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[REVIEW] Superlux HD381F --- Bargain Bin Bliss

post #1 of 25
Thread Starter 

First off, I'm relatively new to the world of high fidelity sound, having only begun reading Head-Fi threads a year ago, but since that time I've rapidly accelerated my understanding of audio and although I haven’t had a lot of time, I nevertheless have had the opportunity to test out a myriad of products, ranging from the cheap to the high-end. With each earphone that I’ve listened to, I’ve incrementally improved my understanding of what good sound is. To celebrate my first year of audiophilia, I've decided to publish my first review. Hopefully it is laid out in a way that is coherent and thought-provoking for fellow HeadFi-ers. I don't presume to be an audio guru like so many others on this forum, but I consider myself a person who is analytical (in logic, not necessarily sound preference) about my approach to assessing sound.

 

I chose the Superlux HD381F to review mainly because it stands out so well for its price point and its sonic presentation. It's also a relatively obscure IEM for HeadFi-ers. It has been reviewed before, but the reviewer compared it favorably to the “pantheon of greats” (Shure SE530, Westone UM3x, UE Triple.fi 10), and thus may not have been taken seriously. I’m going to try to take a slightly more grounded approach, although the review is still going to be largely positive.

 

Also, I apologize in advance for my wordy prose (this review pushes 5000 words), but hopefully the review is laid out in a manner that is clear and organized for readers.


INTRODUCTION

 

I cannot tell you how many times, while listening to music with these IEMs, I've dropped my jaw and said out loud, "I can't believe I got these for less than $20." This statement should be the central tenet to take away from this review, and a great starting point from which I shall begin.

 

Good products are hard to find these days. Market saturation and uniform production from manufacturers have made differentiation of non-high tech products extremely difficult. Unless your product has more than two million transistors inside, everything is a crap shoot. Such is the case with the world of portable audio. In the iPod age, any Joe Schmoe looking to replace his white Apple earbuds can walk into a store and pick up a pair of earphones for $15, or even $1. If he's keen on hearing better quality from his iPod, he can even move upward to cloned selections of $50, $100, and more. Gone are the days where only a few specialized manufacturers make $400 earphones, while the rest languish in the cheapo range. There are now so many good products, and it's difficult to distinguish the great from the good, especially on the lower end. In hindsight, I too fell victim to the mass consumers' irrational exuberance when I bought the Klipsch Image S4 canalphones last February. Don't get me wrong, I loved the fit and style of the S4s, and they did deliver the rich low end and fun factor I expected out of the Klipsch sound signature, but they still tended toward the consumer style sound --- slightly recessed midrange, colored treble, and overly emphasized bass. I had resigned myself to the belief that if I were to hear a more neutral sound presentation from my headphones, I'd have to invest a lot more money. Thus, I happily used my S4s until sadly and inexplicably, the left side died on me and I was left with nothing to listen to. No longer able to tolerate the sound of stock earphones, I fretted about the prospect of having to buy poorer quality earphones. With my financial situation as a simple student, I couldn't afford to drop $350 on a Westone UM3x. I had to look elsewhere.

 

Superlux is a Taiwanese audio company that is known for their microphones. For a couple of decades, they carved out a nice little niche market of budget PA systems and KTV microphones, as well as OEM/ODMing for the likes of AKG, Audio-Technica, and Sony. These past few years, they’d also begun to make personal audio products. Despite their own products’ appearances as low-rent versions of more well-known products, Superlux managed to garner a small cult following of audio enthusiasts that found their products to be great audio reproducers while at the same time being light on the wallet. One prime example of Superlux's bang-for-buck appeal is the full-sized HD668B, which were critically acclaimed as $30 (initial asking price) technical monsters that were on par with or bested other ~$100, highly-respected headphones (e.g. AKG K240 series, Alessandro MS1, Audio-Technica ATH-AD700). Its little brother, the HD681 was likewise a popular product amongst enthusiasts looking for a cheap, modification-friendly headphone that sounded great.

 

Lost in the middle of these large cans were the small, semi-open HD381 canalphones. At an MSRP of 690 NT (<$25 USD) and a street price of <600 NT (<$20 USD), these IEMs were often packaged as gifts accompanying Superlux's full-sized headphones or sold in a bulk variety pack of three, with each HD381 type offering a different sound signature. The 'F' model is the 'flat' variant, offering a more neutral response curve, while the 'B' model is 'balanced', and the unmarked one the typical consumer-oriented, bassy model.

 

In my panicked state of not having headphones to listen to and with little money in the bank, I bought the HD381F as a leap of faith. I'm happy to declare that I not only landed on both feet (or both ears, if you will) but am now recommending others to take that same leap. Mind you, these impressions are only for the 'F' model of the 381 series, and not any of the others. I cannot vouch for the sonic integrity of the other models in the series.

