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Review: Sennheiser HD 490 Pro

Forget what you thought you knew about open back headphones.

By

1 May 2024

In an audio world where everything seems to be ‘for the creators’, it’s pleasing to find a pro item of gear that’s not. Sennheiser has eschewed the term from the release of the HD 490 Pro. Rather, these are headphones for “producers, mixing and mastering engineers” and, by admission only, musicians. True believers, hitmakers. The working audio professional. Pleasing crowds with extra bass, sizzle and Bluetooth options is not on the agenda. Sennheiser has paid close attention to what mix engineers need out of headphones and none of the guff that they don’t.

At first blush, the HD 490s look familiar, with the large oval earcups of their over-ear HD siblings. Thankfully, they leave behind the plastic-y construction of the classic HD 600 in favour of a flexible metal headband and plastic so well finished it may be metal, I just can’t tell. Upon putting them on, I understand why Sennheiser has taken out a patent on the geometry of these cans. Once on, they disappear. There is not a single pressure, niggle or sore point. There is even a groove for glasses to slot through. All-day mixing sessions are a breeze with these – I wouldn’t fault anyone for choosing the HD 490 Pros on comfort alone.

Under the grille on each side is a very attractive driver housing, angled forward from the ear to place the centre of the stereo field in front of the head. Part of this construction is an ‘Open Frame Architecture’ and light voice coil, which combine to make these drivers very light on their feet, with great dynamic range and transient response. Highs extend up as far as you’d need them to, with a pleasing boost in the mildly U-shaped tuning of the ‘Production’ velour pads, and quite a lot flatter and clinical in the ‘Mixing’ pads, in a less plush, denim-like fabric.

ALL CANS. NO TIN

These ain’t no tinny cans, though. Open backs often provide amazing stereo localisation, wide soundstage and heaps (read: ‘too much’) of high end and detail. Sennheiser’s own HD 800s are famous for these characteristics, but will disappoint for their lack of low end – rolling off too much to mix bass on them as the sole reference. I expect this kind of sound every time I put on the HD 490s, but my expectations continue to be blown. There is present and thick low end, with dynamic-driver heft behind kick drums. I’m an absolute sucker for low-down thud. Let me near a pair of Fostex TH909 and watch the drool roll – hi-def bass cannons that are truly a visceral experience.

Sennheiser has included this kind of experience, though subtly, into these mixing-focussed headphones.

NEED TO KNOW

Sennheiser HD490 Pro
Open Back Headphones
  • PRICE

    HD 490: A$679
    HD490 Pro: A$799

  • CONTACT

  • PROS

    • Standout stereo imaging
    • Uniquely comfortable
    • Interchangable sound signatures

  • CONS

    • Velour pads tuning slightly too warm

  • SUMMARY

    A comfortable and trustworthy working headphone for professionals, without gimmicks or hype. Revealing stereo imaging and all-day comfort make them a great choice if you rely on over-ears for your mixing.

MIXING & PRODUCTION

It’s interesting to compare and contrast the performance of the Production pads versus the Mixing pads. They’re more comfortable sounding and a little less fatiguing in the highs than the mixing pads. The Production pads are looking to best approximate the sound of a quality monitoring system in a neutral-sounding room. In these circumstances there’s a natural shelf to the low-end which the Production pads emulate. The Mixing pads provide more of what headphones are great at: forensic detail but arguably at the expense of an accurate mix translation. This part of the reason why Sennheiser offers both pads and the best of both worlds.

In both their ‘Production’ and ‘Mixing’ guises, the HD 490s are revealing, especially in terms of stereo reproduction. On first listen to my own productions, I was struck by the clarity in the width of individual sources. In a techno mix, where the bass benefits from some width, I instantly found the kick to be too wide, and I was very confident summing it down to mono. I was also very impressed to hear the reverb detail around individual instruments when listening – halos that extend outward from horns in Snarky Puppy’s ‘Sintra’. This kind of detail is an invaluable asset when mixing, and tough to get out of basic studio monitors in an untreated room. These headphones make it very easy to make soundstage decisions. Or most of any decisions really. The tuning with both the Mixing and Production pads are excellent, and both worthy of use. I would prefer if the low shelf created by the velour pads didn’t encroach on the mids as much as they do, but this is an easy fix with EQ or headphone correction software. These headphones are very easy to recommend, especially in their Pro guise with carry case, a 3m cable and replacement headband.

Dear Reality

Mix room without the outlay? Now you’re talking! While not a new concept, transportation to a mix room via spatial audio processing is still a great reference tool, and is a welcome addition from Sennheiser. Don’t expect the full fat software – this is a limited SE edition with only one headphone model available. (The plugin comes standard with the purchase of any HD 490 Pro model.) You get control over the level of ambience and focus, and access to a standard mix room, a wider one, an anechoic chamber, as well as common reference environments (car test etc.). The localisation and sense of space is very convincing and well engineered, Dear Reality being a big player in spatial mixing and monitoring. The overall value is up to the user – for me, this makes for a handy translation checker. Your mileage may vary.

FREQUENCY RESPONSE CURVES

RESPONSES

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