Pros: Value, build quality, detail, smoothness, bass impact, euphonic mids, easy to EQ, customer service
Cons: No crossover for dynamic driver
The HY3 is a three-way, three-driver hybrid custom in-ear monitor from Sweden-based Cosmic Ears. It utilizes a dynamic driver for the bass and twin balanced armature drivers for the midrange and treble, which used to be a very rare configuration, although hybrids have increased in popularity over the past year. The bass unit looks to be around 8mm in diameter and has its own sound bore. The two BA drivers are integrated into a single unit and share a second bore. There is a integrated crossover in the BA unit for the mid and treble drivers, but there is no crossover separating the dynamic bass driver from the rest. Instead, the HY3 relies on the mechanical properties of the drivers to naturally limit their frequency response. As we will see later, this has a huge affect on the sound signature, and is what I would consider a fatal flaw.
Cosmic Ears is a small and relatively new CIEM company with some of the lowest prices on the market. They offer a diverse range of models to choose from—from the budget BA1, with a single BA driver, to the reference-quality BA4, a four-driver monitor that comes in both a neutral R version and an F version with slightly more bass—all at significantly lower price points than similar models from competing manufacturers. Five- and six-driver flagships are also in the works and should be released within the next year.
Their top notch customer service is often raved about here on Head-Fi, and Phil, the owner, tries his best to be friendly, flexible, and accommodating to each customer’s needs. In fact, they recently stopped taking new orders temporarily in order to avoid being overwhelmed. This is a wise and noble move, seeing that other low-cost CIEM companies, such as Kozee and LiveWires, failed due to high volumes negatively impacting their customer service.
Packaging, accessories, build quality and comfort
Packaging is nothing special, just a couple layers of protective envelopes, which unsurprising for a company trying to keep costs down so that they can pass the savings onto the customer. The monitors, the cable, a 3.5mm to 1/4” adaptor, a cleaning tool, and two microfiber drawstring pouches are protected by a nice zippered clamshell case. The microfiber pouches also double as cleaning cloths for the shells. There have been at least four different variations of the case, of which I have three; the latest edition comes in a few different colours. All the accessories are of good quality, with the exception of the plug adaptor, which is slightly crooked and miscoloured despite what appears to be gold plating, but this is not a deal breaker at all, considering that most of us have a few extras lying around.
Overall build quality is excellent with no bubbles and very few visible imperfections in the hard acrylic shells, which are very smoothly polished for the most part. I settled for plain “Smoke” shells, which are a translucent grey in colour, but a variety of customization options are available, including different coloured shells, recessed cable sockets, and custom faceplates. The dynamic bass driver for the right channel exhibits a moderate amount of driver flex if you wiggle the monitors once you already have a good seal, but there is no driver flex while inserting or removing the shells from your ears normally.
The black cable is slightly on the thin side but very soft, flexible, and seems to be of high quality, with no memory effect whatsoever and is fairly resistant to tangles. There are almost no microphonics to speak of. The angled Westone-style connectors also look quite beefy, and the other end of the cable is terminated with standard molded L-shaped plug. It’s a three-wire braid from the plug to the Y-split, and a two-wire braid up to the connectors. I would’ve preferred memory tubing instead of conventional memory wire as the former is easier to work with. Cosmic Ears is working on designing some alternate cable designs, including a quad-braid cable, a clear anti-oxidizing cable, and a cable with microphone and remote buttons for smartphone functionality. I look forward to trying these once they become available.
As is the case with all custom IEMs, fit and comfort are entirely dependent on the quality and accuracy of your impressions, so I won’t say much about it. They should be very comfortable if your impressions were accurate, but they can also be extremely uncomfortable if your impressions weren’t made properly, so fit and comfort are usually not a reflection of the workmanship of the CIEM maker. I will just say that mine were comfortable but initially needed a couple of minor adjustments in order to get a good seal. With a proper fit, the seal should not break when you move your jaw normally, such as speaking or singing (unless you’re a Marc Anthony wannabe and make dramatic grimaces when you sing, but that’s a different story). CE has been very accommodating and made the process quick and painless, completing the refit within one day and covering shipping charges from Sweden back to Canada both times.
Overall sound summary
Listening was done using the low-impedance headphone output on the Yulong D100 MKII DAC, which has an excellent amp section, and straight out of an iPhone 4 with no external DAC or amp. The HY3 are highly sensitive; in fact, they are one of the most sensitive IEMs I’ve ever used. They are quite loud at less than 50% volume on the iPhone 4 whereas most IEMs need at least 75% volume to reach the same loudness.
The overall sound signature is warm and bassy. Without EQ, upper mids and treble are recessed, rendering the overall sound signature quite dark if you’re used to neutrality. It’s as if someone took a neutral earphone and applied a treble reducer EQ—the opposite of the overly bright JVC FX40 and FX31. Applying a simple treble booster EQ somewhat reverses this effect, but the mids are still not a clear as they should be.
