Ask It: Sennheiser HD 800 Controversy

Tom Martin -- Fri, 07/10/2009 - 19:42

My Playback review of the Sennheiser HD 800s, available here in updated form, seems to have been rather controversial. In my summary, I said:
 
"Most headphones are pretty obviously flawed, if we’re honest. With the HD 800, Sennheiser has gone a long way to reduce those flaws, which makes this a very special pair of headphones. For this reason, my colleague Alan Sircom was enthralled with the HD 800s when he reviewed them in our sister magazine from the UK, Hi-Fi Plus.  He likened them to $25,000 loudspeakers to give you a sense of how much he loved them.
 
I’m more in the camp that likes, but doesn’t love, the HD 800. I believe that has little to do with flaws in the HD 800, and much to do with what I want a headphone to do. I want a headphone to provide an alternative listening experience. I want to hear things on recordings that I don’t hear as well via speakers. This partially comes from my sense that headphones just can’t do the virtual reality thing that traditional speaker-based audio can. At the same time, I need a certain vividness in my headphone listening that makes up for the things headphones inevitably take away.
 
From some perspectives this vividness is called coloration. Maybe. But the declaration of coloration refers to reasonable though arbitrary notions of “correct”. All I know is this: live music is vivid. The HD 800s, at least with the amps I used (primarily the Luxman P200 and PS Audio GCHA), are not vivid, which is what keeps me on the “like” side of the line. Even so, the HD 800s are so good that I prefer them to 90% of the headphones I’ve heard."
 
This section may not have been the only section that triggered controvery, but if there are more questions about these special headphones, I'll do my best to answer here.

HE74 (not verified) -- Sat, 07/11/2009 - 07:23

Could it be that the HD 800 is like HD 650 in amplifier pickiness?
I use the AKG 702. However, when I was researching for the headphone model to buy, I found that it was generally acknowledged that the HD 650 (which is extremely popular in the headphone-listening community) needed the right headphone amp to really come to life. Otherwise, with the wrong headphone amp they can be dull.  I have been told that Sennheiser used the Lehmann Black Cube Linear to demo the HD 800 in a press event in Germany , which is also said to be one of the best amps to use with the HD 650. As far as I can remember now, some other brands that were said to give good results with the HD 650 are Rudistor and Graham Slee. Could it be that the GCHA and the P200 were less than optimal?

Tom Martin -- Sat, 07/11/2009 - 10:17

Yes, it is entirely possible. One data point we have on that is that Alan used the Lehmann amp for his test and seems to have had a more positive result than I did. See below for another data point.
 
The other thing to note is that I used four amplifiers and got similar results each time. You can clearly hear differences between amps (for example the Luxman has a little more high end sweetness and transparency than some of the others). Nonetheless, the HD 800s seemed to retain certain qualities, no matter which amp was used. If the HD 800s are that picky about amps (not unreasonable for a high resolution device), the buyer should consider that he/she may also need to purchase one of the limited number of "matching" amps to get the best results.
 
There is also the possibility that the issues I note are difficult to correct, given the consistency across amps. Or they may require an amp that is technically more colored than the ones I used. I think for many listeners these issues won't be show stoppers, of course.

CEO and Editorial Director, Nextscreen LLC

Tom Martin -- Mon, 07/13/2009 - 08:59

Sennheiser has a very nice service that sends you a printout of the frequency response of your specific pair of headphones. You go to their website and enter your serial number. A few weeks later, your response curve arrives. Mine just arrived this morning.
 
Senneheiser, if I understand the language they use, wisely sends you a perceived response curve. That is to say, they have measured the actual level needed to be peceived as "flat" response. This target curve is not actually flat in SPL (loudness) terms. But by measuring the deviation of the HD 800 from the target curve, they can show how you pereive the frequency response of the headphone. This is much more useful than looking at the actual SPL output vs. frequency, because to interpret that (with its necessary treble peak) requires you to have memorized the target (perceived) curve.
 
