Astell&Kern/JH Audio Billie Jean Impressions
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warrenpchi

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A few weeks ago, at CanJam SoCal 2018, I finally had a chance to catch up with Owen Kwon of Astell&Kern after a long winter break. In retrospect, knowing what I know now about their newest releases, I should probably visit them more often, especially since we’re practically neighbors here in Southern California. But better late than never, I had an opportunity to audition their newest collaboration with Jerry Harvey Audio (JH Audio), Billie Jean.

The Birth of a New Siren

As you’ve surmised from the name, Billie Jean is the latest in JH Audio’s Siren Series, which includes other illustrious Sirens such as Roxanne, Angie, Michelle, Lola - and my personal reference - Layla, amongst others.

Billie Jean is a dual-balanced-armature monitor, with a full-range BA for lows and mids, and a second BA for highs, per side. Yes, you read that correctly, only two BAs per side. She neither cares for, nor participates in, driver wars. You might think this somewhat odd, given that Billie Jean comes from the same acoustic mastermind that spawned my 12-driver Layla, but there was a method to this particular madness. As Jerry (Harvey) said, “after 24 years I thought I would revisit it with what I have learned and see what I could do with the minimum.”

As it turns out, what he has done is nothing short of astounding to my ears. With the aid of a new Acoustic Chamber Sound Bore, the scale and scope of Billie Jean’s acoustic output is far above and beyond what you would think is possible from a dual-driver monitor, much less a dual-BA monitor. Honestly, had I not been told it was a dual-BA, I would certainly not have guessed that it was. I know this because Owen refused to tell me the driver configuration prior to my audition, that cheeky *******, and I was shocked when he finally did.

Just in case I wasn’t clear above, Billie Jean’s presentation is, in a word, immense!

Impressions

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Beginning with an overview of Billie Jean’s frequency response, I’d have to say that she gets a lot very, very right for me. Her signature sits on that fine razor’s edge, between being balanced and musical, rather flawlessly and without teetering to one side or the other.

Bass

While I don’t care much for the Mirror’s Edge franchise of video games, I do like Chvrches’s “Warning Call” from the Catalyst soundtrack. It features a driving and relentless kick, working in concert with extended bass notes. Give it an anemic headphone or in-ear, and it’ll fall flat on it’s proverbial face… but provide it with a healthy bass response, and it’ll kick you right in the huevos… which is exactly what Billie Jean did. It may be cliche, but I found myself head-bobbing to this groove right from the start. And for those of you who saw me walking around CanJam SoCal doing so, and having a great time all by myself, in my own world, this was why.

Mid-Bass

There was a time when Information Society (INSOC) ruled the airwaves, and you couldn’t escape them even if you tried. Powered by the dance-oriented Tommy Boy records, INSOC’s beats and sampled hooks were immediately infectious. As a fan of them myself, I can tell you that they reached the pinnacle of their genius with the Space Age Mix of their hit single, “Walking Away.”

Getting this track right requires a tight, fast and impactful mid-bass that attacks and decays before you even know what hit you… neither lingering nor bleeding into the mid-range in the process. Walking Away’s synth bass, break beats and orchestral stabs demand such a response. And I’m happy to say that Billie Jean nails it, absolutely nails it! If you get a chance to audition this track with Billie Jean, do yourself a favor and spend some time with the building climax between 3:13 and 5:46 - it will give you chills.

But Billie Jean is by no means a basshead’s in-ear. There is no thick or oppressive bass here. With Echosmith’s “Bright” from *Talking Dreams* we are treated to wonderfully full stand-up bass passages with as much pluck, texture and resonance as full-size headphones. “Bright” also gives us a glimpse into Billie Jean’s slightly-forward but very clear mid-range capabilities

Mid-Range

There’s no point beating around this bush. If cleanliness is truly next to godliness, then Billie Jean’s mid-range presentation is absolutely divine.

One of my perennial test tracks, Sarah Jarosz’s “Ring Them Bells,” illustrates this perfectly. The vocals (both lead and harmony), mandolin and fiddle each share center stage - while maintaining their coherency and clarity effortlessly - so as to sound incredibly lifelike and visceral. I will never experience an opportunity have Sarah Jarosz sing this to me so intimately in real life, but I would gladly accept this as a substitute.

Highs

Those who know me, as well as my particular listening preferences, will attest to my irritatingly-demanding nitpickiness when it comes to high-frequency response. In many ways, I demand a Goldilocks-like level of perfection. There must be sparkle, and air, and a gossamer delicacy that never leaves me wanting. And yet, at the same time, I detest sibilance and harshness. It’s 2018 people, personal audio has come a long way, and we deserve headphones and in-ears that can get this right - which Billie Jean does.

With The Carpenters’s “Touch Me When We’re Dancing” - other than some hats and bells - there isn’t a whole lot going on in terms of high-frequency fundamentals. But the upper harmonics of that percussion work is everything to this track (no slight to Miss Karen Carpenter of course). That open airiness sets the entire mood of this track, lending it the hopeful optimism that Karen Carpenter is so desperately trying to convey. It’s ever so delicate, and so easy to miss, but Billie Jean renders that top end sparkle brilliantly.

At the same time, Billie Jean seems to be nearly sibilant-proof. Taking a listen to Owl City’s “Honey and The Bee” - a track that is masochistically laden with more sibilance that I can possibly describe with words - I was pleased to find that Billie Jean would have none of that nonsense, as she deftly gave a very improperly mic’d Breanne Duren the hand. Bravo Billie Jean. Slow clap.

Pop! Pop! Pop Music!

