Head-Fi.org › 2014 Winter Gift Guide › Head Fi Buying Guide In Ear Headphones 2

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

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Head-Fi Buying Guide

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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.

 

Fostex TE-05

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.

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

TYPE: Closed universal-fit in-ear monitor
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MSRP: $149
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URL: www.onkyo.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Okay, let's get this out of the way first: what the heck is up with this Onkyo's headphone names? Their headphones (over-ear and in-ear) have some of the worst, most difficult to remember names I can recall (or perhaps I should say can't recall). Thankfully, I really like the ES-CTI300, even if there's no way I'll ever be able to verbally recite its name to you.

 

Like its over-ear sibling, Onkyo's in-ear headphone comes in three different versions, differentiated only by which cables they come with. The IE-FC300 ($99) comes with a more common looking flat elastomer cable. The IE-HF300 ($129) comes with a higher-end 6N oxygen-free copper cable with lower resistance than the IE-FC300's. The IE-CTI300 ($149) has the higher-end cable, but with an Apple-certified inline three-button remote/mic. In all three models, the cables are detachable, using gold-plated MMCX connectors.

 

The driver in the IE-CTI300 is a 14.3mm (9/16") dynamic driver. Housing that large a driver requires a commensurately large housing, so the IE-CTI300 is big for an in-ear. With its cable's MMCX plug housing acting as an extension of the earpiece's body, the IE-CTI300, when worn, extends down below my earlobe--it's an elegant design to the eye that's somewhat inelegantly big worn. Fortunately, getting a fit (even with its large driver housing) was easy for me, and I think it'll be similarly easy for most.

 

My favorite thing about the IE-CTI300 is its sound. It sounds somewhat like its over-ear sibling, with its impactful bass, and its midrange and treble clarity. However, compared to the ES-CTI300, the IE-CTI300's bass is more taut, more controlled. The IE-CTI300 images nicely, too, with a tighter soundstage, but good placement of objects within that image.

 

The IE-CTI300 is a very nice universal-fit in-ear for $149. I haven't heard the versions of this headphone with the less expensive cables, but if they sound as good--and if you don't need the three-button remote--you might find even greater value in those.

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Ask the most veteran Head-Fi'ers what their first good in-ear monitor was, and the answer you may get back more than any other would be the Etymotic ER-4 (either the ER-4S or the ER-4P). The latest version of the ER-4 from Etymotic Research is the ER-4PT.

 

With a single balanced armature driver per side, the ER-4 is, in the opinion of many experienced audiophiles, one of the standards (of any type of headphone) for neutral tonal balance. You want booming bass, extra sparkle in your treble, or extra-rich mids? Look somewhere else.

 

Also, if you like the maximum amount of isolation from ambient noise, the Etymotic ER-4--with the included triple-flange tips--are rated for 35dB to 42dB of isolation. I don't know of any other IEM (universal-fit or custom) that provides more isolation from outside noise.

 

The ER-4PT is simply a modernized version of the legendary Etymotic ER-4, from the company who started so many audiophiles (including yours truly) down the road of high-end in-ear monitors.

 

"Overall, the ER-4PT is a great pair of earphones when it comes to clarity of sound and accuracy of reproduction. And while in recent years, the ER-4 series has faced increased competition in the rapidly expanding IEM market, it’s safe to say that the earphones still offer a truly impressive sound signature. It's one of those earphones that simply can't be missed in one's audio journey, and I would gladly recommend these to users who enjoy an analytical, bright, and extremely clear sound."

-Thatonenoob
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed, in-ear monitor
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MSRP: $299
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URL: www.etymotic.com

 

 

TYPE: Semi-open, universal-fit in-ear monitors 
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MSRP: $99 and $149, respectively
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URL: www.fidelio.philips.com

 

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Like I said in the Over-Ear Headphones section of this guide, Philips, after years of not being part of the Head-Fi dialog, burst onto the scene in 2012 in a big, big way. Their Fidelio over-ear headphones, in particular, have really found a good number of fans (myself included) in the Head-Fi community. Now they're entering a very crowded segment of the market with some standout in-ear headphones.

