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because music matters
Earphones & Custom-Fit In-Ear Monitors
Introduction Headphone Buying Tips from Playback: What Buyers Need to Know About Universal-Fit Earphones What Buyers Need to Know About Custom-Fit In-Ear Monitors On the Horizon: New Earphones Headed Our Way
UNIvErsAl-FIT EArpHONEs $100–$300
Beats By Dr. Dre Tour Etymotic Research hf2 Etymotic Research ER-4P Future Sonics Atrio HiFiMAN RE-262 Monster Cable Turbine Monster Cable Turbine Pro Gold Phiaton PS200 Phiaton PS210i Phiaton PS20 NC Phonak Audeo PFE 122
UNIvErsAl-FIT EArpHONEs UNdEr $100
UNIvErsAl-FIT EArpHONEs $300 ANd Up
Klipsch Image X10i Monster Cable Turbine Pro Copper Monster Cable Miles Davis Tribute Sennheiser IE 7 Sennheiser IE 8 Shure SE535 Ultimate Ears TripleFi 10 Westone TrueFit 4
Apple In-Ear Headphones Audio-Technica ATH-ANC23 Denon AH-C551 NuForce NE-700X & NE-700M Jays a-JAYS Three Klipsch Image S4i Koss KDX200 Silver Koss KDX300 Gold Sennheiser CX300-II Skullcandy Smokin’ Buds Skullcandy Titan Skullcandy FMJ Ultimate Ears UE600 Yurtopia Yurbuds
CUsTOM-FIT IN-EAr MONITOrs
JH Audio JH16 PRO Sensaphonics 2MAX Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors Westone ES5
2 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors
TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs
Austin.Playback R-0 G-0 B-0 R . click here Address letters to the Editor: Playback Guide.avguide. INC. llC.188 G . Suite 108.192 R . TX 78758 or firstname.lastname@example.org previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . LLC EdITOr-IN-CHIEF Chris Martens sENIOr EdITOr Tom Martin cORpORATE OffIcE NEXTsCrEEN.132 G .20 GUIDE TO because music matters EarphonEs & Custom-fit in-Ear monitors EDITORIAL pUBlIsHEr Jim Hannon cREATIvE CrEATIvE dIrECTOr Shelley Lai prOdUCTION MANAgEr Aaron Chamberlain dEsIgNEr Mikki Bullock ADvERTIsIng AdvErTIsINg rEps Cheryl Smith (512)-891-7775 Marvin Lewis MTM Sales (718)-225-8803 Scott Constantine (609)-275-9594 To sign up for Buyer’s Guides alerts. CHAIrMAN & CEO Tom Martin vp/grOUp pUBlIsHEr Jim Hannon 4 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www..89 B . 8868 Research Blvd.190 B .com ©2011 NextScreen.
but also touches on more exotic and specialized Custom-Fit In-Ear Monitors. As a rule they also come with multiple sizes or types of eartips in order to help you achieve a good. though admittedly small. 6 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . to help you keep abreast of new developments in our industry. are very significant pieces of audio equipment that can make a huge difference in terms of sound quality and comfort. as their name suggests. and that it takes you forward in your quest for better sound. we provide two important background articles: • “What Buyers Need To Know About Universal-Fit Earphones” • “What Buyers Need To Know About Custom-Fit In-Ear Monitors” Next. To help you get started. Our position is that earphones. these are the Ferraris. Chris Martens. Playback www. well-informed choices. They also typically provide exotic.avguide. Enjoy.com While some might regard earphones as interchangeable. Few other investments can bring music lovers more enjoyment per dollar than a well-chosen set of earphones. earpieces that are custom molded to fit the exact contours of the owner’s ears. garden-variety appliances. Our Guide takes a close look at four representative models. We hope you have as much fun reading this Guide as we did preparing it. we provide a wide-ranging survey article. This Guide covers three classes of universal-fit earphones: • Models Priced Under $100 (15 models reviewed) • Models Priced From $100 to $300 (11 models reviewed) • Models Priced Above $300 (8 models reviewed) Custom-Fit In-Ear Monitors feature. which is what this Guide aims to help you do. and Lamborginis of the earphone world. “On the Horizon: New Earphones Headed Our Way”. comfortable fit. we believe it’s worth taking some extra time to make discerning. Let us tell you right up front that this Guide has been created by and for people who are passionate about music and who want to make the most of their listening experiences. highperformance driver arrays and pay close attention to the fine points of sound reproduction. In short. Playback begs to differ.InTRODUcTIOn W elcome to the Playback Guide to Earphones & Custom-Fit In-Ear Monitors. Universal-Fit Earphones are available at many different price points and typically are sized and shaped to fit a wide range of listeners. Editor. If you’re interested in earphones at all. This Guide focuses primarily on Universal-Fit Earphones (or “in-ear headphones”).
More Music One huge (and we do mean HUGE) difference between high performance earphones and garden-variety earbuds is that earphones are invariably equipped with specialized eartips that are designed to form a comfortable but airtight seal in the ost of us are familiar with the ubiquitous “earbuds” that come with most personal digital music players and some cell phones. and dynamics. and high-frequency drivers (“tweeters”)— again. and resolution. transient speed. but not nearly as much as you might want. As you get more involved in the hobby. Finally. with dedicated bass drivers (“woofers”). Better in what ways? Better in terms of frequency response. You know the ones I’m referring to: they’re small.avguide. four-driver universal fit earphone www. So. detail. driver arrays that are much like the ones you might find in high-performance loudspeakers. some fidelity.com 7 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . M Westone’s TrueFit 4 is a three-way. use “balancedarmature”-type drivers that are thought to be capable of even higher levels of sonic purity. this Guide is all about exploring sonically superior alternatives to box-stock. el cheapo earbuds— alternatives that take the form of universal-fit in-ear headphones (or earphones. In simple terms. detail. Answer: Better Sound Isolation = Less Noise. to be generous. typically higher-end models.HEADpHOnE BUyIng TIps fROm Playback Chris Martens What Makes Universal-Fit earphones Better than Garden-variety earBUds? Answer: Better Drivers = Better Sound Almost all universal-fit earphones use drive units that are superior to those found in stock earbuds. for short). resolution. button-shaped devices that fit loosely in your outer ear and that let you listen to music with. let’s begin with the first and most important question. Other earphones. you’ll discover that some earphones use dynamic “moving coil”-type drivers that can be thought of as miniaturized versions of the dynamic What Buyer’s Need to KNoW aBout uNiversal-Fit earphoNes drivers found in most high-performance loudspeakers. some of the more expensive high-end models use multiple driver arrays. midrange drivers.
some makers of universal-fit earphones now offer programs where owners can order custom-molded. but without putting too much (or too little) pressure on your ear canals. these provide small. hybrid silicone-gel materials.com What neW developMents shoUld i knoW aBoUt? Answer: Combo Earphone/Headsets Are Becoming Increasingly Popular As more and more listeners choose high-performance.). Answer: Models with High-End Multi-Driver Arrays Are Increasingly Common Once the almost exclusive province of costly custom-fit in-ear monitors. universal fit earphones often come with eartips that are offered in a wide range of shapes and sizes. The objective. musiccapable cellphones as their personal music players of choice. Makers of universal-fit earphones recognize that one size doesn’t fit all. so that you can really hear what the music sound likes—without background noise polluting the experience. where the goal is to achieve an airtight seal (necessary for optimal sound) and a fit that remains comfortable even for longer listening sessions. The upshot: increasingly sophisticated sound and muscular dynamic capabilities. The point is that universal-fit models give users options. and then wait for their custom eartips to be manufactured. slip-on eartips to use in place of standard universal-fit eartips. A good airtight seal gives three essential benefits whose significance cannot be overstated. More elaborate models provide additional remote control functions. earphone makers have responded by offer combination 8 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . www. each of which has different properties in terms of noise isolation and wearer comfort.HEADpHOnE BUyIng TIps fROm Playback wearer’s ear canals. Naturally. custom-fit. or compressible foam).avguide. Better driver performance: The airtight seal enables the earphone’s drivers to couple with your eardrums in a precise way. exotic multi-driver arrays are now more commonly seen in today’s best universal-fit earphones. The benefits include superior sound isolation and a one-of-a-kind fit that can’t be beat (at least not with garden variety universal-fit eartips). A personalized Fit: Eartips can be made of a variety of materials (soft rubber. is to get an airtight seal. Answer: Some “Universal-Fit” Earphones Now Offer Options for Slip-On Custom-Molded Eartips In an effort to match some of the benefits of custom-fit in-ear monitors. basic “call send/end” switches. this process means listeners must first have earmold impressions taken (see “What Buyer’s Need to Know About Custom-Fit In-Ear Monitors” for details). with some in particular including the Apple-standard 3-button remote control functions. (Hint: Even seemingly quiet environments are noisier than you might think. For this reason. earphone/headsets. What Buyer’s Need to KNoW aBout uNiversal-Fit earphoNes Combo earphone/headsets feature tiny inline mic/remote modules like the one shown here. foster dramatic improvements in perceived frequency response—especially at the bass end of the audio spectrum. allowing users to seek out a customized. inline microphone/remote modules with simple. silicone. At a bare minimum. personalized fit (which is where the term “universal-fit” really comes into play). Noise Isolation: A good airtight seal helps block out a tremendous amount of environmental noise. always. Shure’s SE425 fits three tiny balanced-armature drivers inside each ear earpiece.
details and definition of the sounds you are hearing—almost as you would analyze a photographic image. do your earphones enable you to tell whether the stringed instrument you are listening to is a violin. or does the sound seem congested and imprecise? Also think carefully about the textures.HEADpHOnE BUyIng TIps fROm Playback What Buyer’s Need to KNoW aBout uNiversal-Fit earphoNes What QUalities shoUld i look For in Universal-Fit earphones? In short. Detail. all other things being equal. The Absolute Sound) developed a language for describing the performance of audio components. uncolored view of the music exactly as the musician/record producer intended it to be heard. We also seek earphones that can capture extremely subtle variations in dynamic emphasis. low-quality cameras and the sharp. or to a particular word within a www. We believe that. the earphone becomes like a perfectly clear pane of glass. and highs are smoothly and evenly balanced—with no one frequency region given too much or too little emphasis. Just as the eye can tell the difference between the indistinct.” Answer: Clarity. low-contrast images produced by cheap. Answer: Accurate. Is everything sharply focused. In this way. We encourage you to listen closely to transient sounds and the beginnings and endings of notes. music that highlights violins or soprano voices. But there is also more to musical dynamics than simply being able to play very loudly or softly or to deliver what some audiophiles call “macrodynamics”. a crescendo in a large orchestral work) without distortion or distress. Suddenly. Examples might include moments where a singer gives just a bit more energy to a particular lyric within a song. and that can therefore “do all things well. so too the ear can discern the difference between the murky sounds produced by low-quality earbuds and the crystal-clear. without your earphones dictating terms as to the types of material they will or won’t reproduce. or perhaps even a cello? Can your earphones differentiate the sound of. an English horn from that of an oboe or a clarinet? How about revealing the differences between acoustic and electronic drum kit. the easier it is to answer such questions.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . yet also able to handle large scale dynamic swells (for example. While this choice might work for some types of music. a viola. wherein Mr. Playback. where bass. or the signature sound of a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar versus a Gibson Les Paul? The more clearly your earphones resolve subtle textural and tonal differences between instruments. the once-preferred “bass heavy” sound seems very. as it should be? Are sonic textures clearly presented? For example. lifelike way. giving you an honest. very wrong (there is no such thing as a “bass-heavy soprano”)—and totally inappropriate. say. This is why we advocate choosing headphones that give a more neutral and unbiased presentation. mids. 9 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors Answer: Large and Small-Scale Dynamics Ideally. high performance earphones should be able to reproduce soft sounds very clearly. takes a very different position. richly detailed images produced by highresolution cameras.avguide. The same could be said for any other type of pronounced sonic coloration. whether the coloration complements the music or not. however. you are better off with earphones that offer neutral tonal balance. The trouble with the “flavor-of-the-month-club” approach to tonal balance is that whatever sonic coloration you choose to embrace will be applied to all types of music. Neutral Tonal Balance Some people argue that the frequency response curves of earphones are like flavors of ice cream: you just find one you like and then stick with it. imagine what happens if the listener decides to explore. Definition. Are the edges of sounds clearly defined. and Transient Speed Many years ago the legendary audio journalist Harry Pearson (founder of our sister magazine. well defined sounds produced by highquality earphones. we believe you should be able to choose your own music as you see fit. say. Example: We know of some listeners who claim to prefer earphones that offer a “bass heavy” sound. yet unexaggerated? Can you hear subtle reverberations as sounds decay? Is the impact of sounds presented in a clear. Pearson often drew apt comparisons between the sound of components and photographic images.
but this isn’t really the case. Some earpiece designs seem easy for a broad range of listeners to fit properly. Does this mean premium-priced models are a rip-off? No. priced models arguably offer listeners maximum bang for their bucks. Go for comfort. Period. Also remember this: if an earpiece seems difficult to handle or to insert properly. Fit The fact is that there are very significant differences in size and shape between earpieces (that is. while others are comparatively finicky and tricky to fit. Fit to seek out earphones that are dynamically expressive and lifelike—this in contrast to those that sound“homogenized. small variations (or what some audiophiles call “microdynamics”) can be every bit as important as large ones. some of today’s best budget and mid- 10 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. then odds are that you either won’t use the earphones much in the first place or will find them uncomfortable in the long run. Similarly.HEADpHOnE BUyIng TIps fROm Playback phrase. airtight seal in your ear canals. Similarly.avguide. in terms of pure enjoyment per dollar.” it is essential if you care about sound quality. wherever possible. we observe that in every price bracket there are certain models that seem to give listeners a little “something extra” for their money. and A Good. Ease of Use. or apply vibrato to control the way a given note sustains (or not). It’s just that sonic improvements become increasingly expenisve to achieve the further up the performance ladder you seek to climb (this is true in virtually all areas of high-end audio). Airtight Seal We’d love to be able to tell you all universal-fit earphones are equally comfortable and able to achieve a good airtight fit in most wearers’ BAD ears. especially—between various types of eartips. some earphones come with a broad array of eartips to choose from (maximizing the likelihood that one set or another will be right for you). an instrumentalist might vary the attack for a given note or rhythmic pattern. while others offer only very limited choices that may or may not work well. always. the physical housings for the earphone’s drivers and other circuitry) and— $$$ Answer: Good Value for Money In a perfect universe. When it comes to dynamics. there would be a direct correlation between earphone pricing and performance. In fact. Getting a good seal is not just a “nice idea. then it will never sound good. GOOD We encourage you. This said. GOOD Fit BAD Fit Answer: Comfort. but in practice this isn’t always the case.” compressed and comparatively lifeless.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . not at all. A wise audiophile once said that getting 85% of the way toward your sonic goals is typically pretty inexpensive. Understand this: if the earphone does not achieve a good. in order to give it greater emphasis and weight. or if it simply “feel weird” once it is inserted. What Buyer’s Need to KNoW aBout uNiversal-Fit earphoNes it’s the last 15% of the curve where costs really start to mount up. and we naturally encourage you to seek those products out.
In simple terms. In-ear sound just doesn’t get much better than this.” but rather we want to give you some idea of the extreme lengths to which monitor makers will go in pursuit of sonic excellence. designers enjoy the freedom to specify www. the simplest of the custom-fit monitors reviewed in this Guide uses a two-way. but taken up to the next level of performance. In discussing universal-fit models we said “better drivers = better sound. so that they typically equip their monitoring products with the highest performance driver arrays they know how to make. CUstoM-Fit in-ear Monitors: What’s the appeal? Answer: State-of-the-Art In-Ear Sound If you’ve read our article entitled “What Buyers Need to Know About Universal-Fit Earphones”. Perhaps for this reason. We don’t mean to suggest by these comments that “more drivers” automatically equate with “better sound. too. is only part of the sonic equation. and yet another with—get this—a three-way/eight-driver array. custom-fit monitors are true marvels of miniaturization. customfit monitors have traditionally worked to provide a more detailed and nuanced sound than even the most expensive universal-fit earphones can provide. where the goal was to let musicians monitor the subtlest aspects of their own performances and at sensible volume levels. It is also becoming increasingly common to see monitor makers offer ranges of custom-fit models. Answer: A More Detailed and Revealing Sound Bear in mind that today’s best custom-fit models have evolved out of a requirement for listening devices sufficiently revealing for even finicky musicians to reliably use them to judge the finer points of their own live performances (something good musicians do not take lightly). since custom-fit monitors were first developed with the needs of working musicians in mind. As a result. custom-fit monitors are no longer just for musicians.com JH Audio’s JH 16 prO uses a three-way/eightdriver array—the most elaborate array offered in any current production in-ear monitor previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . where the idea is for one product to accommodate the needs of many users.avguide. These days. with some geared primarily for onstage use. custom-fit monitors are designed to fit one and only one person: you. discerning music lovers of all stripes have discovered their unique benefits. Manufacturers of custom-fit monitors rightly regard them as flagship products. not on limiting construction costs in hopes of meeting a low price point.” and that is definitely the case with customfit models. Other reviewed monitors include one with a three-way/three-driver array. For example. It helps. that custom-fit monitors are generally regarded as professional-grade products where the emphasis is on rising up to meet extremely high performance standards. since custom-fit monitors also provide incredibly quiet listening environments that let you hear all the performance those exotic driver arrays have to offer. while models geared for listening to recorded music or for studio monitoring applications typically provide more accurate and neutral voicing (all of the custom-fit monitors reviewed in this Guide make an effort to provide accurate sound). 11 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors But here’s the bottom line: Custom-fit in-ear monitors represent the Ferraris and Lamborghinis of the in-ear headphone universe. custom-fit in-ear monitors are specialized. This makes perfect sense. two-driver array. another with a three-way/five-driver array. please realize that custom-fit monitors offer many of the same benefits. As you can imagine. high-performance in-ear headphones whose drivers are mounted within custom-molded earpieces that fit the exact contours of the listener’s ears.HEADpHOnE BUyIng TIps fROm Playback Chris Martens What Buyer’s Need to KNoW aBout Custom-Fit iN-ear moNitors I f you’ve watched many live music events on television. Onstage models sometimes provide deliberately skewed frequency response curves shaped with an eye toward cutting through the onstage din of live performances. and others intended more for listening to recorded music (though there certainly can be overlap between these two camps). however. you’ve probably seen musicians wearing custom-fit in-ear monitors as they perform on stage. however. While the overwhelming majority of universal-fit earphones use just one driver per earpiece. Driver specialization. it is common to see custom-fit in-ear monitor maker equip their products with sophisticated and surprisingly elaborate multi-driver arrays. Unlike universal-fit earphones.
it becomes easy to hear extremely low-level sonic details in music that might otherwise be washed away by. listeners quickly grasp that superior noise isolation is a profound sonic gift—one that keeps on giving.HEADpHOnE BUyIng TIps fROm Playback exotic driver arrays and other high-quality parts that would in all likelihood prove prohibitively expensive for use in consumer grade earphones. Thus. the interiors of airliners in flight. say. But what’s interesting is that the sonic benefits don’t stop there. perhaps for the first time.). the Ultimate Ears In-Ear reference Monitor is suitable for professional studio monitoring applications 12 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors sensaphonics’ 2MAX provides the quietest listening environment of any earphone Playback has ever tested—including models with active noise-cancellation Westone’s ES5 monitors use solid acrylic for the outer earpiece shell. so that today’s best custom-fit monitors offer truly exceptional levels of accuracy and overall sound quality. since their earpieces closely match the shapes of earmold impressions taken directly from your ears. etc. “now I can really hear everything going on in the music. With custom-fit monitors.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .” And it’s true. because even when used in relatively quiet environments custom-fit monitors reduce the “noise floor” further still. Playback’s experience has been that custom-fit monitors provide markedly quieter listening environments than even the best universal-fit earphones do—so that.avguide.. the barely audible What Buyer’s Need to KNoW aBout Custom-Fit iN-ear moNitors “whir” of an AC fan or the whisper of car tires from the street outside. that this does not mean all custom-fit monitors feel the same to wear. Each manufacturer uses subtly different techniques for transferring earmold impressions to the final set of earpieces. Answer: State-of-the-Art Noise Isolation When listeners get their first taste of custom-fit in-ear monitors. But happily the sonic ends justify the means. though. one common reaction is for them to say. As a result. you will see variations in fit and feel in monitors from developed in collaboration with Capitol records engineers. “I can’t believe how quiet these things are. with tips made of a thermallysensitive ‘soft-feel’ material that conforms to the shape of your ear canals www.” quickly followed by the comment that. Answer: The Most Personalized Fit Possible Nothing else quite matches the fit and feel of custom-fit inear monitors.g. it becomes feasible to listen to music even in quite noisy environments (e. Note. and many specialize in using specific materials (or combinations of materials) for crafting their earpieces.
