Sennheiser HD58X vs Focal Elex Impressions

Summary

The Elex and HD58X sound more similar than different, but for my own use, I prefer the HD58X, price no object. The slightly warm but mostly neutral sound signature works well on pretty much all of the music to which I listen and I can enjoy it at low volumes. It’s also far more comfortable for me to wear than the Elex. It loses to the Elex on technicalities like speed and detail retrieval, and it’s less smooth, but it’s pretty darned good across the board, images exceptionally well, and renders macrodynamics better than the Elex (which surprised me). The HD58X has plenty of punch, well-enough extended bass and treble, and it generally sounds cohesive. It’s also smoother than what I remember of the HD 600 and therefore “smooth enough”. The gap in speed and detail retrieval can partially be closed with solderdude’s felt mod, which I’ve been emulating with EQ and will probably apply for real.

If there’s one song that best demonstrates why I love the HD58X, it’s Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Tin Pan Alley from “Couldn’t Stand the Weather”. With texture, punch, dynamics, reverb and other goodies, it’s a sonic treasure box and real desert island stuff! By contrast, listening with the Elex I found a lot of songs that sounded impressive from a critical listening perspective, but nothing that tickled my musical fibers like the HD58X does.

Full Version

Having recently gone on a DSP binge and sold my DT 1990 because I was having so much fun with my LCD2C, I came off that binge wanting to own some headphones that don’t need any EQ or crossfeed to sound good. I used to own an HD600 which fit the bill but failed to impress with its bass performance, and it had a roughness to its sound that I couldn’t ignore. Hoping that it might sound like a “fixed” HD600, I picked up a Sennheiser HD58X on eBay. Soon after, an open box Elex became available for a good price on Blinq. I’d always wanted to hear the famed Focal sound and I hoped that it would sound like my old DT 1990 without the big treble spike, so I picked up a pair. I’ve owned neither very long, but I’ve listened to both long enough to form some impressions. I find myself constantly reaching for the HD58X over the Elex and so the Elex will move on to a home where it might find more love.

Background and Disclaimers About Me

I’ve lost enough high frequency hearing that I don’t hear over about 14 or 15 kHz. Since I’d like to preserve my hearing, I tend to listen at low levels (70 dBA or below). I listen to pretty much all kinds of music, but skew towards stuff that includes at least some acoustic instruments and unprocessed human voices. I listen to a lot of music during the day while I work as a programmer, I occasionally do some focused critical listening for enjoyment and writing reviews like this one, and I like to listen in the evenings for relaxation. I used to enjoy ballroom dancing with my wife prior to the arrival of our kids and so enjoy a good beat about as much as anyone. I casually play the piano and am learning to play the ukulele together with my young son. Some people might mistake me for musically inclined until they hear me sing, at which point they’ll realize that I have awful pitch.

Test Playlist

  • Tin Pan Alley on “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” by Stevie Ray Vaughan
  • Get Lucky on “Random Access Memories” by Daft Punk
  • Angel on “Mezzanine” by Massive Attack
  • Jambone and Tio Macaco on “We Like It Here” by Snarky Puppy
  • Abraham’s New Gift on “Alive” by Phronesis
  • Second Hand News on “Rumours” by Fleetwood Mac
  • Africa on “Toto IV” by Toto
  • Windowpane on “Damnation” by Opeth
  • 11:11 on “11:11” by Rodrigo y Gabriela
  • Metropolis Pt. 1 on “Images and Words” by Dream Theater
  • I’m Nowhere and You’re Everything on “Deceiver” by Chris Thiele
  • La Moldau conducted by Ferenc Fricsay on Deutsche Grammophon by Bedrich Smetana
  • Le Nozze De Figaro starring Karl Böhm on Deutsche Grammophon by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • St. Matthew’s Passion conducted by Ian Bostridge by J.S. Bach
  • Singet Dem Herrn ein neues Lied on “Bach: Motets” performed by R.I.A.S. Chamber Choir
  • Rachmaninoff Vespers performed by Rober Shaw Festival

All songs were in Red Book FLAC (16/44.1) from CD rips or web download from Bandcamp, played back with either Roon or USB Audio Player Pro on Android.

Commonalities

Amp Pairing

I listened to both headphones out of an LG V20, a Topping NX4 and a Hifiberry feeding a Magni 3 as well as an Ember II tube amp with an RCA 12AU7 clear top tube. The tube amp didn’t do either headphone any favors, taking away too much body from the Elex and too much detail from the HD58X. All three solid state amps did well. The LG V20 sufficiently powers both (I used about 25-35% volume most of the time). Both sounded even better from the NX4, which filled in the Elex bottom end a bit more and seemed to bring out a some more detail and clarity from the HD58X. The Elex sounded best from the Magni 3 which filled in its bottom end even more.

