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Sennheiser is one of the few companies around that refuse to run with the fickle demands of the market, with product refreshes that offer cosmetic changes and perhaps a minor tweaking to sound output. Instead, the Germans prefer to focus on research into the black art we call sound reproduction, and every five or six years, produce something like what we're seeing today. The HD 800 is their latest flagship headphone, and it's safe to assume we won't see a successor from them for at least another four years. Nor should we, after all shouldn't every manufacturer aim to produce a quality product that stands the test of time rather than designing on the principle of planned obsolescence? The HD 650, their previous flagship, was a headphone that remained at the top of Sennheisers lineup for nearly 7 years, although other manufacturers (arguably) eventually surpassed it in terms of sound quality.
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On a side-note, when talking about high-end headphones, it is important to note that there is not a lot of difference in sound quality, rather it is the sound reproduction that differs and no two headphones offer the same sound signature. Some emphasise the lower frequencies, while others have a more revealing and open mid-range. So it is often a matter of matching the kind of sound you like and your music to your equipment and a headphone. No 300$ plus headphone is really bad, simply because a manufacturer cannot afford to release a "bad" product at this price point. It is rather a matter of your tastes and the genres of music you are into.
The HD 650 retails for around 500$, and the HD 800 launched at a mighty 1399$, making one of the most expensive consumer headphones available today. If you purchase it in India from an authorised seller, be prepared to shell out close to Rs. 80,000. Forget about having mighty boots to fill, the HD 800 redefines the mould for bigger boots - it's 3 times costlier than its predecessor - that's saying something, even for headphones that are hand assembled - the echelon for exclusivity in our times it seems.
These headphones look space age, and love the design, or hate it, you cannot deny the fact the Sennheiser HD 800 looks unlike any other headphone around. Unfortunately for those who prefer old school wood with rounded edges and its associated charm, the HD 800 will disappoint - it's built mostly of metal alloy and high quality plastic and is more angles than curves. In fact the earcups are mostly alloy, and the entire assembly feels very rugged. They are circumaural, large and heavy, (330 grams), although they feel light when worn, and after the first 8 hours of use virtually disappear on your head (remember we said virtually). Mind you, Audio Technica's wing design headband is still the most comfortable one around. The drivers are mounted on a stainless steel frame, and the earpads are made of microfiber. While these feel insubstantial, especially given the luxurious feel of the Denon D7000s earpads, they are quite comfortable as we discovered, and being circumaural, there is no pressure on the cartilage of your ear. Also, unlike foam, this material does not seem to wear down quickly, nor does it lose its shape and go flat, which is a major plus. Equally important, the microfiber does not get as hot as materials like foam or pleather do in summers, no small boon for our country. There is minimal clamping force resulting in extended listening sessions minus discomfort. All is not perfect on the comfort front though, because the ear cushioning on the earpads is a little on the lean side, those with larger ears or a more protruding helix will find this portion touching the inside of the earcup, and this results in pressure which starts to get noticeable after an hour of wearing them.
The cables are detachable, similar to the HD 600 and HD 650, although with the HD 800, the OFC cable is much thicker, and enclosed within Teflon insulation and a cloth jacket. Each earcup gets its own cable, and the termination mechanism seems much firmer than the one on the HD 650, meaning the connect becoming loose with daily use should be less of an issue. Coming to the headband, it features a plastic-fiber construction that is both flexible and sturdy. The actual headband adjustment and armature encased inside the plastic is steel. The only minus we found was the adjustment seems to get quite loose with daily use. The pair we got had some serious miles under its belt, and one side of the headband was a tired old thing, sliding down with the weight of the earcup. While we're not sure just how much abuse this beauty was subjected to, this is pretty unacceptable for such a costly headphone, although we're sure if you'd buy one, it'd be treated with utmost care.
