First post from a head-fi 'noobe' and a 'noobe' on this site. This is not a review per se as much as it is a recounting of my recent journey into the world of head-fiying, which I think can be of interest and of value to others here. Warning: this will likely be a long post.
I have considered myself an audiophile since my late teens...some 40 years ago. At present, I am blessed with a top-flight home audio system. I like vinyl more than digital AND I never quite took to listening to headphones. My experience with computer audio to date was streaming music through Pandora's premium service (slightly better files as compared to the non-paid version).
For some inexplicable reason, ahead of some recent travels I decided to get IEMs. After some reading and based on a friend 's recommendations I got Shure's SE 535s. This is where my story begins...
Shure SE 535:
Getting them only days before my travels I let them 'run' around the clock for a couple days to break them in. While I enjoyed the sound's inviting lushness, I was not too thrilled with their clarity, their bass and the highs. Sound insulation was poor as well.
When I got back and read some more I realized I was listening all this time with a poor/non-existent seal. Some tips' changes later, the bass was better and the sound isolation as well. Alas, by this time I already 'opened Pandora's Box'. I found this site and spent way too much time lurking and reading. As I am sure every head-fi'er knows, whatever opinions you are looking for - you will find here. And so, after reading so many reviews and threads were the SE 535s were dissed (mine were not the Red LTD Edition) and reading glorifying reviews about Westone's 4R IEMs, I was ready to have my Shures returned for the 4Rs.
Some last minute reading before asking for the swap from the supplier (Earphone Solutions) I read about the Phonak PFE 232s. Some reviews (also outside of this site) were very positive. Other reviewers (here) stated the PFE 232s would be a superior choice to the 4Rs, so this is what I ordered.
Phonak PFE 232:
As I wanted to have both IEMs for comparison, I had the PFEs shipped before returning the Shures. This is as good a place as any for a 'shout out' for Earphone Solutions. This vendor was absolutely great. Calling their toll-free number for the replacement got me worried, as the operator was ill-informed and entirely unhelpful. I then called their regular number and learned that the toll-free (their Sales Center) is manned by another company in another state. My advice to anyone dealing with Earphone Solutions is to call their direct number. In short, they accommodated my numerous questions and requests and have been really great.
After a similar breaking-in period I sat down for some critical listening and compared the 2 IEMs.
I should note that up to this point I was listening through my iPhone 4s (256 Kbps files, a limitation imposed by iTunes Match) and through my iMac (to ALAC at max Kbps, which varies from song to song).
Right from the get-go it was clear that the PFEs are more detailed, have more energy at both ends of the sound spectrum, have a less lush and dominating mids and a lesser sound isolation. They were lighter and more comfortable though. I did not like the cable. As compared to the Shures it feels flimsy and not confidence inspiring. I should note that I replaced the cable with the iPhone controls (which came pre installed ) with the plain one (also provided).
I tried both grey (pre installed) and black filters. While I might still go back and forth and experiment some more, I loved the ambience and heft on one hand and the sparkle on the other provided by the black filter. Alas, I could not live with the recessed/depressed mids, so I stayed with the grey filter. All subsequent comments are for listening impressions with the grey filter installed.
I also tried the provided silicon tips but prefer the foam like material (similar to the Shure's). With the silicon tips this IEM is too bright and fatiguing.
I gradually developed a preference for the PFEs (as compared to the Shures). After long listening sessions with them, when switching to the Shures, I would miss the better resolution and lesser grain and would be taken aback (on some recordings) with the overly lush Shures. And yet, on other recordings, I'd miss the wonderful lushness. And so I remained undecided.
As some reviews referred to the PFEs lack of a 'glass ceiling', meaning how their quality could accommodate ever better equipment and sources, I started looking for a venue where I could listen to some better sources than what I used.
Coincidently, at the very same time I decided to register to Head Fi. It was brilliant that upon registering I learned of a meet coming up in Los Angeles. So last Sunday, there I went.
ALO Rx Mk 3 + CLAS, ALO Continental and ALO National:
This was my first 'meet'. Having seen a video here with some great feedback on the ALO/CLAS combination, this is what I wanted to listen to at the meet.
