Ken Ball from ALO Audio is a big fan of the outdoors. If you see an image of nature on the ALO Audio, and now Campfire Audio web site, it will have been one he took himself. So for his new venture into in-ear monitors it was only appropriate that they be named after features of the night sky.
While I did have a listen to his first three models of IEM at a previous Tokyo headphone festival, I wasn't so enamoured by the brightness of the Jupiters, which seemed too strong for my tastes. It wasn't until this year, when I heard the Andromedas for the first time, that I was really moved by the sound. I was moved not so much because of any particular feature of the sound, but because their seeming lack of anything in the sound that reminded me I was listening with IEMs. The cohesion of the overall presentation had the IEMs immediately disappearing, leaving just the music.
Ken didn't hold back on the design in any way, shape or form with the Andromedas, exemplified by the fact that the pair I have for review are actually factory rejects. It would take a careful eye to see why, but he doesn't deny his intent to be perfectionist and send customers only a perfect product. That extends to the case as well, which is a lovely oldschool-style leather, lined on the inside with faux sheepskin.
Unusually, for a manufacturer, he started off building cables by hand, then working with others to make amps and DACs, and now headphones, rather in reverse of many other companies that started with headphones first. That has, however, given him an advantage with his range of IEMs, as he has the experience to design a good cable. As much as one may dislike the idea of the importance of a good cable, I can attest to the difference they can make. On my pair of JH13s, if I use the stock cable, the sound is harsh and unlistenable. A change to a well-made Litz-wire cable from a third party transforms the sound. Time and time again I've had good headphones that I felt were simply held back by the stock cable. Where the manufacturer has included a good cable, this hasn't been an issue.
Irrespective of opinion on the matter, the cable itself is the same thickness and flexibility of a regular IEM cable, excepting the metal splitter and neatly-fitting transparent plastic choker. The MMCX plugs are a custom beryllium copper plug that has a tighter grip than a stock MMCX connector, the ring having a larger bend. Removal requires quite a firm pull, which the instruction manual advises be done straight and not at an angle.
The Andromedas consist of 5 balanced armature drivers -- 2 for the bass, 1 for the mids, and 2 for the highs. These are housed in a CNC aluminium enclosure with a uniquely shaped design. For my ears, that edgy shape could be felt a bit on insertion, but it didn't end up bothering me at all. I'm more sensitive to the discomfort of having anything in my ear canals to really notice. However Ken has acknowledged concerns and will be smoothing the design slightly in future production runs.
Ear canal discomfort may be an issue for some, as the three-port aluminium nozzle is big, and requires similar tips that DITA Audio's The Answer, RHA, and FitEar's universal series do. Since that permits tips with a variety of sizes, some tuning is readily possible as it is with the DITAs. Select tips with a narrower nozzle and the highs are tamed a bit, the bass being brought out more. If I select Spinfits for comfort then this is exactly what happens, making the Andromedas warmer with stronger bass, but not as pleasant overall as with the stock tips. Foam tips will reduce the treble and narrower-bore tips will increase the bass. At one extreme, if I used the Andromedas out of the Mojo or similar, which brought out the most bass, and had the included Comply foam tips on, they sounded at their darkest, similar to what I had experienced often with the Laylas.
On the other hand, JVC's Spiral Dot tips, which use a spiral of indents in the bore to reduce turbulence have a very wide bore, can bring out the treble nicely. On the Andromedas they increased the overall coherency of the sound, leaving me to balance up the amount of bass via the choice of amp or DAP. The only downside is that they can make the highest treble a bit bright, which was fine with most acoustic music, but it can be a bit much for modern, brightly-mastered music.
If you have experience with many full-sized headphones, I can simplify things and say that the Andromedas are much like a pair of MrSpeakers Ethers in overall tone when used out of a good DAP or amp. From the very present, but sweet highs down to the moderately strong mid-bass, with a few exceptions both have a similar character. This made acoustic recordings a joy, enough to make one forget that you are listening with IEMs. Using my iPhone or Soundaware's M1, both of which have a <0 Ohm output impedance, the bass drops back a bit, which I find pleasant when the music is already very bass-strong. While mostly mid-bass prominent, it does extend well down to the deep bass if you have a good seal.
I reckon Ken has hit a proverbial home-run with the Andromedas, enough to make them my current favourite universal IEMs.
The Shure SE846 is, to me, one of the most exciting product announcements of last year. Years in development, Shure went way outside the box with their new four-driver, three-way flagship, and the results are, in my opinion, spectacular.
One of Shure's goals for the SE846 was to create what Shure has coined a "True Subwoofer Experience." The word "subwoofer" has led some to believe that Shure is going to release a bass-overblown IEM, which wasn't their goal at all. Deep bass extension? Yes. Impactful? Of course. But let's not forget that at least part of a well-implemented subwoofer's charge is to free up smaller drivers from the encumbrance of trying to produce deep bass, to allow the mids to breathe freely, more effortlessly. In this respect, Shure killed it with the SE846. Killed it.
How they did it is, in the world of IEMs, extremely daring, innovative. They created a patent pending acoustic low-pass filter. The output from the dual bass drivers that make up each of the SE846 earpiece's "subwoofer" is run through a high acoustic mass pathway carved into ten precision-welded stainless steel plates. That channel, if unfurled, would be approximately four inches long, and allows the low-frequency roll-off to happen acoustically. The result is deep, impactful bass, with remarkable midrange presence and clarity.
Shure also developed a system of changeable nozzle inserts that allows the user to customize the treble profile of the SE846, with three different choices that Shure refers to as balanced (which comes installed), warm, and bright. It's easy to adjust, the changing of the nozzles taking me less than a minute. I've found myself using both the balanced and bright options, with the bright insert being the one that gets the most use. If you love the SE535, but wished for a bit more treble extension and sparkle, you're probably going to love the bright insert, too.
I want to be clear that the Shure SE846 is not just a couple of gimmicks thrown together to provide fodder for good marketing pieces--the SE846 is a precisely integrated, meticulously tuned flagship in-ear monitor that uses true innovation as a means to an end.
