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Head-Fi Buying Guide (In-Ear Headphones)

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Focal Sphear  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
Created with GIMP
TYPE: In-ear monitor
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PRICE: $179.00
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URL: www.focal.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


Focal's Nicolas Debard stopped by Head-Fi's office from France for a visit, and brought with him an in-ear headphone that hadn't yet been released: The Focal Sphear. As a fan of Focal's loudspeakers and over-ear headphones, I was excited to hear what Focal's first IEM had to offer. Like their first over-ears (the Focal Spirit One), the Sphear might be reasonably be called a departure from what one might expect from Focal, their reputation being rooted mainly in very high-end loudspeakers.

While I do hope that Focal does make some upmarket headphone moves in the future, I've been having a lot of fun with the Sphear, because it's...well..fun. Even before I listened to the Sphear, I was smitten with its mildly whimsical spherical shape that's combined with some high-quality details and build for the price. The back of the Sphear is capped by a brushed stainless steel face plate with what looks to be a laser-cut logo behind which is a cool-looking metal mesh (which I'll get back to in a minute). The beveled edge of the face plate has "FOCAL" handsomely laser-etched on it. As far as universal-fit in-ears go, the Sphear is an attractive little piece.

The Sphear also fits my average-sized, average-shaped ears very well, settling into place (with silicon tips) as quickly and easily as any other universal-fit IEM we have here. Its fit in my ears is secure, too, and walking briskly with them in my ears has never jarred them loose. All that said, the Sphear is a slightly stubby design, so I have to imagine that for some ear shapes it might not be ideal--if your ears are generally more the exception than the rule (as in a lot of in-ears don't fit you well), then I'd suggest trying them on if possible first, and/or buying them from some place friendly bout returns.

In terms of sound, the Sphear's bass reflex design (which is what those metal screens behind the logo appear to be covering the outer ports for) leads to one of the sonic traits that perhaps defines its sonic personality. As Focal says, the Sphear's bass reflex design contributes to the bass level on Sphear being "slightly increased for mobile use in noisy environments." I'd describe the Sphear's low-mid bass to be a shade more than slightly increased (at least relative to neutral), but it's powerful and taut. The bass control is such that even bass-heavy music actually sounds good though the Sphear. If you're a bass-head, it may not be enough of a boost--if you insist on perfect neutrality, it may be too much.

The Sphear's midrange is detailed, with a more neutral presence than the bass, and I was happy to find the bass emphasis doesn't intrude into the lower mids. Listening to Nat King Cole and Kurt Elling, the Sphear carves clearly around their beautiful voices without etch or unnatural edge--it's clarity nicely executed, plain and simple. The Sphear's treble has nice presence, more spotlit than flat, but, as with its bass, not overly so to my ears. Like many Head-Fi'ers, I'm quite sensitive to headphones that highlight sibilants, and the Sphear's crisp treble thankfully stops shy of that.

The Sphear's isolation is good, not great, perhaps due to its ported bass-reflex design. To be clear, the Sphear does isolate, but just not at the level I get from, say, my Westones or Shures.

The Sphear comes with a very nice, very compact zip-around, protective carrying case. Its cable (which I find a bit too long) has an in-line omnidirectional microphone for use with a telephone, and those I've talked to on it have told me that my outgoing voice quality is good, not great. There are no inline volume controls, but there is a nice brushed stainless steel covered large button right at the Y-split that allows you to take/receive calls, pause/play music, and go to the next and previous tracks (and is compatible with iOS and Android).

On balance, the Focal Sphear has a fun, resolving sound signature--and its brand of fun and fidelity is the kind that plays well either on-the-go or even just for general listening at home or in the office. Again, I find the Focal Sphear comfortable, too. With an MSRP of only $179, I'm surprised this IEM isn't talked about by more people in our forums, for all it offers at that price.


"The Focal Sphear can easily be described as having a premium, warm sound signature. While not the most analytical in its presentation, it clearly is a quality sound that is more for extended listening."

-BloodyPenguin (Justin Miner)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Written by Jude Mansilla


John Moulton and Brannan Mason were together at Heir Audio, and then later started a new company called Noble Audio. Anyone who knows John Moulton (affectionally called "The Wizard" in our community) won't be surprised to find that, with Noble, he continued the tradition of making perhaps the swankiest looking IEMs using super-fancy finishes and exotic materials in his IEMs. I don't think anyone else offers material options like woven grass, exotic wood, pearlescent swirly finishes, gold nugget, a glow-in-the-dark option, cosmetic grade glitter, custom faceplated silicone, and goodness knows what else. You can optionally pay $300 to have The Wizard design you a one-off design. And if you haven't seen the work he does, go to their website and check it out.


