Sennheiser has put a lot more attention into the design of its headphones of late. The Sennheiser CX 890i are earphones that keep their drivers in a little transparent biodome. Aside from the unusual 70s sci-fi feel, though, these earphones don't stick out in a particularly positive manner, coming across as a failed imitation of the micro armature earphones from Ultimate Ears and Jays, available at a similar price.
Sennheiser's recent focus on more design-led headphones has generally paid-off. The Sennheiser Momentum are wonderful, and last year's metallic CX 980i were elegant, if not quite superstars. The Sennheiser CX 890i are much more likely to divide opinion.
The back half of each earpiece is a transparent dome that, according to Sennheiser at least, “creates an unusually smooth surface with a pseudo-3D effect that further emphasises the modern, minimalistic looks of the CX 890i.”
We're not entirely convinced. There's nothing wrong with the look as such, but it is not consistent with the fairly hefty £100-plus price. Higher-end earphones rarely rely on design gimmicks like the Sennheiser CX 890i's. We were initially surprised to see that they are as expensive as they are.
Although glass earphones don't sound like a good idea, the cheaper-feeling plastic construction of the Sennheiser CX 890i don't help their case. Sennheiser calls the rear “sapphire-like”. It's plastic.
You could almost believe the Sennheiser CX 890i are a special edition of one of the low-end CX 300/400/500 models. To give Sennheiser some credit, they do at least look like they took a little more cash to put together than those budget models.
Functionally, the design is perfectly fine and build quality is of a high standard. As with many Sennheiser in-ear pairs, the CX 890i have a fairly shallow fit, nestling just a short way into your ear canal. Many prefer this fit to the more invasive type. Sennheiser includes three pairs of rubber tips with the earphones, and a basic fabric carry case.
The Sennheiser CX 890i cable isn't removable. Few of Sennheiser's in-ear pairs use removable cables, though, and few at this price do in general – although £110 is hardly spare change. What you do get is a decent 3-button remote control and handsfree housing. It's on the large side, but has clear, contoured, clicky buttons that are easy to use blind.
Sennheiser is a dynamic driver stalwart. Most other brands start using armature drivers once they hit the mid-to-high-end part of the market, but virtually all Sennheiser’s pairs stick to the dynamic type, even the £250 Sennheiser IE 8i.
The Sennheiser CX 890i are no different, using a single dynamic driver a piece. However, to our ears they seem to be aspiring to recreate the audio characteristics of dual-driver earphones that sell at a comparable price, like the Ultimate Ears UE 700 and now-discontinued Jays q-JAYS. There's a distinct V-shaped signature, with an unmistakeable emphasis on the treble and bass, leaving the mid-range chilling out on the reserves bench.
This sort of V-shaped signature can sound great, but the Sennheiser CX 890i do not manage to pull it off. They over-do the recipe, resulting in badly-judged tonality.
The most noticeable sonic characteristic of the Sennheiser CX 890i is the searing, sharp treble. This veers between sounding fantastic and caustic, depending on the material it's fed. It can lend some vocals, especially male ones, excellent top-end texturing, appearing far more insightful than most. Or it can cause splashy cymbals or sibilant “ess” sounds to cut into your eardrums like a rusty breadknife.
There are moments of brilliance to the Sennheiser CX 890i treble, in more than one sense, but it's far too precarious – and from a technical viewpoint it's a hugely flawed performance.
The firecracker top-end is partnered with effusive bass. It's prominent and fun, but it's not quite as well behaved as one of the key rivals we've already mentioned, the UE 700. There's some flabbiness and extension could be improved.
There are problems up top and issues down below, but what really serves to highlight them is what's going on in-between – not much. The V-shape of the Sennheiser CX 890i is unusually prominent, which can leave the mid-range sounding worryingly weak and barren. Spoken-word recordings in particular suffer. All fizz and fug, with not a great deal to tie the two together.
We can hear what Sennheiser was aiming for with the CX 890i, and with some music it sounds right on target. Electronic tunes, which tend to neglect the mids as gumpf that gets in the way of the beat and all those whizzy bloops, can sound great. But the CX 890i are far too temperamental to offer the versatility we'd expect from a £110 pair of earphones. Or any earphones, for that matter.
The Sennheiser CX 890i earphones miss the mark. They look interesting, and we often like earphones that strive for intense, bright detail. However, they over-do it, frequently becoming harsh-sounding, while neglecting the mid-range. Feed them the right type of music and they can sound great, but they’re just too temperamental to get close to a recommendation.