These are the single greatest headphones in the history of the world. That is of course a bit unfair to all the headphones I’ve never tested. I also had to upgrade the stock headphone cable with a new one from Cardas Audio before I could make such a statement, but now that I have your attention, read on.
You can trace the development of the HD 800 headphones back to 1968 and the introduction of the HD414, the first open headphones. They were a revelation at the time – lightweight, inexpensive, comfortable and excellent sounding. They were also phenomenally successful – 14 million pairs sold. From that time Sennheiser has produced many more refined open designs, and it should surprise no one that Sennheiser is the world’s market leader today in headphones. The HD 580 was a key development in the nineties, followed by the even more refined HD 600 and HD 650, both still in production. These three, each more massive than the last, pushed Sennheiser higher in price and performance, the HD 650 in particular being very popular among audiophiles even today.
Despite owning the HD 580, I have for many years preferred another manufacturer, AKG, in my pursuit of listening pleasure. I’m not a big fan of the sound of the three Sennheiser models (too clinical), but more significantly, I don’t find them comfortable for long stretches (too much ear clamping). So I’ve split my listening between the amazing but now discontinued AKG K1000 Ear Speaker, and the more modern AKG K701. The K1000 is a rare animal, its earpieces cantilevered out away from the ears and taking its power directly from the speaker terminals of your amplifier. It showed people in the industry what was possible in terms of comfort, detail and imaging, even if it was too impractical for most of us, and quite incapable of interfacing with the ubiquitous iPod.
One way I like to test headphones is to have them running through my Graham Slee Solo headphone amp at about the same volume as my speakers, which I have playing at the same time. Then I slip the phones on and off and see how close they get to the sound of the big speakers. Using this method, all headphones pretty much suck, but some do a much better job than others. The K701 does quite well, showing a much brighter balance than my speakers and maintaining a strong level of detail and dynamics while failing to create the kind of 3D image good speakers and the older K1000s achieve.
When I say all headphones fail this test, there’s an exception of course, and that’s what I’ve been waiting for these many years. The Sennheiser engineers gave up trying to perfect the HD 600 series phones, and started again with a clean sheet of paper. It’s as if they’d been reading my mind (or my reviews). They have delivered a new model, the HD 800, which eliminates the divide between speakers and headphones. It images like the AKG K1000 and delivers unparalleled comfort while covering an enormous bandwidth with very strong resolution, the holy grail for audiophiles. I didn’t say all this would come cheap – the HD 800 retails for $ 1795.95. But I can say there is no way to reach this level of sonic performance for less, so you could say that we are dealing with an audiophile bargain. You’ll be up around five figures before you find speakers that can give the HD800 a good run for the money.
So what has Sennheiser done to cause such a performance breakthrough?
At the heart of this component is a radical new transducer, ring shaped for maximum control of the oscillating surface. The larger the transducer, the more powerful the bass, but along with this, the high frequencies are increasingly affected by spurious eigenmode distortions. The ring structure, which replaces the traditional circular or conical transducer, tames those distortions and allows effortless bass extension without affecting treble purity. The diameter of the transducer is a massive 56 mm while the aluminum coil measures 40 mm and the magnet system 42 mm, all of these sizes being the largest of their respective types. The aluminum windings are just 42 micrometers thick and are hand-wound 3.5 layers thick for a total of 98 windings in a precise 0.6 mm gap between the magnets.
A second feature of the design is an angled offset to the drivers, as in the AKG K1000, so that sound arrives at the ear from a position in front of the ear, instead of the conventional perpendicular position. This helps to give a much more natural sound since in concerts, we sit with the musicians in front of us, not placed to either side of the head.
With such large drivers and the space needed to accommodate the requisite angling, these were never going to be lightweight phones. All the more reason to pay particular attention to comfort. Who wants heavy and uncomfortable headphones? Sennheiser selected a special kind of soft Japanese Alcantara for the earpads and a mix of high tech lightweight materials to minimize weight. A stainless steel mesh protects the drivers without interfering with the sound, while Leona, an ultra rigid plastic, is used in the casing to minimize vibrations. The metal headband with an inner damping element is adjustable and padded. It exerts a much lower force on the ears than the earlier Sennheiser models and allows the phones to pivot to the best position against each ear. You’ll certainly feel these phones on your head, but the touch is so soft and luxurious you won’t mind the weight (330 g) and thanks to its open design, your ears will not get hot with extended listening.
You can forget about the closed-in feeling you get with most headphones. You can also forget about the familiar rolled off tops or weak bass. And although ultra expensive electrostatic headphones have provided great sound for years, they simply don’t have the dynamic range of these puppies. We’re talking a whole new ball game here.
The HD800 are so well balanced they render all kinds of music equally well and bring any good recording to life. They have superb low level resolution so you can enjoy the most intricate acoustic guitar playing with its associated delicate harmonics, and yet they can sustain the full weight of a Mahler Symphony without evidence of strain. Treble is effortless and smooth, yet with excellent bite. Given a good headphone amp, they will revel in the deep bass of a church organ and rock hard with the Stones or Count Basie. Distortions are vanishingly low at all frequencies.
Sennheiser has clearly eclipsed their earlier offerings, as they should at this price. Don’t I have any complaints? Well yes. I wish they were lighter, that the mid range attack was as sharp as my AKG K1000 and that they were a little easier to drive (yes a really good head amp is essential). I still prefer the imaging and the range of adjustments offered by the AKG K1000, but I much prefer the frequency balance and dynamic range the newer phones bring to the table. I’m a little disappointed by the stock cable, but thrilled that Sennheiser has made cable switching so easy and the new connectors so robust and user friendly. Overall, expensive as they are, there is nothing available at a lower price that can hold a candle to the HD800, and nothing more expensive that I prefer. I’m putting both my AKG phones out to pasture now, after many years of excellent service. This is the new gold standard.
Cords – Stock or Cardas?
So what’s the deal with the cord? Sennheiser has moved to a new style of plugs for the HD800, one plug at each earpiece and rubber clad cables which extend a foot to where the two cables meet. From there a black cloth sheathed twisted cable runs 3 metres to the serious looking 1/4-inch jack. The wires are oxygen free copper, silver plated and Kevlar reinforced. The cable, though substantial, is quite flexible and marks a serious upgrade from previous efforts. My problem is that it is not capable of delivering the level of performance the headphones themselves make possible. So I contacted George Cardas of Cardas Audio, who has helped me before with upgraded cables for my AKG K1000s. It so happened he had a prototype ready for me to fit the new HD 800, and sent it along for this test. The replacement cable attaches in seconds and, unlike the stock cable, is marked left and right (no more guessing). It’s a little thinner but also a bit stiffer and comes with a grey sleeve which provides a good match with the silver/black color scheme of the HD800. The Cardas cable turns a great pair of headphones into a world beater. The sound is more fluid, dynamic and natural, and it’s hard to go back. The cable features four conductors, Golden Ratio stranding, Constant Q, Pure Copper Litz and double shielding, with a lifetime warranty. You can buy a 1.25 m length for $249 US, 3 m for $286 US, 4.5 m for $358 US and 6 m for $424 US. Balanced versions of these cables are also available. www.cardas.com
Sennheiser Canada Inc.
Sennheiser HD800 Headphones
Price: $1799.95 CAD