For years Sennheiser, one of the world’s leading headphone manufacturers, was only known for one model of in-ear phones, the CX 300 – and those weren’t even Sennheiser designs, but an OEM product made by Foster Japan. With the success of the relatively inexpensive CX 300 and other models of the CX series it was only a matter of time until Sennheiser went for the higher priced market, competing with brands like Ultimate Ears or Shure, with products aimed at more discerning listeners and audio professionals.
Thus the Sennheiser IE series of in-ear phones was born. In this case ‘IE’ very likely stands for ‘In-Ear’, unlike certain web-browsing software from Redmond, WA. While they’re not exactly IEMs suited for professional monitoring applications, they sure are among the quality choices for hi-fi listening… The audio snobs we are, we’re not wasting any time on the IE 6 or 7 – we’ll go for the fancy flagship IE 8 right away and put them through their paces.
- Driver: dynamic
- Impedance: 16 Ohm
- Sensitivity: 125 dB (1 kHz, 1 Vrms)
- Frequency response: 10 Hz – 20 kHz
- Cable: 1.2 m, symmetrical, user replaceable, 3.5 mm angled plug
- Accessories: Aluminum case, silicon and foam tips, ear guides/hooks, cleaning/bass adjustment tool, shirt clip
When you first open the already very shiny and glossy outer box of the IE 8 you’re in for some serious jaw-dropping action once you see the gorgeous brushed aluminum case inside. However, on closer inspection the case is so over-engineered and obsessive-compulsively designed, it’s bordering on the ridiculous. German engineering in the haus, ja. The case has a compartment for some desiccant silica gel to keep the IEMs dry, a compartment for the cleaning tool and bass-level screwdriver, four stems to proudly display some ear tips of your choice, and a few more shenanigans. The only thing the case doesn’t do is being portable – it’s just huge, ostentatious, and generally useless. Not to mention tightly wrapping the IE 8’s cable around the provided spindle might actually damage the cable or at least give it some undesired memory effect in the long run. Well, at least the case provides a place to store all the accessories one doesn’t need on a daily basis.
The huge variety of silicon and foam tips the IE 8 come with all have one thing in common: they’re not particularly good. The standard varieties of single-flange silicon tips are cheap and thin, similar to the ones one could find on the old CX 300 and other OEM phones. The double-flanged ones are too short and don’t provide enough seal for my ears, the foam ones are too slim, and those… spiky torture devices are just absurd. None of those provide a remotely decent fit and seal for my ears. Good thing that’s a flaw that can easily be fixed by using tips from other brands. Ultimate Ears’ grey Super.Fi/Triple.Fi tips are of excellent quality and fit the IE 8 like a glove. These tips are made of thicker, smoother silicon, and don’t have any visible injection mold ridges. Other very high quality tips are Sony EP-EX10A, often called ‘Sony Hybrids’, due to them being made of two different kinds of silicon. They’ve got thinner material strength than the Super.Fi tips, with somewhat rougher texture, and they seem to fit the majority of human ears just fine. They are harder to fit onto the IE 8 nozzle, but they stay on very securely. I would highly recommend either of those third-party brand tips to any IE 8 owner; they make life a lot easier.
The included shirt clip is not really needed in my opinion – the IE 8 cables are worn up around one’s ears, they are secure and don’t transmit a lot of cable noise. Sennheiser’s ear guides are a bit too bulky and not very comfortable for my ears (I wear glasses), I prefer Phonak’s softer silicon guides with most phones that need these kinds of guides. With the IE 8 however I don’t feel the need to use them anyway.
The tool with the bass-level screwdriver and the little wire loop on the other end doesn’t make much sense. The IE 8’s nozzle is closed with a metal mesh and no grime gets in. The wire loop tool makes much more sense with IEMs like the UE 11 Pro or Shure SE530, which have open nozzles. In my opinion a rigid brush end would have been more efficient than a loop to clean ear wax off the IE 8.
