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Multi-IEM Review - 321 IEMs compared (NarMoo S1 added 09/04/14 p. 966)

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Thread Starter 

Intro:

This thread contains my sound quality-focused reviews of In Ear Monitors (IEMs) in my possession. It is meant to be a quick reference for those in need of earphone recommendations or a start-off point for research into IEMs. 

 

A more up-to-date, interactive, sortable version of this thread can now be found here.

 

An abridged buyer's guide containing my some of my favorite earphones by sound signature, can be found here.

 

A guide to my favorite sub-$50 earphones can be found here.

 

A few of my favorite custom monitors can be found in the CIEM Buyer's Guide here.

 

 

Other Useful Links

 

My running comparison of portable and semi-portable headphones:

Portable Headphones Review List 

A brief overview of IEM fitment:

How to Insert In-Ear Monitors

Head-Fi Glossary: concise definitions of some common sound terminology:
Describing Sound - A Glossary

A brief introduction to Bluetooth audio:

Wireless fidelity: making sense of Bluetooth headphone technology

For an overview of custom earphones, by average_joe:

Custom IEM Review List

Info on hearing safety and why IEMs can be safer than headphones:

MP3 Players: How Loud Is Too Loud?

In-depth information on various types of balanced armature receivers:

CHART | Balanced Armature-Based In-Ear Monitors & Technical Characteristics

 

Ratings:

The quantities tested, as I define them, are:

Accessories: How useful and complete the bundled set of accessories is. Depends on the quantity and quality of the accessories, as well as on how well-suited they are for the earphone they come with.
Build Quality: Depends choice of materials, assembly quality, structural design, and overall feel. Also includes any observations on the durability of the earphones while in my care.
Isolation: Amount of passive reduction in ambient noise provided by the IEM. All IEMs isolate external noise by virtue of sealed ear coupling, but some are better than others. The better-isolating IEMs are capable of providing is upwards of 30db of attenuation, an 8-fold reduction in ambient noise volume (enough to reduce the volume of a vacuum cleaner to a whisper).
Microphonics: Susceptibility to cable noise (a.k.a. microphonics), a common malady affecting in-ear earphones. Mitigating factors such as the inclusion of a shirt clip or cable cinch and the ease of wearing the IEMs over-the-ear are taken into account.
Comfort: How easy the earphone is over long stretches of time. Typically tip- and ear-dependent, but general trends still apply. 
Sound: Possibly the most subjective of the categories, the sound rating is an evaluation of the relative merits of the audio performance, scaled to the best earphone I have heard.
Value: How all of the earphone’s flaws and merits compare to the competition at and above its price point.

 

 

Table of Contents:

Every IEM review in this thread is paired with a search marker. The search function of your browser can be used to navigate to each. Please also note that my tier demarcations are not representative of sound or any other qualities of an earphone, only of the US street price at the moment of this writing.


Tier 3C ($0-15)
(3C1) Kanen MD-51
(3C2) MEElectronics SX31
(3C3) Skullcandy Ink’d
(3C4) MEElectronics M2
(3C5) JVC HA-FX34 “Marshmallows”
(3C6) Q:Electronics Earbuds
(3C7) Dealextreme Orange IEMs
(3C8) AudioSource IEBAS / IEWAS
(3C9) Kanen KM-948
(3C10) Coby CVEM79 Jammerz Platinum

(3C11) Sentry HO470 Wooden

(3C12) JVC HA-EBX85

(3C13) elago E3

(3C14) Earsquake CRO

(3C15) Earsquake Fish

(3C16) Earsquake SHA

(3C17) MaiKe MK-EL5031

(3C18) Sentry HO642

(3C19) Skullcandy Smokin' Buds

(3C20) Section 8 Earbuds 

(3C21) Monoprice 8320 (MEP-933) 

(3C22) Ultimate Ears 100

Tier 3B ($15-30) (Open)

(3B1) MEElectronics M6

(3B2) Head-Direct RE2
(3B3) MEElectronics M9
(3B4) MEElectronics R1

(3B5) Soundmagic PL21 / M21
(3B6) JVC HA-FXC50 “Micro HD”
(3B7) JLAB JBuds J3 Micro Atomic
(3B8) Lenntek Sonix Micro
(3B9) Soundmagic PL30
(3B10) JVC HA-FX66 “Air Cushion”
(3B11) Beta Brainwavz Pro
(3B12) ECCI PR100
(3B13) Sennheiser CX300
(3B14) Sennheiser CX250

(3B15) JVC HA-FX67 "Air Cushion"
(3B16) Fischer Audio Toughstuff TS-9002

(3B17) Yamaha EPH-20

(3B18) Koss KE29

(3B19) Earjax Tonic

(3B20) Sony MDR-EX082 / MDR-EX85

(3B21) dB Logic EP-100

(3B22) Xears Bullet XB120PRO

(3B23) MEElectronics M16

(3B24) MEElectronics RX11

(3B25) H2O Audio Flex

(3B26) Kozee E100 
(3B27) Fischer Audio Daleth 

(3B28) ECCI PG100

(3B29) Fischer Audio FA-788

(3B30) Brainwavz Beta

(3B31) Koss KEB70 

(3B32) Sunrise Aodia i100

(3B33) VSonic GR99 

(3B34) JVC HA-FX40

(3B35) Rock-It Sounds R-10

(3B36) Rock-It Sounds R-11

(3B37) JVC HA-FX101

(3B38) Astrotec DX-60

(3B39) TDK MT300

(3B40) Etymotic Research ETY-Kids 5 / 3

(3B41) NarMoo R1M - Added 07/03/2014

(3B42) Xiaomi Piston 2 - Added 08/21/2014


Tier 3A ($30-60) (Open)
(3A1) RadiopPaq Jazz
(3A2) Nuforce NE-7M / NE-6
(3A3) JVC HA-FX300 BiMetal
(3A4) MEElectronics M11
(3A5) Soundmagic PL50
(3A6) Cyclone PR1 Pro
(3A7) Skullcandy TiTan
(3A8) Apple Dual-Driver IEMs (ADDIEM)
(3A9) Maximo iMetal iM-390 / iP-HS3
(3A10) Maximo iMetal iM-590 / iP-HS5
(3A11) Zune Premium Headphones V2
(3A12) Klipsch Custom 1
(3A13) VSonic R02ProII
(3A14) Music Valley SP1
(3A15) Lear Le01
(3A16) Lear Le01+
(3A17) Ankit Stay True
(3A18) ECCI PR200
(3A19) Audio-Technica ATH-CK6

(3A20) ViSang R02 / Brainwavz ProAlpha

(3A21) Woodees IESW101B / IESW100B

(3A22) Thinksound TS01

(3A23) Brainwavz M1
(3A24) Klipsch Image S2 / S2m

(3A25) Arctic Sound E361

(3A26) RadioPaq Classical
(3A27) JVC HA-FXC80 "Black Series"

(3A28) H2O Audio Surge

(3A29) ViSang R01

(3A30) ECCI PR300

(3A31) Xears TD100

(3A32) Hippo Shroom

(3A33) Yamaha EPH-50

(3A34) Pioneer SE-CLX50

(3A35) Sennheiser CX280

(3A36) Sennheiser CX281

(3A37) TDK EB900

(3A38) Sony MDR-XB40EX

(3A39) Skullcandy FMJ

(3A40) Hippo Boom

(3A41) Hippo Pearl

(3A42) MEElectronics CX21

(3A43) MEElectronics CW31 

(3A44) MEElectronics M21

(3A45) MEElectronics M31

(3A46) Xears TD-III Blackwood v2

(3A47) PADACS Aksent

(3A48) Denon AH-C360

(3A49) H2O Audio Surge Pro mini

(3A50) Xears Resonance

(3A51) Xears PS120PRO 

(3A52) Xears XR120PRO II 

(3A53) Skullcandy Holua

(3A54) Soundmagic E30 

(3A55) Blue Ever Blue 866B 

(3A56) Soundmagic E10 

(3A57) Xears Nature N3i

(3A58) Xears XE200PRO

(3A59) Dunu DN-12 Trident

(3A60) Xears Communicate CP100iP

(3A61) Ultimate Ears 350 / 350vi 

(3A62) Fischer Audio Ceramique 

(3A63) Fischer Audio FA-977 Jazz

(3A64) Fischer Audio Paradigm v.3 

(3A65) Sony MDR-EX300LP

(3A66) id America Spark 

(3A67) Altec Lansing UHP336 / Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 3

(3A68) Astrotec AM-90 

(3A69) VSonic GR02 Bass Edition 

(3A70) Philips O'Neill Tread SHO2200

(3A71) Klipsch Image S3

(3A72) Rock-It Sounds R-20 

(3A73) Brainwavz M5

(3A74) ViSang VS-K1

(3A75) RHA MA-350

(3A76) Spider TinyEar

(3A77) VSonic VC02 

(3A78) VSonic R02 Silver

(3A79) Dunu DN-22M Detonator

(3A80) Sony MH1C

(3A81) LG Quadbeat HSS-F420

(3A82) Signature Acoustics Elements C-12
(3A83) SteelSeries Flux In-Ear

(3A84) Fidue A63

(3A85) T-Peos Tank

(3A86) T-Peos Popular

(3A87) T-Peos D200R - Added 08/01/14

(3A88) NarMoo S1 - Added 09/04/2014

 

Tier 2C ($60-100) (Open)
(2C1) Head-Direct RE0
(2C2) Ultimate Ears MetroFi 220
(2C3) Klipsch Image S4 / S4i
(2C4) V-Moda Vibe II
(2C5) Auvio Armature
(2C6) Klipsch Custom 2
(2C7) ViSang R03 / Brainwavz M2
(2C8) JAYS j-JAYS

(2C9) Thinksound Rain

(2C10) Rockford Fosgate Punch Plugs

(2C11) Sleek Audio SA1

(2C12) Hippo VB 

(2C13) Fischer Audio Eterna 

(2C14) Grado iGi 

(2C15) Head-Direct (HiFiMan) RE-ZERO

(2C16) MEElectronics M11+

(2C17) Phiaton PS210

(2C18) JAYS t-JAYS Three

(2C19) Fischer Audio Silver Bullet

(2C20) Thinksound TS02

(2C21) Earjax Lyrics

(2C22) Sunrise SW-Xcape

(2C23) Brainwavz M3 / ViSang R04

(2C24) Monster Lil' Jamz

(2C25) Nuforce NE-700X / NE-700M

(2C26) MEElectronics A151

(2C27) ECCI PR401

(2C28) MEElectronics SP51

(2C29) MEElectronics CC51

(2C30) Phiaton PS 20

(2C31) Pioneer SE-CLX60

(2C32) Woodees IESW100L Blues

(2C33) Monster Jamz

(2C34) Etymotic Research MC5 / MC3

(2C35) Beyerdynamic DTX 71 iE

(2C36) Beyerdynamic DTX 101 iE / MMX 101 iE 

(2C37) Dunu DN-11 Ares 

(2C38) Dunu DN-13 Crius

(2C39) Spider Realvoice 

(2C40) Dunu DN-16 Hephaes

(2C41) Shure SE215

(2C42) HiSoundAudio Crystal 

(2C43) Fischer Audio Consonance 

(2C44) Phonak Audéo Perfect Bass 012

(2C45) Dunu DN-17 Crater

(2C46) Dunu DN-18 Hawkeye 

(2C47) Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 4 / 4vi 

(2C48) Hippo 10EB 

(2C49) Velodyne vPulse 

(2C50) Ultimate Ears 500 / 500vi

(2C51) VSonic GR06

(2C52) Rock-It Sounds R-30 

(2C53) Thinksound MS01

(2C54) HiFiMan RE-400 Waterline

(2C55) Astrotec AM-800 

(2C56) Audio-Technica CKM500

(2C57) Dunu DN-23 Landmine

(2C58) Ultimate Ears 600 / 600vi

(2C59) Nuforce NE-700X / NE-700M (2013 version)

(2C60) Moe Audio MOE-SS01

(2C61) HiSoundAudio BA100

(2C62) Astrotec AX-35 - Added 06/25/2014

 

Tier 2B ($100-150) (Open)
(2B1) Monster Turbine
(2B2) Digital Designs DD DXB-01 EarbuDDs

(2B3) Denon AH-C710

(2B4) Westone 1

(2B5) HiFiMan RE262 

(2B6) Monster Beats Tour by Dr. Dre

(2B7) Etymotic Research HF5 / ACS Custom Tips 

(2B8) Audio-Technica ATH-CKM99

(2B9) Fischer Audio Tandem

(2B10) Fischer Audio SBA-03 / MEElectronics A161P

(2B11) Creative Aurvana In-Ear 3

(2B12) PureSound ClarityOne

(2B13) JVC HA-FXT90

(2B14) Sony MDR-EX600 

(2B15) Paradigm Shift E3m

(2B16) Yamaha EPH-100 

(2B17) JVC HA-FXD80

(2B18) HiSoundAudio Wooduo 2

(2B19) Dunu I 3C-S 

(2B20) Dunu DN-19 Tai Chi

(2B21) Rock-It Sounds R-50 

(2B22) T-Peos H-100

(2B23) VSonic VC1000

(2B24) SteelSeries Flux In-Ear Pro

(2B25) RBH EP1 / EP2

(2B26) RHA MA750/MA750i


Tier 2A ($150-250) (Open)
(2A1) Etymotic Research ER-4S

(2A2) Phonak Audéo PFE 122
(2A3) Head-Direct / HiFiMan RE252

(2A4) Panasonic RP-HJE900
(2A5) Monster Turbine Pro Gold
(2A6) Yuin OK1

(2A7) Radius HP-TWF11R Pro "DDM"

(2A8) Future Sonics Atrio M8

(2A9) Phiaton PS200

(2A10) Audio-Technica ATH-CK90Pro

(2A11) JAYS q-JAYS

(2A12) Fischer Audio DBA-02

(2A13) Westone 2 

(2A14) Earsonics SM2 DLX

(2A15) Kozee Sound Solutions Infinity X1 Executive

(2A16) VSonic GR07 

(2A17) Munitio Teknine SITi Nine Millimeter 

(2A18) Future Sonics Atrio MG7 

(2A19) Bowers & Wilkins C5 

(2A20) HiFiMan RE272

(2A21) ACS T15

(2A22) JVC HA-FX500

(2A23) Klipsch Image X10 / X10i 

(2A24) TFTA-2100-2V1S / 1V 

(2A25) Fischer Audio DBA-02 mkII 

(2A26) VSonic GR01

(2A27) Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 5 Pro

(2A28) Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 5 EB

(2A29) Sennheiser CX980

(2A30) VSonic GR07 Bass Edition

(2A31) Dunu DN-1000

(2A32) TDK BA200


Tier 1C ($250-400) (Open)

(1C1) Audio-Technica ATH-CK10 
(1C2) Ortofon e-Q7

(1C3) Klipsch Custom 3 

(1C4) Sennheiser IE8

(1C5) Westone UM3X

(1C6) Monster Turbine Pro Copper

(1C7) Monster Miles Davis Tribute

(1C8) Westone 3

(1C9) EarSonics SM3

(1C10) JVC HA-FX700

(1C11) Radius HP-TWF21

(1C12) Ortofon e-Q5

(1C13) j-phonic K2 SP 

(1C14) Clear Tune Monitors CTM-200

(1C15) Sony XBA-4SL / XBA-4iP

(1C16) Monster Miles Davis Trumpet

(1C17) Final Audio Design FI-BA-SB “Heaven S”

(1C18) Final Audio Design FI-BA-SA “Heaven C”

(1C19) Ultimate Ears UE 900

(1C20) Sennheiser IE7

(1C21) EarSonics SM64

(1C22) Custom Art Music One


Tier 1B ($400-600) (Open)
(1B1) Audio-Technica ATH-CK100

(1B2) 1964EARS 1964-T

(1B3) Westone 4

(1B4) Shure SE530 

(1B5) Shure SE535

(1B6) Sony MDR-EX1000

(1B7) Alclair Reference 

(1B8) Phonak Audéo PFE 232

(1B9) 1964EARS 1964-V3 

(1B10) InEar StageDiver 2 (SD-2)

(1B11) InEar StageDiver 3 (SD-3)

(1B12) Olasonic Flat-4 Nami TH-F4N


Tier 1A ($600-1500) (Open)
(1A1) Final Audio Design FI-BA-SS

(1A2) Unique Melody Miracle 

(1A3) AKG K3003i

(1A4) Spiral Ear SE 3-way Reference 

(1A5) FitEar To Go! 334

(1A6) Ultrasone IQ 

(1A7) Hidition NT 6

(1A8) Lime Ears LE3

(1A9) Lime Ears LE3B

(1A10) Sensaphonics 3MAX

(1A11) JH Audio JH13 Pro

(1A12) 1964EARS V6-Stage

(1A13) Noble 4S

(1A14) Clear Tune Monitors WLS-5

 

(000) Conclusions & Summary Table (Open)

(001) Interactive Table 

(002) Upcoming Reviews

(003) Buyer's Guide
(004) Acknowledgements 

(005) FAQs


Testing Note:

 

On-the-go listening is done using a Cowon J3 and HiFiMan HM-901 portable players. A wide range of tracks in FLAC and mp3 file formats is used. Critical listening is done via an optical-fed iBasso D10 and the HiFiMan HM-901 using only WMA and Flac lossless files.



Reviews:


Tier 3C ($0-15)


(3C1) Kanon (Kanen) MD-51
 

Reviewed Nov 2009

 

Current Price: $4 from dealperfect.com
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32 Ω | Sens: 100 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cord: 4' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Generic bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (1/5) - Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (1/5) – All plastic build. Chrome paint tends to chip and there are gaps between the plastic parts. Cloth-wrapped cable is decent enough but lacks proper strain reliefs. Driver flex is a major annoyance
Isolation (1.5/5) – Below average
Microphonics (2.5/5) – Not too bad when worn over-the-ear; bothersome otherwise
Comfort (2/5) – Hard to wear over-the-ear, short nozzle, some sharp molding artifacts

Sound (2/10) – Listenable but not special in any way. Poor treble extension and clarity, with some harshness lower down. The mids are veiled and dry but not too bad for $5. Soundstaging is nonexistent. The bass has more impact than most stock Earbuds but lacks control. Not an offensive sound, but not something I would listen to by choice.

Value: (4/10) – The Kanen MD-51 is similar in sound to many stock buds but with slightly more bass impact. It’s not easy to find better options for the penny price but adding another $5 on top can yield a far better earphone.

Pros: Cheap, nice cables, reasonable isolation, may be an upgrade from stock buds
Cons: Awful build quality, driver flex, no real strengths to the sound


(3C2) MEElectronics SX-31


Reviewed Nov 2009

 

Details: Entry-level Meelec IEM
Current Price: $8 from Newegg.com (MSRP: $14.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 96 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (1/5) - Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (2/5) – Cheap-feeling all-plastic build; thin rubbery cable with hard plastic strain reliefs on housing entry and heatshrink over 3.5mm plug
Isolation (2/5) – Average
Microphonics (3/5) – Pretty good when worn over-the-ear; just passable otherwise
Comfort (3/5) – Hard to wear over-the-ear; plastic housings are lightweight but large and have long stems

Sound (3.2/10) – Competent all-rounder, with nothing shining or missing. The bass and mids are present in roughly equal quantities, with the treble slightly recessed and rolled-off. Extension is mediocre on both ends but the bass is controlled and the top end isn’t harsh. An improvement over most stock buds.

Value: (5.5/10) – The SX-31 is a competitive entry-level in-ear from MEElectronics. Though not shining in any particular aspect, the earphones are better than most stock earbuds, at least in sound quality. Construction could be better, but of course a higher price would be justified then.

Pros: Cheap, competent all-around sound
Cons: Feels cheap, large housings


(3C3) Skullcandy Ink’d


Reviewed Nov 2009

 

Details: Skullcandy’s Entry-level IEM
Current Price: $11 from Amazon.com (MSRP: $19.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 100 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Generic bi-flanges; Comply T400
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (1/5) – Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (2/5) – Housings are plastic and feel quite cheap. Nozzle filters are metal and the cable is nicely rubberized and thicker than much of the competition. Driver flex is annoying
Isolation (2.5/5) – Isolation is a little below average as far as straight-barrel dynamic IEMs go; Comply tips help but cost more than the earphones
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Low when worn over-the-ear; bothersome otherwise
Comfort (3.5/5) – The housings are very light and the small strain reliefs make these easy to wear cord-up or cord-down

Sound (3.2/10) – Compared to my other sub-$15 IEMs the Ink’d buds impress with the deep, smooth bass that is more controlled than one might expect. The rest of the sound signature is fairly boring but the layered bass adds a badly needed dimensional quality. There is not much warmth and the sound is a bit thin in general. The treble is reasonably extended but definitely lacks the smoothness of the low end – it is quite harsh and often bright.

Value (5.5/10) – Surprisingly balanced for a Skullcandy product, and can be enjoyable for a $10 earphone. The Ink’ds make great disposable earphones that can be purchased at electronics stores and gas stations alike.

Pros: Easy to find, fairly inoffensive sound, reasonably comfortable and isolating
Cons: Poor build quality, harsh treble, no L/R indicators (note: these have been added on later versions)

Full review can be found here


(3C4) MEElectronics Ai-M2 / M2


Reviewed Nov 2009

 

Details: New revision of the first Meelec IEM to be recognized on head-fi
Current Price: $10 from Overstock.com (MSRP: $14.99); $17.99 for M2P with microphone
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cord: 4' L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Soundmagic PL30 bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (1.5/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips
Build Quality (4/5) – The conical housings are metal and feel quite solid. Like all of Meelec’s re-designed IEMs the current M2 has some of the best cabling in the realm of budget-fi. Strain reliefs are replaced with some clear heatshrink but I expect the cabling to hold up
Isolation (2.5/5) – The massive port in the rear of the conical housing prevents these from isolating significantly
Microphonics (4.5/5) – The cable is identical to the one on the the M9/M6/M11. Very slightly microphonic when worn cord-down
Comfort (3.5/5) - Typical straight-barrel IEMs. They are quite light and can easily be worn cord-up or down

Sound (4/10) – While Meelec’s other $10 IEM, the SX-31, sounds good for the bargain bin, the M2 sounds canbe  genuinely fun to listen to. They have a medium-sized soundstage, the bass, mids, and treble are all there, and they can put out a good bit of detail. The bass has a fair bit of punch but can be too boomy for my liking. The midrange is fairly forward and quite smooth. Treble is recessed and rolls off a bit at the top but is but also smooth and not at all unpleasant.

Value (8/10) – Despite the booming bass and lack of high-end sparkle the M2s are solid IEMs in their own right. The build quality easily makes up for most minor sonic failings at the price point.

Pros: Solid build quality, comfortable, mostly good sonic characteristics
Cons: Boomy bass


(3C5) JVC HA-FX34 “Marshmallows”

 

jvchafx34marshmallows40.jpg

Reviewed Dec 2009

 

Details: JVC’s Entry-level IEM, one of the veteran bang/buck favorites of Head-Fi
Current Price: $12 from Amazon.com (MSRP: $19.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 100 dB | Freq: 8-23k Hz | Cable: 3.3’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Marshmallows
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (1/5) – Marshmallow tips
Build Quality (3.5/5) – Housings are plastic and not very well-molded but feel very solid; cabling is similar to all of the other JVC IEMs – thick and sturdy
Isolation (3/5) – Marshmallow tips isolate a surprising amount, even when old and stale
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Low when worn cable-down; nonexistent otherwise
Comfort (4/5) – Light, soft, easy to wear cord-up or cord-down. Rounded housings can make them a bit difficult to grip for insertion/removal

Sound (4.2/10) – The overall sound is on the warm side and fairly smooth. Bass is strong and punchy, albeit lacking some control. Low-end extension is surprising for a $10 earphone. Treble extension could be better but it’s still quite decent for the price. The Kramer mod (replacing the paper filter in the nozzle with a ball of foam) helps with treble quantity and overall balance – unmodded FX34’s are biased towards the low end. The midrange is obscured slightly by the bass at the low end but clarity isn’t too bad overall. Don’t expect $50 sound out of these, but they are good for what they cost. Their arch nemesis (at least in retail stores) are the similarly-priced Skullcandy Ink’d buds, which have similar clarity and better upper-end extension but lack the dimensionality and smoothness of the Marshmallows.

Value (8/10) – Though not without competition as they once were, the Marshmallows are still a contender in their price category. Their biggest selling point is user-friendliness – they don’t suffer from fit issues or microphonics and a good seal is easy to get with the marshmallow tips. My marshmallow tips have gone somewhat stale after a year, but they still work just fine. The earphones themselves are durable too, still going strong after with thousands of hours of use. The everyday usability of these is what gives them the upper hand over the Skullcandies for the price.

Pros: Very comfortable, low microphonics, above-average isolation, durable, decent sound
Cons: Poor bass control and treble extension, cable may be too short for some


(3C6) Q:Electronics Earbuds


Reviewed Dec 2009

 

Details: noise-isolating IEM from Q:Electronics
Current Price: $6 from Buy.com (MSRP: $14.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: N/A | Cable: 3.6’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (1/5) - Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (2.5/5) – Metal housings that are rather light and similar in style to the RE0s’; nice strain relief on 3.5mm plug, not so nice on housing entry. Cables are thin and have a bit of memory character
Isolation (3.5/5) – Surprisingly good with the stock silicone tips. I can see why these are marketed as ‘noise-isolating’
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Present when worn cable-down; very low otherwise
Comfort (3.5/5) – Typical for a straight-barrel IEM; housings are very light and insertion/removal is easy

Sound (3.3/10) – The sound signature is quite similar to that of the Skullcandy Ink’d buds but more refined overall. The impactful, ear-shaking bass that these put out makes the Skullcandys sound boring in comparison. As expected for the price the sound is lacking in dimensionality and smoothness – they sound slightly metallic and flat. The bass is also lacking in speed and control but on slower tracks it’s extremely pleasant. I wouldn’t recommend these for dense metal tracks but I enjoyed them very much for soft rock, pop, and hip-hop, especially with the low end equalized down 3-6 dB. Clarity and detail are quite good when the bass isn’t creeping up and the treble has a bit more liveliness than anything else for the price. For me these are a very good compromise between the signatures of the Ink’d buds and JVC Marshmallows and remind me of JVC’s higher-end HA-FX300.

Value (6.5/10) – The Q:Electronics IEMs are a competitive entry in the low-budget IEM category. The isolation is better than anything else in the price range and the sound is very tolerable. I like the rumbling bass on slower tracks and found these very enjoyable overall with a bit of equalization. For anyone looking for an isolating IEM that costs less than a good lunch, the Q:Elecs are the ticket.

Pros: Comfortable, above-average isolation, enjoyable sound
Cons: Poor bass control, gets overwhelmed with faster tracks


(3C7) Dealextreme Orange IEMs


Reviewed Dec 2009

 

Details: Generic earphone from popular HK bargain site
Current Price: $3 from Dealextreme.com
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: N/A | Cable: 3.6’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Generic single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (1/5) - Silicone single-flange tips (3 colors)
Build Quality (2.5/5) – Generic metal housings seen on dozens of other OEM earphones feel pretty solid. Cabling is plastic with a metal plug; hard metal stems; no strain reliefs
Isolation (2/5) – Square-edged stock tips are pretty useless but with most other tips isolation is passable
Microphonics (4/5) – Surprisingly low
Comfort (2/5) – Stock tips are shallow and useless. Sharp edge of housing contacts ear if these are inserted too deep

Sound (1/10) – Just like the PartsExpress mini headphone is a statistical baseline in my portable headphones review, so the DX Orange is the baseline for IEMs. It does nearly everything worse than the stock earbuds from my Sansa, producing sound that's flat, muddy, and very boring.

Value (2/10) – These generic Chinese earphones compete on price and price alone. Even at $3, buying them for any other reason than to replace stock earphones with something better-looking and more isolating is not recommended.

Pros: Handsome metal housings, isolate better than conventional earbuds
Cons: Everything else


(3C8) AudioSource IEBAS / IEWAS


Reviewed Dec 2009

 

Details: Ultrabudget IEM from cable manufacturer AudioSource
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $9.99)

Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 3.6’ I-plug J-cord
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (0/5) – Single-flange silicone tips
Build Quality (1.5/5) – Completely plastic housings with molding artifacts. Cabling is plastic as well.
Isolation (1.5/5) – Below average
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Low
Comfort (2.5/5) – Light housings, very generic fit. J-cord can make them difficult to wear over-the-ear

Sound (0.5/10) – The less said about the way these sound, the better. The drivers really cannot cope with anything more than a simple piano progression. They get overwhelmed very easily and end up sounding like a muddy mess. I thought they would clear up with burn-in but there seems to be no change whatsoever at 100 hours - I still can’t stand them.

Value (1/10) – AudioSource is a well-known name in cables and audio accessories. From Monster’s example we know that it is possible for such a company to successfully transition into making proper earphones. However, Monster’s R&D budget is obviously much bigger. The IEBAS earbuds feel generic and cheap. Worse than that, sound quality is really not up to the par set by my other $10 earbuds. Avoid at all costs.

Pros: None
Cons: Sound


(3C9) Kanen KM-948


Reviewed Mar 2010

 

Details: Utilizing a shell similar to JVC HA-FXC50, the KM-948 a huge step up from my previous Kanen IEMs
Current Price: $5 from FocalPrice.com
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 90 dB | Freq: 18-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: Jays Single-flange Silicones
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (1/5) – Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (2/5) – Plastic housings with molded strain reliefs, thin cabling with Sennheiser-style Y-split, and heatshrink-covered 3.5mm plug do no inspire confidence but will last if not abused routinely
Isolation (3/5) – Impressive isolation with the right tips, especially when worn over-the-ear
Microphonics (2.5/5) – Microphonics are bothersome when worn cable-down but fairly low when worn cable-up
Comfort (3.5/5) – Due to having a longer nozzle than JVC’s FXC-50, the KM-948 can be worn over-the-ear with the extrusion of the shell pointing outward. They may look a little odd when worn this way, but comfort is greatly improved

Sound (3.7/10) – The sound of the KM-948 is surprisingly tolerable for a $5 earphone. The bottom end boasts impressive extension and good impact. Insertion depth is key in achieving good bass response with these – when inserted shallowly bass impact is too sharp and drums can be downright painful. When inserted too far the bass can be a touch boomy, obscuring other frequencies. However, with the right insertion depth treble comes forward and the bass stays controlled, if a bit hollow. The midrange is articulate and smooth, boasting good clarity for the price but sounding a little thin at times. Treble response is a bit spiky, rolls off early, and lacks information compared to pricier earphones. With a shallow seal they can sound shrill and I found them somewhat tiring, but only after very long listening sessions and not with the Jays silicone tips that I ended up using in the long run. They do one thing very right, though – the $5 KM-948 have better separation and an airier presentation than most other earphones in the <$20 range.

Value (7.5/10) – The KM-948 is an all-around improvement over the older MD-51. At the $5 price they are an extremely competitive product, providing good isolation, comfort, and sound quality. For those willing to experiment with the fit, the KM-948 can be an even more rewarding experience, coming close in certain aspects of their performance to some much more expensive earphones. 

Pros: Very reasonable sound quality, quite comfortable, solid isolation
Cons: Mediocre build quality, stock tips are not ideal

Special thanks to jant71 for lending me the KM-948


(3C10) Coby CVEM79 Jammerz Platinum


Reviewed Apr 2010

 

Details: Surprisingly fun-sounding low-end IEM from Coby with cheerful color schemes to match
Current Price: $9.95 from bhphotovideo.com (MSRP: $24.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 96 dB | Freq: 12-20k Hz | Cable: 4.2’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (2/5) - Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes) and miniature velour carrying pouch
Build Quality (3/5) – Aluminum shells are extremely light and contain metal filters both at the front (nozzle) and the rear (vent). The cable is excellent – soft, tough, and flexible, similar to the Meelectronics cables but a bit thinner and missing a cord cinch. There are strain reliefs on housing entry but strangely none whatsoever on the metal 3.5mm plug
Isolation (2/5) – The massive rear-facing vent betrays a surprising lack of isolation for an IEM
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Very low in a cable-down configuration, nonexistent when worn cord-up
Comfort (4.5/5) – Even among straight-barrel IEMs the CVEM79 stand out in comfort. The housings are short and very light, with flexible strain reliefs and a very compliant fit. I’ve managed to sleep on my side with these with no issues on several occasions

Sound (3.7/10) – The sound of the CVEM79 is decidedly warm and leans slightly toward the dark side. The bass is impactful and extended, albeit lacking in definition – in low end clarity the Jammerz are somewhere between the CX300 and Meelec M9. Drums can sound somewhat hollow as a result but bass bleed is low and the mids are in good balance with the low end. Vocals have warm undertones and good presence. The midrange transitions smoothly into treble, which rolls off gradually at the top end. The overall balance is better than bass-heavy earphones like the Lenntek Sonix Micro and Senn CX300 but still not quite up there with class leaders. Detail and clarity are about what one would expect from earphones with a $25 MSRP, no worse than the JVC Marshmallows/AirCushions, but not better. The soundstage is small and instrument separation is mediocre at best but the overall signature is quite enjoyable in an up-close-and-personal way.

Value (7/10) – The Coby CVEM79 ‘Jammerz Platinum’ are another high bang/buck competitor in the ultra-low-budget category, offering solid build quality and a comfortable form factor in a variety of colors for a bargain-basement price. Though the sound does not impress with detail or clarity, the overall signature is enjoyable enough. Personally, I’ve found my perfect napping IEMs in the Jammerz with their comfortable fit and warm, easy-going sound. 

Pros: Fun, warm, and impactful sound, many color options, very comfortable, minimal microphonics
Cons: Poor isolation, no strain relief on plug

 

 

(3C11) Sentry HO470 Wooden

9f95b122_sentryh0478400x300.jpg
Reviewed May 2010

 

Details: Dimestore wooden IEM seemingly related to the Kanen KM92
Current Price: $5 from Big Lots (MSRP: $9)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 110 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4' L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (1/5) - Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (2.5/5) – Wooden housings with plastic nozzles feel very cheaply made, though metal mesh filters are present in the nozzles. Wood has a tendency to splinter. The cable is slightly rubberized and not too thin, with proper strain reliefs all around
Isolation (2/5) – Massive rear vents severely limit isolation
Microphonics (3/5) – Bothersome when worn cord-down; unobtrusive otherwise
Comfort (3.5/5) – Very lightweight but otherwise perfectly generic straight-barrel fit

Sound (2.7/10) – The signature of the HO470 reminds me of the pricier Meelectronics R1 Woodees. Both earphones are bass cannons, with the HO470 appearing to be even bassier due to the veiled mids and recessed treble. Both earphones are quite warm and exercise disappointingly poor bass control, causing them to sound muddy and lack texture and detail. The bass of the Sentries is overwhelming and seems to come at the listener from all directions. The low end and midrange of the HO470 are extremely smooth but the top end exhibits some harshness despite being severely rolled off. 

Value (5/10) – I really cannot recommend the HO470 for listening to music without some serious equalization in the midrange and treble. For a basshead on a (tiny) budget and with an excellent equalizer, the HO470 might be a viable option. There’s a chance that some of the other cheap earphones out there can be equalized to match the HO470s in bass quantity with fewer sacrifices in the mids and treble, but I would expect them to distort the bass at that point. Either way, the $5 wooden sentries have some value but I would not recommend them as general-purpose IEMs next to the similarly-priced Kanen KM-948.

Pros: Extremely lightweight and quite comfortable
Cons: Lots and lots of mediocre bass, the rest of the signature drowns in the bass, $5 build quality



(3C12) JVC HA-EBX85

JVC HA-EBX85 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Aug 2010

 

Details: Exercise-friendly IEM from JVC’s made-for-women series
Current Price: $15 from jr.com (MSRP: $19.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 102 dB | Freq: 10-23k Hz | Cable: 3.9’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrids
Wear Style: Over-the-ear

Accessories (1/5) – Single flange silicone tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (2.5/5) – The EBX85 is designed with active use in mind. The housings and earhooks are made of a flexible rubberized plastic with a harder material used for the inner shell and glittery JVC nameplate. The thin plastic cable is similar to that used on JVC’s budget-level earbuds and inferior to the thicker cords used on the Marshmallow and AirCushion IEMs. The 2”-long earhooks act as a strain relief on housing entry and the 3.5mm I-plug is similarly well-relieved
Isolation (2.5/5) – Isolation is quite typical for a low-end dynamic. The large shells prevent deep insertion, however, and the stock tips aren’t very good
Microphonics (4/5) – Slight microphonics are present despite the native over-the-ear configuration but aren’t bothersome once the music starts playing
Comfort (4/5) – The ergonomic form factor and soft earhooks make the EBX85 a comfortable IEM to use but may not fit smaller ears snugly

Sound (3.6/10) – The sound of the HA-EBX85 is quite typical of a low-end JVC earphone and reminds me greatly of the once-ubiquitous Marshmallows. The earphones are warm and bassy, providing greater rumble but less impact than the similarly-priced Yamaha EPH-20. The bass is very full but slightly washed-out. Low-end control is lacking on bass-heavy tracks, resulting in slight muddying up of the midrange. The mids are fairly even, increasing in presence towards the upper midrange/treble. Lower treble is accented and results in a fair amount of sparkle and a more balanced sound than the bass quantity would indicate. For a low-end set the treble is actually decently extended and sounds neither dull nor excessively edgy. Treble detail is mediocre but for the price I’m willing to live with that. Clarity is also lacking compared to the best penny-pinching sets from Meelectronics. In addition, the earphone lacks dynamics, sounding a bit ‘shouty’ at all times, but a lack of dynamic range is nothing unexpected for a low-end product. The EBX85 does, however, do one thing surprisingly well for the price – it has a great sense of soundstaging and separation. The positioning isn’t accurate by any means but the little JVCs actually managed to surprise me once or twice even when compared directly to the Meelec M6s that I normally use as a benchmark for ‘active-use’ IEMs.

Value (7/10) – The JVC HA-EBX85 is a low-end ‘earhook’ IEM from JVC’s designed-for-women series. Available in a variety of colors and geared towards active use, the EBX85 is a capable budget-minded set that does a few things very well for the price. Unfortunately, like so many mainstream budget earphones, it sounds as if the engineers turned the bass up to 11 while at the same time limiting the output of the driver, which resulted in lots of mediocre-quality bass. The sound is bass-heavy but not attention-grabbing – perfect for distraction-free use while exercising. It should be noted that the EBX85 does work exceedingly well for active use in general, offering moderate isolation, low microphonics, and a stable fit. Unfortunately, the stock tips don’t really work with the relatively small 4mm nozzle but for those in search of a bargain-beater IEM for exercising or general use, the EBX85 is a solid choice, especially if decent tips (e.g. Sony Hybrids) are available.

Pros: Stable fit, low microphonics, surprising soundstaging & separation
Cons: Stock eartips don’t stay on the nozzles, lacks clarity & detail


(3C13) elago E3

elago E3 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Aug 2010

 

Details: Entry-level earphones from California-based design firm elago
Current Price: $9.99 from amazon.com (MSRP: $29.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 90 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cord: 4.3’ I-plug
 Nozzle Size: 4.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock Single Flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (1/5) – Single flange silicone tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (3/5) – The unique shells of the E3 are plastic but seem very well-put together. The stems are slightly rubbery but not flexible enough to be called strain reliefs. The cabling is excellent for an earphone in the lowest price bracket, keeping up with the renowned JVC IEM cables in thickness and flexibility, and the metal-encased 3.5mm plug and y-split feature short rubber sleeves to protect the cable
Isolation (2.5/5) – Quite good but the ergonomic design of the E3 prevents deep insertion when worn in the conventional manner, limiting isolation slightly
Microphonics (4/5) – Very low when worn cord-down; nonexistent when worn over-the-ear
Comfort (4/5) – The angled-nozzle design is wonderfully ergonomic, with the shell of the earphone resting snugly against the antitragus of the wearer’s ear when worn cable-down. The E3 can be worn over-the-ear as well but the nozzles are angled in the wrong direction for cord-up wear, causing the earphones to stick out slightly. With the channels reversed, however, the featherweight elagos compete with the likes of the Phonak PFE in overall comfort

Sound (4.1/10) – The sound signature of the elago E3 is undoubtedly bass-centric. The low end is smooth and extremely powerful, reminding me of JVC Marshmallows and Sennheiser CX300s. The low end is quite well-extended by any standards, continuing to rumble all the way down to around 30 Hz, and carries impressive impact. At high volumes the bass has a tendency to crowd out the lower midrange and generally sounds a bit overbearing for my tastes. It is at moderate listening volumes, however, that the E3 shines. The bass becomes far less intrusive and the otherwise recessed midrange and treble step forward to reveal surprising clarity and a fairly realistic tone. Expectedly, the earphones are a bit warm and dark in nature, but not in a way that is capable of putting me to sleep  (a-la Coby CVEM79). The midrange and treble of the E3 are smooth and roll off gently at the top and the earphones present a small soundstage. Though leaning towards intimacy, especially at high volumes, they don’t sound overwhelmingly narrow. Aside from the ever-present bass, instrumental separation is actually quite decent. On the whole, while the elago E3s don’t have the clarity or detail of higher-end sets such as the Meelec M9 or Soundmagic PL30, they are surprisingly capable of providing an enjoyable listening experience that puts mainstream sets such as the Yamaha EPH-20 and JVC HA-EBX85 to shame.

Value (8/10) – The elago E3 is a well-designed and comfortable entry-level earphone. The ergonomic shells are a welcome change from the generic straight-barrel housings used by the vast majority of the competition and the sound signature, while not nearly as unique, fares very well in the price bracket. Powerful bass slightly overshadows the competent midrange and treble but the earphones balance themselves out at lower volumes and respond well to equalization. All in all, the elago E3 is yet another earphone showing that decent sound doesn’t necessarily need to have a hard-to-swallow price tag. For bass lovers on a tight budget, this definitely isn’t one to miss.

Pros: Ergonomic design, low microphonics, solidly-built, pleasant midrange and treble

Cons: Bass can be slightly overbearing at times, stock tips can be difficult to change

 

 

(3C14) Earsquake CRO

Earsquake CRO 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Sep 2010

 

Details: Entry-level model from Earsquake
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $9)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (1/5) – single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (2/5) – The housings of the CRO are made out of lightweight plastic and seem fairly typical in build. The nozzle is protected by a metal mesh filter but the hard plastic stems lack strain relief. The cable is very plasticky and the chin slider won’t stay in place as a result
Isolation (3/5) – Surprisingly good for a vented dynamic
Microphonics (4/5) – Very low when worn cable-down, nonexistent cable-up
Comfort (4/5) – The shells are extremely lightweight and very easy to get fitted. They are rounded at the front but the stem has sharp edges that can contact the ear upon deep insertion, which is not a problem when the earphones are worn cord-up

Sound (4.2/10) – Earsquake clearly went for the ‘tell it like it is’ approach with the CRO, imbuing it with clarity worthy of far more expensive earphones but at the same time stripping it of the only way in which entry-level earphones can mask their flaws – the veil. The sound of the CRO is raw – hard-hitting bass, somewhat dry mids, and touchy but very prominent treble. I compared them mostly to the elago E3, which are my <$10 benchmark. While the elagos are far smoother and quite a bit easier on the ears overall, they sound extremely muffled and veiled next to the CRO. The bass impact of the CRO is sharper and more defined and the relative bass quantity seems greater despite the E3 actually having more bass weight.

The midrange of the CRO is in good balance with the bass and treble and generally impresses with detail and clarity. The treble, on the other hand, is very edgy and can be fatiguing at higher volumes. It’s a bit grainy and there are narrow spikes here and there in the response, making it sibilant with certain tracks. On the upside, top-end extension is decent. The presentation is airy and well-spaced. Due to the excellent clarity, the barrier between the listener and the music very commonly present in low-end earphones is absent with the CRO, adding to the raw, transparent sound signature. There’s not much of a soundstage but I still found myself enjoying this $9 IEM far more than I expected. For more laid-back listening I would definitely pick up one of the other good <$10 earphones but if clarity is a prime concern, the CRO is a hard one to beat.

Value (7.5/10) – For those who can handle the lack of refinement in the bass and treble, the CRO represents one of the best ways to spend $10 on an earphone. I’m a big fan of smooth sound but the clarity of the CRO won me over in the end, wiping the floor with the vast majority of my entry-level IEMs. Add to that isolation that’s surprisingly good for an entry-level dynamic, low microphonics, and lightweight and comfortable shells and a contender for the best <$10 earphone emerges.

Pros: Lightweight and comfortable, good isolation, low microphonics, good clarity
Cons: Very raw sound, can be harsh/sibilant


(3C15) Earsquake Fish

Earsquake Fish 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Sep 2010

 

Details: Bass-heavy earphone oriented at PSP users
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $15)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (1/5) – Medium single-flange silicone tips (2 colors)
Build Quality (2.5/5) – The housings of the Fish are just as plasticky as those of the cheaper CRO but the cable is thicker and far more rubbery. The cord cinch actually works and there is some strain relief to be found on the y-split but aside from that the Fish still feels like a $15 earphone
Isolation (2.5/5) – Quite decent for a vented dynamic
Microphonics (4/5) – Very low when worn cable-down, nonexistent cable-up
Comfort (3.5/5) – The shells are quite light and the long stems don’t lead to any problems with over-the-ear fitment but the housings are not rounded at the front like those of the CRO. As a result, the Fish fits more like the average straight-barrel in-ear

Sound (3/10) – Though the Fish was not designed for music, it would be unfair for me to make a special exception for the earphones and stray from my usual review regimen. That said, the Fish clearly works better for films or games than it does for music. As advertised, the earphones are quite bassy, with a low end that tends towards ‘rumbly’ rather than ‘punchy’ and better low end extension than the other Earsquake models. Sadly, while quite appropriate for movies and gaming, the low end weight of the Fish makes it sound muffled when used for music. The earphones are quite a bit smoother than the CRO as a result, which covers up their other shortcomings somewhat. Still, the mids are recessed, sometimes overshadowed by the upper bass, and generally a little too thick and slow for my taste. Tonally, the Fish are warm but not excessively so. The treble is quite smooth compared to the CRO but not as prominent or extended. In terms of presentation, the Fish sounds distant and has a tunnel-like soundstage, with some left-right separation but not much else in the way of imaging or positioning.

Value (6.5/10) – The Earsquake Fish was designed with a purpose in mind, and that purpose was not music listening. As a result, it holds little interest for me. Those who do game on the move may find a good match with the Fish as ‘gaming’ IEMs are a rare crop. Fit, microphonics, and build quality are all fine for the price though I wish Earsquake included the full 3-size tip set with these. The sound is thick and bassy and the presentation is spacious but distant overall – on par with many of the mainstream cheap-o earphones but not nearly as good as some of my budget hi-fi champs. If music is your game and bucketloads of bass don’t hold much appeal, buy the SHA instead.

Pros: Lightweight and comfortable, good isolation, low microphonics, smooth sound, lots of bass
Cons: Lots of bass, lacks in clarity & resolution, stock tips in only 1 size


(3C16) Earsquake SHA

Earsquake SHA 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Sep 2010

 

Details: Music-oriented earphone from Taiwanese OEM Earsquake
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $15)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (1/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (3/5) – Like the other Earsquake earphones, the SHA is plastic in construction but the build is fairly high-rent compared to the others. The metallic paint is especially impressive and the colorful earphones look wonderful in person. The nozzles are protected by a metal filter and proper strain reliefs are utilized on the housings. The cords differ by earphone color – the green and red models come with a slightly more rubbery cord than the Fish; the silver and black units have a meelec-style clear cord that is smoother and has less memory character
Isolation (3/5) – Surprisingly good for a vented dynamic
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Fairly low when worn cable-down, nonexistent when worn cable-up for green/red models; a bit better for the black/gray earphones
Comfort (4/5) – The housings are lightweight and very comfortable. They are a bit slimmer towards the front than those of the Fish and can be inserted fairly deeply, for example for sleeping, but still sound fine with a shallow seal

Sound (4.9/10) – Unlike the similarly-priced Fish, the SHA was designed for listening to music and music alone, and it shows. The overall sound of the SHA is balanced but quite forward and aggressive. As with the entry-level CRO, the SHA is a bit rough around the edges, but that’s part of its charm.

The bass of the SHA is tight and controlled but goes surprisingly deep when the track calls for it. The impact is not as full-bodied as that of the Meelec M9 or Sennheiser CX280 but it is quite accurate, well-layered, and natural-sounding, at least at reasonable listening volumes. Indeed, the sound of the SHA does begin to degrade at higher volumes, losing balance and clarity and becoming more hard-edged and fatiguing.


The mids are strong and fairly smooth, if a little dry. For the money, it’s a very good sound with plenty of clarity and detail - those who can’t handle the somewhat recessed midrange of the M9 will find a good budget set with the SHA. The treble is prominent and accurate but a little edgy. The dry mids and hard-edged treble together remind me of the Hippo VB though of course the Hippos are far more detailed and have much better dynamics. Top-end extension is average but the treble is very crisp and extremely satisfying in a budget set.

The presentation is spacious – next to the elago e3 or JVC Marshmallows, the SHA sound ‘big’ but not distant. Still, typical of a budget set, the SHA are not particularly resolving and imaging begins to break down somewhat when things get busy. I think part of the problem might be the limited dynamic range, which is hardly noticeable next to the other Earsquake earphones but shows really well next to the Meelec M9 or a pricier earphone. 

Value (8.5/10) – The Earsquake SHA is a properly good earphone for the price. It is easy to use, with a compliant straight-barrel fit, solid isolation, and low microphonics. The hand-painted look works very well and the color schemes are quite welcome in the drab world of budget and mid-range earphones. And of course the sound is nothing to sneer at, either – the SHA is balanced and very direct. It may lack the detail and dynamic range of the Meelec M9 or other budget-minded head-fi favorites but it sounds very even-footed and true to source. Highly recommended for those limited to the very lowest price tier but still seeking the best possible audio experience!

Pros: Lightweight and comfortable, good isolation, low microphonics, good clarity, plenty of color options
Cons: Slightly dry sound, poor dynamic

 


(3C17) MaiKe MK-EL5031

 

Reviewed Mar 2011

Details: Entry-level earphone from China-based electronics firm MaiKe
Current Price: $7 from hdaccessory.com (MSRP: $29.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32Ω | Sens: 112 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4’ 45°-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Generic bi-flanges, Sony Hybrid
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (1/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (2/5) – The all-plastic shells of the EL5031 don’t inspire a whole lot of confidence – while the plastic itself should hold out, the same cannot be said for the glue that holds the shell together. I do quite like the cable, though – it’s soft, flexible, and well-relieved all around
Isolation (2/5) – Not only is the MaiKe vented, but the vertical-driver form factor prevents deep insertion (a-la Radius DDM)
Microphonics (4.5/5) – The cable noise itself s very low due to the shallow fit but the cable anchors make some noise when the cord is tugged
Comfort (2.5/5) – The fit is similar to that of the Radius DDM but the MaiKe is a bit larger and the driver bulge constantly presses against my ears. As with the DDM, the fit of the EL5031 never feels particularly secure to me and will require some experimentation to figure out

Sound (3.5/10) – The sound of the MK-EL5031 is big, bottom-heavy, and very smooth. The bass is deep and powerful but sounds a bit sluggish, lingering longer than with all of my pricier earphones – a common issue with cheap, bass-heavy in-ears. There’s a characteristic mid-bass lift, which gives the low end extra weight and warmth. The midrange, too, is warm, thick, and smooth. Clarity trails Meelec’s pricier M9 quite badly and even falls slightly behind my similarly-priced Sentry HO642. On the positive side, the generally smooth response and gentle treble roll-off make the sound very inoffensive and easy-going for long listening sessions. 

The most surprising aspect of the EL5031 is the sense of space it provides. Both the soundstage and headstage are above-average in size and give the sound a convincingly ‘open’ feel. The thick, viscous sound does not allow for great instrumental separation or imaging but the sheer volume of the soundstage is impressive for an entry-level product. There is some reverb in the housings, which may or may not appeal to everyone but, considering that the EL5031 is not exactly a paragon of accuracy in the first place, I find its reverberant nature quite fun, especially with kick drums and the like. 

Value (6.5/10) - Though the sound signature of the MaiKe MK-EL5031 is decidedly mainstream and the large housings don't exactly shine when it comes to fit and isolation, the $7 earphone does surprise with the vastness of its presentation and the reverberant nature of its sound. Not a stellar performer by any means but it gets the job done.

Pros: Big bass, smooth sound, spacious soundstage; low microphonics
Cons: Large housings limit comfort and isolation; plasticky build; clarity could be better


(3C18) Sentry HO642

 

Reviewed Mar 2011

Details: Entry-level earphone from bargain-bin electronics brand Sentry
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $7.98)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (1/5) – Single-flange (one size) and double-flange silicone tips and vinyl carrying pouch
Build Quality (1.5/5) – The housings of the HO642 are completely plastic and lack strain reliefs and nozzle filters. The plastic-sheathed cable is quite thin above the y-split but not too bad below. The nickel plating on the 3.5mm plug tends to cause audible static when the plug is disturbed. The stock tips are of decent quality and seal well; unfortunately, this results in severe driver flex – quite possibly the worst I’ve encountered
Isolation (3/5) – Quite decent with the included double-flange tips
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Slightly bothersome when worn cable-down; not bad otherwise
Comfort (3.5/5) – The shells are extremely lightweight and rounded at the front for an inoffensive fit

Sound (4/10) – In contrast to the decidedly bass-heavy sound of the similarly-priced MaiKe MK-EL5031, the signature of the HO642 foregoes bass response for balance and clarity. The bass is actually rolled-off quite noticeably at the bottom but provides adequate mid-bass punch for my tastes. Low-end control is good and the bass usually makes itself apparent only when called for. On bass-heavy tracks, the low end sounds just a touch boomy but not bloated. There is not much bass bleed but the lower midrange is slightly recessed. Nevertheless, the mids impress with clarity and detail but are quite thin and dry. With a little more fullness, the midrange would compete well with Meelec’s pricier M9 but as it stands the HO642 just doesn’t render most instruments realistically. Still, for the price, the clean and crisp mids are impressive.

Towards the top of the midrange, the HO642 gains authority, culminating in several response peaks in the lower treble. As a result, the earphones tend to sound sharp and shrill with most tracks despite narrowly missing sibilance-inducing frequencies. Depending on the track, mild harshness and sibilance are still present at times but they aren’t nearly as offensive as they would be if the treble spikes occurred a bit lower. Top-end extension is moderate. The presentation of the earphones tends towards intimacy. Soundstage width is average while the height and depth are nothing to brag about at all. Separation is mediocre, albeit helped along by the lack of muddiness at the bottom. Tonally, the HO642 leans towards ‘cold and bright’ – not excessively so, but definitely north of neutral to my ears.

Value (6/10) – At the $8 suggested retail price, the HO642 is a decent option for the budget-minded clarity lover. The biggest complaint aside from the hit-or-miss sonic flavor of the Sentrys is the driver flex, which can be quite severe with a good seal. Still, fit, comfort, microphonics, and isolation are all average on the large scale and quite impressive for an entry-level product, putting the HO642 right up there with the better earphones $8 can buy.

Pros: Surprising clarity
Cons: Terrible “carrying pouch”; heavy driver flex; aggressive and uneven treble response, sub-bass roll-off

 

 

(3C19) Skullcandy Smokin’ Buds
 

Reviewed Sep 2011

Details: Aging Skullcandy earphone with a familiar form factor
Current Price: $13 from amazon.com (MSRP: $29.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 18-20k Hz | Cable: 4' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: generic single flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (3/5) – The plastic housings are similar to those found on the VSonic R02ProII and Grado iGi. The rubber strain reliefs are long and soft but the cable itself is thin and plasticky. An in-line volume control is present below the y-split
Isolation (3/5) – More than adequate for an entry-level dynamic-driver earphone
Microphonics (4/5) – Low with cable-down wear; nonexistent otherwise
Comfort (3.5/5) – Typical of a lightweight straight-barrel in-ear and similar to the other IEMs utilizing the same housing

Sound (3.1/10) - Like the lower-end Ink’d model, the Smokin sounds decent but hardly impresses even next to the age-old JVC Marshmallows and MEElec M2s. The bass is reasonably impactful but tends to sound boomy and has poor depth. Detail resolution is average – about on-par with the MEElec M2. The M2 sounds warmer and fuller, however, so it is more difficult to fault for not offering up much detail.

Bass bleed into the midrange is minimal but the Smokin’ can hardly be called ‘controlled’. The midrange boasts mediocre clarity and a fairly thick veil but isn’t particularly bothersome on the whole. The top end is similarly inoffensive but again neither the clarity nor the detail impress. Overall balance is decent. Noticeable top-end roll-off leads to a darker overall tone and a slight lack of air. The soundstage is small, causing congestion. Though not fair from a price perspective, there is really no comparison between the presentation of these and a decent entry-level set from a Hi-Fi brand, such as the Sennheiser CX300 or Ultimate Ears 350.

Value (6/10) – One of Skullcandy’s first in-ear models, the Smokin’ was originally slotted above the Ink’d in the lineup but has since dropped to a similar price point, more in line with the quality of sound it produces. With proper strain reliefs and a generic, reliable housing design, the Smokin’ is better-built, better-isolating, and less microphonic than the Ink’d. The sound is a bit more colored but at this level it really doesn’t matter – there are worse earphones out there and there certainly are better ones. 

Pros: Low cable noise, lightweight and comfortable
Cons: Mediocre sound quality

 

 

(3C20) Section 8 Earbuds
 

Reviewed Nov 2011

 

Details: bargain-bin earphones with endorsements ranging from Elvis to Tupac
Current Price: $10 from amazon.com (MSRP: $19.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: generic single-flange
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (1/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (3/5) – The metal housings and nylon-sheathed cables are impressive at the price point but the lack of strain reliefs says little for long-term durability
Isolation (3/5) – Typical for a straight-barrel dynamic-driver earphone
Microphonics (3/5) – Mild when worn cable-down; very low when worn over-the-ear
Comfort (3.5/5) – Typical for a straight-barrel IEM. Housings are very lightweight and the housing lacks sharp edges, which helps.

Sound (3.7/10) – The Section 8 Earbuds are by no means Hi-Fi but they do sound surprisingly decent for the asking price. Clarity is vastly superior to that of the similarly-priced Skullcandy Smokin’ buds and the bass is deeper and less washed-out. The muddiness and warmth of the Smokin’ are gone as well, leaving a low end that, while not particularly detailed, doesn’t crowd out the midrange.

The mids are clean and clear, on the cold side in tone and a bit distant. There is a tinge to the upper midrange that makes the Section 8 buds sound metallic and the earphones tend to distort more quickly than higher-end sets as the volume is turned up. The treble is prominent enough down low and rolls off towards the top. The soundstage is below average in size but the relatively decent bass control keeps it congestion-free compared to that of entry-level Skullcandy products. Layering, as expected for the price, is nearly nonexistent, making the earphones sound quite flat.

Value (7/10) – The Section 8 Earbuds are a competent bargain-bin product with a generic form factor and surprisingly clear sound. Available in a number of celebrity flavors, they put similarly-priced Skullcandy earphones to shame and can be a genuinely inoffensive listen, though those looking for fidelity will want to keep on saving up.

Pros: decent clarity, comfort, and isolation
Cons: distant sound with a metallic edge

 

 

 

(3C21) Monoprice 8320 (MEP-933)

Monoprice 8320 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Feb 2012

Details: 14.2mm dynamic-driver IEM from cable vendor Monoprice
Current Price: $7 from monoprice.com (MSRP: $7.11)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32Ω | Sens: 96 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrids, Meelec long single-flanges, Comply T400
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (0/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (1 size)
Build Quality (2.5/5) – Large housings containing the sizeable drivers are plastic but feel well put-together. Strain reliefs are present all around but the nylon-sheathed cord is fragile, tangle-prone, and lacks a cinch
Isolation (2/5) – Large, vented housings and short nozzles greatly limit isolation
Microphonics (3/5) – Annoying when worn cable-down, not much of an issue with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (2.5/5) – The plastic housings are lightweight but large, thick, and complete with sharp ridges. They seem to be designed for over-the-ear wear but don’t fit those with small/medium-sized ears well. With the cable exit point pointed forward, the cable can be worn straight down or looped over the ear. The nozzle is shallowly angled and not very long, which may make the stock tips useless for some

Sound (7.5/10) – Monoprice specializes in sourcing cheap, high quality parts and offering reasonably-priced alternatives to brand-name products. When it comes to audio quality, the MEP-933 does exactly that, rivaling far more expensive earphones in traits such as balance, detail, and clarity. The bass of the MEP-933 is punchy but far from overblown - I would even hesitate to call the earphone ‘bass-heavy’. Bass quantity is more in line with sets such as the Brainwavz Beta and MEElec CW31 than bassy IEMs like the Dunu Trident and Soundmagic E10. The low end offers good speed and resolution but doesn’t have the greatest depth. Sub-bass lacks texture and fails to portray individual notes well compared to higher-end sets, especially at lower volume levels. Partly to blame are the MEP-933’s average dynamics, which result in a mild case of ‘one-note’ bass. There is also a bit of reverb audible in the plastic housings, not unlike what I experience with Sennheiser's IE-series earphones.


The midrange of the MEP-933 is crisp and clean - not just for the asking price, but even next to high-end sets. Detail levels are good and though the bass is slightly boosted, the mids are not notably recessed considering that the presentation is distancing on the whole. Vocals are prominent, if a bit thin – those who prefer a thick or lush sound will probably be better off saving up for a Dunu Trident or Xears set. The MEP-933 is still slightly thicker than the Brainwavz Beta and lacks a bit of the detail and transparency of the latter. It is much smoother, however, especially moving up into the treble region.


The top end of the MEP-933 is low on sparkle and not very revealing, but not laid-back enough for the earphones to sound dark. Resolution is decent and the MEP-933 is smooth and reasonably well-extended – more so than many pricier earphones. There is a bit of smearing when things get fast and heavy on the cymbals but nothing to complain about with a lower-tier product. Indeed, minute issues with the bass and treble being noteworthy is a testament to how solid a performer the Monoprice is on the whole.

 

What’s more interesting is the earphones’ presentation. In contrast to most budget IEMs, which tend to have a congested, in-the-head presentation, the MEP-933 has a wide, airy, and open sound to it. There’s good width to the soundstage but nearly no depth or layering, resulting in poor imaging and a distinct lack of centering ability. The heightened left-right separation gives the MEP-933 a more laid-back, headphone-like feel but also means that imaging and overall positioning ability lags behind not-so-budget sets such as the Soundmagic E10 and Brainwavz M1. 

 

Value (9/10) – Budget IEMs typically follow a simple formula – cheap, straight-barrel housing, high-sensitivity driver, and massively enhanced bass. The Monoprice MEP-933 shrugs such convention - its gigantic shells and equally enormous 14.2mm transducers, over-the-ear fit, and balanced sound signature make for one atypical budget option. There is no doubt that you are getting much more than your money’s worth in sound quality – the MEP-933 is clear, balanced, and detailed unlike anything I’ve heard in or near its price range. Simply put, it has no business sounding as good as it does. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for user-friendliness – the ergonomics are questionable and the fabric cable is noisy and tangle-prone. Aftermarket tips are likely a necessity as well, and even then the MEP-933 simply won’t work for some users. In the end, it isn’t likely to be the end-all earphone for most, but at least it’s cheap enough to try without any regrets.

Pros: Fantastic sound quality for the price
Cons: Noisy, tangle-prone cable; large housings with sharp ridges won’t be comfortable for many


Thanks to nmxdaven and randomZash for the MEP-933!

 

 

(3C22) Ultimate Ears 100

 

 

Added Aug 2012

Details: UE’s entry-level set available in several striking color schemes
Current Price: $14 from amazon.com (MSRP: $19.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 3.8' L-plug
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (1/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (4 sizes)
Build Quality (2.5/5) – Plastic housings and plastic cabling are typical of UE’s entry-level models. The 3.5mm L-plug lacks strain relief and driver flex is a major annoyance
Isolation (3/5) – Long, angled nozzles and sealed housings provide good isolation
Microphonics (4/5) – Very low
Comfort (4/5) – The rectangular housings are small and quite ergonomic, with long angled nozzles and rounded edges. They should fit all but the smallest ears when worn cable-down and can be worn cord-up fairly easily as well.

Sound (4.9/10) – Clearly oriented at the consumer market, the UE100 is nevertheless a fairly well-balanced earphone with good bass and midrange presence. The low end has good extension and decent impact, though it is not as voluminous as that of the pricier UE350. It lacks crispness, detail, and texture but sounds much less boomy compared to a MEElectronics M2 or Skullcandy Smokin’. The bass-midrange balance is good, with the mids prominent enough even on bass-heavy tracks.

The midrange tends to lack crispness and clarity next to higher-end sets such as the Brainwavz Beta but for the price the UE100 has nothing to be ashamed of – it is fuller, warmer, and smoother than the similarly-priced Section 8 earbuds and far clearer than the Skullcandy Smokin’. The treble has decent extension and rolls off rather gently at the top. For the most part the top end is smooth, albeit lacking in detail. The presentation is farther back compared to most entry-level sets but has decent air. Next to higher-end IEMs it lacks depth and separation but does give a sense of space that differentiates it from the in-the-head presentation achieved by most cheap earphones. All in all, while the UE100 can hardly be called Hi-Fi, for $10 one could do much worse.

Value (7.5/10) – The UE100 is a cheap-and-cheerful set with an unusual but very user-friendly form factor, low cable noise, good isolation, and sound that - for the asking price – is decently balanced and surprisingly competent all around. It’s a good backup set or kid earphone to pick up for $10-12 but do make sure the warranty is intact as the driver flex on some pairs can utterly ruin the experience.

Pros: Consumer-friendly sound with good clarity; comfortable form factor; low cable noise
Cons: Significant driver flex


 

 

Edited by ljokerl - 9/4/14 at 1:43am
post #2 of 14587
Thread Starter 

Tier 3B ($15-30)

 

(3B1) MEElectronics M6 / M6P
 

Reviewed Nov 2009

 

Details: Sports-style earphone from MEElectronics
Current Price: $22 from Amazon.com (MSRP: $49.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cord: 4.6’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrids, De-Cored Shure Olives
Wear Style: Over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) – Hard clamshell carrying case, shirt clip, silicone single-flange (3 sizes), bi-flange, and tri-flange (2 sizes) silicone tips
Build Quality (4/5) - Solid-feeling plastic housings are coupled with Meelec's excellent new cabling terminated with a low-profile L-plug. Two inches of memory wire provide additional strain relief
Isolation (3/5) – By design they cannot be inserted too deeply, but still provide average levels of isolation
Microphonics (5/5) Over-the-ear fit and excellent cables, coupled with an included shirt clip, make microphonics nonexistent
Comfort (4/5) – Comfort itself is quite good but getting them fitted initially can be difficult due to the memory wire. Luckily, memory wire can be removed with a bit of knifework

Sound (5.7/10) – Despite sharing a basic signature with the Meelec M9, the M6 are superior in every way except airiness. They just don’t sound as breathy as the M9. They are, however, more detailed and have good extension on both ends. Soundstage and positioning are good for the price. Clarity across the range is also impressive, with decent bass control and crystal-clear sparkle at the top of the range. There is a mid-bass hump but it’s hardly distracting and doesn’t detract much from the overall balance. Treble is also quite pronounced, leading to a somewhat V-shaped signature. Still, they provide a very good all-around sound at the price point and can please both the detail freak and the casual listener.

Value (9/10) – Taken as a total package, the Meelec M6 is a steal - Techno/Trance and Electronica listeners need not look any further, but nearly everyone is sure to be impressed with the combination of sound and comfort at the price point. One of my favorites in its class.

Pros: Well-built, comfortable, great sound
Cons: Can be an epic pain to get fitted

 


(3B2) Head-Direct RE2


Reviewed Dec 2009

 

Details: Old ($99) version of the RE2 IEM
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32 Ω | Sens: 103 dB | Freq: 20-18k Hz | Cord: 5’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Soundmagic PL30 bi-flanges, stock small bi-flanges, De-Cored Olives.
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (4/5) – Spare filters, a nice selection of silicone tips (single- and bi-flanges), and a shirt clip. A nice leather-wrapped wooden case was included with my version but is no longer provided.
Build Quality (3/5) – completely plastic shell, some reports of splitting; Cables are thick and sturdy but very plasticky and tangle easily. Hard plastic stem can damage cables
Isolation (2/5) – ported. Bi-flange tips help, but still below average isolation
Microphonics (2/5) Rather poor and cannot be worn over-the-ear well. New cables are improved
Comfort (2.5/5) – cannot be worn over-the-ear; regular straight-barrel IEM otherwise

Sound (6.1/10) – The overall sound surprises with its clarity. The highs are detailed and sound extended, but roll off earlier than I expected and can sometimes be overly bright and a little forward. The mids have good clarity and detail. The smoothness is very impressive for the price, as well. The low frequencies roll off quickly but what is there is detailed and precise. Amping helps.

Amping: Likes a warm amp for a more well-rounded sound. Excessive power is not necessary. Bass boost helps with raising the low-end response.

Value (8.5/10) – At $39, it was easy to recommend the RE2s for lovers of genres that benefit from a neutral/analytical presentation and high level of detail, such as classical. At the new $29 price, they are an absolute steal.

Pros: Great detail and clarity, smooth mids & highs
Cons: Mediocre isolation, cannot be worn over the ear, poor low-end extension, not much bass quantity, can be bright

 

 

(3B3) MEElectronics M9


Reviewed Dec 2009

 

Details: Meelec’s high bang/buck contender in the $20 range
Current Price: $17 from amazon.com (MSRP: $24.99); $23 for M9P with microphone
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Freq: 18-20k Hz | Cord: 4’ 45-degree plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) – Hard clamshell case, shirt clip, single-(3 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips
Build Quality (4/5) – While the old version had known build issues, the new M9s are very solidly constructed out of metal using the same cables as rest of the range – striped silver on the silver version; dark grey on the black version
Isolation (3/5) – Longer housings and included bi-flange help achieve deeper insertion and greater isolation despite the vented design
Microphonics (4/5) – Low when worn cable down; nonexistent otherwise
Comfort (3.5/5)– Shallow insertion and fairly light weight make these quite comfortable for long term use but bi-flanges may be required for the best sound. The sound is very sensitive to insertion depth so all of the tips are worth trying

Sound (5.3/10) – The M9 share their general signature with the Meelec M6, which happen to be my favorites from the entire Meelectronics lineup. The soundstage is fairly wide and they sound quite airy – much more so than the top-of-the-range M11. They have great extension at the top end and very strong bass. The bass is sometimes excessive in quantity and tends towards ‘boomy’. The mids are slightly recessed and a bit dry, just like the M6. Though clarity is great all-around, they can be overwhelmed a tiny bit by busy tracks and there is some upper-end harshness. Treble is strong and sparkly, boasting surprising detail and extension for a $20 earphone. Of note, the sound they put out is very fit-dependent; experimentation with different tips may be necessary to get the best out of them.

Value (9/10) – The sound of these is easily worth the price of admission. Clarity and detail are superb and the sound is more airy than any of Meelec’s other models. It’s very hard to compete with the detail these are capable of producing at such a low price point. Meelectroncs’ excellent customer service deserves a nod here too.

Pros: Excellent accessory pack, excellent sound at the price point, good build quality, very low microphonics
Cons: Can be difficult to wear over-the-ear, bass may be too strong/boomy for some



(3B4) MEElectronics R1
 

Reviewed Nov 2009 / Updated Jan 2011

 

Details: MEElectronics first “woody” IEM
Current Price: $28 from Amazon.com (MSRP: $39.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cord: 4.6’ L- plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock Single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (4.5/5) – Single-flange (3-sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips, cord wrap, airplane adapter, shirt clip, and hard clamshell carrying case

Build Quality (3.5/5) – Housing is made of a light-colored wood and sealed with a clear lacquer. The cable is similar to the new M6 and M11 cables but in a dark grey color. L/R markings rub off way too easily.
Isolation (2.5/5) – The bulge on the housing which holds the driver prevents deep insertion with single-flange tips. Bi-flange tips just don’t sound quite right.
Microphonics (3/5) – Surprisingly bad considering the cable is similar to the (stellar) one on the M11. Wearing them over-the-ear with the shirt clip helps
Comfort (3/5) – The driver bulge on the housing prevents these from being truly comfortable the way the M11s are. Also makes it more difficult than I would like to wear the cables over the ear.

Sound (4.2/10) – Warm. Very warm. These can almost make the RadioPaq Jazz sound cold in comparison. While the warmth makes them feel full and intimate, it really gets in the way of hearing detail, especially at the low end. There is very little texture to the bass, but a whole lot of power. As a result, it sounds poorly controlled, albeit rather smooth. The same warm intimacy really messes with the soundstage and positioning as well, which these severely lack. The treble extension is also harmed by the warmth – they just have too much low-end bias. The mids are definitely there, but they sound a little hollow. If the JVC HA-FX300 “BiMetals” sound metallic, these definitely sound “woody”.

Value (5/10) – At $26, the R1 is an earphone to be considered only by true lovers of warm and bassy sound. While still providing good value for money, it just isn’t good enough otherwise to compete against Meelec’s other offerings. It should be noted that there are variances between individual production units of Meelectronics earphones in my experience. The fact that my R1 cables are very microphonic is a testament to this.


Update (01/11): An updated version of the R1 was released several months ago, with the ambient vent relocated from the side of the housings to the rear. While the original R1 was nauseatingly warm and slightly de-emphasized at the top, the new version is a bit more balanced, with prominent lower treble and more neutral overall tonality. The sound signature of the still hinges on the huge bass – though slightly less controlled than that of the M9, the bass of the R1 is softer in character and more pleasant on the whole. The depth and power of the bass are quite good for an entry-level in-ear and give music a characteristic underlying rumble. There is still not a whole lot of texture to the low end and the bass is felt more than it is heard but on the whole the relaxed low end is a welcome change from the explosive aggressiveness of the Meelec M9 or the tight-and-controlled presentation of something like the Sennheiser CX200.

The midrange is slightly recessed but not as much as that of the M9. It is, however, less clear and detailed than the dryer, thinner-sounding mids of the M9. There’s a bit of a veil present and the sub-bass rumble additionally blankets the midrange on some tracks. On the upside the lower mids are smooth, full, and liquid. The upper midrange, on the other hand, is quite strident. There are noticeable response spikes, resulting in mild harshness and sibilance on certain tracks. Lower treble response is hard-edged – even more so than that of the M9 – but becomes softer and more smooth towards the top and extends higher than that of the 1st-gen R1. Presentation-wise the R1 is fairly airy but not as wide-sounding as the M9. The omnipresent bass leads to issues with positioning but on the whole the new R1 sounds less confined than the old one. Combined with the somewhat harsh treble, this makes the R1 a better earphone for movies and games than it is for music but it is an improvement over the old model either way.

Pros: Interesting design, good build quality
Cons: L/R identifiers come off too easily, disappointing microphonics, not particularly comfortable, sound is too warm



(3B5) Soundmagic PL21 / MP21

Reviewed Nov 2009

 

Details: The latest budget earphone from Soundmagic
Current Price: $18 from focalprice.com; $28 for MP-21 (with microphone)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cord: 4’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: VSonic foamies, stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (4.5/5) – Silicone single-flange (4 sizes) and foam (3 sets) tips, pleather carrying pouch, set of rubber cable guides, and shirt clip
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The shells are aluminum and feel well-machined. Cables are rubberized and feature articulated strain reliefs. Not as thick as the PL50 cabling or Meelctronics’ cables, but still very functional
Isolation (2.5/5) – Isolation is about average; foam tips help
Microphonics (4/5) – present when worn straight-down. Can be eliminated entirely by wearing them over-the-ear. Shirt clip and gable guides are included.
Comfort (4/5) – They are extremely light and the driver bulge is smaller and farther from the nozzle than on the Meelec R1 or Skullcandy Titans so they are far more comfortable

Sound (4.8/10) – The sound produced by the PL21s is massively different from their PL30 and PL50 brethren. While the latter two are the more neutral and accurate earphones, the PL21 is a lot more fun. It produces a dark, bassy, and aggressive sound. The bass is impactful but occasionally lacking restraint (i.e. boomy). The midrange is recessed compared to the lows but still plenty lively. The treble is okay but high-end extension could be better. Soundstage is good but not as wide and airy as the older PL30s. They also lose out to the Meelec Ai-M9 in treble quality, quantity, and detail. Still, the entire signature is coherent and very enjoyable for a budget IEM and they are still one of my favorites in their class

Value (8/10) – The Soundmagic PL21s offer a much more mainstream sound than the PL30 and PL50 at a bargain price. They are not perfect by any means, but they offer a very lively signature as part of a complete entry-level package and have no glaring faults – the build quality is good, the accessories are good, the comfort is good. There is really very little fault I can find with these for $21.

Pros: Rich sound, decent soundstage, comfortable
Cons: Bass is a sometimes boomy, not as airy or detailed as the PL30 or Ai-M9


Full review can be found here


(3B6) JVC HA-FXC50 “Micro HD”


Reviewed Dec 2009

 

Details: JVC’s unique IEM utilizing a microdriver positioned at the tip of the nozzle
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $39.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 103 dB | Freq: 10-24k Hz | Cable: 3.3’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (2/5) - Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes) and carrying pouch
Build Quality (2.5/5) – Plastic housing with molded strain reliefs. I like the design and the beveled JVC logo but I’ve had two pairs of these where one of the channels went out so I’m wary of the build quality. Cabling is thinner than on the other JVC IEMs and more prone to tangling
Isolation (3/5) – Much better than I expected. I think the fact that the driver is at the very tip of the nozzle helps with the isolation
Microphonics (2.5/5) – These are meant to be worn cable-down; the microphonics aren’t particularly bothersome but definitely present
Comfort (3/5) – This driver of the earphone is right inside the nozzle and the housing is completely empty. JVC could’ve shaped it any way imaginable, but after the impossibly comfortable aircushions, the FXC50s are a disappointment. They are nearly impossible to wear over-the-ear and while it does hold them in place well, the rubber-padded plastic bit on the side causes the strain relief to put unpleasant pressure on the bottom of my ears

Sound (5.8/10) – The HA-FXC50 is characterized by the 5.8mm “Micro HD” driver positioned at the very tip of the nozzle, right inside your ear. The overall signature is bright and detailed. They remind me of the Head-Direct RE2s but with less smoothness and more bass. Due to the peculiar positioning of the drivers their sound is extremely sensitive to the seal. Without a proper seal they sound tinny, flat, and distant. With a good seal, however, they are quite balanced and intimate. The soundstage is small but they still mange to convey depth. The bass is punchy and slightly above average in quantity. Mids are fairly present, though not a forward as the treble. The treble is bright and at times slightly harsh, but no worse than some much higher-end earphones. Overall the signature is pretty unique at the price point and can be quite enjoyable.

Value (7.5/10) – At the current market price the FXC50s are excellent budget earphones. They offer superior detail and clarity to JVC’s other budget earphones and are quite good performers all around. I just wish JVC had made these as practical as the Marshmallows and AirCushions. Better QC, thicker cabling, and a way to wear them over-the-ear comfortably would truly make these top contenders.

Pros: Very detailed, good balance and clarity
Cons: QC issues, brightness can be tiring



(3B7) JLAB JBuds J3 Micro Atomic


Reviewed Dec 2009

 

Details: Newly released IEM from Jlabs touted as being less mainstream-oriented than the old J2
Current Price: $20 from Amazon.com (MSRP: $79.95); $25 for J3M (with microphone) (MSRP: $89.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 88 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (3.5/5) - Silicone single-flange tips (4 sizes) and hard clamshell case
Build Quality (3/5) – The housings are metal and quite nice to the touch. They feel like they will last. The cord is especially nice – it seems to be Teflon-coated and is very soft with a bit of memory character. The biggest problem for me is driver flex and pop. They can be very annoying when a good seal is achieved and the driver may not ‘pop’ back to its normal shape for several minutes.
Isolation (3/5) – Above-average isolation; perfectly reasonable for my commute
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Present when worn straight down; very low when worn over-the-ear
Comfort (4/5) – The housings are very small – only slightly bigger than those on the Meelectronics M11s. A good fit and seal are very easy to achieve either cord-up or cord-down. One small annoyance is the Left/Right identification, which takes the form of a small “L” stamped in the strain relief of the left earpiece. It can be located by touch, but I prefer easily visible identifiers

Sound (4.7/10) – The J3s are surprisingly balanced earphones that offer tight, well-controlled bass and impressive treble extension. The treble-focused signature may make them seem treble-biased, but it isn’t quite so. The bass is definitely present but not emphasized like JLabs previous model, the J2. With a proper seal the bass has more impact than tone but stays out of the midrange’s way. Treble is very harsh out of the box but evens out significantly over time. They are still quite cold-sounding and slightly metallic even after significant burn-in, but enjoyable in their own right. Soundstage is a bit smaller than average but the detail put out by the microdriver is very reasonable.

Value (7.5/10) – The J3s offer a revolutionary, rather than evolutionary, step up from the J2, moving away from the crowd-pleasing bass-centric sound of its predecessor and towards a more balanced signature. While not everyone will be pleased with the somewhat cold and analytical presentation, those looking for a way to get more out of their music for less will be impressed. The tiny slim housings and nice cables add to the appeal.

