Hey guys, been lurking on here a lot for the last couple weeks as I've decided it's time to treat myself to an IEM upgrade - but there is just such an overwhelming wealth of information & plethora of options that I had to join & make this post in an attempt to get some much-needed advice/recommendations/clarity on the direction to go here.
Basically, I'm finally in a position to make the jump into high-end audio listening equipment - so I really want to get it right the first time when I'm throwing around this kind of money.
Therefore, please do forgive me if I come across as longwinded or oversharing at any point - I just really would like to provide as much information as possible because this is quite important to me & I would like to learn as much as I possibly can before diving into my purchase. If this is simply too much to get through, no worries - I would be more than happy even if you just answered the main title of the thread outright - any kind of help I can get is greatly appreciated.
I've been using the Shure SE210s since something like 09 - at the time, being 16 & completely oblivious to the idea of $100 earphones being worth what I felt was a hefty price tag considering the truly budget stuff I had been using prior - it was a revolutionary purchase & experience for me. I mean how could it not be when I was upgrading from some really average V-modas & muddy Skull Candy FMJ ******** that broke within a few weeks. In fact, when my first pair of SE210s broke a few years ago - I simply went out & got another pair without even thinking twice. I really would be lying if I were to claim that I haven't enjoyed every moment I've had them in my ears right up to this very day.
However, due to having such an extensive experience & knowledge of them over so many years - their various insufficiencies have only become increasingly obvious - most notably so once I began to get into production & really started listening to music more lucidly as well as becoming more discerning about the quality of my sources. I mean next to my ATH-M50s & even my HD280s, it's hard not to notice what they lack - though of course full over the ear cans vs IEMs isn't really a fair comparison obviously.
But yer, as the title suggests, I've decided it's the right time to finally make a substanital upgrade & provide the listening experience I desire (or at least something closer to it) in IEMs since I do find myself using them so often. Only problem is, I'm currently located in a country where it's fairly difficult to find, let alone test, true high end IEMs outside of the more commercially-inclined brands - which is why I'm seeking any & all advice I can get from more experienced audiophiles & users to aid me in making my decision since I will be ordering 'blindly' online.
Even though my itunes collection encompasses pretty much every conceivable genre besides hip hop (I subscribe to the belief that music is like candy - it's always better without the rapper ;) ) - the vast majority of my daily listening comprises of modern metalcore/melodic hardcore/post-hardcore/melodic death metal/technical death metal/pop punk/alternative rock almost exclusively. Basically music where the guitar work is the main focus alongside the vocals & extremely prominent throughout.
So I'm looking for an IEM with traits that are particularly well-suited & conducive to these genres & putting an emphasis on the guitars' dynamics in particular. Seeing as I'm going all out & spending potentially over half a grand on these, I'm looking to invest in a pair that will excel with this kind of stuff & will keep me satisfied for years to come.
These are some of my favourite bands that I listen to most often to give you some idea of what kind of source material I'm going to be using these with:
Funeral for a Friend
The Story So Far
This or the Apocalypse
August Burns Red
Times Of Grace
All That Remains
The Black Dahlia Murder
After the Burial
Taking Back Sunday
Dance Gavin Dance
The Smashing Pumpkins
Rise To Remain
Between The Buried And Me
Children Of Bodom
Scale The Summit
Also I realise that the quality of the source has a significant impact when we're dealing with high performance IEMs. The vast majority of my itunes collection is in 320 MP3, with the occasional 256 VBR AAC for itunes-only releases or certain downloaded things that were only available in that format - all the stuff listed above is 320 Joint Stereo LAME-encoded though as I own physical copies. I realise I'm touching on a pandora's box subject here & all that, but this has definitley played on my mind having read through so many threads on this site lately - will I be able to truly enjoy high end & potentially extremely revealing & unforgiving IEMs with this quality of audio being utilised as standard?
I've been considering switching over completely to ALAC at some point in the near future, but I know that I won't be able to do so for exclusive itunes releases & albums without a live FLAC download available. Basically, would just be good to know whether it would actually be worth doing or if I'm going to be okay with 320 for the most part since it is going to be more convenient for me to stick with it for now.
