Some headphones are designed to be affordable upgrades from the terrible earbuds bundled with an iPod. Others are built for the home, for you to play back your music with all the clarity and beauty of a choir of angels drinking martinis. The Sennheiser HD 700s fall into the second category.
At £600 they're certainly not cheap, but these open-backed cans hope that their good build quality, wide sound and crystal-clear audio will tempt you to part with your cash.
Design and build quality
The HD 700s offer a particularly striking design, made up of various shades of steel grey, extremely fine mesh panels and angular struts of plastic clamping onto the large earcups. It's a very modern, almost aggressive look that will certainly find appeal among the more fashionable circles. It may well scare off those of you who find comfort in the classier wood-encased Denon AH-D7000s though.
They look very similar to Sennheiser's HD800s from 2010, and in fact share the same large earcups. That big size isn't just for show though -- it's apparently designed to place the driver further away from your ear in order to achieve a more open sound. I'll return to this later.
The earcups sit around the ear, rather than on it, and have a doughnut-shaped micro-fibre padding that's pretty comfortable. They're designed to be worn at home, probably sat down in a nice chair with a cocktail, rather than out and about, meaning the headband doesn't need to squeeze your head firmly. Instead, they sit comfortably in place and the fairly light weight means you can wear them for a long time without feeling the need to pull them off to regain blood circulation.
All the materials feel incredibly solid and well put together. The headband is thick, doesn't offer much flex and is coated in a rubber material that seems perfectly capable of shrugging off an attack from an errant pair of buttocks.
The cable is thick and wrapped in a hardy material that feels extremely durable. Sadly, it's not very flexible at all and seems to enjoy nothing more than to collect kinks along its length for you to untangle. It might not be much of an issue if you only leave your headphones in one place, but if you move them around or inadvertently turn them over a few times, you'll quickly find it becoming annoyingly twisted.
The cable is detachable so if you do tangle it beyond belief -- or somehow accidently slice it in half with a kitchen knife -- you can grab a replacement and plug it straight into the earcups.
With a £600 price tag, you'd be right to expect the HD 700s to offer superb sound quality along with the modern, sturdy design. They aren't intended for casual listening on your iPod. They're aimed at reproducing high-fidelity audio from a top-quality source. The best way to enjoy music with headphones of this class is to use lossless audio played through a good headphone amplifier and digital audio converter (DAC). In my testing, I used a combination of lossless WAV files and high bit-rate MP3s played through a Fiio E7 DAC.
The drivers are positioned at quite a distance from the ear, which allows for a very airy, open sound. That's exactly what first struck me in my testing. With most headphones, the sound is noticeably coming from the sides of your ears. With the HD 700s, their open nature is more reminiscent of listening to a good-quality sound system in a room with decent acoustics.
I put on Muse's track Undisclosed Desires and found the plucked string section to be extremely wide and well separated, with the vocal harmonies clearly distinguishable in the mix. The HD 700s excel with higher-end tones, reproducing cymbals, vocals and snare hits with beautiful clarity.
Fans of orchestral music will be particularly keen on their accurate sound reproduction, while the wide-open nature of the cans will easily trick you into believing you've got the best seat in the Royal Albert Hall, listening to the London Philharmonic's greatest performance yet.
That openness also makes them fantastic for listening to live recordings. I popped on Dream Theater's Live at Budokan album and if I closed my eyes, I could easily have believed I was sat in the audience -- and I very much wish I was. As open-backed headphones though, they're extremely leaky, so these aren't the sort of things you'd wear in an office if you didn't want everyone around you to immediately hate you.
While the headphones offer a very punchy bass, they lack the level of warmth I'd normally like to hear. Listening to Nero's track Doomsday, I found the kick drum to be very accurate and clear, but the deep, warm basslines weren't as obvious as they are on some other models. That's not to say they're weak -- they still provided a powerful punch of sound when necessary.
If you're a big fan of drum and bass, dubstep and other electronic music that relies heavily on the lower end of the scale, the HD 700s probably aren't going to satisfy your bass cravings. Instead, you should look towards closed-back 'phones like the Denon AH-D700s or the Monster Beats Pro if you really want your skull to be caved in.
The HD 700s offer a modern, striking design and a reassuringly sturdy build. Their ability to reproduce excellently clear, open audio will be particularly welcome to fans of classical and live music, although the hardened bass nuts might want to look to closed-back cans.
Last year's non-bassy AKG Q 701s produced comparable quality for £200 cheaper. So the HD700s are certainly not cheap, but if you want to hear every tiny string pluck, cymbal shimmer and breath in your music, then they're definitely worth considering.