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.
Aesthetics and Packaging
- 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
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.
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).
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.
- 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)
- 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
Detail Retrieval (Resolution) and Dynamics
- 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
, you are looking for better technicalities and not similar in tonality.
, 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
**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.