There is.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . definition. however. in-order to use the JH-3A module.avguide. But after a few trial-and-error attempts. which include essentially perfect phase and frequency response. JH Audio plans to offer special versions of its top-tier custom-fit monitors that will use the sophisticated JH-3A dsp-controlled active crossover/tri-amplifier modules shown here. unlike universal-fit earphones that use various sizes of eartips to achieve an airtight seal in the wearer’s ear canals. makers of custom-fit monitors have begun to produce entry-level custom-fit models that 13 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors Westone’s new entry-level AC1 custom-fit monitor will sell for a manageable $299—less than many high-end universal-fit models. the norm is for customfit monitors to achieve better noise isolation and a more comfortable fit than even the best universal-fit models can provide. But even so. • Accurate. so that once modified for use with the JH-3A there’s no going back. and Transient speed • large and small-scale dynamics What neW developMents shoUld i knoW aBoUt Answer: Reasonably Priced Entry-Level Custom-Fit Monitors Are Here Well aware that the cost of entry to the custom-fit world can be prohibitive for some listeners. But for some the promised performance benefits. First. What.HEADpHOnE BUyIng TIps fROm Playback different manufactures. they are by no means unpleasant. The result is a fit that gently makes contact with the whole ear—not a fit that relies on a tight seal within the ear canal alone. Neutral Tonal Balance • Clarity. which will be offered as a retrofit for existing top-tier JH Audio monitors. The result is much like having the proverbial “cone of silence” descend. we should point out that there is a bit of a “learning curve” to climb when first inserting custom-fit monitors in your ears (the insertion process initially can seem a little awkward). custom-fit monitors provide earpieces that typically fill the entire lower third (or half) of the wearer’s outer ears and that extend a moderate distance into the ear canals. with veteran users reporting that their monitors seem almost to “snap” into place. detail. the procedure becomes second nature. leaving listeners to savor their music free from outside distractions. will be well worth the costs. While the physical sensations of wearing custom-fit monitors can admittedly seem unusual at first (because we are unaccustomed to having a significant portion of our ears filled with noiseblocking materials). later this year. What QUalities shoUld i look For in CUstoMFit Monitors? Answer: The same sonic qualities apply for custom-fit monitors as for universal-fit earphones—but with higher performance standards applied. If anything. www. Playback has found that the longer you wear customfit monitors. then. one What Buyer’s Need to KNoW aBout Custom-Fit iN-ear moNitors catch. But certain points apply in common to all custom-fit monitors we have tested. the more comfortable they feel. This said. are—get this—designed to underprice many of today’s top-tier universal-fit earphones Answer: Pushing the Performance Envelope with DSPControlled Active Crossovers and Amplifiers If you study some of the top-tier custom-fit monitors reviewed in this Guide you might reasonably conclude that there’s really not much further they can go in terms of driver sophistication and miniaturization. the monitors must be rewired and have their current passive crossover networks removed. is the next frontier? JH Audio gives us what may be a glimpse of the future with its new JH-3A DSP-controlled active three-way crossover and tri-amplification module.
avguide. Options can include custom colors. of course. Most reputable monitor makers are willing to rework the earpieces of your monitors as necessary. Even so. graphics. luxury products that are essentially hand-made just for you.HEADpHOnE BUyIng TIps fROm Playback Answer: A Great Fit with Superior Noise Isolation Custom-fit in-ear monitors are expensive.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . • ustomization Options: Many monitor makers offer custom C appearance options for their monitors (though the materials some manufacturers use do not allow this). and—the sky’s the limit. This is. • elp with getting Earmold Impressions Taken: Monitor H makes can refer you to qualified local service providers who can take your earmold impressions. to help correct any problems with fit that you may encounter. which you can try out at trade shows. Therefore you can and should expect: • superb Fit: If you are not 100% satisfied with the fit of your A monitors. 14 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. demo-only models give you a good idea of the performance capabilities of the monitor’s driver array. 2 3 5 4 6 CUstoM-Fit Monitor FaQs Question: Is there any way to try custom-fit monitors before making a purchase decision? Answer: Some manufacturers have developed special “demo only” universal-fit versions of their custom-fit monitors. • ersonalized service: Most good monitor makers will be p happy to provide advice regarding headphone amplifiers and other accessories you may require What Buyer’s Need to KNoW aBout Custom-Fit iN-ear moNitors 1 playback publisher Jim Hannon having earmold impressions taken. contact the manufacturer to request an adjustment. an imperfect process since you can’t know exactly how a given model will sound until you hear it with your own custom-fit earpieces.
S but not all.. previous page): S The service provider will ask you to wait quietly for about five minutes as the mold compound cures. Once cured. Question: Does it hurt to have earmold impressions taken? Answer: No. that differences in sound quality you’ll hear derive partly from superior driver technologies. the service provider inserts small. previous page): The S service provider prepares mold compound. Can-Jam events are veritable gold mines of information for listeners interested in headphones. however. It’s the powerful. but a general outline is as follows: • tep 1 (see photo. Question: What’s involved in having earmold impressions taken? Answer: The process varies somewhat from manufacturer to manufacturer.org. previous page): The S service provider carefully injects mold compound into your ear canals and outer ears. previous page): The S service provider pulls gently on the release strings (as mention in Step 1. Question: Do custom-fit in-ear monitors provide noticeably better sound quality than today’s best universal-fit earphones? Answer: Today’s finest universal-fit models are getting close to “parity” in terms of driver quality. • hat’s all there is to it. though we would still give the performance nod to the driver arrays found the best custom-fit monitors. Some manufacturers will let you use the do-it-yourself earmold impression kits now available. but also from the superior noise isolation that custom-fit www. previous page): Some. Bear in mind. Playback strongly encourages you to attend one of the popular Can-Jam events produced by our friends at www. previous page): The S service provider examines your ears and. require that impressions be taken by professional service providers. if necessary. T Question: What do earmold impressions cost? Answer: Prices range from about $50 (for both ears) on up. the mold compound solidifies into a firm.. The plugs typically have long threads attached. This service is often offered free of charge provided you order your new monitors at the show. Then. • tep 5 (see photo. which will be used later on to help release the finished earmold impressions from your ears. tight fitting felt or foam plugs in your ear canals. viscous material with roughly the consistency of soft putty. • tep 2 (see photo. 15 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . and by a not subtle margin. material with about the same consistency of foam rubber that has a bit of “give.avguide. Note: One benefit of meeting with monitor manufacturers at trade shows is that some make of point of having audiologists present to take your earmold impressions.” • tep 6 (see photo.com earpieces provide. though you may feel a bit of pressure when your service provider installs the blocking plugs at the beginning of the process. • tep 3 (see photo. Question: Do custom-fit in-ear monitors really provide better sound isolation than today’s best universal-fit earphones? Answer: Yes. synergistic combination of better driver arrays plus superior earpiece technology that really sets custom-fit monitors apart. recommends a thorough cleaning prior to taking the earmold impressions.WHAT BUyERs nEED TO KnOW ABOUT Custom-Fit iN-ear moNitors Question: How can I arrange to meet monitor manufacturers? Answer: If you wish to meet with monitor manufacturers face to face. • tep 4 (see photo. Finally. which is a thick. but not rock-hard. the service providers does a careful inspeciton to make sure your ear canals and outer ears are clear. above) and carefully removes the finished earmold impressions from your ears. service providers will ask you to bite down on specialized “bite-block” whose purpose is to hold your jaws open slightly as the earmold impression is taken.head-fi.
are options here to fit every budget and to address most any in-ear application scenario you might envision. Do not be fooled by its compact design. The ATH-ANC23 is compatible with the Apple iPod.beyerdynamic-usa. and its audio functions in passive mode even if the batteries run out. natural sound. In addition. black. Playback invited a group of 25 (!) manufacturers to describe upcoming or recently released models we think you’ll find fascinating. Beyerdynamic DTX 101iE www.audio-technica. the ATH-ANC23 (MSRP: $99. the neodymium magnet-equipped acoustic drivers deliver a striking audio performance. (MSRP: $89. MAP: $79. The DTX 101iE is a refined design that features lightweight metal earpiece housings and it is supplied with a soft carrying case and three different sizes of eartips.00).com Type: Universal-Fit Earphone The new DTX 101iE in-ear headphone combines superb sound quality and elegant design with excellent ambient noise attenuation for a spectacular listening experience. Enjoy.95) has a handy in-line volume control. red. 16 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. plus Comply memory foam eartips that form to the shape of the ear canal for superior comfort and audio quality.95. com or through authorized dealers. M. There Audio-Technica ATH-ANC23 www. and L). and silver.beyerdynamic-usa. Designed for clear. and comes with a carrying bag and accessories.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .avguide. (Available in March 2011).com Type: Noise-Cancelling Universal-Fit Earphone (reviewed in this Guide) The Audio-Technica in-ear ATH-ANC23 QuietPoint active noise-cancelling (ANC) earphone blocks up to 90% of external noise and features both silicone eartips (sizes S.on the horizon: new earphones & in-ear monitors headed our way Chris Martens T o help readers stay abreast of the rapidly evolving earphone/in-ear monitor marketplace. iPhone and iPod touch. the DTX 101iE comes in three different colors. The DTX 101iE is currently available direct from www.
and best-in-class comfort with the affordable and convenient CUSTOM•FIT earmold program. In addition. and is compatible with Apple Voice Control. The hf3 headset offers best-in-class accuracy featuring precision-crafted ACCU•Drivers. and also decreases mechanical vibration for the purest audio experience. iPod Touch 2G. but also with special “soft-foam” eartips for added comfort and luxury. and its choice of three softtouch colors add a dash of style. best-in-class noise isolation (up to 42 dB). Etymotic Research hf-3 www.on the horizon: new earphones & in-ear monitors headed our way Denon AH-C560R www. The firm’s new $179 hf-3 headset+earphone is priced within reach for consumers who care about sound quality.com Type: Universal-Fit Earphone/Headset Denon’s AH-C560R in-ear headphones feature a special ergonomic design that isolates the ear more steadily and comfortably.denon.99). The AH-C560R’s can also control the iPad. they not only come with three sizes of silicone eartips.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .avguide. and the latest generation Shuffle. The hf3 headset features a 3-button control pod with a close-proximity in-line microphone that allows iPhone/ iPad/iPod users to pause their music.com Type: Universal-Fit Earphone/Headset Etymotic Research is the company famous for inventing in-ear technology. (MSRP: $99. for Apple iPhone3GS. 17 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. To ensure perfect fit for every wearer. engage in phone conversations. a specially designed threebutton remote control/microphone provides easy access to both voice and music control.etymoticresearch. adjust volume and select music tracks.
People using earbuds with lower sound quality attempt to drown out background noise and enhance audio clarity by increasing the volume to dangerous levels. and it will feature an inline mic/controller and will come with a universal 3. the RE242 will also be one of the most compact earphones on the market.com Type: Universal-Fit Earphone A recent study by the Journal of the America Medical Association (JAMA) revealed that one in five children ages 12-19 are suffering hearing loss. The RE242 will become available within the next a few weeks.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .” creating dynamic & powerful sound for both recording artists and consumers. Future Sonics’ natural noise isolation and quality sound at low volumes extends listening pleasure and greatly reduces hearing fatigue.head-direct. but also with Nokia. Based on powerful but extremely small 6mm drivers.on the horizon: new earphones & in-ear monitors headed our way Future Sonics Atrio SE www. Samsung and other cellphones that use 2. HiFiMAN RE242 www.avguide.5mm sockets.5mm to 2.com Type: Universal-Fit Earphone RE242 in-ear earphones are HiFiMAN’s entry level earphone product.futuresonics. 18 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. with a projected MSRP of between $20 and $40. Future Sonics’ Atrio Special Edition earphones provide “Bigger Sound at Lower Volume. This mean the headest version of the RE242 will work not only with iPhones. Currently available at Airport Wireless stores. (MSRP: $229). A cellphone-compatible version of the RE242 is also coming soon.5mm cellphone plug adapter. ensuring a superb fit for most people.
the a-JAYS Four. tangle-free cables. and single dual high drivers. JH Audio JH16 Pro & JH-3A DSP crossover/amplifier www. producing perfectly tuned time.com Type: Custom-Fit In-Ear Monitor with dsp-Controlled Crossover/Amplifier (JH16 Pro reviewed in this Guide) JH Audio’s JH16 Pro offers better clarity. iPad or iPod thanks to its Apple-compatible controls. The JH16 Pro is available now.on the horizon: new earphones & in-ear monitors headed our way Jays a-JAYS Four www. It features double dual lows. single dual mid.149. Built for 1/8” analog or mini USB inputs. with pricing beginning at $1.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . It offers sleek. The Four is the perfect accessory for any iPhone. simplistic Scandiavian designs and provides flat. the JH16 Pro integrates perfectly with the JH-3A 3-way Active DSP Crossover Amplifier. phase. 19 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. and sound quality than any other in-ear audio monitor.00. plus a high quality microphone that helps you get the message through. The award winning speaker elements are tweaked for voice without compromising music sound quality in any way. the device offers audio pros and performers maximum portability. and audio signatures. The only available 8-driver IEM.se Type: Universal-Fit Earphone/Headset Why do earphones always seem to be the least appreciated component of any portable media system? The Swedish company Jays aims to bring this to an end by designing the first ever music-focused headset for iPhone. and a 10Hz to 20 kHZ frequency response range. The JH-3A will become available in late 2011.avguide. comfort. (MSRP: $69.jays.99).jhaudio.
95. iPhones or iPads.on the horizon: new earphones & in-ear monitors headed our way JVC HA-FX1X www. The JVC HA-FX1X in-ear headphones are available now for $29. Thanks to Klipsch’s patented oval ear tips. this headphone features a moisture-resistant three-button remote and mic for taking calls and controlling music on iPods. Built to last. and three sizes of silicone earpieces are included to ensure a proper fit and to provide comfort and the best possible sound isolation for any size ear. An angled design enhances comfort. The HA-FX1X uses a 2. Klipsch Image S5i Rugged www. the S5i Rugged features durable cabling and a rubberized finish for added protection. Designed to handle whatever life may throw at it.avguide.com Type: Universal-Fit Earphone/Headset The Image S5i Rugged is much more than just a headphone.com Type: Universal-Fit Earphone The JVC HA-FX1X’s are in-ear headphones in JVC’s new Xtreme Xplosives series. The Image S5i Rugged is currently available for purchase and retails for $129.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . A carrying pouch is included.0mm-thick oxygen free copper cable and a gold-plated 3. listeners experience superior noise isolation and comfortable.jvc. The headphones feature a 10mm diaphragm with neodymium magnet and a bass port for strong low frequency performance.klipsch.99.5mm stereo plug. contoured long-term fit. 20 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www.
(MSRP: $349).com to learn more and receive special offers.on the horizon: new earphones & in-ear monitors headed our way Koss IL2001 www.99). Available in April 2011. The IL2001’s highly polished aluminum frame is surrounded by a flexible. High performance technology serves music in this patent-pending design.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .monster.avguide. along with inimitable “Miles style.com Type: Universal-Fit Earphone Miles Davis was known for his unswerving perfectionism. Monster “Miles Davis Trumpet” www.com Type: Universal-Fit Earphone Koss presents perfect harmony in both form and function. (Projected MSRP: $49. enabling a perfect fit and superior isolation. 21 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. The IL2001 is scheduled for a summer 2011 launch—with alternate micequipped versions planned.koss. Sign-up at Koss.” Precision-tuned to reproduce the subtle nuances and acoustic tones of jazz. Included is Monster Music’s specially remixed and remastered version of “Sketches of Spain” in High Definition Stereo (HDS) and High Definition Surround Sound. Clever interlocking earbud design allows for easy storage when on the go and performance-tuned 9mm drivers deliver outstanding audio. they feature the world’s smallest drivers. soft touch material that acts as a soundproofing layer to block outside distractions and keep you focused on the crystal clear highs and crisp lows. and Monster’s new Miles Davis Trumpet headphones are designed to reflect that. plus a new design that allows the earpiece to rest more comfortably and deeper within the ear canal.
avguide. Titanium-coated 8mm drivers provide sweet. the NE-700X features a precision-machined aluminum chassis that minimizes resonance to the vanishing point. authoritative bass.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . extended highs. trains.com Types: Universal-Fit Earphone (700X) and Earphone/ Headset (700M)— (reviewed in this Guide) NuForce’s enviable reputation for high-performance audio at real-world prices continues in fine form with the NE-700X Earphones. users can continue listening even if battery power should run out. Sharing the limelight with their widely praised NE-7M Earphones.nuforce. 22 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. Phiaton PS 20 NC www.com Type: Noise-Cancelling Universal-Fit Earphone (Reviewed in this Guide) Phiaton’s PS 20 NC earphones provide a totally immersive personal listening experience. and a lifelike soundstage that far exceeds what one might expect of $65 earphones. The PS 20 NC solves a problem common with conventional noisecanceling headphones—the interruption of music when the battery runs out of power. a warm and silky-smooth midrange. Thanks to Phiaton’s “EverPlay” feature. Part of the Primal Series line. or subway cars.phiaton. At $79. these lightweight and stylish “Half In-Ear” earphones feature the company’s exclusive “Noise Blocker” noise cancellation technology—blocking 95% of outside noise— ideal for noisy airplanes. the NE-700M version includes a hands-free microphone with a pickup button for answering phone calls and operating your music device’s playback and fast-forward features. The PS 20 NC is available in glossy black and glossy white versions.on the horizon: new earphones & in-ear monitors headed our way NuForce NE-700X and NE-700M www.
Rediscover your music collection and tailor it to your aural tastes with a tunable bass frequency response. and a choice of Comply foam or silicone tips delivering hours of comfort. replaceable audio filters to adjust the frequency response and sound.com Type: Universal-Fit Earphones (111/112) and Earphone/HHeadsets (121/122)—(Audéo PFE 122 reviewed in this Guide) World-renowned Swiss hearing aid company Phonak draws on many years of experience in producing quality hearing instruments to create the Audéo Perfect Fit Earphones (111 and 112) and earphone/headsets (121 and 122). A convenient volume adjuster/3-button control with mic let you manage calls and playlists at the touch of a button. (MSRP: $449. offering passive noise attenuation and the best sound experience. This fit isolates the user from environmental noise.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . 23 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www.avguide.sennheiser. Sennheiser IE8i www.95).com Type: Universal-Fit Earphone/Headset Sennheiser’s IE8i is designed exclusively for use with Apple’s iPhone. The customized sonic signature is complemented by a unique fit thanks to the included ear adapters. unrivaled fit with its over-the-ear style and unique ear guides.on the horizon: new earphones & in-ear monitors headed our way Phonak Audéo Perfect Fit 111/112 and 121/122 www. The revolutionary IE 8i’s audio performance warrants a standing ovation.audeoworld. They are available in black and white and with ($179)/without ($159) a microphone (compatible with mobile devices). iPod and iPad products. The sound-isolating earphones offer: top-notch sound quality without sacrificing the health of your ears.
com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . maintains a full seal. high sensitivity design. (Price: $850 direct). A detachable Kevlar reinforced cable with formable wires enables easy replacement and s secure. which feature dedicated miniature tweeters and woofers in each earpiece. Shure SE425 www. providing up to 37 dB of isolation. shirt clip and ¼-inch adapter included. Pelican case. The SE425 is available now from select retailers for $299. 24 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www.99.sensaphonics. the 3MAX offers the full-spectrum sonic detail that Sensaphonics is known for. Shure’s SE425 Sound Isolating Earphones are engineered to provide reference quality audio. The earphones come with sound isolating sleeves in multiple sizes that prevent outside noise from interfering with your listening experience.shure. Jon Bon Jovi. deliver an incredibly accurate and balanced listening experience. We match our proprietary twin-driver bass system to a precision high-frequency driver in a single crossover. but with enhanced low-frequency impact. custom colors available. carry pouch. and yields unexcelled broadband isolation of up to 37 dB. Used by Usher. Dual High-Definition MicroDrivers. comfortable fit. and ZZ Top.com Type: Custom-Fit In-Ear Monitors The world’s first triple-driver custom earphones with the superior fit of soft-gel silicone earpieces and a fieldreplaceable cable.on the horizon: new earphones & in-ear monitors headed our way Sensaphonics 3MAX www.avguide.com Type: Universal-Fit Earphone Designed for the demanding audio specifications of live performances. Silicone construction provides exceptional comfort. cleaning tool.
The MDR-EX600 earphones provide users with a secure and comfortable fit. Sony MDR-EX600 www. while composite earpiece housings with aluminum front sides and polycarbonate back sides make for superior fit and finish. but also about accessory differentiation and bringing alive the soundtrack to your daily revolution.sony. Convenient.skullcandy. iMac.com Type: Universal-Fit Earphone Designed to meet high-quality audio demands without breaking the bank. The unique multiple diaphragm design also prevents unwanted resonances and ensures both high audio resolution and distortion-free sound reproduction. mic. 25 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. The earphones also come with a mesh case and three sizes of silicone gel eartips. Sony’s MDR-EX600 earbuds will be available this spring for about $200.com Type: Universal-Fit Earphone/Headset Skullcandy knows it’s not just about what earphone is in your pocket these days. The 50/50’s beastly 11mm drivers deliver ballistic bass and a rich sound. (MSRP: $49. reproducing studioquality sound as a result of their unique multiple diaphragm design.avguide. iPad.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . and all iPhones. Sony’s MDR-EX600 earphones feature noise isolation technology for excellent attenuation of ambient noise. iPod. volume and track control functionality on MacBook. Skullcandy’s MIC3 inline mic/remote module provides answer/end.on the horizon: new earphones & in-ear monitors headed our way Skullcandy 50/50 www.95).
or discerning music listening. It is available now and offered in a beautiful Cherry/Silver or a rich Chocolate/Black finish for $79. The Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors provide reference-quality. to create incredible sounding headphones with the smallest eco-footprint possible. sustainable wood housing for accurate sound reproduction.99.ultimateears.com Type: Custom-Fit In-Ear Monitors (reviewed in this Guide) Ultimate Ears teamed with Capitol Records Studios to design the first custom in-ear monitors for use by professional producers and audio engineers.thinksound. These revolutionary in-ear reference monitors offer -32 dB of noise isolation to eliminate noise and variations in room acoustics.” The proprietary design fits three drivers plus passive crossover components in each of its acoustically tuned earpieces.com Type: Universal-Fit Earphone Thinksound began with a simple goal. flat frequency response for the ultimate in accuracy when recording.ultimateears.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . Each thinksound product comes with a one-year warranty. The ts02 also features PVC-free cables and a hand crafted. so users are always in the “sweet spot.avguide. mastering. The result is a warm. 26 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. stellar acoustics.on the horizon: new earphones & in-ear monitors headed our way Thinksound ts02 www. Available at www. The ts02 flaunts an 8mm driver and reduced housing size to provide better ergonomics. and a wide sound-stage. Ultimate Ear In-Ear Reference Monitors www.com (MSRP: $999). mixing. crisp sounding headphone that is lightweight and comfortable to wear.
grass. orange. The Vibrato gives you a sleek design and an incredible sound experience. Apple. unlike most plastic or aluminum headphones that feel fragile. Using unique patented die-casting metal technology that enables consistent sound and unparalleled durability.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . the newest member of the Urbanears family. red. Available at: Apple Stores. 27 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. lavender.v-moda. A three-button remote and mic make the Vibrato deal for mobile lifestyles. shop.com Type: Universal-Fit Earphone The Bagis. (MSRP: $129.com. the Vibrato has a unique geometric design usually only seen on fine jewelry or watches.urbanears. the Vibrato is sculpted from zinc alloy and features next-generation hybrid silicone ear-tips. Crafted from premium metals and fabrics. white and black. The Bagis headphones are available now for $30 in eight bright colors—cerise. V-Moda Vibrato www.v-moda.com. The Bagis features smart earplug construction for direct sound and efficient noise reduction and a stylish rubber housing.com Type: Universal-Fit Earphone/Headset Designed for music lovers with style. offers a compact version of the acclaimed Urbanears headphone experience. Its cord is made from fabric and TPE to eliminate distortions caused by friction.99). By clever design.on the horizon: new earphones & in-ear monitors headed our way Urbanears Bagis www. the Vibrato has a solid feel.avguide. navy. the left and right earpieces can be snapped together. enabling users to carry the earphones around their necks when not in use.