The biggest feature of this headphone is something that Sennheisers marketing has harped on, perhaps with good reason - a new driver. It's one of the largest we've seen, at 56 mm and Sennheiser claims the waves produced by this driver radiate outwards in a ring, and towards your ear. This isn't evident looking at the driver, but what we didn't realise at first was, only the outer ring of the driver actually vibrates, therefore the phrase "ring radiating driver" coined by Sennheisers marketing. This design is meant to produce less distortion, as well as to mimic sound emanating from different angles, something traditional drivers are not too good at doing. Additionally this ring-radiating driver allows a more natural positioning of sound around your ear allowing the human brain to perceive it as having come from more space than what headphones can manage.
Realistic soundstaging is the name of the game here, and the HD 800 aims to be the best in the business at this hard-to-acheive-feat for a headphone. For discerning listeners, you either nail it or you don't, and no headphone can hold a candle to a good set of speakers when it comes to mimicking the positioning of music instruments and voices in a space around the listener. With headphones sound channels are typically separated, with music coming from left and right channels sounding like two separate parts of the music, rather than a cohesive, organic whole. Additionally, with most headphones even if the soundstage has width, it has no depth i.e. sounds appear to come from on top of your head and to the sides, but not in front of you, which is actually how the recording microphones are positioned. This is something the ring radiator transducer is supposed to address, and this driver is supposed to give the impression of a larger sound-emitting field than the actual driver size.
[RELATED_ARTICLE]With the HD 650, Sennheiser moved from a neutral (read faithful to source), sound presentation, to a rather warm, lush presentation, and while this did wonders for exaggerating the mid-range frequencies for music like Country and Jazz, it wasn't what many purists wanted, and the HD 650 was hated and loved in equal measure, with some people preferring the more neutral, (and in our opinion slightly bright), HD 600. With the HD 800, Sennheiser is once again talking about "reference" quality, which basically means a headphone that is tuned to give as close to neutral sound as possible. For those who don't know, neutral means as close to the original recording as possible, without biasing towards or against a particular set of frequencies in the sound spectrum.
The drivers of the HD 800 are tuned are impedance matched and then marked. Therefore, Sennheiser claims if you ever need to replace a dead driver, they can provide you with an exact match. This is important when working with high-end equipment, because impedance basically affects the power delivery to each transducer and with a set with unmatched drives, discerning users with good equipment will notice a difference in volume level and sound quality - channel imbalance is a no-no for this grade of transducer.
The HD 600 and HD 650 were said to have mediocre connecting cables and we have seen a lot of aftermarket options arising as a result. With the HD 800 Sennheiser has beefed up cable quality to a thicker, higher rated OFC cable. The cable is Teflon-shielded up to the Y joint, and after this there is a cloth shroud that secures against damage while minimising sound produced by cable movement that can interfere with the listening experience, especially with open drivers like the HD 800 has. Aftermarket options have sprung up, but the cables are less of a bottleneck than before.
Call it old school charm, or a marketing ploy called "exclusiveness", the Sennheiser HD 800 is hand built err assembled. Each headphone has a serial number. These are assembled primarily in Sennheiser's manufacturing unit in Germany, unlike the HD 650 that were manufactured in Ireland.
Click next to read about the gear we used, the HD 800s performance, and our closing thoughts
Before getting into specifics, let it be said that the HD 800 requires a headphone amplifier to sound its best, and depending on the type of music and sound you like, it will sound good out of both solid state and vacuum tube-based amplifiers, however it is picky with sources and amplification. Likewise, you will also want to hook up these cans to an extremely high fidelity source, and we're not talking about those crappy Sony and LG music systems that have "Hi-Fi" written all over them, and are about as far from the term as the North Pole is from Africa!
Surprisingly, for an impedance of 300 ohms, the HD 800 sounds pleasant out of an Apple MacBook Pro, or even an iPod Touch. But to use it thus would be to use it to less than half its full potential, and we do mean half, which, for an audiophile who will pay 40 % more for a 5 % difference in performance, is huge indeed. We were fortunate enough to have a few headphone amps and some other Hi-Fi stuff on hand, courtesy a resident headphone enthusiast. The HD 800 was tested using the optical output from both an LG BD550 Blu-Ray player, and an Apple MacBook Pro. This digital output was hooked up to an Audio-GD DAC-19DSP, which is a well known audiophile-grade DAC featuring two Burr Brown PCM1704 DAC chips in dual mono mode. The output from this DAC was sent to a headphone amplifier and finally to the headphones.
