So now I´ve been able to try these out well enough for some real impressions. Overall I´m happy with the IE800. As a former IE8 owner, I don´t think these have much in common with the IE8: sound/tuning, build quality or fit/ergonomics wise. Various notes below:
Disclaimer: listening tests done with an iPad playing AIFF files. The rockboxed Sansa Clip+ sounds a bit boring and not as pure as the iPad. Also can´t stand the horrible battery life. Galaxy S3 sounds even worse for these though. I guess it´s the high output impedance. Hopefully I´ll be able to pair the IE800´s with a portable amp/DAC someday. I´m pretty sure there would be a large benefit due to the relentless detail retrieval ability of these IEMs. Currently looking into maybe getting a Meier Audio portable amp for these.
- Subjective sound quality wise I´d say these are closer to the HD800 than the HD 650/600 range. Less veil, better resolution and extension than the 600/650 range. The HD800 wins in soundstage, air amount and bass control. Resolution is almost the same to me, except the presentation is different. Bass control is superior on the HD800, but it´s definitely not loose in the IE800 either, just less controlled. In bass impact and amount the IE800 wins easily. I always felt the HD800 are too bass light for my taste, so genres that make heavy use of bass to me are superior on the IE800. Rhythm/PRAT is better on the IE800 than the HD800, but the HD800 unsuprisingly easily wins when it comes to the amount of air. Stuff like electronica reigns supreme on the IE800: I´ve never heard Rammstein, Massive Attack and Shpongle sound so good.
Compared to the IE8 it´s just no contest. IE8 feels slow, muddy, veiled, bloated and lacking in rhythm/PRAT compared to the IE800. No contest against Shure 530 either. Unfortunately I don´t have that much experience with IEMs so I can´t compare these to the top of the line stuff like EX1000, W4R, Phonak 200-range etc.
- Studio style neutral tonality with a slight emphasis towards low frequencies (maybe, or other IEMs just don´t go as low as these do). These are not dark in any way whatsoever. Not bright either though. Originally I felt these are a bit bright, although not as bright as the HD800. After a while they seemed to lose the edge and now they just sound neutral to me: not bright or dark. Brain burn in or driver changes? Who knows...
- Very clear highs mostly without sibilance. Highs subjectively extend very nicely. There is some sibilance on albums that are bright, but it doesn´t artificially add sibilance to tracks. At least nowhere near as much as the HD800 (or anything from Beyerdynamic). You can hear this is not an armature driver though, the presentation of the high frequencies doesn´t have the typical armature air/delicacy, even though they are still very pure sounding.
- Glorious midrange. Extremely connecting and engaging. Voices sound like they are communicating to you directly. It´s not laid back at all. Resolution is very high, I hear new details I previously missed on full size headphones. I guess the IEM-style soundstage presentation makes it feel even nicer. I think I´ll even go as far as to say these have the best midrange I´ve ever heard in any Sennheiser gear. This is the first headphone product that sounds more engaging than the HD650 to my ears and that´s one of the highest compliments I can say.
- Powerful bass without a midbass hump and it doesn´t bleed into the midrange either. There´s real sub bass too, which is very rare to hear in headphone gear. It kind of sounds like a studio monitor setup with a subwoofer. This will make or break the IE800 for most people I´d guess. Some will feel it´s too much, others feel it´s just strong yet balanced. All I can say is Rammstein never sounded better to me.
Overall the bass is controlled yet not as perfectly as on the HD 800 for example or many armature drivers. Where the IE800 wins over any armature driver IEM I´ve heard though is bass impact and simply the amount of air it moves: you can feel the air movement with these. Very impressive and not just "for a small driver". Actually I´d say one should forget it´s a small driver. It does not sound like one at all. Extremely impressive technology.
All in all the tuning is more mainstream music friendly this time, although Leonard Cohen and Diana Krall sound great on the IE800 too. It´s just that when you put on electronica it´s like the IE800 was made for this genre especially: with the genre´s deep and controlled bass, the IE800´s slight bass control deficit compared to the HD800 isn´t really obvious. What is obvious though, is the extremely engaging and dynamic drive the IE800 brings to the table. The sound signature suits stuff like LCD Soundsystem just perfectly. To be honest I haven´t listened to "traditional audiophile music" much with the IE800 yet because electronica-oriented or influenced music sounds so good. While I wouldn´t say the IE800 are genre specific, but to me it´s pretty obvious they are just so good at certain genres that some others are easily overshadowed.
- Some albums will sound horrible due to sub par mastering. Just like on the HD800, no mercy if the source isn´t good. This isn´t the HD 650. I would expect to find that the IE800 benefits from a good source/amp, although less on the amp front due to these being so extremely easy to drive (very high sensitivity and 16 ohms).
- Ergonomics is a mixed bag. First of all there´s no excuse for the lack of a second longer cord and the tip selection should be more comprehensive too. For me the benchmark in IEM comfort is the IE8. It´s almost perfect. The IE800 is so different ergonomics wise it´s difficult to compare: it´s more like an earbud. The insertion is not deep at all, which makes them very fast to put in and remove, not to mention there is the often overlooked but important point of them gathering a lot less ear wax too. This is one of the unique points of this IEM.
Very light and small too, which makes them very nice to handle and you don´t really feel any weight in your ears while using them. The downside is that they don´t hold as well as IE8 and have to be worn cable down, which means microphonics. For some this will be a complete dealbreaker so try before buying. Isolation isn´t as good as the IE8 either, and twin exhausts apparently don´t like wind much (I haven´t actually tried the IE800 outside yet though).
- Value is at best fair. It´s obvious the R&D must have cost a lot and it´s not cheap to build a new production line in Germany either, but as a consumer it´s hard to escape the feeling that these are still very overpriced: 450-500 euros would be a more reasonable price. At that price range Sennheiser would have a solid product with a bright future. Sure the IE800 wipes the floor with the 220 euro IE8 or the 350 or so euro Shure 530, but at 700 euros there´s a huge price difference and competition is tough in the IEM world. Included accessories don´t currently match the price either. This is clearly new technology and the early adopter will pay to recoup the R&D costs. Eventually similar driver tech will move to the lower IE range I´d guess. That´s when Sennheiser will get their hit assuming the price is even remotely fair. At the 700 euro/1000 dollar range I don´t see the IE800 becoming anywhere near as popular as the HD800 has been. It´ll find its own niche following though, especially among electronica fans.
All in all, a unique and interesting product, but overpriced just like the HD 700 before it. I´m happy with the IE800 though: I can´t stand the armature IEM deep insertion so the unique aspects of the IE800 combined with the mainstream friendly sound signature are exactly what I was looking for. I have a speaker rig these days and no longer hold much of an interest in full size headphones/headphone amps. A simple & small portable rig around the IE800 is my end game headphone rig for now.
Edited by vrln - 1/11/13 at 3:14pm