I was in need of a decent pair of IEMs to wear on the trail for when I'm cycling, running and what not to use with my phone. Read all the reviews online praising these for the low price. Got them for around 12$ on GearBest so unless GB started shipping fakes, I'm pretty sure they're legit. Took the better part of a month to get them though.
Anyways, the packaging is impressive, you get a nice set of tips for them - I only found the mediums - which are on the headphones when you buy them, and the large ones to be usable. The other ones, S and XS do not seal for me at all and all the bass leaks out, I hear nothing below 500 Hz.
I prefer the M tips (and they do change the sound quite a bit so experiment with that). However I've found my experience with these phones to be not so in line with the reviews.
"Smooth treble, too much bass?" Hmm, found quite the opposite. When listening at the same volume as on my Superlux 668B, the treble kills my ears. It's not so much that the phones are overly bright, it's that there are what seems to be some really nasty high-Q resonances in the 2-4K range of up to 6 dB or so which I haven't even been able to isolate that well with a good VST EQ. Simply when certain sounds play, especially white noise sweeps in EDM music, some of these frequencies just go so much higher than the rest of the signal that it literally hurts my ears. I have to turn it down, but then at that point, everything is too quiet and the bass disappears even further.
Oh and about the bass, it's nice, tight, but it's not really deep enough to be immersive and to really hear the low end. Seems to roll off fast below 60 Hz or so. 60-150 Hz is OK and then the midrange dips quite significantly again, leaving things sounding distant and hollow, lacking depth. They're definitely not warm. Even my Superlux which is generally regarded as a mid-light set of headphones, brings sounds closer to the front than these.
So, for the price I don't think I can buy much better (though I have yet to try some of the KZ models), 12$ and I guess they're fairly good for the money, but not really 'giant killers' of any kind and for me they definitely didn't live up to the hype.
Would I still recommend them to someone? Probably, simply on the off chance that they're just not compatible with my ears. My brother doesn't seem to complain about them being shrill so I might hand them over to him.
Pros: Snappy percussion, flavorful bass, crystal highs. Good overall construction.
Cons: Unimpressive earbud-level soundstage, mids quite veiled. Metallic finish can scratch if under abuse.
Oh man, where do I start with these?
TL;DR: For its price, which floats around $20, it's a little hard to beat.
Review: While I gave these earbuds a rather positive review, there's definitely more to the story.
In terms of sound quality, these little guys are pretty nice, and if anything they are fun to listen to. Sporting a deliciously V-shaped sound signature, they offer some crispy crystal highs and deep idiosyncratic bass that is typically unheard of in earbuds at this price. For the purpose of this review, I listened to a couple lossless tracks that I feel prove my point with the Piston 3's connected to a Fiio K1 portable DAC/amp:
1. Clozee - Aspara Calling: Clarity of high percussions is evident here and extremely pleasant. The percussion in general is very succinct and fun to listen to. High-mids are powerful and rich. When all layers begin to com together, the narrow soundstage begins to become uncomfortably apparent. The mids are veiled, but due to the nature of this song, it's not very apparent.
2. Alina Baraz & Galimatias - Fantasy: Amazingly rich highs and lows throughout the piece, very fun. Bass can be felt quite much more strongly compared to other earbuds of this price. Soundstage is piss poor and detracts from the wonderful contrast between the highs and lows.
Ultimately, a few hours of using these headphones reveal that the biggest problem with the sound quality on these headphones is the sound signature coupled with the poor soundstage. The highs and lows are absolutely clear and accurate, making these headphones very colored and fun to listen to, but these earbuds don't capitalize on its strength by providing a large sound stage.
Now, the reason I'm being so critical of the earbuds while I gave it such a high review is due to the fact that I'm grading them as though I would a circumaural open ear pair of cans. Which these are not. So don't go around expect that these will sound like a pair of AKG K7xx, because they won't. The reason I'm giving such a high score is simply because you don't really get earbuds better than this for $20, while I'm certain they exist.
Pros: Enjoyable sound, amazing build quality, they actually fit well.
Cons: At this price?
