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HiWire

Sennheiser HD 599 SE

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A headphone review! I haven't had a new pair of cans in a while, but these were on sale during Black Friday – I paid a little over $100 for them.

I've been looking for an inexpensive set of open headphones like my old Sennheiser HD 320: https://www.head-fi.org/showcase/sennheiser-hd-320.21653/reviews

The first thing to mention is that you get 2 sets of cables in the box, the longer 10 ft. cable (attached to the left ear cup) with a 1/4" jack and a shorter 4 ft. cable with a 1/8" jack as well as a 1/4" female to 1/8" male jack adapter. The HD 599 SE ships in a plain cardboard box, as it is an Amazon special.

Immediately, I tried to pull the long cable out, but couldn't. I looked in the included safety booklet and online, but there are no instructions for this headphone. Hesitating to use any more force, I twisted the cable counterclockwise and it pulled out. It's a good design by Sennheiser to prevent accidental disconnection, but it should be documented somewhere.

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The second thing that I did was put them on backwards.

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The Sennheiser HD 599 SE should fit smaller heads well. They are an open design over-ear headphone. The head clamp pressure is secure but not uncomfortable and the ear pads fit snugly around my ears. I'm not sure where to find black replacement ear pads for the SE , but the brown regular HD 599 pads are still available from Sennheiser. If you live in a warm area, you'll want to clean the ear pads frequently.

I had to pull each side down a few clicks to fit my narrow head snugly and the headphone enclosures wiggle slightly sideways a few degrees to adjust the fit to your head. The softly cushioned pleather headband is very comfortable and so are the velour earpads. I feel like I can wear these for hours. 

Fit and finish are excellent overall, but the lightweight plastic (plain matte black looks slightly cheap) feels a bit delicate, so I'd be cautious handling and transporting these headphones. Nothing rattles or creaks.

There used to be a problem with the plastic on the old headphones in this series cracking near the extension/flex joints, so I'll be extra careful with them.

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To start, I listened to Voyager by Jenny Lewis, which I had just listened to with the Alessandro MS-1 on my Sony D-EJ2000 portable CD player. The short cable's 1/8" jack has a slim body so it shouldn't be a problem with most players. In comparison, the HD 599 has slightly boomier bass than the Alessandro and its sound coloration is relatively neutral. The Alessandro definitely has a more forward sound and the Sennheisers are missing some of their midrange magic. Treble is comparable to the MS-1, with less of the extension than I hear in my Sennheiser HD1 (Momentum) In-Ear headphones.

Soundstage is slightly wider – not surprising, as the MS-1 are about as in-head as it gets with on-ear headphones. There is a lot more distance between your ears and the drivers in the HD 599 ear cups and the drivers are supposed to be angled toward your ears. I have to turn the volume up slightly as the HD 599 have a slightly higher nominal impedance of 50 ohms vs. the 32 ohms of the Alessandro and sensitivity is similar at 106dBSPL (1kHz/1Vrms) vs. 100 for the Alessandro. They should be easily driven by most portable devices.

With Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, the exaggerated bass is more obvious – it would be ridiculous if you engaged any kind of bass boost. It's more plentiful than with the Alessandros, but not quite as tight so far. The HD 599 don't leak as much sound as the MS-1.

Listening to the Chromatics' Kill for Love, the HD 599 seem to do better (or maybe they are breaking in) – their slightly spacy, reverb-centric synthesizer rock goes well with the 599 sound.

On Foxygen's We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, the 599's adapt well to the vintage aesthetic. The filters, fuzz, and echoes are appropriate to Foxygen's throwback aesthetic and only the vocals are slightly recessed.

Natalie Prass' The Future and the Past is a bit more electronic and the headphones capture the immediacy and energy of her pop songs. The bass and drums on this album follow a similar propulsive beat as on the Alessandros, and there are no problems with her voice. The Future and the Past has a groovy, fuzzamadelic vibe and the various instruments thrown in (strings, piano, etc.) are on the money for a pop-soul album by way of Nashville.

