Sennheiser launches high end headphones and earbuds

Of course, you can duck into any electronics chain store and pick up moderately priced Sennheiser ear-wear. But the company’s fame rests largely on its high end gear. And there are two new sets of those for music lovers to admire.

These are not inexpensive models – although they do not seek to challenge Sennheiser’s $55K Orpheus model in the pricing stakes. But they are for people prepared to make a serious investment in their personal listening.

Sennheiser HD 660 S

First is the new Sennheiser HD 660 S. These fit exactly into Sennheiser’s tradition. It began by manufacturing high quality “open” headphones. And that’s what these are.

Traditionally headphones used a closed design. The speakers were in cups which were made of plastic (or Bakelite or goodness knows what in the olden days). They sealed your ears from the outside world. Sennheiser’s “open” models just used a grille of some kind at the back, so there was no air cushioning of the transducer. That often produced a more responsive sound, but at the cost of less isolation from external sounds and, of course, making the headphones more audible to others.

Back to the HD 660 S. These use an open design. Replacing the HD 650, they feature a new transducer that “delivers lower harmonic distortion for an even more natural, lifelike audio experience”. The transducers are matched in pairs to ensure excellent left/right balance. The new models also feature a lower impedance: 150 ohms, compared to the HD 650’s 300 ohms. That makes them an easier drive for portable audio players, although typically one would use high end players with these kinds of headphones.

And, to make things clear, these are wired, passive headphones. None of that Bluetooth stuff, nor any electronic signal processing.

Another change: while they of course can work in the usual way with a good old fashioned 6.35mm three conductor stereo plugs – quarter inch – and are supplied with a 3.5mm stereo plug adaptor, they also support “balanced” operation with a 4.4mm Pentaconn plug.

Huh? Okay, you have two channels of sound. Regular headphone connectors use a signal lead to each driver plus a common, combined lead to complete the circuit. That common lead often takes the form of a woven “shield” in the cable to protect the signal leads from electrical interference. So that’s three conductors in total. Balanced headphone leads use four or five. The signal lead and the “return” signal lead are separate for the left and right channels, while the shielding, if used, is a fifth, completely different, circuit. All that reduces crosstalk between the left and right channels, and better protects both channels from external electrical interference.

And, yes, a number of high quality portable music players, and not so portable headphone amplifiers, now support balanced headphones.

Sennheiser IE 800 S plugs: 2.5mm balanced, left; 3.5mm standard, middle; 4.4mm Pentaconn, right

The HD 660 S are over ear models and come with replaceable ear cushions – something that I was recently thankful for with my own twenty year old Sennheiser HD 535 headphones.

Sennheiser rates their frequency response – with -10 decibel end points – at 10 to 41,000 hertz, and specifies their distortion at less than 0.04% at 1kHz and 100dB output. That’s an astonishing specification, more akin to what you see from high quality electronics, not headphones.

The Sennheiser HD 660S headphones will be available in November 2017 for $799.95.

Sennheiser IE 800 S earphones

Also available in November will be Senneheiser’s new high end earbuds, the Sennheiser IE 800 S. Price? Sit down first. Ready? $1599.95. (Yes, sixteen hundred dollars, near enough.)

That price is such a surprise because we’ve come to think of earbuds as cheap, almost disposable, ways of listening to music from portable devices. But there’s actually a good reason why high quality earphones might be better. Because the sound is being delivered directly into your ear canal, a lot of variables in the sound delivery are taken right out of the equation.

These earphones are designed to go with high end portable music players available from the likes of Pioneer Electronics, Astell & Kern and FiiO, many of which support balanced earphones and headphones. Yes, that again.

In addition to the standard 3.5mm three conductor plug (no, there’s no volume or play/pause control on these), there are also 4.4mm balanced Pentaconn and 2.5mm balanced plugs. The latter works with the balanced outputs on a number of portable players.

The earphones come with six tips: small, medium and large in both silicon and “Comply”, which is a kind of memory foam. I’m becoming more of a fan of Comply as I’ve continued to use a pair of Bluetooth earphones with those tips.

“Engineered and hand-crafted in Germany”, the IE 800 S earphones use refined 7mm transducers. They have a closed design with a “dual-chamber absorber” to remove unwanted resonances.

The Sennheiser IE 800 S earphones have a rated frequency response of 5 to 46,500 hertz and are rated to deliver up to 125 decibels. Total harmonic distortion levels are rated at less than 0.06% for 94dB of output and their impedance is friendly to portable devices, at 16 ohms. They are supplied with a leather carry case.