November 09, 2006

Headphone Clarity with the Headroom Desktop and Beyer DT880

by

Sonicflare Headroom Clouds-1

Sandy Greene delves into world-class headphone territory, taking a look at the Beyer Dynamic DT880s ($299), Headroom Desktop amp ($599) and the maximum bliss that can be had from cans on your head...

I’m sitting in my 11x17 living room listening to the Red Wine Audio Signature 30 ($1299) and Red Wine modded Olive Symphony ($649 mod) through Audio Note AN-E/Lx speakers. The speakers are set up along the 17’ wall. The house is quiet, the kids are asleep. I’m not listening too loudly, but certainly not quietly. I’m listening to REM’s “Monster” and the sound, even at this moderate volume, is filling the room. I feel it in my body, I hear the reflections around the room and I am experience the why of this hobby… being immersed in the moment...

Man, this Red Wine Audio battery-powered stuff sure is silent, I hear nothing but the music, every bit of it… but that’s for another review. I mention this though as a way of stating my bias towards in-room listening through speakers, in front of me, creating, in my opinion, a realistic sound field and illusion of a stage that I can walk into.

 Images Signature30Cello
Headphones don’t do that. The do something entirely different. When listening through the Headroom Desktop amplifier and Beyer Dynamic DT880 headphones, the music moves deep into my head. Every detail is clear. The ambience is not so much around me as it is in me. I see the physical space of the recording in graphic detail, but more as a replica, a model inside my head versus a real size physical space in front of me. Listening through headphones is a completely different experience compared to listening through loudspeakers. One takes you away from this world towards the music while the other brings the music into your world.

When I wrote about the Verity Audio Taminos for Dagogo.com, I wrote how a goal of this loudspeaker manufacturer was to create the illusion as if you are there with the music, musicians, venue, etc. When comparing the Taminos to other speakers I have heard, they can in fact create that illusion better than others, but in no way close to what good headphones can. I didn’t realize it quite this way until I spent time enjoying the Headroom Desktop and Beyer Dynamic DT 880’s.

I first heard of and then heard Headroom gear at a Stereophile show back in 2003 when I spent some time with their Headroom Max amp, Sennheiser HD 600’s and a Rotel CD player. I was immediately amazed at how clean and clear and neutral the sound was. I was also happy to find that little short-lived private sanctuary inside the cacophony of the show. I was transported, relaxed and lost sense of time and place. The same thing happens when I listen through the set I am now reviewing. I get away from my world. For me, that’s not always a good thing. Sometimes the phone rings, the wife calls, the kids wake up. For me, there’s sometimes disconcerting to be so separated from the world around. My neuroses perhaps ;-)

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The gear itself is top quality. The Headroom desktop is small and very sturdy. It’s a very smart little shape with rubber rings around both front a back faceplates to keep it from sliding on the desk (or other surface). It’s an elegant little bugger with tiny little metal flip switches for all sorts of functions like power (duh), rear output, brightness, crossfeed and gain on the front and input selector, digital input selector and source selector (digital or analog) on the back. The model Headroom sent me, was the Desktop amp with DAC. It’s $858 like this. It would be $599 without the DAC and if you get it all tricked out… better DAC chips, better volume control, you’re looking at $1496. It starts to get expensive. The Beyer Dynamic DT 880’s list for $489 and Headroom sells them for $299. That’s not bad really. If you have your calculator out, the setup I have in for review goes for $1157. I recently sold a pair of speakers for just about that much and I am very tempted to move that money towards this headphone rig.

I listened to the setup with my Eastern Electric MiniMax CD player using both analog out and coax digital. I mostly used the headphone rig with my Mac Mini, using its analog out and USB digital out. I also used the digital optical out from my Airport Express. As a baseline, I used the Red Wine Audio modded Olive Symphony through its analog and digital outs. I won’t spend too many words here, but I preferred the analog input to the DAC on the Headroom Desktop. And the Olive’s own headphone-out came in second for me. I listened mostly to the Headroom Desktop with the Crossfeed circuit engaged and the brightness filter off.

Here’s a little comparison for you… the Beyer Dynamic DT 880’s fed from:

Eastern Electric MiniMax
(Own headphone out)
My least favorite. Dry, harsh and uneven.

Red Wine Audio modded Olive Symphony
(Own headphone out)
Very close to the Headroom via analog. Full, flowing and tuneful.

RWA modded Olive Symphony
(Headroom Desktop via analog out)
Really nice. Just a tad more resolution than the Olive’s own out. Coherent, musical, introduced a tad more air.

RWA modded Olive Symphony
(Headroom Desktop via optical digital out)
Most detail. Crisp, tight and extremely transparent.

