IEM for audiophile starter, entry level vs. TOTL
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discotexx

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Hey Head-Fi-ers!

I’ve been reading the forums for quite a while now and I could read a considerable amount of very detailed reviews and impressions from the community that helped me a lot to narrow down the search for an IEM that will fit my needs and requirements. Thanks so far! +1 For finalising my decision I’d like to ask you to give me some recommendations on whether to go for this one or that one. Budget is around USD $2000.

I’m looking for an everyday IEM, primarily for use in office and at home with my smartphone/laptop. For the office I currently own an iFi ZEN DAC which is quite nice at this price point. But since it’s not a portable device I’m thinking of upgrading it to an Audioquest Cobalt or Chord Mojo which is even pricier, maybe a DAP if this is the better solution. I mean this is not the main topic of this thread, but I highly appreciate some recommendations also on this part of my audiophile journey.

My favourite music is Classic Rock, Metal and Alternative/Punk. But I also enjoy listening to 80ies, ambient techno, vocal house and classical music quite frequently. I’m also interested in music that I don’t necessarily enjoy listening to, but if it’s an outstanding production I’d love to listen to that just to get a better understanding what impact a quality mastering actually can have and just to broaden my musical mind.

As a source I will primarily use TIDAL and Spotify with my iPhone or MacBook. I currently own a lot of compact discs, but I’m too lazy to rip ‘em and put ‘em on some SD card or NAS.

TBH when reading a lot of reviews I fell in love with all the Campfire Audio IEMs, especially the Polaris V2, Andromeda Gold and the Solaris. Not only for their overall beauty, but also for their specs and reviewers’ opinions on them. I was also considering the Atlas, but this seems to be replaced by a successor in the near future. I was NOT considering the Andromeda OG, since it is some kind of analytical, more neutral IEM which lacks of bass and tonality.

I was also thinking of the Meze Rai Penta which is a competitor to the Solaris, but at a lower price point. Also considering Final Audio A8000 and Sony IER-Z1R, but these are even pricier than the Solaris.

I think the Polaris V2 could be a good start into that new IEM experience, but since I know that there is always that monkey/beast that needs to be fed I’ll definitely start looking for an upgrade latest by the end of the year, because generally I’m curious about that top notch 5% and how it’ll perform.

So, for me it’s more a fundamental decision to go for a “basic” IEM and maybe upgrade the DAC (or get a DAP) quite soon or directly enter the audiohpile world with kinda TOTL/endgame IEM.

What is your opinion on that?

Cheers,
Tim
 
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mattiav

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The greatest improvement comes at the bits closest to your ears - start with the IEM, then amp, then DAC. Assuming your source files are good.
Is there anywhere you can audition stuff before buying? I mean, I went with Campfire stuff blind (no realistic options for auditions near me), and I’m certainly satisfied with my Andromeda S (which isn’t what I’d call neutral, but it is detailed), and with the Atlas (bass monster but once you get used to it surprisingly detailed in its own right), but they are among the more finicky when it comes to source (extremely sensitive, hissy with the wrong source/output impedance). I’m still on the lookout for a hybrid option that may suit me (different flavour if you will), but want to audition that before going in blind.
 
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surfgeorge

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I am going to give the exact opposite advice, it is much easier tobuy an excellent DAC/Amp than the right IEM.
I have bought the Chord Mojo 2 years ago and at that time I really struggled with the decision of spending €400 on a DAC/Amp, but I swear, I never looked back or regretted it.
I bought a used DAP of the >1000€ class once to just check if the Mojo is really that good, and quickly sold it again. You can start without a DAC, but you will not hear the quality your IEM is capable of delivering, especially once you approach TOTL level.

Since then I have gone through a couple of thousand Euros in IEMs and I had good experience using Crinacle's list and Toranku's opinions as a reference. They have heard a lot of IEMs, are not afraid of talking about weaknesses and I generally can agree with their opinions.

IEM wise - what is your experience?
A big part of whether you will really like the IEM is the fit and the tips, that really can make a world of a difference in comfort and a significant difference in sound.
My ear canals are a little narrow and my ears are just average size, and I found the Solaris to sound excellent when I tried it but it didn't feel very secure. But I only briefly tried it.

The Polaris is extremely bass boosted - do you really want that?

Sony IER-Z1 really blew my mind with it's intensity, that was like that earth shattering "Dolby THX" sound they play in the movie theatre. I was left wondering if it would not be too much most of the time, but it sure was mighty impressive. Soundstage also amazing. Only the mids were a bit recessed.

But to answer your question - If you anyway want to upgrade, then bettter go for a TOTL right away, maybe buy used if you are not sure than you can sell it if you don't like it.
Or even better if you ave a chance to listen before buying.

