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Music Toys

How $1,500 Headphones Are Made 353

Posted by kdawson
from the oiled-by-mother-nature dept.
CNETNate writes "A tour of Sennheiser's Hanover factory reveals for the first time how its audiophile headphones are assembled by hand. The company recently announced its most expensive and innovative headphones to date, the HD 800, which discarded the conventional method of headphone driver design for a new 'donut-shaped' ring driver idea. Only 5,000 of these headphones can be made in a year, and this gallery offers a behind-the-scenes look at the construction process."
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How $1,500 Headphones Are Made

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  • by tpgp (48001) * on Monday March 16, 2009 @01:50AM (#27207053) Homepage

    From TFA:

    moist-making and grin-producing...we-would-genuinely-consider-intercourse-with-these-headphones scale....Fo' shizzle...clarity was mesmerising....experiencing these headphones is akin to having your head oiled and massaged by Mother Nature herself.....Teflon-insulated oxygen-free cabling.....mouth-wateringly gorgeous and stunning

    Honest to god, I can't tell real audiophile reviews from the parodies anymore :-(

    • Re:Sarcastic or not? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Shadow of Eternity (795165) on Monday March 16, 2009 @01:54AM (#27207067)

      Unless you're looking for labratory levels of precision imho there's no point once you're above the HD-555 range.

      • by dgatwood (11270) on Monday March 16, 2009 @02:09AM (#27207113) Journal

        I'm not convinced there's a point anyway. With headphones, you get so much difference in sound just from how little or how much the foam pads are compressed that I can't imagine anyone being able to use the word "accurate" when talking about headphones unless it is tongue-in-cheek. For accuracy, nothing beats a well-designed listening room with good speakers. Headphones are fundamentally "ballpark" at best.

        • by Shadow of Eternity (795165) on Monday March 16, 2009 @02:12AM (#27207129)

          They are however excellent when it comes to playing games at a fun volume and getting decent positional audio.

          And flattening my ears. And yanking things off my desk.

        • Re:Sarcastic or not? (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Liket (63131) on Monday March 16, 2009 @02:49AM (#27207291) Homepage

          I'm not convinced there's a point anyway. With headphones, you get so much difference in sound just from how little or how much the foam pads are compressed

          Well.. No. No you don't. That's the thing -- one of the many differences between $5 headphones and $500 headphones.

          I work with audio all the time (it's my job - I invent audio algorithms for broadcast, and related things), and I'm very happy with my HD650s. They were worth every dollar! However, if I get a chance to test the HD800s without having to buy them first, I certainly will. :)

          • (it's my job - I invent audio algorithms for broadcast, and related things)

            I'm genuinely curious as to the purpose of the audio algorithms. Is it to obtain a specific sound? Can you describe a typical algorithm you've created and what it's used for?

        • by ninjackn (1424235) on Monday March 16, 2009 @03:21AM (#27207413) Journal

          Wait... what? No.

          You mention how much the compression of the foam pads makes the sound sooo different that you can't call headphones "accurate" yet speakers in a room some how end up more accurate? The number of speakers, the size of the room, the material of the room, the position of the speakers, the positioning of yourself and so many other factors arguably make the room and speakers far less accurate than headphones.

          And just what do you mean by "accurate"? For the sake of argument lets say accuracy is sounding as close to real life as possible. So we have our hypothetical concert with ourselves seated in the 2nd row. We can get a dummy and shove two microphones into his dummy ears for recording the sound. Do you think a 2/4/8 speaker setup would be more "accurate" than headphones? The headphones are practically stream audio directly into the ears.

          Consider the professionals. What do you think all those stage technicians, sound engineers, etc. etc. use when dealing with audio? That's right, headphones.

          Maybe... maybe we're not dealing with music. Maybe you just want "accurate" sound reproduction and ignore things like audio positioning, head transfer functions and the likes. Take for example an explosion. Then I guess the headphones loose out to the sub woofer.

