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Review: Three Flagship Custom IEM - Westone ES3X vs Jerry Harvey JH13Pro vs Ultimate Ears UE11Pro

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I first began my journey into custom IEM (in ear monitors) with the Livewires 2-way customs in the fall of 2007. Prior to that I'd had a year of experience upgrading from Shure E2c to E3c and then E4c, and I had owned my new SE530 for about 4-6 weeks. Plus I had owned the Denon C700 for about 6 months, which my SE530 were supposed to replace. The sound quality of the Livewires was a revelation over my universal IEM, and after a short time I declared them superior to my all universal IEM.

Due to the superior comfort and isolation of custom IEM I even converted my SE530 into customs which then sounded similar to the LW, and I tried out the Freq Show music maker 3-way customs (not so good). Also, I should mention that both my sets of Livewires customs and my Freq Show customs all required refits for being too loose. I sent my first Livewires and my Freq Show back for that, but I refit my SE530 customs myself by painting on several several layers of clear glossy Tamiya acrylic paint, with 12 hours of drying time between layers. I had to do this because the company that put my SE530 drivers into a Livewires shell wasn't doing any more of those and I didn't want anything to happen to them where I could not replace them.



Those all still left me wanting for more performance, despite the LW and re-shelled SE530 sounding like my re-cabled Grado RS-1, and beating all the universal IEM that I had heard for the next year. They still lacked the ability to transport me into the musical performance and venue like some of my full size headphones. I tried my Westone UM56 custom fitted universal tips with the Westone 3 and finally found something that I enjoyed more, that reminded more of listening to my full size headphones.

That meant the bar was raised, and the UE10 Pro or UE11Pro became my next goal for a custom IEM, because I didn't want musician monitors that were described to have bumped mids like the ES2 and ES3. When I heard that Westone had a new custom IEM (the ES3X) that would compete with the UE10 Pro for less money, I decided to try those first.



I received the ES3X in February and wrote up my thoughts over time here on head-fi as I used them for the first 6 weeks: ES3X Review, and in the end I thought that the ES3X were easy to drive and sounded better than all the full-size dynamic headphones that I owned at the time, only being beaten by some of my high end electrostatic headphones ($4000 or more for stat headphones and amp). I should also note that the ES3X did not require any refits and were perfect from the start. At that point I thought I was done with upgrading my custom IEM. I did consider buying a second pair of ES3X because I was afraid to take my only pair out of the house for fear of losing them.

Then, I went to CanJam '09 and Ultimate Ears and Jerry Harvey Audio were there showing off their universal demos of their custom IEM. First I want to say that the demo universal versions do not sound exactly like they will as a full custom. The JH13Pro demo had a 3-4dB spike at around 6Khz and the bass was less than the real thing, and the UE11Pro demo also did not have as much bass as the real thing either. The JH10x3 actually sounded best out of all their demos, and sounded like something between my ES3X and Westone 3/UM56 which I did bring to CanJam with me. The UE10Pro and UE11Pro demos both sounded similar to each other and my ES3X, but based on descriptions here on head-fi they should have sounded very different from each other. So, I wouldn't put much weight in a universal demo of a custom IEM. It may give you an idea of how it might sound, but will not sound just like the custom made just for your ears.

Nevertheless, I was intrigued by what I heard and got this crazy idea - I could do a 3-way flagship custom IEM review and sell all my universal IEM; leaving me with a pair of customs for home listening, a pair to take out in public with me, with a spare pair in case I lose one or the other pair.

I had two sets of impressions taken by Kathy Peck at CanJam, and ordered my UE11Pro at CanJam from Jeanette Coffey at the UE table. One week later I sent in the other set of impressions to Jerry Harvey for the JH13Pro. I received my UE11Pro first, and the fit was great, with a good seal and isolation. However, after doing many swaps between the UE11Pro and the ES3X there was a sore spot developing in my left ear.

When I examined the shell I found a tiny fraction of a millimeter high sharp ridge crossing the anterior upper ear canal portion, as a possible remnant from the string that was attached to the foam in my ear canal during the impressions. This was the apparent cause of my discomfort. I sent them back to UE after only 2 days of listening, and they shipped them back out about a week after they received them with the problem completely corrected. The art work was to make them look like Jay Summers (The Rolling Stones) "beer-mug" filled with beer and foam on the top.



About two weeks after the UE11Pro I received my JH13Pro, which turned out to be too small in both ears. So, I shipped those out 2 days after I received them for a re-fit, just like I had to with the UE11Pro. But this time I included my UE11Pro with the package so that the UE11Pro could be scanned and used as new impressions.

After Jerry received my UE11Pro he and Adam (the art-meister) had a good laugh because the "beer-mug" design on my UE11Pro was originally designed by Adam, who now works for JHA. It was then that we decided to try something special with the artwork, instead of a simple JH Audio "flying lady" logo. When they arrived 2 weeks ago I was thrilled with the cool hot rod flames on a semi-transparent 50-75% black shell.

