HD 8XX: First Impressions from an HD 800 Owner

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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: Tidal: https://tidal.com/playlist/53372ca1-2047-4d94-a839-6a9a97a56cff Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/6pRJAUj0vgioHvAhWkudCP?si=lJaPT0diS6KKlhjmqhBb6A Older HD 800 Synergy Songs playlist that I borrowed from for review, but also just good songs: https://tidal.com/playlist/532bcd52-2354-4a45-829c-041d36175f04 Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/5XNxbPkKVGHN6NDaYNeo0S?si=EoqqXlH_RcmxXKui87Qj0w

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(Edited)
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drflood
2
May 29, 2021
Thanks for this review. I thought about purchasing the HD800 for a couple of years before I went ahead and did it several years ago and I have not been disappointed. I bought the 6xx from Drop before that and thought they were ok but didn’t see what all the fuss was about whereas with the HD800 I did. Soundstage, clarity and precision are more important to me than powerful bass. When I saw the description of the HD8xx at just $50 more than I paid for the HD800 I was tempted to consider selling the 800 and replacing it with this. But the discussions about whether it will be possible to get post-warranty service for such an expensive pair of headphones, especially with Sennheiser selling its consumer audio business, and the lack of clear response from Drop about exactly what those options would be have cooled my interest and I feel like I’m safer sticking with what I have. I am curious about your opinion on this. By the way I’m powering the HD800 with the JDS Objective 2 + ODAC and curious whether you think there’s an advantage to any other amplifier for these. I don’t have a problem, just wondering whether a different setup would sound even better.
drflood
2
May 29, 2021
Thanks, this was very helpful. I saw in another post you mentioned some other amps - don’t think I’m in the market for a really expensive one and not entirely sure how much I’ll be able to tell the difference between 800 and 8xx but it sound like upgrading the amp might make more sense than upgrading the headphone...
Evshrug
2261
May 29, 2021
I’m glad you saw some of my other posts... sometimes, if I make many posts about similar things, they can blur together 😅 I try not to mention other specific amps too much... because I do believe it’s a YMMV kind of thing. Upgrading your gear does make a difference, but for some people it will be a small difference, and for other people a small difference makes all the difference. For many people that claim HD 800 treble was too harsh or the bass too light to convey emotion, I think they would be surprised if they heard this flagship series on a flagship setup... I mentioned recently that I use an HDV 820 DAC/amp, and with it I feel very satisfied, but for example I felt like the HD 800 was harsh and fatiguing on the Creative Labs Z soundcard, and weirdly blurred and restrained on the Schiit Asgard (original generation of both, and I have not familiarized myself with their newer products, I wish both companies all the success). Edit: I got off topic! Yes, if you have and like the HD 800 already and you want to hear more of what it’s capable of, you may as well address the bigger bottlenecks to your total system performance first. A poor match for the HD 800 will also be a poor match for the HD 8xx. With that said, for someone who didn’t have either headphone, the HD 8xx is where I would rather start, and don’t judge me if one day I have an HD 8xx instead of my 800 😅
(Edited)
Buckaboo
137
May 20, 2021
What about the 6XX? How does it compare to that?
Evshrug
2261
May 29, 2021
Hi, just saw your question! By contrast the HD 6XX (I have an HD 650) is a warmer headphone with more bass “meatiness” and a more intimate presentation, less treble and has some benefits for less fatigue in all-day listening scenarios. The HD 6XX is also more “snug” fitting, which might be nicer for people that like to move around and bob their heads while listening to music. The HD 8xx has much better IFL (In-Front Localization) due to the angled drivers, larger drivers that interact more with the reflections caused by your outer ear folds, and more reference tuning that doesn’t recess high frequency information that is highly directional and informative to our brains. While both are highly resolving, the HD 8xx’s tuning has less masking, so each sound is well separated and clear without overpowering others in a blended “wall of sound.” Despite being larger, the HD 8XX is still surprisingly lighter than you would expect by looking at it, and the looser clamp adds to this lighter sensation... subjectively, the HD 800 (and by extension the HD 8xx) has been the only headphone where my balding head has forgot I was wearing headphones for a moment. Both headphones are very revealing of the quality of the components you feed them with, and “scale up” greatly with every upgrade to your signal chain. As an aside, I think it’s the other way around from “scaling up...” it’s more like you can hear how a $300 setup bottlenecks and limits what both headphones are capable of.
(Edited)
Daniel_Lagoe
0
May 19, 2021
I'd be curious how games like Hellblade Senua's Sacrifice are with it. That game had some AMAZING binaural audio that were a trip even on cheap headphones.
Evshrug
2261
May 20, 2021
OH, Hellblade was amazing when I played it a few years back! I think I used a PC37X at the time though 😅 If I remember correctly, there was “at your ear” whispers from Senua’s mind, and then the rest of the game audio was located further out. The game wasn’t perfect, but it was certainly a great experience. Hope to play the sequel, though it’s kind of odd that we have to hop platforms in order to do so. I’m really looking forward to the audio in this generation of games, because it seems like spacial audio may finally catch on in a bigger way! I mean, even PUBG for my phone had spacial audio added to it!
