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A bit overrated

A Review On: Sennheiser HD 800 Headphones

Sennheiser HD 800 Headphones

Rated # 3 in Over-Ear
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Pros: Comfortable, detailed, big soundstage

Cons: Artificial sounding, anemic in the bass, can be too bright, overpriced

I have listened to the HD800 twice, and I never really warmed up to it. And to clarify, they were not casual listening sessions--I took my time and did the listening under the following condition:


-In a controlled environment without distraction and noise

-Used high-end audio source and gears in the signal chain

-Had other flagship headphones there to do direct comparisons with

-Had ample time to do the listening tests, and took as long as I wanted


I should also clarify that I'm an audio professional (composer, songwriter, sound designer) that have worked in both high-end recording/mixing/mastering studios, as well as have built my own studio twice in two different countries (the first one was build completely from the ground up, with my own design in construction and acoustic treatment). I have extensive experience measuring, testing, assessing audio on a critical level, and when I say I "listened" to the HD800, what I mean is I actually tested it used audio test tones (sine wave tones at different frequencies, pink noise, log sweep) and a carefully selected playlist of musical material that I know like the back of my hands that spans many musical genres, and used them to assess specific capabilities of the headphone.


My overall impression of the HD800 was that Its clarity and resolution sounded artificial to me instead of natural (a spike in the upper mids region), and it had no authority in the sub-bass region. I'm one of those people who simply cannot consider a pair of headphones to be "amazing" or "the best of" if it's lacking neutrality in a chunk of the frequency range.


A amazing pair of headphones should sound like a full-range speaker system that reaches down to at least 30Hz and remains substantial and authoritative--anything less than that is not "amazing" to me. Now, pardon me for turning into a pig for a moment and fall back on the classic but eyebrow-raising comparison to a woman. It's sort of like if a girl is really hot with an awesome body, but her ass is flat, barely able to fill any pair of jeans--would that still be considered an amazing body? (This comparison is actually quite fitting in a humorous way, since low frequency in audio is often referred to as the "bottom-end.") Even the HD650 has more sub-bass extension and weight, and it costs far less than the flagship model.


I understand that there's a portion of people whose idea of neutral bass is in fact anemic bass to me, but most people have no idea what a neutral frequency range sounds like, because they have never heard true full-range sound before. Anyone who's ever heard a full-range speaker system that reaches down to 30Hz or lower while maintaining ± 3 dB, will know that neutral bass in in fact quite authoritative and substantial.


There are headphones out there that can reach down low and feel very authoritative--for example, the Audeze LCD-2 and LCD-3, Stax 009, 007MKII, Denon AH-D7000, D5000, D2000, Audio-Technica ATH-M50, etc, so it's not like the HD800 is somehow limited by physics--it was a choice the engineers at Sennheiser made. (These days, more and more headphones on the market can reach down that low and sound authoritative in the sub-bass region, and it's now starting to become the standard. Flagship headphones that can't achieve a proper sense of weight in the sub-bass are now becoming more rare, and sticks out among all the other flagship headphones that could.)


If the lack of full sub-bass was the only issue, I'd have been fine with the HD800, but it is also overtly bright in the upper mid-range, which can be shrill/sibilant on some material, and that breaks my number one rule of audio: "First, do no harm." When any audio gear produces sound that is too bright, it becomes grating and it hurts your ears, and when that happens, it's a deal breaker for me.


Many defenders of this attribute of the HD800 will go to lengths to remedy the problem by buying stupidly expensive headphone amps or other unnecessary audio gadgets to tame that brightness, and they would proclaim that if one used a sufficiently high-end tube amp, the HD800 will sound much better. Really? It appears the marketing department of high-end audio gear companies are doing a damn fine job selling absurd diminishing returns. A pair of headphones is not supposed to have inherent problems that needs to be fixed with yet another piece of expensive gear in the first place. If someone tried to pull that in the professional audio world, they'd get laughed out of the marketplace. This isn't to say there aren't too-bright sounding professional monitor speakers, but at least they were designed with onboard EQ's and measuring mics to adjust according to the room acoustics. If you want to alter the sonic signature of any audio gear--use an actual EQ, not an expensive amp used like a single-preset EQ. 


