Drop and Sennheiser have had a successful partnership over the years that really established the online store and unique collaborator team with the audio world. The incredibly successful Sennhesier HD6XX, HD58X and the various PC3XX series gaming headsets have all had both praise from critics and users alike and have sold quite well throughout the years.
It was somewhat of a surprise, though one that people have been asking about for a long time, when Drop and Sennheiser announced the HD8XX, a reimagination of the beloved HD800-series headphones. The HD8XX version is priced at $1100, a significant price drop from the $1699 MSRP HD800S. In this review, I’ll be taking a look at the new HD8XX alongside the 2016-released HD800S for the first time on both fronts.
I’ll be going over some of the similarities and differences and independent impressions of both in this dual-review and comparison. Before I move forward though, I’d like to thank Michael from Drop for allowing me some time with the HD8XX as part of a review tour, and also to Taron from Headphones.com for a very long extended stay of the Sennheiser HD800S, for which I’ve had in my home for 4 months now.
Both the standard HD800S and the Drop HD8XX packages are quite similar. They come in a large box containing another storage box with the headphones inside. The differences, of course, are in the branding. The Drop version has Drop logo and branding all over it, while the Sennhesier HD800S is standard Sennheiser packaging.
The inner storage box is the same on both items, and this box folds open at the top. It’s a heavy box and could be good for storage if that is your thing. I prefer to keep my headphones out on headphone stands myself, and recommend the SilverStone headphone stands, which suspend the headphones in the air and are quite heavy duty.
The included 1/4 inch cables are the same between both units. This cable is fairly long at 3 meters, and the cords are sheathed in a cloth wrapping. It’s a tad heavy, but very useable, and the extra long length works well for my system, where my headphone amp and DACs are away on a shelf away from my seating position(s).
The HD800S package does also include a 4.4mm balanced cable option which is nice for those who use a balanced amplifier setup and need that. 4.4mm is not the most popular connector for desktop amps, but it is slowly being adopted to many desktop setups and is becoming standard on portable gear.
Packaging aside, the headphones look basically identical. The main difference in appearances are:
The top of the headband says Sennheiser HD800S vs Drop x Sennheiser HD8XX
The ring surrounding the outer-grill is black on the HD800s and a dark blue on the HD8XX
The HD800S has “High Definition Driver 300 ohm” along the ring, and the HD8XX does not.
Things to quickly come to mind here:
Why didn’t Drop and Sennheiser decide to paint the entire headphone the midnight blue color? The blue ring is very, very subtle, and in most warm room lighting conditions, I couldn’t even tell the difference between it and the black ring.
Secondly, does this mean the HD800S uses a Hi-Def driver and the HD8XX does not? Jokes aside, let’s talk about my thoughts on the sound of each headphone. And… I do like the minimalistic look of the no-text on the ring!
The HD800S is one of the most popular headphones amongst the headphone audiophile world and it’s legacy is traced back to the early 90s as an evolution from the HD580/600/650 series to the HD800 and the small updates for the 800S model, which is probably my favorite of any of these headphones. It differs a bit from the HD6X0 series with a much larger soundstage with improved imaging, resolution, and bigger sense of space. Some may knock its timbre not being as accurate and warm and soothing as the HD6X0 series, but I do like it a bit.
The HD800S lacks a little bit of sub-bass extension, but has a generally smooth bass response, controlled mid-range, and a slightly bright treble region which may bother some, especially on instruments like guitars, brass and female vocals being a bit more forward and stretched. I tend to find it very well aligned with my preferences, but still on the slightly bright side.
From a wholistic viewpoint, the biggest knocks on the HD800S are that it does lack bass quantity, and the slightly bright 6KHz region. That said, the HD800S makes up for it with a grand, larger than life, soundstage. It’s big for a set of headphones, and is probably closer to how an open set of speakers would sound in a large room than most other headphones. You get a good sense of stereo imaging, and openness that is nice. Very few headphones really do this well, and this is one of them.
The HD8XX is a little bit different in its approach to tuning. The Drop version has a warmer tuning, with an added mid-bass rise. There is also a dip in the upper-mids which is pretty audible and a similar treble response overall. In general, it’s hard to really put a proper generic descriptor on the HD8XX, but I’d probably call it something of a V-shaped tuning, but lacking the big bass oomph.
On its own merit, the HD8XX has its quirks, and I find most of my dislikes around the HD8XX is the compressed sounding mid-range with certain vocals sounding a bit muffled, set further back in the scene, and an overall smaller soundstage.
The technical merits of the HD8XX are still mostly there though, and I do think it still has an overall solid imaging, and resolution with other factors accounted for. My biggest gripes are mostly due to the tuning, which understandably, is what was altered in this unit.
One or the Other
For the most part, I spent nearly the entire time listening to both of these headphones on my current main system setup:
Roon Core > HQ Player > Holo Spring 3 KTE > Bakoon AMP-13R
I also spent a small amount of time using both on a smaller headphone system:
PC > Topping D50S > Topping A50S
I listen to quite a bit of jazz and progressive bluegrass music lately, and those genres actually do quite well on the HD800S. The HD800S shows off its imaging and soundstage chops, while detailing out individual piano notes and fiddle plucks quite well. The HD8XX also does these areas well too, when vocals aren’t part of the equation.
But, when I throw on something like Aoife O’Donovan or The Wailin’ Jennys, both bluegrass/folk artists, I find the HD800S triumphs in its presentation of a cleaner, clearer, and more emotive female vocal presentation. In contrast, the HD8XX is a little more held-back and also sounding a little more compressed and lacking clarity.
In music with big open soundstages like symphonic music or even one of the grand Radiohead tracks from OK Computer or KID A, I find the HD8XX robs all the things that make the HD800S an audiophile beloved specialty and makes it quite an ordinary headphone. With the HD8XX on, I felt that while the imaging and instrument separation was still good-ish, the lack of dynamics, the grand atmosphere, and the big feeling of height and width were severely collapsed into a smaller space. It’s like going from a concert hall to a small jazz club. Not horrible, but not what I was looking for here.
I do understand not everyone listens to these genres, and I do listen to others as well. I threw on various rock and soul tracks and one by one, I felt the HD800S had a little more openness, and a little more dynamic range to it. I felt more claustrophobic with the HD8XX, but I will admit, it’s still bigger sounding than, say, the HD600 series from Sennheiser.
The HD8XX does beat the HD800 in its bass presentation in some ways though. While I do prefer the more linear-ish HD800 bass and lower mids response for most things, in certain music that requires a little more mid-bass impact or just a warmer change, I did like how it sounded on the HD8XX with its overall more laid-back, albeit slightly more disjointed, presentation.
The HD8XX seemed like a slam dunk collaboration when it was announced. Drop’s success with the Sennheiser brand is quite well known and established. I had some high hopes for this one. I am left a little disappointed however. While the HD8XX has a smaller price-tag than its $500 more HD800S sibling, I feel like it comes with some tuning wonkiness that does not really suit my style.
In my ideal HD8XX scenario, they would have just increased the bass response in the sub-bass region, and smoothed out the upper mid-range and lower treble region and it would be/could be a killer headphone: a dynamic-driver headphone with great comfort with TOTL (or near TOTL) tuning and technical performance at a price well below the rest of the establishment.
But, alas, it falls a bit short here. The tuning isn’t my cup of tea, and I feel like its side-effects cause other psychoacoustic changes to the overall impression of its technical ability: smaller soundstage, lowered perceived dynamics, compressed sounding vocals and mids… all things that made the HD800S what its known for.
And that’s the biggest knocks on the HD8XX. It looks and feels like an HD800S, but it lacks its magic.