Until Beyerdynamic’s mighty T1 Tesla arrived on the scene, the DT-990 Premium ($369) was one of the firm’s top two audiophile models (the other model sharing on of the top slots was the DT-880 PRO, reviewed in Playback 12). Now that I’ve heard the DT-990 in action, I can see how it earned its place on the team, though it is significantly different in character from the DT-880 PRO. How is it different? As it happens, Beyedynamic’s Consumer product catalog gives some interesting clues to help answer that question.
In describing the DT-880, the catalog emphasizes that the headphone offers “very neutral sound” (or as the original German puts it, the DT-880’s sound is “Sehr klangneutral”), which is exactly the case. The DT-990, on the other hand, is characterized as offering “analytical and high-resolution sound” and as providing “strong bass and treble.” While I think Beyerdynamic’s assessment is directionally correct, it also inadvertently puts up flags of caution for audiophiles that aren’t necessarily appropriate.
For most audiophiles in the US, the term “analytical” is a pejorative one that implies a cold, sterile, and perhaps edgy sound that sucks all the beauty, life, and warmth out of the music. But for German audiophiles, I believe that the term analytical (or "Analytische”) has a different and much more positive connotation; it suggests you have a product that enables you to hear how all the elements of a piece of music fit together, so that you come away with a deeper understand of what you’ve just heard. Seen in that light, the DT-990 is indeed analytical—or as American listeners might put it, “revealing.” But it also offers, as you’ll see in a moment, a wonderfully open and dynamically alive sound.
For this test we tried, at Beyerdynamic’s recommendation, the 600-Ohm Audiophile Version of the DT-990, and found its sound beautifully controlled and precise.
Consider this headphone if: you want an exceptionally light, comfortable, and beautifully made open-back headphone, and that sounds open, alive, and very revealing (in the best sense of that word).
Look further if: you require tonal balance that offers textbook neutrality, or if you require a closed-back or semi-closed-back headphones (if those are your priorities, the DT-880PRO is the better choice).
Ratings (relative to comparably priced headphones):
• Tonal Balance: 8.5
• Frequency Extremes: 9.5
• Clarity: 9.5
• Dynamics: 9.5 (note: performance in this area is amplifier dependant)
• Comfort/Fit: 9
• Sensitivity: 8
• Value: 9
First, as mentioned above, the DT-990 Premium is a very revealing (or analytical) headphone, and I think this has much to do with the fact that it may be one of the most fine-grained dynamic headphones in its price class.
“Grain” is a tricky concept for some audiophiles, so let me provides an analogy to help explain the term as I use it here. Consider two movie projection screens, one with a comparatively coarse, sand-like texture (where, from up close, you might actually be able to see small grains of reflective material), and the other with an almost perfectly smooth matte texture. Now consider how a projected image might look on the first screen and then on the second—especially when viewing from up close. With the coarse-grained screen you would reach a point where, while the image was still discernible, so too would be the comparatively rough texture of the screen. With the second, more fine-grained screen, textures would basically fade into the background so that you could focus all your attention on the image.
Sonically speaking, the DT-990 is like that fine-grain screen, so that sounds—even very subtle, low-level sounds that might ordinarily get buried in the playback mix—suddenly unfold against a grain-free background and are made plain as day. This factor alone makes the DT-990 a joy to hear.
Second, the DT-990 has an open and dynamically alive sound, which I feel sets it apart from the DT-880. Except when driven by very powerful amplifiers, the DT-880 can have an ever-so-light constricted sound (as if it’s not being fed with quite enough power to really throw back its head and sing properly). By contrast, the DT-990, perhaps because it is an open-back design, has a more expressive character that takes large -scale dynamic shifts in stride while also effortlessly revealing subtle small-scale shifts in dynamic emphasis.
The tonal balance of the DT-990 is not, strictly speaking, neutrally balanced. The headphone does, as Beyerdynamic’s literature suggests, offer “strong bass and treble,” which will lead many to pose this question: just how strongly are the bass and treble emphasized? The answer is that the DT-990’s two regions of tonal emphasis are both relatively tasteful and not garishly exaggerated. As a result, the DT-990’s bass, though somewhat forward sounding, is consistently taut, punchy and well controlled—not loose, boomy, or overblown. Similar, the DT-990’s extreme highs (roughly 10kHz and up) are upturned in response, but for the most part sound smooth and sweet—not edgy, strident, or brittle.
While proponents of strict neutrality (and under most circumstances I am one) might ultimately choose a headphone other than this one, I think prospective buyers would do well to listen to the DT-990 with an open mind, and then to decide how they feel about its frequency response characteristics. After I listened to the DT-990 on a few favorite recordings, I personally found its sound quite easy to embrace.
To appreciate the subtlety, purity and openness that the DT-990 brings to the party, listen to “I Cry Everyday” from Shelby Lynne’s Suit Yourself (Capitol). This record offers myriad small but significant sonic details, and DT-990’s fin-grained sound enabled it to capture all (or nearly all) of them in a very revealing way. On the track I’ve reference, for example, Shelby Lynne uses occasional vocal overdubs and the DT-990 offers enough resolution to show that the textures of the overdubs are similar—but not identical—to the main vocals (among other things, the amounts of reverb used are, I think, slightly different). Similarly, the DT-990 lets you hear the delicate and relatively high-pitched sounds of the kick drumhead ringing for a split-second after the drum has been struck. But one of the coolest details in the initially faint sound of an organ that enters the track at about the 1:30 point. Even with the organ playing at very low levels, the Beyerdymanic ‘phones showed that even sustained notes were not absolutely constant in pitch, but rather were gently modulated in a very subtle way. These are the kinds of subtle sonic delights you can expect to hear on a regular basis if you acquire a set of DT-990s.
