More so than many in-ear ‘phones, the IE 8’s seem extremely sensitive to wearers achieving a truly airtight seal between the ‘phones and their ear canals (actually, all in-ear ‘phones are like this to a degree, but I found that the low bass performance of the IE 8’s absolutely falls apart if there are air leaks of any kind). Happily, the Sennheisers come with an extremely broad array of eartips for users to try, so that there should be a solution for just about everyone. And one you do find eartips that seal properly it’s “fasten your seatbelts” time, since the IE8’s offer absolutely stupendous bass response—response so deep and powerful that some might find it a little overpowering, at least at first.
Second, the IE 8’s are highly detailed and therefore extremely revealing headphones. When you switch to the IE 8’s from most other in-ear ‘phones (even quite good ones), it is typical to be struck by just how much more musical information the IE 8’s are able to capture or resolve. In a general sense, this means that listening sessions with the flagship Sennheisers take on a quality of discovery, as bits and pieces of the overall musical tapestry suddenly snap into fine focus in ways they might not have done before. Where other headphones might vaguely hint or suggest at what’s going on in the mix, the IE 8’s wade right in and show you what’s happening in explicit, graphic detail.
Third, however, comes a sonic characteristic that doesn’t always prove compatible with high levels of resolution and detail: namely, an overarching quality of smoothness that makes the IE 8’s relaxing to listen to over long periods of time. Frankly, most other ‘phones that reveal as much detail as the IE 8’s do tend also to expose rough edges in the music in sometimes unpleasant ways. In contrast, though, the IE 8’s pursue detail and resolution with real gusto, yet somehow manage to stop just short of becoming edgy or obnoxious. I’m not quite sure how Sennheiser pulled this off, but I’m glad that they did.
In some respects there is nothing quite so revealing of an audio component’s sonic potential as a good solo piano recording, and knowing this I put on the virtuoso pianist Joel Fan’s West of the Sun—Music of the Americas [Reference Recordings]. I focused in particular on two tracks: first, Fan’s performance of Astor Piazzolla’s moody “Preludes (3) for Piano: no 2, Flora’s Game, Milonga Prelude” and then his rendition of the muscular first movement of Albert Ginastera’s “Sonata for Piano No. 1, Op. 22: Allegro marcato.” What made this listening experience so informative was hearing the dramatically different voicings and overall emotional cast that Fan brought to each piece.
For the Piazzolla piece, Fan pulled forth a fluid, lilting, mysterious sound from the piano tinged with a touch of melancholy. Through the IE 8’s the effect was almost that of hearing the soundtrack of a dance sequence from beautiful yet also haunting dream. The Sennheisers rendered individual piano notes cleanly and sweetly, while allowing the dynamic envelopes of individual passages to ebb and flow in a gentle, ethereal way—so that the music seemed almost to be floating on a cushion of air.
Then, when Fan transitioned to the Ginastera composition, the mood and overall sound of the piano abruptly changed, taking on a vigorous, punchy, angular quality, so that notes (and their accompanying harmonics) seemed almost to explode outward and upward from the bottom of the piano’s soundboard. Where many headphones would have taken on a harsh, strident edge on the Ginastera piece, the IE 8’s simply drew a deep breath and then burst forth at full song, but without—and this is very important—so much as a trace of edginess and glare.
My point is that the IE 8’s have the delicacy and subtlety to show the almost dreamlike inner workings of the Piazzolla piece, but also the power, muscle, clarity, and drive to do justice to the Ginastera Sonata. But at all times, listeners will appreciate and enjoy the Sennheiser’s exquisite mix of clarity, definition and—most impressively—unfailing smoothness. It’s that latter quality that make you want to keep listening to the IE 8’s long after other headphones would have become tiresome.