First Class for the Eardrums: Premium Sennheiser Headphones

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Audiophile-grade headphones are an odd and intriguing topic. They’re a newer product class that has just begun to carve out a distinct relevance in the audio marketplace. As an audiophile and professional listener, I find that only a select few manufacturers are able to back up claims of incredible, accurate sound in a pair of headphones. Sennheiser is definitely a leader among those brands. The first time I put on a pair of their HD 650 headphones, I was blown away. For this review, Sennheiser was generous enough to lend me their two top models of audiophile-grade headphones, HD 700 and HD 800, as well as Momentum—an on-the-go model for sound lovers.

Momentum

When I first looked at the photos of the Sennheiser Momentum headphones, I expected a large, studio-style pair of headphones. This is not the case at all. The Momentum headphones have the sturdy build you’d want from a good pair of studio headphones, but in a much more compact design. They are intended for mobile use, so this definitely provides convenience. Additionally, Momentum provides iOS-friendly functionality to further facilitate listening while traveling.

Although Sennheiser has recently released a black variation of these headphones, they sent me the original version in brown. The brown is much to my preference; having a classic, utilitarian style, built from clearly high-grade materials. The leather headband really stands out. Its clever design leaves an air gap in the center that allows it to breathe and feel less cumbersome than a full headband. The padding serves its purpose but isn’t overwhelming or bulky. The minor details are well handled; the stitching on the headband as well as screws that attach it to the brushed stainless-steel ear cup slider are particularly pleasing to the eye.

The closed-back, circumaural ear cups fit snugly and are not too tight. For enhanced comfort, they can swivel slightly in any direction to give you the optimum of angles to suit your head shape. The ear pads are made of luxuriously soft leather with a breathable cotton mesh interior that prevents your ears from overheating.

The look of the Momentum is favorably subtle compared to more flashy brands of smartphone-friendly headphones. A small, tasteful Sennheiser “S” logo appears on the center of each ear cup, while a mini plaque is mounted to each side of the headband; left reading, “SENNHEISER,” right, “MOMENTUM.” The headphones look streamlined and fashionable, not oversized or bulky.

If I had to use one word to describe the sound of the Momentum headphones, it would be “smooth.” I have long appreciated Sennheiser’s ability to represent low-mid frequencies in their headphones well—a band where most manufacturers fall short—and the Momentum is no exception. The low mids are full and warm, while the high mids provide presence without being harsh. The highs are pleasantly curbed, smoothing over cymbals, synths, and sibilance that would normally be a bit piercing through headphones. The lows are a bit amped up and slightly overstated; you really feel the frequencies of 120Hz and below. Momentum will be a dream come true for bass lovers who don’t want to sacrifice quality or clarity to get that extra low-end energy.

In my listening tests, Momentum really excelled on thick mixes that weren’t inherently bass-heavy—namely, late 1990s / early 2000s “loudness war” tracks: Counting Crows, Ryan Adams, Tonic, Pearl Jam, etc. They also sounded great on older rock 'n’ roll, jazz, and orchestral recordings. Modern rock, hip-hop, and rap recordings are a bit boomy on Momentum, but still sound much clearer and more listenable than on the leading bass-boost headphones. A bonus is that the headphones really contain their sound; I could push them to uncomfortably loud listening levels before the sound seemed to be noticeable or bothersome to people sitting around me.

The included hard carrying case is built to the same exacting standards as the headphones themselves, housing your Momentum headphones and their accessories in stylish, matching leather. Sennheiser also includes two cables, allowing you to choose to simply connect to an audio source or to utilize an iOS inline remote as well. The 4.6’ (1.4m) standard cable is adequate, but feels a little flimsy. The iOS remote cable worked flawlessly with my iPod Touch and even provided Play/Pause and Skip Forward with my Android. The locking connector works beautifully on both cables, ensuring solid contact without making it a chore to switch between them. An adapter for 1/4" headphone jacks is also included.

HD 700

The HD 700 headphones have a unique and futuristic look. They feature an open-back design with specially tuned high-efficiency drivers. The velour circumaural ear cups and padded headband are very comfortable, providing a weightless feel. Best of all, the ventilated magnet system really breathes, keeping your ears cool and enabling extended listening sessions. With a brand-new innovative SYS 40 Sennheiser transducer, the HD 700 headphones are capable of producing an outstanding soundstage, bigger and better than most other larger transducers in the market. This is made possible by the SYS 40 transducer's ventilated magnet with rear ports. Air can escape through these ports, thus curtailing and minimizing any air turbulence within the system. This ventilated magnet system, open-ear-cup design, and angled acoustic baffles combine to produce an exciting concoction of transparent, warm, and balanced sound. 

Additionally, the ear cups rock about 15 degrees horizontally and even more so vertically, naturally adapting to the shape of your head for an ideal fit. The presentation of the HD 700 is also worth noting, as they come packed in a large, well-padded wooden case that will look impressive on any bookshelf.

