Review: JH Audio JH13 Pro
dual-driver 3-way in-ear monitors
retail price at press time: $1099
date: April 12, 2010
Much has already been written about the JH13 here on Head-Fi, most of it positive. So why am I bothering to write this review? Two primary reasons: (1) I owe it to JH Audio and the community to give something back since I won my JH13 in the raffle at CanJam 2009 (generously provided by Jerry Harvey of course), and (2) to share my personal opinion of the JH13 - because my opinion of it is influenced by my previous headphone experience and unique sonic preferences, and this opinion seems to not be the same as anyone else's.
It was exactly 6 years ago today when I joined Head-Fi with no idea of what I was getting into and it's been a hell of a journey in so many ways. I'd like to thank Head-Fi for the cumulative experience that I've acquired without which I wouldn't be able to write this review.
My view of a headphone system is "source first" followed by headphones and then amp. In other words, a source of highest quality possible (assuming recordings of high quality also) should be paired with the most preferential-sounding headphone(s), to be driven by the most technically-optimal amp.
There's no accounting for even personal taste, as my current dynamic headphones run a sound-quality gamut: AKG K701, Audio-Technica ATH-ES7 & ATH-AD2000, Grado HP1000/HP2, HiFiMan HE-5, Klipsch X10, and Sony MDR-SA5000 & Qualia 010. And on the electrostatic side, I own the Stax OII MKI, SR-404LE, and SR-X MKIII. So let's just say that I'm open to different headphone sounds, but I tend to prefer those that are either fast (as in impulse response) or have extended bass and/or treble. Granted, none of my headphones meet all 3 preferences (not even the JH13), hence the reason for owning multiple headphones.
All previously owned (or heard, in some cases) equipment is listed in my profile for reference.
I've listened to countless different CDs on the JH13 since I received them in June 2009 so instead of listing specific CDs, instead this is a listing of most of the artists sampled (formatted into two "columns"):
A Fine Frenzy | A Perfect Circle
Aerosmith | Alison Krauss & Union Station
Beyond Twilight | Cannonball Adderley
Disturbed | Dream Theater
Erin Boheme | Eva Cassidy
In Flames | Iron Maiden
Jewel | Julie London
Katie Melua | Led Zeppelin
Linda Ronstadt | Massive Attack
Megadeth | Miles Davis
Nine Inch Nails | Orbital
Pearl Jam | Porcupine Tree
Sarah Brightman | Shelby Lynne
Solar Fields (MP3 format on iAudio X5) | Symphony X
Testament | The Beatles
The Crystal Method | The Ditty Bops
The Eagles | The Prodigy
Thievery Corporation | Wilco
Classical-music recordings by the following performers, conductors, and/or orchestras:
- Charles Mackerras & Scottish Chamber Orchestra - Schubert Symphonies No. 8 & 9
- Claudio Abbado & Berlin Philharmonic - Mahler Symphony No. 7
- Julia Fischer - Bach Concertos
- Renee Fleming - Thais
- Primary setup: Plinius CD-101 (CDP) > BPT IC-SL (RCA interconnects) > Rockhopper-built Balanced M3 (in single-ended mode)
- Transportable setup: laptop PC (music in FLAC) > HeadAmp Pico DAC/amp
- Ultraportable setup: iAudio X5, music in MP3 format
Unless noted otherwise below, assume all references to any headphones (or music as the case might be) to be based off the Plinius CD-101 & Rockhopper M3 setup.
Zero-Day Impressions (almost 10 months ago)
Actual auditory zero-day impressions have long since faded, of course. However, the key to retaining impressions long-term is not to remember the sound, but to remember the impressions.
Zero-day impressions of the JH13: the JH13 was initially underwhelming. No part of the sound really seemed to stick out (which is good) but at the same time it didn't exactly meet expectations. Soundstage was smaller than hoped for, and the overall frequency response was unexpectedly "flat"-sounding. Specifically, vocals appeared to be relatively recessed (compared to headphones like the K701 and AD2000). I decided to stick it out for a long-term haul and for a few months I listened to the JH13 only off my iAudio X5 MP3 player.
vs: AKG K701
Actual listening for this review did not start until I acquired a Rockhopper-built Balanced M3 back in February of this year, for the specific reason of allowing all my headphones to be as best amped as possible, including the JH13. True, an M3 for the JH13 is overkill, but my goal for this review was to compare it to my other headphones, and an M3 does a credible job to level the playing field.
