Before I review the performance of the Sennheiser HD800s, I'll say a quick word about packaging and presentation. The HD800s are packaged inside two black cardboard boxes. The outer box shows various images of the headphones while the sturdier and more luxurious hinged-inside box, is unobtrusively adorned by the Sennheiser name and insignia. Inside the box, the foam on which the headphones rest is dressed in a soft silky material and although the box seems inordinately spacious, the HD800s store snugly away when not in use. The actual headphones look quite large due to the size of the adjustable circum-aural ear pieces and are predominantly silver in colour with black padding on the headband and ear pieces. They look retro or futuristic in style, but I'm not sure which; you decide!
Removing the headphones from the box for the first time was like raising the Holy Grail from its solemn resting place; it was a moment of reverence and awe! Kneeling beside my hi-fi, I gently unfurled the cable, ushered my head towards the headphones then slowly, and surely, slid them onto my bowed head. Now almost trembling with insatiable excitement, like a rabid beast, I feverishly embraced the urge to hear these silvery sirens sing. Even though I knew I ought to burn them in for 100+ hours before I'd get anywhere near aural nirvana, I reached for the remote, took a deep breath, and pressed Play.
First impressions? Upper-mid and treble notes sounded absolutely amazing! Bass and lower-mid notes however, sounded tame and weak as they lacked oomph. Somewhat disappointingly, I took the headphones off, pressed Repeat on the remote and left them to burn in for 100 hours. Before I go on, it's worth noting that my previous headphones were Sennheiser HD650s and the other equipment used for the purpose of this review is:
CD Player: Naim CD5i (MkII)
Headphone Amp: NJC Audio Monitor II
Interconnect: Cambridge Audio 900 Series
So after 100 hours of burning in, I put the HD800s back on and listened to Pink Floyd's The Final Cut (2004 Remaster). I chose this album because it's peppered with background detail and I wanted to find out how revealing the HD800s are. In short, the HD800s are extremely revealing, much more so than the HD650s. Quite often I thought to myself 'Wow! I've never heard that before'. But it's not just that they reveal more detail than the HD650s (and they do), it's the way they reveal detail. The HD800s seem to bring background detail closer to the foreground in a way that compliments the actual foreground. And Gilmour's guitar solos? Wow! They were thunderously majestic and at times gave me goose bumps.
Next up, I listened to the Red Book layer of Carol Kidd's Nice Work (2004 SACD/ Hybrid) because it's an excellent recording of acoustic jazz and I wanted to see how authentically the HD800s reproduce acoustic instrumentation. I'm pleased to say the HD800s excelled in this area. Piano, brass and drums sounded very authentic; cymbals in particular, had a spectacular zing! Although bass guitar, snare and bass drums sounded authentic, they still lacked the kind of oomph I get from my HD650s. Nevertheless, I found it easy to enjoy the album; emoting with the slow and gentle songs and toe-tapping and singing my way through the livelier ones.
I then listened to Shostakovich's 5th Symphony (HMV Classics 1997) to hear how well it handled classical music. The HD800s revealed the minutest detail (including creaking seats and sniffs etc). For instance, notes I previously thought were played staccato weren't really staccato at all, they were actually loud notes followed by whisper quite ones I just hadn't heard before and violins, well they sounded as sweet as honey. Deep brass and kettle drums varied in their oomph; sometimes they oomphed and sometimes they didn't. I found tears welling up in my eyes during the tortuous and oppressive 3rd movement, fortunately, redeemed by the 4th movement and its glorious finale. All in all, very satisfying although the moody passages didn't seem as menacing as they do when I use the HD650s.
I also listened to Kraftwerk's Computer World (2009 Remaster) to hear how well the HD800s reproduced synthetic sound. Again, I was not disappointed. Like the other albums, it felt like I was hearing it for the first time because the headphones gave so much clarity and detail. The bass notes on this album sounded better as they were delivered with a bit of oomph. I could also appreciate how the widened soundstage benefited the quieter notes as they didn't seem compressed and thus, sounded more audible.
Some general thoughts about the HD800s are that they fit a little too loosely on the head. If I lean forward, they slide forward. This never happened with my HD650s, but then again, they were like clamps with a vice-like grip on my head. Hopefully, the next range will be somewhere between these two extremes. They also appear to be genuinely well crafted, including the cable.
In summary, even though they tend to lack oomph with regard to bass notes, the HD800s are terrific headphones. What Sennheiser have done with the upper-mid and treble is nothing short of a triumph - cymbal zing is spectacular and violins sound as sweet as honey. It almost seems like a veil has been lifted from these notes so that every detail is laid bare before the listener, for better and worse! And what's more, because they're so revealing, music I've heard lots of times now sounds fresh and new, so it seems like I now own 100s of CDs I've never heard before. With regard to the lack of oomph, I noticed that it varied from CD to CD, so perhaps oomph depends on the attack and intensity of the note being played. Anyway, I think an acclimatisation period is required in order to forget the aural colour of previous headphones because the more I use them, the more I like them.
For me, the Sennheiser HD800s are a means to an end i.e. enjoyment. I don't listen to music to analyse it (even though I kind of did for the purpose of this review), I want to emote and toe-tap and the HD800s allow me to do this, even though I think the bass is a bit too neutral. In short, if you like a lot of bass, these headphones won't do it for you. If however, you prefer a more neutral and honest sound, they could be the ones for you because...they're almost perfect!
Caveat: My conclusions are inevitably influenced by the synergy of my equipment, so presumably, I might conclude differently with different interconnects or equipment. I've been told that my headphone amp is very neutral, so maybe a warmer or bass prominent amp would add that extra bit of oomph to make them truly perfect. I might experiment with different phono cables to see if I can tweak the tonality.
EDIT: With regard to the lack of oomph, I'd like to add that it's not that the HD800s lack oomph, but rather they don't have enhanced bass the HD650s do, which I'm so used to. Thanks to AVF member davejames for helping me realise this.