This is a very crowded part of the market, with some excellent headphones at moderate pricing.
We suspect most people will be happy with the Sony MDR7506 mentioned above, but if you want to treat yourself a bit further, then you could turn to Sennheiser. Their HD-558 headphones are an amazing bargain at only $122, and their HD 598 product struggles to sound much better for $181. (Update – these are still available, but the current models are now the 559 and 599).
Indeed, as best we can determine, the two models are almost identical inside. They seem to have the same headphone driver (the bit that actually makes the sound) right down to the point where the drivers have the same part number in each model. But they don’t sound fully identical. How can that be? Because there are some variations in the material that surrounds the headphone drivers, changing which frequencies of sounds are slightly absorbed and which ones are maybe even slightly reflected.
This webpage even shows a way to modify the HD 558 headphones to change their sound to more like the HD 598 – basically you simply remove a bit of sound absorbing tape in the back of the speaker ‘cans’.
Physically, the two sets of headphones are the same size, although with different finishes.
Both are larger than the Sony MDR 7506, and they feel more solidly constructed. If you have larger ears, they’ll also provide some possibly valuable extra ear room. With an open back design rather than the closed back design of the Sony headphones, they both allow a bit more room noise in and pass some of the music sound back into the room.
So, what do they sound like. The HD 558 sound is slightly ‘warmer’ (whatever that means, but you might understand if you hear them side by side with the Sony units), while still precise and not imposing their own personality on the music. Maybe there’s a bit less harshness on high string notes – or maybe it is a bit less sparkle. Or perhaps it isn’t in the high notes at all – maybe the Sennheisers allow the lower notes to shine through without being overwhelmed by the higher notes. We’re not going to say one way or the other, because it ends up being for you to choose, as a personal preference.
The HD 598 moves the sound quality closer to the 7506. Again, we hesitate to say if this is via a backing off of the lower frequencies and/or an enhancement of the upper frequencies. And probably you could create a similar effect by a slight tweak on the tone controls, anyway.
In general, we will hint that we think we might generally have a slight preference to open-backed headphones – we say this more as commentary than as recommendation. This is nothing more than a vague and gentle thought, dating back more decades than we care to count, to a time when we had a pair of variable acoustic headphones, with a rear vent that could be opened or closed. We preferred the headphones with the vent open, and even now, if we had to best describe the difference between, eg, the Sony and Sennheiser units, we’d say it is akin to our earlier pair of headphones with the vent either closed or open.
It may well be our imagination, but we sense a bit more ambience in the open back headphones. Try it for yourself and see what you think.
So – HD 558 or HD 598? And, if you get the 558, should you then open them up and take out the tape? We decided in favor of the HD 558 ourselves, and we also decided not to second guess the Sennheiser engineers. We didn’t do the modification.
Both the HD 558 and 598 headphones come with a very long 10 ft cord – straight, rather than coiled. We found we were regularly getting this tangled up. We also disliked that it terminated in the large size jack plug rather than the small portable player size plug, with an adapter to then downsize if needed. This made for a huge and unwieldy connection. Fortunately, the cord is unpluggable at the headphones, and both Sennheiser and other companies offer replacement cords that are shorter and which end in the smaller jack. So we got one of those and that made them much more user-friendly.
Another excellent product in this price range is the Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro, (priced around the $150 mark) although note if you choose the model with 250 ohm impedance, this may sometimes result in low maximum volume levels, especially if playing from an iPhone, which might require you to also get a headphone amplifier such as the $28 Fiio E6, to boost the volume. This of course makes for a slightly more complicated process and another piece of ‘stuff’ to keep with you. Probably better to choose the 32 ohm or 80 ohm model instead, and in terms of sound quality, we’re unaware of any difference in impedance.
There were formerly valid reasons for high impedance headphones, decades ago, and some correlation between higher impedance and higher quality. Those reasons and correlation essentially no longer exist any more and we feel that high impedance headphones these days are as much a marketing artifice as a reflection of higher quality.
A wine analogy would be to point out that screw-cap wine bottles these days do the best job of protecting and preserving the wine, but traditional and high-end wine makers invariably choose cork and lead capsules, no matter how problematic this method is.
An Existential Comment
One last piece of commentary on the subject of headphones around the $200 price point.
As much as we rationally and intellectually understand that the Sony MDR 7506 headphones, costing around $95, are probably the equal to almost every set of headphones that cost two and maybe even three times as much, we still find ourselves reaching for some of our more expensive headphones in the hope that somehow, they must surely be better.
If this affliction might affect you too, and if you have already decided to ‘upgrade’ to headphones in the $200 price range, we wonder how long it might be before you want to upgrade still further again. Is it maybe better to simply immediately leapfrog one stage of this upgrading process and go directly to a more expensive set of headphones, saving yourself the cost and bother of the intermediate temporary step?
We can’t comment on this, because it is a very personal thing, but we do raise the issue for your consideration.
If you were wanting to consider ‘the next level’ of headphones beyond the $200 region, our clear recommendation would be for the for the Sennheiser HD650 headphones. They are very respected and very close to the ultimate Sennheiser HD 800 headphones in quality and listening experience, while being massively more affordable ($350 rather than $1500).
As another example of pricing irrationality, currently we note that Amazon are selling the HD 650 headphones for the same price as their predecessor model, the slightly inferior HD 600. Both are around $350. We’ve no idea why you’d buy the HD 600 at that price when the improved later model HD 650 is at the same price! (Update – note the HD650 has been superseded by the HD660.)
This is a part of our buyers guide series on headphones. Please also visit :
4. Under $200