Writing reviews is something I really enjoy. I've been doing that in Brazilian forums for a while, but as there are so many amazing reviews here on head-fi, I never really thought about posting one. But then I reckoned it would be good to try and write one to see what you guys think, especially since there is a larger number of experienced people here that can hopefully give me some feedback - I'm definitely opened to criticisms! I'll be happy to read what you guys think of this review and obviously even happier it it helps anyone.
I wrote it originally in Portuguese and I translated it just now. It's been a while since I came back to live in Brazil, so I'm sad to say that my English is not as good as it once was. So, if any of you spot any mistakes while reading this review, you'll do me a favor pointing it out to me :)
Usually, we can divide phones into two big categories: headphones and eadphones. What seems to be a general rule is that the big ones are capable of a much higher sound quality than their small siblings, so if one is looking for uncompromised sound quality, headphones are the obvious choice. There are other factors to consider, such as convenience of use and portability, besides cost, but headphones are generally acknowledged to have a better objective performance than IEMs at the same price point. I say subjective because it is perfectly acceptable that someone prefers an in-ear, but speaking for the majority, there’s no comparison.
Just after the recent growth in the high-end head/earphone sector, where Sennheiser’s HD800, Beyerdynamic’s T1 and Grado’s PS1000 fit, a new contender joined the game, causing a stir here on head-fi and challeging the “bigger is better” rule: the JH13 Pro.
Custom monitors are not new; Ultimate Ears was one of the first companies to offer them, but they were focused on the professional market as stage monitors, since the custom mold allowed a huge level of noise isolation – necessary to allow the volume to be comparatively low and thus making it safer to wear without a great risk of hearing loss or tinnitus.
The market grew substantially, and other companies soon were offering alternatives. To make a long story short, with the iPod boom, audiophiles were looking for better ways of enjoying quality sound on the go, and IEMs are usually the most convenient choice. Custom monitors are the top choice for sound quality.
Even though they exist for a while, it seems that custom IEMs were only sold in great numbers for the audiophile market when Ultimate Ears was sold to Logitech, a fact that made it possible for Jerry Harvey to create his own company, JH Audio, and its masterpiece: the JH13 Pro. Astonishingly, here on head-fi, many considered it to be on the same level as the big players in the full-size field. I suppose I don’t have to mention the technical aspects since they’re quite well-known.
I chose to have mine in clear with a custom fibre artwork. It’s a well finished earphone, but not the best finish I’ve seen. A friend of mine has a pair of UM Miracle and they seem to have the edge here.
I was also unlucky to have a poor fit – they do seal, very well in fact, but it feels like the mold was made with too much pressure, so with the IEMs on, I feel an uncomfortable pressure in my ears. I intend to send them soon to JH Audio to fix that. As it is, after some time it feels very uncomfortable.
It doesn’t come with the usual plethora of accessories that universal IEMs do. It comes with the manual, a Pelican case and the wax remover. The cable seems durable and doesn’t transmit much microphony. It’s not as noise as Shure’s in the SE530, but not as silent as Sennheiser’s in the IE8. However, I chose for the transparent cable, with has the known issue of turning green after a short time.
Now, to what really matters.
I’ll start by being completely honest with you: I wasn’t particularly impressed the moment I first put the JH13 Pros on. I found a very good tonal balance but that was it, nothing was thrown in my face screaming for attention. Bass had a lot of presence (more than what I was used to), mids were clear and neutral and the highs had remarkable presence and extention.
Secondly, I never found it this hard to write a review. What happens is that most head or earphones tend to put their own voice into the music. This can be less evident in some, and more in others, but it’s always there, so what they reproduce is always conditioned to the headphone.
On the JH13 Pro, however, I often find myself contemplating a characteristic in a piece of music, like having too much bass for instance, but when I change for something else, the bass is just gone. Or I find that I want a bit more warmth, and then I put Kiss From a Rose by Seal and all the warmth in the world’s there.
