Focal's Nicolas Debard stopped by Head-Fi's office from France for a visit, and brought with him an in-ear headphone that hadn't yet been released: The Focal Sphear. As a fan of Focal's loudspeakers and over-ear headphones, I was excited to hear what Focal's first IEM had to offer. Like their first over-ears (the Focal Spirit One), the Sphear might be reasonably be called a departure from what one might expect from Focal, their reputation being rooted mainly in very high-end loudspeakers.
While I do hope that Focal does make some upmarket headphone moves in the future, I've been having a lot of fun with the Sphear, because it's...well..fun. Even before I listened to the Sphear, I was smitten with its mildly whimsical spherical shape that's combined with some high-quality details and build for the price. The back of the Sphear is capped by a brushed stainless steel face plate with what looks to be a laser-cut logo behind which is a cool-looking metal mesh (which I'll get back to in a minute). The beveled edge of the face plate has "FOCAL" handsomely laser-etched on it. As far as universal-fit in-ears go, the Sphear is an attractive little piece.
The Sphear also fits my average-sized, average-shaped ears very well, settling into place (with silicon tips) as quickly and easily as any other universal-fit IEM we have here. Its fit in my ears is secure, too, and walking briskly with them in my ears has never jarred them loose. All that said, the Sphear is a slightly stubby design, so I have to imagine that for some ear shapes it might not be ideal--if your ears are generally more the exception than the rule (as in a lot of in-ears don't fit you well), then I'd suggest trying them on if possible first, and/or buying them from some place friendly bout returns.
In terms of sound, the Sphear's bass reflex design (which is what those metal screens behind the logo appear to be covering the outer ports for) leads to one of the sonic traits that perhaps defines its sonic personality. As Focal says, the Sphear's bass reflex design contributes to the bass level on Sphear being "slightly increased for mobile use in noisy environments." I'd describe the Sphear's low-mid bass to be a shade more than slightly increased (at least relative to neutral), but it's powerful and taut. The bass control is such that even bass-heavy music actually sounds good though the Sphear. If you're a bass-head, it may not be enough of a boost--if you insist on perfect neutrality, it may be too much.
The Sphear's midrange is detailed, with a more neutral presence than the bass, and I was happy to find the bass emphasis doesn't intrude into the lower mids. Listening to Nat King Cole and Kurt Elling, the Sphear carves clearly around their beautiful voices without etch or unnatural edge--it's clarity nicely executed, plain and simple. The Sphear's treble has nice presence, more spotlit than flat, but, as with its bass, not overly so to my ears. Like many Head-Fi'ers, I'm quite sensitive to headphones that highlight sibilants, and the Sphear's crisp treble thankfully stops shy of that.
The Sphear's isolation is good, not great, perhaps due to its ported bass-reflex design. To be clear, the Sphear does isolate, but just not at the level I get from, say, my Westones or Shures.
The Sphear comes with a very nice, very compact zip-around, protective carrying case. Its cable (which I find a bit too long) has an in-line omnidirectional microphone for use with a telephone, and those I've talked to on it have told me that my outgoing voice quality is good, not great. There are no inline volume controls, but there is a nice brushed stainless steel covered large button right at the Y-split that allows you to take/receive calls, pause/play music, and go to the next and previous tracks (and is compatible with iOS and Android).
On balance, the Focal Sphear has a fun, resolving sound signature--and its brand of fun and fidelity is the kind that plays well either on-the-go or even just for general listening at home or in the office. Again, I find the Focal Sphear comfortable, too. With an MSRP of only $179, I'm surprised this IEM isn't talked about by more people in our forums, for all it offers at that price.
The Focal Sphear can easily be described as having a premium, warm sound signature. While not the most analytical in its presentation, it clearly is a quality sound that is more for extended listening.
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If you meet Karl Cartwright of Westone, you know he's a modest man who quietly goes about his business of making some of the best in-ear monitors in the world. Karl worked with Jerry Harvey at the very beginning of the development of balanced-armature-based in-ear stage monitors as we know them today. In my opinion, his decades of experience puts him in a select group of people working at the very top of this field.
At CanJam @ RMAF 2015, I was asked to participate in a panel in which we would compare and discuss the differences between a high-end loudspeaker-driving system and a high-end, portable custom-IEM-driving system. While the rest of the panel members were doing what they were supposed to be doing (comparing the in-ears to the loudspeakers), all I could think of was how fantastic the Westone ES60 was (the ES60 was the custom IEM being used in the comparison). Yes, the speaker-driving system in the comparison was excellent too, but the overriding thought on my mind was wondering how on earth the ES60 had been announced nearly two years ago--was thisgood--and yet somehow slipped under my radar.
