Can in-ears be audiophile? There are a lot of head-fi enthusiasts who will nod wholeheartedly ‘yes’. It is for that audience that AKG and Sennheiser recently launched new, expensive high-end earphones. Time to compare them!
In-ears have the image of a disposable product with terrible sound quality. This is mainly due to the cheap ears that are bundled with smartphones. But there is also a story in this segment. At the other end of the spectrum you will find the professional in-ear monitors for use in the studio and on the shelves, often custom-made and with a price tag that can contain many zeros. The AKG and Sennheiser we are looking at here are abrasive to this segment, but they are confection products. You do not have to visit an audiologist to have a 3D model taken of your ears. The price tags can be called high-end.
AKG N5005 and Sennheiser IE 800 S
Both the N5005 and the IE 800 S are successors of leading ears. With Sennheiser it is not difficult to guess which one is the predecessor. Just as the HD 800 was followed by the HD 800 S , the IE 800 S is the offspring of the IE 800 . The relationship is so close that you have to take a look at the difference between the old and the new version. The matt instead of glossy black housing is a first indication. The new Sennheiser is immediately considerably more expensive than the IE 800. At AKG, the distance between the N5005 and the older K3003i is somewhat larger. Visually there are differences, technically, but there are also similarities. The price is thus virtually the same.
In this review we want to investigate what you get when you spend a thousand euros on a set of ears. And if you are about to spend that amount, which of the two should you choose: the AKG N5005 or the Sennheiser IE 800 S?
Spacious with accessories
Both AKG and Sennheiser understand that at this price point you can not just put a set of in-ears and a plastic bag of ear plugs in a blister pack. The N5005 and the IE 800 S both come in large boxes in which you can find a lot. AKG goes for the superlative, because their in-ears are in a package that is big enough for a hefty over-ears headset. In terms of accessories you will find a nice selection at both in-ears. It is also striking that the two manufacturers try to emphasize exclusivity by mentioning the unique serial number of each in-earset. It is only whether you are sensitive to it, but we can imagine that something like this can increase the pride of ownership.
Sennheiser offers you a very handy leather case where you can roll up and store the IE 800 S. The box has a variety of cables: a standard cable with 3.5 jacks and two balanced cables. One has a 2.5-mm jack, the other a Pentaconn 4-mm plug. The latter type is something new in hi-fi country. We saw it only with some Japanese devices, such as Sony’s TA-ZH1ES. In addition, the company from Wedemark also has sufficient caps to find a good fit. You get an S, M and L format, and that in a normal and Comply version. It may sound irrelevant, but the tips from Comply are really good. When applying them you press them to something very small, after which you can easily apply them. After a few seconds they switch off again and fit perfectly. That is a huge asset. We always have to tamper with regular caps to put them in, with Comply’s it’s always right. With regular caps there is also a small chance that when the caps get a little wet, a suction effect is created. When taking off quickly, you must be careful that no loud (because close) pop sound occurs.
The smaller pouch that AKG gives you as a gift is less impressive, but we do look out of what goes into the box. As with the K3003, the N5005 comes with exchangeable filters. These are small things that you have to put in with great care, so take your time and immediately screw the unused filters into the supplied holder. You lost them like that. The Reference Sound filter is placed in the factory, but if you wish, you can adjust the sound to your own taste with a Bass Boost, Mid High Boost or High Boost filter. These are not the first in-ears with filters that we are. For example, two years ago we tested the RHA T20i that comes with three pairs of filters. AKG itself already offered this option at the 400-euro cost N40 and at the K3003i.
A level lower in the box of the AKG N5005 is still a layer of accessories hidden. You will find six pairs of extra tips, three of which are silicone SpinFits. SpinFits should fit better than ordinary tips, but personally we do not think the difference is huge. The foam comply’s are more in our taste, but tips are something very personal.
AKG also supplies three cables. Two of them (standard 3.5 mm with remote and a balanced with 2.5 mm jack) look great, thanks to a braided duotone cable. We look up at the third cable. After all, it is – how paradoxically that may sound – a cable that makes the N5005 wireless. The idea is as brilliant as it is simple. Unclip the standard cable and attach it to the two N5005 enclosures – an operation that goes very smoothly. The wireless cable then hangs slightly lower than your chin, with a small integrated box on both sides. One is a remote, the other contains (presumably) battery and electronics. Just press a button and you can pair the N5005 via Bluetooth (version 4.1) with your smartphone. The AAC and aptX codecs are supported. AptX HD had been completely beautiful, but in our experience aptX can already deliver a very good result. From our Huawei Mate 10 Pro and the Qobuz app we thought it sounded great.
