The Sennheiser IE-8: turning the earphone marketplace on its, um, 'ear' yet again.

Apr 5, 2009 (Updated Apr 6, 2009)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Stellar sonic performance, excellent comfort, very good noise isolation.

Cons:Minimal nitpicks: lackluster ‘unboxing’, fragile appearing cable for the price.

The Bottom Line: Despite being a relatively recent competitor to the earbud end of the headphone marketplace, Sennheiser’s superb, top-end IE-8 shows that they learn fast. Top money for a top-notch listening tool.

(Note: at the time of my posting of this review, the picture that is shown for the Sennheiser IE-8 here on Epinions is incorrect. The IE-8 is in-ear headset, not a full-sized headphones set like the illustration shows.)

Why is it that every time I think I'm right, given enough time to pass it always seems to turn out wrong? Such is the way of discovery and wonder with the Sennheiser IE-8.

However uninformed I ultimately may have been, I admit that for the longest time I was under the impression that my Shure SE530 in-ear monitor (IEM) headphones had set the standard for sonic reproduction when it came to standardized, production original equipment canal earphones (with possible apologies to any Westone 3 IEM fans reading this, although in truth I don't own a set of these canals so I can only go on word-of-mouth from around the internet with regards to the sonic quality this apparently fine set). The Shure design--upon their introduction--established the standard that only specialty, custom-fitted IEMs could surpass.

Starting life as the Shure E500, the model was re-branded the SE530 when Shure decided to reorganize their product line and distinguish their latest designs from the earlier ‘E’ series (E2c, E3c, E5c). I started my love affair with the E500, enjoyed that set immensely only to have it break and fall into a pit of despair and then to fall in love all over again when Shure replaced them under warranty with the SE530 set I now own.

From a performance standpoint, the E500/SE530 pretty much assassinated every IEM set I had owned and cherished previously. Lush and rich in tone and voice, they had a much more balanced sound across their frequency envelope than Shure's previous top model, the bass-heavy and boomy E5c canal set whose brief time with me never could foster any redeeming enjoyment. The E500 was the polar opposite, instead made for me a far and away more pleasing listening experience. The only downside was when the housing of the right earpiece cracked when changing ear tips, but Shure to its credit quickly sent the SE530 replacement. After two or so weeks of acoustic withdrawal (yes, they were indeed THAT sorely missed), the sonic nirvana was back.

Yet I speak of the E500/SE530’s supreme acoustic abilities in the past tense because there's a relatively new kid on my block that has abruptly made itself the king of the hill. From virtually the first listen it became abundantly plain that my newly acquired Sennheiser IE-8 canalphones have nabbed the top rung of my own short list of high-performance IEMs that I’ve owned. Even without full burn-in, the Sennheisers straight out of the box sounded so much better than my SE530, with none of the Shure's high end roll-off that I didn't fully appreciate--and more precisely, ultimately find irritating--until my extended use of the superb IE-8.

In hindsight I suppose it shouldn't have been a surprise; Sennheiser and their products have for the most part been able to please and gratify me for the past three decades. The IE-8 merely is the latest example of that sublime expertise and craft that little ol' headphone maker from Wedemark is capable of.

Packaging and Presentation

The IE-8 comes in a tidy if rather pedestrian plastic box, primarily made up of solid, thick opaque PVC-like sides (think plastic sewer pipe) then with a secondary thin, clear plastic cover under a cardboard covering flap that to me bears little of the sort of sophistication of the SE530's “wow-me” plate aluminum packaging. Instead, it has the look of average retail packaging hung on any anonymous retail display hook for just about any product. Many consumer electronics firms now make a HUGE deal out of the formal experience of the ‘unboxing’ of their products. Sennheiser evidently does not, apparently preferring an understated old-school approach. A jewel box this is not; the main plastic itself is the sort of quality that retailers like Sears use when they card their various hand tools for retail display; in other words, it's not very impressive or befitting to a product that Sennheiser is asking $450US for here on our shores. Obviously Sennheiser isn't interested in breaking the bank when it comes to retail shelf presentation, not that you’re likely to find the pricey IE-8 on a typical store shelf hook instead of a secured, locked storage case.
Once opened, there's a considerable amount of foam used to hold the various pieces in place inside the box; between this and the plastics it’s plain that Sennheiser wasn't shy in using non-green factor materials, both for the packaging and for the various bits and accessories. Included with the IE-8 is a drawer-like storage box (again plastic) with a metallic-like applied skin--evidently for providing a bit of bling--on the top and bottom. Besides storing the IE-8 and having capacity for two pairs of ear tips, a storage slot for a supplied ear tip/bass adjustment tool is molded into the bottom of the drawer.

