Sennheiser ie800S Review – Exercise in Restraint

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Sound –

Tonality –

With a clear U-shaped signature, the ie800S is an engaging earphone with a slightly warmer, more natural low-end paired to a crisp, clear high-end. Though laid-back, its midrange is never overshadowed and it retains both pleasing vocal size and body. The ie800S makes several notable changes when compared to its predecessor, effectively appending most user complaints while compounding upon its widely acclaimed technical ability. As aforementioned, it does retain a light v/u-shape signature but offers greater balance on account of its more linear bass and smoother treble. As a result, the S is noticeably more natural than the ie800, has a little more midrange presence and retrieves a higher amount of detail alongside portraying a cleaner background.

 

Bass –

Lows are impactful and well-controlled, delivering a dynamic yet insightful bass response. Sub-bass extension greatly impresses, stretching beyond the audible and into perception, unlike any BA IEM. It may not sound quite as visceral and aggressive as more emphasized earphones such as Campfire Audio’s Vega, however, it is more balanced and realistic in timbre in return. Relative to diffuse-field neutral IEMs, both sub and mid-bass are emphasized, though it’s well-considered, avoiding obvious bloat and rounding of notes. Furthermore, the S has slightly reduced sub-bass quantity than the original ie800, sounding more linear and even-weighted, greatly enhancing articulation. The result is a slightly warmer tone relative to the ie800, and a presentation that lies tastefully on the more natural side of neutral.

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What hasn’t changed is its upper-bass tuning that remains neutral to slightly attenuated. It’s well-integrated with the ie800S’ similarly recessed lower-midrange, both serving to create a more exaggerated sense of separation. But though not perfectly linear, the ie800S greatly impresses with the quality of its bass; with tight, controlled sub-bass delivering concise impact and accurate decay preventing congestion and smearing of fine details. The ie800S is very discerning of texture and smaller nuances within its low-end, a by-product of impressive transience and great sub/mid-bass linearity. Sennheiser’s updated flagship in-ear thereby provides a defined and highly resolved bass presentation whose heightened engagement is well-balanced by a natural tone.

 

Mids –

Though less revised than bass and treble if at all, the ie800S’ midrange sounds notably improved over its predecessor on account of reduced colouration from neighbouring frequencies. It’s a meticulously orchestrated signature that isn’t perfectly linear, but highly engaging. When compared to its predecessor, mids are more present, more realistic in timbre and presented with greater vocal/instrument balance. The ie800S does retain a mild u-shaped signature, its midrange slightly laid-back relative to bass and treble. However, it sounds fairly balanced and substantial, never failing to draw attention with its delicate vocal reconstruction and exceptional clarity. As with the ie800, the S is not a dark earphone, but its upper midrange is slightly attenuated. Accordingly, it delivers smoother vocals despite its lifted lower-treble.

Due to its sculpted nature, the ie800S is not ideal for lovers of absolute realism and timbre. However, in return, it delivers a highly articulate and revealing presentation. As aforementioned, its lower-midrange/upper bass are neutral to relatively recessed, delivering a slightly thinner midrange, but also one with great transparency and pleasing adaptability between genres. By contrast, its centre midrange is slightly elevated, bringing vocals forward and imbuing them with greater body. In addition to a smoother treble tuning, vocals lack the exaggerated articulation and raspiness of the ie800 while retaining the same exquisite clarity and resolution. The ie800S, therefore, retains much of the charm of the original, with a delightfully clear expression that doesn’t skimp on the smaller nuances in the background. However, on account of its revised tuning, the S is not only more detailed, but also appreciably more natural in its voicing.

 

Highs –

Crisp, clean and extended all effectively describe the ie800S. It’s still a brighter, slightly thinner earphone and one that I wouldn’t characterise as perfectly natural, though its more gradual emphasis’ create a fairly well-bodied instrument reconstruction and a highly detailed image. Moreover, as lower-treble is slightly emphasized, foreground details are delivered with great clarity and precise attack without compromising too much body. In particular, both cymbals and strings are defined while retaining nice texture and decay, while high-hats, a great indicator of lower-treble linearity, remain wholly resolved with accurate shimmer. And, in accordance with user feedback, the ie800S more linear middle-treble effectively alleviates the splashiness and metallic sheen of the original.

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Extension remains very strong, similar if not slightly improved over its predecessor delivering very high resolution that complements its clear tuning. This impression is further bolstered by a small upper-treble peak that heightens sparkle. As it no longer carries such an obviously spiked presentation, the S retrieves more fine detail previously overshadowed by middle-treble glare. Resultantly, though not quite as articulated and remorselessly revealing as the original, the ie800S has more defined layers, greater air and increased separation; providing a more profound presentation than its predecessor. Of course, such a presentation isn’t for every listener, some may prefer a smoother sound and some may even find the more vibrant, contrasty (albeit superficial) tuning of the original more to their liking. As always, signature is a matter of personal preference, however, the objective upgrade in technical ability offered by the S is undeniable.