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Abdul-Audio-999
4
May 19, 2021
thank you for your impressions. I have been eyeing hd800 series for a long time and I think with this price it is a good opportunity to get it. a question regarding the Amps options, would you say Drop THX 789 would be a good choice? and do you think that sonically is there a difference between a Balanced and SE for hd8xx and hd800 in general?
Evshrug
2261
May 20, 2021
I wish I had heard a THX 789, but unfortunately I have not. The amp choice does definitely make a difference in sound quality and tonal balance (I recommend warmer amps), but balanced isn’t always a sign of better quality. Most of the time, the difference between single ended and balanced is whether the amp’s design was optimized for single ended (SE), or was it designed for balanced (and the SE output was adapted from half the balanced output)? There are some amps where the SE output is better than the balanced output; the THX 789 was designed first of all for balanced operation. If you already own a THX 789, I don’t think it would hurt to try them together. In my case, I use the Sennheiser HDV 820 DAC/Amp, which (big surprise) sounds really good as if it was designed for the HD 800 and HD 800S (which it was). The HDV 820 is a $2400 USD combo unit, and most of that budget went into the amp design, and the HD 8XX is able to showcase that. I’m not saying you HAVE to have a system that costs twice as much as your headphone, but the HD 8xx is good enough to reveal the benefits of a system that good or even better. Before I got the HDV 820, the amp I used with my HD 800 was a Cavalli Liquid Carbon. It has a custom power supply, a very clear sound but generally seems to add some bass weight to any headphone you plug into it, and it suited my HD 800 very well (even though the design was primarily designed for balanced output, and I just had the stock SE cable). In general, I would advise looking for amps that are described in reviews as “warm,” “rich,” and “smooth,” because the HD 8XX can sound either musical or analytical depending on what diet of components you feed it with. Based on my satisfaction with the Liquid Carbon, I would recommend looking at reviews of the Liquid Carbon X (LCX) and Cavalli Tube Hybrid (CTH) and seeing if those reviews match up with the kind of sound you want... those are both less expensive amps than the Liquid Carbon (LC), but the LC has a custom internal power supply while the LCX saves money by using a wall-wart transformer, and I think the CTH does too. Of course, an off the shelf wall-wart isn’t necessarily bad: they are commonly used for a reason, it’s just the custom power supply of the LC is a bit nicer. Read reviews before deciding for yourself. Not to rag on a company, because I have definitely enjoyed their gear in the past and they suit warm headphones better, but a colder and more analytical amp like an old Creative E5 would actually push an HD 8xx into the territory of too bright and glaring (for my ears, some people just love as much treble as they can get). So, for my preferences, I would watch out for amps that are described as “cold” as many times as they are described as “neutral.”
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Jessse
5
May 18, 2021
Thank you for writing this! Would you say the changes of the 8xx over the 800s are worth the switch (for gaming) considering you could probably sell the 800s to pay the cost of the 8xx? I’m using a dsp as well to add bass to my 800s. Also, Josh Valour pointed out that the 8xx has a muffledness compared to the 800s and thinks the 800s maybe the better headphone, just not $500 better. Did you pick that up?
Evshrug
2261
May 18, 2021
I didn’t experience the HD 8xx as muffled at all. Both sound superior to me over a couple SDR modded HD 800 I’ve tried (all sounded slightly different). Just a tad darker than the HD 800, I didn’t experience less detail or more cloudy highs, but it was making certain instruments (like the bass in “Undisclosed Desires” as mentioned in the write-up) more present and noticeable. If anything, the more relaxed treble helped unmask some midrange/bass detail. Objectively, you can see that both the HD 800S and HD 8xx have low distortion, with slightly lower highs distortion in the HD 800S and a much broader spectrum of frequencies with less bass distortion in the HD 8xx, but I would consider both to be quite low distortion (and of course there’s far more to sound than focusing on s:n). Subjectively and personally, the HD 8xx was my favorite of the series, but I don’t necessarily think I could sell my used HD 800 for enough to cover the price of a new HD 8xx. On my setup (HD 800 + short Wireworld silver 4.4mm Pentaconn cable + HDV 820, with or without the Smyth Realiser A16), I am already pretty satisfied and I feel like most current HD 800 and HD 800S owners would agree. I think the main appeal is for people who don’t have one yet, or who let one go in the past but missed the sound. I wish I could make my videos have the production quality look of Joshua Valour’s, but that’s a full-time job for him. Right now, I’m experimenting with some things to dampen how massively echo-y my office/studio is!
(Edited)
Jessse
5
May 18, 2021
Awesome, thank you
jaxtrauma
1588
May 17, 2021
Wow, thanks for that thoughtful review Ev. I'm looking forward to expanding my Sennheiser collection ;-)
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jaxtrauma
1588
May 17, 2021
Very nice, thank you for sharing. Imma headed to TIDAL now ;-) Good eye btw, not the best photo but yeah, the 400 Pro sounds almost as good as the 80, despite the price diff. Haven't heard the 300, as yet but give me time lol. The Clear set me back a little but I do think this one will be next. Trouble is, I wanna hear the Clear through a good tube amp too, grrrrr! Decisions, decisions.
Evshrug
2261
May 18, 2021
IMO, if you have the IE 400 Pro, the IE 300 is just a side grade to that. I am enjoying the IE 300, but lately I have been spending more time with the IE 900... So save your money for now, and enjoy what you have.