Sennheiser ie800 – A Flagship Earphone with Character

Introduction –

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The ie800`s are as of March 2016, Sennheiser`s flagship iem that was designed by a small team over a period of 5 years. They were released with an absurd $1000 USD price tag that garnered much attention, but have since fallen down to as low as $550 USD. As such, they are actually one of the cheapest flagship iems, at least quite a bit cheaper than the Shure se846`s. I bought mine for the equivalent of $450 USD NIB and can confirm that they are genuine as they were replaced directly from Sennheiser about 2 year ago. I bought the ie800`s as an upgrade to my JVC FX-800`s and have since owned them for almost 3 years so all honeymoon period hype has mostly dissipated and I`ll try to be as objective as possible during this review. Most of my listening is through the ie800`s and I use them almost daily. They have proven to be durable, portable and versatile.

 

About Me – Some background, Gear of choice, Preferences and Biases

I generally prefer a slight v-shape to my sound, but still closer to neutral. I like a lot of detail and clarity, but can appreciate a smooth, laid back sound such as that on the X10`s. I prefer a more neutral midrange within a relatively tight tolerance, but I`m probably more forgiving of brightness over darkness. I`m not particularly treble sensitive and can tolerate large amounts without fatigue, though too much ruins the enjoyment. If I use a different eartip/pad/cover during the review I will note that and describe the sound changes.

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Accessories – 

The ie800`s come in a large box that slides open to reveal the earphones and leather case in a foam velour cutout. Notably, the box has an authenticity sticker, however even fakes seem to pass Sennheiser`s online test so don`t judge your pair by this measure.

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Underneath the case lies a plate with 4 pairs of eartips (medium set already installed on the earphones for a total of 5 pairs), an earwax cleaning tool and papers. The flip case is magnetically bound and constructed from high density foam and genuine leather with a small metal plate containing the serial number.  I personally don`t find the case too practical as it is very large for what it is and leaves the cables exposed on the sides. Instead, I use a chimes mint tin with a craft foam lining that provides much more protection. The earphones are also made in Germany which is becoming increasingly rare since even premium products from Bose, Oppo, Bowers and Wilkins and Klipsch are made in China.

Design –

Probably the most controversial aspect of the ie800`s and my biggest fear when purchasing them, the design is a radical departure from the ie8`s with a cable down fit and non-sealed housing.

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First, let`s talk about those ceramic bodies. The housings on the ie800`s are very unique, they are absolutely diminutive (almost as small as the Klipsch x10`s) and you can feel how hard they are just from touch. They are smooth, ergonomic and coated in an ethereal silver/grey colour that shimmer in an intriguing fashion; the look is definitely befitting of a flagship product. The housings are absolutely scratch resistant, putting it into perspective, ceramic is over 4x harder than even steel (not tougher), but they may crack if you drop them on marble tiles or similar materials. I`ve dropped mine a few times on wood and tile and they have come out unscathed without a scratch, few people have reported cracking so far. In addition, ceramic is an EMI suppressor for even lower distortion and interference from other gadgets.

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The very sci-fi housing are sculpted somewhat like a teardrop with a slight lean forwards for a level fit once inserted in the ear. The strain reliefs and short housings signify a shallow fitment, but are angled for comfort. They don`t stick out of the ears too much but wind noise is very apparent due to the exposed D2CA system. They are very much an indoors earphone and won`t stay seated for long whilst walking. I do find that the cable down style is much easier to use than over ear iems. It isn`t as well secured of course, but they are much easier to wear to say, the library or around home and not worry about people trying to get your attention. Due to the shallow insertion and rear vents, the earphones can be difficult to wear at times, even sitting down. The tips get oily, lose pressure and slide out of the ears. This is mainly an issue with the stock tips however and regular cleaning will resolve any problems with seal. Overall I feel that there is a good balance between practicality and function and since I doubt the ie800`s were ever intended to be a sport or outdoor earphone, I wouldn`t try to make them one.

