My Headphone Review Round-Up

Following a long-term recent review of my Creative Sound Blaster X7, I wanted to write about my thoughts on my current headphone line-up. Over the years I’ve used a number of good, bad, cheap and semi-expensive headphones along with various audio setups.

My current headphones include some of the more highly regarded stereo headphones in the entry to mid-price level that are often recommended for gaming. And seeing as I’ve just taken delivery of a new pair I though now was as good a time as any to go through them. Particularly as I have owned some of these for several years now.

The headphones reviewed here are:

  • Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro
  • AKG K702
  • Sennheiser HD 598

Methodology explained

I’m not an audiophile so will try to outline my detailed impressions as clearly and as simply as I can.

  • These are all open backed headphones and let air into the headphones so you can hear the outside world, but the outside world can hear what you are listening to, i.e. sound leakage.
  • All have a wide soundstage and there is some similarity in how they handle videogame audio.
  • They are highly rated where it comes to positioning sounds for competitive multiplayer gaming.
  • None of these are ‘gaming’ headsets.
  • None of these include a built-in microphone so is something that needs to be factored in, whether it might be USB desk mic for PC gaming, or a detachable microphone like the Antlion ModMic. I rarely use a mic but it is something I will add in the future.

Although I have used some of these headphones with different external DAC & AMPs and Soundcards these have recently been used with my aforementioned Creative Sound Blaster X7 which has no trouble powering any of these headphones.

Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro

Purchased January 2019, £101 from Amazon UK

My latest purchase and currently using quite heavily with all audio sources. First of all the headphones are deceptively light but appear very well built. A mixture of metal and plastic they have a lovely mostly black look to them. The distinctive grey ear cushions particularly standing out. The main headband that connects each ear cup is metal with a mostly plastic finish on the earcups.

The headphones are comfortable (second only to the Sennheiser HD 598) although this is subjective. However despite the DT 990’s supposedly having more clamping pressure than other Beyerdynamic DT headphones, these don’t feel too tight to me. Indeed the fit is OK even after a few hours. The earcups are round and smaller than the other headphones mentioned here and this can mean the edge of the earcups sit on the ears. However like all of these headphones they are very comfortable overall.

The sound produced by these headphones has more bass than the other two. And the Low frequency sounds also have more presence and impact. This makes them more fun for gaming although they still have a wide soundstage. The separation of sounds isn’t quite as easy with these though. Although I am still getting used to the sound signature there is a vibrancy and brightness to the output that I like. I found these headphones more of a mixed bag when listening to music than the Sennheiser or AKG’s although there isn’t a lot in it and I might like these more over time.

The DT 990 Pro are 250 ohm headphones which means they need to be amplified and the Creative Sound Blaster X7 copes very well with them. The included cable isn’t detachable from the headset and is coiled. This can make the cable seem heavy and be irritating in certain scenarios.

AKG K702

Purchased July 2015, £137 from Amazon UK

At the time of writing this, these headphones are now only £105 on Amazon UK. So right in that competitive price bracket and can be directly compared to the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro headphones. I’ve had this set for over three and half years and they are my favourite headphones. Mainly due to the neutral output and reference sound. But with a super wide soundstage it feels like you can hear everything going on around you with extreme clarity.

In terms of comfort they apply very little to no clamping pressure which means they can feel looser than other headphones particularly as they are so lightweight. The round ear cups are massive and the foam used is super plush on your ears. This is all good. However the K702 had a leather headband that adjusts when placed on your head. During prolonged wearing I find this feels like it’s pushing down on the top of my head. As long as I take a break or adjust the headphones I can get around this. Again they are very comfortable in the main and at least the K702’s lacks the bumps on the underside of the leather strap that the older models used to have.

The sound is very detailed and I find this makes them perfect for gaming and they are great for music too. They seem to thrive with Dolby Digital and SBX. There is no heavy bass and whilst this might make them less ‘fun’, I still really enjoy the sound. They seem to output the sound as the creator intended. They are renowned for being like a ‘god mode’ for competitive multiplayer games due to how easily you can make out where other players are.

