Pros: 21st Century Design. Detail Kings. Soundstage Kings. Comfort Kings.
Cons: Price. Needs Expensive Amplification.
Not that there haven't been a hundred thousand things written on this most-controversial headphone-- but what the heck are we here for if not to give our opinion, right? So sit back with a cup of coffee, while I'll tell the story of my HD 800 experience.
It's funny-- there's a growing Apple-Microsoft type environment growing in the Head-Fi community. It's between HD 800 owners and fans, and Audeze owners and fans. If you read any forum with the omni-present headline "Which Headphone Should I Buy?" the two sides make themselves known in subtle ways. "Well if you're looking for comfort, you can't go wrong with the HD 800," writes one post. "Way more comfortable than the LCD-2." Next post: "What? You're crazy! I've had my LCD's cranked on my head for like 10 hours today. Look! There's still on my head and I didn't know it!" "Well Sennheiser has been around for seven hundred years. You know they'll be here after the world explodes and you need new earpads after the firestorm scorches them." "At Audeze, they hand craft every single component and skip Valentine's Day because the love goes into their products." And on and on the debate goes.
Point is-- Everyone is going to be predisposed to one type of headphone or another. I haven't owned an Audeze headphone yet. I will in the next year or two. Right now I'm still finding the edge of the envelope for the HD 800, and it's getting interesting.
I started my Head-Fi journey in the shallow end. I needed wanted a custom in-ear headphone which really blocked out sound, so I stumbled across Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors and went through the process of acquiring a pair. Amazed by the fidelity, I started looking for opinions and found Head-Fi and Headfonia-- which led me to the Slim Pico Amp. Impressed, I thought I'd try an open ear set of cans for home-- so I bought the HD 650. Then I thought-- let's put some power down-- so I bought a Burson 160D. Great, but lots of treble-- let's find a smooth tube amp! Enter the Woo WA6. Then I rolled a thousand+ dollars in tubes into it-- and bought the HD 800. You can already see-- this story isn't going to end well.
The HD 800 out of the Burson and the WA6 were a subtle upgrade over the HD 650. The bass was certainly tighter, the soundstage wider, but honestly-- the change between the two wasn't all that remarkable. Still, I kept the HD 800 figuring I can scale them up if I wish, and they were more comfortable on my head than the HD 650-- so the HD 650 were sold so my wife wouldn't murder me.
Sure, there were other headphone purchases-- Audio Technica ATH-50s (those still live at work), Grado SR225, Beats (yes, Beats-- wanting to see what the fuss was about-- that's another review), and some in-ears-- Shure SE425 (still for sale), Klipsch, HifiMan, among others. But the main focus now was my home rig and bringing the best out of my HD 800.
The WA6 tube rolling experiments got all the way to a NOS 1957 GZ34 rectifier with a metal base, which cost around the price of the amp-- The HD 800 responded every step of the way. The bass deepened as the headphone broke in, I upgraded the cable to Toxic silver (exciting another debate over whether pure copper is a better match for the HD 800). Things were improving but the knock still was that the sub bass wasn't kicking, and the highs out of the Burson made that combo particularly bright to my ears-- damn near to the point of sibilance.
In October, one Head-Fier suggested-- maybe you should think about more power for the HD 800, suggesting a move to the WA6-SE. I started an eBay search. This wasn't going to be pretty.
After losing a few auctions-- something really bad happened. A Woo WA5LE appeared-- and no one was bidding. Yep. That was the winner. $1800 dollars later I started looking for FedEx trucks everywhere I went.
This was a major change in the HD 800. The full range of the audio spectrum was now pumping through my skull. It was like getting a much-needed pair of glasses after years of squinting. I never realized how power hungry this headphone really was. Sure, I can drive the HD 800 with a Fiio E17, they are efficient headphones, but to bring this set of cans to life, it wants pure, clean power, as much-- and as clean-- as you can muster.
I'm not talking about a marginal improvement anymore. Here's my best analogy: Say I purchased a Ferrari. I get behind the wheel and take it for a spin. Well, it's a Ferrari, so I'm going to be impressed. What I didn't know-- is that the car came only with a four-cylinder engine. And while I thought I was getting this good performance, when I dropped a (edit) Prat & Whitney jet engine in, suddenly you are holding on for dear life. Everything about the car's characteristics changed. The car can move with the four-banger, but it was really made to handle a lot of power. Same goes with the HD 800.
Now here's another problem with this new system-- every musical flaw is up front. Putting MP3 files through it-- you hear every artifact and dropout. It's brought the worst out of the Burson's DAC stage. So much so-- I'm now selling the Burson for a cleaner DAC.
Stepping back for a second-- you have to wonder-- what was wrong with the HD 650 and the WA6? Nothing. I'm crazy. I admit it.
But for folks who complain that the HD 800 lacks sub-bass, my first question from now on is going to be-- What are you using to drive it? Because with the right power, you understand why this is a $1500 dollar headphone. It's the closest thing I've ever heard to sonic perfection-- yet I'm still rolling thousands of dollars in tubes through the WA5LE, to see where the edge of the envelope is with the HD 800.