Sennheiser HD 800 Headphones

General Information

There has always been a debate between electronic reproduction and natural sound. The Sennheiser HD-800 is the headphone that has been specifically engineered in replicating the basic acoustic conditions of natural hearing. This level of performance has yet to be matched by any competitor. The HD-800 is the ultimate headphone to deliver nature.

More than 60 years of ingenious headphone engineering has been applied into the new HD 800. Incorporating Sennheiser's most advanced driver technology, these open, circum-aural dynamic stereo headphones redefine what reference-level audio is all about. You will form an altogether new height of sonic perspective as you experience a high-fidelity natural hearing experience. Premium parts have gone into their production - the transducer is encased by a precision material made of stainless steel; ear pads are made of special high-quality Japanese Alcantara; while the headband and headphone mounting utilizes the most advanced development from the aerospace industry.

In terms of connectivity, these headphones utilize specially designed, four-wire, high-performance connections with Teflon insulation. These headphones have been developed to provide the closest match to "being there" than any other available headphone. The Sennheiser HD-800 is for the discriminating audiophile seeking the best and most natural sound available. From rich bass lows to definitive highs, the Sennheiser HD-800 headphones deliver the exclusive sound that nature had intended.

Frequency Response - 14 - 44,100 Hz (- 3 dB)
Nominal Impedance - 300 Ohms
Contact Pressure - 3.4 N (+- 0.3 N) approx.
Transducer Principle - Dynamic, open
Thd - =0.02 % (1kHz/1Vrms)
Characteristic Spl - 102 dB (1kHz/1Vrms)
Cable Length - 9.84 feet (3m)
Oxygen Free Cable Adapter - 1/4 (6.3 mm) stereo jack
Sennheiser 2 year warranty

Latest reviews

descloud

100+ Head-Fier
HD800 - Still iconic?
Pros: + Head stage is definitely impressive as many would say
+ Imaging for well recorded live tracks has been excellent
+ Detail retrieval and resolution is top notch
+ Can be EQ'd to your heart's content without losing other technicalities
+ Very comfortable to my average head shape and ear size given the cup size
+ Personally like the aesthetics despite it being released in 2009
+ Great pair that can be had in the used market under $800
Cons: - Treble peak at 6khz is the biggest flaw in stock tuning
- Stage and Imaging are also negatives yes, for other tracks that don't really have such a stage ( a lot of pop songs), it creates an artificial stage for it
- Dynamics is a slight step below what I preferred (i.e. Focal Clear)
- Silver paint coating is easily dented/scratched - so durability of the paint is subpar in my books
Preface

A legendary headphone from one of (if not) the most popular headphone nerd’s brand - Sennheiser. It was (or may still be for some) claimed as the best performing headphone around. For others, it has qualities no other headphone has matched yet - soundstage and “raw detail” as some would say. I will go in-depth with my own findings after owning this headphone for a while.


Comfort
  • Clamp force is less than moderate, at the cost of being easily moved when your head makes quick turns or jerking motion
  • I don’t experience any weight build up at top of my head
  • Ear pads may be the largest and most spacious I’ve had, beating out the HD600/HD650 - except for uncommon ears who stick more outward
  • Overall very comfortable for my average head

Aesthetics and Packaging
I’m in the camp of finding the design of these iconic.

Not much to say, but pretty good and what you should expect from a kilobuck priced headphone.


Sound

Having bought this used, the pads are a little bit worn compared to a brand new one. I’m not sure how much of an effect these pads are for the HD800 considering they’re a lot less dense than the HD6X0 pads. If anyone can link a difference in measurements between a worn vs fresh HD800 pads on an HD800, I would appreciate the link to it.

Listening volume is ~60dB - 75 dB for reference. Measurement reference as to how I hear it is similar to Crinacle’s (which appears to be very similar to Tyll’s measurements upon quick search despite the different equipment used).

Amplification

I find these aren’t that difficult to be driven. Both solid state amps I have only needed up to 9:00 on the volume dial to sound their stock tuning. Adding in EQ and you still have plenty of headroom. That said, I find these can be played from mobile DAPs or something like an iPod classic just fine, but given these are open-back with a cable meant for stationary listening, the question should be why would you? Do yourself a favour and only get these cans if you have the intention of setting up a listening station such as in front of your computer for example along with a good performing dac/amp setup.

Now, there are those that state HD800 *needs* a warm sounding amp or a specific tube amp to sound their best. That is their opinion and I will give them that, despite my disagreement with the use of the word *need* for a particular type of amplification. If you are adventurous, go ahead and spend money finding the amp that you find best produces sound out of the HD800 for you. I'll stick to using the amps I have and applying EQ as it already gives me the maximum pleasure out of my headphones.

Additionally, there are those that claim the HD800 needs proper pairing as it is “revealing of your source gear”. I’ll let you be the judge of that, but my take on it is that differences between my amps when doing a quick and dirty A/B sighted testing reveals very little differences, which I can’t even point to using the HD800. Maybe a proper blind test can help me distinguish those minute differences better, or help me determine there is no difference - but I’m not invested enough to do such an experiment since the headphone is the part of the audio chain with the most noticeable difference. EQ is an available tool for me so amp pairing is a non-concern.


Stock Sound Signature

Bright neutral seems to be appropriate for this one. That 6kHz peak is ever so present above what I consider neutral. The effect of this treble peak isn’t as large as the 8kHz peak the DT1990 with A pads have (which causes over-sharpened treble that renders timbre incorrect mostly), but it’s still very audible nonetheless, especially at my normal listening volumes.

Other than that, the tonality between bass and midrange sounds relatively even and linear to my ears, I can’t hear any flaws in these areas. Sub-bass lacks impact compared to my preference, while treble extension is excellent with great tonality for the most part, minus the 6kHz peak.

