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JH Audio Siren Series Layla and Angie  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
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.


"The SE846 sound very natural, plain and simple. The timbre of any percussive instrument, be it animal skins or woods all the way to the metal crash of a cymbal just sounds right. The decay of sound is fantastic."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

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




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.


"Sometimes you don’t want to lean back and relax but instead you want to hear Skin sitting on your lap and singing 5 inches from your ear on the acoustic recording of Tracy’s Flaw. Sometimes you want to hear just exactly how badly out of tune the piano was during Keith Jarrett’s legendary Köln concert in 1975. Or maybe you remember hearing Fink perform Yesterday Was Hard On All Of Us at that small venue and you want to recreate the sense of hearing him pick the strings just 3 feet away. What you want, then, is the Savant."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer


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


This year we had a chance to stop by the headphone labs at Sony in Japan, where the head of their headphone engineering--Naotaka Tsunoda--gave us a tour of the place, and then let us play with some of their newest models. Of the many new products were new in-ear monitors of hybrid design, using both dynamic drivers and balanced armature drivers, and I'm really enthusiastic about them, especially the Sony XBA-H1 and XBA-H3. (I also really like the new "Foamed Silicone" eartips that they come with.)


The Sony XBA-H3 is the flagship of the Sony hybrid IEMs, and has one 16mm dynamic bass driver, and two balanced armature drivers (one of the BA drivers is full-range, the other is what Sony calls an HD super tweeter).


With a 16mm dynamic driver, the XBA-H3 has very large earpieces for an IEM. Not surprisingly, given its large size, the XBA-H3 is designed to be worn inverted (cable pointing up, with an over-ear loop). When worn, the XBA-H3 juts out further from my ears than any IEM I have here, reminding me a bit of the old Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10 Pro in this way. Given the peculiarities of its design, some may find the XBA-H3 a bit more challenging than a standard IEM to put on.


Fortunately, the Sony XBA-H3 sounds fantastic. Sony has done a better job integrating the dynamic driver with the balanced armature drivers than I've heard from this type of headphone before--I do not feel any sense of disjointedness in the melding of the two different types of drivers.


Not surprisingly with a huge 16mm driver, the XBA-H3 has very deep, very solid hitting bass--boosted, but well-controlled and tuneful, too. The XBA-H3's midrange is clear and precise--more neutral than the bass--and transitions beautifully to the the tweeter's soaring, shimmering treble. You know what it sounds like? Like a Sony flagship IEM.


Despite how much I love the XBA-H3's sound, it's the Sony XBA-H1 that I find to be the biggest gem of Sony's hybrid IEM line, for its combination of sound quality, design, and affordable price.


Because the XBA-H1's driver compliment--one 9mm dynamic driver and one full-range BA driver--is so much smaller than the XBA-H3's, it can use a far more compact housing, and a more traditional form factor. The XBA-H1 is worn cable down, and has a relatively straight body design, so putting its earpiece in your ears couldn't be easier.


In terms of sound, the XBA-H1 has a more neutral tonal balance than the XBA-H3, and the integration of the two drivers sounds seamless to me. Though the bass doesn't hit as hard as the XBA-H3's, it still has good punch, and, again, is more neutral. I find the XBA-H1's midrange to be almost as revealing as the XBA-H3's, and very competitive with other good IEMs in this price range. Its treble is also well extended, but not as much as the XBA-H3's, and is less shimmery. Still, though, I love the even-handed presentation of the XBA-H1, and find it a fantastic value at the price, even if its not as revealing overall as its much larger sibling.


The Sony XBA-H1 and XBA-H3 are two fantastic IEMs. Kudos to Sony for being able to integrate two completely different types of drivers (dynamic and balanced armature) so seamlessly in these two models.

TYPE: Closed, universal-fit in-ear monitors
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MSRP: $149.99 and $349.99, respectively
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URL: www.sony.com




TYPE: Closed, universal-fit in-ear monitor
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MSRP: $99.00
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URL: www.hifiman.com


Written by Jude Mansilla


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 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!



