Well, after more research, I've narrowed it down three: Monster Turbines, Hippo VB, ViSang R03.
(2B1) Monster Turbine
Reviewed Nov 2010
Details: First ever IEM from Monster Cable, which they dubbed an “In-Ear Speaker”
Current Price: $149.95 from Amazon.com (MSRP: $179.95)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: N/A | Sens: N/A | Freq: N/A | Cable: 3.8’ I-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Stock Single-flanges
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down
Accessories (4/5) – Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes), silicone tri-flange tips (2 sizes), and buttoned hard leather case
Build Quality (4/5) – Weighty metal housings exude an air of quality and solidity. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the cabling, which is only a little thicker than the Klipsch S4s’. I do really like the discrete L/R color markings that are nevertheless very easy to see
Isolation (4/5) – Very good isolation for a dynamic IEM
Microphonics (3.5/5) – Low when worn over-the-ear; bothersome otherwise
Comfort (4/5) – I have no comfort issues with these. They feel heavy but don’t ever break seal and I can forget about them when worn over-the-ear
Sound (7.5/10) – Right out of the box the sound of the Turbines exceeded my expectations (which, I concede, may have been fairly low). The most striking aspect is the bass – it is deep, smooth, and textured – exactly as advertised by Monster, for once. There’s quite a good amount of it - fast, natural, dynamic bass that doesn’t bleed into the lower mids. While not as tight as some other earphones, the quality of the lows produced by the Turbines is top notch and balances well with the quantity. Moving up, we come to the midrange, which is neither recessed nor forward but quite effortless and very dynamic. The treble is equally natural, with moderate extension and surprising accuracy. On the whole, soundstaging is about average, perhaps a little narrower than the Klipsch S4, but the entire signature is very smooth, extremely dynamic, and surprisingly balanced.
Value (7/10) – I went into this test fearing that the Turbines would end up being Skullcandy’s big brother, offering overblown “subwoofer” bass and little else. I am extremely glad that I was wrong. I feel that these would be great phones at the $99 price point. Don’t get me wrong – they are very competitive IEMs and my first recommendation for something fun and dynamic. What the Turbines excel at is offering a popular signature while at the same time pleasing the audiophile in me with their speed, depth, and texture. However, I still feel that the Turbines would be more comfortable at the $100 price point, especially now that the improved Turbine Pros are pushing the $200 mark.
Pros: Excellent fit and finish, excellent bass, very smooth, fun, and dynamic sound
Cons: Cables don’t inspire confidence, can be too bass heavy for some
(2C12) Hippo VB
Reviewed Jul 2010
Details: Mid-range dynamic IEM from Jaben’s house brand, Hippo, boasting ‘Variable Bass’ technology
Current Price: $79 from unclewilsons.com (MSRP: $79)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32 Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 18-22k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: UE Single flanges
Wear Style: straight down or over-the-ear
Accessories (4/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), shirt clip, hard clamshell carrying case with wrist strap, and bass tuning ports (3 sets)
Build Quality (3.5/5) – Metal shells with screw-in bass ports in the rear and filterless nozzles. The cable is properly relieved and doesn’t tangle much but feels a bit cheap – sort of like the new Head-Direct cable found on the RE-ZERO and RE252. The L-plug is excellent
Isolation (3/5) – Quite decent for day-to-day use with well-sealing tips
Microphonics (3/5) – Rather bothersome when worn cord-down; average otherwise
Comfort (3.5/5) – The VBs are typical straight-barrel IEMS when it comes to fit but the housings aren’t small or rounded at the front, resulting in fairly shallow fit. The cord is rather flexible and wearing them over-the-ear is easy
Sound (7.7/10) – The Hippo VB gets its designation from the ‘Variable Bass’ tuning system, which consists of three interchangeable screw-in bass ports/plates that are fitted at the rear of the shells. The high-bass, medium-bass, and low-bass plates are marked with zero, two, and three white dots, respectively (and, unless I’m reading it wrong, the packaging actually has the markings listed backwards). The changes resulting from swapping the plates are small but noticeable. With the medium (two dot) plate, bass quantity is just a bit short of the Sennheiser IE8 (on minimum bass setting) and about on par with the Monster Turbine Pro Gold. Compared to the medium setting, the high-bass plate sounds a bit less controlled and slightly darker. The low-bass plate makes the sound brighter and seems to exacerbate the sibilance towards which the VB can be prone while offering no improvements in control or clarity over the medium plate. Needless to say, after initial testing I left the two-dot bass plate on for the duration of my listening.