The JH13Pro shell is not 100% identical to my UE11Pro that served as my second impressions, in that they do not go in as deep. And usually the ear canal portion past the second bend of my ear canal will swell out a bit (on ES3X and UE11pro) and that part is missing with the JH13Pro. So, with a wide grin or with drinking from a mug with a lid I can break the seal in the right ear. But most of the time the seal is great and doesn't break with most activity.



GEAR USED: RIG 1: Macbook Pro as transport + Headamp Pico DAC-only > RSA P-51 Mustang, ALO Amphora, HiFiMan EF2, RSA predator, Headamp Pico, Meier 3MOVE, Practical Devices XM5 with AD8065 opamps/BUF634 buffers, iBasso D10 stock and with various opamps like AD8656 and AD744OBCA on a 2:1, Vivid Audio V1, and Nuforce Icon Mobile. RIG 2: 5.5G iPod video, 4G Nano, and iPhone 3G and 3GS headphone out. RIG 3: Marantz CD5001 > Apogee Mini-DAC > Woo WA6 and Single Power Square Wave XL amps.

MUSIC: Apple Lossless rips of Mark Isham + Kate Ceberano "Bittersweet", John H. Clark "Acoustik Guitar", Anthony Wilson "Jack of Hearts", Shelby Lynn "Just a Little Lovin", Eva Cassidy "Live at Blues Alley", Diana Krall "Live in Paris", Patricia Barber "Nightclub", Helge Lein Trio "Hello Troll", Joel Styzens "Relax Your Ears", Infected Mushroom "B.P. Empire", Valerie Joyce "New York Blue", Eric Satie "Piano Miniatures" (mastered by John Willett), Arvo Part "Tabula Rasa", Glenn Gould "Bach: Goldberg Variations", Wendy Sutter & Philip Glass "Songs & Poems For Solo Cello", Jack Johnson "Sleep Through the Static" and "On and On", Nils Lofgren "Acoustic Live", and Beck "Sea Change" Mofi Gold Master, The Afters "I Wish We All Could Win", Ani DiFranco "Knuckle Down", Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon".

EARPHONES: JH Audio JH13Pro, Ultimate Ears UE11Pro and Westone ES3X. I used stock clear cables from all three companies. The main difference in the cables seems to be that UE uses a longer section of memory wire than the other two, which I like, and Westone uses a small flat plastic bead as the cable cinch and the other two use a thin plastic tube that is harder to use. The Westone cable was new 6 months ago and started to turn green after only 2 months, so it's a good thing it still matches the green color of the IEM. The discoloration does not affect the sound and everyone who looks into this issue knows that everyone's clear cables tend to discolor with age. I do have a spare black cable in case I ever decide that it looks bad.



AMPLIFIER SYNERGY FOR THE BEST SOUND:

I wanted to discuss the issue of synergy between these IEM and the source or amp used to drive them, because the amp that you use with them can make the difference between these custom IEM sounding fantastic or sounding just "okay". Which IEM sounds better to me, or is more my style, could actually change depending on the amp and IEM synergy. That explains a lot about why someone will post that they like one IEM over the other, and another person feels it's just the opposite. These customs are all so good at revealing the character of the amp and source being used that I was forced to spend a large portion of my time using a wide variety of rigs, in order to figure out the nature of the IEM's own sound as opposed to the sound signature of the amp and source.

I did not test any of the IEM with my more powerful Eddie Current ZDT because the amp runs so hot that I can't stand to be too close to it while listening to an IEM on the end of a 4 foot cord. And, I would also be afraid of burning up an IEM since the ZDT can put out 2 watts into 32 ohms if I ask it to (JH13Pro is 28 ohms). Lastly, it just wasn't worth the trouble since the ZDT is in a separate rig from the rest of my review gear that I listed above.

Westone ES3X: These are up first since that was the order that I received them.



The ES3X are very efficient and just like the UE11Pro they do not require a lot of power to get quite loud. Both of these seem to need less of a turn on the volume knob than the JH13Pro to reach a certain level. But oddly, despite their 56 ohm impedance they can still reveal the hiss in an amp more readily than the lower impedance UE11Pro or JH13Pro. Hiss was only bothersome with my Macbook Pro headphone out or my ALO Amphora when no music was playing, so I wasn't too worried. The ES3X sound good with most amps, but some combinations were better than others. I've found that they sound their best with Woo WA6 desktop amp, followed by my Sq Wave XL which is a little more forward sounding when used single ended instead of balanced - that works fine with the UE11pro and JH13Pro but not as well with the ES3X which are already a little more forward in the mids and highs.

Switching to the portable amps, I found them all to sound good with the ES3X but not on the same level as the WA6 or Sq Wave XL, although several portables were better with the ES3X than the EF2 desktop amp (and some were not). The best portable amps for the ES3X in order of preference were the Amphora, P-51, Predator, stock D10 or D10 with AD8656/bypassed buffers. Then came the EF2. With the Pico, XM5 with AD8065/BUF634, and D10 AD744/EL8201 the sound is very enjoyable but occasionally just a tiny bit bright, especially when switching from listening to one of the other custom IEM while using these amps. The Predator and XM5 in particular have the strongest portable bass with the ES3X, with the XM5 being the less forward sounding of the two. While the ES3X don't have as much impact with the P-51 it gave them a better sense of space and air like the XM5.

