Uncrippling Lower Model Speakers

It looks like this low-end Sennheiser HD speaker has the same internals as it’s better-brother but has been altered to reduce sound quality. It’s not uncommon for manufacturers to hobble a product in order to sell more units at a lower price that reflects less features. Linksys WRT54G routers immediately come to mind, or perhaps the more recent Rigol 100 MHz oscilloscope hack is a better example.

In this case, that black piece of foam on the left has been added to the 555 version of the hardware to decrease the sound quality you get from the much more expensive 595 model. Take it out and you’ve got an upgrade that would have cost you more than a hundred bucks. Don’t think this is the only difference? There is a bit of a difference in case design, but [Mike Beauchamp] also found that if you acquire a replacement driver for either model you’ll get the same part.

89 thoughts on “Uncrippling Lower Model Speakers

  1. @mindbleach

    I completely disagree. If manufacturers want to dupe the ignorant/uneducated, then so be it; more power to them. It’s [likely] the ignorant’s fault for not doing their homework. I’m all for buying a crippled product at half the price and then uncrippling it myself. It saves me a pretty penny.

    Say this crippling process was somehow made illegal. It’s likely that this would only increase prices of everything, as this means they really need to use crappier components in their crappier product; which in turn means needing to source yet another part, have yet another assembly process, etc.

  2. Not everyone is as smart as you think you are.

    One of the underlying principals of consumerism is convenience. Take fast food for example. I know how to cook and raw ingredients cost less and give me more for my money.

    However I can’t always cook because of circumstances outside of my control so I go with the convenience of fast food.

    Under your opinion I should basically be punished for something outside of my control.

    What if I don’t have the time to investigate, reverse engineer and hack something? That’s not even including the amount of time it would take to learn all of the prerequisites necessary for hacking something.

    What if I just want to relax from my busy life and listen to some music?

    Like what if someone is too busy going to medical school and working a brutal internship only to end up saving your life one day because you got in a car accident? I bet you wouldn’t bitch about people uneducated in one little field now would you?

  3. I disagree, I think it’s neither unfair nor unethical, it just feels wrong to us.

    The consumer is paying less for the low end version while getting the durability of the high end version, he’s getting his monies worth and the producer uses less material and can buy cheaper in bulk.

    That be said I’m hacking the daylights out of anything I get my hands on that has had this treatment :).

  4. It’s the same process as used for PC parts (CPUs, GPUs, motherboards…). It’s far cheaper for them to provide a faulty high-end part (a quad-core with a fault in one core can be sold as a dual-core after disabling two of the cores) or a high-end part with some components missing (very common with motherboards). Designing a completely new part would end up *increasing* the cost to the consumer, for both the low-end and high-end parts.

  5. @mindbleach: It’s called free enterprise. Off-brand and refurb products, for the most part, are just as good as name brand. I work in the packaging industry. It’s a real eye-opener going into a factory and seeing the store brands using the exact same line, sometimes the exact same container with a different label. For example, if you want Valvoline oil, just grab some from NAPA for about 25% less.
    If you ask some places, they charge extra for the name brand because of advertising AND because there’s a longer warranty. That means you’re paying for an extended warranty.

  6. @Renee

    Your argument is incomplete and bitter. As ReKlipz stated, consider what would occur if this practice was illegal — it’s lose, lose. Manufacturers lose because they have to produce both superior and inferior products, and consumers lose because both products cost more. Or manufacturers lose because they only produce the superior products, which are purchased by fewer consumers due to higher prices.

    And I should mention that a similar practice occurs with supermarket generics, OEM and aftermarket car parts, and many other situations.

  7. Re: duping the “ignorant”. (And I’m using that term in the literal sense, not the sense that people ignorant of the definition think means “stupid” ;) )

    “Say this crippling process was somehow made illegal. It’s likely that this would only increase prices of everything, as this means they really need to use crappier components in their crappier product; which in turn means needing to source yet another part, have yet another assembly process, etc.”

