Sennheiser HD 800 is one BOOORRIIIING Headphone, but you can't tell by reading the reviews

David Matz -- Sun, 05/16/2010 - 21:01

I have been listening to the Senn 800 with some musician friends, and this headphone is just plain boring.  A similarly priced Grado in the same systems is so much more alive and real sounding.  Likewise, a 5 year old Beyer in the middle of the product line smokes this thing.  
 
The HD 800 reminds me of gear by Bryston or Mark Levinson.  It is made for a middle aged, upper middle class guy who is afraid to leave his house to listen to live music, and has not heard live music since college.   This audiophile actually forgot how to tap his foor.  The boring detail coming across is considered "accurate" and "neutral". 
 
So why are reviewers afraid to call is so?  I have a theory or two: 
- That middle aged guy is actually a typical audiophile, and most audiophiles like this type of sound.  They don't want to offend.
- Like the financial guys, the reviewers are afraid to step away from the herd and call things like it is.  It sure takes a lot of courage to be the only guy who says something stinks when everyone is pretending it is smelling like roses.
 
Who else here finds these headphones dull?

Tom Martin -- Mon, 05/17/2010 - 13:22

Perhaps the sound you're hearing is in line with this?
 
"I’m more in the camp that likes, but doesn’t love, the HD 800. I believe that has less to do with outright 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 initially (primarily the Luxman P200 and PS Audio GCHA), are not vivid, which is what keeps me on the “like” side of the line. I have since tried the prototype Woo Audio WA 22 amp (which is tube rather than solid state and has variable output impedance). The WA 22 takes the sense of vividness up a notch, mostly by making the midrange contrast level higher, while introducing minimal if any deleterioius side effects. The mostly subtractive errors noted above are still there, but they are diminished in the overall presentation"
 
From our review, BTW.

CEO and Editorial Director, Nextscreen LLC

David Matz -- Mon, 05/17/2010 - 23:04

Mr. Martin,

Thanks for chiming in. Yes, I did read and re-read these two paragraphs of your review several times after I listened to the headphones. Your criteria of "vividness of live music" is how I judge all gear. I guess my impression was much more visceral and negative. I am not sure if you are familiar with Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink", but I have heard enough gear that I can make a snap judgment about a piece of gear after hearing a few minutes (or in some cases seconds) of a song.

I do imagine these would sound better with a faster and more dynamic amp such as Naim Headline. On the other hand, why spend all that money on these headphones when a brand such as Beyer would work much better.

Also, what do you think of Woo WA 22? Does it have that three dimensionality of tubes in its presentation? How dynamic or "vivid" is it to other headphone amps that you have heard?

Thanks

Tom Martin -- Tue, 05/18/2010 - 07:47

I thought the Woo WA22 performed superbly on the HD 800s, and I couldn't see any real drawback with any of the other headphones we had in the lab when we also had the WA22. That said, I didn't find that the WA22 was a huge step forward over transistor amps on those other headphones. I do wonder if the Woo, with the choice of two output impedances, doesn't simply mate with the HD 800 well because it tweaks the FR curve.

As for "Blink" -- yes, I've read it, and I enjoy Gladwell. While I would agree that you can tell a lot in short order about many components, I also find that extending listening is helpful. The reason for this is simple: no short musical sample contains all the signals that trigger all the behaviors we want to know about. There is no simple, complex music, singularly highlighting violin, guitar, piano, female vocal, male vocal, cymbal, bass, drum, whilst showing the complete orchestra and metal band full tilt and playing quietly in a large/medium/small hall.

When I put forth the idea of vividness, it was to begin to describe components in broader terms than the micro-analytical ones we normally use (and will continue to use), because I think that is more how we actually sense musical reproduction. Vividness could be accomplished via distortion, but if we check our dictionaries I think it is clear that it doesn't have to be. While I personally think vividness is critical, and you obviously do, a review is not primarily subjective; it is intended to be a series of objective observations that the reader can piece together to determine if the product fits his/her needs. Therefore, a review must consider a product from multiple angles. This tends to lead to a sense of balance, and restricts subjectively forceful opinion. Just know that that is done with a reasoned purpose.