 

Going with 13.5mm dynamic drivers for their Fidelio S1 and S2 in-ears, instead of the more common balanced armature drivers, Philips delivers a sense of lightness, speed and detail that I'm used to hearing from the higher-end universal-fit balanced armature in-ears. And both the Fidelio S1 and S2 have tonal balances that are more neutral-ish, which is something else I don't typically associate with large dynamic driver in-ear monitors.

 

The Fidelio S1 retails for $99.99 and the Fidelio S2 for $149.99; but, like many Philips headphones, shopping around can yield savings on the street. As far as what differentiates them, the Fidelio S2 does have a metal front plate, compared to the Fidelio S1's, which appears to be plastic. The Fidelio S2 also has an anti-scratch glossy coating, compared to the Fidelio S1's more standard metal appearance. I believe the Fidelio S2's housing may also be made of a higher-grade metal than the S1's. Other differences include a lower nominal impedance for the higher-end Fidelio S2 (22Ω versus the Fidelio S1's 32Ω), and a greater included tip selection with the Fidelio S2.

 

As for sound, the Fidelio S1 and S2 sound quite similar--again, a more neutral sound signature that is revealing beyond any reasonable expectation at their prices. Both also sound surprisingly open for in-ears, which likely has something to do with the fact that both models are semi-open. In a word, both are fantastic, and perhaps among the best sounding in-ears at their prices.

 

My only reservations about both the Fidelio S1 and S2 include their form factors, the large bodies needed to accommodate the large dynamic drivers might be challenging for some ear shapes to easily accommodate. Also, because they're semi-open in-ears, isolation is good, but not necessarily standard-setting. On balance, though, these are very minor nits to pick.

 

The Philips Fidelio S1 and Fidelio S2 are absolutely killer values at their retail prices, and yet can often be found discounted on the street, for even greater value.

Sony XBA-3iP

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Last year, Sony announced seven new headphone models (constituting 11 total new 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.

 

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: Around $400
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URL: www.westonemusicproducts.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The Westone 4R is one of my favorite universal-fit IEMs (in-ear monitors), especially when I'm looking for a more tonally flat sound signature. And the 4R's detail retrieval is outstanding from bottom to top.

 

Across the audioband, the Westone 4R does not provide any specific area of emphasis, and certainly no over-emphasis. Bass extends low, but without any extra weight imparted by the 4R. Though detailed throughout, I find the 4R's midrange detail to be one of its greatest strengths--again, without any emphasis imparted to achieve it. The treble balance is also excellent, with enough to provide some sparkle, but never enough to impart any edginess.

 

The 4R also is very comfortable to wear, with a surprisingly compact chassis (considering there are four drivers per side). Like Westone's other universal-fit IEMs, it sits very flat in the ear, which results in an IEM that can be worn while laying your head down. Put the Westone 4R at or near the top of your list if you're looking for a more neutral sound signature, but look elsewhere if you prefer tonal emphasis of any kind (like bumped-up bass), as that's not what this IEM is about.

 

I have both the Westone 4 and the Westone 4R, and they sound the same to me. From what I can tell, the key difference is that the Westone 4's cable is permanently affixed, whereas the 4R's cable is detachable.

 

"Westone has once again raised the stakes in the driver wars between high-end IEM manufacturers – something they’ve done at least twice in the past. The fit, comfort, build quality, and isolation are all what we’ve come to expect from Westone products but it should come as no surprise that the sound of the W4 is an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, step up from the company’s previous flagships. The sound signature requires almost no qualifications for those familiar with Westone products – well-rounded, refined, and spacious, the W4 is a very difficult earphone do dislike."

-ljokerl
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

What? V-MODA makes in-ears? I'm kidding, of course. In-ears are where V-MODA got its start. In the last couple of years, though, the only thing "V-MODA" we generally talk 'bout 'round here is V-MODA's over-ears (especially the M-80 and the M-100). But years ago, when V-MODA was literally just getting started, a young man named Val Kolton called me to introduce himself and his new company, and one of his first products called the Vibe in-ear. At the time, nothing else looked like the Vibe. For the time (but certainly not by today's standards), the Vibe was good, and it was the product that launched V-MODA--and it was among the first (if not the first) in-ears that showed that tiny in-ear headphones could actually be boldly stylish.

