Sennheiser HD 800 S Review

Sennheiser has breathed on its HD 800 and added a balanced connecting lead to produce the 800 S but, unlike some competitors, it has adopted a light-touch strategy
The danger in being a long-established stalwart of any industry is that you become conservative and risk-averse. I have no insight into what happens in the Sennheiser boardroom, of course, but as an outside observer it struck me that this is just what happened to the company in the noughties. Back in 1968 Sennheiser had recast everyone’s notion of the headphone when it introduced the ground-breaking HD 414, a design that was light and compact, sat on the ear rather than around it, was open-back and had gaudily coloured foam earpads.


SENNHEISER’S MOJO
Thirty-five years later the HD 850 was Sennheiser’s top-of-the-range model and seems, in retrospect, to have encapsulated the company’s torpor. I owned one and while I respected the organisation of its sound – a place for everything and everything it its place – that respect never grew into affection. In fact I found the HD 850 oddly uninvolving as a purveyor of music. Then, in 2009, out of the blue, Sennheiser rediscovered its mojo with the launch of the HD 800, joined now by the £1200 HD 800 S, a breathed-on version that offers the option of balanced connection.
Lifting the HD 800 S out of its presentation case I was struck anew by just what a surprise the HD 800 was when it appeared. It was so obviously a clean-sheet design with a bold, modern appearance quite unlike anything we’d seen from Sennheiser before. And its sound quality only reinforced the sense that Sennheiser’s engineers were on a mission to throw off old shackles and establish a new benchmark.
Even though it is now over seven years old, the HD 800 still looks fresh and original, unmatched by anything to have appeared since. And with the S variant, Sennheiser is aiming to keep it at the top of the tree for sound quality too.
Just how different are the 800 and 800 S? Cosmetically nothing has changed but for the exterior metal parts of the S’s capsules having a matt black rather than a silver finish. As before, stainless steel gauze and engineering plastic feature in the construction and the 56mm driver remains, says Sennheiser, ‘the largest ever used in  dynamic headphones’. Nominal impedance is unchanged (a high 300 ohms) and the specified sensitivity likewise.
What has changed, if only slightly, is the frequency response – according to Sennheiser’s published third-octave plot the S has a little more output below 150Hz and a little less around 6kHz. Also new is the use of a revised absorptive material within the capsules, which is presumably responsible for the frequency response change in the treble. Plus Sennheiser provides two connecting leads for the S, both featuring silver-plated OFC conductors and ‘paraaramid reinforcement’. These are an unbalanced lead, as in the HD 800, terminated in a ¼in jack plug, and a balanced lead terminated in a four-pin male XLR plug. At the headphone end both divide to form a Y-cable that connects separately to each capsule via the same push-fit connectors used in the 800. (Why Sennheiser didn’t use the delicious Lemo locking alternatives adopted by AKG for its K812 is a puzzlement to me.) No provision is made for mini-jack connection as the 800 S makes no silly pretence of being suited to peripatetic use, and rightly demands something better than a smartphone to drive it.
Apart from the black-finished, hingedlid cardboard presentation case and user manual the only accessories supplied are a microfibre cleaning cloth, a drawstring soft bag for the spare cable and a USB fl ash drive which, together with the manual in PDF form, carries the individual frequency response of the headphone it’s supplied with.
Now that I’ve mentioned the headband, it bears reiterating that resonance therein is something Sennheiser took seriously from the outset with the HD 800, combining metal with an ‘inner damping element’. Unquestionably it’s effective. When wearing the headphone for the impedance test I could hear no coloration of the pink noise signal due to headband resonance and no carryover of sound from the left channel towards the inactive right channel. Comfort is of a high order despite the thin earpads, and sealing to the head is good despite the modest clamping force.
THE BEST YET?
Most of my listening was conducted using my usual Teac HA-501 headphone amplifier. But this offers only unbalanced connections and I was keen to assess what, if any, improvement is wrought by using the 800 S in balanced mode, so I also pressed into service Teac’s UD-503. This offers a balanced connection but via twin ¼in jack sockets, so I had to solder up a short adapter lead. (I used Neutrik connectors and PTFE-insulated silver-plated OFC wire.) In this mode the UD-503’s internal DAC was used, fed signals via USB from Teac’s own software player running on a Windows 7 desktop PC.
