When it comes to portable audio, it just doesn't get much more portable than an IEM and a Ipod/Zune/Sansa etc. Even tethered to one of the small battery headphone amps, we are talking about something that fits in a shirt pocket. And if, like me, you commute 2 - 3 hours a day, anything that amuses during this "dead time" is a good thing.
Recent years have seen an explosion of new IEM's upping the ante in sound quality (and price). So I bought a representitive sampling of units to see just what level of quality is attainable. The first round was between Westone 3, ER-4P and a Shure unit (whose number I forget). The Shure won this battle, but I wasn't really thrilled with any of them. Then the Shure broke...
So round two pitted the IE-8, CK-10 and eQ-7. I just couldn't get past the IE-8 quite ample midbass and found the CK-10 good sounding but fiddly to use, so the eQ-7 became the phone of choice. It was good, but uninspiring. Still, a solid all-around performer.
Then in a moment of insanity, I bought a pair of Final Audio 1601 SS. The FAD's threw everything into confusion. They were decidedly not uncolored with a subdued but expressive bass and a tres bumpy treble. But they showed the others the door dynamically, in terms of soundfield and detail and in that hard to define sense of overall musical presentation. With all their flaws, they expressed the music in a way that made the rest sound so-so. My thumbnail, unscientific, analysis was that there are certain things that tend to elude non-dynamic driver IEM's (except possibly the expensive and exotic units that employ large numbers of BA elements, which I have not heard).
Being an audiophile, the FAD's areas of weaknesses still bugged me. The announcement of new FAD models was tempered by their employing BA drivers, but I had to give it a go. A pair of FI-BA-SB were ordered and actually did a decent job of bridging the gap with better dynamics and solidity than the other BA units, but a less idiosyncratic balance than the 1601's. Certainly a successful design, all things continued. But hearing about the Sony EX-1000 with their large dynamic driver proved to be a temptation too strong to resist. Am I glad I didn't!
The EX-1000 are not cheap, but they are still about 1/2 the price of the popular multiple BA customs, so not out of the question. They come nicely packed with a comprehensive assortment of tips, a shorter replacement cable and a nice leather carrying case. The magnesium driver housing is light but appears sturdy. There is a general sense of high quality and technology here with their 16mm drivers employing Neodymium magnets and Liquid Crystal Polymer Film diaphragms and their oxygen-free copper cables. I found them to be comfortable with the supplied earbuds and easy to route for over ear cable routing. None of which assures the EX-1000 sonic worth, of course.
The first listening impression is of a vivid, clean sound. The bass, while not as strong as devoted "bass heads" may prefer, is noteworthy for it's sophistication and subjective lack of distortion. Treble is extended and generally smooth with an electrostatic-like clarity. Certainly it's not forgiving of bad recorings, but on the other hand, it doesn't invite bad recordings to sound worse than they are through uncontrolled treble resonances.
The midrange is really excellent. Clean, yet lively and faithful to the unique texture and color of the individual instruments. The low level of self-noise and intermodulation products allows full detail to be available without being forcefully thrust at the listener. You can really hear this as Howard Hanson takes you through the instrumentation of his composition "Merry Mount" (The Composer and His Orchestra, Mercury). The extemes of dynamics here are also tracked quite well without much in the way of compression or information loss as things get busy. All this allows the impact and excitement of this music to come through to the listener.
Beethoven's Egmont Overture with Rene Leibowitz and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on an excellent Chesky release (originally a Kenneth Wilkenson recording) comes through both in it's quiet moments and it's riotous ending with it's natural timbres (mostly) intact. The soundfield is excellent for an IEM, second only to the afformentioned FAD 1610's.
The news is also good with popular music. Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever" tricks and multitracks are there to be heard without fracturing the musical whole. Procol Harum's atmospheric "A Salty Dog" is very well served here as well. The percussive new age-y sound of Conrad Praetzel's "EnTrance" is evocative and enticing. For something a bit more hard edged, the vocal and guitar pyrotechnics of Iggy and the Stooges' "Funhouse" inspire excited air play-along (guitar, drum or vocal as you prefer), just as you would hope. Uh-huh!
Obviously, I like the EX-1000 (you think?). They are the best overall IEM's I have owned or heard (remember, I have no experience with the custom multi-BA units. Someday...) and aren't disgraced by the Sennheiser HD-800 or Sony CD-3000 (though they can't do some of the soundfield tricks of the large headphones). I used my Sansa Fuze, my Zune/iBasso combo and my home system with Dark Voice tube amp all to good effect. The better the signal fed, the better the results, but the EX-1000/Sansa Fuse system was very worthy for it's small size and the Sansa's cost effectiveness.
Now, if you are a confirmed bass-head or find any sense of sibilance anathema, these may not be the phones for you. But for me, while they are certainly not perfect (the treble could be smoother yet and the soundfield even more expansive, etc.) they are as good as I know in the here (hear?) and now in the non-custom multi-BA class. And I still think there is something to be said for large dynamic IEM drivers...