A few weeks ago, I was approached to take a listen to the MOE Audio SS01. This is a quick review of these earphones while everything's fresh in my head. Beware that I rarely hedge on fast thoughts short on post-processing. The writing is loose, and my diction is as pungent as a clove of garlic --- no mincing here. Get ready for some barbs but also a lot of waxed poetic.
Disclaimer: I've been mostly using the UERM for these last few weeks (sprinkled in-between some RE-262 and DS-11 ear time), and I haven't gone out of my way to listen to earphones in the $50-100 price bracket in a very long time, so I can't give detailed comparisons between these earphones and the strong budget models. I can only really give a rough 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down' for the kind of performance I expect out of any earphone in any price bracket. Luckily, I (think) I have accrued a fair bit of experience with IEMs over the years, and have a reasonable expectation of what a general sound signature should be like, and whether something performs well acoustically. Those looking for an in-depth comparison of the SS01 against other budget models of comparable quality should probably wait for the venerable ljokerl to review it. However, in an effort to stay relevant, I will not be using any pretentious “audiophile” tracks for listening tests, so that means no tracks recorded in DXD/DSD, and no one whose name begins with Diana and ends with Krall.
Even though we're talking about the essence of MOE, this review is about:
Not this. Don't get it twisted.
When I saw the MOE Audio website, I was stunned by how incredibly similar the SS01 was, morphologically, to the well-received IEM of a couple years ago --- the JVC HA-FXT90. A quick look-see around the website revealed that MOE Audio's parent company, Aipon, was the principal ODM/OEM of all of JVC's micro-driver IEMs, from the oldie-but-a-goodie FXC series to the ridiculous FXZ evolution of the FXT90.
Being an ODM/OEM with a full-fledged R&D wing (boasting an electron microscope amongst its developmental equipment, no less), Aipon seemed well-equipped to design their own earphones (they likely own the design patent to the JVC models that were so well-liked by this head-fi community), but I didn't expect them to just recycle the overall design of the FXT90. At that point, I was a bit worried, as I had a feeling that the SS01 would sound uncannily similar to the FXT90. I don’t truly remember what the FXT90 sounded like, but I do remember that I enjoyed it for what it was --- it had the typical JVC U-shaped sound --- mid-bass friendly, recessed midrange, and sparkly treble. To me, it was a less-refined FX700 that featured coarser, grainier treble and less natural overall timbre. I did appreciate the amount of detail it put out, however. Many attributed the detailed presentation to the nanotube-coated microdrivers. I tend to agree, but I try not to put stock into something that’s not yet substantiated (though it is a trend, as the FXD series felt very detailed as well). I won’t bring up the FXZ200/300 --- even though the concept was cool, I thought they were overpriced gimmicks that offered little to no improvement over the FXT90.
But enough about JVC. They tend to concentrate too much on their specific U-shaped house sound. Most people on these forums probably crave something a little more balanced across all frequencies.
I love crappy cellphone pictures. They save me time.
Upon inserting the SS01, I noticed that it seemed to take a page from the Audio-Technica school of sound tuning: namely a mild but palpable mid-bass hump, even lower midrange, slightly recessed 1-2k region, bump in the upper midrange 3-4k, and generally elevated lower treble shelf. This specific type of tuning calls for moderation in all parts --- go overboard with any one region, and problems start to arise (e.g. the CKS SOLID BASS series have wayyyyyy too much mid-bass, the CK100PRO has wayyyyy too much of a lower treble shelf elevation, leading to a biting sibilance region and 8k crunching harshness on compressed and poorly mastered tracks; an overly prominent 3k region makes voices feel overly tall and shouty, like it possibly is in the T-PEOS H-100). However, if all these things are done within reason, the result is a colored, but very pleasant listening experience. The mid-bass will give pop tracks a bit of bouncy kick, the upper midrange hump will allow (typically thin-voiced) female singers to stand out of a track mix, and the elevated lower treble will give listeners the sparkle they crave. The result is a spacious-sounding earphone that flatters C-Pop, J-Pop, K-Pop, and pop (is there an L/M/N/O/P-pop?) in general.
I am happy to say that the SS01 pulls off this specific coloration (let’s just call it the ‘ATH house sound’) quite well. My very first thought: “This sounds like an ATH-CKM500, but wayyyyy better!” Of course, I don’t really remember what the CKM500 sounds like, but there must be a reason why I thought that, right? Right?
Okay, nevermind. The SS01 gets the balance right, however, IMHO. In my humble opinion, it’s tuned with a moderate bass boost that doesn’t intrude into the midrange, and gives listeners great clarity in the upper registers, but won’t tear a hole in your eardrum with sharp, sibilant treble, in my humble opinion.
It took me a little bit of time to remember that dynamic driver earphones usually take a bit more volume to get them to really come to life. At first, I'd believed that the SS01 was a bit dynamically flat --- pleasant sound signature, yes, but slightly bland and with no distinct characteristics. I remember having trouble with the Philips Fidelio S2 precisely for this reason --- electroacoustically, it was infallible at its price point, but it offered no defining character. It was a bland, bland earphone. Unless you're specifically going for a truly flat and neutral sound (i.e. Etymotic ER4P/S/B, Phonak Audeo PFE, Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor), it needs to have at least a little bit of character. Good thing that the SS01 came into its own with a little bit of voltaic juice applied. It doesn’t respond well to damping, so use something with low OI and don’t use in-line resistance. It won’t help.
At first, I also thought that the SS01 was a little lacking in detail. Then I remembered that I’m used to listening to some of the most revealing IEMs around, and should probably give a $60 earphone a break. Indeed, against budget models <$100, the SS01 turned out to be way more detailed.
