Soundmagic PL-50: $49 (shipped from Hong Kong)
Cyclone PR1-Pro: $59 (on Ebay)
Maximo iM-590: $40
Advantage: With a $10 spread between these three IEMs (not including shipping, where applicable), it's pretty much a toss-up. From this standpoint, these are comparable devices.
Packaging & Accessories:
Because the Cyclones and iM-590s were both loaners (thanks, Mike!), I couldn't really compare the packaging thoroughly. All three come with a nice, zippered and round carrying case, which is a nice touch. The iM-590s had a "core" in the case for winding around, which seemed super-nice at the time, but became a bit slow for getting the IEMs in and out.
The PL-50s also came with a large selection of ear tips, which was an unexpected surprise. Their "Olive-like" black foams are very comfortable, but get slippery quickly, which can cause them to slide out of the ear too easily. I used Shure Olives for most of my testing with the PL-50s.
Style & Appearance
Soundmagic PL-50: The PL-50s are definitely the most visually unique IEMS of the bunch. With an L-shaped housing, the PL-50s are intended to wear over-the-ear, where the nozzle can point directly into the ear canal. They work fine worn "down" as well. The finish is a hard plastic in a dark blue/purple, which looks rather nice, in my opinion -- if a bit original. The color-coded ear pieces ("red on right") are a nice touch as well. The cabling is quite thick (almost "Shure thick") from the jack to the "Y", and then considerably thinner to the ear pieces. All in all, the look is very nice. Finally, the nozzle is on the small side, similar to the Ety or Shure, but slightly larger. In this case, however, I was able to fit Shure Olives without much fuss.
Cyclone PR1-Pro: The PR1-Pros are, perhaps, the most forgettable in the "looks" department, which may not be a bad thing. A slight bullet shape to the ear piece housing, the PR1-Pros move from a slightly tapered black plastic to a chrome ring that is one with the nozzle. The nozzle itself is the larger TX-400 (Comply Foam) sizing, which is fairly popular. The J-cord is very thin from the straight jack to the ear pieces, with the "thinness" being somewhat unnerving. For the most part, the Cyclones look fine, with little to comment on -- either positively or negatively.
Maximo iM-590: The iM-590s are an interesting mis-mash of styling. The jack has a slight bend to it -- say 30 degrees or so -- and then progresses to the ear pieces via braided cable, similar to the Zune headphones. The ear piece housings start with a slightly translucent black plastic, which connect to a chrome housing. The nozzle is the larger size, similar to the PR1-Pros. My guess is that the iM-590s probably appeal more to the younger crowd that's looking for a good match for their iPod. Personally, I find it a bit "cheapish" looking, but that's just personal preference. Lastly, the iM-590s show some "mold lines" at the ear piece, which lends itself toward appearing to be of lower quality.
Advantage: Soundmagic PL-50. Of the three IEMs, the PL-50s stick out to me in terms of being "stylish" without looking cheap. They look "tough", "different", and "thought-out". Any strike against them would be the appearance that they require to be worn over-the-ear (which they do not), but otherwise are clearly the nicest looking of the bunch.
Soundmagic PL-50: The PL-50s are made of a hard plastic that seems tough enough for typical use *and* the occasional abuse. The thicker cabling between the jack and "Y" is nice, though I would prefer slightly thicker cabling between the "Y" and ear pieces. Strain reliefs at the ear pieces seem competent. The nozzles, though of the "skinny" variety, didn't worry me when squeezing Shure Olives onto them.
Cyclone PR1-Pro: The PR1-Pros don't seem to have any worries with all-around build quality, save for the thin cables and strain reliefs. In fact, the cables just look like they're ready to pull out of the ear pieces, though I don't know if this has been an issue. Also, the strain reliefs at the "Y" connector could be better.
Maximo iM-590: The iM-590s, although not my favorite look, appear to be well-built. The braided cables are not everyone's favorite, typically, but I'm not worried about these cables wearing down too much. The strain reliefs look good, and the IEMs appear to be able to handle some abuse, if necessary.
Advantage: Tie between the PL-50s and iM-590s. Both appear to be able to handle typical use and some abuse, where necessary. The PR1-Pros, unfortunately, just don't appear to be able to handle many tugs and pulls on the cabling. In fact, I would not give the PR1-Pros to my 12-year-old son, for instance, who tends to be hard on IEMs. I'm quite certain that he would destroy these without much trouble.
Soundmagic PL-50: With the thinner nozzle of the PL-50s, the isolation is quite good -- especially when using Shure Olives. The larger housing prevents the nozzle from getting too far into the ear canal, but the isolation is better than most. Not Etymotic-levels here, but probably on par with the Klipsch S4, which offers a similar housing design.
Cyclone PR1-Pro: Due to the larger nozzle and housing, the PR1-Pro can only isolate as well as the ear tips you're using. Using Comply Foams, the isolation was decent, but no better than that. Certainly fine for a typical workplace situation, but probably not a good choice for public transportation *or* times when you need absolute isolation.
Maximo iM-590: Similar to the PR1-Pros.
Advantage: Soundmagic PL-50s. Hands-down winner, here.
Soundmagic PL-50: The PL-50s are "great" (in regards to microphonics) when worn over-the-ear. When worn "down", however, the microphonics are quite noticeable. Not as bad as my Etymotic HF5s, but pretty close.