The headphones include a detachable mini-XLR cable that can be replaced. One observation is that the small strings that support the leather band adjustment appear to be very thin in places on mine and therefore I imagine might break at some point. Therefore I think even though I treat all these things with kid gloves these headphones, whilst of high build quality, are more delicate than the other two models mentioned here. These have a 62 ohm impedance but I have use them with an Astro MixAmp or Laptop and whilst usable they can be improved with an amplifier to give that extra power. But either way my go to headphones for gaming for a while now.

Sennheiser HD 598

Purchased April 2012, £167.99 from Amazon UK

I’ve had these for nearly seven years. Although now discontinued there are similar models in Sennheiser’s current line-up. I used them for a long-time and are really very capable all-rounders. They excel at gaming, movies and music.

These are probably the most comfortable headphones I ever tried. The ear cups are Sennheiser’s instinctive oval shape and the headband has a soft material which you never feel. Again very light weight so they can be worn for hours. My only minor niggle is the ear cups aren’t as thick as other headphones and the inside of the earcups has no padding, not that your ear should touch this. The cable has a 2.5mm phone jack with a proprietary connector but can be disconnected. The beige and brown walnut look is distinctive but I can imagine not to everyone’s taste.

Again a very wide soundstage so making out where sounds are coming from isn’t an issue, which is ideal for gaming. They are fairly flat sound with little bass. Although the sound is not as neutral as the AKG K702 and warmer. As they have a 50 ohm impedance these are less fussy and don’t necessary need an amp but will be improved by one.

They aren’t as fun as the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro’s or as clinical as the AKG K702’s so as I don’t want to build a headphone collection I might sell these on. But again highly recommended and I do love their sound.

Summary

I feel like the AKG, Beyerdynamic and Sennheiser headphones I’ve mentioned cover some of the more popular models. The AKG K702 and Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro particularly represent some of the better value choices for headphones on the market although any of these headphones are a great purchase. I’m not personally convinced that spending two, three or many times more on expensive headphones would be worth it just for gaming.

Thoughts on other headphones

  • I did purchase Philips Fidelio X1 headphones in January 2014. The ear cup material was a harsh feeling velour but they were comfortable. I found the sound output a bit muddier, lacking some separation and heavier bass in comparison to my other headphones. I think they were better for music and movies than gaming. I sold them on 18-months later. It sounds like the newer Fidelio X2 headphones may have been improved but at much higher prices it puts them up against some tough competition in my view. Particularly models like the AKG K712 and Sennheiser HD 600 headphones.
  • I also had the Astro A40 headphones which I purchased with an Astro MixAmp 5.8 and whilst they were a step up from what I had at the time, they aren’t even in the same ballpark as the headphones I have mentioned here.
  • I think the Audio-Technica ATH-M40X are very intriguing. Although closed back headphones, they are generally well regarded and have a certain degree of portability. And for me they would be usable in scenarios where I didn’t want sound leakage and therefore an interesting option. Also they have an RRP of under £90.

Creative Sound Blaster X7 Review

Not that long before setting up this website I purchased a Creative Sound Blaster X7 (June 2018). I always meant to draft a few words on it but in a very short space of time it has quickly blended into my setup and become a fairly inconspicuous piece of hardware that gets used all the time. So my thoughts are based on seven months of heavy usage.

For a long time audio to me was TV speakers, mainstream PC sound cards and basic headphones. Over the years I purchased a few cheap headsets and never really got the best from my audio setup. Buying cheap Creative 5.1 Surround speakers was something I did a couple of times with my earlier PC builds. And I remember one time many, many years ago buying a Speedlink Medusa 5.1 headset which was really horrid because it was prone to interference through its breakout box and seemed to always provide a hissy sound. So I suppose like a lot of people audio was an afterthought.

