World’s Finest Headphones?

When John Atkinson requested that I check out the new state-of-the-art Sennheiser HD 800 headphones ($1399.95), which will debut next month, I dreaded descending into the madness of the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Little did I know that instead of encountering an impossible throng of tech-crazed computer geeks, I would have my peak sonic experience of CES 2009.

As it turned out, due to the economic downturn, the crowds in the South Hall were far easier to handle than the primed-for-12-step throngs one encounters trying to navigate thru the casino that separates the Sands Convention Center and the Venetian Tower. It may have taken me a good half hour to find the Sennheiser booth, and another 20 or so minutes before I could be admitted for a demo. But once I began to listen, I became so transported that I even forgot to snap a good close-up photo of what may very well be the finest headphones on planet Earth.

Handmade in Germany, the Sennheiser HD 800 utilizes what the company claims is the most advanced driver technology in any headphone. Sennheiser has developed the largest dynamic headphone transducer available - 56mm in diameter—that works with a patented ring design to deliver the most natural sound possible. Absolute fidelity is further achieved by a circumaural design (open on the outside), and a cup geometry that insures that the transducer never touches the ear. The headband is easy to adjust, and in no way creates pressure on the ear or skull. I often dislike wearing headphones, but the HD 800s were a non-fatiguing pleasure to don.

The HD 800's cables, made by Sennheiser, are silver-coated, 100% oxygen-free copper. They are also detachable, should the dedicated audiophile wish to substitute any of the aftermarket cables that will undoubtedly be manufactured once word gets out how good these headphones are. The frequency response is a truly amazing "6Hz to 51kHz."

To show just how much headphone technology has improved, Sennheiser set up a demo in which listeners were able to switch between Sennheiser's former top of the line, the HD 650, and the twice as costly HD 800. Associated equipment included a Meitner CD/SACD player driving a Benchmark DAC1 USB used as a headphone amp.

The first recording choice was mine: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's Avie SACD of Handel arias. The HD 800s brought Lieberson's voice closer to me than I have ever before experienced it, even at live concerts. As the great mezzo-soprano bared her soul, it felt as if she was opening her heart inside my head. The sense of naked intimacy was breathtaking.

Equally striking was the difference between the HD 800 and the HD 650. The sound of the new king is far more natural, with increased dynamics and a truly audiophile experience of air. Most impressive is the finer edge to voice and instruments.

On a soft rock recording of KT Tunstall singing to spare accompaniment, I noticed some noise and glare on the 650s that was nowhere to be found on the 800s. "The HD 800s are very, very smooth," I wrote in my notes. On a classic James Taylor track, "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," the sound of the voice to guitar and bongo accompaniment was simply lovely. Everything was so realistic sounding and smooth with the HD 800s that I no longer wished to listen to their predecessors.

The final choice was mine: one of my latest Records-to-Die-For, Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony on a live SACD from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons. The symphony begins very softly, with various horns playing parallel lines toward the very bottom of the range. Slowly other instruments enter, leading to a glorious vibrant climax as the sun first blazes over the horizon at dawn.

I cannot begin to tell you how thrilling the experience was. The sense of tension as the orchestra built gripped me far more than anything I have previously heard on high-end loudspeakers with state-of-the-art cabling. Without a hint of distortion or effort, the HD 800 seamlessly swelled from hushed tones to a huge, blazing triple forte. There was no question that 110 or so instruments were all going full blast. And this, mind you, was through the Benchmark DAC1 USB, which is not my favorite.

Had another group of folks not been chomping at the bit, I would have gladly played all 45 minutes of the symphony. When I left, the young owner of a new headphone site who had shared the demo with me was so blown away that he wrote down the name of the recording so he would be sure to get a copy. Whoever gets to review these headphones for Stereophile is going to have a ball. The Sennheiser HD 800s are a must-hear musical revelation.

Stephen Scharf's picture

Now *this* is good reporting! Excellent piece and excellent writing, Jason! This ranks up there with JA's Jitter article, which was outstanding.-Stephen.

LP's picture

I have a pair of the 650's and I think they're incredible, I can only imagine how good these must sound. In the world of $20K to $(whatever)K speakers, these things are an absolute steal at $1.4K.I look forward to my audition.

sex and hifi's picture

I am somewhat bemused by your article. Is it just me - it looks to me this article is full of romantic, even sexual imagery and reads more like a love letter then a review. Also it seems to suggest the sound is better then live - is that really what we are after?"The HD 800s brought Lieberson's voice closer to me than I have ever before experienced it, even at live concerts"

garfl's picture

As a mix engineer, you can have better than live in any recording. You get the added ability of cleaning up noise and re-balancing the sound between different mics and optimal positions. All can sound better than a "one location" listening position in a concert hall.As yes, as an engineer, you are (and your client -- many times the performer) striving for better than live. It's much like a photographer will use Photoshop to make a subject look better than in life. The speakers and headphones should be looking to represent the work that was put down on the CD (or any digital media at this point.)

David Hunter's picture

"Silver Spray Painted Plastic is the Acid-Washed Jeans of Our Times." - It would have been nice to see better materials used in the HD800's construction.

jban's picture

I was at CES this year and got to demo the HD 800 also. Truly impressive and they were not silver spray painted. The materials were really over the top metal mesh and the padding was top of the line perfect fit. Honestly, a game changing product. If you are accustom to spending 50k on a pair of speakers $1400 for these headphones is going to seem like a real steal.

Karsten's picture

Why name the Sennheiser HD800 headphones the world's finest headphones, when you're not even making a reference to Grado's PS1000?I have tried both, with every headphone amplifier and CD I could figure out would make a challenge. The Grado is definitely another sound, but I can't deny the superiority of the Grados. Not to mention construction and materials. Give the Grados a chance and make a comparison, you'll change your mind about the world's finest.