This is my first IEM review, so bear with me on this one. It isn’t very technical and it was more of an exercise for me to help me eliminate some IEMs from my collection. I currently own two ~$200 IEMs and two ~$350 IEMs and couldn’t justify keeping all of them, so I wanted to compare them and eliminate one from each category. These are really just my own notes about them, but I felt that others might be interested in them. I don’t consider myself an audiophile – instead I’m rating more on how much the IEM improves my listening of music.
I really like a mid-centric sound, especially with prominent and clear vocals. If you like a V-shaped sound, probably none of these IEMs are for you. I also mainly listen to indie and classic rock with a bit of hip-hop mixed in. I don’t listen to much classical, jazz, or electronic music, so keep in mind that these are mainly my opinions on my type of music.
Lastly, I’d like to try out a few other IEMs that have this sound signature (mainly ones by Shure, Grado, and Ortofon), but I think I’ve pretty much reached a conclusion.
Notes on Testing:
I drove most of these out of my MacBook Pro with an AudioQuest DragonFly as a DAC/amp. It offers some improvement, mainly in clarity and tightening up of the bass. However, I found that all of the IEMs were driven fine directly out of my iPhone 4 (even the RE262). The DragonFly helps, but only the last 5-10% at most.
Most of my music is mp3s from 256-320kbps. I can’t tell the difference between 320 and FLAC on a consistent basis, so I tend not to listen to FLAC files.
I wear all of the IEMs over-the-ear and found no problems with microphonics this way. I can imagine that if I wore the RE262, HF3, or Heaven IV straight down, then there might be some cable noise.
I briefly borrowed the SM3s a while ago from a Head-Fier (thanks to Gilly87), so my thoughts on it might be a bit off.
I was expecting a lot from the RE262 and it really didn’t disappoint. First of all, the small housings are pretty much perfect from a comfort standpoint, no issues there. I also think that the power issues are a bit overblown – yes it sounds a bit better from my DragonFly, but it still sounds pretty damn good unamped too. I barely go over 50% on the iPhone with these, so maybe I just listen to music pretty quietly? But, let’s talk about the sound. These are described as mid-forward, which is true, but the thing that grabbed me first was the soundstage. I didn’t think there were mid-forward at first since the soundstage was just enormous; much bigger than I’d experienced in an IEM before. It’s really fantastic and doesn’t feel artificial either. On the other hand, the sense of space can feel a bit empty, but the RE262s are warm enough that I don’t think that’s a big issue.
The RE262s are also very clear and well extended both on the bass and the treble. It’s mid-centric, but I can’t complain too much about the bass or treble. The treble has a decent amount of treble and certainly not as rolled off as the UM3X. It’s also not that smooth, but it has good energy. I do wish that the RE262 had a bit more bass like the UM3X, but it’ll do.
As a whole, the RE262 sounds like what I’d imagine the UM3X would be if it wasn’t designed for monitoring. It’s a UM3X with greater treble extension, a bigger soundstage, and worse instrument separation. The UM3X is still slightly better to me and it sounds like no other, but the RE262 is definitely still a great IEM.
+ Huge soundstage, sounds very much not like a typical IEM
+ Very black, grainless presentation; clearest of the IEMs
+ Very comfortable, different ways of wearing so it should fit everyone
+ Good package, only flaw is no small carrying case
+ Great price/performance ratio
= Mids are accurate and clear, but due to the soundstage size, can sometimes feel a bit laid back
= Warmer sound, with a good bass presence, but more treble than the UM3X; it sounds quite a bit like the UM3X with a large soundstage and worse separation, but obviously that’s a bit change
- Harder to drive than the other IEMs; not much of a concern to me since I still don’t reach much over 50% on an iPhone
FAD Heaven IV:
I’d heard a lot about the Heaven IV as having great mids despite not being mid-centric. After hearing them, I kind of understand why people think so. The mids are actually quite similar to the SM3 – they aren’t quite as upfront as the SM3, but they do have a warm quality. The presentation in particular is very similar as it sounds like the singer is singing from inside your head. However, this isn’t really a sound signature that I like very much, it just feels a bit artificial and unnatural. The Heavens also don’t have the largest of soundstages; this is particularly evident when listening to them right after the RE262. They seem very congested in comparison.