The Piston 3 IEM Manufactured in China by Xiaomi
When buyers here at Head-Fi get group momentum on a product, the buzz can get away from reality. The Piston headphones have reached a phenomena of size and hype. So let me place another log into that fire. Why? Because there is hype for good reasons and hype misleading. Over the years many of us have succumbed to the pressure of sonic happiness.
The issue gets multiplied if the product is low cost. If you were asking how and questioning the reasoning of the cost to sound-quality ratio here, I have a simple answer. Xiaomi is the largest manufacture of cellphones in China. The cellphone sales bypass both Apple and Samsung phones in China. Such a company as Xiaomi can mass produce and market an IEM. Due to the design and production scale we witness an audio bargain which is out of the ordinary.
Let's get down to it. Everyone is game for great sounding, low cost IEMs, right? The only detriment here is making sure you actually get your hands on the real Piston 3s and not a cheap fake set. I'm not going to list how the Piston 3s are a world class sounding IEM for $20. What they really are is an enjoyable sound, and really well built.
Our best of effort still leads us into product failure. We as audiophiles just put up with the fact that stuff is delicate and does not last forever. Audiophiles in general are easy going consumers. Much of the time we feel like a special group who will make compromises for design or service shortcomings as long is the sound is good. There is no worry in build regard here. I have never seen such build quality at even five times the price.
The plug is gold plated and is fit into a sold chunk of aluminum. The plug is rock solid as well as connected to a thin rubber stress relief upon finding the cable exiting the plug. Many are confused as to where the Kevlar is in regards to the braided cable. As far as I can determine it is actually strands of Kevlar which are then wrapped with the enameled copper wire. This completely makes sense as you can feel the sturdy character of the cable. I write this after keeping one of my pairs of Piston 3s in my pocket for two months without issue. They have been knocking around in my pocket between uses so much that the driver housings even have thousands of scratches like a 1950 copper penny, yet they fail to fail. Go guess?
As we make our way up the copper wrapped Kevlar we reach a Y split. This aluminum Y area can be a real issue for many builds as you have pulling and stress coming from three directions. I'm not going to mention names, but remember your IEM is only as strong as the weakest point. Right before the braided cable goes up to the Y you also have a nice rubber stress relief ring. Exiting the Y the cable ends up being rubber coated, the right side contains the Android control wand and they end at another nice stress relief part at the individual ear drivers. Each aluminum part is anodized grey and contain a series of super-small micro-burnished lines traveling the circumference of each piece. This, so fine as invisible machined score adds a tactile grip as well as seem to verify the originality of the product. Many have issues with the control wand being too high up on the cord and the buttons being too small. I don't use it, so it is fine.
The monitor pieces themselves are fairly lightweight and ergonomic. Ergonomic as you actually have a place to mount your finger when pushing them into your ear. This aluminum backside offers a nice accent as well holding the "ring" air-port. If there was one issue here it would be the quality of the rubber tips they give you in the package. Even if you end up finding the tip that fits you, the stiffness of the rubber tip will be lacking due to thinness of material, not letting you get a correct seal at any place. It seems these IEM tips need to produce an outer pressure to enable air-tight fit. With a loss of fit, bass detail and amount will suffer. Even though you have small right and left symbols on each driver, the asymmetrical shape of each driver allow a fast right and left choice for each ear. Taking note of the in-line remote also aids in discovery of the right IEM driver. With the correct tip addition, ear placement should be easy. Due to the size and weight of the Piston 3s, they just stay placed in your ears. Simple and easy adjustments can be made if you feel you need better tip placement. Still it is just a simple single finger push on the aluminum outside disk which allows for perfect placement in adjustment.
My suggestion is try a number of tips from your collection to land on a good combination of size and fit. If needed, these IEMs would benefit from an aftermarket set of tips just to find the perfect fit.
Test Music Used:
Classical, Dance, Classic Rock, New Age, Extreme Heavy Metal, Industrial.
