It might seem hard to believe now but high end home headphones were once a very niche category indeed. The original HD800 launched in 2009 and was one of a small number of models that really served to push the idea of very high quality home headphones to a wider audience. In keeping with a few Sennheiser models, rather than simply replace it with a completely new design, Sennheiser has tweaked the basic design to create the HD800S.
The basic design of the HD800S is the same as the original. It is an open back (and this really is an open back design; there is precious little behind the drivers themselves except air and this does mean that noise leakage is prodigious) which makes use of a pair of 56mm dynamic drivers. This is a relatively large device to mount in any headphone but Sennhesier has managed to do so without the result feeling enormous and unwieldy.
The major refinement of the HD800S concerns the frame that these drivers are mounted in. While rivals have set about harnessing some of the more exotic ends of the periodic table, Sennheiser has used steel for the HD800S. This might sound somewhat prosaic but there is a methodology at work. The idea is that that the steel is dampened in such a way as to have no resonant effect on the performance of those drivers. Thanks to there not being that much frame, the overall weight is manageable and it is well distributed across the head, helped by decent padding on the headband and pads. Build quality is simply superb and lends the HD800S a feeling of casual indestructibility that goes well with their slightly utilitarian appearance. A balanced and unbalanced cable is supplied and you also get a good quality (if rather large) storage box too.
Any and all comments on the performance of the Sennheiser are made on the understanding you are listening to them in a quiet space; as an open back design, they have very limited ability to reject incoming noise. Given them a quiet space though and they will enthral. The Sennheiser is a fundamentally neutral and accurate sounding headphone; it will give you the basics of what you are listening to and the equipment you are using as part and parcel of what it does and if there are limitations in either, it will make them known.
The clever aspect of this though is that the manner in which it does this is almost apologetic and you have to be fairly brutal with them for them to sound hard edged. In return, give them a halfway decent source and signal and the HD800S will treat you to a gloriously detailed and three dimensional listening experience. Even without any form of DSP trickery or crossfeed, they are sublimely good at pushing information in front of you. They also never seem to struggle with the disparate challenge of making large scale recordings have the space they need while shrinking this space around more intimate ones.
All this is helped by the HD800S never failing to get the basics right. Those large drivers deliver sensational bass depth but this is allied with a level of control that ensures that even complex percussion and high tempo material retains an agility that draws you in and gets the head nodding. The tonal realism is also outstanding. There are warmer and sweeter sounding headphones at this price point but few of those can match the HD800S for the sheer ‘being there’ sense that it consistently brings to its presentation. This is a headphone you can wear for hours, pottering through as wide a range of styles and genres as you can think of and it will delight with all of them.
The HD800S is not terribly pretty and it needs to be partnered with decent equipment. Handle these two requirements though and it can deliver a performance that is superbly accomplished and consistently entertaining performance that will delight anyone lucky enough to own a pair.
ZZ Top: Tres Hombres
The HD800S has the ability to take you to the core of a recording. With this fabulous lo-fi effort from the Texas rockers, it transports you to a sweltering seventies studio in the comfort of your own home.
Nils Frahm: Spaces
Live music is a challenge for headphones but the Sennheiser revels in it. Frahm’s piano sounds weighty and real and there is a beautifully realised feeling of the audience and the space the performance is in.
Gomez: Bring It On
For all its undoubted technical brilliance, the Sennheiser still knows how to have fun. It takes this raucous but joyous album and makes it a tremendously engaging experience.
If you have high quality hardware for driving headphones and you don’t need much in the way of noise isolation, very little under £2,000 can get anywhere near the Sennheiser.