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2012 Head-Fi Holiday Gift Guide (In-Ear)





Universal-Fit In-Ear Monitors





Spider realvoice (around $90)
Closed, in-ear, vertical earphone

The first time I heard the realvoice was at last year’s CanJam @ Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, and I have to admit I was surprised. I know Spider's initial line of business was cables--HDMI cables, audio/video cables, and even some little odds-and-ends accessories. I assumed the earphones were just a me-too endeavor. However, in a meeting with Spider's Ronny Tsai, he indicated they're serious about our space. A prototype of their upcoming Moonlight over-ear that he let me listen to was impressive, and convincing proof to support that Spider is doing far more than just dipping its toes in headphones.

As for products currently available, the Spider realvoice earphone is an impressive start, even at $90. Its largish appearance gave me pause at first, but it turns out I was able to get an easy, firm fit from the get-go. And the sound? Smooth, but with good detail, and definitely some bass emphasis, the overall tilt being on the warmer, fun side. And I was surprised by its soundstage, which was actually quite impressive for a $90 in-ear.

“Combining good build quality, comfort on the fit and one of the best vocal performances under $100, the realvoice is certainly quite a bargain and an easy recommendation for vocal lovers."

Head-Fi member/reviewer Sow Tai Ming (ClieOS)







Moshi Audio Clarus ($200)
Closed, in-ear, earhook-type headphone

First of all, the Moshi Audio Clarus comes in one of the best-executed fancy little boxes I've seen in quite a while. Once you're past the outer cardboard bits, the Clarus' product packaging looks more the part of a small museum display than something you'd pick off a store shelf--even the clear plastic they use to make the Clarus look like its floating in mid-air seems to be of a higher-than-average grade to help accomplish the illusion.

The appearance and build of the Clarus itself only accentuates the fancy feeling unboxing experience. The Clarus is largely made of a steel alloy, with styled creases and folds that give it a sort of origami appearance. It's very attractive to look at, feels substantial in the hands, and looks good on the head, too.

Fortunately, the Clarus has the sonic chops to merit the packaging. While it likely won't open up sonic vistas that experienced Head-Fi'ers haven't yet heard, it will be clear to even grizzled Head-Fi veterans that this is a headphone voiced to appeal to audio enthusiasts. There's enough mid-bass emphasis, though, to still keep the general consumer market happy.

Overall, the Moshi Clarus' balance is on the warmer side, with the weightiness of its midbass prominent, but never overwhelming to me. The mids are also warm, and treble extension is good, though certainly not soaring. This kind of tonal balance works well for me when on the go (I like some bass emphasis when I'm out and about).

The Clarus' specifications list a two-way dynamic driver in each ear (consisting of a 7mm treble drive, 15mm woofer). However this two-way driver is configured (I haven't seen it), it presents itself as tonally coherent.

Moshi describes the Clarus' ear coupling as "loose-fit silicone" designed to "rest on the cusp of the ear canals, not inside of them, thereby eliminating ear fatigue." And the Clarus is very comfortable. I can easily wear it for hours. (You do sacrifice some isolation for the loose-fit comfort, though.) I've found its earhook design to be eyeglass friendly, whether I'm wearing thick plastic frames or thin metal ones. And the Clarus feels light when worn.

The Clarus also has an in-line three-button remote/mic cable, which, as an iPhone/iPod/iPad user, is a great bonus in a portable headphone.

The Moshi Clarus is a wonderful choice for a portable on-the-go headphone, and it was a pleasant surprise for me, as I was previously unfamiliar with Moshi.









Monster Miles Davis Trumpet (around $350)
and Monster Gratitude (around $200)
Closed in-ear monitors

If you've only listened to Monster's Beats line of headphones, you definitely have not heard the best headphones Monster has to offer. In my opinion, the Monster Miles Davis Trumpet is their current best. Many simply refer to it as "the Trumpet," and the Trumpet has substantially trumped the Turbine Pro Copper, in my opinion, as the best of Monster's in-ear lineup.

Some might consider the Trumpet's styling gauche in its literalness. The outside ends of the earpieces aren't merely influenced by a trumpet's mouthpiece, they look just like Lilliputian trumpet mouthpieces. With some of the Trumpet's included eartips, the main flange towards the ear looks like a trumpet with a mute inserted. Its three-button remote/mic buttons look like itsy-bitsy replicas of the buttons atop a trumpet's valves. And, like a brand new trumpet, the Monster Miles Davis Trumpet is gleaming with polished metallic surfaces. Maybe it's because it's so out-there, maybe it's because I'm such a huge Miles Davis fan, but I love the way the Trumpet looks.

The Trumpet's design is unique beyond its appearance, too. It has a driver-forward design that pushes the Trumpet's dynamic drivers out to the ends of the earpieces, closer to the inner ears. This shifts the weight forward, so that that the earpieces are less likely to break seal or fall out.

Most importantly, I'm impressed with the way the Trumpet sounds. It has, of all the headphones I've heard so far from Monster, the most audiophile-friendly tonal balance. Bass extension is good; but, in a departure from most of Monster's other headphones, the Trumpet has comparatively mild bass emphasis (and with good extension). I also find its treble more refined than the Copper's. Soundstaging is also good, with a much wider presentation than I might otherwise expect from an in-ear that places its drivers deeper in the ears than most other dynamic driver in-ears do. Relative to the Copper, which I still enjoy, the Miles Davis Trumpet simply sounds more serious, less fun--and I mean that as a very positive nod in the Trumpet's favor.





If you want something more balanced than the Turbine Pro Copper, but with more bass emphasis and more fun than the Trumpet, then consider my second favorite Monster in-ear, the Monster Gratitude. Inspired by the music of Earth, Wind & Fire (and, of course, endorsed by them), the Gratitude might be the best value in the Monster line, and an outstanding value, period. To my ears, the Gratitude sounds like an evolution of the flagship Monster Turbine Pro models, but can generally be found for a significantly lower price than the Turbine Pro Gold, and far less than the Turbine Pro Copper. To me, the Gratitude is a sign that Monster is stepping up its game, in terms of performance and value.

