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Head-Fi.org › 2015 Holiday Buying Guide › Head Fi Buying Guide In Ear Headphones 2

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

Introduction
Over-Ear Headphones
In-Ear Headphones
Wireless Headphones
Gaming Headphones
Exercise Headphones
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Ultra-High-End Headphones (Summit-Fi)
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Head-Fi Buying Guide

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Torque Audio t096z  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png

Written by Amos Barnett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

TYPE: Customizable, universal-fit in-ear monitor
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PRICE: $329.95
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URL: torque.audio
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.

 

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

TYPE: Closed, custom-fit in-ear monitor 
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PRICE: Starting at $1,649
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URL: www.jhaudio.com

TYPE: Closed, universal-fit in-ear monitor
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MSRP: $199.99
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URL: www.kef.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

With their first two headphones--one in-ear (this one) and one over-ear (the M500)--KEF has come out batting .1000, both headphones being wonderful. Perhaps given all they've accomplished in loudspeaker design I shouldn't be so surprised.

 

This KEF M200 is an unusually designed IEM, consisting of two dynamic drivers per side, one directly behind the other. The one in the back is a 10mm low-frequency driver, the one in the front a 5.5mm mid/high driver. The low-frequency driver's output is ported through a cast aluminum chamber at the center of which is mounted the mid/high driver, so that the low-frequency driver's output is effectively being ported forward around that mid/high driver, with the output of the two combined at the nozzle.

 

The sound of the KEF M200 is outstanding, with emphasized, but very well controlled, bass. The low-frequency driver's integration into the mid/high driver's output is, to my ears, seamless--had I not known ahead of time that the M200 was a dual-driver design, I wouldn't have guessed. While KEF M200 is not quite at the performance level of Shure's SE846, the KEF M200's midband breathes very freely, reminding me (in that specific regard) of the flagship Shure IEM--as with the Shure, the KEF's lower mids are clean, untouched by the M200's bass bump. Also, the M200's treble is extended and smooth. Sonically, thanks in part to the solidity of its bass--and its free-breathing mids--I think the KEF M200 sounds big.

 

In terms of its industrial design, the KEF M200 is gorgeous, with the same chunky, sharp-edged matte aluminum look and feel of the KEF M500. The M200 is a cable-down design, with ear hooks that go over yours ears for fit and stability. Unfortunately, the M200 is also chunky in a way that's not good: to accommodate the unique configuration of its drivers, the KEF M200 uses very thick nozzles, so some with smaller ear canals may have difficulty getting a good fit. (My ear canals are of average size, and the M200 fits my ears very comfortably.)

 

As with its M500 over-ear headphone, KEF has a very well executed IEM with the KEF M200.

Written by Warren P. Chi:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

-Zelda
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed, universal-fit in-ear monitor
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MSRP: $129.95
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URL: www.rha-audio.com
Fostex TE-05

TYPE: Universal-fit in-ear monitor
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MSRP: $149.99
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URL: www.fostexinternational.com

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.

Sony XBA-3iP

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Sony released seven headphone models (constituting 11 total SKUs) using balanced armature (BA) drivers. I haven't heard them all, but, of the ones I did hear, the XBA-3iP was the one that most caught my attention at the time.

 

Unlike most manufacturers that source balanced armature drivers from other companies, my understanding is that Sony developed their own BA's. Using three of their new BA drivers per side in the XBA-3iP, Sony has achieved a level of refinement and balance with the XBA-3iP that some companies have taken years to realize.

 

The XBA-3iP also has a very nice form factor, with earpieces that look simple and elegant, and with a nice shape that's very easy to grab between your thumb and forefinger for very quick and easy ear insertion.

 

With weighty yet detailed bass, neutral'ish (if somewhat subdued) mids, and detailed, well-extended neutral-balanced treble, the XBA-3iP is a very good universal-fit in-ear monitor. While it doesn't quite reach the performance heights (to my ears) of the Westone 4R or Phonak Audéo PFE232, it also doesn't reach their price strata. At its price point, the XBA-3iP has become one of my favorite universal-fit IEMs.

 

(There is also a version without the three-button remote/mic called the XBA-3, which is priced around $200 to $230.)

