Not long ago Starkey launched their canal-sized custom in-ear monitor HF-2. I've been lucky enough to get to review it and share my thoughts with the rest of the Head-Fi community.
The Starkey HF-2 utilizes a 2-way TWFK driver (single-case dual balanced armature) and a passive 1st order crossover at 2,7kHz.
This is the same driver used in a variety of IEMs such as the UE 700, Jays q-Jays and it's part of the driver setup in several high-end custom in-ear monitors.
112dB/mW sensitivity and 30 ohm impedance.
It comes with a non-detachable cable in either black or white with handsfree functionality such as microphone and an answer button.
There's a variety of different faceplate colours available. However, the shell is only available in clear. Obviously not much customization can be done at this price point but it is possible to have something engraved. I went with my name (I know, not very creative)
The introductory price of the HF-2 is:
NOK 1490,- excl. tax, incl. std shipping to Scandinavia & Germany (1-2 weeks delivery)
NOK 1590,- excl. tax, incl. std shipping worldwide (1-4 weeks delivery)
NOK 1690,- excl. tax, incl. 2-day UPS shipping (worldwide)
The taxes vary depending on where you live and I imagine Americans won't have to pay much if anything.
(The 1590 NOK for non Scandinavians & Germans is roughly $275 the time of writing this) and a cable change would cost 300 NOK (roughly $52). This is where it gets really exciting - where else would one find an entry-level dual CIEM for a mere $275? Not to mention the fact that this product provides the phone controls that many of us crave when we're out and about.
I for one am very curious about this product and how well it performs. If there's finally an affordable CIEM providing the isolation that many of us enjoy without setting one back a fortune, that would definitely make for a great CIEM for first timers. Sure, people often want something that scales well with amps and what not, but despite having owned numerous portable amps, I often found myself going without one. Let's face it, how many of us do any serious and critical detailoriented listening when we are out for groceries or walking to work?
Packaging and Accessories
The HF-2 arrived in a simple cardboard box filled with those little pieces of polystyrene - in other words, safely packaged.
Besides the HF-2 there was a small carrying ziplock pouch, cleaning tools (a double-sided wax removal-thingie and a wax removal brush), a manual that I seem to have dislocated in all of my mess (exams are coming up so papers are everywhere), 2 sealed alcohol swaps for cleaning and finally a little gray box full of plastic sticks which can apparently be used to help clean around the bore of the HF-2. Quite a decent bunch of accessories for a CIEM at this pricepoint.
The IEM (build quality etc, isolation.)
The HF-2 is canal sized which means it's a lot smaller than your average custom in-ear monitor and will only cover your ear canal. At first I was a little worried about this as I figured it would be tricky to insert and pull out without just pulling the cable, but I've found it's not an issue and the proces is quite easy once you get used to it.
The build quality of my set is great and I haven't seen any bubbles which is usually the case with clear IEMs. Heck, even my $1099 Heir Audio 8.A has a lot of bubbles, so I'm quite impressed with the build quality here. Also worth mentioning is that the HF-2 feels quite sturdy overall, and the cable seems well "connected" to the IEM itself and I don't find myself worrying about having it break or tear apart. I even tend to pull the heatshrink part of the cable attachment when I'm pulling out my HF-2s and I haven't encountered any issues so far.
The isolation is much greater than I had expected considering the small size. It's on par with the isolation of my JH16, Heir Audio 8.A and ER-4 (most ety users will know how great Etymotics product isolate)
Below are two photos of the HF-2 next to my Heir Audio 8.A's to give you an idea of the size of this product.
The cable reminds me a lot of the ones that come with the standard iBuds. I don't have a set around to compare, so I can't tell what the exact differences are. It's quite sturdy and doesn't tange as much as it looks like it would though and at this pricepoint my only complaint would have to be that I would have prefered an angled plug but obviously that is a matter of preference. I chose the white cable as I find they're always black with every other product and I think it looks quite sleek and stylish.
I'm gonna be honest - I don't know anything about microphones, the technology behind them or whether they're any good or not. I figured this wasn't gonna stop me from commenting on the subject, so I called up a few buddies and asked them if they could hear me clearly. None of them mentioned any problems regarding lack of clarity, background noise or anything like that. I even called up a friend while walking around university campus doing lunch time (hungry students can get pretty loud) and my friend told me he could hear me just fine.
