Sennheiser HDA-280 Audiometric Stereo Headphone review

Discussion in 'Headphone Reviews' started by dalethorn, May 23, 2014.

  1. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    Youtube review: YouTube


    Sources: iPhone5 with Portaphile Micro/PA2V2/Decware Zen Head amps using the LOD, various computers using Microstreamer/Beyer A200p/v-moda Verza DAC/amps.

    Review note: My first impressions of the sound of the HDA280 are based on direct comparisons to other headphones - the v-moda M80 and M100, the Beyerdynamic DT1350 and T51p, the FAD Pandora IV and VI, and notes I've accumulated from many prior reviews. I describe how I relate to the HDA280 (i.e. my personal tastes and how I use the headphone) only after covering all of the objective issues.

    My first impression of the HDA280 was like listening to a small radio speaker. This being an 'Audiometric' headphone for hearing tests, the bass and treble are extremely recessed. My only previous experience with an 'Audiometric' headphone was the Beyer DT48a with the round hard-rubber earpads, so I knew what I was ordering here, but I was curious whether the Audioforge equalizer would be able to make the sound listenable for music. I was also interested to hear whether that EQ result would be a smooth response, or choppy due to the extreme EQ. The short answer: Smooth. Note that because the HDA280 isn't suitable (or designed) for music listening as-is, all of the following text will assume the Audioforge EQ (see the chart above or on my dalethorn website under Photos and Audioforge) to be in use at all times.

    When I finished the EQ settings for the HDA280 (the Audiometric edition of the Sennheiser HD280 Pro), I heard sibilant distortions with a few music tracks, and traced it to the 'Preamp' level Audioforge uses to prevent overloading the front end of the i-device internal amps. With that setting at -8 db, full volume and dynamics were restored with external amps like the Portaphile Micro, connected to the i-device LOD. I used MrSpeakers' Alpha Dog as my primary headphone for modeling the final HDA280 signature, and other headphones such as the Beyer DT1350/T51p and the Sennheiser HD26 provided backup assurance. The end result is a smooth hi-fi sound, and even the cannon blasts on Telarc's 1812 Overture are tight and clean with full impact. One of the final tests I did was to directly compare the Alpha Dog connected to the Portaphile amp and HDA280 connected to the PA2V2 amp, and since the Portaphile amp is much better than the PA2V2 it wasn't surprising that the Alpha Dog sounded better in that test.

    I then switched amps, expecting the headphones to be more comparable since the superior Alpha Dog was using the lesser amp and vice-versa. And I made certain that the music tracks I used would not compromise the dynamic capabilities of each amp to drive its respective headphone. In this latter test, the HDA280 sounded more extended and detailed on the high end, but not quite to the extent that the Alpha Dog sounded better in the first test. Other aspects of the sound such as midrange clarity, tone and bass detail exhibited differences, but those differences weren't as noticeable as the differences in high-end extension and upper harmonic details. Still, these tests are a great confirmation that the HDA280 EQ is a success, and the final sound is audiophile quality.

    One of my favorite test tracks (aside from the music samples listed below) is the "Organ Pedal Scale" sample from the Chesky test disc (or HDTracks download). This track played with good detail and fundamental weight. I played this side-by-side with the HDA280 and MrSpeakers' Alpha Dog, and the Alpha Dog was not significantly different in detail or weight/impact. Another great test track is the Tutt-Keltner drum improvisation, which is very revealing of transient responses. I also played this side-by-side with the Alpha Dog, and while the Alpha Dog did not perform differently on the drum hits in most respects, its better high-end extension gave the drum strikes a little more "edge". That advantage in extension was more obvious with the cymbals. Still, the equalized HDA280 outperforms many of my other $300 headphones in clean treble response.

    When I removed the HDA280 from the simple and otherwise-empty box, I was pleased to see a high-quality mostly plastic headphone based on the Sennheiser HD280 Pro but with better earpads and a much more comfortable fit. The cable, modified to add a 6.35 mm stereo plug, is 10 feet long, single-entry, and made with very low-cost speaker wire. It's detachable by removing the earpad and then removing the fastener that secures it. Summing up the HDA280 experience, I've learned that the Audioforge equalizer is able to restore full hi-fi sound to an extemely range-restricted audiometric headphone, in this case at least. Since Audioforge has only 7 user-configurable bands, I wasn't able to fine-tune the upper treble to see if the sound would get closer to the Alpha Dog's performance. Still, the potential of this equalizer to make large corrections without incurring excess noise, distortions, or roughness in the response (as happens with conventional equalizers) is simply amazing.