Also, recently Noble Audio announced their new Noble Prestige custom in-ear monitors, intended to be the pinnacle of Noble's artistry, and priced accordingly. Instead of beginning with a liquid medium, which is how almost all custom in-ears are made, Noble’s new Prestige customs will be crafted chiefly from solid artistic mediums, including exotic woods, dyed woods, carbon glass, weaves, knits, aluminum composites, other materials, and combinations of all of those things.


The only sonic configuration available for the Prestige line is Noble’s flagship 4-way, 10-driver Kaiser 10 (K10) model. Prices for the Noble Prestige will start at $2599, and can go up from there, depending on material choices and options. If you want The Wizard’s finest work, you will have to pay for it.


My custom Kaiser 10 is one of the first Prestige models they made, and it is stunning to look at. Its earpieces are crafted from red acrylic inspired by the color rosso corsa, with Australian Coolibah burl wood, somehow swirled together to appear as one. Again, as it is a Noble Prestige, it is also a Kaiser 10 inside.


The Noble K10 has ten drivers per side. The driver complement (per ear) is two bass drivers, two midrange drivers, two mid-high drivers, two high drivers, and two super-high frequency drivers. It's a 10-driver, four-way configuration. Nominal impedance is listed as <35Ω. With such a complex driver set, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried at first about maintaining coherence with so many driver types. To my ears, though, the worries were unfounded, as K10's sound is coherent and outstanding.


In terms of bass, the Noble Prestige (and so also the Noble K10) sounds to me like it has excellent extension, presence, and control. On balance, I think its bass just a bit north of neutral, but in a way that I enjoy for general listening. The K10's midrange is on the warmer side, without being overly thick. Midrange detail is also very good, with a very nice presence that I found served female vocals particularly well. The Noble Kaiser K10's treble has an extended, smooth quality about it, that I think is a perfect capper to what is, overall, a wonderful, smooth sounding flagship custom in-ear monitor from Noble.


I think the Noble Kaiser 10 custom is well equipped to compete with other flagships customs from other custom top-flight in-ear makers. It's quite evident in our community that Noble has been gaining an increasingly strong following here and abroad, and I'm not at all surprised.


"Besides being able to fit 10 BA drivers into each earpiece, which is a bit of magic itself, listening to the Kaiser’s makes you feel like the whole spectrum of instruments, even the largest ones, have somehow been crammed inside these gems, against all laws of mechanics "

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90



TYPE: Closed, custom-fit in-ear monitors
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MSRP: Prices start at $1599 for Kaiser 10, and $2599 for Prestige
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URL: www.nobleaudio.com


JH Audio Siren Series Layla and Angie  
TYPE: Closed, universal-fit in-ear monitors 
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PRICE: $2499 and $1099, respectively
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URL: www.astellnkern.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


I think it's fair to say that when it comes to taking chances and innovating in terms of acoustic design--that is, what goes on inside the earpieces--Jerry Harvey of Jerry Harvey Audio (or JH Audio) pushes the hardest.


To the best of my knowledge, Jerry was the first to do dual-stacked armature drivers--as in dual-low, dual-mid, and dual-high configurations. To the best of my knowledge, he was also the first to do quad-stacked armatures. In fact, he was recently granted a patent for his invention of the dual high-frequency canalphone system. Jerry was the first to implement active crossovers for in-ear monitors, and is the inventor on the patent for that. With his JH-3A, he developed what he calls the inverse active crossover, for which I believe he has a patent pending. He has a notice of allowance on his patent for the Freqphase waveguide, which was designed to time- and phase-align driver output in multi-armature in-ears. Again, I can't think of anyone in the industry who pushes acoustic engineering development with in-ears to the degree that Jerry Harvey has in the past several years.


Last year, in partnership with Astell&Kern, JH Audio introduced two new universal-fit in-ear monitor models that expanded his Siren Series line. For those of you not familiar with the Siren Series, it's a growing family of in-ears from Jerry Harvey Audio that are named after famous rock songs about women. The first Siren was the Roxanne, introduced in 2013. And last year, Roxanne was joined by Layla--obviously named after the legendary 70's song of the same name by Eric Clapton and his band Derek and the Dominos, and now the current JH Audio flagship. The Layla, today, moves into the flagship position in the JH Audio lineup, ahead of the Roxanne. At the same time, Angie was unveiled, named after the big 1970's hit of the same name by the Rolling Stones.


