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Sennheiser HD 600 Open Back Professional Headphone
- Lightweight aluminum voice coils ensure excellent transient response
- Neodymium ferrous magnets maintain optimum sensitivity and excellent dynamics
- Sophisticated design, elegantly finished in black and gray
- High-quality open metal-mesh earpiece covers
- Detachable, Kevlar-reinforced oxygen-free-copper cable with very low handling noise
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|Item Dimensions||0.39 x 0.39 x 0.39 in||10 x 12.4 x 4.33 in||5 x 8 x 10 in||7.83 x 4.45 x 8.35 in||0.39 x 0.39 x 0.39 in||5 x 11 x 88 in|
|Item Weight||0.57 lb||0.57 lb||0.9 lb||1.8 lbs||—||1.1 lbs|
|Additional Features||lightweight||lightweight||tangle-free-cord||lightweight||Free Pop Socket||lightweight|
Sound-wise, when others settle for hamburger, do you demand filet mignon? You should never have to compromise when it comes to tracking, monitoring, mixing, and listening in general. That's why Sennheiser makes the choicest cut of headphones you're going to encounter: the HD 600. These super-accurate open-back 'phones are also ultra-comfortable, so you can wear them over long listening sessions. You get quality in every component, from the magnets and voice coils to the comfy headband and the Kevlar-reinforced detachable cable. If you're hungry for premium sound, these 'phones are sure to satisfy!
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Let me first attempt to burnish my credibility. I've had my HD600s for a few months. I'm not Steve Guttenberg and I haven't heard every system on earth. I have installed a number of 4-figure 7.1 systems, designed and installed my own room correction, and annoyed the Magnolia people at Best Buy by spending way too long running my own demo material through 5-figure Martin Logan electrostats. Also, I didn't spend my youth at KISS concerts, so at least for now, I'm not deaf.
Some cans I've owned or still own:
Grado SR80 (open, dynamic, $100)
Sony MDR-7506 (closed, dynamic, $100)
Oppo PM3 (closed, orthodynamic, $400)
Hifiman 400i (open, orthodynamic, $500)
I compared all of them back to back with these HD600s for many hours through a huge variety of well-recorded material, in all cases with an O2/ODAC. This latter component has ruler-flat response and zero audible distortion; I'm not messing with the output with anything that might favor one can at the expense of another.
My short take: start with these HD600s. Mixing, pleasure listening, whatever; if your environment allows for open cans, start here. Nothing cheaper is a more complete product in aggregate. You can spend more and get improvements in some areas, but almost always with commensurate disadvantages elsewhere. Plenty of folks with $1500 HD800s keep their HD600s anyway for when they tire of the pointed treble of that otherwise stellar can. Orthodynamics and electrostats can top them in the midrange and highs, but often lose on bass impact.
Start with the HD600s so you can find out what you like. Because it's been around for 20 years as an audiophile benchmark that everyone's heard, you can find endless measurements and comparisons. A sentence that starts with, "I like my HD600s except for ..." is likely to bear more fruit than any other reference.
That in mind, let's talk about how they're designed and how they compare with the others above.
OPEN VS. CLOSED:
Headphones are just small speakers. With any speaker, you only want to hear one side. The other side makes the same noise at the same volume, but reversed in polarity. If you could magically direct both sides at each other, they'd cancel out. (This is incidentally why it's important not to wire a channel backwards in your home stereo: weird frequency nulls ensue. Desirable nulls, perhaps, if you're inverting a mic feed to make noise-canceling cans.) We therefore need to do something with the flipped signal so it won't pollute the primary.
Closed cans (and conventional box speakers) cover the back of the driver with baffling material to absorb the sound energy. While this approach doesn't want for accuracy or frequency response, it does tend to make the listening space sound smaller. Open headphones (and "infinite baffle" speakers) solve the baffling problem by not solving it; they just vent the back of the speaker into a huge space. Great for acoustics (no need to account for backpressure and the like), but at the cost of treating the missionary one seat over to your collection of Eazy-E.
