Best Amps For the Sennheiser HD800 - 2017 Edition

Discussion in 'Headphone Amplifiers and Combo (DAC/Amp) Units' started by purr1n, Dec 2, 2016.

  1. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    BEST AMPS FOR THE SENNHEISER HD800, 2017 EDITION
    A Guide to the Best Amps for the HD800
    How to Get the Most from the HD800
    HD800 Synergy


    WARNING
    This list is not exhaustive by any means. I have not heard everything.

    BACKGROUND
    A few years ago, I buried a post on “Best Amps” for the HD800 in an HD800 Appreciation Thread on HF. The contents of this post was eventually moved to Changstar with some minor revisions. Since that time, the HD800S and several significant modifications to the HD800 such as the Super Dupont Resonator Mod and SBAF Mod have been introduced. Despite the introduction of many new high end headphones, the HD800 is still here to stay. Also, there are probably many current owners wanting to know how to upgrade their chain to make the most of the HD800. So it’s about time that I updated this guide.

    WHERE I AM COMING FROM
    I only like the HD800 under certain conditions. The frequency response of the HD800 is a bit too screwy for my tastes. I find that EQ doesn’t work well for the HD800 because its screwy frequency response is caused by super early reflections from how the driver is suspended and angled in front of the ear and by the large ribs and mounting structures of the cups. Therefore my preference has been to tame the HD800’s odd frequency response behavior with mechanical modifications.

    Two modifications come into mind. The Super Dupont Resonator Mod and the SBAF Mod. These modifications are not mutually exclusive and perform different functions. This guide makes the assumption that at least the SDR mod will be used on the HD800. The HD800S can also be considered, but frankly, I find the HD800S an inferior headphone to the HD800 with SDR + SBAF mods. Also, if you find the stock HD800 just fine, the amp recommendations may just as well work for you.

    As far as amping, solid-state amps will generally be not as good as tube or hybrid amps for the HD800. There are some exceptions of course such as the Schiit Ragnarok. Also, tube amps which are overly warm, syrupy, slow, or romantic (cathode follower OTL designs, OPT with cheap output transformers, Chi-Fi push-pull cathode bias, etc.) will not be mentioned. They do cure the HD800s dry sound, but at too high of a price in terms of clarity, transient response, microdetail, microdynamics, etc. Personally, I think you are much better off with an HD650, preferably modded, with a very technically and musically capable amp. If you like the romantic smoothed-over-to-shit kind of sound, best to seek advice somewhere else.

    Finally, I've realized that I have a preference for amps with output impedance from 2 to 20 for the HD800. There will always be exceptions of course. One trick with compatible (non-annoying treble) solid-state amps that may sound a bit too lean or dry is to add a small resistor, 1 or 2 ohms in series from the headphone output.


    LIST OF AMPS FOR HD800

    Amps are listed by no particular order. As part of SuperBestAudioFriends culture to help consumers save money and not fall into the trap of needlessly spending money on the latest toy, which really isn’t any better than the old toy, we will include discontinued products that can be obtained in the used market.

    At the request of the anti-planar / tube purist faction of SuperBAF, amps which have solid-state parts in the signal path have been marked with an asterisk. If you are thinking this mark implies a loss in microdetail, microdynamics, and perhaps macrodynamics compared to pure tube stages, it does. There is no reason why the HD800 with its high impedance should be stained by solid state circuitry.



    Bryston BHA-1*
    Delineated treble attacks, but actually works well with HD800. Neutral sound. Some reports of MOSFETS getting hot resulting in bass mud galore. Recommended if you live in a cool climate. Do not stack on top of anything else and make sure there is good circulation. This amp does not like heat. Good staging for solid-state compliments HD800. Flatter than the better amps, but if you want solid state, one of few choices.

    Cavalli Audio Liquid Crimson*
    The most exciting sounding amp from Cavalli Audio, more aggressive with sharper faster transients than the LG, but still maintains the Cavalli house sound. Tonal signature is warm with only one tube to roll that has a moderate effect on the sound. Like the LG, works great with suitable orthos too.