Again, the Layla is the new JH Audio flagship model. Like the Roxanne, the Layla has 12 drivers per ear in a three-way configuration--quad-low, quad-mid, and quad-high drivers (in each ear). Also, like the Roxanne, the Layla has adjustable bass, achieved by using dual attenuators in-line with the cable. Outside of that, Layla and Roxanne are quite different. Layla has no drivers in common with Roxanne--all were developed specifically for Layla. Layla's crossovers are also different. In other words, Roxanne and Layla have no internals in common. Between Roxanne and Layla, there are different armatures, different crossovers, different dampening.


The Layla was given a different mission statement than any previous Jerry Harvey Audio in-ear monitor. All of the in-ear models made by JH Audio, up to and including the Roxanne, were designed to be live performance pieces--stage monitors. Of course, their signatures have found--and will continue to find--great favor among audiophiles, too. The Layla, on the other hand, was not designed primarily as a live performance monitor, but as JH Audio's first purpose-built reference/mastering monitor.


With all the other JH Audio in-ears I have--including the Roxanne--there's a little warmth in low-mids, a sort of Jerry Harvey signature. To me, when its bass is turned all the way down, the Roxanne is one of my reference headphones, regardless of form factor. With its bass all the way down, the Roxanne has a neutral-ish sound signature, enough so that I've used them for monitoring during Chesky Records recording sessions. With the Layla, however, Jerry was shooting for truly flat response (with the controls dialed down)--flat from end to end.


To accomplish what he was after with the Layla, Jerry designed all-new drivers. These new drivers required steeper crossover slopes than usual to achieve the goal of voicing a reference/mastering monitor, and so the Layla (and the Angie) are, to the best of my knowledge, the first in-ear monitors to use the steeper, more complex 4th-order type crossovers.


Compared to the Roxanne--and owing to its new drivers and steeper crossovers--the Layla has what I would call much more truly usable versatility than the Roxanne. Whereas the Roxanne, with its bass turned down is, once again, neutral-ish to my ears, the Layla sounds dead flat. In fact, with its bass turned down, the Layla might be dry for some--and dry is something that, to my ears, the Roxanne never is or can be, even with its bass all the way down. To be clear, I don't mean this in any way as a negative with the Layla--in fact, I really like having the option for that leaner, flatter, dryer presence, if only for use as a sonic palate cleanser.


Again, to me, the Layla is a much more versatile piece. Whereas I keep my Roxanne's bass all the way down most of the time--with the occasional bass knob turn to no higher than around 11 o'lock, I actually occasionally turn the Layla's bass all the way up, and hardly ever turn it all the way down--in its lowest position, it's just a bit dry and lean for me for general listening. What I love is that with a slight turn, the leaner, dry character simply transforms into something else completely, with, again, usable bass with the potentiometer wide open--yes, it's certainly bassier than neutral with the bass knob wide open, but it's substantially cleaner and tauter than the Roxanne wide open. Frankly, the Roxanne's bass wide open is a place I never go--it's simply too much, too heavy, probably even for the bassier bassheads among us. Again, not so with the Layla. The Layla's entire bass knob range is usable for me, and, unlike the Roxanne, again, I rarely have it down all the way. I find myself right around 12 o'clock on the bass control knobs a lot of the time with the Layla, occasionally just a hair down from there, and occasionally even up from there. Again, the Layla is super-versatile that way.

As far as imaging goes, the Layla is at least the equal of the Roxanne. I suspect, as with the Roxanne, it's with the use of Freqphase and the efforts JH Audio puts into time- and phase correctness that results in this.


I never thought it possible that I'd like a universal-fit monitor more than my custom Roxanne, but the Layla universal-fit has proven it possible. It's absolutely fantastic, and, again, fantastically versatile.


As for the Angie, it is truly the Layla's little sister, using the same drivers. However, whereas the Layla has a trio of quad drivers per ear (for a total of 12 drivers per ear), the Angie has a dual-low, dual-mid, quad-high configuration (for a total of eight drivers per ear). The Angie certainly has more in common, in terms of its sound signature, with the Layla than it does any other Jerry Harvey piece. Versus the Layla, the Angie isn't as capable of richness throughout its adjustment range, which can occasionally bring a bit more focus on vocals, for example. It's very versatile, yes, but not at the level the Layla is.


With the bass turned all the way down, the Angie, even more than the Layla, is too dry for me for general listening, and so I rarely ever listen to it there. Again, like the Layla, though, turning it up transforms it, wiping out the dryness and leanness for me. With its lower total bass output, versus the Layla--and even less relative to the Roxanne--I actually find myself going well past the halfway point most of the time on the Angie's bass control, and actually turn it all the way up rather routinely. Again, this is something I would never ever do on the Roxanne. It's not just the Angie's lower total bass output, but also the way the steeper crossovers and drivers work, that give it some of Layla's versatility.