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The Headroom Desktop and Beyer DT 880’s are confidence inspiring. They sound so accurate and are so well made that I have this ultra confidence unlike I have ever had before with any audio system. A sense that I am hearing everything I can in the most true-to-form way I can. Simply no doubt about it. If I really want to hear what’s on a CD or hard drive, the Desktop and 880 combo will tell me the truth. I’m not going to feel the music as much as study it. As I mentioned before, what I see in my head as I listen to music through this system is almost like a report on everything about the music… where it was recorded, what mics were used in the recording, to analog tape or digital workstation, were the guitar strings worn or new, was the battery in the effects pedal weak, wood tips or plastic on the sticks, was the singer hung-over or did he/she just eat a Bit o’ Honey… you get the idea. With this rig… and I am extrapolating… I bet as with all really good headphone systems, the experience is more analytical than emotional.

With the specific external room-interacting components such as the Audio Note loudspeakers I am listening to right now, the experience is more holistic to me. Tunes replayed through musical loudspeakers fed from a good quiet system create more of a whole painting that I can sit back and get a vibe from. The Headroom/Beyer headphone rig gives me so much delineated information as to make me want to pull apart the pieces and look at each individually. For me I’d rather see the whole painting than the individual brush strokes.

I’m not down ON the Headroom/Beyer duo… I’m just not down WITH the headphone experience in comparison. The Headroom Desktop amp/DAC and Beyer Dynamic DT880’s are an amazing headphone system that is probably as close to perfect as you can get. They very much remind me of the top of the line system I heard back at the 2003 Stereophile show. That sonic memory is as clear as almost any I have had. It really stuck with me and I am glad to hear it again. I am very tempted to buy the system as a baseline of complete neutrality, transparency and accuracy. But when I have my druthers, I prefer to listen to a good loudspeaker (and source/amplification system) that creates a curtain of experience in front of me… one I can walk into.

Comments

" I bet as with all really good headphone systems, the experience is more analytical than emotional."

You'd be suprised... Saying that "the Headroom Desktop amp/DAC and Beyer Dynamic DT880’s are an amazing headphone system that is probably as close to perfect as you can get." is entirely untrue, and that combo is definitely at least a few tiers from the top. Try picking a more musical headphone like an Audio-Technica L3000 or Grado RS-1, and a lifelike sounding tube amp from SinglePower or Eddie Current. You would enjoy the headphone experience alot more. ;)

Posted by: hungrych at November 9, 2006 10:37 AM

I’d like to be surprised. I’m all game to hear a more musical/lifelike headphone/tube amp system. I’ll contact those companies and see if they’re up for it. Thanks for the suggestions.

Posted by: Sandy Greene at November 9, 2006 03:51 PM

Check out Head-Fi.org too if you haven't. There's loads of experienced people there to give you help.

Posted by: Anonymous at November 9, 2006 07:09 PM

Hello Sandy,

Thanks for listening to our products. I thought I should comment that the biggest improvement or difference in sound quality usually comes from the headphones first. For a more engaging or immersive experience, I would probably suggest the Sennheiser HD650 or AKG K701. To my ears, the DT880 is a bit more analytical and can sound dry in comparison. These types of differences are more of a personal opinion rather than concensus. In the end you need to listen for yourself. By comparison, the difference in sound between any of our headphone amplifiers is much less than the difference between headphones. However, for the complete audiophile those small differences can seem like the difference between night and day. I do hope you have the opportunity to listen to more headphones as I'm sure you'd find one that you like and possibly turn into a headphone lover when you do. Feel free to e-mail me if you have any questions.

Much appreciated,
Jamey Warren
HeadRoom

Posted by: Jamey Warren at November 15, 2006 03:22 PM

Hello Sandy,

Thanks for listening to our products. I thought I should comment that the biggest improvement or difference in sound quality usually comes from the headphones first. For a more engaging or immersive experience, I would probably suggest the Sennheiser HD650 or AKG K701. To my ears, the DT880 is a bit more analytical and can sound dry in comparison. These types of differences are more of a personal opinion rather than concensus. In the end you need to listen for yourself. By comparison, the difference in sound between any of our headphone amplifiers is much less than the difference between headphones. However, for the complete audiophile those small differences can seem like the difference between night and day. I do hope you have the opportunity to listen to more headphones as I'm sure you'd find one that you like and possibly turn into a headphone lover when you do. Feel free to e-mail me if you have any questions.

Much appreciated,
Jamey Warren
HeadRoom

Posted by: Jamey Warren at November 15, 2006 03:24 PM

I'd also try a pair of electrostatic headphones. I've recently gotten into Stax and it's a revelation.

Posted by: Patrick Amory at February 14, 2007 08:50 PM