German Flagship Battle: The HD800 and the T1

As of 2010, these are the two flagship models being offered by the two of the biggest headphone company in the world, Sennheiser, and Beyerdynamic. Both offers the latest technology in their drivers. Ring shaped driver in the Sennheiser HD800, and a Tesla driver in the Beyerdynamic T1. Certainly, the engineers at the respective companies believe that their product is the best the world has ever seen. And while I was reading the press releases of both headphones, my imagination really led me to think that the sound out of these cans would be nothing like I’ve ever heard before.

Having both cans in my possession right now, hooked up to a fairly premium system comprising the Grace m902 and the Burson HA-160 amplifier, I can tell you that the two flagships sound pretty much like, well, headphones. Yep, no sugar coated review here, and I can understand if your spouse questions the logic behind a $1,000 pair of headphones. Unless you play for the NBA, or you manage some big private equity funds, or you come from a royal Arab family, the price tag may not make a lot of sense. But it’s good to be able to taste what the best sounds like, and if I can’t yet afford a Mercedes SLR, a flagship German headphone is good enough for the time being.

The two headphones carries a noticeably different sound signature from each other. They are quite balanced sounding in their own sense, but the minute you wear them on your head you’ll notice that the two is very different. Both headphones are clearly very good, and they both deserve the flagship status of their respective brands. The T1 has a great feel of clarity that lets you vision the music better, while the HD800 has a smooth and analog sound that lets you get a better mood of the music. Of course both headphones are not the ultimate, end-of-journey headphones. And as you will see when I started comparing the headphones on different CDs, the T1 will excel at one music, where the HD800 will excel at another.

Holding both headphones in your hand, I have to give the extra credit to the folks at Sennheiser. Regardless of your personal preference in aesthetics and design, it is not an easy thing to design a new housing from scratch, especially considering the high acoustic expectations that’s placed on a flagship headphone like the HD800. The Beyerdynamic T1 does come in a premium build quality and craftmanship, and in some ways, it feels more solid than the HD800’s. But there is no denying that Beyer took an existing housing from the DT880 series, and sort of added the “premium package option” on an old chassis. Both headphones are comfortable on my head, but the HD800 scores an extra two points in comfort ahead of the T1. What’s important to mention is that both headphones have the driver placed in an angle to the ear, instead of the usual straight orientation. While this technology has existed in the lesser Sennheisers (HD555/595, for instance), I believe this is the first implementation by Beyer.

I think the build quality of both headphones are high enough, and I really have no complain with either one. However, they do cost quite a sum at $1295.00 and $1399.95 for the T1 and the HD800, respectively, and for the sake of the review, I think they deserve a closer scrutiny.

The alcantara fiber material found in the HD800 earpads and headband is definitely more luxurious than the leather and verlour pads found on the T1. The alcantara is very soft, and the feeling of it touching your skin feels very luxurious. The pads adjustment mechanism is also fancier and more precise on the HD800, while on the T1 is more or less the same as the lesser DT880 model. On the cables, the T1’s cable is very beefy and each channel runs on individual lines throughout the length of the cable. The HD800, however, is more luxurious, with fiber sleeving and the custom 1/4″ jack as opposed to the standard mass produced 1/4″ Neutrik on the T1. Again, just nitpicking here, as they both do a great job of serving as a conductor. I really can’t comment on the sound quality of the cables, but it’s nice to have removable cables like on the HD800, as I can swap the stock cable to aftermarket ones fairly easily and get an instant boost on sound quality.

When I first received the T1, the pads were a little small and somehow they didn’t accomodate my ears too well. My ears were pressing against the pads, and also the pressure of the headphone was a little uncomfortable. After roughly a week of intensive listening, the pads must have adjusted and now the T1 is quite comfortable, but it still doesn’t match the much superior comfort of the HD800.

In case you’ve been asking, which is which: The silver color is the HD800, the champagne color is the T1. Anyway this shot shows the housing size difference, the HD800 being much larger.

For this comparison, I used a very neutral system that has no strong colorations to get the best view of each headphones’ personality. For personal listening, of course you can match them to amplifiers and source with certain characteristics to better match your music. The source I use this time is the Grace m902 DAC with the Ipod Classic and Onkyo ND-S1 dock as the transport. The amplifier used is the Burson all discrete solid state amplifier, the HA-160. In comparison to the Grace m902’s amplifier unit, the Burson HA-160 exhibits better imaging performance and so I did not use the m902’s amplifier unit.

