Pros: Cable, small clamshell case, bass quality, forward mids.
Cons: Prone to driver flex, bad fit on smaller ears, overly bassy; these are my main caveat.
Alright, to be fair they did also say "best IMEs under USD 100"... okay, I shouldn't be mean and nitpick on typos. We all make typos.
This will actually be my second review write-up from a hisoundaudio review chance. Grateful to Jack of hisoundaudio for opening these positions! The previous model that I tried was actually a POPO, which in comparison these were a BIG leap from there. In the good direction.
For all purposes and intent of this review, I did not use any amps for these.
Ever since my review on the Chord & Major earphones, I've only gotten more picky about sound; what was probably a good bass-head IEM the POPO was, today is quite the mediocre one. Well, it wasn't an expensive one either so let's let it go; many name brands at these price range are pretty terrible as well. But there are gems out there nonetheless.
Now as a reminder: to some extent we all hear differently and we might all have differing degrees in our definition of various sound signatures. For this reason, keep in mind to take reviews--not just mine but in general--with a grain of salt; especially the sound description sections. We also have differing tastes in evaluating "good sound", do not forget that. A hyped headphone/earphone is not necessarily a headphone/earphone you will like. I tend to have sensitive hearing to sub bass and treble, so keep that in mind while reading my review.
Once again, sorry for the TERRIBLE pictures... my camera broke on my trip and the lighting was simply unacceptable.
Anyhow, let's get down to business.
Well. Not much to say. A thin cardboard box with a plastic form on the inside. You can read the specs from the picture or on the original E212 thread linked above.
"Unbeatable sound quality"? Well, let's evaluate that.
Regarding hisoundaudio's idea of having the two earphones sticking out of the clamshell case... well, it's a little silly, perhaps a little fun or interesting. On the other hand, it's not being nice to the cable; the day I received them there was already a pretty deathly kink on the cable exactly where the clamshell case's zippers closed off. Mine turned out okay but repeat this on much larger production size through various shipping situations there might be a few that will perish from the zipper, aesthetic only or functional as well.
Look at those kinks! All due to the zipper.
Might I also mention that the box was half crushed during shipping; either the shipping needs to be packed more safely or the box made a little more sturdy. In reality, there was no damage to the IEMs themselves nor any of the accessories (maybe the cables caught be zipper was partially done in by the shipping process) so strengthening the packaging might be meaningless and more expensive for little reason. The packaging is, however, needlessly large for the amount of stuff it contains. Making it a bit more compact might in turn strengthen the box already, while cutting down on material costs. I think it would be easy to churn down the size by a good 30% or even more. That is my honest suggestion to HSA.
Well, I'm unsure if it was intended this way but the package included 3 pairs of ear tips (total), a fish carcass cable manager and a reduced size clamshell case. No shirt clip.
Beginning with the ear tips, they seem to be a little bit thicker and more textured than your standard freebie silicone tips. Thanks to the thicker tips that are also stiffer, getting a proper fit is a bit more difficult if it doesn't already fit perfect. The slightly textured tip does play a bit on the give and take on isolation, but does facilitate taking them off with a small twist.
As far as sizes go, I am honestly unsure if that is two pair of Medium and one pair of small, or one pair of L/M/S each.
The picture shows one set obviously larger, but that is due to picture angle and (camera) lens curvature.
Now the cable winder.
Now WHERE have I seen those before?? OH right. Ebay.
Do any search on Ebay for "cable winder" you're sure to find some of these fish bone silicone cable winders of assorted color with the EXACT same shape.
The difference is that these are "rebranded" to HiSoundAudio. Let's say that there wasn't too much design put into these; they're pretty much grabbed from existing bins.
Needless to say, build quality or whatnot is just a piece of silicone without much precision given to it. I've actually never tried them since they don't fit well in the clamshell case anyway.
Regarding not fitting, they don't even conform to the shape of the plastic form of the packaging. I don't even know what happened to mine; maybe it got into a fight before being packed but he (or she...or it) certainly has a black eye! The poor guy...
