Drop Sennheiser HD8XX

Drop Sennheiser HD8XX

6 December 2021 0 By Petros Laskis

Sometimes dreams come true

Pros: + The most musical, balanced and smooth version of the family
+ A master class in bass technicalities
+ Much improved timbre and decay
+ Treble resonances have been successfully addressed
+ Finely resolving but less analytical
+ Smoother treble
+ Expansive and speaker like soundstage
+ Super comfortable
+ Made in Germany (or Ireland)

Cons: – Still a bright headphone
– Some timbre inconsistency in the treble
– Soundstage somewhat lacking in holography
– Bass is not visceral and as full bodied
– Still not forgiving at all
– Needs high quality amplification and sources
– Better enjoyed with OTL amplifiers (this is not necessarily negative)
– Comes with only one cable
– A carrying case would be welcomed

Prelude

In the past few years I have owned and reviewed all the high-end open back headphones from Sennheiser and namely the venerable HD650 and HD600, the youngster HD660S and of course the famous flagships HD800 and HD800S.
In the end I kept the HD650 (because everyone should have one) and the HD660S which I think is the most tonally correct of the bunch.
I sold the HD800/S because while I liked certain technical aspects of them, at the end I thought that their tuning from the upper mids to higher frequencies was lacking in correct tonality and timbre while reproducing the natural instruments of the orchestra.
Of course before resorting to this last measure, I tried everything from modding to buying special cables and gear to save them but to no avail so at the end I gave up and never bothered again.
I was pretty happy with my HD660S and other headphones and forgot everything about the Sennheiser flagships until I heard the news that Drop+ was collaborating with the company to release the so called HD8XX.
A new model that was supposedly tuned to address all the shortcomings of the previous models.
I got very interested and started reading everything about the tuning process, the first batch that was withdrawn as a failure followed by the second and final tuning that eventually was granted the green light.
Some early reviews and user feedback were rather negative and then I got more interested!
I was ready to place an order but very expensive import duties and fees were holding me back.
So it was a very pleasant surprise when Drop+ contacted me to suggest a one month loan in exchange for a honest review.

About the Drop+ / Sennheiser HD8XX

Now this is the obligatory section with some information for the readers that are not familiar with the HD8XX.
If you have done your homework, feel free to skip as I am just copy/pasting from Drop+ website.

The HD 8XX is based on the HD800S, a flagship audiophile headphone produced by our partners at Sennheiser.
Like the HD800S, the HD8XX is made in Germany at Sennheiser’s HQ factory.
Based on community requests, we worked with Sennheiser to tune the housing resonance to add low end extension, while we adjusted the driver damping to create midrange balance and reveal treble detail.
Introducing the Drop + Sennheiser HD8XX, class-leading headphones with a revised tuning, signature Drop color accents, and unrivaled performance.

Introduced with the 800 Series, Sennheiser’s ring-radiator drivers are a groundbreaking innovation in headphone performance.
Unlike the traditional dynamic driver, which moves a conical dome to create sound, the ring-radiator driver uses a ring diaphragm attached to its inner and outer surfaces.
This dramatically increases stability, radiates sound uniformly, and eliminates cone breakup.
With these drivers, the HD 800 was an undeniable step forward—but many audiophiles felt that it had too much treble and not enough low-end response.
Sennheiser responded with the re-tuned HD 800S, and using that as a base, we worked with Sennheiser to further balance the midrange and extend the bass response.
With a new resonator system and driver materials, The HD 8XX has a balanced upper midrange and sub-bass that extends to 10hz.
Completing the package, the HD 8XX is finished with signature Drop midnight blue accents.

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Specifications

Headphone type: Open-back
Ear coupling: Over-ear
Drivers: 56 mm ring radiator dynamic drivers
Impedance: 300 ohms
Frequency response: 4 Hz – 51,000 Hz (-10 dB)
THD: 0.02 % (1 kHz, 1 Vrms)
Contact pressure: ~ 3,4 N (± 0,3 N)
Weight (without cable): 11.6 oz (330 g)

Full specifications and price are available here.

How did they do it?

