Making of an Audiophile Part 5: Best Studio headphones under Rs 20,000
This is part 5 of a series on getting started as an audiophile. It is also a second set of headphone reviews, with the first set of reviews available here
Click here to read part 1.
Click here to read part 2.
Click here to read part 3.
Click here to read part 4
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 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.
Status Audio CB-1
I’m partial to the Status Audio CB-1s because they sell in the US for the equivalent of INR 4,200. This price makes the headphone a no-brainer. In India, on the other hand, the price rises to Rs 10,000, making it important to take a closer, harder look.
The CB-1s have a fairly neutral sound signature. The bass is just a touch more present than on the SRH440s, which makes it close to neutral in my opinion, and quite satisfying to listen to, with enough heft and thump to enjoy hip-hop and electronic music. There is also some sub-bass, though a tad less than ideal. The bass is also of good quality at this price. It is definitely tighter than on the M50x, a key competitor at this price point, and also bleeds less onto the other frequencies. Like the M50xs, if you’re used to consumer headphones, the CB-1s might be a great first foray into neutral land.
The primary problem with the CB-1 lies in the highs, where the lower treble is a little less controlled than on the M50x. This can make the higher notes of guitars and violins sound noticeably tinnier. In passages of music with the heavy use of cymbals, like in Kenny Burrell’s ‘Chitlins con Carne’, their shimmer can hijack the track.
The mids themselves are enjoyable. They are clear, and timber of instruments in the lower- and mid-frequency ranges is on point. This also means that vocals have the right mix of sweetness and depth, and the voices sound natural.
But there is one thing that is truly exceptional about the CB-1’s sound, and this is their soundstage. I think it is this one factor that elevates a good-sounding headphone into a great-sounding one. To deliver this width and depth of soundstage in a closed-back headphone is incredible for the price. Tracks like John Martyn’s ‘Small Hours’, recorded outdoors with the sound of a lake and sea gulls mixed into the track, make you feel like you are in a spherical soundscape. While the width of the soundstage is a touch narrower than the excellent and wide HM-5s, the depth is significantly better on the CB-1s, the best in these reviews.
The imaging is also good enough to make it great fun to close your eyes and imagine where every instrument is placed: the Sholay title theme really feels like it has collected all these unusual instruments and sound effects on a wide and deep stage.
It is this spaciousness that aids in instrument separation, and in keeping the bass from interfering with the mids. Sure, one does not want Johnny Cash’s voice to sit behind the instruments in his iconic cover of ‘Hurt’, but if it has to sit back, at least the guitars shouldn’t crowd out the voice. That’s what the CB-1 manages, with the mids recessed but not contaminated.
The CB-1s are good at preventing leakage, but not very good at keeping outside sounds from interfering with your music in louder environments. They should work well enough in an office setting, though you’ll have to jack up the volume in louder environments.
Build, Comfort and Accessories
The CB-1s have big, deep ear pads. The circular shape is an unusual choice, rather than the oval in most headphones, and this means the pads sit a little on top of your ears rather than enveloping them. But the padding is so soft, and so thick—the thickest I’ve seen—that they are ridiculously comfortable. It’s a close contest when it comes to comfort between the CB-1s and the HM-5s, but both are headphones you can wear all day.
The CB-1s are all plastic. They tend to get a little creaky with use, but they are robust and there are very few reports of breakage. The earcups can also be folded and flipped and articulated in all kinds of ways to make them more compact. It comes with two cables: a light, coiled cable coming in at 1 m unstretched, and 3 m stretched, and a longer, 3 m cable. Both ends of either cable are gold 3.5 mm pins, meaning your replacement cable (which supports an in-line mic) will have to take that into account. Of course, a 6.35 mm adapter is included.
There’s absolutely no logo anywhere, which is a USP for Status Audio—their claim is that the money others spend on celebrity endorsements and marketing goes straight into providing the best sound for the price. This is an appealing proposition for those of us who want the pleasures of good sound to reach as far and as wide as possible.