 

DESIGN, BUILD QUALITY & ERGONOMICS

 

Design & Ergonomics
The HD381 line is a 'clone' of the Sony MDR-EX90LP. In all likelihood, Superlux once were the ODM/OEM for Sony’s now aging IEM, and thus used the same outward appearance, exchanging the metal body for cheap plastic. Both also use the same sized 13.5mm drivers. The idea of mounting an earbud-sized driver oblique to the ear canal is not a new concept, and Superlux likely followed this model to create an IEM that sounded great at a low cost.

 

The package includes a shirt clip and a cord winder, as well as a selection of small, medium, and large silicone ear tips. The different sizes are color coded (small is clear, medium is grey, and large is black), and offer a comfort level commensurate with most other silicone tips out on the market. In particular, I find the smallest ones to be most comfortable, but I normally opt to use Comply T-400 tips instead (to tame the treble, more on that later).

 

In general, comfort is an issue at the onset of putting the HD381F in the ears. Most large driver IEMs and earbuds are awkward to wear at the beginning, but once a wearer is used to the earbud-style fitment, the comfort is not all that bad.

 

Build Quality
Let me get this out of the way. The build quality is BAD. The entire enclosure is made of cheap plastic, and the strain reliefs simply don’t earn their lunch money as such. It’s easy to see why the HD381 series hasn’t sold well; its build quality would be questionable even for the average consumer coming up from the iBuds. When putting them on, there is significant driver flex especially with pressure-sealing triple-flange eartips. This type of shoddy build is poor even for Superlux’s standards, whose products are normally well put together despite their use of predominantly cheap plastics. It is this very build quality that will be the major deterrent for anyone considering buying them.


SOUND

 

Foreword about sound assessment --- I don’t have much high end equipment (yet), and thus all comparisons are made un-amped with my HP dv4t notebook computer using foobar2000 v1.1 and WASAPI in exclusive mode at 24-bit, 96 kHz. The notebook contains dual 3.5mm outputs so I can do simultaneous A/B testing. Portable sound assessments are made with an Apple iPod Touch 2nd Generation 8 GB un-amped.

 

The general sound of the HD381F is neutral, subtly mid-forward and bright, with deep and impactful but very controlled bass. The sound is spacious and transparent, although it may not sound as full-bodied as other IEMs.

 

In the context of putting them in the category of sub-$30 in-ears, the HD381F are absolutely the most revealing IEMs I've ever listened to. While their ability to resolve is nowhere near the level of top-end IEMs, they nevertheless compete with nearly all the sub-$100 headphones out there (that I've listened to). In a quiet room, the HD381F resolves more detail than a Klipsch Image S4, Audio-Technica CKS50/70/90, CKM55, and Shure SE115, just to name a few. The Etymōtic MC5 may possibly resolve marginally more mid-to-high frequency detail (listened to the MC5 a while ago, so I don’t remember clearly). Mind you, I haven't had the opportunity to test out some of the budget kings in this sub-$100 category such as the Hippos, ViSang/Brainwavz, RE0, etc. so the HD381F’s placement amongst them is unknown. If I had to take a gander, I'd say that even if the Superlux couldn’t resolve as well, it would surely still not be too far behind, as the HD381F are also able to handle and articulate the added resolution and dynamic range of 24-bit/96 kHz music, but sometimes does not take the high-resolution music to its full potential.

 

The strength of the HD381F's sound isn't at all in its resolving capabilities, however. We all know that resolution is not the key to an enjoyable music experience, but rather the cohesiveness in balance across the frequency range. In all honestly, the majority of Superlux products I’ve tried or bought have this property. The distribution between the lows, mids, and highs is so well balanced, that the only IEMs I’ve tried so far that have been as ‘euphonic’ as the HD381Fs have been the SE535 and the e-Q7 --- quite the elite company. Whatever resolution or distortion shortcomings the HD381Fs have is made up by the sonic presentation. It is for these reasons that the HD381F doesn’t feel boring, despite it not being full-bodied or super detailed in any frequency range.
At this point, if you’re still reading, you might be thinking, “Are you out of your mind? Really? $20? Better than top-tier IEMs?” --- No, that’s not at all what I’m saying. What I am saying is that Superlux managed to take bargain bin parts and tune it to its full potential, and that ceiling is as good of a sound package as I’ve ever heard.

 

Onto the negatives. Sonically, there really isn't anything to complain about, especially when you consider their price. The tuning is perhaps a little rough (not unexpected for the price) and it doesn't do well with poorly recorded material. It does best with lossless and higher resolution tracks, where the graininess is kept to a minimum.

