Moondrop Illumination Reference IEM Review - Unforgiving truth
Pros: Smooth, gentle treble, fine details, rich midrange and vocals
Cons: Indistinct bass, small soundstage, imprecise imaging
Moondrop Illumination Review
First, thank you to David and the Moondrop Team for their review samples over the past few months. I have previously reviewed the Blessing 2 and S8 from them, and currently have the Illumination and Solis in for review, the latter of which will be covered in a separate review.
When I first put the Illumination’s into my ears and pressed play (iPhone > Chord Mojo), the midrange tonality sounded wonky at first, so I put them away and instead spent a lot of time with the Solis. Now I’ve come back to the Illumination and I’m pretty sure the wonky midrange was just my hearing or congestion at the time and not truly representative of the IEMs tonality.
The Illumination is Moondrop’s reference single dynamic driver IEM. I’m a fan of well-done single DD’s such as the Fiio FD1 as they typically provide good bass response along with good midrange and treble, and without the crossover issues of hybrid IEMs. Its tuning is mostly neutral and is well balanced in presentation. Detail is exceptionally good as to be expected in a TOTL IEM and tonality is accurate. I haven’t encountered any listening fatigue with them which is another important thing to look for in a kilobuck IEM.
Something I found out rather quickly with the Illuminations is that they are NOT forgiving of poorly mastered and compressed tracks. For example, popular pop songs from the 90’s and 2000’s “loudness wars” sound absolutely horrible on the Illuminations while being tolerable on lower resolution IEMs and headphones.
For this review I ran the Illumination primarily from my Chord Mojo (PC+Roon+Tidal Lossless > Chord Mojo > IEM or iPhone+Roon+Tidal Lossless > Chord Mojo > IEM) as well as from the Shangling UP4 Bluetooth DAC.
The Illumination’s treble response is extremely high energy and intensely detailed. It stops just shy of truly bright and does not irritate the ears at all. There is precise, fine detail in cymbals as well as a good sense of air and space in synthesized sounds and vocals.
Midrange with the Illumination is mostly neutral with a little bit of warmth in the lower registers. Male vocals have rich texture and body to them, and female vocals are similar, as well as being presented without sibilance. The vocal presentation is forward but not so much that it is “in your face.” There is no loss of detail when the music becomes busy with numerous elements and the positioning of each musical element is maintained.
Bass response on the Illumination is firmly in the realm of neutral. Mid bass control is excellent with minimal bleed into the lower midrange (and what little bleed there is hardly colors the sound at all). Sub bass is rendered with authority and extends quite low and has very good texture and realism. Bass heads will not be pleased with the neutrality of the Illumination but will appreciate the quality of the bass, even if it lacks in quantity for them. Those of us who appreciate a neutral or tamer bass response should find the Illumination’s performance in this department to be exceptionally good. The speed of the bass is exceptionally good, on par with my JMLab Chorus 715 floor standing speakers, which is freakishly good. Rapid and intense double bass pedals and cello plucking comes through crystal clear without any muddiness.
Soundstage and Imaging
These aspects are where I feel the Illumination could have done better, but I also have a preference for a massive soundstage (all dimensions) as well as laser-precise imaging. When it comes to imaging the Illuminations do a very good job with left-right panning and vertical placement. The soundstage is more intimate than distant, mainly centered in the head but without the music sounding like its coming directly into your ears. The center image is solid, and the other musical elements are placed accurately around the stage. Of note is the bass presentation, which is completely homogenous and impossible to tell whether it comes from left or right, it’s simply “there.”
Fit, Finish, and Comfort
The build quality and finish of the Illuminations is nothing short of superb. The driver shell halves mate together evenly and tightly, as does the nozzle. The cable is of excellent quality and the included carry case is a wonderful soft-touch leather with a high quality zipper and textured accents.
While the Illumination was not entirely to my tastes, I did appreciate the resolution it offered along with the intense accuracy it brings to the rendering of the recording. I was actually able to differentiate between different masters of the same song from different streaming services (Tidal and Qobuz) and this IEM is definitely for you if you desire something that shows the true nature of the recording.