I liked the above amps paired with the ES3X a little more than the 3MOVE, V1 or Nuforce Icon Mobile, which when paired with the ES3X sometimes sounded a little more forward with more upper mids/lower treble energy than I would like. All of these were still enjoyable once I adjusted to the sound, but they weren't among my top picks for the ES3X. The longer I listened, the better the ES3X sounded with these amps that lacked synergy, simply due to brain burn in and adjustment. The most frustrating part of the brain burn-in was switching back and forth between amps and not having the same reaction to them each time I listened, because the sound in my brain was different depending on the amp that I had just listened to previously. This added significantly to the time it took to do the review because I often had to take breaks and reset my brain.

I also very much liked the ES3X with the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS headphone-out, where an amp is not needed at all. I've always felt the 4G Nano headphone-out was brighter than my previous 3G Nano, and that impression stands with the ES3X. I would rather listen to my 5.5G iPod video headphone out with ES3X than the 4G Nano headphone-out, so I typically have to pair the 4G Nano with an amp.

It was obvious that the ES3X "scale-up" when going from a lesser portable rig to a nicer desktop rig. Not many times early in my ownership of IEM did I think to use my desktop rig for listening, but a properly designed desktop rig should not have hiss or other issues with very sensitive IEM.

Ultimate Ears UE11Pro: These are up next, in the order that I received them.



After having spent a 4 months with the ES3X, when I first received the UE11Pro the sound took some getting used to. The first time I heard them I was thinking that the sound reminded me of my old Ultrasone Edition 9, or even a stock Denon D5000. Interestingly, after my first listen I set them aside for an hour or two without listening while I had music running through them, and afterwards they sounded a bit better. Balanced armatures are not supposed to need burn-in, but these did improve over the first few days that I had them to sound more like a Grado PS-1. However, even with over 100 hours on them and noticeable improvement with age, when it comes to pairing their sound signature with the right amp I still find the UE11Pro to be the more picky one out of the three custom IEM. That is why this section will be much longer for the UE11Pro than the other two custom IEM.

The UE11Pro are very efficient like the ES3X, so just about any amp allows them to play as loud as you can stand. But it is easy to plug them into an amp or iPod that will allow the bass to sound boosted and sometimes overpowering, or to sound a little bright at the very top end. The UE11Pro really seem to shine with an amplifier that takes control of the bass and keeps it in check, and this doesn't mean an amp that is bass-lite either - it's more of a synergy issue. The UE11Pro almost always seem to sound better when using an amp instead of an iPod headphone out (exception being the 5.5G iPod Video). I also noticed that some amps made the UE11Pro sound too boomy initially, until I had put dozens of hours on the IEM; and then the bass seemed to be easier to control after that. For example, when I first got the UE11Pro I couldn't stand them with my Predator or P-51, but now after a month I don't have nearly as much problem with the bass, which is maybe only a couple of dB more than I would like.

So far my top choices for the UE11Pro are my Woo WA6, Single Power Sq Wave XL, Meier 3MOVE portable and my HiFiMan EF2 desktop DAC/amp tube hybrid, followed by the Nuforce Icon Mobile which has good frequency balance with the UE11Pro but less transparency and detail than the others (for $99 it's no surprise). The remainder of my portable amps seem to offer the UE11Pro a couple of dB more bass than I would like, although they are still useable in a pinch. But the WA6 and Square Wave XL desktop amps are noticeably better than the others with the UE11Pro, and these two amps performed at a similar level to each other most of the time. With the WA6 they may have sounded a little more natural, and with the Sq Wave they had a slightly tighter bass control and the mids filled in a little more. I would go back and forth with the two amps and have a different favorite with different playlists.

The HiFiMan EF2 has great synergy in terms of frequency response and power, and it also fills in the slightly distant mids nicely while controlling the bass and preventing any brightness. The only problem being the EF2 doesn't have quite the amount of detail and soundstage of the other desktop amps or the 3MOVE, but it still makes the top-list and beats the Nuforce Icon. The 3MOVE surprised me because I was expecting the UE11Pro to have overpowering bass with it and it doesn't, although it is still the bassiest out of the top-pick amps. While the 3MOVE is my top pick for portable amp with the UE11Pro, this same amp is farther down the list of choices for the ES3X - which makes it clear to me how a piece of gear can get a good review from one person but get a bad review from another, because of the synergy or lack thereof with the rest of their gear.

After the above amps, I would perhaps reach for my ALO Amphora or Predator next, as these are only occasionally a little bright with the UE11pro and offering a bit stronger but tighter bass while also presenting nice mids. The iBasso D10 with AD744/EL8201, P-51, Pico and XM5 are sometimes too bright in the highs, depending on the playlist, and the mids of the P-51 and XM5 are not as full as they should be based on how they sound with the other IEM. The good thing is that the longer you listen to any of these the brain adjusts for the highs and they pull back a little.

