Originally Posted by thatBeatsguy
Welp, so after almost a full week, I finally got around to writing the review. Sorry if I had you waiting this long. So now, after four revisions, here's the latest version of my review!
A little shout-out to my born-to-be-a-photographer sister too, who took the pics earlier this afternoon.
The 小米活塞 – the Xiaomi Pistons, if you will – are probably the most interesting headphones I’ve seen so far. This is because they have a look, feel, and sound that could be found in headphones at least double its price – all in a simple, compact, and super-cheap package. They retail at 99元, which when converted would be only $16. Yes, you read that right – 16 dollars. And evidently, 16 dollars is only a few more bucks above the Philips SHE-3590, also a very good budget earphone (about $8-10). But what makes the Pistons so good is that at an almost rock-bottom price of $16 dollars, you have beryllium drivers in them. What are they, and why are they so interesting? Read on below to find out.
“Beryllium, atomic number 4, atomic weight of 9.012182, is the lightest of the alkaline earth metals. Under normal conditions, it has a light steel gray color, is lighter than conventional aluminum and titanium, is four times the strength of steel, and is an indispensable material in nuclear energy, rockets, missiles, aviation, and metallurgy. It has stable mechanical properties, and it has such strength and hardness that it can only be cut with diamonds. Compared to titanium, beryllium alloy is three times harder, 1.5 times lighter, up to 3 times faster transmission speed, and is also 100 times more expensive.
The new Xiaomi Pistons’ diaphragms utilize the hardest of all metallic elements, which is nearly 5 times more expensive than gold through a high-tech process to create the world’s first beryllium diaphragm ear-phone. Xiaomi partnered with its in-house design team to develop a new type of headphone diaphragm using this beryllium alloy. The beryllium diaphragm, using a vacuum-coating process, gives full play to the light, rigid, flexible beryllium, only with a thickness of 2 µm. As a result, the new Pistons have a wider and smoother frequency response, enhancing the high treble range from 10 KHz to 20 KHz. In contrast, earphone roll-off typically occurs from 10 KHz onwards. The beryllium diaphragm also enhances the bass region, making it more stable, tight, clear, and clean, without interfering with the higher frequencies.
Beryllium diaphragms have been used in only a handful of high-end audio products, such as JBL’s top-of-the-line flagship speaker, the JBL K2 S9800, which is priced as high as 250,000元. And because of this beryllium diaphragm now used in the new Xiaomi Pistons, its sound quality can be significantly improved.”
(Source: bbs.xiaomi.cn/thread-8722000-1-1.html. Translation may not be fully accurate.)
Well, hopefully that comparatively long explanation should be able to answer the questions behind beryllium and its use in the Xiaomi Pistons. But how they managed to put such an expensive material (I believe the article wrote that it is 5x the price of gold) into such an inexpensive earphone is beyond me. They probably found a gold mine of the metal somewhere (which is impossible considering its Rarity). They might have discovered unicorns and trained them to find the precious metal.
But anyway, I don’t need to add any more MLP references right now. Right now, I have the Pistons on my desk, and honestly, I don’t know why they call it the Pistons. Though they do look like the top half of an engine piston (take out the tips and you’ll see), they look so beautiful and refined in its royal gold color that I don’t know if it’s worth calling it the ‘Pistons,’ because real pistons look kinda crude to me. Nevertheless, let’s just get on with the review.
Out of the Box
The Pistons’ box is undeniably small and compact. Xiaomi hired a design team, 1More Design (link), to design the Pistons (as well as its predecessor). The result is a strikingly beautiful headphone, which although it might look almost the same with the first Pistons, it has a more refined and formal look to it (just the gold, really) that really shows that it means business.
1More Design has a lot of design geniuses in the team in my opinion, because of their really creative box design, which is in fact made from one piece of recycled paper. It unfolds, one after the other, to reveal the actual case of the earphones inside. The box is also labeled with a lot of useful tips, such as how to know which earphone is for which ear, or for how to return the earphones back into its casing. I had a lot of trouble figuring out both, but the box was a lot of help. Strangely, it doesn’t have anything that advertises the earphone at all at first glance. On the bottom side of the box, you get a short bulleted list of its features, but that’s about it. No literature, not safety precaution manuals, not even an instructions booklet – just the box and the earphones. Also, I would like to note, the box of the MK301 (or so its product number says) has a striking resemblance to that of the Xiaomi Box – a set top box of sorts which I also have on my desk at the moment. They both have a similar theme, which is a nice touch.
