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Over-Ear item created by , May 5, 2010
Pros - A world-class high-end headphone from Sennheiser
Cons - Expensive; can be a little bright
REVIEW: Sennheiser HD 800
Reviewing a statement product is tough – especially one that was as highly anticipated as the HD800. There is already a huge buzz on head-fi about them, and many have already declared them the best dynamic headphone on the market. But most of these proclamations have been from owners, One potential difference between my listening to the HD800 and other people's so far is that I am fortunate to have been loaned a pair for a fairly lengthy period (1 month) - I did not buy them. So I do not have to deal with either buyer's euphoria, or worry about remorse, coloring my view on the headphone's performance. While I admit I *want* to like these, as I would like another pair of really great headphones, and I could afford to buy them if I liked them enough, my intent in listening to them is to analyze them with no pre-conceived notions, and since I have nothing to lose either way, it allows me a certain freedom to be scrutinize them very carefully, as I believe a "statement" product from a company like Sennheiser should be.
Please note that I am NOT saying that the views of the people who own them are not valid, or any less valid than my opinion. ALL opinions are equally valid. But mine does come from a slightly different point of view - not as an owner, but purely as an analyzer. I do want to add that initially I was considering buying them if I liked them enough. I'm not sure whether that has any bearing on my comments, but I am a big believer in full disclosure, so there it is.
I spent a LOT of time with the HD800 in a wide variety of contexts. All my comparisons were done at my calibrated listening level of 80dBA (using the Rives Audio Test CD and my SPL meter for calibration).
And just so folks do not think that what I am hearing and have described below is either a factor of my amps, my cables, my sources, or my recordings, let me say this: I used 6 different sources (all with their own set of high-quality cables), 9 different amps, and lots and lots of the world's finest recordings . 3 of my sources are one-time Stereophile Class-A rated - two digital, one analog (the cartridge). I have amps from $400 - $1200 that I played them on, both tube and solid state. Sources included the Denon DVD-5900, Sony SCD-555ES, and my Vinyl rig of Benz-Micro Wood L2 on Denon DP-59L > Audio Electronics PH1 DJH. Amps used were SinglePower Extreme and MPX3, Decware CSP-2, Graham Slee SRG w/PSU1, and Audio-GD C-2-C.
Further, and unlike other headphone reviews, I also used my speakers for reference for this review. I also decided, in addition to other headphones, will that the very, very natural sounding but highly detailed B&W Nautilus 800 Signatures would be valuable in getting a good handle on the HD800’s performance. So I compared the sound of the HD 800 to the B&W N800’s as well as the JVC DX1000 and the Beyer DT880.
Also, I used truly excellent recordings in my evaluations, of wide variety. I've listened to my audiophile standards, which include a lot of jazz, some folk and bluegrass, and some extremely well recorded pop/rock records. I have developed a list of such recordings for evaluation use over the years, as many of you have.
I find Patricia Barber records, for example, excellent evaluation tools, as they are extremely well recorded, have both female vocals and piano, and have both quiet and explosive (for jazz) parts, and wide dynamics. Some of my initial concern about the HD800's treble was a result of listening to Patricia Barber's new record.
I believe this is more than sufficient to eliminate the other variables, and to decide what characteristics belong solely to the headphones themselves.
The midrange on the HD800 is fantastically good – the best I have ever heard from a headphone. It is just as full-bodied as the DX1000’s, and yet lacks the DX1000’s very slight coloration. The mids are incredibly open and transparent. They are, to me, the “rightest” mids I have ever heard in a headphone. They make the Beyer DT990’s slightly recessed mids sound just silly by direct comparison (and I like the DT990 overall – a lot).
Mary Fahl and Julie Flanders’ harmonizing in October Project’s “Ariel” (from their eponymous record) is just as engaging as can possibly be. The mids are just slightly forward, but not ever congested. Male vocals are very natural and not overly chesty, or dry. The midrange has great body, but it does not have any noticeable coloration that I can hear. Many cans with body in the midrange accomplish this with a coloration which benefits some music more than others. To an extent the JVC DX1000 are like this, although over time I have grown to love the DX1000’s mids. But the HD800’s are better. The midrange performance is just beguiling. For some, it may be worth the price of admission all by itself.
Just listen to Joan Osborne’s vocals on her cover of The Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace” (from “Pretty Little Stranger”) – I have never heard her voice sound so natural – it’s effortless, unstrained, and has a presence to it – it sounds like a read voice coming from a living, breathing woman, not a 2-D facsimile.
There is also no doubt in my mind that the HD800 are the imaging champs of the dynamic headphone world. I have owned or heard almost every significant dynamic headphone there is – Sony R10, At W5000 and L3000, Senn HD650/600, Grado RS1 and GS1000, all the ones I currently own, and many, many more I have owned and sold. And I have never heard a headphone image like the HD800. Depth is phenomenal, and somehow width is even better. I really feel like the sound is IN FRONT of me, not stuck “inside my head” like with so many headphones. The soundstaging is better with the HD800 than with the DX1000, and that is saying something – I think the DX1000 image sensationally. But the HD800 is terrific in this regard.
With the HD800, it is easy, not “work”, to imagine real performers in real space. It’s very tempting to keep closing my eyes when listening to them, because the imaging is so convincing. For anyone who has avoided headphones because they don’t image like speakers, spend some time with the HD800. No, they don’t image like speakers – but I can’t imagine anyone who would CARE, because the way they do image is just spectacularly enjoyable.
Simple Minds’ “See the Lights” presents the band in a perfect half-circle around you. I saw them live in their heyday, and hearing them on the HD800’s really brought me back to that show in a way that was almost startling.
The HD800’s have the LEAST amount of isolation of any headphone I own. I wonder if this is a factor in their great soundstaging? Not sure, but however they did it, this is quite an achievement, and here again, maybe worth the price of admission by itself.
So we have established that the midrange is terrific, and the soundstaging is amazing. But the treble...ummmm...well...this is more problematic. IMHO, the HD800 has a slightly hot treble. Hundreds of hours of break-in has not changed this. I hear it on some vocals as a pronounced sibilance that I don't think should be there, and I hear it on cymbals that have a slightly over-exaggerated splashiness.
I want to make clear that the treble is extraordinarily clean. There is no grain, spit, grit, or (god forbid) “veil” of any kind here. The treble is very pure in nature, and it has no texture that detracts from transparency. In fact, I would classify the treble as being astonishingly transparent (which is different from being neutral).
When I began to listen to the HD800, and I began to examine the transparency, versus the linearity, and I spent a lot of time trying to determine what was going on, because this is very difficult to accurately assess. How is one to know if the HD800 is just being accurate about the recording, or over-emphasizing it? So I had to listen very carefully to a LOT of music, and do a lot of comparison, to nail it down. Some examples:
> “Burn Down This Town", by Roseanne Cash, from Black Cadillac. The HD800 are over-emphasizing the sibilants on this recording, IMO. An over-emphasis on sibilance, it is very important to understand, is the symptom, but not the "problem".
