Sennheiser IE800 In Ear Earphone review
Can an in-ear ever be worth £600? Read on
What is the Sennheiser IE800?Sometimes the arrival of a product on the market can have unexpected effects on other categories around it. The obsession with making TV’s as thin as is humanly possible has led to an explosion in the soundbar market. Equally, the arrival of the UPnP streamer - and with it the internet radio - is exiling DAB to locations without a reliable internet connection. Very little has proved more disruptive to other categories than the smartphone and tablet however. As well as rendering the dedicated MP3 player a fringe interest, they have also threatened directory inquires, sat navs and hand held games consoles with extinction.
What they take with one hand however, they give with the other. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the world of headphones and earphones. The market for them has boomed over the last few years but as well as the number of units being sold, the price at which people are happy to buy models at has climbed too. £100 is increasingly common even among people who don’t count themselves as especially committed audiophiles and even models like the Musical Fidelity EB-50 and Final Heaven IV are close to being ‘normal.’ When you are dropping £400 on an iPad Air, the amount you will spend on accessories climbs accordingly.
How far will it climb though? A select group of manufacturers have spent the last few years pushing earphone technology - and with it price - to new levels. Pro in ear monitor companies like Shure and ACS have been developing more complex (and sizable) versions of their multi armature designs while AKG and Final have been hard at work producing designs that are as visually interesting as they are technically accomplished. While this arms race kicked off, Sennheiser seemed content to concentrate on the more terrestrial end of the market and topped out at the relatively sane IE8 at £250. Now however, they have entered the market with guns blazing. The IE800 is a clean sheet technological statement that suggests that Sennheiser is now taking this category very seriously indeed. Can the IE800 make good on the technical promise and justify the steep asking price.
Sennheiser IE800 DesignThere are any number of technical features worth noting in the makeup of the IE800 but perhaps the most notable is that while the competition is mainly comprised of multiple balanced armature designs, the IE800 makes use of a single dynamic driver. As a company, Sennheiser has never been especially enthusiastic about armatures and as such has gone to the considerable effort of developing an all new dynamic driver for the IE800. This is called the SYS7 and has pretty much nothing in common with any other Sennheiser in ear driver. Typically, dynamic drivers have to give ground to armatures in terms of top end response but Sennheiser claims that the SYS7 has a frequency response of 5Hz to 46.5kHz. This is the widest bandwidth driver I think I have ever encountered in any product and means that - on paper at least - the IE800 has no performance deficit to competing armatures.
This driver is then supported by a complex mounting and housing that is subtly different from other in ear designs. The driver itself is mounted behind an absorbent assembly that is in turn behind a gauze and mounting system that is completely different to any other Sennheiser earphone. This is most noticeable in that the tip of the IE800 is not a tube onto which you place a rubber dome (more of which later) but a shallow raised ring that the bungs twist onto. Around the back, the housing terminates in a pair of vented ports that are made from stainless steel. The purpose of these vents is to tune the output from the SYS7 driver rather than augment them and they are unique to the IE800 - indeed I have never really seen such a system applied on any other earphone. The present of the vents does mean that unlike most IEM type earphones, the IE800 does leak some noise back to the outside world but not a huge amount.
This arrangement also means that the IE800 is in turn a significantly different shape to most of the competition. The single driver requires less space to house than multiple armatures and gives the IE800 a smaller teardrop profile when viewed from above. There are some engineering challenges to keeping such a relatively small enclosure inert when filled with a comparatively large driver and to this end, perhaps the most important deviation from any of the competition is that the housing is a single piece of ceramic. This has the double benefit of being impressively inert and additionally having different resonant properties to the driver it houses. It is also extremely tough. The housing can only be made as a single piece that means that the driver and supporting equipment is pushed back into the open end of the housing (the rear ports go in from the back and the cable presumably is pushed though from the bottom and connected up to finish). As this is decidedly specialised, Sennheiser made the undoubtedly wise decision to have the enclosures made by a third party supplier.
The result is unconventional in both technology and application but in one other key way is more ‘normal’ than many rivals. The IE800 is dependent on conventional silicone earbuds to make the seal with the ear canal. At this price point, many rivals are moving towards custom mouldings but the bespoke mounts of the IE800 mean that this is not practical. Sennheiser supplies a wide variety of sizes with each IE800 including oval buds that are designed to more accurately match the shape of an ear canal. This is a trade-off that means that the IE800 might not achieve the perfect fit of a custom mould but it is comfortable and convenient - you can buy a pair and be up and running straight away.
The end result of this concerted application of technology is best described as ‘subtle.’
The end result of this concerted application of technology is best described as ‘subtle.’ The IE800 is well built and well finished but the small size and dark finish mean that it unlikely to attract much in the way of attention. This might prove disappointing for the attention seeker but does mean that the IE800 is very unlikely to draw any unwanted attention to itself. It is also entirely minimalist. The Kevlar reinforced cable is perhaps the most visually dramatic part of the whole design but although it incorporates a clever cable break to ensure that if you snag them, the fixings at the housings won’t be overstressed, you don’t get any form of remote or microphone with the IE800. I do in part understand why this is the case - it helps to portray the IE800 as a compromise free design rather than a convenience item but I do miss being able to skip and pause tracks on the move.
