Since I’m prone to rambling and digressions I figure I should start this review off with the TL;DR version.
Smooth and easy to listen to sound.
Forgiving of poor recording or mixing without sacrificing overall quality.
Not fussy about amps.
Ergonomics handicapped by a legion of near identical tips and form-over-function casing.
Bass sometimes intrudes upon the lower mids.
Narrow genre bandwidth unless you’re a hardcore basshead.
Who’s it for?
Hardcore bassheads and fans of rap, hip-hop, modern pop, and maybe electronica.
Who isn’t it for?
People looking for a balanced or bright sound signature or those who don’t like having different headphones for different genres.
Now for the meat…
About me and my methodology
There are lots of ways to review a headphone. You could take extensive measurements and show how that translates into what you actually hear. You could take copious notes comparing one headphone to another and to itself when fed from varying amps and sources. You could wax poetic with little to no comparison to anything else. The variety of review methodologies is astounding. Some of those aren’t practical for me to do and others may be easy but aren’t very useful IMO.
My style is mostly just to listen. I listen to all kinds of stuff on just about anything I can safely plug them into. Mp3s from the 90s and well mastered lossless get time along with onboard sound cards and what may be considered “audiophile” amps and DACs. After that I simply write about why I continue to use them or why I don’t once I’m relieved from the duty of having to evaluate them. This is hardly exhaustive but it’s a fair representation of what’s out there in the real world and is fairly close to how people evaluate things in the real world. Except for the rambling anyway.
The majority of my listening with these was done with my Practical Devices XM6 as the amp and either its own USB DAC or my Cowon D2+ as the source but anything I tried that made an important or interesting difference will get a specific mention. My main genres of music are metal of nearly all subgenres followed by various sorts of electronic varying sorts but just about everything except country gets an occasional spot in my random play.
Probably the first thing you’ll notice about these is how well built they appear. The cylindrical metal body is about as crush-proof as you can get and the cable looks built to take a beating as well. Its “anti-memory” nature avoids tangling (which is merely annoying) and kinks (which can actually damage the wires) by doing its very best to unfurl itself at all times. It makes it a little difficult to coil the cable to put it away but IMO that’s a small sacrifice for the greater longevity such a design will likely provide. I think they look pretty cool too, though IMO the design is far closer to a Minié Ball than any turbine I’ve ever seen. Given the other recent IEMs named after bullets and firearms this may be a new marketing direction.
I haven’t had these long enough for a proper test of durability but given the reports I’ve seen I seem to be on the right track. Also, given the number of such reports, I don’t need to ramble on about this topic any longer.
This is, to me, the Gold’s biggest weakness. If they were a little more comfortable I could have liked them a lot more. All that durability and cool looking design I mention above comes at a price to comfort. There’s a good reason why most headphones are made of plastic. Its strength to weight ratio is far better than any sanely priced metal. Only the magnesium alloys in a few ‘phones like the Denon Dx000 series and some Sonys like the SA5000 and EX1000 (h/t DaBomb77766) come to mind. I’m not sure what the Golds are made from but steel seems about the right weight to me. It could be very thick aluminum but I don’t think there would any room left for the driver then. This weight is detrimental to its comfort; hanging out the side of your ear like a small lever, it keeps the tip from distributing its pressure evenly across the ear canal.
This extra weight also causes them to work their way out of place requiring small adjustments fairly often to fix either the sound or the fit. Simple office work at my desk is enough movement to affect the comfort and fit of the Golds due to their excessive mass and lack of inertial damping. Heaven forbid actually getting up and walking with them. Unless you jam a painfully oversized tip into your ear canal or use a very small one for a very deep (and probably uncomfortable for most people) insertion you’ll probably be adjusting them every 20 feet. The only time I don’t need to readjust them periodically is if I’m lying in bed and not moving at all. Needless to say, using these “on the go” could be problematic.
I thought I’d be able to find a tip that alleviated these problems to some degree but it seems I was out of luck. With 16 different pairs of tips in many different styles I thought I’d easily find a perfect fit. I soon discovered all those tips are far more similar than different. Only the silicone flanges (triple and single) are really different from each other and all the rest in regards to fit and seal. All the gel-filled silicone and foam rubber tips are more alike than different. They’re mostly solid and not very compressible without pushing back rather painfully. The gel filled and foam rubber tips provide more isolation than silicone flanges. The overall isolation will vary depending on the tip you use and how deeply you manage to insert it but I never managed isolation on par with my Shures with any combination, even the horribly uncomfortable ones. In addition, the gel filled and foam rubber tips all provide more bass than the silicone flanges by allowing for increased conduction. The downside to all these similarities is that if one foam rubber or gel filled style doesn’t work very well then none of the rest are likely to work much better.