With the medium tuning plate in place, the bass of the VB is nothing short of superb. It is well-textured, full-bodied, and extremely deep, matching the Future Sonics Atrios in extension and offering even better linearity. The sub-bass has great rumble and is very controlled - mid-bass bloat common to mid-range earphones with lots of bass is completely absent. As a result, the bass of the VB sounds rather different from that of midbass-heavy earphones like the Sennheiser CX300 – the VB offers plenty of sub-bass rumble with a bit of punch. The resulting sound is extremely layered and well-separated as opposed to the more blended and integrated sound offered by earphones like the FA Eterna and ViSang R03. The peculiar presentation is enjoyable in its own right but may surprise those expecting CX300-like midbass. Expectedly, midrange bleed is completely absent, giving way to clear and accurate mids. The midrange reminds me of the Head-Direct RE0 with less microdetail and overall refinement. It is controlled and detailed but tends to sound a tad thin and quite dry compared to the similarly-priced ViSang R03 and Fischer Audio Eterna. The midrange is quite adequate, but it’s neither a strength nor a weakness of the VB - the dryness, combined with the powerful subbass, does give the VB a certain garage band feel that works well with certain tracks but I think the more lush and liquid mids of the R03 and Eterna work better with bass-heavy earphones.
If the midrange of the VB reminds me of the RE0 in several ways, the treble is antithetical to that of Head-Direct’s mid-range heavyweight. Though very crisp and extended, it is fairly forward and quite aggressive. The earphones tend slightly towards sibilance, though the reports I’ve read seem somewhat exaggerated - compared to something like the Grado iGi or Klipsch S4, the sibilance of the VB is quite mild. However, the high end of the VB does lack the delicacy and refinement of the RE0s, instead appearing very edgy and a bit metallic. If I had to pin it down, the edgy nature of the VB’s treble reminds me of a certain lower-end Grado that had surprisingly hard treble – namely the older SR80.
As for presentation, the VBs do have a fairly wide soundstage with good separation but tend to stray little towards the extremes. They can portray both distance and intimacy but the Eterna does it better, and has a wider dynamic range to boot. Still, the overall sound of the VB is quite uncolored, which is usually a plus in my book, and the VB is less sensitive than the Eterna when it comes to source matching. Lastly, the unique balance of the VB aids in low volume listening as the bass detail, which is usually the first thing to go when the volume of a dynamic earphone is reduced, stays very strong with the VB even at low listening volumes.
Value (8.5/10) – Easily one of the top earphones in its price bracket, the Hippo VB offers a unique sound signature with unparalleled bass depth and sub-bass power, no mid-bass bloat, a crystal-clear but dry midrange, and extended but edgy treble. Listening to the VB is an intense experience and won’t suit everyone’s tastes – it is not the earphone to use while enjoying a glass of fine whiskey in front of the fireplace. For the same reason, the VB is not an easy earphone to recommend for hi-fi newcomers looking for bass-heavy sound – it has neither the warmth nor the thickness usually associated with fun and bassy sound. Both the ViSang R03 and FA Eterna fit the expectations of a fun-sounding IEM better and make better everyday companions for those who value isolation and durability. But for those in search of a raw and visceral sound with maximum bass depth, the VB is very hard to beat no matter the budget.