One thing to note about sound signature for these, there are changes depending on placement to your ears. Put the cups too forward and the treble peaks are subdued, making them sound slightly warmer. Put your ears around the middle of the ear cups and it’s the stock tuning I describe above. Put your ears more forward and it’s more similar to having your ears in the middle, but with a very slight treble smoothing. I believe this has been mentioned by those who took measurements like Tyll and oratory at different forums but their take might be different from mine.

With all that said, I think the stock tuning is listenable to my ears. Some may not like the treble peak at 6kHz, and that is understandable, especially if you listen to higher decibel levels. Others find it *perfect*, and I say good for them despite me questioning a bit their hearing abilities. For my personal listening setup, the stock tuning is passable and addictive for a good number of songs in the 70s to 90s with how they’re mastered. The funny thing is, once I’ve listened to a few songs, the peak normalizes to my auditory system and I don’t find it especially grating, but at stock tuning I usually listen at lower volumes.

Slight EQ tweaks make them even better sounding, especially for the other genres I listen to.

Bass
  • Tight, well-controlled and articulate - while lacking slam compared to something like the DT1990 and Focal Clear, but slaps more than the HD600 to my ears
  • Extension is good (audible as low as ~50Hz at my preferred listening level)
  • Bass quantity is just right for anything not using synthesized bass notes (which modern pop tracks usually have)
  • I think is the most realistic representation of bass guitar notes out of all headphones I’ve tried with the texture and decay present for well recorded songs (similar to Aornic’s findings on his review)
Midrange
  • Male vocals have decent weight and texture so long as the vocals don’t reach beyond 1kHz range
  • Female vocals reaching higher than 1kHz tend to have a somewhat raspy quality in their notes - great for some singers while not so much for others. Lower than that, they’re great and hard to complain
  • At the same time, female vocals tend to have a thinner weight compared to male vocals, likely because of the 6kHz treble peak
  • Piano notes and violin have great texture and harmonics in the lower midrange region. For upper octave notes, I find it slightly lacking in body to sound very realistic, but it’s an excellent representation nonetheless
  • Not as smooth in vocal/instrument transition as the DT1990 (EQ'd), HD600 or HE-500
  • Vocals and instrument pieces tend to sound further away, which I think is likely caused by the low dip between 2kHz - 3.5kHz
Treble
  • The 6kHz peak can be noticeable for instruments/vocals reaching this region - rendering them as slightly raspy and a bit unnatural for most recordings with singers that have full and clean vocals
  • That same peak can be harsh for others sensitive in this region - fortunately for me, it did not match with another peak somewhere in the 9kHz region that makes consonant ranges too sharp to my ears, unlike the Focal Clear
  • For modern genres, treble is mixed very hotly in that I can hear some ringing or resonance. For 90s or 80s classic rocks, the resonance or ringing is less present
  • Cymbal crashes and hi hats are very realistic sounding with quick impact and proper decay for certain tracks
  • Extension in the 10kHz region is great, giving a lot of air and space in recordings

Detail Retrieval (Resolution) and Dynamics

This section I think is already known by those who’ve heard it. But for those who don’t, they have excellent detail retrieval and resolution. I hear every detail somehow being present in its own space and not always blending in harmony with the music being played - which can either be a good or bad thing depending on how you want to hear your track. That mild upper-mid dip may contribute to main vocals in tracks not taking center stage of the song, thereby giving room for other instruments to be easily picked out (even without intentionally focusing on them).

Dynamics are great for the treble - but it sounds to my ears that midrange dynamics (vocals + guitars + piano tones in this region) appear to be all equal in volume at their transients. Not sure if this is the trade-off with having such a head stage placement (which we’ll get to soon). Bass dynamics is good, but just lacking in first attack impact. Speed (which is not a definitive section so I’m combining it here), is almost planar like.


Head stage and imaging

The best party trick the HD800 is known for - head stage (soundstage). I will have to break it down so people can understand my findings of these as it’s mostly superlatives I’ve been reading around forums. As noted in the first few paragraphs of this section, the cup placement affects the sound signature, and that applies to the stage and imaging as well. For this review, I’ve mainly had my ears placed around the center of the cup for reference, as I find it the most natural placement on my head.

First off, let’s start with the stage width - meaning pure perceived horizontal measurement from my left shoulder to my right shoulder. I find it beating my open-grilled HE-500 by an inch or two, meaning it’s above average in terms of stage width for me.

Next off, stage shape and volume size - how is the stage perceived? Almost all of the headphones I’ve tried generally have a stage that’s semi-circular in shape, where my head is the central point, which I tried best representing with the image below with my head being the green circle, and the music area being the grey area.

1606001535469.png

Now, I feel with how large the HD800 cups are, combined with how far it is from my ears and measurements showing a dip starting at 2kHz to 3.5khz, the stage appears more like covering 270 degrees around my head than just 180 degrees. It is large, compared to most of what I’ve tried. To that end, I can agree with people using that description. Given how large it sounds, it presents details a bit differently than what I’ve heard from previous cans I’ve heard - which goes to the imaging section.

But one thing the reader has to note is that, there are factors that prevent these (or any headphone for that matter) from having the perception of being speaker-like, which is the physical sensation of feeling something surrounding your ears. Speakers are placed away from you and don’t intrude your head, so when others comment superlatives of “speaker-like”, it might be useful to have context. Compared to the majority of headphones I’ve tried, the sensation of my ears not touching the inner foam covers or padding mixed with how the stage is perceived on these (save for the HE-500 with Audeze pads setup) is akin to being speaker-like, although not quite speaker-like if you know what I mean. In terms of relativity, it’s besting the headphone space, meaning it is closer to the speaker-like realm, but still far from being actually speaker-like. So if one doesn’t have context, such descriptions sound like an exaggeration and can tamper with someone’s expectations. With that out of the way, let’s move on.

