What is the Sennheiser IE800?
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 Design
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.
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.
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 Setup
Sennheiser IE800 Sound Quality
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.
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.
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 review
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.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.