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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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Lunatique
Posted · Updated · 79849 Views · 10 Comments

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.

10 Comments:

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.
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