Now what is interesting is to look at the curve. I'm not a big believer in measurements because a lot of knowledge is usually required to interpret them. So, I view the following more as entertaining "FYI". I do notice that there is about a 2.5 db dip in response from 3khz to 6khz in my HD 800s. There is also a peak between 6khz and 7khz of about 2 db. These are minor anomolies to be sure, but they seem to correlate well with the observations I wrote a few weeks ago. Or maybe it is just happenstance.

CEO and Editorial Director, Nextscreen LLC

Ian Grant (not verified) -- Thu, 07/16/2009 - 11:12

 While I haven't heard the HD 800 yet, none of the previous models IMO are as accruate and balanced as the HD540, many studio engineers and audiophiles consider the HD540 to be the finest offering from Sennheiser. Very magical too on a 300B tube amp, if you ever get a chance to listen to headphones on a 300B tube amp, you will enjoy it.
Cheers,
Ian Grant

DavidK (not verified) -- Wed, 01/06/2010 - 06:42

A poster on the German Head-Fi forum cites the HD 530 as even better than the HD 540. http://www.hifi-forum.de/viewthread-110-312.html. I have not tried the 540, but I do have the 530, which is very, very good, especially for classical, which I listen to, and no doubt for jazz. HD 530s in good condition aren't common, but they appear from time to time on Ebay; the last one sold for $35, rather less than the other headphones under discussion on this page. (Ebay.de has more HD 530s.)

Randall (not verified) -- Thu, 07/16/2009 - 15:03

 I read the review and didn't find it controversial. In fact, I found it refreshing and honest. Much of what TM felt about the HD-800's is what I have always felt about Senns in general. I was quite the fan of Senns going back to the early 80's with the introduction of the classic HD-414's. I always accepted the sound of the Senns as full and musical but I always felt something was missing (I've always found their sound to be a bit "stuffed"). It was only until I listened to the Grado SR-60 in 1996 did I realized exactly what I've been missing - clarity, tremendous detail, dynamics, etc. For me, these cans work and I still enjoy them as my reference cans (SR-325i with the CI Audio VHP-1....for now!  :-) ). 
 
This is not to say that Senns are not capable of reproducing many of the characteristics desirable among audiophiles. It's simply about what one prefers from a headphone. Many people enjoy the Senn sound and that's fine. Many enjoy the AKG sound. And many may even enjoy music reproduced through a pair of Sony's. The issue here is that each of these manufacturers have their own signature sound and no one sound is "right" or "wrong". It's all about preference. I have not listened to a pair of HD-800's so I cannot comment on them - however, what TM heard and evaluated sounds exactly what would be typical for a high-end set of Senns. I've read similar commentary from other high-end reviewers about the HD-600 and HD-650's.
 
Thanks for the article, TM. Keep up the good work!
 
 

Tom Martin -- Tue, 01/12/2010 - 21:25

You are welcome!

CEO and Editorial Director, Nextscreen LLC

Soeren (not verified) -- Fri, 07/17/2009 - 13:29

The HD-800´s are a fine pair of headphones - easily Sennheiser´s best offer.
BUT they are still dynamics and don´t have the speed and detailed performance of the electrostatic STAX SR-007.
 
