Review: Sennheiser IE 800 earphones
Crème de la crème
Undoubtedly, Sennheiser is one of the most respectable headphones and earphones makers, and through the years has given us models varying from the very basic CX 300-II to the high class IE 80. However, Sennheiser’s new model, IE 800, is not just an upgrade of IE 80, but it really takes things up to a whole different level.
Before we go on with a detailed description of IE 800 and understand how Sennheiser came up with such a product, we have to keep in mind that Sennheiser is not just another Company that started a few years ago trying to get some market share. It was established as a kind of a research laboratory back in 1945, in Wedemark, Lower Saxony, by Prof. Dr. Fritz Sennheiser, and at that time it was called “Laboratorium Wennebostel”. So, “technical innovations” and Sennheiser go hand in hand; it is therefore no wonder that in designing IE 800 Sennheiser started from scratch for almost every essential part of this earphone set, and because of that IE 800 has incorporated a number of world firsts.
IE 800 is Sennheiser's smallest earphone set, and it is destined for the audiophiles. In designing them, Sennheiser goal regarding the set’s sound signature was:
- Natural and full, but never exaggerated bass reproduction
- Clean and non-coloured mids
- Clear and detailed sound, but never exhausting or fatiguing
- Balanced frequency response even in the higher frequencies
- Silky and open trebles
All this is quite ambitious, and, in order to succeed, Sennheiser had to create from scratch every critical part of IE 800:
- First of all, the housing is made of ceramic, which is both rigid and scratch-resistant, for improved sound and earphones’ “looks”, which will remain the same for the years to come. However, one has to be careful: Ceramic is not unbreakable if it falls on a hard surface (e.g. on granite or ceramic tiles).
- On the back of each earphone, there are two acoustic covers, made of stainless steel, of which the top is closed and the bottom is open. This helps air flow, and, based on the closed vented principle, enhances bass reproduction. Moreover, the presence of the two covers minimizes the wobbling motion of the transducer diaphragm, and that way the total harmonic distortion is reduced to less than 0.06%.
- The ear adapters, made of non-allergic silicone, are ergonomically designed and very comfortable. They are securely sitting on a clip (a Sennheiser patent), which prevents them from separating from the earpiece and getting lost. Furthermore, the ear adapters are fitted with a protective metal mesh; this is part of the adapter and, together with a second mesh situated in the earpiece cone, protects the earphone against dust and ear wax. Both meshes can easily be cleaned with warm water and a mild detergent, by means of a cleaning tool that is provided.
- The cable, made of Kevlar, has been reinforced, and it is particularly rugged. Also, it breaks at the point where the left and right cables join, and the two parts are connected with a standard 2.5 mm socket; that way, the lower part could be replaced should the end jack connector fail (see, however, the comment in the accessories and fit section).
- In the heart of IE 800 is the XWB (extra wide bandwidth) transducer SYS 7. This is a dynamic transducer of only 7mm; however, it is capable of working from 5 Hz up to 46,500 Hz without any phase distortion. It is developed and produced in Germany. The production is done under clean room conditions, by a semi-automatic (kind of hand-made) production method (another Sennheiser patent).
- Between the transducer SYS 7 and the ear adapter, there is a damped two chamber absorber (D2CA), which is used to compensate for resonances from the de-tuned ear canal. That way higher frequencies (above 5,000 Hz) are reproduced in a precise and linear manner, without any peaks or cut-offs.
Let’s elaborate a little bit on the two most important innovations of IE 800. There is not much technical information provided about the XWB transducer SYS 7; after all, there would be very few listeners able to understand the technical details of such a design. However, it is quite interesting, in order to get a sense of the transducer’s size, to see a picture of SYS 7 next to a coin of 1 Euro (which is a bit smaller than the quarter dollar coin).
The second important innovation of IE 800 is the damped two chamber absorber (D2CA). The idea behind it came from a similar idea that was applied for solving a problem of unwanted resonances in Sennheiser microphones, and it works as following: When you insert the earphone in your ear, you block your ear canal, and that way you shift the canal’s resonance into a frequency that your brain does not expect and it is therefore not able to handle. This phenomenon happens at around 7,000-8,000 Hz, and it creates a peak which masks the frequencies above that level. The solution to this problem is the damped two chamber absorber, which brings the peak down, and that way the listener can hear the frequencies above the 8,000 Hz level, which otherwise would be masked.
