As someone who has owned a set of Sennheiser HD 280 Pro Silver headphones for several years, I consider myself well qualified to review an upgrade as simple, but as potentially influential, as the replacement of all wiring within the headset, from the plug connectors to the drivers.
This set in particular have been used several times per week for, on average, 8-12 hours, over the course of almost five years. The sound has always been impressive, but recent sampling of high-end, audiophile-grade equipment, left me curious about possibly upgrading or purchasing another set of prosumer headphones.
Initially I was incredibly impressed at the sound of the HD 280s, especially the bass qualities of the headphones, and how much more isolating the sound was compared to my other set of headphones, the open-backed Sennheiser HD 490. The increase in perceived SPL with a closed back was incredible, especially when paired to a powerful amp. It goes without saying that the sound stage was different than the HD 490s, but I never made an honest comparison of the two.
In a search for a better, more powerful and accurate headphone amplifier, I also had to come to terms with the shortcomings of the HD 280s, as I felt over time their sound stage and performance were still falling short of expectations.
As luck would have it a local company, Zu Audio, had only recently started offering an upgraded version of these headphones as a low-cost, high performance product available on their eBay page. A brother, who’d known about the headphones and had ordered a set, recommended that I speak with someone in the company and look further into what was involved in the upgrade and what I could possibly expect from the changes.
The process seemed simple: replace all wiring from the plug to the drivers with new, twisted, higher-quality and lower gauge wire, while eliminating any unnecessary connections or power-robbing distribution junctions. Seems simple, and the process is expertly executed in-house by the same hands which weave many of the company’s most incredible cabling cocktails.
The original tip, with its screw-in 1/4″ adapter threads, is kept, while a cast aluminum stress reliever and boot keep the sheathed Mobius wiring safe from pulling, twisting, and yanking. A neat customization option is the sheath color or patten, which gives the owner a slew of choices, making for dozens of combinations when considering the HD 280 Pro is available in Black or Silver.
The new Mobius wiring is stiffer, and due to its winding, its prefers to be wrapped only in certain directions. The length is variable on request, usually 1.5m, which is very close to the HD 280’s original cable length before unwinding. An extension can be made, but would only be recommended for certain uses.
The effect on sound with well-used drivers and new wiring is, in the first dozen hours, dramatic. Familiar tracks have become far more spacious, as if the sound stage depth has been cleared of furniture or baffling. Amon Tobin’s Isam impresses from track-to-track, and Phutureprimitive’s rippling synthesizers writhe. The sparse beats of TRC and S-X, once congested and confined, are let roam on the stage. The claustrophobic feeling is suddenly and mercilessly gone, and listening is new and fresh again. The vintage production ambiance of Adrian Younge finds instruments placed as intended, with panned instruments approaching from all angles clearly and without the confusion manifested previously.
Combine this setup with a quality DAC, like the FIIO E07K I acquired recently, and the dynamics change even more. It feels as though the volume control changes the SPL instead of the volume loudness. Instruments become even sharper, bass snappier, as though you blinked once or twice more and the image resolves clearer.
It really is a revelation, and even months later I remain impressed at the change in what I’m hearing in new and familiar tracks alike. So impressed was a nephew, when comparing his newly-acquired “Nakamichi” headphones, that he had three cracks at them. He’s mentioned them enough to his parents that it became his Christmas present last year. There’s hope for the Beats generation yet!
Interestingly, during an impromptu listening party with my nephew, an iPad Air, and the Fiio E07K as the USB DAC and headphone amp, we noted some differences in sound between the two sets. The E07K has two outputs, so trading headphones was a momentary change, revealing a bit punchier low end to the new set, while my older pair had freer, brighter mids and highs. We enjoyed at least thirty minutes of swapping back and forth, new and old, with a varied array of tracks and look forward to comparing them again in the next 12 months.
If any nitpicking can be leveled against the upgrade it’s that the new sheathing is noisy against clothing, and itself, transferring the noise into the left ear shell. This is only noticeable when moving, and casual listening is all but unaffected. I would also recommend that if you get a set customized, request a full 2m of cabling. The extra length will come in handy, but not seem like it’s more than can be managed. Note also that the upgraded wiring increases the impedance, so don’t be surprised if you need a bit more volume compared to other headphones.
This is an impressive upgrade, and I’m comfortable in stating that anyone who desires an affordable, well-built set of headphones with top-notch sound would be hard pressed to top the HD 280 Pro from Sennheiser with the Zu Audio Mobius cabling.