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Expensive Cans Enjoy Expensive Power

A Review On: Sennheiser HD 800 Headphones

Sennheiser HD 800 Headphones

Rated # 3 in Over-Ear
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Price paid: $1,499.00
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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.









Thoroughly enjoyable review, loved your conversational style.
Really makes me want to get the HD800, as well as the obviously required (work with me on this) tube amp for the HP rig. I don't need much convincing on that front: there's a small stash of Bendix 5852 Apollo program rectifier tubes absconded in case, you know, the world explodes.

....this story isn't going to end well...

Great read. In fact, this review pushed me over the fence, and I just placed my order! The HD800 has been on my list even since I discovered Head-Fi a few years back (though I registered much later), but for one reason or another, I was never fully convinced. Now that I've invested more than I care to share into properly driving the HE-6, I'm more than willing to experiment with the HD800. Knowing that it scales very well with better gear is most reassuring! Can't wait! :]
I enjoyed your review, but be careful with your analogies. Four cylinder Ferraris do in fact exist. They are extremely rare and valuable. Since Ferrari has never made a 16-cylinder car, were you to drop a 16-cylinder engine into one of the four cylinder Ferraris, you would utterly destroy it's value! It may be best that you stick with headphones and avoid the Italian car market ;-)
Nice write up lol
TheKillerPiglet (my favorite name yet), I've opted to go with new tubes for the WA5LE. I have a nightmare scenario rolling around my head-- where I buy 2 gorgeous vintage tubes at a premium price-- and they aren't perfectly matched. With the HD800, every nuance and irregularity gets amplified. For the rectifier, I've landed on EML 5U4G Mesh, but the real change was in the power tubes. I got a huge bass bump when I went from Tung Sol 6SN7 to PSVANE CV-181 TII series. They just came out and it's made a major statement with the HD800. Next is the 300B output tubes, I'm going again with EML 300B Mesh. $2000 for the Wester Electric's makes my tummy hurt. They're wait-listed until 2014, anyway, and having read everything in the universe on the 300B, the Sofia Royal Princess 300B isn't an ideal match for the HD800.
I've found a W4S DAC-2 on eBay-- it will get here next week. The Burson is up for bid.
Night Crawler, If you have amps that will drive the HE-6, you're in great shape for the HD800. The point of this article is that even though lesser amps will move the cones, until you supply real power, you won't start engaging the rich sub-bass the HD800 has in reserve. I've been wondering if the Dark Star might be another terrific match for the HD800, with all that power on-hand.
StratocasterMan, I hear what you're saying, but you still understood my meaning. I write stream of conscience and I'm not a Ferrari aficionado, but I'll change the analogy to 12-cylinder if it suits you. The meaning doesn't change. In the same way, Keef is playing a Telecaster, but I'm still willing to bet you love your Strats.
I still have to get used to the idea of 6SN7's as power tubes, they have been pre-amp tubes in my mind for so long. There's a certain appeal to a head amp that burns these You see, I have another "world may explode" stash of American 6SN7's. Somewhere. Not sure where. Somewhere.
That's the danger with tubes: you have to be careful what you listen to. Once one comes across a set that just lights up in particular circuit, it is hard to pull away. I have a couple of Cuban cigar boxes full of European e88/6922 types. Sadly, I only have two spare sets of 60's Siemen's CCa's and one pair of Telefunken <> (<> is not an emoticon). Last totally silent set of grey plate CCa's went into the AN DAC last year along with one of the Bendix rectifiers. Ten years use on the Bendix, 8 on the CCa's before one got a little noisy, power on 24/7.
Would it be possible to live with the Amparex's, Valvos, Mullards? Well, unless I have horribly miscalculated and/or there is a substantial increase in life expectancy during, well, during my lifetime I may never find out.
Ah... see what you have done?
I just dragged the big Audio Note off the music room rack, cleared my desk, move my monitors. Nothing fancy: feeding it SPIDF RCA from motherboard, going the the V200, HE500's... but this, this is the "why" of tubes...
....this story isn't going to end well...
reeltime, you certainly weren't kidding. I received my first ever HD800's today, and came to the very same conclusion. The HD800 is very source dependent! Most of my amps left me completely underwhelmed, save for two in particular. The first is my DACmini PX, which has served as my all time favorite amp for notably the LCD2 and HD650 (among a few other cans I own). Suffice to say, the HD800 sounds simply incredible with the PX. The second amp will take many by surprise, and while I'm sure there are a 100 better, much more powerful alternatives out there (for which I care not at this point in time, lol), the Headstage Arrow 3G has never once ceased to impress me. In fact, before the PX, it was my most preferred go to amp for the HE-300, HE-400, HE-500, and HD650, and to this day it remains one of my absolute favorites. Reason being, the Arrow not only packs enormous power (considering it's size), it also features one of the cleanest bass boosts I've encountered, period. That's inclusive of the Zo (both the original and second generation), I might add. In any case, the Arrow serves as merely a portable solution, whilst the PX is my official at home, go to amp for the HD800. In either case, I'm very content with how the HD800 sounds. Now, my only other concern is which of the three (HD650, HD700, HD800) I intend to keep. :P
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