>“Out of the Woods” by Nickel Creek, from their eponymous album, there are some additional emphasis on Sara Watkins’ sibilants that I do not believe to be an accurate reflection of what is on the recording – this is a very smooth SACD, and it should not have sharp sibilants on it when played back, but they are there with the HD800.
>“So Far Away” by Dire Straits from Brothers in Arms - there is a crispness to the attack of the snare that I think is artificially crisp, and the song in general has an aggressiveness that I don’t think is an intrinsic part of the recording, based on how it sounds on other transducers.
These are just a few examples. It's easy to say "well it's just on the recording" if one does not have any other high resolution transducers with which to determine whether that is the case. But in direct comparisons I have done with the ultra-high resolution B&W N800's, I come to the same conclusion that there is some extra treble energy on the HD800's. This might be something people like – heck maybe even the majority of people, and that is fine, but in the context of a very expensive headphone, I would be happier if the treble were more neutral even than it is.
I don't want to make too big of an issue with this, but it is a real phenomenon that multiple people have noticed. At a minimum, it points to the need for very careful system matching to get the most of out the HD800's, although anyone buying $1,400 headphones should be carefully considering system matching anyway. But if you have a bright source and/or amp, you could be in trouble.
I definitely prefer the treble of the JVC DX1000, which I find to be smoother. The DX1000 are very slightly rolled off in the extreme upper treble - they have a roll-off above 10kHz. That is the VERY upper end of the treble range, and does not affect the area where the HD800 is hot to me, which is more in the lower-to-mid treble. The DX1000 are not rolled off there, but they are flatter versus the reference 1kHz level in the mid-treble than the HD800. If the HD800 were only tipped up where the DX1000 are rolled off, this would just lead to a little more "air". But that is not what I hear going on.
The HD800 has even a little hotter sounding mid-treble versus the DT880, which are *far* from rolled off in the treble - in fact they are sometimes criticized for having too much treble themselves. But the DT880 does not have quite the same problem that the HD800 has with treble (although the DT880 is a little hot in the treble for sure). Their treble flavor is different. This can be seen in the HR Frequency response graphs:
The DT880 actually has less of a treble peak, versus the level at 2 or 3kHz than the HD800 does, and the DT880’s peak is above 8kHz, versus the HD800’s being at 6. So not surprising that they sound different in the treble. Interesting that the HD800 frequency response, in the Headroom graph, certainly doers correlate very strongly with what I seem to be hearing. That is a very noticeable peak of almost 8db at 6 kHz versus 3kHz. I cannot see how anyone can argue that such a peak won't have SOME audible consequence. Of course headphones like the Grados have even peakier treble, but there is no argument that Grados have a hot treble.
It’s important to note that measure headphones is tricky, and while Headroom knows this and does a lot to minimize the issues, one cannot make judgments about a headphone’s sound based on looking just at frequency response charts. In this case, though, there does seem to be a correlation.
So on this issue, I have concluded that, at least as I hear it (but also seemingly supported by the frequency response and by the experience of some others), there is a treble coloration with the HD800, in that more than being just "very revealing”, the HD800 has an elevated treble response that is a departure from neutral . Yes, this may periodically enhance sibilance, but it has other effects, like a little extra sizzle on cymbals (which I have also noticed), and generally delivers a slightly “tipped-up” sound. For many, this will come across as just a “revealing” nature, but for others, it will be bothersome. I found it to be enough of an issue that it has dissuaded me from buying them, given the asking price.
And again, to try to minimize the ruffled feathers - this is all in the context of a $1,400 headphone, which I believe deserves microscopic scrutiny given the asking price. I'm already willing to state that the midrange and soundstaging are the best I have ever heard in a dynamic headphone. But the treble performance is still a slight disappointment for me given this is an expensive, "statement" headphone.’
None of what I am hearing will mean that there won't be LOTS of people who will LOVE what the HD800 does in the treble. Heck, there are some headphones that are KNOWN to be terrifically bright (the AT W5000 come to mind), and yet they have a lot of fans. Given that what we are discussing is such a small thing, relatively, there will be some people who won't be at all bothered by it, and some who will indeed LIKE it. But from what I can hear, it's there, and it should be known.
I find the bass quantity to be slightly on the light side. The QUALITY of the bass is stupendous – very well defined, tight, and with great definition and attack. But the DX1000 manage this trick at least as well as the HD800, and manage to have bass weight as well. I find the bass weight of the HD800 to be similar to that of the DT880, which I personally always wish had more bass. I am willing to accept that this is may be just a preference for me, but it nonetheless is something to be aware of – if you like a punchy sound, the HD800 are not always going to please you.
Again let’s look at en example. Listen to “A Secret Place” from Megadeth’s “Cryptic Writings” – the kick drum simply lacks impact. Listen to this track on even $500 speakers – it will sound more like at least I think a kick-drum should. It isn’t imactful on the HD800 – it’s overdamped, and subdued, versus what it sounds like through the N800’s, and the DX1000. It only sounds similar on the DT880. Yes, the impact of the striking of the drum is VERY clean, and very tight, but the drum itself seems to lack body.
The bass is also definitely less than the HD650, and based on my brief comparison, also less than the HD600. Some people may prefer the HD800’s bass performance. It may be "better" bass on the HD800 than the 650, but it is less for sure.
I think it’s very possible that the overdamped bass is what actually makes the treble stand out a little. Or maybe it’s the other way around. But there is a well known trade off there. The famous loudspeaker designer Henry Kloss once did a demonstration where he took a speaker that people thought had too little bass, and he padded the tweeter down by 2db, and all of the sudden – WOW – bass. No change was made to the woofer or the woofer level.
The HD800 have a very tight-fisted punch in the bass – but they punch at something like bantam-weight or junior welter-weight at most.
On the issue of amplifying the HD800
Much has been made about the inductance of the HD800, and the need for certain types of amps. Some people swear they sound great on tube amps, and some insist that due to the inductance, any amp with a high-ish output impedance will not sound as good as they should, and that this includes many OTL tube amps. It's a complex issue, and that doesn't mean the HD800’s *won't* sound good on any given OTL amp. But on the SinglePower Extreme, the treble emphasis was slightly worse that it is on the SS Audio C2C, which I would not have expected. I have never considered the Extreme to be at all rolled off, and of course I cannot measure its output impedance, although SP claims it to be 20 ohms, which isn’t very high, so it's likely IMO that the amp isn't contributing to the treble emphasis I hear, and that the slightly laid-back C-2-C might be masking the HD800’s treble list slightly.
I also tried the HD800 with the Darkvoice 337 ( Tung-Sol mesh-plate 6SJ7GT + GEC 6AS7G) and the 336SE (Shuguang Treasure CV181 + Sylvania 6AS7G). In both cases the treble emphasis was just a tiny bit more obvious, and just slightly more pronounced, than with the SS Audio-GD C2C. I tried the Graham Slee SRG+PSU1, and the treble was between the Extreme and the C-2-C, but on all of these amps, the feeling of a bit too much treble energy never went away. On the other hand, I felt the treble performance on the Decware CSP-2 was basically identical to the C-2-C. So in the end, I think too much was made of this issue of amp type (as is almost always the case).
