Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Sennheiser IE 8 in-ear headphone review
The IE 8 is Sennheiser's flagship high-end in-ear headphones. With a suggested retail price of £263/US$450 (the street and online price is significantly cheaper) the IE 8 forms part of the upper end of universal fit in-ear headphones and is designed to compete with established products like the Shure SE530, Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10 Pro, Westone 3 and Klipsch Custom 3. Thie Sennheiser model is unique as it is one of the very few high end IEMs that uses dynamic transducers instead of balanced armatures. Also, among the IE series, the IE 8 is the only model to be fitted with a modular cable allowing the user to replace the cable with different lengths and stuff as well as a tune-able bass system.
Specifications and stuff:
Frequency response: 10 Hz – 20 kHz
Sensitivity: 125 dB SPL/mW (1mW)
Nominal impedance: 16 ohms
Attenuation: up to 26 dB (95%)
Headphone weight: 5 grams
For your money Sennheiser ships the IE 8 in a nice tin metal case. Whether or not these are useful is debatable, but maybe Sennheiser thought a nice tin metal case would appeal to users who likes to feel 'premium' and pampered. Inside the box contains a a massive amount of accessories, some useful, some not so much. Various tips (single flange silicons, double flange silicons, Shure black olives-like foamies and bizarre ridge silicon thingies) are included, a tool with ear wax cleaner and screw driver (for the bass knob), shirt cable clip and memory wire holder (similar in function to the one on the Klipsch Customs but removable).
Also included is an over engineered protective case that is lined with 'dry salt pads'. These pads are said to 'control the humidity' of the case whilst also absorbing any sweats. May be useful for people who excercise with $300 headphones. The case itself, while nice and pretty, is overtly complicated for everyday use. I wonder how much time and R&D is wasted on this? They even designed a compartment so that the user can keep a silicon gel bag! Dear Sennheiser, a zipped semi-hardcase, like the one Klipsch bundles, is more than sufficient.
Now on to the IE 8 itself. My first impression is I thought it was a fake because of how light the overall package was. The IE 8 is like the Kate Moss of the IEM world especially when compared to the CX 95 and Klipsch Custom 3 which felt awfully heavy afterwards. Built quality seems to be good and the industrial design is a nice change from the streamlined design favoured by other manufacturers. The IE 8 uses a modular cable meaning that if you ever lose your cable or fancy a different length cable you can always order one from Sennheiser and just plug in the new one. It also means you do not have to purchase a whole new IEM just because the cable breaks. Not that you should feel worried as the bundled cable is thick, flexible and seems well constructed.
The IE 8 are pretty comfortable on my ears. I've read that due to the IE 8's design many has been experiencing problems getting a good fit/seal. The problem stems from the short nozzle/large driver body design which prevents users from pushing the tip all the way in. Klipsch cleverly avoided the same problem despite sharing a similar design by extending the nozzle where as with the CX 95, the problem is none-existent due to the slim driver body. On a personal note I am happy to report I've not experienced such a problem despite only using the medium single flange tips. IE 8 has always held securely onto my ears and does not dislodge despite doing silly faces and whatnots. However they do don't isolate as well as the Klipsch Customs with the silicon tips, though they are far less microphonics (in fact almost none-existent).
Like Sleek Audio's SA6, the IE 8 allows the user to customise the sound somewhat. But rather than using modular treble tips and bass ports which are easily misplaced, Sennheiser's boffins decided to engineer in a small knob that allows the user to control the bass response to something that is more to their liking. A small sound adjuster screwdriver-like tool is included for this. Personally I find the bass response to be more than adequate with the minimal setting but bass heads will no doubt love this feature and will take advantage of the knob the moment they can. I do turn it up a notch or two when listening to electronica music and find the bass beats are phenomenal. It feels like there are tiny subwoofers in your head.
The IE 8 has to be one of the most average sounding high-end IEM I've listened to out of the box. Like many IE 8 owners I found the initial bass response to be bloated and harsh. This is because unlike the Klipsch Custom series I reviewed in December, the IE 8 uses a single dynamic moving-coil driver which tends to require burn-in period before they shine. Leaving aside the fact that I personally think that Sennheiser should be the one doing the burn-in dirty work at the factory, I left the IE 8 to burn while listening to it at intervals. The upside of using dynamics is the wide frequency response and better bass response.
After just a couple of hours burn-in, the bass tames a little and the clarity improves. With further burn-ins, the IE 8 turned from an average sounding headphone to something that was well capable of delivering great midrange definition. The once recessed highs were blooming and the initial dark sound is all but gone, though they were still a little bit muddy. At this point I notice how vocals is one of the strength of the IE 8. They were clear and smooth. There were no issues with sibilance during my period with the IE 8, except perhaps with badly recorded music.
50 hours of listening later (I've stopped burning-in by then) IE 8's soundstage is simply astonishing - with depths unheard of in any IEMs I've ever owned/listened to. It makes for a pleasant change from the sound signature of more "inside-head" IEMs, like the Klipsch Custom 3, as this increases instrumental seperation. The clarity is amazing and while the resolution isn't nearly as detailed as the Custom 3, it is still pretty good. Even the highs improved, though still not nearly as forward as the Custom 3 or as extended as a Etymotic headphone. Mind you, both are very different IEMs. While the Klipsch has a very clinical sound, the IE 8 seems to be have a softer grainier texture with a wider dynamic range at its disposal.
If you do not require the bass knob or modular cable, then you should also consider the IE 7, the IE 8's slightly more svelte and cheaper Darth Vader-like cousin. Apparently they sound just as good as the IE 8 with the bass knob set to low. Even if the cable isn't replaceable, they ought to last long. Still the IE 8 is, at least for the moment, the pinnacle of dynamic transducer based in-ear headphones. They sound wonderfully like open headphones with amazing sound quality to match.
Perhaps the worse thing about the IE 8 is how they expose some badly ripped and low bitrate tracks, thus forcing me to re-rip some of my music collection - something that I should have done a long time ago if I weren't being such a lazy arse. With very strong and tight bass impact and extension, amazingly wide soundstage, strong lush mids and treble extension; combined in a thoughtfully light package, the IE 8 is without a doubt one of the best portable headphones you can buy today. Happy listening.
The good stuff
Open headphone-like soundstage
Good thumping bass
Good selection of tips
Standard two years warranty
The bad stuff
Fit may be an issue, this is one IEM you should try before you buy
Noise attenuation is less compared to other brands
The Sennheiser IE8 is available at Amazon UK or Advanced MP3 Player (use the voucher code head10 to obtain 10% off). US residents can also order them Amazon.com.