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Making of an audiophile part 4: The best studio headphones under Rs 8,000

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This article is the fourth part of a four-part series which discusses the various nuances involved in becoming an audiophile.

Click here to read part 1.

Click here to read part 2.

Click here to read part 3.

Headphones are the centrepiece in a beginner audiophile’s arsenal. Getting a good pair delivers the biggest difference in audio quality. Without a good set, it can even become difficult to tell the difference in sound quality between an inferior recording and a superior one.

A great recording, like Mickey Newbury’s Just Dropped In from his Winter Winds album — turning his LSD classic into an acoustic heart shredder — contains Newbury’s broken and strained voice accompanied by two guitars, an upright bass, and a cello, a violin and a mandolin weaving in and out. An ordinary headphone will muddle up the sounds of the different string instruments; it will either suck the rumble out of the precise plucks of the upright bass or turn them into a buzzing mess; and it will turn Newbury’s virtuoso vocal performance into something flat and faded.

Having a good pair can, on the other hand, make you hear details and instruments you had previously missed in even your most-loved recording. In this article, we will look at four headphones under Rs 8,000 that you can get started with.

Since sound is the most important aspect for audiophiles, the review will begin with a description of the sound, with details about the sound signature and soundstage. Then, we will go into build quality, accessories and comfort. Finally, there’s a verdict.

For notes on how I test headphones, including my source, tracks and burn-in, as well as on how best to make use of my reviews, please look at my testing process. The only thing important to know right away (Thank you, Tyll Hertsens!) is that I use some words very carefully to describe how much a particular aspect of the sound is affected. These are, in ascending order: a touch (very little); a tad (slightly); a fair bit; significantly; substantially.

Shure SRH440

SRH440.

Sound

One of the central myths of the headphone world is that a neutral sound signature is light on bass. Sure, headphones will never recreate that chest-thumping feeling that a powerful subwoofer can, but they can still create a rumble in the cranium and deliver percussive hits to our eardrums. The trouble is that if a headphone delivers a solid amount of bass, that usually obscures other frequencies. At this price point of under Rs 8,000, the Shure SRH440s do the best job of delivering potent bass without disturbing the balance in the sound.

The bass is also quite tight. Drum hits take just a touch longer to quiet down than they ought, but it is fast enough to let you separate individual notes in the bass line in most songs.

Most headphones at this price struggle a little with sub-bass. The SRH440s are no exception. I can’t say there’s no sub-bass at all, but you need to crank up the volume to get the full experience of the very deep bass notes on an organ, or on a large drum.

The mids are quite beautifully tuned on the SRH440s. They are neither forward nor recessed but just right. Quality is also good at this price point. There is just a tad bit of grain, and there is a slight emphasis on the upper-mids, which makes instruments sound a bit thinner, and also shaves off a touch of the huskiness from deeper female vocals, like in the case of Norah Jones. Nevertheless, everything is still very enjoyable and musical.

The treble is trickier. These are not overly bright headphones, and the treble does not hurt or necessarily fatigue my ears, but the SRHs do play up sibilance a fair bit. This may be by design, as it is useful for audio engineers, but the result for non-monitoring purposes is that the highs get a bit hazy. The treble also sounds a touch mechanical and harsh, making the bell chimes in Jamey Haddad’s track, The Wind, from Explorations in Space and Time (Chesky Records) sound slightly tinny. Overall, if clear, liquid highs are extremely important to you, these may not be the best pair, but for the regular listener, it provides a solid balance between highs, mids and lows, as well as sufficient clarity.

Soundstage is present. It is definitely not excessively narrow and suffocating in the way the 280 Pros and the M40x can be. Instrument separation and imaging are also decent at this price. Not much to write home about, nor to complain about. It tends to have the three-blob soundstage of left, right and center, and sounds moving between the blobs can get a little lost.

The final point to discuss is isolation. The SRH440s are not very good at reducing external sounds, though they are fairly competent at keeping your music from leaking out. If you listen at moderate levels, you can even get away with wearing these at work.

Build, Comfort, Accessories

The SRH440s are solidly built, utilizing thick, high-quality plastic, and there are no significant reports of weaknesses in the build. In terms of comfort, the Shures won’t give too much trouble for two-hour listening sessions, though they won’t win any awards either.

The pads are vinyl and roomy, so big ears should not be a problem, and they are replaceable in case they get squishy over time. The clamp force provides a good fit without getting uncomfortable. The headband is thick and solid, though not very comfortably cushioned. This can become a problem after about an hour or so of listening. The pads are not the most breathable, being closed, so you might have to air your ears, especially during summer.

