If your tonal preference is more toward neutral, but not entirely so, then Westone's flagship five-drivers-per-side ES5 is a fantastic choice. It is more neutral than the JH13 Pro, but with richer midrange than UE's IERM. In terms of detail retrieval, it is on par with the other flagships.
Other major selling points of the ES5 include its comfort and isolation. Westone's ES series of custom IEMs all have the Westone heat-activated "flex canal," which makes my ES5 one of the most comfortable IEMs I've worn. That soft tip also results in better isolation than most of my other custom-fit IEMs provide.
Also, Westone's ES5 packaging is second-to-none, with a Pelican case, and a very cool dessicant cylinder fitted to the interior of that case (to help keep your ES5 dry).
At the 2015 Spring Tokyo Fujiya Avic Headphone Festival I had the pleasure of meeting Lyndsey from Reid Heath Acoustics (RHA) and talking to her about their new T20i IEMs. Lyndsey was insistent that I try the new models, and I almost forgot to, with the overwhelming number of products I was busy trying and photographing. On a Sunday afternoon at the end of the show is the hardest time to impress me after all that has been seen and heard, but the T20i's didn’t disappoint. Featuring an injection-moulded steel casing and a unique dual-voice-coil dynamic driver the result is an incredibly punchy and fun sound with great, subwoofer-like bass.
The well-designed package includes not only a good selection of tips (in an aluminium plate no less!) but additional “Treble” and “Bass” filters allowing a degree of custom sound tuning, each respectively boosting their ends of the spectrum slightly. The default “Reference” tips give a presentation still with a considerable amount of bass and the highs slightly, but not excessively rolled off. The treble filter brings out the frequencies noticeably in the 5-10 kHz range, very often the upper notes of acoustic instruments. That leaves the mid range a little bit behind, along the lines of full-sized headphones such as the Foxtex TH600s and TH900s. Initially sounding a bit harsh out of the box, after a few dozen hours of use vocals and instruments by themselves are wonderfully presented through the mid-range and the treble.
This is part due to the clever, and unique driver. Where a normal dynamic driver has one voice coil, the driver in the T20i has two, the inner coil producing the bass and lower mid-range and the outer coil producing the upper-mid-range and treble. RHA has also taken pains to ensure that the cable does not transfer noise to the earphones themselves. While thicker than regular IEM cables, it feels more robust and I didn’t find it uncomfortable, even with glasses on. The last 4 or so inches of cable is pre-shaped for comfort, and a choker is attached to the cable allowing it to be held comfortably in place under the chin. Topping it off is a shirt clip and a neat carrying case with space for spare tips and straps for the cable.
For under US$300 (£179.95) is a quality product from this company from Scotland which is sure to gain a lot of fans with the quality presentation and very good, if somewhat warm-of-neutral sound.
Many a veteran Head-Fi'er has cut his teeth on high-end in-ear monitors with Shure. Among the first to push multi-armature IEMs into the mainstream, Shure's latest generation SE in-ear monitors are outstanding.
As far as performance for the price, the sweet spot of the line is, to me, the Shure SE425. For around $300, the SE425 serves up a decidedly audiophile-friendly signature, with its specialty being the sweet and detailed midrange that Shure has become known for. Bass extension and impact is good, and on the more neutral side. Treble is good, but some (including me) might find it could use just a touch more sparkle.
If you're willing to open up your wallet more than 50% wider, and if you're looking for one of the very best universal-fit in-ears for detailed listening that never loses its smooth, then spring for the Shure SE535. It is everything the SE425 is, but better. If it your budget allows for the SE535, and if the Shure sound is what you're after, then definitely go for the SE535, as it is the ultimate expression of Shure's in-ear sound.
Both the SE425 and SE535 are very comfortable, and their cable plugs swivel 360 degrees to helps prevent cable twisting.
"The 425's are a really good iem - well designed and built (these will last for years), superbly comfortable and really smooth and detailed. The mids are the strongest point - but the entire sound to me is balanced and relaxed."
As a Head-Fi'er, and as a father of a young son, I want to do all I can to help him take care of his precious, pristine hearing. As my boy sees his dad constantly donning headphones of all types--and as a little music fanatic himself--he's taken interest in having headphones of his own. I got him the ETYKids by Etymotic, which are universal-fit in-ear monitors for children over four years old.
The ETYKids work by controlling the earphone's sensitivity, making it unnecessary to worry about restricting the volume level of the player, or counting on your young child to know when loud's too loud.
I've listened to the ETYKids, and the volume-limiting works very well--and it sounds like an Etymotic IEM, which is a very good thing.
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"
Only four years old, but already a legend, JH Audio's JH13Pro has come up against several new competitors in the cost-no-object custom in-ear monitor realm, but it's still the first custom IEM I recommend for those who aren't quite sure what their preferred sound signature is. Why? Because I find most people prefer mildly emphasized bass, which the JH13 Pro has, along with neutral mids and treble, and quite possibly unmatched treble extension in an in-ear monitor. The JH13 Pro sports six balanced armature drivers per side.
