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The Sennheiser HD-800, another view

post #1 of 34
Thread Starter 
The Sennheiser HD-800 was probably one of the most anticipated headphones in recent years. The subject of intemperate hype and casual put-down even before it was “finally” released, enough time has passed to try and evaluate it a bit more dispassionately. It seems to be an attempt at a “statement” product, but does it make it?

The first issue we need to examine, is what method we should use to best evaluate any musical product? Listening comparison to other products is obvious and useful, but leaves us with a conundrum, we hear differences, but which is really “right”? Obviously, what is required is a standard. One (and, to me, the best) is the sound of real live, preferably unamplified, music. After all, isn’t that what we are trying to replicate?

But our second issue is not quite so easy to answer in that we use recordings to evaluate equipment and equipment to evaluate recordings and generally, we really don’t “know” what’s on our recordings. For one thing, consider that there are, it seems, as many recording techniques as there are engineers! Then there is differing mic’s and positioning, after-the-fact EQing and so on.

One solution to all of this is to employ recordings we have found to be natural using our knowledge of the technique employed in the recording’s engineering and our auditioning of them through multiple systems. Not perfect, but the best we have! If we have listened to live music enough to get a Gestalt for what live music sounds like fixed in our minds, we can then use these recordings to see how close our equipment’s reproduction comes to that internalized standard.

This should give you a feel for how I evaluated the HD-800. It is true that my HD-800 (SN-0690) was purchased by myself, but it was purchased with return privileges so, if anything, my interest was to be as critical as I could be. Returning them and pocketing their not inconsiderable $1400 price was not an unpleasant prospect, especially if they just didn’t stack up to expectations!

Upon taking delivery of the HD-800 about a month ago, the box (nice, but not really sumptuous) was unpacked and the phones inspected. I found them to be reasonably well built and attractive, with a good quality cable and ¼ inch phone plug termination. They struck me as quite nice but not over-the-top. Those who expect Sony Qualia-like overbuild may be disappointed here (though they probably will not be disappointed by their $1900 lower price). One slight complaint, for $1400 Sennheiser could have provided a carrying bag. I know they are not really intended for portable use, but having something other than the gargantuan box to carry them around in would have been nice. My set also did not have the “spring sound” some have reported in the right cup.

I find them comfortable to wear, about as good as anything I have owned. Glasses seem to be accommodated OK.

So some listening was then done, but mostly the phones were run-in for about 50 hours. The associated equipment for home listening was a Sony SACD/CD player, EMT turntable with Koetsu black cartridge and my time-tested Marantz PM-94 Integrated amp, all part of my bedroom system. For portable use, a Zune and a Ibasso D2 was used. Also employed was a homebrew “Gain clone” amp similar to the 47 labs units.

The first thing one usually notices in a headphone is the general balance. The HD-800 is balanced quite naturally with a reasonably deep but not overblown bass and an extended treble. The sound field is wider than that of typical headphones and projects a front-of-head presentation rather than the typical “right between the ears” effect. While this is miles from what a competent loudspeaker system achieves spatially, it’s not bad for a pair of cans. The bass is noteworthy in its lack of excess and reasonable bass reach (the lowest organ pedals do not come through with the strength or impact of a good, truly full range speaker or a good set of subwoofers, in common with just about every other headphone). The mid-bass here is well balanced, no feeling of bloat but also no anemia!

The treble is commendable for its purity and evenness. However, for some it may be balanced a bit hot. This is an area where controversy reigns. What should the treble balance be? Technically, there is much disagreement here. Some argue for a Free Field EQ curve, some a Diffuse Field curve and some for a hybrid curve of some sort. So there is little help here. Back in the concert hall, there is a range of possible balances that correspond to different seating areas in the hall. A closer seat will have a higher percentage of direct sound and more treble, a more distant seat has a higher percentage of reflected sound and lower treble content.

Any of these perspectives are fair game as to being natural, as they naturally occur in the hall. Personal preference prevails here just as it would if you were picking a seat for a concert. But it is apparent that any of these balances can constitute "concert hall reality" if the rest of the phones characteristics are up to snuff. Which is why the whole issue of treble balance is so problematical and controversial, both in phones and in loudspeakers. Personally, I like the HD-800 front half the hall sound, but I also like some cans with decidedly rear hall sound. They are different perspectives on the same reality, to me.

About the midrange, less contretemps should arise. This is the phones glory and why you pay the price of admission. Very low distortion and subjective intermodulation results in a quite low residual noise floor, even when things get busy. You hear more of the attack and delay of notes because of this and low level cues that are sometimes lost in the shuffle are there to be heard. But the detail is not flung at you, it’s just there to hear as part of the presentation or to be focused upon as you so chose.