(MSRP: $299).com Type: Custom-Fit In-Ear Monitor The AC1 breaks new ground in performance. The clear. the AC1 reproduces the live performance with superior accuracy. Each unit features removable Westone EPIC Pro signal cables and provides 25dB of ambient noise reduction. and performance expectedexpect from Westone.westone. quality. Utilizing a single balanced armature driver technology with a new take on the signature Westone sound. emerging artists. and value. the AC1 offers an unmatched package for worship teams. 28 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. fit.on the horizon: new earphones & in-ear monitors headed our way Westone AC1 www.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . Handcrafted in the same lab as the revered Westone Elite Series. and personal listeners looking to upgrade to their first custom-fit product. full acrylic earpieces deliver the comfort.avguide.
avguide.Playback univErsal-fit EarphonEs undEr $100 SponSored by 29 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .
in part because their low bass and. Interestingly. too) are sound quality and wearer comfort. But a not-so-well-known fact is that Apple offers a much higher performance solution. While the Apple’s bass is well defined and offers good pitch definition. then you may well find the superior resolution of Apple’s In-Ear Headphones revelatory. 31 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. and so. Apple (as in “the guys who built your iPod”). Every now and again. miniature woofer and tweeter drivers). Eartips may feel a little too “stiff” for longterm comfort.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . such as the NuForce NE-700X or Koss KDX 300 Gold. Playback has reviewed over thirty models of in-ear headphones and headsets and—judging by inbound emails and phone calls—it’s a product category that holds enduring interest for our readers. extreme highs are slightly recessed. Apple’s In-Ear Headphones offer superior balance and smoothness. the ‘phones use a sophisticated “balanced dual armature” design (meaning each earpiece provides separate. functional twists. Relative to competing models. One such product that has been mentioned in several reader emails is a model from a firm you might not necessarily think of when shopping for high-performance headphones: namely. the Apples tend to sound just slightly midrangeforward. we get review requests for specific models of earphones that readers feel are worthy but that have not yet appeared in our pages. you’ll be able to access and enjoy low-level musical textures and details you may not have heard before. For owners of iPhones or newer generation iPods. if you listen carefully). powerful. foundational low-end response that some affordable headphones. Apple’s In-Ear Headphones The greatest strength of the Apple In-Ear Headphone is its generally smooth and even tonal balance. “Turns out you haven’t heard everything”—a tacit admission that stock iPod/iPhone earbuds leave much to be desired. Apple’s in-ear headphones sound particular revealing through the broad middle of the midrange. This is true partly because the Apple overview O soniC CharaCter realize that there is a common misconception that Apple builds only those inexpensive and relatively low-performance earbuds that come as standard accessories with all iPods and iPhones. can provide. to a lesser extent.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors APPLE IN-EAR HEADPHONES Chris Martens ver time. in-line remote/mic module that enables the ‘phones to function as a headset when used with 2G/3G iPhones and that provides limited remote control functions when used with newer generation iPods. somewhat surprisingly at this price point. and it’s on the basis of those two parameters that we’ll evaluate Apple’s top-shelf model to see how it compares to competing models in its price class. though. it doesn’t convey the sense of rich.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . Consider this headset if: you appreciate headphones that offer generally smooth and evenly balanced sound that offers a good measure of clarity and sonic subtlety. but can sound somewhat subdued in the low end (or actually at both frequency extremes. If your sonic frame of reference is the stock earbuds that came with your iPod. especially through the breadth of the midrange. for those willing to invest $79 in superior sound quality. Of course no Apple product would be complete without offering a few clever. They incorporate a tiny. compared to some other headphones in this price class. where most music really happens. In fact. called simply the Apple In-Ear Headphones. Suddenly. Now I are designed to cater to audiophile tastes. these ‘phones offer a slick remote/ mic module that adds lots of welcome functions. and Apple’s toptier headphones are no exception. Apple’s marketing tagline for the product reads. Happily.avguide. Of course our top priorities (and probably yours. look elsewhere if: you favor headphones that offer powerful and deeply extended bass.
Martin’s expressive voice is always under perfect control. But through the Apple headphones that bass line. breathing pulse. and I have come to expect the deep. Under ideal listening conditions. However. The headphones also give a clean. www. Many of the Apple’s like-priced competitors exhibit relatively pronounced colorations such as overly ripe bass or noticeably “hot” treble response. MUsiCal eXaMple In many.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors In-Ear Headphones offer very good measures of natural resolution and definition. it also exposes their weaknesses. powerful. you would want the eartips to flex to fit your ear canals— not the other way around). the Apples are much easier to adjust for a proper fit and offer smoother overall tonal balance. Try gently rotating or repositioning them in your ear canals if you don’t at first get an airtight fit. as I did. But frankly. ways the Apple In-Ear Headphones shine brightest on well-recorded vocal material. One problem I noted. is that Apple’s eartips are noticeably thicker and stiffer than those supplied with many competing in-ear headphones. My point is that Apple’s In-Ear headphones are good enough to tantalize you with their performance. whereas the Apples for the most part sound smooth and unflappable because their sonic shortcomings are relatively minor and are mostly “sins of omission.com seal and hence optimal bass performance. however. while the ride cymbal notes sound clear but are stripped of their signature treble shimmer and luminous glow. such as the jazzy. the Hammond organ that provide 32 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . As a result. but one that sometimes comes at the expense of traces of that “midrange-forward” quality I mentioned above.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 .avguide. and showing you how Martin varies her timing to set up the words “black coffee” for extra emphasis. the NuForces are more difficult to fit properly and as a result have a tendency to sound bass-shy and/ or overly bright. letting you enjoy the beginnings and endings of each word. meaning that—for day-to-day use—they typically give better (or at least more consistent) results. their apparent clarity may also have to do with the fact that there is narrow band of midrange frequencies that the Apples tend to accentuate in an extremely subtle way. blues-inflected track “Black Coffee” from Claire Martin’s Too Darn Hot! [Linn].” A comparison between the Apple In-Ear Headphones and the almost identically priced NuForce NE-8 headphones I reviewed in Playback issue 19 may prove useful. But let me put my comments in perspective. the NuForces offer even greater resolution than the Apple’s do and perhaps more performance upside in an absolute sense. loses some of its expected propulsive power. you may need to spend some extra time adjusting them to achieve the best in-ear accompaniment for Martin’s vocal lines. By comparison. that the Apple eartips are not quite compliant enough to achieve both a good airtight seal and all-day comfort at the same time (ideally. you may have the sensation. But if “Black Coffee” shows the Apple’s strengths. later on. The result is a heightened sense of clarity. One small tip: because the Apple In-Ear Headphones come with comparatively “stiff” eartips. I have played this track many times through various loudspeakers and headphones. yet deeply soulful and richly inflected so that you really hear (and feel) her blues as she sings “I’m feeling mighty lonesome/’haven’t slept a wink/I walk the floor from 9 to 4/and in between I drink/black coffee…” The Apples do a masterful job of highlighting each syllable and turn of phrase. rolling electric bass line and the luminous ride cymbal accent notes that give the song its living. just as a master storyteller might do. CoMFort FaCtor/aCCessories Apple’s in-ear headphones are very light and well shaped for purposes of making small physical adjustments to fine-tune fit and therefore sound quality. though still quite listenable. though they aren’t quite capable of taking you to the sonic mountaintop. The ‘phones come with three sizes of silicone rubber ear-tips that are intended to help users achieve a comfortable and airtight fit. crisp rendering of the blues piano and.
com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . specs/prici ng Apple In-Ear Headphones Accessories: • Three pairs of round.avguide.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . or iPod Classic (120GB model). L) • Injection molded carry case • Eartip storage case • Spare pair of mesh caps Weight: 10. If there is any drawback here. plugged-in to Apple’s design ethos will also appreciate the added control/communications functions made possible by the headphone’s cool remote/ mic module. seeking those few extra elements of sonic power and refinement that ‘phones in the mid$100 range have to offer. iPod Touch (2nd generation). the controls operate as follows: • ress center button: Play or pause a song (or P video) • ress center button twice quickly: Advance P to the next song (or chapter) • ress center button three times quickly: Go P to the previous song (or chapter) • ress the “+” button once: increase volume P incrementally • ress and hold the “+” button: increase P volume rapidly • ress the “-“ button once: decrease volume P incrementally • ress and hold the “-“ button: decrease P volume rapidly The Apple in-ear headphones come with a two-piece. it might be that the Apples are good enough to whet your appetite to step up to the next level. is that the same module also doubles as a limited functionality remote control for use with iPod Nano (4th generation). When used in conjunction with the iPods above. My one concern. clamshell-type carry case that doubles as a signal-cable winding spool.2 grams sensitivity: 109dB price: $79 ApplE (408) 996-1010 (800) MY-APPLE www. M. though. and again very stylish case for carrying the two pairs of eartips not currently installed on the headphones.apple. The module essentially has three control surfaces: a raised pair of “+” and “-“ buttons.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors The Apple’s click-to-answer/mic module is very cleverly designed and works beautifully for taking or making calls when using the headphones with your iPhone. plus a small.com BottoM line The Apple In-Ear Headphones offer good value for money and a nice blend of sonic virtues that center—as they should—on the headphone’s adroit handling of midrange frequencies. An added plus. is that the stylish case is made of injection molded plastic and therefore may not be rugged enough to stand up to daily use (my fear would be that the case could easily crack). ratinGs (compared to similarly-priced in-ear headphones) tonal balance clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 33 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. Other accessories include a spare pair of mesh caps (which act as dirt guards for the earpieces). Listeners who are. plus a slightly indented “center” button. pardon the pun. though. single-flange rubber eartips (S.
but these sounds differ not only in pitch and combination and timing. But even if we view producing musical peaks as difficult. just as the ability of audio equipment to present correct pitches and tone colors is important. we still have problems at the quiet end of the volume spectrum. warmth and smoothness are important to you. 34 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. Once we move outside of a dedicated listening room environment. The problem is that music requires the ability to go from soft to loud and back again. consists of sounds. producing loud sounds is actually fairly easy. Music. but we also have the problem of external sounds. but also in level. or if you want active noise cancellation features because you will use your headphones in environments where noise might otherwise intrude on your music. Take that scenario outside of an office and it just overview Consider this product if: Subtle bass weight. Dynamic range.” These terms aren’t often very well defined. One reason for that is the fact that. Trucks and cars buzz by outside. Not only do we have the challenge of actually reproducing small signals (not as easy to do as you might think due to friction and electronic noise). I’m in my office. As I sit writing this. of course. at most frequencies. we need the ability to play loud and soft. or what we commonly call “volume”. That’s because very loud sounds are unpleasant (and ultimately cause hearing damage). The ability of a piece of audio equipment to reveal the sounds at all sorts of different levels is of paramount importance to accurate music reproduction.avguide. The contrast between loud and soft is part of what gives music its dynamism. to create dynamic contrast. we double down on the problem of reproducing soft sounds. So. In addition. Now an important point here is that dynamic range isn’t mainly about the ability of audio gear to produce loud sounds. The HVAC system is coughing its way along attempting to warm the room on a frigid day. The difficulty is that we can’t simply create dynamic contrast by cranking the peaks up to super loud levels. talk about somewhat abstract concepts like “dynamic range. as a matter of necessity. is a particularly significant case example.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors Audio-Technica ATH-ANC23 Tom Martin R eviewers of audio equipment must. which in principle simply defines the difference between the background noise level of a product and the loudest sound the product can reproduce.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . the ability to play soft sounds is key because two other essential music elements lie at the soft end of the spectrum: overtones and spatial reflections. but are important nonetheless.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . look further if: Treble brilliance and Midrange refinement are essential for you.
(For those of you ratinGs (relative to comparably-priced competition) tonal balance frequency extremes clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 specs/prici ng Audio-Technica ATH-ANC23 NoiseCancelling Earphones Accessories: 1 pair of Comply foam ear tips.95 MSRP. But you can also purchase noise-cancelling in-ear headphones.g. but with no input level specified (this is a pretty common but unhelpful practice. and people chattering. However testing showed that an iPhone 4 could easily drive the ANC23 to satisfying volume levels and beyond.3m Warranty: Not specified price: $99. sounds is simple. jet engine noise.95). The 1 meter cord is quite short and is really optimized for use with a media player that is carried with you or perhaps attached to your clothing.. M. First. The ATH-ANC23 is designed for use with mobile devices.95 MAP AUdIO-TECHNICA U. As I’ve mentioned before. with the case in point being the subject of this review: the Audio-Technica ATHANC23s with QuietPoint technology ($99.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 .9 ounces sensitivity: 105 dB (input levels not specified) Impedance: 32 ohms power: single AAA battery (provided) Cable: 1. The claimed sensitivity is 105 dB. it may be helpful to know that the signal processing circuitry is set up so that the headphones continue to work in passive mode even if the battery runs out of power. by relieving the earphones of the need to block out all external sounds through tight-fitting eartips. $79. airline adapter Frequency response: 20 Hz – 20kHz Weight: 0. my in-ear www.. This should allow the designer to create a more comfortable earphone. the 125 Hz drone of an aircraft engine). 3 pairs of rubber ear tips (sizes S. the extra effect of electronic noise cancellation should allow greater noise reduction and could also help tune the noise reduction to particularly difficult frequencies (e. The headphone’s impedance is 32 ohms.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .s. INC. Audio-Technica claims that its QuietPoint technology.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors gets worse. which makes these Audio-Technicas appropriate for use with iPhones and the like. I’d say that the comfort level of the ANC23 is above average.avguide. attenuates “up to 90%” of the external noise from the environment. some background noise reduction can be had via a seal between the headphone and the ear canal. 35 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors ease oF Use The active-plus-passive noise cancelling approach allows part of the value proposition to aim at ease of use. It uses battery-powered circuitry in a small box that is attached in the middle of the headphone’s signal cable to do the noise cancelling.com prodUCt ConCept While relying on a seal to block external permanently on the go. as used in the ATH-ANC23. and L). You have train clatter.). carrying pouch. the ANC23s don’t have to have quite as tight a seal to the ear canal. (330) 686-2600 www. since it more or less renders the sensitivity rating meaningless). at least when compared with those models that create pressure points (a common problem). With in-ear headphones.audio-technica.
When the cables rub on your shirt.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . They sound impressively good. I’d rate them as slightly elevated in the mid-bass. I found the noise reduction from the active circuitry to be impressive. You switch on the noise cancelling circuitry. especially given their reasonable price. but they’re not the easiest either. and I’d say the ANC23s are about 80% as comfortable. I wish the cables were a little more flexible to avoid this. The ANC23s are really quite likeable. the sound is (mechanically) transmitted through the cables to the earpieces. Loose fitting models like the Klipsch in-ear models are easier to insert. with the note that this elevation in level doesn’t 36 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. at least with my ears. and I think the ANC23s’ tweaks have broad appeal. the oval shape of the Klipsch earpiece still distributes pressure more evenly. and bang.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . and as we’ll see in a moment. I did find that the ANC23 has one minor noise irritant. But most people would like a small amount of “tonal tweaking” in their headphones. A key point that many will view favorably is that the ANC23s have pretty solid bass. Note. the ANC23 gives the effect of wiping out the background noise and replacing it with very low-level hiss. One is that the bass performance of these headphones should be somewhat less dependent on the exact seal one achieves when inserting the earpieces into the ear canal. However. Note that Audio-Technica supplies several sizes and types of ear tips. soniC CharaCter I tested the ANC23s using an iPhone 4 loaded with tracks ripped from CDs in Apple Lossless format. driving the Audio-Technicas both directly from the iPhone and via a NuForce Icon DAC/amplifier. With more impulsive sounds like tapping.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors comfort reference is the Klipsch Image X10i. that the volume control markings embossed in the black plastic case for the noise reduction circuitry are difficult to read. That’s partly due to the nature of the seal and partly because active noise cancelling headphones like the Audio-Technicas tend to be bigger and thus are slightly more challenging to align. while the Audio-Technicas seem to achieve a stronger seal. though their sound isn’t strictly aimed at maximum accuracy. the ANC23 has pretty potent bass. (I discussed this same point when I reviewed the Phiaton PS 20 NC in-ear noise cancelling ‘phones. the noise is almost gone. so the circuitry isn’t as effective if your problem is talkative office mates. There is a secondary benefit of the electronic noise cancellation approach. The ANC23s aren’t particularly hard to insert. At least for midrange and high frequency noise.The AudioTechnicas do a better job of demonstrating this aspect of active noise cancellation than the Phiatons did. I should also mention that the cables are rather short for desktop/tray table use. so your mileage may vary. and then to your ears.).avguide. too. some sound still comes through.
Cymbals and other high frequency instruments are presented with admirable detail. www. I think many people would view a headphone with less bass as sounding “wrong. the sense of large bass pressure waves pressing against our chest cavities. and so on).avguide. just give the subliminal sense that they have lower distortion. This is important for a sense the acoustic environment as well as for articulating the particular beauty of certain instruments. That leaves us with the question of value. as I did. but maybe slightly too smooth with the result that it sounds a bit dynamically constricted. The good news here is that the Audio-Technica’s midrange issues are subliminal “sins of omission” and not really front and center. MUsiCal eXaMples On Faun Fables “Hibernation Tales” from Light of a Vaster Dark [Drag City]. People who love instrumental and vocal dynamics. It’s your money. Some headphones. BottoM line The Audio-Technica ATH-ANC23s offer a remarkably solid. on an intuitive level. since treble response is geared to blend smoothly with the headphone’s upper midrange. From around 200 Hz to 5kHz the ANC23s roll off very slightly. though it might be missing a slight bit of upper bass definition. But experienced listeners may feel that such extra energy carries a price (in terms of potential upper midrange/treble glare)—a price the ANC23s avoid extracting. the ANC23s are also above average it terms of resolving low-level details. the bass drum has excellent depth and weight with the ANC23. the vocal is clear but lacks the last bit of air and resonance you’d like to hear to make it seem like she’s singing to a real person in a real place.” That’s because listeners aren’t necessarily looking for headphones that sound “just like live music. which necessarily gets lost when listening through headphones. sound natural and well balanced. including the Phiaton PS 20s I tested recently. the sound is warm and smooth. The sound is warm and musical and the noise cancelling circuitry is genuinely useful. However. however. though this means highs may sound a bit subdued. might find the ANC23s a little reserved or dull. I think the one place listeners might perceive that the ANC23s come up short is in midrange refinement. You could save a little. Above this band the Audio-Technicas seem to offer flat response.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors seem excessive or particularly intrusive. which is somewhat reduced in level to begin with. On Eliza Gilkyson’s “Borderline” from Paradise Hotel [Red House]. but at $99 the Audio-Technicas are likely to be a good deal for most buyers.com 37 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . but you’d have to skip noise cancelling and for many applications the benefits of an extra $20 or $40 spent on active noise cancellation will reap noticeable rewards. Because of their active noise reduction circuitry. The result. I think the frequency response tailoring of the ANC23s will work extremely well as a package for a large group of listeners. that mid and upper treble frequencies could do to have a bit more energy. however. This is another wellconsider choice. I suspect.” but rather looking for headphones that. is a smooth sound. On Bettye LaVette’s rendition or “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” from her Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook [Anti]. since some people prefer a “rich” and not at all strident sound in the midrange. smooth and musical sound with excellent comfort for an affordable noisecancelling in-ear headphone. In fact. though you may sense. assuming you like their sonic profile.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . Lots of folks also like slightly elevated bass on headphones to help compensate for the lack of bass “air” (that is.