In terms of packaging, Monster really hits it out of the park with both the Trumpet and the Gratitude. Both come with very nice carrying cases, the Trumpet comes with a special edition CD of Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain album, and both come with a rather staggering array of eartips, all showcased in cool hinged heavy-duty boxes you'll probably never throw away. With such an impressive in-box collection of eartips, it's obvious Monster is very serious about making sure the user can find a good fit right off the bat (which so important to both sound and comfort with in-ears).

“Monster’s Miles Davis Trumpet is a beautifully packaged and unique-looking earphone with a small, lightweight form factor and good noise isolation. Its design may be even louder than that of the old Tribute, but the sound makes the Trumpet Monster’s most audiophile-friendly in-ear yet.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer ljokerl

“Monster Gratitude is my bass reference right now... Tight, deep, textured, and controlled beautifully...”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Marcus Nguyen (tinyman392)







Westone 4R (around $500)
Closed in-ear monitor

The Westone 4R is one of my favorite universal-fit IEMs (in-ear monitors), especially when I'm looking for a more tonally flat sound signature. And the 4R's detail retrieval is outstanding from bottom to top.

Across the audioband, the Westone 4R does not provide any specific area of emphasis, and certainly no over-emphasis. Bass extends low, but without any extra weight imparted by the 4R. Though detailed throughout, I find the 4R's midrange detail to be one of its greatest strengths--again, without any emphasis imparted to achieve it. The treble balance is also excellent, with enough to provide some sparkle, but never enough to impart any edginess.

The 4R also is very comfortable to wear, with a surprisingly compact chassis (considering there are four drivers per side). Like Westone's other universal-fit IEMs, it sits very flat in the ear, which results in an IEM that can be worn while laying your head down.

Put the Westone 4R at or near the top of your list if you're looking for a more neutral sound signature, but look elsewhere if you prefer tonal emphasis of any kind (like bumped-up bass), as that's not what this IEM is about.

I have both the Westone 4 and the Westone 4R, and they sound the same to me. From what I can tell, the key difference is that the Westone 4's cable is permanently affixed, whereas the 4R's cable is detachable.

“The new W4’s find themselves at the top of BA universal heap, having Dynamic Driver quality timbre; Drums sound absolutely amazing on the W4. If you are looking for superb balance and refined detail retrieval, give the Westone 4 a try!”

Head-Fi member Shawn (Shotgunshane)







Phonak Audéo PFE 232 ($599)
Closed, in-ear monitor

Swiss-engineered, with custom-spec, balanced armature drivers, the dual-driver Audéo PFE 232 may surprise a lot of people. For starters, it's $599, which puts it squarely in the category of very expensive, as far as universal-fit IEMs go. Still, I expect a lot of people who hear the PFE 232 will find its performance justifies the price.

How does the PFE 232 sound? That's sort of a trick question, as one can customize the sound of it by swapping out three different sets of passive filters (included). The green filter provides extra bass, the black filter enhances perception of bass and treble, and the gray filter (which comes installed) is for enhanced perception of the mid-frequencies. I prefer the gray filter (it's the most even-keeled of the three). Whichever you choose, you get a different flavor of what is unquestionably the best dual-driver universal-fit IEM I've yet heard--detailed, delicate, yet fun.

How does one justify a universal-fit IEM that gets into custom IEM price territory? The outstanding fidelity of the PFE 232, combined with the flexibility of the filter system (which means you'll have a greater chance of finding your preferred signature), makes it a compelling choice, even at the price.

“...the PFE 232 provides some of the best bass I’ve heard from a universal and the clarity and resolution continuously impress. Plus, from the interchangeable cables to the lightweight, ergonomic housing design, the PFE 232 is one of the finest overall packages out there, making it worthy of recommendation...”

Head-Fi member/reviewer ljokerl








Shure SE425 (around $300)
and Shure SE535 (around $470)
Closed, in-ear monitors

Many a veteran Head-Fi'er has cut his teeth on high-end in-ear monitors with Shure. Among the first to push multi-armature IEMs into the mainstream, Shure's latest generation SE in-ear monitors are outstanding.

As far as performance for the price, the sweet spot of the line is, to me, the Shure SE425. For around $300, the SE425 serves up a decidedly audiophile-friendly signature, with its specialty being the sweet and detailed midrange that Shure has become known for. Bass extension and impact is good, and on the more neutral side. Treble is good, but some (including me) might find it could use just a touch more sparkle.

If you're willing to open up your wallet more than 50% wider, and if you're looking for one of the very best universal-fit in-ears for detailed listening that never loses its smooth, then spring for the Shure flagship Shure SE535. It is everything the SE425 is, but better. If it your budget allows for the SE535, and if the Shure sound is what you're after, then definitely go for the SE535, as it is the ultimate expression of Shure's in-ear sound.

Both the SE425 and SE535 are very comfortable, and their cable plugs swivel 360 degrees to helps prevent cable twisting.

“The 425's are a really good iem - well designed and built (these will last for years), superbly comfortable and really smooth and detailed.  The mids are the strongest point - but the entire sound to me is balanced and relaxed.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer brooko

“The SE535 is a fantastic choice for fans of older recordings that wish to screen out some of the analog hiss. From a sonic perspective, the SE535 is virtually identical to the SE530. In addition, the SE530 was sonically identical to the E500. In essence, one can say that the sound signature of the SE535 has been around for many years. During this time, it has remained favored by many who prefer a forgiving sound presentation. Fortunately for everyone, Shure addressed the SE530's fragile cable problem when they designed the SE535.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer David Solomon (DavidMahler)








Portable Headphone Amps Designed for IEMs

In-ear monitors (whether universal-fit or custom-fit) often have a couple of things in common: high sensitivity and good isolation from ambient noise. This presents an interesting challenge to those devices driving them.