    Cavalli Audio Liquid Glass*
    Only as good as the tubes used. HD800 sounded great with rare vintage Mullard CV-181s. I haven’t even begun to explore the tubes this amp can use. The LG has the Cavalli trademark smooth, laid-back, refined, and resolving sound which suits the HD800 tendency toward dryness. Fantastic with planar headphones such as the Code-X and Abyss too.

    Donald North Audio Sonnett 2 (OOP, available used only)
    Has the DNA house sound with inner warmth, intimacy, immediacy. Improvement in clarity and resolution over the Sonnett 1. Basically sounds like the Stratus but without the DHTs - that last bit of microdynamics, separation, and staging. HD800s out of the box work with Sonnett 2 without mods of any sort.

    Donald North Audio Stellaris (aka Super Stratus)
    Fantastic amp that’s balances tube wetness with sonic technicalities (attack, resolution, microdynamics). A huge jump in technicalities compared to the Stratus, but also a huge jump in price. You are paying for the exotic output transformers where Donald is pretty much passing on his costs. It’s hard to explain the DNA sound, but I find this to be the ultimate expression on Donald’s vision. I’d buy one and put next to my bed if I could. Works great with the Focal Utopia too.

    Donald North Audio Stratus
    Slightly wet sound. Intimate sounding and actually good sounding even with cheap Chinese tubes (my personal preference would be probably be the more solid-state sounding EML Mesh or Psvane Replica WR275, but many like the big bottle Shuguang 2A3s for a lusher presentation). Works straight out of box with HD800, although with latest upgrades, more care must be taken with source. Beyers, TH900, D7000, and many other dynamics also work really well with the Stratus.


    ECP Torpedo III*
    This is a DIY amp, so opinions will vary based on tubes, caps, transformers, current sources, and other mods and tweaks. It's comfortable around TOTL tube amps. A good build will have good staging and layering, albeit a bit more condensed than the best amps. Slightly lush, slightly euphonic, and slightly bloomy. Maybe not quite as dynamic and hard hitting as some amps, but very resolving. Very even and very solid in the bass and the mids.

    Eddie Current BA (used, temporarily not being built)
    Less organic sounding amp with new Cinemag transformers, but still EC's bloomiest tubey sounding amp (EC tends to have more of a SS type of sound). Best staging, layering, separation, openness of any of the amps here by far because of high-frequency AC heater stolen from outer space satellite military applications. Need to be careful of source. Hint: Order a BA built for the 2A3 or 45 tube where there is a wider variety of great tubes at modest cost. Yes, you can do that, a 2A3 or 45 BA.

    Eddie Current Super 7 (OOP, available used only)
    Bassy and thicker. Darker sounding the most stuff here. Balance can vary though quite a bit depending upon tubes. Can mix and match 6SN7s for an almost infinite variety of textures, timbres, tonal balances. Great slam and microdynamics. Very good resolution, at least with the versions with the ElectraPrint transformers. S7’s have been modified for better clarity and less thickness.

    Eddie Zana Deux Super
    Luxurious ride in a Mercedes Audi. Great soundstage. Slightly warm and euphonic while excelling in technicalities only surpassed by the more expensive EC amps. The Super version is a wee bit less thick sounding and clearer sounding than the earlier iteration of the ZD. The output impedance on high gain was increased to about 20 ohms specifically for the HD800 and HD6X0 headphones. This results in a more lively immediate and open sound.

    Garage 1217 Horizon 3
    Hyrbid tube amp along the lines of the Vali 2. Sound good because of straightforward design. Tube + MOSFET + cap. About $100 more expensive than Vali 2, but priced correctly with slightly better clarity and microdynamics. Sounded neutral with the stock tube as opposed to the laid back tone (Vali 2). Can roll a variety of tubes.

    Geek Out V2 (balanced output only)*
    Surprisingly engaging and powerful from a little dongle attached to a USB port with the HD800. Make sure to select the digital filter that’s warmer and without the nasty ESS Sabre transients. This is the only laptop portable solution worth of consideration for powering the HD800. Almost unbelievable for the form factor and price.