I have several top-notch custom in-ear monitors--headphones I feel are among the best in the world, regardless of form factor--and the Shure SE846 is one of only two universal-fit IEMs I've used that is very much a competitor to those.
Even at a street price of $1000.00, the Shure SE846 is a huge hit with Head-Fi'ers.
As my fellow music geeks know, recording remasters can be hit or miss enough that when they're announced, we usually respond with both excitement at the possibilities, but also some apprehension because remasters are about as likely to sound worse as they are to sound better than the original versions, in my experience.
With that in mind, when Philippe Depallens and Mike Dias at Ultimate Ears called me to tell me they were going to be working with Capitol Studios again, but this time to update, to re-do, the in-ear monitor they'd created together more than five years before that, the Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor, which became known to many high-end audio enthusiasts as the "UERM." When I heard this news, I was, not surprisingly, both excited at the possibilities, but also a bit apprehensive, because they were going to be remastering the in-ear monitor that had become one of my primary neutral references for the last several years.
The result was the Ultimate Ears Pro Reference Remastered studio mastering in-ear monitors, developed with, and voiced by, the recording engineers at the legendary Capitol Studios in their second collaborative product with Ultimate Ears. Since its release, folks have taken to calling the new one the "UERR."
Again, the original Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor was launched over five years ago, and was the first collaboration between Ultimate Ears and the engineers at Capitol Studios, and it quickly became my headphone neutral reference. Here at Head-Fi, we listen to so many different headphone systems, so many of these configurations imparting various colorations and flavors--so it's nice to re-align with a neutral reference from time to time. As I've said on the Head-Fi forums before, a good neutral reference can serve as a sort of sonic palate cleanser for me.
I certainly wasn't alone. In the years since its release, the UERM has become a favorite with many in the professional audio world and also, of course, in audiophile circles, and perhaps its single most endearing trait was the UERM's perceived neutrality. I say "perceived neutrality" because the definition of what's truly neutral in the headphone world is still a bit of a moving target, which is an interesting discussion itself, and one we'll be exploring further I'm sure.
The original Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor was tuned to be flat. Like I just said, though, in the world of headphones, the concept of neutrality is still a bit up-in-the-air. When it comes to neutral with headphones, are we talking about something that measures flat on an ear simulator, or are we talking about a headphone that's tuned more to simulate flat-frequency loudspeakers in a more typical room setting. You see, normal rooms add some general boost to the bass, due to the increasingly omnidirectional nature of sound as you move lower in frequency. Again, with headphones, neutrality is still a moving target.
I bring all of this up because the original UERM sounds to me like something that would perhaps measure flatter at the eardrum; and the new Reference Remastered sounds more to me, in comparison, like it takes the sound of room reinforcement--also called "room gain--into consideration, which is where my personal definition of neutrality with headphones has also been moving. This has been a topic discussed at length by Paul Barton of PSB, Sean Olive of Harman, Tyll Hertsens of Innerfidelity, and others in various studies, and even with many in our community here.
To be clear, though, the Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered is most certainly not a bass-heavy headphone in comparison to the original, but it is, to my ears, fuller in the lower registers than the UERM is, in a manner I find more realistic, more natural--and so, yes, for me, also more neutral. This isn't the only area the new Reference Remastered improves on the UERM. When doing direct comparisons, it's rather obvious to me that the new Remastered monitor has a smoother treble response--not in terms of roll-off, but in terms of a comparative smoothing of peaks. This smoother, more linear response might, at first blush, give the impression that the treble is not as extended as the UERM, but, actually, in terms of treble extension, the Reference Remastered, in careful listening comparisons, actually sounds more treble-extended to me than the UERM, yet more organic with the relative smoothing of peaks.
In conversations with Vincent Liu of Ultimate Ears, it's clear they worked hard to make this happen, having developed a unique new housing and chamber arrangement for the drivers and their respective bores that comprise something they're calling "True Tone Drivers," which Ultimate Ears claims is flat to 18kHz. Their goal with True Tone and the improved treble performance was to better reproduce the harmonic structures and overtones that they claim many other headphones miss.
In terms of imaging, the Reference Remastered betters the performance and precision of what was already a strong imager with the UERM. While I'm not hearing the imaging as any wider, it's more coherent in its shape and image solidity.
So you may be wondering why they sound as different as they do, if the same engineers who voiced the UERM more than five years ago also worked on the Reference Remastered. From conversations with Capitol and UE, the improvements were in large part motivated by Universal Music Group's commitment to high-res music, particularly over the last several years. The number of high-res remasters coming from Universal Music Group has been fantastic. (And, for those of you who didn't know, Universal Music Group oversees Capitol Studios.) Conversations with Barak Moffitt--head of global strategic operations at Universal Music Group--only confirmed how serious they are about capturing the artists' performances with, as he said, "absolute faithfulness to their creative intent, and that means capturing their sound to the highest fidelity possible."
In covering UE's Reference Monitor, and now the Reference Remastered, I've had the good fortune to hang out a bit at Capitol Studios, and they've put on some amazing demos and direct comparisons to show what's possible with high-res remasters done right.
And that brings me to another thing that may account for some of the upgraded sound with the Remastered monitor versus the UERM. In the years since the UERM was released, Capitol Studios has been going through an ongoing studio refurbishment program, and part of that has involved some major upgrades to their monitors. Since the UERM was developed, both Studio A and Studio B at Capitol Studios have had their monitors upgraded to PMC's staggering new QB1-A active monitors. I've now had a chance to hear the QB1-A's at Capitol, and they're mind-blowingly good. Their massive 4800 watts of amplification per channel provides unrestrained dynamics, with just as impressive micro detail and delicate touch. I believe the Capitol engineers were among the group of professionals who helped PMC as they designed the new PMC monitors, and the results...incredible. The installation of the big PMC's is part of Capitol's commitment to high-res music.
In short, if the engineers at Capitol have upgraded their own reference sound at Capitol Studios, then they've re-aligned their own reference sound to new standards in the years since the original UERM's release. What a great time to ask them to voice a new generation of in-ear studio mastering monitors.
While it's not quite like having PMC QB1-A's in my ears, I can better understand now how they got here, and, in doing so, they've given me a new in-ear neutral reference--one that's more resolving and more musical than the first-generation Reference Monitor it replaces. The new Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered represents everything I'd hope for from a remastering.