In any case, this Bluetooth cable makes the N5005 even more interesting in our eyes than it already was. Maybe you would never think of listening to a high-end device via Bluetooth; it is certainly a fact that a fixed cable sounds better. But as an option it is more than welcome. We see ourselves using this on the plane, for example, because in those small economy chairs a cable leading to a player somewhere in a pocket or the box in the chair is awfully awkward for you. According to AKG you can listen for about 8 hours with the battery in the Bluetooth cable. Charging is done via a regular micro-USB cable. Finally, there is a microphone in the remote, so you can phone hands free. It may not all respond to the audiophile stereotype, but it is just incredibly practical.
Each his own view
They both seem to have similar in-ears, but in terms of structure that is certainly not the case. Sennheiser again opts for a single driver for the IE 800 S, in this case a 7-mm driver that was newly developed and that has a particularly broad frequency range (5 to 46,500 Hz). That is quite a separate choice, because in the high-end segment you often encounter monitors with multiple drivers. There are even outliers such as 64Audio’s U18t, with no less than 18 of the things. Often these are armature drivers, small, fast things that excel in displaying a small piece of frequency range very well. That is why so many are being stuffed into a small earpiece. Each armature driver covers its own frequencies.
Not so with Sennheiser. They swear by one driver, with a dual-chamber absorber at the back. And all in a solid ceramic housing. It is a combination that counteracts resonance by absorbing unwanted energy in the layer. The advantage of that single driver, says Sennheiser, is that one dynamic driver sounds much more coherent than a collection of drivers that each take part of the music.
The N5005 is a completely different animal. Each earpiece contains one dynamic driver and four armature drivers, an attempt to unite the advantages of one type (bass quality and coherence) with the benefits of the other (compact, detailed and faster). Behind the design of the in-ears is a lot of research, which people who know the Harman group behind AKG (and brands like Harman Kardon and JBL) will not be surprised. Researchers at Harman have long been working on the Harman curve, a display curve that would provide the best sound for the largest group of people. It is based on subjective experiences (researchers let subjects hear multiple things and let them point out favorites), which are generalized to a frequency response that would be found so universally good. It is an interesting approach that has already yielded good headphones in the past. The Harman curve tends to quickly roll out the very high frequencies, something that (older) audiophiles sometimes dislike.
Quite critical in source
One challenge when testing high-quality and very sensitive in-ears: finding an amp that is sufficiently quiet. Many headphone amplifiers are designed for use with headphones with higher impedances and lower sensitivities. Connect the AKG N5005 (18 ohm, 116 dB) and the Sennheiser IE 800 S (16 ohm, 125 dB) and all of a sudden that amplifier appears between tracks by having some noise on the output. This does not detract from the qualities of that device, it is just that the amplifier is not made for in-ears. When we dived DAC / headphone amplifiers in our test arsenal, it turned out to be searching for something that was quiet (or dark) enough for this test. The Chord Hugo 2 for example, but the Chord Mojo or Mytek Liberty we found something too noisy for tricky in-ears. The cheap Pro-ject Pre Box S2 Digital and the Sony PHA-3 proved to be surprisingly suitable. Finally, we used the Mytek Brooklyn DAC + because its dual outputs made it easier to switch between in-ears. And of course it is a very good and neutral DAC / amplifier.
In demanding headphones, an amplifier is sometimes needed to get everything out of the device. Power, however, is not the reason why you could grab a devoted amplifier. Both the N5005 and IE 800 S can be easily controlled from just about any mobile device. But you do need a qualitative ‘dark’ output. In the margin we like to note that this is a case where the power source can have an impact, especially if a DAC gets its power via a USB cable hanging from a computer. With no crazy costs you can sometimes hear a noticeable reduction in noise by switching to a decent smartphone adapter. There are also brands, such as S Booster, that supply solid power sources at reasonable prices.
Now it seems that nagging about an almost inaudible noise on a headphone output may be a bit of a fuss in the margins – and in a way that is true. Once you play music you will probably notice little of it. But it is something to be reckoned with, because if your source is a smartphone or a cheap DAP, it can still become noticeable. So be warned that if you opt for high-end in-ears you may upgrade other parts of your audio chain. But is it ever different in hi-fi?