Regarding the bass, the bass is actually rather strong and so are the lower mids, giving heft to male vocals. They aren’t by any means bass-heavy, but the bass is a bit loose, creating a more “fun” sound than any of the other IEMs. The Heavens more than any of the other IEMs on this list feel like a consumer product and not an audiophile product. This is fine, but its shortcomings are evident in such a comparison.
The treble is there and I’d probably call the Heavens a slight V-shape. It’s not bright though, but the treble isn’t that smooth. Somehow, even with a V-shape, the mids stand out though and that’s quite unique.
Just a quick note about fit and finish of the Heavens. Usually I don’t care too much about this unless they’re special and the Heavens are in all the right ways. The cigarette IEM case is incredibly classy (even if it scratches and smudges easily) and they’re wonderfully built IEMs that have a good amount of heft. You can easily tell that FAD places quite a bit of emphasis on design. However, the fit isn’t ideal; I hate how there isn’t a slider above the Y-splitter so that over-the-ear wearing is quite difficult. The barrels of the IEM are also a bit larger than the HF3, so the fit isn’t as secure either. I couldn’t get a fantastic fit with these, but I have really small ears, so most people probably won’t have this problem.
I’d say that technically, the Heavens aren’t on the same level as the other IEMs (they’re about the same as the HF3, probably even a bit worse sound quality wise than them), but they do have a unique sound signature. The presentation of the mids is very much like the SM3 (although take this with a grain of salt since I had the SM3s a while ago) and even though the ‘phones are V-shaped, the mids are quite clear and even emphasized. They’re good for pop and have great style, but they’re definitely not the first IEM I’d recommend.
+ Very interesting mids; presentation similar to the SM3; vocals not as clear though, bit muddy
+ Great package, very classy IEM carrying case (although a bit impractical)
= Somewhat comfortable, barrel of IEM is a bit large
= Seems like a “mini SM3” would be my best description; haven’t heard the SM3 in a while though, so take impressions with a grain of salt
= Slight V-shape, with more of a bass emphasis than treble emphasis
- Small soundstage; vocals are very “in the head”
- Somewhat grainy; clearly doesn’t have the technical specifications of the others
- Bass is a bit loose; not the tightest
- No slider for the IEM makes it difficult to wear over the ear
The UM3X is an IEM that really doesn’t “wow” at first, but gradually becomes something that you love. I can’t see someone impulse buying this one and I can definitely see someone being disappointed at first with the UM3X. It doesn’t do anything exceptionally, but it does everything really well. The instrument separation is unmatched and it has great balance. It is a bit boring, especially since it doesn’t have the treble presence that people often listen for at first, but it is also very smooth and unfatiguing. The fit of the UM3X is also perfect – by far the most comfortable IEM I’ve ever had.
The soundstage of the UM3X is intimate and small. For rock, this is not a huge problem; it is also fine for jazz and hip-hop. For classical, it’s a bigger issue. But, the placement of the instruments is fantastic. The UM3X is clearly a monitoring IEM with vocals pushed forward in the mix. This creates the impression of intimacy. Some people describe the UM3X as being in a small club with your favorite artist; I’d be inclined to agree with that sentiment.
The mids for the UM3X are forward and very smooth. They aren’t as detailed as the 4.Ai, but they are very clear despite being slightly congested due to presentation. Separation is very clear, one of the best I’ve ever heard. The UM3X also has the great ability to center the vocals and make it stand out, which is perfect for vocal music. While they are for monitoring, I wouldn’t call the UM3X neutral, since the mids are definitely more forward than neutral.
There is also a small emphasis on the lower mids, with male vocalists sounding particularly good. There is a real heft to the vocals, bordering on lush. The bass is also tastefully done. It’s present and there’s quite a bit of it, especially for a BA driver. The bass is also quick and tight, but not as quick as the 4.Ai.