          And I also bring up the car metaphor. Headphones are the motorcycles of the audio world. Sure the top end cars are faster/better but motorcycles are so much cheaper. Buying a $1500 pair of headphones is a lot more accessible than buying a well designed room with speakers.

          • Re:Sarcastic or not? (Score:4, Interesting)

            by hazem (472289) on Monday March 16, 2009 @05:14AM (#27207875) Journal

            So we have our hypothetical concert with ourselves seated in the 2nd row. We can get a dummy and shove two microphones into his dummy ears for recording the sound. Do you think a 2/4/8 speaker setup would be more "accurate" than headphones?

            Do you already know that what you're describing is "binaural recording" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binaural_recording [wikipedia.org]. When you listen to them with headphones, you get amazing position-awareness of the sounds. Some early binaural recordings were of story dramatazations - and you could hear the door creaking open "behind you".

            Take for example an explosion. Then I guess the headphones loose out to the sub woofer.
            You bring up an interesting idea... using headphones along with a subwoofer to get get the superior sound of headphones and the "feel" of the low-end.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by MindVirus (1424817)

          Wow, way off. Mod parent down.

          Speakers are themselves fundamentally flawed. Headphones can send sound to the exact location needed while speakers are "ballparking" where the listener will be.

          Space limitations are null, audio positioning is null, and annoying your neighbors is null.

          Furthermore, good headphones have the capacity to send much less-distorted, higher-quality sound than speakers.

          Good headphones will always produce better sound than good speakers. If you don't believe me, ask your local audiophile

          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            by Anonymous Coward

            Wow, way off. Mod parent down.

            Headphones can send sound to the exact location needed while speakers are "ballparking" where the listener will be.

            Wow, way off. Mod you down.

            You can adjust a monitor's angle relative to a listener's ear canal to a much higher degree of accuracy than you can with headphones. If your headphone speakers are 10 mm away from your ear (a generous assumption), an accidental 1 mm movement in your cans is equal to 15 cm of movement relative to a set of monitors 1.5 meters away. Headpho

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by not flu (1169973)

        There's a point [headphone.com] well past the $100 mark - the question is is it worth the money, which depends on how much money you happen to have sitting around doing nothing as well as the relative objective quality of the product.

        That said I'm not buying anything more expensive than the HD555 in the foreseeable future. In fact with digital room correction techniques I might not be spending anywhere near that much on headphones again, ever.

        Also headphones are not just for the sound, they have to feel comfortable too

        • Re:Sarcastic or not? (Score:5, Interesting)

          by FishWithAHammer (957772) on Monday March 16, 2009 @02:51AM (#27207307)

          These days, even Sennheiser's low end is "good enough" for the non-snob audiophile. I picked up a pair of HD202s and I'm thoroughly happy for now. (I don't bring my 555's to school.)

        • by Hadlock (143607)

          Can you recommend a good pair of headphones that have a 1/4" input jack as shown on the HD800? Preferably something under $120. I checked and it looks like from the pics on amazon the input cable is permanently attached to the headphones. I'm sure the cable detaching from the headphones isn't a big issue on higher end 'phones but that's been the mode of failure for my last 4 sets of $30+ headphones over the last five years or so.

          • The cables on the HD800 are removable, however as far as I know there are no aftermarket/replacement cables available yet.

            There are many options available for the HD580/600/650s, including balanced cable options.

            • by Hadlock (143607)

              It looks like the HD800 uses a stereo 1/4" to two mono 1/4" cables? Or am I mistaken?

              • I've never actually seen them, but from what I've heard they use some rare connector [head-fi.org] that can be purchased individually, but for a crazy price. And more annoyingly, its a different connector as used on the other Sennheisers.

                • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

                  by ottawanker (597020)
                • by Hadlock (143607)

                  Well that's worthless. In the photo essay (photo#8) they show that there's clearly enough space for a standard 1/4" phono plug jack. Is there some sort of (audio quality) reason why they went with a proprietary connection rather than the 100-year standard phono plug which works with literally everything in existence?

