Difference between Hi-fi headphones and normal ones

Discussion in 'Ask The Experts' started by Rayleigh Silvers, Mar 7, 2012.

  1. Rayleigh Silvers

    Rayleigh Silvers New Member

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    Hello there.

    I've been researching headphones for quite a while now but without being able to demo them (apart from the ones from HMV which are connected to some unknown amp), I have no idea what to expect or what I'm supposed to expect from "audiophile" headphones. My first expensive headphone was the sennheiser HD558, and to be honest I wasn't impressed at all. Found it very boring and didn't feel like I was hearing things I couldn't hear before, plus I though the bass was lackluster. I also have the soundmagic E10 and koss ksc75's, both of which seem to be highly regarded on audio forums, but again I find these to be quite boring and don't really bring my music to life.

    Is splashing loads of money going to solve this problem? How much difference is say a £100+ headphone compared to a £30 headphone like the Panasonic HTF600 (which I have). Also what would be the difference between something that costs a lot more like the sennheiser 650 or the audio technica w900x? Is it just being able to hear the breathing of the vocalists, the plucking of the guitar strings etc or is there more to it than that? Logic would dictate that I should be blown away listening to stuff more expensive, but the general concencus is that the more expensive headphones seem to be more boring to the consumer class.

    The point I'm trying to make is would someone who is used to a consumer oriented sound benifit from hifi, or at least be able to appreciate it enough to feel that the money is well spent?
     
    Last edited: Mar 7, 2012
  2. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    Great questions

    This is something I wished more people would discuss. An audiophile headphone is one that generally tries to reproduce what's in the music faithfully. Terms that have been used are 'accurate', 'flat response', 'neutral' and so forth. But I've found that I can listen to headphones from the Sennheiser 800 down to the German Maestro 8.35D - a range of 6 to 1 in price, and yet have what I think is a good audiophile experience with all of those.

    Part of the answer is, does the headphone sound clear and clean and reproduce music with proper tonality and balance after a several-hour listen, or do you need to alter the balance somewhat with an EQ adjustment to make it satisfactory? If you find it acceptable as an audiophile headphone as-is, or if you can EQ it to make it so, then in my opinion it's an audiophile headphone.

    So far I have not found anything below approx. £150 that I would class as audiophile. That's because the lower tier are either not fixable by a simple EQ adjustment, or even with EQ, the sound does not reproduce music clearly enough with proper tonality.

    EDIT: Here is a critical test: Start with a high quality/price headphone and listen for at least 30 to 60 minutes, then, with the same track playing, switch to the lesser headphone. That should tell you a lot. Switching from the lesser headphone to the more expensive one rarely points up the differences. I can't explain why here, but trust me - this always works.
     
    Last edited: Mar 7, 2012
  3. RobinHiFi

    RobinHiFi Super Moderator

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    Hi Rayleigh Silvers

    HiFi Headphones is a term used to describe high end headphones which focus mainly on sound quality and are aimed at a consumer music lover audience. I guess the two most common other types of headphones are Fashion headphones, which appeal for their bright colours, patterns and street credable looks and Pro headphones which are designed to make sound engineers and musicians lives easier.

    Having got that out of the way lets look at what is going on here with your experiences. Several scenarios cover you not really being impressed with headphones you have tried.

    1 - Your music on your MP3 player/phone (portable CDplayer?) is in low quality.

    This will never sound goosd and will sound worse with better headphone, or at least you will hear even better how bad low quality tracks are. It is like glasses - properly fitted glasses do not make ugly ladies beautiful, they make the ugliness even more apparent!

    2 - You have not tried headphones you like yet.

    Quality of reproduction can be measured but as we all hear very differently (everyone has a very different listening experience. Age, Sex, life experiences and any hearing damage means that different people like different sounding headphones) there is no "Best" headphone, simply the best one for you.

    3 - You don't have very good ears.

    It is possible that you do not have a very well developed sense of hearing. My sense of hearing has been honed over 30 years of playing and recording music. I have been a studio engineer and session musician and have spent more than an hour of every single day of my life (and most days a lot of hours) listening to and deconstructing sound. I can remember the sound of most of a huge list of headphones (and instruments and equipment) and would be happy to try to identify them based on 30 seconds of a track I know well. Having quite a bit of music production under my belt I find it easy to get a handle on the general EQ of audio equipment from a very quick listen. Also knowing precisely everything that is there to hear on some records makes it easy to judge how detailed a headphone is. Good ears do not come naturally they come from listening to high quality audio and really listening to what is there before comparing this to other equipment/music/instruments/voices etc.

