Sennheiser HD 800 S Review - The Critical Take
Review written by @Precogvision
My history with the HD800S stretches back to roughly a year ago when I first heard it at the Sennheiser SF storefront. Even though the star of the show should have been Sennheiser’s HE1 (you know, just the world’s most expensive headphone) which I also got to demo, I still recall myself being attracted to the HD800S like no other headphone in the store. It had detail, clarity, and staging in spades, pretty much all my wholly inexperienced ears cared for. Still, I found myself wishing to evaluate it in a more quiet listening environment, so courtesy of Headphones.com, I’ve had the Sennheiser HD800S sitting on my desk for the last six months or so.
Yeah. It’s taken a while for me to get around to this review. That’s mainly because I’ve found my taste in headphones has skewed elsewhere and, frankly, I struggled to find the motivation to write it at times. Nonetheless, I’ll be sharing why that is the case; hopefully, my review can lend a more critical perspective to what is one of the most acclaimed headphones in the game.
This unit was provided for review by Headphones.com. It will be returned at the end of the review period. As usual, what follows are my honest thoughts and opinions to the best of my ability.
Source & Drivability
Critical listening was done off of an iFi Micro iDSD Black Label > Macbook Air > Audirvana using lossless FLAC files. I used a variety of other portable sources to drive the HD800S without issue, and I have also heard it off of the Sennheiser HDV 820 at the Sennheiser SF store before. Unfortunately, I did not have access to a dedicated, desktop amp for listening at the time of this publication.
The HD800S arrives in a gigantic black, hard-cardboard box. Inside you’ll find the HD800S nested in foam and with the following accessories:
- 4.4mm 10ft cable
- 6.35mm 10ft cable
- Microfiber cleaning cloth
- Microfiber baggy
- USB Flash Drive
The HD800S sports a sleek, refined build with a silver and black, dichromatic aesthetic. It is largely constructed of plastic to cut down on weight, but does have metal hardware interspersed throughout. The build quality is excellent without creaking and inspires a sense of confidence. The included cables are shrouded in a cloth-like material with good tactility and plenty of length if you’re planning to move around your listening area.
Now honestly, I’ve never been much of a headphone guy. I’ve just never been able to get around the weight and discomfort that characterizes most headphones I’ve worn. But the HD800S is making me rethink that - if only a little. The largely plastic construction is predicated on making the headphone as lightweight and easy-on-the-ears as possible, which results in a lightweight 330 grams. Stack on cups that sink over my ears with ample breathing room and plush, microfiber contact points, and the HD800S is one of the few headphones that I don’t mind wearing for a couple of hours. For isolation, although it might seem obvious, there is zero isolation because this is an open-back headphone. No really, I state this just because of how many, ah, let’s just say interesting Amazon reviews I’ve seen of open-back headphones.
To my ears, the HD800S presents an analytical, reference-oriented sound. It is a highly technical headphone that has won no shortage of praise for its exceptionally open staging, clarity, and detail retrieval. That being said, it is a headphone far from being devoid of flaw; I’ll explore this further in-depth below.
So let’s just get this out of the way: the HD800S’s bass is where the headphone really pulls the short end of the stick. As is characteristic of Sennheiser’s headphones, it sounds linear until you go down shy of sub-100hZ; at which point, it sounds like the bass drops off a cliff. You’re not buying this headphone for rumble or slam. But it’s not just a matter of quantity, something that can be mitigated with EQ if one chooses, so much as it is the HD800S’s technical performance on this front. There is a distinct lack of tactility and “oomph” to the bass; I would go so far as to say that bass detail sounds like it’s being smeared over. I hear this against not just something like the Focal Clear, but even some IEMs that I have on hand. In short? I’m not too impressed - okay, more like not impressed at all - with the HD800S’s bass.
