What is the IE800S?
This isn’t a bolt from the blue though. Several years ago, I reviewed the original IE800 for AVForums back in 2014, when their £600 price tag was the highest of any earphone reviewed for the site. Despite this, they were sufficiently outstanding that they earned a Reference Status. Now, they have been breathed on to go to S status and the portents for doing this are pretty auspicious. The HD800S headphone which underwent similar treatment was one of our highlights of 2018 - an indisputably expensive but supremely talented headphone that went a long way to being all things to all people. If the IE800S bottles the same lightning, it could be an unlikely bargain.
As ever, a selection of people will be reading this intro and questioning the point of a product of this nature. The reasons are simple. First, and most obviously, it doesn’t harm anyone for it to exist. Secondly (and more pertinently), for many of us the bulk of our opportunity to listen to music occurs on the move - heading to and from work. If you have £1,000 to spend on transducers, it would be prudent to spend it on the ones you listen to most n’est ce pas? With glib existentialism out of the way, let’s see if the IE800S is any good or not.
Specification and Design
On the face of it, this sounds like Sennheiser getting a little cheap on us. Why would you possibly look at the IE800S when vastly more complex models are available for the same amount of money? The answer to this is a slightly complex one but it rests in notional ideals and the reality of implementing them. For many manufacturers, the best way of achieving a flat response over a wide bandwidth is to use a multiple driver array. The dynamic drivers available to them aren’t up to the job and single armature full width designs are no less of an engineering challenge, often totally dependent on the quality of fit you can achieve in the ear canal.
The benefits of this are not to be underestimated. The IE800S does without a crossover network and even allowing for dynamic drivers being larger than armatures, it ensures that the housing can be smaller as well. This is important because the housing of the IE800S is almost as specialist as the driver it houses. Made of a ceramic material, it is a single piece design that has the driver inserted into the front before being covered over with a fine mesh and a specialist fitting for the rubber domes - more of which in a bit. At the back of the housing is a pair of ports that help the driver reach those low frequencies. Their inclusion does mean that the IE800S leaks a little noise to the outside world but this is fairly muted and doesn’t preclude them being used in public.
The overall aesthetic of the Sennheiser might best be described as ‘muted.’ If you don’t know that they cost £870, there are precious few clues from looking at them as to why they might. As ever, there are two ways of looking at this. If you want your ‘money’s worth’ you might feel that the IE800S is a bit puritanical. It is even less showy that the original IE800, with a sheen black finish to the housings instead of the metallic finish of the originals. The metallic inset to the bass port is also painted rather than left unfinished. The other way of looking at this is that you can wear the IE800S anywhere and unless you encounter another knowing audiophile, nobody will give you a second glance.
This unobtrusiveness continues in other areas too. The domes are a comply type but the manner in which Sennheiser has made them means they don’t feel anything like as cloying as some uses of the material. The caveat to this is that the IE800S uses a unique mounting for its domes so these aren’t interchangeable with other commonly used fittings so you can only use what you are given. The other area where the IE800S is notable is the carry case. This is unchanged from the IE800 and that is no bad thing. It is easy to use, easy to carry and protects the headphones extremely well. It might be a challenge for smaller companies to make themselves ceramic enclosures or high bandwidth drivers but that case shouldn’t be a challenge and it is well worth ‘paying homage’ to.
How was the IE800 Tested?
The IE800S mercifully doesn’t change these fundamental qualities. Listening to Qobuz Sublime + via the Hugo2 is a truly outstanding experience. So long as you achieve a decent seal in the ear - something that those custom bungs ensure is very easy to do - the Sennheiser achieves an effortlessly full range performance. The claims made of the full range driver are more than met in reality. The bass response, in particular, is absolutely outstanding. The crunching low end of Orbital’s Monsters Exist is captured with effortless heft. You feel a pressure to the side of the head that seems thoroughly incredible for something so small.
Where the IE800S builds on this is that this depth doesn’t come at the expense of truly invigorating speed. The Sennheiser is capable of following any piece of music with an uncanny level of agility and nuance that makes multi driver rivals sound a little congested by comparison. The product that it most resembles in this regard is the Eclipse TD510Mk2. There is an effortless sense of involvement that makes everything you listen to sound alive in a way that even some comparably priced rivals can struggle with. If you live for the rhythm of music, this is nigh on untouchable.
That last sentence is though, the hint that the IE800S has an Achilles heel when viewed as a product in 2019. So long as you have a headphone socket, it is peerless - arguably, the best all round earphone on the planet. It inhabits a world though where this connection is no longer as ubiquitous as it once was. In absolute performance terms, the Sennheiser has the AKG N5005 bested - although it is a close run thing. The catch is that the AKG offers solutions that the Sennheiser has no answer to when running with a modern smartphone.
Where the Sennheiser does hit back partially is when it gains access to a 2.5 or 4.4mm balanced socket. These are still rare - and it is unlikely they will ever be common - but if you can use one, the results are sensational. You aren’t aware of any perceivable noise floor or compression to the dynamics of the IE800S under normal use but with the 2.5mm connection used on an Onkyo DP-X1, the results are wonderful. If you are in the small subset of people that uses a dedicated audio player, the IE800S is capable of results that very little under £1,500 can get anywhere near - and it does so while remaining compact, subtle and comfortable.
- Superlative sound quality
- Very well made
- Very comfortable
- No wireless option
- Bespoke dome fitting means other domes can't be used
- Fairly expensive
Sennheiser IE800S In-Ear Earphone Review
The problem for the IE800S is that it belongs to a system being squeezed slowly but inexorably out of existence. When I reviewed the original IE800, it was a pricey but brilliant solution as an earphone that worked under every condition. Now, an improved version does that even more effectively but the world it inhabits has left it looking a little less assured. I hope that the two piece cable might permit a solution to this issue but at the moment, the IE800S feels like the ultimate expression of the old way of doing things and the AKG N5005, the first of the new. It is impossible to ignore just how good it is though and if you are still using a wired connection - or have another solution like the Shanling M0 or iFi Audio XDSD, the IE800S will continue to astonish. For this reason, it still earns our enthusiastic recommendation.
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