Some people say the HD800 is very revealing, like a sonic microscope. Well, so were the Yamahama NS10's--the legendary monitor speakers that's dominated the pro audio world for decades, but they were used only in the context of being a mixing/mastering tool, and only for troubleshooting potential problems. No one uses them for leisurely listening or a balanced overall presentation, because they were too bright and lacked authoritative sub-bass. If you're not using the HD800 in that way and are listening for pleasure, I think you can find aural bliss in another pair of high-end headphones that doesn't do as much harm and has a more full-range sound.


A very superficial view. 
Fortunately, the HD800 is not Nicki Minaj.
I guess you don't get the analogy of how sub-bass frequency is referred to as the "bottom end" of the frequency range, while buttocks on a person is also referred to as the "bottom end." It has nothing to do with being superficial--it was an apt analogy while being a bit tongue-in-cheek. And to be clear, I'm a composer/sound designer with a professional audio production studio, so my assessment of audio gear is from the point-of-view of a serious audio professional.
Word of honor I have respect for your professional activity, but the fact that you are a composer / sound designer is not unconditional argument. I am well acquainted with many of your colleagues, and I know what qualifications / competence at all different. I am a professional painter, but if I tell you that Mona Liza is daub (I do not think so) you are unlikely to believe it. And thank God!
Although, if you say that Beethoven is your name - I will apologize!
By the way, my personal opinion - HD 800 are extraordinary headphones, Stradivarius-headphones.
Well... I fully agree with your review. Well stated.
I think he'll come crawling back to the cross eventually... his impressions mirrors my own the first time I tried the HD800. It is not a headphone you should be quick to judge. It is also very transparent, it can be bright, dark, smooth, harsh... depends on the gear.
Good review, thanks,
oooh come on yuo lot. If it sounds radically different to pretty much all the other high end phones - Stax 009, LCD2/3 etc etc then it is they are ALL wrong, or the HD800 are inaccurate. This argument has been going round the forums ever since these phones were made, and it seems to me that they do some things really well, but others very poorly. Lets face it, who wants a track car to drive to work?

There are enough great high end phones out there to not compromise this much IMHO.

