Beyerdynamic 2005/06 DT880
By Stephen Ham
High-end headphones aren't the kind of products that typically get updated every year - usually, more like every couple years. So when Beyerdynamic updated its line of high-end headphones for the 2006 calendar year, the "headphile" community took notice. The DT770, DT880, and DT990 all got cosmetic face-lifts with a more modern, stylish look and rounded earcups. It's been said that these headphones were also tweaked in the sound department, for an improvement of the 2003 original. I haven't listened to that model, so I can't say what improvements there might be, but if Beyerdynamic tweaked it, that must mean the DT880 got closer to perfection, right? Well, we'll explore that in this review. Officially, Beyerdynamic calls this model the 2005 DT880, but there was another 2005 DT880 before this one (used a coiled cord) so for the sake of differentiating between the two, I'll designate this one the 2005/06 DT880.
Sources: Arcam DiVA CD73, CEC CD3300
Power cords: Iron-Lung Jellyfish (Quail, hospital-grade) on Arcam, 18 AWG standard IEC on CEC
Interconnects: Signal Cable Silver Resolution Analog and Analog Two
Headphone amplifiers: Cayin HA-1A, DIY Millett Hybrid, RudiStor NKK-01, HeadAmp 2005 AE-1, Xin SuperMini-III (w/ AD8397), Little-Tube Little Dot Micro+
Comparison Headphones: AKG K701, Audio-Technica ATH-AD2000, Grado SR225, Sennheiser HD600
The headphones had more than 700 hours of use on them (consisting of both on-head and unattended time) at the time of this review
[ Test CDs
Andre Rieu - Tuscany
Howard Shore - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [OST]
James Newton Howard - The Village [OST]
Jewel - Goodbye Alice in Wonderland
Kevin Kern - Imagination's Light
Massive Attack - Mezzanine
Orbital - Middle of Nowhere
Peter Kater - Inner Works
Portishead - Portishead
Radiohead - OK Computer
Secret Garden - White Stones
Thievery Corporation - Sounds From The Verve Hi-Fi
The Crystal Method - Vegas
The Prodigy - Fat of the Land
The new DT880 retains the original's basic design - a headshape-contouring leather headband and soft grey velour earpads. It's extremely comfortable and can easily be worn for hours at a time. The leather headband is Beyerdynamic's basic trademark design and easily adapts to the contours of any head shape and size. It has some flexibility, though not a whole lot - it's somewhat resistant to extreme stretching, so very large heads may have a hard time fitting into it. The earpads are fully circumaural and allow for plenty of breathing room around the ears, yet fit securely enough to form a "seal" against the head, without a noticeable clamping force. It's a "wear it and forget it" headphone, and it's also light enough that it doesn't feel like a weight on the head.
Unlike the most recent version of the DT880, this one does not use a coiled cable, and instead uses a straight cable. It's 10' long so it can accommodate long runs and is terminated to a 3.5mm mini plug. A screw-on 1/4" adapter is included in the package. There are also Braille extrusions on the left and right sides, just above the earcups, so the sides can be easily discerned for the visually impaired.
Also of note here is the soft foam-padded, black leatherette-bound case that the headphone is packed in. This case is part of the package, a small part of it is in fact exposed by the retail box so it can be previewed when sitting on a shelf. It has a handle on top so it can be easily used as a transport for the headphones and indeed, it functions nicely as a carrying case, as the internal foam padding provides plenty of protection.
Ahhh, burn-in. A controversial topic among audiophiles - many say it doesn't exist (placebo), while just as many insist it does. A skeptic myself to both sides' opinions so consider me on the fence - I don't believe in either outright, but do acknowledge that the two sides both have valid arguments. That said, frequency response absolutely changes with time on the DT880. Out of the box, bass was very lean and treble very emphatic. Sibilance was very harsh - very painful, almost on the scale of trademark Sony headphones such as the MDR-V6 and MDR-CD3000. The sibilance on Liz Fraser's voice on Massive Attack's "Teardrop" made the song painful to listen to, and it was difficult to listen to any music that used cymbal sounds. Not until after about 100 hours did the sibilance start lessening and around 300 hours did it start getting tame enough to listen to "Teardrop." Also around 300 hours was the onset of much more bass quantity, to a level that provided for a much better balance, yet not a complete balance - it's settled in as a treble-oriented headphone with merely a fair amount of bass compensation. A trace of sibilance remains as well - with the wrong components it could easily be exacerbated to a distracting level. Even at over 700 hours, both male vocal parts on Massive Attack's "Karmacoma" border on being sibilant.