For imaging, this gets a little bit more interesting. The HD800 gives the illusion of pushing all details away from me instead of being up close and intimate like the HD6X0 series or even the Focal Clear. Further, I find it impressive that instruments seem to have a finite space in the stage. It’s as if the instruments at times are not as cohesive, well blended or integrated to a song, akin to listening to a live performance than to a playback recording. Instruments have their own space and are audible. They don’t come at you at random spots (i.e. Focal Clear), but they’re defined to a space in the stage. In that sense, I can give image precision as ‘great’ - with Hotel California 1994 MTV performance being my sole test track for this technical capability.

On the cons side, there are tracks that don’t really have well defined stage presentation (some modern electronic tracks) and the HD800 tends to make a weird stage layout on them. It also tends to place pieces of a song in places I'm not familiar with. Just something I took note of.

In a live performance of bands, oftentimes I can distinguish the different instruments because the less precise audio input levels mixed with the room acoustics (i.e. sound reflections between the crowd and the room) affect the perception of the different instruments being played out. I find the stage and imaging oftentimes similar to a live concert in a large, closed venue based on my previous experience, but some recordings don’t have this presentation so it’s track dependent a bit. I think the cup size helps a lot in this perception.

To reiterate, this may seem like an exaggeration, because it is in a way. Don't expect these to realisticaly sound like having speaker-like stage, because it doesn't. Tamper your expectations my friend.


Timbre

For the most part, instruments sound as they should, especially drum kits and bass guitars. Acoustic and electric guitars are also well represented. Piano tones, male and female vocals for the midrange to lower midrange I say have good texture, but higher tones are leaning towards the ‘dry’ or slightly edgy texture. Same goes for vocals that reach near the 6khz region. It tends to make vocals near that section sound slightly ‘rough’ or ‘raspy’ for lack of a better term. In stock tuning, they sound speaker-like for some tracks, and that is excellent in my books as I value timbre quite a lot in headphones.

I find for modern genres, given how they master the treble section, is a bit too bright on these. 90s and older classics I find are a pleasure on the HD800. I don’t listen to a lot of symphonies or classical, but I would assume given most feedback out there, those genres are well represented.


EQ

I think it is well known that these headphones are very open to equalization without much distortion from what I’ve gathered. For some, the HD800 sound great as they are and prefer them that way. For others, EQ is needed for these to be listenable or to sound ‘correct’ to their hearing. I would agree to the latter notion to some extent. To my ears, these don’t need as much EQ as the DT1990 to be correct sounding and/or pleasing sounding.

For those that want my EQ profile, here you go:

Filter 1: ON PK Fc 59 Hz Gain 2.2dB Q 2.70
Filter 2: ON PK Fc 5774 Hz Gain -3.9dB Q 3.15
Filter 3: ON PK Fc 9155 Hz Gain -3.2 dB Q 6.61
Filter 4: ON PK Fc 11444 Hz Gain 1.8 dB Q 1.36
Filter 5: ON PK Fc 19734 Hz Gain -5.0 dB Q 0.39

This makes them sound warmer relative to the stock tuning (which is normal upon quick A/B switching). Once you adjust the volumes to your normal listening volume, your auditory system will normalize and it’s not too warm sounding (although it seems my preference is having a touch warmth overall). To my ears, this is lowering the effects of the 6kHz peak (ringing, edginess, splashiness of drum kits) that is present on a lot of songs I listen to. At the same time, cymbals and hi hats sound less realistic with this EQ profile to my ears, but renders the rest of the pieces more correct sounding. Further, it does not affect the stage in any way.

I think most would want more bass than stock HD800, so you can play around with oratory’s EQ in the bass region. I personally just use the bass boost from the iFi Micro BL and find it enjoyable.

Do note that using the Harman target curve does affect the treble quality of the HD800 a bit too much to my ears, so it’s not something I’d recommend blindly. I’ve seen a mix of people liking and disliking their HD800 EQ’d to match the Harman curve using something like oratory’s EQ preset. I say play around with the values provided by measurements - they’re abundant out there.


Comparisons

Vs HD600 and HD650/HD6XX

If you’re after a more agreeable tonality, I think the HD6X0 series have proven to be enjoyed by the majority. Just a note, my experience may not be a fair nor correct assessment given the difference in pads when I evaluated each - whereas it is slightly worn for HD600 and very worn for the HD650. To cut to the point, the HD600 is my pick as being the more neutral over the HD650 as the warmer/darker sounding headphone to compare to the HD800 with.

It’s a bit of a no contest that the HD800 has the better technicalities, at the expense of an easier tonality to listen to when brought up against the HD600. As such, if one is looking at finding an improved HD600, the HD800 is not it UNLESS you are open to using EQ with it. The HD800 is in a different sound signature category (and technicalities category). Go for the HD800 if you are looking for better technicalities and don’t mind the change in sound signature.

The HD800 don’t have the ‘sweet’ sounding vocals of the HD600 by default, but they can be had if you know how to EQ these properly (to which I haven’t found that yet I would say).


Vs Focal Clear

I don’t have the Clear anymore, so you can take this comparison with as much salt as you want. I made detailed notes about it to remind me of my perception of the Clear’s sound signature and technicalities to the best of my memory.

With that out of the way, I would give the better stock tonality to the Focal Clear by a small step, not an enormous one. Additionally, the Clear has the better bass impact and overall dynamics while not affecting timbre with its own peaks. However, what really triggers my senses with the Focal Clear are the consonant range being sharper or edgier than even the HD800 - which eventually led me to selling it despite it’s excellent tonality and technicalities.

Detail retrieval and head stage I would have to give the clear nod to the HD800. While the Clear has great detail retrieval, it makes the tiniest details jump out at you during a song, which I think Resolve from the headphone show explains better on his Focal Clear review. The Focal Clear doesn’t present such micro-details in a cohesive manner, nor is the center stage as well-defined to my ears. For the center stage, I find there seems to be narrow holes in the center stage that annoyed my perception for some reason with the Clear (which seems to be only me with that finding).

So, if you were to ask me which would I recommend between the two? I’ll tell you this, I cannot give you a straight answer. Once you are in the kilobuck range with these models, personal enjoyment and the type of music you listen to will be a larger factor in determining what’s right for you. And how would you know what’s right for you? Trial and error essentially - listen to them and make sense of the measurements available.

