Out of the box
It is often suggested that the U.S. trails Europe big time when it comes to matters of fashion and design. Whether you agree with that notion or not, you’ve got to admit Europe tends to be pretty adventurous and open minded when it comes to that sort of thing. With that acknowledgement out there… well, let’s just get this out of the way right now: Most of us here at DT headquarters didn’t care for the color scheme of the HD 598.
sennheiser-hd-598-headphones-sideSennheiser describes the design of the HD 598 as being “inspired by Euro sport sedan interiors.” We can see where they were going, but as much as we dig our luxury sports sedan interiors, we don’t necessarily want to wear it on our heads. It’s not the burl wood accents so much (we actually liked those), it’s the cream-colored leather with brown earpads that had us turning up our noses. We readily admit, however, that our opinion will not necessarily be shared by others, and suggest that those interested do check out the HD 598 in person because, as we’ll soon share, these headphones sound far better than they look.
Moving on, we noted that the HD 598 are natively terminated with a ¼-inch headphone plug, which is a sign to us that Sennheiser takes these cans seriously as a high-end headphone. A ¼-inch-to-⅛-inch adapter also comes in the box, but that’s it: no case, carrying pouch or airline adapters.
Features and design
The HD 598 are circumaural, so they are designed to encompass the entire ear. The headband is wrapped in a supple, leather-like material. The underside of the headband is more than amply padded, which gives the headphones a luxurious feel.
A pliable plastic band attached to the ear-cup suspension slips inside the headband, with a wide range of adjustment available to accommodate various head sizes. Both the suspension and outer ear-cups are made of a tough resin not likely to crack or break.
The inner portion of the ear-cups are well padded and lined with brown velour. Deeper into the ear-cup, we can make out Sennheiser’s “open-aire” transducer, the size of which is not disclosed, but we’re guessing it is somewhere in the 40mm neighborhood. The driver is angled from front to back, so as to direct sound toward the forward portion of the ear, an approach Sennheiser claims mimics the way we hear stereo loudspeakers. There’s also an interesting 1-inch notch of raised plastic toward the back of the ear-cup. We can’t find any information on what this is, but imagine it may have something to do with reflecting sound to enhance imaging properties.
The HD 598’s cable is 10 feet long and, as previously mentioned, terminated with a ¼-inch plug. The cable plugs into the left headphone and uses a twist-and-lock mechanism to help keep the cable secure should it be inadvertently stepped on or otherwise unexpectedly yanked.
We tested the HD 598 using an iPhone 3G, iPod Touch, Marantz SR6005 A/V receiver, Pioneer turntable with Ortofon OM5E cartridge, Bellari phono pre-amp, HeadRoom micro DAC and HeadRoom micro amp.
First, a few words on fit and comfort: The HD 598 are exceptionally comfortable. A few factors come together to make this happen. The padded headband all but eliminates pressure from the top of the head, the ear-cups exert very little pressure to the sides of the head, and the velour ear pads breathe well enough that we never felt any heat or humidity, even during long testing sessions. This extreme comfort did not come at the expense of a secure fit, though. The headphones managed to stay put through all sorts of ridiculous motion tests which included a lot of bouncing around and head nodding. The only time we managed to shake these cans loose was during an impromptu headbanging session which felt strangely out of character considering we were listening to Mozart at the time.
sennheiser-hd-598-headphones-front-angleWith our unorthodox motion tests out of the way, we grabbed an ice pack to quell the whiplash, took a seat and made with the listening tests. For grins, we simply plugged the HD 598 directly into our iPhone and hit “random”.
As fate would have it, the first track that came up was Michael Buble’s “Save the Last Dance for Me” from the It’s Time album. Now, before you start smirking at our taste in music, let us just disclose that we keep this track on our phone because it is ridiculously over-produced and, for that reason, makes for a particularly difficult test track. We’ve played this cut back through all sorts of expensive headphones in the past and, quite often, they fold under the pressure. There’s just so much to reproduce all at once. Deep bass, orchestral string instruments, bombastic drums, splashing cymbals and biting brass accompany Buble’s voice which is already sickeningly suave on its own, but tends to further turn to mush when reproduced by anything other than the very best headphones. Under the pressure of this track, the HD 598 didn’t so much as bat an eyelash.