Sound-isolating electrostatic earphone system (Electrostatic earphones, amp, and DAC)
When a company with a sterling history spanning decades decides to marshal its resources and countless man-years of knowledge and ingenuity to make the best product it can, the results can be amazing. Sennheiser did it with the HD 800, the original Orpheus, and now the new Orpheus. Sony had the MDR-R10. Stax has the SR-009. Products like these show that legends can be born from such efforts. Shure has now absolutely blasted its way onto this list of legends with its latest flagship--the Shure KSE1500 Sound-Isolating Electrostatic Earphones.
Developed over an eight-year period--the project pulling in as many as 40 Shure staffers at times--the KSE1500 is a lesson in good crazy, and it started at the top when Shure’s leadership (headed by Shure President and CEO Sandy LaMantia) listened to and approved the flagship that started as a top-secret, exploratory project within Shure’s skunkworks. Amazingly, this product was given the green light to move forward by the senior management team at a major corporation like Shure well before the premium IEM market had grown into what it is today--long before anyone could have known that there'd be a market for such an expensive IEM system. Of course, as most of you know, the market for high-end IEMs had come into its own, so the timing ended up working well for it.
If any of you have ever taken a tour of Shure's secretive R&D facilities, then you know about the fantastic and vast resources they have at their disposal. When they mobilize those resources with the minds and hands of 40+ team members--along with the yearsnecessary to get it where they wanted it--you just might end up with a masterpiece. And Shure ended up with a masterpiece.
Again, the KSE1500 is an electrostatic earphone system. Specifically, and uniquely, it is a sound-isolating electrostatic in-ear system, which I'm quite certain is a first. In terms of isolation, it's rated for over 30 decibels of passive noise attenuation. The KSE1500 uses one full-range electrostatic driver per side. Shure's specifications show a frequency response of 10 Hz to 50 kHz, and a maximum SPL (or sound pressure level) of 113 decibels.
Because full-range electrostatic headphones require specialized, high-voltage amplification, the Shure KSE1500 is a system, consisting of the earphones and a specialized portable amplifier. In the case of the KSE1500 system, the amp unit is not just an electrostatic amplifier, it's actually also a DAC. The KSE1500's DAC accepts digital connections via USB, and is also Apple MFI certified, so can it can directlydigitally connect to modern iDevices (iPhones, iPads, iPods) without the camera connection kit. It is also compatible with Android devices that support USB Audio Class 2 and Micro-B OTG connectivity. The KSE1500's built-in DAC supports up to 24-bit / 96 kHz, including 88.2 kHz.
The system also includes a built-in easy-to-use 4-band parametric equalizer that's easy to use. For quick adjustments, there are some built-in equalizer presets, including flat, low boost, vocal boost, loudness, and de-ess (to reduce sibilance). The amp's EQ and other settings are easy to access through an easy-to-understand, easy-to-use menu of options, adjustments, and settings.
If you already have a source component that you want to use with the KSE1500, there's an analog input via 3.5mm mini stereo jack. Because we have top-notch source components (portable and desktop) at the office--sources that I've found to exploit the KSE1500's remarkable performance envelope more fully than its built-in DAC--I most often use the KSE1500 via its analog input.
The KSE1500's DAC/amp is charged via USB, and will provide around 10 hours of operation from a full charge using the analog input and EQ bypass. When you engage the DAC and/or the equalizer, battery life is around seven hours from a full charge. The amp is beautifully constructed of black anodized aluminum, and feels ruggedly built. Inside is a ten-layer PCB that helps make the KSE1500 all but impervious to radio frequency interference in my experience with it so far.
Those of you into electrostatic headphones are no doubt familiar with the Stax name. They make some of the best sounding headphones ever made. I own Stax's current flagship SR009, as well as the SR007 Mark I, and I currently have their most recent SR-L700 on hand. All three of these headphones are world-class beyond argument, in my opinion. Now some of you may not have known that Stax also makes in-ear electrostats, like the Stax SR002. Stax's in-ears are very nice sounding, but, in my opinion, nowhere near the performance level of the top-flight Stax over-ears, whether in stock form or modified. Make no mistake about it, though: The new Shure KSE1500 competes not with Stax's in-ears, but at the level of Stax's best over-ears. The Shure KSE1500 is, in every way, a world-class headphone, regardless of form factor.
Because the KSE1500 is closed-back, and isolates so well, it has some very unique qualities. In essence, it's kind of like listening to world-class headphones in an anechoic chamber. That is, when you block out over 30 decibels of outside noise, details that are lost under the burden of typical ambient noise floors are uncovered. When you're talking about that kind of isolation coupled with the detail retrieval and performance of high-end electrostats, it's something very special--a blacker background from which even the tiniest details are laid more bare, in clearer relief.
In terms of tonal balance, the Shure KSE1500 is a bit hard for me to describe, as it strikes me as so natural as to be neutral--yet it doesn't sound flat. Having let many other people listen to it, the KSE1500 has had more universal appeal than I can recall any headphone not named "Orpheus" having. That is, many who've heard it who like emphasized bass have found it incredible; many who've heard it who prefer neutrality have found it incredible; many who've heard it who prefer brighter headphones have found it incredible. It's almost like asking someone what they think of the sound of live, unamplified acoustic instruments or singing in a good acoustic. Natural and real transcend audio gear personal preferences.
That said, the Shure KSE1500 has strong bass when called for, presented in great detail and with ease. While it may not be as capable of delivering the slam and sheer impact that some of its high-end multi-armature competitors can, the overall quality of the KSE1500's bass is the best I've heard in an in-ear headphone. In fact, relative to any other in-ear headphone, from low bass to as high as I can hear in the treble range, the KSE1500 presents among the most realistic, most timbrally rich and lifelike presentations as I've ever heard from a headphone.
The KSE1500 also images fantastically well--also among the top tier of any headphone I've heard. No, it doesn't image as wide or airy as some of the top open-backs can, but the level at which it can convey the coherence of a sonic image--the anchoring and placement of players and singers in the soundscape--can be jarringly good at times.