Fast forward to 2012 and I suddenly decided to start investigating much better sound solutions. I ended up buying high-end PC sound cards (an Asus ROG Phoebus that quickly became a Creative Sound Blaster ZxR sound card), Sennheiser HD 598 headphones, A FIIO E3/E7 external DAC and AMP combination and a Astro A40 and MixAmp 5.8 set. I also went through some Philips Fidelio X1 headphones as well. What all of these did was give me a serious appreciation for better sound particularly where games were concerned. I had heard good AV/HiFi setups but not many great videogame audio solutions. Over the course of a few months I now had access to reasonably good sound quality and headphones. Indeed even though not an audiophile it even inspired me to completely re-encode all of my music CDs that were once an iTunes library into lossless FLAC file format.

Last year as I started to think about needing to simplify my audio setup. Whilst having all these individual components was great spending money on one device made more sense. I wanted something that I could use with my PC and videogame consoles. I deliberated on whether to buy an external DAC and AMP like a Schiit stack. In the end I settled for the Creative Sound Blaster X7 because I realised that as a gamer first, virtual surround is still incredibly important to me. And therefore for the same money whilst better quality audio solutions might exist for music, I could trade off some of that quality to give me a great setup for gaming.

Creative Sound Blaster X7 in its box sitting on top of my old desktop PC.

The Creative Sound Blaster X7 has been out for a while now, being released in 2015. However it remains relatively unique in terms of its feature set. It’s main strength is it is a multi-platform, multiple input DAC/AMP that can work with almost any device and supports both Dolby Digital and Creative’s own SBX surround enhancements. There are much more detailed write-ups, particularly around specifications and audio quality, within one of the many Head-Fi reviews from when the device was released.

Here is a list summarising the things the Creative Sound Blaster X7 is really GOOD at:

  • High quality sound output.
  • Allows multiple inputs at the same time including Optical, USB, Bluetooth etc. So you can listen to a podcast or YouTube video on your PC or Android mobile, whilst playing a console game.
  • Capable enough amp to drive ‘up to 600 ohm’ headphones. That may not be the case but fine driving the full range on my AKG K702 (62 ohm) or Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro (250 ohm) headphones.
  • Brilliant and powerful set of options laid out on the PC Control Panel to adjust surround, calibrate speakers and so on. Will work without drivers though.
  • iOS and Android mobile app with access to the same control panel to access settings over Bluetooth, particularly useful when you don’t want to boot up your PC.
  • Dolby Digital decoder for PS4 and Xbox One via optical input (TOSLINK) but with a solid amp and SBX enhancements that give a very high quality sound. Particularly in comparison to something like the Astro MixAmp.
  • Automatically powers down after 20-minutes to save power.
  • Can work with the Creative BT-02 Bluetooth Adaptor to support wireless voice chat. So less cables! (PC and PS4 only though, not applicable for Xbox).
  • Can output to the powered 2.0 Edifier Speakers I have and automatically changes to headphones output when an audio jack is plugged in.

However like anything it isn’t without NEGATIVES. Such as:

  • Lack of physical controls. Need to use the control panel software to switch between speakers and headphones which can be annoying if you leave your headphones plugged in.
  • Cannot adjust auto standby, so the timing is always set to 20-minutes. And auto standby if Bluetooth device is connected.
  • Voice chat on Xbox can be a mess with wires required to be split in order to plug into a newer Xbox One controller.
  • No indicator on the volume dial.
  • Very minor point, but no theming on the PC or mobile control panel apps. Specifically a dark mode option.

Summary

I love the Creative Sound Blaster X7. It often gets compared unfavourably to the Schiit Modi/Magni stack however that is based on US pricing ($400 RRP). In the UK the X7 now sells for around £240 (I paid under £260) which is the same price as the Schiit Modi/Magni stack. Whilst that is likely a better choice for quality stereo sound the X7 is undoubtedly a more complete package for videogames. Particularly when it is so able at dealing with multiple platforms. And it isn’t like the x7 is bad at dealing with high quality music either. It is very capable external DAC and AMP for music and movies that happens to be great for gaming.

