The Sennheiser HD-800 was probably one of the most anticipated headphones in recent years. The subject of intemperate hype and casual put-down even before it was “finally” released, it seems to be an attempt at a “statement” product, but does it make it?
Upon taking delivery of the HD-800, the box (nice, but not really sumptuous) was unpacked and the phones inspected. I found them to be reasonably well built and attractive, with a good quality cable and ¼ inch phone plug termination. They struck me as quite nice but not over-the-top. Those who expect Sony Qualia-like overbuild may be disappointed here (though they probably will not be disappointed by their considerably lower price). One slight complaint. Sennheiser could have provided a carrying bag. I know they are not really intended for portable use, but having something other than the gargantuan box to carry them around in would have been nice.
I find them comfortable to wear, about as good as anything I have owned. Glasses seem to be accommodated OK and isolation is also fine.
So down to some listening (after the phones were run-in for about 50 hours). The associated equipment for home listening was a Pioneer PD-D9 Elite SACD/CD player, Yamaha GT-2000 turntable with Koetsu black cartridge, a CAT SL-1 preamp and a Schiit Asgard Amp. Also employed was a homebrew “Gain clone” amp similar to the 47 labs units.
The first thing one usually notices in a headphone is the general balance. The HD-800 is balanced with a reasonably deep but somewhat lean bass and an extended treble. The sound field is wider than that of typical headphones and projects a front-of-head presentation rather than the typical “right between the ears” effect. While this is miles from what a competent loudspeaker system achieves spatially, it’s not bad for a pair of cans. The bass is noteworthy in its lack of excess and reasonable bass reach (the lowest organ pedals do not come through with the strength or impact of a good, truly full range speaker or a good set of subwoofers, in common with just about every other headphone). The mid-bass here is well balanced with no feeling of bloat.
The treble is commendable for its purity, but it could be a bit more even. Some may find it balanced a bit hot overall. This is an area where controversy reigns. In the concert hall, there is a range of possible balances that correspond to different seating areas in the hall. A closer seat will have a higher percentage of direct sound and more treble, a more distant seat has a higher percentage of reflected sound and lower treble content. Any of these perspectives are fair game as to being considered natural, as they naturally occur in the hall. Personal preference prevails here just as it would if you were picking a seat for a concert, which is why the whole issue of treble balance is so problematical and controversial, both in phones and in loudspeakers. Personally, I am OK with the HD-800 treble, though it’s not quite my ideal.
About the midrange, less arguement should arise. This is the phones glory and why you pay the price of admission. Very low distortion and subjective intermodulation results in a quite low residual noise floor, even when things get busy. You hear more of the attack and delay of notes because of this and low level cues that are sometimes lost in the shuffle are there to be heard. But the detail is not flung at you, it’s just there to hear as part of the presentation or to be focused upon as you so chose.
So what about some musical examples? The Reference Recordings CD of Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21 (Schwartz/Istomin) is a bit of a test. It emphasizes clarity, a large sound field and a front of hall perspective and this is how the HD-800 presented it. The piano is, in a way, a percussion instrument, the HD-800 playback doesn’t round the treble off and it results in a brighter, more percussive sound here.
Mercury Living Presence recordings strived for good dynamic range and did not employ compression, using the technology of the day. This means that if the volume is adjusted to reasonably loud levels, tape hiss can be heard. The “Malaguena” cut off of “Hi Fi a la Espanola” (Fennell/Eastman-Rochester) is a good example. Some of the guitar solo parts are very quiet, close to the tape hiss floor. Again, the treble stops short of emphasizing the hiss unduly. Another aspect of the Merc’s is the upper treble peaks characteristic of the Telefunken U-47 microphones employed. The HD-800 does nothing to scotch this.
In Mercury’s “Composer and his Orchestra” (Hanson/ Eastman-Rochester), Howard Hanson’s commentary was recorded in the hall along with the orchestra and the hall reverberation on his voice comes through well, a testimony to the HD-800’s not masking low level details.
The RCA “Reiner Sound” (Reiner/Chicago) reading of “Isle of the Dead” captures the dark foreboding sound Rachmaninoff’s score calls for. Here the typically sweeter RCA strings are in full evidence.
Basically, the HD-800 does a reasonable job of standing back and letting the musicians/recording engineer call the shots. Fortunately, this does not come at cost to musicality, in most cases. An even-handed reproducer will tend to bring the best out of good recordings and not bring the worst out of mediocre recordings, but bad recordings are just bad recordings. To me, it makes no sense to cripple a systems performance to make bad recordings a little less irritating.
The HD-800 strikes me as having a certain “rightness”. Even though intellectually I know there are problems and flaws, they are good enough to lessen the idea of listening to recordings rather than music more than most, in my experience.
So at the end of the day, these are quite excellent phones. Are they the best phone for everyone? I think that is a product that will never be made. If you like a phone that shaves off the sometimes nasty edges music has and tames poor recordings or acts as impromptu “deesser”, look elsewhere. If you like a big bass to underline the beat of the music, these may not satisfy (though they should respond to reasonable EQ as the drivers seem to have plenty of dynamic range available). Under these conditions, their overall performance might not be enough to overcome your preferences.
And of course, there is the question of price. There are many excellent phones available in the $300 to $700 range that can serve as the centerpiece of a quite nice system. But none that I have heard can match the overall sound quality and beauty of the HD-800. To better them requires an equivalent or even higher financial commitment.
So, overall, the HD-800 lives up to much of the advance hype and represents one of the better options currently available on today’s market.