Review written by Andrew Park (@Resolve)
Headphones provided on loan for evaluation by DMS
Sennheiser has been in a bit of an odd spot with its headphone lineup in North America due to their legendary HD650 being produced by Drop.com as the HD6XX at a much lower price point than the rest of their lineup. The HD6XX is still seen by many as the best value option in high end headphones. One of the reasons for this is that it scales so well on higher end source equipment, and for years enthusiasts have been finding new ways to make it sound great with a wide variety of headphone amplifiers. But importantly, the other reason is because there really hasn't been anything all that close to it in terms of price to performance ($220) that's given the HD6XX much competition.
Enter the Sennheiser HD560S (HD 560S), Sennheiser's newest addition to the HD5* family. Some have claimed that this new headphone is on par with the HD6XX (or even better?), and this raises the question: do we finally have a new best value headphone in 2020 - one that can unseat the reigning HD6XX?
- Type - Over ear, open-back
- Impedance - 120 Ω
- Sound pressure level (SPL) - 110 dB (1 kHz / 1 V RMS)
- THD, total harmonic distortion < 0.05 % (1 kHz / 90 dB SPL)
- Jack plug - 6.35 mm with 3.5 mm adapter
- Transducer principle - dynamic
- Weight w/o cable - 240 g
- Ear pad material - Velour
- Price - $199.99
- iFi iDSD Micro Black Label
- iBasso DX160
- iBasso DX220
- Matrix X Sabre Pro -> Cayin IHA-6
- Matrix X Sabre Pro -> SPL Phonitor X
- Matrix X Sabre Pro - > Cayin HA-1A MK2
- SMSL SU-9 -> Topping L30
Build, Design & Comfort
The HD560S has a simplistic yet effective build and design. With an all-black aesthetic, it uses a similar style to the rest of Sennheiser's HD5* series of headphones, where the yoke contours around the back of the cup - note that this is done in a slightly different manner on the HD6 series, with a thinner yoke around both sides. The headphone is made from plastic, and while it doesn't feel the most sturdy or premium, this line is well-known for its longevity. So while time will tell - at the very least it has a good reputation, and importantly one that demonstrates plastic isn't necessarily a bad thing. Additionally, it keeps the weight down to a mere 240g without the cable.
Speaking of the cable, this is a single sided entry terminated in a 6.35 mm (1/4") plug. I typically prefer the standard dual entry style cables, but at least it's not using the ultra stiff connectors from Sennheiser's HD6* series. The cable itself is a bit on the springy side of things and does keep its shape a bit, but on the whole nothing particular to note.
The Sennheiser HD560S uses a brand new 120 ohm dynamic driver aimed at improving bass response. This is different from the one found in Sennheiser’s higher impedance (300 ohm) HD6XX and HD600 headphones. In my opinion, this puts the HD560S in somewhat of a strange place. Because, while there may be some devices out there that can now drive the HD560S - devices that may not be able to fully drive and HD6XX - it still benefits from some kind of amping. It’s not like this is a typical 32 ohm headphone (although it's reasonably efficient). Moreover, these days even entry-level amplifiers can drive 300 ohm headphones. The reason this matters is that typically with higher impedance headphones of this line, you end up with better scaling with upstream equipment as a result. So for example, the HD660s (150 ohm) doesn't scale as well as either of the other 300 ohm variants - indeed this was one of Tyll Hertsens' criticisms of the HD660s in his review back in the Innerfidelity days.
Now, I’m sure much thought has gone into this decision and it’s likely the manufacturer has taken a wide range of source equipment into consideration (especially for where they expect the HD 560S to fit in the market), but for the audiophile, if you can drive a 120 ohm headphone you can drive a 300 ohm headphone. I should note that, by no means are impedance and efficiency indicative of performance overall, and given that this is a new driver, it's entirely possible that this is irrelevant - all of the Focal headphones have a fairly low impedance for example. But it's still somewhat of an odd choice here, and it does make me wonder if any potential performance or scaling was left on the table for the sake of making it more useable on a wider range of devices.
Unfortunately when it comes to detail retrieval we do lose something. Whether this is due to a lower impedance driver or not is still unclear to me, but in no way does the HD560S scale with higher end source equipment the way the HD6XX does. After now having had the opportunity to hear both the HD560S and the HD6XX from the SPL Phonitor X, there is a very obvious performance difference between the two. But does that mean it’s bad for detail retrieval? Not in the slightest.