I already had the previous Westone flagship--the Westone ES50 (which is still available)--so when I was contacted about the panel and they said they wanted to fit me with the ES60, I told them I was already all set with the ES50. "I think you will notice a big difference between the ES60's and your ES50's," Matt from Westone responded. It turns out Matt has a certain flair for the art of understatement.
My previous two Westone custom IEMs tended toward a lusher sound, with more emphasized bass, some midrange bloom, and smooth (somewhat subdued) treble. Overall resolution with my older Westones was very good, but some of the newer flagships I've heard could out-resolve my previous Westones (though usually at higher prices, too).
The Westone ES60, however, is the best I've yet heard from Westone. With the Westone ES60, Karl and his team went with six drivers per ear, employed a multistage three-way crossover design, and carefully R&D'd and tuned the ES60 into something more neutral than I was expecting. What I was expecting was perhaps something like a next-gen ES50, but the ES60 turns out to be a different Westone breed altogether. The ES60's tonal balance is weightier than my perceived-flat reference (currently the Ultimate Ears UERM). Outside of that direct comparison to as neutral a headphone as I've yet heard (the UERM), the ES60 is still something I'd describe as generally neutral, and more in line with my general tonal preferences.
Relative to the ES50, the Westone ES60's bass, though still powerful, is less emphasized and clearly faster and more resolving. Perhaps it's the difference in the balance relative to the bass (versus the ES50), or maybe it's re-tuned mids--or both--but the ES60's mids seem livelier to me, more present on balance, and more detailed. The ES60's treble is more energetic with the ES60, and still without any artificial edge.
One of my imaging standards is the album From The Mountaintop by The New Appalachians, in large part because I was actually in the acoustic during the recording of this album, so I remember vividly where the performers were, and how their sound enveloped me. When I close my eyes, the ES60 more accurately conveys the performers' positions as I recall them. In fact, it's not just against its sibling that it excels here, but relative to all but a couple of other in-ears that come to mind, both of which are substantially more expensive than the ES60.
Of course, one thing Westone has had in its corner that I've been a fan of for years is their Flex Canal earpiece canal, made of body temperature-reactive, semisoft material that allows the canal portion of the earpiece to remain firm at room temperature and then soften at body temperature. (Only the canal portion is made of this material--the rest is acrylic.) I find their Flex Canal earpieces to be more comfortable, and better isolating than solid acrylic canals. One downside, however, is that the material is a bit more grippy, so the earpieces need to be wiggled in a little more than with acrylic (and some people may need an ear canal lubricant, which the Westone ES60 comes with).
Not only is the Westone ES60 the best Westone I've heard, it is among best IEMs I've yet heard, when it comes to accuracy, overall resolution, and imaging. Again, off the top of my head, I can think of only a couple of IEMs I'd say play at a tier above the ES60, and none at the ES60's price. Karl Cartwright and the team at Westone have upped their game with their Westone ES60. It's a piece we should be talking about a lot more than we have been.
...based on everything I have reviewed so far, ES60 is definitely among the best I heard.
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At the 2015 Spring Tokyo Fujiya Avic Headphone Festival I had the pleasure of meeting Lyndsey from Reid Heath Acoustics (RHA) and talking to her about their new T20i IEMs. Lyndsey was insistent that I try the new models, and I almost forgot to, with the overwhelming number of products I was busy trying and photographing. On a Sunday afternoon at the end of the show is the hardest time to impress me after all that has been seen and heard, but the T20i's didn't disappoint. Featuring an injection-moulded steel casing and a unique dual-voice-coil dynamic driver the result is an incredibly punchy and fun sound with great, subwoofer-like bass.
The well-designed package includes not only a good selection of tips (in an aluminium plate no less!) but additional “Treble” and “Bass” filters allowing a degree of custom sound tuning, each respectively boosting their ends of the spectrum slightly. The default “Reference” tips give a presentation still with a considerable amount of bass and the highs slightly, but not excessively rolled off. The treble filter brings out the frequencies noticeably in the 5-10 kHz range, very often the upper notes of acoustic instruments. That leaves the mid range a little bit behind, along the lines of full-sized headphones such as the Foxtex TH600s and TH900s. Initially sounding a bit harsh out of the box, after a few dozen hours of use vocals and instruments by themselves are wonderfully presented through the mid-range and the treble.
