Buying headphones is always a highly subjective business. No matter how much reading you do around the Internet, something I always do nowadays before buying anything whatsoever, at the end you have to decide what your ears like.
If you are someone like me who has gone through a large number of different headphone models these past 40 years or so, you will probably know that just switching from one brand to another will usually make a world of a difference.
Maybe you have even been totally disappointed by a supposedly superior model when compared to your previous one and asked yourself why you spent all that hard-earned cash.
Try my way.
Define your listening habits
It really all comes down to deciding what your listening habits and what your expectations in regard to sound are before you even start looking. If you don’t do that, you’ll be overwhelmed by opinions, by positive and negative reviews, by invective thrown thoughtlessly around the Net at just about every model that disappointed some customer because he/she expected something else, especially because it is often the dissatisfied customer who, at length, usually lets loose on review sites.
Being an avid reader, I was not at all surprised that just about any current headphone model, no matter what price range, received and continues to receive both tons of accolades as well as an equal number of negative reviews, some of which might make your toenails roll sideways.
After I had narrowed down my list of eligible models to a few, my search culminated in a solid two-day reading bout, studying every snippet I could find on my preferred choices, weighing opinions, tests, review snippets and forum comments.
So, while my old headphones were still serving me nicely, I had plenty of time to consider
- what I wanted
- what my listening habits were and are
- what my hearing deficiencies could possibly be
- what kind of sound I like(d)
- which companies I trust
In short, I considered and actually knew a lot already before I even started looking.
Still, not surprisingly, it wasn’t easy.
My listening profile
- I have several thousand CDs (70 to 80 meters) and probably several hundred LPs (left). I constantly listen to all kinds of music, from classical music to punk rock … and everything in-between. I also constantly switch from one recording to the next, running the whole gamut of what I have. In short, my headphones would have to be “neutral” and “forgiving” enough to make all of it sound good or, at least, decent or adequate. If you have ever switched from a baroque chamber piece featuring the recorder to the Rival Son’s latest album, which was mastered with burning hot needles, you probably know what I mean.
- I like a decent sound stage. That means that if a piano was placed 2/3 to the left in the mix, I want it in that exact spot when I listen to said mix on my headphones.
- I chose my other equipment to reflect my listening habits. Because I listen to so many remasters of older recordings, or to the original releases, many of which do not sound all that good in their original form, I needed equipment that somewhat evens out deficiencies without losing its analytical touch.
- Most importantly, I am 51 years old. I have noticed, and as Trevor Slattery said so fittingly in Iron Man III, “… no two ways about it“, that my hearing isn’t as good anymore as it used to be (neither is my eye sight, by the way). Treble isn’t as accurately perceived anymore; I have lost some of my ability to notice it. THAT was one of the deciding factors when I finally hit that “buy me now” button.
- Although listening to music is my number one past-time activity, at the moment of purchase I was on a (somewhat) limited budget and wanted to keep things at a maximum of 400 to 500 Euro (although I did consider more expensive headphones just to make sure I wouldn’t exclude the one pair that might give me 100%).
- I wanted an “open” rather than a “closed” model. Closed models can be quite a different (an often more analytical) experience but I need “air”, especially because I listen for hours on end. Closed models make me sweat and uncomfortable. It’s really that simple.
- Many pairs of headphones are offered with different Ohm values. I wanted a pair with (middle-of-the-road) 250 Ohm instead of either 600 Ohm (which are difficult to “drive”, depending on what you are connecting them to) or way below 250 (for portable devices).
- I didn’t want to use a dedicated headphone amp (yet). First of all, I think there’s a lot of high fidelity “voodoo” involved when talking about headphone amps and, most importantly, a combination of headphones plus dedicated headphone amp would have busted my budget constraints wide open.