The button that holds the microphone also serves as a "pick up the phone/hang up the phone" button during calls. While listening to music it acts as a play/pause button.
Gear used for this review
MacBook Pro -> Yulong D100 -> FLAC (100% and some 24/96) converted to ALAC -> Starkey HF-2
iPhone 4 -> FLAC (100% and some 24/96) converted to ALAC -> Starkey HF-2
I didn't have very high expectations for this set of CIEMs due to the relatively "simple" dual-driver (TWFK) setup and low price. When I first plugged these beauties in, I was very amazed with the rich sound that the HF-2 produces. I do most of my regular listening with either my JH16 or Heir 8.A, so I didn't expect to enjoy these much but that certainly hasn't been the case. Obviously I'm not saying that the HF-2 are on par with either of the beforementioned high-end CIEMs, but they do perform really well. Put in other words, the JH16 isn't 4 times as good as the HF-2 despite costing 4 times as much.
Bass: The bass is very warm and is certainly able to provide a nice, deep rumble considering the driver. There's a lot of detail to the bass. I listen to drum'n'bass quite a lot and can get very picky about headphones for this genre, but the HF-2 certainly did it justice providing a fast-paced and detailed impact that's prominent enough to keep a basshead like me entertained.
The HF-2's obviously cannot keep up with the bass of the JH16, but compared to IEMs using the same driver, the bass is more present and authoritative on the HF-2 than it is on say the UE 700, which I was never really able to enjoy my electronica with.
I found that while my Yulong D100 didn't add alot to the bass, a FiiO E11 that I borrowed from a buddy of mine was able to add to that pleasant rumble.
Mids: I found the midrange to neither impress nor dissapoint. It just didn't really stand out as anything special while at the same time certainly not underperforming - especially considering the price. It's somewhat analytical yet still detailed and liquid. The midrange alltogether sounds much less recessed than on the TF10s while stile remaining quite neutral and overall very coherent with the bass and highs.
Highs: I would describe the highs as being quite analytical in their presentation without ever getting offensive/annoying and fatiguing. I didn't experience any issues with sibilance, which my JH16 tends to have. The highs are quite forward sounding while still blending in great with the mids. Overall detail and clarity is great with an added emphasis on vocals.
Overall I consider the HF-2 to be a great blend of both analytical and warm sound as to not be overly bright. The sound comes across as very balanced and coherent with slight emphasis on the bass and highs (though without recessed mids such as many experience with the TF10). Vocals and bass is what really stands out and is presented with energy and speed, making both electronica and rock music very enjoyable.
Soundstage is average and can feel quite intimate at times while still retaining a great amount of detail. The HF-2 seems quite forgiving when it comes to lossy tracks which is definitely a plus considering it's meant to be used with cellphones.
The bass is very enjoyable as are the vocals, and electronica such as the modern D'n'B classic Drumsound & Bassline Smith - Close sound great even played from a mere iPhone. Heck, I could even get a good headshake with some contemporary dubstep out of these babies.
I have a very hard time really faulting the HF-2 for doing anything wrong - especially at this pricepoint. The sound is very balanced and will suit most listeners as it's neither too warm or dark nor cold or overly bright. I was surprised at how often I picked up the HF-2 considering I have several much more expensive CIEMs lying around and the mobile functionality is just brilliant for people like me who tend to be on the phone a lot while out and about.
Whether the HF-2 is good value is up to the potential buyer. If you're not into customs you could probably find an equally or even better universal product out there (which in addition would be much easier to resell if that should ever become relevant), but if you're looking for either mobile functionality and/or your first entry-level custom IEM, there's really no way around considering the Starkey HF-2. The price might seem a bit high considering the driver-setup, but the sound should certainly not be underestimated and judged merely by the stats on the paper - and the isolation is incredibly good considering this is a canal sized CIEM, which is a great benefit to portable IEMs like these which were meant to be used on the go.
Edited by Staal - 5/1/12 at 1:07pm