With Sennheiser’s pedigree in transducer design, it’s no surprise that their premium earbuds offer impressive performance.
Almost everyone has a pair earphones for use with their phone or portable music player, and there is a strong upgrade market. It’s not hard to tell the difference between £10$20 earphones and those costing £250$300, but how about a set costing £599$799? That’s the challenge I faced recently when trying out Sennheiser’s range-topping IE800 earphones.
Designed in Germany, the IE800s employ the world’s smallest ‘extra wide-band’ (EXB) moving-coil transducer, at just 7mm in diameter. This single driver operates in a “damped two-chamber absorber” (D2CA) built within a distinctive, twin-ported ceramic housing. The result is a pair of earphones which are amongst the smallest on the market, yet deliver a truly exceptional sound quality.
Most high-quality earphones don’t use moving-coil drivers at all; balanced-armature (BA) drivers are far more common. In a BA driver, a coil of wire is wrapped around a tiny bar which pivots at its centre within the poles of a permanent magnet. The bar normally balances in the centre of the magnetic field — hence the name — but an audio signal causes it to pivot up and down, and an attached lever at one end pushes and pulls the centre of a diaphragm to produce the acoustic output. BA drivers are very efficient, but only over a limited bandwidth, which is why high-end earphones usually have two, three or even four separate drivers.
Sennheiser don’t make BA drivers. Their expertise is in the design and manufacture of high-quality moving-coil drivers, with their factory in Ireland producing units ranging in diameter from 56mm for the flagship HD800 headphones, right down to the full-bandwidth 7mm parts used in the IE800 — and all with remarkable precision and consistency. One of the benefits of the single wide-band moving-coil driver is that earpieces can be made very small and light (certainly when compared to designs that use multiple balanced armatures): the IE800 earphones weigh just 8g. Also, rather than filling your entire pinna with plastic, they fit easily and comfortably at the entrance to the ear canal. Of course, a stable and secure fit requires the right size and shape of moulded silicon earpiece to match your own particular ear-canal shape, but five pairs of differently sized, mushroom-shaped silicone tips are supplied, some oval and others round. Both the individual tips and the earphones themselves contain mesh screens to keep out wax and dirt.
The non-detachable cable from each earphone meets and terminates in a gold-plated 2.5mm plug after just 26cm. This connects with a supplied 75cm extension cable with a standard 3.5mm right-angled gold-plated plug to connect to a music player. Most earphones at this end of the market have user-replaceable cables, but the small earpiece size precludes that option. Sennheiser provide a two-year warranty, though, and if the 3.5mm plug fails it is easy to substitute the extension cable — although the Sennheiser replacement costs around £70 in the UK. (If you want the optional RCS800 smartphone cable with built-in microphone and remote control for your phone, budget for a whopping £150!) The cables are made with pure oxygen-free copper and reinforced with Kevlar, making them extremely thin and light. They resist tangling well, and feel pretty robust, but anything rubbing against the cable does pass quite a lot of mechanical noise into the earphones, so careful ‘dressing’ of the cable pays dividends. A high-quality leather storage case is provided, complete with wax-removing tool.
My standard earphones of choice are the Shure SE425s: chunky dual-driver models that fill the pinnae, with the cables exiting over the ears to the back of the head. They cost a third as much as the IE800s, but in direct comparison it’s really not hard to hear the superiority of the Sennheiser earphones. There is a hint of a smiley curve about the tonal balance: the bass is powerful, but superbly controlled, clean, fast and precise and, to my ears at least, nicely proportioned. The real strength is the mid-range clarity, which is superbly revealing yet neutral. The high-end is smooth, airy and well extended, and as one of the strengths of the moving-coil driver is its extremely low distortion, protracted listening sessions never became fatiguing or uncomfortable.
I’d venture that the IE800’s sound quality is on a par with many reference-grade headphones, and in fact I found mixing on the IE800s surprisingly similar to using my usual AKG K702s, with the same ability to hear far into the mix. The inevitable down side, of course, is that earphones of this quality are very revealing of weaknesses in the headphone amplifier and music files. Although this is a very good thing for professional applications, it could be quite frustrating for recreational portable music listening! Thankfully, I had no quality or volume issues playing Apple Lossless files on a seventh-generation iPod Classic, although I noticed slightly better dynamics when using them with a high-quality headphone amplifier. The IE800s specifications state an impedance of 16Ω and a frequency response extending between 8Hz and 41kHz (at the -3dB points). The earphones can generate a massive 125dB SPL for a 1V input signal, and distortion is less than 0.06 percent at 94dB SPL.
I’d hesitate to suggest the IE800s represent total perfection in earphone design, or that they’re suitable (let alone justified) for every application, but their performance is seriously impressive and really demonstrates Sennheiser’s mastery of the art and technology of miniature moving-coil transducer technology! The IE800s are beautifully made with very high–quality components, and easily rate as the best I’ve ever heard. Whether that justifies the cost would be a personal decision!