DUNU DN-19 Tai-Chi: More Jekyll and Hyde than Yin and Yang
This thread began a few months ago as reportage of a Q&A session between DUNU representative Rocky and I. I managed to get a quick listen to their flagship DN-19 and thought it had promise. A couple months later, Rocky sent me the final production version to evaluate. Here’s my take. Since the basics have already been covered in the impressions post as well as by other members, I won’t go deeply into packaging aspect of this earphone.
I’ve never met an earphone with as fierce a dual personality as the Tai-Chi. In Chinese culture, the Yin and the Yang are the ultimate expression of duality --- two opposing concepts in perfect harmony. They coexist as the very composition of balance. The concept permeates multiple cultural aspects of Chinese life, from its traditional medical treatment to feng shui. As such, one would like to think that the DN-19 takes on the personality of its name to become the perfect balancing act in sound reproduction. Instead, after careful consideration, I liken the DN-19 more to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde --- as for every great thing about the Tai-Chi, there’s a side to it that threatens to derail itself.
"With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two."
To be perfectly honest, if I had written this review just two weeks ago, my opinion of the Tai Chi would've been a lot more negative. It seemed as though the Mr. Hyde inside Dr. Jekyll had all but taken over; the good doctor was nowhere to be found, and in his stead was a full-time brute, hell-bent on wreaking havoc in my ear. Even upon opening the package, there were things about the DN-19 that irked me to no end. No, it wasn’t the mismatched typefaces on the packaging or the volatile organic compounds that bonded to my smell receptors. Instead, two things --- things that were supposed to be highlighted features of the Tai-Chi --- were what set me off.
First and foremost: the dampers. The Tai-Chi comes with removable plastic dampers that alter the acoustic impedance of the earphone. With them off, the DN-19 imparts a (sub-) bass-heavy frequency response, but with them on, the response is fairly neutral. At the outset, it seems like a great idea to give users a choice in sound signature. Like the Sennheiser IE8/80, whose tuning screw was more like Bane’s venom injector that gave the already imposing IE8/80 an extra dose of monstrous power with every rachet, the acoustic dampers are what keep the DN-19 in check. With the dampers on, the DN-19 is Dr. Jekyll. Take them off, and Mr. Hyde comes out in all his primal brutality. Yet, like the draughts that Dr. Jekyll had to take in order to suppress Mr. Hyde, there simply isn’t enough to hold back the monster within. There just isn’t enough to sustain the suppression, and the formula is deeply flawed.
What I mean is that these acoustic dampers are small, fiddly, and just plain impractical. As a protective measure, the dampers are designed to screw into the damper tube, but their flanges are of poor quality and will easily lose their teeth. There’s also just not enough material for easy replacement by hand. Even on my very first attempt to put them onto the earphones, I lost one to the black floor below and have since lost another three or four. I brought the issue up with Rocky when previewing the Tai-Chi, and he mentioned that they purposely included a lot of these dampers to counteract users losing them, but why include so many when the problem could easily be circumvented with a better design? I understand that the vent hole diameter is that size for a specific reason, but the dampers can be larger! The screw-on design could've been implemented on the outside of the impedance tube to allow larger, more robust damper caps.
My second issue is with the cable. As part of DUNU’s ‘Silver Impact’ line, the DN-19 comes standard with a high quality silver-plated copper cable. Sounds great, right? Well, not exactly. The sleeving on this cable is sticky and memory-prone. I don’t know what type of material they used, but it’s definitely not PE (neither LLD-PE nor XLPE) or PTFE. I found that the cable was rather difficult to get along with, and not something that I wanted to see from a $125 product when a close competitor like VSONIC is able to provide superior cable ergonomics on its lower-priced models.
The housings are also a minor complaint of mine. While they looked interesting from the concept pictures and are actually quite comfortable in real life, they lack a feeling of solidity that we're used to from the DUNU marque. It's their first dedicated over-the-ear design, and yet it isn't able to provide that snug, concha bowl-filling feel that housings from Westone and Shure are able to provide. Coming from wearing customs 85% of the time, I found the shallow insertion fit of the DN-19 to be insubstantial and not confidence-inspiring. Suffice to say, the Tai-Chi and I didn't get off to the right foot. Well, Mr. Hyde never managed to ingratiate himself to the citizens of London, either.
“He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.”
If you’ve read this far, then you must be thinking, “Wow, he must really hate the Tai-Chi!”
Yes, thus far, I’ve made very strong statements about the design-oriented shortcomings of the DN-19, and while these things still bother me now, I was able to get out of my bubble of negativity and evaluate the rest of the earphone with a more even keel after living with it for a few weeks.
So what is good about it, then? Thankfully, the sound. It is this aspect of the Tai-Chi that redeems itself in my eyes.
"It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both; and from an early date... I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved daydream, on the thought of the separation of these elements."
Sound quality on the DN-19 Tai-Chi is excellent, and most definitely worthy of being the flag bearer of the DUNU product line. As of current, with the dampers attached, it’s one of the better dynamic driver IEMs that I’ve encountered, though the DN-19 still adopts the DUNU house sound, which goes for a laid back treble, and recessed midrange in the 1-2 kHz region. Even then, it’s the first DUNU product that I can really be satisfied by, with regard to sound quality. The bass isn’t overdone, nor is it slow. The midrange, while laid back, is clear and present, especially when the dampers are screwed in. The treble takes a back seat, but with the right tips, they fall right into place with a smoothness that other earphones seem to avoid for fear of being labeled 'boring'.