                  I just want something I can plug a standard speaker cable from my HT-5H guitar amp's headphone jack to my headphones directly. I might just hack my own solution this is ridiculous.

      • Re:Sarcastic or not? (Score:4, Informative)

        by ottawanker (597020) on Monday March 16, 2009 @02:35AM (#27207239) Homepage

        I was upset when these came out, my HD-650s [sennheiserusa.com] aren't top of the line anymore.. That said, man are the 800s ugly.

        My SR-80s [gradolabs.com] are very good headphones for the money (~$100) and rival the HD650s. One of these day's I'm going to listen to a set of RS2is [gradolabs.com], one of their upper-mid level headphones.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by rm999 (775449)

        I was trying to decide between the HD-555s and 595s about two years ago. I went with the 595s, and I'm confident I made the right decision (for myself). At the time, I had only the reviews for the two, with a pretty consistent conclusion: the two are very similar. Pretty much same comfort level, and maybe 10% better sound. For double the price.

        So why were the 595s the correct decision for me? Because I use my headphones for about 4 hours a work day, 50 weeks a year. At 1000 listening hours a year, I expect

    • by tsa (15680)

      Nice macro pictures on the front page. No way I'm going to click through 10 pages just to read a story though.

    • by Hal_Porter (817932) on Monday March 16, 2009 @02:19AM (#27207159)

      Honest to god, I can't tell real audiophile reviews from the parodies anymore :-(

      I bet you're reading it on a cheap LCD display that discards all the engrams in the article so it is impossible to spot parody, irony or sarcasm. If you really want to be able to appreciate this sort of thing you need to read the page on a real man's display [engadget.com]

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by macraig (621737)

      Meh. If I want audiophile headphones, I look across the border from Germany: Austria's AKG.

      • I have a pair of 600 ohm AKG K-240s, and while they are nice headphones, they do not rival Grados at the same price point.

        I have never heard any of their more expensive headphones like the K701s, so I can't comment on those, but lots of people swear by them.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      buy them, take them home, and a few minutes later you have plugged them into your Ipod and all is for naught...
    • by taustin (171655)

      What makes you think there is a difference?

  • by NixieBunny (859050) on Monday March 16, 2009 @01:57AM (#27207077) Homepage
    it's just that Sennheiser includes those quality control steps that the Chinese factories skimp on. They also take more than 0.85 seconds to solder the wires, and they use solder of reasonable quality.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Hal_Porter (817932)

      Well, at least you know they won't skimp on the lead in the solder.

    • by Dogun (7502) on Monday March 16, 2009 @02:58AM (#27207333) Homepage

      I've owned a large number of Sennheisers.

      And no, that's not because I collect them, it's because the damned connections keep failing, on everything from 212-pros up through a set of 595s.

      I'm not ready to call Sennheiser reliable, even if they are more reliable than a lot of the low-end competition. Headphones could be a LOT more reliable if someone would take some damned time to find a more reliable way to deliver signal than a tiny wiggly wire and a bit of rigid solder.

      • by eh2o (471262)

        HD650 has a detachable cable. Maybe they've finally learned?

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Jurily (900488)

        Headphones could be a LOT more reliable if someone would take some damned time to find a more reliable way to deliver signal than a tiny wiggly wire and a bit of rigid solder.

        Aw, c'mon. There's no profit in that. Like you said: you keep buying Sennheiser, even though they're not reliable.

      • by Hadlock (143607)

        I noticed these have a 1/4" input jack. I'm in the same boat as you, far too many of my headphones have failed where the cord meets the 'phones. Of course if you're spending more than $100 on headphones and they break more than likely a) they're still under warranty and if not b) any competent TV repair shop should be able to fix the headphones for $20 in less than half an hour. I'm gonna keep browsing this thread, hoping someone posts a link to an affordable brand of decent headphones that has a 1/4" input

        • One of the best sub-100$ headphones are the Grado SR80s and the SR125s. The 125s are slightly over your budget, but if you don't mind spending a little extra, they are well worth it. The SR80s might not cut it for you since they feature the 3.5mm jack.

