by John Grandberg
Beyerdynamic’s flagship T1 – a landmark headphone if ever there was one. But I don’t necessarily mean that in the way you think I mean it… allow me to explain.
To get the background for this discussion we have to go way back to the year 2008. It was a simpler time back then: the headphone industry had yet to explode. Headphone enthusiasts were generally considered second class audiophile citizens. Rapper-endorsed cans had not yet become fashion accessories. And flagship headphones? Those tended to go for street prices of $300 to $400. The trifecta of top models consisted of the beyerdynamic DT880, the Sennheiser HD650, and the AKG K701. Own one of these, or maybe even two or (gasp!) all three, and you had good reason to consider yourself HeadFi elite.
Sure, some far more expensive models could be found, but those existed more or less on the fringe of the hobby. There was the AKG K1000 which stretched the definition of “headphones”, being more like speakers strapped to the head. Sony had a duo of über-expensive limited release models (the Qualia 010 and the R10) which were not all that common “in the wild”. There were Stax electrostatic models, which sounded amazing but required dedicated amplification… which was never really up to the same level as the earspeakers themselves. Not to mention the pricing and labyrinthine naming conventions which chased away all but the most hardcore enthusiasts. There are more exceptions that I won’t mention but the bottom line is simple – none of these were “mainstream” products and none sold in large quantities. One possible counterexample would be Grado, their RS-1 at $695 being moderately popular if still not all that common. But let’s ignore that for now.
Move forward a bit to early 2009 and we find one of the most significant developments in headphone history: the release of Sennheiser’s flagship HD800. At $1400 they doubled or even tripled the MSRP of competing models, including their own predecessors. People were shocked. All the talk of revolutionary “ring radiator” driver technology aside, many people still had trouble swallowing such a massive price increase. “Holy sh*t balls” is a direct quote from the HeadFi announcement thread which I think captures the essence of public sentiment. People were excited for the headphone, yet very apprehensive about the price. I think most of us were expecting something closer to $800 or maybe $900, but not many anticipated such a hefty increase.
In the end it mattered little since the HD800 was simply phenomenal in terms of sonics. As it released to near-universal praise, it became the flagship to own. Entire systems were built around maximizing the picky Sennheiser. It wasn’t unusual to see it paired with megabuck DACs and amps costing far more than the headphones themselves. And somewhere in there, that $1400 price began to seem normal. A bargain, it was argued, compared to the top-flight speakers it took to reach similar levels of detail and transparency. Not to be outdone, Sennheiser’s chief Teutonic rival soon launched their own expensive flagship – the beyerdynamic T1. Like it or not, mainstream headphones with four digit price tags were now a reality.
Now, I have no idea if beyerdynamic whipped up the T1 as a response to the HD800. For all I know it could have been on the drawing board for years. Whatever the case, Sennheiser got the jump by launching in early 2009, and had an entire year before the T1 entered the fray in early 2010. With the beyerdynamic top dog going for $1299, we now had two expensive flagships to drool over and/or complain about. I’m oversimplifying a bit here because this was in fact a very busy time for important headphone releases – somewhere along this same time frame we were introduced to the new planar magnetic models from HiFiMAN and Audeze, as well as more traditional dynamic models like the Ultrasone Edition 8, Denon’s D7000, and the Grado PS1000 – all of which were priced higher than the former flasghips.
I submit that the T1 and HD800 were the most important releases of this entire group, and I’ll attempt to explain why momentarily.
I distinctly recall there being controversy about pricing right from the start. Seems the T1 was originally slated to cost $999 but at the last second got a bump to $1299. Public perception was again mixed considering the pricing we were used to from the rest of the beyerdynamic lineup. Some felt this was a blatant increase, high cost just for the sake of seeming “high-end” in the midst of other expensive new models. Others felt it was fair game considering the “Tesla” driver technology being implemented. Keep in mind, the majority of headphone enthusiasts by this point had still not adjusted to the idea of paying these types of prices for headphones. There was some attempt to spin the $999 figure as an “introductory price” but I remain unconvinced.
Another interesting aspect has to do with the market situation. Late 2007 is generally considered the start of the massive economic downturn first experienced in the USA and followed shortly thereafter by the rest of the globe. In hindsight, one might not think it wise to release expensive luxury items with unprecedented price tags in the midst of a financial collapse. But at the time I think most people were in denial about the actual state of things. People had grown accustomed to their perpetually increasing property values and really didn’t want to face the idea that their modest tract home wasn’t actually worth over a half a million dollars. So they kept on buying stuff as if nothing had changed. In their defense, these headphone companies may have already been in development on some of these new models, in which case it makes sense to go ahead and launch to hopefully make some money in there somewhere. All in all, it was an interesting period for the hobby, and the T1 is certainly one of the most interesting products to emerge from that era.
