Head-Direct RE1 review
Nov 17, 2008 at 6:08 PM Thread Starter Post #1 of 7

MD1032

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Head-Direct RE1 Review

This review comes extremely late, but this is the first week I’ve only had one test and not much else. Hooray for Team College-Fi!

Firstly, let me thank Fang for attending the NJ meet. Everyone enjoyed the gear he brought and I personally really enjoyed chatting with him.

Let me start with a bit of a preface here: I think Fang runs an absolutely model headphone company, and I’m writing this review because I’ve become a fan after talking with the guy multiple times and listening to and observing his products. I think of him as sort of the John Grado of in-ear headphones. He doesn’t just measure the heck out of things, he listens to them. I think Etymotic makes some great IEM’s, in fact, I own the iM716’s, and I love those things. They offer a really realistic sound for the price and some of the best detail available in an IEM, period. Still, when it comes down to it, to be honest, I think Etymotic relies too much on their measurements and not enough on what their own ears can tell them about their product. Frequency response can be measured to be flat and then change completely when you put the IEM into an actual ear. To me, the flaw that Etymotic has is in their tonality, that is, their earphones sound shifted towards the treble and don’t have enough bass compared to what I personally hear in real life.

Fang works very closely with his engineers when designing an IEM to achieve the sound that he wants. He told me that he’ll go through loads of prototypes, and will continually audition and send back prototypes for modification, and when he gets something that sounds right, he’ll have it made as a model. He works very hard on his products and takes great pride in presenting them. I don’t quite understand why his products are so poorly received by some. I went to the first NYC meet that Fang attended where he debuted the now-famous PK1 earbuds, and everyone that was there was just blown away by them, since a high-end earbud simply did not exist beforehand. At every subsequent meet I’ve been to where Fang has attended, everyone I’ve seen that has auditioned his products has admitted that, despite their appearance, Fang’s earphones really kick some major butt. Then when I go onto the forums, I see people reading about them, buying them, and saying that they’re nothing special. Perhaps some of this has to do with pricing and styling, since Fang prices his earphones very competitively and they are not as aggressively stylized as some of the other companies. Well, my opinion is that, in terms of the value of the actual sound, Head-Direct’s earphones are completely obliterating the competition. Not only has Fang cranked out more new models of earphones in the past couple years than most other headphone manufacturers combined, he’s cranked new models that sound really good, offer a fresh approach to sound in IEM’s and earbuds, and are priced very well on top of it all.

NJ Meet summary, or why I have these earphones: I met Fang at the meet, he had several new products I hadn’t head before. One was the newer OK series, which was a very interesting series that, while shaped like an earbud like the PK series, features a sort of insertable tube to convert them into sound-isolating earphones. I tried these just as earbuds and was absolutely blown away. In my opinion, the OK1’s are even better than the PK1’s, and I would challenge anyone to test them and tell me they don’t sound like huge full-size cans. Their sensitivity was unreal. Anyway, another newer series was the RE series, which really piqued my interest, because they’re definitely aimed at the EX71SL style market… I shouldn’t make that association, though. Put them in, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the sound they offer. He had the RE2 headphones and the upper model, the RE1’s, as well as a prototype for the flagship RE0, which will be an all-metal earphone that I am absolutely certain will be a killer earphone when it is released. The prototype he had on hand was a bit bright-sounding, but he acknowledged this beforehand and reminded me that it was a prototype, and that he already was working on a newer prototype that would preserve the great detail that earphone had while toning down the brightness. The craftsmanship on that earphone, though, frankly, puts Shure and many others to shame. Look out for that sucker when it comes out.

At any rate, I was really surprised at how good the RE2’s and RE1’s sounded, so much so, that I decided to get a pair of RE1’s and review them. The RE2’s are $100, and the RE1’s are $170. I have the RE1’s, since they’re a large improvement over the RE2’s for the jump in price. Let’s see how they go up against the competition, shall we?

