Sennheiser’s top open-backed dynamic driver headphone the HD 800 S updates its legendary predecessor the HD 800 with subtle tweaks, retaining most of the original technology including the large “ring radiator” drivers, but switching to a matte black colorway, adding a helmholtz resonator (a.k.a. “absorber”) to damp a resonance around 6 KHz and increasing the bass warmth for an overall more consumer-friendly tuning. The new package also adds an XLR-terminated balanced cable.
I’m grateful the Headphone Community’s Preview Program for lending me an HD800S. As a headphone hobbyist, I’ve long wanted to hear this legendary headphone or its predecessor the HD800, and now I have! I got a good week of time of casual and critical listening with it, followed by a week long vacation in which I spent way more time skiing than listening to music. I’m now back from vacation with fresh ears, and although I had planned to spend another good week or so listening to the HD800S, I feel that I’ve got enough of a handle on the HD800S’ sound to give my impressions, and frankly I’d like to get back to just enjoying music instead of listening critically.
My HD800S review unit arrived shipped directly from Sennheiser packed in a flimsy cardboard box with little padding. Consequently, the factory sleeve was torn and the fancy storage box bashed to the point where it no longer closes properly. Constructed of pretty thin cardboard and weak metal hinges, this storage box seems less premium than the one that comes with the Focal Elex or even the Hifiman HE-400i. On the plus side, the inside is lined with a nice silky cloth that looks very premium.
The HD800S itself combines black plastic, various metals and microfiber into a sleek looking and mostly solid feeling pair of headphones, though one that doesn’t exude the same feeling of luxury as Focal’s offerings, even their cheaper ones like the Elex. The one major demerit I’d give relates to the metal ringing the driver cups–it’s quite thin and actually flexes when lightly touched. That may or may not be a long-term problem, but it feels cheap. The cables on the other hand are nicer than what I’ve seen from Focal, wrapped in a nice cloth with beefy connectors, they’re reasonably pliable. They’re heavy, but not disproportionately so given their great length.
Overall it’s a solid package, though not one that screams “these are $1500 headphones!”.
Light with almost no clamp, it disappears in use except when the heavy cable almost pulls it off my head and makes me fear having to explain what happened to this expensive pair of headphones! These are definitely not headphones for walking around.
A Caveat about Amplification
The best amp with which I tested the HD800S is the JDS Labs Atom, which has plenty of power on tap and measures very well. The HD800S is thought by many to be amp picky and might perform better with a more expensive amplifier, but the Atom is the best I have on hand. I will say that compared with the more powerful Garage1217 Ember II tube amp, the Atom sounded audibly cleaner and more resolving–one might say that the HD800S “reveals” the differences between these amps.
A Note about Imaging and Soundstage
I process all my music with 112dB Redline Monitor which dramatically improves imaging on all of my headphones, to the point where their differences become really minor. This leaves me able to compare only the relative size and openness of the soundstage. On this score, I can say that the HD800S does very well, seeming noticeably more spacious and open than my HD58X and pretty similar to the LCD2C, without that overly wide feeling that I used to get from my old HE400i.
My listening impressions are mostly in comparison to my current main headphone, my (Un)LCD2C. Here’s how the tuning compares (1/12 octave smoothing, MiniDSP HPN calibration, pretty zoomed in scale)
The HD800S sounds like two different headphones depending on how I set the volume. If I volume match to my preferred listening volume on the (Un)LCD2C of about 81 db(Z) at 300Hz, the HD800S sounds competent but unengaging in a delicately detailed sort of way, and never fatiguing. On Joni Mitchell’s Little Green, timbre sounds natural and I can hear plenty of detail and articulation in Joni’s voice and guitar. However, she sounds a tad distant and surprisingly veiled, and the guitar strumming lacks the attack and crispness that I hear with the (Un)LCD2C. The HD800S just sounds soft in comparison. On something like Tash Sultana’s Big Smoke, I also notice that the bass lacks impact and the clapping sounds overly bright and hollow, though mercifully the HD800S avoids the sibilance that I sometimes hear on this track.
Commonly regarded as a bit of a Jazz and classical music specialist, I found the HD800S surprisingly underwhelming with the sort of stuff to which I listen in these genres. Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay confirms my impression of the HD800S as overly laid back, with the loud trumpet intro not particularly grabbing my attention and the bass and kick drum lacking body and punch. Red Clay does however reveal one of this headphone’s strongest suits–it renders cymbals more realistically than anything else I’ve ever heard.
Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor comes closer to grabbing my attention, with great timbre and detail, especially noticeable in the backing orchestra during quieter passages, but the lack of attack in the Violin takes a little something away from the experience.
A track that comes close to the HD800S’ sweet spot is Fourplay’s Bali Run, a pretty relaxed smooth Jazz number with a delicately audiophile production in the vein of Steely Dan’s work. The HD800S nicely reveals the layers of detail in this production, and the relative lack of excitement isn’t a problem as this track isn’t meant to excite.
