The Sennheiser HD 800 S are the company's most expensive headphones you can buy off the shelf. No, we haven't forgotten about the £30,000 Sennheisers Orpheus HE1060, which cost a "small" fortune, but they can't be found on the high street.
So the £1,199 HD 800 S sound almost reasonable by comparison, and for a very select audience they are.
The Sennheiser HD 800 S take the classic HD 800 and smooth off the treble slightly. It is the precise-but-sharp treble that makes the older flagship such a challenging, yet still world-class, set of headphones. As such, the new version makes for a much more relaxing, if also less eye-opening, listen.
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Five years ago, I reviewed the original Sennheiser HD 800. The sound blew me away quite unlike any other set of headphones I’d heard up to that point. Looks-wise, however, it was clear that they weren't going to be to everyone’s taste.
With the HD 800 S, Sennheiser retains the look of the original, but swaps out the silver frame of the HD 800 for a black one. Not afraid of wearing its acoustically inert frame as a proud exoskeleton, there’s a hint of Futurist geometry here that’s far removed from the smooth wooden Audio Technica ATH-W1000Zs, for example.
The Sennheiser HD 800 S reject the reassuringly traditional at almost every turn. Man-made Alcantara (a suede-like material) is used for the padding, an unusual steel weave is used to block off the insides of the headphones from fingers, and the frame is made from an advanced polymer that defies simple classification.
For the most part, this dictates the look. However, it has a slight effect on the comfort too. The padding is fairly conservative for a large "at home" set of headphones, so they don’t end up poking out the side of your head in the way of the Grado PS1000. They are extremely comfortable, particularly for long listening sessions.
The surface area of the pads is large, and the pressure is spread reasonably evenly across the sides and top of your head (a little more on the top). These are fully open headphones, too, so there’s almost zero sound isolation by way of their design.
Anyone sat in the room with you will be able to hear what you’re listening to, and any outside noise is likely to prove distracting. I’ve been using the Sennheiser HD 800 S while working, and the sound of my mechanical keyboard clattering is easily audible through them.
Make sure your home is quiet enough to do them justice, although this applies to any true open-back headphone. They're not suitable for the office, and the long, thick 3m cable is yet another sign that they belong at home.
The HD 800 S come with a balanced XLR jack cable, made for use with amps with balanced connectors. This cable costs £250 on its own, making the £100 difference between the HD 800 and HD 800 S a non-issue (although it would be good to see a cheaper option that leaves it out).
The lead benefit of the open design of the Sennheiser HD 800 S is that they sound exceptionally "open", of course. There’s very little sense that the sound is constrained inside your head; it floats all around you.
This isn't something that's on offer in all open headphones. The Sennheiser HD 800 S have an immensely wide, expansive and detailed soundstage, providing a "3D" sound that's better than what most surround-sound headsets can create.
The effect is involving, and often made it difficult to concentrate on work when the volume was high enough to drown out the clacking of my keyboard.
Compared with most rivals around the same price, such as the Oppo PM-1 and Audeze LCD-3, the Sennhesier HD 800 S headphones sound very large, very epic.
This appears to be a result of the positive side-effects of Sennheiser’s obsession with dynamic drivers, which it uses in virtually all of its in-ear and full-sized headphones. At this price you’ll find numerous planar magnetic and – to a lesser extent – electrostatic sets, which tend to sound somewhat smaller. The Sennheiser HD 800 S’s scale is the equivalent of a set of room-dominating floor-standing speakers.
I'm not at all suggesting that these are bass-skewed headphones, though. The depth and force of the bass is excellent, but if you want any sort of bass dominance, you’ll have to EQ it in. As you’d hope, the Sennheiser HD 800 S headphones aim for balance and fidelity.
The £30,000 Sennheiser Orpheus have weightier bass, but I can’t imagine that anyone is seriously weighing up the merits of the two pairs as a buyer.
I find the hugeness of these headphones their most alluring characteristic in this class, so the most important question is: which are better, the HD 800 or HD 800 S?
Sennheiser has clearly made the HD 800 S to address the one major criticism that was consistently levelled at the HD 800, that their treble can sound a little harsh. This is the tricky part, because the HD 800 effectively turbo-charge their huge presentation with crystalline micro-detail in the higher treble registers. It’s like washing out your ears with menthol, but far more pleasant than that sounds.
However, some people still find the effect a little unpleasant, and the HD 800 S tackle this issue by making the treble normal. It’s far calmer, losing some of its extension into the sort of frequencies that are the privilege of younger ears.
The result is a set of headphones that I can’t imagine anyone disliking. Sound quality is superb, with the only issue being the presentation of the mids, which makes central channel vocals sink ever-so-slightly into the soundstage rather than really biting at your ears.
A £1,200 pair of headphones? The Sennheiser HD 800 S are obviously not for everyone. At this price there are no bad headphones, so the key is to choose the pair with the characteristics that you'll appreciate.
The Sennheiser HD 800 S’s forte is scale. The canvas is large, and these headphones know how to fill it.
They’re not flat-out better than the long-standing HD 800. This is simply a sibling with a different personality. If the HD 800 is an uncompromising genius, brilliant but awkward, the HD 800 S is just as smart but knows it isn't always a good idea to talk about chess theory at parties.
You can’t go wrong with either, but the Sennheiser HD 800 S is by far the more accessible of the two, if – ultimately – also slightly more ordinary.
Buy Now: Sennheiser HD 800 S at Amazon.com from $1,699
In the HD 800 S, Sennheiser has tamed the HD 800 to create one of the best set of headphones ever.
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