Beyerdynamic DX 160 iE In-Ear Headphones Review Highlights
As you can see from SECRETS’ growing collection of headphone and earphone reviews, new companies enter the headphone market every day.
Beyerdynamic is not one of those new entrants. In fact, Beyerdynamic invented dynamic headphones in the 1930s! The subject of this review, Beyerdynamic’s DX 160 iE In-Ear Headphones, are true to that heritage. The DX 160 iE sits squarely in the “3 Series” sector of the earphone market, with top-notch materials/build quality and strong focus on ergonomics at an “entry level luxury” price. They are voiced solidly on the bass-rich side of neutral, but can be easily driven from portable devices and offer enviable dynamic capability.
Beyerdynamic DX 160 iE In-Ear Headphones Highlights Summary
- Excellent build quality
- Many thoughtful ergonomic flourishes
- Enough tip options to ensure a good fit for anyone
- Efficient enough to drive directly from a mobile device
- Powerful dynamics with low compression
- Voicing emphasizes the upper bass
Introduction to the Beyerdynamic DX 160 iE In-Ear Headphones Review
Beyerdynamic has been in the headphone market so long they practically created the market. However, until recently Beyerdynamic focused on large headphones for studio, broadcast, DJ, and stationary audiophile use. In-ear headphones are a relatively recent addition to Beyerdynamic’s lineup.
BEYERDYNAMIC DX 160 IE IN-EAR HEADPHONE REVIEW SPECIFICATIONS
- Design: Single Dynamic-driver In-Ear Headphones (Earbuds)
- “Neodymium HD Acoustic” Drivers
- All-metal Housings
- Sensitivity: 107dB at 1mW at 500 Hz
- Nominal Impedance: 47?
- Flat Cables with TPE Covering to Resist Tangling
- Included Ear Tips: 7 Silicone + Comply T-400 Foam
- Input Connection: 3.5 mm Mini-jack
- Cable Llength: 12″ + 35″ Extension
- Splitter Plug and Cable Clip Included
- MR: 10 Hz – 25 kHz
- MSRP: $145 USD
- SECRETS Tags: Beyerdynamic, DX 160 iE, In-Ear Headphones, Earphones, Earbuds, Dynamic Drivers, Headphone Reviews 2014
The DX 160 iE are the flagship of Beyerdynamic’s six-deep range of in-ear headphones. Beyerdynamic fitted each housing with one of Beyerdynamic’s “Neodymium HD Acoustic” dynamic drivers in a closed cabinet. Beyerdynamic does not disclose the diaphragm material of the Neodymium HD Acoustic drivers.
The Design and Listening Impressions of the Beyerdynamic DX 160 iE In-Ear Headphones
The DX 160 iE in-ear headphones leave a positive impression from the start, due to Beyerdynamic’s attention to detail and ergonomics. And a little bit of whimsy: when you open the box, Beyerdynamic exhorts you to enjoy your new in-ears.
Beyerdynamic clearly realizes that in-ear headphones are useless unless they are comfortable to wear, because they ship the DX 160 iE with tips to fit every ear canal. The tip of an in-ear has three conflicting tasks: it must provide a good seal for bass reproduction; be comfortable; and maintain constant insertion depth when the listener moves. Since everybody’s ears are different, Beyerdynamic includes no fewer than eight tip options to help the DX 160 iE fit the widest range of listeners: five sizes of single-flange silicone tips, a double-flange silicone tip, an Etymotic-style tri-flange silicone tip, and Comply M-400 “foamies.” This array of fit options shows how far the in-ear headphone market has evolved. My first in-ear headphones, a pair of Etymotic ER-4P’s I purchased in the late 1990s, came with two tips: a tri-flange and a foam cylinder. In addition to the eight tips, Beyerdynamic also includes a splitter to power two headphones from one jack, and a cable clip to secure the cable to the listener’s shirt placket.
