AVForums goes to Abbey Road Studios to check out Sennheiser's latest headphones
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299On Thursday the 8th of March, I was lucky enough to attend a press event arranged by Sennheiser to promote the launch of their latest headphones.
The venue for the event was none other than the world famous Abbey Road Studios, immortalised by The Beatles on their final studio album ‘Abbey Road’. Once I’d made my way past the gangs of Japanese tourists that had congregated around the iconic zebra crossing where The Beatles shot the cover art for ‘Abbey Road’, I made my way through reception and into Studio 3. This studio has been used by numerous bands over the years but is probably most famous for being where Pink Floyd recorded their 1975 masterpiece ‘Wish You Were Here’.
The studio itself is self contained, with a kitchen, bathroom and rest area on the first floor and the recording studio and control room downstairs. At the rear of the recording area there are sound proof booths for recording separate instruments, such as the drums. In the main recording area, Sennheiser had set up chairs and a TV, where they gave a brief presentation that covered the history of the company and the many innovations they have made over the years.
Sennheiser was founded just outside Hannover in June 1945 by Dr. Fritz Senneiser and remains a family owned company that, since Dr. Senneiser’s death, is run by his son Jorg. The company was originally called Labor W (short for Laboratory W) but this caused confusion so the name was changed to Sennheiser. The company has 2,100 employees, 60% of whom are based in Germany, an annual turnover of 468 million euros and has factories in Germany, Ireland and the United States. They also have research and development facilities in Germany, Singapore and the United States. These days the company has a number of subsidiaries including Georg Neumann which builds studio microphones and Klein + Hummel, a producer of high quality studio monitors.
The company started out making microphones for the professional market and in fact, thanks to Sennheiser’s generosity we use their microphones for recording our podcasts and shooting our videos here at AVForums. By the 1950s, they had moved into designing and making headphones but it was with the release of their HD414 headphones in 1968 that things really took off. The headphones had been designed at the request of the broadcast industry who wanted open air headphones that used ear pads and would be more comfortable to wear. The company didn’t expect the new headphones to sell well but 12 years and 10 million units later, they were proved wrong. Since then Sennheiser has continued to be innovative in terms of their headphone design, producing their first infrared wireless headphones in the late 1970s, as well as the first unipolar electrostatic headphones that, unfortunately, had to be phased out due to technical issues.
In 1987, at the request of Lufthansa, they produced their first noise canceling headphones and in 1991 they developed their famous Orpheus headphones. These were a no compromise design, created in part as a response to AKG’s K1000 headphones and were quite simply meant to be the best headphones ever made. These electrostatic headphones came with their own tube amplifier, only 300 were ever made and they retailed for a cool 10,000 euros. In 1993, Sennheiser released their first digital infrared wireless headphones and in 1995 they followed those up with their first RF wireless headphones. Since then the manufacturer has moved into lifestyle and high mobility headphones but in 2009 they release their HD800 headphones, which Sennheiser regard as their best product since the Orpheus.
The reason for the event was to launch Sennheiser’s latest headphones, the HD700 and the wireless RS 220, although the company also had a pair of their top of the range HD800 headphones on hand as a point of reference. So after the presentation on the company’s history, we moved into the control room to listen to the headphones themselves, being fed straight from the mixing desk itself. They had a pair of HD800, a pair of HD700 and a pair of RS220, all being fed the same source to allow for comparative listening tests. Of course, what better album to use for these listening tests than the masterpiece that had been recorded and mixed in this very studio - ‘Wish You Were Here’. This was handy because being a bit of a Floyd fan myself, I’m very familiar with this album which would make critical listening much easier.
We moved into the control room to listen to the headphones themselves, being fed straight from the mixing desk itself.
First up we tried the HD800 and as I mentioned these headphones are designed, constructed and assembled in Germany to be Sennheiser’s current reference point. They use a completely new type of ring driver that is designed to deliver the best ever simulation of spatial hearing by way of a curved sonic wave front. They also use state-of-the-art components combined to create an overwhelmingly rich and detailed sound experience. They use a 56mm ring radiator driver, a 40mm coil and a 42mm magnet to deliver a natural sound field. The headband is made of metal and has an inner damping element and the ear pads are handcrafted from a high-quality microfiber fabric. The headphones also use four wire OFC cables with gold plated plugs and there are special connectors for the headphones that can detach, in case you step on the wire and pull at them.