Sennheiser assumes you're listening at home with this can, so they've opted for an open design.
These are not fashion or luxury headphones. The're light and plasticky with a marbled gloss finish that must have been avant garde in 1998. While I've heard good things about the long-term durability of the ear pads, overall quality (box included) seems little better than the pair of HyperX cans I just bought for $60. That middling impression was reinforced a few weeks after purchase when I started getting intermittent cutouts in one channel.
Sennheiser supposedly solved this problem eons ago. Their warranty department was responsive, but wanted me to send back the old cable before they'd ship me a new one. (Counterpoint: Logitech's repeatedly sent me replacement Anywhere MX mice with little more than a request and a serial number.) That wasn't worth the hassle. I bought an aftermarket version on the big auction site for $15 that's been reliable for months.
SOUND AND COMFORT:
Comfort is excellent. I have a big head and big ears. There's a lot of compression and I had to stretch the band a bit. After that, low weight and plush cups that actually fit around my ears make them easy to forget. The SR80 are on-ear and uncomfortable, the PM3 are on-ear (for me) and very uncomfortable, the 7506 are on-ear and equally comfortable (because they have no clamping pressure), and the 400i are over-ear and equally comfortable.
Treble is very good. Clean, not strident, and neutral or very slightly forward. On par or better than the 400i for most material. The PM3 is noticeably recessed, but otherwise excellent. The 7506 has a somewhat forward mix with at least one frequency peak that can make it sound thin. The SR80 is quite sharp and tiring with trumpets, violins, and so on. This same treble overemphasis can add life to otherwise dull recordings.
Midrange is excellent. The 7506 sounds fairly good, but a bit "fake" and radio-ish back-to-back with the others. The SR80 has a large emphasis here suited to solo vocals, but becomes fatiguing quickly on any recording with more than a few things going on, particularly modern rock or pop. The 400i is stellar. The PM3 is almost as stellar, though ever-so-slightly colored. The HD600 has a very subtle, pleasing coloration I didn't catch until I equalized it. Detail resolution is slightly behind the orthos.
Bass is very good. Both orthos play a little deeper and with better definition, but lack the HD600's "punch." The 7506 is decent here, though not terribly precise. The SR-80 might as well not have bass at all. There's a definite argument for the PM3; I might even prefer that one because, like all good orthos and unlike conventional dynamics, there's less distortion at low frequencies. Very pure, distinct tones.
My best description of the HD600 is "euphonic." There's nothing wrong with the sound. It doesn't sparkle or pound or whatever wine-review description accompanies cans that try too hard. It's the kind of sound that makes you wonder where the last three hours went, the kind that can make some pieces sound almost distressingly beautiful.
FILES AND DACS:
You can't talk about an output device without a parallel discussion of the signal chain. That includes your audio file, a DAC, and an amp.
The importance of file format is overrated. No one's ever been able to reliably tell the difference between 44 KHz / 16-bit CD "Redbook" audio and any ostensibly better (e.g., SACD, DVD-A) digital format. Surround sound or the limited dynamic range of analog records might be pleasing to some folks, but for pure 2-channel listening, there's no point chasing anything better than a CD.
In fact, even lossy compression may suffice. Much of the vitriol directed at lossy file formats stems from bad encoders. If you converted your CDs to low-bitrate MP3 with whatever terrible encoder we had fifteen years ago (et tu, Xing?), you'll probably catch some noises you won't like in some material (e.g., a subtle warble in the ring of a cymbal). But modern 256 Kb/s AAC (Apple's preferred format) or 320 Kb/s MP3 encoded in the last five years? The confluence of factors necessary to be able to distinguish it from the original source (trained listener, good hearing, great gear, isolated sound, repeated listening, looking for that specific flaw) is so rare as to be irrelevant.