Whether an external headphone amplifier or the built-in headphone output of your digital audio player (be it a dedicated portable media player or smartphone), many IEMs will quickly reveal any noise in the audio chain, as well as any channel imbalance (especially at the lowest part of the volume range).

Two of most popular designed-for-IEM portable headphone amps in the Head-Fi community are the HeadAmp Pico Slim ($399), and the Ray Samuels Audio Shadow ($395). These amps maintain perfect channel balance at any volume level, and virtually background-noise-free performance. Both of these portable amps accomplish this with the use of stepped volume controls and special attention to low circuit noise.

Another very new entry into this field is the Apex High Fi Audio Glacier ($495), which replaces the popular TTVJ Slim (that had appeared in previous editions of this buying guide). The Glacier is even slimmer than its predecessor, comes in a much nicer chassis, has an improved power supply, and a tremendously improved USB DAC that is 24-bit/96kHz capable.

Though all of these amps are particularly adept at driving IEMs, they can drive a lot of over-ear headphones nicely, too.

" [The Pico Slim] is a very smooth and refined sounding portable, without any edge or grain, and good extension in the bass and treble."

Head-Fi member/reviewer HeadphoneAddict

“I can say that in listening to this that it is a joy. There are no caps in the signal path and the digital volume control seems to get totally out of the way of the sound. It is accurate on right and left balance and never changes one tiny bit as the volume is increased from minimal to the max... Having listened to the Shadow more with the JH13's has shown to me, that it amplifies and does an excellent job of getting out of the way of the music. It has very fine transparency, dynamics and staging.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer John Amato (jamato8)








HiFiMAN RE-262 ($149)
Closed, in-ear monitor

The HiFiMAN RE-262 has a somewhat unorthodox look, and an even more unique sound signature. Rich and sweet, the RE-262 has magical midrange, and an eminently musical quality that I think many would find immediately seductive. The bass extension is good, but some may find it on the lighter side. The RE-262's treble is nicely textured and smooth. But, again, that midrange--the emphasis there lends a lusher tint to the overall presentation, and I love it. It's like a little taste of tube sound--liquid single-ended triode tube sound--somehow packaged into diminutive IEMs.

Though the RE-262's chassis looks rather different from most of the IEMs on the market, you get used to it quickly, and it is very easy to insert into your ears. I also find the RE-262 very comfortable for long-term wear.

Keep in mind that though the RE-262 isolates, I don't find it to isolate quite as much as much of its IEM competition.

“Sound stage is excellent. It is larger than average and it provides good width and depth. Imaging is also good as is instrument separation. The RE262 also has good timbre so never will you have to think twice about what is being played.”

Head-Fi member rawrster







Etymotic ER-4PT ($299)
Closed, in-ear monitor

Ask the most veteran Head-Fi'ers what their first good in-ear monitor was, and the answer you may get back more than any other would be the Etymotic ER-4 (either the ER-4S or the ER-4P). The latest version of the ER-4 from Etymotic Research is the ER-4PT.

With a single balanced armature driver per side, the ER-4 is, in the opinion of many experienced audiophiles, one of the standards (of any type of headphone) for neutral tonal balance.  You want booming bass, extra sparkle in your treble, or extra-rich mids? Look somewhere else.

Also, if you like the maximum amount of isolation from ambient noise, the Etymotic ER-4--with the included triple-flange tips--are rated for 35dB to 42dB of isolation. I don't know of any other IEM (universal-fit or custom) that provides more isolation from outside noise.

The ER-4PT is simply a modernized version of the legendary Etymotic ER-4, from the company who started so many audiophiles  (including yours truly) down the road of high-end in-ear monitors.

“There is just no way not to be blown away with the level of detail these things put out...the Etymotics smack you in the face with it.”

Head-FI member/reviewer ljokerl








Velodyne vPulse (around $90)
Closed, in-ear monitor

It seems everyone and his subsidiaries want to peddle headphones nowadays, with loudspeaker manufacturers seemingly unable to resist the call. One such entry in the last year that I found particularly interesting: Velodyne. Sure, their subwoofers have been well regarded for years, but I was intrigued to find out how a company that essentially specializes in the spectrum below 200Hz (and often well below 20Hz) would do with their first headphone. As it turns out, they've done very well. 

One might think that a subwoofer company would choose a bass-emphasized tonal balance with their first headphone, and, indeed, it did. One might fear that a subwoofer company might overdo that bass, but thankfully it didn't. The vPulse's bass is emphasized, and sounds to me to be centered in the deep bass region, without adulterating the mids. In fact, the vPulse's mids and treble seem to breathe freely, and the overall balance is just what I'd want when I feel like listening to a bass-emphasized in-ear. The vPulse's resolution is good, but don't buy the vPulse if you're a detail freak. Soundstaging is good, but, again, if this is your lead criterion, the vPulse may not win you over. 

The vPulse looks very nice and stylish (and youthful) in blue (it's also available in a more conservative black/silver), and has a very nice three-button inline remote/mic. The vPulse is an outstanding value at around $90.

“The first in-ear earphone from the bass experts at Velodyne, the vPulse does a good job of combining user-friendliness and functionality in a single package. While the design is derivative in many ways, the vPulse has a lot going for it - tangle-resistant cables, low microphonics, comfortable angled-nozzle earpieces, and a 3-button remote are all standard features. The sound combines solid bass rumble and depth with slightly subdued – but still clean and detailed – mids and highs. The bass can be a touch overpowering on some tracks but normally remains well-behaved for such a bassy earphone, making the vPulse highly suitable for anyone in search of a reasonably-priced headset with plentiful rumble and power.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer ljokerl







Sony XBA-3iP (around $250 to $300)
Closed, in-ear monitor

Last year, Sony announced seven new headphone models (constituting 11 total new SKUs) using balanced armature (BA) drivers. I haven't heard them all, but, of the ones I did hear, the XBA-3iP was the one that most caught my attention.

