These two IEMs are among the latest offering from companies that could be considered giants of portable listening. Both companies have been around since before my parents even met, much less thought of having me. Both have proven their staying power, and their engineering prowess by making products that have wowed many an audiophile over the decades.
These three IEMs all occupy the same price point, which is why I'm kind of excited to do this comparison.
Some eye candy:
Comply TS-400 tips on the XBA-3
Future Sonics Atrio Foamies on the HF3
You'll notice the foam tips on the HF3 and XBA-3. This is because of the sealed (un-vented) nature of these earphones, and the fact that my left ear cannot tolerate the vacuum seal brought on by silicon tips. I used the TS-400 on the XBA-3 because it's the only foam tip I've ever used that does not intrude on the highs and mids, and the HF3's nozzle is small enough to be unaffected by the foam.
TL;DR: XBA-3 = HF3 = GR07
I got a chance to hear the HF5 a few months back in an airport next to the likes of the W4, and I came away more impressed by the HF. I was so impressed that I decided right then and there that I had to have them eventually and, months later, I finally have the HF3.
The treble is a dream come true in refinement and timbre, and the vocals are fantastic (forwardness depends a lot on the track).
The soundstage size is nothing really to write home about. It's not lacking by ANY means, but the imaging is what makes it shine like a million watt bulb. The stage utterly 3D, a quality I adore in my ASG-1.2, but perhaps even moreso.
I'm a bit of a stickler when it comes to timbre, mainly because I play the drums and I really value the tone of instruments. The HF3 delivers here in spades. The only thing is that they fall below the GR07 in the snap of the snare. Otherwise they're fast, and they simply get the tone of the instruments perfectly. It bests the GR07 in cymbal reproduction too.
The only bad thing about them is that I have to insert them in a slow, twisting motion to avoid feeling like my ear cherry is being popped. This is resolved by using something like the Shure Olives.
The last word I thought I would be using to describe an Etymotic is "natural." Yet, here I am. I don't know why I waited so long.
Listening to the XBA-3, I find it to be a happy medium between the HF3 and GR07. It makes the HF3 seem like someone sucked out the bass. It's more resolving, more powerful, and ultimately more enjoyable. It has essentially the same amount of detail as the Ety, but presents it in a more euphoric way. It's enveloping, the sound stage is just as 3D, but much bigger.
I'll go into detail in the next section.
Note: My listening equipment consists of my laptop and Fiio E10. Also, I've posted the youtube videos of the songs. They don't sound nearly as good as the high bitrate versions that are on my computer; they're just so you can have an idea of what I'm talking about. The GR07 is included because it's basically my benchmark for good quality earphones.
1) Weightless - City and Colour (Little Hell, 256 Kbps AAC).
I chose this song because it's one of my benchmarks for space, layering, electric guitar realism. The album was recorded in an old hollowed out church, and the effect is simply awesome.
GR07: Excellent sense of space, and the guitars sound fantastic. You can hear the guitar player off to the right in the distance, and there's a little tambourine action going on to the left. A second guitar comes in about midway through for a little solo. It's positioned a little to the right of the tambourines. I'm hearing slight sibilance in the vocals too.
XBA-3: Coming from the GR07, I immediately noticed the loss of texture in the hi-hat of the drums, which was replaced by this annoying "TSSSST TSSSST" sound. It almost sounded like sibilance. The stage is wider, but it didn't really transmit the empty church atmosphere like the GR07 did. Guitars aren't quite as good. Vocals are less forward, but do not show the GR07's sibilance. The bass guitar can be heard a little more clearly than in the GR07. Imaging is just about the same.
HF3: It's better than the XBA-3 at giving that sense of atmosphere, but not quite at the GR07's level due to having the least soundstage size of the three. The treble is the most refined, as the hi-hat and cymbals are most realistic. It has the least amount of bass but that doesn't affect the song much, since it's not really bass driven. What's interesting here is that the sound stage, while small, actually exhibits the best imaging. In the other two phones, the guitar in the solo is behind you; the HF3 is actually capable of forward projection, and puts the guitar in front and to the left of you.