The cables are Kevlar reinforced and feel very strong, resisting tension well. Despite that, they are still very supple, a little stiff when cold but dramatically softer when warm. The addition of Kevlar also contributes to the relatively high levels of microphonics on these earphones, though a shirt clip does help a lot. Comfort and fitment also improve with a little warmth, but spinfits alleviate this issue completely and also decrease microphonics to an extent as they move the cable further from the face.

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Otherwise, it might be best to run them under your shirt to make the cable more pliable. The gold plating is also of especially high quality and hasn`t worn off like on my Klipsch X10 plug. They have strain reliefs at all cable ends, but the y split and 90 degree jack are a little stiff so the cable can get strain spots here. Luckily it is replaceable from the y split down (uses a recessed 2.5mm plug), but replacements can be upwards of $200, which is quite ridiculous.

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Mine haven`t broken or developed any signs of stress in the last year, but my first set hardened just underneath the y split. I`ve yet to link this to any particular cause but my new set haven`t had any sort of hardening and I`ve had them for much longer. My new set also aren`t past the 20k build number so they technically aren`t the “new revision” with cable fixes. Of note, hardening can be identified as a darkening in the transparent sheathing over the green weave in the cable.

The ie800 comes with 5 proprietary tips that mount through a unique clip mechanism. The silicone buds have a hard plastic sound tube and inbuilt metal mesh filters. The earphones themselves also have a mesh filter for added protection. Isolation is good, not nearly as good as sealed over ear style monitors, but decent enough for public transport though I wouldn`t take them on a plane.

Comply 200 size tips will fit snugly on the soundtube, just make sure to wipe the plastic down to create a good purchase. With foams, the sound loses sparkle, but isolation is significantly increased. Using spinfits yields greater long term stability and slightly better isolation on account of a deeper fit, but the sound is slightly more v-shaped.

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The D2CA (Dual chamber absorber) technology actually works! Every manufacturer wants you to think that their product in unique through the addition of a proprietary technology, and creating this allure is within the basics of marketing. Whilst some do sound very good such as moving armatures, bio cellulose drivers, etc, none sound drastically different from a regular, well designed driver. The D2CA system is quite intricate in comparison to others, but in essence, one rear vent equalizes pressure in the ear canal whilst the other balances air pressure for the driver. Sennheiser claims that this solves the 6-8khz ear canal resonance issue associated with in ear earphones and have produced an earphone that not only reproduces one of the clearest sounds of any earphone i`ve tested, but also rivals many over ear headphones as well.

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Note: A lot of consumers had issues with the fitment, if you want the most vanilla sound experience possible, the stock tips are the only way to go. Push the earphones in until you feel suction, the sound fades and pressure gradually equalizes through rear vent until the earphones are well sited in the canal. The sound returns to normal after a second and no driver flex is audible, don`t worry about damaging the drivers.

Sound –

So, I like the ie800`s a lot. They are for my personal tastes my endgame iem and I`m not sure if i`ll ever feel the need to upgrade. But they are an acquired taste, they are not flat but well coloured, and they have a signature Sennheiser sound that has been painstakingly tuned.

While these iems are not perfectly flat, they are not overly sculpted either. They have a very mild u-shaped signature, but mid-bass through to the upper mids is perhaps just brighter than ruler flat. They have top tier imaging and the soundstage is well spaced. It`s not as large as some over ear headphones, but remains very good for an iem. There is no sense of congestion or claustrophobia and separation is up there with the best. Depth is excellent making for a very 3d soundstage that beats most closed earphones. Width isn`t bad either, perhaps only the pfe232 had a wider soundstage but not as much depth. This helps immensely with the coherence of the sound as instruments don`t get condensed into the centre, but rather splay out into their proper positions. As such, the ie800`s are great for everything from large scale orchestral music to clubhouse jazz with superlative instrument separation.