Frankly it was something of a trying experience to open up the packaging without tearing it into shreds. Finely filed fingernails (honed like the blade of a screwdriver, not manicured) probably would’ve helped. Once open however, all of the innards included with the IE-8 were easily accessed. Sennheiser included a number of different ear tip solutions for the consumer, from foam to flanged silicone, in three sizes. Also included is a pair of curved plastic guides for wear around the ear, to better shape the lead wires over the top of one’s ear. Finally, there’s the perfunctory paperwork (warranty, owner’s guide, etc.) that typically comes with these sorts of consumer products.

In summary, the packaging wasn’t all that exciting and certainly didn’t play on the anticipation of a consumer’s psyche, particularly considering the cost of the IE-8. Unlike the rather impressive storage boxes one gets with Sennheiser’s full-sized headphones--the HD600 and HD650--the presentation of the IE-8 was something of a letdown. In addition, the throwaway materials weren’t very green. At this point I could only hope that the IE-8’s most important aspect--its sonic performance--would make all else seem irrelevant.

And boy, did it do just that.

The IE-8 in use

The appearance and styling of the IE-8 is very much on the understated side. Aside from the rather loud and plasticized-nee-chromed Sennheiser ‘pronouncements’ (i.e., logo) on each of the two earpiece’s side, the rest of the design is pleasingly subdued to my eyes. The supplied cable is definitely portable friendly (i.e., relatively short), but do however seem disappointingly thin and fragile and uses an ‘L’-shaped miniplug at the source end. It also comes with a sliding bolo guide to tighten up (if so desired) the individual channel leads going to each earpiece. As shipped from Sennheiser, the IE-8 has their large-sized silicone eartips installed. Also on each side of the IE-8’s earpiece is a small, flush adjustment screw for tweaking the bass response.

The ease of getting a comfortable, well-sealed fit turned out to be a revelation when compared to my SE530, which with itself really isn't hard to achieve (given enough experimentation in finding the right earpiece tip fitment, that is). Even though the standard silicone eartips installed at the factory proved not to be the best-sounding of the eartips that Sennheiser supplied, they did do a highly commendable job from a comfort standpoint. Even after I switched over to the largest of the flanged tips (the best sounding--and sealing--of the lot to my ears), the comfort level was still very high (please note that I’m also used to wearing flanged eartips, so your own mileage may vary). For the most part the IE-8 from a fitment standpoint has been for me a far-from fatiguing set of cans to wear.

But where the true benefit lies is in the IE-8's stunning and sublime audio performance; aside from tweaking the bass response a bit at the beginning, this set of canals is indeed far and above all others that I had previously experienced. In one fell swoop my once-worshipped SE530s weren’t the brilliant tools I thought them to be.

The performance of the IE-8 has yielded to me a more open and expansive imaging than that of the SE530, giving a lighter, more vibrant and realistic tonal experience without much in the way of harshness or loss of "meat" or full texture to the sound itself. To me, the audio quality of the IE-8 now makes the SE530 seem morosely dank and foreboding in comparison, something that prior to my listening to the Sennheisers I would not have thought was possible. In my back-to-back comparisons with the Shures, the IE-8's relatively open, rich and airy sound really shines; its enveloping soundstage--or probably more correctly should be referred to as 'headstage' as others have called it, considering the imaging and soundstage of headphones isn't really the same or as effective as the illusion created with a true set of loudspeakers--is the best I've experienced so far from any sort of IEM headphone set.

As I had mentioned in my earlier review of the Bang & Olufsen Form 2 headphones, I like to use Johannes Somary and the English Chamber Orchestra’s 1975 performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos as one of my focal auditioning tools. And use it I did...and was I totally blown away by the experience. Both with compressed files on my Sony NWZ-A829 PMP source device, and listening to the SACD material through my Denon DVD-3910 home theater DVD/CD/SACD multi-format player, the audio performance was incredible through such a tiny device such as the IE-8. There was no question that these are the very best IEMs that I’ve every experienced by far. Depth and complexity all luscious as it can be, substance and power where it was expected, delicateness where it was supposed to be...the IE-8 by and large handled it all as if it were no big thing.

