Comparing World-Class Headphones Sennheiser HD 800

Sennheiser HD 800 ($1499)

Description - Sennheiser's flagship dynamic headphone is a full-size open design, and uses a ring radiator driver to deliver a more planar wavefront to the ear.

Pink Noise - Very even sounding, but lacks a bit of heft in lowest two octaves, and has mild mid-treble emphasis (between "sss" to "ssh").

Bass Texture - Good texture and extension. Slightly "one note" sounding relative to the planar magnetic cans.

Bass Slam - Dynamics are good on these, but the slightly one-note sound and lack of bass extension has these falling a bit short relative to the planar magnetics.

Midrange - The amazingly good imaging of the HD 800 coupled with an excellent mid-range had these cans delivering a great sense of someone standing in front of me singing. But, like the HE-6, though to a lesser extent, the slightly accentuated treble left me feeling the voices were a bit withdrawn and lacking in organic body. Just a bit dry.

Treble - Though just slightly too elevated, the treble here is extraordinarily fast and coherent. All instruments have well integrated, though slightly emphasized, treble components. These sound nearly as speedy as the estats.

Dynamics - Clean, coherent, and articulate, these deliver excellent impact, without any confusion on complex music. But like the HE-6, only to a significantly lesser extent, the somewhat elevated treble makes them "revealing" at the expense of a comfy-cozy sound. Very precise.

Imaging - Here it is, the moment I've been waiting for, I consider the HD 800 the best imaging headphone in the world ... and not by a small margin. The 800s a simply unmatched in their ability to deliver both depth and pin-point localization of instruments. They are so coherent and nicely damped that it almost feels like you can reach out and touch the players. If only these cans didn't have a bit too much treble energy they'd be my desert island headphone, largely on the basis of being able to convincingly "take you there" with their extraordinary ability to deliver a convincing soundstage. The HD 800 is unmatched in this regard.

Measurements

Click on graphs image to download .pdf for closer inspection.

Long, slow curvature of the frequency response From mid-range into bass is typical of dynamic headphones, and these measure very well in this regard up to about 3kHz. If only the gentle rise of 5dB didn't happen between 4kHz and 10kHz I'd be one happy camper.

300Hz square wave is extraordinarily clean indicating spectacular control of the diaphragm. Had the first overshoot and undershoot been half the size, I would say this was a perfect result. To me this points towards the excellent coherence and spectacular imaging of these cans.

Impulse response is probably the best I've seen. The 300Hz square wave and impulse response of these headphones is clear evidence of the world-class engineering prowess of Sennheiser's design team.

Rise in the low frequencies of the THD+noise plot show the driver running out of oomph in the lows. Still, this is typical of dynamic headphones, and may be a limitation of this technology. Note the planar drivers of the estats and planar magnetic headphones succeed well here.

COMMENTS
arnaud's picture

... not about the efficiency of the drivers your tested but that of the reviewer... Pretty amazing you managed all that over a couple of days including a write up! The video did show signs of someone ready to crash to bed though ;). Very concise yet informative, I like it!
arnaud

JAD's picture

Perhaps the Rev. 2 would have been a more fair comparison, specially in the highs (top octave) department.

Anyway, terrific article. Just a pair of Sony MDR-R10's, Beyer T1, HE90 and the Ergo AMT + Ergo AMP 2 to the table and the meeting of the world's best beasts had been completed. Not an easy task, hehe.

wink's picture

Add Qualia O10 and Taket H2.

I like my Ergo AMT powered by my Class A amp.

JAD's picture

That's true. TakeT is a new contender.

donunus's picture

Beautiful! I would really love to see what senn does next to perfect the hd800s sound.

I don't think I will have the budget for the 009 anytime soon though but it sure sounds tempting!

dalethorn's picture

Me too. I'd love to have the emails and recording of the discussions behind closed doors at Sennheiser. i.e....

Joe: "It's too damn bright, don't you guys get it? C'mon, the whole world's leaving you behind."
Sally: "Well, Joe, there is such a thing as accuracy, don't you think?"
Miguel: "Yeah, Sally, let's build an altar to accuracy and sacrifice the firstborn thousand or so 801's to the god of accuracy."
Jeff, the Practical Project Manager: "All right team players, Jeff has got your solution. We'll produce a better sounding headphone and we'll say it's the most accurate, and if any of those Grado/Beyer fanboys give us a hard time, we'll post reams of data from our own tests to prove it."

That's my optimistic view.

Jazz Casual's picture

Thanks Tyll for this enlightening comparative review. I hope that it finds its way to Head-Fi where it will undoubtedly ignite skirmishes between the tribes.

khaos's picture

You probably meant white noise instead of pink noise. The power spectral density of pink noise follows a 1/f rule (equal power given any octave regardless of bandwidth) while white noise shows a flat power spectral density (equal power for a frequency band of the same bandwidth).

Tyll Hertsens's picture
You're right, of course. I changed it back to what I had initially. It may be a little more comfusing to non-enthusiast readers, but it's more technically correct. Thanks.
arnaud's picture

Humm, while I can take pink noise, white noise is pretty awful to listen to, regardless of headphone. Reason it that - although flat in lin scale - this turns into increasing loudness as frequency goes up make it very unbalanced. Conversely, pink noise does sound more balanced... So, Tyll, maybe you're using pink noise after all...?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
It was pink noise ... stereo pink noise (each channel different) so that you don't get any bass build-up. I changed it back to "equal energy per octave", for pink noise. White noise is un-listenable. Brown noise ... well I get that in the morning.
JAD's picture

What I too see is that the dynamic ones ran in SE with the stock cables. Stax phones go obviously balanced. That is a disadvantage for the dynamic ones, probably worse for the HE6's if the 1/4 jack adapter were used.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Both amps were driven by the same unbalanced signal. Certainly can't take out the variable that the two amps were different...not much I can do about that.
Voltron's picture

Fantastic job, Tyll. No comparative headphone review I have read before (and I admit to having given up on them on other sites) has ever delivered so much information, so concisely, and so objectively. Plus, we get your trademark humor! You have a unique ability in this regard, and the objectivity of the InnerFidelity Lab has put you into a unique position. Thanks for being here! :)

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Thanks ... I'm humbled, kind sir.
drn's picture

Thank you for the comparison Tyll. Would you mind giving us catalog numbers for the CDs of the non-Chesky albums? The reason I ask is there could be different masterings of the other CDs, and I would like to hear these same version.