The Angie is a great taste of Layla, and might be, in my opinion, the best value in the entire Jerry Harvey lineup right now, given where it's priced in the JH Audio lineup. After having used both the Layla and Angie for several months, I know for certain I'd take the Layla over my Roxanne; but the Roxanne still edges out the Angie for me, for the richness that the Roxanne has on tap. If you're a studio type, I'd imagine that you'd find either the Layla or Angie more suited than the Roxanne to mix down on in the studio.


As for criticisms of the Layla and Angie, my only issue with these pieces is that, like the Roxanne universal-fit, they are on the larger side for universal-fit earphones. I have both the custom and universal-fit Roxannes here at the moment, and the custom definitely sits more flush in my ear than the universal Roxanne, which sticks out a bit. Like the Roxanne universal, both the Layla and Angie universal-fit models also stick out a bit, with the Layla being slightly larger than the Roxanne universal and Angie. I can easily get a good fit with them, but neither is as comfortable to wear as my custom Roxanne is when laying my head down on its side with the pieces in.


Like the Roxanne universal-fit, the Layla and the Angie are hand-crafted, one at a time. There's very little difference between how JH Audio builds a custom and how they build the universals. The Layla's shells are solid, hand-laid-up carbon fiber, with titanium bezels hand-burnt with a torch, to give the titanium unique color variations. As the titanium bezel wears, it may change colors, for even more individuality. The Layla comes with a custom full carbon fiber and black aluminum carrying case, and is priced at $2499.00.


The Angie has a red and black fiber shell with a carbon fiber logo insert, and I believe its bezel is made of machined aluminum. Angie comes with a machined aluminum, laser-engraved red case, and is priced at $1099.00.


Both the Layla and the Angie universals come with a standard 3.5mm-terminated cable, and a balanced four-pole 2.5mm cable to take advantage of the balanced outputs of Astell&Kern's latest generation of high-res portable players.


With the Roxanne universal (called the Astell&Kern AKR03) currently priced at $1499, you have to jump up to $2499 to clearly better it with the Layla, and that's a big price jump. For those who have the budget for that kind of price, I have a feeling the Layla will be very popular, even after a short audition.


At $1099, I think the Angie is perhaps the strongest value of all the JH pieces, and I actually can't think of a universal at this price that can match its total performance, especially if studio use is on the agenda, or if you just prefer studio monitor sound. I predict the Angie may end up being Jerry Harvey Audio's biggest seller in time.

Written by Jude Mansilla


The Shure SE846 is, to me, one of the most exciting product announcements of last 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 a street price of $1000.00, the Shure SE846 is a huge hit with Head-Fi'ers.

TYPE: Universal-fit in-ear monitor
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MSRP: $999
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URL: www.shure.com


TYPE: Closed, universal-fit in-ear monitor
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MSRP: Around $800
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URL: www.sennheiser.com


Written by Jude Mansilla


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.


"The IE 800 performed outstandingly in almost every department: Deep, taut and well-controlled bass, superb mids, extended and mellow tremble; top resolution with extreme clarity; very nice tonal balance; excellent dynamics and soundstaging; very good imaging."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Written by Jude Mansilla


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.


"Overall, the ER-4PT is a great pair of earphones when it comes to clarity of sound and accuracy of reproduction. And while in recent years, the ER-4 series has faced increased competition in the rapidly expanding IEM market, it’s safe to say that the earphones still offer a truly impressive sound signature. It's one of those earphones that simply can't be missed in one's audio journey, and I would gladly recommend these to users who enjoy an analytical, bright, and extremely clear sound."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed, in-ear monitor
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MSRP: $299
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URL: www.etymotic.com

Westone ES60  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png

Written by Jude Mansilla


If you meet Karl Cartwright of Westone, you know he's a modest man who quietly goes about his business of making some of the best in-ear monitors in the world. Karl worked with Jerry Harvey at the very beginning of the development of balanced-armature-based in-ear stage monitors as we know them today. In my opinion, his decades of experience puts him in a select group of people working at the very top of this field.

At CanJam @ RMAF 2015, I was asked to participate in a panel in which we would compare and discuss the differences between a high-end loudspeaker-driving system and a high-end, portable custom-IEM-driving system. While the rest of the panel members were doing what they were supposed to be doing (comparing the in-ears to the loudspeakers), all I could think of was how fantastic the Westone ES60 was (the ES60 was the custom IEM being used in the comparison). Yes, the speaker-driving system in the comparison was excellent too, but the overriding thought on my mind was wondering how on earth the ES60 had been announced nearly two years ago--was this good--and yet somehow slipped under my radar.

