Sennheiser HD800 Review: The Pinnacle of Headphone Sound Reproduction
When Sennheiser first unveiled the HD800 Headphones as they’re new flagship headphones in April 2009, it knocked the entire audiophile world on its head for many reasons. For one, headphones have always had a basic physics problem when it comes to transducers: a larger surface area = better sound, but also more distortion due to oscillation at high frequencies. Sennheiser essentially blew everyone’s mind when they showed off their 56mm transducer (the largest of its kind) in a ring shape. The oscillations didn’t go away, but were controlled, which left the headphones to do what headphones do best: create the best and clearest reproduction of sound possible.
HD800’s Best Feature? The Soundstage Effect
When you get into the high end headphones and what they can do, you start to ask yourself: what is the primary purpose of headphones, or any type of audio equipment? My answer is that they goal is create the greatest reproduction of the original recording possible. In other words: be so good that you don’t even know they are there.
That’s where soundstage comes in:
Soundstage refers to being able to sense the spatial surroundings of a recording. Do you feel that the band, or orchestra is playing 50 feet away from you? Or do you feel that you are the on stage with them? That sense of soundstage is one of those ‘you have to hear it to really experience it’ sensations. And it’s what these headphones do best.
Sennheiser creates soundstage by having the transducers at a 60 degree angle to your ear canal – This means that the sound waves hit your eardrum split seconds apart, instead of all at once. The result is that you feel a sense of space when you listen to a recording. Not only that, but there is incredible detail that you pick up when you listen to these headphones. If places your right in the orchestra.
The Comfort Factor:
I’ve worn my fair share of headphones, and these ones are the most comfortable I’ve ever worn. And they’re like that for three reasons:
- Japanese Alcantra Earcups: The fabric on these earcups is a suede-like material that you’ll find used for the interior of many high end automobiles and racecars. It definitely feels like an airy version of suede, as it doesn’t have the heft of most leather materials. Also the fabric breathes, which is great for long listening sessions when you don’t want to have to air out your ears.
- Open-Backed Design – In my experience any set of headphones that give a real sense of ‘being there’ are ope-backed, meaning that air and sound can come in an out of the headphones. The sound has less of a ‘laboratory feel’ this way. It’s not great for noise isolation, as people will be able to hear whatever music or movies that you’re listening to.
- Skilled Weight Distribution: – The headphones come in at a pretty heavy sounding 11.5 oz (or 330 grams for the metric folk), but they manage to distribute the weight evenly so that you don’t really notice the weight at all. They are large headphones, and cover even the largest of ears. But they feel light and after a two hour film you’re head won’t be sore at all.
The HD800 Cable
The detachable cable is a great piece of engineering, although this might be the one piece of equipment that you’ll want to switch out for an aftermarket upgrade (click here for our recommendations). It’s a 10 ft. long Y-shaped fabric covered cord that features silver-plated, oxygen-free copper wiring. And to top off the use of Olympic medals, the jacks are gold plated. All this is to ensure that there’s as little transfer resistance as well as shielding from oscillations caused by external noises. It’s a flexible and durable cable that will survive more than a few chair wheels running over it.
Who is the HD800 For?
Quite simply: it’s for those who want the best. The faithful reproduction of great recordings will make you fall in love with most of your music collection all over again. It’s also ideal for movies. Watching “The Dark Knight” and “No Country for Old Men”, I was astounding by the details I could hear. In No Country for Old Men, for example, there was this very quiet church bell sound that went off in the background right before a murder was about to happen. It made me appreciate the sound engineers on that film: putting in details that only a select few would ever be able to pick up.
If you’re a fan of classical music, live jazz, or movies, you’re in for a treat in particular. The HD800 excels not in the being the ‘bassiest’ headphone out there, but in achieving a sonic balance that faithfully recreates what the original recordings intended.
Who is it NOT for?
This is not your morning commute headphones. The HD800’s nominal impedance is 300 Ohms, which means that it needs a headphone amp to really drive it. It will sound quiet and distant if you hook it up to your smartphone or tablet. In fact, it doesn’t even come with a 3.5mm adapter for your portable devices.
A friend recently and fellow audiophile remarked to me that the HD800 is like living with a genius: it’s brilliant, but it will make you aware of all your faults. This means that the difference between a lossless FLAC file and an MP3 will become obvious. Also, it will sometimes expose just how badly produced some CD’s are…which is no fault of ours, but with the original source recording.
Buying Options for the HD800:
Headroom is offering a deal right now where you can purchase the ‘balanced’ version of the HD800 (the second Headroom option below), which features XLR Cord modifications to go with their balanced headroom amp. I haven’t heard Headroom’s balanced set-up, but it sounds like they have a balanced set up that works well with each other. They also have the regular HD800, as does Amazon.com. Headroom offers a 30 day money back guarantee if you don’t like it or if there’s a problem. After that Sennheiser offers a 2 year warranty on all of their products.
Also: Headroom is offering free shipping on all Sennheiser products until the end of the year.