Re: [linux-audio-user] Good Studio Hearphones

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Subject: Re: [linux-audio-user] Good Studio Hearphones
From: Florin Andrei (
Date: Thu Jul 22 2004 - 22:52:38 EEST

On Wed, 2004-07-21 at 06:38, stefano cardo wrote:
> I was looking for a good Studio hearphones...

How much money are you willing to spend? Can you reach the critical $200

Anyway, here are some general guidelines:

First off, there's the difference between closed phones and open-air

If you plan on using the phones while singing in front of a microphone,
then you definitely need closed phones. Otherwise, with open phones,
your audio feedback will leak into the microphone.

In almost any other case, you want open-air phones, since they're
typically better. The problem with open-air phones is that they don't
isolate you from the room, so you hear all the noise that surrounds you.
But that's the price that you have to pay for top quality.

Don't pay much attention to the name of the manufacturer. There might be
"bad" brands, but there are no "good" brands, meaning that not every
single headphone made by XYZ is good. Almost everyone makes cheap lemons
as well (with rare exceptions, see below).
So, don't buy based on brand ("i'll get a FooBarBlah because a friend's
friend told me those are the best"), but buy based on specific model

Now for the specifics:

1. Grado
Some people swear by Grado. They are indeed great open-air phones for
looking after tiny details. They magnify the small stuff tremendously.
You can almost touch any small grain in the vinyl record or see every
bit of harshness in a coarse digital track.
They're like looking at a picture not through a magnifying glass, but
through a quantum-effect microscope.

However, there's a price for that: they're pumping up the high
frequencies, hence they're "colored" ("colored" is the generic term; the
specific term for too-much-high-freq is "bright").
While listening to old records, things made back in the days when even
mixing studios didn't have tools to reveal the highers freqs too well,
the soundscape is harsh and aggressive. "Oxygene" and "Equinoxe" by
Jean-Michel Jarre almost punch a hole in my eardrums when listening
through Grado. Some aggressive patches on my Alesis synthesizer make me
feel like i'm chewing glass.

The RS1 and 2 are pretty damn good (and they have that nifty mahogany
look). Even the cheap SR80 or even 60 are not bad.

Grado are also not exactly comfortable. My ears start to hurt pretty
soon after putting them on.

I listened to various Grado models. The more expensive, the better the
resolution, but they're all harsh and bright nevertheless. I still own a
mid-level Grado SR125 ($150) that i only rarely use.

2. AKG
They are very popular just because a lot of old records (most american
music companies back in the 70s) were mixed/mastered on AKG K240. Hence
if you use the same phones (or the more modern replica K240S) to listen
to that kind of music, you hear what the engineers were hearing in the
mixing/mastering rooms.
However, the only AKG model that's worth mentioning (when compared to
the top Grado, Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic) is the K 1000, which
unfortunately is $700. But the K 1000 is weird, they're not actual
phones but small speakers hanging on in the air next to your ears.
They're sweet and transparent, but they look like UFO equipment. :-)
Needless to say, they are the most open among open-air phones. :-)

3. Sennheiser
They're the makers of the arguably best phones ever made: the Sennheiser
Orpheus, which unfortunately is discontinued and costs about $10000
(yes, 10 thousands).
There's the controversial opinion that the open-air Sennheiser HD650 is
currently the "best" in the world. I didn't listen to HD650, but i own
the HD600 which is its slightly older equivalent - they're overall the
best phones that ever touched my ears.
Sennheiser are extremely transparent and airy, there's a luminous and
roomy quality to the sound that's not achieved by other phones. The
sound seems laid-back, but after a while you realise you're actually
hearing all the detail a Grado would provide, only it's not
machine-gunned into your ears forcefully.
They also have the best frequency response - the graph is very flat,
which means they're as "uncolored" as possible and no frequencies are
They're also extremely comfortable. You can wear them for hours and you
will forget them.

