Sennheiser, whose roots lie in the professional audio world, has announced the HDVD 800 digital headphone amplifier. Despite the puzzling model number, which evokes thoughts of red laser vs. blue laser, this looks like a pretty sweet piece of gear. The Germans like their products to be well-built and look good, and it looks like this offering fits both bills. It’s encased in aluminum, with a slick glass panel embedded on top so you can admire the inner workings. There’s a big knob for volume and a small rotary switch to select your input (both made of anodized aluminum). The rotary source knob is a nice throwback to amps and preamps of days gone by.
Digital sources connect to the HDVD 800 via optical or coaxial S/PDIF or USB, as well as AES/EBU. The latter piece is huge for the professional market, as any digital mixing console worth its faders has AES/EBU outputs. For the home crowd, the USB 2.0 audio standard allows 24-bit/192KHz audio. (USB support is driver-free on Mac OS X 10.5 or later; drivers are supplied for Windows XP and up.) Analog sources can connect via balanced XLR or standard RCA cables. Digital-to-analog conversion is handled by a high-quality Burr-Brown DAC. The headphone output jack is exactly as it should be on a professional device: 1/4″/6.3mm — not the 1/8″/3.5mm found on seemingly everything else in the world. A rotary gain switch on the rear allows you to adapt the amplifier output to the audio input voltage, ensuring that the full dynamic range can be utilized.
Sennheiser set out to create the “perfect” headphone amp. Each component was evaluated in listening tests until the optimum combination was arrived upon. It seems that symmetry was a big goal in this product. What that exactly means is up for interpretation, but I think that Sennheiser says it best:
Signal processing in the HDVD 800 is fully symmetrical. That means that not only the signal input into the amplifier is symmetrical but also the signal output and therefore the connection to the headphones. “The fully symmetrical principle effectively compensates for interference and distortion. The sound therefore becomes much clearer as total harmonic distortion is minimised,” explained Axel Grell, Sennheiser’s Senior Acoustical Engineer. Sennheiser supplies specially made cables for the symmetrical connection to headphones. The headphones can, however, also be connected using a normal 6.3 mm jack plug. In addition to the symmetrical inputs, the HDVD 800 also has an asymmetrical input socket; incoming signals are symmetrised before further processing takes place.
The HDVD 800 is designed to match perfectly with Sennheiser’s HD 800, HD 700, HD 650, and HD 600 high-end headphones, but will also work just fine with any cans you have lying around.
While there is as yet no page for the HDVD 800 on Sennheiser’s website, it should begin showing up with Sennheiser sales partners in September. There is also no announced pricing, but with the design goals and effort put into this amp, I would expect it to quickly escalate into audiophiles-only territory.