With unamped iPods, the UE11Pro bass is usually less well controlled, but UE11Pro actually sounds better with the 5.5G iPod video headphone output vs the iPhone 3G and 3GS which I often prefer over my 4G Nano headphone out. Bass can still be too much at times with the iPhones or Nano, but it also depends a lot on the recording. Here are some examples - I was listening to Eva Cassidy "Live at Blues Alley" and the bass was only maybe 1-2 dB more than I would like, and not overbearing. Diana Krall "Live in Paris" has maybe an additional 1-2dB more bass above the Eva Cassidy recording, but it is still useable although not as good as the Eva Cassidy recording. However, the Batman Begins soundtrack is just right with the UE11pro on iPhone 3GS, as is George Benson and Al Jarreau "Givin' it Up", or Katy Perry "One of the Boys", or Nils Lofgren "Acoustic Live". But then Jack Johnson "In Between Dreams" or Shelby Lynn "Just a Little Lovin'" pushes the bass a little too far again on the iPhone 3G or 3GS. This goes on and on as I try different playlists, where I find some that sound just right and others that have too much bass. Another person reported to me the same issues with their 6G iPod Classic.

I was surprised when I reluctantly grabbed my 5.5G iMod and plugged the UE11Pro into the headphone jack that has hardly been used since I did the iMod and paired it with an amp a year ago. The UE11Pro seem almost perfectly tuned for my 5.5G iPod video headphone out, with no excessive or rolled off bass or treble. This may be no accident, as I believe the 5.5G iPod was the flagship DAP for Apple at the time that the UE11Pro were being developed. As a matter of fact, the more I listened to them on my 5.5G iPod video the more I liked that pairing above the iPhone 3GS which is normally superior with all other IEM and headphones.

The 3GS is still useable with most of my music when an amp is not an option, but going ampless is not my first choice either. For example, when comparing the UE11Pro via iPhone 3GS headphone jack vs with my Macbook Pro > USB 3MOVE, the 3MOVE clearly sounds better. With the Macbook > 3MOVE I can play any of the above playlists and the bass is still powerful but better controlled, and the mids are brought forward and the vocals become richer amd more involving (less distant). It's the same with my Woo WA6, Sq Wave or HiFiMan EF2 tube hybrid (fed by my Apogee or Pico DAC), where the bass is even better controlled than with the 3MOVE, and the mids are filled in like with the 3MOVE to become more rich and involving. None of those amps are bass-lite amps, they just seem to control the drivers better.

Jerry Harvey Audio JH13Pro: Last but not least.



The JH13Pro do not sound bad with any of my amps, and out of all my iPods the they only sounded a little bright with the 4G Nano (as expected since the 4G is brighter with everything). As with the ES3X, the JH13Pro sound good enough to use with the iPhone 3GS and no amp, and they also make my 5.5G iPod video sound great. All of the customs actually make the headphone out of the 5.5G ipod video useable again to me. I was also very pleased to find that they were less prone to revealing hiss in my ALO Amphora and Macbook Pro headphone out than the ES3X.

The best amp pairing for the JH13Pro in terms of sonics was with the WA6 and the Sq Wave XL, followed by the Amphora, P-51, Predator, Stock D10, EF2, 3MOVE, XM5 with AD8065, Pico, Vivid V1 and Nuforce Icon Mobile. They sound nice with D10 using AD744/EL8201 opamps but sometimes that opamp combination sounds slightly bright depending on the music. The Vivid V1 doesn't offer as much detail or space as the others, but the frequency balance is just fine and it beats the Nuforce Icon with the JH13Pro in terms of sheer performance - a nice finding since the V1 tends to be picky about what headphone works best with it. Basically, a new custom IEM buyer should have little concern about whether their JH13Pro will pair well with their amp or iPod. Yet, they can be assured that as they upgrade their source and amp the JH13Pro will scale up just fine.

The JH13Pro can play quite loud, but it takes a higher setting on the volume control to reach the volume levels of the other custom IEM. With the iPhone 3GS I will have the volume at 60-70% vs only 40-50% with the ES3X or UE11Pro. This was also noticed by Blutarsky when he tried squishing my JH13Pro into his tiny little ears and had to turn his iPhone up louder than normal. When switching from the JH13Pro to the ES3X or UE11Pro it almost always required lowering the volume since the others were louder. Still, these were efficient enough to be used just fine without an amp, unless you need painful volume levels.

I did notice when trying to play electronic music like Infected Mushroom at extremely loud volumes that some of the portable amps will start clipping at lower volume levels than with the UE11Pro or ES3X. This is not really a problem because these volume levels were still above anything that I would actually listen to them at. And, this is not typically an issue with the majority of the music I tried like jazz, classical, acoustic, and pop. I only happened with some demanding pounding-bass electronic music on three of my portable amps (P-51, Predator and D10). Those amps could still achieve volume levels louder than a live jazz club or symphony performance without trouble, which will be harmful to your hearing. I could get the JH13pro to play quite loud and close to exploring the volume limits of my ears with the WA6, Sq Wave XL, EF2, and Amphora - without clipping. It could get so loud that I could not stand to go any higher in the quest to look for clipping, so I gave up. The Pico and 3MOVE would start to clip just a little sooner than those but still got very loud, followed by the XM5 (with AD8065/BUF634) and Vivid V1. I would say that any of the amps are adequate to drive the JH13pro, so don't panic. I just didn't want to have any surprised Mushroom fans who are trying to go deaf.

