Review: Sennheiser’s IE8 noise-isolating headphones

ie8_sennheiser.jpg

I spent much of the summer staring at the Sennheiser IE8s in anticipation. They’re the second-most expensive headphones in my possession, at $449, and as the owner of two other pairs of Sennheisers, I wanted to savor the moment.

I spent considerable time just opening the package. The IE8’s presentation is out of this world: several layers of foam surround the headphones and their brushed-metal, slide-open carrying case, which has dedicated spots for each earbud, a cord winder, four additional hooks for storing spare ear cushions, and a slot for the cleaning tool. The case has a pop-out compartment in back which, I learned, is used to hold one of those silica-gel packs to keep the headphones dry. The IE8s actually shipped with a silica gel pack in shrinkwrapped plastic that is meant for consumer use.The IE8 comes with manual bass response tuning. A little dial on each ear piece allows the listener to fine-tune bass performance (with a tiny screwdriver) to match personal preferences. The performance shift is similar to a car stereo–higher bass provides greater rumble, but not necessarily better sound. I found the sound to be pretty spot-on out of the box, with the bass knob on its gentlest setting.

I found the Sennheisers to be a fascinating case study when compared to the high-end competition in my possession. The Shure SE530s are ready to rock: booming bass, shimmering treble, not a lot of concern about midrange. The Etymotic ER-4 microPro, on the other hand, are the smooth operator, not getting excited, just delivering exactly what is supposed to be delivered.

The Sennheiser IE8, meanwhie, goes for robust. These are the warmest headphones I tested, with enveloping middle tones and balanced calibration throughout the tonal range. Bass is strong and resonant (at every manual-adjusted level), and high notes come through cleanly.

Sennheiser’s no-nonsense Teutonic approach minimizes the impact of the IE8’s sound reproduction. Shure’s bass notes boom; Sennheiser’s thump. Etymotic’s high notes sparkle; Sennheiser’s arrive. It’s a striking difference, most noticeable when trying several headphones in rapid succession.

Ultimately, the Sennheiser’s low-key excellence became my favorite. By not overdoing any one aspect of its audio response, the IE8s were the most reliable at handling whatever music I threw at them. Noise isolation was solid, especially on an airplane, where I used the double-flanged silicone cushions to seal out cabin noise. I’d pick the SE530s for Van Halen and the ER-4s for Mingus, but I can recommend the IE8s for anything.

I had a lengthy discussion with my coworkers at Ai about these headphones, and the potential lunacy of spending $449 on earbuds. I then went back to my desk and thought to myself, “Meanwhile, they sound fantastic.” End of story. The best-in-show ribbon hangs here.

Product Page [Amazon]

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13 Responses to Review: Sennheiser’s IE8 noise-isolating headphones

  1. popvoid says:

    I would like to see a review of these after a couple months of thorough use. It has been my observation that, while Sennheiser makes great sounding headphones, they have the durability of a soap bubble. The incredible sturdiness of the packaging is surely a tip-off. Having been burned twice already on Sennheiser headphones that broke after remarkably few uses, I’m in no hurry to give them anymore of my cash.

  2. skeletoncityrepeater says:

    This would be perfect for the ignorant clods who are always in the bike lane in front of me, drowning out all sound with their iPods, and making it hard for me to bike safely. Now they won’t even hear a semi coming. Boom!

  3. Greg says:

    How sad to need to make a comment hoping for death to others in a post about HEADPHONES.

    Anyways, I’ve tried expensive headphones, and STILL find that the best bang-for-my-buck is the $20 earbuds from Radio Shack (now Circuit City). They are the ear-canal-blocking type, and sound fantastic at all volume levels. Plus, when I accidentally ripped one of the buds off a cord, they were replaced free of charge. Okay, I paid an extra three bucks for that privilege at purchase. Well worth it.

  4. strider_mt2k says:

    If they’re sporting these they’re already well taken care of by their board of directors or otherwise taken care of in some elite fashion.

  5. Bugs says:

    These are the warmest headphones I tested, with enveloping middle tones and balanced calibration throughout the tonal range. Bass is strong and resonant (at every manual-adjusted level), and high notes come through cleanly.

    I have to ask: after the spate of articles and readers here ridiculing the audiophile community, is this series of reviews actually an attempt to convert people by stealth, just to see if it can be done?

  6. stratosfyr says:

    Popvoid — that’s a really good point.

