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]