 

Soundstage
While the HD381F isn’t a performer with respect to temporal output, it’s certainly very nice with spatial output. Since their design is more akin to an earbud than to an IEM, the HD381F imparts a much larger soundstage than most, almost on par with the IE8. The spaciousness of the HD381F isn’t surprising, however, since the semi-open design implies that it is airy. If I had to take a guess, the Phiaton PS210 would probably sound very similar with regard to the sound stage because of the extremely similar design and sound philosophy.

 

Unfortunately, it isn't able to convey three-dimensional space as accurately as full-sized cans, and that fact is not a surprise. While the instrumental separation is not bad, it doesn’t blow me away. When switching from full-sized headphones to the HD381Fs, the natural positioning of vocals is not rendered correctly, more often appearing right outside the ears than not.

 

Frequency Response
On frequency tests, they hold good volume down to 40 Hz, with a nice drop-off down to 30 Hz (a sustained 30 Hz tone is easily heard and felt at normal listening volumes), and frequencies in the mid-20 Hz range can still be heard as well. On the high side, like most IEMs, it drops off sharply at 16 kHz, but holds the volume fairly well until that mark. Thus, we can safely say that the HD381F is well-extended on both ends of the spectrum with little roll-off until the extremes.

 

Bass
In an outside environment, the bass is a bit weak as the isolation on the HD381F is poor, but in quiet environments I would consider the bass to be decently strong. The impact may not satisfy the crudest of bass heads, but it doesn’t fail to render beautifully rich bass texture. After careful consideration, I'd say that the bass is best frequency range of these IEMs, by merit of its texture and dynamism, while never getting in the way of the midrange. The large 13.5mm drivers are probably the reason for its ability to produce nice bass, and I've always preferred dynamic drivers' ability to produce that natural, blooming attack and decay of very low frequencies. However, the bass speed isn't particularly anything to write home about, and I'd put it as average amongst most earphones.

 

Midrange
The mids are slightly forward, but not too much, and aren't thick, so they may come across as slightly thin compared to lush, forward midranges of Shure, etc. I actually find the midrange of the HD381F to be very enjoyable, since it's not too forward but not at all laid back, so it fits seamlessly within the music. The one caveat is that the tuning of it is a bit rough, and lacks the type of refinement one might find in the products of other, larger brands. Give it sufficiently high resolution music and these problems go away, but typical music may make them sound a little 'rough around the edges' and louder listening volumes really highlight this fact, tending a little toward sibilance.

 

Treble
Perhaps the weakest part of the HD381F response range. It sounds fine in the grand scheme of things and carries a nice subtle sparkle to its upper frequencies, but complex treble passages will cause a little bit of distortion. Poorly mastered tracks also tend to exaggerate the HD381F’s distortion characteristics. These problems are mitigated partly by using Comply tips, which warm up the upper treble a bit. Since warm upper treble is my personal preference, this solution works great for me.

 

TRACK ANALYSIS BY GENRE

 

US Pop
'Starstruck' - Lady Gaga feat. Flo Rida, Space Cowboy, The Fame Monster (V2 LAME MP3)
This Space Cowboy produced track begins with a great sub-bass line, and gradually creeps up into the mid-bass area, punctuated by synthesized organs. The HD381F does a great job of making everything sound clear and separated, but bass heads will feel underwhelmed by the impact of the bass. For everyone else, however, the bass impact will be plenty, especially for those coming from BA-based IEMs.

 

Asian Pop
'First Love' - Utada Hikaru, First Love (320 CBR MP3)
The single that launched Hikki to stardom is a very nicely recorded track with a great natural sense of air. I have no idea how it was actually recorded, but it imparts the feel of a recording done in a large auditorium, similar to the style of early 90s pop ballads from the likes of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. The HD381F puts the right amount of air and reverberation into the vocals, which sound natural and detailed. By comparison, the Philips SHE9850, a much more forward-sounding earphone, sounds a bit artificial here as it fails to convey the proper sense of space with a compressed soundstage and, by consequence, unnaturally forward vocals.

 

'Forgotten Times' - Tsai Chin (FLAC)
By the way, if any of you want to listen to a quality vocalist for Mandarin music, Tsai Chin is the way to go. She's an oldie but a real goodie. If she got in the recording booth today with the best equipment, she'd give singers like Rebecca Pidgen a run for their money. A bit of trivia -- this song was prominently featured in the opening scene of the HK film 'Infernal Affairs', the movie from which Scorsese’s 'The Departed' was adapted. Tsai Chin begins the song acapella, and the undulations of her throat are heard clearly.

