Friday, April 18, 2014

Review: Sennheiser HD-558 (modded)


Introduction

Why the Hell would I need another headphone - again? I´ve asked myself this question often enough. The answer is that I have no answer. I just like them. Just as I like to change playback/recording units I love to change headphones, all depending on my current mood. Pure, decadent luxury considering other people can´t afford even one headphone. Well, I got a not-so-small amount of money as a Christmas present and decided to spend a part of it on a new pair of cans. And as the Sennheiser HD-558 had been on my Amazon Wishlist for more than three years, I finally decided that the time was right. Do I like it? Is it able to replace my dearly loved, 9-year old Sennheiser HD-600? Why don´t I just use my Sennheiser HD-448? Or my Superlux HD-668B? And what about the two headphones I reviewed before, the Sennheiser Momentum and the Skullcandy Aviator? Read on and you shall be rewarded with answers, dear constant Reader.

Design & features

Sennheiser HD-558 (with 'NOS4A' by Joe Hill abused as a headphone stand)

The Superlux HD-668B cannot be used anymore since it broke apart (because I cleaned it!). I won´t replace it with a new Superlux because... well, I have grown to hate its sound. The Sennheiser Momentum & Skullcandy Aviator did many things well but suffered on others with the worst being comfort-related. In the end I decided in favor of the Sennheiser HD-558, the headphone I wanted to have in the first place. It cost me 129,- Euros, is a plain and boring looking headphone, manufactured entirely out of plastic in China. Huh? No, I don´t have a problem that it´s been built there, it´s just that Sennheiser doesn´t like to talk about it which feels pretty double-tongued. As if they are ashamed of it. When I think of my beloved FiiO units, it's stupid and not particularly fair to the people who produced it. Enough of that. This headphone is right in the middle of the HD-5xx line. All of them are engineered to attract cost-conscious people; the HD-518 is the cheapest, costing half of what the top model, the HD-598, costs (roughly 220,- Euros). Their predecessors looked almost the same, had the same features and were - from what I can tell - fairly successful, causing Sennheiser not to change too much. Never change a winning team, eh?

A (too?) proud German company: Sennheiser

The top model HD-598 is finished in a cream-like colour with attached faux-wood veneers, a headband with a fake leather pad and metal grilles for the earcups. Sennheiser was obviously trying to improve the inherently conservative design of the predecessors; all they achieved was making it look tacky. The grilles of the otherwise plain HD-518 look like windows shutters... not exactly an improvement either. The HD-558 looks boring but honest, it´s the least flashy of all three models. When it comes to features, it´s equipped with what Sennheiser calls Eargonomic Acoustic Refinement (E.A.R.), this is supposed to 'channel audio signals directly into your ears'. According to them, all three HD-5xx cans should therefore have 'outstanding bass and vocal projection'.
Simple marketing blabla of course. E.A.R. is nothing more than an angled driver, many headphones are equipped with a technology where the drivers are placed slightly below and in front of your ears. Our ears' stage impression usually reacts favourably to this placement because it mimics how we listen to loudspeakers: not from left and right, but from the front. This helps us creating a holographic image of the virtual stage. Is it a good idea to implement something like this in headphones? Well, so far my experience tells me that it rarely works as intended... with horror I recall my second 'big' headphone, the Sony MDR-CD 570. Because most of the time it just creates colourizations - and not the desired effect of a holographic stage. But we'll see about that later.

Sennheiser HD-558, earcup: comfy velours cushions & 'surround reflector'

The diaphragms inside the drivers are a Duofol design, this principle of constructing membranes was carried over from the HD-6x0 models. They reduce distortions and improve transparency, that's what Sennheiser says. Seems to be true when I think of my HD-600; it´s the least distorting and most airy headphone I´ve ever heard. When it comes to impedance, this headphone is rated at 50 Ohms. The maximum sound pressure level (SPL) is at a very loud 112 dB, it should therefore be perfectly suited for portable units. But no, Sennheiser markets it towards music lovers, listening at home using their big HiFi system. Strange. This will become important again, more about that later.

