Pros: Lovely, lush midrange, quite comfortable, solid build, excellent accessory kit
Cons: Treble quite subdued, midrange tends to dominate signature, timbre not quite natural, difficult (for me) to get a proper fit
Note: this is more of an impression-style review, since I ultimately did not keep this set. I listened to it intensively, however, and feel confident enough to put together a few thoughts. At the end I mention some things I'd like to see from MEElec's next flagship.
The A161P by MEElectronics (hereafter referred to as MEElec) is the company's second single balanced armature-based IEM and the first to include a microphone for use as a smartphone/PC headset. The previous model, the A151, used the Knowles SR (Siren) series armature, whereas the A161 uses the ED series armature. MEElec mentioned on Facebook that they felt that the ED armature would produce smoother treble and less bass rolloff than the popular TWFK armature (used in the Fischer Audio DBA-02/Brainwavz B2, UE700, and Rock-It R-50). Without giving away too much, I can definitively say that smoothness is an overarching theme of the A161P's sound.
This section will be a little different this time because I didn't actually keep this IEM, so in addition to a general description of the more detailed sections that follow, I'm also going to summarize how I think the A161P's sound and presentation could be improved in a follow-up model. In a nutshell, the A161P is an extremely smooth, mid-forward earphone. I had some trouble getting a correct fit (the fit kit is quite generous nonetheless) and quite a bit of trouble with source matching (more on that later), but I believe I heard enough to say that the bass isn't emphasized at all. The overall sound is warm, mid-forward, and quite subdued in the treble. MEElec is positioning this earphone as neutral, which I think is off the mark. They are unabashedly sweet and lush, with treble that lacks both harshness and sparkle. Fit wise, though I never quite felt confident I had the best seal, they were quite comfortable once I had them in.
I'd like to see MEElec take their sound in a more truly neutral direction with their next flagship and to work out some of the usability issues, such as offering even more tips, working on the cable, and bumping up the impedance.
What's in the box, Build, Comfort, Ergo, etc.
In the well-appointed box you get the earphones themselves, six sets of tips (S/M/L single flange, double flange, S/L triple flange), a pair of cable guides for over-the-ear wear, several adapters for hooking the set up to various smartphones or your computer, a compact hard shell carrying case, and a handy booklet explaining how to get the best fit and the various wear style options you have. MEElec consistently stuffs their packages with extras, the fit kit in particular being quite extensive in comparison to what many other brands offer. There's absolutely nothing to fault here; MEElec products are almost always an excellent value and this one is no exception.
Build quality is solid for the most part. The earpieces are made from shiny, smooth, well-molded plastic with gold-colored metallic collars and nozzles. The nozzles are covered in a non-removable metal mesh screen. The cable is well relieved at both entry and termination. However, it's rather thin and plasticky and doesn't inspire a tremendous amount of confidence. I also felt that the ear guides were a bit stiff and the cable tended to pop out of them, which annoyed me when trying to get a fit.
Comfort was quite good once properly inserted. Unfortunately, I had some trouble getting a good seal and none of the stock tips quite felt right. I got on best with the large triple flanges, but I wish there was a medium triple flange, which I feel would have fit better. The double flange felt too large and hurt my ears almost immediately after insertion. It also didn't sound very good. The best sounding tips were the large triple flanges, which is lucky because they provided the best fit and are the ones I used to evaluate the A161P. Another problem I had was that the earphones didn't seem to fit my ears the way the designers intended: for over-the-ear wear the diagrams and pictures showed them almost flush where they enter the ear canal, with a bit of the gold showing. No matter what I did they stuck out of my ears at an odd angle. This might have been why I had so much trouble getting a proper seal and insertion depth, and it also precluded me from using them while sleeping, which was something I was looking forward to trying.
An ergonomic note: You can wear these both over-the-ear and cable-down.
As I said in the summary, these are not neutral. They're most certainly mid-forward, but they're quite smooth about it. I never found them shouty or barky or harsh. Overall it's a pleasant sound, with some mild warmth through the lower mids and very relaxed treble. If you're looking for neutrality and an analytical/brighter sound, you'll want to steer far clear of these. If you're looking for booming bass, similarly, these are not for you. If, however, you're after lush, liquid midrange, these may be just the ticket.
The chart they print on the box (and which Tyll at InnerFidelity can corroborate) suggests these will have impressive sub bass extension. I didn't actually hear much of this, though maybe I wasn't listening properly. In fact, when I was done listening to the A161P the DT880 sounded quite bassy in an immediate comparison, which is kind of amusing. There's some mid bass, and there's some overall warmth, and that's about as much as I heard from this part of the spectrum. The bass tends toward neither punchy nor boomy, but instead has a softer, smoother attack. Speed is decently quick but texture is somewhat lacking for my taste, which might be a symptom of using a single BA.