A great example would be Holly Cole’s rendition of Tom Wait’s “Take Me Home” from Temptation [Metro Blue]. meaning that the Demons are better suited for use in quiet environments than in. llC (201) 762-6500 usa. The song is propelled by richly textured acoustic bass. specs/prici ng Denon AH-C551 Earphone Weight: 5. the AH-C551 won our favor by being a well-rounded performer that offered tons of sonic refinement per dollar. this earphone’s tonal balance is somewhat bass-shy.com CoMFort FaCtor soniC CharaCter Like som of the more costly Denon models we have sampled. a hardshell carrying case. clear delicate highs. it’s the sort of small but crucial detail on which the Denon thrives. For this reason. which generally improves comfort but also makes the eartips somewhat more prone to “collapsing” when the earbud cables get jiggled. plenty of sonic nuance.99 DENON ElECTRONICS (USA). Two differences we noted.” The way Cole’s voice trails off between “in love” and “with you” brings the whole song to life. On the whole.4 grams (not including cable) sensitivity: 104 dB/mW Price: $99. however. say. The AH-C551s let you hear the emotion that develops as Cole delivers this line: “Take me home you silly boy/ I’m still in love … with you. expressive and yet restrained piano lines.avguide. Denon has introduced a softer rubber material for its eartips. and I was able to achieve a good seal using the standard eartips without too much difficulty.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors D DENON AH-C551 Chris Martens enon’s evergreen AH-C551 earphone was introduced several years ago (an eternity in this market) yet it remains in production for the simple reason that it sounds good. L). and clean. I sometimes had to re-insert or re-seat the Denons in my ears in to ensure a good airtight seal. www. MUsiCal eXaMples The AH-C551s are at their best when reproducing well-recorded material that is full of midrange nuance and textural details. and especially 38 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors BottoM line The AH-C551 is long on build quality and sonic refinement—especially from the midrange on up. ratinGs tonal balance clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 aCCessories Three pairs of single-flange rubber eartips (size S. The AH-C551s feature machined aluminum housings that incorporate what Denon terms an “Acoustic Optimizer” port said to improve sound quality by “adjusting the sound pressure balance in front of and behind the diaphragm. and a 31” extension cable.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . For the AH-C551s. The AH-C551s are very light and compact.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . moving vehicles. M.denon. are that the C551s are—relative to more costly Denons and to other ‘phones in their class—ever so slightly bass-shy and also relatively low in sensitivity (meaning you’ll need to feed them more power to achieve equivalent volume levels). which the Denons handle beautifully. Here as in Denon’s more expensive models you’ll find effortless midrange clarity.” by the subtle inflections in Cole’s voice.
said to “minimize vibration and resonance. And when I did so. as it were. overview Consider this in-ear headphone/ headset if: you seek an in-ear headphone that arguably represents the point of diminishing returns. more extended treble response. Also look further if you want ‘phones that.” • arpiece signal cables feature subtle. Since I’ve been focusing on other classes of headphone products of late. they certainly did not disappoint. I’ve felt from the beginning (and still feel) that the NE-7M offered a wonderfully natural. black collar = left earpiece).” as NuForce would call them). we’ll list features that apply to both the NE-700X and NE-700M. look further if: you were hoping for world-class in-ear headphones for chump change. and with only a very modest increase in price. to re-familiarize myself with the original NE-7Ms. Imagine my surprise.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . with a small section to highlighting additional features provided by the NE-700M • achined aluminum earpiece housings (or M “chassis. NE-700M headset: • itted with inline omnidirectional mic F equipped with a multifunction. • mm. single-button call answer/end switch.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors NuFORCE NE-700X & NE-700M Chris Martens rom the moment it first appeared on the market. To state things bluntly. like the original NE-7M’s. actually two things—that are even better: namely. Before jumping into this review to evaluate NuForce’s newest affordable yet still high performance offerings.and top-tier designs are better still (though in terms of value these new NuForce models are hard to beat). offer an extra touch of bass enrichment. and surprisingly fullbodied sound—a sound few other in-ear ‘phones in or near their price class can equal. Relative to the already quite good NE-7M.5mm miniF jack. FeatUres Below. we’ve yet to hear better for less. titanium-coated “wide-range” drivers. www. when the new 39 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors F models proved to sound better in every way than their predecessors. Now the delightful NE-7M has passed from the scene. NuForce’s late. 8 NE-700X headphone: • itted with three-pin (stereo) 3. which means that—by definition—this NuForce pair offers terrific value for money. today’s best mid. and more accurate and thus more neutral tonal balance overall. colorE coded collars to indicate which is the left or right earpiece (red collar = right earpiece.avguide. then. the new NE-700X and -700M offer better resolution and definition. it had been a while since I had taken out my trusty pair of NE-7M to give them a critical listen. reasonably detailed. but the great news is that it has been replaced by something—well. the NE-700X and NE-700M dispense with extra bass “oomph” in order to produce a more accurate sound overall. great NE7M earphone/headset became one of Playback’s favorite “go-to” products in the world of affordable in-ear headphones. while the NE-700X and -700M are very good. I decided to go back to the fountainhead.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . Has NuForce got a new pair of budgetpriced classics on their hand? We think that they do. NuForce’s all-new NE-700X in-ear headphone ($65) and NE-700M in-ear headset ($75).
universal-fit earphones under $100
go to: universal-fit earphones $100 - $300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors
• all answer/end switch functions during C phone calls: • Press once to answer the call. • Press again to end the call. • all answer/end switch functions during C music playback: • Press once to pause playback. • ress twice to skip forward to the next P track. • Press thrice to resume playback. First, lets consider tonal balance. The NE700X and -700M more or less eliminate the -7M’s touch of bass forwardness, yet without making the new models sound thin or “bass shy” in any way. Instead, the low-end of the new models sound taut, well defined and powerful—but never overly “thick” or too heavily weighted. Next, the new models make an improvement at the other end of the audio spectrum, with upper midrange and treble response that is more fully fleshed out than in the NE-7M, yet without making the new generation ‘phones sound overly bright or edgy. On the contrary, the NE-700M and-700M simply sound more open, transparent and revealing—especially in terms of capturing the admittedly difficult-to-reproduce sense of high frequency “air” surrounding instruments and voices. Second, the NE-700X and -700M offer audibly finer levels of top-to-bottom resolution than the NE-7M did. As you listen to recordings that are rich in subtlety and detail through the NE-700X and -700M, you may find, as I did, that they offer a noticeably more focused and fully resolved sound than the NE-7M ever did. Thus, textural and transient details that were only rendered in part by the
(relative to comparably-priced headphones)
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NuForce NE-700X In-Ear Headphones Type: In-ear headphones with single, titanium-coated 8mm drive unit. Accessories: See above Frequency response: 20Hz – 20 kHz Weight: 15.4 grams sensitivity: 105dB/mW Impedance: 16 Ohms Warranty: 1 year, parts and labor price: $65 NuForce NE-700X In-Ear Headset Type: In-ear headset with single, titanium-coated 8mm drive unit. Includes in-line omnidirectional mic module with multifunction call answer/end button. Accessories: See above Frequency response: 20Hz – 20 kHz Weight: 15.4 grams sensitivity: 105dB/mW Impedance: 16 Ohms Warranty: 1 year, parts and labor price: $75 NUFOrCE INC (408) 890-6840 www.nuforce.com
In my original review of the NuForce NE-7M I wrote that it was “balanced just slightly to the warm side of neutrality” and offered “an audible, though relatively unobtrusive, touch of bass forwardness.” I also ventured the opinion that those familiar with headphones in the NE-7M’s price range would “immediately be struck by how smooth and nuanced the NE7M sounds.” I then went on to say, “Don’t be fooled by the NE-7M’s modest price; its overall sound would put it right in the hunt with many models twice its price.” Well, the simple fact is that the new NE-700X and NE-700M preserve everything we loved about the NE-7M, while improving upon their predecessor in several musically important areas.
NE-7M suddenly become clearer, more fully realized, and more explicit through the new models. In short, you have the sense—and it is no mere illusion—that the new models are now conveying aspects of the music that were subtly obscured before. What this all ads up to is the fact that, now more than ever, the NE-700X and -700M invite comparisons with models that carry much steeper, three-figure price tags. That’s an impressive achievement for what are, after all, budget-priced ‘phones.
As long term Playback readers already know, I am fond of using Christopher Roberts’ album Last Cicada Singing [Cold Blue] as a litmus test, of sorts, for an headphone’s ability to reproduce subtle yet highly significant low41 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors
level sonic details. The NE-700X and -700M did not disappoint. Last Cicada Singing features compositions that are performed on an unusual and somewhat ethereal sounding Chinese stringed instrument called the qin (which some have described as a “Chinese zither”). From what I’ve read on the subject,
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I gather that by tradition music for the qin is thought to include not only the actual notes that are played, but also all—and I do mean all—of the incidental sounds that occur as the instrument is played. In short, the fine points count, including everything from the “click” of plucking noises across strings to the squeak of fingertips gliding over the strings and fingerboard to bend notes upward or downward. As I listened, then, to the album’s opening track, called “Remote Stories,” I found the next-gen NuForces did an unexpectedly great job of retrieving most of the delicate lowlevel information this disc has on offer. The acid test, really, is to see if the headphones convey at least something of the sense of real human hands delicately sweeping over the strings and fingerboard of a real instrument. This, I’m happy to report, is a test the NuForces passed with flying colors. Could I have heard even more finely-resolved detail through expensive top-tier ‘phones? Yes. But for under $100, I felt the NuForces sounded much more refined and accomplished than they had any right to for the money. To give the NuForce’s an even more vigorous “live music” workout, I put on the late Eva Cassady’s Live At Blues Alley [Blix Street], focusing on the classic R&B track “Take Me To The River.” What makes this particular track such a challenging test is that it offers up the nuanced yet deceptively powerful sound of Eva Cassidy’s vocals while simultaneously presenting a very energetic electric backing band, all captured in the intimate confines of a small-ish club. Two things impressed me with the NE-700X and -700M’s performance. First, they really nailed the “petite person with a very big voice” qualities that make Eva Cassidy’s singing so evocative, while also giving a sense for both the sheer driving force and deft musicianship brought to the party by the backing band. In particular, I was struck by the power and depth of the plunging electric bass line that helps to open the song, and by the crisp, propulsive shimmer and sizzle of the percussionist ride cymbal (which is very realistically recorded on this track). Again, what floored me was the sense that the NuForces simply didn’t sound like “budgetpriced” models at all, but rather sounded much like higher-class headphones. In particular, I appreciated that the NuForces could capture the inherent power of “Take Me To The River,” and could do so without lapsing into the overly brash, raw-edged sound that plagues some low-priced headphones on this track.
To give you a clear idea of the progress NuForce has made with these two new models, let me compare the NE-700X/NE700M against the original NuForce NE-7M NuForce NE-700X/NE-700M vs. NuForce NE-7M • he MSRP of the NuForce NE-700X is $65 T while the NE-700M sells for $75, whereas the NE-7M sold for $49. Obviously, prices have crept upward in the transition to the new models, but the good news is that performance has pushed forward as well (so that the new models arguably represent an even better value than the original did— which is saying a lot). • he new models offer machined, solid T aluminum driver housings said to resist unwanted vibration and resonance, and also provide light, rigid, and responsive 8mm titanium-coated drivers. • n terms of tonal balance the two new I models are simply more accurate than the original NE-7M, offering more extended (but not overly bright) treble response, bass that is better balanced (no longer overlyprominent, as in the NE-7M) and that offers better pitch definition, superior transient speed, and a more finely resolved sound from top-to-bottom. In every meaningful way, the NE-700X and NE-700M take significant sonic steps forward relative to the already very good NE-7M. • aveat: We could see some listeners— C especially those who listen in environments where there is a lot of low-frequency noise
42 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors
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present—wishing for a return to the more bass-forward sound of the NE-7M. Be that as it may, there’s no getting around the fact that the NE-700X/-700M are the more natural and accurate-sounding design. • he NE-7M was already quite comfortable T to use and wear, and the new models follow in the same path. We found, however, that the slightly larger diameter, ribbed housings of the new models are somewhat easier to grasp (typically between your thumb and index fingers) should you need/want to adjust their positioning on the fly. mini-jack plug. Compatibility: • ompatible with iPhone 2G/3G/4G, iPod C Touch, BlackBerry Storm. • orks with iPhone 3GS/4G without volume W control on mic button. • orks with most devices that support stereo W via 3.5mm three-pin (700X) or 4-pin (700M) mini-jacks. • ot compatible with iPhone 1st generation, N with Creative Zen, or with any device requiring a 2.5mm plug. The NE-700X and -700M are easy to handle and to insert, and the multiple eartips should enable the vast majority of users to achieve a comfortable, airtight seal.
NuForce’s NE-700X and NE-700M’s come with the following accessories: • A fabric drawstring-type carrying pouch. • variety of eartips including three pairs of A single-flange eartips (sizes S, M and L), and one pair of triple-flange sleeves. Key differentiators: • he earpieces of the NE-700X and NE-700M T are mechanically identical, though the 700X is finished in Aqua Silver (a pale, bluish-gray shade of silver), which the -700M is finished in Smoky Bronze. • he NE-700X signal cable is fitted with a T three-pin (stereo) 3.5mm mini-jack plug. • he NE-700M signal cable is fitted with an T inline, omnidirectional microphone equipped with a multifunction call answer/end button (see FEATURES, above for further details), and with a four-pin (stereo + mic), 3.5mm
If you own an iPhone, iPod, or other device that’s compatible with 3.5mm plugs, and are still using box-stock earbuds or headsets, you owe it to yourself to step up to a set of NE700X’s ($65) or NE-700M’s ($75), which will give you a quite substantial step up in overall sound quality. No other in-ear headphones or headsets we know of can provide more (or even as much) performance for so little, meaning these models are bargains, pure and simple.
43 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors
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with the drivers contained within an earpiece enclosure that provides tiny front and rear bass ports said to enhance low frequency response. the a-JAYS Threes are one of the more satisfying solutions we’ve yet heard in the sub-$100 range. These sleek Swedish ‘phones build a strong case for upgrading from stock earbuds to something much better. While even higher levels of performance are out there at a price. How good are these stylish little ‘phones in an absolute sense? They’re good enough that. look further if: you require strictly neutral tonal balance or want to push for even higher levels of sonic refinement. and that come with a genuinely useful set of accessories. finish.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors JAyS A-JAyS THREE Chris Martens E very once in a while I encounter products that do so much for so little that their value quotient is off the charts. but for a fraction of the price. in terms of sound quality. fit. prodUCt ConCept Jays’ affordable a-JAYS product family features four value oriented in-ear models. Also consider the a-JAYS Threes if you enjoy products that are cleverly and stylishly packaged. the a-JAYS Three in-ear headphones ($59. Finally. with the a-JAYS Three standing as the top model in the range.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . “Scandinavian Cool”. The a-JAYS Three features distinctive 8.99) from the Swedish firm Jays is just such a product. overview Consider this product if: you want sound quality competitive in many ways with in-ear headphones in the $100-$200 range. 44 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. note that the Threes exude an overall vibe that could be called. and they prove that you can do so without putting a big a dent in your wallet.avguide.6 mm TMD moving coil-type drivers powered by Neodymium magnets. they could in may ways pass for models selling for two or even three times their actual price. which many will find very appealing. style. and the accessories they include.
and L).jays. “We want to design the most authentic sounding and price worthy on-ear and in-ear headphones possible and create a global life style brand for music lovers. ease oF Use The a-JAYS Threes are extremely compact inear headphones that I found a delight to use. but that also drapes neatly and smoothly from the earpieces. • ive pairs of silicone eartips (size XXS. XS. F M. it achieves much of the sonic purity and clarity I’ve typically associated with balanced armature-type designs I’ve sampled in the past (for example. flat signal cable A that is easy to coil up into a compact roll when the ‘phones are put in storage. A great detail touch is the a-JAYS Three’s flat. • stereo splitter that makes it possible to A feed two sets of ‘phones from a shared headphone jack. one year (cables & connectors). making them more comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. travel case Frequency response: 20 Hz – 22kHz Weight: 14 grams sensitivity: 97 dB (input levels not specified) Impedance: 16 ohms Warranty: Two years (earphone shell & internal components). Interestingly. the flat cable lends itself to being rolled up in a tight coil the fits neatly within the included travel case.com 45 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . JAYS’ corporate identity statement provides clues that help explain what Jays headphones in general. • An airline adapter. And when it comes time to store the Threes. airline adapter. Once you find a pair of eartips that allow a good airtight seal in your ear canals. in part because they come with a very broad range of silicone eartips (so that there is a size likely to fit most anyone). two-tone. are all about. A • tangle free. tangle-resistant signal cable.99 JAYs AB www. The statement proclaims—in Swedish-inflected English—that. stereo splitter. We do not want to be a narrow audiophile brand. you simply pop the earpieces in place and away you go. minimalist hard shell travel case A that is shaped like a small discus and that slips easily into your pocket or handbag. the classic Etymotic Research ER-4P. S.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . TPE-coated. M. Among these are: • rubberized black finish on the earpieces. but still playing as close as possible by the same rules. & L). and the a-JAYS Threes in particular. which not only helps prevent the “rat’s nest” of wire you might encounter with some in-ear models. while the a-JAYS Three is based on a moving coil-type driver. the Threes sport features typically found only on much more costly in-ear models.se of industrial design that provides a distinctly Nordic-looking. six months (accessories) price: $59. Jays’ packaging for the Threes www. and others cut from similar sonic cloth). My one complaint would be that the case is relatively small. The JAYS travel case is an attractive piece soniC CharaCter Let me begin by observing that.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors ratinGs (relative to comparably-priced competition) tonal balance frequency extremes clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Although the Threes are very reasonably priced. XS. On the contrary. • beautiful. matte/gloss black discus-shaped container for the ‘phones.” specs/prici ng Jays a-Jays Three In-Ear Headphones Accessories: Five pairs of silicone eartips (sizes XXS. S. meaning you’ll need to roll-up the headphone’s signal cable tightly in order to leave sufficient room for the earpieces to fit within the case. they in no way skimp on accessories or other important detail touches. The Threes weigh a very light 14 grams.avguide.
The key. the product container also lauds the Threes for their ostensibly “Detailed and Balanced Sound”—a statement that also contains real elements of truth given that the Threes do on the whole place a premium on accuracy and (comparatively) neutral tonal balance. The Three’s bass is powerful and well extended. the a-JAYS Threes sound more like earphone that might cost $159—not a mere $59. which is quite an accomplishment. More importantly. open. their upper mids and highs are. and overtones of the guitar. listeners will likely be struck by the fact that these affordable little Swedish beauties offer levels of treble clarity and detail that are impressive in light of their price. low-level mouthpiece noises and reed sounds from woodwind instruments. This track captures an acoustic bass that has either been very closely mic’d or perhaps captured via a direct pickup of some kind.avguide. they for the most part stop well short of becoming painfully harsh or edgy. Instead. in a qualitative sense. I found there is some truth to the “bass impact” phrase. to the delicate brushwork on cymbals. fingering noises. While upper mids and highs are admittedly somewhat too bright or forward sounding. so that they typically aren’t egregious or overblown in their effects (though some listeners do find the ‘phones overly bright). fear). Through the upper midrange and on up into the treble region. the transient sounds. articulate.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . To experience the vividness and clarity of the Three’s upper mids and highs. On one hand. I’d buy one).$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors offers up two descriptive phrases that imply the headphones offer sonic qualities that. And those two qualities— bass clarity combined with low frequency power and weight—are precisely what the a-JAYS Threes deliver. In practice. is that these bands of high. though it. On the contrary. On the other hand. here. rather than too little—especially given that they may be called upon to perform in environments where there could be lots of low-frequency noise to overcome. While the Threes may not achieve the sheer transparency of more costly flagship in-ear models such as the Monster Turbine Pro Copper Editions. the firm touts the Threes as offering “heavy bass impact”—a potentially scary phrase if ever I heard one (hey. so its sound at once exceptionally clear and very powerful. don’t seem to belong together. “silvery” quality that offers excellent treble extension. and especially to the fine. sounds somewhat forward in the mix (relative to midrange frequencies. try a track rich in treble details. Overall.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . too. Even so. in particular. and sound like far more expensive in-ear headphones. if I wanted a boom box. the Three’s bass is pleasingly clear. What’s not to like about that? 46 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www.and lowfrequency emphasis are relatively smoothly integrated. meaning that low and high frequency bands sounds more prominent than midrange frequencies do through these ‘phones. feel. I would say that the a-JAYS Threes offer what my colleague Tom Martin would call a “u”-shaped frequency response curve. and well defined. At every turn. but without severe exaggerations. To appreciate what I mean by this comment.99. detail. making them a fine choice for audiophiles on a budget or for music lovers who want a taste of “the good stuff. paradoxically. try Patricia Barber’s cover of “My Girl” as captured on A Distortion of Love [Polygram]. Listen. but that the Threes’ moderate touch of low-end emphasis was nowhere near as heavy-handed as Jays’ promotional phrase led me to expect (er. the a-JAYS Threes provide a delicate. and focus. they tend to make the Threes sound desirably lively and dramatic.” but without blowing holes in their wallets. sUMMinG Up For the more than reasonable sum of $59. such as “Near South End” from Jacob Young’s Sideways [ECM]. many would argue that it is far preferable for in-ear ‘phones to offer slightly too much bass. the a-JAYS Threes look. which are pulled back a bit relative to lows and highs). as good if not better than anything I’ve heard in their price class.
however. to be sure.” These are brave words. Unlike Klipsch’s more costly Image X5 and Image X10 models. which use what Klipsch calls “balanced micro drivers” (i.” Part of the reason I wanted to review the S4i was to learn how it would compare to the more costly Klipsch X10/X10i. when speaking off the record. 47 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www.5mm “moving coil micro speaker design with controlled damping. as the S4i’s traces of midrange forwardness can potentially be off-putting for some listeners. though. the S4i has the sonic goods to back up its own ad copy.g. the S4i’s 3-button remote/microphone module works exactly as advertised. but also blessed with power. though it exhibits just a touch of midrange forwardness that. but as you’ll see in a moment they’re not just hollow marketing hype. “smooth. concede that balanced armature offer greater performance potential overall. the $80 Apple In-Ear Headphone).g.” Most manufacturers who build in-ear headphones using both balanced armature and moving coil drivers will.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . look further if: you seek mid.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors KLIPSCH IMAgE S4I Chris Martens overview he Indianapolis. weight. Also look further if you seek optimal tonal neutrality.avguide. Klipsch claims that the S4i’s moving coil driver (which features a dual magnet motor design) delivers. Over time. the S4i uses an 8. no longer in production) and the Image ($349. Klipsch’s patent-pending oval eartips remain the most comfortable that Playback has ever tried. The tonal balance of the S4i is generally neutral. Bass is taut and well controlled. As advertised. I suspect.. A classic case in point would be the Image S4i ($99. focusing primarily on higher-end models such as Custom 3 ($299. Relative to other in-ear headphones near its price (e. the NuForce NE-700M).com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . making this a good choice for iPhone/iPod owners. and depth (areas where the S4i comes up a little bit short). many listeners will find enchanting.95). IN-based firm Klipsch first entered the headphone market in 2007.e. which Klipsch describes as “an in-ear headset that combines the company’s acclaimed sound and unbeatable comfort with an advanced in-line microphone and remote (control) system. the S4i delivers a noticeably more articulate and revealing sound that is particularly engaging on delicate instruments or vocals. Interestingly. full bodied sound similar to a balanced armature. Klipsch expanded its product line to create in-ear headphones that embrace much lower price points and that incorporate remote control/microphone functions geared to address the needs of iPod and iPhone owners. balanced armature-type drivers).. which are among the in- T Consider this earphone/headset if: you want a headset that sounds unusually clear and nuanced over most of the audio range (from the upper-bass region on up). but not as powerful or deeply extended as in some competing models (e.. and now called the Image X10).and low bass that is not only well-defined and well-controlled (qualities the S4i offers in spades).