    Wait, products would cost _more_ because of using crappier parts? If you make your low end product worse than your high end product by spending extra on crappifying it, I think you’re doing it wrong. You’re supposed to spend the extra on finding better components (in lower quantities, perhaps) and designs for the nicer model, no? You know, justifying the extra cost of the high end model. Not breaking the beater . . .

    I think this is (one of) the lesson(s) that bit GM in the butt in the 70s and early 80s, when they shared just about everything across their entire line of cars, and tried to sell a Chevy Citation as a Cadillac Cimarron by just adding a “badge upgrade”. People figured it out. That and the quality problem.

  8. @Renee

    “What if I don’t have the time to investigate, reverse engineer and hack something? That’s not even including the amount of time it would take to learn all of the prerequisites necessary for hacking something.

    What if I just want to relax from my busy life and listen to some music?”

    Then, as you so conveniently exemplified, you pay the premium for the convenience of not having to do your research, to the tune of $150 CAD in this case. Simple as pie.

  9. @Rob

    “Wait, products would cost _more_ because of using crappier parts? If you make your low end product worse than your high end product by spending extra on crappifying it, I think you’re doing it wrong. You’re supposed to spend the extra on finding better components (in lower quantities, perhaps) and designs for the nicer model, no? You know, justifying the extra cost of the high end model. Not breaking the beater . . .”

    But that’s not how manufacturers work. As the article mentioned, it’s usually more of a crippling process rather than a enhancing one. It’s rather doubtful that a single law would change hundreds of thousands of tried and true business models.

    The reason it would be more expensive has nothing to do with the fact that the product is made with better or worse parts. It’s due to the fact that it’s made with _different_ parts, requiring more time and effort to produce the product.

  10. Well, I was going to elaborate on that but I didn’t want one giant post.

    The problem with “premium” is that it’s an ill-defined term. Exactly how much is convenience worth?

    While that’s an open ended question I will say that FAR more businesses will treat premium as whatever they can get away with.

    They’re going to try and make the most amount of money as they can. That’s why they disable features, it’s easier than having two separate production lines.

    It also has the bonus effect of making people want to consume more. If a company took their high value product and sold it at the cost of their lower end product then they would lose business because satisfied customers would leave and never come back.

    If somebody actually did that they wouldn’t go out of business, they just wouldn’t make as much money as they wanted too.

    Because of that the premium you pay isn’t a reasonable calculation made to help you, it’s a calculation made to screw you over just enough that you come back for more and they make more money.

  11. Wow, do I see a tornado in a teapot? It’s fair enough that manufacturers have versions for low end and a high end markets to appeal to every consumer. The low end version is cheaper, so what are people complaining about? If you can “upgrade” to the expensive high end version as easily as that, I’d like EVERY manufacturer to take the same approach so I can get high end capability cheaply in all my purchases!
    Anyway, this is what a hack should be: take an off the shelf product and make it better with minimal effort/tools, so 2 thumbs up from me.

  12. I’m glad companies offer both “premium” and “value” products. I’d like those “value” products to share DNA with the “premium” line, so I know that there’s a big incentive for them to work the engineering kinks out. If that means “crippled” products, that’s fine with me.

  13. I have these headphones and I did this “mod” last year. The audio was very harsh and slightly distorted so I put the foam back in.

    I can confirm that the bass was MUCH more powerful, though, but made the audio unbalanced. I probably could have worked up an EQ setting specifically for the headphones, but I wanted to be able to take my headphones anywhere and not worry about the sound quality.

    I even did testing with the foam removed from only one cup, and it truly was worse.

    I’m sure the replacement parts are the same, but it’s extremely common for parts that fail burn in tests to just be repackaged as a lower end product line, which is what I’m assuming is the case with 555 vs. 595.

  14. @Jason
    Wow, somebody who actually did the very hack and provide feedback, very informative, thanks. And good point about high end parts that fail quality check being used in lower end products, just like many chip manufacturers do.
    So sometimes, you DO get what you pay for :D

  15. @Renee

    “While that’s an open ended question I will say that FAR more businesses will treat premium as whatever they can get away with.

    They’re going to try and make the most amount of money as they can. That’s why they disable features, it’s easier than having two separate production lines.”

