Review written by Andrew Park (@Resolve)
So close but yet so far ...
This unit was provided on loan by Headphones.com for review.
The Beyerdynamic DT-1990 Pro has received its fair share of praise as an excellent studio headphone and having read a number of very positive reviews I was excited to get a chance to evaluate it myself. Its predecessor, the DT-880, was the first open back headphone I ever bought, roughly 10 years ago. So admittedly this headphone has been near the top of my curiosity list for some time. At the time, I found the DT-880 a bit too sibilant, but I was also just getting into the hobby so I was more impressed by what I thought was endless detail and sparkle, to the point where I thought the failure was on the part of my ears, rather than the headphone. Years later, I’ve come to understand that this is a typical characteristic of the Beyerdynamic house sound, especially since their target is primarily studio and pro use. My headphone journey has led me far in the opposite direction with the recognition that there’s a difference between over-sharpened brightness at 8.5khz and resolution capabilities. But with that said, my interest in the DT-1990 Pro has remained consistent, with the recognition that this headphone is potentially two headphones since they also provide an extra set of ‘balanced’ pads that substantially change the tonality.
- Impedance–250 ohms
- Driver– 45-mm dynamic Tesla neodymium driver
- Weight without cable– 370 g
- Sound Pressure Level– 102 dBSPL (1mW/500Hz)
- Cable & Plug– 3-pin XLR plug & 6.35 mm (1/4") stereo jack plug
- Pads– 2 sets of pads: ‘balanced’ and ‘analytic’
FLAC Library, TIDAL (HiFi and Master) - iFi iDSD Micro Black Label-> Cayin IHA-6 (10ohm SE output) -> DT-1990 Pro
I generally evaluate using music that involves instruments and vocals (Jazz, Rock, Metal, Folk, Blues etc.). I spent a lot of time evaluating on well-recording jazz tracks from Diana Krall, Alison Krauss, Michael Wollny, Madeleine Peyroux, GoGo Penguin, Julian Lage, Molly Johnson, Michael Bublé, and Ulf Wakenius. For hard rock and metal I used the new Dream Theater album Distance Over Time, which is great for identifying bass roll-off, and just for fun I tried a bit of Leprous and Haken. I also enjoy some albums by Al Di Meola, and other acoustic gypsy/flamenco subgenres. My sibilance check tracks are generally from Patricia Barber such as Code Cool.
The DT-1990 Pro takes advantage of Beyerdynamic’s Tesla driver – the same type of design that they’ve used extensively throughout their high-end lineup, most notably in the Beyerdynamic T1. The claimed benefit is that the increased “drive” intensity of the magnetic field contributes to a stronger and more precise response to the signal. This is a 250ohm driver, so it does take a bit of power, but nothing most amps can’t handle these days. Beyerdynamic have also opted for a single sided 3-pin mini XLR connector on the headphone side that terminates in a 1/4-inch jack that’s useable on just about any amp or source. Thankfully this cable is removable and tangle-free. I tend to prefer the dual-entry system, but given that the target audience is likely to be audio professionals, single sided entry makes a certain amount of sense.
Build & Comfort
The build quality is nothing short of exceptional here, however the use of higher quality components rather than cheaper plastic leads to a slightly heavier headphone than its predecessors at around 370g. There is also notable clamp force, perhaps more than that of the Sennheiser HD660s. Nonetheless, the DT-1990 Pro is quite comfortable with the analytic pads feeling a bit softer and lessening the clamp force a bit. This headphone almost has a full range of motion with the cups tilting and having a bit of give for the swivel (no full swivel though). Most wearers will have no problems with comfort.
It’s a good thing Beyerdynamic opted to use their Tesla driver in the DT-1990 Pro and it’s immediately evident in its transient speed and resolution. While not quite as fast as the higher end Focal dynamicsor HiFiMAN planar magnetics, the DT-1990 Pro’s speed is perhaps the crowning achievement of this headphone. Resolution is appropriate at this price - so it’s very good, however the chosen tonality makes the DT-1990 Pro appear more resolving than it might actually be. Thankfully, timbre and soundstage are both excellent here as well. At no point does the DT-1990 Pro sound like you’re listening to a headphone rather than the music, and this is a very good thing – especially for studio work. The other primary achievement of this headphone is how open and airy it sounds, and while it’s not the widest headphone at this price, it never feels claustrophobic or artificial. The same goes for imaging with positional accuracy, however the instrument separation doesn’t present the most distinction possible, as is the case with some higher-end headphones. Note that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing when the Sennheiser HD800s, on the opposite end of the spectrum, is occasionally criticized for having too much distinction. Overall the best way I can describe the presentation without taking tonality into consideration is ‘realistic’.
When considering the tonality and frequency response, however, the DT-1990 Pro loses some of that realism. Beyerdynamic has traditionally had some peaky treble that can sound harsh or sibilant on a lot of recordings. This might come at no surprise, since their focus is on studio and pro use, where identifying problems in the mix is critically important. But that also means that for simply listening to music, for most recordings this peaky treble can be difficult. They’ve also provided two sets of pads, with different tonalities, so the following analysis will be separated into descriptions of the frequency response range for each. As a general note, I much prefer the analytic pads.