 

'Gee' - SNSD Girls' Generation (FLAC)
I had to test a 'modern day' track. To me, this song is the perfect example of modern Asian pop --- highly produced with vocals from questionable singers. The instrumental to 'Gee' is actually quite complex. Here, the naturally large soundstage of the HD381F comes through, while keeping the puposely forward vocals up front. The synthesized treble chimes are sweet and hold a nice, subtle sparkle. However, the HD381F fails to 'smooth out' things, and the squeaky clean pop sound we expect comes out as slightly grainy.

 

Hip-Hop
'Nuthin' But a G Thang' - Dr. Dre, The Chronic (320 CBR MP3)
Being a SoCal kid, I wholeheartedly embraced the Dre-perfected G-Funk sound in my adolescent years. This track also reminds us what hip-hop sounded like before studios began the loudness wars with ridiculous compression levels. The track is unabashedly blaze-tastic and I easily latched onto the bass guitar embellishments in the background. One criticism is that the synthetic violins come off as a bit texture-less, but I don’t know whether a technical deficiency of the IEM caused it or it was a natural element of the recording.

 

R&B/Soul
‘I Need a Dollar’ - Aloe Blacc, Good Things (FLAC)
I thoroughly enjoyed the trumpets on this track, but the piano and kick drum were rendered a bit too politely, a likely byproduct of the HD381F’s aspirations as a neutral monitor. Vocals and bass guitar were realistic and lively.

 

Vocal Jazz
'I've Grown Accustomed to His Face' - Diana Krall, Quiet Nights (HDTracks, 24/96 FLAC)
Krall's Quiet Nights CD has a reputation as one of the best recorded and mastered albums to come out in the last few years, and its quality does indeed shine through with the HD381F, especially through the high resolution HDTracks version. Right from the intro, I could hear the subtle piano pedals articulating realistically. Krall’s breathy voice is clear and each breath has the requisite air. It’s a beautiful, subtle track and the HD381F does a decent job of making it feel transparent yet intimate.

 

'Les Eaux de Mars' - Stacey Kent, Raconte-Moi (FLAC)
This French re-imagination of Jobim’s ‘Waters of March’ is a lively, upbeat track and the CD master has an seemingly artificially boosted low-end, but the HD381F never causes that bloomy bass to bloat and get in the way of Kent's sweet voice. There's enough instrument separation to hear the strings on the guitar very clearly, as well as the bass string vibration. The gentle cymbal report decays nicely.

 

'I Wouldn't Need You' - Norah Jones, The Fall (FLAC)
Okay, I know that technically Norah's music doesn't fit in this category, but her reputation as a vocalist is in concert with the others. There’s a very low level electronic hum in the background that can be heard through BA-based IEMs, but with the HD381F the hum is very subtle. The lack of this detail is made up by a very nice rendition of the bass in this song, which has a fullness that only dynamic IEMs can fully realize. The higher undulating notes are clearly separated from the bass but lacks in resolution. Jones’ voice tends to get a little sibilant at times during the song.

 

Instrumental Jazz
'Flamenco Sketches' - Miles Davis, Kind of Blue 50th Anniversary Collectors’ Edition (FLAC)
Maintaining the absolute purity of Davis’ trumpet notes was a little bit of a trouble for the HD381F, but the slight distortion didn’t bother me too much (maybe I’m not as big a Jazz enthusiast as I thought) and there was still enough palpable texture in each note to feel real. As per usual, the bass notes were great.

 

Bossa Nova
'Doralice' - Joao Gilberto, Getz/Gilberto (24/96 FLAC)
I prefer this song over some of the more famous tracks off this album because of its upbeat nature. The clarity is great; with the high-resolution original master file, I could hear the subtle crescendo/decrescendo of the hi-hat from the drums, which was a great delight. Everything also doesn’t sound too rushed, as it may feel with other remastered versions because of the compressed instrument space, but this credit goes to the 24-bit file.

 

Classical
'Symphonie Espagnole, Op. 21' - Eduard Lalo, Performed by: Anne-Sophie Mutter (320 CBR MP3)
The first movement of this 'symphony for violin' was one of the signature pieces in my own solo repertoire, so I know it inside and out. The brightness of Mutter's 'Emiliani' Stradivarius is apparent even on this relatively dark solo piece. Mutter does a great job of making immediate transitions from the harsh scratchy sound (necessary for this piece) to sweet smoothness, and the HD381F reproduces these changes perfectly. It does lack a bit of resolution at times when compared to BA-based IEMs, not that it really matters all that much for this track, since it was one of the old ones Mutter recorded with Seiji Ozawa and the French National Orchestra. The orchestrals of Symphonie Espagnole tend to sound very murky on-stage or off, so the HD381F actually does an admirable job of conducing transparency. While the presentation of soundstage was okay, it wasn't nearly as wide or as realistic when compared to the full-size HD668B (not a surprise). Assessment of instrument separation was not really possible with this recording.