The earphones themselves are attractive, tasteful, and finely crafted. The housings are stealthy and compact black metal cylinders. Two polished, fluted rings add some visual interest to each housing, and make the earphones easier to find in the dark. The fit and finish would make Audi proud.
The housings are “Goldilocks” sized; large enough to adequately load the driver, but small enough to be unobtrusive when worn. Beyerdynamic logos are present but tastefully minimal, in small print on the cord below the strain relief.
While the DX 160 iE first impresses due to Beyerdynamic’s styling and choice of materials, Beyerdynamic’s thoughtful ergonomic touches sustain the initial impression. For example, too many headphone makers make it hard to distinguish left from right without squinting to find an “L” or “R.” Beyerdynamic solved this problem by molding a small bump under the “R” on the inside of the right earphone cord’s strain relief. Simple, elegant, effective, and not done often enough. Additionally, the left and right cords are sheathed in a flat-molded TPE material. Beyerdynamic claims the flat cables resist tangling compared to round wires, and the cables actually seemed to resist self-tangling during my audition.
Also, for a dynamic driver in-ear the Beyers have a fairly small ear-tube. The only in-ears that I have seen with smaller ear-tubes use balanced armature drivers. See below for a size comparison of four in-ear headphones I had on hand during this review.
The pictured in-ear headphones, from largest to smallest ear-tube, are the KEF M200, ViSang VS-R02, Beyerdynamic DX 160 iE, and Apple In-Ear Headphones (commonly abbreviated “ADDIEM” for “Apple Dual Driver In-Ear Monitor”). As someone with smallish ears – I never could wear “iBuds” or similar earbuds without pain – I appreciated the smaller ear-tube of the DX 160 iE, and never felt discomfort even after wearing them through a whole episode of “All Things Considered.” I cannot say that about the KEF or ViSang in-ear headphones.
Beyerdynamic also includes a nice case with the DX 160 iE. The case is a matte black soft-touch clamshell with a zipper, with the Beyerdynamic logo rendered on the top shell in glossy black. Inside, cloth lines both halves of the clamshell. The top half of the clamshell has an elastomeric cloth pocket with a bound edge, a thoughtful ergonomic touch that prevents the extra tips or the other included accessories such as the splitter from spilling out when you unzip the clamshell. Overall, the case is of a piece with the rest of Beyerdynamic’s package: thoughtfully designed and well executed.
However, the one area where I felt Beyerdynamic overthought the ergonomics was the two-piece cord. When worn as in-ear headphone cords should be worn – wrapped around the ears to damp cord microphonics – the plug on the attached cord only reached my sternum. Beyerdynamic includes an extension cord long enough to easily reach an NBA center’s hip pocket, but the extension cord is held on only by friction of the minijack; it does not lock in place. On the plus side, I felt no discomfort wrapping the DX 160 iE’s flat cords around my ears, even while wearing glasses. The extension cord offers one last ergonomic flourish. The strain relief sets the cord at a roughly 45-degree angle to the plug, but the plug housing also has a short flat landing perfectly sized to allow a listener to push the plug home with her thumb. Both the attached cord and extension cords have modern small-diameter jack housings, and I had no problem fitting either one through my iPhone 5S case.
While the DX 160 iE in-ear headphones offer very impressive build quality and ergonomics, the ultimate proof is in the listening. I briefly tried a few of the silicone tip options but quickly settled on the Comply “foamies” for my auditioning. The foamies offered me both the best seal and the highest comfort, even though they dulled the treble just a little compared to the silicone tips.