SOUND SIGNATURE AND OTHER CHARACTERISTICS:

In the above "Amp Synergy" section I didn't talk much about the the actual sound of the individual custom IEM, and each one of them has it's own distinctive sound signature. So I would like to do that now, as I compare the custom IEM with each other and discuss what they do best vs the others.

ES3X: Again, first since I received them first.



The ES3X are a fairly neutral and slightly forward sounding custom IEM, without an obvious midbass peak or sibilance issues. They have strong but not accentuated bass, with rich and vivid mids, and smooth highs that sometimes also seem a bit forward like the mids. The bass is very quick and detailed, and again I don't feel it is lacking in any way, but the ES3X does seem to have less impact than the other other two custom IEM. The bass speed and detail seem to surpass the UE11Pro, but are slightly behind the JH13Pro.

The forward sound tends to put the listener more on the stage with the performers, but the soundstage is somewhat holographic and 3D where it surrounds you and seems very vivid. The mids on the ES3X are simply fantastic, and one of the first things you notice when you put them in your ears - it's immersive and detailed and full, which renders vocals in a way that puts the singer in the room with you more quickly or easily than the others. When listening to Diana Krall sing "Case of You" on the "Live in Paris" CD, every bit of the emotion in her voice is felt, and it's so clear that you feel like you are sitting on the piano bench with her, surrounded by Anthony Wilson, Jeff Hamilton and the rest of the band and crowd. And I mean it, you can almost feel the vibrations of her vocal cords.

The forward treble can make the ES3X sound a little bright when initially switching over to them from one of the other IEM, but if the ES3X are the first IEM you put in your ears the treble sounds just fine. When switching from another IEM, after a few minutes of adjustment any thoughts of brightness go away. Some people have complained that the highs are slightly rolled off or not as extended as they should be, but my 47 year old ears don't know the difference. I can hear 16Hz - 16Khz with them using Binks Audio test CD, just like with the other customs in this review.

The sound is very very transparent, in such a way that you don't tend to be aware of these tiny little transducers sitting in your ear reproducing the sounds, but sound seems to come from outside your head, and inside your head at the same time - kind of a mixture of soundstage and headstage, which is good for an IEM but not quite up to the level of a good full size headphone like the HD800 or K1000. The timbre and tone of natural instruments can be described as very good, with a natural feel to the sound and giving a weight or body to the instruments. When the ES3X are the first of the IEM to listen to for the day, the resulting sonic image is very realistic and it is difficult to pinpoint any colorations or faults of the ES3X. When I first received my ES3X I came up with a long list of the characteristic faults that every full size headphone I own have, but I could not list anything that I would change about the ES3X. With this three way flagship IEM comparison that is about to change.

When asked to compare the ES3X to a full size headphone, I once said they were like a Sennheiser HE60 electrostatic, but with better bass. Now that I own the Sennheiser HD800 I have a better headphone to relate them to - they sound very much like a full size HD800, but with a smaller more circular soundstage, with the listener in the middle like the HE60. The ES3X may still be more detailed/faster than the HD800. When I say smaller soundstage, that doesn't mean to imply that the ES3X soundstage is crowded, because it is not. It just doesn't have the same expansive and deep soundstage of many full-size headphones like HD800, which don't have the same expansive and deep soundstage as a properly set up pair of speakers. Instruments are still fairly well defined in the the headstage as far as placement is concerned, and the instruments don't overlap although they might be slightly blurred at their boundaries in comparison to that of the JH13Pro. You still get a great sense of space, just that you are closer to the action. Whereas with something like the Grado RS-1, I feel closer to the action but the stage depth is also shallower.

In addition to being good for an audiophile who wants to hear everything but the IEM, these would also make a great monitor IEM for on stage musicians or for the person running the soundboard at a performance or studio for mixing.

UE11Pro: Next up in the order they were received.



UE11Pro are a bit boosted in the mid-bass, and sometimes a little spalshy in the treble, with mids that a little recessed vs the bass and treble (but not always). The recessed mids tend to put the listener farther back in the audience than either the ES3X or the JH13Pro. With the wrong amp combined with the recessed mids, they can lack the magic midrange of the ES3X or JH13Pro, although still sounding better than all of my remaining customs or any universal fit IEM.

Fortunately, these traits tend to clean up very nicely with the right amp. With my top amps the mids become richer and very detailed, with good presence to elevate the vocals to the proper level, without the bass over-riding the mids. With the WA6 and Square Wave XL (or 3MOVE and EF2) Diana Krall's voice is almost as intoxicating, but with some other amps like the P-51 it leaves you feeling more like a spectator or observer from a distance. Bass detail and speed is still not quite up to the level of the ES3X or the JH13Pro, and this does hurt the UE11Pro transparency a bit. But, with the WA6 or Sq Wave XL it does get closer to the ideal and with better transparency. Switching from the ES3X or JH13Pro to the UE11Pro reinforces how much bass and treble boost the UE11Pro have, but the uneven frequency response curve is noticeably tamed with the Woo WA6 or Single Power Square Wave XL amps.

