BeyerDynamic DT880 Premium (600 Ohm) - Review

My first decent headphones were purchased when I was university. I spent £40 (a lot for me at the time) on the Beyerdynamic DT231's. I loved those headphones - until the headband elastic deteriorated, but that was after a respectable six years of good service (the cabling and drivers never failed). Over the following eight years I moved through the manufacturers and ranges, expanding my passion as I went. Everything that I've learned since has led me to see Beyerdynamic as a rather under-appreciated manufacturer in the consumer sector. Perhaps this is due to so many over-hyped, 'style-over-substance' brands that are more about fashion and celebrity endorsements than audio quality.

My main reasons for choosing the £230 DT880 were: The semi-open design and the 'hard to drive' high impedance. I've been using a lot of closed back headphones recently and I'm all too aware of the audio quality advantages that open-back designs can bring. Since giving away my AKG Q701's, I've lusted after that 'open' sound and it was the DT880 that caught my eye. Beyerdynamics new 'Tesla' range doesn't offer impedance values above 250ohms (eccept with their flagship model, where 600ohms is the only option). So this 600ohm DT880 seemed like a great choice to give those powered headphone amplifiers a proper work-out.

SOUND

The sound signature of the DT880 is very neutral*. That mantle usually brings with it a lack of bass presence, that can disappoint some people in the musicality department. There is an undeniable truth to that with any 'neutral' headphone, but despite it not being suitable for bass-heads, it does still have a highly addictive quality. Yes the bass is lean / tight / detailed, but it's not as extreme as some 'neutral' headphones and not nearly as detrimental to the versatility and musicality as I'd expected. Any negative effect is mostly emphasized by lesser quality and less powerful amplification, connect it to a good amplifier however, and the presence can very much impress.

I have heard the DT880's detail described as over-sharpened, or artificial, but I struggle to feel that while listening. There is a real crispness to the sound and a wonderful clarity to the detail that really brought music to life for me. Part of the driving force behind the beautifully rendered detail is a strong treble presentation (apparently less so on this higher impedance model). Despite the brightness I didn't have many issues with sibilance. Driven from a high quality amplifier and the treble sparkles with the best of them and renders an articulate performance. When driven poorly the treble is the first thing to get rolled off and so doesn't cause too much of a problem there either - you just lose some detail.

The DT880's drivers are described as 'semi open', as far as sound isolation goes there isn't really much to speak of, so they might as well be fully open in my opinion. The grills on the cups go straight through to the driver. Sound leaks, but slightly less on the outside compared to the inside. This poor isolation can kill your musical qualities if you can't control the sound in your surroundings. The up-side to this is a wonderfully airy presentation that does wonders to the soundstage, in both depth and width. Instrument separation is also superb and very hard to beat.

SOUND SIGNATURE

* A headphone's signature (or presentation) influences how much an individual enjoys his/her music, as much as, if not more than, things like detail and soundstage. So I'd like to take some time to clarify where the DT880's signature stands in relation to other headphones.

I am aware that 'neutral' means different things to different people. Let me try to clarify this: I have heard headphones like the V-Moda M-80 described as neutral but this is only true if you compare them to a 'bass-head's presentation like Dr. Dre Beats. Don't get me wrong, the M-80's are not bad, but they have quite a punchy bass and a treble that's too 'rolled-off' to be truly described as neutral or 'reference'. The Beyerdynamic DT770 pro is somewhere between the M-80 and DT880, but neither the M-80 or DT770 pro could be described as 'bass-head' or 'DJ' headphones. If you need a fair bit of bass kick to your sound and like Dr. Dre Beats, be careful here (Beats have lots of bass and a muddy midrange - Audio Technica Pro700 mk2's, AIAIAI TMA-1's or most Denon's do this better, I only mention Beats to help make a point here because they're common).