 

'Zigeunerweisen AKA Gypsy Airs' - Pablo Sarasate, Performed by: Gil Shaham (320 CBR MP3)
I've been a fan of Gil Shaham and his ability to phrase passages for quite a while now, and Zigeunerweisen is the best piece to assess a headphone’s ability to render the pure grit needed play this song. This is not a piece where one lets the bow sing; even on the light passages, this is a piece that requires precise bow control to distribute even pressure across the length of the bow but heavy pressure at the ends. I could hear all this with the HD381F (that is not to say that other IEMs cannot do the same). The one criticism I have is the vibrato texture; it is slightly lacking and I suspect that a BA IEM may do better, or at least a faster tuned dynamic driver IEM.

 

This is a side note regarding how I listen to classical music -- I listen almost exclusively to violin music, as I trained for nearly 15 years as a classical violinist and am most familiar with the sonic nuances of that instrument. With orchestral pieces, I prefer the onstage feel. I'm not the biggest fan of listening to classical music from the audience's perspective. I spent ten years in various orchestras ranging from amateur to professional, and the most involving part of being a classical musician is the feel of immensity emanating from all sides as the cymbals crash and the tympani is rumbling behind you. I had the honor of being second chair violinist as well as concertmaster for quite a few years and thus had a listening perspective very similar to that of the conductor. Thus, my sonic preferences with regard to listening to classical music might differ from others’.

 

SUMMARY


All I can say is that I’ve never quite had an earphone that has wowed me this much. The HD381F blends the different frequencies together in such a harmonious manner that I always forget I’m listening to $19 earphones that ultimately don’t have the technical proficiency to measure up to the elite IEMs. While A/B-ing them with the UM3x, I had to always listen for specific things in the music to find the small elements of the UM3x that were invariably superior to HD381F. While the UM3x was highly detailed and imparted a great sense of intimacy, it often didn’t engage me to the music as well as the HD381F often does. I often switch between the HD381F and the Philips SHE9850 that I use during my commute, and while the sound of the SHE9850 is more dynamic and may grab a listener at the onset, switching between it and the HD381F highlights the deficiencies of the SHE9850, in particular its lack of proper treble, its artificial-sounding bass, and its tendency to be a bit too mid-forward (for my tastes).

 

These facts say a lot about the way the HD381F presents its music. While I have other options for listening these days, I come back to the HD381F for quiet room listening. In a quiet room, it’s detailed enough, and the distortion that it has in various parts of the frequency spectrum is small enough to ignore. Best of all, the semi-open nature of the phones precludes the need for me to equalize ear pressure and imparts a sense of a wide soundstage, a quality rare in most IEMs. You really can’t go wrong with the sound; it caters to analytical listeners but won’t alienate mid-centrists or even bass heads (okay, only if you’re not the type that requires head-rumbling bass).

 

For those of you who might think I might’ve gone off my rocker for holding a pair of $20 IEMs in such high esteem, I took a long time writing this review, listening to as many different IEMs as I could, to make sure what I was writing could hold up under the microscope. I’ve hit just about every single top-tier IEM there is (save for the RE0/ZERO/262, ER4P/S, and GR8/10, and the ridiculous Final Audio offerings), and while I may like some of them better (my favorites thus far are the UM3x, SE535, and e-Q7 in no particular order), there’s a certain charm about these cheapies that I stick in my ear every day and if a pair of $100+ IEMs don’t achieve a sonic balance close to the HD381Fs, I know they’re not worth my money.

 

Most of the gripes any owner will have with these earphones are in the areas of build quality, isolation, and ergonomics. These elements are still extremely important in the selection of a good IEM, and because of its poor build quality, I can't recommend these earphones for daily use as the primary IEM; I'm also well aware that Superlux products are difficult to obtain outside of Asia, but If any of you ever come around these parts, pick up a pair just because they're so cheap. Then you, like I have countless times, can drop your jaws and say flat out, "I can't believe I got this for less than $20!" They're that good.

 

 

Superlux HD381F In-Ear Headphones (IEM)
Comparable IEMs in Design: Sony MDR-EX90LP, Phiaton PS210

 

PROS
- Great, Cohesive Sonic Presentation, Neutral Response But Never Boring
- Wide Soundstage
- Decent Bass Extension and Presence
- Forward, But Natural Mid-Range
- Cheap (Price)

CONS
- Treble Distorts at Higher Volumes
- Vocals Subject to Source-Dependent Harshness and Distortion
- Vocal Sibilance is Grating at Higher Volumes (Goes Away with Sufficient Burn-In)
- Sub-Par Build Quality (Cheap Plastic, Non-Functional Strain Reliefs, Driver Flex)
- Semi-Open Design is Bad for Isolation
- Fit Can Get Uncomfortable Over Time

post #2 of 25

nice. didnt knew that brand was into IEMs, after trying the HD668B. other superlux appeals me for sure.

