- Feb 21, 2007
Disclaimer: I've had good luck with many of the prior Drop headphones. Specifically the HD6XX, K7XX, Elex, HD58X, TH-X00, and most recently the Panda. All of these, in my opinion, improve upon their original/inspiration models in some way, whether that be price, performance, features (Panda) or a combination of both. And I have yet to experience issues with any of mine, though I recognize that some segment of users for certain models have legitimate complaints. There are various other models from Drop which I have not heard and thus have no comment on, but each and every model I listed above earns a solid recommendation based on my personal experience... with the Elex in particular being one of my favorite headphones at any price.
Today's comments pertain to the latest offering from Drop - the new HD8XX made in collaboration with Sennheiser. I know there's been a lot of discussion on this topic already, with some of it being excited/hopeful and some being rather negative. Which is interesting considering Drop only recently arrived at their final tuning choice, and vanishingly few people have actually heard any of the prototypes much less the final version. Any impressions floating around before today represent a work-in-progress which does not represent the final HD8XX sound. If you've read about the project and perhaps formed some opinions one way or the other, try to reset those and start from scratch.
Anyway, back on track. The HD8XX is a reworked HD800S which itself was a tweaked version of the original HD800 which took the headphone world by storm over a decade ago. The goal here was to improve the various aspects which listeners commonly bring up when discussing HD800/HD800S - not enough bass, along with a sharp/peaky top end presentation - and perhaps add a bit more richness while we're at it. The HD8XX will sell for $1100 at pre-order and you can read more about the details on the Drop page, so I won't duplicate all that here.
My history with the HD800 family goes back to the very early days, when I purchased an original model through my local dealer. I ended up getting a set with an extremely low serial number, and like many back in that era I was blown away by the sense of spaciousness they produced. I loved the detail retrieval but also struggled with the peaks and the lack of tonal impact or significant bass presence. I spent years cycling through various combinations of source and amplifier just trying to find the perfect synergy with the temperamental HD800. I came somewhat close at times but it was never quite perfect, and I admit to selling and rebuying the HD800 roughly half a dozen times over the years while chasing that dream.
Next came the HD800S which I found beautiful in appearance (dig the ninja color scheme), though I never quite loved it from a sonic standpoint. They did make some welcome changes to the signature but in the process also lost a bit of the HD800 magic - lows were more prominent but to my ears never as well behaved, which means it really wasn't worth the tradeoff in my view. It almost felt like Sennheiser was shooting for a more mass-market, universal signature - which is fine in and of itself, and there's probably a good headphone to be made based on that target, but HD800S isn't it. I really did like the taming of the ~6KHz peak though, and wish I could have some sort of hybrid which offered that along with the slight bass boost whilst retaining the clarity of the original HD800 low-end response.
Then came HD820 which I just didn't like at all. I'm sure it pertains to the closed-back nature, but these sounded muddled and confusing to my ears. I imagine it's quite difficult to translate the original open design to a closed-back headphone, but sonically they just don't work for me. That, combined with what feels like an unjustified and surprisingly drastic price increase, means I have zero interest apart from the admittedly fetching high-tech appearance.
So after all that, what do I think of the HD8XX? Simply put, I think it accomplishes nearly all of what the HD800S should have done, which to my ears makes it the best release in the entire series. It maintains the clarity and texture of the original HD800 bass, while increasing the presence enough to where it doesn't feel quite so lacking. It thus feels more prominent than the HD800S, though I'm not clear if it actually is boosted over that model or just a perceptual artifact of the superior quality. Still not a bass monster by any means, but there's enough to where many listeners will be satisfied. Sort of a "best of both worlds" situation between the two prior models (ignoring the HD820, as I feel everyone should). I also appreciate the fact that the boost seems largest at the lowest regions, keeping the response clean and impactful. Again, these are not objectively bassy headphones by any stretch of the imagination, but they should tip the scales for those who were on the fence with the original HD800, or liked the quantity - but not the quality - offered by HD800S.
I also hear improved tonality, likely related to the mids and particularly the lower midrange response, where things feel just a touch thicker, richer, with more heft and body. This is again a very good thing, as the old HD800 could at times feel practically skeletal in that regard. The end result is a more engaging tone that doesn't require as much care when system matching. It also makes the HD8XX more appropriate for a wider variety of music, where I felt the original model was fairly picky about what it paired with. So this feels like another big win for Drop/Sennheiser.