    I'm guessing that you are a combination between 1 and 2. It sounds like you want to get into listening deeper to the music, there are no tricks here but you need to do your research and question yourself to find out what you want. I can give you some guidance about choosing something but you need to describe your tastes in sound and your tastes in music, your budget, where you will use the new headphones and if there are any restrictions governing your choice. Just changing your headphones will not necessarily make for an amazing experience - look at starting to collect lossless music, maybe think about a new player which is an improvement on your current one.

    Hope that helps:)
     
  4. Rayleigh Silvers

    Rayleigh Silvers New Member

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    Thanks for the response guys.

    I don't think I agree with no.1 Robin. Everything I've bought over the last 2 months has been according to the research I have done over the internet including the much revered Head-fi.com. I have a sansa clip+ with rockbox and all my music files are either 320kbps or FLAC. The headphones I mentioned were also ones that were highly recommended like the soundmagic E10, which is recommended on this site as well.

    Point's 2 & 3 are probably the ones I fall under at this current time. I am someone who doesn't get impressed very easily. It's not that I do it on purpose, it's just that things tend not to blow me away E.g going from standard tv to HD, or from a 20" tv to a 50". I can see the difference but it's not something I feel I needed to spend all that money on.

    The problem could be that some of the songs I listen to aren't mastered properly (I listen to J-pop/rock and k-pop), but those are my musical tastes so the best I can do is to get 320kbps or FLAC files as I have done.

    I agree with your point Dalethorn. I can't understand all the companies that say their headphones have a flat frequency response. That would mean they do not add or take anything away from the music. But as is the case most of the time (according to people who have listened to such headphones) they never seem to sound the same. Is it just the tonality that allows headphone manufacturers to charge more? What exactly is more detail? Is it just being able to hear someone cough in the crowd? Or the air the vocalist takes before breathing in? Does this only apply to live recording? What about non live recordings such as pop music which don't even use real instruments most of the time?

    My idea of a good headphone or one that would sound good to me is something with primarily good vocals that are forward relative to the music but don't feel detatched, but at the very least they shouldn't sound recessed or be drowned out by bass. Saying that I do love a good bass, one that gives you a physical feeling like reverb or vibrations. Good seperation and soundstage would also be a good thing. I feel with some of the songs I listen to, some of the sounds/instruments tend to be stacked or positioned in the same place so they overlap each other and I can't really make out what they are or what they sound like.

    I agree, there is no substitute for first hand impressions, trouble is finding somewhere to get that experience is virtually impossible.
     
    Last edited: Mar 8, 2012
  5. UndefinedMemory

    UndefinedMemory New Member

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    In my experience, there is quite a big difference when you jump from £30 to £100 headphones. The first really good set of portable headphones that I had was the Denon AH-D1001 and the difference was amazing compared to what I had before. There will also be differences in build quality and the materials used, which will improve as the price increases (though Denon don't have the best track record there), and other factors like sound isolation or active noise cancellation and comfort that have not been mentioned.

    Also, with the more expensive heapdhones that are not intended for portable use, the amplification makes a huge difference. I have a pair of Sennheiser HD-580s that I have always enjoyed but have never been really blown away by. I recently picked up a new desktop headphone amp and was expecting my portable pair of Beyer's to continue to outshine them, but was pleasantly surprised to hear the Senns come into their own. The increased amplification didn't do much to change the Beyer's from the portable amp that I use (which already made a vast improvement compared to the iphone headphone out) but really changed the quality of the Senns. I was especially impressed by the sound stage and the placement of all of the individual sounds around me.

    I think what's more important, though, than simply the cost of the headphones is finding ones that you like and that really match your tastes, both in music and in sound reproduction. I wish my Beyer's had more bass, but the way they do treble is amazing, even compared to the Senns (that I think now sound better overall from the new amp). Each of the headphone companies has their own sound signature and style, which will vary some from headphone to headphone but is ultimately what they're selling: it's their unique sound that they're hoping some people - well lots of people! - will prefer to the competition. Also, what do you think is the most important part of the sound that affects your enjoyment? Good bass? A big sound stage? Really clean cymbals and guitar strings? Warm, full voices? If you can work out what you like most then it can really help you find headphones that will make you enjoy the music more, which is the point!
     