I could go on and on about the Shure KSE1500, but I'm running out of space. Since it has arrived here, it has received the lion's share of my ear time. Why? Because it does what it does--and what it does is be a world-class electrostatic rig--and I can take it with me. It's the closest thing as I'll have to an Orpheus in a backpack, that I can use on an airplane, in a library, at a coffee house or book store--almost anywhere.
The Shure KSE1500 is, again, the best sounding in-ear headphone I've ever heard. It's also, in my opinion, one of the best sounding headphones of any type that you can buy today.
Is it the GREATEST? The answer for me is YES, a true TOTL, flaghip of flagships.
The mighty Sennheiser HD 800 is, in my opinion, a masterpiece--one of the finest examples of modern headphone innovation and engineering. One of the key figures behind the HD 800's development was Axel Grell, Sennheiser's Product Manager High End. I had wondered in the past about what would happen if you turned Axel loose on IEM development, and was thrilled when I found out that's just what Sennheiser had done. The IE 800 is the result.
For those familiar with Sennheiser's IEMs of the past several years, perhaps it wasn't a shock that Sennheiser chose to go with a dynamic driver for their flagship IEM. What is surprising is that the single extra wide band dynamic driver they developed is only 7mm in diameter, and its sound is huge.
Something else unique about the IE 800 is something Sennheiser has coined Attenuated Dual Channel Absorbers (D2CA), which, as its name suggests, is a patent-pending damped two-chamber absorber designed to eliminate the 7kHz to 8kHz peak that occurs when you shift your ear channel's resonance by blocking the canal. According to Axel, unremedied, the peak masks normal high frequencies present in the signal.
The science and acoustics engineering you get into when talking to Axel are beyond my very limited knowledge of such things, but I'm always happy to experience the results of all it--the listening part.
Before you accuse me of being a fanboy, I strongly suggest you page through this guide, and look at how many non-exercise in-ears by Sennheiser you see in it (other than this IE 800). Count 'em up, and you'll get to...exactly none. I think Sennheiser makes good in-ears--I liked (but certainly didn't love) the likes of the IE 80 (and the IE 8 before it), but, over the last several years, I have tended to prefer, at most price points, IEM products from Sennheiser's competitors. The IE 800, however, is amazingly good--one of the two best universal-fit in-ears I've ever heard, and one of my current favorite headphones of any form factor.
The IE 800 also images beautifully, with a wide, coherent soundstage (for an in-ear), instruments and voices in good recordings precisely placed. The first time I heard Amber Rubarth's Sessions from the 17th Ward (Binaural) through the IE 800, it was using the Astell&Kern AK100 playing the 24-bit/192kHz version of the album. If you have this combination of gear and music, cue it up, close your eyes--it's transcendent, the music beautiful, the fidelity of it through the gear complete. Guitar, violin, cello, Amber's voice, all gently washing over each other, clearly occupying the same acoustic. (I'm actually listening to this combo, and this album, as I'm typing this.)
The IE 800's tonal balance isn't one of neutrality--tonally, this isn't the in-ear version of the Sennheiser HD 800, which to me is more neutral. The IE 800 has bass emphasis--well-executed bass emphasis to my ears--its emphasis low on the spectrum, the mids not masked in the least by the bass. The IE 800's bass, though emphasized, is detailed and fast. The IE 800's midrange has a lush airiness about it, and the treble is sparkly, extended, precise.
The IE 800 is also very comfortable in my ears, with the included oval cross section eartips. The relatively straight, shallow insertion also makes for a comfortable piece for long listening sessions. Not that it matters much, but I also think the IE 800 is the single best looking universal-fit IEM on the market. Its ceramic body--with its sculpted curves around what I assume are two openings related to the dual dampers (that look to me like the jet outlets from an advanced stealth fighter)--is absolutely gorgeous.
So it sounds amazing, it's comfortable, and it's a looker. Is the IE 800 as good as my best custom IEMs? In some respects (like that gorgeous midrange), yes. In some respects (like the bass, which sounds fast but not faaaast), no. And, though comfortable, it's hard to beat the comfort of a piece molded exactly to the shape of your ears. If customs give you pause, should you consider the IE 800? Omigosh, yes.
The IE 800 performed outstandingly in almost every department: Deep, taut and well-controlled bass, superb mids, extended and mellow tremble; top resolution with extreme clarity; very nice tonal balance; excellent dynamics and soundstaging; very good imaging.
Perhaps the in-ear monitor I'm most excited about is Jerry Harvey Audio's Sirens Series Roxanne. I had a custom-fit prototype here for a while, and, in my opinion, it set a new bar for custom IEM performance.
The Roxanne--JH Audio's newest flagship--incorporates all of Jerry Harvey's current best technologies and knowhow, including Freqphase time alignment (assuring all frequencies reach the ear within 1/100 of a millisecond of each other), SoundriVe technology (quad low, quad mid, and quad high balanced armatures per side, for a total of 12 drivers per side), and user-controlled low frequency drivers that allow bass adjustment (between 10Hz and 100Hz) from flat to +15dB. The Roxanne is three-way design.
Something very unique about the Roxanne--that I can't imagine has any effect at all on sound--is the fact that you can order it with solid carbon fiber earpieces. It's a $500 add-on, and it looks absolutely stunning, especially if (like me) you're into carbon fiber. Carbon fiber faceplates are a common option in the custom IEM world--solid carbon fiber earpieces are not (and nobody else currently does it). How they do it is not something JH Audio is likely to discuss or describe any time soon.
The Roxanne also comes with a carbon fiber and billet aluminum case that is the nicest IEM case I've yet seen. Inside the case is an earpiece holder that has negative impressions of your Roxanne earpieces for easy placement and storage--very unique, very useful.
As for its sound, to describe the Roxanne's tonal balance is challenging, because it can be adjusted so widely in the bass region. It can be my neutral reference; it can be similar (tonally) to my JH13 Pro Freqphase; or it can be something like a JH16 Pro, depending on how I choose to set the Roxanne's bass. And adjusting the Roxanne's bass had absolutely no effect on the mids that I could hear.