          BTW, if you are seriously looking for a good set of cans, browse headphone.org or head-fi.org rather than slashdot ;)

  • or else (Score:5, Funny)

    by Kamineko (851857) on Monday March 16, 2009 @01:59AM (#27207081)
    Only 5,000 of these headphones can be made in a year... OR ELSE
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by RuBLed (995686)
      I myself had a hard time hoarding 100 cute kittens per year as a sacrifice for the safety of our numerous gadgets from gremlins. 5,000 cute kittens a year is no joke but kudos for them in making sure that unfathomable things would not happen to their customer's headphones.
  • by G3ckoG33k (647276) on Monday March 16, 2009 @02:04AM (#27207093)

    A few days ago, I bought the cheapest pair of computer speakers with subwoofers I could find in the neighborhood, $USD 15.

    They were Chinese made. With a sticker - "QC PASS" [i.e. Quality Control pass]

    LOL, the damn connectors right next to it didn't work properly and I had "bend" the connector ever so little to make it work again.

    Yes, these were probably assembled by hand too. But, not in a factory originally named with coolest name I have heard in years "Laboratium Wennebostel".

    I wonder if that was hand made too, the name.

    • I would have recommended the Logitech S220s. I bought a set for my nephews for Christmas for $25 CAD. When I saw how small the box was that they came in I thought that they were going to be crap, but they were surprisingly decent for the price and loud enough to annoy the hell out of my sister.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by donaldm (919619)
        The choice of a sound system depends on many factors and one of the most important factor is how it sounds to your ears. It is rather pointless getting an expensive sound system if your hearing is limited yet many people do just this.

        I have a very nice 7.1 sound system which cost me close to AU$2000.00 (equivalent to US$0.9 to A$1 at the time) and I will admit that when I play a Blu-ray movie the sound is impressive for everyone who is listening. Unfortunately when I listen to my son's Logitech Z5500 soun
  • I was sure that, for that price, they were made by well-trained monkeys! If not, they should be!
  • Error in summary (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 16, 2009 @02:18AM (#27207153)

    These headphones are not Sennheiser's most expensive headphones to date (not even close, in fact).

    Enter the HE90 - also called the Orpheus. It is most likely the most expensive headphone ever produced. It had a very limited product run, and it sells these days for around $15, 000.

    Just to give you an idea of what they're like, if I recall correctly the amp has it's own -ignition key- ;-)

    • Indeed, it's strange that the summary says that when the same company makes ones ten times the price. And they come with a shiny silver vacuum tube amplifier (I think that's what they are) that would to me kind of defeat half the purpose of having headphones: portability.

      http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/ces200211.htm [howstuffworks.com]

      I'm hoping at least a few people who bought them are using them just to listen to their low-quality MP3s.

      I found this page on making your own vacuum tube amplifiers, for anyone interested i

  • $1500 headphones (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anti_Climax (447121) on Monday March 16, 2009 @02:20AM (#27207165)

    While I could never justify paying $1500 for headphones, I have to say that I've been consistently impressed with the sound quality from Sennheiser 280-HD headphones. I'm sure there are better headphones to be had, but probably not for anywhere near $80.

    • The 60-80 dollar range seems to be a "sweet spot" for headphones. Grado's SR-60s are $70 and the best headphones under $100 I've listened to. More expensive ones can be better, but you quickly run into diminishing returns.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Sycraft-fu (314770)

      As with anything, there's diminishing returns. The more you spend on audio, the better the sound gets (well, assuming you are buying real improvements and not snake oil like wires), but by less and less the more you spend.

      For example the difference between $10 headphones and no headphones is, well, everything. It is the difference between sound and no sound. Even cheap is better than nothing. The difference between $50 and $10 headphones isn't everything, but it's still pretty large. It's the sort of thing

  • by Anonymous Coward

    If accuracy across the audio range is of primary importance, headphones will always severely pale compared with a set of reference monitors (a.k.a. speakers) due to their physical limitations. The most I've spent on headphones thus far has been around $300 - I've spent around $600-$700 for four different sets of cans - and I've yet to find headphones that aren't severely flawed. Headphones are a second-choice option, albeit one that comes up a lot in every day life.

