Sennheiser HD 800 S
Written by Chrono
The HD 800 S was introduced in 2016, and it’s an open-back, dynamic-driver headphone that a retail price of $1,699 serves as a refresh on Sennheiser’s legendary flagship, the HD 800. Like the original, the HD 800 S sports Sennheiser’s 300 ohm, 56mm, ring-radiator driver, but it adds an helmholtz resonator-like absorber that seeks to ease resonances and peaks in the treble with a method similar to that of the popular “SDR” HD 800 mod. So, revisiting it in 2020, how does the HD 800 S stack up to its more modern competitors? Can it still assert itself as one of the world’s best headphones like the original did just over a decade ago?
Sources and Music Used in Listening Tests
The Amplifier/DACs used in this review were the SPL Phonitor XE (with built-in DAC), Grace Design SDAC + Topping A90, and the JDS Labs Element II connected via USB to my desktop computer. For the listening tests I used music from a wide variety of genres including Rock, Jazz, Classical, Acoustic, Hip-Hop, and latin. I played tracks from my own FLAC library as well as from Qobuz streaming service played via Roon (exclusive mode).
Packaging and Accessories
The HD 800 S comes packaged in the nice, large, traditional, wood-like case with which Sennheiser has boxed most of its classic headphones. Inside, you are greeted by the HD 800 S along with some manuals and warranty information. Also included are two 3m, fabric-sleeved cables; and although they both feature dual-sided ODU connectors for the headphone side, one of the cables has a ¼” termination, whilst the other terminates in 4.4mm balanced. Lastly, with the HD 800 S you will receive a microfiber cleaning cloth, and a USB flash drive that contains a digital certificate of authenticity as well as the serial number-specific, diffuse-field compensated frequency response measurement for the headphone.
Build Quality and Comfort
Aside from the new, matte-black finish, the HD 800 S’s design is virtually identical to that of the HD 800. Like the original, the HD 800 S is still composed primarily out of plastic, but it feels very structurally sound and well-refined, with no loose or creaking parts, and very little to no chassis flex. Now, whilst I do think that the HD 800 S’s design is good and does feel very premium, there are two elements in its build that I do think warrant some caution; the first of which is the metal mesh on the ear cups.
To achieve its intended acoustic performance the HD 800 S’s ear cups are almost completely uncovered, and to maintain this unobstructed, open sound design, Sennheiser used a very fine, metal mesh that surrounds the rear side of the driver. This metal mesh compromises a significant portion of the ear cups, and whilst it does hold its shape well, it is prone to cosmetic damage. If you want to keep your HD 800 S in prime condition for as long as possible, I highly encourage that you handle these with care and actively avoid touching that part of the headphone, as your fingers alone can very easily make dents and scratches in the mesh.
Then there are the ODU connectors on the HD 800 S itself. The socket assembly on the HD 800 S is only held in by friction and by two very thin wires. The poor attachment of the connectors onto the rest of the chassis, along with how tightly the ODU connectors fit in the jack, make it very easy to tear out the entire socket assembly if you are not careful with how you detach the connector. So, whilst the metal mesh really only causes concern for possible cosmetic flaws, the connectors can actually break the headphone and render it unusable. If there are future iterations of this headphone, I really hope that Sennheiser introduces an updated, reinforced design for the jacks to prevent users from ripping them out when swapping cables or storing their headphones.
For comfort, the HD 800 S is, without a doubt, the most comfortable headphone I have personally ever worn. Thanks to its mostly-plastic construction the HD 800 S is extremely light at only 330g, which in combination with the low clamp force makes them very easy to wear in day-long listening sessions. Also aiding in making these ultra-comfortable is the ear cups, which have a rather unique ‘D’ shape to them and have a very large inner diameter that allows for plenty of room for your ears to fit in. The pads may be a little thin, but they have just enough foam to comfortably rest on your head, and they’re covered with a very soft and easy on the skin microfiber material. The only thing I will note for comfort is that the cups are not particularly deep, so if your ears stick out a little bit, they may come in contact with the driver.
When it was first introduced in 2009, the HD 800 was met with great acclaim, as it delivered truly world-class performance that allowed it to easily stake its claim as one of the best headphones one could buy. Since then, the HD 800, and subsequently HD 800 S, have been considered to be a standard in the high-end audio market. So, how did a headphone with this great a legacy perform in my listening experience?
When I first got to listen to the HD 800 S I remember throwing on “You Don’t Love Me,” which is a live recording from The Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East album, and as soon as the music started playing, I was floored. The HD 800 S presented vocals and instruments with a lucid, almost uncanny level of clarity within an astonishingly open stage that effortlessly created a true to life listening soundscape. Admittedly, I think that the HD 800 S’s tuning is on the more “analytical” side as it was a little bass-light, its mids were pretty uncharacteristic, and its treble had a bit of a bite to it. Still, I was simply struck by how transparent they sounded to me and the absolute fidelity with which they reproduced anything I played on them.
The bass region is where the HD 800 S, unfortunately, falls flat and is vastly outperformed by other headphones in the sub two thousand dollar price range. Whilst the bass sees a slight increase in presence when compared to the original, it is still a very lean-sounding bass response. For extension, the HD 800 S does not particularly strike me as offering the greatest performance, as to me it sounds as though it had some roll-off starting at around 50hz; which means that with the HD 800 S you won’t be getting the really deep sub bass rumble and depth that you’ll find on a lot of its planar transducer competitors, or even some dynamic driver ones. Additionally, the HD 800 S’s bass doesn’t feel quite as taught, or fast and controlled like on headphones such as the Focal Clear or LCD-X. Altogether, whilst it is fairly-clean sounding and inoffensive, if bass quality and quantity is a priority, I think that this region of the HD800 S might feel incomplete for some listeners.
