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The Mighty Headphone Quest

For over a decade now I have sworn by my now discontinued Sony MDR-CD3000 headphones as my trusty live sound reference point. When I wrote an article stressing the importance of having high quality live sound cans I failed to mention viable options for the sound engineer readers to acquire.

When Hearing Starts to Drift

So, the plan is to get my hands on a nice collection of top brand headphones, give them a listen while using the CD3000's as a reference and find something similar or hopefully superior. So the rules of the game at this point are:

Closed Back- The headphones I seek should be closed back. Seems simple enough but the fact is that many of the high end headphones are currently open back. This is because the smallish headphone sound chambers tends to choke off the lows and cause some negative sonic artifacts. Porting the chamber to the outside world reduces isolation and porting to the inside the muff area can add low and low mid resonance. Regardless, for us live humans, we need the sound isolation though I am not holding high levels of isolation to be imperative as that would overly narrow the options and also eliminate my CD3000 reference phone. So as long as the headphones get fairly loud, preferably rock concert levels and offer a reasonable attenuation of the outside world, I will include them.

Around the Ear - Theoretically, on-the-ear designs could work but the added isolation of an around-the-ear (circumaural) design plus the typically larger sizes of the transducers in over-the-ear headphones, inspired me to narrow the field and a bit. The in-ear designs can offer excellent isolation and possibly are capable of enough fidelity and volume, though I have never heard any that sound amazing, but for a sound engineer's reference point, we do not have the time to be shoving things in and out of our ears mid rock show.

No Internal Electronics - I have so far bypassed all the noise canceling, electrostatic and other pre amplified headphones because I am skeptical of the added layer of complexity, dead battery issues and other artifacts. The last thing we live sound humans need is the noise canceling circuit overloading from the rock show or some strange sound added. That said, I am not against considering electrostatics if I am able to get my hands on some.

Size does not Matter - Or more specifically, bigger is better. I am really looking for a 'Head PA.' A cranial sound reinforcement system capable of accurately reproducing dynamics, wide bandwidth and high level sound. It is not like we will be jogging with these things.

High Power/Volume - In my experience headphones blow out fairly often when used for live sound, mainly because I inevitably forget to turn down the headphone volume when I set them down. I am looking for a pair that handles some juice. I have found several models that are rated at 3000 mw.

Hard Clean Sound - There are two differing approaches to loudspeaker and headphone design. The home hi-fi approach where the goal is to gloss the musical flaws and present the listener with a pleasing and enjoyable sound. The other is the studio monitor approach where the goal is to expose all the flaws in a harsh and accurate light so they can be addressed. I am looking for a pair of cans that just sounds like the damn instrument I am trying to listen to.

Cost is Irrelevant - Well, it's not irrelevant, but I did not put a cost restriction on the units I am testing.

Minimize my Opinion - Since sound quality is highly subjective I will try an reduce the effect of my opinion on the selection process. All the headphones will be tested in comparison to the Sony MDR-CD3000 pair I have. My goal is to try and match or beat the sound quality, volume and frequency response of the 3000's.

So lets take a look at the reference pair and growing list of contenders. I have listed a few specs. The street prices are just a quick low mid estimate and I tried to be realistic and avoided the super cheap questionable vendors. The list price is the same as MSRP, I just used what ever I found. It is quite an endeavour getting my hands on all these cans. Fortunately several manufacturers have been so kind as to send me demo's plus I was able to raid Rat Sound's headphone stock. A few I actually purchased and some I am still on the fence about whether to to try and get them in the mix. So I listed in parenthesis the source/status.

The Contenders (so far)

Sony MDR-CD3000 - $699 List, Discontinued, 32 ohms, 104 db/mw, 500mw, 20-20K (Dave Rat, reference)

Sony MDR-V6 - $109.99 List, $80 Street, 63 ohms, 40mm drivers, 106 db/mw, 1000mw, 5-30K (Rat)

Sony MDR-7506 - $130 List, $99 Street, 63 ohms, 40mm drivers, 106 db/mw, 1000mw, 10-20K (Rat)

Sony MDR-7509HD - $265 List, $189 Street, 50mm drivers, 24 ohms, 107 db/mw, 3000mw, 5-80K (purchased)

Sony MDR-XB700 - $130 List, $80 Street50mm drivers, 24 ohms, 107 db/mw, 3000mw, 3-28K (purchased because they look so cool!)

Sony MDR-V600 - $99 List, $70 Street, 40mm drivers, 45 ohms, 106 db/mw, 1000mw, 5-30K (Rat)

Sennheiser HD 280 Pro - $149 List, $99 Street, 64 ohms, 102 dB (IEC 268-7), 500mw, 8-25K (Rat)

Sennheiser HD 380 Pro - $299 List, $199 Street, 54 ohms, 110 db (1Khz 1 Vrms), 500mw, 8-27K (demo)

Shure SRH-840 $250 List, $199 Street, 40mm drivers, 44 ohms, 102 db/mw, 1000mw, 5-25K (demo)

Audio Technica PRO700 - $279, $115 Street, 53mm drivers, 36 ohms, 105 dB/mW at 1 kHz, 3500mw, 5-33K (demo)

Audio Technica ATH W5000 - $1699 List, $699, Street, 53mm drivers, 40 ohms, 102 db/mw, 2000mw, 5-45K (demo)

Ultrasone HFI-450 - $119 List, $99 Street, 40mm, 32 ohms, 96 db, (unspecified), 20-20K (demo)

Ultrasone PRO 900 - $599 List, $549 Street, 40mm, 40 ohms, 96 (unspecified), 6-42K (demo)

Koss ESP-950 - $999 List, $699 Street, electrostatic, 100K ohms, 104 db/mw, 8-35K (demo)

Koss Pro4AAT $99 List, $69 Street, 250 ohms, 95 db/mw, 10-25K (demo)

Koss MV1 - $179 List, $119 Street, 250 ohms, 98 db/mw, 10-25K (demo)

And there are few more headphones I may get into the mix.

Beyer DT770M - $289 List, $289 Street, 80 ohms, 105 db ( IEC 60268-7 ), 100 mw, 5-30K (demo requested)

AKG 271 MKII - $299 List, $199 Street, 55 ohms, 91 db/mw, 200mw, 16-28K (demo requested)

Equation Audio RP-21- $149 List, $90 Street, 32 ohms, 100db ?, 10-22K (demo requested)

Allen & Heath XONE XD-53 - $249 List, $199 Street, 53mm drivers, 36 ohms, 105 db/mw (1K), 350 mw, 5-33K (undecided)

Phiaton PS-500 - $299 List. $250, Street, 50mm, 32 ohms, 102 db(?) (undecided)

Stanton DJ Pro-3000 - 50mm, 30 ohms, 106 db/mw, 20-20K (undecided)

Pioneer HDJ-2000 - $349 List, $250 Street, 50mm, 36 ohms, 107 db/mw, 3500mw, 5-30K (undecided)

Well alright. That will keep me busy for a while. Hey, if I missed any worthy headphones as contenders and you have suggestions or you feel any of the ones I am undecided about really need to be tested, let me know. Also, if you are with a company or have connections to line up some demo cans that should be included, that would be great too.

I have started listening and testing and WOW! The diversity is mind boggling! So far there is absolutely no correlation between the frequency spec's, cost and the way these things sound. It is like the old school wild west of sonic lawlessness!

Dave Rat