So, why do I think the T1 (and HD800) were more relevant than all the other big releases of the time? I certainly recognize how the LCD-2 and HE-5 were a big deal in that they got the ball rolling for Audeze and HiFiMAN respectively, setting the stage for the planar magnetic invasion we all know and love. But today, right now, how many people actually use an HE-5 or 1st gen LCD-2? Very few. Those were both important headphones in terms of launching a platform, but neither is still around in the same form. Grado’s PS1000 has been revamped twice by now (PS1000i and PS1000e). Ultrasone ended up “refreshing” their Edition 8 multiple times with slight cosmetic changes, though it appears all are discontinued as of now. Denon’s D7000 was also discontinued a while back, so that leaves us with the T1 and HD800; both still going strong in essentially their original forms. Oh, and one more critical thing to consider: these models have both sold in massive quantities, far more than any of the other expensive competitors. Last I checked, the serial numbers (which go sequentially, unlike the old randomized Audeze method) were deep into the 30,000 range for HD800 , with the T1 being well into the 20,000s. That’s a LOT of headphones sold, and massive piles of money for Senn and beyer.
These days, enthusiasts don’t even bat an eyelash at headphones costing $1000 or more. That’s just a normal thing. I’d say the T1 played a key role in this state of affairs. For better or worse, a $400 headphone is now considered decidedly “midfi”, to use a term I despise (yet recognize as being usefully descriptive). If a new headphone model launches with truly high-end aspirations, we just expect the prices to be four figures. See the JPS Labs Abyss and the Stax SR-009 for examples of extremely pricey models.
It is my contention that the HD800 and T1, more than any other headphones, brought about this acceptance.
Back to the Point
So enough with the history lesson, let’s focus on the actual T1 itself. While being a few years old by now, I think the T1 is still a very worthwhile headphone to discuss — arguably still among the best headphones available. The key word there is ‘arguably’; very few headphones are as polarizing as the T1. Some swear by them, some simply aren’t impressed at all. I haven’t heard from very many folks who downright HATE the sound, but plenty find it underwhelming for the price, and some even consider it a step backwards from its far less expensive precursor, the DT880. Me? I’m still undecided, despite lots of experience. This whole article symbolizes my attempt at wrapping my brain around this model.
The first interesting thing I’ll note about the T1 — the headphone itself is of the semi-closed variety, which is not all that common for upper tier headphones. That means it doesn’t block all outside noise, nor does it completely contain the music you play, as would a true closed model. But it differs from fully open models like the HD800 in that it doesn’t leak like a sieve. I can sit in another room playing the T1 at moderate volume and not drive my wife crazy — which is not at all the case with my HD800 or Audeze LCD-3. And the T1 has an open, spacious sound which is beyond that of most sealed designs, so you might call it a good compromise between the two styles.
Speaking of style… I find the T1 to be very attractive. It takes the traditional beyerdynamic appearance and kicks it up a notch or two. There’s a healthy mixture of metal and leather, with the remaining parts being of high quality plastic. I’d call it a somewhat understated look compared to the sci-fi Sennheiser flagship, to say nothing of the steampunk look from Audeze or the “functional” (to put it politely) appearance of a HiFiMAN model. The T1, to my eyes, looks the most like a “traditional” headphone – make of that what you will. The one weakness I see is the cable which is not only basic looking but also fixed — most others in this category feature detachable cables for easy replacement or recable. Want either of those done with a T1 and it involves screwdrivers and soldering irons.
If there’s one area where I think the T1 earns top marks even among the latest and greatest competitors, it’s comfort. Those plush velour pads, the well-balanced weight, the just-about-perfect clamping force… it all adds up to a headphone I can wear for hours without issue. Despite being a bit smaller in size than many other top headphones, the T1 still fits my large head just about perfectly. I know a lot of enthusiasts willing to suffer through practically anything for the sake of pure sound quality; style or comfort be damned. I can respect that, and even get on board with it at times. But I also think there’s something to be said for a comfortable, well thought out design like the T1 which requires no such sacrifices.
On sound — the T1 straddles a line between neutral and slightly warm. It’s definitely a major breakthrough compared to any past beyerdynamic model I’ve encountered (which is most of them). The DT880, former top dog in the lineup, has always seemed both hot on top and thin on bottom, making for a rather punishing sound signature with a lot of music. The 600 ohm version was the best of the bunch yet still not enjoyable enough for me to choose over the AKGs and Sennheisers of that era. Stepping up to the T1 gives overt gains in treble refinement and low-end impact, not to mention less immediately tangible improvements such as imaging and soundstage. The tonal balance is fairly pleasing overall, if sometimes a tad unexciting, making for fairly convincing renditions of some of my favorite music without major distractions. In short, the T1 is the first beyer product that I actually enjoy listening to.