The only cable it comes with is thick and durable—and easily substituted. You might want to switch out the cable, because, as with many professional headphones, they come coiled. Unextended, they come in at 1.4 m and extend to 5 m, so they can be bulky to carry, but you’ll love having the extra length if you plan to use it at your desk. The cable connects to the headphone using a 2.5 mm plug with a ‘bayonet’ twist-and-lock to keep it in place, and ends in a standard, gold 3.5 mm plug, with a 6.35 mm threaded gold convertor included to use with amps.

Other than the cable, the SRHs are very portable, the arms folding conveniently inwards. The cups can also be flipped/reversed so that they sit “open” around your neck, instead of clamped shut and choking you. There’s a bit of swivel where the cups are attached to the headband to adjust for fit, but don’t try to turn them the whole way around. Some users online have ended up breaking their SRHs doing this, and have had to get them replaced!

The Shures are not style cans (none of the studio monitors are). Instead, they look like they mean business, though I do think they have the cups at a pleasing angle to the headband instead of more boring, straight angles. This makes for a pretty side profile.

The one concern that people have with the design of the SRH440s is that there are two tiny bits of exposed wire connected to the ear cups. This makes people afraid of snagging and snapping. I’d be most concerned about putting it in a bag and the wires snagging when retrieving it, but luckily there’s a handy vinyl pouch to avoid such mishaps.

Verdict

The SRHs are solid all-rounders. They provide the most balanced sound of the units in this review, and come close enough to having accurate timbre, making them great for learning to listen critically. There’s enough soundstage to pick up the basics of locating instruments as well. Bass heads learning to love mid frequencies will also benefit from the SRHs, though something like the M40s may be an easier step down from the bass response of consumer sets.

The headphones are not uncomfortable for 2 hour listening sessions; they are solidly built and fold down to a convenient size; and they come with a carrying case. The cable, while inconvenient, is replaceable. Nothing in the ‘other criteria’ is either a deal breaker or a wow factor with the SRHs, making them a solid, reliable pick for consumers starting off on their audiophile journey.

Shure SRH440 is available for Rs 8,000

Brainwavz HM5

HM5 Studio monitor headphones.

Sound

Of the four headphones under review in this article, and indeed of the four in the next price range, the HM5 is the one that has the best party trick. By ‘party trick’ I mean one special thing that it does exceptionally well. This is also, in effect, a colouration — something added to a neutral sound signature. The HM5’s party trick is to bring female vocals forward, and inject them with a sweet, heart-piercing quality. Ear-piercing would be bad, but heart-piercing sound is a great achievement at this price point.

This means we will lose some of the depth in vocals, but something like Jasleen Royal’s twee voice in Kho gaye hum kahan will just tug and tug at your heartstrings.

Pulling off this party trick also means that the bass is significantly reduced. It also means that the upper mids and lower treble have to be crystal clear — you can hear these in the guitar in Royal’s song. The HM5 really shines in these frequencies, with the lower treble being particularly liquid and gorgeous.

Upper treble, however, can at times get a bit harsh. In the category of studio headphones, the HM5s are bright. On very treble-heavy tracks, especially with electronic music, this can get fatiguing.

Sub-bass is lacking, and the bass itself is quite light. Instead of hearing the percussive boom of bass, what you get is mostly taps and the musical content of the bass notes. This does not amount to the kick drums sounding completely off and unrealistic as it can in the Sennheiser HD 380 Pro. Instead, the kick drums sound more muted, yielding the spotlight to the vocals and the highs.

Timber of instruments also gets affected a tad as a result of this, with the deeper, more resonant notes, say of Kenny Burrell’s guitar in Were you there sounding shallower.

Soundstage is significantly more spacious than the other headphones in this review. The HM5s have good instrument separation, which helps in locating where instruments are even in a congested mix. The imaging is also good, with sounds moving across the soundstage traveling quite smoothly, and many different angles and positions represented. Depth of soundstage, while there, is a bit shallow.

Passive noise reduction is okay. You’ll still hear traffic if you’re listening to music outside. The leakage is also not absent, though it remains at acceptable levels for home and office use at moderate levels.

Build, comfort, accessories

 If the HM5s have a party trick in the sound department, they also have an A-game in comfort and accessories. Brainwavz is known for its earpads, so the HM5s are a showpiece for their deep, soft, cavernous pads, of which you get an extra pair included. The cups can get a little warm over a long period of time, but these are headphones I could wear all day. My ears might even love me for it!

The headband is also comfortable. The adjustable slider is made of metal, and it clicks (perhaps too easily) through different levels of adjustment.

