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Any classical musicians or regular classical concertgoers here using IEMs?

  1. ADD
    I have decided that due to my permanent chronic pain and neck problems, I am going to either use IEMs from now on (as there is no additional weight on the cervical spine), try the Stax portable unit (feather light) or go to speakers (in that order of preference). I would prefer not to go to speakers because of the high cost, room issues and animal issues (cats and speakers sometimes do not mix). And I would prefer to avoid Stax for the moment because I own two perfectly functioning and excellent Musical Fidelity XCan V8s amplifiers with Mullard tubes - and I love them. Apart from that, IEMs provide the benefits of partial isolation and complete freedom from room issues. And with use of an impedance adaptor, even 16 ohm IEMs benefit greatly when used with the XCan, as my recent experiments have shown (XCan V8 seems to really like loads around the 100 ohm to 300 ohm mark).
    My problem, however, is twofold. Firstly, IEMs are all but impossible to audition and therefore the only choice seems to be to buy them on a trial basis and return or buy and on-sell second hand (but obviously in virtually as new condition). Both methods are obviously costly and not a preferred route, but are certainly better than buying something unheard and being stuck with it. The second problem is that although I have not heard a large number of IEMs, I am in general extremely dissatisfied with the way they handle classical music, especially traditional symphonic repertoire. It is not any lack of scale or impact that is the issue - it is a lack of transparency and extremely poor textural rendition. This makes itself particularly obvious with violins. If I go to a concert, I can hear the contribution of every single string player there - the sound is extremely clear, detailed. When I hear the vast majority of IEMs, violin sound is absolutely horrible. They sound nothing at all like the real thing, I can't hear each player and the delicate harmonics that define both string sound and individual characteristics of each instrument are all but missing. And I know what violins are meant to sound like as I reached diploma level on violin, have played in orchestras and soloed at the Sydney Opera House concert Hall. I also have attended regular concerts there for over 30 years, so I know exactly what I am looking for in reproduced sound.
    I don't have the above issues with speakers - even relatively modest ones like top of the line Royd bookshelf speakers from the early 90s, Rega speakers or the LS35A, let alone electrostatics that sound excellent despite the lack of weight at bass frequencies. So I know it is not my hearing, nor is it my source (transport, DAC or amplifier), since I can good results with some higher quality "normal" headphones too - it is just that they are too heavy for my neck issues, even nice, neutral headphones like the HD580 / HD600 (which do actually do reasonable justice to string sound in my opinion within the limits of reproduction technology).
    So what I am interested in, as whether anyone here has a very good knowledge of what a real symphony orchestra sounds like live (with an emphasis on the strings) and whether they have found a non-custom IEM up to around $600 that does a very good job of reproducing this. I am not trying to belittle other people's non-classical experience here, but I think unless you are a professional classical musician or regular concertgoer, it is hard to appreciate the subtleties of a live orchestra and thus know whether reproduced music is accurate or not in this respect (as opposed to merely sounding nice on a particular selection of non-acoustical tracks). That is why my question is aimed at professional classical musicians or regular classical concert goers.
    Anyway, here is a partial list of IEMs I have heard in the past, and how I think they deal with classical music:
    Sennheiser CX300:My first IEM. Surprisingly better than most of the others I have heard, despite the very low price. Has adequate treble extension, violins have a nice sheen to them. On the bad side, clarity and detail is not good, there is too much bass and the bass overruns to the lower mids, making them muddy.
    Sennheiser IE7: Horrible. Had a very "hollow" sound, violins sounded nothing like the real thing - they sounded boxy and synthetic and there was no real extension into the harmonic regions. But it did have better clarity than the cheaper CX300 and dod not have that IEM's bass issues. But terrible value for the price.
    Klipsch X10: Possibly the second best I have heard behind the humble Shure SE215. Very impressive indeed with some material, but on other material where a very extended and transparent top end is required, these fell short. I remember listening to Kertesz conducting the London Symphony with Dvorak Symphony No. 9 and thinking this must be as close to the mastertape as I could possibly get. But strangely, it really fell apart on other material that standard headphones like the HD600 or even the humble Shure SE215 can handle without problems. Again, I think this has to do with the rolled off high end.
