Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Following my recent exploration of the affordable T-3 Plus headphone amp by the Chinese brand Douk Audio, I was left wondering how good this little amp actually was. At the time of my test, I was lacking a pair of headphones that would be revealing and balanced enough to allow me a definite verdict from an audiophile perspective. Dissatisfied with the open ending of my exploration, I kept pondering on how to proceed, until I remembered that my friend Michael owned a pair of top-of-the-line T1 headphones from the German manufacturer Beyerdynamic. I invited Michael over to our house and asked him to bring his headphones along. That evening, we set up a test to examine the merits of both: his headphones and Douk Audio’s T-3 Plus preamplifier.
As reference, we used Luigi’s Pata Acustica speakers driven by our Hafler XL-280 power amplifier and our Dynaco PAS-4 tube preamplifier. The latter had its focus on vinyl and a great phono stage. The signal source on this system was a Technics SL1310 turntable with AT-VM 540 ML cartridge. I knew this system to offer excellent tonal balance and dynamics while being revealing enough to be highly engaging. If there was room for criticism at all, this would be in respect to bass extension. The Pata Acustica bookshelf speakers had a natural limit when it came to bass that I generally did not mind but some hard-core bass-lovers might object to.
The test system consisted of our Philips GA212 turntable with Shure M 75 ED cartridge, connected via Fast Audio cables to Douk Audio’s T-3 Plus preamplifier. This had its noise-free energy coming from a new and dedicated linear power supply. By that time, I had already decided that I preferred the Douk’s phono stage abilities to those of its line input. I have not checked, but it is well possible that the line stage is passive on the T-3. On the evening of our test, we focused on three songs on vinyl: Seasick Steve’s minimalist “Hard Knocks” representing male vocals, Helge Lien Trio’s jazzy “Gorogoro”, and Katie Melua’s relentlessly swelling vocals on “Heading Home”. We started with Seasick Steve on the Pata speakers, then moved on to the T-3 Plus with my own Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO headphones for comparison. Finally, we connected the Beyerdynamic T1. We paused to compare our findings following each step, and although we did not agree in all aspects, our basic assessments turned out to be the same.
The male singer's voice sounded tonally most accurate via the Pata Acustica loudspeakers and very similar to this via the Beyerdynamic T1 headphones. While the loudspeakers set a wider and highly accurate stage and sounded a little fuller, the T1 sounded more intimate and reached a little lower in bass. Slightly more detail was audible on the loudspeakers, with individual notes trailing longer. However, this was mostly due to our new Audio Technica cartridge, the particular cut of its ML stylus, and the greater ability of the Technics turntable. Our own Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO headphones, in comparison, revealed a midrange dip and did not manage to hold the music together as well as the other two contenders. This made bass sound more boomy and treble more pronounced. Additionally, it seemed as if there was a cloak over some frequencies, an over-dampening of the headphone shells, perhaps. Individual high-notes, especially, were flung deeply and seemingly detached into the cloak of darkness that otherwise prevailed. Interesting, but somehow not useful for voices and acoustic guitars.
On Helge Lien’s Jazz piece, we began with our reference speakers that gave a formidable impression of the event. We then went on to audition the DT 990 PRO first. Our reasoning for changing the original order was that we did not want to fall into the trap of fulfilling our expectations. Without vocals present, the DT 990 PRO sounded natural and exciting, lacking some of the fullness of the instruments on the Pata speakers. While the rendition was engaging and entertaining, careful listeners could notice a lack of substance. The Beyerdynamic T1 brought substance back and held the performance together. Here, the stage seemed wider, and locating instruments on stage was easier, although the speakers prevailed in the latter aspect. There was sufficient musical detail in all three contenders, but the T1 and the Pata's sounded most accomplished.
We completed our test with Katie Melua’s “Heading Home”. The recording showed a slight metallic ringing to Katie’s microphone that might have added an interesting effect on a car stereo but seemed rather misplaced in audiophile listening. Therefore, any character trait during reproduction that highlighted this effect was unwelcome. Not surprisingly, the revealing nature of the Audio Technica cartridge brought out the metallic quality of the recording. The Pata handled this rather well by tonally integrating the effect without letting it break away. This did keep the listener engaged, if only to wonder when the treble would lose control of the moment. The DT 990 PRO brought about a more unfamiliar Katie Melua, accentuating some of the rougher aspects of her voice. Katie seemed more rocky, more like a younger Pat Benatar. I enjoyed listening to this rendition of her voice, until I started longing to have the familiar Katie back. The DT 990 PRO's suppressing of selected frequencies did not come without risk, of course. On the other hand, the T1 managed Katies voice very well, partly because they did not have to struggle with input coming from an over-sensitive ML stylus. The Shure’s elliptical diamond did not add any sibilance (as it sometimes did). Consequently, the performance seemed clear and solid, although not quite as suspenseful as on the Pata system.
Beyerdynamic’s T1s are tonally accurate sounding headphones with a solid sound stage that present the music performance as a homogenous whole. The excellent materials used pay off in creating a pleasant and entertaining musical experience. These headphones deserve a good amp that can deal with high capacitance output of 300-700 Ohms. To both our surprise, the small Chinese T-3 held its own during our test, if only after upgrading, tubes, power supply, and interconnects to an audiophile level. Following these significant upgrades, I can recommend both, even in this combination.
Beyerdynamic has a long history in audio electronics. The ‘Elektrotechnische Fabrik Eugen Beyer’, as the company was first called, had its origins in Berlin, Germany, during the 1920s. Its first products were loudspeakers for use in the emerging film palaces. Beyer's first pair of dynamic headphones, model DT 48, followed in the 1930s. With Berlin having been severely bombed during World War II, many German companies left the city ruins to seek new opportunities elsewhere. Eugen Beyer finally found a new home for his operations in Heilbronn, a German city located about 600km south-west of Berlin.
Famous Beyerdynamic products where the DT 49 (1950s) hand-held headphone, used in record shops and popular record bars, the M 160 ribbon mic (1957), and the E-1000 microphone (1965). At the time of writing this, Beyerdynamic is still based in Heilbronn and operates an American subsidiary Beyerdynamic, Inc. in Farmingdale, NY. The company offers a range of products, ranging from headphones and microphones of conferencing and interpretation equipment.