DACs (digital to analog converters) take your MP3, FLAC, MP4, or whatever digital source and transform it to an analog signal that can be amplified. They're not that complicated; this conversion is very much a solved problem. Or would be if not for the lack of a line-out to skip the amplifier stage in most audio devices, the tendency to bury the poor DAC among other noisy components (read: every motherboard ever), or design priorities that favor subjective impressions over measurements (defensible with an amp, less a DAC). Still, the audible difference between a mediocre DAC and an average one is modest, and between average and great, only slight. If you want a standalone DAC anyway, consider jumping straight to the $125 price range for an ODAC or JDS OL DAC. Both measure well enough never to need upgrading.
Amps have one chief purpose: make the cans play loud enough. Your laptop, phone, iPod, and sound card all have amps already. Whether any particular amp/headphone combination plays loud depends on the sensitivity (dB/mW) of the headphones, their "ohm" rating (their input impedance; the electrical equivalent of backpressure), and how much power the amp can output at that ohm rating. Cans with low impedance (< 50 ohms) and high sensitivity (100+ dB/mW) are easy to drive. You can push them to deafening volumes from most any device. Higher impedance cans like the HD600, not so much. They need more power. They need an external amp, whether portable and battery-powered or a metal box at home.
Just for kicks, let's do some math to prove the point. Loudness is all about decibels. Deafening is 120 dB, loud is 90 dB, and libraries are 40 dB. On this scale, things sound twice as loud every +10 dB, but every +3 dB needs double the power. You probably want to be able to hit at least 110 dB for transients. Maybe 115 dB if you don't like your spouse and never want to hear them again.
The iPhone 6 has pretty typical power output for a portable:
Driving 15 ohms: 45 mW
Driving 30 ohms: 25 mW
Driving 300 ohms: 3 mW
The scale is linear: cut the ohm load in half and (in physics land with spherical cows and amps that don't run out of current or voltage) you double the wattage. These HD600s are 300ish ohms with sensitivity around 97 dB/mW. The iPhone manages 3 mW for a load like this, so we're looking at maybe 101 dB max. Weak sauce, particularly since that's the loudest possible volume and the average volume for most recordings (that aren't Metallica) will be quite a lot lower. (If you raise the average levels with a maxed-out amp, the peaks won't get any louder, but they will clip and distort.) Compare Oppo's PM3: that one does 101 dB/mW with impedance around 30 ohms. With 25 mW from the iPhone, we end up at 115 dB; much more potent. You'd need 63 mW at 300 ohms (about 25 times as much power) to get the same volume from the HD600. (See my comment on 7/12/17 for the calculations.)
After power, the amp's next challenge is to not ruin frequency response. That's hard for one big reason: the impedance of dynamic headphones (all of them unless labeled orthodynamic or electrostatic) changes with frequency. It might be 200 ohms at this frequency and 400 ohms at another. If the amp's output impedance is zero, this shift in headphone impedance doesn't matter. If it's more than zero, the voltage sent to the cans (and by implication how loud they are at that frequency) will change over the frequency range. Whatever response curve Sennheiser had in mind ("Ve shall haf 14% less zeebilance"), high output impedance can result in something very different. This is why it's hard to take subjective opinions seriously if you don't know how the headphones were driven.
There's another benefit to low output impedance: better bass control. Speakers tend to get sloppy and distort at frequencies near their resonance peaks. That manifests as a muddy, definition-smothering bass hump. The best way to prevent this distortion (assuming you want to; some people actually like it) is with electrical damping, the ability of the amp to electrically resist unwanted movement (much like it's hard to spin a motor if you've shorted the power terminals). To keep bass distortion and frequency response changes inaudible, the amp's impedance needs to be, if not zero, at least 8 times less than the headphone impedance. A few inexpensive devices manage this 'damping factor' of 8 with just about every can (e.g., the original Sansa Clip+ that measures 1 ohm), though not many (the various iPhones tend to be 5-10 ohms).
Everything else about amps starts to get subjective. To me, a perfect amp has zero distortion. To the folks buying tube amps, distortion is the whole point. Same thing with deviations to the frequency response curve; best-case, it's flat over the entire range, but if your headphones have a V-shaped response curve to boost bass and treble, an amp that rolls both ends will make them an easier listen over the long term. Many tube amps attenuate the high end; since the classic "audiophile" curve has strong treble to emphasize detail, softening that treble peak quite often sounds better.