For treble, it’s incredibly smooth, but not very well extended. This is the biggest downfall of the UM3X. When going from the 4.Ai to the UM3X, it’s clear that there’s something that’s missing. For people who are treble sensitive though, the UM3X would be a perfect IEM. The UM3X is definitely a darker sounding ‘phone and never sibilant or fatiguing.
The UM3X is a perfect IEM for monitoring and great for people searching for an intimate experience. It doesn’t work that well for some types of music that ask for a large soundstage, but for vocal music and rock/pop, it can be fantastic.
+ Intimate soundstage, sounds like a small club
+ Good bass presence, enough of a kick for most music
+ Good package, very useful and small carrying case
+ One of the most comfortable IEMs I’ve ever worn, very ergonomic
= Treble is there, but very laid back; no sibilance or fatigue
= A relatively warm IEM, with definitely more of a lower mid presence that gives voices weight
= Definitely a monitoring IEM, but can be used well for people that want a mid-centric IEM; instrument separation is unmatched
Heir Audio 4.Ai:
While these aren’t exactly what I’d call “mid-centric,” I’m still listing the 4.Ai with the other IEMs simply because the mids are crystal clear and slightly forward. They are quite simply my favorite IEM that I’ve ever listened to (by a hair over the UM3X). The soundstage is not as large as the RE262, but separation is great and it’s easy to place where each instrument is and where it’s coming from. The speed is also fantastic and the 4.Ai doesn’t get easily overwhelmed with busy passages.
As for a sound signature, I think that it’s almost perfectly neutral, with a slight midrange emphasis. Vocals and the mids such as guitars are crystal clear. Detailing is fantastic and the presentation is superb. It sounds like everything is exactly where it should be: the vocalist up-front and center, the guitars slightly behind that, percussion behind that, and strings and brass in the back (for rock at least). The timbre is accurate, but a bit artificial. My gold standard for timbre is the JVC FX700 – the guitars don’t have that same lifelike quality, but they are still great, being able to pick out each individual strum. Likewise, separation is fantastic. While not technically as good as the UM3X, it sounds more cohesive due to the larger soundstage.
The bass is punchy and accurate. The decay of the bass is quick and tight. It certainly isn’t as deep or as big as a dynamic driver such as the Turbines, but it is clearly present. Personally, I wouldn’t need any more from the bass, but I can see how some people might want a bit more oomph to their music. With a BA driver though, I’m not sure you can do much better.
Finally, the treble has great extension without being too aggressive. The sparkle is definitely there. I’m rarely bothered by the treble (only sometimes with the harmonica, but that’s the case with most music for me). It isn’t as smooth as the UM3X, but there’s also quite a bit more treble too.
The overall presentation of the 4.Ai would be neutral. It’s dark compared to the UM3X and most of the other mid-centric IEMs, but that’s simply because it doesn’t have the treble roll-off that many of these IEMs have. For accuracy, this is where I’d go.
+ Good soundstage, accurate but not huge
+ Mids are somewhat forward; vocals are very clear and feel “right” where they should be
+ Bass is accurate, no midbass hump
+ Quite a bit more sparkle than the UM3X, definitely a more neutral IEM
= Somewhat comfortable, not the most ergonomic shape
= Decent package, good selection of tips, nice case, nothing to carry IEMs in portably though
I heard these a bit ago, so these are my impressions from that time. Thanks to Gilly87 for letting me borrow his SM3s. The easiest way to describe the SM3 sound would be “lush.” It has a really rich midrange that is very forward, much more than any of these other IEMs. However, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t quick; the SM3 was quicker than the UM3X and definitely had a greater sense of PRaT for rock. However, the mids are quite colored and would not be what I call accurate. They are quite warm and not the clearest due to this warmth. One of my biggest problems with the SM3 was that the vocals were a bit unclear and that like the Heavens, seemed like they were projecting from inside my head. It seemed like someone was singing from inside my head, which was an uncomfortable feeling for me.
