What do you gain by upgrading from a pair of $100 earphones, say my trusty Sony MDR EX85LP, to a pair of cans worth some $2,200, like the Sennheiser HD800? To picky ears, things to watch out for are many, including such aural qualities as warmth, punchiness, frequency extension, detail, soundstaging and, well, you name it, the audiophile lexicon is a very large one.
To me though, there are two crucial qualities, and they are – if you allow me to indulge in more audiophile jargon – timbre reproduction and air.
Having the right timbre, simply put, means sounding right. For instance, the percussive tap of each grand piano key ringing true with sumptuous overtones. Or the singing human voice having body, bite and breath. Of course, naturalness does not tend to excite, and hence top-end headphones may be underwhelming at first. But they reward with an unfatiguing sound and long-term listening pleasure.
Air is unmistakable when you hear it, but not apparent when it is missing. It is a feeling of a large aural vista that extends beyond your ears and inside your head.
I was certainly underwhelmed when I first listened to the new Sennheiser HD800 headphones at its recent local launch. This pair of loftily-priced cans certainly sounded better than my well-worn $100 Sony earbuds, but I wasn’t sure, halfway through the first CD, that the differences were worth two grands.
As I listened to more CDs, however, it became clear that they just might be, because the HD800 is one of the most accurate – and natural sounding – pair of headphones I’ve heard. The fact I didn’t enjoy all the CDs in the listening booth was not because the cans sounded bad, but because the source material had changed – and the HD800 simply played it like it is.
The HD800, though, seemed to lack air. Perhaps the demo cans weren’t run in yet, or perhaps the Lehmann headamp or the T+A CD player are to blame in the synergy stakes, but the HD800 sounded a tad shut in to me compared to, say, one of the top-end Grado cans I’ve heard in the past. My Sony buds are, of course, way behind on this count.
I enjoyed the HD800s in that short stint, and certainly the demo. Kudos to the Sennheisser team in Singapore for the thoughtful set-up of the listening session. There were two tastefully spot-lit glass cube listening rooms laid side by side. In it are a fluffy comfy chair each an arm’s length away from the cans, which were tethered to a top-notch German-made T+A CD player and the well-regarded Lehmann Audio Black Cube Linear headamp, and with a wide selection of CDs to pick from, of which many were from the excellent European Stockfish Record label.
I could live in there.
ps: Do read my friend Chris’ earlier take on the HD800 at our sister siteMusicgoondu.