A viable portable system?

Caution: A Long Post!

It took me a while to put together a decent system which I could use when away from home, I hope this proves useful for other members contemplating taking the same route to enjoy good quality sound on the go. I am more than happy with what I put together. Here are the details.


Several years back I had opted for the HD-580's and they not only reproduced music faithfully, but, at the same time were a source of great pleasure to listen to whenever I had the urge to indulge in the hobby known as audiophilia. My taste in music is such that I tend to prefer speakers having a presentation that is laid back rather than up front and in the face. The Maggies I owned as well as the Kef Reference Two recently were both having this characteristics. The Sennheiser HD600, like the HD-580, are also in my opinion laid back in their presentation.

The 580's that I had were undoubtedly the most comfortable pair of headphones I had the pleasure of putting on top of my head. HD-600 follows in its footsteps admirably. In terms of build quality, HD-600 takes a step forward having metal mesh grill instead of plastic and the headband being made of carbon fiber instead of plastic outer cover and metal band on the 580's. I used the 580's for 5 years and never had any issues with either the detachable cable or the velour cushions and pads. The long life of the 580's could be attributed to the custom made pouch I arranged initially and after use made it a point to store the headphone's in them before putting them away.

There are certainly better headphones out there not only from Sennheiser but from others as well but to improve upon the sound quality that the Sennheiser is capable of, one has to pay a very hefty premium.


Primarily being driven by the Headroom Total Bithead which has a D/A Converter built-in and is essentially responsible for the conversion of the digital files. The amp has a gain switch which can be flicked to accommodate either less than 120 Ohm or higher than 120 Ohm impedance headphones. With the HD600 plugged in it would be prudent on the part of user to switch it to over 120 Ohms. The amp also has a chamber in which 4 AAA batteries can be housed, I mainly use it in the battery powered mode rather than the USB powered mode. The USB powered mode would be driven by a 5 volt input, however a set of 4 Alkaline AAA batteries at 1.5 volt each would equal to 6 volt of power, not only it would play louder but also very cleanly. I personally felt the battery driven state gives a slightly darker background to overall sound quality and also tend to improve upon the dynamics.


I mainly used the headphones with my laptops USB out feeding it to the Headroom Total Bithead. The laptops sound card had no role to play as the feed from the USB was purely in digital domain from the wave files stored on the disk. The wave files were extracted using an external DVD burner from Plextor model 755UF as well as an older Plextor PX-S88U External CDRW Burner using Plextor Professional Tools version 2.35.


I tried to listen to as much variety on the humble system as I could which included some of the standards from my collection and yet I also tried to listen to some of the newer stuff which I acquired recently. The list is as follows:
Cassandra Wilson – New Moon Daughter
Eleanor McEvoy – Yola (Hybrid SACD)
Joni Mitchell – Blue
KT Tunstall – Eye to the telescope
Jennifer Warnes – The Hunter
Eagles – Very best of
Beatles – Love
Roxy Music – Avalon (Hybrid SACD)
Zakir Hussain – Making Music
Strunz and Farah – Primal Magic
Patricia Barber – Cafe Blue and Companion (Both being MoFi Hybrid SACD's)
Carole King – Tapestry (remastered and reissued version)
10,000 Maniacs with Natalie Merchant – Unplugged


The first thing that I noticed about the HD-600 was its top end, it was definitely more open and airy compared to the 580's. Particularly the acoustic guitar came through with uncanny realism. I am very familiar with the sound of John McLaughlin's notes as played on the album Making Music. Similarly, the flamenco guitars on the album Primal Magic from Strunz and Farah had a wee bit more to offer in comparison to what I was used to on the 580's. This attribute had made the HD-600 more revealing so to say. Good recordings can work wonders in terms of listening pleasure but when it comes to less than stellar recordings, the HD-600 would prove to be ruthless, just like it did on the 10,000 Maniacs Unplugged album where I felt the sound of the guitars to be slightly gritty.
I have always enjoyed the recording quality of the Cassandra Wilson's album New Moon Daughter, it has everything on offer one could ask for, brilliant vocals, variety of unusual instruments, bass that is fathomless, and above all wonderful melodies. HD-600 not only presented a lush sound-stage but revealed a few more tiny details that somehow I missed earlier.

