Sennheiser HD 380 Pro vs Audio Technica ATH-M50

Early this summer the cable of my Sennheiser PMX 200 headphones became frayed and rendered them unusable.  I could have spent $40+ to have the manufacturer service them, or I could save up for an upgrade.  The latter was much more appealing so I began to research a suitable replacement that would work well with my set up.

I wanted to find a fold-flat pair of circumaural headphones with a travel case so that I could use them at home and at work.  Passive noise attenuation would be a plus, to dampen or drown out the Backstreet Boys playing in the break room.  They should also have a thick clothwound or otherwise reinforced detachable cable so that I wouldn’t end up with the same problem I had with the PMX 200s.

Sennheiser PMX 200

Sennheiser PMX 200 – note the thin cable.

I consulted head-fi.org, where one member suggested the Beyerdynamic DT 1350 closed supra-aural monitoring headphones, priced at $300.  I had my heart set on a circumaural design for better noise cancellation and reduced sound leakage so I continued looking.

Bowers & Wilkins P5s came highly recommended by the salespeople at Best Buy, but I don’t look to big box stores for pro audio solutions.  One of my best friends, with whom I worked for a local home theater specialist provided a personal critique of the P5s.  Put simply, he said that they reproduce the sound of a recording “accurately, and do nothing more.”  Sound without emotion, if you will.

I finally narrowed my selection to two models: The Sennheiser HD 380 Pro and the Audio Technica ATH-M50.  Both are marketed as professional studio monitors.  I phoned the eight major retailers in my area and only one had both models available and offered to let me compare the two with my own lossless audio.

Sennheiser HD 380 Pro Headphones w Case

Sennheiser HD 380 folded in case

Sennheiser HD 380 Pro headphones

Audio Technica ATH M50 headphones

Audio Technica ATH M50 headphones

After carefully assembling a playlist of my favorite artists and genres of music, I put the two pairs of headphones to the test.

First and foremost – these two sets are not for bassheads.  (But what basshead shops for monitors to begin with?)  If you want bass, buy Dre’s Beats and call it a day.

The bass of the 380s is smooth and natural.  With a portable media player and no portable amp they sound just fine, but hook them up to a solid home receiver and dial up your EQ and you’ll feel them pulsate against the side of your head.  I was perfectly satisfied with the way they handled early house music. The M50s have more pronounced bass, but at a cost.  (More on that in a moment.)

A feature of the 380s that instantly gained my favor is the cable.  It is 1 meter long coiled and stretches to approximately 3 meters.  The end of the cable is threaded to ensure a solid connection with the included 1/4″ gold plated adapter.  Best of all – there is a 3.5mm plug on the other end of the cord that snaps into a jack hidden in the left ear cup.  All these features preserve the life of the cable.  Like all the other parts of the 380s, the cord can be replaced should anything happen to it.  The M50 cable is available coiled or straight (the straight model is called the M50s) and also features a threaded adapter.  The end of the cable is covered by a spring to prevent fraying, but the detachable feature of the Sennheiser cable won me over.

Sennheiser Cable Unplugged

The detachable cable of the HD 380

After thoroughly testing the Sennheisers I tried on the M50s and instantly noticed the difference.  As I stated, the bass is slightly more pronounced in the Audio Technicas but the soundstage is significantly smaller/narrower than on the 380s.  Members of head-fi.org have stated that the term “soundstage” was invented by Sennheiser’s marketing department to push a particular model of their headphones, but the term accurately describes what you experience when comparing the two sets.

I particularly noticed the larger and more open soundstage from the Sennheisers when listening to Ladysmith Black Mambazo delicate vocal harmonies.  I felt closer to the performers, and the echoes of their voices hung in the air longer than with the M50s.  Also, the wall of sound created by J Spaceman and his band Spiritualized backed by a full orchestra and gospel choir had a much bigger impact when listening to the 380s.  Finally, the immeasurably faint decay of the notes in any of William Basinski’s recordings, (such as The Disintegration Loops I) were reproduced with greater precision by the Sennheisers than by the ATH-M50s.

