Sennheiser CX985 Review
Thanks to Sennheiser for the sample
First impressions: Hmm Sennheiser I see your box has opening instructions, I can’t say I have fond memories of trying to open the IE7’s box and feeling like a halfwit. This thankfully isn’t so bad but may I suggest if you think your packaging requires instructions then you are making it overly engineered. Once inside though there is again the hint of Sennhesier not knowing when to stop with the engineering. Never in my life have I seen such a jack. There isn’t going to be any mistaking this for a non-premium product as was a complaint I did see about the IE7 and 8. They were frankly disturbingly light for something so expensive. The CX985 are not light, there is metal all over the place and they are unmistakably premium. They look like they are more aimed at the “I work in the city don’t you know” sort of person, not that there is anything wrong in that but let’s just say it makes me think that conspicuous opulence may be more of a concern to that crowd. Still this is a Senn and over the years have made the occasional earphone, just one or two (err one or two hundred possibly, lol.)
First listen and I’m casting the mind back a bit to the old CX95. Not that I’ve heard it in a super long time but the highs and their grittiness stand in my mind. Fingers crossed a burn in will alleviate much of that but what I do very much approve of is the sound stage. It’s not really what I usually care about but Sennheiser can nail it like no other. It’s great, not much other way to say it but Senn’s create an aural stage quite unlike anyone else. Burn in time.
Source: HM-601 and Hisoundaudio Rocoo BA mostly with some 1G Ipod Shuffle with 75 ohms added and a little Galaxy Nexus too.
Lows: Given these are Senn’s you would expect there to be quite a lot and indeed there is. How much however really depends as they have differingly designed tips to offer up more or a bit less. This really is the most insanely over engineered product ever in the way only the Germans would do. The tips come in three sizes but have either a magenta or while stalk. The white ones are a bit shorter and this allows for a small air channel that is cut out of the IEM stem to breathe. The Magenta ones give you much more of a seal and therefore give you bigger bass, more punchy too. The isolation jumps up too but so does fit sensitivity and it gave me a little air pressure bother. Nothing major but I really dislike that. Jumping back to the white ones, the bass here is large but not vastly dominant as the highs are quite abundant too. The bass for a dynamic is really quite taut and agile. Senn are known for their bass and as you expect it’s very good, big and expansive yet it moves quick all the while seeming so effortlessly casual about it. Put on something quick and punchy and it can do it, play something slow and lethargic and it will do just that too. Depth is also good but not quite as good as I’d expect from a Senn at this price. I did think this might be due to the much more closed nature of the CX985 than other higher end Sennheiser’s as too closed and too much deep down just gets wearing on the ear so it’s probably the right thing to do.
All in all I’d really say it’s first class all the way and as a bonus you can adjust its quantity from rather a lot to loads with tip selection.
Mids: Much like as above, Senn are known for lots of great bass, often being great big V shaped sounding. This means their mids tend to have a certain character, they are usually a bit on the dry and airy side and lacking in abundance compared to the lows and highs. This is just how it is here. The quality of the mids is superb however and despite their being recessed, they are beautifully open sounding and expressive. Mika’s Studio Outtakes album is tremendously good on these. Breathy, expressive, detailed and a wonderfully holographic feel. They are mesmerizingly three dimensional; no one does this sort of sound staging like Sennheiser do. They don’t have the scale of the IE7 or 8 but they have the same 3D like quality, if anything it’s a little more clearly defined than the huge but less crisp imaging of its siblings. This is what shines about the mids, vocals don’t stand forward like I’d want but they have a quality to them that’s excellent and quite rare. I just so wish they weren’t behind the bass and highs in quantity as they deserve to take centre stage.
Also I must note that with a few songs they do skirt rather close to being sibilant. They never really got outright ear stabby but enough that no high volume for those tracks. And that was even with the warm HM-601. (Shakira in particular.)
Highs: The traditional Senn abundance is back and it’s good but not quite good enough for its abundance if you ask me. This is why I found I didn’t love the Studio 3rd anv with these. It’s a brightish DAP and offers super crisp treble. The CX985 want to give you clear and crisp treble too but it’s not quite up to the refinement I want to see if the treble is going to be abundant. Nothing bothers me like edgy over crisp treble hurled at me. The IE8 is equally abundant but it’s got just about the best treble of any IEM ever and the CX985 is aiming for the same sound signature but without quite the same skill. It means for me it can’t quite pull it off and I found that both the HM-601 and Rocoo BA paired up much more nicely. Also weirdly, my Galaxy Nexus sounded great with them. Given its likely user, a phone seems like a realistic pairing for them and acoustically was really better than I’d have ever expected. Particularly in the treble, the phone isn’t as capable as a good end DAP so the crisped edge on the CX985 didn’t become over sharp to the ear. It just aided in clarity letting you notice details you otherwise wouldn’t have. It wouldn’t surprise me if Senn designed the thing specifically to pair with smartphones and mainstream DAP’s. (More than once I had to remind myself it did not have a mic on it.)