The HD800 do not, IMO, change their own character radically from amp to amp. Being as revealing as they are, the HD800 certainly will let you know the difference in the sound of different amps, or different tubes. And of course it is difficult to generalize about tube amps, since you can often get the exact sound you're looking for by tube rolling. For example, if I took the 5998's out of the Extreme, and put in RCA grey-plate 6AS7G's, the sound would be very different, and I probably wouldn't notice any treble elevation in the HD800, since the RCA is a soft-sounding tube.
So the point is that with OTL designs there is a potential issue that should be noted - nothing more than that. And since one can alter the sound by using different tubes, tube amps still offer nice flexibility in this regard, and a great tube amp can still sound great with the HD800. My favorite combo ended up being the Decware CSP-2 and the HD800. The Decware, with Amperex 6DJ8’s and a Sophia Princess mesh-plate 274b, when combined with the HD800, provided enough lushness that the sound was just beguiling, and I didn’t worry much about the tipped-up response – the music was enthralling.
Build Quality and Fit
I found the HD800’s very comfortable to wear for long periods of time. They are big, and they were right at the limit of earcup size for my head, but they were within the limit. I of course heard the “pinging” of the spring that people have commented on, but I wasn’t bothered by this. The cable isn’t at all microphonic, which sure is nice.
I've been living with the HD800 for a couple weeks, and I while I think they are truly excellent in many ways, there are some things that bother me in the context of a $1,400 headphone. After several hundred hours of burn in, and hours and hours of listening and comparing, on a very wide variety of amps, I still find the treble to be a bit too aggressive, and the bass to be a bit polite. This is a flavoring, and many will like the flavor. But it is a flavor, and it's not going to be for everyone.
That said, the soundstaging and midrange are so good that the slightly tipped-up response, for many people, will be worth overlooking, and some people will of course LIKE the slight tip-up. And with the right system matching, it might be a non-issue. For me, they are not more enjoyable than the DX1000, and so I’m not going to be buying a pair, given that they cost $1,400. But for you, dear reader, they might be just exactly what you are looking for, and they are certainly world-class performers that have some incredibly special qualities.
I’m sure I’m going to suffer many slings and arrows for criticizing these, even though anyone who actually reads the whole review will see that I’ve actually RAVED about the HD800’s in MANY ways – best mids and imaging of maybe any headphone currently made; crystal clear treble; super-tightly define bass. I simply don’t think they are completely free from personality. As always, this is only my opinion, but it was very carefully arrived at, if nothing else. In the case of a headphone that costs $1,400, I think we have the right to expect a lot; I don’t think we have the right to expect universal perfection, as there is no such thing. So what I have done is tried to describe the flavor of the HD800 as I hear them. Perhaps at least to a few people, this will be of some small help.
Pros - Comfortable, detailed, big soundstage
Cons - Artificial sounding, anemic in the bass, can be too bright, overpriced
I have listened to the HD800 twice, and I never really warmed up to it. And to clarify, they were not casual listening sessions--I took my time and did the listening under the following condition:
-In a controlled environment without distraction and noise
-Used high-end audio source and gears in the signal chain
-Had other flagship headphones there to do direct comparisons with
-Had ample time to do the listening tests, and took as long as I wanted
I should also clarify that I'm an audio professional (composer, songwriter, sound designer) that have worked in both high-end recording/mixing/mastering studios, as well as have built my own studio twice in two different countries (the first one was build completely from the ground up, with my own design in construction and acoustic treatment). I have extensive experience measuring, testing, assessing audio on a critical level, and when I say I "listened" to the HD800, what I mean is I actually tested it used audio test tones (sine wave tones at different frequencies, pink noise, log sweep) and a carefully selected playlist of musical material that I know like the back of my hands that spans many musical genres, and used them to assess specific capabilities of the headphone.
My overall impression of the HD800 was that Its clarity and resolution sounded artificial to me instead of natural (a spike in the upper mids region), and it had no authority in the sub-bass region. I'm one of those people who simply cannot consider a pair of headphones to be "amazing" or "the best of" if it's lacking neutrality in a chunk of the frequency range.
A amazing pair of headphones should sound like a full-range speaker system that reaches down to at least 30Hz and remains substantial and authoritative--anything less than that is not "amazing" to me. Now, pardon me for turning into a pig for a moment and fall back on the classic but eyebrow-raising comparison to a woman. It's sort of like if a girl is really hot with an awesome body, but her ass is flat, barely able to fill any pair of jeans--would that still be considered an amazing body? (This comparison is actually quite fitting in a humorous way, since low frequency in audio is often referred to as the "bottom-end.") Even the HD650 has more sub-bass extension and weight, and it costs far less than the flagship model.
I understand that there's a portion of people whose idea of neutral bass is in fact anemic bass to me, but most people have no idea what a neutral frequency range sounds like, because they have never heard true full-range sound before. Anyone who's ever heard a full-range speaker system that reaches down to 30Hz or lower while maintaining ± 3 dB, will know that neutral bass in in fact quite authoritative and substantial.
There are headphones out there that can reach down low and feel very authoritative--for example, the Audeze LCD-2 and LCD-3, Stax 009, 007MKII, Denon AH-D7000, D5000, D2000, Audio-Technica ATH-M50, etc, so it's not like the HD800 is somehow limited by physics--it was a choice the engineers at Sennheiser made. (These days, more and more headphones on the market can reach down that low and sound authoritative in the sub-bass region, and it's now starting to become the standard. Flagship headphones that can't achieve a proper sense of weight in the sub-bass are now becoming more rare, and sticks out among all the other flagship headphones that could.)
If the lack of full sub-bass was the only issue, I'd have been fine with the HD800, but it is also overtly bright in the upper mid-range, which can be shrill/sibilant on some material, and that breaks my number one rule of audio: "First, do no harm." When any audio gear produces sound that is too bright, it becomes grating and it hurts your ears, and when that happens, it's a deal breaker for me.
Many defenders of this attribute of the HD800 will go to lengths to remedy the problem by buying stupidly expensive headphone amps or other unnecessary audio gadgets to tame that brightness, and they would proclaim that if one used a sufficiently high-end tube amp, the HD800 will sound much better. Really? It appears the marketing department of high-end audio gear companies are doing a damn fine job selling absurd diminishing returns. A pair of headphones is not supposed to have inherent problems that needs to be fixed with yet another piece of expensive gear in the first place. If someone tried to pull that in the professional audio world, they'd get laughed out of the marketplace. This isn't to say there aren't too-bright sounding professional monitor speakers, but at least they were designed with onboard EQ's and measuring mics to adjust according to the room acoustics. If you want to alter the sonic signature of any audio gear--use an actual EQ, not an expensive amp used like a single-preset EQ.
Some people say the HD800 is very revealing, like a sonic microscope. Well, so were the Yamahama NS10's--the legendary monitor speakers that's dominated the pro audio world for decades, but they were used only in the context of being a mixing/mastering tool, and only for troubleshooting potential problems. No one uses them for leisurely listening or a balanced overall presentation, because they were too bright and lacked authoritative sub-bass. If you're not using the HD800 in that way and are listening for pleasure, I think you can find aural bliss in another pair of high-end headphones that doesn't do as much harm and has a more full-range sound.