Comparison phones:

Shure E3 ($200)

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Altec-Lansing iM716 ($20, but my understanding is that they’re similar to or identical to (often debated) the ER-4S, which is about $200)

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Reference headphone: Grado HF-1 with flat pads
Equipment: Echo Indigo into that same dang portable amp made by tpg that I’ve had for years. Yes, I know it’s time for an upgrade, but I’m a college student, and the rig as it sounds right now is nearly ideal to my ears, and it’s a real surprise for most people given its size.

The main object of comparison here is the Shure E3, which were my phones of choice for a while and were quite popular when they were released. I was supposed to have vmoda vibes for this review, and a pair of Westone UM1’s, but I forgot the Westones at home and the vmoda order got cancelled for some reason. Gah.

1) Construction

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After opening the actually legit supplied case (I hate that stupid iM716 case), you’ll find a variety of tips to use, the extension, and the phones themselves. The RE1’s are much like the Sony EX71SL’s in style, but much more robust, and with a superior finish. The EX71’s had some serious problems with their cabling. It would just disintegrate within a year. Fang’s earphones may look simple, but it’s pretty clear that the construction was well thought-out. The cord is simple, and not as thick and robust as Shure’s, but it works perfectly and it hardly weighs anything. It uses a very small, ipod-like straight 1/8” plug. The earphones also come with a really nice extension. This is the perfect solution. The earphones’ cord is 3 feet long inherently, for use at a computer or with a remote, and 5 feet long with the extension. The extension has a nice, matching finish and is extremely lightweight… you literally won’t even be able to tell that it’s there (also, everything’s gold plated). I wish other manufacturers would figure this out, because trust me, I’ve used quite a few in-line extensions and remotes, and they all had that same irritating characteristic of feeling like they’re about to rip the earphones out of your ears. Other earphones don’t come with one and then have cords that are too short (iGrado, IMO). It’s nice to know someone figured out a way to make this work. Overall, the build quality is excellent. There’s no seams jutting out anywhere of the plastic or even a seam near where the gold meets the plastic body.

In terms of insertion, I need to make a special note here: these earphones insert and seal faster than any earphone I’ve ever used, period. I use the foam tips on most of my phones but switch out for the Shure gray soft tips occasionally and even those don’t compare to these earphones. I found that if I just push the biflange in with the cord facing front, and give the earphones a quarter twist downward, they’re in… no muss, no fuss. I’ve never been able to insert earphones this fast before in my life and have them sound right.

2) Sound

To evaluate the sound, I first “rebiased” myself by listening to the sample track through my Grado HF-1’s, and then went through each earphone in a random order. I would then trade off between the three earphones and add to my initial comments using the earphones themselves for reference (since my ears would forget how the Grados sound by then). I think this is pretty fair. The reason I use the Grados as a reference is because, frankly, they trounce all of the earphones I’m reviewing in every aspect (as they should as full-size open headphones).

OK, so I decided to start with some blues since I listen to that quite frequently and I’m familiar with it. If you’re familiar with the title track from “Heavy Love” by Buddy Guy, you’d know it has a real nice, well-mixed intro with some instrumental complexity. It might not be my favorite song, but I’m analyzing headphones here. Buddy has a really distinctive guitar tone, so let’s see how well these phones can do this.

E3: I use the foam tips with these since they sound the best and the isolation is great. These are an especially rude awakening after hearing the Grados. The first thing I noticed is that the soundstage is quite compressed compared to the other phones. The treble sounds recessed and the drums really don’t have much snap or body. The bass seems a bit recessed, although it isn’t missing any range. On the other hand, the vocals are easy to pick out, and the guitar is really clear. Overall, the instruments are well-separated but seem suppressed somehow. On this track, these phones favor the midrange and drop the ball on the treble and the bass.