    If you don’t like a businesses practices, don’t support them (that is, at it’s most basic, accomplished by not buying their products). No one is forcing you one way or another, the choice is yours.

  16. Things like this are always a cool hack. I might note Jeep gas tanks on certain models that can be upgraded to hold an extra 10 gallons merely by shorting the gas fill tube as another example.

    In regards to the original hack, I don’t think the manufacture is being unfair nor unethical. What crosses the line is when the manufacture lobbies the government into creating legislation that protects their crappy business model.

    1) the ridiculous 3 year wait to see if some bureaucrat from the library of Congress will (temporarily even) grant you the consumer the right to modify your iPhone. (rights are temporary? and who owns the phone?)

    2) Tracfone getting the government to arrest people who buy their loss-leader phones, wipe the programing, and use them on another service.

    3) fucking-Sony suing and trying to make someone a felon over reverse engineering their gaming system.

    (You have to ask the question how many Sony employees went to jail and became felons for life after they decided to install root-kits on thousands upon thousands of their customer’s PCs without permission.)

    Now, if Sennheiser had decided to sue people for buying their headphones wholesale, modifying them, and then reselling the enhanced headphones with full disclosure of the mod while undercutting prices at an “authorized retailer”, of course I’d be up in arms.

  17. @Jason
    In the writeup there is a photo of a replacement part which qualifies for both the 555 and the 595. This means that, at least the replacement parts, are of equal quality. I do agree, however, that it would be in Sennheiser’s interest to use a lower binned part for the 555 when produced on the line.

    However, your evidence is only anecdotal. We can’t conclude anything until we run some tests on your drivers, drivers from a sample of 595s, and drivers from a sample of 555s.

  18. Save $150? Hell not much of the general public will not be spend a 150 for headphone, much less spending the higher amount. Enthusiasts of all sorts are those who generally fall “victim” here even those who believe they aren’t vulnerable.

    @josh while a store brand may be of the same Quality of a name brand today, that is subject to change tomorrow without notice. In that you brought up motor oil. I do use store brands in my clunkers that don’t owe me anything, but I use the name brands, in my daily drivers.

    In regards to the Rigol O’scopes, My guess is Rigol guarantees the more expensive scope to met certain specifications. Important to those who need scopes, In regards to the Linksys WRT54G, get over it out of the box it serves the needs of most , at an affordable price with a decent lifetime power on 24/7.

    Personally I pleased that there are those who can afford & willing to purchase new car and premium consumer goods. They are subsidizing my ability to purchase the same or similar goods at a cost I can afford.

  19. I once spent 6 months working in a cleaning chemical warehouse that supplied industrial cleaning chemicals.
    The company had a value line and a premium line. Both lines where literally identical except for the label. Since the products where for industrial use the labelling was pretty basic on both lines. I think there where even some products where they had been lazy and kept the label layout identical just changed the name.

    We in the warehouse used to think this was pretty stupid, why would anybody pay for the premium line? So one day for some reason there was a sales rep in the warehouse and so naturally we asked him about it. He told us about this customer he had. He was a good customer that had spent a lot of money there year after year. The rep decided to tell the customer the value line was identical to the premium line and he could switch and save money. The customer just would not have it. His company would not cut corners and use cheap products, end of story.
    The customer owned the company as well. He was literally spending tens of thousands of pounds he didn’t need to every year because he didn’t like the thought of his company using cheap products even though he knew the cheap products where identical to the expensive ones.

  20. That’s a good example of value attribution. Though that’s just more evidence of advertising and social engineering pushing people into equating money and value.


    I do refuse to do buisness as a form of protest. However almost everyone does these practices and it can be hard to avoid.

    I figured that instead we should just amend capitalism in favor of a more equatable one.

    It’s not a wild idea. I mean I don’t think people out there like monopolies or anything. That’s one of the big reasons why I love the philosophy of Open Source.

    If you want something prefabricated you pay a reasonable price for it and if you have the motivation to DIY then they provide everything you need.

    I didn’t really expect there to be so many free-market capitalists on HAD.

