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2013 Head-Fi Summer Buying Guide (In-Ear Headphones)

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Universal-Fit In-ear Monitors

 

Sennheiser IE 800

 

TYPE: Closed, universal-fit in-ear monitor

PRICE: Around $900

URL: www.sennheiser.com

The mighty Sennheiser HD 800 is, in my opinion, a masterpiece--one of the finest examples of modern headphone innovation and engineering. One of the key figures behind the HD 800's development was Axel Grell, Sennheiser's Product Manager High End. I had wondered in the past about what would happen if you turned Axel loose on IEM development, and was thrilled when I found out that's just what Sennheiser had done. The IE 800 is the result.

For those familiar with Sennheiser's IEMs of the past several years, perhaps it wasn't a shock that Sennheiser chose to go with a dynamic driver for their flagship IEM. What is surprising is that the single extra wide band dynamic driver they developed is only 7mm in diameter, and its sound is huge.

Something else unique about the IE 800 is something Sennheiser has coined Attenuated Dual Channel Absorbers (D2CA), which, as its name suggests, is a patent-pending damped two-chamber absorber designed to eliminate the 7kHz to 8kHz peak that occurs when you shift your ear channel's resonance by blocking the canal. According to Axel, unremedied, the peak masks normal high frequencies present in the signal.

The science and acoustics engineering you get into when talking to Axel are beyond my very limited knowledge of such things, but I'm always happy to experience the results of all it--the listening part.

Before you accuse me of being a fanboy, I strongly suggest you page through this guide, and look at how many non-exercise in-ears by Sennheiser you see in it (other than this IE 800). Count 'em up, and you'll get to...exactly none. I think Sennheiser makes good in-ears--I liked (but certainly didn't love) the likes of the IE 80 (and the IE 8 before it), but, over the last several years, I have tended to prefer, at most price points, IEM products from Sennheiser's competitors. The IE 800, however, is amazingly good--one of the two best universal-fit in-ears I've ever heard, and one of my current favorite headphones of any form factor.

The IE 800 also images beautifully, with a wide, coherent soundstage (for an in-ear), instruments and voices in good recordings precisely placed. The first time I heard Amber Rubarth's Sessions from the 17th Ward (Binaural) through the IE 800, it was using the Astell&Kern AK100 playing the 24-bit/192kHz version of the album. If you have this combination of gear and music, cue it up, close your eyes--it's transcendent, the music beautiful, the fidelity of it through the gear complete. Guitar, violin, cello, Amber's voice, all gently washing over each other, clearly occupying the same acoustic. (I'm actually listening to this combo, and this album, as I'm typing this.)

The IE 800's tonal balance isn't one of neutrality--tonally, this isn't the in-ear version of the Sennheiser HD 800, which to me is more neutral. The IE 800 has bass emphasis--well-executed bass emphasis to my ears--its emphasis low on the spectrum, the mids not masked in the least by the bass. The IE 800's bass, though emphasized, is detailed and fast. The IE 800's midrange has a lush airiness about it, and the treble is sparkly, extended, precise.

The IE 800 is also very comfortable in my ears, with the included oval cross section eartips. The relatively straight, shallow insertion also makes for a comfortable piece for long listening sessions. Not that it matters much, but I also think the IE 800 is the single best looking universal-fit IEM on the market. Its ceramic body--with its sculpted curves around what I assume are two openings related to the dual dampers (that look to me like the jet outlets from an advanced stealth fighter)--is absolutely gorgeous.

So it sounds amazing, it's comfortable, and it's a looker. Is the IE 800 as good as my best custom IEMs? In some respects (like that gorgeous midrange), yes. In some respects (like the bass, which sounds fast but not faaaast), no. And, though comfortable, it's hard to beat the comfort of a piece molded exactly to the shape of your ears. If customs give you pause, should you consider the IE 800? Omigosh, yes.

Spider realvoice

 

 

TYPE: Closed, in-ear, vertical earphone

PRICE: Around $90

URL: www.spidercable.com

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.

"Despite being Spider Cable's very first attempt at tuning a portable audio device, the realvoice in-ear is an impressive all-around performer. Its balanced-yet-lively signature positions its sound quality fairly close to the best sets in the price bracket and the vertical-driver design yields surprisingly decent ergonomics and user-friendliness."

-ljokerl
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Moshi Audio Clarus

 

TYPE: Closed, in-ear, earhook-type headphone

PRICE: Around $250

SPEC: moshimonde.com

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.

