Most of the time, I audition sub $100 in-ears. With kids in college and veterinary school, I just can’t splurge on flagships. Lately, it has become common place to look for the giant killers amongst the low-price items and all too frequently we hear of things punching above their weight class, but without having auditioned numerous items in the upper weight classes, how can one realistically know if something genuinely competes with more expensive models or not? For that reason when I came into a windfall I wasn’t expecting I decided to spend it on a few mid-fi IEMs so I could better understand what is available at that price point. I purchased the N40 used from another head-fi member so no unboxing notes, I borrowed an FLC8s from another, and I purchased an LZ a4, a Brainwavz b400, and a Shure 535. Combined with the Sennheiser IE 80, the Trinity Icarus III and Phantom master I already own and the Magaosi K5 review sample, this makes up for a pretty good stable of mid-fi IEMs to work from.
I didn’t buy the n40 blind, as I had auditioned the n40 once previously and found that I really enjoyed its signature so when they came up on the sale forum here for roughly ½ of the msrp I couldn’t resist the temptation. I bought these as my daily driver and have been using them daily since purchasing them.
A short note about me: I am a music enthusiast, and audio hobbyist. I make no claim to have the level of experience of some here. I tend to be quite pragmatic and value oriented. I am a lover of blues, jazz, and rock music and listen to a very broad range as I am always interested in what is new.
The earpieces are smaller than most hybrid IEMs and a mix of plastic and metal and are extremely lightweight as a result. They are designed for over-ear wear only as the MMCX attachment point is on the top of the earpiece and pointed due forward. Combined with the position of the nozzle, if you attempt to wear them cable down, the ear blocks the connector and makes it impossible to get a good fit. The good news is for cable over the ear wear, they are one of the most comfortable models I have tried as the size, weight, and design makes it easy to get a good fit without weighing you down. The cables do have a memory and they fit solidly and do not move during exercise. The design also minimizes microphonics as the cable is effectively isolated from the body of the unit and movements of the cable do not translate to the body of the iem unless you really jerk the cable.
The earpieces are clearly marked L and R and have blue and red dots on the cable and earpiece that align to make sure you have the cable oriented correctly.
On the other side of the housing the nozzle sports screw-in filters and 3 are provided. The filters are neutral, bass plus and treble plus. A nice metal plate with each pair of filters labeled is provided to keep from losing the filters. (Hear that Trinity Audio – Labels so you know which filter is which – novel concept huh?).
The cables deserve their own discussion. Both have the same construction except for the remote so I have described the cable with remote here (the other is the same cable sans remote). At the south end of the cable, a standard 3.5mm jack with a steel sleeve does the connectivity duties. The cable is cloth wrapped up to the Y where a stainless-steel strain relief splits the cable into two soft rubber cables that head for the earpieces.
An adjustable slider allows for fitting them snuggly under the chin.
On the left cable there is a remote with an Apple/Android switch, and a microphone on the front. The entire reverse is a rocker switch with up and down controls at the ends for handling volume or forward/back tasks. In the center sits a push button for play/pause operations.
At the North end of the cable is a rubber memory wire topped by a strain relief and standard MMCX connector. The memory wire is stiffer than the cable but does not actually contain any wire so fit is easier than some and they translate a lot less shock and microphonics as they are not nearly as rigid as designs that contain an actual wire in the over ear portion of the cable.
Microphone / remote:
I found that the remote worked as advertised with both an HTC M9 and an Apple iPhone 7 (once the switch is placed in the proper position). The mic works as expected but is somewhat susceptible to wind and noises in the immediate environment as are all lapel mics. Overall, I prefer cables without a remote but in this case, it was well thought out and very usable. Those looking for a cable with a good remote should take a look at this design as it is easily the best in my collection.
As mentioned at the top, I am a lover of blues, blues/rock, classic rock, and anything with good guitar work in it. For that reason, I use the following as my test tracks. (artist, album, track, thoughts)
Stevie Ray Vaughan – Texas Flood – Lenny (Guitar to die for but the thing I look for is the percussion.)