As for bass, the SM3 had less bass presence than the UM3X and slightly more treble presence. It’s a lot livelier than the UM3X and has a unique coloration. It’s a very fast IEM and didn’t find any difficulty with complex passages.
The SM3s aren’t what I would consider monitors and are technically superior to the UM3X. Yet, I couldn’t get past the coloration and the presentation of the vocals. I can see them being much better for electronic/jazz than for rock though.
+ Quite a bit more treble sparkle than the UM3X, has better PRaT for faster-paced music and felt more “fun”
+ Comfortable, but a bit bigger than the UM3X
= Mids are very much “in the head” and an experience that I really didn’t like; while the UM3X was mid-forward, the vocal were slightly ahead of the head, which seems like an accurate place where a singer is singing at you; on the other hand, the SM3 felt like the singer was singing from “inside” your head, which was a bit uncomfortable
- Not the biggest of soundstages, probably because the mids are so upfront
Clearly not in the same league as the above mentioned IEMs (although in the same league as the Heavens), but for the price/performance ratio, the Etys are great. I actually liked the HF3s a bit more than the more expensive older sibling the ER4B (although I do know that the 4B isn’t the typical ER4), since it wasn’t as dry and had a sound signature created more for listening to music rather than listening for faults. The HF3 is still quite dry in comparison to the other IEMs and it’s obvious that it’s a little thin. It simply can’t compare to the UM3X or even the 4.Ai when it comes to bass. The bass is very clean and accurate, but I do wish for a bit more. The mids are slightly forward and very, very clear. The clarity is top notch – perhaps because the sound is so thin. The treble is quite nice with a lot of sparkle. However, it never gets fatiguing either. In all, the biggest downfall of the Etys are the thinness of the sound (even the HF3 which is supposed to have greater bass emphasis than other Ety models), but for about $100, it’s hard to beat for accuracy.
+ Very detailed, treble extension is fantastic
+ Small barrel disappears into the ear
+ Accurate sound, even if a bit thin
+ Great price/performance ratio
= Decent package, has tips and carrying case and that’s about it
- Small soundstage, but accurate
- Thin, dry sound that won’t appeal to everyone; this is very obvious when comparing to other IEMs
- Not on the same level as the higher tiered IEMs; grainier and definitely a bit dry
I’ve decided definitely to keep the RE262 over the FAD Heaven IV, since they felt like a step up for sure. The Heaven IV is an interesting IEM and has great design, but the audio quality falls a bit short. I don’t think it’s so much that the Heaven IV is bad as the RE262 is simply a great deal. $150 is a great price and the $99 sale that they had a few weeks ago is amazing. For that price, it’s really unbeatable. It’s really not that far off from the UM3X.
As for an upper-end IEM, I’d say that the Heir Audio 4.Ai just barely edges out the UM3X. They are somewhat similar in terms of technical details, but the sound signature is quite different. The 4.Ai is exceptionally neutral – the mids are slightly forward, but not terribly so. The soundstage is also of a decent size, but not huge. I might like a bit more bass presence to give more weight to the lower mids, but it’s not a huge concern. Treble sparkle is there without being fatiguing. On the other hand, the UM3X is an amazing intimate IEM. It really does sound just like a small club with your favorite band/singer performing. Yes, the soundstage is small, but instrument separation is fantastic and the vocals are some of the best I’ve ever heard. It can get a bit thick and congested due to this quality, but I don’t think that’s a huge issue. However, I did feel the RE262 did a lot of the things the UM3X did, at a fraction of the price. But, for people that want an intimate, mid-forward experience, the UM3X is second to none.
Value wise, the RE262 is king, followed by the HF3. I wouldn’t call any of higher end IEMs a great value since we’re talking about hundreds of dollars, but the UM3X and 4.Ai definitely deliver on quality. I would be more hesitant to recommend the SM3, but I can see some people falling in love with that sound signature.