Review: Sennheiser HD800 and Sennheiser HDVD800

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This week, we will be reviewing the Sennheiser HDVD 800 headphone amplifier and USB DAC along with the Sennheiser HD-800 hifi headphones.

Sennheiser HDV800 et HD800

The Sennheiser HDVD 800 was designed by the German brand to go with its high end hifi heaphones – Sennheiser HD600, HD650, HD700 and HD800. This bulky headphone amplifier features high quality components, such as its Texas Instrument Burr Brown PCM1792 DAC – the brand’s most high-performing chip – or its ALPS quad potentiometer. Compatible with digital audio stream up to 24 bits / 192 kHz via its USB and S/PDIF inputs and analog audio stream via XLR balanced inputs and RCA unbalanced inputs, the Sennheiser HDVD800 is equipped with no less than 4 headphone outputs (2 balanced and 2 unbalanced).

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Aesthetically speaking, the Sennheiser HDVD800 is very simple. Its case is in brushed aluminium and features a long Plexiglass window which lets you see the potentiometer’s mechanism, a heat sink as well as a number of capacitors lit up by a blue LED.

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This headphone amplifier with USB DAC, SPDIF and AES/EBU  24/192 is equipped with 4 headphone outputs
Sennheiser HDVD800
Casing, buttons and potentiometer are all in solid aluminium

With its open structure, which guarantees a very broad sound stage, and 2.2″ transducers boasting a frequency response ranging from 14 Hz to 44 kHz with a tolerance of 3 dB, the Sennheiser HD-800 set of headphones is the flagship of the German brand. Because of its 300 Ohms impedance, this set of headphones should be used along with a powerful headphone amplifier.

Test configuration

We used the Sennheiser HDVD 800 headphone amplifier with an Audioquest Carbon USB cable, connected to a computer using JRiver Media Center with the ASIO driver for Windows provided by Sennheiser. We mostly used the Sennheiser HD 800 headphones with its original unbalanced cable, as well as a set of Sennheiser PX100 headphones. We didn’t use the amp’s balanced output. Our sources were CD and studio quality FLAC files as well as Deezer.

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Digital inputs (EAS, S/PDIF, USB), analog inputs (with a gain selector) and analog outputs are featured. It is thus possible to use the Sennheiser HDVD 800 as a hifi preamp.

Sennheiser HDVD800: what we thought

This DAC and headphone amplifier belongs to the very selective category of electronics which make listening to any type of music accessible regardless of the source quality (MP3 or FLAC). We often mention how enjoyable it can be to listen to online streaming services (Deezer, which streams MP3s for instance) in spite of the alteration resulting from the compression. Once again, this is the case with the Sennheiser HDVD 800. Although most tracks found on Deezer suffer from a lack of dynamics, this amplifier always delivers a convincing result, much superior to what other DACs have to offer with FLAC or even studio files.

Sennheiser HD-800
The 2.2″ headphone transducers are visible at the back of each earcup

Only two headphone amplifiers with DACs have made such a big impression on us, the McIntosh MHA100 and the Antelope Zodiak Platinum DSD. If we were to compare the three, the HDVD 800 is the least costly and also seemed even more harmonious to us. No range in the sound spectrum seems to take over the rest and no emphasis is put on any range. There isn’t a track we listened to with the HDVD800 that sounded disappointing to us, be it with the Sennheiser HD 800 or with the PX 100. In most cases we actually had a great time re-discovering the songs we listened to.

Although it might be very subjective, the Sennheiser HDVD 800 is one of the best headphone amplifier and USB DACs we have had the pleasure of listening to in a very long time.

Sennheiser HD-800: a great set of headphones

We are stating the obvious by saying that the HD-800 is an excellent set of headphones. How could it be any different given its features? First strong point: comfort. The HD 800 is extremely light in spite of its size and the pressure on your head is definitely not overbearing. Worst case scenario, it takes a little bit of time to get used to feeling some pressure on both sides of your neck. Because of the open structure, the listener is not isolated fom outside noises and the Sennheiser HD 800 should be used in quiet surroundings. The other downside of this structure is that the listener is not the only person able to hear the audio signal. On the other hand, an open design guarantees a wide stereo and many sound levels.

Sennheiser HD-800
The Sennheiser HD-800 is extremely comfortable. This set of headphones is extremely light.

Unlike the HDVD800 amplifier, which is absolutely fantastic with all kind of recordings, the HD-800 set of headphones only shows its true potential with really good recordings. When listening to jazz (Chet Baker and Duke Ellington especially), we are surprised by how composed the HD-800 is and how it seems to caress the ears at all times. Tonal balance is slightly rising without being unbalanced or overwhelmingly sharp. The medium range is incredibly thorough and voices are extremely well placed.

The sound of a bow on a violin’s strings, the impact of a hammer on a piano string are all meticulously delivered. The listening experience is thus very detailed without being clinical.

Sennheiser HD-800
Each set of Sennheiser HD 800 headphones has a serial number engraved on its headband.

A few tracks we listened to with the Sennheiser HDVD800 and HD800

Duel of the Fates, John Williams, FLAC 16/44
Always a tricky test as the choir often sounds sloppy. The separation work is breathtaking, male and female voices are clearly separated. The strings can still be heard as the choir and brass section grow louder. As the signal becomes richer and more complex, we fully understand the incredible capacities of the HDVD800, which never seems to struggle. The more we turn the level up the more it extracts all the details that make music sound so good. The final timpani roll is beautifully textured and resonates very, very low. Incredible.

My home is in the Delta, Muddy Waters (FLAC, 24/192)
Incredible sound take for the Folk Singer album. We are immediately impressed by how “populated” the sound stage is, in both width and depth. Even if blues isn’t your thing, how can anyone not be amazed by the exceptional delivery of the Sennheiser headphones / amplifier combination’ Average electronics would simply overlook the echo, which makes this sound take so rich, to only focus on the impact of the strings. Here everything works, the magic does not stop until the very last second.

Why so Serious, Hans Zimmer (DTS 16/48 en stéréo)
Watch out for your headphone’s membranes! The HDVD 800 amplifier gets its claws out with this DTS track whose LFE channels are mixed in stereo by JRiver Media Center. It goes down extremely low and thuds in your ears from 3:28 and will only let the listener loose a few minutes later. The HD800 just like the PX100 are put to the test, the pressure of the bass is physical. Let it be said: the articulation is constant and the listening experience is extremely enjoyable.

I’ve got you under my skin, Frank Sinatra (FLAC 16/44)
It’s often on these old sound takes where sound can be considered either lacking or awful that great electronic components come to the fore. The Sennheiser HDVD800 rises to the occasion and lets us hear the delicate brass section with absolute talent.

Miss You, Rolling Stones (FLAC 24/192)
The quality of the file is striking. The bass drum is a pleasure for the ears from start to finish and the guitars swirl.

Conclusion

The Sennheiser HDVD-800 and HD-800 benefit from obvious audiophile qualities. This set of headphones has no match regarding the delivery of mediums and renders the whole range of vocals and instruments, while the amplifier delivers constant energy ranging from the infra-bass to the high frequencies with an impressive ease. Two incredible devices. The DAC amplifier deserves your full attention, we absolutely fell for it.

Sennheiser HD-800
The headphones connectors are mistake-proof.

 

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