The earphones aren`t particularly sensitive but have a low impedance of 16ohms. Interestingly, they don`t hiss at all from pretty much any source I have, but just slightly from very noisy sources, tested on my Fiio Q1, HTC M8, Ipod Nano 7, Ipod Touch 4 and inbuilt laptop DAC. As they are a single dynamic driver earphone, frequency response does not change with output impedance and the ie800`s sound the same from all sources. They gain little from amping except small increases in detail, soundstage improvements and a little less noise. Running them through my Fiio Q1 opens up the soundstage and brings out more details, they definitely sound better. I never feel like I`m limited when listening through my HTC however.

Bass – 

Bass is tastefully sculpted. Sub bass has a mild boost whilst mid and upper bass response is only very slightly lifted if at all. The bass extends well into the lowest of lows with exquisite texturing and a very clean sound. Sub bass response isn`t too much for me but definitely not neutral, it might be too much for those upgrading from armature based gear since they often have a sub-bass roll-off. It`s actually not too emphasized compared to my Oppo PM3`s, most iems simply don`t have this level of extension. Bass has perfect decay and reproduces all detail with an effortless quality, not even phased by complex passages. I found that the sub-bass only sounds flabby on poorly mastered songs, but it`s still portrayed much better than on other earphones. Of note, string instruments are recreated with impressive timbre, capturing the intricate vibrations of the strings whilst acoustics sound simply fantastic with a great sense of reverb and enough midrange clarity to retain the sharpness of steel stringed guitars. Bass is punchy but retains good impact, a lack of a mid-bass hump can sound strange at first for those coming from more sculpted earphones, but this creates a more satisfying listen in the long run.

Mids – 

Mids have the best clarity of any gear I`ve tested including the renowned ath-ck100. They are extremely refined and the perfect union between smoothness and detail. Micro-detailing is superb and resolution is immense. Vocals attain an ethereal realistic quality and instruments are rendered with astounding accuracy. Every pluck and sting is felt in acoustic music whilst the scale of classical music is simply overwhelming. Mids are very flat throughout creating coherency and a natural sound. They have enough body to avoid sounding thin and are almost perfectly transparent, if ever so slightly warm. Vocals come through with incredible definition, the resolution and clarity is truly immense.

Treble – 

Treble again resolves more detail than any other iem I`ve ever owned or tested. It achieves this partly though a slight emphasis and perhaps through Sennheiser`s patented D2CA. For example you can hear when the drum stick hits the cymbal before the actual cymbal begins to shimmer in Radiohead songs, it`s phenomenal. I can hear the splashy character that some complain about but this is only apparent on some recordings and some other headphones are simply better at smoothing it out. The highs are very extended though the frequency response probably has nothing to do with it (46khz is not practical).

Comparisons – 

Se535 – ($549)

The Se535`s have pretty good bass extension and very punchy, rounded bass notes. The bass is detailed and fast, but the ie800`s are even more effortless and extend further. The midrange on the se535`s is very smooth and accentuated throughout. They bring vocals to the fore over instruments and portray both great detail and clarity. They are slightly bright in the mids. The ie800`s have more clarity and similar detailing, they are less prominent and darker sounding. The ie800`s sound less coloured, but the Shures can be enjoyable in their own regard. The highs on the se535`s are rolled off and recessed, even on the LTD model. Treble lacks air, and whilst this isn`t to the degree of earphones such as the Klipsch X10`s or Bose products, it`s still very noticeable and the se535`s trade excitement for smoothness. The soundstage is very 3D on the se535`s and well rounded like the Sennheisers, but the soundstage on the ie800`s are a larger. Imaging is great on both whilst separation goes to the ie800`s.