A closer inspection of the headphone reveals two significant differences from the HD800S.
Firstly they appear to be two Helmholtz resonators instead of the usual one.
The first one is of identical shape with the original but this time is raised upwards and there is a distance between it and the driver cavity whether in the HD800S it is directly positioned into it.
Then there is a second resonator with a somewhat different shape and working principle that is directly fitted into the cavity with some kind of a ring material between the two resonators.
Secondly they have added three carefully placed extra dampening zones at the inner part of the ear cups.
They are the three back, tape-like, surfaces that you can see in the following photo.

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About build quality and comfort

Older users who are familiar with the Sennheiser HD800 series headphones don’t need to read any further because they know that they are among the 2-3 most comfortable headphones ever made.
The large D – shaped ear cups engulf the whole ear while the headband is doing a great job in distributing the weight of the headphone which is already very low at 330g only.
The ear pads and the headband are padded with memory foam material while they are covered with high quality microfiber for extra comfort.
The ears don’t touch the drivers and the clamping force is minimal, as low as, to keep the headphones stable at head.
One of the most comfortable headphones I have ever used, suitable for extended listening sessions but do remember that the HD8XX is intended for home use so if you try to move your head with force they are going to fall, while they offer minimal passive noise attenuation.

Appearance and build quality is the same with the original models and except the (not so visible) blue colored ring they look identical with the HD800S.
The headphone is made from high quality plastic except the metallic outer grills and the headband reinforcement.
At the top of it you can see engraved the serial number, the Sennheiser / Drop logo and the “Made in Germany” phrase.
First batch is made in Germany but since Sennheiser has moved the HD800S production to the Ireland plant I guess that the next one will be made there.

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Accessories

Nothing special here, the headphone comes with the familiar big storage box that is not practical at all as it just occupies space and a nice carrying case would be better and much more welcomed.
The original Sennheiser HD800S, which is selling for roughly the same price as the HD8XX, comes with two 3m long cables, the one with a 6.35mm plug and the other one with a pentacon 4.4mm plug.
The HD8XX comes with the 6.35mm cable and while I roughly understand Drop+ not including the second one to save on costs, I really can’t imagine why they have released a brand new product without the balanced cable plus a nice 6.35mm adapter.

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Amp talk

Immediately upon receiving the headphones I started the burning process and while I am known for my patience I lasted three days before laying my hands on them.
On the fourth day I commenced the listening sessions and everything else was left behind in favor of the HD8XX, let’s not forget that time was counting down and after all a month is not that much.
I have started with my mid-tier reference stack, the SMSL HO/DO200 and it was not long before I felt that while I really liked what I was hearing, I strongly thought that something was missing and the headphone was clearly underperforming.
It was time to open the closet and pull out my reference Class A beast, the magnificent all-in-one Fluxlab FCN-10 (review) and at the same time to give the Felix Audio Euforia (review) some tube heating time.
The room was getting pretty hot but so was the music and I smiled as the headphones started to really sing.
Most of my time with the HD8XX was spent with these two amplifiers but I also experimented with Fluxlab FA-12, Schiit Vali 2+ and iBasso DX300 with the AMP12.
The DAC duties were handled by the Denafrips Ares II / Venus II and the Lab12 dac1 reference NOS DAC.

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Now you might ask, do I really need some high-tier stuff to get the most of these headphones and the answer will be definitely yes.
Don’t expect to buy the HD8XX and run them from your mid-tier electronics, this an ultra transparent flagship headphone that must be fed top quality material in order to show what it is capable of.
Furthermore don’t let the higher sensitivity of it into tricking you that everything is going perfect because it gets loud enough.
This is a 300Ω driver that loves high voltage as much as it hates current so the amplifier, solid state or not, must be capable of some serious voltage output and as is already known the HD800 family of headphones is best paired with a good OTL amplifier.

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Listening impressions

I don’t trust frequency response graphs and other reviewers opinions, well except a few selected ones, so I wasn’t convinced at all with the early negative feedback and kept very sceptical.
After a couple of weeks of listening time I was rubbing my ears thinking what the hell?
What I was hearing was quite opposite from the majority of what I have read, sans a few exceptions.
I have been reading comments like “bass is lacking, it is not tight nor clear, it cannot resolve, it is distorted, mids are sucked out (sic), there is inconsistency in the mid region, it is not detailed, soundstage is artificially expanded etc etc”.
So let’s examine together a few examples.
Shall we?

