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Head-Fi Buying Guide (In-Ear Headphones)

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Type:   Closed, universal-fit in-ear monitor


Price:   $130 USD


URL:   http://www.v-moda.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


When I wrote up the V-MODA Zn for the Guide last year, I said that the Zn would be the V-MODA headphone most likely to appeal to audiophile tastes, for its more tame bass relative to other V-MODA headphones. That was true last year. This year, however, V-MODA released what is perhaps its most audiophile-friendly headphone ever with the V-MODA Forza Metallo.

The V-MODA Forza Metallo's is as close to neutral as I've ever heard from a V-MODA headphone, whether in-ear or over-ear. The tonal balance sounds quite linear, and, frankly, I'm surprised it's among V-MODA's most affordable headphones, for its sound, build quality, and all it offers.

The Forza Metallo uses one diminutive 5.8mm dynamic micro driver per side, allowing the Forza Metallo's beautifully designed metal bodies to be correspondingly tiny--tiny, but not delicate. The Forza Metallo is MIL-STD-810G-tested for sweat resistance, weather resistance, high and low temperatures, humidity and UV exposure. V-MODA also claims the reinforced cables provide up to 20 times the strength and durability versus industry standard.

The Forza Metallo also optionally offers one of the most unique customization options: 3D hand-crafted caps. One design they sent us in prototype form was a tiny lion's head in pretty deep relief--it looked very cool They also sent a steampunk-themed cap, and one with a 3D V-MODA logo. The caps are available in a variety of materials, plastic being the least expensive, and some of the precious metal caps being very expensive (as in thousands of dollars). At the office, we were drooling over the photos of the bronze steampunk caps ($150 on top of the $130 for the Forza Metallo headphones).

The Forza Metallo comes with four different sizes of silicone ear tips, a pair of sport ear hooks, and three different sized sport fins, designed to lock the earphones in place during use. With this extensive fit kit, we were all able to get a good fit.

Even though they're not intended solely for sports, when viewed as an exercise headphone, the Forza Metallo offers some of the best sound quality in that category, challenging the fitness headphones made by Sennheiser, the years-long leader in sports headphone sound quality, in my experience.

For general listening use, the Forza Metallo excels, again with a relatively neutral tonal balance, but deep bass extension on tap. The bass is impactful if it's on the recording, but Forza Metallo doesn't sound to me like it imparts any excess bass energy on its own. Midrange is clean and articulate, and the treble is quite extended to my ears. In fact, the V-MODA Metallo is, according to V-MODA, certified by the Japan Audio Society (JAS) to support frequencies beyond 40kHz, thus earning their "Hi-Res Audio" logo. 

For their compact size, durability, and, most importantly, the outstanding sound quality, we highly recommend the V-MODA Forza Metallo as a fantastic choice for either an exercise in-ear, a general listening in-ear, or both.

Type:   Closed, universal-fit in-ear monitor


Price:   $179 USD


URL:   http://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

Type:   Universal-fit in-ear monitor


Price:   $129.95 USD


URL:   http://www.rha-audio.com

Written by Warren Chi (warrenpchi)


The MA750i offers a slightly-elevated, but satisfying low-frequency response as part of it's presentation. That is, after all, a component of RHA's house sound. However, the MA750i does depart from that tradition in a very important way: speed.


A quick run through Trentemøller's Remix of Röyksopp's What Else Is There? told me most of what I needed to know. The MA750i articulated the forward/reverse bass drums distinctly, definitively and without confusion. Turning over to Sarah Jarosz's cover of Bob Dylan's Ring Them Bells, I was rewarded with tight and visceral plucks from a double bass that never once droned nor overstayed it's welcome. My hat is off to RHA here, both for what they have done, and for what they have not done with the MA750i's bass characteristics.


Moving on to the midrange, we discover that Lewis Heath and the rest of the team at RHA have truly taken our collective impressions to heart. In short, the mids are breathtakingly enjoyable in their smooth and cohesive presentation. There is detail--presented with both clarity and separation - and an admirable lack of distortion, grain and harshness.


