Sennheiser HD800S Review
Sennheiser carries out a refresh on an icon - is this the last pair of headphones you’ll ever need?
What is the Sennheiser HD800S?The Sennheiser HD800S is an open-backed headphone built around a large pair of dynamic drivers. If you are interested in headphones though, there is a good chance that you already knew this. The reason for this is that the HD800S is not an entirely new model. It is instead an evolution of the HD800 and that is a very significant product indeed. At its launch in 2009, the HD800 was a serious statement of high-end intent.
In the intervening nine years, the headphone market has gone a bit mad. In 2009, the HD800 was the last outpost of high-end sanity before a few scattered pieces of serious high-end esoterica. In 2018, the HD800S pitches into a market that is teeming with rivals. Headphones are big business and high-end headphones are a significant chunk of that. This is a market that Sennheiser is at least partially responsible for creating and they clearly feel that the HD800 needs a helping hand to stay on top.
The omens are pretty good though. Recently, Sennheiser’s extraordinary high-end earphone, the IE800 was given the S treatment too and while the price has risen to a hefty £870, the result is a staggeringly capable device that can compete with pretty much any other high-end earphone on the market while being no harder to drive or use than a standard £50 pair. If the same people have been able to work their magic on the HD800, the results could be spectacular.
Specification and DesignThe HD800S is a full size, open back dynamic driver headphone. It needs to be fairly large because the driver that they use is a fairly hefty one. Sennheiser has at various points claimed that the 56mm unit is the largest driver to be used in a pair of headphones. It isn’t (we’ve even tested a pair with larger drivers) but it’s still a fairly hefty sized unit to accommodate in a headphone. When you take into account that this driver has to operate as a full range unit, there are some significant engineering challenges to take into account too.
This means that the quoted frequency response of 4Hz to no less 51kHz ought to raise an eyebrow. Getting a single driver to produce this sort of range is a deeply impressive achievement and something that holds the potential for outstanding performance. As ever, it needs to be pointed out that no human being (or even most dogs) has an upper hearing threshold that high but the performance of a driver in this ultra high-frequency spectrum is important. Firstly, any driver that exhibits reasonable behaviour at this point is going to handle audible high frequencies without incident. There are also repeatable benefits of handling these frequencies as they seem to have some appreciable benefit to ‘shaping’ the sound we do actually hear.
The ‘housing’ that contains the drivers is barely worthy of the term. Like all open back headphones, Sennheiser has attempted to put as little surrounding material around them as possible with a view to achieving the sense of drivers in free space. There are some nuances to how they have gone about this that are fairly noteworthy though. The first is that the frame that mounts the drivers is made from steel rather than aluminium or some racy composite. This isn’t penny-pinching on the part of Sennheiser either.
The biggest piece of imported thinking from the IE800S is the idea of Sound Absorption. Sennheiser claims that the biggest impediment to audio reproduction is a ‘masking effect’ where certain frequencies are affected by the natural resonances and audible behaviour of their mounts and enclosures. The thinking behind the hefty steel mounts of the HD800S is that they provide an utterly inert support for the drivers which allows them to reproduce everything without any form of masking effect. Interestingly, we’ve seen a variation of this thinking before in a completely different application in the form of the Eclipse TD520SW sub which shackles two relatively light drivers together in a heavyweight cabinet.
Nor is Sennheiser done there. The driver mount, angling and earpad are all designed with a view to working with the inherently directional nature of its output and ensuring that the directionality is harnessed in the correct direction. The pad itself is a microfiber fabric that is intended to be fairly durable but can still be replaced simply enough with pads available through your dealer or online. The last significant addition to the HD800S spec is that it now comes supplied with two cables. The first is a conventional quarter-inch jack cable as you might expect. The second is a four-pin XLR connector for use as a balanced cable connection. Balanced headphone amps are now a fairly common occurrence and - when designed correctly - can offer a useful jump in performance, particularly with longer runs of cable.
Aesthetically, the biggest differences between the HD800S and the original is a move to a black finish for the housing frames. For the price of the Sennheiser, you can buy some spectacularly finished pieces of industrial design and against this, the HD800S can look almost - dare I say it? - drab. There is a method in the madness though. Sennheiser - with the possible exception of the Momentum line which is aimed at a completely different group of people - is not in the business of overtly showy product. Once you pick the HD800S out of its very smart holding box, you start to appreciate that while there is little in the way of ostentation, this is a seriously well-made pair of headphones. The use of steel gives them a heft that isn’t always present with open back designs and they give the impression that they will last a good while at the same time.
No less importantly, they are comfortable too. In a perfect world, I’d prefer a little more lateral movement of the earpads, the Sennheiser works well at spreading its fairly considerable weight very evenly across the head and it is an easy headphone to wear for extended periods. As a true home headphone, Sennheiser has been able to reduce the amount of traction that the HD800S exerts on the head as you’re unlikely to go jogging with them. This further accentuates a beneficial performance feature that I’ll cover shortly.