What can I say? Sennheiser sure put a lot of stu
ff in the box, but not so much thought into it. Good thing nothing of that is detracting from the sonic qualities of the phone – but it sure adds needlessly to the retail price. I wish they released an ‘IE 8 Lite’ version for a lower price – without all the superfluous stuff, just with a normal portable zipper case à la Shure or Future Sonics, and the usual three or four pairs of quality silicon tips. That might not look as exclusive as the available version, but it would be less waste of materials and resources.
The grey industrial design-ish housing of the IE 8 might look a bit menacing initially. My first thought, same as with the Phonak PFE, was, “Who in their right minds puts sharp edges on an IEM housing?” It turns out they’re quite comfy to wear and the edges on the outside don’t matter much – contrary to the aforementioned PFE. I can even sleep comfortably with the IE 8, without having sore ears in the morning. What works for me, for good comfort (and good stereo imaging) is to not put these IEMs too deeply into my ear canals. I just let them rest on the outside of my ear, just so the Super.Fi silicon tips get enough friction/suction to stay in place. I can get a good seal every time, and a very secure fit to boot. With the IE 8 it’s pretty obvious when one has an insufficient seal, by the way – all bass response disappears. Ergonomically, the IE 8 perform very well and hassle-free – at least with the right silicon tips for my ears.
The cable on the IE 8 is nothing short of excellent. It’s arguably the best cable on any IEM I’ve used so far, even surpassing Ultimate Ears’ custom cables. Sennheiser chose a very unique wire coating for the IE 8, very slick and smooth, not sticky/rubbery at all. The cable feels almost a bit squishy, as if it was filled with gel. It’s as soft as silk and transfers very little cable noise to one’s ears. The excellent build quality is only surpassed by the fact that the cable is user replaceable. If the 120cm cable is too long for one’s needs, one can buy an optional 60cm cable to use with the phones. Not to mention one doesn’t have to replace the whole phone when the cable gets damaged. The only minor nitpick I could find with the cable’s construction is that the angled 3.5mm plug is “iPhone compatible” – meaning it sticks out too far and thus would fit the non-standard headphone jack of the first generation iPhone – the device that forced the whole headphone industry to adapt all their products to its botched design. The first generation iPhone is long gone, but the unshapely plugs still linger on. Oh, and the cable is grey, not black. I like black. Other than that all is fine – be it strain reliefs, Y-splitter, the securely fitting connectors on the IEM-end of the cable, or even Sennheiser’s decision to go against the grain and use a nickel-plated 3.5mm plug instead of the ubiquitous gold-plated ones, as found on almost all other IEMs.
Sennheiser claims outside noise attenuation up to 26dB. That’s about as much as my custom-made UE 11 Pro isolate, but for the IE 8 it is unfortunately nothing more than a sad joke – the IE 8 isolate less than many generic cheap in-ear phones available. Sennheiser’s own inexpensive CX 300 model actually isolates a bit more than their flagship IE 8. It doesn’t really matter which silicon or foam tips one uses, they just don’t keep a lot of noise out. Some companies like England’s ACS offer custom molded ear pieces for the IE 8, which might or might not improve isolation by a bit. Personally I haven’t tried any custom molds yet since they’re a bit too pricey for what they are. The situation is, the IE 8 do not deserve the label “professional” they’re sold under. Professional IEMs are used for on-stage monitoring and mixing at concerts and for keeping undesired sounds out of one’s ears. The IE 8 fails at those applications. On the other hand, they’re almost safe to use in traffic.
The quite overblown tech specs of the IE8 (16 Ohm, 125dB) might give trouble with some sub-par amp circuits, but even on problematic players like the Cowon S9 they sound rather focused to me. They’re very nice on the inexpensive Sansa Clip+, where I really don’t hear any huge differences compared to the higher quality headphone outputs of my Echo AudioFire sound card or portable Headsix amp. Sure seems to me the single dynamic driver of the IE8 is less problematic to drive than multi-armature IEMs with crossovers. For my ears, the main issue a quality headphone amp fixes with them is a slight background hiss they have on most sources. All in all they’re well behaved though for their ridiculously high sensitivity and low impedance.