We used 3 amps: a tube-based Woo Audio 6SE, (WA6SE for short), was our primary amp and we used an Audio GD C2 as our reference solid state amp. Finally a Little Dot Micro Tube was also used to check what the HD 800 sounds like with a relatively affordable headphone amp. To give you an idea of the cost of a high-end headphone setup, the WA6SE we used costs 1420$ for the configuration we used, the C2 is priced at 425$, and the Micro Tube costs 200$. The DAC-19DSP costs 650$. We used quality interconnects, and ensured our power was drawn from sockets that were voltage stabilised. The power point was properly earthed. This is done to minimise the chances of noise and any sort of disturbance entering any stage of the sound reproduction process. While the unit sent to us looked like it had easily over 500 hours use on it, we took no chances, and listened to the HD 800 for some 120 hours before forming concrete opinions about it. Two well known and well regarded headphones, the Grado RS1i and Denon D7000 were also used for subjective analysis.
Out of an ordinary source like a PMP, or a notebook, the HD 800 sounds so-so. Bass is weak - anaemic if you will, the mid-range seems congested when playing metal, rock and genres that have a lot of instruments. The finer nuances of the music and softer sounds are inaudible. Cymbals sound tinny and flat - totally lacking musicality, as if a thin, tin plate were being beaten. The louder instruments dominate, and the music sounds pleasant but not involving - you could swap these out for a 200$ Audio Technica and and not be disappointed. The highs though detailed, seem rolled off with a bit of sibilance at times, and some instruments have a slightly artificial feel to them. Soundstaging is absent and flat - everything seems to be coming from your left and right. The HD 800 are dead silent, something we expect from such expensive cans. We tried to mimic a non-discerning audience and asked a couple of non test center blokes to hear them and comment. The general consensus was they sound really good and clear, but have no bass. Right - obviously you could buy an HD 800, never amp them and for all practical purposes, 25 to 50 Hz aside, miss nothing.
We added the WA6SE to the chain, using the Sophia Princess rectifier tube, without any DAC. The WA6SE is an amp with an extremely low floor noise - it's near dead silent - a much needed quality to produce quality sound, where nuances float unimpeded. The most noticeable improvement? Everything! - the bass that was tinny becomes much more prominent, and has good impact. Whoever termed the HD 800s as bass shy hasn't paired them with the right amp, or is a basshead, or just doesn't know good bass. While bass quantity is not its forte, the lows that are present are extremely tight and do not become unfocussed. Every beat is delineated from its preceding and following beat. However, on the whole there is less emphasis on the lower frequencies, and the HD 800s are not for bass lovers. You won't get that boomy sound that drowns out other nuances. For Rock and Metal, we found good bass, without the kind of moving bass that one gets from live shows although, you can actually distinguish between different bass notes, rather than hearing a generic thump. Listen to the initial rhythm of U2s With Or Without You, and you'll not be disappointed - the HD 800 has sufficient bass for our ears.
The mid-range is honest for lack of a better word - well rendered, with good presence and depth, voices have good timbre to them, without sounding over emphasised, well maybe just a tiny bit with the Woo amp. Some headphones pull a lot of tricks out the bag to make the mid-range more luscious, and this makes the HD 800 a little less romantic but more truthful - which do you prefer? It is much less lush than the HD 650. Guitars come to life, and riffs have just the right balance of sizzle and timbre - instruments sound real at times, though we'd like a bit more lushness for genres like Blues and Jazz. The mid-range is completely open and extends nicely into the highs and lows - one doesn't get the feeling of different frequencies being separated. The HD 800 is just right to enjoy an evening with Eric Clapton and his guitar, or you could lose yourself to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' album Raising Sand.
