Tagline: Stay out, or read only the parts about the RE252, RE0 and PFE, if you strongly oppose to EQing. Read on if you’re interested in how EQing can make some budget IEMs sound eerily close to top tier phones. Or read on just for the fun of it. Introduction: This writeup is kind of a mixed bag. I have the RE252, RE0 and PFE on loan from dfkt (thanks buddy!) and decided they were worth sharing some thoughts. On the other hand the Playaz N1 (and lately the Sonia II) have been my guilty pleasure for a long time and never gotten adequate appreciation in form of a proper A/B comparison to other phones. And last but not least, it all started with the IE8… About EQing (Yuck! ): I’ve been a strict non-EQer for most of my audiophile life. Why? First of all, it seemed like an ubiquitous unwritten law: “You must not equalize if you’re serious about sound quality!” Second, the law seemed justified. Whenever I secretly tried to fumble with the EQ settings on my iPod Classic or Sansa Fuze, SQ went down the drain. But there was a big problem. I had the IE8 which I loved to pieces, except for its massive mid-bass hump. I could hear tiny details in bass light music and the timbre was heavenly, but the moment the bass kicked in, everything was overpowered and spoilt. I tried every tip and fit variation and fumbled with the bass knob to little avail. I paired it with the Icon Mobile and that bettered the sound signature, but at the expense of having to carry an amp. About that time I also heard of Rockbox on the Fuze, decided to try it and that changed everything. Suddenly it was so simple, all I had to do was EQ down the 100Hz band and my IE8 sounded like an entirely different and much better phone. And there was no discernable degrading of SQ! This discovery made me question my attitude towards EQing. Why put up with the IE8's mid-bass hump when all it takes are -8db@100Hz to make them sound infinitely more likable? Then one day I came across $30 budget phones called Playaz N1 and my doubts about EQing were finally over and done with. These IEMs sounded like utter crap from a flat source, with way too much bloated bass. But what I heard of the mids under that blanket of bass seemed wonderful, and the highs were not that bad too. Long story short, these phones that I wanted to trash after first listening, turned out to rival the IE8. All it took was proper EQing to make a world of difference. The Shootout (and some caveats): I decided against my Fuze and picked the Cowon i9 as a source for the shootout, because Cowons are more widely used than rockboxed Fuzes and their EQs are equally good. Moreover, AFAIK the newer Sansas cannot be rockboxed. I know the Cowons have bass roll-off, but I frequently double-checked with the Fuze and there was no significant audible difference. Ok, here we go - the contenders: - Playaz N1 (paid $30, price varies subject to sellers whim) EQ setting: -11db@80Hz, -5db@220Hz, -2db@780Hz, +2db@3kHz, +5db@13kHz Disclaimer: These budget IEMs come with some caveats like j-cord or driver crackling, read more about it in this thread. - Playaz Sonia II (paid $25, price varies subject to sellers whim) EQ setting: -10db@80Hz, -6db@220Hz, -2db@780Hz, -1db@3kHz, 0db@13kHz Disclaimer: These budget IEMs come with some caveats like j-cord or driver crackling, read more about it in this thread. - Head-Direct/Hifiman RE252 (on loan, price $199) EQ setting: flat - Head-Direct/Hifiman RE0 (on loan, price $79) EQ setting: flat - Phonak PFE (on loan, price about $140) EQ setting: flat - Sennheiser IE8 (paid about $280) EQ setting: -8db@80Hz, 0db@220Hz, 0db@780Hz, 0db@3kHz, 0db@13kHz Now for the caveats: Why no EQ for the "guest" IEMs? Well, I simply didn’t have enough listening time with them. Finding the right EQ settings for a phone can be a demanding and time consuming task. On the other hand all three are regarded as very balanced IEMs, and the reason I EQ the others is to make them more balanced - but of course the comparison is somewhat flawed in this regard. Speaking of balanced, I try to determine what sounds right by picking recordings I’ve heard numerous times and of which I have a good conception how they “ought to” sound. Some artists I’ve heard live on several occasions and I'm very familiar with their voice. I’ve also heard enough live classical concerts to get a good feeling for instrument timbre, so all things considered it’s mainly the comparison with “the real thing” that sets the standard for me, and I must confess I don’t give much about frequency response graphs or such. Lastly, I don't hear much above 16kHz so take my comments about highs with a grain of salt. Still interested? So let the games begin, all songs are lame mp3 320kbps or –V0. Mary Black: Babes in the Wood (Folk/Rock) This is an older track, but beautifully recorded. The CD has been my benchmark for decades. N1: Good organic bass, a bit soft, gorgeous mids, pleasantly warm voice, highs a bit rolled off but no big deal, good detail, incredibly airy, lively feel with nice sense of space. Sonia II: Very similar bass, a bit less soft than N1, very nice mids, pleasant voice, highs slightly more extended than N1, same detail but overall a tiny bit less smooth than N1, same