- Last, but not least, I used to be first a loyal “Koss” and then a loyal “Sennheiser” man. Sennheiser were and are known for their, for lack of a better expression, “middle-of-the-road” sound, adding warmth to recordings that don’t have much to speak of and being quite forgiving even with the worst (re)masters. Besides, they are known for their quality headphones, cable trouble not withstanding. Also, one of the best headphones (ages ago) I ever had were a pair of headphones by Koss (we are talking late 70s/early 80s) that shaped my listening experience so massively (yes, headphones can and will condition you, if you want to or not) that it took me years to find a suitable replacement. After my Koss pair I went through at least four Sennheiser models (probably a few more), especially because I also needed a certain sound for my Roland V-Drums set (electronic/digital drums) that requires a whole other set of sound qualities. So, I usually had at least two sets of cans around my house, one for the stereo and PC and one for my digital drums (or power mixer/headphone amp).
In short, my situation might be just a tiny bit more complex than that of other people (but not really, considering the myriad of problems and expectations other people have on their lists). Still, in the end I came up with a set of characteristics I was looking for which I’ll try to summarize as accurately as possible:
- I needed a bit more treble than I had previously had
- I needed a solid sound stage and I needed accuracy
- I needed build quality
- I wanted a pair of headphones from a reliable company
I could write about at least 10 models that ended up on my final list, but I will refrain. 7 models were excluded, often for budgetary reasons (but they are still on my list for an additional future purchase). I also excluded some more “adventurous” choices simply because the companies did not have that reputation yet I was and am looking for (if, for example, things break, I would like to have immediate options and reliable service to fix/replace things before I have to go cold turkey).
When (finally) done, I only had three models left on my formerly mile-long list: A Sennheiser model as well as three (if you count build variations) Beyerdynamic ones. I could write up a steam in regard to eliminating the many other models, but that would exceed the limits of this post. The headphones left on my list fit my listening profile and were within my budget range. All along, my instincts, influenced by opinions published by people on forums that I trust, pushed me towards the model I finally chose.
Important note: Remember please that Sennheiser headphones are known for their mid-centric sound while Beyerdynamic headphones are often chastised for their “bathtub” (smiley face) EQ model that pushes treble and bass while toning down the mids. It’s something you absolutely (!) should take into consideration when deciding on a new pair of headphones from either one of these two companies. As soon as you put on a pair of Sennheisers or Beyerdynamics, especially when comparing them directly in a back-and-forth-scenario, you can hear that difference in sound. Every single time. It is glaringly obvious.
The most budget-oriented pair of headphones on my list, the Beyerdynamic DT-990 (either in the more expensive “Edition” or cheaper “Pro” version) went off my list because this particular model definitely favors a modern and popular approach, especially for those listening to pop and rock music. They accentuate the bass frequencies and give a modern crowd that extra “boom” that elderly listeners just might not appreciate all that much. Jumping from classical to punk, from instrumental to vocal all the time just didn’t seem to be their thing.
There are a myriad of online opinions trying to distinguish the standard (“Edition“) and “Pro” versions of Beyerdynamic‘s DT-990 and, as far as I can ascertain, the difference is really only marginal. The “Pro” version (cheaper) was conceptually designed for studio use and uses a headband system that has a tighter fit (and therefore a different sound). On top of that, I hate those wound cables that are a pain in the neck. I would only take phones with a straight cable into consideration (it’s a personal preference only).
Because we are two in this household, the DT-990 (the more costly “Edition“, not “Pro“) ended up in this very household anyway … and they are excellent headphones for the price with very solid build quality. If you are on a budget, you might want to go for the “Pro” version although I would absolutely recommend the 250-Ohm “Edition” model which, to my ears, is simply better (but comes with a comparatively hefty premium attached for apparently little difference). I have to admit that I have grabbed them several times now to listen to, for example, the aforementioned Rival Son’s CDs which are simply too harsh on the headphones I ended up with for myself.
The Sennheiser HD-650, formerly in my top spot, just didn’t make the cut. They have that Sennheiser sound that I like very much but, surprisingly, they appeared … boring. It is really difficult to explain, because the 650 model is an excellent pair of headphones.
I hate to say it and, to be quite honest, I might still grab a pair when they have reached a lower price range to allow me to give them a few weeks/months of play, but they just didn’t “grab” me. The build quality also didn’t convince me at all. Parts are replaceable but the cable quality and the color-coating did not convince me. I’ve had four Sennheisers with cable problems that invariably cropped up over time and I would hate to have to put up with that again. In the end, like outlined above, the 650 model just didn’t fit my profile anymore. 10 Years ago I might have gone for them straight away. And I still might.