I already had the previous Westone flagship--the Westone ES50 (which is still available)--so when I was contacted about the panel and they said they wanted to fit me with the ES60, I told them I was already all set with the ES50. "I think you will notice a big difference between the ES60's and your ES50's," Matt from Westone responded. It turns out Matt has a certain flair for the art of understatement.

My previous two Westone custom IEMs tended toward a lusher sound, with more emphasized bass, some midrange bloom, and smooth (somewhat subdued) treble. Overall resolution with my older Westones was very good, but some of the newer flagships I've heard could out-resolve my previous Westones (though usually at higher prices, too).

The Westone ES60, however, is the best I've yet heard from Westone. With the Westone ES60, Karl and his team went with six drivers per ear, employed a multistage three-way crossover design, and carefully R&D'd and tuned the ES60 into something more neutral than I was expecting. What I was expecting was perhaps something like a next-gen ES50, but the ES60 turns out to be a different Westone breed altogether. The ES60's tonal balance is weightier than my perceived-flat reference (currently the Ultimate Ears UERM). Outside of that direct comparison to as neutral a headphone as I've yet heard (the UERM), the ES60 is still something I'd describe as generally neutral, and more in line with my general tonal preferences.

Relative to the ES50, the Westone ES60's bass, though still powerful, is less emphasized and clearly faster and more resolving. Perhaps it's the difference in the balance relative to the bass (versus the ES50), or maybe it's re-tuned mids--or both--but the ES60's mids seem livelier to me, more present on balance, and more detailed. The ES60's treble is more energetic with the ES60, and still without any artificial edge.

One of my imaging standards is the album From The Mountaintop by The New Appalachians, in large part because I was actually in the acoustic during the recording of this album, so I remember vividly where the performers were, and how their sound enveloped me. When I close my eyes, the ES60 more accurately conveys the performers' positions as I recall them. In fact, it's not just against its sibling that it excels here, but relative to all but a couple of other in-ears that come to mind, both of which are substantially more expensive than the ES60.

Of course, one thing Westone has had in its corner that I've been a fan of for years is their Flex Canal earpiece canal, made of body temperature-reactive, semisoft material that allows the canal portion of the earpiece to remain firm at room temperature and then soften at body temperature. (Only the canal portion is made of this material--the rest is acrylic.) I find their Flex Canal earpieces to be more comfortable, and better isolating than solid acrylic canals. One downside, however, is that the material is a bit more grippy, so the earpieces need to be wiggled in a little more than with acrylic (and some people may need an ear canal lubricant, which the Westone ES60 comes with).

Not only is the Westone ES60 the best Westone I've heard, it is among best IEMs I've yet heard, when it comes to accuracy, overall resolution, and imaging. Again, off the top of my head, I can think of only a couple of IEMs I'd say play at a tier above the ES60, and none at the ES60's price. Karl Cartwright and the team at Westone have upped their game with their Westone ES60. It's a piece we should be talking about a lot more than we have been.


"...based on everything I have reviewed so far, ES60 is definitely among the best I heard."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Custom-fit in-ear monitors
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PRICE: $1299.00 
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URL: www.westoneaudio.com


TYPE: Closed, custom in-ear monitors
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MSRP: $999
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URL: pro.ultimateears.com


Written by Jude Mansilla


2015-11-30 NOTE: The Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor has been discontinued, and is being replaced by a new model called the UE Pro Reference Remastered. We will be updating this Guide listing soon to reflect that.


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.

Dita Audio The Answer 

Written by Amos Barnett (Currawong)


A couple of years ago a pair of gentlemen, Danny and Desmond from Singapore approached me at one of the Tokyo Headphone festivals to ask if I’d try a pair of high-end in-ear monitors they were preparing to manufacture. Round, like a large pill, with an nozzle exiting at 45 degrees to one side, they fitted simply and sounded good enough with my current variety of music types that I said I’d take them on the spot as they were. Not only was it unusual to find a prototype of an upcoming product from a new company that seemed to get it right, but also to meet two people whom, with everything they spoke, were completely sensible with an excellent attitude.


DITA Audio’s The Answer is a pair of IEMs with an incredible attention to detail, all the way from the beautifully milled aluminium right down to the carefully chosen plug. Even more so is the box they come in, where the IEMs are beautifully fitted into a large foam cut-out, along with their accessories in the manner of jewellery. They also come with not one, but two different cases.