The HD 800 S has what is, for my tastes and preferences, one of the most accurate midrange presentations I have heard on a headphone. The HD 800 S’s lower mids between 250hz-1000hz have a remarkably precise tuning with an organic voicing that gives vocals and instruments an adequate tonal density. Equally as well represented is the upper midrange between 2K-5K, which has just the right amount of energy to give brass instruments their bite, allow electric guitars to buzz, and just generally lend midtones a very realistic presence that to me never came through as forward or shouty.
Usually, I am very picky about headphones’ midrange, but there really isn’t much else for me to say about the HD 800 S’s mids. They just have a good tonality that, to me, feels truly faithful to the material in the recordings I listen to.
As I mentioned earlier, the HD 800 S has now introduced the absorber on its driver to tame the 6K and 10K treble peaks that could put off some listeners on the original HD 800; and whilst they did not completely eliminate those peaks, I do think that by and large Sennheiser did a fantastic job at targeting those particularly problematic regions. I definitely didn’t find the HD 800 S to be anywhere near as harsh in the highs as the HD 800, nor would I describe it as being a sharp-sounding headphone, but it still sounded to me as though there were two spots in the treble range that had a little more energy than some listeners would be comfortable with.
The first and more significant of these two rises was what to me sounded like a 4dB-5dB peak at 5.5K, which introduced a fair bit of sibilance in the lower treble and could make cymbals in particular come through as splashy. Then there was another elevation at 10K, but thankfully compared to the peak on the HD 800, I found the one on the HD 800 S to be very subtle; at worst it would only add a slightly glassy edge to vocals and emphasize the strike of percussive instruments.
Altogether, despite these characteristics possibly running the risk of becoming distracting or even a little fatiguing in long listening sessions for some listeners, they really weren’t anywhere near as aggressive as those of the HD 800, and I didn’t personally feel as though they detracted from my overall listening experience. The HD 800 S’s highs were still very enjoyable; they had a nice glisten in the upper treble with plenty of sparkle, and well-textured harmonics.
When it comes to resolution and detail retrieval the HD 800 S is, for me, the best performer I’ve heard in this category. Whilst its bass response doesn’t sound quite as nimble as on other headphones, it’s really the mids and highs that shine on the HD 800 S. In the midrange and treble registers, the HD 800 S excels at surfacing all the intricate vocal and instrument tones, giving them a very stable structure that conveys a pristine image of the music. With the right tracks, HD 800 S’s sheer level of clarity makes the headphone feel almost completely out of the way and allows you to get lost as you look into the music.
Soundstage, Imaging, and Layering
The HD 800 and HD 800 S have, for a very long time, held the title of “Soundstage King,” and with very good reason. The HD 800 S is a remarkably open-sounding headphone with a soundstage that feels wide, naturally spacious, and highly-capable when creating a sense of distance. Its staging capabilities are further enhanced by its imaging, which might be the best I have heard thus far. When it comes to discerning the directionality and positioning of sound the HD 800 S is astoundingly precise, as it easily reveals the location of instruments and sound cues in music, games, and movies. Lastly for spatial qualities, there is the HD 800 S’s instrument separation which gives all the different instrument and vocal lines composing complex musical passages a distinct space of their own in the mix.
For dynamics, the HD 800 S is definitely not the strongest when it comes to delivering a physical impact, or recreating a sense of punch and slam. Whilst it does have a very good top-end attack that gives guitar strings a nice snap and drum strikes a satisfying bite, just don’t expect it to add some serious kick in the lows is what you’re after in your listening experience. Overall, I’d say that in this regard the HD 800 S’s presentation is a very laid-back and softone–not unlike the one that is offered by the Arya or Hd 600.
The HD 800 S, I think, sounds great from the get-go, and it’s a headphone that I could easily enjoy without EQ. Nonetheless, I personally do prefer using a little bit of EQ with it just to bring it a little closer to my personal preference. Unfortunately, you can’t push the driver too far in the bass region before it starts to sound like it might distort, but I found that I could comfortably add a +5dB bass shelf under 100hz to bring back some bass presence and a touch of warmth. Additionally, I use some peak adjustment filters to cool down the treble peaks a bit just so that they never really get in the way. If you would like to try out my EQ settings for the HD 800s, these were the filters I used:
Low Shelf at 100hz, +5dB Q of 0.7
Peak at 5500hz, -5dB Q of 4
Peak at 10000hz, -2dB Q of 2
After having the opportunity to listen to it myself, it becomes very easy to understand why for over a decade the HD 800 S has been considered by many listeners as the benchmark for high-end, flagship headphones.
The HD 800 S is, without a doubt, a spectacular headphone that makes for an almost-revelatory listening experience; and I truly believe it achieves a very good blend of top-tier acoustic performance, day-long-listening comfort, and a enjoyable, agreeable tonality now that the absorber has been added to the driver. It may still fall a bit flat in the bass department, particularly without EQ, but for those who are looking into getting a flagship headphone that feels true to source, the HD 800 S is a solid all-rounder to which I give very strong recommendation.