Pros: Details, clarity, accessories, bass, and of course, more details!!
Cons: For most people, the price will be a barrier
First, I would like to thank White Lotus and Sennheiser Australia for including me in the Australian review tour!
If you’re reading this review, I would imagine that you already know all about the Sennheiser HD-800S. The company’s new top-of-the-line production dynamic-driver headphone is an update of the veteran HD-800, which has long been considered the “king of clarity”.
While I only have limited experience demoing the original HD800 in the past, I have been using an HD-650 for many years. Other headphones I used for comparison was a modded Hifiman HE-500, and an Oppo PM-1. The HE-500 has been my personal favourite headphone for a number of years now, with the focus pads, headband padding and cable upgrades, this headphone has a winning combination of neutral sound signature with excellent dynamics. I personally prefer the HE-500 over a number of pricier headphones I had a chance to try, including the LCD-3.
The Oppo PM-1 was received at the same time as the HD-800S demo unit, and was provided another good reference to the comparison and general impressions. I have been using the PM-3 as a portable headphone, and I was so impressed with the PM-3’s performance I ended up getting its “big brother” for a try.
For this test, I used both tube and solid-state amplifiers. The tube amp is a Bottlehead Crack OTL with speedball, which goes very well with driving high-impedance headphones like the Sennheisers. The solid-state amp used is a Meier Audio Corda Concerto, a high-powered single-ended design that drives both high-impedance dynamics and lower-impedance planars with excellent clarity and authority. The source used is Schiit Bifrost Multibit DAC, fed music files (both lossless and lossy) via an AK240, a Denon CD transport, or a computer.
First, some words about comfort. The HD-800S has absolutely huge earcups. They don’t so much cover the ear and completely engulf it, and then some. The comfort was very good, except for some pressure on the bones under the year which was mildly uncomfortable after some time. Compared to the other headphones, it feels much lighter than the HE-500 both in the hand and on the hand, however the PM-1 and the HD-650 are both a bit more comfortable than the HD-800S, as these two are shaped just right to cover the ear and feel gentle / pillow-like pressed against the head.
I must say this is a pet peeve of mine to see a tremendous headphone with an after-thought of a cable, as was the case with the HE-500 and the HD-650. Not so with the HD-800S. True to its TOTL status, the cables supplied seem to be of very high quality, made of soft materials that was just perfect for prolonged uses. This is how a cable in a TOTL headphone should feel. Top marks also the Oppo PM-1 for having very good quality cables supplied.
In order to get a good evaluation of the sound, played a large number of tracks through all headphones, stopping on selected passages and switching back and forth between the headphones and the amplifiers. After a few days, some things became apparent to me:
- Clarity: The HD-800S didn’t lose a beat with its complete authority over the minute details in any recording you’ll throw at it. As others have commented on their reviews, the main difference with the HD-800S seems to be the fuller bottom end, which is very apparent. However, this doesn’t detract from the fact that these headphones are perhaps the most detailed I have ever tried – certainly more than its competitors here. To compare, I would say that the PM-1 were next in line, having surprisingly detailed sound. The HE-500 follows very closely, with the HD-650 slightly lagging behind.
- Bass: The HD-800S’ main improvement over the HD-800. While significantly dependent on the amp, out of the Bottlehead, the bass was clear, detailed, yet still punchy and very much present. It is more detailed than the bass of the HE-500, but perhaps not as dynamic. The PM-1’s bass is very detailed but slightly disappointing in its impact.
- Mids: Despite the superior detail retrieval of the HD-800S, I think it’s very hard to topple the HE-500 when it comes to fluent, musical mids. This is especially the case in rock, blues, and soul music. The HD-650 with the Bottlehead produces some excellent mids as well, but its performance in this instance is seriously overshadowed by the 800S.
- Highs: I feel that this is the category that most clearly distinguished between all 3 headphones. The HD-800S is clearly at the top, with clear and vivid details, accentuating nuances that I never heard before in some of my music. It makes the sound really crisp and airy. On the other end of this scale are the HD-650 and PM-1, both with more of a rolled-off treble. The PM-1 still has more clarity in the treble over the HD-650, but both headphones come across as very smooth, compared to the crisp HD-800S. Right in the middle between these extremes sit the HE-500. It definitely has more treble than the smooth headphones, giving it nice space and airiness, but it is not quite as dominant as in the HD-800S. Personally, I like this type of balance, even though the details are a couple of steps behind the HD-800S.
- Dynamics: The HD-800S comes across as very dynamic, the strong top-end creates a great sense of space, drums and percussions come across with a realist conviction, as well as pianos and acoustic guitars. The HE-500 is stronger than the other two in this category, and I felt it is the best of all 4 when it comes to reproducing wind instruments and electric guitars.
To conclude, I would say that the HD-800S deserves the accolades it has received, and is more than a worthy update to the HD-800. I enjoyed testing it thoroughly, and in particular the level of detail and the clarity of its sound should be heard to be believed. However, its tonal balance may not fit each and every musical preference – in particular, for rock music I would still prefer the tonality of the HE-500. But for acoustic and classical music, or any music with a large number of instruments and complex passages, the HD-800S is a real joy to the ears.