Full disclosure: Sennheiser sent me a sample IE 300 for review in exchange for my honest opinion, without any deadlines or expectations. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, so feel free to PM me should you have any questions or comments about your own preferences or experiences.
When Sennheiser launched the IE 300 as part of its new line of ‘audiophile’ IEMs earlier this year, it literally flew under my radar. Only recently, following the release of the IE 900 and my subsequent review
of that incredible IEM, did I even notice – let alone show any interest – in the baby of the family.
In truth, the IE 300 is very much its own IEM, and while I’ve compared it to the IE 900 for this review, the two aren’t really comparable in terms of the target audience and what they’re aiming for sound-wise. For me, the IE 300 takes Sennheiser’s modern tuning philosophy and long history of sound design and driver innovation and distills it into a small, fun, lightweight and, importantly, utterly accessible
If you’re an avid IEM listener, enjoy Sennheiser’s take on ‘fun’ but accurate sound, but don’t have the budget or inclination to invest in the high-end of the hobby, the IE 300 strikes a perfect compromise in price-performance which, frankly, is some of the best value I’ve seen in this topsy-turvy, pandemic-stricken market in a very long time.
Fit for purpose
If you’re familiar with Sennheiser’s design aesthetic you’ll be right at home with the IE 300’s presentation. A simple, sturdy box, with quality printing of a high-resolution image of the IEMs on the cover, complete with Sennheiser’s trademark black-blue colourway. Nothing fancy, and certainly less elaborate than the tray-lined IE 900 presentation box, but more than acceptable for a brand-name product.
Aside from the earpieces, Sennheiser supplies a small selection of custom-made silicone and soft foam eartips, a Kevlar-reinforced (para-aramid, according to Sennheiser) single-ended (3.5mm) cable, a Sennheiser-branded cleaning tool, and user manuals in case you need instructions on how to use and clean your IEMs. I must say the loose packaging of the eartips inside a throwaway plastic packet isn’t quite consistent with the rest of the presentation, but the inclusion of a high-quality, fabric-lined Sennheiser-branded carry case more than makes up for it.
The IEMs themselves remind me a bit of the classic stippled finish of Sennheiser’s HD600 over-ear headphones, only nicer, with less marbling and a more nuanced texture. The plastic construction feels very sturdy, almost magnesium-like, and the shape and size are almost identical to the IE 900 (though since the IE 300 was released first, you could say the IE 900 follows the IE 300’s blueprint).
Either way, they’re super small, super light, and super comfy, with the one proviso being that if you found the IE 900 a less-than-perfect fit, you’ll probably find the IE 300 even less so due it its lighter weight. Once the stock cable – with its thick, memory-wire earguides – is attached to the tiny shells, the cable takes over the weight distribution, so that the earguides end up holding the IEMs in place. For me this works very well, as it did with the IE 900, but if you have very big ears, or aren’t used to the lack of ear-filling heft of more typically sized, ear cavity-filling IEMs, then you might struggle with the IE 300’s penchant to ‘disappear’ in your ears.
As with any IEM, I advise you spend some time tip-rolling to find the ideal fit (and subsequently ideal sound). If the stock tips aren’t a great fit (they weren’t for me), then it’s very likely you’ll find other tips more suitable. My current favourites with the IE 300 are the Acoustune AET07 (I use M- size for my smallish ear canals), as I find they seal very well, don’t put any added pressure on my canals, and sound better than the stock silicone tips. I didn’t try the included foam tips as I’m not a fan of the foam tip feel, so your mileage may vary if foam is your preference.
Also, while the stock tips include a foam insert to prevent wax deposits from falling into the bores, they’re not a must-have acoustically, despite what you might have read in some reviews. The foam attenuates less than 1dB of treble, which is all but inaudible unless you’re super sensitive to treble, of which the IE 300 has plenty (but more on that later). Bottom line, find the tips that fit best and don’t think you have to use the stock tips to maximise performance.
Lastly, since I’ve already mentioned the cable, I’ll just add that I find the stock cable to be very high quality, albeit slightly microphonic. Yes, it takes some getting used to (if you’re not used to the feel of memory wire around your ears, especially with ultra-lightweight IEMs), but it’s made very well, and the mmcx connectors are top-notch, if you’ll excuse the pun. If you do plan to try other cables, take note that the IE 300’s mmcx connectors, while standard, are slightly recessed, so not all cables will work. I know that @EffectAudio
ConX connectors work perfectly, so if you’re looking for a higher-end cable option, that would be the first place I’d go.
