Disclaimer: this is a fairly exhaustive write-up. Feel free to skip directly to “Sound” for impressions and measurements. If that’s still too long, I have included a summary conclusion at the end.
My initial purchase of an HD 800 (S/N 36xxx) in early 2017 was a true revelation. My prior headphones at the time were the DT770, T50RP Mk3, HE-400i and HD 600, and the futuristic-looking cans demonstrated how much more fidelity was achievable through headphones. To this day, it still is one of my favorites – the resolution and detail retrieval are nearly top tier, speed is extraordinary for a dynamic driver and imaging is expansive and precise. However, it isn’t without flaws – the warm-bright tonality is definitely not the most agreeable, timbre can sound plasticky and unnatural and the lower treble area, from around 6 to 10 kHz, is infamously boosted.
That is why, ever since its release in January 2009, it has been a controversial headphone. While the affectionately named “music microscope” impressed many with its incisive and analytical nature, many early adopters were turned away by the reportedly bass-shy, dry, and bright presentation. However, around late 2012, impressions shifted. Users reported that newer pairs (starting around S/N 17xxx) showcased a warmer presentation with more polite treble and more satisfying bass presence. In fact, this had generated multiple discussions on Head-Fi, and although there seemed to be a consensus about newer pairs being more pleasing, gossip about a silent revision in response to early criticism was mostly speculative.
That brings us here. I have with me two Sennheiser HD 800, both of which I have purchased brand new recently (making earpad age an insignificant factor). The older pair has serial number 084xx and was likely manufactured around 2010, whereas the newer one is engraved with 429xx and was likely produced around 2016 (around 50000 units were made from 2008 to 2018). The comparative purpose of this writeup begs the question: how do the two differ?
Physically speaking, the outer boxes each adopt the Sennheiser styling of their respective eras (blueprints and “sciency” look of the late 2000s vs. the modern and minimalistic approach of the mid 2010s). The inner display boxes are adorned with different Sennheiser logos, but are otherwise the same, along with the included manuals.
The headphones themselves display some external differences starting with the cable, which is sheathed with a different material above the Y-split, the newer one being shinier in appearance. It is worth noting that newer HD 800 cables have been known for fraying, but I am unsure if the old ones are equally as fragile.
Moving on, these comfortable headphones share the same lightweight Leona plastic frame but differ when it comes to the crucial stainless-steel mesh that surrounds the baffle and damps the driver at the rear. The older model sports a much finer and tighter mesh, whereas the newer model seems to have a looser and coarser variant that is also shinier in appearance.
Not only that, but the ear pads are very different – the older model presents a wider ear opening with a tad less thickness compared to the new one, and the front “satin” driver cover seems more opaque on the earlier HD 800.
Even the superimposed “3D mesh” seems more tightly woven on the older example, though that could simply be within the realm of variance. All those elements, which are possible contributors to tuning, differ. So, do the discrepancies translate into an audible change? To find out, I have used my iFi Micro iDSD Black Label, which had ample power for these 300-ohm ring-radiator dynamic headphones, and the answer is…
… yes, beyond the shadow of a doubt – the early and late HD 800 sound very different, to a greater degree than I expected (listening volume matched at 300 Hz). The newer, more common HD 800 is a warm-bright headphone with significant recession in the upper midrange and a significant boost in the lower treble. The older HD 800’s tuning, in a nutshell, exhibits a leaner-sounding bass and midrange with even more of a treble boost, though there are a few twists.
Bass on the newer HD 800 is fairly well extended, with a slight amount of sub-bass roll-off. It is at a neutral level relative to the rest of the frequency response, and is rounded and liquid in presentation, a characteristic that is typical of open dynamic driver headphones. It can sometimes border on wooly when the driver’s legs are stretched (e.g. EQing up the sub-bass), and the dynamic impact is slightly lacking compared to certain headphones of its type (e.g. Elear/Elex/Clear/Utopia and ATH-ADX5000). In comparison, the older HD 800 is slightly more anemic down low – bass is lower in quantity, faster and tighter. All of this contributes to making it less full sounding, even though it is a technical improvement. While arguably less clean, the newer HD 800 is “punchier” and more “satisfying” than the original, which felt bass-shy at times, reflecting the experience of many early adopters.
You may recall the debate about the Sennheiser HD 800S having more low frequency second order harmonic distortion than the HD 800 after measurements, notably from Tyll at InnerFidelity, had surfaced online. Whilst the popular belief is that this increase is exclusive to the 800S, I personally believe that it is simply because the comparison was made against early HD 800 units. Due to the fact that the newer HD 800 sounds significantly more rounded down low than the old one (a possible sign of higher distortion), I suspect that the increase in bass THD is due to the revision applied to the original, which was carried over to the 800S that was later released in 2016. In fact, Sennheiser previously denied adding any bass THD specifically to the S model. Purely speculative, but those are just my two cents!
