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Forum Home > Headphones > Current flagships (HD800, T1, LCD2/3) - Are they worth it?

Amine Slimani
Site Owner
Posts: 162

In order to not derail Kevin’s thread on his AKG journey, I decided to start a new thread to address an issue he raised:

« I don't find the most recent flagship models from Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic and the like as absolutely superior to the last generation of flagships. For instance, I don't find the Beyer T1 to pull off sound density as well as the HD650. The HD800 I find to have flaky build quality and fit. I also find the midrange recessed and sorely lacking. »


Obviously, everyone’s hearing is different and everyone has different value ratings; however, I thought it could be interesting to share my standing on the subject and also discuss the matter with other members in a separate thread.


First, I have to say that it is relatively difficult to justify a $1000+ price tag on the current line models when you can have already decent (and sometimes) speakers for around the same amount (or sometimes less): Magnepan MMG, B&W 685, Focal 807, Nola Boxer… In absolute terms, it is hard to explain why the new reference models price have gone so high, so quickly in comparison with the HD650, K701, DT880 generation for example.
One of the great strengths of the HD650s and K701s is to give an excellent “reference” sound for much less than you would need to spend on a speaker system and room treatment. Because there are no room interactions to worry about, you can get a pretty decent and repeatable sound quality from those headphones regardless of where you are. Of course, an excellent headphone amp and an accurate source can improve things but it is far easier to get a “reference” sound on a $1000 budget (including source and amplifiers) with a HD650 and K701 than it is with any speaker that I know of.

Also, a few years ago, the HD6x0 and the K701 were considered near state of the art, so what is the justification or role of the current flagships?


As an owner of the HD650 which served me very well as a reference for a few years, I was very satisfied with its overall tonal balance (that sounded very speaker-like to my ears), the imaging capabilities, the low level details and the nice bass impact for an open headphone. But, for some reason, despite all its excellent “technicalities”, many of which surpassed $5000+ speakers, I used to be surprised to hear “regular” speakers, such as in movie theaters, convey the liveliness better. I suspected a lack of dynamics for a while but on critical listening but something else, that I couldn’t identify, was at play.


The first time I realized what was missing was when I heard a stock Beyer T1 in my system. The Beyer T1 simply had better rhythmic capabilities. I only listened for the Beyer T1 for a short time but it was obvious that the HD650 lacked speed. It wasn’t a simple matter of frequency response difference, as it is the case with the AKG701 vs. HD650 but rather something entirely different. At the time of the comparison, my system was optimized for the silver cabled HD650 and I actually preferred the tonality and imaging capability of the silver cabled HD650 over the fuzziness of the stock Beyer T1.


Before committing to buying the ALO Beyer T1, I went to listen to different headphones including the HD800 and the Grado GS1000s. The reason I didn’t go with the HD800 was simple: it was far too revealing and I knew I would have to spend a lot in amplification to extract the best from it. The stock HD800 had a great soundstage and was already pretty transparent to the source; the differences between sources were much more apparent on the HD800 than they were on the HD650. Up to this day, I don’t pretend to know how the HD800 really sounds like and I wait to try them with a state of the art source and a decent tubed amp before making up my mind. The Grado GS1000 were far more “musical” on that same set-up than either the HD800 or the HD650.


Given that I couldn’t listen the Beyer T1 nor the HD800 anyway near their full potential (being high resolution devices, the use of high quality cables are pretty much mandatory), I chose the Beyer T1 because I was impressed by its rhythmic capability and because it was supposed to be, in theory at least, less “finicky” with the associated components.


After owning the ALO Beyer T1 for around 2 years, I am still learning new things about how they sound. With an average quality source, the ALO Beyer T1 can sound metallic, lacking tone density, bass anemic and lacking refinement in the top end, among other things. Meanwhile, with the same “average” source, the HD650 can sound very nice with a very rich and “refined” sound.


But the interesting things start appearing when you improve the source (transport and DAC); the Beyer T1 transforms into a different beast, the bass acquires a newly found strong foundation, the soundstage has a tremendous depth and it has a tone density and richness that the HD650 can only dream about. The systematic and pleasing euphonic coloration of the HD650 is replaced with a harmonically richer and more accurate presentation of the Beyer T1.


The difference in raw resolution is also staggering between the two headphones when using a high quality source; when the HD650 is throwing a nice presentation in front of you, the Beyer T1 is simply putting you with the performers – in fact, the presence factor of the Beyer T1 is unlike anything I have experienced with reproduced music (whether be it headphones or speakers).


