$300 Sennheiser 600's sound no better than normal iPhone headphones with iMac? Huh?
July 12, 2011 5:32 AM   Subscribe

$300 Sennheiser 600's sound no better than normal iPhone headphones with iMac? Huh?

I just bought a pair of the Sennheiser 600 headphones exclusively for use with my iMac (3.06 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, if it matters) and after doing extensive tests such as the 128kbs vs 320kbs tests you can find on various websites, I honestly can't tell a difference.

I also bought a FiiO E5 Headphone amplifier as I've read various articles that say you may/should have a headphone amp. With or without it the volume levels as well as the sounds seem identical.

I found this article from 2009 that seems to be on the same topic but don't quite get what the guy is talking about.

So am I doing it wrong? I'm 28 and should be able to hear the differences. I've read amazing reviews and right now I'm having serious buyers remorse. I will only be using it with my iMac (and soon with one of the new iMacs) so I don't need to worry about bringing the headphones outside.
posted by darkgroove to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
HD600s are 300ohm - you may need a proper amp to drive them.

More info on headphone.com - read about amps.

If you are not going to get an amp, may I suggest Grados, SR80 etc. 32ohm, no amp required, kicks sonic ass.
posted by TrinsicWS at 5:41 AM on July 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

The FiiO amps aren't bad, especially for the price, but there's nowhere to adjust their impedance, which is really what you'd need to do to best drive the 600s.

That said, even unamplified, Sennheiser HD 600s should still sound better than Apple earbuds.

Is it possible that your ears aren't as good as you think? (If so, this isn't all bad--it'll save you a whole lot of money.)
posted by box at 5:55 AM on July 12, 2011

Most people's ears aren't as good as they think they are. It's possible yours are on the less-sensitive-than-average end. If I were in your shoes, I would get my hearing checked to see if my frequency response was decent enough to be able to tell the difference before I spent any more money on headphones or amps.
posted by Jairus at 6:14 AM on July 12, 2011

When you say normal iPhone headphones, do you mean the cheap earbuds? What kind of difference would you expect to hear? Maybe you are listening for the wrong thing. Rather than comparing MP3s, think about the the same music on the two headphones.

The following is purely subjective, from the ears of a 48 year old:

I don't know the Sennheiser 600s, but it is difficult not to improve on the iPhone earbud sound. I would expect the bass to much firmer and tighter, and generally more present. The mid-range should be less abrasive (i.e., painful). The high-end should be less shrill. you should enjoy the sound of a violin, vs. the pain it can induce on the iPhone earbuds.

A bit more subtly, the soundstage should be better represented, i.e., you can hear where the instruments are in space. You can also hear each instrument individually, and clearly.

The attack on percussive instruments should be better articulated and have less fuzz around it.

If none of the above matters to you, maybe the purchase was in vain. But if it does, make sure you listen to types of music that contain dynamic range, a variety of instrument timbres, and various degrees of percussiveness. Including some acoustic instruments is a must, as those are the only ones we really know how they are supposed to sound.

Comparing MP3s is not necessarily the best approach, as encoding technology has improved a lot and the 128kbs of today sound a lot better than those of 10 years ago, to my ears at least.
posted by SNACKeR at 6:45 AM on July 12, 2011

If you can find a local friendly audiophile store, they will usually let you sit and spend time listening to music through a number of different headphones. If you're still struggling to discern any difference between them - then maybe you should get your hearing checked or just be thankful that you don't need to invest in expensive audio equipment!

Also nthing others opinions on the need to drive the HD600s. If you're not willing to invest in an amp, do you have the option of returning the HD600s and perhaps getting a set of easier to drive headphones? For example, I've got a set of Audio Technica ATH-AD700s - great sound, and even my iPod can drive them well (and this is from the perspective of a 40 year old's ears).
posted by KirkpatrickMac at 6:50 AM on July 12, 2011

You'll probably get more detailed advice on headfi.org; I don't own HD600s myself but they are famous for needing a good, powerful amp. In other words.. you're talking about an amp in the range of the price of the headphones themselves, not a $20 amp.

For what it's worth, I have 3 headphones: Sennheiser HD595 (much cheaper model than HD600 despite close model#), Ultrasone Proline 2500 and Etymotic ER4S and a little dot mk3 tube amp, and all of them sound completely different to my ears, and Ultrasones sound much better with most music than HD595 (to be fair they're a lot more expensive, too). I would much rather not listen to music at all than use cheap headphones. It depends on a particular album, too. Some may sound really bad on Ultrasone but great on HD595 (but that's pretty rare), all trance and some classical in particular sounds best on ER4S. I also find that a good cd player makes a huge difference vs. computer sound card (but then you can also buy a fancy expensive sound card..).
posted by rainy at 8:50 AM on July 12, 2011

You're testing your ability to differentiate between encoding bitrates and not the subjective quality difference between the two headphones playing music. I've gone to the headroom_dot_com website where you can compare headphone response in a single chart. You can see the difference across a number of technical areas of the two headphones.
posted by jade east at 10:36 AM on July 12, 2011

Even without the amp, you should hear a substantial difference. The only likely scenarios are that your hearing's shot (earbud users are bad about listening louder than they should), or that you have adjusted the eq so drastically that there is no frequency content in a huge band.