though the bass it does deliver is presented with terrific clarity and definition with absolutely no boominess of any kind. but for others it’s a quality that make music sound more engaging and alive than it otherwise would. Pressing the button again allows music playback to resume. airtight seal—and with it. MUsiCal eXaMple A track that nicely shows off both the S4i’s strengths and weaknesses is “Stormy Monday” from Eva Cassady’s beautifully recorded Live At Blues Alley [Blix Street]. iPod nano (4th and 5th generation). have been rigorously tested for resistance to common household “chemical.” • omes with Klipsch’s patent-pending oval C cross-section eartips. The remote is supported by iPod shuffle (3rd generation). the track reveals the subtle vocal inflections that made the late Ms. then gently rotate the headphone body (and eartip) left and right a few degrees and then slightly pull it backward FeatUres • 8. the S4i does not place the in-line microphone on either the left or right earpiece cable. Unlike many of the headsets Playback has tested. which are said to “naturally fit the contours—or mimic the shape—of your ear canals. cosmetic and cleanser agents. • eadset/remote control compatibility factors: H At the time of the Image S4i’s release (which pre-dated the arrival of the iPhone 4). This characteristic is not so pronounced that you would notice it when listening to the S4i in isolation. Music automatically mutes and pauses for an incoming call. call recipients reported that I sounded much more like myself with the S4i in use than when using my iPhone’s normal mic or other headsets I had tested in the past.com 48 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . and then the S4i’s let you hear the delicate vibrato in her voice as she draws out and bends the word “Tuesday” as she completes the opening line.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors ear models Playback uses as references. which is based on an Apple chip and promises a wide array of functions—especially when used with the iPhone 3GS or the latest generation iPod nano. But speaking as a dedicated iPhone user. Audio is supported by all iPod models. below. Important note: for best bass response.5mm moving coil micro speakers.” Moreover. adding. optimal bass response. but rather provides a 360 degree mic in a central position on the headphone yoke where the left and right earpiece cable join. Tonal balance is reasonably neutral. Requires latest iPod software. Also compatible with VOIP. • Offered in two colors: black and white. nuanced and evocative sound from the upper bass region on up. Pressing the button again disconnects the call and allows music to resume. but clarity seekers should be very happy. • istening to music: When listening to L music. has that powerful and immediate treble sparkle that can www. according to Klipsch. Klipsch’s own Image X10). with just the press of a button. iPod Classic (120 GB). pressing the play/pause button once allows the listener to answer the call. Press the button twice in rapid succession causes the iPhone or iPod touch to skip forward to the next track. and audio recording applications. yoke and earphone body. classic or iPod touch. For some this will seem a flaw (albeit a minor one). This technique helps the eartips flare out in your ear canal to achieve a comfortable. and iPod touch (2nd generation). including the plug. as listed under the COMFORT FACTOR/ACCESSORIES section. • n-line microphone module provides a I multifunction play/pause control button (which doubles as a send/end button when handling phone calls). This is the real draw of this headset. I also wanted to check out the S4i’s 3-button remote control/mic system. it means you don’t need to “talk down” into the mic. so enjoyable is the faithful way it captures the live feel of the recording event. Play the S4i and you’ll immediately find that it digs up and reproduces much finer and subtler levels of information most of its like-priced competitors can. which allows you to hear the name of the playlist. Insert the S4i’s (using the eartip size that best fits you). the dominant sonic characteristic of the S4i is the clear. Those who expect bass to have some “meat on its bones” might be little disappointed. as Klipsch points out (and I verified in my user tests). This is a superior place to put the microphone and. try the following adjustment tip that Klipsch recommends. the cables have also been subjected to extensive “tensile strength and flex cycling tests and are then tested for strength and flexibility at every connection point. • ccording to Klipsch the “Image S4i is A among the first to be fully compatible with the Apple VoiceOver feature on the third generation iPod shuffle. Klipsch said.” • rovides cables and cable strain relief P fittings that. song or artist just a bit.” soniC CharaCter As mentioned above. Percussion. “the remote and mic are supported only by iPhone 3GS. Mic and call/ music button control features (are) functional with 1st generation iPhones and iPhone 3G. Skype. iChat. During test phone calls. MacBook.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . Cassady such a wonderful performer to hear. pressing the play/pause button once causes music playback to pause. MacBook Pro and Mac Pro (2009 models). though it exhibits a touch of midrange forwardness.” • ccessories: the S4i comes with an A extensive set of accessories.” Cassady sings. Volume Controls are not compatible with 1st generation iPhone 3G. The good news is that this quality makes vocals and most kinds of instrumental music come alive in a good way—even though it pushes them just slightly too far forward in the mix. as heard through the S4i. • nbound calls: When an inbound call is I received. Press the button three times in rapid succession causes the iPhone or iPod touch to skip backward to the previous track. but it becomes apparent if you listen to the S4i in side-by-side comparison with a more neutrally voiced headphone (for example.avguide. The S4i is not the last word in bass depth and power. First off. and in fact this entire album. “They call it stormy Monday. “but Tuuuuuesday’s just as bad…” Part of what makes this song.
klipsch. the S4i’s clarity is laudable. Monster Cable Turbines ($150) • he Turbines may have a subtle touch of T bass emphasis but are basically quite neutral in their overall presentation. but missing is the weight. you should hear a deep. the S4i’s sound lighter than they should. In essence. the S4i beautifully and accurately sketches the basic rudiments of the bass guitar’s sound. the Apple In-Ear I Headphones and Klipsch S4i’s offer different sets of tradeoffs. the S4i sounds a bit bass-shy and just slightly midrange forward by comparison. while the electric guitar has the presence. I would give the S4i the edge in terms of reproducing subtle bass textures and timbres.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors only be experienced in a small club. I say this in part because Klipsch’s eartips fit more snuggly on their earpieces that the Apple eartips do (some Playback readers have complained that the Apple eartips can work loose over time and that Apple does not sell replacement tips). but without the body and weight you’d expect. where the S4is shows hints of midrange forwardness. but that the S4i’s enjoyed a noticeable edge in terms of comfort (Klipsch is really on to something good with its oval eartips). S4i vs.avguide. the Turbines have much greater bass power and impact than the S4i’s. • he S4i proved more effective as a headset T thanks to its centrally positioned. In practice. comparisons between the S4i and four competitors—two priced below and two priced above the S4i. 360-degree mic. or the occasional click and clink of glassware on tables. deep. • oth headphones come with a good mix of B eartips. you get more of a thumbnail sketch of the drum sound. I offer and low-bass. But on bass guitar and kick drum. rolling. • hough it is difficult to determine such things T in a journalist’s review. below. Unlike many headphones it its price class. Again. NuForce NE-700M ($75) • he NuForce offers a subtle degree of T bass emphasis which makes it stand out in comparison to the S4i. the Turbines offer superior neutrality and evenness of tonal balance. but have beautifully extended highs. though I again preferred Klipsch’s centrallypositioned mic and remote. the S4i and A the NuForce run neck and neck in terms of nuance and detail. punch. When the kick drum sounds. this means the NE700M has a noticeably more full-bodied (and equally tightly controlled and well defined) bass sound. I include the NuForce NE-700M headset ($75). S4i vs. In a nutshell. sounds of shuffling chairs. which has a comparable but inverse level of bass deemphasis. enjoy a significant edge in overall clarity. The Apples are quite neutral through the body of the midrange with slight rolled off highs. and the Klipsch Image X10 ($349).com 49 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . (800)-KLIPSCH www. • cross most of the audio range. Through the S4i’s. Not surprisingly. s4i vs. the S4i’s can go toeto-toe with the more expensive Turbines. Apple In-Ear Headphone/Headset ($80) • ass capabilities of the S4i and Apple InB Ear Headphones are similar. the Monster Cable Turbine ($150). the S4i even let you hear the subtle. • n terms of tonal balance.95 KlIpsCH grOUp.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . since both headphones present slightly recessed mid- ratinGs clarity dynamics (relative to comparably priced in-ear headphones) tonal balance specs/prici ng Klipsch s4i headset/in-ear headphone Frequency response: 10Hz – 19kHz Weight: Not specified sensitivity: 110 dB/mW Impedance: 18 ohms Warranty: Two years. bite. which are very well recorded on “Stormy Monday”. whispered fragments of background conversations between club patron. parts and labor price: $99. Bass timbres and textures are fine and are very clearly rendered. • oth the Apples and S4i’s work well with B iPhones and iPods (no surprise there). for example. and sheer power of the bass instruments. I found that the NE-700M’s offered superior noise isolation. However. which the S4i’s offer a certain evocative quality that makes low-level details come alive. • n terms of clarity and nuance across much I of the audio spectrum. clear “pop” that sends a compression wave across the stage floor and straight to your ears. though the Klipsch does show a characteristic touch of midrange forwardness on some recordings. the bass guitar should have a big. The S4i’s. I suspect the S4i will prove to be the sturdier design for long term use. where the NE-700M does not. In side-by-side tests. and propulsive sound whose classic blues lines gently urge the song forward. but without capturing the floor-rumbling power that make it such a compelling force. Similarly. low-level sounds that tell you this is a live recording: namely.com comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 CoMpetitve analysis To give you a picture that shows how the S4i fits into the broader headphone market. though its lack of bass weight may leave you wishing for more. the Apple In-Ear Headphone/ headset ($80). www. and howl that can best be heard when you’re seated close to the stage. INC. however. detail and nuance.
a clothing clip. The headset is light. though with a touch of midrange forwardness. • he Image X10i and the S4i share Klipsch’s T patent-pending oval eartip design. but the Klipsches offer superior comfort (you can literally wear them for hours without discomfort or ear fatigue). and plenty of resolution and detail. The Turbines may enjoy a very slight edge in terms of noise isolation. M. Klipsch Image X10i ($349) • t is. But that said.avguide. Bass is taut and well-defined. though. sturdy and beautifully made. detail and nuance. but I just had to see how the S4i’s would stack up in comparison to Klipsch’s flagship. One thing I did notice is that the shape of Klipsch’s oval eartip design appears to have changed just a bit relative to the original 2007 version (the earlier models were slightly shallower but also more widely flared than the 2010 and later versions). the S4i is a great musical communicator and a good value. though the 2010 design may achieve an even more “weightless” feel in the ear canal. Personally. evocative presentation of sonic details. and spring clasp-equipped fabric carrying pouch. Even so. • oth headphones come with a good B selection of eartips. a pair (S/M) of double-flange oval eartips. the S4i offers an usually high degree of clarity. 50 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . and in almost every area of performance. CoMFort FaCtor/aCCessories The S4is come with three sets (S. Once you hear the X10. small. the most comfortable Playback has ever tested. you’ve experienced the benchmark the S4i was aiming for. because it made for superior noise isolation and better bass. I’d like to see Klipsch bring back the more widely flared shape it originally used. S4i vs. It’s also makes a wonderful headset/ remote control for owners of contemporary iPhones and iPods. • he X10i is a true do-all design that T offers neutral tonal balance. L) of single-flange oval eartips. Overall. by a not subtle margin. though perhaps not a slam-dunk winner.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors • he S4i provides iPod headset functions T whereas the Turbine does not. which is exceptionally comfortable. I found the original 2007 shape gave a slightly better in-ear seal. Guest listeners often commented that the Klipsch’s were night/day different from and better than competing in-ear headphones in terms of ease of insertion and long-term comfort. Relative to competitors in or near its price class. but not as powerful or deeply extended as in some competing phones. somewhat unfair to compare I any product to a competitor three and half times its price. a cleaning tool. I should point out that the S4i does capture at least some measure of the “feel” of its bigger brother. Klipsch’s oval eartips are. of course. BottoM line The S4i is a strong competitor in its price class. especially in terms of its clear. Does the S4i fall short of its bigger brother? Yes. remarkable bass power and extension.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 .
• hree sizes of silicone eartips (which Koss calls T “ear cushions”). • ignal cables with padded. According to Koss. something much better than those. do a better job in this respect www. it aims to provide a good measure of isolation from external noise sources while delivering “exceptionally rich audio” sound quality that is “crisp and clear”—and to do so for a reasonable price. This partnership enhances isolation…” I think what Koss is getting at is that the KDX 200 is not a conventional (and thus inherently loose fitting) “earbud” of the type typically supplied with iPods or other personal digital music players.” • olid aluminum earpiece housings said to S improve durability. Though the KDX 200 Silver enjoys “middle of the middle” status in the Koss family pecking order.” T prodUCt ConCept As near as I can tell. with the KDX 200 Silver ($79. including Koss’ own KDX 300 Gold models. it is.” overview Consider this product if: you want a well-made and affordable inear headphone that offers decent sound isolation and whose sound puts more of an emphasis on crispness and clarity than on sonic richness or warmth. Other phones.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . The earbud forms a tight seal with the ear canal becoming acoustically coupled with the eardrum for almost perfect sound translation to the ear. look further if: you prize headphones that offer truly neutral tonal balance and that therefore deliver a good measure of music’s natural warmth and richness. Koss writes: “The KDX Series is unique from other inthe-ear style headphones because of a direct 51 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors coupling technology specifically engineered to partner with the listener’s eardrum. the KDX 200 Silver’s mission profile is blessedly simple and straightforward. FeatUres Design highlights and product accessories include the following: • omputer optimized dynamic (not balanced C armature-type) “micro drivers. it appears to be very well made. isolation. solid aluminum earpiece housings. each of which is fitted with a single dynamic “micro driver. sporting polished. A Koss press release on the KDX works to paint the KDX 200 Silver as a highly differentiated product.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors KOSS KDX 200 SILvER Chris Martens he KDX family of sound isolating in-ear headphones represents the middle band of Koss’ in-ear line-up.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . though I think the Koss description could hold true for many of the in-ear ‘phones that Playback has tested. and overall sound quality.avguide. the KDX 200 Silver offers sonic sophistication that belies their price—especially in the treble region. In many respects. Of the KDX series. by design. patterned fabric S sheathes that look much like miniature versions of high-end audio interconnect cables and that are said to be “resistant to kinks and tangles.99) in turn standing as the middle model in the KDX family.
which becomes apparent if you compare the Silvers side-by-side with good www.koss. from West [Lost Highway]. carrying pouch Frequency response: 15Hz – 20kHz Weight: 17 grams sensitivity: 100 dB SPL/1 mW distortion: < 1. While some might wish for more than three eartip sizes. midrange.avguide.” (typically causing irreparable damage) The silicone eartips provided good. these features should help minimize the oh-too-common problem of users inadvertently yanking signal cables right out of their headphone’s earpieces One small (and I do mean very small) nit I would pick is that the KDX 200 Silver’s Left/ Right earpiece markings are presented in the form of the almost unbelievably small and fine-lined letters “L” and “R” imprinted on the earpieces’ signal cable strain relief sleeves. Two detail features I particularly appreciated were the combination aluminum stems and firm rubber signal cord strain reliefs that Koss provided. soniC CharaCter The KDX 200 Silver offers a taut. Through the KDX 200’s. listen to the deep bass guitar and drum notes at the beginning of Lucinda Williams’ “Rescue”. I suspect many listeners will regard the cord’s cool appearance and lightweight construction as winning attributes.” is quite good. low end: The Silver’s bass is taut and reasonably well extended. warmth.99 KOss COrpOrATION (800) USA-KOSS www. especially those who dislike even trace amounts of bass “boominess” or overhang will find the KDX 200’s bass quality a delight. • he KDX 200 Silver ‘phones are. yet the senses of richness. Even so. which are very light and thin. tilted more toward the qualities of crispness and clarity than toward warmth and overall richness.0% Impedance: 16 ohms Warranty: Limited Lifetime Warranty price: $79. or perceived bass “slam. and impact are not all that they could or should be.com tightly controlled presentation that gives more emphasis to textures and pitch definition than to warmth.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors • leatherette carrying case with spring-clasp A closure. Here’s how that plays out across the bass. especially on the drum “thomps.” As a practical example. for want of a better term.” Contrary to Koss’ claims. Together. the bass clarity and extension. actually did seem prone to kinks and tangles (though perhaps that is because the cables had been very tightly coiled when the headphones were still in their packaging box).” Many listeners. I found the fabric wrapped cables. well-defined sound that is. and treble bands of the audio spectrum.com ease oF Use I found the KDX 200 Silver’s solid aluminum earpieces made the headphone easy to handle and to insert. ratinGs (relative to comparably-priced competition) tonal balance frequency extremes clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 specs/prici ng Koss KdX 200 silver In-Ear Headphones Accessories: 3 sizes of silicone ear tips. weight. significantly. while others might wish for a bit more foundational mid-bass weight in hopes of achieving a sound with. Depending on the quality of your eyesight. I think others will be grateful that the KDX Silvers do not impose “eartip option overload.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . you may need a magnifying glass to see those markings. T covered by Koss’ “No Questions Asked Lifetime Warranty. in a subtle way. though not class-leading. but notable for its 52 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . amounts of sound isolation and were comfortable to wear. a bit more “gravitas.
the Silver will appeal to listeners who find that a dab of midrange forwardness seems to pull them closer to the music in a pleasing way.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit $100-$300 | universal-fit $300+ | custom-fit monitors competing models (e. such as the jazz standard “Everytime We Say Goodbye” from the Jimmy Cobb Quartet’s Jazz in the Key of Blue [Chesky]. and the KDX Silver’s generally did a fine job of capturing the distinctive lilt and twang of the Dobro’s voice—showing. and emotionally involving).avguide. in particular. hard-edged and “pingy. with capturing the overall balance of sounds contributed by other instruments in Douglas’ band. 53 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. but the downside is that overall tonal balance is skewed away from neutrality somewhat. In particular. even though it may not be really accurate in a strict textbook sense. Midrange: The Silver’s mids are clear. these ‘phones sound way more sophisticated than their price would lead you to expect. a quality many listeners prize and that some headphone makers deliberately seek to provide. however.com previous page NeXT page NeXT page . Highs: The KDX Silver’s treble response is nicely extended and very well defined— especially so for a product in this price range. and evocative. put on a track with really well recorded and richly detailed treble textures. though arguably pushed somewhat forward in the mix. lucid. “Senia’s Lament” features Douglas performing glorious. anchoring counterbalance to Douglas’ soaring Dobro lines—a balancing act that the more midrange-centric Silvers never quite managed to pull off. This is. which is where most of the music really lives. to be candid. here. try listening to “Senia’s Lament”—a track that thrives on midrange subtleties—from Dobromaster Jerry Douglas’ Lookout for Hope [Sugarhill]. dark. gets a touch of extra emphasis that can subjectively pull you closer to the music (making many instruments and voices seem more intelligible. meaning the Silver will fit some tastes beautifully—but not all. To appreciate what I mean. crisp.g. and having heard the recording through many top-tier headphones and loudspeakers. I can tell you that the bass and drums heard on this song are meant to provide a deep.” The Silver’s had greater difficulty. When playing up high. how evocative and expressive it can be when bending notes. soaring melody lines on his Dobro. sUMMinG Up Koss’ KDX 200 Silver is well built and reasonably priced. To hear what I mean. It’s sonic strengths tilt more toward perceived crispness and clarity than toward natural warmth or richness. The upside is that the midrange. Listen carefully to Cobb’s delicate and at times almost subliminal brushwork on his snare drum and cymbals and you’ll find the Silvers sound absolutely exquisite. the NuForce NE-700X) or with Koss’ own KDX 300 Gold ‘phones. Having heard Douglas perform this piece live. My only complaint was that the headphone’s upper midrange prominence made the Dobro occasionally sound a bit thin.
prodUCt ConCept If you study Koss’ press releases on the KDX 300 Gold and KDX 200 Silver. the Gold is one of those ‘phones that wins you over by doing most things well (its sonic sins are mostly those of omission). and substantially reduced distortion (< 0. you might prefer Koss’ slightly less expensive KDX 200 Silver model). and refinement from top to bottom. For both models. with the KDX 300 Gold ($99.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . polished aluminum.avguide.0% for the Silver). 100 dB SPL/1 mW for the Silver). As we’ll see in a moment. smoothness.” Also for both models. which aim to achieve a good airtight seal between the headphone’s eartips the wearer’s ear canals and thus to become. though there are a few. T the Silver). you’ll have to scan very carefully before you spot any real differences.99) slotting in as the top model within the KDX group.3% for the Gold vs. The Gold models use precision-made dynamic drivers (as does the lower-priced KDX Silver model). Specifically. Koss’ stated intent was to produce affordable in-ear headphones that offered a good measure of isolation from external noise sources while delivering “exceptionally rich audio” sound quality that is “crisp and clear. and feature earpieces that are finished in a soft matte gold color and appear to be molded from a polymer material. loose-fitting earbuds (the kind supplied with iPods and most other digital music players) and its KDX-series in-ear headphones. Koss says the Gold model offers wider frequency response (10 Hz – 20 kHz for the Gold vs.” 54 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. look further if: you want a headphone that draws you into the music through a more vivid and intense midrange-forward sound (if these are your tastes. higher sensitivity (102 dB SPL/1 mW for the Gold vs. While not necessarily a spectacular performer in any one area. The Gold earpieces also incorporate what appear to be two tiny.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . where Koss’ somewhat less expensive KDX Silver models (also reviewed in Playback) feature earpieces made of solid. “acoustically coupled with the eardrum for almost perfect translation to the ear. < 1. but sound different as well.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors KOSS KDX 300 gOLD Chris Martens he KDX family of sound isolating in-ear headphones represents the mid-section of Koss’ in-ear line-up. the KDX 300 Gold ‘phones not only look different from their Silver siblings. outward facing vents or ports (though Koss product information makes no mention of these). Koss also draws a distinction between conventional.” overview Consider this product if: you want a well-made and sensibly priced in-ear headphone that offers quite well balanced sound and a good balance of sonic sophistication. “the quality usually found in larger. full-size stereophones. 15 Hz – 20 kHz for FeatUres Design highlights and product accessories include the following: • omputer optimized dynamic (not C balanced armature-type) “micro drivers” said to offer.
