The Great Headphone Quest: Denon AH-D5000

Gadgetman -- Sat, 04/18/2009 - 14:36

In the world of headphone listening there are many cult products. Perhaps that's because heaphone junkies are a passionate group, but just as likely it is the product of two factors: headphones are pretty personal (fit and all) and headphones are loaded with potential.
Like many headphiles, I've been a little dissatisfied with my rig. Basically, I've been running Sennheiser HD-650s from a HeadRoom Total Airhead. Wrong headphones, wrong amp or both, the sound was too thick and tizzy (that's a combo!). So, I'm off on a headphone quest of which this is installment 1.
First off, I procured a desktop-oriented amp just to up the chances that I wasn't starving the Sennheisers for power. I picked the Head-Direct HA-1 because it was affordable and I liked the lttle tube sticking up through the top plate. The HA-1 helped (a lot) but I can't really comment yet on how it compares to others of its ilk (we'll get to that).
Then I read a bunch of stuff at Amazon and Head-Fi and here. I decided to start with another mid-priced headphone to see if I liked something other than the Sennheisers materially more. I wanted to stay in roughly the same price range because it seem useful to start in the middle of current headphone pricing (which seems to start at about $50 and go up to about $1500, with a few exceptions).
I was interesting in close-back headphones as an more flexible alternative to the Sennheisers. So, I chose the Denon AH-D5000s. You can get these for around $500 and there are mods available. In my lazy world, when folks start to mod something there must be underlying goodness. That might be backwards thinking, but that's the way it seemed at the time.
The 5000s just arrived, so this is a very early view. First, the 5000s are famous or infamous for their bass. You don't have to listen for weeks to see why this is a hot topic. The 5000s have a pretty big bass bump, judged against live sound. But so far I'd say it is a pretty artfully judged bass bump that doesn't kill the music. Put differently, if you like bass and feel cheated when speakers or headphones are a little rolled off, the Denons could be your cup of tea.
The sound can get a little thick on the bottom with this EQ curve for sure. That said, bass boost can be less annoying and more articulate in headphones because you aren't dealing with (as many) unpredicatable resonances. You can hear this in the Denons, which have much more bass definition that a speaker would with this much low-end boost.
Now the accuracy hand-wringers in the group are going to want to leave the room at this point. But I'd also hazard that without some serious bass boost a headphone just can't sound as real. Something in a headphone has to substitute for the lack of slam and moving air that you get in real life from live sound or a good stereo. I think Denon has taken things a step too far (and that's what the mods are about), but that may be preferable to not taking things far enough.
Two other notes:
The midrange on these is relaxed and clear. Good job.
There may be a mid-treble edge that grates. Some modern recordings accentuate this, so I'm not sure yet, but if I had to proclaim my view right now, I'd say we need to smooth a peak somewhere up there.
Update 1:
Over time it has become clearer that the Denons have a region of brightness that is a deviation from neutrality. It shows up less as a shift in overall tonal balance, than a tendency to make sibilants and high frequency transients a little "sharp" sounding. This doesn't happen on all transients, which is what makes me believe the issue is in a pretty narrow frequency band.

Gadgetman -- Sat, 04/18/2009 - 14:46

Dave Davis wrote a comment:
I'm a new reader so I probably missed something important about your application, but I wonder why not just get some Grados and be done with it? 
Not flattering speakers, and inappropriate if you need sealed enclosures, but very good cans for serious listening.  I like them better than my AKG240s or Sonys... they're similar to Beyer's, with open backs (hence isolation isn't total in either direction).  One necessity: the "upgraded" surrounds you can find on amazon make them a lot more comfortable if you have long term listening sessions.  The stock muffs aren't uncomfortable, just get warm due to material.  Model differences are entirely sonic after the 125s, until you get to the crazy wood ones.  325s are very nice at lower price than the  Denons. For computers and iPods, the 80s are nice.

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Gadgetman -- Sat, 04/18/2009 - 14:46

If you look carefully at the background of the photo above, you'll see Grado SR-225s. I'm a Grado fan, as is Tom, starting with the SR-60s which are a great value. I'm sure we'll return to Grado as part of the quest.
That said, to "just get some Grados and be done with it" wouldn't serve the purpose of this series which is to examine some of the major choices in headphones and headphone-related gear to help users in their own quests. Folks who already know Grados are the right choice will not be interested in this, of course.
The Denons are simply to establish a reference. And, as you pointed out, we think it is important to have a closed back offering (or two) on the table a) because some people listen in office environments where open back isn't appropriate and b) to ensure we don't pre-judge any technology.
Hope that helps clarify our intent.

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Tom Martin -- Thu, 09/10/2009 - 08:55

Here is a first look at the Grado SR325is.

