|All In Your Head
Stefan AudioArt Equinox HD 650/600/580 Replacement Headphone Cable
This months column is about a type of product that's not well known, much less reviewed with any regularity: a replacement headphone cable. Sennheiser, unlike most other headphone makers, incorporates easily replaceable cables into its high-end designs. This gives the end-user the ability to replace the cable without the use of tools or a soldering iron. The stock cable that comes with the Sennheiser HD 600 and HD 580 headphones is rather paltry. Hans and Frans from Saturday Night Live would describe it as "such a girlie cable." The HD 650 stock cable is a step in the right direction, but still inadequate. A simple glance at the photo will convince you of this. Shown from left to right are the stock HD 600 and HD 650 cables, and the Stefan AudioArt Equinox.
Its plain to see that the Equinox looks like it was made as original equipment for a pair of high-end headphones. It is extremely well put together, and the attention to detail is obvious the moment you hold it in your hands. According to literature, the cable is a "four-conductor, quad-braid, field geometry cable consisting of ultra-high-purity copper with individual strand isolation, enclosed with a Teflon/oxygen dielectric, finished in black Techflex with white cabling." The review cable came fitted with a high-quality 1/4" jack, although it is also available with a heavy-duty 3.5mm minijack and a mini-to-1/4" adapter. Prices are $189 USD for the Equinox with 1/4" jack and $199 for the minijack/adapter version.
Because audio cables in general tend to divide people into two camps -- believers and naysayers -- I went to great lengths to ensure fair and accurate testing of the Equinox. I removed time and memory from the equation by purchasing second pairs of Sennheiser HD 650 and HD 600 'phones to facilitate rapid A/B testing. This allowed me to have a pair of stock headphones as a reference, and a second pair with the Equinox for comparison. Next, I used a headphone-jack splitter to allow for simultaneous use of the stock and Equinox-equipped headphones. With a mere second or two between headphone swaps, I could verify what I heard rapidly and repeatedly.
For testing the differences between the stock and Equinox cables I set the Way Back Machine to 1976, the year in which Fleetwood Mac released their incredibly successful Rumors album. I chose the superb-sounding DVD-A recording over the lesser Red Book recording [Warner Brothers Records 9362-48083-9]. On the first track, "Second Hand News," I could hear a very distinct drop in the crispness to Lindsey Buckinghams guitar work when listening to the stock cable. The attack of the guitar was lessened, and not by a small margin. This loss of crispness or snap was even more evident on "Never Going Back Again." Buckinghams rapid guitar picking is simply incredible when reproduced right, and with the Equinox cable in place it was indeed reproduced right. In each case the stock cable lost most of the snap and crispness of the guitar that the Equinox provided, which reduced overall realism. The HD 650 and HD 600 headphones are definitely capable of great reproduction, but the stock cables simply prevent them from reaching their potential.
This loss of attack will play itself out in many different instruments -- cymbals, drums, guitars, piano and wind instruments. With the Equinox youll hear a much more realistic portrayal of each instrument. The stock cable sounds mushy and slow in comparison.
The Equinox has the uncanny ability to pass along the music in a pure and unveiled manner. It never imparts the sense that something artificial has been added to the music. The Sennheiser headphones are held back by the stock cable, something that becomes painfully obvious with the Equinox in place. After getting used to the sound of the Sennheisers with the Equinox, I found that switching back to the stock cable dulled the music, making it far less engaging and involving. I went from being a participant drawn into the music to a mere bystander. The effects of the Equinox cable are immediately identifiable and not at all subtle.
I do have two minor quibbles. First, the stock Sennheiser cable is completely free from microphonics, and the Equinox is not. If the Equinox cable rubs against something, including your shirt, it will make a noise you can easily hear, music or no. You can reduce the microphonics by keeping a little slack in the cable. The second issue is the slight loss of soundstaging prowess with the Equinox. To make sure this wasnt simply a factor of burn-in, I played music through the cable more than any other item in the history of my auditioning audio products. I put well over 1200 hours on the Equinox as an attempt to reduce or eliminate this issue. After all this time and break-in, I can report unequivocally that I prefer the soundstage of the stock cable over that of the Equinox. The left-right spacing of the stock cable goes from quite wide and spaced out to something slightly more constricted and packed closer together with the Equinox. The difference is not large by any means, but it is apparent.
Before you remove your stock Sennheiser headphone cable keep in mind that each earpiece connector has two pins, with one slightly larger in diameter than the other. Youll need to note the orientation of those two pins so that you can install the replacement cable without damaging your prized headphones or the new cable. If you cant get the replacement cable to insert properly into the headphones, check the alignment again before trying to shove the connector in.
Sadly, the world of high-end headphones has limited choice working against it. Unlike with speakers, where the selection is seemingly endless, high-end headphones offer relatively slim pickings. There are a mere seven choices of manufacturer: Stax, Sony, Grado, Sennheiser, AKG, Audio-Technica and Beyerdynamic. This is pretty much the entire gene pool. Due to large differences in their musical presentations, once you find a brand of headphones that you like youve often relegated yourself to living with what the manufacturer has to offer.
Companies like Stefan AudioArt give a ray of hope -- we havent yet hit the limits of what our favorite headphones have to offer. The choice to add an after-market cable to a pair of Sennheisers is a no-brainer. Just be patient and let the cable break in before pronouncing judgment. If you do this, you'll find that the Equinox breathes new life into your Sennheiser headphones.
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