What happens, I think, is that with this IEM, what goes in, comes out. It’s obviously not in an absolute and passive way, but I’ve never heard dependance on source and recording like that. It seems to be the most passive end-of-the-chain I’ve ever heard, and this is coming from someone who listens to a pair of Jamo R907s almost on a daily basis and who’s heard speakers like Morel Fat Lady, Wilson Audio Puppy and Klipsch P39F. I’m definitely not saying that those IEMs don’t impose their character on the sound because that’s impossible, but it’s closer to that than anything I’ve heard.
I think this is one of those phones that don’t impress you that much at first, but time reveals its true qualities which are not very evident on a first listen. However, that changes.
The JH13 Pro is simply phenomenal.
First of all, the tonal balance is pretty close to what I’d consider ideal. In my opinion, tonal balance is probably the most important characteristic in a headphone, since it’s what shows its true voice. Bass has plenty of impact and weight, as well as definition and texture – qualities that don’t go together very often –, mids are warm, transparent and present, and the highs have the best presentation I’ve ever heard in a headphone. They’re not perfect, as I’ll explain later, but as far as presence is concerned, they’re spot on.
Something that seems to be a general rule in IEMs is the issue of bass in balanced armature and dynamic drivers. Usually, BA drivers are very transparent, well-defined and textured, while dynamic drivers have more impact and presence. I don’t exactly know how, but the JH13 Pros have the best of both worlds. Impact, weight, texture and definition are top notch. The AKG K701 used to be my reference in bass performance (yes, really), but those IEMs are my new reference. The K701’s bass is tighter and dryer, but the bass in the JHs are just as well-defined and textured, but with an added “fatness”, so to speak, some romance and liquidity.
Mids are just amazing. Despite the fact that I feel that sometimes they could be a little more up-front, I reckon this is more about my own preference than a fault with its sound, which apparently has the mids in the right place, not only in quantity, but also in quality. To me, they’re right in the middle of the warmth vs. transparency debate. For this reason, in some moments I feel that a bit more transparency would come in handy, even though detail retrieval is excellent.
Nevertheless, the mids on the JH13 Pro is nothing short of sensational. In Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto n.2, played by Lang Lang, I found the best presentation of a piano I’ve heard in a headphone. The recording is excellent, and allied to the fantastically correct timbre of the IEMs, the piano does justice to its classification as a percussive instrument. The attack to each string is incredibly evident, but without losing sight of the delicacy and melody that characterizes it. Voices don’t fall behind. Male and female vocals are presented with an jaw-dropping level of naturality and realism.
As for the highs, however, things don’t go so smoothly. As I said earlier, presentation is pretty much the best I’ve heard because the presence is spot-on, extension is excellent and they’re amazingly linear. However, they have three problems: a lot of grain, sibilance and, to me, the timbre is just wrong. The grain and sibilance don’t bother me much, but they’re obviously not a good thing. Timbre, however, could be a lot better.
What happens is that cymbals especially sound thin and have a lot less body than they should. It’s as if something that should sound like “shwaaaah” sounded like “shwiiiih”. I know it seems silly, but to me this is a good way of expressing what I hear. It’s not a very serious issue, but to me, it’s there. It’s interesting to notice that I’ve never read any complaints about this, which leads me to believe that, being a custom monitor, there must be some kind of small differences arising from the positioning of the drivers and the length of the earpiece’s “prong”. Most users don’t report sibilance and I’ve never heard anything about this problem with timbre. It’s possible that mine is an isolated case.
Apart from these problems, I have nothing to complain about – quite the opposite, in fact. This spot-on presence of the highs generates huge clarity and transparence. The feeling I have, after listening to other IEMs for a while and then going to the JH13 Pros, is that of a veil being removed from the music. It’s a similar feeling, although to a lesser extent, than that of hearing a Stax after a dynamic headphone.
Now that I (tried to) explain how those IEMs behave regarding different frequencie ranges, I can speak about other characteristics which are not readily apparent but, in my opinion, are necessary to set the JH13 Pros apart from other earphones.
