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).
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."
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.
John Moulton and Brannan Mason were together at Heir Audio, and then later started a new company called Noble Audio. Anyone who knows John Moulton (affectionally called "The Wizard" in our community) won't be surprised to find that, with Noble, he continued the tradition of making perhaps the swankiest looking IEMs usingsuper-fancy finishes and exotic materials in his IEMs. I don't think anyone else offers material options like woven grass, exotic wood, pearlescent swirly finishes, gold nugget, a glow-in-the-dark option, cosmetic grade glitter, custom faceplated silicone, and goodness knows what else. You can optionally pay $300 to have The Wizard design you a one-off design. And if you haven't seen the work he does, go to their website and check it out.
Also, recently Noble Audio announced their new Noble Prestige custom in-ear monitors, intended to be the pinnacle of Noble's artistry, and priced accordingly. Instead of beginning with a liquid medium, which is how almost all custom in-ears are made, Noble’s new Prestige customs will be crafted chiefly fromsolidartistic mediums, including exotic woods, dyed woods, carbon glass, weaves, knits, aluminum composites, other materials, and combinations of all of those things.
The only sonic configuration available for the Prestige line is Noble’s flagship 4-way, 10-driver Kaiser 10 (K10) model. Prices for the Noble Prestige will start at $2599, and can go up from there, depending on material choices and options. If you want The Wizard’s finest work, you will have to pay for it.
My custom Kaiser 10 is one of the first Prestige models they made, and it isstunningto look at. Its earpieces are crafted from red acrylic inspired by the colorrosso corsa, with Australian Coolibah burl wood, somehow swirled together to appear as one. Again, as it is a Noble Prestige, it is also a Kaiser 10 inside.
The Noble K10 has ten drivers per side. The driver complement (per ear) is two bass drivers, two midrange drivers, two mid-high drivers, two high drivers, and two super-high frequency drivers. It's a 10-driver, four-way configuration. Nominal impedance is listed as <35Ω. With such a complex driver set, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried at first about maintaining coherence with so many driver types. To my ears, though, the worries were unfounded, as K10's sound is coherent and outstanding.
In terms of bass, the Noble Prestige (and so also the Noble K10) sounds to me like it has excellent extension, presence, and control. On balance, I think its bass just a bit north of neutral, but in a way that I enjoy for general listening. The K10's midrange is on the warmer side, without being overly thick. Midrange detail is also very good, with a very nice presence that I found served female vocals particularly well. The Noble Kaiser K10's treble has an extended, smooth quality about it, that I think is a perfect capper to what is, overall, a wonderful, smooth sounding flagship custom in-ear monitor from Noble.
I think the Noble Kaiser 10 custom is well equipped to compete with other flagships customs from other custom top-flight in-ear makers. It's quite evident in our community that Noble has been gaining an increasingly strong following here and abroad, and I'm not at all surprised.
"I’d pick the Kaiser 10 as my favorite CIEM any day. I own very many CIEMs of varying tastes and styles but the K10 is my clear favorite when I just want to listen to something on the road, or in the office, or anywhere really. I’ll heartily recommend it to anyone willing to have one of the best all-arounder CIEMs out there."
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.
"I see the 334 as a high quality, fun sounding IEM dedicated to enjoyment."
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 last 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."
A custom-fit IEM is custom-molded to your ears, so it will fit only one person in the world perfectly--you. One would think, then, that a custom-fit IEM is already as custom as it gets. Not anymore. Ultimate Ears released what might reasonably be called a custom custom-fit IEM--one in which the physical fit isn't the only thing customized to fit you, but also the sonic fit. It's called the Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor, and, as its name suggests, you tune it to your own personal sonic preferences.
To accommodate this level of customization, a higher level of personal service is required. Once an order for the Personal Reference Monitor is placed, the customer is assigned a personal service specialist to guide him through the fitting, design, and custom-tuning of the Personal Reference Monitor. The custom-tuning of the Personal Reference Monitor involves a sit-down session with a device called the Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Tuning Box. To start, there will be four locations in the U.S. equipped with the Personal Reference Tuning box, in Irvine (California), Los Angeles, Nashville, and New York City. If you don't happen to be lucky enough to be an easy trip away from one of these locations, Ultimate Ears is currently working on making the tuning experience more accessible, in more places.
Simply put, my right ear is better than my left one. My right ear has greater acuity through some of the mids and treble than my left. It has been this way for years. Using the Personal Reference Tuning Box, I tuned my Personal Reference Monitor to help compensate for my left ear's deficiency (versus my right). I also tuned the tonal balance to be neutral'ish, but with just a touch more bass than neutral, more emphasis on the mids for greater midrange presence and bloom, and just a hair's breadth above neutral in the treble region. The resulting monitors--my Personal Reference Monitor--is now my favorite of all my custom in-ear monitors, imaging better (perhaps because of the left-right compensation), and suiting my preferences more closely than any other custom in-ear I currently have.
I strongly recommend the Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor for anyone who's wanted to try compensating for differences between one's ears, and/or for anyone simply interested in reaching a higher level of customizability in custom in-ear monitors.