 

thanks for the review, and we like photos around here!

post #3 of 25
Thread Starter 

the guy who reviewed them before me actually had some really nice pictures, so i didn't think they were necessary. i'll see what i can do to supplement.
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by JamesMcProgger View Post

thanks for the review, and we like photos around here!

post #4 of 25

question, where did you get them from? any more superlux products? like their headphone amp per say? or the HD681?

post #5 of 25
Thread Starter 

Well, I live for most of the year in Taiwan, so their products are in most audio stores here. Like I mentioned, I bought them initially as a temporary fix for my headphone woes, and didn't expect to like them so much. I can get most Superlux products, including the amp, here, but some products listed on their site are either not produced anymore or only available in China. I've listened to the HD681... it's not bad, but the 668B is quite a bit better.

post #6 of 25

Just got my HD381F, and ~6 hrs into the burn-in period, my main thought is still "I paid more for lunch today than this?" (to be fair, I treated my friend for lunch since she's the one who bought this for me, so that's for two people). I haven't had experience listening to the UE TF10s, the RE0s and the like, and up to this morning, the best pair of IEMs I've had extensive listening time to is the Soundmagic PL50, which, for reasons I can't understand, can't find any of the stock tips (foam or rubber ) to fit me well. Please don't judge me for what I haven't had the chance to try out but for what I've tried out and listen to.

 

Let's get this out of the way: build quality is bad. This thing is (much much) closer to a Fisher-Price toy than a Fischer Audio IEM. iBuds feel more sturdy than this. Whatever they say about how bad the build quality on this is, it sure seems understated. Microphonics are pretty much average (something you really get used to sometimes, and doesn't affect me as much as others, YMMV). Comfort is so-so, and I changed the tips to the softer Sennheiser stock tips (which fit perfectly), since the stock tips are a tad itchy. I don't have any Sony hybrids, nor can I get some soon, so that will have to wait. Isolation isn't that bad, but it will have to do.

 

Owning a Grado SR80i, the first thing that came to my mind when listening was "oh, right, this song had really nice bass". It doesn't have the same extension as the SR80i, but it sure is making itself heard more now. No, the SR80i doesn't lack bass, but the song/amp has to push it for you. This isn't anything near the CX300/S4 or other bassheads' IEM, where the bass is overwhelming/bloated/muddy, but the HD381F has well controlled, and tight bass. It won't satisfy the bassheads, but they won't feel lacking with this. I've had a Sennheiser HD437, CX200II and CX300 and they had really nice bass for something in the $50 range. But this one outdoes it for less than half the price. Again, well controlled, and more importantly, tight. For once, Timbaland and Dr. Dre produced albums sound listenable to me.

 

With regards to the mids, they're really nice, if a bit veiled. Maybe burning in will help it open up, but the detail is there. It doesn't help that most of the songs I listen to are rock and metal. Guitars seem tamed, and snare drums sound a tad muffled. Again, coming from Grados, it sure sounds different, and maybe some burn-in will help. It shines in most acoustic tracks and the lighter tracks. Putting on my RnB/Pop playlist, the vocals and detail again shone through. I can't find any trace of sibilance as the previous guys noted. If anything my ears are looking for a bit more sparkle. Maybe if someone can point to me a particular song where I can look for where the sibilance will manifest?

 

Soundstage is, well, coming from a Grado, wider. Not necessarily better (which is why I got the SR80i in the first place), but gives a good change of pace. So far, fatigue isn't an issue, and I intend to listen throughout much of the burn-in period (and post updates).

 

So, will this take the place of my SR80i as my main weapon of choice? Hell no. My main choice of music sounds much better on the Grados. But these are far and away the second best in my (admittedly cheap) collection.

 

BTW, this is my first post on Head-fi. My wallet is shuddering in fear.

post #7 of 25
Thread Starter 

Welcome to Head-Fi! At least you chose this junky thing and not a custom as your starting point! tongue_smile.gif I'm pretty sure my own wallet is plotting to overthrow me like Gaddafi as we speak, after what I did to it. biggrin.gif

 

Yeah, I never take these things outside, for fear that they'll spontaneously dissolve. It's a good thing I can literally walk 15 minutes from my room and buy another pair.