W30 – ($399)

The W30`s mid-bass response is quite a bit fuller than the ie800`s but it lacks sub-bass extension. They are less textured than the ie800 but still very good. As a result there is less slam and impact to the sound but bass remains very punchy. The midrange is slightly more prominent on the W30`s, but it is warmer and more brittle compared to the ie800`s. The ie800`s have much more clarity and transparency as well as better detail retrieval and the midrange sounds flatter than the W30`s which are slightly sculpted. The W30`s have more treble texture whilst the ie800`s resolve more treble details. The treble on the W30`s avoids the splashy sound that the ie800`s sometimes procure. The soundstage on the ie800`s is much more spacious in both width and depth, imaging is similar but instrument separation on the ie800`s is far ahead. The ie800 portrays more realistic timbres, but the W30 is very very good for a ba earphone.

PFE232 – ($600)

The PFE232`s have a similar sound, sub-bass is very good, extension is great with fantastic texturing. The ie800`s are slightly more sub-bassy, but have similar amounts of mid-bass, the PFE232`s may even have slightly better bass quality whilst losing a little slam compared to the ie800`s. The midrange is smoother, more prominent and clearer from the ie800`s. The PFE232`s are recessed all the way through but it does not ruin the experience. The treble response is very good on the PFE232`s, but again the ie800`s resolve more detail. The PFE232`s can sound splashy at times as well. In terms of soundstage, the PFE232`s have incredible width, and good depth whilst the ie800`s are more well rounded. This comes down to preference, but both are able to portray a great sense of space and separation.

Verdict – 

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Whilst I appreciate a flat sound (I love the sound on my Oppo PM3`s), I enjoy a mild v-shape. I know I`m not alone, the majority of listeners want to experience music, not to analyze it. So why is it that a flagship iem must be for monitoring or professionals? Sennheiser saw the success of the ie8 and ie80, an earphone that, whilst too bassy for me, focused upon musicality over accuracy. The ie800 is a great product because it combines the musicality of most high end consumer iems (such as those in the $300-400 price range) with the refinement of a true flagship product (1k+). It is first and foremost a statement, that an iem can hang with the best in terms of technical proficiency without losing the musicality that makes music so engaging to begin with.

Accessories – 6/10, Stock carrying case is not practical, stock tip selection is decent but could be better, if people want to change tips let them, if it sounds worse with different tips then consumers won`t use them. For the price it`s a bit disappointing, Dunu gives you a metal hardcase, soft pouch and almost twice the selection of tips for $30.

Design – 8/10, Striking to look at, indestructible build and a great cable (as long as it doesn`t harden) create a very positive impression, but proprietary tips and odd cable proportions prevent a perfect score.

Bass – 9.5/10, Punchy and dynamic, relatively balanced and sub-bass boost does not colour the mids.

Mids – 10/10, Perfect in every way, great clarity, amazing detail and great presence, does not sound recessed but in harmony with the rest of the spectrum.

Treble – 9.75/10, Unbelievably resolving, the treble response is fantastic but slightly thin as mentioned by other reviewers. James444 has a good cloth mod that alleviates this issue.

Soundstage, Imaging and Seperation – 9/10, The soundstage is spacious for an iem, imaging is spot on and seperation is very good. It`s not class leading, but it doesn`t hold the rest of the sound back like on some earphones.

Verdict – 9.5/10, The ie800 is a great earphone that is very well balanced and coherent. They are a great upgrade to any $300-400 earphone and will impress with copious amounts of details and unsurpassed midrange clarity. If you can live with the design quibbles, then they remain a great choice for those looking for a more exciting flagship.

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19 Comments Add yours

  1. Peter Hyatt says:

    Great review. Can yo recommend where to buy them at prices you mention?

    Like

    1. Ryan Soo says:

      Hard to say at this point, I bought them before fakes were so abundant. You can frequently find them for that kind of price around Head-fi, occasionally someone will sell a warranty replacement set for <$600.

      Like

  2. P M says:

    I have owned an IE800 for more than 6 months and I have to say that I find this review as a true representation of what they are. I have tried the Sennheiser HD512, HD554, HD650, HD700 and even though they have particular strengths, for me they could not compete with the IE800 on overall sound reproduction. I do find the IE800 to benefit from a good amplification and they sound particularly detailed and refined with my Aurender Flow amp (RRP £1100).

    Like

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