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Headphones

Made in Germany: Beyerdynamic DT 880 and DT 990 headphones

The Beyerdynamic DT 880 Edition and DT 990 Edition headphones are available in different impedance versions. The Audiophiliac listens to them all.

This blog is a follow up to last weekend's blog. This time, I'll compare the sound of four headphones: two sets of low- and high-impedance Beyerdynamic DT 880 Edition and DT 990 Edition models. All four headphones each sell for the exact same price, $299 in the US. £299 in the UK, and AU$395 in Australia, so price shouldn't be the deciding factor -- it's more about how and where you play the headphones.

I used a FiiO X1 music player ($100, £100, AU$129) for most of my portable music player listening tests. At home I used a NAD C316BEE integrated stereo amplifier ($380, £249, AU$539).

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Beyerdynamic DT 880 Edition (right) and DT 990 Edition (left) headphones Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The two models are very similar. The DT 880 Edition is a semi-open design, and the DT 990 Edition is an open-back design. Neither one produced isolation from external noise, but both are extremely comfortable over-the-ear headphones, and they're made in Germany. They each come with a heavily padded, zippered carry case.

To get started I compared the sound of the 32-ohm versions of DT 880 Edition and DT 990 Edition headphones while listening to the FiiO X1, and they sounded similar. The DT 880 Edition is somewhat more open and spacious, but has a bit less bass oomph. With Yo La Tengo's new "Stuff Like That There" album, the vocals sound very immediate and clear. Steven Price's brilliant score for the film "Gravity" had plenty of weight and power, especially with the DT 880 Edition. Stereo imaging was broad and spacious.

I next played with the 32-ohm versions of DT 880 Edition and DT 990 Edition headphones with the NAD C 316BEE integrated amp, and the sound was significantly better than what I heard with the FiiO X1. No surprise there -- the X1 is very decent, but the sonic advantages of using an AC powered component over a battery powered one are very significant. The C 316BEE produced deeper bass, fuller midrange, clearer highs, superior dynamic contrast and more spacious imaging than the X1. Better battery-powered players, like my Astell & Kern Jr, narrow the gap, but still can't beat the C 316BEE. So if you've invested in a decent set of full-size headphones, and only play them on battery-powered devices you're probably not hearing all the sound quality you paid for.

I next compared the 600- and 32-ohm versions of DT 880 Edition and DT 990 Edition headphones with the NAD C 316BEE amp. With Nirvana's "Unplugged in New York" CD the 600-ohm headphones had a more natural midrange and treble, the 32-ohm versions were leaner and thinner sounding. Great, but only buy the 600-ohm DT 880 Edition or DT 990 Edition headphones if you'll keep them strictly at home.

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The Beyerdynamic DT 880 Edition, with the FiiO X1 music player Steve Guttenberg/CNET

I say that because when I tried the 600-ohm headphones with the FiiO X1 the player's maximum volume was limited, and the sound was rather dull. That's the result of the impedance mismatch between the 600-ohm headphones and the X1. My advice: stick with the 32-ohm versions of DT 880 Edition and DT 990 Edition headphones for portable players; and if you crave maximum versatility headphone for home and on-the-go use, get the 32-ohm Beyerdynamic headphones.

When I compared the 32- and 600-ohm DT 880 Edition with the Audio Technica ATH MSR7 headphones the results were interesting. The ATH MSR7 (which is 35 ohms) pulled the sound inside my head, so the stereo soundstage was pinched and constricted, where the DT 880 Edition opened up and relaxed. However, the ATH MSR7's bass is deeper and more pronounced than what you get from the DT 880 Edition. Still, there's an ease to the 600-ohm DT 880 Edition' sound I really like; over the course of researching this review I listened to that headphone more than any of the others. I also watched a bunch of movies with the DT 880 Edition -- it's a great home-theater headphone.

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Schiit Valhalla 2 tube headphone amp Schiit Audio

High-impedance headphones have a special affinity for tube headphone amps, so I also tried the 600 Ohm DT 880 Edition and DT 990 Edition headphones with the Schiit Valhalla 2 amp ($349, £265, AU$579). Wow -- the headphones' sound blossomed and filled out! Solid-state amps sound livelier, but the rich tonality of both 600-ohm Beyerdynamic headphones and Valhalla 2 was a feast for my ears! Solid-state can sound great, but a well-matched tube amp/headphone combination adds body, soul and a luscious quality that brings recorded music back to life. Even so, the bass wasn't soft or rubbery; it was tight, controlled and plentiful.

The DT 880 Edition and DT 990 Edition headphones are not particularly portable. The ear cups don't fold flat, and their nonremovable cables are nearly 10 feet (3 meters) long!

So there you have it. The Beyerdynamic DT 880 Edition and DT 990 Edition headphones are both pretty terrific sounding, and if you're looking for a stay-at-home headphone, opt for the 600-ohm versions.