The package comes with two detachable and replaceable cables, one 1.3 m straight cable for portable use, and another longer, 3 m cable for desk use. The cables are split with connectors going to each earcup, with the standard colour coding of ‘red’ for ‘right’. All the terminal connections are gold and 3.5 mm; a 6.35 mm adapter is included. Since the cable is not only on one side (usually the left in most headphones of this kind), you’ll need to look at the small blue ‘L’ or small red ‘R’ just above the earcups, or orient yourself using the Brainwavz logo on the headband (if it’s not upside down, you’re oriented correctly).

The whole package comes in a hard, egg-shaped case that can protect your headphones from pretty much anything they will encounter. I rarely use any of my headphone cases, but if you need one, this is a great case. There’s also a way to sling the case using an included shoulder strap if you’re so inclined.

The HM5s are not the best when it comes to looks; the plastic looks, well, plasticky, and the metal faceplates could have looked less chintzy. The thinner plastic can also snap (particularly the forks holding the earcups), so they do need a bit of care.

The ear cups are reversible, though the swivel mechanism can be squeaky, and the headphones don’t collapse at all into a smaller size. These are, however, small issues — the headphones are so comfortable, the best place to carry them is on your head!

Verdict

If you don’t mind significantly lacking bass, and are into sweet and clear mids and highs, the HM5s are a no-brainer. They are a steal at the price, come with a convenient cable and way more accessories than the competition, and are easily the most comfortable pair of the ones in this (or the next) review. The headphones do tilt a little bright, so if you’re very sensitive to upper frequencies, or care a whole lot about timbre, you might want to skip these.

Brainwavz HM5 is available online for Rs 7,999

Sennheiser HD280 Pro

Sennheiser HD280 Pro.

Sound

The 280 Pros only have the even more hoary and legendary Sony MDR7506s to compete with as far as ‘classic’ status goes (Sony said they didn’t have review copies to send me). The 280s have been a standard at universities teaching audio engineering, and are more or less the headphones most professionals first use in their studios. To me, what they bring to this table is accurate timber.

In some ways, accurate timber of instruments is a holy grail in headphones. To judge timber, one needs to have heard their fair share of instruments unmediated by mics and amplifiers and speakers. Oddly enough, headphones can often pit timber against ‘detail’. A lot of extra details are contained in the higher frequencies, which are recorded by a mic, but if they are reproduced linearly by your headphones, you can hear things that you wouldn’t hear if you were listening to the instrument itself in real life. The reason this is not a very good thing is that it alters how instruments sound. Great instruments are rich and resonant, and these so-called ‘details’ can actually make the instruments sound thin, taking away some of their emotional power.

The 280s do not have that problem at all. They do veer just a touch on the darker side of things, but at this price point, they come the closest to accurate-sounding instruments and vocals.

The other part where the 280s shine is in the highs. The highs really sparkle, and are clear and not at all sibilant. The highs are also wetter than one associates with studio headphones — where treble can often be sharp and piercing, the highs on the 280s are rounded and pleasant. A very trebly mix like Parra for Cuva’s Devi, from the album Majouré, is still pleasant if the volume is not turned up too high.

Something interesting is going on as far as the bass is concerned. Sub-bass is present and has close to the right amount of emphasis, but mid-Bass can feel a touch lacking at times, muting the plucking of that wonderful instrument structuring jazz, the upright bass. Quality of bass is pretty good, with only slight bloat. There’s still more bass here than the HM5s, but less than the SRH440 and the M40x.

The soundstage is also a bit quirky. It is definitely narrow, and very intimate, and almost feels like it is placing the listener on-stage instead of in front of it. This can make the far left and far right channels sound wider than they are, but the middle can get crowded and bunched together. All in all, even mixes that have a sense of space in them, like the voices of children playing in a schoolyard in Ludacris’s Growing Pains, sound like they are coming from a small room.

The narrow soundstage also makes instrument separation and location tricky. Everything still sounds accurate, but it really emphasizes the mixing of different instruments rather than telling each one apart. The imaging is adequate, though there are gaps between the centre and the side channels.

They are better than the HM5s and the SRH440s for blocking out outside sound, and pretty great at preventing leakage of sound. They can definitely be used in a workplace or at home around family.

Build, Comfort, Accessories

The 280 Pros are built to last, and if anything breaks, it can be quickly and inexpensively repaired. This is the advantage of buying headphones that are beloved and widely used — parts are easily available. The construction is plastic, but tough plastic.

The earpads are large, made of leatherette (which in my experience can fray fairly quickly, but are easily replaced), and cushioned. The latest iteration of the headband, with two thick cushions on the top, is stable and reduces the problem of the older headband digging in. The clamping force is tight straight out of the box, and some users will need to stretch them around a head-sized box. They may not ever become truly comfortable (due to the clamp and nature of earcups, they can heat up the ears quite a bit), but they will eventually stop bothering you.

