Until Beyerdynamic’s mighty T1 Tesla arrived on the scene, the DT-990 Premium ($369) was one of the firm’s top two audiophile models (the other model sharing on of the top slots was the DT-880 PRO, reviewed in Playback 12). Now that I’ve heard the DT-990 in action, I can see how it earned its place on the team, though it is significantly different in character from the DT-880 PRO. How is it different? As it happens, Beyedynamic’s Consumer product catalog gives some interesting clues to help answer that question.
In describing the DT-880, the catalog emphasizes that the headphone offers “very neutral sound” (or as the original German puts it, the DT-880’s sound is “Sehr klangneutral”), which is exactly the case. The DT-990, on the other hand, is characterized as offering “analytical and high-resolution sound” and as providing “strong bass and treble.” While I think Beyerdynamic’s assessment is directionally correct, it also inadvertently puts up flags of caution for audiophiles that aren’t necessarily appropriate.
For most audiophiles in the US, the term “analytical” is a pejorative one that implies a cold, sterile, and perhaps edgy sound that sucks all the beauty, life, and warmth out of the music. But for German audiophiles, I believe that the term analytical (or "Analytische”) has a different and much more positive connotation; it suggests you have a product that enables you to hear how all the elements of a piece of music fit together, so that you come away with a deeper understand of what you’ve just heard. Seen in that light, the DT-990 is indeed analytical—or as American listeners might put it, “revealing.” But it also offers, as you’ll see in a moment, a wonderfully open and dynamically alive sound.
For this test we tried, at Beyerdynamic’s recommendation, the 600-Ohm Audiophile Version of the DT-990, and found its sound beautifully controlled and precise.
Consider this headphone if: you want an exceptionally light, comfortable, and beautifully made open-back headphone, and that sounds open, alive, and very revealing (in the best sense of that word).
Look further if: you require tonal balance that offers textbook neutrality, or if you require a closed-back or semi-closed-back headphones (if those are your priorities, the DT-880PRO is the better choice).
Ratings (relative to comparably priced headphones):
• Tonal Balance: 8.5
• Frequency Extremes: 9.5
• Clarity: 9.5
• Dynamics: 9.5 (note: performance in this area is amplifier dependant)
• Comfort/Fit: 9
• Sensitivity: 8
• Value: 9
First, as mentioned above, the DT-990 Premium is a very revealing (or analytical) headphone, and I think this has much to do with the fact that it may be one of the most fine-grained dynamic headphones in its price class.
“Grain” is a tricky concept for some audiophiles, so let me provides an analogy to help explain the term as I use it here. Consider two movie projection screens, one with a comparatively coarse, sand-like texture (where, from up close, you might actually be able to see small grains of reflective material), and the other with an almost perfectly smooth matte texture. Now consider how a projected image might look on the first screen and then on the second—especially when viewing from up close. With the coarse-grained screen you would reach a point where, while the image was still discernible, so too would be the comparatively rough texture of the screen. With the second, more fine-grained screen, textures would basically fade into the background so that you could focus all your attention on the image.
Sonically speaking, the DT-990 is like that fine-grain screen, so that sounds—even very subtle, low-level sounds that might ordinarily get buried in the playback mix—suddenly unfold against a grain-free background and are made plain as day. This factor alone makes the DT-990 a joy to hear.
Second, the DT-990 has an open and dynamically alive sound, which I feel sets it apart from the DT-880. Except when driven by very powerful amplifiers, the DT-880 can have an ever-so-light constricted sound (as if it’s not being fed with quite enough power to really throw back its head and sing properly). By contrast, the DT-990, perhaps because it is an open-back design, has a more expressive character that takes large -scale dynamic shifts in stride while also effortlessly revealing subtle small-scale shifts in dynamic emphasis.