Model changes at the upper end of Sennheiser's headphone line don't happen very often. The previous flagship--the still available HD 650s--were introduced in 2003, and remain in the line. Their predecessor, the HD 600s, came out more than a decade ago, and are still popular with audiophiles. I've reviewed both, and they're both excellent headphones. But the HD 800s are something else again. They feature an all-new design that one-ups previous Sennheiser headphones. But that exclusivity is going to cost you a mint: the HD 800s retail for $1,400.
Features and design
The HD 800s' striking design sets them apart from every other headphone model on the market. But it's not just a styling exercise; the large earcups were designed to place the drivers farther away and slightly to the front of the listeners' ears than was possible in smaller designs. The precision quality of the earcups' plastic, metalwork, and the microfiber ear cushions certainly feels luxurious. The HD 800s perfectly distributed their 330-gram weight on my head, and ear pad pressure felt just right. The headphones are supremely comfortable.
The HD 800s' patented doughnut-shaped transducer measures 56 millimeters across; Sennheiser claims it's the largest used in a modern headphone. It's interesting to note that the vibrating part of the diaphragm is not its circular interior but its outer ring. The design is said to produce less distortion than conventional drivers.
The driver is mounted on a specially devised perforated stainless steel support on the earcup at an angle to mimic the way sound from speakers is heard. The support is mounted on a special type of plastic frame, selected for its acoustic properties.
Each driver is tested, measured, and given its own unique identifier. So if you ever need to replace an HD 800 driver in the future, Sennheiser claims it will be able to provide an exact match.
The 10-foot, cloth-covered Y-cable (one cord to each earcup) features silver-plated, oxygen-free copper wiring. It's reinforced with Kevlar to enhance durability. The cable is removable from the headphone and features new patented and proprietary connectors. The base of the 6.3-millimeter phono plug is a nicely finished, solid metal piece. (You'll need to provide your own adapter if you want to use an audio source with a standard 3.5-millimeter headphone jack.)
The HD 800s come packed in a beautiful storage case. Each pair of headphones is hand-assembled and tested in Germany.
Please understand that great headphones aren't just about "more"--more bass, more detail/resolution, or whatever. The very best ones offer a finely tuned sonic balance. That's what truly distinguishes the HD 800s; they "disappear" more than any other dynamic (nonelectrostatic) headphones we've used. With the HD 800s, you feel like you're getting a direct connection to the music.
The HD 800s sound a bit less like headphones and more like high-end speakers than any headphones we've heard since the long-gone and very expensive AKG K1000s. The HD 800s' sound appears to come from in front rather than to the sides, compared with other headphones.