CEO and Editorial Director, Nextscreen LLC

David Matz -- Wed, 05/26/2010 - 18:40

"As for "Blink" -- yes, I've read it, and I enjoy Gladwell. While I would agree that you can tell a lot in short order about many components, I also find that extending listening is helpful. The reason for this is simple: no short musical sample contains all the signals that trigger all the behaviors we want to know about. There is no simple, complex music, singularly highlighting violin, guitar, piano, female vocal, male vocal, cymbal, bass, drum, whilst showing the complete orchestra and metal band full tilt and playing quietly in a large/medium/small hall."

Mr. Martin,

I appreciate the rigor you and the ABS reviewers put into their work. I also expect it. I am also interesting in good decision making. Based on psychology research, there are 3 ways people make decisions. Ideally, they would take their time, understand the problem, research the alternatives, understand the consequences of alternatives, understand the risks and trade-offs, etc. In reality, very few people do this. Another way to make the decision is just a fast gut reaction, based on intuition. This is very fraught with peril, as our intuition frequently leads us astray. Nobel prizes have been won documenting these decision traps. Some of the most common traps include anchoring (such as judging something highly/ poorly after finding out its price), availability bias (focusing on dramatic, less frequent elements such as great deep bass rather than on common elements such as a great midrange), overconfidence (walk into a room of audiophiles and ask them how many of them in that room have above average hearing and 80% will raise their hands), framing (component sounds good in the reviewer's system, but not in many other systems), seeking confirming evidence (hearing what we want to hear), and others. However, this is how most decisions are made. Finally, the Blink method works for "experts". In my case, I have heard enough systems and equipment that I know what I like or don't like pretty much off the bat. This fast reaction is helpful to my wallet.

However, your goals as a magazine and my goals as a consumer spending my hard earned money may or may not coincide. Your reviews frequently are about describing the absolute sound. My goal in reading the reviews is to ultimately make a good decision. Although I am interested in the Platonic Ideal of the absolute sound, this ideal varies from person to person. That is why I find Mr. Valin's Aristotelian categorization of the types of sound in a fairly recent blog post most helpful. (These categories are transparent to recording, absolute sound, and "as you like it"). I wish all reviews were classified using this innovation. They would help cut through the clutter and save readers like me time in avoiding listening to a component that I should not be bothering with.

Tom Martin -- Thu, 05/27/2010 - 16:31

I like JV's idea if we could figure out how to apply it consistently. My impression was that JV was categorizing listener approaches more than ways to categorize equipment, but I'll re-read his blog.

What we've been trying to say lately is that there are a lot of people who are interested in something that approximates the absolute sound. But, given that there are always compromises to be made in reproducing the absolute sound, reasonable people with different perceptual processing will come to different conclusions about what approximation is best. That difference isn't "as you like it" in the sense of the absolute sound being irrelevant. It is a matter of most people agreeing on the goal, but there being different (reasonable) choices in what is "close" and what is "far".

Then we get down to how our publications explain those approximations so readers can figure them out. My feeling is that many readers would prefer a more wholistic representation of the way equipment approximates the absolute sound (which is consistent with your skepticism about the first decision-making approach you outline). Lacking that, a lot of folks seem to skip the details and try to figure out whether the reviewer "liked" the component. Yet here we are resolutely trying not to get subjective! So, we need some new concepts, which is perhaps not easy -- we won't really know until we've done more work on this.

CEO and Editorial Director, Nextscreen LLC

ScottB -- Mon, 05/17/2010 - 21:33

 Well, I'm a "middle aged, upper middle class guy" but I'm hardly afraid to leave my house to listen to live music. In addition to season tickets to the Oregon Symphony, I'm a frequent attendee of the local chamber music, jazz, and occasionally blues scene. I have Senn 800s, which I like a great deal, even though I can understand why some might not. If most of your live music experience consists of close-up listening to small ensemble, amplified (or even some unamplified) blues, rock, or jazz, the Senns will not produce that in-your-face kind of punch and tonal balance. On the other hand, the 800s reproduce naturally recorded orchestral, chamber, and jazz music with more realistic tonal balance than any other headphone (or speaker, actually) than I've heard. This is fortunate, because I find the Grados to be torture to wear for more than 10 minutes at a time on my large ears.
 
