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Very good open headphones

A Review On: Sennheiser HD 800 Headphones

Sennheiser HD 800 Headphones

Rated # 3 in Over-Ear
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Pros: High level of clarity, very comfortable

Cons: Lack of mid-range quantity to balance against treble

Originally published on September 6, 2010


Note: this review is an exact cross-post from post #1 of this thread on Head-Fi, which contains some user discussion on the review that may be relevant to read: http://www.head-fi.org/t/511201/review-beyerdynamic-t1-vs-sennheiser-hd800

- download a printable 8-page PDF version of this review
- download a printable 9-page PDF version of the notes that were written for this review. The notes contain much more detailed info broken down by individual CD tracks and will probably be worth reading for those seeking even more info to assist with a buying decision. The notes should be considered a supplement and not a replacement for this review (as the review is not straight from the notes) - I recommend reading this review first and then reading the notes.


Post-review amp comparison installments (comparing M3 vs SPL Auditor):

- T1: http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/511201/review-beyerdynamic-t1-vs-sennheiser-hd800/75#post_6928382

- K701: http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/511201/review-beyerdynamic-t1-vs-sennheiser-hd800/75#post_6943875

- HD800: http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/511201/review-beyerdynamic-t1-vs-sennheiser-hd800/105#post_6985524


As is typical of previous reviews I've written on Head-Fi, the review that follows below is a comparative one—because writing about only one headphone does not put anything into context and without context it's impossible for anyone to determine how a headphone might sound through inference. In fact, this review assumes that the reader has heard one of the headphones that were used as a comparative reference—be it the T1 or HD800 themselves, or the AKG K701, Audio-Technica AD2000, Grado HP1000/HP2, or Sony Qualia 010. But for those who have not heard one of those headphones, I have also tried to accommodate for that as well, drawing from my cumulative headphone experience gained since 2006 through either buying/selling or exposure at Head-Fi meets. (All gear I've heard is listed in my profile for reference.)

Reviewer Biases & Info

My view of a headphone system is "source first" followed by headphones and then amp. In other words, a source of highest quality possible (assuming recordings of high quality also) should be paired with the most preferential-sounding headphone(s), to be driven by the most technically-optimal amp. In my view, the most technically-optimal amp is the one that provides sufficient power for all headphones being used without inflecting its own sonic signature, or minimally at least.

Some portions of the review below refer to the sound of live instruments. As an FYI to put those references into the proper context, I'm a trained violinist (learned via the Suzuki method for 12 years starting at age 6, then quit lessons at 18 and have been playing on and off since, and I'm 29 now) and have had the opportunity several times to play in a symphony orchestra, and I've attended classical-music concerts as well.

Equipment Setup

- Source component: Plinius CD-101 (CD player) (power cord: Signal Cable Silver Resolution Reference - directly into wall)
- RCA interconnects: BPT IC-SL
- Headphone amplifier: Rockhopper-built Balanced M3 (used in unbalanced mode)
- Other comparison headphones: AKG K701 (re-cabled with SAA Equinox), Audio-Technica AD2000 (re-cabled with APS V3), Grado HP1000/HP2 (re-cabled with APS V3), Sony Qualia 010 (re-cabled with Moon Audio Black Dragon)

Sennheiser HD800 vs AKG K701

Music used for this comparison:
- Alison Krauss & Union Station - Lonely Runs Both Ways - "A Living Prayer"
- Alison Krauss & Union Station - New Favorite - "The Lucky One"
- Carlos Kleiber w/ Vienna - Beethoven Symphonies No. 5 & 7 - No. 5 - "Allegro con brio"
- Eva Cassidy - Live at Blues Alley - "Autumn Leaves"
- Julia Fischer - Bach Concertos - Concerto for 2 violins in D minor - "I. Vivace", "III. Allegro"
- Massive Attack - Mezzanine - "Teardrop"
- Pierre Boulez w/ Vienna - Mahler Symphony No. 6 - "I. Allegro energico"
- Porcupine Tree - In Absentia - "Blackest Eyes"
- Priscilla Ahn - A Good Day - "Dream"
- Radiohead - In Rainbows - "Reckoner"
- Zero 7 - When It Falls - "Home"

It could be said that female vocals are one of the K701's strengths, as they're typically very prominent on the headphone as a result of being pushed forward in the mix. This can work for certain female vocalists, like Eva Cassidy and the ones part of Zero 7's group, but not all, notably Alison Krauss. Having heard Alison Krauss on other headphones, including live (at a music festival earlier this year in Colorado), I would say that the K701 portrayed her completely wrong—Alison does not have a particularly "strong" or "powerful" voice and typically sings at lower volumes too, but to make up for it her voice is crystal clear with an extremely "radiant" quality. I found that the K701 unnecessarily added to her lower vocal range and made her sound more "sultry" than "angelic." This was not the case on the HD800, which made her voice sound more correct at a higher register and also maintained her clarity and radiance. The HD800 also made Priscilla Ahn sound more authentic too, retaining the youthful "little girl" quality to her voice, while the K701 tuned her voice away from that "little girl" to something a bit more lower-pitched.

