Fun with vintage headphones

Discussion in 'Headphones' started by k4rstar, Sep 26, 2020.

  1. k4rstar

    k4rstar Done his time

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    Introduction

    In 2016 I attended a Head-Fi meet-up here in Toronto where I was exposed to all sorts of headphones and systems I had previously only read about. This was probably the last time I would have fun with the hobby for a long time, as I soon after set out on a 'no fun allowed' path, refusing to own more than one pair of cans, worshipping at the church of the HD650, and in general just having a pout on my face anytime anyone mentioned a headphone I didn't like (or thought I didn't like).

    Of course in hindsight, this was pretty dumb, and I did a good job sucking all of the fun out of the hobby for myself. This was the case until a little over a year ago, where burnout caused me to take a break from anything headphone-related entirely, and I began dabbling in two channel equipment. It was fresh and exciting, there was a lot to learn (truthfully there was a lot to learn with headphones as well, I thought I knew everything when I definitely didn't), and I started to have fun again.

    Through a few chance encounters I became very interested in vintage audio and started collecting old audio equipment, manufactured long before I was born. These experiences forever changed my approach to audio in general, and this year I decided to return to playing with headphones, with a focus on vintage and out-of-production models.

    This thread will chronicle my experiences with a few select models I have had the chance to own and hopefully serve as an inspiration for others who may find themselves a little bit bored with the state of the modern personal audio market. For members who have been around longer, some of this may be 'been there, done that', but please feel free to contribute your thoughts on any models discussed.

    Content Layout & Test Path

    I will try to update this thread every 1-2 weeks. For each headphone covered I will talk a bit about the history, model variations or other important information, and some short but sweet subjective impressions.

    My current system consists of a 2008 Mac Pro which feeds a tube-based S/PDIF converter over USB. S/PDIF is output to a TDA1541 DAC which in turn outputs to an OTL headphone amplifier based on the 6080 output tube. This amplifier works well with headphones of 80 - 600 ohm impedance, I plan to obtain a second amplifier later this year to evaluate headphones <80 ohms impedance.

    After many years of cycling source and amplification equipment, I am confident my headphone rig is the best it has ever been, and up to the task of evaluating the sound character of the headphones reviewed in this thread.

    Current Reviews

    Sennheiser HD540 Ref I 600 ohm - posted 9/26

    Sennheiser HD250 Linear I 600 ohm - posted 9/29

    Sennheiser HD540 Gold 300 ohm - posted 10/13

    Future Reviews

    Sennheiser HD600 early production

    Sennheiser HD580 early production

    Sennheiser HD580 Jubilee

    AKG K240DF

    Stax SR-3 and SR-5

    Beyerdynamic DT48S 200 ohm

    Beyerdynamic DT48S 25 ohm

    Beyerdynamic DT880 1985 edition

    Wishlist (loaners welcome!)

    Sennheiser HD560 Ovation I

    Sennheiser HD580 (made in Germany)

    Sennheiser HE60

    Grado HP-1000

    Achtung! Warning!

    The headphones discussed in this thread were designed and manufactured in a different era. Typically, they were not meant for the ultra-low output impedances of amplifiers which are popular today, and may have unsatisfactory tonal performance when paired with such.

    When reading the subjective impressions, keep in mind that they are valid only for the particular revision noted in the review (and of course, only for my own taste). Many of these headphones were produced over periods of several years and manufacturing changes were made more than once. In other words, your mileage may vary, but have fun!
     
    Last edited: Oct 13, 2020
  2. k4rstar

    k4rstar Done his time

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    Sennheiser HD540 Reference I (600 Ohm)

    general information

    The HD540 Reference (Ref for short) was Sennheisers flagship open-back model in the 1980s. Released in 1984, I think it is still fully competitive with flagship headphones released today. A scan from a Sennheiser catalog shows marketing copy and technical specifications:

    [​IMG]

    The HD540 was manufactured in 600 ohm and 300 ohm voice coil variants, and Ref I or Ref II (1987?) revisions. There was also a Gold edition, released first in limited quantities for Sennheiser's anniversary and then as a non-limited catalog item. However, we will talk about the Gold variant later.

    The impedance is denoted by stamped lettering on the earcup indicating 300 ohm for those models, and no lettering for the 600 ohm models. I have also seen 300 ohm models which do not have the earcup lettering, in which case the impedance is stamped into the interior baffle, seen below.