RE1: I use the white biflange silicone tips for these. The stock opaque silicone tips are great in that you can insert them faster, but I find the white tips fit my small ears a little bit better if I take a second to get them right. These definitely isolate less than the E3’s and iM716’s, but are still a huge improvement over any earbud. I find the isolation sufficient for bus rides and such. These sound much better in the treble than the Shures, with much better detail and clearer cymbals. The soundstage opens up a bit as a result. The drums have more snap and resonance and, overall, you’ll pay better attention to the music immediately. These phones also favor the midrange, but it’s much improved over the E3’s. Whenever there’s a guitar entrance with these, make no mistake, it will absolutely grab you! The tone sounds sweeter and the vocals seem less muffled. The amount of bass is about the same, but it’s a little easier to hear since the higher-harmonic ranges are brought out more. This track exposes the fact that the Shures have some serious problems with sounding muffled, and the RE1’s easily confront and solve this problem.

iM716: These have a very distinct sound signature. The instruments are extremely clear, extremely well separated, but they just don’t seem to have much body to their sound. Am I suggesting that there’s not enough low end? Not really, in fact, the bass is definitely there and quite audible, but the earphones seem to have overcompensated for the muffling effect the Shures have and overshot the “flat” frequency response area and landed in a place where there’s no upper bass or lower midrange to support all of the awesome detail coming out of the treble range. The cymbals aren’t harsh, but they stick out, and they will be fatiguing over time, make no mistake. Now, these phones do have a “bass” option, and to be honest, it does bring up the bass and make the phones sound fuller and better, but it sounds farty/woofy/artificial, so it’s not perfect.

The next track up is Jongen’s “Toccata from the Symphony Concertante” played by Virgil Fox on the album “The Digital Fox”, which is basically the only hi-fi recording he ever did, unfortunately.

iM716: These phones Achilles heel in reproducing this recording is that there’s not nearly enough bass. The upper ranges are wonderfully detailed and the mixtures are nice and sharp, indicating a really nice high-frequency extension. The pedal, though, is simply being drowned by the rest of the sound. This is nowhere near close to what it’s like in real life, where the pedal (bass notes) from most organs will rattle your internal organs. I restarted the track with the bass setting on, and it sounded much better, but still not as full as I’d like. The bass is still not developed, and the midranges are somewhat recessed, so the trumpet fanfares have little body to them. The highs aren’t necessarily “strident”, but they don’t have enough under them to support them, and the tendency is to turn up the volume, which increases ear fatigue. The sound overall is very frustrating to listen to.

RE1: Compared to the iM716’s, the tonal balance is much better. The pedal, instead of being hidden, actually sounds like a developed harmonic-rich sound. The treble, on the other hand, sounds mildly muffled compared to the iM716’s, but on the positive side, the mixtures (high-range harmonics) aren’t drilling out your eardrums. The RE1’s place the organ farther from you, although the room size doesn’t necessarily sound any bigger. The midranges, instead of being hidden, are actually a little too front-and-center now. When Virgil puts enough fingers and couplers down, the sound get noticeably “busy”-sounding and a little shouty. Overall, though, I’ll take these over the Etymotic sound any day. I can at least hear everything, and the detail is still quite good, and the overall impact is absolutely the best of the three IEM’s.

E3: If the high end on the RE1’s is a step down from the iM716’s, then the high end of the E3’s sounds like another big step down. The recording actually sounds like it was made with an older generation of recording technology through the E3’s. The overall tonality is calmer and duller, and more relaxed, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing, either, because the music doesn’t quite jump at you or engage you as well with these. The low end has a little more rumble with these, but that’s a result of me increasing the volume to hear the highs well enough. Also, the lower-midrange isn’t quite as developed, so the organ doesn’t have as much overall slam to it. Overall, these earphones have much less impact. The advantage, I suppose, is that you can listen to fortissimo organ music like this all day long, but this is at the cost of the realism that the RE1’s offer.

For the next track, I decided to use one of my all-time-favorite standards, the CD “Pomp and Pipes”. I love the Dallas Wind Symphony. This section will focus on the track “Grand Chorus in Dialogue” by Gigout, which has some really nice a juicy brass parts trading off with their Fisk organ, which isn’t my favorite organ, but still has a nice sound.

