CES 2013 Show Highlight: Sennheiser

About 8 years ago I visited the Sennheiser headquarters campus in Wedemark, Germany (near Hannover). It was a fabulous experience, and I can't tell you how impressed I was at the seriousness with which Sennheiser takes every aspect of manufacturing a product. From hugely automated custom driver manufacturing machines, to a materials research labs bristling with expensive test equipment, to a complex marketing effort including very well staffed product management offices, their operation was inordinately comprehensive and competent.

But my favorite part of the visit, by far, was time spent in the Research and Development group and a long conversation with their, at the time, chief headphone engineer, Axel Grell. He filled me in on some of their methods for investigating driver diaphragm vibrations using laser interferometry, on how they conducted subjective listening tests, and gave me a preview of their current thinking on the still-in-development HD 800---which looked far different in the computer models than the finished product. Suffice it to say, I have no doubt that Sennheiser likely puts more R&D effort into their headphones than the vast majority of makers.

Axel has since moved into the marketing department to aid in developing Sennheiser's vision for their high-end headphone products, and was at CES touting their new in-ear IE 800 ($999) headphone. In typical Sennheiser fashion, this is a very unusual earphone using a 7mm dynamic driver, ceramic body, two tuned acoustic filters to get rid of typical ear canal resonances found in in-ear headphones, and silicon ear tips that include a built in filter to make cleaning your IEMs easy. Axel gave me a pair at the show, and I've had time to listen some since. I find these earphones quite good, but a bit unusual. They're a tad bright for me (which means they're probably just right for most), but are not harsh sounding. (I liked them WAY more then the AKG K3003.) They do have an interesting sparkle to them, and initial measurements reveal some unusual artifacts.

Which brings me to why Sennheiser was a show highlight for me: Now that Axel is in the marketing department I might actually have a chance to communicate with him about my findings and get some interesting feedback. In fact, I'm slated to go to Munich for the High-End Show in May, and I'm hoping to work in a Sennheiser factory visit. While most of what's in Axel's head is no doubt Sennheiser proprietary, I'm sure there's plenty of general headphone information that would provide me, and InnerFidelity readers, with a useful education.

Jazz Casual's picture

Tyll, I auditioned the IE800 and K3003 at length recently and liked them both. Though the IE800's top-end was enjoyably sparkling, cymbals (a point of reference for me) were lacking in tonal weight and sounded thin. It had nice, liquid mids and though I would describe it as a bassy phone, it was articulate bass. I think earphones benefit from a bass boost anyway. I prefer an earphone's sound signature to lean towards fun and engaging rather than flat and boring. The K3003 impressed me more because it sounded better balanced and more "Hi Fi" (if you know what I mean) than the IE800, while having some fun factor. Why do you prefer the IE800 "WAY more"?  

dalethorn's picture

I rarely even try IEMs because they never stay in, even with all the extra tips I can find. But I bought the IE800 because I wanted something reference-quality (I thought) that might fit better, and thanks to the oval tips I can actually use the IE800 for 30 minutes or so at a time. The bass on i-device alone can be too much at the deeper freq's, not a lot better with portable analog amps, but on desktops and laptops I've tried it tightens up much better than the average headphone. I don't really understand the benefit of paying $1000 for the last iota of sonic detail for use outdoors or on public transit, but maybe that makes sense to some users. The IE800's upper highs I find to be too bright. I don't have the HD800 here to compare directly, but I'd bet the IE800 sounds brighter in some areas at least. I haven't found, under best listening conditions, that there's any emphasis or de-emphasis that stands out to me, and I have those with every headphone I've listened to. More important for me though is the overall impression. After listening to a 96k download of Abbado doing Beethoven's 9th on the IE800, then trying the Senn Momentum, Beyer DT770LE, ATH ESW9 and 11 and a few others, everything sounded crude and uneven compared to the IE800. Some of that difference may be due to an increase in clarity inherent to being an IEM. Still, I think Sennheiser hit a grand slam with this one.

Edit: I should clarify about the fit. The problem for me with IEMs in general and the IE800 as well isn't the comfort after x number of minutes - it's getting there in the first place. It takes at least a minute for the tips to warm up enough where I can let go and the earpieces don't fall out right away. Then another several minutes of occasional poking to keep them from working themselves loose. Once they're stable, they will stay put if I keep my head really still. I don't have any interest in custom fittings.

BeerIsAwesome's picture

I really admire the fancy ceramic casing, and i love sennheiser, but how do these compare against the JH Freqphase flagships? The freqphase also seems to make the JH16 more viable than the 13 (which i was seriously considering) and I would like, no need to know how they all compare! Ugh so many outstanding choices! Good job on the CES coverage btw!

Tyll Hertsens's picture

...is the problem with the IE 800, IMHO. Great custom IEMs are just a few dollars away. 

Jazz Casual's picture

True, but they're not for everyone. Having worn custom ear plugs and not enjoyed the sensation that comes with blocked ear canals, I've avoided going down the custom earphone route. Then there's the process of going to an audiologist to have custom molds made and the possibility of refits being required at a later date. It can be an expensive inconvenience. 

Custom earphones utilise balanced armature (BA) drivers (though I believe there are some custom earphone manufacturers offering BA/dynamic driver (DD) hybrids) and having owned both BA and DD earphones, I tend to prefer the latter because they sound more 'organic' to me. BA earphones may ultimately be more resolving than their DD counterparts, but the ones I've tried (including the Final Audio FI-BA-SS, which I recently auditioned alongside the IE800 and K3003) all impart an unnatural hardness to the music as I hear it. 

Sennheiser and AKG have obviously identified a market for high-end universal earphones and if they are comparable to customs in sound quality, then I'd be prepared to pay a comparable price for them. 

rickysio's picture

You can consider FutureSonics as well... 

I preferred my mg6pros over the K3003 and the IE800 if it's of any use to you. 

Jazz Casual's picture

Thanks for the suggestion and I'm glad that your customs are working out for you but I'm not in the market for them - more of a universal kinda guy. ;) 

rickysio's picture

More of "Paying more for universal shape but lesser sound quality"... Unfortunately.

Of course, we're talking about minutae losses here...

Jazz Casual's picture

Well that's a matter of opinion, but I won't be in a position to appreciate the marginal improvement in sound quality that a custom earphone might provide when it feels uncomfortable to wear. 

rickysio's picture

You could ask if they'd be willing to produce it in universal shape.

Jazz Casual's picture

FitEar, a Japanese custom earphone manufacturer, already make two universal models - the FitEar To Go! 334 and F111. If they become available for audition at my local I'll be sure to give them a try. 

rickysio's picture

I've tried only the F111, (can't seem to locate a TG!334 demo) and it doesn't compete in the custom performance level despite being priced like one.

And of course, they're all BA-based IEMs.

Jazz Casual's picture

I'd still be interested in hearing the TG!334 even though it is BA based - doesn't hurt to try. ;) Who knows, it might just be special enough to make me a BA convert. 

Can Crazy's picture

If Alex Grell is going to remain in the marketing department, they're gonna have to train him to smile at least once every minute, and specially when he does a 5 minute long interview at CES with Tyll, and doesn't manage to grin til the very last minute, lol.

Impulse's picture

He's a German engineer... Pretty sure he's hard coded that way. :p Curious job shift tho, but I guess it's in line with Sennheiser's cut and dry PR style.

jbevier's picture

Known Axel since my days at Sennhesier in the 90's - wonderfully talented engineer in the finest German tradition of single variable substitution.  Lovely wife and kids.  Spent time at their home when they were first married and enjoyed them when they visited our home in CT.  Wish I had known he was stateside, I'd have made an excuse to leave the Venetian and surprise him with a hug.  Very nice man indeed - happy to call him a friend. (BTW - he's got damned good ears and is a VERY bright designer.  The lab will miss him I'm sure!)


Cheers Axel - hope you read this post.

JBevier, NSM, APS — Focal