Having mostly heard newer pairs, I always thought of the HD 800 as a warm-bright headphone. It presents a sizeable depression in the upper midrange that brings fundamentals of instruments and forward at the cost of overtones, making them sound richer. It is also rapid in its decay, making it a tad light in terms of note weight and contributing to its plasticky timbre, which cannot be fixed with EQ. It does, however, try to make up for this with excellent resolution and detail.
Well, after hearing the older model, I cannot confidently call it warm-bright. It is rather simply… bright. The upper midrange is significantly less suppressed, making the overall midrange tonality more neutral and leaner as a result. Attack is sharper, and decay also sounds even quicker than the already nimble new model, making it better suited to keep up with complex passages, though that is at even further detriment of note weight and timbre – it sounds more dry and texturally thinner than its younger brother, which will definitely not please those looking for natural timbre. Nevertheless, the increased upper midrange presence and speed as well as the sharper attack make the older HD 800 feel more resolving and less hazy, albeit less “natural” or “musical”.
The Sennheiser HD 800, even in its later production, was always known for being a bright headphone due to its significant boost in the 6-10 kHz region (with a significant 6 kHz peak). While that does color the headphones with a metallic etch, the treble itself is of excellent quality – it’s well extended, highly resolving and mostly grain-free. While the new HD 800 does get harsh and sibilant at times, the boost is not extreme, and depending on your treble sensitivity, it can be tolerable – after all, brighter headphones exist, namely some Beyerdynamics and the Fostex TH-900, and many people still enjoy them. It can also be partially corrected with positioning (by bringing your ears towards the back of the headphone), using a warm source chains and EQ, so treble was never an overwhelming issue on this headphone for me.
However, the older HD 800 is… ruthless. Whilst the treble is still very clean, it is emphasized to a significantly more extreme level, making these very bright – quite frankly, excessively so even though I am reasonably treble tolerant. It is absolutely harsher and more sibilant, but also airier. Anyhow, it’s easy to see why more people found the original HD 800 problematic – it is simply tuned too intense, and Sennheiser’s possible move to make it less polarizing in response to initial scrutiny is completely understandable.
When it comes to intangibles, both headphones are very wide sounding, with superbly precise imaging in all three axes. The newer HD 800, with its upper midrange recession, sounds less “intimate”, creating a greater sense of space between the listener and instrumental/vocal elements. However, the older HD 800’s more airy treble, in conjunction with the larger earpad aperture, makes it feel significantly more “open”. In terms of detail retrieval and resolution, both are exemplary, but as mentioned previously, the bass is more articulate and the midrange is a bit more resolving on the older model, at the expense of sounding more anemic.
Measurements (MiniDSP EARS)
I typically prefer to assess the sound with subjective listening before taking measurements to avoid confirmation bias and I can say, in this case, that my ears agree with the FR graph, but not completely. I personally expected a greater difference than ~1 dB in the bass, but I imagine that the distortion and decay characteristics may have contributed to making the new pair’s low-end fuller. The graph shows significantly more upper midrange and treble on the older pair, which is what I subjectively perceived. Keep in mind, however, that MiniDSP EARS graphs are not very reliable in the treble (which explains why we see peaks at 4.5 and 7.5 kHz instead of the 6 and 10 kHz peaks the HD 800 is known for).
I have taken some distortion measurements that show slightly higher values on the newer pair, specifically in the bass. However, they must be taken with a massive grain of salt, as noise floor, even in seemingly quiet situations, can falsify distortion figures.
Through this analysis, we have gathered evidence suggesting that claims of the Sennheiser HD 800 undergoing a silent revision early (~late 2012/early 2013, around S/N 17xxx) in its production run, making it sound significantly more agreeable and less incisive before the release of the HD 800S, are true. The changes can be observed physically, through modifications in crucial tuning elements (tuning mesh, ear pads and front damping), and sonically through subjective listening (fuller, warmer and darker sounding) and objective measurements. I have also listened to five different post-17xxx pairs (ranging from 20xxx to 49xxx) that sounded extremely similar and denied the physical characteristics of the 084xx pair reviewed here, making unit variance a less likely culprit (although I do not have measurements, I’ve managed to find pictures of my old 20xxx pair showing similar physical traits to the 429xx pair analyzed here – https://imgur.com/a/uWW7WxC). [NOTE: Some users (/u/MegaDerpBro from /r/Headphones and johnjen from Head-Fi) suggested it would be ideal to measure multiple pairs from different production runs using the same rig/methodology for full confirmation, and whilst it would be a fairly resource-intensive task, I would love to see it being done!]
While the fiercely analytical original is, in my opinion, the ultimate expression of the Sennheiser HD 800, one must question whether its characteristics are truly the most desirable. It offers a slight technical advantage but showcases some aggression that has been tamed in the newer model.
Although I personally find greater enjoyment in its more restrained and civilized homologue, I am highly respectful of what Sennheiser has achieved with the original formula, and hope to witness the rise of a worthy successor to the HD 800 as years go by.