For most of this audition, I listened to Apple Lossless files on my late-2009 MacBook as a source, and powered the DX 160 iE with a HeadRoom Total BitHead DAC/amp connected via USB. However, I also tried them on my reference headphone setup: same computer, but with the fixed output of a Meridian Explorer USB DAC feeding a HeadRoom Micro Amp fitted with their “Home” electronics module. While the DX 160 iE’s were efficient enough to reveal the quieter noise floor of my reference signal chain, otherwise differences were scant, as the DX 160 iE did not need the extra current capability or voltage swing of the Micro Amp. I also played every musical selection discussed below directly off of an iPhone 5S in 192kbps AAC format. Also, to see how the DX 160 iE’s interacted with higher source-impedance amplification, I sampled each track below while connected to the Meridian Explorer’s headphone output. The Explorer’s headphone amp has an output impedance of about 5?, or more than 10x the output impedance of the Total BitHead.
I observed no “break in” effect with the DX 160 iE. That speaks to the quality of Beyerdynamic’s engineering. As Dr. Floyd Toole wrote in Sound Reproduction: The Acoustics and Psychoacoustics of Loudspeakers and Rooms, “[T]he reality is that [transducer] engineers seek out materials, components, and construction methods that do not change with time.” Break in actually happens between the listener’s ears, as she adapts to new colorations. To avoid this real break in, I regularly rotated between two other in-ears while auditioning the Beyers: my reference ADDIEM and the KEF M200.
The first album I enjoyed through the DX 160 iE in-ear headphones was Radiohead’s Kid A.
Kid A is not a quiet album. Out of the gate the DX 160 iE impressed with their ability to rock out without apparent dynamic compression, and kept me going through the whole album. The song on Kid A that best captured the DX 160 iE’s sonic personality, good and bad, was “How to Disappear Completely.” The Beyers did a good job with the delicate acoustic guitar and swirling sounds at the beginning of the track, but when the bass guitar came in the DX 160 iE’s upper bass emphasis obscured some of the pick-work. Overall the acoustic scene also shrank a little due to the extra upper bass. The M200s, which have even more upper bass emphasis, closed in the acoustic scene a little bit more. My reference ADDIEMs offered a thinner and considerably more expansive presentation, but could not sustain the same SPL as the two dynamic driver in-ear headphones without strain.
By contrast, “Ladybird,” the opening track of Natalie Merchant’s latest, eponymous album, showcased the smooth and grain-free, if slightly subdued, treble of the DX 160 iE’s from its opening percussive burst to the last note.
Natalie Merchant’s voice can sound gritty on headphones or speakers with midband resonances, and I was happy to not notice any such grittiness with the DX 160 iE’s. On this track, I narrowly preferred the DX 160 iE over the ADDIEM and M200. Compared to the more neutrally-voiced ADDIEM, the Beyer sweetened the mix by just the right amount. The M200, by contrast, added just a little too much honey.
Next time I picked up the DX 160 iE, I hit play on my favorite track from Pearl Jam’s No Code, “Red Mosquito.”
Along with revealing similar differences in bass energy and spatial reproduction as discussed above, this track highlighted an interesting difference between the Beyerdynamic DX 160 iE, which has a nominal impedance of 47?, and the KEF M200, which has a nominal impedance of just 12?. Here, the two in-ear headphones generally sounded more similar than different, except when driven directly from the Meridian Explorer. Then they diverged quite a bit. The M200 clearly brought Mike McCready’s slide guitar work forward in the mix. The difference was probably the result of interaction between relatively low impedance headphones and an amp with relatively high output impedance. I call that an advantage for the DX 160 iE, because it can be partnered with a wider variety of amps without coloration. At least on its own; for optimal sound quality, only use the included splitter to connect two headphones if you know the driving amplifier has very low output impedance.
I followed “Red Mosquito” with Dimitri Shostakovich’s tone poem “October,” performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra led by Vladimir Ashkenazy.
The DX 160 iE got the both the macro- and micro- dynamics of “October” right, as it veers, sometimes without warning, from soft (if not quite soothing) string lullabies to manic tympani-and-brass fusillades. Lower strings were richly textured, with all the lushness and ambience one would expect from elite musicians performing in Royal Albert Hall. The bite of the upper brass, however, was a little subdued, in a slight sin of omission.
