Sennheiser’s previous flagship reference headphones (HD650) have been an important part of this writer’s hi-fi system since 2006; they’ve been in heavy use and they sound as amazing now as they did on day one. Would the new top of range Sennheiser HD800s really improve on the 650s? A rapturous response to the HD800s in forums, websites and magazines suggested it was time to start saving the shekels.
While I’d love to report that they’re merely a slight improvement over the 650s, this would be a lie. It’s all true: Sennheiser has worked a minor miracle, because the HD800s are a major step forward.
First, they’re dramatically more comfortable than the 650s and most other headphones. They have the biggest conventional drivers used in headphones thus far (56mm), so the earcups are huge, but instead of clamping your head like a walnut in a nutcracker they rest lightly and feel quite unobtrusive over long listening sessions. Build quality is first class, combining quality plastics and stainless steel in a lightweight but solid structure.
Second and most importantly, the HD800s are a sonic revelation. Listening to Nils Lofgren’s Acoustic Live (sound source: a Marantz 8260 SACD player) was about being knocked over and picking oneself up off the floor for it all to happen over and over again. The big earcups place the drivers well away from the ears and allow the HD800s to convey a real impression of space and a wide open soundstage, so much so that the revered HD650s sounded restrictive in comparison. The 800s are more neutral as well, with none of the marginally warm balance of the 650s. They’re also fast, actually make that utterly, blazingly fast: speed and dynamic control is a given with earphones but in this case, sounds come from nowhere and stop instantly — it’s a joy to hear.
Take that speed, spaciousness and sound staging ability then throw in a magical capacity for detail retrieval and nuance and you get a sonic experience that will shake the foundations of your audio world. Bear in mind that they reveal limitations in the system and recordings like you wouldn’t believe, and some music is simply unlistenable. Rough recordings like Dylan bootlegs or obscure Warren Zevon is fine, but heavily compressed loud modern pop or rock will not go down well.
You’ll need some high-quality supporting hardware to make it all come together (see below), but even when you consider the cost of the HD800s and ancillary equipment, they’re a good deal because you just can’t get remotely as close to what’s really in your music collection without spending a hell of a lot of money on speakers.
You can’t just buy the HD800s, take them home and start listening. No way, no how. These phones need to be part of a proper ear-fi system or you’ll never hear them at their potential.
They sounded pretty good even when plugged into the headphone port of the Marantz SACD player, but were seriously improved when I used a dedicated headphone amplifier such as the Lehmann Black cube linear or Perreaux’s SH2, so you’ll need to budget on an amp unless your preamp or integrated has a really good headphone stage (and very few do). The HD800s also needed good cables, both audio and power — running Nordost or Slinklylinks RCA interconnects made a big difference to the sound, as did running a Nordost Shiva or Vishnu power cable on the amp.
The source was also critical; an iPod running into the Aux input on the Lehmann was reasonable at best, a budget CD player was better and the Marantz or a borrowed Bryston BCD-1 CD player were streaks ahead.
Sennheiser HD800 Headphones – Tech Specs
Frequency response: 14Hz-44.1kHz (-3dB)
Nominal impedance: 300 Ohms
Total harmonic distortion: </=0.02% (1kHz/1Vrms)
Jack plug: 0.25-inch (6.3 mm) stereo
Cable length: 3m
* They sound like a million bucks
* Exceedingly comfortable
* They look truly odd (but frankly, who cares?)
Among the very best headphones available today
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