Sennheiser IE 8 In-Ear Headphone (Playback 31)

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Sennheiser IE 8
Sennheiser IE 8 In-Ear Headphone (Playback 31)

Sennheiser’s IE 8 ($449.95) is the firm’s flagship in-ear headphone and it’s a product I’ve wanted to hear ever since I got an introduction the IE8 and IE7 models at a Sennheiser tradeshow booth well over a year ago. At the time, 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 during that initial booth tour 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’t think of another that provides the feature). This is why I’ve dubbed the IE8 the “Flexible Flagship.” Unlike most top-tier models, the IE8 not only offers a very satisfying core sound, but also offers its owners a range of “sound tuning” options that in particular affect the headphone’s bass balance.

Here’s how the IE8’s “Sound Tuning” feature 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).

As you’ll discover in a moment, the “sound tuning” adjustment screws affect only bass balance, but interestingly they give the subjective impression 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. No matter your preference, I think a big part of the IE8’s appeal—apart from its strong core performance—is that fact that it provides a mechanism for catering to a broad spectrum of listener tastes and preferences.

Somewhat unusually, the Sennheiser Web site does not list the IE 8’s among its “Audiophile Headphones,” (though I certainly think it ought to), but rather lists them among the firm’s “Professional Headphones.” Go figure. My advice: jus declare your self a “professional music listener” and then go give the IE 8’s a try.

OVERVIEW

Consider this in-ear headphone if: you want a headphone that does all things well, combining accurate tonal balance, very good levels of detail and resolution, and an uncanny quality of sonic smoothness. Also look at the IE 8 if you like the idea of the headphone's user adjustable "sound tuning" feature.

Look further if: you find the IE 8's oblong earpieces somewhat uncomfortable or hard to fit (the only way to know this is to try a pair and see what you think). Note, too, that while the IE 8 is offer very fine resolution, detail, and focus, there may be one or two competitors that can narrowly edge it out. 

Ratings (compared to similarly-priced headphones)

  • Tonal Balance: 9
  • Frequency Extremes: 9.5
  • Clarity: 9
  • Dynamics: 9
  • Comfort/Fit: 8
  • Sensitivity: 8.5
  • Value: 9

SONIC CHARACTER

The IE 8 is defined by three main sonic characteristics. First and foremost, the IE 8 offers smooth, well extended, and generally neutral tonal balance. In this key area of performance, I feel that the IE 8 takes its place among an elite group of three so-called “universal fit” (as opposed to custom fit) in-ear headphones that, for me, represent the absolute crème de la crème within today’s market. The other two headphones in my select “group of three” are the Shure SE 530 (which will be superseded later this year by the new SE535) and the Monster Cable Turbine Pro Copper Edition.  What distinguishes the IE 8 from its competitors, however, is its unique “sound tuning” feature, which allows users to dial-in precise amounts of additional bass output either to suit their listening tastes or to help the headphones adapt to environments where excessive low-frequency background noise is present.

More so than many in-ear ‘phones, the IE 8’s seem extremely sensitive to wearers achieving a truly airtight seal between the ‘phones and their ear canals (actually, all in-ear ‘phones are like this to a degree, but I found that the low bass performance of the IE 8’s absolutely falls apart if there are air leaks of any kind). Happily, the Sennheisers come with an extremely broad array of eartips for users to try, so that there should be a solution for just about everyone. And one you do find eartips that seal properly it’s “fasten your seatbelts” time, since the IE8’s offer absolutely stupendous bass response—response so deep and powerful that some might find it a little overpowering, at least at first.

Second, the IE 8’s are highly detailed and therefore extremely revealing headphones. When you switch to the IE 8’s from most other in-ear ‘phones (even quite good ones), it is typical to be struck by just how much more musical information the IE 8’s are able to capture or resolve. In a general sense, this means that listening sessions with the flagship Sennheisers take on a quality of discovery, as bits and pieces of the overall musical tapestry suddenly snap into fine focus in ways they might not have done before. Where other headphones might vaguely hint or suggest at what’s going on in the mix, the IE 8’s wade right in and show you what’s happening in explicit, graphic detail.

Third, however, comes a sonic characteristic that doesn’t always prove compatible with high levels of resolution and detail: namely, an overarching quality of smoothness that makes the IE 8’s relaxing to listen to over long periods of time.  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 pursue detail and resolution with real gusto, yet somehow manage to stop just short of becoming edgy or obnoxious. I’m not quite sure how Sennheiser pulled this off, but I’m glad that they did.