Pros - Perhaps the world's most transparent headphone. Incredible details, extension and precision. Unmatched spacial presentation.
Cons - Extremely sensitive to what's down the line, requires meticulous setup. Hopeless to demo, needs extensive listening to judge.
I've owned the HD800's for the better part of two years, by now I have hundreds and hundreds of hours of listening time behind me. It is never easy to review a flagship product but the HD800 is harder still, it is not a random thing that I've held off doing this review for so long.
The first time I demoed the HD800 I was of course incredibly exited to try Sennheiser latest and greatest headphone, who wouldn't be? I was impressed by the build quality, the "all-day-long-disappear-on-your-head" comfort, the attention to detail, the very German "rightness" of it all. As I listened to some of my favorite demo tracks in the hi-fi store I was amazed by the details, spacial presentation and precision. But at the end of it all I also came away more than a little perplexed, and there was no instant buy that day. Some of my favorite recordings had sounded a bit dry, hollow and sterile. Almost as if they had been stripped of emotion.
So at the time I simply concluded that the HD800 was competent, but that it wasn't for me. And no great loss since I carried on with my HD650's, a pair of headphones which I to this day still hold in very high regard.
But after a year or so I started thinking about the HD800's again, I guess curiosity is the only way I can describe it. Was I sure there really wasn't anything special with the HD800? This was Sennheiser we were talking about, could Sennheiser really be wrong? So I started reading about the HD800's, and how divided the opinions on them were. This didn't seem to be a "normal" pair of headphones which you could just demo for an hour or so. These headphones required you to actually buy them, install them in your system, set them up the way you want them, let the headphones break in and then let your ears acclimatize themselves.
But even armed with this knowledge I still wasn't completely sold on buying them, it's a lot of money to put down on the table when you're not sure if you're going to like something or not. But one day I spotted a mint second hand pair from a professional reseller at a price that was just too good to pass on. So I decided just to go for it - "heck for that price I can probably sell them for the same again if I don't like them" I said to myself.
And away from the pressure of the demo room I slowly began to warm to the HD800's and appreciate what's so special about them. This isn't really a headphone that's built to be a headphone, this is a set of headphones that's supposed to sound like a pair of speakers standing in front of you.
I have never before or since had a pair of headphones that image so well, it is simply uncanny and something that has to be experienced. Since they are so transparent they also respond extremely well to tweaking. If you change a cable, change the source or give them a +2 dB bass boost you can really hear the difference. This is both good and bad; it is good because they respond very well to changes down the line. It is bad because they are extremely demanding; if you have unclean power in your home, a low quality DAC, a humming amp or a low quality recording you will hear it.
And in this regard the HD800's are extremely unflattering, they will show absolutely no mercy towards bad recordings. On the other hand; if you give them top-notch components and a good recording they will blow almost everything else out of the water. This is why I like to think of the HD800's as a highly strung F1 car. They can be a pair of demanding son-of-a-somethings, but if you get them set up right... boy do they perform.
As such I highly recommend the HD800's, I've derived tons of listening pleasure from mine. It is a headphone that I like to think can do things which no other headphone can. But it is also a headphone that's best purchased when you've already owned a couple of other headphones, and you already have a very competent DAC and AMP setup. Even then it might not be a pair of headphones that you want to use all the time, or for all your recordings. But with the right setup, and the right recordings, you can experience "moments of greatness" which few other headphones can match.
Pros - Accuracy Comfort(moddable with 30 minutes fully reversible work)-revision Nov 2015-rev 2016 Bass lifted treble spike toned down
Cons - Price- First hours of listening were a little worrying-(treble may eventually grate)Revision Nov 2015 new rev Nov 2016 grating treble all but gone
This review is based on my honest impressions of the HD800. I have no technical background little technical knowledge but I listen to music an awful lot. This comes from the heart and I in no way intend to cause any personal offence to any of the gear anyone else has. I simply wish to put on record what my personal findings have been on this set of phones and the reader can compare to other reviews out there.
First of all, I have to say it has not been possible to find a way to give you an unbiased comparison of these headphones against any others on the market. This is because double blind testing only works when you are using ancillary equipment.
If you know your existing headphones then you know how they feel on your head so this immediately destroys any chance of knowing what the true differences are. Leaving aside all the tricks your ears can and will play on you....
This is a good and a bad thing. On the one hand it gives reviews like this an added importance to the prospective buyer and on the other hand theee is no esy of proving whether any of this is correct.
The closest one might get to a really good comparison would be those people lucky enough to have a sound card dac or headphone amplifier that had 2 headphone outputs. Switching between headphones could therefore be done faster and the memory of the sound characteristics of each arguably clearer in one's mind. I believe jude has a benchmark dac that has this facility. The added complication is that every headphone has a slightly different sensitivity so volume matching is arguably needed. I have not got these facilities they are more suited to the regular reviewers out there.
I have had the hd800s since early December 2012 so have listened to them for several hundred hours. I have owned denon ahd2000's westone um2s shure ecl5s ue triple fi 10s monster gratitudes klipsch x10is srx mk3 pros and audeze lcd2's during this time. A comparison between these headphones is all I can do. There might be headphones out yhere that blow the hd800s out of the water for the type of sound quality I like but that's the mystique of our hobby- we will never truly know what the best out there is. David Mahler must be getting there with the number of top end phones he has I guess. But for mere mortals....
The hd800s are my favourite headphones. Whatever I plug them into whatever music I listen to. When it is practical to listen through them (they leak a huge amount of sound) they're amazing. The music is reproduced in a way I never believed was possible until I heard them. The audeze lcd2's are renowned for the live feel and the bass they produce and their beautiful finish. All of this I believe to be true from the time I owned them. My ears much preferred the sound of the hd800s and I will try to explain why.
There is something about the precision of the mix of the music the wideness of the sound that I have not experienced with any other headphone in the same way. The hd800s to my ears excel in this aspect. You will read numerous articles which will make you think twice about spending so much money on these phones. I have read they need hugely expensive headphone amplifiers , dacs, cabling, modding, 100s of hours of burn in time, special recordings, special ears probably. The list is endless. Who knows maybe some of that stuff is right especially for those who have pursued those paths to the nth degree.
Some of these paths are expensive toll roads, from my viewpoint I think I'll catch the bus
I am therefore not going to describe the hd800s as having shortcomings of needing any of the above because my ears are telling me they don't. Which is surely good news if youve just spent $1500.
Other criticism I've read is that they sound harsh or the treble has too much 'sparkle'. Not to my 46 year old ears they don't. Not one bit. The higher frequency stuff sounds just great. Another criticism levelled is that they lack bass. Again, I have found this to be untrue. All instrumemts are presented accurately so if there's metallica softly tapping way at the drums on enter sandman or the orchestra limbering up on jeff waynes the eve of the war it's worth taking some time out to hear it if you haven't before.