There’s a gold-painted plastic accent on each ear cup, which is chintzy, but not overly shiny or gaudy. However, the size of the cans and their round earcups means that there is no getting around looking like an audio geek. I tend to think this should be a matter of pride, but when it comes to looks, your mileage may vary.
If you can get them at the US price, or if Status Audio starts shipping directly to India (I mentioned our growing audiophile community in my email to James Bertuzzi, the Founder, and urged him to make it happen), then these are absolute no-brainers. Their current price makes them compete for head-on with the Audiotechnica M50x. In this match-up, you have the stronger build, sleeker looks, and better highs on the Audiotechnicas competing with tighter bass, a substantially larger and deeper soundstage, and substantially more comfort on the CB-1s.
Status Audio CB1 is available online for Rs 10,000
(Available online for Rs 16,000)
The iconic Sennheiser HD25s, while being on-ears instead of over-ears, enter the conversation because of their three-decade-long pedigree as monitoring and DJ-ing headphones. I was reluctant to include them, but the good people at Sennheiser suggested them, and when I reached out to some professional musicians, they recommended it highly as well.
I am glad I got to give the HD25s a listen. The mids on it are incredible, easily the clearest and cleanest of the headphones under review. Like the HM-5s, they have been sweetened by playing up the upper mids and lower treble, but the timbre of instruments is more accurate than the HM-5s as this sweetening has not been done to the same extent.
The 25s also do better than the HM-5s in upper treble, which remains very clear and musical in the 25s. They do veer a little to the drier/more analytical side, just not as much as the HM-5s. Treble extension is actually good enough to also give a little bit of the air frequencies, which listeners describe as being able to hear the air around instruments—this is not prominent, but nor is it totally absent like in the other headphones reviewed here.
The bass is also a tad more than on the HM-5s, which make them enjoyable and present, but still light. Plucked notes on the upright bass still sound more musical than percussive. The sub-bass extension is better than on the HM-5s, but a fair bit short of ideal; the long decay of large drums is barely audible. This does mean, however, that there is absolutely no danger of the bass intruding on the mids, which are exquisite.
A key disadvantage versus the HM5 is that the soundstage is quite narrow, something difficult to correct in on-ear headphones. It is, however, to my ears, wider than the over-ear Audiotechnica M40x and M50x. Imaging, however, within this soundstage is excellent, and instrument separation is as good as any of the headphones in these two reviews. This was surprising to me, as it is a real feat within a narrow soundstage.
Isolation is terrific. There’s very little leakage, and the blocking of outside sounds is also great when you get a good seal.
Build, Comfort and Accessories
Look closely at DJs, and more often than not you’ll spot HD25s on their ears. These light, all-plastic headphones are popular with professionals because they are well-nigh indestructible—and even if you happen to somehow break something, you can replace it with parts that are widely available.
On-ear headphones are not great for comfort because they press down on the ears externally. However, the HD25s compensate by being phenomenally light; if it weren’t for the way they clamp down on your ears, you might even forget you’re wearing them. The seal is, however, pretty good, probably contributing to the decent bass response on these small cans.
The HD25s have an interesting look. They are all-black and plastic, but they have a unique, memorable split headband. Moreover, the circular earcups are split along the vertical axis by their band, something that makes these headphones actually aesthetic. They might well be the best-looking of this bunch for most people, though they still look professional rather than a fashion accessory.
I must note here that there is a less expensive version, called the HD25 Light, which also has a slightly different sound. This review is unlikely to be reliable for the Lights. There is also a more expensive package, called the HD25 Plus, which is basically the same headphones but with additional accessories, including a coiled cable, spare earpads and a carrying case. For the purposes of beginner audiophiles, I’d recommend the standard HD25.
