Sennheiser HD 800 S
Latest Sennheiser reference dynamic headphone review
Everyone knows that the main purpose of any company is to sell as much as possible, in the most convenient manner, to the largest number of consumers. Therefore what does a product need to be successful? It should definitely be reliable, with high performance, at the best price and with an appealing aesthetic. Features in short, that are not only valid for any commercial proposal, but in particular for those that are part of the audio universe, whether consumer or professional.
However, this world in particular can often lead us on to rough terrain, where supporters on one side or the other will always look at each other with distrust and suspicion deeming the views of the other party unreliable. Nevertheless, sometimes, however, there can be points of contact that can create an agreement between both audiophiles and audio professionals. We refer in particular to a product that created a bridge between both sectors, a headphone, or rather THE headphone against which all others must be measured and compared to. In short, we are talking about the Sennheiser HD 800 that for almost ten years has been the flagship of the German company, a model that has brought a real revolution in the universe of dynamic headphones and adopted by a large number of people, both for professional purposes and for pure entertainment. Around it were spent dozens of words, articles and reviews, with a commercial success that perhaps even Sennheiser never expected considering the quite challenging price of their flagship. But you know, progress moves faster, the market evolves and also the needs of customers. In this regard, we can safely say that, despite the high performance of the HD 800, it has always been a headset that only really unleashes its full potential if placed in certain conditions. According to our direct personal experience, the Sennheiser top of the range, may prove to a normal user, a tough headset to be correctly driven.
At first glance in fact, the all too clear tone and some bass lightness, may turn up the noses of more than one user particularly when used with inadequate reproductive tools or connected to the headphone output of a normal iPod or DAP. This common problem has caused several manufacturers, including the same Sennheiser, to fill up the market with: dedicated headphone amplifiers, both tube and solid state; aftermarket headphone cables with generous section to try to emphasize the bass response, to the point of heavy tuning deployed by some American users. This last sequence of events in particular has sparked in various consumer forums and otherwise, the most diverse troubling threads even involving some influential journalists in the industry and making comparative graphs of the frequency response that the HD 800 offers before and after the changes spring up like mushrooms. Besides that, we know that the serious audio professional prefers to base his work on his own experience and the real practical value of the product used without listening in the slightest to audiophiles’ opinions or the empirical results of DIY. However, given either the logic of the market, or the evolution of the competing technologies, the manufacturers’ marketing policies have become more easily influenced and the actual sonic validity for these changes, must surely have reached the ears of Sennheiser. Everything has evolved from constant complaints over the years by many users in regards to a 6 kHz annoying peak and a modest fullness of low frequencies that make the response of the headphone a little unbalanced and highlights its difficulty to be used for some musical genres that are neither classical or jazz music. To overcome all of this and because, you know, the customer is always right, given the strong success of the 50,000 units sold, Sennheiser wanted to update the HD 800 project and give life to a new top of the range headphone that can be considered as its natural evolution i.e. the HD 800 S the object of our test.
Aesthetically, the new HD 800 S doesn’t differ much from the previous one. It’s just more easily recognizable thanks to the outside black colour of the pavilions and the headband where there is always written HD 800 together with the serial number. The package supplied with the headset has written HD 800 S in silver at the center. The luxurious black case contains, in addition to the headset, two cables, 2.5 meters in length made of silver plated copper with a diameter of 36 AWG. While one of these is terminated with the classic 6.3 mm jack, and the other one is terminated with a 4-pole XLR balanced male connector to be used with balanced amplifiers. The instruction manual completes the package. The headphone pads are upholstered in Alcantara, a superb suede fabric, which is quite hard but it is very comfortable and water resistant. The rest of the headphone frame is made with aerospace approved materials, which contributes to make the HD 800 S acoustically inert. Being a fully open dynamic headset, it’s not recommended for outdoor use or in very noisy enviroments. The new top of the line adopts 56 mm drivers as did the previous one but the differences are not just aesthetic or monetary.