Pros: Good cabling, comfortable, impressive treble quality
Cons: Massive driver flex; ridiculous MSRP, cold signature



(3B8) Lenntek Sonix Micro
 

Reviewed Dec 2009

 

Details: Updated version of Lenntek’s Sonix model
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $39.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32 Ω | Sens: 100 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.6’ 45°-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3.5/5) - Silicone single-flange tips (4 sizes in black + extra set of Medium tips in white), 2’ extension cable, and velvet snap-close pouch
Build Quality (4.5/5) – The housings are metal and very well-built. Nylon-sheathed cabling is thick and sturdy. Housing strain reliefs could be better but the overall build is excellent.
Isolation (3/5) – Above-average isolation; perfectly reasonable for my commute
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Present when worn straight down; very low when worn over-the-ear
Comfort (4/5) – Tiny housings make these about as comfortable as straight-barrel in-ears can get

Sound (4.4/10) –The Sonix are bass-biased but don’t sound particularly unbalanced. The signature is warm and intimate. The Soundstage is rather narrow but boasts good positioning and above-average depth. The bass is impactful with a hint of bloat. It can be excessive at times but is also hugely fun on dance and other beat-heavy tracks. The slight bass bloat does not significantly affect the midrange, which is warm and dynamic, if a bit muddy. The treble is recessed compared to the bass and mids, but still present. Expectedly, they lack the clarity and detail of some higher-priced products, but overall the sound of the Sonix Micro compares favorably to other earphones in the price range and has something a lot of the competition lacks – the fun factor.

Value (7.5/10) – The Lenntek Sonix offer a mainstream, bass-heavy sound at an excellent price point and without sacrifice in other areas. Bass-lovers from all walks of life will be impressed. Though not sonically perfect, the Sonix Micro make up for their shortfalls by offering great build quality, above-average isolation and comfort, and a lifetime warranty. They feel first and foremost like a quality product, and that is their main strength.

Pros: Excellent build quality; fun, mainstream, bass-heavy sound
Cons: Can be a bit muddy


Full review can be found here


(3B9) Soundmagic PL30


Reviewed Jan 2010

 

Details: Soundmagic’s first widely acknowledged success, the PL30 redefined the attitude towards budget IEMs at Head-Fi
Current Price: $25 from focalprice.com
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 12 Ω | Sens: 100 dB | Freq: 20-22k Hz | Cord: 4’ L-plug (old revision shown)
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock Single-flanges, Stock foamies
Wear Style: over-the-ear

Accessories (5/5) – Silicone single-flange (3 sizes, 2 sets), bi-flange, and foam tips, hard clamshell carrying case, cable winder, set of rubber cable guides, and shirt clip
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The PL30 is my oldest fully functional IEM. The plastic shells (rubberized in the black version) are well made and feature proper strain reliefs. Cabling is rubberized and similar to that found on the PL21s but terminates in a simplistic I-plug rather than the L-plug used on the PL21/PL50. The only real (small) flaw I can think of are that the bass knobs can become loose if fiddled with often and the paint rubs off over time
Isolation (1.5/5) – Shallow insertion and a ported design mean that the PL30s don’t shine in isolation
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Pretty much nonexistent. Shirt clip eliminates them entirely
Comfort (4.5/5) – With properly-fitting tips these are some of the most comfortable IEMs out there. Wearing them over-the-ear is a must but they’re light, low-profile, and very easy to forget about

Sound (5.2/10) – The PL30 produce a very pleasant and balanced sound characterized by a slightly forward midrange and a very soft/smooth presentation all around. The low end is tight and accurate, but not particularly impactful. Switching to the bass-heavy setting bumps up the bass very little. Treble is rather tame as well, without a hint of harshness or sibilance (granted my PL30s may have an advantage here in being my oldest working IEM and probably having close to 1k hours on them). The one area where the PL30s undoubtedly triumph over the competition is the lateral width of the soundstage. It is truly massive, beaten only by the Cyclone PR1 Pro under the $100 mark. With the large soundstage comes excellent instrumental separation and good positioning. Another interesting property of the PL30s is the transparency – they are extremely revealing of both source and source material and by far the cheapest IEM that allows me to distinguish between 192k and 320k mp3 files played straight from my Fuze. Worth noting is that the low impedance leads to some very slight hiss with some sources and amps (though the Fuze headphone out remains nearly silent).

Value (8.5/10) – The aging Soundmagic PL30 offers a whole lot of bang for your buck with its stellar accessory pack, lack of microphonics, and comfortable form factor. The sound may not be for everyone – they are quite laid back overall, lack low-end ‘oomph’ and some high-end extension and sparkle, and aren’t particularly forgiving of poor recordings - but for a wide, airy, and well-balanced sound these are unbeatable at their price point.

Pros: Outstanding accessory pack, comfortable form factor, balanced and wide sound
Cons: Can hiss with some sources/amps



(3B10) JVC HA-FX66 “Air Cushion”


Reviewed Jan 2010

 

Details: JVC’s follow-up to the well-received HA-FX33 ‘Marshmallows’
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $29.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 101 dB | Freq: 10-23k Hz | Cable: 3.3’ I-plug
Nozzle Size:5.5mm | Preferred tips: Soundmagic PL30 BiFlanges
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (2.5/5) – Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes), foam tips, and soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (3.5/5) – Housings are rubber-covered plastic and feel like they will last. Cabling is similar to that found on the HA-FX34 and HA-FX300 – thick and flexible
Isolation (1.5/5) – The Air Cushion fitting system makes for a very shallow insertion. Isolation is a tradeoff for comfort with these
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Fairly low but the FX66 cannot be worn cord-up. A shirt clip would have been nice
Comfort (4.5/5) – The Air Cushion fitting system leaves a space between the earphone housing and the ear; combined with the angled nozzles and soft rubber-covered housings this results in a completely unobtrusive fit

Sound (4.5/10) – Like the Marshmallows, the overall sound of the Air Cushions is on the warm side and fairly smooth. Bass is strong and punchy, albeit lacking control. Low-end extension is still surprising for a $20 earphone. The midrange is obscured slightly by the bass at the low end and recessed overall but clarity and detail are superior to unmodded marshmallows and on-par with my Kramered set. Still nothing to brag about compared to the current crop of budget earphones. There is just a tiny bit of sibilance in the treble but it is still less sharp than that of the marshmallows. The overall sound is wider and more open than the marshmallows. It is also brighter but at the same time less tiring. From memory, I like these better than my marshmallows when they were stock but not better than my Kramered marshmallows, which have a more forward midrange and better treble detail.

Value (8/10) –The Air Cushion is still a very good buy at the current street price for someone looking for an extremely comfortable and decent-sounding set of IEMs without the need for modification. Though definitely not as suitable for critical listening as the Ai-M9, PL30, or even PL21, the FX66 is a balanced and smooth-sounding earphone with ‘user-friendly’ written all over it.

Pros: Very comfortable, low microphonics, durable, decent sound
Cons: Arguably poorer sound than (cheaper) Kramered marshmallows, cable may be too short for some, subpar isolation



(3B11) Beta Brainwavz Pro


Reviewed Feb 2010

 

Details: Flagship earphone from mp4nation’s Brainwavz line
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $34.50)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 24 Ω | Sens: 110 dB | Freq: 8-28k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ 45°-plug
Nozzle Size:4.5mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrid
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (4.5/5) – Silicone ‘cone’ (2 sets) and bi-flange tips, Ety-style orange foamies, Soundmagic-style black foamies (3 sizes), Mofi carrying pouch, shirt clip, clip-on cable winder, silicone ear guides, and a pair of bass filters
Build Quality (4/5) – Plastic housings look a bit cheap but the metal nozzles, heatshrink strain reliefs, and rubberized cabling the Betas feel like they will cope well with abuse
Isolation (3/5) – Adequate for a ported dynamic IEM
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Non-existent when worn cord up and nearly unnoticeable when worn cord-down
Comfort (4/5) – The housings are very light and easy to wear cord-up or cord down. The ‘cone’ tips are useless but with Sony Hybrids or the included orange foamies they are extremely comfortable

Sound (5/10) – As with the Phonak PFEs, the sound signature of the Beta Brainwavz can be altered by installing the included ‘bass filters’, which tightens the low-end response and tones down the upper mids and treble. However, a chunk of much-needed treble resolution is lost in the process so I preferred them without the filters. It should be noted that the overall sound is rather bright in the filter-less configuration; adding the filters brings it closer to neutrality. The bass is reasonably tight and quite fast, accurately hitting distinct notes whether the filters are installed or not. The low end is not integrated into the overall sound as much as I would like and lacks raw impact, but truthfully is about as good as it gets for the price. The midrange is neither forward nor recessed but the whole signature seems slightly distant, causing the mids to sound hollow at times. There also seems to be some emphasis on the upper midrange, which gives certain vocals an ‘edgy’ quality and cuts down significantly on upper midrange/lower treble clarity. As a result the upper mids of the betas can sound run-together and lacking in detail. The treble has a bit of sparkle but rolls off near the top. Denser tracks are clearly are not the Betas’ forté as instruments such as high-hats can get downright lost. For pop and soft rock, however, they work quite well.

Value (8/10) – Though it may seem like I dislike the Betas, I will admit to being overly critical of them partly because I reviewed them side-by-side with some far more expensive offerings and partly because they just don’t work all that well with my preferred music genres. But the sound really is quite good for the asking price – among their similarly-priced peers the Betas surprise most with their speed and lack of low-end bleed. Build and comfort are above par as well, making the Betas quite easy to use and well-worthy of consideration for a budget set.

Pros: Lots of accessories, comfortable, almost no microphonics; sound is fast and tight
Cons: Stock tips are mostly useless, lack of clarity in the upper mids/lower treble, no cord cinch


More impressions and a comparison to several competitors can be found here


(3B12) ECCI PR100


Reviewed Mar 2010

 

Details: Budget IEM developed in-house by Cyclone and released under the company’s new ECCI brand
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $32)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 102 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock (wide-tube) single flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (3.5/5) - Narrow-tube (3 sizes) and wide-tube (3 sizes) single-flange silicone tips, shirt clip, and oversize clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – Sturdy two-piece metal shells feel solid and are finished in a handsome gunmetal color with the model name etched on the front. The dark-grey TPE (Thermoplastic Elastomer) cable is thick and sturdy, with proper strain reliefs on cable entry and a functional cord cinch. Sadly, the translucent hard plastic sheath on the 3.5mm plug is more likely to damage to the cord than protect it, tainting an otherwise excellent build
Isolation (3.5/5) – The extra long nozzles allow for deep insertion of the earphones, boosting isolation above what one would expect for a ported straight-barrel dynamic. On the downside, the bottom-facing vents make the earphones more susceptible than most to wind noise
Microphonics (3.5/5) – bothersome when worn cord-down; good otherwise
Comfort (4/5) – The extra-long sound tube allows the earphones to be inserted deeply without pressing the wearer’s ear into the housings - a good thing as the front edges of the shells are rather sharp. Short strain reliefs and elongated bodies make the earphones easy to wear cord-up as well as cord-down. Either way they are quite comfortable for prolonged listening sessions

Sound (5.6/10) – The PR100 goes after a more mainstream market while still maintaining the balance emphasis of the older PR1 Pro model. The bass of the PR100 extends to 30Hz or so before dropping off, not reaching into the sub-bass quite as well as the PR1, but performing respectably for the asking price. There is a tiny hint of mid-bass emphasis but the overall response of the ECCIs is surprisingly linear. Bass is tight and punchy but not particularly powerful - low notes are heard more than they are felt. The transition to the midrange is smooth and with no bleed. The midrange is obscured by neither the bass nor the treble – it’s really quite pleasant but not the focus of the presentation the way it is with, for example, the Soundmagic PL50. Detail is very good for the price though they are notably lacking in resolving power compared to higher-end IEMs. Same goes for clarity – good for the price but not class-leading. The treble of the ECCIs is fairly accurate and rolls of gently near the top. There is some peakiness in the lower treble and they will accentuate sibilance already present in recordings. I personally found the treble perfectly pleasant on properly-recorded material. Soundstaging is good – not as wide as with the PR1s, but there is space around each instrument and a good sense of air in the overall sound. Positioning and instrumental separation, going hand-in-hand, are both quite decent.

Value (8/10) – For as long as I’ve owned them, the Soundmagic PL30 have been my favorite budget headphones when it comes to over balance. But the $30 PR100 is aiming straight for the PL30 throne, offering a similarly impeccable balance and a slightly meatier overall sound. For those looking for a well-built all-rounder that does nearly everything right, the PR100 is right up there with the best earphones I’ve heard in its class.

Pros: Good isolation and build quality, comfortable, balanced sound
Cons: Microphonics can be bothersome


Full review can be found here.


(3B13) Sennheiser CX300


Reviewed Apr 2010

 

Details: Sennheiser’s aging mid-range model, quite possibly more popular than any other IEM currently in production
Current Price: $29 from Amazon.com (MSRP: $49.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 112 dB | Freq: 18-21k Hz | Cable: 3.3’ L-plug, j-cord
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (1/5) - Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (3/5) – Plasticky housings with rubber strain reliefs all-around. The relief on the 3.5mm L-plug is not molded but at least the cables are rubberized and not too thin
Isolation (3/5) – Very shallow insertion leads to average isolation
Microphonics (2.5/5) – Quite poor when worn cord-down; just passable otherwise
Comfort (4/5) – Short housings with short nozzles mean that deep insertion is difficult with stock tips. J-cord configuration can also make over-the-ear wear awkward

Sound (4.8/10) – The CX300s are known around here mostly for their bass, which is usually cast in a negative light. The low end does offer a whole lot of grunt but lacks in detail and rolls off steeply below 35Hz. There is some mid-range bleed, coloring the sound and obscuring lower-midrange detail. The lack of definition also causes drums to sound ‘hollow’ at times. But there are upsides: compared to a lot of bottom-tier offerings the sound of the CX300s is dimensional and well-spaced. Clarity is quite decent in the rest of the range. The midrange isn’t recessed and the treble boasts decent extension; there’s just not enough of it. The overall balance is very reminiscent of the Lenntek Sonix Micro, with a slightly better sense of space but also poorer bass control. The sound is very pleasant for pop, rap, and soft rock, though it starts deteriorating on fast and dense tracks.

Value (4/10) – With current prices hovering around $25, the CX300 loses terribly in value to the majority of competing models. The pricing of earphones such as the Lenntek Sonix Micro and the “younger sibling” CX250 render the CX300 inexcusably mediocre in today’s crowded marketplace. Their popularity is easy to explain – the powerful bass works well with the dimensionality and clarity of the rest of the range. Plus the CX300s were one of the only IEMs in their price range upon release, building up fame and a loyal following rather quickly. I do think that much of the distaste for the CX300 around the forum is exaggerated - they really aren’t offensive to my ears. But as a whole package, this one is best left to the history books.

Pros: Lightweight and comfortable, decent build quality
Cons: Microphonic, j-corded, lacks bass control and treble presence



(3B14) Sennheiser CX250


Reviewed Apr 2010

 

Details: Fairly obscure and surprisingly competent budget entry from Sennheiser
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $59.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 100 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Jays Single-flange Silicones
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (2.5/5) - Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes) and carrying pouch
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The housings are entirely plastic but seem well-made and feature proper strain reliefs. MX-style Y-split and hard rubber L-plug sheath make them feel rather solid but the earbud-sourced cable has no sliding cinch. The cable features a sliding volume pot. Slight driver flex is present
Isolation (3/5) – Longer nozzles and rounded housings mean these can be inserted far more deeply than the CX300, leading to better isolation
Microphonics (3/5) – bothersome when worn cord-down; good otherwise
Comfort (4.5/5) – Very light housings that can achieve a proper insertion depth. Very easy to wear cord-up or cord-down

Sound (5.1/10) – It is unclear just where in Sennheiser’s CX range the CX250 belongs. To my ears they are clearly superior to the older but still popular CX300s, as the slightly higher MSRP indicates. The street price of the CX250, however, has historically been much lower than that of the CX300s. What, then, of the sound? Well, the CX250 follows in its predecessors footsteps in terms of bass quantity, providing plenty of punch to a deep 30Hz (unlike the CX300, which rolls off steeply past 35). The impact is much tighter and the mid-bass hump seems a good bit shallower, leading to greatly reduced bloat and mid-range bleed. The bass isn’t quite as visceral as with my $20 bass fave, the Meelec M9s, but also not at all boomy. The mids are still fairly laid back and boast good clarity, similar to how the CX300 midrange should sound if the bass bloat were eliminated. Soundstage width is nothing to brag about but the sound is well-spaced and dimensional. The treble is more forward than on the CX300s, though not as present and sparkly as on the Meelec M9. Treble smoothness is compromised only slightly. The overall sound is the most balanced of the three, which makes the CX250 a great all-rounder more similar to the rarely-mentioned Soundmagic PL21s.

Value (8/10) – The sound of the CX250 is exactly what I would have wanted Sennheiser to do with the CX300 – tighten up the bass and boost the treble while retaining the midrange clarity and fun factor. Combined with a smaller price tag and superior all-around usability, the CX250 comes out as one of the best all-around $20 IEMs out there.

Pros: Lightweight and comfortable, good build quality, fairly isolating, solid sonic characteristics
Cons: Microphonics can be bothersome

 

 

(3B15) JVC HA-FX67 “Air Cushion”

 

JVC HA-FX67 AirCushions 400x300.jpg

Reviewed Jun 2010

 

Details: Second generation of JVC’s comfort-oriented budget IEM

Current Price: $17 from buy.com (MSRP: $19.95)

Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 101 dB | Freq: 10-23k Hz | Cable: 3.9’ I-plug

Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flange

Wear Style: Straight down

 

Accessories (2.5/5) – Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes), foam tips, and double-sided shirt clip

Build Quality (3.5/5) – Housings are rubber-covered plastic and feel like they will last. Cabling is soft and flexible, with decent relief on either end

Isolation (2/5) – The Air Cushion fitting system makes for a very shallow insertion but the FX67 seems to isolate slightly more than the FX66

Microphonics (3.5/5) – Fairly bothersome and exacerbated by the fact that the FX67 cannot be worn cord-up. However, the new shirt clip helps

Comfort (4.5/5) – The Air Cushion fitting system leaves a space between the earphone housing and the ear; combined with the angled nozzles and soft rubber-covered housings this results in a completely unobtrusive fit

 

Sound (4.5/10) – The HA-FX67 use the same drivers as the older HA-FX66. The sound they produce is basically identical – slightly warm and fairly smooth. Bass is strong and impactful but a bit slow and lacking in control. Low-end extension is quite impressive. The lower midrange is obscured slightly by the bass end and the mids are recessed overall. Clarity and detail are fine, though they can’t compete with the Meelec M9s or Soundmagic PL30s. A tiny bit of sibilance is present in the treble but it’s not nearly bothersome enough to be a con. The treble is bright and not as recessed as the midrange but lacking in detail and extension. The overall sound is fairly spacious but the poorly controlled bass makes the low end sound more boomy and closed than would otherwise have been possible. Overall it’s a fun, tap-your-toes type of sound that can be both engaging and relaxing. Not audiophile by any means but perfectly tolerable for a budget set.

 

Value (8/10) – Though it may seem like JVC has made nearly no changes to the AirCushion in the three and a half years since the FX66 was released, there is one major difference between the FX67 and FX66 – the price. In 2007 the AirCushion was very difficult to find for less than $35. The FX67, however, is retailing for under $20 at the outset – the market price of this level of performance has fallen twofold, which is about what I would have expected. Because of that, the AirCushions remain a decent set of earphones for the price, especially for those concerned primarily with comfort.

 

Pros: Very comfortable, durable, decent sound

Cons: Subpar isolation



(3B16) Fischer Audio Toughstuff TS-9002

 

Fischer Audio Toughstuff TS-9002 400x300.jpg

Reviewed Jul 2010

 

Details: Budget-oriented IEM from Fischer Audio’s Toughstuff line, which emphasizes build quality and durability over all else

Current Price: $27.50 from gd-audiobase.com (MSRP: $27.50)

Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 91 dB | Freq: 20-22k Hz | Cable: 4’L-plug

Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: UE Single flanges, stock single-flanges

Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

 

Accessories (2.5/5) – Single flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and soft denim carrying pouch

Build Quality (3.5/5) – The finely-machined metal shells are rock-solid and the thick, flexible cables are identical to those used by the Meelectronics IEMs. The nozzles are metal but, like most budget IEMs, contain paper filters. By far the biggest weakness of the TS-9002 is the lack of strain reliefs, both on the metal stems of the housings and the plastic 3.5mm L-plug. On the upside, the shells can actually be unscrewed quite easily and the earphones can probably be recabled should the need arise

Isolation (3/5) – The Toughstuffs are shallow-insertion earphones but the wide bodies seal well and isolation is quite decent

Microphonics (4.5/5) – Very low when worn cord-down, nonexistent when worn cord-up

Comfort (3/5) – The TS-9002 housings are quite large and have very short nozzles. Their fit is similar to that of the Ortofon e-Q7 but with housings that are rounded at the front. They are a bit weighty but not as heavy as Monster Turbines or HJE900s and are easy to wear cord-up or cord-down. The overall fit will be similar to most other straight barrel IEMs for all except those with the smallest ears

 

Sound (5.4/10) – For a mainstream budget-oriented earphone, the TS-9002 is surprisingly well-balanced and competent. The bass is fairly deep and very impactful but relatively well-controlled right out of the box and tightens up a bit more over time. Some mid-bass emphasis is present but it would be unfair to call the TS-9002 bloated. The sub-bass rumble that the Meelec M9 is capable of is absent but so is the slightly boomy nature of the Meelecs – a fair trade-off in my book. However, the Fischers also lack some of the texture and detail present in bass of the M9s.

 

The midrange of the TS-9002 is slightly warm and quite clear. Compared to the dry and slightly de-emphasized mids of the Meelec M9, the midrange of the TS-9002 sounds well filled-out and balanced, if not quite as crisp. The treble is in good balance with the rest of the sound and rolls off mildly at the very top. Compared to that of the Meelec M9, the treble of the TS-9002 is less detailed and lacks sparkle and extension but also boasts better refinement and control. Soundstaging is adequate but not great. The Toughstuffs carry decent air and a spacious sonic image but calling them open-sounding would be a huge overstatement. Soundstaging is just adequate - no more, no less. Overall the sound is very respectable for a budget-oriented earphone and offers a good alternative to those who may find the Meelec M9 too aggressive, especially in the treble.

 

Value (8/10) – The Fischer Audio Toughstuff TS-9002 is another capable and well-built budget entry from the Russian audio firm. The unique metal shells look and feel like they should cost quite a bit more than the asking price and the sound isn’t far behind in terms of value for money. The lack of strain reliefs all around is slightly disheartening and the large housings with short nozzles may not fit absolutely everyone, but the TS-9002 is still one of the better sub-$30 earphones I’ve encountered, beating out some far more expensive units when it comes to sounding and looking like a quality product.

 

Pros: Housings are sturdy and pleasant to the touch, low microphonics, surprisingly capable sound

Cons: No strain reliefs, rather large shells

 

 

(3B17) Yamaha EPH-20

 

Yamaha EPH-20 400x300.jpg

Reviewed Jul 2010

 

Details: Diminutive earbud-style IEM from Yamaha’s new EPH line

Current Price: $19 from amazon.com (MSRP: $29.95)

Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 17 Ω | Sens: 103 dB | Freq: 20-21k Hz | Cable: 4’ L-plug

Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Generic bi-flanges

Wear Style: Straight down

 

Accessories (1/5) – Single flange silicone tips (3 sizes)

Build Quality (2.5/5) – The housings are made completely out of plastic and, except for the nozzles, look like conventional earbuds. The rubberized cabling is fairly sturdy but prone to tangling. However, though the 3.5mm L-plug is downright excellent, a hard plastic stem takes the place of a proper strain relief on housing entry

Isolation (2.5/5) – Like the higher-end EPH-50, the EPH-20 is a shallow-insertion earphone and is also vented. Isolation is rather average with the stock tips and a bit better with aftermarket biflanges

Microphonics (3.5/5) – Some cable noise is present and the EPH-20 cannot be worn over-the-ear, exacerbating the problem

Comfort (4.5/5) – The strength of the EPH-20 is their absolutely tiny size – they are dwarfed by my stock Sansa earbuds and weigh absolutely nothing. The angled-nozzle design is ergonomically perfect and really puts the straight-nozzle Yuin OK1 to shame. The only issue with the EPH-20 is that the hard plastic stem of the earphones is square in cross section and has sharp corners, which means I cannot sleep on my side in these without serious discomfort

 

Sound (3.5/10) – The sound of the EPH-20 is quite typical for a budget dynamic IEM. The earphone has a low-end bias, extending into the sub-30Hz regions of bass and sacrificing overall range at the top. The bass is full and warm, a bit muddy at times but overall rather pleasant. It intrudes a good amount on the lower midrange, making the IEMs sound rather warm and a bit veiled. The slightly recessed midrange doesn’t help and the earphones don’t have the clarity of the similarly-priced JVC HA-FX67. There is also a small amount of grain/scratchiness toward the upper mids, giving these a grungy texture. On the upside, unlike the JVCs, the Yamahas never sound harsh or sibilant while maintaining the same level of treble presence and detail. Despite the lack of brightness, the treble of the EPH-20 stands out over the midrange and isn’t drowned out by the bass. The soundstage is average in size but surprisingly airy. Separation and positioning could certainly be better but for $18 retail I didn’t expect much of either. The overall signature is smooth and a bit boomy, dark but not excessively so, and generally quite listenable.

 

Value (6/10) – The Yamaha EPH-20 is another sub-$20 IEM that is quite passable in terms of sound, very easy to use, reasonably well-built, and extremely light and comfortable. No, these won’t displace the Soundmagic PL30s and Meelec M9s as my favorite sub-$20 earphones, but as a product that is readily available all over the web, comes in a variety of color options (I happen to think they look excellent in “red berry brown”), and produces a mainstream, bass-heavy sound without much sacrifice in other areas, the little Yamahas make a good introduction into the world of IEMs.

 

Pros: Very lightweight and comfortable, user-friendly, inoffensive sound

Cons: Plasticky build

 

 

(3B18) Koss KE29

 

Koss KE29 400x300.jpg

Reviewed Jul 2010

 

Details: Budget IEM from Koss notable for being covered under the manufacturer’s no-questions-asked lifetime warranty

Current Price: $19 from amazon.com (MSRP: $29.99)

Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 100 dB | Freq: 15-20k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug j-cord with volume control

Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges

Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

 

Accessories (2/5) – Single flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and soft carrying pouch

Build Quality (2/5) – The housings are made completely out of plastic and visible molding imperfections abound. The short hard stems pose a danger to plastic cabling but the 3.5mm I-plug is well-relieved. A volume control is located about halfway down the j-cord and the low-quality potentiometer can result in channel imbalance at low volumes

Isolation (3/5) – Despite being ported dynamic-driver IEMs, the KE29s isolate a surprising amount and can easily be used in loud environments

Microphonics (4.5/5) – Very low due to j-cord setup and plastic cabling

Comfort (3/5) – Though the KE29s are very light, their nozzles are extremely short. To achieve a proper seal I therefore have to push the housings, including the fat driver bulge, deep into my ear, which becomes uncomfortable after some time. Some may find the j-cord bothersome as well

 

Sound (4.1/10) – Like the similarly-priced Yamaha EPH-20, the KE29 is a mainstream earphone with a mainstream sound. Its signature is bass-centric, with low reach and a good amount of bloat, smooth midrange, and rolled-off treble. The bass itself is somewhat muddy and intrudes on the lower midrange, not unlike that of the Sennheiser CX300, but carries decent detail. Impact is not too sharp but quite powerful – not as tooth-rattling as that of the TDK EB900, but not too far off, either. The bass bloat results in a slightly veiled midrange. On bass-light tracks or with the low end dropped several dB on the equalizer, the midrange has nice clarity and transitions smoothly into the treble. The treble has some inoffensive unevenness and rolls off quite early – 14k is notably de-emphasized compared to the similarly-priced Soundmagic PL30. The soundstage is capable of surprising air but for the most part the KE29 keeps sonic cues closer to the center for a decidedly in-your-head feel.

 

Value (5/10) – The KE29 is an inexpensive and readily available budget earphone that offers plenty of bass, a smooth and slightly veiled midrange, and laid-back treble. It competes well with mainstream budget earphones such as the Yamaha EPH-20 and JVC HA-FX34/FX67. Compared to head-fi favorites such as the Soundmagic PL21 and Meelec M9, however, the KE29 shows its age with unimpressive build quality and less-than-ideal ergonomics. On the upside, microphonics are notably low and the inline volume control and J-cord may actually make them appealing for active use. Those with the luxury of ordering online can easily do better for the $20 asking price. Those who just need to grab something off the shelf at Radioshack can do much, much worse than the KE29.

 

Pros: Bass-heavy but unfatiguing sound, low microphonics, decent isolation

Cons: Plasticky build, J-corded, integrated volume control may cause channel imbalance at low volumes

 

 

(3B19) Earjax Tonic

 

Reviewed Nov 2010

 

Details: Entry-level dynamic-driver earphone from Earjax

Current Price: $27 from earshack.com (MSRP: $37.50)

Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32Ω | Sens: 102 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug

Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges

Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

 

Accessories (3.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (6 sets in 3 sizes), triple-flange silicone tips, shirt clip, and metal capsule carrying case with detachable lanyard

Build Quality (3.5/5) – The shells are made entirely of metal and feel solid. The cable is slightly rubbery and strain relief is sufficient all-around. Interestingly, the Tonic is missing conventional Left/Right markers - different-color nozzle filters are used instead (red for right, black for left). A bit of driver flex can be coerced from the earphones but not so much that it can be bothersome

Isolation (2.5/5) – Rear vent results in fairly average isolation

Microphonics (3.5/5) – The rubber cords bounce around a bit when the included shirt clip is not used but wearing the earphones over-the-ear solves the problem

Comfort (3.5/5) – The fit is pretty conventional for a straight-barrel in-ear. The nozzles are fairly long and the shells are rounded at the front so fairly deep insertion is possible. The strain reliefs are short enough that the earphones can be worn over-the-ear comfortably and the shells aren’t too heavy despite being metal

 

Sound (5.1/10) – The Tonic is a mid-range earphone with a popular, fun sound signature. Its bass is deep and thumping, with decent extension and a fair amount of mid-bass emphasis. At the very bottom the bass stays strong up to around 45Hz and is still audible at 30. Impact is generally hard and heavy. The Tonic is not the most controlled earphone and the bass can definitely step out of line but the aggressive low end works well for a lot of modern music. The earphones also exhibit slightly forward mids, which keeps vocals, guitars, and other instruments relatively free of bass bleed. Midrange clarity is quite impressive, especially at lower volumes, and with the bass equalized down can match that of the Meelec M9 and Hippo Boom. The midrange is warm, full, and very easy to listen to. The Tonic stays smooth into the upper midrange and lower treble, introducing no harshness or sibilance and even masking some that may be present on the track. Indeed, the Tonic lacks just enough resolution to make my 192kbps mp3s sound good.

 

The treble is a recessed slightly in comparison to the bass and mids, making the Tonic a dark-sounding earphone. It can be a bit grainy and rolls off a slightly earlier than with the M9. There really isn’t much sparkle but at the very least the treble is inoffensive and portrays what’s on the track. The vented earphones possess a decent soundstage, too, both in width and depth, but the aggressive presentation tends to center things rather than spread them out in the sonic space. On busy tracks the bass-heavy nature of the earphones can act as a detriment to separation and positioning but for an entry-level set the Tonic performs well enough on both counts. Listening to the Tonic I can’t help but be reminded of the Sennheiser CX300 – it really has a similar overall sound signature, albeit with less mud at the bottom end, more prominent mids, and a slightly airier presentation.

 

Value (8/10) – Though the Earjax Tonic is fairly typical of a budget earphone when it comes to sound quality, it is a solid all-around performer and will appeal to those who like deep, thumping bass. The slightly dark tonality and treble that’s mostly smooth but still carries a bit of grain and texture gives the earphones some character compared to the similar-sounding Senn CX300. The build quality and accessory pack are both quite good for the price as well. Those in the market for a budget earphone and worried that the Meelectronics M9 may be too harsh in the treble or too recessed in the midrange would do well to check out the Tonic.

 

Pros: Well-built; plenty of tips included; fun sound signature

Cons: Mild driver flex; bass can be overpowering at times; slightly dark

 

Full review can be found here

 

 

(3B20) Sony MDR-EX082 / MDR-EX85
 

Reviewed Dec 2010

 

Details: Aging ergonomic canalphone bundled with a few of Sony’s portable players and reportedly identical to the EX85
Current Price: $16 from accessoryseek.com (MSRP: $69.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 5-24k Hz | Cable: 3.6’ I-plug J-cord
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: Generic bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (2/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) silicone tips and soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (2.5/5) – The MDR-EX082 is almost completely plastic and doesn’t feel all that solid. The cable is thin and very prone to tangling, which is made worse by the asymmetric cord lengths
Isolation (2/5) – Low due to shallow-insertion design and front-facing vents
Microphonics (4/5) – Low due to j-cord and shallow ear coupling
Comfort (3.5/5) – The MDR-EX082 is a half in-ear canalphone similar in design to the Phiaton PS210 and Yamaha EPH20/50. Featuring 13.5mm driver units, the Sony earphones are quite a bit larger than the Yamahas and have more steeply raked nozzles, resulting in a drop in comfort. Longer tips are recommended for a more secure fit – generic bi-flanges work well for me

Sound (4.7/10) – Unlike the Sony XB40EX, the older and cheaper EX082 is a reasonably balanced and generally very enjoyable earphone. In stark contrast to the XB40, the bass of the EX082 does not dominate the rest of the frequency range. The low end lacks extension but is generally more controlled and textured that of the XB40. Impact, depth, and fullness trail the Meelec M9 as well but the EX082 sounds cleaner as a result - the Meelecs are definitely capable of pumping out more low-end detail but the sheer quantity of their bass can sometimes hinder the detail level.

The midrange of the EX082 is warm and slightly recessed but generally competent in comparison to most of the similarly-priced sets. Compared to the Meelec M9 the Sonys are actually less recessed in the midrange, though they also lag behind in detail level and clarity. Compared to the XB40EX, the EX082 sounds dry and grainy but doesn’t gloss over detail or get overwhelmed by the bass. The treble of the EX082 is not particularly noteworthy, appearing smooth and well-defined but ultimately a bit rolled-off and lacking sparkle. For an entry-level earphone it’s not very flawed and generally pretty competent but really nothing to brag about in the grand scheme of things. On the whole, the sound signature of the EX082 lacks a bit of refinement but I still like it better than the XB40EX by a fair margin. The presentation, too, is quite enjoyable for a budget set. The slightly warm EX082 is fairly spacious and has decent air, resulting in a pleasant overall feel. It lacks the air of the Meelec M9 and positioning is not very precise but taken as a whole it’s surprisingly convincing and about as competent as anything I’ve heard in the price range.

Value (7.5/10) – The MDR-EX082 is an old design and as such it is extremely overpriced in its retail incarnation (the MDR-EX85). The bundled version, however, can be purchased for much less and even comes as a stock earphone with several Sony mp3 players. For a stock earphone, the EX082 is unreasonably good. Impressive comfort and low microphonics make up for the low isolation and mediocre build quality and the sound, while not great from a technical standpoint, is generally very enjoyable. In that respect, the EX082 is the complete opposite of something like the Meelec M9, which is a technically proficient but very polarizing earphone. One potential issue for Sony users is that a true upgrade to the EX082 may be difficult to find among budget earphones but I doubt anyone will be serious in complaining about that.

Pros: Good air and sense of space, quite controlled and pleasant overall
Cons: Low isolation, plasticky build, may be uncomfortable for some

 

 

(3B21) dB Logic EP-100

Reviewed Dec 2010

 

Details: Tiny dynamic-driver IEM with an integrated volume limiter
Current Price: $30 from dblogic.com (MSRP: $34.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 19Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 2.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock bi-flanges, Shure Olives
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3.5/5) – Bi-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and UE-style hard plastic carrying case
Build Quality (3/5) – The positively tiny EP-100 is made entirely out of plastic and resembles the Soundmagic PL50 in size and construction. Unfortunately the plasticky cable is thin and stringy, though the 3.5mm I-plug is well-relieved. The bulbous y-split houses the volume limiting circuitry and can sometimes be slightly unwieldy
Isolation (3.5/5) – With the stock bi-flange tips or Shure Olives the isolation is excellent – the tiny EP-100 can be inserted very deeply and blocks out a lot of noise
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Fairly annoying when worn cable-down and still slightly noticeable with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (4.5/5) – It is very difficult to convey just how small the EP-100 really is – it is by far the tiniest dynamic-driver earphone I’ve ever encountered. The 9mm dynamic driver is mounted vertically and the chamber is much smaller than that of my ATH-CK10. It is very difficult to imagine an ear for which the EP-100 itself won’t be a good fit, though the deep-sealing bi-flange tips may take some getting used to for those accustomed to conventional canalphones. Shure Olives are a perfect fit, however, and make for one of the most comfortable listening experiences among all IEMs

Sound (5/10) –The main selling point of dB Logic’s headphones and earphones is the proprietary volume-limiting circuitry (dubbed Sound Pressure Level Limiting, or SPL2), which is intended to maintain safe volume levels at all times. Though the company won’t reveal the underpinning principle of the technology, the intended result is clear – distortion-free damping of the output when the input power becomes high enough to produce sound pressure levels considered dangerous for the human ear. To test this claim I matched the low-volume sensitivity of the earphones to a variable-impedance set – a Sennheiser CX281. At a relative volume of 10 on my Fiio E7, I matched the output of the EP-100 and CX281 by ear and verified it using an SPL meter. From there I donned the CX281 and increased the volume until my ears started bleeding (so to speak). At a relative volume of 30 I had to stop. The dB Logic set increased in output volume much more slowly than the CX281 even with a matching starting point and actually hit a full-stop limiter at 40. Turning the E7 up between 40 and 60 volume units had no effect on the output of the EP-100 and - far as I can tell - maxing out the SPL limiter introduced no clipping or distortion to the signal. Impressive, but what about the quality of the sound itself?

The dB Logic EP-100 is quite clearly a consumer-class pair of earphones. There is a slight bit of added kick to the bass and an overall smoothness and warmth typical of mid-range consumer-class earphones. The signature of the EP-100 fits right in with sets like the Sennheiser CX281 and JVC HA-FX67. The bass is smooth and powerful. With sufficiently deep insertion there is surprising depth and rumble to be found at the low end. The bass leans slightly towards the softer and fuller side of the spectrum (as opposed to crisp/tight) but remains perfectly enjoyable at all times. Bass quantity is very close to the CX281 – the EP-100 has slightly slower attack, resulting in a sound with less ‘punch’, but slightly better sub-bass presence.

The midrange is slightly warm but not overshadowed by the low end in the least. Clarity and detail are decent – a hair below the Meelec M9 but not as poor as with the Skullcandy FMJ or Sony XB40EX. The tradeoff is note thickness – the SPL2 fleshes midrange notes out a bit better than the M9 and doesn’t sound nearly as dry. The midrange isn’t particularly forward but then the SPL2 doesn’t have the monstrous low end of aggressive treble of the M9, either, so the overall balance is quite good. In fact, it seems that dB Logic went to great lengths to make the SPL2 as inoffensive as possible – there is nearly no unevenness in the upper mids and treble, resulting in a smooth sound that is low on both sparkle and harshness. Treble extension is solid for a set of budget-class in-ears and the response remains crisp and clear, albeit not particularly authoritative or energetic.

The presentation is competent but not quite outstanding. Airiness, which is derived in part from treble emphasis, is lacking compared to the Meelec M9 and the soundstage, though 3-dimensional, is fairly confined. It extends far enough outward for a $30 earphone but doesn’t portray intimacy very well. Imaging and positioning are a little vague but the earphones are convincing enough on the whole. Tonally the EP-100 is hardly neutral but the coloration is pleasant and works well for modern music. In fact, I would venture to say that the EP-100 was tuned for the type of Top 40 music popular among those most likely to be in danger of self-induced hearing loss. Most of my heavy metal, however, still sounds better with the MEE M9s.

Value (8/10) – For some reason I expected that I’d be able to hear the SPL-limiting circuitry at work in the dB Logic EP-100 but they sound like ‘normal’, albeit not very sensitive, entry-level earphones – and that’s a good thing. There is no distortion or clipping at the volume limits and clarity is about where I’d expect it to be for the price. The sound is well-rounded and goes well with pop- and soft rock-type music. Add in the variety of color options, high isolation, and impossibly tiny form factor and the EP-100 comes out looking like a winner for the price. Those interested in risking early-onset hearing loss may want to give these a pass but for everyone else the EP-100 is a solid option for the money.

Pros: Excellent noise isolation; impossibly tiny design; volume-limiting; easy-going sound signature
Cons: Cable could be better; chunky y-split; deep-insertion tips will take some getting used to

 

 

 

(3B22) Xears Bullet XB120PRO 

 

 

Reviewed Jan 2011

 

Details: Bullet-shaped budget earphone from Xears/Playaz
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: 24.95€)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: 125 dB | Freq: 6-28k Hz | Cable: 4.2’ I-plug j-cord
Nozzle Size: 4.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock triple-flanges, Sony Hybrids
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and padded soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (3/5) – The metal shells are similar in appearance to those of the Fischer Audio Silver Bullets but feel lighter and a bit less solid. The j-cord is thick and soft – identical to that found on the TD100 – but lacks articulated strain reliefs on housing entry just like the Silver Bullet. Some driver flex is present but the XB120 seems to be less offensive in that regard than the TD100
Isolation (2.5/5) – Limited by short nozzles and wide housings but still decent
Microphonics (4/5) – Fairly low but the j-cord is a two-edged sword – it reduces cable travel and therefore microphonics but at the same time makes the earphones more difficult to wear over-the-ear
Comfort (4/5) – The housings of the XB120 are not tapered at the front like those of the Fischer Silver Bullets and the sharp edges prevent deep insertion but comfort is fine with shallow insertion. The light weight of the earphones means that the long shells don’t torque the tips loose, even while walking

Sound (6.3/10) – The sound of the XB120PRO is both quite impressive from a technical standpoint and easily likeable, especially with the price factored in. The bass has good depth and impact. Extension is solid and the mid-bass hump is quite shallow. The Bullets definitely aren’t bass monsters – even the Brainwavz M2 is a bit more impactful - but they aren’t lacking, either. However, the bass is a bit soft of note and can sound a little hazy and slow at times. It’s not muddy but the Brainwavz M2 that I used as a benchmark sounds noticeably tighter. On the whole the bass reminds me of the Thinksound TS02 but with slightly rounder notes.

The midrange is smooth, clean, and clear. Clarity is on-par with the better $60 sets and detail isn’t far behind, either – very impressive for an earphone costing less than lunch for two. The soft and voluminous bass leaves the midrange slightly warm and the roundness of note carries over to vocals and guitars. Compared to the similarly-priced Meelec M6, the XB120Pro lacks crispness and a bit of bite but sounds smoother, more forward, and more cohesive on the whole. Timbre is quite natural as well and the open presentation helps make up for the lack of crispness. So far, then, my experience with bullet-shaped earphones has been two for two in terms of genuinely excellent midranges.

The treble is similar to the midrange in smoothness and clarity but emphasized a bit less on the whole. Still, it is neither forward nor recessed and has decent detail. There is minimal sparkle and extension is not quite up there with many pricier sets but again the XB120PRO is extremely impressive for the asking price. The overall balance is actually quite good, with a slight bass dominance counterbalanced in part by impressive midrange and treble clarity. The presentation, too, is impressive – the XB120 generally sounds big and spacious. The soundstage doesn’t have the greatest depth but sounds quite open. Separation is decent but positioning and imaging are somewhat vague – partly due to the softness of the sound the XB120 can sound a bit ‘smeared’, especially with fast and busy tracks. Still, for the money, the XB120 is incredibly adept at making the competition sound tinny and ‘in-the-head’ in comparison.

Value (9/10) – The Xears Bullet XB120PRO is yet another high bang/back contender from Xears that sacrifices a bit of build quality and isolation to offer more sonic performance per dollar. In some ways the XB120 is an improvement over the older (and pricier) TD100 – the included tips are better, the carrying case has been improved, and driver flex is inoffensive most of the time. It still carries the j-cord of the TD100 and lacks real strain relief on housing entry but for sound this good at the price point. I’m willing to overlook that. Those looking for a sturdy <$30 earphone to abuse be better off with something like the Earjax Tonic. Looking purely at audio performance, however, the XB120 is clearly a top contender in its price bracket.

Pros: Class-leading performance, lightweight housings
Cons: J-corded, tubular shells may be a bit too large for those with smaller ears

 

 


(3B23) MEElectronics M16 / M16P
 

Reviewed Feb 2011

Details: Slim-shelled budget-oriented earphone from Meelec
Current Price: $25 from meelec.com (MSRP: $24.99); $30 for M16P with microphone
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 92 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 4.5mm | Preferred tips: stock single flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3.5/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips, shirt clip, and clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – Like the pricier M21/M31 models, the M16 is mostly metal but the strain relief isn’t as convincing and the stubby nozzles lack filters. The build quality is still very good for the price but it won’t be putting Meelec’s older M9 to shame
Isolation (3/5) – Good but limited by the earphones’ rear vent
Microphonics (4/5) – Reasonably low when worn cable-down, nonexistent when worn cord-up
Comfort (4/5) – The housings of the M16 are similar in size to the M21 model but the nozzles are shorter and the strain reliefs are oddly angled. They can still be worn over-the-ear but the M11 housings are just a bit more convenient

Sound (5/10) – Competing directly with Meelec’s legendary M9 model as well as the RX11 from the new ‘Rhythm’ series, the M16 is an interesting earphone with a somewhat uncharacteristic sound signature. The bass is tight but impactful. Extension is average and so is detail. In general, the bottom end of the M16 borrows heavily from the pricier M21, with similar mid-bass emphasis and a touch of softness. However, the mids of the M16 are slightly recessed compared to those of the M21, making the bass appear more prominent. As with the M21, bass bleed really isn’t an issue.

The midrange recession of the M16 bears a similarity to the aging M9 but is less striking due to the more intimate presentation of the former. The mids are slightly veiled but not offensive on the whole. There is some unevenness towards the top of the midrange and the M16 boasts the most prominent treble of the recent M-series additions (the others being the M21 and M31). As a result, there is a bit of sibilance and harshness on some tracks. Treble roll-off is somewhat more noticeable than with the M9 but there is a good bit of treble sparkle and the high end doesn’t seem lacking. In terms of presentation, too, the M16 doesn’t quite sound as spacious or airy as the M9 but it is more precise in terms of positioning. The soundstage has good width but generally sounds a bit tubular next to the more spherical stages of the M9 and RX11. Next to the pricier M21, the M16 has slightly poorer separation and the timbre is less natural to my ears. The M16 is also a bit more fatiguing as a result of the greater treble emphasis. When all is said and done, however, its sound is still quite impressive for an entry-level earphone and makes for an interesting alternative to the more v-shaped M9 and the more bottom-heavy RX11.

Value (8/10) – Rounding off the latest batch of additions to Meelec’s M-line, the M16 is a slightly v-shaped contrast to the more balanced (and pricier) M21. With a slight emphasis on bass and a more significant one on the lower treble, the M16 can alternate between sounding well-rounded and tiring, depending on the track. As usual, the build quality, fit, and day-to-day usability of the M16, while not as exemplary as those of the M11+, are more than adequate for the asking price so what it comes down to is the sound. For those worried about the heavy bass or recessed midrange of the M9, the M16 is a safer option. However, despite its flaws, I still find the M9 a bit more agreeable on average.

Pros: Good build quality and fit; decent isolation
Cons: Treble can be a bit too prominent



(3B24) MEElectronics RX11
 

Reviewed Feb 2011

Details: First model in Meelec’s Rhythm series
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $24.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 99 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4’ 45°-plug
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: stock single flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips and shirt clip
Build Quality (3/5) – The housings are made entirely of plastic and the short nozzles are protected by metal mesh filters. Sadly, the hard plastic stems of the earphones lack proper strain relief and the cable cinch is a bit too loose on the smooth, plastic-sheathed cord
Isolation (2.5/5) – The fat housings and wide nozzles limit the insertion depth of the RX11 and the rear vents keep the isolation average
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Very low when worn cable-down, nonexistent when worn cord-up
Comfort (4/5) – The housings are small and light and the nozzles are angled for increased comfort (though not nearly steeply enough to be called ‘ergonomic’)

Sound (4.7/10) – As the ‘Rhythm series’ moniker implies, the RX11 is a bass-heavy earphone but the nature of its bass is different from that of the classic M9 model. Whereas the bass of the M9 is deep and hard-hitting, the RX11 is conventionally bassy, with gobs of mid-bass and moderate bottom end extension. It is competition for the likes of the Sennheiser CX300 and JVC Marshmallows – mainstream earphones with decent presence across the range and boosted bass.

The mids of the RX11 are slightly laid-back next to the aggressive mid-bass but the overall balance isn’t bad for a budget product. The budget nature of the drivers does show in the more minute aspects of the sound, such as with clarity and detail that don’t quite keep up the aging Meelec M9. There is also some unevenness in the lower treble response, most likely added to balance out with the bass of the earphones. The treble of the earphones is not offensive but it does make them sound a bit sharp on some notes. Truth is, the RX11 is less shrill than the M16, less of the time but still has moments of slight treble sharpness on occasion. Top-end extension is moderate, as it is with the older M9 and M2 models.

The budget nature of the earphones shows through again in the presentation, which is quite intimate next to the M9, M16, and M21. Indeed, the RX11 is not only more forward-sounding than the other earphones but also tends to cluster instruments together for a somewhat less layered presentation. On the upside, this makes the soundstage of the RX11 seem less tubular and more spherical compared to that of the M16 and the bassy signature works reasonably well with this sort of presentation. On the whole, it is pretty clear that the RX11 targets the mainstream consumer and not the audiophile, which makes me all the more glad that the M9 was kept in the lineup.

Value (7/10) – As part of Meelec’s new Rhythm series, the RX11 was designed to focus in equal measure on sound and style – and to an extent it is successful. However, while the smooth red cable is indeed quite pleasant in everyday use, the overall build quality of the earphones lags behind Meelec’s M-series models. The sound, too, is more in line with budget-level mainstream offerings from brands such as JVC and Sony than the technically impressive, though not always likeable, performance of Meelec’s M-series models. Still, for those in search of something aesthetically ‘different’, the RX11 is still at least as good as most <$30 earphones. It just isn’t as clear-cut an alternative to the M9 as I was hoping for.

Pros: Lightweight & comfortable; low microphonics
Cons: Not as well-built or well-accessorized as most of Meelec’s other models

 

 

(3B25) H2O Audio Flex
 

Reviewed Jan 2011

 

Details: Entry-level waterproof earphones from H2O Audio
Current Price: $19 from amazon.com (MSRP: $29.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 4.5mm | Preferred tips: stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (1/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) & H2O SealTight adapter (for use with H2O Audio waterproof mp3 player cases)
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The colorful shells of the Flex are made entirely out of plastic but feel quite solid overall. The cable entry point is protected by a flexible rubber sleeve and the strain relief on the angled 3.5mm stereo plug is one of the most impressive I’ve seen on an entry-level earphone. The cable itself, however, is a real letdown – far too thin for my liking and very rubbery compared to that of the higher-end Surge. On the upside, the Flex is waterproof. I can’t say how long the earphones will last with constant underwater use but for the occasional sweaty workout they should work just fine
Isolation (3/5) – Quite decent due to small housings and thicker silicone tips
Microphonics (3/5) – Bothersome with cable-down wear but easily tolerable when worn cord-up
Comfort (4.5/5) – The plastic shells of the Flex are small and exceptionally light. The spherical shape allows for very comfortable fitment with the right tips and I’ve even managed to sleep in them with no discomfort whatsoever

Sound (5.9/10) – H2O Audio’s original waterproof IEM, the Surge, surprised me last year with the likeable and reasonably refined sound produced by its waterproof transducers. The new Flex is just as impressive, pursuing a sound signature rarely found among budget-level earphones – one that is balanced and spacious rather than intimate and bass-heavy. The bass of the Flex is easily the most mundane aspect of its sound signature – controlled and fairly accurate but lacking in depth and impact. The Flex, with its slight mid-bass boost and fair amount of roll-off, is definitely not one for the basshead but for those who prefer a more balanced sound the low-end response should be adequate.

The midrange of the earphone is more impressive – free of bass bleed and surprisingly clear. As with the Surge, the transducers of the Flex aren’t the quickest in existence and as a result detail and texture lag slightly behind most mid-range earphones but the impressive clarity makes up for it. Compared to the de-emphasized bass and treble of the Flex, the midrange is slightly forward though it can seem distant when compared to the more intimate-sounding earphones usually found in the entry-level price bracket. The smoothness and laid-back presentation make the sound of the Flex quite likable and easy-going - good traits for an exercise earphone to have. Sibilance and harshness are absent from the lower treble response but a bit of treble sparkle is present nonetheless. Treble clarity and detail are both reasonably good in the context of the smooth sound signature and extension is decent as well.

It is the sonic presentation of the Flex, however, that is most interesting – the soundstage is wide and extends farther in every direction than with most other entry-level earphones. The space is relatively spherical in nature and positioning is quite convincing on the whole. Layering and separation are lacking slightly and the Flex isn’t as adept at separating a track’s background and foreground as most higher-end sets but for a $30 earphone the presentation is very impressive nonetheless. Aside from the aging Soundmagic PL30, really aren’t any entry-level earphones out there with the spaciousness and airiness of the Flex – and that alone makes it worth the asking price.

Value (8/10) – The Flex may not be particularly pretty or as well-built or well-accessorized as the Meelectronics M9, but it does several things very well – it is extremely comfortable, sounds surprisingly good, and shrugs off water and sweat. While those in search of deep, thumping bass will be unimpressed, the Flex can match far pricier models when it comes to clarity and space. Will it survive daily underwater use as advertised? I really don’t know, but there are (pricier) waterproof sets that are likely better-suited for the purpose. However, as a reasonably-priced everyday earphone for music and movies that can also survive a sweaty workout, the Flex very difficult to beat.

Pros: Lightweight and comfortable; Water- and sweat-proof; Balanced, spacious, and surprisingly refined sound
Cons: Not much in the way of pack-ins; Rubbery cable can be noisy; Bass lacks depth and rumble

 

 


(3B26) Kozee E100

 

Reviewed June 2011

Details: Sole universal IEM from Kozee Sound Solutions
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $24.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: N/A | Cable: 4' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 4.5mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrids
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (1.5/5) - Single-flange silicone tips and microfiber carrying pouch
Build Quality (2/5) - The housings of the E100 are made completely out of plastic with a metal mesh filter used in the nozzle and a metal grille at the front of the earphones. The cable is a fairly generic plastic-sheathed affair. It has no memory and is quite easy to live with. Strain relief is fine at the earphone end but far too stiff at the plug end
Isolation (1/5) - The E100 is incapable of sealing due to the front-facing earbud-style grille. Isolation is very low as a result
Microphonics (3.5/5) - The cable is relatively quiet and the consistent lack of a good acoustic seal with the E100 means that bone conduction is reasonably low. However, the earphones are difficult to wear cord-up and lack a cable cinch
Comfort (3.5/5) - The E100 uses a half in-ear design with a form factor very similar in size and shape to the Hippo 10. However, it only comes with one size of eartips which will pose a problem for some users

Sound (0.5/10) - The horror! I am not usually swayed by emotion when it comes to reviewing earphones but remaining positive while using the E100 is has proven difficult. Most of the problems stem from a fundamental flaw in the design of the earphone; namely - the fact that the front of the IEM has fully functional earbud-like grilles. Functionally, the E100 is just an earbud with a nozzle but, unlike proper half in-ear designs, the housing is not sealed at the front. The result is tragic - the E100 is guaranteed never to achieve an acoustic seal with the listener's ear.

With a design oversight of this magnitude, the Kozee E100 probably was not a stellar-sounding earphone to start with. However, the fact that it never seals means that all of the issues that normally stem from poor fit hold true for the E100 all of the time. Its sound is tinny, harsh, and rolled off on both ends. It sounds worse than most stock earbuds. I could probably declare this review finished at this point but the E100 is a truly fascinating insight into the importance of an acoustic seal. There is no deep bass and what little mid- and upper bass there is sounds hollow and lacks body and weight – basically, the same as with any other IEM used without a seal. Cranking up the volume does bring up the bass but listening fatigue settles in very quickly as the mids and highs are brought up as well.

The midrange is relatively clear and crisp but tends to be grainy and unrefined. The treble is harsh and rolled off at the top. Worse still, the lack of a seal affects the presentation of the earphones negatively or, in this particular case, mortally. Because of its design, the E100 lacks the ability to image. There is no single, cohesive soundstage. Those who are unfamiliar with higher-end earphones may consider this sort of presentation normal but the H2O Audio Flex, which is pretty much the cheapest earphone I own, shows that some modicum of a cohesive, three-dimensional presentation can be delivered at almost any price point. Really, the sound of the E100 is difficult to justify on any level.

Value (1/10) – In stark contrast to the Infinity X1 customs, the E100 is a definite miss for Kozee. I almost feel that with its sizable design flaw, the E100 shouldn't be rated alongside proper in-ears. Though the pricier E300 earbud shows that Kozee can make a decent universal earphone, the only positive thing I can say about the E100 is that Kozee has obviously been paying far, far more attention to the sound of their customs.

Pros: Comfortable half in-ear form factor; fairly low cable noise
Cons: Flawed design results in poor sound quality

 

 

(3B27) Fischer Audio Daleth

Reviewed Jun 2011

Details: Entry level wooden earphone from Fischer Audio
Current Price: $27 from gd-audiobase.com (MSRP: $29)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 98 dB | Freq: 26-22k Hz | Cable: 4.1’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 4.5mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrid
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (1.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and shirt clip
Build Quality (2.5/5) – Like the wooden earphones from Woodees and Thinksound, the shell of the Daleth is split into two parts – the driver chamber, finished in reddish-looking wood, and a metal front bit with a slim, filterless nozzle. The rubbery cable is thin and has a bit of memory character. Though the strain relief on the L-plug is quite beefy, the other strain reliefs are made of hard plastics. A sliding cable cinch is nowhere to be found and mild driver flex is present on insertion
Isolation (2.5/5) – The slim nozzles contribute to fairly decent isolation but the stock tips are too flimsy to seal well
Microphonics (3/5) – Very noticeable when worn cable-down; fine otherwise
Comfort (3.5/5) – The slim housings and long nozzles of the Daleth allow for comfortable insertion but the stock tips could be better

Sound (5/10) – The sound signature of the Fischer Audio Daleth is, if nothing else, unique and ambient. The bass is nothing special – less extended and a bit less controlled than that of the pricier wooden earphones from Thinksound and Woodees but not offensive in any major way. Most of the impact comes from the slight mid-bass lift but the Daleth is nowhere near as muddy as the bassier Skullcandy Holua. There is less bleed and less warmth than with the Holua and the mids are less veiled. However, the Daleth has a strange way of presenting music – though the vocals are clear and nicely-centered, there seems to be no point source in the soundstage from which they originate. The resulting sound is enveloping and yet strangely lacking in focus – veiled, but without a drop in clarity. The best I can do to describe it is say that it lacks crispness and sounds a tiny bit ‘smeared’ and too soft of note.

There is a bit of emphasis on the upper mids and lower treble – not so much as to limit the smoothness of the earphones but enough to balance out the tone – the Daleth is only slightly warmer than neutral and noticeably cooler than most of my other wooden earphones. For the most part the treble is not lacking in clarity or detail but, like the midrange, could stand to be crisper. On the upside, the Daleth does have a fairly ‘large’ sound, which is made extremely obvious via juxtaposition with the intimate-sounding Holua. Despite the above-average soundstage size, the Daleth tends to cluster elements closer to the center. There’s no doubt that it can portray distance well, but much of the time it refuses to. The layering and positioning of the Daleth really don’t compete well with higher-end models either. All in all, “big but vague” describes the presentation of the Daleth quite well – for the money it is a fairly impressive performer and, potentially, a good match for vocal-centric music. However, its unique voicing will make the signature hit-or-miss with listeners.

Value (6.5/10) – The Fischer Audio Daleth is a decent entry-level earphone with a number of caveats. Its sound, slightly mid-centric and lacking crispness, won’t please everyone but offers up a good enough performance for the asking price. The accessory pack, build quality, and microphonics all leave a bit to be desired as well. All in all, the Daleth is hardly hi-fi but there are far poorer ways to spend $30, especially if the cosmetics of the earphone are to one’s liking. Those looking for solid build quality and an easier-to-digest sound signature may want to check out the Fischer Audio TS-9002 instead of the Daleth.

Pros: Comfortable; well-balanced for a wooden earphone
Cons: Mild driver flex, thin and tangle-prone cabling


A longer review with comparisons against the Skullcandy Holua, Thinksound TS02, Woodees Blues, and Xears TD-III can be found here

 

 

(3B28) ECCI PG100
 

Reviewed June 2011

 
Details: angled-nozzle earphone designed to replace the PR100 as ECCI's entry-level model
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $27)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 18Ω | Sens: 104 dB | Freq: 10-20k Hz | Cable: 4.2’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: N/A (oval) | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges, generic bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear
 
Accessories (3.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), shirt clip, and oversize hard clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (3/5) – The housings are plastic though the molding quality is quite nice. The cable is plasticky and average in thickness. Unfortunately, there is no strain relief on the plastic stems and no sliding cable cinch on the cord
Isolation (2.5/5) – The PG100 is a vented, shallow-insertion earphone. Isolation is rather average with the stock tips and a bit better with aftermarket biflanges
Microphonics (3/5) – Bothersome when worn cable-down and the earphones are difficult to wear over-the-ear, exacerbating the problem
Comfort (4.5/5) – The PG100 is very small and weighs next to nothing. The housing are meant to be worn like conventional earbuds with the oval nozzles angled for comfortable insertion into the ear canal. The stems are rounded and angled away from the ear – ECCI has clearly done more homework than Yamaha did with their similarly-tiny EPH-20
 
Sound (5.2/10) – ECCI’s previous entry-level model, the PR100, was a balanced and neutral affair, performing similarly to the pricier PR200 on the whole. The new PG100 is a bit of a departure from the higher-end ECCI earphones, offering a slightly darker and more bass-heavy sound. The bass of the PG100 beats the Soundmagic PL30 and H2O Audio Flex easily in quantity but stops short of the power and depth offered by the bass-monster MEElec M9. The low end is punchy and a touch boomy. There is slight bottom-end roll-off but it’s quite inoffensive. Bass bleed is minimal although the midrange does lack some clarity next to the H2O Flex, sounding veiled and a bit muffled. The overall balance is good – the midrange is not nearly as recessed as with the MEElec M9 but not as forward as with the PL30 or H2O Flex.
 
A bit of grain is present in the midrange and treble but the PG100 is still smoother than the sparklier, peakier MEElec M9. Indeed, the sound of the M9 is a good bit more v-shaped on the whole so those looking for flat-and-level will be better off with the ECCIs. Top-end extension is moderate – similar to the M9 and many other budget sets. The presentation of the PG100 is average in size, leaning towards the intimate side of things. The Soundmagic PL30 sounds far more open and spacious. The M9, too, has more air to its sound, as well as a bit more width. The slightly veiled midrange of the PG100 doesn’t do its presentation any favors but the earphone still presents a coherent sonic image. The overall tone is slightly dark.
 
Value (8/10) – Unlike the PR100 model it replaces, the ECCI PG100 sets itself apart from the higher-end PR200 and PR300 models by offering a slightly more consumer-friendly sound in a very different form factor. The compact half in-ear design is lightweight and comfortable and the sound is well-balanced with a slight bias towards the low end. It’s not going to embarrass the other solid entry-level sets on the market but it does provide a very viable alternative.
 
Pros: Small, lightweight, and comfortable; sounds good for the money
Cons: Mildly microphonic, not as well-built as previous PR100 model

 

 

(3B29) Fischer Audio FA-788

Reviewed Sep 2011

 

Details: Entry-level half-in-ear earphone from Fischer Audio
Current Price: N/A (est. $23)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32Ω | Sens: 101 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.1’ -plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges; generic bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (1/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (2.5/5) – The housings are a combination of metal, rubber, and plastic. None of the bits are glued together particularly well but for the price the construction is reasonably good. Metal bits are used at the I-plug and y-split as well but the strain reliefs are too hard and the cable itself is a bit thin
Isolation (2/5) – Not bad for a half in-ear earphone but nothing to brag about
Microphonics (3/5) – the FA-788 can only be worn cable-down and the cable noise can be bothersome
Comfort (4.5/5) – The half in-ear housings of the FA-788 are lightweight and sit well in the ear. The long stems provide something to grip while inserting or removing the earphones but I wouldn’t use them in that capacity too often for durability reasons

Sound (6/10) – The FA-788 is one of Fischer’s numerous entry-level models but that’s not what makes it special; what sets this one apart from most other sets I’ve heard in the sub-$25 bracket is the analytical nature of its sound. The bass is not very rumbly but it is punchy and extremely well-controlled. Extension is good and the note thickness being slightly on the lean side helps keep the low end quick and resolving. Clarity is excellent across the range, accentuated by the bright top end but still very impressive without the treble emphasis.

The midrange is free of bass bleed and tends to err on the cool side tonally. It lacks the fullness and warmth of sets such as the Klipsch S3 and UE350 but isn’t recessed next to the bass. The FA-788 makes the similarly-priced H2O Audio Flex sound a bit muddy but lacks the more realistic note thickness of the H2O. The sound of the Fischers is very clean – almost clinical – and runs into some of the problems common to analytical entry-level earphones. The treble is slightly emphasized over the midrange and not entirely smooth. It is well-extended but sounds a touch sharp and edgy on some tracks. Harshness is not left completely out of the equation either and as a result the FA-788 works best at lower volumes. Plenty is sacrificed for class-leading clarity so those looking for a smooth, forgiving in-ear for relaxed listening won’t find it here. That said, the closest sets to these in sound signature would probably be JVC’a FXC-series microdriver monitors, which I quite like as well.

When it comes to presentation, the FA-788 is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand it sounds airy and spacious, with good soundstage width and impressive instrument separation. On the other hand the stage lacks a bit of depth, the layering isn’t class-leading, and the sound isn’t really fleshed out enough to fill the sonic space. The earphones end up sounding a bit cavernous and – oddly – seem to place the sonic image a bit higher up than I’m accustomed to, as if the listener is underneath the stage. The similarly-priced H2O Audio Flex has a larger headstage and gives a better sense of 3-D space, though its sound is not as clean and accurate as that of the FA-788. Ditto on the pricier Soundmagic E10. On the whole, the presentation of the FA-788 is for those who want the coherence of an in-ear earphone with the lateral width and air of a conventional earbud.

Value (8/10) – The Fischer Audio FA-788 is an entry-level earphone that offers the comfort of a shallow-insertion IEM along with surprisingly crisp and accurate sound. Good end-to-end extension and a very clean note presentation complete the picture and make the FA-788 worth recommending on sound quality alone. It may not be particularly well-built and there are certainly sets with less cable noise and better isolation but it sounds as good as anything else I’ve heard in the price range.

Pros: comfortable half-in-ear form factor; clean, spacious, and controlled sound
Cons: mediocre build quality, isolation, and microphonics

 

 

 

(3B30) Brainwavz Beta

Reviewed Nov 2011

Details: half in-ear earphone with a good price/performance ratio
Current Price: $29 from amazon.com (MSRP: $28.50)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 110 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: stock Comply foams, generic bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (1.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and comply foam tips
Build Quality (2.5/5) – The construction of the Beta is similar to Sony IEMs of yesteryear, with plastic housings and long strain reliefs. The cable is thin and somewhat tangle-prone, similar to what is found on Fischer’s FA-788
Isolation (2.5/5) – Decent for a shallow-insertion design, especially with the included Comply eartips
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Surprisingly mild despite the earphones having to be worn cable-down
Comfort (4/5) – The half in-ear housings of the Beta are lightweight and sit well in the ear. The design mandates shallow insertion and the included Comply tips help comfort further, though replacing them can be a costly affair

Sound (6.7/10) – The Beta is an accurate earphone with fairly neutral tone and surprising range. For a half in-ear design, its bass has impressive depth and impact, both vastly superior to Fischer Audio’s similarly-priced FA-788. It is also punchier than the higher-end M1 model and the pricier Hippo 10EB. The bass is very clean and articulate and maintains impressive resolution for an earphone in the Beta’s price range – those not expecting a bass monster are sure to be pleased.

The mids of the Beta are recessed slightly compared to the bass and come across sounding a touch distant next to the M1 model. Clarity is excellent, however, and exaggerated further by the prominent treble. Detail resolution, too, is impressive for the price and the sound produced is clean, crisp, and edgy. The Beta is not something I would recommend for vocal-centric genres over the M1 but its reproduction of guitars has just the right amount of bite and texture. Whereas the M1 is refined and extremely smooth, the Beta is raw and full of energy.

There is a downside to the wild sound, however – at times the upper midrange and lower treble can come across wildly uncontrolled. The top end can be a touch splashy and sibilance ranges from mild to moderate depending on track, fit, and tips used. The included Complys do a good job of taming most of the treble but the Beta can still be fatiguing at higher volumes. Those who listen with the volume turned down, though, will find sparkly, clear, and moderately extended treble well worth the asking price.

In terms of presentation, the Beta is airy and open-sounding. Soundstage width is excellent and depth isn’t bad, either. Fischer’s FA-788 sounds much smaller and more congested in comparison and even the similarly open-sounding Hippo 10EB can’t match the soundstage size of the Beta. That said, the beta isn’t the most resolving earphone and doesn’t separate quite as well as the Brainwavz M1 does once things get busy. In addition, the space is not quite as cohesive and the imaging lags a little behind the M1. For its price, however, the Beta performs more than adequately and the sheer size of its soundstage is certain to impress.

Value (9/10) – While the old Beta Brainwavz Pro was a great value as an overall package, the new Beta gets by on sound quality alone. Like most entry-level half in-ear designs, it is not the best-built or most isolating set of earphones but for the asking price – and with sound quality this good – it is easy enough to forgive. Simply put, aside from a bit of sibilance the Beta may just be the best-sounding earphone in its price bracket. If that matters more than the functional nuances – as it should to many here at Head-Fi – there is no reason not to buy one.

Pros: comfortable half in-ear design; best-in-class sound quality
Cons: tangle-prone cabling; can be sibilant

 

 

(3B31) Koss KEB70

Koss KEB70 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Jan 2012

Details: Aluminum-shelled in-ear from Koss
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $44.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 100 dB | Freq: 15-20k Hz | Cable: 4' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: generic single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2.5/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The machined shells of the KEB70 look and feel very sturdy but are attached to a thin, tangle-prone cloth cable that has a tendency to fray. Strain reliefs are a bit hard and there is no cable cinch. L/R markings can be tough to see
Isolation (3/5) – Decent
Microphonics (4/5) – Surprisingly low in the cloth cable
Comfort (3/5) – The shells are smooth and rounded at the front but slightly heavy in the ear. Long strain reliefs and lack of a cable cinch can make over-the-ear wear tricky. The stock tips are strange – short and thick

Sound (5.4) – The KEB70 is a budget-minded earphone with a consumer-friendly sound signature. The low end offers sizeable mid-bass lift with moderate sub-bass extension left over. The deep bass is not emphasized as it is with the MEElectronics M9 and tends to be subdued slightly by the mid-bass hump of the Koss but the low end is decently clean and controlled on the whole. The bass tends to be a little slow but not smeared – just a bit ‘fat’. The midrange is warm and surprisingly detailed for an entry-level product. It is placed just behind the mid-bass in emphasis but not quite as recessed as that of the M9. The M9 is clearer and more neutral in tone but not as smooth as the KEB70.

At the top, the KEB70 is laid-back and slightly rolled-off. There are no significant spikes to cause harshness or sibilance. The M9 has similarly mediocre top-end extension but tends to be harsher and grainier. The KEB70 sounds slightly darker, however, and lacks a bit of detail and resolution in comparison. In terms of presentation, the Koss offers surprisingly decent layering and space, sounding reasonably open but not very airy due to the laid-back treble. The soundstage has good width but not much depth – par for the course as far as budget-minded in-ears go.

Value (8/10) – At the current sub-$30 prices, Koss offers a good-sounding budget earphone with surprisingly solid shells in the KEB70. There are a number of minor quirks that might cause one to think twice before picking one up in place of a MEElec M9 or other established entry-level earphone but the smooth, impactful sound is well worth the price of admission.

Pros: low microphonics; smooth and pleasant sound
Cons: poor stock eartips; heavy; tangle-prone cable


Thanks to kidcharlemagne for the KEB70 loan


(3B32) Sunrise Aodia i100

Sunrise Aodia i100.jpg
Reviewed Jan 2012

Details: Entry-level headset in the common Sennheiser CX300 form factor
Current Price: $23 from lendmeurears.com (MSRP: est. $23)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: N/A | Cable: 4' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (1.5/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and shirt clip
Build Quality (3/5) – Plastic housings are fairly well put together. Standard Sunrise cabling with metal hardware feels nice and sturdy but probably isn’t. A bit of driver flex is present
Isolation (3/5) – Moderate with the conventional straight-barrel housings
Microphonics (3/5) – Bothersome when worn over-the-ear; decent otherwise
Comfort (4.5/5) – Tiny, lightweight housings seemingly identical to those used by the Sennheiser CX300 disappear when worn. Easy IEMs to sleep in

Sound (5.9/10) – Sunrise’s entry-level headset model, the i100 utilizes a conventional sound signature – boosted bass with relatively balanced mids and highs. The bass is full and impactful, with good depth and power. There is a bit of mid-bass emphasis but nothing overblown – the Soundmagic E10 is easily bassier, for example. Bass control is good – not as impressive as with the higher-end Sunrise sets but only a touch on the boomy side considering overall the bass quantity of the i100.

The midrange is warm and pleasant. It tends to be a bit dry but clarity and detail are quite good - a bit better than with the ECCI PG100, for example, but not quite on-par with the Soundmagic E30. In terms of emphasis, the midrange is a half-step back compared to the bass but not particularly out of balance compared to the mid-recessed MEElec M9 or mid-forward Fischer Audio Jazz. The treble transition is smooth – the top end is not perfectly even but sparkle is minimal and it is balanced well with the midrange. Top-end extension is average and with its copious bass the i100 is slightly dark on the whole next to more balanced sets such as the E30 and MEElec CX21. The presentation is agreeable – soundstage size is average but has depth in addition to width and the separation is good – better, for example, than with the MEElec M9s and ECCI PG100s.

Value (8.5/10) – The Sunrise Aodia i100 is a well-rounded entry-level headset, scoring points not only for sound quality but also good long-term comfort and above-average isolation. The consumer-oriented sound signature is rather well-executed, with punchy, robust bass, warm mids, well-controlled treble, and a decent presentation. The generic build and moderate cable noise would be problematic in a higher-end set, but can be excused considering he price of the i100. Those looking for a cheap and cheerful way to listen to music and take calls on the go will get their money’s worth.

Pros: Lightweight and comfortable; easy-going sound
Cons: Generic housings; cable can be noisy

 

 

(3B33) VSonic GR99

 

VSonic GR99 400x300.jpg
Reviewed June 2012

Details: Entry-level model from VSonic
Current Price: $28 from lendmeurears.com (MSRP: est $28)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 24Ω | Sens: 103 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.1' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3/5) - Single-flange UE-style (medium) and hybrid-style (7 sizes) silicone tips, shirt clip, and soft drawstring carrying pouch
Build Quality (4/5) – The GR99 is constructed very well, with solid-feeling housings featuring metal nozzles, filters, and rear grilles. Strain reliefs are strong and flexible and the cable is sturdy despite being thinner than the cords on other VSonic IEMs. Attention to detail is good - colored rings around the rear grilles act as L/R designations and a small bump is present ton the right strain relief for identification in the dark. No cable cinch is present
Isolation (3/5) – Good for a vented dynamic-driver IEM
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Tolerable when worn cable-down; very low with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (4/5) – The straight-barrel housings are larger than average but smooth and comfortable in the ear. Tip selection is less generous compared to higher-end VSonics but still greater than expected for the price

Sound (7.3/10) – The entry-level model in VSonic’s growing lineup, the GR99 was tuned to retain the hallmark clarity and natural sound of the higher-end models while emphasizing deep bass for a consumer-friendly ‘wow’ factor. The low end of the GR99 is not the tightest or most controlled, giving up some definition and detail to the higher-end models, but it has great depth and power. Mid-bass punch is strong as well – the GR99 easily matches the Soundmagic E10 in impact and calling it ‘bassy’ is not a stretch.

There is a bit of bass bleed and the overall tone is on the warm side. The mids are clear and positioned well – not as recessed as one might expect with the amount of bass the GR99 can crank out. Detail and clarity do lag slightly behind the pricier GR02 and the id America Spark, as well as the far more balanced-sounding Monoprice 8320, but considering the price and sound signature the GR99 is difficult to fault on either count.

At the top the GR99 is smooth and pleasant. It is the darkest-sounding of all of the VSonic IEMs I’ve heard but treble presence is still sufficient. The occasional predisposition of the GR07, GR06, and even GR02 towards slightly hot treble and accentuating the sibilance is all but absent with the GR99. It is also less bright than the Soundmagic E10, which follows a more v-shaped response. The presentation, too, is pleasant all around – the soundstage is average or slightly above average in size – the Soundmagic E10 and E30, for example, are more spacious. However, the GR99, while not as dynamic as the GR02, has decent enough instrument separation and conveys both depth and width for a fairly well-rounded sonic image.

Value (10/10) – The GR99 is yet another heavyweight offering from VSonic, this time in the bargain sub-$30 category. Its emphasis on sub-bass and smooth treble differentiate it from the higher-end VSonic models while making it well-suited for the consumer market. Good build quality and overall usability, as well as a generous selection of tips, make the GR99 even more difficult to beat as a total package.

Pros: Well-built, impressively functional, great sound for the money
Cons: N/A

 

 

(3B34) JVC HA-FX40

 

Added Sep 2012

Details: First carbon nanotube earphone on the US market
Current Price: $22 from amazon.com (MSRP: $29.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 101 dB | Freq: 8-24k Hz | Cable: 3.9' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: MEElec trimmed triple-flange; UE bi-flange
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), foam tips, and shirt clip
Build Quality (3/5) – The housings are mostly plastic, with paper nozzle filters and no strain reliefs on cable entry. The cables are thinner compared to higher-end JVC IEMs but still soft and flexible. The 3.5mm I-plug is nicely relieved
Isolation (2.5/5) – Good for a shallow-fit earphone
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Low in the soft and flexible cable
Comfort (3/5) – The housings are small and ergonomic except for the plastic stabilizing arm shooting off the side of the housing, which can push against the ear and cause soreness after a while. They can be worn over-the-ear, with the stabilizer pointing outward, for better comfort

Sound (7.2/10) – The HA-FX40 is built around an 8.5mm carbon nanotube driver, the first such transducer available in the US. Billed as the ‘high clarity’ model in JVC’s extensive earphone lineup, the FX40 follows a v-shaped sound signature with strong bass and even stronger treble. It certainly delivers the clarity, but does so at a cost.

The carbon nanotube drivers found at the heart of the FX40 are most impressive in the bass region – the bass is definitely enhanced but far from overbearing. It lacks the absolute extension of sets such as the VSonic GR99 and Philips SHE3580 but still digs plenty deep without jeopardizing control. The treble-heavy nature of the earphones can diminish the relative emphasis placed on the low end but the bass of the FX40 is not to be underestimated – it is quick and impactful, forming a solid backbone for the sound.

Bass bleed is quite low – the Philips SHE 3580 and Brainwavz Beta, two competing v-shaped IEMs, have stronger upper bass response and sound warmer than the FX40. The JVCs are recessed through much of the midrange, though the response picks up towards the upper mids. Vocals, especially male vocals, are too far back in the mix on many tracks. High levels of clarity and detail are probably the most impressive aspect of the mids, though some of the perceived clarity comes from emphasis in the upper midrange and treble. This effect is similar to using a treble booster EQ setting (e.g. BBE’s “Crystal Clear” preset) and highly reminiscent of the far pricier PureSound ClarityOne earphones.

The resolution of the FX40 is still very good but there is another similarity to the PureSound Clarity One – the note presentation is on the thin side. The Philips SHE3580 and id America Spark, for example, both give up a bit of resolution to the FX40 but have a thicker, more fleshed-out note. While both of these earphones also sound colored, their note presentation seems a bit more natural than that of the FX40. The treble of the FX40 is emphasized overall and not entirely smooth but it is not as harsh or sibilant as one may expect from an earphone with enhanced treble response – a little splashy and fatiguing over long listening sessions, but generally tame. The tone is on the bright side, with plenty of energy and a tendency to emphasize cymbal crashes and the initial ‘crack’ of drums. The result of all this coloration, combined with the thinner note presentation, is that the fidelity of the FX40 can swing widely from great to poor depending on track.