Accessories & built quality

Sennheiser HD-558, 3-meter cable

The box the HD-558 comes in, contains the headphone and the cable. That´s it. The 3 meter cable (remember that it´s targeted at at-home-listeners), pictured directly above, comes with a proprietary 2.5 mm plug on the headphones' side. The Sennheiser site lists an additional 1.2 meter cable with 2.5 / 3.5 mm plugs suitable for portable units. However, this cable seems to be a myth as I was unable to find it anywhere.

Sennheiser HD-558, proprietary 2.5 mm connector - what a dimwitted idea

In the end I had to resort to a replacement cable built by Oyaide and distributed by FiiO, the RC-HD1. This took a further 40,- Euros out of my pocket. Frankly, I find Sennheisers' brazenness of not including a shorter cable themselves, insulting. A carrying bag? Forget it. Not included, not offered. My cheaper HD-448 came with one, the Skullcandy Aviator had a particularly luxurious bag, the Sennheiser Momentum could be safely tucked away inside a firm, brown bag. Hell, even the Superlux HD-668B came with a bag. With the exception of the Momentum, all of them cost less than the HD-558 and Sennheiser isn´t able to manage including something as basic as this?

Quite expensive but well built 1.2 meter replacement cable: FiiO RC-HD1

But how is it built? Despite being fashioned completely out of plastic it has been manufactured very well. Everything fits tightly, fins are nowwhere to be found, it doesn´t creak when moved or when you change the position of the earcups. The cushions are firm and they are replaceable. The possibility of replacing any broken part is one of the reasons why I love Sennheiser products so much. By doing so, you can extend the lifetime of their headphones. My boyfriend owns an ancient Sennheiser HD-250 linear; it´s now 25 years old. With other manufacturers you´d be hard pressed to find anything for them, with Sennheiser it is no problem. My boyfriend has been using it for many years for DJing, it was beaten, tortured and abused. The faux-leather cushions and the mesh covering the drivers of the HD-250 linear had disintegrated completely (yup, sweat will do that). The cable looked like shit too... well, it was inconvenient anyway since it was equipped with a 5-pole DIN-plug! Getting new earpads (including the mesh) and a cable was as easy as ordering a new headphone with the result that this ancient thing now looks like new.
When deciding whether I should get the HD-558 or not, I also considered the famous Philips Fidelio X1 (gorgeous sounding headphone). At first glance, it appears to be perfectly manufactured and built to last. But any impression of reliability is destroyed once you know that its cushions and everything inside it is glued together. Even the cushions are glued to their frame, they aren´t replaceable. Perfect example of planned obsolescence if you ask me and crucial for my decision not to buy it.

Comfort & quirks

Velour cushions & headband: comfy and replaceable

When referring to new Sennheiser cans, people usually talk about the 'clamp of death'. It´s true: the clamping force of the HD-558 is quite strong, your head is tightly sandwiched by the two earcups. Even after wearing it almost every day for more than two months, this force hasn´t diminished. The earpad and the headband cushions are firm, but not uncomfortably so. Their one redeeming aspect is their size; while the cups of the HD-600 are even bigger, the earcups of the HD-558 are huge enough to accomodate almost any ear.
There´s just one thing inside perhaps posing a problem: the aforementioned 'surround reflector'. You see, the fabric covering the drivers is applied to a thin plastic foundation which itself protects the membrane underneath it and forms the reflector. The latter sticks out and, for me, has been a nuisance. It causes me to re-adjust the position constantly because it tends to touch my upper earlobes. This doesn´t hurt at first but after a few hours (yes, I wear headphones that long) it starts to hurt, even when it´s only slightly brushing my earlobes. Wouldn´t be any problem at all - if the surround reflector would be softer. But the hard plastic underneath the mesh averts this. So before you buy it yourself, try it on and see if your ears fit.

The foam mod & Burn-in



Did you know that you can modify the HD-558 to almost sound like the top model of the line, the HD-598? It´s easily said and done, just look above at the video. But please, be more careful than the creator of the video, the cables soldered to the drivers are very, very fragile. They break if you blow on them. According to what people say online, by removing the piece of foam you´ll get more punch and air. I cannot attest if this is true or not, I never listened to my HD-558 before it was modded. Whatever it changes, this tweak won´t completely transform your HD-558 into the HD-598. To achieve that, you´d have to grab pliers to cut holes into the plastic structure covered by the outer felt-mesh grills. The HD-598 sports very fine metal grills which aren´t dressed up with some fabric, apparently they help to achieve a more airy sound. This might be true; before I got my HD-600 I owned its predecessor, the HD-580, which is (apart from a different colour scheme) exactly the same headphone. The only difference are the driver grills: on the HD-580 they are plastic, on the HD-600 they are metal, causing the latter to sound different. But I don´t want to remove anything that can´t be re-attached again, I´ve therefore skipped this part. Below you can see measurements by Headroom where I´ve compared the frequency response of the HD-558 against the one from the HD-598. They are extremely similar, the HD-558 emphasizes frequencies around 3,000 Hz while the HD-598 slightly accents everything above 10 kHz. The latter presumably is responsible for the HD-598's stronger amount of 'air' while the un-modded HD-558 will sound a bit more aggressive. The foam mod will bring the HD-558 much closer to the response of the HD-598, in the end you have to decide yourself of course if you actually want the sound of the top model.

Frequency response differences Sennheiser HD-558 & the top model HD-598

Whatever you decide, you simply have to burn in the HD-558 (this goes for the HD-518 & 598 too). I listened to it once I had removed the foam and in spite of it already sounding very well, burning in really brought out its strengths. I admit that I´ve never experienced ANY device reacting so strongly and positively to a burn in. My Sennheiser HD-448 remained essentially unchanged in terms of sound, the Superlux warmed up considerably but these cans turned from undifferentiated into 'differentiates-like-hell'. Spatiality improved a lot, some unpleasant high frequency sibilance was removed too. So please, burn it in. For at least 48 hours.

Tech section

Impedance response HD-598 vs. HD-558 vs. HD-448/449

I know you probably hate to read measurements of any kind. They are boring, you cannot understand them or maybe you´re simply too lazy to even want to understand them, right? Yes, in my opinion, people who ignore measurements willfully do not deserve to experience sonic bliss. So stay with me and let me lecture you, for a few minutes only, I beg you. In this case it´s important because they tell you if the HD-558 needs to be amped or not. The answer is YES and NO.
NO: It´s loud enough for many portable devices. At this moment I´m listening to music played back by a recently acquired Sony NW-HD5 (review will follow) and with the HD-558 it gets loud enough to shatter my ears. The same is valid for many of my portable MD recorders/players. Not to mention the FiiO E07K and the FiiO X3 (review will follow), they can kill the HD-558 with ease. Sensitivity isn´t any problem, the impedance is. YES: The HD-558 is rated having an impedance of 50 Ohm. Look above at the measured impedance response and you can clearly see that it reaches a resistance of almost 300 Ohm at 95 Hz. Meaning: a headphone output with an output resistance of more than 6 Ohm will produce severe frequency distortions.

Well suited for portable units - but not for stationary units: HD-558

Example: to monitor an MD I was recording with a Sony MDS-JE 530 (review to follow), I plugged the HD-558 into the MD-recorders' headphone socket. The resulting sound was so bass-heavy that it obscured everything else. Mids and treble were drowning in bass, it was unbearable. Beats by Dr. Dre territory? Think bigger, more blown-up and hollow. What my problem is, you ask? I´ll tell you: many big amps, CD players, network players or TVs are equipped with headphone outputs featuring a fairly high output impedance. With all of them the HD-558 will produce this bass-heavy, highly coloured and droning sound. But if all of them are playback devices for usage at home, then why was the HD-558 engineered in a way that will produce a bad sound with exactly these devices? Recall for a moment that Sennheiser targets these cans at at-home-listeners... why the fuck did they construct a headphone that will play with superior quality on half of all portable devices instead? Thankfully I´m accustomed to amps with a low output impedance. In case I want to use it with one of my vintage portable CD players, I simply connect either the FiiO E6 or the E07K. Or I make use of the FiiO X3. Due to its fairly high sensitivity you might want to listen with it once you step outside... you'd look ridiculous though. And don´t forget that it is a very open headphone, leaking a lot of sound to the outside world. What you´re hearing, other people will hear too. So what is it for? Portable use? Electrically, yes. Isolation? Forget it. At home? Yes - but only with sources having an output impedance of less than 6 Ohm.