The Sennheiser technicians were actually pretty uncooperative in giving us information about the differences between the two models, but much of the work done on HD 800 S derived from the test and the technologies implemented on the in-ear headphones IE800 on which a structure has been applied to reduce resonance and obtain a more balanced frequency response. The HD 800 S is referred as having a frequency response from 4 to 51,000 Hz (-10 dB) while the HD 800 is 6 to 51,000 Hz. Both with a nominal impedance of 300 ohms and a sensitivity of 102 dB. This difference in frequency, although it seems a minor detail on paper, as we will see, it’s rather the expression of an update that has greatly benefitted the product in terms of pure performance. The update uses an Helmholtz resonator to dilute the peak on the 6 kHz and adds a second harmonic at the bottom in order to make the yield of these frequencies more substantial and convincing. In essence, it has been usefully used a resonator with an anti-resonance function. It’s well known that the Helmholtz resonators can be used to amplify or cancel particular frequencies and this is the purpose of the small cylindrical resonator that has been placed within each of the headset drivers. It may seem very simple and even trivial, but as we have heard during our test it proved to be a very effective solution. The changes that at first have been developed and applied in an amateurish way by more savvy users, have been refined and applied ad hoc by the Germans in-house Sennheiser technicians. All of this has helped to ensure that the new top of the line has a well-defined sound character and a different one from the previous model.
As with every serious test carried out in our studio we left the headset to burn-in for a full week before doing any critical listening. We also wanted to use, for a comparison on equal terms, the previous HD 800 just to give an account of the actual differences between the two models. In addition to the cables supplied with the headphones, we wanted to use a couple of our balanced cables specifically built with military standard materials and of course we included the complete fleet of the amplifiers in our possession: the Lake People G-100, the iFi Audio iCAN SE, the Audio-GD Master 9 and the QES Labs HPBA-2 S that was specially built for this headphone according to our specifications. The peculiarity of the HPBA-2 S lies in the fact that besides being a dual-mono balanced current-driven amplifier, it has an output impedance that exactly follows and matches that of the HD 800/HD 800 S. This allows the Sennheiser flagship to express its full potential and make the most mainly as linearity in the upper part of the sound spectrum and as a transient response at low frequencies. We used ,as source, our DAW connected via USB and via S/PDIF to the two DACs in our studio, the Tobby by Firestone Audio and Stereo 96 by Mytek. As audio players we used JRiver with Fidelizer and Process Lasso Pro. All power and signal cables are custom design. The music used for the test included different genres with different resolutions and bit-depths. Starting from matching the G-100 with the HD 800 S with its unbalanced stock cable, we immediately noticed a greater depth and density of low frequencies combined with a higher linearity of the high frequencies. The annoying peak on 6 khz seems to have disappeared. The soundstage, which was one of the strengths of the old HD 800, remained unchanged. When moving on to use the iCAN SE with the stock unbalanced cable, the listening becomes more interesting as the higher output power of this amplifier shines thanks to its greater precision and focus when compared to the G-100. Everything becomes more appealing, more natural and the low frequencies acquire greater depth.
These first hours of listening make us therefore understand that HD 800 S is definitely a big step forward compared to the previous model, and if we were to define this new headphone we would frankly say that this is a plug and play product. The HD 800 S gives us the impression of being more easily controllable and less picky in combinations with different amplifiers than the previous HD 800. Although to be honest, we are not particularly impressed by the performance of the enclosed cables; wires which in our opinion have a section that is too thin and can’t get a proper sound for the headset to express its fullest potential especially in the lower part of the sound spectrum. Also, in the same way as all the high-impedance headphones by Sennheiser such as the HD 600, HD 650 and HD 800 also the HD 800 S benefits from being driven in balanced mode thereby acquiring body, speed and accuracy during the sound reproduction when connected to a balanced amplifier with appropriate cables. In this regard, the balanced cables in our possession have sections of 18 AWG and 21 AWG that allow the HD 800 S to be more efficent at bass frequencies. However, the best is yet to come : we went even further by connecting the headset to our balanced amplifer the Master 9 by Audio-GD. If before we had only been able to guess the reproductive capacity of the new top of the line, thanks to the balanced connection and the more reproductive refinement, we were able to make the solid step forward that the new project called HD 800 S aimed to achieve. The new headset can be finally used to listen to various musical genres. The rock and electronic music records were faced and reproduced without any fear and without that sense of inadequacy that had characterized the previous HD 800. The basses are all there as well as the speed in the transient response, while the playback lets you enjoy no sound coloration of the entire sound message from the source in particular.
