Why brand names are sometimes the best: an example with Sennheiser

100% human

In three months it will be twenty years ago since I purchased my second set of expensive headphones. The first set had been many years before that. Those twenty year old headphones were Sennheiser HD 535. They cost me $319 (yes, I keep good records). Back in 1997, that was fairly serious money.

They have proved over the years to be capable of extremely high performance, but depend very much on the quality of the headphone amplifier driving them. They have low sensitivity and a fairly high impedance (150 ohms nominally), and I’m guessing their impedance varies across the frequency spectrum. They work okay with most Apple products – the ones that still have headphone outputs – but many Android phones and lots of older portable gear didn’t work well with them.

But that’s not why I’m writing about twenty year old headphones. I’m writing because they wore out. Not the working components. The drivers still work fine, and while the cable failed years ago, I replaced that at the time. No, what happened was the ear pads expired through the ravages of time. The soft material split and the foam padding poured out. The thin black foam layer over the tops of the drivers began perishing, with little bits falling off. See the picture above.

I figured that was it and of course I’ve since purchased newer high quality headphones. But the other day I stumbled across something I hadn’t expected: you can buy new earpads for many Sennheiser headphones. Incredibly, you can buy them direct from Sennheiser for my two decade old HD 535 headphones.

Not cheap at more than $70, but the fact that they are available at all is astonishing.

Sennheiser HD 535
Look at that: snap out the old ones, snap in the new ones, and they’re as good as new.

It isn’t just Sennheiser. Hitting Google  suggests that you can pick up replacement ear pads for other quality brands: AKG, Sony, Bose, Beyerdynamic, Denon, Shure and so on. I haven’t checked to see if the cover twenty year old models. And I’m pretty sure that the cheaper models from most of those brands wouldn’t have such parts available. Nonetheless, in an age when people frequently allege that businesses are only interested in selling you something that will soon become obsolete, or break and have to be replaced, or that the company will otherwise abandon you, it seems that companies like Sennheiser act in precisely the opposite way.

As for the Sennheiser HD 535 headphones, they sound a lot better than I remember. I suppose headphones have improved in the past twenty years, but there’s no doubt that devices which power headphones have certainly gotten markedly better. And that makes the HD 535 headphones perform better than ever.