The high-end headphone world has experienced an identity crisis (admittedly slightly too strong a term) of sorts in recent times with two camps seemingly forming between the colder, analytical precision of “audiophile” tuning and the musical, rich sounds of the “new school” tuning. There are those who own and enjoy both types of headphones, but the different schools of tuning leads to a lot of conflicting opinions and definitive statements on forums about certain headphones being completely flawed in one way or another.
So how does a market leading headphone manufacturer, famous for stalwart “reference” headphones like the HD650 and HD800 respond? By aiming to straddle both camps of course!
That might sound like a knock on Sennheiser, but it’s really not. Sennheiser have proven time and time again that they can craft beautifully warm and engaging headphones like the HD650 while also producing analytical audio microscopes like the HD800 so this is not a case of a twitchy, changeable and fickle market follower so much as a highly flexible and diverse industry giant.
The HD800S is Sennheiser’s answer to industry feedback about the original HD800’s lack of bass, sharp top-end response and overall analytical sound, but it’s also recognition of a shift in tastes across the industry with listener preference studies showing a preference towards more bass presence and better treble balance.
- Impedance: 300 ohms
- Frequency response: 4 – 51,000 Hz (-10dB)
- Cable length: 3m
- Plug type: 4-pin XLR and 6.3mm jack options (both included)
- Weight: 330 grams
- Headphone type: Open, circumaural
Checking these specifications against the original HD800 you’ll find that nothing much has changed. There’s a slight shift in frequency response with an extra 2 Hz at the bottom end, but when it’s measured to -10dB that’s largely irrelevant given how far the signal has rolled off by the time you get to those last 2 Hz. That’s not to mention that 4 Hz and 6 Hz are outside the audible range, but you can always argue that you could still feel the vibrations if the amplitude / volume was high enough to be significant.
So, if the specifications aren’t that different from the original HD800, what has changed to make the HD800S a more expensive and theoretically better headphone?
Design & Features
The most obvious difference between the HD800 and the HD800S is the colour. Gone is the predominance of silver on the HD800 and in its place is an overwhelmingly dark charcoal and black colour scheme on the HD800S. It’s purely cosmetic and therefore a case of personal preference, but I like the new look – it seems premium and high quality. However, I’ll admit to still having a soft spot for the very high-tech look of the silver HD800 – the silver colour scheme suited its analytical and scientific sound.
Another difference that’s apparent once you open the box is the inclusion of the balanced, XLR-terminated cable that comes with the HD800S (but not the HD800). There’s also a 6.3mm TRS version of the same cable so when you’re paying extra for the HD800S over the HD800 you’re receiving value in the form of the very high quality secondary cable.
Buried inside the driver design of the HD800S is a significant feature that differentiates the HD800S from its older sibling. Sennheiser have incorporated a resonator device in the HD800S driver design to negate the nasty 6 kHz spike that the HD800 exhibited. The resonator is explained beautifully by Tyll over at InnerFidelity so I’d encourage a visit to his article if you’re interested in knowing the science behind the approach. In short, a resonating device is incorporated into the driver to create an opposite phase / cancellation effect at the 6kHz frequency to surgically tame the spike found in the original HD800’s frequency response.
The idea of the resonator is to surgically dampen just the required frequencies while leaving the rest of the driver characteristics unaffected. One of the problems with a lot of the DIY mods out there is that they will influence more frequencies than the small bandwidth required thus changing the overall nature of the headphone. That change might be for better or worse depending on your tastes – the point is that it’s imprecise. Sennheiser’s own solution is delivered with the precision you’d expect from Sennheiser and in a headphone like the HD800(S).
In the same article I linked to above, Tyll also discusses the deliberate addition of some harmonics (distortion) from the drivers to create an increased sense of bass presence. It’s not described in the official literature and I’m neither qualified or equipped with the test gear to discuss that in detail so again I’d encourage you to read Tyll’s review for more detail on the tuning decisions made by Sennheiser’s engineers.
