Sennheiser HD800 headphones

Sennheiser's long-awaited (seven years) HD800 sure isn't subtle—at least, not in appearance. The HD800's large earpieces are made from a combination of absorbing composites and functional metal accents, and are huge. Of course, they have to be to house the 56mm ring-radiator transducers—and to mount them so they're firing "back" to your ears from the front. Also not subtle is the price: $1399.95.

On the other hand, Sennheiser wasn't going for subtle improvements in designing and building the HD800. After all, they'd already tried subtle when they introduced the HD650 as an improvement on the HD600. Most headphone fanciers refer to the two as a "slash" product, as in HD600/650. Justifiably.

No, in designing the HD800, Sennheiser was aiming at a game-changer, a paradigm-shifter—an überheadphone, if you will. Did they succeed? Well, let's kick the tires a bit.

Feeling's getting stronger
Not a single component from the HD600/650 has survived in the HD800. In addition to the machined stainless-steel earpieces, the HD800 also sports stainless-steel mesh, Leona (a rigid plastic used to damp the steel), and extremely pliable earpad cushions of a special micro-fiber inspired by the luxury auto industry—think Maserati, Lamborghini, et al. The headband that connects the earpieces is laminated from steel and plastic and is covered in more micro-fiber.

The HD800's Y-cable harness uses braided, Kevlar-reinforced OFC copper wire. The cable is covered with a fabric sheath, making it flexible and non-microphonic. The cable is terminated to a very substantial ¼" phono plug at one end, and two proprietary Sennheiser connectors at the earpieces. These new connectors—which provide far more substantial termination than Sennheiser's old two-prong mini-connector—should eliminate the dreaded "Sennheiser jiggle" that has become second nature to those of us who've used our HD600/650s hard over the years.

About that 56mm transducer: It's the largest dynamic driver currently in use in any headphones. There's a reason huge transducers aren't often used in 'phones, and that's the difficulty in controlling big 'uns, especially in the high frequencies. Sennheiser claims that their ring radiator solves that problem and produces "a very coherent waveform." Additionally, by mounting the diaphragm forward, to fire back at the ears at a slight angle, they get it to mimic more closely what happens when you listen to live music or a conventional loudspeaker system (see Keith Howard's "Between the Ears").

All that metal and plastic results in a headphone that weighs 11.5 oz sans cable, yet the large earpads—which easily enclose my rather freakishly large ears—and clever damping and padding result in a set of 'phones that I found comfortable for long listening sessions.

The HD800 has an impedance of 300 ohms, which puts it sort of in the middle between low-impedance portable headsets and 600 ohm studio cans. While many personal digital players can swing enough volts to drive the HD800, its bulk, weight, 3m cable, and ¼" plug suggest that Sennheiser isn't catering to that crowd. But, like the man said, it's your dog...

Although the HD800 is expensive at $1399.95, its fit'n'finish and construction are first-rate and seem to justify the price—and it's hand-built in Wedemark, Germany, at Sennheiser's worldwide headquarters.

Music's getting longer, too
There will never be a single perfect set of headphones—or a perfect anything, for that matter—simply because different people require different things from them. If you need to use headphones because you need noise isolation, or if your current lifetime companion needs respite from your music, the open-backed HD800s will not serve. Just sayin', is all.

Music's flashing me
Whooooossssshhhhh! The HD800s have got to be the fastest dynamic headphones I've ever heard. Music emerged from a silence so profound that my first thought was that I hadn't turned the amp on—then the first notes would teleport into being and I would be lost.

And Sennheiser may be right about siting the diaphragms forward and aiming them back toward the ears, because the HD800s soundstaged like the real thing. I'd experienced this before, with the AKG 1000s, but the fiddly nature of the AKGs' diaphragms meant that I spent much of my audition adjusting the angle of the left and right transducers, attempting to set them both to the same angle. I know the AKGs have their defenders, John Marks chief among them, but they were not for OCD types like me. (Plus, they're pigs to drive.)

However, while I enjoyed the soundstaging of the AKG 1000s, I found the soundstaging of the HD800s remarkable. Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony's recording of Mahler's Symphony 4 (CD, JMCXR-0017) put the solid into stereophonic. The orchestra spread from wall to wall and all the way back to the rear of the stage. Oh wait, with headphones you have no walls—only with the HD800s, I had to pinch myself to remember that. They were that convincing.

Sennheiser USA
1 Enterprise Drive
Old Lyme, CT 06371
(860) 434-9190