  6. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    Headphone sound

    Here's an idea that may get you an answer:

    First, when the signature (frequency response, or balance - i.e. bass level -vs-mids and treble) is way different between two headphones, it's very difficult to compare them for quality.

    If you can, apply some EQ with a good quality equalizer first, then compare. You nearly always get better, cleaner results reducing bass on one headphone than boosting bass on another.

    Once you bring the signatures within some kind of comparability range, then do this (and note - this is *absolutely* important to follow this sequence):

    Listen to the headphone you expect to be better first, usually the more expensive headphone. Give it a good listen with one only music track, long enough to have the total sound experience in your head. Now while the track is still playing, switch to the other headphone and make sure the volume is approximately the same. This is where you hear the quality differences, whether one is clearer or muddier than the other. This test may have to be repeated many times since there are usually more than one quality issue, but with low cost headphones sometimes only one test is needed.

    Switching headphones with just one source is difficult when you have to do 3 things: Unplug one and insert the other, change them on your head, then adjust the volume to the same approx. level. I've gotten much better test results by using two identical music players connected to two separate but similar enough headphone amps playing at the same relative volume. Different amps should not compromise the result unless they are wildly different in sound (as headphones are), but if the amps are that different, one of them needs to be replaced, since the difference between good amps should be very subtle compared to the headphone differences.

    EDIT: Switching from a lower quality headphone to a higher quality headphone does not usually reveal a major difference for me, and it's a psychoacoustic property that I'm sure there's an explanation for somewhere.
     
    Last edited: Mar 8, 2012
  7. Rayleigh Silvers

    Rayleigh Silvers New Member

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    I've tried both £30 headphones (panasonic HTF600) and £100 phones (HD558) and to be honest I'm enjoyed the panny's a lot lot more. The senns to me were just boring. I tried running them through a denon av receiver which should provide more than enough power but the sound signature didn't really change that much for me. Although the senns were open the soundstage didn't actually feel that wide and it felt as if there was a veil over the music. Maybe this is what they term as a "dark" headphone.

    Which beyer's are you using? I do agree, finding the right headphones with the right signature is the most important thing. I started browsing head-fi and sites like this looking for that special headphone but to be honest it was a massive mistake. I used to enjoy my music a lot more in the past when I had my walkman phone and didn't even know companies like sennheiser existed. But as I did more and more research and tried/purchased more headphones, I can honestly say I haven't enjoyed my music anywhere near as much as I used to. Before it used to feel like a special occasion putting on my cans, but now it feels like a bit of a chore as I'm trying to "analyse" parts of the songs seeing how one headphone improves on the other. I would never have thought of spending more than £20 on a pair of head/earphones but now that I am in this mess, Im just looking for that 1 or maybe 2 pair of phones that can drag me out of this audiophile world and back to enjoying my music, however "innaccurate" it may be.

    About my preferred sound signature. I listen to J-pop/jrock and k-pop. Primarily my focus is vocals. I'm looking for headphones that can convey the emotion in a singers voice and give me goosebumps when they hit a high note. I don't really know what thick sweet vocals mean. If it means anything I prefer how vocals sound live rather than recorded, as live vocals have so much more emotion. They also sound more airy as well. I like a decent sized soundstage. The ones my panasonics have a perfect for me, not in your face like grado's, but not completely distant. I want to be able to feel the bass if a track calls for it (which a lot of k-pop tracks do), but I can't stand headache inducing bass like you get from the back of chavvy cars.
     
  8. Rayleigh Silvers

    Rayleigh Silvers New Member

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    Thanks for that detailed answer. It does seem like a test like that would be the best way for me to learn what exactly the differences would be. Unfortunately tests like that require quite a bit of funds which I don't have at the moment. That's the most frustrating thing to be honest because you are forced to rely on the the opinions of people who have spent time with/owned those headphones and with all the purchases I've made, my experiences don't tend to agree with theirs, which is understandable as music is subjective anyway.