The Roxanne's imaging is remarkable--the best I've experienced from any kind of in-ear headphone. For an IEM, the image the Roxanne throws is very wide, very spacious; and sonic image objects within the soundstage are very precisely placed. Anyone who's had a conversation with Jerry Harvey knows how important imaging is to him, so it's no coincidence the effort that goes into it and the sonic results.
Simply put, the JH Audio Sirens Series Roxanne is one of the best headphones I've heard, regardless of form factor.
It was a bold move by HiFiMAN to discontinue all their previous in-ear headphones with the release of the new RE-400--several of the now-legacy HiFiMAN in-ear models had diehard fans. HiFiMAN's founder Dr. Fang Bian has stated in an interview that the HiFiMAN RE-400 is a better sounding in-ear than any of the legacy models, and I wholeheartedly agree. In my opinion, the legacy line had models that were unique and specialized, and HiFiMAN needed to release more balanced, stronger overall performers. The RE-400 is an amazing start, and, to my ears, it is one of the best sub-$100 IEMs currently available.
It's not just the sound signature that HiFiMAN has made more universally appealing, but the form factor. Some of the models in the legacy lineup were made in strange shapes that I often had to explain to the uninitiated as I handed them over to listen to--anyone here remember the RE252? The RE-400 has a very classically designed metal chassis that I find more ergonomic, more comfortable, and certainly easier for me to insert than previous HiFiMAN in-ears have been. The satin metal endcap over what looks to me like a bead-blasted aluminum main housing makes for a very understated, timeless design.
The RE-400 uses an 8.5mm dynamic driver with a titanium diaphragm and neodymium magnet. Cabling is OFC (oxygen free copper), and is very light and flexible. Actually, the entire RE-400 feels light in weight, both in the hands, and, more importantly, when worn.
On my wishlist for the RE-400 are a carrying case (it doesn't come with one), and perhaps a version with an inline remote/mic on the cable. Though the RE-400 can benefit from a nice portable amp, it still sounds excellent driven directly from my mobile phones, too, so having the convenience of an inline remote/mic would be a nice option.
Because some of the past HiFiMAN models tended toward bass-light signatures, the RE-400's move to a more neutral balance actually represents a mild lift in bass in comparison to some of its popular HiFiMAN predecessors. And, to me, the RE-400 has a balance that is fairly described as neutral, and not just in comparison to legacy HiFiMAN in-ears, but in general.
From its well-extended bass to its well-extended treble--and everywhere in between--there's no sense of frequency response hotspots or deficiencies with the RE-400. Some prefer emphasis in bass, some like subdued treble, some like boosted mids, and, for all those people who like substantial deviations from flat, the RE-400 might disappoint. Those who'll love its tonal balance are those who like to listen for extended periods, and those who tend to prefer a perceived flat frequency response. For me, the RE-400 never fatigues, and that's a big deal, especially for something that's reasonably detailed across the spectrum, and is priced at under $100.
The HiFiMAN RE-400 is the first in a new line of in-ears from HiFiMAN, and, again, something I think is a big step in the right direction. Bravo, HiFiMAN! Keep 'em coming!
I can think of nothing else in the price range that has such smooth, transparent sound, and still remains engaging. Add in the quality build, excellent fit, and well-proven history of customer support, and it seems like an easy recommendation. HiFiMAN does it again!
A couple of years ago a pair of gentlemen, Danny and Desmond from Singapore approached me at one of the Tokyo Headphone festivals to ask if I’d try a pair of high-end in-ear monitors they were preparing to manufacture. Round, like a large pill, with an nozzle exiting at 45 degrees to one side, they fitted simply and sounded good enough with my current variety of music types that I said I’d take them on the spot as they were. Not only was it unusual to find a prototype of an upcoming product from a new company that seemed to get it right, but also to meet two people whom, with everything they spoke, were completely sensible with an excellent attitude.
DITA Audio’s The Answer is a pair of IEMs with an incredible attention to detail, all the way from the beautifully milled aluminium right down to the carefully chosen plug. Even more so is the box they come in, where the IEMs are beautifully fitted into a large foam cut-out, along with their accessories in the manner of jewellery. They also come with not one, but two different cases.
Unusually for a pair of high-end IEMs is that the cable is permanently attached and, especially in the case of the more expensive Truth Edition, the guys have gone to a lot of trouble to ensure that it is robust and will last a long time. The cable for the more expensive Truth Edition is designed by Van Den Hul using their 3T technology, which is designed to be mechanically reliable even when wound tightly, as well as better sounding. While very rubbery and springy, the Truth cable is very comfortable to wear, even with the choke piece pulled up. What is more, it is completely silent, not transferring movement noise to your ears.
Not surprisingly, the best part about The Answer IEMs is the sound. I’ve had the chance to use a pair for some months, and while they did need some hours of use for the drivers to break in, afterwards the sound is both detailed in the mids and highs while delivering just the right amount of bass to be good all-rounders. As they use a single dynamic driver, phase issues are non-existent and the overall response at all frequencies is excellent, including the trademark punchy bass one gets from dynamic drivers. The Answer comes with three nozzle-sizes of tips allowing fine-tuning of the sound, allowing you some degree of adjustment of the balance between the lows and highs to taste.
Overall, The Answer, especially the Truth Edition, is an expensive pair of IEMs, but compared to the cost of other top-of-the-line universals, especially after paying for an extra, high quality cable to replace the stock cable in some cases, they are quite competitive given their outstanding quality, unique and thoughtful design and great sound.
I think it's fair to say that when it comes to taking chances and innovating in terms of acoustic design--that is, what goes on inside the earpieces--Jerry Harvey of Jerry Harvey Audio (or JH Audio) pushes the hardest.
To the best of my knowledge, Jerry was the first to do dual-stacked armature drivers--as in dual-low, dual-mid, and dual-high configurations. To the best of my knowledge, he was also the first to do quad-stacked armatures. In fact, he was recently granted a patent for his invention of the dual high-frequency canalphone system. Jerry was the first to implement active crossovers for in-ear monitors, and is the inventor on the patent for that. With his JH-3A, he developed what he calls the inverse active crossover, for which I believe he has a patent pending. He has a notice of allowance on his patent for the Freqphase waveguide, which was designed to time- and phase-align driver output in multi-armature in-ears. Again, I can't think of anyone in the industry who pushes acoustic engineering development with in-ears to the degree that Jerry Harvey has in the past several years.