If you can't hear the difference in 320kbps and 128kbps mp3s in a side by side test with either sets of headphones, it's your ears. I have plenty of friends who can't hear as well as they think they should because of years of earbud use.

I go to pretty extreme lengths to protect my hearing; I am an audio engineer at a large worship facility with one if the most sophisticated systems in west Houston. I can assure you that the issue (barring defective equipment), is likely your ears. Go get tested ASAP!
posted by chrisfromthelc at 10:42 AM on July 12, 2011

Agreeing that you should listen to music you know for a comparison. I went into an audiophile store and checked out headphones, but I didn't bring in my own music. All the headphones sounded similar, and I left unimpressed.

I later got Koss KSC75 headphones for my iPod, and I noticed a LOT of difference from the standard earbuds. There was more space to the sound, the individual instruments sounded unique and separate, and I was floored.

Also, headphones change after use over time, also known as burn-in.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:45 AM on July 12, 2011

Listen to classical music, especially woodwinds and deep strings, to really hear whether there is a difference between 128 and 320. They ought to sound "richer" or more "dimensional". Listen to anything with cymbals to test the high end- lower bitrates will tend to make cymbals sound "sizzley" and "fuzzy", where a higher bitrate will let them sound clearer.

Note: These are fairly tiny differences.

Note2: the bitrate isn't the only thing. The quality of the encoder makes a big difference.

Third: If the songs are encoded in standard 16bit, 44.1khz, the bitrate might not make a huge, giant difference.

Fourth: much of what you are paying for with headphones (versus earbuds) is dynamic range. A lot of modern music (or modern remixes) has very little dynamic range. Again, with the classical music: if you set the volume right, and turn off any dynamic compression or equalization on your playback device, you should be able to hear the quiet parts nicely, without the loud parts setting your hair on fire. (Meaning, it doesn't have to be turned up all that loud, because the speakers can accurately reproduce quiet parts.)

Think of your movie theater versus home theater experience: the movie theater has a good sound system, and as such, you can hear quiet dialogue just fine, and the loud scenes aren't painful. Your home theater is not going to do as well at that, and you'll have that thing where you crank up the volume for the quiet parts, and then your speakers shoot out lightning when a loud sound effect comes across.
posted by gjc at 7:22 PM on July 12, 2011

Thank you for all the tips, it sounds like my problem may be a few things:

1) It sounds like I could have damaged my hearing. As much as I would like to protest this, years of loud earbud listening could be the culprit. I think getting my ears checked is a great idea since the last time I did it was about 20 years ago in grade school.

2) The music I listen to is broad, but mostly electronic in nature. Additionally, I tend to not rip my own music, so I'm leaving it up to the DJ's/artists that rip it and release it in varying rates with various encoders.

3) I might need a proper amp, which unfortunately is not in the budget right now. I'll read up on them to see what I can do in this regard.

Lastly, I'm not saying that my iPhone earbuds are the exact same as these headphones, as bass is produced a lot better just because of the size of these things. I just expected to be completely overwhelmed by the difference, and only noticed a nominal change. I still enjoy them, and they are comfortable as hell, which is good considering I got them so I wouldn't wake the neighbors at night during long computer sessions. I'm happy with them, but clearly buying headphones is a little more than choosing the highest price tag. Thank you for all the comments!
posted by darkgroove at 6:42 AM on July 14, 2011

HD600s are 300ohm - you may need a proper amp to drive them.

If you are not going to get an amp, may I suggest Grados, SR80 etc. 32ohm, no amp required, kicks sonic ass.
For the record: Sorry, this is just wrong.

There are two main factors at play: Impedance, and sensitivity.

Higher impedance is always easier to drive. The low-impedance Grados are harder to drive, and the low-impedance Sennheisers are hard to drive.

A narrow straw is high impedance. A wide tube is high impedance. Blow through them. The narrow straw is easier to maintain pressure in. The wide tube takes your oomph away.

Sensitivity can mandate a dedicated amp. Sensitivity tells you how loud the sound is, given a certain voltage or power input. If the sensitivity is too low, then the amp is used for supplying extra voltage (magnifying the signal.) If your headphone + player combo is simply too quiet, then an amp will help.

And then: Low impedance can can mandate a dedicated amp, in that lower impedance requires more current from the driving electronics. Then the amp isn't really magnifying the signal, but rather serves to increase the control over the headphones (keeping the signal stable).

Grados are notorius for being more current-hungry than many headphones. Dynamics (the 'pow', 'wham' and 'pop' in the sound are affected. Bass as well - the depth and fullness of it. They sound great though. With a good amp. Try it sometime. They sound clear and very pretty without an amp, but you'll realize how much you've been missing when you pair yours with a good amp.
posted by krilli at 4:30 AM on July 15, 2011

(I meant to say that a wide tube is low impedance :) Now my pedantry is complete!)
posted by krilli at 5:18 AM on July 15, 2011

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