The majority of my listening with these IEMs is going to be done on a 5G iPod Touch & incoming iPhone 5s as well as my Macbook Pro - all without an amp (I may get one in the near future but I don't know how that would work for portable/mobile listening application) so do take that into consideration. I've heard the DACs are decent on these though so I'm hoping they will be at least compatible & useable with the IEMs I purchase.
Like I said, I'm not really an audiophile, & therefore don't really know what the correct or accepted vocabulary is for the kind of things I want to describe in the sound that I desire, but I'll do my best to be as coherent & detailed as I can be. Bear in mind, this is coming from what is essentially a guitarist's perspective, so take from that what you may as I may be talking absolute **** a lot of the time.
I've always found the overall signature of the SE210s pleasing. Good definition in the overall mix & I can hear all instruments pretty clearly with decent separation. There's enough detail in the mid range & treble that I've occasionally found myself 'discovering new parts of the song' as it were that I may not necessarily have heard before even if I've heard the song before, if that makes any sense. They're not overtly revealing as I find my ATH-M50s to be more so - & consequently I do find at times they could do with a little more high end clarity & sheen for the kind of soaring/whiny relatively high-pitched clean vocals that I enjoy; but at the same time they are far from muddy. I find the mids to be quite prominent, but never obstrusive - which makes for a pretty smooth enjoyable listening experience overall.
I do however find them lacking in that sense of depth, involvement & dynamic impact - that feeling of really being immersed in the mix & feeling every aspect of the music to the extent that I could almost reach out & touch it - & therefore am essentially inevitably & involuntarily forced to headbang or rip out my air guitar on the spot without a care for anything in the world besides the song that's playing; the kind of experience I get with my M50s or when I'm right in front of my sound system at home at substantial volume. They seem a little too passive in that sense if that's the right word for it, lacking in that x-factor & lushness in their signature. Just really unoffensive in general - they perform well enough in most areas, but don't do anything spectacularly. & I guess my biggest gripe might be that they sound somewhat thin & brittle at times & do lack something in terms of low-end punch.
Then again, I'm not really sure what to make of that statement because I wouldn't say that I was particularly searching for a significant improvement in bass in terms of quantity since I use the 'classical' EQ preset w/a slight custom mid boost on my ipod for listening to metal as opposed to any kind of 'bass booster' or otherwise that turns everything to incoherent muddiness, & my custom EQ in itunes is similar. I always prefer overall clarity & expansiveness in the sound as opposed to sheer low-end girth. But ideally I'd like the bass to be a little faster, & little more hard hitting where it matters.
I guess I'm just looking for something qualitatively superior - a little more musical, more responsive & possibly a little more aggressive - something a little richer with more vivid detail, more 3D-esque & more effortless in performance with an x-factor to it to really captivate my ears since these IEMs will mostly be used purely for enjoyment during mobile listening. I would potentially like to use them on stage as well if they are capable of it since I also have a wireless monitoring rig that I'm looking to implement at some point - but that is a secondary function in this case.
Anyway, being a guitarist & a former drummer as well, those are the two aspects that are most important to me in the mix & what I focus on the majority of the time. I also like the vocals to be quite upfront, but never at the expense of the aforementioned instuments. Guitar tone is everything to me though. & I like mine to be extremely tight, punchy & articulate - it has to have dynamic impact & not be overly compressed, with enough saturation, almost kind of 'juicy' or 'squishy' (sorry, I'm in a slightly intoxicated state so that's all I could think of right now to describe it lol), to provide a certain lushness/richness & texture - & yet still ultimately be uber tight & hard-hitting. Think Killswitch Engage - Rose Of Sharyn, All That Remains - Six etc. (those are still some of my 'ultimate tone' benchmarks).
So basically I'm looking for an IEM that is conducive to reproducing this as accurately as possible. I like to really feel the chunk in chugging riffs & palm mutes, more so in terms of the nuances & dynamics of the pick against the strings as opposed to sheer obliterating overwhelming low-end thud. Note separation & definition is incredibly important to me with intricate sweeping, tapping, alternate picking etc. during leads, since those tend to be the most eargasmic moments for myself.