Both headphones have rotating, collapsable earcups for easy storage and each come with a travel case.  The M50 case is a simple black vinyl drawstring bag, while the Sennheisers come with a hard shell zipper case with a felt inner lining and an embossed Sennheiser logo across the center.  This scored several more points for the 380s for both style and function.

The Sennheisers were a clear winner, and I ordered them immediately.  The MSRP is $299.95, though you can find them for $187 with shipping from Amazon.  I ordered a refurbished like-new pair from a licensed supplier for $79 and they arrived in just a few days.

I’ve also worked out the dimensions for an Easter Island head headphone stand which my girlfriend will sculpt out of clay.  Photos to come!

Easter Island Headphone Stand

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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Basinski’s DLP I is great! Great to hear them mentioned. Fine choice on the headphones, I enjoyed hearing about the decision making process.
    Here are my picks for when I can afford them:
    In Order of Acquisition, (of course a sale on amazon can change this)
    Denon HD2000 (5000 and 7000 are diminishing returns)
    Sennheiser HD 650 (when they are reliably only 30 bucks more on amazon than the 600′s why not)
    some beyerdynamic (the DT 990 Studio Open air is a good price right now 50 percent off!)
    Both Grado and AKG look uncomfortable and cheap; there doesn’t seem to be an easy choice for AudioTechnica, I suppose if there was a good store to try them in westchester (there isn’t) I would give them a chance, but for now, I remain hesitant about their potential.

    • I recently picked up 18 of Basinski’s albums. A few have been released on vinyl but sell for over a hundred dollars each.

      My next upgrade will likely be a custom designed pair of Beyerdynamic DT 990 MANUFAKTURs for $408 + shipping from Germany. Click “Start Manufaktur” here to build your own.

  2. Thank you for your post! This is exactly what I was looking for such that I am currently also torn between these two headphones. The dealer from which you bought on Amazon… Is their storefront called DAHMART? I am always nervous buying refurbished but if your satisfied with the product shipped to you then I guess that will make me feel more at ease. Thanks again for the post!

    • So glad you found it helpful! I originally contacted DAHMART but didn’t receive a reply, and instead bought a pair from adgtron. While you wouldn’t have the 2 year Sennheiser warranty, Amazon should protect you should they be DOA. You should be able to find them new from a local authorized Sennheiser dealer for as low as $129, so look around. Best of luck!

  3. Oh my god… these are the exact 2 headphones that I was comparing…. and you sort of solved my puzzle.

    • So happy I could help! I think you’ll really enjoy them. I’ve ordered two pairs from DAHMART on Amazon over the last 4 months and he consistently offers them at the lowest price I can find online.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. I’ve owned both for about a year now. I def like both but the senheisers are the clear victor for me.

    • Thanks for your input!

      • The senheisers can’t be pushed as far as the m50s. But the sound stage, clearity is top notch compared to others in this price range. And they have Much less “sibilence” if thats even a word. Lol. But I hate to hear those scretching Ssss sounds in my ear for every word with a S in it. I have ath ad700s, ath m50 se, sen HS380 pro, Sony 7506, and sony xb 700. Sens are the best in my line up.

  5. I’d also like to chime in and thank you for the comparison. I also narrowed down my closed headphone search to these two models and eventually went for the 380s after having read your comments and trying the M50s (couldn’t find the former anywhere).

    You’re spot on regarding the differences between the two, but there is one thing you didn’t cover and I believe bears mentioning for people who, like me, have small heads: the M50s simply won’t fit very well. I struggled to get a tight seal while trying them on, maybe some extra padding on the headband would have helped. The 380s on the other hand fit like a glove.

  6. Besides the well-stated differences in this review, which I fully agree with, I must add that the Sennheiser 380′s are, by far, the most comfortable headphones I have ever owned. Someone else said they fit like a glove, and I can’t think of a better explanation. They fit snugly and comfortably and stay that way for hours on end. A custom fit could not be better.


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