This might be one of the shortest reviews I ever write, because of how uncomplicated its conclusion is. The Sennheiser HD 800 S is a sterling, wonderful pair of headphones that strikes a near-perfect balance between accuracy and enjoyment. It has all the detail and insight you could want from an audiophile headphone, but still delivers an accessible, universally enjoyable sound. With a price just under $1,700, you'd expect nothing less, but it's always good to see a product live up to its hype and lofty expectations.
The original HD 800 from Sennheiser is widely considered one of the best, most transparent sets of headphones ever made. By transparency I mean that it goes to great lengths to not discolor the music you're listening to and just serves it as close to its original form as possible. Think of RAW image files in photography, which keep every last grainy detail in the photo to give editors the most information to work with, and you'll have a good idea of Sennheiser's objective. But alas, in the same way that RAW pictures don't look as lovely as nicely processed images, raw music rarely sounds its most pleasurable on the HD 800. As technically exemplary and glorious as they still are, those headphones exhibit unpleasant treble spikes that make them fatiguing to listen to and unfriendly to the casual listener. Many audiophiles have gone to the trouble of physically modifying their pair of HD 800s just to tame its highs and obtain a sweeter sound.
Sennheiser has fixed the original HD 800's Achilles' heel
The HD 800 S is the result of Sennheiser following its users' example. The German company has taken what was a cold and unfeeling sound-reproduction device and it's made it just that little bit softer, warmer, and cozier. In short, it's the Sennheiser HD 800, only this time it's tuned with the human listener taken into account.
Other than changing the main color of the earcups from silver to black, Sennheiser has left the HD 800 design untouched. Even the "Made in Germany" label at the top of the metal headband reads only "HD 800" on the 800 S set. I have no problem with this decision as the HD 800 S are very well built, emitting no creaks and giving me confidence they'll last as long as such an expensive pair of headphones should. They are quite enormous, wrapping around my ears in a cavernous fashion that extends their pads all the way onto my cheeks (which can be mildly irritating if you're sporting a trendy bit of stubble).
The HD 800 S ear pads are handmade, like many of the components in these headphones, and not removable. Sennheiser uses a nice microfiber material that doesn't heat up the ears (how could it? it never touches them!) and feels plush and comfortable. The HD 800 S are lighter than they look, weighing in at 330g, and are actually quite thin and minimalist in their construction. Sennheiser has basically put together the most functional frame that it can for placing a pair of speakers on either side of your head. My only complaint about the design is that pressure does begin to build up at the top of my head over the course of extended listening sessions. It's no deal breaker, as I just adjust the headphones or take them off for a moment, but it's not perfect.
The soundstage you get from the HD 800 S will absolutely spoil you
Sound is where the Sennheiser HD 800 S truly flirt with perfection. I've never heard a more detailed set of headphones, and I've listened to Sennheiser's own $55,000 Orpheus, albeit briefly. Where other headphones might present a wall of sound, the HD 800 S give me a detailed, multidimensional landscape. I can make out the various layers and positions of instruments in a recording with ease. And this landscape is so freaking expansive! The soundstage you get from the HD 800 S will absolutely spoil you with respect to any other headphones. Everything else sounds condensed and crammed inside my head compared to the oceanic breadth of the HD 800 S' presentation.
The more complex the music, the more rewarding the HD 800 S becomes, as it never obscures or obfuscates. A good example is the Akira soundtrack by Geinoh Yamashirogumi, which bombards the listener with a diversity of drums, wind instruments, breathy vocals, and high-pitched bells, all overlapping and interweaving. The HD 800 S handle this barrage with unerring composure.
Bass drops on the HD 800 S arrive with satisfying force without overwhelming the midrange. The treble is still prominent, but not piercing like it is on the HD 800, and it adds gorgeous dynamic contrast to the ever so slightly bumped up bass response. I've been listening to these headphones will the volume turned way up and I've never had to cringe or recoil at the sound of over-exuberant treble (which happens occasionally with the also excellent Noble Audio K10). Even at high volumes, all the usual headphone foibles of distortion or resonance are simply missing from the Sennheiser HD 800 S.
A masterpiece of audio engineering
While the HD 800 S sounds less clinical than its predecessor, you still shouldn't expect to be treated to anything approaching the bassy warmth of a headphone tuned for a mainstream audience. Sennheiser remains committed to pursuing its goal of analytical accuracy, and the HD 800 S will not be the most joyous set of cans for fans of EDM or hip hop. If those are your favorite genres, you could probably get your kicks off just as well with something much cheaper like Philips' bass-loving Fidelio X2. They offer a similarly wide soundstage, plenty of detail, and greater warmth. Though they're nowhere near as articulate and downright illuminating as the HD 800 S. I consider these Sennheiser headphones the very definition of a reference headphone — I go to them to set my baseline expectation for what a recording should sound like.
A couple of notes to keep in mind with respect to the HD 800 S' practicality: these cans require a powerful amp to get the most out of them, and their open-back design means everything you listen to will be heard by the people around you. Oh, and the cable is thick and long and terminates on a 6.3mm connector. If you want an indication of the sort of equipment Sennheiser expects you to plug the HD 800 S into, the company recommends pairing them with its $2,200 HDVD 800 DAC and amplifier combo unit.
I recognize that the Sennheiser HD 800 S isn't a pair of headphones for everyone, but I do think that everyone should at least experience them. Like a ride in a supercar, these headphones traverse the same roads as everyone else, but do it with greater poise, precision, and ultimately pleasure for the passenger. The price tag may be high, but in my judgment it's completely justified. Listening to the Sennheiser HD 800 S is a unique delight, and that's ultimately the best reason to spend money on luxury technology.