Now let's talk about the 'reference' AKG 701: If you read my review on the AKG you'll see that I found it enjoyable, but a little too bright and lacking in the bass department. The DT880 fixes both of these issues for me, being both less bright and having more bass weight, without straying too far from neutral. In fact I would say it's more neutral than the AKG 701 and certainly a more musically versatile presentation. The soundstage of the DT880 is similarly spacious, with almost as much crisp detail as the AKG 701, but without loosing so much bass kick, or gaining so much harsh treble.

MUSIC

Here are some music tracks and how I felt the DT880 coped with them:

 

  • K.D. Lang: "Perfect Word" - This track was displayed with a real sense of vibrancy that made a highly enjoyable presentation. The vocals are very pronounced in this track and sound beautifully clear, but it makes a lot of the background instruments feel overpowered. Despite this it was effortless to pick them out due to the great separation and clarity of these headphones. With a stunning sense of timbre the guitar sounded beautifully textured and the subtle soundstage is treated with great finesse.

  • SebastiAn: "Ross Ross Ross" - This whole album is a great test of sibilance. I was a little worried about the strong high frequencies (peakiness) of the DT880 causing discomfort with bright sounding Electronic music, but I was pleasantly surprised by just how pleasant it was. You won't be able to enjoy this kind of music as loud as Rock or Classical, but the DT880 showed good versatility here. The crisp and clean detail adds a nice bold feeling to Electronic music and, surprisingly, I rarely felt the need for more bass either - at least once I'd spend a few hours getting used to this sound signature. That said, those who prefer their treble in any way rolled off will probably not enjoy the DT880's sound.

  • Beethoven:  "Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op92, Allegro Con Brio" - From the very beginning of this track the DT880s display a wonderful sense of powerful energy and delicate detail. Instruments feel clearly positioned and well layered, with hardly any sense of muddling. The detail is so nicely defined here that I got a real sense of the performers movements with the flow of this energetic music. 

  • Henry Jackman: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter "What Do You Hate?" - I chose this track to see how much low-end presence could come through with the Beyerdynamic's performance. This is a piece that needs some real kick to get a good impact accross. Despite it sounding more powerful on warmer sounding headphones, there is a better sense of space and detail here that offer a compelling alternative.  

  • Incubus: "A Certain Shade of Green" - I don't think I noticed just how complex Incubus music was until I heard it through these headphones and that's especially true of this track. The layering and transparency through a good amplifier is simply stunning! Surprisingly I felt a lack of bass here more than with Electronic or film soundtracks, but it wasn't terribly off-putting. Again I think this is something that will take a little while to get used to. I am switching between a lot of different headphones at the moment, If you don't, it likely won't be an issue.

  • Dr. Dre: "What's The Difference" - I may dislike headphones with his name stuck on them, but he has some cool tracks. Most people will know that neutral headphones are great for creating music, but many won't not expect great pleasure for listening. Well let me use this track to say how versatile I found these headphones to be because I really enjoyed this track on the DT880's a lot. Would it sound better on a more impact-full presentation? Not necessarily.

I own most of these songs on CD, they are ripped to lossless audio and played from a PC. The audio is generally transferred via a generic USB cable to a DAC, using WASAPI - event style on JRiver's MC17 (buffering from the RAM). I also chose these songs because they're on Spotify, so if you have a premium subscription you should be able to find them easily and check them out for yourself in decent quality.

DRIVING: IMPEDANCE

If you want to be able to run the DT880 from a portable player then it would make sense to opt for the 32ohm version. Personally, I would not recommend headphones this large or lacking in isolation as something to use 'on-the-move', but each to their own. I would only really recommend compromising on the 250ohm version if you know that you will be using a USB powered DAC/amp (or something similar) most often. Even then it's probably best to make sure it's got a gain boost to be on the safe side. If you will be mostly driving your headphones from a mains powered amplifier then I highly recommend going the whole hog and getting these - the 600ohm version. From what I have read this one has the most rolled off / nicest treble. 