“Bass is not extended enough and there is a harmonic distortion trick applied.”

Let’s start with the opening bars from Copland’s “Fanfare for the common men” where the concert bass drum and then the timpani sound very dynamic and realistic with a clarity that allows for the listener to clearly distinguish every individual stroke, and if you are educated enough you can even tell what kind of hummer is used every time.

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Then in the einteilung of “Also sprach zarathustra” by R. Strauss you can hear authoritative and thumping timpani strokes, followed by blazing brass phrases that lead into the imposing organ entrance which is accompanied by perfectly layered tremolos on the double basses.
The rest of the symphonic poem was a pleasure to listen, with a well integrated, coherent sound throughout the whole frequency range and a more or less balanced, realistic timbre.

Speaking of the organ, I couldn’t help myself not listening to the “Toccata and fugue” by J.S Bach.
The HD8XX successfully portrayed the intense tonal complexity of the grand organ, from the highest notes to the deepest bass, with an effortless and fluid expression.
Sustained and pedaling bass effects sounded magnificent and the headphone could reach as low as it was needed without breaking a sweat.

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Finally some Beethoven and what better than the 3rd movement of the 5th Symphony which is an ideal piece for testing bass technicalities.
The HD8XX proved to be a master performer with crystal clear, tight, fast, controlled and undistorted bass.
Layering was exemplary and the very complicated bass line was resolved with perfection so all the low instruments sounded well defined without being masked.
Tonality was almost perfect with a natural and lifelike timbre while there were absolutely no traces of bass bleeding into the mids.

Is everything perfect?

Well, no, the trade off is that the HD8XX bass is still an HD800 family bass.
Nothing is changed so you are not going to hear a visceral, full-bodied and weighty bass nor experience hard hitting and rumbling sub-bass effects.
This is the usual, rather lightweight, lean and sophisticated presentation that concentrates on technicalities and the HD8XX wouldn’t be my first choice for bass heavy music and partying.
To conclude, bass is a masterclass of it’s own in technicalities with all the associated qualities like clean, fast, tight, layered, dynamic, precise, extended, natural and undistorted applying to the highest degree.
But if you are still looking for weighty and full bodied bass to shake your head then you should seek entertainment somewhere else.

“The mids are sucked out…” (sic)

Transition from bass to the mids is exemplary and the region is presented with top clarity and excellent definition.
Mids sound open, rounded and layered with plenty of harmonic wealth, fluidity in the expression and a believable, natural timbre.
But you may ask again, I have been reading that they are “sucked out and uneven”
Are they? I don’t think so.

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Se vuol ballare” is a fine aria written by W.A Mozart.
What a nice singing, the tenor just stepped in front of the orchestra, heard with some fine texture and the correct pitch in a joyful interplay with a well rounded and correctly pitched horn.

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Let’s change voices with an aria by G.F Haendel.
Here the famous mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli sings a difficult coloratura aria with two improvised sections and a highly challenging dialogue between her, a natural trumpet and two oboes.
Same case here, natural voicing, excellent positioning in the stage and some finely articulated singing with the supporting instruments not lacking in intensity or presented with some kind of unevenness in the tonality.

Voglio Tempo” is a great showpiece quartet for tenor, soprano, contralto and high soprano.
I couldn’t hear any signs of inconsistency and all four voices sounded balanced, blended and with a nice contrast between each other’s timbral qualities and the accompanying orchestra.
In the middle section of the piece there is a difficult cadenza for the alto followed by a tour de force improvisation by the soprano which reaches some very high notes and thankfully everything sounded controlled and smooth with all the necessary intensity but without any traces of sibilance or harshness.

Of course not all people like classical music so I switched to “Still got the blues” where I heard the splendid voice and the electrifying guitar solo accompanied by the rest of the band, all of them sharing equals parts as they should be.

