A few weeks ago, I upgraded my multichannel system with the Mytek Liberty DAC. Besides being a stunning digital-to-analog converter that has made drastic improvements to my everyday listening, it is also a stellar headphone amplifier. Since I’m not a guy with circumstances that dictate a lot of headphone use- I don’t live in an apartment, I don’t have small children in the house, my wife isn’t the naggy-type- I’ve never really invested in a good set of ‘phones. However, having the Liberty in place, I couldn’t resist dropping a little coin for a decent set of cans.
My search only required a few days before I came across a set of nearly new Sennheiser HD598 headphones, complete with a case, which was not original (Bonus!). While these headphones were originally $249 new, I managed to score mine for under a hundred bucks, shipped. They arrived in just a few days, well-packed, and as described. I gave them a few hours to come up to room temperature and plugged them into the Liberty.
Unboxing and Listening
Now that I have them on my head, the first thing that I notice is the usual Sennheiser comfort. The earcups are very large and fully engulf my ears, and the pads are velour/suede, feeling very velvety. The headband doesn’t compress. Tan and brown with real burlwood accents, the HD598s give a classy yet somewhat retro appearance while the shape stays decidedly modern.
Once hitting play on The Alan Parsons Project Best of Volume 2, I am immediately taken by the spaciousness of the open back design. They instantly sound like very large headphones. Let me start here by addressing something that I read in another review of the HD598s. Another writer claimed that that there isn’t much bass in these ‘phones. I absolutely disagree. Listening to “Standing on Higher Ground,” the low end is full and pulses against my head. I’m not even pushing these very loud. Moreover, the bass is balanced with rest of the soundstage, not overly enhanced as it is with too many modern headphones.
On Tool’s latest release, Fear Inoculum, the spaciousness of the HD598s is apparent from the first tones of the disc, which seem to come from miles away. As the music begins to close in with Adam Jones’ grinding guitar riff, the balance of the soundstage is presented. Maynard James Keenan’s voice floats somewhere in front of me, like a sonic illusion. Danny Carey’s drums pound against my head, while Justin Chancellor’s bass is so full that I can feel it. It is a very satisfying experience. Jumping to the end of the disc, “7empest” brings out clear separation in the two layered guitars left and right, as well as demonstrating the vocal trickery and overdubs used by Keenan throughout the track.
Sharing Is Not Caring
If you’re like me, you tend to enjoy your music at a, well… healthy volume. Please bear in mind that these are definitely an open back design, and not terribly friendly in an airplane or doctor’s office waiting room environment. Everyone around you will be sharing in your experience as you indulge in your tunes.
I Can’t Afford That, Dude
So, you’re saying that you don’t have a grand to drop on a great headphone amp, which I feel is a big part of the equation here. Have no fear, you have options. You still need a headphone amp to get the best results from a set of cans like the HD598s. One economical choice that I have in my house is the S.M.S.L. 793II DAC/headphone amp. Available for about $75, it’s a far cry from a Mytek or a good tube headphone amp, but it’s still an improvement from plugging straight into your component. Using a Pioneer PD-F1039 301 disc changer and running the optical output out to the S.M.S.L. 793II DAC, I am actually getting a very pleasant and full sound. Not quite the detail I had in my other system, but still quite a bit of the spaciousness. Listening to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss duetting on Raising Sand, mandolins and percussion instruments sit well behind and to the side of the voices, with nice depth and imaging. If this is where you’re able to start with a system, it’s a nice way to go.
Plug and Play?
Still, I know that there are some who will plug their headphones straight into a device, no matter what, so I will indulge you here. Using the included adapter, I jack into my 6th generation iPod touch, and dial up Al Stewart’s “On the Border.” While nowhere near as robust of a sound as when using a headphone amp, the sound is still remarkably satisfying with plenty of detail, sparkle, and lot of bass. Again, let me emphasize that it’s well-balanced bass that I’m talking about here.
On Bad Company’s track, “Run with the Pack,” the iPod and the HD598 have the punch but not the overall volume that I really need. If I was to regularly use my headphones straight into a device like my iPod or my phone, I would likely invest in an Audioquest Dragonfly DAC. (Santa, are you one of my readers?)
Wrapping it Up
The Sennheiser HD598 headphones weren’t a toy I needed, but they sure were a toy I wanted, and well worth the purchase. There are certain things no audiophile should be without- a good set of headphones being one of them. While there are lots of shiny options out there in the market, let your ears make your decision for you, not what will make you look fashionable as you walk down the street.
Pioneer DV-79AVi CD player
Mytek Liberty DAC/headphone amp
Pioneer PD-F1039 CD player
S.M.S.L 793II DAC/headphone amp
Apple iPod Touch, 6th generation