In fact, I find the HD560S to perform exactly how I’d expect for its price point - if not slightly better than that. For the overall sense of image clarity, the HD560S does an excellent job of presenting a clear and transparent window into the music. I’m just left a bit saddened that it doesn’t match the scaling of the HD6XX. But for most entry-level equipment like on the Topping L30, Schiit Magni 3+ or Heresy - all excellent headphone amplifiers - the HD6XX was only marginally better.
Speed & Dynamics
For speed, tightness and immediacy of the initial leading edge, this is where the open-back Sennheisers have always been excellent performers. While I also find this quality to be typically better on planar magnetic headphones, the HD560S excels in this area, showing that it’s possible to achieve an excellent sense of immediacy with a dynamic driver as well. Once again, it’s not on the level of the HD6XX, or HD600, but that’s only when considering higher end source equipment as well. This difference is a bit of a theme throughout.
For punch and slam, while the HD560S has some of the best extended bass response of any open-back Sennheiser, it doesn’t come across particularly punchy. Instead it’s more tight, well controlled (and importantly well-defined). You do get the typical sense of natural decay that normally comes with dynamic driver headphones, but doesn’t have the best sense of impact.
Soundstage & Imaging
Here’s where the HD560S does a much better job than the HD6XX. The biggest problem with the legendary HD6 series headphones is that they suffer from what’s known as the “three blob” effect, where the front left and front right aren’t filled in at all. To me this issue is so significant on that series that it sounds like a limitation on overall ‘resolution’ in a sense - like you’re expecting to hear elements of the mix distributed across the front of the stage and it’s just gone where your brain normally wants to place the image.
I’m happy to report that the HD560S doesn’t have this issue whatsoever. The stage is much more well filled in across the front. While not as laterally spacious as something like the recent HarmonicDyne Helios, it’s still appropriate, and I find it to also have better forward presence than the HD6 series as well.
For image separation - the ability to isolate different layers of the music and differentiate individual instrument or vocal lines - the HD560S once again does an impressive job, but also once again not quite on the level of the HD6XX. This may be a bit surprising considering the HD560S has a more spacious presentation, but it’s more that the images aren’t as well defined and isolated as on the older headphone. Maybe this does come down to detail and image clarity as well. Still, the spaciousness of the overall sound is a tradeoff I’d be happy to take, since compared to other headphones in its price range apart from the HD6XX, the HD560S is better than most.
Frequency Response & Tonality
The following shows the Sennheiser HD560S frequency response as measured on the GRAS 43AG standardized measurement rig relative to the combined Harman target curve (Harman 2013 bass but Harman 2018 mids and treble). For reference, the Harman 2018 bass is noticeably elevated - too much for what I think most audiophiles would consider appropriate, even if some bass heads may like it, so I prefer to use the more modest 2013 bass shelf. In any case, these are raw measurements, meaning it should not look like a flat line across. This instead shows the raw measurement relative to the target that would otherwise be normalized in compensated measurements.
How do you read this? The dotted black line is the target (how we might want it to measure), and the red line is how the headphone in question measures. Effectively, this shows how significantly the headphone’s frequency response deviates from the target.
Channel matching is excellent on this unit.
The first thing to note is that while the HD560S doesn’t have the upper bass bloom of the HD6XX - it’s much more linear than that - the HD560S still has excellent bass extension all the way down to the limits of human hearing. There’s a slight contour to the bass making it satisfying, and yet at the same time non-intrusive for anything in the mids or the rest of the mix. In short, the bass tuning on the HD560S is excellent, and in my opinion better than that of the HD6XX.
For mids, once again, the HD560S nails the frequency response, following the Harman target nearly perfectly. It’s worth mentioning that at roughly 900hz you see an appropriate elevation that matches what the brain expects to hear - namely where the human ear amplifies certain frequencies. Things start to get into a bit of trouble in the transition between mids and treble, however, and then the lower treble does get a little bit on the intense side at times.
