I own plenty of IEMs and use them regularly. But at times, I simply don't feel like inserting anything into my ears. Also, certain situations warrant that I need to be more aware of my surroundings. Both situations gravitate me toward ear buds. However, since those instances are far and few between, I prefer not to spend more than $40 on ear buds. It was during one of those searches that I happened to read Jant71's review of Starsonic HDSS Earbud and IEM. I became interested in the ear bud because it was priced at $15 and looked like a good deal. After an elaborate process of registration and buying at AliExpress, I paid more than the price of the earbud for shipping ($19) to get it. But that was not an issue for long as Starsonic EP888-E1 became one of my favorite ear buds (among the five I own, others being MX760, PAA-1, Piano Forte II and an old Sony).
So, when I got a chance to review a newer release of IEM and ear bud based on HDSS technology, I gladly agreed. Thanks to Blue Ever Blue for the sample and Jant71 for shipping it across to India.
I am not someone who's technically adept, so I try not to get too much into the design and technology side of things. At the end of the day, what matters more is how the IEM / Headphone suits someone's personal preference rather than use of superior technology. Even then, since BeB tries to differentiate itself from a clutch of other IEMs through the technology used, it makes sense to look briefly at HDSS (High Definition Sound Standard) and ETL (Embedded Transmission Line Technology). For more information, one can read online about ETL and HDSS. Here's my basic understanding of what they stand for.
With Speakers, the sound gets reflected by the walls, the floor and any other objects within the room. By the time the sound reaches the listener, you get the direct sound as well as the reflected sound and standing waves. So, sound is absorbed and diffused using myriad of techniques to eliminate unwanted reflections. ETL technology claims to make the outside factors - the speaker enclosure and the room, largely irrelevant. ETL controls the resonance of the speaker cone and provides wide dispersion. Beyond that, I'll leave you the pleasure of reading how Piston Technology applies to loud speakers, while I get on with the rest of the review.
So, why is this HDSS certified IEM better? According the BeB brochure, with conventional designs, the constant motion of the driver produces heat which in turn produces pressure in the sound chamber and this pressure is responsible for distortion. To avoid this, they use a non-electronic ETL device inside the housing. The ETL device absorbs the extra heat produced by the motion of the driver, thereby keeping the heat constant. By eliminating heat build-up, unwanted distortion is avoided.
Build Quality, Accessories, Microphonics, Isolation
The packing was simple and easy to open - very much par for the course. I normally get past all the marketing speak printed on the front and the back, but those music surrounded heads won't let me skip this time. The back of the packing talks about the "benefits" of HDSS technology viz., eliminating tension, stress and boredom caused by 2D sound of conventional technology (which has only sound stage height and width). Seems like I was deluding myself all the time about finding depth in conventional IEMs.
For all the unconventional wisdom of technology, 866B does not make a great attempt to differentiate itself by looks. The housing is made of aluminum with a half bullet shape. Thankfully it is smaller and much lighter than my other bullet shaped IEMs, Xears XB120 and the Fischer Silver Bullet v2. The rubbery white cable is tangle free. But the strain relief at the straight plug is a little too flexible and it's also very minimal at the housing. The lettering is very small and I (being a predominantly night user) often end up searching for light or a familiar track to differentiate between Left and Right.
There is no chin slider or shirt clip, which of course, leads to microphonics when the IEM is worn straight down. I generally prefer to wear IEMs over the ear, hence it wasn't an issue for me.
The accessories are minimal - 3 sizes of single flanges and a soft pouch - not very different from what brands like Hippo usually bundle. The stock tips are a little stiff and spring back to shape easily. It takes a few more seconds to get them on. The only other tip I tried was the LostEarBuds Klipsch compatible tips (I'll just call them LEB tips for easy reference from hereon).
The isolation with the stock tips is very minimal due to the shallow fit, while the LEB tips gave me a slightly better fit and slight bit more isolation, though not by much. Comfort wise, they pose no problems whatsoever due to light weight and shallow fit.
Driver Size: 8.2mm
Impedance: 16Ω ± 20%
Sensitivity: 92 ± 4 dB
Frequency Response: 22Hz - 20Khz
Cord Length: 90cm
The IEM was given 100 hours of burn-in prior to writing this review. I did not observe any changes. I used the stock tips and used Clip+ as my portable player for the majority of the impressions, except where mentioned.
Bass of 866B is reasonably quick, textured with very good extension and good quantity. But, it is a bit too much to bear and boomy at first. Since the over-emphasis is more below the 80Hz mark, cutting down 4-5dB at the low shelf filter of Rockbox EQ fixes the bass. Switching to LEB tips restrains the bass quantity, especially the flabby part. The mid range of 866B is neither forward nor recessed, but just placed slightly back, more like FA Silver Bullet. The mid range is lush, but not too far off neutral tone. With the LEB tips, the restrained bass pushes the mids a slight bit forward and gives them a bit more texture. Sibilance is hinted at when present in the recording, but can be observed more easily with the LEB tips than stock tips. Stand-alone, the term 'sweet' could somewhat apply to 866B's mids, but it does not compete in clarity, smoothness or sweetness against Silver Bullet. The treble has both sparkle and good detail and is in balance with the mids. There are slight spikes along the way which enhances the perception of treble quantity, but they don't make it edgy.
866B never sounds congested and offers very good separation and imaging, often bordering on 3D like presentation with some recordings. It does not have the lateral width of SB's sound stage, but has good sound stage size, especially depth. However, clarity is not one of it's strong suits. Despite it's little emphasis at various points across the spectrum (<80Hz, 5K, 8K, 12K), 866B remains tonally balanced. It's overall presentation is technically competent and I found myself liking it more over longer sessions than when doing comparisons.
Amplification: While I found no trouble driving 866B straight out of Clip+, I thought I'd try it with an external portable amplifier to see what it does. Out of Rockboxed Clip+ (Vol: 0) -> Arrow 3G (Gain: 1, Bass: 0, Imp: 0, Cross: 0), the resolution and clarity are improved and bass is a little more tight and controlled. The sound stage expands as well. It does not transform 866B into a far better IEM, but the improvements however, are meaningful. Using a $300 amp with a $50 IEM for these improvements does seem absurd though (unless you already own the amp). I also tried Refurbed Fuze V1 -> DIY LOD -> iBasso T3 combo, which produced similar improvements. It did not show these improvements with a relatively powerful output of Nanite N2 or with much louder volumes (without blowing my ears) on Clip+.
Value for Money
While an able performer, I don't see myself very attracted to BeB at $40. At about similar price range of $40 and a bit more, one can get Xears TDIII v2, Brainwavz M1 & M2 and a little further up, Eterna and SB v2, all of which offer a bit more sonically than BeB 866B. If priced a slight bit lower, I could see myself considering 866B.
While Blue Ever Blue hasn't exactly struck gold with 866B, it gives a hint of what's to come. For $40, 866B offers an IEM which is technically competent and offers good sound stage and presentation. But, considering the wide variety of choices available close to the price point, it does not do enough to stand out. It may not be right on my part to expect BeB's first set of releases to take the world by storm, but I'll eagerly await a slightly better built, better sounding follow-up which can stand apart in it's price range.