Soundstage on the new DT880 is nice and open, though not very "wide." It's airy too, certainly not as much as AKG's K701, but in comparison to other open dynamic headphones, it's definitely ahead of the pack. There's a depth to the sound that allows you to hear the room acoustics of a recording, but it's not very well-defined, lacking the edges that provide a sense of sound hitting the walls. That said, while it does give an open soundstage, it conveys more of an intimate presentation, as it tends to gravitate towards the performers in non-classical & non-electronic genres. There's no obvious emphasis on the human vocal range that creates a forward sound, but the elimination of distance tends to make vocalists sound like they're singing right into the ear.
For classical, there's a nice 3D placement on the instrumental sections, with the violins and cello usually sounding like they're coming from the front rather than right from the side, as will usually occur on forward-sounding headphones. There's not too much of a virtual distance from the orchestra though, as it sounds mostly like a front-row and center seating rather than a mid-row seating.
Detail retrieval on the DT880 is excellent, it will pick up nearly every sound on a recording, including background hiss if it's there. It is 250 Ohms so it shouldn't pick up any noise from components in the equipment chain (for any components that don't have a black background), but if a recording has tape hiss, it will easily get that. Clicks, pops, and scratches on analog recordings are fully revealed, even ones introduced from the mixing/mastering process - naturally, poorly mastered discs will suffer as a result, but high-quality recordings will sound that much better. Classical music especially benefits from this, with all the pieces of the recording intact - string bow movements (individual players making any mistakes too), tiny screeches, breath noise, chair rocking, creaking, tapping, coughing, mic noise, etc.
If this sounds over-detailed, it is - detail is so extreme it can feel unnatural how much is heard, as if you're hearing sounds that aren't supposed to be there. A hyper-real level of detail, if you will. This, combined with the treble-oriented response (more on that below), makes the headphones sound very analytic. Micro-detail on the details is very good, but it gets to a point where it can feel like the headphone is taking attention away from conveying the music and trying to analyze it instead. In this way, there's both a musical and non-musical sense to the DT880, in that it paints a complete picture of the music but sounds like it's working at getting it, instead of taking a laidback approach.
Attack & Decay
Attack is generally too slow on the DT880. The leading and trailing edges of notes aren't quite sharply defined, as it seems to have some difficulty latching onto notes as they enter and exit the airspace. There's simply no bite or energy to give music a needed sense of swiftness and speed. It's more noticeable on upper frequencies than lower ones, but even the higher end of the mid-bass lacks crystal definition on impacts. There's simply a lack of blackness between notes in extremely fast runs, as the next note often sounds like a continuation of the previous, rather than clear, separate, and discrete. Also, if these fast notes lie in the high part of the treble, there's a slight tendency for them to turn to mush. This effect was most noticeable on Orbital's "Way Out" and "Spare Parts Express," where the series of high-pitched clinks and effects forms a harmonic layer. These clinks are lost on most headphones simply because they lack the necessary treble emphasis and extension - the DT880 does not and can indeed get these, only it doesn't give them the energy they should have so they can jump out from the soundtrack. An excellent treble extension should be paired with a fast attack for best results, but alas, that's not the case here. Do note though that the attack isn't too slow that it's a serious detriment to enjoying the music, it's just that in comparison to most other headphones, the DT880's attack stands out on a critical listen.
As alluded to, decay is also slow, slow enough that the trails on longer sounds will and often do run into the next sound, contributing to creating a slurring effect. It tends to be more noticeable on cymbals (and similar sounds that leave an empty-air aftereffect) and other sounds that are in the lower highs. As might be expected, this can ruin the cymbals on a classical recording, or the carefully timed percussion in other genres. As an example, the opening guitar notes on Radiohead's "No Surprises" have a slight slur into each other, instead of closing neatly with a defined decay. Granted, while the DT880's decay does sound a bit slow, it also sounds much more naturalistic and realistic than the decays of other headphones, which have a tendency to sound too fast, so that's a flip side of the issue as well - those who find fast decays unnatural may prefer the DT880's slower decay.