cheers
 
Soeren

coopersark -- Sun, 07/19/2009 - 15:09

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Out of necessity, I have been forced to do more headphone listening over the past couple of years, as my daughter’s bedroom is located directly above my sound room, and due to my schedule, the only time that I can get to enjoy listing is at the time that most people would consider the middle of the night. Even though my sound room possesses double ceiling with insulation no sound is better than any sound for my daughter’s sleep.
I currently enjoy three different headphones. They are the Stax Omega II electrostatic, with the Stax SRM-007TII driver amplifier, AKG 701’s with the Cardas Fat Pipe cabling (from Headroom), and the new Sennheiser HD 800’s. My drive amplifier for the dynamic headphones is a Grace M902 that is power conditioned by a Shunyata V-RayII and connected to that conditioner with a Shunyata Anaconda power cord. Connection between my preamp output and Grace input is a Transparent Opus MM II IC cable. (I mention this cable as it dramatically improves the sound of both the AKG and Sennheiser ‘phones. More three dimensionality, more “air” between the performers, better extension in the frequency extremes, and most importantly the ability to hear “artistic intent” of the performers. The use of this cable is not trivial!)
The Stax phones are by far the fastest of the group. They sound the closest to the microphone feed. That being said, they are the least dynamic of the three. While the transient response may be the fastest of any transducer on the planet, there is less “meat on the bone” in what they are reproducing. You could say that they sound both less dynamic and substantial than the dynamic counterparts that I use.
I was very happy with the AKG 701, which in my opinion, is the most comfortable of my three headphones, until the Sennheiser HD 800’s arrived and were broken in for a subsequent month (for about 600 hours) of continuous play. The Sennheiser HD 800’s convey more “air” than the AGK 701’s, they are better defined in both the base and treble, and everything that they reproduce is simply more incisive and dynamic.
 
Here is an analogy that came to mind – About twenty one years ago, I was the proud owner of a brand new Porsche Carrerra sports car. I thought that it was the best performing car that I had ever had the privilege of owning. I loved how it accelerated, came to a quick stop, the responsiveness of the steering, and how the car took a curve. I was on cloud nine, until my brother took delivery of his new Ferrari Testarossa. One afternoon we got together and I took his new Ferrari for a test drive. The Ferrari was a superior performer to my Porsche. The Porsche was outclassed by the Ferrari in its acceleration, braking, cornering, steering, while at the same time providing a better sense of overall “road feel” and ease of driving that my Porsche simply could not match. My Porsche never felt the same to me ever since that heady experience of driving the Ferrari. The Ferrari was about three times the cost of the Porsche.
(Just as both the Porsche and Ferrari were top performing sports cars, the AKG and Sennheisers are top performing headphones. It is just that the more expensive product in each category out performed the less expensive one. While the Porche had on its plus side of the balance sheet a reliability that the Ferrari did not possess, the AKG's have on the plus side a comfort of wear that is better than the Sennheiser's.)
The Sennheiser HD 800’s are way more expensive than the AKG 701’s. If you do a lot of headphone listening, I cannot recommend them strongly enough. They are cheap relative to the performance that they deliver. The reality is that the AKG’s are an even bigger bargain, as they convey about 90% of what the Sennheisers do for a fraction of the price. If you are budget constrained then go for the AKG’s, with the caveat that you don’t listen to the Sennheisers, for once you do, there will be no going back!
I own all three headphones, as I not only enjoy listening to all three – but they all sound different from one another and it is simply fun to use all three phones. The Stax are the fastest. The AKG’s are the most comfortable, but at the end of the day, the new Sennheiser HD 800’s have become my defacto “go to” phones for enjoying my music night after night.
One last comment - the Transparent Opus MMII interconnect cable to the Grace headphone amplifier made such a dramatic improvement, that I am seriously considering having Transparent make me a custom Opus level headphone cable for my Sennheiser's! I am enjoying them that much!
 

coopersark

ScottB (not verified) -- Mon, 07/20/2009 - 15:44

 I'm using my new pair of Senn HD-800 with an Ayre QB-9 USB DAC driving a new Headroom Balanced Ultra Desktop amp, with Harmonic Technology balanced interconnects. Connection to the amp is single-ended for the moment (no balanced aftermarket cables for the HD-800 yet).
 
I'm not what you'd call a headphone freak, but the HD-800 are a clear cut above my previous best cans (HD-600, and AKG K1000). Very neutral, detailed, and dynamic, and even less of the "orchestra in the head" effect than with the K1000 (I'm not using the crossfeed processor with these, although I did with the HD-600). More comfortable to me than the others, too. Can't imagine wanting another 'phone at this point - I even sold my K1000.
 
