There's something curious about the way so many people disregard high-end in-ear headphones like the Sennheiser IE 80. We've met people who think nothing of laying down hundreds of pounds for a surround system they'll barely use properly - for fear of offending housemates, other halves or waking babies - but would never spend more than £30 on a set of earphones. Earphones they'll use for hours every day. Doesn't make a whole lot of sense, does it? Let's find out if the IE 80 have what it takes to change their minds.
The Sennheiser IE 80 take the top-end baton from the IE 8i, one of our favourite pairs of 2011. They don't look all that different and offer very similar functionality, although this new pair leaves out the handsfree kit - the inevitable IE 80i will tighten-up that slack.
Like their predecessors, we haven't fallen in love with the looks of the IE 80 IEMs. Sennheiser has added a brushed metal plate to the back, but they remain chunky and angular in a way that won't win them any pretty points. The plastic bodies of the buds are finished in dark metallic brown, making up a trio of shades with the silver of the back and the black of the cable - a distinct design, but not a beautiful one. When they'll spend most of their time in your ears who cares, right?
Setting aside the looks question, the Sennheiser IE 80 make many of the right moves. The cable is removable, letting you replace it without having to replace the earphones themselves, and ends in a chunky right-angle jack that should be able to stand some significant punishment. With a standard plastic-coated round cable design, Sennheiser hasn't made any conspicuous moves to reduce tangling, but as cable friction is fairly low, we didn't find this a problem
They come with a decent selection of rubber and foam tips, to give you some level of isolation from the outside world. However, we found that noise isolation was not quite up to the level offered by an important rival, the Shure SE535. The tips used here are similar to those used in the CX-series earphones, which are happy to sit on the entrance to your ear canal rather than delving deep like the olive-shaped tips used by Shure and Klipsch.
These less invasive tips require a bit more care and attention about their fit - just jamming them in won't get the best seal - but equally many people, who can't get on with earphones that feel as though they're trying to tickle your brain stem, like this style.
The Sennheiser IE 80 earphones don't come with a traditional carry case, but part of the unusually-chunky plastic packaging pulls out, becoming plastic armour for your new, expensive earphones. Within the packaging, you'll also find a pair of rubbery ear hooks to let you wear them over your ears easily. Like the buds themselves they're not exactly pretty, but keep the cable in check very well - more so than most ear hooks we've encountered.
All this is just useless window dressing, of course, if they don't sound any good.