 

As for the bass, it extends very low. With proper amping, it will also reach skull blasting levels, while retaining the same great level of control.

 

The mids take some time to open up. While I've never regarded them as veiled (perhaps you're used to the mid-forward sound of the PL50 and aggressive upper-mid+treble of your Grados?), it will take about 75-100 hours for graininess to tone down to acceptable levels. However, the detail isn't going to get much better, although it's good enough. For me, sibilance went away late, at over 250 hours. Now, they're not sibilant at all for me.

 

The differences in perception between you and me definitely seem to stem from musical preference; you might guess from my test music that I don't listen to rock much, so I can't help you with much there. Perhaps I can play devil's advocate and entice you into trying the Triple.Fi, which is quite good for your genera of music... hehe -- your wallet doth protest!

post #8 of 25

@tomscy2000, How are these with amps? I do plan to amp them soon, but it's straight out of the laptop and a Nokia 5800XM for now. And if you see a black, worn-out wallet weilding a knife, I suggest you run for cover and call the police. beerchug.gif

 

I agree with you that it's either my preference in music or being used to the Grado sound that may be affecting the way I listen to the mids and treble now. Just to be clear with the rest of the people here, the mids are nowhere near bad. In fact, I'd say they're just about the same as the PL50's with regards to detail, maybe a hair less. Again, maybe more burn-in (already at the 15hr mark or so) may help. But I don't think it will open up enough with regards to the tamed down guitars and snare drums. Some may like it that way, though, for say, Paramore or maybe Linkin Park. But not GnR, Tool, or Led Zeppelin. Other genres though will love this. This feels more of a great all-rounder rather than an elite specialist. Again, not a bad thing at all especially when you may have paid more for a sub-par bottle of wine. I could YMMV myself to oblivion here, but fact is, a half-decent steak dinner could cost more than this. And even if you take away the price argument, no one is going to deny that these sound damn good.

 

BTW, I just loaned the PL50, and because I never could find the tips that could fit me, I never bought it. In the few moments I did get a good seal (holding it in real good), it was also really great. Unfortunately, it didn't make sense for me it at that time to buy it. Conversely, I loved the way the S4 fit, but not the sound. Right now, I think I'm happy with the HD381F.

 

Also, the HD381F absolutely hates low bitrate mp3s. Anything less than 192kbps would sound horrendous on these. Metallica's "Death Magnetic" is absolutely horrendous, after enjoying it so much on the Sennheiser HD437. Fit and comfort is getting a bit of an issue. Either that or I'm still getting used to it. Again, I'll post if/when I got something to add.

post #9 of 25
Thread Starter 

I was quite surprised by how they performed under amping; the music will feel more filled out and will be more detailed with a revealing amp. The bass, as we established is already decently strong, but really gets going under amping. A track like Hans Zimmer's 'Mombasa' will sound significantly better with an amp on these. They start sounding a lot larger than they really are, though they'd never quite reach full-sized ambiance, but that's due to the lack of outer ear involvement. In its defense, the half-earbud design of these IEMs bring more outer ear/bone conduction to the mix than most other IEMs out there. The big drivers certainly give a lot of wiggle room, but an amp might (emphasis on might -- lower end Grados aren't supposed to need amplification) benefit your Grados more.

 

An all-rounder is exactly how I'd characterize this earphone. They give everyone a bit of everything. And yes, you've definitely been spoiled by the Grado 'more real than real' sound signature -- not that it's a bad thing, though. Everyone's preferences are their own. Personally, I've never been a big Grado fan. They sound great for the first 15-30 minutes and then start hurting my ears. The closest I've been to truly liking a Grado is the MS-Pro, which is like saying I prefer Alessandro's leopards to Grado's tigers, already a significant difference in the bite of a note.

 

You'll find that most products reviewed on here will 'hate' anything less than 320 kbps j/k... I suggest you start ripping to FLAC. But yeah, I still clearly hear artifacts at 192 as well as LAME V3/V2 on these.
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by bangengeman View Post

How are these with amps?

 

This feels more of a great all-rounder rather than an elite specialist.


Also, the HD381F absolutely hates low bitrate mp3s. Anything less than 192kbps would sound horrendous on these.

post #10 of 25

Excellent review. I enjoyed your writing style and the review was extremely comprehensive. Some of the other 'big' reviewers need to take a note or two haha. Makes me want to pick up a pair for the heck of it :).

post #11 of 25
Thread Starter 

Thanks! In all fairness, however, this review was highly influenced by the likes of joker, ClieOS, shigzeo, and the rest of the 'elite' crew. I just managed to take what I thought were the best elements of their reviews and combine it into a single piece. Those guys really have paved the way.