Not only did Buble’s voice remain crystal clear, but each instrument came across with unique character and occupied its own space within the mix. While the wall of sound didn’t allow us to pick up on any inner details, the sheer power and finesse the HD 598 exhibited was enough to let us know that these headphones were going to earn themselves a spot on our list of top ten headphones for the year. If Buble always sounded this good, we could probably stand to listen to his recordings a lot more often.
We said bye-bye to Buble and moved on to something a little less busy. We pulled up Jamie Cullum’s “Back to the Ground” from his Catching Tales album. This track works for us because it opens with a very closely-mic’d vocal accompanied only by a Fender Rhodes. Here, we have the opportunity to hear the subtly coarse distortion of the Rhodes along with a some of the mouth-sounds that come as a result of a sensitive mic being placed right up in Cullum’s face. We’ve heard this cut hundreds of times, but there were some details that came through the HD 598 that we’ve never heard before. In some places, we could hear the compressor on the vocal microphone disengage, then re-engage as Cullum takes a breath and lets out a sigh. The compressor just cuts off the end of the sigh in a way that is unnatural enough to let you know it was a machine that did it. This little sound (or lack of it) is so far back in the mix, it’s a wonder that it’s even audible. Yet, the HD 598 are so incredibly revealing that even these sort of easily overlooked nuances came across as apparent.
Balanced, natural, open, revealing…these overused adjectives began to take on new meaning as we continued listening to the HD 598. High frequencies were well extended and had a good amount of ring to them, though we wouldn’t go so far as to say they were on par with Sennheiser’s flagship HD 800 (we’ve gotta draw the line somewhere).
Midrange response was probably the most impressive we’ve heard in years, particularly considering the HD 598’s price point. Vocals were reproduced as naturally as headphones that go for two or three times the HD 598’s asking price, and made re-listening to some tired out tracks a new and fun experience.
sennheiser-hd-598-headphones-frontBass response was smooth, deep and just gutteral enough when called to be. If you’re looking for eardrum-thumping bass, look elsewhere. The HD 598 seem to strive for accuracy above all else. If your music of choice is bass heavy, you’ll hear plenty of that low end, but the HD 598 don’t mercilessly pound your noggin.
Of course, no set of headphones come without at least a couple of drawbacks. In the case of the HD 598, we found that the open-backed design allows for a lot of sound to bleed out. If you enjoy keeping your music to yourself when amongst others, these aren’t the right headphones for you. Even at moderate listening volumes, music comes right through the back of the ear-cups for all to hear. They also don’t provide much in the way of noise isolation, which means hearing everything they can do in noisy environments is a tough proposition. It’s tough to call these drawbacks, really, considering that the open-backed design is a major part of what makes these headphones sound so great.
The only other issue worth mentioning is that the ⅛-inch adapter, when added to the already lengthy ¼-inch plug, makes for a 4-inch long (and fairly heavy) terminus. This arrangement puts unwanted stress on devices like the iPhone and our HeadRoom micro amp input jack. It’s not a deal-breaker, but you’ll want to be careful.
Based on the merits of sound quality alone, we would rate the HD 598 a 9.5. These cans sound remarkable, perhaps the best we’ve heard under $500. Unfortunately, their design and color palette are polarizing attributes which are sure to turn off some would-be listeners. Also, their tendency to bleed sound and lack of noise isolation, while a by-product of their terrific-sounding open-air design, are problems that keep them from being a suitable solution for listeners on the go. If you don’t mind the color and tend to do more private listening, we strongly recommend the HD 598.
Awkward with portable media devices (long adapter)