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Head-Fi.org › 2016 Holiday Buying Guide › Head Fi Buying Guide In Ear Headphones 2

Head-Fi Buying Guide (In-Ear Headphones) 2

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Type:   Sound-isolating electrostatic earphone system (Electrostatic earphones, amp, and DAC)

 

Price:   $2,999 USD

 

URL:   http://www.shure.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

When a company with a sterling history spanning decades decides to marshal its resources and countless man-years of knowledge and ingenuity to make the best product it can, the results can be amazing. Sennheiser did it with the HD 800, the original Orpheus, and now the new Orpheus. Sony had the MDR-R10. Stax has the SR-009. Products like these show that legends can be born from such efforts. Shure has now absolutely blasted its way onto this list of legends with its latest flagship--the Shure KSE1500 Sound-Isolating Electrostatic Earphones.

Developed over an eight-year period--the project pulling in as many as 40 Shure staffers at times--the KSE1500 is a lesson in good crazy, and it started at the top when Shure’s leadership (headed by Shure President and CEO Sandy LaMantia) listened to and approved the flagship that started as a top-secret, exploratory project within Shure’s skunkworks. Amazingly, this product was given the green light to move forward by the senior management team at a major corporation like Shure well before the premium IEM market had grown into what it is today--long before anyone could have known that there'd be a market for such an expensive IEM system. Of course, as most of you know, the market for high-end IEMs had come into its own, so the timing ended up working well for it.

If any of you have ever taken a tour of Shure's secretive R&D facilities, then you know about the fantastic and vast resources they have at their disposal. When they mobilize those resources with the minds and hands of 40+ team members--along with the yearsnecessary to get it where they wanted it--you just might end up with a masterpiece. And Shure ended up with a masterpiece.

Again, the KSE1500 is an electrostatic earphone system. Specifically, and uniquely, it is a sound-isolating electrostatic in-ear system, which I'm quite certain is a first. In terms of isolation, it's rated for over 30 decibels of passive noise attenuation. The KSE1500 uses one full-range electrostatic driver per side. Shure's specifications show a frequency response of 10 Hz to 50 kHz, and a maximum SPL (or sound pressure level) of 113 decibels.

Because full-range electrostatic headphones require specialized, high-voltage amplification, the Shure KSE1500 is a system, consisting of the earphones and a specialized portable amplifier. In the case of the KSE1500 system, the amp unit is not just an electrostatic amplifier, it's actually also a DAC. The KSE1500's DAC accepts digital connections via USB, and is also Apple MFI certified, so can it can directlydigitally connect to modern iDevices (iPhones, iPads, iPods) without the camera connection kit. It is also compatible with Android devices that support USB Audio Class 2 and Micro-B OTG connectivity. The KSE1500's built-in DAC supports up to 24-bit / 96 kHz, including 88.2 kHz.

The system also includes a built-in easy-to-use 4-band parametric equalizer that's easy to use. For quick adjustments, there are some built-in equalizer presets, including flat, low boost, vocal boost, loudness, and de-ess (to reduce sibilance). The amp's EQ and other settings are easy to access through an easy-to-understand, easy-to-use menu of options, adjustments, and settings.

If you already have a source component that you want to use with the KSE1500, there's an analog input via 3.5mm mini stereo jack. Because we have top-notch source components (portable and desktop) at the office--sources that I've found to exploit the KSE1500's remarkable performance envelope more fully than its built-in DAC--I most often use the KSE1500 via its analog input.

The KSE1500's DAC/amp is charged via USB, and will provide around 10 hours of operation from a full charge using the analog input and EQ bypass. When you engage the DAC and/or the equalizer, battery life is around seven hours from a full charge. The amp is beautifully constructed of black anodized aluminum, and feels ruggedly built. Inside is a ten-layer PCB that helps make the KSE1500 all but impervious to radio frequency interference in my experience with it so far.