For me, the most comfortable tips that actually sealed properly were either the black foam rubber used in a shallow insertion or the small single flange used in a deep insertion but neither are comfortable for very long. The foam rubber tips press back too hard against my ear canal and with the small single flanges used with a deep insertion the form-over-function turbine “fins” or “blades” push annoyingly against the inside of my antihelix. It gets very annoying when I crack a smile or laugh. I can sometimes stretch it out for several hours before my ear canals need a break but they just aren’t pleasant compared to my SE530s with either the stock olives or Comply Tx-400 tips (used for the protection of the IEM via the filter rather than comfort) which I can pop in and forget about for the entire work day thanks to my Shure PTH.
EDIT: Apparently the 400s are the ones for large nozzle IEMs, the last pack of 100s I got for my Shures was just mislabeled.
All this begs the question: Where’s the memory foam! Its hardly a panacea but in a game uncertain as this you need all the help you can get.
In addition to all that, the cable is also highly microphonic as a result of its sturdy construction. If you listen softly the music can easily be obscured by a light breeze. Fortunately this problem can be easily solved by wearing them “over-ear” instead of “under-ear” like a regular pair of earbuds. Unfortunately that doesn’t help very much with the other problems.
I may be making too big a deal out of this but I’m not really sure. All of the 4 IEMs I’ve previously owned or spent extensive time with (Shure E2C, E3C, SE530, and SE535) were vastly more comfortable even without the benefit of the newer Shure olives or the Comply foam. I don’t have either the E2C (broke) or E3C (was my dad’s) to use any more but I do know I used wear each for hours on end with the Shure silicone single flanges without any discomfort or pain. Shure’s not perfect either though. I liked the sound of the 535s better than my 530s but I sold them because they weren’t as comfortable as the 530s but they were still more comfortable than the Golds.
Another factor in my rambling dissertation on the Gold’s fit boils down to the fact that these are marketed with a broader brush than the typical IEM. People who have been in this game for a while and have owned many different pairs of IEMs are likely to have a large selection of tip available for experimentation. I’ve been using IEMs for nearly 6 years myself and I’m familiar with what it takes to get a proper fit but since I’ve stuck with one brand which uses a different nozzle size I don’t have such a collection of tips. The average person, who this is marketed towards, has probably never even heard of IEMs before and thus won’t have either the experience or the stockpiles to easily come up with an acceptable fit and that makes the ergonomics even more important. There are indeed tons of included tips but because most of them are far more alike than different which severely diminishes their usefulness. The housing also suffers from an unfortunate case of form-over-function design. There’s no reason other than branding to call them “turbines” and add those stupid and uncomfortable fins to the back of the earpieces. Even if you don’t insert them that deeply it shifts the center of gravity away from the tips and multiplies the sheer weight of the earpieces. The weight is hardly a problem for your neck, but its unsupported weight pulls and twists at the tip and through it, at your ear canal. That unnecessary weight will make any tip less comfortable. Apparently the Coppers come with some ear hooks to grab the housing and place more of the weight on your outer ear instead of your ear canal. The Golds I received came with no such luxury.
I don’t doubt that a better fit can exist somewhere out there but buying random tips from other manufacturers isn’t a good way to go about it unless you’re already in love with the sound. For Head-Fi-ers experienced with IEMs and possessing stockpiles of tips this isn’t a problem. Your average consumer is likely to just demand a refund though, and since Monster wanted this review posted on their own website as well as Amazon I decided I should write parts of it from the perspective of the uninitiated as well. Even if this all turns out to be due to my own unique ear anatomy its at least another data point to be considered. Then again, maybe someone who has never experienced a good fitting IEM won't mind the lack of comfort.
Enough of this. Let’s get on to the good news.
The quick description is that the Golds are dark-ish, bassy, and generally do that sort of sound sig justice. Given the plethora of reviews of this product you probably already knew that so let’s go on to some details you might not have heard already.
Bass is the focus of these headphones and where a headphone of this sound signature usually fails spectacularly. Poorly controlled bass bleeds into the rest of the spectrum in a way that poor quality mids and treble just can’t. The good news is that the Golds have rather slight bleed or bloat despite the rather large boost to their bass. Its not natural or neutral much of the time but it is fun most of the time and if you’re not mixing or something that’s all that counts. The bass is quite full of either impact or rumble depending on what the track calls for. It also lacks the artificially enhanced “punchy-ness” which is somewhat common among bass-heavy ‘phones. *glares at the Ultrasone HFI 780, worst offender in my recent possession* I consider that a good thing, though others may disagree.
