Panasonic RP-HJE900 Zirconia Review
Usually I don’t write reviews about products that have a) been on the market for well over a year and b) that I only got as a loaner from a friend for a month or so. In such cases I usually just can’t hold myself back when a product completely and utterly sucks, or when it’s so absurd, overpriced, yet amusing that it’s worth telling the public about it – at least for (caustic/abusive) comic relief.
The Panasonic RP-HJE900, released in June 2008, however is an underdog in-ear phone that’s so damn good for its current going price of around $120 that I thought I should help it to some more publicity. It’s barely ever mentioned anywhere, and before I got the pair from my friend (who goes by the nick James444 on the forums), I never even heard of it. This is a shame, since it really competes well with the best IEMs out there, no matter what price range. Sure, it might have some tiny flaws, but other phones that cost twice or three times as much might have some much more glaring faults than the HJE900.
Panasonic didn’t waste any resources on ostentatious, useless packaging with the HJE900 – they come in a simple cardboard box with plastic innards. Well, the golden embossed “Hi-Fidelity for Audiophiles” print is ostentatious/creepy enough, and usually a warning signal for me to run far, far away from a product that uses such slogans… but at least that print doesn’t cost the end user as much as the brushed aluminum cases of the Shure SE530 or Sennheiser IE8.
For accessories there’s only a draw-string pleather pouch and three pairs of single-flange silicon tips. To be honest, I didn’t even try the included tips; I went straight for my trusty Ultimate Ears Super.Fi tips, which always provide the best fit for my ears. They fit perfectly on the nozzle of the HJE900, and I never looked back.
Isolation with those silicon tips is about average. They block out most normal racket, on the street or on a bus – but on the subway they behave like most other non-custom IEMs, or at least ones that aren’t fitted with quality foam tips: they let some noise through, as expected. The HJE900 are vented on the inside (around the nozzle, three holes per earbud), but that doesn’t seem to diminish their isolation values, contrary to some other vented phones, such as the V-Moda Vibe.
Wait, wait, wait… I got so caught up in hard facts that I totally forgot about the whole marketing shtick Panasonic based their propaganda about these phones on: they’re made from – dramatic pause – Zirconia. To quote Panasonic’s press release, “Zirconia is a white crystalline oxide of zirconium dioxide (ZrO2). It is an extremely durable substance which can withstand extreme temperatures and is used as a thermal barrier coating in jet turbine and diesel engines. […] A sound chamber made of Zirconia has less resonance than plastic or aluminum. As a result, the RP-HJE900 in-ear headphones deliver ultra-clear sound reproduction with virtually no distortion. In addition to realistic sound, the durability of Zirconia offers audiophiles a scratchproof, ultra-tough construction for a lifetime of use.”
I can’t verify the acoustic properties of the material (and I even thought that ‘Zirconia’ means they’re made from fake diamonds) – but I can say without a doubt that the HJE900 are some of the best, most solidly built IEMs I’ve tried so far – maybe the very best even. Not only the sturdy, shiny, solid shell material, but also the cables are absolutely top notch. As a bonus, the cables are even user replaceable, meaning one doesn’t have to scrap the whole IEMs if the cables break. They’re about as well made as the other ‘best IEM cables ever’, the Sennheiser IE8 cables. All the strain reliefs on the Panasonic cable make sense and are very well engineered, the sleeve material is slick (none of that gross rubbery stuff), durable, and hardly ever tangles. The 3.5mm plug and the Y-splitter look gorgeous in their meticulously brushed aluminum enclosures, and they fulfill their function satisfyingly. The cables also behave well concerning noise transmission, they aren’t very microphonic. One thing to mention is that the cable is rather short, only one meter. For my needs that’s perfect, since I tend to attach my Sansa Clip+ to the hem of my shirt, and any longer cable just tangles needlessly – but of course your mileage may vary. Since the cables are easily replaceable, Panasonic could release them in different lengths, but to the best of my knowledge there’s no alternative to the currently available length. Well, one could always go the DIY route and whip up their own cables – the earbud connectors aren’t proprietary. They’re a widely used standard, found on cellphone AC chargers and such.
Panasonic’s spec sheet suggests the HJE900’s drivers sport an impedance of 26 Ohm and sensitivity of 100dB/mW. In plain English (and tested with my ears) this means that the phones are loud enough to be driven properly by even the wimpiest MP3 player out there, yet they’re well enough behaved as to not hiss. They actually don’t hiss at all, not even the slightest bit, even paired with problematic players. Personally, I’m seriously allergic to background hiss – and the Panas pass this test with flying colors. They do not need an amp in any case, neither my Headstage Arrow nor my Echo AudioFire made them sound any different than they would sound straight out of a decent MP3 player.
One more bureaucratic thing to mention would be that Panasonic brag in their press release about the phones being “designed with the expertise of Technics sound engineers”. That’s nice – so why aren’t the phones released under the Technics brand name? There might be several reasons, but I will never know for sure… While Panasonic certainly stands for quality home audio gear, Technics was always the more professional branch of the brand, most famous for products such as the SL-1200/1210 direct drive turntables, appreciated by DJs everywhere, for almost three decades. I guess the HJE900 just don’t fit into that professional line-up, as blingy as they are – or Panasonic’s marketing people simply don’t want them to fit in there. As far as their sound goes, they sure would fit the heritage of the Technics brand quite well. But in the end it doesn’t matter, their quality speaks for themselves, no matter what brand name got bestowed upon them.