  21. I own a different model of these low-end Sennheiser headphones. I believe the foam is there for other purpose than to distort the sound.. That sounds quite stupid and unreasonable.

    Do manufacturers limit hardware clocks? YES. Do they limit software functionality? YES. Do they deliberately make their products distort sound?? It really seems unreasonable to me and if I ever find out it is true I’ll stop considering Sennheiser a good brand ever again.

  22. Regarding a fallacy that crippled parts didnt pass some mythical test. It is simply NOT TRUE.

    AMD doesnt test every single CPU/GPU. Neither does Rigol or Sennheiser. No one “burns in” their product for the COTS market. It is easy to believe in such tests if you are unfamiliar with manufacturing industry.
    Reality is quite different. Testing costs, Testing means bottleneck on the production line, it means added cost, it means having to support multiple quality levels on same line. Its SLOW. In reality production process is optimized to reach set quality level, and later on products are crippled according to the demand. If the demand is only for the lower quality, or there already is a sufficient stock of high quality product in storage production line is set to ‘less quality’ mode to lower cost or speed it up (worse components, less strict timing, omitting some manufacturing steps).

    I repeat – there is no magical testing that determines product grade. Product grade is set as “not worse than” when the production line for a new batch starts.

  23. I’m pretty sure this will get the 555 to reach the performance of the 595. I don’t have either so I could be wrong, however I do know a bit about audio. The 595 is supposed to make it down below 10hz, the 555 barely makes it below 20 according to specs (if you trust them). I can see how the foam COULD effect high frequency response, but it is unlikely because the foam is on the wrong side of the speaker, to significantly impede HF response the foam would have to be in the way between the driver and your ear. Also, dampening material (like foam) is actually used inside the enclosure of high end speakers to extend the bass response lower. in addition to all this the foam should keep our a bit of background noise since those are open cans. What you should end up with is headphones that are better in noisy areas, might have slightly better bass response and no different high frequency response. Not speakers that have poorer HF and LF response. The drivers may be the same but some other aspect of the 595s must be far superior. By the way I would LOVE to hear from someone who has done this mod on his 555s and also own the 595s, as well as seeing a technical comparison of the sound from modded 555s and stock 595s.

  24. I’m quite certain that the foam actually improves sound quality in this case:

    The foam acts as an echo canceller. It absorbs sound waves and turns them into heat instead of reflecting them.

    These reflections have a time-lag or phase difference compared to the direct sound from the headphone drivers, and they are generally unwanted.

    No, I think you are WRONG with calling this a hack to improve sound quality.

    Please do investigate this.

  25. Wow, regardless of anyone’s experiences with the sound quality before and after the hack, from the source article it’s clear that the only difference between the two is the addition of the foam in the “low-end” model.

    I don’t think I’ll be buying from Sennheiser again…

  26. @rasz

    Your comments are right in the general manufacturing industry but do not make sense in terms of chip fabrication. While in general it may be perfectly true that chips are sold based on demand at a price / performance point, they ARE all tested.

    Your typical manufacturing plant will test a small subset of devices, your typical metal refinery will test one piece out of every heat number, however what these processes have in common is consistency.

    Microprocessors on the other hand are manufactured with multiple units on a silicon wafer. The manufacturing is imperfect and faults are unpredictable. What is known is that there is a yield of good circuits you’ll get from your wafer. The yield is not insignificant either, we’re not talking 99%, we’re talking low 90s. If each and every chip weren’t tested there would be a percentage of dead on arrival chips in the marketplace.

    That said you’re assuming testing isn’t part of manufacturing. There isn’t some person individually testing these, the simply is a machine bolted to the end of the production line. PCB manufacturers do the same thing, their machine has thousands of tiny needles which come down and make electrical contact with every pad and via and each circuit integrity is checked before it’s shipped out of the door.

    This kind of testing is fast and inexpensive, but you’d be crazy to think that it doesn’t happen.

