The Sennheiser HD800S have been around for quite a long while. For those unfamiliar, they’re a revision of the original HD 800, which didn’t have the S on end and aimed to improve a few floors in the original HD 800.
The big question for me, having owned these for a while and having now compared them to several headphones, is whether or not I think they still have a place in today’s market, being a relatively old design. Also, albeit having had an upgrade and adjustment, are they still on top of their game in 2022?
So let’s jump in and find out, starting with an explanation of what you get when you buy the Sennheiser HD800S.
Features and Specs for Sennheiser HD800S
They’re a $1800 headphone based on the listings on Amazon. Still, they’re certainly up in that flagship level category without going as far as some of the kind of Uber flagship, top-of-the-line headphones, like the Imperials or Utopia.
The Sennheiser HD800S are 300-ohm headphones. So they’re not going to be the easiest things to drive. They’re going to require a fair bit of voltage to drive them, but at the same time, they’re pretty sensitive, and therefore they don’t require huge amplifiers. What they do need, though, is quality amplifiers because they’re incredibly transparent and incredibly revealing.
Before we get to the sound, though, I want to mention a few other bits and pieces regarding the design and the accessories. First, the Sennheiser HD800S is supplied with two cables in the box, a 6.3-millimeter cable and a 4.4-millimeter balance cable.
I think it’s beneficial that both are provided when buying a headphone at this level. You want the versatility to have multiple different connection approaches. I like the 4.4-millimeter cable, even though I’m finding that most quality gear still uses 4-pin XLR. It’s easy to adapt a 4.4 millimter pentagon connector to a 4-pin XLR.
On the other hand, the 4-pin XLR connector is quite heavy and bulky. So not having that on the end of the cable is a nice change from some of the other high-end headphones I’ve got.
So to wrap up on the cables, they’re nicely made cables. They’ve got a nice fabric wrap on them; everything about them is high quality and carries through to the headphones.
So, on the back side of each earcup, there is a little connector unique and proprietary to Sennheiser. I’m not fond of proprietary connectors in general, but that isn’t why I wouldn’t say I like these.
I don’t want them because once they lock in, the bayonet system is not sprung in any way. It’s not just into place, and some connectors on the market have a little give when you’re looking to put them in and take them out.
With the HD 800S, it clicks in and stays in nicely. That’s good from a security point of view, where it’s a problem, though, if you are changing cables and keeping in mind, these come with two cables. So if you’re looking to go from 6.3 to 4.4 and remove those connectors from the headphones, they can quickly come out in a hurry.
You’ve put quite a bit of force on them, and then when they give away, they give away fast. The problem is that if it comes out in a hurry, you’ve got a piece of metal flying past the side of a plastic-painted headphone, as I experienced in the worst possible way in my old HD800.
It’s easy to scratch the side of your headphones while removing those cables. So, it’s not a design that I’m a fan of. But, the connector itself is high quality and it’s secure. It transmits the signal very well, but I wouldn’t say I like the safety of the headphone when you have to remove them.
These are one of the best-made headphones on the planet. In my opinion, they’re solidly made, but they’re light. They’re so comfortable that you almost forget you’re wearing these once they’re on because of the enormous ear cups. They wrap around your ear and don’t clamp out the head as they sit around the ear and the head. It makes them incredibly comfortable. They’re also lighter than most headphones in this same category, and I find them an absolute joy to wear.
One thing worth knowing is that of all the headphones I’ve ever listened to. These could be the most open headphones I’ve ever tried, and what I mean is that I’m more aware of my surroundings with these than with any other headphones. I, therefore, believe they probably leak worse than any others. I haven’t tested that directly, but I can only assume the exact amount is getting out based on what I’m hearing.
So I keep that in mind, but also know that that level of openness in the ear cup design makes them very open in their sound presentation and leads to their sound stage performance, which I’ll talk about in a moment.
The design, accessories, quality of manufacturing, look, feel, and everything about the HD 800S is spot on, in my opinion, except those bayonet connectors I mentioned.