The JH16 Pro is the go-to custom for those who want more strongly emphasized bass (emphasis that Jerry Harvey made sure to tune way down low, as it should be, and in such a manner that it leaves the mids virtually untouched). The JH16 Pro--because of that perfectly executed bass emphasis--is my go-to custom IEM for air or train travel, as extra bass is always welcome in the din of those environments.
Each JH16 Pro earpiece contains eight balanced armature drivers. Yes, eight. How Jerry Harvey coaxes such cohesiveness from that many drivers (and, trust me, he does) is one of Head-Fi's great mysteries, as far as I'm concerned.
Earlier last year, I picked up the latest version of the JH13Pro, equipped with a new technology developed by Jerry Harvey called Freqphase Time|Phase Waveguide. To put it simply, Freqphase was designed to dramatically improve the phase accuracy of the top JH Audio in-ears. Stated even more simply, more than before, the lows, mids and highs now arrive at your ear at once. JH Audio claims there Freqphase IEMs are the first truly phase-coherent earphones. The current JH Audio JH13Pro, JH16Pro, and JH3A are shipping with Freqphase.
The moment I heard the JH13Pro Freqphase, I was thrilled with the improvement in detail over my previous JH13Pro (without Freqphase). It's not subtle, it's a whole different IEM now. The detail I get with my current JH13Pro is electrostatic-like in its speed. The tonal balance is still similar to the previous JH13Pro, which is a good thing; but the detail retrieval of the new model is on another level.
I can think of only one thing I don't like about Freqphase, and that's the fact that pre-Freqphase models can't be updated to Freqphase. One look inside a clear Freqphase piece, and you'll see why--it's different in there.
With Freqphase, the JH Audio JH13Pro has reclaimed the top spot on my list of favorite in-ear monitors.
"...of all of the earphones I’ve tried recently, the JH Audio JH13 Pro has been the biggest eye-opener, delivering clarity and resolution unlike anything else I’ve heard. It effortlessly produces extremely nuanced and refined sound across the entire frequency range, complete with fantastic instrument separation and imaging."
When I list the following attributes--in-ear monitor, advanced ceramic housing, oval eartips--diehard Head-Fi'ers might assume I'm talking about the $1000 Sennheiser IE 800. But then I add “under $200,” and it's obvious I'm heading somewhere else--Indiana perhaps?
I'm talking about Indianapolis-based Klipsch, and the Image X7i. Why this little ceramic-bodied wonder isn't one of the most talked about affordable universal-fit IEMs on Head-Fi is an absolute mystery to me. And shopping around shows it readily available for less than the $199.99 price I've listed.
The Image X7i joins its Klipsch stablemate Image X10 as being one of the most comfortable universal-fit in-ear monitors I've ever worn--there's something about the ultra-pliable silicone, and the narrow oval cross section of the eartips that makes them almost disappear from mind once inserted. The Klipsch Image X7i's ceramic body feels sturdy, and its contoured shape sits perfectly, comfortably in my ear. As comfortable as it is, though, I'd still have to give a slight edge in comfort to the X10, which is a bit smaller and even less intrusive.
More impressive than even the Image X7i's comfort is its sound. This is an audiophile piece all the way, and is neutral enough sounding for me to consider this one of my universal-fit neutral references. While it isn't possessing of the outright speed and resolution of my best (and far more expensive) in-ear monitors, the Klipsch Image X7i resolves above its price, and--most uncommonly in this price range and form factor--presents with enough extension at both ends, and with flat, detailed mids, to sound less like a consumer market headphone, and more like a pro channel monitoring headphone. The only thing that consistently reminds me that the Image X7i is indeed a consumer market piece is the microphone and three-button remote that make it a joy to use with my iPhone, iPods and iPads.
The Klipsch X7i is my new favorite from Klipsch, and one of my favorite sub-$200 headphones, period.
Making your first move into the custom in-ear monitor market can be daunting, especially if you have a universal-fit IEM you already love, and/or if you're turned off by the crushing blow to resale value that going the full custom route entails. Of course, another common concern with the higher-end fully custom IEMs is price--the best ones start at just under a grand a pair.
If the above describes how you're feeling, then consider picking up a pair of custom molded adapters for your favorite in-ear monitor. I ordered the Westone UM56 to go with one of my favorite universal-fit in-ear monitors, the Westone 4R. Admittedly, I was curious to know if perhaps such a product could actually improve the performance of my 4R.
What I found was that it didn't make my 4R sound like a Westone ES50--no big surprise there. But, starting at only $129 (not including the cost of the custom impressions or the in-ear monitors) to forever do away with deteriorating eartips that aren't as comfortable as bespoke eartips, to have a more consistent fit time after time (which, in its own way, is a performance improvement), and to have the ease of insertion that customs provide (no more rolling foamies between your fingers), it's soooo worth it.