So, once paired with the right amp the UE11Pro become very musical and enjoyable, in their own colored little way; and with longer listening sessions with a good amp it becomes much easier to get lost in the performance and revel in the powerful bass or the depth of stage. Because of this, my two favorite genre to listen to was classical music where the sense of low frequency reverberations within the hall were greater, and electronic music with a lot of powerful and deep bass. Music like Infected Mushroom benefits a lot with the throbbing deep powerful bass and you can feel it in your teeth (and almost in your chest - psychoacoustics or something). Along with the nice depth of stage, I would say that like the other customs, the image of instrument placement is solid without overlap, although the edges can be slightly blurred when compared to the JH13Pro.

Lest the above comments make it sound like the UE11pro are bad, I am NOT saying that at all. With a well matched amp the UE11pro are still better than ANY universal IEM I have owned or heard - including my #1 ranked Westone 3 or UM3X with UM56 tips. I would also prefer the UE11Pro over my lesser custom IEM like Livewires with stock drivers or Livewires with SE530 drivers, and they simply kill my Freq Show MM without breaking a sweat. If I had to compare the sound to a good full size headphone I would say the Grado PS-1 would be it, or maybe a PS-1000 but with less forward mids. While there was some similarity to a stock Denon D5000 early on, once the UE11Pro had some hours on them it was clear that they have better speed, detail and transparency. And the UE11Pro don't need mods to sound good, simply using the right amp will do the trick. My LA7000 might still be better, and the HD800 or my stats simply have a different sound and it's hard to compare. But I can say with confidence that I like the UE11Pro more than my old APS V3 re-cabled Edition 9, modded D2000, RS-1, HF-2, and even my K1000 which with my best amp still lack the detail and impact of the UE11Pro.

If the UE11pro were my only custom IEM I would be happy by using them with the right amp or 5.5G iPod Video. I would not use these to master a recording, but in addition to appealing to audiophiles these could be used for a performer on stage to monitor the performance (and many do).


JH13Pro: The Hot Rod of customs, and they're smokin' hot!



The JH13Pro have an excellent balance of bass, mids and highs, most likely the best of the three custom IEM. The bass does not have the midbass peak of the UE11pro, but rather there is a deep bass peak centered around 50Hz. That lends itself to the impression of more bass impact while not actually coloring the sound of the bass. While providing a better impression of bass impact than the ES3X, the JH13Pro manage to give great bass detail and definition, with possibly slightly better speed than the excellent ES3X bass.

So, the JH13Pro's bass is strong but crisp at the same time like the ES3X, and without any "bass cloud" like the UE11pro can have with certain music or certain amps, but with a little better impact than the ES3X. The JH13Pro (and ES3X) are therefore a little more bass-neutral than the UE11Pro, however of the three I prefer the JH13Pro bass the most - it just sounds right.

The mids do not feel as recessed as the UE11Pro, nor as forward as the ES3X. Once you are listening for a few minutes it becomes apparent that the JH13Pro mids can be as engaging and rich as the ES3X mids which are fantastic. The JH13Pro highs have great extension and no hint of sibilance or brightness with most amps and sources. They also have a nice natural decay.

One thing I noticed was that when I have the JH13Pro out and I listen to them for a while and then I switch to the ES3X, the change in sound signature makes the ES3X sound drier and occasionally too forward, maybe even a little aggressive; and not as musically rich, smooth or expansive and big sounding as the JH13Pro. Likewise, switching from the JH13Pro to the UE11Pro reinforces how much bass and treble boost the UE11Pro have. On the other hand, switching from the ES3X or the UE11Pro to the JH13Pro usually did not make the JH13Pro sound as if they were lacking or boosting anything.

Their sound tends to put the listener in the audience front row, rather than on stage like the ES3X or farther back in the audience like the UE11Pro. The JH13Pro give you a little better ability to concentrate and move the soundstage in front of you a little bit, like with the UE11Pro. But no IEM is as good with soundstage as a full size headphone, especially ones like the HD800 and K1000. Nevertheless, I love the way the JH13Pro can still give you a wider deeper soundstage like the UE11Pro, without recessing the mids like the UE11Pro, or taking away from the magic that they share with the ES3X mids. They have great definition with instrument placement and size as well, which I felt was slightly better than that of the other two custom IEM.

There is a hint of extra speed with these IEM as well, and while I would compare my ES3X to a Sennheiser HD800 I would compare these to a properly amp'd electrostatic headphone like an O2 Mk1 on a Blue Hawaii SE (a moment I will always remember). The next big similarity with the JH13Pro and electrostatics is in the detail and transparency, especially in complex musical passages where the JH13Pro almost sound as if there is one dedicated driver per instrument, with reproduction of the utmost clarity and resolution.

SUMMARY AND FINAL IMPRESSIONS:

All three of these flagship custom IEM are excellent in their own way. I was prepared to say that it's not so much a question of "which is better" as acknowledging that there are "differences in sound" which may appeal to different tastes. With the large experience I've had with earphones (and full size headphones), I can see why many people are happy to own both the UE 10Pro and the UE11Pro, despite what has been described as a very different sound between the two. Just like there is a market for Etymotic ER4P with their more analytical nature, and a market for Shure SE530 or IE8 with their more romantic flavor, or the Westone 3 with their more energetic flavor, so too there will be a market for the ES3X and UE11Pro and JH13Pro.

