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%)
Transducer: Dynamic
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
Lush mids
Very light
Modular cable
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
Lousy case

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


Anonymous said...

This is my first ever IEM and it has not disappointed me. Previously I have always used a AKG full size outdoors which sounds fantastic. But this sounds even better and the convenience of the size just makes the deal better.

Anonymous said...

$400 for earbuds is just too costly! I am perfectly happy with my SE110!

Anonymous said...

"I personally think that Sennheiser should be the one doing the burn-in dirty work at the factory"
imo, i prefer to do the burn in ourselves.
think about the knowledge learnt from burning them in.
different people will burn in differently like using pink noise, white nose, or just using their music. the outcome of the music is different imho, its just whether u have audiophile ears to differtiate them.
i do not wan a universal sound to be in an iem. keeping the sound signature, i rather it be slightly changable as it is something personal.

anyway, doesn't sennheiser provide alternative types of cables other than the usual ones ? like shorter main cable for usage with shure's PTH or other playback device

Jon Choo said...

Not with the IE 8. If you want a shorter cable you'll have to order it from Sennheiser. Part no is 525720.

Anonymous said...

Agree with comment 3. Burning in headphones yourself gives you the feeling that they came fresh out of the factory (which obviously they did). Anyways I think these IE 8s are ugly (and has a crappy name).

Anonymous said...

I have them, and they sound awful out of the box. I thought they were fake and almost returned it. Burning them in for 50 hours tighten the bass and improve the clarity by a huge margin. They actually gone from a $50 sounding earphone to $300!

Unknown said...

It would be good for half the price. Trebles are not high enough, not enough overall detail. Too much plastic for me.

shauqi said...

HI ..

I would like to buy one of this headphone after reading your review. I think your review is really good and inspirational. But, i dont really understand the 'burning-in' part. If i were to buy one of this, how do i do that? How do i stop doing it after 50 hours. TQ

Jon Choo said...

'Burning in' is basically just playing music/sound onto it for long periods of time before listening to it. Some prefer to actually just listen to it whilst during the 'burn-in' period. It's like a car or shoes, where they need to be 'broken in'. Some play back their normal music at a slightly higher volume than usual (not too high as you would risk blowing the driver), whilst some would use a white/pink noise generator. There is no real scientific proof that burn-in will affect the SQ of a headphone (some opponents claims that it is all placebo), but I myself have detected changes in the quality of the IE 8 after a mere 50 hours of burn-in.

shauqi said...

OK john, tq so much for the advice..mine just arrived today and i will 'burn in' for approximately 50hours while listening to it coz i really cant wait to use it..really excited..

shauqi, again.. said...

John, If i wanna do my 'burn-in' using white noise generator, do i have to play it for approximately 50 hours at a slightly higher volume or do i have to just play the white noise and tune the sound to the ones that i like? TQ

Jon Choo said...

TBH, it doesn't matter what you burn it with. Mine was a mix of white/pink noise, radio and my music collection on shuffle. As for volume, I burn mine in a slightly higher volume than what I would normally listen to.

Congrats on the IE 8 purchase BTW. Hope you enjoy them!

Unknown said...

this review just make me spend 200 pounds on thanks

Jon Choo said...


Do enjoy!

Anonymous said...

I tried to change the cable for my IE 8, but I found it very difficult to detatch the cable from the speaker part. Is it safe to use brute force and try to separate it, or is there some other way to do it?

Jon Choo said...

It is perfectly safe. Just thug it with force (hold the connector, not the cable part).

Chanser said...

Be aware of IE8 fakes doing the rounds. There's a detailed Head-Fi thread about it. Just ordered my IE8 from Amazon to replace my CX95.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jon, thanks for the great review!

A question about the sensitivity and hissing of the IE8: have you tried it with the Sony A818? And is it hissing much stronger compared to the CX95 or the stock Sony EX85, or still enjoyable with the A818?

Sylvain said...


Great review as always :)
Might me my next purchase!
Any idea if Sennheisser is planning on releasing a new version soon?


Unknown said...

Thanks for the review Jon!

Been eyeing a pair of these for my birthday this weekend to replace my lost Ultimate Ears SuperFi.3 Studios which used with an iPhone were seriously lacking in bass (Not to mention how insanely uncomfortable they got after 45 minutes or so). I listen to melodic rock and I've heard the IE8s fit the bill perfectly.

Thanks again, Martin.

ccheesiang said...

Burn-in time just reach 50 hours, it's a huge different compare to out of box SQ.

Adam said...

Hello, just found these on eBay using your images

real or fake? I'm unsure as there are other listings in Australia with similar price tags. I have a real set which seem to have broken and was going to purchase a new set.

Think these are fake? I read the whole post on the head-fi site, but these are using images with real IE8's so im not sure. Seller has good feedback and lists all contact details etc.


Jon Choo said...

The images are mine, but the eBay listings using those images aren't.

I can't say whether they are genuine or not as I am not the one selling it. But I personally wouldn't go for it myself as I would be concerned that they can't even provide a picture themselves.

You could ask them for a proof. For example a picture of the IE 8 for sale with a piece of paper with their username, date and your username on it.

Anonymous said...

I am wondering, could you wear them on the traditional way? Because I am doubting to buy these or the Klipsch custom 3's, and if these can be worn with the wire down (not over the ear) I might take these. Please let me know! Thanks for the review!

Jon Choo said...

@ Maxstitor

Yes you could wear them traditionally, but the sound signature would be different. This is because the direction of the nozzle in the ear canal changes. You could swap the L and R ear pieces (detachable cable ftw!) to negate that effect though I did find that isolation suffered as a result.

With the Klipsch Custom 3 you can't swap the channels or wear them down.

Personally I would recommend the IE 8 over the Custom 3 due to detachable cable. The Custom 3's cable isn't very sturdy and frays eventually. In almost two years of ownership of the IE 8, the cable is still going on strong and if it ever wears out I can just order a replacement cable.

Is there a particular reason you do not want to wear them over the ear?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Hi Jon,

Thank fors the advice and quick response. I wear glasses from time to time and just prefer to wear them straight down. But I see that even Shure goes over the ear so I guess it has a technical reason too. Almost all IEM's have it now.
I can buy at a Dutch online shop the Customs for 169 euros and the IE8 for 249. I am linked to this shop because of the fact I still have some money in credit. The Klipsch Images X10 are 199. The prices of the Klipsch have dropped and I wonder what to buy. But indeed the detachable wire of the IE8 makes it highly durable. My last ones died because of an issue in the wire.
Other options are the Monster Turbines (149 euros) and the IE6 (129 euros) and IE7 (169 euros).

Have a great day!


Jon Choo said...

I wear glasses too (all the time!), and never have issues with the IE 8 or Klipsch Customs. The cables are soft and flexible, and that helps.

I've never a long audition of the Turbines, IE 6 and 7 to make an informed opinion of them. But I read that the Turbines makes great value for money and some people even prefer them to the IE 8!

IE 6 are supposed to be bassy and IE 7 neutral.

Danny said...

hey there jon
just got question regarding the ie8s. i use my iphone as my portable audio player. are the amps in the iphone powerful enuf to bring out the best in ie8s? or do i need to use my macbook/desktop ?

Patrick said...

i love sennheiser headphones they are simply superb.

Jon Choo said...

You probably could get a Fiio. I run mine unamped and it sounds great.