Unusually for a pair of high-end IEMs is that the cable is permanently attached and, especially in the case of the more expensive Truth Edition, the guys have gone to a lot of trouble to ensure that it is robust and will last a long time. The cable for the more expensive Truth Edition is designed by Van Den Hul using their 3T technology, which is designed to be mechanically reliable even when wound tightly, as well as better sounding. While very rubbery and springy, the Truth cable is very comfortable to wear, even with the choke piece pulled up. What is more, it is completely silent, not transferring movement noise to your ears.


Not surprisingly, the best part about The Answer IEMs is the sound. I’ve had the chance to use a pair for some months, and while they did need some hours of use for the drivers to break in, afterwards the sound is both detailed in the mids and highs while delivering just the right amount of bass to be good all-rounders. As they use a single dynamic driver, phase issues are non-existent and the overall response at all frequencies is excellent, including the trademark punchy bass one gets from dynamic drivers.  The Answer comes with three nozzle-sizes of tips allowing fine-tuning of the sound, allowing you some degree of adjustment of the balance between the lows and highs to taste.

Overall, The Answer, especially the Truth Edition, is an expensive pair of IEMs, but compared to the cost of other top-of-the-line universals, especially after paying for an extra, high quality cable to replace the stock cable in some cases, they are quite competitive given their outstanding quality, unique and thoughtful design and great sound.

TYPE: Universal-fit in-ear monitor
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PRICE: $999.00 
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URL: www.ditaaudio.com
TYPE: Closed universal-fit in-ear monitor
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MSRP: Around $400
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URL: www.westonemusicproducts.com


Written by Jude Mansilla


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.


"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. The sound signature requires almost no qualifications for those familiar with Westone products – well-rounded, refined, and spacious, the W4 is a very difficult earphone do dislike."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

V-MODA Zn  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png

Written by Jude Mansilla


The new V-MODA Zn is the first new in-ear headphone from V-MODA in four years. The earpieces may look like the previous V-MODA Vibrato--continuing with the design that still 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--but inside, the Zn is new, and sounds new. The driver is still a single 8mm dynamic in each ear, and the nominal impedance still 16Ω, but the driver as newly tuned with the goals of increasing accuracy, improving frequency response, and lowering distortion.

The Zn is, to my ears, the most balanced of V-MODA's headphones--the one most likely to appeal to audiophile tastes. All V-MODA headphones have some amount, some type of bass emphasis--it wouldn't be a V-MODA if it didn't. From one V-MODA model to another, the characteristics of the bass lift changes, but there's always at least a little (and, with some models, a lot). The Zn's level of bass emphasis is along the lines of the V-MODA XS, which is to say the mildest of the lot. I also think it's the best implemented, in terms of the "shape" of it. To my ears, it slopes down fast enough to give a nice, fast, mild kick to upper bass, but also enough to spare the lower mids from associated bloat.

The Zn's midrange isn't quite as meaty as its lower registers, but, even in the face of its stronger bass, the Zn's midrange has nice presence and clarity, never wilting in contrast. In terms of treble, I'm very happy with the refinements V-MODA has tune into the Zn. Whereas the Vibrato would occasionally tend toward mid-treble hardness, the Zn's treble is smooth and refined. Treble extension is good, but I wouldn't turn away a touch more shimmer and extension either.

I also like the physical refinements they've made with the Zn. They've gone from a gloss black to a matte black finish that looks both more refined and more sinister. The've gone from a tangle-prone cloth-covered cable on the Vibrato to something they're calling a DiamondBack TangleFree cable on the Zn. It has a smooth sheath, and looks to be reinforced with a fibrous material criss-crossing the sheathing--its appearance reminds me of the Sennheiser IE 800's cable. Whatever qualities they've given it to make it tangle-free work very well. Even wrapped up in a ball, the tangles simply fall out when I pick the Zn up--very nice!

There are two versions of the Zn, one with a 3-button iOS cable, and one with a one-button Android cable. The Zn's in-line SpeakEasy Remote Mic works very well, and the people I've talked to with it say my voice sounds very clear.

The V-MODA Zn also comes with four different sizes of eartips, and couple of ear hooks that help keep the Zn secure during rigorous activities. The included carrying case is a carryover from the Vibrato, a small synthetic leather pouch with barely enough room to squeeze the Zn into--you can get it in there, but it's quite snug.

Again, of all the V-MODA headphones, the Zn is my sonic favorite, in terms of its overall balance and refinement. At its price point of only $180, there's a lot of competition, but this new in-ear bears the years of experience that V-MODA now brings to the table, and sonically performs at a level higher than its price suggests.