Apple IPhone 4
Apple MacBook Pro
Apple IPod Touch 5th Generation with FLAC Player and 320kbps MP3 files
JDS Laps c420 Op-amp
Cambridge Audio DAC Magic Plus (In direct out and headphone amp mode)
Schiit Audio Asgard One Home Headphone Amp
High Resolution 24 bit 96kHz
16 bit 44.1kHz Redbook Audio via Compact Disk
320kbps MP3 files
They need burn in to get to a tone where the bass has both detail and depth. There is also a substantial increase in bass after both psychological burn in and physical material burn in. Also it may take a while until you have that moment when you discover you actually like the sound signature. Simply speaking there is treble but not a ton of detail treble. There is a receded mid-range which may be just too much for some. They are described as having a slightly V shaped signature but also an increase in bass detail from some IEMs which are considered V shaped. So it's this lower mid bass detail that ends up being the redeeming factor in the signature. This one single element ends up giving the IEMs a great synergy with rock and dance music. They also excel at metal genres and drone music. This is taking place in occurrence with the sound stage of the bass. There is a nice placement and detail which in the end makes up for any harmonic loss in treble detail. It actually makes you wonder if your hearing this lower mid detail due to the lack of upper mid and treble detail. Still these end up being a go to IEM mainly due to their ability to do all the genres and the fact that they do multiple sound qualities well. These are not going to show you much of the recording pitfalls. At the same time they do love to scale with better equipment. Giving them a high quality source and a powerful home amp allows that lower mid and bass sound-stage to bloom out.
The way they scale with better equipment is nothing short of fantastic. After mental and physical burn in, trying them on better equipment will have you questioning if your really listening to $20 IEMs.
If I was to fault the signature it would be a slight loss in over all upper harmonics. The treble just comes off a little one layered. Never too bright or strident but lacking in some detail. The great part is you never seem to hear much distortion in the treble. Not much distortion in the lower bass areas either. This clarity is the overall redeeming factor keeping the enthusiasm going day in and day out, month in and month out. It's just the fact that the signature does not do anything really wrong. It also fails to have any truly outstanding qualities until you factor in the price and the build quality then excellence starts to rise.
As far as lower mids, there is a detail complexity which is a form of real entertainment and fun in place. A warm lower mid-area which has slight nice complex distortions and sound-stage. This I suspect is the factor which lets us enjoy those lower than 320kbps files as well as bad recordings? The ending result is they are just fun and dynamic IEMs to have around. Still that complexity in the lower mids may even have you question the ability of your more expensive headphones once you get addicted to the Piston 3s on a daily basis.
These are open backed IEMs so there is not a whole lot of sound isolation going on. Walking the street though this openness ends up being a nice safe factor. It ends up being a double edged sword giving you the sound-stage but lacking in over all noise reduction in loud public places.
I would place them somewhere in the middle as far as responsiveness to signal. They are able to reach a more than loud level from an Apple phone or IPod Touch. Still again, getting them a more powerful signal either from a portable amp or home amplifier will suggest just how much your loosing listening straight out of a phone on a daily basis.
A super strong well built pair of low cost IEMs with a fun signature that never gets too boring or stale. They look nice and would make a great gift for folks who like IEMs.
There seems to be a level of quality perception after some time. There are many reports of members describing how the sound-stage just all of a sudden opens-up and transforms slightly into another animal? I have noticed such a phenomena, but have little understanding as to why such a perception would occur. Words of wisdom though suggest these headphones may come off as a little underwhelming upon first listen and require further sonic investigations before opinions can be made.
To Summarize Positives:
Maybe the best value on audio I have ever made before?
Nice detail and over all sonic placement.
Sound unexpectedly seems to get better with use?
They have a quality look and feel well above the price point.
Daily use is easy and not complicated.
To Summarize Drawbacks:
Tips included fail to work in a correct fashion.
Unless purchased from a known dealer, there is a chance of getting fake Piston 3s.
The in-line remote has small buttons and only works fully with Android systems.
There may be a lack of middle tone levels for some listeners.
There may be a lack of treble complexity for some listeners.
So it's been a couple years and finally I stumbled upon the ultimate tweak to get optimal sound from the Piston 3.
Simply switch to Sony Hybrid Tips. The difference between all the different tips is really profound. What I think is happening is the hybrids not only get a bass seal but push the nozzle end way out to the front of the tip. Anyone who knows, knows this type of nozzle placement actually expands out the treble detail into a bigger soundstage. Putting a long narrow tip will actually increase bass and reduce treble detail, which is not the way we want to modify the sound signature. The Sony Hybrids actually take the bass and make it more detailed along with the treble enhancement.