What it does lack, surprisingly (for a micro-driver based earphone), is treble extension. The treble starts to cliff-dive at 15k, and roll-off begins a little earlier than that. While it’s not unforgiveable (actually, it’s probably the norm) in its price range, I’d like to see that improved upon. I attribute the lack of treble extension to the reflex design of the dual dynamic drivers. The drivers cannot be inserted deeply, and nor can they be properly designed with a suitable port length.
People especially sensitive to the 3-4k region may find the SS01 slightly shouty, but it should be fine for the general population. Anyone with ample Sony, ATH, JVC experience will find the midrange to upper midrange tuning very familiar.
So what kind of track is the SS01 right at home with? Let’s go with the reigning princesses of K-Pop (and a popular head-fi avatar inspiration) --- So Nyeo Shi Dae, in ‘OSCAR’ (320 kbps MP3):
This club-style beat flatters the tuning of the SS01. The springy mid-bass breathes life into the track, making you want to crank up the volume, but doesn’t intrude into the midrange, where all vocals are clear and well-isolated. Everything feels spacious enough to give you the illusion that you’re gettin’ jiggy with it in da club (the kind that serves Soju, not one that Curtis Jackson would frequent). Even though ‘OSCAR’ uses vocal compressors (to squeeze as much presence as possible into dear Sica’s thin little voice) and Auto-Tune like nothing else, I had no problems listening to the song. The SS01 wouldn’t completely hide the problems (I hear some confusion and coarseness in the treble), but neither would it emphasize any, whereas I would cringe (just a little --- I still love you, Sica) if I used something like the UERM. Energizers and synchronizers, amen.
What else sounds good with the SS01?
Destiny’s Child’s ‘Bills, Bills, Bills’ --- even with its trifling, good-for-nothing type of mastering. Noticing a trend here?
Kendrick Lamar’s ‘B**ch, don’t kill my vibe’ gets an honorable mention, as you get a nice sub-bass kick with the SS01 that you can feel from two planets away...
Also try m-flo’s ‘All I want is you’.
Yep, all selections from my incredibly sophisticated and well-cultured music library.
Indeed, I am a sinner, who’s probably gonna sin again.
In all honesty, however, it sounds pretty good with a myriad of genres, as the SS01 will almost never sound veiled (this statement means a lot coming from a clarity/transparency lover). I promised not to discuss anything related to Diana Krall or Rebecca Pidgeon, so I’ll leave it here.
So we've established that the mids and mid-highs are very clear and detailed, but how does it image? Well, unfortunately, imaging is not the SS01's strong suit. Each instrument and vocal in a track gets good isolation, but they're mostly amorphous entities that don't move around a stereo image dynamically. I can hear items panning left to right, but it's a subtle effect, and a single micro-driver like the JVC FXD series, or deep insertion single BA driver IEM will give you much more pronounced and accurate imaging. However, I'll be hard-pressed to find something in this price range that does any better. Only one earphone comes to mind (at the moment; I hope people can find more) that is superior --- the venerable RE-400 --- and it's a good deal more costly.
While I wasn’t able to listen to the FXT90, I did give the SS01 a quick and dirty A/B against the venerable VSD1 and VSD1S. While both models are technically more affordable, both are said to punch way above their price bracket. So here’s something: in my 5 minute mini-stint with them, neither the VSD1 or VSD1S came away near as good as the SS01 in terms of detail, clarity, and overall balance. Both models sound lacking in midrange and lower treble detail compared to the SS01, and while the VSD1S has a tamer, tauter bass shelf, it doesn’t allow the midrange to be more revealing. The impressive part about the bass response of the SS01 is that even though it has that typical, spongy, bouncy mid-bassy sound, it doesn’t intrude into the midrange. Unfortunately, there is a slightly hollow feel to the bass, which may take some time to get used to if you’re used to a full, dense bass response (think 1Plus2 style).
So what don’t I love about the SS01? Its looks. I admire MOE Audio’s efforts incorporating the ‘S’ shape into the packaging, but I’m sorry, the earphone just looks tacky (like my writing *zing*). The shiny, cut-rate plastic chrome might have something to do with that too. Otherwise, it looks like the FXT90. I’ve already established that. Don’t worry about build quality. Head-fiers change earphones faster than their girlfriends or wives change outfits and handbags. Unless you stomp on them, run them over with a Mack truck, or try to gnaw at the black linguini (sounds like a wack rapper’s pseudonym, doesn’t it?) pasta cables, you’ll be okay. But be prepared for driver flex upon insertion after insertion.
It has a 'flimsy' bass driver. Engrish aside, I think it might contribute to the driver flex.
The HA-FXT90 doesn't command a large price tag these days. Amazon Japan has it on sale for just over ¥6000, which is basically just around the same price as the SS01. So while the SS01 does seem to be superior than the FXT90, what's to say that the brand-conscious consumer picks the more famous and better-looking FXT90 even at the expense of sound quality?
But, it’s a great find for the head-fi community. I think the SS01 can/will win over the hearts and minds of budget-conscious head-fiers. It simply has an agreeable sound signature, with impressive technical ability to boot. The SS01 is a pleasant surprise, at a promising price point. It fits my definition of a fun earphone, while providing great clarity, decent speed, and uncramped presentation. While I won’t be able to tell whether a singer is using a cardioid or subcardiod microphone, I will definitely be able to enjoy music nevertheless.
TL;DR: It sounds real good, but looks real ugly.
Recommendation: If you have some spare change to throw away, first donate it to your diabetes organization of choice (it's November, Diabetes Awareness Month), and second, buy the SS01. You won't be disappointed with the sound.
Edited by tomscy2000 - 11/5/13 at 11:16pm