Introduction: (The secret behind how the FXC51 can get so amazingly good)
Okay, so I’ll admit this is going to be a tough review. Mainly because I’m not judging the sound off of its stock signature. Yes, that’s right, this review is based off of what you can transform this IEM into using an EQ. But wait, don’t stop reading just yet! Of course, I’ll get into the build, design, fit, and other aspects as well. Just don’t be alarmed or put off by the whole EQ thing, even if you despise them. If you own a Cowon player, as do I, you are in some luck. If you own another player or have a computer program that has a basic 5 band EQ that allows +/- 12 on each band, you are also in good shape. It’s all those others that don’t have an EQ, or don’t intend to play around with one, that should be weary of this IEM altogether. But, if you don’t mind exchanging a bit of patience on top of a spark of curiosity, I can almost guarantee you’ll be in for a real treat. Even so, some of those who do in fact buy this IEM, may simply like the custom EQ that I personally find best, and leave it at that. Either way, I’m sure you’ll be astounded to what this dirt cheap, little device can do if you crunch in the right numbers. I’ve had these for five months now, which alone says quite a bit (I’ve only owned and consistently used 2 out of 70+ headphones I’ve tried. The other being the AD700). During that time period, I’ve been through probably five or so custom EQ’s that I enjoyed greatly. All that other time, I’d spend comparing and tweaking hundreds of different EQs. But, after all that time, I think I may have finally found my favorite one to date, in which I’ll share further down, and actually haven’t touched the EQ since! Quite a feat coming from someone as paranoid as me!
Overview: (My ongoing experience, and stressed importance on using custom EQ)
For nearly the past two years, I've been a on a relentless and frantic search for a headphone or IEM that I would deem a good enough value for me to keep indefinitely. Unfortunately, the only thing I gained over the past year had been my knowledge and experience in trying many different models. I've also learned and experienced a change in how I prefer sound. Other than some random bits and pieces of wisdom here and there, I technically never got passed square one. I started with the PortaPros, ended up with the HE-500, and now back down to FXC51; with detours and distractions every which way. Now, if you just noticed, I mentioning full sized headphones in an IEM review, and there is a reason for that. Yes, out of my entire headphone journey, the FXC51 takes the cake as my preferred music listening device that I'm willing to pay for and satisfied to keep. And that's including all full sized headphones as well. But since it's an IEM, I'll try and stick with comparisons to other IEMs and not breech into the full sized territory. That said, while I still can be considered inexperienced especially compared to more sophisticated and devoted veteran users, I've tried my fair share of heavy weights. Some of them include: Westone 4, Fischer DBA-02, Monster Pro Golds, Phiaton PS200, Vsonic GR07, and Ultimate Ears TF10. And yes, you've guessed it; I took the FXC51 out of all of those models (disregarding price obviously entirely tells a whole different story). As of this day, I haven't had an IEM that can rival the FXC51, and what's funny enough, the FXC51 is the 2nd cheapest IEM I've ever bought, with the cheapest being the FX67 at $5 cheaper.
So, before we get into the main part of this review, I need to mention the most crucial piece of information once more. These absolutely cannot make the cut when used in their stock form. In fact, I highly detest to using them in their stock form, and greatly prefer my FX67 when it having to use them on devices that offers no customizable EQ for sound. That being said, in order to achieve fantastic results with the FXC51, you simply must use an EQ. Month after month, I've tested and tried various EQ's, trying to perfect the sound. After about 5 months of heavy experimentation, I believe I've finally hit the sweetspot, and now have settled into this specialized EQ. Another word of warning though, I currently use the Cowon iAudio 7, and with Cowon’s highly flexible sound alteration options, I was able to fine tune the FXC51 to my own ears and in the best way possible. Now, I won't go to say the FXC51 won't sound good on a Sansa device, a computer EQ, or some other media player, but I cannot speak to how accurate it would sound as opposed to mine used from the Cowon. Luckily for all of us, the FXC51 is insanely flexible when it comes to equalizers and custom EQ's, so I'm sure you'll find a "sweetspot" as well regardless of device, if only you give a bit of time and patience dedicated to finding it. I'll share my current favorite EQ later down in hopes many can try it out, and possibly build off that with what they do and do not like. Of course, there might be those select few that find it good enough, as do I.
