It’s easy to screw up a good story by telling the punch line at the beginning. Like telling you that I recently bought a pair of Sennheiser HD 800 headphones and that yes, they are amongst the best in the world. If you’re impatient then you can move on now; if you’re still curious, then why would someone spend $2800 on headphones?
It started with feeling bored and uncomfortable. Partly, I think the boredom was from bringing the business home and spending a lot more time at the computer. Nothing goes as well for me with being on the computer for hours as a good headphone experience. The first quality I want with long term listening is physical comfort. Given the size of these mothers they are surprisingly the most comfortable that I have ever worn. Now that is saying something, as the HD650 were not too bad and I am the sort of air traveller who will wear noise cancellation headphones non-stop from here to Singapore.
The second thing I want from headphones is the right balance between fidelity and easy listening to maintain interest for the listener, but also keep down auditory fatigue. The 650’s are forgiving headphones but ultimately warm, fuzzy and slightly rolled off at the top. The new design digs much deeper into the recording but doesn’t set the teeth on edge. I can, for example still enjoy Vera Lyn and even Caruso. What often doesn’t seem to stand close inspection is over-processed pop material. These comments about the musical balance however, are only valid after replacing the provided cable with a $480 Cardas alternative. Enough said on that issue!
Okay, the sound is not perfect. I remember more punch and weight from a Grado design and a fantastic orchestral presence with the Stax. But he Sennheiser does get out of its own way without a strong signature . It has lovely tonal accuracy, great timing, gob-smacking detail, fantastic speed, and other than with crap recordings will reproduce everything with finesse. Given that nowadays I listen to over 4000 tracks ranging all the way from the medieval to the electronic it is great that the HD800 is so even handed across a wide range of music.
Coming back to cost, there is some good news. I get surprisingly good results without an expensive external headphone amplifier by using the headphone socket on the iMac. There are a number of riders, however. The first is that I had to hold on to the cable adapter from the 650, as it is not provided with the flagship model. The listening post does have a dedicated power supply and a quality mains cable is used while the computer sits on cones. Probably what made this arrangement work is that the AIFF files on iTunes are then put through the Pure Music software which includes a dithered volume control.
The final aspect of the high cost is that the Sennheiser head office has been intransient about a set retail price across the world. Various countries have got around this by offering ‘gifts’ with the purchase. Locally, I found that holding out for a high trade-in value on the 650’s had a similar impact on the actual price paid. Still, this has not been exactly petty cash expenditure but it is simply one of the most satisfying hi-fi purchases that I have ever made. Five stars indeed. JOHN GROOM
Ashley Kramer has reviewed the HD800 headphones here – he agrees with John’s rating.