HiFiMAN RE400 Waterline

 

TYPE: Closed, universal-fit in-ear monitor

PRICE: $99.00

URL: www.hifiman.com

It was a bold move by HiFiMAN to discontinue all their previous in-ear headphones with the release of the new RE-400--several of the now-legacy HiFiMAN in-ear models had diehard fans. HiFiMAN's founder Dr. Fang Bian has stated in an interview that the new HiFiMAN RE-400 is a better sounding in-ear than any of the legacy models, and I wholeheartedly agree. In my opinion, the legacy line had models that were unique and specialized, and HiFiMAN needed to release more balanced, stronger overall performers. The RE-400 is an amazing start, and, to my ears, it is one of the best sub-$100 IEMs currently available.

It's not just the sound signature that HiFiMAN has made more universally appealing, but the form factor. Some of the models in the legacy lineup were made in strange shapes that I often had to explain to the uninitiated as I handed them over to listen to--anyone here remember the RE252? The RE-400 has a very classically designed metal chassis that I find more ergonomic, more comfortable, and certainly easier for me to insert than previous HiFiMAN in-ears have been. The satin metal endcap over what looks to me like a bead-blasted aluminum main housing makes for a very understated, timeless design.

The RE-400 uses an 8.5mm dynamic driver with a titanium diaphragm and neodymium magnet. Cabling is OFC (oxygen free copper), and is very light and flexible. Actually, the entire RE-400 feels light in weight, both in the hands, and, more importantly, when worn.

On my wishlist for the RE-400 are a carrying case (it doesn't come with one), and perhaps a version with an inline remote/mic on the cable. Though the RE-400 can benefit from a nice portable amp, it still sounds excellent driven directly from my mobile phones, too, so having the convenience of an inline remote/mic would be a nice option.

Because some of the past HiFiMAN models tended toward bass-light signatures, the RE-400's move to a more neutral balance actually represents a mild lift in bass in comparison to some of its popular HiFiMAN predecessors. And, to me, the RE-400 has a balance that is fairly described as neutral, and not just in comparison to legacy HiFiMAN in-ears, but in general.

From its well-extended bass to its well-extended treble--and everywhere in between--there's no sense of frequency response hotspots or deficiencies with the RE-400. Some prefer emphasis in bass, some like subdued treble, some like boosted mids, and, for all those people who like substantial deviations from flat, the RE-400 might disappoint. Those who'll love its tonal balance are those who like to listen for extended periods, and those who tend to prefer a perceived flat frequency response. For me, the RE-400 never fatigues, and that's a big deal, especially for something that's reasonably detailed across the spectrum, and is priced at under $100.

The HiFiMAN RE-400 is the first in a new line of in-ears from HiFiMAN, and, again, something I think is a big step in the right direction. Bravo, HiFiMAN! Keep 'em coming!

Klipsch Image X7i

 

TYPE: Closed, universal-fit in-ear monitor

PRICE: $199.99

URL: www.klipsch.com

When I list the following attributes--in-ear monitor, advanced ceramic housing, oval eartips--diehard Head-Fi'ers might assume I'm talking about the $1000 Sennheiser IE 800. But then I add “under $200,” and it's obvious I'm heading somewhere else--Indiana perhaps?

I'm talking about Indianapolis-based Klipsch, and their new Image X7i. Why this little ceramic-bodied wonder isn't one of the most talked about affordable universal-fit IEMs on Head-Fi is an absolute mystery to me. And shopping around shows it readily available for less than the $199.99 price I've listed,

The Image X7i joins its Klipsch stablemate Image X10 as being one of the most comfortable universal-fit in-ear monitors I've ever worn--there's something about the ultra-pliable silicone, and the narrow oval cross section of the eartips that makes them almost disappear from mind once inserted. The Klipsch Image X7i's ceramic body feels sturdy, and its contoured shape sits perfectly, comfortably in my ear. As comfortable as it is, though, I'd still have to give a slight edge in comfort to the X10, which is a bit smaller and even less intrusive.

More impressive than even the Image X7i's comfort is its sound. This is an audiophile piece all the way, and is neutral enough sounding for me to consider this one of my universal-fit neutral references. While it isn't possessing of the outright speed and resolution of my best (and far more expensive) in-ear monitors, the Klipsch Image X7i resolves above its price, and--most uncommonly in this price range and form factor--presents with enough extension at both ends, and with flat, detailed mids, to sound less like a consumer market headphone, and more like a pro channel monitoring headphone. The only thing that consistently reminds me that the Image X7i is indeed a consumer market piece is the microphone and three-button remote that make it a joy to use with my iPhone, iPods and iPads.

The Klipsch X7i is my new favorite from Klipsch, and one of my favorite sub-$200 headphones, period.

