Sennheiser HD 800
Sennheiser HD 800 (300 Ohms, 102 dB at 1 Vrms, ¼" plug, 11.6 oz./330g, 3.4 N contact pressure, about $1,500). enlarge. I got my HD 800s at this link to them at B&H Photo Video, the world's largest dealer of professional recording studio, audio, video and photographic equipment.
Introduced in 2009, the Sennheiser HD 800 are a great pair of headphones. They don't touch your ears, instead floating over and around them. They do not isolate against external sound.
The Sennheiser HD 800 are a little too bright for my taste, and therefore excellent for listening to flatter recordings, like those typically of Telarc. For brighter recordings, like those typically of Deutsche Grammophon, these Sennheisers are less likely to be a good fit.
I bought these after reading a zillion reviews by people who either had just paid a lot of money for them, or who were magazine writers who are ultimately paid by their advertisers. I was hoping that these headphones would miraculously make all my music sound better than it ever had, but no. These are great headphones, but I prefer my Beyer DT 990 (600 Ohm). If you prefer a more forward, brighter, crisper, unmuffled, detailed rendition that emphasizes rosin flying off the bow, fingers working the frets or letting you hear the action of the piano, you'll love these Sennheiser HD 800. I prefer what I consider a more natural, less-forward rendition, so I prefer my Beyers.
Everyone's taste in music varies. Everyone's taste in loudspeakers varies.
With headphones, the sound changes if you move them a fraction of an inch on your head. Since we all have differently-shaped heads and differently-sized ears, unlike loudspeakers, the same headphone will sound vastly different to different people. This is why earphones are an extremely personal choice. I will share my opinions here, but unlike loudspeakers, there is no way anyone can predict what you will like or dislike when it comes to headphones.
Sennheiser is known, especially in the audio-for-film and audio-for-video professions, as one of the world's greatest makers of microphones, especially wireless microphones, as well as headphones. This is all they've done since 1945, which is why they do it so well, but why most people outside of professional audio have never heard of them. Sennheiser has made some of the world's best headphones for many decades.
Who am I?
When I was researching these for myself, I had no idea who were the people writing other reviews, which made it difficult to figure out whose opinions might be relevant to my own interests. Let me explain my background so you can better sort through this review. Fell free to skip ahead to Specifications.
I am a music lover. My parents met in a choral group, and I've spent years training in music performance. When I listen to music, I sit and do nothing but listen intently for hours at a time. For me, music is not something that plays in the background.
I enjoy everything musical, which includes live symphonic and choral music. Even if you've dropped a few hundred grand into audio equipment, there is still no way to reproduce exactly the sound of a live symphony orchestra. You have to be there, which is why I'd much rather go to a concert than listen at home. Most modern recorded music doesn't exist outside of a multi track studio's Pro Tools files, but with symphonic music, we have a real, live acoustic reference as to how it should sound.
When I find a system that sounds good reproducing symphonic recordings, it sounds great to me with everything else. Therefore most of my references will refer to live, acoustic, un amplified, unassisted music, and these comments apply just as well to enjoying every sort of music. I prefer natural sound, which to me, sounds best for everything. My favorite loudspeakers are my B&W 801s (the first sealed version from 1979, which I set to one-click less midrange), which I prefer to my Quad ESL-63s.
I've also been building my own recording equipment since I was in the third grade. By high school, I was building multi-band non-linear dynamic audio processors from scratch. By college in 1981, I was recording professionally, and was the first person in the United States to own the Sony PCM-F1, the world's first digital audio recorder that cost under $50,000. It still cost four times what I paid for the used 1974 Plymouth Duster I drove at the time, and allowed me to make digital recordings years before the introduction of the Compact Disc. I also installed the 12 VDC-powered PCM-F1 temporarily in my Duster one day, and became the first person in the history of the world to have a digital audio playback (and recording) system in an automobile. In addition to my recording in college, I also earned a degree in electronic engineering and went on to earn patents.
I am not an audiophile. Audiophiles love audio and equipment, but rarely music. An audiophile is someone who can't listen for more than a few minutes before stopping to change capacitors or swap cables. Audiophiles spend more on equipment than they spend on music and concerts. They will own dozens of different headphones, cables and amplifiers, and receive their pleasure from fiddling with all this gear. Audiophiles listen to their gear, instead of the music. Audiophiles just as often are listening to recordings of thunderstorms or locomotives, while I, as one professional studio musician shared with me, enjoy great music even if it's coming over a 3" speaker. I know good reproduction, but it's ultimately all about the music, not the hardware. If I let myself get caught up in the hardware, I'd have no time to enjoy music.
