Headphones and Amplifiers
I don’t think there is any other headphone that comes really close to the sound of the HD800(S) Price-wise there of course are many contenders such as the Hifiman Edition-X but not only do they use orthodynamic drivers, they are very differently tuned with a bigger bass impact and thicker mids and they never get as spacious and precise as the HD800-series do. One of the headphones I am expecting a lot of, and it just might be the first HD800(S) contender, is the Focal Elear which comes in at €999. I’m still hoping to get my hands on both new Focal models very soon.
The amplifier used for the above description of sound is the Violectric V281. Especially the balanced output of that amp is what makes the HD800s shine. I’ve always liked listening to the HD800 on Chord Electronics’ Hugo (laptop as source) and it’s no different with the HD800S. A wide sound with a nice and spacious feel to it and great layering all the way down. The Hugo always manages to make the Sennheisers sound musical and the Hugo nicely balances out the added bass weight which is a plus to me.
If there is one amplifier at the Headfonia HQ that shines when connected to Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic headphones, it’s the OTL LaFigaro 339. With the dead silent 6AS7G RCA power tubes and the EF80 Mesh Plate Mullards the HD800S sounds incredibly musical while it keeps all the things that make it such a stellar headphone. I wish I had the time to lock myself up in my office and listen to this combination for 24h long. It’s that magical. The 339 + HD800S even make me enjoy my metal collection all over, and that doesn’t happen very often. The Bottlehead Crack also has great synergy with the before mentioned headphones but the sound here is cleaner and less smooth/warm. The Crack out of itself is more like that that but the 12AU7 RCA clear top and Chatham 6080WA just aren’t as warm as the 339’s combination. The HD800S sounds a little lighter and faster but it still has the tube smoothness these Senns love so much. The Crack still is one hell of a bargain if you want to get into tube amps.
My custom built 300B amp doesn’t sound as magical as both the other tube amps do, but in return there are better dynamics, an incredible sound stage in both directions and top clarity and precision. I have mixed feelings about the Chord Mojo but I know a lot of people love listening to their HD800 on it. With the AK380 as source (over USB) the HD800S and Mojo combination to my ears was a lot more pleasing compared to the original HD800 which sounded rather lifeless. The HD800S still doesn’t sound anywhere near how it sounds on all of the above mentioned amplifiers but I can listen to it without being annoyed as much as with the HD800, probably because of the added bass body. I still don’t recommend the Mojo for high impedance headphones.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear the HD800S sounding very good straight out of the Astell&Kern AK380 in SE and balanced mode with MQS and DSD files playing. This combo easily outperforms the Mojo with better precision, more body, more bass, more authority and musicality. Out of the new Cayin i5 DAP, the HD800S doesn’t quite manage to sound as good as from the AK. While the body and power is there, the i5 lacks in clarity, depth, detail and precision but compared to the AK380 and at only a fraction of the price that is no shame. It’s still an excellent backup setup though.
All of this leaves me somehow with confused HD800S feelings. I love the original HD800 in both SE and balanced mode but I clearly prefer the HD800S in balanced mode on solid state amplifiers. So depending on how you will use the new HD800S, I fully understand that people – who are using a balanced system – now favor the new version. The HD800S in balanced configuration produces a very high quality of sound while eliminating as good as all the points of criticism one may have with the HD800. And it gets better: on the better OTL tube amps, the new HD800S even shines in Single Ended mode and the HD800S becomes a headphone that shows you all the detail, clarity and precision as well as the smooth tube flavored bass, full mids and elegant highs. So in the end that makes it extra difficult for me. The HD800S in balanced mode and on tube amps simply is the best HD800 on the market but the original HD800 still has that unique character that made it famous, and that is less present in the S-version.
Will I sell my HD800 and go for the HD800S or will I keep both? At the moment I can’t afford buying the new HD800S so luckily I don’t have to make that choice right now. Of course I want to keep them both in my collection as that is the perfect solution but if I only have the budget for one of these headphones however, I’m afraid the old HD800 will have to go. Sorry my friend.