To hear the DT-990’s regions of tonal emphasis in action (and in a good way), check out “Wasting Time” from Jack Johnson’s On and On [Universal]. The track opens with Adam Topol establishing a punchy beat on his kick drum (supplemented with snare accents), while Merlo Podlewski soon joins in to add a big, rubbery, elastic-feeling reggae-inflected bass line. The DT-990’s enhanced (but subtly enhanced) bass makes both the kick drum and especially the electric bass sound right—rather than like anemic imitations of themselves. But an element of even greater sonic beauty enters the mix during the choruses of the song as Topol tastefully inserts gentle timekeeping beats played on his ride cymbal. The sound of the cymbal is strangely uplifting and, as it shimmers and glows under Topol’s steady beats, it seems to elevate the whole mood of the song. The DT-990’s touch of upper treble emphasis serves, here, to make the sustained, ringing/singing qualities of the ride cymbal more lifelike and compelling, and without veering into edginess or harshness.
To give readers some idea of how the DT-990 Edition stacks up in comparison with other models in its class, let me compare it to two noteworthy competitors I had on hand: the Grado SR325i and the Sennheiser HD650.
Beyerdynamics DT-990 Premium ($369) vs. Grado SR325i ($295)
• The Grado carries an MSRP that is roughly $75 lower than that of the DT-990.
• The DT-990 is significantly lighter and more comfortable that the also open-back but on-ear SR325i. The primary difference is that the SR325i provides mid-size earcups that are made of a relatively stiff foam material, and uses higher clamping pressures than the DT-990. By comparison, the DT-990 seems a real featherweight, and one whose earcups are very soft, compliant and finished with a plush material that wicks away moisture.
• The SR325i offers Grado’s signature midrange, which sounds simply gorgeous, though the SR325i does seem somewhat rolled-off at both frequency extremes. By comparison, the DT-990’s midrange is no less revealing and evocative than the Grado's is, but it positively excels at the frequency extremes (though its response is elevated in almost exactly the same areas where the Grado seems rolled off).
• The net result is that the DT-990 comes across as the more well rounded, do-all performer that conveys more musical information overall, and for only a bit more money.
Beyerdynamics DT-990 Premium ($369) vs. Sennheiser HD650 ($649.95)
• The MSRP of the Sennheiser HD650 is roughly $280 higher than that of the DT-990—a gap that narrows somewhat at the ‘street pricing’ level.
• The HD650 weighs more than the DT-990, but otherwise offers comparable comfort. Build quality for both these German-made ‘phones is exquisite.
• The HD650 offers levels of resolution and openness comparable to the DT-990, with notably more neutral tonal balance. This superior tonal balance is, I think, what the Sennheiser’s higher cost buys you. By contrast, the DT-990 does show its two signature tonal balance elements; namely, somewhat elevated bass and upper treble response.
• One subtle sonic difference between the two ‘phones is that the Sennheiser’s upper mids and highs can sound a bit overly analytical at times, whereas the DT-990’s upper mids and (admittedly emphasized) highs tends to sound sweet and pure most of the time.
• Both products are good mid-priced offerings, so that which you choose will mostly be determined by your budget (given that the DT-990 is a fair amount less expensive) and tonal balance preferences (given that the HD650 is the more neutral-sounding design).
For the bulk of my tests I used HiFiMAN’s tube-powered EF5 headphone amplifier, but also did some listening through the CEntrance DAC/Port combination USB DAC/USB-powered headphone amp.
Source components included a Musical Fidelity kW SACD player and A5 CD player, plus a Nottingham Analogue Systems Space 294 turntable/Ace-Space 294 tonearm fitted with a Shelter 901 MkII phono cartridge and fed through a Fosgate Signature phono stage. When using the DAC/Port, as above, I listened to CD quality WAV files from a Windows-equipped laptop.
The DT-990 is extremely light and comfortable, and it offers beautiful fit and finish. Those who like highly personalized products may want to note that Beyerdynamic offers a program called DT-990 Manufaktur where—at extra cost—you can order you DT-990’s in customized colors and finishes.
The DT-990 ships in a well-padded, rectangular leather case. The headphone comes standard with a mini-jack plug, and with a threaded, screw-on ¼” phone plug adapter (which was already installed on our review samples).
Beyerdynamic’s DT-990 premium is a very fine mid-priced headphone, and one that offers plenty of sonic resolving power and a compelling quality of dynamic expressiveness. The DT-990 does provide touches of bass and upper treble emphasis that some will enjoy, but that will not suit every taste. Those who favor strict neutrality in tonal balance but otherwise appreciate the signature, high-purity sound that Beyerdynamic headphones provide might, however, prefer the firm’s DT-880PRO.
SPECS & PRICING
Beyerdynamic DT-990 Premium 600-Ohm Audiophile Version Headphone
Accessories: as above.
Frequency response: 5Hz – 35kHz
Weight: 290 grams
Sensitivity: Not specified
Impedance: 600 ohms