What is the Sennheiser HD800S?
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 Design
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.
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.
How was the HD800S tested?
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.
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.
- 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 Review
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.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.