In addition to music, people often use in-ear headphones to listen to spoken word material, such as NPR, sports talk radio, or podcasts. So I listened to my favorite comedy podcast, “The Bugle,” to test the Beyerdynamic’s speech intelligibility at low volume.
As long as John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman weren’t going on about cricket, I could clearly understand them even at my iPhone’s lowest volume setting. A little later, I thought a bassy-but-not brassy in-ear like the DX 160 iE deserves something with a little groove to it, and I had just purchased tickets to Outkast’s reunion concert, so next up “The Way You Move” from Speakerboxx.
The DX 160 iE ate up the three declining bass notes that undergird “The Way You Move” with gusto, and never allowed the horn accents to dominate the presentation. They also rendered Big Boi’s vocals very intelligibly over the din. I followed “The Way You Move” with a more, ahem, traditional demo track, “The Sinister Minister” on Bela Fleck and the Flecktones’ venerable Live Art double CD.
This song generally works best on a system (speaker or headphone) that’s voiced dead neutral or even slightly lightweight. Due to bassist Victor Wooten’s style of play, I have found the subjective pacing of this song to slow when played through any system voiced on the fat side of neutral. This track was one of the few in my audition in which I overwhelmingly favored the fleeter, more neutral ADDIEM over the bass-rich DX 160 iE. While the DX 160 iE was neck-and-neck in terms of reproducing the texture of Bela Fleck’s banjo work, compared to the ADDIEM it dulled the bite of Jeff Coffin’s sax play in addition to subjectively slowing the pace, rhythm, and timing of the song.
The last track I found to highlight the DX 160 iE’s abilities was Sia’s live quasi-cover of Zero 7’s “Destiny” (Sia was the vocalist on the original Zero 7 track) from her live EP Lady Croissant.
Here, Sia’s stripped down arrangement transforms “Destiny” from a killer lounge song into a female vocalist’s highlight reel. The DX 160 iE’s do a fantastic job of corralling the raw power of Sia’s voice, even if their voicing renders the bass guitar and cello a little over-prominent. The DX 160 iE’s slightly muted treble also works very much in the track’s favor, compelling this reviewer to stop auditioning and just listen, transfixed.
Conclusions about the Beyerdynamic DX 160 iE In-Ear Headphones
Beyerdynamic has a long and storied heritage in dynamic-driver headphones, and the DX 160 iE shows they have learned a thing or two about how to craft a beautiful in-ear headphone that is a delight to hold and use. Beyerdynamic is certainly not targeting the buyer who above all wants a giant logo protruding from her ears with the DX 160 iE. Thankfully!
Furthermore, the attention to detail Beyerdynamic showed to the ergonomic aspects of in-ear headphone design deserve special praise. They clearly studied how people actually use in-ear headphones, and offered a compelling package with enough options to ensure a good fit for any pair of ears. While I am not sold on the two-piece cord, everything else about them is brilliantly conceived and executed.
As for the DX 160 iE’s sound, their voicing is basically on-trend for recent in-ear offerings, with emphasized bass, even mids, and a warmed-up treble with no obvious resonances. Beyer’s use of a well-optimized single dynamic driver avoids the crossover glitches that can plague dual-driver models, and does not impose any penalty worth noting. Their dynamic capabilities are impressive for something with such a small housing, and they maintain the same tonal character when playing loud as when playing at moderate volume. The DX 160 iE’s high efficiency and 47? nominal impedance make them easy to drive for a mobile device. In fact, I feel a dedicated headphone amp is only useful with the DX 160 iE if the amp includes has specialized processing, such as Dolby Headphone or a HeadRoom-style crossfeed, and you find such processing as useful as I do. If you’re looking for a comfortable, very well built, and well thought out set of in-ear headphones at a reasonable price, and you want a bit of extra juice on the upper bass, Beyerdynamic’s DX 160 iE deserves a very close look.