Technology

Pro Headphone Faceoff: Four Takes on Excellent Mobile Listening

or me, headphone evaluation boils down to five components: sound (of course), fit, comfort, portability and convenience.

For me, headphone evaluation boils down to five components: sound (of course), fit, comfort, portability and convenience. My signal chain for these reviews was either Pro Tools sessions heard through an Avid 192 audio interface and Crown amplifier, or Apple Lossless CD sample rate files played through a USB Transit to a Hafler 915 Class-A preamp. The playback material was a collection of tracks I know intimately.

Beyerdynamic Custom Studio

The Custom Studio headphones from Beyerdyanamic ($299) are the second most affordable and second lightest (0.63 pounds) of the group, but are the most ambitious and feature-rich. They ship in a simple cardboard box and come with drawstring bag with a slot for an ID tag. Also included is a BYR Dynamic wearable pin, Allen Key for changing the rings and covers, and a single wet wipe for cleaning the headband and ear pads. The coiled cable does not lock but must be precisely aligned to make a proper fit.

The cloth ear pads are completely round and among the most comfortable of those tested here—there’s plenty of room inside and around your ear. The nominal impedance is listed at 16 ohms, which works better with battery-powered devices than those with impedances over 100 ohms. The headband is completely removable and replaceable, as are the ear pads. The Custom Studio was the best of the four tested here in canceling handling noise. That said, the ambient rejection is not as effective as advertised. I tried them at all four Sound Slider settings and still couldn’t get the ambient noise down past the others. However, I wouldn’t worry about this, as we’re talking about using these for critical listening and in the studio, not on an airplane.

The Custom Studio offers a good sound overall but has a “smile” that makes it weak in the midrange. I found that mix elements residing at the top, especially transients like cymbal pings, stuck out when compared to the other headphones. I liked the ability the sliders gave me to alter the sound but I found the extremes unusable. The “light bass” setting was dull overall, “linear” was the most true (except for the “smile”), and “bass boost” and “vibrant bass” took things out of control.

The Custom Studio from Beyerdynamic wants to be your headphone everything, both lifestyle and pro. It comes with replaceable color options, has variable bass and ambient noise rejection via the Sound Sliders and can even be expanded for use with a headset.

Focal Spirit

The Focal Spirit headphones ($349) ship in a foam-lined cardboard box with removable 15-foot coiled and 6-foot straight cables, both ending at an 1/8-inch TRS connector with a fitted ¼-inch adapter (the cables sit left side only). The Spirit weighs 0.9 pounds with impedance listed at 32 ohms. Also included is a drawstring bag for transport.

The fit is good with solid rejection of external sound and handling noise. The leather ear pads are on the small side to fit my ears entirely. While Spirit weighs in at nearly a pound, it doesn’t feel like it. The balance and design make for a comfortable fit—equally comfortable with the left or right driver oriented on either side; the driver housing is cleverly attached to the headband at a single point that swivels easily. The handling noise of the cable and phones is among the best of the four units tested here.

For the review, I sat with my favorite tracks and quickly swapped headphones back and forth. Every time I came back to the Spirit I could only think of one word—flat! I could trust these while mixing. There’s no giant bottom end, the top is all there without being strident or sticking out, and the balance in the midrange is excellent. If anything, they might be a bit bottom-shy.

While the removable coiled and straight cables are an advantage, the drawstring bag lacks sturdiness and is disappointing. At $349, the Focal Spirit is a serious investment but offers more upside than down. If you’re looking for an un-hyped headworn listening experience, you have to check these out.

Sennheiser HD6 Mix

The HD6 Mix from Sennheiser is the most affordable ($279) and lightest headphone tested here (0.58 pounds). It ships in a foam-lined box that holds a sturdy, zippered hard case with a coiled cable and extra ear pads. The cable locks into either driver for those who have a left/right orientation preference. As is standard with all phones tested here, the cable ends at an 1/8-inch TRS with a ¼-inch adapter included. Impedance is listed at 150 ohms.

On my shaved dome, the fit was not very good, with the HD6 always feeling tighter on the bottom of my ear than the top. Oddly, I preferred the fit when I placed them in the wrong orientation, left to right. The leather ear pads are very comfortable and generous. Handling noise and rejection of external sound is good. Each driver swivels easily and extends far out of the headband.

The HD6 is way too hyped on the bottom end for pro audio applications. On track after track, I found myself being distracted by woofy bass notes and overdone kick drum. Despite being affordable, the HD6’s clunky fit and giant bottom end made it my least favorite of the models reviewed here. If you’re looking for an affordable, great-sounding set of cans that you can feel confident with, step up to the Sennheiser HD600 ($399), which are much more in line with pro audio needs.

Shure SRH1540

The SRH1540 from Shure is pricey at $499 but offers some unique and useful features for audio pros. The cable is a dedicated L/R setup with both sides needing to be plugged in to work in stereo. I liked this arrangement for studio work because you’re sometimes challenged with singers and string players who take off one side of their headphones to hear pitch in the room. For travel and storage, the SRH1540 comes in a case that includes zippered bags for the two included cables (coiled and straight), extra ear pads and a ¼-inch adapter. While the connectors at the transducer are not locking, they make a tight fit. Impedance is listed at 46 ohms and the weight is 0.63 pounds.

Although the ear covers don’t swivel, the fit is secure and the cloth ear pads seem to be made of a dense inner core and a softer outer layer, making these the most comfortable fitting headphones of the group. While the ear pads are replaceable, the headband is not.

The Shure SRH1540s are balanced; the top end is not hyped or strident and works well with the midrange, but the bottom end is just north of where I like it. I’d have a hard time trusting these when mixing. But in the studio, because of the comfort and cable, these would shine for musician playback. The left/right cable attachments and the comfort factor make these tough studio headphones to beat. The one downside may be the longevity of the non-replaceable headband_; only time will tell. I preach that quality is always cheaper, no matter the price, and the SRH1540 fits the bill.

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