    Laconic Night Blues Mini (needs Han Solo to smuggle it in from the Soviet Union)
    Worth it if you can find a native 120V version, or use a step down transformer. You’ll need to smuggle it in from Russia. Best described as a Super 7 junior. Like the Super 7, The NBM is transformer coupled. Also fairly neutral like the Valhalla 2, but more dynamic, sweeter, lusher, smoother, and more liquid. The high end is fantastic on this amp. Good speed, resolution, and staging. Loses out a little bit in the bass region which is slightly blurry. The volume pot is cheap and may not track well. Moving up to the TOTL tube amps will gain you further dynamics and refinement across the board, but this one of the best sounding amps for about $250. The value perspective is insane.

    Luxman P1u (OOP, available used only)*
    Basically sounds like a ECZD lite. Slightly more veiled, slightly less fast, but just as euphonic in a no hassle solid-state package. The P1u sounds dated – it’s less technically competent than most other amps in list now. But again, how you can get that luxurious ECZD sound in a solid-state package?

    Schiit Magnu 2U*
    Don’t run the HD800 straight from a portable. At the very least, use this cheap solid-state amp. The 2U is a bit more natural sounding in the treble than the Magni 2.

    Schiit Mjolnir 2 (balanced output only)*
    Sounds more like a souped-up Valhalla 2 combined with good traits of the Lyr 2. Very dynamic and powerful sounding, sometimes in ways we've never before from a headphone amp. Maybe the slightest U-shape to the signature, but tastefully done. Rather articulate, resolving, and micro-dynamically nuanced with the right tubes, or it can be rather fun with other tubes (or a mix in between). The only way it falls short from TOTL tube amps is a lack of stage depth and expansiveness, which hurts 3D layering and separation. Can bit a bit etched or dry sounding in the upper registers depending upon tubes, but a marked improvement from the Mjolnir 1. An extremely solid choice under $1K. Can power almost anything, but don't do what Marv did with the Mjolnir 1 and power speakers with it.

    Schiit Valhalla 2
    Neutral, fast, clean, detailed, good staging, good air. A bit lean and lacking in macro-dynamics and slam found in the TOTL tube amps. Can be a bit dry sounding and have a sandy quality to the upper registers. Warmed up tubes, laid-back sounding tubes, and a good source (R2R / 2R) can alleviate these characteristics, but it never totally goes away. The Valhalla 2 is good introductory tube amp that pairs well with higher impedance headphones and efficient orthos, but may still be too solid-state sounding for some people. Because of its topology, rolling tubes doesn’t affect the sound as much as it would on a top-notch phonostage. In other words, don’t spend a lot on tubes - buy a better amp instead.

    Schiit Vali 2*
    The Vali 2 represents a massive improvement over the Vali 1 and is a step up from Magni 2 in terms of musical involvement stemming from better microdynamics and resolution. Might actually equal or exceed Lyr 2 in these regards, but the Lyr 2 is still superior in macrodynamics and slam. The bass is slightly soft like the NBM. Having only one tube to roll means tube rolling can be done at a 50% discount (or more because we don’t have to obsess about matched tubes.) The Vali 2 is laid-back sounding and Schiit's answer to people who bitch that Schiit amps are too aggressive sounding. Wise Europeans have an old saying: Get a Vali 2, and save the money for a DNA or an EC depending on your preference.


    AMPS ON PRIOR LIST REMOVED

    Apex Teton
    Great compatibility with the HD800, but extremely poor value unless you already have a $5-10k turntable or $10k DAC.

    BottleHead Crack
    Output impedance at 120 ohms is too high. Oddly, the Crack has always worked better with the HD6X0 than the HD800.

    EC 4-45
    No longer in production. Rare on used market and other EC amps provide better synergy with the HD800.

    Feliks Audio Elise
    Price increase to $1200 (with the VAT refund) makes this a poor value. Too much money for an amp with near 50 ohm output impedance, which is kind of pushing it for HD800s.


    Matrix mStage
    Superceded by the Schiit Magni 2U or Vali 2.

    Schiit Vali 1
    Superceded by the Schiit Vali 2.

    Schiit Ragnarok
    Too much Schiit in the list.

