Let’s start with Keb’ Mo’. “Come on into my Kitchen” is very well balanced on the new phones, a clear advantage over the HD800 with its lighter bass and slightly raucous treble. This pattern repeats on a lot of recordings, the HD800S presenting a warmer and more forgiving performance. But although overall I prefer the new phones, especially on piano recordings which sound altogether more mellow and rich, there are tracks where the greater clarity and more open treble of the HD800 is a better fit. If the recording and the playback equipment is already on the warm side, the purity of the HD800 wins. If it starts out lean, then the added warmth works well. It’s like using a tone control.
Let’s think for a moment about tube amplification. Many people prefer the warmth of tubes over the more analytical (and accurate) sound of a fine transistor amp. Why? Because tube amps often introduce low levels of second order harmonics – by which we mean a harmonic exactly one octave above the fundamental notes. We enjoy this. It makes the sound of a given instrument, which is comprised of fundamental notes together with a mix of second and higher order harmonics, richer, warmer, more present.
Adding second order harmonics makes the HD800S sound warmer but doesn’t make it more accurate. In fact, in this it is introducing a slight distortion to compensate for the slope of the frequency response. And the treble adjustments make for a smoother response but they also reduce the clarity and speed of response that made the HD800 such a breakthrough in the first place.
I like to compare headphones directly against my reference speakers, the YG Carmel 2. The Carmel is more immersive, stronger in the bass and more relaxing, but both share the highest levels of resolution, exceptional imaging and killer dynamics. The HD800S performs very well in this comparison. Mate it with a superb headphone amp like the Pass Labs HPA-1 and you have an entry into the extreme high end at a huge discount to any comparable loudspeaker/power amp based system.
HD800 or HD800S? It’s going to be up to you. Both models are superb instruments, one a magnifying glass into the music, on the bright side of neutral, the other offering a warmer and more rounded performance. The differences between them are not major, not as great for instance as the difference between either model and competing models from Sony, Focal, Stax, Audeze and others.
Most recently I’ve reviewed the much more expensive ($4,999) and highly acclaimed Focal Utopia headphone. In many ways I prefer the HD800S – lighter, better imaging, a more open and extended treble. Where the Utopia wins is in the unbelievable fit and finish, the higher performance included cable (single ended only but you can buy after-market balanced cables here too), and the greater presence and deep bass performance. If you can afford it, this is a must-hear, but it really only shows its full potential with the finest of amplification, while the HD800S is a good deal more forgiving.
I like the new HD800S a lot, and it gets a very strong recommendation from me. I prefer it to the classic HD800, and the extra moola buys you a balanced cable many users at this elevated price level will be looking for. We live in a golden age of headphones.