Anyway, long story short, if the open design of these HD600s didn't already to consign them to home use, their high impedance probably will unless you want to supplement your traveling kit with something like a Fiio E07K. Schitt's Magni and JDS's Objective2 and EL Amp are all very strong choices for a setup tethered to an outlet.
They don't matter. Buy whatever you want.
The only electrical characteristic we care about is impedance. Thicker cables have less, thinner cables have more. Provided the combined impedance of the amp and the cable doesn't result in a damping factor below 8, it doesn’t matter if the cable can tow a boat or floats in a breeze. An improvement in impedance you can’t hear isn’t an improvement.
Let's evaluate the stock HD600 cable, a 9-foot pair of skinny 30ish-gauge wires Sennheiser hasn't touched in twenty years. For that length and gauge, we can calculate an impedance of about 0.8 ohms, barely a rounding error relative to the 300+ ohm impedance of the headphones. A typical 10-ohm amp paired with the HD600s has a damping factor of 30. Add the cable and it's 300/10.8, or 28. The difference in sound wouldn't even be measurable.
Output volume is likewise unchanged. The power reaching the drivers is 300/300.8, or about 99.7%. It’d take a 20% loss to drop the volume by a single decibel. Run the same weedy cable to a 4-ohm living room speaker and you’d lose 17% of the amp's power and reduce the collective damping factor to 5, best case. In a room bedecked with acoustic panels, you might just detect a loss in fidelity. In an untreated room, the cable would be the least of your worries.
Better cables do tend to have more durable interconnects, though they won't sound better unless the old ones were corroded. Neither will balanced cables. Their claim to fame is a reduction in channel crosstalk, but that benefit is marginal for high-impedance cans and further obscured by the even stereo mix of most material.
HD600 vs. HD650:
The HD600 is one of the most neutral headphones available. Everyone says that about speakers they're used to that don't have glaring response anomalies (and sometimes even if they do), but it's true here: the correction to flatten the HD600's frequency curve is minimal. Music tends to be mastered with a neutral output device in mind; if your hearing isn't unusual, neutral cans are likely to sound good over the broadest cross-section of material. Inner Fidelity's response plot of the HD600 might as well be a genre reference.
The HD650 is the same experience less some treble. It's constructed almost identically to the HD600; the $100 price difference has nothing to do with quality. Rolling the treble lends a "warmer" and slightly less detailed sound that'll flatter music mastered "hot" (with compressed dynamic range to make everything sound loud) or with an excessive treble bias. The HD650 also won't draw quite as much attention to themselves. Whether that's better is personal preference. The HD700 and HD800 take the opposite approach: you're getting detail whether you want it or not.
Not all detail is the same. Detail comes from boosted treble or better drivers. Lesser cans favor treble. Bumping the high range sounds clear and vivid on first listen, but quickly becomes tiring. (Bose speaker demos are notorious for relying on this effect.) Better cans opt for more powerful, higher-impedance, lower-distortion drivers (or different technologies entirely as with electrostats) so intrinsically revealing that the manufacturer can use a more relaxed tone curve. The most detailed dynamic cans (i.e., the HD800) have only a mild treble bump (albeit marred by an unfortunate 6K peak). Less, even, than the HD700, which makes do with a less sophisticated driver. It's unsurprising, then, that reviewers tend to find the HD700 a little harsh on direct comparison.
You could approximate the HD650's tone curve by plugging the HD600 into tubes, but if that's really what you want, there's a better way.
Here we enter controversy. Audiophile purists believe in maintaining the integrity of the signal from recording to output. 24-bit audio, SACD, fancy cables, and Class A furnace amps are not out of place in this crowd. I respect the motivations for that view, but I've abandoned it with the HD600 for the better. We've had enormous advances in signal processing over the last twenty years. The HD600 is a mechanical device. It doesn't, and can't, have a perfectly flat frequency response. The cups and driver enclosure impact the sound too much, even if the driver itself could be made perfect, which it can't.
