I’ve been a “headphone audiophile” for the better part of 5 years now, searching for the elusive holy grail of headphone systems. During that time I’ve had the pleasure of auditioning some of the best headphones from every significant manufacturer, including the AKG K701 and K1000, Beyerdynamic T1, Stax Omega 2, Sennheiser HD600/HD650 and HE60, Grado RS-1, PS-1 and GS-1000, Audio-Technica W5000, W11JPN, and L3000, Ultrasone Edition 9, and others. Some of these I’ve even owned myself for periods of time.
Audio nirvana is a very personal thing. What sounds magical to me and sends chills down my spine might well sound artificial and grating to another. That is the nature of this hobby. With almost every top-tier headphone system I have tried, something has been lacking. Sometimes this “something” could be quantifiable – overly harsh treble response, lack of bass impact, flat or unrealistic soundstaging, and so forth – but often it could not be. The headphone simply didn’t move me, didn’t connect with me emotionally throughout the gamut of diverse musical genres I listen to. The Sennheiser HD800 is one of the very few headphones that have done so.
I have very eclectic musical tastes, ranging from psytrance and electronica, to Celtic and new age, metal, pop, progressive rock, modern jazz, and even some blues and easy listening. Sting and The Corrs are frequently queued right alongside Tool and Shpongle on my playlist, for example. Any headphone that aspires to a long term place in my rig, therefore, needs to be first and foremost a capable all-rounder. One-trick ponies often have a big initial “wow” effect; “The bass on these is incredible!”, “I’ve never heard so much detail before!”, and so forth. This kind of focussed excellence is often found in high end headphones whose manufacturers are known for having a “house sound” that appeal to a niche market. Grados, for instance, tend to excel at rock. Their unique combination of lush, tonally rich midrange and fast, well-textured bass impact make them ideally suited to the genre. But you won’t often find a classical music lover relying on the RS-1 as their primary headphone. Grado have addressed this in their own way, with the GS-1000 being the soundstageous departure from their typical house sound, but such an approach doesn’t appeal to me personally. I’m not a headphone collector, and I don’t want to be reaching for a different headphone every time a new song starts on my playlist. Is a headphone that excels at everything and has no glaring weaknesses an unrealistic expectation? Not any longer.
Build quality and comfort
An aspect of high end headphone listening that’s often overlooked is comfort and build quality. To me, this area is every bit as important as how a headphone sounds. What good is it to find a headphone that sounds sublime, only to be prevented from losing yourself in it because your ears are being rubbed raw?
The HD800, thankfully, doesn’t suffer from this shortcoming. In fact, it’s one of the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever worn. It might lack the luxuriance of leather padding found on some high end Ultrasones, or even the Denon imitation pleather, but it makes up for that with huge earcups that do not touch the ears at all. And despite the size of the headphone, the HD800 is remarkably lightweight, which contributes to the feeling of the headphones simply disappearing when one puts them on.
The stock headphone cable is also one of the very few that I’ve actually liked. It seems very resistant to kinking, is not microphonic at all, and is lightweight enough not to cause cable drag. A cable that gets out of the way and doesn’t remind you it’s there is a good cable.
It’s far too easy to simply forget about critical listening with the HD800 on, and just enjoy the music. However for the sake of this review I’ll bust out the reference tracks and see how the headphone performs when put under the microscope. The HD800 was burned in for at least 100hrs prior to critical listening, and run through the following system:
Foobar configured with WASAPI for bit-perfect output, playing FLAC > HeadAmp Pico DAC > Jaycar 80W pure class A discrete amplifier > HD800 with stock cable.
First up is Shpongle’s Dorset Perception, a complex electronica passage that excels at testing a headphone’s imaging abilities. Throughout the intro of this track the HD800 keeps up with the increasingly chaotic soundstage, isolating each musical image in its own space and minimising “bleed” between them. I was able to take in the whole picture, as well as isolate and listen to each individual instrument in the soundfield without much effort on my part.
Moving on to Porcupine Tree’s Heartattack In A Layby, a test of ambiance and midrange presence. There’s a deep reverberation present in this track that underlies the vocal, and the challenge for a headphone is to present this reverberation in such a way that it emphasises the vocal rather than swamps it. Again the HD800 performs admirably, Steven Wilson’s voice rendered faithfully amidst the layers of electric guitar. More importantly, the overall emotional message of the track is communicated, creating an eerie feeling of transposition out of oneself and into the story of the music.
Alright, let’s try something with some grit. Onto Metallica’s Enter Sandman, from their celebrated Black album. An unhealthy few decibels of increased volume later and I was out of my chair yelling “Eeeeexit light! Eeeeenter night!”, much to the annoyance of my neighbours I’m sure. The power metal of Hammerfall was likewise rendered with sufficient crash-of-rhinos impetus to get me head banging. Sure, the Denons and Grados can rock harder, let that never be questioned. But the HD800 CAN rock, and it can rock well.
Lastly, Loreena McKennitt’s The Highwayman to test the HD800’s capabilities with female vocals. Her sweet, effortless voice is rendered with such conviction on these headphones that this proved another moment of eerie transposition for me. The palpability of Loreena’s voice, combined with the wide, holographic soundstage of the HD800’s transport me to the lonely road in the moonlight, up to the old inn door... linked arm in arm with Loreena as she sings the story of the Highwayman. I do not feel the HD800 lacked anything in conveying the atmosphere of this track.
The HD800 is one of the best all-rounder high-end headphones I’ve heard. To my listening experience, it has 3 main competitors – the Stax Omega 2, the Sennheiser HE60, and the bass-heavy AKG K1000. All of them perform similarly (or even slightly better) than the HD800, but all cost considerably more, only one of them is still in production (the Omega 2), and they all demand very specialised systems to drive them. This is not to say the HD800 isn’t a picky beast to drive as well, because it certainly is. Sennheiser designed them to be as open a window into the music as possible, and that goal is what they have achieved. If anything is lacking in your connected equipment, you’re going to hear it.
Regardless, anyone who (like me) values a headphone which excels at many things rather than one, and has the ability to connect the listener to the emotional message of their music definitely owes it to themselves to try the HD800. I doubt you will be disappointed.
Sennheiser HD800 Review