On a personal note, I already found the Focal Clear triggering my sensitivities in its stock tuning, so it’s not something I kept with me, clearly. But, the Clear I find is the more enjoyable listen if you listen to a lot of modern genres or upbeat songs. The stock tuning is something I can recommend to majority of people. With the HD800, I need to play around with EQ to achieve that. This is not to say that no one will like the HD800 stock tuning, because there are those who do. However, I still think the HD800’s flaws in the treble spikes that cause harshness, some ringing and rough quality on a good number of tracks prevents it from being an outright recommendation for those who only want a plug and play type of headphone.

For that matter, my default recommendation is the Clear if no EQ, and HD800 if you’re open to EQ. Reminder that this is only factoring in sound quality, not maintenance cost nor other associated tangibles with it.


Vs DT1990

For those that find Beyer’s treble sibilant and triggering your sensitivities, you can skip this comparison as this may not be useful for you.

In stock tuning of HD800 vs stock A-pads of the DT1990, I would give the clear nod of better tonality to the HD800. Stock HD800 vs stock B-pads of the DT1990, it’s a bit of a toss up depending on what you listen to, but I would still prefer the bright neutral HD800 over the warmer/V-shape signature of the DT1990 with B-pads.

Comparing the stock tuning of the HD800 with my EQ’d DT1990 using A-pads (which I personally use) that removes the masking effect of the treble region, I would say they are close in detail retrieval but presents it in slightly different ways. Let me explain a bit further.

For the DT1990 (A-pads), it presents the tiniest of details/instruments in a song in a manner such that it is audible but blends just nicely with the rest of the track. It doesn’t jump at you (Focal Clear) nor does it have an audibly defined space in the stage, which the HD800 has. It simply presents micro-detail in a very synchronized and harmonic manner with respect to the song being played - apologies for the lack of better descriptor here. I guess you could put it this way, I find the DT1990’s detail presentation better integrated to the enjoyment of the song. This is the best I can describe it unfortunately.

Additionally, the DT1990 has the more enjoyable bass impact than the stock HD800 and center stage pieces are more intimate sounding - preference to this is dependent on the listener.

With my EQ’d HD800 against an EQ’d DT1990? To me they sound close in tonality, with the biggest differentiator being the head stage and detail presentation as mentioned above. To be honest, I find this a close match up. The DT1990 if you are on the cost-effective side, HD800 if you want the better potential from what I can tell. I'm leaning towards the HD800 at this point.


Vs HE-500 (modded)

Since I don’t have the default setting for the HE-500 anymore, the stock tuning would be how mine is currently modded - back screen off with Audeze Elite Velour pads installed. I don’t use EQ on it anyway so this is how the two will be compared. Stock tonality - the HE-500 takes my pick here 10/10.

Head stage and detail retrieval goes exclusively to the HD800. The HE-500 presents detail in a manner that plays along with the rest of the track, not in a manner that each instrument shows itself in its own space with almost equal volume with the rest of the mix. Bass and midrange quality, I’ll give the nod to the HE-500. The HD800 can sound thin when compared to these, especially when doing quick A/B comparisons.

EQ'd HD800 vs HE-500 modded? I haven't done this comparison yet as I'm mainly using the HD800 and DT1990 recently. Comfort and weight definitely goes to the HD800, as well as aesthetics.


Conclusion

This has been one of my longest write-ups recently. I must say, I like to dive deep into the controversies of discontinued headphones in more detail. So without further ado, let’s finish this write-up.

Is the HD800 something I can blindly recommend to someone who is looking for a good sounding higher-end headphone?

Not really. Once you are nearing the kilobuck range, personal target curves and enjoyments vary and matter more per dollar. The HD800 IMO does not have a tuning majority of people would find agreeable. A lot of words thrown to describe the HD800 are 'sterile', 'analytical', 'lifeless', or whatever 'non-musical' terms people often like to use.

If you’re someone who uses EQ anyway, then this can be considered among my blind recommendations.

Is the HD800 a good upgrade from the HD600/HD650/HD6XX lineup?

Yes IF, you are looking for better technicalities and not similar in tonality.

No IF, you are looking for similar tonality and ‘midrange magic’ that some gush over.

Is the HD800 still relevant in 2020?

In my opinion, yes. It has a trait that I find is still impressive, especially with how much you can get a used HD800 nowadays with its discontinuation and replacement of HD800S.

Is the HD800S the same as the HD800?

Some claim the HD800S has very little difference with the HD800. Others claim adding the SDR mod to the HD800 is essentially the HD800S. I haven’t heard it, so I can’t give you a reliable answer. Take other opinions that had both as better input.

If I don’t want to mess with EQ, is the HD800 something I’ll enjoy still?

Depends if you like bright-neutral sound signatures. Genres these are known to sound great with are classical or orchestral music.

Are there cheaper alternatives for getting the HD800 sound qualities?

Maybe an EQ’d DT1990? An AKG K702/K712? I don't know. But to be honest, the HD800’s biggest trait of spatial presentation isn’t quite captured even with a DT1990 EQ’d. The DT1990 has the more fun bass sound between the two though to my ears.

If I personally rank these in different categories out of 10 (with 10 being the highest):

Stock tonality: 7.8/10
EQ’d tonality: 9/10
Sound technicalities: 9.5/10
Comfort: 9/10

**Update: SDR mod applied

With this mod, it alleviates the 6kHz peak from stock tuning by a noticeable margin - which to my ears makes them more tolerable and listenable for longer periods. It makes the tonality less bright, but likely for most still noticeable bright than if they consider the HD600 their neutral reference.

The treble region is still a bit sharper than what I would consider correct sounding though - but I found that applying EQ to this setup results in less resonance from the 6khz and gives me a better balance in the treble region. The stock HD800 even with EQ for some reason, seems to be still showing a lingering 6kHz resonance that I can't remove without completely making the treble sound too dark. The SDR mod gives me the fix that I was looking for post-EQ.