Distinct & percussive to the extent that it's easily distinguishable, yet with a somewhat fluid poise & balance (if that's not a complete oxymoron). I'm tempted to say 'natural' - as what I'm describing is essentially the way the sound coming out of my amps tends to be, an almost organic & pure metal tone - but obviously what's actually natural to each of us is probably quite subjective. Essentially, I don't want the IEMs to make well-produced guitar as I've described above to sound sterile or mechanical or forced, nor over-hyped or unwieldly.
I suppose you could say I like my mids to be not entirely emphasised, but with good presence & focus rather than completely scooped as that's the part of the spectrum that tends to really make a noticeable difference for me (for example, I do wish my M50s had little more of a mid bump in all honesty). I'd prefer the mid range to be lush & smooth, but not veiled or muddy in any way - yet also not overbearing, no harsh 'ice-pick' phenomenon occurring & such.
Ideally treble should be extended but unobtrusive, somewhat bright without being brash or fatiguing - as mentioned before I do enjoy that sparkle & clarity in the high end to give it a bit more edge & definition (possibly a little bit of a treble-junkie since I do like to EQ in some high end around 8K+ on most speakers/devices), so it can't be significantly rolled off either. I guess something that's quite extended, but with enough warmth to remain short of abrasive sibilance-inducing territory.
I'm definitely not a basshead in terms of pure power & quantity (I EQ my fairly monstrous sub of my 2.1 speaker system at -5 & similarly never use bass boosting EQ on other equipment such a my ipod) & any kind of real notable flubbiness/boominess is an absolute non-starter for me as it just translates to mud in my ears, tainting other frequencies where it shouldn't. I'm looking for tight, punchy, reponsive bass, the kind that has genuine impact & really hits you like closed-back cans do to an extent, but without sacrificing clarity or being so obnoxious that it takes over everything & interferes with the mid range balance.
I guess I prefer a more clinical, composed & controlled sound in a general sense - but at the same time one that has genuine appeal & a sense of richness & virility to it. It's hard to define exactly what I want if I had to pick between those sets of chracteristics as I can often be quite analytical even in leisurely listening, & yet I also love to just lose myself in the music & the moment a lot of the time. Ideally something of a compromise seems to be what I'm looking for - a balance of refinement & energy, finesse & substance. I want it to be detailed enough that I can hear all of the intricacies & inflections, those subtle moments & nuances that so often seem to unsuspectingly & spontaneously reveal themselves to you & blow your mind when you're not even really listening for them - & yet I want it to have the ability to let things really open up & just flow when I want to really rock out & let the music take over.
Of course, this is all just a maelstrom of uncensored idealistic thoughts that have been allowed to escape from my mind. I'm not entirely sure whether such an IEM can cater to what I desire (or if any of what I just typed even makes any sense for that matter) - but I'm at least looking for something closer to that than what I currently have. Or potentially even something entirely different that some of you guys can recommend that would be ideal for the kind of music I listen to.
Like I said, I'm new to this game - so I'm pretty open to various options if I can be convinced of their value for my particular situation. I haven't experienced anything in terms of true high-end audiophile equipment before besides a handful of encounters with expensive luxury cans in professional studios, certainly no IEMs of that calibre - so it may be that I don't even know what I'm looking for exactly due to the fact that I'm not entirely sure of the effect such a significant step up would have in reality when it comes to the actual listening experience with my particular tastes in music.
