Sennheiser’s IE 8 ($449.95) is the firm’s flagship in-ear headphone and it’s a product I’ve wanted to hear ever since I got an introduction the IE8 and IE7 models at a Sennheiser tradeshow booth well over a year ago. At the time, the booth guide explained that while the second-to-the-top-of-the-line IE 7s and top-of-the-line IE 8s were both intended as top-tier performers, the IE 7 offered—deliberately—slightly brighter or more “treble rich” tonal balance overall, while the IE8 offered more neutral voicing (which is always music to my ears, if you’ll pardon the pun).
But what I didn’t realize during that initial booth tour was that the IE 8 actually offers user adjustable voicing—a feature not commonly seen in in-ear headphones (in fact, off the top of my head, I really can’t think of another that provides the feature). This is why I’ve dubbed the IE8 the “Flexible Flagship.” Unlike most top-tier models, the IE8 not only offers a very satisfying core sound, but also offers its owners a range of “sound tuning” options that in particular affect the headphone’s bass balance.
Here’s how the IE8’s “Sound Tuning” feature works. Each of the IE 8’s earpieces provides a small, recessed frequency-response adjustment screw, complete with finely graduated adjustment markings (so that you can experiment and easily repeat settings that work best for you). When the screws are turned full counter-clockwise, frequency response measurements are as flat (or neutral) as possible. But, because some listeners perceive measurably flat response as being a bit bass-shy, Sennheiser lets you dial in more bass emphasis by turning the screws in the clockwise direction (more rotation = more bass emphasis).
As you’ll discover in a moment, the “sound tuning” adjustment screws affect only bass balance, but interestingly they give the subjective impression of adjusting the “tilt” or slope of the headphone’s entire response curve. As you turn the screws toward the full-neutral position, the headphone sounds brighter and a perhaps a bit more open through the midrange, while with the screws turned the other way, toward maximum bass emphasis, the headphone takes on a darker, deeper, warmer cast. No matter your preference, I think a big part of the IE8’s appeal—apart from its strong core performance—is that fact that it provides a mechanism for catering to a broad spectrum of listener tastes and preferences.
Somewhat unusually, the Sennheiser Web site does not list the IE 8’s among its “Audiophile Headphones,” (though I certainly think it ought to), but rather lists them among the firm’s “Professional Headphones.” Go figure. My advice: jus declare your self a “professional music listener” and then go give the IE 8’s a try.
Consider this in-ear headphone if: you want a headphone that does all things well, combining accurate tonal balance, very good levels of detail and resolution, and an uncanny quality of sonic smoothness. Also look at the IE 8 if you like the idea of the headphone's user adjustable "sound tuning" feature.
Look further if: you find the IE 8's oblong earpieces somewhat uncomfortable or hard to fit (the only way to know this is to try a pair and see what you think). Note, too, that while the IE 8 is offer very fine resolution, detail, and focus, there may be one or two competitors that can narrowly edge it out.
Ratings (compared to similarly-priced headphones)
The IE 8 is defined by three main sonic characteristics. First and foremost, the IE 8 offers smooth, well extended, and generally neutral tonal balance. In this key area of performance, I feel that the IE 8 takes its place among an elite group of three so-called “universal fit” (as opposed to custom fit) in-ear headphones that, for me, represent the absolute crème de la crème within today’s market. The other two headphones in my select “group of three” are the Shure SE 530 (which will be superseded later this year by the new SE535) and the Monster Cable Turbine Pro Copper Edition. What distinguishes the IE 8 from its competitors, however, is its unique “sound tuning” feature, which allows users to dial-in precise amounts of additional bass output either to suit their listening tastes or to help the headphones adapt to environments where excessive low-frequency background noise is present.