To be fair, the slow attack and decay aren't so noticeable that either is a dealbreaker. And someone who's heard only the DT880 would probably never notice - it's only after hearing other headphone brands (AKG and Grado models specifically) that this trait of the DT880 became obvious.
The DT880 is rated at 250 Ohms and requires a comparatively large amount of current, so a high-powered amp is almost a necessity. The high output power of most tube amps works well for it, and in fact the DT880 seems to pair better with tubes rather than with solid-state designs. Indeed, the coloration that tube amps provide is a nice complement for the DT880, as the increased mid-range warmth and mid-bass impact helps balance out the frequency response. Some tube amps, particularly higher-end ones, may help it control layers and soundstage.
For solid-state amplifiers, op-amps that give a colored sound tend to be a better match for it than ones that are flat across the board. The AD8397 for example, which has a punchy, forward sound, serves to give it some character, whereas neutral op-amps might exacerbate certain aspects of the frequency response, depending on preference of course. Also, since the DT880's bass extension isn't the best, the op-amp doesn't need to extend too low either. However, due to the DT880's response in the treble (more on that below), an op-amp that holds back treble sparkle and controls it, preventing it from becoming too splashy, edgy, or grating, may be desired.
Either way, both solid-state and tube amps are equally well-suited for driving the DT880. Amp type is preferential of course, but a hybrid or tube design is highly recommended to alleviate its frequency response in the mid-range.
A source with a warm, rich mid-range and extended highs will probably be desirable - bass response should be considered secondary, since the headphone doesn't extend very low. Cable type will depend on preference - the cable types responded as expected with the copper one giving more mid-range presence and the silver giving more detail and treble edge. In fact, it seemed surprisingly sensitive to the two cable types, much more than other headphones I've heard. Finally, all three types of amps work with it well, as long as enough current can be supplied and there's enough headroom left from the potentiometer to achieve volume.
And the headphones scale extremely well with upgrades in the equipment chain, so it's a great headphone for both upgraders and tweakers alike. Tweakers will probably find it worth experimenting with to achieve the ideal synergy between source, amp, and cables.
Sound - Treble
Although it's not outright bright (like most Sony headphones), the overall frequency response of the DT880 very much tilts towards the treble. Fresh out of the box it was especially noticeable - burn-in tamed it quite a bit, but there's still a general gravitation towards the treble than any other part of the frequency spectrum. Depending on the recording and/or associated equipment, this may very well result in a grating, screechy, nails-on-the-chalkboard type sound that may be painful, and certainly detrimental for people with ears sensitive to tinnitus. Component matching will be necessary to alleviate this, of course.
Extension here is excellent, as it easily goes past 16 kHz with no obvious roll-off until almost 20 kHz. Sounds in this range are easily heard but not attacked very well (as already mentioned above).
On classical, string instruments sound especially realistic, though resonance (from the wooden chamber) is a tad recessed compared to the higher treble component - there's not too much of a sense of the raw power behind an exceptionally crafted violin, for example. It's still easy to hear differences between violin makes, however. There is a tiny amount of sheen on top that adds a quintessential "treble sparkle" so violins really sing out, even if they're not particularly "full." It does an excellent job separating the violin sections as well, so they sound like multiple violins rather a single huge violin collective. There's really just an excellent attention to delicacy when it comes to violin, either solo or sectional. Sequences of high-pitched notes are especially reproduced well, thanks to an almost featherweight lightness - there's almost a sense of the headphones "dancing" across the top end with ease to accurately portray such light sounds.
Sound - Mid-range
There's a very slight warmth to the mid-range, but it's barely noticeable, particularly because of the treble response. It's largely flat and uncolored, and devoid of character. Noticeably silk-smooth and refined, almost to a fault. It can even seem a bit recessed compared to the bass and treble due to the way it's smoothed out, but it's really not recessed at all, just relatively neutral. Naturally, some coloring may be desirable in the source or amplifier stage - in fact, it's very much recommended.