Moving on deeper into the plastic casing, you are greeted with what you could say is a work of art. It looks like a dark version of what might be something you could see in the box of an iPod Shuffle (only larger). Right there up front-and-center is the earphones, which is enclosed in its travel casing. One cool feature is that the casing also comes in other colors (green, blue, and pink), sold separately. Upon taking it out for the first time, you might find the packing method a little daunting, but just check out the box, assuming you didn’t already toss it into the trashcan (but why the hell would you want to do that?). Sadly, the enclosures for the earphones themselves can only fit the medium size tips perfectly. All of the other tips do not have a full, flush fit (sadly), but it’s not like the tips would get damaged from getting squished only slightly. Speaking of the tips, taking out the earphones’ travel casing reveals the extra eartips underneath. There are two extra single-flange tips (large and small), and there’s another pair which is actually a double-flange tip. They are packed neatly in their compartment (they’re not even close to ‘packed’) with a pole of sorts where you could slip them through. In between is a square indicating which are for which. The large and small single-flange tips are designed for music, which the double-flanged one is for calls. Why this is and is not so, you’ll read later.
However, I do have a slight issue with the accessories. They didn’t include a shirt clip in the box, when the earphones looked to be pretty much designed for wearing straight down. Wearing around-the-ear might be a little annoying because of the rather short cable from the remote to the earphones. If they made it longer (total length at around 1.2m), it would’ve been perfect. Oh well.
Build, Fit, Comfort
Now, taking out the earphones form their travel case, the build feels solid, but rather fragile (or at least, the cable is). The inline remote and mic, as well as the jack and the earphones are made out of aluminum. The cable is covered with Kevlar, but the cable leading from the remote to the earphones are made of silicone (probably for better comfort when wearing around-the-ear). Making it out of Kevlar would’ve been better in my opinion, because it kinda ruins the continuity of the cable. Nevertheless, build quality is pretty good.
Upon wearing it, it was really comfortable, straight down or around the ear. However, the perfect fit isn’t all the way in. Going all the way in breaks the seal and thus reduces the bass, so to bring out its true sound, let it sit snugly on the little flap just outside your ear canal. To make things easier for me to explain, try to get a fit where you get maximum isolation (except with the double-flange tips). If you do, then that should more or less be the right seal for the earphone. Fitting is easy, and the medium tips fit my ears perfectly. They’re really soft, as well.
And now that we’ve got that down, let’s get on to the main event!
Right now the MK301s are jabbed into my ears and pumping out music as I type down the words on this review. My first impressions on these outta-the-box are really refined, and an impressive soundstage. But going a little more in-depth, I’ll be going through my best albums, each with varied genres. Here is my playlist:
- Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (Electronica) [ALAC, 1411 kbps]
- Sungha Jung – Paint It Acoustic (Acoustic Guitar) [MP3, 256 kbps]
- Ben Prunty – Faster Than Light OST (Chiptune) [MP3, 320 kbps]
- Katy Perry – Prism: Deluxe Edition (Pop) [MP3, 320 kbps]
As for the setup, it’s either straight from the iPod or through Line-Out on my PC with a Creative Sound Blaster VX5.1 as the soundcard. Other than that, there aren’t any extras (but I’m really looking to get an amp for my PC). Getting the fit right takes a short while, and you might want to take it out once before putting it back in your ears to get the seal right. But if you do, then welcome.
Listening to Random Access Memories, my electronica test album, I found myself almost squealing with delight (though it sounds a little nuts). I felt a lot like dancing to the tracks, but I kinda shrugged that off. It’s a lot of fun to listen to, and it does really well. Bass is tight and punchy but manages to keep its balance. It is separated well away from the midrange, and digs down deep. The live kit was amazing, the vocals were clear as day, and the bass was crazy awesome. Instruments were well separated, which is another big plus. The Pistons sound really promising so far.
Moving on to Paint It Acoustic, my acoustic instrumental test album, it sounded so beautiful that I felt inspired to learn the guitar (not really, but it sounded great though). ‘Fanoe’ was probably my favorite track and is probably the most complex as there are two guitars playing in the song. Having watched the video, listening to the song made me almost feel like I was recording the actual video, in front of Böegershausen and Sungha themselves. Soundstage is good so far, with positional accuracy almost perfect, though I felt that Böegershausen’s guitar was a little too far to the right. Other than that, the entire album sounded great on the Pistons with its amazing clarity.
The Pistons continue to impress with Ben Prunty’s FTL soundtrack coming on in my tests. Prunty did an amazing job getting the soundstage right, and it wounded up as my soundstage test album. And for these Xiaomi Pistons, I give a surefire A+. Soundstage was actually pretty wide, and did its job well. Positional accuracy was solid, and I was as well immersed as I was with my heavily-EQ’d Razer Krakens. For a pair of tiny speakers jabbed into my ears, it did undeniably well in the soundstage test.
And finally, with Katy Perry’s latest album “Prism,” I started the vocals test. Perry’s vocals were sweet and crystal-clear, something I’d never listened to since I demoed the BeoPlay H6 at an audio store about a month ago. Instrument separation was again impressive, as was the soundstage.
Overall, the sound signature of the Pistons would be rated as fun – a lot of fun. With bass that extends deep and pounds them straight into your ears, midrange clarity that is probably clearer than the skies above the roof over my head, and a crisp, airy treble, this earphone never ceases to please.