airy, lively, spacious presentation. RE252: Nicely defined bass, less substance than both Playaz, flawless neutral mids, voice a bit more distant than the Playaz, very good, extended and smooth highs, slightly more detailed than the Playaz, good soundstage but not airy, relaxed but a tiny bit dull. RE0: Bass well defined, a bit missing in substance, neutral mids, voice bordering on thinnish, clearly brighter than the rest, even a hint of sibilance that no other phone has with this track. Excellent detail, limited soundstage, but nice separation. PFE: Nice soundstage and airiness, Very good bass definition with average impact, smooth neutral mids, voice is slightly warmer than on the RE0/RE252. Overall strikingly balanced with good detail, a tad livelier and more involving than RE0 and RE252. IE8: Sense of vast space, but slightly less airy than both Playaz, bass though EQed is still substantial, but well defined and in balance with other frequencies, extended and detailed highs, mids very natural and relaxed, slightly less smooth than the RE252, very lively, dynamic and involving sound sig. Manu Katche: Motion (Instrumental Jazz) This is a very transparent recording with nice drums, sax and cymbals, perfect for testing. N1: Textured and weighty bass, almost reminiscent of full sized phones, still reasonably fast and not affecting the midrange, smooth mids and nice, warm timbre of sax, very nice cymbals, overall good detail and excellent airiness and soundstage Sonia II: Similar weighty bass, but N1 has slightly better texture, mids are almost as smooth as N1, sax is nice again, cymbals are more (too?) prominent, similar soundstage but overall slightly less detail and refinement than N1, nevertheless pleasant to listen to. RE252: Bass has good speed but drums sound slightly anaemic, mids are nice but I liked sax timbre better on the Playaz, cymbals have great detail but lack some sparkle, good soundstage, not airy, overall balanced, relaxed and pleasant, but less involving than the Playaz. RE0: Bass has good speed but drums sound even more anaemic than the RE252, sax timbre very similar to RE252, very detailed cymbals, a tad more sparkly than on the RE252, average soundstage, overall slightly unbalanced, because cymbals (highs) are too prominent in the mix, but still relaxed and pleasant listening. PFE: Bass has good speed and drums sound a bit less anaemic, but still have far less authority compared to the Playaz, sax timbre and cymbals comparable to the RE252, nice soundstage and airiness, similarly well balanced but a bit more involving than the RE252. IE8: Wow, bass kicks nicely and has great texture, a welcome change from the former phones, sax is warm and intimate, cymbals are very detailed but miss sparkle, nice soundstage and 3D imaging, relaxed and at the same time very lively presentation. Hilary Hahn: Mendelssohn Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E Minor (Classical) One of my favourite classical pieces, very lively and the violin climbs to heady heights. N1: Vast soundstage, airy lively feel, very smooth highs, a bit less extended but smoother than the Sonia’s, excellent mids and timbre, substantial bass with slightly less definition than the best, detail also a tiny bit below the best, but overall a very lively, dynamic and involving sound signature. Sonia II: Same soundstage and airiness, better extended highs, though not as super-smooth as the N1’s, pleasant mids and nice timbre, slightly warmish, bass comparable to the N1, a tiny bit less detail than best, but overall a very lively, dynamic and involving sound signature. RE252: Nice soundstage but noticeably less airy than the Playaz, very good highs extension and smoothness, neutral mids, bass well defined if a bit light, excellent detail, overall a very nice phone, non fatiguing but also not all too involving. RE0: Limited soundstage, highs are detailed and extended, but a bit squeaky in the topmost range (violin at times almost like chalk on a blackboard), timbre slightly tipped towards brightness, bass well defined but even slightly lighter than RE252, overall analytical but fatiguing. PFE: Nice soundstage and airiness, almost as lively as the Sonia II, highs a bit less extended but very smooth, mids very refined with nice timbre, bass is a bit light but in good balance with the highs. Overall a lively and involving experience. IE8: Vast soundstage but less airy than the Playaz, good extended highs, slightly less smooth than the best, remarkably natural timbre, bass is substantial but well defined and in balance with the other frequencies, ample detail, very lively, dynamic and involving sound signature. Al Stewart: Soho (Needles To Say) (Folk/Rock) An old favourite of mine and possibly the first rap song ever written. Mainly to test portraying of Al’s voice, which is distinctly nasal and very unique. If you feel compelled to hand him a tissue, the rendering is spot-on. Also a good test of forgiveness with older recordings, no soundstage rating here. N1: Punchy and dynamic bass, but a bit muddier than the best, very smooth and pleasant mids, nice realistic voice, sufficient and unobtrusive highs, overall enjoyable, involving and forgiving. Sonia II: Punchy bass, slightly