    Most people, though, don't want accuracy a

    • by deek (22697)

      Is there any reason in particular that headphones cannot accurately reproduce sound?

      The only thing I can think of that a headphone would have trouble reproducing, is a deep, loud bass. That's only because it doesn't have the displacement to highly compress low frequency. Monitor speakers suffer the same problem though.

      Still, because headphones sit right next to the ear, they're _much_ more efficient at delivering sound waves to the ear. This allows them to deliver sound at a comparable volume, with much

      • by eh2o (471262) on Monday March 16, 2009 @03:36AM (#27207467)

        Yes, there is a reason, which is that they would sound terrible if they had a flat frequency response and nobody would buy them.

        So, why is that: well, the "natural" way we hear sounds isn't "accurate" in the sense that not all frequency transduce with the same efficiency. The sound is modified by the geometry of your head and ears, also called the "head related transfer function" or HRTF for short. The HRTF is direction-dependent, it is also person-dependent as no two people have exactly the same head. Your auditory system understands your HRTF at a subconscious level and "factors it out" in determining the direction of sound and so on (for example sounds at higher elevation tend to have a bias towards higher frequency content created by the ear pinnae).

        Now, headphones include a filter that applies a "simulated HRTF" that places the sound approximately directly "in front" of the listener. If they didn't include this, the sound would be very strange.

        The downside to this is that the headphones' HRTF isn't individualized to your own head, and it can't be changed, and its exact specification varies from one model to another quite a lot. Usually the companies don't say exactly how the filter is constructed, and it requires some very fancy equipment (like dummy-heads and so on) to measure the headphone response accurately enough to make an inverse filter. The Sennheisser HD580 is one model (no longer in production) that we have some fairly extensive data for, and that is why it is still the standard for most auditory psychophysics research.

        Loudspeakers on the other hand (in particular, reference loudspeakers for mastering) are actually designed to have a flat frequency response. Getting a good listening room isn't easy either, but if you work with a measurement microphone it is possible to check the results pretty easily.

        On the subject of bass response, the impedance of air in the ear canal when closed off by the headphone is much much lower than the impedance of the driver in open air, which is why phones can deliver a quite good bass response with a very small driver.

    • by Liket (63131) on Monday March 16, 2009 @03:00AM (#27207339) Homepage

      If accuracy across the audio range is of primary importance, headphones will always severely pale compared with a set of reference monitors (a.k.a. speakers) due to their physical limitations.

      Loudspeakers have to be placed somewhere.. Usually in a room. The acoustics of the room (echo / reverberation / cancellations) will severely impact the sound of speakers, and there's no way around it without spending thousands on deadening and soundproofing the room. Yes, you can RTA and EQ, and get speakers sounding almost as accurate as cans, but it will never be as tight, unless you have a sonically dead room.

      A pair of reference cans, on the other hand, interface with your ears much more accurately, and are not at all affected by room acoustics. If they have flat frequency response on one pair of ears, chances are they will have flat frequency response on most other pairs of ears too.

      My work requires me to critically listen to music almost constantly (I write audio algorithms / processors for broadcasting). I normally listen to music on calibrated speakers, but when it's time for extra critical listening, my I put my HD650s on. Speakers are no substitute -- they hide too much, smooth over problems. Reference cans give you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (whether you want to hear it or not!).

      I currently own a pair of HD650s and they were worth every penny at around $500. Electrostatic cans (STAX brand) would be another step up in accuracy, but comes at a hefty price (cost, fragility, special high-voltage amplifier etc). Until I can audition a pair of HD800s for free, I'll stick with what I have. :)

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by eh2o (471262)

        There are many different standards for "accuracy", including "repeatability" and "flat", which are not the same. Headphones are superior to speakers for repeatability, when measured at the ear canal entrance. But they are not "flat" because they include a built-in simulated "free field response" HRTF that modifies the signal (at least, all consumer-market 'phones include this filter), plus some other geometric design issues.

