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Sennheiser HD800S Review (Headphone)

amirm

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This is a review and detailed measurements of the Sennheiser HD 800 S. A very kind member sent these months ago and has been patiently waiting for their review. The HD 800 S costs US $1,700 but I see it on Amazon for US $1,323 including Prime shipping.

The HD800S is at the same time solid but also very light:

Sennheiser HD800S Review.jpg


I was surprised how they just melted on my head the moment I put them on. In contrast I feel the pressure of other headphones for a while until my brain starts to filter it out. The massive cups mean that they fit optimally almost no matter how to throw them on your head or the measurement gear. I did not feel that they were loose but I see some people complaining that the fit my be so.

I like to have a long headphone cord as I move around but then worry about them getting chewed up under my feet. Sennheiser seems to have solved this problem by creating a cord that while very long, feels super robust and doesn't seem to weigh much:
Sennheiser HD800S Review Headphone Cord.jpg


The 1/4 inch termination is wonderful. I imaging $50 of the cost went to that! :) Other than the high cost, I don't know that there is much to complain about here.

The measurements you are about to see are made using a standardized Gras 45C. I searched for any and all measurements I could find online. Alas while a number of them are close to mine, none are using the exact fixture down to coupler and pinna. As you will see, I have confirmed the approximate accuracy of the measurements using Equalization and listening tests. Ultimately headphone measurements are less exact than speakers above a few kilohertz so keep that in mind as you read these tests.

I have calibrated my headphone fixture with 94 dBSPL test tones and decided that I use the same for headphone measurements. However, instead of using 1 kHz tone I have opted for 425 Hz. This seems to better match research data.

I have also made a lot of progress in building a better test suite for the measurements. More updates and changes will be coming but I am starting to feel good about this set.

Sennheiser HD800S Measurements
There is nothing more important than frequency response of the headphone as each is seemingly different and that difference leaves a very distinct character:

Sennheiser HD800S Measurements Frequency Response.png


The dashed line is the target I am after. As we clearly see the HD800S doesn't even maintain its flat response let alone have the preferred bass boost. This will throw off the balance of the headphone and make it sound light and potentially bright. The next area of significant departure is post 1 kHz. The curve is distinctly below our target until about 5 kHz where it takes the other direction and shoots up a bit over our target. Around 9 kHz and up we have a lot of reflections inside the cups so ignore those ups and downs. I evaluate that area perceptually in the listening test. So overall, not a good showing.

I will do more work in the future to sensitivity but for now I am just reporting what the drive voltage is to achieve the 94 dBSPL reference. As I note later, 94 dBSPL is rather quiet so don't get confused thinking 0.26 volts is all you need to drive this headphone. But as a reference it should do to make comparison against other headphones.

In case you are doubting the reference curve and as a way of comparison, let's measure the Sennheiser HD650 headphone:

Sennheiser HD800S Measurements vs HD650 Frequency Response.png


We see that bass performance is similar but even more anemic in lowest register (although that may be a fit issue -- I did not try to optimize the 650 as much as I did with 800S). From 150 Hz up though the HD650 hugs the curve very well and has none of the deficiencies of the 800S between 1 and 4 kHz. No wonder it is such a popular choice. The HD800S does have more energy at or above 5 kHz. This may be behind its spatial qualities that I will talk about in listening tests.

Next up is distortion measurements. I kept wondering why my speaker distortion measurements were so revealing and the headphone ones were not. I realized that it was all in the presentation of the data (and its optimization). So I mimicked what I had done with Kilippel using Audio Precision software I am using and results snapped into clarity:

Sennheiser HD800S Measurements Distortion THD Measurements.png


As with speaker testing I am showing the THD percentage at two output levels: 94 dBSPL and then 104 dBSPL. Note the highly non-linear increase in bass distortion which is what we see in speakers as well. Let's compare the 104 dBSPL against HD650 again:

Sennheiser HD800S Measurements Distortion THD vs HD650 Measurements.png


It is a mixed picture with accuracy not being super high but it seems to me that the HD650s settles to lower distortion sooner than HD800s. Overall picture is the same though. We will learn more as we test other headpones.

As with speakers, let's also look at distortion level as opposed to percentage:

Sennheiser HD800S Measurements Absolute Distortion THD Measurements.png


For some reason I can't get this specific graph to show more harmonics. Based on what is there, 2nd harmonic dominates most of the time except for the region between 100 and 300 Hz where 3rd harmonic becomes highest.