So what about some musical examples? The Reference Recordings CD of Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21 (Schwartz/Istomin) is a bit of a test. It emphasizes clarity, a large sound field and a front of hall perspective and this is how the HD-800 presented it. The piano is, in a way, a percussion instrument, the pianist uses how he strikes the keys and how hard to convey the emotion behind the notes. When a key is hit harder, the sound, besides becoming louder, also acquires a higher proportion of higher harmonics. If the playback doesn’t round this off, it should result in a brighter, more percussive sound and here this happens, adding to conveyance of the musician’s intent.

Mercury Living Presence recordings tend to feature a strong bass and strive for good dynamic range, within the technology of the day. This means that if the volume is adjusted to reasonable (not overloud) levels, tape hiss can be heard. The “Malaguena” cut off of “Hi Fi a la Espanola” (Fennell/Eastman-Rochester) is a good example. Some of the guitar solo parts are very quiet, close to the tape hiss floor. Fortunately, the smooth treble does not emphasize any particular part of its spectrum, so the noise is not as obtrusive as it could be in less capable hands. Another aspect of the Merc’s is the upper treble peaks characteristic of the Telefunken U-47 microphones employed. The HD-800 does nothing to scotch this.

A quick mention of the Mercury “Composer and his Orchestra” (Hanson/ Eastman-Rochester). Howard Hanson’s commentary was recorded in the hall along with the orchestra and the hall reverberation on his voice comes through well, a testimony to the HD-800’s not masking low level details.

The RCA “Reiner Sound” (Reiner/Chicago) reading of “Isle of the Dead” captures the dark foreboding sound Rachmaninoff’s score calls for. Here the typically sweeter RCA strings are in evidence.

These are few quick impressions of a few well-known and generally well recorded pieces. Many other recordings were auditioned, some well recorded, some not. Basically, the HD-800 does a reasonable job of standing back and letting the musicians/recording engineer call the shots. Fortunately, this does not come at cost to musicality, in most cases. An even-handed reproducer will tend to bring the best out of good recordings and not bring the worst out of mediocre recordings, but bad recordings are just bad recordings. To me, it makes no sense to cripple a systems performance to make bad recordings a little less irritating.

The HD-800 puts me in a "row G" concert hall mind (at least with "honestly" recorded music). Much like my Harbeth Monitor 40 loudspeakers, they strike me as having a certain “rightness”. Even though intellectually I know there are problems and flaws, they are good enough to lessen the idea of listening to recordings rather than music more than most, in my experience.

So at the end of the day, these are quite excellent phones. Perfect? Nope. There are at least two phones known to me that are better overall, the Sony R-10 and the Sennheiser Orpheus. And there are others that may well be, I suspect from very brief auditioning the Stax Omega may beat the HD-800 at their midrange game and perhaps the Qualia is a serious contender. The K-1000 may also be in this group with an even more open sound field, but less bass.

Are they the best phone for everyone? I think that is a product that will never be made, but clearly, the HD-800 is not for everyone. If you favor a rear hall perspective, audition carefully. The overall performance might not be enough to overcome your preference. If you like a phone that shaves off the sometimes nasty edges music has and tames poor recordings or acts as impromptu “deesser”, look elsewhere. If you like a big bass to underline the beat of the music, these may not satisfy (though they should respond to reasonable EQ as the drivers seem to have plenty of dynamic range available).

And of course, there is the question of price. There are many excellent phones available in the $300 to $700 range that can serve as the centerpiece of a quite nice system. But none that I have heard can match the overall sound quality and beauty of the HD-800. To better them requires an even higher financial commitment (though to be fair, the latest Grado and Ultrasone statement products may prove to be in their league).

So, overall, the HD-800 lives up to much of the advance hype and represents one of the best options currently available on today’s market. But the real significance may be that their entry into the market and relative sales success may encourage Sony, AKG, Beyer and the like to produce new flagships that may exceed both the Sennheiser and their own past efforts. As good as the HD-800 is, there can and should be more phones of better or similar quality (with, perhaps, differing natural balances) available, and I hope someone takes up the challenge. After all, it’s fine to be a "fanboy" of music, but not the tools of its reproduction.
post #2 of 34
Nice impressions k3oxkjo. The following really defines it for me. I like row G, and even closer if I could.

Quote:
Originally Posted by k3oxkjo View Post
The HD-800 puts me in a "row G" concert hall mind (at least with "honestly" recorded music). Much like my Harbeth Monitor 40 loudspeakers, they strike me as having a certain “rightness”.
How does it do with other music genres though?
post #3 of 34
Excellent views! I personally don't think anyone should be sorry for reviewing something they own. It's all subjective after all.
post #4 of 34
Great review!