The only detrimental thing I can say beyond the obvious that they leak sound is that when I first listened to them out of the box they sounded very thin and strained like a cheap pair of iems. This was quite worrying to me. They started to improve after a few minutes and certainly gave me a sigh of relief after 30 minutes when I realised my new phones werent broken. Whether this phenomenon was what is described as burn in or whether it was down to the headphones being cold having been stored in a box for a long time I could not tell you. I left the phones connected to an ipod night and day for a week listening to them when I had a chance. This was just as much to make absolutely sure there wasn't a manufacturer fault than it was to burn them in and it did the phones no harm at all in the process. In hindsight I had nothing to fear but for those of you buying new I would advise it for the peace of mind that you haven't got a broken pair
I find most of the headfiers out there are on a budget. Am I right? If I had a budget of $1500 and I wanted to get the best sound quality I could I would buy a pair of these 2nd hand and spend the rest on wine, women (your loved ones deserve a treat for letting you get these), and song.
I hope I have not trodden on anyone's toes or caused anyone any upset in writing this. It was a simple impulsive wish to share some of the pleasure I have had in owning this amazing set of headphones.
I thought I would tell you of what life is like after a few years of use. I have dropped these phones a few times and had to repair the stock cables at the termination, they have been taken around with me during my journey to and from the various places I live so they show signs of wear.
The HD800s still live up to their initial impressions, I have bought and sold many other phones; LCD2.2, T1, Stax Sigma Pro, IE800, X11i, Alpha Dog, Encore Pro Studio, Stance S1,T20 etc. I have listened to many other phones including the SR009, Orpheus, K1000, Abyss, GS1000i, PS1000, Ultrasone, Noble, LCD3,W1000,HE560 and HE1000. Whilst some of these have been better sounding to me (SR009,K1000,HE1000,Orpheus,Abyss,HE560) I have not been tempted to spend those sorts of sums on replacement.
Some 2 months ago I decided to mod the HD800 using the Anaxilus Mod. I was really disappointed with the results, to me they sounded muffled, lost too much of their soundstage and were too prominent in the bass. Rather than discarding all the research and damping material I decided to tone down the effect of the mod. I put wool felt over the metal rings of the driver reducing the thickness of the original mod by a factor of two thirds.
The cutting is crude, the felt doesn't 100% cover the surface of the ring. It doesn't even stick hard and fast the surface. Yet the felt does what it needs to do.
This has made a noticeable difference in bass response and ringing around the upper treble region, although a word of warning ; the upper mids and treble region is where I believe the magic of the illusion of the huge soundstage is created. Of course the size and angle of the drivers plays a part in the soundstage too , the mod does pull it in. The soundstage is further refined and pulled in with an EQ I have set up on my Audivarna Plus music player.
I am reaping the fruit of my labours with these phones, in spite of the HD800S launch. The S Model is intended to rectify some of the perceived shortcomings of the 800 Model, I have to say I have changed the stock sound of mine using damping and eq to the point where I have no interest in replacing them with the S Model.
There has been one recent major purchase; this is the HE6 and a huge speaker amp based on the First Watt F6, @dill3000 diy built "The Mini Beast". More on that in another review. The HE-6 is a different tone and the soundstage is altogether different. The HD800 is still with me and enjoying a new lease of life despite the HE-6.
Revision Nov 2016
The half felt half lambswool has now been replaced with a full lambswool layer to the ring around the drivers of my HD800.
Listening to the S model made me realise there was still more that should be done with these phones. My friend @dill3000 pointed out to me @Sorrodje had another layer of sophistication to add to the mods already done out there.
Dillan got some resonators and I set to work on the drivers. 10 minutes later and I was finished. They work! Wonderful work @Sorrodje. Thank you. You have made the great even greater.
The HD800 , at £1099 , is looking at ever more of a bargain. Although , even with the mods , I would put my money on the S model for the extra £100. the soundstage is not quite so wide and the imaging perhaps not quite so pin sharp, but I think the tonality still just edges it.
Pros - Massive soundstage. Very high-resolution sound with low resonance. Very comfortable. Quality construction.
Cons - Not natural sounding; the tonality is bright with a lack of proper body and weight to the sound. Paint job fragile. Overpriced.
I purchased this headphone for full retail price a couple of years ago, and in the beginning, I felt very positive about it. But things change, and as I got to try many other high end offering by other manufacturers, as I got to try this headphone with different amps, sources, cables and so forth, I have come to the conclusion that this headphone is perhaps the most overhyped piece of audio gear in the head-fi industry. The truth hurts, but you learn from your mistakes.
As controversial as it may be, I felt the need to change my positive review and write what I feel about the HD 800s.
To start with the positive, build quality and ergonomics here are great. This is a very cool-looking, precisely designed headphone that makes a luxurious impression, especially when resting in the storage box. The headband adjustment mechanism feels very well constructed. The earpad/headband material attracts dirt and dust like crazy, but feels great to the touch and is very comfortable against the skin for extended listening sessions. The plastic doesn't feel as great as the aluminum on the STAX SR-009, but is really solid nonetheless. I'm a bit sceptical about the paint job though; the finish is fragile and will tear if you don't treat the headphone carefully.
The cable is very well made; thick, non-microphonic, with a really hefty, quality 6,3mm plug at the end.
Comfort is absolutely first rate. The headphone is a bit on the heavy side and after several hours, the headband starts to feel uncomfortable on top of my head, but that may just be me. The earcup pressure is just perfect and the headphone almost feels like it disappears from your head after a while. The large space inside the earcups coupled with the open design makes sure you never get hot or annoyed wearing them.
So far, everything is good.
Sound wise, this is a very clean sounding headphone. Sennheiser did a great job designing a headphone with minimal resonance factor and muffling of the audio. As a result, the HD 800 is very resolving and therefore picky about the source gear, and especially recording quality. Lesser recordings simply will not do this headphone justice. Of course, this resolving sound signature will allow for very crisp detail.
Those large, angled ring-drivers also provide a very large soundstage, with great sense of depth and layering. Room acoustics come through very naturally and the headphone is very good at separating dense, orchestral music.
BUT, the tonality just isn't realistic. The overall signature is a bit bright - especially in the 6khz area - which gives the impression of more details, but becomes tiresome to listen to after a while. Cymbals sound to splashy, violins sound to shiny, sibilant sounds are over-accentuated - things just *don't sound like real life*. (Granted, like most Sennheiser headphones the HD 800 is laid-back and quite smooth sounding, so it's not biting or piercing the way Ultrasone and Grado headphones tend to be.)
The same goes with the bass. I find the bass very tightly controlled, but neither well extended nor impactful. There isn't enough punch and weight to it, and there's not much warmth either. Drums sound pathetically weak for a headphone priced at $1500 and the midrange suffers from this lack of body.
Just try to listen to a live jazz band performing, and then go listen to the HD 800. It doesn't sound AT ALL alike. The string bass sounds present, full and thick in real life. It sounds thin and lifeless on the HD 800.