PS: I have seen some Meh reviews about the Rai Penta - would not consider it as a competitor to the Solaris.
PPS: If you like it a little bassier, but still crystal clear and detailed I am just selling my A&K T8iE MKII to finance the next purchases. Ranked above the Solaris on Crinacle's list
 
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discotexx

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@mattiav Really like the fact that you haven‘t been disappointed by going blind for a Campfire IEM. Would expect the same happening to me when I buy Polaris or Solaris.

@surfgeorge I think your point is totally valid and it makes sense to me to go for a decent DAC first. I have a feeling that at first sight the DAC probably will make a clearly audible difference to an unexperienced listener like me than the nuances from Andromeda Gold over Solaris or whatsoever. That is what I’ve already experienced with the ZEN DAC paired with a cheap pair of earbuds. To me it sounds like a huge difference! But that’s the point: Since I don’t want to use these crappy earbuds or my B&W P5 S2 (in favor of in-ears) anymore I need at least some new IEM now. Respecting the budget I could go for a combo like Mojo/Polaris (and save some money for next iteration), or beam me directly to almost final level (IER-Z1R, Solaris etc.). At which price point are you selling the A&K?

Unfortunately I don’t see any options to audition stuff. I mean it is not just due to the Corona situation, sadly there are no dealers near me that actually sell these brands.
 
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The greatest improvement comes at the bits closest to your ears - start with the IEM, then amp, then DAC. Assuming your source files are good.
Is there anywhere you can audition stuff before buying? I mean, I went with Campfire stuff blind (no realistic options for auditions near me), and I’m certainly satisfied with my Andromeda S (which isn’t what I’d call neutral, but it is detailed), and with the Atlas (bass monster but once you get used to it surprisingly detailed in its own right), but they are among the more finicky when it comes to source (extremely sensitive, hissy with the wrong source/output impedance). I’m still on the lookout for a hybrid option that may suit me (different flavour if you will), but want to audition that before going in blind.
I'm going to agree with mattiav here, the first step should always be to upgrade IEM, then amp/DAC if you still have some sound issues. Now, you do have a big baller budget of $2000 USD, so you have a lot of flexibility here. I'll list a couple of suggestions in order from which I think would have the best payout for you, but by no means am I saying this is the objectively best way to do things.

  1. Many people have an IEM rotation, they don't just listen to one IEM. With that in mind, my number one suggestion is...
    • Spend around $200-300 (total, not per IEM) on budget Hi-Fi IEMs to find your sound(s). Warm vs bright, bass vs mids vs treble, bass/treble tolerance, how much do you value imaging/soundstage? After testing a couple of IEMs out, you might have a better idea of if you want one IEM for all sounds or multiple IEMs you can swap around. Once you find your sound, you can decide how to better invest into your audio experience.
  2. If you don't want to invest time/money on budget Hi-Fi and just want to dive in...
    • I suggest buying a couple of mid-fi IEMs over one TOTL IEM. Think of it as not putting all your eggs in one basket. If you buy 3 mid-fi IEMs, you might dislike one but still enjoy the other two. If you buy one TOTL IEM and don't like it, you're SOL. Of course, you can always resell on the secondary market, but you're losing money that way. Also, selling one mid-fi IEM is less of a loss then selling 1 TOTL IEM. It's hard to resell IEMs right now because people don't necessarily have the money right now.
  3. DAC/AMP comes last, UNLESS...
    1. While testing those IEMs, did you encounter any noise/clipping/volume issues (too loud or not loud enough)/compression/artifacts? If you did, that means you need a DAC and/or Amp. If not, I would push DAC/Amp upgrades further down the line, especially since IEMs don't require much power.
  4. If you decide to buy a DAC/amp, what is your general use case? You mention you want portable, but then you also say you mostly listen at home/work.
    1. Do you need something small enough to fit in your pocket for on-the-go use? Then a USB DAC/Amp or bluetooth amp might be best.
    2. Do you simply need something you can carry around between work/home (transportable vs portable)? Then you can make do with a bigger DAC/amp (shameless biased plug, I love the iFi Micro iDSD Black Label if you want a transportable DAC/Amp. It has IEMatch built in so you'll have no hissing issues on any IEM. Campfire Audio IEMs are notorious for their hissing issues because of the high sensitivity. Also gives you more volume play if you listen at lower volume levels).
Your music choice is decently diverse enough that I can't suggest just one sound profile to fit all your music; that is why I highly suggest finding your sound before diving deep. Hope this helps!
 