Pros: Deep bass, great clarity
Cons: Microphonics can be bothersome, strangely thick stock tips, mostly useless tuning system, edgy treble
(2C7) ViSang R03 / Brainwavz M2
Reviewed Mar 2010
Details: heavyweight bang/buck contender from one of VSonic’s daughter companies Current Price: $65 from ebay.com
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 20 Ω | Sens: 115 dB | Freq: 20-20k Hz | Cable: 4.2’ I-plug (note: latest version carries 45°-plug)
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrids
Wear Style: Over-the-ear or straight down
Note: The mp4nation Brainwavz M2 is identical to the R03 in every way except the 3.5mm plug (45-degree plug identical to that on the Beta Brainwavz is used on the M2) and the accessory pack (M2 does not include foamhybrid tips).
Edited by NismosZ - 12/15/12 at 5:19pm
Accessories (4/5) – Silicone single-flange tips (3 sizes), shirt clip, and clamshell carrying case (foamhybrid tips no longer included with mp4nation version)
Build Quality (4/5) – Sturdy aluminum housings, metal filters, and tough yet flexible cables. Strain reliefs are not molded but do the job and the cords lack a cable cinch and have some long-term memory character. Left/Right markings are a bit hard to see in direct sunlight
Isolation (3.5/5) – Typical of a ported dynamic-driver earphone
Microphonics (4/5) – Present when worn cord-down but wearing them over-the-ear is possible and a shirt clip is included
Comfort (4/5) – The housings are light but wearing them over-the-ear can initially be a bit tricky because of the long strain reliefs and resistive cable. The sizable driver bulge on the housing prevents particularly deep insertion
Sound (7.2/10) – Though I wouldn’t quite call them bass-heavy, the R03 certainly boast added low-end emphasis. Despite the boost, the bass is very smooth and calm. It stays completely out of the way when uncalled for and steps up in bass-heavy tracks. The bass also has a softness and delicacy to it that is rather rare and reminds me of my Monster Turbine Pro Gold as opposed to the hard-hitting low end of earphones such as the Klipsch S4 and Panasonic HJE900. The overall tonality of the R03 leans slightly towards darkness. The mids are front and center right where they should be, except when drums step out of line and too far forward on rare occasions. This is a positioning issue rather than a balance issue and is rarely distracting. Soundstage depth is actually one of the few areas in which the R03 could stand improvement before they take down some of the big players in the mid-range segment. Soundstage width is about average, around the level of the RE0, and imaging is rather good for what they cost, though they can’t quite keep up with the hologram-esque spacing of the Soundmagic PL50 and HJE900. Midrange clarity is superb and detail is equally impressive. The treble is smooth and moderately extended. It is not the focus of the presentation but instead a compliment. It is neither harsh nor bright nor sibilant. The R03 are also quite fast, at least on-par with the original Monster Turbines, and surprisingly transparent. Lastly, they have a very natural timbre, which is something a lot of budget IEMs struggle with.
As a final note, though the R03 themselves do not require an amp, I did try running them through a 68-ohm impedance adapter and a mini3. Together the two have effect of evening the R03 out, bringing forward the mids and treble and raising bass levels just a bit without sacrificing precision and control. Drums are less likely to misbehave with the added adapter and fine detail becomes even easier to catch.
Value (9/10) – The ViSang R03 is an incredible performer - a wholesome combination of build quality, comfort, and sound at a price well south of $100. In terms of coherency of sound signature they are up there with the best sub-$100 earphones I have heard. The combination of impactful bass, clear mids, and crisp treble give the R03 a very agreeable sound that can be enjoyed by both the audiophile and the casual listener in equal measure. And that fact alone makes them highly recommended earphones with a sound signature geared slightly towards the mainstream market compared to much of the gear talked about on head-fi. Do I personally still prefer a more analytical sound? Yes. But that does not prevent me from enjoying the R03 in the least. They are not perfect, but they are unreasonably good for what they cost.
Pros: Great build and sound quality
Cons: Mediocre isolation, L/R markings hard to see, cords have some memory character
Full review can be found here.