2) Set Fire to the Rain - Adele (21, FLAC)
Once the radio station just stopped spamming it, and you can listen to it fully without, you remember how good this song actually is.
XBA-3: The presentation is like a big warm hug because of the extra bass that vibrates and adds to the atmosphere. There's a great sense of space, yet the vocals are not distant at all. One relatively jarring thing though (at least IMO) is that at the higher treble when the drummer strikes the cymbals, there is a tinkery, metallic sound that bothers the crap out of me. I want to attribute it to the tweeter, but I'm not totally sure what the exact culprit is. Adele's voice is more enveloping than in the other phones,
HF3: If the XBA-3 is a warm and loving dog, the HF3 is a cold, spiteful and distant cat. It has decidedly less body to the sound, and the vocals, while more forward, are thinner and dryer. Gone is the euphoric presentation, and you get the details thrust at you without any sugar coating. It's almost grating at times. The treble is devoid of the annoying tinkering from the XBA-3. I found myself listening for the bass, instead of just hearing it.
GR07: Better bass response than the HF3. The treble is less refined, but it still does not have that metallic tinker of the XBA-3. It's not quite as euphoric as the XBA-3, but not as cold as the Ety. I'm pretty sick of listening to this song, so I'll leave it at that.
3) Ave Formosissima & O Fortuna - C. Orff (Carmina Burana - Eugen Jochum & Berlin Orchestra, 1968), FLAC
My favorite classical work of all time, and my favorite recording of it has to be Eugen Jochum's 1968 version with the Berlin Orchestra, which is still regarded as the best performance to date. These last two tracks flow into each other, and are the culmination of everything you experienced over the last hour or so of the entire piece. The dynamics, the crashes, and the finale all just feel "right." There's no way to transmit the feeling via language, so I urge you to just go get the recording yourself. What I look for is an earphone's ability to recreate the rise and fall of each section (AKA, dynamics). Of course, things like instrumental timbre are important as well.
XBA-3 & GR07: I lumped the two together because I found it difficult to describe whatever differences there were. On the XBA-3, there is the slightest increase in mid-bass, and a slightly more open feel to the track. On the GR07, I'm hearing more focus across the range at the expense of a tiny bit of space. I prefer how the timpani sounds on the GR07 too. Both manage to capture the intricacies of the track, as both are dynamic and involving. I'd call it a draw between the two on this track, as I found myself waving my hands like a madman during the really lively sections (a trait shared among many classical conductors).
HF3: There is considerably less note weight here, though not to the extent that I was expecting. The notes are clearer, but a bit sharper. The timpani doesn't quite carry the power that the other two phones can provide, but it still packs a decent punch. Vocals are more distinguishable, and you can hear the voices in the choir more clearly. The price of this clarity is the enjoyment factor. I didn't get into the recording quite like I did with the other two phones.
4) High For This - The Weeknd (House of Balloons, 320 Kbps)
I love this song for two reasons...firstly, it's one of my benchmarks for bass texturing, and atmosphere. It's one of those songs that I imagine could trip someone out if he/she was on an illicit/hallucinatory substance. It's chill, yet there's so much going on at the same time. This youtube video is actually of decent quality, just be sure to listen in 720p.
Ok, I'm getting a little sleepy, so...
All three: The XBA-3 portrays the atmosphere a little better than the GR07. There are parts of the song where the rim click just reverberates around the stage better on the XBA than the GR07. However, the GR07 digs a little deeper and produces more texture, resulting in a more visceral feel to the bass. Vocals are a little less forward on the XBA-3, but this grants it the slightest advantage space-wise. As far as the HF3 goes, it presents the details majestically, but can't quite produce the atmosphere of the song.
When I first got the HF3, it impressed the hell out of me. I didn't have anything to compare it to, but now that I have iems that are equal in technical ability, I'm inclined to agree than the Ety's are more of a tool than a normal listening device. I think I'll still keep them around for when I want a blast of clarity.
As far as the GR07 MKII vs the XBA-3 goes, you really couldn't go wrong with either. Both have about equal technical prowess, and both have slight advantages over each other. At the end of the day it's up to you to decide what your priorities are.
I'm going to bed now.
Edited by eke2k6 - 10/21/12 at 4:36pm