Sennheiser IE8 in Review – The Ace of Bass
If you haven’t heard of Sennheiser in your sojourn in the audio world, you have probably been living under a rock. If, however, you are new to the world of headphones, then you are forgiven, but need to be informed. Sennheiser have set many landmarks in the world of personal hi-fidelity audio including manufacturing the HE90 Orpheus which is the most expensive production headphone to date. They remain among the largest manufacturers on the planet with a resume that would embarrass Stephen Hawking and boast an impressively expanding portable line-up.
Tips: Sennheiser includes a generous ten pairs; including regular single-flange and double-flange silicones, plus an ingenious semi-hard foam tip which is my favourite. I call it the ‘Soamie’. It’s not squishy like a Shure Olive and doesn’t need compressing before use, which makes it quicker to insert, more durable and likely to last longer. Sadly, these don’t appear to be on general release as yet, although I hear there are plans to change this at a later date.
Carry case: Very good quality and nice to look at in brushed aluminium with a slide-out insert to wind the phones around. However, in real-life usage, I found it more trouble than it was worth. If you like to sit and methodically wrap cables a bazillion times around inserts, and then try in vain to find somewhere free to wedge in the headphone plug, then this will appeal to you. But if you like to wrap and stash your phones quickly like I do, then a semi-hard padded pouch does the job perfectly. I don’t like forcing my cables into the same position around inserts, for fear of putting strain on the same part of the cable all the time.
Other: A shirt clip, ear-hook guides and the bass-adjusting screwdriver which houses the ear-cleaning tool at the opposite end.
* The bass-adjuster is clipped (hidden), in an inverted holder at the bottom of the insert, so if you can’t find it, either turn it upside down, or turn yourself upside down.
IE8 Specifications – Dynamic Driver
- Cord: 1.2 m symmetrical (earphone to separator: 0.4m; separator to plug: 0.8m)
- Ear coupling: intraaural (ear canal fit)
- Frequency Response: 10Hz – 20kHz
- Impedance: 16 ohms
- Plug: 3.5mm L-shaped stereo jack plug
- Sound pressure level (SPL): 125 dB(SPL)
- Transducer principle: Dynamic
- Weight: 5 g
A NOTE FROM TMA:
The above is of little importance if you are not really into your audio. If so, then just skip over this bit. Sennheiser’s cable is at 1.2 metres, an enjoyable length for lounging around and cable which is a great length for portable use. Since it is light and soft, it does not impede movement and its supple surface is hardly microphonic.
If you care about how easy the Sennheiser IE8 is to drive and how much hiss they will exhibit, then the above spec will help you. An impedance of 16 ohms presents difficulty for many portables including the iPhone and iPhone 3G with regards to bass detail. It simply is a hard to drive ohm spec. However, Sennheiser’s IE8 is tuned somewhat specifically toward portables which are bass deficient to start. Sensitivity of 125 dB means that the IE8 can be driven to volume from many sources. Certainly keep care when listening as they can damage your hearing as can any earphone but rest assured that you will be able to pump the music above the background.
As for soundstage, iPod and iPhone users – you are in luck. The iDevice remains to this day on top in terms of left-to-right separation even when under load. Phonak’s PFE are the kings when regarding the effortless rendering of a black background even with rather hissy sources, but Sennheiser’s earphone is the king and all the king’s men.
IE8 Cable and Construction:
It wouldn’t hurt Sony to take a leaf, or even a tree… out of Sennheiser’s book and start making decent cables for their own high-end earphones. My similarly priced EX700 had the traditional bendy-liquorice feel to the cable – thin, cheap and flimsy. The IE8 cable is the complete opposite in every way. Better still, it’s been strengthened with Kevlar, a light, man-made fibre used for reinforcing cables and bullet-proof vests!
The result is an impressively strong cable which feels supple, light, unobtrusive and doesn’t tangle. There’s no cable noise either (hello Image X10…) and at 1.2m long, it’s the perfect length for me. The distance to the Y-splitter is more than adequate and the shirt clip takes care of any cable slack.