    [​IMG]

    The HD540 had three factory pad variants:
    1. Pleather hybrid, which had velour walls and a pleather contact material
    2. Velour, with a white ring contact material
    3. Complete velour, same as the HD560 Ovation pads
    It also came with different stock cables, the most common being the combination 1/4" - DIN connector seen below. The DIN connector would allow for easy connection to European hi-fi equipment such as receivers and cassette decks.

    [​IMG]

    While the model I own is a Ref I 600 ohm, there were also early, middle and late production variants.

    The early production is denoted by a rare, ridged headband and a black driver cap. Mid/late production models have a flat headband and white driver cap. The following post is the most comprehensive I have found regarding these variants: https://www.head-fi.org/threads/wow-sennheiser-hd-540-reference-are-so-good.670255/post-13989759

    The HD540 driver is an aluminum diaphragm with a copper voice coil, mounted in a plastic cage, shown removed from its cups below. Curiously, the wiring connections to lead outside the cups are spring-loaded.

    [​IMG]

    subjective impressions

    My HD540 are middle production 600 ohm variants, with the velour pads. It should be noted that my pair do not have any foam screen in front of the driver, presumably this foam deteriorated and the original owner never replaced it. Otherwise, they are original, including the PX1 cable.

    [​IMG]

    These headphones are excellent and in my opinion what the HD800 wishes it could be. Compared to the modern day HD600/HD650, they are much thinner in presentation, but not enough to be considered lean. They have an exceptionally flat tonality in the mid-range and bass, with a bit of additional energy in the brilliance region. This additional energy is a tad too much on some recordings, but could easily be tamed by replacing the now missing inner foam.

    These have a much wider sonic image than the HD600 and individual instruments breathe, singing in distinct parts of the stage, but not in an artificially diffuse manner like the HD800 can be. Instead, the image feels like that of a room with an ideal reverberation time, natural and well proportioned. This is a choice headphone for chamber and orchestral music alike.

    [​IMG]

    When the 600 ohm load is lit up with voltage from an OTL amplifier like mine, dynamics can lead off the charts, snapping and cracking like one wouldn't associate with a softer Sennheiser house sound. There is enough low end extension for acoustic contrabass instruments to have proper prominence in the mix, but perhaps not enough oomph for all synthetic electronic music. Still, these headphones are far from 'good for classical', and I enjoy them equally with rock and jazz.

    The 'Reference' nomenclature fits here, bravo Sennheiser! I recommend these to enthusiasts concerned with natural timbre and frequency extension. They make the modern day HD6x0 sound rather colored and closed in.
     
    Last edited: Sep 26, 2020
  3. k4rstar

    k4rstar Done his time

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    Sennheiser HD250 Linear I (600 ohm)

    general information

    As far as my research can tell, the HD250 Linear was released in 1984 alongside the HD540, as its closed-back counterpart. Like the HD540, it came in 600 ohm and 300 ohm variants, a later revision of Linear II, and within those variants there were early and late production drivers.

    [​IMG]

    The original ear pads were a wrinkly pleather all around. Unfortunately, information on the original HD250 Linear is very sparse on the internet, I was unable to even find a catalog photo. Some of the HD540 info also applies here. By all accounts the Linear II does seem to be quite a different headphone in both appearance and tuning, so I would not equate impressions of the two.

    subjective impressions

    My particular pair is an early production HD250 Linear I, with the 600 ohm voice coils. You can see the lovely black driver cap in the photo below.

    [​IMG]

    I acquired this pair from a Head-Fi seller that listed the 'phones and then changed his mind about selling. I had to practically beg him to sell these to me. He is something of a HD250 lover, as he has owned many pairs and shortly after selling me this pair bought another one (which is also now for sale here, your chance to get one!).

    Instead of the original earpads I have the Wang pads (seller wang_yifei on eBay), which are probably the closest you can reasonably get to the original pads.

    [​IMG]

    We will start with a comparison to the HD540 Reference, the headphones are remarkably similar, and this particular HD250 is better in some respects. The HD250 loses in air space and layering. However, it has a satisfying snap and leading edge or attack characteristic to the sound that I have not quite heard from any other Sennheiser, without being over-damped or dry as many closed-back headphones tend to be.

