The story behind this review is kind of interesting. I was in contact with Meizu about an upcoming portable audio player being released later this year. I asked for a loaner so I could do a review over at InnerFidelity. That device is still a few months out so they don’t have review models yet. During the course of our conversation the Meizu rep asked if I might be interested in covering their latest IEM, the EP-40. A budget IEM selling for around $40? That’s not the type of thing I usually review. But I did some research on it, and the design actually looked very well done for such a low price. So I agreed to have a listen and cover it here at HeadFi rather than at InnerFidelity, since Tyll is way backed up on important headphones to be reviewed. Now that I’ve spent some time with the EP-40 I’m glad gave it a chance.
The EP-40 is available all over the place.... in retail stores all across China. Those of us living on other continents will need to order them online. I found THIS website selling for $49 though it seems demand is so high that Meizu can't keep up at the moment. By the time this is published they may be in stock again. Or not.
The EP-40 is a compact In Ear Monitor. Maybe compact doesn’t do them justice – how about extremely compact? The design is among the smallest I’ve seen, right there alongside the Microsonic Epic X, UE700, ACS T15, and Jays q-Jays/d-Jays. What makes it unique among that group is that it uses a dynamic driver instead of an armature driver. Here are the specs as listed by Meizu:
· 7μm ultra-thin composite diaphragm
· 8mm powerful drive unit
· 14 0.05mm high-purity oxygen-free copper headphone wires
· 3 earplugs in different sizes
· Microphone and remote
· High-speed Response Technology
· Speaker impedance: 16 Ω
· Sensitivity: 101dB SPL
· Frequency response: 20Hz ~ 20KHz
· Maximum input power: 10mW
· Length: 1.2m
· Plug: 3.5mm
Let’s examine the highlights – dynamic driver at 8mm, with an “ultra thin composite diaphragm” at a mere 7 microns thick. I have no way of knowing how that compares to other in-ear monitors; Stax seems to be the only company that likes to advertise their diaphragm thickness. The next line is somewhat unclear but I take it to mean that the cable is constructed of 14 strands of .05mm thick OFC wire. Again, I have no clue how that compares to the average cable from competing brands. The cable measures 1.2 meters and has an inline microphone with a single button placed at roughly mouth level. It terminates in a straight 3.5mm plug. Impedance is 16 ohms and sensitivity is 101dB which is well within the normal range.
Physically the EP 40 is very compact as I mentioned prior. The housing appears black at first glance but closer inspection reveals it to be a transparent “smoke” color, allowing a view of the driver itself. The nozzle extends from the driver housing at an extreme angle, similar to the Radius DDM though not completely to the side as seen in the Sony EX1000. The difference is that this nozzle is longer and thinner than both of those - roughly the same as the Westone UM3X. There is a tiny vent in the shell which is so small that I can hardly imagine it making any sort of difference. No sound leaks from the vent and isolation is moderate. Overall build quality is very impressive – not just for the price either. If I was handed the EP-40 and told that it sells for $150, I would not have any reason to doubt that claim. They feel solid enough to take some serious abuse, and the cable has a decent strain relief that it should last for the long haul.
The EP-40 comes in a circular case which either looks like a record or the bottom view of a Playstation 1 disc, depending on what era you are from. It’s a unique bit of packaging but doesn’t seem all that useful for on the go storage. A twist of the top allows access to the inside layer of padding containing 3 pairs of tips and the earphones themselves. Tips are a dual flange type in the usual small, medium, and large sizes. Overall it is a decent setup though not as extensive as some other budget IEMs I’ve recently seen who like to drown you in accessories. Priority here seems to have been placed on presentation rather than utility.
I have noticed a recent trend where budget IEMs come packaged with a large selection of tips. They may not be of the highest quality, but the large selection at least gives the user options and helps determine which size is optimal. The user can then buy a higher quality version of that same size and type. With the EP-40, the user gets some reasonably nice tips but not much variety. I found that the medium tips were just slightly too small while the large tips were a bit too big – they sealed well but the pressure on my inner ear was stronger than I’d like. I had to take breaks every 30 minutes or so in order to prevent pain. Then again I have always been tough to please when it comes to tips; one of the key reasons I only use custom IEMs these days.