But others would NOT agree that once you reach the level of performance of these earphones that it's more a matter of preference than performance, in regards to which is better. Some demand perfection at this price as part of their continual journey to find the best way to intimately connect to the music, short of having electrodes implanted directly into the brain. Sometimes I even get caught up in that race, but when I first received my ES3X I thought I had reached the end of that particular journey because they connected me to the music better than most headphones I had owned before. I approached this 3-way review with a little trepidation because I did not want to disappoint anyone, but I did not want to show an unfair loyalty to any manufacturer either. I knew this review would "make waves", and the "all are good, but different" approach would not be fair to the readers.



I'm not aiming to re-hash things that I wrote about previously, so please bear with me. The ES3X are more neutral than the UE11Pro, with few faults if any but for a very revealing nature that doesn't hide much from the listener. They are the type of IEM that sends me on a search for the best quality live recordings, so that I can experience their clarity and presence like a glass of refreshing sparkling water, again and again. Several people have posted comparisons of the UE10Pro vs ES3X, and one person used the analogy that the UE10Pro gave you a view that was like being in the operating room with the bright lights shining and everything in order and ultra clean. I got the impression that the poster felt the ES3X had a slightly more natural and less analytical sound. Well, I suppose for me the JH13Pro are to the ES3X what the ES3X were to the UE10Pro for the other gentleman. The fact that the JH13pro can sound even more natural and organic than the ES3X is simply astounding.

As I stated before, the ES3X are very transparent and put you on stage surrounded by the musicians. But sometimes it's almost like an exaggerated virtual reality where you are immersed in the environment and can explore everything but you can't touch it - or like the first time you saw an HDTV program that is so crystal clear that you want to pay attention to all the detail you can, and revel in the focus. However, when listening to the JH13Pro an atmosphere is set, putting you in a dim nightclub with smoke in the air and the thrum of people chatting and sliver-ware clinking in the back ground, while the real live performers stand on the stage in front of you and play. There is certainly no veil over the music, yet the clarity is not sterile like an operating room either.

With their heat-sensitive tips the ES3X do have a lead in the comfort department when I want to wear my customs for more than 5-6 hours, as I don't feel compelled to take them out and rest my ears as often as I do with the others during a session that long. But for shorter listening sessions of less than 5-6 hours then any of these custom IEM will be super cozy in my ears. Typically, if I have to pick one to wear when I go to sleep it has been the ES3X, but I could get away with sleeping with the other two if I had to (and in fact I have done so). There is no sore spot or discomfort after waking up the next morning with the full acrylic custom IEM in my ears, the problem is more of a psychological one where I feel compelled to clear my ears of the obstruction every once in a while.



My UE11Pro which may physically look like a cold beer on tap with a nice foam head on top, but they sound more like a rich warm mocha latte that hides the bitterness of the coffee with the sweetness of chocolate and whipped-cream (see sparkling water above). It's easy to kick back with them and relax, listening quietly and mellowing out to some classical or new age music, letting the music carry me away.

They are more of a musical IEM than the neutral IEMs like the ES3X and JH13Pro, with a little bit of loudness control built into them. Never will you need to worry about an iPod bass boost causing distortion, because you wont ever need to turn it on. The timbre and tone still seems to be very good, where the bass boost is not like a coloration of the actual instruments. It's more like a separate subwoofer cranked up at 100Hz. Also, like with the JH13Pro, the soundstage seemed to be deeper and the listener farther back from the stage, rather than in the middle of the stage. Texture and detail are there in full, but often the extra bass and recessed mids can seem to conceal the fact that they are very detailed and that they can do a lot of things right. So, with the right amp or source they can be pretty realistic sounding. At times I could almost get to the point where I could imagine myself in the audience and that the bass player had simply turned his amp up louder than the guitar players. Alas, this still remains a slight impediment to them reigning as the king of the hill.



So, it comes down to the fact that I think the JH13Pro seem to offer the best of everything in one custom IEM - they will appeal to the detail freaks and the bass-heads alike. They seem to sound good with all genre of music that I listen to, with any amp or source. Unlike the sparkling water or mocha latte, these customs are the Chevas Regal with Drambuie on the rocks - it's mellow, it's sweet, it's exciting, it bites, it's refreshing, it's intoxicating.

Like the other custom IEM that I reviewed, the JH13Pro hold their ground well against full size headphones. I once told someone that the JH13Pro don't really sound like an HD600 but if you like the HD600 you will like the JH13Pro. I said that if you take an HD600 and add better base extension and power, and make the soundstage deeper, and remove the slight veil over the details, and speed up the transient response, and tweak a few other things then you might get close to a JH13Pro.

These IEM also compare well against full size flagship headphones. I compared all three of these custom IEM to Ray Samuels' bass-heavy R10 and Sennheiser HE90 at the Colorado Meet 3 weekends ago - during my auditions I felt the JH13Pro and ES3X have better detail and bass control than the HE90 with excellent transparency, but only the JH13Pro can rival the R10 and HE90 in both musicality and immersion, although they don't beat the R10 mids and soundstage. I did think the JH13Pro are more transparent and not at all "closed can" sounding, which the R10 can occasionally be in the upper-bass/lower mids. I also won't say the JH13Pro are better than the Stax O2 Mk1/Blue Hawaii SE which I last heard at CanJam, but I did initially think the JH13Pro were on a similar level to the Stax O2 with my Woo GES amp.

Since the recent Colorado meet I've spent more time with the JH13Pro and compared them to my Stax a few times. In an A/B comparison of my Apogee mini-DAC > Woo WA6 > JH13Pro VS Apogee mini-DAC > Woo GES > O2 Mk1, the JH13Pro were my preference over my $4000 stat/amp combo because the O2 Mk1 were too dark sounding in comparison (whereas the HE60 are a little tilted towards the high end and the Jade are a little too forward at times). The JH13Pro and O2 Mk1 both have nice liquid mids and tight bass, with precise imaging in the soundstage, but the JH13Pro treble is much more extended in these rigs. If the O2 Mk1 are the first headphones I listen to in a session they don't seem so dark, but once they are compared to more balanced headphones it becomes more obvious. Granted, the O2 Mk1 sound better with the PS Audio DLIII DAC which is in the other room; but the JH13Pro sound even better with the Square Wave XL amp, so I suppose it's a wash. I really should get an amp that is better suited for my O2 Mk1 or I might have to sell the O2 a third time (second time for a Mk1). With an IEM like the JH13Pro I sometimes wonder if I should even bother upgrading my electrostatic rig.

Likewise, when I compare the JH13Pro to my Sennheiser HD800 with Eddie Current ZDT amp ($4000 like the Stax setup), I also find myself welcoming the excellent balance of the JH13Pro. Sure, the HD800 does have a wider/deep soundstage that is placed outside of the head more easily than an IEM like JH13Pro, UE11Pro or ES3X, but the HD800 sound signature has a little bit of lower treble coloration and is a little more tilted to the top end than the JH13Pro which sound a little more balanced and natural in their frequency response. I still enjoy my HD800/ZDT, but I have to warm everything up for half an hour just like the electrostatic rig, and this rig puts off a lot of heat so it has to be out in my living room (since my bedroom gets too hot). The HD800/ZDT combo or my Stax O2 Mk1/GES combo don't sound so much better that I would always take the time to warm up the tube amps. Sometime I only have 30 minutes to sit down and listen to music, and I want to listen now and not in 30 minutes when my time is up. In those cases the JH13Pro can give me a similar level of sound quality for 1/3 of the cost of the full size rigs, while being more convenient and available to listen to at a moment's notice.

So, you may ask, where do I see myself using these different custom IEM? I see myself using the UE11Pro for portable with my 5.5G iPod video, or using either the JH13Pro or ES3X with my iPhone 3GS when I don't want to carry around an extra iPod or an amp. Any of the three are a good match for my home rigs, so I can grab whichever one I'm in the mood for. Lately that has been the JH13Pro. I know it seems redundant to have so many high end custom IEM, but I want to make sure that I always have a great sounding custom IEM safe at home should something happen to the ones I carry around, and that is no longer a problem for me. I like all of these enough that if they were all universal fit IEM that anyone could use, I still would not sell any of them right now. Of course, who knows what the future will bring.
post #2 of 343
omg... what an EPIC review! Great work HPA!
post #3 of 343
Thank you so much HPA you're the best. Great read
post #4 of 343
I'm glad I decided to check my subscribed threads right before I we t to sleep. Now to read this monstrous review.
post #5 of 343
OMG IT"S OUT IT"S OUT! THANKS HPA! =D *ROUND OF APPLAUSE* Fantastic review, extremely thorough. Fantastic Job. Keep it up! well...if people would be quiet a bit and leave you alone to reviews haha
post #6 of 343
Awesome review!
post #7 of 343
Highly anticipated. Impressive. Bookmarked so I can reread it again. Thanks HPA.
post #8 of 343
awesome.... HPA. thanks for the hardwork.
post #9 of 343
Best review ever! Thank you very very much for spending so much of your time!
post #10 of 343
From a Mushroom-head who doesn't want to go deaf, I say thanks Larry, for taking the considerable time and expense to conduct this sprawling review. I'm sure many custom IEM seekers for years to come will be grateful for you efforts.

As an aside, I guess your UE11's should have been a darker beer, eh?
post #11 of 343
Well done HPA. Nice write-up and good comparisons. Thank you.
post #12 of 343
Thank you for putting the effort into that review. Your descriptions were evocative, and I feel like I have a much better sense of what these three monitors sound like.
post #13 of 343
yaya I picked the winner but I knew that. nice job as usual HA, bound to ruffle some feathers, but what is an opinion that is watered down?? personal preference is indeed a real thing, so why on earth cant there be a 'better' IEM in your opinion??. kudos to you man, gutsy move
post #14 of 343
This makes me want the JH13 more than ever!
post #15 of 343
he's done it again.
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