Sennheiser HD800 headphones Page 2

Dynamic, too. Part and parcel of that extraordinary background silence was how nuanced were the shades of soft and softer—and loud and louder—through the HD800s. Kavi Alexander's lovely recording of Szymanowski's three Paganini Caprices, Op.40, with Ruggiero Ricci and Brooks Smith (CD, John Marks Recordings JMR 11), was a prime example. Ricci's violin sounded three-dimensional, ranging from tender phrases to stentorian exhortations. Whether by itself or floating above and far forward of Smith's piano, there seemed to be an entire symphony orchestra in the violinist's hands.

In the second caprice, I heard something in certain chords I'd never been aware of before: It seemed that the frequencies were reinforced by Ricci's body itself—it was like hearing a soprano drop from head tones to her body tone. Suddenly, there was just more, um, body. And yes, I realize that I've just played the hackneyed card of "after thousands of playings, I finally heard that," but it's true.

Prologue, from Alexandre Desplat's score for the film Birth (CD, Silva Screen 1171), begins with flutes chirping like birds before bringing in washes of strings and swashes of brass. It's filled with orchestral color—and interspersed with silences punctuated only by a solo triangle—until the timpani overwhelm the rest of the orchestra and restart the whole cycle. Silence, then a faltering heartbeat from the bass drum returns to silence. It's dramatic—after all, the scene it accompanies in the film shows a man pleasantly jogging through Central Park—until he drops dead (and that's the beginning of the movie). Through the HD800s, that audio narrative was both immersive and convincing. And big. Again, I was stunned by the Sennheisers' ability to project scale, to reveal dynamic nuance, to present timbre with realism.

"Gloria: In Excelsis Deo," from the 30th-anniversary edition of Patti Smith's Horses (CD, Arista ARCD 8362), begins with her drawling "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine," before cranking it up to a flat-out yawp of "G-L-O-R-I-A." The HD800s captured the quickening gallop of the song with compelling pacing, but equally impressive was the way they revealed how in control the band was—rhythmically and dynamically, they were tight and in the groove. "Gloria" is one of those masterpieces in which all of rock'n'roll's lowlife excesses are virtues. Smith is a shaman creating order out of chaos, and Lenny Kaye, John Cale, and Jay Dee Daugherty are its artificers. It was a goose-bump moment (for me, anyway), and probably the most connected I've been to Smith since seeing the band live in 1977—so thank you, Sennheiser, for melting away 30-plus years of ennui and reminding me of what rock'n'roll can be.

I want to take you higher
Chez Wes, the reference headphones for the last year or so have been the AKG K701 ($450) with the Cardas Fatpipe cable upgrade ($322), so they seemed the natural thang to compare and contrast the HD800 with. The K701 needs hours of play before its midbass is properly balanced—less than a few hundred and the midbass is essentially MIA. But once properly broken in and paired with the Cardas cable, the AKGs had always left me wanting very little in headphone reproduction.

The HD800 changed that. Good as they are, the K701s just do not have the spatial soundstaging of the HD800s. The Mahler simply isn't as awe-inspiringly huge through the K701s. It's big and it's impressive, but it's not as real. The Sennheisers were the clear spatial champions.

This was less evident listening to Ricci and Smith perform Szymanowski, but the Sennheisers still edged out the AKGs in establishing a solidly believable re-creation of the performance space—and that augmentation of Ricci's violin tone that I first noticed listening through the HD800s was very hard to detect through the AKGs.

Dynamically, the difference wasn't quite as clear-cut, but the Sennheisers had more pop in the 40–80Hz region. The two pairs of cans were fairly close in deep-bass reproduction, but the AKGs seemed reticent slightly above that, whereas the HD800 had presence. This impression was reinforced when I auditioned the Prologue from Birth, where the timpani had more snap and the lower brasses greater heft.

With "Gloria: In Excelsis Deo," the Sennheisers put John Cale more vividly in the mix, but the K701s didn't cede much in the pace department. The inevitable rhythmic progression from saunter to full gallop was not slighted by either headphone.

The AKG K701s remain a top contender for "world's greatest headphones," as do others that I neither own nor auditioned. "Greatest" remains a matter of taste, and there are several headphones that belong on the short list that don't cater to my sonic tastes, although they might better suit yours. That list would have to include Sony Qualias, Grado References, and Stax Omegas, among others.

For my tastes, however, I stick the Sennheiser HD800 at the top of the list. It very well may be the best headphone I've ever heard—for me.

Boom shakka-lakka-lakka, boom shakka-lakka-lakka
Which brings us to a sticky question: Would I spend my money on a pair of $1400 headphones when I own the combo of AKG K701 and Cardas Fatpipe? Probably not—these are tough economic times, and editors aren't ringing my phone off the hook. I would if I could, but I can't.

Should you? That depends. If you have the money, and you need a pair of high-quality headphones that will reveal all, and you don't have one of the pretenders to the "best headphones ever" throne, then definitely. If you're a recording engineer or producer and you have to hear what's on the master, you not only should, you must. Or if you're the type of audiophile who's not content with less than the best and you have the liquidity, you need to hear the HD800s and, probably, own them.

For the rest of us, the Sennheiser HD800 will remain a dream—a dream that, in the rarified realm of high-end audio, is surprisingly attainable.

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