    Tonally, the 'Linear' name fits for this headphone. On first listen it lacks any obvious narrowband sound colouring or resonances, a serious achievement. Careful listening to a wide variety of recordings tells us there is a slight dip in the lower mid-range which invites really cranking up the volume. The HF is well behaved, not quite as much shimmer as HD540, with a little bump at 5kHz that is about as benign as a stock silver screen HD650.

    This particular headphone is more resolving than the HD540 I own. Closed cups do add to the impression of fine detail, but this is largely due to the differences in early production Sennheiser drivers versus mid/late variants. The early production drivers simply reveal an additional level of nuance, expression and subtlety in music. I would love to acquire an early production HD540 one day to see what that sounds like in open-backed form.

    This headphone has among the best LF response I have heard from any headphone. The mid and upper bass impact is perhaps marginally better than the HD540, if at all, but the closed nature adds a bit of extension, and more importantly better decay in the ULF which allows us to experience the 'growl' of contrabass instruments. Best of all the LF is properly balanced with the rest of the midrange even when the volume is cranked, thanks to the slight lower midrange dip mentioned earlier. The only downside is due to the very light weight of the cups, on tracks with heavy sub-bass content the headphones rattle on the head which is disconcerting to me, but I know some people like that sort of thing.

    The closest mental comparison I can draw between the HD250 and modern headphones are the high-end closed-back Audio-Technica models. Unlike those headphones however, we enjoy the benefits of a high-impedance voice coil, absence of 'Japanese' tuning and no LF roll-off. If the HD250 were still manufactured and sold today, they would be a fan favourite and an easy closed-back recommendation. Unfortunately, we are relegated to a market of overpriced 'luxury' headphones and uninspiring studio monitors. Still, the HD250 Linear deserves special attention from people looking for an excellent closed-back headphone. I absolutely love these with all forms of jazz, especially bebop!
     
  4. Scubadude

    Scubadude Almost "Made"

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    Nice to see some vintage love! I am lucky to own two pairs HD540 Reference Gold and HD560 Ovation II ... the 540 is clearly the better the headphone and one of the most transparent conventional headphones I have heard. Works like an absolute charm with a monster of a custom-built OTL based on 6EM7 dual triodes.
     
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  5. sorrodje

    sorrodje Carla Bruni's other lover - Friend

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    Not all oldies are goldies but surely there are a few gems . I currently own and use on daily bases a HE60 from 90s and and old AKG K242 "cardan" which is french equivalent of the famous 240 "sextett" . Those old Studio headphones are really decent sounding . Hard to drive though. They definitely worth a place on your list.

    DT48 is an old "myth" but it sounds really awful in my memories.
     
    Last edited: Sep 29, 2020
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  6. k4rstar

    k4rstar Done his time

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    out of the reviews to come, I am most excited about the HD540 Gold! I ran across your comments on it before while researching.

    do you have any pictures of your amp? I am always curious to see other OTL projects

    this is interesting information as I have also seen K240s labeled as 'cardan' and had no idea what it meant or which market they were from.

    thank you for reminding me to add HE60 to my wishlist - the only estat I can say I truly like!

    about DT48 - it is technically awful by any modern audiophile standards, but I have a little more to say about it in time. I own 5 pairs now, somehow.
     
  7. Scubadude

    Scubadude Almost "Made"

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    Let's just say you're in for a treat with the HD540 Gold ... but it is probably not miles away from the normal HD540 in absolute performance.

    There are a couple of pics of the amp here https://www.avforums.co.za/index.php?topic=77593.0 ... no internals though.
     
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  8. Bobcat

    Bobcat Friend

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    Wow, glad I saw this. It jogged my memory that I had an old Senn tucked away upstairs. Found my old pair of HD565 Ovations in the cabinet in my library. Haven't touched them in years. I remember listening to them out of the headphone port of my old Onkyo 2 channel and being unimpressed. Not offended, just unimpressed.

    Well, what the heck, brought them down to the office and plugged them into my work stack (BF 2 -> Lyr 3) and man, did they come alive. Very impressive.

    Rob
     
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  9. lithiumnk

    lithiumnk Rando

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    @k4rstar
    I had both hd540 ref 1 600 ohms & hd250 600ohms early production. Hunted various websites for more than 6 months to source these gems.
    I also have AT ADX5000. They sound very close to each other in terms of signature (diffuse field). All are very comfortable. They literally disappear.

