I have decided that due to my permanent chronic pain and neck problems, I am going to either use IEMs from now on (as there is no additional weight on the cervical spine), try the Stax portable unit (feather light) or go to speakers (in that order of preference). I would prefer not to go to speakers because of the high cost, room issues and animal issues (cats and speakers sometimes do not mix). And I would prefer to avoid Stax for the moment because I own two perfectly functioning and excellent Musical Fidelity XCan V8s amplifiers with Mullard tubes - and I love them. Apart from that, IEMs provide the benefits of partial isolation and complete freedom from room issues. And with use of an impedance adaptor, even 16 ohm IEMs benefit greatly when used with the XCan, as my recent experiments have shown (XCan V8 seems to really like loads around the 100 ohm to 300 ohm mark).
My problem, however, is twofold. Firstly, IEMs are all but impossible to audition and therefore the only choice seems to be to buy them on a trial basis and return or buy and on-sell second hand (but obviously in virtually as new condition). Both methods are obviously costly and not a preferred route, but are certainly better than buying something unheard and being stuck with it. The second problem is that although I have not heard a large number of IEMs, I am in general extremely dissatisfied with the way they handle classical music, especially traditional symphonic repertoire. It is not any lack of scale or impact that is the issue - it is a lack of transparency and extremely poor textural rendition. This makes itself particularly obvious with violins. If I go to a concert, I can hear the contribution of every single string player there - the sound is extremely clear, detailed. When I hear the vast majority of IEMs, violin sound is absolutely horrible. They sound nothing at all like the real thing, I can't hear each player and the delicate harmonics that define both string sound and individual characteristics of each instrument are all but missing. And I know what violins are meant to sound like as I reached diploma level on violin, have played in orchestras and soloed at the Sydney Opera House concert Hall. I also have attended regular concerts there for over 30 years, so I know exactly what I am looking for in reproduced sound.
I don't have the above issues with speakers - even relatively modest ones like top of the line Royd bookshelf speakers from the early 90s, Rega speakers or the LS35A, let alone electrostatics that sound excellent despite the lack of weight at bass frequencies. So I know it is not my hearing, nor is it my source (transport, DAC or amplifier), since I can good results with some higher quality "normal" headphones too - it is just that they are too heavy for my neck issues, even nice, neutral headphones like the HD580 / HD600 (which do actually do reasonable justice to string sound in my opinion within the limits of reproduction technology).
So what I am interested in, as whether anyone here has a very good knowledge of what a real symphony orchestra sounds like live (with an emphasis on the strings) and whether they have found a non-custom IEM up to around $600 that does a very good job of reproducing this. I am not trying to belittle other people's non-classical experience here, but I think unless you are a professional classical musician or regular concertgoer, it is hard to appreciate the subtleties of a live orchestra and thus know whether reproduced music is accurate or not in this respect (as opposed to merely sounding nice on a particular selection of non-acoustical tracks). That is why my question is aimed at professional classical musicians or regular classical concert goers.
Anyway, here is a partial list of IEMs I have heard in the past, and how I think they deal with classical music:
Sennheiser CX300:My first IEM. Surprisingly better than most of the others I have heard, despite the very low price. Has adequate treble extension, violins have a nice sheen to them. On the bad side, clarity and detail is not good, there is too much bass and the bass overruns to the lower mids, making them muddy.
Sennheiser IE7: Horrible. Had a very "hollow" sound, violins sounded nothing like the real thing - they sounded boxy and synthetic and there was no real extension into the harmonic regions. But it did have better clarity than the cheaper CX300 and dod not have that IEM's bass issues. But terrible value for the price.
Klipsch X10: Possibly the second best I have heard behind the humble Shure SE215. Very impressive indeed with some material, but on other material where a very extended and transparent top end is required, these fell short. I remember listening to Kertesz conducting the London Symphony with Dvorak Symphony No. 9 and thinking this must be as close to the mastertape as I could possibly get. But strangely, it really fell apart on other material that standard headphones like the HD600 or even the humble Shure SE215 can handle without problems. Again, I think this has to do with the rolled off high end.
Westone UM2: Again, horrible. When I heard this I remember thinking how much worse it was for classical than the CX300. Again, violins were simply hopeless, and this IEM was even more rolled off than the Klipsch. It did improve markedly with amplification but I never got away from a muddy sound in the midrange and that together with the lack of treble extension put paid to being a decent IEM for classical.
Shure SE310: Horrible as well I am afraid. Like the Sennheiser IE7, violins had a stiffled and boxy sound. Again, treble extension and clarity at the top end was a problem.
Shure SE215. Surprisingly good for the price. Definitely the best for classical I have heard so far, despite the lowly price. The bass is not as bloated as the CX300 and the treble extension - though not as good as I would like - is still quite reasonable - certainly enough to make violins sound reasonable, if not terribly accurate or inspiring. Clarity and detail are very good for the price too. So, considering how much luck I had with the SE215,. I decided to try the more expensive....
SE425: Probably the worst IEM I have ever heard for classical. I have to wonder if I bought fakes, but I got them from a well-respected official Austrlaian Shure distributer. But if you had asked me what I thought they were worth, I would have said $10. I honestly cannot believe any classical was used when designing and tuning this earphone. If I were forced to listen to this I would much prefer to stop listening to music altogether - it really was that bad. I even tried EQing this one quite radically, but it never got rid of the problems. I now have to wonder whether I did not like this because of the very high distortion components - check out the graph at headroom compared to all the others on this list here.
So those are the main ones I have heard thus far. Looking at the list, I tend to wonder if I am always going to have issues with IEMs which have 2 or more drivers, since the ones I disliked the most all had 2 drivers. And the ones I found quite reasonable for the price only had one driver. The lone exeption to this rule was the IE7, which used a single dynamic driver. I'd love to think I had bought fake IE7s, but again I bought them from an authorised Australian distributer of Sennheiser products. I do tend to wonder wonder whether the distortion figures are an issue (as that, together with the 2 drivers may explain why the SE425 is the worst IEM I have ever heard thus far). I would love to see frequency and distortion graphs for the Westone UM2 and IE7 to add support to this theory, but sadly they do not exist at Headroom. There is also the possibility that my ears need the "bass hump" that exist on phones such as SE215, CX300 and X10, but without seeing graphs for UM2 and IE7, it is hard to be definitive about this.
I have a pair of ER4S coming for me to try next week, but I am wondering if anyone has some learned recommendations of others I can try. Thanks.
Edited by ADD - 12/1/12 at 2:08am