Those of you into electrostatic headphones are no doubt familiar with the Stax name. They make some of the best sounding headphones ever made. I own Stax's current flagship SR009, as well as the SR007 Mark I, and I currently have their most recent SR-L700 on hand. All three of these headphones are world-class beyond argument, in my opinion. Now some of you may not have known that Stax also makes in-ear electrostats, like the Stax SR002. Stax's in-ears are very nice sounding, but, in my opinion, nowhere near the performance level of the top-flight Stax over-ears, whether in stock form or modified. Make no mistake about it, though: The new Shure KSE1500 competes not with Stax's in-ears, but at the level of Stax's best over-ears. The Shure KSE1500 is, in every way, a world-class headphone, regardless of form factor.

Because the KSE1500 is closed-back, and isolates so well, it has some very unique qualities. In essence, it's kind of like listening to world-class headphones in an anechoic chamber. That is, when you block out over 30 decibels of outside noise, details that are lost under the burden of typical ambient noise floors are uncovered. When you're talking about that kind of isolation coupled with the detail retrieval and performance of high-end electrostats, it's something very special--a blacker background from which even the tiniest details are laid more bare, in clearer relief.

In terms of tonal balance, the Shure KSE1500 is a bit hard for me to describe, as it strikes me as so natural as to be neutral--yet it doesn't sound flat. Having let many other people listen to it, the KSE1500 has had more universal appeal than I can recall any headphone not named "Orpheus" having. That is, many who've heard it who like emphasized bass have found it incredible; many who've heard it who prefer neutrality have found it incredible; many who've heard it who prefer brighter headphones have found it incredible. It's almost like asking someone what they think of the sound of live, unamplified acoustic instruments or singing in a good acoustic. Natural and real transcend audio gear personal preferences.

That said, the Shure KSE1500 has strong bass when called for, presented in great detail and with ease. While it may not be as capable of delivering the slam and sheer impact that some of its high-end multi-armature competitors can, the overall quality of the KSE1500's bass is the best I've heard in an in-ear headphone. In fact, relative to any other in-ear headphone, from low bass to as high as I can hear in the treble range, the KSE1500 presents among the most realistic, most timbrally rich and lifelike presentations as I've ever heard from a headphone.

The KSE1500 also images fantastically well--also among the top tier of any headphone I've heard. No, it doesn't image as wide or airy as some of the top open-backs can, but the level at which it can convey the coherence of a sonic image--the anchoring and placement of players and singers in the soundscape--can be jarringly good at times.

I could go on and on about the Shure KSE1500, but I'm running out of space. Since it has arrived here, it has received the lion's share of my ear time. Why? Because it does what it does--and what it does is be a world-class electrostatic rig--and I can take it with me. It's the closest thing as I'll have to an Orpheus in a backpack, that I can use on an airplane, in a library, at a coffee house or book store--almost anywhere.

The Shure KSE1500 is, again, the best sounding in-ear headphone I've ever heard. It's also, in my opinion, one of the best sounding headphones of any type that you can buy today.

 


 

"Is it the GREATEST? The answer for me is YES, a true TOTL, flaghip of flagships."

- tassadar

Type:   Universal-fit in-ear monitor

 

Price:   $799.95 USD

 

URL:   http://www.sennheiser.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The mighty Sennheiser HD 800 is, in my opinion, a masterpiece--one of the finest examples of modern headphone innovation and engineering. One of the key figures behind the HD 800's development was Axel Grell, Sennheiser's Product Manager High End. I had wondered in the past about what would happen if you turned Axel loose on IEM development, and was thrilled when I found out that's just what Sennheiser had done. The IE 800 is the result.

 

For those familiar with Sennheiser's IEMs of the past several years, perhaps it wasn't a shock that Sennheiser chose to go with a dynamic driver for their flagship IEM. What is surprising is that the single extra wide band dynamic driver they developed is only 7mm in diameter, and its sound is huge.