 

MUSICAL EXAMPLES

In some respects there is nothing quite so revealing of an audio component’s sonic potential as a good solo piano recording, and knowing this I put on the virtuoso pianist Joel Fan’s West of the Sun—Music of the Americas [Reference Recordings]. I focused in particular on two tracks: first, Fan’s performance of Astor Piazzolla’s moody “Preludes (3) for Piano: no 2, Flora’s Game, Milonga Prelude” and then his rendition of the muscular first movement of Albert Ginastera’s “Sonata for Piano No. 1, Op. 22: Allegro marcato.” What made this listening experience so informative was hearing the dramatically different voicings and overall emotional cast that Fan brought to each piece.

For the Piazzolla piece, Fan pulled forth a fluid, lilting, mysterious sound from the piano tinged with a touch of melancholy. Through the IE 8’s the effect was almost that of hearing the soundtrack of a dance sequence from beautiful yet also haunting dream. The Sennheisers rendered individual piano notes cleanly and sweetly, while allowing the dynamic envelopes of individual passages to ebb and flow in a gentle, ethereal way—so that the music seemed almost to be floating on a cushion of air.

Then, when Fan transitioned to the Ginastera composition, the mood and overall sound of the piano abruptly changed, taking on a vigorous, punchy, angular quality, so that notes (and their accompanying harmonics) seemed almost to explode outward and upward from the bottom of the piano’s soundboard. Where many headphones would have taken on a harsh, strident edge on the Ginastera piece, the IE 8’s simply drew a deep breath and then burst forth at full song, but without—and this is very important—so much as a trace of edginess and glare.

My point is that the IE 8’s have the delicacy and subtlety to show the almost dreamlike inner workings of the Piazzolla piece, but also the power, muscle, clarity, and drive to do justice to the Ginastera Sonata. But at all times, listeners will appreciate and enjoy the Sennheiser’s exquisite mix of clarity, definition and—most impressively—unfailing smoothness. It’s that latter quality that make you want to keep listening to the IE 8’s long after other headphones would have become tiresome.

 

COMPETITIVE COMPARISONS

Let me provide comparisons to show how Sennheiser’s IE 8 stacks up relative to two of its closest competitors, the Shure SE 530 and Monster Cable Turbine Pro Copper Edition.

Sennheiser IE 8 vs. Shure SE530

  • The SE 530 lists for between $499.99 and $549.99, while the IE 8 retails for $449.95. Research shows that street pricing for both models falls significantly below retail pricing, and that the two products are similarly priced.
  • The SE 530 offers a handy PTH (Push-to-Hear) module as an option that allows users to momentarily turn down the music and instead to hear natural room sounds (via an inline mic) at the push of a button. The IE 8 does not offer such an option.
  • The IE 8 offers a user adjustable “sound tuning” feature where the SE 530 does not.
  • The IE 8 offers detachable/replaceable signal cables where the SE 530 does not (though Shure’s next-generation SE 535—slated for release later this year—will incorporate this feature).
  • The SE 530 is a three-driver design which proponents say gives the Shure an advantage in terms of optimizing drivers to cover specific portions of the audio spectrum. On the other hand, the IE 8 arguably enjoys a narrow edge in overall sonic purity and coherency.
  • Tonal balance for both headphones is similar, at least when the IE 8 is left in its default bass output setting. Of course, the IE 8 does allow dialing-in additional bass should the circumstances warrant.
  • Both headphones come with extensive set of eartips, so that users should plan on spending time experimenting to find which tips work best for them.
  • Both headphones use over-the-ear cable routing schemes, which will please some listeners but frustrate others. On the whole, the SE 530 is easier to fit owing to the fact that its earpieces are smaller and more smoothly shaped (in contrast, the IE 8 earpieces are somewhat large and more angular so that creased edges can and sometimes do come into contact with ear surfaces). Once properly fitted, though, long term comfort between the two headphones is comparable.