Unlike most manufacturers that source balanced armature drivers from other companies, my understanding is that Sony developed their own BA's. Using three of their new BA drivers per side in the XBA-3iP, Sony has achieved a level of refinement and balance with the XBA-3iP that some companies have taken years to realize.

The XBA-3iP also has a very nice form factor, with earpieces that look simple and elegant, and with a nice shape that's very easy to grab between your thumb and forefinger for very quick and easy ear insertion.

With weighty yet detailed bass, neutral'ish (if somewhat subdued) mids, and detailed, well-extended neutral-balanced treble, the XBA-3iP is a very good universal-fit in-ear monitor. While it doesn't quite reach the performance heights (to my ears) of the Westone 4R or Phonak Audéo PFE232, it also doesn't reach their price strata. At its price point, the XBA-3iP has become one of my favorite universal-fit IEMs.

(There is also a version without the three-button remote/mic called the XBA-3, which is priced around $200 to $230.)







thinksound ms01 (around $100)
Closed, in-ear monitor

"Big sound. Small footprint." That's thinksound's motto, their mission statement being "to create incredible sounding headphones with the smallest eco-footprint possible." At a time when so many of us are becoming increasingly conscious about how we impact the environment, how could I not include something from thinksound in this guide? This was made even easier by the fact their flagship product, the ms01, sounds quite good for its street price of around $100.

The eco-friendly vibe is strong with this one, with extensive use of natural-color cardboard, and very minimal use of plastic. The carrying case is also a simple unbleached cotton drawstring pouch. Each earpiece consists of a beautiful brown wood housing with gunmetal-colored aluminum baffles. At first glance, the aluminum baffles look like something hammered to shape. The cables are tangle-resistant and PVC-free. Aesthetically, the ms01 is a very simple, elegant design. I'm not sure why, but every time I look at the ms01, I think of little craft art shops in Bridgetown, Barbados, and that makes me smile.

The "ms" in "ms01" stands for "monitor series," and I can see where they're coming from with that label, especially for how it sounds relative to most other in-ears in its price range, which tend to be either bass-heavy or bass-and-treble-heavy. The ms01 takes a rather even-keeled approach to its tonal balance, with impactful, fast bass, good clarity through the midrange, and what sounds to me like a dash of treble emphasis, but thankfully not in the sibilance range. The ms01 also images nicely.

On sound alone, it's a worthy competitor at its price. Throw its eco-cool spirit into the mix, and it becomes more of a standout in an increasingly crowded space.








Audiofly AF78 (around $200, or around $210 with microphone)
and Audiofly AF56 (around $100, or around $110 with microphone)
Closed, in-ear monitors

I first met the Audiofly team at an event called CES Unveiled last January, and a quick listen to a couple of pieces in their line had me interested in hearing more. I eventually picked up the AF56 and AF78, and am glad I did.

The Audiofly AF78 (around $200) is Audiofly's flagship, and is a hybrid design, with a 9mm dynamic driver and balanced armature driver in each earpiece. The AF78's sound signature is warm and smooth, with bigger-than-neutral bass, velvety mids, and soft, smooth treble. The AF78 is no resolution monster, but yet I find it eminently easy to listen to for long sessions--almost every time I use it, it's for at least a couple of hours. I'm not sure what, if any, crossover network is melding the sound of the two drivers, but the two driver types in the AF78 seem to work well together.

The nozzles on the AF78 are a bit large, though, so those with small ear canals might want to look elsewhere. The unusual shape of the AF78 can also make it a bit fidgety at first, in terms of getting the fit right; but once you figure it out (which doesn't take long), you'll be inserting them as fast as your other IEMs.

The AF78 version I have is the one with the one-button remote/mic, and the sound quality of my outgoing voice in phone calls through the AF78 is very clear. When I ask those on the other side of the call how I sound with it, most are surprised to find I'm on a headset.

As much as I enjoy the AF78, it's the AF78's understudy--the Audiofly AF56--that I enjoy the most in the Audiofly line. I find the AF56's presentation more coherent, more detailed, than its big sib. With a big 13mm dynamic driver in each earpiece, the bass from the AF56 can actually be felt, not just heard--literally, there's a physical sensation from the AF56's bass that you can feel in your ears; and while this might suggest that bass on the AF56 is muddy, it's not. Strong, yes. Muddy, no. The mids of the AF56 also have more presence and detail, to my ears, than the AF78 does--and the same goes for the treble. Its soundstage is also impressive and full.

Whereas the AF78 might not be one of the first to come to mind if someone was asking me for $200 IEM recommendations, the AF56 would certainly come to mind quickly for $100, especially for those who prefer a bassier presentation. 

Also, I find the AF56 an easier fit for my ears, as its nozzle has a smaller diameter than the AF78.

The AF78 is available in marqee black (black), and the AF56 is available in vino (deep red), vintage white, and blue tweed.

“The dynamic driver in the AF78 delivers the bass and it does a very nice job of it. Mid-bass quantity is nothing extreme but it is bigger than what most balanced armature drivers can produce, and it is very well textured. It hits very nicely and pushes the air great giving you very satisfying impact which is well bodied... For Audiofly’s entrance into the world of IEMs they have released a very pleasant sounding earphone in a very competitive price range.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer Sonny Trigg (Swimsonny)







Heir Audio 4.Ai ($399)
Closed, in-ear monitor

In the past year, Heir Audio captured the attention of many of the high-end IEM enthusiasts in the community with its high-end custom-fit in-ears priced from around $449 to $1299. One of their most popular customs is the $699 Heir 4.A, which has four balanced armature drivers per side, in a three-way design (two for low, one for mids, one for highs).