I mentioned imaging as being a less tangible benefit. What I mean is that it’s not something that immediately jumps out at the listener. It’s not the sort of thing one might notice under sub-optimal conditions such as an audio show, and even trying it out at your local dealer may not bring this to light — depending on the foot traffic in the store that day. But get the T1 in a private setting with some familiar music (and decent ancillaries) and things really become clear. Even with all the latest and greatest headphones stealing the limelight from beyerdynamic, I still count the T1 among the very best in the world at accurately capturing the spread of the musical landscape. It falls a bit behind the HD800 in spaciousness, but might just close that gap when it comes to image specificity — it’s really good at that. Mind you, this sort of thing isn’t even present in a lot of recordings, so you can listen to “good” recordings all day and still miss it. However, when I put on some purist audiophile recordings from 2L, Mapleshade, Opus3, etc, I notice how good the T1 is in this area. As much as I love my Audeze LCD-3 and HiFiMAN HE-6, I don’t hear either of them doing this trick as well as the “old” beyer flagship.
The T1 is no bass monster, but what’s there is solid, impactful, and just a little north of neutral compared to a strict reference-monitor type sound. It doesn’t have quite the extension and control of the planar flagships, but does have a nice punch to it, so everything from Boymerang to Matisyahu sounds a little more satisfying as compared to an HD800 which often seems too thin on that sort of stuff. And on the T1 top end, things are ever so slightly laid back — polite, maybe, but nicely detailed and rather well extended too. It’s pretty much the inverse of the DT880 sound signature which makes me think beyerdynamic finally “gets it”…. or at least they did, briefly. For their later models like the T90 and T5p they went right back to their brighter, thinner signature of old, so it seems the T1 is an anomaly in the line — one worth checking out even if you’ve historically disliked the beyer house sound.
That said, I have some reservations about it. I’ve actually bought and sold this headphone no less than three times, and that’s not including the review unit at play in this write-up. Clearly it has a charm that I find undeniable, something which keeps drawing me back in. Yet I never last very long with it. After a few months, the flaws end up frustrating me to the point where I have to move on.
“Flaws, you say?” Why yes, in fact I do hear some problems that can become troublesome, especially when paired with certain gear and certain music. My main issue has to do with the highs. While being vaguely laid back in general, especially compared to an HD800, they do have some obvious glare which results in A) a somewhat fatiguing sound, and B) a step backwards for detail retrieval. I still think the general tonal balance is excellent, and if the treble was as clean as HD800 then we’d be in business. As it stands we end up with something frustratingly off — the frequency response should lead to something a little on the forgiving side, but then those peaks kick in to nullify some of the advantages gained. My other complaint is that the T1 seems comparatively boring at times. But that’s minor compared to the treble issues. Fix that, and I’d be on board for sure.
All this talk of brilliant achievements and disappointing flaws leads me to an observation that I assume other people must have noticed by now, yet isn’t exactly common knowledge either: I’m certain that each T1 I’ve owned has been better than the last. My first was a low serial number example, within the first few thousand made, and it had MAJOR issues. It was bright, fatiguing, downright ragged sounding, and I even caught some obvious channel imbalance favoring the right driver. My next version had a serial number in the 10,000 range. This one was toned down up top and had what seemed like perfect channel matching. However it also had some funky low-end distortion — not enough to seem like faulty drivers, but still not as clean and textured down there as it should have been. Set number three was even newer and was quite good overall — I sold it because it seemed a little boring and polite, but it didn’t do anything significantly wrong. This last review unit had a serial in the 20,000s and it was damn good. Not perfect, no, but something I wouldn’t mind owning. There’s no doubt in my mind beyer had a quality control issue with early models, and I’m also fairly sure they did some mild tweaks along the way to improve sound. This, to my mind, goes a long way in explaining the wildly variable reports we get about the T1. Of course some people like them and others don’t! They actually hear different results based on factory variations and changes from one example to the next. I will say the last two sets I tried were not all that different from one another, so I’m hopeful beyerdynamic has everything on track by now.
It’s commonly expressed, both on HeadFi and other forums, that the T1 loves tubes. I can’t say I disagree in general. But that statement does require some qualifications. If by “tubes” we mean a slightly warmer, smoother tone that both takes the edge off and adds a little “soul” at the same time… then yeah, I can support that. But I realize that’s a major stereotype — a lot of tube amps don’t sound like that at all, while plenty of solid state designs actually do have that same feel. So it’s more of a sound signature thing than a strict topology requirement. Same deal with regards to source — you want something even-handed and well controlled. Nothing with a tendency towards being strident or accentuating peaks that may already exist — something like a Benchmark DAC1 would not be my first choice.