DRIVING: THE 600 OHMs

I was surprised that even some portable devices get away with adequately driving the 600ohm DT880s. I managed to get decent volumes from the Google Nexus 7 and the iPhone 4, others didn't fare so well so this is far from ideal, just don't completely rule this out. Volume issues aside portables fared respectably well in the audio quality department (unlike the AKG 701/2 which was crippled in audio quality, rather than volume - with portables).

Most USB powered DAC/amps didn't fair much better than portable players in the volume department here. Of course the quality is better, but volume issues were equally as bad as portables and worse than plugging directly in to a computer or laptop.

A mains powered amplifier is really the way to go for serious listening on the 600ohm DT880. I managed to test a few headphone amplifiers combined with DACs - like the two Yulong machines for example (U100 / D100 mkII), and some dedicated headphone amplifiers. The Audinst HUD-MX1 is a good option on a budget, if you go for this I recommend opening up the chassis and switching the jumper to the high-gain mode. Also it would probably be best to power it from the mains in this case, which is a rare option for a USB powered DAC/amp. I discovered a couple of great systems to power the DT880s. One was a dedicated headphone amplifier (Shonyun SH-301 Pro) connected to a desktop DAC (Yulong D100 mkII). This produced the most energetic, transparent and airy sound that I have heard for anything like this price. The second was the combined DAC & headphone amplifier - the Epiphany Acoustics EHP-O2D. This was great because it brought out plenty of the DT880s lush detail, while adding a nice warmth and smoothness to the sound. This did a great job of balancing out the DT880s bass and treble presentation, at a fraction of the price it makes a killer combination!

COMFORT

This is one of the most comfortable headphones that I've tried. For it's size It's a pretty light 270g, it has soft padded ear-cups with a good level of clamping force - not too much (like the similar looking DT770 Pro) and not too little (like the AKG K550). The padded headband is simple but great for long listening - I never once felt it was touching my head (unlike the lumpy one found on the AKG Q/K701). With the soft material and an open driver it doesn't make your ears too hot either. It's also pretty easy to position the ear-cups so that nothing touches them. Beyerdynamic deserve a lot of credit here, it might seem like a couple of simple boxes ticked but if you've tried lots of headphones you will know how many miss this mark. This equals my impression from the Denon AH-D7000.

BUILD

I really like the construction of the DT880, it feels like they could withstand a knock or two without showing any signs of misuse. I really like the delicate styling of the grills and there is a lot of metal here. The armatures are not the best styled shapes that I've seen, but are thick and strong. The adjustable headband, like most Beyerdynamics from this range, is not the most elegant mechanism but once you have it where you want it there is not much to find fault with.

Beyerdynamic offer a custom built version of the DT880 (as well as the DT990 and the T50p) - called 'Hifi Manufaktur' - direct from their website. Any of the three impedance values can be chosen (32, 250 or 600 ohms). Custom colours and textures can be picked for almost every part of the headphone individually, there is even an option of a real leather headband. You can have two lines of text engraved into a metal plate on the side. This is a very nice touch for people who like to have something unique, I wish more headphone companies would offer this service.

FINAL WORDS

The DT880 is a very comfortable, well thought out and sturdily built headphone. It's sound is wonderfully neutral, airy and the detail is beautifully crisp. It takes good advantage of high quality sources and amplification to utilise it's full potential, but doesn't need it to be pretty good. The 600ohm version is best paired with a mains powered amplifier but is surprisingly forgiving with other equipment.

This is definitely not a headphone for bass-heads, but neither is it the most lean bass presentation that I've heard. Before the DT880 I could easily describe my perfect presentation as having quite an emphasised bass, but this headphone is reshaping what I want from music. Yes, ideally I would like to add a slightly heavier bass presentation to this sound, but not at the expense of anything else that it offers.

If you are looking for transparent, dynamic, open sound and have high quality amplification to power it - I highly recommend giving the 600ohm DT880 strong consideration as your next headphone. For me it has a brilliant balance of sonic features, at a stunning price and with little weaknesses. 

Disclaimer: Just for fun I took these out for a photoshoot. I don't recommend this, they're way too open for that.

Posted 15th September 2012

by Edd

Edward Noble

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