The cable is fixed, but replaceable if you follow instructions in the manual. However, unless you’re really good at tinkering with electronics, you can only replace it with one from Sennheiser. The cable is a 1 m coiled cable which stretches up to 3 m. It is thick and tough, but bulky.

There is a small bit of pride and dignity in wearing black, workhorse-looking studio headphones with coiled cables out and about in public. It shows that you are willing to disregard convenience and superficial aesthetics for better sound. Nevertheless, this can eventually get a little tiresome, or can make you feel hesitant to take the HD 280s out and about.

Verdict

The headphones are durable and the parts are easily replaced, but comfort (if you have a large head) and convenience are both compromised enough to be mentioned. The soundstage is also a bit artificial. However, the highlights of the sound are the mids and the highs, and these are two of the most important things for audiophiles. An orchestral track like ‘Prologue’ from Alexandre Desplat’s Birth OST shows off what the 280 Pros can do: the sub-bass of the big drum rumbles, the flutes sound right, the tinkling percussion is audible and clear, and the strings swell beautifully.

If, as a beginner audiophile, you want to train your ears to how instruments and voices sound, the HD 280 Pros are a very good choice: they offer the best timber, wet highs, and well-controlled upper treble and bass, so the important things are never contaminated.

Sennheiser HD280 Pro is available online for Rs 6,999

Audio-Technica ATH M40x

Audio-Technica ATH M40x

Sound

The ATH M40x is the younger sibling of the legendary M50x. Some even say it is the better sibling, and since it has a pleasing price, that makes it a very tasty proposition indeed.

To my ears, there are many family resemblances between the M50x and the M40x. They have a similar sound signature with elevated bass and treble and recessed mids, a narrow soundstage (better than HD 280, but losing out versus the other two), good imaging, and a good amount of detail. The timber of instruments and vocals are good at this price range, comparable to the HD 280 Pros.

However, both the bass and the treble do steal attention away from the mids significantly. The treble has just a touch of haze and sibilance (but not as much as with the SRH440s). What I like about the hyped treble, however, is that it is crisp and fast. Repeated hits on cymbals are clearly separated. The bass, however, is another story. It isn’t as elevated or as bloated as the M50x, but it is still a tad loose and bleeds a fair bit onto the mids. This is enough of a bother to me that I reach for equalizer settings.

However, there are times when one wants bass — and if you’re a bass head or are used to consumer headphones and listen to a lot of hip hop and electronic music — then the extra decibels in that frequency range will be not only welcome but also necessary. I admit that when I am burning through Kendrick Lamar, Nas, Naezy and DIVINE, and want to make their honesty and fighting spirit pulse through me, the M40xs are the headphones I reach for.

Build, Comfort, Accessories

The AudioTechnicas are very well-built, with high quality, a lovely clicking metal headband, nice metal accents on the ear cups, and a thick, durable cable. They are certainly strong, and arguably the best lookers of the headphones under review. I suspect it is their mix of good sound and decent looks that makes AudioTechnicas such high sellers.

They come with a 1.2 m coiled cable that can stretch up to 3 m, and a straight cable that is 3 m long. The cables are easily detached, with a gold 2.5 mm connector to the earcups and ending in a gold 3.5 mm plug. A 6.35 mm convertor is included. I found myself using the 3 m cable more, with about 2 m of it coiled and secured using cable ties. This made the M40xs quite portable. They also have a soft carry pouch and can be folded into a compact size.

Comfort, however, is a bit lacking. The clamping force is high, and the earcups are medium sized, making them press down on the ears. Bigger ears can get warm, and I caught myself sighing a little in relief when I took off the M40x, though I expect they will get more palatable with use.

Verdict

I am a music listener who leans heavily on the mind, but I can also sometimes switch off my thoughts and just listen with my body. When I do this, the M40xs have the energy and fun factor that one needs in those situations. If what I’m trying to do is focus on the music, the bass is distracting enough to want me to EQ it down. With EQ’ed bass, and perhaps also the treble reduced a little, I enjoy the timber and details on the M40x.

I think if you want good looks, solid build, and a bassy sound, you should pick up the M40x. If you have large ears and a large head, and comfort is a high priority, you may want to look elsewhere (or buy replacement pads). If you are very focused on mids and highs and don’t like bass distracting you, you might want to skip these.

Audio-Technica ATH-M40x is available online for Rs 6,924

I’d like to thank Sennheiser, Shure and Brainwavz for sending me review units for this review. Every effort has been taken to ensure that the reviews have not been influenced in any way by the companies, and that they are honest and unbiased.

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