So how does all this innovation sound? Well in a word - amazing. The HD800 have the most open and detailed soundstage that I have ever heard from a pair of headphones, I noticed details from the recordings that I had never heard before and I almost forgot I was wearing them. Obviously a band like Pink Floyd are very inventive in their use of stereo separation and thus the music lends itself to headphone listening but even so, the experience was remarkable. If you’re in the market for a high end pair of headphones and you have a spare £1,000, then the HD800 should definitely be at the top of your shopping list.
Of course the HD800 have been available for a few years and one of the reasons for this event was to introduce us to Sennheiser’s new HD700 headphones. These headphones are designed to offer a level of performance that is similar to the HD800 but at a lower price point and Sennheiser consider them an all-round performer that is designed to compliment a wide range of musical styles. They have been developed to deliver a timbre that is always warm and emotional, coupled with an exceptional range that can reproduce the lowest and highest tones that the human ear cannot consciously perceive. The HD700 use an open, circum-aural dynamic stereo design for maximum wearing comfort and the open-back ear cups facilitate transparent sound while showcasing cutting-edge industrial design. The headphones use specially-tuned, highly efficient drivers capable of delivering high sound pressure levels and a flat frequency response. In addition, the highly optimised ventilated magnet system minimises air turbulence and harmonic, intermodulation distortion.
The result of all this innovation is an outstanding soundstage with a warm and balanced audio reproduction. In direct comparison with the HD800 I found the differences to be very subtle, with the more expensive headphones offering a slightly more precise sound field but, given the price differential, the HD700 held their own very well. The HD700 delivered an equally open and detailed soundstage and every tiny nuance of the recording seemed to be reproduced with warmth and clarity. There’s no question that the HD700 offer exceptional performance and at £549, they provide a very tempting alternative to the top of the line HD800.
Finally we tried out Sennheiser’s new RS220 digital wireless headphones. These use combine an open, circum-aural dynamic stereo design similar to the HD700, with a digital transmitter that delivers uncompressed sound performance designed to equal the performance of high-end wired headphones. The transmitter features stereo analogue inputs (RCA style connectors) and two digital inputs, one TOSLINK and one SPDIF. The multi-purpose transmitter also acts an ‘easy charge’ cradle and docking station for the headphones. There is an ergonomically designed and adjustable headband for a comfortable and secure fit and integrated rechargeable batteries. In addition, you will find power on/off, balance and volume controls also integrated into the headphones.
In terms of sound quality, the RS220 weren’t able to compete with the HD700, lacking those headphone’s open and airy soundstage. In fact the RS220 sounded almost muffled in comparison to the HD700 without the precise sound field and level of clarity that the more expensive speaker’s possess. This is undoubtedly due to the difference in the design of the headphone’s rather than the use of a wireless connection and whilst the RS220’s sell for a very reasonable £349, I think the HD700 are worth the additional cost as long as you’re happy to use a wired connection. Of course, the reason people generally buy wireless headphones is because they don’t want to be hard wired to their other equipment and whilst they offer convenience there is always a compromise attached. The usual problem with wireless headphones are dropouts and even the complete loss of the signal and unfortunately I experienced both when using the RS220. It might well be that the transmitter was experiencing interference from all the equipment in the studio but personally I prefer the robust nature of a good old fashioned wired connection.
I’d like to thank Sennheiser for arranging such a fascinating and enjoyable afternoon, it’s not every day you get to hang out at somewhere as genuinely iconic as Abbey Road Studios, you could almost feel the presence of all the legends that had been there over the years. I was genuinely impressed by the performance of both the HD800 and the HD700 and whilst the RS220 suffered some problems with dropouts, it will be interesting to see how they perform in a domestic environment. As always we will look forward to getting Sennheiser’s latest offerings in for review over the coming months.
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