With great anticipation I received my Sennheiser HD800 at the end of May at CanJam 2009 in LA, when they were first released. I wanted them so badly after pre-ordering them almost 5 months earlier that I convinced myself that I could afford to fly out to CanJam to pick them up, and I brought my son along with me for the company. For two days people listened to my HD800 in the TTVJ / Woo Audio demonstration room before I took them home, and they seemed to be a big hit.
At CanJam Todd (TTVJ) had the end of the stock cable cut off and a 4-pin XLR balanced plug installed, and I had a 4-pin XLR jack installed on the remnant of cable with the stock plug - so the HD800 could be used with balanced amplifiers or single ended amplifiers (thanks n_maher). I got to spend time listening through some of the best amplifiers available at Canjam, including the TTVJ 307A and Woo Audio WA22 and WA5 - and I was impressed. Todd let me take them out of the demo room a few times so with them in hand I also tried them on the Eddie Current Zana Deux SE and Balancing Act, plus the RSA B-52. They sounded great on all of those amps to me, so I had no qualms about forking over the money and taking them home with me.
First impressions don't always match last impressions, but now that I have lived with the HD800 for 6 months my love for them has not diminished.
At the time that I returned from LA with the HD800 my main amplifier was a maxed Woo WA6 with pseudo dual power supply and Sophia Princess 274b/RCA 6DE7 tubes, plus I had a Single Power Square Wave XL balanced amp and an ALO Amphora coming in as a close second. I had a new Eddie Current Zana Deux Transformer amp on order from March that was due to ship in a month, but it was so new that there was only a "mock-up" available at CanJam but not one to listen to. I also have a large assortment of less expensive amplifiers, which kept me happy with the HD800 until the ZDT arrived. Many people were concerned that the HD800 would be difficult to drive, but even a $100 portable amp like an iBasso T3 can do the job if you were forced to use it - what is more important is system and amplifier synergy, where sound signatures and capabilities combine to give more than the sum of their parts.
So, they don't need a $5000 - $6000 amplifier like the Stax O2 Mk1 electrostatics need in order to get close to their best performance. I thought the HD800 were quite good via my maxed Woo WA6, and that combination compared well to my Stax O2 Mk1 via a maxed Woo GES amp - but the HD800 got even better with my Eddie Current ZDT amp, and they took off to even higher levels with the Warren-Audio.com Double Helix cable for HD800. Those HD800 rig upgrades left me a bit disappointed with my Woo GES driving the O2 Mk1, and looking for upgrades in that arena too. Prior to the amp and cable upgrade, only with the $5000 Woo WES (or RSA A-10 or Headamp Blue Hawaii SE) could the O2 Mk1 pass up the stock HD800/ZDT, so I went out and bought a WES. Now, with the new cable the HD800 have caught up and seemingly passed up the electrostatic rig. Yet, as I type this I am listening to the HD800 via a $399 HiFiMan EF5 tube hybrid (PS Audio DAC) and I am still enjoying Bob James "Dancing on the Water" contentedly (swapped stock tube for a Mullard).
MUSIC: Included but is not limited to the following: Apple Lossless rips of Mark Isham + Kate Ceberano "Bittersweet", John H. Clark "Acoustik Guitar", Anthony Wilson "Jack of Hearts", Shelby Lynn "Just a Little Lovin", Eva Cassidy "Live at Blues Alley", Diana Krall "Live in Paris", Esbjörn Svensson Trio "From Gagarin's Point Of View", Helge Lein Trio "Hello Troll", Joel Styzens "Relax Your Ears", Valerie Joyce "New York Blue", Peter Asplund Quartet "As Knights Concure", Bob James "Dancing on the Water", Eric Satie "Piano Miniatures" (mastered by John Willett), Arvo Part "Tabula Rasa", Glenn Gould "Bach: Goldberg Variations", Wendy Sutter & Philip Glass "Songs & Poems For Solo Cello", Chris Jones "Roadhouses & Automobiles", Nora Jones "The Fall", Jack Johnson "Sleep Through the Static" and "On and On", Nils Lofgren "Acoustic Live", Beck "Sea Change" Mofi Gold Master, The Afters "I Wish We All Could Win", Ani DiFranco "Knuckle Down", Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon", Infected Mushroom "B.P. Empire".
