The tonal balance of the DT-990 is not, strictly speaking, neutrally balanced. The headphone does, as Beyerdynamic’s literature suggests, offer “strong bass and treble,” which will lead many to pose this question: just how strongly are the bass and treble emphasized? The answer is that the DT-990’s two regions of tonal emphasis are both relatively tasteful and not garishly exaggerated. As a result, the DT-990’s bass, though somewhat forward sounding, is consistently taut, punchy and well controlled—not loose, boomy, or overblown. Similar, the DT-990’s extreme highs (roughly 10kHz and up) are upturned in response, but for the most part sound smooth and sweet—not edgy, strident, or brittle.
While proponents of strict neutrality (and under most circumstances I am one) might ultimately choose a headphone other than this one, I think prospective buyers would do well to listen to the DT-990 with an open mind, and then to decide how they feel about its frequency response characteristics. After I listened to the DT-990 on a few favorite recordings, I personally found its sound quite easy to embrace.
To appreciate the subtlety, purity and openness that the DT-990 brings to the party, listen to “I Cry Everyday” from Shelby Lynne’s Suit Yourself (Capitol). This record offers myriad small but significant sonic details, and DT-990’s fin-grained sound enabled it to capture all (or nearly all) of them in a very revealing way. On the track I’ve reference, for example, Shelby Lynne uses occasional vocal overdubs and the DT-990 offers enough resolution to show that the textures of the overdubs are similar—but not identical—to the main vocals (among other things, the amounts of reverb used are, I think, slightly different). Similarly, the DT-990 lets you hear the delicate and relatively high-pitched sounds of the kick drumhead ringing for a split-second after the drum has been struck. But one of the coolest details in the initially faint sound of an organ that enters the track at about the 1:30 point. Even with the organ playing at very low levels, the Beyerdymanic ‘phones showed that even sustained notes were not absolutely constant in pitch, but rather were gently modulated in a very subtle way. These are the kinds of subtle sonic delights you can expect to hear on a regular basis if you acquire a set of DT-990s.
To hear the DT-990’s regions of tonal emphasis in action (and in a good way), check out “Wasting Time” from Jack Johnson’s On and On [Universal]. The track opens with Adam Topol establishing a punchy beat on his kick drum (supplemented with snare accents), while Merlo Podlewski soon joins in to add a big, rubbery, elastic-feeling reggae-inflected bass line. The DT-990’s enhanced (but subtly enhanced) bass makes both the kick drum and especially the electric bass sound right—rather than like anemic imitations of themselves. But an element of even greater sonic beauty enters the mix during the choruses of the song as Topol tastefully inserts gentle timekeeping beats played on his ride cymbal. The sound of the cymbal is strangely uplifting and, as it shimmers and glows under Topol’s steady beats, it seems to elevate the whole mood of the song. The DT-990’s touch of upper treble emphasis serves, here, to make the sustained, ringing/singing qualities of the ride cymbal more lifelike and compelling, and without veering into edginess or harshness.
To give readers some idea of how the DT-990 Edition stacks up in comparison with other models in its class, let me compare it to two noteworthy competitors I had on hand: the Grado SR325i and the Sennheiser HD650.
Beyerdynamics DT-990 Premium ($369) vs. Grado SR325i ($295)
• The Grado carries an MSRP that is roughly $75 lower than that of the DT-990.
• The DT-990 is significantly lighter and more comfortable that the also open-back but on-ear SR325i. The primary difference is that the SR325i provides mid-size earcups that are made of a relatively stiff foam material, and uses higher clamping pressures than the DT-990. By comparison, the DT-990 seems a real featherweight, and one whose earcups are very soft, compliant and finished with a plush material that wicks away moisture.
• The SR325i offers Grado’s signature midrange, which sounds simply gorgeous, though the SR325i does seem somewhat rolled-off at both frequency extremes. By comparison, the DT-990’s midrange is no less revealing and evocative than the Grado's is, but it positively excels at the frequency extremes (though its response is elevated in almost exactly the same areas where the Grado seems rolled off).
• The net result is that the DT-990 comes across as the more well rounded, do-all performer that conveys more musical information overall, and for only a bit more money.