These fellas have moved on to greener pastures. I’ve had pretty good luck with selling gear on Kijiji for quite a while now, and here again a little bit of patience paid off.
I haven’t used these headphones much at all in the fifteen years I’ve had them. Their pristine condition all but gives it away. Thought they’d be better served in the hands and on the head of someone who could get some use out of them, because they’re fine ‘phones.
Waving goodbye to them got me thinking about all the different headphones I’ve owned over the years.
The first “real” pair of headphones I got were Koss TD/60s, in 1994 or early 1995. After settling for Gameboy earbuds and the free, cheaply-made headphones you’d get with pretty much any inexpensive Walkman (complete with a headband that always seemed to want to catch on your hair), these guys felt like a BMW wrapped around my head.
They were mainstays until my first serious set of headphones came along in early 1999 — a pair of Sennheiser HD 265s. The difference in sound almost blew my head off. Everything was so much more vivid and three-dimensional.
I bought a backup pair of HD 265s when I got the feeling they were going to stop selling them soon. One day I sat on that second pair while they were resting on the seat of the chair that sits in the heart of the studio, destroying them in a split-second of absentminded movement. By then my hunch had come to pass and the model had been discontinued.
Now I make sure if any headphones are going to be hanging out on that chair they’re hooked on an armrest, and not anywhere my thoughtless ass can cause them pain.
The first pair of HD 265s remain. They’ve been my workhorse headphones for almost two decades now, getting heavy use both in the studio and in more casual listening situations. These are the headphones I would wear when I was in high school, walking around at lunchtime with my Discman stuffed into my inside coat pocket, oblivious to how funny I might have looked to anyone else. They’re the headphones I use today when I’m tracking anything that isn’t loud electric guitar or drums, and they’re what I listen on when I’m in my bed that doubles as a desk.
They’ve been through a lot, but they refuse to die.
What doesn’t refuse to die is the stereo headphone cable. I’m convinced they designed it to break down after a few years so they could make more money selling replacement cables.
The first one went on me in 2003, not long after OH YOU THIS was finished. Until I was able to scrounge up a new cable, I was forced to pull out my old Koss friends. It surprised me how decent they sounded. Sure, they were no match for the Sennheiser headphones, but they didn’t embarrass themselves.
I’d be curious to give them another listen today. I had two sets of them. I know I gave one to a friend a long time ago. The other pair must be buried in a box in the basement somewhere.
Since then, the HD 265 cable has died on me every three years, like clockwork. Lucky for me, between Glen at Audio Two and a few good contacts at Sennheiser, replacing it has never been a problem.
Around the same time I picked up that first set of HD 265s, I grabbed a pair of Sennheiser HD 570s. That way I’d have both closed and open-back headphones to work with.
The 570s have also long since been discontinued. Mine are still kicking, though I haven’t used them much in a long while. Never had any issues with the sound, and the cord never went goofy on me. I just found myself reaching for them less and less.
They did get quite a bit of use for a few years there early on, and there’s some pretty hilarious footage of Tyson wearing them while recording guitar for SEED OF HATE — hilarious because death metal is the last thing in the world these headphones were voiced for.
The closed headphones Sennheiser advertised as the next step up after the HD 265s were phased out and something of a replacement for them were the HD 280 PROs. I bought a pair when they first came out. They’re still made today.
I’ve never understood the hype these things get. To me they’ve always sounded horrible and uninspiring. To this day, the HD 265 is the best closed headphone design with a sane price tag I’ve ever heard. The soundstage is wide and full. They’re comfortable to wear over a long period of time. Maybe there’s a little more bass than some people like to hear, but to my ears the sound has always been balanced, natural, and just right.
The HD 280s sound like junk in comparison — boxy, thin, and lifeless, with very little depth or definition. I have no idea what everyone else has been hearing all this time.
I gave them to Gord when his cheap headphones died on him. He seems to like them. Better they get to live out the rest of their existence somewhere they’ll be appreciated, right?
The AKG 271s were another backup choice. They did the job, but I was never moved to reach for them over my go-to Sennheiser cans. They were there more so someone else would have something to listen on when I needed to have more than one set of headphones active at a time.
Later on I got a pair of Extreme Isolation headphones — the last thing you’d ever want use as a mixing reference, but great for recording loud sounds without endangering your hearing. If you saw me play live in any high volume situation between 2008 and 2012, I was probably wearing them to protect my ears.
A few years ago I sat on these headphones and broke them. What is it with me and sitting on things?
I bought a pair of Vic Firth isolation headphones to replace them. At half the price they isolate just as well and don’t seem to sound any worse. Works for me.
When I was working on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS, I started reading about Denon headphones. I’d read about pricier ‘phones before, made by Grado and Stax and others. But these Denon AH-D7000 headphones were advertised as being some of the most open-sounding closed headphones on the market.
They were also more expensive than any pair of headphones I’d ever bought before.
I threw caution to the wind (the wind said, “Hey, thanks for the caution, pal,”) and ordered a pair through Live Wire Audio before that place closed. The day they came in, the store owner asked if he could have a listen. We plugged them into a hi-fi system, I put on Manu Katché’s album Playground, he slid them on, and his eyes got as big as grapefruits.
These are true reference headphones. They waste no time in letting you know what’s what. Badly-recorded music sounds awful through them. Well-recorded music sounds stunning. And the clarity is unreal. When I first got these monsters, I heard things I didn’t know were there in songs I knew inside and out.
When someone else comes over here to record something with me, these are usually what I give them to wear. Something like the Stax SR-009s might blow them away, but the AH-D7000s are the best I’ve ever heard, and the most money I’ll ever be willing to spend on this sort of thing. They’re plenty good enough for me and what I do.
