Cons: Heavy, large cups (think HD800), USA distribution, Headband too big for my headphone hangers ;-$
I was first attracted to these beacause of their looks. I always like a detatchable dual sided cable. The ribbon black and yellow cable seemed to be trying something new (think, the opposite of the HD 700 cable). Add to that, the term Flagship was bandied around so I thought I'd roll the dice. I had read some positive reviews, but Wow, these came out of nowhere. Talk about a dark horse. The distribution in the US is terrible. I bought them for about $400 from Accessory Jack out of HK. The packaging is ho hum. Pulling out the headphones for the first time is like getting to sit in a Bentley Continental at the dealership; just feel the luxury.
The first thing that stood out to me is these babies are weighty. Those are metal cups, metal head band, and I think leather. Pulling out the cable, it's long, it's flat, it's rubbery, and it is strangely beautiful. Big velor ear pads and a little too clampy. So, I let them burn in a little while on my headphone stretching block.
The first couple of songs I listened to, I was't sure about. I have a folder of test tracks that are like an obsticle course for headphones. Then I remembered the free Hi-Res music offer that comes with these cans, so I downloaded some of that stuff. Wow. Just Wow. OK, now we are in business. I brought some other cans to compare with, got some amps for pairing, and started to do what I love: listening very carefully
First observation, the bass is not anemic like on my HD 700. These are open, and noise isolation is poor, but the detail retreaval is amazing. I don't know how flat these are graph wise, but the sound signature is very pleasing, very musical, and I did not hear anything spiking or being pushed forward. Even the bass seems just right, not bloated like my Z7 or anemic like my HD 700, but just right.
Oddly enough, the weight of these that I thought would be a problem evaporates with that huge, luxury head band and plushy earpads. The clamp force was easily tamed by one night on the block. I don't think the sound stage is quite as big as my HD 700, but not small in anyway, more focused. The sound appears very 3 dimentional. These are real contenders. I am glad I bought them. They can't beat my Z7 for comfort, or my HD 700 for air, but these cans have a balanced, accurate sound, top notch construction, striking good looks, and the comfort of real luxury. I would buy them again for $400.
I am writing this review because I took a chance on these and it really paid off. I wanted the industry hype to be true, but I have been disappointed before. This is one case where the testamonials are accurate. I think that these are going to be rare very soon and I am glad that I got them. Plus, it is easy to get on the band wagon for the flavor of the month, but I like to take a chance now and then and back a dark horse: the Onkyo A800M.
Pros: Well extended, quality bass with impact, controlled yet vibrant detail, plays well across many genres
Cons: Lack of carry case/bag, cup pad material holds debris
The ONKYO A800 is a very impressive headphone indeed, and I believe it has the potential to really earn a following among headphone enthusiasts. To be sure, we are in an unprecedented period where companies are putting significant time and R&D effort into producing capable headphones, and among this sea of excellent headphones it is a challenge to really stand out, but I think a case can be made that the A800 does indeed have standout quality.
As always, I like to offer a little detail about myself to provide some user context to this review. I am now 48 years old and still possess quite good hearing. I like a wide variety of music, but in recent years I have really started to gravitate to electronic genres and Nu Jazz offerings. I do like to listen at fairly high playback volume, certainly louder than anybody I know, and due to this I do tend to use shorter listening sessions so rather than listening for say two hours at a time, I will typically listen for several shorter sessions that would total two hours perhaps. I feel this has helped preserve my hearing. I have played the drums off and on for over 30 years and I enjoy listening to all instruments, but I do tend to notice drums, cymbals and bass guitars and perhaps focus on them a little more intently.
It was suggested to me that I should include basic specifications, which of course is true so here they are: impedance 32ohms, sensitivity 100db/1mW, frequency response 4Hz - 40kHz, 50mm multi-layer diaphragm. Build quality, looks and comfort
The A800 certainly is a well-made product, feeling very substantial and solid in hand. Without the cable my handy digital food scale tells me that the A800 weighs in at 439 grams, by way of comparison my LCD 2F weighs in at 582 grams (sans cable). Styling preference is of course rather a personal thing, and for me, I very much like the A800’s aesthetics. I remember seeing images of the new ONKYO headphone lineup I think in late 2015 and the looks were striking. My friend and I both feel the A800 has an almost Art Deco vibe which I think is rather compelling. The shapes are simple and yet bold in scale and the brass/gold accent trim helps set off these elements without being distracting. While certainly bold enough, the overall aesthetics of the design is understated with a certain distinctive and sophisticated aplomb. The main housing for the drivers is an aluminum chamber crafted through a meticulous, multi step process.
