Excellent audio performance. Generous array of eartips and accessories. Adjustable bass response. Removable cable.
Expensive. Included cable lacks inline remote control or mic. Difficult to adjust bass levels and have an accurate ear-to-ear mix. Snap-on ear hooks don't always stay in place.
- Bottom Line
Sennheiser's IE 80 S earphones produce sound worthy of their $350 price, but some peculiar design decisions make the overall experience feel less than luxurious.
Sennheiser has a reputation for excellence when it comes to headphones and microphones, but in-canal earphones are a smaller piece of the puzzle for the German audio manufacturer. At $349.99, the IE 80 S earphones are an expensive offering, but the good news is that they sound fantastic. They also feature adjustable bass and ship with a wide selection of eartips. That said, the design isn't as user-friendly as it should be, especially for the price, and that keeps the pair from scoring top marks.
Visually speaking, the IE 80 S are rather humdrum. A black matte cable leads to black matte earpieces, one marked with a red band for right. The look here is professional gear—not ugly, but not stylish.
There's no inline remote control. The included cable can be removed and replaced with one that has a remote, but it costs more money (as of this writing, there is no official word on the pricing or availability of the replacement cable). Why Sennheiser doesn't throw in an extra cable at this high price is a mystery—why bother building earphones to work specifically with mobile devices and then exclude the remote? The good news here is that the cable is removable, a design decision that will likely add longevity to the life of the earphones, as cables are typically the first thing to fail.
The in-ear fit is excellent. This is due in part to the IE 80 S's lightweight design, as well as the generous array of ear tips provided. There are three total pairs of Comply foam noise-isolating ear tips (S, M, and L), as well as five more pairs of silicone tips in various sizes. Also included: a pair of over-the-ear silicone cable hooks to further secure the fit, and an earpiece cleaning tool for removing wax buildup. It's unclear why the snap-on cable hooks aren't simply built-in as part of the design, as they seem more or less essential to providing the ideal fit. As is, they can partially pop off fairly easily. All of these accessories fit inside the included zip-up carrying case, with foam molds for holding the earphones in place.
Internally, the earpieces utilize neodymium dynamic drivers to deliver a frequency range of 10Hz to 20kHz with an impedance of 16 Ohms. Intriguingly, the bass response can be adjusted ear-to-ear using the included cleaning tool, which doubles as a micro screwdriver on the other end—each earpiece has a very tiny screw on the outer panel. Turning right adds bass response, and turning left decreases it. Adjusting the bass is easy enough, but the screw lacks detent click points, and its visual markers for the halfway point could be a lot easier to see. In other words, it's not easy to guarantee that each ear's bass is at the exact same level, unless you boost or cut it completely. A larger, single knob controlling both channels would have been easier to use and would have ensured matched bass response ear-to-ear.
We tested the IE 80 S with the bass levels at various settings. At the lowest bass setting, the earphones still have more low frequency depth than typical flat response pairs, but the bass is clear and well balanced with the rest of the frequency range. On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife's "Silent Shout," the earphones deliver a hearty subwoofer-style thump that manages to not overpower the mix and never distorts even at high, unwise listening levels.
At middle bass levels, Bill Callahan's "Drover," a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better sense of the overall sound signature. The drums on this track can sound overly thunderous on in-ears that boost the lows too heavily. Through the IE 80 S, the drums have powerful bass depth, but it isn't over the top. They sound full and round, but not unnatural. Callahan's baritone vocals get an added richness, but it's balanced out for the most part by some solid high-mid presence. The guitar strums sometimes sound brighter than they do on other pairs, and Callahan's vocals sometimes sound more crisp—this sound signature, even with the bass at low or medium levels, is a lows- and mids-forward affair, with a little less crispness and brightness in the higher frequencies. Moving to a lower bass setting, the drums still have plenty of body and depth, but the higher frequencies seem more bright and airy—Callahan's vocals get their treble edge back.
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Using medium or high levels on the bass knobs on Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild," the kick drum loop gets enough high-mid presence to accentuate its sharp attack, but again, we typically hear a little more high-mid presence that pushes the attack even farther to the front of the mix. Instead, the loop sounds heftier in the lows. The sub-bass synths hits that punctuate the beat are delivered with gusto, but less of their raspy top notes, while the vocals are clear enough, but could benefit from a little more high-mid presence. Dialing the bass all the way back suddenly gives the loop its edgy, punchy attack, thins out its sustain, and offers a clearer vocal presence. It's on this track that we finally settled on a bass setting of somewhere between low and medium levels.
Orchestral tracks, like the opening scene in John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary, get more low frequency boosting than some may prefer at nearly any level beyond the second notch on the bass adjuster. But at the second notch, the lows play a rich, lovely supporting role—when there's sub-bass-like lows, you hear it, but it's never too much, and the higher register brass, strings, and vocals maintain their bright, crisp place in the spotlight.
The Sennheiser IE 80 S earphones offer audio performance in line with their lofty price, and a number of attractive features, like adjustable bass and a detachable cable. But adjusting the bass can be frustrating, the included cable lacks a remote, and we wish the ear hooks were permanently built into the earpieces. So they earn high marks for audio and features, but we have less enthusiasm for the overall design. In this price range and lower, there are several excellent-sounding earphones worth your attention. We recommend the Etymotic ER4 XR, Bowers & Wilkins C5 Series 2, RHA CL750, and for more money, the intriguing Audeze iSine20. If you can get past the aforementioned design issues, however, the IE 80 S will not disappoint on sound quality.
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About the Author
Tim Gideon Contributing Editor, Audio
Contributing Editor Tim Gideon has been writing for PCMag since 2006. He specializes in reviewing audio products, and is obsessed with headphones, speakers, and recording gear.
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