CEO and Editorial Director, Nextscreen LLC

Gadgetman -- Sat, 04/18/2009 - 14:47

Headspace wrote a comment:
Looks good, thanks. I am curious to see how the AKG 501/701 or 702's compare and also your findings on which products offer the most return for the dollar, phones, mods or amps. If you are going with a budget of $500 for the phones, what is the overall rough, working budget for this project? $750? $1000? $1250?

Does it make sense to spend $500 on phones and $250 on an amp or is there a big difference going with up to a $500 amp?

Please also try a Benchmark DAC1 and Peachtree Decco as a headphone amp for comparison, if possible, to see if these effectively kill two or three birds with 1 stone.

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Gadgetman -- Sat, 04/18/2009 - 14:51

Thanks for the questions. A few clarifications and comments:
I'm not limiting this to a $500 budget, I just wanted to start in the middle because, well, I had to pick a place to start and that made sense to me.
Therefore, there isn't a working budget; I hope to comment on what you get for more or less money than where I'm starting.
The new Benchmark DAC 1 Pre (just announced last week) has been shipped to me, so I'll comment on that as soon as it arrives and I have a chance to listen. The Decco is also a good idea, though I want to go at a measured pace.

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discman -- Wed, 04/22/2009 - 08:14

I'd be interested in the Grado PS1000s, the new Sennheiser HD 800s and the top of the line Audio Technicas.
Just a suggestion.

Morris Reagan (not verified) -- Thu, 04/23/2009 - 14:40

 In my long experience the best end-of-the-chain transducer you can buy is an (expensive!) Stax ELECTROSTATIC headphone. They beat any loudspeaker I've ever heard, including even B&W's flagship. So enthused was I over my Stax headphones that I bought a pair of electrostatic loudspeakers, but they were a huge disappointment. The problem with the electrostatic loudspeakers may not have been inherent in the loudspeakers themselves but that they have hypersensitive to room acoustics and speaker placement. This of course is not a problem with headphones.

Tim Britton (not verified) -- Thu, 04/23/2009 - 17:45

Comparing the frequency response of the Denons to the Sennheiser 650s you'll find that the Denons arguably don't have a bass boost at all. They simply don't roll off as quickly on the very bottom end, and their upper frequencies represent a much flatter response than the 650's rolled off top end. The AKG 701s have a similar response to the Denons on the top end but roll off smoothly but much higher ending up with very little accurate sense of kick drum or the lower range of the bass and organ. All the Grados are quite bright and roll off really fast and high on the bottom, hardly an acceptable place to "be done with it". These comments can be confirmed by looking at frequency response graphs or by listening. In summary, although the Denons mightn't be totally accurate, theirs is perhaps the more accurate choice.

Gadgetman -- Sat, 05/09/2009 - 22:18

The Denons do seem to deliver deeper bass than many other headphones. I count that as a good thing. Even so, bass guitar and string bass lack a little definition. That suggests a bump in the lower bass, a dip in the mid or upper bass, or a resonance. Doesn't really matter what it is, the bass on the Denon's sounds a little out of proportion vis a vis live sound. This, is a mild criticism compared to my view of many headphone distortions. Now that I've listened more, I think this bass is artfully judged and rather enjoyable.

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jimmyjames8 (not verified) -- Thu, 05/07/2009 - 21:26

IMHO...HD650's need a good amp and a good source to shine.  Again IMO they are not iPod cans although I am sure some folks use them for that.  The Headroom Airhead is not a good amp match for the Senn's.  I have never liked the sound of any Senn can with the Airhead.  Frankly, I never heard any difference in sound quality or volume using an Airhead with the iPod headphone out.  Could be a different sound all together with the line out.  You didn't say what your source was or how you were running it.  Anyway, don't give up on the HD650's.  Check them out with a Woo tube amp or good SS amp from Headroom or Headamp.  If you are looking for headphones to listen to an iPod or other MP3 player via the Airhead, I think you are barking up the wrong tree with either can mentioned in your blog.  They are stay at home cans to be powered by a big beefy amp that plugs into the wall.  Cheers anyway and keep up the blog.

Gadgetman -- Fri, 05/08/2009 - 07:17

Just to be clear, the Headroom amp is what I was using unsatisfactorily. That's what got the quest going. Sound quality comments above are not based on Headroom amp but rather on using the Head Direct EF1 and the Benchmark DAC 1 Pre. Input for the Head Direct amp is a Lector CDP 7TL cd player.

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Visitor (not verified) -- Tue, 05/19/2009 - 12:06

The sound can get a little thick on the bottom with this EQ curve for sure. That said, bass boost can be less annoying and more articulate in headphones because you aren't dealing with (as many) unpredicatable resonances. You can hear this in the <a href=>Denons</a> , which have much more bass definition that a speaker would with this much low-end boost.

Gadgetman -- Sun, 06/21/2009 - 17:44

Agreed. I want to repeat, I think the bass on the Denon's is artfully judged. The Sennheiser HD800s might be flatter in some sense (all headphones involve some acoustic and psychoacoustic response shaping), but the Denon bass is more musical on a lot of CDs.

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