The Sennheiser HD 280 Pro, a $99.95 (direct) headphone pair designed for professional studio use, was released in 2003, before I began writing for PCMag. However, I often use it as something of a standard to A-B test similar types of pairs with, so it seemed appropriate to give a proper full-length review. A no-frills, exceedingly comfortable pair, the powerful and accurate HD 280 Pro is ideal for recording and mixing applications. It proves the term “flat response” doesn’t mean “no bass.” There’s plenty of rich, articulate low frequency response here, but the entire frequency range is dutifully represented. At this reasonable price, this is where your search for a pair of studio headphones should begin. It may well end here, too.
For a recording studio headphone pair, the single most important design element, after the drivers that produce the audio, is long-term comfort. Sessions last a long time. People sweat, gravity presses headbands into skulls. The HD 280 Pro does an admirable job of keeping long-term sessions more or less fatigue-free. Sure, if you don’t take them off for hours at a time, you can expect some sweaty ear cups, perhaps, or some minor discomfort along the headband. But as someone who wears these headphones on a more or less daily basis, I can tell you they fit securely and comfortably for long sessions.
There are pairs with more plushness to the ear pads, like the NuForce HP-800, but the HD 280 Pro is unlikely to be described as uncomfortable by many users, and it passively blocks out up to thirty decibels of ambient/room noise. If you blast these while recording near a mic, there will be some sound leakage, but they don’t bleed like an open pair would—their circumaural (around the ear), snug fit prevents most sounds from escaping, provided you listen at moderate levels. The ear cups are swivel-mounted, which allows for an even more secure fit as they adjust automatically to the shape of your head. The headband is easily adjustable and stays in place.
Unlike the NuForce HP-800, the HD 280 Pro lacks a detachable cable. The HP-800 is a newer design, in an era when detachable cables are becoming more and more a design staple, so it’s hard to knock the HD 280 Pro too hard for not having one. But it would be a welcome update on Sennheiser’s part, as a detachable cable can extend the life of your headphones significantly. Cables are the most common culprit when a headphone pair begins to malfunction, and replacing the cable instead of replacing or repairing the whole thing is a far more affordable option.
The non-removable cable features a thick coil, and it terminates in a 3.5mm connection. The sole included accessory is a ¼-inch adapter for larger headphones jacks. A carrying pouch would be nice.
Lest this review begin to sound like a love letter, let me be clear about one thing: The HD 280 Pro is far from my favorite pair of headphones. I’ve heard options, like the Grado GS1000, that have made me giddy with excitement—until I realized the price was, well, a bit out of my budget. But the real difference we’re talking about here is not price—it’s application. The HD 280 Pro is a professional studio headphone pair—basically, a measurement tool for recording, mix, and mastering engineers, as well as performers.
A pair like the aforementioned Grado offers a sound signature and a wide, deep stage that makes the music feel almost palpable. The precision of a pair like the HD 280 Pro is more surgical than magical, but here is where it separates itself from the typical, flat, light-on-bass studio reference pair. The HD 280 Pro packs plenty of low-end. Its impedance of 64 Ohms means that, depending on your sound source, it may not get brain-meltingly loud (but this is a good thing). This fact, combined with the superb quality of the drivers, means distortion will also be a rarity.
Can the HD 280 Pro distort? Sure, but it is very unlikely to happen before your ears start to bleed. Even at very high, unsafe levels, from a variety of sound sources, like a Marantz PM7001 stereo receiver, a Digidesign Digi 003 recording interface, and an iPhone 4S, the HD 280 Pro can handle extremely deep bass without any hints of distorted crackle. If you want to pulverize the headphones and your eardrums, yes, you can achieve distortion, but not at levels you will ever want to actually listen at.
Some headphone pairs manage to avoid distortion on deep bass by, well, avoiding deep bass itself. But the HD 280 Pro’s frequency response starts at the sub-bass realm of 8Hz. Many headphones and earphones don’t start until 15 or 20Hz. What’s more—you can actually hear the presence of these low frequencies. Even better: They are present, but not boosted weirdly. They don’t overtake the mix. On the Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the powerful thump of the kick drum loop is conveyed cleanly and accurately—the Knife mixed it so that you would hear tremendous low frequency content here—but not in a manner so over-the-top that it dominates the rest of the frequency range.
Classical tracks like John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances” sound a little less enthralling than they might sound on a pair with more low and low-mid presence to compliment the lower register strings, like the Yamaha PRO 500. But again, we are talking about the difference between a pair to enjoy music on and a clinical tool to make music on. The idea behind this approach has always been: If you can get your mixes to sound exciting and balanced on an accurate pair that doesn’t enhance the sound at all, it’ll likely sound good on the more sculpted consumer options as well. So, while orchestral tracks like this one may not pack the excitement they do on a pair like the Yamaha PRO 500, they are conveyed cleanly and accurately, so the mastering engineer can get a handle on what the actual stereo recording sounds like.
Modern pop, hip-hop, and rock tracks sound excellent on the HD 280 Pro. You almost forget that you’re listening to a pair that doesn’t really sculpt the sound. When mix engineers add a little bass thump to the mix, as many modern producers and engineers often do, the HD 280 Pro handles it beautifully—you hear and feel it, and yet it’s never booming.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the kick drum loop’s attack packs all the treble edge it should, while the coinciding thump of the drum’s muffled resonance implies power, but doesn’t overwhelm the mix. When the sub-bass synth hits come in after a few measures, they catch your attention—there’s some serious low end here, but it sounds natural, even in a song built on samples and electronic patches. Vocals shine, front-and-center, and the entire mix feels in focus.
If I’m gushing, it’s because I truly have come to rely on the HD 280 Pros for creating and mixing music in my own home studio. You learn to trust a pair like this—if these babies distort at a reasonable listening level, you know you have a problem with your mix. If things sound sibilant here, you had better cut some of the high-mids on your vocal tracks. If the bass sounds smooth and subtle here, it won’t sound crazy and muddy on your stereo system.
If you want something that sounds similar to the HD 280 Pro, but offers more features, like a detachable cable, the slightly more expensive Shure SRH1440 is an excellent studio option. Also at the higher end of the spectrum, the aforementioned Yamaha PRO 500 offers deep bass and an excellent overall response. The aforementioned NuForce will distort on deep bass tracks at higher volumes, but at modest volumes, and on genres that lack deep bass, it offers a similarly winning combination of accuracy and clarity without making things sound boring. But for $100, it’s very hard to top the HD 280 Pro—it’s a modern classic from a company that has been in the recording business for quite some time, and although it arrives about ten years late, it easily wins our Editors’ Choice award.
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