 

Since then, V-MODA has obviously come a long way, not just in terms of sales, but in terms of audio performance, most famously in the Head-Fi community with the aforementioned M-80 and now the M-100. But there's a gem hidden away on V-MODA's website, in a section none of us seem to visit anymore, and that's its in-ear section. And the gem there is the Vibrato.

 

Still carrying on the tradition of V-MODA über-stylishness, the Vibrato has a two-tone zinc metal chassis, the backside of which (for some reason) always 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.

 

Using one 8mm dynamic driver per side, the Vibrato, in a way, is to in-ears what the M-80 is to over-ears: A moderately bass-emphasized, revealing, but smooth headphone. No, it doesn't sound exactly like the M-80, but when you hear it (and assuming you're familiar with the M-80), the familial sound is evident.

 

What a lot of folks don't know is that the Vibrato was the first V-MODA product that was made for audio enthusiasts, and it's still very much worth serious consideration if you're in the market for a hard-driving universal-fit in-ear monitor that's audiophile-friendly.

 

"The Vibrato is a great choice for those who seek a warm but detailed sound from an earphone. They are also capable of amazingly loud volume levels without distorting which is a major plus for the head-banger in you – just be careful not exhaust those ears! V-Moda's thoughtful designs have not failed to impress us yet. The Vibratos are no exception!"

-DavidMahler
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed in-ear monitor
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MSRP: Around $180
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URL: www.v-moda.com

 

 

TYPE: Closed in-ear monitor
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MSRP: Around $90
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URL: www.velodyne.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

It seems everyone and his subsidiaries want to peddle headphones nowadays, with loudspeaker manufacturers seemingly unable to resist the call. One such entry in the last year that I found particularly interesting: Velodyne. Sure, their subwoofers have been well regarded for years, but I was intrigued to find out how a company that essentially specializes in the spectrum below 200Hz (and often well below 20Hz) would do with their first headphone. As it turns out, they've done very well.

 

One might think that a subwoofer company would choose a bass-emphasized tonal balance with their first headphone, and, indeed, it did. One might fear that a subwoofer company might overdo that bass, but thankfully it didn't. The vPulse's bass is emphasized, and sounds to me to be centered in the deep bass region, without adulterating the mids. In fact, the vPulse's mids and treble seem to breathe freely, and the overall balance is just what I'd want when I feel like listening to a bass-emphasized in-ear. The vPulse's resolution is good, but don't buy the vPulse if you're a detail freak. Soundstaging is good, but, again, if this is your lead criterion, the vPulse may not win you over.

 

The vPulse looks very nice and stylish (and youthful) in blue (it's also available in a more conservative black/silver), and has a very nice three-button inline remote/mic. The vPulse is an outstanding value at around $90.

 

"The sound combines solid bass rumble and depth with slightly subdued – but still clean and detailed – mids and highs. The bass can be a touch overpowering on some tracks but normally remains well-behaved for such a bassy earphone, making the vPulse highly suitable for anyone in search of a reasonably-priced headset with plentiful rumble and power."

-ljokerl
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The Shure SE846 is, to me, one of the most exciting product announcements of last year. Years in development, Shure went way outside the box with their new four-driver, three-way flagship, and the results are, in my opinion, spectacular.

 

One of Shure's goals for the SE846 was to create what Shure has coined a "True Subwoofer Experience." The word "subwoofer" has led some to believe that Shure is going to release a bass-overblown IEM, which wasn't their goal at all. Deep bass extension? Yes. Impactful? Of course. But let's not forget that at least part of a well-implemented subwoofer's charge is to free up smaller drivers from the encumbrance of trying to produce deep bass, to allow the mids to breathe freely, more effortlessly. In this respect, Shure killed it with the SE846. Killed it.

 

How they did it is, in the world of IEMs, extremely daring, innovative. They created a patent pending acoustic low-pass filter. The output from the dual bass drivers that make up each of the SE846 earpiece's "subwoofer" is run through a high acoustic mass pathway carved into ten precision-welded stainless steel plates. That channel, if unfurled, would be approximately four inches long, and allows the low-frequency roll-off to happen acoustically. The result is deep, impactful bass, with remarkable midrange presence and clarity.