  27. I think this hack is misleading. It just dont make any scene that audio company will deliberately lower sound quality. Quality is everything for such companies it their name and reason why people pay extra for their brand, they cant afford to lose their name status by releasing bad products

  28. @rasz
    I am a quality manager at a company that makes high end consumer products. I can assure you that every function of our products is tested, as I oversee these tests everyday. Our PCBs are tested on a bed-of-nails. The final units are tested for functionality and quality checked before they are boxed up. PCBs that fail the bed-of-nails test are either downgraded, or scrapped (depending on the failure.)

    Before boxing the products, the firmware is downgraded to what the consumer is purchasing. We sell a range of products with a range of pricing, but all have the same PCB installed.
    It costs our company more to sell a lower end model than the higher end model. We still make money off the low end model, but our margins are higher for the high end.

    We don’t have the time or resources to make separate PCBs, cases, or firmware. It is all the same product, downgraded to what the customer is requesting. If he wants the extra features, he will pay the difference and we will give him a code to unlock those features.
    It actually benefits our customers because doing separate PCB runs is more expensive than one long run.

  29. @therian
    in a perfect world where everyone was trustworthy than this would not make seance
    unfortunately we live in a money driven world where most company’s are trying to make a dollar you have to pay for the privilege to have good sound quality

  30. @biozz I think you don’t understand the difference between crippling features and quality. Product with less features do not affect company reputation unlike bad quality product.
    When you buy knife from well know company even if it is lowest model knife you expect it to be sharp and strong just with out leather case or titanium handle like high end models, if it brakes or get dull quickly company will loose you and yours friends as potential customers so it make no economical sense for company to cripple quality. Even greedy Apple dont cripple quality but features

  31. I think this kind of practice is dishonest; it reveals the true colours of the manufacturer’s product “quality” – which basically implies same shit, different stink. Yes it is widely practised, yes manufacturers should be able to do whatever they want with their products. But at the end of the day, duping customers like this will reflect badly on them. Hacks like these is well deserved, and I hope this will hurt their profit margin in the “high-end” product segment.

  32. @Hirudinea”I just wish there was a site that showed me what products are crippled and how to uncripple them, now that would be a way to get your moneys worth.”

    you have a 1 000 000 $ idea

  33. I’d like to see the results of a double blind test of this mod because audio is a very subjective thing, it’s not like the Lynksys or Rigol mods where the differences afterwards are plainly obvious.

  34. I agree with therian. There’s a difference between crippling features and crippling quality and therian explains it well.

    In this case, there seems to be some real protest as to the accuracy of the story. I’m not convinced that the foam is there to cripple the sound quality. More likely that the design of these ‘phones or the material used for the housing is somehow not up to the quality of the higher end model and therefore requires the foam to catch stray (bad) sounds.

  35. My guess is that for the higher priced 595 they select higher grade drivers that physically look the same. With the 555 they take the grade b drivers and slap some foam in there to ensure that if you do a side by side listening test the average person will notice the “better” quality sound on the 595. As far as the replacement part I would also guess that it costs too much to maintain two different inventories of parts so you get the “better” driver if its replaced. On the other hand having worked for a major unnamed electronics test equipment company (I live in seattle you should be able to guess) its just as likely or ever more likely that they are the EXACT same headphones just with foam added. At the end of the day you didn’t pay for the better sound quality and you were probably very happy with them till now. So I would rip the foam out and enjoy the better sound as measured by the seat of your paints.
    Does this somehow breach the DMCA? I mean its not much different than switching a few bits here and there to unlock the Deluxe version of software right? I little peace of foam vs. nibble here and byte there…..

  36. It may also be the case that the headphones with the foam was manufactured before the headphones without. And at some point it was deemed the foam was not adding any value or significant sound improvement, so they removed it for all models after a certain date.

  37. It’s also worth mentioning that though the driver is the same, the rest of the headset is very different.
    The headband and ear cushions are leather on the 595, the outside metal mesh is very different between the two models. (affecting how the air moves in and out of the ear cup.)
    I think the mesh is the key point.

  38. @kemp

    I always check the boards of the things I buy. For example, the last mainboard I bought (forget the brand and don’t want to open the case or download any software to check), I added 2 usb lines and a sata line because I wasn’t afraid to solder the board.

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