4. Beyerdynamic
Looks like all germans think alike. :-) They're pretty close to
Sennheiser, perhaps a bit more colored and a bit not as airy. Open-air
Beyerdynamic DT880 are a close contender to Sennheiser HD6xx.

5. Etymotic Research
If you thought that in-ear phones are bad, think again. Etymotic ER
series (especially ER-4S) can compete against the best over-the-ear
phones and will not be put to shame.
They're good if you wanna listen to accurate records in noisy
environments (while driving, while in a plane).
I never thought an in-ear phone can deliver such a good bass and such
transparent high, but i guess there's something to learn every day.
Unfortunately, in-ear phones make me feel very uncomfortable real quick,
so i guess i'll never use Etymotic.

6. Koss
If you're looking for a cheap pair of phones to listen to music while
jogging or biking, Koss KSC-50 or KSC-55 are amazingly good. They cost
about $15. Yet, for the money, the quality is amazing.
Sure, they cannot compete against high-end Senn or Beyer, but the KSC-55
are the reason i didn't throw away my portable CD player. I used to hate
portable phones until i discovered the KSC-55, which sound plasticky and
muffled and artificial when compared to my Senn HD600 or any other
high-end, but they're light-years ahead all of my other el-cheapo
portable phones.
I also have a bunch of other Koss cheap phones which are not worth
mentioning quality-wise but they're great if you really have to abuse a
pair of phones.

Overall recommendations:

Get a Sennheiser HD650, if you can afford the $450 price tag.

At $350, the Senn HD600 are very close and the price/performance ratio
might be actually better than the HD650 (although i didn't verify that).
That's what i'm using (i bought them before the HD650 were released).

If you want really good phones but your budget is really tight,
Sennheiser HD580 at $200 are the best for the price. They use the same
mobile parts as the HD600, it's just the assemblage and casing that's
less good. In a noisy environment (at a music gear store) i couldn't
tell the difference between them and HD600.
They probably are the best value pair of phones ever made (you get a lot
for the relatively low price you pay).

Beyerdynamic DT 880 are a good alternative at $250, but frankly the Senn
HD6xx are more accurate.

There's really nothing below $200 that sounds as good as the things
mentioned above. My Grado SR125, at $150, is not bad overall, but Grado
has a problem with brightness.

If you have a portable, get a Koss KSC-55 or KSC-50 to complement your
studio phones. Etymotics are nicer and a lot better, but much more

What not to do:

Stay away from Grado, they will mislead you when mixing (or they will
color the sound if you simply listen to music).
Well, ok, i really have this split-personality syndrome when it comes to
Grado. I hate the way they color the sound, but on the other hand, there
is nothing made by Grado that doesn't sound at least decent. They are
that singular brand that does not make cheap bad phones.
Does that make sense?
You won't find any Grado phone that sounds plasticky, hollow, muffled,
lifeless, that has gaping holes in the frequency response, or anything
like that. But they exhibit this annoying brightness which, to me, is
difficult to accept.
So there you have it, make out of it what you want.

Don't bother with AKG, the Senn or Beyer are more accurate (unless you
can afford the K 1000 which competes head to head with everyone else for
the first place).

Other stuff:

I happened to stumble upon this website and, as it turned out, they have
almost exactly the same opinions as i do:

If you dig into it, you'll see frequency graphs and measurements to back
their statements.

Well, they tend to overrate cheap phones, but that's understandable,
they have to sell stuff.

I also think they're exagerating the importance of phone amplifiers.
Nowadays, the final stages in the better audio equipments are getting
good enough to drive a high-end pair of phones. I listened to my iPod
through Senn HD600 and it doesn't sound too bad, not at all. Sure, it's
not as good as a dedicated amp, but the difference is small.

(Ok, maybe the iPod is an exception, since it's known to have an
outstandingly good final stage, for a cheap mass-market product.)

I'm not affiliated with, i don't get anything from their
sales, it's just that they offer great and accurate info for audio geeks
like us.

Florin Andrei

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