Review: Sennheiser HD800S – The New Kid In town

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.

Sennheiser HD800S 1

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.

product_detail_x2_desktop_HD_800_black-02-sennheiser

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.

Conclusion

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.

product_detail_x2_desktop_HD_800_black-01-sennheiser

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Lieven is living in Europe and he's the leader of the gang. He's running Headfonia as a side project next to his full time day job in Digital Marketing & Consultancy. He's a big fan of tube amps and custom inear monitors and has published hundreds of product reviews over the years.

54 Comments

  • Reply August 2, 2016

    Barun C

    Great article Lieven. It is still good to see that experienced players like Sennheiser are still able to offer great sound at a relatively decent prices in todays economy. It is kind of a pattern I guess, as other European manufacturers also like Beyerdynamic, AKG still offer good sound, excellent build and long term memory products at decent prices, in todays Headphone world, where every other manufacturer are making new TOTL headphone almost in every couple of years.

    Sennheiser HD800S, I believe will be here to stay, as at $1699 it is the headphone to beat. I haven’t heard the Elear yet but at $999 I think the Beyer T1 (v2) is the actual contender ($1099).

    • Reply August 3, 2016

      Lieven

      Thank ou Barun. I enjoyed writing it. Not a lot of new interesting headphones have seen the light this past year and I’m very glad Sennheiser came to the rescue 😉

      You’re right, the T1 is the contender but I don’t like it one bit, pretty much the only Beyer I don’t connect with. That’s also why I am hoping the Elear will be able to compete with both of these. From the first things I’ve read, it seems they can.

    • Reply August 26, 2016

      Michael

      This is one of the better reviews of both the HD800 and HD800s I’ve read.

      You’ve hit upon what I’ve been saying for years– The HD800 is a world class headphone– if you provide it with world class amplification. I can’t think of another headphone as picky about the source and amplification. Get it wrong, and the headphone sounds rather ordinary. Get it right, and you’re in for sonic perfection.

  • Reply August 2, 2016

    NightPhotographer

    As usual, another great review.
    I found a good deal on the original HD800 and couldn’t resist. Many people in head-fi.org believe that any DAC which is not SABER is good enough for the HD800 so I guess Meridian Director could be a good option. Now, I am looking for an inexpensive amp ( I know it sounds ridiculous to go for such an expensive headphone, then, look for a cheap amp but as I said I couldn’t resist the deal, lol). I read your review on Corda Quickstep and, apparently, you fond it a good match for the HD800. Is it truly a good amp for the HD800 or it is a good portable amp for it? I do not need the amp to be portable so I am just trying to find a good match under 500$. Now, I am looking at Quickstep, G109s, Crack, Beyerdynamic A20 and 339. The reason why I went for this crazy expensive headphone (at least, it is expensive for me) is its huge sound stage that every body talks about. I do not want to end up with an amp which shrinks the sound sage width and depth. Will you give me an amp suggestion please?

    • Reply August 3, 2016

      Lieven

      Thank you. I agree it doesn’t make a lot of sense to buy a cheap amp for this kind of headphone but the definition if “cheap” is different for everyone.

      While the HD800 sounded good on the Quickstep, I do advice to go for the Corda Classic with the FF technology, it was the amp that made me buy the HD800!

      http://www.meier-audio.homepage.t-online.de/amplifiers.htm

      outside EU: €620,- / USD 710,-
      inside EU: €720,-

      The G109 would be a good match but I suggest going for the slightly warmer V200. I wouldn’t go to the A20 as it would limit the headphone and make it more bassy and warm. Tube wise the Crack of course is THE to to go amp, but the 339 is a better OTL amp with more possibilities, more power and it does ALL type of headphones.

      So SS = V200 or the Classic FF. tube is Crack or 339

      Good luck!

      • Reply August 3, 2016

        NightPhotographer

        Thanks for the information. Since Corda Classic and 339 are in the same price range, I’d like to know what their advantages and disadvantages are compared to each other when paired with the HD800. By the way, is the sound signature of 339 currently sold the same as the one you got your hands on? I think, recently, they made some design changes.
        I would also really appreciate it if you could tell me what tubes are best (with the HD800 in mind) for 339 and Crack.

        Thanks

        • Reply August 3, 2016

          Lieven

          CC and 339 are opposites: fast solid state versus tube warmth. Detail vs emotion and dynamics. Crack is in between.

