High-End Headphone Hustle
Sennheiser HD800s, Focal Elear, HiFiman XV2. Moving coil or planar? Which is the best set of high-end headphones? I called into Audio Affair in Birmingham to answer those questions, and to hear the differences with my own ears.
As I was to find, every set of headphones has its own sonic character, its own strengths and weaknesses and design quirks which may be loved or loathed equally from person to person.
So join me, won’t you, on my adventures into the world of High-End headphones…
HEADS UP! WHAT’S GOING DOWN?
I conducted my subjective listening tests using Sennheiser’s HDVD800 Headphone amplifier, coupled via USB to a laptop streaming High Definition audio from Tidal. It’s a setup permanently on offer at Audio Affair, and makes headphone listening tests a breeze.
Like any audio engineer, I have a handful of well known tracks I use when shaking down any audio gear; from a multi-kilowatt festival PA rig to a smart phone, there are a few tracks I know inside out.
Today’s listening material was Grace Jones dub classic “I’ve seen that face before”, German Industrial Rockers Rammstein, plus a vintage recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.
After quickly listening through half a dozen sets of cans, I settled on three which really stood out, and deserved in-depth listening…
SENNHEISER HD 800S HEADPHONES
I’ve spent many, many hours with Sennhesier headphones on my head. From the recording studio, to the DJ booth, to the living room, I’ve not been far from a set of Sennheiser headphones. It didn’t come as a great surprise therefore, that the Sennhesier HD800s headphones featured in my shortlist. A perennial favourite in the sales figures for high-end headphones, the HD800s is pretty much the benchmark for this price bracket. Taking a listen to them revealed why.
Of all three headphones here, it’s the Sennheisers which really put themselves across as the ‘engineers’ headphones. Their overwhelming character is one of ruthless detail, with a classically Teutonic high-mid ‘sizzle’ – the calling card of German audio for decades.
The Hi-Hats and percussion on the Grace Jones track felt exciting, whilst Rammstein’s guitars snarled with menace. Tellingly, the Sennheisers revealed the background noise of the vintage Recording of the 1812 in a way the other three didn’t, so much so I instantly knew the recording format used! With that said – I found the HD800s headphones to be the least comfy of the headphones here (although they were far from uncomfortable). Whilst revealing, that all pervading detail could become fatiguing over long listening periods.
FOCAL ELEAR HEADPHONES
The Focal Elear Headphones represent great value for money in this company, being £3-400 less than the other headphones in this round up. Certainly, one wouldn’t know from a cursory glance; build quality is excellent, they fit on the head perfectly and are very comfy.
Listening back to back with the Sennheiser HD800s, I found the Focal Elear to have a smoother, more subdued high end, which never became alarming or intrusive with volume. They also seemed to have a slightly ‘scooped’ mid-range with a big low-end. This flattered the dub stylings of Grace Jones, but left the bombast of Rammstein and the 1812 sounding a little flat for my liking. Indeed transients felt rather more compressed and blurred than the other two headphones here.
With all of that said though – the Focal Elears are still superb headphones. If you’re a lover of low end and like your music laid back and smooth these might just be the cans for you.
The HiFiMAN Edition X v2 headphones are unique in this company, as they’re the only pair of planar headphones here. Planar headphones, in simple terms, use a flat diaphragm in a magnetic field as opposed to the moving coil and cone principle behind the other headphones here.
Before today, I’d never heard planar headphones, and I must say the experience was deeply enjoyable. The overall presentation was one of immense balance. The quoted frequency response backs this up with an incredible bandwidth of 5hz-50kHz! The low mass of the planar diaphragm I’m sure contributed to the XV2’s lively, dynamic sound – which had a superb transient response.
Both physically and sonically, the XV2’s were hugely comfortable. Their light weight and headband design, meant I rather forgot I had them on my head. The sound was also completely fatigue free; much like a pair of vintage, Lowther, horn loudspeakers I own, I could listen to these for hours without feeling any form of stress or discomfort.
YOU PAYS YOUR MONEY YOU TAKES YOUR CHOICE
Had I have been in the market for a pair of headphones today – it would have been a tough choice. The whole experience proved how important it is to audition headphones, personally, as every pair had unique qualities. What was right for me, might not be for you.
The Focal Elear seemed great value, and had a seductive low end. They were a great match for the Grace Jones album, and if you listen to bass heavy music or enjoy a relaxed, warm, smooth presentation, these could be the cans for you. That lack of visceral dynamic impact just spoiled things a little for me, so in this company they came third.
In second place, and this took some soul searching, are the Sennheiser HD800s. Every inch of my engineering background cried out for me to choose these in first place. I mean, they’re Sennhesiers! They’re the Porsche 911 of headphones – incredibly well engineered and (I don’t say this lightly) the most detailed headphones I’ve ever heard. That ruthless detail though, I just feel might get a little fatiguing for those moments of relaxation. Unsurprisingly though – I’ve never heard Rammstein sound so good!
If I was putting my money down, today, I’d have struggled not to leave without the HiFi Man XV2’s. They were so aesthetically pleasing, so comfortable, so balanced, so dynamic and so open and natural.
It’s a tough call. For critical monitoring situations, where I wanted a microscopic view into a mix, I think the Sennheiser HD800s would edge out. For sheer musical pleasure though, and effortless listening, I couldn’t fault the HiFI Man XV2’s.