Is it an improvement over the HD800S?
I’m sure most of you have this question if you haven’t tried HD8XX yet. HD800S as we all know is one of the most popular and critically acclaimed headphones in the market that has won laurels not only for its sound but also for its extremely eye catching design. It has a Diffuse Field-ish style of tuning with top-tier staging, imaging, detail retrieval and resolution. But the main complaints people had with it was it lacking bass quantity and slam below 100Hz and it being a little too bright post 5kHz. This is where DROP saw an opportunity to come in and collaborate with Sennheiser to try and improve on HD800S’ shortcomings. They basically planned out to increase the low frequency balance & extension as well as balance out the midrange and treble properly.
So, did they succeed in doing it? Yes and no.
Yes, in case of the low end, which is definitely much better balanced because it gets a bass boost of around 4-5dB at 20Hz over the HD800S. That makes HD8XX’s sub-bass balance fall in the neutral category instead of HD800S’ bass light. Yes, also in case of treble post 5kHz, which is more neutral and natural, and not as bright as the HD800S.
Where HD8XX loses out big time in my opinion is the midrange, which is the most important region for instruments and vocals to sound right. HD800S already had a small wide band dip around 2kHz which I wished was better balanced but HD8XX drops that dip by a significant amount – almost 9dB at the lowest point from accurate reference ear gain. It also boosts the 100-800Hz region by around 3-4dB, which not only results in north of neutral boomy mid-bass quantity but also fuller, muddier lower-midrange. Because of this, HD8XX’s tuning skews the tonality and timbre of instruments, with guitars and vocals lacking crunch and bite, and instruments like snares and kicks feeling slightly fatter and less defined than they should.
What is good stock and what can be made better?
Technical performance – What HD8XX does quite well is technical performance – particularly soundstage and resolution. It has good imaging and micro-detail retrieval capability but is a bit shadowed by the lower-midrange boost and dipped upper-midrange tuning compared to HD800S, which comes across better once it has been EQ’d. The soundstage in particular is wide and deep with an out of head experience, which is a particular talent of the HD800 range. Resolution too is pretty neat and benefits even more once the HD8XX has been EQ’d properly and lower-midrange bloom has been cleaned up.
Now is the tonality all bad? No, not completely, especially not for people who aren’t looking for the perfect reference headphone. DROP have sold out the HD8XX and there are surprisingly 14.3k requests to bring it back in stock. So, I reckon there are definitely takers for the stock HD8XX tuning or its ‘cheaper than new HD800S’ pricing. When I’m not being a reference/neutral perfectionist, I’m kinda borderline fine with the stock tuning but frankly, I like it much better with EQ!
That brings me to the point…
Learn to EQ your headphones if you want to make them sound even better!
As a musician-audio engineer, EQ-ing everything is part and parcel of my daily work but I think every headphone enthusiast should learn how to use EQ if they want to unlock the true potential of their headphones. You’ll benefit from it big time and it may even blow your mind, without you having to spend a ton of money on expensive gear that promises to fix problems in your headphone that can just be fixed with minor fiddling in a good EQ plugin. A lot of headphones fall short somewhere or the other and they can be made to sound significantly better if you just use EQ. I EQ most of my headphones, even headphones like the Sennheiser HD6XX which already have an excellent stock tuning.
I and a lot of other people anyway like to EQ the HD800S, so why not the HD8XX? HD8XX has really good potential because of stock components, design and especially, its technical performance. Most of HD8XX’s tonal issues can be corrected with EQ, which can unlock most of its true potential. Basically, the headphone it could’ve been if the stock tuning was more tonally accurate from the get go.
For ease, here is a screenshot of Oratory1990’s EQ settings to tune it to the Harman Target curve. It’s a really good starting point. Once you’ve entered these settings in a 10-band Parametric EQ, you can tweak it further to your liking. Give it a try if you own or are really interested in getting the HD8XX.
This is how it looks in FabFilter Pro Q3. It sounds unbelievably good! Note – If you’re going to use Q3, remember to multiply the Q factor by 1.41 as its Q factor formula is different from the Q factor of the EQ Oratory1990 uses in his chart.
Drop x Focal Elex – They are very different sounding headphones. Elex is more neutrally tuned and works really well as a more natural, reference headphone. Elex has a fairly linear bass presentation with a very tiny mid-bass boost and a very neutral lower-midrange whereas HD8XX has a bit more mid-bass boost and more fullness in lower-midrange. Elex has a forward upper-midrange with around 9db ear gain whereas HD8XX has a significant dip of around 8-9dB in the 1-3kHz region of ear gain. As a result, instruments and vocals have forwardness, stronger definition and crunch whereas HD8XX sounds a little warm and not as forward or defined in the upper-midrange. Elex has a treble response that I would consider fairly neutral tending warm whereas HD8XX is slightly brighter in the 6-12kHz region. Tonally, Elex is very well tuned and has excellent tonality and timbre whereas HD8XX doesn’t sound as realistic and natural. Where HD8XX wins against the Elex with a decent margin is technical performance. HD8XX has a bigger soundstage, better resolution and imaging performance, all which shine even better with EQ. Elex is an excellent proposition for its price. If you’re averse to EQ, I would strongly suggest going with Elex if you want a headphone with a really good stock signature that doesn’t really require much EQing. On the other hand, if you like EQing your headphones, HD8XX can be EQ’d to perform better.