So, one person's "boring detail" is another person's "natural perspective", while another's "vivid" translates as "brash and fatiguing" to his partner. These kinds of dichotomy have existed since the dawn of subjective audio reviewing, and place upon the reviewer an obligation to explain his or her biases, and on the reader not to take any overall subjective conclusion too seriously.

David Matz -- Mon, 05/17/2010 - 23:09

ScottB,

I do agree with you - this hobby is all about personal, subjective tastes. And it is a hobby, after all! I am amazed that this headphone is considered a consensus best, while it fails to appeal to a group of listeners that cannot stand that "analytical" sound. I am also amazed that based on reviews I have read no one has really called what I feel about it in plain language.

What headphone amp are you using, by the way?

Tom Martin -- Sun, 05/23/2010 - 08:34

Just to make it clear, Playback did not -- ever -- say the HD 800 was the best headphone. If you read the comments on the original review, you'll see that we were criticized pretty strongly for pointing out that it had a bevy of flaws. It would appear that many people, and perhaps some reviewers to judge by your comments, decided the HD 800 was the best and then looked for evidence.

Given that other headphones also have flaws, we acknowledge that for some listeners the HD 800 is a good choice. It isn't a good review if it only represents one of several reasonable views. If it does, it is then an opinion piece (and should not be published as a review).

CEO and Editorial Director, Nextscreen LLC

docmark -- Sun, 08/29/2010 - 13:01

 I own a pair of HD800 headphones.  I would hardly describe them as boring.  Solid bass, air around instruments, great imaging.  I'm driving them with one of two headphone amps - a Naim Headline with HiCap power supply (home), or the headphone out of a Weiss DAC 202 ("portable").  If you find them boring, perhaps you should have a look at the rest of your equipment.  What are you driving them with?

David Matz -- Wed, 09/01/2010 - 23:22

Docmark,

Actually I never purchased them. I heard them with various gear at dealers and in several systems at the latest Canjam, and I still stand by my post. The Grados and Beyerdynamic T1's that I own are much more lifelike. Like you, I own the Naim headline 2, powered by a Teddycap 3 (which is better than the Naim Hicap 2) and I drive it with Ayre c5 mp.

I think that if you did not have the Naim unit, you may also find them dull. Or you may not, if you like to analyze the music. This is a hobby after all. Enjoy the music!

JeffK -- Thu, 09/09/2010 - 12:16

 I also have a pair and at first hated them when driven by a Grace 902m. Then switched to another (tube) amp and they sound much better. I now am using a Donald North amp and am very happy with their sound but needed a closed can so now am using the JVC HP-DX1000. I like these a lot also. I do think the HD800 are very amp dependent. Have you ever listened to the Qualia 010? You make like those as they are fast and vivid.

 jfkbike

Jon2020 -- Mon, 09/13/2010 - 09:11

I would just like to add my two cents' worth if i may about the 800's. I have had it for a year now and as it breaks in over time, somethimg like 500 hours, it is gradually but surely blossoming into a most articulate state-of-the-art transducer bar none, in my most humble opinion.  Indeed, the 800's are unlike ANY other headphone I have ever used. It does NOT sound in your head at all, like most headphones. In fact, dare I say it, it sounds like your sound system tacked to your ears. At times, it sounds as good if not better than my main rig. A case in point would be when listening to the "Carlos Santana Presents Blues at Montreaux" Blu-ray disc set to output 2-channel PCM 48kHz/24bit. With my Denon AVR set to Pure Direct, the sound emanating from the 800's into my ears is well, purely magical. To paraphrase Mr harley, it is the anti-thesis of boring, lethargic, polite, dark, soft and so on and so forth. To describe the sound directly, words like high resolution and transparent immediately come to mind. With precise imaging, accurate tone and timbre, and a sounstage that reproduces very closely what you see on the tele, the performance of Buddy Guy, Clarence Brown and Bobby Parker with their respective bands, in that order of brilliance, was simply to die for - scintillating, exciting and most importantly, brought into your very home. And the Sennheiser 800's kept pace with everything that was recorded on the disc. My only niggle is that the very low bass is a tad soft, but other than this, from the mid-bass on up, it beckons me to audio nirvana.

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