Similarly, there are some issues with the presentation – while the FX40 tends to sound nice and open, the high left-right separation is reminiscent of Sony’s higher-end EX-series earphones and the Monoprice 8320 in providing little in the way of a central image. Depth and layering leave some to be desired as well, especially compared to JVC’s higher-end FXT90 model. On the upside, separation is good and there isn’t any of the boomy, closed-in feel that can be such a deal breaker with certain low-end IEMs.

Value (9/10) – JVC’s entry-level clarity-oriented model delivers exactly what it promises – a bright, clarity-oriented signature that doesn’t sacrifice the one must-have trait of a successful entry-level earphone – solid bass. The form factor leaves a little to be desired and the sound signature won’t work for everyone but the FX40 is one of the better treble-heavy earphones in the lower price tiers.

Pros: Minimal cable noise; great clarity and detail
Cons: No strain relief on housing entry; recessed lower mids; treble energy may be excessive for some

 

Thanks to dweaver for the HA-FX40 loan!

 

 

(3B35) Rock-It Sounds R-10

 

Added Oct 2012

Details: Entry-level earphone from Rock-It Sounds
Current Price: $20 from rockitsounds.com (MSRP: $19.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.2' I-plug
Nozzle Size: N/A (oval) | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges, generic bi-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear

Accessories (3.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), airline adapter, and clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The R-10 utilizes a plastic housing with a rubber bumper, integrated strain relief, oval nozzles with metal filters, and a plastic-sheathed cable. The molding is a little rough around the edges but durability should be excellent for an entry-level product
Isolation (2.5/5) – Isolation is limited by the shallow fit but is sufficient for general use
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Cable noise can be coerced with cord-down wear but is nonexistent in the intended over-the-ear configuration
Comfort (4.5/5) – The housings are lightweight and highly ergonomic. The rounded shells and rubber bumpers are reminiscent of the highly-acclaimed JVC AirCushions but the over-the-ear fit makes the R-10 more secure and reduces cable noise

Sound (4.7/10) – The sound signature of the R-10 is a warm and consumer-friendly one, with enhanced bass and relaxed treble. Bass extension is decent but the low end is a little boomy compared to similarly-priced sets such as the UE100. Impact is similar to the MEElectronics M9, though the M9 has more subbass and less upper bass for a less bloated sound. Midrange bleed is noticeable but the R-10 displays mids very prominently and could even be called mid-centric. Detail and clarity lag slightly behind the more balanced-sounding UE100 and are no match for the higher-end Rock-It models.

The treble is laid-back and lacking in both sparkle and extension. There’s not a whole lot of air to the sound as a result and the R-10 gets congested easily. Still, the presentation is forward overall and the strong, upfront midrange prevents the earphones from sounding distant and uninvolving as some other entry-level IEMs, such as the Panasonic HJE120, can.

Value (7.5/10) – Priced at just $20, the R-10 is a decent-sounding and very well-designed option for the general consumer. The lightweight, over-the-ear form factor allows the R-10 to be comfortable, secure in the ear, and low on cable noise and the bass- and midrange-heavy sound is non-fatiguing, if somewhat muddy. First-time IEM owners will be happy with the bass and the R-10 makes a great disposable set for the gym. Just don’t expect it to deliver the refinement of Rock-It’s higher-end models.

Pros: Comfortable over-the-ear fit; nearly no cable noise, well-built and accessorized for the price
Cons: Lackluster sound heavy on the bass and midrange



(3B36) Rock-It Sounds R-11


Added Oct 2012

Details: Entry-level earphone from Rock-It Sounds
Current Price: $25 from rockitsounds.com (MSRP: $24.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.2' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear

Accessories (3.5/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), removable rubber bumpers (3 sizes), airline adapter, and clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The R-11 utilizes plastic housings with a trio of removable rubber bumpers that slide onto the nozzle before the eartip. The cable is twisted, identical to those found on Rock-It’s higher-end models and the MEElectronics A151 – very impressive for an entry-level set
Isolation (3/5) – Isolation is improved compared to the R-10 model. A deeper fit is possible with the front bumpers removed (shown)
Microphonics (5/5) – Cable noise is nonexistent with the excellent twisted cable
Comfort (4.5/5) – The housings are lightweight and highly ergonomic. Over-the-ear fitment makes the R-11 secure and the twisted cable is a pleasure to use. The rubber bumpers can be used for stability with a shallow fit or removed entirely for a deeper seal

Sound (4.2/10) – The sound of the R-11 is reminiscent of the cheaper R-10 model, but while the housings of the R-10 are vented, the R-11 appears to be sealed. This has a negative effect on the sound – the R-11 is still a warm, bass- and mid-focused earphone but its sound isn’t as clear and well-defined as that of the R-10. The bass is noticeably heavier but also boomier and more prone to bleeding up into the midrange. Bass extension is improved but the cost to the overall sound quality is too great.

The heavier bass bleed causes the midrange to sound more muffled compared to the R-10 and sacrifices even more of the clarity. Treble response seems to be less affected by the sealed housings of the R-11 but is still drowned out more by the heavier bass of the R-11. The presentation is intimate and the R-11 has the same tendency towards becoming congested as the R-10.

Value (7/10) – While the R-11 improves on the R-10 in several areas, its non-vented housings result in sound that is less suitable for the discerning listener. The bass is deeper and heavier at the expense of clarity and accuracy and the entire experience becomes more muddy and bloated. The interchangeable front bumpers and excellent twisted cable – a definite luxury in this price bracket - are worthy of a thumbs-up but aren’t quite enough to make the R-11 worth recommending over the R-10.

Pros: Comfortable over-the-ear fit; excellent cable; no cable noise, well accessorized for the price
Cons: Audio quality lags behind cheaper R-10 model

 


(3B37) JVC HA-FX101

Added Feb 2013


Details: Bass-heavy budget earphone from JVC’s Xtreme Xplosives line
Current Price: $18 from amazon.com (MSRP: $19.95); $29.95 for HA-FR201 model w/mic
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 101 dB | Freq: 5-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (1/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The design of the FX101 resembles the older FX1X and features plastic housings with rubber bumpers, paper nozzle filters, and a thin, plasticky cable. The cord lacks a sliding cinch but carries minimal noise and terminates with a well-relieved I-plug
Isolation (3/5) – Good for an angled-nozzle design
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Low in the soft and flexible cable
Comfort (4/5) – The fit is generally similar to JVC’s higher-end FX500 model but the rubber-sheathed housings may be a little large for over-the-ear wear for those with smaller ears. Cord-down wear is very comfortable with the angled-nozzle form factor and the shells are smaller compared to the older FX1X

Sound (6.2/10) – JVC’s follow-up to the popular FX1X model, the FX101 has no trouble delivering on promises of copious bass despite its smaller 8.5mm drivers. Its low end is not as loose as that of the older FX1X model and yet the FX101 sacrifices nothing in the way of impact or bass depth. Its bass puts it among the hardest-hitting in-ears on the market, though as usual the low end grunt comes at a price. The bass is on the boomy side compared to sets such as the Philips SHE3580 and can be very intrusive. Happily, the FX101 probably won’t be purchased by those looking for anything less than a bass monster.

The real strength of the FX101 is in retaining good overall sound characteristics despite its massive low end and miniscule price tag. The clarity is quite good for something so bassy – it lags behind the JVC FX40, Brainwavz Beta, and Soundmagic E10 but easily beats the MEElectronics M9 and most other entry-level sets. The sound tends to be a little warm and dark. The signature is v-shaped, with strong bass emphasis and a milder treble boost. Bass bleed helps the FX101 sound a bit less recessed in the midrange compared to the Brainwavz Beta and JVC HA-FX40. As with the FX40, the colored signature of the FX101 works especially well with electronic music and can be hit or miss with recorded instruments.

Treble is somewhat harsh and not very refined compared to higher-end sets. It can accentuate sibilance and doesn’t extend all the way up, resulting in a darker sound compared to sets such as the Soundmagic E10 and Brainwavz Beta. The presentation is above average in its price class – not as wide as that of the Brainwavz Beta but better compared to the MEElectronics M9. The darker tone of the FX101 also prevents it from sounding as open and airy as the Soundmagic E10, which also boasts a better sense of space. Still, the FX101 has nothing to be ashamed of for the price and has another piece of mass appeal up its sleeve – efficiency. The FX101 plays louder than just about anything I put it up against and will crank out the bass even at low listening volumes.

Value (9.5/10) – Comfortable, well-built, and not at all microphonic, the FX101 is a bargain that should cause the bass-obsessed to salivate profusely. The bass-heavy sound means that these are far from the most neutral or natural-sounding earphones, but they deliver on the fun factor without sounding offensive - a definite win for their intended audience.

Pros: Well-built; comfortable; minimal cable noise; tons of bass
Cons: Treble can be harsh; tons of bass

 

Thanks to mcnoiserdc for the HA-FX101 loan!

 

 

(3B38) Astrotec DX-60
 

Added Mar 2013

Details: Entry-level headset featuring flat cables and 13.5mm drivers
Current Price: $20 from lendmurears.com (MSRP: est $20)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 110 dB | Freq: 20-18k Hz | Cable: 3.9' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 4.5mm | Preferred tips: stock single-flanges, MEElec M6 bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (2.5/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and TRRS smartphone adapter
Build Quality (3.5/5) – In contrast to Astrotec’s higher-end sets, the DX-60 is mostly plastic save for some metal inserts with the Astrotec logo. The two-tone flat cables are tangle-resistant and feels trong but the strain reliefs are stiff and there’s no sliding cable cinch
Isolation (2/5) – Low due to the shallow fit
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Very low in the textured flat cable
Comfort (4/5) – The plastic housings are ergonomically designed for cable-down wear. They’re a little big due to the 13.5mm drivers but overall quite manageable. Those with smaller ears may have trouble with the cable exit point at the bottom of the housings.

Sound (4.9/10) – Astrotec’s entry-level in-ear pursues a consumer-friendly sound signature that reminds me of Sennheiser’s now-defunct CX300. The mid-bass of the DX-60 is hyped up to the point of overshadowing parts of the midrange and draws attention away from the rather good subbass. The low end is boomy, but I wouldn’t call the DX-60 a bass monster – it’s not as bassy as the JVC FX101, for example. Instead, it competes with the likes of the MEElectronics M9 and UE100, though it lacks deep bass emphasis compared to the former and control compared to the latter. Next to Astrotec’s higher-end AM-800 model, too, the DX-60 clearly sounds bloated and sloppy at the low end.

The midrange of the DX-60 lacks some clarity due to the uncontrolled bass but has a pleasant smoothness to it. Despite the slight veil, the mids sound more open and natural than the recessed mids of the MEElec M9 or the more congested midrange of the UE100. The treble of the DX-60 is not as energetic as I would have liked, which enhances the warm and bass-heavy character of the earphone but also makes it very forgiving of poor source material. It’s not as harsh as the MEElec M9, for example, and remains less critical of poor-quality recordings than Astrotec’s higher-end AM-800 model. With its shallow-sealing housings, the presentation of the DX-60 is also surprisingly “big” and uncongested. Aside from the mid-bass bloat the only issue seems to be a relative lack of depth. Expectedly, the higher-end AM-800 has far better imaging, but for the price the DX-60 isn’t half bad.

Value (7.5/10) – While not as refined in sound or design as Astrotec’s higher-end in-ears, the DX-60 is an affordable smartphone headset with a warm, easy-going sound signature. It competes well against similarly-priced headsets from the likes of Soundmagic and MEElectronics, especially impressing with its noise-free, tangle-resistant flat cable.

Pros: Almost no cable noise; ergonomic design
Cons: Lacks clarity; low isolation

 

 

(3B39) TDK MT300

 

Added Jun 2013


Details: Entry-level earphone from TDK
Current Price: $24 from amazon.com (MSRP: $29.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 89 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9' L-plug
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: Sony hybrid
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (1/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (3/5) – The metal housings of the MT300 are solid but the thin, plasticky cable is a reminder of the earphone’s low price
Isolation (3/5) – Good, but limited by the shallow insertion of the earphones
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Tolerable, but the MT300 is difficult to wear cable-up to eliminate cable noise entirely
Comfort (4.5/5) - The small, angled-nozzle housings are lightweight and very comfortable, though wearing the MT300 over-the-ear can be tough.

Sound (5.5/10) – The MT300 is an entry-level earphone with a bass-heavy, consumer-oriented sound. It impresses with the depth and power of its sub-bass response, though there is also mid-bass to match. The bass emphasis of the MT300 gives it a full-bodied, albeit boomy, sound. The Philips SHE3580, which is also rather bass-heavy, keeps its bloat to a minimum due to its thinner, quicker note presentation but the MT300 is not quite so capable, sounding thicker and more bloated.

The weighty low end of the MT300 dominates the sound, producing a veil over the midrange and treble. Comparing the MT300 to the aging MEElectronics M9 reveals a lack of mid-bass bloat - and veiling - with the MEElecs but at the same time shows that the MT300’s mid-bass gives it a warmer, fuller sound with thicker, more natural mids. The midrange of the MT300 is recessed compared to the bass, but not too much so. The mids of the Philips SHE3580, for example, appear more recessed, likely due to its thinner sound and slightly more v-shaped response.

The tone of the MT300 has a dark tilt due to a lack of treble energy. The benefit is a nicely non-fatiguing sound – although the treble is not entirely smooth, its features are masked at lower volumes. It is of better quality than the treble of the MEElec M9 but not nearly as refined as that of the pricier Sony MH1C.

While the MT300 is no MH1C when it comes to presentation, its soundstage is wide for an entry-level set. Size-wise, it is about on-par with the M9 and would probably be even more impressive were it not for the mild congestion resulting from the bass emphasis - something the MH1C manages to do a better job of avoiding. As for the extremely low sensitivity figure in the manufacturer specs of the TDKs, it does not seem to correspond very well to reality in this case – the MT300 reaches high volumes rather easily.

Value (7.5/10) – The TDK MT300 is a capable earphone, performing better than entry-level sets from such big audio brands as Sennheiser and Ultimate Ears. At $25, it is a solid but not entirely outstanding budget earphone that is nonetheless worthy of recommendation due to its pleasant sound, great comfort, and good overall usability. Interestingly, it seems to be pricier and more limited in availability in the US than in Canada, for example, so those outside of the States might find a better deal still in the MT300.

Pros: Good bass response; smooth at reasonable volumes; very comfortable
Cons: Lacks a bit in the way of clarity and bass control


Huge thanks to inline79 for sending in the MT-300 and making this review happen!

 

 

(3B40) Etymotic Research ETY-Kids 5 / 3

Reviewed Aug 2013

Details: Etymotic’s volume-limiting safe listening earphones
Current Price: $30 from amazon.com (MSRP: $49); $79 for ETY-Kids 3 with 3-button remote and microphone
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 300Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 20-15k Hz | Cable: 4’ 45º-plug
Nozzle Size: 2.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock triple-flanges, Shure Olives
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3.5/5) – Triple-flange silicone tips (2 sizes), Etymotic Glider tips, shirt clip, and zippered soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (4.5/5) –Though the ETY-Kids are lightweight and made of plastic, the cords are Kevlar-reinforced and well-relieved all around. The cabling is very flexible and doesn’t stick or tangle, making the entry-level Etys feel like a quality product
Isolation (4/5) – Typical of Ety earphones, isolation doesn’t get much better than this
Microphonics (4/5) – Quite low when worn cable-down, nonexistent with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (4/5) –The slim housings don’t put pressure on the outer ear and the cable exit angle works well for over-the-ear wear. The included assortment of tips is on the smaller side but it should fit most listeners comfortably as long as they don’t mind the deeper fit of Etymotic earphones

Sound (7.6/10) – The ETY-Kids are the second dynamic-driver earphone from Etymotic Research and the company’s most budget-friendly set yet, marketed to parents as a child-friendly safe hearing model. Volume-limiting earphones are not a novel concept - we’ve previously seen similar designs from brands such as Ultimate Ears and Harman-owned dB Logic. The ETY-Kids achieve this with their 300Ω impedance, which makes it difficult to power the earphone to dangerous volume levels. Unlike headphones with dB Logic’s SPL2 technology, the Etys will still hit high volumes when driven with a powerful enough source, but they do a good job limiting output with conventional mp3 players.

The limited volume of the Etys should be sufficient for most Head-Fiers. At worst, it is a minor inconvenience to turn up the volume, and on more powerful sources such as my desktop amp and HiFiMan HM-901, it is barely noticeable that the volume pot needs another ¼ turn. More importantly the ETY-Kids, low price and all, sound very much like an Ety should. The bass is tight and clean, albeit a touch rolled-off at the bottom. This means the ETY-Kids won’t produce the type of deep, rumbling bass the Beats by Dre generation may be expecting, but it also keeps the tone neutral and midrange free of bleed. In comparison, the VSonic VC02 has slightly punchier bass but keeps it just as clean and controlled as the Etys while the warmer, bassier VSonic VSD1 sounds a bit more bloated.

The midrange of the ETY-Kids is likewise clear and neutral, bumped slightly in presence to make vocals more prominent and intelligible. Due to this, and because of the lack of bass and treble emphasis, the Etys can sound a bit mid-centric – more so, for example, than the VSonic VC02. On the other hand, the fantastic midrange clarity means there is no need to turn the earphones up to discern vocals, which fits nicely in with the whole “safe hearing” push. The ETY-Kids are clearer even than the balanced armature Astrotec AM-90, though they lack some of the warmth and fullness of the Astrotecs as well.

The treble of the ETY-Kids is nicely filled in, though it seems to lack a bit of extension and presence next to the higher-end armature-based Ety models. It is smoother than the treble of the VSonic VC02 and VSD1 but not as smooth as the similarly-priced balanced armature sets from Astrotec and Rock-It sounds. The overall tone of the Etys is a bit on the cool side and the presentation tends to be a little laid-back. Soundstage depth and overall dynamics could be better, but for the price the junior Etys do a great job.

Value (9.5/10) – The ETY-Kids name may be off-putting to some but there is nothing childish about the design or sound of these earphones. Like all things Etymotic, the ETY-Kids are well-built, highly isolating, and boast sound that is clear, accurate, and neutral, though for some listeners perhaps lacking in desired bass presence. They promote hearing safety with a combination of immense noise isolation and volume-limiting impedance. All in all, the ETY-Kids are a great entry-level audiophile IEM that – we can only hope – will help introduce the next generation to Etymotic’s signature sound.

Pros: Stellar noise isolation; solid build quality; clear, balanced, and accurate sound
Cons: Deep-insertion form factor can take some getting used to for new users. Volume-limiting design may be undesirable for some

 

 

 

(3B41) NarMoo R1M

 

 


Reviewed July 2013

 

Details: First earphone model from NarMoo, tunable via interchangeable rear ports

MSRP: $69.99 (manufacturer’s page)
Current Price: $24 from NarMoo.com with coupon code “THL”; $25 from amazon.com
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 98 dB | Freq: 10-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9′ L-plug w/ mic & 1-button remote
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Narrow-channel single-flange eartips (e.g. Dunu or MEElectronics M6)
Wear Style: Straight down (preferred) or over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), shirt clip, tuning ports (3 pairs), and oversize zippered carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – The body of the R1M is aluminum, quite solidly made, and features screw-in rear tuning ports (three pairs are included). Semi-flexible strain reliefs are fitted over the housings, protecting the sturdy flat cable. A mic and single-button remote unit is mounted on the right earpiece and the cable is terminated with a low-profile L-plug. Some driver flex is present
Isolation (3/5) – About average for an earphone of this type
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Noticeable when worn cable-down but the thick flat cable is not particularly energetic, which helps. Over-the-ear wear is a little difficult but makes microphonics negligible
Comfort (3.5/5) – The housings of the R1M are on the large side, but light enough to still be comfortable. The flat cable, long strain reliefs, mic position, and lack of cable cinch don’t lend themselves well to over-the-ear wear, but it is not impossible to wear the R1M cable up

Sound (7.6/10) – The main feature of the NarMoo R1M is the sound adjustment system with interchangeable screw-in tuning ports. This concept, right down to the color coding of the screws, should be familiar to owners of the MEElectronics SP51. The sound tuning of the R1M follows the same scheme – the black ports are the bassiest by far, followed by the darker silver (metallic) ones and then the light silver ones. In short, the tuning screws are configured as follows:

Silver ports: most balanced sound; slightly v-shaped signature with solid bass punch and ample upper midrange/treble presence
Metallic ports: less balanced, borderline “bassy” sound but for the most part maintains bass control and clarity close to those of the silver ports
Black ports: maximum bass setting. Cranks up both the sub-bass and mid-bass for an experience that will please even serious bassheads, but gives up bass tightness in the process

The R1M looks to be the next generation of sound tuning earphones, with ports that are nice and large in contrast to similar designs I’ve seen in the past, making them easier to use and harder to misplace.

With the black ports in place, the sound of the R1M is suitable for fans of heavy bass. Bass depth is excellent but the mid-bass region is boosted more, resulting in slight masking of the sub-bass. The bass is often too boomy for me in this configuration.

With both the metallic and silver ports the low end is much more manageable – not quite as tight as that of my pricier VSonic VSD1S benchmark, but close. The metallic ports are bassier than the silver ones but still manage to maintain good quality. The midrange and treble are remarkably unaffected when swapping the ports, aside from the effects of the bass quantity differences.

The silver ports being the more balanced – and the most impressive technically – led me to use them for the review. Unless otherwise noted, the rest of this review is based on the R1M with the silver ports installed.

With the silver ports, the bass of the R1M is only slightly enhanced – quantity is similar to one of my favorite budget earphones, the VSonic VSD1S. The R1M has less of a mid-bass boost than the VSonics and less recessed mids, which gives it a cooler overall tonal character.

The most impressive aspect of the silver ports, however, is the overall clarity, which falls only a bit behind the pricier VSD1S but easily beats similarly-priced sets from Dunu, MEElectronics, Ultimate Ears, and the like. This is in part due to strong presence in the upper midrange and treble, which also contributes to the somewhat cool tonal character of the earphones. It’s not the most natural midrange presentation, but it works well in the case of the R1M.

The prominent upper mids of the R1M can sound a little edgy and the earphone doesn’t have the smoothest or most extended treble. It lacks a bit of crispness and instruments like hi-hats can sound a little too distant and vague compared pricier sets. However, despite the strong upper midrange presence, the R1M is surprisingly tolerant of sibilance. Compared to the VSD1S, for example, it’s quite a lot more forgiving.

Presentation is another definite strong suit of the R1M, one that impressed me at first listen. There are previous few budget earphones that sound as spacious, airy, and open as the R1M. The aforementioned lack of crispness takes away from their imaging ability a bit, making the soundstaging a touch vague, but overall the earphones simply provide a great sense of space.

Select Comparisons (Note: in each comparison the port with the best signature match was selected)

Nuforce NE-600X ($15) (black ports)

The sound of the NE-600X is very close to the R1M with the black tuning ports installed. Both have enormous bass that should satisfy even die-hard basshead, and yet despite their deep, booming bass, both earphones still offer pretty good clarity and avoid the sort of congestion that often plagues entry-level basshead earphones. The differences are subtle – the NE-600X is warmer in tone while the R1M is a little more neutral despite having similar bass impact. Vocals are a bit more intelligible on the R1M, likely due to slightly greater midrange presence, but overall the NE-600X is a little clearer and more crisp, especially up top. The NE-600X is a little harsher, however.

RHA MA350 ($40) (black ports)

Though the MA350 doesn’t quite have the bass impact of the NE-600X, its bass quantity is still closer to the black ports of the R1M than the metallic ones. Overall performance is again extremely close between the two earphones – they have similar bass control and clarity, though switching over the metallic or silver ports gives the advantage to the R1M on both counts. The largest difference between them is treble quality – the MA350 tends to be somewhat harsh and grainy compared to the NarMoo unit whereas the R1M, while less crisp, has smoother and more forgiving treble. The R1M also has a small advantage in soundstage size and airiness.

VSonic GR02 Bass Edition ($36) (metallic ports)

VSonic’s enhanced-bass GR02 model finds its match in the R1M with the metallic tuning ports in place. The GR02 BE has always impressed me with its balance of bass quantity and quality, and it still beats the R1M slightly in bass control. However, while bass impact and depth are similar between the two earphones, the R1M is more balanced overall. It makes the GR02 BE sound overly v-shaped and mid-recessed. The GR02 BE is a little bit clearer, however, partly due to its greater treble energy. It makes the R1M appear a little dull at the top in comparison, but is also more harsh and sibilant. On the whole, the sound of the R1M is more natural through the midrange and treble. The R1M also has a better presentation, sounding more open and spacious than the GR02 BE.

T-Peos D200R ($35) (silver ports)

With the silver tuning ports, the NarMoo R1M is technically at its best and capable of going up against T-Peos’ limited edition D200R model. The D200R has slightly less bass quantity than even the silver ports of the R1M but, like all of the T-Peos sets I’ve tried, still maintains excellent extension and is capable of very solid punch on tracks that call for bass. The R1M is a little heavier in the mid-bass region, which makes its low end appear stronger and at times more intrusive. The bass of the D200R is tighter. The midrange of the D200R is more prominent and clear, but the T-Peos also tend to sound harsher at times. The R1M is less crisp overall, but boasts a wider presentation and more open sound next to the more forward and closed-in D200R.

Fidue A63 ($60) (silver ports)

The mid-forward Fidue A63 is opposite in signature to the R1M, making for an excellent sound contrast. Even with the silver ports in place, the R1M is bassier than the A63 and its low end is more prone to sounding boomy and bloated. The tighter bass of the A63, combined with its prominent midrange, gives vocals better clarity and intelligibility compared to the R1M. The tone of the Fidue set is warmer overall and its treble is smoother. The R1M is more v-shaped in sound signature and brighter in tone. It also has a wider presentation. However, the smaller soundstage of the A63 is actually slightly more coherent and imaging is more precise.

Value (9/10) – The NarMoo R1M is an excellent first effort, offering pretty much everything one could want from a budget earphone – a solid construction, built-in mic and remote, and the ability to select between three levels of bass ranging from “basshead” to “mild enhancement”. The tuning port idea is not new, but it is well-executed, with ports that are easy to change by hand and provide clearly audible differences in sound. At the current sub-$30 price, these features make the R1M a great value.

Pros: Good clarity; very spacious and open sound; tuning ports make a difference
Cons: Some driver flex is present; bass boomy with the black tuning ports; treble could stand to be more refined

 

(3B42) Xiaomi Piston 2

 



Added August 2014

 

 

Details: 2nd generation of China-based Xioami’s popular Piston earphones, called the 2.0 or 2.1 depending on included accessories
MSRP: approx. $16 (manufacturer’s page)
Current Price: $25 from Amazon.com (note: due to abundance of fakes, exercise caution when purchasing the Piston. There are legitimate eBay sellers, such as bigbargainsonline, but if a deal seems too good to be true it probably is)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: <=16Ω | Sens: 93 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9′ I-plug with mic & 3-button Android remote (still has limited functionality with other devices)
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: MEElec M6 single-flanges, Generic single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear (preferred)

Accessories (3/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes); plastic box doubles as storage case with integrated cable wrap (Note: newer 2.1/IF version comes with updated eartips and adds a shirt clip)
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The finely-ridged aluminum housings of the Piston 2 are a magnet for grime but the build is solid, with ample strain relief all around. There are many design improvements compared to the original Piston – the L/R markings are easier to see, there is virtually no driver flex, and the cable is no longer cloth-sheathed above the y-split, which makes the Piston 2 less tangle-prone and reduces cable noise
Isolation (2.5/5) – Average, about the same as with the original Piston despite the addition of a large rear vent on the Piston 2
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Bothersome when worn cable-down but much better compared to the original Piston; good with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (3/5) – The housings of the Piston are rather wide and remind me of the LG Quadbeat. They have squared-off edges at the front, which may create pressure points for those with small outer ears. The Piston can be worn both cable-down and cable-up, for which the positioning of the microphone/remote at the Y-split is perfect

Sound (8.1/10) – The Xiaomi Piston 2 makes all the right steps forward compared to the first-generation Piston, tightening up the bass response and clearing up the mids. The low end of the Piston 2 is slightly boomy, but without comparing it to a tighter-sounding earphone – which generally means one that is either much more expensive or much lighter in the bass department – it’s really not that noticeable.

The Piston 2 features enhanced bass, delivering both good extension and strong mid-bass presence. It is similar to the Sony MH1C and the pricier RHA MA750 in overall bass quantity, though both of those place a bit less weight on mid-bass. The extra mid-bass emphasis of the Piston 2 – which still pales in comparison to that of the original Piston – gives it a very visceral punch. When comparing the Piston 2 to higher-end earphones, it can be hard to get over the difference in bass control, but against similarly-priced sets it continuously impresses.

The bass of the Piston 2 grants it a warm tone and full-bodied sound. Overall, while the Piston 2 is a v-shaped earphone, the fullness prevents its midrange from sounding overly recessed. Clarity is good considering the bass quantity – even earphones with significantly more forward mids, such as the Fidue A63 and T-Peos D200R, don’t have a clarity advantage over the Piston 2. The only ones that do are brighter, thinner (and also harsher)-sounding sets with more recessed lower mids, for example the Philips TX2, MOE-SS01, and T-Peos Rich200.

The Piston 2 is not your typical v-shaped earphone in one other way – its upper midrange and treble are surprisingly smooth and refined. The top end has some sparkle, but is still sufficiently forgiving. Maybe not as much as the Sony MH1C, Fidue A63, and HiFiMan RE-400, which all have more laid-back treble, but more than a $25 earphone should be. Tonally, the Piston 2 can’t even be called “bright”, though it does have a little more treble energy than the Sony MH1C. Ditto on the T-Peos D200R – the Piston 2 has more of both sparkle and upper treble presence, which gives it an airier sound.

Thanks to its ample treble presence and generally good clarity, the Piston 2 has a wide and open presentation. It is similar in soundstage size to the brighter-sounding MOE-SS01 and superior to sets such as the SteelSeries Flux and T-Peos D200R. At the same time, the presentation has good depth and is capable of sounding quite forward when necessary. The Sony MH1C, for example, has a pretty good soundstage but sounds consistently laid-back compared to the Piston 2.

Select Comparisons

Xiaomi Piston 1.0 (discontinued)

Xiaomi responded to the popularity of the original Piston earphones with a number of improvements. In addition to fixing many of the design issues, the sound was re-tuned and a much larger port was opened up on the back of the Piston 2 in place of the small bottom-facing vent on the old Piston.

The result of the new tuning is significantly less bloated bass – the Piston 2 makes its predecessor sound boomy, and while it is not in any way bass-light, it won’t tickle bassheads’ fancy the way the original might have. Thanks to the tighter bass of the Piston 2, its midrange is nowhere near as muffled and the treble is a little more prominent, though also a touch less forgiving. The presentation is more open, too, although the original Piston already did an excellent job in that regard. All in all, with the exception of having less bass quantity, the Piston 2 is a clear step forward from the outgoing model.

VSonic VSD1S ($50)

In the world of portable Hi-Fi, the VSD1S from VSonic is a budget earphone, but it still costs twice as much as the Piston. It’s also an extremely solid set for the price, so the fact that the Piston 2 can go toe-to-toe in sound quality is a paradigm shift of sorts.

The Piston 2 is bassier and warmer than the VSD1S, thanks in large part to its greater deep bass presence. The two are pretty evenly-matched in mid-bass impact, but the VSD1S can appear punchier at times thanks to the more recessed mids. The bass quality of the Xiaomi lags behind the VSonic unit a bit – while more extended, the low end of the Piston 2 is a little bloated and can appear somewhat intrusive next to the VSD1S.

The midrange of the VSD1S is a little thinner and more recessed compared to the warmer mids of the Piston 2. It is also clearer, however, and does a better job of staying free of bass bleed, especially on complex tracks. Moving up, the VSD1S is more peaky, which makes it brighter and a touch more sibilance-prone. The Piston is smoother and more forgiving, though not by a large margin. In terms of presentation, both sound nice and airy but the VSD1, like VSonic’s higher-end models, tends towards a wider, less intimate soundstage.

RBH EP1 ($149)

Looking for a higher-end earphone to compare to the Piston 2, I came across the RBH EP1, which provides a rather different variant of warm, bassy sound. The EP1 impressed me originally with the prominence and clarity of its midrange, and that certainly hasn’t changed. Compared to the Xiaomi unit, its midrange is much more forward and quite a bit clearer. Its bass is also much more controlled in comparison.

The Piston is bassier than the EP1, but also more bloated and boomy. This makes its midrange – which is already less forward than that of the EP1 – sound veiled. The tone of the Piston is warmer and its sound is more full-bodied, making the EP1 sound thin in comparison. The EP1 also has more presence in the upper midrange and lower treble, but not in a good way – it still isn’t particularly well-balanced, and sounds rather more harsh than the Xiaomi to boot. Impressively, the Piston’s soundstage is as big as that of the EP1, though on tracks with lots of bass it tends to become congested more quickly.

Dunu DN-2000 ($315)

Just for fun, I pitted the Piston 2 against an earphone approximately 12 times more expensive, a flagship in-ear monitor with a hybrid driver setup that utilizes a dynamic driver for bass and two balanced armatures for the midrange and treble. This comparison is highly unfair, but also interesting because it is the only one I  made where the Piston was clearly outclassed – an extremely impressive showing for the $25 Xiaomi.

Next to the DN-2000, with its 3-way crossover and independent subwoofer, the bass of the Pistons sounds boomy and has way too much mid-bass bloat. The DN-2000 has a focus on sub-bass rather than mid-bass and sounds much tighter and more controlled. It is also much clearer – the bass bleed of the Xiaomi makes its mids sound overly thick and muffled. This, in turn, causes it to gloss over a good bit of detail in comparison to the faultlessly resolving DN-2000.

The Piston has a more full-bodied sound, but lacks crispness. Especially in the treble, it seems like parts of the spectrum are so timidly reproduced that they are almost missing. The DN-2000, while much less forgiving, makes for a better reference earphone by far. The soundstage of the Piston seems congested while the DN-2000 has a wider, more open, more out-of-the-head sound.  Tonality, however, is one area where I can see some listeners preferring the warmer Piston 2 to the brighter DN-2000. 

Value (10/10) – Making sizable performance gains over its predecessor, the Xiaomi Piston 2 offers a solid construction, 3-button Android remote, and sound that’s all but flawless for the price and purpose. While higher-end in-ears can point out where the audio quality of the Piston 2 falls slightly short, in the age of internet radio this really may be all the fidelity many users need. With the dearth of choices among full-featured Android headsets at this time, the Xiaomi Piston 2 is a bargain, and a must-have for any Android user.

Pros: Fantastic sound quality for the price; 3-button Android remote; many usability improvements over Piston 1.0
Cons: Wide housings not ideal for small ears; flimsy stock tips; mediocre isolation


Edited by ljokerl - 8/22/14 at 9:03am
post #3 of 14587
Thread Starter 

Tier 3A ($30-60)

 

 

(3A1) RadioPaq Jazz


Reviewed Nov 2009

 

Details: One of the four RadioPaq IEMs ‘acoustically tuned’ for different genres
Current Price £30 from AdvancedMp3Players.co.uk (MSRP: £60.00)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 120 dB | Freq: 18-20k Hz | Cord: 3.9’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock tips, VSonic $2 foamies
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (1/5) – Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (4/5) – Metal housings have a very solid feel and classy looks. Metal nozzle is very sturdy although the lack of filters is pretty odd-looking. Cabling is strong but plasticky and a cable cinch is nowhere to be found
Isolation (2.5/5) – Fat housings make it difficult to get a deep seal but they can isolate well even with stock tips if a good fit is achieved
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Pretty average when worn cord-down, much better over-the-ear
Comfort (2.5/5) – Shells are quite large and weighty. Insertion is shallow and they can sometimes break seal or even fall out, requiring re-insertion. If inserted deeply enough the edges of the housings can hurt ears

Sound (6.8/10) – Sound is warm and dynamic. Definitely cannot be called analytical, but can be more fun than the proverbial barrel of monkeys. Soundstage is just a bit wider than average but instrumental separation is quite good. The high end boasts good extension and plenty of detail for a budget-oriented dynamic IEM but has some peaks. The mids also boast good detail and clarity but are somewhat recessed compared to the bass and treble. They need a very good seal for the optimal bass experience, but can be incredibly deep and smooth. Bass often feels layered over the mids rather than integrated, yielding a pretty unique sound signature. The treble can be slightly hot-tempered on some tracks but remains sibilance-free nevertheless.

Amplification – not required to enjoy the smooth, easy-going sound. However, a good neutral amp will bring out more detail and make the Jazz more accurate and balanced all-around performers.

Value (8.5/10) – The Jazz is a very interesting earphone at its price point. It provides a big, powerful, smooth, and warm sound that keeps it true to its name, and does all this at a bargain-basement price. Should be especially high on the short-list for European Head-Fiers who may have an easier time acquiring one of these than, say, a Nuforce or Maximo product. Price fluctuates wildly, so adjust accordingly. At the lowest-to-date £27 price, these are nothing short of unbeatable.

Pros: Good looking, sturdy, lots of fun, excellent bass and very smooth-sounding overall
Cons: Lacks accessories, large size can lead to fit issues

 

 

(3A2) Nuforce NE-6 / NE-7M


Reviewed Nov 2009

 

Details: Long-time head-fi favorite budget dynamic earphone
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $39); $49 for NE-7M with microphone
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 12 Ω | Sens: 100 dB | Freq: 20-22k Hz | Cord: 3.9’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Comply T400, Soundmagic Bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2.5/5) – Pleather carrying pouch and silicone single-flange tips (three sizes)
Build Quality (3/5) – Shell is made out of plastic with a metal insert. It feels fairly solid but there are numerous reports of shell splitting at the metal/plastic interface, which happened to my set as well
Isolation (3.5/5) – Fairly deep fit for solid isolation. Comply tips help further
Microphonics (4/5) – Very low when worn over-the-ear, but still not too bad otherwise
Comfort (4/5) – Straight-barrel IEM with a fairly long body. Stemless design very conducive to over-the-ear fit

Sound (6.1/10) – Not always pitch-perfect but still lots of fun, the NE-7M is smooth, with slight treble roll-off and a voluminous bottom end. Despite the good overall balance, somewhat long decay times at the bottom end give the impression of greater bass quantity. The low end does extend quite deep, though with a noticeable mid-bass emphasis. The midrange is smooth and enjoyable, boasting good clarity and realistic tone. The highs are not too detailed but also not at all fatiguing, rolling off gently near the very top. Overall the sound is a little too colored for my liking but I am sure there are many head-fiers who will find their perfect budget earphone in the NE-6.

Value (8.5/10) – Though not in a field of its own like it was a year ago, the Nuforce NE-6 and NE-7M are still safe choices in the $50 range. They do nearly everything right and manage to retain the fun factor without significant sacrifices to SQ. And let’s not forget Nuforce’s excellent customer service.

Pros: Comfortable, low microphonics, very solid sound characteristics
Cons: May be too colored for some, not too strong in the highs, common build issues



(3A3) JVC HA-FX300 “Bi-Metals”

 

Reviewed Nov 2009

 

Details: JVC’s mid-range IEM featuring a bi-metal construction
Current Price: $50 from Amazon.com (MSRP: $99.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 100 dB | Freq: 8-25k Hz | Cord: 3.3’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Comply T400
Wear Style: Over-the-ear

Accessories (3/5) – Egg-shaped hardcase and asymmetric silicone single-flange tips (three sizes)
Build Quality (4/5) – Very solid all-metal housing; cabling is identical to the low-end JVC models, which is a bit disappointing at this price point
Isolation (3/5) – Not designed for deep insertion but the included asymmetric tips do a good job of compensating for the shallow fit. Foamies work better still.
Microphonics (4/5) – Low due in part to forced over-the-ear design. Same cabling as other JVC models
Comfort (4/5) – Shells sit in the ear nicely, but could be too large for some. Insertion can be challenging due to the round housing and the way the nozzle is angled

Sound (4.3/10) – Medium-size soundstage with very good positioning. Sound is slightly cold and metallic, but very dimensional and can be quite fun. Unfortunately, it can also be very tiring with hard rock and metal. Good high-end extension and detail, but treble can sound artificially sharp, especially with silicone tips. I believe the proper term is ‘edgy’. The mids also boast good detail and clarity but are somewhat hollow-sounding and metallic, making the whole midrange sound recessed. The bass is punchy, but not very powerful, missing the ‘oomph’ of some other phones. Accuracy is good but extension could be better.

Value (6.5/10) – At $50, the FX300s are another solid earphone from JVC, but as with the lower-end models better options can sometimes be had for the price. Sound can be characterized as somewhat bright and aggressive, sometimes harsh. Foam tips help tone down the timbre a bit. Not recommended for hard rock and metal listeners.

Pros: Solid construction, comfortable, low microphonics, good detail and clarity
Cons: Slightly bright with odd peaks in frequency response, can be tiring



(3A4) MEElectronics M11


Reviewed Nov 2009

 

Details: New MEElectronics flagship. A version with a microphone is also available.
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $44.99)

pecs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cord: 4.6’ 45°-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock Bi-flanges, Soundmagic PL30 Foamies
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or Straight down

Accessories (4.5/5) – Hard clamshell carrying case, cord wrap, airplane adapter, shirt clip, and single- (three sizes), bi-, and tri-flange silicone tips
Build Quality (4.5/5) – For the price, the build is sublime. Housing is all-metal and has a very solid and weighty feel while at the same time maintaining a feel of being delicately machined. The cable is the same thick and flexible design found on all Meelec IEMs. The only issue with my (silver) set is that the L/R markings printed in a tiny white font are nearly impossible to see under certain lighting.
Isolation (3.5/5) – The housing is very narrow and they lend themselves well to deep insertion. However, they sound better inserted shallowly with the bi-flanges or foam tips and still isolate quite well
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Nearly non-existent whether worn cord-up or cord-down
Comfort (4.5/5) – This is about as good as conventional straight-barrel IEMs get. The housing is tiny but easy to grip when inserting/removing

Sound (4.4/10) – A more conventional sound signature than the M6 and M9, the M11 is smooth, thick, and intimate but lacks the detail and refinement of the M6. Sound is very dependent on the tips used. Soundstage is lacking but positioning is precise. Certain tips (e.g. Comply foams) can make it sound distant and uninvolving. Good high-end extension but too laid back for my taste. The mids are a little warm, but still very pleasant. Bass is smooth and powerful with a fair amount of reach and decent definition. Overall, they are smoother, warmer, and darker compared to the M6. They would be an interesting alternative but some of the detail and all of the sparkle is lost in the differences.

Value (7.5/10) – At $36, the M11 is a competitive entry. While slightly below the older M6 SQ-wise, its extreme user-friendliness and stellar build quality make it worth a look. It is one of the most well-designed IEMs I have encountered, and we can only hope that MEElectronics can keep improving their lineup to breed even more well-rounded earphones.

Pros: Outstanding build quality, no microphonics, good bass
Cons: Not as resolving or detailed as the M6



(3A5) Soundmagic PL50

 

Reviewed Nov 2009

 

Details: Soundmagic’s flagship IEM and first Armature-based design
Current Price: $55 from Focalprice.com (MSRP: $55)
Specs: Driver: BA | Imp: 55.5 Ω | Sens: 109 dB | Freq: 15-22k Hz | Cable: 3.9’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrids
Wear Style: Over-the-ear

Accessories (4.5/5) – Hard carrying case, a set of over-the-ear cable guides and a large selection of single-flange silicone and foam tips
Build Quality (4/5) – Housings are tiny and very, very light. The cables are fairly thick, rubberized, and feature articulated strain reliefs at the y-joint and an L-plug. An early batch had problems with removing the stock foam tips, which sometimes resulted in splitting, but this has been resolved.
Isolation (2.5/5) – Not bad at all but the design does not allow a very deep fit
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Pretty much nonexistent
Comfort (5/5) – With properly-fitting tips these are some of the most comfortable IEMs out there. The tiny size and low profile make it easy to forget about them

Sound (6.9/10) – The sound signature of these is a little different from most of the other IEMs I’ve tried in the price range. Instead of focusing specifically on the bass, the highs, or both, the PL50’s single balanced armature surprises with the smoothness and evenness of response across its entire (rather wide) frequency range. Extension on both ends is quite a bit better than average – on par, if not better than, the better dynamics, which is surprising for a single armature setup, especially at such a low price point. I can see some people finding them bass light, and truly they don’t have any significant humps in the low-end response, but it is very detailed and can be felt as well as heard. Same goes for the highs – just a tiny bit of sparkle, no emphasis. If I had to attribute a term to these, I would call them mid-centric just because nothing draws attention away from the silky-smooth, liquid midrange. Soundstage is above average, but not as airy as the lower-end PL30. Imaging, however, is superb – easily as good as it gets for the price. Overall, the sound they produce is very, very effortless. They are one of the least tiring earphones to listen to in my experience and also very forgiving of poor source material.

Amping: Good if it can be used as a hardware equalizer (i.e. a Fiio E5 with bass boost for those craving more bass), but these are quite efficient and don’t need one in general. They do respond very well to software equalization and can be molded to fit individual preferences quite well.

Value (8.5/10) – With their unbeatable comfort, excellent accessory set, low microphonics, good build quality, and smooth sound I find very hard to find any cons whatsoever in these for the price. The sound may not be for everyone, but for what they offer they are incredible. I do recommend using them with Sony Hybrid tips, which add about $10 on top of the price but color the sound less than stock foamies and seal better than stock silicone tips.

Pros: Astonishingly comfortable, useful accessory pack, very practical, excellent sound
Cons: Laid back, mid-centric sound signature may be boring to some


More Impressions can be found here


(3A6) Cyclone PR1 Pro

 

Reviewed Nov 2009

 

Details: Discontinued IEM from Chinese manufacturer Cyclone, succeeded by the PR100 and PR200 under their new ECCI brand
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $55)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32 Ω | Sens: 106 dB | Freq: 20-22k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ I-plug j-cord
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock Bi-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (3.5/5) – Silicone single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange tips, small clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (3/5) – Housing is made of metal and sturdy plastic. Metal filters are nice but the lack of strain reliefs is a cause for concern
Isolation (3/5) – Ported but still adequately isolating, especially with bi-flange tips; slightly susceptible to wind noise
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Nearly non-existent
Comfort (4/5) – Very typical of straight barrel IEMs. I find them light and comfortable. J-cord can be a bother

Sound (7.4/10) –These have a very natural presentation. The soundstage is very wide and airy, with good positioning and separation. They have tremendous clarity across the range and the level of detail they put out, though not on-par with the RE0, is impressive. They have very gradual roll-off at both ends, which results in well-controlled high and low notes. No harsh treble or bass bloat here. I like the bass especially – it can go down pretty deep, but it never imposes and always stays musical. Their unique, gentle signature really agrees with me and works especially well with live recordings, acoustic music, and anything else that can take advantage of the incredible soundstage.

Value (8.5/10) – The PR1 Pro is stellar value for money when it comes to audio quality. The unique sound signature alone makes them worth the price of admission = there is nothing else in their category that can match the wide open feel of these Unfortunately, the j-cord can be bothersome and many similarly-priced sets offer better build quality.

Pros: Wide, airy sound, great clarity and instrumental separation, comfortable
Cons: Lack strain reliefs on the cords, j-corded


Full review can be found here

More impressions and a comparison to several competitors can be found here


(3A7) Skullcandy TiTan


Reviewed Nov 2009

 

Details: Skullcandy’s latest creation hailed by HeadRoom as a 5-star value
Current Price: $30 from amazon.com (MSRP: $49.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Comply T400
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (3.5/5) – Mesh clamshell case, single flange silicone tips (Medium), and 2 pairs of Comply T400 foamies. I don’t understand the case since it protects from neither significant impact nor dust
Build Quality (3/5) – Housings are metal and look pretty solid but still somehow feel cheap. The biggest problem is the “strain reliefs” on housing entry – they are made out of a hard, sharp-edged plastic that’s bound to damage cables over time. The strain relief on the plug isn’t much better. Cabling is a little thin but nicely rubberized and doesn’t tangle much.
Isolation (2.5/5) – Ported; comply tips help isolation quite a bit
Microphonics (3/5) – Very microphonic when worn straight-down. Over-the-ear is fine though
Comfort (2.5/5) – The big metal bulge on the housings hurts my ears after I wear them cable down for more than an hour. Over-the-ear is much better but I still prefer straight-barrel designs

Sound (4.1/10) – The sound is tolerable. As expected, bass is their focus. I don’t mind big bass when it’s done right, but the Titans are only halfway there. While an improvement over the Ink’d, the bass is still fairly muddy, fat, and slow. The treble is harsh with the stock silicone tips but can be toned down a little with the (included) Comply T400 foamies. The mids are somewhat dry and can boast some clarity but very little detail. Though terms such as “soundstage” and “positioning” are not applicable here, these don’t sound anywhere near as flat as the Ink’d buds – in fact, they are quite full-sounding and dimensional with that massive bass impact - but they are still very confused about where and how far away things are.

Value (5/10) – They may well be the best-sounding earphone Skullcandy has ever made, but in pure sound quality they are easily beaten by other manufacturers’ similarly-priced offerings. Still, they are a step in the right direction from the Ink’d and FMJ and I am sure that like any Skullcandy product these will often receive massive markdowns, raising their relative value. Do keep in mind that they sound much better with the included Comply tips, replacing which can become costly very quickly.

Pros: Big bass, included Comply tips
Cons: Big bass, harsh treble, painful and microphonic when worn cable-down, longevity concerns


Full review can be found here


(3A8) Apple Dual-Driver IEMs (ADDIEM)


Reviewed Dec 2009

 

Details: Apple’s ‘premium’ earphone; one of the cheapest dual-armature IEMs on the market
Current Price: $57 from bhphotovideo.com (MSRP: $79.99)
Specs: Driver: Dual BA | Imp: 23 Ω | Sens: 109 dB | Freq: 5-21k Hz | Cable: 4.6’ I-plug
Nozzle Size:4 mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrids, Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (2.5/5) - Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes) and plastic case
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The front parts of the housings are metal while the rear parts are plastic. Earphones feel well-put together but the cabling is thin and generic. Attention to detail is impressive – Filters can be removed for cleaning, L/R markings are easier to read than most, and the three sets of tips are labeled with their sizes
Isolation (2.5/5) – Average isolation; quite reasonable for my commute
Microphonics (4/5) – Slightly present when worn straight down; very low when worn over-the-ear
Comfort (4/5) – The housings are very small and light. The long stem makes it a little awkward to wear them cord-up but the fit is absolutely effortless cord-down

Sound (6.5/10) – The sound is analytical and highly detailed. The dual armatures can really dissect a piece of music into fine details and still manage to maintain coherency. The clarity is outstanding for the price and the whole signature is a bit relaxed. I really like the sound these put out – the treble and upper mids are very crisp, the bass is fairly tight and doesn’t creep up, and instrumental separation is good. The mids are nowhere near as liquid as those produced by the other budget BA phone in my possession – the Soundmagic PL50 – and soundstaging is pretty average. They might sound a little “thin” to some but that’s inherent to the signature – for an analytical signature on a budget I can’t find much fault with them.

Value (8/10) – At the MSRP there are certainly other options out there. However, at the common ebay price of ~$35 these are an excellent earphone to be had. They make a lot of the competition sound muddy and congested but at the same time aren’t cold enough in tone to turn off the average listener. The well-thought-out, tiny housings make these a pleasure to use and the functionality doesn’t lag far behind the ergonomics.

Pros: Nice design touches, very comfortable, some of the crispest sound to be had, iPhone controls may be handy for apple users
Cons: Included case can be a pain to use, hard to wear over-the-ear, may be bass-light for some



(3A9) Maximo iMetal iM-390 / iP-HS3


Reviewed Dec 2009

 

Details: Maximo’s entry-level earphone
Current Price: $33 from amazon.com (MSRP: $39.99); $35 for iP-HS3 with mic
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: 100 dB | Freq: 18-22k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (4/5) – Hard carrying case with cable winder, 3.5mm to 2.5mm adapter, 2’ extension cable, airline adapter, and single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (3/5) – Housings are metal and feel pretty solid. The biggest problem is the lack of strain relief on housing entry. The cabling itself is on the plasticky side as well, but doesn’t seem too thin. A cable cinch is auspiciously missing and driver flex often rears its ugly head.
Isolation (2.5/5) – Slightly above average isolation even with stock silicone tips
Microphonics (3/5) – Present when worn straight-down but much better over-the-ear
Comfort (2.5/5) – The big metal bulge on the housings hurts my ears after I wear them cable down for more than an hour. Over-the-ear is much better but I still prefer straight-barrel designs

Sound (4.6/10) – The sound of the iM-390 is fairly run-of-the-mill as far as budget dynamic-driver IEMs go. It is lively, punchy, and warm. The warmth can sometimes cause the tonality of instruments to be a bit unrealistic and the overall lack of detail doesn’t help, but other than that I don’t find them lacking in anything. The tight, impactful bass is fun; the soundstage is about average and features decent positioning; the balance doesn’t seem biased much in any direction, though the treble is slightly recessed. An enjoyable signature overall, and one that bests the similarly-priced and similar-looking Skullcandy Titans in my book.

Value (6/10) – With a solid set of accessories, decent build quality, and good overall sound the Maximo iM-390 is a competitive earphone in its category. However, the $33 street price is too close to that of Maximo’s higher-end earphone, the iM-590, which bests the iM-390 in every way. I can’t help but feel that the iM-390 would be better off competing at a lower price point, not because it can’t run with the big dogs, but because it’s being pummeled by its own big brother.

Pros: great accessory pack, good sound
Cons: driver flex, can be uncomfortable when worn cable-down



(3A10) Maximo iMetal iM-590 / iP-HS5


Reviewed Dec 2009

 

Details: Maximo’s current flagship and one of my long-time favourite sub-$50 IEMs
Current Price: $42 from amazon.com (MSRP: $59.99); $55 for iP-HS5 with mic
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: 100 dB | Freq: 18-22k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: stock fused bi-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (4.5/5) – Hard carrying case with cable winder, 3.5mm to 2.5mm adapter, 2’ extension cable, airline adapter, shirt clip, and fused bi-flange silicone tips (4 sizes)
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The metal housings, nylon-sheathed cable, and molded rubber strain reliefs all give the iM-590 a quality feel. There is a bit of driver flex and the rubber molding could potentially become detached from the metal, but overall the iM-590s really feel like a quality product. The cable has a tendency to kink (even more than most nylon cables) but doesn’t tangle much
Isolation (3/5) – Quite decent with the fused bi-flanges and can be improved slightly with a simple mod (all credit to ClieOS)
Microphonics (3/5) – Microphonics are present when worn straight-down but nearly unnoticeable when worn over-the-ear. The included shirt clip helps as well
Comfort (4/5) – The driver-containing bulge on the housing is smaller and farther from the nozzle than on the lower-end iM-390. It is also concealed by the unique fused bi-flange silicone tips and as a result does not cause discomfort. Aside from the bulge they are relatively thin straight-barrel IEMs and are fittingly comfy

Sound (6.6/10) – The iM-590 first impressed me many months ago when I used a set as my primary day-to-day IEMs. I am glad to say that despite my now having a much larger IEM stable and far more experience under my belt, the iM-590 still sounds just as good today. The sound is smooth, natural, and very detailed. The neutrality of the iM-590 is uncanny when compared to the majority of the competition, yet they still manage to remain fun and involving. The bass is tight, precise, and just right in quantity. It is also quite deep and will go below 40Hz rolling off only slightly. Actually, extension on both ends is quite impressive – nearly as good as the RE0 on the bottom and pretty respectable at the top. The mids are realistic and well-positioned. The entire sound is quite wide and airy, with impressive clarity and good separation. The highs are fairly crisp and as clear as the rest of the range. If there’s one bone to pick with these is that they can be a tiny bit sibilant at high volumes due to some spikes in the upper mids/lower treble, but other than that they are an excellent choice for anyone looking for a more analytical sound from an IEM.

Value (8.5/10) – With an excellent accessory pack, solid build quality, and an extremely balanced and enjoyable sound the Maximo iM-590 remains one of my favorite sub-$50 in-ears. They are a downright stellar value for money and have only small flaws – a bit of driver flex, a kink-prone cable, and slight microphonics – that keep them from beating out the Meelectronics earphones and the Soundmagic PL50s in user-friendliness. What I like most, though, is the innovation that went into the design of the iM-590s – from the unique housings to the fused biflange tips to the combined split-slider/shirt clip, the iM-590s seem anything but formulaic in the crowded land of budget earphones.

Pros: great accessory pack, great sound quality, solid build quality and comfort
Cons: some driver flex, need to be worn over-the-ear due to microphonics, cable can kink



(3A11) Zune Premium Headphones V2


 

Reviewed Dec 2009

 

Details: Microsoft’s answer to the ADDIEMs – a ‘premium’ earphone for the Zune
Current Price: $40 from Radioshack (MSRP: $49.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: N/A | Cable: 3.9’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: stock single flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (3/5) – Velvet carrying pouch and single flange silicone tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (2.5/5) – The housings are made of a lightweight matte plastic. While there are no technical flaws in the molding, I struggle not to call them downright cheap-feeling. The magnets in the housings are a nice touch and help keep the earphones neat. The cloth-wrapped cords are a redeeming factor but the lack of proper strain reliefs makes one wonder how long they will last
Isolation (3/5) – Surprisingly good for a low-end dynamic IEM
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Present when worn straight-down but unnoticeable when worn over-the-ear
Comfort (3/5) – The hous/iings are extremely light and can be worn either cord-up or cord-down. People with smaller ears may have trouble getting a good seal with these, but I like them just fine

Sound (4.2/10) – The most surprising thing about the sound produced by the Zune buds is just how nondescript the signature is. The sound is quite balanced and neutral – really very inoffensive. The bass is there and neither lacking nor excessive. The treble is neither shrill nor sparkly. I like the fact that these aren’t mainstream-oriented bass cannons but still manage to be fun at times. Clarity is quite good but they could certainly be more detailed. The presentation is also a bit two-dimensional (not much depth), sometimes resulting in a ‘flat’ sound, but the stereo cues are still very easy to grasp. Overall the Zune buds are good performers but lack a musical ‘personality’ that would differentiate them from the competition.

Value (5/10) – While the Zune buds are respectable performers as far as low-end aftermarket earphones go, the $50 MSRP is not justified by the mediocre build and plain sound. At $20 the Zune buds would be top competitors. At the current price, the magnets just feel like a gimmick designed to drive up the value of an otherwise mediocre product.

Pros: Inoffensive, balanced sound; magnets are handy for storage
Cons: currently overpriced, mediocre build



(3A12) Klipsch Custom 1


Reviewed Jan 2010

 

Details: Klipsch’s budget single-armature earphone
Current Price: $60 from amazon.com (MSRP: $129.99)
Specs: Driver: BA | Imp: 30 Ω | Sens: 108 dB | Freq: 12-19k Hz | Cable: 4.2’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 3.5mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrids
Wear Style: Over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) – Silicone single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange (2 sizes) tips, cleaning tool, and hard carrying case
Build Quality (2.5/5) – The housings are rubber-covered plastic and quite well-made. The memory wire acts as a strain relief and the y-split and L-plug are both very impressive. The cabling, however, is atrocious. It kinks and tangles endlessly and would be the bane of my existence if these were my primary earphones
Isolation (3.5/5) – The long, steeply angled nozzles allow the C1 to be inserted quite deeply with smaller tips, resulting in impressive isolation.
Microphonics (2.5/5) – Quite unpleasant despite these being worn over-the-ear and having a ‘memory wire’ configuration
Comfort (4/5) – Can’t fault the Customs here – they fit in the ear rather snugly and unobtrusively, not unlike the JVC AirCushions. Persons with smaller ears may find them harder to wear

Sound (4.7/10) –If the frequency response rating of the Custom 1 is to be believed, the single armature is tuned slightly towards the low end to combat the usual bass-light nature of single-armature setups. Bass is indeed present and fairly extended but lacks punch and texture. It’s very tight but too cold for my liking and lacks presence. The midrange is where the strengths of the Custom 1 lie – it’s clear, articulate, smooth, and very musical. Vocals are airy, have good tonal balance, and are well-positioned in the medium-sized stage. Getting up into the high end, though, the C1s again stray away from my expectations. The treble lacks detail and sparkle, as well as dimensionality - the high end is where these quite literally fall flat for me. They can also be unpleasantly bright and edgy, bringing out harshness/sibilance in some tracks. The low impedance of these also results in high amounts of hiss with some amps and sources when running them without an adapter.

Value (6.5/10) – The current price point of the Klipsch is about right for them to be mildly competitive. The MSRP is excessive for the lackluster sound these single armatures put out. The atrocious cabling helps seal their place in earphone mediocrity but the quirky treble is the real downfall for me. While by no means bad earphones, they just don’t stack up to my many of the dynamics in the price range and can be extremely fatiguing with much of my hard rock and metal. Lovers of vocal genres may want to give these a go but the rest of us would likely do better to pass.

Pros: Comfortable, well-isolating, lush and airy midrange
Cons: Downright awful cabling, excessive microphonics, presence of hiss, lackluster bass & treble



(3A13) VSonic R02ProII

6980bf5d_vsonicr02proii400x300.jpg
Reviewed Feb 2010

 

Details: The last earphone released by large Chinese OEM VSonic before the company split
Current Price: $40 from ebay.com
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 24 Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 12-25k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ 45°-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock Bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (3/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips, pleather carrying pouch, and shirt clip
Build Quality (4.5/5) – The bare housings are shared with the Cyclone PR1 Pro and Lear LE01+ but with an additional rubber strain relief on cord entry. The cabling is different as well – the Teflon-coated silver cable is soft, smooth, tangle-resistant, and has just enough memory character to make it easy to manage
Isolation (3/5) – Very adequately isolating for a ported dynamic IEM, especially with bi-flange tips
Microphonics (4/5) – The silver cable doesn’t conduct much noise and the included shirt clips helps
Comfort (3.5/5) – Quite comfortable when worn straight down but the long strain reliefs prevent over-the-ear wear. Can be inserted fairly deeply with the biflange tips.

Sound (6.4/10) – The R02ProII is the last revision of VSonic’s flagship released before the company split up. Though VSonic is an OEM for quite a few earphones in this lineup, the sound signature of the R02 is unique, featuring an intimate soundstage and a decidedly in-head sound. The low end is impactful and surprisingly extended. Mid-bass is emphasized slightly but doesn’t throw off the balance. It does creep up slightly on the lower midrange, giving the sound some coloration. The mids are slightly warm and quite full. Both the midrange and treble are extremely smooth – definitely no sibilance here. Extension at the high end is better on the Cyclone PR1 and the Head-Direct RE2, but not by much. The smoothness also ends up glossing over some of the fine detail but the overall sound is very ‘likeable’, beating the far more popular Nuforce NE-6 and Head-Direct RE2 in my book.

Value (8.5/10) – The R02ProII falls in the same price category as the Cyclone PR1 but offers a very different sound – intimate, bassy, and slightly warm. It’s a very dynamic and likeable earphone and the revised build addresses the issues I had with the PR1, with proper strain reliefs all around and excellent cabling. For those in search of an all-around budget earphone with a slightly warm midrange and solid bass punch the R02ProII should be in the running.

Pros: Balanced, intimate, and slightly warm sound; excellent cabling
Cons: L/R markings hard to see, no cord cinch, susceptible to wind noise


More impressions and a comparison to several competitors can be found here


(3A14) Music Valley SP1

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Reviewed Feb 2010

 

Details: First model from Chinese manufacturer Music Valley, promisingly dubbed ‘Silver Prologue One’
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $55)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 39 Ω | Sens: 107 dB | Freq: 10-26k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Soundmagic Single Flange, Faux Hybrids
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2.5/5) – Imitation Sony Hybrid tips (3 sizes), Soundmagic-style foamies, and shirt clip
Build Quality (3/5) – Made completely out of plastic and with a cheap-feeling plasticky cable the SP1 does not impress. Lack of strain reliefs does not help
Isolation (2.5/5) – Oddly-shaped housings make isolation somewhat mediocre. Nozzle is not angled as it is on the similarly-shaped JVC HA-FXC50
Microphonics (3/5) – Can be bothersome when moving about
Comfort (3/5) – My problem with these is the same as with the JVC HA-FXC50 – when the plastic process on the side of the housing is hooked into the antitragus of my ear the plastic strain relief hurts the bottom of my ear quite badly. I find them hard to wear for more than an hour at a time unless I use longer tips and flip the housings upside down


Sound (6.6/10) – The sound of the SP1 does not disappoint - it is a very detailed and well-balanced earphone that falls just short of the Cyclone PR1 in overall clarity. Soundstaging is average but the sonic images are all where they need to be, with the vocals upfront and drums at the back. Bass is extended and tight with the right tips (fit is the limiting factor as the stock single-flange tips sound great but don’t seal for me). Low-end texturing is impressive and the quantity of bass makes low-end detail easier to distinguish than with the Cyclones. The mid-range is recessed slightly compared to the bass and on the dark side, but still quite lush and rich. Compared again to the Cyclones the midrange sounds thicker and more liquid at the expense of some of the clarity and instrumental separation, making them sound just a bit more congested. The treble is less extended and lacks sparkle. Overall, the SP1 are smooth and non-fatiguing, quite detailed, and with very punchy and well-behaved bass.

Value (6/10) – Though the MV SP1 offer a wider soundstage and a bit more detail than the VSonic R02ProII, they lack the usability factor of the R02. I would prefer a more conventional housing, which would alleviate the mediocre comfort and isolation issues. A nicer cable would do wonders as well. With rumors of a new Music Valley model on the horizon, the sound of the Silver Prologue One makes me quite anxious to hear the successor.

Pros: Smooth, dark, non-fatiguing sound
Cons: hit-or-miss comfort, tangle-prone cable, no cord cinch, may sound too dark for some


More impressions and a comparison to several competitors can be found here


(3A15) Lear Le01


Reviewed Feb 2010

 

Details: Entry-level earphone branded as a Lear and OEM’d by VSonic
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $35)

Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 20 Ω | Sens: 112 dB | Freq: 12-26k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock Bi-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (2/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips and shirt clip
Build Quality (2/5) – All-plastic version of the Cyclone PR1 Pro housing. No strain reliefs and the thin rubberized cable is quite tangle-prone
Isolation (3/5) – Very adequate for a ported dynamic IEM, especially with bi-flange tips
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Nearly non-existent when worn over-the-ear; very low otherwise
Comfort (4.5/5) – All-plastic housing is weightless and can easily be worn cord-up or cord-down

Sound (5.8/10) – The signature is quite flat and neutral but the tonal balance and texturing could be better. The Le01 are not bass-heavy earphones and lag slightly behind the Cyclones and other higher-end models in control and accuracy, sounding just a little boomy. Low-end extension isn’t quite on par with the VSonics and the Music Valleys. The midrange is forward in the average-sized soundstage and boasts good clarity, falling slightly behind the Cyclones. The treble is quite accurate and fairly extended, if somewhat grainy. All things considered I like the sound of the Le01. Considering the fact that it is a bottom-of-the-range earphone from a little-known Chinese company, the Le01 is a stellar performer.

Value (7.5/10) – Despite the low-rent plastic build, the Lear Le01 is a good all-around earphone that lacks the smoothness and refinement of higher-end models. It is one of the better-balanced earphones in the price range and a clear upgrade from the usual Soundmagic/JVC budget crop. Despite the lack of emphasis on bass and/or treble the Le01 still manages to sound fun and full, which alone makes it worthy of consideration in this price range.

Pros: Balanced and clear sound, very competent all-around
Cons: tangle-prone cabling, no cord cinch, mediocre construction


More impressions and a comparison to several competitors can be found here


(3A16) Lear Le01+


Reviewed Feb 2010

 

Details: ‘Pro’ version of the Le01, boasting better build quality and enhanced bass
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $50)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 40 Ω | Sens: 112 dB | Freq: 12-26k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock Bi-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (2.5/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips, Soundmagic-style black foamies, and shirt clip
Build Quality (3/5) – Same plastic/metal housing as the PR1 Pro and R02ProII but with half-length strain reliefs and the same thin, tangle-happy cord as the Le01
Isolation (3/5) – Very adequate for a ported dynamic IEM, especially with bi-flange tips
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Nearly non-existent when worn over-the-ear; very low otherwise
Comfort (4/5) – Just a bit heavier than the all-plastic Le01, the Le01+ is still a very comfortable IEM whether worn cord-up or cord-down

Sound (5.3/10) – The Le01+, besides offering a better build than the Le01, “improves” on the sound by adding a large mid-bass hump to the sound signature. Though the mid-bass is downright overpowering at times, the tuning also improves low-end extension and the Le01+ can drop below an impressive 25Hz. The boom found in the bass of the Le01 is magnified by the hump, which is also large enough to creep up on the lower midrange and makes them sound a good amount warmer and darker than the Le01. The resulting sound smoothes over some fine detail and causes a loss in the crispness of the Le01 but provides for a less grainy and ‘plasticky’ overall sound. The change from the Le01 is personally not to my liking but the signature of the Le01+ is certainly a more popular one.

Value (6/10) – The Le01+ is recommended only for die-hard bassheads. Tuned for the maximum possible mid-bass response, the resulting mountain of bass negatively affects mid-range detail, clarity, and separation. Though the sound becomes fuller and smoother, the drop in resolution is detrimental to my personal enjoyment of the earphones. I feel like the Le01 is more of an audiophile set despite its small flaws while the pricier and better-built Le01+ is geared toward the mainstream market.

Pros: Bassy, smooth, and more organic-sounding than the Le01
Cons: Mid-bass can be excessive, sound is not as clear and detailed as the Le01, tangle-prone cabling, no cord cinch


More impressions and a comparison to several competitors can be found here


(3A17) Ankit Stay True


Reviewed Mar 2010

 

Details: New line of fashion-conscious IEMs from Ankit
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $49.99)
Specs: Driver: N/A | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: N/A | Cable: 3.9’ I-plug
Nozzle Size:3mm| Preferred tips: Jays Single flanges
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (1/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (4/5) – Weighty housings made of a thick, sturdy plastic with metal designs attached. Cable is fairly thick and rubberized to reduce tangling but lacks strain relief
Isolation (3/5) – Insertion depth is quite good due to angled nozzles, yielding reasonable isolation
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Nearly nonexistent
Comfort (4/5) – Angled-nozzle design makes them quite comfortable for prolonged stretches

Sound (5.5/10) – Ankit’s marketing mumbo-jumbo lauds something called ‘G-Bass Technology’, which is said to reduce low-end clipping and provide deep, clear bass. Unexpectedly, I found these claims to be true to a surprising extent. The bass response can occasionally be slightly boomy, but no more than certain head-fi favorites and certainly not enough to make the Ankits sound unbalanced, remaining taut and dynamic most of the time. Sub-bass extension is very reasonable although there is a mid/upper-bass emphasis that gives a small amount of coloration to the midrange. Vocals are slightly on the warm side of neutral. Clarity is good and the mids are lush and thick, though some microdetail is glossed over. Treble presentation is soft, almost timid, but at least they steer far clear of sibilance. There are some peaks in the lower treble but not enough to cause harshness. Soundstaging is average, with adequate width and depth and decent separation. Drums are sometimes brought too far forward for my liking, but for the most part everything is positioned properly in the sonic stage. Overall, the sound is natural and boasts good dynamics and a surprising amount of clarity, definitely an enjoyable signature, even if it is not one to be used for monitoring purposes.

Value (7/10) – The Ankit Stay True earphones offer an ergonomic design, above-average isolation, solid build quality, and four unique visual styles. With sound quality to match their practicality, the Ankit earphones should not be dismissed as another blingy piece of jewelry for the Skullcandy generation. Smooth, natural, and very enjoyable, the sound is refined enough for these to be among IEMs to consider in the sub-$50 range. If turning heads is a priority alongside all of the usual concerns, the Ankit earphones might just beat out the best of the rest in the crowded market.

Pros: Comfortable, reasonable isolation, almost zero microphonics, unique looks, engaging and natural sound
Cons: Meager accessories, poor strain reliefs on cable


Full review can be found here


(3A18) ECCI PR200


Reviewed Mar 2010

 

Details: The pricier of the two ECCI models currently on the market, the PR200 is related very closely to its lower-end PR100 sibling

Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $45)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 55 Ω | Sens: 102 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock (wide-tube) single flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (3.5/5) - Narrow-tube (3 sizes) and wide-tube (3 sizes) single-flange silicone tips, shirt clip, and oversize clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – Sturdy two-piece metal shells feel solid and are finished in a handsome gunmetal color with the model name etched on the front. The dark-grey TPE (Thermoplastic Elastomer) cable is thick and sturdy, with proper strain reliefs on cable entry and a functional cord cinch. Sadly, the translucent hard plastic sheath on the 3.5mm plug is more likely to damage to the cord than protect it, tainting an otherwise excellent build
Isolation (3.5/5) – The extra long nozzles allow for deep insertion of the earphones, boosting isolation above what one would expect for a ported straight-barrel dynamic. On the downside, the bottom-facing vents make the earphones more susceptible than most to wind noise
Microphonics (3.5/5) –bothersome when worn cord-down; good otherwise
Comfort (4/5) – The extra-long sound tube allows the earphones to be inserted deeply without pressing the wearer’s ear into the housings - a good thing as the front edges of the shells are rather sharp. Short strain reliefs and elongated bodies make the earphones easy to wear cord-up as well as cord-down. Either way they are quite comfortable for prolonged listening sessions

Sound (5.9/10) – The sound of the PR200 is extremely similar to that of the lower-end PR100. It is similarly-balanced with tight bass, smooth mids, and relaxed treble. The differences between the two models are actually rather minute – the higher-impedance PR200 boasts better clarity, a smoother and more balanced frequency response, slightly better imaging, and deeper bass extension. It is also expectedly difficult to drive, requiring several more volume notches from my mp3 player and tightening up better with a portable amp than the PR100. The PR200 also exhibits no hiss with my netbook’s not-too-clean HPO while the 16Ω PR100 hisses slightly.

Value (7.5/10) – The ECCI PR200 is best summarized as a slightly-more-refined version of the cheaper PR100. Whether the price premium is justified is a personal preference. Make no mistake – the PR200 is the sonically superior earphone, but the competition is a bit stiffer at its price point than that of the PR100. If using the earphones with a not-so-clean source like a laptop or hissy DAP (e.g. Amp3), the PR200 is easily worth the extra money. But if the PR200 didn’t fit in my budget, I would not fret settling for the PR100.

Pros: Good isolation and build quality, comfortable, balanced sound
Cons: Microphonics can be bothersome


Full review can be found here.


(3A19) Audio-Technica ATH-CK6


Reviewed Apr 2010

 

Details: Mid-range dynamic-driver earphone from Audio-Technica
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $59.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 100 dB | Freq: 15-28k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size:N/A (Oval)| Preferred tips: Stock Single flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (3/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), detachable ear inserts (3 styles), and soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (3/5) – Housings are made of metal with oval-shaped plastic nozzles and paper filters. Though strain reliefs are excellent all-around, the cabling itself is hugely disappointing (especially coming from the excellent cables on the ATH-CK10) – thin, rubberized, and prone to kinking. The cable tangles itself into a ball of knots if you so much as think about it
Isolation (2/5) – Poor due to shallow insertion and vented design
Microphonics (3/5) – Cable is too energetic and tends to bounce around a lot. Lack of cord cinch and shirt clip means these have to be worn over-the-ear to be usable
Comfort (4/5) – Small, light housings make them very easy to wear. The rubber ear inserts can be used to further stabilize them but aren’t necessary

Sound (3.9/10) – Unfortunately the ATH-CK6 is decidedly underwhelming when it comes to sound quality. The bass lacks extension, is boomy, and becomes somewhat muddy on dense tracks. There is no definite moment of impact, which results in drums sounding too soft and at times hollow. The midrange is veiled and vocals lack both presence and smoothness. Treble is harsh and tiring. The entire signature lacks clarity and resolution. On the upside, they don’t sound closed and soundstaging is better than average. A small consolation but it made listening to them for a few days bearable.

Value (3.5/10) – I wanted to like Audio-Technica’s mid-range offering, I really did. But the ATH-CK6 suffers from mediocrity on all fronts, from isolation to sound to build quality. All things considered it’s just not a very strong competitor in an increasingly crowded field. The line is due for a refresh anyway and hopefully Audio-Technica will apply at least some of the design principles of their top-tier entries to the mid-range earphones.

Pros: Very small, light, and comfortable
Cons: Poor isolation, awful cable, no cable cinch, non-standard nozzle shape, mediocre sound

 

 

(3A20) ViSang R02 / Brainwavz ProAlpha

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Reviewed May 2010

 

Details: ViSang’s budget-oriented model, familiar in both sound and appearance
Current Price: $40 from ebay.com (MSRP: $45)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 20 Ω | Sens: 112 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.2' I-plug (note: latest version carries 45°-plug)
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock biflanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

 

Note: The mp4nation Brainwavz ProAlpha is identical to the R02 in every way except the 3.5mm plug (45-degree plug identical to that on the Beta Brainwavz is used on the ProAlpha)

Accessories (4/5) – Single- (3 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips, shirt clip, and clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – Generic IEM housings used by Cyclone/Lear/VSonic but with short functional strain reliefs. Cable is identical to that of the ViSang R03 – a twisted Cu-Ag alloy cord that is tough yet flexible but lacks a cable cinch and has some long-term memory character
Isolation (3/5) – Very adequate for a ported dynamic IEM, especially with bi-flange tips
Microphonics (4/5) – Slightly noticeable when worn cord-down, negligible otherwise
Comfort (4/5) – Lighter than the R03 and very unobtrusive despite the slightly larger housings. Can easily be worn cord-up or cord-down. Work best with a relatively shallow fit

Sound (6.7/10) – Like the R03, the R02 boast a full-bodied and weighty low end with an emphasis on mid- and upper bass. The low end is very smooth and calm, completely unobtrusive until called for. The tonal balance is slightly dark, with a warmed-up midrange and treble that is devoid of sparkle. The midrange is right where it needs to be, clean and clear and with no lack of emphasis. Detail is very good for the price, though the R02 is certainly no RE0, especially in the treble. Soundstage width is quite good and seems to be one of the areas in which the R02 has the R03 beat by a very narrow margin. Depth is similarly average, though instruments are very well-separated and imaged.

The midrange transitions effortlessly into the treble becoming a bit more laid-back along the way. Treble smoothness is very impressive and extension is perfectly tolerable, though not class leading. The treble is never fatiguing – harshness and sibilance are terms the R02 is not familiar with. Overall, the treble of both ViSang earphones takes a backseat to the bass and mids, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call them recessed at the top. Like the R03, the R02 also surprise with their speed, which is very close to the much more expensive and very fast Monster Turbines, and natural timbre, which really puts most of the other sub-$50 earphones to shame.

As for the differences between the two ViSang models, they are minute and most likely resulting from the different acoustic properties of their respective housings. The R03 sounds a little bit thicker and more ‘concentrated’ in tone, with the R02 sounding slightly more diffuse in comparison, with less immediate bass punch and more ethereal positioning. The R03 seems to place instruments with slightly more precision than the R02 but again the differences are extremely minute. I am sure there are head-fiers out there who would be able to tell the two apart without a direct comparison but I am not among them and the average consumer probably isn’t either.

Value (9/10) – The ViSang R02 is more than just another high bang/buck contender for the best sub-$50 IEM title. With the release of the R02, ViSang has nearly undercut their own higher-end R03 model and really taken the sub-$50 bang/buck crown from the defunct Cyclone PR1 Pro. The sonic differences between the two ViSang models are small. What it comes down to is the generic housings used on the R02 versus the excellent metal shells of the R03. The R02 housings are slightly larger in volume and look a bit bigger in the ear. There are other small differences – such as the R02 being slightly susceptible to wind noise – but for many users I would expect the R02 to be the better deal. 

Pros: Time-tested design, solid build quality, bi-flange tips included (unlike R03), solid sound quality
Cons: Cord has a bit of memory character

 

 

(3A21) Woodees IESW101B

 

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Reviewed May 2010

 

Details: Budget wooden earphone from Canadian car audio firm iConnects
Current Price: $42 from Amazon.com (MSRP: $69.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Comply T/Tx400
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (3/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (4 sizes), shirt clip, and black velour drawstring pouch
Build Quality (3/5) – The light housings don’t feel particularly solid next to other wooden earphones. The painted-on logos and L/R markings tend to rub off and the metal mesh filters are too small to cover the entire nozzle opening. The cable is thick and decently relieved but has a tendency to tangle
Isolation (3/5) – Fairly average due to shallow fit
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Present when worn cord-down, very low when worn over-the-ear
Comfort (3.5/5) – While very light, the housings of the Woodees are actually rather large. Those with smaller ears may have trouble getting a good fit. Despite the long strain reliefs they can be worn comfortably over-the-ear

Sound (6.6/10) – The sound of the IESW101B is quite similar to the Thinksound TS01. Compared head-to-head, the IESW101B are the more analytical earphone of the two. The bass is accented slightly but remains tight and punchy, with less extension but better linearity than the TS01. A slight bit of warmth is added to the midrange but bass bleed is kept to a minimum. Overall the mids are lush and smooth, not forward but not recessed, either. Detail and clarity are both on par with other sub-$50 IEMs and a bit more apparent on the Woodees than the Thinksounds. Towards the upper midrange/lower treble, the Woodees exhibit mild harshness/sibilance, accented by the brightness of the treble. Comply foam tips can help attenuate some of the treble peaks and bring a bit more balance to the sound. The upper-end extension of the Woodees is quite decent and the bright sound gives the illusion of even greater clarity and air. Soundstage width is quite good and instruments are evenly distributed, as opposed the competing Thinksounds, which boast better depth but a more intimate overall presentation.

Value (7.5/10) – The IESW101B are excellent earphones in their price bracket. Though the build could be better, they still feel like a quality product and compete well against other sub-$50 earphones. The lively sound signature is a good compromise between the more analytical sound of earphones like the ADDIEM and Head-Direct RE2 and the ‘fun’ signatures of the Thinksound TS01, Nuforce NE-6, and Meelec M6. Best of all, the sound qualities ascribed to the Woodees by the iConnects marketing team are not fluff – wooden housings or not, these earphones deliver.

Pros: Solid performance
Cons: Sloppy build quality, large housings, slightly harsh-sounding


For a more in-depth review and comparisons to the Thinksound TS01 see here.


(3A22) Thinksound TS01 / Thunder

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Reviewed May 2010

 

Details: The cheaper of Thinksound’s two wooden IEMs, the TS01 boasts enhanced bass response over the higher-end Rain
Current Price: $45 from Amazon.com (MSRP: $74.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Comply T/Tx400
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (3/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (4 sizes), shirt clip, and unbleached cotton drawstring pouch
Build Quality (4/5) – The wooden housings are accented by machined-aluminum nozzles. Combined with the etched L/R markings and general attention to detail, the Thinksounds have a very upmarket feel. The short strain reliefs are functional and the rubberized cable, despite being rather thin, doesn’t tangle much. The 3.5mm I-plug is well-relieved and sturdy. Mild driver flex is present
Isolation (3/5) – Fairly average due to massive rear vent
Microphonics (4/5) – Slightly bothersome when worn cord-down, very low worn over-the-ear
Comfort (4.5/5) – The housings of the TS01 are very small and taper towards the rear, cradling snugly in the ear. The TS01 is one of the few straight-barrel IEMs I can actually sleep in, which says quite a lot. The short strain reliefs are conducive to cord-up fitment

Sound (6.5/10) – Like the slightly cheaper Woodees IESW101B, the sound of the Thinksound TS01 is lush and full, with accented bass and warmed-up mids. The TS01 have better low-end extension, more convincing timbre, and better texturing than the Woodees, resulting in an even more full-bodied low end response. The hefty low end imparts a bit of coloration and warmth on the midrange, making it sound lush and sweet. The midrange is a bit veiled compared directly to the flatter and more even-sounding Woodees but in the context of the Thinksounds sound it is nothing to complain about. Like the Woodees, the Thinksounds exhibit some unevenness in the upper midrange and lower treble, leading to mild sibilance and a tiny bit of harshness. Occasionally the crack of a drum is really jarring with the TS01, more so due to the contrast with the extremely smooth and liquid nature of the bass and lower mids. Using foam tips helps soak up some of the roughness in the upper reaches. The treble is fairly prominent on the Thinksounds but not as bright as with the Woodees. The Thinksounds also boast impressive soundstage depth, resulting in a more ‘layered’ sound and greater dimensionality, but overall the TS01 is definitely an intimate-sounding earphone, which actually works rather well with the sound signature.

Value (8/10) – Though retailing for full MSRP at their inception, the Thinksounds have since fallen to a much more reasonable price. With their enhanced bass response, warm midrange, and intimate presentation the TS01 present a very coherent sonic picture that’s sure to appeal not only to audiophiles but to casual music listeners as well. Very comfortable and surprisingly well-built, the TS01 also compete well on the functionality front. Thinksound’s environmental angle adds value to the proposition but even those who don’t care are still getting a great set of earphones at a reasonable price.

Pros: Great aesthetics and attention to detail, solid performance, environmentally-friendly design & packaging
Cons: Mild driver flex, can be slightly sibilant with silicone tips


For a more in-depth review and comparisons to the Woodees IESW101B see here.


(3A23) Brainwavz M1

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Reviewed May 2010

 

Details: Latest budget offering from mp4nation’s house brand
Current Price: $40 from mp4nation.net (MSRP: $40)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32 Ω | Sens: 110 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.2’ 45°-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Generic biflanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (4/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), shirt clip, and hard clamshell case
Build Quality (3.5/5) - Housings are identical to those used by the Cyclone PR1 Pro – light and sturdy but lacking strain relief. The cable is identical to that of the ViSang R02/R03 – a twisted Cu-Ag alloy cord that is tough yet flexible. Unlike the ViSang earphones, however, the Brainwavz are terminated with a sturdy 45-degree plug
Isolation (3/5) – Very adequate for a ported dynamic IEM, especially with bi-flange tips
Microphonics (4/5) - Slightly noticeable when worn cord-down but wearing them over-the-ear is easy and a shirt clip is included
Comfort (4/5) – Lighter than the R03/M2 and very unobtrusive despite the slightly larger housings. Can easily be worn cord-up or cord-down. Work best with a relatively shallow fit

Sound (7/10) – The sound of the Brainwavz M1 builds on the shared sound signature of the ViSang R03 and R02, which I’ve already reviewed at length. The 32Ω impedance of the M1 seems to be the major change from the R03/R02 specs. Aside from needing a bit of extra volume to achieve the same SPL as the R02/R03, the most noticeable thing about the sound of the M1 is that the bass is rather underemphasized compared to the ViSang earphones. They are by no means bass-light but the lack of as great of an artificial boost means that the M1 lacks the bass impact and extension of the R02/R03. The nature of the low end is more punchy and less boomy than with the R03/R02, though the difference is small. The R03/R02 are simply a little more powerful and immediate when it comes to reproducing bass, especially hard bass on rap and D&B tracks. The M1 is more laid back, more balanced. Vocals are placed a bit farther back and so are the drums, which is good in a way – drums tend to step out of line with the R03/R02. However, the treble is also slightly less sparkly despite the fact that the R03/R02 are nearly devoid of sparkle to start with. Still, the more laid-back presentation at the bottom does make the M1 sound more balanced.

The midrange is similar between the three. Smooth and non-fatiguing, it allows for a mellow but engaging listening experience. The R03 sounds a bit thicker than the R02/M1 and both ViSang earphones are warmer than the M1. In terms off presentation, the M1 has a wider left-right soundstage but a smaller range of depth (meaning it doesn't convey intimacy quite as well as the R02/R03). Distance is conveyed properly but I don't think the imaging is as good as the R03 – closer to the more ethereal positioning of the R02 but less intimate and a bit less accurate.

Value (9.5/10) – The Brainwavz M1 are another very strong contender for the bang/buck crown. Like the ViSang R02, the M1s are a steal at the $40 mp4nation plans to ask for them. They are neither better nor worse than the similarly-priced ViSang R02 – simply different. The slightly more balanced signature is not as heavy-hitting as the ViSang earphones and Brainwavz M2 tend to be. The warmth of the earphones is reduced and some of the thickness is gone but the soundstage is more evenly spaced and distance is relayed quite well. The lack of a strain relief is slightly disheartening but the cable is extremely solid and the new 45-degree plug is excellent. Comfort, isolation, and microphonics are all what I’ve come to expect from earphones of this caliber. Listening to the M1 makes it perfectly clear to me that we are moving in the right direction – and any earphone that makes me feel this way is well-worth my hard-earned money.

Pros: Class-leading sound quality, great all-around usability
Cons: Cord has a bit of memory character, no strain reliefs on cable entry


Full review can be found here.


(3A24) Klipsch Image S2 / X1

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Reviewed May 2010

 

Details: Entry-level dynamic IEM from Klipsch
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $49.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 18 Ω | Sens: 106 dB | Freq: 12-18k Hz | Cable: 4.2’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 3mm | Preferred tips: Klipsch oval gels
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (2.5/5) - Single-flange Klipsch oval gels (3 sizes) and cloth carrying pouch
Build Quality (4/5) - The tubular plastic housings feel sturdy. The strain reliefs feel a bit too hard to be protective but the plastic cabling is thicker than that found on the S4 and the 3.5mm L-plug is well-relieved
Isolation (3.5/5) - Tubular housings can be inserted rather deeply and the Klipsch ovals provide a good seal
Microphonics (3/5) - Annoying when worn cord-down; fine otherwise
Comfort (3.5/5) - Quite light and comfortable but fairly long and not entirely trivial to wear over-the-ear for those with smaller ears

Sound (5.4/10) – Like that of their big brother, the Image S4, the sound of the S2 is very impressive at the outset; the flaws of the signature set in only with prolonged exposure. At their core the S2 are bottom-heavy earphones. They extend quite deep at the low end and provide gobs of impact with a proper seal. The impact has a softer character than that of the S4, making it sound slightly wooly and imprecise. Sub-bass is present but mid-bass is the dominant range and tends to cut into other frequencies when aggravated. The low end lacks the speed of something like the ViSang R02 but for the price it is quite lively and informative. The midrange is slightly warm and very smooth, positioned a bit too far back for an earphone with such a hefty low end but still boasting good presence. Midrange detail is impressive and clarity is quite competitive at the price point. The lower treble seems boosted for balance but is still slightly laid-back overall, lacking the sparkle and brightness of some of the competitors. As a result the S2 can’t quite keep up with the crispness and top-end detail present in earphones such as the Head-Direct RE2 and ADDIEM. For those bothered by hot treble, though, the S2 is a perfect match.

In terms of presentation the S2 come across as slightly confused and confusing. The soundstage is large in width but feels lacking in depth. The somewhat laid-back midrange results in a lack of intimacy so the presentation is hardly linear. Positioning precision could be better and instrumental separation is sub-par next to the ADDIEMs and Maximo iM-590. The S2 still do a good job of conveying a sense of space but never sound particularly airy. There are certainly genres they excel at – soft rock and jazz, for example, sound excellent. But when things start getting busy, the flaws of the sonic signature start to shine through the smooth veneer. A point to note is that despite boasting similar specs to Klipsch’s Custom line, the S2 are actually a bit harder to drive not nearly as prone to hissing.

Value (7.5/10) – The Klipsch S2 are capable IEMs, no doubt about that, but the competition is stern at the $50 price point. Not all music genres benefit from their peculiar presentation and treble junkies in general will probably be left wanting a little more balance out of them. Purely in terms of sound quality, they are hardly disappointing but in my opinion not particularly noteworthy at regular price. As a total package, however, the S2 might be the ticket for those in search of a well-built IEM with impressive isolation and a smooth, dynamic sound signature.

Pros: Solid build quality, impressive isolation, smooth and impactful sound
Cons: Slightly prone to wind noise, can be microphonic



(3A25) Arctic Sound E361

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Reviewed Jun 2010

 

Details:Flagship IEM from Swedish PC components manufacturer Arctic Cooling
MSRP: $32 from amazon.com; $35 for E361-WM/BM with microphone (E361-BM shown)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32 Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 18-26k Hz | Cable: 4.2’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (4.5/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), hard clamshell carrying case, shirt clip, Arctic Cooling sticker, and PC headset/microphone adapter
Build Quality (3/5) The front part of the earpiece is encapsulated in an aluminum shell while the rear part, nozzle, and strain relief are plastic. Sadly, the cable is quite thin and the hard strain reliefs are unlikely to relieve any strain
Isolation (3/5) - Quite impressive for a ported dynamic-driver IEM. The angled nozzles help with insertion depth and the thick stock tips seem to isolate more than most
Microphonics (4/5) - Very low when worn cord-down and absent when worn cord-up
Comfort (4.5/5) - The ergonomic angled-nozzle design and light housings make them very comfortable for prolonged use and easy to wear cable-up or cable-down. The included silicone ear cushions are smaller than average, making the E361 quite friendly toward those with smaller ears

Sound (4.4/10) – The arbitrary 10-point ratings on the Arctic Sound website give the E361 a 9/10 rating in bass, a 10/10 in the treble, and a 9/10 for clarity. Though it is unclear what scaling factor is used for these ratings, on a universal scale the E361 clearly falls short of such lofty claims. The E361 are bass-heavy IEMs, extending quite far down when the music calls for it. The bass tends to be boomy rather than punchy and occasionally intrudes on the lower midrange. This is a small detriment for rap, pop, soft rock, and similar genres but for music that benefits from balance and control, such as instrument-heavy rock and jazz tracks, the bass bloat is bad news. On the upside, the midrange is very smooth and not at all fatiguing, though it does gloss over a good amount of detail and clarity is slightly sub-par for the price. Treble extension is impressive and the upper end is quite natural-sounding. The E361 are neither warm nor cold in tonality and have a fairly natural timbre with most instruments. The soundstage is lacking in width but has decent depth, resulting in a fairly dimensional but not overly spacious sound. Overall these are definitely a stomp-your-foot kind of earphone – they manage to be bassy and impactful without sounding contrived or artificial. There is an added bonus to the relatively high impedance and low sensitivity of the E361 – they do a great job of cutting out hiss with noise-prone sources.

Value (6/10) – Light, comfortable, and well-isolating, the E361 provides reasonable sound quality when used for music. The earphones crank out plenty of bass at the expense of clarity and overall resolution but still manage to be enjoyable nearly all of the time. Though they won’t win any awards for absolute fidelity, the E361 are easily on-par with most earphones put out by mainstream manufactures such as Sony and Skullcandy. Plus, they play nice with 128kbps mp3 files and sources that don’t normally jive with sensitive in-ear earphones. If you like your music heavy-handed and need an iPhone headset with a VOIP adapter, by all means give the iPhone versions of the E361 a second look. Purely for music, they aren’t quite up to snuff.

Pros: Headset version includes Skype adapter for use with PC, very light and comfortable, low microphonics, bass-heavy sound with impressive extension on either end
Cons: Mediocre build quality, sound lacks clarity and detail



(3A26) RadioPaq Classical

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Reviewed Jun 2010

 

Details: One of RadioPaq’s four acoustically-tuned IEMs
Current Price: £30 from AdvancedMp3Players.co.uk (MSRP: £60.00)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 120 dB | Freq: 18-20k Hz | Cord: 3.9’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrid
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (1/5) – Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The small metal housings are very sturdy in feel. As with the Jazz, the off-size nozzles lack filters and the cabling is plasticky and kink-prone. Unfortunately, no cord cinch is present and the strain relief on the 3.5mm plug is all but completely useless
Isolation (3.5/5) – The smaller housings of the Classicals make deeper insertion possible, raising isolation significantly over the Jazz
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Slightly bothersome when worn cord-down, almost non-existent when worn cord-up
Comfort (3.5/5) – The smaller housings of the Classical make them friendlier in fit than the Jazz. Deep insertion is still recommended, however, which compromises long-term comfort somewhat

Sound (6.5/10) – Compared to the warm and lush Jazz, the Classical are noticeably more neutral and balanced. The low end is tight and accurate. When inserted shallowly they can sound somewhat anemic. With a deep seal, however, the bass is very impressive, providing more impact than note but maintaining smoothness. Because of the high-impact, low-texture nature of the bass, it can feel layered over the sound rather than integrated, which is a very unique and engaging way to present music. Impact drops off and texturing picks up towards the upper bass regions, transitioning smoothly and neatly to the midrange. As with the Jazz, the midrange of the Classical is not the focus of the presentation - it is clear, detailed, controlled, and has a very neutral tone but the treble is the most exciting aspect of the Classical’s signature, boasting a great amount of sparkle and clarity, coupled with impressive extension. The high end can be a little hot-tempered, as with the Jazz, but the added treble emphasis pushes the Classical over the line on occasion, especially on sibilant recordings. The soundstage of the Classical is wider than average and instrumental separation is quite good. However, despite not being particularly thick-sounding earphones, the Radiopaqs don’t sound airy and have a decidedly in-your-head feel. Still, they do a decent job of conveying both distance and direction; just don’t expect them to emulate full-size cans in presentation.

Value (8.5/10) – The RadioPaq Classical provides a colder, more treble-happy alternative to the warm and deep sound of the Jazz. With average-sized housings that are slightly more friendly towards those with smaller ears than the monstrous shells of the Jazz and surprisingly impressive isolation, the Classical performs admirably as a day-to-day all-rounder. Those with treble sensitivities will really want to give these a pass but for the rest, the Classicals offer an interesting sound signature and a great all-around performance for the price.

Pros: Impressive isolation, excellent and rather unique sound
Cons: No accessories, plastic cabling, deep insertion crucial for proper sound



(3A27) JVC HA-FXC80 “Black Series”

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Reviewed Jul 2010

 

Details: Mid-range earphone from JVC’s new ‘Black Series’ utilizing a high-definition micro driver
Current Price: $43 from amazon.com (MSRP: $59.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 103 dB | Freq: 8-25k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 6mm | Preferred tips: Stock single flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) – Single flange silicone tips (3 sizes), over-the-ear cable guides, and oval hard clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – The carbon housings feature the usual touch of solidity higher-end JVC products share. The metal accents and mesh-covered vents look quite good and the nozzle holds the carbon microdriver. Cabling is typical JVC as well – average in thickness but very soft and flexible and terminated with the usual straight plug
Isolation (3/5) – Quite good despite large rear vents
Microphonics (4/5) – Low when worn cord-down, nonexistent with the cord worn over-the-ear
Comfort (3/5) – As with the other earphones containing JVC’s dynamic microdriver, the transducer of the FXC80 sits in the nozzle of the earphone. The housing shape is therefore not dictated by driver size or design. Though the odd pyramidal housings JVC chose are rather lightweight and can easily be worn cord-up or cord-down, the shape rules them out for smaller ears, at least with the stock tips. A conventional straight-barrel design would’ve actually been more ear-friendly

Sound (6.5/10) – The sound of the HA-FXC80 is an evolutionary step up from the signature of the older FXC50. The 5.8mm “Micro HD” transducer is capable of extraordinary clarity and detail, which seem to be the driving forces behind the FXC80’s signature. The bass is very tight but surprisingly well-layered and full. The FXC80s are definitely not bass-heavy earphones but they have solid impact and a surprising amount of air at the low end. There is no mid-range bleed and the mids, while slightly underemphasized, are very smooth, clear, and detailed. They could stand to be a bit thicker next to the forward treble but remain very enjoyable nonetheless. Overall balance, while treble-leaning, is definitely impressive. The treble is crisp, bright, and carries an immense amount of sparkle. Despite this, the JVCs are mostly free of harshness or sibilance and lack the top-end extension of some of the pricier treble-focused earphones.

In terms of presentation, the JVCs are far from spacious – the soundstage is average in size – bigger than that of the FXC50 but not up there with the ViSang R03 or even Meelec M6. Instrumental separation is decent but the vast amount of treble detail, aggressive nature of the top end, and relative lack of air up top make them somewhat congested nonetheless. I really can’t think of a better way to describe the treble of the FXC80 than to call it ‘concentrated’ – the JVC HA-FXC80 has very concentrated treble. Combined with the class-leading clarity and detail afforded by the micro HD drivers, this makes listening to the FXC80 is a remarkably intense experience. I can’t say that the FXC80 is necessarily hotter up top than something like the ATH-CK10 but the much pricier Audio-Technicas are so much more spacious and resolving that the experience is richer for it. The JVCs have a stronger tendency to fatigue, though earphones with the opposite skew (monster bass, average treble) tire me out even quicker.

Value (7.5/10) – The JVC HA-FXC80 is to the older HA-FXC50 what the Meelectronics M6 is to the M9 – a more refined sound with the same general signature and better all-around usability. The FXC80 really is quite good for the money – it is well-built, isolating, and not particularly microphonic – but the bell-like clarity and brightness will not appeal to everyone. This is an earphone for those who truly like their treble – a good upgrade to the FXC50 or Head-Direct RE2 without dropping the $80 on an RE0 or importing a RadioPaq Classical. Taken as such, the FXC80 is another competitive product from JVC’s audio division but one potentially limited to a niche target audience in the hi-fi crowd.

Pros: Amazing detail and clarity, solid but controlled bass, well-built, low microphonics
Cons: Housing design will not suit everyone, bright, can sound slightly congested



(3A28) H2O Audio Surge

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Reviewed Aug 2010

 

Details: Workout-oriented waterproof earphones with enhanced bass
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $59.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 106 dB | Freq: 18-20k Hz | Cord: 3.7’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 6mm | Preferred tips: Stock Single Flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3.5/5) – Single flange rubber tips (5 sizes), foamhybrid tips (2 sizes), and zippered carrying pouch
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The housings are made out of a tough plastic and feel solid but the dark blue L/R markings can be hard to see on the glossy black shells. Filters are absent from the nozzles as they would likely be ruined by water contact anyway. The cable is medium in thickness and sheathed in blue plastic. Small rubber sleeves take the place of strain reliefs on cord entry and a 2” long strain relief, designed to work with waterproof mp3 player cases, protects the 3.5mm plug. And yes, they will survive prolonged exposure to sweat and/or water as evidenced by perfect functionality after weeks of me bathing them in both (sorry!)
Isolation (3/5) – The supplied thick rubber tips provide excellent isolation despite being rather shallow-sealing
Microphonics (4/5) – Quite low when worn cable-down due to smooth plastic cabling; nearly nonexistent in over-the-ear configuration
Comfort (4/5) – The Surge comes with five sizes of u Comfort nusually thick rubber tips which require some getting used to for those of us accustomed to silicone. Getting a good seal with them takes careful selection of the right size as well as a bit of fidgeting but once sealed the earphones will stay in surprisingly well even during intense physical activity. They may not be as comfortable as a similarly-shaped earphone with silicone tips (e.g. Sennheiser CX300) but the stable fit is hugely welcome in a ‘sports’ earphone. Several days may be required for the cables to break in for over-the-ear wear

Sound (5.5/10) – The sound of the Surge is what surprised me most about the earphones – marketing phrases such as ‘bass amplified sound’ are usually the harbinger of doom when it comes to mainstream earphones. The bass of the H2O Surge, however, despite not being ruler-flat, is quite controlled and not at all intrusive. On bass-light tracks it stays completely out of the way and even with extremely bassy music it is still not particularly muddy or bloated. Low-end extension is average and the bass is not terribly impactful, meaning that it is heard more than felt. On the upside, the bass rarely intrudes on the midrange, which is slightly forward in nature, reminding me of the ViSang R02/R03. Vocals come across powerfully and smoothly. The 8mm drivers produce sound with surprising clarity though detail lags behind competitors like the Meelec M6 and Yamaha EPH-50. A few extra volume notches are enough to fix this – the waterproof drivers seem to require a bit more juice for optimum travel and speed.

The treble is equally smooth but slightly de-emphasized in comparison to the midrange. Harshness and sibilance are absent completely and the high end does roll off as expected from an in-ear in this price range, resulting in an unfatiguing sound. The general presentation is slightly distant, with vocals generally appearing more intimate and instruments placed farther back. Positioning is a bit vague but the earphones do at the very least give a sense of space. No, the Surge will not win any hi-fi awards this year, but keeping in mind the intended application both the sound signature and presentation are more impressive than I expected and compete easily with similarly-priced mainstream-sounding earphones such as the Sennheiser CX300 and UE MetroFi 220.

Value (8/10) – The H2O Audio Surge follows its intended application through and through. A variety of rubber and foam tips are included so that the perfect fit - which is crucial for stability, isolation, and sound quality – is easy to attain after the first few trials. The build quality is quite good and the crown jewel of the earphones – the ability to survive underwater – is in fact not a marketing trick of any sort. Being able to come home from the gym and simply rinse off my earphones under running water is an extremely liberating experience and one that I am likely to repeat over and over because the Surge really doesn’t sound bad at all. The mid-forward presentation works especially well for low-volume listening as the vocals remain plenty coherent without being distracting but the entire signature is competent and pleasant. The surge can be considered a good all-around earphone that just happens to be waterproof or a waterproof earphone that just happens to be a good all-rounder. Either way, it’s pretty darn good value for money for anyone who may run the risk of ruining their IEMs with moisture of any sort.

Pros: Waterproof, reasonably well-built, secure fit, smooth and competent sound
Cons: 2” strain relief may not work well with tiny players such as the Shuffle/Clip, rubber tips can take some getting used to

 

 

(3A29) ViSang R01

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Reviewed Aug 2010

 

Details: Entry-level model from ViSang
Current Price: $32 from ebay.com (MSRP: $32)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 20 Ω | Sens: 112 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cord: 4.2' I-plug (note: latest version carries 45°-plug)
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock biflanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2.5/5) – Single- (3 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips, foamhybrid tips, and shirt clip
Build Quality (3.5/5) – Same generic IEM housings as the higher-end R02 and a handful of other earphones. However, the twisted Cu-Ag alloy cable used by the R02/R03 is replaced with a more conventional rubbery cord, which is thinner and more tangle-prone. Cable cinch is missing as with all other ViSang models
Isolation (3/5) – Very adequate for a ported dynamic IEM, especially with bi-flange tips
Microphonics (3/5) – Slightly noisy when worn cord-down, almost nonexistent otherwise
Comfort (4/5) – Same as with the R02 model – light and unobtrusive. Can easily be worn cord-up or cord-down. Work best with a relatively shallow fit

Sound (6.3/10) – The general sound signature of the R01 is similar to the two higher-end ViSang models, which should not come as a surprise since it shares most of the hardware (with the obvious exception of the Cu-Ag alloy cable) with them. The bass is smooth and full-bodied, with a mid/upper-bass hump and a tendency to warm up the rest of the sound signature. Bass depth, texture, and detail are certainly not on level with heavyweights such as the FA Eterna but beat most budget in-ears quite easily. The midrange is smooth and clear, slightly forward in positioning but still very well-separated and yet extremely coherent. The treble transition happens with no harshness or sibilance and the treble is laid-back and extremely smooth. The very top is rolled off and treble ‘sparkle’ is nowhere to be found but the highs of the R01 are certainly extremely competent, if not particularly aggressive or exciting, for an earphone of its caliber. Soundstage width is quite good and depth is adequate, though once again the R01 performs far better than the asking price would indicate. Compared to most budget in-ears, even great ones like the Meelectronics M9 and Fischer Audio TS-9002, the R01 is effortlessly spacious and presents music in a believable way.

But the sound of the ViSang R01 is not identical to that of the higher-end R02. In terms of signature the two earphones are extremely similar but the R02 is just that little bit better all-around, putting it head and shoulders above the competition. The R01 sounds like a softened and more relaxed version of the R02, but it is hard to imagine anyone finding the R02 too aggressive in the first place. The overall sound of the R02 is slightly crisper and clearer, with marginally better bass control and a bit more treble presence. As a result of the superior clarity, the R02 also seems to have more air and a more separated sound. The soundstage of the R02 is not huge but manages to be very believable while the R01 sounds a tad more constrained. The R02 also carries a bit more detail and I found myself pushing the volume of the R01 up a few notches to get the same level of detail out of it. Again, the differences are not great by any means but they are enough to make the R02 one of the best earphones in the <$100 range and the R01 merely above-average in the same category (though do keep in mind that the R01 costs a measly $30). Having both, I found myself reaching for the R02 every time without hesitation, but I would be far from unhappy if 'stuck' with just the R01.

Value (8.5/10) – The ViSang R01 promises the sound of the higher-end ViSang R02 in an even more reasonably-priced package. The ~$10 difference between the two accounts for the exclusion of the hard clamshell carrying case and Sony Hybrid knockoff tips from the accessory pack of the R01 as well as for the replacement of the Cu-Ag alloy cord with a more standard one. There are also minor sonic differences between the two which leave the pricier R02 a step above the R01 in overall sound quality. If you absolutely must only spend $30 on an earphone, the R01 is still the best way to do so. However, if tossing in the extra $10 to make the jump to the R02 won’t put you in the red for next month’s rent, I would recommend the upgrade. With the nicer cable and carrying case the earphones will last longer and the sonic differences, though probably not noticeable except in a direct comparison, are present nevertheless. At the end of the day either earphone provides great value for money but a few minor quibbles prevent the R01 from out-pacing its older brothers in bang/buck.

Pros: Time-tested design, class-leading sound quality
Cons: Not quite as stellar of an all-rounder as the R02 and only $10 cheaper


Full review can be found here.

 

 

(3A30) ECCI PR300

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Reviewed Aug 2010

 

Details: Flagship earphone from ECCI, the earphone division of Chinese amp manufacturer Storm
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $52)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32 Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 20-22k Hz | Cord: 4.2' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Narrow-tube stock single flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3.5/5) – Narrow-tube (3 sizes) and wide-tube (3 sizes) single-flange silicone tips, shirt clip, and large clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The gray metal shells are smaller and much lighter than those of the lower-end PR100/PR200 and feel a bit less solid. The sound tubes are protected by the same fine mesh filters as on the older earphones but the cable is a definite downgrade from the excellent silver cord used by the PR100/PR200. It is thinner, more rubbery, and far more prone to tangling. In addition, the sliding cord cinch is missing completely. The PR300 does feature larger and more flexible strain reliefs on either end of the cable but just doesn’t have the same ‘wow’ effect as the rock-solid construction of the ECCI’s two cheaper models
Isolation (3/5) – Average at best as the PR300s are shallow-fitting and vented at the rear for increased airflow. Wind noise can be an issue in extremely windy conditions
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Not bothersome when worn over-the-ear but quite annoying otherwise. The included shirt clip helps
Comfort (4/5) – The housings of the PR300 are extremely light. They are also quite small and tapered towards the rear. Wearing them either cord-up or cord-down is very comfortable and the soft and thin cord conforms easily in either configuration

Sound (6.5/10) – The two previous models released by ECCI – the PR100 and PR200 – were balanced and capable all-rounders – mid-centric if anything. As such, they were a bit bland and boring despite the slight bass boost and strong midrange presence. In a nutshell, the PR300 is a slightly V-Shaped version of the PR100/PR200 sound with a bit more clarity and air thrown in. As such, the new model reminds me of the company’s former glory, finally delivering some of the spark that made the PR1 Pro so endearing to me.

The bass of the PR300 is tight and punchy – not particularly powerful but very accurate and quite impactful. Extension is good and bass is tight and controlled. The midrange is free of bass bleed and quite smooth and pleasant overall. The older ECCI earphones had mids that were thick and somewhat buttery. The PR300 sounds much more airy and resolved without becoming thin or dry a-la RE0/Hippo VB. The treble of the new ECCI earphones is quite accurate and sounds much livelier than that of the PR100/PR200. Top-end roll-off is reduced and the listener is faced with plenty of sparkle. Those who find treble tiring in large quantities may want to give these a pass but for the average listener the PR300 provides a good alternative to the similarly-sparkly Brainwavz M1, which is slightly more mid-forward and boasts better extension on either end but has even more vigorous bass and treble response. In terms of presentation, the PR300 mimics the reasonably-sized soundstages of the PR100/PR200 models. The improved sense of air, however, helps the PR300 image better than the older models do. The presentation isn’t perfect and doesn’t quite give the same overall sense of space as the similarly-priced Brainwavz M1 and ViSang R02 but it is very good for the asking price.

Value (8/10) – The ECCI PR300 is the company’s latest and most convincing attempt at offering hi-fi sound for lo-fi money. Those who have heard the PR100 or PR200 will find the general signature of the PR300 quite familiar but should note improved treble response and better all-around clarity and resolution. While the new housings are not quite as impressive to the touch and the eye as the shiny shells of the older ECCI models, they are smaller, lighter, and tapered towards the rear, offering a more compliant and unobtrusive fit. All things considered, the PR300 is a noteworthy entry in the increasingly crowded and amazingly competitive <$100 price bracket. Highly recommended for those in search of a balanced IEM with a bit of bass punch and energetic treble.

Pros: Small and comfortable, lively but accurate and controlled sound
Cons: Cabling is a step down from the PR100/PR200, presentation not as spacious as some of the competitors


Full review can be found here.



(3A31) Xears TD100

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Reviewed Aug 2010

 

Details: Current flagship of the Xears earphone line from Playaz
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: est $60)

Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: 124 dB | Freq: 6-28k Hz | Cord: 4.2’ I-plug j-cord

Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Sennheiser short bi-flanges, generic bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2.5/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) and tri-flange silicone tips, foamhybrid tips (2 pairs), and soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The metal shells are quite obviously modeled after the Monster Turbines. The construction is quite good but the Xears don’t feel quite as solid as the Monsters. Mild driver flex is present as well
Isolation (3.5/5) – For some reason Turbine-style housings just work well for me when it comes to isolation, the TD100 being no exception. Aside from the mediocre stock tips, the isolation is nearly on par with the Turbine Pros
Microphonics (4/5) – Quite low but the j-cord is a two-edged sword – it reduces cable travel and therefore microphonics but at the same time makes the earphones more difficult to wear over-the-ear
Comfort (4/5) – Very similar to Monster Turbines. The straight-barrel housings are average in size and rounded at the front. Unfortunately the stock tips are rather poor. In addition, the j-cord may be annoying for some

Sound (7.5/10) – The TD100, along with several other Xears/Playaz earphones, has a cult following here at Head-Fi, and after several weeks with it I can see why. It is an extremely lush and sweet-sounding earphone. Those in search of analytical sound should quite clearly look elsewhere but as an alternative to the similarly-colored Fischer Audio Eterna or ViSang R03, the TD100 holds its own very well. Its bass is deep and full-bodied and plentifully impactful. The low end can match the ViSang R03 in quantity but runs closer to the subbass-heavy Hippo VB in extension. Despite the copious grunt, however, the low end of the TD100 carries lots of detail and very good resolution. Individual notes never run together and bass bloat/bleed are almost completely absent. The bass heft of the TD100 will surely be excessive for some, but from a technical standpoint it is very well-done.

The midrange is warmed up by the weighty low end and sounds lush and full. It is slightly forward but not as forward as the mids of the ViSang R03. Detail is quite good but the TD100 has a certain thickness to it that causes clarity to lag slightly behind the R03 and Hippo VB. It still sounds a bit less veiled than my rev2 Eterna; however, the Eterna is ‘handicapped’ by a larger soundstage and is generally a more distant-sounding earphone than the somewhat intimate TD100. The treble of the TD100 is smooth but relatively clear and detailed, though it won’t keep up with the Hippo VB, Brainwavz M1, or ECCI PR300 in crispness. It is laid back but not quite enough so to be called recessed. Like the midrange, the treble is a bit thick and lacks the air of some of the more analytical earphones. It is far from dull, however, and manages to keep my attention quite easily when necessary. All in all, for an earphone with the bass power of the TD100, the overall sound is surprisingly well-balanced and enjoyable. It is colored and exciting and I rather like it despite all of my analytical biases.

When it comes to presentation, the TD100 again performs above expectations. The soundstage has good width and depth and instrumental separation is quite decent for a mid-range dynamic. The earphone is also capable of delivering an excellent sense of distance but leans slightly towards intimacy. The fact that the notes it produces are usually a little thick makes it more musical and satisfying but reduces air. Tonally, the TD100 is not a dark earphone, nor does it sound ‘stuffy’ like certain bass-heavy competitors, but I wouldn’t call it bright, either. As far as fun-sounding earphones go, the presentation of the TD100 is just right.

Value (8.5/10) – At its usual ~$60 retail price point, the TD100 is a stellar deal. The earphone is rather handsome and well-designed, though the budget-oriented nature shows through in the j-cord setup, driver flex, and poor quality of stock tips. More important, however, is that the sound quality of the Xears earphones far exceeds the asking price, putting them on-level with some of the absolute best IEMs I’ve heard in the <$100 bracket – the ViSang R03, Fischer Audio Eterna, and Hippo VB. The sound signature of the TD100 sounds like a cross of the VB and R03 – deep and powerful bass, smooth and slightly forward mids, and competent but neither overly edgy not completely sunk treble. It is true that the R03, Eterna, and VB feel like higher-tier products all things considered, but in terms of absolute audio enjoyment the TD100 holds its own very easily.

Pros: Very capable performance, comfortable with aftermarket tips
Cons: J-cord may be bothersome, mild driver flex, stock tips are rather poor

 

 

(3A32) Hippo Shroom

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Reviewed Sep 2010

 

Details: Micro-driver earphone from Jaben’s house brand, Hippo
Current Price: $57 from unclewilsons.com (MSRP: $57.00)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 95 dB | Freq: 10-20k Hz | Cable: 4.2’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 6mm | Preferred tips: Stock single flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2.5/5) – Black (3 sizes) and color-coded (3 sizes) single flange silicone tips and soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The slim housings of the Shrooms are mostly made of metal and the micro-driver is positioned at the tip of the nozzle. The cable is rubberized and resists tangling well but feels a bit cheap. The low-profile L-plug is quite nice, however
Isolation (3.5/5) – Quite good due to the slim housings and forward driver placement
Microphonics (2.5/5) – Bothersome when worn cable-down; not too bad otherwise. The omission of a shirt clip doesn’t help
Comfort (4/5) – The tiny housings of the Hippos are light and fit quite well but are let down by the huge 6mm nozzle, which holds the driver. Those with smaller ear canals might have trouble getting the Shroom to fit comfortably

Sound (6.4/10) – The Hippo Shroom is my third micro-driver earphone, the other two being the budget-oriented JVC HA-FXC50 and the slightly more upmarket HA-FXC80. The Shroom, like the two JVCs, is a light on the bass, heavy on the treble earphone with a few aces up its sleeve. In general, the sound of the Hippos amazes most with its quickness and transparency. The bass is tight and accurate but low on impact. Extension is good but the miniscule quantity of sub-bass put out by the drivers results in a lack of low-end rumble, which some may find disconcerting. The midrange is slightly forward and boasts great clarity. Transparency is excellent and the tonal character is quite realistic. Though a small amount of sibilance is present on certain tracks, for the most part the Shroom’s midrange is silky-smooth and extremely pleasant. As with the older Head-Direct RE2, the smooth, clear, and detailed mids are the real strength of the Shroom despite the treble being most gripping and vociferous element of the signature. The detail carried by the microdriver won’t quite compete with the Head-Direct RE0 but gets far closer than a $60 dynamic-driver earphone should.

The treble itself is sparkly, crisp, and extended. There is some unevenness lower down which results in mild sibilance with certain tracks and can make the treble somewhat piercing at times - those who are sensitive to treble artifacts will probably want to give the Shroom a pass as it can be a bit fatiguing. In terms of presentation, the overall brightness of the Shroom makes it sound airy and lightweight. The soundstage boasts surprisingly good width but lacks slightly in depth, which results in a wide but not particularly well-spaced sonic image. All in all, while the Shroom certainly won’t be a perfect match for every listener and music genre, it is a very impressive implementation of the typical microdriver sound signature and comes highly recommended as an upgrade for earphones such as the JVC HA-FXC50 and Head-Direct RE2.

Value (7.5/10) – Yet another impressive midrange entry from Jaben’s house brand, the Hippo Shroom is a small-and-slim earphone that should be comfortable and well-isolating enough for most users. Its top-heavy sound signature and capacity for clarity and detail put it on-level with the likes of the JVC HA-FXC80 and RadioPaq Classical. In a nutshell, the Shroom is all about combining strong and smooth vocals with crisp and sparkly treble. The usual caveats are, of course, in full effect and those sensitive to strong treble need not apply. Taken for what it is, however, the Shroom is an impressive earphone and a good budget buy.

Pros: Impressive clarity and detail, small and comfortable, good isolation
Cons: Microphonics can be bothersome, distinctive sound signature not for everyone

 

 

(3A33) Yamaha EPH-50

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Reviewed Sep 2010

 

Details: Top-of-the-line IEM from electronics giant Yamaha, boasting large 14mm drivers in an half in-ear form factor
Current Price: $38 from amazon.com (MSRP: $99.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 104 dB | Freq: 20-21k Hz | Cable: 4’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Generic bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (1.5/5) – Single flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and ¼” adapter
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The housings are made completely out of plastic and, except for the nozzles, look like conventional earbuds. The rubberized cabling is fairly sturdy and well-relieved but prone to tangling
Isolation (2.5/5) – Like the cheaper EPH-20, the EPH-50 is a shallow-insertion earphone and is also vented. However, the EPH-50 is larger and seems to isolate slightly better, especially with aftermarket dual-flange tips
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Cable noise is present and the EPH-50 cannot be worn over-the-ear, exacerbating the problem
Comfort (4.5/5) – Unlike the miniscule EPH-20, the EPH-50, built around gigantic 14mm drivers, is a large but equally ergonomic earphone. Due to its greater size it doesn’t have a tendency to disappear when donned but remains very comfortable for those with ears large enough to accommodate the 15mm housings

Sound (5.9/10) – The first question I usually ask myself when faced with two differently-priced IEMs from the same model line is whether the higher-end set is worth the price premium over the cheaper offering. With the two Yamaha IEMs, it’s a no-contest “yes” for the EPH-50. While the EPH-20 is a decent earphone for what it costs, it is by no means hi-fi and loses both clarity and detail to the out-of-control bass. The EPH-50 is by no means bass shy, but it manages to impress in other areas as well. A familial resemblance between the two phones is most notable in the way the low end is presented – it is deep and full, boasting plentiful impact and a pleasant warmth. The EP-50 are still bass monsters but the 14-mm drivers seem to be more precise than the tiny transducers used by the EPH-20 and the bass is generally cleaner and better-controlled on the larger earphones.

Midrange bleed is also reduced, though not eliminated completely. The big bass can still make detail harder to hear but the midrange itself is more forward, more neutral, and far more clear than it is on the EPH-20. The clarity is actually quite impressive, especially on bass-light tracks, beating out the Apple dual-drivers and Sleek SA1. The earphones also lack the upper midrange dip of the EPH-20s, giving them slightly more pronounced treble at the expense of slight harshness and a bit of graininess. Treble extension is quite reasonable and the high end sounds surprisingly realistic. Though sparkle is still nearly nonexistent, the EPH-50s generally sound more crisp and energetic than the EPH-20s do. The presentation of the earphones is surprisingly wide and airy. Compared to the similarly-priced Sleek SA1 and TDK EB900, the EPH-50s sound well-separated and quite spacious, though they don’t have particular accuracy in imaging or positioning. Overall, the sound is well-layered and avoids congestion, which is a must for the bottom-skewed balance of these earphones.

Value (7.5/10) – Sound-wise, the EPH-50 is a competitive mid-range entry. Like the lower-end EPH-20, it boasts a large amount of very visceral bass but adds to it a fairly clear midrange and crisp, natural-sounding treble. Yes, the bass is excessive at times, but as a general rule it manages to be fun yet controlled – a tough order as far as budget-oriented in-ears go. The earphone is also quite pleasing aesthetically and very comfortable to wear for those with large enough ears. Sadly, the build quality, isolation, and microphonics are merely average for the price, but the sound should be enough to justify a purchase for those in search of moderately-isolating in-ears with hugely impactful bass. Of note, a set of bi-flange silicone tips off of eBay may be worth picking up along with these.

Pros: Very lightweight and comfortable, fun and dynamic sound
Cons: Bass can be excessive and negatively affects the rest of the spectrum


(3A34) Pioneer SE-CLX50


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Reviewed Sep 2010

 

Details: Half in-ear IEM from Pioneer boasting a ‘flex nozzle’ design
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: 89.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 5-24k Hz | Cable: 3.3’ I-plug + 1.6’ L-plug extension
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Generic bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (2.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (4 sizes), 1.6’ extension cable, and soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The metal inner housings of the CLX50s are similar to conventional earbuds. A rigid silicone sleeve with a plastic nozzle makes them into IEMs with some success. The silicone part can be rotated and reshaped slightly for a more comfortable fit but has some limitations - angling it too much can cause it to slip off the earphone and there’s a vent hole that can be obscured, leading to muffled bass response and high end roll-off. In addition, changing tips can sometimes forcibly remove the entire silicone sleeve from the earphones. On the upside, the thick cable is rubberized to reduce tangling and terminated with a standard 3.5mm I-plug, though it does carry some annoying memory character
Isolation (2/5) – Not bad for a half in-ear design when a proper seal is achieved
Microphonics (4/5) – Quite low in the thick and rubbery cable but hard to avoid completely as the CLX50 cannot be worn over-the-ear
Comfort (2.5/5) – Though the CLX50 boasts a ‘flex-nozzle’ design, getting a good seal with it can be unreasonably difficult, especially with the stock tips. The odd disk-shaped silicone bulge near the nozzle is angled incorrectly for my ears and the housings themselves are far too large and heavy. The Phiaton PS210, which is similar in size and weight, is far more ergonomic and the Yamaha EPH-50 is a featherweight in comparison

Sound (6.7/10) – Pioneer claims that the 13mm dynamic driver and silicone in-ear adapter of the CLX50 were designed to provide the type of bass response that isn’t usually attributed to conventional earbuds. The biggest iss Microphonics ue with basimg alt=s, however, is that a proper seal is required to hear it and for the life of me I couldn’t make the CLX50 work with the stock tips. Large Sony hybrids, large bi-flanges, or foam tips were required for me to get any sort of bass out of them. With a proper seal, bass quantity was somewhere between the heavy-handed Yamaha EPH50 and light and agile Phiaton PS210s – deep and rumbly, yet controlled and accurate. I wouldn’t call the CLX50s bass monsters but they do have a very nice full-bodied punch to them – quite enough to please the moderate basshead. Nonetheless, it is a realistic sort of bass that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself, which is how I like it.

The midrange is quite clean and almost completely free of interference from the low end. It lacks a bit of emphasis but is generally smooth and competent. The 13mm drivers are quick and detail is surprisingly good, as is the clarity. Tonally the Pioneers are slightly bright despite the deep and powerful low end. The mids are sweet and work especially well for female vocals, which are given just the right amount of edginess and polish by the CLX50. The treble, too, is clear and very detailed. There’s plenty of sparkle but I doubt anyone would find the CLX50 fatiguing – there’s just so much clarity and resolution that the sparkle sounds well-appropriated. With a mediocre seal they can be a bit piercing but not using stock tips fixes that for me. Top-end extension is good – a bit better than the laid-back ViSang R03 but not quite up there with the Hippo VB or Head-Direct RE0.

Perhaps some psychology is in play here but I really hear a resemblance in presentation between the CLX50 and the Phiaton PS210, which shares the half in-ear form factor. Both are quite wide-sounding and have decent soundstage depth. Both position instruments surprisingly well and sound quite airy. The CLX50 even seems to separate instruments out a bit better than the PS210 does, though the Phiatons still present performances I’m familiar with in a more convincing way. On the whole, the CLX50 really is a competitive earphone for the asking price - all it is missing compared to the much pricier PS210 is a bit of ambience and a chunk of refinement.

Value (6/10) – Though the sound quality of the CLX50 is well above average for the current asking price, I simply cannot recommend them due to the design. Plain and simple, the ergonomics of the CLX50 will either be a complete hit or complete miss, based on the individual. My ears, which are usually quite compliant when it comes to new and unfamiliar earphones, rebelled unequivocally against the CLX50. Aside from the fit, the CLX50 is a very usable earphone – well built and not very microphonic. For those who have the ability to return the earphones and are willing to take a chance on the fit, the CLX50 may be worth a shot but my pair is definitely going back to Pioneer.

Pros: Full-bodied bass, sparkly and atmospheric sound, decent build
Cons: Hit-or-miss fit, odd cable lengths

 

 

(3A35) Sennheiser CX280

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Reviewed Sep 2010

 

Details: Latest addition to Sennheiser’s long-running CX in-ear earphone line
Current Price: $50 from amazon.com (MSRP: $69.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 120 dB | Freq: 19-20.5k Hz | Cable: 3.9’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (2.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and leather carrying pouch
Build Quality (4/5) – At first glance, the CX280 is an enlarged version of the older CX150/200/250 housing but it isn’t quite so – the construction consists of two types of plastic and feels a bit sturdier overall. Cabling is average in thickness, well-relieved at either end, and terminated with a sturdy 3.5mm L-plug
Isolation (3/5) – About average for conventional in-ears due to large vent slit
Microphonics (3/5) – Somewhat bothersome when worn cord-down, good when worn over-the-ear
Comfort (4/5) – The housings are larger than those of the older CX250 but rounded at the front for an agreeable fit. The earphones are quite lightweight and the stock tips work well with the medium insertion depth

Sound (5.8/10) – As with many of the other CX-series Sennheisers, the 280 is claimed to have ‘bass-driven sound’. Quite often a phrase like that would scare me but having heard the CX250 and CX300 in the past, I had a decent idea of what to expect. The CX280 does appear to be a step in the right direction from the CX250, which itself was a more enjoyable earphone than the ever-popular CX300. The bass of the CX280 falls between the CX250 and CX300 – there is a bit of mid-bass emphasis but not much bloat. Compared to the Meelec M9 the CX280 seriously lacks sub-bass weight and sounds slightly tamer overall. The low end of the CX280 is not thin by any means but it just doesn’t have the same well-rounded fullness as the rumbly and visceral bass of the M9.

The mids are smooth and in good balance with the bass and treble. As with the older CX-series earphones, the CX280 is a bit laid-back in the midrange. Clarity and detail are good though on the whole the CX280 lags behind the Meelec M9 on both counts. There is a bit of unevenness towards the upper midrange and the CX280 has much more prominent treble than the CX300 and slightly more sparkle and detail than the CX250 (though still not as much as the M9). At higher volumes the treble can be a bit fatiguing but during normal listening I found it perfectly pleasant – less harsh than that of the M9 but not rolled-off as with the CX300.

In terms of presentation, the CX280 is quite wide-sounding and airy. Depth is average in comparison to the width, resulting in a sound that’s well-distanced but relatively flat in the soundstage. Positioning is good and the CX280 has a somewhat harder time portraying intimacy than distance, though its soundstage has clear outer limits as well, not unlike that of the far-pricier IE7. Those who like a more intimate sound would probably find a better match with the similarly-priced CX281, which doesn’t sound as big as the CX280 does but is also more cohesive in its intimacy. Nearly everyone else will be impressed by the spacious presentation.

Value (7/10) – Sennheiser’s latest foray into the ranks of entry-level in-ears takes us one step further from the bloated and boomy sound of low-end Sennhaiers of years past. The sound is fairly balanced and competent all-around. I don’t expect the CX280 to be as polarizing as the Meelec M9 – it lacks the amazing detail and clarity of the Meelecs but doesn’t sound as harsh or boomy, either. With good comfort and isolation as well as build quality that, while not as impressive as that of the CX281, puts the old CX300 to shame, the CX280 is a very agreeable earphone that manages to appeal both to the consumer and the (budget-minded) audiophile. Though the retail price is, as usual, excessive, the street value fluctuates quite a bit and any dips below $30 have the potential to make the CX280 a very competitive earphone.

Pros: Comfortable, rather wide-sounding and all-around competent
Cons: Can be microphonic

 

Special thanks to kjk1281 for offering to lend me the CX280 upon hearing that I had the CX281 on-hand


 

(3A36) Sennheiser CX281

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Reviewed Sep 2010

 

Details: Budget in-ear from Sennheiser’s “designed for women” line
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $69.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 120 dB | Freq: 19-20.5k Hz | Cable: 3.9’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (2.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), 3.5mm splitter, and leather carrying pouch
Build Quality (4/5) – The asymmetrical housings are made of solid plastics and feel fairly sturdy. Strain reliefs are short but the silver cable is identical to that used on the MX/OMX471 earbuds – thick, soft, and very flexible. A fairly large volume pot hangs not far below the y-split and the 3.5mm L-plug has a long and soft strain relief
Isolation (3/5) – Good enough for daily use though the fit of the CX281 is rather shallow
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Merely alright when worn cord-down, good when worn over-the-ear
Comfort (4/5) – The housings are curved in an attempt at ergonomic design but really just aren’t small enough for the target market. The front edges are squared off and facilitate shallower insertion unlike the rounded housings of the older CX200/250 earphones. Comfortable, but not game-changing

Sound (5.6/10) – Following hot on the heels of the new CX280, the designed-for-women CX281 follows pretty much the same formula. Like the CX280, the CX281 is advertised as having ‘bass-driven sound’ and like the CX280 it is rather controlled and delicate in nature. The CX281 is just a touch warmer and bassier than the CX280 but still falls squarely between the older CX300 and CX250 models in bass quantity. Mid-bass is expectedly emphasized but the extension of earphones such as the Meelec M9 is lacking in the CX281.

The midrange is probably the most agreeable aspect of the CX281, being almost identical to that of the CX280. Clarity and detail are quite good though the CX281 does sound just a touch more grainy than the CX280. The treble is prominent and can be fatiguing at high volumes but rolls off later than that of the CX300 and carries more detail throughout. In presentation the CX281 once again follows in the footsteps of the CX280 but lacks the soundstage width, opting instead for a slightly more intimate sound to match the slightly warmer tone of the earphones. Personally I find the presentation of the CX280 to be slightly more realistic despite the tone and timbre of the two earphones being nearly identical.

Value (7/10) – Though not quite as impressive as the ‘mainline’ CX280, the CX281 is a competent budget IEM with an agreeable signature and great all-around usability. Sennheiser did source the excellent silver cable, including the notched-wheel volume control, for the CX281 from the MX471, giving it a leg up over the CX280 in microphonics and overall feel. Comfort and isolation are also quite reasonable for a budget-minded set. The sound signature is a bit less realistic than that of the CX280 but arguably more enjoyable, especially for the average listener. Like most of the CX-series earphones, the CX281 fluctuates wildly in street price but anything under $30 would make them a pretty good deal in my book.

Pros: Well-built and comfortable, low microphonics, all-around competent sound
Cons: No ‘wow’ factor, overpriced at MSRP

 

Special thanks to jant71 for lending me the CX281

 

 

(3A37) TDK EB900

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Reviewed Sep 2010

 

Details: Mid-range earphone from Japanese electronics giant TDK
Current Price: $50 from bestbuy.com (MSRP: $69.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 101.5 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2.5/5) – Single flange silicone tips (3 sizes), Comply T400 foam tips (1 set), and soft synthetic carrying pouch
Build Quality (3/5) – The curved shells are made out of a matte plastic with a glossy finish over the TDK logo. Both the nozzles and rear vents of the earphones are protected by metal grilles. The cable exit points on the underside of the shells feature short rubber strain reliefs and the cable is sheathed in black-and-white striped nylon. The cord is extremely light and terminates in a straight 3.5mm plug with a hard rubber strain relief. Mild driver flex is present
Isolation (2.5/5) – Average for a dynamic-driver in-ear
Microphonics (3/5) – Cable noise is bothersome when worn cable-down and the weight of the cable is not sufficient to keep it planted behind the ear during physical activity. Not recommended for jogging or exercise
Comfort (4/5) – The light weight of the earphones, combined with the tapered housing shape, makes the EB900 completely unobtrusive. Unfortunately, despite the short strain reliefs, wearing the EB900 over-the-ear is not as easy as I would like due to the weightless cord

Sound (4.9/10) – The sound signature of the EB900 is decidedly bass-heavy, with enough low-end grunt to rattle loose teeth and a small dip in the upper midrange that results in a loss of the artificial clarity usually brought about by bright treble. The response curve of the EB900 sounds ‘enhanced’ by a wholesome 12-15 decibels in the 50-100Hz range, resulting in a large mid-bass hump and minimal roll-off all the way down to 25Hz. The low-end resolution of the EB900 is negatively affected by the gargantuan bass and the lower midrange is heavily veiled. When the bass is dropped by 10-12 dB on the equalizer, the veil lifts and midrange clarity quite reasonable for a $70 dynamic earphone shines through. As it stands, the bass, imparts a fairly dark character on the sound. Luckily, the midrange isn’t particularly recessed and generally sounds full and pleasant, if a bit dry. The pleasantness extends in to the upper midrange, which exhibits a small dip in response, likely meant to reduce harshness and/or sibilance, which gives the EB900 a very smooth sound all the way up. Compared to the voluminous bass, the treble of the EB900 is notably deemphasized but boasts decent, though not class-leading, extension and detail.

Despite the lack of treble emphasis and narrow soundstage, the earphones sound rather airy, possibly due in part to the massive rear vents. The fullness of the midrange and heavy bass notes give the earphones a sense of dimensionality that is often lacking in low-end products. They don’t position sonic cues with particular precision but have a certain evenness and consistency to the imaging. There are earphones out there that have a wide soundstage but never seem to take advantage of it. The TDK EB900 has a relatively narrow stage but manages to fill in every nook and cranny with sound, making them quite enveloping and well-suited for music that benefits from the intimate but dimensional presentation.

Value (6/10) – The EB900 sounds as if TDK started with a fairly balanced and natural-sounding mid-range earphone and cranked up the bass. It remains a nice option for lovers of deep and impactful bass but is more difficult to recommend as an all-rounder. The sound is dark and a bit dry but quite full and conveys a nice, if slightly undersized, sonic image. From a usability standpoint, too, the EB900 are competent but not outstanding. Isolation, build quality, and microphonics are all average, with extra comfort points earned for the light weight of the earpieces and included Comply eartips. For those in search of a light and comfortable in-ear with lots of bass, the TDK EB900 is a solid option. Otherwise, the market is chock-full of better options.

Pros: Light and comfortable, ships with Comply foam eartips, very bass-heavy but generally competent sound
Cons: Loses out in balance, clarity, and detail to much of the competition, carries a good amount of cable noise, mild driver flex

 

 

(3A38) Sony MDR-XB40EX

Sony MDR-XB40EX 400x300.jpg

Reviewed Dec 2010

 

Details: Mid-range in-ear from Sony’s Extra Bass line
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $59.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 4-24k Hz | Cable: 4’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrids
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (3.5/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) Sony Hybrid silicone tips and hard clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The housings are made of plastic with metal Sony badges running along the spine of the earphones. The flat cable has average strain relief at the stems and no cable cinch but is terminated with a flexible 3.5mm L-plug. Cable quality is quite good – soft, sturdy, and with no memory character
Isolation (2.5/5) – Average for a dynamic-driver canalphone
Microphonics (4/5) – Very low in the flat, tangle-free cable but it can be tricky to route over-the-ear to eliminate cord noise completely
Comfort (2.5/5) – The XB40EX has vertically-mounted drivers and is not meant to be inserted very deeply. However, the earphones are a bit too large and heavy for shallow-insertion canalphones and often stay in only by virtue of the eartip seal while still putting pressure on the outer ear. In addition, the extra-large metal Sony badge running along the height of the earphones can get in the way of wearing them over-the-ear

Sound (4.8/10) – Being part of Sony’s Extra Bass (XB) series, the XB40EX was bound to be a bass-heavy earphone; the question was – how bass-heavy? Answer: very. I’ve owned one of the full-size headphones from the XB line – the MDR-XB500 – until very recently and thought they were surprisingly decent with the exception of the frequency balance, which put bass up front and recessed the mids and treble quite severely. However, if the balance of the XB500 is (+2 bass, -1 mids, -1 treble), the XB40EX is more like (+3,-2,-2). It really is very biased in favor of the low end. The result is that the XB40EX warrants lower listening levels as equating the output levels of the midrange and treble of the XB40 with those of a more balanced earphone makes the bass nauseating. Unfortunately, the 13.5mm drivers really aren’t resolving enough to maintain reasonable levels of detail and texturing at lower volumes. Balance aside, the drivers put on a good show for an earphone tuned the way the XB40EX is. Bass impact is enormous in quantity but still slightly more controlled than something like the Sennheiser CX300. Most of the bass comes in fairly high but sub-bass is not missing altogether, though it can be hard to distinguish from the ever-present blanket of mid/upper-bass.

Expectedly, some of the bass bloat affects the midrange, which is generally warm and smooth. Truth be told, there’s simply not much to be said about the midrange until the bass hump is equalized away since it is recessed to the point of being irrelevant. Even with the bass dropped to what I consider near-flat level with a parametric EQ, the mids are nothing special – the clarity doesn’t quite match the Meelec M9 detail trails (distantly) the ViSang R01 and the Brainwavz models. Still, I’ve definitely heard worse – at least the XB40EX is not as tiring to listen to as the metallic-sounding Skullcandy Titans or as muddy as the Earsquake FISH at reasonable volumes.

The treble is competent but far from outstanding. It reminds me of the high end of the Sennheiser CX250, which I rather like. Trouble is – the CX250 doesn’t have bass that crowds out everything else and costs about 2x less than the Sonys. There is a bit of hard-edginess to the treble and a spot of vocal sibilance is present on some tracks but such nuances are usually swallowed up by the bass and therefore don’t detract from the overall experience. The presentation, too, is quite decent – especially compared to the similarly-priced and similarly consumer-friendly Skullcandy FMJ – but not quite competitive with earphones such as the Brainwavz M1 and Meelectronics M6. The soundstage has good depth and ok width but for the most part stays concentrated in the center. The omnipresent bass can once again detract greatly from the realism of the experience, especially with live recordings.

Value (5.5/10) – Head-Fi is quite clearly not the target audience of the Sony XB40EX – to say that these earphones are bass-heavy is a major understatement. In terms of overall frequency balance, the only earphones that even come close to offering the sort of bass dominance exemplified by the XB40EX are the TDK ‘Extra Bass’ EB900s. The EB900s are admittedly grainier and edgier but at the same time they are more manageable with a bit of equalization and have a more easy-going fit. Those interested in spending $40 on nothing but bass should concentrate on these two. For everyone else, better choices abound, though of course certain genre preferences may make the XB40EX a more appealing option. Personally I’d rather be listening to the MDR-EX082 (aka EX85), which comes as a stock earphone with many Sony players.

Pros: User-friendly cable, generally smooth sound, decent sense of space
Cons: Large; will be uncomfortable for some; bass dominates mids & treble

 

 

(3A39) Skullcandy FMJ

Skullcandy FMJ 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Dec 2010

 

Details: One of Skullcandy’s pricier – and more popular - models
Current Price: $36 from amazon.com (MSRP: $69.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 16-20k Hz | Cable: 3.3’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 4.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges, Sony Hybrids
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2.5/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) silicone tips, Comply foam tips, and soft carrying pouch (note: 2010 version ships with clamshell case instead)
Build Quality (2.5/5) – The shells are metal but feel very light and a little cheap. Strain relief is nonexistent on housing entry and at the y-split. The clear cable resembles Meelec cables externally but is thinner and has a tendency to kink. In addition, the 3.3’ cable length is far too short for the average adult
Isolation (2.5/5) – Low since the earphones are ported and the driver bulges prevent deep insertion. The included Comply tips help a bit
Microphonics (4/5) – Very low
Comfort (2.5/5) – Though the FMJs are straight-barrel earphones, the big metal bulge housing the drivers can get in the way of wearing them comfortably for more than an hour or two. Wearing them over-the-ear is more comfortable but made needlessly difficult by the short cable

Sound (3.6/10) – The FMJ is my third experience with Skullcandy earphones, following the entry-level Ink’d buds and the mid-range TiTans, which had somewhat similar sound signatures – powerful and forward bass, thin and dry mids, and prominent but harsh treble. The FMJ surprised me, not only by being so **** dreadful that I considered giving up on this review but also by taking on a different sound signature than the other Skullcandy IEMs. The FMJs are generally mid-forward but the bass certainly makes its presence known. Unlike the TiTans, which have fairly good, if overdone, low end extension, the FMJs carry a massive amount of mid- and upper- bass and little sub-bass. The extremely forward midrange makes the FMJ sound more balanced than the other Skullcandy earphones but at higher volumes the bass still reveals itself to be fat and muddy – certainly not as accurate or controlled as on the JVC Marshmallows or Sony MDR-EX082. In addition, drum crackle can be unpleasantly sharp, sometimes startlingly so – an issue of tuning rather than technical capability as the higher-end Grado iGi exhibits this as well.

One upside of the forward midrange is that the bass fails to overpower it at reasonable listening volumes. There is also an illusion of clarity brought about by the peculiar balance of the midrange – vocals come across powerfully and intelligibly. The natural clarity of the FMJs, however, is at best on par with the much-cheaper Earsquake SHA or Meelec M2. Detail is similarly underwhelming, though again the forward mids act to force what little detail there is on the listener. Those who have never before owned good earphones will be tricked into thinking that the FMJs are reproducing parts of the music stock earphones do not while in reality they are simply terrible at differentiating between a track’s background and foreground (more on this later).

The treble is admittedly better than the slightly harsh highs of the Ink’d buds and the metallic high end of the TiTans. The FMJs are slightly smoother and roll off later than the Ink’d buds. They are also warmer in tone and more natural-sounding than the TiTans. That’s where the good new ends, however – the presentation of the FMJs is one of the most congested I have ever heard from a >$20 pair of earphones. The biggest problem is that they have no soundstage – zip, zilch, nada. I’ve heard some narrow-sounding earphones before but the FMJ has the sonic space of a Porta Potty. Expectedly, most tracks sound at least slightly congested (just imagine cramming a four-piece band into said Porta Potty). Instrumental separation, imaging, and positioning are all quite poor – everything just sounds in-your-face forward. There are certainly listeners who like a more forward presentation but I can’t help but think that the FMJs are better suited for audiobooks and voice calls than music or movies.

Value (4/10) – Let’s face it - Skullcandy products are not very well-regarded around Head-Fi for reasons beyond simple audiophile snobbishness. Still, the entry-level Ink’d buds prove that even Skullcandy products can be good value for money when priced low enough. The FMJ, however, is undoubtedly one of the least enjoyable listening experiences I’ve had in the history of this thread. It is not the lowest-scoring earphone in this review because frankly, it isn’t that bad from a technical standpoint, but even those in search of an extremely forward sound heavy on both the lows and mids can do better for the money. Unless, of course, a nonexistent soundstage and mediocre fit, build quality, and isolation are the other requirements.

Pros: Not bass monsters, come with Comply tips, low cable noise
Cons: Short cable; will be uncomfortable for some; poor clarity, no soundstage

 

 

(3A40) Hippo Boom

Hippo Boom 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Jan 2011

Details: Budget basshead-oriented earphone from Jaben’s in-house brand
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $43)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32Ω | Sens: 102 dB | Freq: 20-22k Hz | Cable: 4’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock triple-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (4 sizes), bi-flange silicone tips, shirt clip, and soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (4/5) – Like the other Hippo earphones, the Boom feels rather sturdy with its metal shells, rubbery cables, and low profile 3.5mm L-plug. Mild driver flex is present but not problematic
Isolation (3/5) – Fairly typical of sealed-back straight-barrel dynamics
Microphonics (3/5) – Can be quite annoying when worn cable-down; fine otherwise
Comfort (3.5/5) – The Boom is a little tubby in shape but is tapered in the front and quite comfortable to insert. The weighty housings may be an issue for some and the non-removable shirt clip is very annoying but the fit is good overall

Sound (4.8/10) – The sound signature of the Hippo Boom is a far cry from the treble-heavy Hippo Shroom and subbass-heavy VB, both pricier models in the company’s lineup. There is no mistaking the Boom for a high-end earphone but for a budget set it does quite a few things properly. True to the name, the Boom is an impactful earphone with a full-bodied low end. Unlike the VB, the Boom has its bass come in mostly above 40Hz but extension is still good for a budget set. The bass is a bit boomy and slightly muddy but a step tighter than that of the cheaper Meelec M9. There is a bit of resonance within the housings and the tone is quite dark overall but for lovers of bass the low end of the Boom will fall in that happy range beween ‘added kick’ and ‘bass monster’.

The midrange of the Boom is clear and detailed but a bit dry and slightly recessed in comparison to the low end. There is very little warmth carried over from the bass and the liquidity of the smoother Hippo Pearl just isn’t there. The treble is not recessed but not quite as prominent as the low end and can be a bit harsh and overbearing at times. It’s a little grainy and somewhat sharp/edgy, not unlike that of the Hippo VB. Extension is good – the smoother Pearl seems to roll off a bit earlier than the Boom. The presentation is decent but the Boom is neither open-sounding nor very spacious. The bass and treble are both fairly aggressive and the sonic space never quite feels three-dimensional or out-of-the-head – just the usual three-blob (left, right, center) soundstage. Layering is decent, however, and things never really sound congested but the similarly-priced Pearl sounds both larger and more enveloping.

Value (7/10) – The Hippo Boom is a well-built and comfortable budget earphone designed to provide ample bass for all but the most die-hard bassheads without sacrificing midrange clarity or treble energy. To an extent it is successful, exhibiting plentiful bass impact, a clear - if somewhat recessed – midrange, and edgy treble. At the same time, the balance and refinement of the higher-end Hippo VB just isn’t there and the Boom lacks the spaciousness and musicality of the similarly-priced Hippo Pearl as well as the Brainwavz M1 and ProAlpha. Unless the Boom’s signature is exactly what is sought, it isn’t difficult to do better for the money on the whole.

Pros: Solid construction, impactful bass, good clarity
Cons: Shirt clip not removable, edgy treble



(3A41) Hippo Pearl

Hippo Pearl 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Jan 2011

Details: Hippo Boom alternative from Jaben’s in-house brand
Current Price: $43 from unclewilsons.com (MSRP: $43)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 106 dB | Freq: 10-20k Hz | Cable: 4’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock triple-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), shirt clip, and soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (4/5) – Like the other Hippo earphones, the Pearl feels rather sturdy with its metal shells, rubbery cables, and well-relieved 3.5mm L-plug. Driver flex is a bit worse than with the Boom but not too bad
Isolation (3/5) – Fairly typical of sealed-back straight-barrel dynamics
Microphonics (3/5) – Can be quite annoying when worn cable-down; fine otherwise
Comfort (4.5/5) – The Pearl is smaller than the Boom and can be inserted more deeply without discomfort. The housings are lighter and rounded at the rear – very unobtrusive on the whole

Sound (6.4/10) – If the hippo Boom is the budget-oriented equivalent of the higher-end Hippo VB, the Pearl is the budget version of the Brainwavz M3. Its bass is softer and rounder than that of the Boom but equally impactful. It’s not the deepest or tightest but very pleasant on the whole – warm, full, rumbly, and engaging. The low end of the Pearl can creep up a bit on the midrange but generally isn’t as forward as that of the Boom. The overall balance is better with the Pearl and as a result and the midrange, despite being no more forward than that of the Boom, carries more emphasis. The mids are a bit thicker and not as clear as those of the Boom but sound more full-bodied as a result. The Pearl is unquestionably the warmer and smoother of the two earphones but it’s so much more than that – compared to dry and dark Boom, the Pearl sounds natural and organic – a sidestep from the signatures of the Boom, Shroom, and VB.

The high end retains the smoothness of the midrange, giving up the edginess of the Boom for a softer, more easy-going sound. The treble is still fairly lively but not nearly as harsh or aggressive. Detailing is surprisingly good and the timbre is quite natural for a budget earphone. The presentation, too, steps away from the confined feel of the Boom in favor of a more spacious sound. The Pearl has good presence across a larger sonic area and a fairly spherical presentation. Being slightly less dark than the Boom, it also seems to have more air, which does wonders for the overall experience. Interestingly, it is also quite a bit less efficient than Boom, requiring a half-dozen more volume notches from my Cowon J3, and doesn’t perform at its best at low output volumes.

Value (8.5/10) – Despite its modest price and austere appearance, the Hippo Pearl packs quite a sonic punch, beating out its siblings – the Boom and Shroom – in balance and musicality. The Pearl isn’t the most proficient earphone from a technical standpoint but it is surprisingly balanced, musical, and easy-going. As with the other Hippo earphones, microphonics can be a problem with cable-down wear but in all other aspects the Pearl is an extremely competent product, picking up a few extra points along the way for the diminutive size and comfortable fit. As a practical and pleasant all-rounder, the Pearl is a very impressive entry in its price category.

Pros: Solid build quality, comfortable fit, musical & well-balanced sound
Cons: Mild driver flex

 

 

(3A42) MEElectronics CX21

Meelectronics CX21 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Jan 2011

Details: Entry-level model from Meelec’s new ‘clarity’ series of IEMs
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $39.99; $44.99 for CX21P with mic)

Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 101 dB | Freq: 15-20k Hz | Cable: 4.4’ 45°-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges, Stock bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes), bi-flange, and triple-flange silicone tips, shirt clip, and zippered carrying case
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The housings of the CX21 are made completely out of plastic and feel a bit cheap next to the older M-series models. The cable is quite nice and completely identical to the one used on the higher-end CW31, down to the low-profile 45°-plug
Isolation (3/5) – Isolation is good with an over-the-ear fit and longer tips
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Nearly absent with over-the-ear wear, low otherwise
Comfort (4/5) – The angled housings of the CX21 resemble old Shure models (of the E3/E4 generation) and fit similarly. With an over-the-ear fit and longer tips the housings actually clear my ears completely and remain comfortable for hours

Sound (6.6/10) – While the consumer-oriented ‘M’-series of Meelec’s lineup is moving closer and closer to basshead heaven with the latest releases, the CX21 represents a move in a different direction. As a part of the new clarity series, the CX21 pursues a brighter, more balanced sound, competing with the likes of the Maximo iM-590 and Brainwavz M1. The CX21 has less bass than any of Meelec’s other dynamics but still narrowly beats the armature-based A151 in impact and depth and delivers more punch than the similarly-priced Brainwavz M1. When it comes to texture and detail the Brainwavz, unburdened by the need to deliver sizeable impact, still win out but the CX21 doesn’t lag far behind.

Expectedly, there is no midrange bleed, which allows the CX21 to stay true to its name and provide impressive clarity across the range. The mids are in good balance with the bass - neither as forward as those of the Brainwavz M1 nor as recessed as those of the Meelec M9 or M6 – and can be characterized as crisp and detailed. The CX21 does sound thinner in the mids than the Brainwavz M1, sacrificing the lush smoothness of the Brainwavz mids for a dryer sound with slightly more upper midrange emphasis. Despite this, the treble of the CX21 is neither harsh nor sibilant unless the track calls for it. It lacks the sparkle of the Maximo iM-590 and the softness of the Brainwavz M1, appearing a bit hard-edged and, at times, lacking fine detail. Top-end extension is good for the asking price – about on-par with the Brainwavz M1 and lagging just a tad behind the iM-590.

In terms of presentation, the CX21 is merely competent – the average-sized soundstage has plenty of air and good separation and positioning, partly due to the excellent clarity, but it doesn’t portray distance as well as the higher-end A151. The timbre is a touch less natural than that of the higher-end CW31 and the Brainwavz M1/M2 and the dynamic range is also a bit poorer than that of the Brainwavz earphones. Tonally, the CX21 is quite neutral, sounding more like the RE-ZERO or Etymotic MC5 than the brighter Maximo iM-590 or darker Meelec A151. Such neutrality is rare among budget IEMs, which makes the CX21 arguably more unique in sound signature than the higher-end CW31 and puts it in good company with sets such as the Apple Dual-Driver in-ears and ECCI PR200.

Value (8/10) – The CX21 is Meelec’s first attempt at a neutral sound signature and, for the money, it hits the nail square on the head. With a slight bit of added bass kick and good presence throughout, the CX21 accompanies the pricier CW31 in filling out the middle third of Meelec’s model range and competes well with the other entry-level all-rounders. The angled housings make the CX21 comfortable for over-the-ear use and microphonics are impressively low, making up for the plasticky construction of the earphones. Those looking for warmth or powerful bass will vastly favor the CW31 (or one of the M-series models) but I quite like the slightly analytical tilt of the lower-end earphone.

Pros: Low microphonics, comfortable, balanced and neutral sound
Cons: Least impressive build quality of all Meelec products



(3A43) MEElectronics CW31

Meelectronics CW31 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Jan 2011

Details: Wooden ergonomically-shaped earphone from Meelec
Current Price: $50 from meelec.com (MSRP: $49.99); $55 for CW31P with microphone
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 99 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.4’ 45°-plug
Nozzle Size: 7mm oval | Preferred tips: Stock bi-flanges, Sony Hybrids
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (4/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes), bi-flange, and triple-flange silicone tips, shirt clip, and zippered carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – The housings of the CW31 are lightweight and quite small, made partly out of a light-colored wood and partly out of plastic. The nozzles are oval in shape (which I’ve only seen once before on the ATH-CK6) and protected by a fine mesh filter. The cable is well-relieved, smooth, flexible and terminated with a new lower-profile 45°-plug
Isolation (2.5/5) – The design of the CW31 allows only the nozzle to be inserted into the ear canal but the included bi-flange tips provide reasonable isolation
Microphonics (4/5) – Typically low but the CW31 cannot be worn over-the-ear so cable noise is difficult to eliminate completely
Comfort (4.5/5) – The fit of the CW31 is fairly similar to the other half in-ear earphones but it is smaller and lighter than most. In addition, the tapered housings prevent the CW31 from putting pressure on the outer ear, making it very easy to wear for prolonged periods

Sound (6.7/10) – As the middle earphone in Meelectronics’ clarity series, the CW31 really doesn’t differ a whole lot from the lower-end CX21. In a nutshell, the CW31 adds extra bass and a noticeable bit of warmth to the balance of the lower-end model. The bass is still quite controlled but the CW31 has better depth and power at the low end. The bass is more full-bodied and the notes are given a pleasant warmth and roundness compared to the cooler-sounding CX21. In terms of impact, the CW31 still lags behind Meelec’s M-series models but falls closer to the Brainwavz M2 than it does to the M1. As with the CX21, there is a bit of bass detail and texture missing compared to the higher-end A151 and CC51 models but for the price the bass performance is quite competitive.

The small increase in bass quantity over the CX21 results in some warm overtones being added to the midrange of the CW31. Clarity is still very good, however, and the midrange is no more recessed than that of the CX21. Detail and texture are similar as well – just a tad below what the Maximo iM-590 and Brainwavz M1 are capable of but a bit better than with the Meelec M6 or Dr Dre Beats Tour. On the whole, the warmer CW31 sounds a little thicker and more fluid than the CX21 but the difference likely won’t be noticeable unless the two are compared head-to-head. The treble of the CW31 is neither harsh nor sibilant unless the track calls for it and appears to be just a tad softer than that of the CX21. Fine detail is still missing at times but top-end extension is quite good.

In terms of presentation, the CW31 is slightly more well-rounded compared to the lower-end model. While the CX21 has better separation and a bit more width, the CW31 seems a touch more spherical and enveloping. Neither earphone has the positioning accuracy of the A151 but the CW31 does seem to have a little more depth to it, partly as a result of the fuller, more powerful low end. The timbre and tone of the CW31 seem a little more natural as well though the earphones really aren’t radically different on that count.

Value (8.5/10) – The CW31 is yet another solid entrant in the sub-$60 market segment, offering a minimalistic design, comfortable form factor, decent build quality, and a microphone option all for not very much money. For those who don’t mind sacrificing some isolation and like a bit of warmth and bass boost to their sound, the CW31 is likely worth the price premium over the lower-end CX21 but both earphones deliver clear, accurate sound and the kind of real-world usability we’ve come to expect from Meelectronics products.

Pros: Small & comfortable, low microphonics, all-around solid sound quality
Cons: Mediocre isolation

 

 

(3A44) MEElectronics M21

Meelectronics M21 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Feb 2011

Details: Entry-level earphone from Meelec’s M-series available in a variety of colors
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $34.99); $40 for M21P with microphone
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 92 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips, shirt clip, and clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (4.5/5) – The build is similar to the older M11/M11+ models although the M21 is a bit larger. The housings are all-metal, the cabling is sturdy and well-relieved, and paper filters protect the nozzles. The low-profile L-plug is a welcome change from the 45-degree plug of the M11
Isolation (3/5) – Fairly average due to large rear-facing vent
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Very low when worn cord-down; nonexistent otherwise
Comfort (4/5) – The M21 is a bit larger than the older M11+ and the fit kit isn’t as extensive but it’s still a very comfortable straight-barrel earphone. With deep-sealing tips I even managed to sleep in them, which I can’t say for the larger M31 model

Sound (5.9/10) – The sound of the M21 carries a slight emphasis on bass consistent with the other models in Meelec’s M-series but the overall balance of the earphones wouldn’t put them out of place in the clarity series, either. In terms of quantity, the bass of the M21 falls closer to the balance-oriented CX21 and CW31 models and lags noticeably behind the significant amounts of bass boost offered by the M6, M11+, and M31. There is some sub-bass roll-off and most of the emphasis is on the mid- and upper bass regions. The bass is rumbly and a bit soft in character – much like that of the M31 but not nearly as voluminous and less ‘boomy’ as a result. The M6 and M11+ sound quite a bit more aggressive in comparison. Overall, I would say that bass control is decent-to-good and mid-range bleed is not significant enough to be distracting.

There is no significant drop in emphasis when moving from the bass to the midrange, which gives the M21 a leg up in balance on the bass-monster M11+ and the v-shaped M6. If the M6 is recessed in the mids, the M21 is recessed (or, to put it in more positive terms, laid-back) across the range. The mids are similar in quality to the M11+ - a bit dry and thick in character and not as clear or detailed as those of the CX21 but still quite adequate in the context of the sound signature. To be fair, the CX21 does emphasize its midrange more than the M21 does and needs the extra bit of detail and clarity to avoid appearing muffled.

As is the case with the M11+, the treble of the M21 is not notably harsh or sibilant but doesn’t ooze smoothness, either, especially at high volumes. On some tracks the earphones appear a bit edgy but much of the time the treble is a bit laid-back, which provides a nice contrast to the more aggressive treble of the M6 and M11+. Compared to the M6 there’s a drop in sparkle and airiness as a result of the slightly more relaxed treble presentation but extension is still decent. The overall presentation falls somewhere between the M6 and M11+ - the M21 can be quite wide and airy-sounding but still doesn’t quite keep up with the large headstage and immersive 3D feel of my M6. On a couple of tracks the M21’s ability to portray distance threw me off guard but in general its presentation is best described as ‘well-rounded’. In fact, I think ‘well-rounded’ describes the whole earphone rather well. It should be noted that as with all of the M-series earphones I have heard, the M21 sounds best at lower volumes. It’s also, as far as I can tell, less sensitive than any of the other M-series earphones.

Value (8.5/10) – The Meelectronics M21 took me by surprise as a bit of a sidestep from the generally more bass-heavy M6, M11+, and M31 models. While the bass is definitely above baseline on the M21, the earphone still possesses decent balance and really doesn’t do a whole lot wrong for a set aimed at the mainstream market. Though it doesn’t have the wide headstage of the M6 or the midrange clarity and detail of the M11+, the more well-rounded M21 may just be my favourite M-series model regardless.

Pros: Well-built and easy-to-use; sound signature is solid all around
Cons: Yields to other Meelec models in specific sonic traits

 


(3A45) MEElectronics M31

Meelectronics M31 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Feb 2011

Details: Bass-heavy earphone from Meelec’s M-series available in a variety of colors
Current Price: $45 from meelec.com (MSRP: $44.99); $50 for M21P with microphone
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 96 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips, shirt clip, and clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (4.5/5) – The build is similar to the older M11/M11+ models although the M31 is quite large in comparison. The housings are all-metal, the cabling is sturdy and well-relieved, and paper filters protect the nozzles. The low-profile L-plug is a welcome change from the 45-degree plug of the M11
Isolation (3/5) – Fairly average due to large rear-facing vent
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Very low when worn cord-down; nonexistent otherwise
Comfort (3.5/5) – The M31 is a large earphone and is best worn with a shallower seal despite being tapered at the front for deeper insertion. It’s fairly light and the fit is quite inoffensive but doesn’t quite disappear the way the smaller M11 and M21 models do

Sound (5.7/10) – If the M21 is the most balanced M-series earphone I’ve heard so far, the M31 is the bassiest. It delivers gobs of head-pounding impact at the slightest indication of bass on a track. As one might guess, the bass boost does bring with it great sub-bass extension. However, that’s a bit of a hollow victory as the drivers don’t do a great job of texturing sub-bass response. More often than not, the bass is felt rather than heard. As with the M21, the low end of the M31 tends towards ‘boomy’. Expectedly, there’s a fair bit of midrange bleed and the mids of the M31 are slightly warmer than those of the M21 as a result. Aside from the differences brought about by the bass balance, however, the two earphones are fairly similar – the midrange of the M31 is not as clear or detailed as that of the CX21 and not as recessed as that of the M6. The heavy bass does make the mids sound a bit less emphasized than with the M21 but those seeking perfect balance probably won’t be looking a the M31 in the first place.

The treble transition seems a touch smoother with the M31, mostly because the bass is far more dominant, but the clarity, detail, and extension are all fairly similar to the M21. One major difference is in the presentation – while the M21 sounds spacious, well-rounded, and sometimes downright open, the boomier nature and more bass-heavy balance of the M31 reduces the airiness of the earphones. The presentation of the M31 is by no means offensive but it’s definitely closer in size to the M11+ than the M21 or M6. The peculiar balance of the earphones also gives them a darker overall tonality compared to the (fairly neutral) M21. Though none of these differences are particularly noticeable individually, they do add up to a different sort of sound en masse. It should be noted that at lower volumes the bass of the M31 isn’t as intrusive and they sound more balanced and natural. However, I still think that those who are not bass-obsessed need not apply as the M31 really isn’t better than the M21 from a technical standpoint – just bassier.

Value (7.5/10) – Yet another well-built and user-friendly design from Meelectronics, the M31 is an earphone with many strengths. At the same time, it is an unrelentingly bass-heavy take on the M-series sound signature and will not appeal to those looking for balance or accuracy. Its mainstream sound signature is competition for the likes of the Sony XB40EX and TDK EB900, and that’s how it should be viewed. For those looking for the most bass to be had under $50 with minimal sacrifices elsewhere, the M31 is a good option. For overall sound quality, I just don’t see myself picking it over the M21.

Pros: Huge bass response; solid build quality
Cons: Huge bass response; physically larger than M21 and M11+



(3A46) Xears TD-III v2

Xears TD-III V2 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Mar 2011 / updated Aug 2011

Details: Latest revision of one of Xears’ flagship in-ears
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: 42€)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: 124 dB | Freq: 6-28k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock bi-flanges, stock foamies, generic single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips, foamhybrid tips, and padded carrying pouch
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The TD-III is a wooden take on the Xears’ Turbine-inspired TD100/TD100-II design. As with the other Xears models the nozzles are made of metal and the black finish on the wooden part has a hand-painted feel to it. The strain relief is a bit too hard for my liking but should do the job. The current TD-III revision (v2) comes with a nylon-sheathed j-cord, much like the pricier N3i model. It feels sturdier and carries less noise than the old plastic cord but tends to tangle more. One thing that bothers me about the TD-III is the driver flex, which is similar or perhaps a bit greater than that of the old TD100 (The discontinued TD-III v1 came with a smooth, memory-free plastic-sheathed cable in a standard y-cord configuration)

Isolation (3.5/5) – Quite good, especially with the included bi-flange tips
Microphonics (4/5) – Surprisingly low for a cloth cable and helped further by the j-cord configuration

Comfort (4/5) – The fit is similar to that of the Monster Turbine earphones with straight-barrel housings rounded at the front for comfort. The TD-III shells have a weight advantage while Turbines come with nicer eartips. The j-cord may be annoying for some users and tends to make over-the-ear wear a bit of a hassle

Sound (7.6/10) – From memory, the new TD-III sounds quite similar to the Xears TD100 – the now-discontinued metal model I fell in love with back in August of 2010. Like the TD100, the TD-III has deep, full-bodied, and very impactful bass. The overall bass quantity of the TD-III is just a touch ahead of the Thinksound TS02 and Skullcandy Holua. Texture and detail are on-par with the (noticeably dryer-sounding) TS02 – an impressive feat for an earphone that sounds as smooth as the TD-III does. The attack and decay times are on-par with the Thinksounds as well - enjoyable even on fast-paced electronic tracks but still conducive to a slight thickness of note and faintly ‘lingering’ bass. Like the TD100, the TD-III will be a bit too bass-heavy for some but, as with the Monster Turbine, I really don’t find the quality of its bass offensive in the least.

There is a touch of bass bleed but nothing too bad – the Skullcandy Holua fares far worse and even the significantly leaner-sounding Woodees Blues don’t exactly shame the TD-III when it comes to resolution and control. The mids are warm, slightly forward, and extremely lush and sweet. Detail is good but the thickness does reduce the clarity ever so slightly compared to more analytical sets such as the RE0. The treble is, for the most part, very smooth and easily competes with the Woodees Blues in clarity and detail. Compared to the Woodees, the TD-III is a tiny bit less sparkly but still has very good treble presence. Like the midrange, the treble is a bit thick and lacks the air of some of the more analytical earphones. It is far from dull, however, and manages to keep my attention quite easily when necessary.

When it comes to presentation, the TD-III, like the TD100, manages to impress yet again. Soundstage width and depth are very good – easily the best among all of the reasonably-priced woodies I’ve heard - and instrumental separation is quite decent for a mid-range dynamic. The earphone is capable of delivering an excellent sense of distance but leans slightly towards intimacy. As a result, the musical experience provided by the TD-III is spacious but cohesive. The characteristic note thickness of the TD-III makes it more musical and satisfying but reduces air slightly. Imaging is still good, however, and the overall tone of the earphone is not made darker because of it. All in all, for an earphone with the bass power of the TD-III, the overall sound is surprisingly well-balanced and enjoyable. It is colored and exciting and I quite like it despite all of my analytical biases.

Value (9/10) – Right out of the box the TD-III annoys with moderate driver flex and perhaps offers up more bass power than I would like. Its accessory pack and general build quality don’t shame the competition, either, but it has one ace up its sleeve – the sound. A year or so ago, the sound quality of the TD-III would have been so completely out of place in its price bracket that the competition would be rendered irrelevant. Even today, the TD-III sets itself apart from the competing Woodees and Thinksound models by offering better top-to-bottom extension, a more spacious soundstage, and seductively liquid mids. For those who prioritize sound quality by a large margin as I do, the TD-III is easily the reasonably-priced wooden IEM to buy.

Pros: Very capable all-rounder with a bass-happy sound sig
Cons:
J-cord may be an issue for some; moderate driver flex, not gift-able for lack of packaging

For a longer review of the Xears TD-III, complete with comparisons to the Thinksound TS02, Woodees Blues, Skullcandy Holua, and Fischer Audio Daleth, see here

 

 

(3A47) PADACS Aksent

Padacs Aksent 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Mar 2011

Details: Unique-looking metal earphone from iPad accessory manufacturer PADACS

Current Price: $50 from padacs.com (MSRP: $49.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 98 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock foamhybrids, generic single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2.5/5) – Foamhybrid tips (3 sizes), shirt clip, and drawstring carrying pouch
Build Quality (4/5) – The gigantic metal housings are finished in glossy gunmetal paint and feel very sturdy. Paper filters protect the nozzles from earwax. At the other end, a rear vent provides increased airflow to the large dynamic driver and beefy strain reliefs protect the rubbery cable. The cable is of average thickness and terminates in a 3.5mm I-plug. A large unit holding the integrated microphone, 1-button remote, and sliding analogue volume control is positioned at the y-split
Isolation (3/5) – The foam tips provide a good seal and isolate well but the earphones are still vented dynamics and isolate accordingly
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Noise made by the rubberized cable is slightly below average and the included shirt clip helps lower it further. In addition, because the mic is integrated into the y-split, the Aksent can be worn over-the-ear much more easily than headsets with cable-mounted microphones
Comfort (3/5) – Though the housings are quite large, they weigh no more than those of the average metal-shelled earphone. The oversize foam tips are soft and compress quite easily, expanding to provide a stable seal even with shallower fitment. I do wish that the spacing between the tip set sizes were smaller, with maybe a fourth pair included to bridge the gap between the current ‘Medium’ and ‘Large’

Sound (6.6/10) – The Aksent is a decidedly bass-heavy earphone, with the powerful sound signature befitting the enormous housings of the earphones. The bass is about as impactful but slightly more rumble-prone than that of the Fischer Audio Eterna. Low-end extension is very good – again on-par with the Eterna – and the balance of the Aksent very nearly matches its bass quantity to the true bass-monster earphones in the <$50 range – sets such as the TDK EB900, Sony XB40EX, and MEElectronics M31. The bass is full-bodied and has a bit more impact than texture. In a way, the character and quantity of the bass actually work for the Aksent since its foam tips require a bit more fiddling to form an airtight seal than the silicone tips commonly used by most other manufacturers. Even with a poor seal, the Aksent is highly unlikely to elicit any complaints of insufficient bass. With a good seal, on the other hand, the Aksent may elicit complaints of excessive bass from those who prefer a more analytical sound. However, unlike the bass-heavy sets from Sony and TDK, the bass quality of the Aksent doesn’t suffer much in favor of quantity, though it isn’t quite as textured, controlled, or detailed as that of the pricier Eterna.

Expectedly, the huge bass boost of the Aksent does bleed slightly into the midrange, warming it up and coloring the sound signature. However, the midrange is not nearly as recessed as that of the Eterna, making the Aksent sound more balanced and allowing the volume to be kept lower without sacrificing midrange articulation. Generally, the mids are smooth, rich, and a little thick. Clarity and detail are decent for a bass-heavy earphone but the leaner-sounding midrange and treble of the Eterna are more technically proficient. Still, the Aksent performs very well considering its price and bass-heavy inclinations. The treble transition is extremely smooth and emphasis doesn’t drop off until well into the treble region, providing solid presence across the range. Top-end extension is decent as well, especially considering that the Aksent’s closest competitors in the headset realm are the MEElec M31P and Nuforce NE-700M, neither of which has a significant advantage in balance.

The presentation, similarly, is well-rounded and competent. The soundstage is average in size but layering is good. The huge bass has a tendency to be omnipresent in the sonic stage but that’s true of most reasonably-priced bassy earphones. The slight thickness of note also detracts slightly from instrumental separation though it is still easily as good as with Meelec’s similarly-priced M31 and M11+ models. On the whole, the Aksent doesn’t so much wow with anything in particular but impresses more with how little of a hit it takes in overall sound quality despite producing a copious amount of bass.

Value (8/10) – The Padacs Aksent in-ear earphones offer a unique blend of style, sound, and functionality at their (very popular) price point. The Aksent is the only reasonably-priced set I can think of to provide a smartphone mic and remote as well as a built-in analogue volume control. The large gunmetal housings are similarly unique and, while probably not ideal for those with small ears, remain quite comfortable with the provided foamhybrid eartips. The sound signature of the Aksent puts it closest to truly bass-heavy mid-level IEMs without sacrificing a whole lot in the mids and highs. While not at all revolutionary, the sound is sure to appeal to the mainstream consumer and, combined with the generally good build quality and isolation, makes for a solid mid-range headset.

Pros: Well-built and attractive; integrated microphone and analogue volume control; bass-heavy but still competent sound
Cons: Only foam tips included; large spacing between stock tip sizes; very large housings


For a full review of the PADACS Aksent please see here

 

 

(3A48) Denon AH-C360

Denon AH-C360 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Apr 2011

Details: Entry-level angled-nozzle earphone from Denon
Current Price: $49 from amazon.com (MSRP: $49.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 99 dB | Freq: 5-24k Hz | Cable: 2’ I-plug + 2.5’ L-plug extension
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (4/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (4 sizes), 2.5’ extension cable, shirt clip, and zippered clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The housings are plastic and the thin cable does not inspire a whole lot of confidence but the nozzles use mesh filters and the integrated strain reliefs work well
Isolation (2.5/5) – The housings are vented but the angled nozzles still allow for decent isolation
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Not too high in the smooth, plastic-sheathed cable but some may have difficulty wearing the C360 over-the-ear to eliminate cable noise completely
Comfort (4.5/5) – The angled-nozzle housings are extremely light and fit beautifully. The off-center cable exit point and rubbery housings further illustrate Denon’s attention to detail when it comes to ergonomics and convenience

Sound (4.7/10) – While the tuning of the AH-C360 is very indicative of their consumer-oriented nature, the somewhat v-shaped overall balance does stay true to the signature of the flagship AH-C710. The bass of the AH-C360 is big and somewhat bloated, though not quite as offensive as that of the Sennheiser CX300. Bass impact is fairly good and the low end is quite tactile and well-extended. Speed, texture, and detail, however, are all somewhat lacking, as one might expect from a budget-level earphone with this much bass. ‘Tight’ simply isn’t a word I would use to describe the low end of the C360.

The midrange is slightly warm and tends to be overshadowed by the bass. The upper midrange, while clear of bass bleed, is noticeably recessed. The resulting sound is slightly dull and lacks the fullness of sets such as the Meelec M21 and Brainwavz M1. Detail and clarity are, on the whole, decent but don’t break any barriers in the price tier. The similarly-priced Klipsch S3, despite similarly enhanced bass, has noticeably cleaner and crisper sound. Even the cheaper H2O Audio Flex walks all over the C360 when it comes to clarity and articulation.

The treble of the AH-C360 is hyped up in an attempt to balance out the sound signature. It does not, however, as the earphones still sound slightly dark on the whole. The top end of the AH-C360, instead of being laid-back and smooth as it is with most other budget bass monsters, is quite prominent at times and definitely runs the risk of listening fatigue for those sensitive to it. Surprisingly, the treble emphasis of the C360 manages to add edginess to the top end without any sparkle or air. Indeed, the entire sound is slightly stuffy despite the average-sized soundstage and decent imaging. If not for the strained and bloated bass, the AH-C360 could be a very good entry-level earphone, but it simply doesn’t offer enough refinement over other mainstream offerings to stand out from the crowd.

Value (6/10) – The Denon AH-C360 is one of the many bass-heavy entry-level earphones offered by mainstream manufacturers. While it is less bloated than the ever-popular Sennheiser CX300 and Skullcandy TiTans, the overall sound quality of the C360 is really nothing to write home about. Neither are the isolation or build quality – both are merely adequate – and, while the angled-nozzle housings are extremely comfortable, the modular cable and low y-split may annoy some users. Further price cuts may bring the AH-C360 down into ‘must buy’ territory but as it stands, Denon’s budget model really doesn’t have a leg up on the competition.

Pros: Superb comfort
Cons: Modular cable can be frustrating; sub-par frequency balance



(3A49) H2O Audio Surge Pro Mini

H2O Audio Surge Pro Mini 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Apr 2011

Details: BA-based waterproof earphone from H2O Audio
Current Price: $51 from jr.com (MSRP: $99.99)
Specs: Driver: BA | Imp: 56Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 18-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 6mm | Preferred tips: Stock single flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear

Accessories (2/5) – Single-flange conical silicone tips (5 sizes) & foamhybrid tips (2 sizes)
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The housings are made out of a tough plastic and feel solid. The cable is medium in thickness and sheathed in blue plastic. Small rubber sleeves take the place of strain reliefs on cord entry and a 2” long strain relief, designed to work with waterproof mp3 player cases, protects the 3.5mm plug. And yes, they will survive prolonged exposure to sweat and/or water
Isolation (3/5) – Quite good, especially with longer tips
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Bothersome when worn cord-down; tolerable with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (4/5) – The Surge comes with five sizes of unusually thick elastomer tips, which require some getting used to for those of us accustomed to silicone. Getting a good seal with them takes careful selection of the right size but once sealed the earphones will stay in surprisingly well even during intense physical activity. The housings are also very small and light – on par with the entry-level Flex model. Several days may be required for the cables to break in for over-the-ear wear

Sound (6.2/10) – H2O Audio’s dynamic-driver Surge and Flex models both managed to impress me with the competency of their sound despite the waterproof coating applied to the drivers. The single balanced armature transducer used by the Pro Mini is a bit less fortunate, losing speed, clarity, and articulation compared to all but the cheapest armature-based competitors, but still performs very well next to the other waterproof earphones I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. At the bottom end the Pro Mini lacks a bit of extension – those looking for sub-bass rumble and slam will probably want to stay away. On the whole, however, the bass is quite tight and punchy. Impact is decent for a single BA, falling just a hair behind the pricier Meelec A151 and Westone 1. Don’t expect Ety-like control out of these but they fare about as well as a consumer-oriented sub-$100 BA should.

Expectedly, the midrange is completely free of bass bleed. Detail and texture are decent but the clarity seems to drop a notch compared to my armature-based Apple Dual-Drivers and Meelec A151s as well as some of the more analytical dynamics in the price range. As a result, the mids of the Surge Pro Mini sound just a tad muffled. Balance-wise I would call the earphones slightly mid-centric in that no part of the frequency spectrum takes attention away from the midrange and the treble and bass both roll off gently at the very top/bottom. Both the midrange and treble are quite smooth even next to the darker-sounding Meelec A151. There is just a bit of sparkle at the top end but nothing that would make them harsh or sibilant except at the highest of volumes (which itself are impractical for reasons outlined below). Top-end extension isn’t the greatest either but quite reasonable for a single-armature design.

The presentation of the earphones is competent but far from outstanding. The soundstage is slightly below-average in width and depth. Arguably, soundstage size benefits from a shallower seal although using the earphones in their waterproof capacity rules out shallow fitment. Separation is generally good but the drivers seem to run out of steam on very fast and busy tracks. They are still quicker and more resolving than the dynamic drivers used in the Surge and Flex models but the spread in favor of the Pro Mini is smaller than I expected. Tonally, the earphones are fairly neutral – more so than the dark-ish A151s or the brighter Apple Dual-Drivers. There is one more thing worth mentioning – the Surge Pro Mini exhibits some sort of driver flex when inserted. Since it is an armature-based earphone, the effect cannot be driver flex in the traditional sense but the sound put out by the earphones does change dramatically if a lot of pressure is applied on them while maintaining an airtight seal. In their normal, non-pressurized configuration, the Minis are also extremely difficult to drive to high volumes. While they don’t benefit from a dedicated amp from an SQ perspective, they really are very quiet at my normal listening volumes. With the Cowon J3 – a relatively powerful device as far as portable players go – I often found myself cranking the volume to 25/40 or higher just to get reasonable volume out of these.

Value (8/10) – The H2O Audio Surge Pro Mini is a purpose-built underwater listening device that, like H2O’s lower-end models, sacrifices surprisingly little in the way of functionality and sound quality for the sake of shrugging off moisture. The single balanced armature produces balanced and neutral sound and performs remarkably well on all but the busiest tracks. The earphones do require a lot of power to get up to listening volume and the accessory pack is more modest than that of the cheaper Surge model but other than that I have no real complaints about the Pro Mini. For those in search of earphones that can withstand a large amount of moisture and still maintain a focus on accuracy and realism over thumping bass and tonal coloration, these are the ones to get.

Pros: Waterproof, reasonably well-built, secure fit, balanced and competent sound
Cons: 2” strain relief may not work well with tiny players, elastomer tips can take some getting used to, likes power


Big thanks to Marcus_C for loaning me the Surge Pro Mini

 

 

(3A50) Xears Resonance Black

Xears Resonance 400x300.jpg
Reviewed May 2011

Details: Angled-nozzle earphone from Xears slotting in below the TD-III in the product line
Current Price: est $45 (30€) from xears.com with coupon code KLANGFUZZIS (MSRP: 35€)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: 6-28k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrid
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (2.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and padded carrying pouch
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The Resonance features tubby angled-nozzle housings with an aluminum rear chamber and plastic at the front. The slightly stiff rubbery cable is shared with TD-III and other Xears models and lacks a sliding cinch
Isolation (3/5) – The design of the resonance prohibits deep insertion but the isolation is still quite good with well-sealing tips
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Tolerable but the Resonance is difficult to wear cable-up so the cable noise cannot be eliminated completely
Comfort (4.5/5) – The angled-nozzle housings of the resonance are wider at the front than the rear, preventing deep insertion. The form factor is reminiscent of the Denon C710 - over-the-ear fitment can be difficult and larger-than-usual tips may be required for a good seal

Sound (7.2/10) – The sound signature of the Resonance falls fairly close to that of the now-defunct Xears TD100 and the higher-end Xears TD-III – emphasized mid-bass, smooth mids, and competent treble with some sparkle. The bass of the Resonance is powerful but controlled and sounds cleaner and crisper than that of the TD-III on sparse tracks. However, the TD-III is generally quicker and maintains composure better as things get busy. The bass of the TD-III also carries slightly more emphasis overall compared to the Resonance, though low-end extension is similarly impressive on both.

Not surprisingly, the Resonance is not quite as warm, full-bodied, or forward in the midrange as the TD-III. Its midrange is leaner and a bit crisper, with similar clarity and slightly more aggressive detailing. The upper midrange and treble are less laid-back with the Resonance, making it a touch less forgiving of sibilant recordings. On the whole it is still a very smooth and non-fatiguing earphone. Treble sparkle is low-to-moderate in quantity and top-end extension is decent – similar to the Brainwavz M2 with its gently rolled-off treble. The balance of the Resonance is undoubtedly better, however, with the slightly recessed midrange being far less distracting compared to the powerful, forward mids of the M2.

The presentation of the Resonance is solid as well – the soundstage is smaller than that of the TD-III but the feel of the earphone is, in general, less intimate, putting a greater amount of space between listener and music. Sonic cues are laid out in a convincing manner and the superior treble presence of the Resonance adds a bit of air as well. Separation lags slightly behind the higher-end model but isn’t too bad on the whole. An interesting note – the Resonance is generally a touch less sensitive than the TD-III, achieving lower volumes at the same output level, but still works far better with ‘clean’ sources such as portable amps and players.

Value (8/10) – Giving up a couple of points here and there to the higher-end TD-III model, the Xears Resonance nevertheless holds up quite well in its price range. Though the TD-III stays cleaner when things get busy and provides more of a ‘wow’ factor in casual listening, I actually prefer the slightly less bottom-heavy signature of the Resonance and its more distancing presentation. In terms of usability, the angled-nozzle housings give up a bit of isolation for a comfortable, shallow-insertion form factor and allow the Resonance to exhibit less driver flex than any of the other Xears models. In conjunction with the lower price tag, that makes it worth a look in my book.

Pros: Solid sound quality with a popular signature; ergonomic form factor
Cons: Difficult to wear over-the-ear



(3A51) Xears Power Systems PS120PRO

Xears PS120PRO 400x300.jpg
Reviewed May 2011

Details: Bass-oriented IEM from Xears
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: 38€)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: N/A | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and padded carrying pouch
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The PS120PRO features black-and-blue metal housings with a filtered rear vent. Metal mesh screens protect the nozzles and an inch-long piece of flexible tubing acts as a strain relief. The cord is rubbery and a bit stiff. Mild driver flex is present
Isolation (3/5) – Slightly below that of the TD-III but quite passable overall
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Not too bad but the PS120PRO is difficult to wear cable-up due to the long rubber strain relief
Comfort (4/5) – The housing shape of the PS120PRO is not all that different from that of the TD-III and the fit is quite similar overall. One major difference is the clear tubing that acts as a strain relief on the PS120PRO, which is actually detrimental to over-the-ear fitment, causing the cable to pop out from behind the ear on occasion. The lack of a cable cinch does not help

Sound (6.7/10) – The PS120PRO is yet another Xears earphone following the heavy-bass, laid-back treble approach to audio. The balance of the PS120 combines the powerful low end of the higher-end TD-III with the slightly recessed midrange of the similarly-priced Resonance to create an even more bottom-heavy sound than the other two earphones. Bass depth and impact are impressive, keeping up with the TD-III, but the bass hump of the PS120 actually reaches higher up the frequency spectrum. Both the Resonance and TD-III are quicker, cleaner, and more detailed when it comes to bass presentation, though the difference is not night-and-day. The PS120 carries slower attack and decay times, resulting in the illusion of even greater bass quantity.

Expectedly, the PS120PRO is warmer and fuller-sounding than the Resonance. The midrange lacks a little bit of focus as a result of the bass dominance and can sound a touch muddy on tracks with lots of bass. The note presentation of the PS120 is soft and slightly thick, leaning away from the more crisp-sounding Resonance towards a fuller, weightier sound. The midrange of the PS120 is very smooth, as is the treble. Overall treble emphasis is similar to the TD-III – laid-back but not really lacking. That said, the TD-III has a bit more sparkle and extension. Presentation-wise, the PS120 leans towards intimacy, like the TD-III, but is a bit less airy and not as spacious. Indeed, soundstage size is about average for an earphone in the price range although layering is still good. On the point of general usability, the sensitivity of the PS120 is similar to that of the TD-III and the earphone is not particularly tolerant of poorly matched sources.

Value (7.5/10) – The Xears PS120PRO offers a competent, fairly inoffensive take on the warm and bass-heavy sound so popular with the mainstream consumer. It can be thought of as a natural all-around upgrade to something like the Sennheiser CX300 – a commendable earphone with few flaws and an overall ‘likable’ sound signature. However, those looking for a quicker earphone with above-average detail and resolution will probably want to shell out the extra 12€ for the TD-III.

Pros: Competent take on a bass-heavy sound signature; user-friendly overall
Cons: A bit difficult to wear over-the-ear; mild driver flex

 


(3A52) Xears XR120PRO II

Xears XR120PRO 400x300.jpg
Reviewed June 2011

Details: Deep-insertion dynamic-driver IEM from Xears
Current Price: est $45 (30€) from xears.com with coupon code KLANGFUZZIS (MSRP: 40€)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 10-25k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug J-cord
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges, sony hybrids
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2.5/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) silicone tips, bi-flange silicone tips, and soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The XR120PRO II features black-and-silver metal housings with metal mesh nozzle screens and adequate strain relief on housing entry. The j-cord is rubbery and a bit stiff. Moderate driver flex is present
Isolation (3.5/5) – Slightly above that of the TD-III and quite good overall
Microphonics (4/5) – Not bad due to the j-cord setup
Comfort (3.5/5) – The XR120 is a straight-barrel earphone with elongated nozzles and tapered housings. It likes smaller tips and deep insertion but is generally quite comfortable. The j-cord may be annoying for some

Sound (7.7/10) – The XR120 is the first Xears earphone I’ve heard that places no emphasis on the lower half of the frequency spectrum. Instead, its bass is tight, quick, and controlled. There is no mid-bass hump and the low end rolls off gently below 50Hz - those in search of bass depth and rumble will definitely be better off with one of the other Xears earphones. Mediocre extension aside, the accuracy and detail of the XR120’s low end are very difficult to fault. The note presentation is leaner than with the other Xears earphones but on the whole the bass is still more visceral than that of higher-end analytical earphones such as the RE-ZERO or Etymotic MC5. There really is a bit of a two-faced nature to the XR120’s bass – it is able to alternate between powerful and subdued depending on the track, balancing fun and accuracy in a single earphone.

The midrange is crisp and clear, beating out the similarly-priced Maximo iM-590 and all of the other Xears models I’ve tried. The mids are balanced well with the rest of the spectrum and exhibit rather neutral tonality – the XR120 is warmer than the new Sunrise Xcited but cooler than the HiFiMan RE-ZERO. Microdetail and resolution lag very slightly behind models like the RE-ZERO, Xcited, and CC51 but for a cheaper earphone the XR120 is extremely competitive on both counts. One thing it does well is discriminate between background and foreground detail – many of the cheaper analytical earphones can push detail on the listener indiscriminately but only a few have the ability to create nuanced and convincing sound approaching the level of higher-end sets like the RE0 and Brainwavz M3.

The treble of the XR120 is clear and sparkly. While not as effortless or extended as the RE0, the XR120 lacks neither treble quantity nor quality and is clearly more extended at the top than the other Xears models. Again breaking from the mold set by its siblings, the XR120 is quite unforgiving of harshness and sibilance on tracks but stops short of being overly edgy. Transparency and refinement are not top-tier but they are impressive considering the price and contribute to the XR120’s lively yet accurate sound. The presentation, similarly, is well-rounded and convincing. While there is definitely more width than height or depth to the presentation of the XR120, the tubular nature of the soundstage is not nearly as pronounced as it is with the Sunrise Xcited. Instrument separation is quite good but the XR120 doesn’t keep up with the layering and imaging of something like the RE-ZERO. Clearly the more three-dimensional earphone, the RE-ZERO has the upper hand when it comes to soundstaging but the XR120 still fares better in width and airiness.

Value (8.5/10) – Great sound at the expense of packaging, accessories, and sometimes build quality is what I’ve come to expect from Xears earphones. With the XR120PRO II, however, the disparity between performance and presentation is greater than ever. The host of potential caveats this time around is fairly long – the earphones are j-corded, prone to driver flex, and require a deep seal – but the sonic performance is on par with the very best I’ve heard at the price point. I wouldn’t gift the XR120 to a non-audiophile but those who are willing to live with the minor quirks may just be very, very pleasantly surprised with the sound quality.

Pros: Clear, detailed, and enjoyable sound; balanced without sounding dull
Cons: J-cord may be bothersome; moderate driver flex; deep bass roll-off; likes deep insertion

 

 

(3A53) Skullcandy Holua

 

Skullcandy Holua 400x300.jpg

Reviewed Jun 2011

 

Details: Wooden in-ear from Skullcandy

Current Price: $46 from amazon.com (MSRP: $99.95); $49 for mic-and-remote version

Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 18-20k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug

Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges

Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

 

Accessories (3.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), Comply foam tips, and hemp clamshell carrying case with mesh lid

Build Quality (2.5/5) – Skullcandy clearly took the wood theme close to heart with the Holua – not only is the driver chamber made of wood, but so are the nozzles and stems. The housings feel reasonably solid but the nylon-sheathed cable tends to kink. In addition, the hideous plastic mic/remote unit looks like it came out of a cereal box and there are no strain reliefs anywhere on the earphone. Left/right markings are missing as well and moderate driver flex is present

Isolation (3/5) – The rounded housings contribute to fairly decent isolation and the included Comply tips are always a plus for isolation

Microphonics (3/5) – Bothersome when worn cable-down; fine otherwise

Comfort (4/5) – The housings of the Holua are very lightweight and rounded at the front for comfortable fitment. Stock tips are of good quality and a set of Comply foamies is included. One slight issue with over-the-ear wear is the nylon cable popping out from behind the ear due to a lack of shirt clip and cable cinch/p>

 

Sound (4.5/10) – The Holua feels right at home competing against bass-heavy wooden earphones from Thinksound and Xears. Quantitatively, the Holua has a bit less bass than the Xears TD-III but its low end is slower and more boomy in character. Next to the competition the Holua suffers from a relative lack of bass control, which causes it to sound slightly muddy and lacking in resolution. Expectedly, the bass does bleed into the midrange, which otherwise has good presence and decent clarity. The Holua is a warm earphone but usually manages to keep up with the cheaper Fischer Audio Daleth in clarity, if only just. In terms of balance, the mids are a touch forward but still manage to be somewhat veiled at all times. On the upside, the midrange and treble are very smooth – more so than with the metallic-sounding Skullcandy TiTans or the entry-level Ink’d buds. The lower treble is balanced well with the mids, mostly by virtue of several flattened peaks, but upper treble is slightly recessed. Treble extension and resolution are average.

 

The presentation of the Holua is good for a Skullcandy product but really doesn’t keep up with the other earphones in its price bracket. The soundstage is below average in width and depth and fails to escape the mild congestion that plagues most mainstream entry-level earphones. Instrumental separation is mediocre as well, especially when a track is muddied up by the bass though, to be fair, the cheaper FMJ model fares far worse. The Holua is still the best Skullcandy earphone I’ve heard and puts up a decent, if uninspired, performance. It is not quite the shift towards sound quality that I was hoping for from one of Skullcandy’s priciest in-ears but, at the very least, I can easily listen to the Holua for any length of time without losing the will to live (which can’t be said for the FMJ).

 

Value (5.5/10) – The Skullcandy Holua is not a bad product per se – the accessory pack, fit, isolation, and even build quality (with Skullcandy’s lifetime warranty factored in) are on-par with the most of the big-brand IEMs in its price range. However, similar sound quality can easily be had for less money and even those looking specifically for a wooden in-ear with mic should be able to pick up a Woodees IESW100B for less. What it comes down to, then, is the looks and the warranty – the only two factors making the Holua stand in a very busy market segment.

 

Pros: Lightweight and comfortable; Comply tips included; lifetime warranty

Cons: Moderate driver flex; frustrating nylon cable; sub-par sound quality

 

A longer review with comparisons against the Fischer Audio Daleth, Thinksound TS02, Woodees Blues, and Xears TD-III can be found here

 

 

(3A54) Soundmagic E30

Soundmagic E30 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Jul 2011

Details: Soundmagic’s follow-up to one of Head-Fi’s favourite budget IEMs
Current Price: $40 from miccastore.com.com (MSRP: $40)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 12Ω | Sens: 94 dB | Freq: 15-22k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock bi-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear

Accessories (3.5/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips, cable guides, shirt clip, and soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (3.5/5) – My old PL30 is still going strong after 2.5 years of near-constant use so I expected nothing less from the E30. However, the construction of the E30 is more similar to the PL50 with its glossy finish and short plastic strain reliefs. The cable seems identical to the old PL30 cord, being rubbery and a little thin, but Soundmagic have added a strain relief to the y-split and a metal shell to the 3.5mm I-plug. The bass switch, which was of no real use on the PL30, is gone
Isolation (2/5) – better nozzle angle means slightly more isolation than with the PL30
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Pretty much non-existent, especially with cable guides or shirt clip in place
Comfort (5/5) – The E30 is slimmer and smaller than the PL30 and boasts a more ergonomic nozzle angle. I do miss the foam tips that came with the PL30 but otherwise the E30 is about as comfortable as any in-ear

Sound (7.1/10) – The old Soundmagic PL30 was one of my favourite budget earphones due to a uniquely spacious and balanced sound with a slight mid-range emphasis – not a signature commonly found in the lower price brackets. With the new E30, the dynamic-driver monitor has been bumped to a higher price category. Fortunately, the sound quality seems to have kept up with the price increase, and then some.

The low end of the E30 has been emboldened, receiving a more prominent role in the overall soundscape compared to the old PL30. Next to the midrange, the bass is emphasized only mildly but compared to the laid-back bottom end of the PL30, the difference is quite large. Extension has been improved and the low end now sounds fuller and more impactful. Bass notes have more realistic weight and more drawn-out attack and decay times. Though I don’t mind the balance of the PL30 in the least, I’ll be the first to admit that the low end of the E30 sounds more natural in comparison. Still, the new earphone is by no means a bass monster and those who were previously in the PL30 camp will enjoy it much more than adherents of bass-heavy budget sets such as the MEElec M9.

The midrange of the E30 is just a touch less forward than that of the PL30 but seems more laid-back due to the greater bass emphasis of the new earphone. Despite its balance, the E30 actually manages to sound a little cooler in tone, and closer to what I would consider neutral. As with the PL30, the clarity will be enviable for the vast majority of similarly-priced IEMs, but the E30 also makes gains in detail and texture compared to its predecessor, sounding smooth and refined without major sacrifices in resolution.

The treble of the E30 is balanced well with the midrange, taking at most a half-step back in emphasis. It sounds clean and clear but not overly crisp as with the similarly-priced MEElec CX21. Top-end extension is sufficient – on par with the CX21 and Brainwavz M1. Music, as presented by the E30, generally sounds airy and open, helped along by better dynamics compared to the PL30 and a similarly large soundstage. Though it may not sound quite as wide as the PL30 in absolute terms, imaging and positioning are slightly improved and the whole presentation is more convincing and refined. Lastly, Soundmagic has managed to drop the sensitivity of the earphone a bit, which makes it far less likely to hiss heavily with a poorly matched source.

Value (8.5/10) – As well-liked as the old PL30 was in its price bracket, it is no competition for the modern sub-$50 heavyweights from the likes of MEElec and Brianwavz. The new E30, however, is a different matter. Making far fewer sacrifices to obtain the clarity and spaciousness many found so impressive about its predecessor, the E30 sounds more natural and refined. I see very few people preferring the old model to the new one in signature and even fewer arguing that they are similar in technical performance. I do have a couple of reservations worth voicing – the accessory pack, for one, has taken a dip into mediocrity with the new soft pouch and exclusion of foam tips, and the glossy plastic housings look slightly cheap next to the rubberized finish of my PL30. Barring these small complaints, the E30 is clearly one of the better overall performers at its price point.

Pros: Lightweight and extremely comfortable, spacious sound with slight bass emphasis
Cons: Mediocre isolation



(3A55) Blue Ever Blue 886B

Blue Ever Blue 866B 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Jul 2011

Details: HDSS earphone from Blue Ever Blue, the new earphone division of the BioLinks brand
Current Price: $40 from amazon.com (MSRP: $40)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 92 dB | Freq: 22-20k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Sony hybrids, stock single flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (3/5) – The machined aluminum housings are lightweight, sturdy, and not bad to look at. The nozzles are protected by metal mesh filters and the housings generally feel well-made. Sadly, things go downhill from there as the generic, rubbery cable and minimal strain reliefs inspire little confidence
Isolation (2.5/5) – About average for vented, straight-barrel earphone
Microphonics (3/5) – Slightly worse than average and not helped by the lack of a cable cinch and shirt clip; tolerable with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (4.5/5) – The tapered housings of the 886B are lightweight and comfortable. The earphone does not require a deep seal to sound good and the cables are soft and flexible. The stock tips are quite decent as well

Sound (6.1/10) – The 886B, like all Blue Ever Blue earphones, utilizes ETL technology to absorb the energy of reflected waves in the driver chamber, preventing resonance and distortion. Or at least, that’s what theory dictates. The technology was originally used in speaker cabinets and its application to portable audio is fairly new. It is difficult to say, therefore, what the exact effect of ETL implementation is on the Blue Ever Blue earphones – much as with manufacturer claims of resonance being affected by choice of housing materials, the effect of ETL would need to be tested against a proper control to verify the manufacturer’s lofty claims.

Regardless of the technology’s mode of action and end goals, there is little doubt that for an entry-level product, the 866B sounds quite good. I don’t know about the claims of “smooth, layered sound” and “pure tone”, but the earphone is fairly neutral and quite enjoyable, if not technically flawless. The bass is probably its weakest point for me – it’s got good depth and impact but lacks a bit of definition and can overpower the rest of the range. The ability of the bass to step forward and crowd out the (prominent) midrange of the earphones despite the 866B not being a bass monster can be slightly off-putting at first but the balance works most of the time. It really is only in direct comparisons with some of the better earphones in the price range that the 866B starts losing ground in low-end clarity and control.

The 866B performs more consistently in the midrange, which is prominent and slightly full. There is a mild thickness of note and the clarity and detail still lag behind competing sets such as the Soundmagic E30 but one the whole the mids are quite realistic for the price. The tone of the earphones is very slightly on the dark side of neutral and doesn’t seem to suffer from the bass boost. The treble is, for the most part, inoffensive, with a very slight bit of roughness and a small amount of presence missing at the very top. It’s not as crisp as that of the MEElec CX21, but it’s not wooly or overly soft, either.

The presentation is a bit less impressive than the midrange and treble performance but still quite good. The slight thickness of the 866B causes it sound a little congested and the earphone lacks the wide-open feel of the Soundmagic E30. Layering is good but the size of the stage is average, with the presentation leaning towards intimacy. The dynamics of the earphone lagging behind the competition from Soundmagic and Brainwavz don’t help matters much. With a leaner-sounding earphone, the presentation of the 866B would likely work much better. As is, it just comes across sounding slightly ‘concentrated’ and lacking a bit of refinement compared to the real heavy-hitters in the price range.

Value (7/10) – The Blue Ever Blue 866B performs well enough for the asking price and offers a very user-friendly, if basic, design. Several years ago the 866B would have scored very highly as an overall package but lovers of budget IEMs have been spoiled not just by the ridiculous performance offered by some of today’s earphones, but also by the build quality and overall attention to detail, which are being taken further still by the likes of Dunu. The entire earphone seems to be as much a proof of concept as a finished product and while I do appreciate the claims made by the HDSS standard, for the purposes of this review the technology is only worth as much as the end result. The sound of the earphone is cohesive and enjoyable for an entry-level product but there are options that sound just as good without the generic construction and barebones accessory pack.

Pros: Lightweight and comfortable; nice midrange and treble
Cons: Mediocre cabling; could be tighter at the low end

 

 

(3A56) Soundmagic E10

Soundmagic E10 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Jul 2011

Details: Straight-barrel Soundmagic IEM slotted just below the E30 in the lineup
Current Price: $35 from miccastore.com (MSRP: $34.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 100 dB | Freq: 15-22k Hz | Cable: 3.9’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Generic bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3.5/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips, shirt clip, and soft carrying bag
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The E10 is available in a variety of color options and features two-tone metal shells with metal nozzle filters and Soundmagic’s usual color-coded strain reliefs. The materials of the strain reliefs and cable look a bit cheap but do the job. The rubbery cabling and well-relieved y-split and I-plug are similar to those on the E30 model
Isolation (2.5/5) – Being a more conventional straight-barrel design, the E10 isolates slightly more than the E30 does
Microphonics (4/5) – Surprisingly low when worn cable-down considering how rubbery the cord is. Nearly nonexistent when worn cord-up
Comfort (3.5/5) – The E10 uses a conventional straight-barrel design. The housings are a bit wide at the front and have short nozzles, preventing deep insertion. The stock tips aren’t particularly great, either, but switching to softer single-flanges allowed for good long-term wearing comfort

Sound (7/10) – If Soundmagic’s new E30 is the long-awaited upgrade to the balanced and neutral PL30 model, the E10 is a spiritual successor to Soundmagic’s bass-heavy entry-level sets of old. More forward and aggressive than the E30 on the whole, the E10 offers up gobs of bass power and impact on cue. The low end of the E10 is well-extended, reaching deep and hitting hard. It stops just short of the impact offered up by the MEElec M9 but boasts greater clarity, control, and resolution. The nature of the bass is slightly soft and the punch is diminished by the rounded note presentation but, as with the E30, the notes have good weight. The low end of the pricier E30 is a bit leaner and bleeds a touch less but on the whole the E10 does a good job of preserving the quality despite much greater bass quantity.

The midrange of the E10 is slightly less prominent than the low end but it is still more forward than that of the E30. The bassier nature of the E10 brings on a slightly warmer tonality but on the whole the two earphones share more similarities than differences in the mids and treble. Despite the bass emphasis, midrange clarity of the E10 is good and resolution nearly matches that of the E30. Treble extension is again highly reminiscent of the higher-end model, as is the nature of the treble – clean and clear but not hard or edgy. The top end is not entirely smooth but nothing offends which, with rare exceptions, seems to be the norm for the better earphones in the price range.

The E10 is a fairly forward earphone but that doesn’t stop it from possessing a surprisingly spacious soundstage. Compared to the E30, it sounds a touch narrower and less airy but still manages to impress. Though leaning towards a more intimate presentation on the whole, the E10 retains the ability to throw sonic cues a good distance and sounds more convincingly layered than almost all of my other reasonably-priced bass-heavy IEMs. The Blue Ever Blue 866B, for example, seems very small and congested compared to the E10. Lastly, it is worth noting that the E10 is more sensitive than the higher-end E30 and will reach louder output volumes. At extreme listening levels the bass does begin to distort very slightly, but one would have to either be deaf or highly interested in becoming deaf to turn them up that loud. Background hiss is slightly more noticeable than with the E30 but still nowhere near as much of an issue as it was with the old PL30.

Value (8.5/10) – Soundmagic has been in the business long enough to know what works and what doesn’t. It is no surprise, then, that the E10 complements the pricier E30 model perfectly, pairing a more consumer-friendly form factor with a more consumer-friendly sound signature. The bass grunt of the E10 is impressive and yet has little negative effect on the overall performance. Likewise the aggressive presentation does not completely sacrifice the spaciousness that has made certain Soundmagic IEMs so popular in the past. There are earphones that offer a bit more for your money in the way of accessories, build quality, and isolation but few can compete with the E10 when it comes to providing impactful and enjoyable sound at a very reasonable price.

Pros: Low cable noise; pleasant, bass-heavy sound
Cons: Tubby housings may be difficult to fit for some; stock eartips could be better

 

 

(3A57) Xears Nature N3i

 

Xears Nature N3i 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Aug 2011

Details: In-ear headset from Xears
Current Price: est $45 (30€) from xears.com with coupon code KLANGFUZZIS (MSRP: 89,90€)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: 6-28k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug j-cord
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: generic single-flange; stock foam
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3/5) –Single-flange (3 sizes), bi-flange, and tri-flange silicone tips, foamhybrid tips, and padded carrying pouch
Build Quality (3.5/5) – Like the other high-end Xears models, the N3i uses painted wood and metal housings and metal nozzle filters. The sturdy nylon-sheathed cord does not kink the way some of the thinner ones do but can tangle a bit compared to the old Xears cables. Some driver flex is present
Isolation (2.5/5) – Moderate with silicone tips and a bit better with the foamies. The large housings prevent deep insertion
Microphonics (4/5) – Surprisingly low for a cloth cable and helped further by the j-cord configuration
Comfort (3/5) – The housings are lightweight but quite large in diameter and clearly designed for a shallow fit. Unfortunately, the combination of j-cord and inline mic integrated into the y-split makes the N3i impractical to wear over-the-ear and the stock silicone tips leave a bit to be desired

Sound (7.8/10) – The sound of the Xears Nature N3i bears a resemblance to that of Xears’ previous higher-end woody, the TD-III Blackwood, with the major differences being a slightly larger soundstage and less mid-forward balance. The bass of the N3i is the most powerful and prominent of Xears in-ears I’ve heard, narrowly beating out the PS120 and TD-III. The sub-bass is more powerful than with the XE200 and the entire low end is boomier and more full-bodied. Part of the reason is longer note sustainment – the N3i tends to have longer decay times than the other Xears in-ears. Impact is very sizeable and will probably be excessive for some but the N3i still manages to sound clean and resolving compared to the majority of bass-heavy mid-range earphones.

The mids are very smooth, as with the TD-III, but the N3i is slightly less forward in the midrange, which is partly responsible for the greater prominence of its bass. The midrange is by no means recessed but bass bleed is slightly more noticeable and the whole sound signature is richer, warmer, and thicker compared to the TD-III. Texture lags slightly behind the XE200PRO and is about on par with the TD-III, as are detail and clarity. For an earphone with a sound signature that places so much emphasis on the low end, the overall cleanliness of the N3i is enviable but unfortunately the clarity can be difficult to appreciate with all of that bass drawing attention to itself. In direct comparisons to other bass-heavy sets, however the clarity of the N3i shines and even the far more balanced Spider Realvoice could not beat the clarity or detail of the Xears on tracks where the bass did not overwhelm.

The treble of the N3i is low on sparkle but has good clarity and detail. It is not the sort of crisp, clinical treble found on some of my favourite analytical earphones but it works well to compliment the bass and midrange. It extends well enough upward and easily matches the other Xears models in overall proficiency. Presentation, on the other hand, is what most certainly sets the N3i apart from the already-spacious TD-III and lesser Xears models. The TD-III is already well above average in terms of the space it produces but the N3i sounds bigger still. The soundstage extends farther in all directions and whereas the TD-III leans very slightly towards intimacy, the N3i images more evenly across the sonic space. It can be fairly intimate when necessary but is also capable producing very good ambience. Instrumental separation is moderate, as with the TD-III, and airiness lags slightly behind the XE200 and XR120 models. On the whole it is a very solid presentation with a headphone-like feel and even well-tuned competitors like the Spider Realvoice sound a bit small next to the N3i.

Value (9/10) – The suggested retail price for the N3i is quite high but the current sale price drops it right in the midst of the overpopulated mid-range bracket. For that price the build quality of the N3i is quite good and the day-to-day usability passable for those who can live with the j-cord and gargantuan housings. Signature-wise, the N3i is the most impactful of the three high-end wooden Xears models but still retains impressive technical ability and a large, engrossing presentation. It gives a sense of limitless power and makes no compromises and no attempts at civility with its signature. Quite simply, if you really like bass and can live with the form factor, the current price makes the N3i one of the best deals in portable audio.

Pros: Great overall sound quality; low cable noise
Cons: Large housings; moderate driver flex; not giftable for lack of packaging; j-cord may be an issue for some; bass can be too prominent


(3A58) Xears XE200PRO

 

Xears XE200PRO 400x300.jpg

Reviewed Aug 2011

Details: Flagship in-ear from Germany-based Xears
Current Price: est $45 (30€) from xears.com with coupon code KLANGFUZZIS (MSRP: 89,90€)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: 6-28k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: generic single-flange; stock foam
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes), bi-flange, and tri-flange silicone tips, foamhybrid tips, and padded carrying pouch
Build Quality (3.5/5) – Like the other high-end Xears models, the XE200PRO uses painted wood and metal housings and metal nozzle filters. The sturdy nylon-sheathed cord does not kink the way some of the thinner ones do but can tangle a bit compared to the old Xears cords. The strain reliefs are ample and driver flex is low compared to the other Xears earphones
Isolation (2.5/5) – Moderate with silicone tips and a bit better with the foamies. The large housings prevent deep insertion
Microphonics (4/5) – Surprisingly low for a cloth cord and even better with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (3.5/5) – The housings are lightweight but quite large in diameter and clearly designed for a shallow fit. The stock silicone tips still leave a bit to be desired

Sound (7.8/10) – Whereas the similarly-priced N3i model pulls out all the stops in the pursuit of visceral bass and head-turning ambience, the XE200PRO is a slightly more level-headed take on the consumer-friendly sound common to the Xears earphones. Its bass is lower in impact and flatter than that of the N3i, with a punchier, crisper sound and slightly quicker note presentation. Sub-bass power and rumble are also reduced and the bass doesn’t bleed into the midrange as much as with the N3i or TD-III. In typical Xears fashion the low end is still anything but lacking but on tracks with plenty of bass the XE200PRO edges ahead of the N3i in resolution and clarity.

The midrange is smooth and detailed. It is similar in both emphasis and technical proficiency to the N3i model but there is not as much bass to get in the way with the XE200PRO. As a result, while the XE200 is not as warm and rich as the N3i, it textures notes slightly better and sounds more level overall. The overall clarity competes with the far more analytical XR120PRO and the timbre is quite good, as with the other higher-end Xears models.

The top end appears to be slightly more prominent than with the N3i and TD-III but still is not a focus of the sound signature. It sounds a tiny bit edgy next to the softer and slower N3i but doesn’t have any major adverse effects on the sound. Top-end extension is decent as with the other Xears models. Soundstage size is similar to the N3i but, while the N3i has the ambience of a large but enclosed space, the XE200PRO sounds a bit more open. It is not the most well-separated presentation but the layering is good and the positioning yields no surprises. It’s a well-rounded presentation to match a well-rounded sound signature.

Value (9/10) – Completing the triumvirate of higher-end Xears wooden IEMs, the XE200PRO provides a slightly more balanced alternative with all of the technical capability of the N3i. Above all else, the XE200PRO is a well-rounded, relaxing listen that sacrifices a bit less fidelity compared to the N3i and TD-III models. It is much the same story with usability – the fit is less fidgety than with the N3i and the driver flex is less noticeable. The housings are still very large at the front but for this level of performance at the current asking price, I’m willing to live with far greater discomfort than that.

Pros: Great sound quality with a consumer-friendly signature
Cons: Large housings; not giftable for lack of packaging

 

 

(3A59) Dunu DN-12 Trident

Dunu DN-12 Trident 300x400.jpg
Reviewed Aug 2011

Details: Entry-level dynamic-driver model from DUNU
Current Price: $35 from lendmeurears.com (MSRP: $40)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 95 dB | Freq: 10-20k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: stock single-flange 
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3/5) – Single-flange narrow-channel (3 sizes) and wide-channel (2 sizes) silicone tips, bi-flange silicone tips, soft carrying pouch, and integrated cable wrap
Build Quality (4.5/5) – Like the sturdy metal shells of the Hephaes, the flared housings of the DN-12 feel like they’ve been machined from a solid piece of metal. Attention to detail throughout the construction is superb as usual although Dunu did attempt to give the pricier models a leg up by using plastic and rubber hardware in place of aluminum on the cheaper DN-12. While this makes the DN-12 less fancy in appearance, the overall build quality is no worse for it. As before, the cable is the only part that could stand some improvement as it’s a bit stiff and rubbery
Isolation (3.5/5) – Surprisingly good, as with the other Dunu earphones
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Bothersome when worn cable-down; not an issue otherwise
Comfort (3.5/5) – The flared housings of the DN-12 are skinny at the front so insertion is not an issue. However, the large diameter at the rear can be a problem for those with smaller outer ears as the outside edge can become uncomfortable after resting on the ear for a while. The earphones being a bit on the heavy side doesn’t help matters

Sound (6.7/10) – The dynamic-driver Trident conforms to the mold set by Dunu’s armature-based Ares and Crius models, offering up a bass- and midrange-heavy sound that impresses with its smoothness and power. The bass of the Trident certainly is punchier and deeper than that of the armature models but it’s not a bass monster in the way the MEElec M31 and Sony XB-series earphones are. There is still plenty of impact but it doesn’t overwhelm. The note presentation is a touch on the soft side but the bass generally comes off rather well-controlled and pleasant.

The midrange is warm and rich. Bass bleed is minimal and the notes are very slightly on the thick side. Detail retrieval is good but the Trident lacks a bit of clarity next to the similarly-priced Soundmagic E10 and E30. As with the pricier Ares and Crius, the clarity of the Trident oscillates between reasonably good and somewhat disappointing, depending on track. At its worst it is still a bit better than with the Blue Ever Blue 886B and UE 350 but not by as a large a margin as one would hope. Aside from clarity, the midrange is good – smooth, level, and slightly ahead of the treble for a fatigue-free sound. Even next to the consumer-oriented Sony EX300 the treble of the Trident sound relaxed and forgiving. Top-end extension is good despite the lack of treble emphasis.

The Trident’s soundstage is average in size but the presentation leans towards intimacy despite the slightly laid-back nature of the sound. The relaxed top end results in a mild lack of air compared to sets like the Soundmagic E10 and the overall sense of space is not nearly as impressive. The Trident also sounds just a touch dark compared to my other favourite sets in the price range. The layering, however, is surprisingly good and the DN-12 generally sounds less congested than the Blue Ever Blue 866B and similarly-priced brand-name sets like the Klipsch S3 and UE 350. Intimate or not, you certainly won’t get performance this good grabbing a similarly-priced product off the shelf in a retail store.

Value (9/10) – More so than the pricier Ares and Crius models, the Dunu DN-12 Trident aims straight for the segment leaders in its price bracket and - in most ways – scores a direct hit. It is well-packaged, well-designed, and well-built, showcasing great attention to detail, functionality, and performance on the part of Dunu’s development team. Priced below $40, the Trident offers more sound quality per dollar than the other Dunu models I’ve heard and one-ups just about all of its competition when it comes to build quality. It is both a great earphone and a great product – not a so-called ‘giant killer’, but well worth the money in my book.

Pros: Very well-built, great attention to detail, great sound quality for the asking price
Cons: Cable can be noisy when worn straight down; flared housings may be uncomfortable for some

 

 

(3A60) Xears Communicate CP100iP

Xears Communicate CP100iP 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Aug 2011

Details: Entry-level single-button headset from Xears
Current Price: est $35 (24€) from ebay.de (MSRP: 39,95€)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: N/A | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock foamies, stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips, foamhybrid tips, and padded carrying pouch
Build Quality (3/5) – The build quality of the aluminum CP100iP is similar to the older XR120 model with its long strain reliefs and somewhat stiff rubbery cable but the housings seem to come apart more readily and the appearance is let down by the somewhat cheap-looking paper filters. Driver flex is mild
Isolation (3/5) – Good with silicone tips and a bit better with the foamies
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Tolerable when worn cable-down, good when worn over-the-ear
Comfort (4/5) – The CP100iP is very lightweight and has longer nozzles and a smaller housing diameter than most of the other Xears earphones, resulting in good long-term comfort

Sound (7.1/10) – The sound of the CP100iP follows the usual Xears mold – plentiful bass, smooth mids, and competent treble. The low end is powerful but not quite as deep and hard-hitting as that of the similarly-priced Dunu Trident. There is a larger mid-bass hump than with the Trident and more bass body but the CP100iP is still not as much of a bass beast as Xears’ boomier-sounding PS120, TD-III, or N3i models, reminding me more of the Xears Resonance. The low-end detail retrieval lags slightly behind the Dunu sets but the CP100iP is quicker and cleaner overall.

The midrange of the CP100iP is crisp and fairly open-sounding. It’s a bit less warm and full-bodied compared to the pricier N3i and XE200 models and also lacks some of the detail but still has good presence, beating out the Resonance in emphasis. The treble, as usual, is smooth and a bit laid-back. Top-end extension is decent and overall sparkle quantity is low-to-moderate.

The soundstage is above average in size - not as large as that of the XE200PRO or Resonance but still quite spacious for an entry-level in-ear. The XE200 also images more consistently across its stage whereas the CP100iP seems to have more of a left-right-center presentation. Instrumental separation is good, however, and the overall sound is airy and open without sacrificing cohesiveness. A point worth noting – the sensitivity of the CP100iP is relatively high and may hiss or buzz a bit with poorly-matched sources.

Value (8/10) – The CP100iP entry-level headset model delivers more of the Xears goodness in a reasonably-priced, smartphone-compatible package. As usual, the audio quality is well above average, the build quality is mediocre, and the nonexistent packaging leaves much to be desired. That said, the smooth and bass-heavy sound signature is not too different from that of the pricier Resonance model and those looking specifically for a stereo headset will be hard-pressed to find anything that sounds better for the money.

 

Pros: Lightweight and comfortable; solid sound quality with a popular signature
Cons: Mediocre build quality

 

 

(3A61) Ultimate Ears 350 / 350vi

Ultimate Ears 350 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Oct 2011

Details: consumer-oriented dynamic-driver IEM from UE
Current Price: $40 from bhphotovideo.com (MSRP: $49.99); $59.99 for 350vi with microphone
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 3.8’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (5 sizes), shirt clip, and plastic clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The lightweight housings are made of black and chromed plastic, as with most of UE’s other recent releases. The cable is soft and flexible and the housing entry strain reliefs are impressive. The strain relief on the plastic-shelled 3.5mm L-plug, however, isn’t
Isolation (3/5) – Good for an entry-level dynamic-driver earphone
Microphonics (4/5) – Quite low in the soft and flexible cable. Can be eliminated completely with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (4/5) – The housings are small and lightweight, tapering slightly at the front. The long strain reliefs do not pose a problem for over-the-ear wear and an impressive five sizes of eartips are included

Sound (5.9/10) – Priced below the $50 mark, the UE350 is a consumer-oriented dynamic-driver model with a bass-heavy sound signature. By UE’s own admission, the 350 was tuned to provide a club feel, which shows through in the depth and power of the bass. Though not a bass monster in the same way a Sony XB40EX or MEElec M31 may be, the UE350 is unlikely to leave anyone wanting for rumble or power. The Dunu Trident, which has a similar frequency balance, is slightly more controlled at the low end and tends to sound tighter and punchier but the overall bass quantity is comparable between the two. That said, the note presentation of the UE350 is even softer than that of the Trident, causing the bass to sound a touch flabby and muddy, though not offensively so as was the case with many older dynamics of this sort.

The midrange is warm and full, with occasional bass bleed and average detail resolution. Clarity can be slightly disappointing and vocals occasionally sound a touch muffled next to the similarly-priced Dunu Trident and Klipsch Image S3. Smoothness is very impressive, however, making the UE350 much easier to listen to in the long run than the S3 and much more forgiving. The top end is slightly laid-back to avoid listening fatigue and performs similarly to the midrange in clarity and detail resolution. Top-end extension is good but the overall tone is still a touch dark - those looking for more neutral sound with crisp, sparkly treble should invest in the pricier UE500.

The presentation of the UE350 is surprisingly competent – soundstage width is above average and the earphones - while not as well-layered or resolving as the Dunu Trident or pricier UE500 - give a good sense of space for an entry-level product. Klipsch’s similarly-priced Image S3 sounds significantly smaller and more constrained despite boasting better detail and clarity. The note thickness is a little too great for the UE350 to sound as clean and airy as the UE500 does but on the whole the presentation is quite competent.

Value (7.5/10) – Back in the pre-Logitech days, UE released a couple of entry-level dynamic-driver earphones under the MetroFi badge which - while not bad to listen to - were simply priced too ambitiously to be very good value. With the UE350, Ultimate Ears has retained the consumer-friendly sound signature of the old MetroFi earphones while improving the overall usability and lowering the asking price. There are still minor issues such as the new clamshell carrying case - which is small and frustrating to use compared to the old one - but on the whole the UE350 is a solid entry-level product with a clear target audience; audiophiles are clearly expected to save up for the UE500.

Pros: Lightweight and comfortable; deep and powerful bass; easy-going sound signature
Cons: Frustrating carrying case, no strain relief on L-plug, slightly underwhelming clarity & detail

 


(3A62) Fischer Audio Ceramique

Fischer Audio Ceramique 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Dec 2011

Details: Oversize ceramic in-ear
Current Price: $57 from gd-audiobase.com (MSRP: $57)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 99 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.1' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 8mm | Preferred tips: MEElec CC51 single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (2/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (2 sets), cord wrap, and small leatherette carrying pouch
Build Quality (3/5) - The hefty ceramic shells and metal driver enclosures are solid but for an earphone that weighs as much as the Ceramique the cable thickness is disappointing. The cord is reminiscent of stock Apple earbuds, just more rubbery. The lack of strain reliefs on the cord is cause for concern
Isolation (3.5/5) - Above average with well-sealing tips (not included)
Microphonics (3.5/5) - Fairly average in the thin, rubbery cable; over-the-ear wear is difficult
Comfort (2/5) - Large, heavy housings are problematic, as are the wide nozzle and single size of hard rubber eartips. Getting a seal proved impossible with stock tips and some may not be able to fit the Ceramique at all. Physical activity is out of the question - the earphones are easily dislodged by their own weight

Sound (7.9/10) - Despite its significant ergonomic shortfalls, the sound of the Ceramique is impressive, provided a seal can be maintained. Since stock Ceramique tips won't seal for me, this review was done using tips from MEElec's ceramic earphone, the CC51, which will fit the Ceramique without too much trouble. As expected, a poorly-sealed Ceramique sounds bright and lacking in bass. A properly sealed one is much more balanced, with well-measured bass response and prominent treble. The bass is soft and mellow - compared to the more v-shaped CC51, the Ceramique is less forward and less punchy at the bottom end but still manages slightly better bass depth. It also avoids the mildly mid-recessed profile of the CC51 but yields to the MEElecs in control and dynamics.

Mids are a definite strength of the Ceramique - balanced well with the low end they are slightly warm and very smooth. While the midrange is not recessed, the Ceramique is a laid-back earphone overall and those who prefer an intimate vocal presentation or in-your-face guitar aggression will want to give it a pass. The mids are clean, liquid, and well-detailed, reminding me more of the Spider Realvoice than the CC51. The treble transition is smooth but, in contrast to the pricier Tandem, the Ceramique loses no emphasis at the top. Treble extension is good but the top end is not too high on sparkle - the CC51 again shows off its comparatively v-shaped nature with more sparkly treble that is also crisper and edgier. For its livelier sound, the CC51 is slightly more fatiguing than the Ceramique.

The presentation of the Ceramique suits the balanced signature nicely - the soundstage is spacious, with decent width and depth, and good clarity and detail levels work towards a clean, nicely separated sound. The earphone tends to be quite laid-back on the whole and doesn't deliver great imaging, especially when a track calls for intimacy, partly due to the mediocre dynamics. Compared to the CC51, the Ceramique sounds distant at times but also easily wins in terms of sheer soundstage size.

Value (6.5/10) - The Ceramique is a textbook lesson in form over function. While it combines balanced sound and a spacious presentation with smooth, polished looks, it makes too many usability sacrifices to be a viable alternative to the established segment leaders. The biggest issue is that the large, heavy housings are tricky to fit and even more difficult to keep in place. Add sub-par eartips in only one size and thin cables with no strain reliefs and it becomes clear that some of the sound quality and aesthetics probably should have been sacrificed for better usability.

Pros: Solid sonic characteristics
Cons: One size does not fit all; large and heavy; thin cable lacks strain relief

 

 

(3A63) Fischer Audio FA-977 Jazz

Fischer Audio FA-788 Jazz 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Jan 2012

Details: Wooden IEM from Fischer Audio
Current Price: $55 from gd-audiobase.com (MSRP: $55)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 18Ω | Sens: 106 dB | Freq: 5-20k Hz | Cable: 4.1' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Generic bi-flanges, stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The large wooden housings of the FA-977 are trimmed in gold, as are the y-split and I-plug. The brown cable is plasticky and of average thickness, with no cable cinch and hard plastic strain reliefs. Mild driver flex is present
Isolation (3/5) – Large housings prevent deep insertion but isolation is easily above average
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Can be bothersome when worn cord-down but lower than with Fischer’s cloth cord. Low when worn cord-up
Comfort (3/5) – Straight-barrel housings are lightweight but surprisingly large. Sizeable diameter prevents deep insertion and may make them uncomfortable for those with smaller outer ears.

Sound (6.4/10) – Quite possibly the most unique of Fischer’s mid-tier models, the Jazz provides a forward yet spacious sound that works surprisingly well when taken as a total package. The bass has decent depth and good impact, lagging only a little behind the Sunrise i100 on both counts. It is punchy but not particularly tight or crisp – mediocre resolution leaves the low end somewhat muddy and ill-defined. Other than the mediocre control, the bass is pleasant – punchy, full, and smooth. Bass depth is average – the pricier Consonance model offers significantly more sub-bass in addition to better detail and texture.

The mids of the Jazz are smooth and prominent. Vocals are forward, balancing well with the impactful low end, and the tone is warm overall. Clarity and detail again suffer due to the mediocre resolution - all of the higher-end Fischer models I’ve tried are superior to the Jazz in this regard. The Ceramique especially sounds much cleaner and more refined, though it lacks some of the fullness of the Jazz. The similarly-priced Brainwavz M2 also offers up better clarity while the cheaper Sunrise i100 falls behind only a little.

The treble transition is smooth and the top end is laid back in comparison to the midrange. The Jazz does a good job of cutting out sibilance but sounds just a hair dark compared to the Ceramique. It also lacks energy with cymbals compared to the Consonance or even the Paradigm v.3. The presentation is wide and spacious despite the forward midrange. The earphones sound airy and open – more so than a Brainwavz M2, for example – but suffer from mediocre dynamics and average separation. The similarly-priced Paradigm v.3 has a smaller soundstage but easily surpasses the separation of the Jazz.

Value (7/10) – With dozens of wooden earphones on the market, Fischer Audio’s FA-977 Jazz stands out mostly with its sound signature, combining a fairly large soundstage with intimate, forward mids and hard-hitting but not overbearing bass response. Competitors with this type of sound signature are few and far between, making the Jazz a good buy for some, but those who are not looking for this particular signature may want to pay a bit more for a Paradigm v.3 or Consonance instead.

Pros: Unique mid-forward sound with good bass punch
Cons: Large housings; Clarity and detail not as impressive as with other Fischer IEMs


(3A64) Fischer Audio Paradigm v.3


Fischer Audio Paradigm v3 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Jan 2012

Details: angled-nozzle earphone from FA
Current Price: $58 from gd-audiobase.com (MSRP: $58)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 18Ω | Sens: 106 dB | Freq: 6-25k Hz | Cable: 4.1' 45º-plug
Nozzle Size: 4.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (2/5) - Single-flange (2 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips; soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (4/5) – The construction of the Paradigm v.3 is similar to that of the similarly-priced Consonance. The housings are plastic but seem to be put together well. The nozzle filters are metal and the strain reliefs are sturdy yet flexible all around. The nylon-sheathed cables are somewhat tangle-prone
Isolation (2.5/5) – Large, vented housings prevent deep insertion but isolation is still decent
Microphonics (2.5/5) – Quite bothersome when worn cord-down and cable-up wear is made difficult by the driver bulge and angled-nozzle housings
Comfort (4/5) – The housings are lightweight but large and fit more like the half-in-ear FA-788 model than slimmer angled-nozzle sets such as the JVC FX500 and Denon C710. Sizeable housing diameter also prevents deep insertion and may make them slightly uncomfortable for those with smaller outer ears

Sound (7.2/10) – The Fischer Audio Paradigm v.3 takes on a fairly well-balanced sound signature, contrasting sharply with the more v-shaped Consonance and the more mid-forward Jazz. The bass has decent depth and good punch – the Paradigm is not constantly bass-heavy as the Consonance tends to be but is more than capable of belting out low notes when necessary. Impact is generally similar to the Jazz and while the Paradigm does have similarly average detail levels, its superior dynamics and bass control result in a more realistic low end.

The midrange of the Paradigm v.3 is clearer and less forward than that of the Jazz but is by no means recessed or distant. The mids are crisp and well-defined, with the Paradigm being quicker and more resolving. With its lesser bass depth, slightly thinner note presentation, and minimal bloat, the Paradigm also lacks the warmth of the Jazz, sounding more neutral and closer to the similarly-priced Ceramique.

The treble is fairly detailed and has some sparkle. It is not as smooth as that of the Ceramique, instead boasting some unevenness reminiscent of the Consonance and Soundmagic’s E10. Top-end extension is average and the Paradigm sounds a touch dark next to the Ceramique. The presentation is fairly average as well – the soundstage is not as large as that of the Jazz even though the Paradigm tends to sound more laid-back on the whole and instrument separation is quite good. Layering, however, isn’t particularly impressive and the Paradigm can’t quite match the more versatile 3-D imaging of the Consonance.

Value (7.5/10) – The Paradigm v.3 is yet another impressive mid-range earphone from Fischer, combining a balanced sound signature with a comfortable form factor and well thought-out build. Those who require high isolation or tend to be active while wearing earphones may want to look for a deeper-fitting earphone that can be worn cable-up more easily but on the whole the Paradigm is a worthy all-rounder.

Pros: Comfortable and well-built; balanced and capable sound
Cons: Tough to wear over-the-ear; microphonics can be annoying

 

 

(3A65) Sony MDR-EX300LP

Sony MDR-EX300 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Feb 2012

Details: One of Sony's original vertical in-ear monitors
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $89.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 4-28k Hz | Cable: 3.9' L-plug j-cord
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrids (stock)
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (3.5/5) - Single-flange Sony Hybrid silicone tips (3 sizes), cable winder, and hard-shell carrying case
Build Quality (3/5) - The plastic housings of the EX300 seem well-constructed but the cabling is a major letdown - while soft and well-relieved, the thin j-cord is tangle-prone and inspires little confidence
Isolation (2/5) - Mediocre at best due to shallow-insertion form factor
Microphonics (4.5/5) - The soft, flexible j-cord and shallow seal keep cable noise to a minimum
Comfort (3.5/5) - The EX300 is a vertical-driver earphone with a straight nozzle. The housings fit partly into the outer ear and tend to protrude less than those of the pricier EX600 model but are also less secure due to the lack of a memory wire section on the cable. Those with smaller outer ears may find the driver bulge to interfere with the fit

Sound (6.8/10) - The sound of the MDR-EX300 is a compromise between Sony's popular consumer and audiophile signatures but falls closer to the higher-end EX600 and EX1000 than entry-level sets such as the EX85 and the XB series. The bass of the EX300 is enhanced but not overblown. It is punchy but not quite as powerful s that of the Soundmagic E10. Extension is decent enough but the mid-bass hump causes the entire low end to sound bloated and boomy compared to the pricier EX600. The Sonys sound fuller than some of the more analytical sets such as the HiFiMan RE0 and Etymotic MC5 but it's not as thick-sounding as a Dunu Trident or Beyerdynamic DTX 101 iE.

The midrange of the EX300 is warm but clear. Detail is decent enough and the mids sound open and airy. Naturally, the pricier EX600 is much more neutral, clear, and detailed, making the EX300 sound boomy and unrefined, but for a midrange earphone the clarity of the EX300 is more than reasonable. The Soundmagic E10 is a bit clearer and more crisp, giving guitars a bit more bite and making vocals sound a touch more intelligible, but lacks the balance and liquidity of the EX300 and doesn't quite have as big a soundstage.

Towards the top of the midrange, the EX300 picks up some emphasis and with it a bit of sibilance on tracks prone to it. The E10 is a little more forgiving but both earphones have moderate treble sparkle, slightly laid-back upper treble, and mediocre extension at the top. The presentation of the EX300 is wide and well-layered. Though the MDR-EX600 is significantly more spacious still, the EX300 is one of the more open-sounding entry-level earphones. Soundstage depth could be better and the imaging and dynamics lag far behind the EX600 but both are more than reasonable for the asking price. Clearly the EX300 was one of the better earphones in its price category upon release back in 2008.

Value (7.5/10) - The Sony MDR-EX300 impresses with its punchy bass, warm and liquid mids, and spacious presentation, especially considering the age of the earphones. What betrays them is the overall usability, mediocre isolation, and hit-or-miss form factor. The biggest gripe, however, is the thin and frustrating j-cord used by the earphones. For pure sound quality, the EX300 is an easy set to recommend but much of the modern competition simply offers a better value proposition on the whole.

Pros: Punchy, clear, and open sound; almost no cable noise
Cons: J-corded; very thin & tangle-prone cable

 


(3A66) id America Spark

id America Spark 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Feb 2012

Details: Metal-shelled headset styled after a spark plug
Current Price: $60 from idamericany.com (MSRP: $59.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 96 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges, Sony Hybrids
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3.5/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and tubular carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – The two-piece housings are aluminum and feel very well-made. Cabling is of average thickness but resistant to tangling and protected by soft rubber strain reliefs at the y-split and I-plug, as well as on housing entry. A single-button mic/remote unit is located on the left side
Isolation (3/5) – Good for a vented dynamic-driver earphone
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Present when worn cable-down; very low with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (3.5/5) – The sparkplug-inspired housings are lightweight and can be inserted comfortably due to the long nozzles but sharp rear edges make them less suitable for those with smaller outer ears. Stock tips are of surprisingly good quality

Sound (7.4/10) – The Spark is a bass-heavy earphone with surprisingly solid sonic characteristics. The Bass is deep and powerful, with plenty of punch and good texture throughout. Both the subbass depth and overall bass quantity are slightly greater compared to the Soundmagic E10 and Beyerdynamic DTX 101 and on par with the Fischer Audio Consonance. Bass control is good – the Spark is neither the quickest nor the most resolving earphone out there but for a set bassy enough to please the mainstream listener, it performs very well.

There is a bit of bass bleed but the mids are still strong and clear. The Spark manages to be mildly v-shaped in response without placing the midrange too far back, partly as a result of its overall presentation being fairly aggressive. In this way it is reminiscent of the pricier PureSound ClarityOne, albeit thinner and more dry-sounding. In comparison, the similarly-priced Fischer Audio Consonance is more mid-recessed, but thicker and smoother. The mids of the Spark are still not nearly as forward as those of the Beyerdynamic DTX 101 or Brainwavz M2 but compared to most other bass-heavy sets its balance is rather good.

Moving upward, the Spark boasts some emphasis and mild unevenness in the lower treble, giving it a little sparkle without risking significant sibilance. There is a bit of edginess to the treble but the only real complaint I have is its mediocre extension, which results in a darker tonal slant and slight lack of air in the upper registers. Aside from the last bit of top end extension, the Spark satisfies with good treble energy, detail, and crispness.

The presentation of the Spark is pretty standard for a mid-range dynamic earphone. It is slightly aggressive and doesn’t have the largest soundstage but is well-rounded, with decent depth and good layering. The Soundmagic E10, with its sparkly, well-extended treble, has a larger, more open presentation but the Beyerdynamic DTX 101 and Dunu Trident lack layering and sound less three-dimensional in comparison to the Spark. Instrument separation and dynamics are on similarly even footing with competing sets from Head-Fi’s favorite brands. A final point to note – the Spark is surprisingly efficient and, despite the conservative stated figures, reaches listening volume more quickly than any of the sets I put it up against.

Value (8.5/10) – The id America Spark is a solid choice for those seeking a bass-heavy headset at a reasonable price. True to its name, the Spark is energetic, with excellent bass impact, good clarity, and a well-rounded presentation making it an easy choice over popular mainstream sets such as the Beats by Dre Tour and Klipsch Image S4. Add native headset functionality, a striking design, and good build quality and the Spark should strike up interest not only in the car buffs, but all music lovers.

Pros: Solid build quality; bass-heavy sound with good clarity and layering
Co/strongns: Sharp rear edges maybe be uncomfortable for some


A full review of the Spark with more images can be found here

 


(3A67) Altec Lansing UHP336 / Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 3

Altec Lansing UHP336 UE SuperFi 3 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Mar 2012

Details: Altec Lansing re-badge of UE's discontinued SuperFi 3
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $129.95)
Specs: Driver: BA | Imp: 13Ω | Sens: 115 dB | Freq: 20-15k Hz | Cable: 3.8' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrid
Wear Style: Over-the-ear

Accessories (3.5/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), Comply foam tips, cleaning tool, and soft zippered carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) - Quite similar to the higher-end UE models - thick plastics, detachable cables with two inches of memory wire, and standard I-plug
Isolation (3.5/5) - Quite good with well-fitting tips
Microphonics (4.5/5) - Low due to over-the-ear fit but not absent completely
Comfort (3.5/5) - The shells are similar in shape to those of the TF10 and SF5Pro but slimmer towards the front and lend themselves to insertion much easier. Maintaining a seal can be difficult with stock UE tips but Hybrids work fine. Comply foams seal well also but soak up some of the SF3's already-scarce treble intensity and make them even warmer

Sound (6.9/10) - Introduced a number of years ago as Ultimate Ears' entry-level model, the single-armature SF3 was tuned as a do-it-all earphone to compete with Etymotic's ER6 and Shure's E2C. Like most single-armature earphones from that time period, the SF3 doesn't do a great job of covering the entire frequency spectrum. The bass rolls off significantly and lacks detail near the limit. Poor sub-bass presence aside, the bass is smooth and level, flowing without bleed into the midrange.

The mids are slightly forward - not to the same degree as with the newer SuperFi 5 but definitely more so than the low end and treble. Overall balance is still very good, however, and the note thickness is neither excessive nor lacking. Resolution and detail are not quite on-par with the Etymotics of the period, partly because the SF3 at times seems to gloss over fine detail and texture to maintain its silky-smooth response, but the earphone performs no poorer than most dynamic-driver sets in its bracket. The clarity, too, is quite good but not accentuated by brightness as it is on the Ety ER6i.

Treble sparkle is completely nonexistent, resulting in a smooth, non-fatiguing curve. The top end of the SF3 is a bit laid-back in terms of emphasis and lacks some energy and a bit of extension, much like the low end. The somewhat subdued treble response means that the SF3 is not airy or open-sounding but it does provide a very decent sense of space with good depth and width. An additional consideration - the SF3 can be quite hissy with many sources as a result of its high sensitivity. I would not recommend it at all unless it was to be used with a dedicated audio player.

Value (8/10) - Introduced in 2006, the Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 3 is a single-armature earphone that still manages to impress at the sub-$60 price usually fetched by the Altec Lansing rebrand. The sound is smooth, clean, and balanced - if slightly mid-focused - and the relatively high isolation, low microphonics, and detachable cable only sweeten the deal. As an overall package, the Super.Fi 3 is very much on par with many modern designs and puts many of the entry-level models UE has produced since to shame.

Pros: High isolation; low microphonics; detachable cable; smooth and balanced sound
Cons: Extremely sensitive; not the best performer at the limits

 

 

(3A68) Astrotec AM-90

Astrotec AM-90 400x300.jpg
Reviewed May 2012

Details: One of the least expensive BA-based earphones on the market
Current Price: $44 from lendmeurears.com (MSRP: est. $44)
Specs: Driver: BA | Imp: 25Ω | Sens: 109dB | Freq: N/A | Cable: 3.9' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrid, Stock silicone, Stock foam
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3/5) - Single-flange (3 sizes) silicone tips, foam tips, and soft carrying pouch (original version also came with triple-flange eartips and clamshell carrying case)
Build Quality (4.5/5) – Construction is solid, with all-metal housings and nozzle filters. Strain reliefs are flexible and the soft cable is above average in thickness and covered with a translucent sheath. It is one of the best cables I’ve seen in a while – quiet, flexible, and tangle-resistant
Isolation (3.5/5) – The tapered housings and inclusion of triple-flange and foam tips allow the AM-90 to isolate quite well
Microphonics (4/5) – Cable noise is low when worn cable-down and nearly nonexistent with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (4.5/5) – The tapered housing design makes for one of the better straight-barrel form factors, with an elongated body that flares out gradually. The shells of the AM-90 are less likely to contact the outer ear than those of the Dunu Trident and narrower at the front than those of almost all other straight barrel earphones, allowing for a deeper seal. They might be a bit long for those with steeply-angled ear canals but for most they should be very comfortable

Sound (7.4/10) – The AM-90 is a smooth-sounding BA-based earphone that falls on the warmer side of things in terms of tone. It uses a Knowles SR (Siren) armature and – not surprisingly – doesn’t sound all that different from the SR-based MEElec A151. Both are some of the better such setups I’ve heard and the sonic differences between them are no greater than what one would instead anticipate from two revisions of the same product.

The sound signature of the AM-90, while slightly warm, is not unbalanced. Bass depth is decent enough – no match for dynamic-driver sets such as the id America Spark or VSonic GR99 but good for a single armature. Mid-bass impact is a hair lower than that of the A151 but control and detail are similarly good. The low end can be classified as punchy, but also not lacking in body and fullness for a BA-based earphone – seemingly a hallmark of the SR armature.

The midrange of the AM-90 is on the warm side but seems to be a bit more level compared to that of the A151. The AM-90 is a touch less mid-forward (but still more so than a Brainwavz M1, for example) and sounds fuller and smoother than the A151. The MEElec set is a bit thinner-sounding and also more dry but maintains clarity better on busy passages. The differences are small, however, and the two earphones are still far more similar to each other than they are to competing sets. Neither earphone has the crispness of a higher-end BA-based earphone and both lack the perception of added clarity that comes with emphasized treble.

The top end of the AM-90 is a touch more extended than that of the A151 and also less grainy but neither earphone can be recommended to fans of sparkly, prominent highs. Rather, the earphones are laid-back at the top and very, very smooth, doing a great job of cutting out harshness and sibilance. The VSonic GR06, for example, manages significantly better extension and energy at top but is also more fatiguing than the AM-90. Soundstage size, similarly, is not too impressive – the space is average and there’s not a whole lot of air compared to sets such as the GR06. However, as with the A151, the presentation is well-rounded, with some depth and height in addition to the width, good separation, and versatility in portraying intimacy as well as distance.

Value (10/10) – The sound signature of the AM-90 may be nothing new next to other entry-level, single-BA earphones but it is the most reasonably-priced – and one of the best-sounding - SR-based sets I’ve heard. In addition, Astrotec’s OEM expertise shows in the excellent design – the solid isolation, sturdy housings, outstanding cables, and comfortable form factor. For a value-oriented product the AM-90 is not stingy on accessories, either, with a very nice hard case and good-quality tips included to make them work even for first-time IEM users. They are remarkably easy to get a seal with compared even to the A151 and therefore make an excellent stepping-off point into BA-based monitors.

Pros: Well-balanced, slightly warm Knowles SR sound; good build quality; great cable; comfortable tapered design
Cons: N/A

 

 

(3A69) VSonic GR02 Bass Edition

 

VSonic GR02 400x300.jpg
Reviewed June 2012

Details: Bass-oriented VSonic earphone based on the aging R02ProII
Current Price: $36 from lendmeurears.com (MSRP: est $36)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 24Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 12-25k Hz | Cable: 4.3' 45º-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: stock bi-flanges; MEElec “balanced” bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) - Single-flange (3 sizes), hybrid-style (7 sizes), foam-stuffed hybrid (3 sizes), and bi-flange silicone tips, shirt clip, and padded spring-clasp carrying pouch
Build Quality (4.5/5) – The GR02 Bass Edition utilizes the same plastic-and-metal housings as the old R02ProII model and a number of other earphones. The construction is very good – the shells feel well put-together and the strain reliefs are strong and flexible. The cabling is similar to that of the R02ProII – thicker than that of the GR99, strong, and tangle-resistant
Isolation (3/5) – Good, especially with the included thick bi-flange tips
Microphonics (4/5) – Low when worn cable-down; very low with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (4/5) – The familiar housings are small and fit well. Long strain reliefs may pose an issue for some with over-the-ear wear but a cable cinch is present to help out. Tip selection is very generous

Sound (7.6/10) – Despite its ominous moniker, the GR02 Bass Edition doesn’t add a whole lot of low-end grunt to the sound of the older R02ProII model, which, admittedly, was hardly bass-shy to begin with. The low of the GR02 is punchy, but not inaccurate and the earphone is not quite a bass monster. There is a similar amount of deep bass compared to the cheaper GR99 but the mid-bass is dominant source of power with the GR02. Despite this, the Bass Edition also gains a bit of detail, control, and dynamics and can be more impactful than the GR99 when pressed.

The GR02 is also bassier than the higher-end GR06 and its low end can overshadow the midrange on occasion compared to the more mid-forward GR06, the more subbass-focused GR99, and more balanced-sounding sets such as the Monoprice 8320. The note presentation of the GR02 is thinner compared to the GR06 and the midrange clarity is a bit better. The mids are less liquid and intimate compared to the GR06 but warmer, cleaner, and a touch more forward compared to the GR99.

The top end of the GR02 bears some resemblance to the GR06 and GR07 models, with good presence and extension but a slight predisposition towards pointing out sibilance on tracks. For the price there are very few sets that do treble this well without sacrificing brightness as the lower-end GR99 does. Similarly, soundstaging prowess lags a little behind the higher-end models but is more than acceptable for the price. The soundstage is average in size and lacks the separation and layering of the GR06 but still provides a well-rounded sonic image for a satisfying experience.

Value (10/10) – VSonic’s new lineup continues to impress with this re-tuned take on the aging R02ProII model. An impressive performer with a focus on mid-bass punch, the GR02 Bass Edition provides unexpected bang for not very much buck and - from the durable, time-tested housings to the tangle-resistant cable and 28-piece tipset - doesn’t feel one bit outdated.

Pros: Very well-built, great sound for the money, generous tip set
Cons: N/A

 

 

(3A70) Philips O'Neill Tread SHO2200

 

Added Sep 2012

 

Details: Sport-oriented earphones from Philips designed for maximum durability
Current Price: $40 from amazon.com (MSRP: $39.99); $50 for SHO2205 with microphone
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 6-23.5k Hz | Cable: 3.9' L-plug
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: MEElec M6 bi-flanges, Sony Hybrid
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (1/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes)
Build Quality (5/5) – The Tread has clearly been designed with extreme durability in mind - the earpieces boast aluminum inner shells protected by a rubber sheath and are said to survive up to 300 lbs of impact. The nozzles are protected by metal filters and the cables - by long, flexible strain reliefs. The Kevlar-reinforced cord is thicker than average and surprisingly tangle-resistant. It is sheathed in cloth below the y-split and features an exceptionally beefy L-plug and rock-solid Y-split
Isolation (3/5) - Isolation is good for a dynamic-driver earphone – more than reasonable for the typical daily commute
Microphonics (4/5) – Low when worn cable-down; nearly nonexistent when worn cord-up
Comfort (3/5) – Though it was designed with sports in mind, the Tread is conventional straight-barrel in-ear earphone. The housings are slightly on the heavy side and the stock eartips are a little stiff. Comfort is average but at least the earphones can be worn over-the-ear quite easily due to the flexible strain reliefs and soft cable

Sound (6/10) - Philips has focused mostly on style and durability with the O’Neill line but the sound quality of the Tread is still respectable for the asking price. While the marketing materials promise good bass depth, in reality the Tread puts out mostly mid-bass and suffers from mild low-end roll-off. The low end is punchy, however - impact is about on-par with the similarly-priced Klipsch Image S3 and lags just behind Philips’ cheaper SHE3580 model. The SHE3580 also has better sub-bass presence and sounds fuller and warmer. The MEElectronics M9, on the other hand, also has greater bass quantity but lags behind the Tread in quality, sounding boomy and muddy in comparison.

The midrange of the Tread is clear and prominent. There is more emphasis on the bass but vocals don’t sound too recessed and there is no bass bleeding into the mids. The tone is on the cool side compared to most entry-level sets, which tend to be warm and bassy. Moving up into the treble, the Tread is a touch uneven but not excessively so - the Klipsch Image S3, for example, is harsher and far more sibilant. The Tread also derives some extra intelligibility with vocals from its prominent treble and has decent top-end extension compared to the MEElectronics M9 and Dunu Trident. The presentation is respectable as well – soundstage size is average but the instrument separation is good and the earphones don’t sound congested. The Tread still doest’t sound anywhere near as large and spacious as the Soundmagic E10 but keeps up with the popular mainstream sets in its price bracket.

Value (8/10) – The Philips O’Neill Tread delivers exactly what it promises – a bulletproof construction that puts most earphones – no matter the price – to shame. Passive noise isolation is also good for an in-ear of its type and cable noise is respectably low. There are more comfortable earphones out there and certainly better-sounding ones - the clean, slightly cold sound of the Tread may not appeal to mainstream listeners and won’t win over many audiophiles – but on the whole the Tread is sure to be a success with those who are simply tired of replacing broken earphones.

Pros: Extremely solid construction; low cable noise; decent clarity
Cons: Slightly cold and thin-sounding; sound does not measure up to cheaper SHE3580 model



(3A71) Klipsch Image S3


Added Sep 2012

Details: Younger, less elegant sibling of the popular Image S4
Current Price: $39 from amazon.com (MSRP: $49.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 18Ω | Sens: 106 dB | Freq: 12-18k Hz | Cable: 4.2' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 4.5mm | Preferred tips: Klipsch gels

Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3.5/5) - Single-flange (2 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips; compact zippered carrying case
Build Quality (3.5/5) - Housings are plastic but sturdy and well-relieved on cable entry. No nozzle filter is present and the cable is thin and lacks a cinch
Isolation (3/5) – Above average for a dynamic-driver earphone
Microphonics (4/5) – Very low with over-the-ear wear; tolerable otherwise
Comfort (3.5/5) – The angled-nozzle housings are lightweight and unobtrusive, though slightly larger than those of the S4. They also have sharper front edges, which can become uncomfortable for extended wear

Sound (5.9/10) – The Image S3 is reminiscent of the pricier S4 not only cosmetically, but also sonically. Like the design, which is a simplified, cheaper-looking, and less ear-friendly take on the S4, the sound borrows both the positive and not-so-positive traits of the higher-end model.

The S3 is v-shaped in signature, with strong bass and treble. As with the S4, the low end is rarely boomy considering the enhanced bass quantity but lacks some rumble in the sub-bass region. Both the Soundmagic E10 and MEElectronics M9 extend better at the bottom. The cheaper M9 sounds a bit loose next to the S3 but those looking purely for bass ‘slam’ will still be better off with an M9 or Sony XB-series earphone. For quick and punchy bass, the S3 performs rather well.

Bass bleed is minimal but as with the S4 the midrange is somewhat recessed compared to the bass and treble. Clarity is quite above average for the price but note presentation is on the thin side – the Soundmagic E10 sounds significantly fuller and more realistic with its warmer, smoother sound signature. The S3 comes across cold and harsh, in large part due to the peaky treble. As with the S4, the top end can be downright unpleasant at times, with occasional bouts of sibilance and a tendency make drums and snares sound unnecessarily sharp and edgy.

Soundstaging is also average at best – the S3 has a typical in-the-head budget in-ear presentation and lacks depth. The Soundmagic E10 sounds much more spacious and ambient, portraying both width and depth better than the Image S3. Even next to the MEElectronics M9 the S3 sounds a bit compressed and congested, though it is helped along by better resolution and clarity as well as slightly better treble extension.

Value (7/10) – The Klipsch Image S3 boasts good clarity and punchy bass but is let down by the hot treble and mediocre presentation. Like the S4, it is a decent earphone for those looking to stay with a name brand but far from the best-sounding set for the price. In the world outside of retail stores, this “S4 light” has some very stiff competition.

Pros: Good clarity and bass; very low cable noise with cable-up wear; 2-yr warranty
Cons: Treble quality lacking; can be uncomfortable due to sharp housing edges

 

 

(3A72) Rock-It Sounds R-20

 

Added Sep 2012

Details: One of the most reasonably-priced BA-based IEMs on the market
Current Price: $40 from rockitsounds.com (MSRP: $39.99); $49.99 for R-20M with mic and 1-button remote
Specs: Driver: BA | Imp: 31Ω @ 500 Hz | Sens: 109 dB | Freq: 20-18k Hz | Cable: 4.2' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 3mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges; Shure gray flex
Wear Style: Over-the-ear

Accessories (3.5/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), airline adapter, and clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – The R-20 utilizes plastic housings with filterless nozzles. The strain reliefs are a bit too hard for my liking but the twisted cable is excellent, identical to those found on the R-11, R-30, and R-50, as well as the MEElectronics A151. The molded L/R markings can be hard to discern but luckily the earpieces are asymmetric and easy to tell apart
Isolation (3.5/5) – Isolation is good even though only single-flange tips are included
Microphonics (5/5) – Cable noise is nonexistent with the excellent twisted cable
Comfort (4.5/5) – The R-20 is clearly designed for over-the-ear wear but the nozzles are angled opposite of the convention used by nearly all other earphone manufactures, which makes cable-down wear impractical. The only sets with the same design are old UEs such as the TF10. In addition, the cord of the R-20 is advertised as a regular cable with memory wire but actually uses a twisted cable with no memory wire. The cable is soft and flexible, however, and the lack of memory wire causes no issues

Sound (7.4/10) – The sound of the R-20 is highly reminiscent of other IEMs utilizing the Knowles SR driver. The bass is tight and clean, a huge improvement over Rock-It’s lower-end dynamic models. There’s slightly less bass depth, impact, and fullness compared to the MEElec A151 but the R-20 is still on the warm and punchy side for an armature-based earphone. There is no bleed into the midrange, which is clean and a touch forward.

Looking at the market as a whole, the differences between the R-20 and A151 are small and the two earphones are far more similar than they are different. However, whereas the A151 has a darker, smoother sound with more laid-back upper mids resulting in a duller vocal presentation, the R-20 is thinner-sounding and emphasizes the upper midrange more. As a result it is brighter and more energetic. It is also a bit less forgiving of sibilance than the A151, but still more so than the higher-end R-30 model. The treble of the R-20 is laid-back on the whole and top-end extension isn’t great. Neither the R-20 nor the A151 has the crispness of higher-end BA earphones, and both lack the perception of added clarity that comes with emphasized treble.

Soundstage size is not too impressive either – the space is average and there’s not a whole lot of air compared to the higher-end R-30 and competing dynamic-driver sets such as the Soundmagic E30. However, as with the MEElec A151, the presentation is well-rounded, with some depth and height in addition to the width, good separation, and the ability to portray intimacy as well as distance.

Value (10/10) – Although the R-20 is among the cheapest BA-based IEMs on the market, Rock-It Sounds has taken no shortcuts when it comes to design or construction. The cable is excellent and the over-the-ear fit is secure and comfortable over long listening sessions. The sound, too, is competitive with other entry-level single armature earphones and makes the R-20 a great introduction to the world of balanced armatures at a rock-bottom price.

Pros: Comfortable; excellent cable; no cable noise, good clarity and detail
Cons: Unusual nozzle angle forbids cable-down wear; strain reliefs could be more flexible

 

 

(3A73) Brainwavz M5

 

Added Oct 2012

 

Details: Brainwavz’ fifth M-series in-ear

Current Price: $40 from amazon.com (MSRP: $49.50); $54.50 for M5 with microphone

Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 103 dB | Freq: 16-18k Hz | Cable: 4.3' L-plug

Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock (wide channel) single-flanges

Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

 

Accessories (4.5/5) - Single-flange wide channel (3 sizes), single-flange narrow channel (3 sizes), and bi-flange silicone tips, Comply foam tips, shirt clip, and hard clamshell carrying case

Build Quality (4/5) - The M5 features lightweight aluminum shells with metal nozzle filters. The rubbery cabling is a bit thin above the y-split but strain relief is excellent all around and the new L-plug seems very durable

Isolation (2.5/5) – Isolation is about average for a dynamic-driver earphone and can be increase slightly with the included Comply tips

Microphonics (3.5/5) – Cable noise is bothersome when worn cable-down. Cable-up wear is recommended

Comfort (4/5) – The housings are lightweight and compact, tapering at the rear to provide a compliant, non-intrusive fit. Flexible strain reliefs and cable cinch allow for over-the-ear wear, though this may not be desirable when a mic/remote is present

 

Sound (7.6/10) – The newest M-series earphone from Brainwavz, the M5 seems to combine some of the best aspects from the M1 and M2 into a competent and coherent audio package. At the core of the sound is ample bass—the low end of the M5 boasts good depth, plenty of impact, and a mild mid-bass focus. Compared to the older M1, M2, and M3, the bass of the M5 is deeper, more powerful, and more dynamic. It is noticeably more detailed and effortless, and even next to the VSonic GR02 Bass Edition the M5 more than holds its own, providing a deeper, more fleshed-out low end. 

 

Despite the powerful bass, the M5 does a reasonable job of minimizing bass bleed and bloat. Part of the reason is the prominent lower midrange of the M5 – unlike many other bass-heavy earphones the M5 isn't notably mid-recessed. The lower mids are emphasized and the entire midrange is smooth, dropping gradually in forwardness towards the top. The treble takes a small step back and clarity is pretty much the only aspect of the M5 that doesn’t surpass other earphones in its price range. Still, despite its warmer tone, the M5 is about as clear as the older M1 model. Vocal clarity and intelligibility, especially with female vocals, take a hit compared to the M1 and M2 as well as competing sets like the pricier VSonic GR06. Detail levels are better than average, however, with the M5 sounding more refined and realistic than the M2. The top end doesn’t offer up a whole lot of sparkle but extension is good for a warmer earphone. Harshness and sibilance are nonexistent – in fact, the M5 cuts down on sibilance

 

The presentation is affected by the laid-back treble but offers a substantial improvement over the older Brainwavz models. The M5 isn’t very airy and can get slightly congested on busy tracks but has better layering and sounds much more enveloping than the M1 and M2.  The M2 especially sounds exceedingly flat and two-dimensional next to the M5. The pricier VSonic GR06, on the other hand, despite its more forward midrange, is capable of portraying a wider and more open sonic space.

 

Value (9/10) – The Brainwavz M5 is a well-built, well-accessorized, and comfortable earphone with sound that puts it at the top of its game. Its sonic signature won’t do for those looking to maximize clarity but it is sure to please fans of warmer, smoother sound. Better still, the M5 improves in many ways on the older M1, M2, and ProAlpha models without hiking up the price – an amazing accomplishment considering how far ahead of the competition the original Brainwavz earphones were upon release just a few short years ago.

 

Pros: Good build quality; deep bass and full, smooth sound

Cons: Average clarity

 


(3A74) ViSang VS-K1

 

1000

Added Jan 2013

 

Details: Compact metal-shelled earphone from ViSang
Current Price: $50 from ebay.com (MSRP: est. $49.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32Ω | Sens: 115 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.3' L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges, generic single-flanged
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) - Single-flange hybrid-style silicone tips (3 sizes), foam tips, shirt clip, and clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – The VS-K1 features aluminum shells with metal nozzle filters. The cabling is identical to my older ViSang and Brainwavz models – internally braided and a little stiff. No cable cinch is present
Isolation (2.5/5) - Isolation is about average for a shallow-fit dynamic-driver earphone
Microphonics (4/5) – Present when worn cable-down; very low otherwise
Comfort (4/5) - The housings are compact and taper at the rear to provide a compliant, non-intrusive fit. The K1 is happy with a relatively shallow seal and can be worn over-the-ear easily

Sound (7.6/10) – The sound of ViSang’s latest and greatest harkens back to the R01, R02, and R03 models of old but provides a more mature and refined experience. The sound signature is reasonably balanced, with a slight mid-bass lift and mild treble roll-off. The bass has decent depth and good overall presence but the earphones are far from bass-heavy. They don’t have the bass boost of the old R03 model (perhaps better known by its Brainwavz M2 rebrand) but there is more body and fullness compared to the Brainwavz M1 and similarly-priced armature earphones such as the Astrotec AM-90. It’s not the tightest low end out there, but the control is respectable and the overall presentation will appeal to those who enjoy a softer, smoother sound.

The ViSang products of old--even the bass-heavy ones--have always had clean, articulate mids, and the VS-K1 is no exception. The midrange is prominent and the earphones could potentially be called mid-centric if not for the decent amount of bass. As is, the sound is rather well-balanced overall. There is no bass bleed; Brainwavz’ new M5 model is significantly bassier and more subdued in the midrange compared to the VS-K1. Clarity is good for the asking price – not quite up there with the armature-based Astrotec AM-90 or the thinner-sounding Brainwavz M1, but very close.

Starting with the upper midrange, the VS-K1 follows a smooth and forgiving approach reminiscent of the Brainwavz M5. The top end is laid-back but not enough so to make the earphones sound dark and lacking in balance. Sets such as the Astrotec AM-90 have more upper midrange presence and energy while the VS-K1 sounds more smooth and relaxed. This goes for the presentation as well – the VS-K1 is not as forward as the AM-90 or Brainwavz M1. It has very decent depth, which is noticeable next to the older ViSang R03/Brainwavz M2, but doesn’t sound as big and enveloping as the pricier VSonic GR06. Overall, the relaxed presentation fits the sound signature well.

Value (9/10) – The ViSang VS-K1 is a budget earphone that offers strong performance across the board. Fans of the older ViSang models will be pleased with the more mature sound and the smooth yet reasonably balanced tuning should appeal to an even wider audience. The solid construction and comfortable, shallow-fit housings round the VS-K1 out as an easy recommendation.

Pros: Solid construction, smooth sound
Cons: No cable cinch

 

 

 

(3A75) RHA MA-350
 

Added Jan 2013

 

Details: First in-ear earphone from Scotland-based Reid & Heath Audio
Current Price: $35 from amazon.com (MSRP: $39.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 103 dB | Freq: 16-22k Hz | Cable: 3.9' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 4.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges, Sony Hybrid
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2.5/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and drawstring carrying pouch
Build Quality (4.5/5) – The MA-350 boasts solid-feeling machined aluminum housings, metal nozzle filters, and fabric cables with flexible strain reliefs. The cable is a little tangle-prone but the overall feel is one of a higher-end product. The 3-year warranty is very impressive as well
Isolation (3.5/5) – The housings are narrow at the front, allowing relatively deep insertion with good isolation
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Moderate in the cloth-sheathed cable; can be greatly reduced with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (4/5) – The earphone housings have a familiar flared shape a-la Dunu Trident but are compact and light. The small diameter at the front affords a comfortable, unobtrusive fit

Sound (6.8/10) – The MA-350 pursues a consumer-friendly sound and delivers on its promise of “a deep, full bass response” in spades, pumping out plenty of powerful sub-bass. It delivers more low bass than either the Brainwavz M5 or Dunu Trident, two solid and bass-heavy sub-$50 in-ears. Though the sub-bass is not very informative, the low end of the MA-350 genuinely impresses with its depth and rumble. The response stays strong well into the mid-bass region, resulting in a warm—but not overly so—tone.

The powerful bass of the MA-350 makes the mids sound slightly overshadowed and at times a touch muddy. This is far from uncommon for bass-heavy entry-level earphones – there are a few that manage better overall clarity (e.g. VSonic GR02 BE) and many more that can’t compete with the MA-350. Note thickness is good and the overall sound is rich and full.

The treble is in balance with the midrange and generally smooth. At reasonable volumes the top end is very inoffensive. The MA-350 is smoother overall than the popular VSonic GR02 BE and doesn’t introduce sibilance to a track. A little grain can become apparent at higher volumes—the Dunu Trident behaves better here even though it is not as crisp and extended as the MA-350. Top-end roll-off is present, but gradual. No surprises for an entry-level set.

In terms of presentation, the MA-350 is again par for the course. It is not the most spacious earphone and, like most budget sets, generally has an intimate, in-the-head presentation. It can get a touch congested but is more than acceptable for the asking price—better, for example, than the more closed-in sounding Dunu Trident.

Value (9/10) – RHA’s first in-ear earphone is a solid entry-level offering. There is quite a lot to like here but ultimately the MA-350 stands out in two ways – excellent build quality and deep, subwoofer-like bass. This is definitely the one earphone to show those claiming that in-ears can’t deliver adequate bass across the spectrum and, hopefully, is just the first of many in-ear products from RHA.

Pros: Solid build quality; 3 year warranty; powerful subbass
Cons: Cable noise can be bothersome unless worn cord-up

 

 

 

(3A76) Spider TinyEar

Added Feb 2013

Details: Spider’s light-and-comfortable entry-level earphone
Current Price: $35 from amazon.com (MSRP: $39.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 18Ω | Sens: 104 dB | Freq: 18-22k Hz | Cable: 3.9' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges; MEElec M6 single flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2.5/5) - Single-flange (2 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips; plastic carrying case with integrated cable winder
Build Quality (3/5) – The TinyEar uses two-piece plastic housings with hard stems, no strain reliefs, and a rubberized cable of average thickness. The L/R markings stamped into the housings can be hard to see
Isolation (3/5) – The slim housings allow for good isolation
Microphonics (3/5) – Bothersome when worn cable-down; low otherwise
Comfort (4.5/5) – The TinyEar is claimed to be the smallest in-ear headphone on market, and while that’s not exactly true, the housings are quite small and very lightweight. Stems are short and it’s easy to get a seal even though only 2 smaller sizes of single-flange tips are included

Sound (6.6/10) – The sound of the TinyEar is well-balanced with an emphasis on treble. The bass is medium in quantity – punchy but not really enhanced and much flatter overall than the boosted bass of a JVC FX101 or Dunu Trident. Sub-bass drops off rather quickly - both low-end extension and impact are lacking compared to Spider’s pricier Realvoice model.

The midrange is mildly recessed but the balance is good overall – better, for example, than with comparably-priced JVC and Klipsch models. Clarity is decent, helped along by the treble emphasis. Note thickness is on the low side – the TinyEar is not nearly as thick as the warmer, weightier Realvoice. The tone overall is cooler and brighter compared to most sets in the price range. The treble is energetic but seems to be enhanced rather evenly, without any major spikes. The TinyEar is definitely brighter and more treble-heavy overall than the JVC FX101 but still remains smoother and easier to listen to than the harsher JVCs.

The soundstage of the TinyEar is average in size. Good treble extension provides decent air but soundstage width and depth are only moderate. The similarly-priced Soundmagic E10 provides a more open, out-of-the-head presentation and even the Dunu Trident has better depth and layering. Worth noting also is how inefficient the TinyEar is – despite the advertised 104dB sensitivity, it required more power to reach listening volume than any of the earphones I put it up against.

Value (7.5/10) – While not as impressive as Spider’s higher-end Realvoice model, the TinyEar provides clean and balanced sound in an extremely compact form factor. Clearly designed for those with smaller ears, the TinyEar will fit pretty much anyone comfortably, which is good because many will enjoy its clarity and energetic – but surprisingly non-fatiguing – treble.

Pros: Small and lightweight; clean & clear sound
Cons: Microphonic when worn cable-down

 

Thanks to mcnoiserdc for the TinyEar loan!

 

 

(3A77) VSonic VC02
 

Reviewed Feb 2013


Details: Dynamic microdriver earphone from VSonic
Current Price: $40 from lendmeurears.com (MSRP: est. $40)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 100 dB | Freq: 10-25k Hz | Cable: 4.3' L-plug
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3/5) - Single-flange (3 sizes), hybrid-style (7 sizes), and bi-flange silicone tips; shirt clip, drawstring carrying pouch
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The VC02’s form factor is of the slim, straight-barrel variety. The construction is very similar to that of the pricier GR01, albeit with detachable cables and fixed nozzles. The cable is smooth but on the thin side and lacks a sliding cinch. It utilizes a conventional 2-pin socket, though it detaches a little more easily than I’d have liked. A bump on the inside of the right strain relief differentiates the left and right connectors.
Isolation (3.5/5) – Similar to the pricier GR06 and GR07 models
Microphonics (4/5) - Cable noise is bothersome when worn cable-down but becomes low with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (4.5/5) - The housings are very slim and easy to insert deeply for a good seal. The sheer variety of included eartips should allow the fit to work for anyone, though earphones with slimmer nozzles provide more fitment options still. The cable exits at an angle so those with smaller ears may have trouble wearing the VC02 cable-up

Sound (8.1/10) – The VC02 is undoubtedly the most balanced sub-$100 model I’ve heard from VSonic thus far. It pursues an accurate, uncolored sound that continuously impresses with its crispness and clarity. The low end of the VC02 is tight and punchy, though fans of enhanced bass will be disappointed by its linear nature. The impact is slightly greater compared to the HiFiMan RE0 but not at the level of VSonic’s GR06 model. Bass depth is good and bass detail and texture are excellent due to the lack of mid-bass bloat – easily among the best I’ve heard in the sub-$100 range.

The mids are clean and crisp. Midrange presence is excellent, with no recession but also less warmth and thickness compared to sets that would normally be considered “balanced” in the budget realm, such as the Brainwavz M1 and Monoprice 8320. The VC02 is clearer than these, and clearer also than the armature-based Rock-It Sounds R-30, falling just behind the far more expensive HiFiMan RE-ZERO and MEElec A161P. It is slightly thin-sounding and the tonality is on the cool side, which will still make the GR06 a better choice for some listeners.

The top end of the VC02 is extended and just as crisp as the rest of the signature, but still has some of the slightly hot character that all higher-end VSonic dynamics seem to share. It is a little less sibilant than my GR07 mkI but still doesn’t quite have the refinement of HiFiMan’s dynamic-driver earphones. The presentation is spacious but not particularly enveloping – the GR07 and GR06 both seem to present a more well-rounded sonic image. Soundstage width is good, however, and the balanced, clear sound leaves no room for any sort of congestion. In fact, the VC02 makes the armature-based Rock-It R-30 sound a little congested and vague when it comes to imaging. All in all, it has nothing to be ashamed of for the price. It may be worth noting the lower-than-average sensitivity of the VC02, which will leave those who gauge sound quality by volume level wanting.

Value (10/10) – I wrote and scrapped this section several times trying to convey the scope of the VC02’s brilliance. While VSonic’s GR-series earphones have simply been at the top of their game, the VC02 seems to transcend competing altogether. There are a few nitpicks but there’s so much more to like. I like the detachable cables with the common 2-pin connector – something I haven’t seen on a budget earphone since Altec Lansing stopped selling UE models at huge discounts. I like the tiny 3mm dynamic driver, the slim form factor, and the resulting comfort and noise isolation. I like the fact that VSonic includes a ton of tips despite the small sizing gaps between them. And I especially like fact that the VC02 boasts what has to be the clearest, tightest, and most detailed sound this side of the HiFiMan RE0 – a model that was originally considered well-priced at $239 and remained a Head-Fi favorite for years. The VC02 does all that at an astonishingly low price point. Enough said.

Pros: Small, lightweight, and comfortable; very balanced and articulate sound
Cons: Lacks cable cinch; detachable cables can come off too easily

 

 

 

(3A78) VSonic R02 Silver

 

Reviewed May 2013


Details: Latest version of VSonic's popular R02 model
Current Price: $49 from lendmeurears.com (MSRP: est $49)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 24Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 8-28k Hz | Cable: 4.1' L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: stock bi-flanges; MEElec “balanced” bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2.5/5) - Bi-flange silicone tips (3 pairs in 2 sizes), shirt clip, and soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (4.5/5) – The R02 Silver is similar to VSonic’s other -02 models in appearance but actually has a smaller nozzle diameter and all-plastic housings. The earphones are still very robust, however, and the cable is strong and flexible
Isolation (3.5/5) – Good, especially with the included thick bi-flange tips
Microphonics (4/5) – Low when worn cable-down; very low with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (4/5) – The familiar housings are small and fit well. Long strain reliefs may pose an issue for some with over-the-ear wear but a cable cinch is present to help out

Sound (8/10) – The R02 Silver is the latest iteration of VSonic’s long-running R02 model. The last one I tested – the GR02 Bass Edition – had a rather v-shaped sound to it, complete with strong bass and prominent, occasionally sibilant treble. The R02 Silver pursues the opposite signature – smooth and almost mid-centric in nature. It reminds me of a Brainwavz M1 with punchier bass and all-around better clarity.

The most prominent feature of the R02 Silver is the midrange – it is far more forward than with the GR02 bass edition and a little more so than with the pricier GR06. The bass quantity, on the other hand, is diminished compared to the GR02 Bass Edition, appearing less impactful but also less prone to bleeding up into the midrange. Bass punch is similar to the pricier GR06, though the latter is a touch quicker. The mids sound clear and open – a little thicker and less nuanced than with the VSonic VC02 and many of the pricier armature-based earphones, but nonetheless very clean and natural.

The top end is smooth, but not recessed. There is less treble brilliance than with VSonic’s other dynamic-driver earphones, but also no sibilance. This is especially noticeable next it the Bass Edition of the GR02, which tends to be hotter and more harsh in the treble. The presentation of the R02 Silver is fitting, with a large, out-of-the-head sound. The imaging is not the most precise but still on-par with the better earphones in its price range.

Value (10/10) – The aging VSonic R02 continues to impress with its latest tuning, eschewing the v-shaped signature of the GR02 Bass Edition for a more mid-centric sound with surprisingly good clarity and bass quality. The only downside here is the limited tip selection compared to the GR02 bass edition, but even having to pick up a few extra tips fails to diminish the value of what VSonic has here.

Pros: Well-built, great sound for the money
Cons: Lacks in tip selection compared to GR02 Bass Edition

 

 

(3A79) Dunu DN-22M Detonator
 

Added Jun 2013


Details: Entry-level headset model from Dunu
Current Price: N/A (MSRP: $45)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 112 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9' L-plug
Nozzle Size: 4.5mm | Preferred tips: Hybrid-style single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (5/5) – Single-flange regular (3 sizes), hybrid-style (3 sizes), bi-flange, and triple-flange silicone tips, shirt clip, soft carrying pouch, clamshell carrying case, and integrated cable wrap
Build Quality (5/5) – Overall construction is excellent. The cable is similar to the one on the old Trident model – a little rubbery but mostly soft and flexible. The housings are metal and feel very solid, boasting also a very nice finish. A single-button mic and remote – the first I’ve seen from Dunu – is located on the left-side cable
Isolation (3.5/5) – Very good for a dynamic-driver earphone
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Quite tolerable when worn cable-down; over-the-ear wear may be restricted by mic position
Comfort (3.5/5) – The housings are one the heavy side but rounded at the front for comfort. The fit is typical of a straight-barrel earphone

Sound (6.7/10) – The sound of the Detonator is decidedly explosive, underpinned by the enhanced bass response. The low end has good extension but also quite a lot of mid-bass emphasis, which gives the earphone a slightly boomy and bloated sound. Overall, the bass is a little too enhanced for my tastes, with more impact compared to Dunu’s popular Trident model as well as the VSonic GR02 Bass Edition.

The mids are warm and smooth – not as recessed as with the GR02 Bass Edition or RHA MA-350, but still not too prominent due to the bass emphasis. Clarity is similar to the Dunu Trident and lags behind the pricier DN-23 Landmine model. The earphones remain very smooth up into the treble and roll off at the top, giving up the energy – but also the potential for harshness and sibilance – of sets such as the GR02 Bass Edition.

Although the pricier DN-23 manages to be almost as bassy with less bloat, the bass of the DN-22M intrudes on the midrange at times. This causes the earphone to sound more congested than and less natural than the DN-23. Other than that, the presentation is quite good – a little wider compared to the Trident but otherwise similarly competent.

Value (8/10) – While the Detonator is not an upgrade to the popular DN-17 Trident, it does offer a slightly bassier sound with better accessories. Plus, it boasts an inline microphone and remote – the first I’ve seen from Dunu – and retains the fantastic build quality Dunu has become known for. For those in search of a bulletproof entry-level smartphone headset, it’s a tough one to beat. Purely for audio quality, the less expensive DN-17 Trident is still my recommendation.

Pros: Fantastic build quality; well-accessorized
Cons: Not as accurate as the DN-17 Trident

 

 

(3A80) Sony MH1C

 

Added Jun 2013

 

Details: Sony headset designed for the Xperia line of smartphones 

Current Price: $35 from ebay.com (bulk packaging) (MSRP: $79.99)

Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 15 Ω | Sens: 115 dB/V | Freq: 1-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9' L-plug J-cord

Nozzle Size: 3mm | Preferred tips: stock single-flanges

Wear Style: Straight down

 

Accessories (1.5/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (4 sizes) and shirt clip

Build Quality (3.5/5) – The MH1C is rather well-made, with a metal housing, flexible strain reliefs, and a sturdy flat cable. However, it is this rubbery, j-style (asymmetric) cable that can also make the earphones very to use. The 4-button remote is designed for Sony Xperia phones but offers partial functionality with many other devices

Isolation (3.5/5) – Isolation is quite good

Microphonics (3/5) – J-corded IEMs typically manage to avoid microphonics but the rubbery flat cable in the MH1C still carries a lot of noise 

Comfort (4/5) – The skinny housings and flexible tips of the MH1C provide a comfortable fit but the j-cord makes it difficult to wear the earphones cable-up

 

Sound (8.1/10) – Designed for smartphone users in search of great audio quality, the MH1C provides a warm, clear, and smooth sound only made more impressive by the reasonable price of the headset. The bass is deep and full, with an emphasis on sub-bass rather than mid-bass. Generally speaking, the MH1C has rather good bass quality with less mid-bass bloat than the Audio-Technica CKM500, for example. Considering the bass quantity, control is rather good although it’s still not as tight as the bass of the VSonic VC02 or the pricier Philips Fidelio S1.

 

The mids of the MH1C are not as prominent as the low end, but they are pleasantly warm and smooth. The treble, likewise, is very inoffensive without sacrificing overall refinement. I did sometimes wish for better overall balance as the bass emphasis of the MH1C results in occasional veiling, but the clarity is generally very good.

 

Better still is the high volume performance of the MH1C – the earphone remains very composed when played loud and its silky-smooth signature is conducive toward high-volume listening. Compared to the Brainwavz M5, for instance, the MH1C has less prominent mids and highs but is also smoother and more natural. Whereas the M5 can begin to distort slightly at high volumes, the MH1C produces no audible distortion.

 

The soundstage of the MH1C is a little narrower compared to the half in-ear ATH-CKM500 and the pricier Philips Fidelio S1 but the overall presentation is very good, providing a moderately airy and open sound despite the warm tone with good soundstage width and depth.

 

Select comparisons:

 

LG Quadbeat HSS-F420 ($32)

 

Not unlike the MH1C, the Quadbeat is a stock headset included with many LG smartphones. The sound signature of the Quadbeat is on the v-shaped side compared to the MH1C and its bass, especially subbass, is lower in quantity. The low end of the Quadbeat is a little tighter but the difference isn’t drastic. The LGs also sacrifice some of the warmth and fullness of the Sonys, giving up the excellent note thickness of the MH1C for a bit of added clarity, aided also by the extra treble energy of the Quadbeat. Next to the warm and smooth MH1C, the treble of the Quadbeat sounds brighter and harsher overall.

 

I ended up preferring the sound of the MH1C, which overall sounded more natural and convincing despite the extra bass. On a user-friendliness note, while I found the cable of the Quadbeat to be a lot more tolerable than that of the MH1C, its extra-soft stock eartips did not work for me and had to be replaced with a set of standard bi-flanges of the MEElectronics variety. The Quadbeat was also more sensitive, reaching loud volumes very easily.

 

VSonic VC02 ($49)

 

The VC02 is one of clearest and most balanced sub-$100 earphones I’ve ever heard, with a tiny 3mm dynamic driver providing a uniquely delicate, yet punchy sound. Unsurprisingly, the MH1C has a lot more bass and much warmer overall tone than the VC02. Its mids and treble are recessed in comparison to its bass whereas the VSonic set is rather well-balanced. The VC02 sounds brighter and thinner overall than the MH1C. It is clearer and more accurate, but the treble is harsher in comparison. The bass of the VC02 is surprisingly punchy considering its commitment to an accurate sound but remains tighter than that of the Sony.

 

In terms of overall usabilit, both sets can be a little frustrating – the VC02 sounds best with a rather deep fit and has detachable cables that are not connected to the housings as securely as I’d like. It really is an enthusiast’s IEM, requiring some care in use and storage. The MH1C is easier to fit and has a built-in remote and mic but also utilizes a cable that is rubbery and microphonic in comparison to the soft and flexible cord of the VC02.

 

VSonic VSD1 ($43)

 

The VSD1 was released as a budget version of VSonic’s popular GR07 model, providing a less analytical sound than the VC02 but retaining its technical performance. In comparison to the MH1C, the VSD1 is less bassy, boasting better overall balance and more neutral tone. Bass quality is similar between the two but the VSD1 is a touch clearer overall and boasts more treble presence. As with the pricier GR07, its treble does have a slight predisposition towards sibilance in comparison to the buttery-smooth MH1C. The soundstage is a touch wider with the VSD1 and again the VSonic is noticeably more sensitive than the Sony.

 

Value (10/10) – Despite my issues with its j-style cable, microphonics, and proprietary remote, the MH1C offers fantastic sound quality for the asking price, and beyond. The bass is deep and full, and the overall sound is smooth and inviting. As long as its skew towards bass is not an issue, this is a fantastic mid-range earphone for beginners and veterans alike, and one that offers as much audio quality per dollar as anything else I’ve come across.

 

Pros: Great deep bass & outstanding overall sound quality; comfortable form factor; good noise isolation

Cons: Rubbery, flat, j-style cable can be aggravating

 

Big thanks to scootsit for the MH1C unit!

 


(3A81) LG Quadbeat HSS-F420

Added Jun 2013


Details: Stock headset for several LG smartphones; also sold separately
Current Price: $32 from ebay.com (MSRP: est $35)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 24Ω | Sens: 98 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9' L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Generic bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (1/5) - Single-flange (2 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips
Build Quality (3.5/5) – Much like the Sony MH1C, the Quadbeat utilizes aluminum housings and lightweight, tangle-resistant flat cables. There is a single-button mic and remote on the right-side cable
Isolation (3/5) – Good when well-sealing eartips are used
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Bothersome when worn cable-down but tolerable with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (3.5/5) – The shells of the Quadbeat are on the large side and the nozzles are extremely short. The stock tips are longer than average, designed to offset the issue with the housing shape, but are very soft and don’t provide a great seal for me. Those with small outer ears may have an issue finding a comfortable fit due to the housing shape 

Sound (7.9/10) – The sound of the Quadbeat takes on a slightly v-shaped character with present but not overbearing bass and crisp, bright highs. Overall, it strongly reminds me of the Sunrise Audio Xcited. The low end has good extension and slight mid-bass boost for a punchy, yet clean sound. The Quadbeat lacks the depth and thickness of the Sony MH1C, so it won’t be a good match for those who prefer a fuller, weightier low end. However, its bass competes well with more neutral VSonic VC02, which has slightly less bass quantity.

The midrange of the Quadbeat is clear and detailed, cleaner of bass bleed than the mids of the Philips SHE3580 and Astrotec AM-800, for example. Note thickness is similar to the VSonic VC02 and again lacking some of the fullness of sets like the Sony MH1C and VSonic VSD1.

The treble is energetic, giving the overall tone a slightly bright tilt. Though the VSonic VC02 and VSD1 are slightly more predisposed towards sibilance, the Quadbeat has more overall energy in the upper midrange and lower parts of the treble, which gives it a brighter, slightly splashy sound. Next to the silky-smooth MH1C, it sounds a bit harsh but on its own the treble quality is decent enough. The presentation of the Quadbeat is wide and uncongested, as tends to be the case with other earphones with similar signatures. It is more out-of-the-head than that of the Sony MH1C and even the VSonic VSD1 and retains good separation and imaging.

Value (10/10) – The LG Quadbeat provides a clean and detailed, yet minimally offensive sound with a slightly v-shaped signature. It’s also rather user-friendly, boasting flat cables that are less annoying than those on the Sony MH1C and a universal single-button remote. Not all is ideal - the wide, straight-barrel housings won’t work for all ear shapes and the stock tips may need replacing, but even with the cost of new tips factored in the Quadbeat offers great value for money. It also means that owners of certain LG phones will have to spend a good chunk of change to upgrade from their stock headsets. Whether this is a curse or a blessing, I’m not quite sure.

Pros: Great audio quality
Cons: Wide housings not ideal for small ears; flimsy stock tips


Big thanks to Fernito for the LG Quadbeat loan!

 

 

(3A82) Signature Acoustics Elements C-12
 

Added Aug 2013

 
Details: Entry-level earphone from the first Indian IEM manufacturer 
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 18Ω | Sens: 102 dB | Freq: 17-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9' L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Generic single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear
 
Accessories (3.5/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), replacement filters, shirt clip, and genuine leather zippered carrying pouch (limited first run also comes with heavy screw-top brass case)
Build Quality (4/5) – The wooden housings of the C-12 are a little plain but well put-together. The earphones feature replaceable filters, which is a rarity these days. The textured cable is nice and sturdy, reminding me of the cords on the Brainwavz M1/M2/M3 earphones. No cable cinch is present
Isolation (3/5) – Shallow fit results in average noise isolation
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Good with cable-down wear; even better when worn over-the-ear
Comfort (4/5) – The wooden housings are very lightweight and not overly large, allowing for a comfortable fit
 
Sound (7.3/10) – The C-12 is an unabashedly bass-heavy earphone that focuses on presenting listeners with a big and impactful low end. The midbass region is hyped up, resulting in a slightly boomy sound and making the deep bass appear less prominent. Earphones such as the VSonic GR02 Bass Edition and Dunu Trident, which are by no means lacking in bass, both yield to the C-12 in overall impact, offering a more linear response better balanced between midbass and subbass. Suffice it to say that no one will find the bass of the C-12 deficient. 
 
As a result of the bass boost, the mids of the C-12 are mildly veiled but at the same time maintain a warm and rich tone. Note thickness is rather good, though for my tastes the earphones could use more midrange presence and clarity. Clarity and detail levels are about on-par with the Brainwavz M2 and the older bass-heavy Xears models. The top end rolls off gently for a slightly dark overall tone and has a smoother character than, for example, VSonic earphones and the Astrotec AM-800. This makes it less fatiguing and more tolerable at high volumes. At the same time, the C-12 has a bit more sparkle than the aging Brainwavz M1 and M2 models, which is a plus.
 
The presentation of the C-12 is nice and spacious, making competitors such as the Dunu Trident sound closed-in and congested in comparison. It’s not quite at the level of the pricier Astrotec AM-800 but comes very close, which is all the more impressive considering the more bass-heavy balance and darker tone of the C-12. Combined with the powerful bass, the spacious presentation makes for a very enjoyable listening experience.
 
Value (8/10) – The Signature Acoustics Elements C-12 is a very capable earphone from the first India-based IEM manufacturer. A solid all-rounder with even more solid bass response, the Elements C-12 boasts slightly rolled-off treble and a spacious, reverberant presentation. The wooden housings are lightweight and comfortable in the ear while the twisted cables are strong and non-microphonic, making for convenient listening while out and about. Minor details such as packaging are slightly rough around the edges but one thing is certain: the Elements C-12 doesn’t look – or sound – like a freshman effort. 
 
Pros: Lightweight housings & strong cables; impactful bass; good sense of space
Cons: Somewhat veiled midrange
 

 

(3A83) SteelSeries Flux In-Ear

 

Added September 2013

Details: dynamic-driver headset from Denmark-based manufacturer of gaming peripherals SteelSeries
MSRP: $49.99 (manufacturer’s page)
Current Price: $49.99 from amazon.com
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 19Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9′ I-plug w/ mic & 1-button remote
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and zippered carrying pouch
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The metal-and-plastic housings of the Flux remind me of the HiSoundAudio Crystal in both size and shape. The strain reliefs are not flexible enough for my liking but the narrow, rubbery flat cable works rather well. It holds a single-button inline remote and microphone.
Isolation (4/5) – Good, thanks to slim form factor and well-sealing stock tips
Microphonics (3/5) – Bothersome when worn cable-down; good otherwise
Comfort (4.5/5) – The housings are compact and lightweight, providing an unobtrusive fit that is comfortable for extended listening. The stock tips are of very good quality. The earphones can be worn cable-up as well as cable-down, though the microphone position suffers with over-the-ear wear

Sound (8.2/10) – The first dynamic-driver earphone from SteelSeries, the Flux In-Ear uses 6mm transducers and delivers a lively, well-rounded sound that impressed me from the very first listen. The bass has excellent extension and delivers good punch with no bloat. I would put the overall bass quantity on-par with the VSonic GR07 Bass Edition – like the VSonics, the Flux offers more impact than strictly neutral earphones such as the HiFiMan RE-400 but retains better accuracy than properly bass-heavy sets. The bass is not enhanced enough for the Flux to sound bloated – in fact, it is only a touch more boomy compared to the pricier and more neutral-sounding RE-400 and VSonic GR07.

The midrange of the Flux is among clearest I’ve heard in the price range and maintains a neutral-to-warm tone. The mids are a little recessed compared to sets such as the RE-400 and Dunu’s Tai Chi model, as well as the pricier Flux In-Ear Pro. This is not to say the Flux sounds severely v-shaped – rather, it is balanced-sounding with just a bit of a bass enhancement and crisp, prominent treble. The top end is extended, has good energy, and sounds mostly smooth, with just a bit of grain compared to higher-end sets such as the Flux In-Ear Pro, UE 600, and HiFiMan RE-400. It’s not nearly as prone to sibilance as many of the popular VSonic models and makes sets that are more laid-back at the top, such as the Dunu Tai Chi, sound dull and smoothed-over in comparison.

The presentation of the Flux fits in with the overall signature, being neither as forward and mid-centric as that of the HiFiMan RE-400, not as wide and out-of-the-head as that of the VSonic GR07. The good top-to-bottom extension, bass control, and overall balance of the Flux all help make sure that no elements of the sound are lost, in keeping with SteelSeries earphones being marketed for gaming as well as music.

Select Comparisons

Sony MH1C ($38) 

Last year, Sony’s MH1C model took the audiophile scene by storm as one of the best bang-per-buck in-ears on the market, making it a great benchmark for the new SteelSeries earphones. The MH1C offers a little more bass impact and a warmer tone than the Flux at the expense of greater bass bloat. The Flux has tighter bass compared to the Sony, and less of it, but still maintains great extension and good impact. The Flux also has more treble presence whereas the MH1C is a little smoother up top and a touch more spacious. From a user-friendliness perspective, the appeal of the MH1C is limited slightly by the annoying j-cord setup and Sony Xperia remote whereas the Flux has a universal one-button remote and standard y-type cable.

HiSoundAudio Crystal ($99) 

The Crystal may be significantly more expensive than the Flux, but the two earphones have quite a lot in common. They are similar in size and shape, similar in fit, and, as it turns out, similar in audio quality as well. I’ve always considered the Crystal to be a very solid earphone – a more balanced but similarly well-isolating alternative to the popular Shure SE215. Happily, the Flux offers all that at a fraction of the price. Compared to the Crystal, it has a warmer tone and more bass presence. The midrange of the Flux is a little less prominent, making it sound a touch more v-shaped, and its treble – slightly smoother. The Crystal, on the hand, is brighter and boasts more prominent mids. It has a slight advantage in midrange clarity but also sounds more harsh and prone to exposing sibilance.

SteelSeries Flux In-Ear Pro ($130) 

SteelSeries’ two in-ear monitors are both impressive performers but the sound quality difference between them isn’t as great as the price suggests. The armature-based Flux In-Ear Pro is flatter and more accurate, with more prominent mids, less bass, and smoother treble compared to the dynamic-driver Flux. It is also more sensitive, requiring less power to reach listening volumes.

The cheaper Flux model, on the other hand, boasts more bass and appears to have better bass depth. In terms of clarity the two are very close, with the more prominent treble of the Flux sometimes giving it an edge in vocal intelligibility. That same treble can sound a little grainy compared to the Flux In-Ear Pro but overall the two aren’t far apart. The soundstages of both earphones are similarly well-rounded but the Flux can be a little more dynamic at times.

Value (10/10) – The SteelSeries Flux In-Ear headset is one of the very best mid-range earphones I’ve heard to date, delivering fantastic sound quality per dollar with  punchy, extended bass, good treble energy, and excellent clarity. SteelSeries’ freshman effort beats many higher-priced products from brands that have had years to refine their in-ear offerings, making its performance all the more impressive. The only shortcoming is the cable, which could use better strain relief and tends to be noisy when the earphones are worn cord-down, but it’s a small caveat on what is undoubtedly one of the best-performing earphones in its class.

Pros: Excellent sound quality; small & comfortable design
Cons: Cable is noisy when worn straight down


(3A84) Fidue A63


Reviewed March 2014

Details: One of the first IEM releases from China-based Fidue
MSRP: est. $65 (manufacturer’s page)
Current Price: $60 from amazon.com; $59 from ebay.com
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 101 dB | Freq: 18-21k Hz | Cable: 3.9′ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock bi-flanges, MEElec M6 single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear (preferred)

Accessories (3/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange (2 sizes) silicone tips; soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (4/5) – The A63 features aluminum shells and cabling identical to my older ViSang and Brainwavz earphones – internally braided and covered in a smooth, glossy sheath. It’s a little stiff and lacks a cable cinch but in my experience these cables tend to be quite durable. I also like the soft strain reliefs where the cables enter the housings, as well as on the aluminum I-plug and y-split. A raised dot on the right strain relief makes the earpieces easy to tell apart in the dark
Isolation (3/5) – Isolation is about average for this type of earphone
Microphonics (4/5) – Present when worn cable-down; low otherwise
Comfort (3/5) – While the A63 is lightweight and not too large, I did have an issue with the housings – the metal ridges at the rear are quite tall and sharp. The corners hurt after a while unless I either switch to bi-flanges and position the housings farther in the ear, or simply wear them cable-up. Not a deal breaker, but I would have preferred smoother housings nonetheless

Sound (8.2/10) – If there was one sound signature I could single out as being unpopular with manufacturers of reasonably-priced in-ears, it would be mid-forward sound. There are a few good earphones with forward mids, but the vast majority of budget in-ears are either bass-focused or v-shaped. A solid mid-forward set is a rarity, which is why I was intrigued by the Fidue A63 from the start.

The A63 is a punchy earphone, but not downright bass-heavy, and presents a mild mid-bass “hump”. On the whole it has less bass, especially deep bass, compared to the popular Sony MH1C, but bass control is similar between them due to the more midbass-oriented nature of the A63. Next to the VSonic GR02 Bass Edition, however, the low end of the A63 is significantly tighter and cleaner. That’s not to say that the bass is in any way lacking in quantity – the similarly-priced Astrotec AM-800, another capable dynamic-driver earphone, is rather light on impact compared to the A63.

The Fidue A63 sounds quite clear and impressively detailed through the midrange. The prominent mids provide absolutely fantastic vocal clarity compared to most mid-range IEMs. The Sony MH1C, for example, sounds mid-recessed and has poorer vocal intelligibility next to the stronger midrange of the A63. The rather v-shaped GR02 Bass Edition, likewise, has very recessed mids and misses out on much of the clarity (the GR02 is, generally speaking, the inverse of the A63 in sound signature). Only the brighter-sounding Astrotec AM-800 manages to keep up with the A63 in midrange clarity at the expense of sounding more harsh and sibilance-prone.

At the top, the A63 is pretty smooth and inoffensive. It’s not quite as forgiving and refined as the Sony MH1C, but the Sony is more an exception than the rule. The A63 definitely has an upper hand in treble quality on brighter earphones such as the VSonic GR02 BE and Astrotec AM-800. Maybe it isn’t for fans of energetic, sparkly top ends but I much prefer this approach to treble that brutalizes bad recordings and sensitive ears. The soundstage is as one would expect – the A63 is a spacious earphone that presents a good soundtage without compression or congestion, but the forward mids pretty much guarantee that it won’t sound as out-of-the-head as, say, a VSonic GR07 or Fidue’s higher-end A81 model. That said, for the price there’s certainly nothing wrong with the presentation of the A63.

Select Comparisons

VSonic VSD1S ($45)

Like so many of the best-performing budget sets, the VSD1S emphasizes both its bass and treble for a lively, v-shaped sound. It has more bass impact than the A63 and presents a warmer tonal character and more full-bodied sound. The A63 has less bass and more prominent mids, which at times give vocals greater intelligibility compared to the VSonics. The VSD1S is brighter and more sibilant compared to the A63, which has smoother, less prominent treble. Both earphones impress on the soundstage front and are as spacious and well-layered as anything I’ve heard in the price bracket.

SteelSeries Flux ($50)

These two earphones lean only slightly on different sides of “balanced”, with the Flux coming out just a touch v-shaped and the A63 going the opposite way. They have similar bass quantity overall but the Flux boasts better extension and more subbass presence. Its mids, however, are a little recessed while those of the Fidue A63 are prominent. At times, this gives the A63 better vocal clarity and intelligibility. The A63 also places more emphasis on its upper midrange while the Flux is a touch smoother all the way through the treble. As a result, it tends to be a bit more forgiving when it comes to harshness and sibilance. There is also a large difference in efficiency between the two earphones, with the A63 being significantly more sensitive.

MOE-SS01 ($65)

The somewhat v-shaped MOE-SS01 makes for a strong contrast to the mid-forward Fidue A63. The SS01 impresses most with its bass depth, which is superior to the A63, and clarity, which is about on-par with the Fidue set. The A63 has similar bass punch to the SS01 but is more midbass-oriented and warmer in tone. Despite this, its strong mids manage to avoid veiling quite well and maintain good vocal clarity. The SS01 has more upper midrange and treble presence and sounds more harsh and splashy than the relatively smooth A63.

Dunu DN-23 Landmine ($69)

Dunu’s mid-range Landmine model is a warm, bass-heavy earphone that also has good presence in the midrange. Compared to the Fidue A63, the bass of the Landmine is noticeably more powerful, but also more bloated. The low end of the A63 is tighter and cleaner, though perhaps less well-suited for bass lovers. The mids of the Landmine are prominent, but still sound veiled thanks to the plentiful bass. The A63 sounds clearer and more balanced. The two earphones differ less in the treble region, with the DN-23 being only a touch smoother.

Value (8.5/10) – The Fidue A63 may be the company’s first mid-range in-ear monitor, but it ticks pretty much all the boxes for sound quality. Solid bass impact and strong midrange presence are complemented by an uncongested soundstage and treble that is neither harsh nor sibilant. I like the construction, as well. The only downside is that the sharp edges of the housings necessitate some fiddling to find a truly comfortable fit, especially for those with small outer ears – a small concession as there are precious few IEMs that can hope to keep up with the A63 in intelligibility, but it takes away slightly from what is otherwise an outstanding design.

Pros: Excellent sound quality and solid construction
Cons: Housings have sharp corners


(3A85) T-Peos Tank


Reviewed March 2014

Details: Entry-level headset from Korea-based T-Peos
MSRP: est. $40 (manufacturer’s page)
Current Price: $30 from mp4nation.net$33 from HiFiNage.com (India only)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32Ω | Sens: 102 dB | Freq: 20-18k Hz | Cable: 4.2′ L-plug with mic & 1-button remote
Nozzle Size: 4.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear (preferred)

Accessories (2.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), foam tips (1 pair), shirt clip, and velvet drawstring carrying pouch
Build Quality (4/5) – True to its name, the Tank feels quite sturdy, with metal housings, narrow flat cables, and a well-relieved L-plug. It also boasts an inline mic with a 1-button remote, but no cable cinch
Isolation (3/5) – On par with other earphones of this type
Microphonics (3/5) – Bothersome with cable-down wear; good when worn over-the-ear
Comfort (4/5) – The 8mm driver of the Tank permits a slim and compact design. The earphones can be worn comfortably both cable-down and cable up, though the flat cable can be a bit resistant to over-the-ear wear and the lack of a cable cinch doesn’t help

Sound (7.7/10) – The T-Peos Tank is a dynamic-driver earphone with an enhanced-bass sound signature and warm tonal character. It has significantly more bass than the VSonic VSD1, for example, but a bit less than the Sony MH1C, especially in the sub-bass region. Bass quality is good – it is tighter compared to both the less bassy Soundmagic E10 and the more impactful Dunu Landmine.

Its mids manage to avoid veiling quite well, and don’t sound as recessed as those of the Sony MH1C. Clarity is very good, beating out the similarly-priced VSonic GR02 Bass Edition and Soundmagic E10, as well as the pricier but more veiled-sounding Dunu Landmine.

There is a bit of elevation in the treble region, which is shared by the other dynamic-driver T-Peos earphones I’ve tried recently. At times it results in mild harshness and can accentuate sibilance some, but overall the Tank is pretty composed. Tonally, it is darker and warmer than, for example, the Soundmagic E10.

The presentation is good, not great, with only average depth and a bit of congestion. It is less spacious than the Soundmagic E10, for example, and even the Dunu Landmine. The enhanced bass also hurts the imaging a touch compared to T-Peos’ similarly-priced but less bassy Popular model.

Select Comparisons 

T-Peos Popular (~$40)

These sibling earphones from T-Peos are cut from the same cloth but have distinctive sound signatures. The Tank is warmer and bassier, while the Popular is brighter and sounds more v-shaped. The greater bass quantity of the Tank makes it a little boomy in comparison while the more neutral Popular model is clearer. The treble of the Tank is a little smoother while the Popular is more harsh and splashy, but also more crisp. The soundstage presentations of the two earphones are extremely similar. Lastly, the Tank also has a bit of driver flex while the Popular seems immune to the phenomenon.

VSonic GR02 Bass Edition ($35)

The GR02 Bass Edition is a v-shaped, enhanced-bass earphone. Overall bass impact is pretty similar between the GR02 and Tank but the latter boasts a slightly tighter low end. Its mids are also less recessed compared to the VSonics and sound warmer and more natural overall. At the top, the Tank is a little smoother while the more v-shaped GR02 has a greater tendency towards sibilance. The GR02 has a wider soundstage, however, and sounds a little more airy.

VSonic VSD1S ($50)

VSonic’s newer budget set, the VSD1S, is a more balanced earphone compared to the GR02 Bass Edition but still maintains a somewhat v-shaped sound signature. Compared to the Tank, its bass is less enhanced and the tone is not as warm. The VSD1S sounds clearer and has a brighter, more energetic top end that makes the Tank seem somewhat dark in comparison. The Tank also appears a bit congested next to the wide and airy soundstage of the VSD1S.

Sony MH1C ($60)

Sony’s MH1C is a warm and smooth-sounding earphone that’s tonally similar to the Tank. It has a bit more subbass presence and less mid-bass bloat than the Tank, but both earphones have plenty of bass. The MH1C sounds more recessed in the midrange but is smoother in the treble region, while the Tank is a little more peaky and energetic at the top. The presentation of the MH1C also has an upper hand.

Value (8.5/10) – There aren’t many sub-$50 sets that perform on the level of the new T-Peos Tank, and fewer still also offer headset functionality and a sturdy construction. The signature of the Tank is a bassy one, but it manages to maintain control over its bass and good clarity elsewhere, especially in the midrange. As it is a new release, international pricing hasn’t stabilized quite yet, but anything at or below ~$40 makes the Tank a solid buy.

Pros: Enhanced-bass sound signature with good clarity; compact and comfortable housings; solid construction
Cons: Treble could be smoother; cable can be noisy when worn cord-down

Thanks to abhijollyguy for the chance to try the T-Peos Tank!

 

 


Reviewed April 2014

Details: Budget IEM from Korea-based T-Peos similar to their Tank model
MSRP: est. $40 (manufacturer’s page)
Current Price: $30 from mp4nation.com; $28 from HiFiNage (India only)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 20-18k Hz | Cable: 4.2′ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 4.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges, MEElec M6 single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear (preferred)

Accessories (1.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and shirt clip
Build Quality (4/5) – The construction of the Popular is very similar to T-Peos’ similarly-priced Tank model. It uses metal housings akin to those of the higher-end D200 and H-100 models, narrow flat cables, and a well-relieved L-plug
Isolation (3/5) – Isolation is on par with other earphones of this type
Microphonics (3/5) – Average with cable-down wear; good when worn over-the-ear
Comfort (4/5) – The small dynamic driver permits a compact housing design. The earphones can be worn comfortably both cable-down and cable-up, though the flat cable with no cable cinch can be a bit resistant to over-the-ear wear

Sound (7.8/10) – The T-Peos Popular is similar to the Tank in price and construction, and also uses 8mm dynamic drivers, but delivers a more balanced and neutral sound compared to the warmer, bassier Tank. The less dominant low end actually benefits the Popular, allowing the bass quality to go from great to outstanding. The earphones are still not bass-light by any stretch – bass impact is only a hair below the VSonic VSD1S, for example, and greater than with the Astrotec AM-800 and the dual-driver MOE-SS01. Despite this, bass control is excellent, resulting one of the best bass quality/quantity ratios I’ve heard among budget earphones.

The Popular has a slightly v-shaped overall signature but its midrange doesn’t appear notably recessed – less so than with the VSD1S and especially the VSonic GR02 Bass Edition, for example. There’s no veiling of the midrange, which helps the Popular also achieve fantastic clarity, nearly on par with the MOE-SS01.

At the top, the Popular has a similar character to the Tank, with a treble peak or two resulting in a sound that is a touch harsher than I would like, especially at higher volumes. This is more noticeable with the Popular than the Tank thanks to its less bassy sound signature. It can accentuate sibilance some as well. In comparison, the MOE-SS01 has a slightly less edgy treble character whereas the VSonic GR02 Bass Edition fares similarly to the T-Peos unit.

The Popular is a little more spacious and images better than the bassier Tank, though it still offers only average soundstage depth and is less spacious than the VSonic VSD1S, for example, or the MOE-SS01.

Select Comparisons 

T-Peos Tank (~$40)

These sibling earphones from T-Peos are cut from the same cloth but have distinctive sound signatures. The Tank is warmer and bassier, while the Popular is brighter and sounds more v-shaped. The greater bass quantity of the Tank makes it a little boomy in comparison while the more neutral Popular model is clearer. The treble of the Tank is a little smoother while the Popular is more harsh and splashy, but also more crisp. The soundstage presentations of the two earphones are extremely similar, though the Popular is less congested. Lastly, the Tank also has a bit of driver flex while the Popular seems immune to the phenomenon.

VSonic VSD1S ($50)

VSonic’s VSD1S holds its own against any earphone in the price range, but the T-Peos Popular is remarkably adept at highlighting the its few weaknesses. The VSD1S has a hair more mid-bass presence than the Popular, which give it a warmer tone but also makes its mids sound more recessed and even somewhat veiled. It has a more full-bodied sound while the Popular has an edge in overall clarity but also more presence in the upper midrange and lower treble, which makes it harsher compared to the VSonic unit. The VSD1S is a little more sibilant than the T-Peos and has a wider, more spaced-out presentation.

Astrotec AM-800 ($50)

The AM-800 is a bright, mildly v-shaped earphone that makes a pretty decent signature match for the Popular. It has less bass than the T-Peos unit and sounds a touch more v-shaped courtesy of its brighter treble. The Popular has both greater bass quantity and superior bass depth, with more slam and rumble. The top-end emphasis of the AM-800 seems to enhance its clarity, however, akin to a treble-boost equalizer setting. The Astrotec also has a wider soundstage, sounding more distant, while the Popular is less spacious, but more cohesive.

Fidue A63 ($60)

The A63 is a mid-forward earphone that makes for an interesting contrast to the Popular. Naturally, the mids of the somewhat v-shaped Popular are noticeably recessed in comparison, but the T-Peos also offers less mid-bass, sounding tighter and making the A63 appear somewhat bloated in comparison. The sound of the Popular is brighter, and though its treble is harsher and more splashy, it is a little clearer overall. However, the A63 is warmer more natural from a tonal standpoint, thanks in part to the smoother treble, and has a more spacious and uncongested presentation.

Value (8.5/10) – The Popular is my favorite of the three new dynamic-driver sets from T-Peos (the other two being the Tank and Spider models) thanks to its clearer, more neutral sound. The Popular is also a standout in bass quality, and though its treble can be somewhat harsh, overall performance is very impressive for the price. As with the other T-Peos earphones I’ve tried, it boasts a sturdy construction and is comfortable in the ear—there’s really not much more to ask of an IEM priced below $40.

Pros: Punchy, well-controlled bass and good clarity; compact and comfortable housings; solid construction
Cons: Treble could be smoother; cable can be noisy when worn cord-down

Thanks to abhijollyguy for the chance to try the T-Peos Popular!
 

 

(3A87) T-Peos D200R

 


Reviewed August 2014

Details: One of several sub-$50 headset models from Korea-based T-Peos
MSRP: est. $35
Current Price: $35 from mp4nation.net
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 20-18k Hz | Cable: 4′ L-plug with mic & 1-button remote
Nozzle Size: 4.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges, MEElec M6 single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear (preferred)

Accessories (2.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (4/5) – As with the other T-Peos earphones I’ve tried, the construction of the D200R is well above average, utilizing metal housings and a sturdy cable that’s nylon-sheathed below the y-split and terminated with an angled plug. The D200R boasts an inline mic with a 1-button remote, but no cable cinch
Isolation (3/5) – Good, on par with other earphones of this type
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Present with cable-down wear; very good when worn over-the-ear
Comfort (4/5) – The 8mm driver allows a slim and compact housing design and the earphones are not heavy despite the metal construction. Due to the soft and flexible cable, the D200R can be worn very comfortably both cable-down and cable up

Sound (7.9/10) – The T-Peos D200R is the latest in a long line of sub-$50 T-Peos earphones I’ve had the pleasure of listening to, the others being the Tank, Popular, Spider, and Rich200. While they all share a familial resemblance in sound signature, the D200R is the most balanced of the lot by a margin – it has the least bass enhancement, the smoothest treble, and the strongest midrange.

The bass of the D200R is still emphasized, however, and the tonal character is on the warm side of neutral. Its bass quantity is lower compared to the other T-Peos earphones but impact is still on par with sets like VSonic’s VSD1S. Bass quality is good – there is just a touch of “boom” compared to the T-Peos Popular and Rich200, both of which impressed me to no end with the quality of their bass, as well as the pricier SteelSeries Flux.

The midrange of the D200R is in good balance with its bass – not forward, like that of the Fidue A63, but not recessed. It is more prominent and full-bodied compared to the other T-Peos earphones I’ve tied, which tend to be more v-shaped. In the case of the D200R, the v-shape is so mild that calling the overall sound “balanced” is hardly a stretch. Clarity is very good, again lagging just behind the Popular, Rich200, and SteelSeries Flux.

There is a small amount of elevation in the treble region, but the D200R is smoother and less treble-heavy than the other T-Peos sets. It’s still not as smooth as the HiFiMan RE-400 or Fidue A63, for example, but its treble presence is excellent in my book – enough to convey the energy of cymbals, but not quite enough to be consistently harsh or sibilant. It teeters right on the edge of what I would call unforgiving, but more often than not stays on the right side of that line.

The presentation is good, with decent depth and better width. Thanks to more balanced sound, the D200R has better imaging and less congestion than the other entry-level T-Peos earphones I’ve tried so far.

Select Comparisons

T-Peos Rich200 ($33)

The T-Peos D200R and Rich200 boast similar audio performance but differ in sound signature, with the Rich200 offering up a slightly more v-shaped response. Its bass is a bit more impactful but impresses greatly with its quality – it is very tight and extended. The D200R, on the other hand, boasts more presence in the midrange and has a more full-bodied sound. The mids of the Rich200 are a touch more recessed, but also clearer. Part of the clarity comes from the stronger treble, which also causes it to be somewhat more harsh and sibilance-prone than the D200R.

The similarities in price, form factor, and even feature set make choosing between these two earphones more difficult than it should be, but what it comes down to is this: the Rich200 has better bass while mids are a toss-up – fuller and more forward on the D200R, more recessed but clearer on the Rich200. Treble is better with the D200R and its less v-shaped sound grants it a slightly more natural tone.

NarMoo R1M ($30) (silver ports) 

NarMoo’s entry-level R1M model features interchangeable tuning ports which give it three different sound signatures. The R1M is at its best with the (least bassy) “silver” tuning ports. Even in this configuration, the D200R has slightly less bass quantity but still maintains excellent extension and is capable of very solid punch. The low end of the R1M appears stronger and at times more intrusive while the bass of the D200R is tighter and its midrange is more prominent and clear. However, the T-Peos also tends to sound harsher at times. The R1M is significantly less crisp, but boasts a wider soundstage and more open sound next to the more forward D200R.

Astrotec AM-90 ($44)

The Astrotec AM-90 is one of the most affordable Balanced Armature earphones on the market and a decent enough example of BA sound. Several years ago, a BA earphone would in this price range would have been a no-brainer, but dynamic-driver sets have come a long way, which the D200R illustrates perfectly. As expected, the T-Peos unit boasts significantly more bass than the AM-90 – its low end has greater depth and body, delivering more of both sub-bass rumble and mid-bass impact.

In the midrange, the AM-90 sounds thinner, but surprisingly not any clearer than the D200R. The D200R also boasts greater treble energy while the AM-90 is smoother and more forgiving. Personally, I find the D200R’s greater treble presence to be more realistic. It is also the more dynamic and engaging of the two earphones and images better, making the AM-90 sound a little too flat and forward in comparison.

VSonic VSD1S ($50)

VSonic’s VSD1S is more v-shaped in response than the T-Peos D200R. Its bass is similar in impact to the T-Peos but a bit tighter, and its midrange is more recessed and a little clearer, more like that of the T-Peos Rich200. The D200R has more midrange presence and sounds thicker and more full-bodied than the VSD1S. It is also smoother up top, though still far from forgiving. The VSD1S can be a touch more sibilant at times. Both earphones are quite capable on the presentation front, but the VSonic unit is a bit more spacious.

T-Peos H-100 ($120)

T-Peos’ higher-end H-100 model is a hybrid earphone – that is, it uses a combination of dynamic and balanced armature drivers, in this case one of each. Despite the H-100 having a dynamic driver dedicated to producing bass, the D200R is bassier. It offers up more impact, but its bass sounds boomy in comparison to the tight low end of the H-100. It seems that the woofer of the H-100 is tuned for quality over quantity.

Thanks to the boomier bass, the D200R also sounds muddier in the midrange. The mids of the H-100 are significantly clearer and more detailed, but also somewhat thin-sounding and a little withdrawn. The tone of the D200R is warmer, whereas the H-100 is fairly bright. The more crisp and energetic treble of the H-100 is also less tolerant of sibilance, though not as much so as one may expect from such a bright earphone. Thanks to its more recessed mids, the H-100 has a wider, somewhat more distant sound whereas the D200R is more forward.

Value (9.5/10) – As far as reasonably-priced earphones go, the T-Peos D200R has a lot going for it – sturdy build, headset functionality, and a sonic signature that makes all the right concessions. It might not have the tightest bass or clearest sound, but it avoids recessed mids and is smoother up top compared to its siblings. Its round cables make it easier to wear over-the-ear compared to the flat-cabled T-Peos sets, and it is less microphonic. For all these reasons, the D200R gets our “Recommended” badge.

Pros: Good bass and excellent all-around performance; compact and comfortable housings; solid construction
Cons: Bass quality not quite as impressive as with the T-Peos Rich200

Thanks to abhijollyguy for the chance to try the T-Peos D200R!

 

(3A88)
 NarMoo S1


Reviewed Sep 2014

Details: NarMoo’s second release and one of the most reasonably-priced dual-dynamic earphones on the market
MSRP: $89.99 (manufacturer’s page)
Current Price: $40 from amazon.com; $36 from NarMoo.com with coupon code “THL”
Specs: Driver: Dual Dynamic (10 + 6mm) | Imp: 10Ω | Sens: 102 dB | Freq: 5-23k Hz | Cable: 3.9′ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: MEElec “balanced” bi-flanges, stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down (preferred) or over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), shirt clip, and oversize zippered carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – The shells of the S1 are aluminum, with build quality as good as any in the price segment. The strain reliefs are soft and flexible, protecting a glossy, internally-braided cable. This type of cable can lose some of its flexibility with time and exposure to sweat, but otherwise tends to be very reliable. As with the lower-end R1M model, mild driver flex is present
Isolation (3/5) – Average
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Quite noticeable when worn cable-down; can be improved with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (3.5/5) – As with NarMoo’s R1M model, the housings of the S1 are on the large side, but light enough to still be comfortable. With its conventional cable and soft strain reliefs, the S1 is easier to wear over-the-ear than the R1M

Sound (7.7/10) – While NarMoo’s entry-level R1M model features three different sound tunings, the dual dynamic driver S1 only has one configuration – enhanced bass. The 10mm woofers produce large amounts of both mid-bass and subbass – enough to satisfy even die-hard bassheads. Even when compared to other bass-heavy earphones such as the Sony MH1C and Nuforce NE-700X, the S1 sounds bassier, though also more boomy. Bass extension is excellent, but the mid-bass steals the show most of the time (the double-flange eartips I ended up using help a little in keeping it under control). As a result, earphones with similar low end power but less mid-bass – the RHA MA750 and Sony MH1C, for example – appear to have more prominent sub-bass than the S1.

The powerful low end gives the S1 a warm and rich tonal character. The midrange, surprisingly, is not significantly recessed and not at all thin-sounding. In comparison, the Nuforce NE-700X is less warm in tone and more mid-recessed. The low end of the S1 can be intrusive and sometimes bleeds into the midrange, reducing clarity. NarMoo’s entry-level R1M model, for instance, has better clarity when used on its less bassy settings, as do the pricier Nuforce NE-700X and Sony MH1C. However, the S1 is clearer and more natural in both tone and note thickness than the similarly-priced RHA MA350.

Strictly speaking, the S1 is a v-shaped earphone with more bass and treble than midrange. However, its top end doesn’t sound bright and remains smooth, especially at low-to-moderate volumes. Some harshness can be coaxed out at high volumes, but the S1 is still best characterized as a smooth earphone. The presentation, likewise, is capable and uncongested, especially considering how much bass the S1 has. Overall, it performs very well, sounding more spacious and three-dimensional than the pricier Nuforce NE-700X.

Select Comparisons

NarMoo R1M (black ports) ($25)

NarMoo’s first earphone, the R1M features a sound adjustment system with three pairs of interchangeable tuning ports. These ports most strongly affect the bass quantity of the earphones. The R1M matches the bass of the S1 most closely with its bassiest tuning (black ports). In this configuration, the R1M has bass quality comparable to the S1, though bass depth still seems just a hair better with the dual-driver model. The mids of the S1 are not as recessed, sounding more natural and maintaining clarity much better when the bass attempts to intrude. The S1 is a little brighter than the R1M, which has less treble presence and crispness. In the more balanced gunmetal and silver configurations, the R1M has a more neutral sound than the S1, with much less bass and a thinner note presentation.

Tekfusion Twinwoofers ($50)

Tekfusion’s Twinwoofers are among the bassiest earphones I’ve tried this year, but arguably go a step too far in the direction of warm and smooth sound compared to the S1. The Twinwoofers have a darker tonal character and sound a bit less clear in the midrange. Their bass is comparable in quantity to that of the S1 but seems more powerful still thanks to the more laid-back treble. The Twinfoors have a smoother top end while the S1 is brighter and thinner, but in a good way, delivering more detail and better clarity.

Brainwavz S1 ($60)

The identically-titled Brainwavz model is, like the NarMoo S1, a bass-heavy earphone. What’s surprising is just how similar these earphones sound – through the bass and lower midrange, the S1 matches the S1 almost note for note. The NarMoo unit is a hair bassier and bleeds slightly more up into the midrange as a result, but the difference is small. The NarMoo S1 does sound warmer overall and has a thicker, more full-bodied sound. The Brainwavz S1 has a thinner midrange with a brighter tonal tilt. It sounds clearer and has more treble sparkle than the NarMoo S1. However, its treble tends to be more sharp and sibilant, especially at higher volumes compared to the smoother, more laid-back highs of the NarMoo.

RHA MA600 ($80)

Another enhanced-bass option, the MA600 from RHA was downright disappointing in this comparison. The significantly more expensive MA600 has slightly tighter mid-bass with similar depth. However, its bass still gets in the way of its mids, which are thinner and more recessed compared to those of the NarMoo S1. The S1 has more full-bodied, more prominent, less veiled mids. Its warmer tone doesn’t stop it from matching the clarity of the MA600, which has more upper midrange presence, brighter tone, and thinner sound. The treble of the MA600 is also grainier compared to the smoother S1, and the presentation is not as spacious.

Value (8.5/10) – The NarMoo S1 is a dual dynamic driver earphone with a powerful, smooth, likable sound signature. While bass control and clarity are limited by the bass quantity, both still impress in comparison to other sets with similar tuning. The housings are on the large side, but very solidly built and comfortable except in small ears. Combined with a sub-$50 price tag, this makes the S1 an easy recommendation among bass-heavy IEMs.

Pros: Bass-heavy sound with surprisingly robust midrange and smooth treble
Cons: Some bass bloat/boom; mild driver flex 

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Tier 3C ($60-100)


(2C1) Head-Direct RE0

 

Reviewed Nov 2009

 

Details: Summer 2009 version of the RE0 IEM (cloth cable).
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $239)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 64 Ω | Sens: 100 dB | Freq: 16-22k Hz | Cord: 4.1' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Soundmagic PL30 foamies, De-Cored Shure Olives
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3/5) - Spare filters, a nice selection of silicone tips (both single- and bi-flanges), and a shirt clip
Build Quality (4/5) – Classy-looking metal shell feels sturdy, but there are occasional reports of splitting. Cabling is properly relieved and features an L-plug in the current version
Isolation (3/5) – Typical for a sealed straight-barrel IEM
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Low when worn over-the-ear, and still not bad when worn straight down
Comfort (4/5) – Housings are small and light. Comfort hugely dependent on tips but is generally very good

Sound (8.3/10) – The overall sound is natural and boasts incredible clarity and top-notch separation in the average-sized soundstage. The high-end is incredibly detailed and seems to extend upwards endlessly. The detailing is close to the best I have heard. Very impressive also is the apparent flatness of response. The mids have good clarity and are also incredibly detailed. They are very neutral with maybe just a hint of warmth, but lack lushness or liquidity. The lows are not huge in quantity, but very good in detail, extension, and control. These can drop below 35Hz and individual notes can be distinguished all the way down. Overall, it is a sound signature that makes it easy to both tune them into the background and pick out fine details, whichever strikes your fancy at the moment.

Amping: Like being amped, but don’t require it explicitly. High impedance rating is deceiving. Warm amp (e.g. T4) will make these more well-rounded for those who prefer a warmer, darker sound. 

Value (10/10) – At $79, it is easy to recommend the RE0s as what is probably the best-value all-around earphone for the detail freak and accuracy lover. The RE0s’ sound signature is definitely not for everyone, but those looking for the absolute best accurate sound reproduction to be had in the realm of reasonably-priced IEMs will not be disappointed.

Pros: Top-tier sound quality for mid-fi money; superb detail, accuracy, separation, and clarity
Cons: May sound thin, boring, or bright to some, some reported durability issues



(2C2) Ultimate Ears MetroFi 220


Reviewed Nov 2009

 

Details: Newer (2008) version of one of UE’s entry-level IEMs

Current Price: $69.99 from B&H.com (MSRP: $79.99); $89.99 for 220vi with microphone
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 18 Ω | Sens: 103 dB | Freq: 20-16k Hz | Cable: 3.8’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock Single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (3/5) – Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes) and a very convenient plastic carrying case
Build Quality (2.5/5) – Housings are completely plastic and feel somewhat cheap. Cable is sturdy but lacks strain reliefs on housing entry. Of note are the colored nozzles – red for right, gray for left
Isolation (3/5) – Ported and shallow-insertion might sound like a bad combination, but they isolate surprisingly well
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Not too bothersome even when worn straight down. A shirt clip would help.
Comfort (3.5/5) – Housing is too fat for deep insertion and the stems make it hard to wear them over-the-ear. Still very light & comfortable for me, but buyers with small ears beware

Sound (5.7/10) – Overall, the sound is smooth and slightly warm. The soundstage is wider than average, with decent separation and positioning. The mids and highs are present, although the top end is rolled off. The definite selling point of these is the bass – it is smooth, deep, and very powerful. It creeps in on the lower mid-range but I definitely wouldn’t call it bloated, just a bit muddy. There is a mid-bass hump typical of middle-of-the-road earphones. The bass sounds full without being overwhelming.. These are a good gateway drug for the budget-minded bass lover.

Value (5.5/10) – At the $80 MSRP I feel that Ultimate Ears overshot the actual value of these a bit. They’re a very fun, tap-your-toes type earphone, delivering a dynamic sound signature with an emphasized low end and are quite competent all-around; it’s just too bad that the lower-tier entries by the likes of Nuforce and Meelectronics can do the same at a much lower price.

Pros: Very solid bass, fun sound, nice carrying case, shiny
Cons: Can be uncomfortable for some, hard to wear over-the-ear, mediocre build



(2C3) Klipsch Image S4 / S4i

Reviewed Nov 2009

 

Details: Klipsch’s latest mid-range model that has received overwhelmingly positive reviews both here at head-fi and in the mainstream press
Current Price: $79.99 from Amazon.com (MSRP: $79.99); $99.99 for S4i with microphone
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 18 Ω | Sens: 110 dB | Freq: 10-19k Hz | Cable: 4.2’ I-plug (S4i); 4.2’ L-plug (S4)
Nozzle Size: 3mm | Preferred tips: Stock Single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (3.5/5) – Silicone single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange tips, and metal carrying case (S4i instead includes a velvet carrying pouch and shirt clip)
Build Quality (3.5/5) – Housings are plastic but seem plenty sturdy and have articulated strain reliefs. Cable is a little thin for my liking but very flexible and doesn’t tangle much
Isolation (3/5) – Block out an above-average amount of external noise
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Nonexistent when worn over-the-ear. Noticeable but not too bad otherwise. Included shirt clip helps further
Comfort (4/5) – Easier to insert when worn cord-down. When worn over-the-ear fit is very similar to the JVC HA-FX300

Sound (6.7/10) – Coming from the RE0 these seem colored and very heavy at the low end, lacking in clarity and behind slightly in detail as well. After some solitary time with the S4, I think that they are interesting earphones that deliver heavy bass impact, clean mids, and decent treble. The bass can be too powerful and boomy for my liking, but that’s more of a personal issue - at least they don’t give me bass headaches. It’s not quite as tight as I would like, but can’t really be called bloated either. I can see why this bass has mass appeal – it can easily satisfy the bass junkie without being totally offensive. There is some bleed into the midrange, which is smooth and articulate, if a little thin and recessed. The treble that the S4s put out is the weak point for me – it lacks the smoothness of the RE0 and (even after 200 hours) still sounds somewhat harsh and sibilant. Soundstaging is decent enough but can hardly be called spacious and individual instruments can sometimes be harder to pick out than I would like.

On a final note, I had a small issue with the relatively low impedance and high sensitivity of these - they have a tendency to hiss slightly even with normally dead-silent Sansa Fuze, and the hiss with other devices can be borderline unbearable. 

Value (7/10) – With a sound signature that can be appreciated by bass junkie, audiophile, and casual listener alike – and practicality to match – the S4s don’t lack in any area. However, as is often with FOTM earphones, the hype is excessive. For me, in terms of sound, the S4 lack the “wow” factor of the RE0, Phonak PFEs, and many others. That said, I still consider these good value for money despite the several issues I have with their sound.

Pros: Competent build, fit, and finish
Cons: Cables don’t inspire confidence, can be too bass heavy for some, hint of harshness/sibilance, prone to hissing



(2C4) V-Moda Vibe II


Reviewed Nov 2009

 

Details:Metal-shelled earphone from V-Moda

Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $119.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: 12-22k Hz | Cable: 3.8’ 45°-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock Single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (4/5) – Two sets of silicone single-flange tips (4 sizes each) in clear and black, over-the-ear cable guides, and soft leather carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – Housings are made of what feels like steel. Cables are thick and wrapped in cloth but tend to tangle and knot. Combined with the metal mic and remote, the whole construction weighs too much. Left/Right markings are printed in silver (on the silver shells) on the inside of the housing, under the edge of the tip, and are absolutely impossible to see , though there is a microphone on the right-side cable to aid in identifying the right channel
Isolation (3/5) – Quite good for a straight-barrel dynamic IEM
Microphonics (3.5/5) – The cloth cable transmits quite a lot of cable noise unless they are worn over-the-ear. The included cable guides are a nice touch
Comfort (2.5/5) – Too heavy. I can’t wear them cord-down because of the weight of the earphones. Wearing them cable up works better but is impractical due to the mic

Sound (5.6/10) – These are, to be quite honest, what I expected originally from the Monster Turbines. They are bass-centric and start rolling off pretty much right after the upper midrange. The bass is strong and smooth, but lacking in definition and control, which is surprising because the Turbines actually have more of it. They are also lacking slightly in detail and instrumental separation across the range. Clarity is not quite on-par with the Turbines or Klipsch S4s either. The midrange is smooth and well-positioned while the treble is slightly recessed and a little too laid back for my liking. They do sound quite dynamic, not unlike the UE MetroFi 220s, and can be extremely fun at times, but I wish they had a tighter low end.

Value (6/10) – The V-Moda Vibe II are another one for the bass lover. With their unique styling and rock-solid construction they definitely stand out in a crowded market segment, but it seems that in the pursuit of originality V-Moda left sound quality on the sidelines. They don’t sound half bad by any means – on a scale set by some of the best universal IEMs in existence they place respectably. There are just too many lower-priced IEMs that set aside all the crowd-pleasing gimmicks and shoot straight for sq.

Pros: Solid build, fun sound signature
Cons: Tangle/kink-prone cabling, heavy, lack low-end control, treble roll-off



(2C5) Auvio Armature


Reviewed Jan 2010

 

Details: Flagship IEM from RadioShack’s in-house electronics manufacturer Auvio
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $79.99)
Specs: Driver:BA | Imp: 55.5 Ω | Sens: 108 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cord: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Comply T400, Soundmagic PL30 single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3.5/5) – Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes), comply T400 tips (3 sizes), and a pleather carrying case with magnetic flap and inner pocket
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The housings are in two parts, the rear being nicely machined metal and the front – plastic. The plastic feels a bit rough and cheap. Cabling is fairly thick but somewhat tangle-prone. Strain reliefs are functional on the 3.5mm plug end but not molded on earphone entry.
Isolation (3.5/5) – Isolation is quite good with the stock silicone tips and improves further with the included Complys. Angled nozzle is conducive to deep insertion.
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Very low when worn cord-down and non-existent when worn cord-up
Comfort (4/5) – The nozzles are angled as on the Klipsch S4 and the fit is very similar. Can easily be worn cord-up or cord-down.

Sound (5/10) – The Auvios produce a very flat and neutral sound that falls just short of expectations on a few levels. Extension on the low end is rather average, with the bass rolling off quickly past about 35 Hz. What is there is quite tight and accurate, though with little impact. The mids are slightly recessed and the soundstage is just a bit wider than average. Separation is mediocre and for the $80 MSRP I would also expect better clarity and detail in the mids and treble. The high end is devoid of sparkle and excitement, resulting in a slightly dark sound. Really, they aren’t bad at all, but I expect more from earphones with a list price of $80.

Value: (6/10) – Though the Auvios really excel on the usability front, the sound isn’t quite something I could get excited about. While they perform admirably from a technical standpoint, they lack a certain musical quality that keeps me coming back to earphones such as the Soundmagic PL50. I was actually originally convinced that the Auvios utilized the same armatures as the Soundmagic PL50 (both are Chinese OEM single armature earphones with similar impedance and sensitivity specs). Having listened to both side by side, I can say that the sound signatures are pretty different. Needless to say I prefer the PL50.

Pros: Comfy, decent build quality, almost zero microphonics
Cons: Bland sound, optimistic MSRP



(2C6) Klipsch Custom 2


Reviewed Jan 2010

 

Details: Klipsch’s mid-range dual-armature earphone; one of the cheapest such setups on the market
Current Price: $75 from TigerDirect.com (MSRP: $199.99)
Specs: Driver: Dual BA | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 112 dB | Freq: 10-19k Hz | Cable: 4.2’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 3.5mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrids
Wear Style: Over-the-ear

Accessories (4.5/5) – Silicone single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange (2 sizes) tips, cleaning tool, airplane adapter, and oversize hard carrying case
Build Quality (2.5/5) – The housings are rubber-covered plastic and quite well-made. The memory wire acts as a strain relief and the y-split and L-plug are both very impressive. The nylon cabling, however, is atrocious. It kinks and tangles endlessly, ruining an otherwise competent build
Isolation (3.5/5) – The long, steeply angled nozzles allow for deep insertion, resulting in impressive isolation
Microphonics (2.5/5) – Quite unpleasant despite these being worn over-the-ear and having a ‘memory wire’ configuration
Comfort (4/5) – Can’t fault the Customs here – they fit in the ear rather snugly and unobtrusively, not unlike the JVC AirCushions. Persons with smaller ears may find them harder to wear

Sound (6/10) – The dual-driver Custom 2 improves on the single armature Custom 1 by offering a wider dynamic range - the C1s’ lack of presence in the bass and quirky treble characteristics were my major gripes with them. With the C2s, low-end response is much improved with fuller-sounding, warmer, and more impactful bass that’s still just as tight as on the C1s. The midrange is similar to that found on the C1s – lush, airy, and clear. The treble is much tamer although it still carries some of the edginess and brightness of the Custom 1. Still, I managed to survive my 3-day evaluation of the C2 without listening fatigue (which I can’t say for the C1). The soundstage is slightly wider and deeper than with the C1s and detail is improved all-around, especially at the extremes of the frequency range. Like the C1, the C2 is an extremely sensitive earphone and added impedance cuts down on the hiss and makes the whole signature more coherent, so an attenuator is recommended.

Value (7/10) – As with the Custom 1, the MSRP of the Custom 2 is a bit of a stretch. Even at the current $75 price point, Klipsch’s own dynamic-driver S4 are a better buy for most genres. Though I wholeheartedly recommend the Custom 2 over the Custom 1, I can’t help but feel that Klipsch put on the brakes when engineering the sound of the C2 so that it would not compete with the higher-end C3 and the Image line.

Pros: Comfortable, well-isolating, detailed and smooth midrange
Cons: Downright awful cabling, excessive microphonics



(2C7) ViSang R03 / Brainwavz M2


Reviewed Mar 2010

 

Details: heavyweight bang/buck contender from one of VSonic’s daughter companies Current Price: $65 from ebay.com
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 20 Ω | Sens: 115 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.2’ I-plug (note: latest version carries 45°-plug)

Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrids
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

 

Note: The mp4nation Brainwavz M2 is identical to the R03 in every way except the 3.5mm plug (45-degree plug identical to that on the Beta Brainwavz is used on the M2) and the accessory pack (M2 does not include foamhybrid tips).

Accessories (4/5) – Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes), shirt clip, and clamshell carrying case (foamhybrid tips no longer included with mp4nation version)
Build Quality (4/5) – Sturdy aluminum housings, metal filters, and tough yet flexible cables. Strain reliefs are not molded but do the job and the cords lack a cable cinch and have some long-term memory character. Left/Right markings are a bit hard to see in direct sunlight
Isolation (3/5) – Typical of a ported dynamic-driver earphone
Microphonics (4/5) – Present when worn cord-down but wearing them over-the-ear is possible and a shirt clip is included
Comfort (4/5) – The housings are light but wearing them over-the-ear can initially be a bit tricky because of the long strain reliefs and resistive cable. The sizable driver bulge on the housing prevents particularly deep insertion

Sound (7.2/10) – Though I wouldn’t quite call them bass-heavy, the R03 certainly boast added low-end emphasis. Despite the boost, the bass is very smooth and calm. It stays completely out of the way when uncalled for and steps up in bass-heavy tracks. The bass also has a softness and delicacy to it that is rather rare and reminds me of my Monster Turbine Pro Gold as opposed to the hard-hitting low end of earphones such as the Klipsch S4 and Panasonic HJE900. The overall tonality of the R03 leans slightly towards darkness. The mids are front and center right where they should be, except when drums step out of line and too far forward on rare occasions. This is a positioning issue rather than a balance issue and is rarely distracting. Soundstage depth is actually one of the few areas in which the R03 could stand improvement before they take down some of the big players in the mid-range segment. Soundstage width is about average, around the level of the RE0, and imaging is rather good for what they cost, though they can’t quite keep up with the hologram-esque spacing of the Soundmagic PL50 and HJE900. Midrange clarity is superb and detail is equally impressive. The treble is smooth and moderately extended. It is not the focus of the presentation but instead a compliment. It is neither harsh nor bright nor sibilant. The R03 are also quite fast, at least on-par with the original Monster Turbines, and surprisingly transparent. Lastly, they have a very natural timbre, which is something a lot of budget IEMs struggle with.

Value (9/10) – The ViSang R03 is an incredible performer - a wholesome combination of build quality, comfort, and sound at a price well south of $100. In terms of coherency of sound signature they are up there with the best sub-$100 earphones I have heard. The combination of impactful bass, clear mids, and crisp treble give the R03 a very agreeable sound that can be enjoyed by both the audiophile and the casual listener in equal measure. And that fact alone makes them highly recommended earphones with a sound signature geared slightly towards the mainstream market compared to much of the gear talked about on head-fi. Do I personally still prefer a more analytical sound? Yes. But that does not prevent me from enjoying the R03 in the least. They are not perfect, but they are unreasonably good for what they cost.

Pros: Great build and sound quality
Cons: Mediocre isolation, L/R markings hard to see, cords have some memory character


Full review can be found here.


(2C8) JAYS j-JAYS


Reviewed Apr 2010

 

Details: Entry-level earphone from Swedish manufacturer JAYS
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $70)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32 Ω | Sens: 106 dB | Freq: 50-20k Hz | Cable: 2’ I-plug + 3’ extension
Nozzle Size: 3.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock Single flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (5/5) – Single-flange silicone (4 sizes) and foam tips, 4 sets of replacement filters, 3.5mm splitter, airplane adapter, extension cord, and leatherette carrying pouch
Build Quality (3.5/5) – Sturdy plastic housings feature proper strain reliefs though the relief on the 3.5mm plug is a bit hard. The cables are thin but behave well and don’t tangle
Isolation (3/5) – Insertion depth is quite good due to rounded housings, yielding reasonable isolation
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Very low when worn over-the-ear, but still not too bad otherwise
Comfort (4.5/5) – Extremely light housings make them very easy to wear. Flexible strain reliefs allow for easy cord-up use

Sound (3.9/10) – The sound put out by the j-JAYS is dark and warm. Low-end extension is rather average, rolling of smoothly past 35Hz. The bass could be tighter but there’s certainly a good amount of it. The midrange is in balance with the bass but lacks articulation. Clarity is poor and some vocals can sound downright muffled, which is a shame because the tonality is very natural, as good as any mid-range earphone I have heard. The treble is recessed, adding to the warmth of the sound. It is completely devoid of sparkle, but also of harshness and sibilance. Indeed, the j-JAYS are as smooth as earphones can get but the loss in clarity and detail is not a fair trade-off in my book.

Value (5/10) – Though the sound signature of the JAYS is typical of a low-end dynamic IEM, the price tag is not. From the way they are designed and packaged it is obvious that Jays puts user-friendliness first, and I applaud that - the j-JAYS certainly have an upmarket feel and make a beautiful gift. I just wish they had an upmarket sound signature to match.

Pros: Incredibly complete package, very comfortable, user-friendly
Cons: Where’s the clarity? Cable is too short without extension, too long with it

 


(2C9) Thinksound Rain

thinksoundrain400x300.jpg
Reviewed May 2010

 

Details: Thinksound’s pricier “crisp and balanced” wooden IEM
Current Price: $64.99 from Amazon.com (MSRP: $99.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Comply T/Tx400
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (3/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (4 sizes), shirt clip, and unbleached cotton drawstring pouch
Build Quality (4/5) – The wooden housings are accented by machined-aluminum nozzles. Combined with the etched L/R markings and general attention to detail, the Thinksounds have a very upmarket feel. The short strain reliefs are functional and the rubberized cable, despite being rather thin, does not tangle much. The 3.5mm I-plug is well-relieved and sturdy
Isolation (3/5) – Average due to massive rear vent
Microphonics (4/5) – Slightly bothersome when worn cord-down, very low worn over-the-ear
Comfort (4.5/5) – The housings of the Thinksound Rain are longer and thinner than those of the TS01. Wearing comfort is just as good since the housings are still light and easy to wear over-the-ear. However, sleeping in the Rains is not a good idea due to the length of the shells

Sound (7/10) – I reviewed Thinksound’s lower-end TS01 head to head with another wooden earphone, the Woodees IESW101B, and found them to be different interpretations of a very similar sound signature, each unique strengths and weaknesses. The sonic signature of the higher-end Thinksound Rain seems to offer a blend of the positive traits of the other wooden earphones while downplaying the flaws. Unlike the enhanced-bass TS01, the Rain is advertised as having a crisp and balanced sound, which is true - the low end of the Rain is significantly lighter than that of the TS01 and the treble is tamer. The slightly flatter bass allows the Rain to relay more fine detail at the bottom of the range. They are still far from bass-light and can hit quite hard when prodded but the low end extension suffers noticeably in comparison to the Thunder. The bass on the Rain is full-bodied, no doubt, but the rumble of the Thunders is lacking.

 

Moving on to the midrange, the Rain, unlike the TS01, doesn’t drop off at all, sounding more forward and natural than the TS01 does. Detail and clarity are noticeably better and everything just sounds crisper. The tamer low end imparts little warmth on the midrange but the lush liquidity that’s so pleasant with the TS01 is not lost. Unlike the TS01, however, the Rain does not exhibit stridency towards the upper midrange. As a result, they sound smoother overall despite the lack of warmth. Musical elements like the crack of drums or snares never sound jarring the way they can with the TS01, even with silicone tips. Unlike bass extension, which suffers as the result of the flatter low-end response of the Rain, treble extension doesn’t seem to be affected by the flatter top end. The treble is crisp and clear, with a bit of sparkle and natural reverb. The Rain don’t exactly manage the delicacy or effortlessness of the RE0 but will satisfy a treble lover more than, say, a ViSang R03 or Soundmagic PL50.

 

Finally, presentation is another area in which the Rain surpasses the TS01 in my book. The soundstage of the Rain is significantly broader. It’s not a wide-sounding earphone like the Cyclone PR1 Pro but it is well-spaced and conveys both intimacy and distance fairly well. Imaging is better and orchestral pieces sound more natural and less dense. Like the TS01, the Rain also has a good sense of timbre, whether with guitars or woodwinds. It’s not perfect, but then for the price it’s not expected to be. In my weeks with the Rain I’ve also learned something else – the Rain is a very good IEM for movies. Something about the way it positions audio is very believable and the highly detailed nature of the mids and treble helps bring out intricacies that may otherwise have been missed. And of course the impactful bass helps complete the overall experience.

Value (8/10) – On the grand scale, the Rain is not radically different from the TS01 in sound. It is the little improvements, however, each changing the sound slightly but in the right direction, that come together to make a product that is significantly more capable overall. The Rain is more balanced, more neutral, and more natural-sounding than that TS01. It is smoother overall and boasts a more lifelike presentation. Both Thinksound earphones put up a good fight on the usability front as well – their design is simple but functional. And of course Thinksound’s environmentally-friendly approach to product design is a value-added proposition for those who sleep better at night knowing that the earth is just a little bit greener because companies like Thinksound and Ankit are doing business.

Pros: Great aesthetics and attention to detail, solid performance, environmentally-friendly design & packaging
Cons: Not as sleep-friendly as the TS01

 

 

(2C10) Rockford Fosgate Punch Plugs

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Reviewed Jun 2010

 

Details: Dynamic-driver IEM from car audio firm Rockford Fosgate

Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $99.99); $129.99 for PP15mmi with microphone
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 24 Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 10-18k Hz | Cable: 4' I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (3.5/5) – Single flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange (2 sizes) silicone tips, hard clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The large, ergonomically-designed housings are made out of plastic with the exception of the Rockford Fosgate badges and the metal-mesh filters in the nozzle. While not exactly high-rent, the housings do feel solid enough for everyday use. The flat cable is soft, flexible, and feels rather sturdy. However, the cord lacks strain relief on housing entry as well as at the Y-split
Isolation (2.5/5) – Reasonable but far from class-leading due to the vented design. The vents also make the Punch Plugs susceptible to wind noise in breezy conditions
Microphonics (4.5/5) – The rubberized flat cable found on the Punch Plugs is not very energetic and generally carries almost no noise
Comfort (3.5/5) – The body of the Punch Plugs is designed around the sizable bulge that contains the gargantuan 15mm drivers. Ideally, the bulge itself rests inside the wearer’s ear and the long plastic nozzle is inserted into the ear canal. The ergonomics suit me well but make no mistake – the housings of the Punch Plugs are huge and could easily swallow a few of the smaller in-ears whole. Those with small ears or narrow ear canals will likely want to give the Punch Plugs a pass if long-term comfort is a priority. Additionally, the Punch Plugs cannot be worn with the cord looped over the ear unless the Left/Right earpieces are reversed. The flat cable is rather prohibitive of such use as well

Sound (6.8/10) – The advertising materials for the Punch Plugs claim that the earphones transport the “Power, Clarity, and Ground Shaking Bass” of Rockford Fosgate subwoofers directly into the listener’s ear. The bass produced by the Punch Plugs is indeed very powerful and yet surprisingly accurate and controlled. They aren’t the most bass-heavy earphones out there but they are very hard-hitting, especially at higher volumes. The low end of the Punch Plugs carries quite a lot of information and always sounds well-integrated into the music. Predictably, though, the sub-bass does roll off and midrange bleed occurs in small quantities. The midrange of the Punch Plugs is slightly veiled but still quite dynamic and involving. Though the earphones tend to gloss over fine detail, they impart a unique grungy texture on the midrange, making it sound raw and slightly rough. This tendency is related to the fact that the gigantic drivers of the Punch Plugs have a rather small dynamic range and don’t relay subtlety very well.

 

Despite the raw-sounding midrange, the treble produced by the Punch Plugs is never harsh. Upper-end presentation is slightly recessed but crisp and accurate, rolling off gradually but a bit too early for my liking. Because of the recessed treble and aggressive bass, the Punch Plugs take on a very dark tone. In fact, the tone of the Punch Plugs contends with the FutureSonics Atrio M8 for the title of the darkest earphone I own. Can the dark tone be a negative? Certainly, but it depends on personal preference more than anything else. For listeners who favor bright and sparkly sound, the Punch Plugs require some heavy equalization in the mids and treble, to which they respond fairly well.

 

In terms of presentation, the Punch Plugs boast decent soundstage width and depth. The sonic image is slightly blurred resulting in a less separated and more blended sound and contributing to the ‘garage band’ feel of the earphones. The Punch Plugs also need a good amount of volume to bring out detail – those who like to keep the volume minimal will likely find them a touch boring. All in all the signature of the Punch Plugs is very unique and, while not technically perfect, is sure to find its fans.

Value (7.5/10) – The Punch Plugs compete well with other earphones in their price bracket, providing that the listener enjoys the particular flavor they bestow on music. Their sound signature lacks compromise – it is dark, raw, and powerful. Low notes hit hard, the midrange is grungy and thick, and the treble is crisp but recessed. The construction utilizes no exotic materials or flashy design elements but the aesthetics are far from forgettable – while I was initially disappointed with the sheer quantity of plastic that went into the Punch Plugs, the design grew on me just as the sound signature did. The Punch Plugs are neither audiophile earphones nor studio monitors – they are tuned purely for rocking out, and on that count they do deliver.

Pros: Nearly no microphonics, ergonomic design, unique and coherent presentation
Cons: Lack of strain relief on cable entry, fit is problematic for those with small ears, slightly prone to wind noise, love-it-or-hate-it sound signature

 

 

(2C11) Sleek Audio SA-1

 

Sleek SA1 400x300.jpg

Reviewed Jun 2010

 

Details: Mid-range entry from Sleek Audio, notable for the wooden housings, a sonic tuning system, and detachable cables

Current Price: $74.99 from soundearphones.com (MSRP: $79.99)

Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 25 Ω | Sens: 110 dB | Freq: N/A | Cable: 4.2’ I-plug

Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrids

Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

 

Accessories (4/5) – Single flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange (3 sizes) silicone tips, treble tuning filters (2 sets), and hard clamshell carrying case

Build Quality (4/5) – The wood-and-metal housings look and feel quite solid. Detachable cables are a huge plus and the connectors are identical to those used by the Panasonic HJE900. The cord itself is a bit thin and plasticky but flexible, properly relieved, and, of course, replaceable

Isolation (3/5) – The isolation is quite adequate, helped by the slim, easy-to-insert housings

Microphonics (4/5) – Cable noise is low when worn cable-down and nonexistent when worn cord-up

Comfort (4/5) – The housings are long, slim, and rounded at the front for a more unobtrusive fit. The cable exit point is angled a bit awkwardly for over-the-ear use but general wearing comfort is very good. It should be noted that the SA1 sounds best with a very shallow seal despite being well-suited for a deep fit

 

Sound (5.9/10) – First off – the tuning system. The SA1 features a simplified version of the VQ tuning system utilized in Sleek’s flagship SA6 earphone – all that the user is allowed to do is choose between two treble ports. To my ears (and I freely admit to liking my treble bright) there is no inherent disadvantage in using the silver treble-heavy ports. The earphones do not lose much bass quantity or quality and the lower midrange is unaffected by the filters. The upper midrange and lower treble are emphasized slightly by the silver ports and, to my ears, sound more balanced than with the black ports. I want to stress that the difference is small and in the big picture the Sleeks are bright earphones either way – those who are offended by brightness will not find solace in the black filters.

 

The general sound signature of the SA1 emphasizes smoothness over clarity. The bass is tight and punchy but lacking in body, rumble, and extension. In fact, the bass put out by the 6mm drivers of the SA1 reminds me of bass produced by certain balanced armatures – quick and accurate but not particularly realistic or informative. On the upside, the lower midrange is clear of bass bleed and generally sounds quite smooth. Detail and clarity are quite impressive at first listen. However, part of the perceived clarity as a result of the bright treble – comparing the SA1 side-by-side with earphones such as the Grado iGi or Yamaha EPH-50 reveals the actual clarity of the Sleeks to be a step below both - around the level of the cheaper Meelec M9 and Nuforce NE-6 to my ears. The slightly thick sound works well for stringed instruments and vocals and, combined with the slightly emphasized treble, gives the SA1 a ‘shiny’ signature that reminds me of the Audio-Technica ATH-CK100, though the timbre of the $400 Audio-Technicas is noticeably more realistic. The treble is quite smooth and, despite being slightly forward, suffers from neither harshness nor sibilance. Top-end extension is decent and treble detail is impressive for the money without sounding aggressive in the least.

 

Presentation is where the sound of the SA1 goes slightly wrong for me. Granted, the comparably-priced earphones I have been using lately (the ViSang R03/R02, Hippo VB, Yamaha EPH-50, Brainwavz M1, etc) are all high bang/buck contenders when it comes to sound and have unreasonably good instrument separation. However, in a field of these five <$80 earphones, the SA1 sounds notably congested and quite narrow. Instrumental separation is sub-par compared to the others, which is why I would not recommend them for complex rock and metal recordings, big-band jazz, or orchestral music despite the excellent rendition of stringed instruments. Using the earphones with an extremely shallow seal helps alleviate the problem somewhat – with the largest Sony Hybrid eartips and a very shallow fit, soundstage width is about average to my ears. However, isolation takes an expected hit and they don’t feel quite as secure to wear. On the whole, as long as soundstage size is not a prime concern, the SA1 is a solid mid-range earphone.

 

Value (7.5/10) – The Sleek Audio SA1 offers a combination of features not usually found at its price point. Wooden housings, detachable cables, and tuning systems are all quite rare to begin with and finding them on a single earphone – one with an $80 price tag – is notable in itself. The Sleeks do look and feel like a quality product but have a few drawbacks in functionality and performance. The tuning system does not have a radical effect on the sound and will likely only be used once - those who like to switch off different-sounding earphones often will find no solace in the SA1. The sound signature is quite pleasant and coherent, with the major flaw for me being the narrow soundstage. Though this can be fixed to an extent by using an extremely shallow seal, isolation and fit suffer in the process. As a total package, the SA1 is worth the asking price. For the best bang/buck in sound quality alone, better options abound.

 

Pros: Well-built, comfortable, low microphonics, detachable cables

Cons: Optimal sound quality and isolation are mutually exclusive, not trivial for over-the-ear use, tuning system useless in the long run

 

 

(2C12) Hippo VB

 

Hippo VB 400x300.jpg

Reviewed Jul 2010

 

Details: Mid-range dynamic IEM from Jaben’s house brand, Hippo, boasting ‘Variable Bass’ technology

Current Price: $79 from unclewilsons.com (MSRP: $79)

Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32 Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 18-22k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ L-plug

Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: UE Single flanges

Wear Style: straight down or over-the-ear

 

Accessories (4/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), shirt clip, hard clamshell carrying case with wrist strap, and bass tuning ports (3 sets)

Build Quality (3.5/5) – Metal shells with screw-in bass ports in the rear and filterless nozzles. The cable is properly relieved and doesn’t tangle much but feels a bit cheap – sort of like the new Head-Direct cable found on the RE-ZERO and RE252. The L-plug is excellent

Isolation (3/5) – Quite decent for day-to-day use with well-sealing tips

Microphonics (3/5) – Rather bothersome when worn cord-down; average otherwise

Comfort (3.5/5) – The VBs are typical straight-barrel IEMS when it comes to fit but the housings aren’t small or rounded at the front, resulting in fairly shallow fit. The cord is rather flexible and wearing them over-the-ear is easy

 

Sound (7.7/10) – The Hippo VB gets its designation from the ‘Variable Bass’ tuning system, which consists of three interchangeable screw-in bass ports/plates that are fitted at the rear of the shells. The high-bass, medium-bass, and low-bass plates are marked with zero, two, and three white dots, respectively (and, unless I’m reading it wrong, the packaging actually has the markings listed backwards). The changes resulting from swapping the plates are small but noticeable. With the medium (two dot) plate, bass quantity is just a bit short of  the Sennheiser IE8 (on minimum bass setting) and about on par with the Monster Turbine Pro Gold. Compared to the medium setting, the high-bass plate sounds a bit less controlled and slightly darker. The low-bass plate makes the sound brighter and seems to exacerbate the sibilance towards which the VB can be prone while offering no improvements in control or clarity over the medium plate. Needless to say, after initial testing I left the two-dot bass plate on for the duration of my listening.

 

With the medium tuning plate in place, the bass of the VB is nothing short of superb. It is well-textured, full-bodied, and extremely deep, matching the Future Sonics Atrios in extension and offering even better linearity. The sub-bass has great rumble and is very controlled - mid-bass bloat common to mid-range earphones with lots of bass is completely absent. As a result, the bass of the VB sounds rather different from that of midbass-heavy earphones like the Sennheiser CX300 – the VB offers plenty of sub-bass rumble with a bit of punch. The resulting sound is extremely layered and well-separated as opposed to the more blended and integrated sound offered by earphones like the FA Eterna and ViSang R03. The peculiar presentation is enjoyable in its own right but may surprise those expecting CX300-like midbass. Expectedly, midrange bleed is completely absent, giving way to clear and accurate mids. The midrange reminds me of the Head-Direct RE0 with less microdetail and overall refinement. It is controlled and detailed but tends to sound a tad thin and quite dry compared to the similarly-priced ViSang R03 and Fischer Audio Eterna. The midrange is quite adequate, but it’s neither a strength nor a weakness of the VB - the dryness, combined with the powerful subbass, does give the VB a certain garage band feel that works well with certain tracks but I think the more lush and liquid mids of the R03 and Eterna work better with bass-heavy earphones.

 

If the midrange of the VB reminds me of the RE0 in several ways, the treble is antithetical to that of Head-Direct’s mid-range heavyweight. Though very crisp and extended, it is fairly forward and quite aggressive. The earphones tend slightly towards sibilance, though the reports I’ve read seem somewhat exaggerated - compared to something like the Grado iGi or Klipsch S4, the sibilance of the VB is quite mild. However, the high end of the VB does lack the delicacy and refinement of the RE0s, instead appearing very edgy and a bit metallic. If I had to pin it down, the edgy nature of the VB’s treble reminds me of a certain lower-end Grado that had surprisingly hard treble – namely the older SR80. 

 

As for presentation, the VBs do have a fairly wide soundstage with good separation but tend to stray little towards the extremes. They can portray both distance and intimacy but the Eterna does it better, and has a wider dynamic range to boot. Still, the overall sound of the VB is quite uncolored, which is usually a plus in my book, and the VB is less sensitive than the Eterna when it comes to source matching. Lastly, the unique balance of the VB aids in low volume listening as the bass detail, which is usually the first thing to go when the volume of a dynamic earphone is reduced, stays very strong with the VB even at low listening volumes.

 

Value (8.5/10) – Easily one of the top earphones in its price bracket, the Hippo VB offers a unique sound signature with unparalleled bass depth and sub-bass power, no mid-bass bloat, a crystal-clear but dry midrange, and extended but edgy treble. Listening to the VB is an intense experience and won’t suit everyone’s tastes – it is not the earphone to use while enjoying a glass of fine whiskey in front of the fireplace. For the same reason, the VB is not an easy earphone to recommend for hi-fi newcomers looking for bass-heavy sound – it has neither the warmth nor the thickness usually associated with fun and bassy sound. Both the ViSang R03 and FA Eterna fit the expectations of a fun-sounding IEM better and make better everyday companions for those who value isolation and durability. But for those in search of a raw and visceral sound with maximum bass depth, the VB is very hard to beat no matter the budget.

 

Pros: Deep bass, great clarity

Cons: Microphonics can be bothersome, strangely thick stock tips, mostly useless tuning system, edgy treble

 

 

(2C13) Fischer Audio Eterna

 

Fischer Audio Eterna 400x300.jpg

Reviewed Jul 2010

 

Details: Mid-range dynamic IEM from Russia-based Fischer Audio

Current Price: est $68 from frogbeats (MSRP: $67.49)

Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 18 Ω | Sens: 110 dB | Freq: 8-22k Hz | Cable: 4.3' L-plug

Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: UE Single flanges

Wear Style: over-the-ear

 

Accessories (3/5) – Single-flange (2 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips, over-the-ear cable guides, cloth carrying pouch

Build Quality (4/5) – The housings of the Eterna are fully plastic but feel quite solid despite showing some molding artifacts. The nozzles feature metal mesh filters and the cabling is properly relieved. The cables, while thick and tough, possess some annoying memory character and aren’t as soft as I would like. For me, cable guides are a must to keep the cord in place

Isolation (3.5/5) – Surprisingly high with stock single- or bi-flange tips

Microphonics (4/5) – Low since over-the-ear fit is compulsory

Comfort (4/5) – Ergonomic angled-nozzle housings are very comfortable for prolonged use, not unlike higher-end Shure and Westone models. However, the Eterna is rather bulbous and as a result not nearly as friendly towards those endowed with less aural real estate as smaller earphones

 

Sound (7.7/10) – The Eterna is the last earphone in my small group of bottom-heavy test subjects, and arguably the most distinctive. The driving force behind the Eterna’s signature is the bass, which is quite vociferous even when compared to the Hippo VB and ViSang R03. The Eterna’s low end is more conventional in nature than that of the VB, with much of the bass coming in above 100Hz. Though the mid-bass hump of the R03 comes in even higher, the Eterna’s is bigger and gives nearly as much warmth to the midrange while at the same time reaching lower into the sub-bass (though not as low as the VB, IE8, or Atrios). The bass is fairly forward, not immensely accurate, and sounds a bit ponderous on certain tracks but bleeds far less than expected into the midrange and generally remains very enjoyable.

 

The midrange of the Eterna is warmed up by the mid-bass hump and sounds a bit veiled and recessed in comparison to the aggressive low end. However, it is still more forward than the mids of the VB/IE8 - two earphones that generally sound more distant than the Eterna does. Like the bass, the midrange has good body and sounds rather lush and sweet, especially compared to the dry and colorless VB, but also lacks the clarity and fine detail of the Hippos and many higher-end earphones. Transparency is at least on-par with other earphones in the price bracket and emotion in vocals is conveyed to the listener adroitly. Similarly, the treble of the Eterna is competent but not outstanding. It is not at the forefront of the sound signature but remains in excellent balance with the midrange. Though the highs are rather clean, they do lack the crystal clarity of more analytical earphones as well as more treble-focused budget entries such as the JVC HA-FXC80 and don’t quite have the extension of the VB or IE8 (but fare better than the rolled-off treble of the ViSang R03). Most importantly, the Eterna's treble is smooth and non-fatiguing in nature, remaining very likable despite the lack of sparkle and microdetail.

 

In terms of presentation, the Eterna is a spacious-sounding earphone that loses a bit of air due to the general thickness of the sound. The soundstage is quite wide and has decent depth. It doesn’t have the out-of-the-head feel of the IE8, but for an IEM it is very spatial and engaging - more so than the Atrios, for example. Separation is hindered ever so slightly by the thickness but still quite good for a bass-driven earphone. Imaging is solid and the sound is properly layered. Like most mid-range dynamic IEMs, the Eterna needs a bit of volume to reach its technical best. Personally, I found that my enjoyment of the Eterna’s presentation varies greatly from track to track, perhaps more so than with any other IEM. On extremely fast and busy tracks, I found myself wishing for a bit more clarity and resolution. On slower and/or less complex tracks, the musicality of the Eterna's sound signature starts to show and gives one of the most enjoyable listening experiences in the its price range.

 

Lastly, a note on the differences between the two Eterna revisions. The review above is based on the 2nd revision of the Eterna, which is the model currently stocked by Fischer retailers. However, the question on everyone’s mind seems to be whether the rev.2 Eterna is actually a step backwards from revision 1 of the earphone. Luckily, I was loaned a rev.1 model by a fellow Head-Fier for comparative purposes. To my ears the two revisions of the Eterna are extremely similar in sound – they have far, far more in common with each other than either one has with any earphone I’ve previously heard. However, even just noticeable differences can manifest en masse.  My impression of the differences as a whole is that the rev.1 Eterna is something of a rev.2 Eterna gone wild. It is very clear that Fischer Audio attempted to ‘fix’ the significant mid-bass hump of the rev.1 by evening out the response of the rev.2. However, despite being even bassier than the 2nd revision, the rev.1 earphone actually has slightly superior low-end clarity and resolution. It is also not quite as thick-sounding, leading to slightly better air and separation and making the soundstaging seem even more impressive. The newer Eterna does have some advantages of its own – the evened-out response helps bring the treble into focus, making detail easier to pick out, and the midrange has slightly better presence. And then there’s the background hiss, which is quite noticeable with the older model but almost nonexistent with the newer one. Yes, I personally like the Rev.1 earphone a little better still – it just sounds more unique, more special. But the fact that only the new revision is currently available will not stop me from recommending the Eterna in the least.

 

Value (9/10) – The Fischer Audio Eterna is not a balanced earphone. Its sculpted response was not designed for absolute fidelity and it would make a pretty poor studio monitor. What the Eterna does best is deliver the fun factor in a completely unadulterated form. The sound of the Eterna is big, smooth, and powerful, but at the same time it is both reasonably detailed and quite forgiving. The Eterna makes a great earphone for movies, for the gym, or just for being out-and-about - it doesn’t fatigue and never becomes boring. Truth be told, the Eterna has become one of my favorite bass-heavy sub-$100 IEMs, alongside the ViSang R03 and Hippo VB, despite being oh so very far from my preferred sound signature. Just as importantly, the Eterna does not disappoint in the usability department – it is comfortable, well-built, and highly isolating. If I had one complaint, it would be that the cables don’t stay behind my ears without the cable guides, but I expect that to straighten itself out over time. Either way, having to use ear guides is a small price to pay for a highly enjoyable listening experience at a bargain price.

 

Pros: Big, smooth, and powerful sound, good isolation, low microphonics

Cons: Voluminous housings, cable guides required to keep cord in place, not for lovers of analytical sound

 

Special thanks to mvw2 for the rev.1 Eterna loan

 

 

(2C14) Grado iGi

9629ae2e_Grado%20iGi%20400x300.jpg
Reviewed Jul 2010

 

 

 

Details: First budget-oriented IEM from Grado Labs

Current Price: $89 from Amazon.com (MSRP: $89)

Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 24 Ω | Sens: 105dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ 45-degree plug

Nozzle Size: 3.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock bi-langes

Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

 

Accessories (1.5/5) – Large bi-flange silicone tips (2 pairs), conical silicone tips, and foamhybrid tips

Build Quality (3/5) – The generic housings are similar to those used on the VSonic R02ProII but made completely out of plastic. A rubber sheath covers the rear of the housings and extends into a long strain relief at the cable entry point. The cord is flexible and rubberized but quite thin and very prone to tangling

Isolation (3/5) – Adequate for a ported dynamic IEM, especially with bi-flange tips Slightly prone to wind noise due to side-facing vents

 

Microphonics (3.5/5) – Not particularly bothersome but still present when worn cable-down. Sadly neither a cable cinch or shirt clip are present to reduce microphonics

Comfort (3/5) - Since the iGi are missing the usual slew of single-flange tips, they are not very friendly toward those with smaller ear canals. The conical tips are the closest thing to small single-flanges Grado chose to include with the iGi but getting a proper seal with them is tricky. Aftermarket Sony Hybrid tips are highly recommended for anyone having trouble getting a seal with the stock selection. Wearing them over-the-ear can be a bit tricky at first due to the long rubber strain reliefs. The thin and flexible cable compensates for this to an extent

 

Sound (6/10) – Since I first heard the SR60 several years ago, I’ve been hooked on the Grado house sound and my headphone collection has contained at least one example of the Grado signature. Much of my listening, however, is done on the move – an application for which open-back Grados are particularly unsuited. The idea of a reasonably-priced Grado in-ear - the iGi was particularly attractive to me as a fan of both IEMs and the Grado house sound. Fast forward several months after the release of the iGi and there they were - on my desk and immaculately packaged. What came next were months of agonizing attempts to like the sound. Don't get me wrong - the iGi do several things very well for a reasonably-priced in-ear. But those hoping for SR60-like value for money will be sorely disappointed.

 

The bass response is tight and quick, with little rumble but plenty of impact. Low end extension is good but the emphasis is on mid- and upper bass. The bass transitions into the lower midrange with no bleed and the lower mids are quite smooth and natural. Clarity and detail are both good across the range and the iGi manage to reproduce a sense of space, something many in-ears struggle with. The soundstage boasts impressive width and mediocre depth, resulting in a spacious but poorly separated sound.

 

The upper midrange is where it all starts to go wrong, however. Despite the significant break-in time give to my set, the iGi are overly harsh and quite sibilant to my ears. I will admit that I have a very low tolerance for such phenomena - even the generally well-liked Klipsch Image S4 lack treble refinement to my ears. Tolerance aside, the iGi simply lack smoothness. There are several very noticeable spikes in the frequency response, which negatively affect the reproduction of certain instruments and vocals. The upper-midrange spikes can cause the crack of snare drums to sound very sharp. Uneven treble around 10kHz causes cymbals on some tracks to be downright piercing. All of this is even more puzzling considering that the promotional materials for the earphones claim an “ultra-smooth top end”, the exact opposite of what I hear. As a result, the iGi are poorly suited for rock and metal, genres usually considered to be the calling card of Grado products. They actually sound best with trance and electronica – vocal-light genres with minimal natural harmonics that benefit greatly from the tight bass, overall clarity, and extended upper treble that the earphones deliver. It should also be said that the innate flaws of the iGi wreak havoc when combined with low bitrate tracks and the earphones are very sensitive when it comes to source matching.

 

Value (5/10) – The Grado iGi are the company’s first attempt at a reasonably-priced in-ear earphone. Unfortunately, their mediocrity in build quality, comfort, isolation, and microphonics makes it difficult to justify the $90 price tag. However it is sound quality, the eternal centerpiece of the Grado philosophy, where the iGi should fare best against the competition. Sadly, the lack of control in the upper midrange and lower treble makes them sound harsh and sibilant. Don’t get me wrong - there is much to like when it comes to the clarity, detail, and bass. I just wish I could enjoy them for more than an hour before listening fatigue settles in.

 

Pros: Good bass control, spacious and detailed sound

Cons: Generic design, tangle-prone cabling, poor tip selection, mediocre isolation, harshness and sibilance in the upper mids/lower treble

 

 

(2C15) Head-Direct (HiFiMan) RE-ZERO

Head-Direct RE-ZERO 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Aug 2010

 

Details: Limited edition TRRS-balanced earphone from HiFiMan/Head-Direct
Current Price: $99 from Head-Direct.com (MSRP: $99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 15-22k Hz | Cord: 4' L-plug + 3” TRS adapter (L-plug)
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: UE Single Flanges, De-Cored Shure Olives, Meelec M11+ Short Bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3/5) - Single flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange (2 sets) silicone tips, shirt clip, spare filters (5 sets), 3” soft balanced->TRS adapter, hard balanced->TRS adapter
Build Quality (4/5) – Shells are made of sturdy-feeling metal and identical to those used by the RE0 except for the dark silver finish. Long rubber sleeves protect the cable and the 3.5mm L-plugs on both the standard cable and soft TRS adapter are identical to the one used by the higher-end RE252
Isolation (3/5) – Above average and potentially higher with the right tips, typical for a sealed straight-barrel IEM
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Low when worn over-the-ear, and still not too bad when worn straight down
Comfort (4/5) – Housings are fairly small and light. Fit is quite unobtrusive in either configuration

Sound (8.4/10) – Released to commemorate the three-year anniversary of Head-Direct’s RE line of on-ears, the limited edition RE-ZERO is meant to be an easier-to-drive alternative to the slightly cheaper RE0 with a touch more bass. However, the most unique feature of the ZERO is the fact that it’s wired in a fully balanced configuration utilizing a 3.5mm TRRS plug for use with balanced amplifiers and sources. Not having a balanced source on hand, all of my listening was done in the usual manner (Sansa Fuze, iBasso T4, mini3) using the included soft adapter. Clearly Head-Direct delivered on two of their promises – the 16-Ohm RE-ZEROs are no more difficult to drive than many mainstream IEMs though they do have a bit of scaling headroom left over and they are, indeed, balanced.

Whether the ZEROs have more bass than the RE0, however, is open to interpretation. I have not heard the RE0s in a long time but still have a pretty good idea of how they compare to my CK10s, which have similar overall balance minus the low-end roll-off. For me, the difference in bass quantity and power between the RE0 and RE-ZERO is little more than barely noticeable – both lag behind the BA-based CK10 in quantity of impact, with the ZERO sounding slightly more filled-out. The ZERO is just as tight and punchy as the RE0s were with a low end that is slightly fuller but make no mistake - the RE252 is fuller still and the folks over at Head-Direct are in no way endangering their flagship with these. While very accurate and fairly detailed, the RE-ZERO presents bass (and indeed everything else) with a delicacy that is lacking in most of the competition and which may or may not appeal to the individual listener.

Moving on to the midrange, the RE-ZERO greets the listener with the usual clarity and detail of RE-series earphones. The mids are very slightly warm and transparency is good. The midrange of the RE-ZERO is generally extremely competent – I can’t call it forward or recessed, thin or full, wet or dry. I remember finding the mids of the RE0 a bit thin but the RE-ZERO has none of that. Like the bass and treble, the midrange lacks the satisfying crispness of armature-based earphones and sounds all the more relaxed for it. Harshness is also imperceptible to my ears all the way up into the treble. The treble itself is very clear and detailed but rather gentle as far as analytical earphones go. I remember the RE0 being quite effortless and energetic when it comes to treble reproduction and the RE-ZERO doesn’t really make me feel quite the same way – it is more like the RE252 in that regard. An interesting side effect is that the RE-ZERO is affected less strongly by the treble-taming qualities of open-cell (e.g. Comply) foam tips – welcome news for those who find silicone cushions offensive.

In terms of presentation, the RE-ZERO is again as competent as the RE0 but doesn’t quite run with the top-tier big boys. Its soundstage is only slightly bigger than average and while it does convey both intimacy and space well, it is not the best earphone for those who must be able to pinpoint the source of every sound in the soundscape. The somewhat relaxed presentation of the RE-ZEROs results in relatively hazy positioning despite good overall separation. One last thing to note is that I don’t consider the tonality of the RE-ZERO impeccably realistic compared to truly high-end sets – it reminds me a bit of a grayscale image in that regard – all of the detail is present and everything is instantly recognizable and yet confusing it with reality would take an effort.

Value (10/10) – The Head-Direct RE-ZERO is not an up-and-out upgrade over the legendary RE0. Instead, it is a somewhat more versatile take on the same design with a new-but-not-unfamiliar angle on the Head-Direct house sound. So what does the extra $20 buy over the RE0? Well there’s the obvious – pretty silver shells and a spot in the limited 1000-unit run of the earphone. There’s also the lower impedance, which reduces the power dependence of the earphones, if only slightly, and of course the possibility of running the IEMs in balanced mode should such an opportunity arise. Most important, however, is the sound signature. The RE-ZERO is clearly not designed to appeal to current RE0 owners as an upgrade. Those who were unimpressed with the RE0 or RE252 should probably keep away from the RE-ZERO as well. However, anyone who’s ever heard the RE0 and found them to be slightly too energetic or even piercing at the top or a bit too thin or laid-back in the midrange should like the RE-ZERO more. New users should likewise choose between the two sound signatures but keep in mind that the differences between the two earphones are quite minute.

Pros: Top-tier sound quality for mid-fi money; compatible with balanced amps/sources
Cons: Sound signature not for everyone, TRS adapter required for use with most 3.5mm jacks

 

 

(2C16) Meelectronics M11+

Meelectronics M11P+ 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Sep 2010

 

Details: Updated version of Meelec’s tiny flagship
Current Price: N/A (discontinued)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: N/A | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.6’ 45°-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock short bi-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (4.5/5) – Standard single-flange (3 sizes), elongated single-flange (3-sizes), short bi-flange (3 sizes), and standard bi-flange silicone tips, cord wrap, airplane adapter, shirt clip, and hard clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (4.5/5) – Unchanged from the old M11, and with good reason – the build of the M11 earphones is sublime. The housings are all-metal and feel very solid. The cabling is typical Meelec – long, thick, and flexible, and the hockey stick-shaped 3.5mm plug is adequately protected
Isolation (3.5/5) – Slim housings lend themselves well to deep insertion and the new fit kit makes getting the perfect seal easier than ever before
Microphonics (4.5/5) – Very low when worn cord-down; nonexistent otherwise
Comfort (4.5/5) – About as good as conventional straight-barrel IEMs get. The housing is tiny but easy to grip when inserting/removing and the extensive fit kit should make finding the right tips quite easy for almost anyone

Sound (5.8/10) – Despite the excellent design and functionality, the sound quality of old Meelec M11 was always just a bit disappointing when juxtaposed with the physical attributes. With the M11+, Meelec attempted to finally give the M11 housings the drivers they’ve always deserved. Though the overall tone of the M11+ is similar to the popular M9 and M6 models, the signature has undergone some drastic changes. First off, the M11+ is rather bass-heavy. The low end is controlled and extended but carries enough impact to rattle the brain loose. When bass is present on a track, it is nearly always dominant with the M11+. The small drivers don’t move much air, which makes the bass impact all the more jarring, and the motion of the driver itself can be carried through the housing on certain tracks. Occasionally I found myself bumping down the lower bands of my equalizer to evaluate the midrange properly, which isn’t to say that the mids are recessed – the M11+ is less V-shaped than the M6 tends to be – but the low end really draws attention to itself and, on rare occasions, can almost completely overshadow the lower mids.

Though the M11+ is slightly more balanced than the M9/M6, the midrange still gives some emphasis up to the bass and treble (but not enough to be called recessed). It is strong and smooth and the tone is quite neutral, if not particularly natural. I wouldn’t call the mids of the M11+ transparent, either, as they have a thickness to them that may or may not appeal to the individual listener. Clarity and detail, on the other hand, are very good and easily one-up Meelec’s renowned M6 model. Especially on bass-light tracks, the mids and treble of the M11+ impress with their crispness and overall competence. That said, the treble of the M11+, while not often harsh or sibilant, sounds a bit edgy to my ears, not unlike that of the Hippo VB. A lack of dynamic range exhibited by the small drivers doesn’t help and the earphones sound ‘shouty’ on certain tracks. Not a bad sound for pop or electronica but a few of my rock and jazz tracks made me wish for more subtlety. Top-end extension is quite decent and the treble detail stays strong all the way to the roll-off point (in contrast to the Westone 1 I’ve been using lately). The M11+ is definitely no RE0 but it does compete well with the majority of <$80 dynamics when it comes to detail and clarity.

Much like the sound signature itself, the presentation of the M11+ is not technically perfect but has its own appeal. While the M11+ simply lacks the sheer expanse of something like the Fischer Audio Eterna, soundstage width and depth are both adequate. Stereo separation is excellent and the sound is mostly well-layered, though the bass can step out of line on occasion. I had the chance to switch between the M11+ and the similarly-bassy but slightly cheaper Sennheiser CX281 and the Senns just sound completely flat in comparison, as if all of the instruments are equidistant from the listener. Positioning and imaging suffer slightly from the thickness of the M11+ but I wouldn’t call the earphones congested. Airiness is lacking slightly compared to the entry-level M9 model as well. Tonally, the M11+ is hard to place. It doesn’t sound all too dissimilar from the M6, though the heavier bass balances out the treble brightness better on the M11+. Some instruments don’t sound entirely realistic but using the M11+ exclusively for a couple of days ‘fixes’ this.

It should also be noted that the specs of the M11+ are deceivingly mild – in reality, the M11+ likes power far more than an earphone with a mere 16Ω of impedance should. Hooking them up to an amp really loosens the drivers up – dynamics and soundstaging undergo the biggest improvements but the whole spectrum becomes just a little bit cleaner and tighter with my mini3 and Music Valley RC-2. I am still vehemently opposed to the idea of purchasing a mid-range amp for entry-level earphones but if you have on lying around, might as well try running the M11+ through it. The difference won’t be night-and-day but it’s noticeable.

Value (8/10) – Engineered to correct the sub-par sound quality of Meelec’s flagship, the M11+ competes well with the aging M6 model in sound quality and boasts the superb ergonomics and aesthetics of the original M11. The sound of the M11+ is best described as ‘concentrated’ – hard-hitting bass, smooth and thick mids, and crisp and edgy treble. For those who really like their bass impact, the sound of the M11+ should be plenty enticing but the earphones just can’t quite match the realism of the pricier competitors from brands such as Head-Direct and Fischer Audio. Those who do settle on the M11+ should be pleased with the massive fit kit as well as the comfort and build of the earphones. As a total package, the M11+ is a worthwhile buy but, being priced into a much more competitive tier than any of Meelec’s previous earphones, it just doesn’t shame the competition with audio prowess the way the M9 and M6 did upon release.

Pros: Extensive fit kit, excellent build quality, very small & comfortable, high isolation, low microphonics, powerful sound
Cons: Quite bass-heavy, not entirely realistic tonality

 

 

(2C17) Phiaton PS210

Phiaton PS210 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Sep 2010

 

Details: Phiaton’s ‘half in-ear’ dynamic offering designed to sacrifice isolation for a less intrusive fit
Current Price: $99 from amazon.com (MSRP: $119.00)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32 Ω | Sens: 98 dB | Freq: 10-27k Hz | Cable: 4.2’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Sennheiser short bi-flange, Comply T400
Wear Style: Straight down

Accessories (3.5/5) – Single flange silicone tips (4 sizes) and semi-rigid cylindrical carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – The PS210 housings resemble a cross between the higher-end Phiaton PS200 and the Yamaha EPH-50. The rear halves of the shells are metal and look similar to the PS200 shells except for the ‘turbine blades’, which are not articulated in the PS210. The driver bulges and nozzles are plastic but feel quite sturdy. The strain reliefs on housing entry are a bit too long and rigid for my liking but do the job. The cable is identical to that of the PS200 and features a metal Y-split and short but flexible molding on the plastic 3.5mm I-plug casing
Isolation (2/5) – As expected, the half in-ear design drops isolation down into mediocrity, though aftermarket biflange tips can be used for a deeper seal
Microphonics (4/5) – Quite low but hard to avoid completely as the PS210 cannot be worn over-the-ear
Comfort (4/5) – The driver housings are rather large and the earphones aren’t nearly as light as the all-plastic Yamaha EPH-50 but the ergonomic design still works rather well and the four sizes of silicone tips are a welcome inclusion

Sound (7.5/10) – The Phiaton PS210 shares its half in-ear fitment style with the Yamaha EPH-50, which is similarly-priced on paper but can be found far below MSRP in the wild. Listening to both side by side reveals why – the EPH-50 is a decent budget-oriented earphone but it lacks the refinement and technical capability to compete with my top picks in the $60-100 range. The PS210, however, is another story. Keeping in mind that the EPH-50 is a bass-heavy earphone in the grand scheme of things, the PS210 simply has so much more finesse and control that picking between the two is a no-contest proposition. The low end of the PS210 is tight and well-defined. Impact quantity lags far behind the EPH-50 (though not quite far enough for the PS210 to be called bass-light) but the quality is excellent. The bass is quick but rather soft, boasting little rumble or slam but good accuracy and realistic attack and decay.

The midrange is quite clear, with decent detailing but not much texture. The resulting sound is extremely smooth and quite transparent. The far sweeter mids of the PS210 make the EPH-50 sound like a screaming child – the Yamahas really aren’t capable of great subtlety. The treble is also very smooth and quite well-resolved. The highs are detailed enough to keep up with the better sub-$100 earphones (RE0 being the exception) but never sound sharp or aggressive. Softness is really a recurring theme of the PS210’s presentation. Top end extension is impressive, making the PS210 a rather well-rounded earphone, much to my liking. The way the PS210 presents sound is quite fitting of the half in-ear design. The soundstage is fairly wide and has good depth of positioning and excellent air. Separation is quite decent though these clearly weren’t designed as studio monitors. What they are is an excellent set of relaxation earphones that offer surprising refinement of sound and a very pleasant overall presentation. Lastly, the PS210 is a rather inefficient earphone so hiss out of laptop jacks is not a problem. A dedicated amp is not necessary, however, though the earphones do scale up somewhat.

Value (8/10) – The Phiaton PS210 is a rather unique offering from the Korean audio giant. Designed to fall somewhere between an IEM and a conventional earbud in both fit and isolation, the PS210 is otherwise an extremely competent mid-range earphone. The build quality is quite solid though the earphones are larger than my other half in-ear earphones, the Yamaha EPH-50, and absolutely dwarf the tiny EPH-20. However, those with smaller ears may have some trouble getting a seal. The sound is balanced, refined, and spacious. Those who like an aggressive sound should look elsewhere – perhaps at the EPH-50 – but for a relaxing and yet highly proficient listening experience the PS210 is among the best earphones in its class.

Pros: Well-designed and comfortable, balanced and spacious sound
Cons: Low isolation

 

 

(2C18) JAYS t-JAYS Three

Jays t-Jays 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Jul 2010

 

Details: Ergonomically-designed mid-range dynamic from Swedish audio house JAYS
Current Price: $100 from amazon.com (MSRP: $99.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 98 dB | Freq: 15-25k Hz | Cable: 2’ I-plug + 3’ extension
Nozzle Size: 4.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock Single flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (4.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (5 sizes), 3.5mm splitter, airplane adapter, extension cord, and plastic protective carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – The matte-black rubberized plastic housings are very pleasant to the touch and feel rather solid. The paper filters used by the old j-JAYS have been replaced with a permanent metal mesh and the cable has undergone a slight improvement as well, though it remains somewhat plasticky and still carries a bit of memory character. Strain reliefs are short on cable entry and nonexistent on the y-split but the modular cord provides extra protection from snags and tears
Isolation (2.5/5) – The ergonomically-styled t-JAYS are shallow-insertion earphones and isolation is only average
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Microphonics are present in the cable and can be bothersome. Though JAYS claims that the t-JAYS can be worn over-the-ear, channels have to be swapped in order to do so. Admittedly, microphonics are nearly non-existent with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (3.5/5) – The t-JAYS are very light but the design leaves a bit to be desired. Though the shells are some of the most ergonomic I’ve seen on a longitudinally-mounted dynamic-driver earphone, the cable exit points on the bottom of the earphone prevent them from being flush and can cause a fair amount of discomfort over time. Over-the-ear comfort is much better but requires stereo channels to be swapped

Sound (6.6/10) – Right out of the box the t-JAYS gave me a small reminder of the signature of my previous JAYS dynamics, the j-JAYS. Like the j-JAYS, the t-JAYS are slightly dark and a bit warm, with good low-end extension and big, hard-hitting bass. Happily, the t-JAYS don’t suffer from a lack of clarity and easily outpace the j-JAYS in overall sound quality from the get-go. The large drivers provide deep and plentiful bass without a loss in clarity. Though the bass tends towards ‘boomy’ rather than ‘punchy’ on certain tracks, the t-JAYS exercise impressive control over their voluminous low end most of the time. Compared to the bass-monster Fischer Audio Eterna, the t-JAYS sound cleaner and more restrained but lack the texture and articulation, as well as the sheer bass weight, that all make the Eterna’s low end so engaging. Compared to the cheaper Sony XB40EX, the low end of the t-JAYS is better in every way except impact and rumble quantity, making the bass of the XB40EX sound like a runaway train on a downhill incline.

The midrange of the t-JAYS is warmed up slightly by the bass but remains in focus at all times, which is always a pleasant surprise for a bass-heavy earphone. The midrange emphasis of the t-JAYS lags slightly behind the mid-forward ViSang R03 but makes the XB40EX and even the Eterna sound a bit recessed in comparison. The mids are full and very smooth, boasting great detail and clarity. In fact, though the mids are not as thick or sweet as those of the R03, the clarity is arguably better, helped along by the prominent treble lending an extra bit of air to the sound.

The treble itself is crisp, clear, and in good balance with the midrange and low end. It is a bit hyped-up and can sometimes make already-sibilant tracks more sibilant, though it won’t add any artifacts to well-mastered recordings. Detail and sparkle are not class-leading but competitive in both quality and quantity. Unlike the warmed-up midrange, the treble can sound a bit hard-edged and sterile but softness of note is something only a few budget-oriented dynamics get right,and the t-JAYS are generally very inoffensive, unlike the Hippo VB or and other treble-heavy dynamics in the price range. Upper-end extension is solid and only misses the smallest bit of information at the very top, much like the ViSang R03.

The presentation of the t-JAYS is best classified as ‘competent’, along with the rest of the sound signature. They are warm earphones but the prominent treble gives a bit of much-needed air to the sound. The soundstage is moderately wide and seems a bit tubular in nature – nothing out of character for mid-range dynamics. It isn’t as enveloping as the 3-dimensional space of the R03 or wide-open presentation of the Thinksound TS02 but does give a good sense of both distance and direction when it comes to sonic cues. Instrumental separation is again not exactly class-leading but perfectly adequate for the type of consumer-oriented sound JAYS seem to be pursuing with their dynamics.

Value (7/10) – After my disappointing experience with the entry-level (and now defunct) j-JAYS, I was really hoping that the t-JAYS would sacrifice some of the style for substance. Happily, JAYS managed to pack in more of both. The t-JAYS Three are mainstream earphones with a mainstream sound signature but the aesthetics and presentation simply go above and beyond. While I’m in equal measure a fan of the no-frills approach to product packaging taken by companies like Thinksound and RadioPaq, opening a package from JAYS for the first time is an experience in itself. The one attribute I will complain about is the over-the-ear fitment – though the t-JAYS are claimed to be designed for both cord-down and over-the-ear wear, the latter, while far more comfortable, requires a swap of the left and right earpieces. Ergonomically-designed dynamic-driver earphones are fairly difficult to come but the t-JAYS are just a tease without a Left/Right channel swap adapter of some sort. Aside from that, the t-JAYS seduce with a wholesome accessory pack, decent build quality, and competent sound, not to mention the 2 year warranty. For those who have ears large enough to accommodate the t-JAYS in the cord-down configuration (or don’t mind reversing channels) and aren’t bothered the modular cord, the t-JAYS have plenty to offer. And, like all of the other JAYS products I’ve come across, they make a great gift.

Pros: Incredibly presentable package, solid sound quality
Cons: Over-the-ear wear requires channel reversal; cable is a bit too thin, microphonic, and tangle-prone

 

 

(2C19) Fischer Audio Silver Bullet

Fischer Audio Silver Bullet 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Oct 2010

 

Details: Mid-range dynamic from Fischer Audio styled after a bullet casing
Current Price: $60 from gd-audiobase.com (MSRP: $67.50)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 18Ω | Sens: 102 dB | Freq: 12-22k Hz | Cable: 4.1’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Generic single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (2/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and fabric carrying pouch
Build Quality (3/5) – Though the metal shells of the Silver Bullet are extremely sturdy, they have a tendency to oxidize over time from contact with skin oils – a purely cosmetic issue but an issue nonetheless. The plasticky cable is mediocre – though relatively thick and flexible below the Y-split, it is quite thin above the split, hardens over time, and has no sliding cord cinch. Housing-entry strain reliefs take the form of small rubber grommets which may be a threat to the cable over time. The one big positive is the 3.5mm L-plug, which is large and very well-relieved. Lastly, the Silver Bullet can exhibit moderate driver flex with well-sealing tips so those easily annoyed by such noise may want to stay away
Isolation (3/5) – Isolation can be decent with longer tips but the large housings prevent deep insertion with single-flanges, at least for those with smaller ears, resulting in isolation that’s only slightly above average
Microphonics (3.5/5) – The plastic cable carries quite a bit of noise when worn straight-down but remains silent with over-the-ear fitment
Comfort (3.5/5) – The metal shells aren’t particularly heavy but the weight is noticeable in the ear. The design is tapered very slightly toward the front but those with smaller ears will still only get a shallow fit. The lack of strain reliefs makes it easy to route the cables over-the-ear and aside from the weight the SB fits like a conventional straight-barrel in-ear

Sound (8.1/10) – Let me start off by saying that the Silver Bullet I got to audition had had its stock filters replaced with those from the Head-Direct RE-ZERO, not for any modding purpose but simply because the stock ones came loose. According to the owner the original Silver Bullet filters are similar to the Head-Direct RE0/RE-ZERO filters in thickness and composition so the sound shouldn’t be substantially affected by the swap. A point to note – we also tried the (mesh) RE252 filters in place of paper ones and the results were horrifying – the Silver Bullets became bright and shrill in the treble and somewhat hollow-sounding in the midrange. Perhaps a bit of foam in the nozzle could be used to balance them out with mesh filters but RE0/RE-ZERO filters work much better.

As is obvious from the score above, the SB is one heck of a performer as far as sound quality goes. It doesn’t have a particularly distinctive sound signature but what it does, it does very well. The low end of the Silver Bullet is powerful and refined – two qualities that rarely go hand-in-hand in budget-oriented earphones. For my tastes the overall amount of bass that the SB produces is plentiful but the nature of the bass is rather delicate. Impact is well-defined but soft – the bass sort of rolls from one note to the next. The SB is neither the quickest nor the punchiest earphone in its price bracket. It is, however, very well-controlled and not at all muddy. Compare to Fischer Audio’s own Eterna model, the Silver Bullet boasts better bass clarity and superior overall balance, never allowing the bass to step out of line or produce a note out of turn.

The midrange is warmed up slightly by the soft yet impactful bass but never overshadowed – the low end is maybe a quarter-step ahead of the midrange on the SB but the midrange recession is not as noticeable as with the Eterna. Much more obvious is just how liquid and rich the midrange of the Silver Bullet sounds next to the somewhat terse Eterna (and, by extension, the similarly-priced Hippo VB). The mids are very smooth but still very clear and detailed – easily on par with the other good $60-100 dynamics. The treble, too, impresses with its smoothness (as long as paper filters are in place) and clarity. It carries just the right amount of sparkle without coming across as harsh or sibilant. The last bit of top-end extension isn’t as strong as it is with the Hippo VB or Head-Direct RE0 but the Silver Bullet easily keeps up with its other competitors. On the whole I wouldn’t call the treble of the SB laid-back but it really doesn’t draw attention to itself – ‘wholly pleasant’ is how I can best characterize it.

The presentation of the Silver Bullet, I feel, deserves a separate mention. The SB is a spacious-sounding earphone that never feels exceedingly distant. The instrumental separation is quite excellent and there’s lots of air around individual instruments. The soundstage not only has good width and depth but also some height, which is rather rare for budget-minded in-ears. It really sounds surprisingly realistic and involving - the presentation of the Silver Bullet is more immediately likeable than that of the Eterna, which has the immersion factor but lacks the cohesiveness of the SB and can take some time for a listener to come to terms with. Overall, the Silver Bullet really doesn’t do much of anything wrong as far as sub-$100 in-ears go. It’s one of the very few budget earphones out there I can’t imagine anyone hating - and that says quite a lot about every aspect of its sound.

Value (8/10) – Taking into consideration only sound quality, the Fischer Audio Silver Bullet is quite simply one of the best bang-for-the-buck sets out there. With impressive bass depth and impact, slightly warm and very clear mids, smooth and sparkly treble, and a well-separated and spacious presentation, there’s a lot to like and very little to dislike about the Silver Bullet. As a total package, however, it is let down by durability and usability issues, the cable being the principal offender. Looking at the build quality of several Fisher Audio earphones, it’s difficult to believe that the SB is in the same price tier as the Eterna and more than twice as expensive as the TS-9002. Those planning to use the SB as day-to-day IEMs would really need to be extra careful with the cord. The sound of the SB is worth the trouble, at least in my book, but in order for it to become the one mid-range earphone that stands above them all, Fischer really needs to re-think the cable and include hard case with the next revision.

Pros: Incredibly airy and three-dimensional sound, very good all-rounder
Cons: Mediocre cabling, moderate driver flex, no cable cinch


Special thanks to Inks for the extended Silver Bullet loan!


(2C20) Thinksound TS02+mic

Thinksound TS02+mic 400x300.jpg
Reviewed Oct 2010

 

Details: Latest eco-friendly creation from “Green” IEM manufacturer Thinksound
Current Price: $90 from amazon.com (MSRP: $89.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.2’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single flanges, Comply T400
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (3/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (4 sizes), shirt clip, and cotton carrying pouch
Build Quality (4/5) – The TS02 is similar in construction and appearance to the two other Thinksound models. Like those of the TS01 and Rain, the housings of the TS02 are made out of wood and aluminum. The rubbery cable, long strain reliefs, and beefy 3.5mm plug are all sourced from the other Thinksound earphones as well. Worth noting is the lack of a sliding cable cinch and mild driver flex exhibited by the TS02
Isolation (3/5) – Again, the isolation of the TS02 is very similar to that of the other Thinksound earphones – limited by the rear vent of the earphones and moderately shallow fit. In addition, mild wind noise is present in windy conditions
Microphonics (4/5) – Low as the PVC-free cable doesn’t bounce around a whole lot. Wearing them over-the-ear eliminates microphonics but may be undesirable for those who use the microphone
Comfort (4/5) – The fit of the TS02 is very similar to that of the Thinksound Rain as the earphones are very similar in size. They are unobtrusive and remain comfortable for hours but I wouldn’t recommend sleeping in them – the shorter shells of the TS01 are better-suited for that

Sound (7.1/10) – Thinksound promises a warm and balanced sound with the TS02, which is slightly counterintuitive on a technical level since ‘warmth’ implies a certain emphasis on lower harmonics. Pedantry aside, however, the TS02 is a very musical and enjoyable earphone - not a paragon of clarity by any means (at least compared to the similarly-priced RE-ZERO and Ety MC5) but an excellent set for relaxed listening. The bass is deep, full-bodied, and very smooth. They aren’t bass monsters but they provide a weighty punch that reminds me of my much-pricier Monster Turbine Pro Gold. Texture and detail are quite good – not obscured by excessive impact or lack of body. They don’t extend unflinchingly into the sub-bass the way Hippo VBs and FS Atrios do but there’s no lack in rumble or tactility, at least not for my tastes. In addition, the reverb of the TS02 is surprisingly realistic, which may or may not have something to do with the wooden housings.

The midrange is warm and liquid and lags slightly in emphasis behind the bass. The mids aren’t recessed like those of the FA Eterna, nor are they as forward as those of the ViSang R03. Clarity and detail are good but not class-leading. Like the other Thinksound earphones the TS02 has a certain inimitable lushness to its mids that always keeps me entertained. Other earphones carry more air in the mids but the TS02 doesn’t lag too far behind most at its price point. Moving towards the upper mids, the TS02 remains smooth and controlled – a big improvement over the TS01. Even straight out of the box there’s almost none of the TS01’s harshness and unevenness, just smooth and competent treble with plenty of sparkle and definition. Those who like a more laid-back presentation may want to look at the ViSang R03 or even the Eterna since the TS02 is quite crisp but anyone coming from a Panasonic HJE900 or even Klipsch S4 should feel right at home with the treble quantity.

The presentation is broad and quite engrossing overall. The soundstage has good depth and width. There’s a thickness of note that prevents them from being as precise as the Ety MC5 or RE-ZERO but positioning and imaging are still pretty good. The TS02 is not the widest or most three-dimensional earphone in its price range but it is one of the most coherent – it never sounds disjointed, which again makes it a good all-rounder with a popular but nevertheless enjoyable sound signature. As a sidenote, I really liked the Rain for movies because of its frequency balance and ‘big’ sound and the TS02 is even better-suited with its rumbly sub-bass and spacious presentation. Many of the highly-detailed in-ears simply draw too much attention to background noise when it comes to movies and gaming but the TS02 balances things out just right and manages to remain absorbing but not distracting, which says something about the earphone’s overall SQ as well.

Value (8/10) – The TS02 is a very pleasant earphone that borrows quite heavily from both of Thinksound’s older models - the TS01 and Rain. The bass impact, weight, and rumble, as well as the warmth and musicality, come straight from the TS01. The smoothness and soundstage come from the Rain. These qualities are exactly what I originally liked about the Thinksound earphones and all make the TS02 a competitive entry among sub-$100 in-ears. Sure, $100 is a bit more than most of the bass-heavy earphones in its class, but it is also the only one that ships with a mic and a cleaner conscience.

Pros: “Green”; aesthetically pleasing; plenty of bass, sparkly treble
Cons: No cable cinch, mild driver flex, slightly susceptible to wind noise, a touch pricier than comparable (mic-less) models


Full review with comparisons to a multitude of other earphones can be found here

 

 

(2C21) Earjax Lyrics
 

Reviewed Nov 2010

 

Details: Ergonomically-styled dynamic-driver earphone from US-based manufacturer Earjax
Current Price: $80 from earshack.com (MSRP: $119.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 24Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 15-25k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges, stock heat-activated foamies
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (6 sets in 3 sizes), triple-flange silicone tips (2 sizes), heat-activated foam tips, shirt clip, carabiner, 3’ extension cord, and hard clamshell carrying case with removable cord winder
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The distinctive shells of the Lyrics are made of a matte, rubberized plastic and, though some molding artifacts are evident, generally feel quite sturdy. The cable used by the Lyrics is unique as well - sheathed in smooth, clear plastic above the y-split and woven nylon below. The casing on the straight 3.5mm plug is metal, which I’m not usually a fan of, but a flexible rubber grommet protects the cord from its sharp edges
Isolation (3/5) – The Lyrics are vented at the front and don’t lend themselves too well to deep insertion when worn cable-down but isolation is still sufficient
Microphonics (3.5/5) –Low when worn cable-down, nonexistent with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (3.5/5) – The shells are fairly bulbous in shape and not quite flush with the ear when worn in the intended, cable-down manner. They aren’t uncomfortable but they don’t just disappear, either. Worn cable-up the Lyrics stay comfortable much longer

 

Sound (6.4/10) – The flagship of Earjax’s product line, the Lyrics is a ‘pleasant’–sounding earphone: slightly bassy, a bit warm, and quite spacious. Signature-wise the Lyrics sound like a slightly more laid-back JAYS t-JAYS Three. The first and foremost thing noticeable when comparing the Lyrics to the lower-end Earjax Tonic is how much tighter and cleaner the bass is. The Lyrics has far less mid-bass bloat as well as better sub-bass extension. Naturally, more bass detail is revealed by the Lyrics. The bass remains punchy and tactile but never becomes overwhelming, reminding me of the Brainwavz M2 and M3, both in impact and tone.


The midrange of the Lyrics is free of bass bleed and quite clear. It is laid-back almost to the point of sounding veiled, in stark contrast to the Brainwavz earphones, but still carries good detail. The clarity is compromised slightly by the veil but the smoothness and fullness of the mids are impressive. Treble extension is good and the slightly veiled mids of the Lyrics make the high end seem a bit more prominent. Again, the sound of the Lyrics is ‘safe’ more than anything.

Perhaps the biggest strength of the Lyrics is the ambient presentation – it’s an earphone with a ‘big’ sound – the soundstage has good width, depth, and even height. The soundstage depth of the mid-forward Brainwavz M2 is clearly inferior and even the higher-end M3 is given a run for its money. Positioning and imaging are good as well, though the laid-back presentation does mean that you won’t get the ‘intimate’ moments with the performer that you may get with more forward sets. It’s a good sound for music that doesn’t hinge on vocals and benefits from a spacious presentation.

Value (7.5/10) – Like the lower-end Tonic, the Earjax Lyrics is a very well-packaged earphone with solid build quality and great overall usability. It is much more refined in sound than the lower-end model but at the same time is pitted against far more serious competition by its price tag. The laid-back sound signature brings about a slight drop in clarity compared to similarly-priced sets such as the FA Silver Bullet but the Lyrics is still a good earphone for those in search of a smooth, balanced, and spacious sound and a good alternative to the pricier JAYS t-JAYS.

Pros: Excellent accessory pack; balanced, smooth, and spacious sound
Cons: Slight midrange veil, not the best at portraying intimacy


Full review can be found here

 

 

(2C22) Sunrise SW-Xcape v. 1

Reviewed Nov 2010

 

Details: First IEM released by Hi-Fi OEM Sunrise under their own brand
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $79.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32Ω | Sens: 115 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips, shirt clip, and hard clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – The shells used by the Xcape are quite similar to the ones on the RE0/RE-ZERO. They are metal and have non-replaceable filters and decent-length strain reliefs. The cable is slightly thinner but also smoother and more flexible than those used by the newer HiFiMan earphones
Isolation (3.5/5) – They are comfortable enough when inserted fairly deeply and isolate about as well as a straight-barrel vented IEM can
Microphonics (4/5) – Low when worn cable-down, nonexistent cable-up
Comfort (4.5/5) – The metal housings are longer than those used by the HiFiMan earphones but tapered towards the front, allowing for deeper fitment and more comfortable insertion (wonder why more manufacturers don’t do this). Comfort is about as good as is possible with straight-barrel in-ears

Sound (8.4/10) – The Xcape doesn’t just share aesthetic themes with the HiFiMan RE0 and RE-ZERO but quite a few aspects of its sound as well. All of the things that made the RE0 a brilliant mid-range earphone are present in the Xcape – clarity, detail, separation, and cohesiveness are all up there with the very best in the price range. As with the RE0, nothing is out of place with or missing from the sound of the Xcape but Sunrise did tune the earphone to set it apart from the HiFiMan models, giving it a warmer and thicker sound and tilting the balance slightly away from the treble.

The resulting signature is arguably even more balanced than that of the RE0. The bass is quite well-extended, dropping off gently past about 40Hz but still audible at 25. The lows are tight, clean, and very accurate – the bass of the Xcape isn’t particularly impactful or rumbly but it is punchy and well-textured. Up until it begins to roll off the response of the Xcape is fairly linear so those looking for bass quantity over quality will be sorely disappointed, though not quite as much so as with the HiFiMan RE0. The Xcape is still a lean-sounding earphone in the grand scheme of things but in an accurate way that armature lovers will probably find pleasing. In a way its bass reminds me of the crisp and well-measured low-end response of the Klipsch Custom 3 – an impressive feat for a mid-range dynamic.

The midrange of the Xcape is free of bass bleed but still slightly warm in nature. It is neither forward nor recessed in balance, sounding a bit less intimate than the RE-ZERO, in part due to the ZERO having a smaller soundstage overall. The Xcape is a dry-sounding earphone on the whole but the terseness is most noticeable in the midrange with crisper, cleaner, and less reverberant notes than those produced by the RE-ZERO or similarly-priced Brainwavz M3. The detail retrieval of the Xcape is difficult to fault and it keeps up with the ZERO, beating out the M3 and nearly anything else in the price tier, but the ZERO and M3 both sound softer and more fluid than the Xcape. The ZERO, which has a more upward-tilted midrange balance, gives guitars more bite and female vocals more energy but the highly textured – almost too much so – sound of the Xcape, combined with a more downward-tilted balance, works well with male vocals. The high levels of texturing result in a sound that is almost ‘etched’ but the earphone remains smooth and free of vocal sibilance well into the upper midrange. One odd thing about the midrange of the Xcape is that despite being slightly less forward than that of the RE-ZERO, it is the Xcape’s mids that are more likely to overshadow higher and lower notes on a track and not the ZERO’s.

The treble of the Xcape is quite a bit more straightforward than the midrange. It is crisp, clear, and detailed – about on-par with the HiFiMan earphones in quality. The Xcape manages to sound analytical but at the same time neither cold nor bright – something very few other budget-minded earphones are able to accomplish. Admittedly, the RE-ZERO is slightly smoother but the difference isn’t great. Presentation-wise the Xcape is a bit more spacious than the RE0/RE-ZERO, which have more well-defined soundstage limits, but still falls within the confines of ‘average’ as far as higher-end in-ear earphones go. In addition, the RE-ZERO still sounds ‘bigger’ and more headphone-like on some tracks. The reason, I think, is that the soundstage of the Xcape, with its greater width and depth, is more tubular in nature while the RE-ZERO manages to cover more area on a plane (i.e. has better front-to-rear and top-to-bottom presence). Separation is very impressive and the crisp, clear treble gives the Xcape plenty of air.

One last point worth noting regarding the Xcape – though the earphone doesn’t require an amp, it is fairly inefficient and cuts hiss very well. Normal listening levels with the Xcape require 3-4 extra volume notches on my Cowon compared to the Head-Direct RE-ZERO and Brainwavz M3. An amp, even a relatively powerful one, can therefore easily be used to modify the sound signature of the earphones though I can’t recommend purchasing one just for the Xcape. Since the earphone is so well-balanced, a V-shaped amp will result in the earphone attaining a slight v-curve in its sound signature and vice versa.

Value (10/10) – The Sunrise SW-Xcape is a very impressive IEM any way you look at it. In terms of value-for-money it is clearly competition for the RE0/RE-ZERO crowd, not obviously displacing the HiFiMan earphones but rather offering a different flavor of the analytical dynamic signature. The slimmer housings of the Xcape are slightly friendlier towards those with smaller ears (though the RE0 shells are already difficult to fault) and the smooth, low-energy cable stays out of the way, just as it should. The Xcape also proves that the balance of the universe is not upset when a nice carrying case is included with an already high-bang/buck earphone (take note, HiFiMan!). Of course the most important factor is still the sound and on that front I can see personal preferences leaning a listener either way. Personally I still like the more liquid signature of the RE-ZERO better by a hair but could happily live with either earphone – and that’s something I don’t see myself saying about any two other midrange dynamics at the moment.

Pros: Comfortable; user-friendly; very clear, detailed, and well-separated sound
Cons: May be too dry or analytical for some



(2C23) Brainwavz M3 / ViSang R04
 

Reviewed Nov 2010

 

Details: The flagship of mp4nation’s Brainwavz line, also known as the ViSang R04
Current Price: $90 from mp4nation.net (MSRP: $89.50)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 20Ω | Sens: 115 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.2’ 45°-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Generic bi-flanges, stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear


Accessories (4/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), shirt clip, and hard clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – The shells used by the M3 are very similar to the ones used by the aging Music Valley SP1 with two major exceptions – a metal nozzle is used by the M3 in place of the SP1’s plastic one and the cable doesn’t feel like it will fall apart at any moment. There are still no soft strain reliefs but the thicker, sturdier cable should hold up well nonetheless
Isolation (2.5/5) – The odd housing shape of the M3 prevents it from being inserted deeply and the earphone is vented at the rear. The resulting isolation is average
Microphonics (4/5) – Low when worn cable-down, nonexistent cable-up
Comfort (3.5/5) – The plastic process on the side of the housing is meant to hook into the antitragus of the ear but for me it just digs into it painfully. Mercifully they can be worn over-the-ear with longer tips (the housings ‘arms’ will end up pointing outward) and are quite comfortable in that configuration

Sound (7.7/10) – The long-delayed flagship of mp4nation’s Brainwavz line bears a definite sonic resemblance to the lower-end models but leaves little doubt regarding its position in the lineup. Fitting issues aside, I have to admit that the M3 is a very pleasant earphone to use – balanced, poised, and non-fatiguing. The lack of any real sonic flaws is probably its greatest strength – whereas the M2 is a fairly colored earphone with forward mids and mediocre soundstage depth, the M3 manages to steer clear of the more polarizing sound signature elements of its sibling.

The bass of the M3 is very much to my liking – it is well-weighted and full-bodied but remains under control at all times in contrast to the M2, which can overemphasize mid-bass frequencies on occasion. The low end of the M3 is a bit more substantial than that of the M1 but retains the softer character and roundness of note, at least when compared to high-impact sets such as the Klipsch S4 or crisper, tighter earphones such as the Sunrise Xcape. Compared to the M2, the low end of the M3 is more extended and has a significantly smaller mid-bass hump, resulting in a more linear bass presentation. Those who found even the M2 to be bloated but aren’t willing to move to a ‘flat’ earphone such as the RE-ZERO or Xcape should be satisfied with response of the M3, which is quite natural without sounding lifeless or analytical. Reverb and decay are especially impressive and a fair tradeoff for the slightly relaxed bass.

The midrange of the M3 is warm and full. The reduced mid-bass intensity of the M3 means that the midrange of the M2 is warmer still but neither earphone makes the other sound ‘off’. The M2 does have the more forward midrange of the two earphones, which gives it more energy as well as some added ‘clarity’ in the vocal range – a good thing since the natural clarity of the M2/M3 isn’t quite on-level with the RE0 or Xcape. The M3 also lacks the texture and microdetail of the Xcape, both in the midrange and treble, but performs admirably next to more mainstream in-ears such as the Thinksound TS02. For the price its mids are undoubtedly competent, however, and the top-tier clarity of the Xcape bartered fairly for a more lush and liquid sound. One similarity that the M3 does share with the Xcape, for better or for worse, is the slight downward tilt in balance as opposed to the more treble-biased RE0 and RE-ZERO.

Expectedly, the treble of the M3 is deemphasized slightly in comparison to the bass and midrange. It is not absent entirely, however, and detail actually pops out better with the M3 than the M1 and M2. Extension, too, is better with the M3 despite the treble being completely inoffensive and non-fatiguing on the whole. As with the rest of the M3’s signature, the treble is very smooth but not as clear or crisp as that of the more treble-biased earphones out there. The RE-ZERO, for example, has significantly more sparkle at the top and even my FA Eterna comes out ahead for the type of treble response I personally find appealing.

Presentation, on the other hand, is a definite strength of the M3 and the one area where neither the M1 nor M2 can hold a candle to the flagship. From the very first listen, the M3 sounds ‘big’ – spacious, full-bodied, and quite realistic for an IEM. The soundstage of the M3 has pretty decent width and, unlike that of the M2, good depth. I do feel that the M1 carries more air due to the increased treble emphasis, but imaging and separation are still improved slightly with the M3. Tonally the M3 is not a far cry from the M2 but it is less colored on the whole. Like the M2, the M3 also doesn’t mind a bit of extra impedance and an amp, tightening up slightly and developing better resolution when matched with my 68Ω adapter and mini3. Obviously I still can’t recommend spending $20 on an adapter and $80 on an amp to get a touch more performance out of a $90 earphone but the potential is there despite the low impedance and high sensitivity of the earphones.

Value (8.5/10) – Being partial to the other Brainwavz/ViSang models, I expected to like the M3 but had reservations about its price tag and physical design. In a way, the M3 falls in line with my expectations – it is an earphone to be purchased purely for the sound. There is little doubt that the M3 is on the whole a better-sounding earphone than M2 and M1, but not necessarily better in every specific case. Despite their few flaws, the M1 and M2 are magical, musical, user-friendly and, best of all, reasonably cheap (by Head-Fi standards), and for the non-Head-Fi crowd, the gains made by the M3 may be too subtle to make up the price difference. In the context of this review, however, the M3 competes on a whole different level quite successfully and offers some of the purest audio enjoyment in its price class.

Pros: Lush, balanced, and spacious sound
Cons: Average isolation; cable-down fit may not work for some; bassheads and analytical listeners need not apply

 

 

(2C24) Monster Lil’ Jamz

Reviewed Dec 2010

 

Details: Entry-level dynamic-driver earphones from Monster Cable
Current Price: $60 from amazon.com (MSRP: $99.95); $100 for ControlTalk version w/mic
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: N/A | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Generic single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (2.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (4 sizes) and soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (3/5) – While very solid at first glance, the Lil’ Jamz really aren’t as well-thought-out as the higher-end Turbine line. The metal housings are quite heavy and rock-solid but the strain reliefs aren’t flexible and have sharp edges. The cable cinch takes the form of a thin piece of metal and seems like it may sever the cable if pulled on. The cord itself is extremely pleasant to use – soft, rubbery, and flexible – but not as thick as those used on the Turbine earphones. The metal casing of the 3.5mm plug has a tendency to come loose but a drop of super glue should fix it
Isolation (3.5/5) – As with the Turbines and MD Tributes, the isolation is surprisingly good for a dynamic-driver in-ear
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Bothersome when worn cable-down; very low when worn over-the-ear
Comfort (4.5/5) – The housings are heavy but very small and tapered at the rear for a comfortable fit. The flexible cable makes it easy to wear the earphones cord-up or cord-down. Unfortunately, tip selection is not comparable to that of the Turbine earphones with only Monster’s narrow-channel single-flanges included. The Lil’ Jamz are also much more sensitive to insertion depth than the Turbines, requiring a deep seal to sound their best

Sound (5.9/10) – Being very familiar with Monster’s higher-end Turbine line, I was expecting the cheaper Lil’ Jamz to take the sound of the $179 Turbine “Originals” in an even more mainstream direction, adding bass and warmth. Imagine my surprise when instead I heard something cold, clear, and bright to the point of shrillness. The surprising nature of the sound is due in part to the included tips – Monster’s narrow-channel silicone single-flange tips work fine with the bass-heavy Turbines but accentuate the treble peaks present in the response of the Lil’ Jamz. With the stock tips, the Lil’ Jamz always sound as if they are sealed improperly – bass-light, piercing, and boasting excessive stereo separation. The solution is to use thicker, shorter tips with a deeper insertion to make the Jamz sound a warmer, smoother, and more intimate – stock Soundmagic PL30 or Meelec tips worked fine for me. Open-cell foam can be used to the same effect but also cuts down on treble extension very slightly. With generic single-flange tips and a deeper seal, the Lil’ Jamz become usable and, at times, enjoyable. The bass is clearly several notches above baseline in quantity but the Lil’ Jamz aren’t bass monsters. Low notes are impactful but soft and rounded – not particularly tight but not flabby, either. Extension is impressive, easily dropping below 30Hz, and there is no mid-bass bloat but the low end of the Lil’ Jamz still yields to the Turbines as well as direct competitors such as the Thinksound TS02 and ViSang R03 in fullness, texture, and detail. However, more mainstream competitors such as the Sennheiser CX300 and Skullcandy FMJ show the appeal of the Lil’ Jamz to the general populace as a fully-fledged upgrade from these consumer-grade in-ears.

The bass imparts a very slight bit of warmth on the lower midrange but is counterbalanced by the bright and prominent treble. On the whole, the earphones still possess a fairly cool tone. The midrange is slightly recessed and surprisingly clear – perhaps even more so than that of the Turbines – but lacks weight and texture. On the whole the Lil’ Jamz sound fairly thin for a Monster earphone. There is noticeable stridency towards the top of the midrange, which is alleviated slightly with aftermarket tips and putting some hours on the drivers. On occasion the earphones still hit a note jarringly hard for my liking, especially on female vocals.

The treble, too, exhibits some odd traits, namely ringing and resonance that I haven’t heard from an IEM since I sold my Grado iGi. I found the response so uneven that I ran them through a tone generator. I generally only trust my ears to about 6dB so in order for me to call something a ‘spike’ or ‘hump’ it has to be pretty noticeable, and there are definitely several of those between 4 and 12 kHz, giving the Lil’ Jamz an odd ‘nasal’ quality. On the upside, treble extension is decent with the earphones staying strong into the upper 14 kHz range – on-par with the ViSang R03 and a bit poorer than the Fischer Audio Eterna.

In terms of presentation the Lil’ Jamz sound distant and overly separated with the stock tips – like two point sources outside of one’s head. With proper tips they can be made intimate enough to be enjoyable but still don’t have the three-dimensional immersion of something like the ViSang R03 - their sound is more tunnel-like in nature: wide but lacking in height and depth. It is well-separated and the excellent clarity helps with the imaging and air. Overall not a bad presentation that reminds me of the Meelectronics M6 but with a more intense coloration - partly the result of the greater ‘sparkle’ of the Lil’ Jamz.

Value (7/10) – Contrary to my expectations, the Lil’ Jamz are not a low-budget version of the Monster Turbine earphones, offering instead a heavily colored, sparkly sound signature closer to something I’d expect from Denon or JVC. To be honest, I’m very surprised at the positive press that the Lil’ Jamz enjoy on sites like CNET and Amazon – the signature is not what I would consider ‘mainstream’. Regardless, the Lil’ Jamz are another decent, if slightly overpriced, earphone from Monster. The discreet design, unobtrusive form factor, and soft cable make them a pleasure to use while out and about and, while the weak plug casing and poor stock tips detract from the value somewhat, Monster does provide a generous 3-year warranty for the Lil’ Jamz and aftermarket tips really aren’t that difficult to find.

Pros: Comfortable, handsome and understated design, user-friendly cable, impressive clarity & sparkle, 3-year warranty
Cons: Minor construction issues, needs aftermarket tips, heavily colored sound


 

(2C25) Nuforce NE-700X / NE-700M

Reviewed Jan 2011

Details: Flagship in-ear from one of Head-Fi’s favorite brands
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $65); $79 for NE-700X version w/mic
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.8’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 4.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2.5/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) and triple-flange silicone tips, soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (4/5) – The metal housings are very solid and there are no visible seams – a welcome change from the original Nuforce NE-7M, which had a tendency to come unglued. The unique strain reliefs grip the circumference of the shell but can probably be damaged if tugged hard enough. A small red ring around the right strain relief takes the place of L/R indicators. The cable is rubbery, uncharacteristically long, and equipped with beefy metal-and-rubber y-split and an equally beefy metal-jacketed 3.5mm plug
Isolation (3/5) – The bulky housings prevent deep insertion and are vented like most dynamics, resulting in average isolation
Microphonics (4/5) – Annoying when worn cable-down; not bad with over-the-ear fitment
Comfort (3.5/5) – The shells are surprisingly large for an earphone with 8mm drivers and won’t work for everyone, at least not with single-flange tips. The rear edge of the shells can push against the outer ear and the edges are fairly sharp but comfort is still decent on the whole

Sound (7.3/10) – Nuforce first entered the IEM arena more than two years ago with the NE-7M and NE-8 models – one a conventional-fit iPhone-compatible earphone with a bass-heavy sound signature and intense tonal coloration and the other an ‘audiophile’ over-the-ear model with impressive clarity and anemic bass. While the NE-8 all but faded into obscurity, the NE-7M thrived, giving rise to a microphone-less offspring (the NE-6) and gaining a large following. It is no surprise, then, that the NE-700X, as the model numbering implies, borrows far more heavily from the NE-7 than the NE-8. Its bass is nice and full, placing plenty of weight on individual notes and contending with the best of the rest in impact and power. Extension is quite good, with a solid bit of rumble at the bottom and nearly as much depth as the Fischer Audio Eterna – enough to satisfy all but the most serious bassheads without losing resolution. Low-end detail and texture are solid as well – the bass of the NE-700X really isn’t the quickest in the realm of <$100 dynamics but it’s not downright bloated, either, and the impact doesn’t obscure low-end detailing. It can be a little excessive at times for my taste but switching to a slightly shallower fit helps balance the NE-700X out.

There’s a tinge of bass bleed to the midrange but nothing offensive – just enough to give the NE-700X a bit of coloration and warmth. The mids are generally smooth and a bit thick. Overall balance is good but the bass of the NE-700X makes the mids and treble sound slightly recessed. As with the Eterna and the new Meelectronics CC51, the clarity of the NE-700X is good for a thicker-sounding, bass-heavy set but not as striking as that of the mid-forward M2 or treble-heavy RE0 despite the decent overall balance and highly resolving nature of the Nuforces. Detail and texture are good but I feel that the Xcape still reveals more microdetail at the expense of sounding slightly more etched than the NE-700. The treble transition is mostly free of harshness and sibilance once the drivers have a few hours on them. In terms of emphasis the high end is about even with the midrange but treble presentation is slightly laid-back. There is a small amount of sparkle and extension is very reasonable but the NE-700X is softer-sounding at the high end than the Xcape or Eterna and slightly dark on the whole.

When it comes to presentation, the NE-700X impresses with its consistency and well-roundedness. It doesn’t have the spaciousness of the Eterna or the airiness of the Phiaton PS 20 but still sounds fairly natural. The soundstage has good width and good depth, beating out the similarly-priced Brainwavz M2 and keeping up with the pricier M3. Combined with the smooth and crisp sound signature, the soundstage of the NE-700X makes for an involving, if not very aggressive, experience. That said, I still feel that like the old NE-7M, the NE-700X puts the fun factor first and absolute accuracy second – not that there’s anything wrong with that. Interestingly, the NE-700X is still engaging and enjoyable at lower listening volumes, which is not something I can say for the Dre Beats Tour or even Monster Turbines. Lastly, while the NE-700X does not need an external amplifier, it is a bit less efficient than the average mid-range dynamic - the Brainwavz earphones, Phiaton PS 20, and Eterna all reach high output levels more easily that than the Nuforces.

Value (8.5/10) – Taking the general formula of the ever-popular NE-7M and improving on it in pretty much every way, the Nuforce NE-700X is an extremely competitive earphone, with build quality and all-around usability to match the impressive sound quality, all at a very reasonable price. While the NE-700X doesn’t break any barriers sonically, it combines many positive traits – traits that wouldn’t have scored as highly on their own - in a single and very coherent package, all the while sounding more natural on the whole compared to its predecessor. Personally, I find the NE-700X a bit too bassy for its own good but, as an earphone aimed at the consumer market, perhaps the NE-700X is better off not appealing to me at all.

Pros: Well-built; deep, impactful bass; well-rounded presentation
Cons: May be uncomfortable for those with smaller ears; not for those in search of neutrality or balance


Special thanks to slntdth93 for the NE-700X audition


(2C26) MEElectronics A151 / A151P

Reviewed Jan 2011

 

Details: First armature-based earphone from MEElec
Current Price: $75 from meelec.com (MSRP: $74.99); $80 for A151P w/mic & 1-button remote
Specs: Driver: BA | Imp: 27Ω | Sens: 111 dB | Freq: 15-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 3mm | Preferred tips: Stock bi-flange, stock tri-flange, Sony Hybrids
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (4/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes), bi-flange, and tri-flange silicone tips and zippered clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – The housings are plastic but seem quite sturdy. A short sleeve protects the braided cable, which is by far the best thing about the earphones. The cord soft, flexible, and very light – a pleasure to use while out and about. The straight plug is quite generic but has adequate strain relief
Isolation (3.5/5) – The nozzles are thinner than those of the other Meelec earphones and despite the bulbous housings, the A151 can be inserted pretty deeply. Isolation is very impressive with the bi- and tri-flange tips
Microphonics (5/5) – The flexible braided cable carries very little noise when worn cord-down and none with over-the-ear wear

 

Comfort (4.5/5) – Though the A151 was designed for comfortable over-the-ear wear, it can be worn cable-down as well. Either way the nozzles are angled and of adequate length and the housings are rounded at the front for comfortable insertion. The light and unobtrusive cables helps make the A151 a pleasure to wear

Sound (7.4/10) – The mid-range IEM market has undergone some drastic changes in the past year and half, not the least of which has been the rapid influx of high-performance dynamic-driver earphones. Back when the <150 segment was dominated by the likes of the Westone UM1, Shure E3, UE SuperFi 3, and Ety ER6, single-armature was the de-facto standard in the price range. Despite the relatively high cost and some inherent limitations of single-armature designs, there is still much to like about such setups. Armature-based earphones are rarely lacking in control or clarity and have some practical advantages, such as the ability to function in a fully sealed chamber. All this can be said about the new A151 from MEElectronics, a single-armature design priced to compete with the likes of the Soundmagic PL50, Westone 1, and Ultimate Ears SuperFi 5.

Starting at the low end, the A151 immediately takes on typical armature characteristics – speed, control, and clarity to match the best earphones in the price bracket. Bass impact is just ahead of the Head-Direct RE0 and on-par with the Sunrise Xcape. Bass depth and extension aren’t competitive with bass-heavy dynamics like the Eterna, Nuforce NE-700X, or MEElec’s own CC51 but control and texture are very impressive. As with most single armatures, the driver struggles to remain detailed at the limit of its sub-bass response but, as with the pricier Westone 1, there is a bit of added mid-bass punch compared to the Soundmagic PL50 or UE SuperFi 5. The slight bit of added punch makes the A151 somewhat warm for an armature and there is a very slight lower-midrange bias. Despite this, the A151 sounds very accurate and carries good detail and texture through both the bass and the midrange. The mids are fairly well-balanced – not too forward, but definitely not recessed. Clarity is similar to the Head-Direct earphones but the A151 lacks the added bit of brightness resulting from the emphasized treble of the RE0 and RE-ZERO. It is also a touch less crisp, producing smoother, thicker, slightly less transparent notes.

The treble transition is smooth and neither harshness nor sibilance is present. The treble itself is clean, clear, laid-back, and low on sparkle. The detail is there but it presented in a very non-fatiguing way. Compared to the brighter RE-ZERO, the darker A151 is less airy but also less fatiguing. Treble extension is mediocre and treble emphasis is no match for higher-end, more balanced armature-based sets such as the Ety HF3. There is also a bit of grain at the very top, likely resulting from the armature running out of steam at the very limit of its response range, but on the whole the A151 is rather soft-spoken for an armature-based earphone. The soundstage is similar in size to the Sunrise Xcape and Head-Direct RE-ZERO – not large but well-rounded and coherent. Instrumental separation and positioning are similarly good without being unnaturally exaggerated. Looking at the entire hierarchy of BA-based IEMs, the A151 reminds me most of the Klipsch Custom 3 – both have that slightly thick, dry, and full-bodied sound with an aversion to brightness and listening fatigue and a well-balanced presentation.

Value (9/10) – MEElec’s first armature-based earphone may not break any new sonic ground with its dry and accurate sound signature, but it delivers a very wholesome package of sound quality and functionality at a very reasonable price. The cable may just be the best I’ve seen on a sub-$100 earphone and the isolation, microphonics, and comfort all make the A151 a direct competitor of the much-pricier but similarly well-designed Westone 1. Fans of bassy, trebly, v-shaped, or mid-forward sound signatures would probably want to pick something else as the A151 is none of those things but if accuracy and low listening fatigue are priorities, the A151 competes with some of the better earphones in its price range.

Pros: High isolation, very comfortable with the right tips, excellent cable, solid sonic characteristics
Cons: N/A

 

 

(2C27) ECCI PR401

Reviewed Jan 2011

 

Details: Flagship earphone from China-based hi-fi manufacturer ECCI
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $75)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32Ω | Sens: 103 dB | Freq: 10-20k Hz | Cable: 4.5’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges, Sony Hybrids
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), shirt clip, and large clamshell carrying case (extra Sony Hybrid tips included when purchased from lendmeurears.com)
Build Quality (4/5) – As with all of the other ECCI earphones, the housings of the PR401 are made of aluminum and feel quite sturdy. In terms of size, the shells of the PR401 are surprisingly shallow – a bit more than two times smaller than those of the Nuforce NE-700. The thin and narrow flat cable is lightweight and strong enough but slightly more tangle-prone than the thicker flat cables of the Sony XB40EX or Dre Beats Tour
Isolation (3/5) – The short shells of the PR401 may hinder deep insertion for some but I get pretty good isolation for a vented dynamic with the ECCIs
Microphonics (3.5/5) – The thin and flat cable carries a good bit of noise when worn straight-down but isn’t as difficult to route over-the-ear as with other flat-cable earphones. The included shirt clip helps as well
Comfort (4/5) – The housings are lightweight and quite small. They are also quite short and not at all conducive to deep insertion but the PR401 sounds fine with a shallower fit

Sound (7.7/10) – I’ve been a big fan of the PR-series earphones since before the ECCI brand split off from its parent company, well-known Chinese amp manufacturer Cyclone. After the rebrand, ECCI immediately released the PR100 and PR200 which, while very solid all-rounders, never impressed me as much as the old PR1 and PR2 when it came to overall refinement. The PR300 came later and spiced up the sound of the PR200 by adding a slight bit of boost in the bass and treble regions. Still, the PR300 failed to capture the spacious feel and incredible detail of the old PR1 Pro. The PR401, however, as the model number indicates, adds another level of performance to the PR300 plus a little something on top – a ‘wow’ factor, if you will.

At the bottom end the PR401 resembles the PR300, offering punchy, emphasized mid-bass falling between the Fischer Silver Bullet and Brainwavz M2 in quantity. The bass response is full-bodied and impactful but at the same time well-controlled and quite accurate. As with the PR300, bass is not the sole focus of the PR401 but there is more than enough to make for a fun listening experience. The bass emphasis does give a very slight bit of warmth to the lower mids but the bright treble acts as a good counterbalance. The midrange itself is slightly recessed next to the bass and treble but is free of bass bleed and retains good detail and clarity. Instruments sound crisp and natural and vocals have decent energy even next to the mid-forward M2. Unlike the even more v-shaped Klipsch S4, the PR401 never sounds thin and remains smooth throughout the upper midrange and lower treble. There is still a good bit of treble emphasis and sparkle is plentiful. The treble is clear, crisp, and detailed, with surprisingly good (though not RE0-good) extension up top.

My favourite aspect of the PR401, however, is the presentation, which finally re-captures the spaciousness and realism of the old PR1 Pro. The soundstage has great depth and good width and the added treble emphasis gives the PR401 a slightly bright overall tone and an airy feel. As with the old PR1, the PR401 does a good job with layering and positioning, tracking multiple instruments very well for a mid-range earphone without sounding thin or disjointed. On the whole, I would say that the PR401, in both balance and presentation, is the mid-range equivalent of JVC’s much-pricier HA-FX700 woody. Sure, the PR401 doesn’t quite keep up in detail or refinement and lacks both the convincing timbre and incredible positioning precision of the $350 JVCs, but there certainly isn’t a more logical top-tier upgrade to the PR401 than the FX700.

Value (9/10) – The ECCI PR401 is another one for the growing list of truly excellent mid-range earphones coming out of the increasing competition in the market segment. In contrast to the Brainwavz line and Fischer Audio earphones, the PR401 is faintly v-shaped in response, emphasizing bass and treble slightly over the midrange. It also borrows a trick or two from the old Cyclone earphones, bringing to the table a spacious and airy presentation with good separation and impressive imaging. With comfort, isolation, and build quality to match, the PR401 is a very impressive package and a fairly unique alternative to the multitude of excellent choices already on the market.

Pros: Impressive sound quality & presentation, compact form factor, great all-around usability
Cons: Cable can be tangle-prone



(2C28) MEElectronics SP51

Reviewed Feb 2011

Details: Mid-range dynamic IEM from Meelectronics boasting ‘Sound Preference’ tuning technology
Current Price: N/A (discontinued)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 100 dB | Freq: 15-20k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips, shirt clip, hard clamshell carrying case, and Sound Preference tuning ports (3 sets)
Build Quality (4/5) – The SP51 uses metal housings with screw-in rear ports identical to those of the Hippo VB, though Meelec chose to add a mesh filter to the nozzle. The clear cabling is typical Meelec – more supple and yet thicker than the rubbery cords used by Hippo and terminated with a nice L-plug
Isolation (3/5) – Fairly average due to large rear vent but good enough for daily use
Microphonics (4/5) – Quite good with cable-down wear, nonexistent with over-the-ear fitment
Comfort (3.5/5) – The SP51s are typical straight-barrel IEMS but the housings aren’t small or rounded at the front, resulting in relatively shallow fitment. The cord is rather flexible and wearing them over-the-ear is easy enough

Sound (6.9/10) – Though the SP51 uses the same housings as the Hippo VB, the 10mm drivers chosen by Meelec are unrelated to those selected by Hippo and result in a substantially different sound signature. The ‘Sound Preference’ tuning system is analogous to Hippo’s ‘Variable Bass’ tuning and consists of three interchangeable screw-in rear ports. Unlike the 1-dot, 2-dot, and 3-dot ports used by the VB, the ports of the SP51 are characterized by their color – black (“extreme bass”), gun metal (“enhanced bass”), and silver (“balanced”). The black port is an open vent and provides the maximum amount of bass (though not as much as leaving the earphones open at the rear, which is not recommended as it hurts definition across the range). I am not a huge fan of the ‘extreme bass’ configuration as it takes away much of the bite of the SP51, reducing bass definition as well as crispness in the other frequencies. The silver and gun metal ports both feature the same vent as the black port but with a different acoustic filter placed in front of it. The silver port, dubbed ‘balanced’ by Meelec, is my favourite of the three. The gun metal one, dubbed ‘enhanced bass’, hypes up the bass and adds some emphasis to the lower treble, The gun metal port will appeal to those looking for more of an M6/M9-type sound from the SP51 and may as well have been called the ‘fun’ port. I feel that it is the silver and gun metal ports that best exemplify the technical capabilities of the SP51 while the black port sacrifices too much resolution to deliver huge amounts of soft-edged impact.

As with so many mainstream earphones, the SP51 was designed to first and foremost satisfy the bass lover. Even in the balanced, silver-port configuration, the bass of the SP51 is above baseline and slightly more prominent than with the lower-end CX21 model. With the gun metal and black ports, the bass quantity of the SP51 competes with Meelec’s M-series earphones as well as sets like the Sennheiser IE6 and Thinksound TS02 – earphones that I can call ‘bass-heavy’ without thinking twice. Most of the emphasis is on the mid-bass frequencies but low end extension is quite good as well. What’s more interesting is the character of the SP51’s bass. It is soft and round rather than sharp and punchy, giving up a bit of speed and quick attack/decay times for smoothness. It also tends towards ‘boomy’ as the amount of air allowed to escape form the rear vent is increased. In the ‘balanced’ configuration there is slightly more impact to the bass than there is texture and note but since the bass is kept well in check, this isn’t a problem. However, the bass-heavy configuration seems to amplify both aspects equally, resulting in a whole lot of air being moved but only moderate levels of texture. On extremely fast tracks this kind of presentation can get the best of any earphone and the SP51 is no exception – the huge amount of impact can get smeared with the black filters.

In the balanced configuration, the midrange of the earphones is ever so slightly recessed but the laid-back nature of the bass makes this a non-issue. With the ‘fun’ and ‘bass-heavy’ filters, the midrange recession becomes slightly more noticeable and bass bleed – slightly more likely. However, next to sets such as the Fischer Audio Eterna, the SP51 is still a well-balanced earphone. The boost in the lower midrange with the black and gun metal filters results in vocals being given a bit of extra fullness and microdetail is slightly smoothed-over on the whole. Next to Meelec’s own CC51, the SP51 sounds somewhat distant and lacks most of the warmth and thickness that make the CC51 sound so ‘creamy’. It’s no surprise, then, that the cheaper SP51 can keep up with the CC51 in clarity, though the 6mm microdriver used in the ceramics has better detail and resolution.

It’s worth noting that that out of the box my pair of SP51s was unpleasantly sibilant – bad enough for me to forego using the earphones completely for the first 50 hours. I can still hear a touch of sibilance out of them on certain tracks with the gun metal-colored rear port but not with the silver one, which I prefer, or the bass-heavy black one. With the silver plate in place, the treble of the SP51 is clear and articulate. It won’t keep up with the armature-based A151 in detail but performs fairly well for a mid-range dynamic-driver earphone, much like that of the UE500 or Thinksound TS02. Extension is reasonably good and the earphones tend to sound airy no matter which tuning ports are used. The overall presentation of the SP51 is spacious and competent. Though the SP51 has better soundstage width than the CC51, it is slightly more vague when it comes to positioning. The CC51, while a bit intimate on the whole, presents music more coherently and three-dimensionally. The SP51, on the other hand, is reminiscent of Meelec’s aging M9 - airy and spacious but wider than it is deep and not pinpoint-accurate. It’s a fitting presentation for the type of smooth, slightly boomy sound that the SP51 puts out but competing with the higher-end CC51 and A151 in accuracy was obviously not on the agenda when the earphone was tuned.

Value (8/10) – Though the Hippo VB may seem like the most natural point of comparison for Meelec’s new tunable earphone, it is quite obvious that the SP51 pursues a slightly different signature – one that emphasizes mid-bass at its bassiest and nothing at its most balanced. Though the ports of the SP51 seem more potent at shaping its sound signature than those of the hippo VB, it still is not quite the 3-in-1 earphone many budget-minded music lovers might hope for. Still, rather than simply pick one port and stick with it, I imagine some may alternate between two of the three. For me, the silver “balanced” port edges out the gun metal “enhanced bass” port slightly, though many will find the SP51 to be lacking impact in this configuration. With the “enhanced bass” port, the SP51 can be considered a less v-shaped and more refined upgrade to the popular M9 and M6 models but the black “extreme bass” port sacrifices too much tightness in favor of bass ‘boom’ in my opinion. Ultimately, the SP51 makes a good entry-level set for those curious to play with the balance of an earphone and, while it won’t quite keep up with the Hippo VB when both earphones perform at their best, the SP51 is cheaper, more readily available, and backed by Meelec’s excellent warranty and customer service. Add to that the superior cable of the Meelec version and the option of having the iPhone-compatible SP51P for $10 more and the SP51 starts to make sense in terms of value-for-money.

Pros: Tunable sound signature
Cons: Mediocre isolation, bass tends towards 'boomy' on extreme bass setting



(2C29) MEElectronics CC51

Reviewed Feb 2011

Details: Ceramic-shelled flagship of Meelec’s ‘clarity’ series
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $79.99); $90 for CC51P with microphone
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16 Ω | Sens: 98 dB | Freq: 18-20k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 6mm | Preferred tips: Stock single flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips, shirt clip, and hard clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The CC51 uses ceramic housings – a first for an earphone readily available in the US (Nakamichi’s ceramics have been available overseas for quite some time). Slightly resembling those of Apple’s dual-driver monitors, the shells of the CC51 are slim and ergonomic. The 6mm driver sits right in the nozzle (as with the JVC and Hippo microdriver earphones) and is protected by a fine mesh filter. Very mild driver flex is present on occasion. The shells have a nice weight to them and the cable is protected by a short strain relief (which has hard-to-see L/R markings stamped into it). The cable is different from the other Meelec earphones and more similar to the one found on the HT-21 headphone. It’s supple and tangle-resistant but thinner than the usual clear-coated Meelec cords. An L-plug completes the picture. Warning: the earphones ship with a shirt clip already on the cord. Extreme care should be taken when it is removed as its sharp edges can shear the cord quite badly
Isolation (3.5/5) – The housings are vented on the side but allow for relatively deep insertion and isolation is quite good overall
Microphonics (4/5) – Decent when worn cable-down but the curved shells are less than ideal for over-the-ear wear so microphonics aren’t as easy to eliminate completely as I would like
Comfort (4/5) – The slim, angled shells are very ergonomic and quite unobtrusive. The 6mm drivers of the earphones do need to be inside the ear canal for the CC51 to sound their best so those with extremely narrow canals may want to give these a pass but for everyone else they should be quite comfortable

Sound (7.7/10) – The CC51 is the pinnacle of Meelec’s new ‘clarity’ series and - judging by the MSRP – of the company’s entire model range. From the get-go the earphones exhibit the type of smooth and well-balanced sound that I found so easy to like with the Xears TD100. The bass is tight but impactful, boasting good depth and speed along with realistic attack and decay times. Impact quantity and bass body beat out the lower-end CW31 but fall a tad behind the ECCI PR401 and Xears TD-III, allowing the CC51 to maintain impressive resolution at the low end without being labeled lean or anemic.

The midrange is warm and very smooth. Like the Xears TD100 and TD-III, the CC51 has a slight thickness of note and generally sounds lush and full-bodied. Though the signature of the earphones may make it seem like the CC51 is a misuse of the ‘clarity’ label on Meelec’s part, the natural clarity of the tiny dynamic drivers is surprisingly good, as it has been with all of the microdriver earphones I’ve tried. Whereas the thickness of the TD100 put its clarity just below competitors from Brainwavz and Hippo, the CC51, despite similar note thickness, ranks just above them. It is also slightly clearer than the entry-level CX21 without sounding nearly as lean – an impressive feat considering that clarity is the CX21’s main focus. Detail and texture are good as well – for a warm-and-smooth earphone the CC51 is quite crisp and resolving. Harshness and sibilance are absent from the upper midrange and lower treble, though with a couple of tracks I felt that they could be pushed over the line at very high volumes. Again reminding me of the Xears TD100, the CC51 is very slightly laid-back at the top – not enough for it to be called recessed or for the overall tone to become dark but enough that the earphone derives no artificial clarity or airiness from the top end.

The presentation of the CC51 is slightly on the intimate side but very enveloping and coherent. Soundstage width and depth are about average but the CC51 can also portray a bit height – something most earphones struggle with. Layering and imaging are not pinpoint-accurate but still quite precise for a mid-range earphone. Instrumental separation is also good and the CC51 never sounds congested. There’s a slight lack of air and openness in the upper registers due to the laid-back nature of the treble but this is only noticeable next to something like the RE-ZERO – on its own the CC51 does not sound stuffy in the least. The timbre and dynamics of the earphones are also worth mentioning as both are above-average for models in the price range and remind me of the Brainwavz M3 or even Panasonic HJE900s. Overall, I feel that the sound signature of theCC51 is a little better than the sum of its parts, being a clear and yet strangely musical experience. As always, I cannot attribute the timbre, dynamics, clarity, or any other aspect of the signature to the ceramic housings (not unless I had an identical earphone made out of plastic to use as a control) but it just so happens that the CC51 is a solid all-around performer regardless.

Value (9/10) – Over the past three years, we have watched the transformation of Meelectronics from a small electronics supplier with a single decent $20 earphone to one of Head-Fi’s favourite budget IEM manufacturers. The company’s new ceramic flagship, priced to compete directly with some very serious mid-fi performers from companies such as HiFiMan, ViSang, and ECCI, aims higher still. Happily, the 6mm microdrivers used in the CC51 are impressive in their own right, offering plenty of clarity and resolution on top of a smooth, warm, and well-balanced sound signature. The ceramic housings are pleasant to touch, sturdy, and quite comfortable, though perhaps not for those with extremely narrow ear canals, and the earphones are generally quite user-friendly. Those who can live with their few minor quirks are sure to be impressed.

Pros: Impactful bass, good natural clarity, smooth & balanced sound signature
Cons: Very mild driver flex; not for those with very narrow ear canals; removing shirt clip may be hazardous to the cable; L/R markings can be hard to see under low light

 

 

(2C30) Phiaton PS 20

Reviewed Feb 2011


Details: Phiaton’s mid-range ‘half in-ear’ model
Current Price: $79 from amazon.com (MSRP: $99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 31Ω | Sens: 101 dB | Freq: 15-22k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges, Sony Hybrids
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2.5/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (4 sizes) and soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (4/5) – The design of the PS 20 is an interesting one, with a bit of unprotected cable showing between the metal bits past the beefy strain relief and ergonomically-angled asymmetric shells. There is a second, smaller strain relief on the 3.5mm plug but none on the cable’s metal y-split. The cable itself is average in thickness but doesn’t tangle much and handles kinks well
Isolation (2/5) – As with the PS 210, the half in-ear design of the PS 20 drops isolation down into mediocrity, though aftermarket biflange tips can be used for a deeper seal. Phiaton does offer a pricier active noise-cancelling version, the PS 20 NC
Microphonics (4/5) – Very low but the PS 20 cannot be worn over-the-ear very easily so cable noise is difficult to eliminate completely
Comfort (4/5) – The Phiaton PS 20 is a ‘half in-ear’ design, meaning that the earphone fits like a conventional earbud but has a nozzle protruding into the ear canal. The earpieces are ergonomic and relatively lightweight but the sheer size of the drivers will make them uncomfortable for those with smaller outer ears. Those who generally find in-ear earphones unpleasant, however, may actually be able to tolerate the PS 20 due to the shallow fit of the earbud-inspired form factor

Sound (7.6/10) – Each model of Phiaton’s in-ear range is unique in its own way. The flagship PS 200 is fast, accurate, and bright. The mid-range PS 210 is spacious, ambient, and very well-balanced. What was missing until now is the opposite end of the spectrum – a warm and bass-heavy in-ear earphone – the new PS 20. The bass of the PS 20 is robust yet pleasant. Low notes are full-bodied and well-weighted, with plenty of impact and a tiny bit of ‘boom’ to the bass. Extension on the low end is moderate, with the otherwise extremely competent bass presentation missing a bit of rumble at the lowest of lows. On tracks that call for it, the bass of the PS 20 can be quite aggressive – easily on-par with the popular Klipsch S4 and Sennheiser IE6 earphones in impact but missing a tiny bit of depth. What’s impressive, however, is how small an effect the punchy bass has on the midrange. The midrange one of the most enthralling aspects of the PS 20’s sound - clean, smooth, and articulate, it is neither too forward nor too recessed in the overall presentation. The bass weight does impart a small amount of warmth on the mids but overall transparency is still impressive – a trait the PS 20 shares with the older PS 210. Vocals come through with authority and surprising clarity for such a large driver – absolutely no veil is present with the PS 20. The texture and microdetail, on the other hand, suffer slightly in comparison to the similarly-priced RE-ZERO and Sunrise Xcape but the greater smoothness of the PS 20 is likely a worthy tradeoff for most users.

The treble is laid-back and inoffensive. Harshness and sibilance are absent altogether but those looking for a bright and sparkly sound will want to look elsewhere – overall the PS 20 leans towards a darker tonal balance. There is nothing missing from the top end of the PS 20 – detail, clarity, and extension are all reasonably good for the asking price - but compared to the similarly-priced Etymotic Research MC5, RE0, or Xcape treble energy is lower by a significant amount. On the upside, those who find themselves easily fatigued by prominent treble will love the PS 20.

We come now to the presentation – quite possibly the most impressive trait of the PS 20. Being a half in-ear design, the PS20 doesn’t sound as ‘in-the-head’ as most entry-level in-ears. Instead, the presentation is spacious and more earbud-like in nature. The soundstage has good width and depth and – surprisingly –good height as well. Whereas other in-ears have a tendency to sound ‘tubular’ – i.e. portraying left-right distance well but staying near the horizontal axis at all times – the PS 20 sounds immersive and engrossing. It is neither too intimate nor too distant and the excellent clarity helps it separate out individual instruments. Positioning and imaging are not as precise as with the flagship PS 200 but reasonably good for the price – it can sometimes be difficult to place instruments in the sonic space but the basic distance-and-direction cues are there - it really takes a very congested track to throw the PS 20 off balance.

Value (8.5/10) – The PS 20 is yet another impressive entry from the upmarket audio firm, retaining the overall sound quality of the pricier PS 210 but heading in a more mainstream direction with the signature. Aside from having the strongest and most full-bodied bass of Phiaton’s in-ear range, the PS 20 impresses with the clear, transparent midrange and spacious, engrossing presentation. The size of the housings may be an issue for those with smaller ears and the isolation is expectedly mediocre but those who do not mind the form factor are sure to be impressed.

Pros: Well-weighted and punchy bass; very immersive presentation
Cons: May be uncomfortable for those with smaller outer ears; mediocre isolation


(2C31) Pioneer SE-CLX60


Reviewed Feb 2011

 

Details: Mid-range IEM from Pioneer commonly mis-advertised as a ‘Flex Nozzle’ design
Current Price: $95 from iheadphones.co.uk (MSRP: $99.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 5-25k Hz | Cable: 4.4’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrid
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (2/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (4 sizes) and shirt clip
Build Quality (4/5) – Though Pioneer advertises the CLX60 as having ‘aluminum housings’, it is only the rear part of the shells that is aluminum. The front half, including the nozzle, is plastic and the protrusion on the side of the housings is made of hard rubber. In addition to conventional L/R markings and the asymmetric design, the CLX60 also has a red filter on the right-side nozzle (a-la Earjax Tonix) for easy identification. The cable is reasonably sturdy and very well-relieved but feels plasticky and has a bit of memory character
Isolation (3/5) – Average due to large size and vented housings
Microphonics (4/5) – Quite low with cable-down wear; nonexistent when worn cord-up
Comfort (3.5/5) – Though Pioneer advertises the CLX60 as a ‘Flex Nozzle’ design (a-la CLX50), the nozzles are actually fixed-angle and don’t flex at all. The only thing that flexes (barely) is the rubber extension on the side of the housings, which is designed to hold the earphones in place and cannot be removed by design. The shells of the CLX60 are quite large (about 40% larger than those of the RE0 in every dimension) but light and not uncomfortable. Though the ear hook does keep the CLX60 in place quite well, my ears get sore in 2-3 hours from the pressure exerted by the housings, partly due to the nozzles not being angled enough for my liking

Sound (7.2/10) – Though the general sound signature of the CLX60 is not all that different from the lower-end CLX50, there is one marked difference between the two – the amount of bass boost present. While the CLX50 can easily be called bass-heavy, the bass of the CLX60 is on-par with reasonably balanced sets such as the Meelec CC51 and Fischer Audio Silver Bullet. I find it interesting that Pioneer chose the CLX50 to be its flagship in the US market and not the more balanced CLX60 but perhaps the decision had nothing to do with the earphones’ sonic characteristics. In general, the low end of the CLX60 is tight and punchy. Compared to the lower-end model, the CLX60 is missing a bit of bass body, sounding leaner and thinner both at the low end and in the midrange. As a result, the overall bass quantity of the CLX60 seems to be only slightly greater than with the HiFiMan RE-ZERO despite the noticeably greater impact.

On the upside, the bass does not bleed into the midrange, which is crisp, smooth, and very clear. Though the entire midrange is slightly forward compared to the bass, the upper midrange is particularly strong and the overall balance reminds me of the Maximo iM-590. Guitars are given ample bite and most vocals come across with authority. The accentuated upper midrange gives the headphones a bright overall tone and draws more attention to the clarity. Transparency is quite decent as well and there is absolutely no veil over the mids. Unlike the iM-590, which can be a tiny bit sibilant, the treble of the CLX60 smoothes out before sibilance can become an issue all the while maintaining a high level of treble sparkle. Treble clarity and extension are again quite good just as they are with the cheaper CLX50.

The presentation, too, is reminiscent of the CLX50 – the earphones sound very airy and the soundstage has good width and decent depth. Instrumental separation and positioning are both quite impressive for a mid-range dynamic though there seems to be an inner limit to the soundstage. On the whole, the CLX60 is a competent performer – not neutral by any means but fun in a bright-and-colored way. The sound signature can get tiring after a while and the timbre is a tad off to my ears, putting the CLX60 in the same boat as the Denon AH-C710 and Monster Lil’ Jamz, but after listening to more conventional dynamic-driver earphones, the Pioneers are at the very least unique and refreshing. Also worth mentioning is the bit of background hiss exhibited by the CLX60 with most portable amps and DACs – in daily use the CLX60 appears a bit more sensitive than the specs imply.

Value (7.5/10) – With the SE-CLX60 boasting superior ergonomics, solid overall sound quality, and a more unique sound signature compared to the lower-end CLX50, I can only assume that Pioneer made the CLX50 their US flagship by some freak clerical error. Though the CLX60 has little going for it in terms of accessories, the build quality is good and microphonics are quite low, making the earphone well-suited for day-to-day use. The sound signature is interesting as well – well-balanced and spacious with emphasis on the upper midrange and a brighter overall tone. It's worth noting that the sheer size of the shells may lead to fit problems for some and there are ergonomically-designed earphones with better nozzle angles out there. As a total package, however, the CLX60 is quite good for an earphone from a mainstream manufacturer and may be worth a look for those who don’t have to import it.

Pros: Far less asinine in design than CLX50; well-built; low cable noise; interesting sound signature and competent sound quality
Cons: Quite large; meager accessories


Big thanks to jant71 for the SE-CLX60 loan

 

 

 

(2C32) Woodees IESW100L Blues

Reviewed Mar 2011

 

Details: Woodees' follow-up to the IESW101B model, featuring updated construction and a 3-button iPhone remote
Current Price: $80 from amazon.com (MSRP: $129.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3/5) - Single-flange silicone tips (4 sizes), shirt clip, and velour drawstring carrying pouch
Build Quality (3.5/5) - Though the housings of the Blues are still the same size and shape as those of the original Woodees, the cheap-looking orange accents have been replaced with sturdier-looking gold-plated metal bits and the wooden part of the housings has been painted black. The Woodees logo, which rubbed off far too easily on the old model, has been moved to the strain relief and L/R markings have been left out completely. The striped nylon-sheathed cord is one of the better cloth-type cords I’ve come across – soft and flexible but prone to neither kinking nor tangling. The cable is protected by long rubber sleeves and features a sliding cinch and gold-plated Y-split and 3.5mm plug. Mild driver flex is present upon insertion
Isolation (3/5) – Limited by the size of the housings but quite decent for everyday use
Microphonics (4/5) – Very mild when worn cord-down, nonexistent otherwise
Comfort (3.5/5) – The housings of the Blues are rather large and heavier than those of the old model. Those with smaller ears may have trouble getting a good fit but the earphones can be worn comfortably over-the-ear despite the longer strain reliefs

Sound (6.9/10) – The sound signature of the Woodees Blues is on the balanced side of things – a contrast to the bass-heavy sound produced by the majority of most wooden earphones. The bass trails the similarly-priced Thinksound TS02 noticeably when it comes to depth and rumble, which is not to say that the Woodees are anemic in the least. Their bass is still very present and full-bodied – even a bit boomy at times - with plenty of impact and good clarity and articulation. The TS02 simply has an easier time portraying great quantities of bass due to its longer attack and decay times, which make its low end sound softer and fuller than that of the Woodees. On the other hand the bass of Blues is tighter and punchier – enhanced, but never blown out of proportion. Aside from the balance-oriented Meelec CW31, the bass of the Woodees it is the most linear and arguably the most true-to-source among all of the mid-range wooden earphones I’ve heard.

The midrange of the Blues is warm, lush, and sweet. Due to their leaner low end, bass bleed is less significant with the Woodees than with the Thinksound TS02, Xears TD-III, and Skullcandy Holua. The detail and clarity are impressive as well, competing well with the Xears TD-III and Brainwavz earphones. The treble transition is quite smooth, with only a touch of unevenness and very mild sparkle. Treble clarity is not quite as spectacular as midrange clarity, especially next to more treble-heavy earphones such as my Sunrise Xcape, but the Woodees do sound nearly as effortless as the TD-III when it comes to extension and really don’t lack treble quantity by my standards.

The soundstage of the Blues is above-average in size and quite airy. They lack the sheer space and depth of the TD-III but seem to have a cleaner, more well-separated sound due to the greatly diminished bass quantity and leaner presentation. Positioning and instrumental separation are adequate and the Woodees strike a good balance between the more intimate sound of the Skullcandy Holua and the overly-ambient presentation of the Fischer Audio Daleth. On the whole, I find the signature of the Blues to be the ‘safe’ choice among wooden in-ears as they are so unlikely to offend with their balance or voicing. Interestingly, despite being said to share drivers with the new Blues model, the older IESW100B had very noticeable treble harshness to my ears and the new model does not. I can’t be sure whether the difference is attributable to the differences in the design & construction between the two or to variances between individual drivers but the point stands – the grating treble of the IESW100B is not an issue with the IESW100L.

Value (7.5/10) – Though not radically different from the cheaper IESW100B model, the Woodees Blues offer improvements in build quality and aesthetics, as well as a standard mic and 3-button remote. The price increase puts the Blues in direct competition with Thinksound’s TS02+mic model. Indeed, the two earphones perform similarly enough from a functional standpoint but pursue slightly different sound signatures. The Woodees are leaner-sounding and quite balanced next to the bottom-heavy Thinksounds, offering a bit more clarity and airiness to counteract the more impressive bass depth, smooth and lush midrange, and convincing timbre and dynamics of the Thinksounds. The 3-button remote might be a deal-breaker for some but from a sound signature standpoint it will come down to personal preference between the two.

Pros: Tangle-free cloth cable; good overall build quality; low cable noise, 3-button remote standard, clear and relatively balanced sound
Cons: No dedicated L/R markings


For a longer review of the Woodees Blues, complete with comparisons to the Thinksound TS02, Xears TD-III, Skullcandy Holua, and Fischer Audio Daleth, see here

 

 


(2C33) Monster Jamz

Reviewed Mar 2011

 

Details: Dynamic-driver earphones from Monster Cable slotted below the Turbine and Beats Tour in the Monster range
Current Price: $90 from amazon.com (MSRP: $119.95); $100 for ControlTalk version w/mic
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: N/A | Cable: 4’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Generic single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down

Accessories (3/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (6 sizes), shirt clip, and soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (3/5) – While very solid at first glance, the Jamz really aren’t as well-thought-out as the higher-end Turbine line. The metal housings are heavy and rock-solid but the strain reliefs aren’t flexible and have sharp edges. The cable cinch takes the form of a thin piece of metal and seems like it may sever the cable if pulled on. The cord itself, however, is extremely pleasant to use – soft, rubbery, and flexible. The metal casing of the 3.5mm plug has a tendency to come loose but a drop of super glue should fix it
Isolation (3.5/5) – As with the Turbines and MD Tributes, the isolation is surprisingly good for a dynamic-driver in-ear
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Bothersome when worn cable-down; very low when worn over-the-ear
Comfort (3.5/5) – The housings are larger and heavier than those of the Lil’ Jamz and have a tendency to come loose during physical activity. Fitment depth is very important but the Jamz benefit from a shallower seal compared to the Lil’Jamz and Beats Tour

Sound (6.0/10) – While the cheaper Lil’ Jamz sound like a dilute version of Monster’s Beats by Dr Dre Tour, the Jamz are more reminiscent of the Turbine line with their warm, mid-bassy antics. Unfortunately, the Jamz don’t have the combination of bass depth, detail, and refinement that makes the Turbine earphones special. The bass of the Jamz rolls off earlier than that of the Turbines, resulting in a distinct lack of sub-bass rumble to go with the sizeable mid-bass hump of the Jamz. Interestingly, the Jamz do not benefit from a particularly deep seal, in direct contrast to the Dr Dre Beats Tour. When pushed too far into the ear canal, the Jamz lose bass quantity and body, becoming tinny and slightly anemic in terms of impact. Optimal bass response is achieved with a moderately shallow seal and I actually found myself using larger tips than usual to coax that last bit of impact out of the Jamz. Even when sealed properly, the bass of the Jamz, like that of the Lil’ Jamz lacks a bit of texture and detail. At lower volume levels all that the Jamz produce is a basic mid-bass thump, only differentiating low notes with the volume turned up a bit.

For an earphone with a fair large amount of mid-bass boost, the Jamz have expectedly warm and ever so slightly muffled-sounding lower mids. In contrast to the Lil’ Jamz, there is no bright and prominent treble to counteract the bassy warmth of the Jamz and the mids are thicker and not as recessed. Fine detail is masked slightly by the thickness – the Turbine does a better of job of keeping its low end in check. Treble response is easily the most laid-back among all of the Monster in-ears, with absolutely no harshness, sibilance, or even sparkle present and noticeable roll-off at the top. Depending on the track, the sound of the Jamz alternates between slightly relaxed and downright dull. The nondescript presentation doesn’t help either – the Jamz are neither as forward as the Beats Tour nor as spread-out as the Lil’ Jamz. Again, excessively deep fitment can affect the Jamz negatively, collapsing the soundstage and making them sound less natural, but even with the best fit I was able to find, the presentation is still a bit vague compared to competing earphones such as the Fischer Silver Bullet and ECCI PR401.

Value (6.5/10) – It would seem that the midbass-heavy balance of the Jamz should appeal to the non-audiophile much in the same way the ever-popular Sennheiser CX300 does – the Jamz are not nearly as aggressive as the Beats by Dr Dre Tour and not as bright or tinny as the Lil’ Jamz. Closer examination, however, reveals that the Jamz commit the worst crime of all – complete blandness. Personally, I still like the Jamz better than the more colored Lil’ Jamz and downright offensive Beats Tour, but there is no denying that their sound signature, light on both treble and sub-bass, has a dull, lifeless quality to it. What gives the Jamz some value is the 3-year warranty and their forgiving nature when it comes to poor recordings and low-bitrate rips. If neither of those things are a priority, I would highly recommend looking elsewhere.

Pros: User-friendly cable, 3-year warranty, sound is very relaxed and non-fatiguing
Cons: Minor construction issues, very sensitive to insertion depth, bland-sounding

 

 

 

(2C34) Etymotic Research MC5 / MC2 / MC3
 

Reviewed Apr 2011

 

Details: First dynamic-driver earphone from the pioneer of universal in-ear monitors
Current Price: $79 from amazon.com (MSRP: $79); $99 for MC3 with microphone
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 100 dB | Freq: 20-15k Hz | Cable: 4’ 45º-plug
Nozzle Size: 2.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock triple-flanges, Shure Olives
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) – Triple-flange silicone tips (2 sizes), Etymotic foam tips, Etymotic Glider tips, replacement filters (1 set), filter replacement tool, shirt clip, and zippered soft carrying pouch
Build Quality (4.5/5) –Though the MC5 is lightweight and for the most part plastic, the outer (colored) bits of the housings are aluminum and the cables are Kevlar-reinforced and well-relieved all around. The slightly rubbery cabling is very flexible and doesn’t stick or tangle and the entry-level Etys really feel like a quality product all around
Isolation (4.5/5) – Typical of Ety earphones, isolation just doesn’t get much better than this
Microphonics (4/5) – Quite low when worn cable-down, nonexistent with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (4/5) – Depends on the eartips used but the included assortment should fit most people. With a good fit the slim housings don’t contact the ear and the cable exit angle actually works for over-the-ear wear, making the MC5 very comfortable for those who can handle deep-insertion earphones

Sound (7.8/10) – First, a note on tip choice – though the included foamies and Glider tips were very comfortable for me, I settled on the triple-flange silicones and my trusty Shure olives for sonic reasons. The Gliders, though comfortable, seem to accentuate the weaknesses of the MC5 and the stock foamies simply have no comfort advantages over Olives and muffle the top end more.

Though the dynamic driver used in the MC5 is a departure for Etymotic, the audio engineers managed to develop a moving coil transducer that, for the most part, conforms to the Ety mold. The MC5 really does its best to emphasize no one frequency range above others and covers enough of the frequency spectrum to compete with most earphones in its class. The dynamic transducers move more air than the balanced armatures used in other Etymotic earphones and as a result the low end of the MC5 is more punchy and tactile but not as microdetailed or textured as that of the higher-end ER4 and HF5 sets. The bass is tight, controlled, and reasonably quick for a dynamic driver but lacks the reverb and sheer presence of some of the more energetic-sounding dynamic earphones in the price range. Extension is quite linear down to about 40Hz and drops off gradually beyond that, though the earphones do respond well to equalization. Naturally, the low end of the MC5 is never intrusive and imparts no coloration on the midrange – the MC5 invariably remains calm and composed no matter how bassy the track.

The midrange of the MC5 comes with fewer caveats than the bass. Due to the extremely balanced nature of the MC5, they can seem a bit mid-centric at times but in reality there’s no particular emphasis on any part of the middle registers. The mids produced by the MC5 are clear, and detailed but not as crisp as those of armature-based Etys. They are not overly defined but still just a touch grainy and quite dry. With a poor or shallow seal, the upper mids can step out of line on occasion, bringing with them bouts of vocal sibilance but with well-fitting tips sibilance is minimal. Moving on up, the treble of the MC5 is accurate and prominent but not hyper-detailed as it tends to be on analytical armature-based earphones such as the Etymotic HF5 and Phonak PFE. Compared to the HF5 and even the RE0, the treble of the MC5 is not nearly as crisp, bright, or energetic, instead appearing softer and more controlled. Like the midrange it can be just a touch grainy and yet isn’t what I would call ‘sparkly’. Still, the MC5 is definitely not for the treble-sensitive.

Etymotic earphones usually do a good job of separating out individual instruments but aren’t known for providing the most three-dimensional presentation in the world of high-end in-ears, and the MC5 is no exception. The soundstage has good width but only average depth. Soundstage height is also something many in-ears struggle with and the MC5 is no exception - there are earphones that provide a more immersive experience for the money, such as the Fischer Audio Silver Bullet and Head-Direct RE-ZERO. The RE-ZERO is especially interesting since that is the one dynamic most likely to be compared to the MC5 and for me, despite sounding more intimate on the whole, the RE-ZERO has the more natural presentation by a margin – better height, better depth, slightly better positioning and imaging – the presentation of the RE-ZERO is simply bigger and more true to life. The RE-ZERO also has better dynamic range to my ears, though not by much.

Tonally, the MC5 is not as cold-sounding as the higher-end armature-based Etys, not as clinical. It is also slightly more forgiving of low-bitrate rips and poor mastering but the whole garbage in = garbage out adage still applies on the whole. Clipping, distortion, sibilance – any and all mastering artifacts will be made apparent by the MC5 but not to the same degree as with the HF5 and ER4. It should be noted also that the MC5 is not a very efficient earphone – much less so than the higher-end HF5 or the HiFiMan RE-ZERO. On the bright side, the MC5 cuts hiss well when used with sources that have a high noise floor.

Value (9/10) – The Etymotic MC5 is a capable dynamic-driver earphone from a company that doesn’t normally do dynamics. Like all things Etymotic, the MC5 is well-built, well-packaged, and highly isolating but requires deep insertion to sound its best, which may take some getting used to for those new to Ety earphones. The sound is clear, accurate, and neutral but for many the MC5 will lack the desired bass presence and treble energy. Even those who like a highly analytical sound may find the MC5 slightly boring, slightly inept at conveying energy and excitement. The MC5 is easily more consumer-friendly than the higher-end Etymotic earphones but I can’t help feeling ever so slightly underwhelmed every time I use them. Unless isolation is a priority, I will keep picking the RE-ZERO up out of the drawer every time.

Pros: Stellar noise isolation; solid build quality; fairly clear, balanced, and accurate sound
Cons: Deep-insertion form factor takes getting used to; can be slightly boring/lifeless

 

 

 

(2C35) Beyerdynamic DTX 71 iE

Reviewed May 2011


Details: Entry-level model from Beyer’s recently-refreshed IEM line
Current Price: $69 from beyerdynamic.com (MSRP: $69)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 12Ω | Sens: 104 dB | Freq: 20-22k Hz | Cable: 3.9’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (3/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes) and zippered soft carrying case
Build Quality (4/5) – The housings of the DTX 71 are all-plastic but the molding quality is very good. Strain reliefs are fully integrated and the rubbery cable is sturdy and fairly flexible. The 3.5mm L-plug and y-split are both very well-relieved
Isolation (3/5) – Good for a straight-barrel dynamic
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Bothersome when worn cable-down; nearly nonexistent otherwise
Comfort (4/5) – The DTX 71 is a lightweight straight-barrel in-ear and doesn’t require particularly deep insertion to sound its best. As a result it remains quite comfortable even for lengthy listening sessions

Sound (7.2/10) – The sound of the DTX 71 is mainstream in nature but quite good on a technical level and pleasant overall. The balance is skewed slightly towards the low end, with weighty and impactful bass that is nevertheless not quite as prominent as with the higher-end DTX 101. Bass depth is impressive and control is retained for the most part. If anything, the low end of the DTX 71 actually does a better job of staying out of the way than that of the DTX 101, appearing only slightly boomy next to tight-and-fast dynamics such as the RE-ZERO and Sunrise Xcited. While clearly not intended for analytical listeners, the DTX 71 manages to draw as much attention to the sub-bass than the mid-bass, which helps the midrange stay veil-free.

The midrange of the DTX 71 is slightly forward, falling just short of the low end in relative emphasis. The mids of the similarly-priced Xears TD-III are slightly more prominent while those of the Xears Resonance are more recessed. Clarity and detail are good though some of the more analytical earphones around the price point have an advantage here. Texture levels are quite good as well and the DTX 71 leans towards a slightly dryer, grittier sound compared to the TD-III. The tone of the earphones leans slightly towards darkness though there isn’t a significant lack of upper midrange emphasis. In fact, my two Beyerdynamic IEMs both boast impressive presence and smoothness across the spectrum.

Top end extension is moderate – similar to the Brainwavz M2 and Sunrise Xcape IE but not as impressive as with the RE0. Treble presence is quite good but the DTX 71 definitely holds a bias towards the midrange and low end. The presentation is competent – average soundstage size and good layering mean that the sonic cues are all laid out quite well for a dynamic-driver in the DTX 71’s price range. Part of the reason that the presentation is not a definite strong suit of the earphone is the average dynamics – the Sunrise Xcape IE, for example, is noticeably more adept at conveying softness and delicacy. The Beyer IEMs are both slightly shouty in nature, though by no means to a degree where the dynamics become a distraction.

Value (8.5/10) – The DTX 71 iE is a consumer-class earphone from a large Hi-Fi manufacturer. Expectedly, it does very little wrong both when it comes to sound quality and usability. More surprising is that the DTX is priced in accordance with its performance – something I’ve given up on when it comes to mid-level earphones from brands with a full-sized headphone focus. AKG, Grado, and even Sennheiser could learn a thing or two from the DTX 71 iE.

Pros: Lightweight, well-built, easy to live with; sound quality competent all around; less bass than DTX 101
Cons: Mesh carrying pouch is underwhelming; cable noise can be annoying with cable-down fitment


(2C36) Beyerdynamic DTX 101 iE / MMX 101 iE


Reviewed May 2011

 

Details: Mid-range model from Beyer’s recently-refreshed IEM line
Current Price: $89 from beyerdynamic.com (MSRP: $89); $125 for MMX 101 iE with microphone
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 12Ω | Sens: 102 dB | Freq: 10-23k Hz | Cable: 3.9’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), cable clip, VOIP/Skype adapter, and zippered soft carrying case
Build Quality (4.5/5) – The housings of the DTX 101 are slightly smaller in size than those of the DTX 71 and boast a metal outer shell. Strain reliefs are fully integrated and the rubbery cable is sturdy and fairly flexible. The 3.5mm L-plug and y-split are both very well-relieved
Isolation (3.5/5) – Good for a straight-barrel dynamic
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Bothersome when worn cable-down; nearly nonexistent otherwise
Comfort (4/5) – The DTX 101 is slightly heavier than the DTX 71 but the housings are slimmer. Like the lower-end model, it doesn’t require particularly deep insertion to sound its best and remains quite comfortable even for lengthy listening sessions as a result

Sound (7.4/10) – If the low end of the DTX 71 is merely ‘emphasized’ compared to a balanced in-ear such as the RE-ZERO, the DTX 101 can definitely be characterized as a bass-heavy earphone. The bass isn’t quite as authoritative as that of the Fischer Audio Eterna or a well-sealed Nuforce NE-700X but it is at the very least on-par with the Monster Turbine and Thinksound TS02 and can definitely be excessive for my taste. The low end of the DTX 101 is deep and powerful, providing impressive sub-bass presence. It is at least as controlled as that of the DTX 71 but is disadvantaged slightly by the relatively greater bass emphasis of the higher-end model. Next to more analytical presence the bass does sound a touch boomy, as expected, but for the quantity of bass to be contained, the DTX 101 performs quite well.

The midrange is warmed up by the emphasized low end and comes off slightly more colored than that of the DTX 71. It is also more recessed relative to the low end, though the mids of the Fischer Audio Eterna are more recessed still. The clarity of the Eterna wins out by a hair while detail levels are quite evenly matched between the two. The earphone remains smooth moving into the lower treble. The treble itself is a bit more extended compared to that of the lower-end model and the entire sound signature is a touch cleaner and more airy as a result. The difference is very small, however, and doesn’t affect the tone of the earphone – the greater bass presence ensures that the DTX 101 sounds a bit darker than the DTX 71.

The presentation of the earphones is similar to that of the DTX 71 with a slightly larger soundstage side and a marginally better layering. Due to improved treble extension, the DTX 101 sounds a bit more open than the 71 but again the difference is small. Darker tone aside, the DTX can also compete in timbre with some of the better dynamics in the price range. Worth noting is the low impedance of the DTX 101 – like the DTX 71, the higher end model was obviously designed with portable devices in mind and an impedance adapter does help with the severe impedance mismatch when plugging either earphone into a computer or full-size amp.

Value (9/10) – Better than any press release or marketing material, the design of the DTX 101 iE shows that Beyerdynamic has taken their new in-ear line very seriously. The engineers obviously did their homework regarding what works and what doesn’t creating an earphone that – save for some cable noise when worn cable-down – provides excellent real-world usability. Though no fancy materials or innovative cabling solutions are used in its construction, the DTX 101, like the similarly-priced Etymotic MC5, should be able to withstand considerable abuse. Sonically, the DTX 101 is not a large step up from the cheaper DTX 71 model, but it is the little differences that help the 101 remain a competent performer despite the bass-biased balance. Personally, I prefer the balance of the DTX 71, but that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying the DTX 101 while out and about.

Pros: Very well-built; good overall sound quality with heavy bass; skype adapter included
Cons: Mesh carrying pouch is underwhelming; cable noise can be annoying with cable-down fitment; not as balanced as DTX 71 iE

 

 

 

(2C37) Dunu DN-11 Ares

 

Reviewed June 2011

Details: Mid-range earphone out of China clearly inspired by the design of the Monster Turbine Pro Gold
Current Price: $75 from lendmeurears.com (MSRP: est $93)
Specs: Driver: BA | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: 10-20k Hz | Cable: 4’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (5/5) – Single-flange narrow-channel (3 sizes) and wide-channel (3 sizes) silicone tips, bi-flange silicone tips, zippered carrying case, magnetic-clasp soft carrying pouch, drawstring carrying bag, and integrated cable wrap
Build Quality (4.5/5) – Modeled after Monster’s Turbine Pro Gold, the Ares is surprisingly well-built, with sturdy metal shells, mesh filters, aluminum cable cinch and y-split, and good strain relief all-around. The rubberized cable is a bit stiff for my liking but the attention to detail is very good on the whole
Isolation (3.5/5) – Quite good with the right tips
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Bothersome when worn cable-down; not an issue otherwise
Comfort (4/5) – The Ares fits much like the Monster Turbine earphones but its rounded shells are smaller and slightly more ergonomic on the whole. While the tip selection is not as impressive as with the Monster models, finding a comfortable fit was not a problem at all

Sound (6.8/10) – The general signature of the Ares is balanced with a bit of roll-off on either end. Overall bass quantity falls north of the Brainwavz M1 but south of the Brainwavz M2, into the range of what I would call ‘slightly enhanced’. The character of the bass is tight-and-punchy more than it is full-and-boomy – quite well-measured for an earphone in its price category but far from analytical. The Ares does lack a bit of bass depth – extension drops off quickly below 40 Hz or so - and sub-bass rumble is oftentimes all but imperceptible but on the whole its bass should satisfy most listeners.

The midrange of the Ares is a bit on the dry side but offers up surprising clarity and resolution. It is a touch forward in the overall soundscape but clearly not sufficiently so to call the Ares a mid-forward earphone. Bass bleed is nearly nonexistent although the midrange derives a touch of warmth from the bass. Next to the Xears TD-III, the Ares doesn’t appear warm at all. Detail and texture levels are quite good as well and the Ares generally sounds smooth and level. Interestingly, while the midrange clarity of the Ares can easily keep up with established segment leaders from the likes of Xears and Brainwavz on sparsely populated tracks, it tends to break down on busier passages. As a result, the earphones are not particularly well-suited for rock and metal but sound great with acoustic pieces, r&b, soft rock, etc.

The treble of the earphones is smooth and forgiving. There are no notable treble peaks and about as much sparkle as with a Brainwavz M1, which is to say not a whole lot. Treble quantity is not lacking by my standards but there is a bit of roll-off up top. All in all, the signature of the Ares may not be particularly interesting or unique but it is a good all-rounder. The presentation, similarly, is merely competent. The Xears TD-III is more spacious but the Ares is no slouch, providing pretty good width and average depth. Imaging is quite good on sparse tracks but the earphones get a touch congested as things get busy. An additional factor is timbre realism – the TD-III, among other dynamic-driver earphones, simply sounds more natural than the Ares does.

Value (7.5/10) – Over the past couple of years we’ve seen many great earphones come out of the China’s thriving audio scene. Most of the ones that have achieved prominence on Head-Fi have done so by offering great sound quality for the asking price but the Dunu Ares and Crius take a slightly different approach. These earphones offer nearly unprecedented attention to detail - when it comes to build quality, packaging, and accessories very few competing offerings compare to the Dunu models. It’s a refreshing take on providing value to the end consumer that, unfortunately, is limited by the derivative nature of the design. However, there are few earphones I am looking forward to more than Dunu’s upcoming releases – with slightly different tuning Dunu could easily provide a great value, not just a good one.

Pros: Well-built, well-accessorized, great attention to detail, competent sound
Cons: Cable can be noisy when worn straight down, not the best at handling complexity


Thanks to jant71 for the Dunu Ares & Crius loans!


(2C38) Dunu DN-13 Crius

Reviewed June 2011

 

Details: Mid-range earphone out of China clearly inspired by the design of the Monster Jamz
Current Price: $65 from lendmeurears.com (MSRP: est. $82)
Specs: Driver: BA | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: 10-20k Hz | Cable: 4’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (5/5) – Single-flange narrow-channel (3 sizes) and wide-channel (3 sizes) silicone tips, bi-flange silicone tips, zippered carrying case, drawstring carrying bag, and integrated cable wrap
Build Quality (4.5/5) – Styled much like a squashed Monster Jamz, the Crius is surprisingly well-built, with sturdy metal shells, mesh filters, aluminum cable cinch and y-split, and good strain relief all-around. The rubberized cable is a bit stiff for my liking but the attention to detail is very good on the whole
Isolation (3.5/5) – Quite good with the right tips but the housings of the pricier Ares can be inserted a bit deeper and provide slightly better isolation
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Bothersome when worn cable-down; not an issue otherwise
Comfort (4/5) – The Crius fits like most other straight-barrel earphones but the shells are wider and shorter than those of the real Monster Jamz. Since the Crius weighs about the same, the weight distribution is more favorable to the Dunu earphones staying in the ear

Sound (6.8/10) – While its sound is extremely similar to that of the Ares on the whole, the Crius is a touch lighter on the low end than the higher-end model. The mid-bass quantity is a bit closer to neutral and the sub-bass roll-off is slightly more noticeable. As with the Ares, the bass is more tight-and-punchy than full-and-boomy – well-measured but not quite analytical and lacking some depth. The diminished bass quantity means the midrange is less warm and more prominent in the overall balance. Detail and texture levels are good and the midrange is smooth and pleasant. Similarly derived from the Ares are the issues the Crius has with busier tracks – despite being cleaner and more balanced overall, the Crius gets overwhelmed a bit too easily

The treble of the earphones is smooth and forgiving, just like that of the Ares. There are no notable treble peaks and similarly low levels of treble sparkle. A bit of top-end roll-off is still noticeable but the slightly more balanced sound of the Crius focuses more on the midrange and treble and less on the bottom end. The presentation is a little airier as a result and the sense of space is increased very slightly. Congestion is still an issue as the separation tends to collapse as things get busy. One thing is certain, however - the Crius sounds way better than real Monster Jamz.

Value (8/10) – Priced just below the Ares, the Dunu Crius offers a slightly different sonic flavor on the same overall competency level. Personally, I prefer the more balanced sound of the cheaper Crius but the earphones share far more similarities than differences. As with the Ares, much of the value of the Crius lies in the care taken with the design, construction, packaging, and accessories and of course those looking to compare it to a ‘real’ Monster Jamz may just be very pleasantly surprised.

Pros: Well-built, well-accessorized, great attention to detail, competent sound
Cons: Cable can be noisy when worn straight down, not the best at handling complexity


Thanks to jant71 for the Dunu Ares & Crius loans!

 

 

 

(2C39) Spider Realvoice

Reviewed June 2011

 

Details: Dynamic-driver earphone from Spider Cable promising realistic audio reproduction for acoustic and vocal tracks
Current Price: $78 from buy.com (MSRP: $89.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 18Ω | Sens: 107 dB | Freq: 5-20k Hz | Cable: 3.9’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5mm | Preferred tips: Stock single-flanges
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange silicone tips, shirt clip, demo CD, hard clamshell carrying case, and carabiner
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The large housings of the realvoice are made of plastic, though molding quality is quite good. The cable is plasticky and average in thickness. It has a bit of memory and is outfitted with a metal-shelled 3.5mm I-plug, cable cinch, and y-split
Isolation (2.5/5) – The realvoice is a shallow-insertion, vented earphone. Isolation is average
Microphonics (4/5) – Slightly bothersome when worn cable-down; not an issue otherwise
Comfort (3.5/5) – The earphones are similar in design to the Sony XB40EX and work best with a shallow fitment. The plastic housings make the realvoice lighter than the Sonys and the longer nozzle allows them to stay comfortable longer. Worn cable-down they can still come loose on occasion but cable-up with the cord kept in place by the sliding cinch works for me. The large spine of the earphones also makes them easy to insert and remove in a hurry but may make over-the-ear wear tricky for those with smaller ears

Sound (7.8/10) – As the name implies, the realvoice was tuned to correctly reproduce vocal elements in music. In the pursuit of realistic vocal reproduction, Spider Cable created a well-balanced and lively-sounding earphone that works across a variety of genres. The low end of the realvoice is punchy and reasona