    Your test seems a bit hardcore as well. I could never listen to a track more than maybe 4 times in a row as it would stick in my head all day and drive me head. If it's a song I'm particularly fond of then it's even worse since I'd never want to listen to it again :p
     
  9. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    Which headphone

    Then I'll take the plunge here and make a recommendation. Taking what I know to be the safest best, i.e. avoid headphones with known colorations, and taking into account proper detail so instruments and voices are rendered accurately and don't smear together, and lastly comfort so they're not aggravating to wear. I can't think of a Beyerdynamic that qualifies. The Grado PS-500 could qualify with some specific bass EQ, but it's about £500. I can't come up with a Sennheiser less than about £1200, since I haven't heard the new HD-700. There may be a Denon that would qualify, but I haven't heard them. AKG I'm doubtful of. I'm left with the Shure 940 at about £240, which is as near perfect and accurate and detailed as you can get for less than probably £700 to £800. The only possible complaint I've heard is about its brightness level, which if trimmed slightly gives you near perfection for a bargain price. You can watch my review on youtube for details. If you could play just one song once or twice with the Shure, then with your current headphone, that should tell you what you need to know. I can't think of another headphone that would have as much audible difference between it and the better low-cost headphones. And BTW, when I hear something I really really like, I might play it 15 or more times in a row. It does stick in my head that way, but the sensation is still good. I wouldn't want to have to listen to something awful several times in a row.
     
  10. Rayleigh Silvers

    Rayleigh Silvers New Member

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    Didn't expect a reply so late in the night ^^.

    What is your youtube channel? You seem very knowledgable so it's be fun to check out your videos. I've seen the shures suggested on head-fi for vocals as well. plus I've heard they are very detailed. I'm not too keen on the design though, and the comfort doesn't look the best, but I think I'd be willing to give them a try. Have you tried anything from Audio technica? Given that they are are Japanese, they should be able to do their on music properly if logic dictates.
     
  11. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    My youtube channel is 'dalethorn2'
    Wait for a couple hours and I will have a new "Eight Headphone Review" up on youtube along with the new Philips L1 review. But I recommend watching the Shure 940 first to get an idea of my description. As to comfort, the 940 is one of the most comfortable headphones ever made, with very moderate ear pressure. The only negative for some users is it may feel claustrophobic because of the close fit. I grew up down the street from Audio Technica in Akron, now moved to Stow, a suburb. I never had one of their headphones, although they look very promising. Since I have to pay for everything myself, my purchases are limited. Maybe if they issue something new that looks really interesting I will go for it.

    I've been using hifi headphones since the late 70's, starting with the Stax SRX MK3, Koss ESP-9, Beyer DT-48S/E, and a number of others. I joined the Audio Engineering Society and subscribed to nearly every hifi publication at the time. So it gives me a good background to see the big picture of what's happening now. But having said that, what is happening now is an explosion of unprecedented growth in the industry. The bad news is that the hifi headphones are greatly overshadowed by the non-hifi headphones, so the manufacturers have less incentive to aim for uncolored reproduction than ever before. It is going to be a very interesting decade.
     
  12. Rayleigh Silvers

    Rayleigh Silvers New Member

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    I've seen the video. Didn't realise you were American. Quite rare seeing as how this is a UK forum.

    Your head-to-head review sounds very interesting, I love comparisons. You touched on something I was going to bring up. As you mentioned, Hifi headphones are being overshadowed by companies like monster, but I think the same is happening in the music industry. My impression is companies are getting lazy and not spending as much time as they should perfecting the recording of songs. The concern with the shures is that they are made for HIFI, and they would work best with tracks that are mastered properly. Since I'm listening to mainstream pop/rock, would they not sound terrible and bring out the flaws in my music?
     
  13. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    Shure 1840

    Actually with the 1840, the presence region from ~4 to 6 khz is somwhat subdued compared to the Sennheiser 800 for example, so it affords good detail with less harshness from bad tracks than any other high quality headphone I have. The area from 7 to 9 khz can also be a problem with headphones - this is the area where some of the fundamental tones from cymbals and other bright percussion instruments live, and the 1840 does not have as much advantage over the HD-800 in this area as between 4 to 6 khz. Still, my worst-case track of the 2500 tracks I have is Sidesaddle by Carousel, and it's playable with the 1840 but not with the Shure 940 or Senn 800.

