Sennheiser HD 800 Headphones ReviewLARGE RING TRANSDUCER OFFERS GREATER DETAIL, DEFINITION AT THE TOP 2/01/2011 4:00 AM Eastern
Headphone reviews are tricky. As these products are worn by the user, they are more “personal” than other audio gear. It’s like reviewing a pair of shoes: The feel makes a big difference in customer satisfaction. High-end headphones take it up another notch, with components made from rare materials and described in terms reserved for audiophiles. New technology is often in play, as is attention to detail in hopes of offering a unique ownership and listening experience. The Sennheiser HD 800 headphones are in this rarified air and for the most part deliver what they claim: a top-notch and very comfortable listening experience.
IN YOUR EAR
It all starts with the transducer, a new ring-shaped design for which a patent is pending. Sennheiser’s explanation is that while a larger diaphragm surface area offers better low-frequency performance, it also generates oscillation at higher frequencies. The HD 800’s answer is its ring-shaped, 56mm-wide transducer, 40mm coil and 42mm magnet system. The coil has 98 windings using wire that’s just 42 micrometers thick. The space between the two magnets, where the coil oscillates freely, is 0.6mm wide. The driver oscillates in a more controlled way due to the large coil and the two supporting surfaces. These tight specs mean that each unit has to be fitted and tested by hand, which contributes to the HD 800’s hefty $1,399.95 price tag.
The large circumaural ear cups are very comfortable and the headphones themselves are gorgeous in design. The cords split from the main cable, which is nearly 10 feet long, to feed each ear, and they use twin-core, high-performance, Teflon-insulated connections. The braided cloth covering the cord reduces handling noise to near zero.
The headband is a metal layer covered with several layers of plastic chosen to ensure that oscillations are not transmitted to the headphone mountings. The ear pads are covered with Alcantra, a synthetic that feels like suede but is actually woven from polyester and polyurethane.
Between the ear pad and the driver, Sennheiser uses stainless-steel mesh that opens the ear to the outside. I prefer this design, which is similar to Grado’s SR Series. It’s less fatiguing than completely closed headphones, but it limits their use to personal listening as there would be leakage issues in some studio cue applications.
The documentation’s somewhat hazy specs state that the HD 800s reproduce frequencies between 6 Hz and 50 kHz (-10 dB), and 14 and 44.1 kHz (-3 dB). The frequency response chart was odd in that it depicted more of a square-wave fluctuation of frequencies rather than what I’m used to. I don’t usually go by manufacturer specs—although they can provide a good starting point for making an evaluation—but these were of little use.
It was on my head that the HD 800s strutted their stuff. As stated earlier, they are extremely comfortable. As with all great headphones, the detail is brutally honest and takes some getting used to. The absence of room modes, resonating surfaces and even slight off-axis anomalies make for a very revealing listening experience. I tested these across a wide range of music from digital and analog sources. Delineation between instruments is excellent. While lows don’t have the thump of a sub moving air in a room (Prince’s 3121 helped with this bit of evaluation), the HD 800s are true and not hyped. The midrange is very smooth if slightly understated in the vocal range around 1 to 4k Hz. The highs are not hyped but “open.” I get the same feeling when I’m listening to beryllium tweeters: There is more definition at the top without being over-the-top or phony-sounding.
THE HDS ARE HI-DEF
What I liked most was the HD 800s’ musicality. After stripping away what most listeners rely on to enjoy music, air and room interaction, these still offer a balanced and smile-inducing experience. As a consumer, taking off my engineer hat I give them high marks. Listening to vinyl records and losslessly recorded digital material was a pleasure. As an engineer, I found myself wanting to get another shot at some mixes after hearing my work with the HD 800s. These are honest and give a level of detail that you simply can’t get with speakers, no matter how good they are. I’d rely on the HD 800s 100 percent as a mixing reference and gut-check.