The midrange could've been so good if the frequency extremes were more natural, because the openness of the HD 800 really allows for a very airy, clear midrange. But instead, things sound dry. Even with great recordings, there's always a certain degree of thinness and brightness to the music, with some grain and sharpness to the upper midrange. You hear the guitar very clearly, with excellent crispness, but the sound of the box of the guitar is subdued. Female vocals, a particular weakness of mine, sound a bit articifical, if only slight. But at this price, "slight" turns to "significant".
With a Cardas cable, the sound gains a bit more body and slightly less glare to the treble, which is a good thing. But it still doesn't make the headphone entirely neutral, and let's face it; why in the name of god should you have to buy an aftermarket cable for hundreds of dollars to get the sound right with your $1500 high-end, flagship headphone from a large company like Sennheiser?
There is a lot of talk around the forums that the HD 800 really needs a great tube amp to sound it's best. And that's true. I've heard the HD 800 with the Leben CS300 and while the combo didn't win me over, it sounded very good. Much more body and no treble glare left to speak of. But my opinion is this: if you have to use a tube amp to *change* the sound of the headphone in order to make it sound good, then that ruins the idea a bit. A tube amp like the Leben colors the sound; it adds distortion, makes things different than what's originally intended. This goes against my idea of high-end hifi: a clean path through the entire audio chain. I think the source chain should be as neutral and as transparent as possible with minimal distortion, in order to make the headphones themselves shine through fully and display their respective strengths. This is the proper way of judging the sound of a headphone, isn't it?
If you have two really expensive cars, you should use a track that's optimal for them to achieve high performance. If both cars have their different weaknesses, no modifications should be enabled to each, and no changes should be made to the track to cover up those weaknesses. That would be cheating!
And that goes here as well, it's just that instead of two cars you have two different sounding headphones and instead of track you have your source chain. This is, of course, my opinion only. But I hope it's a reasonable explanation to why I don't think a tube amp should be used to judge a headphone. I feel you should judge the original, intended sound of the headphone.
And driven from a neutral system, the HD 800 fails to impress. My positive impression of it has gone colder and colder, and I have now sold it. The sad truth is that not only do I prefer pretty much every STAX headphone made, the Audeze LCD-2 and the Beyerdynamic T1 to the HD 800 - I even prefer many cheaper headphones to the HD 800, like Sennheiser's own HD600, HD650 and even the portable momentum, which is a fantastic sounding headphone and my only headphone at this time. No, the Momentum, HD 600, HD 650 and even the LCD-2 don't have the openness and crispness of the HD 800, but they are all more neutral, easier on the ears and more fun to listen to. The HD 800 just comes down dull and clinical compared to most.
It's a shame, but it's what I honestly feel. And no matter how many people who will hate me for saying it, I think the HD 800 is a failed, if ambitious, achievement by Sennheiser. The HD 700 made the sound fuller and warmer, but instead made the treble even brighter end quite edgy, so that one wasn't right either. If you want the best from Sennheiser, the HD 600/650 with a replacement cable and a great system is what you want.
If you want better options at this price, the Beyerdynamic T1, LCD-2 and the cheaper STAX offerings are recommended.
Pros - Transparent, neutral, huge soundstage, realism, clear, sennheiser style sound, open, imaging, extension, almost perfect, build, looks
Cons - Unforgiving, way overpriced, etched and slightly artificial detail, vocals lack some smoothness, sibilance, HD600 is better imo
All in all I would say a pretty neutral sound with very good extension on either sides and very very good soundstage. Very trasparent. Sometimes still a bit hard on the ears and sibilant, definitely not as neutral as HD600. Pretty balanced sound signature but with a treble peak.
Sound is very good and clear but not good at all for the price. Bass has impact and extension, mids are very trasparent and realistic, higs have an annoying peak but otherwise are extended and balanced. Detail retrieval is very high but because of a peak in the treble it often feels artificial. Great impression of realism but sound is actually not very realistic. You always feel that peak. I preferred HD600s in the end, I found them to be superior in pretty much any area except soundstage width.
Comfort is great, they almost disappear and never touch the ears; build quality is very high too. Cable feels very very high quality. And they look really awesome.
Pros - High level of clarity, very comfortable
Cons - Lack of mid-range quantity to balance against treble
Originally published on September 6, 2010
Note: this review is an exact cross-post from post #1 of this thread on Head-Fi, which contains some user discussion on the review that may be relevant to read: http://www.head-fi.org/t/511201/review-beyerdynamic-t1-vs-sennheiser-hd800
- download a printable 8-page PDF version of this review
- download a printable 9-page PDF version of the notes that were written for this review. The notes contain much more detailed info broken down by individual CD tracks and will probably be worth reading for those seeking even more info to assist with a buying decision. The notes should be considered a supplement and not a replacement for this review (as the review is not straight from the notes) - I recommend reading this review first and then reading the notes.
Post-review amp comparison installments (comparing M3 vs SPL Auditor):
- T1: http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/511201/review-beyerdynamic-t1-vs-sennheiser-hd800/75#post_6928382
- K701: http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/511201/review-beyerdynamic-t1-vs-sennheiser-hd800/75#post_6943875
- HD800: http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/511201/review-beyerdynamic-t1-vs-sennheiser-hd800/105#post_6985524
As is typical of previous reviews I've written on Head-Fi, the review that follows below is a comparative one—because writing about only one headphone does not put anything into context and without context it's impossible for anyone to determine how a headphone might sound through inference. In fact, this review assumes that the reader has heard one of the headphones that were used as a comparative reference—be it the T1 or HD800 themselves, or the AKG K701, Audio-Technica AD2000, Grado HP1000/HP2, or Sony Qualia 010. But for those who have not heard one of those headphones, I have also tried to accommodate for that as well, drawing from my cumulative headphone experience gained since 2006 through either buying/selling or exposure at Head-Fi meets. (All gear I've heard is listed in my profile for reference.)
Reviewer Biases & Info
My view of a headphone system is "source first" followed by headphones and then amp. In other words, a source of highest quality possible (assuming recordings of high quality also) should be paired with the most preferential-sounding headphone(s), to be driven by the most technically-optimal amp. In my view, the most technically-optimal amp is the one that provides sufficient power for all headphones being used without inflecting its own sonic signature, or minimally at least.
Some portions of the review below refer to the sound of live instruments. As an FYI to put those references into the proper context, I'm a trained violinist (learned via the Suzuki method for 12 years starting at age 6, then quit lessons at 18 and have been playing on and off since, and I'm 29 now) and have had the opportunity several times to play in a symphony orchestra, and I've attended classical-music concerts as well.