Before we deep dive into what you can expect to hear, let’s briefly discuss how the IE 300 does what it does. For starters, the IE 300 uses a derivative of the eXtra Wide Band (XWB) 7mm dynamic driver designed by Sennheiser’s André Michaelis more than 16 years ago to achieve the optimal sound profile in IEM form. This is the same driver design used in previous flagship IEMs like the IE 800 and IE 800S, and similar to the one used in the IE 900 as well, with a coherency that’s rarely found in multi-driver IEMs at any price point, let alone this one.
But the driver itself is only part of the smart engineering that went into the IE 300’s acoustic design. The driver sits in front of an acoustic back volume
, a small ‘space within a space’ that controls the air movement of the diaphragm and helps with tuning the low-end (bass) frequencies, shaping and separating them from the midrange, and reducing resonance from the enclosure. Sennheiser has also engraved a resonator channel into the driver housing that helps attenuate treble frequencies, which purportedly controls errant treble peaks.
Spec-wise, the IE 300 is fairly ambitious, quoting a frequency range of 6Hz to 20kHz, 16 Ω impedance, a sensitivity of 124 dB (1 kHz / 1 Vrms), and a THD of < 0,08 % (1 kHz, 94 dB SPL). These are very similar to the IE 900, although the IE 900 extends further with even less distortion. In practice, I find the IE 300 very easy to drive, although it enjoys as much power as you can give it and will respond to beefier amplification, even though it’s not strictly necessary.
To gauge how most people will hear the IE 300, I used the stock cable plugged directly into my LG V30+ smartphone, resisting the urge to switch to a balanced cable and play it off my high-end DAP. While I’ve made some notes of how the sound changes and/or improves with better source gear, keep this in mind as you read my impressions below. I also used a combination of locally-stored FLAC files (both Redbook and Hi-Res), and on occasion, Tidal streaming via UAPP.
The IE 300 is not your typical V-shaped IEM, even though bass and treble are emphasised in almost equal measure. I don’t hear vocals as particularly recessed, especially male vocals, though they’re definitely not elevated like they tend to be on many Eastern-tuned IEMs. As such, I’d class the IE 300’s tonal shape as more steep U than pure V, with a warm, pleasant timbre that lends itself to a fairly smooth, though still quite lively listen across most music genres.
presence is generally full and warm, with a more-or-less equal emphasis on sub and midbass, but a notable midbass lift that adds extra warmth to most music. Lorde’s Royals
kicks off with some bombastic bass drums that punch fairly hard but lack the rumble of more sub-bass-leaning IEMs. Similarly, the bass drop that kicks off James Gillespie’s What You Do
isn’t quite as potent as I’ve heard it with some bass-first IEMs, but is still full, warm and resonant, if not overly punchy.
There’s some looseness in the IE 300’s bass that actually works in its favour with certain music. On Billie Eilish’s NDA
, for example, the looser bass gives the track a cushioned feel that makes it a more laid-back listen than I’m used to. It’s not loose to the point where it loses shape or becomes muddy, but it’s definitely not as tight or textured as more refined IEMs, IE 900 being a good example. It’s probably not the most resolving bass I’ve heard in an IEM, the bass plucks of Feist’s Tout Doucement
coming off as one-noteish and a touch bloomy, but again, only by comparison. This is still very high-quality bass, especially for an IEM at this price point.
is a mixed bag in that vocals, while not recessed, aren’t particularly forward either, and the less-than high-end resolution in the mids makes some vocals on busier tracks – where bass and/or string instruments dominate – harder to hear than they should otherwise be. Brandi Carlile’s husky-sweet voice on The Story
mostly manages to come across intact, but around the one-minute mark, the instrument melee tends to dominate slightly. Paul Simon crooning over Bernadette
, on the other hand, comes across clearly, with a very accurate representation of his familiar tone.