Cyclone PR1-Pro: With the J-style cord, microphonics on the PR1-Pros are quite low -- and certainly not enough to be bothersome.
Maximo iM-590: Braided cables aren't known for their low microphonics, and the iM-590s are no different. Microphonics are fairly high with these IEMs, but can be reduced a fair amount if worn over-the-ear.
Advantage: Cyclone PR1-Pros when wearing in the "down" position. Tie for wearing over-the-ear.
Soundmagic PL-50: The PL-50s differ from the other two IEMs here, in that they are intended to be worn over-the-ear. When worn this way, the PL-50s are extremely comfortable -- to the point of forgetting that they are there. When worn "down", however, they are slightly less comfortable since the housing is pointed slightly outward, rather than fitting naturally. Once inserted, though, they feel fine.
Cyclone PR1-Pro: The PR1-Pros are very light, which makes them nearly unnoticeable, if you have the right ear tips. With Comply Foams they were very comfortable to wear, though they never felt like they were solidly in my ear canal. Certainly not great for active use (jogging, exercising, etc.), but fine for most other situations.
Maximo iM-590: Although the housing is similar to the PR1-Pros, the iM-590s just never felt like they inserted properly -- even with the Comply Foams, which I preferred. (Note: I did *not* like the included Maximo silicone ear tips.) With the housing design of the 590s, they also felt like they were pulling down slightly. It even seemed like I could feel the cold of the metal against my ear, if ever so slightly. Just not my favorite fit.
Advantage: Soundmagic PL-50s overall, with a slight nod to the Cyclones for straight down wearing. Both are quite comfortable, with the PL-50s being preferable for over-the-ear and/or "active" use.
Soundmagic PL-50: The PL-50s really differ from the other two in this regard. See the trend here? While the other two IEMs are somewhat laid back, the PL-50s are engaging and much more in your face. Low-end is slightly recessed, and vocals are very forward -- with detail being a strong suit. If listening to an already well-rounded mix, these headphones simply sound like butter. Unfortunately, with a mix that accentuates the high-mids, these IEMs will accentuate it even further -- to the point of sounding slightly aggressive and over-bearing at times. Overall, the sound is leaning toward the Etymotic signature, which will appeal to some and not to others. I'm guessing that the high-mids will settle down a bit with more burn-in, so I'll amend this review if that is the case.
*UPDATE* As promised, I'm revisiting the sound signature of the PL-50s. As much as I've enjoyed these IEMs, there has been a frequency that has grated on me. I mentioned the "high-mids" sounding a bit over-bearing, and it looks like I was almost right on. After tweaking the EQ on my PC, I found that reducing the 2k frequency a few db really helped these earphones settle down for me. I also brought the 1k and 4k frequencies down a db or two. Since these are my primary work earphones, that isn't a big deal. Unfortunately, my primary portable player doesn't have custom EQ, so using them out and about is probably a no-go for me. Your mileage may vary, but in my opinion these IEMs have a slight hump at the 2k range which needs to be tamed.
Cyclone PR1-Pro: The best way to describe the sound of the PR1-Pros is "laid back" -- like wayyyyy back. Vocals are somewhat recessed, but otherwise these IEMs are well-rounded and unoffensive. Low-end is present, but never overbearing. These also avoid sounding "muddy" or "sibilant", which is nice. The Cyclones are probably best for just listening to your music and forgetting about it. It keeps the dynamics of the music to a minimum, with very little sticking out above the rest.
Maximo iM-590: With a signature very similar to the PR1-Pros, the im-590s don't particularly excel (or fail) in any area. They get the job done, and that is that. I did notice that the low-end could get slightly "muddy" from time to time, but not excessively so. All in all, they were somewhat less exciting than the PR1-Pros, which were already quite laid back.
Advantage: Soundmagic PL-50s for the most part. They seem capable of the best sound, though the slightly aggressive high-mids made me turn the volume down slightly on several occasions. I do expect this to settle over time. Otherwise, the PR1-Pros are the least offensive and most well-rounded of the bunch -- bordering on somewhat unengaging. The PL-50s will grab your attention from time to time, while the PR1-Pros will leave you alone.
Other Notes: It's worth noting that the PL-50s operated on much lower volume settings as compared with the other two. With my starting system volume at 50% and my software at 50%, I eventually bumped my system volume down to about 40% as the best comfort level for me when using the PL-50s. That said, I had to have my system volume at around 80% with the PR1-Pros and iM-590s to have a comfortable listening level. The difference is likely due to the impedance of these IEMs, with the PL-50s potentially using slightly less battery on your PMP over the long haul.
I find myself wanting to like certain products more than others, which likely biases my reviews slightly. In this case, though, I really wanted to like all three IEMs. Each of them has received many positive reviews -- especially for the given price point.
When all is said and done, though, the Soundmagic PL-50s are the ones I prefer the most. I like IEMs that are "engaging" (such as the Etymotic HF5s), and I enjoy attention to detail. Are the PL-50s for everyone? Certainly not, but in my opinion they are the best of this bunch. If you prefer a "laid back" sound, however, then go with the PR1-Pros.
Thanks for reading.