Everything that follows in this chapter is without ifs or buts, I evaluated the HJE900 not according to their price range, but in regards to all the IEMs I’ve heard so far. They don’t have to shy away from any comparison.
In general I would compare the HJE900 to the Sennheiser IE8 when it comes to sound signature, but they got various properties of the JVC FX700 as well – not to mention quite a few similarities with my current full-sized closed headphones of choice, the Ultrasone HFI-780. Despite all those phones mentioned being dynamic driver ones, the HJE900 display attack speeds, punch, and dynamic as found in some of the really fancy balanced-armature-equipped IEMs, such as the EarSonics SM3, Phonak Audéo PFE, and the like. The word that describes the Panas for me the best is: snappy.
Bass on the HJE900 is well balanced, better than on the IE8 or the FX700. It’s got just the right quantity and quality. It is full, rich, and extends deep, yet it doesn’t suffer from any bloat or midbass hump that muddies up the rest of the frequency range. It is not an exaggerated bass, it is a natural bass. Don’t mistake that for anemic, so-called ‘neutral’ phones. The Panas sure do deliver the goods, according to what a human equal-loudness contour might be perceived as ‘just right’. The bass is engaging, makes music appear natural, and provides depth. It is tight and punchy.
The midrange is slightly recessed, as is usually the case with ‘natural’ sounding phones, since that is just how human hearing works – a flat frequency response isn’t perceived as natural. Due to that fact, the HJE900 sound great at even very low volume levels, but some people might find that attribute to become a bit too much when the phones are played at very loud volume levels. Not that I would recommend such health-hazardous tomfoolery… Anyway, detail and precision of the midrange is top notch, up there with the best IEMs money can buy. The HJE’s excellent speed and dynamics help as well, making listening to any style of music an exciting experience. Male and female voices, guitars, saxophones, drums, synthesizers, what have you – everything sounds great – nothing the Panas wouldn’t render properly.
Treble on the HJE900 is generally great as well, but sometimes a bit too much, slightly sibilant. While the treble extends very well up to the limits of human hearing, is always very airy and sparkling, sometimes it might get a bit sharp or harsh. Fret not, that can be easily fixed: The nozzle of the HJE900 is protected by a fine mesh which can be taken off. One can stuff some foam in there, which tames the excessive treble pretty well, making it a more pleasant, less ‘hot’ listening experience. Overall, it is just some separate peaks in the treble response that, when addressed, might be too sharp – yet as a whole the treble is very precise, detailed, and textured. I got used to it pretty well; I can’t say that the HJE’s treble distracts me from enjoying any kind of music in any way.
Soundstage, stereo imaging is really good as well. They have a rather wide, two-dimensional soundstage that sometimes almost seems to extrude into three-dimensional space. In my experience dynamic drivers are always better in that aspect than balanced armatures, but the Panas are even on the nicer side, as far as dynamic drivers go. Single instruments can easily be pinpointed in the surrounding soundscape, there’s no crude ‘three blob’ stereo image, as often found in other phones. I assume the vents around the nozzle of the phones are partially responsible for that: semi-open phones always seem to perform better than fully closed ones.
Overall clarity, punch, speed, detail, precision, instrument separation – check, they’re all there. Not only ‘there’, but at the top end of what is available in dynamic driver IEMs nowadays. Those are some really enjoyable, engaging phones. Almost scary they go for only $120 nowadays.
What can I say? I wish I knew about the Panasonic RP-HJE900 before. It is a shame that some clearly inferior phones get hyped and advertised that much, and the Panas fall through the cracks of the media, reviewers, and customers. I hope enough people actually bought a pair of those phones, so Panasonic feels encouraged enough to continue their research and development, and deliver some more of those (semi-literal) gems.
Other companies should take note on how excellent build quality can be in that price range, and that there is no excuse to sell something as inferiorly built as, say, the Shure SE530 for a much higher price. Even more extreme, the build quality (or at least the look and feel) of the EarSonics SM3 or Hifiman RE252 is nothing short of pathetic in comparison – but they can of course be excused, being some almost-one-man outlets – and not multinational corporations like Panasonic, who obviously can whip up batches of fancy Zirconia like it was ordinary plastic.
As for sound quality, Panasonic pretty much got it nailed with these IEMs – for my taste and my ears at least. They could make some small improvements here and there, but overall the HJE900 are some really grand sounding in-ear phones. I can only imagine what Panasonic/Technics is capable of in future phones – when/if they get some more reputation for their in-ear phones, when/if people start to talk about them, to buy them, to recommend them.
These things really took me by surprise. Give them a try, they’re worth it.
- Natural, laid-back, precise, detailed, punchy, dynamic, engaging, rich sound – real fun to listen to
- Stellar build quality, one of the best built IEMs I’ve tried
- User replaceable cables, little cable noise
- No hiss with any MP3 player
- Treble might be a bit sibilant with some material, but one can stuff some foam in the nozzle to tame it
Edited by dfkt - 2/12/11 at 4:00pm