TYPE: Universal-fit in-ear monitor
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PRICE: $180.00
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URL: www.v-moda.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


The Bose QuietComfort 20 isn't a Summit-Fi product. It's not the most resolving in-ear I've ever heard--not by a long shot. The QuietComfort 20 (also called the QC20) is not about transparency, speed, timbral accuracy, spatial presentation, and all that other stuff we're usually looking for. No, the Bose QC20 is about peace. It's about creating a cocoon of relative tranquility for you on even the loudest buses, trains and airplanes you're likely to board (unless you're a biplane pilot). Sometimes a product comes along that is so good at what it does--so obviously the product of a tremendous amount of experience and R&D--that you can't help but marvel at the result. The Bose QC20 is one of those products.


In terms of sound quality, it's not difficult (especially for a seasoned Head-Fi'er) to find another headphone that has higher fidelity; but if that headphone is not stamping out the noise around you when listening in noisy environments, all that fidelity's not going to mean much then. So the louder the environment you're in, the more the QC20 shines. On planes and trains, it has become my favorite headphone, by far, making listening to music in the clamor of your commute at reasonable volumes doable; and making dialog in movies easier to understand.


In quiet environments, the QC20 still sounds good, with a safe tuning that doesn't strike me as overemphasized anywhere; but, again, it won't win any awards for its resolving power. In other words, when it's quiet, the Bose QC20 is merely...good. When it's loud out there, though, the Bose QC20 pretty much trumps all current challengers I've tried.


The Bose QC20 also has another important distinction with me: it's the most comfortable in-ear headphone I've got, as it doesn't really go in the ear, as much as it covers the canal with its super soft silicone bowl eartips. I can wear them all the way to Tokyo with little to no discomfort.


The noise canceling and comfort make you want to keep the Bose QC20 in your ears, and a very cool feature called "Aware Mode" makes that easier. When Aware Mode is activated (with the press of a button), you will hear select sounds from your surrounding environment (fed to you by microphones in the QC20) while still reducing some of the background noise. When I hear an announcement, or when someone is talking to me, I press the button, and the world around me pierces the cone of silence.


The Bose QC20 has a built-in rechargeable battery providing around 16 hours of listening time on a full charge. It has gotten me through 13-hour flights without quitting, including airport time at either end. When the battery does die, the QC20 can be used in passive mode, so the music doesn't have to stop when the battery does. It comes with a few different sets of eartips for a more tailored fit, and a nice, compact carrying case.


When it comes to a headphone for frequent travelers, there's simply no other headphone I recommend right now more than the Bose QC20.


NOTE: There is a version called the Bose QC20i, which includes a three-button iOS-compatible inline remote/mic, which is the version I use.


"If you’re looking for the full package of having great isolation and comfort with decent sound quality, the surprisingly less than gimmicky aware mode, along with a company that stands behind its products (or so I’ve heard but haven’t yet needed to test), I do recommend this product as it succeeds in those criteria."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed, in-ear, active noise-canceling headphones
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MSRP: $299.95
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URL: www.bose.com


RHA T20  


TYPE: Closed, universal-fit in-ear monitor
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PRICE: $260
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URL: www.rha-audio.com

Written by Amos Barnett (Currawong)


At the 2015 Spring Tokyo Fujiya Avic Headphone Festival I had the pleasure of meeting Lyndsey from Reid Heath Acoustics (RHA) and talking to her about their new T20i IEMs. Lyndsey was insistent that I try the new models, and I almost forgot to, with the overwhelming number of products I was busy trying and photographing. On a Sunday afternoon at the end of the show is the hardest time to impress me after all that has been seen and heard, but the T20i's didn’t disappoint. Featuring an injection-moulded steel casing and a unique dual-voice-coil dynamic driver the result is an incredibly punchy and fun sound with great, subwoofer-like bass. 


The well-designed package includes not only a good selection of tips (in an aluminium plate no less!) but additional “Treble” and “Bass” filters allowing a degree of custom sound tuning, each respectively boosting their ends of the spectrum slightly. The default “Reference” tips give a presentation still with a considerable amount of bass and the highs slightly, but not excessively rolled off. The treble filter brings out the frequencies noticeably in the 5-10 kHz range, very often the upper notes of acoustic instruments. That leaves the mid range a little bit behind, along the lines of full-sized headphones such as the Foxtex TH600s and TH900s. Initially sounding a bit harsh out of the box, after a few dozen hours of use vocals and instruments by themselves are wonderfully presented through the mid-range and the treble.


This is part due to the clever, and unique driver. Where a normal dynamic driver has one voice coil, the driver in the T20i has two, the inner coil producing the bass and lower mid-range and the outer coil producing the upper-mid-range and treble. RHA has also taken pains to ensure that the cable does not transfer noise to the earphones themselves. While thicker than regular IEM cables, it feels more robust and I didn’t find it uncomfortable, even with glasses on. The last 4 or so inches of cable is pre-shaped for comfort, and a choker is attached to the cable allowing it to be held comfortably in place under the chin. Topping it off is a shirt clip and a neat carrying case with space for spare tips and straps for the cable. 


