Audio giant Sennheiser has been named as an International CES Innovations 2013 Design and Engineering Awards Honoree for its IE 800 ear canal earphones in 2012. While it’s a huge deal to be recognized by such a prestigious program, it is ultimately the complete experience and not the design that audiophiles are concerned with. At a hefty $1,000, the Sennheiser IE 800 is one of the most expensive in-ear monitors in the market.
Design and Comfort
The aesthetically pleasing Sennheiser IE 800 owes it unique design to the rather small 7mm dynamic drivers. Their size allows for the sweeping curves of the dark grey ceramic housing and white-accented ports, while still keeping the headphones on the light side at just 8g. The Sennheiser logo has been subtly engraved on both sides, which simply reeks of inconspicuous elegance. Scoring high points for comfort, the silicone sleeves on the eartips are soft but facilitate a shallow fit, relieving you of the need to drill them into your ears.
They are also available in five pairs of different sizes for a more personalized fit. It was thoughtful, if not necessary, of Sennheiser to try to accommodate as many people as possible. Besides that, the nozzles of the eartips are positioned at a slight angle to conform to the ergonomics of the ear. The high-tech transducers are also adequately protected against earwax and dust by two metal mesh screens, one behind in the ear cushion and another inside the cone. You can use the accompanying cleaning tool to keep them nice and dry as well.
A leather flip case is also included in the box, which looks similar to flip cases for smartphones. The metal plate with the product name and serial number on the inside further strengthens the luxurious feel. However, the winding that you would have to do to actually store the earphones in the case isn’t exactly convenient. You could end up dumping the whole lot in your bag or shoving the earphones in your pocket if you’re in a hurry.
Unfortunately, unlike Sennheiser’s other earphones such as the IE 80, the IE 800 was intended to be worn cable-down, rather than up and over the ears. Another point of difference is that the Y-shaped cable is not detachable at the housings. Instead, they can be detached from the straight stem via a 2.5mm connection. This means that the straight stem of the cable is replaceable, whilst the Y-shaped portion is not. Nevertheless, it proves to be flexible and durable – which comes as no surprise seeing as the green interweave on it is actually made of Kevlar.
When talking about drivers in IEMs, rivals of the IE 800 such as AKG’s K3003 and Ultrasone’s IQ both employ hybrid driver systems. Logitech Ultimate Ears UE 18 Pro has a whopping six drivers per ear. So, do numbers matter? Sennheiser strives to demonstrate that quantity is overrated, with the 7mm extra wide-band driver that boasts of a frequency range of 8 Hz – 41,000 Hz. A typical human has the hearing range of only 20 Hz – 20,000 Hz, so that’s a significant statement. How that affects the audio performance will be explored later.
Apart from that, it’s apparently common for IEMs to not have an in-line microphone and remote. The IE 800 is no exception. Given their absence, Sennheiser’s claim of making “audiophile music on-the-go, a reality” draws a bit of incredulity. A big part of “on-the-go” music is listening to it while travelling or commuting, situations where an in-line remote and microphone would very much come in handy. Nevertheless, according to Sennheiser reps they could become available on a cable that would replace the straight stem portion sometime soon as an optional accessory.
The $1,000 question is this: does the low frequency response merit putting down substantially more money than usual? The IE 800 delivers a smooth, powerful low end that is always clear and rich, across a wide variety of songs that have deep low-end. Music from Kanye West, Radiohead and Franz Ferdinand sound absolutely spectacular. This is hardly surprising, seeing as Sennheiser has never turned its nose up at bass. Even at unsafe volume levels, there were no distortions to speak of.
Despite the powerful bass, the mid-range remains unblemished. Being the IE 800’s winning point, it is not drowned out by the low frequencies and is realistically clear. Vocals in particular have an eerie presence – it doesn’t sound as if someone is singing in your ear (that would be annoying) but rather in the immediate vicinity. The timbre is beautiful with acoustic instruments as well. In some tracks every twang of the guitar can be wonderfully picked up.
You would, however, be just the tiniest bit let down by the high range. It’s slightly brittle and splashy, and not as accurate as it could have been. Although at first it may deliver an extraordinary amount of detail, extended listening revealed that sopranos sound unnaturally thin. It’s not enough to warrant turning away altogether, but could nudge audiophiles to the smoother path of AKG K3003. Nonetheless, the treble extends much further than other multiple dynamic driver IEMs. When Sennheiser chose to go with one, the company knew what it was doing.
Overall, the IE 800’s soundstage is neither overly spacious nor closed-in. The super-clear mids express a feeling of directness and intimacy and the dynamics of the 7mm driver allowed for lovely layering. The separation is faultless, with distinct space for instruments and vocals. Although not as out-of-the-head as other IEMs out there, the imaging is good, but also sounds much less distant in the mid-range. That quite makes up for the reduction in soundstage.
The sheer amount of money you would have to hand over to get a pair of these earphones is frightening. At $1,000, no stones should be left unturned and nitpicking is required. Is the Sennheiser IE 800 worth it? On one hand, it provides an outstanding audio experience; an all-rounder with crystal clarity and great bass. On the other, petty details such as the construction, lack of microphone and remote, and irreplaceable cable may well be things that would make you wish you’d bought something cheaper and more complete. If you can live with these details, then the audio performance would have pointed you to the answer.