TYPE: Closed in-ear monitor
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MSRP: $150
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URL: www.sony.com
TYPE: Closed, universal-fit in-ear monitor
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MSRP: $1,295 ~ $2,195
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URL: www.tralucentaudio.com

 

From Warren P. Chi:

 

One of last year's 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
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

-mark2410 (Mark Ramos)
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

RHA Audio T10i  

Written by Warren Chi (warrenpchi)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 


 

Injection-Molded Metal Exo-Skeleton

 

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

 

Filter-Based Sound Signature Tuning System

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Newly Designed Patent-Pending Ear Guides

 

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

 


 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

A custom-fit IEM is custom-molded to your ears, so it will fit only one person in the world perfectly--you. One would think, then, that a custom-fit IEM is already as custom as it gets. Not anymore. Ultimate Ears released what might reasonably be called a custom custom-fit IEM--one in which the physical fit isn't the only thing customized to fit you, but also the sonic fit. It's called the Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor, and, as its name suggests, you tune it to your own personal sonic preferences.

 

To accommodate this level of customization, a higher level of personal service is required. Once an order for the Personal Reference Monitor is placed, the customer is assigned a personal service specialist to guide him through the fitting, design, and custom-tuning of the Personal Reference Monitor. The custom-tuning of the Personal Reference Monitor involves a sit-down session with a device called the Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Tuning Box. To start, there will be four locations in the U.S. equipped with the Personal Reference Tuning box, in Irvine (California), Los Angeles, Nashville, and New York City. If you don't happen to be lucky enough to be an easy trip away from one of these locations, Ultimate Ears is currently working on making the tuning experience more accessible, in more places.

 

Simply put, my right ear is better than my left one. My right ear has greater acuity through some of the mids and treble than my left. It has been this way for years. Using the Personal Reference Tuning Box, I tuned my Personal Reference Monitor to help compensate for my left ear's deficiency (versus my right). I also tuned the tonal balance to be neutral'ish, but with just a touch more bass than neutral, more emphasis on the mids for greater midrange presence and bloom, and just a hair's breadth above neutral in the treble region. The resulting monitors--my Personal Reference Monitor--is now my favorite of all my custom in-ear monitors, imaging better (perhaps because of the left-right compensation), and suiting my preferences more closely than any other custom in-ear I currently have.

 

I strongly recommend the Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor for anyone who's wanted to try compensating for differences between one's ears, and/or for anyone simply interested in reaching a higher level of customizability in custom in-ear monitors.

 

(For more details about the product and the process, click here.)

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The 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
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed, in-ear monitor
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MSRP: $399.99
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URL: www.ultimateears.com

 

Noble Audio 4  
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
TYPE: Universal-fit in-ear monitors
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PRICE: $450
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URL: www.nobleaudio.com

Written by Warren Chi (warrenpchi)

 

In many ways, the Noble 4 is the least "Noble" model in their entire line-up.  This is not to suggest that it's peasantry in any way.  Far from it.  It's just very different from anything that a rank-and-file Noble fan would expect.

 

The Noble 4 isn't warm or bassy like other Noble models.  It's primarily a universal IEM, though a custom version does exist in the Noble 4C.  And - unless you specifically opt for the Wizard's (Dr. John Mouton's) exquisite artistry and craftsmanship - it's just plain, black, ABS plastic.  There's no terabit-capable hardwood from Pandoran trees... no finely-ground and glittery unicorn horns... no pearlescent mermaid tears swirled in... not even a token dragon scale or two.  It's simply the most ignoble Noble that you can possibly get.  

 

But the one thing that truly sets the Noble 4 apart is its flat sound signature.  And that - more than anything else - is what makes it so right!

 

As a staunch advocate and loyal user of an Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor (UERM), a paragon of neutrality in its own right, I find myself surprisingly impressed by the Noble 4 - and that's saying something.  In fact, I am so enamored with its even-keeled presentation that I now consider it worthy of being a flat universal counterpart to my UERM.  It is as neutral or "perceived flat" as my UERM?  No, that it is not.  But its particular flavor of linear flatness is akin to, and eerily reminiscent of, many a studio monitor headphone - earning it a very special place in my collection.

 

And yes, to answer the urgent question that just popped into your minds, this means that the Noble 4 just superseded the Etymotic ER-4PT as my flat universal IEM of choice.

 

They both share the same mid-centric and neutral signature for which the ER-4PT is famous (or infamous depending on whom you ask).  But the Noble 4 offers several sonic advantages that noticeably enhance my listening experience.  Compared to the ER-4PT, the Noble 4 is:  
 

  • Better extended at the bottom end, which addresses a long-standing complaint of mine about the ER-4PT's somewhat anemic bass response;
  • More linear moving from the mids through the upper mids, which helps to tame overly-forward vocal presentations;
  • Slightly boosted moving into the highs - which does deviate from a flat response, but ultimately makes for a more enjoyable listen;
  • Better with separation and imaging for a more holographic presentation; and
  • Better at detail retrieval across the entire frequency range.

