Of course, the HD800 is a truly hand-built affair. It will take time to get a pair, they are back ordered and each one takes several man-hours to build. No wonder the company put the serial number on the top of your head.
There was a two-fold aspect to this test. The first was an invite out to the Sennheiser factory, just outside of Hanover in Germany. The next was the test itself. The two were supposed to follow on relatively quickly, but a last-minute change in the ear surround material (the previous ultra-rare Japanese material was more prone to tearing than initially anticipated) and this meant a brief hiatus. This sent headphone fans on internet forums into complete apoplexy and started the conspiracy theories rolling. The boring truth is that no one died. No companies collapsed. No alien biowar interrupted the manufacturer. And no, the headbands do not cause giant pandas to suffer a loss of libido.
The HD800 is a serious piece of headphone gear. It demands use with a good headphone amplifier. Actually, make that a very good headphone amplifier… simply ‘good’ is not ‘good enough’ for this design. And no, that does not mean it’s headphone amp fussy, just that when you hear how good the HD800 is, you get fussy instead. You will start demanding the best possible headphone amplifier, the best sources and everything else, because it’s clearly and audibly rewarded.
Hi-fi writing is often filled with hyperbole, but sometimes that hyperbole reads like understatement to the reviewer, because the product is so damn good. That’s how good the HD800 is – I could wax lyrical to life-threatening levels, with sickening prose about how wonderful this product is, and not even scratch the surface. These products don’t come along that often; the Focal Grande Utopia EM loudspeaker, the Berning Quadrature Z power amps and now add the Sennheiser HD800 headphones to the list.
Why? Because it tells you stuff about your discs that you never knew before. Even discs that might have been used time and again to ascertain the performance of products start to divulge secret bits of information lost in the back of the mix. One of the tests conducted at Sennheiser was to compare the sound from headphones, near-field and full-tilt studio monitors, with a recording made a few minutes earlier and taken off the mixing desk. In particular, the engineer demonstrated the difference between two Lexicon reverb units – the PCM91 and latest PCM96. In listening through both speaker systems, the sound of the two reverbs were identical, but moving to the HD800, you could hear a slight ‘pull’ to the PCM91. It was as if the older reverb moved the singer fractionally to the side as the notes decayed. Of course, the only people who are likely to notice such subtlety are fellow HD800 users. The rest of the world will be in blissful ignorance of the make and model of Lexicon used to mix vocals.
Whether it’s stereo separation, detail, coherence, dynamic range or flat as a pancake frequency response, the HD800 has it in spades. In fact, it does these things so well, you’ll struggle to find a pair of loudspeakers that does as good a job. Forget the money aspect – you will struggle to find any pair of loudspeakers that can do all of the things the HD800 can do. Granted a pair of headphones will not give you that gut-punching bass that a pair of really big, really good loudspeakers can produce (on the other hand, with the £30,000+ you might save by not buying a pair of big loudspeakers, you can pay someone to come round and punch you in the stomach if you like that kind of thing). But for everything else… there’s the HD800.
Of course, things like soundstaging and imagery are harder to get right in a headphone, because it always sounds like the sounds are inside your head. Except for the HD800 that is. Thanks to those big, offset transducers, this headphone gives a passable sense of there being a group of instruments standing in space in front of your head, just like a good loudspeaker can. It’s not as seamless as a pair of electrostatics or as pin-point precise and powerful as a pair of Wilsons or Magicos, but it comes surprisingly close.
But perhaps the big thing about these headphones is the sense of effortlessness they have. You can put almost any piece of music through them and nothing will cause them distress. Granted, some recordings prove to be not as good as you first thought – Gillian Welsh’s Time (The Revelator) turns out to have a hardness and closed in presentation that you’d really struggle to hear elsewhere – but even this is due to the fact that the headphones always sound like they are cruising rather than panicking. Rodrigo Y Gabriela’s percussive palmas opening to ‘Tamacun’ is a case in point – it’s expressed so dynamically on the disc and through the HD800 it’ll take your ears off if played at a fair lick, and yet the HD800 deals with the onslaught like it was nothing. Excellent stuff.