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Headphones

Sennheiser’s ultimate ‘ear bud’

The Sennheiser IE800 S throws a party for your ears.

I was a big fan of Sennheiser's original IE800 in-ear headphone when it debuted -- I can hardly believe it -- five years ago! It was a super comfy, extremely open, natural sounding 'phone. Sennheiser's newly revised model, the IE800 S looks similar, but sounds different. It's designed and hand-made in Germany.

The Sennheiser IE 800 S in-ear headphones.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The IE800 S features a single 7mm driver mounted in each ceramic ear piece; impedance is rated at 16 ohms. It comes with a rather deluxe looking real leather travel case. I like the silicone and Comply ear tips that securely snap in place on the ear pieces, that's good, but their non-standard fitting means you can't use other brands' off-the-shelf replacement tips with the IE800 S. I found it a little trickier than average to achieve a good, air tight seal with these in-ears.

The original IE800's injection-molded ceramic ear pieces looked snazzy in high gloss metallic grey, but the IE800 S' ear pieces are finished in a more subdued satin grey. Sennheiser isn't making any great claims about sonic differences between the two models, other than to say the IE800 S' 7mm drivers are redesigned. The IE800 S retails for $1,000, £870 and AU$1,600, while the original IE800 is still listed on Sennheiser's website at $800, £560 and AU$1,200.

The IE800 S' "Y" splitter and tail cable.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The user replaceable cables are configured in a different way than what you get with other in-ears; with the IE800 S you can change the cable after the "Y" splitter (see photo). The "Y" cable is permanently attached to the ear pieces. Also the new cables are more flexible and supple than original IE800's cables. The IE800 S comes with three cables, the standard one ends with a 3.5 mm plug, another one with a 4.4mm Pentaconn plug for some of the latest Sony high-end portable players and 2.5 mm balanced connector featured on Astell & Kern and other high-end music players.

My first impressions about the IE800 S' sound was that it was very clear, without even a hint of exaggerated treble "detail," it sounded like it wasn't doing anything at all. It was also extremely open, so the sound wasn't stuck inside my head.

Pianist Nils Frahm's "Felt" album features him playing a "treated" piano, with felt damping the piano strings, muffling their sound. It's an ambient sounding recording, and it was very atmospheric over the IE800 S.

I split my IE800 S listening time between my iPhone 6S and an Astell & Kern Kann portable hi-res music player. The Kann had superior control of bass, so definition tightened up, and the IE 800 S' overall clarity improved. That was with the standard cable with the 3.5mm jack. Stepping up to the cable with the 2.5mm "balanced" plug yielded further improvements in those areas with the Kann player.

Comparing the original IE800 with this new IE800 S was fascinating. The IE800 is brighter and bassier, the IE800 S sounds smoother and more spacious. The midrange is more natural, so voices, strings and guitars sound more inviting. I've always liked the IE800, but the IE800 S sounds like a more refined device.

Then I pulled out a set of Shure SE846 in-ear headphones ($899, roughly £640 or AU$1,140) that feature four balanced armature drivers in each ear piece. Right away the SE846 was nowhere as transparent as the IE800 S, but the SE846's bass was more muscular and better defined. The IE800 S' bass prowess was very decent, but the SE846 more viscerally potent. It's more rock and roll, the IE800 S fares better with acoustic music. So it's a tie, I like both for different reasons and they will appeal to different tastes.

The Sennheiser IE800 has been one of my long term reference in-ear headphones, and the IE800 S ups the ante. That said, the IE800 stood the test of time, and I'm expecting the IE800 S will still sound great five years down the road, in 2023.