 

Soundstage –

A spacious stage has always been a strength of Sennheiser’s in-ears and the ie800S is no exception. Though its midrange is slightly more forward and its low-end is slightly warmer, the S retains impressive stage dimensions on account of its terrific treble extension and airy tuning. Width stretches beyond the head as does depth, and the ie800S is also nicely rounded in its presentation. Moreover, as linearity is notably improved, the ie800S has more accurate instrument placement. Directional cues aren’t quite as razor sharp as competing armature in-ears, but the ie800S has very pronounced separation on account of its transparent midrange and enhanced, but not excessive air.

 

Driveability –

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The ie800S is identical to the ie800 with a 16ohm impedance and 125dB sensitivity. It well-balances efficiency with hiss resistance, picking up notably less than the majority of competitors such as the Beyerdynamic Xelento. From testing with my various sources, I can subjectively ascertain that it retains the mostly linear impedance curve of the original, maintaining a consistent signature from sources of varying output impedance. That doesn’t equate to a similar experience from all sources as the ie800S is a highly resolving in-ear well-equipped to take advantage of a similarly resolving source. That said, its combination of hiss resistance and linear impedance make it better suited to smartphone use than most competitors, especially multi-armature IEMs. A dedicated source is still recommended to take full advantage of their technical abilities. Select pairings below:

HTC U11: Softer sub-bass impact, looser bass but still nicely defined. Laid-back vocals, aggressive treble brings details to the fore. That said, thinner instrumentation lacks micro-detail. Claustrophobic stage, nice separation but lacking expansion. Zero hiss. Perfectly listenable and similar signature on the surface but its presentation lacks immersion.

Fiio Q1 MKII ($100): Smoother bass texture, nice extension. Slightly warmer, retains pleasing definition. Smooth midrange, upper-midrange slightly laid-back. Touch of additional lower-treble, well-detailed. More intimate soundstage but well organised. No hiss on low-gain.

Shozy Alien+ ($450): Very well-controlled low-end, well-extended with slightly enhanced sub-bass impact. Very defined. Fairly transparent midrange. Very well-detailed, a hair of aggression. Spacious soundstage combined with a very clean background, well separated. Zero hiss on low-gain.

Echobox Explorer ($600): Tinge of warmth within bass, great extension and nicely defined. Well-balanced midrange, slightly laid-back centre midrange combined with a touch of additional articulation. Nicely detailed treble, organically bodied. More intimate stage, well organised with pleasing separation. Fairly audible hiss on low-gain.

Fiio X7 II w/AM3A ($650): Well balanced and resolving. Great bass extension, controlled and defined. Transparent midrange. More linear high-end, very detailed with a clean background. Very refined presentation, spacious stage with great separation. Zero hiss on low-gain.

iBasso DX200 w/AMP5 ($800): Very controlled, extended low-end with tight impact and great definition. Slightly more full-bodied midrange but very linear. Excellent detail retrieval, slightly aggressive but well-bodied and resolving. Very spacious stage with great layering and separation. Zero hiss on low-gain.

 

Balanced –

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As a new hallmark feature of the ie800S is its ability to interface with various connectors. Though balanced outputs vary wildly, I thought it apt to comppare the standard TRS 3,5mm output on my Fiio X7 MKII w/AM3A to its 2.5mm balanced output. Of note, both outputs have the same circuitry, just doubled up on the balanced output so its signature remains the same. The most notable difference was an increase in volume. Once volume matched using an SPL meter, I detailed some subjective impressions below.

From the balanced output, the ie800S sounds a little more composed. Bass has is slightly cleaner, with greater mid-bass definition and a more neutral tone. Mids are mostly untouched, with just a little more lateral expansion creating a slightly more layered presentation. Highs are slightly more detailed though other qualities such as extension, resolution and air remain the same. The balanced output also offered a more naturally expensive soundstage with slightly improved separation. Of course, the effects will vary from source to source, but it’s always good to have options.

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About Author

Avid writer, passionate photographer and full-time student, Ryan's audio origins and enduring interests lie within all aspects of portable audio. An ongoing desire to bring quality audio to the regular reader underpins his reviewer ethos as he seeks to bring a new perspective on the cutting edge and budget dredge alike.

2 Comments

  1. CL on

    well done! a heroic effort in comparing the ie800s with such a wide variety of iems!

    • Ryan Soo on

      Thanks CL, my pleasure 🙂

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