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.
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 $US1,300 ($1,653) for the upgrade?
Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for local Australian pricing and availability.
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 aluminium. 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.”
The use of aluminium 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 aluminium housings are paired with Sennheiser’s new 7mm X3R transducers that use a “newly developed membrane foil” to minimise 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.
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.
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.
At this point you’re probably wondering if there’s actually a notable difference in sound quality when using a pair of $US1,300 ($1,653) 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 $US150 ($191) 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.
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 $US1,300 ($1,653) 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 $US200 ($254) 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.
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 $US1,000 ($1,272) 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.
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