My Westone 4R has gone custom, and it ain't goin' back.
(If you have a non-Westone IEM you want to order these for, make sure to contact Westone to confirm compatibility.)
"Without a single doubt in my mind, I found UM56 to provide a noticeable improvement in fitment and sound quality when using my Westone IEMs."
"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."
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.
Like I said in the Over-Ear Headphones section of this guide, Philips, after years of not being part of the Head-Fi dialog, burst onto the scene in 2012 in a big, big way. Their Fidelio over-ear headphones, in particular, have really found a good number of fans (myself included) in the Head-Fi community. Now they're entering a very crowded segment of the market with some standout in-ear headphones.
Going with 13.5mm dynamic drivers for their Fidelio S1 and S2 in-ears, instead of the more common balanced armature drivers, Philips delivers a sense of lightness, speed and detail that I'm used to hearing from the higher-end universal-fit balanced armature in-ears. And both the Fidelio S1 and S2 have tonal balances that are more neutral-ish, which is something else I don't typically associate with large dynamic driver in-ear monitors.
The Fidelio S1 retails for $99.99 and the Fidelio S2 for $149.99; but, like many Philips headphones, shopping around can yield savings on the street. As far as what differentiates them, the Fidelio S2 does have a metal front plate, compared to the Fidelio S1's, which appears to be plastic. The Fidelio S2 also has an anti-scratch glossy coating, compared to the Fidelio S1's more standard metal appearance. I believe the Fidelio S2's housing may also be made of a higher-grade metal than the S1's. Other differences include a lower nominal impedance for the higher-end Fidelio S2 (22Ω versus the Fidelio S1's 32Ω), and a greater included tip selection with the Fidelio S2.
As for sound, the Fidelio S1 and S2 sound quite similar--again, a more neutral sound signature that is revealing beyond any reasonable expectation at their prices. Both also sound surprisingly open for in-ears, which likely has something to do with the fact that both models are semi-open. In a word, both are fantastic, and perhaps among the best sounding in-ears at their prices.
My only reservations about both the Fidelio S1 and S2 include their form factors, the large bodies needed to accommodate the large dynamic drivers might be challenging for some ear shapes to easily accommodate. Also, because they're semi-open in-ears, isolation is good, but not necessarily standard-setting. On balance, though, these are very minor nits to pick.
The Philips Fidelio S1 and Fidelio S2 are absolutely killer values at their retail prices, and yet can often be found discounted on the street, for even greater value.
It 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."
I first met the Audiofly team at an event called CES Unveiled last January, and a quick listen to a couple of pieces in their line had me interested in hearing more. I eventually picked up the AF56 and AF78, and am glad I did.
The Audiofly AF78 (around $200) is Audiofly's flagship, and is a hybrid design, with a 9mm dynamic driver and balanced armature driver in each earpiece. The AF78's sound signature is warm and smooth, with bigger-than-neutral bass, velvety mids, and soft, smooth treble. The AF78 is no resolution monster, but yet I find it eminently easy to listen to for long sessions--almost every time I use it, it's for at least a couple of hours. I'm not sure what, if any, crossover network is melding the sound of the two drivers, but the two driver types in the AF78 seem to work well together.
The nozzles on the AF78 are a bit large, though, so those with small ear canals might want to look elsewhere. The unusual shape of the AF78 can also make it a bit fidgety at first, in terms of getting the fit right; but once you figure it out (which doesn't take long), you'll be inserting them as fast as your other IEMs.
The AF78 version I have is the one with the one-button remote/mic, and the sound quality of my outgoing voice in phone calls through the AF78 is very clear. When I ask those on the other side of the call how I sound with it, most are surprised to find I'm on a headset.
As much as I enjoy the AF78, it's the AF78's understudy--the Audiofly AF56--that I enjoy the most in the Audiofly line. I find the AF56's presentation more coherent, more detailed, than its big sib. With a big 13mm dynamic driver in each earpiece, the bass from the AF56 can actually be felt, not just heard--literally, there's a physical sensation from the AF56's bass that you can feel in your ears; and while this might suggest that bass on the AF56 is muddy, it's not. Strong, yes. Muddy, no. The mids of the AF56 also have more presence and detail, to my ears, than the AF78 does--and the same goes for the treble. Its soundstage is also impressive and full.
Whereas the AF78 might not be one of the first to come to mind if someone was asking me for $200 IEM recommendations, the AF56 would certainly come to mind quickly for $100, especially for those who prefer a bassier presentation.
Also, I find the AF56 an easier fit for my ears, as its nozzle has a smaller diameter than the AF78. The AF78 is available in marqee black (black), and the AF56 is available in vino (deep red), vintage white, and blue tweed.