    Westone UM2: Again, horrible. When I heard this I remember thinking how much worse it was for classical than the CX300. Again, violins were simply hopeless, and this IEM was even more rolled off than the Klipsch. It did improve markedly with amplification but I never got away from a muddy sound in the midrange and that together with the lack of treble extension put paid to being a decent IEM for classical.
    Shure SE310: Horrible as well I am afraid. Like the Sennheiser IE7, violins had a stiffled and boxy sound. Again, treble extension and clarity at the top end  was a problem.
    Shure SE215. Surprisingly good for the price. Definitely the best for classical I have heard so far, despite the lowly price. The bass is not as bloated as the CX300 and the treble extension - though not as good as I would like - is still quite reasonable - certainly enough to make violins sound reasonable, if not terribly accurate or inspiring. Clarity and detail are very good for the price too. So, considering how much luck I had with the SE215,. I decided to try the more expensive....
    SE425: Probably the worst IEM I have ever heard for classical. I have to wonder if I bought fakes, but I got them from a well-respected official Austrlaian Shure distributer. But if you had asked me what I thought they were worth, I would have said $10. I honestly cannot believe any classical was used when designing and tuning this earphone. If I were forced to listen to this I would much prefer to stop listening to music altogether - it really was that bad. I even tried EQing this one quite radically, but it never got rid of the problems. I now have to wonder whether I did not like this because of the very high distortion components - check out the graph at headroom compared to all the others on this list here.
    So those are the main ones I have heard thus far. Looking at the list, I tend to wonder if I am always going to have issues with IEMs which have 2 or more drivers, since the ones I disliked the most all had 2 drivers. And the ones I found quite reasonable for the price only had one driver. The lone exeption to this rule was the IE7, which used a single dynamic driver. I'd love to think I had bought fake IE7s, but again I bought them from an authorised Australian distributer of Sennheiser products. I do tend to wonder wonder whether the distortion figures are an issue (as that, together with the 2 drivers may explain why the SE425 is the worst IEM I have ever heard thus far). I would love to see frequency and distortion graphs for the Westone UM2 and IE7 to add support to this theory, but sadly they do not exist at Headroom. There is also the possibility that my ears need the "bass hump" that exist on phones such as SE215, CX300 and X10, but without seeing graphs for UM2 and IE7, it is hard to be definitive about this.
    I have a pair of ER4S coming for me to try next week, but I am wondering if anyone has some learned recommendations of others I can try. Thanks. 
  2. TwinQY
    I play the violin as well (not as long as you have, but I get by), and the only headphone I've heard with proper timbre that I can use to monitor and record with the piano, violin, anything acoustic, would be the LCD-2. Obviously that's not an IEM, but it's really hard to find something that comes close. They don't mesh well with my current sig tastes, but I will keep them forever for that reason alone. 
    BAs might not have the timbre you're looking for, but it really depends on tuning in the end. The W4s are some of the best universals I've heard for classical, the timbres is among the closest as you'll get from BAs. The EX1000 do much, much better in this regard, and if you won't mind the fit and isolation, I think these will be your best bet. Get the ER4S first and see how that goes. 
  3. holden4th
    I am a classical music lover and play a number of instruments. I have played in orchestras and ensembles (amateur) and been to many concerts in all sorts of venues. As a result I, like you, am very fussy about sound reproduction - particularly piano, strings and of course voice. To this end I have had a pair of Sennheiser HD580s for a while now and use a pair of Shure HD840s at work though in summer they become very hot and sweaty.
    So I have considered iems and started on a trail of discovery. Price was an issue and I avoided the cheaper iems and had a look at those in the $400 - $500 range and found a very nice guy in a store who was prepared to let me listen. This is rare so I jumped at the chance.
    I heard the Sony XBA4s first and they had a good extended bass with a reasonable soundstage. However, I found parts of the treble were somewhat harsh and my recording of Uchida playing K545 exposed this terribly.