99 KOss COrpOrATION (800) USA-KOSS www. measure of sound isolation and were comfortable to wear. • hree sizes of silicone eartips (which Koss T calls “ear cushions”). carrying pouch Frequency response: 10Hz – 20kHz Weight: 20 grams sensitivity: 102 dB SP/1 mW distortion: <0. That said I could also see how some listeners might find the sound of the Golds almost too dark or subdued. I particularly appreciated the firm but still flexible rubber signal cord strain reliefs that Koss provided—features that could prove to be real lifesavers (or cable savers) should active users inadvertently tug too vigorously on the signal cords (something that most of us know better than to do. Honestly. T covered by Koss’ “No Questions Asked Lifetime Warranty.3% Impedance: 8 ohms Warranty: Limited Lifetime Warranty price: $99. with an emphasis on sonic warmth and richness.com 55 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . but that can happen from time to time if we’re distracted or in a hurry). www. While some might wish for more than three eartip sizes.” • leatherette carrying case with spring-clasp A closure. a guy could go blind trying to read those tiny little letters (bifocal wearers beware). though not class-leading. Contrary to Koss’ claims.koss.avguide.com ease oF Use I found the KDX 300 Gold earpieces made the headphone easy to handle and to insert. One small criticism I would offer is that the KDX 300 Gold’s’ Left/Right earpiece markings are presented in the form of the micro-miniature letters “L” and “R” imprinted on the appropriate earpieces’ signal cable strain reliefs.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . • ignal cables with padded.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors ratinGs (relative to comparably-priced competition) tonal balance frequency extremes clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 • olded polymer earpiece housings with what M appear to be miniature outward-facing vents or ports. although the Gold’s cable work better than the Silvers in this respect since they are a smidgeon thicker and thus more resistant to sharp bends or kinks.” specs/prici ng Koss KdX 300 gold Headphones Accessories: 3 sizes of silicone ear tips. soniC CharaCter I found the tonal balance of the KDX 300 Gold headphones to be notably smooth. • he KDX 300 Gold ‘phones are. I found the fabric wrapped cables were at least somewhat prone to kinks and tangles. and more neutral and accurate overall than is the norm in this price class. others will be relieved that Koss has narrowed down their choices to just three. patterned fabric S sheathes that look much like miniature versions of high-end audio interconnect cables and that are said to be “resistant to kinks and tangles. significantly. The silicone eartips provided a good.
On “So Sorry”. but a bit darker and just a touch less transparent than one of the strongest competitors in this class: namely. and punchyas-all-get-out rhythm section. To learn how the sonic characteristics I’ve sketched out above play out on real-world music.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . on the other hand. sUMMinG Up Koss’ KDX 300 Gold in-ear headphone is a solid offering in this highly competitive price class. thunderclaplike smack of the kick drum—qualities that. The Gold’s did a beautiful job with the midrange utterances of the Strat. but rather by covering most important performance bases at a very high level. In particular. however. where Feist’s vocals are for the most part supported only by an acoustic bass and guitar. some listeners initially perceive the Gold’s highs to sound a little recessed. Davies playing an aggressively howling Fender Stratocaster guitar while supported by a razor-sharp. again. the Gold’s sound perhaps a little too subdued. hard driving. edginess. it may be instructive to describe what happened when I played two good recording through the Golds—recordings that took full advantage of the headphone’s balanced. and a smooth. too. richness. in that it rides right on that fair/foul line between sounding breathy. On this song. the Gold’s midrange is more evenly matched with its bass and highs. with significantly less powerful bass. and expressive on one hand. the Golds will appeal to listeners who value sonic warmth. In turn. the Gold’s powerful low-end captured the almost locomotive-like propulsive drive of the electric bass and the deep. the Gold’s’ inherent smoothness enabled them to reveal the beauty and mystery that characterize Feist’s vocals at their best. the KDX 300 Golds sound similar to. the inherent smoothness of the Golds really came into its own. might be that the Gold’s more laid-back mids tend to give them a more “distant” and less “up-close-and-personal” presentation. 56 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. The acoustic bass sounded great. The only complaint.avguide. First up is “If You Love Me Like You Say” from blues guitarist Debbie Davies’ album Holdin’ Court [Little Dipper]. On cymbals and the very upper end of the Strat’s voice. with some competing earphones. Feist’s voice is an interesting one. Interestingly. tend to get lost in translation. As a result. refined and well-balanced sound. and generally more neutral balance. while minimizing any tendency toward roughness. but not badly so. for example) you’ll discover they are in fact surprisingly clear and refined. or glare.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors The KDX Gold’s’ superior tonal balance hinges.” Similarly. but that also has plenty of foundational weight and punch (something the Silvers don’t do nearly as well). the Gold’s provide midrange that is at once revealing. the KDX Silvers sound noticeably more midrangeforward. While some might miss the Silver’s arguably more vivid and evocative midrange-forward sound. sound occasionally brittle. and least relative to the KDX Silvers.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . first. It wins hearts and minds not so much by doing any one thing stupendously well. At the treble end of the audio spectrum the KDX 300 Gold’s offer good though perhaps not class-leading measures of high frequency definition and focus. yet also smooth and well balanced—never overly prominent or pushed forward in the mix (as is the case with the Silvers). making the Silvers seem brighter and more defined at first. and edgy—and thus become off-putting. Next. the NuForce NE-700X. let’s consider “So Sorry” from Feist’s The Reminder [Cherrytree/Interscope]. showing how its sustained notes often expand into a full-on “howl” or “cry. glassy. which gives the sound of the bass vital body and depth. on the fact that the ‘phones produce bass that not only sounds taut and offers good pitch definition. intricate. Compared to the NuForce. I think this perception arises because the Silver’s region of midrange prominence extends up pretty high. in large part because of the KDX 300 Gold’s superior mid-bass weight. Overall. smoother sound. others will appreciate the Gold’s greater warmth. plus occasional keyboard passages. yet can. This track features Ms. fullrange sound. But if you listen to the Golds’ highs in isolation (on delicate high percussion instruments.
com BottoM line Though not the last word in absolute sonic purity or accuracy. and at a bargain price. carrying pouch Weight: 0. M. there’s more to the CX300’s sound than a big bottom end. but not painfully exaggerated. L). T specs/pri ng ci Accessories: 3 pairs of single-flange rubber eartips (sizes S.sennheiser.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors SENNHEISER CX300 Chris Martens he CX300 (now replaced by the identical-sounding but differently styled CX300 II shown here) comes packaged with a banner that comes close to describing the product’s sound: “Bass-Driven Sound. though.avguide.com ratinGs tonal balance clarity dynamics comfort/fit value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 www. and highs are bright and crisp without being overly harsh or strident./pr.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . Bass is robust. pB 57 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . The Sennheisers are a perfect complement to contemporary pop/rock tracks such as “Que Onda Guero” from Beck’s Guero [Geffen] because they put real clout behind propulsive bass lines and give subtle emphasis to delicate.” In fairness. midrange frequencies are pleasingly clear. sensitivity: 112dB/mW Price: $79.42 oz. and represent a giant improvement over the earbuds you get with most players. these comfortable ’phones offer many of the attributes of higherend models. multilayered treble effects. Put these factors together and you’ve got an elegant set of mini headphones that sound exciting and alive.95 www.
the terms of the warranties are as follows: “Skullcandy headphones are covered one of two ways. FeatUres • 9mm drivers. depending on finish). which initially sold for around $50/pair (the price for the Titans has since been reduced to $34. According to the Skullcandy Web site. • or maximum personalization value. for details). some listeners would still prefer a lower cost solution and one that provides basic headset functionality for use with cell phones. so be sure to look for the “mic” 58 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. rich. too. F Smokin Buds are offered in—count ‘em—21 different color combinations (our review samples were in a very cool gloss black on rubberized black finish). however. For them. aBoUt skUllCandy’s UnorthodoX Warranties Skullcandy offers an innovative two-part warranty that reflects the company’s involvement in and commitment to extreme sports.95/pair.95-$39. This combination of tonal characteristics delivers a sound that some listeners will find deep. priced at $29. • n-line mic with built-in send/end track I forward button (note: earlier generation versions came with an in-line sliding volume control in lieu of the mic/headset switch. Aggressive Listening. and smooth but that—at the end of the day—is not as accurate as it could be. • ggressive Listening: Skullcandy A products that fail or break due to a overview Consider this combination headset/ headphone if: you seek an in-ear headset/headphone that is comfortable and affordable. The headset functions are a welcome convenience touch.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . which is defined as. For just a little more money. • Carry pouch.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . Good though the Titans are.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors SKuLLCANDy SMOKIN BuDS Chris Martens hose of you who have downloaded free copies of the first Playback Headphone Buyer’s Guide know that I was very favorably impressed by Skullcandy’s Titan in-ear headphones. T label on the packaging if you need or want headset functionality). I decided to try out the Smokin Buds to see for myself what advantages a relatively low-priced solution might have vis-à-vis stock Apple earbuds. that offers very good noise isolation and that produces dramatically more powerful bass and smoother overall sound than that of standard Apple earbuds. • istinctive “Aggressive Listening” and D “Defective Product” warranties (see. look further if: musical accuracy and neutral (or nearly neutral) tonal balance are what you seek.avguide. Skullcandy offers its cleverly named Smokin Buds. Skullcandy’s Titan earphone sounds significantly better balanced and is even more enjoyable for long-term listening.95/pair. below. The Smokin Buds offer very powerful bass with smooth but also somewhat subdued or recessed highs and upper mids.
Yurtopia Yurphoness • mokin Buds offer deeper. L) • Nylon carry pouch with zipper closure. which can make the Smokin Buds’ bass prominence seem that much more apparent. while soniC CharaCter Probably the most frequent complaint I hear about in-ear headphones is that they offer inadequately powerful bass. ratinGs (relative to comparably-priced competition) tonal balance clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 specs/prici ng skullcandy smokin’ Buds In-Ear Headphone/Headset Frequency response: 18Hz – 20kHz driver: 9mm Accessories: • Three sizes of soft rubber eartips (S. too. INC.com 59 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . comfortable airtight seal in my ear canals.. OR • efective Product Replacement: Which D is defined as any Skullcandy product that is still in one piece and not working properly or any product damaged in shipping. • oise isolation between the two headphones N is comparable. And. you’ll mostly hear thinsounding mids with limited highs and anemic bass. the balance you’ll hear with the Smokin Buds is not quite right.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors crazy crash on the mountain or a violent headbanging session.95 sKUllCANdY.skullcandy. In this case you will recieve a brand new product at no charge. let us mention that iPod users can get much more accurate sound from the Smokin Buds by turning on the iPod’s “Bass Reducer” setting. (888) MYSKULL (697-5855) www. The song opens with a potpourri of high percussion instruments (gongs. or any other reason that is not a product defect. yet relieves the problem of occasionally oppressive. proved easy to fit. which are among the finest budget-priced earphones we’ve ever heard. full. the track frankly sounds disappointing if not downright lame. with a rich. Noise isolation: the Smokin’ Buds come with three size of soft rubber eartips that. damp cloth over the instruments. though the fit of the two headphones is very different (the Smokin Buds are true in-ear headphones while the Yurtopias are semi-custom-fitted phones that rest in the wearer’s outer ear). CoMpetitive analysis for this section of the review.. making it much easier to hear midrange details and to use and enjoy all of the treble response that’s available. for examples. and chimes supported—believe it or not—by a whoopeewhistle). This adjustment effectively pulls the response curve of the Smokin Buds back toward sonic neutrality. but over the long haul I think the majority of listeners might prefer a more neutral and therefore more accurate sound. This package of tonal characteristic will. enabling me to achieve a good. appeal to some tastes. cymbals. M. and we will send you a coupon good for 50% off any product in our Online Shop. in my experience. Upper midrange and treble frequencies are somewhat rolled-off. Hint: As above.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 .” to engage the “Bass Reducer” function. dulling their sound. more powerful S bass. one strategy for getting more accurate sound from the Smokin Buds is to go into the iPod’s EQ setting menu and the bass line is closer to being right with the Skullcandy’s than with the stock earbuds. The shimmer and sparkle of those initial percussion sounds seems unnaturally muted. while the bass line becomes dramatically more powerful. however. Switch to the Smokin Buds. is that with the Smokin Buds bass can sometimes dominate the listening experience to the point of excess. as I suggested above. The problem. over-the-top bass. this leaves you with plenty of bass power. powerful low-end sound. smokin Buds vs. though. almost as though someone had thrown a thin. www. price: $29. The Smokin Buds address that complaint in a big way.avguide. The Smokin Buds do a very good job of blocking out ambient noise. Even so. Mids smooth out and become clearer. and then grabs the listener’s attention with a deep and fairly loud plunging synth bass line.com MUsiCal eXaMples The track “Root Beer” from Thomas Newman’s soundtrack for the film American Beauty [Dreamworks] at once shows off the strengths and weaknesses of the Smokin’ Buds. we will still hook you up! Send in what ever remains of your product. • he Smokin Buds provide headset T functionality whereas the Yurtopias do not. it comes across as being over-the-top loud and a bit out of control—meaning you’ve crossed the line from not enough bass (the sound of the stock earbuds) to a bit too much (the sound of the Smokin Buds). When heard through stock earbuds. • he Yurtopias provide a more accurate sound T with more nearly neutral tonal balance. making other frequencies sound too recessed in the mix. We would prefer listening to the Smokin Buds to stock earbuds any day. On the track above. but the fact is that for just a little more money you could have Skullcandy’s terrific Titans. and the sound immediately improves. In either case you will need to complete our warranty form. If you use an iPod. I will compare the Smokin Buds both to a comparably priced solution (the Yurtopia Yurphones recently reviewed in Playback) and to a more expensive solution (the Skullcandy Titans).
• he Titan uses an 11mm driver vs. CoMFort FaCtor/aCCessories The Smokin Buds come with three sizes of soft rubber eartips that make it easy to achieve a good airtight seal in your ear canals. both are very comfortable and can achieve a good. • he Titan is significantly more neutral in T balance and much more open sounding that the Smokin Bud. The gently angled housings and cable strain reliefs of the Smokin Buds make them very easy to insert and to adjust.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors smokin’ Buds vs. however. the plastic bodies of the Smokin Buds. Titans • hough the eartips provided with the Smokin T Buds and Titans differ in terms of material composition. lies in the sheer handiness of the Smokin Buds headset functions. Smokin Buds ship with a fabric drawstring-equipped carry pouch. more powerful bass. BottoM line Skullcandy’s Smokin Buds represent a worthwhile step forward from stock iPod-type earbuds. airtight seal in your ear canals. ambient noise. That said. • he Titan is fitted with an inline sliding volume T control. • orkmanship fans will appreciated the W precision-cut metal housings of the Titans vs. whereas the newer generation Smokin Buds come fitted with an inline mic and send/end/track forward switch that provides headset functionality. which make them just the ticket for those who do much of their music listening via cell phones. and good isolation from 60 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. offering a smoother overall sound. perhaps.avguide. Skullcandy’s Titan in-ear headphones can give you much mor substantial sonic improvements? The answer.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 .com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . the 9mm T driver used in the Smokin Bud. for only a little more moolah. they also beg an important question: why settle for some sonic benefits (some of which are a mixed blessing) when.
avguide. Granted. the Titans are one of the better budget in-ear headphones we’ve yet heard. smoky inflections in Barber’s voice. which is a minor flaw some listeners might regard as a serious plus. Here’s why. but the Titans do so while also revealing small transient and textural details most headphones in their class simply miss. specs/prici ng Accessories: One pair of single-flange rubber eartips (size M). particularly comfortable and effective at achieving a good seal.com CoMFort FaCtor The Titans are extremely light. INC. and an unexpectedly big helping of sonic subtlety and detail—especially in the midrange. The result is a roughly $40 headphone that is easily competitive with models costing twice its price. plus a semi-hardshell carrying case.95 sKUllCANdY. and I found their foam eartips. Those seeking maximum bang for the buck need look no further. They are also very easy to find. Despite its “middle child” status. the Titan’s bass is perhaps a little too forward and just slightly overripe. the slightly bass-forward balance actually works in your favor in environments that have lots of low-frequency background noise (for example. BottoM line Although they are among the least expensive earbuds in our survey.95 per pair) are designed to slot into the firm’s lineup above the entry-level Inkd and Smokin’ Buds models and below the more expensive FMJs (or Full Metal Jackets. dark. nuanced Dave Douglas trumpet solo heard in the middle of the song. Weight: 17 grams sensitivity: Not Specified Price: $39. ratinGs tonal balance clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 MUsiCal eXaMples To appreciate how good the Titans really are. meaning the Titans are a steal—pure and simple. the Titans serve up a sweet combination of near-neutral tonal balance.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . it’s in the direction of a hint of excess bass richness. also reviewed in this Guide). which expand to fit the contours of your ear canals.). If the Titans err.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors SKuLLCANDy TITAN Chris Martens S kullcandy’s Titans ($39. the Titan is arguably one of Skullcandy’s best-sounding earphones—and one of the sweetest values in today’s market. try listening to a track that offers multiple layers of textural details. but they also do a remarkable job with the vibrant.skullcandy. such as “I Could Eat Your Words” from Patricia Barber’s Verse [Blue Note]. however. Other ’phones may get the basics on this track right. two pairs of bellshaped foam eartips (size S and L). but that’s a nitpick-level detail given how many things these headphones do well. etc.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . and for so little money. good dynamic punch. which is where most of the music really unfolds. soniC CharaCter More so than most other in-ear headphones priced at or below $100 per pair. moving cars. Not only do the Titans capture the 61 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. since they are carried by a number of big-box retail stores. (435) 940-1545 www. Also.
(though the firm has since introduced several more costly model)./WEA]. While the FMJ’s tonal balance is more neutral than that of many earbuds I’ve heard. slightly too prominent highs. specs/prici ng Accessories: Three pairs of singleflange rubber eartips (size S. bold and often spectacular sound— almost to a fault. which isn’t quite right. a track that features razor-sharp slap bass licks. such as “How Do You Stop” from Joni Mitchell’s Turbulent Indigo [Warner Bros. The FMJs are exciting.com W MUsiCal eXaMples To appreciate the FMJ’s strengths. (435) 940-1545 www.avguide. But on tracks that feature female vocals. BottoM line The FMJs are among the more affordable earphone in this Guide and as such they offer very good value for money. If you listen mostly in quiet environments. soniC CharaCter Compared to Skullcandy’s less costly Titan earbuds ($39. then you might find that Skullcandy’s new Titan would be the more natural-sounding choice. Their strengths are their dynamic punch. I had no problem achieving a good seal with the standard eartips. try firing up “Shake Everything You Got” from Maceo Parker’s Roots and Grooves [Live] [Heads Up].95 sKUllCANdY.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors SKuLLCANDy FMJ (FuLL METAL JACKET) Chris Martens hen first announced. though subjectively they seem a bit heavier. M. L). plus a leatherette semi-hardshell carrying case.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . however. good levels of detail.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . the FMJs offer arguably more energetic dynamics than the Titans and a good measure of detail— detail that would be even easier to appreciate if the earphone’s bass.95 per pair. Weight: 17 grams sensitivity: Not Specified price: $69. and highs were a little more evenly balanced. also reviewed in this Guide).95) was Skullcandy’s flagship earphone. the FMJ’s presentation provides clean and powerful though somewhat overemphasized bass. their highs show off the intricacy and power of the percussion. Overall. The FMJs produce a big. As a welcome detail touch. the fact is that it is not quite as accurate as the lower-priced Titan. you may find that the upper register of the singer’s voice sounds more prominent than the middle and lower register does. the FMJ ($69. and the horns have enough oomph to cut through the mix in spite of the FMJ’s midrange reticence. INC. and somewhat recessed or withdrawn middle frequencies. but perhaps not as accurate as Skullcandy’s less expensive Titans. mids. the connector cable for the ‘phones incorporates a tiny cylindrical pod that houses an easy-to-use volume control. The FMJ’s really click on this material because their bass thwack does full justice to the slap bass.skullcandy. but for noisy environments the FMJ’s voicing has enough extra bass and treble to cut through the sonic haze in a pleasing way. 62 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. ratinGs tonal balance clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 CoMFort FaCtor The metal-jacketed FMJs weigh the same as Skullcandy’s Titans. and a horn section to die for. sizzling percussion. hearty bass and crisp highs.
meaning they can really rock.6 oz. too. Weight: 0. The UE600 ($99. carrying case. well-rounded headphone that combines muscular dynamics. To complement their fine voicing the UE600 exhibit unusually high sensitivity./pr. The ’phones can also handle large-scale orchestral passages with ease.com ratinGs tonal balance clarity dynamics comfort/fit value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 BottoM line The UE600 is a versatile. smoothness. though. always sounding graceful—never edgy or harsh. 1 pair of dual-flange rubber eartips (size M). but also makes a wided range of universalfit in-ear headphones.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . even at low volume settings. Today. and they make dynamic contrasts really jump. and a welcome touch of warmth. The UE600’s are sonic smoothies.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . L). specs/prici ng Accessories: 3 pairs of single-flange rubber eartips (sizes S. sound level attenuator.fi 5Pro and sold at a higher price back when this review first appeared. The UE600’s offer tonal balance that is essentially neutral. though their up-and-over-the-ear wire routing scheme takes some getting used to. 1/4-inch jack adapter. But this voicing works out synergistically for listening through iPods and other digital players.avguide.ultimateears.99) was originally called the Super. the UE600 is positioned as the number three model in UE’s universal-fit earphone lineup. M.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors uLTIMATE EARS uE600 Chris Martens U ltimate Ears is famous for its customfitted UE-series in-ear monitors. cleaning tool. the UE600’s are all-day comfortable. Completing the picture. sensitivity: 119d/mW price: $99. great tonal balance. ever-soslightly subdued highs. 63 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. the earpiece wires that hook over your ears are a little on the stiff side. providing just a touch of added bass warmth with gentle. which often tend to sound a bit bright and bass-shy.99 www.
com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . let me simply observe that stock earbuds don’t sound very good at all.” and sizzling upper mids and highs. is what Yurtopia’s Yurbud * earbud enhancers are all about. In fact. But what if I told you that someone has created an easy-to-use adapter product that addresses many of the weaknesses of stock earbuds. Yurtopia prefers that its company and its product names be spelled entirely in lowercase letters. look further if: your main emphasis in on sound quality. in a nutshell. they nevertheless come in for some very stiff competition from dedicated in-ear headphones priced at (or just a little above) their price (two examples would be Skullcandy’s Titan in-ear headphones at $34.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . but for the sake of clarity I’ve capitalized the names in this reviews. “hot. I get out a boxstock pair of Apple earbuds (the kind that were thrown in for free with your iPod or iPhone) and spend some time listening to them just to remind myself how they sound. Also consider the Yurbuds if you’re an active person who wants earbuds that are comfortable to use yet won’t fall out. overview Consider these adapters if: you want to hear just how much better your stock earbuds can sound (hint: we’re talking about a significant—not a small or subtle— jump in sound quality). While the Yurbuds dramatically improve the sound of stock earbuds. and for their almost unlistenable. if I were to review them (which I won’t). or if you’re a listener who likes the idea of a semi-custom fitted product that—unlike traditional in-ear headphones—does not protrude overly deeply into the ear canal. exaggerated and overly prominent mids. There’s a lot of value here for your $20. they would come in for sharp criticism for their thin and anemic bass.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors yuRTOPIA yuRBuD EARBuD ENHANCERS E Chris Martens very once in a while. pure and simple. in evidence—in short. at first. innocent little buds into Playback’s personal audio whipping boys.avguide. Without meaning to turn those poor. while building on strengths not.95 or NuForce’s NE-7M in-ear headset at $49) 64 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. an adapter that turns stock earbuds from a bad thing (with a capital “B”) into a pretty darned good thing? That. * For the record.