Last year, in partnership with Astell&Kern, JH Audio introduced two new universal-fit in-ear monitor models that expanded his Siren Series line. For those of you not familiar with the Siren Series, it's a growing family of in-ears from Jerry Harvey Audio that are named after famous rock songs about women. The first Siren was the Roxanne, introduced in 2013. And last year, Roxanne was joined by Layla--obviously named after the legendary 70's song of the same name by Eric Clapton and his band Derek and the Dominos, and now the current JH Audio flagship. The Layla, today, moves into the flagship position in the JH Audio lineup, ahead of the Roxanne. At the same time, Angie was unveiled, named after the big 1970's hit of the same name by the Rolling Stones.
Again, the Layla is the new JH Audio flagship model. Like the Roxanne, the Layla has 12 drivers per ear in a three-way configuration--quad-low, quad-mid, and quad-high drivers (in each ear). Also, like the Roxanne, the Layla has adjustable bass, achieved by using dual attenuators in-line with the cable. Outside of that, Layla and Roxanne are quite different. Layla has no drivers in common with Roxanne--all were developed specifically for Layla. Layla's crossovers are also different. In other words, Roxanne and Layla have no internals in common. Between Roxanne and Layla, there are different armatures, different crossovers, different dampening.
The Layla was given a different mission statement than any previous Jerry Harvey Audio in-ear monitor. All of the in-ear models made by JH Audio, up to and including the Roxanne, were designed to be live performance pieces--stage monitors. Of course, their signatures have found--and will continue to find--great favor among audiophiles, too. The Layla, on the other hand, was not designed primarily as a live performance monitor, but as JH Audio's first purpose-built reference/mastering monitor.
With all the other JH Audio in-ears I have--including the Roxanne--there's a little warmth in low-mids, a sort of Jerry Harvey signature. To me, when its bass is turned all the way down, the Roxanne is one of my reference headphones, regardless of form factor. With its bass all the way down, the Roxanne has a neutral-ish sound signature, enough so that I've used them for monitoring during Chesky Records recording sessions. With the Layla, however, Jerry was shooting for truly flat response (with the controls dialed down)--flat from end to end.
To accomplish what he was after with the Layla, Jerry designed all-new drivers. These new drivers required steeper crossover slopes than usual to achieve the goal of voicing a reference/mastering monitor, and so the Layla (and the Angie) are, to the best of my knowledge, the first in-ear monitors to use the steeper, more complex 4th-order type crossovers.
Compared to the Roxanne--and owing to its new drivers and steeper crossovers--the Layla has what I would call much more truly usable versatility than the Roxanne. Whereas the Roxanne, with its bass turned down is, once again, neutral-ish to my ears, the Layla sounds dead flat. In fact, with its bass turned down, the Layla might be dry for some--and dry is something that, to my ears, the Roxanne never is or can be, even with its bass all the way down. To be clear, I don't mean this in any way as a negative with the Layla--in fact, I really like having the option for that leaner, flatter, dryer presence, if only for use as a sonic palate cleanser.
Again, to me, the Layla is a much more versatile piece. Whereas I keep my Roxanne's bass all the way down most of the time--with the occasional bass knob turn to no higher than around 11 o'lock, I actually occasionally turn the Layla's bass all the way up, and hardly ever turn it all the way down--in its lowest position, it's just a bit dry and lean for me for general listening. What I love is that with a slight turn, the leaner, dry character simply transforms into something else completely, with, again, usable bass with the potentiometer wide open--yes, it's certainly bassier than neutral with the bass knob wide open, but it's substantially cleaner and tauter than the Roxanne wide open. Frankly, the Roxanne's bass wide open is a place I never go--it's simply too much, too heavy, probably even for the bassier bassheads among us. Again, not so with the Layla. The Layla's entire bass knob range is usable for me, and, unlike the Roxanne, again, I rarely have it down all the way. I find myself right around 12 o'clock on the bass control knobs a lot of the time with the Layla, occasionally just a hair down from there, and occasionally even up from there. Again, the Layla is super-versatile that way.
As far as imaging goes, the Layla is at least the equal of the Roxanne. I suspect, as with the Roxanne, it's with the use of Freqphase and the efforts JH Audio puts into time- and phase correctness that results in this.
I never thought it possible that I'd like a universal-fit monitor more than my custom Roxanne, but the Layla universal-fit has proven it possible. It's absolutely fantastic, and, again, fantastically versatile.
As for the Angie, it is truly the Layla's little sister, using the same drivers. However, whereas the Layla has a trio of quad drivers per ear (for a total of 12 drivers per ear), the Angie has a dual-low, dual-mid, quad-high configuration (for a total of eight drivers per ear). The Angie certainly has more in common, in terms of its sound signature, with the Layla than it does any other Jerry Harvey piece. Versus the Layla, the Angie isn't as capable of richness throughout its adjustment range, which can occasionally bring a bit more focus on vocals, for example. It's very versatile, yes, but not at the level the Layla is.
With the bass turned all the way down, the Angie, even more than the Layla, is too dry for me for general listening, and so I rarely ever listen to it there. Again, like the Layla, though, turning it up transforms it, wiping out the dryness and leanness for me. With its lower total bass output, versus the Layla--and even less relative to the Roxanne--I actually find myself going well past the halfway point most of the time on the Angie's bass control, and actually turn it all the way up rather routinely. Again, this is something I would never ever do on the Roxanne. It's not just the Angie's lower total bass output, but also the way the steeper crossovers and drivers work, that give it some of Layla's versatility.
The Angie is a great taste of Layla, and might be, in my opinion, the best value in the entire Jerry Harvey lineup right now, given where it's priced in the JH Audio lineup. After having used both the Layla and Angie for several months, I know for certain I'd take the Layla over my Roxanne; but the Roxanne still edges out the Angie for me, for the richness that the Roxanne has on tap. If you're a studio type, I'd imagine that you'd find either the Layla or Angie more suited than the Roxanne to mix down on in the studio.