Monster Miles Davis Trumpet and Monster Gratitude

 

TYPE: Closed in-ear monitors

PRICE: Around $170 and $80, respectively

URL: www.monsterproducts.com

f 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 - the signature is more balanced and refined than that of the outgoing model and combines enhanced bass with a spacious soundstage and good resolution. "

-ljokerl
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

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

-Marcus Nguyen (tinyman392)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Westone 4R

 

TYPE: Closed in-ear monitor

PRICE: Around $500

URL: http://www.westone.com

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.

"With the introduction of the W4, Westone has once again raised the stakes in the driver wars between high-end IEM manufacturers - something they've done at least twice in the past. The fit, comfort, build quality, and isolation are all what we've come to expect from Westone products but it should come as no surprise that the sound of the W4 is an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, step up from the company's previous flagships."

-ljokerl
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Shure SE425 and Shure SE535

 

TYPE: Closed, in-ear monitors

PRICE: Around $300 and $470, respectively

URL: www.shure.com

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."

-Brooko
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

"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."

-DavidMahler
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

HiFiMAN RE-262

 

TYPE: Closed, in-ear monitor

PRICE: $149

URL: www.head-direct.com

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.

"The RE262, on the other hand, is quite captivating with its greater (albeit not too great) bass weight, smooth and forward mids, and laid-back, non-fatiguing treble."

-ljokerl
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Etymotic ER-4PT

 

TYPE: Closed, in-ear monitor

PRICE: $299

URL: www.etymotic.com

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.

">For an old timer in the rapidly growing IEM market, Etymotic ER4 has stood the trial of time very well. Granted it is not a sound for everyone, it is still has one of the top spot among some of the more expensive new comers. For a price around $180 these days, it is a deal not to be missed by any analytical listener."

-ClieOS
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Velodyne vPulse

 

TYPE: Closed, in-ear monitor

PRICE: Around $99

URL: http://www.velodyne.com

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 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."

-ljokerl
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Shure SE846

 

TYPE: Closed, in-ear monitor

PRICE: $999

URL: www.shure.com

The Shure SE846 is, to me, one of the most exciting product announcements this year. Years in development, Shure went way outside the box with their new four-driver, three-way flagship, and the results are, in my opinion, spectacular.

One of Shure's goals for the SE846 was to create what Shure has coined a "True Subwoofer Experience." The word "subwoofer" has led some to believe that Shure is going to release a bass-overblown IEM, which wasn't their goal at all. Deep bass extension? Yes. Impactful? Of course. But let's not forget that at least part of a well-implemented subwoofer's charge is to free up smaller drivers from the encumbrance of trying to produce deep bass, to allow the mids to breathe freely, more effortlessly. In this respect, Shure killed it with the SE846. Killed it.

How they did it is, in the world of IEMs, extremely daring, innovative. They created a patent pending acoustic low-pass filter. The output from the dual bass drivers that make up each of the SE846 earpiece's "subwoofer" is run through a high acoustic mass pathway carved into ten precision-welded stainless steel plates. That channel, if unfurled, would be approximately four inches long, and allows the low-frequency roll-off to happen acoustically. The result is deep, impactful bass, with remarkable midrange presence and clarity.

Shure also developed a system of changeable nozzle inserts that allows the user to customize the treble profile of the SE846, with three different choices that Shure refers to as balanced (which comes installed), warm, and bright. It's easy to adjust, the changing of the nozzles taking me less than a minute. I've found myself using both the balanced and bright options, with the bright insert being the one that gets the most use. If you love the SE535, but wished for a bit more treble extension and sparkle, you're probably going to love the bright insert, too.

I want to be clear that the Shure SE846 is not just a couple of gimmicks thrown together to provide fodder for good marketing pieces--the SE846 is a  precisely integrated, meticulously tuned flagship in-ear monitor that uses true innovation as a means to an end.

I have several top-notch custom in-ear monitors--headphones I feel are among the best in the world, regardless of form factor--and the Shure SE846 is one of only two universal-fit IEMs I've used that is very much a competitor to those.

Even at an estimated street price of $1000.00, the Shure SE846 is going to be a huge hit with Head-Fi'ers.

Sony XBA-3iP

 

TYPE: Closed, in-ear monitor

PRICE: Around $150

URL: www.sony.com

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

 

TYPE: Closed, in-ear monitor

PRICE: Around $100

URL: www.thinksound.com

"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.

"Thinksound's formula has always been beautiful in its simplicity – combine one part enhanced bass with one part clarity, add stylish, well-crafted housings made from renewable materials, and package it all with great attention to detail. The MS01 doesn't stray far from its predecessors – it's not a monitoring earphone as the name seems to imply, but it delivers great sound and retains the upmarket look and feel of the other Thinksound models."