 

Something else unique about the IE 800 is something Sennheiser has coined Attenuated Dual Channel Absorbers (D2CA), which, as its name suggests, is a patent-pending damped two-chamber absorber designed to eliminate the 7kHz to 8kHz peak that occurs when you shift your ear channel's resonance by blocking the canal. According to Axel, unremedied, the peak masks normal high frequencies present in the signal.

 

The science and acoustics engineering you get into when talking to Axel are beyond my very limited knowledge of such things, but I'm always happy to experience the results of all it--the listening part.

 

Before you accuse me of being a fanboy, I strongly suggest you page through this guide, and look at how many non-exercise in-ears by Sennheiser you see in it (other than this IE 800). Count 'em up, and you'll get to...exactly none. I think Sennheiser makes good in-ears--I liked (but certainly didn't love) the likes of the IE 80 (and the IE 8 before it), but, over the last several years, I have tended to prefer, at most price points, IEM products from Sennheiser's competitors. The IE 800, however, is amazingly good--one of the two best universal-fit in-ears I've ever heard, and one of my current favorite headphones of any form factor.

 

The IE 800 also images beautifully, with a wide, coherent soundstage (for an in-ear), instruments and voices in good recordings precisely placed. The first time I heard Amber Rubarth's Sessions from the 17th Ward (Binaural) through the IE 800, it was using the Astell&Kern AK100 playing the 24-bit/192kHz version of the album. If you have this combination of gear and music, cue it up, close your eyes--it's transcendent, the music beautiful, the fidelity of it through the gear complete. Guitar, violin, cello, Amber's voice, all gently washing over each other, clearly occupying the same acoustic. (I'm actually listening to this combo, and this album, as I'm typing this.)

 

The IE 800's tonal balance isn't one of neutrality--tonally, this isn't the in-ear version of the Sennheiser HD 800, which to me is more neutral. The IE 800 has bass emphasis--well-executed bass emphasis to my ears--its emphasis low on the spectrum, the mids not masked in the least by the bass. The IE 800's bass, though emphasized, is detailed and fast. The IE 800's midrange has a lush airiness about it, and the treble is sparkly, extended, precise.

 

The IE 800 is also very comfortable in my ears, with the included oval cross section eartips. The relatively straight, shallow insertion also makes for a comfortable piece for long listening sessions. Not that it matters much, but I also think the IE 800 is the single best looking universal-fit IEM on the market. Its ceramic body--with its sculpted curves around what I assume are two openings related to the dual dampers (that look to me like the jet outlets from an advanced stealth fighter)--is absolutely gorgeous.

 

So it sounds amazing, it's comfortable, and it's a looker. Is the IE 800 as good as my best custom IEMs? In some respects (like that gorgeous midrange), yes. In some respects (like the bass, which sounds fast but not faaaast), no. And, though comfortable, it's hard to beat the comfort of a piece molded exactly to the shape of your ears. If customs give you pause, should you consider the IE 800? Omigosh, yes.

 


 

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

-  notaris

Type:   Closed, custom-fit, in-ear monitor

 

Price:   Starting at $1,649 USD

 

URL:   http://www.jhaudio.com

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.

 

Watch our Head-Fi TV episode that covers the JH Audio Sirens Series Roxanne for more information, and a closer look at it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Type:   Universal-fit in-ear monitor

 

Price:   $1,295 - 2,195 USD

 

URL:   http://www.tralucentaudio.com

Written by Warren Chi (warrenpchi)

 

One of the most popular in-ear monitors within the Head-Fi community is Tralucent Audio's 1plus2, a universal hybrid IEM from Hong Kong.

 

The 1plus2 packs a three-way crossover, one 10mm dynamic driver, and two Knowles TWFK balanced armature drivers into a specially tuned and vented housing that resembles a custom in-ear more than it does a universal.