          The 339 I have is the one with the 6SJ7 input tubes, it’s still available. just some resistor changes.

          Crack: 12AU7 rca clear top and a 6080WA Chatham or RCA 6AS7G or 5998 TS or 6080WB graphite plate

          • Reply August 29, 2016

            NightPhotographer

            Lieven, based on your recommendation, I’m going to get Crack for my HD800. Since I am living in Europe, I’m better off ordering whatever I need altogether. Do I also need to place an order for Speedball? Does it make it better or worse for the HD800? Bye the way, have you ever heard the Icon Audio HP8? John Grandberg from Innerfidelity believes that it’s a good match for the HD800 but I feel the review is not complete since it doesn’t say anything about the sound stage etc.

            Thanks

            • Reply August 29, 2016

              Lieven

              I would order it with speedball but construct the crack first without it so you can hear it yourself.

              I haven’t heard that amp, sorry. another famous HD800 amp is the Zana Deux

              • Reply August 29, 2016

                NightPhotographer

                Zana Deux is out of reach. Crack suits me better. So I’d place an order for Speedball as well. What about the volume pot? Is it good enough? I read some buyers complaining about channel imbalance. Do you think the stock pot is good enough or I need to get a better stereo pot or two mono pots perhaps?

                • Reply August 29, 2016

                  Lieven

                  Get the upgrade. I have a stock one with imbalance at low volumes. Doable but not fun. Also get an rca or chatham 6as7g and 12au7 rca clear top

                  • Reply August 30, 2016

                    NightPhotographer

                    Thanks for the information. Do you happen to know of a good volume pot that doesn’t require the chassis modification. I do not have equipment to modify the chassis. If there is no good volume pot that can be directly mounted on the Crack chassis, do you think if I can solve the imbalance issue at low volumes by using some inline RCA attenuators (12 dB) instead of upgrading the volume pot?

  • Reply August 2, 2016

    Berkhan

    Very nice one and a joy to read. Thanks buddy. Hopefully I can also try the new HD800S some time.

    • Reply August 3, 2016

      Lieven

      Thank you B. I’m sure you will, they’re still fairly new 🙂

  • Reply August 2, 2016

    dale thorn

    I have yet to hear a headphone that resolves upper treble harmonic detail as well as the HD800, which I purchased in June 2009. My ultimate test track is David Chesky and Wonjung Kim’s Girl From Guatemala, available from HDTracks in high-res as a single download. The explosion of high-treble sounds starts at 3:00.

    • Reply August 3, 2016

      Lieven

      Have you heard the S?

      • Reply August 3, 2016

        dale thorn

        No, and I don’t know at this point what’s the best bet in amps that aren’t ridiculous in price. It seems with a softer high end the ‘S’ might not be suited to a tube amp, or it might reveal less detail on solid state – all unknowns at this point. If you have both, comparing with that Chesky track might help.

  • Reply August 3, 2016

    Chung

    I am currently using both HD800 & HD800S. I did try to compare them but it is obviously a step up in bass quality from the HD800S. So how I feel the HD800S lost a tinny bit of clarify or special feel.
    Can you also suggest a good matching cable for these two headphones. I am currently using ALO salt and pepper.
    Thanks

    • Reply August 3, 2016

      Lieven

      I recommend a hybrid based cable, check out the offerings of C3Audio, Effect audio and PlusSound, they all have some great options. Tell them I said Hi 😉

  • Reply August 5, 2016

    Fiddyowns

    Awesome Article! Can’t wait to get my hand on these!!

  • Reply August 5, 2016

    Robert

    Thanks for the review Lieven

    Posted my favorable comments on your review of the HD700s http://headfonia.com/ls-take-on-the-sennheiser-hd700/2/ and they continued to be my main phones, augmented with a pair of Audeze LCD2.2s for the last few years.
    The original HD800s came and went.. as when it came to chilling out and long term musical enjoyment the 700s won out… that was until picking up the 800S back in May.
    All my phones get to run balanced off the solid state Bryston BHA-1 and in fact I have not even removed the ”S” single ended cable from the box so not even sure how the 800S perform unbalanced, maybe I’ll try them off the Fiio X3 II DAP, although they would not be conspicuous by their absence as are the ie800s. Needless to say the HD700s were eventually let go, the LCD2.2 do still come in handy once in a while but the 800S are really a wonderful phone and fill most if not all my prerequisites for good sound and musical enjoyment…hard to stop listening.