"For what is practically no money in audiophile terms these offer genuine talent that is for all intents, practically perfect. Anyone with audiophile aspirations ought to have one of these and could legitimately only have one of these. Yes, really it’s that good."

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer


RHA Audio T10i  

Written by Warren Chi (warrenpchi)


Shortly before IFA 2014, RHA began to tease the community about a new flagship in-ear monitor, known only as the T10i.  And while details were scant, we knew right away that it would be something special.  We knew this because RHA has never teased us, about anything, ever.  In the past, they have always released comprehensive product info (complete with gorgeous photography) months before anything hit the shelves.  But this time, all they gave us were some textbook examples of photographic chiaroscuro.


Not surprisingly, the anticipation and speculation started to build fairly rapidly, due in part to the success of their previous flagship, the MA750i.  Its non-offensive sound signature, rugged build and ample accessories represented a superb value, as it quickly became a Head-Fi favorite.  It was clear that this new T10i had much to live up to, and we Head-Fiers were all too keen to imagine exactly how it would go about doing so.


Before long, answers arrived.  First up was rasmushorn with his IFA-based impressions.  Then, dweaver chimed in with his early impressions.  When this was followed by positive reviews from Audiophile1811 and shotgunshane, we knew we had something substantive, something special.


Featuring an injection-molded metal exo-skeleton, a filter-based sound signature tuning system, newly designed patent-pending ear guides, as well as numerous other improvements, the T10i proved to be a significant leap forward in RHA's continuing evolution.  Factoring in their generous tip selection, their industry-leading 3-year warranty, and their exemplary customer service - along with a very reasonable suggested retail price of only $199 USD - and it was clear that the T10i was well on its way towards becoming another instant classic.



Injection-Molded Metal Exo-Skeleton


New to the T10i, and IEMs in general, is the use of injection-molded metal construction.  This grants the T10i a very soft and sculpted appearance, one full of curves and devoid of right angles, for an almost organic look and feel - all without accruing costly CNC-time during its manufacture.  However, as RHA giveth, RHA seemingly taketh away:  the T10i does not appear to employ RHA's Aerophonic™ design in its construction.  While it's possible that the inverted horn is implemented internally, there's no external trace of it.


Filter-Based Sound Signature Tuning System


The T10i comes with three sets of tuning filters:  Bass, Reference and Treble.  Each of which imparts a very unique tonal character to T10i, essentially making it three IEMs in one.


The Bass filters, combined with the T10i's well-endowed bass ports, result in a potent low frequency response that sounds like there are additional bass drivers at work.  And while they bring some increased sub-bass to the table, their true party trick is an extremely pronounced mid-bass hump.  Personally, I did not find the Bass filters to my liking, and consider them to be an exaggeration, a caricature if you will, of RHA's house sound.  However, I can imagine that more than a few basshead Head-Fiers would love them to death - a testament to their effectiveness.


On the other end of the spectrum, the Treble filters do a very respectable job of allowing more upper mids and highs to pass through, while also taming the T10i's bass response significantly.  The Treble filters also cull forth mid-range detail to an astonishing degree, especially with respect to vocals.  The only downside to the Treble filters is their tendency to allow some occasional stridency and sibilance to come through, particularly with troublesome recordings.


The middle of this road takes us straight to the T10i's Reference filters.  And while they are still quite warm and bass-laden, they do offer us a pleasant and musical presentation that is quite enjoyable.  Sub-bass output is probably the best of the three filters, being soft-spoken and yet undeniably felt with good gravitas and extension.  The bass is accentuated and weighty, akin to the type of bass favored by many 2-channel speaker fanatics.  The mids are surprisingly pleasant, being neither offensively recessed nor irritatingly forward.  They rest comfortably in the hammock that is RHA's u-shaped house sound.  As for treble, the T10 favors a rise in the upper mids over tapering highs.  This makes for some lively percussion, at the expense of airiness.


I suspect that most Head-Fiers will find themselves torn between the Reference and Treble filters, depending on their genre preferences.  As for myself, I use both of those filters, favoring the Reference filter over the Treble filter in a 60/40 split, and eschew the Bass filter entirely.