 

Devotees of the 1plus2's sound signature praise it for coming disturbingly close to full-sized over-ears in several respects. The large dynamic drivers deliver an impressively punchy and visceral bass response - while twin BA drivers in each ear serve up superior coherency for improved imaging and separation. The specially tuned and vented housing tops it all off by creating an expansive soundstage that is, for many, sufficiently out-of-head so as to betray its in-ear form factor.

 

Overall, the 1plus2 carries a subtle U-shaped signature that is reminiscent of a classic audiophile presentation... albeit at the expense of a forward vocal presence in the mid-range.

 

Housings are available in your choice of three shell colors (black carbon fiber, red acrylic and blue acrylic), with three different faceplace varieties (carbon fiber, silver and gold). Customers wishing to mix-and-match housing options for easier channel identification can do so at the time of order.

 

Additionally, the 1plus2 is offered with one of three cables: silver ($1,295 total), gold ($1,495 total), and uBer (approximately $2,195 total). Each of these cables present their own interpretation of the 1plus2's basic signature, with the uBer cable widely considered to be noticeably and understandably superior.

 

If you've always wanted a top of the line in-ear, but have always been skittish about jumping into customs due to their inherently low resale value, the Tralucent 1plus2 may be just the ticket for you.

 


 

"What I do like about the 1Plus2 is that the mids have great clarity and timbre. There is a great rawness in emotions I always feel when I listen to strings on it. The 1Plus2 is no slouch in terms of voices either. In fact, I do love the purity it renders on vocals."

- Kiats

 

 

 

Type:   Universal-fit in-ear monitors

 

Price:   $149 and $249 USD, respectively

 

URL:   http://www.sony.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Type:   Universal-fit in-ear monitors

 

Price:   $99 USD

 

URL:   http://www.hifiman.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

It was a bold move by HiFiMAN to discontinue all their previous in-ear headphones with the release of the new RE-400--several of the now-legacy HiFiMAN in-ear models had diehard fans. HiFiMAN's founder Dr. Fang Bian has stated in an interview that the HiFiMAN RE-400 is a better sounding in-ear than any of the legacy models, and I wholeheartedly agree. In my opinion, the legacy line had models that were unique and specialized, and HiFiMAN needed to release more balanced, stronger overall performers. The RE-400 is an amazing start, and, to my ears, it is one of the best sub-$100 IEMs currently available.

 

It's not just the sound signature that HiFiMAN has made more universally appealing, but the form factor. Some of the models in the legacy lineup were made in strange shapes that I often had to explain to the uninitiated as I handed them over to listen to--anyone here remember the RE252? The RE-400 has a very classically designed metal chassis that I find more ergonomic, more comfortable, and certainly easier for me to insert than previous HiFiMAN in-ears have been. The satin metal endcap over what looks to me like a bead-blasted aluminum main housing makes for a very understated, timeless design.

 

The RE-400 uses an 8.5mm dynamic driver with a titanium diaphragm and neodymium magnet. Cabling is OFC (oxygen free copper), and is very light and flexible. Actually, the entire RE-400 feels light in weight, both in the hands, and, more importantly, when worn.

 

On my wishlist for the RE-400 are a carrying case (it doesn't come with one), and perhaps a version with an inline remote/mic on the cable. Though the RE-400 can benefit from a nice portable amp, it still sounds excellent driven directly from my mobile phones, too, so having the convenience of an inline remote/mic would be a nice option.

 

Because some of the past HiFiMAN models tended toward bass-light signatures, the RE-400's move to a more neutral balance actually represents a mild lift in bass in comparison to some of its popular HiFiMAN predecessors. And, to me, the RE-400 has a balance that is fairly described as neutral, and not just in comparison to legacy HiFiMAN in-ears, but in general.

