Hisoundaudio Live Earbuds
Type: dynamic, open.
Driver size: 16 mm.
Nominal impedance: 32 ohm.
Sensitivity: 105 dB/1 mW [?].
Maximum sound pressure level, at 1 KHz sine tone, 1 VRMS: 125 dB.
Frequency response: 16-22 KHz.
Plug size/type: 3.5 mm. stereo miniplug (compatible with IPhone, etc.).
Cable length/type: 117 cm., 6N OFC cable.
First off, these really are excellent earbuds. So anyone who likes earbuds ought to run and buy them. They're awesome, the pinnacle of earbud technology.
But... Let's start with the first problem. They're earbuds.
Earshells are part of the auditory system. Outer earshell: pinnae, lobes, etc. perceive sound. Lower midrange, some high frequencies, bass, and bits of midrange are all perceived this way. So earphones won't ever have the full, large, impressive soundstage headphones can have. Also because of this circumaural headphones will always sound better than supra-aural - they enclose ears fully. And, of course, headphones are more comfortable.
In short. Earphones are squeakers. All of them. No matter how hard they try, they won't ever be up there with real headphones or speakers. So why do people use them? Put simply, earphones are cheap and cheerful. They also have better high-frequency dynamics (and detail) than many headphones. They can play smoother than many headphones (unless recabled), but of course they're just not up there when it comes to soundstage. There also are personal caprices. An acquainted girl hates putting anything on her head (including hats). Some people are shy of wearing headphones in public (snobs).
Earphones also allow portable player makers to save on headphone amplifier stages. Portable players have been getting ever more weaker outputs because of this. Of course using earphones and reducing output power also allows player makers to gain battery life, but at the expense of quality and driving real headphones. Which is nasty, let's face it. You've got to shell out money on a headphone amp to drive headphones properly. And recable to get dynamics right.
Live are open earbuds. Meaning, they don't isolate. All there is to cut the street noise off is the sheer loudness. With the right player they're not that bad, but with an average player they'll mix anything in, all the noise. Their competition, the Yuin PK series earbuds, are closed and will isolate anything on the street so well you have to take them out to hear someone talk. The Live barely attenuate noise, so you can even talk with them playing. And also "enjoy" that loud train noise in the underground. The upside is that open headphones/earphones usually have better sound than closed counterparts (true of Live). And, you can wear the Live on the street and not be afraid that you'll miss that car approaching. You can even talk while wearing open earbuds.
By the way of speakers, the Live earbuds are advertised as earbuds with the soundstage of speakers. Mmm well, maybe it's having worked with a lot of professional speakers (Yamaha, Alesis, Roland, M-Audio studio monitors), but they don't quite cut it. Detail, sure, but the size and in-front presence of speaker imaging aren't there. What is there though, is the width/geometrical position, which is superior to many speakers. The soundstage is wide, large, and instruments are placed very precisely, with excellent separation. The soundstage is still smaller and more in-the-head than any headphones, but other earbuds sound claustrophobic/dark by comparison.
There are two things that can try recreating a speaker soundstage in headphones... One is a design like AKG K-1000.
The other is a psychoacoustic processor like a Dolby Surround box.
The Live are inserted angled and have to partly insert into the ear canals. They do have a kind of a slightly ahead/in-front imaging (it's actually a bit of a down-and-up soundstage, diagonal with very good distinction between centre and sides). Effects like wind gusts, background leads and pads in electronic music are all very well placed and separated, everything has a place in the soundstage. There's height and depth (and all kinds of side positioning) in addition to the usual left/right/sides of headphones. Also closedness/distance and front/background in the stage. They really paint a circular, large, detailed soundstage with accurate pans. It's not as large as, say, the soundstage of AKG K-240 Studio driven by a good amp, but for earbuds soundstage is impressive - when driven by a headphone amp or a powerful output. Live like current, like any good earphones/headphones - they're designed to an efficiency of 105 dB/mW, which is less than some headphones (earphones usually are over 110 dB/mW).
Detail-wise you can hear the public in a classical music record, Enya moving on her piano seat in "Watermark" (it screeches slightly), the muted breath of musicians playing their instruments (like a saxophone), etc. They also pick up vinyl and tape hiss pretty well. All of this, out of a fairly weak netbook soundcard. Driven by a powerful amp they do get the frequency response straightened and gain a bit more technicality to the sound, ironically. They are more critical to source than any other earphones. A cheap generic Rockchip player made them sag in the midrange, as an example (and sounded slightly technical and hollow with a flat soundstage). Whatever you may expect of accurate earphones, they show.