While the highs are not groundbreaking in any way, they are noteworthy in their own way. They roll-off gradually in an infinitely smooth taper, like a ghost returning to the ether. The result is just hint of sparkle and shimmer. Nothing distracting, certainly nothing exaggerated, just a nice and clean departure, sans that sudden drop-off that I find irritating to no end. Nicely done.


So what we have here is a weighty low-end that packs a potent but tight punch, Goldilocks mids that are neither too forward nor recessed, and graceful highs with good manners.


With respect to detail retrieval, I'd hate to get all cliche on you BUT I'M GONNA. With at least one track (it was Pet Shop Boys's Liberation), I did hear a percussive element that I had never heard before. This is rather shocking to me given how many times I've listened to this track and NOT heard that.


The MA750i's soundstage is always able to address a wildly varying (and sometimes contradictory) set of conditions in just the right way. Tracks that should exhibit a holographic depth do just that. But tracks that should snuggle up to you intimately do that as well.



"where I find the MA750 really shine is in stage and instruments, and especially in timbre. Soundstage is rather big and very spacious as usually proud good dynamic drivers IEMs can get. It's wide with equal sense of height and depth, giving a very good 3D surrounding effect."

- Zelda

Type:   Closed, on-ear headphone


Price:   $2,499 and $1099 USD, respectively


URL:   http://www.jhaudio.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.


Type:   Closed, on-ear headphone


Price:   $1,299 USD


URL:   http://www.westonemusicproducts.com

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 thisgood--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."

- twister6

Type:   Univseral-fit in-ear monitor


Price:   $249.95 USD


URL:   http://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.

Type:   Universal-fit in-ear monitor


Price:   Starting at $399 USD


URL:   http://www.audeze.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


We had a chance to listen to pre-production versions of Audeze's iSINE full-range planar magnetic in-ear headphones, and they were phenomenally impressive. We wouldn't normally include pre-production products in the Guide, but since we heard what we were told were production-voiced prototypes, we're making an exception (with impressions subject to change).

Simply looking at photos of the new iSINE models immediately reveals these are strange, unique designs. The large part of the iSINE's body houses a miniaturized full-range planar magnetic driver that uses technologies that they've incorporated into their current line of full-size headphones. However, while it's a miniaturized take on full-size headphone drivers, the diaphragm has a gigantic radiating surface area for an in-ear headphone. To channel that large planar wave to the eartip, Audeze developed a carefully designed waveguide structure inside the sound port to improve phase, frequency response, and reduce diffraction, resulting in improved acoustic loading, improved reflection characteristics, and decreased distortion. Audeze posted distortion plots on Head-Fi's forums that show the iSINE's vanishingly low distortion, even at ear-bleedingly high sound pressure levels.

The sound from the Audeze iSINE prototypes we heard was effortless, with deep, extended bass extension, very even-tuned midrange, and treble extension for miles. The sound presentation is not that of your typical in-ear monitors--the iSINE is a semi-open design, and it sounds more like an open-back over-ear headphone to me than an in-ear, no doubt owing to that semi-open design and those large-surface-area diaphragms. It presents with an airy image that breathes much more freely than closed in-ears. If you're not in need of a closed, isolating in-ear monitor, the Audeze iSINE easily ranks as among the very best sounding in-ear headphones we've heard.

To me, the iSINE is essentially a pocket-sized full-size semi-open headphone. I listened to the iSINE mostly directly from my iPhone 7 Plus using the Audeze Cipher Lightning cable. I experimented with the Audeze iOS app's equalizer, and the iSINE responded extremely well to EQ'ing.

The first iSINE models will be the iSINE 10 ($399) and the iSINE 20 ($599). I believe there will be an ultra-high-end version, too.

Once we have a chance to hear fully production versions of the models, we'll update the Guide accordingly.

Type:   Custom-fit in-ear monitor


Price:   147,000 yen


URL:   http://www.fitear.jp

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!"

- Kiats



Type:   Universal-fit in-ear monitor


Price:   $199 USD


URL:   http://www.echoboxaudio.com

Written by Warren Chi (warrenpchi)


Making my way through the Las Vegas Convention Center's South Hall at CES 2015 (the cavernous high-profile exhibition hall where Sennheiser, beyerdynamic, Audeze, HiFiMAN and many other well-known manufacturers roost), I was taken aback when I came upon Echobox’s booth. No, it wasn’t the flask shape of their Explorer DAP that shocked me. It was seeing George Gill dressed in a dapper suit, eagerly greeting attendees, that surprised the heck out of me.

