Hifi Pig’s « Headphone Month » continues and here Linette and Stuart Smith take a listen to the £999 Sennheiser HD800 headphones. 

Sennheiser are one of the first names that come to mind when speaking about headphones and so square_louped_hd_800_01_sq_high_end_sennheiserit would be remiss of us not to have taken a listen to at least one of their offerings in what is “Headphone Month” here at Hifi Pig and where better for us to start than at the top of their range and the £999 HD800s.

They arrive in a large fliptop box lined with a silky fabric that as a whole screams big brand marketing savvy – understated and corporate. There’s a glossy instruction manual and attached the headphones 3m plus cable terminated with a quarter inch jack which is “specially tuned, symmetrical, impedance matching with low capacitance”. The cables can be replaced with aftermarket examples should you feel the urge, but the supplied cable does seem to be well manufactured with a twisted configuration. For home users this is a proper length which in the main should do away with the need for the use of extension cables – a positive, if small, detail from my perspective.

Straight from the box the HD800s look very different from other designs we have in for review. First of all they are very modern looking with their silver and black colours giving an industrial looking design – some will like it whilst others will see it as being a bit over the top. However, thinking about it this is a design where form follows function as these are basically loudspeakers for the ears – the drivers are the biggest used in headphones to date say Sennheiser.
They are a physically large headphone, not as big as the Audeze cans we have in at the moment, but they’re not the kind of thing you could wear on a bus without standing out somewhat, not that you’re likely to do this with the HD800s without attracting unwanted attention of fellow passengers, as they do leak music into their surroundings – much as you would expect from a large pair of open back drivers.
The headband is nicely padded and coupled with the Sennheisers’ relative lightweight (they are just 330g) is comfortable on the top of the head – perhaps not quite as comfortable as the HifiMan HE560s. Positioning of the cans on the headband is very simple and a case of moving them up and down with your hands whilst on your head – certainly a better solution than the HifiMans’. The cans themselves are massive and comfortably cover the whole ear with a thin, but very comfy padding around them covered in micro-fabric to protect your head – they’re also deep so the driver is sitting a good way from your ear. The cans are slightly sprung so that when you place them on your head they clamp inwards ever so slightly to ensure there’s a tight seal between the padding and your head. This is effective and not over tight, but this does mean that if you shake your head about with any force they do move about a little – not sure I’d be comfortable running in these…but then that’s not what they’re made for!
The HD800s have an impedence of 300Ohms and were driven very loud and very easily by the Coffman Labs headphone amp on the GA1 pre, with me having to turn the volume down from the previous ‘phones I had been using. The little HiSound portable media player certainly had no problem driving the Sennheisers to very loud volumes and I imagine you’d be fine running these easily from an iPod or whatever player you choose. However, they are large, come with no carrying case and so how practical it is to use these ‘phones whilst travelling is open to debate…as it is with most of the non-IEMs we have at our disposal.

The Sound

As mentioned, listening was done using our normal preamplifier and we used our normal DAC fed with FLACs from the computer using our reference player with JPlay.

Whilst the perceived soundstage thrown with the HD800s isn’t as wide as with the Final Pandora Hope VIs there is still a good feeling that the music is in its own space and with a good out-of-the-head feel. Doug MacLeod’s bluesy “Rosa Lee” displays them to have a very good feel to the bass with it being deep, tight and controlled – which you’d possibly expect from the large drivers used in the Sennheisers. However, this increased bass extension is certainly not at the expense of the other frequencies and guitar and hats are bright and sparkly with a natural sound to them. Some may prefer the upper frequencies to be rolled off a little, but then I enjoy the Grado 325i headphones which some perceive as being overly bright. The vocal is accurate and correct in the mix without being over emphasised and this leads to a very pleasing and overall easy to listen to sound that is nicely balanced. There’s good separation to the instruments too which adds to the detailed accuracy of the sound.

Hardfloor’s “Once Again Back”, as many readers will be aware, is one of the tracks we regularly use to checkout a loudspeaker performance in the bass department and with the HD800s I was certainly not disappointed. There’s a good hint of the feeling you get when listening to the growling synth-bass performed through a proper pair of loudspeakers, with the associated low level 303 bass being very pleasing also. There’s speed and there is punch to the sound which I like a lot and whilst the Final Pandora Hope IVs lacked a little in the lower bass registers you sacrifice a little of the 3D presentation they give with the HD800s – horses for courses then. I found searching on the tablet for a lot of techno and dance music and I think if you listen to a lot of this kind of music the HD800s will be an excellent choice.

The outstanding In Duologue “Blue Skies” album on Snip Records is recorded in a small chapel and there’s a good sense of the space’s sound particularly on the vocal track. Again there is a sense of a nicely balanced sound with the HD800s with the female vocal being slightly to the fore and playing nicely against the contrebass. The whispered, normally barely audible, background vocal sound at the start of the opening track is clear and it’s nice to hear this. Contrebass is tight and percussive with good slap and it has the feel that it goes lower than most of the other headphones we have in for test.

Pink Fairies’ “Kings of Oblivion” album can sound quite bright to these ears (or my CD copy does), so I wanted to see if the HD800s exaggerated this at all. It’s still a record that’s slightly exaggerated at the top-end a little I think, but I don’t believe the Senheissers are over emphasising this and what I got from listening to this album on these cans was heaps of detail in the mix and a “live” feel to the music – which is about right I’d say. The vocal track is agreeably reproduced and again I found it to be slightly forward. Bass was nice and bouncy too which I enjoyed and added to a feeling of the HD800s being rhythmic and foot-tappingly exciting.