The most amazing part of this transition is how realistic musical instruments capable of wide-range performance sound; their reproduction is truer to life on the IE-8 than with any IEM I’ve previously used. Piece after musical piece this was the case; Steinways sound very much like Steinways. A Gibson Les Paul sounds nearly as it should. A Stradivarius singing like only a Strad can sing. I could detect very little in the way of colorization to the IE-8’s ability to reproduce a lifelike sound with instrumental performances aside from perhaps a bit tightness that should loosen with use. Sounds decay realistically, reverberations seem to create a reasonably believable 3D environment...well at least as good as a set of IEMs is capable of.

The IE-8 does the higher reaches of the frequency range considerably better than the SE530; that much was made clear with my first listen with the Sennheisers. Even though my ears' own ability to discern frequencies details above 16KHz isn't what it once was thirty or even twenty years ago, I still can make out nuances and hear tones around that mark (assuming the calibrations with my Audio Control graphic equalizers are straight and true, which at least at this point I have no reason to question or doubt). The IE-8 doesn't have the treble roll-off that almost all of my other IEMs suffer from, including my once-vaunted SE530 set. Of the canal sets I own, only my Etymotic ER-4s does highs this well.

But unlike the IE-8, the Etys are utterly hopeless on the low end. The IE-8 does the bass end of the hearing range nearly as well as it does the highs. Bass performance is prominent and firm, and sounds great with balanced, well-recorded music. Yet if there is any personal hesitation with the IE-8’s performance it was with music heavy with midrange-to-lower frequency information; I felt that the IE-8 at times seem to overindulge in this part of the spectrum, not sounding muddy or boomy but still giving the feeling that the midrange and mid-bass was too pronounced and overemphasized, in particular keenly felt with pop vocals and with material that’s marginally mastered. In all likelihood this is something that proper burn-in will rectify; with use the IE-8 should smooth, soften and relax its already amazing voice, as I’ve often discovered to be the case with other Sennheiser headphones I own.

In general, the IE-8’s low-end performance is quite exemplary with the right set of eartips, and the ability to adjust the bass performance via the integral gain controls is a definite plus, but ONLY if you really prefer a less-than-optimal seal for your eartips for comfort purposes. With a well-sealed set of tips the gain control is more or less pointless; the minimal setting which the IE-8 is preset at from the factory provides more than enough bass performance for me. Fact is, with the gain only a bit tweaked up with a well-sealed set of tips, I found the IE-8’s sound out-the-box rather fatiguing to listen to. Again, this should mellow with use and burn-in.

The IE-8’s proper burn-in time seems to be all over the place on the internet; some have quoted as little as 48 hours before a notable, audible difference can be discerned and enjoyed, while others have stated as much as 400 hours is needed before the IE-8’s sound is ultimately perfected. Both may be true, but unlike others who defer to setting the IE-8 aside and sending pink noise or continuous music through to complete the burn-in process to achieve the optimal sonic result before actual usage, I’d much prefer listening to and enjoying them throughout that period. Straight out of the box, they’re already THAT good and it seems criminal to just let that time go to waste even if the IE-8 hasn’t matured to its optimal ideal sound just yet.

Across all music genres that I've tried, that the IE-8 handled each with an ease and aplomb was indeed a pleasant revelation. "Giddy" doesn't even come close to describing the feeling, but at least should give you an idea of where the IE-8 has initially taken me in the short time that I’ve had them. When put up against their competition in this segment of the market, these are indeed worth their hefty price tag. Yet with the euphoria comes a bit of sadness; a lot of money was spent on my earlier IEMs; now all of them, including the Shure SE530--itself a pricey set--seem so outdated and obsolete.

In many ways this step-up in sonic revelation from the SE530 feels ironically the same as it was when I first put on my Shure E500 and comparing that audio experience to my Ultimate Ears UE-5 Pros or the previously mentioned Etymotic ER-4S canals. The step up from those sets was a huge epiphany in and of itself. Yet as great as that was a couple or so years ago, today the Shures sound severely compressed when compared to the IE-8’s own ear-opening sound. While I won't flatly declare that that the IE-8 now makes the top-end Shures completely unlistenable, I will say that I now lust after the IE-8's audio abilities over any other IEM set I own, and will reach for the Senns first above all others.