Not being sure what to expect, I burned the EP-40 in for about a week straight prior to listening. Once I figured out the proper fit I was really impressed with the sound. The general sound signature has a slightly warm tilt – mostly neutral mids and highs but a respectable bass boost. The bass reaches extremely deep and punches hard, yet remains clean and controlled. I was blown away when listening to Beverley Knight’s Music City Soul which is a great album for testing low frequencies. The EP-40 handles bass drum, bass guitar, and other low frequencies so well that it seemed like I was listening to a much more expensive product. Speed and texture approaches what I might expect from an entry level custom IEM. Mid-bass bloat, a common occurrence with cheaper dynamic designs, is thankfully kept to a minimum. Overall the low frequency presentation is outstanding.
The mildly boosted lows transition cleanly to a neutral sounding midrange. Separation and clarity are nicely handled, with vocals sounding distinctly layered against the instrumental backdrop. Since the lows are kept in their own realm the midrange remains uncolored – it has enough weight of its own without needing any added thickness. Everything from congas to trumpets to violins have a pleasingly natural tone free from honk or tininess.
Unfortunately, the one area that is less than perfect is the area that many people are sensitive to – the upper mids and highs. The EP-40 attempts to channel certain Westone models in an attempt to produce a somewhat lively sound. Unfortunately it doesn’t always succeed. There are some instances where vocals, especially the female variety, sound outstanding: crisp and airy but not overdone. Yet other times the EP-40 pushes a bit too hard and the whole affair turns peaky, sibilant, and downright unpleasant. So while Nancy Bryant sounded wonderful, Beverley Knight had traces of edginess and Allison Krauss become borderline harsh at times. A bit of EQ applied to the 5-6kHz range helped considerably but the effect never disappeared completely. Aside from that the highs are actually very nice – sparkly, clearly defined, and with a good amount of airiness. I speculate that within their budgetary limits, Meizu could have gone for a smooth but rolled off response or else an extended but peaky response, and they chose the latter. You can’t have it all at this price range and the market is full of dynamic drivers that sound like the former. I don’t want to overstate the problem here; no IEM is perfect, least of all one selling for under $50. And there are plenty of much more expensive options on the market which exhibit the same difficulty with high frequencies. Think Westone 3: some people love them, some can’t stand the highs.
I found the EP-40 easy to drive overall. Volume was rarely an issue whether using a Sansa Clip, Hisound RoCoo D power edition, or even just an iPad. There was a mild improvement when using a portable amp, mostly in terms of soundstage definition, but it isn’t really a requirement. The bigger upgrade came when using a higher quality source – something like the Grant Fidelity TubeDAC-11 or Audiotrak DR.DAC 2 DX is able to squeeze out a bit more realism and definition while helping keep those highs more controlled. You certainly don’t need the extra power on tap, but the clarity and smoothness of the DAC section is appreciated when dealing with a potentially harsh top end. Barring a higher end source, the next best thing is something like the RoCoo D which has somewhat rolled off highs. This band-aid approach is less than ideal but can get the job done if your musical preferences end up being a poor match for the EP-40.
They make the Hisound Popo look positively massive (which they are not)
Before I begin, I need to explain why I was hesitant to accept this review in the first place. This may end up making me sound like a total snob… but I’m accustomed to listening to far nicer IEMs than this. My permanent collection solely consists of custom IEMs these days. Sure, it is spread out from flagship models to mid-range choices and even budget models. But most of my “budget” customs still cost roughly 10 times what the EP-40 does. Frankly, I admit that I’m out of touch with the current state of low priced universal IEMs, and therefore I’m not in the best position to ascertain where the EP-40 stands in comparison to similarly priced competition.
Having said that, I do have a few reasonable comparisons to offer. Taken within reason, I find that the EP-40 competes with some significantly more expensive choices.