But in terms of the quality, fit, finish, and comfort, they’ve nailed it with the HD 800S. So realistically, if the sound quality is good, these should still be considered one of the very best headphones on the planet. And in certain circumstances, I would say it still is, but in other ways, it’s not.
So, let’s start talking about that because, for me, the sound quality of the Sennheiser HD800S is quite a mixed bag. It’s a bit of an enigmatic headphone in that when things go right, they are spectacular, but other times, they don’t quite reach the same heights.
If I had to sign up in one word from the HG 800 S, it’s that it’s incredibly transparent in the sense that you feel like there’s nothing between you and the music; they just lay it all out in front of you in this beautiful, big sound stage with excellent imaging as well.
You feel like you’re hearing everything there is to listen to. But the other side is that their treble is still a bit peaky. Sennheiser’s engineers worked hard to pull back the treble spikes that plagued the original HD 800, and whilst I think they’ve generally done an excellent job, the overall tonal character of the HD 800S is still a little bit brittle and peaky, and at times can get just a touch edgy.
That also means that the overall balance of the sound is just a little bit thin for me in terms of the note. I think that’s entire because of the treble peaks and the general presentation of the notes. What I mean by the general expression is they deliver everything with a sense of smoothness.
That made it sound a bit fuller in note weight, even though the frequency response would suggest that it’s not warmer headphones. What I feel like with the HD 800S is that there’s often just a little bit of body missing from the sound, and I’m left wanting just a little more out of them. To give you an example of what I mean, using the album Symphonik by Thievery Corporation for testing.
As I was listening to the track with the HD 800S, I noticed that during the opening, the initial orchestral part of the arrangement sounded fantastic on the HD 800S. But, again, throwing spatial cues made me think that sounds were happening outside their headphones.
It was beautifully clear. There were many textures, and I was just thoroughly enamored with the sound. Then the beats kicked in, and the sound continued to be super articulate and exciting to listen to. But simultaneously, I suddenly became aware that something was missing.
A lack of weight through the bass and the mid-bass left me wanting more. I felt like the track needed more punch and drive, and the HD 800S wouldn’t give it to me. I think this track is an excellent example of why I find the HD 800S a bit enigmatic because it shows both sides of the HG 800S perfectly in that opening section, which is very orchestral and sounds fantastic.
Once you get into the more pop and electronic sounds, as the track moves on, that reveals where the HD 800S Achilles heel, and that’s in that lack of note weight. So for me, I felt the HG 800 S is still maybe the king; if not, it’s right up there with the other best headphones for classical music, chamber music, small acoustic pieces, or even anything that doesn’t require a lot of drive and a lot of bass weight, it’s going to do beautifully.
When paired with a high output impedance amplifier, the HD 800S changes its character enough to become more engaging. However, it doesn’t completely resolve the issues, in my opinion. Still, it brings it closer to having the right tonal balance for any genre you might want to listen to by adding an amp with high output impedance, which in my case was the bottle head mainline switch to high output impedance mode.
I found that the base got a little bit fuller, and you still were able to retain almost all of that transparency, clarity and textural detail that you expect from a headphone like the HD 800S. But, unfortunately, I think there’s just a little bit too much emphasis on the trouble. So it never quite reaches a smooth tonal balance across all different genres to make everything enjoyable.
Therefore, the HD 800S remains a headphone that I would only recommend to people for classical acoustic chamber and those sorts of genres that I mentioned before.
HD 800S Versus Focal Clear
So, to put this further into context, I put the HD 800S up against what I see as its closest direct competitor, Focal Clear. They’re priced quite similarly and both beautifully made, although I would still give the edge to the HD 800S overall because it’s lighter.
I do think it’s a better piece of overall engineering. That said, they both sound lovely. For me, I’d be choosing between these two of the key headphones in that roughly $2,000 range. I listened to that same track, the Forgotten People from Symphonik, to compare Focal Clear with HD 800S.
What I found was that the Focal Clears did have me much more engaged. Of course, they didn’t have the same sense of the sound stage, and they weren’t quite as holographic, but they were still incredibly resolving, incredibly revealing and delightful.