This is part due to the clever, and unique driver. Where a normal dynamic driver has one voice coil, the driver in the T20i has two, the inner coil producing the bass and lower mid-range and the outer coil producing the upper-mid-range and treble. RHA has also taken pains to ensure that the cable does not transfer noise to the earphones themselves. While thicker than regular IEM cables, it feels more robust and I didn't find it uncomfortable, even with glasses on. The last 4 or so inches of cable is pre-shaped for comfort, and a choker is attached to the cable allowing it to be held comfortably in place under the chin. Topping it off is a shirt clip and a neat carrying case with space for spare tips and straps for the cable.
For under US$300 (£179.95) is a quality product from this company from Scotland which is sure to gain a lot of fans with the quality presentation and very good, if somewhat warm-of-neutral sound.
Audeze iSINE (pre-production impressions, subject to change)
We had a chance to listen to pre-production versions of Audeze's iSINE full-range planar magnetic in-ear headphones, and they were phenomenally impressive. We wouldn't normally include pre-production products in the Guide, but since we heard what we were told were production-voiced prototypes, we're making an exception (with impressions subject to change).
Simply looking at photos of the new iSINE models immediately reveals these are strange, unique designs. The large part of the iSINE's body houses a miniaturized full-range planar magnetic driver that uses technologies that they've incorporated into their current line of full-size headphones. However, while it's a miniaturized take on full-size headphone drivers, the diaphragm has a gigantic radiating surface area for an in-ear headphone. To channel that large planar wave to the eartip, Audeze developed a carefully designed waveguide structure inside the sound port to improve phase, frequency response, and reduce diffraction, resulting in improved acoustic loading, improved reflection characteristics, and decreased distortion. Audeze posted distortion plots on Head-Fi's forums that show the iSINE's vanishingly low distortion, even at ear-bleedingly high sound pressure levels.
The sound from the Audeze iSINE prototypes we heard was effortless, with deep, extended bass extension, very even-tuned midrange, and treble extension for miles. The sound presentation is not that of your typical in-ear monitors--the iSINE is a semi-open design, and it sounds more like an open-back over-ear headphone to me than an in-ear, no doubt owing to that semi-open design and those large-surface-area diaphragms. It presents with an airy image that breathes much more freely than closed in-ears. If you're not in need of a closed, isolating in-ear monitor, the Audeze iSINE easily ranks as among the very best sounding in-ear headphones we've heard.
To me, the iSINE is essentially a pocket-sized full-size semi-open headphone. I listened to the iSINE mostly directly from my iPhone 7 Plus using the Audeze Cipher Lightning cable. I experimented with the Audeze iOS app's equalizer, and the iSINE responded extremely well to EQ'ing.
The first iSINE models will be the iSINE 10 ($399) and the iSINE 20 ($599). I believe there will be an ultra-high-end version, too.
Once we have a chance to hear fully production versions of the models, we'll update the Guide accordingly.
One question that frequently comes up on the forums is "what’s the best in-ear for $XX?" One of the most common prices for this question is $50. There are several IEMs around $50 that I adore and would occasionally recommend - like the RHA S500 or 1MORE iBFree - but they are always conditional recommendations. I‘ve never had a go-to IEM that I felt would connect with a large number of music lovers; until now.
The final E2000 is an IEM that I call "balanced, with a bit of fun." It doesn’t have an aggressive V-shaped signature that’s currently popular in the commercial market, and it doesn’t have the flat, reference signature that many audiophiles seek. To my ears, it falls in between. There’s a dash of elevated bass, and a touch of emphasis in the treble to give it a more energetic sound. The midrange is mildly reserved in comparison.
Those who love strong bass emphasis will likely be left wanting more from the E2000, and those who relish a lean, monitor-like sound may find it too fun. The E2000 is also not for anyone who prefer a well-bodied mid-forward signature. It doesn’t have the extension that you’ll find on some of the more expensive in-ears, either. That’s great, because it isn’t trying to pass itself any of those things.
It’s not uncommon for me to experience fit issues with universal IEMs, but the final E2000 is a comfortable in-ear that seals easily. Those who usually have trouble finding their fit will likely appreciate final’s new tip design. It’s a similar idea to, but a different execution from, the SpinFit eartips. These highly flexible tips sit at the end of a fairly short, and reasonably narrow enclosure that houses a single 6.54mm dynamic driver. It’s not the most compact universal IEM I’ve come across (take a look at final’s F-series IEMs for an example of a slender IEM), but thanks to the reasonable size and those new tips, it takes little effort to get a proper seating.