The Beyerdynamic T 90, the model I ended up purchasing, would never have ended up on my list a few years ago. The reason for that is their balancing. Just like the DT-990 model, although the T 90 is (much) more pricey, the T 90 has that Beyerdynamic sound. Reading around the Net I came across that “too bright, too trebly” accusation time and again although, equally often, I had the feeling that people were regurgitating online reviews because they themselves couldn’t put words to what made them dislike the T 90 model. There was an equal number of reviewers and customers that countered that argument and stated that the T 90 model was a much more balanced pair of headphones, much closer to what one might consider “audiophile“.
So, I knew they were (a bit) on the bright side. If you recall my listening profile above, that actually fit my bill. That, aside from the non-detachable cable which used to be a no-go for me, were the two main concerns that were brought forth by just about everyone.
In the end, what drove me towards yet another brand change (from Koss to Sennheiser to Beyerdynamic) were the positive things I had heard / read about the T 90 model:
- accurate soundstage
- when compared to the much pricier Beyerdynamic T5p (a closed pair of headphones), only a negligible difference
- brighter (for example in regard to cymbals and sibilants), yes, but toned-down when compared to other Beyerdynamic headphones
- excellent bass and especially mid-range reproduction
- analytical, detail-rich sound
- somewhat forgiving when listening to mediocre recordings/masterings
- more than good enough without the use of a dedicated headphone amp (tube or not)
- excellent build quality
- renowned company
The asking price was/used to be around 500 Euro. That I didn’t feel like paying, especially because I wasn’t 100% sure that I would get what I was hoping for.
So, after a day of solid research, I opted for buying a “return” pair from a reputed German seller. They gave me the full guarantee and stated that I would be sent a returned pair of headphones that had gone through their detailed quality check. Maybe I was lucky, although online reviews of said seller unanimously list extremely favorable reviews, but what I got was a brand-spanking new pair of Beyerdynamic T 90 for more than 100 Euro cheaper, bringing the price down to what I was willing to pay, smack-dab within my budget.
After a few weeks …
Take what I state below with a grain of salt and remember that buying, getting and breaking-in a new pair of headphones is a highly subjective affair, as stated above.
From the get-go, I was extremely satisfied! The build and design quality is excellent, the sound was (still) a bit on the harsh side, which was to be expected, the cable was a bit stiff and didn’t lend itself to be rolled up constantly. On top of that, the T 90 came with a bag that I would place squarely in the 70s school of design and I thought the adapter was a bit difficult to attach/detach, but … first world problems. Most importantly though, my ears loved what they heard from the get-go.
After years of having read audio test magazines, audiophile ramblings and various accolades for the most esoteric products, I have gotten generally weary of anything that smacks of hi-fi “voodoo“. People rave about $1000 (per inch) cables and the like, but there is one thing I’m quite certain of: headphones have to be broken in. Yes, I am very aware of the fact that the process of “breaking phones in” might just be “getting used to them“, but, esoteric or not, the more I listen to music on the T 90, the better the sound gets. Some of that remaining harshness has started to disappear but, and that I am quite sure of, victims of the “loudness wars” and overly-bright mastering jobs are still not the T 90’s thing. The headphones violently reveal crappy sound – “no two ways about it“, to again phrase it the Trevor Slattery (Iron Man III) way – and they are not as forgiving as has been stated by some customers (who probably didn’t have that many crappy [re]masters to begin with).
Still, in the end, I’m very much enjoying the Beyerdynamic T 90 headphones for what they are, an excellent pair of headphones with a long company history backing up their enjoyable and analytical quality. In the end though, I still might have to opt for a pair of Sennheisers (or like brands) to be able to enjoy those remasters or productions that are just so loud and harsh that they make the little hair that is left on my head decide to vacate the premises.
But that is not the T 90’s fault at all.
It’s the fault of either crappy engineers or, usually, that of artists/musicians forcing their engineers to make whatever they composed sound as crappy as their competitor’s latest release.