The amplifier requirements of the two headphones are quite medium to high. The Sennheiser HD800 is 300Ω and the Beyerdynamic T1 is 600Ω. As long as your amplifiers have enough gain, it should be good for the two headphones. So in a sense, you don’t really need a lot of current like on the orthodynamics like the Hifiman HE5. They are very revealing of the component behind them, and so, make sure that your amplifier can produce good and clean signals, because any kind of distortions will sound ugly on these headphones. But far more than the amplifiers, the source requirement, I believe is even higher. And the better your source is, the better these two headphones will shine. I wouldn’t be surprised to see these headphones being paired with $2000+ sources.

I need to give credit to Hadi, one of our contributors, who helped me a great deal during the period of the review, and I definitely appreciate his inputs on how to put what we hear into words. He suggested that it’ll be a good idea to include a comparison notes, since these two flagship headphones rightly deserves a deeper scrutiny than the usual review format. And so I did. This is the first review that I wrote that includes comparison notes.

German Flagship Battle: The HD800 and the T1
3.82 (76.36%) 11 votes

  • Broooooobi

    bought the T1s and then saw this review….should have bought the HD800s instead. HD800 is the real king of the dynamic headphones.

    • My T1 isn’t here yet, but my T90 is more satisfactory than my HD800. I do have to tone down the T90 treble a little and also boost the bass a little, but if it’s not overdone it retains the clarity and musicality well. I could never get to such a ‘liquid’ type of sound with the HD800 – maybe it’s just too revealing or something – don’t know.

    • The T1 is really nice, especially at the $800-plus prices they’re selling for now. The sound isn’t as ‘big’ as the HD800, and it isn’t as accurate, but for the price I think it’s worth tweaking some. There are some interesting comments on my post at ComputerAudiophile that discuss the accuracy issue.

    • s. zorin

      Well, you do not say what music you listen to, so how can we understand your complaint ? If you listen to a full classical orchestra together with a full choir then HD800’s bigger soundstage effect surely helps better than the soundstage presentation of T1. I do not understand this review; the general consensus about T1 and HD800 is that HD800 sounds THINNER than T1, yet this review says the opposite. Another consensus is that T1 needs a tube or a hybrid amplifier, and none was used in this review.
      I’ve heard HD800 enough and I have T1. HD800 has its strengths but overall I find T1 to be better. They are more musical than HD800 and that’s what matters most.

      • I find the T1 to sound thinner really. They both can use a good tube amp or a warm ss.

        Are you sure you were using a good amp for that HD800?

  • Yaroslav

    Literally don’t know a better post to ask, so I’ll try here and hope for Lieven’s or Dale’s answer.

    What headphone is a better bang per buck if I can buy both HD800 and LCD-2 for under $1000? Got a Chord Mojo as DAC, can get an additional amp but pretty sure both will be driven fine out of it.

    I do understand it is totally a matter of taste. I also do understand the differences as noted in most reviews: HD800 as very analytical, super amp dependent, best soundstage ever, lightweight and comfy (all confirmed by myself after some listening). LCD-2, amazing bass and warm sound, characterized by many as HD650 upgrade, but still pricey and not very comfortable. Tried HD800 for about an hour, did not try LCD-2 yet (hard to get them for a listen where I live).

    Basically, if I can get a real flagship for under $1000 (HD800 still being a flagship), should I even consider an Audeze lower model?

    • The HD800 is a great headphone on so many counts that the LCD2 would only compare (in the value-for-dollar sense) if the bass were worth 10 times as many points as everything else. The problem I have with the LCD2 is that on the one hand, the bass is hardly much better, and the treble extension isn’t good. At the risk of getting brickbats, I’d buy the HD800, turn the treble down slightly, and enjoy a far better headphone. But, if any such tone controls are a no-no *and* the better bass (if it is better) is critical, you could live with the LCD2. It isn’t bad. Another possibility is to get the HD800 and shop around for a good tube amp.

      • Yaroslav

        Thanks guys!

    • These are both great and so very different. To me the HD800 is technically the better headphone, but the LCD2 is the more fun one. These are very compatible headphones and in the end it depends on the type of sound you want, with your setup I think the Audeze might be the best bet as the HD800 is very amp dependent

      • Yaroslav

        Again, thanks to your replies. Just to share my update: finally demoed LCD-2f and HD800 back-to-back off Chord Mojo (plenty of power to drive both, nice) for about an hour and a half.

        Surprise 1: Fazored LCD-2 seems to have a soundstage the same width as HD600, which is plenty enough. Maybe it’s Chord, maybe it’s Maybelline(tm). Sound does not choke in these at all, as it does in my 400i.

        Surprise 2: I can’t find a bad thing about Audeze except maybe the weight and the fact that I’m scared that these phones can fall off my head. Yes, LCD-2 is probably quite colored, but for purely listening to music (and not mastering or recording) it seems in a league higher than HD800. Maybe it’s my lame experience speaking from only owning mid-fi Senns and one HiFiMan.