Instrument fundamentals in the midrange generally have a very natural, life-like timbre, as you’d expect from the tuning experts at Sennheiser. Guitar strings and piano strikes are probably more influenced by the bass lift than any residual treble peakiness, of which there is very little. Annelie’s rendition of Tomorrow
, from her solo piano masterpiece Hetrz, showcases the rich, smoky overtones of the sustain pedal rather than the brighter key strikes, and while Joe ‘Satch’ Satriani’s guitar riffs in Always With Me, Always With You
are clear and crunchy, they’re also nicely rounded with a slightly warmer edge.
is definitely right up there when it comes to emphasis, but not to the point where I’d consider it overly bright. Lower treble rises up and above the mids, but doesn’t add excessive sibilance to poorly-recorded vocals. The shakers and snare drums in Def Leppard’s Love Bites
have plenty of bite in them, giving the track a sheen that straddles the harshness line but never fully crosses it. That said, you do hear the brighter instruments more so than anything else on that track, which adds to my impression of the IE 300’s overall liveliness.
Jethro Tull’s instrumental intro to The Waking Edge
is interspersed with brighter chimes and guitar plucks that shine, but not obtrusively so, with the IE 300. In each case, the bass tones serve to balance out any hardness in the treble, though not completely, if you know what I mean.
Where I feel the IE 300 lacks, by comparison, to higher-end (and higher-priced) IEMs, is in its absolute resolving ability, which gives the treble some of the hardness I speak of. More resolution usually helps to smooth out the gradation of treble notes, and while the IE 300’s resonator likely catches the hardest of these imperfections, the triple resonator in the IE 900 does a much better job, again only by comparison. There’s also some faint grain in some vocals, and a hint of sibilance in higher-register female vocals, but these issues
are both more prevalent in poor recordings.
While I wasn’t expecting top-shelf technical ability for $300, the IE 300 doesn’t skimp on technicalities either. Soundstage
, for example, is neither out-of-my-head wide or inside-my-head intimate, finding a happy ground somewhere in-between the two. Yosi Horikawa’s Bubbles
don’t feel like they’re all dropping on top of each other, with some even edging just beyond the imaginary borders of my ears. The IE 300 also displays reasonable depth with this track, so the effects aren’t entirely one-dimensional. I’d say the IE 300 has very natural, life-like staging, with the bass in particular given space to reverberate around the room, creating a good sense of space with most tracks.
Imaging, layering and separation
are also fairly good, and very good for such a modestly-priced IEM. The female vocals and male backing vocals on Whitehorse’s Dear Irony
are realistically placed dead centre and just left of centre respectively, and also layered ever so slightly apart. Instrument separation is particularly impressive on this track, which is not an easy feat for any IEM to pull off, let alone a so-called ‘entry-level’ IEM.
Detail and resolution
, on the whole, is average. This is not necessarily a bad thing either. Where technical acuity isn’t quite up to top-of-the-line standards, a slightly less resolving IEM papers over more cracks than it exposes. This makes the IE 300 equally suited to playing less-than-perfect pop recordings like Dido’s No Angel
as it is masterfully recorded productions like Rebecca Pidgeon’s Spanish Harlem
. That said, the IE 300 has excellent clarity
regardless of genre, and I’m yet to hear any veil or muddiness in its sound.
is also very decent, impressive even, with the IE 300 able to articulate subtle nuances and sudden bursts of volume in equal measure. When Hans Zimmer’s Mountains
bursts into life at the 2-minute mark, the emotion communicated through the crescendo is palpable, while all the subtle details and effects in and around the main strings and piano strikes are clean and clear. Likewise, I was impressed by how the build-up to Max Richter’s Winter 1
wasn’t totally obscured, with subtle cues in the opening string instruments loud enough to enjoy, even at lower volume.
Overall the technical performance of the IE 300 was better than expected but not quite as advanced as what I’d want (and get) from a high-end IEM like the IE 900. Where this shows up most is on the ‘edges’ of tracks I know well, where minor details are missed (or obscured), or transitions aren’t quite as smooth or refined
as I know them to be. For most intents and purposes, however, these deficiencies won’t be picked up by the majority of listeners, particularly more casual listeners who rely mainly on streaming services for their music delivery.
Sennheiser IE 900
. I’ve seen and read so many reviews that question the value of the IE 900 because, and I paraphrase, it’s only a subtle improvement
over the IE 300 for far more money. Well, I’m here to tell you that as nice as it might be to think you can get almost the same quality of sound for less than a quarter of the price, in the case of the IE 300 and IE 900, that’s simply not the case.