 

Tom Martin -- Wed, 07/22/2009 - 15:39

Coopersark: thanks for the thoughtful comments. To extend your automotive analogy, my experience was that the HD 800s were like Ferrari F430. When one compares the F430 to the Porsche GT3, one is comparing two very good sports cars. In this case, one car isn't superior in all things. The Ferrari is faster in a straight line, smoother and more aggressively styled; the GT3 is more connected, mechanically brilliant and classical. One chooses between them not based on superiority vs. value, but based on what one wants a car to do. If you're lucky, you own both.

CEO and Editorial Director, Nextscreen LLC

coopersark -- Fri, 07/24/2009 - 16:45

 
Tom,
The analogy that I had made was precicely the analogy that I had indended - from first hand experience. Comparing more modernized versiaons of the super cars from these two top manufacurers has no relevance. Yes there are tradeoffs such as comfort which I had mentioned,, but the Sennheiser  HD 800 clearly outperformes the Akg 701's in sonics. The comfort differenjtial between the tow is not that great, but the sonic differential is actually quite imense. It seems like there is about 10% of the information missing with the AKG's. Dynamics are not as great, the highs are not as extended, the lows are not as extended, the overall sound is way less incisive.You may then comment, that 10% is not that great, but I say that 10% is everything. For example, it is the difference between amateur performance and professional performance in any sport. As another example, in auto racing, tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent in engine refinement, chasis weight reduction, and aerodynamic design improvements, in an attempt to gain a 2% advantage over the competition. For the headphone listener, it becomes a value judgement as to whether they want to spend 300%-400% more for the Sennheisers over the AKG's for that 10% sonic gain. Yes, it is very nice if one can own and enjoy to own both! (Keep in mind that I still enjoy my AKG's, or I would sell them. It is just that once you experince the Sennheisers, it is tough to go back to the AKG's as a reference. Both are excellent, just one is more excellent than the other - by a wide margin.)
 

coopersark

Tom Martin -- Sun, 07/26/2009 - 06:32

The relevance I intended was to my experience comparing the Sennheisers to other headphones -- from first hand experience (using an analogy based on first hand experience). I assume that your analogy-based description of the HD 800s vis a vis the AKGs is correct.

CEO and Editorial Director, Nextscreen LLC

Tom Martin -- Sat, 08/01/2009 - 18:14

More on amplifiers and the HD 800:
 
I have had the Woo Audio WA22 prototype amp for a few days. It is early, but the WA22 works very well with the HD 800s. Some of the lost sense of vividness goes away, and I can't so far hear that anything is being sacrificed. The lovely treble sweetness of the Luxman P200 is still there. Most of the qualities I described in the review also are still there, but the errors seemed diminished.

CEO and Editorial Director, Nextscreen LLC

coopersark -- Sat, 08/01/2009 - 19:37

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Tom, I am glad that you have found a more compatible amplifier. While you are “fine tuning” things, please do not overlook the importance of using the very best possible interconnect to that headphone amplifier, as well as proper power conditioning and isolation of that amp. The Sennheisers are good enough not only to expose the better IC’s and PC, but I assure you that they will be taken to a much higher level of sonic fidelity that you are currently experiencing. The same could be said for any headphones, it is just that the Sennheiser HD 800’s are so good, that the improvements will be even more marked. The improvements wrought by that Shunyata V Ray II and Anaconda power cord on a separate dedicated line along with the incredibly superb sounding Transparent Opus MMII interconnect cable must be heard to be believed! One of the improved effects of the Opus cable that is the most startling, and “goose bump” hair raising, is that the occasional female vocalist, particularly a background singer who is recorded in the left or right channel, as opposed to centered, sounds just like a woman singing intimately in my ear – Goosebumps! This ultra realistic effect does not happen without that Opus cabling or on my other headphones. The combination that I have is simply magical. Is this the ultimate? I hope not, as there is always room for improvement. For one, I wish that the Sennheisers possessed the transient speed of my Stax Omega cans, with the comfort of my AKG’s - that’s why I own and use all three.
 

coopersark

Tom Martin -- Sun, 08/02/2009 - 11:08

Thanks for the suggestions. Over time, I'll try additional cables, etc. Right now I'm using Nordost Blue Heaven interconnects. Power is via PS Audio Statement SC power cables and iDOS power conditioning on a dedicated 20 amp line. This seems roughly in line with the level of gear a typical user might have (though I think the dedicated line would be rare). The idea is to outline what a user could reasonably expect from the headphones. Of course, we also want to see what the HD 800s can do with state of the art support.
 

