We approached Sennheiser's top headphones, the HD 650s, with high expectations, as word of mouth for the product has been overwhelmingly positive. The headphones certainly look the part -- the HD 650s' luxurious feel, the thickly padded headband and ear cushions, and the titanium-silver finish leave no doubt: even before you hear them, you can tell these are very special headphones. The HD 650s are pretty big and moderately heavy (260g), but they're extremely comfortable. We logged many, many hours of listening time and came away thoroughly impressed with their comfort. They retail for around £200.
The headphones' drivers are hand-selected to ensure precise left/right matching tolerances and feature computer-optimised neodymium magnet systems to minimise distortion. Their lightweight aluminium voice coils ensure accuracy and fast transient response. The HD 650s' 2.7m Y cable is user-replaceable, and that's a good thing, because over the years cables inevitably break. The cable is terminated with a 1/4-inch plug, and a high-quality miniplug adaptor is included.
The Sennheiser HD 650s are intended for home rather than portable listening -- they're too big and bulky for on-the-go use. The headphones are also rather power hungry, so puny iPods and MP3 players won't supply enough juice to produce much volume. With that in mind, we conducted all of our auditions on a home-cinema system.
We first popped on the Master and Commander DVD to explore the limits of the HD 650s' home-cinema prowess. The naval battles' cannonfire exchanges never came close to fazing the Sennheisers. Bass was fuller than that of any other headphones we've ever used, and the sound appeared to come from the other side of the room.
There's a sweetness to the HD 650s' open sound that flatters all sorts of music. The detail is all there, but the treble frequencies are more laid back than those of the much more expensive Grado RS-2 headphones (£450). Hard-rock tunes sounded a little tame over the HD 650s, and switching to the RS-2s pumped up the excitement factor on Neil Young's Ragged Glory -- the enriched blasts of raucous energy from Young's guitar sounded more realistic over the RS-2s.
But we had the opposite reaction when we played acoustic music, as the HD 650s let us feel more of the weight of Cyrus Chestnut's grand piano on Revelation. The HD 650s' superclean sound encourages listening at a high volume, even at levels that would be painful with other headphones. The HD 650s' bass is bigger than that of the RS-2s, but the RS-2s' definition clarifies details lost to the HD 650s. We heard texture way down in the mix in the RS-2s -- details such as the bass player sliding his fingers over the strings are harder to hear on the HD 650s.
The Grado RS-2 and the Sennheiser HD 650 are both reference-quality headphones, and we would be thrilled to live with either one, although they sound very different. The HD 650s had slightly more style and a boomier sound, but you'll lose a little sonic detail. Your purchase may ultimately boil down to what you'll be listening to -- or your wallet.
Edited by David Rudden
Additional editing by Nick Hide