Compression is also an important differentiating factor here: while the HD650 compresses both the soundstage and dynamics in intense passages, the Beyer T1 is able to preserve the pinpoint imaging and dynamic envelope of individual instruments and performers regardless of the intensity of the passage; in a high quality recording such as the Gladiator OST, you are able to pick up individual positions of instruments throughout the album, even on the most challenging parts.



So what did I learn from my experience with the ALO Beyer T1? First, these new flagships (I am including the HD800 in the mix) are designed for absolute performance and transparency. Because they have so much resolution, they expose ruthlessly the flaws of the upstream components. While headphones such as the HD650 or the AKG701 can scale up quite well with better components, it is mandatory to use the best source and amplification possible with the T1 and HD800. The worst case scenario is to use the Beyer T1 or HD800 with a revealing solid state amp as it can sound pretty horrible even with “good” sources.

If DAC makers were to use the Sennheiser HD800 or the Beyer T1 in their development process, we would have far better sources as they would probably more clearly hear the time distortions created by most fast roll-off/linear phase filters (pre-ringing).



To sum up, I would say that those expecting the current flagships to better the old ones in every single area are right and wrong at the same time. The new flagships are designed with absolute neutrality in mind; obviously they are not perfect, or else they would all sound the same, but far less flawed than the old generation (HD650, K701, DT880). People who have liked those headphones for a specific reason might not necessarily find those “attributes” in the current line models. Moreover, it takes weeks or months to fully realize the potential of the flagships headphones. But once you get accustomed to the transparency of their sound it is hard to go back. To give an idea on how I compare the HD650 against the Beyer T1, the only times I reach for the HD650s nowadays is when I need to do for a review. Otherwise, I use almost exclusively the ALO Beyer T1. And that is from an old fan of the HD650.


Finally, to answer the question “are the current flagships worth it”, I would say that, in my personal opinion, they are indeed worth it for the people willing to spend the necessary time and effort to properly set them up.


Of course, all the above is just a personal opinion, and I would be curious to hear other people opinions on the matter.

--

Everything in Audio is sublte and not worth it - Patrick82

March 5, 2012 at 7:11 AM Flag Quote & Reply

kboe
Moderator
Posts: 148

Good idea for a thread.  Give me some time to mull over your experience and how to put my own in better terms.


So some time has passed...


In better terms...


The new flagships are just that, top tier headphones currently in production. However, I do not believe or hear them to categorically better in all respects, the operative word being “categorically”. Better in some, not so better in others. The HD800 stages like a champ, but it has an under-developed bass and recessed midrange. My K702 some would say has the same faults, fair enough. What the HD800 clearly does better than my reference is resolution. Now the K70x family already excel at detail and resolution, the HD800s taking that aspect of sound to a new level for current production cans. But other faults of Sennheisers flagship make me weary to spend the extra dough for an improvement in only one of several areas.


Instrumental separation is also interesting. Amine reports that his experience shows the Beyer T1 to better delineate between individual instruments durning intense musical passages than his Silver Dream HD650s. My own experience also has something to report. I recently bought a bass heavy pair of the AKG K340. This hybrid electrostatic/dynamic headphone trounces my Cardas K702 in the same department. Now this is a headphone that is over two decades older than AKGs current flagship. More than 20 years of time to improve on this feature of reproduced sound but AKG dropped the ball.


Now with AKGs new parent company of Harmon Kardon, AKG as a serious contender for wolds best may be over, much less true hifi. After all we’re several years into the next cycle of flagships and no response from AKG, not even a whimper.


Of the current flagships the T1 does the best job of progressing sound. Ive had two meets where the room was quiet enough for serious auditions, (small meets of less than 10 people). The T1 is richer harmonically, cast a deeper and wider soundstage than my Cardas K702. So better in some areas, yes. Better overall, maybe, but to what extent. I don’t hear it as a clear step up from one level of headphone to the next.


Take for instance Grados. Ive owned the SR-80, SR-325is and the RS-1. I would categorically put the 325is over the 80, and the RS-1 over the 325is. But I would not put the 325is over the SR-225. Its a 50% price step from the 225 to the 325. Even at this low price point the shrinking performance increase as price increases is already in high gear.


