Table of Contents
Drop + Sennheiser collaborations aren’t exactly a new concept, but this time it’s different.
At this point, everyone in the audiophile community knows of the HD6XX. It’s not a controversial statement to say that it’s one of the default recommendations in the $200 price bracket, and the general HD6X0 lineup have been widely regarded as a “must have” in any serious audiophile’s collection, if anything as a neutral/balanced reference. At over 130,000 units sold the HD6XX is one of the very few audiophile-centric headphones that broke into mainstream consciousness, with even the HD58X coming in at about half that amount.
And yet with the overwhelming success of the HD6XX, there’s one other classic headphone in Sennheiser’s lineup that remains untouched by Drop: the legendary HD800 (S or otherwise).
Four years ago there was even a meme on the then-fabled HD8XX (with an entire saga between said memer and Massdrop thereafter), and years after that the masses continued clamouring on and on for the HD6XX-equivalent to the HD800. For years the community heard nothing… right up to the beginning of 2021.
The announcement of the HD8XX in February was met with massive fanfare, with the community ready for their new kilobuck king. But as the measurements started rolling out, the community got a little worried. It’s clear that the HD8XX would not be the same kind of headphone as the HD6XX, which was simply a cheaper HD650 for the most part. Drop was going to add their own spices into the mix to make the HD8XX the “logical conclusion of the HD800 series“, and with one more tuning revision since the initial measurements by Head-Fi the HD8XX is now truly finalised and ready for customer use.
I’m thankful to be one of the very first to have the final production units in hand, and as a HD800 fanboy myself this is certainly one of the more exciting releases in my book. But I’m sure you’re all tired of the expositions so let’s just cut to the chase.
How good is the HD8XX actually?
Product page: https://drop.com/buy/drop-sennheiser-hd-8xx-headphones
Driver type: Dynamic
This HD8XX was kindly provided by Sennheiser.
Signature & Tonality
The signature of the HD8XX can be described as… warm? V-shaped? Mid-recessed?
It’s hard to nail down the right classification for these headphones because they’re technically all of the above. Yes, the HD8XX comes off as fairly warm due to the contrast between the lower and upper mids; yes, the HD8XX is technically “V”-shaped due to its mids being less emphasised than its bass and treble; and yes, all of these characterisations basically revolve around a distinct centre-midrange “hole”.
All this results in two big observations:
- The bass tends to be rather bloomy and interferes with the melodic frequencies.
- There is a distinct “cut” in the middle harmonics for most instruments, making things sound off.
These attributes cause vocals to sound muffled and strained, also resulting in female vocals taking on an overly-husky timbre. Plucked strings like guitars sound like they’re severely lacking snap, and bowed strings sound like a heavy cloth has been draped over them.
There are more examples, of course, but at the end of the day there is very little to argue in favour of the HD8XX’s tonal balance. It has the Hifiman centre-mid dip taken to an almost caricatural level that I’ve never heard in another headphone before, so while meaner fellows like I would brand the HD8XX as a terrible, no-good, very-bad headphone, the nicer amongst you may perhaps call it “unique-sounding”.
But make no mistake, a wonky tuning cannot and must not be handwaved off as being simply unique. The HD8XX is, in terms of tonal balance, definitely up there in terms of Sennheiser’s strangest. If we were to use the HD6X0 as the reference for “correctness” (not saying that it is, just as an example due to the HD6XX being the prime comparison point in this situation), you can see how a 10dB(!) recession at 2kHz can be a… cause for concern.
I’ll call it how I hear it: the HD8XX is tonally wrong. Plain and simple.
Tone grade: D-
If you’ve heard the HD800/S then you should have a pretty good idea on how the HD8XX performs technically. Top-class resolution with some of the widest (some say the widest) soundstage in a headphone are the prime reasons why the HD800 series still remain relevant more than 10 years since their release in 2009.
But alas, the HD8XX has its imaging capabilities unfortunately compromised by its tuning.
A common criticism of the original HD800/S’s imaging capabilties is that instruments tend to presented in an “overly-diffuse” manner, that is to say that instruments tend to be spaced too far back in their huge soundstage. It is a valid criticism, albeit one I do not find wholly a negative as I quite enjoy the out-of-your-head experience that few other headphones can provide. So while the HD8XX still retains the HD800/S’s staging width, the biggest difference between the two is in instrumental positioning.
The HD8XX has what I would call the “corridor effect”, wherein the instruments seem to be placed in a (you guessed it) corridor. Now the HD8XX renders instruments in a long corridor (wide staging and all), but a corridor nonetheless. I’d hazard a guess to say that this is more due to the tuning changes as the housing and internal structure isn’t radically altered, but regardless the end result is this sort of this weird echoing effect with nasty resonances and an overly-forward bassline mimicking low-frequency reflections.
Either that or the “in-the-other-room effect” which is very self-explanatory. You know, that muffled bass-forward character whenever you hear music playing in a different room. This one is easier to correlate with its mangled tuning.
Regardless of what your interpretation may be, the end result is that the HD8XX sounds a lot weirder in imaging compared to the HD800/S, and that I have to dock points for.
Technical grade: A+
The original HD800/S would not get any value stars under IEF metrics, but it does have a niche: it is one of (if not the) cheapest headphones you can get with top-tier resolution and some of the widest soundstage in a headphone. That’s the reason why I myself purchased one for personal use, to be used alongside a little EQ.
So if the HD8XX were simply the “HD800S but cheaper” like how the HD6XX was the “HD650 but cheaper”, then it would have that niche on lock. $1,100 isn’t chump change, but one would have to go up to about $2,000+ in today’s market to get to similar levels of technical performance so it would still be very much “worth the price” in that regard.
But a worse HD800/S instead? You’d be better off scouring the classifieds for a second hand HD800/S which would (hopefully) be cheaper. Else, EQ is double-extra mandatory on the HD8XX, and you’d still need to put in extra filters to fix that midrange hole first before thinking about doing anything else.
Value Rating: N/A
HD8XX versus HD800/S
Yes, the obvious comparison.
It’s fairly easy to visualise the differences between the two on FR, considering that both headphones have the same housing and drivers just with tweaked tuning.
And for those who already own a HD800S, here’s an EQ profile for you to “taste test” the HD8XX:
Low shelf: 40Hz +5.0dB
Peak: 350Hz +3.0dB, 0.2Q
Peak: 700Hz +2.0dB, 1.0Q
Peak: 1,550Hz -7.3dB, 0.8Q
Peak: 5,800Hz -3.5dB, 10.0Q
What I’ve said in my initial impressions still hold true now; yes, the changes made to the HD8XX does cut the treble peakiness of the HD800/S significantly, but introduces a slew of other even more troubling issues that completely overshadow that fix. Again, seems analogous to cutting off an entire limb in response to being asked to lose weight.
And for those who have trouble visualising, I have also provided a sound demo to demonstrate the differences between the HD8XX and the HD800/S. Per what I’ve written at the start of the demo, sound demos are to be used for comparative purposes only.
Nothing new to add that the rest of this review didn’t already cover.
Drop has claimed the HD8XX to be (or at least, aims to be) the “logical conclusion of the HD800 series”, but this seems more like a spit in the face to its legacy.
If the goal was to simply fix the HD800’s 6kHz peak, I think Drop would’ve gotten something on the same level of near-universal acclaim as their legendary HD6XX. But with so many new oddities and outright mistakes that the HD8XX currently has in the name of artistic liberty, I cannot recommend it except maybe to the most diehard of Sennheiser collectors.