Sennheiser HD 800S Headphones

Build Quality
PRICE $1,699

Rebooting a classic, making it better
Hand-crafted in Germany
Smoother sound than the original HD 800
Not as transparent as the very best planar headphones

The Sennheiser HD 800 S refines the original, hugely influential headphone, and makes it better than ever.

The hoopla surrounding the introduction of Sennheiser’s original HD 800 headphone in 2009 was monumental because it was such a radical upgrade over the HD 650, the previous Sennheiser flagship. So, we’re due for another flagship, but the HD 800 S is more like a reboot. What about a new flagship? As you’ll read below, it’s coming, too!

The most obvious difference between the HD 800 and HD 800 S is easy to spot: The new one is black, while the original is gray. That works for me; the black finish enhances the headphones’ striking good looks. Sennheiser’s Axel Grell responded to my query about how the two headphones differ with this: “For the HD 800 S, we are using the same RingRadiator transducer [driver] as for the standard HD 800, but we now have a Helmholtz-Absorber in its center cavity. The result of this is a flatter high-mid to high-frequency response. And as the center of the transducer is closed now, the low-frequency range is extended as well.”

Each driver is tested, measured, and given a unique identifier. So if you ever need to replace an HD 800 S driver, Sennheiser claims it will be able to provide an exact match. The HD 800 S is delivered in a beautiful storage case.

The headphone comes with two sets of 11-foot-long cables, one with a standard 6.3mm plug, the other with a 4-pin XLR plug for use with balanced headphone amplifiers. My balanced Oppo HA-1 amp has both types of connectors, so I swapped between the two cables on the HD 800 S and found that the balanced connector scheme produced more sharply defined imaging and greater overall clarity. Balanced connections don’t always yield better sound, but they did with the HD 800 S.

Donning the HD 800 S, the feel is just right. The headphone is light, open, and easy to wear for hours at a time. The sound is distinctly high-res, but not so much that it makes you cringe when you play less than stellar recordings. The soundstage is so big and “roomy” that I had to check, more than once, that my speakers weren’t playing. They weren’t—all the sound was coming from the HD 800 S!

I don’t own an original HD 800, so I visited my friend Michael Toto at Stereo Exchange in NYC to compare the store’s HD 800 with the HD 800 S. Plugged into a Chord Hugo headphone amp/DAC, the HD 800 S is sweeter on top and fuller on the bottom, but both headphones share a big-as-outdoors soundstage. The HD 800 S takes a bit of the edge off overcompressed recordings, while the HD 800 lets you hear every last bit of the harshness. With pristine audiophile recordings, I preferred the HD 800.

Back at home, when I compared the HD 800 S with my Audeze LCD-X open-back headphones, the LCD-X delivered a smaller soundstage, pulling the sound inside my head. But the Audeze produced superior transparency and resolution, so it was easier to hear the quieter details of my recordings, and the LCD-X’s bass was more powerful. Still, the HD 800 S was a lot lighter and more comfortable, and that counts for a lot. Sennheiser has no plans to phase out the original HD 800; it’s priced at $1,499, while the HD 800 S is $1,699.

As for that flagship: In late 2015, Sennheiser debuted their allnew $55,000 HE-1 electrostatic headphone and matching tube amplifier system. That package is in an altogether different league than the HD 800 S. Sennheiser is pushing the envelope to the limit, and their headphones just keep getting better and better!