Ears on: Sennheiser HD 800 S

April 18th, 2016 | by Alfred Siew
Ears on: Sennheiser HD 800 S

Sennheiser HD800 S 02

It has been seven years since we first tried out Sennheiser’s HD 800, a pair of top-notch headphones that defined what the best performing cans could offer serious music buffs.

This year, the HD 800 S, as its name suggests, tries to top that by tweaking what had seemed already perfect and packing in more features. Can it justify its higher asking price?

That was the first question I asked when I listened to the new flagship cans a couple of weeks ago at Sennheiser’s demo room here in Singapore. I came away impressed, as I’d expected, but perhaps less excited than when I first heard the HD 800.

The HD 800 S, let’s be clear, is a step up only if you like what it offers. The background is darker, the vocals have a bit more body and the top-end has some of the sharp edges smoothed out.

My first impression is that the new cans offer a cozier experience. Listen to Norah Jones, for example, and you get a sense of a relaxed, intimate performance on a small stage, rather than a perfect replaying of a studio recording.

No, the HD 800 S doesn’t make the HD 800 sound bad. The new headphones are just different in some departments. In particular, you will be happy to hear the top-end of the treble retain its shine without being overly bright.

That, according to the Sennheiser folks, is down to the low harmonic distortion, which is less than 0.02 per cent.

By keeping a better grip on things, using the the absorber technology debuted in the excellent IE800 earphones, the HD 800 S manages to sound a little less edgy than the HD 800 I also tried out on the same day.

The newer cans also sport a transducer that’s 56mm in size, the biggest in a pair of dynamic headphones, according to Sennheiser. They certainly offer some of the air and scale that the open-back design is well-known for.

Sennheiser HD800 S 05

There may also be a little more detail as well, if you plug in the HD 800 S with the bundled XLR cable into an amplifier that supports balanced output.

During my test, I plugged the headphones into Sennheiser’s own HDVD 800 amp, a fine companion for the top-end cans from the German company. Toggling between a regular jack and the XLR version, I found the latter clearly was the improved version.

Especially in “noisy” and busy rock tracks, you make out the various performers and instruments on stage more easily. A poor pair of cans would make a couple of singers on the same stage sound like a single person singing.

Incredibly, the 300-ohm HD 800 S could be driven pretty well by even handheld, battery-operated amps. I tried out the Chord Mojo and was surprised.

Okay, that costs a hefty S$999 but it shows what I’ve come to learn about the HD 800 previously – things can sound very different when you pair with a different amp, be it a tube amp (warmer, slower and darker) or high-powered solid state amp (colder, faster, brighter).

The HD 800 S could sound just the way you like it to. Even with the Chord amp, it shows the sheer dynamism it has in reaching for both the highs and lows.

Sennheiser HD800 S 01

Particularly, for bass heads, you’d be surprised the HD 800 S does pretty well with rock tracks, even with an amp like the Mojo. It extends well to get your kick drums clearly in the mix but doesn’t overwhelm other instruments so they go missing.

Personally, I’d still prefer the tighter control with a desk-bound amp like the HDVD 800. It’s just got a bit more impact and dynamism, compared to the weightier presentation with the portable amp.

Indeed, preference will ultimately decide if you like the HD 800 S more than the HD 800. Though it seems like the new cans are an upgrade, I believe the difference is more a matter of taste than quality.

The new cans sound a little more well-rounded, with less of the laser-like precision that the HD 800 can be made to offer. Are they more enjoyable? I think so, but that’s because I prefer a less edgy sound. Others may not and would go for the HD 800 instead.

The only sticking point, of course, is the price. The new headphones will set you back more, at S$2,539, even if you count the cost of the XLR cables bundled with them.

This makes the HD 800 more attractive. It is going for S$1,790, which means you have quite a bit of money left over to get the exact XLR cables you like and still have change.

Value-wise, the HD 800 offers a better deal. Then again, in the audiophile world, a purchase isn’t always about value, is it? If the HD 800 S piques your fancy, nobody’s going to tell you the extra moolah isn’t worth that bit of improvement in your ears.


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