In summary, the SDR mod I found doesn't affect the rest of the frequency range too much, nor does it affect technicalities when I did a quick A/B. That said, I can highly recommend applying SDR mod to the HD800 if possible.
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491838

100+ Head-Fier
Pros: God tier clarity (especially for the price)
Bright sound signature can be fixed with EQ
Wide stage
Cons: Lean bass
Slightly sharp timbre
Mixed bag in terms of comfort
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The Sennheiser HD800 - God tier clarity. Is this an "affordable" end-game headphone 11 years after its release?

The short answer is pretty much yes but it depends on your sound signature preference and whether or not you’re willing to use EQ. See, the HD800 is a fairly controversial headphone, which is seemingly either hated for its bright sound or adored for its benchmark levels of clarity and detail for the price. Seeing how cheap it is on the used market, these are undoubtedly the best bang for your buck, especially if you’re willing to EQ them. With this mini-review I’m attempting to dispel some of the myths surrounding this headphone and to perhaps give more evidence (anecdotal/subjective nonetheless) of its strengths. I am going to start with the most important aspect which is sound.

The HD800’s stock sound signature is actually fairly balanced save for two main flaws, namely the infamous 6K(ish) peak and the slow build up to the 3K ear resonance peak, which give this headphone a somewhat sibilant sound with mids that are a bit withdrawn compared to most headphone targets. The sound target that I prefer is the Harman over-ear response, albeit with a less extreme bass shelf and a bit more upper treble above 10K. The oratory1990 EQ profile for this headphone provides that with some minor tweaks (my personal EQ profile that’s based on oratory’s will be attached to this post) and I also like how it doesn’t touch the upper treble because I think that’s the hardest part to EQ and it’s probably best left untouched on this headphone even though the treble at 10K and above is likely the source of some additional sharpness but also great levels of detail.

It’s worth noting that plenty of people enjoy this headphone without EQ and I honestly expected it to sound a lot harsher than it does based on most people’s impressions but perhaps I’m not as treble sensitive as I thought. However, I strongly recommend trying the oratory EQ, perhaps tweaking it to your liking, to make this headphone sound even better. Much better. This is one of the best headphones to use with EQ seeing as the unit to unit variation of the HD800 is very minor (in terms of frequency response) and there is no “detail loss” or “distortion” increase caused by the careful tweaking performed by this particular EQ profile (just don’t overdo the bass shelf and lower the gain to appropriate levels to avoid clipping). High end headphones like the HD800 respond very well to EQ and the difference between my profile and the stock sound is quite noticeable. The thin bright highs are mostly gone and the mids and upper mids have the proper levels now and render vocals and acoustic instruments with impeccable clarity. I am now going to give a more in-depth description of the sound properties of this headphone and my impressions are mostly based on my usage of this headphone with EQ, so bear in mind that the perception of detail can improve quite a bit when a headphone is tweaked to have a more agreeable frequency response.

One of the first things that struck me about the sound of this headphone the moment I put them on was the impressive clarity that they provide. It’s a bit difficult to describe but they have this seemingly unique ability to render instruments and voices (especially post EQ) in an unadulterated way. I noticed this a lot even when watching YouTube and listening to random people talk into high quality microphones. It feels like their voices are physically there and nothing else is “added” to them. No warmth or other artifacts that are FR related. Just pure sound. My other similarly priced headphone purchase was the Audeze LCD-2 Fazor, which will be the main point of comparison for this review, but the clarity on those with oratory’s EQ, which attempts to bring all headphones to a common sound target (i.e. the Harman OE target), was nowhere near as good. I think Audeze headphones have this inherent warmth to them that’s impossible to EQ out which prevents them from sounding as clear as the HD800 even though they might have similar detail capabilities (or better even). I’m guessing it has something to do with the big leather pads. The HD800 earpads are much much thinner and are made of some type of microfiber as opposed to leather and they probably influence the sound a lot less as a result. It probably also helps that the HD800 driver enclosure is a big open space but the metal mesh inside is credited as the culprit of the treble resonances that this headphone has.

Funnily enough, the $300 Etymotic ER4 is the closest thing in my collection to the HD800 in terms of clarity, but it achieves this because it is a deep insertion in-ear headphone with a highly neutral frequency response, albeit slightly on the dark side of neutral with treble that is not as “airy” as most open-backs. In my estimation, the ER4 achieves about 50-60% of the clarity and detail of the HD800, which is very impressive considering that the former is about 1/3rd to 1/5th (based on the original $1500 HD800 price) of the price of the latter. The LCD-2, while it was more detailed than the ER4 by a significant margin, had a warm/muddy sound that I couldn’t adequately fix with EQ and perhaps no one could. It’s quite bizarre to listen to a headphone that’s clearly very detailed but also lacks clarity at the same time. It had in fact significantly worse clarity than the much cheaper ER4, especially in the upper treble, hence why I decided to sell them and look for something else. My attention was naturally directed towards the HD800 next since it is in a similar price range to the LCD-2 and whilst I’ve never personally heard another Sennheiser other than the HD600, I decided to buy a used HD800 on a whim to see if they are as good as people say or perhaps as bad as others say. The truth is bound to be somewhere in the middle.