If you’ve read my review to this point, you’ll already know I think quite highly of the IE 300. The technology, the design, the fit, are all at a very high level, much more so than the asking price suggests. The sound, too, is really very good, better than most $300 IEMs I’ve heard, and by some margin too.
But the IE 900, well, it’s in a different class altogether. Yes, some sound ‘improvements’ are more subtle than others, but on the whole, comparing like-for-like (same cable, same source, same files), the IE 900 represents a significant upgrade
in every audible facet, most notably in technical performance. While they may share many tonal similarities, the IE 900 is further refined, and despite their FR graphs looking very similar, the two IEMs sound more different than the squiggly lines suggest.
For example, the IE 900’s greater bass impact is apparent in the opening salvo of Missincat’s Piu Vicino
, where the drums hit harder, deeper, faster and with more weight and texture than they do with the IE 300. This track also clearly shows the larger virtual space the IE 900 creates, and the markedly increased resolution and separation which makes subtle background sounds and effects much easier to hear. Vocals are also quite a bit smoother on the IE 900, with the IE 300 adding a touch of sibilance that’s completely absent with its bigger brother. Lastly, the dynamic swing is larger on the IE 900, with softer sounds remaining soft, louder sounds hitting a higher crescendo, and the overall character of the music becoming more dynamic as a result.
Switching to one of my favourite EDM tracks, Armin van Buuren’s Intense
collab with Miri Ben-Ari, and the flatter stage of the IE 300 is immediately noticeable, with less space for the notes to decay. Miri’s intro violins have a harder edge to them on the IE 300, not nearly as nuanced as they sound with the IE 900, and as new sounds and effects are added, they tend to overlap with each other far more with the IE 300 than they do with the IE 900. The smaller space also lends less room for the bass drop rumble, which is less distinct and shorter than it is with the IE 900.
Similar comparisons can be made between the two IEMs when listening to the beautifully instrumental Trotto
by Angels of Venice, a track I use to highlight the realism that’s possible to achieve with simple (indeed mediaeval) instruments. Once again, stage size is larger and more holographic with the IE 900, flatter and more one-dimensional with the IE 300. But the biggest difference is the ability to distinguish subtle nuances in the playback of each instrument: the drums, whistles, flutes and bells, each in their own space. The IE 900 conveys a much richer and more life-like sense of the surface texture and size of each instrument, especially when they strike together. To use an analogy, this track shows better than most the difference between the 720P of the IE 300 and the 4K of the IE 900, not only in resolution but also in richness, contrast, and dynamic range.
All that said, is it even fair to compare the two siblings, given the $1000-plus price difference between them? Of course not, but also yes
at the same time. Whether or not the quality difference of IE 900 is worth the extra money is a very personal choice, especially since the IE 300 is, despite the stark comparisons I made above, a very capable performer. It easily stands up against IEMs that cost more, and I can’t think of any IEMs that I prefer that cost less.
But to say the IE 900 is an incremental upgrade is false economy at best, downright inaccurate at most. That doesn’t mean everyone will get the same benefit from the upgrade, or even prefer it. Listen to compressed, lossy or poorly recorded music, and you might actually be better off with the less resolving IE 300. And of course, the IE 300 represents much better value if you’re not inclined to invest four figures in an IEM. So while the argument for and against can be made either way, the truth remains that sound-wise, the IE 900 will scale higher, sound better, and deliver a much more technically astute and tonally refined performance.
. Here’s another one you might think is an apples versus
oranges comparison. But look closer and you’ll start to see the similarities and overlaps. Both IEMs retail at around the $300 mark, and while their technologies differ (the Sony obviously being a self-contained, true wireless Bluetooth IEM), they’re really aiming for the same market: audio-loving consumers who want the best sound quality at an accessible price, with maximum mobility thrown into the bargain.
It’s true that the IE 300 will sound slightly different depending on the source – be it a smartphone, computer, DAP or desktop sound system – and that the Sony should essentially remain consistent because all of its amplification and sound smarts are internal. But given the same playback device (in my example, an LG smartphone), and it becomes more a case of which sound signature you prefer, and how many features you need from your IEMs.
