Written by Jake Cheriff
An audio engineer’s perspective on the latest headphones from Sennheiser
Build, Design, and Comfort
The Sennheiser HD 560S feels cheap but looks sleek and ergonomic. The entirely plastic construction doesn’t scream luxury but neither does the price. It seems like Sennheiser set out to produce the cheapest possible headphones with the flattest possible frequency response in order to edge out the competition.
The clamp force is a little tighter than that of any other headphones I’ve used. I’ve read that the clamp force reduces over time. I remember my Sennheiser HD6XX felt tight when I first got them and now they are my most comfortable headphones.
The sound changes drastically depending on where my ears are relative to the drivers. They seem to sound their ~best~ when my ears are centered. If my ears are sitting towards the front of the ear cups, the sound is much brighter. Conversely, if my ears are sitting towards the back, the sound is much darker and less focused. I don’t know that this is a design flaw necessarily, but it does make me wonder if ear shape/size will influence one’s perception of the 560S’ frequency response.
Eyeglasses seem to have a small but noticeable effect on sub bass reproduction. With glasses on, the sub frequencies sound slightly less full. I avoid this issue by resting my eyeglass temples on top of headphone ear-pads like a complete maniac.
Note: These are open-back headphones. This means there is no isolation between you and your surroundings. These are useful for listening critically at home in a quiet room. They would be totally inappropriate for use in public spaces because 1. everyone would be able to hear what you’re listening to and 2. the noise of your surroundings would make it difficult for you to hear what you’re listening to.
Measurements provided by Headphones.com, done on the GRAS43AG-7 standardized measurement rig.
Reference Tracks | Jake Cheriff
pictured: my reference tracks for evaluating speakers, headphones, and room acoustics
Frequency Response / Sound
These are being marketed as “reference” headphones and I think that that’s a fairly accurate label (for once). The frequency response sounds very “correct”… and unforgiving. For music production this is fantastic. If you’re an audio producer, these are going to be your friend because they will do your tracks no favors. There is no extra warmth (mid bass hump) or sparkly highs (elevated 10kHz region). Everything about the frequency response sounds, to me, flat, apart from a slight elevation around 4kHz. For everyone else from casual music listeners to ~seasoned audiophiles~… this might be cause for concern.
A lot of songs don’t sound very good. This isn’t a big problem if you’re listening to music on Apple Airpods or Dr. Dre Beatz because those headphones are tuned in such a way that potentially irritating frequency ranges are more subdued. Consequently, they sound a little wonky and they lack a lot of detail. But that’s probably a calculated decision in order to deliver the most universally inoffensive experience possible to consumers. I love my Airpods. It’s very easy to recommend Airpods because of the forgiving sound and unmatched convenience. With the 560S, Sennhesier is taking the opposite approach. They’re delivering a level of detail that we aren’t used to in headphones. If something is off about the mix, you’re going to hear it and if you’re like me, it’s going to drive you nuts. Here are a couple examples from my Reference Playlist that sound a little grating at times played through the 560S:
“Ordinary Pleasure” by Toro y Moi -vocal Sibilance around 4 kHz
“Shooter” by Lil Wayne, Robin Thicke -3:19 vocal adblid presence
“Frida” by Holy Holy 4:18 synth treble around 3.5 kHz
Aside from highlighting potential harshnesses, I find the ‘reference’ tuning less relaxing overall — especially for longer listening sessions. The tuning of the Sennhesier HD 650 / HD 6XX sounds, to me, less fatiguing probably due to the elevated mid bass and relatively subdued 6 to 8 kHz region even though the 6XX’s bass clearly doesn’t go as deep.
Compared to the more expensive Hifiman Sundara, the 560S sounds like it lacks detail (slightly) across the frequency spectrum except in the sub bass region where the Sundara doesn’t seem to dig as deep. Listening to “Light A Cigarette” by Husky, the Sundara seems to hold on to small details in busy swelling sections (like the one at 3:30) a little tighter than the 560S can.
pictured: Sennheiser HD 560S, Crumbs
Soundstage / Imaging
The soundstage and imaging are both great. Both are more accurate and satisfying to me than the soundstage and imaging on the most obvious competition — Sennheiser’s own HD 650/HD 6XX. Compared to the Hifiman Sundara, I think it’s much closer with the Sundara exhibiting an arguably more exciting and enveloping sense of space.
Listening to “Jesus, She’s A Good Girl” by Andy Shauf, it’s easy to hear where the hard panned (very wide) acoustic guitars end and the more centered acoustic piano begins.
Listening to “Eat Your Heart Out” by Hungry Kids of Hungary, the separation between the lead vocal and the pool of stereo lead vocal reverb is articulate and satisfying.
Listening to “I Give Up” by Caroline Polachek, the lead vocal is stunningly intimate, maintaining a strong center image throughout as various vocal harmonies, vocal doubles, and synthesizers appear and disappear on either side.
pictured: Sennheiser HD 560S
Value / Conclusion
The 560s at their current price is an incredible value. To get comparable sound out of speakers, you’d have to spend far more than $200 on room treatment alone. Speakers that cost exponentially more than $200 will not sound as accurate as these headphones. Personally, I’d take these over the currently more expensive Sennheiser HD 650 / HD 6XX because of the more elaborate soundstage and more articulate frequency response. The HD 650 has an undoubtedly more subdued/laid-back sound so it’s easy to imagine someone preferring those for casual listening.
Between the 560S and the Hifiman Sundara, it’s more complicated. The 560S may be a better tool for audio producers because they do less favors to the source material. The 560S will make you work harder to create a more engaging musical experience than the Sundara because the Sundara seems to impart a little magic by default to whatever content they’re reproducing. To anyone like me on the fool’s errand of searching for a taste of ‘objectivity’ in audio, I highly recommend considering the HD 560S.
Thanks for reading.