Pros: Big, authoritative and liquid smooth sound, extreme transparency and coherency
Cons: Always sound big and thick, issues with carbon fibre manufacturing
As most of you should now, the Roxanne sits at the top of JH Audio’s line-up at 1.649 dollars, sporting 12 balanced armatures per ear in a three way configuration, the freqphase technology, passive bass control on the cable and the optional carbon fibre shell, at 500 dollars.
It brings, therefore, all the expertise that the maker has acquired over the last years.
One of the things that surprised me when I saw the Unique Melody Mentor demo for the first time was how small it was for something that houses 10 BAs. The Roxanne only has two more, but it is considerably larger. It protrudes from the ears quite a bit more than my old JH13 Pro, but not enough to draw too much attention to itself.
Another difference is the cable which, because of the extra conductors (there are six in total, as opposed to the usual three) needed for the bass control, is a lot thicker than the norm for this type of product. However, it’s not heavy and it’s quite flexible. The plug looks simple but not low quality and the connector on the earpieces is well thought and efficient, despite the issues that it had with cracks – that has been solved with the use of metal nuts.
I also like the bass control. Fortunately it isn’t located close to the earpieces (something that would be terrible because of weight and microphonics), but close to the plug. This means that it can stay inside the pockets, along with my mobile or DAP, and adjustments can be made in a convenient fashion – just like we take the DAP out of the pockets to change tracks, we can do the same to adjust the bass. The only problem is that the knobs are quite small and require the small tool included to be adjusted. The upside to that is that it’s almost impossible to mess with it by accident.
The carbon fibre version of the Roxannes are, when well made, a piece of art. I won’t talk about aesthetic preferences, but this material is arguably sophisticated and it’s very unusual to see a custom earphone, made just for use, using a material that is usually reserved for high-performance sports car or in the aerospace industry.
The included case is also made of this material, with an aluminium outer structure and an internal piece that houses a negative impressions of the earpieces where they are stored. The writing on the case is made with lasers (I think), including the name of the owner – a big improvement over the sticker on the Otter cases that JH Audio used to use. Despite having shown problems with the resin in some units – such as bubbles and badly placed fibres –, this piece is seriously cool. It does look like it stores something rather special. However, I can’t deny that it’s also spectacularly inconvenient, and storing the earpieces in the correct manner is annoying and takes maybe about a minute. This made me buy their regular case as well – just a small metal rounded case.
The list of accessories included is rather slim, however. Apart from the case, you only get a velvet bag, a cleaning tool and the tool for the bass adjustment. No ¼ inch adapter or even a manual.
My first impression was, if I’m honest, of estrangement. I was expecting something like a JH13 on steroids, or at least something close to all the other high-end monitors I’ve ever auditioned, but what I heard was completely different. When I received the Roxannes I was auditioning the UM Mentor demo, and I was surprised with how different they were – especially since the Mentor sounded reasonably close to my old pre-freqphase JH13.
The way that I perceive the Roxanne has gone through several phases. I won’t spend much time with them so as not to bother the reader, but it suffices to say that at the beginning I heard a monitor with what seemed like exaggerated bass, even with the control at the minimum, thick and weighty mids, a somewhat claustrophobic presentation but, above all else, a big sound.
Today, however, I see it as a truly spectacular in-ear monitor: scarily natural and, like the JH13 Pro, it has the ability to excel in everything I ask it to play – however, in a different way.
I’ll start with the lower regions, which are somewhat complicated: while I like its bass performance, it’s not perfect and the bass control doesn’t really work like what I’d prefer. I’ll explain: the JH13 kept surprising me because it had the chamaleonic ability to sound small and think or big and authoritative solely depending on the recording, and that was most of all because of the bass. It sounded detached from the rest of the spectrum, and only appeared with extreme authority and weight when asked to. When it wasn’t asked, it seemed as if the bass drivers were simply turned off.
The Roxannes, however, always sound big and weighty. It’s always full and thick. At first, I thought this happened because of the bass (even with the bass control at the minimum). With time, I realized that this happened because of the mids, probably because of some mild mid-bass hump which, to be clear, did not impair clarity of transparency.
Consequently, the feeling I have is that, with the bass control at the minimum, the sound is not as light and airy as I expected. It still sounds thick, but with a sort of hole before the mids. As I increase the bass quantity, this frequency starts to fill a space that was already there waiting for it in the first place. What I would love, however, would be to have a thin and light presentation for some genres and, as I increased the bass control, the low frequencies would begin to appear and to form a firm and authoritative base, like I heard from the JH13 Pro in many situations. That way, I would be able to suit the bass to the music.
With the way that the bass control is implemented, however, I don’t see many options. It’s as if its sound was only one and I had the bass control simple to find not the sound that suits a particular moment, but the one that sounds coherent with its personality as a whole. So I just found my preferred position for the bass knob and left it alone. With less the sound is think but there seems to be something lacking, and with more I get a subwoofer in my ears.