Enter the space
With what do you test the spaciousness of a set of in-ears? With the Star Wars works by John Williams of course, more determine the soundtrack of ‘The Last Jedi’ (ALAC, 24 bit / 96 kHz). A fist to the hand of the IE 800 S is it. The Sennheiser puts the dramatic, dynamic songs very big. If the gigantic orchestra – the credits containing the names of 148 (!) Musicians, play games that may never erupt on one track – erupts, the IE 800 S never loses its finesse or control. The AKG N5005 sounds slightly less open, but not much. With the Reference Sound filter, the layer sounds more impressive and there is more presence than with the Sennheiser.
If we listen to what we think is one of the finest modern classical works – ‘The Chopin Project’ by Olafur Arnalds and Alice Sara Ott – then the Sennheiser gives the impression that we are in the Icelandic Harpa concert hall, in front of the audience . The AKG surrounds us more, sounds intimistic, but also fresher. We do not actually make a genre change when we grab a few tracks from ‘Where’s the drop’ of deadmau5, because here too the orchestral dominates, albeit via a synthesizer and with a thick layer of more syrupy bass sounds. The IE 800 S seems to be slightly better in control, but the ultra low is clearly leaner than with the N5005. By way of experiment we try out the Bass Boost filter with the track ‘Coelacanth’. It still has a relatively large impact, not so much in terms of even greasy basses, but because suddenly some resolution disappeared. Then still prefer the Reference Sound filter.
Time for some metal: the ‘Purple’ album by Baroness. Not the best-produced album we ever heard, but the songs themselves are ok. This immediately feels like less the Sennheiser site. Jazz, classical and vocals are rather the thing of the IE 800 S. The voice of vocalist John Baizley is there as it should be and even very pure, but the rest of the band comes across sluggishly. The N5005 makes it smarter and more exciting, although in this genre the more prominent clarity for long listening can be more tiring.
As we were testing for a while, a certain irritation arose over the cable of the IE 800 S. Every time it moved and for example rubbed against a sweater, it was very audible. Depending on how the cable falls, even a head movement could cause a disturbing noise. Listening to a computer and DAC was not such a big problem, but when walking around it did work on the nerves. It is a mistake that we do not expect a reliable value as Sennheiser, mainly because the cable is only partly replaceable. That is also a downside. The extra cables in the box are extensions that you connect under the chin after the Y-split, no replacement cords. Better still the AKG, where cables can be disconnected from the housings and the supplied cables are covered with a thick rubber that dampens all microphones.
You can not claim that the Sennheiser IE 800 S performs poorly. They are good in-ears which, in our opinion, exceed their large circumaural brother, the HD 800, in terms of listening pleasure. In any case, they sound more balanced and more fun. Sennheiser is a model of German gründlichkeit, so we are not surprised that the total package is as high as it is sober. We do have some problems with the new pricing. The new ‘S’ version costs 300 euros more than the old IE 800, and that is a serious leap. The IE 800 S is very sound coherent, but at the end of the day it does not disturb our ears. Maybe this is the case with you.
We might recommend the IE 800 S more if the AKG N5005 did not exist. The Harman group dares to be changeable in terms of the products they invent, but make no mistake: the N5005 is one of their toppers. It’s a great in-ears that simply justifies its price better because of its fresh and deep sound. But you also get the Bluetooth option and the possibility to fine-tune the sound through hardware filters. That makes the N5005 an excellent choice for someone who wants to listen to his music in a high-quality and discreet way. Awesome.
The question remains: do you have to spend 1,000 euros on in-ears? At the AKG we find it easier to answer ‘yes’ to that, although you will of course continue to talk about a big issue. At this price point, you are already in the ears of in-ears in the sense of ‘diminishing returns’ or an ever decreasing added value, a point that is higher with other audio products. There are excellent in-ears at half the price (such as the AKG N40, Shure SE535 or the analytical RHA CL1). Yet we think that certainly the AKG N5005 offers enough extra for the passionate music fan.
€ 999 euro www.akg.com
Review 5 out of 5
Sennheiser IE 800 S
€ 999 euro www.sennheiser.com
Rating 3.5 out of 5
Pros and cons
+ Wide accessory package
+ Interchangeable filters
+ Reference Sound delivers insightful and pleasant sound
+ Excellent cable
+ Bluetooth cable included
– Disconnection cables sometimes go inexplicably stiff
– Loop behind the ears suspension is not for everyone
+ Extreme light to carry
+ Very coherent and quite spacious
+ Priority to the middle area
+ High wearing comfort
– Noisy cable
– Substantial price step compared to IE 800
– Not the ultimate in detail