As you can see, I’ve been describing Billie Jean with a variety of artists, almost none of which could be called pure pop. I did so to emphasize that Billie Jean’s signature is, to my ears, almost universal in it’s appeal. I found it to be equally adept with almost every genre I could throw at it. That said, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least point out that she is a genius with pop music.

Being that the Billie Jean is manufactured in Korea, I decided to throw an old school K-Pop/R&B ballad at it. Of course, I am speaking of that timeless classic, Solid’s “이밤의끝을잡고.” Not surprisingly, Billie Jeans bass capabilities brought out the best in those drum machine samples, while it’s mid-range conveyed all of Solid’s boy band sensibilities, with all the poignancy you’d expect from a trio of Korean-America boys once regarded to be Korea’s Boyz II Men.

I’ve visited Disneyland 137 times in my life, with many of those hours spent in their Magic Eye Theater, the official venue of Captain EO. As such, I’ve had many a chance to hear Michael Jackson’s “Another Part of Me” in what I believe to be the definitive reference setting for that track. With the possible exception that it might be lacking some of the upper mid-range bite that the Magic Eye Theater’s studio monitors can provide, Billie Jean harkens me right back to those showings. The bassline, in particular, is especially visceral in transporting me back to those times. “Another Part of Me,” sung through Billie Jean's voice, reminded me of why we call him The Prince of Pop.

And finally, before Michael Jackson thrilled us on his own, he excited us as part of The Jacksons, with a very inspirational “Can You Feel It?” Nearly every part of this track is evocatively rendered with a sense of purity and spirit - particularly the brass and orchestral components - which can often become quite muddy when laid amidst a pop/funk base. This also leads me to believe that Billie Jean may excel at Disco as well. Though understandably, I did not test that genre at all.

Build, Fit & Finish

If I’m honest, I don’t have too much to say about Billie Jean’s build quality so far.

I couldn’t have spent more than a few hours with that pre-production unit, and I certainly wasn’t able to torture test one of only two units available in the world at that time. But from what I did see, touch and feel - I certainly found the build to be on par with other A&K/JH collaborations as of late (e.g. Michelle, Michelle Limited, etc.)

And while the fit and finish doesn’t proclaim luxury from any rooftops, I was enthused to see faceplates using a Kevlar and carbon fiber weave protecting the access hard points that surely must be hidden beneath them.

Overall, I found Billie’s build/fit/finish to be commensurate with it’s asking price ($349 USD) as well as it’s position within the Siren Series (it’s the most accessible Siren to date).

My Verdict So Far?

One would think, that with a custom Layla as my daily driver, I would find Billie Jean to be somewhat pedestrian. I don’t. In fact, I am completely enamored with it! Like some of you, I probably wouldn’t mind a custom version of it for even better isolation, but I have no significant complaints about the universal Billie Jean that I auditioned, none at all.

Now, I don’t have Billie Jean here with me, as the one we’ve been field testing is currently at Head-Fi HQ. As a result, I miss her terribly. But I’ve already placed my pre-order with Astell&Kern, so that I can be amongst the first to enjoy her as soon as possible.

And while I would continue to use my Layla and it’s reference tuning for critical listening, I am pretty confident that Billie Jean will become my new daily driver upon her arrival. She’s an absolute joy to listen to, pure and simple.
 
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XERO1

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Awesome post and review, Warren!

Now I'm super-pissed that I didn't give these a listen at CanJam.

I won't make that mistake twice!
 
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ebjarrell

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I may have to pull the trigger and get me some of these and replace my Fischer Amps.
 
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Having listened to dual BA like hum prisitine , sd2 and q-jays I believe the push for more driver isn't necessary for better sound, there is still more left to exract from simpler driver configuration.
 
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Dvl Kubo

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I actually tried these at the head phone fes here in japan yesterday and today and for being only 2ba i was very surprised at the sound.
There is bass and its like the punchy enjoyable bass compared with Michelle honestly it gives michelle a run for its money they did a really good job with these and i am getting one for myself and my girlfriend
 
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misteral201103

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Having listened to dual BA like hum prisitine , sd2 and q-jays I believe the push for more driver isn't necessary for better sound, there is still more left to exract from simpler driver confirmation.
Any comments on soundstage? From what you remember...
 
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jant71

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I actually tried these at the head phone fes here in japan yesterday and today and for being only 2ba i was very surprised at the sound.
There is bass and its like the punchy enjoyable bass compared with Michelle honestly it gives michelle a run for its money they did a really good job with these and i am getting one for myself and my girlfriend

So, if the Michelle Limited comes with both cables, the better hard case, the third driver, and performs better(even if not that much better) what is the draw of the Billie Jean at $349 vs. the Michelle LTD at $399. Both on the A & K site and Moon Audio only $50. Perhaps $299 is a better price? Was interested in BillIe Jean but now probably more towards the LTD :)
 
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Glebuzzz

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So, if the Michelle Limited comes with both cables, the better hard case, the third driver, and performs better(even if not that much better) what is the draw of the Billie Jean at $349 vs. the Michelle LTD at $399. Both on the A & K site and Moon Audio only $50. Perhaps $299 is a better price? Was interested in BillIe Jean but now probably more towards the LTD :)
Yeah, true. I think even something like 309/319 usd would be more reasonable.
 
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davidcotton

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Just after ive spent all of my money on some JH 3Xpro CIEMs!
Well you will have the comfort of the ciems if nothing else :p
 
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These appear to have a 2-pin connection - does that mean that they don't have the bass-pod/attenuator that the other siren series have?
 
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