When you look at the back of the housing, it‘s apparent that the E2000 is not a completely sealed IEM. With this IEM Final went with a semi-open design instead. This helps add a sense of air and spaciousness to the sound, but it also means that some outside noise will mix with your music. If isolation is critical, you should look for another IEM. I listened to these on the flight to CanJam @ Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2017, and while I was able to hear the music well enough, it wasn’t close to the blackened isolation you find when listening to something like the Etymotic ER4XR.
The final E2000 has a fun sound signature that doesn’t go wild. It’s comfortable, and it won’t break the wallet. I’ve enjoyed it so much, that is has become my daily carry IEM. So why is it also my go-to recommendation for a budget-friendly IEM? The answer is simple: it resonates with a wide audience. It has certainly resonated strongly with me.
I thought I was aware of all the top custom-fit IEM makers. On a trip to Tokyo, however, the gentlemen at Fujiya Avic (a store every Tokyo-bound Head-Fi'er must visit) asked me to listen to a demo model of the FitEar MH334. To say the least, I was impressed with what I heard. The next day, at the Tokyo Headphone Festival (which is put on by Fujiya Avic), I was fitted for my very own custom MH334. When it arrived, the build quality was the first thing I noticed, including the flawless bubble-free transparent main earpiece bodies and the well-dressed internal wiring.
Wearing the MH334 revealed the best isolating custom-fit IEM I've yet used. I don't know if its particularly outstanding isolation is due to a perfect fit, something specific to the MH334's construction, or both. And the sound! Voiced by one of Japan's top mastering engineers, the four-drivers-per-side MH334 is the best-sounding IEM I have heard driven straight from my iPhone 4S (compared to others driven similarly), a nearly perfect blend of revealing and smooth, impactful and balanced. I'm looking forward to also using it in a wide variety of externally-amped portable rigs.
Currently available only direct from FitEar, the only negative I've got for the FitEar MH334 is its price, which, as of this writing, translates to over $1800! I'm hoping FitEar soon finds broader distribution, as they may be poised to shake things up in the custom-fit IEM market, if this MH334 is any indication.
If you listen to most genres, save perhaps for classical music, you will enjoy how the MH334 renders the music in a musical and organic manner: you just close your eyes and enjoy the music. It's very addictive!
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Massdrop x Noble Audio X Universal IEMs
With the Sennheiser x Massdrop HD6XX, Massdrop had their biggest hit so far, with the first 5000 units selling out in minutes, the crush of the traffic crippling their online ordering system. Why? Because a classic over-ear headphone (the Sennheiser HD650) was offered in a new color and slightly different packaging--yet every bit the same headphone otherwise--and priced at only $200. Now, in a partnership with Noble Audio, Massdrop seems to me to be doing something similar for in-ears, with the Massdrop x Noble X Universal IEMs.
The Massdrop x Noble X seems to me like it might be based on the Noble Audio Savant, a popular Noble model that was very recently discontinued, and was priced at $599. When it was released, the Savant was met with strong, positive reviews, many feeling that its more neutral tonal balance (versus, for example, the richer-toned Noble Kaiser 10 model)--combined with excellent resolution--made for a potent value at $599. Noble Audio described the Savant as "perhaps the most subjectively balanced in-ear monitor Dr. John has designed thus far, the Savant is a detail oriented IEM with a solid low-end and clean highs."
Unlike the HD6XX, which is voiced exactly like the pure Sennheiser counterpart it's based on, Massdrop wanted this Noble-co-developed IEM to have its own signature (which I'll get to in a minute). The Massdrop x Noble X, like the Savant, has two balanced armature drivers per side, with a nominal impedance of 30 ohms. It uses Noble's most recent universal-fit construction style, made in California with anodized aluminum faceplates over plastic shells. (The sockets are made in Virginia.)
While it appears to me to be most like the Savant in terms of construction and driver complement, in voicing the Massdrop x Noble X, Massdrop drew inspiration from not just the Savant, but also the Savanna and Django models. We've only had the Massdrop x Noble X Universal IEMs for a very short time, but here are my first impressions: The X is most like the Savant, but adds a bit more bass extension, presence, and texture--more fun, meant entirely in the positive. Do I think it sounds better than the Savant? For my tastes, yes--it benefits from the added richness and presence down low.
One thing I'll mention is that the Massdrop x Noble X sample we were sent came with a combination of silicone tips (a couple of different single-dome sizes, and one double-flange type) and foam tips (two different sizes). With any of the included silicone tips (which were the first I tried), the sound was bass-light to me. Then I swapped in the foam tips (I tried both sizes), and the sound fell into place, the bass presence snapped into place, as did the coherency and overall balance. This could be something specific to my ears--and I don't know if the ear tips they sent are final spec--but my first impressions of the sound of the Massdrop x Noble X with either of the foam tips was definitely Savant+ to me, and that's a very good thing, to my ears. (I'll try tip-rolling when I can find some time, but am perfectly happy with the sound of the included foamies for now.)
