4 years ago, I had the opportunity to try out the Sennheiser HD 800 S at Canjam Singapore 2016. After my brief audition at the noisy venue, I noted: balanced details, bright treble somewhat metallic, bass does not overpower.
In 2020, I got to spend more time with the Sennheiser HD 800 S 75th Anniversary Edition in matt gold finish. I would like to thank Beng Yeow from Porta-Fi for recommending me to Sennheiser Singapore for consideration to loan the unit.
Does my impression change from what I experienced 4 years back? The note still holds true to a large extent. The HD 800 S offers an extraordinary listening experience when it comes to musical details and high-fidelity clarity. With an open-back design and a large 56mm diaphragm, you can hear a massive amount of audio information without feeling tight or compressed or fatigue.
Other details include hand-assembled in Germany, matching transducers, special manual calibration for every unit to achieve the desired frequency response curve. Limited to 750 units worldwide, the included USB drive captures the calibration report against the actual serial number of the unit.
For this review, I used the Burson Playmate (unbalanced cable) plugged to desktop PC, and the Sony ZX507 (balanced cable). The HD 800 S is a very unforgiving headphones that reveals all the details, including distortions and heavily-compressed masters.
To appreciate HD 800 S, you must love instrumentation. Let’s start with the main protagonist: the vocal or instrumental solo. The HD 800 S puts it on a pedestal, capturing the warmth, clarity and intimacy. On some audiophile vocal tracks, I could even pick up the saliva cracking in the singer’s mouth by the sensitive studio condenser mic. Same for Kenny G Live, I could easily pick up the crackles of his saxophone at the end of his breath. I’m sure the sound is always there, but the HD 800 S made it easy to hear them.
Then the accompaniment, they envelope around the main instrument with details and clarity but never overpower. Even the bright-sounding percussive hi-hats or cymbals come forth with the attack you desire but never shimmer over the vocals. They hit you and promptly recede. When running through orchestral music, the warmth of the instruments are very forthcoming, never sounding too sanitized.
The bass on the HD 800 S is not boastful, to the disappointment of bass-heads, but neither is it lacking. Despite the open back design, the low frequency rumbles remains prominently audible, demonstrating the sensitivity of the drivers. On Chris Botti’s “Embraceable You”, the double bass does not hit you like consumer earbuds, but the tonal resonance remains present and unobscured. On Kitaro “Live In America”, the taiko drum performance offers more than just boom, but also the snappy attack when the stick hits the drum. It really sounds like a live performance.
And speaking of that, the sound staging of the HD 800 S is lovely. It’s not completely out-of-head speaker effects like Creative SXFI or Audeze Mobius. It sounded more like real instruments performing around you with space to breathe, yet they sound cohesive and not unnaturally separated. Every nuance sounds organic and integral to the instrumental performance, not just sounds to fill the frequency.
The spatial sound staging works great in alleviating the transparent treble balance, so that the sibilance – when it occurs – is promptly resolved without lingering to uncomfortable level. Case in point: Yanni Live At The Acropolis has a strong treble mix with tame bass, and the album usually doesn’t play well with headphones that are treble-biased. Yet it does not over-emphasize when playing with HD 800 S. The headphones are also very comfortable to wear and conducive to the listening experience.
Compared to the HD 650, the HD 800 S has wider sound staging, more open treble, while the HD 650 offers better bass and tighter staging for a more exciting and cozy listen. The HD 650 works better with more genres and if you prefer a more impactful listening. The HD 800 S works better with expansive recordings like Classical. I still enjoy listening with the HD 650 but the HD 800 S brings the overall musical experience up a class.
I often let my family try out the products on review to get a more lay person opinion. I was surprised that my wife was thoroughly impressed with the HD 800 S. Few things that struck her: the headphone comfort, the sound staging, and the instrumentation details. She didn’t mind the relatively weaker bass than her usual earbuds, which surprised me.
I have always preferred my headphones to deliver exceptional clarity with good bass intensity without obscuring midrange. However, it’s often a compromise because bright treble usually results in listening fatigue with bouts of sibilance. I am usually quite contented with a slightly darker treble so that I could enjoy music longer.
The Sennheiser HD 800 S is one of the rare headphones that deliver the desired treble clarity balanced with a spatial sound stage to deliver all the musical details without overpowering any section. It is an exceptional pair of headphones that must be listened in a very conducive environment to appreciate its full potential.
If you have always wanted to get one, now is the best time to own a special edition limited to 750 units at the same price as the regular black edition. The gold colour may be a little tacky, but it is a symbol of opulence, and of all the 75th anniversary edition products released this year, Sennheiser chooses to bestow upon the HD 800 S. Sales have begun on 22 Sep, and there will be no re-runs once sold out.
Bonus video: an unboxing done in “limited edition” fashion. I recorded the footage in reverse!