The treble situation is also an improvement if not quite as universally successful. HD8XX definitely feels more like an HD800S with regards to that ~6K peak, and that's a very good thing. That was my favorite aspect of the HD800S. I can now listen longer, and louder, than I could with the original model. Apart from that, although I still very much enjoy the HD8XX, I admit to being a bit conflicted.
I hear what feels like more top-end sparkle compared to HD800S, and in a more linear fashion than HD800, which sounds just about perfect on paper. And indeed, for the majority of my listening, I do find the new tuning pretty much ideal. But there have been times when I expected even more excitement, more top-end extension and air and energy, and found myself slightly let down. After formally keeping track of these instances, I realized it consistently happens when playing classical or occasionally some (cheesy) singer/songwriter "audiophile" music. Never with any other genre.
This is very likely due to my lengthy history of the original HD800, and the expectations burned into my brain from those many hours of listening. I always felt HD800 sounded best with those genres, despite its flaws, and this seems to dull the success of the HD8XX treble which is otherwise clearly superior in any other situation. It may actually be superior in these instances as well, but so far my brain has expectations which aren't quite being met. Interestingly, when I switch from HD8XX to HD800S, the latter sounds comparatively dark and muffled, by a larger margin than the difference between HD8XX and the original HD800.
Keep in mind we are talking about a relatively small difference here. Many people might not even notice much difference between any of the three models in this aspect, as the changes in bass and tonality are significantly more important. In a sense I'm doing a bit of nitpicking here, and obviously I haven't come to a conclusion as to what I even really want yet... more listening time would likely flesh it out one way or the other. It's very possible the HD8XX is the objectively better sound at all frequencies, and I just need time to remap my sonic expectations to keep up with reality.
The last thing to mention is the famous HD800 soundstage. That open, airy, almost larger-than-life feeling is perhaps bigger on the HD8XX than either of the prior models. I felt HD800S took a slight step backward in this area, though it was already large enough to where that reduction didn't drastically impact things. But the HD8XX brings us back to HD800 levels and even slightly beyond, which is interesting considering the added thickness to the signature. A lot of people assume the light-weight, ethereal sound of the original is largely required to achieve that level of openness and depth, but it seems that isn't really the case after all. I suspect there's some small-order adjustments at play making this happen, related to impedance and phase and other technical minutia, but I could be wrong. Again, this may not matter to most, as all three models sound pretty wide-open compared to many competitors. The HD800S may already hit a threshold beyond which certain listeners either don't hear or don't care about improvements. And honestly that's a valid perspective. But if the whole width/depth/height aspect is your particular focus, you'll appreciate the HD8XX reclaiming that lost ground.
Last quick note before I wrap things up. I feel that most folks who enjoy the HD800S will absolutely love the HD8XX. It's similar enough, but clearly better in some key areas, to make that a pretty safe bet. On the other hand, people who love the HD800 will be a mixed bag. Many of them will also very much enjoy the HD8XX and find it to be a big improvement. But there does exist a subset of die-hard HD800 fans who enjoy the thinner tone and borderline-punishing highs of that model. Even there, a non-zero portion might see the light and switch allegiances, but many will stick with the original and be happy with it.
The new tuning, to me, is a big accomplishment, as it makes the HD8XX less picky about system matching. Mind you, the HD8XX still scales extremely well with better gear, but it no longer requires a specific coloration to offset the thin tonality. Despite the treble interpretation I'm still grappling with regarding a very narrow field of genres, I'm overall quite pleased with the end result on this project. I don't know if it's quite possible to achieve "perfection" of the HD800 signature, considering all the baggage involved, but Drop makes a pretty convincing argument for it with this product.
I won't spend much time debating about the color scheme or the value per dollar, as those seem like very personal choices. You either like the look (or can at least put up with it), or you don't. You either see the value, or you don't. For me, the HD8XX seems like a strong value, but I won't pretend to speak for anyone else in that regard.
Note that Drop actually sent along several prototype sets of HD8XX for me to try. It's been very interesting to read initial impressions online (which pertain to a very early prototype design) and then listen to the progression, until we arrive at the final tuning. In each case, Drop and Sennheiser seem to inch closer to the ideal compromise - fixing the flaws without losing the original magic. For my taste, I'm comfortable saying mission accomplished.
(pics deliberately left out of this post, as the test mule prototypes don't have the final aesthetics)