        Listened to classical for at least an hour and while there is a small “lack of airness”, to quote a lot of reviews on the subject, even orchestral and classical records were better on LCD for me because of the INSANE midrange. HD800 is supposed to be the best orchestral headphone ever, and I did not feel that—at least on my 320 bitrate stuff off Spotify and cheaper-than-a-multi-thousand-dollar DAC/AMP.

        HD800, being an amazingly technical headphone with a huge soundstage, somehow does sound dull and boring compared to Audeze. I did not notice anything wrong with highs on both phones, though: HD800 was not piercing at all on my Mojo (guess it is a good pairing, then!), and LCD-2 highs were not really recessed. After reading all the reviews, I expected LCD-2 to behave like a badly amped HD650, with a huge veil and everything, not the case. Classical music is amazing on it.

        Heres’s the kicker: my test pair of LCD-2s straight from the box had 2 build defects: a misplaced fazor (!) and a metal chassis failure (!!). Just wrote to Audeze to check if this is common. For a thousand dollar headphone, for God’s sake…

        So it is an even harder choice for me now 🙂

  • Denis Sanko

    Hi guys!
    I’m looking for a decent headphone all-round preformer, with a precise, neutral and detailed sound.
    Precision and neutrality for me do mean a lot and it’s not about dull and dry presentation but on the contrary a lifelike sound typical of good studio monitors such as JBL 4429 or 4319. Neutrality and precision, which allow for different musical intonations and moods to come through.
    When you can see into the recording both with ears and heart. Touch it and feel it.
    The contender must be on very good terms with dynamic peaks, attack, punch, speed and cope fairly well with any musical genre from hard rock to classical music.
    Judging by a great deal of reviews and comments I think that T1 is somewhere close to my needs. The budget is around 2000 usd. I’m interested if my expectations with T1 are close to what they are. Or perhaps there are other strong and competitve challengers up to that price point to meet my demands best?
    Advice on proper amplification is also much appreciated. I’m wondering about Beyer A2 and
    Trafomatic Head 2. The latter is supposed to be very dynamic and engaging with as little color as possible for tube amp.
    Or smth else I’m not aware of…?
    The source to feed them with music will be AMR cd-777. It is already present in my primary audio setup based on high-efficiency speakers and 300B single-ended amplification.
    To be futher additioned by a more neutral and compact contender.

    • Think HD800 or T1. Don’t go near the A20 for neutrality, it’s warm. A2 is nice but nothing that special. how about Jan Meier Audio?

      • Denis Sanko

        Frankly, I’m a bit sceptical on HD800. Judging by reviews they are not friendly with hard rock music which requires a solid foundation.
        As regards Jan Meier I have no experience with their products. The price on these amps seems quite moderate. Any specific model to pay attention to?
        And how they combine with T1?

    • If I remember correctly, both the 800 and the T1 have newer, warmer versions. I would choose between those, not just because they’re newer, or the mfrs. have learned lessons from the first versions, but because most serious forums (incl. Innerfidelity and the famous 50-headphone review at headfi) have described their eventual disappointments with both first versions. I’ve owned both, and concur.

      • Denis Sanko

        you seem to have first hand experience as an owner of both models. so what were the core dissapointments with them? I doubt one can find an ideal product to meet all demands in full 100%. There’s always a place for even tiny compromises. And it’s up to personal taste and demands to accept them or not.

        • For insight on the HD800, I’d defer to two places – Tyll’s review and numerous followup comments at Innerfidelity, and David Mahler’s 58 headphones review on head-fi. My experience is basically the same – great technicals, spectacular upper harmonics resolution, awesome soundstage, but in the end, after the fireworks, just not warm and enjoyable. The T1 is very different – strong upper treble peaks and a weird tonality – a musician commented on my review at ComputerAudiophile, saying that the T1 can’t resolve the differences between a Steinway and a Bosendorfer, or certain differences between a horn and a flute playing a single tone.

          • Denis Sanko

            I’ve read your review and must say it’s very comprehesive.
            As regards the comments on T1’s tonal flaws in rendering Steinway & Bosendorfer differences I’d say it much depends on a recording itself and the rest gear combination. What is more I’m not a musician and probably those are (assuming they really are) very small compromises I could live with.
            As far as HD800 are concerned I reckon it’s a technically superb but “soulless” device for specific needs. too much of an audiophile but less of music satisfaction.
            I think more & more that T1 would be the right choice for me.

            • Once you get a headphone that feels “right”, you don’t have to feel a disappointment down the line when some small thing is aggravating you (i.e. imperfection) – there are lots of electronics patches for those cases.