It seems Heir noticed that some companies were releasing ultra-high-end universal-fit models, so they decided to release one of their own, based on the 4.A, and called (in universal-fit form) the 4.Ai. Priced at only $399, the 4.Ai uses the same internal design and components in their popular custom 4.A (four drivers per side in a three-way design, with two for low, one for mids, one for highs). It is even adorned with a gorgeous burl wood face plate, the type that has help make Heir's customs so popular.

I'm not sure how close the 4.Ai comes to its custom sibling, but it does sound very good. First of all, the 4.Ai images impressively, casting a rather wide, full soundstage, as far as in-ears go.

Though the 4A.i sports two dedicated bass drivers per ear, I find its bass to be just shy of neutral, but with a very detailed low end. Through the mids, the 4.Ai tends to favor detail and speed over richness, and its treble seems north of neutral, also fast and detailed. To my ears, the 4.Ai is a somewhat bass-light, but very detailed, fast sounding headphone.

Heir's 4.Ai has garnered a lot of fans on Head-Fi, so it seems to me that Heir has got another big hit on their hands.







Final Audio Design Heaven VI (around $565)
Closed, in-ear monitor

Kanemori Takai is an icon in the Japanese high-end audio scene. The current president and founder of Final Audio Design, Takai-san started Final Audio Design with a line of high-end moving coil phono cartridges and booster transformers back in 1974. Many legendary products have come from Final in the decades since its founding. On Head-Fi, though, their in-ear headphones are popular with some, yet still enigmatic.

I was honored to finally meet Takai-san at this year's CanJam @ Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver, and even more honored when he asked me to try one of his latest creations, his new Final Audio Design Heaven VI in-ear monitor.

With a single balanced armature driver per ear, the Heaven VI is unusual at its price point, where, most commonly, we're used to seeing multi-driver balanced armature in-ears. Then again, Final Audio Design hasn't exactly earned a reputation for being at all typical. When I think of Japanese audio esoterica, Final Audio Design is one of the first marks that come to my mind.

The Heaven VI is a straight-body design, looking a bit like something Etymotic's Mead Killion might have designed for a night out on the town. Simple though it is, the Heaven VI's polished chrome copper housing is beautiful.

The Heaven VI's sound was surprising to me. With its one armature per side, I was expecting to hear something similar to an Etymotic ER-4 type sound. What I'm hearing instead is something more impactful, with more bass than I was expecting (though this is still not a basshead's in-ear). The midrange is really very nice, and wonderfully detailed. Final claims the Heaven VI "perfectly reproduces the sound of a human voice," and while I don't know that I'd go that far, I felt challenged to test that claim with the 40-part motet Spem in alium, a couple of albums sung by Cantus, and a lot of my favorite vocal-centric jazz, pop and rock; and, indeed, the Heaven VI renders human voices clearly and with body. Also, I enjoy the Heaven VI's treble presence that has yet to veer into harsh territory with me. Imaging with the Heaven VI is very good, spacious for a deep-insertion in-ear.

In the bins of in-ears we have here at Head-Fi HQ, there nothing here that sounds just like the Heaven VI. And the sonic qualities of the Heaven VI that make it unique are what make it an absolute pleasure to listen to.







V-MODA Vibrato (around $180)
Closed, in-ear monitor

What? V-MODA makes in-ears? I'm kidding, of course. In-ears are where V-MODA got its start. In the last couple of years, though, the only thing "V-MODA" we generally talk 'bout 'round here is V-MODA's over-ears (especially the M-80 and the M-100). But years ago, when V-MODA was literally just getting started, a young man named Val Kolton called me to introduce himself and his new company, and one of his first products called the Vibe in-ear. At the time, nothing else looked like the Vibe. For the time (but certainly not by today's standards), the Vibe was good, and it was the product that launched V-MODA--and it was among the first (if not the first) in-ears that showed that tiny in-ear headphones could actually be boldly stylish.

Since then, V-MODA has obviously come a long way, not just in terms of sales, but in terms of audio performance, most famously in the Head-Fi community with the aforementioned M-80 and now the M-100. But there's a gem hidden away on V-MODA's website, in a section none of us seem to visit anymore, and that's its in-ear section. And the gem there is the Vibrato.

Still carrying on the tradition of V-MODA über-stylishness, the Vibrato has a two-tone zinc metal chassis, the backside of which (for some reason) always reminds me of a metalized ball-and-claw foot you might find at the end of a cabriole leg on some sinister piece of fantasy furniture. 

Using one 8mm dynamic driver per side, the Vibrato, in a way, is to in-ears what the M-80 is to over-ears: A moderately bass-emphasized, revealing, but smooth headphone. No, it doesn't sound exactly like the M-80, but when you hear it (and assuming you're familiar with the M-80), the familial sound is evident.

What a lot of folks don't know is that the Vibrato was the first V-MODA product that was made for audio enthusiasts, and it's still very much worth serious consideration if you're in the market for a hard-driving universal-fit in-ear monitor that's audiophile-friendly.

“The Vibrato is a great choice for those who seek a warm but detailed sound from an earphone.  They are also capable of amazingly loud volume levels without distorting which is a major plus for the head-banger in you – just be careful not exhaust those ears!  V-Moda’s thoughtful designs have not failed to impress us yet.  The Vibratos are no exception!”

Head-Fi member/reviewer David Solomon (DavidMahler)








Klipsch Image X10 (around $150, or around $270 for the Image X10i with remote/mic)
Closed, in-ear monitor

I think I've had the Klipsch Image X10 since 2008. With all the new universal- and custom-fit IEMs that have been released since, I have to admit that the diminutive Image X10 simply got lost in the scrum. It's entirely possible there's another in-ear with a smaller nozzle diameter, but, if there is, I certainly don't know of it. And that tiny  nozzle, combined with the oval-profile eartips, makes for one of the most comfortable--if not the most comfortable--canal fit with a universal-fit in-ear. The Image X10's comfort alone is a strong selling point, but the Image X10's sound puts as many bullet points on its sales sheet as its comfort does.