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To conclude, I wasn’t able to detect any severe mid “suck out” or any kind of unevenness in the tonality except some traces of a honky instrumental texture with some recordings.
Still if you prefer vocals to be more forward sounding then you are certainly going to be disappointed.
But preferences cannot be the judging criteria of the subjective evaluation of a headphone and subjectively speaking the mid range of the HD8XX is not lacking at all and the headphone does an excellent job in presenting it the way it was recorded.

“Treble is still bright and less refined”

The HD8XX continues to be a somewhat bright headphone and there is still the treble plateau which is responsible for the clarity, the detailed presentation and the unique characteristics of the HD800 series.
But this time there is a key difference, thanks to the extra dampening the treble resonances are now better controlled and much shorter lived.
Excessive ringing has been successfully controlled, as a result the HD8XX is sparkling and full of treble energy but it sounds smoother without becoming easily fatiguing nor hard and piercing.
The extra damping also helped a lot with time decay, so now the notes fade away in a more convincing and relaxed manner.
Timbre quality has certainly improved and now instruments sound mostly in tune and quite natural but there are still some issues remaining.
There is a certain thinness to the sound and some instruments don’t sound perfectly balanced between the higher and lower ends of their range while some traces of a metallic texture are still present, especially with instruments that reach very high notes.
Anyway I think that the HD8XX is the smoothest member of the family and with the given design of the headphone, this was the best that could be done to improve the treble performance and make for a more musical, relaxed and enjoyable HD800S version.
Still if you prefer a brighter and more sparkling sound signature and you are not bothered by excessive treble ringing you better stick with the original HD800S.
As a final note, you should always remember that the HD8XX continues to be a very transparent and unforgiving headphone and as that is not recommended for poorly mastered recordings and still needs some care when it comes to matching with electronics.

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“Soundstage is artificial”

I don’t know what music you are listening to but as a classical music listener, I have to confess that the HD8XX soundstage experience is one of the best in existence.
It is expansive and diffuse but always proportional and highly adaptive to the size of the ensemble, passing with great success all the echo and reverb of the recording venue.
The soundstage is size-agnostic and equally enjoyable from the largest symphony orchestra, to a chamber ensemble, a string quartet or even a couple of performers, always sounding natural and not artificial.
The positioning is super accurate and the listener feels like seated in the third row with the only complaint being that the HD8XX is somewhat lacking in ultimate depth and holography when compared with some other TOTL headphones, like the Meze Elite.

One good example to find out what this headphone is capable of in terms of soundstage is to listen to the opening chorus of J.S Bach Christmas Oratorio and be amazed with the grandness of the presentation combined with the precise positioning of the soloists, the chorus and then orchestra.

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To conclude, if you think that this kind of soundstage presentation is artificial or very expanded for your liking then you can do better with something like the Focal Clear Mg which is more intimate and narrow sounding.
But If you are into an open sounding and speaker-like experience then the HD8XX and Co are as good as it gets.

“It is not as detailed as the HD800/S”

The HD800 was a very detailed headphone that I found to be annoyingly analytical to the extent that I couldn’t relax and enjoy listening to my music.
The HD800S is a better and more musical version but still very detailed although not monotonously analytical as its predecessor.
The HD8XX is one step further into pushing the detail retrieval into the background and making it a part of the musical experience rather than throwing it at the listener’s face.
This is still a detailed and finely resolving headphone but this time the presentation feels more natural and less mannered.

To conclude, if you prefer a raw and analytical sound then you should stick with the HD800S or even better the HD800 but if you are more into listening to the music and less into the details then the HD8XX is the best option.

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Postlude

By the end of my time with the HD8XX loan it was pretty clear that there was no way of returning it back.
This is the HD8XX that I was dreaming about and I am pretty sure that a lot of you are going to feel the same way.
If you have also been dreaming of a more musical, balanced, smooth and pleasing version of the HD800S, without sacrificing much of everything else that made this headphone a legend, then you have found it.
The HD8XX is not about being the best or the worst version of the family, it is just a different take for the people who didn’t like it’s brothers and it is a successful one, certainly worth the status of a flagship.

Test playlist
Copyright – Laskis Petros 2021.