(For more details about the product and the process, click here.)
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).
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.
When I list the following attributes--in-ear monitor, advanced ceramic housing, oval eartips--diehard Head-Fi'ers might assume I'm talking about the $1000 Sennheiser IE 800. But then I add “under $200,” and it's obvious I'm heading somewhere else--Indiana perhaps?
I'm talking about Indianapolis-based Klipsch, and the Image X7i. Why this little ceramic-bodied wonder isn't one of the most talked about affordable universal-fit IEMs on Head-Fi is an absolute mystery to me. And shopping around shows it readily available for less than the $199.99 price I've listed.
The Image X7i joins its Klipsch stablemate Image X10 as being one of the most comfortable universal-fit in-ear monitors I've ever worn--there's something about the ultra-pliable silicone, and the narrow oval cross section of the eartips that makes them almost disappear from mind once inserted. The Klipsch Image X7i's ceramic body feels sturdy, and its contoured shape sits perfectly, comfortably in my ear. As comfortable as it is, though, I'd still have to give a slight edge in comfort to the X10, which is a bit smaller and even less intrusive.
More impressive than even the Image X7i's comfort is its sound. This is an audiophile piece all the way, and is neutral enough sounding for me to consider this one of my universal-fit neutral references. While it isn't possessing of the outright speed and resolution of my best (and far more expensive) in-ear monitors, the Klipsch Image X7i resolves above its price, and--most uncommonly in this price range and form factor--presents with enough extension at both ends, and with flat, detailed mids, to sound less like a consumer market headphone, and more like a pro channel monitoring headphone. The only thing that consistently reminds me that the Image X7i is indeed a consumer market piece is the microphone and three-button remote that make it a joy to use with my iPhone, iPods and iPads.
The Klipsch X7i is my new favorite from Klipsch, and one of my favorite sub-$200 headphones, period.
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…"
RHA Audio T10i
Written by Warren Chi (warrenpchi)
Shortly before IFA 2014, RHA began to tease the community about a new flagship in-ear monitor, known only as the T10i. And while details were scant, we knew right away that it would be something special. We knew this because RHA has never teased us, about anything, ever. In the past, they have always released comprehensive product info (complete with gorgeous photography) months before anything hit the shelves. But this time, all they gave us were some textbook examples of photographic chiaroscuro.
Not surprisingly, the anticipation and speculation started to build fairly rapidly, due in part to the success of their previous flagship, the MA750i. Its non-offensive sound signature, rugged build and ample accessories represented a superb value, as it quickly became a Head-Fi favorite. It was clear that this new T10i had much to live up to, and we Head-Fiers were all too keen to imagine exactly how it would go about doing so.
Before long, answers arrived. First up was rasmushorn with his IFA-based impressions. Then, dweaver chimed in with his early impressions. When this was followed by positive reviews from Audiophile1811 and shotgunshane, we knew we had something substantive, something special.
Featuring an injection-molded metal exo-skeleton, a filter-based sound signature tuning system, newly designed patent-pending ear guides, as well as numerous other improvements, the T10i proved to be a significant leap forward in RHA's continuing evolution. Factoring in their generous tip selection, their industry-leading 3-year warranty, and their exemplary customer service - along with a very reasonable suggested retail price of only $199 USD - and it was clear that the T10i was well on its way towards becoming another instant classic.
Injection-Molded Metal Exo-Skeleton
New to the T10i, and IEMs in general, is the use of injection-molded metal construction. This grants the T10i a very soft and sculpted appearance, one full of curves and devoid of right angles, for an almost organic look and feel - all without accruing costly CNC-time during its manufacture. However, as RHA giveth, RHA seemingly taketh away: the T10i does not appear to employ RHA's Aerophonic™ design in its construction. While it's possible that the inverted horn is implemented internally, there's no external trace of it.
Filter-Based Sound Signature Tuning System
The T10i comes with three sets of tuning filters: Bass, Reference and Treble. Each of which imparts a very unique tonal character to T10i, essentially making it three IEMs in one.
The Bass filters, combined with the T10i's well-endowed bass ports, result in a potent low frequency response that sounds like there are additional bass drivers at work. And while they bring some increased sub-bass to the table, their true party trick is an extremely pronounced mid-bass hump. Personally, I did not find the Bass filters to my liking, and consider them to be an exaggeration, a caricature if you will, of RHA's house sound. However, I can imagine that more than a few basshead Head-Fiers would love them to death - a testament to their effectiveness.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Treble filters do a very respectable job of allowing more upper mids and highs to pass through, while also taming the T10i's bass response significantly. The Treble filters also cull forth mid-range detail to an astonishing degree, especially with respect to vocals. The only downside to the Treble filters is their tendency to allow some occasional stridency and sibilance to come through, particularly with troublesome recordings.