-ljokerl
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Audiofly AF78 and Audiofly AF56

 

TYPE: Closed, in-ear monitors

PRICE: AF78 around $120, or around $189 with microphone, AF56 around $60, or around $90 with microphone

URL: www.audiofly.com

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.

Cardas EM5813

 

TYPE: Closed, universal-fit in-ear monitor

PRICE: $419

URL: www.cardas.com

Contributed by Michael Mercer

The hearing system, musical chords and these Ear Speakers are reflections of the Golden Ratio.” “EM5813 mirrors the human cochlea and tympanic membrane.” - Cardas Audio

I wish I knew more about the Golden Ratio. All I know is that it's a pattern that naturally occurs in nature. Though a quick Googling would undoubtedly render more intel on the subject, I'd rather not pretend to know what I don't. However, I do have a firm grasp on IEM listening vs. on-ear and over-ear. I've experienced some incredible listening sessions with solidly engineered IEMs. My current references are JH Audio's JH13 Pro Freqphase for long periods (travel, etc.), and Etymotic hf3's and Heir Audio 4Ai's. When I slid the Cardas EM5813 Ear Speakers into my ears for the first time I could tell immediately there was something different about these in-ear monitors.

There was so much air, so much dimensionality (reproduction of spatial relationships between the instruments) that it didn't sound like an IEM to me at all. The first night I heard them was after our first headphone panel at T.H.E Show Newport. When I saw George (Cardas) the next day I told him the best compliment I could pay his IEMs was that I fell asleep with them in my ears! That never happens to me, not even with my custom-fitted JH Audio's. Now, not knowing anything about the Golden Ratio, and without seeing the quote above (on the back of the packaging for the IEMs) I also told George that these IEMs basically sounded, I thought, like “an extension of my outer-ear." Now I know why he smiled from ear to ear. That was his design goal! Needless to say I believe he's achieved that impossible-sounding feat. The in-ears also come with Cardas's high end Clear Light Headphone Cable.

Now, we're still all individuals. I still recommend going out and trying these before you commit, but for 400 bucks, at this performance level, it's easy to recommend. I could wholeheartedly recommend these to anybody and feel confident about it. They're that musical. Or maybe it's better to say they don't necessarily have a sonic signature at all. As long as the music moves you, hearing it through the EM5813 Cardas Ear Speakers should only move you more. They're like amplifiers for your ears. Pump up the music you love through these. I highly doubt you'll regret it. They never leave my bag.

-- by Michael Mercer

Final Audio Design Heaven VI

 

TYPE: Closed, in-ear monitor

PRICE: Around $565

URL: final-audio-design.com/en/

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

 

TYPE: Closed, in-ear monitor

PRICE: Around $180

URL: www.v-moda.com

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!"

-DavidMahler
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Klipsch Image X10

 

TYPE: Closed, in-ear monitor

PRICE: Around $150, or around $270 for the Image X10i with remote/mic

URL: www.klipsch.com

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.

"The Image X10 is a high-end consumer-oriented IEM that combines the unobtrusive look and feel of the slim, lightweight housings with warm, smooth, punchy sound derived from a single balance armature driver. The X10's greatest strength is its bass – extended, controlled, and unusually powerful for a single BA."

-ljokerl
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Logitech UE 900

 

TYPE: Closed, in-ear monitor

PRICE: Around $399.99

URL: ue.logitech.com

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.

Etymotic ETYKids

 

TYPE: Volume-limited, closed, universal-fit in-ear monitor (for children 4+ years old)

PRICE: $49.00 (or $79.00 with Apple three-button remote)

URL: www.etymotic.com

As a Head-Fi'er, and as a father of a young son, I want to do all I can to help him take care of his precious, pristine hearing. As my boy sees his dad constantly donning headphones of all types--and as a little music fanatic himself--he's taken interest in having headphones of his own. I got him the ETYKids by Etymotic, which are universal-fit in-ear monitors for children over four years old.

The ETYKids work by controlling the earphone's sensitivity, making it unnecessary to worry about restricting the volume level of the player, or counting on your young child to know when loud's too loud.

I've listened to the ETYKids, and the volume-limiting works very well--and it sounds like an Etymotic IEM, which is a very good thing.

 

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 JH13Pro Freqphase and JH16 Pro Freqphase

 

TYPE: Closed, custom in-ear monitors

PRICE: Starting at $1,099 and $1,149, respectively

URL: www.jhaudio.com

Only four years old, but already a legend, JH Audio's JH13Pro has come 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 such cohesiveness from that many drivers (and, trust me, he does) is one of Head-Fi's great mysteries, as far as I'm concerned.