    Next he let me listen to the Klipsch x10s. These were much better sonically but simply lacked the soundstage I required. Soundstage, I thought was going to be an issue and would stop me getting iems full stop.
    So next I acquired a pair of Sennheiser ie8s and the soundstage issues vanished. The the highs were clear, the bass strong and extended but the mids were slightly out of focus. This was caused by the bass bleeding into this area and muddying the sound but overall I liked what I heard.
    With this in mind I decided to get a pair of the ie8s bigger brother the ie80s. These have solved that bass hump issue. The soundstage is awesome, the range extended in both directions and the detail is just amazing on recordings that let you hear it and here comes the caveat. If the recording is poor then you will certainly notice it with these iems. My HD580s are somewhat more forgiving but these are not. Reiner's famous recording of the Rossini overtures sounds great on most equipment but with these you can hear how the engineers didn't get the string sound right. Compare that to Rostropovich's excellent sonic recording of the Shostakovich 8th and you can easily compare. However, the recording I use as my reference for strings is the sublime Vivaldi four Seasons by Carmignola and the Venice Baroque Orchestra and the ie80s just makes this recording shine. You can hear where the violinist slows his bow with an accompanying decrescendo and the change of timbre this creates if he doesn't get it perfectly even (very hard to do I believe).
    So maybe you might give these a try if you don't like the Etymotics.
  4. ADD
    Thanks very much for this info. I had actually been thinking of the IE80 if the ER4S was not what I was looking for. I suspect I am possibly going to find the ER4S wanting at the bass end or otherwise uncomfortable, but we shall see. I was only put off trying the IE80 first up because of my bad experience with the earlier IE7 model, which completely and utterly fails to get pretty much anything at all right when it comes to classical (a real disappointment given the CX300 at a fraction of the price is far better for classical). But then again, I can't judge a particular brand, as, for example, the X10 are fairly good in my experience for classical but the cheaper X5 very poor poor on the Klipsch side of things...and the SE215 is good but the SE425 very poor on the Shure side of things.
    It is good to get an endorsement of the IE80 from someone who has good familiarity with classical recordings. I am familiar with the recordings you mention and I agree that particular Reiner recording is one that can either sound pretty terrible or quite reasonable. This is the case with a number of older classical recordings, especially Mercury or EMI (when they either seemed to have great recording days or mediocre / poor recording days).
    I am just curious as to what bass settings you are using on the IE80? Also, do you find the bass on the IE80 comparable to the Klipsch X10? I actually thought the bass on the Klipsch to be almost perfect for classical and the only reasons I would not be owing a Klipsch this time around is that the top end is not sufficiently extended and you cannot get rid of the integrated Apple compatable stuff on the cable.  
    I am also interested in the HD580 / IE80 comparison, since I have a lot of previous experience with the HD580. Do you feel that notwithstanding the lack of forgiving nature of the IE80, do they do comparable justice to massed violins? The HD580 had that velvety depth, extension and smoothness to massed violin sound that was like riding a high quality, comfortable, compliant suspension on a bad road but in a fantastic, luxury car (terrible analogy but to continue in the same vein, other headphones and IEMs are like driving a tiny car with worn out suspension on a potholed road). So you just want to grimace with some IEMs (like IE7, SE425) with massed violins and with others you just relax and let the sound overwhelm you. This is the difference between the violins sounding like a synthetic clump or sounding like 14 individual players and even telling the slight imperfections in bowing amongst players in the same section. Very easy to hear live, difficult but possible to hear with the HD580 with a good recording. So wondering if the IE80 at least gets most of the way there.
  5. holden4th
    I'm listening to Abbado's Schubert 9th. While you won't hear any nasty moments with the ie80s the violins are smooth and I can't hear any stuff ups but that is the same for my 580s. I am running my music out of my PC using Jriver M17 in kernel streaming mode. This is going through my Fiio E7/E9 DAC/Amp combination. I am using the lightest bass setting and have yet to experiment with a higher one as what I've got sounds very good. There is a visceral punch/drive that double basses and drums provide that you can feel at a concert that the 580s don't quite get - the ie80s do this. The bass on the ie80s make the Klipsch's sound anaemic in comparison but they aren't bloated. I want to hear the raw rasp of a double bass bowed on the E string and the solid smack of a drum in the Dies Irae of the Verdi Requiem.
