HD 8XX: First Impressions from an HD 800 Owner
Hi everyone, I guess it’s time for my HD 8XX impressions. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Let’s introduce with why: I have never seen a better price, new, on the elite HD 800 series as the HD 8XX, which maintains the landmark soundstage, articulation, transparency, and free-ear ergonomics of the HD 800 and HD 800S, while being tuned with a bit more bass emphasis than before. However, the little touches in tuning are refinements of the familiar signature, and it is still not a “warm” headphone that would satisfy bassheads.
Who I am is important too... not that I’m a big deal, but it’s important to disclose that I do contract consulting work for various companies, and I started helping Sennheiser as a Community Manager in 2017. I am no salesman, and I am not getting any compensation or commission from Sennheiser or Drop, so my goal is to describe the experience as best I can so you can decide for yourself if a headphone is something you would enjoy or if you might end up processing a return. Hopefully I can share some insider information along the way! Also, I used to write headphone reviews after I joined Head-Fi in 2009, got my first HiFi IEM in 2005, played violin in grade school, and consider myself a lifelong gamer :D
So! How does the HD 8XX sound? Well, in the context of just a few days to take a turn with the production tuned model (I got lucky with four days), here are the first impressions from my listening notes. By itself, the HD 8XX is an airy sounding headphone, almost a “diffuse field target” headphone with a lean and very focused sound, also retaining a “speaker like” ability to portray in front location and a sense of depth that sounds 3D instead of “layers” of depth or recessed in the mids. Compared to other brands of headphones and speakers that boost treble to seem to sound more detailed, the HD 8XX may actually sound a bit softer and does not stab you in the ear... but the HD 8XX is not treble shy, and in fact has plenty of quantity and sparkle. Compared to more recent bass heavy hifi or resonant low-fi headphones, or a home theater subwoofer, the HD 8XX may not seem to have stand-out bass warmth either, but if a track has bass in it the HD 8XX will play it like a monitor speaker would. Connected to a high quality, low distortion audio signal chain (amps and DACS appropriate for a flagship headphone), the HD 8XX can sound startlingly realistic and sometimes cross the line between recorded sound and something you thought actually came from in the room with out or just outside. Considering that, first person or simulation-level gaming can be incredibly immersive.
How does it compare to the HD 800 I bought in 2015? Besides the navy accent ring, the HD 8XX has a Helmholtz resonator that the HD 800 does not, acting almost like an air “spring,” absorbing very specific frequencies in the treble range. This technique is more precisely targeted and repeatable compared to mods using organic dampening materials, so your HD 8XX will sound like the HD 8XX I heard, and there won’t be trade-offs in other regions. The objective-minded can easily see how the HD 8XX mostly matches the treble of the HD 800S model within measurement deviation (I appreciate the still relatively minor upper mids dip centered around 2.5 kHz, as it affects the fundamentals of many instrument’s higher notes), but in experience compared to my older HD 800 the change in the upper mids and treble is a bit more relaxed... still quite sparkly and raw sounding (a hot-miked harmonica recording in “Walking After Midnight” by Cowboy Junkies is still hot), but it’s a “safer” step back from the Tightrope balancing act of an HD 800. The HD 8XX sub bass also has the most linear extension (and thus the highest) of the whole series, a subtle change that is appreciable but won’t make every song bassy. Keen observers will also note low total harmonic distortion overall... this is especially noticeable while listening in the bass, which is both a positive and a negative that I’ll come back to discuss a bit more.
It should be noted that the ergonomics haven’t changed... which I feel is a good thing. There is a dimple in the headband padding’s center, where usually weight would be centered, and instead it is evenly distributed to the sides. The ear pads take a light touch for most people, but the cups are deep enough to leave most people’s ears free from contact. Metals were considered too resonant, so instead super hard plastics were used in most places besides the mesh and top adjustment plate, and the whole headphone is remarkably light for its size, and looking straight on in the mirror the earcups don’t protrude super wide from your head (though your non-audiophile friends may laugh when they see them from the side). This is highly subjective, but the HD 800 was the only headphone where I had moments where I found a seating sweet spot and could actually forget I was wearing them. Conversely, I’ve seen some other people comment that they felt extra pressure making their jaws sore.