George, better known to myself and many others as @Gilly87, is a Southern Californian Head-Fier familiar to many of us from our various regional meets and CanJams. We’ve shared impressions, shared gear, and had good times at our events. I asked if he was working with Echobox. When he enthusiastically answered in the affirmative, I immediately became interested in what they had on display.

Audio companies, please take note of this. You can call it audiophile profiling if you like, but whenever I come across a company that employs known and recognizable Head-Fiers, I will immediately pay more attention to you. It is a measure of assurance for me that at least one person in your organization shares my mantra: sound quality matters above all else.

As I began to survey their wares, I found myself immediately drawn to their Lilliputian and sophisticated-looking Finder X1 in-ear monitor (then still a prototype). It was sleek, shapely, somewhat papillan, and downright sexy. Yes, the flask-shaped Explorer DAP was a curiosity as well… but being as odd as it was, I limited my interaction to poking at it with my free beyerdynamic trade show pen… much like how our primate cousins might poke at such a thing with a stick.

Donning the Finder X1, I was astounded at what I heard. The Finder X1 prototype was balanced and fluid in presentation, anchored by a soft and gentle warmth in the lows, filled with a lushly-detailed mid-range, and accented by airy and open highs. It was good. It was very good actually. It was so good that I left George just standing there without saying a word, only to return moments later with Mike Mercer and Tyll Hertsens in tow, so that they could experience the same. Minutes later, Mercer was Tweeting about it, and Tyll was filming a video with George.

And then, there was silence. Over the course of the next nine months - approximately the same amount of time that it takes to make a new human being - Echobox would gestate and refine the Finder X1 until they were finally happy enough to put it into production, and confident enough to let several reviewers have their way with it. I was one of those lucky few.

Encased within the Finder X1’s lustrous Titanium alloy shell is a German-made dynamic voice-coil driver featuring a PEEK diaphragm. PEEK, or Polyether Ether Ketone, is an a semi-crystalline organic polymer that is commonly used in biomedical applications for its ability to retain shape and maintain performance under high mechanical stress. And though I don’t believe that Echobox is manufacturing their drivers in such a manner, it is worth noting that PEEK can be 3D-printed, which may result in some exotic diaphragms in Echobox’s future products.

Also enclosed inside the Finder X1’s Titanium alloy shell is a robust and secure strain relief system. This helps the cable connection point resist external damage from both wear-and-tear and clumsiness, while solidly anchoring the X1’s cable to its shells. I can attest to the durability of such an arrangement, having spent considerable force and effort trying to pull the cable out of the shell, all to no avail. And speaking of cables, the Finder X1 sports one of the most gorgeous looking stock cables I’ve ever seen. Featuring intricately-detailed braiding wrapped in a translucent olive-bronze sheathing, it’s not unlike Kimber Kable in its appearance and aesthetic.

Accessory-wise, the Finder X1 includes a wide selection of tips, ranging from standard silicone single-flange tips, to silicone bi-flange and tri-flange tips, to three sizes of Comply T-400 foam tips. The retail package also includes a zippered soft-shell EVA case, which you will probably never use because the Finder X1 is so durable to begin with. And finally, the Finder X1 offers us a selection of acoustic filters. As one might imagine, one filter is tuned for bassheads, another is tuned for trebleheads, and of course there’s a balanced reference filter for the rest of us.

But how does the Finder X1 sound? In this regard, I am happy to report that Gilly87 has not disappointed us. Overall, the Echobox Finder X1 delivers a wonderfully fluid presentation that is well-tempered in its tonal balance, absolutely devoid of any bass-bleed in its lower midrange, laden with detail, low in distortion, and surprisingly spacious. For a sub-$200 in-ear monitor, I am very impressed with the level of sound quality that it offers.

In trying out the various acoustic filters, I was delighted to find that they acted very much like different low-pass filters, as they each altered the Finder X1’s bass-response, while doing very little to alter its mid-range and treble output directly.