I've only owned three sets of headphones over the past 35 years: My Koss 4AA that I got in the 1970s, my Beyer DT 990 (600 Ohm) that I bought in 1988, and now this Sennheiser HD 800. I still have my Koss, which were rebuilt by Koss for free under their lifetime warranty in 1995 and work great today. I have enjoyed my Beyer DT 990 continuously since 1988.
Even if some may consider myself as an experienced listener, since we're talking headphones, all bets are off as to what you'll hear through the same set of headphones, but hopefully my comments will be helpful in spite of variations in our heads.
For Christmas 2010, I had read great things about the Sennheiser HD 800, so I figured after 23 years of enjoying my DT 990, that if there is anything better out there, I'd love to hear them. Since I expect to enjoy my next set of headphones for at least 20 more years, price is irrelevant.
As specified by Sennheiser:
6–51,000 cps (-10 dB).
14–44,100 cps (-3 dB).
Sennheiser HD 800 Driver Exterior. enlarge.
102 dB at 1 Volt rms at 1 kc.
500 mW (EN 60-268-7).
< 0.02% at 1 kc and 1 Volt rms.
Head Contact Pressure
3.4 N ± 0.3 N.
11.6 ounces (330 g.), without cable.
Professional-standard ¼" (6.3 mm) stereo.
Silver-plated, oxygen-free copper (OFC).
10 feet (3 meters), straight.
14º F to 131º F.
–10° C to +55° C.
Are they kidding? If it were this cold or hot in my house, I'd be doing something about it instead of listening to Nero fiddle.
Stainless steel top hoop. The serial number is laser-engraved into this top hoop.
Frames are die-cast metal (the silver parts) and plastic (the black parts).
Metal wire mesh all over.
A thin single-wall cardboard box covers a sturdy, hinged cardboard inner box.
Outer Box, Sennheiser HD 800. enlarge.
Inner Box, Sennheiser HD 800. enlarge.
This inner box has to metal hinges on the back, and a strap on the right to hold it open at about 90.º
Its insides are lined with satin cloth, floating loosely over unseen foam. There is also another piece of free-floating foam (not shown) that one places over the cable to keep it from banging around when closed.
Inside the Box, Sennheiser HD 800. enlarge.
This box-within-a-box is a nice touch, but it has no handle or latch, so it's useless for carrying the HD 800. That said, I still keep my DT 990 away from dust in its original, much flimsier, cardboard box from 1988, so I'm not complaining. You'll want a Pelican case or similar for heavy use.
The only thing that matters is how it sounds and feels.
These items below, as well as the fancy boxes above, are just fluff. The sound of anything is always more than the sum of its parts or specifications.
Sennheiser tells us that these headphones use ring drivers. In other words, instead of regular drivers, the centers of what would be the diaphragms are mechanically grounded. There are two spiders: the usual one outside the voice coil, and a second one inside.
Bottom, Sennheiser HD 800. enlarge.
The Sennheiser HD 800 is a little too bright for me. Maybe it's that my ears have become so accustomed to my Beyer DT 990 over the past 20+ years, or maybe it's that the HD 800 really are too bright. In any case, I prefer my 1988 sample of Beyer DT 990 (600 Ohm), which is still sold today and has always been a little distant-sounding, with a slight high-treble boost.
The DT 990 sounds more muffled or distant compared to the HD 800, and I prefer the rendition of the DT 990. To me, the HD 800 is too bright in the upper midrange, and regardless of the recording, I prefer my old DT 990.
My DT 990s are 23 years old, and the HD 800 fresh out of the box. I have no idea how the HD 800 will sound in 23 years, nor did I compare the HD 800 to a new pair of DT 990. I heard the same relative differences regardless of source material or associated equipment.
The HD 800 has about the same bass, except that the very bottom octave is less in the HD 800 than the DT 990. As a former bass and tuba player, I'm more attuned to this than most people.
If you like your brass brash or your strings wiry, you'll love the HD 800. Some people use the words "revealing" or "analytical" to refer to what I call a slight upper-midrange boost in the HD 800. This slight boost lets one hear things one might not with other headphones, and also emphasizes any noise or distortion present in the source material. You'll hear more wrong with a recording with the HD 800 than you will with the DT 990.
Most of my listening was directly with a Sony CDP-X303ES Compact Disc player, whose professional ¼" headphone jack has more than enough guts to drive these well. While audiophiles listen to whatever life hands them, I personally ran the proof-of-performance on this player with a borrowed $50,000 ROHDE & SCHWARZ UPL with its optional high-performance analog circuits (that's a benefit of having worked for Tektronix). I know my player is giving me what's on the glass master; do you?
The Sony CDP-X303ES has a 56 Ohm build-out resistor from its dedicated internal headphone amplifier. This would drop the overall level about 1dB with a resistive 300 Ohm load.
