HD800S vs Arya: one of these things is not like the other

I recently picked up a Hifiman Arya, and as I have owned the HD800S for some time now I thought I would share my thoughts on how they compare.

(*Mods – if there is an existing thread where this belongs, please feel free to move it :slightly_smiling_face:)

First, I’m pretty new to the hifi game and I do not claim to be an expert of any sort – all of my observations here are my subjective experience & opinions based on about a week of using the Arya and several months with the HD800S. Your mileage may vary. I’m also not accustomed to writing reviews, so this isn’t really that – these are just my semi-organized thoughts, I hope you enjoy them. lol

My audio chain: Alienware laptop USB out > Schiit Bifrost 2 > Topping A90 / Valhalla 2 (w/ NOS Siemens). Both headphones are run balanced from the A90, with a ¼” adapter for the Valhalla.

I’ve had the HD800S for a few months and have fallen absolutely in love with it. I listen to a wide variety of music, though, and while the 800 is perfect for about half of what I listen to (jazz, orchestral, acoustic), it felt lacking for the other half – primarily electronic music where sub-bass is the foundation of the track. I spent a long time trying to figure out exactly what it was lacking – it doesn’t lack sub-bass exactly, the sub-bass is there in sufficient quantity, but somehow it still lacks the punch that techno requires (“untz untz untz” lol). So I watched & read about a gazillion reviews of every possible alternative and concluded that the Arya was the one for me. I’m a stickler for soundstage, imaging, & detail – a headphone being “average” in any one of those is a deal breaker for me. So I had to have all of those plus deep extended bass and sparkling treble, but I didn’t want a v-shape with recessed mids. And I wanted to find out what planar magnetics are all about, so the Arya fit the bill in every way.

I often see the HD800S and Arya compared, and of course Andrew famously called the Arya the “planar magnetic HD800S”. I can understand why, they have some very obvious things in common. Both are just slightly on the bright side of neutral, both are wide open, and both are excellent at soundstage, imaging, & detail. But in my opinion, that’s where their similarities end. I find them more different than they are the same.

The 800 is famously the king of soundstage – I don’t think any other headphone even claims to come close to its huge “bubble of sound”. But here’s the thing: the 800 creates a bubble of sound and then shapes the music to fill that bubble. Whether the recording is big and bombastic or small and intimate, the 800 presents it in a way that fills its bubble of sound. This can be very pleasing – it’s euphonic, it’s enveloping, and it’s unique, but it’s not accurate. The music often comes across “blown out” – inflated like a balloon to fill the bubble created by the 800. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out WHY bass, and specifically sub-bass, sounded wrong on the 800. EQ’ing it up really didn’t help – it wasn’t that there wasn’t enough bass, it was that the bass didn’t sound the way I expected bass to sound. And now I realize that’s because the bass is being blown out to fit the 800’s bubble of sound. When I listen to electronic music on a headphone, I expect the sub bass to be directly impactful – like a hydraulic press hitting right in the center of my skull (or at least at my ears). But the 800 often presents that bass like a near field speaker, again ‘blown out’ to fill the 800’s bubble of sound.

Arya, on the other hand, while impressively wide when called for, presents the sound in an entirely different way. This is the best analogy I could come up with: picture the music like a 3-dimensional field. The HD800S takes that 3d field, picks it up, and wraps it around you like a piece of foam. The music envelopes you entirely, but at no point does it touch you, it’s always wrapped around you outside of your head. The Arya places the 3d field on a horizontal plain and then puts your head at the central point inside the 3d plane with sounds happening all around you at different single points in that plane. The music is not wrapped around you like a blanket, you are inside the music itself. Neither presentation is necessarily better than the other, but they are strikingly different to my ears. When the recording calls for it, the Arya can place sounds well outside of their actual physical location (often behind me or above me, even), but when the recording is small and intimate, those small intimate sounds happen right dead center in a small & intimate way. The HD800S insists that the music fill its space; the Arya has plenty of space to work with, but doesn’t force the music to present in any particular way.

Don’t get me wrong – I still love the 800’s giant bubble of sound. Sometimes. But I think the Arya is more honest and more accurate, and definitively better at bass. At times when listening to live recordings I’ve found the Arya’s presentation to be so dead-on accurate that I swear it sounded like the musicians were in the room with me. The 800S, to me, always sounds like you are listening to speakers in a room. Really good speakers in a well-treated room, but still it presents to my ears like near-field speakers. The 800’s sound is more lush, more euphonic even, but less real.

A few specific examples:

  1. Underworld - Sola Sistem
    This is a song I’ve loved for years. It sounds better on the HD800S than I’ve ever heard it sound anywhere else, including the Arya. But this song sort of has a “bubble of sound” effect built in that is very synergistic with the 800.

Underworld - Sola Sistim - YouTube

  1. Manu Delago - Circadian (Live).
    This album sounds like absolute heaven on the Arya; seriously a transcendent experience. It sounds like you’re in the center of the stage and there are musicians all around you. This is probably what I would listen to if I had an hour with the HE1 or a Susvara. It sounds good on the 800S too, of course, but it loses the realistic (binaural, even?) quality in being blown out to fill the 800’s space.

(*Seriously, do yourself a favor and put on your best set of headphones and listen to this. You will thank me later.)

https://open.qobuz.com/album/mluhc5fwg4e3a

  1. Edone - Cramp
    Not only is the sub-bass kick the foundation of this track as it is in most techno/house/trance/etc, but the hook – the “cramp” sound - is supposed to hit you right between the eyes (you know, like a cramp would lol). It hits dead center on the Arya with a specificity & intensity the 800 can’t match

Jazz I’ve found can often go either way. Sometimes it sounds best on the 800, sometimes on the Arya. Sort of depends on my mood. Do I want my jazz to sound big and lush and luxurious, or do I want it to sound like the musicians are in my living room? Kinda depends on the day. :man_shrugging:

For classical/orchestral, I think I favor the HD800S for its sheer size, but then again the realism and specificity of the Arya can sometimes make it sound like you’re actually in the concert hall. Again, this can go either way, depends on the day.

The Arya is a bit brighter than the HD800S, though it’s also less peaky. Both take well to tubes, which surprised me (Valhalla 2 has very low impedance, so I guess it works better with planars than most OTL tube amps?). The tube effect is more apparent on the Arya.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough. Do I love the Arya? Yes, I think I do. Do I still love the HD800S? Yes, I think I still do. Do I think they are redundant in a collection? No, absolutely not. Will I be keeping both? Undecided. I think so, but I’m going to live with both for a few weeks and see if I consistently favor one over the other.

I hope these initial thoughts are helpful to anyone who might be considering adding one of these to a collection that already contains the other and is interested in hearing an alternate perspective.

And as I said at the beginning: your mileage may vary. :wink:

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