Sennheiser IE 8 vs. Monster Cable Turbine Pro Copper Edition

  • The Copper Editions retail for $399.99, while the IE 8’s retail for $449.95. Research suggests, however, that the street price for the IE 8’s may well be lower than that of the Copper Editions.
  • The IE 8 offers a user adjustable “sound tuning” feature, where the Copper Editions do not.
  • Tonal balance for the IE 8’s and Copper Editions is similar, though the Copper Editions do sound just slightly more extended at the frequency extremes (though this is a subtle difference that some listeners might not notice at first).
  • Both designs offer very high degrees of purity and coherency, though when push comes to shove I would say the edge goes to the Copper Editions. That said, however, note that ultra-high levels of transparency and detail are not necessarily what all listeners are looking for (one man’s “excellent resolution” can be another man’s “too much information”). Listeners who crave resolution, detail and focus will probably gravitate toward the Copper Editions, while music lovers who want their sonic details be presented with absolutely uncanny smoothness will likely prefer the IE 8s.
  • Both headphones offer an excellent array of eartips, and both require considerable trial-and-error experimentation to find out which eartips work best for a given user. In an absolute sense, Monster’s dual-layer, gel-type Super Tips are among the most sonically effective eartips I’ve yet heard, though their somewhat stiff consistency means they may not be the last word in wearer comfort.
  • On the whole, the compact Copper Editions are easier to fit and more comfortable for very long listening sessions than the somewhat more awkwardly shaped IE 8’s. In part, the Copper Editions benefit from the fact that they do not require over-the-ear cable routing, though the IE 8’s are helped along by the fact that the IE 8 earpieces are featherweight designs. In contrast, the Copper Edition’s solid metal earpiece housings, though compact, can feel a bit “chunky” at times.
  • The IE 8 carries a superb two-year warranty, but the Copper Editions come with an unbeatable limited lifetime free replacement warranty—even if users are responsible for breaking the headphones.

COMFORT FACTOR/ACCESSORIES

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, and so on). One word of caution: 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. Patience is the order of the day.

Inside the packing case you’ll find:

  • One pair of IE 8 headphones, equipped with 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 included cleaning/”sound tuning” 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 snap-on, soft rubber ear hooks (designed to make the IE 8’s, which are designed for over-the-ear cable routing, more comfortable).
  • A set of seven user instruction manuals in various languages, including English.

I found the IE 8’s noticeably easier to fit and more comfortable to wear than the IE 7 models I’ve previously reviewed. There are two main reasons for this improvement. First, the IE 8’s earpieces seem smaller and better shaped than the IE 7’s peculiarly sharp-edged earpiece. Second, unlike the IE7, which uses a stiff, built-in, over-the-ear cable guide, the IE 8 provides flexible and, should the need arise, replaceable signal cables that can be equipped with soft, snap-on rubber ear hooks if you so desire. Personally, I found the ear-hooks a bit cumbersome, so I elected not to use them, but the good news is the IE 8 design leaves the choice to you.

In an absolute sense, however, I would say the IE 8 offers good but not great levels of comfort, primarily because its earpieces are relatively large and angularly shaped—at least in comparison to some other top-tier headphones such as the Klipsch Image X10i or the Monster Cable Turbine Pro Copper Edition. Both of those compact designs are more relaxing to wear for long periods of time.

An appealing detail is Sennheiser’s beefy hard-shell carrying case, which neatly provides a place for you to coil up the IE 8’s signal cables, storage for a few necessary accessories, a cool “silica gel” chamber that helps wick moisture away from the ‘phones when they’re not in use, and a tough outer shell that offers meaningful protection for these expensive beauties when you are on the go.  

BOTTOM LINE

Sennheisers IE 8 is one of the three finest “universal fit” in-ear headphones I’ve ever heard. It offers the terrific combination of neutral tonal balance, very high levels of sonic coherency and purity, and exceptional smoothness. But for many users, the pièce de résistance will be Sennheiser’s distinctive “sound tuning” feature, which makes the IE 8 a truly flexible flagship that can adapt to fit its owners’ tastes and preferences. 

SPECS&PRICING

Sennheiser IE 8 In-Ear Headphones

Accessories: See above.
Weight: 15 grams with cable (5 grams without cable)
Sensitivity: Not specified (maximum output, 125 dB SPL)
Impedance: 16 Ohms
Warranty: 2 years
Price: $449.95

Sennheiser Electronics Corporation
1 Enterprise Drive
Old Lyme, CT 06371
(860) 434-9190
www.sennheiserusa.com

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