I hesitate to use the word "better" to describe anything (as it's a subjective descriptor) but compared to the K701, I found the JH13 better in nearly every aspect, minus the soundstage. The K701 imposes a larger than necessary soundstage on everything it plays, which can be a nice effect on certain types of music, but this is an unnecessary additive element. In all other aspects ranging from bass & treble extension, to impulse response, to tone & timbre, to overall clarity throughout the spectrum, the JH13 eclipsed the K701. I can't think of any reason to recommend the K701 over the JH13.
vs: Audio-Technica AD2000
I've owned the AD2000 since June 2006 and have come to prefer it as my #1 headphone. I listen to the following types of music with it: alternative, electronica (primarily bass-driven types), trip-hop, prog rock, and metal (inclusive of all sub-genres).
If I had never acquired an AD2000, I could see myself using the JH13 in place of it, as it's almost on level with it in some aspects, but not all. However, since I have the AD2000 and really like it for the above music genres, it's extremely hard for another headphone to topple this preference and the JH13 doesn't quite get close enough to do so. The JH13 does do very well on electronica - deep, powerful bass, with more depth and power than the AD2000 in fact. However, everything from the bass up to the treble doesn't match what I've gotten accustomed to with the AD2000, and the JH13 isn't as exciting, as it doesn't have the forward mid-range and the incisive attack. This is just my preference though, as the JH13 is a very solid performer on such artists as The Crystal Method and The Prodigy. The JH13 is also very good for metal with its clarity and speed response, particularly thrash metal.
vs: Grado HP1000/HP2
Among the dynamic headphones I own, the HP2 is my usual preference for listening to classical music, jazz, and classic rock (also prog rock sometimes). The reason for this is due to its natural-sounding frequency response - instruments sound real on it, more than on any other of my dynamic headphones. Full-range instruments simply have proper body & weight on it. It has some limitations though, primarily in bass & treble extension and soundstage, which is a bit on the small-ish side and doesn't really adapt in size between different recordings.
Compared to the HP2, the JH13 doesn't exactly match its strength in the area of the natural-sounding instruments. Specifically, there's a kind of "living presence" to instruments on the HP2 that I've heard unmatched by any other headphone, dynamic or electrostatic. More than any other headphone the HP2 can effortlessly translate an entire orchestra (or alternately a single instrument in the orchestra, as the case might be) as a living, breathing thing that also sounds completely immersive, putting you right into the event. This is an unexplainable x-factor though and I'm unable to offer further details on it. In all other aspects the JH13 is extremely competent. It's considerably clearer-sounding (one of the HP2's drawbacks) and easily separates instrument sections from each other, and more to the point can even separate multiple violins from each other (not a quality most headphones have). It also has proper bass & treble extension and a soundstage that can actually adapt with respect to a recording.
The JH13 overall might be described as "thinner" sounding than the HP2, which has a much more fuller mid-range and mid-bass.
vs: HiFiMan HE-5
The HE-5 has not been in my headphone collection long enough for me to determine preferential music genres for it, and in fact I've had a hard time determining optimal music genres for it.
Compared to the HE-5, I would describe the JH13 as probably a better version of it - in a sense, they're almost cut from the same cloth, but the JH13 is smoother-sounding with just as much overall clarity, no propensity towards sibilance, a tighter & faster bass, a smaller soundstage that adapts to the recording, and less differentiation of the musical elements. The one aspect I might give to the HE-5 though might be treble quantity, as it has significantly more, giving it a sharper-sounding edge (which I personally like). The JH13 has a smoother treble in comparison.
vs: Sennheiser HD800 & Beyerdynamic T1
See this post (later in this very thread on page 3): http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/482773/review-jh-audio-jh13/15#post_6987501
vs: Klipsch X10
IEM vs IEM: a fair fight, right? Not really. The X10 was my previous solution for all ultraportable situations in tandem with my iAudio X5, and I enjoyed it primarily with electronica & rock music (but it also did relatively well with all other genres of music). The JH13 just about beats it down and eats it for breakfast though. My main issues with the X10 include its treble-off, small soundstage, and a bass response that's not "tight" enough. On two occasions I also got its bi-flanges stuck in one ear (don't ask how). The JH13 solves my issues with the X10 and inherently prevents anything from ever getting stuck in an ear again.