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I guess it depends on your understanding of your own psychology with these types of decisions:

I think the Polaris V2 could be a good start into that new IEM experience, but since I know that there is always that monkey/beast that needs to be fed I’ll definitely start looking for an upgrade latest by the end of the year, because generally I’m curious about that top notch 5% and how it’ll perform.
From the outside it sounds like you are preparing to throw $600* into a hole (full disclosure: I do not like this IEM). Could you end up being content/acclimated to the Polaris and lose that curiosity? That seems like a positive outcome. If you wind up being chased by hungry monkeys with a $2000 IEM, that could add up to a lot of money down a lot of holes, especially since you don't seem to have a super clear idea of the type of sound you are looking for- More often than not seems to be what chasing "better" gear ends up being about (as I have learned the hard way, but YMMV).

This is also ignoring other factors like- will it even fit you comfortably? That's a pretty important one with IEMs in my experience (i.e. do not underestimate how friggin huge the Solaris is).

*If you do find yourself preferring this 'starter' IEM route, FWIW I think there are much lower priced IEMs that keep up quite well with the high end stuff (e.g. at half the price or less Drop/JVC FDX1, Sony N3, Etymotic Er2/4). DAC-wise it's kind of the same scenario, but even less obvious improvements (except certain iem/dac matching quagmires).
 
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Very good points from @Raketen :thumbsup::thumbsup:
Especially the one about the intermediate IEMs like the Sony XBA-N3, JVC FDX1 or Ety ER2XR
 
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Since then I have gone through a couple of thousand Euros in IEMs and I had good experience using Crinacle's list and Toranku's opinions as a reference. They have heard a lot of IEMs, are not afraid of talking about weaknesses and I generally can agree with their opinions.

IEM wise - what is your experience?
A big part of whether you will really like the IEM is the fit and the tips, that really can make a world of a difference in comfort and a significant difference in sound.
My ear canals are a little narrow and my ears are just average size, and I found the Solaris to sound excellent when I tried it but it didn't feel very secure. But I only briefly tried it.
I'm also going to echo some of Surfgeorge's words here; I am also a fan of Crinacle and Toranku's work. I wouldn't blindly take their word as gospel, but their reviews are fairly critical and accurate when it comes to pinpointing "issues" or "differences" in IEMs.

Fit/comfort is also crucial when it comes to identifying potential IEMs to purchase. I love my Solaris, but I do find myself adjusting them a couple of times an hour because they can cause some hotspots on my ear. This is another reason I suggest buying a bunch of budget Hi-Fi IEMs, not just so you can discover your sound preference, but also your fit preference.
 
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I love this thread especially due to folks emphasizing fit. Fit is a funny thing as never is someone going to truly gain the understanding of how an IEM truly sounds without correct fit.

In basic terms the concept of fit is everything and importance can’t be underestimated.

But.
Folks all have different ears and there is a wide range of IEM shape. So in the end it’s up to finding out fit either by a long demo or a purchase. The crazy thing is fit can actually take a while to determine. Obviously it’s the tip with a universal which is the intermediary between the IEM and the ear. Finding the right tip is actually of top importance not only for fit but tips actually determine sound character to a point.

Hilariously once it took me two years to get an IEM to fit right. Not to make all this more convoluted than it already is, but a person can actually think they have fit when they almost have fit. The fit when correct will determine if the owner is actually hearing what the builder actually had in mind as a goal. Tips and fit determine soundstage, imaging, bass response and treble character; really everything.

It’s safe to say some IEMs are notorious for not fitting everyone as well as famous easy to fit models for sale.

The final concept of fit is comfort; meaning the right tip actually results in how the IEM interferes with your ear making it comfortable or not! Also of course the basic shape of the IEM with the right tip is going to determine comfort. This whole comfort thing can actually take a while to ascertain. So like new shoes it can only be after a day that true reality is able to be understood.

Owning the IER-Z1R and having it questioned about in the original post inquiry; I will make some opinions.

The IER-Z1R doesn’t fit everyone. But along with fit over-all tone needs to be addressed. After owning the IER-Z1R for a year I still hold it in high regards in reference to what it can do technically. It’s not the most detailed IEM but is highly detailed. Some folks complain about the three driver technologies not blending. Meaning there is coherence issues found by some due to the DD super tweeter the BA mid; combined with the big DD bass and midrange driver not blending together well. I never notice it but some talk about the issue. Also for some the IER is too bright in an area of the treble.

The biggest learning curve for an individual is leaning your tone preferences. What is correct for some is wrong sounding for others. It’s basically that no one is right or wrong in what sound they like but that some frequency response characteristics may actually bother some. :)


My thing is not liking forward midrange responses. So I can deal with relatively flat sounding IEMs but rather have a slight V shape or recession in the lower mids focusing attention of regular boosted mids.