As for criticisms of the Layla and Angie, my only issue with these pieces is that, like the Roxanne universal-fit, they are on the larger side for universal-fit earphones. I have both the custom and universal-fit Roxannes here at the moment, and the custom definitely sits more flush in my ear than the universal Roxanne, which sticks out a bit. Like the Roxanne universal, both the Layla and Angie universal-fit models also stick out a bit, with the Layla being slightly larger than the Roxanne universal and Angie. I can easily get a good fit with them, but neither is as comfortable to wear as my custom Roxanne is when laying my head down on its side with the pieces in.
Like the Roxanne universal-fit, the Layla and the Angie are hand-crafted, one at a time. There's very little difference between how JH Audio builds a custom and how they build the universals. The Layla's shells are solid, hand-laid-up carbon fiber, with titanium bezels hand-burnt with a torch, to give the titanium unique color variations. As the titanium bezel wears, it may change colors, for even more individuality. The Layla comes with a custom full carbon fiber and black aluminum carrying case, and is priced at $2499.00.
The Angie has a red and black fiber shell with a carbon fiber logo insert, and I believe its bezel is made of machined aluminum. Angie comes with a machined aluminum, laser-engraved red case, and is priced at $1099.00.
Both the Layla and the Angie universals come with a standard 3.5mm-terminated cable, and a balanced four-pole 2.5mm cable to take advantage of the balanced outputs of Astell&Kern's latest generation of high-res portable players.
With the Roxanne universal (called the Astell&Kern AKR03) currently priced at $1499, you have to jump up to $2499 to clearly better it with the Layla, and that's a big price jump. For those who have the budget for that kind of price, I have a feeling the Layla will be very popular, even after a short audition.
At $1099, I think the Angie is perhaps the strongest value of all the JH pieces, and I actually can't think of a universal at this price that can match its total performance, especially if studio use is on the agenda, or if you just prefer studio monitor sound. I predict the Angie may end up being Jerry Harvey Audio's biggest seller in time.
The V-MODA Zn is the first new in-ear headphone from V-MODA in four years. The earpieces may look like the previous V-MODA Vibrato--continuing with the design that still reminds me of a metalized ball-and-claw foot you might find at the end of a cabriole leg on some sinister piece of fantasy furniture--but inside, the Zn is new, and sounds new. The driver is still a single 8mm dynamic in each ear, and the nominal impedance still 16Ω, but the driver as newly tuned with the goals of increasing accuracy, improving frequency response, and lowering distortion.
The Zn is, to my ears, the most balanced of V-MODA's headphones--the one most likely to appeal to audiophile tastes. All V-MODA headphones have some amount, some type of bass emphasis--it wouldn't be a V-MODA if it didn't. From one V-MODA model to another, the characteristics of the bass lift changes, but there's always at least a little (and, with some models, a lot). The Zn's level of bass emphasis is along the lines of the V-MODA XS, which is to say the mildest of the lot. I also think it's the best implemented, in terms of the "shape" of it. To my ears, it slopes down fast enough to give a nice, fast, mild kick to upper bass, but also enough to spare the lower mids from associated bloat.
The Zn's midrange isn't quite as meaty as its lower registers, but, even in the face of its stronger bass, the Zn's midrange has nice presence and clarity, never wilting in contrast. In terms of treble, I'm very happy with the refinements V-MODA has tune into the Zn. Whereas the Vibrato would occasionally tend toward mid-treble hardness, the Zn's treble is smooth and refined. Treble extension is good, but I wouldn't turn away a touch more shimmer and extension either.
I also like the physical refinements they've made with the Zn. They've gone from a gloss black to a matte black finish that looks both more refined and more sinister. The've gone from a tangle-prone cloth-covered cable on the Vibrato to something they're calling a DiamondBack TangleFree cable on the Zn. It has a smooth sheath, and looks to be reinforced with a fibrous material criss-crossing the sheathing--its appearance reminds me of the Sennheiser IE 800's cable. Whatever qualities they've given it to make it tangle-free work very well. Even wrapped up in a ball, the tangles simply fall out when I pick the Zn up--very nice!
There are two versions of the Zn, one with a 3-button iOS cable, and one with a one-button Android cable. The Zn's in-line SpeakEasy Remote Mic works very well, and the people I've talked to with it say my voice sounds very clear.
The V-MODA Zn also comes with four different sizes of eartips, and couple of ear hooks that help keep the Zn secure during rigorous activities. The included carrying case is a carryover from the Vibrato, a small synthetic leather pouch with barely enough room to squeeze the Zn into--you can get it in there, but it's quite snug.
Again, of all the V-MODA headphones, the Zn is my sonic favorite, in terms of its overall balance and refinement. At its price point of only $180, there's a lot of competition, but this in-ear bears the years of experience that V-MODA now brings to the table, and sonically performs at a level higher than its price suggests.
Shortly before IFA 2014, RHA began to tease the community about a new flagship in-ear monitor, known only as the T10i. And while details were scant, we knew right away that it would be something special. We knew this because RHA has never teased us, about anything, ever. In the past, they have always released comprehensive product info (complete with gorgeous photography) months before anything hit the shelves. But this time, all they gave us were some textbook examples of photographic chiaroscuro.
Not surprisingly, the anticipation and speculation started to build fairly rapidly, due in part to the success of their previous flagship, the MA750i. Its non-offensive sound signature, rugged build and ample accessories represented a superb value, as it quickly became a Head-Fi favorite. It was clear that this new T10i had much to live up to, and we Head-Fiers were all too keen to imagine exactly how it would go about doing so.
Before long, answers arrived. First up was rasmushorn with his IFA-based impressions. Then, dweaver chimed in with his early impressions. When this was followed by positive reviews from Audiophile1811 and shotgunshane, we knew we had something substantive, something special.
Featuring an injection-molded metal exo-skeleton, a filter-based sound signature tuning system, newly designed patent-pending ear guides, as well as numerous other improvements, the T10i proved to be a significant leap forward in RHA's continuing evolution. Factoring in their generous tip selection, their industry-leading 3-year warranty, and their exemplary customer service - along with a very reasonable suggested retail price of only $199 USD - and it was clear that the T10i was well on its way towards becoming another instant classic.