With the bass filter installed, the Finder X1 became a warmer version of its own house sound delivering both ample sub-bass and moderate mid-bass, with a thoroughly enjoyable sense of speed and impact. And it did so without blunting its mid-range or treble response in the process, which is to say that it was warm without being dark. Fans of older Denon headphones will find this reminiscent of their longtime favorites.

Installing the treble filter noticeably decreased the Finder X1’s mid-bass response, while only slightly curbing its sub-bass output. The overall effect of the treble filter lifts the mid-range and upper mid-range so as to emphasize vocals especially, while accentuating percussive elements. This is absolutely the filter to install if you are a fan of Grado headphones.

And finally, my favorite filter amongst the three is their middle-of-the-road reference filter. It is, as one would imagine, a very good balance between the bass and treble filters. With the reference filter, the Finder X1 delivers a balanced if not linear presentation that is very reminiscent of the W-shaped signature found in many Audio-Technica models.

That said, I did enjoy all of the filters that were included. Each of them gently nudged the Finder X1’s frequency response in a very natural sounding way, as opposed to radically altering it as some tunable in-ears tend to do. I can easily imagine myself swapping filters to suit different genres - or even moods - without shifting too far away from my comfort zone.

Between its metallic shells, changeable tuning filters, generous tip selection, and similar suggested retail price… the Finder X1 finds itself positioned directly against RHA’s T20 universal in-ear monitor (which is also featured here in the Head-Fi Gift Guide). In many ways, the two units even sound similar, with the Finder X1 leaning in favor of a more balanced “audiophile” tuning, regardless of which filters are currently installed. As such, I personally favor the Finder X1 from a sound quality standpoint. However, anyone considering either the Echobox Finder X1 or the RHA T20, should field test both if at all possible.

That said, for anyone relatively new to Head-Fi, or new to high-end personal audio in general, I wholeheartedly recommend the Finder X1 as a terrific starting point. Its sonic performance offers you a world of musical bliss, which is something that isn’t easy to come by at any price, and most definitely rare at the Finder X1’s retail price of only $199. And, as if that were not enough, the X1’s features, durability and wealth of included accessories will provide you with an excellent platform for learning about your own preferences, as you embark on your exploration of personal high-fidelity audio.

"For experienced Head-Fiers, looking for a sonically satisfying and durable daily driver to add to your IEM collection, you would do well to place the Finder X1 at the top of your list of units to consider."



"If resolution and clarity are your thing these are definitely something to check out. They have superior response and detail as compared to most earphones I’ve heard. "

- Hisoundfi (Vincent Zanotti)

Type:   Closed, universal-fit in-ear monitor


Price:   $249 USD


URL:   http://www.massdrop.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


With the Sennheiser x Massdrop HD6XX, Massdrop had their biggest hit so far, with the first 5000 units selling out in minutes, the crush of the traffic crippling their online ordering system. Why? Because a classic over-ear headphone (the Sennheiser HD650) was offered in a new color and slightly different packaging--yet every bit the same headphone otherwise--and priced at only $200. Now, in a partnership with Noble Audio, Massdrop seems to me to be doing something similar for in-ears, with the Massdrop x Noble X Universal IEMs.

The Massdrop x Noble X seems to me like it might be based on the Noble Audio Savant, a popular Noble model that was very recently discontinued, and was priced at $599. When it was released, the Savant was met with strong, positive reviews, many feeling that its more neutral tonal balance (versus, for example, the richer-toned Noble Kaiser 10 model)--combined with excellent resolution--made for a potent value at $599. Noble Audio described the Savant as "perhaps the most subjectively balanced in-ear monitor Dr. John has designed thus far, the Savant is a detail oriented IEM with a solid low-end and clean highs."

Unlike the HD6XX, which is voiced exactly like the pure Sennheiser counterpart it's based on, Massdrop wanted this Noble-co-developed IEM to have its own signature (which I'll get to in a minute). The Massdrop x Noble X, like the Savant, has two balanced armature drivers per side, with a nominal impedance of 30 ohms. It uses Noble's most recent universal-fit construction style, made in California with anodized aluminum faceplates over plastic shells. (The sockets are made in Virginia.)

