Sennheiser IE 800
"The better the source, the better the sound," said Andreas Sennheiser, co-CEO of the eponymous audio company, when he first handed us a pair of audiophile grade IE 800 in-ear headphones. After hours of listening to the IE 800s, we understood what he meant: There's no limit to what these earbuds can do.
Simply by the nature of their size limitations, in-ear headphones are usually considered to be sonically limited. But with the IE 800s, Sennheiser has established a new category of high-fidelity earbuds for audiophiles – priced accordingly at a cool grand.
To justify the price, Sennheiser has wrapped a lot of technology into the diminutive speakers. There's a single 7mm-diameter transducer inside that turns electricity into sound in such an efficient manner that harmonic distortion is negligent (less than 0.06 percent). Sennheiser has also tweaked the design to try to eliminate unwanted vibrations created by the ear canal. Encased in ceramic, these tiny ear speakers also have dual ports that look like miniature fender flairs from a 1950s Cadillac; they are designed to prevent unwanted movement in the interior magnets. Did we also mention that the cord is reinforced with Kevlar?
The whole effect is intended to deliver a cleaner, more accurate, and live feel to any music you listen to. And, boy, does it. Where even $300 and $400 earbuds blur the sound and tend to squash instruments together, the IE800's, to coin a phrase, separate and lift in the best possible way. Individual instruments are clearly discernible without seeming distant, harsh, or false. It's most obvious on classical discs. A recording of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos by Christopher Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music, for example, was given new listening life with the IE800s, which could clearly enunciate the parallel runs of the recorder and flute, giving both winds a natural liveliness that wasn't lost inside the violin or harpsichord passages.
Speakers that tend to be good at meeting the demands of reproducing the sound of a Stradivarius are usually harsh when trying to convey the power of a Stratocaster. But the propulsive power chords of the Foo Fighters with their upfront, in-your-face vocals on tracks like 'DOA' never turned churlish on the IE800s. Heavy bass lines also never seemed to mar the midrange elements, no matter how much we turned up the volume.
If there is a fault of earphones this good, it's that they can reveal shortcomings in recordings and compressed digital music. In other words, the worse the source, the worse the sound. Poor streaming compression makes Apple's iTunes radio channels virtually unlistenable on such quality in-ears, and even some poorly produced CDs become irritating under such a sonic microscope (Chris Isaak, we're talking about you). Often tracks are mixed with the expectation that they'll be played on Pandora or Spotify, and some of these songs can seem off-kilter with a preponderance of bass.
The IE 800s don't have an inline mic or volume control on the cord. They are not for phone calls. And no one is going to notice what you're listening to while riding the bus or subway. The IE 800s are for music lovers with deep pockets. [$1,000; en-us.sennheiser.com]