The bass is hardly perfect though. It can to a small but noticeable degree interfere with male vocals, low tuned electric guitars, and other thing in the lower midrange from time to time. The busier the lower mids get the greater the chance the bass will encroach upon them but it never turns into a complete mess. I’m a mild basshead and I’ve made plenty of exceptions for that in other headphones. What I find to be a bigger flaw is the tone and timbre of the bass. It isn’t quite right. Its certainly not “one-note” since a kick drum is usually easily distinguished from an upright bass or bass guitar but they all tend to sound a little off. Fairly often (but a long way from always) a physical drum will sound like a synthesized, electronic drum which is out of place in your typical rock, metal, or jazz track. Balanced armatures are often said to be handicapped in this area but my SE530s still do a much better job.
The bass extends all the way down to DC but the nature of universal IEMs limits how much of that you’ll be able to hear or feel at safe volumes. More bass can be had at the expense of comfort by jamming the largest and firmest tip you can into your ear canal to increase conduction through your flesh and bone. I think bass extension is very important in giving all sorts of instruments (even ones with primary tones fairly high up through the midrange) a proper “feel” and the Golds perform admirably in this respect.
I find the midrange pleasantly euphonic. Female vocals are very good to my ears. Its adding a little something that isn’t there in real life, but like a well done touch-up it can be better than real life even if it might occasionally fail spectacularly. Male vocals aren’t as good as that but they are free of any honky colorations or obviously obscured details. Timbre is fairly natural throughout most of the vocal range as well though it slowly strays as you get further from the middle.
Overall the mids are quite smooth and syrupy in a manner reminiscent of a tube amp, though distinctly different from any I’ve had the chance to hear myself. This inevitably smooths over some details but it does so in a nice way. They aren’t obviously muffled or obscured by annoying harmonics and resonances. If you’re after every last detail then you’ll leave empty handed but if you want something that sound good with just about everything at the expense of not sounding great with just about anything then you’ll enjoy this sort of coloration. It’s the sort of thing the SE530s do to the midrange but turned up to 11.
The sort of music you listen to will determine how well you get along with this sort of coloration. Modern loudness war-ed pop and genres which have suffered similar trauma will greatly benefit from this while well recorded and well mixed music can instead suffer. Until Chesky starts poaching bands from Metal Blade and Nuclear Blast, I’m not likely to mind that sort of thing very much.
In the no man’s land between the mids and treble the Golds exhibit just about no sibilance. In addition to not causing any of their own they are also covering up sibilance that exists on the actual recording but once again, that should be a benefit to anyone who isn’t trying to mix with them.
This forgiving coloration continues up into the lower treble and seems to slowly fade away along with the upper treble in general. These ‘phones definitely don’t have the sort of “sparkle” and “shimmer” that some people demand and that’s fine with me. I’m very sensitive to treble and am quite glad that these are more on the muted side. This also seems to be an important part of their forgiving coloration because extension and presence in the high treble often contributes to an unforgiving sound. None of that bothers me at all because treble is my least favorite part of the sound spectrum. As long as it isn’t piercing I’m not likely to care too much about it compared to the bass and mids. They may be extended a little more than my SE530s but I rarely miss anything above 10khz even though I can hear it perfectly well via test tones and more extended ‘phones. Those who wish to determine the vintage of a violin by ear should probably look elsewhere though.
The soundstage is nothing to write home about either. Its not mind-blowingly great for an IEM but neither is it uselessly small. I don’t have much to compare it to since it isn’t fair to compare soundstage against full size ‘phones, but the size of the soundstage is noticeably smaller than my SE530s. The Gold’s stage is also much wider than it is deep but its still enough to keep it from coming across as strictly one dimensional. Crossfeed helps dramatically but “purists” will probably cry foul. You could probably adjust it to a degree by playing with different tips but IMO, if its not comfortable its not worth using.
The Golds also fall short of my SE530s in the precision of its imaging within the soundstage but that’s hardly a surprise. That’s one of the SE530 greatest strengths, even the most full size ‘phones I’ve heard lose to the SE530s in imaging. This sort of thing that’s hard to quantify but while the Golds certainly don’t turn everything into a smeared mess you aren’t going to be able to listen to a busy death metal track and draw a picture of the drum kit afterwards like you can just about do with the SE530s.
Among those with diverse tastes in music only extreme bassheads will likely find the Golds to be a good all-rounder. I like my Sony XB700s quite a bit but I sure don’t listen to death metal with them. The Golds are along those lines as well.