The HD25s are far and away the most expensive of the headphones in either review. The price is more competitive if you can get them from abroad, but even at Indian prices, the headphones provide value for their price. If what you want is a light, easy-to-carry headphone that will let you block out outside sounds and enjoy your music, the HD25s may be your best bet. The sound signature is great, with decent bass, exquisite mids, and good highs. The balance is great, as is instrument separation and imaging.
However, if what you really want from your headphones is ample soundstage, or a very strong bass response, the 25s may not be the best for you.
Sennheiser HD25 is available online for Rs 16,000
The Audiotechnica M50xs are legendary headphones, mostly because of the amount of bass they bring to the party while maintaining clear mids, good timbre and a good amount of detail. For someone coming from a consumer headset, they were instantly better—you didn’t miss the bass response of the consumer headphones, and you got all these other things besides. That is still what they are best for: as step-up headphones for those detoxing from consumer headsets.
Such listeners are unlikely to mind the significant bass boost, enough to affect the mids a fair bit. They’ll also find the bass quality better than on consumer headphones, though still bloated. The M50x does a better job with the lower treble, keeping it controlled, resulting in instruments retaining their natural sound into the higher frequencies. The upper treble is also quite clear, if a tad analytical.
It is the mids and vocals that do feel like they get a tad lost in the mixes. This can be fixed using EQ, and the headphones respond reasonably well to EQ, but that extra step is required to make them sound balanced across the frequencies.
Soundstage is about as wide as the 280 Pros, which is very narrow indeed. Imaging, however, is really good across this narrow soundstage. The whole stage is populated, and sounds traveling from one point to another track accurately. If there’s an analog-styled hiss on the track, like in Herbie Mann’s ‘Incense’, that hiss fills up the whole background, instead of just filling in blobs to the left, right and center. Details are also present, though it can get a little tricky locating them on a cluttered soundstage.
The hyped bass does have its uses: if you are listening casually, hip hop will become almost instantaneously more fun. I’m not a bass head by any means—for me, the mids are way too important—but I think the M50s provide as much bass as there can be in headphones without substantially affecting the other frequencies.
The M50xs are often compared to their younger cousins, the M40xs. While I do find the M40x bass to be better than the M50x (less overwhelming and even a touch tighter), I do find the M50xs to have better lower treble and a fair bit of advantage in imaging. All in all, unless you really dislike elevated bass, spending the extra money on the M50xs is justified to my ears. If you do dislike elevated bass, you can do better than either Audiotechnicas, as even the M40x are quite bassy.
Comfort, Build and Accessories
The M50xs are slightly beefed-up M40xs in their build: the headband is wider and has a hint more of cushioning. The earcups, however, are the same size, and so are the pads, which means the headphones sit on top of your ears in a way that can get a bit uncomfortable, though this should improve over time. The construction is high-quality plastic, except for a metallic headband that is well-built and satisfyingly clicky. The M50xs exude quality, all in all announcing themselves as the best-built of the headphones in these two reviews.
Another strong point for the M50x is that it comes with three cables. There’s a coiled cable for desk use, a long one for use in the studio, and a short one for portable use. It also comes with a helpful carrying case, and can be folded for easy carrying. In many ways, I think the M50x was the first cross-over headphone, a professional headphone that was both targeted at, and achieved, overwhelming consumer success. The build and accessories hold some of the clues to why.
The M50xs also come in white and blue-black variants which sell at a higher price.
Ex-bassheads will rejoice at the M50x. Indeed, any consumer looking to get better sound without necessarily becoming an audiophile will find in the M50x a fun sound that is leagues ahead of consumer sets at the same price. Combined with the solid build, looks and the convenience of a short cable, the M50x present a complete package.
However, if you find excess bass an irritant rather than an aid to your enjoyment of music, the M50x is not for you. The M40x comes close to offering many of the things the M50x does with a tad less bass, and are a solid option, especially because they come in significantly cheaper. The CB-1s have less bass than the M40x, but still upwards of neutral, and the bass interferes less with the mids because of the spacious soundstage. Both, to my ears, are better choices if we are thinking only about the sound, but then I am one of those people who finds it hard to justify bass crowding out other frequencies. If what you do want is as much bass as you can get from these headphones, the M50x is easily your top pick.