Comfort

As previously mentioned, the HD800s from Sennheiser fit over the whole ear which I like a great OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAdeal and I think you’d have to be particularly well proportioned in the lughole department to have any issues with them. There’s also a goof deal of space between the divers and the ears which means that there’s no fear of any part of your ear rubbing on the driver, or its protection.
The padding between the body of the cans and your head is minimal, but, given that the HD800s don’t clamp to your head aggressively, they are very comfortable to wear.
They are a light headphone and easy to wear over long periods of time without feeling any discomfort. However, the headband can become “evident” after long periods of time and in this area I preferred the HifiMan HD 560s.

Conclusion

The Sennheiser HD800s are clearly a very good headphone that will please people who enjoy a monitor type sound. Some may find the upper frequencies to be a little much, but, like with the Grado 325is, I perceive this as accuracy rather than anything to criticise… you pays your money, you takes your choice.

They don’t have the “luxurious/audiophile” sound of the Final Pandora Hope VI, but I think this is to the Sennheisers’ credit actually and they do have an overall better balance to their sound than the Finals, with bass being especially more pleasing and strong. Soundstage is pretty good and there’s a reasonably good out-of-the-head experience but this is not the best we’ve heard. For extended listening they are non-fatiguing and a pleasure to listen to.

They are an easy headphone to drive and have no issues with being played by portable music players, despite them not being particularly portable themselves because of their size and lack of case.

From the perspective of comfort these are great and the large cans fit over the ear completely making them easy to wear for extended periods. My only niggle comfort-wise is the headband can become “evident” (if not uncomfortable) after long periods of wear.

On the negative side they are big and I’d have liked to have seen a carry case included in the price to facilitate being able to pop them in a bag when away on business. Looks will also divide opinion.

At £999 these aren’t cheap headphones but they do sound very good, are comfortable and they should last you a lifetime if looked after.

Stuart SmithRECOMMENDED LOGO NEW

Sound – 8.75
Comfort – 8.25
Fit and finish – 8.25
Value – 8
Overall – 8.31

Recommended for serious headphone listeners who want plenty of detail, coupled with good quality bass reproduction and a lifelike interpretation.

And now Linette’s thoughts on the Sennheiser HD 800 headphones

Well August seems to have turned into Christmas at Hifi Pig towers with headphones, headphone amps and in ear monitors arriving in droves.

Next on my review schedule were the open backed Sennheisers which retail at about £1000.
These arrived very nicely packaged in a black presentation case and on unboxing them, my first impression was that they were big….but really light. Having previously tested the Audeze and Final Pandora headphones, these seemed exceptionally light, according to Sennheiser they weigh in at just 330g.
They look big because they fit around the ear, rather than on it at all, which I have to say, coupled square_louped_hd_800_silver_01_sq_sennheiserwith the lightness, makes for a very comfortable fit. They seem to curve around the head, hugging it but not in a stifling embrace.
The only problem that I had with the fit was I couldn’t keep my glasses on as the earcups pushed them into my head.
The easily adjustable headband is also well padded adding to the comfortable fit. They are also supplied with a good quality, long cable that has robust connectors and is apparently reinforced with Kevlar.
I found the design pleasing, and I felt a bit Cyborg-like while wearing them but in my opinion, they did look a bit ‘plasticky’. I guess this is the payoff though for them being so light for their size.

I started things off with Primal Scream’s ‘Screamadelica’ album. ‘Movin’ on up’ is an uplifting track with gospel backing vocals, piano, organ and rocky guitar riffs. Everything sounded in its place and I would say the overall feel and impression of the soundstage was really big and open, like listening in a concert hall.
On ‘Loaded’ the bass was deep and defined but the mids and tops were there as well, the ‘country’ twang of the guitar sounded great.
‘Damaged’ sounded beautiful, the vocals were sweet but gravelly with a perfect balance between piano and guitar and the background organ ….but it was starting to get to the real bass test time.

I always itch to hear Hardfloor’s ‘Once again back’ on new bits of kit. With the HD800s the sub bass was tight and defined…..all the detail that I wanted to hear was there and they presented the swoopy swirly top and mid range perfectly.

Slowing things down a bit, I put on John Martyn’s ‘Solid Air’, a track that I hear a lot at hifi shows …for good reason, it shows off a system that is ‘right’ really well. This sounded smooth and honeyed on the HD800’s with the vocal and instruments all beautifully placed…it sounded very accurate to me.

Back to Gil Scott Heron and ‘Ghetto Style’ which I have used in all my recent headphone reviews. This album did sound very good, again with the sense of accuracy and definition but I did find I was having to turn things up louder than when using the Audeze headphones.

I tend to prefer my headphones with closed backs because if I am either out and about or listening at home I like to keep my music to myself and not force those around me to listen to it too.
I perhaps did not feel as ‘lost in music’ as I did with the Audeze LCD –XC which I again put down to the Sennheiser HD800s being open backed so they didn’t give me the isolation that I prefer when listening on headphones, I also found that in a noisy environment I was cranking the volume higher on the headphone amp to drown out exterior noise interference.
All in all, they came across as very accurate and comfortable headphones (minus the glasses conflict) but they didn’t excite me a much as some of the other headphones I have used, they seemed to me to be a little too clinical for my taste, everything perfectly done, but just missing the ‘wow’ factor…. For some people this will be exactly what they are looking for.

Sound – 7.75/10RECOMMENDED LOGO NEW
Comfort – 8/10
Fit and finish –7.75/10
Value – 7.25/10
Overall – 7.69/10

Accurate, comfortable headphones with a very good build quality, suited to people not looking for complete isolation from the outside world when they listen to music.

Review system: Ami MUSIK DDH – 1 DAC and Headphone amp, The Chord Company USB cable and laptop running Foobar 2000.

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