Massdrop has been selling four models from major makers at $199 or less so which one is best? For purposes of this comparison, I purchased one of each of the AKG K7xx, the Hifiman He-4xx, Sennheiser HD6xx, and HD58x. I had no contact with anyone at MD so none of these are cherry picked and all are as you would expect to receive were you to place an order. I know other headphones have been available at roughly the same price point from MD from time to time, but these are the four collaborations that are actually being made by Massdrop and to my knowledge are also the 4 best selling headphones in MD history.
AKG k7xx – Build contains a lot of plastic and gets dinged for not feeling as premium as the K702 it was modeled on. The upside is the 7xx weighs very little and its self-adjusting headband makes it easy to wear without having to fiddle with. The detachable cable is extremely well made and is better quite frankly than I expected at this price point. The only drawback is the cable attaches to the headphone via a single connection on the left side and doesnt lend itself to moving to a balanced cable if so desired.Build:
He-4xx – The he-4xx has several of the he400s faults corrected by re-designing the adjustments and using metal instead of plastic for the gimbals. Cups are plastic but are dense enough to feel solid and have little flex. The cable attaches to both cups via 2.5mm connectors so switching to balanced is a matter of swapping cables.
HD58x – Again a mostly plastic build excepting the slide adjustment and grills. The grills have narrow enough ports that the drivers are not easily visible like they are in the HD6** models.. Again, these have some flex but feel solid enough if not premium build quality. Cables are 3.5mm terminated with HD6** type connections at the earpeices and easily swapped for a balanced cable if desired. I do think the pads are not of the same quality as those found on the HD598 or 600/650. The same is true of the HD6xx as well.
HD6xx – Very similar build to the 58x with mostly plastic excepting the adjustment and grills again. The grills are more open than on the HD58x and do allow the user to see much of the driver and baffle. The cable is a 5 foot plastic wrapped version with the 3.5mm termination at the jack and a 6.35mm adapter. The other end terminates in Sennheisers standard bi-pin connector used in all the 6x series so cable swaps for balanced are plentiful if desired.
AKG k7xx – The AKG is the most comfortable of the 4 out of the box as it isnt overly snug and the pads are not overly hard. The other three all suffer from being a bit overly snug at the outset although time does help in this regard and the Senn models could use a pad swap to really be their best. Comfort for extended wear is easily the best of the 4 reviewed here.
He-4xx – The Hifiman is the heaviest of the four and it feels like it when worn. The headband is a bit stiff and overly snug at the outset and I found it was the least comfortable of the 4 to wear with my glasses as for some reason the cups wanted to push the bows of my glasses out of the way. I did not find this to be true with any of the others so it may be more about cup shape than fit as the Sennheiser models were more snug than the He-4xx but didn’t have the same effect on my glasses in the process.
HD58x – Fit is notably more snug than the HD598 as it comes from the box and pads need some time to break in and soften up as they are much stiffer than the 598 pads. I found that replacing the pads improved comfort considerably and that the headband does limber up slightly over time. With the construction of this model being mostly plastic, I hesitate to flex the headband to try and loosen it up for fear of parts breakage.
HD6xx – Again, these take some time to get comfortable. I found them to be a bit overly snug at the outset and the pads are a definite downgrade from the HD650 stock pads.
Bass: Bass is emphasized with a particular emphasis on mid-bass which bleeds into the mids and gives the K7xx an overall warm signature. Sub-bass isnt extended as well as it could be and is no match for the He-4xx in bass depth or linearity. Mid-bass at times seams a bit muddy with realism on things like kick drums and stringed bass suffering a bit as a result. Unfortunately it seems the +3dB AKG added from the original 702 pushed the bass forward but also obscured the detail in the process. Overall, not a great trade off.
Mids: Mids are better detailed than the bass and really would be fairly good if not for the bass bleed that obscures and thickens some of the lower mids. Guitar is particularly well rendered with a more natural tonality than the Sennheisers and nearly on par with the Hifiman. I did find that the busier a track gets, the muddier the mids seem to get, especially the lower mids where the bass plays into that.
Treble: Treble is the strong suit of the k7xx with good extension and no tendency toward harshness or sibilance. Detail retrieval is also very good and on par with or better than the other three. The treble is best defined as laid-back and easy as it doesn’t dominate the signature but does provide enough top end to feel open with some sparkle and air.
Stage/Imaging: Soundstage is expansive on the k7xx but it gains most of that size from width rather than depth which can make it sound a bit unnatural. I found that imaging suffers to a degree due to the odd geometry of the stage as it makes spatial cues seem to come more from the sides than directly in front or behind the listener. This may cause problems with using the k7xx for gaming.
Bass: The He-4xx is definitely most closely related to the 400i. It has the cleaner more textured bass of the 400i and loses a bit of bass depth when compared to the original 400. Bass roll-off is slightly below that of the Hd-6xx and bass quality is perceptibly better. Attack and decay is faster which gives the 4xx a tighter signature and a bit more analytical sound. Bass quantity is good, but will not satisfy the basshead crowd as it isnt disproportionate.
Mids: This is the strong suit of the He-4xx. The mids are slightly forward of the rest of the signature giving vocals that little extra push and making the 4xx particularly engaging when listening to live tracks or those tracks recorded in intimate studio environments. The nice thing is that mids pushed too far forward tend to over-power the rest of the signature which the he-4xx does not do. It manages to walk a fine line between not enough push to feel intimate and too much push and feels over-bearing. Detail retrieval is particularly good and easily best in class of those compared here. If there is a knock to be found on the He-4xx mids, it is that it is a bit thinner than those of the Hd-6xx in comparison. (Cleaner, and more detailed, but thinner).