- Source component: Plinius CD-101 (CD player) (power cord: Signal Cable Silver Resolution Reference - directly into wall)
- RCA interconnects: BPT IC-SL
- Headphone amplifier: Rockhopper-built Balanced M3 (used in unbalanced mode)
- Other comparison headphones: AKG K701 (re-cabled with SAA Equinox), Audio-Technica AD2000 (re-cabled with APS V3), Grado HP1000/HP2 (re-cabled with APS V3), Sony Qualia 010 (re-cabled with Moon Audio Black Dragon)
Sennheiser HD800 vs AKG K701
Music used for this comparison:
- Alison Krauss & Union Station - Lonely Runs Both Ways - "A Living Prayer"
- Alison Krauss & Union Station - New Favorite - "The Lucky One"
- Carlos Kleiber w/ Vienna - Beethoven Symphonies No. 5 & 7 - No. 5 - "Allegro con brio"
- Eva Cassidy - Live at Blues Alley - "Autumn Leaves"
- Julia Fischer - Bach Concertos - Concerto for 2 violins in D minor - "I. Vivace", "III. Allegro"
- Massive Attack - Mezzanine - "Teardrop"
- Pierre Boulez w/ Vienna - Mahler Symphony No. 6 - "I. Allegro energico"
- Porcupine Tree - In Absentia - "Blackest Eyes"
- Priscilla Ahn - A Good Day - "Dream"
- Radiohead - In Rainbows - "Reckoner"
- Zero 7 - When It Falls - "Home"
It could be said that female vocals are one of the K701's strengths, as they're typically very prominent on the headphone as a result of being pushed forward in the mix. This can work for certain female vocalists, like Eva Cassidy and the ones part of Zero 7's group, but not all, notably Alison Krauss. Having heard Alison Krauss on other headphones, including live (at a music festival earlier this year in Colorado), I would say that the K701 portrayed her completely wrong—Alison does not have a particularly "strong" or "powerful" voice and typically sings at lower volumes too, but to make up for it her voice is crystal clear with an extremely "radiant" quality. I found that the K701 unnecessarily added to her lower vocal range and made her sound more "sultry" than "angelic." This was not the case on the HD800, which made her voice sound more correct at a higher register and also maintained her clarity and radiance. The HD800 also made Priscilla Ahn sound more authentic too, retaining the youthful "little girl" quality to her voice, while the K701 tuned her voice away from that "little girl" to something a bit more lower-pitched.
It's been said by other people on Head-Fi that the HD800 is a better version of the K701, but in actual comparative listening between the two headphones, I did not find many similarities to be able to call the HD800 a version of the K701—in fact, I found more differences between them than similarities. Both headphones have a large soundstage, but I found the HD800 to have the bigger one, injecting more air and space into the music than the K701—or in other words, displacing instruments more and translating displacement as a sort of reverb-type effect, like a larger auditorium than the K701 with more acoustically-reflective surfaces. The HD800 also had better frequency extension than the K701, by a wide enough margin that I would call it better in that aspect. The K701 for example missed the second-half of the 3rd note of the heartbeat rhythm on Massive Attack's "Teardrop" but the HD800 was able to audibly resolve this note. The HD800's treble was also able to clearly highlight aspects like guitar plucks, sliding, & string vibrations, cymbal tizzes, and other percussive impacts, while these were largely blurred over by the K701. Granted, the HD800 had a higher degree of clarity throughout the entire spectrum but its treble also brought out the aforementioned details more.
It's probably easier to contrast the two headphones overall—the K701 projected a large soundstage and brought forward the female vocal range while displacing everything else, gently rolled off the treble and bass, and exerted a high degree of control over the entire bass range. The HD800 projected an even larger soundstage with a noticeable "whoosh" of air within it, sounding flatter and significantly clearer throughout the mid-range, with more treble and bass extension & quantity—on the HD800, bass actually boomed and thudded, if it was there on the recording. The K701 also typically sounded better louder, but the HD800 sounded good even at moderate volume and maintained sonic integrity at lower volumes too. The two headphones also reacted differently at very high volume—the K701 sounded "harder" and lost control over multiple concurrent layers (blurring them as a result) while the HD800 didn't break its character and simply just sounded louder. There was also a different style between them—the HD800 simply sounded passive more than anything else, lacking a "directness" to the sound, and sounded more like a headphone playing music for you to analyze by ear. The K701 had a passive sound too but hid behind it better due to its smaller soundstage and closer instrument positioning for a more personal type of sound—in contrast to the HD800, which came across more as away & detached.
There are also some really critical points I have to assess against the HD800 (and K701) for classical music. While everyone may have their own sonic preference, there are certain things that some people will want and others won't. For example, violin tonality—which honestly I've heard very few headphones get correct, and neither the K701 nor the HD800 made violins sound natural. The K701 was too "dark" on them and didn't bring out their treble "brilliance," but the HD800 was too "bright" on them and made them sound too wispy and glossy. The K701 also struggled to separate individual violins in the two sections, but this was easily pulled off by the HD800. The HD800 also had better "macrodynamics," giving more impact & power into sudden volume bursts than the K701. The HD800 also had a faster impulse response that allowed it to better resolve minor details like rolling timpani and pizzicato. Yet, for all these seeming advantages of the HD800, its expanded soundstage & air was actually distracting and key tonalities were off too—violins as already mentioned, but also brass which didn't sound very sonorous.
Sennheiser HD800 vs Grado HP1000/HP2 (flat pads)
Music used for this comparison:
- Julia Fischer - Bach Concertos - Concerto for 2 violins in D minor - "III. Allegro"
- Zubin Mehta w/ Vienna - Mahler Symphony No. 2 - "III. In ruhig flieBender Bewegung"
There were just two musical selections for this comparison to answer just one question: would the venerable Grado HP1K make a stronger case for classical music? Answer: it depends on how you like your classical music to sound. The HD800 was vastly clearer-sounding with a lot more separation between the instruments—or in other words, the position of every instrument section was very discrete and widely spread out across the soundstage. The HP1000, on the other hand, had a compressed soundstage in comparison, almost 2D-like flat and not as wide. But then soundstage is not one of the HP1000's strengths, and neither is clarity, as any owner or fan of it could tell you.
The key strength of the HP1000 is what many of its fans call its "neutral" sound. I think "natural" is a better word for the HP1K, as it gave instruments the kind of sonic texture they need to sound authentic with a real presence, to transcend the headphone experience and make you think you're listening to real instruments (in terms of their sonic texture and body only, not necessarily because of anything else). "Musical" is a vague word but it's one of the words that came to mind listening to the HP1K versus the HD800, because with the HP1K it was easier to focus on the actual music—its concept, its style, its character. With the HD800, it was a lot less than that—it was easier to merely focus on listening to the instrument sections than the actual musical concept. Not that the HP1K's mid-range-focused sound had anything to do with this (whereas the HD800 could probably be considered treble-focused). No, it was completely in their contrasting presentations—the HD800's splitting/separation/diffusion (whatever you want to call it) versus the HP1K's cohesion and integration. The HD800 made it easier to follow the individual instrument sections as a result (sacrificing tonality and "musicality"), and the HP1K made it easier to follow the musical picture (sacrificing clarity and soundstage). To quantify this in a frequency sense, if one considers the HD800 to lack mid-range, then the HP1000 might be a polar opposite (and vice versa).
