Pros: extreme detail retrieval capabilities; vast soundstage; very comfortable.
Cons: possibly the price; some may prefer a more coloured sounding headphone.
Intro: my first encounter with the HD 800
A few months after discovering the world of high-end headphones I auditioned two of Sennheiser’s HD series, the HD 600 and the HD 800, side-by-side in a local hi-fi store. From the first moment I listened with the HD 800, I was amazed at how deeply I was able to peer into my favorite recordings and hear new details like never before. Though the HD 800 initially sounded a little bit bright to me in relation to what I would describe as ‘natural,’ I found its pristine sound reproduction to be a revelation, and for about an hour I listened in awe with the two HD series headphones.
Following that initial listening session, I wasn’t completely sold on the HD 800. Yes, it sounded like a fantastic musical microscope, but it seemed expensive and a bit too thin sounding and treble-centric for my preference of totally natural sounding instrumental timbres. But those concerns were secondary to the exacerbated ringing in my ears after the listening session. That sure wasn’t my idea of fun, so I left the HD 800 alone for a while…
Reacquaintance with the HD 800
Eighteen months after my first encounter with the HD 800 and with more listening experience under my belt - including time with some of the world’s finest headphones - I found myself having the Audez’e LCD-2 as my main headphone, meticulously EQ’d by me to a more neutral response that revealed more of the upper level details that the LCD-2 seemed to lack in stock format.
As I continued to browse in the head-fi and related community, I discovered an article by Tyll Hertsens in which he rated the HD 800 as one the best headphones on the planet, and that the implementation of a simple mod alleviates the treble issues that many people experience with the HD 800 (more on that later). That was all I needed to see - my curiosity for the HD 800 was reactivated in that moment, and within a few days I had visited a hi-fi store in Germany (where I was on vacation at the time with family and friends) and given the HD 800 over an hour’s listening time. I really liked what I heard this time.
When I got back from Germany, I A/B’d my custom EQ’d LCD-2 with an HD 800 and was so suitably impressed that I decided to buy a used, next-to-new condition HD 800, and I’m very glad I did.
Equipment used during this review
All listening tests referred to in this review were done using the HD 800 and – unless otherwise indicated – either 320 kbps MP3s, lossless audio files, or CDs, fed via a JPS Labs Optical Cable to the Lavry DA10 DAC/Amp. At various times I had a number of other headphones on hand for relative comparisons inc. the Audez’e LCD-2, the Sennheiser HD 600 and HD 25, another HD 800, and the Grado PS1000. I often switched between them but there were other times when I just listened with HD 800 for extended periods.
Packaging and comfort
The HD 800 comes stored inside a black cardboard storage box similar to those of Sennheiser’s HD 6x0 headphones, but the HD 800’s box is lined with black satin and feels much more luxurious. Reading the HD 800 manual gave me a much greater appreciation for the craftsmanship of the HD 800 and Sennheiser’s meticulous creation standards. Though I was impressed by what I read and felt reassured that the HD 800 is an exquisitely constructed product, it seemed obvious that the proof of the pudding would be in the listening with the HD 800.
In terms of comfort, the HD 800 is probably the most comfortable headphone I have ever worn. It is light to wear and disappears from my awareness after a few minutes, revealing just the music/recording.
HD 800 listening experiments
Here are some of my findings about how listening with the HD 800 sounds to me:
Being used to the Audez’e LCD-2, which is a slightly dark-sounding headphone with emphasized bass presentation by default, I found listening with the HD 800 being like lifting a veil from what I was used to hearing with the LCD-2. When it comes to detail retrieval, the HD 800 is simply unmatched by any other flagship headphone I’ve yet heard.
On another note, when listening with the HD 800 since receiving it, I’ve often found myself audibly exclaiming the word ‘amazing’ quite a lot. It’s a welcome bonus and a ‘wow factor’ that I seem to experience relative to the clarity and precision of the HD 800, which to me is not the cold, soulless listen that many make it out to be. In my experience, when our thinking clears and we just listen, what we listen to always clearly speaks to us.
Soundstage and instrumental definition
No other headphone that I’ve heard has a soundstage as expansive as the HD 800’s - it’s wide, very deep (from back to front as well as from top to bottom), and very immersive for the listener. Every instrument on any recording I’ve played with the HD 800 sounds clearly positioned in the mix.