I suspect the wide headband will not please everybody, but for me it is actually a feature I found appealing and it is rather well done. When worn, the headband does not feel big at all, it is quite comfortable and I don’t even notice it on which I think is a good thing. The padding is ample and provides nice cushioning. An advantage of a wide headband is the distribution of weight and lack of small contact points so combined with the leather wrap all in all the headband is a winner in my books.
Now we come to the transducer cups and cushions. They are comfortable, but not plush and forget about them comfort, but most certainly not uncomfortable in the least. During testing I have actually worn the A800 for longer sessions than I normally do and comfort has never been an issue, in fact in general it has been a strength. However, I can perceive for lack of a better way to describe the sensation, the cup shape under the cushions, but I can’t explain why this is. The cushions on the cups are quite nice and more than adequate so it isn’t that the cups are improperly padded. The clamping force is exceptionally well done I feel, snug enough for a solid seal, but not at all uncomfortably tight. I am sensitive to clamping pressure and the A800 seems to strike the perfect balance of tension and comfort.
I like the sizing adjustment mechanism. The metal brackets that slide out from inside the headband covering are a unifying matte brass/gold colour and look very well machined. The mechanism seems to be very smooth and secure, and once a size is set it seems to stay in place. Longevity of any design is always a question that only time can answer, but if I had to guess I would think the mechanism is solid and will stand up to use.
Another feature that I like quite a bit from a practical and aesthetic perspective is the detachable, dual entry ribbon cable. In keeping with the design choices the cable is a pleasing brass/gold and black pliable material. The cup entry for the 3.5mm jacks are nicely recessed and the two cable ends have a supportive rubber frame that runs up most of the side of the barrel offering another subtle design element as well as I assume making it easier to grip the barrel. The right cup is marked with a red plastic insert in the jack opening and the matching cable end is also denoted with a red stripe around the barrel as are both pole notches on the tip. The left cup and cable end receives the same attention, but as might be expected black is used rather than red. The jacks connect easily and firmly, and they do not move once in, unless you move them so the security of the connection is without question. I am unclear how easily other 3.5mm dual entry cables would fit, but it is entirely possible that after-market cables properly terminated would work as well. A technical contact I have corresponded with suggested that ONKYO opted for this style of cable as it provides some advantages such as: "consistent electrical characteristics such as impedance, inductance, capacitance, crosstalk and time delay".
The cable is a Y style with the yoke down low so as not to make the cable pinch in on your neck or face. The 3 metre (9.82 foot) length cable is unobtrusive and I have grown to like the ribbon cable approach. It is smooth, light enough and seems to resist getting kinked up. For some it may be a little long if you sit right next to your amp, but even if so, the cable is so unobtrusive and light that you simply gather up some of the excess and let it go down between your legs to the floor. That is what I have been doing without an issue. I like the brass/gold barrel with the name ONKYO on the ¼ jack as well. I don’t typically like bling and I feel the A800 is tastefully detailed while having character. It should be noted that the ear cushions, or pads as is perhaps the more common name, are indeed replaceable and can be ordered from ONKYO customer service centers.
It is quite clear to me that ONKYO again spent a great deal of effort considering fit and finish and as with the H500BT that I have also reviewed, the results seem excellent to me. I have no issue giving a grade of A for build quality/functionality and looks, and a B+ for comfort. I want to give comfort an A, but the sensation of the cup shape is the only quibble with comfort I have, but minor as it is, it still must be noted.
Listening for my review was done using JRiver Media Center 20, lossless FLAC/ALAC files, and a WASAPI connection to my iFi iDSD Micro. I have used the A800 with my NAD M3 and speaker tap cable with my NAD M51 DAC, and while the results were impressive I feel the Micro was the more “typical” device so I elected to use it exclusively. I may in the future have the chance to see how the ONKYO HA-200 DAC and amp synergize with the A800, but that is down the road yet.
