(Updated 8-1-09) Sennheiser is a bit like its German compatriots BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Sennheiser doesn’t produce the largest number of headphones or the most exotic designs, but the headphones it makes consistently start with a strong engineering foundation. When such a company ventures into the top level of headphone pricing (in this case $1399), it draws attention.
Sennheiser’s attack on the “best headphones possible” category is called the HD 800. That bland nomenclature belies the effort Sennheiser has put into the design of the HD 800. This isn’t just a slightly better HD 650 (their previous top of the line and a reference for many reviewers). No, the HD 800 is a new concept of how a headphone should work.
With the HD 800, Sennheiser reexamined the way it makes headphones. The first fundamental change was shifting to a much larger driver in each earcup. A larger driver makes it possible to deliver low bass with less distortion. But Sennheiser’s design is aimed at reducing distortion across the frequency spectrum, quoted as 14hz – 44khz (-3dB) or 6hz – 51khz (-10dB).
The second major innovation is the orientation of the drivers vis-à-vis your ears. Since your ears detect the sense of space through timing differences as sound waves strike your ear from the front, Sennheiser has angled the HD 800 drivers to enhance the sense of space that the headphones provide.
Sennheiser has also paid attention to comfort by using special ear pad materials and by employing new light but very hard plastics. All in all this is an aggressive attempt to deliver the best.
Consider this headphone if: you like a smooth, neutral sound that is clear but not aggressive. These will be a good choice if you have previously owned high-end Sennheiser’s and like them but wish for more extension at the frequency extremes.
Look elsewhere if: you prefer a vivid sound with either rich bass or the ultimate in transparency.
Ratings (compared to similarly-priced headphones)
I’m sure Sennheiser worked overtime to try to remove sonic character (as in, discernible colorations) from the HD 800s. As a result, it took me a while to get a handle on what they do. For example, at first I thought they were simply on the light side in terms of bass balance (which they are, slightly). But more listening revealed excellent deep bass and enough warmth to not feel deprived. Similarly, high frequencies are there in proper balance to the midrange, but you don’t initially get the sense of being directly coupled to the microphones that you do with some other top-of-the-line ‘phones. When you get frequency balance right, you often are less impressed initially than you are after a few weeks. That was certainly the case with the HD 800s. You realize over time that the love/hate frequency anomalies of some headphones are just that—anomalies. This is high praise indeed.
So, the HD 800s have a generally neutral frequency balance. They are also clear in the way that comes from being low distortion rather than tweaked to fake your ear into thinking it is hearing true clarity. So we're talking about excellence, but there are variations on excellence.Some people will love and others be left unmoved by the HD 800's character. For that, read on.
The bass of the HD 800s is slightly soft. You don't hear the air of plucked bass or the punch of kick drum to the degree that you would with live music. I can imagine certain listeners wanting a little more bass to make up for the inevitable lack of the visceral impact you get with live music but can’t get with headphones.
I would say that the HD 800s are more natural and less analytical than some top ‘phones. This is good thing, especially when combined with the excellent treble performance on offer here, which exhibits only very small errors. The HD 800s seem to have a small dip in the upper midrange which makes them slightly soft dynamically. The treble is extended, and is smoother than on many headphones. I'd say the treble of the HD 800s is very slightly warmer than is perfectly neutral. Despite that, on occasion, vocals can sound slightly "sharp" rather than completely pure (this may be the HD 800 revealing decoding errors, but I believe something else is going on as well).