My journey with the HD650’s.
The thought of using headphones for serious music listening never crossed my mind until I recently moved into a small townhouse where my fantastic sounding albeit large, invasive, and rather obnoxious JBL speaker setup just isn’t practical. Plus, I figured it wasn’t particularly wise to start pissing off the new neighbors with loud rock music and thundering HT sound immediately upon moving in.
I’ve been an amateur audiophile hobbyist for years and have spent my fair share of time and especially money refining room acoustics, experimenting, and purchasing audio gear exploring and improving the sound in my home. However, I’m a complete newbie when it comes to headphones.
Truthfully I haven’t owned a set headphones since the 80’s. That was a long time ago. Having absolutely zero knowledge of the present market, I decided to simply buy a mid-priced headphone. That’s a good place to start, right? I purchased the Sennheiser HD650’s based on numerous ‘professional’ reviews available online and elsewhere. I figured with all the raving evaluations the HD650’s had to be great, or at least, decent sounding headphones.
I’ve never been more wrong. My initial time spent with the HD650’s was highly disappointing. The lows were muddy and congested. The highs were bright and brittle. The detail, aggressive and fatiguing. The soundstage was veiled and instrument separation, virtually non-existent. I couldn’t believe it. Perhaps a proper burn-in will help? Nope! I failed to see how anybody could appreciate, or recommend these headphones.
So, you ask; why I didn’t audition the headphones first? Simple, even if I brought my own music, the local dealers are never using the same components (source, dac, amplifier, ect.) I use at home. But, most importantly, the online prices were much more favorable and I’m not the type of guy that will use my local dealer to audition and then go buy the product elsewhere. I don’t play that game.
The research I should have done in the beginning, began after my first disappointing listening session with the HD650’s. I had to find a reason why the sound was so awful, so unpleasant.
Was it my source? The Oppo BDP-95? Don’t think so. The BDP-95 is a wonderful universal player equipped with quality dac’s. It has served me well for years. The headphone amplifier? The HifiMan EF-2A? Not sure. Yeah, it’s cheap but, the reviews were encouraging. The Cables? No. They are all high quality. My music preference. Rock. I’m sure it is a contributing factor. None of the recordings are reference quality material. But, seriously, some CD’s in my collection sound good, some sound bad but, never have they ALL sounded this bad on ANY speaker setup I’ve owned.
The headphone amplifier. Why was I using a HifiMan EF-2A in the first place? I read that it is better to have a headphone amplifier, than not. I figured the EF-2A, priced at roughly half the cost of the HD650’s was a good place to start. You don’t buy cheap speakers and power them with expensive amplifiers, right?
I started experimenting with the sound by replacing the stock HifiMan EF-2A tubes with Tung Sol 6AK5’s. The new tubes marginally improved the detail but, the highs were still bright and brittle, and the lows still muddy, and bleeding. The sound remained unbearable.
Dejected and frustrated I turned to my budget Monoprice HT setup (which replaced my excellent sounding JBL system now in storage) consisting of their own 5.1 satellite speaker system and a Yamaha RX-V375 receiver in the Living room to further test the HD650’s. I’m glad I did. The HD650’s sounded better. Though, not really good. The lows were still muddy and congested and the highs edgy but, the sound was warmer and at least tolerable. I could actually listen to music. I just wasn’t happy with the sound.
I really should have read and researched the forums before I made ANY purchases. It would have saved me both time and money. I learned a lot more here, in this thread, than anywhere else. The HD650’s require a ‘good’ amplifier to unleash their true potential and sonic performance. I also learned that they can be ‘finicky’ with the type of music I listen to.
Not wanting to give-up on the HD650’s, I figured it was worth purchasing a new amp to continue my experiment. However, if a new amplifier can’t cure my issues, the HD650’s will have to go.
I started researching and shopping for a new headphone amplifier that would work well with a variety of headphones since I was unsure of my ultimate direction. Basically, I wanted a headphone amplifier I could grow with. I decided against purchasing a tube, or tube hybrid amplifier because for me, tubes, and tube rolling is a never ending journey. With tubes, I’m never happy because there is always another tube to try, and without trying it, I don’t know if I’m getting the most out of my system. I didn’t want to go there. I surmised a reasonably priced solid state headphone amplifier was the way to go.
I narrowed my considerations to the Schiit Asgard 2, the Nuforce HA-200, CIAudio VHP-2, and the Burson Soloist SL.
I purchased the Nuforce HA-200.
I based this decision on previous experiences with their products, reasonable price ($350), and if desirable, having the titillating opportunity to connect a pair of HA-200’s together ($700) in mono/balanced mode quadrupling the available power.
At first glance the HA-200 looks more like a speaker amplifier than a headphone amp, mostly due to its size. It is rugged, relatively heavy, and well built. The aluminum front panel has a quality appearance and boasts one ¼” TRS jack, a single 3-pin XLR connector, a super tiny red LED power indicator, and an unmarked matching aluminum mystery volume knob. Overall, I’d have to say the fit and finish is impressive. The HA-200 runs hot, but it is dead quiet.
I wasn’t sure what to expect but, WOW! The HA-200 completely transformed the sound of the HD650’s. There is plenty of volume available and the HA-200/HD650 can play LOUD and Clear. The lows are now fast, have impact, and are reasonably deep. The highs remain slightly edgy but, are much much smoother. The detail, engaging and the soundstage is focused with vastly improved instrument separation. The HD650 veil has been lifted. I feel I’m hearing my music as I should. I’m no longer focusing on the components. Just the music. Which is a good thing.
I don’t know if the Nuforce HA-200 is the best choice for the HD650’s but, I’m definitely happy with the combination. And, it is true, with the right amplification the HD650’s sound really good.