The German firm Sennheiser has long been known for producing excellent lower-cost earbuds such as the CX300 covered in our first “Killer Earbud” survey, but at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show the firm announced its ambitious new line of IE-series in-ear headphones, which aim for the very highest levels of performance. As this is written, the IE models are just beginning to appear on the market, so we were fortunate to obtain a sample of the IE 7, the next-to-the-top model in the range, for our survey. We’re pleased to report that it’s everything you might expect a top-tier, German-made product to be: crisp, precise, and beautifully built.
Like the best of its competitors in this price class, the IE 7 offers a clear, focused, highly transparent sound. The earphone is also quite sensitive and easy to drive, so that it produces a big sound that is dynamically alive. Tonal balance is reasonably neutral and characterized by tight and robust (but not overblown) bass, and smooth, evenly weighted midrange. Highs are clean and clear, but treble response is skewed slightly to the bright side of neutrality. Some perceive the forwardsounding highs as enhancing clarity, while others feel they make the IE 7 sound a bit thin or even “bass shy,” which isn’t actually the case.
On the title track of Marcus Miller’s The Sun Don’t Lie [Pra Records], you’ll hear Miller on a Fender Jazz bass guitar ably supported by synthesizers, piano, steel drum, and a percussion battery. The Sennheiser’s strengths for the most part complement the track perfectly, capturing the dark, potent “pop” of Miller’s lowest slapped notes (man, can the IE 7s go low), while also revealing the almost vocal quality of sustained bass notes, which sing with a prolonged “Mwaaahh” that’s incredibly evocative. All the intricate inner textures of the synth are exposed as is the characteristically round tone and unmistakably Caribbean voice of the steel drum. But high percussion, though very clear, has a bit of excess sizzle, sheen, and bite that—though undeniably exciting—sounds a little larger than life. This characteristic complements some material, but not all.
The IE 7s are quite light, with an earpiece design that requires you to route earpiece cables up and over your ears, with cables running through a stiff, bendable tube that doubles as an custom-fit ear clip. I found the IE 7s quite tricky to position so as to achieve a good seal, and some guest listeners gave up before ever experiencing a really good fit (meaning they missed out on the IE 7’s potentially superb bass response). With this headphone more than most in this survey, you need to keep experimenting with eartips and positioning until they seal well, thus producing great bass.
The IE 7s are superb highend earbuds that are fully competitive with other top models in this price class. Strengths include relatively high sensitivity (which helps give an energetic, full-bodied sound), excellent bass, and clear, well-balanced midrange. Highs, as noted, are crisp but a little too forward—a characteristic some will love, but others not so much. Fit can be a bit finicky, so plan on experimenting for best results.