Prehistory: my laborious clip-ons journey
By the clip-ons I mean headphones similar to venerable Koss KSC-75 in terms of form factor. Seeking for the top ultraportable solutions, I was always interested in clip-ons. Unfortunately, there are few clip-ons with good sound. As many head-fiers did, I modded hardly all of the three Koss 60 Ohm drivers – UR40 (same to KSC-55), KSC-75, PortaPro (same to KSC-35). I also made “Grips”, placing iGrado drivers (same as in SR60, SR80) onto the clips. All these mods are shown below in corresponding order:
I also tried some stock clip-ons from Sony (4 models), Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, Panasonic. So I was much interested and well experienced when Yuin released G1A and G2A. I suggested Fang from Head-direct to review them and he sent me a free samples.
The clip-ons I review here
These are the best clip-ons I heard up to date, sorted by the overall SQ (leftmost is the best):
NOTE: I made a hole in G1A foam (quarter-mod). Stock foam is intact, similarly to G2A.
Update Apr 4, 2010 - KSC-35km and SONY MDR-Q68LW added
I believe there are also some nice clip-ons which I yet to hear, like JVC Victor HP-AL1000 or Koss KDE250.
How clip-ons compete other headphones
My sound quality ranking chart for Apr 4, 2010
I tried more than 90 headphones, but I list only those I may rate with confidence. I divide them into the 5 classes by sound quality alone - Hi-End, Hi-Fi, Mid-Fi, Low-Fi and Consumer Grade. Then I divide some classes with 3 subclasses - like H1, H2, H3 for Hi-Fi. Inside the rows headphones are listed in the order of my personal preference with no regards to the pricing - I asked myself: "Which do you like more to receive as a gift?". There is an interesting phenomena - I prefer some headphones (say DT770) to those higher rated (say DT880). Unfortunately, I found no way to represent this in a simple way.
I made the headphones I reviewed clickable, most links lead to their reviews or descriptions. This chart may differ from its previous versions shown in my former reviews. Most of the cans from L category are rated un-amped, some of them (say Koss) may move up when amped.
RE252km; ER-4S (custom tips, OFC); AD2000
HE Tesla T1
H1 SR-404; HD650; W5000;
H2 RE0 (custom tips, no filter); CK10; ER-4S (custom tips); D2000; E500; K701; W1000; HD600; AD1000PRM
H3 TM5; RE0; ER-4P (custom tips); DT880/250; AD1000
M1 K501; G1A; ER-4P; DT990/250; OK1; AD900; SA6; UM2; Ergo 2
M2 KSC-35km; PK1; MDR-F1; AD700; DT770/80; SR225; HD595; E4c
M3 G2A; SR80; EW9; ER-6i; CM700; HD555; DT660; HD280
L1 OK2; iGrado; HD485; PX100; PMX100; UE 5 EB; A900
L2 MDR-Q68LW (EQ-ed); UR40; OK3; PortaPro; K319; SportaPro; Grado clip-ons; D-Jays; DT231
L3 PK3; KSC-75; PXC250 (leather pads); PK2; UE 3; E2c; CX300
CG v-Moda Vibe; HA-FX33 (kramer mod); SHE2550; SHP2700; iPod earbuds; K27i ; SHL9500; MX75
Below I listed clip-ons in the order of overall SQ.
1. Yuin G1A
This true audiophile headphone successfully combines the features which are rarely meeting together in lesser gear:
- pleasantly warm while highly detailed
- very even while lively and musical
- fast while smooth
Bass: depth is very good, weight is slightly above the neutral, response is linear with no humps and quality is very good. Mids are just a tiny bit forward, warm and relaxed, well detailed with excellent decay. Highs are tamed a bit but incredibly accurate and have an excellent extension and sibilance control. Highs quality is among the best I heard. I’ve got a right amount of highs by cutting the hole in the foam (so called quarter-mod). Details are very high while well integrated into the whole sound. Soundstage is 3-dimensional, size and depth are almost on par with full-size cans, instruments are precisely separated and placed. Tonal balance is perfect, genres versatility is absolute. G1A is light on ears and fits securely. Comfort is acceptable to listen for couple of hours.
I found just a couple of minor shortcomings. First is some hard-to-notice lack of dynamics, hint of laziness simillarily to underamped HD650. Along with the warmth, this provides tubes-alike sound, which some people (say minority) may dislike. Second is a very subtle resonance (echo) which I hear rarely in male vocals on loud volumes. This is the only peak in frequency response range I found. It does not appear on normal volume, so I may live with this easily. UPDATE: G1A also needs 200 hrs of burn in to open and settle its sound.
Source & Amping: amping is very appreciated. I found the only portable source, which is capable to drive G1A adequately and this is iPhone 3G. With others (Classic, Mini, Clip, Fuze, D2) G1A loses some speed, separation and does not justify extra $100 comparing to G2A. G1A pairs well with any amps: portable, stationary, SS, hybrid and OTL tube amps. It is also tolerant to crappy sources and records.
Similarity: Properly driven HD650. This is pretty exact match. EDIT: Or HD600, or somewhere in-between of these two.