While it appears to me to be most like the Savant in terms of construction and driver complement, in voicing the Massdrop x Noble X, Massdrop drew inspiration from not just the Savant, but also the Savanna and Django models. We've only had the Massdrop x Noble X Universal IEMs for a very short time, but here are my first impressions: The X is most like the Savant, but adds a bit more bass extension, presence, and texture--more fun, meant entirely in the positive. Do I think it sounds better than the Savant? For my tastes, yes--it benefits from the added richness and presence down low.

One thing I'll mention is that the Massdrop x Noble X sample we were sent came with a combination of silicone tips (a couple of different single-dome sizes, and one double-flange type) and foam tips (two different sizes). With any of the included silicone tips (which were the first I tried), the sound was bass-light to me. Then I swapped in the foam tips (I tried both sizes), and the sound fell into place, the bass presence snapped into place, as did the coherency and overall balance. This could be something specific to my ears--and I don't know if the ear tips they sent are final spec--but my first impressions of the sound of the Massdrop x Noble X with either of the foam tips was definitely Savant+ to me, and that's a very good thing, to my ears. (I'll try tip-rolling when I can find some time, but am perfectly happy with the sound of the included foamies for now.)

The Massdrop x Noble X Universal IEMs will come with a 50-inch detachable braided cable, terminated in a gold-plated mini plug. The cable has a very nice shrink-wrapped cable guide just aft of the earpiece plugs (instead of a traditional memory wire), which is very trick, very sleek, and something I think a lot will strongly prefer. The aluminum faceplates have a sharply carved basket-weave design, and its color is midnight blue. (Is it a coincidence it's somewhat similar to the HD6XX's colors? I don't think so.)

The price of the Massdrop x Noble X Universal IEMs is expected to be only $249.99 (shipped in the USA). This, then, is essentially like an improved version of an IEM that was selling for $599 just a very short while ago. Like I said earlier, the Massdrop x Noble X Universal IEM is like the in-ear version of what Massdrop did with the HD6XX.

The drop will officially go live on Thursday, November 24, 2016 at 6 a.m. PST, and you can view by clicking on the following link: https://www.massdrop.com/buy/massdrop-x-noble-x-universal-iem


Type:   Universal-fit in-ear monitor


Price:   Around $565 USD


URL:   http://www.final-audio-design.com

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, universal-fit in-ear monitor


Price:   Around $130 USD


URL:   http://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.





















Type:   Universal-fit in-ear monitor


Price:   $1,099 USD


URL:   http://www.campfireaudio.com

Written by Amos Barnett (Currawong)


Ken Ball from ALO Audio is a big fan of the outdoors. If you see an image of nature on the ALO Audio, and now Campfire Audio web site, it will have been one he took himself. So for his new venture into in-ear monitors it was only appropriate that they be named after features of the night sky. 

While I did have a listen to his first three models of IEM at a previous Tokyo headphone festival, I wasn't so enamoured by the brightness of the Jupiters, which seemed too strong for my tastes. It wasn't until this year, when I heard the Andromedas for the first time, that I was really moved by the sound. I was moved not so much because of any particular feature of the sound, but because their seeming lack of anything in the sound that reminded me I was listening with IEMs. The cohesion of the overall presentation had the IEMs immediately disappearing, leaving just the music. 

Ken didn't hold back on the design in any way, shape or form with the Andromedas, exemplified by the fact that the pair I have for review are actually factory rejects. It would take a careful eye to see why, but he doesn't deny his intent to be perfectionist and send customers only a perfect product. That extends to the case as well, which is a lovely oldschool-style leather, lined on the inside with faux sheepskin.

Unusually, for a manufacturer, he started off building cables by hand, then working with others to make amps and DACs, and now headphones, rather in reverse of many other companies that started with headphones first. That has, however, given him an advantage with his range of IEMs, as he has the experience to design a good cable. As much as one may dislike the idea of the importance of a good cable, I can attest to the difference they can make. On my pair of JH13s, if I use the stock cable, the sound is harsh and unlistenable. A change to a well-made Litz-wire cable from a third party transforms the sound. Time and time again I've had good headphones that I felt were simply held back by the stock cable. Where the manufacturer has included a good cable, this hasn't been an issue. 