But if we measure the output curve, we can recreate any frequency response we want by digitally modifying the input. This is DSP: digital signal processing. The software equalizer in iTunes is a basic DSP, as is Autotune and every "enhance" button you've ever seen in a music player. The processing is almost never "free" (in the sense that it'll only have positive effects), but the benefits can vastly outweigh the downsides.
To jump straight to the point, a company called Sonarworks has measured and corrected the HD600. The plugin to apply the correction is about $70, and in addition to making the HD600 a legitimate tool for mastering, it’ll correct any perception that the HD600 is ‘bass-light.’ Bass impact sounds speaker-like through it. The only corollary requirement is a VST-supporting player like J-River Media Jukebox or any of a dozen VST hosts (e.g., Audio Hijack, Pedalboard2). If you don't like the result, you can emulate a variety of other headphones. Grado GS1000? Sure. HD650? Yep. I hate spending money on things that aren't hardware, but in this case, I'm sold.
It gets better. After you've installed that, try Wave Arts Panorama5. It's a very powerful binaural emulator that'll take recordings out of your head and put the singer in front of you. Real binaural recordings use a dummy head with physical ears to create positioning cues that can sound wildly more realistic. Panorama (and free, albeit much inferior alternatives like 4Front and Psypan) attempt the same with math. Done well and matched to your ears, it can leave you agog. ("Why is my neighbor pounding on the ceiling? Oh. Wait.") Likewise a program (aptly) called "Out of Your Head," which is expensive because the author measured a bunch of high-dollar audio setups. Want your HD600s to sound (exactly) like a movie theater? That's now a thing.
To wrap this novel: definitely try the HD600s. They're often on sale in the low $200s and there isn't a more complete product at that price. For $300 even, if you don't want to bother with an amp, consider the Hifiman 400S. While I preferred the Senns over the 400i, a number of folks rate the 400S slightly better than both despite the price gap. Oppo's PM3 remain a terrific choice if you're on the go, have small ears, and don't want to annoy everyone. Truly though, you can't go wrong with any of them.
The verdict? It's almost too close to call, but for my preferences the 650 is the better headphone. The two have been compared to death online, but if you have the capacity to think for yourself, audio review sites and forums are usually an unsavory if fascinating combination of shilling, self-justification, and "follow the leader" parroting of received opinions. Many self-proclaimed "audiophiles" have strong opinions about equipment they've never actually heard, which I can't accept.
Given that, I decided the only way to compare the two headphones honestly was to listen to both myself for hours, going back and forth on a wide variety of recordings. The difference between a good recording and a bad recording dwarfs the difference between lossy and lossless, and the HD600 (more so than the HD650) may end up changing your taste in music because it makes good recordings sound SO GOOD and bad recordings sound SO BAD. In other words, it reveals the "truth" of the recording, and sometimes the truth hurts—it's really hard to enjoy The Killers now.
The fact is that the 600 and 650 are ultimately more alike than different, and the popular insistence that they sound completely different has more to do with what Freud called "the narcissism of small differences" than the headphones themselves. If you Google some variation on "HD650 vs HD600," you'll hear over and over that the 650 is "bassier" or "darker." Not really. There's actually very little difference across this parameter. Piano music presents an exception, but this is rarely what people think of as a bassy genre.
There are two significant differences. The first is soundstage. The HD650's soundstage is wider, but that doesn't mean it can make a cramped recording sound airy. The HD600's soundstage is more intimate; there's less space between left and right channels, but it's not a huge difference, and I could see people preferring (or at least not minding) the HD600's tighter spacing.