It's been said by other people on Head-Fi that the HD800 is a better version of the K701, but in actual comparative listening between the two headphones, I did not find many similarities to be able to call the HD800 a version of the K701—in fact, I found more differences between them than similarities. Both headphones have a large soundstage, but I found the HD800 to have the bigger one, injecting more air and space into the music than the K701—or in other words, displacing instruments more and translating displacement as a sort of reverb-type effect, like a larger auditorium than the K701 with more acoustically-reflective surfaces. The HD800 also had better frequency extension than the K701, by a wide enough margin that I would call it better in that aspect. The K701 for example missed the second-half of the 3rd note of the heartbeat rhythm on Massive Attack's "Teardrop" but the HD800 was able to audibly resolve this note. The HD800's treble was also able to clearly highlight aspects like guitar plucks, sliding, & string vibrations, cymbal tizzes, and other percussive impacts, while these were largely blurred over by the K701. Granted, the HD800 had a higher degree of clarity throughout the entire spectrum but its treble also brought out the aforementioned details more.

It's probably easier to contrast the two headphones overall—the K701 projected a large soundstage and brought forward the female vocal range while displacing everything else, gently rolled off the treble and bass, and exerted a high degree of control over the entire bass range. The HD800 projected an even larger soundstage with a noticeable "whoosh" of air within it, sounding flatter and significantly clearer throughout the mid-range, with more treble and bass extension & quantity—on the HD800, bass actually boomed and thudded, if it was there on the recording. The K701 also typically sounded better louder, but the HD800 sounded good even at moderate volume and maintained sonic integrity at lower volumes too. The two headphones also reacted differently at very high volume—the K701 sounded "harder" and lost control over multiple concurrent layers (blurring them as a result) while the HD800 didn't break its character and simply just sounded louder. There was also a different style between them—the HD800 simply sounded passive more than anything else, lacking a "directness" to the sound, and sounded more like a headphone playing music for you to analyze by ear. The K701 had a passive sound too but hid behind it better due to its smaller soundstage and closer instrument positioning for a more personal type of sound—in contrast to the HD800, which came across more as away & detached.

There are also some really critical points I have to assess against the HD800 (and K701) for classical music. While everyone may have their own sonic preference, there are certain things that some people will want and others won't. For example, violin tonality—which honestly I've heard very few headphones get correct, and neither the K701 nor the HD800 made violins sound natural. The K701 was too "dark" on them and didn't bring out their treble "brilliance," but the HD800 was too "bright" on them and made them sound too wispy and glossy. The K701 also struggled to separate individual violins in the two sections, but this was easily pulled off by the HD800. The HD800 also had better "macrodynamics," giving more impact & power into sudden volume bursts than the K701. The HD800 also had a faster impulse response that allowed it to better resolve minor details like rolling timpani and pizzicato. Yet, for all these seeming advantages of the HD800, its expanded soundstage & air was actually distracting and key tonalities were off too—violins as already mentioned, but also brass which didn't sound very sonorous.

Sennheiser HD800 vs Grado HP1000/HP2 (flat pads)

Music used for this comparison:
- Julia Fischer - Bach Concertos - Concerto for 2 violins in D minor - "III. Allegro"
- Zubin Mehta w/ Vienna - Mahler Symphony No. 2 - "III. In ruhig flieBender Bewegung"

There were just two musical selections for this comparison to answer just one question: would the venerable Grado HP1K make a stronger case for classical music? Answer: it depends on how you like your classical music to sound. The HD800 was vastly clearer-sounding with a lot more separation between the instruments—or in other words, the position of every instrument section was very discrete and widely spread out across the soundstage. The HP1000, on the other hand, had a compressed soundstage in comparison, almost 2D-like flat and not as wide. But then soundstage is not one of the HP1000's strengths, and neither is clarity, as any owner or fan of it could tell you.

The key strength of the HP1000 is what many of its fans call its "neutral" sound. I think "natural" is a better word for the HP1K, as it gave instruments the kind of sonic texture they need to sound authentic with a real presence, to transcend the headphone experience and make you think you're listening to real instruments (in terms of their sonic texture and body only, not necessarily because of anything else). "Musical" is a vague word but it's one of the words that came to mind listening to the HP1K versus the HD800, because with the HP1K it was easier to focus on the actual music—its concept, its style, its character. With the HD800, it was a lot less than that—it was easier to merely focus on listening to the instrument sections than the actual musical concept. Not that the HP1K's mid-range-focused sound had anything to do with this (whereas the HD800 could probably be considered treble-focused). No, it was completely in their contrasting presentations—the HD800's splitting/separation/diffusion (whatever you want to call it) versus the HP1K's cohesion and integration. The HD800 made it easier to follow the individual instrument sections as a result (sacrificing tonality and "musicality"), and the HP1K made it easier to follow the musical picture (sacrificing clarity and soundstage). To quantify this in a frequency sense, if one considers the HD800 to lack mid-range, then the HP1000 might be a polar opposite (and vice versa).