Remember too, your going to have folks falling in love with forward focused midrange and forward treble response curves. For these types they look at the response as actually having more detail. Manufacturing has added brighter treble as a way of adding the feeling of higher resolution.

So knowing yourself is the key to knowing what you can tolerate. We will always read about folks purchasing outside their comfort zone and trying to acclimate to the pushy signature. This can be too much bass or too much treble or both. Though most will complain about too much treble causing fatigue.

So it’s this ongoing balance of detail and brightness, excitement from bass response and fantastic imaging which is pulling on our emotion and getting us to purchase. It’s not until months later that we know if something is a keeper. Hindsight is always 20/20.

It’s a balance of file quality, DAP quality and IEM quality combined with overall group synergy which determines end sound. Basically everything matters.
 
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Wow... somehow you managed to get a lot of really excellent input from @hkpants @Redcarmoose and @Raketen
You must have asked the right questions, I have rarely seen such a collection of valuable know how from experienced head-fiers in such a short period of time.

Maybe onbe last aspect to add - most head-fiers are enjoying the journey (or are crazy, depending on whom you ask) about finding the perfect sound and products within their budget. Some in the budget range, some in the mid level and some in the TOTL range. It does feel a little crazy in this world sometimes, and can be pretty addictive.

But there are also those who happily buy 1 DAP and 1 IEM and use it for years until something breaks and then they return to ask for advice on their next purchase.

I enjoy the journey, but I also envy those happy people who just enjoy the music and don't worry about the next little improvement. They saved a lot of money and time that they can use on other, maybe more important things in life.
Amen :wink:
 
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Redcarmoose

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There has been and will always be an ever changing set of ideas here. Meaning posts like this ask for advice and there is a ton of great knowledge and wisdom about headphones here; but nothing ever stays the same.

Some folks say there is no end?

My answer is yes, there can be an end. Our goal is to arrive at musical reproduction which enables us to forget about equipment. This is a web site about equipment which has a goal of actually forgetting about equipment. The process of music reproduction should fall away while listening with full concentration of the music at hand. That is unless someone is just into more gear.

In the end of a purchase curve buying should start to slow down. A person is either at their objective or vary close. But even at this critical end point there are variations of ideas.

Take a look at the “Rank Your Headphones Thread” and take note peoples opinions are changing every six months at times. So these are people with a collection which somehow changes values every six months. Headphones in third place jump to first place. The listener is finding character which was over-looked or not appreciated before.

Also people can have their sound signature preferences change over time. Back in 2010 we had large groups of new headphone buyers which came in to Head-Fi believing that the consumer tune was audiophile and all they would ever need. Many after exposure to a more flat and neutral response, found there was more enjoyment to be had. Even corporations who became famous for a significant house sound would get new engineers who would revamp the company’s ideas as to what was correct.

So stuff is always changing and there is a good chance that someone may want something else after a year. Nothing replaces making a purchase though. Meaning most here have made buying mistakes or had headphones which were stepping stones to where they are now. The information and advice from a thread like this only goes so far to give a person clues. Nothing can replace going to a Head-Fi meet or knowing someone with a nice collection to try.

First hand exposure to listening to an IEM can always be more valuable than anything you would ever read. If anything Head-Fi has helped people get clues or learn what to look for on a demo.
 
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Actually comfort depends more on ears. I have narrover ear canal so for example I could not have Noble IEMs becouse thier nozzle is so fat that I can not get to my ears even with smaller one tip and thier shape also needs deep insertion but for example Campfire have shallow fit and for me it is very comfortable and no problem with my narrow ear canal.
And of course tips is important as well.
 
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discotexx

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Wow, very impressive! So much valuable input. Need some time to go through all of that. Thanks so far! :thumbsup:
 
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I would recommend you to have some audition, find out what is the best for you. Like what others mentioned, fit is absolutely important too. I always disappointed if the fit does not give me good isolation. No isolation = no sound quality to be discussed.

Perhaps you can purchase two or even three with your budget to do a rotation.
 
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discotexx

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My first conclusion is: Thanks/unfortunately to my curiosity I will definitely throw some money down some holes. :sweat_smile:

You put so many interesting aspects to that discussion, I want to take them all into consideration.

Looks like it will become some iterative process, so I will get a better idea of my personal sound and fit preference. I totally understand that especially fit is super important in terms of soundstage, imaging and comfort, of course.

I think, the first outcome of this thread is that I will get a Mojo for me, so I can compare it to the ZEN DAC and to have a DAC to enjoy listening on the sofa at home.

Then I will get me a set of budget to mid-level IEM like JVC-FD0x, Sony XBA-N3, Fiio FH-5, Ety ER4, iBasso IT04 and the CA Polaris, so I can start discovering on my personal journey.
 
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