The stock earbuds exhibit a kind of false (but overly edgy and raw) midrange clarity. anemic and ill-defined bass you’d hear from stock earbuds. the sound of those same earbuds fitted with Yurtopia’s Yurbud adapters. • Nylon carry pouch with zipper closure.com be a blessing to listeners who don’t care for the feel of traditional in-ear headphones. Burgett sought to create comfortable. some might find the highs sound slightly too recessed or “dark” sounding. According to Yurtopia. Once installed. What evolved was the Yurbud: a soft rubber adapter that slips over the stock earbud. not only aim to improve the sound of stock earbuds. while with the Yurbuds fitted the sound. much better balanced once the Yurbud adapters are fitted. mid. soniC CharaCter There is a night/day difference between the sound of stock earbuds vs. as it turns out. Yurbud-equipped earbuds fit firmly yet very comfortably in the outer ear. which will no doubt ratinGs (relative to comparably-priced competition) tonal balance clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 specs/prici ng Yurtopia Yurbud Earbud Enhancers Accessories: • Semi-custom fitted left/right slip-on earbud adapters. and lower bass frequencies all sound deeper. for size comparisons). power. Instead of thin. if anything. customers are asked to take a photo showing a quarter held alongside the listener’s ears (to provide an accurate size comparison). but at a tiny fraction of the cost. that is offered in a broad ranges of sizes (there are 12 sizes. you see.yurbuds. called Yurphones. easy-toattach earbud adapters that. more full-bodied. Bass: upper. but also to enhance their overall fit and comfort in a dramatic and—get this—semi-customfitted way. and a measure of textural finesse. The nozzles.com 65 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . • (Optional) Pair of Apple-type earbuds. where proprietary YurScan technology analyzes the size/shape of the customer’s ear relative to the reference quarter (or earbud) and then recommends an appropriately sized adapter. do not actually extend very far into the ear canals at all. the Yurbuds offer bass with real depth. When ordering Yurbuds. The improvement throughout the bass region is downright shocking. Alternatively. Yurbuds. and that looks and feels much like a custom-fitted/custom-molded product. would mimic some of the characteristics of (typically very costly) custom-fit in-ear monitors. Yurbuds. and partly sensing that a viable product concept was in the offing.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . and much. gently flared nozzles that directs sound into the wearer’s ear canals. YUrTOpIA (314) 633-1801 www.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors But there’s more to the story than sound quality alone. listeners can supply a photo showing their ears with a pair of stock earbuds in place (again. Those who would rather skip the whole custom fitting process can purchase Yurbuds off-the-shelf at Best Buy in sizes 5 and 7 (the most commonly required sizes). while providing small. But trust us on this one: gently subdued highs are infinitely preferable to the almost unbearable sizzle you’d hear from the www. I need a size 7 Yurbud adapter and my review samples fit me perfectly. Mids: midrange frequencies sound noticeably smoother and less brash with the Yurbud adapters in place. though. Partly out of personal interest. becomes significantly more relaxed and less abrasive. Yurtopia has developed a simple yet ingenious imaging system. in a sense.avguide. are the brainchild of Seth Burgett. Sonic improvements appear in four important areas. price: $20 (adapters only). while the Yurbuds smooth things out to a point where. though the YurScan custom-fitting software seems to work so well that I can’t think of any good reason not to take advantage of it. called YurScan (patents pending) for fitting listeners with the correct sizes of Yurbuds earbud enhancers.” and who found that his stock earbuds kept falling out during training runs. Upper Mids/Highs: stock earbuds sound almost painfully splashy and “overheated” on upper midrange and high frequency transient sounds. a triathlete and entrepreneur whose background is in the design of “minimally invasive surgical devices. or $30 (adapters plus a set of Apple-type earbuds). The photo is then downloaded to the Yurtopia ordering site. in all). though still somewhat midrange forward. What athletes/listeners will appreciate. I think. is the fact that Yurbuds grip the ear firmly enough not to fall out during routine exercise yet are still easy to remove or re-insert when the need arises.
The biggest change. A particular favorite is the album’s final track. Another revealing track is “You Have Loved Enough”. Badi Assad. “Timeless”.” so that they detract from the overall performance. rolling bass line that helps drive the song forward. relies both on female backing vocalists. “hermetically sealed” feel of traditional in-ear headphones. Yurbuds block out a lot of external noise while at the same channeling more of the output of your earbuds directly into your ear canals. BottoM line If you’ve been dissatisfied with either the sound quality or ergonomics of box-stock earbuds. more full-bodied and richer. They also improve fit and wearer comfort (especially for athlete/listeners). with greater depth. plus a deep. but in practice the Yurbuds work exactly as advertised. of course. As a result. weight. hard-edged quality that the stock earbuds exhibit. But again. but apart from this minor deficiency. the Yurbudequipped earbuds do a very nice job. Percussion sounds loud and splashy yet lacks definition. and richness. The outlet “nozzle” of the Yurbud adapter channels sounds to your ear canals. The guitars all sound smoother. depth. suddenly sound more balanced and much smoother. while sibilant vocal sounds are tamed to a point where they no longer sound painfully overcooked. Noise isolation/efficiency: the Yurbuds fit the contours of your outer ears quite closely. however. You can order Yurbud adapters as a standalone product.$300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors stock earbuds. You might think it would be impossible for such simple devices to make a big difference in performance. which features the distinct voices of each of the instrumentalists’ guitars. both take on appropriate. so that they remain clear yet lose the piercing. has a famously low voice that makes up through rich textures and subtle inflections what it may lack in actual range. involves the lower register (come to think of it. yet without applying excess pressure. yet without inducing the “Help. but the tradeoff is that the Yurbuds do let you hear at least some external sounds. Noise isolation may not be as good as with properly fitted in-ear ‘phones. yet without imparting the airtight. weight of the lower registers of the instruments in play. the Yurbuds transform the sound of the earbuds. Stock earbuds also fail to capture the depth and 66 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. and both the bottom end of Cohen’s voice and of the rolling bass line are more or less missing in action.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . you can enjoy very satisfying listening sessions with your iPod or iPhone’s volume controls set to about half the levels you might use with stock earbuds.universal-fit earphones under $100 go to: universal-fit earphones $100 . because they tend to reproduce picking and fingering noises as well as high frequency harmonics much too aggressively. with the Yurbuds in place. sibilant vocal sounds (and there are a lot of them on this track) are so overwrought that they’ll make you want to turn the song off. some listeners might wish for a bit more high frequency extension and “air” surrounding the instruments. making them sound somewhat hard and “spitty. help is on the way in the form of Yurtopia’s affordable Yurbuds earbud enhancers. This is precisely the sort of track that highlights the shortcomings of stock earbuds. Not good. my ears are being attacked by giant Q-tips!” sensations that some in-ear MUsiCal eXaMples One record that underscores the improvements the Yurbuds earbud enhancers yield is Larry Coryell. and are arguably easier to remove or re-insert than in-ear models are. the only register) of Cohen’s voice and the bass line down below. representing a major improvement over the sound of the stock earbuds. while offering a level of customization unprecedented at this price. and John Abercrombie’s Three Guitars [Chesky].avguide. “pingy” edges they previously exhibited. deceptively simple keyboard and percussion instrumental support. headphones entail. Granted. They literally transform the sound of stock earbuds while making it possible for you to listen happily at lower volume levels. Percussion smoothes out. or with aftermarket Appletype earbuds (which Yurtopia calls Yurphones). Cohen. But slip on a set of Yurbud adapters and things immediately become much better. in turn. across-the-board improvements. Through stock earbuds. the sound is simply a mess. In the process. The track. plus delicate hand percussion played by Assad. Transient sounds such as picks sweeping across strings or fingers gliding into position over frets. which presents a variety of challenges. which showcases three master guitarists teaming for delicate and at times very intricate ensemble performances. transient sounds remain clearly audible but lose the hard. CoMFort FaCtor/aCCessories The Yurbuds fit firmly within your outer ears. from Leonard Cohen’s Ten New Songs [Sony]. making significant.
avguide.Playback univErsal-fit EarphonEs $100–$300 67 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .
and dynamically alive. but for less than half the price and in a convenient “earbud” format. Whereas the Studios definitely exaggerate certain frequencies. Also consider the Tours if you like “earbuds” that simply look cool and that incorporate clever tangle-free signal wires that really work.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .avguide. Toward the end of 2008. as well as by his long-term collaborator/producer Jimmy Iovine) available to consumers at accessible prices. of course. Dre. welldetailed. the Tours merely underscore or “dramatize” them a bit. soniC CharaCter I think Dr. the firm announced its Tour “high-resolution in-ear headphones. Dre’s Tour in-ear ’phones not only equal but actually surpass the sound quality of the famous full-size Beats Studio headphones. too. studio-grade sound (as approved by Dr. and lively dynamics—while mitigating their most significant flaw—audibly colored voicing that overemphasizes bass and upper midrange/lower treble frequencies to a distracting degree. Dre is a sub-brand of Monster Cable whose stated goal is to make true. in the process delivering a more accurate sound that works better with a broader spectrum of musical styles. Look elsewhere if: you are passionate (and finicky) about sonic neutrality and want in-ear headphones that offer the most accurate. uncolored. sporting a distinctive red-and-gloss-black design motif that’s very attractive. But apart from sonic qualities. DRE TOuR Chris Martens eats by Dr. detail. Granted. the Tours add a touch of bass and upper midrange/lower treble emphasis of their own. overview Consider these headphones if: you favor a sound that is clear. but they do so in a much subtler. that the Tours’ minor colorations can become a plus in environments (such as jetliners) where there are high levels of background noise to cut through. too. B all around. but that has subtle (and not terribly excessive) touches of bass and upper midrange/lower treble enhancement that add a quality of “excitement” to many kinds of music.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors BEATS By DR. The result: better-balanced sound 68 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. you might find Monster’s Turbine in-ear headphones a better choice). Beats by Dre products are designed to look cool. Here’s why. The Tours retain the best qualities of the Studios—clarity. and following closely on the heels of the launch of the now-iconic Beats By Dre Studio noise-cancelling headphones (also reviewed in this Guide). more subdued way than the Studios. Note.” The Tours are said to convey a sound similar to the full-size Beats Studio over-the-ear headphones. evenly-balanced voicing possible (if those are your priorities.
Can you get even more clarity and expressiveness than the Tours offer? Yes. … Uhh-huh. ratinGs tonal balance clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 BottoM line The Tours are just what the doctor ordered (pardon the pun) for those who want highly expressive in-ear headphones that offer almost-neutral voicing plus a touch of dramatic flair courtesy of subtle amounts of bass and upper midrange/lower treble emphasis. Though a matter of personal taste. llC. “You told me you loved me/said you want to be with me… You looked right into my eyes/said I’m not like the other guys…” The ability to capture small but crucial details such as these inflections in the singer’s voice. you’ll rarely have a sense of the signal cables dragging across the outer surfaces of your ears). tangle-free red signal cables not only look slick but actually work (try them and you’ll wish everyone made cables this way). But what is the conversation about? The song soon provides an answer. they give the acoustic bass a little more punch than is accurate. Dr. 69 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. I found the Tours’ gloss black and red styling motif very appealing. MUsiCal eXaMple A richly layered recording such as Lucinda Williams’s “Wrap My Head Around That” from specs/prici ng Accessories: •T hree pairs of round rubber eartips (S. they make high percussive transients and vocalist’s sibilant “S’s” sound a bit “hotter” than they should. The recording opens with a delicate. springy feel of the rhythm section is precisely what the Tours are all about. providing generous amounts of offset between the eartips and driver enclosures. flat “ribbons” that roll-up neatly in the case. L) and two sets of triple-flange “airlock” eartips (S. but an indictment). “Yeah. (415) 840-2000 www. but these ‘phones are so darned expressive and engaging that you may find their minor excesses are not only forgivable. The Tours ‘phones also sound better than most when used in noisy environments. reverb-drenched motif being plucked on a guitar as we hear Lucinda Williams’ half of a fragmentary phone conversation. and leaving plenty of room for signal cable run-out (with the Tours.com CoMFort FaCtor/aCCessories The Tours are quite light and their soft silicone eartips feel great and seal well. M. and yes. if you’re willing to invest about twice the price. up-close perspective that we have the uncanny sense of listening in on a private.beatsbydre. L) • Carrying case Weight: Not specified sensitivity: Not specified price: $150 MONsTEr.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors West [Lost Highway] nicely shows off the Tour’s strengths. but just plain charming. her voice saying.monstercable. … Um-hmm.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . The ‘phone’s cool. The design of the Tours’ tangle-free signal wires (patent pending) is a clever innovation: the wires are molded into thin. rather than curling up into a “rat’s nest” ball of wires. or the driving. intimate conversation. we hear Williams sing (in a voice that is unmistakably leveling not just a complaint. But for many listeners. Yes. I suspect the Tours will represent a comfortable and satisfying point of diminishing returns. As a dark and richly syncopated bass and drum rhythm propels the song forward. Good thinking.com www.avguide. I particularly like the way the Tours’ angled earbud housings are designed. …” The Tours give such a vibrant. Dre.
Etymotic Research created the hf2 (hf2 stands for “high fidelity | hands-free”) noise-isolating 70 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors T overview Consider this combination headset/ earphone if: you favor a sound that is built more for accuracy and tonal neutrality than for any kind of bass or upper midrange/treble embellishments. such as the ER-4 Micro Pro family of headphones ($299/pair). either of which may provide a more comfortable fit. Resolution is very good. meaning that many prospective buyers not only want high quality earphones. the ER-4 design pre-dated the arrival of the iPhone). we think the triple-flange tips are tough to beat.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors ETyMOTIC RESEARCH HF2 Chris Martens he Elk Grove Village. a number of new competitors have joined the fray. The fit of the hf2s can be controversial. IL-based firm Etymotic Research is one of the oldest and best-known makers of highperformance in-ear headphones. Noise isolation is simply excellent. you’ll enjoy an even more sharply focused sound by by stepping up to the ER-4P. though not quite up to the (extremely) high standards set by the ER-4P. look elsewhere if: you seek true top-tier levels of resolution in terms of capturing the finest of low-level sonic details and bits of textural information. noise-cancelling over-theear headphones. If the triple-flange eartips don’t work for you. Second.avguide. To address these emerging requirements. several market factors have changed. For sheer sound quality. creating pricing pressures. But since the advent of the ER-4 Micro Pros a number of years ago. so that many enthusiasts want top-tier (or at least near toptier) performance at a lower entry price that Etymotic’s ER-4 models can provide. that have come to be regarded as classics. but also require devices that can function as headsets (i.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . try using Etymotic’s compressible foam and/or mushroom-shaped “Glider” eartips. we have seen the widespread acceptance of the game-changing iPhone (yes. however. First. www. provided you can find a set of ER eartips that seal well and fit comfortably.e. that have built-in microphones and other cell phone control features). When fitted properly. producing several models. We raise this point because Etymotic’s familiar triple-flange rubber eartips—the units shown in most Etymotic product photos—fit some users beautifully. but can be borderline uncomfortable for others. the hf2 makes a very viable alternative to larger and more costly active. the hf2’s tonal balance struck us as offering a slightly warmer and arguably more natural sound than that of the ER-4P. If anything. While the hf2 is one of the stronger performers in its price class in this respect..
3 ounce/pair sensitivity: 105 dB/mW Warranty: Two years. many competitors focus on giving you more bass. visit www. To compensate for this. Accordingly. Friesema enthusiastically encouraged me to compare the hf2 side-by-side with the ER-4P. I say this because I have found. end button again allows music playback to resume. below. the advantage shifts back to the ER-4P. • ccessories: the ht2 comes with an A extensive set of accessories. but this material and eartip design seems to yield www. low-level details and sonic information. tactile.” Like all of the ER-4 models. many headphone makers dial in some degree of bass enhancement (some more than others).aspx to seek out further options. that I achieved the best overall sound when using Etymotic’s signature tripleflange rubber eartips (two sizes of which are provided with the hf2). is in essence an “ER-4 junior. cobalt. Press the send/end button twice in rapid succession cause the iPhone or iPod touch to skip forward to the next track. Pressing the send/ to-back comparisons with Eytmotic’s own ER-4P. the hf2 features balanced armature-type drivers. According to Etymotic Research Product Development Engineer David Friesema. If the included accessories don’t quite align with your needs. • n-line microphone module provides a I multifunction send/end control button. there is a region in the upper midrange where the headphone is just a bit forward sounding (though not to a degree that is distracting or that would draw your attention when listening to the ER-4P in isolation). subtle. when you focus in on the headphones’ ability to render small. as listed under the COMFORT FACTOR/ACCESSORIES section.etymotic. the balanced-armatureequipped hf2 represents an effort to capture much of the sonic goodness of the ER-4.avguide. But when you hear the hf2 alongside the ER-4. I’m not sure why. in an absolute sense. While the hf2 can and does capture a great deal of musical information (meaning it is competitive with if not superior to other models in its price range). One reason I say this is that headphones in general cannot produce the deep. Much though I admire the ER-4P.com 71 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . • mportant: apart from the assortment of I eartips provided with the hf2. accessories and spare parts for use with the hf2. the Etymotic Research online store offers an even broader range of eartips.com comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 soniC CharaCter The Etymotic hf2’s are voiced with an eye toward sonic neutrality. you may find—as I did—that the hf2 seems a little less bright and a touch warmer sounding than its more costly and analyticalsounding sibling. the firm believes that balanced armature-type drivers offer. But that said. whereas Etymotic tends to apply little if any bass boost. as have many of my colleagues who use Etymotic headphones. which is precisely what I do in this review. if any. the highest overall performance potential (although Etymotic has recently released lower cost models that use moving coil-type drivers). What goes on here is that. • istening to music: When listening to music. Music automatically mutes and pauses for an incoming call. I think many listeners might find the hf2’s sound more natural and accessible overall. I think that the hf2 will prove a delightful revelation for many listeners.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors headset/earphone—one that. the fact is that the ER-4P captures even more (which is one of the reasons the ER-4P is considered a classic design). insider’s view of what’s really contained in their favorite music files. in terms of configuration and sound. in a very conservative way. with the ER-4P. and to use bass enhancement. However. ratinGs clarity dynamics (relative to comparably priced in-ear headphones) tonal balance specs/prici ng Etymotic research hf2 noise-isolating headset/earphone Frequency response: 20Hz – 15kHz Weight: 1.etymotic. As a result. rattle-your-chest cavity bass that you might hear from great loudspeakers and would certainly hear from live music. but bass that sounds almost perfectly neutrally balanced and that is unfailingly taut and well focused. giving them the sense that they are at last being given a deep. O and red. One worthwhile point to note is that certain of Etymotic’s various eartip designs may give you much better sonic results than others. but at roughly half the price—and with headset functionality thrown in for good measure. • nbound calls: When an inbound call is I received. the latter’s subtle upper midrange prominence becomes apparent—a comparison that works in the hf2’s favor. pressing the send/end button once allows the listener to answer the call. L pressing the send/end button once causes music playback to pause. parts and labor price: $179 ETYMOTIC rEsEArCH (888) 389-6684 www. Pressing the send/end button again disconnects the call and allows music to resume. Interestingly. if you listen to the hf2 in back- FeatUres • Balanced armature-type drivers • ffered in three colors: black. a design choice that I find pleasing but that might not suit all tastes.com/ephp/hf2acc. while Etymotic typically gives you somewhat less bass.