Interestingly, the volume on both headphones measured and sounded about the same without having to adjust the settings on the LG V20, so that made it easy to switch back and forth for testing.

Imaging and Soundstage

Both of these headphones image very well within what one might call “intimate” soundstages which to me sound more natural than wider soundstages like on the HE400i or HD598. In particular, I never feel the need to turn on crossfeed to narrow the stereo image. Both headphones separate instruments very well, and they both allow me to precisely place sounds within a contiguous soundstage, unlike the LCD2C which separates well but places everything into just one of three blobs (left, center, right). The Elex also achieves something special in that it places the image more in front of me than I’m used to from headphones, making it very “speaker-like” in that regard.

11:11 and the 2nd track from The Marriage of Figaro really show off the imaging. On The Marriage of Figaro, both headphones convey the sense of actually sitting in an opera house. I can easily imagine the vocalists on stage in front of me, with the male just left of center, the female just right of center, and the orchestra filling in around them. 11:11 doesn’t contain many parts, just a couple of guitars, some banging on the guitars and some clapping, but the recording places each one in a slightly different location across the stereo image and both headphones use the available soundstage to the fullest.

Overall Tonality and Timbre

Both headphones are tuned neutrally and render voices and acoustic instruments realistically. Male and female vocals are well balanced with each other and with the rest of the instrumentation. Both headphones have what I would call “enough” treble, providing enough energy to cymbals and sweetness to female vocals, but never becoming sibilant or fatiguing. Both deviate a bit from neutral, with the HD58X a little towards the warm side and the Elex a little to the lean side. I’ve found that I definitely prefer the HD58X’s warmer tilt, which gives voices and instruments a body that they lack with the Elex (unless I turn up the volume).

My measurements (relative to a Harman-like target) illustrate the general similarity in their tonal balance versus something like the LCD2C.

Mid-Bass

In most modern music, bass guitar and drum provide the beat, and it’s important for these be clear, articulate, and punchy. I find that dynamic driver headphones often get the “punchy” part but sometimes struggle with “clear and articulate”. Both of these headphones really nail it all around. Tracks like Get Lucky and Metropolis Pt 1 show off what these headphones can do, with a fast driving beat in the former which makes me want to dance, and some fast double-bass drumming and highly technical bass guitar lines in the latter that make me want to bang my head while flashing the sign of satan.

Sub-Bass

Open-backed dynamic drivers often suffer from pretty severe sub-bass rolloff and dramatically increased distortion in this region. Both of these headphones roll off a little but extend surprisingly well and remain reasonably articulate down there. Listening to Angel, I can hear low notes with some definition, not just a generic rumble. Neither of these rivals my LCD2C for bass performance and if I were to sit down for a listening session dedicated to electronic music, I would stick with the LCD2C, but for the occasional deep bass track these both get the job done. The HD58X does suffer from more severe bass rolloff when wearing glasses, so for critical listening I must listen blind!

Percussion

Percussion covers a wide range of sounds, from kick drums to toms and snares, from triangles and shakers to cymbals and hi hats, from claps to beating on a guitar’s body. Percussion provides both a beat and interesting accents to the music. Counterintuitively, even lower toned percussion like toms seem to need some energy in the treble to sound punchy and believable, and thankfully both of these headphones deliver on that score. The two Snarky Puppy songs on the test playlist show off both headphones’ percussive capabilities very well, and also their imaging on large jazz ensembles. I enjoyed listening to all the different percussive instruments swirling around my head!

Microdynamics

I’m still learning what “microdynamics” really means, but I think a good example of these headphones’ capabilities to portray small volume swings are their rendering of the tremolo in the voices around 1:00 into Get Lucky.

To Elex’s Advantage

Speed, Clarity and Detail Retrieval

Partially because of its leaner sound but also because of better speed, the Elex overall sounds clearer and more detailed. Whereas the HD58X always has a tiny bit of haziness to its background that reduces its resolution a bit, the Elex has a perfectly dark background out of which its very detailed sounds seem to emerge. This is convincingly demonstrated on Abraham’s New Gift.