    Isolation with the HDA280 is average or better for a full-size closed headphone, and the leakage is so low that when playing music at average volume (i.e. not loud) in a very quiet office, a co-worker in an adjacent cubicle will not likely hear the music even faintly. The comments in the music tracks listed in this review can be compared to other headphone reviews I've done, to get an idea of how the HDA280 plays the different types of music listed here compared to other headphones. My suggestion is instead of reading each comment below as an absolute unto itself, you could compare these notes to other reviews as they get posted, and see how the HDA280 compares with each individual track.
  2. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    Senn HDA-280 review part 2 - music tracks

    Animotion - Obsession (1980's New Wave/Techno): The upper bass synth has excellent detail and tone with a modest weight, and both male and female vocals sound natural without favoring either. The HDA280 plays this very well.

    Bauhaus - Bela Lugosi's Dead (~1980): Strong midrange sound effects - this is a good worst-case test for resonant-type sounds in the most sensitive midrange area. Handled very well by the HDA280.

    Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Excellent overall sound. Of special note here are the bass impacts beginning around 10:30 of the fourth movement. Those impacts are soft and well in the background, but you can really feel the weight they carry with the HDA280. This bass result was surprising, since many of my full-size headphones don't perform this well.

    Black Sabbath - Iron Man (Classic Rock): Very good instrumental detail and the vocal sounds very natural. As with most classic rock tracks, there is very little or no deep bass. The HDA280 plays this music smoothly, and the lack of deep bass doesn't unbalance the treble.

    Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Good sound quality - this is a great test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled extremely well by the HDA280.

    Cantus - Danny Boy (Traditional/Male Choral/Acapella): The HDA280 plays the voices with enough low end warmth and weight to sound very natural, yet there is no added emphasis of the lower register of the male voices on this track.

    Cath Carroll - Moves Like You (1980's New Wave/Techno): This track's percussion and voice are crisp and well-balanced, and there's a good sense of space or soundstage around the voices and instruments. The HDA280 reproduces the space, detail, and tonality very convincingly.

    Catherine Wheel - Black Metallic (~1991): Goth with industrial overtones - I like this since it's a great music composition and the sound effects are smoothly integrated into the mix. This may sound distorted or mushy with some headphones, but the HDA280 not only renders the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly, it makes this track sound more musical than many comparably-priced headphones.

    Chris Isaak - Wicked Game (Pop/Rock): The HDA280 plays this high treble energy recording very smoothly - the voice and instruments are detailed but not sharp or edgy.

    Chromatics - I'm On Fire (Synth-Pop, female lead): This track has a good amount of space around the voice and instruments, making for a very pleasant stereo image. The voice is excellent, and the tambourine sound is as realistic as I've heard with any other headphone since doing these detailed reviews.

    David Hazeltine - Fur Elise (Jazz): A very high-quality recording from HDTracks. The HDA280 reproduces the instruments smoothly with a spacious ambiance. The wire-brush-on-cymbal harmonics are very extended and detailed.

    Grieg (Beecham-Royal Philharmonic) - Peer Gynt-Solveig's Lullaby (Classical): This very old (late 1950's) stereo recording must have been made on the most expensive gear in the world, since the overall sound quality and especially Ilse Hollweg's amazing voice are as close to "being there" as I've heard with some of the better classical recordings made since the year 2000. The HDA280 plays this music perfectly.

    Hans Zimmer - Dark Knight-Aggressive Expansion (Soundtrack): The percussion in this track hits really hard, and the bass tones beginning around 0:45 have the ultra-deep "shuddery" kind of sound and feel that indicates a good deep-bass response. Overall, the HDA280 plays this music very well.

    Heaven 17 - Let Me Go (1980's New Wave/Techno): The bass instrument (guitar?) has very good detail, and the voices and ambiance have a "you are there" quality that's uncommon in early 1980's pop music. The HDA280 does an excellent job with this track.