For all the time and thought that went into designing the guts of these headphones and making them sound good, I don’t think much went into making sure the exterior was robust enough to stand the test of time. Though I decided early on not to baby them and they picked up a few scuff marks in the line of duty, by and large they’ve been treated well.
It didn’t matter. One day one of the little screws that attach the ear cups to the hinges that connect to the headband popped out without any encouragement, everything collapsed on one side, and there was no getting the screw back in. These headphones, like my favourite Sennheiser ‘phones before them, have been discontinued. A cable is one thing. Getting a replacement screw from the source? That was out of the question.
Johnny Smith put in a valiant effort, even investing in a set of tiny screwdrivers, but none of his work paid off. An eyeglasses place that once reattached a broken arm on my favourite pair of wire frame glasses took a shot at it. They fared no better.
Then the Smithster said, “What about Steve Chapman?”
Steve is a wizard with guitars. But would he even want to try and Macgyver some temperamental headphones back together?
I never should have doubted him. He determined that the screw Denon used was the wrong size to begin with. He found one that fit and screwed it in. Then, to guard against this sort of thing happening again on either side, he reinforced the hinges with twist ties and two small pieces of foam rubber.
Good as new. Better than new. And now these headphones have added character.
Before I sold the AKGs and gave away the Sennheisers I never liked, I was thinking it would be nice to have better-sounding headphones on hand when I needed to take care of more than just myself and one other person. My headphone amp has four outputs, and there have been times when I’ve maxed that out recording group vocals. Someone would always end up with the isolation headphones or something else that — at least in my opinion — gave them a pretty mediocre representation of what was happening.
There had to be something out there that was cheap but decent. I did some research. The Audio-Technica ATH-M20X headphones caught my eye. There were a lot of good reviews, and I could get two of them for less than what a single pair of the HD 280 PROs ran me. Worst case scenario, I’d donate them to CJAM and then swear about it here when someone stole them.
Within about thirty seconds of unboxing one pair, I knew neither one of them were going anywhere. These might not quite have the extension of the HD 265s, but they’re easily some of the best, most natural-sounding closed headphones I’ve heard in a long while. Given the cost, the sound quality is pretty ridiculous. I don’t think you’re going to find a better $60 set of headphones anywhere.
Even Eli, Elliott’s long-lost evil twin brother, is a fan.
Under different circumstances, I would recommend the Sennheiser HD 265 as a great sleeper for anyone looking for some good closed headphones. There’s one problem. They’re almost impossible to find on the used market. Almost no one who has them seems to want to part with them. When they do show up on eBay, prices range from $300 (a little more than they used to cost new, but still a decent deal) to $600 (outrageous). For a lot less money, those Audio-Technica headphones aren’t a bad way to go at all.
While we’re here, a quick bit of advice to fellow home studio warriors:
I see a lot of threads on recording-related message boards that have people asking what the best headphones are to mix on. Sometimes they’re in an apartment or they’re working in a room with no sound treatment, and they feel the monitors they’d be able to afford wouldn’t give them an honest representation of what’s going on in their recordings, or they wouldn’t be able to turn them up loud enough to get the most out of them.
Headphones are often necessary when you’re tracking. They can be an important reference when you’re mixing, allowing you to check phase relationships and stereo balances and no end of other things. But to mix on headphones alone…that’s a mistake.
I know because I used to do it.
Very few of the things I mixed exclusively on headphones ever transferred over very well to other systems. There was always something that sounded off. On the other hand, when I get a mix to sound right on the monitors, it almost always sounds good on headphones and everywhere else.
I know a lot of us are working in rooms that aren’t perfect, but even a middling set of monitors can make a world of difference. There are things your most expensive headphones won’t tell you. They can play tricks on your ears sometimes, especially when it comes to the perceived volume of tracks that are hard-panned. And from my experience, monitoring at a low or moderate volume often leads to better results than cranking the volume. The louder things get, the easier it is to get caught up in the energy and stop listening critically. Ear fatigue becomes an issue as well.
The real trick is to get to know your listening equipment and — where applicable — how it reacts to your room. I’ve found I get the best results by switching back and forth between headphones and monitors. If I can get something to sound balanced on the monitors and my trusty Sennheiser and Denon headphones, usually it means I’m on the right track. Then I audition a mix on as many sources as I can, from different stereos to laptop speakers, and make adjustments based on what I hear.
(I used to use car speakers as another reference. I’m too lazy to do that these days. It doesn’t seem to have hurt my mixes.)
Some folks will put a lot of effort into getting a mix to sound big and punchy on tiny speakers, with the idea that most people will be listening to the music on their computer or an iPod. I understand that, but I’ve never done it. I mix things to sound as good as possible on a full-range system. Too many strange things start happening to the low end and midrange when you try to compensate for speakers with weird frequency responses and very little bass.
You should do what works best for you, of course. But headphones will only give you part of the picture. Before I had proper studio monitors, I used to monitor through a boombox, and then a stereo/record player I found in a pawn shop with slightly bigger speakers. While the mixes I made in those days weren’t great, being able to hear the music moving around in the open air taught me a lot about sound.
You can find an infinite amount of information on the internet about recording and mixing, and people will tell you a hundred different ways to do any given thing. As great as it is to have those resources at our fingertips, I still think there’s no better way to learn than to experiment and use your ears. Some of the best sounds I’ve ever captured have come out of doing things the wrong way, and sometimes rough mixes that were made in the heat of the moment have managed to beat out later, more considered mixes.