Soundstage: It hasn’t the vastness of the IE7 and IE8 but it’s got if anything even better a holographic feel to it. You really can’t help but notice it. The imaging and placement has got to be about the best there is. I’m not normally one to care much about sound staging as I don’t object to forward and in your head sounding things. For something that is relatively closed and therefore isolating, it’s a marvel they do what they do. The placement of vocals and different instruments feel soooooo crisply accurate in your mental map. I have as of yet not heard anything as cleanly accurate at presenting a mental image like this, it’s just unbeatable.
Fit: With the magenta tips I got a rather air tight seal, a little too tight for me so I found the white ones to be much more suitable. I also got on well with the foamy pair that was included. All round pretty much a case of stick in and done. Oh and this was all wearing them up and over my ears as I pretty much loath wearing IEM’s down. The legs on them worked perfectly well for this. Naturally they were fine fit wise wearing down too.
Comfort: Excellent. I could wear these up with the slightest hint of anything less than perfect. YMMV of course but they are fairly shallow sitting so should be alright for most.
Cable: The cable itself is alright. It’s very light, a little stiff, doesn’t tangle which is nice. The bits that are more stand out and the Y splitter and the jack. The Y splitter has a chin slider and a built in volume control. I have not seen one of them in ages, not a phone control that alters the phones volume but a real hardware volume control!!! As you expect it feels super solid and ultra-precision engineered. Speaking of insane engineering, take a look at the jack on these. Holy mother of god what is Senn up too!?!?!?!? Is there some massive overabundance of engineers in Germany and Sennheiser has offered to employ them all? It’s the most insanely over engineered jack I have ever seen. It’s all machined metal and has a hinge in there too. If nothing else, the jack screams premium product in a way I’ve never seen a jack do before!
Build: If you didn’t pick up from the jack comments above then in short, its stellar. When Senn moved into the high end IEM market with the IE range one of the complaints about the likes of the IE8 was that it felt fake. I recall getting my IE7 and they were so light, they weighed of nothing. The CX985 is a different product range and they have clearly wanted something that is unmistakably premium which if you didn’t hear the IE’s you may not necessarily think of them. These are clearly meant to look and feel substantial.
Microphonics: If you wear them down you get rather a lot, the chin slider of course helps greatly. Still just wear then up and they are pretty much microphonics free.
Amped/Unamped: Meh, negligible improvements from using a better amp. If anything I felt they got along better with not so capable amps. They really paired well with my Galaxy Nexus so these should play very well with your phone or any normal DAP. I really wouldn’t bother with an additional amp it didn’t really add to them significantly.
Isolation: These are variable in what tips you use. Magenta isolated rather a lot for a dynamic, enough for any normal use and maybe even a short flight but I found the seal gave me a bit of air pressure issues in my ears. I’ve rather sensitive ears so I rather preferred the white ones. The isolation is still fine on them but a little reduced. Fine for normal out and about stuff but I’d not really want for on a plane. Still above the norm for a big bassed dynamic though and vastly more than the very, very open IE7 and IE8. As ever easily enough to make you a road stain if you aren’t looking where you are going when you’re out, you won’t hear that bus until it impacts your skull.
Accessories: You get seven pairs of tips, 3 pairs of white and magenta each plus a small foamy set. An airline adapter, a case I’ll come back too and the coolest little shirt clip thing. Oh and the thing is metal btw! Now I never wear shirts so I don’t care but it’s clear this product is aimed at those who do, so it makes perfect sense, why have I not seen one before (that I recall anyway.) Now, back to that case. It looks lovely; it really does, much like the one that came with the IE range looked lovely. Unfortunately it sucks to use just like the IE ones. Sennheiser would you please stop massively over engineering the cases, go look at the one DUNU offer, that’s what I’d like to see please. The DUNU one is functional, looks fantastic and exudes quality, yours look lovey but are horrible if not impossible to use.