Conversely, the midrange of the HD800S is the most solid part of the tuning in my opinion. It is leaner, emphasizes a high degree of vocal intelligibility and, within the context of audio, invokes transparency in the truest sense of the word. Even on some of the questionably mastered K-Pop tracks I listen to (yes, I listen to a lot of what most audiophiles would call “garbage,” fight me) like Loona’s “Eclipse,” vocals cut through the extraneous synth-sounds with decided ease. But the HD800’s midrange is not without its drawbacks; to this end, it achieves this uber-clarity thanks to a couple of tuning tricks. First, of course, it’s aided by the aforementioned lack of bass which will inherently boost one’s perception of later frequencies. Second, there is a relative lack of energy from roughly 1-2kHz which cuts a good deal of body out of male vocals. Finally, I notice a certain straining effect - perhaps edginess - when high notes are hit with female vocals. I can’t help but wonder if this is a product of the frequencies infringing upon the HD800S’s 6kHz peak, similar to what I hear on the Focal Clear if not nearly to the same degree, thankfully.
And speaking of that 6kHz peak, let’s talk about the HD800S’s treble. The selling point of the HD800S - at least relative to the original HD800 - is the implementation of an absorber that serves to attenuate what could have otherwise been a quite peaky and bright treble response. The principle is (likely) similar to the SDR mod that many owners have taken to implementing on their HD800s over the years. I still have a love-hate relationship with the HD800S’s treble response. The 6kHz peak lends to backdrop percussive hits sounding like raindrops splattering on a tin roof, while more forward hits have a “clanky-ness” to them that can sound somewhat harsh on first listen. But hours of listening, brain burn-in or not, have me not minding as much as I did originally. It certainly does wonders for the HD800S’s perception of detail, and the quality - textural nuance - of the treble itself is exemplary.
Who could deny the HD800S’s killer imaging and soundstage? Well...nobody except me. Where the HD800S stumbles - stumbles hard, I might add - is the center image. And I am a big stickler for center image. For those who might not be familiar with this term, it is a psychoacoustic illusion for headphones and IEMs; the product of having two channels in conjunction. When a transducer is able to also project the center image, it results in what I perceive as soundstage depth. Very few transducers I have heard make this distinction, and hours of listening have forced me to conclude that the HD800S doesn’t merit entry to those exclusive ranks - not by a long shot. Like so, there is the strong perception of vocalists being trapped inside one’s head, and the contrast to what is an otherwise extremely open presentation results in what I have heard best described as a “reverse cardioid” (yeah, just Google it, the image will explain way better than I can) soundstage.
Indeed, the HD800S has an incredibly wide soundstage, and for layering ability - the perceived sense of space between instruments - I have heard no other headphone with such stellar distinction. And the detail, can we talk about the sheer detail? The HD800S is incredibly resolving with notes in the midrange and treble fleshed out with terrifically defined transient attack. For microdetail - consonances, reverb trails, and the like - again, I’ve heard no peer to the HD800S, and it is a detail lover’s dream headphone. But it’s not all sunshine and daisies. I do not think that its microdynamic engagement - decibel fluctuations to said microdetail - is on the same level. Likewise, A/B-ing with the Focal Clear suggests that, while by no means compressed in the way it scales dynamics swings, the HD800S lacks the same level of visceral macrodynamic punch. This culminates in a decidedly more sterile technical showing.
To my ears, there is a general sense of the HD800S being a superstar in some respects, and in others, being more middling or simply falling flat altogether. Consequently, my relationship with the HD800S has been a fickle one. From being a possible endgame headphone to being a headphone that I see as far from perfect these days, listeners like myself who want a more natural, organic sound would be best suited by steering away or by only owning the HD800S as a reference headphone. But beyond the scope of subjective preference, I have no problem respecting the HD800S for what it is. It has top-tier technical ability and maintains a reasonably balanced sound signature. For the discerning listener who desires a tool to analyze musical nuance at the highest level, the HD800S is definitely a headphone that should be on the list - scratch that, at the top of the list. It certainly doesn’t hurt that, as a testament to its relevance and staying power, it remains the benchmark with which top headphones are compared to today.
- Aimer - Hakuchuumu
- David Nail - Let It Rain
- Everglow - DUN DUN
- Girls’ Generation - Galaxy Supernova
- Illenium - Broken Ones
- Joe Nichols - Sunny and 75
- Keith Urban - Defying Gravity (2009)
- Keiichi Okabe - Weight of the World (NieR:Automata Original Soundtrack)
- Sabai - Million Days
- Sawano Hiroyuki - Best of Vocal Works Remastered (2020)
- Taeyeon - My Voice (2017)
- Tiffany - I Just Wanna Dance
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