What sounds good on the HD 8XX? One of the things that surprised me the most when I first heard the HD 800 was how rich the mids and upper bass were, and the HD 8XX improves on this without completely changing the flavor that draws people to the series. Things like baritone voices in "Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes" by Paul Simon or Bass Guitar in "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen sound very well represented and the texture detail is a delight... even some EDM like "The Great Divide - Seven Lions Remix" by Velvetine sounds amazing. The large ring radiator drivers displace a LOT of air, approaching an almost flat planar wave of air which interacts with the curves of your outer ear as much as traveling directly into your ear canal. I can even feel the air moving the hairs on the skin of my ears at times, but the divers are unusually tight and detailed, so we don't get the "WuB WuB" usually associated with "big bass." All of the above, by the way, I highly recommend as fun HD 8xx tracks as well :D
However, I do feel like some songs benefit from more “warmth” and fuzziness, and the HD 8XX isn’t changed enough by default to “satisfy” in pop music that relies on the synthetic sub bass notes and bloomy bass, like "Demons" by Imagine Dragons (lots of bad artifacts in that song) and I was surprised to discover how many of Rihanna's songs rely on just vocals and a "bass gimmick." The HD 8XX bass is still too tight to gloss over the unpleasant artifacts, or wash over me to get me excited. The old bass-test standby, “Angel” by Massive Attack plays its deepest notes from the very beginning... I’m a bit torn on this track, because if the HD 8XX was your only headphone, it sounds good, and compared to the HD 800 the small difference makes all the difference in making the track feel mysterious and threatening, but honestly if most of your emotional enjoyment comes from “subwoofer like” bass, then I believe you will actually get more enjoyment out of a headphone described as “warm.”
My mind is most divided on songs like "Undisclosed Desires" by Muse... because I LOVE THIS SONG. It's actually mostly a very "active brain" song with many layers of different instruments, a sexy beat/rythmn, and the HD 8xx provides a very energetic and exciting insight into the song's groove - again everything from that funky bass guitar to the the brass high-hats are very well represented. At the very end of the track, there's a few seconds where there's just a cool string bass viol note which seems to call out, with a deep synth bass rumble in answer. On the HD 800, the synth bass is barely audible, and the HD 8xx improves on this to where both notes are clearly audible, but they don't wash over you and immerse you in a bass bath. Considering the whole of this song, the majority of it is an awesome experience, but those last 20 or so seconds are a “calming after the crescendo” rather than a thick highlight moment of the track. But on a track like “Limit to Your Love” by James Blake, any more bass would be too much for that song, IMO.
With that said, the HD 8XX does take to EQ pretty well, and it’s easier to add a slower decay, distortion, and “thickness” to a clean sounding driver than it is to try to clean up a warm headphone with resonance and masking issues. Some DSPs can actually go beyond increasing the loudness of certain frequencies, and I had success with both my Smyth Realiser A16 DSP and my HiBy R6 Pro portable DAP to add these colorations and add a wash of bass that will carry you away in the flow of music... but for most of my music, I don’t feel the need for EQ and there is plenty to delight. I’m also going to go ahead and say that the HD 8XX will reveal harshness if present in amps... I tested on an HDV 820, which is a great fit (of course), but I also didn’t experience glare or sibilance (unless it was in the recording) on my un-modded HD 800 with my Cavalli Liquid Carbon + Chord Mojo setup, or the iFi iDSD Neo when I got to borrow that (though I liked it even better when I used the Neo + HDV 820 for amp duties).
For gaming, I tried to use the HD 8XX to play Call of Duty and Hitman. Unfortunately, the PvP and Warzone modes released a big patch right when I moved my setup (HDV 820 as DAC/Amp, and then I unboxed the Realiser) into the basement where my PS4 Pro and TV are, and I didn’t have time to update them in time for testing. Gunfire and the chaos of the Havana level in the MW2 remastered campaign was punchy and visceral, and frontal locations were clear, but unfortunately campaign tends to spawn NPCs within a narrow space in front of the character and stay firing continuously in one place, so this wasn’t a great test of spacial audio. However, one thing about the HD 8XX’s separation quality was that the audio was a lot less “busy” than my LG’s built-in speakers and it was easier to have good awareness of everything that was going on. Switching to the relatively much calmer Hitman, now it was much easier to hear directional conversational clues which were triggered even if the player character was halfway past walking by. The birds and other ambient noises really sold the environment, immersing me as a player. I can tell you from experience with my HD 800, PvP in Warzone (I recommend NOT using the high dynamic range if you want an extra competitive advantage) or Destiny 2 will get you accusations of wall hacks, and you should only play Resident Evil 7 if you are in the mood to get stalked or startled by the sounds in that game, with the “Dad” busting through walls and the “Mom’s” buzzing bees being very... unnerving 😁
So, let’s wrap things up. What with the HD 800 discontinued and the HD 800S regularly at $1600 USD (and occasionally out of stock), the $1100 for the HD 8XX is lower than I’ve seen in past sales, plus $200 Drop store credit can go towards completing your setup. Those who already have an HD 800 or HD 800S or really want home-theater subwoofer bass, the HD 8XX probably won’t tempt you, but people who let an HD 800 go in the past, and miss it, may find the little differences in the HD 8XX juuust enough to make the difference. If precise imaging, clarity, separation, and immersion in realism are your holy grails of audio, that is why the HD 8XX should be considered.
HD 8XX Synergy playlist I made:
Older HD 800 Synergy Songs playlist that I borrowed from for review, but also just good songs: