Sennheiser’s New $1,300 Earbuds Are the Best I’ve Ever Tried

undefined
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

It seems like every month companies announce new wireless earbud options that offer improved battery life, better sound, and noise cancellation upgrades that help block out more of the world around you. In just a few short years, Bluetooth earbuds have gone from being bulky and not completely wireless to completely wire-free and small enough to almost disappear in your ears. But every pair of wireless earbuds has one shortcoming: Bluetooth, a wireless protocol that was never really designed for high-quality audio streaming.

Advertisement

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group has promised a new version of the wireless protocol that should fix a lot of its audio quality shortcomings, but it’s not available yet. Bluetooth itself isn’t necessarily bad, it’s a convenient way to wirelessly connect devices at relatively short distances, but it has limited bandwidth, which means that audio, already compressed when streamed across the internet on service like Spotify and Apple Music, has to be further compressed to be delivered to your headphones. Most people are happy to compromise on audio quality for the convenience and comfort that wireless earbuds offer. But for those who refuse to have their music muddled by Bluetooth’s compression algorithms, Sennheiser is not only still producing wired earbuds, it has also just announced its new IE 900 audiophile earbuds that, not surprisingly, sound out of this world. The question is: Are you willing to pay $1,300 for the upgrade?

undefined
Each IE 900 earbud is milled from a single block of aluminum, inside and out, with the concentric milling marks making for a unique finish.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

The most striking feature of the new Sennheiser IE 900 earbuds are what the company is calling its “triple-chamber absorber system,” and it starts with each earbud being milled from a solid block of aluminum. Instead of polishing each earbud to a mirror finish, Sennheiser has instead left the concentric milling marks visible, which creates a very striking finish that screams both “professional-grade” and “sticker shock.”

undefined
An exploded view of the dampening chambers inside the IE 900, as well as the components that make up the new driver Sennheiser developed for them.
Image: Sennheiser

The use of aluminum is strategic, however, as inside each bud are three separate chambers creating a “patented absorber system” that, along with an “acoustic vortex milled into the nozzle,” promises to counter an effect known as auditory masking where higher-frequency sounds at lower volumes are drowned out by louder, lower-frequency sounds. The insides of each IE 900 earbud are designed to absorb some of the energy of those lower frequencies so they’re not as dominant over subtler, higher frequencies, ensuring that the listener hears a proper balance between the two.

The earbud’s aluminum housings are paired with Sennheiser’s new 7mm X3R transducers that use a “newly developed membrane foil” to minimize distortion and create a balanced sound profile no matter how high a user cranks their volume. The IE 900s are also promised to reproduce audio frequencies from 5 Hz to 48,000 Hz, which is massive, and at the same time a bit of overkill given most human hearing falls in the 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz range.

Advertisement

Accessories included with the IE 900 are minimal but useful with a rigid carrying case that zips shut to protect them, two sets of earbuds in three different sizes in either silicone or squishy memory foam providing a more secure fit in the ear, and a hooked tool for precision cleaning of all that awful stuff that’s transferred to anything stuffed in your ear canal.

Advertisement
undefined
Sennheiser includes three cables with the IE 900s, one with a standard unbalanced 3.5mm connector, and two larger options that provide a balanced connection for eliminating unwanted audio hum.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

Sennheiser has also included three different audio cables for use with the IE 900 earbuds. There’s a cable with a standard unbalanced 3.5mm connector on the end for use with the vast majority of consumer audio devices, but also two cables with balanced 2.5mm and 4.4mm connectors that can be used with professional and audiophile gear to eliminate the unwanted noise that is sometimes introduced by nearby power supplies or unshielded electronics. Remember that quiet hum from the speakers when your grandparents first powered up their old stereo? It’s because they weren’t using balanced audio cables to connect everything. For shame, grandma, for shame.

Advertisement
undefined
The earbuds use flexible wires that run up and over the ears to provide a more secure fit, but I’m not sure I’d ever be comfortable going for a run while wearing them.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

At this point you’re probably wondering if there’s actually a notable difference in sound quality when using a pair of $1,300 wired earbuds, or if Sennheiser is just telling audiophiles what they want to hear. The answer, unfortunately, is yes, there is a difference. As a longtime holdout on wireless earbuds who still has a couple of $150 wired earbuds kicking around, Sennheiser’s new IE 900 runs circles around them. Higher frequencies are astoundingly crisp and present, and while I don’t have super-human hearing, it’s still immediately obvious that the IE 900s provide a much wider frequency response over every pair of earbuds I’ve ever used.

Advertisement

Bass performance is also fantastic, which surprised me given the drivers on the IE 900 are just 7mm. I’m a big fan of the bass performance on Sony’s affordable WF-XB700s wireless earbuds, but they use relatively large 12mm drivers by comparison. The Sennheiser IE 900s are actually much better, because they don’t sound like they’re maxing out their capabilities to deliver thumping bass. You can push the volume to the comfortable limits of human hearing and at no point does the bass start to distort and muddle the sound quality of what you’re hearing.

That being said, if you’re spending $1,300 on a pair of wired earbuds, to truly experience what they’re capable of, you’re not going to want to plug them directly in to your laptop or mobile device’s headphone jack (if there even is one). I paired the IE 900s with THX’s new $200 Onyx headphone amp and the Tidal streaming service’s HiFi option (which promises many tracks at a studio master level of sound quality) and was rewarded with the best earbud listening experience I’ve ever had. The sound quality was even better than what most of the wireless over-ear headphones I’ve tested are capable of, and even at maximum volume (which was in reality only about halfway turned up) the sound was never distorted or muffled. It sounded crystal clear, like I was standing on stage next to a band performing.

Advertisement

The Sennheiser IE 900s will be officially available starting next month, but should everyone run out and upgrade? Absolutely not. As wonderful as they sound, the conveniences and advanced features of wireless earbuds make them a more compelling choice—plus they can easily be found for $1,000 less. But if you’re looking for an audiophile experience on the go that can be easily slipped into a pocket, there’s really no reason to carry around a monstrous pair of headphones any more.

DISCUSSION

By
p1t1o

Full disclosure, Im an audiophile skeptic - Vinyl is not the be-all-and-end-all of audio media, Valve amplifiers dont do all that much, Wire coathangers match the performance of expensive HiFi cables etc.

Unless they have been damaged and not capable of working, I have never noticed any audio deficit with any pair of headphones I have used, from £5 to£200 value. Maybe a pair or two of the cheap thowaways became scratchy at high volume.

And really, if Im missing some frequency band or other, I doubt the artist was writing in his memoirs “...and I made surer to include the 13474Hz tone induced by the guitar backing because it represents really what I wanted to say about the piece...”

I mean have you ever actually been to a LIVE music performance? What do you think the frequency precision is by the time it gets to your ears? Youre not gonna tell me “thats not the true sound” or whatever.

Thats my experience anyway, yours may differ.