If I instead set my preferred listening volume on the HD800S and then volume match the (Un)LCD2C against it, I end up with a significantly higher level, around 86 db(Z). On the (Un)LCD2C this sounds plainly too loud, but on the HD800S it adds some of the excitement that I initially missed. Bass now has some punch, guitars have some bite, horns have some attack and vocals sound less veiled. The already very good perceived treble detail jumps to a new level and demonstrates to me why the HD800S is regarded as extremely “resolving”. The price for this is that the already too bright tonality becomes even more so, to the point where it actually fatigues me after some time.
So far, the comparison has been unfair in that I’ve compared a stock HD800S against an LCD2C with significant effort invested into EQ. In an attempt at fairness, I played at EQ’ing the HD800S, including both some manual efforts at flattening out the frequency response by combination of MiniDSP E.A.R.S. measurements and just listening, as well as using oratory1990’s EQ.
oratory1990’s EQ eliminates my need to listen loudly and it mostly corrects everything I don’t like about the stock HD800S, though it hurts timbre and leaves cymbals sounding too laid back. His EQ targets the Harman response, which I’ve found to lack warmth in the low mids and sparkle in the treble, so I’m not surprised by the result. With more time, I’m confident that I could eq the HD800S even further to my personal liking. That said, even my limited EQ’ing reveals what I consider to be the HD800S’ fundamental character.
The HD800S’ treble is cleaner and more resolving than the (Un)LCD2C. The sounds on Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor seem to come out of an even blacker background and reveal greater detail in the backing orchestra during even the quietest passages. This holds true whether I stick with the elevated stock treble response or the Harman EQ’d version. It’s more subtle without the elevated treble, but still noticeable.
The HD800S’ bass can be EQ’d to a fuller level than stock, but I don’t believe that it’s able to match the impact or articulation of the (Un)LCD2C no matter how I EQ it, something that I can hear for example in the bass guitar and kick drum on Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay.
Will I Buy One?
No, I won’t buy an HD800S. While it seems capable of better treble performance than the (Un)LCD2C, on my current source chain the improvement isn’t dramatic and doesn’t particularly add to my enjoyment. Furthermore, the gains in the treble are offset by what I consider a somewhat weaker performance in the bass, so it’s not an unqualified improvement.
On the other hand, the older HD800 has been measured (and heard) to have lower bass distortion than the HD800S and supposedly achieves similar treble performance after modding with the SDR resonator mod. The HD800 can also be found used for not much more than I paid for my LCD2C, though prices seem to be going up. In hindsight, I should likely have bought a used HD800 rather than a new LCD2C. Now that I’ve invested in tweaking the LCD2C to my liking however, it’s not clear to me that it’s worth the effort of finding, modding and eq’ing an HD800 to replace it, not to mention investing in upgrading my source chain in case that’s needed to take full advantage of it.
A Final Note on Diminishing Returns
After comparing these heavyweights of the headphone game, the LCD2C and HD800S, I went back to the HD58X and tried some tweaked EQ settings based on oratory1990’s eq, but without the bass dip and sub-bass bump. Listening to Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor with the HD58X reminds me of how little separates high quality headphones in terms of both the technicalities and the overall enjoyment that they can bring. Stock tuning seems to be by far the biggest difference, but this can be adjusted with EQ.
Alright, that was fun, now back to listening to music instead of equipment!
Very nice, detailed review as always @pwjazz. As ever you’ve put all your points across really clearly and even a nitwit like me can understand. I like all your references to how you hear the differences with the pieces of music that you’ve used. Thanks it was a great read.
It’s been awhile since I’ve read such a thorough, concise, and detailed review. Although you referred to it as impressions, it far exceeded that. Your attention to detail and honest assessment was awesome. I was amazed at your well rounded taste and selection of music.
Your contribution to our community are a delight. I look forward to more of your contributions.
Just added a set of these cans to my headphone armory…
Just finished doing a video review of these. They were provided courtesy of the community preview program. I’ll likely do a more complete write-up once I find the time to do so but for the moment, here are my thoughts:
Detail retrieval - 9/10
Speed - 9/10 (surprisingly)
Stage - 11/10
Imaging - 10/10
Tonality - 8.5/10
In short, it’s technically amazing, at the risk of sounding a bit boring. The main drawback is that the bass is noticeably less detailed than on similarly priced flagships - especially some of the Hifiman planars that have a similar tonality like the Arya. I do enjoy the clarity of the treble though, and this is still one of the best headphones for overall clarity. I just find that my preference for musicality lies with the ZMF Verite, and in 2019 there are similar if not better alternatives available that may be better overall, unless you’re specifically looking to scratch that imaging and instrument separation itch.