2. KSC-35km - added Apr 4, 2010
This stands for "KSC-35 kostalex mod", see mod description here. It is close to G1A in terms of overall SQ, giving up some clarity, speed and details. But it is smoother and has full-blown bass, like big cans. It may be used unamped when volume control is set to maximum. In this case it looses some SQ, but this gives me a choice whether I want more volume or quality. I prefer its sound signature, so I do not miss G1A anymore. Comparing to the blue "KSC-35" I created before, KSC-35km has smaller soundstage, more dense and focused sound, better details, flatter frequency response.
Source & Amping: It is hard to drive with volume control set for optimum sound quality. In this case powerful DAP or amping is must. It scales well with good source and amping. It is pretty forgivable and matches well to different sources/amps. It is also tolerant to bad records.
Similarity: DT770 Pro 80 Ohm, I finally retired my beloved Beyers when I developed KSC-35km.
3. Ultramodded “KSC-35”
This is not KSC-35 itself; this is why I put it in quotes. Actually, I took PortaPro drivers, but they differs in color only, so sound is the same. I also took the hooks of KSC-75 and reshaped them hardly. Then I drilled the grilles. Then I recabled with silver plated copper wires and added 75 Ohm high quality resistors. Then I carefully selected the foam configuration. Now it sounds pretty good and reminds me DT990/250 2005 very much: punchy bass with some mid-bass hump, detailed while slightly distant mids, emphasized highs. Thankfully, highs are not piercing like those of DT990. It also reminds the Grado, but with stronger bass. It aggressive enough to shine with rock and metal; there is also plenty of rhythm for rap and dance music. Due to the big soundstage, I like to use it on movies. It is not as refined as G1A on voice reproducing or complex orchestra passages. But it is full of drive and energy, and I like this very much.
Source & Amping: It is hard to drive and sounds quiet with some records. Powerful DAP or amping is must to make it loud. It does not improve the sound a lot with amplification.
Similarity: DT990/250 with softer highs, SR225 plus some bass.
4. Audio-Technica ATH-EW9
Like some other Audio-Technica (W1000, CM700) this headphone is a bunch of pleasures and disappointments. Its bass is similar to Etymotic and W1000 – very deep, tight, detailed ... and anemic enough to compromise all of these benefits. EW9 mids are crystal clear and hyper detailed like Etymotic ER-6i. At the same time EW9 sounds cold and dry with vocals and too thin with electric guitars. Due to substantial resonances in upper-mids, EW9 lays an egg frequently while singing. Highs are well presented and controlled, though yield to G1A in terms of details and extension. EW9 has incredible speed, clarity and details. It separates instruments with excellence, but places them too tight. Soundstage is unnaturally tiny; EW9 yields to the most of good earbuds and even IEMs in terms of soundstage size and especially depth. Due to the lean bass, dry uneven mids and claustrophobic soundstage, EW9 does not suit many genres well. Its looks and build are excellent; comfort is very good; fit is a bit loose. You may adjust EW9 hooks, unfortunately, this adjustment is quite limited, so only those with smaller ears would be satisfied.
Source & Amping: EW9 is quite sensitive, but needs matching amp and/or source to cure its disadvantages. It is merciless to record or source faults, so avoid low-bitrate MP3 and digitally sounding sources. TTVJ Millett Portable (hybrid amp) is the only portable solution which satisfied me with EW9. Otherwise EW9 sounds too cold and dry to me.
Similarity: ATH-W1000 with all its shortcomings exaggerated. ER6i plus some resonances in mids. CM700 with smoother sound but lesser soundstage. I also believe that it is pretty similar to ATH-EM9d and ATH-EM9r, since all these three seem to be a series based on the same driver.
5. Yuin G2A
This is my favorite due to the two reasons:
- It is very sensitive. Look, the clip-ons are good for activity, like walking or biking. If I am sitting in the chair then full-sized can is more comfortable. If I am lying on the sofa then earbuds are much easier on ears. Clip-ons are less comfortable but have secure fit to let you move freely. So the necessity of the amping compromises the whole idea of clip-ons to me. G2A works fine and loud with any source, including the Shuffle.
- It sounds well on low volumes. This helps it to be the best for outside listening, when I need to monitor the sounds around me.
If I describe its sound with the only word then it would be ‘Effortless”. Its sound is very easy on ears and non-fatiguing. EDIT: Later I understood that G2A compresses dynamic range significantly. This helps to listen quietly or on the street. On the other hand, someone may dislike this feature.
Comparing to G1A, it is also very balanced across the spectrum, bass is a bit lighter, mids are more forward, highs are slightly stronger. Bass depth is surprisingly good and its quality is just a tiny bit less tight. Midrange lacks some subtle harmonics, while it is more neutral (less warm). Anyway, G2A mids have good sense of presence and convey emotions well, placing it above the most of the Low-Fi cans. Highs accuracy yields to G1A, but easily matches EW9 and surpasses ultramodded “KSC-35”. Soundstage has the width same to G1A while lacks some depth. Instrument separation is very good while placement is less precise and stable. Speed, clarity and details are on par with low-end Grados. Pretty even frequency response and absence of any significant faults let G2A to play any genre well. Comparing to KSC-75, G2A is miles ahead, providing a landslide victory. Cable of G2A is shorter than those of G1A, so suites the portable use better.