Of course we can’t say the same about the impact on the lower part of the sound spectrum that distinguishes a headset like the Audeze LCD-X but we can safely place this HD 800 S, performance wise, with the HE-6 HIFIMAN detecting a greater sense of balance in timbre response compared to the latter, together with a greater ease of use. We shouldn’t define this new top of the line as a domesticated version of the previous HD 800, but we believe it’s more easily usable both by the audiophile and the more demanding professional. Regarding the professional use, we have been able to verify in the field that, in the same way as the previous model, also this new HD 800 S can be perfectly used in audio mastering sessions or critical listening tests. Especially if coupled with the HPBA-2 S balanced amplifier which is produced by the Italian company QES Labs according to our precise specifications and that drives the headphones in current mode. On more than one occasion we have recommended to other worldwide audio professionals, the pairing between the Sennheiser flagship and this amplifier and had always received thanks for this valuable advice. Also we have often used this combo for the mastering of different records with satisfactory results. Now with this new HD 800 S the circle can be defined as complete as this headphone has kept all the positive aspects of the previous one while filling up the gaps left by the old one. So we still see the main strengths, i.e. transparency, speed, soundstage, sound of voices, acoustic instruments, reproductive realism, but also the ability to detect problems such as saturation, silbilants, excessive compression and dynamic unbalance of the sound spectrum. If with the old HD 800 you had to, albeit with some difficulty, somehow calibrate your ears on the low yield, now everything becomes more immediate, more simple, especially if you are struggling with a recorded tune that has problems in the lower part of the sound spectrum. The balanced current driving of the HPBA-2 S and the impedance output curve which follows exactly the one expressed by the headphone, gives the HD 800 S the full potential of making us not regret the old top of the line at all while allowing us to be more confident in the process of audio mastering or critical listening of a song. It’s, according to our point of view, an important number of factors that push all audio professionals in favour of it, especially those who are looking for a reference system for their headphones listening chain where the HD 800 S, plays the main role offering great satisfaction in the configuration we used.
We are convinced that this new HD 800 S constitutes the perfect point of contact between the audiophile and the professional audio world. It’s a headset that doesn’t want to invade the territory of the best ortho-dynamics, but it’s definitely a product that, if put in a position to unleash its potential, can safely say it all. Like all the best products marketed by Sennheiser, the HD 800 S has a wide scalability in terms of performance especially if combined with the right amplifer. As we have heard during the long listening test, it completely undermines the old HD 800 from its throne of Queen of dynamic headphones going on to fill most of the gaps that the previous model had demonstrated. If we had to resort to a slogan to classify this new top of the line by Sennheiser, besides the aforementioned plug’n’play, we could say that listening pleasure meets precision. Of course for the price at which it’s sold maybe we can’t define it as a headphone for every pocket even considering the fact that, however, to play properly, it requires a reproductive sound chain of a certain level in terms of quality and money to be built around it. But sometimes in life you have to dare without fear and we put ourselves in the position to highly recommend it to both audiophiles and the most demanding professionals. Well done Sennheiser!
To be honest after purchasing the Audeze LCD-X and the Audio-GD Master 9 I stopped using the HD 800 and HPBA-2. In fact, I was working with a sound system that fully satisfied my business needs. However after the circulation of the first articles over the net about the changes of the HD 800, and especially after the official marketing notification by Sennheiser of a revised version of their flagship, I wanted to re-use what I had set aside for a while . So I did upgrade my HPBA-2 amp to the S version, and as soon as I got hold of HD 800 S I had to change my mind, falling completely in love at first listen because this new top of the line is really able to improve the performance in so many ways. The placement of the instruments and the amplitude within the soundstage is very precise as well as the neutrality of the sound message. The HD 800 S/HPBA-2 S combo is mind blowing for the performance it provides and frankly I think it’s hard to do better at least with regard to the use of a solid state balanced dual-mono amplifier combined with this new HD 800 S. Even a test with a Woo Audio WA5, a heavily modified tube amplifier, offered a very engaging and exciting listening thus confirming the quality of the product. That’s why I consider the HD 800 S a remarkable headphone, the best dynamic headphones that are currently sold on the market. Sure it does not guarantee the material impact of a LCD-X, in the bottom part of the spectrum or the fluidity of the LCD-3F on medium frequencies, but is definitely part of my set of tools for audio mastering and critical listening sessions, combining the pleasure of listening with precision. Two concepts that fully describe the characteristics of the HD 800 S and finally create a point of contact between the professional and the audiophile world.
- Sound quality 
- Bang for the buck 
- Measures 
- Build quality 
- Versatility 
- Overall rating
- 1. The sound quality is really really good
- 2. The bang for the buck is very good
- 3. The measures declare definitely very good values
- 4. The construction and the cabinet are of excellent quality
- 5. Versatility is wide in the world of headphones