Hearing so much sonic detail presented at once can be a lot of information to take in may be quite fatiguing for casual music listeners used to a less revealing headphone-based listening experience. But the extensive detail revealed by the HD 800 is very impressive.
it’s clear to me why the HD 800 is considered a top choice for many audio professionals who work with open headphones: if it’s on the recording, the HD 800 will reveal it.
When listening to a recording of a live session I participated in a few days ago, I initially reached for my stalwart LCD-2. Then, when some instrumental details on the recording seemed to elude me, I switched to the HD 800 and almost immediately, what was muddy and unclear on the recording with the LCD-2 became clear with the HD 800. There was no harsh brightness and no colourations, just what’s on the recording. It was a very welcome surprise.
That realization confirmed for me that any excessively undesirable colourations that I’ve heard with the HD 800, such as overly bright and grating treble, must have been to an extent due to the recordings played. And it seems obvious that for an optimal listening experience with the HD 800, high quality recordings are a must.
That said, I do not find the HD 800 to be colourless, it clearly sounds like is has a slightly brighter, treble-happy sound than what sounds ‘natural’ to me i.e. the sound I heard when a musician performs in front of me.
In terms of bass presentation, I initially thought the HD 800 sounded very anemic, but after some more listening it was clear that bass with the HD 800 is fully represented, ultra clear sounding, and extensive, and, due to the HD 800’s design, delivered in a less intense way than the LCD-2, which seemed to thrust the sound upon this listener’s ears with weightier sonic heft than the HD 800, which has a more delicate and articulate way of delivering sound.
When A/Bing the HD 800 and LCD-2 it was clear to me that whilst the HD 800 is a less weighty-feeling/sounding listen than the LCD-2. The bass of the HD 800 is clearer than that of the LCD-2 in a very similar way to how the HD 600 has a clearer, more well-defined and less bloated bass presentation than the HD 650; the bass presentation sounded leaner with the HD 800 yet still very full.
Another factor contributing to both the bass quality and quantity of the HD 800 is most definitely the recording fed to it, which is something I’ve already touched on briefly. When listening to the HD 800 in Germany and exploring a pile of CDs in the shop there, I noticed that the audio quality I was hearing changed greatly from disc to disc. At another time, when listening to the Steely Dan back catalogue, I noticed there was a huge difference between the sonic quality of Can’t Buy A Thrill (1973) and Two Against Nature (2000), with the latter sounding much larger, weightier, and clearer.
Lastly, for those in doubt of the HD 800’s ability to deliver much bass, I recommend listening to a recording with plentiful bass in the recording, such as the track One More Time by Daft Punk. That’s all the proof I need to know that the HD 800 is capable of delivering very deep and satisfyingly full-sounding bass.
The midrange of the HD 800 is very clear and sounds more ‘etched’ than the LCD-2, which has a smoother and more liquid midrange presentation that’s also more intimate than the HD 800. When listening to Dave Grohl’s vocals on the Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light album, his voice sounded smooth and rounded with the LCD-2, but more jagged, cold, and acerbic at times with the HD 800. To my ears the HD 800 don’t reproduce instrument sounds with as natural-sounding a tone as the LCD-2 do, but the HD 800 reveals many more of the sonic nuances of Dave’s vocals on the same track due to the HD 800’s ultra detailed, and prominent treble presentation.
I find this can be the strongest/weakest point of the HD 800 depending on how it is perceived. First, the HD 800’s treble is very fast and clear. To me it often seems as though it can extend upwards indefinitely, which to me seems partly due to the HD 800’s vast soundstage. On Donald Fagen’s Morph The Cat album, the air/ambience around drummer Keith Carlock’s hi-hat playing on the opening track was clearly revealed by the HD 800; in fact, every articulation on every recording I listened to with the HD 800 is as clear as a blue sky on a cloudless sunny day. That’s quite an achievement from Sennheiser!
However, such extreme clarity can have its drawbacks. First, since the HD 800 reveals everything on a recording, if there are flaws present in a recording you are listening to, the HD 800 will lay them bare. This could detract from listening enjoyment for some listeners, in which case a headphone more forgiving of low-quality recordings, such as the HD 600, HD 650 or the Audez’e LCD-2, may be a better option. But that said I have yet found that the HD 800 has prompted me towards appreciating quality recordings more, in harmony with the musical message being expressed.
