In its eighth year, Head-Fi is looking at its biggest product release story since its founding. For years we'd been waiting for a replacement for the HD600, and a few years ago, Sennheiser introduced the HD650, which, to my ears, is indeed an upgrade, but still clearly just a different flavor of what the HD600 already was. Illustrative of this is the fact that (a) we still talk about the HD600 and HD650 in the same breath quite frequently (and often synonymously), and (b) there are still some who've heard both models and who prefer the HD600 to the HD650. The HD600 and HD650 are so alike that, at a distance, someone might physically mistake one for the other, with some parts (like the outer grills, cables and pads) even being interchangeable between the two.
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'Round our parts, it has for years been a community pastime to speculate about what would finally come as a real and clear model upgrade to the the HD600/650. Some have shared so-called "inside information" rumors that spawned new-model discussion, some of these rumors being rather spectacular, and others being as far off the mark as they were spectacular. (I seem to recall one rumor that had the upcoming replacement clad in wood, based on what I believe was some of that so-called insider info.) Through all this, though, one theme was always evident: The community wanted a departure of the unmistakably-an-upgrade sort--even if it took another electrostatic model (like the HE60 and HE90) to accomplish that; and even if it meant a substantial price point ascension to make it possible. I've been aching for the true upgrade to the HD600/650 so eagerly that I was crushed in the spring of 2006 when, during a product launch event, someone from Sennheiser's German team asked me for my opinion on whether this eventual flagship should, in terms of its physical appearance, be an evolution of the HD600/650's styling, or instead be a radical departure--I was crushed because I realized that, in asking me such a thing, they were nowhere near the release of the rumored new flagship as I'd been hoping they were. (I was, at the time, hoping for a CES 2007 launch.) After this discussion, I realized my wait was going to earn more shelf life--quite possibly, a lot more.
That was mid-2006, and this is January 7, 2009, and...well...today's the day, folks. It's here. After several years in the making, Sennheiser is finally going to announce its long-awaited new flagship headphone: The Sennheiser HD 800. In a matter of hours, the announcement will be official, and today, friends, the HD 800's drivers (and, of course, the sound the headphone reproduces with these drivers) are the story. We wanted new, and Sennheiser comes to the table with something all new--something that today is so extraordinary, so precise in its driver build quality, that Sennheiser has chosen to have this new flagship handmade in Germany; something so different that you can't mistake it for the HD600/650 in terms of appearance, and, most importantly, in terms of sound. Have I heard it? Yes I have. And tomorrow, anyone at CES 2009 who wants to stop by Sennheiser's exhibit will have the chance to do so, too.
"Good enough was never good enough."
-- Excerpt from Sennheiser's first HD 800 brochure
-- Excerpt from Sennheiser's first HD 800 brochure
Let me cut to the chase: This could be it. The Sennheiser HD800 could be it. Early impressions tell me I'm listening to one of the best headphones I've ever heard. Longer term listening will eventually tell the real story, but the first impressions are so strong—so positive--that I feel like I'm trying to mince declarative words just out of a sense of protocol, a sense of reasonableness--because one couldn't possibly make that kind of decision so soon, could he? So let me say this: I have no doubt in my mind that the Sennheiser HD 800 is, beyond any shadow of a doubt (even this early on) one of the finest dynamic headphones I've ever heard. And I am quite confident in saying that Sennheiser's new HD800 is (yes, again, even this early on) one of the best headphones I've heard of any type, period.
So what is it I'm hearing? I'm hearing a headphone that says Sennheiser did what so many of us were hoping they would do. They didn't start with the HD600/650 as a platform to build on; they started over--physically, as well as sonically. (NOTE: I'll get into more detail about some of the methods--the design, materials, etc.--but, for this moment, let's focus on the results, as I’m pressed for time if I want to break this before the official press release is on the wires.) The HD800 is a paradigm shift for dynamic headphones, elevating the amount of detail and resolution available throughout the entire frequency spectrum to a higher plane. The now trite "I've heard things in so-and-so recording that I've never heard before" couldn't be a stronger truism with this one. (NOTE: I'll also fill in some blanks with more details--about the artists I listened to, the supporting equipment, etc.--the moment I can; but, right now, I'm so pressed for time if I want to break this before the official press release is on the wire that I'm going to focus just on an a quick overview of my sonic impressions.) Whereas it could be reasonably said by the most serious headphone audiophile types (with extensive listening experience with a wide variety of gear and combinations of gear) that the HD600/650 is excellent but not the best in the field at delivering the highest level of resolution and the last word in detail, you’ll be hard pressed to not come away from the HD 800’s first impressions thinking that it just might exemplify those very things. Due to what sounds like the fastest transient response I’ve ever heard in a dynamic headphone, the HD800 conveys subtle shadings, details and air that made me wonder if microphones have really been that much better at capturing performance nuances than our headphones have been at reproducing them—the HD800 was simply giving me things that none of my other headphones are. And brilliant and resolving as it was, the limited time I had with it exhibited no fatigue—it was simply...effortless.
How the Sennheiser HD800 does it has everything to do with the new ring radiator driver. That ring-shaped driver wasn’t an exercise in technology for the sake of saying, “Hey, look, we have a whole new kind of headphone driver!” No, it was a means to an end. It was what Sennheiser, given the technology and materials available to them, felt it had to do to set a new standard in the resolving power of a headphone. From what I’ve heard so far, it just might very well have worked.
There's so much more to say. I haven't even mentioned the HD800's soundstaging yet, which is also exceptional. I’ll get back to that, the driver (and more) when I get back to my hotel later, as, again, that driver is the story. And, in large part, that driver is the reason I’m in Las Vegas.
(NOTE: This post will be updated over time, with notes on the updates to this post below.)
Post updates/notes section:
2009-01-07 1817 PST UPDATE: More preliminary photos. (Click on "All Sizes" when viewing a photo to see a larger size.)
2009-01-07 1823 PST UPDATE: Look for the official press release (and hopefully the brochure) to be released within an hour or two, as the press conference is beginning in a little over a half-hour. (I'm missing the official announcement to post this thread! But, hey, we got the scoop.)
2009-01-07 2244 PST UPDATE: Added link to brochure.
2009-02-04 1538 EST UPDATE: Added link to new photos of the Sennheiser HD800 in my office. One of the CES show units just arrived for private audition/evaluation.