A revealing and astonishingly complete performance from what have to be amongst the finest reference headphones anyone can buy
Picking the best loudspeaker in the world is an impossible task. There are just too many fine options that could be in the running and there’s the not inconsiderable matter of personal choice and subjective performance. On the other hand, it’s much easier to select the planet’s best headphones – sure there’s still a hugely subjective aspect but there are very few contenders for the title because there aren’t many genuine reference quality phones around.
A couple from Grado, some from Stax, maybe also from Beyerdynamic and Audio Technica plus a few left field options and that’s your lot. Except of course for the Sennheiser HD650, which has been highly regarded since it was released. I bought a set soon after hearing them for the first time and they’ve been a vital component in my audio system since 2006. They’re not perfect, but no phones are and I prefer them to the equivalents from Grado or Stax. I was smugly chuffed to have bought “the last phones I’ll ever buy”, knowing that Sennheiser would introduce a replacement at some stage, but also knowing that the improvement would be marginal because the 650s were already so damn good.
Then came the HD800s, the new top of the pile reference phones from Sennheiser. The response from reviewers and punters in Europe and the USA was euphoric, which worried the heck out of me. Finally getting my hands on a review set, I settled in for a highly critical listening session.
There’s no way that I can say that the 800s are merely a marginal improvement over the 650s. They’re actually substantially better, which is logical considering the engineering and resources that have been thrown at them.
The huge form factor makes them seem a little intimidating, and while it seems impossible that they could be comfortable, they’re much easier on the noggin than the vice-like 650s. They have the biggest cone drivers ever used in headphones, which allows the massive earcups to gently surround the ear; to say that they’re a pleasure to wear for long periods is no understatement. The finish and build quality is exemplary, combining plastics and stainless steel in a light but sturdy arrangement of bold edges and curves.
Once they’re ensconced on the user’s head, they proceed to state their case as being the best phones around, and that case is close to watertight. With clean and insightful sources such as a Marantz SA8260 SACD player or Bryston BCD-1 CD player fed through high quality headphone amplifiers from Perreaux and Lehmann, the HD800s are a revelation even compared to the 650s, which by some hideous miracle now sound a little restricted and laid back. The HD800s are wildly more spacious because the earcups place the drivers a good distance from the ears; this makes the atmospherics and air in every recording more prominent and creates a believable, wide and open soundstage.
The 800s dispense with the ever so slight warm balance of the 650s and are exceedingly neutral. For all that, they’re not in the least bit bright or harsh – they’re about accuracy and faithfulness to the signal chain and source material. They’re lightning fast as well; earphones carry speed far better than loudspeakers, but these are in a different league than most, effortlessly stopping and starting and sounding as fast as a set of Stax electrostatics. Take the speed, spaciousness and sound staging and include otherworldly detail levels and a delicate ability to convey the faintest nuance… and you get an unforgettable sonic experience.
Long time favourite tracks, heard many times over, stand stripped and revealed in the HD800 spotlight, for good or bad; they absolutely reveal the limitations of the recording, not to mention everything upstream of the phones. Rough recordings such as old bootlegs or live tracks sound fine for all their foibles, but compressed or bright pop and rock is simply hideous. A couple of seconds of Robbie Williams was all I could take – these phones have no ability whatsoever to gloss over the bad, you simply get everything without a veneer of civility or politeness.
They need a really talented supporting cast to put on the best performance, and while that’s not an inexpensive exercise, these phones will show you exactly what’s actually on your CDs, albums or hard drive at a small fraction of the cost of a comparable loudspeaker based system. Subjectively, these are some of the best transducers ever and are definitely contenders for the best headphones available today. ASHLEY KRAMER