For under US$300 (£179.95) is a quality product from this company from Scotland which is sure to gain a lot of fans with the quality presentation and very good, if somewhat warm-of-neutral sound.


"The T20 with the reference is the perfect IEM for a moderate basshead, who likes their bass, but also looks for clean mids and treble. The reference filter is great for people who just was a more V shaped sound. The T20 is a very versatile and the filters allow people to select the tuning which they prefer the most."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Written by Jude Mansilla


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.


"If you listen to most genres, save perhaps for classical music, you will enjoy how the MH334 renders the music in a musical and organic manner: you just close your eyes and enjoy the music. It's very addictive!"

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed custom in-ear monitors
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MSRP: 147,000 yen
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URL: www.fitear.jp




TYPE: Closed, custom-fit in-ear monitors
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MSRP: $599
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URL: www.nobleaudio.com


Written by Warren Chi (warrenpchi)


First, let’s spend a few moments to talk about some Fostex in-ear monitors.


Years ago, at CanJam @ Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2013, Fostex exhibited two prototype units of their then-upcoming TE-05 IEM.  From the moment I first laid ears on them, I was completely taken aback.  Never before had I heard an IEM that was as balanced, clean or clear as those prototypes.  In many ways, their sonic performance rivaled some of the best rigs I’ve heard, both before and since, especially in terms of clarity and tonal purity.  Yes, they were that good!


Of course, as is often the case, the final production TE-05 shipped with a different signature altogether, much to my puzzlement and dismay.  But oh, those two magical prototypes, they were truly something to behold.  And after years of failing to secure one of those two TE-05 prototypes for myself, I had resigned myself to never experiencing anything like it ever again.  And I haven’t… until now.


Launched at T.H.E. Show in Newport 2015, the Savant holds a special distinction amongst Noble’s varied product offerings:  it’s the only model, aside from the K10U, that is classified as a “Wizard” model.  Despite that pedigree, I was initially apprehensive about auditioning it.  Noble has a tendency to flutter about the warm side of neutral, euphemistically speaking.  Fine, I’ll just come right out and say it, Noble likes to bring da bass!  Even their flagship K10 model has a fair amount of junk in the trunk, some ample badonkadonk if you will.  But upon auditioning the Savant, I realized that Noble’s Wizard (Dr. John Moulton) has created a brilliantly balanced IEM that leaves little to be desired.


Track after track, genre after genre, I remain impressed by the Savant’s ability to deliver a thoroughly satisfying listening experience.  With Amber Rubarth’s Storms Are On The Ocean, I’m rewarded with a sweet, but never saccharin, midrange presentation that accurately and effortlessly renders Amber’s plaintive honesty.  The Allegro movement from Vivaldi’s Concerto in D-minor (Opus 4, No. 8) is reproduced in exquisite detail, with outstanding separation and breathtaking top-end extension.  Though not a basshead IEM by any stretch of the imagination, the Savant held its own with Daft Punk’s Doin’ It Right and The Naked and Famous’s Punching In A Dream, where I was rewarded with just enough tonally rich bass that I could get my groove on.  And finally, with The Carpenters’s Touch Me When We’re Dancing, I find myself falling in love with Karen Carpenter’s performance more and more with each and every listen.


Comparatively speaking, the Savant is more well-rounded than Noble’s other balanced IEM, the Noble 4.  Whereas the Noble 4 sports a neutral-flat signature and mid-range emphasis, the Savant offers:  improved low-frequency extension and presence; richer lower-mids; and outstanding high-frequency extension that is full of sparkle and endless air.  The Savant also offers us a level of cleanliness that is next to godliness, through which we are able to enjoy a rarified level of detail and separation.  In fact, since its arrival, I’ve been giving it far more ear time than many other units here, including JH Audio’s Layla.


At only $599 for the plain-Jane universal variant, the Savant is very much a middle-of-the-road Noble model in terms of pricing.  But considering its impeccably balanced signature, excellent detail and separation, pristine presentation, and astonishing clarity, I am more apt to declare it as Noble’s flagship from a sonic standpoint.  For me, and those who favor balance like myself, the Savant is an instant classic and an indispensable reference.


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Comments (2)

im suprised the Noble Savant was not featured being such a well priced iem !
The Noble Savant inclusion (which @warrenpchi wrote) was accidentally left out when making updates to the guide. I have, however, added it back to the guide here. Sorry about my error! It's a great piece of gear!
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