    Hugo Audiophile - 15-16 (Electronic): I'm not sure what the 15-16 stands for - perhaps track numbers from a CD album. The deep-bass tones that start around 33-34 seconds into the track reproduce very well with the HDA280. This is a great recording for evaluating whether a headphone's bass will be sufficient for most environments, since for many headphones that have a weaker bass, the deep bass gets absorbed and mostly lost when the environment contains a lot of low-frequency energy.

    Human League - Keep Feeling Fascination (1980's New Wave/Techno): This track's bass line is very detailed, but the somewhat forward voices don't have quite the "you are there" quality of the Heaven 17 track noted above.

    Jimmy Smith - Basin Street Blues (early 60's): This track has several loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don't sound clean and musical with some headphones. The HDA280 provides excellent detail. Listen particularly to the second crescendo at 15 seconds in for maximum detail effect. I'd like to emphasize that these crescendos are probably the worst-case test I have for instrument separation and detail, and the HDA280 plays those extremely well.

    Kellogg Auditorium, Battle Creek Michigan, Aeolian-Skinner Organ (1933) - Pedal, 32', Resultant, Arpeggio: This 16 hz organ pedal tone differs from other music tones in that you won't "hear" the tone - you'll only feel it. Although most music tones have harmonics (including this one), the harmonics from this tone will be too weak to provide any "feel", so whatever you actually hear would not be part of the fundamental 16 hz tone. There are ~30 hz sounds in the outdoor environment in big cities, generated by large trucks, buses, and subway trains, and they have a quality of "rumble" that's similar to some deep-bass tones found in music. This 16 hz organ tone is easily distinguished from those sounds when compared on a headphone that has good undistorted response at 16 hz. The HDA280 reproduces the fundamental tone very well, but with less detail than the best headphones I've had.

    Mantovani - Sunrise Sunset (Easy Listening, ca. 1972): A master musician and conductor who specialized in light classics and orchestral pop music, Mantovani's accomplishments were overshadowed by music critics who couldn't tolerate the notion of "light classics" or "semi-classical" music, even when those recordings were no threat to the classical music genres. In any case the later Mantovani recordings from the mid-1960's through mid-1970's had the advantage of being mixed for much better hi-fi systems than those which the music critics possessed at the start of the Long Playing (LP) record cycle. Here in 2014, at least some of those digital remasters have improved the sound further, although it's not always the case. This track as played on the HDA280 is an excellent example of the sheer musicality lurking in those later recordings, and is highly recommended for soundstage, instrumental tone, and musical balance.

    Michael Tilson Thomas - Rhapsody In Blue (20th Century Classic): Great sound and soundstage, and terrific piano playing and tone. There are some very deep bass impacts starting around 38 seconds into the 17:24 length track, and the weight of those impacts is subtle but appreciable with the HDA280.

    Porcupine Tree - Trains (Pop-Rock): This track opens with some nicely-detailed string sounds and a forward-sounding male voice with a higher-than-average register. There are a series of "clip-clop" effects starting at 3:19 that should sound like they were made with wooden blocks of some kind. The HDA280 reproduces those sound effects with slightly less than perfect tonality.

    Richard Strauss (Mester-Pasadena) - Also Sprach Zarathustra (opening) (Classical): The granddaddy of bass is in the opening 1:50 of this recording, and I've heard it only once on a large and expensive loudspeaker system in Cleveland. For most people, that experience would be indistinguishable from being in a fairly strong earthquake. The HDA280 conveys as much of that experience as is possible on a typical full-size headphone. The tympani also have good impact here.

    Scarlatti-Kipnis - Sonata in E Major K381 (Classical, Harpsichord): The harpsichord here is fairly bright and highly detailed, and the HDA280 renders the tones and transients very well.

    Trombone Shorty - Backatown (Jazz-Funk): The deep bass impacts here are quite strong, and work very well with the horns and other instruments. The HDA280 delivers the impacts with great weight and detail, and the horns have the kind of bite that gives them a very realistic sound.

    William Orbit - Optical Illusion (Billy Buttons Mix) (Electronic): This is about as close as I want to get to easy-listening music. The string tones beginning at 0:18 are fairly soft, and while the bass isn't very deep, it still adds a good underpinning to the music. The short poetic rap at 4:14, preceded by an etherial female voice, works very well with this track.

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