Considering how tiny the single balance armature driver is that serves each side, the sound from the Image X10 is mighty impressive. (I once saw a photo of the Image X10's driver next to a penny, and the penny absolutely dwarfed it.) Yet, despite the driver's teensy-weensy size, the Image X10's sound signature is one of a fuller tonal balance, with healthy mid-bass, robust midrange, and smooth treble.

Nowadays, it seems the X10i version (the one with the inline mic/remote) is the one that's widely available. The original X10 is still available in places, so I've decided to include it in the guide, too, as, if you can find one, it's far more affordable.







Logitech UE 900 (around $399.99)
Closed, in-ear monitor

The Triple.Fi 10 Pro was easily one of the best IEMs available when it was released back in 2007, carrying that strength in the years since to become a classic. However, 2012 brings the Triple.Fi 10 Pro's successor in the Logitech UE 900, and, in my opinion, the UE 900 is a vast improvement, in terms of fit, in terms of sound.

Unlike its predecessor, the UE 900 sits flush in your ears, and has a more reasonably sized nozzle that shouldn't send the small-eared among us running for cover the way the Triple.Fi 10 Pro does. In the ear, the UE 900 sits and looks like a custom IEM by Ultimate Ears.

The UE 900 crafted by the same team responsible for Ultimate Ears' custom in-ear monitors. It uses four balanced armature drivers per side, in three-way setup--two bass drivers, one midrange driver, and one high frequency driver. 

Most importantly, though--even in the strongest, most competitive field of IEMs ever--the UE 900, to my ears, joins the Westone 4R and Phonak PFE 232 at the top of the universal-fit IEM heap.

For the UE 900, the Ultimate Ears team chose a revealing, neutral-ish sound signature. No, its not as neutral as their custom Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor (there's not much I've heard that is), but relative to universal-fit monitor offerings currently on the market, neutral-ish is a just descriptor.

Relative to its super-neutral custom sibling, the UE 900 has midrange that is more forward than neutral, and, to my ears, treble that's a bit softer and smoother than perfectly neutral. I find the UE 900's bass neutral and solid, but some used to be some boost might find it too flat (I am certainly not among them). Still, the UE 900, to my ears, is a very revealing universal-fit IEM, and one that puts Ultimate Ears back among the top-tier universal-fit in-ear monitors. I bounce between the Ultimate Ears UE 900, Westone's W4R, and Phonak's PFE232, and I still can't believe universal-fit IEMs have come this far.





Custom-Fit In-Ear Monitors

Like a bespoke suit, custom in-ear monitors (IEMs) are made just for you, molded to the exact shape of your ears (usually by an audiologist). And like a custom suit, custom IEMs are exceptionally comfortable, and usually trés expensive. To my ears, the best custom IEMs are some of the best sounding headphones of any type currently available.

Whichever custom you choose, expect to pay about an additional $50.00 to get molds of your ears made at a local audiologist (that you will then send in to the IEM maker).







JH Audio JH13 Pro and JH16 Pro (starting at $1099 and $1149, respectively)
Closed, custom in-ear monitors

Only three years old, but already a legend, JH Audio's JH13 Pro is coming up against several new competitors in the cost-no-object custom in-ear monitor realm, but it's still the first custom IEM I recommend for those who aren't quite sure what their preferred sound signature is. Why? Because I find most people prefer mildly emphasized bass, which the JH13 Pro has, along with neutral mids and treble, and quite possibly unmatched treble extension in an in-ear monitor. The JH13 Pro sports six balanced armature drivers per side.

The JH16 Pro is the go-to custom for those who want more strongly emphasized bass (emphasis that Jerry Harvey made sure to tune way down low, as it should be, and in such a manner that it leaves the mids virtually untouched). The JH16 Pro--because of that perfectly executed bass emphasis--is my go-to custom IEM for air or train travel, as extra bass is always welcome in the din of those environments.

Each JH16 Pro earpiece contains eight balanced armature drivers. Yes, eight. How Jerry Harvey coaxes complete cohesiveness from that many drivers (and, trust me, he does) is one of Head-Fi's great mysteries, as far as I'm concerned.

And last month, Harvey announced a new technology called Freqphase Time|Phase Waveguide for JH16Pro and JH13Pro that he claims will deliver all frequencies to the ear within 0.01 millisecond, resulting in the world's first phase-coherent earphone. All new JH13Pro and JH16Pro shipped on or after October 15, 2012 are equipped with the new technology.

“The JH16 gives new meaning to bass with a performance that combines enhancement with dynamics, detail, punch, speed, and rumble.  Instrument detail is plentiful across the spectrum with an added liquidity to the vocal range and an enhancement in the upper mids/lower treble that accentuates the clarity.  Soundstage width is great and competes with/bests similarly priced custom IEMs I have heard.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer average_joe












Ultimate Ears Custom In-Ear Reference Monitor ($999)
Closed, custom in-ear monitors

As UE (Ultimate Ears) puts it, the three-drivers-per-side Custom In-Ear Reference Monitor is designed for "professional studio engineers and producers for use during recording, mixing and mastering original music content. Other applications include front of the house venue tuning, live recording and mixing. This is also an excellent product for the audiophile or serious music listener because of its natural and authentic sound reproduction."

Given that description, it shouldn't be surprising that the In-Ear Reference Monitor (IERM) is the most neutral-sounding custom IEM I've heard. Both bass extension and treble extension sound excellent to me, the entire audioband presented without emphasis. The IERM is one of my neutral references, and perhaps the most neutral of all my headphones (regardless of type). As such, it is my sonic palate cleanser--after listening to more colored gear for extended periods, I can always count on the IERM to remind me what neutral sounds like.

