Sennheiser HD800 (Superdupont Resonator Mod)
I would like to start this off by stating that this is not a review of the Sennheiser HD800, but rather a review of “possibilities.” Yes, this is not the stock HD800 I am going to be discussing, but rather one with the Superdupont Resonator mod installed. In short, the mod helps to tame a well-documented treble peak in the headphones that can put off many listeners.
When I started in the headphones game, with my Beyerdynamic DT990 in 2012, it seemed that the HD800 was the most coveted headphones that I saw on internet forums amongst the mid-fi crowd. Due to Sennheiser’s place in the industry, it seems that there are three headphones that they have produced that have been in enthusiasts’ journey at one point or another: the HD600, the HD650 and the HD800. What is most interesting to me about this transition is that the HD800 could not be further from the 6XX series. Gone is the veil I heard when I had my HD600. Also, gone is the warmth and traditional design – for the HD800 is one of the most unique looking cans out there.
Specifications of the Stock HD800
Frequency response (headphones) 14 – 44100 Hz (- 3 dB)
Frequency response 6 – 51000 Hz (- 10 dB)
THD, total harmonic distortion 0.02 % (1 kHz 1 Vrms)
Contact pressure ~ 3,4 N (± 0,3 N)
Jack plug Jack stereo ¼” (6,3 mm)
Cable length 3 m
Weight Without cable: 330 g
Nominal impedance 300 Ω
Build, Design & Comfort
I know people who would not ever think of upgrading from their Apple Earpods who have told me that the HD800 looks “cool.” It does indeed, incorporating a simultaneous industrial and futuristic design that showcases a large diaphragm surrounded by black and silver. Looking at it, I see it as an alien in the design that Sennheiser have gone for in everything from their basic models up to the Orpheus. The HD800 is like Roger from American Dad, obviously the outsider but one that demands all the attention of the audience.
The comfort is absolutely stellar. I feel like I’ve been in a semi-abusive relationship with some headphones this year, or rather a love-hate relationship. I love, love the sound they emit but I hate how they fit and the comfort issues. The relatively low (compared to the others) weight is another big plus in my book, as I found the 330g weight a breeze compared to the likes of the Hifiman HE-500 in its full-metal glory. The earcup design is another innovative factor, as it is abundantly large and ear-shaped – due to which the HD800 simply disappears on my head. The headband does not have a high amount of padding, but it does not need it either. It does not slip or fall off my head either if I position them at an angle. Simply put, you can pull these on and not have to worry about them till your listening session is done.
The trade-off of such comfort is the build quality. It is not flimsy by any means, but the low-weight was achieved by a design that could very well be damaged if you are not careful. I met a fellow at the London Can Jam who, like me, had brought his HD800 along in his backpack to try with the various amps. Sadly, it had knocked on something while it was in there and one of the soft areas on the diaphragm (in the area behind the ear) had dented inwards. Apparently he had recently bought it too, bad luck. I was already careful with mine, but that made me slightly paranoid going forward.
I do not know where I had read that the HD800 earpad-removal was problematic because it just was not when I needed to give them a good scrub down. As they are so distinct, I cannot imagine mounting any other earpads (Alpha pads, ZMF pads, FocusA pads etc.) on the HD800. I am sure it has been done, but it does not seem all that viable and might be a detriment to the sound – as the padding is quite thin.
Overall, a beautiful to look at and comfortable-to-wear pair of headphones and one that I can confidently say is one of the frontrunners in the audio community in this. However, that is not the reason this has been so well-sought for so many years.
The HD800 is nowhere near my sound signature preference, but they do so much so well that it is hard not to nod and appreciate the audio characteristics of these headphones. I generally prefer a denser sound, with a rich and warm midrange – something I glean from both the ZMF Omni and Hifiman HE-500. However, the HD800 had a leaner and cleaner sound to it – for better or worse depending on how you like your music.
Before I dive into the subsections of sound, I want to state that this headphone is really sonically dependent on what you use as an amplifier, something I will address further down in the “Amping” section.
The bass on the HD800 is both easy yet complicated to describe. If someone simply asks you “does the HD800 have a lot of bass?” you can just reply in the negative. If you strip away the layers behind that “no,” you’ll find an answer that goes far beyond a yes/no question. You won’t be listening to EDM on this, that is for sure, but I found the bass to be a superior listening experience than some other headphones with deeper reach and more body – with some genres only. Take classic rock, my “classic” example in my reviews, and stuff like Pink Floyd. I have not owned a headphone that can present Pink Floyd as incredibly as the HD800 for several reasons, but what I want to call attention to is the bass in those recordings.