The clamshell case in the other hand...
I can simply say that they serve their purpose very well. The zipper is pretty smooth. the interior is nicely lined and has a small pouch where I put my little box of spare tips. Note that the pouch has an elastic BUT the design isn't for small object it seems; the elastic is floating in the case, enough for me to slip my pinky in without touching the elastic at all. That said, if you want to put anything in the pouch it should be thick enough but not too thick to crush your earphones.
One great aspect of this clamshell case is the size. It's pretty small in my opinion, yet not too small (for the E212 and most IEMs with more flexible cables and smaller plugs). Roughly 8x8x3 cm, it's quite pocketable. It's a semi-hard shell case with "hi" embossed outwards on the cover.
So, hisoundaudio's new E212 seems to still take the same type of flair in design as the POPO I previous received. The POPO had red cables, taking inspiration from flamenco (for... pop?...); these have a chrome and red body along with a fully black cable. Let's start with the cable.
The cable on the E212 is simply said... great. Let's not get into the cable sound and etc. but simply that it is fairly light, very supple, little memory and, well, they look nice. It's actually reminiscent of higher end IEM cables; braided (or twisted, rather) but with a slightly reflective layer over it. There's no slider above the Y split though.
I must say that at first sight I thought they looked hideous... like having electric tape wrapped all over. They grew on me real fast.
Microphonic is pretty average.
The plug end is a 45 degree plug. The body is larger than the V-Moda plug (left) though the strain relief is thinner---understandable as the cable is thinner as well. All in all, the cable is one element of these IEM I really like.
Let's talk a bit about the nozzle.
hisoundaudio did a pretty interesting thing to their nozzle.
You can see that the chrome part is the only reflective material on the IEM body. The red parts give off a matted reflection... and whatever the base material is, it seems like they put a thin layer of a soft material over it. Silicone?
Whatever the soft material is, what that means is that the nozzle area is more grippy! Thanks to that, tips stay on nice and tight, you won't have to worry about them slipping off. Good idea, hisoundaudio!
Now there are two down sides to having this (let's say) silicone layer over the nozzle.
Firstly is the aesthetics. Because the nozzle features concave shapes, spraying on whatever material is harder to get even coats. The white reflection on the picture? that part didn't get any silicone coating. This reflects into the build quality, if at least as far as aesthetics is concerned.
Secondly and more importantly, is the size of the nozzle. It seems to me that the designer did not account for the fact that this silicone layer would increase the girth of the nozzle, making tips even harder to put on/take off. It also slightly limits the number of tips that work with these; the nozzle is noticeably larger than standard tips. Mind you that the nozzle was already slightly larger than standard to begin with. The larger (and possibly even larger than intended due to coating) nozzle makes many standard tips unusable; Monster gel tips for one will come off with a small push on the side.
Aside from the bad selection of tips for such nozzle size, another point to take into consideration is how it may not fit well in some people's ears. Personally, they don't fit very comfortable at all, despite being able to get a decent seal. This is the same problem I have with the KEF M200, which I absolutely loved the way they sound but even small tips did not work for me.
I normally use M sized tips, and these are uncomfortable with the M tips. I get no seal with S tips. If you normally use L, then it may not be a problem for you at all.
As far as the build quality goes, I think hisoundaudio does a pretty good job on the IEMs. Can't say the same for the accessories (*ahem*cablewinder*ahem* or the ear tips on the POPO).
One thing that does HIGHLY bother me on these though, is the driver flex. Not entirely sure if build quality should be the section to write this but the driver flex on these is really bad. Not only does it occur every time I try to adjust my fit, the flex is REALLY loud. I'll be honest in saying that my ears have really hurt from the driver flex... might even have damaged my hearing to some extent by the sheer loudness of the flex and how frequently it occurs.
I am practically ready to disrecommend these based simply on the driver flex...
The driver flex is, sadly, the result of the driver design. These excel at bass (read on), and that inglorious bass basterd requires the drivers to be thin and light, which in turn causes driver flexing. Give and take.
