It's rumored that if you give a mouse a cookie, he'll probably ask you for a glass of milk. They also say that if you give a geek at $250 gift card, he's bound to ask for some FLAC audio to complement the mountain of Newegg boxes on the doorstep. Okay, maybe they don't say that just yet—I mean, who gives a mouse a cookie anyway? That's just asking for a rabies shot.
Recently, I was presented with a Newegg gift card and decided to take the unexpected opportunity to upgrade my digital universe. After maxing out the RAM in my ThinkPad and investing in a high-speed CF card and USB reader for the DSLR, a large chunk of my windfall remained for the pièce de résistance: some respectable headphones.
Until now, the most I'd ever spent on a head-mounted audio device was about $30 for some Sony in-ear buds. For the past couple years, I've been rocking a pair of inexpensive Sennheiser HD 201s, which deal-hunters can commonly score for less than an Andrew Jackson. While the 201s are a steal for their asking price, they also represented the weakest link in my computer's audio chain. While Audio Engine A5 speakers happily project the clear sound produced by my Asus Xonar DX sound card, the 201s seemingly shrug and exclaim, "meh."
With a $200 budget, I set out to find the perfect headphones to replace ambivalence with goosebumps. I didn't expect just how hard it would be to make a final decision.
My first stop was Best Buy—what was that groan for? While I never had any intention of making my final purchase from the retail giant, most stores have several high-end demo models available to sample. Online reviews and customer feedback are great resources, but actually hearing headphones first-hand is important when choosing your audio poison.
The first headphones I grabbed off the shelf were a pair of crimson Beats by Dre Solos. I see kids wearing the Solos all over the various airports I frequent, and I figured they must be alright. The verdict took less than five seconds: utter crap. The Solos look cool, but I'm convinced my 201s sound better. For grins, I placed the $300 Beats Studio cans over my ears for comparison. They sounded infinitely better than the red-banded Solos but were well beyond my budget. Frankly, they didn't have the sound signature I was looking for, either.
As I moved down the rack, testing out cans from the likes of Sony, Bose, and Klipsch, I found qualities in each that I liked. Nothing really got me excited until I reached the end of the line and a pair of unassuming Sennheiser HD 380 Pros. As I flipped through the demo music, the 380s consistently produced the sound signature I was seeking: tight bass that wasn't overwhelming and boomy, with excellent mid and high frequency response. The sound was just right, but after wearing the Sennheisers for only a few minutes, my head was already feeling the squeeze of the clamp-like headband.
I walked out of the store empty-handed that day, but the trip had not been a complete failure. I knew that I wanted to stick with the Sennheiser sound; it was just a matter of finding headphones that didn't also pull double duty as a workbench vice. Many Google searches and countless customer reviews later, I settled on Sennheiser's HD 558s and sealed the deal for $180.
The Sennheiser HD 558s are a direct successor to the 555s we use for listening tests here at TR. They have a circumaural design that completely surrounds the ear instead of resting on it. The open-back cans aren't sealed to prevent leakage, producing sound that feels more like it's surrounding you rather than being driven into your skull. People in the vicinity will be able to hear your music, though. You probably don't want to bring open-back headphones into the office unless you're at war with a neighboring cube.
Unlike on the Sennheiser HD 380 Pros, the sturdy plastic headband on the 558s doesn't try to narrow your noggin. On my head, the 558s are just tight enough to feel secure but loose enough to be worn comfortably worn for hours. Adding to the comfort, the ear cups are covered in a plush velour material; they surround the ears instead of mashing them into the side of your head.
For most users, the 1/4" stereo plug is going to be inconvenient. I have to install the included 3.5-mm adapter to use the 558s with any of my audio gear. Apart from A/V receivers and high-end sound cards, the vast majority of today's devices feature smaller 3.5-mm audio ports. In my opinion, it would make more sense to have a 3.5-mm plug with an adapter that steps up to a 1/4" jack.
Trailing the connector is a detachable 10-foot cord that's free of coils. A quick twist to the left and a downward tug allows the cable to break free from the left can. Being able to remove the cable allows users the freedom to roll over the cord with their office chairs without ruining the headphones as a whole. It also gives Sennheiser the opportunity to sell different versions of the cord as it sees fit.
When it comes to audio quality, I couldn't be happier with the 558s. They sound similar to the Sennheiser HD 380 Pros but have a little less bass and crisper highs. The audio is clear enough that I've been playing a new game called "guess the bitrate" when listening to my MP3 collection. I've even noticed artifacts in tracks encoded with bitrates as high as 320kbps.
As I ramp up the volume, I can hear the different instruments get more pronounced, as if I were walking toward the stage. With lesser headphones, like the 201s I replaced, cranking the volume makes the overall mix louder but not necessarily any clearer. This only works up to a point; as you approach the 112 dB ceiling of the 558s, you're really just increasing the pain, not the clarity.
After I was done amusing myself with various MP3 bitrates and deafening volume tests, I decided to see how my new headphones fared with different sources. For an impromptu test, I queued Girl Talk's All Day album in FLAC format on both my laptop and my Xonar-equipped desktop. I hit play on both devices simultaneously and switched between them a number of times to appreciate the difference. The Xonar DX in my desktop system produced a noticeably brighter and crisper rendition of the music, while the integrated audio of my notebook sounded a little murky in comparison. Despite this fact, I still maintain that money is better spent on upgrading one's speakers or headphones before adding a discrete sound card. It's difficult to hear much of a difference when your speakers sound muddy already.
I have to admit, I'm somewhat smitten with Sennheiser's HD 558 headphones and fear I may have taken a step down the expensive path of the audiophile. You don't realize what you're missing until you've heard your music through great headphones or speakers. As much as I adore my Audio Engine A5 speakers, the 558s provide a much more complete soundscape to my ears. Whereas the speakers are tasked with filling the entire room, the cans focus on what matters most: my eardrums.
I'm still getting goosebumps and hearing new things during the piano-and-guitar finale of Atreyu's Lip Gloss and Black, even though I've listened to the song at least a dozen times through the 558s. That kind of music rediscovery is a testament to the quality of the headphones.
During my shopping adventure, I discovered that people have more than a few opinions about their preferred audio gear. I'd love to hear yours.