The Sennheiser HD 800 sets a new metric against which every other serious headphone or transducer must be judged. More than 60 years of ingenious headphone engineering has been applied to the new HD 800. Incorporating Sennheiser’s most advanced driver technology, these open, around-the-ear, dynamic stereo headphones redefine what reference-grade audiophile audio is all about.
The Sennheiser HD 800 is hand-assembled in Germany with only the finest of materials. The transducer is encased in a precision material made of stainless steel, while the headband and headphone mounting utilizes the most advanced development from the aerospace industry.
It’s hard to describe a piece of gear which, upon first listen, sounds different from anything you’ve heard, yet sounds so completely effortless and musical that you’re left with the singular impression that the previous way you’ve listened to music is somehow incomplete, a wrong path if you will, and that this is clearly a better way.
I can’t imagine anyone buying these and not being thrilled. They are a rare product indeed — one that adds a significant new dimension to recordings you may have owned for years and thought you knew.
First some background. Music is very important to me; I played the cello for many years, currently sing in a gospel choir, and now do my own audio recordings of choirs and other groups. I spend a lot of time with these tracks, during both the editing process and for my own personal benefit. I often pore over recordings to try and learn the nuance and details of each part.
In this regard, my playback system is crucial. I record using a Sony PCM-D50 with a variety of microphones, my favorite being a RODE NT4. I edit these on my Mac and use a Grace m902 for D/A conversion and to drive my headphones. I switch back and forth between AKG K701 headphones (now replaced by the HD800) and a pair of GURU QM10 nearfield studio monitors. With that out of the way let’s get to the heart of the matter …
The Sennheiser HD 800 is beautifully designed and artfully executed in regard to materials and construction; these headphones are beautiful to look at and handle and are supremely comfortable to wear.
As to performance? The Sennheiser HD 800 sets a new metric against which every other serious headphone or transducer must be judged. I’m sorry if that sounds like so much hot air, but I honestly didn’t expect to be so impressed — especially out of the box with no break-in. I’ve heard too many “breakthroughs” that just couldn’t deliver the goods. This product is different.
It’s hard to describe a piece of gear which, upon first listen, sounds different than anything you’ve heard, yet sounds so completely effortless and musical that you’re left with the singular impression that the previous way you’ve listened to music is somehow incomplete, a wrong path if you will, and that this is clearly a better way.
I won’t get into the finer points of tonal balance, sound-staging, imaging, or brightness/darkness. All I can say that these headphones are very natural in regards to spatial presentation, in a way that I find entrancing. Their response is smooth and well-balanced at both extremes. I don’t know what else to add, besides the fact that they are reproducing music more naturally and effortlessly than any one piece of gear I’ve added to my system over the past decade.
A great example of what the Sennheisers contribute to my system comes when listening to recordings of the human voice:
ARETHA – LIVE AT FILLMORE WEST on MFSL:
Track 9 “Spirit in the Dark” with Ray Charles
Aretha is in such total control of her voice that she (rather infamously) never sings a song the same way twice – she is completely improvisational depending on how the spirit moves her.
Listening through the Sennheiser HD 800 gave me a far greater sense of what this recording actually sounds like. Previously, I’d been disappointed by the quality of this recording. After hearing it anew via the HD 800, I am ready to admit that, despite the blemishes, this recording now has a sound that matches what must have been one massively impressive musical experience. The performance was always there, it’s just that now I can hear a new level of detail that was lost.
On this particular song the patter between Aretha and Ray Charles is very cleanly revealed and every nuance is easily distinguished. Each microphone buzz, every shout-out from the crowd, and every detail is now very clearly revealed. However, none of this is to the detriment of the music; to the contrary, it makes the performance that much more complete. It’s not as though these things are exposed or laid bare; the fact they are rendered so accurately just seems to add to the fullness and emotional impact of the event.
Bass lines are also very clearly revealed when listening through the Sennheiser … in this respect the AKG K701 is simply out of its league. The HD 800‘s bass is in NO way emphasized, but it is clear, fast, and a constant force that propels the music.
It’s wonderful to hear Aretha’s soulful sense of time, of which she is the undisputed master — she can delay a beat, twist a phrase and bend time, yet once you think she’s lost she always brings it back (often at the last instant) in perfect sync. Her rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is an amazing example of this. This particular song has particularly complex vocals on her part, where time gets compressed and she squeezes a lot of syllables in very quickly, to catch the beat at the end of a line or phrase. On most every system I’ve listened to this recording on, you simply have a difficult time distinguishing every nuance of her phrasing and modulation. Listening through the HD 800, you wonder how you never caught these details before.
GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN by THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA:
Track 1, “Last Month of the Year”
If you sing this type of music you spend a lot of time trying to clearly hear each vocal part; this is part of a tradition in Gospel music where learning is often by hearing, rote, and repetition. The HD 800 has tremendous resolving power in this regard; never before have I been able to distinguish each of the seven members’ voices so clearly.
Additionally, at the very end of this track there is some interesting modulation from the electronic organ on the last 18 seconds of the cut; I’ve never heard this so clearly rendered from beginning to end.
CHILL OUT by JOHN LEE HOOKER:
Track 6, “Tupelo”
Track 6, “Tupelo”
On this track you can clearly hear John’s toe-tapping and how it resonates and decays in the studio space. His guitar is beautifully rendered, yet his more aggressive playing never sounds as edgy as with most systems. His humming is clear whether he is doing it loudly or softly. He talks a lot of this song, and I’ve never heard his voice sound as clear and full.
Track 8, “Annie Mae”
The piano on this track is conveyed better than I’ve ever heard it before. Listen for John’s brief conversation with the pianist at the end of the track; it gives you a great sense of the resonance of the studio and, through the HD 800, it’s easy to believe you are right there with them.
MY OWN RECORDINGS:
I’ve also been astonished to hear things on my own recordings (mostly of choirs and vocal groups) that were buried just beneath the surface, things that I didn’t fully grasp were there. Subtle sounds from the crowd, a soft whoosh from a ventilation system, the rustle of papers or sound of remote footfalls — it’s all there. Since I have spent many hours editing and polishing these tracks, this struck me as a significant surprise. To hear something on one of your own recordings that you’d never heard clearly before — that says it all to me. The HD 800 is the Hubble Telescope of the audio world when it comes to clarity and resolving power.
One thing is important in this regard. Many products are ruthless when it comes to how they lay bare whatever is on a recording. Many times this leads to the “garbage in, garbage out” conclusion, where we assume that a poor recording alone must be the obvious reason that something sounds the way it does.
Somehow the Sennheiser has both superb resolution, excellent and extended response, AND a wonderful sense of sweetness and “rightness” that isn’t explained by charts and specifications. Do terrible recordings still sound that way on HD 800? Yes, to a degree, but here’s what distinguishes the sound of these headphones. I believe the Sennheisers are pulling more details and artifacts out of bad recordings, and that this adds a depth that makes these recordings more pleasing to listen to. It’s not because of any euphonic colorations or something the HD 800 is adding to the music.
One more thing anyone considering these headphones should know; it is critical to have a great headphone amp if you are going to get the best out of this product. Comparing the Sennheisers to my AKG K701s (with each driven by my Grace m902), the HD 800 requires roughly 20% more gain on the volume pot to reach the same level. The Grace m902 never runs out of steam or sounds as though it’s not up to the task, but I can’t say anything regarding how these headphones might sound on lesser equipment.
So, with that one caveat, I can’t imagine anyone buying these and not being thrilled. They are a rare product indeed — one that adds a significant new dimension to recordings you may have owned for years and thought you knew. I can’t find anything to complain about yet. I have a big head and rather large ears and can’t wear my AKG K701 for more than an hour without feeling some discomfort. While writing this I’ve been listening to the HD 800 for nearly four hours, with only a brief break in the middle (a guy has to eat, after all). There is no trace of pain or fatigue; these are, without a doubt, the most comfortable cans I’ve ever worn.
Are they worth the price for you? It simply depends on your expectations and how you view this type of thing. As a reference tool that allows me to improve my recording and editing skills, there is little doubt they are worth it to me.
If you are someone who doesn’t have the space or funds for a high-end system with speakers, I would suggest the HD 800 may actually be a bargain. I don’t think there are any speakers close to this price point that will offer you a more satisfying glimpse into recorded music. With a good digital source, a decent D/A converter and a good headphone amp, you could have a very nice listening system for $2,000 to $2,500. There aren’t many stand-alone systems with speakers that would touch the sound quality of such a system, and it’s important to note that speaker set-up and the balancing of room acoustics are now removed from the equation.
Lastly, please remember that these are simply my thoughts and opinions. You may feel very differently about some of my points and be convinced that I am dead wrong. If this is the case please remember that everything in my review is predicated on the concept of “what works for me, in my system, for my purposes, and for my unique ear/brain combination”. There may well be an “Absolute Sound”, but we all perceive it differently. As long as your system brings you musical enjoyment, I don’t care if it’s an AM table radio or a roomful of gear.
I hope this review is a useful tool for anyone considering these headphones. Happy listening, regardless; after all, there is so much music and so little time…