    Sennheiser HDVD600 / 800
    Good synergy with the HD800, but poor value and the amp does not scale well with better sources.


    NICE AMPS NOT INCLUDED FOR A REASON

    Schiit Jotunheim
    No, we are not Schiit shills. The Jotunheim does certain things well, just not the things that the HD800 needs. We don't need to exacerbate the glare and 6kHz peak of the HD800.

    Schiit Lyr 2

    Has appropriate slam and appropriate warm tone, improvement from Lyr 1, but still lacks technicalities for HD800.

    Woo Audio WA5LE / WA5
    This is the amp where I first realized what the HD800 could do, giving me goosebumps up my spine. But the price increases over the years and the need to max out the builds and utilize extremely expensive tubes to get the best of it make it a poor value.

     
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2017
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  2. JoshMorr

    JoshMorr Friend

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    I know not many people have heard it yet, and its also super expensive, but the best I've ever heard the HD800 sound is out of the Apex Sangaku.

    Sangaku's signature leans slightly warm making it a good compliment to the brighter hd800. This is also a great choice for those who want tube amp features, without traditional tube worries (tubes too hot, too fragile, burn out too quickly).
     
  3. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Don't you think "best" is bit strong? I could pick four or five of my favorites in the list and hesitate to call any of them best. They bring different things to the table.

    Also, I've never heard anything with transistors beat pure tubes in the Microsoft and slam.
     
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  4. bigfatpaulie

    bigfatpaulie Tried to screw other friends while playing victim

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    Great update, Marv! Thanks for taking the time to update this. You have really added to my excitement for my pending Stellaris. February can't come quick enough!
     
  5. thegunner100

    thegunner100 Hentai Master Chief

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    Just wanted to add my thoughts as a recent HD650 to HD800 convert. I never thought that I would enjoy the HD800 again after I owned it 2 years ago but the Sonett 2, Yggy w/ Lynx AES16, and recent mods (SBAF absorber + SDR) have made it possible. Those who enjoy the modded hd650s with the more solid-state sounding tube amps will likely enjoy the modded HD800 out of a DNA amp.

    Going from the HD650 to HD800s, there are significant gains in resolution, layering, imaging, clarity, microdetails, microdynamics, and transient response. Soundstaging is only slightly bigger due to the the usage of the SBAF absorber. While there is less bass with the HD800, you gain improvements in terms of bass quality, texture, and a little bit of extension. Mids with the SBAF absorber are to die for; they are no longer thin and distant. With the combination of the lifted up upper mids and the toning of the 6khz peak with the SDR, the treble is just right. I no longer have any problems with the HD800 treble. Tonally, the modded HD800 out of the Sonett 2 sound like the UERMs out of the ZX2.

    However, the HD800s aren't going to replace my HD650s. It's good to have both around to listen to depending on the mood and music. The HD650s will be more tolerable of low quality recordings and are still my preferred choice when it comes to some electronic music. To those of you who have a modded HD650 and haven't given the modded HD800 a try recently, I implore you to do so.

    @Marvey It's worth noting that the Sonett 2 has been discontinued and can only be bought used. Donald is supposedly going to work on an amp specifically for the high z Senns after he is done with the Stellaris.
     
  6. JoshMorr

    JoshMorr Friend

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    Agreed - best is too strong and poor choice of words here. It doesn't show that it fit my preferences, and will not fit everyone else. I also should have clarified that I have not heard many of these out of production boutique products, i know that they are hard to outclass. Hybrids are not going to have the same sound as a pure tube amp, but this hybrid provided good clarity and stage, more than other hybrids I've tried (and price reflects that it should as a pricey hybrid amp).
     
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2016
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  7. sorrodje

    sorrodje Carla Bruni's other lover - Friend

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    Nice update. I definitely agree for the stuff I know and especially with the GOv2 in balanced mode. this combo is almost unbelievable in my opinion and it's what I'm precisely using whil I'm waiting my Stratus to come back home. I owned the vali 2 as well and it's always my advice "get a vali 2 , and save the money for a DNA or an EC depending on your preference" .

