An unbiased review of the Sennheiser HD 800, or, to mangle Woody Allen: "Objectivity is subjective"

This is a review of Sennheiser's flagship headphone, the HD 800. I contend this review is unbiased since Sennheiser has steadfastly refused to allow me to become a Sennheiser dealer. Despite the fact that there is no brick-and-mortar stocking dealer of the HD 800 in the Austin area, Sennheiser won't allow an audition-only dealer to sell its flagship headphone. Those in my area who wish to buy one must either travel far away or else buy online and hope for the best.

In order to audition and evaluate the HD 800, I had to buy one for myself. So that's what I did.

I'll skip the summary and description except to recite that this is a dynamic-driver, open-back can that's generally comfortable. It's far more comfortable than the planar Audezes and about on par with the flagship Fostex, AKG, and Beyerdynamic cans. I don't perceive any real livability issues.

My evaluation rig is an iPad mini with redbook-or-better FLAC and WAV files. I used the Apple camera kit to take a digital out from the iPad into a Benchmark DAC1 HDR via the Benchmark's USB input. I used the Apple music app and CanOpener. In CanOpener, I used both the straight output and the cross-feed feature. I used the stock Sennheiser unbalanced cable.

I have in the past auditioned the Fostex, AKG, Beyerdynamic, Audeze, Abyss, and other Sennheiser headphones. Prior to my evaluation of the HD 800, I placed the Beyerdynamic T1 and Audeze LCD-3 at the top of my list of favorite headphones. I recognize why some people don't like the T1 (perceived harshness in the upper registers, entirely consistent with its distortion measurements) and, for that matter, the LCD-3 (imaging problems, tilt to warmth).

To tell you where I'm coming from, I love the T1 for what I perceive to be its overall tonal balance and suitability for all kinds of music. I find it beguiling and beautiful with everything. I feel that its less-than-stellar resolution, resulting from its distortion in the upper registers, is tolerable because of the headphones' overall presentation and the character of the distortion, which seems to me not so much ringy or overloading but loss of resolution. I love the LCD-3 for its profound black background, infinitesimal distortion, and liquid sound quality. Less endearing is its blobby imaging, caused by either its magnets getting in the way of its output wavefront or else the nature of its planar driver or some combination of both. As a Linkwitz Orion (and soon to be Linkwitz LX521) speaker owner, imaging is important to me, even if it's largely the in-the-head, headphony kind.

The AKG K812 is, hands-down, the most revealing headphone I have ever heard, to the point where old recordings are laid bare in revelatory ways. However, those cans have a serious design flaw. The driver misbehaves badly at volume in the upper registers, to the point where, to my ears, it is harsh and unlistenable for more than 15-30 minutes at a time. Nevertheless, the experience of hearing a headphone present an almost "live" event is profound and addicting. If only AKG could iron out the behavior of its big new driver, the K812 would be my pick for the greatest headphone.

The new accuracy king of the hill, for me, is the Sennheiser HD 800. In some respects, it is the love-child of the T1 and LCD-3 (never mind that the HD 800 came first), combining excellent imaging with low distortion. What it does that neither of those do, however, is retrieve the detail that results from low distortion and clean, extended highs. The HD 800 comes within a whisker of the detail retrieval of the AKG K812 for most of the audible band, with far better detail retrieval in the upper registers where the K812 breaks up or rings badly. But again, the K812 is a runner with a broken foot, whereas the HD 800 has no weaknesses, to my ears.

I say "to my ears" because some listeners cannot stand to listen to the HD 800's because of perceived brightness. I have some hearing loss in the upper registers, and I'm 49 years old, so I am not as sensitive to high-frequency emphasis as some people. Nevertheless, I can hear the presence-region emphasis in the HD 800, along with its concomitant de-emphasizing of the mids. That presence-bump can get fatiguing with pop and rock recordings, but I like the overall tonal balance and accuracy so much that I simply lower the volume a bit. Since the HD 800 has distortion as low as the Audeze cans -- very low, especially in comparison with loudspeakers -- the HD 800 is emphasizing the presence region cleanly. That, I think, is the key to this can's sound. Like the AKG K812, the presence region is boosted to achieve a "live" sound, but the Sennheiser does it with good engineering instead of a driver that misbehaves. To me, that translates into high detail retrieval and clean, clear sound, but with the penalty that with recordings engineered bright, the HD 800's are bright.