        With some work it is possible to get loudspeakers to give a flat response at a fix

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        The idea of a flat frequency response on a set of cans is laughable. Even a $27,600 pair of ADAM mastering monitors can't provide a flat frequency response, so don't mislead casual readers into thinking that your HD650s are flat -- here is their "flat" frequency response. [headphone.com]

        One of the completely ignored problems with headphones (other than ones I'm sure you've heard before) is that physical positioning (distance and angle) of the speakers relative to the user's ear canal makes a big difference in the sound hea

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 16, 2009 @03:23AM (#27207427)

      I recently bought a copy of Closer by Plastikman...

      Ah, the ultimate irony of audiophiles! They get so distracted by picking out which gear meets their exacting and nuanced specifications that they forget they're listening to shitty music.

  • by loom_weaver (527816) on Monday March 16, 2009 @03:03AM (#27207351)

    I was fortunate enough to purchase a good set of HD600s and a headphone amp to go with it. I've used them as my primary computer sound system for over a decade now.

    I'd describe the Sennheisers as very detailed and precise. I can hear things with them that I have a hard time picking out with my stereo and other cheaper headphones. In addition the soft donut pads make the headphones a joy to wear. I can wear them all day without my ears feeling sore or my head feeling fatigued.

    Shameless plug for HeadRoom at www.headphone.com where I purchased my gear. These guys make headphone amps and also spend lots of time testing all sorts of headphones to go with them. They're a wealth of information for anything headphones.

  • Audiophile... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tiny69 (34486) on Monday March 16, 2009 @03:44AM (#27207497) Homepage Journal
    ...someone who listens to the stereo, not the music.

    // Been said before. Will be said many times after this.
    • Well, close...

      There are some albums that I listen to solely because of their production - like Eric Clapton's Me and Mr. Johnson. None of the songs are that great (compared to some of the other albums he's played on), but the sound that he can get out of a guitar sucks me right in.

      It is the Clapton album that sounds the best, and because of it I listen to it at least as much as his others.

  • I could never tell the difference between their top-of-the-line and midrange/economy models. Maybe I miss out on a musical nirvana, or maybe I just save a lot of money, you be the judge :D

  • Priorities (Score:5, Insightful)

    by PeterChenoweth (603694) on Monday March 16, 2009 @09:34AM (#27209221)
    It's all just a matter of priorities. Some folks think spending over $10,000 on a car is dumb, others see spending more than $500 on a computer, or more than $50 on a video card is stupid. For anyone who thinks that spending $1,500 on a pair of headphones is crazy, the simple fact is that you're not the intended audience.

    I don't necessarily trust what I read from so-called 'audiophiles'. Being an 'audiophile' is a little bit like being a 'photographer'. Just because you took one good picture of your dog doesn't mean you're now an expert on all things photographic. The audiophile world is, IMHO, similar. The only way to *know* what "good" stuff sounds like is to listen to the "good" stuff for yourself. You can read hundreds of reviews that describe 'veiled soundstage', or 'low-oxygen connectors', or 'velvet midrange', etc. But it doesn't mean a whole lot if you can't put it into context. The only way to do it is to listen and decide for yourself!

    About a year ago, I decided that I wanted a *good* pair of headphones for my office. I exchanged several emails with the folks at headphone.com about this, and with their blessing I ordered about $1,500 worth of headphones and amps from them, knowing that $1,000+ of it would be returned.

    I spent several weeks comparing and contrasting a half-dozen of their 'best' headphones. The result? There is a big difference between $100 cans and $500 cans. Try it for yourself. Some people might not be able to tell the difference. And that's cool, buy the $100 pair and be happy. But just as some people enjoy wine, cars, cigars, cheeses, types of underwear, video cards, {whatever!} more than others is why the market supports so many varieties of, well, everything. And at different price points.

    FWIW, I ended up keeping a pair of Sennheiser HD-650's because their sound was simply incredible and they were comfortable for long periods of time.

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