Aside from my observations about the IE-8 base sound, other nitpicks are few: I dislike the supplied `L'-shape miniplug--I prefer the straight-shot, in-line configuration. As described above, the supplied cable itself is quite thin and seems quite fragile, particularly when compared to my UE-5 Pro or even my Shure set. But to Sennheiser's infinite credit the cable is user-replaceable up to the earpiece due to the fact that it's designed to be detachable from the very outset, which also opens up all sorts of possibilities of third-party options (paying attention, Stefan Audio Art? Cardas?) and/or alternative cable lengths. I suppose I could complain about the U.S. pricing for the IE-8, but that's why there are overseas options, which is what I chose to do, even at the risk of possibly not having factory warranty coverage.

The included drawer-like storage case is even cool. All in all the IE-8 has set an impressive standard by which other premium IEMs will now be judged. Then again I probably should not have expected any less from a company like Sennheiser (I admit it...I'm a Senn 'fanboy'...or should it be 'fancodger'...).

The purchasing experience

Given our current economic woes, I admit that it’s hard to justify a purchase as hefty as this is. In the U.S. we have few options on price if one chooses to go through an authorized dealer for the IE-8; $450US is the set price and it seems like that’s what every Sennheiser-approved reseller is currently pricing them at. To be fair, when Shure first introduced my once beloved E500/SE530, they too were in the same price class. However today, the SE530 can be easily found under $300US from authorized dealers, making the $450 price tag that Sennheiser wants for its IE-8 more than a little tough to swallow.

On the other hand, you can do like me and choose to buy them from Europe; even with the dollar still floundering a bit the exchange rate will still net you a significantly better deal. Amazon UK has them at a much more palatable price, which works out to around $275US or so before shipping with today’s exchange rate. Not exactly chump change, but a $175 savings isn’t something to dismiss out of hand, either. As for me, I went through an approved Sennheiser dealer in Northern Ireland for my IE-8s, and couldn’t have been happier with the transaction and the cost savings.

By buying overseas there may be some question over factory warranty coverage. Sennheiser’s own policy is unclear in this matter, at least to me. The item was purchased from an authorized outlet, so that particular aspect should pass muster. But crossing international borders is often a tricky thing; manufacturers are loathe to upset their own direct clientele--namely their dealers--within a specific country. And many companies do have stipulations that limit or even void warranty coverage if a product crosses national boundaries.

By openly offering full warranty coverage, the message sent by the manufacturer is that it’s looking the other way. In effect Sennheiser would be saying that it’s ok for consumers to freely purchase the product at the cheaper price from another part of the world--easily done with the internet these days--and effectively undercutting the enforced margins that U.S. dealers are compelled by Sennheiser to sell at.

Unhappy dealers are not a good thing for Sennheiser or any other goods manufacturer. Suddenly Sennheiser could find itself losing dealers to other suppliers, if only because the conditions exist that unfairly hogtie the U.S. reseller and keep inventory on store shelves rather than creating cash flow. So as to whether my IE-8 has warranty coverage? Who knows? But I do know that I’m going to treat these with kid gloves, at least as much as it is for me to possibly do so.

The Bottom Line

I have to say that even discounting the ‘fancodger’ aspect of my persona, I’d nonetheless be supremely impressed by Sennheiser’s little IE-8; I'm convinced that the IE-8 is a must-own set for any head gear audiophile barring a step up to custom fitment from Ultimate Ears, Sensaphonic, Westone or any of the others who offer such personalized, top-level units. Even if you don't consider yourself an audio snob, these Senns may be just the thing to convince you that it's not all that bad to actually BE one; these are that great. The IE-8 may not cause me to retire my beloved Sennheiser HD650/Stefan Audio Art Equinox set anytime soon, but then again, I can’t very well see myself toting around that full-sized rig every time I want my Walkman or iPod Touch with me when I’m out and about. Ho-hum packaging and an international cost-savings transaction aside, the Sennheiser IE-8 has been a more than deserving addition to my inventory of sonic headgear, well worth the effort and cost.

4.75 out of 5 stars. Supremely recommended for anyone who loves superb audio.

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