Audeze LCD-X 2021 – A comparison between these two is more interesting because they are similarly priced and even though LCD-X 2021 comes across as the more balanced headphone, it does have its quirks too. Even though HD8XX’s graph show better extension and it has a boost in the 62-250 bass range, LCD-X 2021’s bass is actually punchier and slams harder. LCD-X 2021 has a linear, neutral and natural sounding lower-midrange whereas HD8XX has a 3-4dB boost in the 250-800 range which makes the lower-midrange slightly muddy. Upper-midrange is quirky in both headphones. HD8XX has a bigger 9dB dip in the 1-3kHz region but is more even in the 3-5kHz region whereas LCD-X 2021 has a 4-5dB dip in the 1-3kHz region but a bigger 8dB dip in the 3-5kHz region. Both headphones kind of lack a bit of crunch and bite to make instruments like guitars and drums to have the true attack and punch. Post that, both have fairly good treble balance and air up top with good extension but its is the LCD-X 2021 that comes across sightly sparklier because it does not have the mid-bass and lower-midrange boost that the HD8XX has, which makes HD8XX a little too warm down low.
Both have really good technical performance. Even when EQ’d to the Harman Target curve to match the tonalities using Oratory1990’s EQ settings, their soundstage presentation is different. LCD-X 2021 has an involving soundstage which has the instruments slightly closer depth wise but the soundstage width is quite wide, which engulfs you till behind the ear. HD8XX’s soundstage on the other hand is like listening to the artist a little away from your face with width that expands outwards but doesn’t go as behind the ear as the LCD-X 2021. Detail retrieval and resolution are more or less on par, where I find LCD-X 2021 performing better with some songs and HD8XX with others. Without EQ, LCD-X 2021’s stock signature is better in comparison and I would recommend going with that if you’re the guy who wants headphones to sound good without touching any EQ.
I think DROP and Sennheiser had excellent opportunity to hit it out of the park with HD8XX but that didn’t quite happen. It has really good potential but is shadowed by the wonky midrange tuning and the mid-bass boost. A lot of that potential can be unlocked with corrective EQ but I personally think a headphone costing $1100 should have a stock sound signature that at least parallels its competition in its price segment and definitely beats cheaper headphones trying to hit above their price points. That’s where the HD8XX misses out as DROP’s own collaboration with Focal, the Elex is one of the best sounding headphones at its cheaper asking price ($750), one that actually gives a lot of the more expensive headphones a run for their money. Even the HD6XX which is priced at $220 is tuned exceptionally well and just works brilliantly for a wide range of audiences. What questions HD8XX’s value proposition even more is that you can find the HD800 as well as HD800S used cheaper than HD8XX’s retail price. But then, here’s the twist – DROP has actually sold out all its stock of HD8XX on its website and there are already 14,300 requests from people asking to bring it back in stock – which goes on to show that there is definitely interest in the headphone, a lot of people want to buy it and we reviewers are a little too busy cribbing about everything in our bubble of obsessive perfectionism. Lol!
If you’d like to get one for yourself, it is currently available on DROP’s Amazon store here (not an affiliate link).
Gear used for testing and review.
- DAPs – iBasso DX240 | Lotoo PAW 6000 | HiBy R6 2020
- Desktop – Universal Audio Apollo | Drop THX AAA 789 Amp
Artists I like and listen to.
- Rock – Foo Fighters, Linkin Park, Switchfoot, Imagine Dragons, Daughtry, Green Day, MuteMath, X Ambassadors, Dave Matthews Band, Vertical Horizon, Our Lady Peace, Lifehouse, Fall Out Boy, Breaking Benjamin, Muse, ACDC, Audioslave, Rage Against the Machine, Biffy Clyro, I Am Giant, Normandie, Paramore, Slash & Guns N Roses, 3 Doors Down.
- Pop Rock – John Mayer, Coldplay, Paul McCartney, James Bay, Hunter Hayes, Niall Horan, Keith Urban, The Bros Landreth, Bryan Adams.
- Progressive Rock/Metal – Porcupine Tree/Steven Wilson, Karnivool, Tool, Dead Letter Circus, Periphery, Lamb of God.
- Pop/Soft Rock – Ed Sheeran, Adele, Taylor Swift, OneRepublic, The Script, Gavin James, Magic Man, Maroon 5, Bruno Mars, Charlie Puth, Dua Lipa, The Weeknd, Oasis, Panic! At the Disco, TwentyOne Pilots.
- EDM – Chainsmokers, Zedd.