Since I purchased the X7, Creative have released the Sound BlasterX G6 external DAC/AMP which supports Dolby Digital as well as SBX. However because this doesn’t have outputs for speakers it would have to be paired with an headphone amp like the Schiit Magni for a similar price, or both the Schiit Magni and Modi but would cost £130 to £150 more.

The key question would I buy this product again. And whilst Creative probably have a successor on the horizon sooner than later, the Creative Sound Blaster X7 is one of my better audio purchases. A brilliantly versatile device.

Odroid Go

As mentioned in my recent update I ordered some System on a Chip (SoC) hardware and one of these items was the Odroid Go by Hardkernel. It cost me £39.99 + postage from Odroid’s UK website (arrived within 3 days). The Odroid Go is a kit form handheld console which includes a small SoC mainboard and all the parts required to build your own handheld console. It was released to celebrate the Odroid’s 10-year anniversary.

The system itself doesn’t take long to build although you need to be careful with certain parts, i.e. not scratch the screen or over tighten the screws to damage the plastic (there is a really good YouTube video from ETA Prime I followed here) although the main store page mentioned earlier has some detail instructions on how to put everything together and how to compile the micro SD card. The micro SD card is the only other hardware you need to add to make everything work.

The main CPU is based on the Arduino MCU ESP32 and means that it is capable of emulating 8-bit systems from the late 1970’s to mid-1980’s. With the latest firmware the system supports: Nintendo Game Boy & Gameboy Color, Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Master System, Sega Game Gear, and the ColecoVision. In addition it can also runs apps to support other systems such as the Atari 2600 and 7800 amongst others. However these aren’t accessible from the main menu and have to be loaded separately.

The Odroid Go

The hardware itself feels good. The clear plastic shell has a nice feel to it, and with everything built the unit feels relatively robust. The buttons and D-pad are fine, although I particularly like the D-pad itself which feels really responsive and a little bit more springy than the buttons. The screen is clear and well lit. It’s clearly an easy machine to modify and fit your own suitable buttons or transform the look with a custom paint job.

Emulation performance is really good and stable although there is noticeable screen tearing on the NES and Sega Master System emulation. Although you can resize the screen ratio to reduce the tearing slightly (START + Right on the D-pad) the tearing is worse on side scrolling games. It is bearable but it means that the machine isn’t ideally suited to emulating the home 8-bit consoles and there are probably other better options available. However emulation of the handheld systems is really good and this is where this little machine absolutely shines. However whatever system you are playing the machine is very quick to load and you can be playing a game in seconds. It is worth mentioning my Odroid Go is running the latest October 2018 firmware and the process to update the firmware is very simple, in that you just copy over some files from PC and upload to the machine. It also includes save states slots for every game and a quick system wide save state if you want to resume the last game played with a simple press of the ‘B’ button from the main menu.

There are a few things the machine could do better, for example the lack of a 3.5mm audio jack and it would be great if the machine had a bigger LCD screen. But overall any complaints are really minor. Particularly when you factor in the very reasonable price.

Size comparison with a Nintendo Game Boy Pocket

Overall

For me probably the perfect modern Game Boy emulation machine. Great value for money, nice hardware and ideal formfactor with all the benefits of modern hardware and software. Even as a Game Boy Pocket owner I would rather reach for this machine simply because of the modern backlit screen. I would love Hardkernel to release a more powerful Odroid handheld machine kit in the future, perhaps allowing emulation of newer systems. In the meantime though I am really happy with this great machine. Thank you!

Really like

  • SD card is easy to create
  • Firmware update process is very simple
  • Game Boy, Game Boy Color & Game Gear emulation is very good
  • Long battery life
  • Modding and customisation should be relatively easy

Could do better

  • Noticeable screen tearing on NES and Sega Master System
  • ColecoVision emulation feels pointless without number-pad controls
  • No 3.5mm audio jack