Newly Designed Patent-Pending Ear Guides


Unlike the MA750's ear guides - which were essentially stiffened sections of cable that favored durability over pliability - the T10i's ear guides feature a coiled spring consisting of small gauge memory-wire.  As such, they are easier to bend into shape.  And once set, they retain that shape without fuss or resistance.  For us, the means that we get a more comfortable - and more secure - fit.



Taken altogether, the T10i's rich feature set again raises the bar in what we can expect for our hard-earned money.


In various conversations with Lewis Heath (co-founder and lead designer at RHA) over the years, I have come to realize that he is very much concerned with value... in that a thing, any thing, should offer a level of satisfaction commensurate with the price one paid for said thing.  For him, achieving a respectable level of value is a key tenet of his design philosophy.  The RHA T10i is certainly no exception to this rule.


Its filter-based tuning system allows those that are new to Head-Fi - i.e. average consumers - to begin exploring better quality sound, without having to upgrade too quickly.  They can begin with the T10i's Bass filters, using them as a crutch, while they wean themselves over from whatever bassy, consumer-oriented unit they are currently using.  Then, at their convenience and leisure, they can explore increasing levels of fidelity with the T10i's Reference and Treble filters - all without having to re-invest in a new IEM just for the sake of trying out a different sound signature.  And thanks to RHA's outstanding build quality and long-standing 3-year warranty, they'll also have plenty of time to do all of the above, without having to worry about premature failure.


The RHA T10i is a miniature Head-Fi journey in and of itself, and that is a very real value.


"The RHA T10i definitely has a tilt towards the warmer side, but with diligent usage of filters you can change its nature to suit your music. So, no matter if you listen to classical or techno, the T10 will perform admirably in all situations with just a switch of its filters. "

-Gursharan Gill (gikigill)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Universal-fit in-ear monitor 
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PRICE: $199.95 
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URL: rha-audio.com
TYPE: Closed, custom-voiced custom in-ear monitor
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MSRP: $1,999
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URL: www.ultimateears.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


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. 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.)

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 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


TYPE: Closed in-ear monitor
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MSRP: Around $180
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URL: www.v-moda.com


Written by Jude Mansilla


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.

Final Audio Design Heaven VI

Written by Jude Mansilla


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 the 2013 CanJam @ Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver, and even more honored when he asked me to try one of his latest creations at the time, his 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.

TYPE: Closed, in-ear monitor
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PRICE: Around $565
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URL: www.final-audio-design.com

TYPE: Closed, universal-fit in-ear monitor
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MSRP: Around $130
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URL: www.final-audio-design.com


Written by Jude Mansilla


Listen to the Final Audio Design Heaven VI (above), and you might just start to understand why Final Audio Design (often abbreviated on Head-Fi as "FAD") has a loyal, sometimes cult-like, fan base. Some of FAD's higher-end products are expensive, though--like the Heaven VI--so it can be a pricy club to belong to.


At last year's fall Tokyo Headphone Festival, however, Kanemori Takai himself personally gave me the Final Audio Design Heaven II. I believe the Heaven II is priced around $130, and, to my ears, it's very good for the price, and possessing of a good dose of Final Audio Design magic.


The Heaven II looks a lot like the Heaven VI, but its gorgeous chassis is made of stainless steel (as opposed to a fancier alloy) with what looks to me like a very finely brushed finish.


In terms of sound, it has a clear familial tie to the Heaven VI, too, with clear, articulate mids and highs. The Heaven II's bass, however, is quite a bit lighter--more flat sounding--than its more upscale sibling's. Still, though, the Heaven II's bass is good and fast sounding to me. And, like the Heaven VI, the Heaven II's imaging is airy for a deep canal in-ear. Overall, the Heaven II is a beautiful sounding piece for the price.


If you've ever been interested in owning some of that Final Audio Design magic--but have been held back from a wallet whose maw simply doesn't open wide enough for the upper-end FAD headphones--then make sure to audition the Final Audio Design Heaven II.

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


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


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

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Comments (1)

I have to say, the QC20 earphones surprised me. One of, if not the, best offerings from Bose yet.

Stoked to hear the Savant in SF next week!!!!
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