A Valuable Mistake: (How I stumbled upon something I already knew I wouldn’t like)
If any of you read my FX67 review, you'll know I praised those very highly. And in fact, before the FXC51, those were my favorite pair of IEMs, for the exact same reason the FXC51's are now my favorite pair. They are cheap, they fit excellent, and they sound fantastic if you have a little patience to spend some time with an EQ. On top of that, they were extremely comfortable, and actually sounded pretty good stock sound with no EQ, unlike the FXC51. Now back up a bit to when those basically reigned supreme value wise in the IEM world for me, and I was strictly limited to full sized shopping. Back then, I appreciated and preferred full sized headphones much more than I did IEMs, and my profile list over at Head-Fi definitely shows. I've owned 3x as many full sized as opposed to IEMs. Anyway, one day an Amazon user (now a registered user on Head-Fi) commented on my FX67 review and suggested I tried the much superior FXC51. (You can actually go read this entire conversation in the comments section on that review). At first, I was very cautious, because I remember my bad experiences with JVC's Micro HD driver back when I owned the FXC80. He assured me that they would improve greatly after burn in, and that they really were better than the FX67 in every way. Of course back to my “distinctive skill of spending money", I ordered a pair as they were only $25. Nothing much to lose even if they were a total train wreck. Not surprisingly, when I got them, they sounded nearly exactly the same as how I remembered the FXC80 to sound. A pity.
Of course, the first thing I did was burn them in for 150 hours just to see if these "jaw dropping" changes would happen like everyone seems to associate with a lengthy burn in, especially with the Micro HD driver. But unfortunately, they didn't sound all that different and I much preferred my good ol’ FX67. But of course, with slight curiosity still looming and the fact that I absolutely loved the fit of them, I did what I usually do. Equalize, equalize, and equalize some more. This is where it all changed for me. I was able to concoct an EQ that actually made them sound pretty dang good! Good enough to finally dethrone my FX67. And expectedly, me being the EQ nut I am, I would do daily experiments and tweaks with the EQ to see if I could find something I liked better. Eventually, I ended up with my “current” EQ I list further below. Thanks to the help of the Vsonic GR07, I was able to remove a mid-bass hump I completely missed in my original EQ versions. Yeah, I was born a bass head, so those roots were still planted, but I eventually got that straightened out into something I find simply amazing. Regardless of price, the sound these now put out is simply some of the best of the best. But now the question is, am I so astonished about its price to performance ratio that I cannot get a pure reading on its sound, or is it really something that can single handedly take down more established IEMs costing much more?
Physical Qualities: (Discussion of basic build, components, fit, comfort, and isolation)
Alright, so you already know I’m going to rave about how good these can get sound wise, but how about everything else? Well, I’ll give you a rundown of what to expect as well as compare it to other IEMs I’ve tried in the past. Starting out, I’ll describe the cord, and what a great cord it is! If we are talking “budget only”, this is about as good as it gets. It’s plenty thick, has a perfect ratio of flexibility to stiffness, and has surprisingly little microphonics, but if we aren’t talking “budget only” these are still plenty up the positive side. I remember when I listened to the Ultimate Ears 600 in the past, I’d hear the classic extreme “bobbing” sound as the cord bounced up and down that plagues a fair share of IEMs. With these, you do hear sounds up toward the upmost part of the cord, but that’s 100% expected from any IEM. Other than that, it performs quite well for a cord down IEM. No complaints whatsoever, at all. Okay, so moving to the earpiece itself and its design. In my opinion, its design is really quite ingenious. Build wise, it’s about as solid as I could ask for without it physically being a rock, yet it’s very light. Again, nothing negative ever even dwelled on me about its design and components. No, unfortunately they cannot be worn over ear, unless you swap sides with ears, but I really don’t care. Microphonics or the cord doesn’t really bother me, so I could care less. Truthfully though, I prefer IEMs that can function great with cord down, as it’s easier and quicker to get in and out, especially budget models that I’ll be travelling with and using frequently. Anyway, top marks for build, design, cord, and materials. It’s doing surprisingly well for only $25, and I haven’t even gotten to the best aspect about its design!
Obviously, the final part about its design that I haven’t discussed yet is the fit. Due to the Micro HD driver being right at the tip of the nozzle, or more like, it is the nozzle, the eartips are specially designed to accommodate this. Can’t use hybrids, gels, or any other commonly used tips on these; its JVC’s stock tips only. Well technically, that’s not true. You can always slam one on, and have it possibly screw up the sound and fit, but… Anyway, the stock tips they provide are, in a word, fantastic. They are simply just excellent. Those tips combined with the far reaching driver nozzle, makes it so you can instantly get a perfect fit, with surprisingly good isolation to boot. These things fit so good, that even my FX67’s were instantly dethroned when I got the FXC51. Probably the biggest reason I didn’t give up on them at first was because I adored the fit, comfort, and isolation; more specifically, that ratio. Isolation is quite a bit better than half in ears like the PS210 and FX67, and in my opinion, can compete with some very notable isolation experts. No, not talking Etymotic, but those also burry five miles deeper in your ears. So, the ratio between isolation and comfort, is about as good as you can get. No, it is actually the best I’ve experienced. Not to mention, I’ve never once had to adjust or re-insert the earpiece due to the infamous imbalance or varied seal issue. Once they’re in, you’re done. And it only takes seconds. So far, the erogonomics and general build of these not only rival, but flat out surpass most if not all, IEMs I’ve owned. Impressive.