The Massdrop x Noble X Universal IEMs will come with a 50-inch detachable braided cable, terminated in a gold-plated mini plug. The cable has a very nice shrink-wrapped cable guide just aft of the earpiece plugs (instead of a traditional memory wire), which is very trick, very sleek, and something I think a lot will strongly prefer. The aluminum faceplates have a sharply carved basket-weave design, and its color is midnight blue. (Is it a coincidence it's somewhat similar to the HD6XX's colors? I don't think so.)
The price of the Massdrop x Noble X Universal IEMs is expected to be only $249.99 (shipped in the USA). This, then, is essentially like an improved version of an IEM that was selling for $599 just a very short while ago. Like I said earlier, the Massdrop x Noble X Universal IEM is like the in-ear version of what Massdrop did with the HD6XX.
final Heaven VI
Kanemori Takai is an icon in the Japanese high-end audio scene. The current president and founder of Final Audio Design, Takai-san started Final Audio Design with a line of high-end moving coil phono cartridges and booster transformers back in 1974. Many legendary products have come from Final in the decades since its founding. On Head-Fi, though, their in-ear headphones are popular with some, yet still enigmatic.
I was honored to finally meet Takai-san at the 2013 CanJam @ Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver, and even more honored when he asked me to try one of his latest creations at the time, his Final Audio Design Heaven VI in-ear monitor.
With a single balanced armature driver per ear, the Heaven VI is unusual at its price point, where, most commonly, we're used to seeing multi-driver balanced armature in-ears. Then again, Final Audio Design hasn't exactly earned a reputation for being at all typical. When I think of Japanese audio esoterica, Final Audio Design is one of the first marks that come to my mind.
The Heaven VI is a straight-body design, looking a bit like something Etymotic's Mead Killion might have designed for a night out on the town. Simple though it is, the Heaven VI's polished chrome copper housing is beautiful.
The Heaven VI's sound was surprising to me. With its one armature per side, I was expecting to hear something similar to an Etymotic ER-4 type sound. What I'm hearing instead is something more impactful, with more bass than I was expecting (though this is still not a basshead's in-ear). The midrange is really very nice, and wonderfully detailed. Final claims the Heaven VI "perfectly reproduces the sound of a human voice," and while I don't know that I'd go that far, I felt challenged to test that claim with the 40-part motet Spem in alium, a couple of albums sung by Cantus, and a lot of my favorite vocal-centric jazz, pop and rock; and, indeed, the Heaven VI renders human voices clearly and with body. Also, I enjoy the Heaven VI's treble presence that has yet to veer into harsh territory with me. Imaging with the Heaven VI is very good, spacious for a deep-insertion in-ear.
In the bins of in-ears we have here at Head-Fi HQ, there nothing here that sounds just like the Heaven VI. And the sonic qualities of the Heaven VI that make it unique are what make it an absolute pleasure to listen to.
final Heaven II
Listen to the Final Audio Design Heaven VI (above), and you might just start to understand why Final Audio Design (now known as "final") has a loyal, sometimes cult-like, fan base. Some of FAD's higher-end products are expensive, though--like the Heaven VI--so it can be a pricy club to belong to.
At last year's fall Tokyo Headphone Festival, however, Kanemori Takai himself personally gave me the Final Audio Design Heaven II. I believe the Heaven II is priced around $130, and, to my ears, it's very good for the price, and possessing of a good dose of Final Audio Design magic.
The Heaven II looks a lot like the Heaven VI, but its gorgeous chassis is made of stainless steel (as opposed to a fancier alloy) with what looks to me like a very finely brushed finish.
In terms of sound, it has a clear familial tie to the Heaven VI, too, with clear, articulate mids and highs. The Heaven II's bass, however, is quite a bit lighter--more flat sounding--than its more upscale sibling's. Still, though, the Heaven II's bass is good and fast sounding to me. And, like the Heaven VI, the Heaven II's imaging is airy for a deep canal in-ear. Overall, the Heaven II is a beautiful sounding piece for the price.
If you've ever been interested in owning some of that Final Audio Design magic--but have been held back from a wallet whose maw simply doesn't open wide enough for the upper-end FAD headphones--then make sure to audition the Final Audio Design Heaven II.