You see, if we talk about the instrument known as the “bass guitar” then the HD800 does a stupendously good job at reproducing the tones needed for a good listen. Not once have I listened to a rock song and thought that the bass guitar was too thin or low in the mix. Far from it, it sounded simply realistic. There is a sharpness to the sound of bass guitars with the HD800 that I have not heard yet in other headphones that I have personally owned – it just feels so tight and controlled. However, I did listen to the HD800S for a bit at CanJam and noticed that they have bumped up the bass to a level where it sounded more “musical” and bloomy – ever so slightly. However, that bump alone, while it may be ideal for more musical genre pairings, made the tight ship that the HD800 was running edge out of its seams a bit.
If you throw synthetic genres, and I in no way say this in an elitist manner because I enjoy such music too, at the HD800 – you’re going to have a bad time. This goes beyond just the lack of sub-bass extension and into the territory of top-heavy analytical listening. You won’t feel the rush of the low-end in songs in such genres, so I would really not recommend it for them.
The midrange of the HD800 is stellar in a way that is starkly different from how the midrange of the Omni and HE-500 are stellar. While it does not sounded forwarded or, the word I used to describe the HE-500’s midrange in my review, “syrupy” – it holds its own in a manner expected of a top-of-the-line headphone. As with the bass, the mids are leaner yet so much more controlled and accurate than many headphones out there. What really impresses me is how the separation finds different degrees to point directional audio in than what I’ve heard before – for the soundstage is simply vast and the imaging is everything you have heard about them. There is no lower-mids bloom that gives a realistic touch to instruments like acoustic guitars or male vocals, but there is clean reproduction among both instruments and vocals across the board. The transients are quick and relatively accurate, not laid back nor startling like electrostatic headphones.
Guitars and vocals shine so brightly on the HD800. A track I return to often, one I even did so for my recent time slot with the Sennheiser Orpheus, is the third chorus and beyond of Prince’s When Doves Cry. The vocal stacking is brought out so beautifully by the HD800 due to its penchant for detail, pulling out vocal harmonies that would otherwise be drowned out in headphones that push for more musicality over analytics. Following the chorus is a guitar solo that is panned slightly to the left of where I thought it was for so, so long. It stands out in the mix but does not overpower anything else, leaving Prince free to adlib all over the place.
However, as nice as I find the presentation of this Prince song, it is helped by the fact that the vocal production is warm. As with the bass example above, your enjoyment of the vocals in songs depends heavily on if they have a natural tint or over-processed and digitised production and mastering. In the latter, it can downright hurt – even with the Superdupont Resonator mod helping to tame some of it. In songs with such mastering, even “ssss” sung will be felt harshly and, for your own sake, volume should be reduced.
The treble range also puts it beyond other headphones I own currently. With the mod taming the 6k peak, the listen is far more enjoyable and you can really appreciate what it is exactly that the HD800 does in the top range. While there is the occasional sibilance, especially in the over-processed genres and recordings I mentioned earlier, a boatload of detail is brought forth due to the treble.
The Fostex x Massdrop TH-X00, that I reviewed a few months ago, had some annoying treble peaks to my ears that would get fatiguing after a while. When I briefly demoed the Fostex TH900 at CanJam, I was hit over the head with what sounded like one consistent treble spike. What both lack, especially the TH-X00, is the trade-off – there simply is no immense detail up there that would make me take it in stride due to what it brought to the listening table.
I have no doubt that it is the treble extension that is one of the primary reasons that the HD800 sounds as resolving and detailed as it does. Cymbals I never took notice of before in songs are suddenly at the front, and while it can get a bit jarring at times (especially if they sound sibilant), I appreciate that a more complete package of the song I’m listening to is presented. That being said, it almost feels too emphasized. I’ll be honest, there are times where I wonder if the people in the mixing room themselves wanted the cymbals to sound as front-and-centre as they do on some tracks – leading to a slight sense of artificiality.
But if that is what it takes for this headphone to sound how it does, then I really can’t fault it. Yes, it sounds thin compared to the likes of the Omni, HE-500, Focal Elear and so many other headphones in this price range – but it offers something they don’t along with the control and analytics that even the HD800S toned down slightly to appeal to the wider market/more musical genres.
The soundstage, as mentioned before, is just so vast…man. While I can’t put it in numbers accurately, I’ll just wing it and say that it scores a good ten percent lead over anything else I’ve reviewed yet. This is a level of soundstage that I did not hear in the Elear, the Focal Utopia or even the Orpheus. With so much shift going on in the electrodynamic headphone market currently, it’s safe to say that the HD800 still holds one crown at least – of soundstage and imaging. Best headphone I have heard yet for gaming, although not the most cost-efficient for such usage alone. You might have to turn it down lower than usual because those gunshots can hurt sometimes.