If recordings fed to the HD 800 are bright and edgy, bordering on harsh for artistic effect, such as on the Foo Fighter’s Wasting Light album, or, to a greater extent, Tool’s Lateralus album, listening with the HD 800 can be quite hard on your hearing. If you listen to a lot of recordings of the aforementioned nature or similar, the HD 800 may not be the right headphone for you, but that said, there are workarounds for the HD 800’s prominent treble, a few of which I’ll now discuss.
Taming the HD 800's treble
The HD 800’s treble has been the most frequently occurring issue that I have seen people express about the HD 800. So far I have found a few ways around it:
As soon as I read about the Anaxilus mod (nicely collated here) I wanted to try it, so I did. After applying it, I thought that the mod tamed the HD 800’s treble to the point where it is still very clear but not to the point of sounding as harsh as it did when the HD 800 was unmodded. I also saw that to be true when I A/B’d my modded HD 800 with an unmodded demo HD 800 - to me, the anaxilus mod has the effect of adding slight veil to the HD 800’s treble, resulting in less air round instruments in the upper treble region and a slightly thicker sounding bass presence.
Using a parametric EQ applied to my Mac’s system audio, I EQ’d the HD 800 to a more neutral response, in accordance with the headphone.com website’s suggestion of the ideal frequency response for headphones being a flat line descending from 1 kHz down 10 dB to 20 kHz. The result of such EQ with the HD 800 was like adding a veil to the sound of the standard HD 800. The overly bright treble was gone – and in synchrony with that the clearly etched definition of instruments was reduced – and listening to recordings with the EQ felt like a more casual and perhaps carefree experience, a bit like I recall listening to music with the HD 600.
I’ve heard from other head-fi members that using an aftermarket cable can tame the HD 800’s treble, and based on my own previous experiments with cables, I’m sure a cable could definitely soften the overall sound of the HD 800. I’ve not experienced that first hand, but I am due a loaner cable that is currently in the post to me from another head-fi member (thanks).
Using an amp that softens the sound of the HD 800, such as a tube amp, is the most commonly suggested solution I’ve seen to that, but I’ve mainly being using the Lavry DA10 which is a wire-with-gain type amp that is quite colourless and precise sounding. It doesn’t tame the HD 800 treble though.
Cross-genre suitability of the HD 800
I know that many people want the ultimate headphone, the ‘one set of cans to rule them all’ and have just one headphone. Depending on your preference the HD 800 may or may not fulfill that purpose.
The HD 800 excels at accurately presenting the overall relative tonal balance of the recordings it is fed and in that case will work well with any recording on a technical level, provided the source doesn’t get in the way.
Treble-lovers will be in heaven with the HD 800, and music such as classical, jazz, and acoustic-based forms will sound crystal clear, as clear as the recordings. Bassheads may be better offlooking elsewhere, unless their ideal definition of bass is clean, clear, deep, and articulate sounding, in which case the HD-800 could be a really interesting and welcome point of interest.
Listeners of electronic music may simply want a headphone that has more bass weight for such styles of music, and I’m grateful that I still have the LCD-2, however I didn’t find the HD 800 to be lacking in bass as what’s on recordings is accurately represented, but given the choice I most probably prefer the HD 800 more if it presented bass frequencies with extra weight.
With most pop/rock/metal music I fed it, the HD 800 sounded very clear but lacking in weight and true to life timbre whilst being slightly brighter than ‘natural.’ A more weighty-sounding headphone such as the LCD-2/3 or the Grado PS1000 may be a better choice for pop/rock/metal listeners.
The HD 800 is a landmark in headphone craftsmanship that, from the completely new design of the driver housing to the ring radiator drivers to the cable connectors, is a musical microscope that often reveals recordings with the utmost precision in a way that sounds slightly brighter than natural to me. (If timbre is your highest value in headphone election then you may be satisfied with the HD 800, but you may prefer something slightly darker sounding, relatively, like the LCD-2/3.)
Due to the HD 800’s ability to retrieve the smallest details on a recording, its sound signature can be quite demanding for the listener and most probably won’t be to every listener’s preference as some listeners just want a headphone that is ‘fun’ and not overly analytical. But to those who enjoy the HD 800’s sonic footprint, it may be the only headphone you ever need.
Those who appreciate the HD 800 in some ways and not others could sell it or keep it and supplement it with a different, perhaps warmer sounding headphone that’s still of decent quality such as the Stax 007, Audez’e LCD-2 or, Sennheiser HD 650.
Overall, I truly recommend the HD 800 as a world-class headphone suitable for the most discerning of ears, and for those who want to go deeper into exploring the recordings they know thought they knew, and love.