 

Shure also developed a system of changeable nozzle inserts that allows the user to customize the treble profile of the SE846, with three different choices that Shure refers to as balanced (which comes installed), warm, and bright. It's easy to adjust, the changing of the nozzles taking me less than a minute. I've found myself using both the balanced and bright options, with the bright insert being the one that gets the most use. If you love the SE535, but wished for a bit more treble extension and sparkle, you're probably going to love the bright insert, too.

 

I want to be clear that the Shure SE846 is not just a couple of gimmicks thrown together to provide fodder for good marketing pieces--the SE846 is a precisely integrated, meticulously tuned flagship in-ear monitor that uses true innovation as a means to an end.

 

I have several top-notch custom in-ear monitors--headphones I feel are among the best in the world, regardless of form factor--and the Shure SE846 is one of only two universal-fit IEMs I've used that is very much a competitor to those.

 

Even at a street price of $1000.00, the Shure SE846 is a huge hit with Head-Fi'ers.

 

"The SE846 sound very natural, plain and simple. The timbre of any percussive instrument, be it animal skins or woods all the way to the metal crash of a cymbal just sounds right. The decay of sound is fantastic."

-dieblanc343
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Universal-fit in-ear monitor
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MSRP: $999
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URL: www.shure.com

 

Noble Audio 4  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
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 find these to be highly transparent, enjoyable IEMs, with great amounts of detail, very little sibilance, and not a truckload of bass. In a word: Neutral."

-White Lotus
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

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.

 

"The UE 900, despite the steep price tag, is a well thought-out replacement, both sonically and as an overall package. It provides better ergonomics, optional headset functionality, and an improved cable, as well as punchy, smooth, non-fatiguing sound that doesn’t butcher low-bitrate tracks."

-ljokerl
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

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

 

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: Closed, in-ear, active noise-canceling headphones
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MSRP: $299.95
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URL: www.bose.com

 

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

"Big sound. Small footprint." That's thinksound's motto, their mission statement being "to create incredible sounding headphones with the smallest eco-footprint possible." At a time when so many of us are becoming increasingly conscious about how we impact the environment, how could I not include something from thinksound in this guide? This was made even easier by the fact their flagship product, the ms01, sounds quite good for its street price of around $100.

 

The eco-friendly vibe is strong with this one, with extensive use of natural-color cardboard, and very minimal use of plastic. The carrying case is also a simple unbleached cotton drawstring pouch. Each earpiece consists of a beautiful brown wood housing with gunmetal-colored aluminum baffles. At first glance, the aluminum baffles look like something hammered to shape. The cables are tangle-resistant and PVC-free. Aesthetically, the ms01 is a very simple, elegant design. I'm not sure why, but every time I look at the ms01, I think of little craft art shops in Bridgetown, Barbados, and that makes me smile.

 

The "ms" in "ms01" stands for "monitor series," and I can see where they're coming from with that label, especially for how it sounds relative to most other in-ears in its price range, which tend to be either bass-heavy or bass-and-treble-heavy. The ms01 takes a rather even-keeled approach to its tonal balance, with impactful, fast bass, good clarity through the midrange, and what sounds to me like a dash of treble emphasis, but thankfully not in the sibilance range. The ms01 also images nicely.

 

On sound alone, it's a worthy competitor at its price. Throw its eco-cool spirit into the mix, and it becomes more of a standout in an increasingly crowded space.

 

"Thinksound's formula has always been beautiful in its simplicity – combine one part enhanced bass with one part clarity, add stylish, well-crafted housings made from renewable materials, and package it all with great attention to detail. The MS01 doesn't stray far from its predecessors – it's not a monitoring earphone as the name seems to imply, but it delivers great sound and retains the upmarket look and feel of the other Thinksound models."

-ljokerl
Head-Fi Member/Reviewer

TYPE: Closed in-ear monitor
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MSRP: Around $100
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URL: www.thinksound.com

 

 

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Comments (1)

"With their first two headphones--one in-ear (this one) and one over-ear (the M500)--KEF has come out batting .1000,"
 
That is one poor batting average. That type of batting average would put you back in the minor leagues. Didn't you mean 1.000? ;)
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