I roamed around CanJam London 2016 with my HD800 in my backpack. Why? Because I wanted to try different amplifiers and see how they paired. That is the reputation of the HD800. Literally everything you just read above was with the HD800 being run out of my Schiit Gungnir into my Cavalli Liquid Carbon - from which I have it connected with a copper balanced cable. While I personally really like this setup, it is not the best I have heard – but it sure as hell is better than me plugging it into my Magni 2 which just takes the harshly detailed nature of the Gungnir and pushes it at me. The Liquid Carbon, while being solid-state, has a warmth to it that pairs really well with the HD800. I wish I still had my Schiit Asgard 2 to try it with, for that too was warm and would have made for an interesting listen.
The best pairing that I’ve heard yet would be how it sounded from the prototype of the Cavalli Liquid Tungsten, hands down. I would not say that it transformed the HD800 completely, but I did let out an audible “whoa” when I first plugged in. It added some body to the sound while maintaining its clarity, detail and precision. I was very impressed. I also had a really nice sound, with the top end a bit smoothed over, from the Vioelectric amps at their booth. Interestingly, they had a stock HD800 that sounded quite comfortable too so kudos to them for such an achievement.
I don’t want to say that colouration is the name of the game, but it is something I have seen in some owners of the HD800 – that they seem to prefer tube amps to add some warmth and a bit of that coveted musical distortion. A linear amping experience, like the Magni 2 or the Rupert Neve amp I tried at Can Jam, will leave the treble unchecked and make certain genres just that much harder to listen to.
As for volume, at 300 ohms it does require a good amount of power to get loud enough. However, I was most surprised by how it sounded out of my Venture Electronics RunAbout Plus – where it not only got loud enough but had a tinge of warmth to the mids. Where the portable amp falls short of the Liquid Carbon, however, is in the bass control.
Comparison with the ZMF Omni and Hifiman HE-500
I really, really hope the day does not come around where I have to give up the HD800. A little backstory on me, I rarely am in the same place for longer than a year and this nomadic lifestyle makes it difficult to accumulate possessions. I recently moved and it was such a pain because I tend to break the rule of common sense and get a bunch of headphones that I switch between. I envy some of you who have wall hangars covered in headphones and a long line of headphone stands to pick and choose from. That being said, I do need to keep others in my possession (currently the ZMF Omni and HE-500 in the over-ear department) because I simply cannot get a well-rounded experience, for my library with its vast array of genres, from the HD800 alone.
This headphone has its strengths, but I would not classify it as an all-rounder unless you only listen to a small number of musical genres with more “organic” recording methods in their presentation. I also notice that some HD800 owners were getting annoyed at the hype around the Focal Elear and Utopia being unveiled recently, with reviews saying that the Utopia provides incredible detail without the trade-offs of a thin and treble-heavy sound that the HD800 and HD800S provide. While that is quite true, it is $3999 and has a smaller soundstage than the HD800. The HD800 can be found for as low as $899 on Amazon US these days so, while I would not call it economical still for a majority of headphone users, it provides a great price-to-performance ratio for detail and an analytical sound. Simply put, these headphones all do different things – with the similarly priced Focal Elear said to sound like a “HD650 on steroids.”
Definitely a keeper for me, barring unforeseen circumstances.
Bass Quantity: TH-X00 > Classic 99 > ZMF Omni > ZMF Vibro Mk. I > HE400i > DT990 > K7XX > HE-500 > HD600 > HD800
Mids: HE-500 > HD800 > HD600 > ZMF Omni > Classic 99 > HE400i > ZMF Vibro Mk. I > K7XX > TH-X00 > DT990
Treble Quantity: DT990 > HD800 > HE400i > TH-X00 > K7XX > Classic 99 > HE-500 > HD600 > ZMF Omni > ZMF Vibro Mk. I
Soundstage: HD800 > K7XX > DT990 > HE-500 > ZMF Omni > HD600 > HE400i > ZMF Vibro Mk. I > Classic 99 > TH-X00
Comfort: DT990 > HD800 > K7XX > TH-X00 > HE400i > HD600 > ZMF Omni > Classic 99 > ZMF Vibro Mk. I > HE-500
Aesthetics: HD800 > Classic 99 > TH-X00 > ZMF Omni > ZMF Vibro Mk. I > HE400i > DT990 > K7XX > HE-500 > HD600
Lightness: HD800 > Classic 99 > K7XX > DT990 > TH-X00 > HD600 > HE400i > ZMF Vibro Mk. I > ZMF Omni > HE-500