Tonality & Dynamics
They're also sort of bassy/powerful (the drivers are 16 mm., pretty much the size limit for earbuds), but at the same time the bass isn't heavy or intrusive. It's very well defined and polite. The midrange is not that accurate (it may have been artificially equalised to highlight details, a-la AKG/Senn), but it is sweet, though it lacks a bit in the low end. And they also leave the impression of some missing high frequency detail, though this might be an "earphone effect" (earlobes perceive high frequencies too, and earphones bypass the outer earshell). The problem with Live, as with many Asian earphones/headphones, is that they drop the 3rd octave (~220 Hz is A3). It is down by some 3-5 dB, making everything sound colder, lacking body/fullness. This is most noticeable with distorted guitars. Denon headphones also have this problem. The solution is boosting the 200- or 250-Hz slider on the player by a notch or two.
Electric guitars are usually played on the 2nd-3rd octave, and the body of distorted and clean guitars falls in the same range. So this "Asian EQ" makes everything sound more distant and substracts from presence. Someone called it "blurry midrange limits". It's a more "cold/hollow" EQ rather than the in-your-face and obvious Western headphones' EQ. Hisoundaudio rep tried to convince me how my tastes were mre "DJish" towards bass and such (the insolence), and how Live were made more for classical music and such, but this bias in itself is vicious. Anyway, they can still be equalised.
The Live change a lot with source. Out of a headphone amplifier they gain a lot in the high frequencies, a lot of positional detail, but "thin out" even more. Low midrange starts getting lost in the sea of higher midrange detail and treble. Amp power makes dynamics a lot smoother, and adds a lot of presence and accuracy warmth. A cheap player sounded cheap, and needed a boost of 2 sliders on 250 Hz and 1 on 1000 Hz to isolate noise on the street and make electric guitars have a more or less natural presence. Out of Realtek integrated audio on a netbook they sound quite detailed and warm, accurate, though still with a slight 3rd octave drop. They need an EQ push there, it'll make music have a closer, warmer, more natural presence. Also on the street, the most intrusive noise is in the low midrange.
Live earbuds are stabilised. They have an anti-vibration design, ensuring the energy goes into drivers, not rocking the enclosures. It does show - the dynamics and music flow are very smooth, stable. Rich. Lively and drawing in. Which is what real hi-fi is about - drawing in, hypnotising with the beauty of music. In short, it's a very sweet, warm sound thanks to dynamic accuracy. If you've got the right source. 'cause they'll also show how ugly a low-end device is (like a $20 MP3 player with its metallic, hollow sound and hiss during reads). With the right player and soundcard, and with resampling or a detailed source like vinyl or 96/24 or better sampling, they're wonderful. Addictive, drawing into the music. Very musical.
However, they're still earbuds. So the sound is a bit toyish. Here's something to make you laugh: metal on earphones. Any kind of metal tends to sound like squeaking and treble crackle. But Live actually manage quite well. It's only slightly toyish. They still tend towards crackle, but there's an expressiveness few earphones manage. Carcass, Black Sabbath, Nirvana, Napalm Death all sound quite impressive (but that's also because of Barney Greenway close-miking and growling right into the microphone: "Aa-a-arrrrr! Gut lev-e-el! Beyond la-a-aw!"). There's something funny about Napalm Death through earbuds. Curiously, the Live transmit the intent/feel better than some headphones (it's a bit of surprise, yes).
Napalm Death's Barney growl blows through anything.
Scorn (industrial/meditational drum'n'bass, sort of) sounds pretty good. Anything ambiental/electronic/detailed, like classical music and electronic ambient. The earbuds draw into music. Tangerine Dream's "Booster Vol. 2" sounds great (but then the album is great). It stuns. Makes one forget there's anything but music. Vocaloids sound surprisingly live. Jan Garbarek sounds like Jan Garbarek (he doesn't on some earphones and headphones; something gets lost in the ambience).
Standard liveliness test: Jan Garbarek.
They're comfortable enough. Not as comfortable as any circumaural Denon headphones, but they don't hurt as much as some other earphones.They're still there, mind it, felt inside the ears. And of course comfort will vary individually. They're not as large as some Western earbuds (AKG & Senn, staring at you), but they're not as small as to fall out.
Pros: stable, smooth and fairly accurate.
Cons: earphones, open, and somewhat insensitive (105 dB/mW). A bit sterile sound (3rd octave drop).
Summary: great earbuds, possibly among the best there are. But they will let noise through on the street and don't go that loud. If you're OK with that, then you can have all the detail and accuracy of professional monitor speakers in earphones for $100.
Edited by Seidhepriest - 3/28/11 at 1:28am