Earlier this year, I picked up the latest version of the JH13Pro, equipped with a new technology developed by Jerry Harvey called Freqphase Time|Phase Waveguide. To put it simply, Freqphase was designed to dramatically improve the phase accuracy of the top JH Audio in-ears. Stated even more simply, more than before, the lows, mids and highs now arrive at your ear at once. JH Audio claims there Freqphase IEMs are the first truly phase-coherent earphones. The current JH Audio JH13Pro, JH16Pro, and JH3A are shipping with Freqphase.

The moment I heard the JH13Pro Freqphase, I was thrilled with the improvement in detail over my previous JH13Pro (without Freqphase). It's not subtle, it's a whole different IEM now. The detail I get with my current JH13Pro is electrostatic-like in its speed. The tonal balance is still similar to the previous JH13Pro, which is a good thing; but the detail retrieval of the new model is on another level.

I can think of only one thing I don't like about Freqphase, and that's the fact that pre-Freqphase models can't be updated to Freqphase. One look inside a clear Freqphase piece, and you'll see why--it's different in there.

With Freqphase, the JH Audio JH13Pro has reclaimed the top spot on my list of favorite in-ear monitors.

"Overall the JH16 has a fun sound that bring excitement to music and for me is great for use while I am working and concentrating on something else or working out while listening to energetic music such as pop and electronic."

-average_joe
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Ultimate Ears Custom In-Ear Reference Monitor

 

TYPE: Closed, custom in-ear monitors

PRICE: $999

URL: www.logitech.com/ue

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.

"One of the things which floored me most about the UERM was its refined precision with regard to imaging. In this way, the UERM surpasses every other IEM I've ever come across. More specifically, listening to binaural recordings, I felt it surpassed any expectation I ever had regarding IEM imaging. "

-DavidMahler
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Westone ES5

 

TYPE: Closed, custom in-ear monitors

PRICE: $999

URL: www.westonemusicproducts.com

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 these are a very well rounded high grade custom with great comfort, and a very coherent sound reproduction that hides it's crossovers well."

-drez
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

FitEar MH334

 

TYPE: Closed, custom in-ear monitors

PRICE: 147,000 yen

URL: fitear.jp

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..."

-MuppetFace
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor

 

TYPE: Closed, custom-voiced custom in-ear monitors

PRICE: $1999

URL: www.logitech.com/ue

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.)

 

Comments (9)

Nice list of earphones. Cheers
THe main problem i have is that they come up with new impressive gear faster than i can save up for it.
Im currently saving for Sennheiser HD 600, Uber Bifrost, Fiio E12 and now a Shure monster flagship (originally my plan was to get the SE 425, but im not so sure now).
Not to mention the new HIFIMAN IEMs, the new HM-901.....
This is some sort of Sin.... Im sure of it....
^a better strategy would be to decide on a budget you're willing to save for and then, when you hit that mark, see what the best gear available is for your price points
This was helpful, but what would you suggest for a person with the following requirements:
Budget $150
Robust quality. (I'm normally stuffing them in my pocket when arriving at my destination or throwing them in my bag. I can't be bothered folding them up neatly and putting them in a case)
Sounds awesome. Goes without saying, but I need some bass kick, and nice details in the mids and trebles (bit of a n00b in this area) I'm in to a wide variety of music. House, Hip hop, funk, punk, drum n bass, trip hop,..
Doesn't require an amp. I most likely listening to this on an iPhone via Spotify or iTunes.
Detachable cable. This would be great, because I've gone through a lot of headphones and only replacing the cable would be so much nicer than forking out a shed load of money for new ones.
Klipsch Image X7i or X10i ??
 I want a in-ear, About under 400$,  I dont have a amp yet, I am using emperior straight to my ipod touch 5,  what in-ear should i get?  At least some low pitch.
The "King of Incoherence" (AKG K3003) wasn't mentioned at all. It really should have been. After all, a king is always a king, no!?
@DBurr, read the entries above for each, and I think you'll see that they're quite different from one another, in terms of tonal balance. Read both entries, and choose the one that seems more suited to the type of sound signature you prefer.
 
@Aero Dynamik, I'll see about perhaps getting a chance to listen to the K3003 for possible inclusion in the next Guide update.
By the way, guys, I just realized we were in the Summer 2013 Guide. We've since updated it for Winter 2013, which you can see by clicking on the following link: 2013 Winter Head-Fi Gift Guide.
Head-Fi.org › Articles › 2013 Head Fi Summer Buying Guide In Ear Headphones