    I prefer hd540 over any other open back sennheiser. With hd250, I was able to emulate the exact foam & pad configuration as shown in the schematic figure. The linearity from sub bass to mids then to lower/mid treble is off the charts . Thats why they are called linear. I never felt they were closed. The soundstage beats many open back hps in the present market.
    Tried many pads & foam discs.

    Best pairing for me was with my Otomon 45 DHT amp with 717a driver tubes. The bass slam, body, tonal density & soundstage holography was something else. I urge Sennheiser owners to try with competent tube amps especially DHT

    I sold my hd250 to my friend (DJ, music producer). He is all over the moon . These are reference for him.

    Sold 540 to other friend. He is pairing with Manley absolute with great results.
     
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  10. lithiumnk

    lithiumnk Rando

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    [​IMG]

    HD250 - New spare cable & pads from sennheiser.
     
  11. k4rstar

    k4rstar Done his time

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    awesome stuff, thanks for sharing. your HD540 had the ridged headband?
    my feeling about the HD250 EP is to never sell them.
    BTW, I would like your impressions on the ADX5000, can you share those in the relevant thread

    I am familiar with the otoman amps, you have good taste in gear!
     
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  12. spwath

    spwath Collegiate hijinks master

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    I have HD250 Linear I, they are my main heapdhones right now. Probably should get new pads, not sure whats on them now. Also cable is looking a bit old. But I liked them. Great closed back durable headphone.

    Seems like they are getting expensive now though. Bought mine on ebay for $100.
     
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  13. lithiumnk

    lithiumnk Rando

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    I had the stock steel wire with original 5 DIN connectors & extra 3m 3.5mm Senneheiser cable. The hp connectors are diff from Hd600 series. 540/250 have thinner/flatter connectors whereas 600s have thicker/broader.

    [​IMG]


    [​IMG]

    Foam discs are diff in this pic. Not the best one. Btw, I had the original pads but they were not in best of the conditions.
     
  14. lithiumnk

    lithiumnk Rando

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    You are right about not selling hd250.
    But, for me adx5k is better from upper bass onwards till upper treble. Adx5k has a mid bass hump & rolls off gradually but early as compared to 250. I am using some PMEQ for the mid bass on adx5k with very good results.
     
  15. lithiumnk

    lithiumnk Rando

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    [​IMG]

    Original box of hd250 linear

    [​IMG]
     
  16. Biodegraded

    Biodegraded Friend

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    What pads? I don't see any for the 250 on the Senn website.

    The pads that came with mine were non-genuine and gave rise to too much treble (which the seller mentioned was intentional to make up for his hearing).
     
  17. spwath

    spwath Collegiate hijinks master

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    Yeah mine have some random pads on them, and were missing the original front damping.
    I added some random felt I had to the front, turned down the treble a lot. Before they were much to bright.
     
  18. lithiumnk

    lithiumnk Rando

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    The 250 pads in the pic are for 540/430.

    [​IMG]
    Original Senneheiser spares which I got from thomann .de.
    These pads suppose to work with 540/250.
    I preferred Hifiman leather pads which took care of lower mids & decreased the sibilance.
    https://store.hifiman.com/index.php/leather-earpads.html

    I had also tried zmf pads. They are deep, thick & made sound more V shaped.

    I had ordered the wang pads but the shipment got lost due covid related issues.

    [​IMG]

    This foam discs are for 540.
    I had the original discs for 250 which makes a lot of difference.
     
  19. Biodegraded

    Biodegraded Friend

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    Thanks. I see the 430 pads (incl. foams) at Soundspares (UK) too:

    https://soundspares.com/products/sennheiser-ear-pads-1-pair-black-33166

    My local Sennheiser (Canada) doesn't have the pads but has the 430/540 foams (don't need those myself; still have the originals).
     
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  20. Deep Funk

    Deep Funk Deep thoughts - Friend

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    When trying to get the DT48 headphones to work, they can benefit from high gain. I suspect that before 80 Ohms and 32 Ohms became a thing, headphones were considered more to be ear speakers than headphones.

    When you get the DT48 to work, it can sound surprisingly good. Thing is, is it worth the effort? For me it was not so I gave or traded my DT48 headphones away.

    Have fun and please take it easy. I went through dozens of headphones, bordering on hoarding.
     

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