less defined than the best, but not intruding, nice mids, realistic voice, good highs but maybe a bit too prominent with this song, overall enjoyable, involving and sufficiently forgiving. RE252: Well defined bass with unexpected punch, much better mids and portraying of voice than the RE0, good highs, overall surprisingly involving and forgiving with this song. RE0: Bass unrealistically light but well defined, thinnish mids, voice is missing chest, nicely detailed highs but the thinnish mids and unrealistic voice ruin the song for me. PFE: Fast bass with limited impact, neutral relaxed mids, voice a bit less realistic than with the IE8, nice highs (but not the best song to judge highs), sufficiently forgiving and involving. IE8: Nice punchy bass with good definition, relaxed mids, realistic voice and timbre, pleasant highs, very dynamic, forgiving and involving. Porcupine Tree: Drawing the Line (Progressive Rock) A wonderful melodic and transparent recording, with Wilson’s voice seemingly floating in space, nice drums and vibrant guitar. N1: Bass has great weight and drive while lacking only slightly in definition, voice is very smooth and pleasant, guitar has attack but is similarly polite like on the IE8, excellent 3D feel, overall presentation maybe a bit too smooth for the song, but still very lively and involving. Sonia II: Bass has a bit too much weight, but is not invading anything else, voice is smooth and pleasant, guitar has good detail and edge but is more laid back than even on the IE8, good 3D presentation, but overall a bit too bassy with this song. RE252: Bass is fast and precise, but drums have little weight (still better than the RE0), voice is nice, sounds a bit laid back, guitar has good attack and detail, average 3D feel, slightly less than the PFE, overall involving mostly due to good guitar, but bass falls a bit short compared to others. RE0: Drum impact feels like the drummer has been on duty for 24 hours. Due to the brightish character of these phones, the moment the lead guitar takes over, bass takes a back seat. Guitar itself is nice and with good attack, voice is pleasant. Rather limited soundstage, but the most noticeable weakness is imbalance towards brightness. PFE: Bass is fast but feels a bit underpowered for this song, voice is nice, very good guitar, a bit edgier than on the IE8, good 3D feel almost up to the IE8, overall very lively and involving, too bad the bass falls a bit short of the best. IE8: Bass has good texture but feels a slightly soft at times, very pleasant voice and midrange, guitar has attack but is a bit too polite for this song, great spacey 3D feel and soundstage, overall a stimulating but somewhat too polite presentation. Final thoughts / Conclusion: So what to make of this rather unusual comparison? Let's first talk about the “guests” in my collection, the RE252/RE0/PFE. All of these are considered very “balanced” phones, and this audition underlined my sneaking suspicion, that balanced phones don’t guarantee lifelike, realistic portraying of music. All of these were more or less impressive, but according to my standards (i.e. compared to the “real thing”) there were obvious deficiencies in bass with all. The weakest of them (if I dare say so) was the RE0, because it also fell a bit short in rendering the highest highs, which came as a major surprise after all I’ve read about this phone. Maybe I’ve got a subpar unit (sorry dfkt!), but those squeaky peaks with Hilary Hahn’s violin weren’t pretty. The gummy bears (RE252) on the other hand, are from an audiophile perspective possibly the most refined IEMs of all six contenders, with best micro detail and very, very smooth presentation across the whole frequency range. The PFEs fall somewhere in between, with good refinement, no major weaknesses and maybe the most engaging presentation out of the three “guest phones”. But who says an audiophile isn’t allowed to have fun? That’s were the IE8 steps in, and it delivers lively and dynamic music on a very high quality level. Keep in mind, I’m talking about the EQed IE8, with the bass-hump gone, but with all its strengths like excellent soundstage, great natural timbre and sweeping dynamics retained. Needless to say it remains one of my all time favourite phones that I can find no severe fault with, except maybe sometimes being a tiny bit too polite and laid-back. Last but not least a few words about the Playaz budget “underdogs”. It’s certainly true that they can’t keep up in all aspects with much pricier phones like the IE8 or RE252. They have slightly less micro-detail and bass is a bit less defined than on the best. But other than that, IMO the law of diminishing returns has never been more obvious. They have wonderful mids with very natural and pleasant warm timbre, nice highs and above all deliver a most impressive open airy sound with vast soundstage and a lively and engaging presentation. Now, I don’t know whether this opinion disqualifies me as an audiophile or serious head-fier, but I’ll take an involving presentation, that draws me into the music, any time over the last bit of refinement or micro-detail. Because in the end, at least in my book, it’s all about the music and not the phones.