Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Review: Sennheiser HD-448 / HD-449


For a long time I have been listening with my trusty Koss PortaPro when I was on the go, itself a classic amongst headphones. The PortaPro has been on the market since 1984 and was THE headphone recommended for use with for example walkmans or discmans. Its bass heavy and dynamic sound is equally hated or admired though I for one always loved it as an example of a cheap headphone that sounds very well and is lightweight. The one criticism I always had was of course that it was an open headphone which means that it emits sound not only into your ears but also to the outside which could lead to ennerved neighbours (they too have to listen to your music). Since I don´t like that people might become aware that I´m listening to wonderful organ music I always desired to own another headphone, a closed headphone that doesn´t leak sound to the outside world. In the end I guess it took me roughly a year before I decided on a particular headphone. I toggled  through possible choices like the AKG K-450, the Sennheiser PX-200 II, the Sennheiser HD-448 or the Creative Aurvana Live! (which is the similar & much cheaper twin of the Denon AH-D 1001) but I finally made my decision when German HiFi magazine AUDIO published a test of the Sennheiser HD-448 with its most important sentence that "this headphone isn´t an example of extraordinary sonic experiences" - yet it received a good test result.


Sennheiser HD-448

That sentence was so important to me because of my own personal experience: when something that performs audio stuff isn´t described as being boring but as being unremarkable instead it most likely performs fairly balanced with a nod towards additional warmth. Gadgets reviewed as being very dynamic, with punchy bass, brilliant treble etc., traits that seem to describe lovely sound, actually have a built-in loudness curve which means that they´re far away from sounding balanced. While this loudness effect may result in a well-performed sound with some types of music it eventually will suck with all types of music: pop or jazz might sound lovely but classical music or rock will sound bad. I don´t want that because I´m not listening to one particular genre all the time. I experienced this myself with some of my vintage portable CD players, the Sony D-20 for example sounds just lovely with classical music (even better than the original) but not very good with pop music. While it´s easy to fall for a certain characteristical sonic direction I still want to enjoy Madonna one minute and Gustav Mahler the next and I don´t want to be disappointed by something that was engineered to fit one specific genre or the other, I want it to sound well with ALL genres of music. And nothing is more important than a balanced loudspeaker (a headphone consists of two tiny loudspeaksers really). So I put it onto my wishlist at amazon.de and waited for my birthday because that would be the date when my boyfriend would buy me this headphone as a present.


Sennheiser HD-448 earcup

While I was wondering that my boyfriend got it for so little money I was very happy with it the first minute I listened to it with my Sansa Clip+, I loved its sound from the start: fairly balanced (just as I expected) and a very impressive stage performance. The latter is important because closed headphones tend to have a more or less constricted stage impression, open headphones are regarded as having more "air" and a wider presentation. Well, the HD-448 partially defies these prejudices because its stage is wide and equally deep. True, the air is missing a bit but I have to be fair because I compared that particular aspect to my Sennheiser HD-600 - and that one is hard to match. How about the gain it can reach with portable devices? Well, it isn´t particularly loud with my Clip+, it doesn´t seem to be a very efficient headphone. You probably will have an improved performance with a small portable headphone amp like the FiiO E6. Does it distort much? Not from my experience, I´ve never managed to force it into distortions when using one of the EQ settings of the FiiO. It will of course distort when used with excessive volume, you might have read that on other reviews - I can only imagine how deafening loud those people are usually listening with headphones... their poor ears.

So the HD-448 grooves and it does so with an impressive deep bass, it´s tight, punchy when needed and while it doesn´t show the upper-bass-might of the HD-600 it never disturbs or bleeds into the lower mids. Ah yes, the lower mids... that´s where the HD-448 has its biggest problem because they tend to be too strong. On the one hand they are causing impressive warmth and a realistic chest for singers, on the other hand the sound can tip into slightly boomy territory. With an already very warm and balanced sounding recording this mellowness is too much, thankfully most recordings are engineered to sound a bit thinner - it also helps with some rather brittle sounding headphone outputs of portable players (it forms a perfect match with my Sony D-465) which is probably the reason why Sennheiser engineered it that way. The compared to the HD-600 diminished air is responsible for a bit less detail and resolution of course, in combination with the slightly boomy lower mids this creates a wide, fairly balanced and slightly warm sounding headphone. Don´t buy this headphone if you´re a fan of Beyerdynamic or AKG headphones because it sounds like their polar opposite. It´s never grainy or flashy and people preferring an aggressive, direct and treble-heavy sound probably will discern it as being boring. In my opinion however it is perfect for portable players and it certainly is more balanced than the Koss PortaPro.


Sennheiser HD-448

But I´d be lying if I´d describe it as being the perfect portable headphone - it is not. I´ve had roughly seven months not only to judge its sound quality but also its comfort level. That aspect has nothing to do with its build quality because that´s perfect. Have you noticed that it always looks cheap on pictures? Well, it still appears to look that way when it rests right in front of you - but the moment you touch it the impression of cheapness disappears. Its haptic is wonderful; the used plastic feels good and expensive. Secondly I feared that my ears would start to sweat wearing it for extended periods of time because of its pleather earpads. Thankfully this isn´t the case - which was the biggest surprise the HD-448 had in store for me: my head / ears won´t sweat, not even when it´s warm. But the question of "fit" is an entirely different thing and that´s where it partly fails - its earcups are too small. It doesn´t pose a problem for me (my earlobes are smaller than average and sit tightly to my head) but it will most likely be problematic for many other peoples: their ears may start to hurt after a short while because of their earlobes constantly touching the mesh covering the driver. The too tiny earcups also create another problem: since this is a closed headphone it needs to create an acoustic seal between your head and the driver in order for the headphone to perform at its best. The bass response will suffer if it doesn´t fit closely on your head / ears. So if your ears are too big - forget it. If your hair is too voluptous - forget it.