GEAR: For most of my listening I use a Marantz CD5001 CD player or Macbook Pro with lossless music files as transport, feeding a digital coaxial signal into an Apogee mini-DAC or PS Audio Digital Link III DAC. The DAC's analog output was then fed into an amplifier if the amp didn't already have a DAC built-in; including the Eddie Current ZDT, maxed WA6, balanced Square Wave XL, ALO Amphora, HiFiMan EF2, HiFiMan EF5, SAC KH1000, balanced Cavalli EHHA, Meier 3MOVE, Headamp Pico, RSA P-51 and a few others. As a point of reference I compared the HD800 on the ZDT amp to my Sennheiser HD600, AKG K1000 and Lawton Audio modded D7000, as well as my Stax Omega 2 Mk1, Sennheiser HE60, and HE Audio Jade electrostatic headphones driven by a maxed Woo GES amplifier. Four months of my listening was done with the stock HD800 cable, and two months has been with the Warren Audio "Double-Helix" cable, with an updated Warren Audio cable for almost a month after Xmas 2009 (not to be confused with Double-Helix cables brand).
The first thing that strikes you when listening to the HD800 is that they have outstanding imaging and soundstage, unlike most of my other headphones. My only headphone that can match the soundstage of the HD800 are a pair of discontinued AKG K1000, which are more like mini-speakers strapped onto your hear that can rotated outward like wings. One would imagine that the K1000 when fully opened would give a speaker-like soundstage, with both speakers sitting ahead of the ears and open in their back so that they can offer some natural cross-feed. In reality I get a less cohesive center image when fully opened, and a big drop in deep bass which hurts the sense of ambience that you would normally hear in a recording from a big concert hall. For me the K1000 wings must be rotated inward to the "half-way out" or 1/3 out position to get a more cohesive soundstage, and at that point the HD800 seem to have little difficulty matching them, even when using an amp that is optimized for K1000 (SAC KH1000).
The next thing you notice is how vivid and clear the midrange sounds, almost calling it lush with my ZDT amp, with vocals sounding as if they were in the room with you. Then there is the exquisite detail available, where they practically reach out and grab you by the throat and say, "HEY, look at me, I'm so detailed you just gotta hear this, LISTEN!" That would put them in the slightly aggressive category, along with having good PRaT. My K1000 have almost as good detail, but they are less aggressive and seem smoother and less detailed at first listen. I used to think that my Grado RS-1 could approach the detail of my electrostatic headphones, but the HD800 take it another step closer, especially when they have the Warren Audio cable installed. When I compared the HD800 to my well-loved Sennheiser HD600 with new pads and an ApureSound V3 cable, or APS V2 cabled and woodied Denon D2000, the HD600 and D2000 sound veiled and muffled in comparison. The Lawton Audio modded Denon D7000 with Jenna Labs cable are closer but still not there. The HD800's upper mids are close to having a little bit of the "Stax Lambda etch", but it is not as severe as in the Lambda Signature (or SR-404), and closer to the milder version heard in the SR-404 LE (Limited Edition) or Lambda normal bias. This seems to be the biggest area of contention in the HD800 sound, but it has never really bothered me enough to worry about it. Fortunately, while this did not change with the original Warren Audio cable, it did with the latest revision (Xmas 2009).
(I wrote most of this when I had the Woo GES and not the more powerful WES amp that came early Dec 2009.) When I compared my discontinued Sennheiser HE60 electrostatic headphones to the HD800 they were like brothers, but the HD800 is the one who goes to the gym and works out every day while the HE60 is the one who sits in a chair listening to headphones all day instead of becoming strong. The HE60's sound is more etherial and airy, and the HD800 is more grounded in space and time. The HD800 takes what is good about the HE60 with the typical amp (that keeps people coming back for more at $2000 a pop for a used pair), and adds a foundation of bass impact that the HE60 lack without the most powerful high end amps out there. While the HD800 bass may not have as much impact as the HD600 or HD650 on the same amp, the bass is not lacking and it is much more precise and detailed than it's predecessors. With the EF5 amp that is sold with the HE-5 as a set, I might even say the HD800 bass is a bit boosted! In addition, my HD600, O2 Mk1 and HE60 tend to roll off in the bass by 30Hz, and the HD800 still play strong to 20Hz. The Denon still beat that in the sense that you can play a loud 16 Hz note until you get queazy, and the HD800 wont do that.