The following two graphs give you the frequency response curves of a (competitor) high-quality multi-way driver earphone (which behaves like a typical earphone set) and the IE 800 with the D2CA; the latter brings down the peak that masks the frequencies above the 7,500 Hz level.
So, Sennheiser has done an amazing job in designing IE 800, paying attention even to the smallest detail. But how all this translates into sound quality? One would think that, no matter how much attention was given to things involved, and, in particular, in the design of the (completely) new dynamic transducer SYS 7, would it be possible a 7 mm driver to reproduce successfully the whole audio spectrum, from deep bass to high tremble, and to do that in a detailed and balanced way? Well, as odd as that might seem, it is absolutely possible.
The first thing one notices is that IE 800 has a bass depth that really leaves you stunning; and this is high-quality bass, taut and well-controlled. Ok, this is a dynamic driver, so this is to be expected, at least up to a point. What is interesting here is that IE 800’s driver does an equally excellent job with the mids and the highs. Resolution is top and combined with extreme clarity reveals nuances of sound, which with many other earphone sets would simply be missed. It is quite interesting that, while listening to IE 800, the sound signature somehow reminds you of a very high-quality earphone set with multiple balance armature drivers; the fact that it is coming from a single 7 mm driver is not a small feat.
From what I mentioned in the previous paragraph, it is pretty obvious that IE 800 is not bass shy. So, the next question, that naturally comes to mind, is how well the low frequencies are integrated to the mids and highs? The answer is in a very smooth and natural way. Having said that though, I should add that the bass in IE 800 is rather profound. Not that it creates any tonal imbalances; but, if one does not pay much attention, he might be caught by an impression of a tone towards the bass side, he does not actually expect. And although many listeners like “bassy” earphones, still, those who pay $800 for an earphone set expect everything, and this includes tonal balance, to be and to appear that it is, perfect. Of course, all this has also to do, up to a point, with everyone’s taste.
The dynamics are at a very high level, without even the slightest suspicion of distortion. And the same is the case with soundstaging. If there is something on which IE 800 is not at the very top, that thing might be the imaging; in some musical pieces, one might get the impression of a little “flat” performance, without much depth and holographic image. Of course, soundstaging and imaging in earphones are rather sensitive issues, and many listeners seriously question them.
Going to some musical examples, take the “Rhee Waahnee” of B. Dillard, by The Red Norvo Quintet, from the album The Forward Look, RR-8, which has been recorded live in 1957 and combines the Red Norvo vibes with the guitar, reeds, bass and drums of the other four members of the group, the presentation is so airy and alive that one feels that he is sitting in one of the tables. In “Tribute to Dollar Brand” of Donna Viscuso, by the Blazing Redheads, from the album Crazed Women, RR-41, a piece that is fast and combines the Donna Viscuso reeds with Michaelle Goerlitz percussion, all passages was reproduced with extreme speed and precision. In “O Vazio”, on the other hand, of Jim Brock & Doug Hawthorne, by the Jim Brock Ensemble, from the album Tropic Affair, RR-31, the introduction is like somebody is playing “test” tones at various frequencies; everything comes to your ears so accurate and the sound is, overall, so “big” that makes you imagine that you are looking at one of these emblematic works of a famous painter. Now, lets go to some musical examples with vocals in the mix. On “I Want A Little Girl” of Murray Mincher/Billy Moll, by Clark Terry, trumpet & vocal and Bob Lark/DePaul University Big Band, from the album The Chicago Sessions, RR-111, the Clark Terry vocals come in the front, precisely where they are supposed to, without even for a moment been overshone by the DePaul University Big Band. Now, go to “Papa was a Rolling Stone” of N. Whitfield and B. Strong, by A la Carte Brass & Percussion, from the album Boogeyin’! Swamprock, Salsa & `Trane, Mapleshade Productions, a really complicated mixture of brass, percussion and some mock-operatic vocals, the voices are delivered in a very natural way, but what really left me speechless was the quality of delivering the percussion part in the middle of the piece; the mastering of timbre was truly exceptional and soundstaging completely coherent. Furthermore, in this and the previous piece imaging was quite remarkable compare to what I have noticed in some other cases. Finally, in the beautiful Sade’s song “By Your Side”, from the album Lovers Rock, Epic Records, besides the natural presentation, what really struck me was that in all low passages the sound was completely undistorted even when the volume level was almost at the end.