Cheers!

Lunatique's picture

Very enjoyable and informative review. I had always secretly cheered the fact you are no longer focused on selling headphones as in your previous job, because I always felt you were being limited in what you can say or do by your position for various reasons. Now without those limitations, I'm enjoying your unfiltered and more ambitious explorations much more.

I was hoping you'd do the Rev.2 of LCD-2 too, as well as the 007mk2.5, but this is already far more than what anyone else has ever done. The Sony R10 and T1 would've been welcome in the group too I think?

LFF's picture

As others have said...enjoyable and informative...but I have come to expect that from you Tyll!

Awesome write up and I agree with your listening impressions as far as the headphones I have actually had time to listen to and demo carefully. Keep up the awesome work.

Can't wait to hear to the 009!

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Dude, I'd be careful. You listen to the 009 and you'll be spoiled forever. I can't tell you how STUNNED I was at the clarity and dynamics. You could not only hear the cellist breathing through his nose, you could tell he needed to clip his nose hairs.

LFF's picture

Looks like I need to start saving some serious dough....

Currawong's picture

Thanks for the great summary analysis of all those headphones. :)

While I don't have a Blue Hawaii, I did feel when I received the 009s that they may well be the king of vocals over the Sony R10, Stax 4070, LCD-2 and HD-800s, but I don't have the others here to compare, though they were the headphones that impressed me most in this regard. Also your thoughts on the 009's bass -- I was thinking the same thing, that they are unusually great. I was used to associating 'stats with "this is how treble is done right" and orthos with "this is how bass is done right", but the 009 seems to me to deliver bass with the same brilliance as they deliver the rest of the frequency range.

Comparing them to the 007 v2.5 and LCD-2 r2 would be interesting.

dalethorn's picture

This makes a good starting point and reference for anyone who uses reviews to help select their next purchase.

DaveBSC's picture

Awesome comparison test Tyll, thank you so much! Just curious, how would you compare the Thunderpants to this crew? I was planning to buy an LA7000 as a sealed complement to my 007 Mk1, but am now leaning towards the Thunderpants instead.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

The latest Thunderpants are indeed the best sealed cans I've heard, but I don't think they'd quite match up to the performance of these cans. I suspect the best of sealed cans will never quite match up to the best of open cans.

LFF's picture

I agree. It's tough to get a great sounding sealed can to match up to these world class open cans. Apples and oranges really....

ericohgb's picture

Dear Tyll,
Nice review!
Totally agree with your 007 and 009 review.
My 007A is an Mk2 who recently got the diaphragm changed to the MK2.5 so they indeed sound forward and seem easier to drive.
Loving my 009. It's not perfect, but it's a great step over the 007.
Could you compare the 009 to the HE90 if you get the chance?
Thanks,
Erico

plin's picture

What can I say, your reviews and articles are getting better and better. You are a very valuable source for headphones info!
I am very intrigued by the significant - but not audible- THD rise on the one channel at 100dB for HE-500. You wrote that you were not listening to those levels, but you are neglecting that 100dB peaks are not hard to reach even with moderate levels on HQ recorded music, so I think it would be still audible.
Could it be that something changed on the HE-500 *after* you measured it (which is some months before you done this comparison - and I don’t imply burn in -)? Maybe there was a hair, or some dirt, near the driver on one channel only, which did not really vibrate till the 100dB level? It would be very interesting to repeat the THD plot now and compare the results.

Thank you again for all your valuable info!

Captfantastic's picture

What a significant, lengthy review of many of the world's greatest headphones and equipment. The good comments of several readers lead to further discussion and food for thought. However, no one has addressed the beams of lights coming down and illuminating the equipment and Tyll's review in the video!!! Don't be fooled for a minute that these beams were from the lamp bulbs above the table. Oh no! These light beams are proof that alien intelligence, advanced civilizations are monitoring Tyll and Inner Fidelity! And no wonder! Click around this website and see what treasures are there for discovery. "They" have finally found something worthy enough on this crazy messed up planet that they have aborted their invasions plans. Tyll you are doing work that is so great, really, and all of us appreciate your efforts. (Note that most of the beings were seen wearing Sennheiser HD 800s as they flew off, which I thought was fascinating). Keep up the Universally good work!

mward's picture

Great piece. I know it was a huge undertaking, so thanks for all the hard work for providing this great resource.

I was fortunate enough to have a loaner set of the Audeze on hand for a while, and I thought they were absolutely fantastic—although with nothing of comparable quality to compare them to, I wasn't really able to identify the ways in which they fell short of perfection. But still, wow. Such pretty sounding headphones. If only they weren't so heavy.

Milton's picture

"Bass Texture and Extension - These tracks help me identify how well articulated the texture of bass notes are.

For this test I use David Johansen and the Harry Smiths' "Somebody Buy Me a Drink" on the Chesky label, which has a tuba playing a bass line."
------------------

Hi Tyll,

I have this disc, and I am pretty sure there is no tuba on it. Could you have referring to another disc, such as Ry Cooder's Jazz?

Thanks,
Milton

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