Hifiman HE-5 vs Sennheiser HD800

I’ve been going back and forth on the HE-5 and the HD800. This time I am listening purely on the CEC TL51xz and the Balanced Beta22. Both the HE-5 and the HD800 is in balanced configuration. I did not want to wait to source out for another cable, and so I made a balanced cable for the HE-5, using a Canare L-2T2S cable, terminated with two 3-pin Neutrik XLRs. The HD800, on the other hand, is equipped with fancy APureSound cable with the nice super nylon covering and the same two 3-pin Neutriks. A little unfair? Yes, but the world is also not perfect.

Initially, the fitment on the HE-5 is really bad, as I wrote on the first impression article. But I’ve found that pressing the cups to your head forms the pads to follow your head contour better. After doing it a few times, the pads sort of remembers the contour and stays in that form. And now, the fitment on the HE-5 is just nice, and the pads, maybe broken in, doesn’t feel as itchy as it did brand new. Though it still couldn’t compete with the glove-like fit of the HD800 with its microfiber pads, at least now I can feel comfortable wearing the HE-5 for longer periods of time.

The HE-5 needs a lot of current to drive, and while for most headphones, a higher impedance cans is harder to drive than a lower impedance one, this is not the case with the HE-5. Both the HE-5 and the HD800 requires roughly similar turns on the Beta22’s volume knob, with the HE-5 needing perhaps 1 or 2 clicks more on the DACT Attenuator. However, where portable amplifiers like the LISA 3 can drive the HD800 just fine, I find it to distort with the HE-5. The Hifiman EF-5 amplifier is reputedly to be a good match for the HE-5, giving a good performance out of a fairly low-budget amplifier.

I have been burning the HE-5 everyday with pure music. Most of the improvements are done within the first 50 hours, or roughly the first two days. Whatever shrillness in the treble that I noticed earlier is gone by now. Further improvement on the HE-5 is achieved by driving it balanced. Comparing between single ended HE-5 and balanced in the Beta22, the balanced drive improves the soundstage as well as the bottom end in the HE-5. The HD800 actually also gets the same improvement from single ended to balanced — on the soundstage and the bottom end.

The initial bright impression of the HE-5 has now been corrected. I can attribute the brightness mostly due to bad synergy with the Grace m902 that I used earlier for driving the HE-5. The Beta22 definitely put more warmth, more midrange and bottom end body to the HE-5. The Canare L-2T2S cable is also known to add a warm sound signature. All these combined with the analog sounding CEC TL51xz CDP makes the HE-5 a very good headphone to listen to.

All throughout my listening sessions, it’s clear that the HD800 is still a step up from the HE-5. The HD800 has a very speaker-like three dimensional soundstage that totally envelops you with music. By itself, the HE-5 is quite marvelous in terms of soundstage. It’s fairly wide, have good depth, and instrument separation are well above average. Still, the HD800 has a far superior soundstage, imaging, and instrument separation.

Again, the HE-5 by itself is very good with bass. The bass is not muddy and well-controlled, while still offering good punch and body. However, the HD800 is still significantly better. I find the bass on the HD800 to be richer, more full bodied, while possessing far more layers of tones yet remaining very organic. Definitely one of the best bass I have ever heard. Though the HE-5 is extremely good in terms of bass, and definitely better than all the vintage orthos I have heard, the HD800 still remains superior.

Some of you might be thinking by now, that it’s the APureSound cable giving an upper edge to the HD800. Rest assured, that though the APureSound cable is superior to the Canare I use for the HE-5, the difference is far bigger than just cables. I have plenty of experience with a lot of aftermarket cables as well as DIY ones. I also did a review on most of the brand name cables that was published quite a while ago. While the aftermarket cables definitely are superior to most DIY ones, and the APureSound cable definitely superior to the Canare L2 cable I use for the HE-5, I know that the difference is just not that big. The Canare L2 is used in a lot of professional applications for microphone use, and by itself is a big step up from stock cables.

The HD800 is clearly superior than the HE-5. But, let’s talk more about these two cans.

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  • Reply April 30, 2010


    Hi Mike,

    Can you e-mail me the HE5 HD800 photos?


  • Reply September 27, 2010


    Page 4–>I couldn't have said it better myself, Mike. Absolutely agree with you.

    While HD800 is better in almost or every regard, for me that doesn't mean it is also the most enjoyable headphone.

    • Reply September 27, 2010


      @.Sup: True. The HD800 is a difficult headphone to enjoy.

  • Reply February 2, 2011

    Pete Manakit

    Was deciding to ‘upgrade’ my home rig from HE5 to the HD800… seems like your article got me covered (again)

    Now I’m not so sure if it’s the right choice! I do enjoy the sound of the HE5, my only complaint is that it’s rather a bit too heavy, and I wish it have a more 3D soundstage… something which the HD800 could provide. However, my concern is that, being a teenager, many of my favourite music files aren’t audiophile grade – although I have many hi-res audiophile stuff I listened to nowadays, occasionally I went back to the mainstream recordings in those lousy mp3 format.

    What do you say?
    And no, getting ‘both’ is out of option for this one : P

    • Reply February 2, 2011


      Hmmm… that’s a tough choice.

      Try reading the Z1000 First Impression article (updated). I think the Z,
      while not in the league of the HD800, HE-6, etc, is voiced more properly
      for the majority of mainstream recordings.

  • Reply May 7, 2011


    Hi Mike, could you please mention several other headphones that a notch (few steps) below the HD800 in terms of soundstage? Not interested in vintage cans (R10, K1000) or Stats. Thanks for your help.

    • Reply May 9, 2011


      Tricky question. I think a lot of people confuse open-ness with actual soundstage performance.

      What headphones have you had previous experience with, Tim? What music?

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