  6. james444 Contributor
    Not a player myself, but used to be a regular concert-goer for many years (though becoming a bit lazy lately), and classical makes up the majority of the stuff I listen to.
    I second everything in the above post, from the LCD-2 (have one on loan) to the W4s and EX1000 (have both). Other IEMs worth mentioning are the Sony EX600 (cheaper than the EX1000, but still very good) and the JVC FX700 (a bit too bassy, but great timbre with strings).
    I've also heard the IE8 and IE80 and consider them slightly inferior to the Sonys (particularly to the EX1000) and FX700, mainly in detail resolution. Plus, their bass is even more bloated than the JVC's. They're very smooth though and their soundstage is marvellous.
  7. ADD
    I think smoothness and lack of grain are to me more important than anything else, since these two things are essential to reproducing violins correctly. I would take these two things above detail, overall accuracy and spectral balance (and pretty much almost anything else) any day. I am a bit reticent about the EX1000, not only because it does not seem to be available from any of the dedicated headphone stores in Australia, but also because it was mentioned at Inner Fidelity that they suffer from grain.
    I think I will put FX700, IE80 and possibly UM3X on the shortlist - the latter because I was reading multiple reports here yesterday about how they are very smooth and grain free with classical. Not sure what order to try them though - it would be good to be able to hear then first, since I can usually tell within a few minutes as to whether an IEM deserves longer appraisel or not. I don't subscribe to the "brain adjusting to the sound" stuff because if your brain has to adjust then something is wrong and your brain is being forced to compensate for that. That is why I can tell very quickly if an IEM or headphone is good or not. It's the same principal as a violin maker once told me. If it doesn't sound right from the get go, it will never be good. An IEM or headphone that you can live with long term is one where your brain is not having to subconsciously compensate for the deficiences. 
  8. nihontoman
    I play piano, for about 10 years. I'm not a pro or anything like that, but still, I try my best. also, I listen to a lot of classical and been to a few concerts. I have a little bit of understanding of what classical music sounds like so here's my two cents:
    from the very limited number of iem's I've tried the best one for classical music turned out to be very bassy and meaty sounding sony xb90ex. it is designed to be bass phones, but I actually like it better for classical (and jazz) rather than any other genre. the reason is simple - more "balanced" iems I've tried just don't have enough weight to the notes. sony made it possible for me to hear the organs and other low register sounds in classical recordings as I hear it on concertos. also, the strings just come alive with these iems, they have natural timbre and don't sound like some synthetically generated instruments. listening to these iems, I can easily hear sounds like fingers touching strings, piano pedal noise (don't know how it's called), bows on strings making noises and other sublime noises... the soundstage is very wide and deep and this helps a lot with big orchestra pieces - instruments are well positioned (if the recordings allow for it) and separation is good. right now I'm listening to giuliano carmignolas 4 seasons by vivaldi and the experience is just really good! it handles fast and crowded passages well and the music doesn't turn into one big mix of noises...
    they say that highs are a bit rolled off on these, but I find them to be quite sparkly... still, I eq-ed the highs and added 2 db on highs and that's all - responded to eq-ing very well.
    and they only cost 95$ from accessory jack. you can return them if you don't like them...
    sorry for unorganised thoughts - english isn't my native language, so...
  9. ADD
    I tend to agree that seemingly classical does require an IEM with a substantial bottom end (i.e neither flat, nor neutral). The thing is though, I believe this to be the case for any IEM where the source music is truly "flat", one reason possibly being that the bone conduction component of the sound (which is far more substantial than people realise) is not as present as it is with a full sized headphone (which in turn is less than when using speakers). If anyone has ever had a bone conduction audiogram they would appreciate how much sound we hear does not come through the actual ear canal itself.