  • Reply August 15, 2016

    Magoo

    I have the 800 S and drive them with the Oppo HA-1 which has plenty of power when used with the balanced Cable. I made my own 20 footer and it works great with going Balanced ’cause you get 2X power over the SE version. If I am in a mood to hear some more bass i use a 4db bump at 20Hz which gives them plenty of thump. I listen to Pure Music on my MAC mini/HA-1 combo from a SSD.

    • Reply August 16, 2016

      Lieven

      It’s all about the bass 😉

  • Reply August 21, 2016

    Vick85

    Hi

    Can anyone tell me how does the T1.2 fare aginst the 800S if both are being powered by a V281 in full balanced mode?

    Is the 800S significantly better at detail retrieval and transparency, timbre, bass punch and enjoyment(subjective, I know but still..)

    The 2 genres I listen to most are rock and metal. I also enjoy pop, r&b, rap, hip-hop edm etc but mostly I listen to rock and metal.

    Thank You

  • Reply September 13, 2016

    Norsemenxx

    Another great review to read Lieven!

    So the question is if use new hd800s in balanced mode in my solid state amp i won’t lose any detail and soundstage width/depth of older hd800(s)?

  • Reply October 31, 2016

    Jorelle Marquez

    Have you tried pairing the
    HD800s to the Liquid Carbon? Would like to know your impressions. Thanks!

  • Reply November 21, 2016

    Juan

    How would u compare the hd800s with the Beyerdynamic T1 2nd generation?

  • Reply March 27, 2017

    jupitreas

    Thanks for the informative article Lieven. I’m curious if the difference between the 800 and 800S is analogous to the difference between the HD600 and HD650. They kinda did a similar thing with those two headphones, with the 600 being more analytical and the 650 more ‘pleasurable’, while using fundamentally the same technology.

  • Reply June 29, 2017

    James

    Thanks for the review. I’m looking for an amp that will go well with the HD 800S. I am looking at the BH Mainline. Have you heard this combination and do you think it’s top quality? Also, what do you mean by balanced setup? Thanks.

    • Reply June 29, 2017

      Lieven

      I’ve not heard it, sorry.
      Balanced setup = balanced from source to headphone / L/R separation from dac to amp to Headphone

    • Reply August 4, 2017

      Ali

      I’ve tried BH Mainline with my HD 800 and didn’t like the match and even my old Lehmannaudio BCL has a superior sound in my opinion. Best match that I’ve ever came cross is Sennheiser HDVD 800/600. Great combination.

  • Reply October 28, 2017

    eric THEROND

    Hi Leven !
    as ever very interresing review.
    i wonder if i have to build a balance , double mono OTL amplifier as the Figaro,
    or a single OTL amplifier with XLR input to improve the sound of the 800 S.
    At that time i can order one or the other.
    i understand the balance cable is better in both ways to make the Senheiser shine.
    thk you for your help, to optimized this wonderfull Headphone.

    Eric.

    ps did you try the tesla ecc802s on the Auris ?

    • Reply October 29, 2017

      Lieven

      Hi Eric,

      I have tried the Tesla EXX802 in my HA2-SE indeed. I really liked it but in the end I switched back to the CV491 as it was a tad softer sounding. The Tesla is very good for its price though!

      I actually try to listen to all of my headphones in balanced config as much as I can, to me it just sounds better. If you can build a balanced OTL 339-like amp, sign me up for one!

      The last two weeks I have been using the AudioValve Solaris amp with the HD800, an awesome amp, but a little pricey around $5K

  • Reply December 15, 2017

    R. Arbelaez

    Hi Lieven. With a Corda Classic FF and a Corda DAccord FF which headphone would you choose between the HD800 and the HD800S and why?

    • Reply December 16, 2017

      Lieven

      It depends how much bass you want. I’m still a fan of the original

  • Reply January 2, 2018

    Larry

    Hi Lieven, a very well written and timely review. I’m seriously thinking of buying the WA 8 Eclipse and Sennheiser 800S as soon as I sell my home stereo. I read your hybrid-based cable recommendation for Chung and would appreciate knowing if you would make the same recommendation for the Eclipse/800S to achieve the best synergy. And does that also apply to the USB cable? Thank you.