    I don't see why the Stratus is now removed. Stratus is 2700$ whereas the Stellaris is 6800$. Different price for different people :) . And imo the Stellaris goodness does not make the Stratus any less good than before. I definitely think the Stratus is a nice upgrade from the Sonett 2 I owned as well. and it's still in production ;)
     
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  8. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Yeah, I should put Stratus back up. Will make appropriate notes, inspired by you, in Vali 2 and GOV2 sections.
     
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  9. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    I'm way overdue for a visit to Donald' place. Will listen to the Stellaris for you. I'd do a formal review of it, but he wouldn't be able to meet demand for years.
     
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  10. sorrodje

    sorrodje Carla Bruni's other lover - Friend

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    Maybe you could make categories.

    - Makes the HD800 sounds right
    - Makes the HD800 sounds good
    - Makes the HD800 sound at its best
    - Makes the HD800 the best headphone ever ( for rich fanboyz only :p )


    Just joking ;)
     
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2016
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  11. bigfatpaulie

    bigfatpaulie Tried to screw other friends while playing victim

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    Haha. Thanks.

    Tell Donald to ship mine asap for me, okay ;). Can you believe I'm #3 on the list?? WTF. I called him as soon as I got wind of it. Friggin first world problems...
     
  12. msommers

    msommers High on Epipens

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    Concise lists like this will be referred to again and again. The simplicity is wonderful and the no BS approached is appreciated. Thank you!

    Links to the two mods mentioned would admittedly be handy.
     
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  13. FallingObjects

    FallingObjects Pay It Forward

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    (removed prior comment since it was fixed)

    Great read overall. I'm planning on getting the HD800/HD800S sometime after I finish my master's program, and having such a recently updated list is very useful. Thanks!
     
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2016
  14. Hands

    Hands Overzealous Auto Flusher - Measurbator

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    I would like to make it very clear, for those unaware, that there are two revisions of the Super 7. Marv touched on this with his mention of the transformers. The Mk1 is inherently bassier and thicker sounding, or so I have read (only heard a modded version). I think that's the Electraprint version. The Mk2 is pretty damn neutral and clean sounding in a stock configuration, in such a way that in reminded me more of the NBM or Valhalla 2 even, but suped up. Mk2 units seem easier to come buy on the used market. S7 also works well with almost any headphone, not just dynamics, and not just the HD800. The common rate for a used unit is usually around $1K-1.5K, which is a steal for the sound quality. This is big boy amp territory.

    S7 also has a lot of mod potential. @MisterRogers helped mod my unit with upgraded caps, upgraded voltage regulator for driver tube, upgraded pot and wiring, etc. S7 responds greatly to mod and has insane tube rolling potential to allow you to dial the sound in exactly to your tastes. The first time I heard a S7 was his modded unit, and with a stock HD800 no less. I honestly could not believe how good the S7 made a stock HD800 sound.

    @OJneg heard my modded S7 with his modded HD800. He said nice things to me to my face about it, at least. I definitely have mine tuned towards the warmer side of things but tried not to let that get in the way of other technicalities.
     
  15. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    Haha. I could, but I don't want to. Those who know me can easily read into the hints that I've dropped.

    Ultimately I want this to be an open guide with solid recommendations across prices points and personal preferences, with the exception of gooey tube amps.

    What will make this guide even more useful will be the upcoming discussion.
     
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  16. OJneg

    OJneg The Most Insufferable

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    The anti-playnar delegation moves to remove all solid state from this list.

    Is there a second?
     
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  17. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    What if I leave a footnote denoting solid state active devices in the signal path?

    But yes, there is zero reason why the HD800 with its high impedance should be stained by solid state circuitry.

    I do think the identification of popular amps that may not synergize well with HD800 might be useful though.
     
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  18. OJneg

    OJneg The Most Insufferable

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    This will be acceptable.

    Vote of no-confidence averted.
     
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  19. thegunner100

    thegunner100 Hentai Master Chief

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    No Jotun + HD800 please. I don't think the Studio works either, but I know some people like it.
     
  20. The Alchemist

    The Alchemist MOT: Schiit - Here to help!

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    Anyone have any experience with the HD800 paired with a Cavalli Liquid Carbon?
     
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