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What is hi-fi? And how much should you have to pay? For some people, the pursuit of high-fidelity is never-ending and forms a hobby all of its own. But like any obsession, once you get past a certain level it stops being fun and just becomes analytical. Many people wouldn't dream of spending two and a half grand on a pair of headphones, but for others it's another step to reaching music nirvana. Is the HD 800 "It"?
The Sennheiser HD 800s are handmade in Germany, and the materials used in their construction range from suede-like Alcantara on the ear cups to thin wire mesh on the ear cup surrounds. The overall effect is of solidity. Though the Sennheiser may seem a little heavy at 330g with the cord, you can wear these things comfortably for hours.
To give you an experience closely resembling listening to loudspeakers Sennheiser employed a couple of different techniques. Firstly, the headphone drivers are angled at 45 degrees, which means the sound hits your ears with a slight delay. Secondly, the drivers use what the company claims is the largest headphone transducer in the world to deliver more of the frequency range. The driver is also doughnut-shaped to eliminate distortion, and the 'phones have a claimed response of 13Hz 44,100Hz as a result.
After using these headphones for a while we quickly realised one thing — you really need a good amplifier to get the most out of them. We used what could be described as a very good amp in the form of Yamaha's A-S700, but found it couldn't keep up with the HD 800s. Turning the volume up made snare drums blinky and uncomfortable, for example — these headphones need a lot of juice! Ideally, you'd need a dedicated headphone amplifier, and the Lehmann Black Cube Linear USB fitted the bill nicely!
Something that surprised us, given the price and "audiophile" nature of the headphones, was how good the Sennheiser's sounded with every type of music we lobbed in its direction. Normally, you'd expect high-end cans to be great with classical and jazz but flaccid with rock music. Not so. They combine low-end punch with a detailed mid-range that isn't too analytical, and they can definitely bring the rock. As the Lehmann amp is also a USB DAC, we connected it to our PC and listened to everything from a lossless copy of Nick Cave's trashy Red Right Hand to the light, choral touch of Everything That Happens Will Happen Today by David Byrne and Brian Eno. We even strayed to some singer/songwriter guitar tunes by Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu and Augie March and they were also deftly handled. Jazz, as expected, sounded great.
Two and a half grand is a lot, and given that the Lehman headphone amp we used is also worth two grand on its own, it becomes clear that you need to make quite an investment to get the best out of these headphones. But if you're a hi-fi hobbyist, or simply love music, then this is perhaps the best set your money can buy.