  • Reply January 3, 2018

    Larry

    Hi Lieven, I ran across a very unusual claim regarding ToneKraft headphone cables by Audio Envy for the HD800S — unusual because I haven’t seen anything in the way of reviews and because their web page states Sennheiser designed their cable with a capacitance that’s not optimal.

    “In my findings the biggest problem with the headphones is the cables that come with it. The stock cable measures over 2000 pF of capacitance, such high capacitance truly reduces these headphones potential of transient response. With the stock cable it sounds dark, rounded, and less dimensional. The good news is ToneKraft! Several months of work went into the new ToneKraft line of headphone cables, achieving exceedingly low capacitance, example: 50-80 pF for a 10 foot cord! The ToneKraft cord was the only cable to be honored the 2017 Alfie Award at the Los Angeles audio show!”
    http://audioenvy.com/product/speakers/sennheiser-hd800s/

    You’d think that Senn would know how to design cables, especially for their own headphones. But I guess the proof is in the listening. Do you know anything about ToneKraft?

    • Reply May 1, 2019

      Greywood

      I listened to the ToneKraft demo at Axpona. Considering the A/B demo consisted of 5 or 6 feet of wire was intriguing to me. While still skeptical that the test was rigged. I got home and tried it with my trusty HD-800s,,, performance gains were replicated there again. To summarize; everything sounded right,,with less irritating peaks and a spacious non confusing presentation… I recommend to everyone to investigate this further.

  • Reply April 17, 2018

    Danni Veng

    I came to order the La Figaro 339 for my hd800 but have second thoughts. I could get a used Hugo – which one should I get. Lieven, what’s your advice here? Let me guess: old days 339, now Hugo, right? Is it a coincidence that young people, new to wine and music, prefer them sweet and heavy – and later, more dry and complex :-). Best

    • Reply April 17, 2018

      Lieven

      If you’re asking me which combo will sound best to ENJOY your music, it’s the 339 and Senn combo. The Hugo is nice if you need something transportable and it’s a great DAC, but amp wise, the 339 for sure. Romance, sweetness, musicality. Enjoy the combo! (and you can always get the Hugo as well to use as DAC 😉

      • Reply April 17, 2018

        Danni Veng

        Interesting, I would think the 339 didn’t match the hd800 that well; that it would maybe ‘kill’ too much of the micro details and space etc – but sure there is lots to give, and might roll it off nicely. I hear mostly acustics/voices.

        • Reply April 17, 2018

          Danni Veng

          I’ll try the combo. Thanks L.

          • Reply April 26, 2018

            D

            Hey Danni, I need a way to contact you. Apparently you have my 339 and I have yours. Are you on head-fi?

            • Reply April 26, 2018

              Lieven

              How does that happen? ????

              • Reply April 26, 2018

                D

                Yeah, it’s crazy. If you can help me contact him I’d appreciate it.

                • Reply April 30, 2018

                  Danni Veng

                  Ohh my, I don’t understand! Could you expand a bit please?

                  • Reply April 30, 2018

                    Danni Veng

                    Well, I got uk power cables which does not fit in Denmark 🙂

                    • May 1, 2018

                      D

                      Make sure you have a 220v version and not the 110v. I received the 220v version and they told me you received mine.

  • Reply April 17, 2018

    Lieven

    No no. You’ll love the vocals. Get some warmer sounding tubes like Chatham or black plate Rca.

  • Reply May 6, 2018

    Danni Veng

    D. I got the 220 version. But thanks for letting me know. @Lieven, I ended up with the Hugo as dac and the LF339. Have not tried other combinations with LF339 but I it sounds very well with the Chinese stock tubes. Am chasing the chatham to get a more warm and full-body sound. But man I enjoy the music now. THANKS.

  • Reply July 30, 2019

    Mark

    How’s HD800 and HD800s sound on Apogee Groove?
    They sell them as a bundle on the website.
    I hope they sounds ok…

  • […] iFi Audio. The review reflects my sincere opinions as always. The sound impressions were taken with Sennheiser HD800S, Hifiman Deva (wired), and the Thieaudio Phantom […]

  • […] Review: Sennheiser HD800S – The New Kid In town […]

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