    As for music quality, here in the U.S. in the LP days, we had horrible quality both in boosted highs on the records as well as truly awful vinyl quality. We mostly got around that by buying English and German imports, which were excellent. The early CD days were not good for anyone since the A to D codecs had problems. When the codecs were improved, everyone had comparable quality, for a while at least. Now we have compression and loudness wars. I've finally figured out why the loudness wars, and it doesn't have so much to do with radio etc. as it does with getting the volume up on music players. You wouldn't think the music "industry" would be so keen to make music players more useful to the kiddies, since they download so much free stuff, but that's one of the secrets of the music biz that people should learn about before they agree to DRM and other such things.

    Being an American in a UK forum doesn't seem out of place for me. My ancestors came here from Shropshire-Staffordshire in the early 1600's, and founded places like Hempstead Long Island and another little 'burb called Flushing in New York. Having owned the big Oxford dictionary for years, I keep up on the language pretty well, and then my favorite genre of pop music is New Wave circa early 1980's, most of that from Britain.
     
  14. Rayleigh Silvers

    Rayleigh Silvers New Member

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    Been doing some research into the loudness war thing, and I think the music I listen to is probably part of this craze. If we assume my music is poorly recorded/mastered or compressed, is there any point in spending money on high quality headphones? Would headphones like the 940 only make my music sound worse?
     
  15. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    The question is...

    Generally if you don't ask the right question you don't get the right answer. Take a different approach. The headphone should be a straight wire between the electronic recording and your ears. So in other words, it should not *alter* the signal, just transform it from an electronic signal to acoustic sound. That can be done with good accuracy, for a price.

    Why do you want that? Very simple. Not to *get* "good sound", but rather, to *prevent* bad sound, like you're hearing now. I don't like to repeat myself, but here is my suggestion that I feel very confident of: Get a Philips L1, use bass reducer EQ, and listen for 10 hours or more. Then put your old headphones on. If you don't appreciate the difference, return them to the seller immediately.

    Edit: Yes - Philips L1, much better bet than Shure 940.
     
    Last edited: Mar 11, 2012
  16. Rayleigh Silvers

    Rayleigh Silvers New Member

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    You seem really confident in the philips. If they are that good, I'm willing to give them a try, although their asking price is very steep for someone who hasn't really experienced high fidelity (i.e me). They are in the price range of the d2000 and HD600. The more pressing problem is that I can't find anywhere that sells them apart from philips' own website, and according to their terms and conditions, returns are only accepted if any seals aren't broken.

    I went to town today and tried out some headphones. I didn't get a chance to do the a/b method that you suggested, but I did try to see how much better they were than my panasonic HTF600's. The ones I tried were the D2000, ATh-A500, ATH-A700x and the M50. To be honest, none of them blew me away. I noticed a slightly bigger soundstage, but it didn't sound anything special, and I wasn't hearing anything I couldn't hear.

    Of all the phones I tried, it was the ws55 that impressed me. The guy asked me what files I was using, I told him mp3. He said I wouldn't benefit from these headphones unless I listened to FLAC or WAVE. All my files are 320kbps, so I was rather scepticle of his advice since most people claim they can't hear any difference between the two files.
     
  17. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    Trying headphones

    That hearing difference between FLAC or other such formats and 320k MP3's is much more complicated than what most people lead you to believe. Just for one example, who made the MP3 and who made the FLAC, or was the MP3 made from the FLAC, etc.? When I make 320k MP3's from FLAC's or from CD's, I play back critical portions of the tracks at high volume to listen for the tiniest differences, and don't hear any, with the best headphones. There are differences of course, which may be subliminal, or may involve certain subtleties that would be of interest only to professional musicians or academics. Not to worry.

    I selected the Philips as the most likely of all the headphones I have to do the most things right. It is still my number one listening choice, and I don't even know if I will get back to the Shure 1840 anytime soon. Probably the German Maestro 8.35D is the closest to the L1 in signature, although the Philips is more refined and smoother. The Shure 940 is an outstanding headphone, but to a certain taste for a narrower demographic - lighter bass and somewhat brighter.

    BTW, here is a link to the comparison I did of my current nine headphones:

    http://dalethorn.com/Headphone_Nine_Compare.txt
     
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