RE1: The RE1’s retain the meatiness of the low brass that the Grados present surprisingly well, but are a little distant in the treble by comparison. The organ immediately sounds a little less adorned on the high-end than with the Grados. Overall, the recording is certainly still there, but it sounds like it was recorded with a different microphone that has less resolution, especially in the treble region. To some extent, this is a function of it being an IEM itself. The French horns come through very nicely, actually, with these, due to their slightly prominent midrange. This comes back to bite you at the end of the piece, though, when the sound gets really loud and becomes a little harsh and shouty. The reverberations in the nice hall they have down there sound really great and extended at the end, and that is a sign of a good headphone, in my experience.

iM716: That slightly cupped, slightly muffled sound of the RE1’s compared to the Grados is overcompensated for in these IEM’s. The treble is too prominent, which sounds mostly natural with the organ (as if another mixture as added), but artificial with the brass. The sound doesn’t sound full and juicy anymore, just bright and overdriven in the treble. The trumpets and trombones sound much too bright, as if they were playing in a marching band instead of a concert band. These guys are pros, and I know they’re not playing with a harsh sound. I tried flipping the control from HD to “bass”, and literally laughed, because it sounded like a low brass control and made the trombones/baritones/tubas sound like they were right next to the microphone or not. Overall, these instruments just don’t sound realistic with these earphones. Skipping to the ending, I found that it was harsher than the RE1’s, and in a completely different way, that is, the sound sounds almost distorted from the overload of treble information being played back. The hall doesn’t sound like it rings fully or with a full sound when the sound stops, unlike with the RE1’s. This is the first time I’ve ever heard these IEM’s sound excessively busy, and frankly, these IEM’s ruin this recording.

E3: The E3’s would be presenting an accurate sound if this recording was made in the 40’s, but, in fact, it’s a hi-fi recording made in 1993. I can’t believe how much high-end information is just simply not there with these. Yes, the brass crunch is still there, but it sounds like someone left the “high-end-cut” control left turned on, or someone put foam between the microphone and hall. The decay from the hall is there, but it sounds prematurely sloped off. On the positive side, the hall sounds a little bit bigger on these, and the end doesn’t really get busy like the other two IEM’s. The downside is that these IEM’s don’t really take the music anywhere. It does from dull to louder, and that’s about it.

For the next track, I decided that Dream Theater would be a good choice. To me, they’re somewhat representative of how modern recordings sound (ramped up bass, treble, and volume). I chose a track, “Lines In The Sand” from one of their less-bad sounding CD’s, Falling Into Infinity (their newest CD’s are almost unlistenable, they’re that compressed). Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge, huge fan of Dream Theater, but I think their CD’s need some help in the engineering department. The reason this is a good audio test is because things can get out of hand in the harshness department really fast, so let’s see if these IEM’s are up to the task of playing back this compromised sound that is all too common now.

iM716: These IEM’s surprised me on this track. I thought the sound would be intolerably harsh, but it’s only a little too harsh for my tastes. The sound is still too shifted towards the treble range, and the cymbals are a little too prominent, but I’m guessing that since it’s rock music, the sounds are less complicated and are easier to “handle” by the IEM’s, thus, less distortion, and less harshness. Frankly, the “bass” mode sounds much better with this track, fairly natural, and I can actually turn down the volume a bit and get a fairly respectable sound out of these IEM’s on this track. The mids are about right, maybe just a tad hidden. Overall, huge surprise.

E3: The drums have less “snap” with these IEM’s, but much more body. Overall, they have a little more impact, but the sound sounds very muffled overall, lacks impact, and the keyboard parts in the intro don’t have their normal sweetness. The dynamics for some reason are subdued on these IEM’s. The low-low bass is a little more present, which is nice, but overall, the sound of the bass itself is lacking and buried. The sounds of the instruments just seem to get in each others’ way with these.

RE1: The sound on these is immediately much better than the E3’s. That low-low bass in the intro isn’t quite as nice, but as soon as the drums come in, the overall sound sounds “fixed”. The muddiness is gone, the drums have a nice snap and body, although the cymbals are a little more present than I’d like them to be and without the clarity that the iM716’s have. John Myung’s bass easily sounds the best on these IEM’s. The low notes are always there, and the nice crunchy high-end aspect of the bass sound comes through much better than in either of the other phones. Really, I’m pleased with the overall sound with that small exception being the mids, which are just a little too present as usual, and as a result, the ending can get busy-sounding and the vocals can be a little shouty in that section. Part of this, though, is the recording itself. I’ll take that small problem over the other two phones.

