Sennheiser HD 820 Review Page 2

Driver

The HD 820 employs the same, massive 56mm Ring-radiator dynamic driver used since the 800 and that the company claims are the largest ever used in dynamic headphones. So, what is a ‘Ring-radiator” driver? In simple terms, it is a standard circular driver, like you’d see in a pair of speakers, but the cone shape has a recessed “ring” or “V” pressed into the diaphragm allowing for a much stiffer, larger surface area (and more air displacement, hence deeper bass and improved imaging because of better driver control) which because of the unique shape of the “V” and smaller direct-line surface areas making up the cone is less prone to being affected by its own vibration which in turn helps eliminate distortion and cone breakup at frequency extremes.

Associated equipment

For this review I used the 820’s 6.3mm cable plugged into my McIntosh C2600 Tubed Preamplifier HXD headphone out, a Naim DAC-V1, the Linear Tube Audio MZ3 head-amp being fed by a totaldac d1-direct R2R DAC and the dCS Bärtok DAC/head-amp. Critical listening was done on all of them at different times with the 820 clearly showing differences in sonic presentation between all three sources and most importantly the strengths of each source in their ability to convey the emotional capacity to connect me to the music, regardless of genre. But when it came to writing the review, I stuck with the dCS Bärtok as I have been listening to it the most the past few weeks.

Listening

For this review I was able to directly compare the 820 to the original 800 (sorry, no 800 S on hand), and out of the gate, much like when I first heard the 800 S compared to the 800, I was more relieved at how similar they sounded than different. Yes, there was some more bottom end, there was some more tonal color, but they still retain their coherence and literal translational ability that in the end is about faithfully reproducing the recorded event without artifice or flourish: they keep it real. They are to me, first and foremost, possessed of one of the most linear frequency responses (12Hz~43.8kHz -3dB) I’ve come across. The bass is deep and textured (these are not bass-head cans though, they are articulate and like any great transducer, don’t knock you out with one aspect at the expense of another) midrange is a bit upper-mid prominent, but in a good way to my ears and the treble region is open, spacious and never strayed into etched unless the source material was to begin with. The sound stage, like all of the 800 series, is all-encompassing and in some recordings the players seemed to have a spatially differential entrance into the mix. They seemed to come in closer or farther in their proximity as opposed to a sound field that has a set distance of surrounding your head – this created the effect of more realism when listening because it sounded more like real life. For example, not all players on Muddy Water’s 1964 acoustic masterpiece Folk Singer (TIDAL, MQA 24-bit/96kHz) are at equidistant points to the centre of the recording’s sound field and having Buddy Guy’s spectral guitar plucking come in, initially farther out to Water’s right than Willie Dixon’s bass on his left made for some hair raising fun.

Le Tigre’s 1999 self-titled album (TIDAL, 16-bit/44.1kHz) features one of my favourite post-punk influenced electronic rock ’n roll dance anthems I used to sweat to in the ’90s: “Deceptacon.” The band was fired up by former Bikini Kill member and riot grrrl movement pioneer Kathleen Hanna, songwriter and record producer Johanna Fateman and artist Sadie Benning so be assured Le Tigre has street cred. Shrieking lyrics, guitar riffs, hot, treble-tilted drumming and straining bass lines, all which add up to a raucous three-minute discordant run of what should leave my ears ringing, but through the 820 I only keep replaying it and jumping up and down in my living room on the rug in front of my system. Yes, it’s a hot mess, but it’s a driving, rhythmic hot mess with big dynamic swings, and all the timbral and tonal shadings of sweaty fret work on guitar and bass, clearly delineated percussion between high hat, a ride and a crash cymbal that I would expect if I was five feet from the band in the mosh pit.

Mitski Miyawaki followed up her critically-acclaimed 2016 release Puberty 2 with 2018’s Be The Cowboy and her ethereal, lilting vocals are laid bare across the album over a myriad mix of electronic and acoustic instrumentation without ever allowing itself to sink under the frothy waters of each song’s mix. “Geyser” opens Cowboy and the deep, organ notes anchoring the track keep churning through the pulsating percussion and bass hooks without losing its drive through the 820. It would be easy for the immense amount of instrumental layering to become smeared or lumped together on cuts like “Pearl,” but the Sennheiser uses an iron grip on its drivers to maintain order amid the chaos to allow her subtle vocal inflections to maintain its connection to your mind’s eye.

Conclusion

With the HD 820 Sennheiser has achieved the goal of a flagship pair of headphones that hold their own against some of the best from other companies that I’ve heard. The 820 builds on the strengths of the previous 800-series models and with this latest closed-back version puts more meat on the bone (bottom end, mid-bass) where perhaps (for some listeners) previous models were perceived as being too lean. Like any headphone, they can only translate the signal they are given, so pairing them with the right amplification and source is key to getting the best, most tailored sound that appeals to you out of them. The 820 not only excels with technically-articulate prowess, a huge sound stage, deep, tuneful bass and more isolation from outside interference than their open-backed predecessors, they also offer something that for me is inherent to any great headphone design; they deliver on emotional engagement while still appealing to my intellectual requirements for tonal and timbral accuracy, and transparency to source.

Specifications

  • Impedance300 Ohms
  • Frequency response (Headphones) 12Hz – 43.8kHz (-3 dB) 6Hz – 48kHz (-10 dB)
  • Sound pressure level (SPL)103 dB at 1 kHz, 1V
  • Ear coupling: around the ear
  • Jack plug6.35 mm / 4.4 mm XLR-4 (optional) 
  • Cable length: 3m
  • Weight: 360g without cable
  • Transducer principle (headphones)dynamic, closed
  • Price: $2,399 USD

COMPANY INFO
Sennheiser Electronic GmbH & Co
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