Most metal sub-genres with fast and busy compositions or truck loads of distorted guitars can make the lower midrange difficult to make out due to the bleeding of the bass into the mids. They do quite well with less busy sorts of metal and classic or modern rock with fewer effects piled on the guitars, assuming you don’t mind their bass heavy coloration. The timbre of the bass may occasionally make you do a double take but I don’t think it’s a huge deal compared to other ‘phones with a similar sound sig and I’ve heard far worse offenders in the same price bracket. *Glares at the HFI 780 again*
Electronic music is also a bit of a mixed bag. The Golds have the requisite bass extension and the preferred bass emphasis that can’t be put into most tracks for fear of consumers destroying their equipment which is a big plus. What they lack is the soundstage and imaging to properly convey the crazy phase effects and moving sounds that also fill a lot of electronic music. They aren’t completely gone or all muddled into one place but other ‘phones like my SE530s can do this better without sacrificing much (or anything if you’re not afraid of EQ) in the bass department. Since nothing’s perfect, you’ll have to pick you trade-offs according to your own preferences.
Not many headphones can come close to conveying the grand and sweeping stage of a full symphony without the outside assistance of a DSP and the Golds don’t buck this trend either. Imaging can get slightly muddled when the pace picks up but I’m not enough of a classical snob to pick out any other flaws. More intimate chamber and solo piano pieces don’t suffer from that problem but an unnatural timbre and an unpleasant “thickness” in the mids which I didn’t notice (or just wasn’t bothered by) with other genres comes to the forefront with lone stringed instruments. I’m not an expert in the field, but overall I wouldn’t recommend the Golds for classical.
I’m not huge on jazz either but I generally like what I hear with the Golds here. Some purists may cry foul about the enhanced bass or ask for more painful sounding brass but a lot of purely instrumental jazz mostly stays away from the areas that seem to upset the Golds and it sounds good to me.
Where I think these would really shine is with rap and hip hop. I listen to even less of that than I do classical and jazz and pretty much all that ever do listen to is parody of “real” rap/hip hop so its hard to make firm conclusions, but with the material I do have and am familiar with they are great. The combination of enhanced bass, sparse composition to keep things out of the lower mids where things can get slightly muddled, and its pleasing vocal coloration seem to be perfect with what little rap and hip hop I do have.
I also listen to a bit of Jpop and while it generally isn’t as mangled as a lot of American pop, it can often benefit from both the Gold’s bass emphasis due to the music’s over compressed nature and from the Gold’s forgiving coloration due to the intentional clipping, poor recording, and sloppy mixing which pervades such genres. Of course such flaws pervade a lot of metal too, but pop is generally free of the type of instruments or vocals that are easily affected by either the Golds slightly off bass timbre or slight bleed in to the mids so there is little drawback.
Most people around here might not consider this a genre, but video games are important enough to count as one for me. Gaming ‘phones are divided up into two sub categories. There are ‘phones for competitive FPS gaming (hearing people sneak up behind you) and ‘phones for immersion (really feeling an explosion). The Golds defiantly fall into the second category. While even bass heavy IEMs won’t give you as much impact or rumble as a pair of full size ‘phones, not many full size ‘phones will get very loud and keep that impact and rumble intact when driven straight from my DSiXL’s headphone jack. You could always amp, but that gives you a tangle of cords unless your amp is small and light enough to attach to the back of your DS/PSP/whatever. A boosted bass response makes everything from footsteps to explosions weightier and really puts you “in the game” in a way bass neutral or bass light ‘phones never will no matter what their other virtues are. The Golds do a much better job with that sort of immersion then my SE530s and have replaced them for portable gaming duty. I think my XB700s will stay on for playing action/adventure games or anything old enough to use a hardware synth when at home due to comfort and my modded Fostex T50RPs (my overall best at the moment) are still unchallenged in my collection for more modern RPGs and other action-lite games which have pre-recorded orchestral scores.
The Gold’s combination of low impedance (about 19 ohms) and high sensitivity (not specified and I don’t have the gear to measure it) make it easy to get lots of sound out of them. Unlike balanced armature IEMs the Golds have a very flat impedance curve which makes them somewhat insensitive to the quality of the amp. You don’t have to worry about non-zero output impedance changing the frequency response or underpowered opamps not handling the large differences in voltage swing needed at different frequencies.
