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Review: Sennheiser HD-490 Live

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Recently I was in the market for a new pair of headphones. In addition to superb audio quality, I was looking for light weight, comfortable headphones that could be driven easily by a portable CD walkman or my Soundblaster Live! Value soundcard. I also intended to use them on my home stereo system for movies and music at times when loud volume would not be permitted. If possible, I wanted to keep the price below $100.

Headphone manufacturers have known for a long time that people buy them for their looks, with little regard for their sound quality. If the idea of buying $100 headphones over the $10 Walmart specials makes you gasp, make sure you listen to a high quality set at least once in your life. With headphones a high price is absolutely no guarantee that you are getting a high quality set. Always insist to listen to them before you buy them. There are excellent, inexpensive headphones and terrible, expensive headphones. Let the buyer beware!

Enter Sennheiser. For those of you not familiar with their products, Sennheiser is a well-known German manufacturer of high quality headphones and microphones. For more than fifty years, they have produced equipment of the highest quality for recording studios and audiophiles alike. In 1968 Sennheiser invented the first open-back headphones. Clearly the company that now markets the electrostatic HE 90 / HEV 90 Orpheus headphones at a hefty $12,000 can make an excellent sounding set of "cans".

After trying literally dozens of headphones from various manufacturers I settled on the Sennheiser HD 490 Live. As you will read, I believe these to be the best headphones for less than $100 that I have ever heard. For this price they are not audiophile quality but they are very good. For the audiophiles, I would suggest the HD 580 or the HD 600 that will cost you easily in excess of $300. At a hefty 300 ohms impedance don't expect to drive these without a decent amplifier.

HD 490 technical specifications
  • Transducer principle: dynamic
  • Ear coupling: supra-aural, open
  • Frequency response (-10 dB / 1 kHz): 17-22,000 Hz
  • Characteristic SPL (1 kHz, 1 Veff): 106 dB
  • THD (at 1 kHz): <0.3%
  • Impedance: 32 ohms
  • Weight: approx. 120g
  • Connector: 3.5 mm stereo jack with 6.3 (1/4") adaptor
  • Cable: 3 m (approx 10') OFC copper cable

The earpieces seem to be of reasonably durable plastic construction. They are suspended with a wishbone-like piece of plastic that allows them to swing vertically and horizontally to find the perfect fit. The earpieces rest on your ears through a flat, cushioned piece of fabric coated foam. The headband is adjustable and lined with a soft rubber cushion along the inside for extra comfort. Overall I found them to be very light and comfortable, even after several hours of extended use. I hesitate to give them a perfect 10 on comfort comparing them to the velvet-lined luxury of Sennheiser's pricier models.

The cord is a very practical length at nearly 10 feet. Portable users might find the length a bit awkward but I found it useful for reaching around the back of my desk to my soundcard. The cable is of excellent oxygen free copper construction and is detachable, plugging into the headphones with a small connector into the left side. Unlike headphones that have cords dangling from both earpieces, this setup alleviates a lot of tangling problems. If the cord becomes damaged as is often the case with headphones, it can be replaced quickly and easily. How many times have you wrecked a pair of headphones by stepping on the cord? If this happens with these, the cord gets pulled out rather than broken.

The headphones are of an open design. What this means is that you will be able to hear sounds from your outside surroundings. The people around you will also hear your headphones, even at moderate volume because the drivers are quite large and powerful compared to the wimpy headphones most people use. If you need to listen to your headphones in a noisy environment (e.g. an airplane) or in an extremely noise-sensitive environment (e.g. a library) you would be better off looking at a set of closed headphones. However, beware that there is a significant acoustic penalty that is paid when using closed headphones.


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