However, solderdude’s felt mod narrows this gap. I emulated it with some EQ, and bringing down the mid-bass hump in this way did improve perceived clarity and detail, and made the background a bit darker. It’s still no Elex, but it’s not bad. In particular, while doing this comparison I noticed that Africa has some brief quiet voices on the left channel at 0:03, which I’d never noticed before.

Build/Aesthetics

Unlike the plastic-fantastic HD58X, the largely metal Elex conveys a sense of being a premium product whilst sitting on the desk or held in hand.

To HD58X’s Advantage

Macrodynamics

Tin Pan Alley and La Moldau both use drastic volume swings to convey emotion. Tin Pan Alley’s sounds explode out of nowhere and fade as quickly as they appeared, jerking the listener around as Stevie Ray pulls her along through his solo. A drum hit and guitar strum that mimic a gunshot at 5:11 begin a stretch with particularly strong macrodynamics. In La Moldau the swings are more gradual, building energy in a way that evokes the might of a meandering stream turning into a raging river. The HD58X renders these dynamic swings better than the Elex, conveying more of the emotion in these songs.

Guitars

Elaborating on timbre, I find that acoustic and electric guitars sound more full bodied and overall better on the HD58X because of its warmer tonal tilt. The electric guitar at the end of Second Hand News demonstrates this well–on the HD58X it has body, crunch and bite, on the Elex it’s all bite.

Low Volume Listening

The Elex gains body by turning up the volume to 75 dBA or higher, to which the Elex responds beautifully in other ways too. Weight improves, clarity increases and everything just sounds more vivid and punchy. Turn up the HD58X too much, and it starts to sound muddy and congested. This is less of an issue after the felt mod, but still generally true.

However, I prefer listening at lower volumes to protect my hearing, and at my listening volumes the HD58X sounds better balanced to my ears. Someone who listens at higher volumes might better appreciate the Elex.

Comfort

The Elex may look great in my hand, but the HD58X feels great on my head. It’s significantly lighter, its headband design avoids hotspotting on the crown of my head, its oval ear pads provide enough room for my pointy ears, and after manually loosening the clamp it clamps strongly enough to feel secure on my head yet gently enough to avoid causing discomfort, even when I wear glasses. About the only place where the Elex wins on comfort is in its slightly deeper ear cups, which prevent my ears from touching the driver like they do on the HD58X, but it’s a small consolation when their small round openings fold either the top or the bottom of my ears inwards. Also, the Elex includes a heavy, kinky abomination of a cable that may look expensive but isn’t worth $5 as far as I’m concerned. Thankfully the cable is easily replaced.

Conclusion

Sound wise, both of these headphones are very, very good. For someone who tends to listen at slightly higher volumes than I, the Elex can certainly outperform the HD58X in most dimensions and reveals a clarity that remains out of the HD58X’s reach at any volume. However, at the low volumes I use, the HD58X sounds very cohesive and is good enough across the board that it makes it a pleasure to listen to just about anything. Beyond that, while the Elex can sound very technically impressive on the right tracks at the right volume, not once did it allow me to lose myself in the music the way that I can with the HD58X. Last but not least, I personally find the HD58X much more comfortable. Given that it includes an actually useful cable retails for almost 1/5th of the Elex, it’s a no-brainer pick for me.

Someone on Reddit recently suggested that a happy audiophile is one who has figured out the lower limit of what equipment will deliver near maximum enjoyment. I’ll need to spend more time with it before I come to a final conclusion, but the HD58X + LG V20 augmented by an NX4 for critical listening could be my sweet spot. Of course that would mean giving up the pursuit of new headphones, which is a whole 'nother subject!

P.S. It occurred to me after writing this comparison that the HD58X, like the rest of the Sennheiser 600 family, really excels at singer/songwriter folk music because of its spectacular rendering of vocals and guitars. Other than one Chris Thiele song, my test playlist didn’t really hit this category much. I’m happy to say that, as expected, the HD58X sounds fantastic on albums like Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”!

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What a great in-depth review. Clearly you put a lot of work into it. I really enjoyed it.

-Paul-

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I couldn’t find the exact price but from what I could gather the Focal cans cost about 5X the price of the 58X!

It’s hard to understand the price difference vs SQ.

Focal is still me to the headphone game and does much lower volumes than Sennheiser. I think of them as kind of a boutique outfit. They also claim to do a lot of R&D in house, so recouping those costs at low volumes probably drives up the price.

Plus, cliché as it is, diminishing returns are real. Upper end mid fi reminds me of entry level luxury cars like the lower tier Lexus or Audi offerings. Little other than price and caché separates them from premium mass market products and in fact sometimes they’re just slightly upgraded Toyotas and Volkswagens.