Without a doubt, both the A161P's greatest strength and its Achilles' Heel. The midrange is forward, smooth, and sweet. It is always the dominant feature in the presentation and tends to push the bass and especially the treble back in the mix. There is no harshness and very little grain (which can be eliminated entirely by EQ'ing away a single spike that occurs at ~5.1kHz). It's thick and warm and not entirely transparent, but it's always pleasant. It never gets shouty or barky, but it also ensures that the signature can never be mistaken for a neutral one. This throws off the timbre of a lot of instruments (snare drums in particular) and upsets the neutrality demon in me.
Continuing the theme established by the rest of the range, treble is very smooth. It's also quite laid back in the mix. Harshness and sibilance are almost completely absent (with the 5.1kHz spike and your individual resonance peak notched out, it's completely gone), but extension and presence suffer. There's virtually no sparkle and, IMO, the sense of energy is lacking. Still, if a non-fatiguing and relentlessly smooth sound are the order of the day, the A161P definitely delivers on that front. I just wish the treble baseline was higher, but I believe MEElec got everything out of this driver that they could when they tuned it. Adding a high shelf simply makes the sound harsher without noticeably increasing the treble presence, indicating to me that these armatures are giving everything they can and are at the upper limits of their extension and presence.
Presentation - Macro
The usual suspects of soundstage, imaging, and transparency are on the plate. First off, I was quite surprised by the soundstage. I had been led to believe that it would be quite small and confined, but that didn't turn out to the case. It's not large by any means, but there's a surprising sense of openness that belies the particular tonal balance MEElec selected. It's still wider than it is deep, but it's not a stifling presentation by any means.
Imaging is quite nice. Cues are presented clearly, and layering is better than I expected but still not on the level of my full-sized headphones. That's probably an unfair comparison, and for what they are, the A161P dissect a mix very nicely. I never felt like they were getting bogged down or overwhelmed.
Transparency is slightly lacking due to the tuning. That said, it's still quite decent for a mid-forward sound. It's more apparent when you're sitting and not doing anything than when you're active, which is a definite minus for my usage--I feel like I'm missing out on detail and straining a little to hear when I'm moving around.
Presentation - Micro
Texture is slightly smoothed over in favor of ultimate smoothness and lack of fatigue, but it's still there, just slightly softer and less in your face. Detail is similarly subdued, but listen closely and you'll find most of it. Unfortunately, the relaxed treble doesn't help in either case, making certain things like the popping in and out of tape hiss in a heavily overdubbed section of a song impossible to detect. Perhaps it seems a bit odd to want to hear defects like this, but these things are my benchmarks--my full-sized headphones both reveal these with ease, which means they render fine detail with similar ease. The A161P seems ultimately limited by the bandwidth and resolution of its single armature, as bass in particular lacks texture and sounds simplified, for lack of a better word.
Here's an issue I've never had before: the A161P sounded noticeably different on all four of the sources I plugged them into. It also hissed on three out of four and was completely unusable on two of them (both were computer outputs, including the one that didn't hiss). The main thing that changed was the amount of bass and lower midrange, but there were also swings in certain lower treble bands as well. My guess is that the low impedance (16 ohms) wasn't a good choice for an armature design, as armatures tend to have wild impedance swings which, when improperly damped, can wreak havoc on the tonal balance. What I got out of my iPod and my amp was, I believe, what these are actually supposed to sound like, though even there I heard a difference in bass and lower midrange output.
The low impedance, coupled with the relatively high sensitivity (110 dB), is responsible for the hiss, and an inline impedance adapter should fix both this and the source matching issues, at the expense of decreased sensitivity.
Overall, the A161P is a smooth, mid-forward IEM that makes for a pleasant but not neutral listen. Ultimately whether you'll enjoy them or not hinges on the signature. If you like your midrange lush and sweet, these might be your ideal set. If you're looking for balance and treble energy, you'll definitely want to look elsewhere. The fit kit is comprehensive, and yet I still had some trouble fitting these. They're comfortable and well-made, though the cable is a bit thin and plasticky for my taste. The overall accessory kit makes these a great value, as MEElec stuff usually is. I truly feel bad giving these up, but unfortunately the sonic signature just didn't work for me, and the fit never felt quite right. Hopefully MEElec will come out with another flagship that will better fit my sonic preferences (and my ears!). I'd love to test it if they do.
Suggestions to MEElec for the next flagship
In MEElec's next flagship I'd like to see them shoot for a brighter, flatter, less midrange-focused balance. I imagine a good place to start might be the TWFK armature, though it doesn't really matter which armature(s) they use so long as they tune the end result well. I'm looking for something that sounds like my DT880 and SRH440 in balance, but with better sub bass extension than both. I'd also like to see them work on the cable, which on the A161P is a bit thin and plasticky, and maybe develop a medium-sized triple flange tip to slot between their small and large triple flanges. Finally, I'd very much like to see them design the set with a higher impedance (at least 32 ohms) so as to counteract the source matching issues.