So, to summarise what we know so far:
- The HD800S is a new, improved version of the HD800
- It costs roughly $600 more than the HD800 here in Australia
- It comes with new technologies to remove the 6 kHz spike
- Some ‘desirable’ distortion has been added to increase the bass presence and ‘warm up’ the sound signature
- It’s matte black
- It comes beautifully presented like the original HD800, but now also includes a balanced, 4-pin XLR cable in addition to the standard 6.3mm cable
Is that $600 additional value? I’m not convinced and I’ll explain why…
There’s no doubt that the balanced cable for the HD800(S) is worth a couple of hundred dollars so the additional $400 is paying for the resonator tech, different tuning and a different paint job. I’m not debating the expertise and technology that has likely gone into the precision damping of the 6 kHz spike – the R&D for that type of tech is probably time-consuming and expensive. Likewise, the tuning of a driver is not a simple art and often involves a great deal of modelling, possibly a degree of trial and error, and the need to balance the benefits of each adjustment with its less desirable side effects. In other words, this isn’t a question of input value; my question is all about output value – does the HD800S sound $400 better (allowing a $200 credit for the cable) than the HD800? I don’t think it does, but I’ll go into more detail about the sound before trying to explain why.
In the crudest of terms, the HD800S is a refined and slightly warmer version of the HD800. On first listen, you know that it shares the same DNA as the HD800, but it’s also clear that it’s a bit different. The most immediate attributes are the lack of bite in the treble and the less anaemic bass. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a completely different headphone though. It’s probably what the HD800 should have been all along. That said, I’m not completely convinced that it’s a 100% better headphone than the HD800. I parted with my HD800 a while back so I can’t compare them side-by-side, but my recollection suggests that the perceived laser focus of the HD800 has been very slightly blunted by the increased warmth and subdued treble of the HD800S. There’s no doubt that the HD800S will be more forgiving and less fatiguing, but I can see some people choosing to keep the HD800 over the HD800S if they’re setup (amp, DAC, etc.) is well tuned to the HD800.
Before I describe the sound in more detail, let me clarify the setup I used for all listening tests:
- PC music server (running Roon with a lossless / bit-perfect signal path)
- Raspberry Pi 3 with Digi+ Pro
- Aurealis 75 ohm BNC cable
- Schiit Gungnir Multibit DAC
- Tara Labs Prism RCA interconnects
- Bottlehead Mainline amplifier
Much has been made of the improved bass presence on the HD800S and it’s certainly a warmer headphone than the HD800, but it’s still bass-shy if you close your eyes and imagine listening to the same track live in a venue. Bass is quick and clean with a greater sense of body than I remember from the regular HD800, but it’s definitely still lean and doesn’t really have the slam to create the rhythm and drive that some tracks call for. Yes it’s clean and nimble, but there’s still no soul.
One of my favourite test albums is The Complex by Blue Man Group – beautifully recorded and full of all kinds of percussion and dynamic sounds. The HD800S sounds amazing with all the different transients flying through the massive drivers, but the bass doesn’t correctly capture the feeling of large drums – it’s better than the HD800, but still not the best I’ve heard.
The mids are just as sweet as ever with the HD800S. The extra touch of warmth has done nothing to harm the mid-range presentation and may be helping to add a greater sense of soul to the mids. Everything is clean, textured and agile in the mid-range, but not as sterile sounding as the original HD800. Listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) showed a headphone that’s adroit with anything in the mid-range band – guitars, vocals, anything.
Male and female vocals are all rendered beautifully as are orchestral instruments like violins and woodwind instruments. That said, there is a quality to the sound that prevents it from ever sounding crystal clear to me, like there’s a slight “stringiness” or tension to the music. It’s not like the headphones are straining – quite the opposite, but I still find that there’s something getting between me and the real-life experience of music with the HD800S. I believe the explanation to this is the ongoing lack of realistic bass reproduction and the result is that the HD800S produces a slightly off-balance representation of the music with a little too much emphasis on the mid-range and treble. It will start to sound normal after extended listening, but if you close your eyes and recall the experience of a live performance, you’ll realise that something is missing. For some people this will be a highly desirable trait because it’s a different and often intriguing presentation of the music, but I find it makes the HD800S slightly unnatural.
It’s worth pointing out here that switching to a higher output impedance on the amplifier (not all amplifiers can do this) definitely helps to relieve this sensation and brings the HD800S a step closer to the “live” sound I’m always looking for. Based on this experience I would definitely recommend OTL and other amps with higher output impedance if you’re looking to really enjoy the HD800S.
