Review: Sennheiser HD 518 & FiiO E10

Review: Sennheiser HD 518 & FiiO E10

In “The Ten Biggest Lies in Audio” (Aczel, P., 2000), the author criticises hobbyists and those in the audio industry guilty of dogged resistance to objective, scientific measurement.

A few months ago, I visited a branch of Audio T to audition a few pairs of headphones. Expecting aural nirvana, I was disappointed that I couldn’t hear a difference between Sennheiser’s flagship HD 800 headphones (£1,000) and some others that cost as little as 20% of that price (all connected to a high-end DAC, or digital to analogue converter, and amplifier). When the salesmen then started gushing about “audiophile grade” cables and connectors, I began backing slowly towards the exit.

Ultimately, I picked up a Sennheiser HD 518 for £70 (£120 RRP) in the recent Black Friday sales along with a £60 FiiO E10 USB DAC headphone amplifier. The build quality of both is top notch.

Image: ©Sennheiser

The HD 518 is extremely comfortable, circumnaural (meaning the ear cups fit around the ear and on your head rather than resting on your ears) and open (as opposed to closed headphones, which provide better noise isolation and minimal sound leakage at the cost of a weaker soundstage—this refers to a headphone’s ability to reproduce a sense of three-dimensional space in a recording, i.e., whether the drummer at the back of the band sounds farther away than the vocalist). The headband padding and ear cushions are thick, soft and covered with a breathable fabric: they aren’t sweaty like pleather. The HD 518 is best suited to home listening; you’ll want to look at closed cans for your daily commute or studio work.

Image: © FiiO

Image: © FiiO

The FiiO E10 is compact and ruggedly built: its black, brushed aluminium housing measures approximately 8 × 5 × 2cm. On the front of the device is a 3.5mm headphone jack socket, a power LED that doubles as a volume indicator, a volume wheel and a ludicrously satisfying bass boost toggle that could belong on a fighter aircraft console. On the rear is a USB in (mini-B) for power and data, a line out and a coaxial out.

Most importantly, together, they sound marvellous compared to my old headphones (Sennheiser HD 201) and PC’s onboard audio. Diminishing returns kick in quickly with audio equipment; don’t be fooled into believing that you need to pay hundreds or even thousands of pounds to get the best out of your music. There are some cracking headphones for under £200 including the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro (open) and the Audio Technica ATH-M50 (closed).

Good audio gear makes a huge difference and, while your experience is only as good as the weakest link in your audio chain, arguably the most important component is the audio source. With storage only getting cheaper, lossless codecs like FLAC—which preserve all the information in a recording rather than discarding some of it to decrease file size (known as lossy compression)—make a lot of sense. Lossless files sound a lot better than, for example, low bitrate MP3s on all but the crappiest equipment. They’re also great for archiving your CDs: you can always transcode lossless files to lossy files if necessary (for instance, for a portable music player).

References

1. Aczel, Peter (2000). “The Ten Biggest Lies in Audio”, The Audio Critic, issue no. 26, pp. 4–7. Available at: http://www.biline.ca/audio_critic/mags/The_Audio_Critic_26_r.pdf.

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