These are just a few thoughts on IEMs that I’ve had with me. I’ve been searching for the perfect IEM for quite some time. I don’t want to go down the path of customs (yet), so I’ve stuck with universals for quite some time. I recently had my eye on the FitEar F111 (which I heard had beautiful mids) and when they went on sale, I couldn’t resist. I also had the Westone W4Rs from earlier and bought the Grado GR10s a bit before. I ended up really enjoying all of them (so even when I’m criticizing one, remember that) and wanted to do a quick write-up on them.
There are obviously a few caveats. I mainly listen to indie rock and punk, with very little “audiophile” material. I’m not quite an audiophile; I just enjoy music. Most of my music is encoded in 192-320kbps MP3, since I can’t hear enough differences between 320kbps MP3 and lossless files to warrant using lossless files. My preferred sound signature is a mid-centric one, which is why these are the IEMs that I’m reviewing. Listening was mainly done through my iPhone 4S or through an Audioquest Dragonfly.
Quick summary: Top-notch construction, well-balanced sound; in-between the GR10 and W4; can be unforgiving and detailed
I’ll say it right here: the FitEar ended up being my favorite of the three IEMs. It and the Heir 4.Ai are definitely my favorite two universals, but I’ll give the FitEar extra points for having more isolation, a better build quality, and most importantly for me, an amazing fit. The only IEM that fit better than the FitEar for me is the Etymotic HF3s, which are just thin tubes.
Anyway, so how do these guys sound? They sound phenomenal. Of course, that doesn’t really tell you that much. They have a balanced, slightly mid-centric sound. The mids are pushed forward slightly, with the treble and bass slightly behind that. I absolutely love the vocals in the FitEar – they’re prominent, front and center, and very clear. They’re essentially what I expected the EarSonics SM3 to be.
As for the treble, it is well-extended (and with much less roll-off than the W4s), but they are by no means sibilant. I owned the Etymotic ER4Bs for a bit and I loved its clarity, other than the somewhat sibilant treble. The F111 has no such problem.
The bass is tight, but not terribly strong. The W4 clearly has more bass, but I found the F111’s bass very enjoyable. It felt right and unobtrusive, with good texture. Of course, if you’re a basshead, this is definitely not a recommended IEM.
In terms of presentation, there is almost no “grit” and the F111 sounds much cleaner than the W4 and the GR10. Still though, it manages to express the nuances of vocalists. As for soundstage, it’s about average, but when I went from my Etymotic HF3s to the F111, the transition as surprising. Definitely a bigger soundstage than the Etys, but not as big as the GR10.
I really enjoy the F111 and it’s certainly a keeper. I haven’t owned the ER4s in a while, but in terms of the Ety HF3s, which I do currently own, the FitEar is much better (and it should be). The HF3s punch way above their price, so this is quite the compliment. Just one thing should be noted: the F111 does tear apart some poorly recorded music, although nothing sounded completely awful.
+ Fantastic build and construction
+ Vocals are “front and center”
+ Treble well-extended without being sibilant
+ Very natural sound; while mid-centric (with vocals quite near), doesn’t feel artificial
+ Good isolation and great fit
+ Best instrument separation out of all
+ No grit; very clean
= Soundstage is about average, but much better than expected
- Slightly lacking in bass
- Quite sensitive to hiss (more than other two)
- Absolutely destroys terrible recordings
- Protrudes from the ears quite a bit (almost as much as TF10s, although the fit is much better)
- Possibly a bit “shouty”; vocals seem very prominent and quite “in your head”
Quick summary: Absolutely unfatiguing and supremely balanced (but a bit warm); better bass impact; possibly a bit boring
The W4 is a very pleasant sounding IEM. That’s its greatest strength and its greatest fault. It’s not very interesting since it’s so smooth, but since it is absolutely unfatiguing, that means that you can listen for hours with no problems.
The W4’s presentation is on the warm side. The other two IEMs in this comparison (the F111 and the GR10) lean more on the treble side, but the W4 is certainly bassier. The impact of the bass is much greater and will likely be more pleasing for some. However, it is a bit more undefined and flabby.
The mids are quite nice, but the W4s don’t pick up on some of the nuances in the vocalists or instruments. Everything does feel less detailed and more smoothed over. This means that everything is presented with slightly less clarity. I hesitate to call it a “veil,” but it does feel that something is lost.
The same holds true for the treble. It’s there, but sometimes I wish for a bit more. I tend to be not that sensitive to treble though, so it’s possible that the W4 has the perfect amount of treble for some people.
Presentation-wise, the W4 probably has a soundstage that’s similar in size to the F111, but smaller than the GR10. However, the imaging is very good and everything feels like it’s in the right place, while for the F111, the vocals can sometimes be placed too “in the head.” The W4 is fairly neutral, but I would definitely place it on the warmer side. I do think that some details are missing, but for people that are treble-sensitive, this is still a good choice.
+ Very, very smooth
+ Balanced sound; slightly dark but everything is there
+ Most impactful bass
+ Great isolation
+ Absolutely unfatiguing
+ Imaging, everything feels like it’s in the right place
+ Much more forgiving on poorly recorded tracks
- Smallish soundstage
- Can sound unnatural with how smooth it is
- Maybe too dark, possibly not enough treble; lacking clarity at times
- Can sound a bit plain and boring; sounds like there’s something “missing”
Quick summary: Mid-centric with treble tilt; excellent timbre for instruments; poor build
The Grado has the most treble of these three IEMs. I’d say that the F111 is relatively neutral, with the GR10 on the brighter side and the W4 on the warmer side. All three also have the mids push slightly forward too.
The biggest strength of the GR10 is the very impressive timbre. The guitars are perfect, with the GR10 and the JVC FX700 sharing this trait. Supposedly this is the famous “Grado sound,” but when I owned the SR225, I didn’t feel that way about them. Anyway, the timbre really is impressive and the soundstage is quite vast and airy. There is a better sense of space with the GR10s than with the other two IEMs.
In terms of presentation, the treble of the GR10s really impresses at first, especially in an A/B-type testing. However, after listening for some time, they are a bit fatiguing and can cause some problems with that.
The Grados can also sometimes get overwhelmed by its mids. It can get busy in the middle, with the guitars overshadowing all the other instruments. This bothered me, but I can imagine some people who listen to rock really enjoying the guitar-centric sound.
The bass of the Grados is the lightest out of the three IEMs, but it’s not terrible. It’s well-contained and unobtrusive, but fairly average.
In conclusion, the Grado GR10s are a very special IEM with a different presentation. They are very impressive for guitar-based music and for people who like classic rock, they might be the best choice. However, they don’t really isolate very well and the treble can be harsh (so it might not be a great choice for metal). It impresses quickly and has the most exciting sound, but since it can be fatiguing, its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.
+ Has sparkle, fantastic guitar tone
+ Great timbre on guitar – like the JVC FX700 in this respect
+ Very exciting sound
+ Comfort, fit
+ Seems to have more detailed sound
+ Large soundstage
- Maybe too much treble; can be fatiguing
- Much poorer isolation
- Uses a straight plug
I would classify all three of these IEMs as mid-centric. The F111 is the most neutral, with the W4 on the bassier side and the GR10 leaning more towards the brighter side. They’re all great, but I enjoyed the F111 the most. It’s detailed and resolving but not brutal to all music and it is fantastic with vocals. The GR10 I would recommend to people that listen to classic rock and aren’t sensitive to treble, since it has the best timbre. The W4s are smooth and would likely be great for those who listen to music for long periods of time. Myself, would like to keep all three, but will likely only keep the F111s and another one.