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I’m going to offer a full-throat and sincere disagreement to your comments. But I accept that this doesn’t apply to everyone, or to most people.

One of my primary criterion for selecting headphones is to avoid and manage tinnitus. My hearing was moderately damaged by (common) loud noises in my youth, and I have always been pretty careful. But for whatever reason, I’m extremely sensitive to “non-perfect” audio. This is not to say my hearing is great, just that I pick up on distortion and noise.

Over different periods I’ve tried everything from free/$5 headphones, popular brands (e.g., Sony, Bose), and audiophile brands (e.g., Sennheiser, Focal). Basically I’ve found a strong correlation between pure, pricey, quality audio sources and happy ears. Examples include:

  1. My ears ring with a harsh high-end (up to and including HD-600s)
  2. My ears ring with ‘noise pop’ or ‘noise rock’ (e.g., Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Sleigh Bells) that’s literally impossible for the hearing system to sort out, no matter the volume
  3. My ears can ring due to the echoes of live concerts, no matter the volume

I find that my issues decline with DACs and amps that have a clean high end too.

However, my ears DO NOT RING with my NightHawk Carbons or my Focal Elex. So, on personal grounds I cannot comfortably use even the HD-600 family. I think this largely follows from the precision of the high end, but this is not certain. My ears are “okay” with some inexpensive products, but they not happy with most that I’ve tried.

This is a great illustration of how everyone’s hearing and needs are indeed different. I have mild tinnitus which can be exacerbated if I listen at too high volumes or get too much treble. For whatever reason, listening fatigue sets in most immediately with my right ear and I do believe that this is influenced not just by the sound but also physical comfort. Physical comfort aside, with my DT 1990’s if I didn’t EQ and didn’t watch my volume levels closely, I would sometimes end up with an aching right ear after an extended listening session. I remember my HD600’s sometimes being discomforting but to a much lesser extent, but I don’t have similar discomfort with the HD58X and I’ve been listening to it A LOT. My right ear did start to complain a couple of times with the Elex, but only because I found myself turning up the volume to get the sound I want.

To return the car analogy for a moment… When I bought my Subaru, I really wanted a Forester XT because it was the perfect size, had a sweet engine and the price was right, but for the life of me I could not get comfortable in the driver’s seat. Long story short, I ended up with a slower, bigger, more expensive Outback in which I’m able to sit for hours on end for long road trips and remain perfectly comfortable. Are the seats on the Outback more comfortable because it’s more expensive? I kind of doubt it, because my wife really doesn’t find them that great for her. More likely, they’re just different and happen to fit me personally better.

Something the Carbons and Elex (and HD58X) seem to have in common vs the HD600 is that they have better and more elevated bass and sub-bass. I find that I tend to set volume to suit my musical focus and then everything else falls into place based on that. Do you happen to pay a lot of attention to bass frequencies or listen to music with a lot going on down there? Is it possible that the Carbons and Elex simply let you get the bass you want at lower volumes than the HD600 and so reduce stress on your ears?

EDIT - To look at it a different way, I suspect that something like a DT 1990 (or T1 or any of the other Tesla driver Beyerdynamics) is quite likely to aggravate your tinnitus with their aggressive attack and considerable post-impulse high-frequency ringing. These are quite expensive headphones, so expensive isn’t necessarily equal to better in this regard.

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As an armchair neurologist (but with greater realism than actual neurologists and audiologists), I suspect that many headphones smear frequencies whereby sounds that should be low are not low, and sounds that should be high are not high. Diagonal, not vertical… I do agree that my ears are more comfortable with full range accuracy rather than simple high end purity. Headphones with weak low-end response may “bounce” the bass/sub-bass into the wrong band.

The NightHawk Carbons were an absolute revelation, as they dramatically improved ringing ear issues within hours. And then I bought the Elex to see if this was a fluke – they proved to be a step beyond and were well worth the price. I came away from this thinking that precise headphones basically retrain auditory neurons to respond to correct frequencies. Smeary headphones and noisy sources actually cause this problem, so there’s no way they can help.

I’ve had the DT-1990s and Aeon Flow Opens on my “want to test” list for quite a while. But here, the law of diminishing returns does come into play. I’m currently hearing nuances better than before (e.g., the initially ‘brassy’ tone of the Elex may actually follow from its ability to separate out previously smeared upper harmonics), and don’t know if they’ll be worth it.