The middle of this road takes us straight to the T10i's Reference filters. And while they are still quite warm and bass-laden, they do offer us a pleasant and musical presentation that is quite enjoyable. Sub-bass output is probably the best of the three filters, being soft-spoken and yet undeniably felt with good gravitas and extension. The bass is accentuated and weighty, akin to the type of bass favored by many 2-channel speaker fanatics. The mids are surprisingly pleasant, being neither offensively recessed nor irritatingly forward. They rest comfortably in the hammock that is RHA's u-shaped house sound. As for treble, the T10 favors a rise in the upper mids over tapering highs. This makes for some lively percussion, at the expense of airiness.
I suspect that most Head-Fiers will find themselves torn between the Reference and Treble filters, depending on their genre preferences. As for myself, I use both of those filters, favoring the Reference filter over the Treble filter in a 60/40 split, and eschew the Bass filter entirely.
Newly Designed Patent-Pending Ear Guides
Unlike the MA750's ear guides - which were essentially stiffened sections of cable that favored durability over pliability - the T10i's ear guides feature a coiled spring consisting of small gauge memory-wire. As such, they are easier to bend into shape. And once set, they retain that shape without fuss or resistance. For us, the means that we get a more comfortable - and more secure - fit.
Taken altogether, the T10i's rich feature set again raises the bar in what we can expect for our hard-earned money.
In various conversations with Lewis Heath (co-founder and lead designer at RHA) over the years, I have come to realize that he is very much concerned with value... in that a thing, any thing, should offer a level of satisfaction commensurate with the price one paid for said thing. For him, achieving a respectable level of value is a key tenet of his design philosophy. The RHA T10i is certainly no exception to this rule.
Its filter-based tuning system allows those that are new to Head-Fi - i.e. average consumers - to begin exploring better quality sound, without having to upgrade too quickly. They can begin with the T10i's Bass filters, using them as a crutch, while they wean themselves over from whatever bassy, consumer-oriented unit they are currently using. Then, at their convenience and leisure, they can explore increasing levels of fidelity with the T10i's Reference and Treble filters - all without having to re-invest in a new IEM just for the sake of trying out a different sound signature. And thanks to RHA's outstanding build quality and long-standing 3-year warranty, they'll also have plenty of time to do all of the above, without having to worry about premature failure.
The RHA T10i is a miniature Head-Fi journey in and of itself, and that is a very real value.
"RHA have made an earphone like nothing else in the mid-tier category with their concept and design. "
It was a bold move by HiFiMAN to discontinue all their previous in-ear headphones with the release of the new RE-400--several of the now-legacy HiFiMAN in-ear models had diehard fans. HiFiMAN's founder Dr. Fang Bian has stated in an interview that the HiFiMAN RE-400 is a better sounding in-ear than any of the legacy models, and I wholeheartedly agree. In my opinion, the legacy line had models that were unique and specialized, and HiFiMAN needed to release more balanced, stronger overall performers. The RE-400 is an amazing start, and, to my ears, it is one of the best sub-$100 IEMs currently available.
It's not just the sound signature that HiFiMAN has made more universally appealing, but the form factor. Some of the models in the legacy lineup were made in strange shapes that I often had to explain to the uninitiated as I handed them over to listen to--anyone here remember the RE252? The RE-400 has a very classically designed metal chassis that I find more ergonomic, more comfortable, and certainly easier for me to insert than previous HiFiMAN in-ears have been. The satin metal endcap over what looks to me like a bead-blasted aluminum main housing makes for a very understated, timeless design.
The RE-400 uses an 8.5mm dynamic driver with a titanium diaphragm and neodymium magnet. Cabling is OFC (oxygen free copper), and is very light and flexible. Actually, the entire RE-400 feels light in weight, both in the hands, and, more importantly, when worn.
On my wishlist for the RE-400 are a carrying case (it doesn't come with one), and perhaps a version with an inline remote/mic on the cable. Though the RE-400 can benefit from a nice portable amp, it still sounds excellent driven directly from my mobile phones, too, so having the convenience of an inline remote/mic would be a nice option.
Because some of the past HiFiMAN models tended toward bass-light signatures, the RE-400's move to a more neutral balance actually represents a mild lift in bass in comparison to some of its popular HiFiMAN predecessors. And, to me, the RE-400 has a balance that is fairly described as neutral, and not just in comparison to legacy HiFiMAN in-ears, but in general.
From its well-extended bass to its well-extended treble--and everywhere in between--there's no sense of frequency response hotspots or deficiencies with the RE-400. Some prefer emphasis in bass, some like subdued treble, some like boosted mids, and, for all those people who like substantial deviations from flat, the RE-400 might disappoint. Those who'll love its tonal balance are those who like to listen for extended periods, and those who tend to prefer a perceived flat frequency response. For me, the RE-400 never fatigues, and that's a big deal, especially for something that's reasonably detailed across the spectrum, and is priced at under $100.
The HiFiMAN RE-400 is the first in a new line of in-ears from HiFiMAN, and, again, something I think is a big step in the right direction. Bravo, HiFiMAN! Keep 'em coming!
"For a less-than-$100 IEM that has SQ that rivals many that are priced twice or thrice as expensive in the upper tier, I think Fang has gotten his point across the IEM world."