Let's start with the overall impressions. Bassy.
Alright, let's talk some more.
The overall sound of these is that they are very fun and bassy but unlike many of the cheaper bass-head IEMs, the mids are not sucked out. In fact there is a mids emphasis on these, which makes vocals enjoyable. They're quite dark though. Warm and dark. Muggy.
The bass on these have great extension and impact. These IEMs are proficient at bass and sub bass, and are not afraid to show it. In tracks that have sound effects to replicate wind, rumbling of trains, etc. the sub bass really does kick in. There's a few tracks I got to hear things I never noticed before thanks to this 'sensitive' sub bass. In fact, I'd be saying I hear more sub bass than mid bass... probably due to the sensitivity to sub bass in my own hearing though.
So aside from knowing it has a lot of bass quantity, what about the quality? I'd say the bass quality is really good. I love it, if only less in amount. Maybe then I can listen to them without giving myself headaches. After thinking through things a lot, these actually have the best bass texture and presentation in all IEMs I've tried ($1 to $1800? naturally I didn't try everything though).
Does all this bass quantity make them nice beaters for commuting? Well... at first I thought they would. But the average isolation doesn't help you hear the sub bass--which nobody really needs to hear when you're on the bus or subway/metro. Just because you don't hear it doesn't mean it isn't present though; the sub bass on these definitely gives me nausea even during my bus/metro rides.
The mids on these are so-so (read on). To me, the bass doesn't bleed significantly into the mids. The mids are pretty forward--to speak--and have a good presence that isn't superimposed nor mixed with the bass. This makes pop music among other genres very suitable. What is great about the midrange is that there are no obvious/perceivable/notable dip within the mid range itself. This is important.
But let's talk a bit more in details... vocals have great body but the upper midrange is missing in action. These lack A LOT on detail---let's not talk about detail.... they lack A LOT on clarity. Note that I'm not talking about hi-end gear clarity but basic lo-fi ones. While you won't have trouble hearing vocals and mids in general over the strong bass, and the vocals can sound very enjoyable, give it another listen on any other decent gear and you'll start feeling depressed. The lack of clarity feels like a day with clogged ears... and as audiophiles that is depressing.
The treble and uppers are far from exciting. While you still hear the cymbals without any blatant dip between the frequency range transition, it is as if you hear them through a pillow. There's no sparkle, no shine, just a depressing tsfft while it should have been tssst! The upper range is, without a doubt, non-fatiguing (debatable as some weird, unnatural sounding high frequencies do creep on) but could be boosted or extended for more enjoyability like the Chord & Major which don't have sparkly trebles either.
One weird thing though is the way the soundstage feels to me. These feel pretty spacious, and in layers. Or concentric circles.
I mention concentric circles because of the sub bass (or overall bass) presentation, which feels VERY omnidirectional, which is the property of low frequencies. However, these truly feel like you're immersed in a sea of sub bass, and you're drowning in it. In a sense, I find the sound stage of the bass too large. Added to the sheer amount there is, no wonder it gives me headaches. While this could be a problem to audio, they do give allow great immersion in sound effects (games, movies, etc. where things like wind, rumbling and explosions! would be commonly encountered).
The mids also are fairly spacious feeling, though as a smaller circle within the sea of (sub) bass. The spatial feel of the mids is quite nice.
As far as the upper frequencies go, they seem to emerge from here and there in between the mids and bass. The feeling that they come out squished between the bass and mids, is probably due to the fact that they're so muffled.
So what does this sound signature mean for musical genres? Well, throw rock out of the picture. The balance is completely wrong and way too dark for it. Faster paced tracks also tend to muddy up. The mids simply do not have the upper mids to clear up the cloudy water.
They do work pretty well with jazz, though jazz tends to work well with various sound signatures as long as you have enough details in the bass, of which these are frankly quite amazing.
