Mini Gear Guide: Value-Priced Headphones for Critical Listening

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Headphones and earphones have been in the headlines a lot recently, primarily thanks to Apple’s “courage” in eliminating the 3.5mm jack on the iPhone 7. The agenda to push consumers toward wireless (Bluetooth, etc.) places sound quality second to convenience, putting even more of a burden on mix engineers to compensate for lossy formats and connections. Luckily, companies are still evolving “old-fashioned” plug-n-play personal monitoring gear that brings innovation to the studio and stage. Over the course of three round-ups I'm going to look at some of the more recent noteworthy options in headphones, DACs/amps/DAPs and in-ear monitors delivering the most impact for under $600. And I'll start with headphones that exemplify value while incorporating critical-listening audiophile features engineers can appreciate.

Focal is a French manufacturer initially known for its highly praised, highly priced and high-fidelity floorstanding loudspeakers and precise nearfield studio monitors, so the company knows something about imaging and soundstage. The company entered the headphones market in late 2013 with its Spirit line, and in 2016 applied decades of reference component development to its new wearable speakers: the $3,999 Utopia, $999 Elear and $249 Listen models.

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Though I haven’t tried it, I imagine based on posted impressions that the Utopia is indeed a benchmark of clarity from custom full-range drivers and luxury elements. But this piece is concentrating on bang for the buck, so let’s look at the Listen, a closed-back, over-the-ear, foldable headphone intended to showcase isolation and acoustics when whipped out on the go. It’s a headphone that excitedly neutral.

Featuring a 40mm titanium-coated mylar driver, the Listen delivers a 15 Hz-22 kHz frequency response that is far more textured than its unremarkable black plastic-and-chrome plate styling. It delivers bass without boost and treble without heat, leaving the mids uncluttered. While not certified for high-resolution reproduction, the Listen lacks neither resonance nor radiance. It’s not a subwoofer strapped to your head type of headphone, but rather a tight, detailed presentation. Benefitting from the trickle-down Focal tuning, the Listen offers separation and articulation, while remaining easily driven by a smartphone (mobile-friendly microphone/remote cable included). The Listen’s success resides in balancing accuracy and activity and its ability to shut out the world without sounding overly closed in.

When it comes to benchmarks, Sennheiser has long held a reputation for offering two venerable series: The HD600/HD650, known for their impactful, nonfatiguing musicality, and the HD800/HD800S, revered for its unflinching transparency. Sennheiser knows how to deliver innovative construction, build quality and sonic fluidity, and with the recent $499 over-ear HD630VB, the company has given its formula a twist in more ways than one.

The VB in HD630VB stands for “Variable Bass,” an adjustable bass function delivered via a dial on one of the sturdy aluminum earcups. Standing out from the open-backed, enveloping and notoriously power-hungry HD600/HD650, the closed, easy to drive HD630VB is a far more linear listening model featuring 10 - 42,000 Hz frequency response. Rotate the bass dial away from minimum and you’ll feel the extension bloom below 50 Hz. And the treble cranks without cracks, remaining crunchy but never hardening into piercing shards.

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Informed by but nothing like the warm/clean headphones series around it, the HD630VB is a fascinating model that almost acts as a way to tweak the EQ while away from the board, offering a means to thicken bass and lower mids without sacrificing air. At about halfway the HD630VB lets you enrich thinner remaster candidates. It offers the ability to switch from lean speed to emulating more bass-heavy headphones without having to invest in them, giving a glimpse into voicing that’s more about boom. As an added bonus, it’s both iDevice and Android friendly, though its heft makes it feel less portable than its hinged, collapsible design makes it out to be.

Beyerdynamic is another German company that has over the years established a renowned house sound in its studio-grade headphones. The treble sensitive have sometimes found beyerdynamic’s signature brightness could be a bit much, but the sonic soundstage, physical durability and sub-$200 price of models such as the closed DT 770 and open DT 990 assured them a permanent place in tracking and control rooms worldwide.

In 2015 beyerdynamic introduced the DT 1770 Pro and DT 1990 Pro as $599 upgrades to its standard bearers, incorporating materials with finer finishes and, more importantly, the company’s Tesla 2.0 driver technology (featuring a highly efficient, precise, distortion-free magnet-transducer arrangement). And these 250 ohm 45mm neodymium drivers ensure that the 1770 and 1990 are more dynamic, more potent, more resolving, more energetic and more natural than their predecessors.

There is a spaciousness and coherence to the new models not found earlier; they deliver 5–40,000 Hz frequency response, but avoid treble sparkle turning shrill. And the low end, delving into subbass rumble, manages to deliver both slam and impeccable timing against a smooth, black background.

Between these well-extended poles the 1770 delivers a rich midrange timbre that’s quite spacious for a closed headphone. Offering both velour and pleather cushions for the comfortable round earcups, the 1770 can offer a shift in concentration based on material (pleather pulling back a touch of air). The headphone is slightly warm, and excels with EDM, metal and vocals. Whereas the 1770 excels in terms of isolation and density, the open 1990’s versatility flourishes in a controlled environment.

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Like the 1770, the 1990 offers two sets of ear cushions - analytical and balanced - but the difference in perception is far more pronounced. With the analytical pads the 1990 is best described as correct. It is neutral, detailed, balanced from top to bottom. An exacting mix tool. With the balanced pads the 1990 adds bass weight and dimension, slightly coloring the lower mids as it tilts toward more addicting slam. Whether leaning focused or more fun, the 1990 is a joy with all genres. Older beyerdynamic models had force. These new two also have finesse.

One other laudable feature carried over to the 1770/1990 is the plethora of user-replaceable parts (including thankfully detachable cables), making these a great investment for the long-term. They do benefit far more from precise sourcing/amping than other headphones I’ve talked about, but manage to be more efficient than some of their specs would indicate. These are, however, not headphones that lend themselves particularly well to travel. They’re for navigating the details, not a crowded airport, etc.

Thanks to its performance:price ratio, the DT 770 still has its place (like when enthusiastic drummers need to do their takes), but for mixing/mastering the DT 1770/1990 models are some of the most engaging headphones I’ve heard in ages.