The bass response and bass detail of the HD800 are actually surprisingly good for a dynamic driver headphone, especially an open-back one. It extends about as deep as your Audeze planars but it rolls off a bit in the lowest range. For that reason, I use a conservative 3 dB bass shelf at 100 Hz to elevate the sub bass a little. The oratory EQ recommends a slight removal of upper bass (above 150 Hz) to get that flat response that’s more common on planars. Dynamic drivers typically have some kind of “hump” in that region that gives them a bit of extra warmth that you may or may not like. I didn’t find the stock HD800 upper bass to be as warm as the HD600 and the detail and distortion characteristics (at least as far as they are audible) are rather excellent. In fact I’m not even sure if the LCD-2 had better bass in any sense of that word. It had flatter bass, sure, and it was also thicker/bigger sounding but was it more detailed than the HD800’s bass? I’m not sure but I would have to compare them side by side to have a better idea (my LCD-2 has left a while ago to meet its new owner). I do, however, remember the LCD-2 bass sounding a bit weird. Like the rest of the LCD-2 range, the bass seemed to lack a bit of clarity and oratory pointed out to me in my short chats with him that the strange Audeze mids might have contributed to this thick bass timbre that I don’t experience on the HD800 even with some bass boost. The HD800 bass sounds significantly clearer (especially when it comes to bass drums) and more “directional” as opposed to the big “ball” of bass on the LCD-2. In measurements, you can see that the LCD-2 and other planars have significantly lower distortion (0.1%) than the HD800 but it’s hard to assess how that translates into perceived bass quality. Perhaps with the flat tuning and low THD on the Audeze you get bass that is a bit more transparent (i.e. true to the source) but the timbre thickness added on top of that kinda negates that advantage seeing as the clarity of the HD800 is insanely high, from top to bottom. In terms of bass impact, I’ve had conflicting views on the two. On some songs that leverage the sub bass extension of the LCD-2, the Audezes seem to have more impact but on less bassy songs, I find that kick drum impact in particular is more evident on the HD800. So which one has more dynamic impact? I would lean towards the HD800 honestly. Don’t let that rolled-off bass fool you. These still have a good amount of bass presence even in stock form (i.e. no EQ) and I can still hear the deepest bass on movie soundtracks for instance. Funnily enough, it seems that while sine sweeping in the bass I could hear the very low bass better on the HD800 (below 30 Hz) than on the LCD-2. Perhaps the increased distortion on the HD800 enhances the bass a little but its superior clarity is also responsible for it.

The mids and treble of the HD800 are a bit more contentious but they can be relatively easily fixed with EQ in my opinion and the results are stunning. The levels of clarity that the HD800 drivers provide are completely insane. I’ve found myself really enjoying 80s heavy metal for instance with these. Once you correct the response of this headphone with EQ, the mids and highs really shine on well recorded acoustic and heavy metal music. The clarity of guitars, electric guitars, cymbals, and yes, voices, is incredible. You really can’t help but bang your head to the music. As far as detail is concerned, things get a bit more confusing. I think the LCD-2 had smoother sounding mids and treble which translated to softer sounding vocals and cymbals/hi-hats, but the HD800 has its own flavor of smoothness that is occasionally disturbed by its unrelenting sense of clarity and peeping upper treble sharpness.

The LCD-2, with its significantly subdued mids and treble, provided a softer less offensive sound at the cost of ultimate clarity. Yes, even with EQ, the LCD-2 didn’t fully recover from its warm/dark stock sound so its more forgiving presentation led some people to believe that it was more detailed as a result (rather paradoxically). Hence why people describe the LCD-2 drivers as having better “decay”. It seems to me that this sense of speed or decay is largely influenced by a headphone’s stock frequency response. The LCD-2 appears “quicker” precisely due to its holes in the treble that can’t be completely filled in with EQ. It’s weird that people describe them that way because the HD800 sounds snappier to me due to their clarity and essentially zero holes in the treble with its stock response that’s more easily fixed with EQ while preserving clarity. Cymbals and snare drums in particular sound very precise and articulate on the HD800 as a result and have more impact and presence than the darker sounding EQ-ed LCD-2. Although, as I mentioned before, the HD800 retains a bit of its sharpness even post EQ, but too much EQ would undoubtedly be detrimental to the clarity of this headphone, so I prefer not to EQ the upper treble.

I think in reality the LCD-2 would have been closer to my preference with EQ (I prefer a warmer neutral sound) had it not been for its glaring flaws, namely the 0.9-1K resonance that most Audezes share (probably due to the thick leather pads) and the “fuzzy” sounding upper treble that provided less clarity than my much cheaper ER4 IEMs. I just couldn’t get along with them because they sounded too muddy for the price and resonant in the mids (even post EQ), which made them annoying to listen to even on good recordings. I am much more willing to accept the slight sharpness of the HD800 since its clarity and upper treble detail is so much better. I think that the LCD-2 drivers had a lot more potential, perhaps there was more detail lurking behind that dark/warm sound signature, but it was ultimately spoiled by the weird tuning. So the HD800 is effectively more detailed because it has such superior clarity overall. My $1K (or below) headphone recommendation for its sound with EQ goes to the HD800 as a result even if its bass might be a little weaker than planar bass in terms of extension. I also believe that the HD800 timbre with EQ is only slightly sharper than the stock HD600. I didn’t like the HD600 too much on modern music due to its brighter and “grainier” upper treble but they had OK detail capabilities for $300 (less than the darker sounding ER4 in my opinion).

In terms of soundstage and imaging, the HD800 is definitely superior to most things though from memory, I would say it only sounds about 20-30% wider than the LCD-2 on recordings that really leverage that width. On most other recordings, it’s actually harder to grasp how wide they are. In fact the LCD-2 was in some sense more immersive with its bigger images that are likely the result of a bigger driver. For image/instrument separation, things are again a little weird. The HD800 has separation that’s more comparable to speakers. It doesn’t necessarily have the same kind of separation that planars have (perhaps because the LCD-2 enhanced its separation abilities with the holes in the treble) but you can hear every instrument very clearly and they are well defined within the soundstage. Depth is quite a bit better than the LCD-2 as well, no doubt the result of the superior upper treble detail and clarity. The HD800 has a much better ability to project a coherent soundstage in front of your face (or more often, right in front of your forehead), especially on songs that have a lot of echoes and reverb in them (things that enhance the cues about the location of sounds in space). The claims about this headphone having a “holographic” sound are a bit exaggerated in my experience but they do actually work really well with binaural recordings. I didn’t think they sounded diffuse or anything like that. There is a limit to how well a headphone can image and these headphones are not far from that limit I think. All in all, these get a high recommendation from me for soundstage, imaging, and depth. They are very immersive as a gaming headphone and that constitutes at least 50% of the reason why I bought them haha but there are aspects that I wish could have been improved in terms of comfort.