As far as EQ goes, I didn't find a proper graph to make them sound to my bidding. They DO behave well to EQ, although the treble still doesn't perform all that well. The speed does not improve with EQ either.
On the note of using different ear tips, I found two odd combinations that work decently well to reduce the overwhelming bass and slightly improve the apparent clarity: foam ear tips that transform IEMs into canal-type earphones (read: typical earbuds), and longer silicone tips. Both work under the same principle: increase the distance between the drivers and your ear drums. By doing this, a slight shift in the apparent frequency response happens; less bass, less mids, more upper mids and a more treble. Depending on the seal, the amount of bass remaining will vary from still a lot to hardly heard. Naturally, the problem with these sound shift is whether or not the sound shift sounds better. From the stiff foam tips and the Monster gel tips I have, they certainly don't sound significantly better despite the no longer deafening bass levels. The problem is simply that the increased distance may increase the upper mids and treble quantity but at significantly lower quality.
Verdict & Comparisons
So, how do these fare as ""Best IEMs under USD 100""? Once again, if you're a bass head maybe. Even so there are better ones if you like heavy bass but better overall balance. If you're anything else, no.
What I did like about these is how it sounded like there was no big, important dips within it's effective FR range. But it also felt like it started rolling off starting from 2k.
That said, I wouldn't call them V or U shaped because there's no notable or good uppers... These are more \ shape without being so abruptly angled downward.
Priced in the $50 range plus shipping you're up to around the $60~70 range.
If I were to compare the sound, I'd actually say the E212 is comparable to the SonyEricsson MH1C, TDK MT-300 (that was under $5), which are all bassy sounds.
The differences being namely that the MH1C's mids are more recessed but has a much better performing (and still slightly unnatural) high frequency range. Both these and the E212 has bass levels to give me headaches.
What about the MT-300? Those are also bassy, but not as bassy as the E212. The E212 does however perform better on the bass quality and arguably in the mids as well than those TDKs. The MT-300 still fares better in the uppers, and that's not saying a lot since they both feel as if rolling off since the high mids.
What about other earphones that I've tried but not owned?
I'd say the JVC HA-FX31 (~$18?) which are also bassy IEMs. The mids are not forward but there's at least upper extensions (albeit unnatural sounding).
Under $50 I'd probably still say I prefer AudioFly's AF33, which gives a overall better balance also without large notable breaks. Now those aren't for bass heads. For those needing more bass, the models with increasing model number pretty much have increasing bass in a nutshell, the AF45 being in the E212 price range.
I'm picking models from the top of my head; there's surely more interesting models.
Still, a good departure from POPO. Would I recommend these? no:
-Large nozzle may not fit smaller ears
-Driver flex is unbearable.
-Too much (sub) bass.
-Needs at least some clarity.
These MIGHT be problems specific to my ears, specially regarding the fit issue. However, we should not forget that these all fall into design choices that HSA made, and it simply is not as versatile for smaller ears. I use Medium tips, but my ears are definitely on the small side. If you have larger ear canals then perhaps you will encounter none of the first two issues. If you are a bass head to boot, the third one and maybe even the fourth one can be non-issues for you.
P.S.: If you wonder why I bothered to review a bass heavy IEM if I don't like high amounts of bass. Well, Jack assured me that these have great bass that is well controlled and does not bleed in the mids and highs, and to check out Hisoundaudio's skills at developping earphones. Well I'll be. I certainly did want to hate them the moment I put them on and head the bass quantity (and the driver flex). But the mids were certainly there, if only about 3/4 of it. The highs however were a big flunk to me. It could, however, be the shape of my ear canals working against non-deep-insertion IEMs. They were enjoyable in the end... but still too bass heavy. But I give my regards to Jack and Co. because that bass was impressive no doubt. Hoping the next iteration could have that kind of bass but with a lot less in quantity, without having to resort to EQ.
Changelog: (23/09/13) Fixed a few formatting errors and added a bit more details to various parts.
(13/11/13) Added some sound science, fixed some formatting and typo, and put in bold the key phrases.