I have had two flings with Sennheiser HD800, distanced in time. First, a couple of years ago, I obtained a pair on loan for evaluation, with the personal aim of reviewing them for a contest put up on Head-fi (proposed by an online shop, now disappeared); later on, I had the chance to test them with Eximus DP-1 DAC/amp combo, which I carried to a local shop in Milan, in order to test it against their gear, for an afternoon.
This review sums up all my findings (and the notes I had written) about the Sennheiser HD800, across two very different setups, and two HD800 examples (earlier production, later production – June 2012). The first setup was out of a Rodel integrated CD player/headphone amp; the second setup, as said, was the Eximus DP-1 DAC/amp combo.
An Impressive, Single-Visioned Performer
The Sennheiser HD800 has exceptional qualities, and equally exceptional flaws, some of which are related to what makes them so impressive.
Listening to them with the Rotel integrated, the general sensation is a sense of effortlessness and extension in both frequency extremes. The bass is extremely textured, they must have super fast transients than former offerings like the HD600 or HD650. There is no comparison in the overall sense of speed of the HD800 and the HD6x0 (or even with the HD250 Linear Mk1 and Mk2).
The reason for the sense of effortlessness is due to an easily noticeable upper bass raise, and obviously the huge spatial reprentation of the musical picture. While the upper bass raise can add up to the sense of rhytm, especially with certain genres (jazz and especially classical, which sounds very dynamic and huge), it can also spoil other genres, especially when vocal-based, which tend to sound fat and also dark/recessed, due to relative lower volume of the upper mids: the unbalance (upper bass/lower mids vs upper mids) conferes vocals a sort of dark, “dead”, purpose-less tone.
The bass doesn’t sound elephantish slow like the HD580 does, thanks to the HD800’s speed and texturing ability.
Treble is sharp, sibilant. It’s very detailed, but most vocal tracks are spoiled with “lightning bolts” of sibilance and sharpness. Also, some classical tracks come out a bit spoiled by the same peak, since certain trumpets can sound resonant and sharp, and things get even worse with percussions. Strings can sound sharp for the same reason.
There is something even worse with HD800’s treble, which is the sense of hyper-whispering that’s imposed to most vocals.
There is no grain out either the Rotel and Eximus integrated headphone amplifiers (transistor based).
The U-shaped response of the Rotel, super-imposed onto similar response of HD800, only further emphasizes the flaws of the headphone.
With Eximus DP-1, the tonal sinergy improves significantly. The upper bass and the treble are more linear, although sibilance won’t disappear (I haven’t had the possibility to try a high quality OTL amp with HD800). Listening to the DP1/HD800 makes the picture akin to a black canvas, where the sparkles are more controlled and the background cleaner. Unforunately, even paired with DP-1 tonal richness, midrange still lacks life.
The most special quality of the HD800 is the spaciousness, the large, open soundstage that’s paired with extremely precise placement of big images. HD800 lets me feel that I wouldn’t need speakers for absorbing spatial information of a recording. I would much prefer this approach to the Omega 2 (another soundstaging monster, in a different way), if I didn’t have to give-up midrange presence in exchange.
Dynamics are very powerful too, able to surprise with sudden changes in volume and explosions in the listening flow. It’s not something I am able to achieve with any of the Omega 2-based setups I have owned (nor other dynamic headphones, let alone any kind of high end IEMs), where dynamics are more compressed (this is using amps like SRM-717 and 727 with Stax SR-007).
The HD800 is a headphone made to impress, but hardly an all-arounder. As said earlier, the bass-to-mid-to-treble balance does help bringing up the pace and making the overall tone toe tapping, but I feel the tone of the HD800 is “super imposed” over everything. It’s like an active performer that gives his great take with certain music, but cannot understand other, playing it plainly wrong.
Perhaps given the music I tend to listen to, generally vocal based (rock in all its acception, from the experimental 60’s to these days), the emotional conveyment I constantly search in music isn’t easy to obtain with HD800. It is, nonethelss, a very interesting listening tool, if appreciating its spatial qualities over everything else, and matching the system behind it.
Given the seriousness of the review, I feel obliged to add a picture.
I do swear that I am not a Final Fantasy fanatic.