Summing up what I’ve written previously on Part 1 and Part 2 of the HD800 Journal, I felt that the HD800 is an exceptional dynamic headphone, and the better the component upstream is, the better the HD800 gets. This is great news for people with a high end source and a high end amplifier, as finally, the bottleneck on the transducer has been removed and they can really hear every little drop of sound coming out of their high end source. At the same time, there has been a lot of frustration among other HD800 buyers, as it doesn’t seem to give them the $1400, ultimate-dynamic-cans sound that would end their headphone journey once and for all.
I can’t pretend to know what the unhappy buyers are hearing, but if I can make an educated guess, I think it’s the lack of coloration on the HD800. It has been said many times that the HD800 is very neutral headphone, free from any coloration. Well, it turns out that neutrality is a double edged sword. Despite all the talk about neutrality being the pinnacle of Hi-Fi, the reality is, a lot of us love our audio gears precisely for their coloration. Think about some of the most loved headphones, and you will notice that they each have quite a distinct coloration: the Grado RS1, the Sennheiser HD650, the Denon D7000, and you’ll notice that none them have been described as neutral.
We have been living in a sweet, colored world throughout our Hi-Fi life. Then suddenly, Sennheiser released a dead neutral HD800. As a consequence, we find expressions such as “the HD800 has great speed and imaging, but I find it to lack soul”, or “as much as the HD800 is a great phone, I find myself reaching for the Denon more” and so on.
Don’t think of “neutral” as something that you would immediately appreciate. If you’re listening to the HD650 and you’re loving its laid back and dark sound, realize that on the HD800, though a lot of things will be improved, you’ll lose that laid back and dark HD650 sound. Is that a trade off that you’re willing to take? Of course, the same thing applies for a lot of other headphones out there, each with their own house sound.
For me, I enjoy either a colored sound or a neutral one. I highly enjoyed the HD650, but I thoroughly enjoy the HD800 too. Although to me, the HD800 is far more enjoyable than the HD650, both technically and musically. What’s funny, is when we read into the Sennheiser HD650’s manual, it actually indicated that the engineers were moving away from a precise sound reproduction to a more fun and colored sound. As quoted from the Sennheiser HD650 manual:
“With the HD 650, Sennheiser has followed the changes in the listening habits of music-lovers and the way in which they experience sound. In spite of all purism and the highest demands on precise sound reproduction, a slight change in listening behaviour is detectable. Today many music-lovers want to feel the sound more instead of plainly analysing it. The HD 650 now captivates your senses where you used to be a mere observer. It allows total submersion into an ocean of music and lets you completely forget the surroundings.”
So it seems that people have been moving back and fourth between a pursuit of neutrality and a pursuit of a fun sound. Would this make the next generation of the Sennheiser flagship, a colored headphone?
There were also talk about the HD800 being overpriced or not living up to the hype. In my opinion, the hype surrounding the HD800 is certainly well justified, as it has opened a door to a musicality that I never before experience, even with the Grado HP1000. What about pricing? Having owned the $999 Grado GS1000i, for instance, I think the extra $400 upgrade to the HD800 is quite justified for the upgrade that you get. Other flagship headphones that were recently released, like the Grado PS1000 and the Ultrasone Edition 8, certainly haven’t achieved the technical achievements that the HD800 has, though they all retail for more than the HD800.
When you compare the HD800 to the discontinued legends of the past, the HD800 really becomes a great bang-for-the-buck product. For instance, the legendary Grado HP1000 is one of the best headphones out there, but it doesn’t have the speed and the imaging capability that the HD800 has. This makes the $1399 HD800 quite a bargain, seeing how 2nd hand HP1000s often approach the $2000 range. Also, the HD800 is often compared with headphones costing a few times more, as if a few thousand dollars of difference doesn’t seem to matter. If you notice that the Sony MDR-R10 sells for ~$6000, and the Sennheiser Orpheus, or HE90, sells for ~$9000, and these are the headphones that people say to be better than the HD800 (they better be, for that price), then you begin to really appreciate the bang-of-the-buck factor of the HD800.