Okay, so I've spent more than a week listening to music through the Sennheiser HD 558 headphones, to get a good feel for their overall performance, feel and level of quality.
It's my first time testing out any product from this 60-year old company which makes high-end gear for professionals and what used to be called audiophiles.
Through the years I've tested many, many headphones and I've experienced products that stem from the almost-perfect, to the why-did-they-even-make-these?
If you've taken notice lately, there's a countless amount of listening devices on the market, and knowing exactly which ones are able to capture sound the correct way can be a wallop of a task.
Consumers face a lot of questions: Is it better to get the ear-bud kind that stick in your ear, and feel more like swim plugs rather than listening tools? Or maybe the over-the-ear variety that cup the side of your head and make you look like a serious music listener? The choices go on and on.
And once you decide what type headphones you want, there are still things to consider like design, comfort and, of course, price.
The first thing I noticed about the Sennheiser HD 558 is the sheer size of the ear-cups. Not only the outside part of the cups, because many brands make them big, but the inside section, where you actually place your ears, was huge.
When I put on the Sennheisers, the large holes on the inside of the cups completely went over my entire ear. Many over-the-head style phones have only a small speaker that sits by the ear, and the rest of the cup is filled with foam and padding, which can definitely affect the output of sound.
Since my ear was completely surrounded by the cup, and in direct path of the speakers, I figured I was either in for a really wonderful or a really troubling listening experience.
To get an idea of the headphones day-to-day feel, I simply walked around the downtown section of my city for a few days in a row, and played song after song trying to gauge not only its level of performance, but its overall feel and ability to block out surrounding sounds.
But I still didn't want to feel like I was being held prisoner by the music, as some large headphones can just be too overpowering.
Additionally, I wanted to see if the headphones had the right amount of loudness and clarity balance, and if they really needed to be on full volume to reach full performance. Unfortunately, a lot of headphones are made like that.
Earlier in the summer ConsumerAffairs tested four of today's popular headphones. In that test, I found three of the four headphones to be pretty darn good, so my ears have been a little bit spoiled when it comes to a quality sound and a fresh design.
First off, how do the Sennheisers look?
For some that may not be a relevant question, since performance is the main thing consumers look for in a headphone, but the business of making listening devices with a slick, colorful and unique appearance, makes them seem more fun.
And who doesn't like to have fun, or like to be a little different than the music listener in the subway seat next to you?
The HD558 is offered in basic black, and a tan version with brown trim. I tested the black ones, which fall between a basic design and a slightly futuristic look.
The outside oval ear-cups are made of a sturdy lightweight plastic kind of material, and the insides of the ear piece and headband are made with a thick padding.
Among today's flashy headphones, it seems as if Sennheiser purposely used a level of restraint in the design, and consciously avoided an appearance that looked too over-the-top or child-like.
Because I do love a unique and almost strange-looking headphone, the HD558's modest design didn't wow, but it also didn't disappoint. In a world of headphones that exist between the bland and the uncommon, the Sennheisers comfortably sits somewhere in the middle.
As far as the overall feel of the headphones, I must say they were a little less comfortable than I thought they would be, especially since the padding looks so plush.
The large holes that surround your ear took a couple of days for me to get used to, since the padding actually misses the ear entirely, and rather softens the area from the top of your ear to the top of your jaw line.
Of course, the comfort level may differ between people of various ear sizes, and head sizes for that matter. But again, after two days I was able to get used to the headphones' different feel.
Thrown for a loop
The main reason I was able to adjust so quickly, is that the sound of the Sennheisers was quite unique, and initially they threw me for a listening loop.
Many headphones, whether high-end or inexpensive, either have one of two functions. They're either loud and full of bass, which is good for certain types of music, or they're made for quieter sounds and tend to focus more on precision.
The bad thing is the powerful and loud headphones can easily distort sound and provide inaccurate frequencies which can be annoying and even painful to the ear.
And the headphones with a lower fidelity can sometimes distribute insufficient bass, or merely capture the obvious parts of a note or melody and not its subtleties.
But the folks at Sennheiser were able to make a pair of headphones that had the right amount of muscle, and the correct level of daintiness, which allowed the listening device to provide a very detailed sound with a nice punch, which is what you want in a headphone.
A good way to test a pair of phones, or any type of speaker for that matter, is to listen to it at a very low level. That way you can see how much of the song's chords and harmonies can actually be picked up.
After putting my musical device on low volume, the Sennheisers still allowed me to pick up every lyric of the artist, and did a great job of enhancing the songs' background instruments and subtle elements.
Many producers and engineers put these smaller sounds into a track just for the ardent listener, but many times the sounds are missed because the headphones don't provide sufficient detail.
I even took the headphones off and placed them around my neck, and I was still able to capture each part of the song at a moderate volume level, and that's pretty rare.
When I put the ear cups back on, and cranked up the volume a bit, the headphones didn't lose any detail. Also, there was no distortion, and the HD558s were able to maintain their crisp clarity, while still giving me the proper amount of bass thump that I enjoy.
And during my walk around the noisy downtown part of my area, I wasn't interrupted by the loud traffic, the chatty pedestrians, or the boisterous teenagers that dwell in the neighborhood.
But at the same time, the output was so clear, that I wasn't drowned by the sound and I was still able to be aware of my surroundings, which is needed when crossing a busy intersection.
I also tried the headphones on my television and computer for a while, and they worked in the same unique way. Obviously, you use your headphones a bit differently indoors than you do outdoors, so extreme volume isn't really needed.
In fact, you need a pair of headphones that will provide you with a strong listening experience when you're indoors without bleeding sound. That way others in the room don't hear everything that you're hearing.
If you’re listening to a song on your headphones and the person you're next to is mouthing the words, you know the headphones are pretty bad. Fortunately, this is not the case with the Sennheisers.
At a very low level, the headphones provided me with all the sound I needed, but didn't disturb the other person in the room with me. They also picked up sounds and background music in the TV shows that I watched quite nicely. I was surprised.
The Sennheiser HD 558s are seemingly a cross between Bose headphones and the Beats by Dre model.
Precise, affordable sound
The Bose is known for detailed sound and precise clarity, and the Dre headphones are all about power and bass strength. The HD 558s provided both.
Also, the Bose Audio over the ear headphones are $149.99, and the Beats by Dre phones are $299.
The Sennheiser HD 558s go for $179.95, so for about a $30 price difference from the Bose, you can get the best of both listening worlds, although Dre's headphones are a bit more bassy -- which is OK for certain types of music but may be a turn-off for musical purists.
The design of the headphones isn't outstanding, and if you're looking for a little more pop, you may want to choose the tan and brown version, since they're a bit more visually appealing.
But for performance, these headphones are right on the money, and if you really care about high sound quality, as opposed to just getting something you can plug into your mobile device, the Sennheisers are a good buy and worth the price tag.
In terms of how durable they are, I've just had them over a week, so that part of the test remains to be seen, but so far so good.
The Sennheiser HD 558s are definitely one of the better headphones that you'll find on the market and, like a Volkswagen, deliver outstanding German engineering at a reasonable price.
After a week-long test run, the results are in and ready to be shared...