Conclusions:

iM716: This IEM is definitely a steal for the $20, but if I had bought these as the ER-4S, I’d say Etymotic’s engineering leaves a lot to be desired… a lot of the frequency range, that is. The bass control can help bring up the bass and lower mids to a good extent in a lot of instances, but it will sound artificial at times. Overall, the biggest problem with these IEM’s is that there’s too much treble and not enough mids or bass. You’d think this would make it less ideal for rock and more ideal for classical, but that’s definitely not the case, as the strident highs make instruments sound artificial to my ears, and with the bass boost on, rock is actually tolerable because there’s less information being fed through the IEM’s than with a complex sound like an organ or wind symphony. Note that these earphones require more juice than the RE1 and E3. You might want an amp for these.

E3: For a while, the only IEM’s I owned were the E2’s and the E3’s. I thought these were pretty good for on-the-go sound, but honestly, now that I’ve seen the light, I’m really frustrated that I might have paid so much for these if I hadn’t gotten them as a gift. For the price Shure charges, and the amount of hype that went on when these were released, they’re really a disappointing pair of IEM’s now that I’ve sat down indoors and listened to them. People like Fang and companies like Westone have proved to me that you can make small headphones like IEM’s sound like full-size cans, and while I haven’t tried any of Shure’s newer line (besides the E500, which is excellent, but overpriced), I’m sure they’ve already changed their phones a decent amount to be able to compete with what the other companies are presenting right now to challenge what Shure basically started. Overall, though, if I learned one thing from this review, it’s that these are quite outdated. The advantage is that you can listen to these for days and never get ear fatigue. The disadvantage is little musical satisfaction or dynamic contrast. Also, you need an amp for these… without it, there’s no bass, and the sound is lifeless.

Positive conclusions on the RE1: These phones, for $170, are a steal. They offer a fresh, new, exciting presentation in IEM’s that sounds good at an accessible price. The highs are very well-developed and detailed without completely getting out of control and harsh like the iM716’s can be. The bass isn’t like the subwoofer bass of an IEM like the Westone UM2’s, but it’s very good and will certainly please most anyone (if not, most MP3 players have a bass boost anyway), and extends to the full range of the audio spectrum. The midranges are a guitar-lover’s dream. Guitars are very well brought-out with these IEM’s, and it’s always easy to hear the vocal lines in music containing vocals. I was very pleased with how the RE1’s presented most of my blues stuff. Overall, you don’t need to turn up the volume a lot to get the full picture out of the RE1’s. These work pretty well without an amp from my X5L but sound better with an amp. If you’re using an iPod, I’d amp it.

Negative conclusions on the RE1: The only complaint I have about the RE1’s is that they can sound “busy” during complex musical passages involving a lot of different sounds at once (amping them definitely alleviates this somewhat). The midranges, listed as a positive above, are, in some rare cases, negative because they can get shouty and a little too present. Overall, these IEM’s favor the midrange, so depending on what music you listen to, you might like or dislike them. It wasn’t a problem for me on most all of my music.

Overall statement: If you want a pair of killer earphones for under $200 that look nice, sound great, and are very portable and easy to insert and remove, these are the hot ticket. Fang’s approach to making headphones is probably not viewed as the most legitimate by companies like Shure and Etymotic, but in the end, the question you have to ask yourself is, “Do these sound good?”. You’re going to get a definite yes from me.
 
Nov 18, 2008 at 7:10 AM Post #2 of 7

ZoNtO

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Wow man, thanks for this review!

You gonna try the RE0 when they come out?
 
Nov 18, 2008 at 4:45 PM Post #3 of 7

MD1032

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In all likelihood, yes. The prototype at the meet was really good and apparently the production model is really good. Anyone else use this earphone (RE1) out there, though?
 
Nov 19, 2008 at 12:18 AM Post #5 of 7

XXII

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thanks for the review! I'm really enjoying my re1s as well and I think they are vastly underated here
 
Nov 19, 2008 at 8:43 AM Post #7 of 7

nc8000

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Very nice but wrong forum
 

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