The HD 700 headphones provide lush, expansive sound. You’ll notice new elements of tracks you’ve heard an infinite number of times, especially in terms of ambience. I found myself taking special note of tremolo depths as well as the decays of reverbs and delays that I had previously overlooked. Also, I caught some funny moments of accidental ambience on tracks that were apparently not recorded in adequately dampened spaces.

Listening to the HD 700 headphones is a warm, enveloping experience. They emphasize frequencies between 250 to 500Hz as well as those between 4 to 7kHz, which makes lead vocalists feel very close and in complete focus. The high frequencies are crisp and precise, providing detailed presence, not just bright approximations. The lows are in excellent balance, providing punch without obscuring other elements of the mix. An acoustic oddity of the HD 700 is a slight boost in the sides (difference) as opposed to the center (sum) that I would estimate to be around 1.5dB or less, since it is a small increment. Headphones, for obvious reasons, generally have trouble defining the feeling of a “center,” but this is a separate curiosity worth noting—although very minor and having no impact on listening enjoyment.

In listening tests, I couldn’t find a single piece of music that wasn’t enjoyable through the HD 700 headphones. Classical, jazz, rock, blues, R&B... it all sounds great. The only negative thing I noted was that the built-in emphasis of the 4 to 7kHz range can bring to light the harsh sibilance of vocalists that weren’t adequately de-essed, but that’s certainly not Sennheiser’s fault. Also, you’ll probably want to avoid listening to spoken word or television shows, as these headphones are so detailed that you might hear nuances you may not have been intended to hear, plain as day.

The HD 700 headphones are not made for use with smartphones or mp3 players, they have a nominal impedance of 150Ω and do not offer a 1/8” plug. They should be used with a quality headphone output, like you would find on an A/V receiver, audio interface, or dedicated headphone amplifier. They are equipped with a 9.8’ (3m) silver-plated, oxygen-free, four-wire copper detachable cable. Each ear cup houses a jack, allowing the cable to plug in snugly. The cable terminates in a very sturdy, gold-plated 1/4” TRS stereo connector.

HD 800

The Sennheiser HD 800 headphones are an indispensible tool (or toy) for true audiophiles. They are big and bulky, and provide hands-down the best, most accurate sound I’ve ever heard from a pair of headphones. The crux of the matter is that if your sound obsession runs deep enough to necessitate the HD 800 headphones, their size and weight won’t bother you a bit. In fact, they’re the only pair of headphones that I’ve ever considered a legitimate mixing or mastering reference. I wrote briefly about them in Holiday 2012: Headphones for Audiophiles, but for this article I’ve been lucky enough to have an extended period of time in which to test and enjoy them.

Listening to the HD 800, you hear everything in its place. The low-end extension is impressive, providing total definition between the kick drum and bass guitar. The fundamental pitches of bass guitars and Hammond B3 organs are easily audible. The low mids are warm and sweet without being muddy, or causing any blurring of the high mids. The high mids are clear and balanced, providing sharp snare snaps and crunchy electric guitars, yet pleasantly smooth vocal sibilance. The accuracy of the high frequencies is downright uncanny. An A/B test with any other set of headphones will reveal how precise and defined the HD 800 headphones are, all the way up to the top of synths and cymbals.

Beyond frequency reproduction, what is so striking about the HD 800 headphones is the gigantic soundstage that the listener experiences. The open-back design, mixed with the huge ear cups, allows the sound to spread out. You can so clearly hear each element’s stereo placement, depth and importance in the mix. The phantom center is even well represented; rather than singing into your ear, a center-panned lead vocalist feels like they’re right in front of you. Another standout feature of the HD 800 is that its dynamic range is completely faithful to whatever source you might be listening to. They are downright sublime.

The HD 800 headphones feature the largest drivers available in a pair of headphones to date, complemented by a detachable 9.8’ (3m) tuned, impedance-matching cable that terminates in an industrial-grade, gold-plated 1/4” TRS stereo plug. Like the HD 700 headphones, they are strictly for use with high-quality headphone outputs. Their nominal impedance is rated at 300Ω with a total harmonic distortion of only 0.02%. They are delivered in a similar, but slightly more impressive storage box than the HD 700, and will undoubtedly become an essential piece of your listening arsenal.

In Conclusion

Sennheiser’s audiophile-grade headphones lead the charge in creating an accurate, incredible listening experience for a very demanding audience. Momentum will be excellent for those who want a versatile, iOS-compatible headphone with big bass that doesn’t compromise audio quality. The HD 700s will be an absolute treat for people who have an extensive music collection and want to enjoy it to the fullest. The HD 800s will be a revelation for listeners unwilling to settle for anything less than complete and total accuracy from their headphones. No matter which of these audiophile headphones you choose, prepare for a joyous rediscovery of your music library.

For more information, stop by the B&H SuperStore in New York, speak with a sales professional on the telephone at 1-800-606-6969 or contact us online via Live Chat.