Irrespective of opinion on the matter, the cable itself is the same thickness and flexibility of a regular IEM cable, excepting the metal splitter and neatly-fitting transparent plastic choker. The MMCX plugs are a custom beryllium copper plug that has a tighter grip than a stock MMCX connector, the ring having a larger bend. Removal requires quite a firm pull, which the instruction manual advises be done straight and not at an angle.

The Andromedas consist of 5 balanced armature drivers -- 2 for the bass, 1 for the mids, and 2 for the highs. These are housed in a CNC aluminium enclosure with a uniquely shaped design. For my ears, that edgy shape could be felt a bit on insertion, but it didn't end up bothering me at all. I'm more sensitive to the discomfort of having anything in my ear canals to really notice. However Ken has acknowledged concerns and will be smoothing the design slightly in future production runs.

Ear canal discomfort may be an issue for some, as the three-port aluminium nozzle is big, and requires similar tips that DITA Audio's The Answer, RHA, and FitEar's universal series do. Since that permits tips with a variety of sizes, some tuning is readily possible as it is with the DITAs. Select tips with a narrower nozzle and the highs are tamed a bit, the bass being brought out more. If I select Spinfits for comfort then this is exactly what happens, making the Andromedas warmer with stronger bass, but not as pleasant overall as with the stock tips. Foam tips will reduce the treble and narrower-bore tips will increase the bass. At one extreme, if I used the Andromedas out of the Mojo or similar, which brought out the most bass, and had the included Comply foam tips on, they sounded at their darkest, similar to what I had experienced often with the Laylas. 

On the other hand, JVC's Spiral Dot tips, which use a spiral of indents in the bore to reduce turbulence have a very wide bore, can bring out the treble nicely. On the Andromedas they increased the overall coherency of the sound, leaving me to balance up the amount of bass via the choice of amp or DAP. The only downside is that they can make the highest treble a bit bright, which was fine with most acoustic music, but it can be a bit much for modern, brightly-mastered music.

If you have experience with many full-sized headphones, I can simplify things and say that the Andromedas are much like a pair of MrSpeakers Ethers in overall tone when used out of a good DAP or amp. From the very present, but sweet highs down to the moderately strong mid-bass, with a few exceptions both have a similar character. This made acoustic recordings a joy, enough to make one forget that you are listening with IEMs. Using my iPhone or Soundaware's M1, both of which have a <0 Ohm output impedance, the bass drops back a bit, which I find pleasant when the music is already very bass-strong. While mostly mid-bass prominent, it does extend well down to the deep bass if you have a good seal. 

I reckon Ken has hit a proverbial home-run with the Andromedas, enough to make them my current favourite universal IEMs. 

Type:   Closed, on-ear headphone


Price:   $329.95 USD


URL:   http://torque.audio

Written by Amos Barnett (Currawong)


Everyone who is new to Head-Fi will likely be familiar with my most prominent request when asking for suggestions for new headphones or IEMs: Please state the type of music you like. Like headphone models have their own unique frequency response, music does too, depending on the instruments being played and the whims of the mastering engineer to how each is balanced in the mix. To that end, matching music preferences with headphones and IEMs, then in turn selecting a pair of either to meet one’s needs can be a challenge. Reliable models are usually chosen which can be hit-or-miss if critical information such as the type of music is left out. Likewise a person listening loud will have a different experience to someone listening at a softer level.

That is where Torque Audio has decided to step in. While other recent brands have made it a feature, Torque Audio has revolved their entire brand around being able to tune the frequency response of their headphones and IEMs. The t096z IEMs feature no less than six pairs of screw-in filters, described as “valves” on the box, each with a small visual depicting the effect they will have on the sound. These valves come on two metal plates which double as a wrench to allow the valves to be firmly screwed in so they don’t accidentally fall out.

By default the t096z comes with a fixed, 4-pole phone cable with a microphone. That limits it to being used with phones and devices that have the ground pin in the socket connected to the second ring. I was pleased to find that Chord Mojo was set up this way, as after some listening and experimentation with the valves I felt I wasn’t getting their full potential out of them from my iPhone 6. The t096z uses a single 9mm bio-cell membrane dynamic driver in a relatively heavy brass housing, which along with a solid-looking cable, looks like it will stand up to regular use quite well.

Handily, as well as a series of tips that include bi- and tri-flange and the almost standard Comply foamies, the t096z comes with stabiliser rings that fit over the shell and help the IEMs sit comfortably in your ear. I found them helpful in keeping them in a good position to get a good seal.

The red valves, despite being listed as “neutral" still had a fair amount of mid-bass, especially out of the Mojo, making them fair all-rounders. The closest to actual neutral seemed to be the “Bliss” valves, which still left the IEMs capable of giving plenty of punch in the bass as required if I used them with the Mojo or an amp. The purple valves also seem to have the cleanest-sounding treble other than the black ones. Not surprisingly the more treble-emphasised “clear” valves work well with rock, much as how people recommend brighter-sounding Grados, and the valves with some bass emphasis are recommended for electro, pop and other more recent genres. The other valves have quite a bit more bass and the main differences are how that balances with the mid-range and treble. The green valves have plenty of treble with a recessed mid-range and the yellow and blue valves balance in slightly different ways towards the bass.

After experimenting with all the filters, I ended up with the “bliss” purple valves when listening through the Mojo to jazz, which matches their valve guide on the back of the box. As the most straight-through of the valves, I felt that they were also a good test of the t096z’s resolving capabilities. As a moderately expensive pair of IEMs, the ultimate sound quality is where they were going to have to stand up. Out of the Chord Mojo they weren’t at all disappointing, with a good amount of detail coming through and good separation of the bass, mids and treble. Vocals were very pleasant and the treble crisp without being fatiguing, even when there was a bit of sibilance.

Compared to the other dynamic IEMs I have here, they are more similar to the DITA The Answer when using the treble-forward black valves and less mid-forward than the RHA T20 when using the more bass-strong valves, giving a feeling of more spaciousness in the music.

All in all, if you’re after a solidly-built pair of good-sounding IEMs and the idea of being able to choose your sound tuning appeals to you, especially if you’re after a lot of bass, the Torque Audio to96z IEMs are worth checking out.

Type:   Universal-fit in-ear monitor


Price:   $999 USD


URL:   http://www.shure.com

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:   Closed, custom-fit in-ear monitors


Price:   $999 USD


URL:   http://pro.ultimateears.com

Written by Jude Mansilla


As my fellow music geeks know, recording remasters can be hit or miss enough that when they're announced, we usually respond with both excitement at the possibilities, but also some apprehension because remasters are about as likely to sound worse as they are to sound better than the original versions, in my experience.

With that in mind, when Philippe Depallens and Mike Dias at Ultimate Ears called me to tell me they were going to be working with Capitol Studios again, but this time to update, to re-do, the in-ear monitor they'd created together more than five years before that, the Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor, which became known to many high-end audio enthusiasts as the "UERM." When I heard this news, I was, not surprisingly, both excited at the possibilities, but also a bit apprehensive, because they were going to be remastering the in-ear monitor that had become one of my primary neutral references for the last several years.

The result was the Ultimate Ears Pro Reference Remastered studio mastering in-ear monitors, developed with, and voiced by, the recording engineers at the legendary Capitol Studios in their second collaborative product with Ultimate Ears. Since its release, folks have taken to calling the new one the "UERR."

Again, the original Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor was launched over five years ago, and was the first collaboration between Ultimate Ears and the engineers at Capitol Studios, and it quickly became my headphone neutral reference. Here at Head-Fi, we listen to so many different headphone systems, so many of these configurations imparting various colorations and flavors--so it's nice to re-align with a neutral reference from time to time. As I've said on the Head-Fi forums before, a good neutral reference can serve as a sort of sonic palate cleanser for me.

I certainly wasn't alone. In the years since its release, the UERM has become a favorite with many in the professional audio world and also, of course, in audiophile circles, and perhaps its single most endearing trait was the UERM's perceived neutrality. I say "perceived neutrality" because the definition of what's truly neutral in the headphone world is still a bit of a moving target, which is an interesting discussion itself, and one we'll be exploring further I'm sure.

The original Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor was tuned to be flat. Like I just said, though, in the world of headphones, the concept of neutrality is still a bit up-in-the-air. When it comes to neutral with headphones, are we talking about something that measures flat on an ear simulator, or are we talking about a headphone that's tuned more to simulate flat-frequency loudspeakers in a more typical room setting. You see, normal rooms add some general boost to the bass, due to the increasingly omnidirectional nature of sound as you move lower in frequency. Again, with headphones, neutrality is still a moving target.

I bring all of this up because the original UERM sounds to me like something that would perhaps measure flatter at the eardrum; and the new Reference Remastered sounds more to me, in comparison, like it takes the sound of room reinforcement--also called "room gain--into consideration, which is where my personal definition of neutrality with headphones has also been moving. This has been a topic discussed at length by Paul Barton of PSB, Sean Olive of Harman, Tyll Hertsens of Innerfidelity, and others in various studies, and even with many in our community here.

To be clear, though, the Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered is most certainly not a bass-heavy headphone in comparison to the original, but it is, to my ears, fuller in the lower registers than the UERM is, in a manner I find more realistic, more natural--and so, yes, for me, also more neutral. This isn't the only area the new Reference Remastered improves on the UERM. When doing direct comparisons, it's rather obvious to me that the new Remastered monitor has a smoother treble response--not in terms of roll-off, but in terms of a comparative smoothing of peaks. This smoother, more linear response might, at first blush, give the impression that the treble is not as extended as the UERM, but, actually, in terms of treble extension, the Reference Remastered, in careful listening comparisons, actually sounds more treble-extended to me than the UERM, yet more organic with the relative smoothing of peaks.

In conversations with Vincent Liu of Ultimate Ears, it's clear they worked hard to make this happen, having developed a unique new housing and chamber arrangement for the drivers and their respective bores that comprise something they're calling "True Tone Drivers," which Ultimate Ears claims is flat to 18kHz. Their goal with True Tone and the improved treble performance was to better reproduce the harmonic structures and overtones that they claim many other headphones miss.

In terms of imaging, the Reference Remastered betters the performance and precision of what was already a strong imager with the UERM. While I'm not hearing the imaging as any wider, it's more coherent in its shape and image solidity.

So you may be wondering why they sound as different as they do, if the same engineers who voiced the UERM more than five years ago also worked on the Reference Remastered. From conversations with Capitol and UE, the improvements were in large part motivated by Universal Music Group's commitment to high-res music, particularly over the last several years. The number of high-res remasters coming from Universal Music Group has been fantastic. (And, for those of you who didn't know, Universal Music Group oversees Capitol Studios.) Conversations with Barak Moffitt--head of global strategic operations at Universal Music Group--only confirmed how serious they are about capturing the artists' performances with, as he said, "absolute faithfulness to their creative intent, and that means capturing their sound to the highest fidelity possible."

In covering UE's Reference Monitor, and now the Reference Remastered, I've had the good fortune to hang out a bit at Capitol Studios, and they've put on some amazing demos and direct comparisons to show what's possible with high-res remasters done right.

And that brings me to another thing that may account for some of the upgraded sound with the Remastered monitor versus the UERM. In the years since the UERM was released, Capitol Studios has been going through an ongoing studio refurbishment program, and part of that has involved some major upgrades to their monitors. Since the UERM was developed, both Studio A and Studio B at Capitol Studios have had their monitors upgraded to PMC's staggering new QB1-A active monitors. I've now had a chance to hear the QB1-A's at Capitol, and they're mind-blowingly good. Their massive 4800 watts of amplification per channel provides unrestrained dynamics, with just as impressive micro detail and delicate touch. I believe the Capitol engineers were among the group of professionals who helped PMC as they designed the new PMC monitors, and the results...incredible. The installation of the big PMC's is part of Capitol's commitment to high-res music.

In short, if the engineers at Capitol have upgraded their own reference sound at Capitol Studios, then they've re-aligned their own reference sound to new standards in the years since the original UERM's release. What a great time to ask them to voice a new generation of in-ear studio mastering monitors.

While it's not quite like having PMC QB1-A's in my ears, I can better understand now how they got here, and, in doing so, they've given me a new in-ear neutral reference--one that's more resolving and more musical than the first-generation Reference Monitor it replaces. The new Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered represents everything I'd hope for from a remastering.

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