How was the HD800S tested?The Sennheiser has principally been tested with a Chord Electronics Hugo2 which has been connected to a Melco N1A NAS drive and a Lenovo T560 ThinkPad depending on the material being used. Some additional testing was undertaken with the Cyrus ONE HD integrated amp. Material used has included lossless and high res FLAC and AIFF, some DSD, Tidal, Deezer HiFi and some broadcast TV material.
Sound QualityFirst, we need to confirm some obvious facets of the Sennheiser’s performance. These are open back headphones and the performance is in keeping with that fact. If we take Grado as the absolute gold standard of noise leakage - that is to say they send almost as much sound out the back of the enclosure as they do the front - the HD800S is 90% as effective at doing the same thing. If you are looking at headphones to prevent you from distracting someone in the same room, this not the model for you - they simply won’t do that job. Of course, unlike Grado, Sennheiser does make headphones suitable for that role so that would be a better place to look. The reason why people persist with open back headphones is simple. A good pair has an ability to extend its performance far beyond the notional end of the enclosure. This has attendant benefits on the soundstage and overall presentation that closed back designs have to try and engineer in. Done right, the effect is superb and make no mistake, the Sennheiser is done right.
Selecting the wonderful Tidal Master of A Humdrum Star by Gogo Penguin and the HD800S - only in a positive sense - simply isn’t there. There are any number of tricks that can be employed by headphone manufacturers to achieve this but the Sennheiser is one of the only (and certainly the most affordable) designs that can actually do it. The instruments of Raven have a startling immediacy and tonal realism that is the difference between a solid reproduction and an actual performance. Were it not for the pressure of the pads on your head, there would be no clues that this is anything other than two drivers in free space.
Sennheiser’s decision to use the large 56mm drivers pays dividends here. The HD800S has a feeling of weight and heft that is often lacking in designs of this nature. Crucially, it isn’t simply about the deep bass notes. There is a weight to struck keys and plucked bass strings that helps to create the suspension of disbelief. No less usefully, the Sennheiser can really move with uptempo material. It hammers through the newly remastered Beaucoup Fish by Underworld with the sort of speed and aggression that really gets the head nodding and delivers a level of emotional engagement that can sometimes be lacking in truly accurate pieces of equipment. The HD800S, by contrast, achieves joy by delivering it straight from the music itself.
This means that the frequently expressed but rather harder to realise goal of a ‘window on the music’ is realised and done in a way that means that only the very poorest and most inadequately mastered material will be left unlistenable by you doing so. For me, this is a worthwhile trade off because the performance with good recordings is simply outstanding and - biblical noise leakage notwithstanding, they can give broadcast monitor levels of information back from a recording. As a final parting gift in this regard, the HD800S is also a fairly easy headphone to drive. They will, naturally, show up limitations in the signal path but - particularly if you are working in the digital domain - work with usefully cost-effective equipment.
Using the HD800S for TV and film work is also a satisfying experience. That lack of physical presence to the performance and the excellent effects placement ensure that the drawbacks that can frequently occur with headphones and complex and congested sequences are avoided. Like any standard headphone, the Sennheiser struggles to put information right in front of you but I have found that it does enough to ensure that when you are looking at the screen, you get a usefully wide sense of the information happening where it should. What is notable about this is that the original HD800 would never have been my goto device for this sort of work. I don’t know which of the changes made to the S spec model have ensured it is better in this regard, but the difference is considerable.
This means that the frequently expressed but rather harder to realise goal of a ‘window on the music’ is realised and done in a way that means that only the very poorest and most inadequately mastered material will be left unlistenable by you doing so
- Simply astonishing sound quality
- Extremely well made
- Biblical noise leakage
- Won't flatter poor material
- Could do with fractionally more lateral movement for the Earpads
Sennheiser HD800S ReviewEven allowing for the recent swell in what constitutes high-end headphone pricing, £1,400 is a lot of money. It also needs to be repeated for the avoidance of doubt that for allowing you to use equipment in the same room as someone who doesn’t want to hear it, the HD800S is as much use as a handbrake on a rowing boat. The price and design are integral to the Sennheiser and you need to take that into account.
If you’re happy with these features though, the Sennheiser is a truly outstanding achievement. This is a headphone that carefully wields the technology at its disposal to deliver a performance that will cost you many, many times more to achieve with real speakers. When you then add that they are easy to drive, beautifully made, comfortable and well specified you have the best full-sized headphone we’ve ever tested and as a result of this, the inevitable conclusion is that the Sennheiser HD800S unquestionably represents the Best in Class.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £1,399.99
Ease of Use10
Design and usability9
Value For Money10
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