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!"
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 last year's CanJam @ Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver, and even more honored when he asked me to try one of his latest creations, his new 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.
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 this year's fall Tokyo Headphone Festival, however, Kanemori Takai himself personally gave me the new 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.
The first time I heard the realvoice was at last year's CanJam @ Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, and I have to admit I was surprised. I know Spider's initial line of business was cables--HDMI cables, audio/video cables, and even some little odds-and-ends acce ssories. I assumed the earphones were just a me-too endeavor. However, in a meeting with Spider's Ronny Tsai, he indicated they're serious about our space. A prototype of their upcoming Moonlight over-ear that he let me listen to was impressive, and convincing proof to support that Spider is doing far more than just dipping its toes in headphones.
As for products currently available, the Spider realvoice earphone is an impressive start, even at $90. Its largish appearance gave me pause at first, but it turns out I was able to get an easy, firm fit from the get-go. And the sound? Smooth, but with good detail, and definitely some bass emphasis, the overall tilt being on the warmer, fun side. And I was surprised by its soundstage, which was actually quite impressive for a $90 in-ear.
"Despite being Spider Cable's very first attempt at tuning a portable audio device, the realvoice in-ear is an impressive all-around performer. Its balanced-yet-lively signature positions its sound quality fairly close to the best sets in the price bracket and the vertical-driver design yields surprisingly decent ergonomics and user-friendliness."
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."
If you've only listened to Monster's Beats line of headphones, you definitely have not heard the best headphones Monster has to offer. In my opinion, the Monster Miles Davis Trumpet is their current best. Many simply refer to it as "the Trumpet," and the Trumpet has substantially trumped the Turbine Pro Copper, in my opinion, as the best of Monster's in-ear lineup.
Some might consider the Trumpet's styling gauche in its literalness. The outside ends of the earpieces aren't merely influenced by a trumpet's mouthpiece, they look just like Lilliputian trumpet mouthpieces. With some of the Trumpet's included eartips, the main flange towards the ear looks like a trumpet with a mute inserted. Its three-button remote/mic buttons look like itsy-bitsy replicas of the buttons atop a trumpet's valves. And, like a brand new trumpet, the Monster Miles Davis Trumpet is gleaming with polished metallic surfaces. Maybe it's because it's so out-there, maybe it's because I'm such a huge Miles Davis fan, but I love the way the Trumpet looks.
The Trumpet's design is unique beyond its appearance, too. It has a driver-forward design that pushes the Trumpet's dynamic drivers out to the ends of the earpieces, closer to the inner ears. This shifts the weight forward, so that that the earpieces are less likely to break seal or fall out.
Most importantly, I'm impressed with the way the Trumpet sounds. It has, of all the headphones I've heard so far from Monster, the most audiophile-friendly tonal balance. Bass extension is good; but, in a departure from most of Monster's other headphones, the Trumpet has comparatively mild bass emphasis (and with good extension). I also find its treble more refined than the Copper's. Soundstaging is also good, with a much wider presentation than I might otherwise expect from an in-ear that places its drivers deeper in the ears than most other dynamic driver in-ears do. Relative to the Copper, which I still enjoy, the Miles Davis Trumpet simply sounds more serious, less fun--and I mean that as a very positive nod in the Trumpet's favor.
If you want something more balanced than the Turbine Pro Copper, but with more bass emphasis and more fun than the Trumpet, then consider my second favorite Monster in-ear, the Monster Gratitude. Inspired by the music of Earth, Wind & Fire (and, of course, endorsed by them), the Gratitude might be the best value in the Monster line, and an outstanding value, period. To my ears, the Gratitude sounds like an evolution of the flagship Monster Turbine Pro models, but can generally be found for a significantly lower price than the Turbine Pro Gold, and far less than the Turbine Pro Copper. To me, the Gratitude is a sign that Monster is stepping up its game, in terms of performance and value.
In terms of packaging, Monster really hits it out of the park with both the Trumpet and the Gratitude. Both come with very nice carrying cases, the Trumpet comes with a special edition CD of Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain album, and both come with a rather staggering array of eartips, all showcased in cool hinged heavy-duty boxes you'll probably never throw away. With such an impressive in-box collection of eartips, it's obvious Monster is very serious about making sure the user can find a good fit right off the bat (which so important to both sound and comfort with in-ears).
"Monster's Miles Davis Trumpet is a beautifully packaged and unique-looking earphone with a small, lightweight form factor and good noise isolation. Its design may be even louder than that of the old Tribute but the sound makes the Trumpet Monster's most audiophile-friendly in-ear yet - the signature is more balanced and refined than that of the outgoing model and combines enhanced bass with a spacious soundstage and good resolution."
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."
"The SE535 is a fantastic choice for fans of older recordings that wish to screen out some of the analog hiss. From a sonic perspective, the SE535 is virtually identical to the SE530. In addition, the SE530 was sonically identical to the E500. In essence, one can say that the sound signature of the SE535 has been around for many years. During this time, it has remained favored by many who prefer a forgiving sound presentation. Fortunately for everyone, Shure addressed the SE530's fragile cable problem when they designed the SE535."
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.