If there’s one area that I think the Sennheiser engineers hit a home run its with the HD800S’ treble adjustment. I owned the HD800 and used it as my primary headphone for over a year and I never had massive issues with the treble (my pair were un-modified), but there’s no doubt that the tamed 6 kHz spike has helped to make the treble from the HD800S much smoother and more enjoyable without losing the clarity and definition you expect from the HD800 family. Treble extension is excellent, the treble is very clean and very well-balanced with the mid-range which keeps all instruments sounding natural and life-like in terms of higher frequency texture and timbre.
Staging & Imaging
The HD800 was long considered the king of staging and imaging and the HD800S is no slouch in this area, but it’s probably a hair behind the HD800 in stage size. The HD800S still throws an impressively large stage for a headphone, but it falls just slightly shy of the original HD800. However, what we lose in stage size I believe we gain in image accuracy. One of my (very mild) complaints about the HD800 was that sometimes the individual sounds were slightly unfocused in that immense soundstage. The HD800S doesn’t seem to suffer from this issue so I am guessing that the 6 kHz spike caused some problems with spatial cues by masking quieter sounds in the signal that we use to locate sounds in the environment. Whatever the exact science, the result is a very slightly reduced stage size, but a more accurate image within that stage. Again, I don’t have the HD800 to check them side-by-side anymore, but given that this was a pet peeve of mine with the original, the fact that I love the imaging from the HD800S would suggest improvements.
Is It a Sound Upgrade?
Earlier I made the potentially controversial claim that the HD800S isn’t worth the additional $400 (taking out the cost of the additional cable) over the HD800, but everything I’ve just said would suggest that it sounds significantly better than the original HD800 and it really does. The HD800S is a better headphone in nearly every sense of the word, but there’s another reason that I still don’t think it’s worth more money and that’s because of its competition. The HD800S is around $2000 here in Australia. I’m not shy about spending money on great audio gear when the value is justified, but I just don’t think the HD800S stacks up unless you are looking specifically for an analytical headphone (yes, it’s still more analytical than musical). What’s more, if you want the analytical sound, the stock HD800 might actually be better.
Time for a quick story…
Over the last few years I have owned and loved the beyerdynamic T1, HiFiMan HE-500, Audeze LCD 2.2 (pre-Fazor), and Sennheiser HD800. Each had a place in my heart and listening rotation and most made it to this blog (the HD800 didn’t because I figured I was so late to the party that everything had already been said). In each case, I ended up selling the headphones and buying others because something was still missing and it’s the same thing with the HD800S – eventually I would end up selling the HD800S because it is still not a complete musical experience to my ears despite the excellent improvements made by Sennheiser.
If I were considering spending $2000 on the HD800S I would buy a different pair of headphones and spend the change some additional gear like a nice amp or DAC…
In my case, with my love for realistic sound that’s similar to live music, I would (and did) buy the much cheaper AudioQuest NightHawk. Now, before the flame wars begin, let me share a comparison to hopefully show that I am not a tone-deaf fanboy of any particular product. I happen to love the NightHawk because of a couple of its strengths, but I recognise that it has its own faults and that not everybody wants the same characteristics that I do so if you want to understand why I would prefer a pair of NightHawks and >$1000 left in my pocket, read on…
NightHawk vs HD800S
I’ll do this track-by-track to give hopefully a ranging perspective of genres. I’ll also use the best output impedances for both headphones (low for NightHawk, high for HD800S) so both are at their best.
Classical: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Symphonic Suite for Orchestra, Op. 35 (Telarc Digital CD release, conducted by Charles Mackerras)
The HD800S has a beguiling transparency to the sound and a more open presentation so I can hear every distinct sound, texture and detail, but it sounds like I’m in an over-sized concert hall and sitting a long way from the stage. The presentation lacks body and weight so all the instruments sound a little unrelated – like they’ve all been recorded separately and edited together later. There’s a lack of presence from the deeper instruments and large percussion.