I just wish Sennheiser would make a Planar or Electrostatic to take on the high end offerings. Then I would get excited!
I don't think listening to something twice gives you enough experience with something to review it.
@kalrykh - It depends on who's doing the listening. If it's someone who has extensive experience with audio gear, worked as an audio professional, know exactly what to listen for, uses audio test tones and a carefully selected playlist of musical material that he knows like the back of his hands and use them to assess specific capabilities of the gear, and was listening in a controlled environment without distraction and noise, was using high-end audio source and gears in the signal chain, had other flagship headphones there to do direct comparisons with, and had ample time to do the listening tests, then even just one listen session is enough. 
Thanks Lunatique for your review; this is helpful.
Thank you Lunatique! I actually signed up just to leave this comment. I have read a lot about the HD800 and have been listening to it for the last two days. As a non-audio-professional, I was amazed at first at the huge amount of detail. With that, it was a lot of fun to listen to tracks that I thought I knew by heart and suddenly finding new things in them.
BUT, I was very disappointed by their lack in the "bottom-end" ;) as well as by their obvious harshness / brightness. I wasn't sure I could listen to them for long in the long run. So, I am happy that I found your review, because I was already starting to think I might have "strange ears", when everyone is hyping them so much while I wasn't able to "look over" their (to me) obvious flaws.
A little off-topic here: As I trust your input - is it safe to say that a HD600 would be the best choice in the lower price segment for "pleasure" listening?
It is not, that I didn't have pleasure seeing all those details with the HD800, but it was just lacking the "power", the musical "feel" that I expect from listening to rock music.
@Philipondio - Generally speaking, the entire HD5XX/6XX line of headphones are a little lacking in sub-bass (but otherwise are great headphones). The HD650 is a little better but it's still not quite there compared to newer headphones today that can reach to 30Hz or lower and maintain a fairly flat response. 
The "Wall of Fame" at InnerFidelity run by Tyll Hertsens is currently the most authoritative source for best headphones in every price range and format. There's no other source that's as knowledgeable, comprehensive, and with equally good taste as what Tyll is doing at InnerFidelity: http://www.innerfidelity.com/content/innerfidelitys-wall-fame
Tyll favors the HD600 more than the HD650, but I prefer the smoother sound and slightly more filled out sub-bass of the HD650. Neither are as satisfying as could be, and I think you'll have to maybe spend a little more for something that can reach lower and remain flatter in the frequency response.
I don't know if you have to have open headphones or you're okay with closed, and if so, take a look at the excellent closed headphones in the same price range as the HD6XX series--some probably are a bit better in terms of having fuller range and overall a bit more neutral (which is critical for the best audio reproduction. There is no better "sonic signature" than simply audio reproduction that's as neutral/transparent as possible. All colorations are inherently flawed and problematic because they skew the frequency response in subject manners that may or may not be ideal for different people's tastes or music genre, while neutral/transparent sound skews nothing and make everything sound simply as they should.
Great review! I'm not an audio professional like you, but I find my listening experience very similar to yours. 
The HD800's have pretty good sub-bass extension, according to every graph I've seen and my own hearing. I guess an argument could be made for elevated bass in headphones due to the lack of bone conduction.
Interesting you reference InnerFidelity while talking about how overrated these are where he says of the HD 800s:
"When I set up my lab, the only headphones I knew I had to buy were a pair of Sennheiser HD 800s--they are as close to perfect as a headphone gets."
It did not take me more than 3 mins to dislike these headphones. There is a huge void in the low and mid end frequencies. My songs which would normally have a thump, was entirely lacking. The high end had too much treble. Voices lacked warmth became of the missing bass. They shrieked and hurt my ear. 
I don't get it. How can people think this is the best headphone is beyond me! They "may" have a wide sound stage but so what? They're missing a lot of things. I still love my Grado PS500 over these by far and even the rest of the Grado line! They are still the best headphones I have experienced without the requirement of amplifiers.
I would tend to agree, the HD800s are very precise headphones, built with an unbelievably great chassis, and are super comfortable to wear. But that's where my compliments stop. It doesn't really do what other headphones near or even below it's price point can do with similar, if not more detail.
I've never heard these headphones so i can't comment on that, but as i was reading your review i felt the urge to point out that neutral bass is surprisingly little for some people. And also that the vast majority of music, with real recorded instruments, does not go near 30hz. So unless people have a lot of experience conducting ensembles with people playing the bottom octave of an organ, piano or contrabassoon, it's very difficult to know what exactly a perfect response to that region sounds like. It's also an awkward spot for our ears, because sensitivity to a given pitch will decrease drastically below 60hz 
@TadCat - Modern entertainment has ample sonic information down low near 30Hz, such as movie and video game sound effects and soundtracks. Because of that, I think most people should care whether their headphones can product low sub-bass with enough power and control, and today's headphone manufacturers should strive to reproduce sonic information as low as what is common in movie and video game audio production. 
I agree. For example Pink Floyd 'welcome to the machine' and the intro to Dark Side of the Moon both have a lot of energy below 30hz. I now this as I can drop it out on a 32 band graphic and can tell it has gone (in my Stax 009s). This is a really old recording. Modern recording have even more information and texture going on in the sub registers.
The other thing is, if you take away that foundation, like building a house on sand, the whole thing sounds hollow and weak. It is absolutely required IMO.
I used to be a DJ in clubs, and club mix vinyl had a lot of energy below 30hz, it was enough to vibrate the building, so don't tell me it is not here please...
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