One element of the design that is absolutely spot on though is the carry case. Like the rest of the supplied equipment this is not the most visually spectacular item I’ve seen but as a way of storing earphones it is one of the best. The earbuds are placed in two indentations in a foam mould with the cable then travelling down and wrapping around the outside of the mould before being held fast by sticking the jack into a hole. It is simple to use and extremely effective.
Sennheiser IE800 SetupThe Sennheiser was used with the standard earphone test ensemble of Lenovo T530 ThinkPad with and without a Furutech ADL Cruise headphone amp and a Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS. Mobile testing was carried out with a Google Nexus 5 and an iPad 3. Material used included lossless and high res FLAC via Foobar, Spotify and Grooveshark. I also did some general web testing and used the IE800 with Sky Go and Netflix.
Sennheiser IE800 Sound QualityAs the most expensive earphone that has passed through AVForums, there are some considerable expectations placed upon the IE800. Simply put they need to be awesome to make the slightest degree of sense. And put bluntly - the Sennheiser is absolutely awesome. The review pair had clearly seen a bit of use before making their way to me so there was no need to spend any time running in. With the IE800 connected to the ThinkPad via the Furutech headphone amp, the results were immediately convincing.
The most immediately startling part of the performance is that the IE800 is completely free of any sense that you are listening to a driver that is only 7 millimetres in size. With the vastness of Dead Can Dance’s In Concert, the presentation arrives at the eardrum with no sense of compression or restriction to it. There is even a commendable reproduction of soundstage which is an effect bordering on the magical for an earphone. There are full size headphones at significant price points that cannot touch the IE800 for sheer visceral scale and impact.
They don’t simply sound big either. I have made no secret of my preference for armature designs over dynamic ones but the IE800 manages to be as detailed and smooth as the best armature designs that I have listened to. Furthermore, as there is only a single driver rather than multiple ones as is the case with a number of the competition, there is no crossover between drivers to arrange for. The IE800 presents an utterly seamless and beautifully layered presentation that is a textbook demonstration of how good a single driver presentation can be.
The effect is impressively and unambiguously real and seems unfazed whether you are asking the Sennheiser to produce the sound of a live stadium gig or a single unamplified human voice. All of this though is the bare minimum of what we should expect for a £600 earphone being used with a £465 headphone amp. What is truly unexpected is how much of the excellence of the IE800 is still present when you remove the supporting infrastructure of lossless and high res files and dedicated headphone amps. Much as I am very fond of my Nexus 5, I have no difficulty in saying that the headphone amplifier is a bit- well- crap. It is underpowered and nothing to get excited about and yet with the IE800 connected, the performance was still startlingly good with Spotify. The Sennheiser is not as sensitive as some armature designs but it is something that no smartphone or tablet should struggle with.
Simply put they need to be awesome to make the slightest degree of sense. And put bluntly - the Sennheiser is absolutely awesome.
It transpires that the IE800 is an impressively forgiving design for something as revealing as it can be. There is a sense of fun and energy to the performance that shines through even with more compressed material and the smoothness and generally unflappable nature of the presentation means that it doesn’t tend to shred poorer recordings. The Sennheiser always makes music enjoyable and proved to be more than up to the job of TV and film material via Netflix and Sky Go as well. Furthermore, the small size and light weight mean that the IE800 is easy to wear for very long periods. If you spend a lot of time listening on the move, these earphones might make more sense than a pair of home loudspeakers.
Trying to find shortcomings to the IE800 is not easy either. I found that they sound at their best with a bit of volume behind them- some of the excitement is lost at lower volume levels and the cable will tangle if you don’t replace them in the carry case but that is honestly about the limit of my criticism to the design. After using the IE800 for a week or so, it becomes clear that Sennheiser has really thought through all aspects of performance and usability of their flagship and the result is very few rough edges.
- Truly sensational sound
- Great build
- Very easy to live with
- No inline controls
- Sound better at higher levels
Sennheiser IE800 In Ear Earphone reviewBefore we go any further, it is important to put a sense of perspective in place regarding the price of the IE800. The Sennheiser is twice the price of the puritanically equipped but still sublime Grado GR8. You could buy a 16gb iPad Air with the difference in cost to the talented Final Heaven IV and if you can get by with the Final Heaven II instead, you would have £510 to spend on whatever takes your fancy. These tiny earphones cost as much as the coat I bought for which I am frequently maligned in the podcast with the key difference being that well-built though the IE800 is, I can’t see them lasting as long as the coat does. This is a very expensive little earphone.
It is however a staggeringly good one too. Put simply, this is an undiluted taste of high end performance at a price point that is (almost) real world. The more care you take on the material you play on them and the quality of the supporting equipment, the better they get. What rounds this achievement off is that when you use it on the move with less perfect partnering equipment, the IE800 still delivers most of its extraordinary ability. It is comfortable, easy to use and easy to drive. If you are a long distance commuter who has a home audio system gathering dust, these little earphones realistically make more sense as an update than anything else. The price is unquestionably very high and we will be reviewing some of the rivals over the next few months but the IE800 manages to be startlingly capable and incredibly easy to live with. This is almost certainly the best universal fit in-ear there is and it will certainly be a tough act to follow.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £600.00
Ease of Use9
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