    I already find the idea of buying crazy-expensive headphones an iffy proposition, but if they sound really good I can see the appeal. (I’m too poor and cheap, but still.) The thing is, I never replace headphones I like because I stop liking them or because something better comes along — I replace them because they break. Generally a cable comes loose from the earpiece after a few accidental tugs, and that’s the end of them.

    So, serious question… do these have a lifetime warranty, or are you just expected to drop another $450 every couple of years?

  7. remmelt says:

    Roboton: you’re right, science is needed when comparing audio stuff, or we go into voodoo land.

    I think the point Bugs was trying to make was that in this particular review, words were being used that are less-than-scientific. I realise there is a grey area, especially in the high end segment. I also realise it is hard to describe in words what the difference between a $300 and a $400 set of plugs sounds like, especially to people who aren’t part of the regular audio crew, who think “warm” means when the sun shines.

    But yeah, I don’t see any science in here, “just” personal preference. By someone who has the opportunity to try out several sets. Not without its merits, but not entirely scientific either, right?

  8. ShaneAH says:

    Not just less-than-scientific words, less-than-scientific methods. The reviewer is establishing pre-conceptions about how they’ll sound before they’re even out of the box, and it’s impossible to be completely objective. I think we need some sort of Mythbusters-style ballistics gel head model with a high-quality microphone where the ear drum would be. Post oscilloscope data and let the reader decide.

  9. Djn says:

    @stratosfyr:
    Not all cheap headphones are fragile, and when they are it might still work out.

    I have broken a part on one of my expensive headphones. When I mailed the shop I’d bought them from, I got a PDF with an exploded, numbered, view, and asked which part had broken. On answering, I was told that this was a known defect in one batch (the plastic mix was brittle, for some reason). Since it was likely to be the quickest solution, I got the spare parts (a pair, of course) mailed to me, had them in hand two days later, and replaced them in a matter of minutes.

    If this had not been a warranty issue, I could still have ordered any spare part, and these headpones are quite trivial to tear down / rebuild with a screwdriver and nothing else.

    On one hand, a pair of £250 headphones breaking is a bit annoying – but on the other hand, they’re solidly built, easy to repair if needed, and sound excellent. The DT-250s in question even have a plug-in cord, so you could replace that if you should need to. (On the not-too-surprising flipside, the replacement cable costs about $45.)

  10. roboton says:

    Hey Bugs:

    There is Audio Science, and Audiophilia. One is where the big kids play, the other is where the new age hacks play.

    All talk about audio quality does not automatically mean it is of “audiophile” status. That’s like saying any factual discussion of quantum theory is automatically “New Age Crap Talk”

    Learn to seperate audio fiction from audio fact.

  11. Bugs says:

    I might be to late to be seen here, but I intended that to be slightly tongue in cheek.

    I’m happy to accept that a $400 pair of headphones will sound a lot better than my £20 pair, and that there’s an accepted set of terminology (“warm”, etc) that describes specific, measurable traits.

    I just thought it was funny that we’ve had a slow but sustained trickle of posts on BBG mocking the audiophiles, then silence, then a series of reviews for multi-$hundred headphones.

    I will say that I assume Audio Science / Audiophilia is like wine tasting: as price/sophistication increases you get increasingly subtle and subjective differences between each step up.

    Most people will reach a threshold beyond which they admit they can’t detect (or don’t care enough about) a difference, but a lot will carry on into the realm of totally subjective and then imagined differences. It’s a slow but steady slide into woo.

    I’ve witnessed this myself at a whisky tasting event. After establishing and precticing the basic “tasting notes”, five trays were brought out with a set of glasses on each. Some of us couldn’t taste a difference, but I watched a group of people give increasingly detailed and enthusiastic comments on the subtleties between what turned out to be the same whisky poured into five glasses.

    Anyway, if someone was feeling tricksy and wanted to see how far former sceptics could be dragged along the path, a series of plausible but increasingly vague and “sophisticated” reviews from a trusted source would be just the trick ;).

  12. Rtarara says:

    I’m with Greg! My $10 jbuds work out quite well. I’ve had them about 6 months. I washed them and then dried them on ultra high heat. They practically live in my couch cushions and they still sound really great. Best sound of any headphones I’ve had and I’ve had more expensive pairs. I did switch the tips with some from a pair I got at Fry’s that were dying as they were a bit better size for my ears. I could get 45 pairs for the cost of one pair of the IE8s. I just couldn’t justify it.

  13. dculberson says:

    Yeah, speakers can definitely sound different and reinforce different parts of the audio spectrum. It’s when they claim the power cable is more danceable that you know it’s woo.

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