This is due to the lack of crossover to limit the frequency range of the dynamic driver. The bass driver produces frequencies well into the lower mids, which creates significant overlap with the lower mids produced by the BA unit. As a result, the lower mids are overly thick and overwhelm the rest of the frequency range. Upper mids and highs are virtually non-existent behind the booming of the lower mids.
Bass is mildly boosted by a few dB over the lower mids but far from overwhelming. Quantity is somewhere in between the VSonic GR07 and the GR07 BE. The dynamic driver gives the bass a much greater sense of power, authority, and extension than purely balanced armature monitors are usually capable of delivering, with sub-bass extending with authority below 30 Hz and a soft rumble down to the very lowest audible frequencies. The trade-off is that the HY3’s bass lacks speed, tightness, and punch compared to BAs and some higher end dynamics. The bass is slightly soft, but still has a decent amount of texture. Unfortunately, the bass overlaps with the lower midrange due to lack of crossover, resulting in the bass severely bleeding into the mids.
The midrange of the HY3 is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the mids are lush, warm, fluid, and engaging. Voices and acoustic instruments have a romantic and euphonic character to them while simultaneously having the speed, resolution, and detail that usually characterizes balanced armatures. On the other hand, due to the drivers overlapping in the lower mids, the upper mids and treble have much less presence than the lower mids, resulting in a dark and muffled stock sound signature. Everything above 1 kHz is severely recessed compared to everything below.
Fortunately, despite the strong warm tilt, the frequency response of the HY3’s midrange is very smooth with no obvious dips or peaks (with one exception, as discussed below), so the HY3 responds very well to EQ. Even the simple Treble Booster preset on an iPod will do the trick. With this EQ in place, the mids sound very close to neutral without losing their fluid, euphonic quality. Unfortunately, clarity and resolution in the lower mids suffer due to the slower dynamic driver, and the overlap with the faster BAs makes it worse.
The only other flaw in the HY3’s midrange presentation, besides the upper mids being recessed relative to the lower mids, is a narrow peak at 4.6 kHz that can give certain instruments and voices a shouty quality. My guess is that the mid and treble BA drivers cross over at that point, but I have not verified this. Unfortunately, no EQ preset in the world would fix this; you would need a very accurate freeform equalizer to neutralize the bump. The peak is quite small, however, and is rarely bothersome. In fact, it probably wouldn’t have sounded prominent if my ears weren’t accustomed to the exceptionally smooth HD600.
The HY3’s treble, along with the upper mids, is quite weak due to the overpowering lower mids. It’s not that the treble is at all bad; in fact, it’s quite good—smooth and inoffensive but well-extended and detailed, with a little bit of sparkle. It’s just buried in gobs of lower mids produced by the bass driver. The shelved frequency response above 1 kHz makes everything sound veiled and muffled, without much clarity and detail. The soundstage is similarly blurred, with the separation between instruments somewhat fuzzy.
The good news is that the HY3’s treble, like the midrange, is very smooth with no dips or peaks, and therefore responds very well to EQ, and a simple treble boost will really open up the soundstage and bring out the micro details in the treble. Clarity and instrumental separation improve dramatically. Again, the simple Treble Booster preset on an iPod will do the trick.
Soundstage and presentation
Without EQ the dark sound signature muffles the details, but with the upper mids and treble boosted, the level of detail is quite astounding. You can hear the singers' every breath and lip smack, and during solo passages you can even hear their tongues clicking against their teeth as they pronounce words. Soundstage is nice and full but not very large. Width is about average while depth and height are somewhat above average. Although instruments are not spread out very far, imaging and soundstage layering are superb; there is a very accurate sense of direction for each instrument, and a very small step behind the pinpoint accuracy of a full-sized headphone like the Q701. Imaging and instrumental separation are the areas that benefit most from a good source amplification. Although they are highly sensitive and very easy to drive to decent volumes, the space between instruments is somewhat fuzzy out of the iPhone’s headphone jack but much better defined out of the D100.
Like Cosmic Ears’ entire lineup of custom in-ear monitors, the HY3 is a tremendous value. If I could choose again, however, I would've ordered a pure BA-based set instead. It's unfortunate that the lack of crossover ruins what otherwise would've been an amazing CIEM for the price. Had the dynamic and BA drivers been separated and allowed to shine instead of fighting with each other, the HY3 would've truly been the best of both worlds, as they advertised: the enormous bass impact of a dynamic driver combined with the superior clarity of speed of BA drivers for the mids and highs.
Regardless, in addition to the great prices and a wide selection of models to choose from, the impeccable customer service from Phil makes Cosmic Ears easy to recommend.