However, wearing the double-flanged tips changed the sound signature of the earphones almost entirely. Bass felt like it was sucked out and left thin bass. However, the earphones never sounded tinny even without that bass. The midrange and treble kept composed, with the vocals now taking more emphasis, and treble changed little if any, and the overall signature felt a little too sharp. On the other hand, I am a basshead, and what I might find thin to my ears wouldn’t be the same for someone else. Our ears are all different, after all.
A little experimentation on my part showed that the reduced bass was caused by the shape of the tips. It wasn’t that they were double-flanged; it was because of their widest diameter, which was evidently much smaller than the medium tips. And since the tips were smaller, the earphones fail to create a seal – or rather, purposefully break the seal – in order to reduce the bass and enhance vocal clarity further. I believe I’d already written that the double-flange tips were designed for calls; therefore, enhanced vocal clarity wouldn’t be a surprise.
Overall, the sound of the double-flanged tips provide a less fun and more analytical (but still enjoyable) approach to your listening session. Isolation was compromised slightly in favour of a slightly wider soundstage, and bass was flattened out to make the entire presentation much flatter and more audiophile-friendly. I think you guys would like it, so I suggest you give it a try.
Much to my chagrin, I don’t have the original Pistons in my possession. I know, it’s a bummer, really, but that won’t stop me from comparing it with other headphones!
Putting it up head-to-head against my Philips SHE-3590, The Pistons were better in the clarity and soundstage area. The Philips had bigger and more powerful bass, but the Pistons were smoother and felt more controlled. Both weren’t muddy at all, and had a V-shaped signature. However, I would like to add that the Pistons have an airier, but slightly less sibilant treble, which is yet another plus.
What might be fairer – or rather, more competitive – competition would be the B&O BeoPlay H6. Though I’ve listened to it only about twice (I don’t own it…yet), its sound left such an impression on me that I still recall the experience I had with them. I know, it may be placed far above and beyond the price range of the Pistons, but somehow, I think both are a good match. Clarity and soundstage are great on both headphones (no contest here), but the differences start in the sound signature. The H6 is said to have great bass, but when played from a mobile device (which non-audiophiles like me only have) the H6 sounds flat and really balanced across the frequencies. They aren’t analytical, either. The Pistons, however, take on a different approach with powerful bass which still keeps its balance. If given the money, I would jump at the H6 instantly, without giving a care in the world about trying to squeeze out its supposedly awesome bass. Both sound equally great, and both seem to have a sort of yin-yang relationship with each other – the Pistons with more bass and the H6 with a flatter signature.
The Xiaomi Pistons are a good example of pushing the price boundaries of great headphones beyond that boundary. With their supposedly expensive beryllium drivers, they provide your ears with a sweet and fun sound signature that somehow does great probably every genre in the book.
Their bass is controlled, but pounds into your ears without the slightest hint of bass bleed. Their mids have a clarity beyond anything I’ve listened to in my many days of listening. The treble is sweet, almost borderline sibilant (whatever that means), and compliments the entire spectrum with a nice touch of airiness. Their soundstage is exceptional, and positional accuracy is spot-on.
And all of this you get in a super-small and super-simple package for only $16. This wonder looks, sounds, and feels so good that it should’ve been listed at a price at least twice that. It has the capability of looking up to headphones far above its price range, which makes you wonder even more if the retail price that it currently holds will change because of how it’s so awesome. Rest assured, however, that it won’t change for a long time. This is an earphone worth buying, and it will blow you away.
Bass: 8.5/10 “Powerful, compelling, but controlled.”
Mids: 10/10 “Sweet, enjoyable, and clear as day.”
Highs: 8.5/10 “Not even close to sibilant, but smooth and airy.”
Size: 8/10 “I don’t have much to say, but it’s great.”
Accuracy: 9/10 “Awesome. Just awesome.”
Sturdiness and Stuff:
Build: 8/10 “A little iffy in some parts, its predecessor feels sturdier.”
Accessories: 8/10 “Just about right. Could use more, though.”
Packaging: 9/10 “Clever, smart, and something you would expect Apple to make.”
I’m a just-turned-14 year old sophomore which you might as well pass off as regular. I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember, and it’s become a part of my life. I’ve been self-teaching piano for about half a year, spanning across three years (I know, I’m lazy). I’ve also become interested in drums, but I don’t have the resources to get a kit (I just put up with the iPad instead). As for guitar…I never really liked it much (my fingers ache like hell), but it might be interesting to try in the future.
I only recently got to delve into the headphone world when my parents bought me a set of Beats only back in April. Only about three weeks later, I entered Head-Fi and started a journey that would probably extend throughout the rest of my life. And on this journey which hasn’t even reached a year yet, I’ve learned a lot about what good sound sounds like. I still have a long way to go, but it’s the journey that makes it all worthwhile.