CEO and Editorial Director, Nextscreen LLC

coopersark -- Sun, 08/02/2009 - 15:43

Tom, I understand why you had reviewed them with the supporting equipment thant you did, however, these 'phones deserve much better than what you had supported them with.  They are that revealing! Give those HD 800's  state of the art support, and you will in turn receive the current state of the art results! I look forward to reading your findings with better equipment. .

coopersark

Tom Martin -- Tue, 01/12/2010 - 16:00

Update: I have installed the PS Audio PowerPlant Premier. I've installed Shunyata Python AC cables. I've been running the Esoteric balanced into the Woo amp. And I've installed Cardas balanced cable to run from the Woo to the HD 800s. I would rate the sound with these changes as more refined and more resolving, which is a good thing. The basic errors of the HD 800 when compared with the absolute sound don't really change though -- frequency response is not flat and treble purity is not all one could wish for.

My intent here is not to criticize the HD800s (they're very good and surpass every other headphone in our lab in some way), but to suggest that it isn't obvious that the front end I've used is "much worse" than what could be reasonably accomplished. It may be that the Transparent Opus cables would transform everything, but Transparent won't provide a review sample and at $11k I can't afford to buy a set nor do I think such cables are particularly relevant to most users. That test will have to wait unless a lot of folks are interested in maximum supreme cables in this application.
 
 

CEO and Editorial Director, Nextscreen LLC

coopersark -- Wed, 01/13/2010 - 15:21

Tom, you are right, most people will never want to make the financial commitment that is unfortunately necessary for extracting the most that they can from their HD-800's and that is fine, it is just that they will never hear the true resolving capabilities of the HD-800's.
Thank you for letting me know that you received a higher level of refinement from both your power conditioning and cabling upgrades. The better the upgrade the better the refinement. I think that is my point - these phones are so resolving that they demand the very best associated equipment - electronics, cabling, and power conditioning to sound their best. The HD-800's will easy reveal those sonic improvements from the upgrades.
(Talking very recently with Transparent's head cable designer, I have found out that they are working on a propriatary cable for the HD 800's, to be released later in 2010. He thinks that silver plate over copper wire that Sennheiser employs in their HD-800 headphone cabling blurs the sound. It will be very interesting and exciting to try Transparent's version, once it comes to market. This may be responsible for some of the lack treble purity that you are hearing. From my experience, the Opus MM2 cable launches these already superb cans into another league! Absolute sound - no way, while the transient response is good, it is bettered the Stax Omega. Incisive, detailed, and dynamic, absolutely! They are an amazingly easy listen.) For most listeners these phones will be sonic nirvana "as is" with their current equipment. It is simply that they are capable of so much more that most audio enthusiasts won't ever realize it, and perhaps they wont care, as "good enough" at this level is still astounding on an absolute basis.

We should all have fun in our hobby and be happy with whatever equipment we have assembled to do our music listening, at whatever level we can afford!

Best regards,
Rob

coopersark

Renaat Mattheus (not verified) -- Thu, 03/25/2010 - 13:09

I have HD800 + Graham Slee Solo + PSU1 + Stefan Audio Art Endoprhin + Porsche Cayman S :-)
And I like them all !
 
 

bestofthelot -- Sun, 10/23/2011 - 09:48

I have HD800 + Eddie Current ZANA DEUX + Stefan Audio Art Endoprhin + :-)
 And I like them all ! THEY ARE THE BEST! 

Tonkatoy -- Thu, 04/19/2012 - 10:27

I have just had a demo of the Sennheiser HD800 driven by the Musical Fidelity HPA1 headphone amp, wow lots of detail and clarity, I'm starting to save for them now!

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