No doubt other manufacturers will come out with their own statement products just as Grado and Senn has done. It's nice to see this hobby growing beyond the mid level or discontinued stuff.
post #5 of 34
Thanks for the review, I am right behind you with #0694. Yes if there is a better phone for me it would be the HE90 or possibly the L3000. If properly amped-Blue Hawaiian I could see loving the omegas too. All of those come with even steeper pricetags though thats for sure.
post #6 of 34
Nice writeup. Was interesting to read.

And as you state in most cases is about different likings, I am still interested in Uncle Erik's impressions (and mainly with the new DT48E), as his tastes seem to be similar to mine.

The other HPs you are talking about R10, 010, Orpheus are way above the price of the HD800, so any other HP you have heard that gets really close for ~$300?
post #7 of 34
Thank you for the thoughtful review. That is far more in line with my own experiences - I've been meaning to write something, but my workday is usually from about 9-9:30AM through midnight, six days a week and maybe a few hours spare on a Saturday or Sunday. Usually, I get about enough time to listen to a full album when I get home.

Anyhow, it is nice to see someonewith the tastes and equipment to write a review appreciating the HD-800.
post #8 of 34
Great reviews... You haven´t heard any Ultrasones like the Pro 900. So much about the HD 800 seem to fit right in. Seems like a Kee Modded Pro 900 with wider soundstage pretty much... So yes I do hope Ultrasone is building some open headphones as well. Though the soundstage part I get with my speakers otherwise I would have harder time resisting the 800. As you say the other you mention is even more ridiculously priced.
post #9 of 34
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by holland View Post
Nice impressions k3oxkjo. The following really defines it for me. I like row G, and even closer if I could.



How does it do with other music genres though?
They are excellent for more typically naturally recorded genres such as Jazz, Folk and Vocal music.

I also think it does very well with rock, prog, metal and the like, myself. But keep in mind the HD-800's general balance, some of these types of music are recorded very hot in the treble and the Senn's won't mitigate that much. And consider your expectations for bass, some like a "strong" bass for these types music.
post #10 of 34
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Bullseye View Post
Nice writeup. Was interesting to read.

And as you state in most cases is about different likings, I am still interested in Uncle Erik's impressions (and mainly with the new DT48E), as his tastes seem to be similar to mine.

The other HPs you are talking about R10, 010, Orpheus are way above the price of the HD800, so any other HP you have heard that gets really close for ~$300?
Close to the HD-800? I wish there was, but in my view, no. But that doesn't mean there aren't quite good $300 phones out there.
post #11 of 34
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by oqvist View Post
Great reviews... You haven´t heard any Ultrasones like the Pro 900. So much about the HD 800 seem to fit right in. Seems like a Kee Modded Pro 900 with wider soundstage pretty much... So yes I do hope Ultrasone is building some open headphones as well. Though the soundstage part I get with my speakers otherwise I would have harder time resisting the 800. As you say the other you mention is even more ridiculously priced.
I do have a pair of pro 750's, but that's the only Ultrasones I have experience with.
post #12 of 34
Quote:
Originally Posted by k3oxkjo View Post
Close to the HD-800? I wish there was, but in my view, no. But that doesn't mean there aren't quite good $300 phones out there.
Then the cheapest you have heard that comes close to it?
post #13 of 34
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Bullseye View Post
Then the cheapest you have heard that comes close to it?
Wow. Define close.

Probably K-1000, but they aren't much cheaper and have a more demanding requirement for amplification.

I just don't consider K-701, HD-650, DT-880 type phones "close". Not that they aren't good in their own right and YMMV...
post #14 of 34
Good job on the view, about the types of music that are recorded very hot in the treble.
You can just compare the 800 to the K701/2 and to see if the 800 are ridiculously hot on the treble, or just equal to the 701/2 on the high as reference hps.
post #15 of 34
Pro 900 is worth a shot... The HD 800 sounds a lot like it with all the talk about speed, superb midrange, chameleont changes personality depending to music, neutral with good dynamics and unforgiving on bad recordings and picky about source/amps.

With wider soundstage also a bit in front like the Pro 900 even. Would be really interesting to get some comparison between Ultrasones studio headphones versus this. Even though as for soundstage since I can run speakers as much and as loud as I want soundstage isn´t as important for me as when only running headphones. I just use them for the intimate experience now

K701, HD 650 is as you say not close to the Pro 900 either.
What about you borrowing my Pro 900 and I borrowing the HD 800
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