Measurements using MiniDSP E.A.R.S rig – not to be taken as an industry standard or objective measurement. Compensated measurements shown here use MiniDSP’s HEQ target that’s based on the one developed by Olive & Welti.
This is a very linear bass response, with a slight rise up into the midrange at around 200hz. The bass sits slightly lower than the mids, but at the same time it’s well extended and hits with an appropriate thump. Many other dynamic driver headphones like the Sennheiser HD600series tend to roll off a bit in the sub-bass, but not with the DT-1990 Pro. This might be where the Tesla driver flexes its muscle by providing a very fast, tight and engaging sound.
The mids sit slightly forward, but this is by far my favorite part of the headphone. The response continues with a fairly flat if ever so slightly forward tonality but the technical capabilities of the driver really shine throughout this range, yielding strong clarity and cohesiveness in the upper mids and into the lower treble. Both the detail retrieval and the speed capabilities of the Tesla driver are on full display here. Moving into the lower treble, this doesn’t have the 3khz dip that some headphones have taken too far in order to avoid ear canal resonance amplification, but instead places it firmly at 4.5khz, and to my ear this is a much better way to transition into the treble.
This is where things get into trouble. While most of the higher frequency range is excellent, the peak at 8.5khz completely ruins it for me. It’s not just a little bit much, it’s a lot much – and that’s truly a shame given the open and airy qualities the DT-1990 Pro exhibits otherwise. Admittedly, I’m personally a bit sensitive to the sibilance range, and I understand the desire to target the studio and pro use audiences, but this peak causes decent recordings that normally have no issues to sound sibilant as well. This can also affect how the rest of the headphone is perceived, given that it draws the listener’s attention so strongly to the “S” sounds of every recording. Some impressions of the DT-1990 Pro associate this treble spike with extra detail and resolution capabilities, and I think this is the same reaction I had when I first heard the DT-880. But after reducing this peak by about 5db (maybe more), it becomes clear that this peak is effectively masking for detail and overexposing the treble. In many ways the true capabilities of the driver – which are quite good – aren’t able to come to light. It doesn’t need the extra treble sharpness that the frequency response indicates with the 8.5khz peak in order to sound good, and in my mind, it’s had the opposite effect.
The bass extension is good here again, but it is elevated slightly in the upper bass moving into the midrange proper. This upper-bass hump causes the ranges to be slightly less distinct, but in general it’s not an issue.
The balanced pads reduce the midrange presence and present a more ‘V’ shape tonality, especially in the upper mids. This is not at all to my preference because it accentuates the treble peak. Most of this headphone’s good qualities are somewhat subdued along with this midrange recession.
Similar to the analytic pads, the 8.5khz peak steals the show, in a bad way. I find it’s actually a bit worse with the balanced pads because of the midrange recession. The distance between the peak and the upper mids is a bit farther, so it’s like shining a spotlight directly at the least desirable part of the image. Overall these pads cause the headphone to sound like the headphone is being played at two different volumes simultaneously – one with upper bass and treble blasting, and the other setting much quieter with the overshadowed midrange.
There are two primary open-back competitors to the DT-1990 Pro, namely the Sennheiser HD660s and the HiFiMAN Sundara – both of which sit in the same price category.
I find that all three of Sennheiser’s HD6— line have just as good detail retrieval capabilities as the DT-1990 pro. The main difference is that the DT-1990 Pro has better bass extension than the HD600 and HD650, has a faster driver with better leading edge transients, and a crazy unpleasant peak at 8.5khz. The DT-1990 Pro also has a more spacious soundstage. Overall, I still prefer the HD660s, even though it’s not quite as fast as the DT-1990 Pro. With a bit of EQ, that becomes a more difficult choice.
This is a faster headphone than the DT-1990 Pro, but not by a lot. The DT-1990 pro does better throughout the frequency range than the Sundara, with the exception of the treble. Unsurprisingly, I prefer the Sundara’s smoothness and lack of sibilance over the DT-1990 Pro, however I can still see why the latter might be more appropriate for professional use. I also find the DT-1990 Pro quite a bit more comfortable because for some crazy reason the Sundara doesn’t have any cup swivel options – which just doesn’t work for me.
The DT-1990 Pro is a studio or ‘pro use’ headphone that is unfortunately best suited to that environment and to my ear it doesn’t lend itself as well to general music listening. It does just about everything right and then promptly ruins it all by turning up the sibilance at 8.5khz. To me this is another headphone that follows the trend of trying to fake detail, which is too bad because its performant qualities are all excellent. This just happens to be the sound that Beyerdynamic goes for, and if you have no qualms about adding a touch of EQ to the problem area, or you’re specifically looking for a studio use headphone, this gets my recommendation. Otherwise, the DT-1990 Pro hasn’t changed my mind from the same concerns I discovered with the DT-880. I’d love to see the company produce a more music-oriented option that doesn’t have this sibilance issue, because it feels like a missed opportunity for the amazing Tesla driver they’ve employed in their newer mid-tier headphones.
- Andrew Park (@Resolve)