Imaging is also one of its strengths, the IERM edging out most of the other custom IEMs I use, in terms of presenting a convincing, cohesive soundstage.

If you're in the market for a custom IEM, and pure neutrality is your goal, the IERM would be my first recommendation.

“All in all the UERM has a place among the other custom IEMs I have heard in the price range as it offers a reference sound with an exceptional presentation; a combo I have not heard up to this point in a custom IEM.  Combine that with the accessories and cable and the UERM stands up well with the competition.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer average_joe











Westone ES5 ($999)
Closed, custom in-ear monitors

If your tonal preference is more toward neutral, but not entirely so, then Westone's flagship five-drivers-per-side ES5 is a fantastic choice. It is more neutral than the JH13 Pro, but with richer midrange than UE's IERM. In terms of detail retrieval, it is on par with the other flagships.

Other major selling points of the ES5 include its comfort and isolation. Westone's ES series of custom IEMs all have the Westone heat-activated "flex canal," which makes my ES5 one of the most comfortable IEMs I've worn. That soft tip also results in better isolation than most of my other custom-fit IEMs provide.

Also, Westone's ES5 packaging is second-to-none, with a Pelican case, and a very cool dessicant cylinder fitted to the interior of that case (to help keep your ES5 dry).

“Overall [the Westone ES5] are a very well rounded high grade custom with great comfort, and a very coherent sound reproduction that hides it's crossovers well.”

Head-Fi member/reviewer drez







FitEar MH334 (147,000 yen)
Closed, custom in-ear monitors

I thought I was aware of all the top custom-fit IEM makers. On a trip to Tokyo, however, the gentlemen at Fujiya Avic (a store every Tokyo-bound Head-Fi'er must visit) asked me to listen to a demo model of the FitEar MH334. To say the least, I was impressed with what I heard. The next day, at the Tokyo Headphone Festival (which is put on by Fujiya Avic), I was fitted for my very own custom MH334.

When it arrived, the build quality was the first thing I noticed, including the flawless bubble-free transparent main earpiece bodies and the well-dressed internal wiring.

Wearing the MH334 revealed the best isolating custom-fit IEM I've yet used. I don't know if its particularly outstanding isolation is due to a perfect fit, something specific to the MH334's construction, or both.

And the sound! Voiced by one of Japan's top mastering engineers, the four-drivers-per-side MH334 is the best-sounding IEM I have heard driven straight from my iPhone 4S (compared to others driven similarly), a nearly perfect blend of revealing and smooth, impactful and balanced. I'm looking forward to also using it in a wide variety of externally-amped portable rigs.

Currently available only direct from FitEar, the only negative I've got for the FitEar MH334 is its price, which, as of this writing, translates to over $1800! I'm hoping FitEar soon finds broader distribution, as they may be poised to shake things up in the custom-fit IEM market, if this MH334 is any indication.

“What do they sound like? One word: transparent. ...these are the closest an IEM has come to matching the SR-009's transparency I've come across thus far. Simply stunning. Tonally, the balance of these is extremely linear... This is pretty much the most detailed I've heard an IEM sound...”

Head-Fi member/reviewer MuppetFace







Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor ($1999)
Closed, custom-voiced custom in-ear monitors

A custom-fit IEM is custom-molded to your ears, so it will fit only one person in the world perfectly--you. One would think, then, that a custom-fit IEM is already as custom as it gets. Not anymore. This year Ultimate Ears released what might reasonably be called a custom custom-fit IEM--one in which the physical fit isn't the only thing customized to fit you, but also the sonic fit. It's called the Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor, and, as its name suggests, you tune it to your own personal sonic preferences.

To accommodate this level of customization, a higher level of personal service is required. Once an order for the Personal Reference Monitor is placed, the customer is assigned a personal service specialist to guide him through the fitting, design, and custom-tuning of the Personal Reference Monitor. The custom-tuning of the Personal Reference Monitor involves a sit-down session with a device called the Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Tuning Box. To start, there will be four locations in the U.S. equipped with the Personal Reference Tuning box, in Irvine (California), Los Angeles, Nashville, and New York City. If you don't happen to be lucky enough to be an easy trip away from one of these locations, Ultimate Ears is currently working on making the tuning experience more accessible, in more places.

Simply put, my right ear is better than my left one. My right ear has greater acuity through some of the mids and treble than my left. It has been this way for years. Using the Personal Reference Tuning Box, I tuned my Personal Reference Monitor to help compensate for my left ear's deficiency (versus my right). I also tuned the tonal balance to be neutral'ish, but with just a touch more bass than neutral, more emphasis on the mids for greater midrange presence and bloom, and just a hair's breadth above neutral in the treble region. The resulting monitors--my Personal Reference Monitor--is now my favorite of all my custom in-ear monitors, imaging better (perhaps because of the left-right compensation), and suiting my preferences more closely than any other custom in-ear I currently have.

I strongly recommend the Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor for anyone who's wanted to try compensating for differences between one's ears, and/or for anyone simply interested in reaching a higher level of customizability in custom in-ear monitors.

(For more details about the product and the process, click here.)










Fitness In-Ear Headphones

One of the questions I'm most frequently asked by non-Head-Fi'ers is, "What headphones do you recommend for exercising?" As often as I'm asked this, you'd think I looked like a world-class athlete. (I don't.)

All of the following recommendations sound surprisingly good, given that they're purpose-built for getting sweat on, rained on, or snowed on. One of them is even machine washable.

Perhaps in preparation for their post-Beats existence, Monster Products has been releasing a bevy of good headphones (several of which are in this guide), including one I feel is a very solid fitness headphone. The Monster iSport Immersion (starting around $100) is a closed, weather and sweat resistant in-ear headphone. The iSport Immersion's SportClip fit system has a flexible paddle that gently grips your outer ear's concha, rather than looping around your ear or requiring a headband. In doing so, the iSport Immersion won't interfere with your sports glasses or goggles, and sits flush enough to fit with most helmets. The nozzle also swivels to help with a more custom fit.