But wait! There’s more. The cables are detachable, (see pic) which means if they break, you need only replace the cable and not the earphones. So if you’re a serial ‘snagger’, the IE8 could be a wise financial investment! And of course, there’s always the option to upgrade to custom cables for those who wish to travel that route.
The IE8 nozzle is the short stumpy type, like the CX300, Sony EX series and Triple.fi 10 pro. There are lots of compatible tips, although some might need to be wiggled on a little, as the actual nozzle has a rim around the edge which makes it a fraction wider than regular ‘fat’ nozzles.
The sound varies widely depending on which tips you choose. The regular silicone tips were the least efficient for me, producing horrible sibilance and taking all the richness out of the music, and the double-flange tips were just too big. In fact, the only tips I liked were my beloved Soamies. They give me the best isolation, comfort and sound quality. However, if I jam them in to achieve a complete seal, the bass is overwhelming, the midrange too aggressive, and they hurt my ears.
I solved all three problems by pulling them out just far enough to avoid the edge of the earpiece rubbing on my inner ear. But you need to experiment to find the best fit. While they look fairly big in the photos, they actually sit flush with the ears and don’t stick out at all (hello Triple.fi 10 pro…)
I have to mention this before any other reference to sound, since it’s quite honestly the biggest and most enjoyable soundstage I’ve ever heard from any of my previously owned earphones… and there have been a lot. But the IE8 crush them all. Soundstage is insanely big, so big that I was worried I might miss out on some of the intimate musical detail. But that wasn’t the case at all. Despite the huge soundstage, the detail is comparable with closer-fitting IEMs, like my Westone 3 or my previously-owned Phonak PFE. To my ears, the IE8 sounds more like a full-sized headphone rather than a regular IEM, and yet it still presents the details as closely as a deeper-seated IEM. In other words, nothing is lost within the big soundstage.
What did I listen to?
Jesse Cook: “Gravity” and “Montreal Live” – Flamenco with a ‘twist’. (Both are very good recordings).
I saw Jesse Cook in London last year, and he really put on a good show. This isn’t traditional flamenco at all; it’s a blend of exotic Middle Eastern influences with violins, bass and acoustic guitars, complex African percussion instruments and synthesisers, creating a riot of sound. With less than competent earphones, it’s all just a big splodge of one-noise sound, and separating the instruments is impossible. But the IE8 is amazing for this type of music. The large soundstage creates such a feeling of space between the musicians, that you can really hear and place each instrument clearly. With so much going on in the music, it’s a tough thing to do, but the IE8 does it effortlessly. I prefer a large soundstage for this type of music; it’s more involving and enjoyable, especially for ‘live’ music.
Nils Lofgren: “Acoustic Live” (another very good recording).
I was lucky enough to see this tour in 2007, and while it was a wonderful concert – the acoustic guitars were piercing at times, and the echo from the hall didn’t help either. Listening to the CD through the IE8 is an out-of-this-world experience. Although they don’t replicate the extreme clarity and precision (brutality?) of the acoustic guitars of the W3, they do add some welcome warmth which makes it less ‘trebly’ and fatiguing to listen to. The IE8 is great for anything remotely too ‘trebly’, since the warmth softens the harshest edges. It may not be accurate, but it does the trick, and that’s all that matters for certain tracks!
The Eagles: ‘Hotel California’ from ‘Hell Freezes Over’
The opening kick drum is very prominent and weighty, and the IE8 presents it with as much impact as I remember hearing it played live when I saw The Eagles on their comeback tour. You can almost feel the bass thumping in your heart, that’s how much power it has. But at no point does it feel too much, it just feels enjoyable and very natural.
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss: ‘Raising Sand’
The bass in “Killing the Blues” is very heavy and deliberately distorted, and this is exactly how the IE8 presents it – as it is. In fact, I prefer to listen to this on my main speakers, just to get some space between my ears and the bass. That’s positive though, because is tells me that the IE8 portrays the same amount of bass as there was in the original recording, despite the sound signatures between earphones and speakers being very different from each other.
Beethoven: ‘Piano Concertos 1-5’
Very enjoyable, and the large soundstage helps immensely with instrument separation, which is especially important for orchestral works. However, I prefer the cleaner and sharper detail of the Phonak PFE and W3 for individual piano works, as the IE8 adds a certain ‘thickness’ which isn’t apparent with either of the other earphones.