And now: the sound

Sennheiser HD-558: felt mesh grills

Does it sound well? Of course it does, otherwise I wouldn´t have kept it. Once it´s modded, burned in and fed by low impedance sources, you´ll be rewarded with a stage like you´ve never heard before. Only one word fits: spectactular! For decades I´ve been dreaming to hear a soundstage like this one and until the HD-558 arrived, this desire had never been fulfilled. My beloved HD-600, already featuring a realistically wide and deep stage, feels shallow in comparison. Yup, the HD-558 easily bests the HD-600 in spatiality. It´s like being able to 'see' around instruments, effects, soloists, anything. The sound is fantastically layered, not only from left to right but from the front to the rear. Every instrument, group of players, synths and effects, even reverb, is defined precisely. It doesn´t sound artificial, it feels completely organic. Very well done, Sennheiser!
There are some obstacles: the impression of virtual stage depends on the recording you´re listening too. The device used for playback and amping plays an equally important role. For example, these cans revealed my FiiO X3 to sound a bit distant, compact and slightly constricted (I knew that before, the HD-558 only made it all the more apparent). The more recent FiiO X5 (loaned to me by FiiO, review to follow) was worse, sounding flat, confused and blurry. 'Stage kings' like the Sony MZ-R 37 or the MZ-R 55 are unmasked to sound either artificial or congested while the MZ-R 50 improved. Recordings produced using several groups of microphones profit as well, recordings with less mics will extend their dimensions. Binaural recordings... superb. It appears that the Sennheiser marketing experts haven´t promised too much when advertising the HD-558 as featuring an improved spatiality. BTW, the HD-598 will sound similar, maybe even a bit better.

The fantastic stage of the HD-558 is... hard to match

Frequency response is a bit more problematic. There seems to be almost no bass below 50 or 60 Hz. Yep, deep bass is lacking, I´d guess 4-6 dB amplification below 60 Hz might do the trick. Frequencies above however are fully present and accounted for... which is also the reason why an impedance mismatch like the one I described above will produce a hollow and bloated sound. But when properly amped, bass is punchy when needed, dynamic and tight. Everything above low frequencies sounds balanced with a tendency towards warmth and charm. Voices have a correct chest size and won´t ever sound sibilant. Except if they were recorded that way of course. As much as the HD-558 is a little 'beautifier' it doesn´t hide a bad recording. Overall, I´d call the frequency response almost flawlessly leveled out from 100 to 10,000 Hz without too much colorization. My HD-448 sounds muffled against it, the Superlux... well, when it was still able to sound... no, I don´t want to compare it, it´d be insulting to the HD-558. Still, just as it would profit from more deep bass, a stronger amount of air would be benefitial as well. Sometimes it sounds rather dry; this helps differentiation and precision of course, the HD-558 will always be able to tell things apart with ease, better than the HD-600 even. But air is missing and a too dry sound could appear abrasive to some people. Though 'abrasive' is the last word I´d use to describe the HD-558. But there´s no denying that the HD-600 is superior when it comes to air.

Could have more 'air': HD-558

Another area the HD-600 surpasses the HD-558 is the amount of details. Due to its slight warmth and missing air, the HD-558 drops some tiny details. Of course, this has advantages too. Revealing errors isn´t its forte, no, it´s a headphone concentrating on presenting music pleasantly. But don´t make the error to think that it sounds boring or that its timing sucks! Far from it, this is one of the most vibrant and snappy headphones I´ve ever heard. One minute, it´s explosive and calm the next, it sounds much more engaging than my HD-448. It can be lovely and aggressive, all depending on the recording. Will it ever sound congested, plastic-y, confused, coloured, veiled or boring? No, never.