Sennheiser HD800 vs Beyerdynamic T1
Music used for this comparison:
- Anne Bisson - Blue Mind - "Camilio"
- Beyond Twilight - Section X - "The Path of Darkness"
- Global Communication - 76:14 - "4:02", "9:39"
- In Flames - The Jester Race - "Moonshield", "Artifacts of the Black Rain"
- Julia Fischer - Bach Concertos - Concerto for 2 violins in D minor - "III. Allegro"
- Katie Melua - Piece by Piece - "Shy Boy", "On the Road Again"
- Laika - Good Looking Blues - "Widows' Weed"
- Medeski Martin & Wood - Uninvisible - "Uninvisible", "Ten Dollar High"
- Megadeth - Countdown to Extinction [MFSL] - "Sweating Bullets"
- Meshuggah - Chaosphere - "New Millennium Cyanide Christ"
- Nightwish - Once - "Wish I Had An Angel", "Planet Hell"
- Orbital - The Middle of Nowhere - "Way Out"
- Pearl Jam - Ten - "Even Flow", "Alive"
- Rage Against The Machine - Rage Against The Machine - "Bombtrack", "Take The Power Back", "Know Your Enemy"
- Symphony X - Paradise Lost - "Oculus Ex Inferni", "Set the World on Fire", "The Walls of Babylon"
- The Crystal Method - Tweekend - "Murder", "Ten Miles Back"
- The Crystal Method - Vegas [Deluxe Edition] - "High Roller"
- The Prodigy - The Fat of the Land - "Smack My Bitch Up", "Breathe", "Diesel Power", "Fuel My Fire"
- Trifonic - Emergence - "Emergence", "Transgenic"
And finally for the real showdown, the so-called big guns. Which is the better headphone, the HD800 or T1? Well anyone reading this will probably expect my answer: it's not really that simple and both headphones have their strengths and weaknesses.
I'll start with the recurring subject of violin tonality in classical music, because personally it's a big issue for me as a violinist. My position is: if the violins don't sound real, forget it! And neither the HD800 or T1 delivered realistic violin tone—the HD800 was too bright and wispy and the T1 wasn't "light" enough. What does one do as a solution then? You get the right headphones—and in my case that usually means the Stax OII MKI amped by the HeadAmp BHSE, which achieves the perfect tone. No other headphones need apply. Bam, done. Can't afford the OII/BHSE? IMO the next best solution after that is the Grado HP1000, or if that one is too expensive also, then the Sennheiser HD600.
Next subject, electronica. For ambient electronica specifically, only the Sennheiser HD800 was remotely good enough to do it justice, while the T1 was not, primarily due to the HD800's superior overall clarity, treble tilt, and faster impulse response. Ambient electronica is often buried in lots of layers (more than the average song in any other music genre) and requires a very hi-fi transducer to reveal them all cleanly and clearly—and in the case of Global Communication, Laika, and Trifonic, only the HD800 had the right amount of "clean & clear" to make these artists sound good. The T1 didn't have the silent background required for this type of music and its lack of treble and clarity worked against the type of detail inherent to ambient electronica. Not that the HD800 was perfect though, it was just better at this—as there are other headphones that have even more "clean & clear" sounds, like the Sony SA5000 & Qualia 010. For more bass-driven electronica like The Crystal Method, The Prodigy, etc, the T1 is probably a better choice than the HD800, but not the best one there is. The T1 had more bass quantity in general and delivered a good amount of bass impact and its low extension nearly matched the Audio-Technica AD2000's too. But the T1 didn't deliver a particularly strong bass overall and its slow impulse response held it back from being ideal—the Audio-Technica AD2000 probably being a better choice for people who want a powerful low bass response that's also extremely fast.
Metal is a tricky genre for headphones to handle, as it goes in a lot of different directions. But if there's one commonality in most of metal, it's speed combined with aggression, and the HD800 was consistently too passive-sounding to really get into metal and give it that needed aggression. I will say simply that the HD800 was boring with metal, and who wants boring metal? The T1, on the other hand, was a much better choice for metal, primarily due to its fuller mid-range/mid-bass and smaller soundstage, allowing every band to sound closer and more personal. The T1 simply had a very good direct and assertive sound that made it work very well for a wide variety of metal. However, the T1 wasn't completely ideal for some types of metal, like thrash metal, as its impulse response couldn't quite keep up with some of the faster sequences. For that type of metal, another headphone would be recommended instead, and I've personally gotten better experiences for thrash metal with the Audio-Technica AD2000, JH Audio JH13, and Stax OII MKI.
And finally, jazzy or pop female vocals is one of the most pedestrian forms of music, as it's typically easy for almost any headphone to sound good with and the artists spun for this (Anne Bisson, Katie Melua) didn't really reveal much that wasn't already discovered before, other than perhaps that piano was more realistic sounding on the T1 with its generally richer tone.
Pros - Best dynamic available
Cons - VERY picky about the amp and cable
Let's start with my long love for all things Senn, from my first hd545, to hd600, not so much the hd650, but back again with the he60 (electrostat) and now the hd800.
The search for amps started with a balanced Bijou, where I thought a tube amp would be just the ticket with a SS source (Cambridge 840c), but, not quite. I also tried them balanced with a Little Dot Mark IV... just wasn't quite there.
Keeping with a SS source, I then looked at push-pull amps, where the jury is out, mainly by not having the amp fully functional for a long enough time.
So, I completely switched gears, through an odd congruence of events. First, I upgraded my source significantly, and changed topology to tube from SS. This, combined with a bjt SS amp (a commercial prototype) has given me the answer. With this combination, the hd800 is on par with the he60 (driven with eXStatA, that has better synergy with the he60 than does the BH), but with FAR better bass. Not that the he60, properly driven, is at all bass shy, but the hd800 really makes bass happen. True bass heads will now actually seek out the hd800 with an amp such as this (or KG's dynafet) because this is bass you feel, not just hear.
In fact, I (as a life long bass player) assert the hd800 has BETTER bass (quality and quantity) than the L3000, with FAR better control. Want to hear the timbre of a Fender Precision, or the sharpness of a Jazz, then contrast with an Alembic? This is the headphone for you.
Midrange is the patented Senn sound - nothing better for guitar and piano.
Now, where the discussion will be the most intense is around the higher frequencies - my bias is far away from that region, almost to the enxtent of dismissing it entirely, so I'll leave that for others.
PRaT is dead on, whether it's DEVO, Radiohead, Rhianna, or AC/DC. For the longest while I thought I'd have to get some HE-5 (or whatever the latest flavor) to really make headphones boogie again. Nope, the hd800 is up to the task, with the right supporting cast.
This will be available for listen at CanJam. See for yourself.
No mods per se, but I do have an APS v3 cable, balanced.
The strongest possible recommendation I can give the hd800 is that it would make me find the he60 idle and extraneous, and, I am ALMOST there.
Pros - Similar speed and agility to stats
Cons - No soul
An expensive, technically proficient headphone that has no soul. Does mate well with the Luxman P-1 or P1-u, but at that point, why not go electrostatic, which is what these are trying to be in the first place. Kudos to Senn for innovation, but these are just too steely for my tastes.
Pros - Huge soundstage, high speed, great with all types of music. Very comfortable.
Cons - Very picky about source and amp. Cable is arguably poor, so overall expensive to get the best results from. The painted plastic frame is a bit tacky.
I'm going to borrow a quote from jpelg who sumed them up nicer than I can in one of the meet threads: