Like a bespoke suit, custom in-ear monitors (IEMs) are made just for you, molded to the exact shape of your ears (usually by an audiologist). And like a custom suit, custom IEMs are exceptionally comfortable, and usually trés expensive. To my ears, the best custom IEMs are some of the best sounding headphones of any type currently available.
Whichever custom you choose, expect to pay about an additional $50.00 to get molds of your ears made at a local audiologist (that you will then send in to the IEM maker).
John Moulton and Brannan Mason were together at Heir Audio, and then recently started a new company called Noble Audio. Anyone who knows John Moulton won't be surprised to find that he's continuing 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 Moulton design you a one-off design. And if you haven't seen the work he does, go to their website and check it out.
One of the Noble pieces I had the pleasure to audition for a while was a demo version of a custom model they sell called the Noble Audio Kaiser 10. The Noble K10 is Noble's current flagship, with ten drivers per side. According to one review on Head-Fi, the driver complement (per ear) is two bass drivers, two midrange drivers, two mid-high drivers, two high drivers, and two "mystery drivers" for "higher highs" (the details of which I do not have). If I understand this correctly, then, that would then make the Nobile K10 a ten-driver, five-way design. Having read that, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried about maintaining coherence with so many driver types. To my ears, though, the K10's sound is coherent, and is very good.
In terms of bass, 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. Keep in mind that what I heard was a universal-fit demo version of what is a custom in-ear monitor, and I've almost always found final customized IEMs to be better than their universal-fit demo versions. I would expect, then, that the K10 in its final form is even better than the excellent demo I heard.
Starting at $1599, the Noble Audio Kaiser 10 is priced to go head-to-head with some of the best custom in-ear monitors in the world from the U.S. and Japan. And with the K10 and Noble's other new models, John Moulton is likely to find at least as dedicated a fan base as he had at Heir.
"Whenever I listen to the K10's, they just sound right. They make me smile every time. I can count on them to do everything I ask. Tons of bass and punch when watching movies; tons of detail and speed when listening to music. They are certainly what I take with me on the go."
-Darin Fong (darinf)
JH Audio Sirens Series Roxanne
Written by Jude Mansilla
Perhaps the in-ear monitor I'm most excited about is Jerry Harvey Audio's Sirens Series Roxanne. I had a custom-fit prototype here for a while, and, in my opinion, it set a new bar for custom IEM performance.
The Roxanne--JH Audio's newest flagship--incorporates all of Jerry Harvey's current best technologies and knowhow, including Freqphase time alignment (assuring all frequencies reach the ear within 1/100 of a millisecond of each other), SoundriVe technology (quad low, quad mid, and quad high balanced armatures per side, for a total of 12 drivers per side), and user-controlled low frequency drivers that allow bass adjustment (between 10Hz and 100Hz) from flat to +15dB. The Roxanne is three-way design.
Something very unique about the Roxanne--that I can't imagine has any effect at all on sound--is the fact that you can order it with solid carbon fiber earpieces. It's a $500 add-on, and it looks absolutely stunning, especially if (like me) you're into carbon fiber. Carbon fiber faceplates are a common option in the custom IEM world--solid carbon fiber earpieces are not (and nobody else currently does it). How they do it is not something JH Audio is likely to discuss or describe any time soon.
The Roxanne also comes with a carbon fiber and billet aluminum case that is the nicest IEM case I've yet seen. Inside the case is an earpiece holder that has negative impressions of your Roxanne earpieces for easy placement and storage--very unique, very useful.
As for its sound, to describe the Roxanne's tonal balance is challenging, because it can be adjusted so widely in the bass region. It can be my neutral reference; it can be similar (tonally) to my JH13 Pro Freqphase; or it can be something like a JH16 Pro, depending on how I choose to set the Roxanne's bass. And adjusting the Roxanne's bass had absolutely no effect on the mids that I could hear.
The Roxanne's imaging is remarkable--the best I've experienced from any kind of in-ear headphone. For an IEM, the image the Roxanne throws is very wide, very spacious; and sonic image objects within the soundstage are very precisely placed. Anyone who's had a conversation with Jerry Harvey knows how important imaging is to him, so it's no coincidence the effort that goes into it and the sonic results.
Simply put, the JH Audio Sirens Series Roxanne is one of the best headphones I've heard, regardless of form factor.
One of the most well regarded custom in-ear monitors is the venerable Westone ES5. Replacing it would be a tall order; but after a lot of work in the labs, that's just what Westone is doing with the Westone ES50.
At first glance, the most obvious difference is the move to a new connector, the new ES50 going to a swivel connector (MMCX), and I think there may be a greater variety of materials, finishes and artwork options, too. I know the ES50 has a faceplate option I haven't previously seen--the ES50 they sent me has a blue left earpiece, and a red right one, both having carbon fiber face plates. The left earpiece's carbon fiber plate appears to me to have wisps of blue fiber woven in with the carbon fiber, and the right's with wisps of red fiber woven in. There are also tiny spaces in the carbon fiber weave that also allow color from the earpieces to show through the fiber. The look is very cool.
Of course, the most important thing when you're changing a model as well regarded as the Westone ES5 is any sonic changes that might be made, and there have indeed been some. Comparing my ES5 with the ES50 directly, I'm happy to say that the ES50 still maintains the essence of the ES5--the ES5 isn't a piece whose soul I'd want to upend in the name of change. To my ears, the ES50 is similar to the ES5, but with a little more presence in the bottom end, and improved detail across the spectrum. In other words, what was already (in my opinion) one of the best in-ear monitors available has just gotten better.
Thankfully, another thing Westone didn't change is their standard-setting comfort. With their Flex Canal earpieces--which soften pretty quickly at body temperature--Westone has what are, in my opinion, the most comfortable custom in-ear monitors out there. In addition to comfort, I've found the Flex Canal earpiece also provide improved isolation. The only downside to Flex Canal is that the material is a little grippier going in, so they don't slide into the ear quite as easily as hard acrylic earpieces.
Without raising the price, the changes the ES50 brings have made Westone's flagship custom IEM even more competitive than it was, in an increasingly competitive landscape.
I thought I was aware of all the top custom-fit IEM makers. On a trip to Tokyo, however, the gentlemen at Fujiya Avic (a store every Tokyo-bound Head-Fi'er must visit) asked me to listen to a demo model of the FitEar MH334. To say the least, I was impressed with what I heard. The next day, at the Tokyo Headphone Festival (which is put on by Fujiya Avic), I was fitted for my very own custom MH334. When it arrived, the build quality was the first thing I noticed, including the flawless bubble-free transparent main earpiece bodies and the well-dressed internal wiring.
Wearing the MH334 revealed the best isolating custom-fit IEM I've yet used. I don't know if its particularly outstanding isolation is due to a perfect fit, something specific to the MH334's construction, or both. And the sound! Voiced by one of Japan's top mastering engineers, the four-drivers-per-side MH334 is the best-sounding IEM I have heard driven straight from my iPhone 4S (compared to others driven similarly), a nearly perfect blend of revealing and smooth, impactful and balanced. I'm looking forward to also using it in a wide variety of externally-amped portable rigs.
Currently available only direct from FitEar, the only negative I've got for the FitEar MH334 is its price, which, as of this writing, translates to over $1800! I'm hoping FitEar soon finds broader distribution, as they may be poised to shake things up in the custom-fit IEM market, if this MH334 is any indication.
"What do they sound like? One word: transparent. ...these are the closest an IEM has come to matching the SR-009's transparency I've come across thus far. Simply stunning. Tonally, the balance of these is extremely linear... This is pretty much the most detailed I've heard an IEM sound..."
Only four years old, but already a legend, JH Audio's JH13Pro has come up against several new competitors in the cost-no-object custom in-ear monitor realm, but it's still the first custom IEM I recommend for those who aren't quite sure what their preferred sound signature is. Why? Because I find most people prefer mildly emphasized bass, which the JH13 Pro has, along with neutral mids and treble, and quite possibly unmatched treble extension in an in-ear monitor. The JH13 Pro sports six balanced armature drivers per side.
The JH16 Pro is the go-to custom for those who want more strongly emphasized bass (emphasis that Jerry Harvey made sure to tune way down low, as it should be, and in such a manner that it leaves the mids virtually untouched). The JH16 Pro--because of that perfectly executed bass emphasis--is my go-to custom IEM for air or train travel, as extra bass is always welcome in the din of those environments.
Each JH16 Pro earpiece contains eight balanced armature drivers. Yes, eight. How Jerry Harvey coaxes such cohesiveness from that many drivers (and, trust me, he does) is one of Head-Fi's great mysteries, as far as I'm concerned.
Earlier this year, I picked up the latest version of the JH13Pro, equipped with a new technology developed by Jerry Harvey called Freqphase Time|Phase Waveguide. To put it simply, Freqphase was designed to dramatically improve the phase accuracy of the top JH Audio in-ears. Stated even more simply, more than before, the lows, mids and highs now arrive at your ear at once. JH Audio claims there Freqphase IEMs are the first truly phase-coherent earphones. The current JH Audio JH13Pro, JH16Pro, and JH3A are shipping with Freqphase.
The moment I heard the JH13Pro Freqphase, I was thrilled with the improvement in detail over my previous JH13Pro (without Freqphase). It's not subtle, it's a whole different IEM now. The detail I get with my current JH13Pro is electrostatic-like in its speed. The tonal balance is still similar to the previous JH13Pro, which is a good thing; but the detail retrieval of the new model is on another level.
I can think of only one thing I don't like about Freqphase, and that's the fact that pre-Freqphase models can't be updated to Freqphase. One look inside a clear Freqphase piece, and you'll see why--it's different in there.
With Freqphase, the JH Audio JH13Pro has reclaimed the top spot on my list of favorite in-ear monitors.
"...of all of the earphones I’ve tried recently, the JH Audio JH13 Pro has been the biggest eye-opener, delivering clarity and resolution unlike anything else I’ve heard. It effortlessly produces extremely nuanced and refined sound across the entire frequency range, complete with fantastic instrument separation and imaging."
As UE (Ultimate Ears) puts it, the three-drivers-per-side Custom In-Ear Reference Monitor is designed for "professional studio engineers and producers for use during recording, mixing and mastering original music content. Other applications include front of the house venue tuning, live recording and mixing. This is also an excellent product for the audiophile or serious music listener because of its natural and authentic sound reproduction."
Given that description, it shouldn't be surprising that the In-Ear Reference Monitor (IERM) is the most neutral-sounding custom IEM I've heard. Both bass extension and treble extension sound excellent to me, the entire audioband presented without emphasis. The IERM is one of my neutral references, and perhaps the most neutral of all my headphones (regardless of type). As such, it is my sonic palate cleanser--after listening to more colored gear for extended periods, I can always count on the IERM to remind me what neutral sounds like.
Imaging is also one of its strengths, the IERM edging out most of the other custom IEMs I use, in terms of presenting a convincing, cohesive soundstage.
If you're in the market for a custom IEM, and pure neutrality is your goal, the IERM would be my first recommendation
"Having a background in sound engineering, I know what industry professionals look for (or should look for) when mixing and mastering sound. Let me say here that if you are an industry professional looking for an in-ear to monitor live mixes / and have an in-ear reference in the studio, then there is nothing else in the market that I've heard as of yet which comes across as unflavored as the UERM."
If your tonal preference is more toward neutral, but not entirely so, then Westone's flagship five-drivers-per-side ES5 is a fantastic choice. It is more neutral than the JH13 Pro, but with richer midrange than UE's IERM. In terms of detail retrieval, it is on par with the other flagships.
Other major selling points of the ES5 include its comfort and isolation. Westone's ES series of custom IEMs all have the Westone heat-activated "flex canal," which makes my ES5 one of the most comfortable IEMs I've worn. That soft tip also results in better isolation than most of my other custom-fit IEMs provide.
Also, Westone's ES5 packaging is second-to-none, with a Pelican case, and a very cool dessicant cylinder fitted to the interior of that case (to help keep your ES5 dry).
"Overall these are a very well rounded high grade custom with great comfort, and a very coherent sound reproduction that hides it's crossovers well."
A custom-fit IEM is custom-molded to your ears, so it will fit only one person in the world perfectly--you. One would think, then, that a custom-fit IEM is already as custom as it gets. Not anymore. This year Ultimate Ears released what might reasonably be called a custom custom-fit IEM--one in which the physical fit isn't the only thing customized to fit you, but also the sonic fit. It's called the Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor, and, as its name suggests, you tune it to your own personal sonic preferences.
To accommodate this level of customization, a higher level of personal service is required. Once an order for the Personal Reference Monitor is placed, the customer is assigned a personal service specialist to guide him through the fitting, design, and custom-tuning of the Personal Reference Monitor. The custom-tuning of the Personal Reference Monitor involves a sit-down session with a device called the Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Tuning Box. To start, there will be four locations in the U.S. equipped with the Personal Reference Tuning box, in Irvine (California), Los Angeles, Nashville, and New York City. If you don't happen to be lucky enough to be an easy trip away from one of these locations, Ultimate Ears is currently working on making the tuning experience more accessible, in more places.
Simply put, my right ear is better than my left one. My right ear has greater acuity through some of the mids and treble than my left. It has been this way for years. Using the Personal Reference Tuning Box, I tuned my Personal Reference Monitor to help compensate for my left ear's deficiency (versus my right). I also tuned the tonal balance to be neutral'ish, but with just a touch more bass than neutral, more emphasis on the mids for greater midrange presence and bloom, and just a hair's breadth above neutral in the treble region. The resulting monitors--my Personal Reference Monitor--is now my favorite of all my custom in-ear monitors, imaging better (perhaps because of the left-right compensation), and suiting my preferences more closely than any other custom in-ear I currently have.
I strongly recommend the Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor for anyone who's wanted to try compensating for differences between one's ears, and/or for anyone simply interested in reaching a higher level of customizability in custom in-ear monitors.
(For more details about the product and the process, click here.)
"With the ability to tune the sound signature, the PRM offers the ability for people to find their music preference. Sound is very spacious and laid back with excellent imaging, high detail and resolution levels, excellent transparency, and coherence."
Making your first move into the custom in-ear monitor market can be daunting, especially if you have a universal-fit IEM you already love, and/or if you're turned off by the crushing blow to resale value that going the full custom route entails. Of course, another common concern with the higher-end fully custom IEMs is price--the best ones start at just under a grand a pair.
If the above describes how you're feeling, then consider picking up a pair of custom molded adapters for your favorite in-ear monitor. I ordered the Westone UM56 to go with one of my favorite universal-fit in-ear monitors, the Westone 4R. Admittedly, I was curious to know if perhaps such a product could actually improve the performance of my 4R.
What I found was that it didn't make my 4R sound like a Westone ES50--no big surprise there. But, starting at only $129 (not including the cost of the custom impressions or the in-ear monitors) to forever do away with deteriorating eartips that aren't as comfortable as bespoke eartips, to have a more consistent fit time after time (which, in its own way, is a performance improvement), and to have the ease of insertion that customs provide (no more rolling foamies between your fingers), it's soooo worth it.
My Westone 4R has gone custom, and it ain't goin' back.
(If you have a non-Westone IEM you want to order these for, make sure to contact Westone to confirm compatibility.)
A couple of years ago a pair of gentlemen, Danny and Desmond from Singapore approached me at one of the Tokyo Headphone festivals to ask if I’d try a pair of high-end in-ear monitors they were preparing to manufacture. Round, like a large pill, with an nozzle exiting at 45 degrees to one side, they fitted simply and sounded good enough with my current variety of music types that I said I’d take them on the spot as they were. Not only was it unusual to find a prototype of an upcoming product from a new company that seemed to get it right, but also to meet two people whom, with everything they spoke, were completely sensible with an excellent attitude.
DITA Audio’s The Answer is a pair of IEMs with an incredible attention to detail, all the way from the beautifully milled aluminium right down to the carefully chosen plug. Even more so is the box they come in, where the IEMs are beautifully fitted into a large foam cut-out, along with their accessories in the manner of jewellery. They also come with not one, but two different cases.
Unusually for a pair of high-end IEMs is that the cable is permanently attached and, especially in the case of the more expensive Truth Edition, the guys have gone to a lot of trouble to ensure that it is robust and will last a long time. The cable for the more expensive Truth Edition is designed by Van Den Hul using their 3T technology, which is designed to be mechanically reliable even when wound tightly, as well as better sounding. While very rubbery and springy, the Truth cable is very comfortable to wear, even with the choke piece pulled up. What is more, it is completely silent, not transferring movement noise to your ears.
Not surprisingly, the best part about The Answer IEMs is the sound. I’ve had the chance to use a pair for some months, and while they did need some hours of use for the drivers to break in, afterwards the sound is both detailed in the mids and highs while delivering just the right amount of bass to be good all-rounders. As they use a single dynamic driver, phase issues are non-existent and the overall response at all frequencies is excellent, including the trademark punchy bass one gets from dynamic drivers. The Answer comes with three nozzle-sizes of tips allowing fine-tuning of the sound, allowing you some degree of adjustment of the balance between the lows and highs to taste.
Overall, The Answer, especially the Truth Edition, is an expensive pair of IEMs, but compared to the cost of other top-of-the-line universals, especially after paying for an extra, high quality cable to replace the stock cable in some cases, they are quite competitive given their outstanding quality, unique and thoughtful design and great sound.
Written by Jude Mansilla
At first blush, the Fostex TE-05 looks a lot like…well…a lot of in-ear headphones I've seen. Close inspection does reveal very nice machined cylindrical aluminum housings with a high level of fit and finish--it certainly looks and feels premium. With all the other cool stuff Fostex had at their exhibit at 2013 CanJam @ RMAF, though, I would've probably missed the the TE-05 if Fostex's Hiroaki Kawahata hadn't put it in front of me and asked me to try it. And when the music started, it became immediately obvious the TE-05 is indeed a very special IEM.
Without a doubt, the Fostex TE-05 is going to end up being one of my neutral reference headphones, being extremely even-handed to my ears, from one end of the spectrum to the other. In addition to its neutral tonality, the TE-05 also has excellent detail retrieval, so that the view of the music isn't just uncolored, it's also deep dive into it. The TE-05 is fantastic.
I've found with this headphone that it's important (and easy) to get a very good seal. If you don't, it will sound lean, and even strident. Trust me, you'll know when the seal's good, as that's when very good sonic things immediately happen.
The Fostex TE-05 uses detachable high-quality oxygen-free copper cables, which is very nice, as I always find it a crying shame to have to either discard or send in for repairs a headphone just because its cable malfunctions or breaks. I believe the TE-05 uses one dynamic driver per ear (the details of which I do not currently have). It comes in an elegant semi-hard-side leather carrying case with a magnetic closure flap.
Whereas I cannot share my Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor with others (because it's custom), it's nice to have another ultra-portable neutral reference that I can let others hear. Because of this--and because it's also just a joy to listen to--the TE-05 has already become an important part of my audio Dopp kit.
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 IE800 are simply brilliant whether you're out-and-about and listening casually; at home and wanting to truly focus on the music; if you're monitoring or anything in between…"
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."
Like I said in the Over-Ear Headphones section of this guide, Philips, after years of not being part of the Head-Fi dialog, burst onto the scene in 2012 in a big, big way. Their Fidelio over-ear headphones, in particular, have really found a good number of fans (myself included) in the Head-Fi community. Now they're entering a very crowded segment of the market with some standout in-ear headphones.
Going with 13.5mm dynamic drivers for their Fidelio S1 and S2 in-ears, instead of the more common balanced armature drivers, Philips delivers a sense of lightness, speed and detail that I'm used to hearing from the higher-end universal-fit balanced armature in-ears. And both the Fidelio S1 and S2 have tonal balances that are more neutral-ish, which is something else I don't typically associate with large dynamic driver in-ear monitors.
The Fidelio S1 retails for $99.99 and the Fidelio S2 for $149.99; but, like many Philips headphones, shopping around can yield savings on the street. As far as what differentiates them, the Fidelio S2 does have a metal front plate, compared to the Fidelio S1's, which appears to be plastic. The Fidelio S2 also has an anti-scratch glossy coating, compared to the Fidelio S1's more standard metal appearance. I believe the Fidelio S2's housing may also be made of a higher-grade metal than the S1's. Other differences include a lower nominal impedance for the higher-end Fidelio S2 (22Ω versus the Fidelio S1's 32Ω), and a greater included tip selection with the Fidelio S2.
As for sound, the Fidelio S1 and S2 sound quite similar--again, a more neutral sound signature that is revealing beyond any reasonable expectation at their prices. Both also sound surprisingly open for in-ears, which likely has something to do with the fact that both models are semi-open. In a word, both are fantastic, and perhaps among the best sounding in-ears at their prices.
My only reservations about both the Fidelio S1 and S2 include their form factors, the large bodies needed to accommodate the large dynamic drivers might be challenging for some ear shapes to easily accommodate. Also, because they're semi-open in-ears, isolation is good, but not necessarily standard-setting. On balance, though, these are very minor nits to pick.
The Philips Fidelio S1 and Fidelio S2 are absolutely killer values at their retail prices, and yet can often be found discounted on the street, for even greater value.
It was a bold move by HiFiMAN to discontinue all their previous in-ear headphones with the release of the new RE-400--several of the now-legacy HiFiMAN in-ear models had diehard fans. HiFiMAN's founder Dr. Fang Bian has stated in an interview that the new HiFiMAN RE-400 is a better sounding in-ear than any of the legacy models, and I wholeheartedly agree. In my opinion, the legacy line had models that were unique and specialized, and HiFiMAN needed to release more balanced, stronger overall performers. The RE-400 is an amazing start, and, to my ears, it is one of the best sub-$100 IEMs currently available.
It's not just the sound signature that HiFiMAN has made more universally appealing, but the form factor. Some of the models in the legacy lineup were made in strange shapes that I often had to explain to the uninitiated as I handed them over to listen to--anyone here remember the RE252? The RE-400 has a very classically designed metal chassis that I find more ergonomic, more comfortable, and certainly easier for me to insert than previous HiFiMAN in-ears have been. The satin metal endcap over what looks to me like a bead-blasted aluminum main housing makes for a very understated, timeless design.
The RE-400 uses an 8.5mm dynamic driver with a titanium diaphragm and neodymium magnet. Cabling is OFC (oxygen free copper), and is very light and flexible. Actually, the entire RE-400 feels light in weight, both in the hands, and, more importantly, when worn.
On my wishlist for the RE-400 are a carrying case (it doesn't come with one), and perhaps a version with an inline remote/mic on the cable. Though the RE-400 can benefit from a nice portable amp, it still sounds excellent driven directly from my mobile phones, too, so having the convenience of an inline remote/mic would be a nice option.
Because some of the past HiFiMAN models tended toward bass-light signatures, the RE-400's move to a more neutral balance actually represents a mild lift in bass in comparison to some of its popular HiFiMAN predecessors. And, to me, the RE-400 has a balance that is fairly described as neutral, and not just in comparison to legacy HiFiMAN in-ears, but in general.
From its well-extended bass to its well-extended treble--and everywhere in between--there's no sense of frequency response hotspots or deficiencies with the RE-400. Some prefer emphasis in bass, some like subdued treble, some like boosted mids, and, for all those people who like substantial deviations from flat, the RE-400 might disappoint. Those who'll love its tonal balance are those who like to listen for extended periods, and those who tend to prefer a perceived flat frequency response. For me, the RE-400 never fatigues, and that's a big deal, especially for something that's reasonably detailed across the spectrum, and is priced at under $100.
The HiFiMAN RE-400 is the first in a new line of in-ears from HiFiMAN, and, again, something I think is a big step in the right direction. Bravo, HiFiMAN! Keep 'em coming!