Fire up some Hard Rock or Metal and you'll be equally impressed. The HD 800 handles complex passages easily without losing coherency. Judas Priest's Electric Eye will cause you to straighten in your easy chair, while Dream Theatre's version of Perfect Strangers and Achilles Last Stand from their album A Change Of Seasons are sheer bliss, as a lot of the guitar energy and every tiny nuance is served up without you having to make an effort to reach for it. Riffs float and delicately disappear. Strong passages appear out of nowhere, dominate you, and recede - there is nothing between you can the music. The bass guitar is quite easy to make out, and its notes dance with those of the lead guitar quite delicately, without blending - nearly perfect, but we'd like the separation to have a bit more prominence - however few headphones manage this, certainly none we've heard. Once again, the slight lack of mid-bass to the guitar notes becomes a little apparent, not because it's poor, but because having listened to a few live shows, we know the HD 800 isn't giving us a 100 %. Cymbals are crisp, and the decay after the strike can be heard at times - it's quite noticeable on the original Achilles Last Stand by Led Zeppelin. After a mixed diet of Rock and Metal, we found the HD 800 a bit wanting in the low-bass and mid-bass. These genres have a lot of energy, and the HD 800 needs a little more bottom end grunt to keep us foot-tapping, headbanging is out of the question when wearing full size headphones! However, it certainly gives you a clearer window to the music than both the HD 650 and the D7000 and is much more neutral than than both of these, although the D7000 produces some of the deepest bass you will hear.
We switch back to some soft music, and five Leonard Cohen tracks later we're soothed enough to call it a day...at 4 pm in the evening! However, we feel it is the WA6SE giving some romantic bloom to the mid-range. So we move to the C2, and find our love waning a bit. Cohens voice loses a bit of its rich undertones, and a bit of our interest, although the soft and often overly subtle nuances that are the accompanying instruments are really well done. The C2 gives a bit more immediacy to the music than the WA6SE. And if you like instruments, how can one not mention Pink Floyd? We played two of our favourite discs - Dark Side Of The Moon and Echoes. The chiming of clocks around you in Time will have you imagining you're inside a clock shop; once again we're reminded of the HD 800s imaging capabilities.
We switch to the last amp we have, and the Little Dot Micro Tube is definitely not an improvement over either of the other amps, although it does a decent job with the HD 800 - good bass, but a little less taut, the mid-range is a bit more lush, with the highs becoming a little less prominent. Soundstaging seems a bit less realistic, and in fact we noticed some sibilance in female vocals that was absent on either of the other amps.
We kept removing and adding the DAC 19-DSP - our aim was to see if the HD 800 was transparent enough to make a difference. We noticed that the distance between the vocals and guitar (in some of the tracks we listened to earlier) seemed to increase a bit, implying that the guitarist was standing a bit away from the lead singer in these tracks. The vocals also seem to have more presence and sound more full bodied though not warmer. At one point, we could pick up what seemed to be some sort of scrape made by contact with the vocalists' microphone. Alison Krauss' voice loses some of its nasal sound, and sounds a bit more piercing at times, and at others, a bit more soulful. It becomes easier to pick up little nuances in tracks. Soundstaging becomes even more spot on, and in some tracks, where the guitars' sound is intentionally supposed to move around as different guitarists chime in and fall silent in sequence, the difference is easy to spot. It is possible to visualise the bass and lead guitarist in most tracks, although we couldn't tell who was more distant from the recording microphone (and therefore the listener).
[RELATED_ARTICLE]After listening to headphones, one tends to get used to the flat soundstage, and the HD 800 sounds different and a bit unnatural at times, as if instruments and vocals are far apart and their sound is coming to you from discrete points in space, almost as if the performers were standing really apart on a stage, or even in small cubicles and this often creates an artificial of space between performers till you get used to it. Once you do get used to it, listening to Grados is fatiguing, and their soundstage seems congested, where finer nuances blend, and are then lost. What the HD 800 lacks that headphones like the Grado RS1i and SR225 have is the immediacy of vocals and mid-range, while the Grados aren't neutral by any stretch, they are wonderful with the right music and a lot more rhythmic and musical than the HD 800, but slightly less detailed.