The HD 800’s stock in trade is precision, and the S is no different. But this is not the oddly lifeless precision of the old HD 850, for the HD 800 S, on the end of worthy ancillaries, is full of life and engagement. And it has a tonal balance that strikes me as being as close to neutral as I’ve ever heard from a headphone.
Let’s deal with the balanced versus unbalanced issue straight away. I began my listening using the Teac UD-503 to compare the two connections and came away with a distinct preference for the unbalanced option, which I found crisper and more informative. Inspired by the UD-503’s fine performance on high-rate DSD source material, I recently bought the Native DSD download of the Janaki String Trio’s Debut [Yarlung Records] in ultimate DSD256 form (which, usefully, also gives you access to the DSD128 and DSD64 files). Track 3 – the opening movement of Beethoven’s String Trio Op.9:3 – is a fine advertisement for both the quality of the recording and JST’s playing, and it just sounded clearer and more dynamic via the unbalanced connection, the balanced alternative sounding somewhat slugged.
AN ELP TRIBUTE
In memory of Keith Emerson I then turned to something nearer the opposite end of the quality scale: ‘Lucky Man’, ripped from the remastered version of the first, eponymous ELP album [Sony Music 88691937972]. Though Eddy Offord’s recording is way short of Janaki-class, nevertheless I heard the same shortfall in resolution over the balanced connection. Via the unbalanced link Greg Lake’s guitar contributions were clearer, and Emerson’s famous synthesiser solo grumbled and soared in a more convincing fashion.
This does not mean, I emphasise, that balanced connection will never give a superior result with the HD 800 S. In other circumstances, it might. But having two amplifiers per channel rather than one always raises the possibility of sound quality being degraded rather than improved. For the remainder of the listening I reverted happily to an unbalanced feed from the HA-501.
As this point I have to address a slightly diffi cult topic. When I reviewed the HD 800 in 2009 I noted that it sounded better with the dust covers removed from inside the capsules. Normally I would never review an item of equipment in any other than its ex-factory state but this is an easy, entirely reversible modifi cation to try and,  having mentioned it in the context of the HD 800, I felt duty bound to try it again with the S. I’m glad I did because my reaction was as it had been before: the sound is improved when the covers are removed.
A FLURRY OF PRECISION
I heard the improvement on a range of different source material. One of the tracks that best demonstrated the effect being the challenging ‘Rassa, tan creis e monta e poia’ from the Martin Best Ensemble’s The Last Of The Troubadours [Nimbus Records NI 5261]. The second item on the disc, it follows a spoken track describing the horrors of the sack of Bezier when Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian Crusade, not in the Holy Land but the south of France, to obliterate the heretic Cathars. I don’t know what the track title means but given that the reading ends with the words ‘Let’s sing for our futures, all our futures’ I take its mood to be a mix of deliverance and defi ance. Certainly it is frenetic, and diffi cult to reproduce without becoming harsh.
With the dust covers in place the 800 S avoided harshness but seemed to sap a little of the insistent rhythmical energy from the piece. With covers removed the sound opened up and the energy level increased but harshness was still kept at bay. This was enough to persuade me to leave the covers out for the remainder of my listening, although owners encouraged to try this must make up their own minds.
Other tracks fl ew by in a fl urry of expressive precision. The opening movement of Pierre Boulez’s ‘Notations’ [DG 00289 477 5385] showed the 800 S to be capable of highly believable piano sound and wide, unrestricted dynamic range just as ‘Drumkit Quartet #1’ by Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche [Cantaloupe Music, 44.1kHz/16-bit download] showcased its ability to reproduce thumping bass alongside delicately resolved treble percussion. Thomas Gould’s reinterpretation of Miles Davis’s ‘Donna Lee’ from Bach To Parker [Champs Hill CHRCD078; 96kHz/24-bit download] was a delightful demonstration of how the young British violinist really can cross genres. And so yet another smile creased my face.
VERDICTSennheiser hasn’t done a great deal to the HD 800 to turn it into the HD 800 S but when you have a fine product already it’s good to appreciate that you need to be subtle not to break it. Sennheiser has been subtle and the result is that the HD 800 S easily earns a place at the top table alongside the very best headphones currently available. It isn’t artfully euphonic, just honest, capable and, above all, enjoyable.
SPECIFICATIONSSensitivity (SPL at 1kHz for 1Vrms input) 105.9dBImpedance modulus min/max (20Hz-20kHz) 333ohm @ 2.1kHz, 654ohm @ 90HzCapsule matching (40Hz-10kHz) ±11.6dBLF extension (–6dB ref. 200Hz) 12HzDistortion 100Hz/1kHz (for 90dB SPL) 0.1% / <0.1%Weight (inc cable and 0.25in connector) 496g.

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