I've spent many a day on this forum sitting back, reading about different kinds of portable audio gear in an attempt to gain a higher understanding of just how good the sound of something as simple as just an ordinary iPod can get. After multiple years listening to lackluster earpieces with boomy bass or sharp, grating treble, this site spurred me to spend a little bit more money on headphones and in-ears to try to grasp this whole sound quality concept. I knew what good sound was like from a pair of speakers but I couldn't imagine translating it to headphones. Fast forward through a few years and I've experienced offerings from Klipsch, Shure, Ultimate Ears and most recently, Head Direct or HifiMan's RE-Zero. I will spend some time comparing it to my now sold away Triple.Fi 10s that funded this most recent adventure into portable audio.
Here, I found the RE-Zeros quite fine for the money. The metal housings look and feel relatively indestructible, though that's a test that I will not soon be undertaking. The cable seems somewhat thin, though less prone to the extreme memory the UE cable which I thought would develop harmful kinks at any moment. Stress reliefs from the earpieces are fairly long and seem sturdy enough. I wouldn't worry too much about early failure with these guys.
Where I once thought the TF.10s were it for me, these earpieces came in and stole their thunder entirely. They are beyond light even with the adapter. Maybe a tiny bit heavier than some Klipsch offerings I've experienced, such as the S4, but they are some close competition. But they truly won me over when I realized I could wear these with bi-flanges and not feel irritated or hurt and I could even hear the music coming in through the headphones. I don't know about the other headphones, but bi-flanges have never worked for me until now and they are just soft enough to produce very little irritation. I would certainly rate these as one of the more comfortable earpieces I've tried, if not the best, for the first hour or two of any session. After some time, minor itching or pain may occur but usually goes away. It could even just be psychological.
Not the most elegant box I've ever received a pair of IEMs in, but it does the job. The case is very solid and I would not be afraid of it's ability to protect the headphones. What it lacks in attractiveness, it makes up for in strength.
Bass: The quality of the bass is the best I've heard yet. The clarity and definition of these earpieces make each note stand on its own. It's not a one-note bass by any measure. Each pitch is distinguishable from the next, provided you can hear what's playing. The bass is very tight and somewhat lean. Decay on bass notes is quite fast, but not overly so. It seems pretty natural. When listening to classical or orchestral pieces, the length of each note sounds nearly identical to the length of a note heard in a concert hall. Here, they beat the TF.10s in everything except for quantity. The bass is there and it can be visceral when needed, but the Ultimate Ears earpieces certainly had more weight to their sound and could deliver a real slam when it was called for. Read: Not for Bass-heads.
Mids: Here, their difference from the UE IEMs is not quite as distinguishable. A similar amount of definition and clarity is present in both earpieces. These pick up a couple details the Ultimate Ears couldn't, mostly because the mids are not recessed in these headphones. The biggest difference may be in grain, where a tiny bit less is present in these than in the TF.10. To UE's merit, their headphone also had very little grain present. Also, the TF.10 seemed to be more forgiving of vocal sibilance in certain pieces. The letters T and S are sometimes a little bit too noticeable on the Zeros and can be a minor pain. This only happens in some recordings though, so this can be a plus if you're all for resolving, detail-driven headphones.
Treble: It is in this respect where the Zeros do their best and also their worst. Treble extends to pretty great lengths and is of the mostly neutral variety, like the rest of the frequency range. Cymbals, triangles, flutes and piccolos... You name it, these can play them at their best considering your recordings are up to par. On a couple of distorted rock tracks or very treble heavy tracks, this works to their disadvantage, as it can make their sound quite fatiguing even with short listening periods. Be warned. However, a well-recorded track will reward you with a very pleasant treble that sings in a way that even the TF.10 couldn't manage. These have a little bit less sparkle overall, but this generally makes them sound a bit more realistic overall.
Soundstage: It's a little small. Imaging is fantastic. Even on produced songs, you can tell where many of the instruments may have been standing in studio and the separation of different parts is a wonder to listen to. Comparing again to the Triple.Fis and even to some other less impressive earpieces, the soundstage seems a bit more closed in. The air is there for sure. The difference is similar to a small wildlife preserve versus a whole forest. Everything's there like it should be and it still has a feeling of openness and the air still hits you the same way. But, you'll find smaller boundaries here than in the UE.
Detail: Everybody has sung their praises for this earpiece. Let me simply reiterate: If it's in the music and you have the hearing to pick it up, it'll be there. Not in an annoying, overly forward way. Just simply, it's right there.
Music Testing List
The Roots, Tech N9ne, Eminem, The Beastie Boys (Hip-Hop)
U2, Queen, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, AC/DC (Rock)
Ozzy Osbourne, Demon Hunter, Dream Theater (Metal)
St. Olaf College, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra (Classical/Orchestral)
Superbus, Mika, Adele, Billy Joel, Elton John (Pop)
John Legend, The Roots, Utada (R&B)
Muddy Waters, Joe Bonamassa (Blues)
John Coltrane, Charlie Parker (Jazz)
Utada Hikaru (J-Pop)
The HifiMan RE-Zeros were purchased at roughly half the price of the TF.10 and deliver better sound quality throughout. They may not have the same instant "wow factor" due to their more neutral sound signature, or maybe more accurately, their lack of any actual sound signature, but they produce some detail left behind by the UE and are better balanced in all frequencies. I've found with these that my preferred sound signature is certainly a more neutral one. Maybe with just a tiny bit of extra treble or some slight forwardness in that region. The only place where these truly fall behind the Ultimate Ears is in the size of their soundstage. It is just a little small in comparison. However, imaging is marginally better and separation is comparable. And, most importantly, these just sound more correct to my ears. So, at the price of $100, I can recommend these to anyone who wants quality sound on a low-ish budget.
Disclaimer: Everything above is written as my own opinion. My word is certainly not the law and these are probably not the end-all IEM holy grails for everyone that they are for me. Also, this is my first review to my knowledge (it has been a while since I've posted anything at all here; I mostly lurk). So, if anything is unclear or if you have any suggestions to improve my writing, please leave comments.