Sound stage and separation
Borrowing from Brooko’s playbook I also used Amber Rubarth’s song Tundra to test sound stage. This is a fantastic binaural recording featuring acoustic instruments. The spread of the instruments is simply stunning. The piece has a haunting and brooding quality to it, but it is ethereal and beautiful. The wonderful and richly plucked acoustic bass floats nicley up in the top left while the distinct and sculpted hand slapped percussion fills in the bottom of the sound-scape coming from low and behind you. The wonderful fiddle passage sings out vibrantly from the top right of the stage. In all others tests of sound stage the A800 shows itself to be an excellent performer with ample depth, width and height, all well balanced. I would like to add that I have always found that the mastering of the material really determines what sound stage potential exists for the headphone to reproduce, and at times I think we forget this. Most of the music I listen to I would not characterize as having exceptional sound stage, and when I listen to tracks such as Tundra that becomes quite apparent.
So when given actual sound stage to work with the A800 displays top-shelf ability, convincingly recreating the sense of space and dimensionality captured in the recording.
Instrument separation is no less impressive, individual instruments in complex musical passages are all distinctly carved out, but not in a disorderly fashion, the A800 is able to allow the individual elements room to breathe without becoming simply isolated elements, but rather like distinct brushstrokes on a canvas that flow together to form an image. The A800 exhibits the best of what I have always come to expect and most enjoy in a good open back design: a greater sense of tonality with air and detail.
This is most assuredly the stand-out strength of the A800. Bass is solid and impactful, responsive with enough speed to be nimble, but enough decay to sound natural. Percussion and stringed bass instruments are revealed in a well scaled and convincing manner. I am a bit of a bass head, I can’t deny that, and I feel the bass quantity is excellent and the quality is no less accomplished. This is no one-note flabby bass, it is tight, articulate and capable of portraying the full detail captured in the recording.
I listen to a great deal of electronica, Nu Jazz, jazz and progressive music from artists such as Bluetech, Phutureprimitive, Deadmau5, Steely Dan, Toto, Holly Cole, Peter Gabriel and Joe Bonamassa (to name only a few) where all flavours of bass are well represented. From plunging deep digital samples such as found in Pitch Black’s newest song Invisible Chatter to the tuneful acoustic bass in Bye Bye Blackbird from Vol. 7 CD 2 of the wonderful Saint-Germain Des-Pres Café collection. From Deadmau5 to Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, everything I threw at the A800 simply made me smile. Bass will not be an issue with the A800 for you, that I am quite sure of. If a bass-head-lite such as myself can enjoy the ONKYO with the likes of an LCD 2F (2016 driver) and a TH 600 on hand that should say something.
Percussion when the detail is captured in the recording will have all the nuances and tone of the drum heads; hand slaps have that special quality and snap, and a kick drum will cut through a mix with the proper roundness and weight. Transients bass notes which are of course essential (as are all transients) are very distinct with the attack and decay phases quite evident. Good transient rendering really helps add to instrument separation and detail perception and here I find the A800 simply shines. I just can’t imagine anybody not being delighted with the bass capabilities of the A800. Bass as deep as 40Hz isn’t just a flutter, it has meaningful amplitude so even the deep end feels present and accounted for. In reality, headphones can’t fully portray sub bass, but being able to produce clean bass low into the range helps a headphone create the sense of sub bass that our brain uses to fill in the missing information and in my experience this is no small feat to pull off for a headphone.
The midrange is where the emphasis on detail retrieval starts to become obvious. Relative to the bass, the lower midrange is slightly less emphasized, but very present. Take a look at the frequency response graph provided by ONKYO as assessed by HATS (Head and Torso Simulator) analysis. It shows a sensible rise in level through low, mid and upper mid-range with some dips; enough so that it will be present and just enough forward as to allow mid centric elements in the music to occupy a balanced place in the sound. Midrange is where the music lives they say, and if this is true the A800 is a balanced sounding, yet somewhat tilted forward headphone, not forcing things right up in your face, rather preferring to get close enough to have detail and textures fill out the sound. Vocals are to my ear very well done with presence and tonality spot on. Muriel Zoe’s voice is immediate and rich in Bye Bye Blackbird (Saint-Germain Des-Pres Café Vol. 7) a closely recorded vocal track which is always challenging to reproduce without becoming overpowering, grainy or strident.
For sure, detail is a double edged sword. If the recording is edgy the A800 has the resolution to reveal this, but we audiophiles are a hardy and adventurous lot, who live by the mantra "nothing ventured nothing gained". Many people I know would rather hear what is actually in a recording than have a smoothed and sanitized interpretation created for them. I have to admit that I fall somewhere in the middle as in recent years I have come to slightly prefer a little warmth in my headphones. Again, here the A800 is rather pleasing, with enough bass energy and a sensible approach to midrange, so much so that there is just enough warmth to balance the detailed nature of the headphone while not straying anywhere near smearing of detail.