Hisound Popo: the oddly named Popo sells for $60 on eBay making it the closest contender I have on hand. I’ll be honest – the Popo is not an IEM that I particularly enjoy listening to. There are some things about it that I do appreciate: the fit is surprisingly good, comfort is excellent, build quality is nice enough, appearance is subjectively appealing, and the included assortment of tips is substantial (though somewhat low quality). Notice how I haven’t mentioned any good qualities about the sound? Simply put, I find the Popo to be overly warm to the point of being thick and syrupy. Mids are recessed and muddy, while highs are way too rolled off for my taste. Yet I’ve read positive reviews of these from respected HeadFiers, so perhaps this is an example of my expectations being too high.
To my ears, the EP-40 sounds like a completely different class of IEM. Bass is less prominent (which is welcome in this case) but significantly tighter and more controlled. Mids are more forward and have a far better sense of clarity. Details that the Popo would stumble on or even completely gloss over, the EP-40 renders with precision. Highs, while less offensive on the Popo, are dull enough to lose my attention, where the EP-40 grabs hold of it. Only in soundstage does the Popo offer any redeeming value in this comparison.
Part of this is admittedly just my preferences for sound signature, and the EP-40 lining up far better with my ideal sound. The two could really not be more different. In appearance, I actually like the Popo which seems to capture a sort of steampunk LCD-2 aesthetic compared to the somewhat high-tech but more traditional Meizu design. But appearance and signatures aside, I think the EP-40 is several steps above in overall sound quality.
Shure SE310: having recently sold these, I don’t have them on hand for direct comparison. At one time these went for $299 though recently they could be had for roughly half that. Their armature based design offered a linear, extended sound with good resolution… assuming one could obtain a proper fit. When achieved, these were some of my favorite single driver armature based IEMs.
The EP-40 actually has a similar tone, but tweaked towards warmth on the low end and not as smooth up top. On the one hand I appreciate the SE310 for its neutrality, but on the other it could be a little sterile at times. The EP-40 is far less likely to be called boring – the bass has just enough added thump to inject some fun into to proceedings, without being overdone. I also hear the EP-40 as having a more expansive soundstage, if perhaps slightly less accurate imaging at times. Ultimately the highs are the deciding factor: with many songs, the EP-40 is clean enough to be inoffensive, and therefore become my first choice. In the instances where it does become fatiguing, then SE310 would be my favorite. It’s impressive that this sub-$50 IEM can compete with, and sometimes be preferable to, a model that sold for $299 a few years back. If I could graft the cleaner highs of the Shure model onto the overall sound of the Meizu I would be a very happy guy.
The Meizu EP-40 is an impressive little thing. It won’t set the world of headphones on fire but I’m glad I took the chance to hear it, as I find myself impressed – the build is excellent, and the sound is surprisingly capable. It has exceptionally well done lows, rich detailed mids, and lively highs that are either a benefit or a detriment based on the source material used. I’ll say with confidence that nobody should find these things unexciting.
Will the sound be perfect for everyone? Of course not. Neither is the Grado sound, or the Westone sound, or the Beyerdynamic sound. The benefit of the Meizu is that the price of entry is much lower compared to those others. But I find myself enjoying the EP-40 more often than not, a statement I can’t make about many of the other low to mid priced IEMs I’ve experienced. I’m interested to see if Meizu goes the way of HiFiMAN’s RE-series and continues to develop this design to its maximum potential.
I mentioned prior that I am probably not in the best position to evaluate this product compared to its contemporaries. To that end I contacted resident IEM expert Joker to see if he was interested in checking these out. He is, but his backlog of reviews is substantial so it will be a while. ClieOS, another HeadFier who I highly respect, has the EP-40 on his list of upcoming reviews. That should be helpful to confirm or counteract my very positive opinion. But I’d like to open this up to anyone else out there with the proper experience – if you have time to listen for a week or so, comparing to a range of other IEMs and then writing up your impressions, let me know. We should be able to make the rounds to at least a few other people before Joker has time to have a listen. That way I can get a better idea about the EP-40: is it truly the standout that I think it is? Or has the budget IEM segment grown so advanced that $50 models routinely sound this good? There’s only one way to find out.