Sonic Qualities: (Information on the backbone and capabilities of the stock sound)
I’ll keep this section short, since I prefer not to go in-depth about a stock sound that I don’t like. But I will tell you some of the stuff that these are capable of. First off, let’s hit my weak point. The treble on these is very hot and fatiguing without any applied EQ, and is ultimately not pleasant to listen to at all in stock form. Throw a good EQ in there and it finally steps into line. Extension, sparkle, quality? Um, well, it’s good enough. Treble has always been, “just treble” for me. It’s either fatiguing, or it’s not. Anway, moving on to something I appreciate much more and can describe better. Stock midrange is pretty good, but it is subdued by the bass and treble. It’s a bit hard to get a good read on it with how much it’s being masked, so it’s a good idea to not only pull the treble and bass down, but bump the mids up. Once that has been done, vocals are very upfront and have excellent clarity to them. While they don’t have the full-fleshed out texture and thickness to them that upper-tier headphones have (pointing at orthos specifically), the midrange is excellent especially for the price. And again, you can control to what extent you want these attributes to present themselves, but stock capabilities of everything is quite good. Okay, now we hit its signature move! Bass is extremely present, and indeed simply too much stock. EQ it down though, and you’ll have some of the most proportion and deep extending bass ever. In fact, I don’t think I’ve heard a single IEM that beats these in extension, and I would be hard pressed finding even a full sized headphone to rival it. Yeah, it’s that good! Listening to the “Bass Extension Test” from the “Open Your Ears” album, reveals just how deep these go. I’ve tested most of my headphones with that specific track, and these set the benchmark. Just make sure to pull down that mid-bass hump, or else the fantastic extension will be masked in sheer ugliness. So, why not take a perfectly capable yet mediocre sounding IEM, and turn it into something truly legendary?
My Personal EQ: (This is it. My most recent and current favorite EQ for the FXC51)
Alright, enough of all this talk! I did mention somewhere in this mess of words that I’ve had multiple EQ’s in the past in which I enjoyed thoroughly, yet eventually would found new tweaks to make them even better. That said, I’ll just share my most recent revision rather than giving you the whole throw down of all my other ones, and how I came across to improving them. So, without any more distractions, my Cowon EQ for the FXC51:
- Bandwidth to remain “normal” for all five bands
- Frequency ranges: 80, 220, 780, 3K, 13K
- Decibel adjustments: (This section has been edited. See "Notes")
Pretty simple, right? On paper, of course, but it took me months to get here. Well before, I had the EQ tweaks down to the precise decibel, and was experimenting with everything from the frequency response range, down bandwidths for each band; not to mention all of Cowon’s sound enhancement features. But, it became quite apparent that teeny little tweaks cannot really be heard, and you almost have to do 2-3db before things really start to be made apparent. But generally speaking, my earlier EQ’s resembled this one somewhat. Midrange has always been around that high, and treble that low. Bass has actually plummeted from my earlier EQ’s, as there is a pretty severe mid-bass hump that I somehow didn’t notice until later. Other than that, I encourage everyone that has these, or is planning on purchasing them to experiment with your very own EQ, because the chances of finding something even better than this for your needs are probably very high. After all, we all have different ears and individual tastes.
*Notes: I originally had five specific adjustments in which I found as my personal favorite. But of course, preferences change, and I no longer liked my custom EQ as long as I used to. With a bit more experimenting, I found one I like better than the one I originally had listed. Due to this, I found it would be best to take down those numbers, mainly because of two reasons. The first, in which I already explained, is my tastes change often so a permanent solution is very unlikely. But second, I would really prefer users to experiment on their own, rather than just take "my" word for it. The FXC51 has excellent flexibility in it's ability to morph it's sound, and I hope users can discover for themselves the advantages that presents*
FXC80 Comparison: (How the FXC51 stacks up to its technically superior successor)
Funny, because I've actually owned the FXC80 in the past, and I hated it! When I listened to it for the first time, I highly disliked the sound, as did I with the FXC51. Bass is overbearing, yet quite impactful and deep extending; midrange is decent, yet the least prevalent of the three in the spectrum; and the treble is undeniably hot and piercing. Obviously, the first thing I do to an IEM that I do not like, is try every EQ in the book before sending it off, selling it, or breaking it (as in the case with this pair). Unfortunately, in the end I found out the FXC80 responded horribly to EQ, and would distort and degrade the sound in every which way. Basically, I gave up hope pretty quick with them, and ultimately tried to physically mod the drivers, but ended up destroying them in the process. What's gone is gone, and I never looked back. Fast forward half a year, and I stumbled upon the FXC51 via a user suggestion. And to my amazement, they sounded just as I remembered the FXC80 to sound! Sadly. But, in the same routine I do with all IEMs I don't like, again, I EQ'ed the heck out of them. But this time around, something had changed, even though basically the same Micro HD drivers were used. I actually liked what I was hearing! No, I loved what I was hearing! Of course, I discarded it quickly as I paid hundreds for full sized pairs, trying to find something I'd love more, because deep down, nobody wants to settle on something cheap, right? Especially with exposure to models you know are supposed to be better. Yet, nothing did it for me, and I eventually made my way back and settled with the FXC51.
