Our friends at Sonarworks, the makers of Reference 3 speaker and headphone calibration software, have tested the popular Sennheiser HD800 headphones against Sennheiser's latest offering the HD800S. Sonarworks spend most of their time in their labs testing studio headphones, what these guys don't know about headphones isn't worth knowing at all. Both these headphones cost in in the £1,100 to £1,300 - which is best? Has Sennheiser improved the HD800 model?
Rūdolfs Putniņš from Sonarworks has tested Sennheisers HD800 headphones against the new HD800S headphones and has kindly produced this shootout between the two models exclusively for the Pro Tools Expert Community.
Rudolfs, over to you...
Sonarworks HD800 vs HD800S Shootout
When looking for reasonably priced studio headphones few can resist the temptation of looking at higher end solutions. There are lesser known headphone brands and technologies out there such as Electrostatic that produce ethereal sounds along with thunderous bass tones, however, Sennheiser with their HD800 headphones have long been the benchmark for traditional dynamic studio headphones. I've tested both headphones against each other to find out if the latest HD800S model isn't just a slight flavor change but actually something we can all get excited about.
The Future Is Darker
Hyped highs in studio headphones are, in the opinion of Sonarworks, currently an industry wide disease as far as headphones are concerned. As you may or may not know, this hyped sound gives the impression of detail but in reality, extra sonic information is lacking. Tonal balance gets being traded for a narrow focus on overtones which is audible. Usually, inexperienced listeners like the hyped sound but in extended use ear fatigue sets in.
The original Sennheiser HD800 headphones were known for having a bright sound signature described by many as unforgiving, clinical or revealing. If you look at the measurements we've taken below, you'll immediately see that upper registers have a certain "tonal skew."
For some time, hi-fi listeners have tried to self-medicate the twin peaks at 5,5kHz and 11kHz by claiming that the HD800 is picky regarding the amp. A common remedy has been to use a high output impedance tube amp which increases the low end of HD800. More recently, other enthusiasts took a more data driven approach in developing a mod kit from various absorptive materials to “room-treat” the inside of the headphone. One just needs to take apart their beloved headphone and glue in some rug liner and a small Helmholz resonator - I'm not kidding here.
Enter the S
Even with some headphone bloopers here and there from Sennheiser, we regard them as one of the best headphone manufacturers out there. When we buy Sennheiser we can be sure their headphones won't suck, in the case of HD650 and HD600 these models might even border on brilliance. When we first had the chance to measure and listen to the HD800S it was immediately audible that the “S” in HD800S doesn't stand for “same”
Who knew - Sennheiser has listened to their user base and produced a set less bright cans! Who knew that it would take a few hundred audiophiles gunning down the HD800 with hot glue and sticking all kinds of fuzzy stuff inside to get the attention of Sennheiser's RnD department.
We feel that without Sonarworks Headphone calibration and these homemade mods the HD800 are borderline unlistenable. The question I'm sure you are all asking is - has that changed with the HD800S? Depends on the listener, but one thing is very clear. Mixing with the HD800S headphones may only be possible if the +6dB peak is taken care of. Otherwise tracks either come out dull or nasty surprises could happen when going from cans to speakers.
We can only imagine that designing headphones is no easy task, even with RnD muscles like Sennheiser. Surely their engineers have to juggle between treble induced “shock and awe” cans which sells to the masses and more balanced sounding headphones that don't make people's ears bleed after two hours of use.
Both of the HD800's still suffer from treble peaking and bass is typical of an open back headphone. HD600 or HD650 will be more tonally neutral, however, the ring radiator based HD800 and HD800S do pleasing things with the soundstage that no other headphone we've tested do. Many engineers swear by them to pick out minute details in even the densest of mixes, but at the same time, their tonal peculiarities won't let one hear the bigger tonal picture.
HD800S does make sense if one has the means to tame that treble peak, but in that case why not stick with the old HD800? If “S” actually stands for “second”, then better wait for HD800T or HD800F. The trend to go for less treble peaking, which we prefer, if only the industry would accept it faster.