On listening to Patricia Barber's album “Cafe Blue” playing the Track “Nardis”, the dynamics were absolutely stunning and reproduced without any hint of distortion. Everything on this track came out as clean as a whistle. Somehow I felt the newer version of the headphones were doing something better in this department too. Could it be that the build quality was contributing to this? It might well be the metal mesh grills which tend to resonate less than the plastic grills and to top it off, the head band being a solid carbon fiber instead of a combination of metal and plastic. Its but debatable so lets leave it that way shall we? However, there is no denying that the sound quality from these headphones is as solid as a rock.

My favourite album these days for checking out the female vocals is Eleanor McEvoys “Yola”. The most intimate track being “I hear you breathing in”, her voice comes out velvety smooth. HD-600 brought out the finer details remarkably well. The first track on the album “I got you to see me through” features piano which in one word is, authoritative. Her casual style of singing and playing the piano is nothing but haunting and one feels like repeating the track over and over.


What the Sennheiser HD-600, Total Bithead and my laptop cannot do for me is to produce thumping bass like the speaker can and at the same time rattle my living room furniture, but, it certainly had beyond any doubt, the uncanny ability of revealing nuances in the music that I have been listening to for ages and never knew it was there in the first place.

High-end sound for well under $600? You bet! A good pair of headphones and a dedicated amplifier is all I needed to connect to the laptop to enjoy true high end sound on the go. I am glad I finally opted for the cans as well as the amplifier.


The Laptop can be substituted with an iPod Nano (2nd Generation), the cheaper Bithead from headroom (minus USB input and D/A converter), and a pair of Sennheiser likes of PX100/200. If you are interested in my take on the cheaper combo use the link to read about it.


My take on the PX 200 can be read, if interested, by using the following link

I also use my PX100's much more than my HD600's, in my case in combination with my Numark PT-01 battery-powered portable turntable, which is the setup I always take with me on used vinyl scrounging expeditions. (This turntable is the replacement for the discontinued Vestax version I reviewed on Audiogon some time ago. Basically the same machine internally, but in a more compact package and with both sizes of headphone jack outputs and a recessed power switch. It also seems to be available for less money, about $80 at the best price I could find locally.) The folded up Sennheisers in their case actually fit and stay perfectly in place under the closed lid of the Numark. While it's not a system I'd recommend for recreational listening, it has saved me a ton of money on record chances not taken, and if I'm out of town I usually will indulge in listening to some of my day's vinyl booty when relaxing in the evening.

Thanks Metralla for the tip on the HD650 cord, I've been reluctant to invest in the Cardas, since what I consider to be the somewhat threadbare midrange and bright top end of the 600's (even with a dedicated headphone amp) has made me think maybe I should keep searching for something else I like better instead. Hopefully the cord could ameliorate that impression a bit.
Just curious... What is everyone importing their music as? I read the article in the above link and don't remember reading what format was used and at what bit rate.

I use two options at opposite ends of the quality spectrum. On the 60gb iPod I keep Apple Lossless files because even with the large file sizes I can still keep more tunes on there than I can possibly listen to, even on a long trip. All my music is stored in Apple Lossless on a hard drive that's used as a server for my main system and it's convenient to just copy them over to the iPod.

On the 1gb shuffle I use 128kbps files and find that the quality is fine for that use. There's a nice feature in the iTunes settings for the shuffle that converts any bit-rate file to 128 as it loads it onto the shuffle.

When I had my first 10gb mp3 player, I almost always used 196kbps. At that bit rate the quality was more than good enough in most of the environments where I found myself using a portable player.