Changing to the NightHawks brings the orchestra into a much more intimate space. The sense of transparency is gone, but the orchestra now sounds like they’re all sitting together on a stage in close proximity (the way orchestras actually sit). There’s also bass presence from the larger percussion and deeper instruments. The harp is of particular note here too. On the HD800S the harp is all plucked strings and no resonance while the NightHawk presents the warm glow that a harp really creates. It possibly creates that glow just a little too thickly, but I prefer to hear it thick than not hear it at all.
Classical Outcome: I really enjoy both presentations for different reasons and this is a great argument for those who like to own multiple headphones. If I had to choose just one headphone to live with, cost no object? I’d choose the NightHawk because it is a closer representation of the real experience and is also a more comfortable listen for longer sessions because of the additional bass presence.
Jazz: Limehouse Blues from “Jazz at the Pawnshop” (192 kHz / 24-bit)
Once again the HD800S is all about transparency and a sense of space. The clarinet seems to hover in space all on it’s own – holographic and lifelike – it’s amazing. Details and textures abound, but there’s a hollowness to the overall sound thanks to a lack of the deep, rich resonance you expect to hear from a jazz club environment and instruments like the double bass. All of the mid-range focused instruments sound amazing, but the cymbals are a little edgy and the bass notes lack body and weight.
Over to the NightHawks and the vibraphone now has a beautiful warm glow and the double bass has a rich, full sound that envelopes the experience rather than sitting behind it like a disembodied shell. Everything seems a little congested, especially compared to the HD800S and I honestly can’t tell if the NightHawks are creating a slight sense of over-crowding or if they are accurately and reliably recreating the actual sound of the Pawnshop jazz club. To my ears, the sound is exactly like two of my strongest memories of such places – the old Basement jazz club in Sydney, and a little place in Copenhagen where I once saw Kasper Villaume and Bob Rockwell perform. I don’t know if The Pawnshop sounded exactly like this, but I’m pretty confident it was closer to the NightHawk sound than the HD800S sound.
Jazz Outcome: This one is much more clear-cut to me. The NightHawks offer a much more true-to-life experience with no major drawbacks. The sound isn’t as open and transparent as the HD800S, but it has that elusive sense of engagement and connection to the performance that the HD800S can’t capture. In short, the NightHawks have me tapping my feet and imagining the jazz club while the HD800S has me marvelling at the individual characteristics of the clarinet and the vibraphone in isolation from the total performance.
Rock: Supremacy from “The 2nd Law” by Muse (44.1kHz / 16-bit)
No matter the genre, there’s a common theme to each of these comparisons. The HD800S creates incredible isolation to highlight and reveal all of the details in the focal point of the performance. In the case of Supremacy, the vocal is holographic and pristine out front of the musical landscape. Details and textures abound as usual with the HD800S and, as a stand alone listening experience, the reproduction of the track sounds faultless: accurate, transparent and detailed, but without glare or harshness – the ultimate example of everything the HD800S is good at.
The NightHawks offer a very different take on the same track. Their version is a bit dirtier. The kick drum has a bit of bloom to it and the guitars and bass sound like heavyweight boxers compared to the HD800S version which is more like a lean and athletic greyhound. The experience with the NightHawks seems once again more of a complete representation than the HD800S. When listening to the ‘Hawks I start to notice how much information I was missing with the HD800S. Sure, the HD800S provides a far better microscope on the mid-range and treble, but it’s enhancing the details on 60-70% of the overall picture while the NightHawk provides 100% of the picture without the enhancement. It’s a question of taste, but I personally find that the rhythm and soul of the music is hiding in that last 30% so I find the NightHawk to be a more enjoyable experience compared to the highly technical experience of listening to the HD800S.
There’s no doubt that the HD800S is a fantastic headphone that sounds smoother than the original HD800 while still retaining much of the HD800’s focus and detail. However, it’s very hard for me to recommend the HD800S because I think it’s hard to justify the increased price tag. If you’re looking for a laser-sharp, detail-oriented headphone I think the original HD800 is still worth considering given its lower price tag and slightly more focused sound (based on my memories of the HD800). If you’re looking for emphasised detail and clarity then you should definitely check out both the HD800 and HD800S, but if you’re looking for the full musical experience you might be better looking elsewhere and possibly save yourself some money to invest in other upgrades like your amp or DAC.