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Matthew Jens gets up close and personal with this new pair of mid-market headphones…

Sennheiser

HD 560S Over-Ear Headphones

US$199.95 | S$299 RRP

When it comes to buying headphones, it's a wild world out there. There's a myriad of choices in every category, so it's best to start your journey with the most crucial question: “What's my budget?” Do you go big, put a mortgage on the home and get a pair of statement cans that need a refrigerator-sized amplifier to drive them? Or do you go for a bargain bin, cheap-as-they-come approach that you'll need to replace in a year due to wear and tear?

In the past, Sennheiser's 500 series has always struck a nice balance between these two scenarios. It's not quite as prestigious or expensive as the older 600 series but is more robust and better sounding than the budget 200s. In other words, it ideally suits aspiring audiophiles at the beginning of their long musical journey.

Now there's a new addition to the range. Meet the Sennheiser HD 560S. Right out of the gate, it stands tall compared to anything else in the 500 series due to its 'S' suffix. This apparently means it is one of the company's more recent, blacked out, smooth and stylish releases. Indeed the box bears a very sensible tagline to set the scene, announcing that the HD 560S, “was crafted for the analytical audio enthusiast”, no less. Reading between the lines, this says to me that whiskey-sipping, cable-upgrading, tube amp-warming audiophiles need not apply. Instead, this new headphone has been positioned as a sensible mid-market offering, with a neutral response and a modest price tag.

 UP CLOSE

I remember when I first opened my outrageously expensive Sennheiser HD800 S box, there was a beautiful silk lining inside the hinged stiff presentation case – as if angels had come down from the heavens themselves to place the package at my front door! The HD 560S, on the other hand, comes in a functional cardboard box with no carrying case, wrapped in soft plastic. Still, I'm loathed to deduct points for this, as it's an excellent place to cut costs – especially for a design that claims to be affordable. Who needs all that fancy packaging anyway? Not the budget-conscious, sensible headphone listener, that's who…

Such common sense extends beyond the packaging and into the included accessories. The bundled cable is both detachable and terminated with a full-size jack – with an adapter to reduce it down to a 3.5mm headphone jack if required. No flowery, unnecessary balanced connectors here, no Bluetooth, just the essentials. That's all most people will ever need, truth be told.

The headphone itself feels quite familiar. Its enclosures, headband and general shape have all been inherited from the HD 599. The 560S even borrowed the Ergonomic Acoustic Refinement system – the cheesily-named EAR – which is another way of saying, “drivers that are angled in a particular manner”. But that's where the similarities with previous models end. Inside this is an all-new beast, with Sennheiser claiming that the transducer hasn't been seen before and features a specialised polymer blend in its membrane for linear excursion and improved response above 10kHz. It's good to see brand new bespoke drivers being created and used – this is never a bad look, in my view.

The frame is entirely plastic, and the pads are covered in velour, all of which are par for the course at this price. The bonuses here are sleek black grills and matte black styling. Throw in a decent chunk of padding on the underside of the headband and single-sided removable cable, and it's nicely packaged and slickly finished for its price.

The lightweight plastic build leads to a decent level of comfort, even over several hours of continuous listening. My ears rest gently against the pads – which isn't generally the case with flagship models from Sennheiser – but is forgivable. I'd say that comfort is definitely above average. Similarly priced offerings from other brands often do rather worse – I'm looking at you, Grado.

THE LISTENING

I put the Sennheiser HD 560S through its paces with various sources, including the Aurender Flow, Matrix Quattro and an iPad Pro using the headphone adapter. Regardless of the source, the sensible, buttoned-up nature of these cans came to light immediately, and they don't need a powerhouse to drive them.

The product's claimed 120-ohm impedance puts it right in the midpoint between requiring external amplification and being fine with onboard audio. Realistically, your DAC/headphone amplifier will work wonders with the 560S, but this pair of cans still sounds very decent via the basic analogue output of an iPad or iPhone.

Tube amplification is another matter, however. While the pairing does technically work, I wouldn't recommend it due to possible impedance mismatching. With inflated bass and tamed highs, it won't be the most pleasant experience I would venture. Instead, the HD 560S is best with sensible solid-state amplification, and feeding it anything else is silly – like putting a giant V8 engine into a tiny hatchback car.

The manufacturer says that this pair of headphones has transducers specifically tuned for accuracy, “offering dependable A/B comparisons of components, mixes, and media formats.” Usually, I take little notice of such descriptions, but I couldn't quite shake it off this time. True to the claims, upon firing up the HD 560 S with the Aurender Flow, I immediately found the sound to be dry, analytical and neutral – surgical even, you might say. Instead of big hammering bass, effortless airy detail and wide open soundstages, the response proved clean, smooth and accurate.

This offers an appealing contrast to – say – the closed-back Audio-technica ATH-W1000Z with its wooden cups, golden accents and a price tag that is triple that of the Sennheiser. “This comparison is unfair”, I hear you say, and you may be correct, but hear me out. The AT offers a fun, warm and detailed sound but isn't quite what I would call accurate, which is the vital distinction.

Take the song Lump by James Holden, for example. It starts with a smattering of short, quick samples that show off the strong transient ability of the HD 560S. As the song progresses, more and more layers and samples are added to the mix. With the Audio-technica, it's all too easy to be swept up in the song's emotion and feel, letting it all blend in. However, even when the music gets completely unhinged towards the end, the 560S makes it easier to take an objective overview to pick apart each sample, every beat and every note with clean composure.

Forgetting the hardware comparisons for a minute, the Sennheiser indeed plays into its strengths when listening to Chopin's Nocturne in F Minor, op 55 by Maurizio Pollini. A masterpiece in its own right, this piece is wonderfully rendered with the HD 560S, with its subtleties presented at the forefront of the listening experience. Further into the work, it almost sounds like someone is gently humming along to the artist's playing – an often tricky detail to hear. Still, it's as clear as day with these headphones. No shrill, bright piercing highs to be found either, which is a bonus.

On the other hand, songs like Nothing's Gonna Stop Me by Terror Squad often rely on a fulsome upper bass and a spike in the upper midband to get the intended impact. This is where the clean, analytical response of the HD 560S might not help the proceedings. Its dry response can render some of the more impactful moments in heavy-hitting songs with plenty of clarity but are much harder to feel. In other words, it's too neutral sounding to give certain types of music a privileged rendition.

THE VERDICT

Sennheiser's new HD 560S is a no-nonsense, neutral and – yes, that's right – analytical pair of headphones. With no-frills, sleek black styling and non-offensive comfort, the entire package will cost less than the cheapest iPod Touch. True, it lacks fancy packaging, lavish construction materials and a sound tailored to gangsta rap – but you do get an even and enjoyable reading of whatever music you choose to listen to.

Factor in its relative ease of drive and sleek aesthetics, and you have a strong contender in this price bracket. This is an easy headphone to recommend for someone looking for clean, no-nonsense sound without breaking the bank. Is all of this too much to ask for, from a headphone this cheap? Usually, my answer would be yes, but in this case, I find cynical old me being proven wrong. Now – if you'll excuse me – I have a hat to eat.

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