Sennheiser is one of those “quietly brilliant” manufacturers in the personal audio business. Despite being historically revered, it’s never caught by the mainstream audience. The company possesses one of the best sounding in-ears you can find, the unique IE 800. But this debuted back in 2013, and it’s little brother, the IE 80, even further back in 2011. So it’s about time fans get something new from Sennheiser’s leading in-ear headphone line. This Synopsis looks at Sennheiser’s new mid-range champ, the IE 80 S.
The naming convention suggests that we’re looking at a refresh more than something really new, and rightly so. The design language of the IE 80 S follows its predecessor closely. But this is in no way a modest update. The exterior has made a cool turn to stealthy and sophisticated matte black, and the sound quality has been notably reworked.
- Durable construction and cool, unique look
- Variety of ear tips, including Comply foam
- Comfortable and secure wear
- Detachable cable
- Analog bass tuning
- Best in-class sound quality
- Plastic build doesn’t feel very premium in-hand
- Shallow silicone tips may not give you the best fit
- Average noise isolation
- Included carrying-case is large
- Not the smallest/thinnest in-ear headphones
What it’s like to use
- The shape and wear are of the IE 80 S are the same of the original. That is, they have a this unique, trapezoidal/pyramidal shape with a flat outer surface, and are designed to be worn over and around the ear.
- The earpiece chassis is still predominately hard plastic, but it’s now more uni-body as the plastic now spills over to the flat, outward surface. This sounds like a less premium approach, as the brushed-metal surface is what gives the design a nice shine, but the stealthy, dark matte finish that Sennheiser switched to can be seen as enough of an eye-pleaser. It’s certainly more refined-looking, and the matte finish has this classy velvety appearance from a distance, but it still feels like average hard plastic in the hand.
- Sennheiser also makes a point of durability with the new IE 80 S. It’s hard to speak about the headphone’s test of time when you’re given a loaner, but we can say that the IE 80 S certainly feels the part. The earpiece chassis feel tough, the cable connections are tight, and the cable sheathing and jacks have a very solid-feeling, rubber thickness.
- Following the point we’ve just made, this isn’t the smallest earphone you’ll find when you roll it up and stuff it in your pocket, if that kind of thing matters to you.
- The included carrying case is top-notch but comes with a couple questionable aspects. Firstly, it’s footprint is not only unnecessarily large but it’s thick too. Earphones are meant for travel, so it defeats the purpose if the case isn’t pocket-friendly. Secondly, there is a foam insert that should only be for initial packaging and presentation, but is permanently adhered. This makes no sense. Who’s going to want place the earphones in the way they were packaged each time they put them away? And being that the insert is mostly solid, it takes up a lot of unusable space that could be used for small accessories.
- Donned, the IE 80 S work very well in terms of ergonomics and comfort. Unlike some other around-the-ear earphones, the stems of the IE 80 S are relatively long and stick up vertically with the earpieces installed. This design makes it easy for the cable to flow over the ear (partly how they’re so comfortable), but can also lead to looseness at that point. Meaning, if you turn your head, the cable may jump out of your ear. That said, it rarely happened to us, and you can tighten the cable fit with the chin slider if needed.
- Ear tip fit is of the utmost importance with in-ear headphones. You won’t hear everything you’re supposed to without a good seal. So the attention a manufacturer puts into the ear tip design is equally as important. Unfortunately, we feel that Sennheiser missed the mark in this respect with the IE 80 S. We had trouble getting a good seal with any of the six choices of silicone tips (three different sizes of single flanges and double flanges). We think this is mostly attributed to their shallowness, as we finally managed a workable fit by deeply shoving in the medium tips. Granted, everybody’s ear canals are shaped differently, but we feel there’s something to be said when we’ve never had this much difficultly with tips before.
- Fit may not be the only reason why you may opt for the included Comply foam tips instead, but also sound isolation, which we felt the silicone tips were average at. But it is our opinion that Comply tips should be last resort, because they slightly alter the sound.
- The IE 80 S continue the original’s feature of a removable cable design. Sennheiser uses a 2-pin connector that can just be pulled out of the earpieces with a firm tug. But we assume to the dismay of many, it is a proprietary 2-pin design. This means that you cannot utilize third-party cables, of which there are tons to choose from.
- Another staple in the original IE 80 that also continues is the physical bass tuner on each earpiece. This functions just like the on the original. You have to stick a flat end (provided on the opposite end of the ear wax cleaning tool), having a quarter-circle range in which to up the bass presence. Sennheiser places five tick marks along the range (which is superfluous, because the dial doesn’t click into place). The marks subtlety indicate the level by their length – default has the shortest tick and max bass has the longest. But they’re so small you’ll need good eyes to tell; we almost didn’t notice. Speaking of the effect, we already feel that the IE 80 S has strong bass, so upping it overdoes it to our ears. But it’s nice that bassheads have the option. It’s better to EQ in analog than digital.
- A flat frequency response wasn’t an aim for the IE 80 S and it’s noticeable. Sennheiser leans on fun and impact by slightly elevating the bass and treble. That said, we’re not talking about an unjustified V-shaped response; the company addresses it as a “smooth U-shaped sound”.
- After plenty of time with the IE 80 S, we’re behind Sennheiser’s choices in tuning. There’s substantial punch and energy to always get your feet thumping, but also lots to love from a technical standpoint. Clarity continues to show as the company’s forte. Throughout the spectrum, notes are cleanly articulated and separated.
- The mid-range shines despite the slight imbalance in the tuning. It maintains ample presence and noteworthy quality, particularly with its natural tone and airy vocals.
- Bass is certainly the star of the show with the IE 80 S. It is full-bodied and can be thunderous in some instances – and we’re talking about the default bass setting. This is truly the basshead’s earphone. That said, the mid-bass may be a bit boomy for more picky ears, and the sub-bass doesn’t quite reach depth like on Sennheiser’s pricier offering, but the quality is still certainly appreciable and on-point for the price. Likewise, the treble shines with notable richness, but doesn’t have quite the crisp reach (or sparkle) of the top-end IE 800.
- Where the IE 80 S punches above its class is in soundstage. It has a commendable open/airy quality that means a lot to the listening experience, in terms of dimensionality and dynamics. So instead of the typical earphone in-the-head sound, we have a fuller and spacious delivery like with an over-ear headphone.
In the end, we really like what Sennheiser has done to breathe new life in its hard-hitting, mid-end earphone. The changes in its outward appearance may not tend to everyone, but it’s hardly obtrusive, and it’s meaning for durability should be a welcoming. The only thing that leaves us baffled is ear tip design. Granted, you may not have the same trouble with fit like our ear canals did, but isolation is an importance that the IE 80 S kinda miss the boat on. We’re glad that Sennheiser partnered with Comply to save the day.
Our satisfaction for this update also extends to the sound quality. It’s not perfect and true audiophiles may scoff on the bass emphasis, but there’s still a lot that the IE 80 S does right. Namely, the spacious soundstage, transparent reproduction, and admirable dynamics. If you share the desires of an audiophile and basshead, these may be your perfect earphones.