(Editor’s Note: what follows is a blog—not a formal product review. In keeping with longstanding practice at Playback, we typically like to do “First Listen” articles to give you initial impressions when products first arrive, and then to follow up with in-depth product reviews later on. Enjoy.)
Sennheiser’s IE 8 ($449.95) is the firm’s flagship in-ear headphone and it’s a product I’ve wanted to hear for a very long time. I’ve previously reviewed lower cost Sennheiser in-ear models and a number of their full-size, over-the-ear headphones, but somehow the IE8’s remained elusive (perhaps because Sennheiser sell all that it can make?)—until now, that is.
What drew me to the IE 8’s was an introduction that I got at a Sennheiser tradeshow booth well over a year ago. The booth guide explained that while the second-to-the-top-of-the-line IE 7s and top-of-the-line IE 8s were both intended as top-tier performers, the IE 7 offered—deliberately—slightly brighter or more “treble rich” tonal balance overall, while the IE8 offered more neutral voicing (which is always music to my ears, if you’ll pardon the pun).
But what I didn’t realize at the time was that the IE 8 actually offers user adjustable voicing—a feature not commonly seen in in-ear headphones (in fact, off the top of my head, I really can think of another that provides the feature). Here’s how it works. Each of the IE 8’s earpieces provides a small, recessed frequency-response adjustment screw, complete with finely graduated adjustment markings (so that you can experiment and easily repeat settings that work best for you). When the screws are turned full counter-clockwise, frequency response measurements are as flat (or neutral) as possible. But, because some listeners perceive measurably flat response as being a bit bass-shy, Sennheiser lets you dial in more bass emphasis by turning the screws in the clockwise direction (more rotation = more bass emphasis).
While you may or may not wish to adjust response from its default neutral position (I had a strong preference for the neutral setting), it’s nice to know that at least some range of bass adjustment is possible. Interestingly, though the adjustment screws affect only bass balance, they give the illusion of adjusting the “tilt” or slope of the headphone’s entire response curve. As you turn the screws toward the full-neutral position, the headphone sounds brighter and a perhaps a bit more open through the midrange, while with the screws turned the other way, toward maximum bass emphasis, the headphone takes on a darker, deeper, warmer cast.
What’s In the Box?
The Sennheiser IE 8 come in a neat rectangular packing case with a flip-open lid and a multi-level series of foam packing trays within (one level contains the headphones, themselves, while another contains their hard-plastic carrying case plus accessories. Frankly, the packing case fits together a bit like a challenging children’s puzzle, so that it takes some time to figure out how to get at the contents (then again, they say you have to be smarter than the box in order to use what’s inside it…).
Once you get everything unpacked, you’ll find the IE 8 package includes:
- · One pair of IE 8 headphones, which come with—get this—a detachable, user-replaceable signal cord.
- · One hard-shell, foam-lined carrying case for the IE8’s, with a built-in winding spool for the signal cables, holders for two spare sets of eartips, a clamp that holds the cleaning/adjustment tool, and a chamber where you can insert an (included) dry salt pad that draws moisture away from the IE 8’s.
- · A large assortment of eartips including three sets of standard rubber tips (sizes S, M, L), three sets of dual-flange or “lamellar” tips (sizes S, M, L), two pairs of foam rubber tips (sizes S, L) and two pairs of “mushroom form” tips (sizes S, L).
- · One cable clip (for holding the signal cable to a garment so that it doesn’t flop around).
- · One pair of soft-rubber ear hooks (designed to make the IE 8’s, which are designed for over-the-ear cable routing, more comfortable).
- · One combination cleaning and bass response adjustment tool.
- · One dry salt pad, to helps keep moisture out of the IE 8s.
- · A set of seven user instruction manuals in various languages, including English.
It took me a while to identify the set of eartips that worked best for me (I ultimately chose the large standard tips), but once I got fit properly dialed in I was treated to one of the most delightfully neutral, full-range sounds I’ve ever heard from any in-ear headphone. While it’s still a little early on in my listening routine to make sweeping pronouncements, I think that in terms of overall smoothness, neutrality, and extension of frequency response, the IE 8 will be able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with two of the best top-tier in-ear headphones I’ve heard thus far—the Shure SE 530 and the Monster Cable Turbine Pro Copper Edition.
Note, though, that my favorable comments are based on using the IE 8’s in a fairly quiet environment with their frequency response adjustment screws set in the full-neutral position (i.e., with no bass enhancement added). Under those conditions I found the IE 8’s bass response was so taut, powerful, and deeply extended that I could not imagine wanting to add more. That said, however, I would observe that with this ‘phone getting a truly airtight seal is absolutely critical to enjoying optimal bass response and that getting a really good eartip seal with the IE 8s was not easy for me (actually, all in-ear phones are sensitive to fit, but the IE 8’s seemingly more so than most).
In the broader scheme of things, I suspect that one reason why Sennheiser makes provisions for dialing in even more bass is to account for he fact the IE 8’s may be used in environments where there could be lots of loud, low-frequency noise present. In such environments, it could potentially be helpful to turn up the low-end response to “cut through” masking noises in the background.
I was also struck by two other characteristics of the IE 8 that I look forward to exploring in more depth. On one hand, they are extremely detailed and revealing, yet on the other hand they possess an uncannily smooth and relaxed quality that makes them easy to listen to. Frankly, most other ‘phones that reveal as much detail as the IE 8’s do tend also to expose rough edges in the music in sometimes unpleasant ways. In contrast, though, the IE 8’s skew the balance more toward the “gain” than the “pain” side of the equation, which is fine with me so long as critically important sonic details don’t go missing in the process. Finding out just what is gained (and what may be lost) with the IE 8’s should, in sonic terms, prove an interesting and rewarding task.
Next month, I plan to offer a full-length review of the Sennheiser IE 8 in Playback. Until then, let me wish you enjoyable (and sometimes eye-opening) listening experiences of your own.