Electric guitars retain their bite such as found in the most excellent song Summertime in the Void by Canadian progressive rockers I Mother Earth. Equally well rendered are the lovely analogue tones from the guitar work of Pat Metheny in the song When We Were Free. Brass and woodwind instruments are also extremely well portrayed in pieces such as To Know This by Alice Russell (Saint-Germain Des-Pres Café Vol. 7) and Tu from the stunning album Portraits of Cuba by Paquito D’Rivera.
Cymbals have a wonderful shimmer and clear dynamic ping, cutting through the mix without being strident and brash. As I mentioned earlier, many years of playing drums has I like to think helped me acquire an ear for well-done cymbal reproduction. The treble is clearly well extended; however, it has a natural and controlled tonality and always feels well integrated and balanced with the rest of the frequencies. Edges of notes and the micro energy carried forward by treble are clear and distinct, crisp and bright in the good sense like the bite of an apple with just a hint of juicy tartness on a sweltering summer day. Of course the treble sensitive may have another perspective, and for the record, I am at least somewhat treble sensitive. At times I found the TH 900 could be a little bright for me as was the HE 560. I think the A800 is slightly mellower than either of those offerings but still highly capable of rendering energy and clarity.
The treble is detailed enough that as the reader will know, if there is grain or stridency captured in the recording, the A800 will not hide this. With exceptional recordings the A800 is rich and clear, grain free and detailed; however, if the recording is not up to snuff you should not expect the A800 to put rose coloured glasses over the sound (why would you want that anyway?) risk and reward as I like to say. Hi hats sound so very natural and effortless, as I write this line I have yet another fantastic track from Portraits of Cuba playing, No Te Importe Saber with simply delicious cymbal work that the A800 makes me feel I could pick up some sticks and start playing them. Conclusion
The A800 is a very engaging, detailed and vibrant headphone, at home plumbing the depths of glitch and hip hop, or rendering the rich and complex interplay of a small scale jazz ensemble. Jack of all trades and master of none? Not at all my friends, the A800 is masterful to my ear with quite a bit of music and solid across the board, an accomplished generalist and stealthy specialist. I think those who favour contemporary music, but find closed designs to have a propensity for “boom and bloom” and dread the resultant obscuring of detail will really appreciate what the A800 brings to the table. I did not test with classical music as I really am not a consumer of that genre despite being able to appreciate and enjoy it.
In a marketplace crowded with interesting and excellent sounding open headphones the A800 certainly deserves a respected place at the table and I think may even wow it’s way to some acclaim. With the A800 I have been actually able to hear details in my music I had failed to appreciate before, all in an eminently musical and approachable signature. I like when a headphone helps me tease out new sonic nuggets from old favourites and the A800 has done that for me. Will you hear the A800 as accomplished and musical as I hear it? I don’t know of course, but I have high hopes that you might. I am very impressed with this headphone and as such I have no hesitation recommending you try it for yourself. I feel the A800 has all of the fundamental basis for high-quality sound reproduction well covered and there is no reason it shouldn’t charm you as it did me. I would like to thank Gibson Innovations and ONKYO for allowing me the opportunity to review this accomplished headphone.
Tracks Used for listening
Amber Rubarth ~ Tundra
Holly Cole ~ One Trick Pony
Fleetwood Mac ~ Dreams
Bye Bye Blackbird ~ Muriel Zoe (Saint-Germain Des-Pres Café Vol. 7)
To Know This ~ Alice Russell (Saint-Germain Des-Pres Café Vol. 7)
Joe Bonamassa ~ Drive
Negative Girl ~ Steely Dan
Paul Simon ~ Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
Dave Matthews Band ~ Say Goodbye
Daft Punk ~ Fragments of Time
Pitch Black ~ Invisible Chatter
Phutureprimitive ~ Ripple Effect
The Crystal Method ~ Black Rainbows
Deadmau5 ~ Alone With You
Pat Metheny ~ When We Were Free
Avicii ~ Hey Brother
Depeche Mode ~ Clean
The Reign of Kindo ~ Hard to Believe
YoYo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble ~ Distant Green Valley
Junkhouse ~ Jesus Sings the Blues
I Mother Earth ~ Summertime in the Void
Paquito D’Rivera ~ Tu