Most instruments that lie in this range don't really sound full or immersive. They do however have an excellent overall clarity, making it easy to discern the intricacies of their sound. However, layer separation could be improved upon, as the more complex a mix gets, the more that instruments can sound like they're competing with each other for space and to be heard. The image has a tendency to lose marginally more and more clarity as the number of layers increases, resulting in a congested sound. There's not much of an attempt to diffuse the layers, as it often sounds like the DT880 is letting the layers pile on instead of trying to separate them.
Vocals aren't completely realistic on the DT880. The lower portion of the human vocal range (the part that that comes from the proverbial "gut") is recessed to a point where it sounds like vocalists are missing part of their lungs, so to speak. Almost like there's a loss of raw power coming from within the vocalist. It's not really distracting, but it's noticeable, more so on male vocalists than it is on female vocalists. As a result, the DT880 tends to sound better with female vocals.
Sound - Bass
Bass extends down to approximately within 35-40 Hz, so it's a decent extension for a headphone, but not quite low enough to work well for genres like electronica, industrial, and metal. As bass-heads know, 35-40 Hz is just above the range of sweeps, rolls, phases, and low passes that are frequently used in those genres. So the DT880 isn't exactly ideal for those genres as it simply doesn't extend low enough. Deep bass lines are out of its scope, like the ones on Massive Attack's "Angel" and The Crystal Method's "Trip Like I Do" and "Keep Hope Alive." Expecting a headphone to reproduce bass that low might be overcritical, as a lot of headphones don't actually extend that low, but seeing as there are a handful that do, it's only fair to mention. Not that the DT880 has severely deficient bass extension though, as there are plenty of headphones that extend less - it's simply about on level with what can be typically expected for a headphone in this price range.
The lower end of the bass isn't very boomy, like its sibling the DT770, but it doesn't have the lean, tightly-wound characteristic of the K701 either. It falls somewhere in between those two, with a weighty, plush kind of feel to it. Never flabby or uncontrolled, yet it has a surprising amount of quantity. Low-frequency rhythms are given a nice amount of focused power. Electronic music that uses a lot of 303 or 909 analog synth sounds benefits quite a bit from this, as those particularly feel like they have a solid, weighty base to anchor down the rhythm. It's also quite easy to tell the difference between bass-type instruments with the DT880 such as these analog synth effects, as it provides a high amount of texture that's very palpable. It's also very good at making bass sound tactile but ends up sucking the power out of the mid-bass a bit. Impacts are served with a slam that has just enough punch to keep the beat moving but not much else - not truly alive or energetic or exciting. In fact, it's somewhat on the dull side. It can move with tempo well enough for most intents and purposes, but it simply doesn't convey insistent rhythms with a correspondingly driving, insistent feel.
Indeed, the low-frequency response of the DT880 is much more geared towards texture and weight than booms, slams, and raw power. Not that it can't boom, it's just distinctly non-exciting in that aspect, so it's an excellent kind of response for those looking for bass definition. It simply doesn’t compare to headphones that are certifiably “bassy.” Clearly its forte is giving a clear definition and texture to the instruments that reside in this region, which include kick drums (particularly noticeable on Massive Attack's "Teardrop"), bass guitars, acoustic/electric bass, double-bass, bowed bass - nearly any kind of bass instrument. Drums too - it's actually the kind of bass response that works really well for electronic drum 'n bass, as it gives an excellent heavy-handed weight to the simultaneous drum patterns and bass lines, making sure the former sounds cavernous and the latter throbbing and pulsating. In fact, it does a great rendition of Massive Attack's "Inertia Creeps" that has to be heard to be believed.
Overall, the 2005/06 DT880 is a fine performer. It's more of a specialist headphone than a jack of all trades and should please those who crave detail, texture, soundstage and a neutral midrange. Particularly if you have a tube or hybrid amp. It's a good value at $300 (and can easily found for much less – ed.) and makes for a strong competitor. Other headphones in its range may beat it in certain aspects of sound quality such as bass extension, mid-bass slam, mid-range liveliness, soundstage, or transient response, but its treble response and level of detail is simply unmatched at this price.