It’s been a while since we’ve seen movement from Sennheiser’s higher end earphones. That is, the company’s IE line of in-ears, where the mid-range has been owned by the IE 80 and the flagship of the series being the IE 800 (which we looked at) for the past few years. Well, Sennheiser is now getting around to updating its shining stars. And judging by the nomenclature, we very well are looking at refinement rather than reimagining.
Taking a page from Apple’s naming method, Sennheiser tacks on an “S” to the model name. Here, we’re taking a look at the new contender for mid-range in-ear king, the IE 80 S.
Much of what made the original IE 80 great is still here, like the detachable cable and analog bass adjustment, but the design/ergonomics and acoustics have been reworked for the better. Let’s take a look at what to expect.
Since this is a refinement, the overall form of the IE 80 S reflects that of the original. They still have that interesting trapezoidal shape and are meant to be worn around the ear. One immediate difference in the design is the reduction of the brushed metal plate on the flat, outward surface of the earpieces.
We don’t think everyone will be a fan of this move, as the metal looks more premium than the predominate material of the earpiece chassis, which feels like your standard-fare hard plastic (but with a stealthy, smooth matte finish). But we can understand what Sennheiser was going for. This is a more streamlined look and it draws the eyes to the Sennheiser logo and that intriguing bass control dial.
Durability is something else Sennheiser says was a focus with the IE 80 S, and we believe it. The earpiece housing, connector neck, and cable construction all feel like they can hold up to a beating.
Speaking of the cable, it’s also looks like it’s made of a pretty standard-fare black sheathing. It feels better in-hand, by sporting a smooth, rubbery finish. It has a thickness that backs its durable up-bringing, which serves good for resisting tangles but not for being the most compact when rolled up for travel.
We’re glad that the IE 80 S comes with a similarly awesome selection of accessories like its predecessor. First and foremost are the wide variety of ear tips, which now include different sizes of Comply foam tips. The in-canal seal is extremely important with in-ear headphones, and anyone should be able to find something that works out of these nine different pairs.
That said, I didn’t have a very positive experience with either types of the silicone tips. I don’t know if it’s because the stubby shape of the tips, or their firmness, but I had a hard time getting an appropriate seal. It’s hard for a reviewer to comment about this aspect of an in-ear, because all ear canals are different. But for what it’s worth, I try a lot of earphones and these gave me more fit trouble than usual. I eventually found that jamming them in tightly got me the seal I wanted. Anyways, I’m glad that Sennheiser threw in foam tips as an option. Things were all good using those. And you may want to opt for foam anyways, because isolation isn’t this earphone’s strong suit.
Fortunately, our fit issues didn’t bode badly for comfort. The earpieces are lighter than they look, and their unique trapezoidal shape actually fit nicely in the ear. We actually barely feel them when donned, and that’s what you want. The around-the-ear wear makes for a secure fit, which works together with the thick rubbery sheathing to stop microphonics at its tracks. These are earphones you can workout with; they stay in place despite movement.
We must mention a slight difference with the design of this around-the-ear earphone compared to others. The stem interface where the cable connects to the earpiece is long and sticks up vertically when you wear the earphones. This is partly what makes the IE 80 S so comfortable, but we did find that it caused the cable to fall from our ears at times (when turning our head). You’ll want to utilize the chin slider to keep the cables tightly against you, or use the optional ear hooks that are included.
The cable has a generous length short of 4 ft (3.93′ to be exact). Sennheiser made a tweak to the Y-splitter, smoothing out the original blocky form. For some reason, it has also changed the orientation of the 3.5mm jack. It used to be right-angled and now is straight. We feel like this is an unnecessary change and also inconsistent, because the update to the IE 800, the IE 800 S, continues to use a right-angle connector. Please choose one method and stick to it.
The bass tuning dial on each earpiece requires a small flathead tool, which Sennheiser places on the opposite end of the ear wax cleaning tool – so you’ll want to make sure you have this around if you often change the bass. There’s five little markers with a quarter circle section in which to increase the bass.
We really wish that Sennheiser at the very least marked the lower and upper limits of the bass dial. There’s no visual reference, so you have to remember what you last set it on. If you forget, you’ll have to listen, change it, and listen again to figure it out. You of course can try to remember what’s what relative to the earpiece orientation, but we still stand by that a simple marker would have been best.
Sennheiser set themselves up for scrutiny when it comes to the sound of the IE 80 S, because it’s one of the big updates and a big reason why you’ll be paying the original premium of this headphone. Suffice to say, the IE 80 S doesn’t disappoint.
One of the things that continues to stands out in Sennheiser’s audio reproduction is clarity. We’ve seen it in our listen of the wallet-busting IE 800, and we can tell a similar prowess in the IE 80 S. Throughout the spectrum, notes cleanly hit with appreciable separation. There’s plenty here to enjoy from an analytical standpoint, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t the kind of energy that gets our feet thumping.
Many headphone makers opt for a V-shaped frequency response to get this kind of impact. Sennheiser aims for a good balance between impact and accuracy with a U-shaped response, which lifts bass and treble but keeps the mid-range appreciable. I’m usually a stickler about ample mid-range presence, but didn’t find the IE 80 S really lacking in this area. What helps is the natural and airy vocals.
Out of the box, we didn’t feel that the bass needed any boosting. It’s the strongest aspect of the sound by default. But it is nice that Sennheiser includes an analog boost for bassheads; this is an option rarely found on earphones. We really enjoyed the bass on the IE 80 S. It’s authoritative, which coupled with its ability to be tuned should make this the best choice for basshead audiophiles. The qualities of both the bass and treble are about the same level for us; they’re where they should be at this price range but could be better. The mid-bass has a looseness to our ears, and the sub-bass isn’t as deep as what you’d find on the IE 800, nor is the treble is extended/sparkly as it either.
But what helps the entire presentation (and pleasure) is the airy soundstage. The IE 80 S follows in the steps of its more expensive counterpart in this respect. So this means that it’s a more 3D space than it is wide, and the dynamics of different notes in the space are superb.
We reckon that the two biggest questions that the IE 80 S will raise are if they’re a worthy upgrade and if they’re worth their hefty $350 price. We’re more inclined to say Yes to the second question than the first, but it will come down to what the listener values. The IE 80 S in no way wipes the floor with the original IE 80, and the recommendation becomes difficult when the still-capable original costs $150 less than the new guy.
But if sound quality means a lot to you (which, if you’re thinking about dropping a few hundred, then it probably does), than the IE 80 S may be worth it. Sennheiser has carried over some of its higher level expertise to its mid-range champ and it can make a valuable difference. It also helps how the device is refined as much out as it is in.