Lindsey Buckingham – Fleetwood Mac, Best of - Go Insane, Live (Probably the most complicated simple song you’ll ever hear, all about nuance and subtleties with this track).
Johny Lang – Lie to me – Lie to Me (Looking for tight bass, bleed over into the mids, and controlled sub-bass)
Tedeschi Trucks – Let me get by – I want more (Female Vocals, backing brass band)
The Blasters - Testament – Blue Shadows (Saxophone and piano with male vocals)
Vintage Trouble – The Bomb shelter sessions - Blues hand me down (Looking at attack speed and decay especially in bass and sub-bass. This track gets muddy quick if the equipment can’t handle it.)
Sources: When paired directly to a smartphone, the n40 struggles a bit. The treble comes through as a bit harsh and the bass can be a bit lacking. If I were going to use these straight from a smartphone, I would be tempted to use the bass boost filter if only to curb a bit of the treble. Once you move to a DAP or an Amplified source, the n40 really opens up and any harshness to the treble vanishes and bass becomes much more solid. While not necessarily very hard to drive, they certainly benefit from a bit of amplification.
Bass: The n40 has good bass depth with great detail retrieval and plenty of punch. Note, this is with the neutral filter in place. They cannot be considered a basshead design as the bass is very well proportioned to the rest of the signature. Control of the bass is very good with almost no bleed into the mids and a clear separation of instruments even in the bass and sub-bass space. The n40 comes across as slightly bass forward with a tonality that is very natural in the bass and sub-bass, but not at the expense of detail retrieval giving the n40 a mildly warm very musical signature.
Mids: With the slight forward push of the bass and treble of the n40, it would be easy to forget about the mids which would be a mistake. Mids are well defined with lots of detail. Vocals are clear and full and vocal ensembles are well rendered as differences in timbre between voices are realistic. While not mid forward, it is hard to define the n40 as recessed as the mids are only about ½ step behind the bass and treble and in as such really does not feel overshadowed or dark.
Treble: This is where the n40 really shines. Treble is very mildly forward providing just the right amount of brightness without becoming harsh or brittle. Extension is very good and seemingly effortless. Plenty of air and sparkle are present and cymbals are well rendered. For people like me that love a slightly bright signature with plenty of detail and air, the n40 does a very admirable job.
Soundstage: Soundstage is very good with the low end providing a bit of extra depth. The trade-off for that depth is that reverb doesn’t have a lot of room for decay which at time limits the soundstage a bit. Even with that limitation, soundstage remains amongst the largest and most evenly shaped I’ve heard in an in-ear.
Imaging on the n40 is simply brilliant. While it certainly needs amping to be fully realized, even without any additional amplification it is well above average. They make orchestral pieces fun as you listen to themes move through the different instruments.
Filters: The filters are easy to change, similar to the filters used by Trinity Audio, but have less impact than the smaller filters of the FLC8s. The trade for that ease of use, is that they don’t offer as much alteration to the signature as something like the LZ A4 or FLC8s and quite frankly, I find myself using the neutral filter and not worrying with the others. If you like a slightly warm signature with plenty of air and sparkle, the n40 does very well without the use of the filters. If you want something other than that, I’d encourage you to look elsewhere as the filters are not going to dramatically alter the signature.
Describing the n40 is challenging. It is warm and bright, precise and musical, detailed and relaxed. The best single word description for the n40 is dynamic. The n40 is very good at becoming what it needs to be to deliver the music it is presented with. They have fantastic musicality while maintaining very strong technical ability. Extension is good on both ends while maintaining a very cohesive sound across the entire spectrum. For me the thing the N40 does best is take whatever quality recording you feed it and make it musical. Unlike most of the other mid-fi products I recently auditioned which are very source intolerant, the N40 does a great job of working with what you give it. If you collection is still a lot of mp3s, this may be the best mid-fi choice out there. The worst thing I can say about the n40 is they are expensive. Perhaps the best thing I can say is they are worth it.