The audiophile realm is full of mystery and intrigue to most people. Those on the periphery want desperately to be in on it, and the ones deeply entrenched in it, pontificate eloquently in an almost pseudo-sciencey way. The truth though is that audiophilia, at least the way it is practiced, is more like a cult, than a science. Audio is so subjective an experience that over the years esoteric customs have evolved in this subculture such as obsession over specialist cables (the actual wires that transmit signals), burn-ins, vintage amps and hundreds of nebulous ways in which audiophiles try to quantify their experiences into words.
But the makers of audiophile gear, in this case headphones, couldn't possibly be complaining. They are only too happy to supply a hungry audience with tweaked and tuned headphone variations to suit every subjectivity-ridden ear. The sweetest outcome is that we get to try out so many different units and models. One such audio piece we’ve been craving to get our hands on for the longest time was the Sennheiser HD 700. These headphones were released a long time after the now legendary flagship HD 800s – most speculate to possibly to fill a budget gap been the 800s and the old standard (and beloved) Sennheiser HD 650.
From the moment you hold them in your hand you know right away you’re going to be privy to something great. The build quality is immediately apparent – right from the well crafted driver housing, to the headband and right down to the thick OFC cable ending in a ¼-inch jack. They look decidedly industrial and almost formidable. But the gorgeous aesthetics aren’t just eye candy. There seem to be specific design considerations that have gone into the crafting of these headphones. Take the case of the beautiful stainless steel grille mesh on the outside of the earcups. It seems it’s specifically designed to direct and control the flow of air and reduce harmonic distortion. There are also dampening materials used all around and guess what, whatever design sorcery Sennheiser has implemented it seems to work. More on that in the performance section.
A cross-section of the ear cups. Every design element is supposed to work towards better sonic quality.
Apart from great build comfort too seems to be an important factor with these cans. The headphones have bulk for sure (40mm drivers in that big a housing is almost like holding two speakers to your ears) but when worn they’re astonishingly light. They feel so light in fact that there will be moments when you don’t realise they’re on your head and you’ll walk off while wearing them from your listening station. At such moments the long cable does come in handy. The velour earpads are super comfy and the open back circumaural design ensures your ears won’t get warm or sweaty even with extended hours of listening. This of course comes at a price – virtually no isolation – but that’s not something you judge an audiophile grade headphone by. Headphones in this range require a few prerequisites – a plush uptown apartment with a view. Of course we kid, though you’ll need a good source in the form of a good amp which in all likelihood will be in a quiet room.
Since high end headphones usually come with high impedance ratings we ensured that we test using the ASUS Xonar Essence One headphone DAC and amp or the Essence STX sound card. The HD 700s are not that hard to drive, but we didn’t want to take chances. We also wanted the equipment to be as neutral as possible and both the Essence One and STX are supposed to be as neutral as you can get in that price range.
Throughout the testing phase, our intention was to really test the range of the HD 700s by throwing as many genres at it as possible (apart from our frequency sweeps and test samples of course). In the course of the month or so that these cans were with us, a rather strange consequence was that our musical tastes expanded greatly – everything sounds just so good! We heard a rendition of Moonlight Sonata by E.S. Posthumus on these and the experience was ethereal. Details from test tracks that were never before heard started coming through like serendipitous discoveries through the clutter of the mundane.
The sound signature of the HD 700 is almost sparkly and so open, it makes for a brilliantly wide soundstage. Vocal performance does not take a beating even when the instrument density is high. They are fairly neutral and that for most people means bass shy (not true however). Overall the headphones deliver brilliant dynamic range – you’ll hear everything from the quietest clink of a feather touched cymbal, to the loudest scream of a wailing guitar. They’re so good, one of the normally nonchalant members of the team, swore to have experienced synesthesia – an exaggeration of course – but you get the idea.
When reviewing something that comes with an almost obscene price tag, this bit is the most difficult for any reviewer. How can anyone in their right mind justify spending 60k on a pair of headphones? Well just like fine wine or other epicurean pursuits, sonic pleasure also finds its fair share of takers. Fact is that the Sennheiser HD 700 is the best performing headphone we got this year. If you can afford to spend the obscene 60k it demands, take a leap of faith, you won’t go wrong. Remember however that these headphones demand a worthy source and preferably a collection of flac music – an audio enthusiast at the very least if not an audiophile. Not everyone’s cup of tea.