Sennheiser HD800S Listening Tests
As I noted, the best way to know if our preference curve is correct is to try to approach and see if the subjective results are better. So let's do that:

Sennheiser HD800S Measurements Equalization.png


I have eliminated the headroom allowance to make the graph easier to read. In reality I had to dial in 6 or more dBs depending on what I was playing to avoid digital clipping. You have a trade off between how much you boost the bass and the headroom you need to allow. I love the clean presentation of deep bass from headphones so dialed in what the preference graph said and results were excellent. My "speaker killer" tracks with their sub bass sounded wonderful. Despite the sharp rise in the distortion graphs, there was no penalty that I could detect in that department despite the high level of boost.

Next job was to fill the gap between 1 and 4 kHz. That is a complex shape to fill in but I approximating it by putting in the conjugate filter to knock off the resonance peak at 5.4 kHz. Once there, I thought the result was a bit bright. A quick shelving filter of 10 kHz solved that problem nicely.

The overall tonality was still "light on its feet" for lack of a better phrase to describe it. There was this lack of congestion and ease to everything I played. What was remarkable and uncanny was separation of instruments. It was as if this headphone would take every element in the music, pull it apart, and then position it in different spatial locations in a 6 inch space around each ear. I wouldn't call it "soundstage" as much was it was this fun and captivating effect.

I made a comparison against the HD650 which sounded far more balanced and nicer than HD800S without EQ. With EQ, the HD800S sounded a lot more competitive and that had the above layering that the HD650 did not have. I played by boosting the region in the HD800S that has peaking and that seemed to help create a bit of that effect. Likely the cup size and reflections in HD800S are creating this effect.

Here is a great track to use to test the above effect:


This track just sounds stunning with the HD800S and above equalization. There is deep bass, wonderfully clean highs and that great instrument separation.

Conclusions
The Sennheiser HD800S has great build but comes up way short in tonality. It is light in bass which is typical of many headphones but also cheats us the energy between 1 and 4 kHz. I paid for all the tonality in my music and I want all of it reproduced darn it! Fortunately equalization works despite the massive amount of amplification required in low frequencies. Once there, this headphone is doing something I don't hear with any speaker system and not yet on any headphone. It manages to provide a spooky layering and I guess I should say clarity that is not only surprisingly but delightful. I don't know if the effect will be too much if it comes across a lot of music but so far, I can't help but liking it and liking it a lot.

On a comfort side the HD800S is a delight. I find a lot of other headphone confining but not the 800S. Combine this with the post Equalization and you have a headphone I don't want to part with!

If you don't use equalization then this is not a headphone for you. But if you do use it (as you must with any headphone), and can afford it, the HD800S is a delightful way to experience music. I am going to put The HD 800 S on my recommended list.

------------
As always, questions, comments, recommendations, etc. are welcome.

Any donations are much appreciated using: https://www.audiosciencereview.com/forum/index.php?threads/how-to-support-audio-science-review.8150/
 

vkvedam

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Interesting findings @amirm, thanks for the effort. Is there a way to measure that extra layer of transparency which sets it apart from the 650s for instance? I believe your subjective assessments though.
 

AudioJester

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If you use those EQ settings, what sort of amp does it require?
Most of the people praising these cans dont seem to use eq.
 

xarkkon

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oh my, i know the review's intended to be good, but the measurements being less preferable than HD650 is quite concerning...

i do find it interesting too that despite the poorer FR than the 650, the subjective review post-EQ is that strongly positive. (like, shouldn't the 650 have the same outcome post-EQ too?)

i'll just comfort myself for not being able to afford this headphones by just looking at the FR but not your actual conclusion :p
 

Haint

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Amirm the soundstage is supposedly what makes the 800S stand apart from the 650 (and similar). Did you note any radical differences in the size or spaciousness of it between the 2?

My bad I missed the paragraph where you discussed this Amirm, disregard.
 
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amirm

amirm

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Interesting findings @amirm, thanks for the effort. Is there a way to measure that extra layer of transparency which sets it apart from the 650s for instance?
I would need more time to analyze what is going on. As I noted though, my current hypothesis is exaggeration of certain frequencies above 5 kHz combined with the larger caps and maybe even driver design. If it is the latter aspects then measuring their effect is beyond our reach right now.
 

raif71

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I see quite a number of people use eq but I don't. Will doing eq color up the sound/music somewhat ?
 
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amirm

amirm

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I see quite a number of people use eq but I don't. Will doing eq color up the sound/music somewhat ?
Well, by definition it colors it a lot. :) Seriously, the EQ as applied here brings the sound to normal tonality. Otherwise you are coloring everything you play with the response as is.

Note that you still need to be in charge of how much lows and highs you want. For example that shelving I put in the high frequency may be what you want, or not. Just play with the amount. There are no standards in music production so we can't have an absolute reference.
 