I continue to be impressed by the versatility of the HD58X. I’ve been listening to the below recently, which is pretty fast and has no acoustic instruments or voices (so not really thesevheadphones’ sweet spot) and it still sounds great. It’s not analytical and doesn’t pick apart the song with a scalpel, but it’s clear enough, detailed enough, articulate enough and very cohesive, making listening a pure joy rather than an exercise in amateur surgery! And again, I’m able to get a really good sense of the energy and detail of these songs listening at stupidly low volumes.

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Do you mean “cachet” as in prestige or caché as in hidden from (off the radar) for many?

If the former I’d agree but if you mean the latter; not much is really @hidden" from anyone with the ubiquitousness of the Internet and the obsessive nature of audiophiles :thinking:

Prestige (or bragging rights?) seems to have become a real driving force in this hobby, especially over the last ten years.

A certain degree of luxury, (if understated and indicative of craftsmanship and quality) is desireable for many.

But SQ, comfort and value are the main considerations for me. I am also a big fan of the 580s because they are made in Ireland and not in some slave labour sweatshop.

I’ve been listening much more since buying the 580s and am very impressed with lower volume listening over the 650s. I think I enjoy the 650s more at higher volume and for longer sessions but still need to determine that for certain.

I’ve done a great deal of listening with the 580s on my portable Arrow amp/DAC while my 650s are usually run balanced withva cable designed to bring out the best in them.
I think a better balanced copper cable would bring out the best of the 580s but the 150 Ohms might prevent them from scaling as well as the 650s.

The 580s are certainly easier to drive and seem to have more impact and separation in the bass, especially at lower volume.

Prestige :slight_smile:

For the most part, I’ve not found many braggarts amongst the ranks of headphone enthusiasts. I know speaking just for my own psychology, there’s something reassuring about knowing you’ve got “the best”, even if very little separates it from “the very good”.

Glad you like them :slight_smile: I do wish headphone reviewers more consistently addressed volume, because it makes a big difference. Volume is how some people can find a headphone clear and balanced and some other people find the same headphone muddy and bloated.

The ? after the words “bragging rights” was to indicate it as a possibility for some who are more conscious of what others think of their headphones than their actual SQ and value (think BEATS).

It was not in any way a slight to those who take SQ seriously and can afford to buy headphones with SQ and comfort that pleases them. The people on this forum seem to me to be people searching for sound and performance that they are impressed with…period :wink:

Yes, I didn’t think you intended to slight anyone. What I was trying to say is that although expensive headphones are clearly a luxury good, I find headphone enthusiasts to be less status conscious (as a group) than one might assume given their consumption of such luxury goods :slight_smile:

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We thought this was such a good post, and is indicative of the kind of quality information that we want to foster here, that we decided (with @pwjazz’ agreement and some additional information on the measurements) to feature it on the headphone.com site.

I expect we’ll be seeing more of his reviews there over time. And you can see it here, now.

Awesome job!

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I’ve recently started looking at measurements on rtings.com again and noticed something interesting. A lot of Sennheiser headphones like the HD598 Cs and the HD650 measure with lower distortion at lower volumes. The Focal Elear by contrast actually has lower distortion at higher volumes. Perhaps this relates to my preference for the HD58X at lower listening levels …

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This makes sense to me.

My perception with HD-600s is that they sound ‘nearly perfect’ until stressed by a complex audio source, and then dull out/lose detail per their plastic drivers. Their flaws resemble the plastic booms and echoes of many sound bars and TV speakers. In contrast, the Elear/Elex metal drivers seemingly don’t distort significantly (ever) but convert random noise into additional volume in narrow frequency bands. As Focal has reported, the drivers bottom out and click before they distort. This method comes across as metallic, excessively dynamic, or bright with mediocre amps (and as you report, distortion seems less of a factor a high volume).

I personally greatly prefer both the Focal and Sennheiser profiles on balanced amps or with as little background noise as possible. With a clean amp both converge toward a similar and solid profile. I see no honest justification for upgrading beyond these if one mainly listens to new music (like me), as they accurately present ~98% to 99% of what’s in the signal. Most new music will never be audiophile grade either, and I move on to new content too rapidly.

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As posted in the Elegia/Elex threads, I received the Brainwavz Microsuede pads and began testing it on the Focal headphones. Here’s an interesting comparison of the measured graphs using the Elex with the pads vs the HD58X.

Measurements with MiniDSP EARS using the HEQ compensation.

UPDATED: posted a graph that cut off sub-bass on accident

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