Model changes at the upper end of Sennheiser's headphone line don't happen very often. The previous flagship headphones, the HD 650s, were introduced in 2003, and remain in the line. Their predecessors, the HD 600s, came out more than a decade ago, and are still popular with audiophiles. We've reviewed both, and they're both excellent headphones. But the HD 800s are something else again. They feature an all-new design that's a step up from that of previous Sennheiser headphones. But that exclusivity is going to cost you a mint: the 800s retail for about £1,240.
Pinnacle of comfort
The 800s' striking design sets them apart from every other headphone model on the market. But it's not just a styling exercise -- the large earcups are designed to place the drivers further away and slightly more to the front of the listeners' ears than is possible with smaller designs. The precision quality of the earcups' plastic, metalwork and micro-fibre ear cushions certainly feels luxurious. The 800s perfectly distributed their 330g weight on our head, and the ear-pad pressure felt just right. These headphones are supremely comfortable.
The 800s' patented doughnut-shaped transducer measures 56mm across, and Sennheiser claims it's the largest used in a modern pair of headphones. It's interesting to note that the vibrating part of the diaphragm isn't its circular interior, but its outer ring. The design is said to produce less distortion than conventional drivers.
The driver is mounted at an angle on a specially devised, perforated, stainless-steel support on the earcup, to mimic the way sound from speakers is heard. The support is mounted on a special type of plastic frame, selected for its acoustic properties.
Each driver is tested, measured and given its own unique identifier. If you ever need to replace an 800 driver in the future, Sennheiser claims it will be able to provide an exact match.
The 3m, cloth-covered Y-cable (there's one cord for each earcup) features silver-plated, oxygen-free copper wiring. It's reinforced with Kevlar to enhance durability. The cable is removable and features new patented and proprietary connectors. The base of the 6.3mm phono plug is a well-finished, solid metal piece. (You'll need to provide your own adaptor if you want to use an audio source with a standard 3.5mm headphone jack.)
The HD 800s come packed in a beautiful storage case. Each pair of headphones is hand-assembled and tested in Germany.
Great headphones aren't just about having more bass, more detail or resolution, or more whatever. The very best ones offer a finely tuned sonic balance. That's what truly distinguishes the 800s -- they 'disappear' more than any other dynamic (non-electrostatic) headphones we've used. With the 800s, you feel like you're getting a direct connection to the music.
Compared to any other headphones we've heard since the long-gone and very expensive AKG K1000s, the 800s sound slightly less like headphones and more like high-end speakers. The 800s' sound appears to come from in front, rather than to the sides, unlike with other headphones.
The 800s' open quality certainly increases their sense of space and depth compared with most other headphones. The downside is that, depending on the recording, the 800s' sound may seem too distant or spacious for some buyers. We liked it, though -- a great deal.
That open quality was definitely a plus in our home-theatre auditions, in which the sound appeared to almost come from the screen. We watched State of Play, and the 800s put us right inside the newsroom, with ringing telephones, the clatter of keyboards and voices of other reporters filling a huge space. We soon forgot that we were wearing headphones and lost ourselves in the film. The 800s have a special affinity for movie dialogue -- it was the most natural we've ever heard from a dynamic headphone.
Moving to action films, the King Kong DVD's ample dynamics were very good, but lacked the impact we heard from the Grado PS1000 headphones. During the scene with the rampaging dinosaurs, we could almost feel each thump on the ground with the PS1000s. By comparison, the 800s softened the blows.
Up to this point we listened to the headphones exclusively over our Onkyo TX-SR805 receiver. For CDs, we switched over to our Woo Audio WA6 Special Edition headphone amplifier, which significantly improved the 800s' overall sound quality, most notably in the dynamics and resolution of fine detail.
With CDs, the 800s sounded clear but laid-back compared with the PS1000s and Ultrasone Edition 8 headphones. The latter two had much brighter treble and more bass oomph than the 800s, so it was easier to follow the guitar lines when rocking out with the Rolling Stones' remastered Sticky Fingers CD. The bass and drums were more 'live' sounding with the PS1000s, and to a lesser extent, the Edition 8 headphones.
We think those two headphones are less accurate than the 800s, though. If accuracy is your top priority, go for the 800s. For our tastes, the PS1000s were more exciting and engaging. The Grado headphones would be the ones we'd buy.
To finish up, we played the 800s over an iPod. The sound was spectacular in every way but one: it couldn't play very loud. It was loud enough for us, but, if you really like to crank up your tunes, the 800s won't be a good match with an MP3 player. The Ultrasone and Grado headphones were better in that regard.
The Sennheiser HD 800s are in the top tier of ultra-high-end headphones. If you're in the market for super-luxurious 'phones, they should definitely be on your list, if not at the very top of it.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet