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Review: Small $150-$200 street price earphone test group - Custom 3, CK10, RE252, TF10, OK1

post #1 of 25
Thread Starter 
Introduction
I picked up a few new earphones recently and have been listening to them for several weeks. I bought Klipsch's Custom 3 to try out after a bit of praise. The price was decent, so I gave them a try. I also grabbed Joker's RE252 to try out, another well liked and well priced product. He let me try out his CK10 to boot. I was looking to order one but picked a bad time since most places were out of stock. Joker was kind enough to let me borrow his for a couple weeks to try out. I've owned my Triple.Fi 10 and OK1 buds for over a year and have used them in a previous high end earphone comparison thread including the UM3X, IE8, and SE530. Since I no longer own those, the Triple.Fi 10 and OK1 are good links between the reviews as our hearing tends to fluctuate over time. This is my other thread covering these top end earphones:
http://www.head-fi.org/forums/f103/t...30-ok1-451954/

This test group mainly focuses on the Custom 3, RE252, and CK10 which are a few earphones I have had some interest in but had yet tried out. The Triple.Fi 10 and Ok1 are mainly comparators to known products.

reference products (Triple.Fi 10, OK1):
These have been my long standing products that I use. They are effectively what I feel are a couple of the best products I've used. Both offer high sound quality and great realism. Both need a bit of EQing to be heard in their best light.

EQing
I typically EQ everything I use as there is no point being stuck with a sound signature if you don't have to. I do find a LOT of earphones benefit greatly from EQing, however, it takes a relatively comprehensive EQ to do the job smoothly and seemlessly. A basic EQ will mess up as much as it helps most of the time, hence most people's frustrations with EQs. I use software that allows nearly infinite adjustment so I can maintain smoothness and shape of the EQing needed for the hardware.

The tests were done with every earphone EQed (ear) flat. Flat is relative to my hearing perception. I use a pink noise track and adjust by ear the frequency spectrum to equal intensity across the board. The frequency response I ended up with was an accumulation of a few attempts a day over three days. The goal was to get something I felt correct and not biased to a particular day or listening. Pink noise is tricky in that it's relatively easy to tune for smoothness of response, but it's hard to tune for tilt of response and you end up with a bright or warm signature instead of flat. It tends to take some time to balance your ears/mind unless you use pink noise tests on a regular basis. Again, these are not absolute responses. They are merely what my ear hears as flat across the spectrum. Tests were done at a medium volume similar to common listening levels. This is important as our ears hear differently between quiet and loud volumes, and the "flat" response changes shape.

My choice in EQing is to take out variation between the earphones. Frequency response plays a sizable role in perception, and this variation can many times overshadow smaller details and differences between earphones. EQing them equally lets a person more readily hear the differences.

Testing
Testing was done with my laptop but using a PCM2702 DAC via my Meier Corda 2Move bypassing the laptops sound card. EQing was done via software and a virtual loop through to incorporate a relatively infinitely adjustable EQ. Each earphone was listened to using its own EQ setting geared to (ear) flat.

Music selection was varied, a lot of random music over a wide range of genres. Live recordings of some classic rock to modern music was included along with simple vocals to "noisy" rock to full orchestra and orchestra accompanied music. The main goal was to have a variety of music to go through but also have some that challenged or could point out various weaknesses. I've never really put together any specific test group and prefer to have a relatively shotgun approach to the process. I repeat music listening to every earphone one after another on the same song. I jot down little notes for what I hear, mainly audio characteristics like dynamics, impact, level of detail, thickness of note, sense of sound stage depth, locational cues, etc. I repeat this for every earphone and every song and sort of build up a master list of my impressions that generally describe how they sound to me. I then translate this to general impressions of the earphones as to how they perform. I'm going to follow the same format as my last test to kind of keep the process along the same lines.

Frequency Response
This is the response graphs I got for the Custom 3, RE252, CK10, Triple.Fi 10, and OK1. The IE8, UM3X, and SE530 have been added to the graph in a best fit manner averaging the differences between the historic differences between these and the Triple.Fi 10 and OK1 and the current Triple.Fi 10 and OK1 responses. It's sort of a best fit to what they should sound like to me currently based off historic relative values.

When looking at the response curves of the earphones realize that for casual listening +/-3dB is not a major issue. It does become more of an issue for critical listening, but for casual use, we don't readily perceive variations this small without trying to look for them. We are far more sensitive to abrupt variations, so sharp peaks and dips can become sizable issues when it comes to listening enjoyment. As well, a more balanced earphone will sound good through a wider range of music types.

Listening Impression
Audio Technica ATH-CK10
Bass: Very good extension to all but the lowest frequencies, slightly under-emphasized bottom end that could stand to be a bit more robust, sometimes slightly muddled in the very low frequencies but retains good energy and impact and good detail in higher bass frequencies.
Mid: clean, articulate with good detail and edge to notes, very natural sounding, realistic
Treble: clean, articulate with good detail and edge to notes, natural, great level of detail and bite all the way up, quite emphasized around 10kHz without EQing that can come across quite hot and spitty with certain music.
Stage: nice, medium sized sense of space, not too intimate, not too distant, some sense of depth but not expansive
Location: good locational cues but not quite spot on in the exists in an exact point in space kind of sense, sounds exist separate from each other
Clarity: great articulation and presentation of fine detail, natural and realistic in presentation while retaining a lot of detail and bite, can portray a lot of the minute subtleties in music, excellent speed
Tone: slightly bright without EQing, largely balanced through a majority of the frequency range, comes across natural and even for the most part but with a hot and sometimes spitty top end, significantly more balanced and even once EQed
Dynamics: not laid back, sounds correct, good sense of range from the very quiet to moderate levels, not explosive in energy, natural sounding

Klipsch Custom 3
Bass: robust, thick, with a real sense of authority, slightly dominant emphasis
Mid: thick and warm, the lower end is presented more robustly, smooth, slightly dark/veiled
Treble: good sensitivity that is well extended, slightly laid back in presence, slightly smooth, retains a good amount of detail
Stage: spacious presence with a significant perceived depth, roomy and layered, yet not far away
Location: ok sense of location but somewhat blurred, not exact
Clarity: thick and full bodied, lacks some crispness and articulation of note favoring a smoother, thicker presentation, sounds tend to blend slightly together but not badly, can come across slightly muffled at times
Tone: strong lower frequency emphasis with some countering by a slight treble bump in sensitivity, very balanced sounding across the board, decently natural and balanced.
Dynamics: excellent dynamic energy, strong, authoritative, some explosiveness and sense of energy, good linearity, lacks subtlety of notes due to the thick note presentation

Hi-Fi Man RE252
Bass: even and well extended response, blends seemlessly with the rest of the frequency spectrum, good impact of note and energy, lacks some presence and authority due to thin notes, lacks some robustness/fullness/reverberation with low frequency information, clean, well detailed, well controlled
Mid: very open and lively, excellent detail, natural, balanced, blends seemlessly
Treble: excellent level of detail, natural, blends seemlessly, balanced, a piercing level of sharpness which is an odd capability for a dynamic
Stage: small sound stage, relatively in-head with a mediocre sense of space, good sense of depth and distancing at times
Location: excellent locational sense with specific placement of sounds although the small sound stage tends to limit the benefit some
Clarity: highly detailed notes with good edge, lacks some body and articulation though which sucks out some sense of realism when not being able to articulate a sound fully, highly revealing, portrays subtlety and quieter details very well
Tone: very open and lively sounding, excellent balance across the frequency spectrum with no frequency dominating another, outstanding transparency.
Dynamics: excellent impact/whack of note but lacks raw energy being light in body, is slightly subtle/laid back in dynamic range, not explosive

Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10
Bass: some emphasis without EQing, excellent body and fullness of sound, good energy and detail, well extended to all but the lowest of notes, retains good authority through the lower notes, can sound slightly smoothed/blended at times
Mid: natural, smooth and well bodied, a little overshadowed without EQing but not really lost
Treble: some of the sweetest treble you'll ever hear, sparkly, very high level of detail, piercing level of extension, moderately emphasized without EQing yet still sweet to the ear
Stage: somewhat intimate presentation, some sense of depth but not expansive, excellent separation and good sense of layering
Location: exact points of existence but is limited somewhat by the intimate presentation.
Clarity: highly detailed, good thickness, body, and articulation of note, lacks slightly in crispness/edge of note favoring a little bit of smoothness and fullness instead, could be called slightly luscious sounding
Tone: good balance overall but slightly V shaped with moderate treble emphasis and some lower midrange and midbass emphasis, balances out nicely when EQed, natural sound, good sense of realism
Dynamics: good energy and authority, lacks slightly in impact of ntoe, isn't great about portraying subtlety nor is it really explosive, slightly laid back in terms of aggressiveness, pleasant, sweet in gearing but still robust and full in presence