Although Sleek Audio and Phonak Audeo (PFE) can both be ‘tuned’ for different sound signatures (Sleek provides additional bass ports and treble tubes, while Phonak provides grey and black filters to change the sound), the IE8 is the first to feature a bass-adjusting dial on the side of each earpiece. This means non-bassheads (me), and bassheads can be happy with the same pair of earphones.
My preference was for the default setting of minimum, which provided more than enough bass quantity. Dialling it up more than a few notches made quite a difference to bass volume, but on the maximum setting, I wanted to run screaming from the house! Seriously, unless you’re a fan of extremely heavy bass, or your source is weak on bass, you wouldn’t need this setting. Of course, it’s nice to have the option to go to eleven if you want to go ‘one louder’…
I was also able to compare the IE8 bass with the Atrios M5 v2 bass, and was hard pressed to hear which one went lower. Sometimes it felt as if the Atrios reached lower, but that could be because the midrange is more recessed and allows the bass to stand out more. But both of them were able to produce low levels of bass that were inaudible with the Phonak PFE.
Having already read some glowing reviews over at Head-Fi before I bought the IE8, I was especially keen to hear this wonderful midrange for myself. I like forward vocals with a touch of warmth, but not so forward that vocals play in my head (hello UM2 and Shure E4), and not too distant (hello Atrio M5 v2), so I was pleased to note that the IE8’s didn’t disappoint at all in this area. Both male and female vocals sound wonderful; smooth, rich, and more forward and open than the Triple.fi 10 Pro, with plenty of detail, although crystal-clear detail is masked slightly by the midrange warmth. If you want the utmost precision and clarity for vocals, then these might not be the best choice. But if you like vocals with warmth and body, you’d be hard pressed to find something that portrays them as beautifully as the IE8.
In fact, I wasn’t actually able to find any vocals that didn’t sound good with the IE8. Vocalists like Robert Plant and David Bowie often sound suspiciously ssssssssibilant on my other earphones, but the IE8 softens the edges and smoothes out any harshness. This is a nice bonus if you have any similar sibilant-prone vocalists in your library!
As far as treble is concerned, I don’t have any complaints about the amount of detail, only about the lack of ‘twinkle’. Although it’s very smooth and non-fatiguing, I still prefer the added sparkle of the TF10 and Westone 3. Cymbal crashes and piano notes tend to have a slight cloud with the IE8, but I’m really nitpicking here, because the overall enjoyment factor is huge – and I’ve yet to find a pair of earphones that does everything 100% perfectly.
Out and About with the IE8
Since the IE8 doesn’t sit deep in the ear like a true IEM, background noise does filter through, but it’s tolerable if you have a good seal. Engine noise on the tube is something I’ve never been able to eliminate, but a 20% increase in volume helps reduce it to an acceptably low rumble.
As for microphonics, they’re non-existent for me whether I wear them straight down at the front, or with the cable running down my back. I don’t know if the cable thickness is responsible for the lack of noise, but it works and that’s the main thing.
The IE8 is a fantastic set of earphones if you like your sound warm, upfront and bassy. If you like your sound more neutral, but still full and rich, then the IE7 is a great alternative. It shares certain similarities with the IE8, big soundstage and huge bass presence for example, but is less upfront than the IE8 and more ‘polite’.
By the way, both of these earphones (being dynamic drivers), require a burn-in period before they sound their best. How much burn-in depends on you, the listener. But Head-Fi’ers opinions vary wildly from: “great right out of the box”, to “great after 300 hours of burn-in. Be your own judge and decide for yourself. I liked mine straight out of the box, and after about 20 hours I didn’t notice any further improvements. They sounded great with no EQ straight out of the Touch 2G.
I paid £179 for them from Amazon.co.uk and they were well worth the price. However, the US cost is much higher, and I’m not sure I’d have paid the MRSP of $449 (£300) for them when the Westone 3 was also available for the same price. But for under £200, they’re worth every penny.
Final rating is a 5-star TMA ‘Kiss It’ (and kiss it again)
|Price:||MMSRP: $449 USD|