Anyway, after I found my preferred position for the bass knob, I found that its performance in that region is excellent. The bass quantity becomes perfectly appropriate and coherent with the rest of the spectrum, and they possess startling definition, texture and extension. The bass is fat and rounded, but at the same time incredibly transparent.
This duality, which is still present in the mids, may be, to me, the most singular characteristic of the Roxannes. It is, along with the HE90, the only headphone or earphone I’ve ever heard that mixes this much mass, weight and body with extreme transparency. The only other headphones that possess this character to some extent are the Stax SR-007, which has the transparency but not the weight and the HiFiMAN HE500, which has the weight but not the transparency. Usually, when a headphone is this sweet and euphonic, it’s not particularly transparent. Not here. All the sounds seem to be perfectly in place and aligned somehow (maybe due to freqphase?), so it’s as if it was possible to “see deeper” in the recording. I know it’s a strange analogy, but it’s the closest I can get to explaining how I hear it.
This is somewhat surprising when I take into consideration that the thick personality of the Roxannes owes itself to the mids, which means that there’s probably a mid-bass hump somewhere. Fortunately, apart from the mild issues I have with the bass, there are no prices to pay. After all, this character – which reminds me of the Westone UM3X in a way – doesn’t hurt transparency and resolution. Quite the opposite: the result is that the mids sound exceptionally natural. This is what defines them. The timbre seems sport on, and this weighty and thick character, along with the feeling of alignment and transparency creates very tridimensional mids that seem to be alive. Another quality that helps is the absence of a plasticky character that is present in every other BA earphone I’ve heard so far.
All of those traits makes the Roxanne sound a lot closer than usual to full-sizes: it really sounds huge. The JH13s and the Mentors sound like earbuds next to these. However, despite all the spacial capabilities and the weighty but transparent character, there’s not denying: this is still and in-ear and it simply does not sound as spacial and as open as a headphone. There’s a lot of transparency and resolution, but the sounds are, despite considerably tridimensional, still close to each other. Considering the analogy I’ve made above: the sounds are close but perfectly aligned, so it’s possible to “see deep through the slits”. I don’t have this feeling with full-size headphones because the sounds are not close, so instead of having a slit between sounds, there’s a bigger space that doesn’t feel like a slit in the first place.
I’ve read pretty divergent opinions about the treble. Some consider them harsh, while many feel a lack of presence in that region. What I know is that Jerry Harvey seeked to overcome the limitations of the technology in balanced armatures – achieving highs with proper extension and providing a linear and neutral response in this end of the spectrum, with no artificial sparkle. In my opinion, he achieved that with flying colours. There’s no artificial sparkle as in most other headphones, so that’s why many will find the Roxannes to be lacking in clarity and brightness.
The result is that those IEMs don’t have prominent highs but, in my opinion, is spot on with regards to timbre and truthfulness of instruments that reside in this region. It reminds me a lot of the Grado HP1000s, but with slightly less withdrawn treble. The treble response is among the things that I appreciate the most in the Roxannes, as they provide a very accurate response along with a smooth and fatigue-free experience.
Maybe, in this text, I have explicited more downsides of the Roxannes than you, the reader, might have been expecting. So I’ll just make it clear: this last masterpiece from Jerry Harvey is undoubtedly the best in-ear I’ve ever heard, by a wide margin.
The reasons are simple: everything in them, even the small issues, seem to build a distinct personality. It doesn’t sound like a dry, authoritative and fun monitor, but rather an earphone targeted at the audiophile crowd. It’s not that I consider it neutral, but it is, quite clearly, one of the most organic headphones I’ve ever auditioned – maybe even the most.
I’m not sure about how to define this character clearly, but I know that it’s exactly what the Roxannes portray. With it, music sounds alive, palpable and organic. Everything I hear with it is jut enchanting.
At the same time, however, I know that it isn’t for everyone. It doesn’t have the energy and the fun-factor that I used to have with the JH13s or that I heard with the Mentor or even with the Merlin. I know that I wouldn’t be able to live solely with either of them now since I’d consider it a downgrade – the Roxannes goes far ahead any IEM I’ve yet heard in some aspects –, but I’m not going to lie, I’d love to have something like an improved JH13 Pro (with regards to transparency and linearity of mids and highs) to complement the Roxannes as the “fun” earphone.
Nevertheless, I can’t forget that it’s impossible to have everything in one single headphone. Unfortunately, that’s not how our hobby works. That’s why I own many: Audio-Technica W3000ANV and M50, Grado HP1000, HiFiMAN HE500 and Sennheiser HD800 and Amperior. Big names.
These little earphones, however, are my favorites of them all.
Portable: iPod Classic, Sony NW-ZX1, Sony Xperia Z2
Desktop: iMac, Abrahamsen V6.0, B.M.C. PureDAC, HeadAmp GS-X