Not long ago, Sennheiser appeared to have the whole headphones market to itself. A shark in a sea of minnows, it dominated in practically every style and at every price point. How the company must miss those days.
Sennheiser remains a hugely successful company, of course, but almost every manufacturer you’ve heard of (and several more you haven’t) now has at least one pair of headphones in its repertoire, making the market more crowded than the rush-hour tube.
Even in the premium in-ear segment, once of very niche appeal, Sennheiser now faces intense competition. And on the evidence of the IE 80 Ss here, the company really needs to raise its game to get back on top.
Build and comfort
Delivering a sense of tangible value with in-ears is tricky. They are, after all, inherently small. Sennheiser has had a much better stab at it than most, though.
Included in the box are earbuds of various sizes and materials (silicone, lamella, Comply), ear hooks, a cleaning tool that can also be used to adjust bass response via a tiny dial on each earphone, and a carry case with dedicated compartments.
The included 1.2m cable is detachable and replaceable, too, although it doesn’t have a mic for calls or a button for controlling your music.
That’s good for compatibility and can be better for sound quality - but an extra £45 for a mic/remote cable seems on the steep side, especially when you consider the £300 initial outlay.
The earphones themselves don’t look terribly stylish or premium, but they do feel solid and built to last.
They’re exceptionally comfortable in the ears - as long as you remember that they’re designed to go upside-down with the cable running over your ears, whether you’re using the supplied hooks or not.
‘Comfortable’ describes the sound quality, too. The IE 80 S earphones are super-glossy, full-bodied and weighty, with Lane 8’s Clarify flowing entirely smoothly.
There are no sharp edges here, just rich, fluid, rounded beats, with plenty of chunky bass even on the lowest bass setting.
There’s plenty of detail on offer, even by the expectations encouraged by a £300 price tag.
There’s real texture to each of the natural, wild sounds that Cosmo Sheldrake uses to construct the multi-layered Wriggle, and a genuine, charming rawness to John Frusciante’s Every Person not many headphones convey.
But the Sennheiser’s IE 80 Ss commit the cardinal headphone sin by being rather boring. Alt-J’s In Cold Blood is badly lacking impact, both in terms of punch and dynamics.
The build-up doesn’t build up dramatically enough, and the big hit doesn’t hit big either. It robs the track of its fun and attack.
Timing isn’t great either, and this contributes to a lack of cohesion across the frequency range that leaves the various instruments and other effects of a track sounding rather unrelated to one another.
There’s little sense of a band working in unison, pulling in the same direction to create something whole and fulfilling. Instead it’s disjointed and fragmented.
While nothing particularly sticks out or annoys when listening via the Sennheiser IE 80 S earphones, there’s also little in the delivery that excites.
Everything is just too flat and soft to be genuinely thrilling or engaging - and that’s a problem for headphones at any price, let alone a pair costing £300.
See all our Sennheiser reviews