- Jun 20, 2001
For so many years, year after year, model after model, Sennheiser has consistently made one of the top (and often the top) headphone at just about every price stratum, in just about every category, it chooses to develop and release product in. Such consistency of brilliance has made Sennheiser what is arguably the single most respected brand in the Head-Fi community. In recent years, however, the Sennheiser citadel has seen competitors launching salvo after salvo at it, at just about every price class, in just about every category, that Sennheiser releases product in. This may be most apparent at the bleeding edge, the flagship level, where money is no object, where researchers, engineers and product managers are free to dream products into actually being.
Three years ago, with the launch of the magnificent ring-drivered HD 800, Sennheiser took dynamic headphone driver design to the outer limits. It was, in my opinion, far and away the best dynamic headphone that existed at its release. In fact, it was, in my opinion, the best current-production headphone of any type at its release. Eventually, HiFiMAN, Audeze, and beyerdynamic were launching products with the chops (and the high prices) to compete with the Sennheiser HD 800, the first two using cutting-edge planar magnetic driver designs, and Sennheiser's seasoned fellow German competitor using super-strong magnet structures that it named "Tesla" technology.
HiFiMAN and beyerdynamic also released products that attacked the kilobuck price gap framed on either side by Sennheiser's former flagship (and still available) HD 650 at $500, and the current flagship HD 800 at around $1500. Many Head-Fi'ers have looked at that vast Sennheiser price expanse quizzically, guessing that eventually something was going to have to slot in there.
Well, it's now official: At the opening of CES 2012 tomorrow, Sennheiser is going to turn those questioning looks into excited stares, as it unveils what it has for years known it was going to drop square in the middle of that gap. It's the Sennheiser HD 700, priced at $999.99. And while Sennheiser decided to split the price gap down the middle, its new HD 700 serves up performance that slides well past the midpoint--enough so to put its own flagship sibling (and every other high-end headphone) on notice that the high-end world has a fantastic new rookie joining the league.
Unlike the HD 800 launch, for which I was only given only a day to play with it before its official launch (at CES 2009), I (and a handful of other Head-Fi'ers) have already had the opportunity to live with the HD700 for a while. I was even given an HD700 sneak peak and an overnight prototype loaner during CanJam @ RMAF 2011 last October. And now I'm sitting here in Las Vegas typing this out, listening to the HD700 just hours before its official unveiling, chompin' at the bit to tell you about it. So my feelings about the HD700 have become something more established, more rooted than just first impressions.
Let's start by looking at it. In my opinion, the HD700 is gorgeous. It takes the aesthetic begun by the HD 800, but refines it substantially. Even without any words or information to accompany the sight of it, any seasoned Head-Fi'er would immediately recognize the HD700 as a relative of the HD 800 straight away. But, whereas the HD 800 looks to me a bit too space age--like something out of the first Tron movie--the HD700 smooths out edges that needed smoothing, unifies lines that should have never been disjointed, and, as a result, looks more like what I'd expect the next-generation HD 800 to look like than it does the HD 800's kid sibling. The HD700 also looks great on the head.
Additionally, the HD700 borrows from the HD 800 other things that would be almost impossible to improve on, like the HD 800's comfort. With just the right amount of padding and clamping force, light weight, perfectly placed pivots, the ability to fit more head sizes than maybe any other headphone I have, and premium skin-touching material that feels to me like Alcantara, the HD700 scores a draw with the HD 800, which has been the most comfortable headphone I've ever worn.
And here's where it gets real interesting for me: The HD700 also scores a draw with the HD 800 sonically in many ways, hitting a combination of little wins and losses against its more seasoned sibling that nets out to a headphone I consider every bit the HD 800's peer, on balance.
Overall, in terms of sound, the HD700 has clear familial ties to the HD 800. For this discussion, I want to answer some of the questions I know will be among the first asked, as I think it may make for an interesting way to describe the HD700's sound:
- Tonally, which sounds better to me, the HD700 or the HD 800? Out of the amps I have on hand for the HD 800, my current favorite is the Ray Samuels Audio Raptor (the Raptor is an output transformerless (OTL) tube amp). When driven by this amp (the tube selection for which was meticulously made), the HD 800 shines, with a relatively neutral-ish sound signature, its bass impact never overdone, but deep and impactful; the mids similarly even and remarkably detailed; and the treble a bit more present than neutral, and insanely detailed, but almost never harsh. It is an amp/headphone pairing I've brought to many a meet, and impressed many a fellow Head-Fi'er with.