The last feature of the HD 800's I find so endearing is the velvety-smooth midrange that I loved so much in my first high-end cans, the HD 600. However, unlike the HD 600, the veil is gone, and the upper registers are more forceful. The HD 800 is, to my ears, a perfected HD 600.

As for bass, all these cans are so much better than any headphones ten years ago that it's all gravy to me. Nothing can touch the bass from the Audeze headphones, but none of these flagship cans are inadequate in the bass. The HD 800's do stand alone, for me, in the quality of low-frequency reproduction. They reproduce lower-frequency instruments the way my Linkwitz Orion speakers do, with striking detail and naturalism, not just boom-boom-boom.

A criticism that I don't understand about the HD 800 is that it's too "analytical" to be enjoyable. Partly I think that statement results from its appearance, which is chiseled and Transformer-like. The appearance of audio gear doesn't mean anything to me, however. Partly it also has to do with the low distortion, related high resolution, and excellent imaging, which in combination allow things deep in the mix to pop out of nowhere. To me, that kind of detailed imaging is what makes great loudspeakers great, and what makes great headphones put all great loudspeakers to shame. It's about conveying the information in the mix. I don't find that "analytical"; I find it musical. It's what the engineer put into the mix, or else what got into the mix by happenstance. Whatever the source of the detail, it's all good to me.

I have long enjoyed the T1 to the exclusion of most other, less versatile cans. But I can't argue with what Sennheiser has accomplished with the HD 800, and years before anyone else did. I still love the T1 and will use it in various applications, but for focused enjoyment of music, the HD 800 does it all for me.

My highest recommendation!
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Benchmark DAC2 Rave in Stereophile

The Benchmark DAC2 HGC, in essence a digital preamp/DAC/amp for those who run fully digital rigs and high-end headphones, got a rave write-up in Stereophile. I take some flak from head-fi forum folks for liking these cutting-edge, fully-digital front ends to the exclusion of separates and tube gizmos, but it's hard to argue that the Benchmark electronics are not state-of-the-art. What I like most is that they're easy to haul around, whether to shows or just back and forth from my office to my house. I keep an older DAC1 plugged in on my nightstand, but I take it out for demos to customers too.

I take issue with the seemingly reflexive assumption on the part of the Stereophile reviewer that the DAC2 is better because it's now more expensive, or relatedly that a unit from another maker that costs twice as much has an edge over the Benchmark. For that matter, I take issue with comparisons of the Benchmark with $500 units. For me, the Benchmarks have a sort of studio-quality, throwback, precision instrument feel that allows -- and I blush to say it, because it's so materialistic -- pride of ownership. Oh well, it's not like I bought a Porsche with leather radio knobs or anything. Plus which, I can honestly say I feel confident that the Benchmarks are rugged and will last forever, meaning they're a reasonable value.

I am glad that Stereophile has taken up where my old favorite, Audio Magazine, left off, providing solid testing along with the written reviews. When I see equipment reviewed there or elsewhere, such as Absolute Sound or, now, Sound and Vision, without any testing and with lots of highly subjective commentary, I sort of scratch my head why those publications are operating as mass publications. I mean, that's pretty much just blogging, right?
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AKG K812: You Are There!

A Review of the New AKG K812 Flagship Headphone

With precious little information available as of this writing about the new AKG flagship headphone, I want to help prospective buyers know what they're in for. Here's my review, admittedly personal, but not intended to trick you into buying something that isn't right for you. As with all reviews, take it with a grain of salt, and come in for an audition to test my veracity.

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Nice Cans at Head-Fi Meet Jan. 18, 2014 in Austin

Look for Nice Cans at the 2014 Austin headphone meet sponsored by Head-Fi.org. I will have all my flagship cans and three full rigs to plug into featuring Benchmark and Musical Fidelity amp/DAC units. Complete information about the meet-up is at this link:

http://www.head-fi.org/t/678382/head-fi-austin-january-18-2014
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Nice Cans is now an authorized AKG dealer!

With the introduction of the flagship K812, I've obtained the AKG line. While I've long admired the K701/702 -- and have owned a pair myself for many years -- I cannot compete with local big-box stores that sell those already. In addition, the K701 cannot go head-to-head with models costing 3x as much. I will have the new K812 in stock imminently, and I will post a review on this blog.
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