Source & Amping: Amping is unnecessary. But you may benefit improving your record/source/amp, because G2A is quite neutral and transparent.
Similarity: Amped HD555 plus better highs.
6. SONY MDR-Q68LW (equalized) - added Apr 4, 2010
These have unbeatable ergonomics – they are small and light; their fit is both secure and comfy. Wires are adjustable and retractable; I like how they hide completely into the cups after I press the buttons. Hangers are soft, spring loaded and snuggle up to the pads when unused. So these SONY are very convenient to store. In contrary, other clip-ons turn into the mess in the bag or pocket – their hooks clutch at the wires and other things near by. MDR-Q68LW wires are thin and stay flexible even at - 25C; cups are small enough to fit under the winter hat. In short, SONY has a real usability winner here. This is why I always keep these cans along with Sansa clip in my message bag, listening to them at occasion, mostly at walks. See my ultraportable rig:
Stock sound is inacceptable to me – thin, anemic, with the big spike somewhere in upper mids. But being properly equalized, these babies beat stock KSC-75 (modded and amped KSC-75 is another story). Mids are very clear and distinctive; there is no any hint of veil. Something here reminds me energetic Grado mids, guitars and vocals are pleasure to listen to. Though mids lack overtones and microdetails, they sound quite realistic. Bass is excellent – tight, punchy, with suprisingly good depth. Highs are nothing to complain about – they are accurate, extended and non-sibilant. My buddy, proud owner of ATH-EW9, admitted that MDR-Q68LW highs are better. Soundstage is out of the head, neither huge nor restricted. Depth is acceptable while instrument positioning is superb. What really amaze me are the speed, clarity and instrument separation. I tried symphonic metal (Nightwish), choir with orchestra (Verdi), speed metal (Slayer) – no music sound congested, blurred or veiled with MDR-Q68LW.
Source & Amping: amp is pointless, EQ is a must. I recommend the following setting for the Sansa Clip EQ: +3, +2, 0, -6, -2. I also found some appropriate EQ presets for the iPod, depending on the music.
Similarity: I do not think it has sense to talking about the similarity due to the EQ necessity.
7. ”Grips” - DIY Grado clip-ons
I made it of iGrado drivers, KSC-75 hooks, HD600 cable (OFC) and called it Grips (Grado + clips) . Well, it sounds like … low-end Grado. Bass is a bit light while quite tight. Mids are typical Grado mids – fun and aggressive, though yield to G2A in overtones and timbre precision. Speed and details are very good. Soundstage has no width but has some depth. It is quite heavy on ears, so it is hard to wear for more than an hour.
Source & Amping: It is the most sensitive, so amping does not matter.
Similarity: Grado with comfies with soundstage squeezed even further.
8. Koss KSC-75
No, I would not be the 1000th person describing KSC-75 here; I just compare it to G2A. Sadly, KSC-75 can offer no benefits except the low price. Comparing to G2A, KSC-75 bass is bloated and slow, the mids are indistinctive, highs are schematic due to the recession. The look is awkward; clips are less comfortable despite the flexibility. Of course, considering its price, KSC-75 still holds “the best bang for the buck” title. But taking into account the G2A benefits, KSC-75 loses exclusivity and shares this title with G2A now. And yes, KSC-75 still beats the dozens of other clip-ons, including Sony, Sennheiser and Panasonic I tried (I forgot the exact models, sorry).
Source & Amping: Amp is not necessary for volume but improves SQ.
Similarity: PortaPro, SportaPro, UR40, KSC-35, KSC-55, KTX Pro 1.
Clip-ons vs Earbuds
Both types are open and intended for ultraportable use. Both may provide very good SQ. You may consider them as competitors or complements.
Clip-ons have some benefits comparing to earbuds:
- Bigger soundstage, more full-bodied sound
- Less sound pressure on eardrums
- Secure fit for activity
- Much more comfortable
- Easier to put in, take out and carry
- Less visible
I like music when walking. Background listening is a specific task which I considered thoroughly in the end of my Earbuds guide. And it was not easy to me to find a good solution for my walks:
- Initially I used Clip > PK2 and I was not satisfied by SQ as well as unstable fit.
- Then I upgraded to iPhone 3G > PK1 and I was not still satisfied by unstable fit.
- Then I upgraded to iPhone > G2A and I am very happy with both SQ and fit.
But my honored PK1 still has a nice job because it is unbeatable in terms of comfort, especially when I lie – it “disappears” in the ears. So I use it across the home, feeding it straight of iPod Mini which does very well with high-impedance headphones.
Update Aug 14, 09: Converting clip-ons to supraaural
There are some $1,50 headphones available at PartsExpress.
You may use its headband for converting Yuins and Kosses to supraaurals which are more comfortable for many. Just interchange clips with headband - locks are compatible, so this is simple. See G2A and modded KSC-75 both attached to these headbands:
Edited by kostalex - 10/23/11 at 11:10pm