So far, out of any amp I've tried the HD700 with (and it likewise pairs nicely with the Raptor), the HD700 is always a click behind the HD 800 at its best. The HD 800 at its best seems to convey a touch more detail across the board than the HD700 at its best. But here's the thing (and this is a big but): The HD700 possesses so many of the qualities of the HD 800 at its best, pretty much all the time, out of most any setup good or better. The HD 700's bass has for me always been deep and impactful, but never over-emphasized; the HD 700's mids are always free-breathing, detailed, and open; its treble presence north of neutral by a touch, always exacting, rarely harsh. Sound familiar?
To answer this question simply: From rig to rig, I prefer the HD700 to the HD 800 most of the time, so I feel comfortable saying the HD 700 sounds better to me than the HD 800 in most setups. When both are at their best, though, the HD 800 edges the HD700 out, being a touch more articulate from one end to the other. Getting the best out of the HD 800, however, can be a journey, with a lot of trial and error. Getting the best out of the HD700 often just involves plugging it into virtually any good amp. (Of course, in either case, I'm assuming good source components at the front.)
- Which images better, the HD700 or the HD 800? This is an area where there is as much difference as similarity. Some people believe the HD 800 one of Head-Fi-dom's best imaging headphones, with a wide, open, airy soundstage, and pinpoint sonic image placement within that--I am one of those people. Some, however, find the HD 800's imaging to be too diffuse. If you've heard the HD 800 and the latter view of its imaging is more in line with how you feel, then you'll find the HD700 an improvement. Its imaging is still very open and precise, but its width and airiness is at least a bit more reined in, and so those in the latter camp might find the HD700's imaging more coherent. I find the HD700's imaging to be one of its core strengths, relative to most other headphones; but it is, to me, another aspect of the HD700 that is just a click behind its older sibling's abilities in this regard, but still amazing.
- What don't I like about the Sennheiser HD700? I have one sonic nit to pick with this headphone, and its with sibilance. Though the HD700 does not impart sibilance, recordings that contain any over-emphasis of sibilance may have it spotlit by the HD700. This has not been an issue for me, as it rears its head only once in a while. But it is something I'd prefer was tuned out of it somehow.
- How would I compare it to my other favorite open headphones in its price range? My clear favorite in this price range has been Audeze's LCD-2 (revision 2). I won't go into a detailed comparison here, in the interest of time (I'm at CES now), but I will make a couple of observations. The LCD-2 is easy to drive, but the HD700 is more comfortable being driven in my good portable rigs than even the LCD-2. There is currently no full-sized, open headphone I prefer with my good portable rigs than the HD700, overall.
The LCD-2's bass is more impactful, and remains one of the high standards of bass reproduction at any price, so advantage in this regard goes to the LCD-2, to my ears. The LCD-2 possesses more midrange lushness, which I also find to be to the the LCD-2's advantage.
In terms of imaging, there is no contest--the HD700 images far more openly and precisely. To have such beautiful imaging in a headphone that is very comfortably and very capably driven by my good portable rigs gives a sense of big-rig imaging performance on-the-go that may be the top of its class (on-the-go). Big advantage here for the HD700.
Overall, I don't know that I will ever be able to say I like one more than the other--at this level of performance, it comes down to which flavor of awesome I feel like at the moment. And, though I've had it for a while, the HD700 is still new to me, and, knowing that its launch was coming, I've spent more time with it than with any other single headphone I have in my possession since it arrived (with the HD 800 finding second slot for the sake of the most obvious comparison). As I settle back into a fairer rotation, I'll likely have more to say about the HD700 relative to other headphones.
At its price, given its fidelity and versatility, the HD700 is fantastic. If you've had the HD 800, experienced glimpses of magic from it, but couldn't get the synergy in your system right to get it just so, then the HD700 is very likely the first headphone you should put on your to-buy list. If you're on-the-go, and are looking for a top-tier headphone you can use with your portable rigs for world class performance, put the HD700 on the top of your list. If you're simply shopping for a top-tier headphone, with no clear preferences yet established, add the HD700 to the list of contenders.
Filling the product line gap between the HD 650 and the HD 800 was long overdue, and Sennheiser's latest does the job thoroughly, completely. The Sennheiser HD700 is another world-class headphone from Sennheiser.