Beyerdynamic T1: Mercedes-Benz of headphones

With the T1, Beyerdynamic just entered the high-end headphone sweepstakes; how does it sound? Pretty, pretty good!

Beyerdynamic

You can buy a set of great full-size headphones for $100 from Grado or Sennheiser, but if you want to pick up one of the world's best headphones, be prepared to spend more than $1,000. Granted, no one needs a $1,000 headphone to listen to music or a $140,000 Porsche Panamera Turbo sedan to drive to work, but they're nice things to have. That's why we cover them on CNET.

Audio-Technica, Sennheiser, Grado , and Ultrasone's latest attempts to advance the state-of-the-art are really expensive, but before the introduction of the T1, Beyerdynamic's top models all carried an MSRP of less than $400. With the Tesla T1, Beyerdynamic joined the $1,000-and-greater club; it sells for $1,295.

Steep prices haven't stopped the high-end headphone market from booming, and Beyerdynamic can't keep up with the demand for the T1. It's hand-built and tested in the company's headquarters in Heilbronn, Germany.

Its padded leather headband and soft earpads provide high comfort levels, and while we were testing the T1 over some rather hot and humid late spring days, the headphone remained comfy for hours on end. The T1 comes packed in a very impressive aluminum storage case.

According to Beyerdynamic, the T1's transducer is the first to produce more than one Tesla of magnetic flux density (hence the T1 designation). A more powerful magnet better controls the diaphragm's movement, which should produce lower distortion.

Most of the T1's outer earcup is covered with a finely woven wire mesh, which allows the user to hear outside sounds. Actually, the T1 is classified as a "semi-open" design, so it partially limits how much sound the wearer would hear, compared with open Sennheiser and Grado designs. The T1's thick cable is just shy of 10 feet long (118 inches) and it's fitted with a 6.3mm connector. Beyerdynamic doesn't include a 3.5mm adapter for use with iPods or other portable devices.

I listened to the T1 with three different amplifiers: an Onkyo TX-SR805 receiver, Woo Audio WA6-SE vacuum tube amp, and Burson Audio HA-160 solid-state headphone amp ($699). Beyerdynamic's headphone amp, the A1 ($849), would likely be a serious contender, but I didn't have a chance to try it.

The Onkyo-Beyerdynamic combo's sound was very laid-back and bland; it didn't come close to demonstrating the headphone's potential. I'd advise anyone buying a T1 to also plan to get a good headphone amp. The Burson Audio HA-160's sound with the T1 was vivid, pure, and more accurate than it was with the Onkyo. Play a great recording, and you hear everything with the Burson, but try a typical hypercompressed CD, like Bruce Springsteen's "Working on a Dream," and the sound will be little too bright, at least when played fairly loud.

The Woo Audio WA6 SE vacuum tube headphone amp didn't have the resolution of the HA-160, so it was a more forgiving match with the T1. The Springsteen CD was a lot more enjoyable; treble glare was reduced without smearing the detail. The WA6 SE seemed a better overall match, because with it the T1's sound was more full-bodied and organic. It wasn't just mellowing out the sound; no, there was a remarkable amount of inner detail to be heard.

I'm not saying you have to spend $700 or more to hear what the T1 can do; the Hifiman EF5 ($399) or Woo Audio WA3 ($495) amplifiers would be good places to start.

The T1 rocks with gusto, and the Black Keys' raunchy new CD, "Brothers," sounded awesome, but Grado's high-end headphones rock harder and have punchier bass.

The T1 may not have the kick of a Grado, but when listening to the bass percussion instruments on Mark Nauseef's jazzy "With Space in Mind" CD, the sound took on a tactile quality. Each percussive hit had a distinct dynamic impact, and I could hear the sound reverberating within the recording venue. Nauseef also plays Chinese temple bells, gongs and chimes, where the T1's high-frequency clarity/low distortion was spectacular. The Grados sound a little rough around the edges by comparison.

Sticking with that CD I compared the T1 with a JH Audio 13 Pro in-ear headphone. In-ear headphones sound very different from full-size headphones, and I definitely prefer full-size 'phones at home. The T1 was more see-through transparent, more open (less inside my head), bass definition was better than the JH13 Pro, but the little headphone had deeper and more powerful bass than the T1 (the JH13 Pro's sound really comes into its own plugged into an iPod or Hifiman HM 801 music player). Then again, if you crave really deep bass Ultrasone's Edition 8 headphone is still the bass champ, though Grado's PS-1000 is no slouch in that department.

The T1's imaging was especially impressive while watching movies. The open quality and natural-sounding dialog made it easy to forget I was wearing a headphone. The sound was, in that sense, closer to what you hear from speakers than most headphones. Also, the T1's refinement is more like the sound of a set of $10,000 speakers.

Woo Audio is a Beyerdynamic dealer, and is currently including a machined aluminum "HPS-R" headphone stand ($59) with the purchase of a T1.

The Beyerdynamic T1 may have arrived a little late to the high-end headphone party, but it was worth the wait. Its keen balance of comfort, high-end sound, and build quality should reward buyers with many years of musical enjoyment.

For more Tesla T1 Beyerdynamic information, watch for my full CNET review.

 

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