Yuin Ok1
Bass: excellent detail and impact of note, lacks some extension on the bottom end, lacks some authority and fullness with lower frequency notes
Mid: open, detailed, natural, somewhat bright without EQing
Treble: natural, balanced, excellent definition and detail, quite emphasized without EQing but still enjoyable, not overly aggressive or edgy, not smoothed over
Stage: slightly intimate presentation, good sense of space and depth, linear and well sized
Location: good sense of location, excellent separation but slightly blurry placement in space, linear in distancing
Clarity: very articulate, textured, and can portray subtleties and small variations in sound, good separation and individuality of sounds, excellent speed
Tone: natural, outstanding realism of sound, open, rather bright without EQing but pretty smooth and well blended regardless, excellent balance, blending, even, and consistent across the spectrum once EQed, outstanding transparency.
Dynamics: excellent dynamic range, energy, and impact, can portray subtle variations well, portray subtlety and a decent amount of energy of note, not explosive, slightly laid back dynamically

Final Comments
These have been some interesting earphones. They show a good bit of variation between each other and also an excellent amount of capability for the price. The gap between good upper midrange and the highest of level universals is relatively small.

Perhaps I should finish on what each one does great, sort of a why should I choose this earphone over another.

The CK10 offers outstanding realism of sound, excellent body, articulation, and detail. The midrange and treble is excellent, and the overall sound is natural and well balanced. The only real gripes are the nasty response peak near 10kHz and it's not quite capable of reproducing the lowest of frequencies up to the same level as the mids and highs.

The Custom 3 is a robust and energetic earphone. It offers a thick, powerful sound, and a great frequency response balance right out of the box. The sound stage is nicely sized and spacious with good separation and distancing. The only gripes would be that the thickness and smoothness of note does hide finer details and the physical cabling of the earphone is terrible.

The RE252 is one of the most balanced earphones I've had with a well extended are nearly flat response. The entire frequency spectrum blends seemlessly and no part overshadows any other part. It offers an excellently detailed, very open, and revealing presentation. It has upper end treble response that rivals the TF10 and transparency comparable to the OK1 where the earphone just disappears. The only major gripes are that it lacks some thickness and articulation of notes and has a relatively small sound stage, although this makes for a more direct and engaging presentation.

My favorite from a technical standpoint is the CK10. I feel it does a lot of things very well. It is an earphone that might require EQing to be tolerable depending on what kind of treble energy you can put up with. I do find myself reaching for the RE252 often though as there is less between you and the sound. The RE252 is clean, engaging, and I just get into the music more readily. Quiet or loud, it's enjoyable to listen to and the experience is very direct with the music, open, and transparent to where you just forget about the earphone. It's something the CK10 doesn't quite do. The OK1 is the only other earphone that has that same kind of direct invisibility where you put it on and it just disappears. There's also a certain desirability with the RE252 from its minimal EQ and amping needs. The Custom 3 is perhaps a half step down compared to the other two. It's a very good product with a number of good traits, but I think it lacks enough to not really be on equal terms. The RE252 and CK10 are closer to to a TF10, SE530, IE8 then they are to a SA6 or PFE. I can't quite say the same thing with the Custom 3.

The Triple.Fi 10 still shows that it's a killer earphone and still does most things very well. It has the sweetest treble of any earphone I've used. It offers an excellent blend of smoothness and fullness while retaining a lot of clarity, separation, and detail. If I were to gripe, I'd like to hear more subtlety and articulation of finer details in the music. It's just something the earphone doesn't do. The frequency response could be better, but it's very likable and decently balanced as is.

The OK1 bud is a bit out of place in the IEM field, but it's an earphone I've long liked. It offers excellent realism, a high level of detail and articulation. It portrays subtle variations in sounds that aren't really heard with most other earphones. The sound stage is well sized and linear and sounds are well placed and separate. I've often related listening to this earphone to that of daydreaming. You often forget about the earphones and just listen to the music as if you were thinking about it instead of hearing it. Gripes are the frequency response and moderate amp needs to really excel. It is an earphone that has external needs unfortunately. It could stand to have a more extended low end, but this is more so a side effect of it not being in the ear. Placement and leak has some control over low frequency information and pushing it up against the ear regains a lot of the low end response and authority. I do like that the CK10 portrays a lot of the detail characteristics that I like about the OK1 and is a more similar earphone to the OK1 then any other earphone I've used so far.

Usage note:
A note on the Triple.Fi 10. I do prefer to wear these turned 180 degrees with the cable facing down. The dual port design is quite sensitive to angle in the ear. I have found that the Triple.Fi 10 has a somewhat disconnected and overemphasized bass response when placed up over the ear. When rotated 180 degrees, the treble port is oriented closer and bass emphasis is reduced. The overall response is also more coherent and blended between bass and mids/treble. It is an earphone that is very sensitive to placement, not just seal.
LL
post #2 of 25
Thanks for the excellent review! Very helpful frequency response graph by the way.
post #3 of 25
Thread Starter 
Thanks.

The graph is helpful in a relative sense, but it unfortunately is what my ears perceive. Yours and anyone else's ears will hear the response differently. Heck, the response I have right now for the TF10 and OK1 are different then what I had a year ago when doing the same thing. The response graph for the IE8, UM3X, and SE530 to which I don't currently own are extrapolated from that graph but only show a related response that shouldn't be taken as dead accurate. It's more of a rough guide. It's also a useful tool if you already own one of the earphones and wonder how the others might compare. Frequency response is only one aspect though. It doesn't define characterstics like dynamic range, impact, sense of energy, speed, etc. It is simply a raw sensitivity. User descriptions then go into the details of what is perceived. For example, the SE530 while quite light on bass tends to be described as having moderate bass presence. The high bass frequencies of the SE530 are rather aggressive with strong energy and high dynamic range despite being somewhat low in sensitivity. Inversely, the upper treble of the SE530 really isn't lacking but it does subjectively come across to me as slightly recessed/quiet. Despite the sensitivity, the presentation ends up relatively soft/mild. The graph is nice but only a starting point. One does need more descriptive information to make judgment. Even then my personal descriptive information is skewed towards my own perceptions. You would pick up on different details at different weights of importance and intensity.
post #4 of 25
Great read, very concise and easy to follow

Any chance of posting your EQ settings for all of these?
post #5 of 25
Thread Starter 
Headings help with the sea of text.

EQ settings are inverse of the frequency response. I derived the frequency response graph from the EQ settings I use for each earphone. It's done with pink noise and the goal is equal intensity across the spectrum. It's a good approach that I've used for a few years, and it yields largely repeatable once acclimated to the noise track and getting used to listening to a broad spectrum of frequencies at once. It yields appropriate results for everything I've tried it on. The EQ I use is nearly infinitely adjustable, so there really isn't any constraint to my adjustment. My only caveat is the bottom end frequency response. Notes under 60Hz start to get kind fuzzy in perception for the human ear. It is incredibly difficult to accurately balance frequencies this low with great accuracy. I also kept boost to a maximum of +10dB as to not add too much gain nor force the earphone to work too hard reproducing low frequencies.
post #6 of 25
Oh I didn't notice the chart on top of the graph, thanks. I'll have to outfit my fuze with rockbox again to get a semi-functional EQ.
post #7 of 25
Thanks for the most interesting read! Very detailed analysis and comparison and a great reference for anyone who wants to EQ their phones.
post #8 of 25
Thread Starter 
The charge shows what the graph shows. The chart and graph is my perceived frequency response of these earphones. EQing would be the inverse of these. Again, it's simply a starting point and is only correct for my ears. Anyone else will hear a little differently, so they do have to take the time and develop their own ideal settings. Personal preference will play a roll too. I like flat because it's non-specific and doesn't color the original recording, however, everyone has their own preferences and may want more bass, more treble, or more mids and need to tune accordingly.
post #9 of 25
Excellent review!
post #10 of 25
Great review. I want the RE252 even more now.
post #11 of 25
Thanks for the review!
post #12 of 25
thanks for posting. seems like the custom 3 has the flattest response.
post #13 of 25
The RE252 is the flattest, going by the numbers
post #14 of 25
Quote:
Originally Posted by knubbe View Post
The RE252 is the flattest, going by the numbers
oh yeah, missed the blue line but then again, flattest doesn't necessarily mean best.
post #15 of 25
Thread Starter 
Flattest to my ears, yes. Perceived response will depend on what your ears are used to. I will note that the Custom 3 sounds flatter. The lack of thickness of note of the RE252 does play into a lack of fullness in lower frequencies. The sensitivity is good, but shorter notes tend to lack some presence. The saving grace is the RE252 has excellent impact of note, so low end information isn't really lacking. The Custom 3 has a much thicker note, and lower midrange and bass information is much more pronounced. When EQed, it's a little warm and thick with moderate pronunciation of things like bass guitars. The extra treble actually helps balance it out nicely. I feel a person would more readily say the Custom 3 is more balanced versus RE252 if both are not EQed. Both do come across well balanced though.
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