With the C2, the HD 800 gains a bit more width to the mid-range, and the bass becomes ever so slightly tighter. The mid-range loses a bit of the underlying lushness that we had picked up on, and becomes sharper. At this point it seems like the HD 800 was revealing the properties of the amplifier, and if we had to pick, we'd go with the C2 and the HD 800, Audio GDs headphone amp and DAC work very well together with no floor noise, and the background to the music is totally dark. Additionally, the HD 800s clarity seems better matched to solid-state than tubes.
Now let's get some perspective back here. The HD 800 is no speaker. You must concentrate before soundstaging becomes apparent, unlike speakers, where soundstaging is a given, made possible simply because of the space between the speaker drivers, and the number of drivers and of course, the size of the drivers. Perhaps the biggest advantage speaker have is they're placed in a room, with space around them, and not clamped to your head!
Headphones are not permitted such liberties, and the HD 800 cannot match up to the soundstaging of a quality Rs. 75,000 set of bookshelf speakers, with another Rs. 75,000 spent on a good amplifier. What it can do, is present you with intricate details - more than most speakers five or even ten times the price can manage. And best of all, you don't need to acoustically tune your room, which most people tend to overlook and with speakers, this often accounts for 50 per cent of the performance.
With some Rock music, we constantly found the HD 800 wanting of a little more low-end punch. Other than that, they're very close to neutral. Poorly ripped MP3 music sounds poor, while original discs and .FLAC files ripped from them sound good - the HD 800 is fairly indicative of your source as well, without being too unforgiving - like the HD 650, it scales quite well, and MP3s ripped at 320 KBps are surprisingly good. However comparatively, it is less forgiving than the warmer HD 650.
So, are the HD 800s worth the lofty price tag of Rs.79,990? No and yes...
We wouldn't buy them, even if we could afford them. If you're looking for a great sounding set of cans, you can spend a lot less and get something that sounds perfectly fine. In our opinion, spending upward of 35,000 bucks on a headphone is not worth it, but then neither is buying a Veyron over an F599, unless you're dirty, stinking rich.
Still, exceptions exist, like purist audiophiles who demand the best, who may not own a fortune. If you one of these select folk who has already blown around a 100 grand on a good headphone amplifier and DAC, the HD 800 is definitely worth considering. Competition is fierce, and other options like the Beyerdynamic T1 and Grado PS1000 will also vie for your cash; admittedly we've heard neither. Still these are a purists tool, and recommendations aside, the Sennheiser HD 800 is a beautiful instrument of sound reproduction, that is a couple of stops away from being perfect. Sadly, most people out there will just not be able to shell out so much for them, let alone giving them the ecosystem they need to sound their best.
Specifications: Frequency range: 14 - 44100 Hz; impedance: 300 ohms; max sound pressure level: 102 dB; weight (without cable): 330 grams
14 Hz - 44.1 KHz
|Weight (in grams)||
330 (w/o cable)
|Length of Cable (in feet)||
|Size of driver||
|Cable termination plug||
|Cable detachable (Y/N)||
|Adjustable headband (Y/N)||
Teflon cloth sheath
|Additional eartips (if any)||
|Build and Comfort (So 10)||
|Cable quality, shielding||
|Headband and armature quality||
|Headband adjustment mechanism||
|Comfort and fit||
|Performance (So 10)||
|U2 - With Or Without You||
|Massive Attack - Angel||
|Dream Theater - Perfect Strangers||
|Eric Clapton - Layla||
|Pink Floyd - Time||
|Robert Plant & Alison Krauss - Polly Come Home||
Contact: Sennheiser Electronics India private Ltd.
Price: Rs. 79,990 (MRP)