Possibly the best single driver balanced armature IEM on the market around $50 USD for smartphones.
Meta: The iRiver specific line of headphones produced to be a premium upgrade option to the stock earbuds for South Koreans consumers may prove to be more than capable of its targeted audience. Being under the radar, I feel it is suiting to bring this IEM to the Head-Fi community's attention. Belonging to the category(smartphone), it is like a banana that's rotten and black on the outside, but still 100% fresh on the inside.
Availability: Retailing at 59,000KRW and can be found for around $40 USD in many Korean electronics store or online, this single BA setup IEM produces the most balanced and detailed sound for its price range. I happen to pick this up at the Incheon International Airport's duty free store, for $42USD. It was just so eye-catching, and while its appearance might be extremely similar to some Xears or Beyerdynamic IEMs, there was just something about it that stood out so. I just had to pick it up and try it after seeing it had a BA driver. After some researching it seems this can only be purchased in Korea, which is really unfortunate as it is a very well rounded IEM on the cheaper end. It cannot be found anywhere online in North America.
Presentation: Out of the nice white box designed similar to an iPhone's case, the Blank AE-7 comes with 4 not different sized but different shaped tips, and a nice zipped carrying case. Not much for accessories, but it compliments the whole idea of the overall minimal design and theme of iRiver. The build quality is simply awesome (for the price); the housing has a metal look and feel to it, though it is certainly plastic. Cabling is average for an IEM at this price range, well constructed and the strain relievers all seem sturdy enough to be used exercising as well without breaking that easily (definitely 100 times better than Monster Turbines). Albeit the high microphonics, wearing it over the ears greatly reduces stethoscope effect. The stock ear tips are surprisingly comfortable and isolates quite an amount of noise (might be due to the sealed housing) even though the nozzles don't insert into your ears deeply. The case is adequately sized and allows the user to fit more than just the tips and the earphones in it.
Sound: At first I suspected the Blank AE-7 to be a heavily consumer-oriented sounding IEMs, and didn't have high expectations to hear what it can offer. I am surprised and glad I was wrong, because the AE-7 sounds extremely neutral, balanced, and slightly mid-forward, similar to the sound signature of the DBA-02 and the R50.
It handles well any genre you throw at it, though it favours jazz, classical, and pop. After owning this for over a month, in my opinion it blows Astrotec, MEElectronics, and Klipsch Custom and Image X series out of the water. For an IEM this simple, straight-barrel designed, the sound stage it produces is unbelievable.
There is definitely a great amount of airy feeling to any genre of music, as well as above average instrument separation, and mild width. It lacks image positioning and depth, and the bass not very well extended, lacks quantity, but tight. Treble and Mids are where this IEM's strong side comes forward. No sibilance at all, though there is the crispy, bright feel of treble power that you get from the Sony MDR-EX600, therefore not fatiguing.
Vocal reproduction is realistic, and with the great highs and details, breathing, licking the lips and such can be heard just right. Well not quite prodigious, the sound quality of the AE-7 is exquisite and brilliant, being able to satisfy the audiophile and consumer types simultaneously.
After hearing this, I cannot go back to the similarly designed Klipsch Image X7i anymore. Sound is where the Blank AE-7 comes to value. A budget friendly audiophile sounding IEM. With Accudio by Golden Ears, it makes the AE-7 less mid-forward and even more balanced, but nothing else is improved.
Conclusion: For the price, the Blank AE-7 from iRiver is undoubtedly a strong competitor in this price range of single BA setup IEMs. Though it isn't the best single BA IEM of its price range, (sound is subjective, so not going to bother explaining) it is definitely THE best for smartphone usage. Like I mentioned in the headline above, this is one of those hidden gems that should be everywhere on head-fi when someone asks for a cheap single BA IEM, whether they want to experience the BA sound, or an upgrade to the phone's stock earpiece. Everything the AE-7 has to offer can be appreciated solely based on its price, and its flaws can be ignored by the same reason.
Overall Rating 6/10
Meta - 6/10
Availability - 3/10
Presentation - 8/10
Sound - 7/10
Edited by stuartfang - 12/3/13 at 9:27am