They sounded uniformly good on most everything I plugged them into from DAPs to onboard sound cards. That’s not to say there were no differences but there wasn’t anything that I considered major, unexpected, or interesting besides what I elaborate on in this section. Sounding slightly better from a slightly better chain isn’t news. Something that is news is that the Golds don’t seem to be very sensitive to damping factor as I discovered when I ran them from by Bottlehead Crack OTL tube amplifier, both directly and through an external transformer box. Either way makes my SE530s into a muddy mess of warm syrup but the Golds remained listenable, though probably too warm for most people’s tastes, including mine. I think the Golds hardly need any more warmth in their mids but if you want more you’re free to go for it without repercussions in other areas.
Interestingly, my Cowon D2+’s bass roll off with low impedance phones is, at an impedance of 19 ohms, a good match for the Gold’s ramp up. This pretty evenly reduces the overall level of bass with no need for EQ and makes them work much better with metal but makes electronica a bit disappointing until you add an amp in between.
Here are a few quick and dirty comparisons between the Golds and some of the more similar ‘phones I have or have recently had in my possession. Some people don’t think its fair to compare IEMs to full size ‘phones but IME the only place IEMs are inherrently handicapped is the size of the soundstage which is only one area out of many to compare.
Sony XB700: A very similar sound in a very different form factor. The XB700s have more low bass, less mid/upper bass, and a bit more treble than the Golds. The Sonys have better timbre through the bass and midrange but the Golds treble is a bit more natural. The Golds are smoother through the midrange and treble which makes them more forgiving of poor sources. The XB700s also have a much wider soundstage but with little to no extra depth over the Golds.
The Golds have one big advantage over the XB700s though, volume. The Golds keep it together at loud levels which the XB700s just can’t. The Sonys need a decently strong amp just to get to medium volumes without breaking up into a mess and even a beast of an amp doesn’t let them go loudly without breaking up into crap. The Golds are the winners for headbangers while its more of a tossup if you listen at low levels. Except for comfort anyway. Closed headphones more comfortable than the XB700s are few and far between while the Golds are both uncomfortable overall and within the category of IEMs
Ultrasone HFI-780: I hated these with a passion so I’m not sure how objective I can be but the 780s are another ‘phone bassheads might be looking at and I recently had pair so here’s how I think they stack up. Sonically, the Golds are better almost across the board. The 780s had a wider and deeper soundstage and more treble extension but the Golds win just about everywhere else. Better timbre everywhere, deeper bass extension, no grain reminiscent of 40 grit sandpaper, no “false detail” treble peaks, doesn’t sound like the music is from an alternate dimension where cymbals are the elementary particles that all things are made from, etc, Fatality – Golds Win.
Shure SE530: Despite the fact that Shures used to be bass monsters by default back in the mists of time, these IEMs really aren’t competitors with the Golds but since they’re the only other pair I own right now they’ll get compared as well. On a technical level, the SE530s win or tie with the Golds everywhere but treble extension. They have equal bass extension (though certainly not amplitude) and the SE530s have better timbre and detail everywhere except for the last octave of treble which is essentially missing from the 530s and only half missing from the Golds. The 530s have a wider and deeper soundstage with pinpoint imaging as well. The Shure’s midrange is less colored, though certainly not dead neutral. The Shures, while still relatively forgiving, are less so than the Golds. Through the Shures a bad recoding is usually obvious though rarely painful, and they have more of a chance to shine with well recorded material.
If they were going after the same sound signature then this would be a clear victory for the Shures but technicalities mean nothing if you don’t like the sound sig. I prefer the Shure’s presentation the majority of the time, but I always find occasion for a well done bass heavy ‘phone as well. I just wish I could get past the comfort.
I put most of my conclusion in the beginning but there are a few more parting thoughts I’d like to express. In some areas, especially the fit, it may seem like I’m coming down rather hard on the Golds. This isn’t out of hate, dislike, or spite but is instead frustration. I wasn’t sure what to expect from these but I was very pleasantly surprised at the sound when I first got them. They exceeded my expiations and while they haven’t sonically dethroned my SE530s they came a lot closer than I expected. With a few tweaks to just the ergonomics I think these could be so much better than they are now and that’s where the attitude comes from. I want to wear these more often but I can’t get past the comfort.
As it stands now, I only see using them with my DSiXL which is the only situation where they are superior enough to my SE530s for me to get past the comfort. If they were more comfortable I could easily see switching between them on a daily basis depending on what musical mood I was in. A change of pace is always nice but the Golds are far too uncomfortable to wear all day while performing boring tasks at work. Eventually the discomfort takes over and music is no longer a distraction from either the tedium or pain.
To conclude, the Golds in one sentence:
[size=11pt]Brilliant sound for bassheads but saddled with brain dead ergonomics.[/size]