POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 16
as reviewed by Ed Kobesky
There's something about headphone listening that makes me feel like a kid again. Maybe it's the excitement of discovery. With a good pair of cans, I always discover new details in my favorite music. It could also be that headphones are like a tree house—a musical hideaway that's mine and mine alone. It certainly doesn't hurt that a great set of headphones barely dents my audio allowance.
When Beyerdynamic recently released their DT880 headphones, I was intrigued. They're priced at less than $260, yet the good folks at HeadRoom (www.headphone.com) claim they're "maybe the best there is, period." The packaging certainly befits a champion, with a classy aluminum case that probably adds a few bucks to the price. No matter. It's quite useful for protecting your treasured cans from being stepped on (by kids), peed on (by pets) or chewed on (by either).
As for the styling, it's a matter of taste. I prefer the DT880s' all-business design to the Buck Rogers look popular with the chain store brands. One thing's for sure: These are extremely well built and well-designed cans that give nothing away to the top Sennheiser models in comfort, adjustability, or serviceability. The headband didn't hold its adjustments as tightly as my Sennheiser HD580s, and the ear cups tended to apply unequal pressure near the tops unless I fiddled with them, but that's about all.
By the time you read this, HeadRoom will be shipping the DT880s with their optional Cardas cable upgrade. I chose to review them with the stock cable, in conjunction with HeadRoom's Little headphone amp equipped with the Premium Module ($459). Alone or together, these pieces strike me as outstanding values. In fact, you could buy both, add a Sony SACD changer for $150 plus $50 for a decent interconnect, and still come in at under $1000. That's a lot of music for relatively little money.
Of course, a bargain isn't really a bargain if you don't use it, and one reason people don't use headphones is that they can be uncomfortable. Beyer has that angle covered, with soft velvet ear cushions and a headband that's snug but not vise-like. Wearing them for hours was anything but annoying. At times, I'd forget about them (like the time I stood up and started to walk away, at which point the DT880s' expandable cord provided a gentle tug to warn me that I was about to drag the amp and source into the kitchen with me).
Day in and day out, the DT880s proved to be extremely inviting, both sonically and physically. They worked well with every source and amp combination I tried. Despite warnings to the contrary, I didn't always need a headphone amp to enjoy them. Although my Sony Discman and Apple iMac were too weak to power them, they were satisfyingly musical when driven by the headphone jacks on my Denon DRA-395 stereo receiver and NAD 3400 integrated amp. Even my Dell Dimenson 4300S did a fair job at times, the lousy sound card notwithstanding. Don't let not owning a headphone amp stop you from considering these. You can always buy one later, and you won't have to upgrade your headphones when you do.
The Little headphone amp (see the review at http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue5/headroommax.htm), which includes HeadRoom's proprietary crossfeed signal processing circuit, deserves special mention. Without the processing engaged, this cute, well-built little amp noticeably extended the performance of the Beyers (and, for that matter, every other set of headphones I plugged into it). Transients were slightly quicker, the dynamics improved, the trailing edges of notes were better defined, the bass was tighter, and the highs were less grainy. It wasn't a night-and-day difference, but certainly worthwhile. More exceptional was how things improved when I switched the processor on. It is designed to eliminate the "blobs-in-your-head" effect of headphone listening (as HeadRoom calls it), and it does a remarkable job. Not only does it reduce listener fatigue, but it effectively approximates a soundstage without sounding artificial or significantly reducing detail. Many people will despise it. I loved it.
I usually listened to the DT880s powered by the Little, which in turn was fed by either an NAD C521i CD player or a Denon DVD-900. After some experimentation, the first thing I noticed was that these combos weren't particularly fussy about interconnects. Linked with a $100 cable or a $20 cheapie, the sound was different, but not conspicuously better or worse. I can't say the same about my Grado headphone extension cable, which dulled the sound. I avoided it as much as possible, preferring to use a longer interconnect to bring the Little closer.
Although you don't need a headphone amp to enjoy the DT880s, HeadRoom cautioned that they'd be more difficult to drive than my Sennheisers, and indeed they were. Difficult passages sometimes became grainy and congested, even with the Little amp. When really stressed, the duo sounded flat and somewhat crude, with annoyingly thuddy bass despite the fact that I never turned the volume much past ten o'clock. (It is worth mentioning that the Little powered my Sennheisers with far greater ease.)
Minor caveats aside, the DT880s were strikingly fast and airy. They achieved their appealing lightness without sacrificing authority or bass extension, and that's a pretty neat trick. They could be somewhat unforgiving, laying bare occasional digital clipping on the Beach Boys' Smiley Smile (Capitol 29635). They weren't as easy to listen to as my Sennheisers in the short term, but during long sessions I found them less tiring because their more forward presentation meant that I didn't have to listen quite as hard. These are great ‘phones when you want to kick back and relax, but not zone out.
Speaking of the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson's long-awaited Smile (Nonesuch 79846-2) sounded terrific on the DT880/Little duo, with appropriate warmth and richness. Spine, the new disc from They Might Be Giants (Zoe 431041), treads a fine line between TMBG's signature synth pop and quirky, Fountains of Wayne-style modern rock. Throughout the disc's sixteen tracks, the DT880s maintained an impressive amount of separation between the synths and the live instruments. When I played the disc on my Sony Professional MDR-7506 headphones, the low notes were muddled and the strings were frequently shoved into the background.
The DT880s' speed and detail were excellent, with little harshness or glare. They will surely be capable of even smoother performance combined with a higher-resolution disc player and amp. (HeadRoom did in fact recommend that I use one of their more powerful amps, but I stuck with the combo I'd buy I were spending my own money.) At times, they could sound a bit too big, especially powered by the Little, which though outstanding for the price, sounds slightly one-dimensional. On the Finn Brothers' Everyone Is Here (Nettwerk 30376), the combo seemed to hold a magnifying glass up to the music, bringing the instruments uncomfortably close and slightly bloating the midrange.
On the other hand, live recordings sounded especially inviting. The DT880s did a good job communicating hall ambience on Bill Evans' The Paris Concert (Blue Note 7243 5 28672 6) and Bucky Pizzarelli's Swing Live (Chesky 223). The intimacy of these performances was nicely preserved. I actually preferred listening to these discs with the DT880s than with my ProAc loudspeakers. Classical music fans will no doubt want to audition these. Their ability to render delicacy and bombast equally well makes them a stellar choice. On The Film Music of John Williams (Telarc 60433), the scale and color of the tinkling chimes were reproduced perfectly, yet tubas and bass drums retained their visceral impact.
The DT880s were nearly ideal for late-night movie watching. Dialogue was crisp and crystal clear, with sound effects nicely layered and spaced. The Little amp's processor circuit added to my enjoyment. Though it is not intended as a virtual surround generator—the effect is far more subtle than that—I found it far more effective and natural sounding than the SRS TruSurround processing built into my Denon DVD player.
I didn't notice any overt peaks or dips in the DT880s' frequency response, or nasty behavior of any kind, at least none that wouldn't be remedied by spending a bit more on the amp and source. That's probably because the DT880s invite you to listen to music rather than analyze it. There's no doubt in my mind that owners of hyper-expensive headphone amps will appreciate these more than I did. Others will undoubtedly prefer the more laid back and forgiving nature of the high end Sennheisers, as I do, but that's strictly a matter of preference.
What does the little kid in me say about these big Beyers? They're wonderful. I discovered new musical details every time I put them on. They could be a bit forward at times, and they probably deserve better amplification than I was willing to provide, but that's precisely why they're such great headphones to grow up with. They will only get better as your electronics improve. Ed Kobesky