IE 800 uses a single dynamic driver and it costs almost $800; most earphone makers at this price level use a multi-driver design, either dynamic, or balance armature or a combination of the two. Finding an appropriate earphone model to compare with IE 800 was not a simple task. After some thought, I finally chose the Phonak Audéo PFE 232 for the following reasons: When it was offered (the Company discontinued all of its earphone models on March 31, 2013), it was one of the top models in the market (and one of my favourite); it uses two drivers (the smallest number in a multi-driver design); both of these drivers are balance armature (so we have a chance to compare two top earphone models with different driver types); and finally, the PFE 232 cost (when offered) almost $600.
- Both models are capable of outstanding and indistinguishable frequency extremes, both low and high, which is quite remarkable for IE 800, as it uses a single dynamic driver.
- The resolution is at the top level in both models.
- Also, both models give an extremely neutral and balanced presentation, although as noted, IE 800 might, in some musical pieces, give the impression of a tone inclined towards the low end of the spectrum.
- IE 800 has a very alive and vivid presentation, and as such, one might notice, at times, some very slight sharp edges, which, however, show the ability of IE 800 to obtain amazing frequency extremes at both ends of the spectrum. PFE 232, on the other hand, has a rather rounded presentation.
- The dynamics are more than satisfactory in both models.
- Also, both models have an excellent soundstaging, while imaging is slightly better on the PFE 232, although the difference is quite small and sometimes almost indistinguishable.
All in all, it is quite astonishing that IE 800, with a single dynamic driver has a level of performance that is absolutely superior and comparable with the performance of PFE 232, which is a model based on two balanced armature drivers.
Accessories and fit
IE 800 comes in a beautiful cartoon box in which one will find (besides the earphones themselves): Five sets of ear adaptor sets, small and large, rounded and oval; a premium leather carrying case; a cleaning tool; and an instruction manual.
Finding an eartip that fits your ear canal is not difficult, and once you do, IE 800 rests very comfortably in your canals; to that contributes the fact that the earphones, without the cable, weight only 8 g, so you actually don’t feel them. Also, assuming that you are using the eartip that is suitable for you, you can achieve a very high level of sealing that provides true noise isolation. One should keep in mind that good sealing is necessary in order to enjoy the merits of a good earphone set; it is not unusual that listeners get the wrong impression about a set, simply because they did not obtain a good sealing.
Also, as mentioned, the cable is of very high quality, and the lower part can be replaced should the end jack connector fail (see the general description section); this is pretty good, but maybe not as versatile as having a regular removable cable near the eartips. Furthermore, the cable suffers from the usual microphonic noise; this is that annoying sound caused by moving around while wearing the earphones. Things improve if you loop the cable over the ear, although the IE 800 is not actually designed to be worn that way.
In my description of IE 800, I mentioned the goal in sound signature that Sennheiser set while designing this earphone set. Was this goal achieved? Absolutely, and in every respect. The IE 800 performed outstandingly in almost every department: Deep, taut and well-controlled bass, superb mids, extended and mellow tremble; top resolution with extreme clarity; very nice tonal balance; excellent dynamics and soundstaging; very good imaging.
I think I can safely say that, overall, IE 800 is among the top three universal in-ear monitors in the world today; and it can certainly challenge a number of the top custom-fit in-ear monitors as well as some of the top open air headphones.
Of course, IE 800 costs $800, which is a lot of money; well, top class products never were and will never be cheap, and you certainly get a product of the highest quality and performance. Is IE 800 the right set for you? This is really a personal question that depends on many factors; but if you decide to own one, you can be assured that it will give you a pleasure for many years to come; I seriously doubt that another maker will present a model that will surpass the quality and/or performance of IE 800 soon.
Specifications and price:
Impedance: 16 Ohms
Frequency response: 8-41000 Hz (-3 dB)
Sound pressure level (SPL): 125 dB at 1V 1kHz
Total harmonic distortion (THD): <0,06% (1kHz, 94dB)
Ear coupling: Intraaural
Jack plug: 3.5 mm stereo plug
Cable length: 1.1 m symmetrical, oxygen-free (OFC) copper cable
Transducer principle: Dynamic, vented closed
Weight: 8 g (without cable)
Attenuation: - 26 dB
Operating temperature: -10 °C to +55 °C
Frequency: Diffuse field equalized
Price: $799.95 (€ 699,00)
Reviewer’s note: The reviewer is particularly grateful to Mr. Axel Grell, Sennheiser’s Senior Acoustic Engineer, Chief Designer of Sennheiser’s HD 800 and IE 800 among other models, and Product Manager for High End. Mr. Grell’s support, discussions and technical information provided made this review possible.
Edited by notaris - 10/31/14 at 10:15am