The HD800 treble is strong, but not excessively so. I would call the HD800 more of a neutral headphone and not bright (or warm), but there can be a slight treble tilt to the overall sound signature with some amps that makes some people compare them to the AKG K701. I could see where people might say that based on the description people give of the HD800, until you actually have them side by side and then there is no comparison. The HD800 on a $189 HiFiMan EF2 tube hybrid amp with the stock chinese tubes can sound a little bright, but swapping out the tubes with some nice Raytheon or Mullard 6AK5 tubes makes the sound much more balanced, although very slightly underpowered. I had the same issue with a loaner Grahm Slee Solo SRG in June, but had no way to rectify that without modding the amp. Thus, the HD800 benefit from a warm sounding and powerful amp, and the ZDT, WA6, EHHA or EF5 will do them better justice than an Apogee mini-DAC headphone out, ALO Amphora or Grahm Slee Solo SRG I (SRG II is much better with HD800). The ALO Amphora is also good with them, and about as powerful as the EF2, but with a more neutral sound signature and excellent detail and soundstage.
While on the subject of brightness (or not), I don't find the re-cabled HD800 to exacerbate sibilance, but if it is there in the recording the HD800 will not hide it from you. If you switch to the HD800 after listening to a slightly dark or treble-recessed headphone like the Denon D2000 with an APS V2 cable that tames the bass and treble, or O2 Mk1, you may feel the HD800 are bright; but in fact after listening to many different headphones and then switching to the O2 Mk1, you will usually be convinced that it is those which are dark and not the HD800 that are bright. When I want to tame a sibilant recording I would simply swap back to the stock HD800 cable, change my Sylvania gold pin 5751 tube to a darker smoother sounding JAN GE black plate 5751, or drop the PS Audio up-sampling rate from 192 Khz to 96 Khz - and any of those changes will reduce the issue that stems from the recording (many Diana Krall recordings for example). Now with the latest version of the Warren-Audio Double Helix cable I don't have to do any of that.
I think the timbre and tone with the HD800 is very good, and I have no complaints. I also find the degree of transparency in the HD800 to be above average, and the drivers tend to disappear so that you don't feel like there are these tiny little speakers sitting right next to your ears. I can easily get involved in the musical performance without always thinking about what kind of headphone or speaker I am listening to. They just get out of the way. When I first got the HD800 and wrote about them on head-fi forums after CanJam, I said that I was mesmerized by the HD800 performance and could not stop listening. I said they were the first dynamic headphone to give my electrostatics a run for their money, and that they were the best dynamic headphone that I have owned next to my Westone ES3X 3-driver custom IEM (and now JH13Pro). They still are my favorite non-electrostatic full size headphone (dynamic).
Only recently has a new non-electrostatic full-size headphone come to the market that I appreciate almost as much as the HD800 (or LA7000), and that is the HiFiMan HE-5 orthodynamic (aka planar magnetic). Still, like the Stax O2 Mk1 the HE-5 cannot come close to the imaging and soundstage of the HD800, nor are the mids as full and rich as the O2 or HD-800 or LA7000 However, if you can't afford the $1400 HD800 (or LA7000) the $599 HE-5 can be considered a bargain. But, for me, I could actually be happy if the HD800 were my only full size dynamic headphone, especially if I had a new cable to go with them.
I have been without my Woo GES electrostatic amp for 3 weeks, after selling it to buy a more powerful Woo WES amp for my Stax O2 Mk1. In that time I have been able to appreciate my HD800 even more, almost to the point of wondering why I am spending so much on my electrostatic headphones - but that's what we always do in that quest for that fabled "last 10%", isn't it?
Edit 04/08/12 - fixed broken photo links. Also, I want to add that after a few weeks I found the newer Warren Audio X10 cable to actually blunt the micro-detail a bit while it tamed the slightly aggressive nature of the HD-800. I found that I preferred my Locus-Design Hyperion cable a bit more, and I use that almost exclusively. Moot point since Warren Audio has been banned. With the right amp, the stock cable is still acceptable. Also, while I was enjoying the HE-5 headphone a bit more than my re-cabled Grado RS-1 due to the improved soundstage, I started to feel that the mids were not cohesive with the rest of the sonic spectrum and that it made the imaging more fuzzy. They also started to feel a little tipped up in the bass and treble over the mids, except with the EF5 or ZDT amps. The newer HE-5 LE and HE-500 improved on the cohesive presentation and balance, as well as with improved dampening for better bass control.
Edited by HeadphoneAddict - 4/8/12 at 1:06pm