On the Cocteau Twins' Treasure, the 599 shows its strengths. The reverb-drenched tracks allow the 599 to demonstrate its superior airiness and imaging. Listening to the Cocteau Twins on the MS-1 was somewhat frustrating as it tended to flatten their expansive soundscapes.

Switching back to the Alessandro MS-1 with Foxbase Alpha from Saint Etienne, the sound signature is definitely brighter in the midrange-treble area and bass depth is about the same as on the 599. The MS-1 has a strong affinity with the Sony D-EJ2000 player, possibly because the MS-1's inherent brightness, speed, and dynamic punchiness perfectly complement the slightly rolled-off highs from the D-EJ2000. My only question with the MS-1 is whether the current "e" series drivers with enhanced bass are as balanced in liveliness and transparency as my old pair.

Massive Attack's Protection is next on the 599. I know this album backwards and forwards on all my headphones. It feels much more diffuse after going back to listening all day on the MS-1. Is this the natural sound of the 599, or is it because they are still freshly out of the box? Guitars are a bit recessed and there is a bit of a fog where instruments linger, when they are in sharp definition on the MS-1 and the Grado HP-2. Tricky's voice on Inertia Creeps sounds perfect though, so perhaps they are warming up with more power. Transients are slightly muffled. Am I hitting the limits of the D-EJ2000 or the 599?

I'll add more updates as I try more albums and different equipment with the new cans. My initial impressions are that these will be comfortable headphones for casual listening, but their resolution and accuracy don't quite hit the mark of the reference products (I didn't expect them to). I wanted an inexpensive, lighweight, relatively accurate set of "beater" cans for general use and that's what I got. The HD 599 might also be showing the limitations of the portable CD player – I'll try plugging them into my Schiit Fulla 2 and home setup and see how they fare with a real headphone amplifier and CD/SACD player.

Time for the big guns – I switch the 599 to its heretofore unused long cable (is there such a thing as cable burn-in?) and plug it into the Headsave Classic amp (Burr-Brown OPA627) and Arcam FMJ CD36 CD player. Let's start with Margo Price's Midwest Farmer's Daughter – drums are impactful, but not out of control. Treble is more realistic – you can really hear the emotion in Price's high, clear voice. The steel guitar sings a sweet tune. But something is missing. The reverb decays too quickly and the midrange doesn't have a full body like on the HP-2. So there is room for improvement.

Staying with the home system, I load Jane Monheit's Taking a Chance on Love, an old favorite. Running through familiar songs from classic musicals, I realize a few things. The HD 599 scales well – it definitely benefits from more power and a high-end source. Most of the sins the HD 599 commits are sins of omission, like a well-engineered audiophile product. There is a subtle elevation in bass, but it is not bloated or intrusive. Monheit's voice sounds vibrant and expressive – this was her first (and only) big label album with Sony Classical and she makes the most of it. The orchestral accompaniment is appropriately romantic-sounding and her duet with Michael Bublé is both silly and fun, as intended. The slow songs really lag, though.

Switching back immediately to the Grado HP-2 with Deluxe flat pads, I hear what's missing when I play the album again (for the first time on these new pads). With the HP-2, you hear little details like Monheit's breathing, a pedal change from the pianist, and a lot more emotion and excitement. With the slow songs, you catch what's missing with the 599 – the slow buildup of emotion, the subtleties of Monheit's vocal performance, more decay and acoustics from the background instruments. The soundstage is noticeably smaller and instruments sound closer together, almost on top of each other where they are spaced out in more realistic layers with the 599.

The 599 is good, and most people will enjoy the way it sounds, but there is a higher level. I'll refrain from making final judgments until I've put a few hundred more hours on the new headphones, but I'm happy with the HD 599 SE – on sale, it's a very reasonably priced lightweight over-ear headphone for home listening and I'm also going to use it for recording work.

The HD 599 is a bit too big and bulky for portable use, in my opinion. Sennheiser has provided a good cable with high quality connectors and the 599 should be easily driven by most mobile players, but the 599 tends to slide on my head too much for wearing on the go and the soft velour cloth of the pads would probably suffer in your average bag without protection.

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Edited by HiWire

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