Sennheiser HD800 Headphones With Cardas Audio Cable
Sennheiser has thrown down the gauntlet with their new HD800 phones. They are challenging all comers to the crown of best of breed. And I take it as a personal challenge too. Can they wean me away from my long term allegiance to rival AKG? Can they challenge the supremacy of electrostatic phones with their dynamic design? How do they compare to the superb custom fit canal earphones from Ultimate Ears (UE-10Pro)? Will people pay well into four figures for headphones anyway? All this and more in this month’s exciting installment of the headphone challenge.
All phones have their weaknesses. For the AKG K701 (as reviewed here), the imaging falls short of the superb standards set by the exotic AKG K1000 (as reviewed here) ear speakers, and the deep bass response, though tuneful, is a little shy of ideal. The UE-10Pro does better in both of these areas, but is clearly a little rolled off on top and not as fast a transducer as I would like. The older and now alas unobtainable AKG K1000 is an impractical beast, requiring a speaker output to drive properly. But it images gloriously and is comfortable for long periods, although you do rather look like an alien is performing a brain probe on you as you listen. These three are the best phones I have heard to date, and I keep them all to hand. You’ll notice no mention of many people’s favorite, the Sennheiser HD650 (as reviewed here). I have no room in my collection for uncomfortable headphones however well they might sound. I’ve always felt like my head was in a vice with the HD650, and its junior siblings, and I have also found the sound to be uninvolving. I have comfort issues with the high end Grados too. Now I have enjoyed the sound from various Stax electrostatics over the years, but they require special amplifiers to drive them and never really satisfy my yen for realistic dynamics. Sure, I love the resolution and the tone color, but where is the orchestral weight when you need it, and where is the deep bass?
So, happy as I am with the UE10Pro, K1000 and K701, I’m always on the lookout for something better, something that will give me the same feeling of involvement as my reference speakers, and something that I can wear comfortably during long listening sessions.
I have a feeling that somewhere off in Sennheiser HQ, there’s someone else who feels the same as I do, that feels the same frustrations with headphones as me, but the difference is, he can do something about it. Whoever that guy is, he deserves all the kudos, because Sennheiser has hit a home run. The HD 800 is the closest thing to perfect headphones I have ever come across. Rather than refining the HD650 to give us perhaps marginal improvements, Sennheiser has developed an entirely new design, allowing the best ideas from Sony, AKG and others to percolate through their labs and then making some radical new advances of their own.
Let me tell you about those new ideas.
Normally, the driver would be parallel to the side of the head, but learning lessons in imaging from the AKG K1000, the driver here is held at an offset angle to the head of around 15 degrees so that the sound comes from a position ahead of the ears, more like real life.
Such large drivers and the need to position them at an angle and away from the ears means the HD800 are of necessity large phones. To keep the weight down but the rigidity of the driver mounting high, Sennheiser has resorted to some exotic lightweight materials. They selected Japanese Alcantra for the earpads, while a lightweight stainless steel mesh protects the drivers without affecting the sound. The casing is made of an ultra rigid plastic, Leona, to minimize vibration. The padded metal headband incorporates an inner damping element and provides adjustment for size and angle. It weighs a hefty 330gm (11.6 ounces), but is very comfortable even for long listening sessions. As an open design, it doesn’t heat up around the ears as much as closed models, and the Alcantra feels soft and luxurious. The pressure on the ears is very much lower than earlier Sennheiser high end phones. To my mind, the radical improvement in comfort levels is reason enough to be excited about these phones, since Sennheiser already had a good handle on the sound. Luckily for us, the sound is a quantum leap better than the HD650 offered, so there are two reasons to start jumping up and down. On the other hand, the price has more than doubled, so we’d better take a good listen to the HD800 before we can start talking about value for money.
Now there are phones with a superior bass response, and if you’re interested, I’m sure Grado would like to introduce you to their high achievers. There are also phones with even higher levels of resolution – think high end electrostatics from Stax. The K1000 still does the best job with image size and depth, by virtue of holding the earpieces even further from the ear and having greater adjustability than the HD800. So each of these designs can best the HD800 in a particular area, but none strikes a better balance through the whole range of attributes you’re looking for, and dynamically, the Sennheiser has them all beat.
Like all the very best components, the HD800 doesn’t favor one type of music over another. It excels in solo piano, pop, jazz, folk, chamber music, opera, spoken voice. In fact the only area where I cannot tell you it does really well is country music. Poppa don’t allow no country music ‘round here, so I have no evidence one way or the other. Are they worth the price of admission? A resounding yes, just as the Ultimate Ears UE-10Pro and AKG K701 before them, my previous references. They win for sound quality, comfort and superb physical design.
But before you rush out to buy them, I have one caveat. You won’t get the kind of performance I’ve been talking about out of the box. You won’t get it by running them in for several hundred hours either. You’ll only truly hear what these babies are capable of if you replace the nice looking black mesh covered cables with some suitable after market replacement cables. It’s a similar story with many components you buy – the power cord that comes in the box doesn’t tell you the full story. I tried a new replacement cable from George Cardas at Cardas Audio, a simple plug in replacement which makes a world of difference. Other vendors have their own upgrades available by now, but I can only vouch for the Cardas cable. Throw in the cable upgrade and you’re going to need to lay out over $1600, but there’s no speaker that can touch them for much under ten grand, so they’re a screaming bargain.
Cardas Headphone Cable for the HD800