My point is not that the new flagships are not worth their price tags. Quite the opposite. Im a capitalist through and through. What I am saying is that the delta of performance is not great enough for me to fret over just yet, (just like the difference from the Grado SR-225 to the SR-325is). Now maybe that doesn’t make me a true blooded audiophile. After all our whole hobby and passion is about extracting that last drop of performance, (Were on a forum called “Tweak-Fi” for Pete’s sake).


Even now, as I type this I’m listening to my Cardas K702 thinking I would really rather be listening to the K340s. I find their sound more compelling, more holistic and complete than AKGs current cable optimized flagship.


To wrap up, as Amine posted, the current flagships are less flawed than the previous. But not enough of an improvement in my eyes to take the title that absolute next step. Thank God we all have our own ears, or this would be a terribly boring hobby. One amp, one cable, one headphone and one source... I’d rather hum to myself...

--

Happy Tunes,

Kevin

A shared passion for music is a simple way to appreciate the commonality which binds us together as people. That's why the negativity expressed in audiophile forums at times is so grotesque. - Srajan Ebaen

March 5, 2012 at 7:42 AM Flag Quote & Reply

kboe
Moderator
Posts: 148

New thoughts added as of 3/10/12

--

Happy Tunes,

Kevin

A shared passion for music is a simple way to appreciate the commonality which binds us together as people. That's why the negativity expressed in audiophile forums at times is so grotesque. - Srajan Ebaen

March 10, 2012 at 9:32 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Amine Slimani
Site Owner
Posts: 162

Hi Kevin,


Even though we differ somehow in conclusion, you have pointed out perhaps better than I did the reason why I personally consider the current flagships as being "superior", and the reason is Resolution.


The current flagships have far better resolution than the previous models. They can dig very deep into a recording. They are not perfect and each one seem to excel in a specific area with comparison to the others: HD800 in the soundstage as you pointed out, Beyer T1 in the overall balance... Yet there is no can that does it all. I wonder if it is not a good thing after all as it keeps this hobby going.


Regarding value, I am a little bit hesitant on the subject.

On one hand, there are very few areas where you can acquire near SOTA for a little more than a grand. A "top of the line" watch can cost you a lot more than all the headphones combined, and I am not even talking about bigger objects!


On the other hand, we have very well speakers from Magnepan, Triangle... that cost around the price of the current flagships. If it is possible to sell a speaker such as the MMG for $600 (without loosing money) and a 45 pound - 3 way speaker (1 tweeter, 1 medium, 2 boomer units) such as the Triangle Antal EX for €1400, it is hard to explain why do the current flagships cost so much given that the cost of manufacturing must not be that high.


With that being said, every time I listen to a recording that contains a "superior" instrument such a Stradivarius violin or a Steinway Grand Piano and it sounds as beautiful or even better than I ever experienced in "live" events, I start to understand what are these flagship for and what are their true purpose.

Their aim is to extract as much resolution (timber, harmonic structure, microdynamics, details, ...) as possible from the source and give you a good alternative to live music. In fact, given than I never had the pleasure to listen to someone like Glenn Gould playing piano, his Goldberg Variations is the best piano performance I have listened to, period.


Of course, it is a little bit disappointing that it took them so much to improve what might appear so little. Maybe AKG is preparing a headphone that combines the soundstage of the HD800, the imaging of the Beyer T1, the low end reach of the LCD2, the resolution of the HE6 and the speed of the SR009... One can always dream :)


As for the K340, it sounds like an interesting headphone and it is curious that there aren't more "hybrid" designs like these. Maybe using different drivers causes discontinuities in the soundstage? I am just wondering/speculating why didn't pursue that route.

--

Everything in Audio is sublte and not worth it - Patrick82

March 14, 2012 at 5:55 AM Flag Quote & Reply

kboe
Moderator
Posts: 148

Amine,


All good points, and I agree completely. All of the new flagships outclass the older generation on some points and sometimes many. But as you said their not flawless and still have their own signatures, though not as varied as the HD650/DT990/K701 designs.


Do I one day plan to own some of the new flagships? Absolutely! But for now my K340 is really all the headphone my rig can ask for. I almost exclusively listen to the K340 now, it makes the Cardas K702 sound lifeless and a little sleepy. Who’d a thunk!

--

Happy Tunes,

Kevin

A shared passion for music is a simple way to appreciate the commonality which binds us together as people. That's why the negativity expressed in audiophile forums at times is so grotesque. - Srajan Ebaen

March 14, 2012 at 10:13 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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