The most striking difference between the two headphones is in what I'd call "smoothness." The best analogy I can think of comes from digital photography. As an image sensor increases its sensitivity, it also increases its noise because you can't amplify a signal without also amplifying noise. There are two rival philosophies for dealing with noise: leave it as "grain" or smooth it out. Grain has its devotees, and the advantage of grain is that it preserves fine detail. The disadvantage is that past a certain point it becomes a distraction. The advantage of smoothness, meanwhile, is that it looks superficially nicer. The disadvantage is that when you look closely you won't see all the fine details. Like all things, it's a continuum of compromise. The 600 is the headphone to get if you value detail at the cost of an occasionally unpleasant grainy and even metallic quality to the sound. The 650 is the one to get if you care more about music than sound and don't care if your headphones sand down the sharp edges of your music a bit.
Going back and forth between the two, it quickly becomes clear that the 650 is the stronger all-around performer: it sounds nicer on more recordings and across more genres. The 600, meanwhile, is the champion of a particular niche: good recordings with lots of micro detail. Want to be able to count how many times the skin of a drum reverberates after it's struck? Want to hear such fine vocal gradations you'll know how a singer felt during recording? The 600 is for you.
Make no mistake: at its best, the 600 produces the most astonishingly detailed sound I've ever heard. Unfortunately, at its worst it sounds grainy, jumbled, and not particularly musical. I'm sorry to report that piano music sounds particularly off on the 600: low frequencies disappear and take the fullness of the keys with them. Vocals can sound oddly recessed, even far away. In general, the 600 seems to fare better with female vocals than male ones, and with strings over pianos. It's absolutely glorious for acoustic guitar, but then, so is the 650.
The 650's great advantage lies in its ability to bring out vocals like a spotlight. They stand out so clearly and powerfully from the instrumentation that you'll feel like you're hearing your favorite songs for the first time. The effect is really quite incredible: it's like there's a special sonic space reserved for vocals and unpolluted by other sounds. Based on Sennheiser's own specs, the 650 has lower distortion than the 600 and it's clearly a more refined driver unit. Whatever the technical reason, the 650's background is pitch black: sounds rise from and fall back into a sea of silence. Be forewarned: a well-recorded vocal track through the 650 may bring tears to your eyes, and that's why I kept the 650 and returned the 600.
Finally, let's talk about measurements. While there's a valid SUBJECTIVE argument for preferring the sound of the 600, the 650 has an objectively better driver that improves on its predecessor in every way: higher sensitivity, lower distortion, and better power handling. Here are the figures straight from Sennheiser's manuals, which you can find for yourself on the product pages for both headphones at bhphotovideo[dot]com. The terminology used isn't consistent from one manual to the other, but the parameters in question are the same. I've noted these variations where applicable.
Frequency response (-10db): 12 – 38,000 Hz (HD600), 10 – 39,500 Hz (HD650)
Impedance: 300 ohms (same for both)
Sensitivity/"Loudness" (Sennheiser also calls this "Sound pressure level at 1 kHz"): 97 dB (HD600), 103 dB (HD650)
Load rating (Sennheiser also calls this "Long-term max. input power"): 0.2W aka 200mW (HD600), 500mW (HD650)
THD (Total Harmonic Distortion): ≤0.1% (HD600), ≤0.05% (HD650)
In short, the HD650 will get louder than the 600 because it has higher sensitivity at the same resistance. The fact that it can handle almost twice as much INPUT power is a positive, not a negative; if you turned a decent amp ALL THE WAY UP with the HD600 connected, you could damage or even destroy the drivers. The 650 has enough headroom for more than twice as much input power, but there's little point in driving your headphones loud enough for permanent hearing loss.
At the end of the day, headphone preference, like any preference, is primarily subjective, and I can't seriously imagine anyone being unhappy with the HD600.
A few things worth mentioning: if you do not have an amp, you'll have to move on to other options. These run at 300OHM, and will sound terrible if plugged into a casual system or MP3 player. The open back design leaks a lot of sound as well; to the point where I sometimes use the headphones as speakers when I'm too lazy to turn on my monitors. Be aware that whatever you're listening to will be audible to everyone in the room. These are hardly cons though, as these are made strictly for studio/hifi use.