 

There's only one place where the Noble 4 loses out to the ER-4PT sonically, and that is in the area of refinement, where the Noble 4 lacks the buttery smoothness of the ER-4PT.  However, given the advantages mentioned above, that is a trade-off that I would take any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

 

Additionally, the Noble 4 offers several usability advantages that I appreciate greatly.  The Noble 4's cable - which is removable, thus allowing for the use of different cables - is not nearly as microphonic as that of the ER-4PT.  The use of standard tips and ear guides also means that the Noble 4 doesn't require the jaw-droppingly, earlobe-pullingly and ear-canal-stuffingly deep insertion that the ER-4PT demands.  Of course, this results in diminished isolation.  But given the Noble 4's easier insertion, superior comfort, and flexibility in tip experimentation, I'm more than willing to suffer that drop in isolation.  And should isolation ever truly become an issue, there is always the aforementioned 4C (custom) variant.

 

In speaking with Brannan Mason of Noble Audio, I wasn't terribly surprised to learn that the Noble 4 is one of their best selling models, despite its deviation from their house sound.  Regardless of what your personal preferences might be, all of us can appreciate having a well-tempered signature within our collections, which probably helps to explain why so many of us have one ER-4 variant or another.  But if you've come to feel that your ER-4 is becoming somewhat dated, or you've been searching long and hard for a successor to address its shortcomings, the Noble 4 is - more likely than not - your huckleberry.

 

"I personally consider the Noble 4U to be an extremely satisfying, refined, mature upgrade from the Vsonic GR07, Vsonic VC1000 or the Etymotic HF5."

-Airlight
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Echobox Finder X1  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
TYPE: Universal-fit in-ear monitor
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PRICE: $199
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URL: www.evolutionofaudio.com

Written by Warren Chi (warrenpchi)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Finder is a killer IEM, one of the few universals I can actually use for hours without much trouble. And it sounds great too!” -project86

*For a limited time - until December 15th, 2015 - the Finder X1 is being featured in Echobox's debut crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, at an introductory price of only $79, which is an absolute steal.

Final Audio Design Heaven VI

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Kanemori Takai is an icon in the Japanese high-end audio scene. The current president and founder of Final Audio Design, Takai-san started Final Audio Design with a line of high-end moving coil phono cartridges and booster transformers back in 1974. Many legendary products have come from Final in the decades since its founding. On Head-Fi, though, their in-ear headphones are popular with some, yet still enigmatic.

 

I was honored to finally meet Takai-san at the 2013 CanJam @ Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver, and even more honored when he asked me to try one of his latest creations at the time, his Final Audio Design Heaven VI in-ear monitor.

 

With a single balanced armature driver per ear, the Heaven VI is unusual at its price point, where, most commonly, we're used to seeing multi-driver balanced armature in-ears. Then again, Final Audio Design hasn't exactly earned a reputation for being at all typical. When I think of Japanese audio esoterica, Final Audio Design is one of the first marks that come to my mind.

 

The Heaven VI is a straight-body design, looking a bit like something Etymotic's Mead Killion might have designed for a night out on the town. Simple though it is, the Heaven VI's polished chrome copper housing is beautiful.

 

The Heaven VI's sound was surprising to me. With its one armature per side, I was expecting to hear something similar to an Etymotic ER-4 type sound. What I'm hearing instead is something more impactful, with more bass than I was expecting (though this is still not a basshead's in-ear). The midrange is really very nice, and wonderfully detailed. Final claims the Heaven VI "perfectly reproduces the sound of a human voice," and while I don't know that I'd go that far, I felt challenged to test that claim with the 40-part motet Spem in alium, a couple of albums sung by Cantus, and a lot of my favorite vocal-centric jazz, pop and rock; and, indeed, the Heaven VI renders human voices clearly and with body. Also, I enjoy the Heaven VI's treble presence that has yet to veer into harsh territory with me. Imaging with the Heaven VI is very good, spacious for a deep-insertion in-ear.

 

In the bins of in-ears we have here at Head-Fi HQ, there nothing here that sounds just like the Heaven VI. And the sonic qualities of the Heaven VI that make it unique are what make it an absolute pleasure to listen to.

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

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

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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