The X10 is a still a fine IEM, though it's clearly in a different class of IEM due to its price and universal fit. I would summarize it as a fun, bassy-sounding IEM, and not too far of a departure from the Klipsch sound (for those familiar with Klipsch's speakers).
vs: Sony Qualia 010
It might sound almost ridiculous but I use the Qualia 010 primarily only for two music genres: bluegrass and ambient electronic. The reason for this is simple: its treble response is awesome. So awesome, in fact, I feed off of it frequently and I've probably forever ruined myself by hearing it - I can no longer listen to Alison Krauss & Union Station with any of my other headphones, dynamic or electrostatic. None of them compare even remotely.
So this set a lofty goal indeed for the JH13 to aspire to: could it even hope to match the Qualia 010 on just one type of music? No, it could not. The Qualia 010 completely outclasses the JH13 on treble response alone. The steel guitar, dobro, & banjo combination in the music from AKUS, IMO, is perfectly rendered by only the Qualia. The JH13 simply does not deliver the twang or pop, or the high-speed zings/vibrations, or the ultra razor-like claws-on-metal sensations. JH13 fail, Qualia win!
vs: Stax OII MKI on HeadAmp BHSE
The OII MKI, combined with the SR-X MKIII, can cover most genres of music that I listen to: classical, jazz, alternative, electronica/trip-hop, rock, metal. Amped by the BHSE, it's one of the most amazing things that I've ever heard and it's downright killer on high-quality recordings - everything sounds good.
To even hope that the JH13 can compare to the OII/BHSE on anything is a bit of wishful thinking. And it can't - the JH13 is good, really good even, but the level of performance provided by the OII/BHSE is on another playing field. The JH13's speed response is very fast and it has a low & powerful bass, along with strong clarity. But it needs more than that to match the OII/BHSE, as the OII easily matches these qualities and surpasses it in others - notably soundstage, level of detail, and frequency balance. Although the JH13 has a supremely well-balanced frequency response, the OII can get even better with a slightly extra degree of tilt towards the treble. The OII can also create a slightly bigger soundstage with more air and space while still sounding completely realistic, and its level of detail retrieval is astonishing - it can reveal subtle textures in the mid-bass area, along with minor volume modulations and the intensity behind volume surges, and the "brush stroke"-like sound that a violin can often impart. And only the OII can produce a heart-racing, pulse-pounding sensation (a sort of "x-factor" if you will) on high-intensity instrumentation, a quality that eludes the JH13, as good as it is.
To boil it down, the JH13 is a killer IEM, and it delivers fantastic sound as has been reported before by others. It has a completely non-intrusive, "flat" sound compared to most other headphones, allowing it to play every type of music competently, and you can take it with you anywhere! What's not to like, right? Well as I personally discovered, it's not perfect-sounding for every scenario.
Is it the best IEM that I've heard? Yes.
Will it replace any of my full-size headphones? No.
Does it beat any of my full-size headphones at their specific strengths? No. (Ok, K701 excepted.)
I'm not really sure I would've bought the JH13 if I hadn't won one at CanJam 2009, as I was already mostly settled with my headphones back in May 2009, and even after hearing it I'm still not sure I would've bought it regardless. Sonically it doesn't offer anything new to me that I can't get with one of my other headphones. The one thing that makes it most attractive to me, though, is the fact that it's all wrapped up into a tiny ultraportable package and that I can get great sound directly out of my iAudio X5 or my laptop PC. That's the amazing part and for that I'm glad I own the JH13.
Addendum: I also wrote this review of the JH13 on HeadRoom's site - http://www.headphone.com/product_review.php?reviewID=768
Addendum #2 (added 2012-04-30): My opinion of JH Audio as a brand changed after reading about their poor handling of the JH-3A audio DSP on Head-Fi. The situation behind the JH-3A can be read in these threads:
After reading about JH Audio's handling of the production issues with the JH-3A, my opinion of them became negative and today, as I write this, I would no longer recommend buying from them, and I'd like to formally retract my previous recommendation & endorsement of the JH-13 as written in this review. Though I still like the JH-13's sonics, I would not buy another IEM from JH Audio, and if anything were to happen to my JH-13 today (i.e., being broken, lost, or stolen, for example), I would look elsewhere for a replacement custom IEM. The 1st option on my radar would be the Ultimate Ears IERM (In-Ear Reference Monitor) based solely on the various user impressions that I've read about it, not based on any personal experience.
Edited by Asr - 5/5/12 at 3:07pm