It’s funny calling Sennheiser’s impressively tiny IE 800 S a “beast”, however in this case, looks are as deceiving as ever. The IE 800 series (this “S” variant is a sequel to the 2013 debut of the flagship design) packs a wallop of sound fidelity. The original was a bit too much awesome for human ears, meaning that some mobile audiophiles (including myself) that took it in struggled with fatigue, either from its deep, skull-rattling sub-bass or peaky, sparkly treble. But no one could deny that Sennheiser’s one-of-a-kind extra-wide band dynamic drivers were (and still are) quite the feat – unbelievably minuscule in size for a dynamic driver but uber resolving in acoustic performance.
Chances are that you’ve already checked out plentiful reviews and already get the gist of this device. Rather than rehash all that, this synopsis is meant to supplement the general “review”, focusing on crucial points, particularities, and criticisms that often go unaddressed. Let’s get right to it….
> Over the past couple years, Sennheiser has been giving “S” (Apple-like) upgrades across its most notable lineup. Their IE 800 flagship earphone is no exception. It’s important to look at this treatment as a refinement than an “upgrade”. Or it can be viewed as a “sidegrade”, look and sound-wise.
> With the IE 800 S, the design is untouched (shape and dimensions are exactly the same as before), but aesthetics have gotten a pretty significant overhaul. The switch from glossy to matte on the earpieces (still made out of ceramic) trades fashion for function. The rougher texture makes it way easier to grasp the super tiny earpieces when donning and adjusting.
Original IE 800 (left) comparison with new IE 800 S (right)
> Similarly, the cable (ever-so longer than before, though frustratingly not at the Y-split), goes with a more ordinary-looking, flat-black sheathing. Though, everything feels high quality (matte + rubbery combo) and not flimsy, like most cheaper earphones with similar-looking cables.
> One of the smartest moves Sennheiser made was rewiring the cable internals to function Balanced, and utilizing the IE 800’s detachable cable mechanism (sadly, still no detachable earpieces) for flexibility with the various sources of today’s portable HiFi gear. Surprisingly, there’s not only an adapter in the box for the most common 2.5mm Balanced standard, but also the up-and-coming 4.4mm Pentaconn. Of course, there’s still the standard unbalanced 3.5mm too.
> A note to those who haven’t used a IE 800 before – the key pros and cons still exist with this model. The design is impossibly tiny for the acoustic performance it gives. It’s huge for transport-ability. I can stuff these in the coin pocket of my jeans.
> Unfortunately, this also means that microphonics still plagues this earphone (noise that runs up the cable from rubbing on yourself with movement). Poor microphonics was one of the biggest gripes of the original IE 800, and it’s not whatsoever improved here.
> The included carrying case is still nonsense. It doesn’t reflect the compactness of the earphones whatsoever, and doesn’t feel as great as it look (now feels less like leather). It also takes too much time to wrap the earphones around in this manner each time. Sennheiser didn’t do anything about the negative feedback from the first go-around.
> While we’re on a roll with the cons, the earpieces are still not detachable – a feature on most high-end earphones at this price range. This was and still will be a deal-breaker to many portable audiophiles, detach-ability is protection against cable malfunction and allows us to play with different third-party options. However, for what it’s worth, we’ve accidentally yanked on the earpieces pretty hard over time and there’s been zero consequence. They’ve proven durable.
> Interestingly, Sennheiser dumped the oval silicone ear tips that they specially highlighted in the original model (the circular silicone tips are still there). Seems like the real world didn’t feel the same way. So instead, the IE 800 S packaging replaced them with Comply foam tips, which we agree makes more sense. Isolation is average with the IE 800 design, so this is just the ticket. This partnership means that Comply now supplies official foam tips that fit the IE 800’s proprietary nozzle design, but you’re still out of luck if you don’t like Comply tips.
> Because the earpieces and nozzles are tiny, you gotta shove them in pretty deep to achieve the necessary in-canal seal. Since there’s no a lot to hold onto, once in place we need to wiggle them a little til we feel the seal to completely catch. The donning process for these won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if not picky, you do get used to it. And something has to be said for comfort. These are so light and small that you barely feel anything in the ear.
> Okay, now to the most important part – sound quality. I’ll make it simple (because it is). Take a IE 800 and slightly pull back both extremes of the spectrum and you’ve got a IE 800 S. In essence, this is taking a V-shaped frequency curve and making it U-shaped. Therefore, if you felt the “party mode” sub-bass and/or peaky treble was a bit much originally, you’re in for a treat. But if not, then stick with the original IE 800, for Pete’s sake.
> We could be done but we’re not. There’s a couple more important points to know. Making the frequency response a bit more balanced does a great thing for the midrange. It (especially vocals) no longer feel squished at the center and constricted. It makes the airy and natural quality in the mids all more detectable/enjoyable.
> That said, it doesn’t fix midrange’s subdued nature. Don’t know if it’s the dampeners damping a little too much, but the mids still don’t sound as punchy/engaging/impactful/big as some others we’ve heard in this price range. It still is that the IE 800 S is a softer, finessed, more causal way to HiFi listening. Nothing wrong with that; it’s just that some audiophiles want a party too.
> Not to deter from the degree of refinement that we’re dealing with. The IE 800 line is not much rivaled when it comes to tonality. It’s such a pleasing, organic/natural, warm-feeling, smooth, and airy sound cohesively throughout. This is a very strong point when considering the multiple-BA driver fad or even electrostatics, in which the former can sometimes come off as disjointed and latter not naturally warm where most would say should be.
> Soundstage is practically unchanged from the OG IE 800, which was already well-done. That is, you can an evenly distributed height and width spacing. This makes everything sound uniformly open/breathable and natural. There’s no artificial stretching of the width, no distraction. Dynamics and imaging are above average. You can pretty easily tell differentiation of notes in space (the clean separation of the drivers is complimentary to this) but it’s more subtly done than to blow your mind.
> Another consequence of the sound signature tweak that Sennheiser did is overall impact of the product. You see, sub-bass and treble were are the strongest aspects of this design – unique bass ports that allow the bass to reach deeper than the typical completely closed earpiece and the ultra-resolving quality of the extremely wide-band driver. By taming them, you make the IE 800 less “special”. In other words, it’s harder for the listener to pick their qualities, whereas before it was right in your face and hard to miss. If you don’t have the ear of audiophilia, the IE 800 S may just sound like a good and clear earphone, but that’s it. You have to really listen not just hear the music to appreciate what it can do.
- Probably the most compact, high-end earphones
- High quality build and feel
- Comfortable fit (almost like nothing there)
- Two Balanced and one Unbalanced cable options included
- Top-notch, super refined audio quality
- No detachable cable for this price-point
- Too sensitive to microphonics
- Proprietary nozzle shape is limiting
- Bass ports are open to the elements
- Sound could be more exciting
Market-wise, we don’t see the IE 800 S being a standout, high-end earphone, which is a shame. Its sound is super refined, natural-sounding and smooth, cohesive, non-fatiguing, clear and notably detailed for what it is. This tiny and super rigid dynamic driver that Sennheiser has developed is phenomenal, and the bass ports are a really good idea.
Its punch and fullness may just be lacking for a lot of peoples’ tastes. Sennheiser did the right thing in giving the mids a slight push forward, but it may it may not be enough. And the tweak took away from some of the qualities that made the original model sound special. And then throw in non-detachable cables, microphonics, and proprietary ear tips in and you’ve lost the many that expect the most for their money at this high cost. The IE 800 S is a fantastic option in this class and a recommendation from us if those things don’t matter as much to you.