So how transparent is the DN-19? I decided to tune a rough EQ curve by ear, and found that the only real big change I had to make was to pull the 1-2 kHz region up by average of ~5 dB (peaking at around 1.5 kHz), and it was basically as transparent as any dynamic IEM I’d ever heard. After performing multiple frequency sweeps throughout the audible range, I also detected a peak at ~4.5 kHz, and after that, the treble starts getting slightly uneven, peaking at the 7 and 9 kHz loci but never gets harsh at any point, so I decided not to make corrections to that portion.
From the way I’m writing about it, it seems like there are a lot of glaring problems with the mids and highs, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. As mentioned before, even without the EQing, the response was pretty good, but just a bit laid back. I didn’t do specific comparisons, but my inkling its performance is up there with the GR07s of the world, especially when EQ’ed properly. With the EQ curve that I was able to conjure up, the DN-19 came close to measuring ruler flat to my ears, and with a more precise EQ plugin, I probably could've been able to achieve absolute flatness with no real impact on resolution.
<IMAGE REMOVED, PLEASE REFER TO THE ADDENDUM FOR REVISED EQ CHART>
I was able to tame the beast within with these settings.
Note the climb from 1-2 kHz to compensate for the dip at 1.5 kHz, and the pit from 4-5 kHz to compensate for the peak at 4.5 kHz.
The slopes at either end are just to aid the ultra-low and ultra-high frequencies.
"I swear to God," Jekyll desperately promised, "I will never set eyes on him again. I bind my honour to you that I am done with him in this world."
Interestingly, while I was able to control the low end of the DN-19 with great success, it always felt as though Mr. Hyde was constantly trying to break the door down; with the dampers off, the Tai-Chi would do most of its damage to the low end, which was fine by me. The DN-19 breathed better in its uninhibited state, but unfortunately, midrange and treble clarity were also negatively impacted, prompting me to transform the DN-19 back into harmless Harry Jekyll whenever possible. In the beginning, Dr. Jekyll enjoyed his dual nature. He liked the idea of being uninhibited, free to roam the rooftops of London. It was only when Mr. Hyde began raping women and murdering the innocent that Jekyll realized he was in way too deep.
Right now, if someone were to ask me for a recommendation for a practical, over-the-ear, dynamic in-ear with a neutral-ish sound signature, I'd still recommend the VSONIC GR07 and its successor the GR07 MK2. Granted, it’s more costly, but it’s not much more expensive, and for the price difference you get a better built earphone with superior ergonomics, and a relatively neutral sound at the expense of selective sound tuning.
"'I incline to Cain's heresy' he used to say quaintly: 'I let my brother go to the devil in his own way.'"
Does this mean that the DN-19 isn’t a good earphone? No. It’s quite good, and many would say it’s excellent. I stop short of that conclusion because of its infuriating acoustic dampers and annoying cable, but if you can overlook these two eyesores, then the DN-19 might just be the right earphone for you.
At the very least, the Tai-Chi shows that DUNU has been working hard on their sound tuning. I never thought that I'd be blasting their design and build, while praising their sound. If I was able to super-glue the dampers into place, and re-cable the DN-19, I'd probably be very happy. Unfortunately, I've already underscored my own thoughts with an asterisk. But surely, Robert Louis Stevenson would’ve liked it.
I altered the EQ curve to be a little more accurate. It's still not perfectly flat (within the locus of 600-6000 Hz, which was my main target of revision), as there aren't enough bands in the plugin to do so; I also can't change Q-values, either. However, the DN-19 is surprisingly EQ-tolerant. Here's the revised version:
1k25 is at +5.5 d, 1k6 is at +6.5 dB, 2k is at +3.0 dB, 4k is at -2.5 dB, 5k is at -3.5 dB
Other notes I forgot to mention:
- I don't use the stock tips (neither Hybrid clones nor grey tips) on the DN-19; I use a wide-mouthed silicone tip that is slightly wider than the diameter of the nozzle, so it gives a slight horn effect to the sound, somewhat reinforcing the highs and brightening up the response a tad bit.
- The fit isn't exactly the most snug, but I find that it is a good application for gym use. The shallow-ish insertion and average sound isolation makes it good when I go to the gym and need to take them out on the fly. They stay in well for running and other motion-intensive activities, but still don't feel substantial, like other classic concha-bowl designs like the ones from Shure or Westone. I think I'm spoiled by customs though, and probably think that most universal fits feel strange and insubstantial.
- At the same time, however, the GR07 still feels great. I'm a huge proponent of its articulating nozzle design, which allows for great fits in multiple ear types. The GR07 is probably the DN-19's greatest competitor. There's a $20 price premium for the original GR07 and a $40 price premium for the MK2, but at this time, I feel both are worth the price hike.
- The included DUNU ear guides, though awkward-looking, are amongst the best I've ever used. I'm not normally an ear guide person, but I actually do use them with the DN-19.
- The cable is no longer as tacky and sticky as it was before, but its memory characteristics are still annoying.
Edited by tomscy2000 - 10/22/12 at 6:45am