As I said before, there’s the fact that it’s incredibly recording and source dependent. This is the case with the general sound of the earphones, but is especially evident with regard to the “size” of the sound it produces. In all headphones I’ve ever heard (maybe except the K1000), theres a certain consistency to the size of the sound – and dynamics – that they produce. Even when they’re playing something small and delicate, somehow there is evidence of where this size can go. It’s as if the projected space had a fixed size. In some cases this characteristic is very evident, such as in the K701, which plays everything in a huge hall, and also in the SE530, which always play in a wall.
On the JH13 Pros, however, this is not the case. It’s common, for example, in some rock pieces, to be scared then the introduction goes from a simple and tiny clean guitar to a huge wall of distorted guitars. The same happens in orchestral music. This brings me to another matter, which is the JH13 Pros spectacular performance with rock music. The impact and attack that those tiny earphones can generate is shocking. Listening to Creed and Smashing Pumpkins, for example, I can’t make the smile on my face go away. It’s undoubtedly the most convincing performance I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing for rock. That’s the word – attack. It’s like being punched in the ears, which is a contradiction when we compare this power to the delicateness and gentleness it’s capable of when the music asks for it. We go back to their passivity.
Still regarding to this size, there’s an incredible capacity with this IEM, which is that of scaling the sound to deafening volumes without any perceived levels of distortion or compression. What normally happens, not only with head/earphones but also with speakers, is that, in very high volumes, the sound starts to become compressed. This is perceived like this: in low volumes, the instruments are small and occupy a small space. In higher volumes, their sizes increase and so does the relative space between instruments. However, when they get to certain volumes, what happens is that the instruments and that space between them stop to grow, and the volume gets higher but the sound (and the perceived ambiance) start to become compressed in a very noticeable way.
On the JH13 Pro this doesn’t happen, because of the double drivers for lows, mids and highs. I thought that a big headroom would be one of those technical aspects that only matter on paper, but this is not what I found. It’s quite audible and this capacity of scaling everything up to huge sizes until you reach deafening levels is fantastic.
This matter of size seems to be related to two other characteristics. One of them is the independence of frequency ranges. The passivity of this IEM frequently shows itself in the ability of simply isolate the reproduction of those specific ranges. For example, in some pieces of music, it sounds like the woofers are just turned off. It’s common to be listening to something with pretty much no bass and then, when they come to life, to ask your self “where the hell did that come from??”
Another quality is the soundstage. I’ve read people saying that the JH13 Pro’s soundstage is bigger than those of monsters such as the HD800 and K701. I’ve never heard a HD800, but I can speak for the AKG. This claim is and isn’t true. In objective terms, I mean, the size of the projected space and the precision in the pin-point of instruments is indeed bigger in the IEM. It’s capable of generating an ambient entirely dependent on the source inside the head, with a surreal specificity in the rendering of each instrument in its own place and airiness. However, this effect, while better and more faithfully reproduced, is much less evident and less convincing in the IEM which, as opposed to the full-size headphones, is not capable of making the sound come from out of the head. Therefore, it’s not simple to choose between one or the other. Put it this way – the soundstage in a K701 would impress someone who doesn’t know high-quality headphones a lot more than a JH13 Pro would in this regard. That said, however, needless to say, instrument separation and airiness is simply phenomenal.
Detail retrieval is also impressive. It it’s on the recording, be sure – you’ll hear it. Therefore, don’t expect it to iron out the problems in a 128kbps file. The compression becomes very evident.
This IEM defies pre-conceived notions in headphones. There’s a reason I didn’t speak much about music or specific styles: there’s no genre at which the JH13 Pros don’t exceed. It feels at home with simply everything you throw at him. It’s probably the most neutral and passive way of reproducing music I’ve ever heard.
If you can afford a JH13 Pro, please, do yourself a favor and get one. It’s impossible not to be satisfied.
A BIG thank you if you came this far, and I really hope it's as fun to read as it was for me to write it!