Note: Crazy engineered tips that change the sound by closing off or not the venting port on the stem means that the range of normal tips you might like won’t fit. I don’t know if all new Senns will be of this size in which case ebay will soon be flooded with them but atm “Sony hybrids” will do if you need but not perfect.
Value: Looking for the price these seem quite rare in the wild yet but Amazon had them at £120. (appear to be US$160 on Amazon US) That to me seems like a pretty reasonable price and I’d been afraid they would be much, much more than that. I am in two minds with these as I would probably think of myself as living in the audiophile camp. I prioritise sound quality above everything else when it comes to what I’d want to buy and these have a bit of a premium on others. Things like the RE-262 beat them and the GR07 is cheaper and for the same money I could have the IE7. Now the IE7 is one of if not my favourite IEM, it’s much more to my tastes. That said none of them have the premium feel to them like the CX985 does, it’s aimed I think at the “work in the City” types for whom sounding good is important but so is others knowing you have something of quality. The hardware volume control too is really useful and if you’re a regular Tube commuter, it’s not like you have space to pull a DAP out and adjust the volume all the time. And let’s be honest, all that use of metal looks impressive. On sound alone, it’s not the greatest value but it’s a very compelling package that’s on offer.
Conclusion: I have been a bit mixed about the CX985. Things like its soundstage and imaging are really, really good but then it’s not something I’m usually fussed about. The mids are really beautifully open but then stuck in the V shaped valley. So I think it’s essentially a product that hasn’t been made with me in mind. This means I’ve found it hard to become wildly enthused about and I suspect this may have come across in the review. It’s not really deserved though as it’s a product that I think hasn’t set out to impress someone like me. I like smooth, middy stuff and so for me the IE7 works much, much better. The CX985 is aimed I think at a relatively normal chap, has a bit of disposable cash and wants something that is not only seen as a premium product (i.e. expensive) but that is actually a good product (cough, Beats, cough.) So being somewhat of an audio snob I find the V shaped sound offered up not really what I think it ought to be, it’s a bit too populist and really I just miss the mids. On so many occasions I found myself listening to these and really enjoying the vocals which are very good but being so disappointed they aren’t more tuned like the IE7. The bass I could handle but the treble was a touch much for me, it’s too eager and too inclined to crispy edge harshness. Again this greatly diminished when using my phone as a source and since I suspect the target market for this is more likely to use a phone than a high end dedicated DAP highlights it’s not aimed at me.
Trying to look objectively at the CX985 it’s really got a lot going for it. The sound quality is very good. The bass is full, rich and powerful but not overly so. The highs offer plenty of readily noticeable detail. The mids are open, clear and expressive. If you like a V shaped sound it’s pretty impressive. Its level of isolation is likewise good which is counter to its soundstage abilities. Normally more isolation means a more in the head quality and it’s a very capable trade off here. As I mentioned before the imaging and 3D feel these offer up is truly excellent, even beating the IE8 in its focus and precision.
I have to think though that sound wasn’t Sennheiser’s only priority when making these. They have clearly gone out of their way to make these look and feel premium. I know it won’t come across in a photo but the box, like Senn do, is so over engineered and that card it’s made from feels more like steel. You pick up and you know instantly that a hell of a lot of effort has gone into the box and a hell of a lot of money (for a box anyway) has been spent. What’s even better is this one was relatively easy to open too by Senn standards (IE7 and 8 box was deeply perplexing.) Even the horrible case I didn’t like feels premium and looks lovely. Though if I had to single one thing out, scratch that, two things, then it’s the jack and the shirt clip. I’ve never seen anything like either of them from anyone else. The jack especially is just insane!
I would hope if not expect that Canary Warf should be awash with these soon enough. They have surely got to appeal to those reasonably healed who want an earphone that’s actually good and looks impressive too. It looks like an item of substance and quality, and frankly it is both. Sennheiser is probably the quintessential name when it comes to earphones and headphones; it has been around forever. Its products are available everywhere too, who on head-fi hasn’t owed a pair of CX300’s or at least one other Sennheiser? Their stuff is not only ubiquitous but on the whole are good sounding and well made. The CX985 seems to be just what I’d expect from Sennheiser. It is superbly engineered, sounds like a Senn, has a soundstage like only Senn seem to be able to do and is clearly a premium product deserving of its premium price tag.
Something that would make for a rather lovely Christmas gift I’d bet too and I have no doubt Sennheiser will shift plenty of these once word gets out.