Then I hit the point I'm at now. I've settled with the FXC51, and shunned everything else, because it was all a waste of time and money. But of course, with my distinctive spending habits, I figured I could drop $40 for the FXC80 again. I figured with how much I loved the FXC51, that I'd like them as much, or better. After all, it uses the same driver, yet a slightly tweaked version, and is housed in a different material. So, once it arrived and I tried it for the first time using the exact same EQ I use with my FXC51, I was instantly impressed. These indeed sounded just like my FXC51, which obviously is a very good thing! Fast forward a few weeks after much comparing has been done, and I was lead to a conclusion between the two. My advice? Go for the FXC51. Not only do they literally sound identical, but the FXC51 has better fit. And of course, not to mention its $15 cheaper for pretty much the exact same product. Now, I will note that there was a slight variation in the sound between the two. Using my EQ for both of these models, the FXC80 displayed generally less bass. That's about it. Now, if I want less bass for my FXC51, I'll obviously tweak the EQ. Exact same goes for the FXC80; if I wanted more, I'd tweak it. So between the two, it's best to save the $15, and get something that provide better fit. Not to say the FXC80 has a bad fit, but I will admit the triangular housings are kind of awkward, and I cannot get a 100% consistent fit like I can with the FXC51. Upside is that they can be worn either over ear or straight down. Other than that, both are spectacular, and I'd take either before pretty much anything else. But I'll still take the FXC51 first.
The Almighty EQ: (The sheer importance of this highly useful, yet overlooked tool)
Yes, I realize how much praise I just gave a measly $25 IEM. And in fact, I think something as unknown and neglected as it deserves it. But realize this; I want this review to be more of an eye opener for experimenting with EQ, rather than to promote an IEM that simply just got "lucky". Crazy thing is, I can only imagine how many headphones (budget specifically) there are out there that can sound leaps ahead of its stock signature if one would simply experiment. I understand that some headphones especially higher end ones, don't need it. I also understand that some headphones can actually get worse by using an EQ. But I know for a fact that there are the plenty of them out there that are waiting to be discovered. The FXC51 is the perfect example of a mistake gone gold. Yeah, the design is great, but the sound is just mediocre at best. This whole thing wasn't even supposed to happen, it was more of a pure coincidence than anything, but I’m very glad it happened. Now the question is, where do I turn next? I really don't know. Yet, I do plan on migrating back to my hometown of full sized headphones for the time being, but I'll always be on the lookout for new IEMs. Whether cheap or expensive, I cannot say, but I think many of you have caught on that I favor the cheaper side of things when it comes to headphones, because that is the domain “value” dominates.
Final Words: (My last message, words of advice, and what I've learned from this experience)
At one point, I literally thought these were the "end-all-be-all" headphone for me, but that just isn't the case. As much as I appreciate them, I cannot help but wonder what else is out there that I may like even more. I've learned that my favorite part of this journey is actually searching, buying, experiencing, and critiquing new headphones, as opposed to simply finding “the best” one for my needs. Throw me in giant room with hundreds of headphones from all kinds of manufacturers and I'd never see the light of day again! The biggest thing obviously holding me back is the money constraint. I personally, want a pretty decent value when it comes to buying and owning a headphone, so it's more of a mind struggle on whether or not I continue to buy headphones I probably won't keep yet want to experience, or just buckle down and hold onto the one I've got. But of course, I already know the latter is not going to happen; I'd be lying to myself if I said I was at the end of the road. So, my journey now continues to find either that "special device" (has a feature or attribute that I absolutely adore) in which I could care less to what the value ratio is; or more realistically, that "unbeatable value" (that obviously preforms or can perform much higher than its initial price). But as far as actually finding the "one", assuming this isn't it, I'm in no rush. As one of my favorite quotes says, "Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling."
Edited by Katun - 9/1/12 at 7:52pm