The HD 800's actual impedance is about 300 Ohms at DC, then a broad peak of around 650 Ohms around 120 cps, about 350 Ohms at 1 kc, a broad minimum of about 325 Ohms in the upper midrange, and a gradually rising impedance in the treble at about 375 Ohms at 15 kc. The effect of the 56 Ohm series resistor in the Sony CDP-X303ES is to alter response, relative to 1kc, by +0.5 dB at 120 cps, -0.1 dB in the upper midrange, and +0.1 dB at 15 kc. Therefore, used with this headphone amplifier with what seems like significant output impedance, it actually helped sculpt the response in favor of the HD 800.
Used with a amplifier with a lower output impedance, which is usually the case, the brightness I heard should become worse. In any case, fractions of decibels are usually inaudible, and in this case, are actually making the HD 800 sound better.
Forgive my simple English, but the soundstage sounds the same to me as every other headphone.
I think too many people read too much into Sennheiser's description of angled drivers, and start imagining things. That's OK, since enjoying music is all about closing your eyes and imagining things, just that I'm imagining other things.
I prefer the sound I get from headphones over what I get from loudspeakers. I love headphones, and usually have my ESL-63s, B&W 801s or the M&K speakers I use on my desk with my computer just a few feet from my ears in a reverse ORTF configuration to eliminate the sound of my room. I want to hear the space in which the performers were recorded, not the acoustics of my own room.
The HD 800 is a couple of decibels (a little) more sensitive than my 600 Ohm Beyer DT 990, mostly due to the extra upper midrange coming from the HD 800.
If listening to an iPod Touch, I often have the gain (volume) set to full-crank with classical music, or backed-off a little with squashed-to-0-dBFS popular music recordings. Most people, myself included, would like it to get a bit louder with an iPod, but I'm happy with it as-is, instead of wanting to carry more hardware just to listen to music.
With a Sony CDP-X303ES Compact Disc player, there is more than enough gain to make myself as deaf as I'd like from its headphone jack.
Isolation and Noise Generation
The HD800 headphones are "open back," offering no isolation from outside sounds in exchange for cleaner sound.
Since there is no isolation and the drivers are relatively far away from the ears, they have to play a bit louder to sound the same to you or I when listening to them. This means there will be more sound coming out of the back of these headphones into the environment in which you are listening.
Therefore, these are best for listening alone. If you try to use them with other people around in any place worth listening, you will probably annoy them with a lot of sound leakage. When I first fired them up and before I put them on my head, I was wondering what small cue speaker I had left potted-up around my studio, until I realized it was the headphones themselves!
Back End, Sennheiser HD 800. enlarge.
With a single top band, the top of the harp (the band that holds left and right sides together) presses on my head in one place, and I feel that. I find double-banded harps, with a flexible lower band, more comfortable as they distribute the weight across a larger area than does the HD 800.
The ear pads are stiffer and thinner than usual, so I feel a definite "ring" pressing around my ears, which I don't feel with the fluffier, softer pads of other headphones.
The first thing I noticed as I put these on my head is how wonderful a cable they have!
The plug is solid metal, with a slightly concave curve to the plug handle. "SENNHEISER" is printed, not engraved, into the all-metal plug with rubber strain relief.
The cable is cloth-wrapped, reminding me of the patch cords I used with the professional audio relay racks of the 1950s! It is two separate rubber wires (one for each channel), wrapped together in a cloth braid with no other obvious fillers.
I love the cable; it brings back memories of the hard-core professional audio equipment I've used from the 1950s.
The weirdest thing about the cable is that it's non-microphonic, meaning that as you rattle the cable and drag it across things, no sound or vibration is transferred to the headphones themselves.
Cable, Sennheiser HD 800. enlarge.
These Sennheiser HD 800 are excellent headphones for anyone who prefers a brighter, clearer rendition. They are a bit too bright for my taste, but with a few dB subtracted around 5 kc and a boost below 50 cps, I'd love them, too. Everyone's tastes differ, and I've never seen such a broad positive acceptance of any other headphone since back in the 1970s when the Koss 4AA ruled the world.
As a serious headphone, the HD800 comes only with a professional ¼" plug. For use with little 3.5mm jacks (iPods etc.) use an adapter, like the Grado Mini Adapter. The advantage of this Grado adapter is that it's actually a short cable, so only a small 3.5mm plug is inserted into your little device, not a huge ¼" plug and adapter together.
I bought mine from this link to them at B&H Photo Video, who is a huge professional equipment dealer from whom I've been buying my gear since the 1970s. I suppose you also could find these at quirky audiophile dealers, but the advantage of B&H is that they are so big that they have these in stock, they ship from a huge automated warehouse (meaning that your headphones weren't the only pair in the store used for demos for a month before you bought them), and most importantly, B&H has a full money-back return policy with no restocking charge, so if you order these and your wife finds out, you may return them for a full refund so long as it's exactly as it came to you.
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