    In any case, given that I think the Sennheiser CX300, Klipsch X10 and Shure SE215 are all good for classical in their respective price ranges, this does support the notion that a bass-heavy IEM is good for neutrally recorded classical. These three have rather similar frequency response below 120 Hz - and that consists of a rather substantial hump well above what would be considered neutral. If only Klipsch came out with an X10 derivative without the hardware on the cable and with a better top end for example, my search would be over.
  10. nihontoman
    good thing with sony is that while the bass is boosted by quite a bit, it's mainly the subbbass and not midbass. result is that the bass don't bleed in the mids... 
    you could wait for the new jvc fxz series. i's the first ever triple dynamic iem and from the first impressions it seems that they sound very natural and they sound much more like cans rather than iems. one of the members even sauid taht they have "iem defying sound". now that's something worth checking out...
  11. ADD
    I think I will sadly have to leave JVC off any shortlist owing to the difficulty of obtaining them via official Australian retail channels. After further research, I am going to add CX980 to my list, mainly because I am extremely impressed with the CX300 as a sub $100 classical IEM and the CX980 seems to be the ultimate expression of that particular house sound. I would be very happy with an IEM that had the CX300 balance but with less bass intrusion in the mids and a bit more clarity and detail. Even the better materials and construction of the CX980 could help in this regard as compared to the CX300.
    I was listening tonight to my vinyl transcription from my latest album (HiQ LP003-English String Music, EMI, 1963) via the CX300 fed from my XCan V8 with an additional 85 ohms inline impedance. Just holding the housing with my fingers helped the bass bleed and detail significantly meaning that the mere choice of materials would make a big difference. Then it just becomes a case of sins of omission.
  12. nihontoman

    Yeah,I think the reason it sounded better is because you blocked the vents thus reducing bass response. Try blocking the vents with some adhesive tape - may be much more enjoyable sound for you.

    As for having limited access to headphones,I can relate to that- only thing I can get here are some cheap sennheisers and beats by dre :frowning2: can you check out Sony iems in your area? If you can, try out xb90ex. I,m enjoying them very much :)
  13. james444 Contributor
    Maybe you should give the Sony MH1 a listen. They're budget IEMs with well balanced mid/upper range and decent extension. They too have considerable bass boost, but mainly exaggerate deep bass and steer reasonably clear of the mids.
  14. ADD
    I got the Eytmotic ER4S today. Interesting. They actually have a very similar presentation indeed to the PXC300 suprre-aural headphones I have been using for the last 5 years, but without the distortions and noise added by the noise cancelling circuitary. This would have come close to sealing the deal, but unfortunately I could only get that particular sound signature with the large triple flanges which are unbelievably uncomfortable (I was actually grimacing in pain and had a headache after removing them). I then tried those new grey glider tips and they are more comfortable but I lose the sonic signature. Then out of interest I tried the foam tips. I was a bit surprised to find these were uncomfortable too, since I use the Shure Olives with my SE215 and find them 100% comfortable. I wouldn't have thought there would be such a difference in comfort from the Ety grey foam tips to the Shure black Olives, but that seems to be the case. It did not help that my ear canals were very sensitised from using the triple flanges for an hour or so previously.
    Whatever the case, these are definitely some way ahead of all other IEMs I have tried for classical, but then again they do seem to share some of the weaknesses of the PXC300 as well (namely a bit thin sounding). But I noticed the sound improving after a couple of hours which again was surprising, but they definitely seem to be smoothing out and are becoming more cohesive.
    Not sure what I will do with these. The comfort is very poor but they do sound promising. I will have to look into what tips are compatible with these - maybe the comply tips work and give me a good sonic signature without the discomfort of all the tips supplied in the package. There is another advantage with the Etymotics too - aftermarket cables such as the Toxic brand.
    I am also thinking about the new Musicial Fidelity EB50 IEMs, as I have been a fan of Musicial Fidelity gear for 20 years now and my headphone amplifiers are Musical Fidelity. And they would be far more comfortable than the Etymotics too - probably about as comfortable as my CX300. 

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