Now a warning: all of this depends on how it sits on your head. The position is extremely important for the sound, and I´m not exaggerating. Moved too far back on your head it´ll become more airy, stage will be wider but shallow, moved too far to the front it´ll sound coloured, veiled and hollow with a strange stage. This is the moment where the angled driver design rears its ugly head. All headphones more or less depend on being correctly positioned to be at their best, this is equally true for the HD-600 and the HD-448. In case of the HD-558 however the effect of a wrong sitting position is much more detrimental than I expected, to find the golden mean thus is vital for a perfect sound.

Conclusion

Put it on your head, grab a good book and dream away... crap, that was corny :)

The Sennheiser HD-558 (and when it comes to sound, the HD-598 too) is a wonderful headphone: well built, important parts are replaceable. The latter will extend lifetime of this headphone far beyond of what people are nowadays used to. It isn´t a perfectly neutral headphone, it´s a tiny bit warmer and more charming than necessary. A bit more air would improve its sound; more deep bass would too. The impedance response sucks - big time. It´ll only sound perfect with many portable devices, yet Sennheiser exclusively addresses home stereo listeners. Unwise of Sennheiser to create a headphone that can´t decide on its personalities. Additionally, the bourgeois design could deter people from taking it seriously. If you can accept all that, you´ll be rewarded with a stage performance besting every other headphone I´ve ever heard (and there were many). A precisely defined rendering of objects on the virtual stage combined with a fantastic sense of space surrounding these objects... as if you would take an auditorally magnifying glass to zoom in on something without ever loosing the bigger picture. It doesn´t sound boring but vibrant and apart from the warm tilt it´s neutral enough to objectively judge sound quality should you so desire. Add to that the comfort and you end up with a headphone that´s wonderfully suited for hours and hours of aurally pleasure. Just use it with amps having a low output impedance, adjust the position on your head until it sounds best and you´ll be having fun for years to come. Recommended.

Pro:
  • incredible stage performance; surpasses every other headphone I know
  • vibrant, yet pleasant sound
  • neutral from 100 to 10,000 Hz...
  • ... with marginally warm & charming character
  • perfect differentiation
  • superior precision
  • free of distortions
  • perfect timing
  • loud enough with portable units
  • very good built quality and haptic
  • comfortable to wear for extended amounts of time
  • earcups big enough for almost any earform/size
  • can be modded to top-of-the-line model (almost)
  • relatively inexpensive
  • most parts can be replaced

Contra:
  • sound depends a lot on correct sitting position
  • bass below 60 Hz muted
  • could be more airy above 10,000 Hz
  • highly problematic impedance response
  • 'surround reflector' inside earcup might hurt upon being touched for longer periods of time
  • comes without accessories like bag or additional, shorter cable
  • short cable comes extra & is nowhere to be found
  • conservative design


Last update: 18.04.2014

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Mini reviews: Sennheiser Momentum & Skullcandy Aviator


Left: Sennheiser Momentum (photo copyright: Sennheiser) / Right: Skullcandy Aviator (photo copyright: Skullcandy)

Failed first attempts of buying a new headphone:
Sennheiser Momentum & Skullcandy Aviator

Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE has been talking about the Sennheiser Momentum. Unleashed to the market in January 2013, it has been reviewed by every major magazine, even the ones usually not dealing with audio stuff. Judging from countless sights of people wearing it on the streets, one gains the impression, that it is the momentary beacon of hipster culture. Fascinating; Sennheiser isn´t exactly a company I´d equate with being 'cool'. Whatever, people describe it as well sounding, perfectly manufactured, etc. But only thing is certain: it´s expensive with a price tag of 300,- Euros. My Sennheiser HD-600 now costs the same... and you´d be getting A LOT more headphone. According to some reviews (for example by German magazine AUDIO) the Momentum not only costs the same, no, it´s also on the same sound level. WTF?!?