 

From its well-extended bass to its well-extended treble--and everywhere in between--there's no sense of frequency response hotspots or deficiencies with the RE-400. Some prefer emphasis in bass, some like subdued treble, some like boosted mids, and, for all those people who like substantial deviations from flat, the RE-400 might disappoint. Those who'll love its tonal balance are those who like to listen for extended periods, and those who tend to prefer a perceived flat frequency response. For me, the RE-400 never fatigues, and that's a big deal, especially for something that's reasonably detailed across the spectrum, and is priced at under $100.

 

The HiFiMAN RE-400 is the first in a new line of in-ears from HiFiMAN, and, again, something I think is a big step in the right direction. Bravo, HiFiMAN! Keep 'em coming!

 

 

Type:   Closed, on-ear headphone

 

Price:   $999 USD

 

URL:   http://www.ditaaudio.com

Written by Amos Barnett (Currawong)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

Type:   Universal-fit in-ear monitor

 

Price:   $180 USD

 

URL:   http://www.v-moda.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The V-MODA Zn is the first new in-ear headphone from V-MODA in four years. The earpieces may look like the previous V-MODA Vibrato--continuing with the design that still reminds me of a metalized ball-and-claw foot you might find at the end of a cabriole leg on some sinister piece of fantasy furniture--but inside, the Zn is new, and sounds new. The driver is still a single 8mm dynamic in each ear, and the nominal impedance still 16Ω, but the driver as newly tuned with the goals of increasing accuracy, improving frequency response, and lowering distortion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Type:   Universal-fit, active noise-canceling  in-ear monitors

 

Price:   $299.95 USD

 

URL:   http://www.bose.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Type:   Universal-fit in-ear monitor

 

Price:   $180 USD

 

URL:   http://www.rha-audio.com

Written by Warren Chi (warrenpchi)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 


 

Injection-Molded Metal Exo-Skeleton

 

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

 

Filter-Based Sound Signature Tuning System

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Newly Designed Patent-Pending Ear Guides

 

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

 


 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 


 

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

- gikigill

 

Type:   Universal-fit in-ear monitors

 

Price:   $399 USD

 

URL:   http://www.ultimateears.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The Triple.Fi 10 Pro was easily one of the best IEMs available when it was released back in 2007, carrying that strength in the years since to become a classic. However, 2012 brings the Triple.Fi 10 Pro's successor in the Logitech UE 900, and, in my opinion, the UE 900 is a vast improvement, in terms of fit, in terms of sound.

 

Unlike its predecessor, the UE 900 sits flush in your ears, and has a more reasonably sized nozzle that shouldn't send the small-eared among us running for cover the way the Triple.Fi 10 Pro does. In the ear, the UE 900 sits and looks like a custom IEM by Ultimate Ears.

 

The UE 900 crafted by the same team responsible for Ultimate Ears' custom in-ear monitors. It uses four balanced armature drivers per side, in three-way setup--two bass drivers, one midrange driver, and one high frequency driver.

 

Most importantly, though--even in the strongest, most competitive field of IEMs ever--the UE 900, to my ears, joins the Westone 4R and Phonak PFE 232 at the top of the universal-fit IEM heap. For the UE 900, the Ultimate Ears team chose a revealing, neutral-ish sound signature. No, its not as neutral as their custom Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor (there's not much I've heard that is), but relative to universal-fit monitor offerings currently on the market, neutral-ish is a just descriptor.

 

Relative to its super-neutral custom sibling, the UE 900 has midrange that is more forward than neutral, and, to my ears, treble that's a bit softer and smoother than perfectly neutral. I find the UE 900's bass neutral and solid, but some used to be some boost might find it too flat (I am certainly not among them). Still, the UE 900, to my ears, is a very revealing universal-fit IEM, and one that puts Ultimate Ears back among the top-tier universal-fit in-ear monitors. I bounce between the Ultimate Ears UE 900, Westone's W4R, and Phonak's PFE232, and I still can't believe universal-fit IEMs have come this far.

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

"They have a very unique look, a great detailed sound, a nicely balanced signature for non-fatigue listening, and come with an uber amount of eartips!"

- twister6

 

 

 

 

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