Injection-Molded Metal Exo-Skeleton
New to the T10i, and IEMs in general, is the use of injection-molded metal construction. This grants the T10i a very soft and sculpted appearance, one full of curves and devoid of right angles, for an almost organic look and feel - all without accruing costly CNC-time during its manufacture. However, as RHA giveth, RHA seemingly taketh away: the T10i does not appear to employ RHA's Aerophonic™ design in its construction. While it's possible that the inverted horn is implemented internally, there's no external trace of it.
Filter-Based Sound Signature Tuning System
The T10i comes with three sets of tuning filters: Bass, Reference and Treble. Each of which imparts a very unique tonal character to T10i, essentially making it three IEMs in one.
The Bass filters, combined with the T10i's well-endowed bass ports, result in a potent low frequency response that sounds like there are additional bass drivers at work. And while they bring some increased sub-bass to the table, their true party trick is an extremely pronounced mid-bass hump. Personally, I did not find the Bass filters to my liking, and consider them to be an exaggeration, a caricature if you will, of RHA's house sound. However, I can imagine that more than a few basshead Head-Fiers would love them to death - a testament to their effectiveness.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Treble filters do a very respectable job of allowing more upper mids and highs to pass through, while also taming the T10i's bass response significantly. The Treble filters also cull forth mid-range detail to an astonishing degree, especially with respect to vocals. The only downside to the Treble filters is their tendency to allow some occasional stridency and sibilance to come through, particularly with troublesome recordings.
The middle of this road takes us straight to the T10i's Reference filters. And while they are still quite warm and bass-laden, they do offer us a pleasant and musical presentation that is quite enjoyable. Sub-bass output is probably the best of the three filters, being soft-spoken and yet undeniably felt with good gravitas and extension. The bass is accentuated and weighty, akin to the type of bass favored by many 2-channel speaker fanatics. The mids are surprisingly pleasant, being neither offensively recessed nor irritatingly forward. They rest comfortably in the hammock that is RHA's u-shaped house sound. As for treble, the T10 favors a rise in the upper mids over tapering highs. This makes for some lively percussion, at the expense of airiness.
I suspect that most Head-Fiers will find themselves torn between the Reference and Treble filters, depending on their genre preferences. As for myself, I use both of those filters, favoring the Reference filter over the Treble filter in a 60/40 split, and eschew the Bass filter entirely.
Newly Designed Patent-Pending Ear Guides
Unlike the MA750's ear guides - which were essentially stiffened sections of cable that favored durability over pliability - the T10i's ear guides feature a coiled spring consisting of small gauge memory-wire. As such, they are easier to bend into shape. And once set, they retain that shape without fuss or resistance. For us, the means that we get a more comfortable - and more secure - fit.
Taken altogether, the T10i's rich feature set again raises the bar in what we can expect for our hard-earned money.
In various conversations with Lewis Heath (co-founder and lead designer at RHA) over the years, I have come to realize that he is very much concerned with value... in that a thing, any thing, should offer a level of satisfaction commensurate with the price one paid for said thing. For him, achieving a respectable level of value is a key tenet of his design philosophy. The RHA T10i is certainly no exception to this rule.
Its filter-based tuning system allows those that are new to Head-Fi - i.e. average consumers - to begin exploring better quality sound, without having to upgrade too quickly. They can begin with the T10i's Bass filters, using them as a crutch, while they wean themselves over from whatever bassy, consumer-oriented unit they are currently using. Then, at their convenience and leisure, they can explore increasing levels of fidelity with the T10i's Reference and Treble filters - all without having to re-invest in a new IEM just for the sake of trying out a different sound signature. And thanks to RHA's outstanding build quality and long-standing 3-year warranty, they'll also have plenty of time to do all of the above, without having to worry about premature failure.
The RHA T10i is a miniature Head-Fi journey in and of itself, and that is a very real value
...the RHA T10i definitely has a tilt towards the warmer side, but with diligent usage of filters you can change its nature to suit your music. So, no matter if you listen to classical or techno, the T10 will perform admirably in all situations with just a switch of its filters.
FitEar is a name likely unfamiliar to many in the Head-Fi community, but those who recognize the moniker know it carries an air of exclusivity. FitEar is a Japanese manufacturer of high-end in-ear monitors, and while it’s abnormally arduous to get a pair of their custom designs outside of Japan (read: virtually impossible unless you have one of the rare, licensed retailers nearby) there are a few universal fit models that can be tracked down by the determined music lover. The FitEar fitear is one of the more elusive gems.
The construction is solid, and when I say that I almost mean it literally. FitEar is the only brand I know that completely fills the shell with acrylic when building an IEM. The result is a rigid housing, one that can handily deal with the bumps and bangs of everyday life. Getting a seal can be a bit finicky at times, but once it’s set the shape is very comfortable in the ear. The fitear is hands down one of the best built IEMs I’ve ever handled.
The attention to build quality doesn’t stop there. FitEar uses a proprietary connector that is thicker and more robust than the common 2-pin IEM cable. To my eyes it more closely resembles the connector found on Sennheiser’s 600 series headphones. It’s evident that the connector was selected because it’s solid and will hold up to the stresses of daily wear better than most IEM cables.
Buying a FitEar is an investment for many buyers, and it’s reassuring to see so much attention go into the construction and materials, ensuring the products will last.
Sonically, the FitEar fitear is an IEM that would appeal to many. It has a speedy low end with a mild mid-bass hump that doesn’t go overboard, a neutral midrange and a smooth, almost relaxed top end. Many of the Japanese and Korean recordings I own are mastered with forward upper mids and highs to emphasize the vocalist. Those tracks are often a perfect match for the fitear.
It may have a sound signature that caters to many listeners in the Southeast Asian markets, but it’s a shame that the fitear is so difficult to find outside of Japan. It isn’t exclusively limited to Asian pop tunes; the voicing works with music from around the globe: a capella, blues, EDM, metal, punk and ska... the list goes on. The two main reasons it’s so challenging to get one are because they’re made to order - just like FitEar’s custom IEMs - and the distribution network is miniscule.
Therefore if you have the chance to demo a FitEar fitear, do yourself a favor and give them a listen; you might not find another opportunity.