ALO paired the CLAS with their upcoming Rx Mk 3 (due out in a few weeks, I was told). In all, I spent over an hour at the ALO table (super nice folk). I first compared the IEMs playing through my iPhone/MK 3/ CLAS. I then used ALO's provided iPod classic, using the same tracks (or those of the tracks I used that they had loaded on their iPod) - thinking, assuming they were of a better resolution from what I was using. I never confirmed this with the ALO guys, but the sound told the story. For the most part, I listed to a couple of tracks by Diana Krall ('The Girl In The Other Room' and 'S'Wonderful') and a track from Dire Straights (Private Investigation).
As soon as I switched between the PFEs and the SE535s, it became clear that the PFE are indeed a better IEM. With better ancillary equipment and source, the PFEs sounded FAR smoother and soothing. The sound was still 'digital' and had an inherent harshness and glare to it (through both IEMs) if compared to analog, but the PFE's graininess disappeared, while the Shure's only improved a little bit.
My decision to keep the PFEs and return the Shures was finalized right there and from this point on I listened only to the PFEs.
Not being familiar with the ALO line, I asked for and got the National and Continental amps to listed to as well. For some reason I actually thought that the National and Continental are more expensive offerings in the ALO line (maybe because they are bigger?), but I definitely preferred the sound of the Mk 3. Ken of ALO later corrected my misconception and explained that indeed these amps cost less than the Mark 3 and he likes its sound more as well.
As an aside, the Mk 3's main difference from the Mk 2 (as I understand it) is an 'audiophile bass button' (an oxymoron?). This knob has a very subtle effect on the sound bumping up frequencies under 400 Hz.
I must say though, that by and large, I wasn't bowled over by what that >$1200 package (not counting the better res files) could do to the sound from my iPhone. It was better, but in incremental ways only.
As most every other station had to do with full headphones and/or was busy, I decided to take my leave. Walking out, I noticed a table by the doors that had visitors' own equipment. Mostly an assortment of little portable amps.
From one of Jude's videos (I think), I recognized the Fostex HP-P1 unit. As another possible portable solution (cheaper and 'cleaner' than the ALO+CLAS combo) I wanted to listen to that as well. I was therefore happy to spot an HP-P1 among the many little amps strewn about on said table. Note: this must be an awesome community. Some of the equipment strewn about is in the hundreds of dollars range, yet, it was left there with no one looking over it (to avert theft) and available for anyone to try. truly remarkable!
The HP-P1 was, for the most part, more of the same. In my opinion the ALO+CLAS bettered it in pretty much every category, but the HP-P1 held it's own when compared to the National or Continental (with and without the CLAS). Again, the character of the sound did not change. It was digital, with all that this implies.
Right next to the HP-P1 was a unit that looked different from all the other little portable amps. Picking it up I thought first it was a phone. Curious, I plugged my PFEs in...
iBasso DX - 100:
To preface, unlike the previous contenders, I never heard of the iBasso, nor read any reviews about it. I was a 'Tabula Rasa' (clean slate) in terms of pre-notions about it.
As one fully invested in the Apple 'universe', nothing about this equipment was familiar or comforting. It's quite a bit larger than the iPhone, its screen sucks and the UI is quirky. While listening to the HP-P1 I played around with the menus and looked to see if my choice tracks for the day were loaded on it. Diana Krall's S'Wonderful indeed was and so I unplugged from the HP-P1 and plugged into the Dx-100.
As audiophiles, we are all looking for that moment of sheer bliss, that glimpse of greatness in the equipment we audition and buy. It is so rare and so precious when we actually get to experience it.
This is what I got from the very first note. I was floored. The sound was warm but detailed, balanced but hefty, not sparkly but fully extended. The mids were glorious and the 'air' intoxicating. In short, the sound was as analog as I ever got from digital (I am including home systems in this statement as well). There was nobody there to tell me about this unit nor about the kind of files loaded on it. These may have been ultra hi-res files, I don't know.
I immediately looked up iBasso DX-100 on my iPhone to get some contextual info (something I continued to do insistently since I got back home).
The end of this story - for now - is that I ordered this unit yesterday. The site said to pay a $200 deposit towards the next available units (the so call 3rd batch). By morning though, I got an email back that the deposit was refunded as the units are now available and to please re order, paying the entire amount. I paid the unit in full (including shipping to US, a total of $861. Auch). I truly can't wait to get it, load it up and plug in the PFEs for some sonic nirvana.
To be continued...