What will you do if you see the previous King? Hail to it? Or just walk away?
Sennheiser HD800 is the previous king, sans those crazy expensive electrostatic headphone like Orpheus and Stax, HD800 is first mainstream dynamic driver king in the industry, the price is not insanely expensive like those legendary headphones (which doesn’t necessarily sound better), and became benchmark even until today, it was 1400USD before and you still can get it around this price these days (although HD800 is discontinued lately), it was a top tier headphone that not everybody can afford those days, but fast forward to today, where a lot of headphones sell much more expensive and overdo (we hate this too, manufacturers have become too irrelevant and excessive), I really wish top tier headphone still priced under 1.6K USD, but this will only be a dream, that will hardly come true.
Everyone knows how HD800 sounded, I really don’t need to write this review, currently, they are discontinued and succeed by the HD800S, this for me is a tribute for the King instead of a review, which will undeniably be served as a legendary figure forever in this hobby, it is an important headphone that pushes the industry-standard forward although HD800 is one of the ringleaders that push the boundary of top tier headphones pricing. I borrow the Sennheiser HD800 from Stars Picker Audio Library and really appreciate their help in making this tribute come true.
Sennheiser HD800 (Discontinued, but still can be purchased for 1370USD in Malaysia)
I have listened to Sennheiser HD800 numerous time but I never owned one before, I did own the much arguable tuning Sennheiser HD700 though, the HD800 is an icon in the industry and it wowed me every occasion I listened to it, mostly because of the infinity feel of soundstage, while I have never listened long enough of it to make assessment of the sound, I can say me quite like the sound and build of it. HD800 looks alike my HD700, but bigger and built better too. Being a full size open back headphone HD800 is quite large but I am impressed with the lightweight for its size, I never think that it is heavy and it indeed is not heavy even upon wearing it. HD800 is very comfortable on my head and the earpad is soft and well-cushioned, the clamping force is light too, this is definitely a headphone that you can wear for hours.
Hard to drive?
I don’t think HD800 is hard to drive, but it is very sensitive with you are feeding it, HD800 will reflect your source and amplifier, so I can say it will sound the best only if you invested in your source and headphone amplifier accordingly. However, I have to confess that it is not that difficult and expensive to make HD800 really sing anymore, you need to have a transparent, neutral and clean DAC to pair with a headphone amplifier that will alter the sound signature the less.
I have paired the Sennheiser HD800 with Stoner Acoustics UDXA as DAC and M2Tech Marley II as a headphone amplifier, the configuration in full balanced as I don’t have the single-ended cable for HD800. 4 Pin XLR balanced cable in use is Sennheiser CH800S XLR. High-resolution music was listened through Foobar2K and streaming Tidal Master. Sennheiser HD800 is a demo unit in the audio shop but I burned it in for another 48 hours with IsoTek Burn-In CD.
HD800, of course, like every headphone, gain haters and lovers across the internet. Those who like it sworn by the sound quality but for those who hate it, say it is lacking emotion and being really bright especially at the 6k frequency region.
HD800 is indeed a bright headphone, but bright in a way that is totally acceptable to my ears. To say HD800 is bright is being unfair to it because there is so much thing convey in the sound, especially the resolution, which also added a sense of brightness, for me, Philips SHP9500 is way brighter than the HD800 but many people still like it. HD800 is an utterly transparent and resolving headphone, with a spacious, large and dimensional soundstage, if you play recordings that are below average it will reveal them all and sounds bad, it just reflects what it is, HD800 didn’t smooth things out to sound good, it just keeps reflecting. After I have the HD800, I keep listening to audiophiles recordings, such as those from TAS The Absolute Sound series, Chesky recorded album, and those well-known audiophile recordings, what if you only listen to the Pop music and hip hop music? I believe you can look at something else which is able to give you a well-rounded sound despite the recording quality, however, HD800 is totally listenable with those from Taylor Swift and Jay Chou, but not as enjoyable. HD800 is a mirror, the better the files and audio chain, the better it sounded.