The next paragraph has to be preceded with a few words of warning. I am pretty confident I’m able to differentiate between real physical/psychological phenomena inherent to the perception of audio products – and the raving lunacy of certain ‘audiophiles’, often ridiculed for tendencies towards confirmation bias, placebo effect, and general nonsense. Sometimes it’s difficult to see where one ends and the other starts.
That being said, I never heard a headphone change its sound characteristics as much over such a long time as the IE 8 did. Some of my phones did indeed change remarkably in a short time, like the Shure SE530, which sounded muddy for half an hour before they opened up, or the Hippo VB which took even a few days. Other phones however, which certain people attribute with gigantic changes over the course of hundreds of hours don’t change at all in my experience, like the Ultrasone HFI-780 for example. Those phones sound the same after thousands of hours of usage as they did in the first minute. I double checked that by comparing my phones with a fresh pair in the music store. Unfortunately I can’t do that with the IE 8 – the salesperson just won’t open another box for obvious health and hygiene reasons, not to mention resale value.
This brings me back to the IE 8. Some people say these phones ‘burn in’ with time – though I would almost call it ‘burn out’, but that would sound too negative. Many people complain that the IE 8 don’t sound good right out of the box and improve after many hours of usage. For me however they sounded stellar when they were new – with a big, punchy bass response and sparkling treble, just the right amount of both to match the equal loudness contour my ears seem to perceive as natural. Now, 300-400 hours later, the IE 8 indeed changed – I don’t find them that ‘exciting’ and forward sounding anymore, they got a bit more, well, boring, to put it bluntly. Other people might call that ‘balanced’ or ‘neutral’, but that of course is as much a subjective personal opinion as anything else. One would think the world’s leading headphone manufacturer would inform you about those quite noticeable changes in their flagship IEMs, but apparently they didn’t put a big yellow ‘burn-in warning’ sticker on the box. Everything that follows are ‘post-burn-in’ impressions.
The IE 8’s bass is not the absolute best quality, but it definitely is very good. It does have a quite noticeable midbass hump which often is more prominent than real sub-bass. All in all, it’s not an extremely bassy sounding phone by my definitions, but it certainly is far from linear, or ‘neutral’, as some people might call it. Bassheads might still need to EQ it up a notch to achieve the desired low-frequency SPL, while fans of the Phonak PFE or Etymotic ER-4 certainly would be scared witless by the IE 8’s more realistic loudness-contour. Despite the midbass, the IE 8’s bass is rather controlled and punchy, far from an overly
flabby one-note bass response as heard on many cheaper bass-heavy phones.
By the way, the bass control dial on the IE 8 does not really increase the perceived bass by a lot. It does seem to extend it by a few decibels below 100Hz, but the midbass hump stays the same, thus the effect isn’t so obvious. The one thing that makes Sennheiser’s tunable bass dial better than the removable port designs by Hippo, Sleek, and others is simple: it’s fixed to the phone; there are no tiny parts to lose.
The midrange of the IE 8 is up there with the best in-ear phones, such as the Shure SE530. It’s a warm, lush midrange with precise instrument separation. Instruments, voices, and other noises are all treated equally well; nothing is too much in the foreground or in the back with the IE 8’s dynamic drivers. That’s a good thing, I find the IE 8 to work equally well with any music genre. Just like its bigger sibling, the Sennheiser HD 650, the IE 8 appears to have the tiniest hint of a veil over the music; it is not the IEM with the last word in crystalline clarity. That might be partially because of the midbass emphasis, but in reality it does not matter much to my ears – the IE 8 are very enjoyable, euphonic sounding phones compared to super-precise monitoring equipment like the Etymotic ER-4. Another word to describe the IE 8’s overall sound is ‘coherence’. From the midrange to the bass to the treble, they are sounding cohesive – something multi-armature IEMs with crossovers might struggle with. What the IE 8 do best is playing music – analyzing and separating frequencies is the forte of other phones.
