Somehow, there’s the perception that extremely high quality audio should be inexpensive to buy, whether through speakers or earphones, while a high quality television should naturally set you back about a thousand bucks. I get it—we’re a visual society, and a high-end HD image is awe-inspiring, but precision equipment, whether made to monitor audio, play video, or record either, is expensive because it represents the ideal. But even with this minority stance, I entered this review of the in-canal Sennheiser IE 800 earphones with some skepticism. If your budget matches the $999.95 (direct) price—first, congratulations—and second, it’s hard to see why you might not choose a custom model for just a little bit more, relatively speaking. That’s probably what I would do, but make no mistake: In the realm of non-custom molded earphones, the IE 800 is in a league of its own, and it easily earns another PCMag Editors’ Choice for Sennheiser.
Visually speaking, the IE 800 is simple, sleek, and attractive, but the beauty is really on the inside. Ceramic earpieces, which have a glazed, metallic look to them, house the 7mm transducers in each ear—Sennheiser claims they are the smallest “extra wide-band” transducers available. Indeed, these ear pieces, compared with, say, the custom-molded Logitech Ultimate Ears UE 18 Pro, with its six drivers per ear, are quite small and lightweight, yet they produce a powerful sound.
Each earpiece houses two bass ports on the outside panel, which help to move air flow created by the movement of the dynamic driver inside, and thus allow for more accurate, clean, and dynamic bass response. Each earpiece also houses a dampened dual chamber absorber that allows for more balanced overall response across the entire frequency range.
The cable protrudes from each ear and then joins into one just above mid-torso. Here, the extremely thin cable, which has a Kevlar-reinforced coating that is less prone to getting tangled, disconnects from the cable extension. It’s true that this allows for a replacement cable down the road, but it seems odd to not simply have the cable disconnect at the earpieces themselves—this area is often where a cable becomes damaged, and if that occurs with the IE 800, a replacement cable at the mid-torso connection won’t help any.
The eartips are oval-shaped, rather than perfect circles, which allows for a more secure fit. They also snap into place on the earpieces, so there’s no need to press them into place and force them on to the ends, which is the typical silicon eartip experience. Each eartip has a mesh filter that can be cleaned with the included cleaning tool, as does each earpiece—thus creating a dual mesh screen protection system that keeps unwanted debris (earwax, dust, etc.) from entering. The eartips—when removed from the earpieces—can be washed in lukewarm water. They need roughly 12 hours to dry before it’s okay to put them back on the IE 800.
Like many high-end, audiophile earphones, there’s no included microphone or remote control here—Sennheiser assumes you don’t want to have your music interrupted by calls. Regardless, Sennheiser claims that a microphone/remote control cable will be available for the IE 800 in the future, as an optional accessory. It’s odd that a 1/4-inch headphone jack adapter isn’t included with the IE 800, but those are easy enough to snag at Radio Shack.
In addition to the aforementioned cleaning tool, the IE 800 ships with five silicone ear tip pairs in various sizes, and a snazzy snap shut carrying case with a molded housing tray for the earphones that you can easily wrap the cable around.
The IE 800′s price should tell you it can handle deep bass at top volumes without any distortion, and indeed, tracks with challenging sub-bass content, like the Knife’s “Silent Shout”, do not cause any distortion, even at top, unsafe listening levels.
The real question is: Does the low frequency response sound like $1,000 low frequency response? Indeed, across a wide spectrum of songs that have deep low-end, from the likes of Fiona Apple, Radiohead, Kanye West, and PJ Harvey, the IE 800 provides a smooth, powerful low end that is always clear and rich, whether we’re listening to an acoustic double bass or intense synth bass sounds. Part of what helps it maintain such a precise low-end response, however, is the balance of the overall sound signature.
Bill Callahan’s “Drover” is delivered with some added thunder to the background drumming, as well as a bit of added richness to his deep baritone vocals, but the track also receives enough high-mid and high frequency presence to remain bright and articulate. Callahan’s vocals get a nice bit of treble edge through the IE 800—not so much that they are overly crisp or sibilant, but enough to keep the boosted lows from making things seem too bass heavy. The guitar strumming on this track also receives just the right amount of high-mid presence, and every element of the mix seems to comfortably occupy its own space. We don’t, for instance, hear the vocals doing battle with the drumming for your attention, as can sometimes occur through earphones that boost the lows too much.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the kick drum loop gets a nice, crisp attack, while its sustain is delivered with a warm follow-through. Sub-bass synth hits punctuate this loop, and they’re not delivered in way that is over-the-top, as you might here on a heavily bass-boosted pair—they have a depth to them that lends an ominous deep low presence to the mix, without things ever getting muddy or undefined.
On classical tracks, like John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” the IE 800 shines. Close your eyes, and you feel that you’re in the concert hall with the higher register strings and percussion; you can hear the growl of the brass attack in the right ear and briefly dance around the room’s walls. Lower register strings and percussion get a subtle level of boosting—just enough to add some depth to a mix that, on flatter pairs can sound, well, flat. Here, the low strings pulse with a beautiful richness and the large drum hits boom and fade with majesty with not a hint of unnatural, sculpted bass response about them. Through all of this, shakers and woodblocks that often get lost in the mix stand out vibrantly. This is what $1,000 earphones can do that $80 cannot.
But in the $1,000-and-up range, you have quite a few options. First, there are custom-molded earphones, three of our favorites being the aforementioned UE 18 Pro, the JH Audio JH13 Pro, and the Logitech Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors. If on-ear headphones are an option, the Grado GS1000 is not designed for a mobile lifestyle, but sounds about as amazing as a headphone pair can. It’s worth checking out our reviews and reading up on all of your options before pulling the trigger on the IE 800. Sennheiser has made, without a doubt, one of the best-sounding non-custom, in-canal earphones we’ve heard. If a custom-molded pair seems intrusive or a massive wooden headphone seems too bulky, the Sennheiser IE 800 brings dynamic, clean, clear, and powerful sound to a lightweight earpiece the way few earphones pairs ever have, earning it our Editors’ Choice award.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc