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An Ode to the Sennheiser HD800 Headphones

What kind of a person are you, if you are reading this and even just the tiniest part in you is seriously considering spending well over a thousand bucks on a pair of headphones when most of the music-listening population think that $25 is a luxury expenditure on such an item.

Well, obviously you are not normal. You're the kind of person that doesn't have to ask what a headphone amplifier is... you probably already have one at home. You scoff at the idea of listening to anything except perhaps a short clip from the "Daily Show" through your computer speakers. (Actually, does anyone still watch the “Daily Show”? Is it still on?) You are most likely into classical music and you take considerable pride in your HiFi components at home, perhaps clashing with your wife over that absolute necessity to add a stereo-SACD Marantz player, which somehow, strangely, she can't quite comprehend. And yes, you are probably male.

You are considerate, however, which we know since you consider headphones in order not to annoy your surroundings beyond their breaking point with music they don't wish to hear at whatever hours of the day you deem it absolutely necessary: Bruckner's 5th with Celibidache after midnight, or Karl Richter playing the Passacaglia first thing in the morning doesn't always find enthusiastic responses in the family or among your neighbors. Hence headphones… but without sacrificing listening quality.

That's where Sennheiser comes in. Like only a few companies (Stax and Grado, possibly AKG and BeyerDynamics), Sennheiser has a history and deserved reputation of producing highest quality listening gear, suitable for recording engineers and music aficionados alike. Hitherto the top-end of the line were 'cans' like HD580, HD600, and HD650. Those are great headphones that demand a considerable outlay... but one that pales in comparison with the HD800. Are the latter that much better then? Is it just the famous 10/10 rule of HiFi... for 10% better performance one has to pay 10 times the price?

Not quite. I first listened to the HD800 at a HiFi convention where they were shown off by the manufacturer in a comparative listening set-up with their mythical "Orpheus" headphones, once produced by Sennheiser engineers with the order: "Money is no object, produce the best thing you can in the world of headphones." The Orpheus is perhaps 15 years old, or so, but with its dedicated tube-amp, it sounds unbelievably good. Accuracy, warmth, detail are unmatched.

(See also Headphone Exploration At Munich's HIGH END)

Except: not anymore. The HD800, powered by a Lehmann Audio Black Cube Linear Headphone Amplifier (costing a little less than the HD800s) provided everything the Orpheus did, minus the warmth but with the addition of space and a soundstage that makes the listener forget he is wearing headphones.

Sennheiser did have a pair of HD650 off to the side, plugged into a computer with some minor headphone amp (to drive the 300Ω-hungry HD650s). Naturally, they sounded meager there... and the Sennheiser chaps were reluctant to let me try them 1-1 on the Black Cube Linear, comparing between Orpheus, HD800, and HD650. Eventually, checking that there weren’t others around who might want to follow suit, they relented. The reason for the reluctance became clear immediately...

The perfect being the enemy of the great, the HD650 sounded pathetic next to the HD800... like a muffled mess of haziness. "It's our top model for most ambitious headphone buyers", the technician said... "and since the HD800 price tag means they're probably out of the range of most of those buyers, we are not really keen on making our own model look crummy in public." His honesty was admirable... and in a way ,he was right... the idea of upgrading my HD580 to HD650 died that very second. If *ever* those needed upgrading, I thought, it would have to be the HD800 or nothing at all.

Well, the HD580 needed fixing (Sennheiser repairs all their models when you send them in; they support their lines for years, even decades, after they have ceased selling them; the HD800 even have serial numbers so they can fit the most accurate parts to them, if ever there needs to be any part replaced) and I took a moment of great courage/insanity to go out and recklessly purchase the HD800. Now they are being fed from an Italian hand-made tube amp (built for the specs of the HD580 and therefore plenty suiting the HD800) and the result is everything I hoped--or knew--it would be. Listening for seven hours daily (part of my job) is neither fatiguing physically nor mentally. The sound calls no attention to itself, it's just 'right there'. Spatial detail, airiness, clarity, absolute precision... none of the 'music-in-the-middle-of-your-head feeling... these are the equivalent of having studio monitors near your ears... just lighter and of course better. Speakers of that quality would cost a much greater amount of money (Thiel SC4 are the cheapest I can think of, they come close if not all the way there, have a weaker bass [subjective, that is, since one wears headphones on the ears, but not speakers], and cost about twice as much.

The tube-amp I use the HD800 with doesn't add particular warmth to the sound, but perhaps it takes a little of the analytical nature away from these cans. But the 'space around the ears' that these physically large speakers create is in any case more impressive than the 'beautification' of warmth that other models (incl. Sennheisers) produce. The detail, this is true for most top-model Grados, Staxes, and Sennheisers, can go as far as hearing everything you didn't want to hear (conductors turning pages of the score; digital compression, et al.), but that's something an experienced headphone listener knows and knows to ignore or avoid.

Built, construction is top notch--including cables that are designed to pop out of their sockets on the headphones if one trips or walks to far from the source... thus making sure that no headphone amps take damage from any misstep. A truly stupendous piece of equipment that naturally has its price.

Edit: An update some seven years later. The HD 800 are still top of the line, even though the market is now positively buzzing with headphones in the $1000-2000 price range. I’ve not heard anything better yet (including Sennheiser’s improved version of the HD 800), except good Stax headphones, which are a different ballgame altogether… at an according price.

1 comment:

David said...

Well, I am that kind of person, and I find it helpful and interesting to read a classical critic discussing this subject!

My personal holy grail is the Shure SRH1540.