Sennheiser HD-448 earcup detail

I assume that this is one of the possible reasons why many people describe it as thin and aggressive sounding. Another equally valid reason for differing sonic impressions could be that Sennheiser changed the design of the HD-448 during its lifetime. Several frequency plots I´ve collected over the years can be interpreted as proof that its sound signature was changed into having more bass. As an example I´d like to present the measurment from headroom.com in comparison to the one by the aforementionend German magazine AUDIO:

Frequency response Sennheiser HD-448 (copyright by HeadRoom)

Frequency response Sennheiser HD-448 AUDIO magazine (copyright by AUDIO)

Sennheiser HD-449 frequency response

Ignoring that both might have measured differently it´s almost as if they measured two different headphones. You may note that the measurment from AUDIO magazine was done at the end of 2009 (it was used first by AUDIO's sister magazine STEREOPLAY (they described it as being too dynamic!)) while the headphone was released in 2007 and that´s probably when HeadRoom measured it. Judging from this it´s entirely possible that Sennheiser changed the sound midway during production. EDIT: Now I´m completely confident that Sennheiser changed their sound signature, just compare HeadRooms' measurments for the 448 to the one for the 449 I added above. I´m afraid that you cannot do anything about it should you have bought it when the HD 448 came out - but everyone else should just buy the successor, the Sennheiser HD-449. It´s the very same headphone, it appears to have the same frequency response as the one published by AUDIO magazine. Even Sennheiser admitted on their facebook page that the HD-448 and the HD-449 are exactly the same cans apart from cosmetic differences (cannot find their comment again). In any case I recommend that you try it on before you decide to buy it, it might not fit your head, it might start to hurt after half an hour of wearing it. You also may not like its sound but I assume that you won´t buy a Sennheiser anyway in case you´re interested in an aggressive and direct sound. But if you´re a bit like me you probably will love it, I´ve been very happy with it so far because it´s a very enjoyable headphone.

Pro:
  • fairly balanced sound
  • tight deep bass, full bodied sound
  • wide and equally deep staging
  • forgives bad recordings
  • no distortions
  • impressive timing
  • sound never gets tiresome
  • pleather earpads don´t get too warm
  • perfect fit for small ears / short hair
  • good built quality and haptic


Contra:
  • can be too mellow, polite and muffled
  • slightly exaggerated lower mids
  • less upper bass
  • could be more detailed and direct
  • fit too small for average/big ears or too much hair
  • cable too thin (typical for Sennheiser)


Last updated: 15.04.2014

7 comments:

  1. Hi,

    I wandered here after searching on how to improve the seal on my new closed headphones (Ultrasone Signature Pro --- yay), and ended up reading your interesting post on the Sennheisers.

    Funnily enough, one of my coworkers remarked at the noise leakage of my PortaPros, which prompted the purchase of closed cans. I'm still coming to terms with the fact that I enjoy the sound of the PortaPros more than the Ultrasones. Lets hope the burn-in reprograms the brain!

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    1. Yes, the Ultrasone is quite different to the Koss PortaPro - at least from what I´ve read. But then this Sennheiser is very different from the Koss too so you would have to endure an adjustment period anyway. A headphone that´s supposedly similar in sound to the PortaPro is called "SportaPro" - the same thing, only closed. But I don´t know how it really sounds..

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  2. Hey great review, i have 2.5inch ears will this fit over my ears ? since this headphone has a nice soundstage how well does it do with movies? i'm not sure if you listen hip hop(most audiophile hate it, R&B but if you do is the bass adequate for bass intensive genres(i need good punchy bass but not the kinda bass that will make my ears shake.
    finally take the song careless whisper by george michael, when you use these headphones will the saxophone [you know which part im talking about ;)] blow me away when i use this headphone?
    thanks in advance

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    Replies
    1. With 2.5 inches your ears are too big. The Sennheiser earpads have a diameter of 1.97 inches, if you´d wear them they would hurt after a short while. Bass is good and punchy but for hip hop a tad too hollow (but I don´t know, regarding my hip hop experiences I only have two albums by Missy Elliot and Hard Candy from Madonna (it only sounds that way, it isn´t hiphop)).

      "Careless Whisper" will blow me away? Well, probably it´ll make my brain dizzy :D

      It´s from the '80s so the headphone adds a bit of warmth to it (-> less crisp sax). But if you like sax I´d recommend Candy Dulfer. Prince said about her "When I want Sax I call Candy."

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    2. Haha alright thanks for the info although i never got the movie part :)

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    3. Gosh, you´re right, I forgot! In my experience it works very well with HRTF produced by something like Dolby Headphone. Movies sound impressively dynamic with it although the HD-600 still has better imaging and clarity.

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