I actually quite like the design of this headphone overall. It kinda has an early 2000s futuristic look to it that I enjoy (because it reminds me of that time period) but it is a bit more fragile than the LCD-2 in terms of build. The metal parts can scratch quite easily and the headband is still made of plastic. The pads also wear out fairly quickly (I’d say they probably need to be replaced every 2 years with moderate usage) like most Sennheiser pads do, but it shares spare parts with the HD800S so you won’t have any issues finding some, at least for a few more years if you buy a used HD800 (they’re not made anymore). The cable is annoyingly long and heavy and it is a bit of a chore to use as a result. Anything above 1.9-2m is too long for me but perhaps people in 2009 didn’t sit at a desk like I do now and they needed the extra length.

The comfort is a bit of a mixed bag for me. The pads are very large and will accommodate ears of any size essentially but they do sit a bit awkwardly on your face, like someone is gently cupping their hands over your ears. They don’t get as sweaty as the LCD-2 but the headband is where my real problem with the comfort of this headphone begins. I don’t know what it is about Sennheiser headbands but they seem to have a tendency to KILL the top of my head after 30-60 minutes of usage. The weight distribution seems to be concentrated mostly on the top part of my head which makes them quite painful to use (for me) for extended periods of time. The HD800 comfort is bad enough that it occasionally even makes me nauseous if I also happen to have a bit of a headache prior to wearing them. Moving the headband back and forth does little to alleviate this issue. So if you’re thinking of buying a pair bear in mind that the comfort may not be the best. I found the twice as heavy LCD-2 much more comfortable overall because it had a better headband (the 2017 one) that evenly distributed the weight thus avoiding any problematic hot spots on top. However, given how much I like the way the HD800 sounds I am still trying to adjust to the comfort problems and perhaps taking them off periodically to avoid the pain is not such a bad thing.

As for power requirements, these are not especially hard to drive in my experience. They are slightly easier to drive (it seems) than the LCD-2 despite the 300 ohm impedance and also easier to drive than the HD600. So you COULD essentially power them off of a phone but you probably shouldn’t. I would recommend getting something like the JDS Atom amp and DAC stack at the very least to get the most out of these headphones. They likely benefit from an amp in the bass and (perceived) dynamic range in particular though I didn’t find their sound to change drastically from a solid state source to another like some people are suggesting. Instead of chasing the perfect source I would much rather use EQ where things can DRASTICALLY improve if it’s done properly.

In conclusion I would say that these are terrific value for the money under $1K used but mostly if you use EQ, otherwise you might have to audition them first (its stock bright sound isn’t for everyone). The clarity and detail of this headphone has definitely stood the test of time and they still compare favorably to other much more expensive headphones and thus they have earned their permanent spot in my headphone collection. I will at some point hopefully have the chance to compare them against other flagships like the LCD-4 or the STAX 007 but until then these are more than satisfying for me in most regards.


FR and tweaked oratory EQ profile.

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novisnick

New Head-Fier
Pros: Fast, revealing and accurate!
Should be in your HP stable
Cons: Treble may be a bit much for some, bass isn’t always present
Sennheiser should do better
47447914-1FCD-449B-808D-1C5710FC76A1.jpeg 86C4F40F-4C74-4F4E-90A4-81B130A4D95D.jpeg 23F49D95-1DAE-4313-835B-0221F441F416.jpeg Sennheiser HD 800 review by novisnick


A very kind benefactor has been so generous to loan me his HD800 so I could determine whether or not they are right for me and to write this review. Thanks you kind sir!


Shipped to me in their original packaging but with an upgraded cable with the Venus Audio branded name in which I’m not familiar with. This is to be expected as I’m pretty new to quality HP’s and their accessories. I’ve spent most of my 40 years of audio with speakers of assorted manufacturers.

The cables are very light and seem to be of very high quality. They appear to be four cables of twisted copper as viewed through the clear plastic covering which is also twisted about themselves. They are terminated with a balanced four pin connector.


The headphones themselves are of a silver color and look rather futuristic in appearance, very stylish to me. Lightweight and comfortable upon my head yet at times the ear pads have caused some discomfort in longer listening sessions. The construction had made it difficult at first to determine how best to put on and take off these HPs as they have limited hard spots in which to grasp. The drivers are exposed somewhat and the soft outer area appears to be easily damaged. I took extreme care in how I handled these HPs. In all other aspects these HP's seem very well constructed. Eventually I determined the best places to put my fingers was at the top slider of each ear and the hard spot next to the cable plugs into which they are attached. Easy enough now that I've found the safest way to handle the HD 800s.


I think it’s important that you know what gear I’m using for this review. I’m from a speaker background so it’s important that I be able to easily switch between speakers and HP use. This is mostly accomplished via my Brooklyn DAC/preamp which pushes 4 watts of solid state power out of a balanced connection for HPs. Enough to drive the most demanding HPs IMHO.

I’ve incorporated a SOtM sms-200 Ultra se, a NAA (network audio adapter)

to serve my digital library and Tidal streaming service.


A note of clarification before I start my listening review, I am not, repeat, NOT versed in the standard definitions of the words most often used to to describe the sounds of music by most reviewers. Please bare with me. I'll try to use them as I can, I do have a glossary of the words but I'm learning. Hence my handle being novisnick,as I am a novice in so many ways.



The Sound


My first listing session I found a very different type of HP then I've ever experienced. Detailed and harsh with glare were my first impressions and I was ready to box them up and call it a review. This wouldn't be fair to my friend, Sennheiser, my readers or myself so I retired for the evening after a few hours of varied music. From Eric Clapton's Unplugged to Dave Brubeck's Take Five along with Norah Jones and Diana Krall. Just wasn't feeling any joy at all. I bid them good night. To settle myself for an evening of slumber I donned my ZMF Cocobolo Auteurs and then my Focal Clears and listened to the same tracks to cleanse my mind and soul. Much better for my taste, tomorrow will bring a renewed enthusiasm to try again.