Sennheiser HD800 vs Beyerdynamic T1

Music used for this comparison:
- Anne Bisson - Blue Mind - "Camilio"
- Beyond Twilight - Section X - "The Path of Darkness"
- Global Communication - 76:14 - "4:02", "9:39"
- In Flames - The Jester Race - "Moonshield", "Artifacts of the Black Rain"
- Julia Fischer - Bach Concertos - Concerto for 2 violins in D minor - "III. Allegro"
- Katie Melua - Piece by Piece - "Shy Boy", "On the Road Again"
- Laika - Good Looking Blues - "Widows' Weed"
- Medeski Martin & Wood - Uninvisible - "Uninvisible", "Ten Dollar High"
- Megadeth - Countdown to Extinction [MFSL] - "Sweating Bullets"
- Meshuggah - Chaosphere - "New Millennium Cyanide Christ"
- Nightwish - Once - "Wish I Had An Angel", "Planet Hell"
- Orbital - The Middle of Nowhere - "Way Out"
- Pearl Jam - Ten - "Even Flow", "Alive"
- Rage Against The Machine - Rage Against The Machine - "Bombtrack", "Take The Power Back", "Know Your Enemy"
- Symphony X - Paradise Lost - "Oculus Ex Inferni", "Set the World on Fire", "The Walls of Babylon"
- The Crystal Method - Tweekend - "Murder", "Ten Miles Back"
- The Crystal Method - Vegas [Deluxe Edition] - "High Roller"
- The Prodigy - The Fat of the Land - "Smack My Bitch Up", "Breathe", "Diesel Power", "Fuel My Fire"
- Trifonic - Emergence - "Emergence", "Transgenic"

And finally for the real showdown, the so-called big guns. Which is the better headphone, the HD800 or T1? Well anyone reading this will probably expect my answer: it's not really that simple and both headphones have their strengths and weaknesses.

I'll start with the recurring subject of violin tonality in classical music, because personally it's a big issue for me as a violinist. My position is: if the violins don't sound real, forget it! And neither the HD800 or T1 delivered realistic violin tone—the HD800 was too bright and wispy and the T1 wasn't "light" enough. What does one do as a solution then? You get the right headphones—and in my case that usually means the Stax OII MKI amped by the HeadAmp BHSE, which achieves the perfect tone. No other headphones need apply. Bam, done. Can't afford the OII/BHSE? IMO the next best solution after that is the Grado HP1000, or if that one is too expensive also, then the Sennheiser HD600.

Next subject, electronica. For ambient electronica specifically, only the Sennheiser HD800 was remotely good enough to do it justice, while the T1 was not, primarily due to the HD800's superior overall clarity, treble tilt, and faster impulse response. Ambient electronica is often buried in lots of layers (more than the average song in any other music genre) and requires a very hi-fi transducer to reveal them all cleanly and clearly—and in the case of Global Communication, Laika, and Trifonic, only the HD800 had the right amount of "clean & clear" to make these artists sound good. The T1 didn't have the silent background required for this type of music and its lack of treble and clarity worked against the type of detail inherent to ambient electronica. Not that the HD800 was perfect though, it was just better at this—as there are other headphones that have even more "clean & clear" sounds, like the Sony SA5000 & Qualia 010. For more bass-driven electronica like The Crystal Method, The Prodigy, etc, the T1 is probably a better choice than the HD800, but not the best one there is. The T1 had more bass quantity in general and delivered a good amount of bass impact and its low extension nearly matched the Audio-Technica AD2000's too. But the T1 didn't deliver a particularly strong bass overall and its slow impulse response held it back from being ideal—the Audio-Technica AD2000 probably being a better choice for people who want a powerful low bass response that's also extremely fast.

Metal is a tricky genre for headphones to handle, as it goes in a lot of different directions. But if there's one commonality in most of metal, it's speed combined with aggression, and the HD800 was consistently too passive-sounding to really get into metal and give it that needed aggression. I will say simply that the HD800 was boring with metal, and who wants boring metal? The T1, on the other hand, was a much better choice for metal, primarily due to its fuller mid-range/mid-bass and smaller soundstage, allowing every band to sound closer and more personal. The T1 simply had a very good direct and assertive sound that made it work very well for a wide variety of metal. However, the T1 wasn't completely ideal for some types of metal, like thrash metal, as its impulse response couldn't quite keep up with some of the faster sequences. For that type of metal, another headphone would be recommended instead, and I've personally gotten better experiences for thrash metal with the Audio-Technica AD2000, JH Audio JH13, and Stax OII MKI.

And finally, jazzy or pop female vocals is one of the most pedestrian forms of music, as it's typically easy for almost any headphone to sound good with and the artists spun for this (Anne Bisson, Katie Melua) didn't really reveal much that wasn't already discovered before, other than perhaps that piano was more realistic sounding on the T1 with its generally richer tone.


A very thorough and well-organized review.  
Would you say that the best or natural tone of violins from headphones goes HP1000 > HD600 > HD800?  Timbre and tone are important to me, but unlike your trained ear my characterization of timbre and tone for strings is probably a preference rather than true accuracy. 
Yes, I'd agree with how you ordered those 3 headphones for natural violin tone, but I consider the HD800 quite a ways off from the HD600 and would probably put it this way instead: HD600 >>>> HD800.
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