Having said that, it just so happens that my favorite amp for the T1 does in fact use tubes. The Icon Audio HP8 mkII http://www.innerfidelity.com/content/icon-audio-hp8-mk2-tube-headphone-amplifier is a single-ended triode design with plenty of juice on tap. Its thunderous dynamics and sweet top end are just the ticket, helping the T1 avoid allegations of threadbare tonality. Solid-state alternatives? Anything from Violectric or Luxman, and perhaps even a Burson if you stick with the older HA-160 model – the newer Soloist line is a bit too thin to do justice here.
Impedance on the T1 is listed at 600 ohms and actually climbs quite a bit higher at certain frequencies http://www.innerfidelity.com/images/BeyerdynamicT1SN3964.pdf. This opens doors for the use of amplifiers with higher output impedance, especially output transformerless (OTL) designs which tend to go that route. The Woo Audio WA2, the Schiit Valhalla 2, and the Bottlehead Crack are just a few examples at varying prices, and I can confirm all do a good job with the T1. My Icon amp has adjustable output impedance and I prefer using “high” on the T1. For sources I enjoyed a wide range from the affordable Parasound Zdac to the more upscale B.M.C. PureDAC — anything free of extra grain and glare should be suitable.
Listen to some contemporaries such as Denon’s D7000 or Grado PS1000, and the T1 will sound positively flat in comparison. And maybe a tad boring depending on your preferences. Me? I call it a more “realistic” presentation. The Denons are lush and fun, especially on the low-end, but to my ears sound very obviously colored to the point where it detracts from the experience most of the time. One gets the feeling they aren’t hearing music exactly how the artist intended.
And the PS1000? Simply no comparison in my book; it brings to mind an entry-level receiver with a “loudness” button turned on — entertaining, sure, especially for low volume listening, but not very refined or accurate at all. For me, the T1 is a step above those two, no questions. And it’s far above the Ultrasone Edition 8, which I consider a poor headphone that started out overpriced and only got worse as the later iterations appeared.
The flagship from beyerdynamic has no trouble dispatching that competition. Unfortunately, that’s not usually the comparison being made. The elephant in the room, the T1’s arch-nemesis, is the Sennheiser HD800. And that’s where I find another great divide among my headphone loving brethren. Some opine strongly that the HD800 is brilliant on an intellectual level but not really enjoyable for day-to-day listening. They consider the T1 to be relaxed enough, and warm enough, to give it more real-world appeal without becoming to obviously euphonic. Others feel the HD800 is simply untouchable (electrostatic designs notwithstanding) due to its extreme technical prowess. They see the T1 as an “also ran” product, a sort of good-but-not-good-enough effort doomed to forever live in the shadows of the mighty Sennheiser.
Let me just say I identify with both camps. While the T1 does seem to have a greater overall genre bandwidth, it still seems happiest playing “audiophile” music. The problem? That same Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Jazz at the Pawn Shop type stuff sounds even better on the HD800. In critical listening mode I see very little reason to choose the T1 if I have the Sennheiser as an option. On the flip side, I do find the T1 superior for general use. If I feel like dining on a musical panoply consisting of Norah and Diana but also Mistabishi, The New Amsterdams, Sibelius, Meshuggah, Big John Patton, Yui, The Mammals, and Electronic Noise Controller…. the T1 excels with a broader range of style and recording quality. I’d probably choose it more often than not as my daily driver compared to the HD800. This assumes, of course, the T1 is a “good” example.
So where does that leave us? Is the T1 merely a footnote on the timeline of significant headphone accomplishments? Or is it still worthwhile as a flagship? Despite any misgivings I’ve had over the years, I do consider the T1, in current form, a propitious option. As always, it comes down to preferences. Those wanting a more relaxed presentation than the high-strung HD800, and more comfort than can be found in an Audeze, may find the T1 a willing partner with just the right temperament.
I’d say the T1 is similar to the classic LS3/5A — not necessarily in terms of sound signature, but more on a conceptual level. Everyone should try them at some point; you may love it, thus ending your search quickly and easily. Or it may leave you cold, in which case it serves as a good jumping off point for describing exactly what else you might be looking for. Either way, the beyerdynamic T1 is something every headphone enthusiast should try at least once in their audio career. And who knows — if every T1 sounds as good as this review sample, I may even pick one up for the fourth and final time.