In particular, 4-6khz seems to be a bit elevated and then additionally there seems to be a bit of an 8khz peak going on. What does this mean for how it sounds? While not exactly emphasizing the sibilant sounds like ‘SH’, ‘S’, ‘F’, and ‘T’ for vocal recordings, there’s a slight analytic character or occasional aggressiveness that accompanies these tones.
Now I have to stress that this on the whole doesn’t sound bad, because for the most part the balance between fundamental and resonant harmonic is phenomenally good (better than most headphones in general). But for anyone wanting that smooth treble presentation of the HD6XX, this isn’t it. With that said, there was some positional variation that showed up where in some cases the 8khz peak was made more significant, and other positions where it wasn’t as noticeable. This effect was repeatable by applying different clamp pressure on the test fixture as well, meaning how this is perceived may come down to the clamp force and how the HD560S ends up being coupled to the side of the head. This also means that as the pads wear in over time, one could potentially expect a different presentation to this region, not unlike other headphones in this line.
For the rest of the treble, the HD560S is also excellent, and it has the appropriate dip around 9khz for the effect of concha interaction. In general you want there to be a dip here, and for anyone wanting to learn more about how to read this, there’s more information in this article here. In short, while it may look like a deviation from the target, it’s supposed to be there. If I had to nitpick, I think the HD560S could use just a tad bit more ‘air’ up top above 11khz, because I tend to find the Harman target a bit ‘safe’ up there - maybe for the sake of a wide range of recordings, but this is not something I think anyone can complain about at the $200 price point.
Overall, I find the HD560S to have a very agreeable tuning, with excellent bass extension, and just a little bit of extra intensity in the upper mids and lower treble. While some may enjoy the more analytic presentation there, I personally prefer the treble of the HD6XX, even if I also prefer the bass of the HD560S.
Sennheiser HD650 (HD6XX) - $220
Much of this review has compared the Sennheiser HD560S to the HD6XX, and so I’ll sum up my feelings on the two here. I’m tempted to say the HD6XX is the better value in particular because of its detail scaling, however that’s only still true if you see yourself also buying a higher end headphone amplifier, and by that I mean significantly ‘higher end’ (maybe even a tube amp). If you don’t - and there are many excellent budget amps like the Topping L30, Schiit Magni Heresy, and so on - then the HD560S does encroach on the value proposition dominated for years by the HD6XX.
So while I would personally still take the HD6XX, the HD560S improves on a number of the HD6XX’s shortcomings, like bass extension, bass to mid tuning, and soundstage. At the same time, it loses some of the smooth treble that many of us enjoy the HD6XX for in particular.
HarmonicDyne Helios - $179.99
The Helios is another fairly new headphone that comes in at a similar price, and has been making waves in a number of communities. Where the HD560S is a more classically ‘neutral’ tuning, the Helios is a much more ‘v-shaped’ kind of sound with a bass and treble emphasis and a slight midrange recession. I imagine if you wanted a more ‘fun’ kind of sound, the Helios may be more to your liking. It’s fast, has good punch and slam, and an excellent soundstage as well. With that said, I prefer the more linear sound of the HD560S.
HiFiMAN Sundara - $350
The current iteration of the HiFiMAN Sundara is in my opinion still the most straightforward upgrade over the HD6XX, and it’s also an upgrade over the HD560S. While they do have a similar frequency response (at least the revision I ended up reviewing here), I find that the Sundara has better detail and image separation as well as a smoother treble presentation. It’s more expensive, but to me the Sundara is worth the price increase over both the HD6XX and the HD560S (leaving aside some of the ridiculous scaling the HD6XX has).
The Sennheiser HD560S does not replace the HD6XX for the best value headphone in 2020, but rather it improves on certain aspects (bass and soundstage) at the cost of others (treble and detail scaling). In my mind, it simply provides an alternative for anyone looking for a slightly different presentation
While I’m generally quite impressed with the HD560S, a big part of me still wishes that it had the scaling capabilities of the HD6 series. Maybe this is due to the switch to a 120 ohm driver, and in that sense the HD560S is perhaps a bigger threat to the HD660S (which also uses a lower impedance transducer). But apart from this one disappointment, the HD560S is still an excellent headphone that comes in at an attractive price tag and should be strongly considered as a reference point for what well-tuned headphones can sound like.
-Andrew Park (@Resolve)
Buy the Sennheiser HD 560S on Headphones.com here at the best price available.