So how exactly is the treble? The treble is extensive, highly resolved, and effortless. The treble is really good if you are a treble head it will be damn rewarding in this region, it provides a lot of details and sense of space in the treble, I do agree that it sibilant with some vocal music though but not as severe as the SHP9500 and Hifiman HE1000SE that I have tested, if you are coming from HD650 then HD800 is a lot brighter but if you are coming from HD600 then you might be able to accept it, especially if you are those favor HD600 over HD650 guys. In short, I love the treble of HD800 because it didn’t sound thin to my ears, it has a good body (just neutral, not weighty), transparency and resolution, although I wish that it to be less sibilant but totally acceptable and enjoyable to my ears.
The midrange is great, truly an impressive midrange performance. I enjoy the midrange very much despite that it is a little sibilant, the micro detail level and nuances in the vocal is impressive and every breath is well portrayed. Guitar and all came out lively and the midrange is truly shining, it is not that kind of lush, warm and liquid vocal but it is the vocal that you can trust with realism, I will say it is a 10/10 vocal performance if they can add in a slight body and tamed the sibilant a little, throw yourself an audiophile vocal album and you will enjoy as much as I do, the midrange is not colored in the way HD6XX did but the vocal is neutral and clean, which is attractive and poisoning in another way, the best way, in my opinion, I don’t really like sound signature that is too colored and lush.
Bass is where I think it could be done better, yes the depth and detail level is good, it is a very tight bass as well, but the impact level is quite low. The bass is clean, deep and tight, it has a fast decay and there is merely any rumbling that you can speak of, the quality is great and it is perfectly neutral and clean here, might be too clean and emotionless for some people and I get it, while I appreciate the neutrality and balance of it and definitely love it, a little more impact in the bass region sure will give better sense of musicality, however, I will have no problem to pay full price for it if you are looking after for a neutral and balanced sound signature that you can ‘see’ and analyze the music, HD800 still able to do a decent job, but if you would like to dance and feel the music, I believe there are better choices out there, at a much lower price, but HD800 sounded as good as neutrality go.
The soundstage and imaging are like what everyone says, the soundstage is wide, deep and tall, but for me, it should be as a flagship headphone. The soundstage is still spectacular but I believe not something that is unbeatable nor the best, the sense of space of every instrument is amazing and the instrument separation is remarkable. There is always some distance between you and the performer/instrument and lacking some center image regardless of the music, even something like Allan Tyler still has some distance between you and the music, I love it but I believe some people prefer to have a more intimidate approach with the music.
I love how Sennheiser HD800 sounded honestly and even thinking to buy one within this year. I love the transparency and spaciousness of it, HD800 is Godsend as well for Classical music, the way that it lacked some characteristic is probably is the best characteristic for Classical music, lately, I have listened to a lot of Classical, Jazz, vocal and some OST music, I can’t say HD800 is perfect for each of them but it is neutral and reflect them nicely, the problem is, however, you need to really feed it with audiophile recording albums.
So how is the brightness of it that a lot of people complaining? To be honest, the brightness of it never disturbs me by a bit, if there are things that keep me wanting then it must be the lack of proper center image and bass impact/weight, these are the two things that kept me from buying HD800. Transparency, detail level, spaciousness, speed, accuracy, and timbre are all excellent and in a satisfying performance.
So is HD800 still a good purchase in 2020? I believe so but you have to really sure about your sound preference. I honestly believe HD600 and HD650 are good enough for 95 percent of people out there, going up from there doesn’t necessarily sound better if you mess with your sound preference. I missed the time when we can buy a flagship less than 1000USD, nowadays headphones are getting insanely expensive, for 1400USD I still think it is a valid purchase especially if you already have some very good audio setup and mostly listen to audiophile recordings, I understand that not everyone will love how HD800 sounded but if you want to taste the real ‘Hi-Fi’ sound signature this is the way to go, we can always wish there is more bass and less treble from HD800 but this will only make HD800 not an HD800. I am still thinking to buy it for my music enjoyment within this year but my eyes will keep open for other opportunities, I have been really content with my current setup and feeling a little reluctant to pay for a 1400 USD headphone now, nonetheless, HD800 is still a masterpiece even today, and should be your first choice if you want a reference-grade headphone for 1400 USD.