On my fresh pair of IE 8 I perceived the treble response as very sparkly and forward. This is maybe the biggest noticeable change after a few hundred hours; the sparkle has faded quite a bit. One could call it ‘natural’ now. Still, they are definitely no overly dark sounding phones like the Future Sonics Atrio. The IE8 have quite a bit better treble quality and more quantity than the SE530, but they’re not overly forward like Phonak PFE or q-Jays. You guessed it: they’re just about right. Maybe a bit recessed in the grand scheme of things, but not rolled off. They handle sibilant material with ease. While they’re never harsh sounding they also don’t hide fine nuances of the upper frequency regions – another attribute they share with the big HD 650.
I’ve noticed lots of people saying how excellent the stereo imaging or ‘soundstage’ of the IE 8 is. While it sure isn’t as confined and ‘in your head’ as some other IEMs out there, it isn’t anything overly remarkable either. It’s neither expanding very wide to the left and right of one’s ears, nor do I perceive vertical sound alignments, as I do with some with other IEMs. Other vented dynamic driver phones like the Hippo VB or the V-Moda Vibe have quite a bit better stereo imaging. The IE 8 are ok in that aspect, but there’s nothing to really rave about.
To sum it up, for my ears the IE8 have a realistic bass response with just a smidgen too much midbass, a very solid and pleasing midrange, and slightly recessed yet refined and precise treble. For the overall sound that makes them neither dark nor bright for me, it’s rather a nice, mellow equal-loudness contour to my ears. The IE 8 are excellent all-rounders, they are really great for listening to music on them – instead of writing about them.
What a rollercoaster ride… first they sounded like the IEM-equivalents of the Ultrasone HFI-780 or Beyerdynamic DT770, or something like the Phonak PFE with additional subwoofer. Now they sound like the HD 650, like the Atrios with a decent tweeter, or the RE0 on steroids. Makes no sense to you? Well, get in line.
When I first heard the IE 8 I thought they’re the best thing ever made, their impressive sound signature simply floored me – now a few months later they’re still absolutely great IEMs and I would definitely recommend them to anybody, for pretty much any style of music – but they’re just not as ‘exciting’ sounding to my ears as they were right out of the box. The IE 8 are undeniably top-notch phones, I just wish they wouldn’t have ‘settled down’ and changed their sound. Or maybe the ‘exciting’ sound would have become too much over time and it’s for the better, the way things have developed. I will never know. Not to mention lots of people seemed to experience the opposite of my impressions and didn’t like the sound of fresh IE 8 at all.
They might be a bit overly expensive in North America compared to European prices, but considering they’re some of the best sounding universal-fit earphones, they might be worth it. At least with Sennheiser one gets a two-year warranty as well.
If one can live with mediocre isolation and feels no guilt about the plethora of superfluous stuff in the shiny aluminum box – the IE 8 make up for all these things by being exceptionally good tools for smooth, euphonic music reproduction. I really like them – and I have been using them every day since I got them. I think that tells more about them than any formal recommendation.
- Rich, cohesive sound with realistic bass, precise midrange, and natural treble – one of the best sounding universal-fit IEMs
- Very good build quality, comfortable to wear
- User replaceable cable with excellent build quality and low cable noise
- Sound character changes over time – if to the better or worse is up to one’s personal preferences
- Low noise isolation for a high-end IEM
- Huge but sub-par selection of included silicon and foam tips
- Useless bulky aluminum case which adds to the IE 8’s price
As usual, Americans will find them for a good price on Amazon. Europeans might get the best price on Amazon UK or in local stores. It varies a lot, but at the time of writing they can be found for less than 180 Euro.