YSC

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hum~ I am still a bit skeptic on the Harman curve for bass, I remember a brief usage of a old HD800 in my listening room now using the Genelec 8030, I don't recall the HD800 being so bass light and I felt the bass was actually similar to the 8030Cs! but to the curve the bass at 50hz should be +7.5db to do that.
 
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amirm

amirm

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With headphones you can get bass down to 20 Hz. With the EQ I have, I am able to play my speaker killer tracks with ease and incredible, clean bass response. It is not tactile in the way speaker bass is but it is wonderful to have such bass response. Your Genelecs can't produce such bass so it is not a good reference. Give it a try and let me know what you think.
 

Frank Dernie

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hum~ I am still a bit skeptic on the Harman curve for bass, I remember a brief usage of a old HD800 in my listening room now using the Genelec 8030, I don't recall the HD800 being so bass light and I felt the bass was actually similar to the 8030Cs! but to the curve the bass at 50hz should be +7.5db to do that.
Me too, for classical and other acoustic music I find the bass boosted preference curves overblown and unnatural using speakers or headphones.
Mind you on rock music more bass=more better!
FWIW when I auditioned the HD800 I rejected it simply because it slipped forward worryingly when I lowered my head to read, it would have fallen off if not uncomfortably hooked up over my pinna so no use for me at all.
Both from a physiology and comfort pov headphones are the one piece of kit needing a physical demo IME.
 
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amirm

amirm

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Me too, for classical and other acoustic music I find the bass boosted preference curves overblown and unnatural using speakers or headphones.
I listened to fair bit of classical and acoustic music. The base boost I have dialed in is not noticed most of the time on them as they don't have notes that deep. When they do, it is actually nice. Much of the boost is in 50 Hz and down.
 

YSC

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With headphones you can get bass down to 20 Hz. With the EQ I have, I am able to play my speaker killer tracks with ease and incredible, clean bass response. It is not tactile in the way speaker bass is but it is wonderful to have such bass response. Your Genelecs can't produce such bass so it is not a good reference. Give it a try and let me know what you think.
Hi Amirm,

I think I should add more detail on myself to make my comments

I tried with lound level on a pair of HE-500 hifiman and the HD800, I can't hear bass below 40hz, and that with the default setting both the HE500 (which is similar to HE6 in tyll's measurement in bass) and the HD800 sounds already bassy to me, any higher would sound like extra bass boost to make it bass heavy, similar to the balance on the 8030C without EQ or using switches and placed very close to rear wall getting the 6db boost.

and from what I read from the Harman curve it's more or less a preference curve by individuals and the default curve are mostly young guys, which from experience tend to prefer some very bass heavy pub music? in that sense it seems to me the curve is actually deviates from bass neutral in a well treated studio setup.

Thus my question to the measurement is that the harman curve while makes the preference for most ppl, is not what we target for a perceivable neutral tuning?
 

Frank Dernie

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I listened to fair bit of classical and acoustic music. The base boost I have dialed in is not noticed most of the time on them as they don't have notes that deep. When they do, it is actually nice. Much of the boost is in 50 Hz and down.
Coincidentally I experimented a bit with the bass contour of Audyssey again yesterday evening and came to the same conclusion as I have before.
I still find a steady line from low bass to high treble to sound more natural to me than the preference curves.
I think the preference curve is probably the sort of thing I personally would have liked in my teens and twenties but not that which I prefer now.
I don't even like it watching tv. Edit, in fact it was finding it overblown on tv sound effects that made me check it out and reduce it again.
 
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pavuol

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Thank you for this nice /almost Christmas/ review :).

We definitely need some Sennheiser (or other headphone mfg) representative to tell us how to scientifically measure "separation", "layering" ...I remember HD800 / HD800S being praised especially for this in other reviews as well.

As to bass equalising, I always considered myself a "treble" lover, kind of laughing at all the "bass heads" out there.
Relative recently however I tried listening to Beyers DT880 250ohm EQ-ed with Wavelet app on an LG V30 phone to an AutoEq DT880 profile and I really enjoy it. It is kind of interesting, how our brain gets used to a "new standard", because every time I switch the EQ off, I wonder where have all that bass information gone, and there is much of that! Even in tracks appearing "non-audiophile"/"boring"/"casual" on the first sight ;)
 

YSC

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Thank you for this nice /almost Christmas/ review :).

It is kind of interesting, how our brain gets used to a "new standard", because every time I switch the EQ off, I wonder where have all that bass information gone, and there is much of that! Even in tracks appearing "non-audiophile"/"boring"/"casual" on the first sight ;)

I think this is the thing, as the HRTF is too much to be quantified currently, I feel they make more of the sighted bias. what I am curious is that seems not much research on using a dummy head to measure in various room with a pair of flat speakers, or even in anechoic chamber with flat speaker to correlate the curves for headphone target/ neutral curve.
 
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