Audiotechnica M50x is available online for Rs 9,500
Sennheiser HD 380 Pro
The HD 380 Pro may have been named to be the older brother of the 280 Pro, but they could not be more different. The 280 Pro’s strengths are its mids and highs, giving natural timbre, and its weaknesses lie in its soundstage and imaging; the 380 Pros have a spacious soundstage and good imaging, but there is something very strange going on with their mids.
The 380 Pros were one of my first headphones in the hobby, before I had fully trained my ears. The experience was startling—there seemed to be way more details in tracks than I’d heard before. It was only later that I learned about how upper-mid and lower-treble frequencies contain all kinds of details, but details that one can’t actually hear when listening to the real thing: instruments playing naturally in a room with good acoustics.
Nevertheless, for a beginner enthusiast, it felt good to have access to this extra information. The only danger was in thinking a violin or a sarod—or even the decay of a drum—really sounds thinner and less resonant than it actually does.
The bass is also unusual in that there is a substantial amount of sub-bass—the best of all the headphones under review—but the mid-bass is a fair bit light, about as much as the 280 Pros. This makes the bass sound deep and layered, and it is very tight, but there just isn’t enough there to fully enjoy bassy tracks.
The soundstage, while not having the depth of the CB-1s, has very good width. All those extra details also means there isn’t a single instrument in the track that you won’t be able to pick out. This stretches from the deep bass of the low notes of organs, all the way to the highest tinklings, though instruments like the upright bass can feel less than prominent. All in all, if I had to perform a test where I had to name all the instruments used in a mix, I’d immediately pick the 380 Pros to be my headphone.
The 380 Pros can be fixed using EQ, taming the upper mids and boosting the mid-bass. They respond well to it, and the settings on metal571’s YouTube channel do a good job of making instruments sound more natural.
Another thing the 380 Pros are great at is isolation. The 380 Pros are as good at blocking out outside sound as the HD25s, and they are the best at preventing leakage of sound, meaning you can wear them pretty much anywhere without bothering those around you.
Build, Comfort and Accessories
The HD 380 Pros have large, oval earcups, the largest of the headphones in either review. While the pads are not heavily cushioned, they are soft and comfortable, though made of a leatherette that has a tendency to peel. The headband is also soft and cushy. Comfort is no problem for the 380 Pros, except perhaps a touch too much clamping force if you have a bigger-than-average head.
The construction is all-plastic, but it is high quality, robust plastic. The headphones do fold down to be easily carried, and they come with a hard carrying case. The included cable is a 1 m long heavy, coiled cable, which can stretch up to 3 m. This fits into the 380 Pros through a proprietary-looking plug, though I have found it possible to replace the cable with a generic one, so long as the 2.5 mm end is long and straight. You’ll want to replace the cable because it is quite bulky.
With fixed EQ, and a different wire, the 380 Pros provide a great outdoors headphone because of its isolation. Without EQ, they can help prime your ears to identify details in tracks that you can then listen for on other headphones with more natural timbre. The fact that Sennheiser has discontinued these makes them hard to recommend, but this means you might get a good deal on them, and they should be around in the aftermarket for a while longer. If it were not for the funky mids, they would have a great sound, considering their well-extended though a touch lighter bass, a proper emphasis on the mids, and clear (if slightly mechanical) highs—plus their excellent isolation, a wide soundstage, and huge, soft ear cups.
If you get them at a good price, I’d recommend grabbing them—they are a very unique headphone. Here’s to hoping Sennheiser realize they had a good thing going, and make a successor to the 380 Pros with a bit more bass and more natural-sounding mids!
Sennheiser HD 380 Pro is discontinued, but still available for INR 9,900
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