It’s stating the obvious, but the IE 300 can’t compete with the Sony feature-for-feature. There’s no active noise cancellation, no built-in bone conduction microphones for calls, no inline volume and playback controls, no water resistance, no ambient or speak-to-chat functionality. So if all of these features are essential to you, stop reading right here and buy the Sony. But if you can live with having most of those features in the phone itself and focus purely on sound quality for music playback, the choice becomes much harder.
Normally I’d say the IE 300, as a wired IEM, is a shoe-in for sound quality. But true wireless technology has advanced to the point where IEMs like the Sony XM4 are quickly catching up to their wired counterparts, especially if listening is going to be less critical and more casual, like during the workday, for example.
Arooj Aftab’s gorgeous rendition of Baghon Main
catches almost all the subtlety of the music and pristine vocals with the XM4, but even though the IE 300 sharpens the focus somewhat, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything, and indeed the Sony is probably the smoother of the two when I change focus from the music to writing this review. With its easy transitions from bass to mids, and a slightly rolled treble, the Sony is both warmer and softer, but no less engaging and entertaining than the IE 300 with this and similar music.
The IE 300 pulls away when it comes to pure detail retrieval, where its higher resolution compared to the Sony is telling on tracks like Rosie Thomas’s Why Waste More Time
. I’ll tell you why, because switch sources from a smartphone to a dedicated DAP, and the IE 300 benefits from the jump in source performance, whereas the Sony sounds exactly the same. If you know you’re going to use a higher-end source, even a basic external audio dongle, chances are the IE 300 will reward you with a jump in sound quality above what the Sony can offer, despite its obviously excellent audio hardware.
Today the choice between the Sony and Sennheiser comes down to convenience versus quality, but I can see a time in the not-too-distant future where wireless technology will evolve to the point where wired IEMs don’t make much sense below a certain price point, for music lovers and purists anyway. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re not as far away as I used to think we were.
Sennheiser’s IE 300 wasn’t exactly what I expected it to be coming into this review. Everything I’d heard about it to that point was prefaced on it being the ‘baby brother’ of the more mature IE 900, but aside from the name and obvious family resemblance, I don’t think the IE 300 really lives in the same city, let alone neighbourhood.
None of this is a slight on the IE 300. As an IEM designed to bring home some of Sennheiser’s trademark sound at a price point favoured by more casual consumers, it delivers much more than that. Not only does it take its design cues from on-stage IEMs, with its fold-over, over-ear aesthetic, but the driver and technology inside the shell also have a storied history of innovation and manufacturing precision.
The IE 300 has an easy-going sound that’s neither too laid back nor overly intense. It’s a warm sound balanced by sparkling treble that, on occasion, gets close to my tolerance for zinginess, but somehow always seems to play nice with just about any music I’m in the mood for. I like how Sennheiser has managed to produce a beefy IEM with plenty of bass that doesn’t sound too bassy, and one with plenty of treble that doesn’t sound harsh or strident. Best of all, vocals are generally really well done, sounding clean, clear and natural, with only minor issues borne mostly out of poor recordings rather than poor performance.
Of course, the IE 300 isn’t going to win any technical awards, with its average resolving power (compared to higher-end IEMs anyway) and moderate stage size, but neither is it dull or cramped, and there’s more than enough detail to satisfy all but the most ardent listener. It’s also very well made, and assuming you find it as comfortable as I do, it can easily be worn for longer listening sessions throughout the day.
So who is this IEM for? Anyone who’s new to IEMs and wants maximum sound quality from a trusted brand for starters. Also, anyone who needs a small, light, easily-carried IEM with stellar sound quality for commutes, shift work, and light exercise will find much to like in the IE 300. And if you’re someone who’s had your fill of Eastern-tuned IEMs and want to hear Sennheiser’s take on a fun-reference tuning, the IE 300 could be just the ticket.
It has a big sound that’s immediately impressive, is easily driven from any source, comes with top-grade accessories, and carries a two-year worldwide warranty, so while some corners were necessarily cut to make it all work (it’s made in China rather than Germany, for example), you’re still getting far more than it says on the tin. In fact, at the current retail price of $249, I believe the Sennheiser IE 300 to be one of the best-value IEMs regardless of price, and exceptionally competitive for what it offers in its price range.