I renewed myself and cued up a random mix of music, from Hugh Laurie to Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful Life. The Beegie Adair Trio followed by Vince Guaraldi Trio's, A Charlie Brown Christmas. My brains started grasping what the HD 800s were revealing from the music. Something very new and different then I'd experienced before. This was much more enjoyable then my first evening with them and I'm very glad I didn't box them up and give up on them. Piano as well as the double bass was starting to talk to me in a rather different tone then other sets of cans. I had stated how sterile they were to me at first! No life or body in the music but they're more refined than at first glance. Maybe I'm trying to say, an acquired taste for these HP's. They are faster than most any cans I've ever heard too.


Tonight was some electronic music mostly from the Digital Empire: Electronica's Best recording from my HDD. I think these cans excel with this type of music. Take California by The Propellerheads is an example of the tonality the 800s prefer to produce. Clear and refined in presentation and scope. Stage isn't huge but listening to Symphony No. 6: IV. Finale, just swapped from 800 to Clear. 800s have more treble and a little less midrange but clarity is just a little more defined... more commanding sound and horns are a bit better with the Clears. Flute isn't lacking with either HP.


I've heard more than once that the HD 800s aren't lacking in bass but they are, in the midbass to bass I've not found them resolving. Their bass is well defined but it doesn't show up at the right htz for me. Not soon enough, so it's being missed in tonality for me. The Clears have an advantage IMO here. See below about tubing with 800s.


Auteurs just bitch slapped the HD 800 and Clear HP's. What's the technical word for that? The instruments sound like they should with their full body tone and presentation.


Theme from Somewhere in Time by John Barry, one of my very favorite songs I know. Horn into harp followed by a body of violins to piano follower by flute. Almost the full gambit of sound. And then a single piano. Fluid in sound and tone. Beautiful love song.


Comparing the three Headphones


The Auteurs are rich and add some color? Toning down of the sharp treble would be a better description. Transitions are smooth and enjoyable. These seem to grasp the mood of the music and convey it accurately. The Clears had bigger sound? Not necessarily a bigger soundstage though. Better highs with the mid-bass a little more narrow. Bass is right on, just like the Auteurs. The HD 800s are showing what a true beauty they are But, the treble is a little too much for me, almost uncomfortable at a few points but other then that they shine very well. Mid-bass was smooth and extends too deep as to rob the bass of this region. Bass is there but I don't think the tuning targeted this area for accuracy as they did with the treble and upper mid-bass. Don't get me wrong, bass is well defined just starts too low for me. Maybe its the transition from mid-bass to bass that has me befuddled.


My wife and I are both audio and video enthusiast as well. Her thoughts agree with mine on this trio of headphones, mostly . We spent hours with multiple types of music and have placed them in our order of which we would keep as our favorite to our least favorite amongst these.


All three HP exhibit fast speed and attack of the music.


First to be sold would be the Focal Clear according to the Mrs. as for me the HD 800 are out the door first for the same reason the Mrs preferred them, the treble., a most enjoyable and comfortable sets of headphones but one set had to go first.


The winner by a long shot and with the best sound in our opinions is the Auteurs. We again agree that the ZMF offering is the best headphone we've ever heard, hands down.


I'd like to add at this point that Mrs. Novis has no idea how much any of these HP's cost, so there's no bias from that point of view.


With Tubes


The lack of linearity in the bass response is just as bad as the inability of Sennheiser to not fix the treble spike after ten years. Just a real shame, the HD 800 could have been the ultimate end game for so many more!


Enter my beloved McIntosh C220 tube preamp. What I'm hearing from the HP's are different degrees change in each set. The Auteurs just seem to climb to the top of my end game list! Without a doubt, what they do with the Brooklyn SS and 6 watts is extenuated with the tubes. More of everything the Auteurs do right.


The Focal Clears were more themselves though. Didn't really feel a greater joy from them as I remember.


Sennheiser HD 800s just became a favorite HP to me,Almost, and my Mrs fell deeper in love with them and the Mallard tubes flavor / drive! The refined clarity of these headphones is not lost but they gain so much when matched with the C220. Some claim that the McIntosh brings its own coloration to sound but I've found it to be minimal. The HD 800s spring to life in the mids and bass! Full bodied bass, that to me was missing. Good defined slam in some of the music that asked for it. Mouth agape, I listened as a very nice smile grew on my face. Still had its faults in responsiveness but all and all I believe the 800s should be matched to tubes, at least this preamp.


Conclusion


I’ve tried to convey my thoughts and opinions of these three HP’s with an emphasis on the HD 800s. I hope you've made it to this point and haven’t been bored to tears. I’m sure you've heard all or part of this before as this model Sennheiser HP has been on the market forever and has just pretty recently been replaced by the HD 800 S and HD820. I sure hope Sennheiser addresses the shortcomings of the 800s and produces a headphone for the ages, somehow I doubt it as they've failed to do it with the 800s for ten years.


When most everybody praises a product there is little to motivate change.


If you've reached this point please don’t hesitate to critique, add or disagree with my opinion as its just that, my opinion. I’m learning daily the terminology to address this community so please bare with me.


Gear involved in this review


Mac Mini with 4T HDD

Roon & Tidal server

NETGEAR ROUTER 6300

SOtM sms-200 Ultra se

SOtM SMPS-500 SMPS

Mytek Brooklyn

McIntosh C220 w Mallard tubes

Sbooster MK II LPS

Sennheiser HD 800

Focal Clear

ZMF Auteurs,Cocobolo
volly
volly
A great read and firm comparisons and opinions! Sounds like you have a very interesting collection of headphones, always a good thing! :wink:

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