Anyway, enough incessant debate over what I may or may not want - here's the shortlist I've been able to come up with so far from perusing reviews & threads on this site - $600 is pretty much the max for me to be honest & I've included the prices they are available to me for (including shipping for most of the universal fits):
Shure SE535 Special Edition - $465
Audio Technica ATH-CK100PRO - $385
Audio Technica ATH-IM04 - $550
Audio Technica ATH-IM03 - $370
Westone W4R - $420
Westone UMX3-RC - $380
Phonak Audeo PFE232 - $430
Logitech Ultimate Ears 900 - $410
Heir 4.Ai - $400+
Tzar 350 - $400+
1964EARS 1964-V3 - $425+
1964EARS 1964-Q - $525+
Etymotic ER4 - $290
Shure SE425 - $300
Price, or more so value, is a factor - but it's definitely secondary to performance/sound quality. Likewise, ideally I want pretty good isolation as even my SE210s provide that, though I may also be able to use aftermarket tips on some models to aid in getting a better seal. Comfort & fit are a bit more subjective I suppose, so that's less important as they either fit me or they don't, I'll just have to find out I suppose. I expect build quality on all of these to be of a high standard to some degree or another, so don't worry too much about that.
Overall, specificity to my situation & the kind of music that I listen to is most important to me, which is why I decided to join & make a post as most of the threads I've found using the search function have been quite general/vague & compartive between only a couple/few different IEMs rather than a whole variety of options as I've found myself faced with. I really do want to try to get it right the first time since I don't have the financial capabilities to own more than one set of true audiophile IEMs at a time right now.
From what I've read, I'm leaning towards the Shure SE535 SE as I can only imagine it improves on every facet of the SE210s exponentially, which can only be a good thing. But I'm unsure if the low end is going to be what I'm looking for in terms of both response & impact, & whether it's really going to be suitable for the music I listen to.
I'm also partial to the Audio-Technica stuff since my M50s have served me so well from both a recreational listening perspective as well as in professionally-minded monitoring/tracking/mixing applications. I've read a lot of good things about the CK100, however there is less readily available information on the CK100PRO - so I'm not quite sure what to make of that & would love anyone with first hand experience to shed some light on their strengths & weaknesses. By the same token, the newly released IM03 & IM04 look particualrly intriguing, but again there's minimal info in the way of first hand reviews at the moment.
I've also read up a lot about the Westones, but it seems that though the W4Rs are awesome IEMs, they might not quite have that x-factor that I'm looking for as some say they are quite placid & somewhat lifeless without an amp. The UMX3 looks cool too, but it might be a bit too coloured being my main concern as I've seen it described as a 'fun' IEM, & though I'd probably enjoy them as a result, that's only one part of the equation for me.
The Phonak PFE232s also seem to get some mixed reviews, some saying they're absolutely hands-down brilliant - others feeling they can be a little brash & somewhat unrefined & uncontrolled in the low end at times. UE900s look really solid too, from certain perspectives it seems they might just be what I'm looking for - but at the same time it appears there may be better alternatives that outperform it for the kind of music that I listen to.
Then we've got the customs - which frankly look ******* amazing both aesthetically & performance-wise - but I have no idea if they're really the best option in terms of value & reliability/durability compared to the universal IEM contenders.
I'm also considering the fact that it may not actually be worth splurging more than $300 on IEMs if I'm mostly going to be listening via iPod Touch/iPhone with 320 as standard quality - & therefore the much-revered Etymotic ER4 or solid Shure SE425 may suffice as enough of an improvement over my SE210s for now until I begin to delve a bit deeper into the world of audiophilia. If the next $100-200 or so will make any kind of significant difference though, then I would definitely prefer to go all out for the superior phones.
I commend you if you've managed to get this far - I realise this thread is probably a little extreme & over the top, cetainly an audacious first post - but I really am quite lost amongst the array of options & characteristics when it comes to IEMs, especially when my particular taste in music isn't necessarily the same as or even remotely similar to the vast majority of reviewers - along with the fact I have no real way of testing them out & experiencing them first hand prior to purchase.
So that's why I felt it would be best to go straight to the experts who can actually give me an idea of what to expect & help me make the right decision rather than potentially wasting time & money on something that may not be quite right for me.
In any case, I appreciate any & all advice & recommendations regardless of whether you read through all of the verbal vomit that has been expelled into this post. With a bit of help & guidance, hopefully I'll be able to find what I'm looking for.
Edited by lamnidae - 12/27/13 at 2:15pm