More importantly, once the beats kicked in, they had the drive and the dynamics that I felt were lacking from the HD 800S, ultimately, with the Focal Clears. This means you’re trading just a little transparency and sound stage in return for a more thoroughly enjoyable musical experience.
Even if you’re using a higher-up output impedance on the HD 800S, I tried running the HD 800S from the main line using high output impedance mode and kept the Focal Clear connected to the TT2 for something pure and neutral. The result was I still preferred the Focal Clear despite the boost drive and dynamics that the mainline gave the HD 800S.
So my final test was to ensure that I was accurate with my assessment of the HD 800 S specialities in the classical chamber music type space. I put my entire music collection on shuffle and ran through various tracks. The idea was that I would listen to each track on the clear and the HD 800S to see which one I preferred from an enjoyment point of view or technicalities point of view and to see which one I would choose if I had to listen to one headphone with each of those tracks.
During the test, I rolled through a bunch of different tracks from various genres and other recording qualities. Almost every time, I prefer the Focal Clear by a comfortable margin. However, that doesn’t mean the Focal Clear is the better headphone.
I just found it the more enjoyable listen and the one I wanted on my head. If I was listening to each of these tracks, where things did get a bit interesting was where the random selection of tracks started serving me up some slightly lighter, more delicate recordings, and that’s where the HD 800S came into the spotlight.
So, the fact that we’ve started with the clear in front, and then it’s gradually tilted towards the HD 800S is pure luck. I have faith with the Focal Clear because I more often enjoy the Focal Clear no matter what I’m served up in a random shuffling of my library.
In the case of Hobo Blues by R.L. Burnside track, I preferred the HD 800S because it gave me detail of the recording space of R.L. Burnside. His vocals and the textual information of both sounded like it was better from the HD 800S, the first headphone I put.
When I went to the Focal Clear, I felt like I was getting more of the harmonics and the tonal richness of the music. So I flipped back and forth a couple of times until I finally decided that the Focal Clears were the ones that made me feel like I was sitting in the room with R.L. Burnside. In contrast, the HD 800S was giving me a magnificent reproduction of a recording of that.
So, both were great in that context, which is why I flipped to the Focal Clear. Having initially leaned to the HD 800S on Amelia by Herbie Hancock. I was again really close to choosing the Focal Clear in this case because both rendered the sound beautifully. However, the thing that ended up splitting the tie was that the HD 800S gave me a wonderful sense of separation and texture in the music.
And because it’s a pretty gentle track that doesn’t need drive and the dynamics where the Focal Clear have the edge, the HD 800S came forwards. So it gave me a better insight into the recording, and that was what I wanted most on that particular recording.
Finally, on Andante Larghetto (concerto No 2), the HD 800S showed what it’s good at. The Focal Clear was still fantastic, and the HD 800 S did come across just a little bit light on note weight, but overall that’s where the HD 800S shines most in that recording with acoustic instruments, orchestral chamber, and small group type work.
So the critical denominator here is that when you don’t need drive and dynamics, and I mean, dynamics in the sense of punch and rhythm in the music, that’s where the HD 800S will excel.
But if you need dynamics and drive and punch, that’s where they’re going to fall short and where the Focal Clear does take over for me.
My Verdict on Sennheiser HD 800S
I would say that the Focal Clear is maybe 80 or 90% as good as the HD 800S on those orchestral spacious acoustic style pieces, but it is easily better than HD 800S when it comes to drive, dynamics, and punch.
If you flip that around, I’d say the HD 800 S maybe gets to 60 or 70% of what the Focal Clear can do, where there’s that drive, dynamic, and punch.
To sum this up, which is to say that the HD 800S, in my opinion, is still one of the best headphones on the planet, but only if your tastes have you regularly listening to the sorts of music I’ve described above.
So if your tastes lean more toward that orchestral, acoustic, and chamber space, the HD 800S should be in your collection or on your shortlist. On the other hand, if you’re someone like me who listens to an extensive range of genres or doesn’t listen to classical acoustic and chamber music, then you probably should get the Focal Clear or various other headphones on the market.