 

The HD381F is definitely something well worth playing with. It's hard to believe that even after all this time, and now that I'm looking into FAD-SS or customs as my next potential upgrade, that I'm still using them as my primary (70%) IEM for home use.
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by JosephKim View Post

Excellent review. I enjoyed your writing style and the review was extremely comprehensive. Some of the other 'big' reviewers need to take a note or two haha. Makes me want to pick up a pair for the heck of it :).



 

post #12 of 25

Nice review tomscy2000, very clear and thorough.

 

I also liked the HD381F when I borrowed from a friend. IMO, the mids is nicely forward, slightly warm, and the semi-open design will likely appeal to those who likes airiness, openness, and wide soundstage. They do seem to like well-recorded material.

 

Technically, I found their sound quality to be below the likes of Visang R03/Brainwavz M2 and RE0/RE-ZERO. I also prefer Brainwavz M1 and Visang R02 to the Superlux, since they are more versatile with mainstream music and are more isolating.

post #13 of 25
Quote:

You'll find that most products reviewed on here will 'hate' anything less than 320 kbps j/k... I suggest you start ripping to FLAC. But yeah, I still clearly hear artifacts at 192 as well as LAME V3/V2 on these.
 

^^^ tomscy2000, Good point.  biggrin.gif I've passed the 30hr mark, and I'm beginning to like the sound more. Not as much as another review I saw that compared this head-to-head with a UE TF10, or Westone UM3X. But easily better than the Klipsch S4. Thanks for the amp advice, I got a few friends who can loan me some to test before I decide. The size of that driver made me think it can make good use of some extra amperage. rolleyes.gif If/When I get the chance I'll see if I can get the 381B. Not soon, though.

 

I'm beginning to experience problems with comfort. The driver tends to jam up other parts of your outer ear. Then again at 4hrs continuous usage, I think most IEMs would also cause some form of discomfort. Getting de-cored olives won't help, the nozzle is just too thick (OK, fine, I don't have the handicraft skills). Maybe Complys, but they just don't sell it in stores here in The Philippines. Either way, I do think it's a matter of getting used to the fit. Tomorrow, I'll try to test it out on the road. etysmile.gif

 


Edited by bangengeman - 4/1/11 at 4:43am
post #14 of 25
Thread Starter 

Hmmm... Well, honestly, I would stick with silicone tips since I think foams decrease the clarity and take down the treble quite a bit. I wrote the bit about using Complys when i was still very much into a warmer sound, and wanted to take down the treble energy. For you, using Complys or any other type of foamies would probably not suit your tastes. Perhaps Supertips, but i haven't tried them myself. I'm thinking of getting a pair to use on both the 381F and my DBAs so I'll let you know if they work well.

 

The comfort issue is a matter of getting used to it. I used to get sore from wearing them for three hours straight, and now they're okay. You learn how to nestle those drivers properly into your outer ear like an earbud over time.

 

The funny thing with the sound is that, as my subsequent IEMs have become brighter and brighter in my quest for clarity, the 381F have become warmer and warmer.

post #15 of 25

tomscy2000, thanks for the tips on the umm... tips. biggrin.gif

 

So far, after a week of getting the HD381F, I've become somewhat confident in their ability to hold up to a decent amount of torture (read: just wear them and beware of anything that might snag these like bags, people sitting around you, etc). No, really, it looks ugly, and doesn't inspire confidence with the build quality, but maybe Superlux has upped the newer batches with regards to durability. Comfort, once you get used to it, seems fine enough. The Sennheisers I've had are just more comfortable (shallow insert to get a decent amount of isolation), and provide more isolation (again, these were never meant to isolate environmental noise much).

 

The one thing I've noticed most is that the midrange has opened up a bit and there was a point where it was getting a tad sibilant (worse than my Grados), but have mellowed down again. I've tried EQ-ing these following PiccoloNamek's guide (http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/413900/how-to-equalize-your-headphones-a-tutorial), but I simply didn't have the patience and foobar was just crashing with Electri-Q. So for now, it's no-EQ for me, maybe when I have the patience and time to actually pull it off (listening to pink noise and sine waves for a few hours can get too tedious). My only complaint with the sound quality still stands: tamed down electric guitars and snare drums. And it's not necessarily a bad thing (ie. Eminem - So Bad, Flo Rida - Be On You, almost any Linkin Park or Paramore song).

 

I'm negotiating to get either a FA Silver Bullet or Xears TD100 II 2nd hand, only because I think I need something that can inspire confidence when going out. Some of you guys may think I'm disappointed, but really, I'm just nitpicking. No, I seriously doubt if these are UE TF10 killers, nor have I actually expected them to be, but they sure just redefined the meaning of "bang for the buck".

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