Headphone fans, indulge me for a moment with your envy. As I write these words, I have wrapped around my head the new Sennheiser HD 820 headphones. Let me tell you about them.
The Sennheiser HD 820 headphones are second from the top of the brand’s range. The top model – HE 1 – costs more than a shiny new BMW 318i. By comparison, the HD 820 headphones are modestly priced at $3,499. When you’re spending that type of money, it’s a good idea to couple them with comparable quality electronics. So while this review is primarily about the headphones, I used them almost exclusively with the Sennheiser HDV 820 headphone amplifier. Price? $3,799.95.
That these are high-end headphones becomes undeniable once you see the packaging. Yes, there’s a cardboard box. But inside the cardboard box is a large, black wooden box, with carefully sculpted insets in the foam rubber to hold and protect these headphones. Part of the reason for that is that one of the materials used in their construction is glass. Both earcups have a glass panel on the back, sealing the cup while allowing the eye to linger on the internal drivers.
These are large headphones. They go around your ears, of course, and the cups are spacious. There was no sense of my ears being crushed into them. They are specified to have a contact pressure of 3.4 newtons, plus or minus 0.3. We all have an instinctive feel for newtons as a unit of pressure, don’t we? In fact, the word “pressure” is being used colloquially. What’s specified is force, not pressure. 3.4 newtons is equal to a third of a kilogram of weight.
It feels like a comfortable pressure on the sides of my head. They don’t grab tight because they aren’t intended for you to wear while on the move. But neither do they feel particularly insecure.
You can forget about codecs. These headphones are wired. They come with three cables. Each is three metres long, thick and covered with woven fibre. Why three? At one end, all three are split into left and right connectors, so there’s no difference there. But there are different connections at the other end. One is a regular 6.35mm (1/4 inch) stereo jack. Same old, same old.
The other two are balanced connectors. One is a four-pin XLR connector; the other is a 4.4mm Pentaconn stereo plug.
In case you’re unfamiliar with such things, stereo headphones normally use three wires. One is the signal wire for the left channel, one for the right, and one is the “return” for both. The industry calls that type of connection “unbalanced”. “Balanced” connections have two wires for each channel, keeping them entirely separate. Aside from some mild improvements in noise rejection (not normally much of an issue at the levels of headphone signals), these tend to improve crosstalk or leakage between channels.
High-end headphone gear leans very heavily towards balanced connections.
But most consumer gear doesn’t support balanced connections. Use these headphones with a typical stereo amplifier and you’ll use the 6.5mm cable. (Want to go portable? Then consider a high-end portable music player. Or buy a 6.5mm to 3.5mm adaptor.)
Of course, the Sennheiser HDV 820 amplifier supports all three kinds of connections. It even has two sockets for the Pentaconn. But it doesn’t have a 3.5mm output but does have a 3-pin unbalanced XLR output.
It also has analogue inputs and a USB Type-B socket for connecting to a computer. That’s how I used it: listening to network audio from my Network Attached Storage.