood for me for this track, even though 650’s were clearer and cleaner sounding.

Grado RS1

This track shows that RS1's have narrower soundstage like the 600's and sound clearer than 650's and place you at spitting distance to the performer. It would be hard for me to use RS1 for background listening that the 600’s lend themselves to. This track sounded very musical and soulful.

Grado GS1000

This track is a bit forward sounding but not through these phones. The sibilance is there but the whole package is served nicely without loosing the soul of this song. Listening through Senns – some of the accompanying music gets pushed in the background, the GS1000 served it well. The only complaint I have is that I wish Eva’s voice had a little less sibilance.

AKG 701

For a couple of minutes, I just forgot that I was doing a review. These phones drew me into this very emotional track.

 

 

Track #10 Take Five, Dave Brubeck Quartet, Time Out

What would be Jazz without Take Five?

 

Senn 600

The only minor problems if I force myself to be pulled away from this hypnotic music is that the soundstage has the depth but is not wide enough. This is not an audiophile recording per se and has some tape hiss but the Senn 600 delivers the music sans imperfections! Here the so called Sennheiser Mask or Veil works in its favor and proves the point of their listening ease. Very forgiving and very well balanced headphone! Sound is very open and has a lot of presence. These headphones do justice to this track. The 600’s show all the necessary detail on this track. While listening to this track, there is nothing I can think of that is missing. Excellent sense of space / hall / room and natural sound reflections in the recording. I could hear the texture of the fingers plucking the bass. Very enjoyable indeed!

Senn 650

On this track the Senn 650s were slightly more open sounding and less veiled compared to  the 600’s.

Grado RS1

The sax sounds slightly more forward through the RS1 than other phones. The soundstage as usual is not as big or wide, other than that everything sounds quite good. The bass is tight, the cymbals sound crisp and clean, and drums have as realistic body and impact as headphones could possibly deliver.

Grado GS1000

In photography, if the picture is over-exposed the picture appears washed out. This track likewise is a bit over exposed on top as it sounds too lively or bright up there.

AKG 701

How does this track sound? The way it should. The 701's do not draw attention to themselves; instead, they help draw you into the music. They don’t have the biggest soundstage, though they have a great soundstage, they don’t have the best bass, though they respond to low bass albeit within limits; they may not have the most seductive midrange but they sound so smooth, and thank God they do not sound bright, but they have plenty of air on top and make even the bright recordings listenable.

 

 

Track #11: Tears in Heaven, Eric Clapton, Unplugged

This live recording has the soul that studio recordings lack but will easily reveal the weaknesses in high frequencies

 

Senn 600

The more I listen to Senn 600’s the more I like them. Slightly rolled off highs of Senn 600 work in its favor and make this track not only listenable but allow you to flow with music and be emotionally engaged. Two thumbs up!

Senn 650

The 650's give the bite to this song that 600's shied away from. Excellent!

Grado RS1

RS1’s show how this track should really sound! The RS1’s seem to reveal every bit of information on this track. Some may love it and some may find it distracting. It sounded excellent to me. This track is a bit bright and raw sounding but I liked hearing it through RS1’s. Nice job. It would have been nice if there was a little more bass but how could I get it if it not in the recording! It sounded as if I was right on stage with Eric Clapton. Thrilling! Very special!

Grado GS1000

Sounds like I am there – sounds live. The guitar has the grit and snap – I love it.

AKG 701

This track serves as an example of how the 701’s stand right in the middle of Grado and Sennheiser sound. The guitar has the snap but it does not snap your ears. The 701’s make this track sound – live or lively without making them sound bright. Perfect – may be not but perfectly balanced.

 

 

 

AKG 701

600

650

RS1

GS1000

Headphones weight without cable (oz)

8.3 oz

9.2 oz

9.11 oz

N/A

N/A

Sensitivity (dB/mW, dB/V*)

105

97

98

98

Frequency Response (Hz)

10 - 39,800

12 - 39,000

10 - 39,500

12 - 30,000

8 - 35,000

Rated impedance (ohms)

62

300

300

32

32

 

 

As you have just read, all of these headphones have their various strengths and weaknesses. They even vary from recording to recording and of course, the prices vary considerably as well. Do you prefer a lot of deep bass or is midrange purity and clarity your priority? What type of music do you listen to most frequently? Some do better with rock than classical. For these reasons and more, it is impossible to declare an outright "winner". What we have endeavored to do is to describe the sound of each of these headphones as intricately as possible so that you can make an informed decision should you decided to purchase some new headphones. None of them are  "bad" and most people would be happy with any of them. The AKG 701 with Silver Dragon Moon Audio Cable may be the best all-rounder at the best price and they are the easiest to drive with a sensitivity of 105dB, but some may prefer the fit, feel and even the appearance of one of the others. If you like what was said about the Sennheisers, just be aware of their impedance of 300 Ohms for amp matching.

What is apparent is that headphones have come a long way on the last few years and many have found they prefer headphone listening to conventional speakers. Check out http://www.head-fi.org to see what I mean. If you haven't tried a pair of good 'phones, now may be a good time to give them a listen.

 

BACK TO STEREOMOJO HOME