The Momentum sounds warm. Not as warm as my HD-448 but still bloated on occasion. In fact, wouldn´t there be the lovely, slightly coloured treble response, the Momentum wouldn´t sound so different from my HD-448. Main differences: the stage is too wide, ripping apart the stereo perspective. My dear Sennheiser engineers: wider isn´t always better; the stage not only goes from left to right but from front to back too. Bass is deeper but slightly soft. Some good can be found as well: treble sounds fine. It features characteristics my HD-448 sometimes lack: precision, gloss and attack, even though it feels slightly artificial.

Built quality is 'Meh'. Sure, real leather, aluminum, glass fiber and the whole shebang... yet it all feels so flimsy and fragile. The cable - typical for Sennheiser - feels extremely thin. Good for suppressing cable-noise, bad for reliability. Thank Heavens, it can be replaced. The bag the Momentum comes in, is well built but too big for small cans such as these.

In the end I didn´t keep it: I didn´t like the stage, I didn´t like its' expensive price, I didn´t like the built quality and - most important - I didn´t like that the earcups are so small. My head is larger than average, my ears are much smaller. The Momentum still didn´t fit comfortably... and I´ve tried every setting possible. Adding insult to injury: it´s manufactured in China (not a bad thing but Sennheiser is ashamed of it) and I´m sure, that Sennheiser would still make a buck if they sell it for half the price. To make a long story short; I sent it back. And ordered the Skullcandy Aviator.

Comparison frequency response Skullcandy Aviator / Sennheiser Momentum

The Skullcandy Aviator is beautiful - if bling is your thing. Made out of metal, leather (albeit artificial), comes with ample accessories... it´s a bargain considering the official price of 120,- Euros. I got it for only 60,- Euros, who´d be able to say no? Built quality is fantastic considering the price: the metal parts look shiny & solid, the leather feels real enough, the replaceable cable is beautifully braided. Everything apart from the plastic cups is attached with screws. You can take it apart easily should you want to! As accessories you get a very nice carrying bag, looking a lot like sponge bag. Everywhere possible Skullcandy placed their logo, the skull. You can find it on zippers, the mesh covering the headphone drivers, inside the bag, on the cable plug, everywhere. From its looks, the headphones literally screams 'DESIGN-OBJECT'; the amber-coloured, transparent cups are supposed to be evocative of those sunglasses worn by pilots, glasses us Germans refer to as 'Porn-glasses' (because male pornstars used to wear them in the '70s). Through these transparent cups you can easily see what's inside the headphone; a nice touch. It´s foldable too, so summarizing, there shouldn´t be anything left to desire.

Oh wait, it´s a headphone, it has sound! Know what? It sounds well. And I was just as surprised as you are now. Look above at the frequency response, it shows pretty much how it sounds compared to the Sennheiser Momentum: less deep, but more upper bass, recessed mids, a lot more treble. Sounds bad, yet it isn´t. Mids are recessed, yes, but not as much as I´d have expected. Bass doesn´t feel bloated, treble isn´t piercing but most of the time too glossy. Upper frequencies are in fact the biggest problem of the Aviator because they aren't differentiated enough, they lack precision. Stage? As wide as the Momentums', but equally shallow - and blurred. This blurriness can be removed completely by removing the amber-coloured, transparent cups. But that doesn´t look beautiful, nor is it safe to use: you could easily break the needle thin cables on the now accessible interior parts of the headphone.

The comfort... sigh... again, a too small headphone. It´s supposed to be an over-ear headphone, yet it feels a lot like an on-ear headphone. The headband is on the brink of being too small for my head (it´s not THAT big!), the cups are still too small for my tiny ears. The cushions are very soft and comfy... but they don´t help because all the time my earlobes touch the inner mesh covering the drivers. What to do about it? Sending it back of course. Might be a nice headphone for other people though.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

The Socials