Monster promotes its water resistance by machine washing the iSport Immersion in demos. I have not machine washed mine, but I like knowing it can withstand that level of abuse.

The iSport Immersion's sound is bass-emphasized and treble-sparkly. I like well-executed bass emphasis in a fitness headphone, to maintain the music's rhythm even through the footfalls of walking or jogging.

The Monster iSport Immersion comes in a few different colors and styles, including Livestrong yellow, blue, black and a cool Team USA stars & stripes motif. 




Another closed, in-ear fitness headphone--and one that can eliminate the dreaded headphone wire-yank problem--is the Denon Exercise Freak (around $150), which is a Bluetooth wireless fitness headphone. (There is a wire that ties the two earpieces together that goes behind your head.) An earhook design assures a snug fit. (Though it's a bit tricky at first to get the fit right, you'll get used to it in no time). The Denon Exercise Freak is designed to be sweat proof and has air cushions on their inside surface to soften its touch against the side of your head (behind your ear).

There's also a companion Denon Sport App (available for iOS and Android) that allows you to log your workouts, map your routes with your phone's GPS, track your pace, calorie consumption, elevation, and also has a built in music player.

The Denon Exercise Freak is also a pretty good wireless Bluetooth headset, which is also a great convenience while exercising (if you don't want to miss any calls).

The Exercise Freak's sound signature is a decidedly bass-heavy one, the mids are recessed, mid-treble has mild emphasis, and there's some high-treble roll-off--remember, though, this is a Bluetooth wireless exercise headphone. For its tangle-free convenience while exercising, good enough sound for wireless exercise listening, and its Bluetooth wireless headset functionality, the Exercise Freak is a great fitness companion.

Denon's Exercise Freak comes in blue, black, and yellow.

The most comprehensive, most impressive fitness headphone line I've seen comes from the combined minds of Sennheiser and adidas. One thing I love about the most current Sennheiser/adidas fitness earbuds line is the combination of both open and closed models, in several different form factors. Most of the new models are also second or third evolutions of model types that have existed for years, so Sennheiser and adidas have had time to evolve these by now into some of the very best fitness headphones I've worn and heard. I think I've now used every model in the current line, and there are just too many to list them all here, so let's cover some of my favorites.







I tend to prefer open headphones when I'm exercising--especially if I'm exercising outdoors--as I like to be aware of what's going on around me outside. Sennheiser/adidas has several fitness models designed for "situational awareness," including the Sennheiser/adidas PX685i (around $80). The PX685i is an over-head model, but it's so light you can barely feel its headband on your head. As with the other Sennheiser/adidas "situational awareness" models, the PX685i's earpieces are earbud-type, and the PX685i's earpieces are held in snugly (but comfortably) by the headband. One benefit I've found of this type of earpiece is the ability to adjust bass level by adjusting how far in my ear I push the earpiece--I can vary bass response from mildly heavy to something more flat.

The PX685i comes in with an in-line three-button remote/mic designed for iDevices.




Another "situational awareness" Sennheiser/adidas model is the Sennheiser/adidas MX 685 SPORTS (around $50). The MX 685 SPORTS is a more conventional earbud form factor (no headband), but each earpiece is held snugly in the ear by a flexible slide-to-fit piece (that they call an "EarFin") that softly wedges into your outer ear's concha. The MX 685 SPORTS is among my favorite standard earbud type headphone, whether for fitness or general listening. The sound is very balanced and detailed for an earbud, and the EarFin's make for a nice secure fit, which I simply cannot get with standard earbuds. (There is also a closed in-ear version of this model called the CX 685 SPORTS that is priced around $70.)





My very favorite of the Sennheiser/adidas line is the Sennheiser/adidas PMX 685i SPORTS(around $80), which is one of the "situational awareness" models, with earbud-type earpieces that are held in by a neckband. I started several years ago with the PMX 70, then moved to the PMX 680 a couple years back, and now the PMX 685i SPORTS. This latest neckband fitness model from Sennheiser/adidas is super light weight, is one-size-fits-all, so requires essentially no adjustments, and is super-snug yet extremely comfortable. I've used no headphone that works better with my mountain biking helmet, and the snug fit (and ultra light weight) keeps the PMX 685i SPORTS perfectly in place, no matter how hard I'm riding or running.

In terms of sound, the PMX 685i SPORTS is the best sounding fitness headphone I've yet used. The sound signature is on the more balanced side, and the neckband makes for very consistent fit and very consistent sound. The PMX 685i SPORTS sees a lot more use from me than just for exercise, because it's so light, portable, tough, and sounds so good for its form factor.

The PMX 685i SPORTS comes with an in-line three-button remote/mic designed to work with iDevices. As far as I'm concerned, for its purpose, the PMX 685i is essentially perfect.

All of the Sennheiser/adidas models above are ruggedly built, and sweat- and water-resistant.



Comments (10)

hey jude !! arnt u making a PDF file of this Guide as last time???? itll be awsome for us man... cuz im constantly flying and u knw the issues haha... any ways great work!
Amazing work! I'm surprised no MH1C though....
I want to have Pdf file!
You need to sync the pictures with the text.
As arcanemethods pointed out, the pictures have gotten out of sync with the text. At least in the In-Ear section, from the part on the amps onward. I do believe .pdf to be a more robust format... ;)
MH1C yeah...where is it. well its not THAT good anyways.
still nice and fun!
So friends, Westone 4R's or Shure SE535's? I have had 535's and loved them until the cord broke. I am a fan of neutral, open, top to bottom balanced sound. Please advise.
they are all high price... no affordable? :p
Well done! Easy to look at and well organized. I'll be looking forward to more of these.
great great great guide.
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