At IFA earlier in the month I had the opportunity to test a pair of Sennheiser's HD 800s and beyerdynamic's newly-announced T1 headphones, neither of which are your average set of headphones. Both are their respective companies' flagship products, and represent extensive research and development, the goal of which is to reproduce the source material as accurately and naturally as possible. And they don't come cheap - starting at around $1,300 US dollars.
The first thing I'm going to look at is comfort. The beyerdynamic T1s seemed like they should have been quite comfortable - the padding on the ear pieces was very soft. Where they went wrong was the pressure they placed on the sides of my head - which I have to admit is fairly big - but it was quite uncomfortable after about five minutes. The Sennheisers on the other hand were incredibly comfortable. They quickly melted away into nothing, and the sound was just "there" - which is an amazing way to experience music - so that's one point for the HD 800s.
Of course, the ten thousand dollar question is: how do they sound? Before I attack that one I'll just let you know that this was far from a scientific test. Sennheiser had an isolation booth, beyerdynamic didn't. Sennheiser used a Lehman Audio headphone amp, beyerdynamic used their own A1 headphone amp. Which means three variables - as the different headphone amps made it impossible to match the volume levels, which can have a significant effect on how subjectively good something sounds.
Of course listening to The Three Tenors through the HD 800s and some German pop music through the T1s wasn't going to cut it, so I brought my own CD - the Queens of the Stone Age album "Songs for the Deaf". Some of you might be thinking "There's better music to test boutique headphones with!" - and you are right - but I'll get to that later. The reason I chose this CD because I've heard it a million times on a million different sets of headphones and speakers.
So - how do they sound? Both headphones have next to no distortion, or harshness in the high frequencies, and no annoying rattle caused by the low frequencies. They've both got an incredibly impressive stereo image, which means panned sounds aren't just louder in one ear - you experience a distinct spatial placement of different sounds in your head. To be perfectly honest, I'd be happy to own either pair. The notable difference between the headphones was found during track 5 of Songs for the Deaf on the beyerdynamics, where the hi-hats and some cymbals got lost in the fuzz of the guitars. Good? Not to my ears. Accurate? I honestly don't know.
Music is an inherently personal thing, so there's no right or wrong answer. Even if you can identify a difference between two devices in a volume matched double blind test - let's say one sounds "brighter" - you might like that, someone else might not. What I suggest to those of you who are in the market for a set of headphones worth over one thousand dollars, is that you test them for yourself with a variety of music you know intimately, rather than listen to someone like me rabbit on about them. Although you'll have to wait until late November to get your ears on a set of beyerdynamic T1s.
Before I wrap this up, I have to mention that the Sennheisers get a bonus point for their replacable cables, thanks to the mini-XLR connectors. Not only does this protect your investment from damage, it allows the audiophile crowd to upgrade the cables - and for the rest of you, yes, some people will actually upgrade the cables of a $1,400 set of headphones.