Treble: Treble is again tighter and more analytical than any of the others being compared but is also the most potentially harsh of the bunch. I didn’t notice sibilance unless it was recorded into the track, but it does run along that ragged edge where any slight push will send it overboard and become a bit strident. For this reason, the He-4xx is good for more analytical listening, but may become fatiguing for longer listening sessions with material that is already a bit treble forward.
Stage/Imaging: If there is a weak suit to the Hifiman planars, it is generally sound stage. While the 4xx has good depth to the stage, it lacks in width and has only average height at best. This again makes the he-4xx best suited for intimate styles where the width of stage is not on display as much as in some others. Imaging is likewise impacted by the lack of width and like the HD-6xx at times instruments can seem behind one another rather than beside. Gaming may also be impacted by this.
Bass: Those who wished the Hd-6xx series would improve the bass characteristics of the Hd-600/650 found thier answer in the HD-58x. The bass here rolls off considerably lower than the Hd-6xx and is considerably emphasized in comparison. This gives both more sub-bass kick and a bit more mid-bass energy to the overall signature. There is some bass bleed into the mids that gives the overall signature a warm tint. If there is a knock on the Hd-58x bass, it is that it trades quantity for quality and bass timbre and detail are not quite as good as its bigger brothers.
Mids: Mids take a backseat on the 58x and while recessed compared to the treble and bass, there is still adequate detail in the presence region to keep vocals from feeling too distant or thin. This does let other instrumentation shine through a bit more so if you are more of a fan of the guitar than the vocal, this may be a good thing.
Treble: The Hd-58x has a more forward lower treble than its Hd-6xx counterpart but upper treble seems to be exactly the same between the two siblings. To my ear, this made the Hd-58x seem a bit more open with better air at the top end. I came away appreciating the 58x for its treble presentation and I feel it was in no way veiled.
Stage/Imaging: Stage dimensions were better than expected and this was the most uniform of the 4. I found depth to be larger than width, but not disproportionately so like we see on the he-4xx and the Hd-6xx and the 58x has some height to its stage albeit not quite as much as I would have liked. Imaging is helped by this stage and again takes top honors for the bunch. If I had to game with any of the four models reviewed here, I would pick the 58x.
Bass: The sub-bass rolls off fairly high up (80Hz) with a mild emphasis on lower mid-bass (150-250Hz). Not so many years ago, the Hd650 was considered world class in this department but the big planars and stats have rewritten the book on bass depth and linearity since the HD650 came out. Still, the HD6xx provides plenty of bass for most genre and the details are well presented with good timbre and tonality. Bassheads will prefer the Hd58x which has more bass depth at the expense of less detail and a more V shaped signature overall.
Mids: The Mids on the HD6xx are the most linear of any of the headphones in this round up with only a slight dip in the upper mids. This puts male and female vocals in an equal position rather than lifting one or the other as is common with some other tunings. Mids have good detail without being overly analytical and retain a very musical signature.
Treble: The classic veil is on full display as well. I never found this to be that big a deal as it makes the 650 and 6xx very listenable for extended periods and removes any tendency to get harsh or sibilant. The down-side is that those who prefer a brighter signature will find the 6xx leans a little toward the dark side rather than going for that last bit of treble extension that is present in the He-4xx.
Stage/Imaging: This is one place where the HD6xx kind of lets you down. The soundstage is only average and while it has some depth, it does not seem very wide or have much height. This leads to imaging that seems to place instruments one behind another at times instead of next to each other on the stage. Those who have heard the Hd800 with its expansive soundstage will be disappointed with the Hd6xx. Those who have never heard something better will likely not notice this to nearly as large a degree. I also cannot recommend the HD6xx for gaming due to this oddly shaped stage and poor imaging.
Amplifier required / scaling :
AKG k7xx – Needs amping. The K7xx sounds thin when paired with my I-phone or LG-v40 phone and has trouble mustering enough bass to be listenable without adding an additional amp. the k7xx does scale with better gear but the obstruction of details in the lower half the signature
He-4xx – Of the four, this is the best option for use without an amp. While it can be used with some cell phones (if you can force them into high-output mode), it definitely is improved by having a higher powered amplifier available. This scales well with improved gear. My favorite amp for the big planars is the Burson Fun. (Big power without the big price tag).
HD58x – The Hd58x needs an amp to do its best work and scales well up to the limits of its resolution. With its 150Ω impedance, it can be driven with some phones but generally lacks body when doing so.
HD6xx – Needs a solid amplifier with its 300Ω drivers in order to do good work. Sound from a cell phone suffers from lack of body and not enough usable volume range to please most people. The Hd6xx and He-4xx are eh champions amongst this group for scaling well with improvements in gear.
AKG k7xx – Very comfortable, very smooth, but a very flawed sound signature.
He-4xx – The 4xx is the tightest, fastest and brightest of the lot and excels with intimate recordings. If you are after the best mids – this is the one for you.
HD58x – If you are willing to concede a bit of detail for better bass depth and a bit more energetic signature, the HD-58x gets the call over the HD-6xx. (for gaming – this would be my call as well due to a better proportioned soundstage).
HD6xx – The best all-around of the bunch. Not quite the mids or clarity of the 400, but with better musicality, not quite the energy of the HD-58x but with a better balance, and not quite the comfort of the k7xx but with a more refined signature.