While not always the case. Hahn’s string tone. imperative to find a set of hf2 eartips that seal well in your ear canals. Etymotic’s foam eartips. The song opens with a beautifully meditative solo acoustic bass phrase that speaks volumes. In contrast. To see what I’m talking about in my comments on the pleasingly (but not exaggeratedly) warm and natural sound the hf2 has on offer.avguide. I asked Etymotic’s David Friesema about these findings and he sent me this reply: “Measured at the same reference point. try listening to the first movement of the Hilary Hahn/St. Paul Chamber Orchestra 72 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . making it harder to hear low-level details clearly. her tone preserves an underlying element of elegance—even of sweetness. even in the most volatile passages. many people can’t get as deep of a seal with the foam eartip. performance of the Meyer Violin Concerto [Barber & Meyer: Violin Concertos. the hf2 can be amazingly effective at blocking out external noise—enough so that you can get way with things like listening to music while other family members watch a TV show in the same room with you. tend to produce a sound that is a smidgeon softer and more diffuse. Part of why you would invest in a headset/earphone of this caliber is to savor subtleties that show the differences between great performers and merely excellent ones. any observed sonic difference between these two tips is due to a difference in eartip placement in the user’s ear canal. yet that is never edgy or inappropriately aggressive or hard-edged. Sony]. of course. listen to the track “Split Window” from Far From Enough [ Nonesuch]. which some listeners might prefer for their more comfortable fit. More likely. Instead.” Noise isolation: Like the ER-4P. growling theme that is www. emphatic and incisive. the debut album from the great bluegrass/ jazz bassist Viktor Krauss. Then. Krauss begins the phrase by striking a deep bass note that is left to linger in the air for a few seconds as he sprinkles in an almost subliminal cluster of surprisingly high-pitched high harmonics for contrast.com MUsiCal eXaMples To appreciate the delicacy and finesse the hf2 has to offer. Krauss introduces a curving. when appropriate. using the hearty middle range of the bass’ voice. here. To achieve this level of noise isolation it is. Etymotic says the hf2 provide a whopping “3542 dB (depending on eartip used)” of noise isolation—specifications superior (in some cases dramatically superior) to those quoted for even the best of today’s active noisecancelling headphones. What has long enchanted me about this young virtuoso’s playing is the fact that she achieves a sound that is incredibly articulate and. But the great news. is that it is also a quality that the Etymotic hf2 effortlessly reveals for listeners to enjoy. paying close attention Ms.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors maximum sonic clarity and impact—especially on crisply delineated transient sounds and on vigorous bass content. This a distinctive quality I’ve admired when listening to Hahn in concert and a quality I’ve used as a litmus test when evaluating costly loudspeakers. the acoustic differences between the hf2 foam eartip and the 3-flange eartip are minimal.
These shifts are subtle. the various Etymotic eartips differ in shape. size. What would help. but the hf2 offers the compelling benefit of having headset functionality. the Etymotics naturalism really nailed the bass’s ability to sound earthy and yet refined at the same time. The hf2 and Turbine are identically priced. The hf3 will be much like the hf2. Monster Cable Turbine • he Monster Cable Turbines offer a similar T emphasis on neutral voicing. hf2 provides welcome headset functionality. offering—exactly as advertized—many of the sonic benefits of the flagship ER-4P model. let’s look at how it stacks up relative to the similarly priced Monster Cable Turbine and to Etymotic’s own more costly ER-4P. though side-by-side comparisons reveal an upper midrange region where the ER-4P sounds a little more prominent than the hf2 does. at least for some listeners. and perhaps somewhat “richer” sound. very deeply in my ear canals (uncomfortably so) to get a good seal. and a pair of flexible mushroom shaped “Glider” eartips. many otherwise fine headphones can give this passage a more analytical treatment that somehow misses its deep. above. and track changes. larger size of triple-flange eartip. a pair of foam eartips. My preference (and that of many of my colleagues) is for the sound achieved when wearing the triple-flange eartips. and then augmented as the atmospheric and plaintive sound of an electric guitar and other instruments join in. volume control. spare filters (designed to prevent earwax from clogging the headphone’s drive mechanisms). hf2 vs. airtight seal in my ear canals. the www. As noted under SONIC CHARACTER. at points. This difference underscores the fact that the ER-4P can resolve low-level sonic details more effectively than the hf2. What I think many listeners will appreciate are the subtle shifts in tonal balance in the hf2 relative to the ER-4P. In short. while the Turbine does not. The foam tips may feel better. That said. would be a third. The problem is that the triple flange tips are basically offered in just two sizes (small and standard). will be pleased to know that Etymotic has plans to offer an hf3 model. • he ER-4P comes with an even more T extensive range of accessories (especially eartips) than the hf2 does.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors supplemented. so that I have to insert them very. Bass is well controlled in both earphones. • he hf2 is arguably the more textbook neutral T sounding design with a greater emphasis on clarity and resolution of low-level detail. it evocative and “woody” voice—while also revealing (but not overemphasizing) the delicacy of its harmonics and upper register. but together they add up to a sound that conveys the natural warmth of music in a rich and welcoming way. and material composition. but provides a response curve shaped with an eye toward achieving a slightly darker.com CoMFort FaCtor/aCCessories The hf2s come with two sets of triple-flange 73 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . but what made the hf2’s rendition of it special was the way in which these little earphones captured both the depth and heartiness of bass—in particular. Now this passage can sound very good on a variety of speakers and headphones. but at a lower price and with the added convenience of headset functionality. hf2’s slightly less prominent upper midrange frequencies and slightly more prominent bass. the standard-size tripleflange tips are not quite large enough. a shirt clip (to attach the headphone’s signal cable to a garment. a filter changing tool. Er-4p • tymotic’s hf2 and ER-4P designs are E similarly voiced. In contrast. CoMpetitve analysis To give you a sense for how the hf2 fares in comparison both with like-priced models and more expensive units. warmer. but also tends to make the ER-4P sound a bit bright and/ or bass-shy in comparison to its less costly sibling. • hile both headphones come with a good W mix of eartips. rubber eartips. but the ER-4P gives an even more focused and explicit rendering of subtle musical details (the ER4P is quite exceptional in this respect). I feel the triple-flange eartips are a mixed blessing—at least for those (like me) with relatively large-diameter ear canal openings. rooted-in-the-ground quality. but they also seem to yield a somewhat softer sound that can undercut clarity to some degree. but will provide a 3-button control for play/pause/ end/send. not huge. Prospective owners who like the idea of the hf2.avguide. hf2 vs. by double stops. For me. yet the BottoM line The hf2 is a welcome addition to the Etymotic product range. I think. • he hf2 does a good job with low-level T details and is one of the clearest sounding offerings in its price class. if desired) and a soft carrying case. I found Monster’s eartips were—on the whole—more comfortable and could more easily be adjusted to achieve a good. while the ER-4P does not. but would prefer a headset with a 3-button mic/phone control module. but is a bit more prominent in the hf2—a difference that I think many listeners will welcome. namely.
if desired). few other in-ear headphones can surpass the ER4P in terms of midrange clarity. you don’t so much wear the ER4Ps as you “implant” them. The ER4p’s also produce bass that is reasonably warm and full. the ER4Ps offers truly impressive transparency and clarity.etymotic. hard-shell travel case./pr. sensitivity: 106dB/mW price: $299 www. good though not terribly plentiful bass. cleaning/filter removal tool. size M).com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . hall reverberations. 1/4-inch jack adapter. lanyard clip (to attach the cable to a garment. From the lower midrange on up through the highest highs. T specs/prici ng Accessories: 3 pairs of triple-flange rubber eartips (short-stem. On the Dorati/London performance of Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra [RCA Living Stereo] you can hear fingering sounds from individual performers. which some listeners find a bit disconcerting. On the other. 1 spare pair of filters (designed to prevent earwax from clogging the headphone’s drive mechanism). Frankly. the ER4P’s bass can sometimes sound slightly pulled back in the mix.com ratinGs tonal balance clarity dynamics comfort/fit value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 BottoM line Those who can embrace the fit and feel of the ER4Ps will be rewarded with headphones that deliver killer midrange transparency. Even then. plan on buying an auxiliary headphone amplifier. and even the soft squeak of a chair when an orchestra member shifts in his seat. and most don’t even come close. 4 pairs of foam eartips (size M). provided you insert the ER4Ps deeply enough within your ear canals to achieve a good seal—essential for optimal bass. On one hand. if you make the conversion. though it is wonderfully tight and well defined.avguide. and awesome noise isolation.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors ETyMOTIC RESEARCH ER4P Chris Martens he ER4P is the most iPod-friendly of Etymotic Research’s ER4-series inear headphones thanks to its greater sensitivity and slightly enhanced bass (the other ER4 models typically require an auxiliary headphone amplifier to sound their best). The deep-in-the-ear fit of the Etymotics is controversial. soft carrying case. Weight: <1 oz. Note: Etymotics offers an optional adapter that converts the ER4P into the more accurate but much less sensitive ER4S. these ’phones give greater acoustic isolation than most others on the market. 74 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www.
universal-fit design. M. even though they deviate from strict tonal accuracy. Here’s what we discovered. clear. The Atrios produce exceptionally good bass—powerful. sizes M and L). cleaning tool. In short. L). and rich in detail. they also possess that elusive quality of “aliveness” that makes them a blast to use./pr.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors FuTuRE SONICS ATRIO Chris Martens uture Sonics is a leading manufacturer of custom-fit in-ear monitors for musicians.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . specs/prici ng Accessories: 3 pairs dual-flange rubber eartips (sizes S. and its Atrio-series earphones strive to capture the sound of those monitors in an accessibly-priced. making the ’phones sound less clear than they otherwise F might. deep.com ratinGs tonal balance clarity dynamics comfort/fit value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 BottoM line Future Sonics’ Atrios are great fun to listen to—especially if you’re a bass aficionado— but they would be even better if they could be re-balanced for a more natural-sounding presentation.avguide.5 oz. The company invites comparisons between the Atrios and the best in-ear earphones available—the very comparisons made in this survey. 4 pairs of foam eartips (2 each. Weight: 0.futuresonics. sensitivity: 112dB/mW price: $199 www. which can overshadow mids and highs. The only problem is that they tend to push the bass too far forward in the mix. while the Atrios have a noticeably warmer sound than many of the headphones in this survey. carrying case. 75 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www.
This is a design trend we’ve occasionally encountered with expensive. the RE-262 uses 9mm moving-coil type drivers whose motors feature neodymium magnets. prodUCt ConCept At first glance. Impedance is a relatively high 150 ohms. The RE262 is one of small handful of mid-priced earphones that plays far above its price class. the RE262 requires a bit of experimentation and trial-and-error adjustment to give of its best. plug’n’play solution that’s easy to fit and to optimize. Inside.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . Also consider other options if you prize completely neutral tonal balance. as you’ll see in a moment. In practice.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors HIFIMAN RE-262 Chris Martens A s Playback readers know. But despite its mid-level price. Thus. the RE-262 isn’t “just another good mid-priced earphone. But look closer and you will find that the RE-262 breaks with typical earphone conventions. or if you like the idea of an earphone that is ready to take advantage of coming balanced-output amplifier options. lush sound. solid. but that is actually made of metal and then finished in gloss black. but it is almost unheard of in the world of in-ear ‘phones. high-end. in that—get this—it comes prewired for use with balanced-output portable 76 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. but with the new RE-262 earphone ($150) the firm is “thinking small” and looking to bring elements of the famous HiFiMAN sound to a new market at a very accessible price. since the RE-262 has a somewhat bassforward sound with slightly subdued highs (neutrality seekers might consider HiFiMAN’s upcoming $249 RE-272 as a better alternative). while sensitivity is a low-ish 95dB. meaning that the RE-262 can certainly be driven by iPods and the like. HiFiMAN builds some of the finest full-size planar magnetic headphones on the planet. though it sounds even better when pushed by robust portable amps. full-size headphones. the RE-262 reflects some of the same kinds of innovative—and distinctly performance oriented—thinking that has influenced HiFiMAN’s higher-end products. but that doesn’t offer spectacular internal components that catch the eye. Look further if: you want a simple.” or desktop amps. this means the RE-262’s signal overview Consider this product if: you want one of the better mid-priced earphones currently available—one that offers a rich. Consider the RE-262 for its two versatile (though admittedly unorthodox) fitting options. HiFiMAN’s mid-priced RE-262 earphone seems like a conventional design— one based on good. The RE-262 features an earpiece housing that might be mistaken for molded plastic. straightforward ingredients.avguide. vibrant.
• White adapter: balanced 3. sensitivity: 95 dB SP/1 mW Impedance: 150 ohms Warranty: 1-year replacement warranty price: $149 HiFiMAN/HEAd dIrECT (347) 475-7673 www. most of us own cellphones. M. are designed to be worn with their signal cables draping downwards from the wearer’s ears.5mm socket with reversed left/ right channel orientation.5mm mini-jack plug—that is.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors cable comes fitted with a balanced 3. But obviously HiFiMAN is looking to give the RE-262 a performanceoriented “growth path” for the future. and HiFiMAN’s own HM801 digital music player/amp will be another once the firm’s balanced-output amp modules become available).6 oz. while others are designed so that cables will be routed up and over the ears (and some models support both approaches).avguide. and the RE-262 is no exception.head-direct. there aren’t all that many balanced-output portable amps on the market just yet (Ray Samuel’s new SR-71B Blackbird is one. the earpieces/eartips should ideally S rest fairly deeply within the wearer’s ear canals (an often overlooked aspect of performance that can spell the difference between rich. I’d say the expected sonic benefits include heightened sonic purity.5mm socket with standard left/right channel orientation. lifeless sound).us www. • Grey adapter: unbalanced 3.com 77 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. like the RE-262. five pairs of user-replaceable filters (for keep ear way from clogging the RE-262’s sound output tubes). the earpieces/eartips need to offer T long-term wearer comfort (no matter how it sounds.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . anemic-sounding bass). and three color-coded adapter cables. most earphones sound and feel their best when three essential conditions are met: • irst. But HiFiMAN’s innovative thinking doesn’t end with giving the RE-262 capabilities for use with balanced amps.5mm socket with reversed left/ right channel orientation. however. But no matter what cable-routing scheme is used. the eartips of the earphones need to F achieve a good airtight seal in the wearer’s ear canals in order to achieve powerful fullrange sound (a poor seal almost invariably makes for thin.5mm jack to balanced 3. one padded leatherette presentation box. and to accommodate our needs the RE-262 ships with an unbalanced-tobalanced adapter cable. L).5mm jack to balanced 3. digital music players and portable amps that provide traditional unbalanced output jacks. Some earphones. one with four rather than the expected three conductor sleeves (see photo).5mm jack to balanced 3. In the here and now. detail.hifiman. as below: • Black adapter: unbalanced 3. because the firm has also taken a fresh look at ways of achieving an optimal fit—both in terms of sound quality and wearer comfort. an earphone that’s uncomfortable is bound to go unused in the longer term). two pairs of double-flange eartips (M and L). To be perfectly frank. • hird. • econd. Frequency response: 15Hz – 22kHz Weight: 0. and superior overall driver control. one detachable clamp for clipping the signal cable to garments. vibrant sound and dull. Most earphones have a recommended “normal” wearing position. Why configure an earphone for use with balanced amps? Judging by listening experiences I’ve had with balanced full-size headphones and amps. though. ratinGs (relative to comparably-priced competition) tonal balance frequency extremes clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 specs/prici ng HiFiMAN rE-262 In-Ear Headphone/ Headset Accessories: Three pairs of single-flange eartips (S.
com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . 78 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. once you’ve settled on eartips and the T wearing position you want to use. Sometimes. I found that—up to a point—a deeper fit enabled the earphones to produce a significantly richer. while others (like me) have to work a bit harder to get optimal results.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors Frankly.avguide. with signal cables draping downwards). In order to support this admittedly unusual alternative wearing position. if one approach doesn’t work for you. as was the case for me. try both the normal (right side S up and forward) wearing position and the alternate (upside down and backward) wearing position. the other almost certainly will). HiFiMAN ships the RE-262 with two additional adapter cables: • color-coded balanced-to-balanced adapter A cable with left/right channels reversed. Alternate wearing position (left earpiece upside down in right ear) with signal cables wrapped up and over the wearer’s ears—see photos). HiFiMAN determined that while many listeners get good results with RE-262 worn in its “normal” position (earpieces right side up. • hird. that one position works markedly better than the other. Specifically. is that the RE-262 gives you two very different fitting options. In fact. both of which deserve careful consideration (according to HiFiMAN. • econd. Some wearers find it’s pretty much a plug-n-play design. and note how the depth of the fit influences sound quality. more vibrant sound. I would encourage running three sets of tests when Normal wearing position (right earpiece in right ear) HiFiMAN took a long. For anyone trying the RE-262. try gently pushing inward on the RE-262 earpieces. and • color-coded unbalanced-to-balanced A adapter cable. The point. but once I tried wearing the RE-262’s in both positions I discovered that I am one of those wearers for whom the “upside-down-andbackwards” fitment work best. others achieved an optimal fit with the RE-262’s worn (no joke) upside down and with the channels reversed (left earpiece in the right ear and vice versa. The wearing position you choose will also help you determine which (if any) of the three ease oF Use Depending on the user. you first receive the earphones: • irst. You will likely find. carefully try out the various eartips that F HiFiMAN supplies in order to find the size/ type that creates the best seal in your ears. you may find that a not-soobvious option actually gives the best results. it gave me a night/day improvement in comfort and sound quality (though you might well prefer the normal wearing position). I initially thought this whole approach was too strange to embrace. also with left/right channels reversed. hard look at these requirements and (after much trial-and-error experimentation) came to a highly unorthodox conclusion. the RE-262 can be tricky to fit at first. here.
But the RE-262’s not only go low. too. • hite adapter: balanced 3. the way that the RE-262 captures very subtle variations in Cohen’s finger and plucking notes—letting you feel as much as hear the effort he puts into bending or sliding some notes. included adapter cables to use. shuddering columns of air. the RE-262 shows real muscle and extension. the RE-262’s have a big.avguide. for example.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors • lack adapter: unbalanced 3. Don’t settle for anything less.5mm socket. Using Amps with Balanced Outputs • o adapter: Use this approach if wearing the N RE-262’s in the “normal” position (right side up with normal left/right channel orientation).5mm miniW jack to balanced 3. full-bodied. While they do require a good seal. creating the sense of deep pitched. and keep experimenting until you get all the performance you’ve paid for. More than most earphones. they are also quite sensitive to how deeply they are positioned in one’s ears. or that rely on subtle variations in low-frequency textures and timbres. Use this adapter if wearing the RE-262’s in the normal position. Articulate. Use this adapter if wearing the RE-262’s in the “alternate” position (upside down with the left/right earpieces reversed). but not the HiFiMAN’s. smooth. 1” from Cohen’s Adama [Stretch Records]. When fitted correctly. deep.5mm socket.5mm socket with normal left/ right channel orientation. but the RE-262’s are different. with left/ right channels reversed. vibrant sound. what makes the low end of this earphone work is not so much the quantity but the sheer quality of the bass it delivers. all you need is a good in-the-ear seal in order to achieve optimal sound. Few earphones this price can dig more deeply (or articulately) into music’s lower octaves the way that this one can. desirable qualities of weight and punch. as on pipe organ material. with the earphone delivering extremely good extension.5 mini-jack g to balanced 3. powerful. they just wade right in and get the job done. and almost “lush” sound that is highly engaging and very comfortable to listen to for long periods of time. or digital Music players with Unbalanced Outputs 79 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .5mm mini-jack B to balanced 3. You’ll find it captures the initial “jump” and resonant sustain of the bass strings. listen to the RE-262’s reproduce the descending organ passages found in the Pie Jesu section of the Rutter Requiem [Reference Recordings]. Those knuckle raps sound amazingly realistic.com soniC CharaCter At their best. But perhaps the most spectacular effect comes when Cohen accents certain plucked or sustained bass notes by rapping his knuckles against the body of the instrument to create counter-rhythms. With many earphones. for example. with left/right channels reversed. The end results more than justify the extra set-up time and effort required. but also tackle with gusto those low frequency instruments that have more transient snap and punch. to Avishai Cohen’s acoustic bass on “Bass Suite No. Listen closely. rich. Cellphones. Most earphones run out of steam on the Rutter Requiem (some of them comically so). vibrant. the RE-262 produces a deep. Using Amps. Use this adapter if wearing the RE-262’s in the “alternate” position. • rey adapter: imbalanced 3. lifelike Mids: Most of www. Note. Well-defined bass: Bass is one the RE-262’s strengths. while giving you a clear-cut sense for the resonances of the large wooden body of the instrument. Several factors contribute to that sound. While I would concede that the RE262 delivers a somewhat bass-forward sound. As a test of pure bass depth. and—most importantly—good pitch definition and focus.
I think many listeners will appreciate the compromise HiFiMAN has drawn. luscious sound. Clear. This. and easy to live with. the RE-262’s highs are always clear. and no overheated treble textures scorching their way into your skull. separate and distinct from the others. purpose. The result is a sound that. iPods. the RE-262 has neither problem. but the spectacular rhythm accompaniment. 80 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www.. it offers two possible wearing positions: a normal position and an unorthodox alternate position (where the earphone is essentially worn upside down and backwards—again necessitating included adapters). While portions of this movement are briskly paced. etc. pure and simple. but rather about honest emotion and sensitivity to the sheer beauty of the music—a quality that fills Hahn’s performance with energy. By this I mean that there are some competing headphones in this price class (e.avguide. Each treble sound is preserved. What makes this recording jump to life is not only Romero’s fleet-fingered guitar work. yet at the same time gentle. it comes pre-wired for use with balancedoutput portable amps and therefore requires (included) adapter cables for use with conventional unbalanced portable amps. listen to the track “Farrucas” from flamenco guitarist Pepe Romero’s Flamenco [Lim. instead. along with the killer bass mentioned above. First. Like certain fine high-end loudspeakers. But that said. is what makes this little HiFiMAN earphone shine brightly. Happily. There is no mistaking. I would add that few other mid-priced earphones in my experience could equal the RE-262’s uncanny combination of treble clarity and smoothness. Instead. The RE-262 offers a healthy measure of treble detail. If there is any deficiency here. and the RE-262 does a great job of delineating them cleanly and clearly. pulls you in and holds your attention through both its richness and dynamically expressive qualities. though it will not create the illusion of treble “air” or “detail” in recordings that don’t actually possess those qualities (which is all to the good). But look beyond the RE-262’s unconventional aspects and you’ll find its strengths center on it rich. the Phonak PFE 122) that offer a heightened sense of treble focus or that do a somewhat better job of conveying the high frequency “air” between instruments. Second. engaging. The RE-262’s let you hear how Hahn deftly balances technical mastery of her instrument with an equally important quality of musical soulfulness. This track features a remarkable variety of highpitched transient and textural sounds—all of them at play at once. smooth Highs: Many earphones that strive for a detailed sound do so at the expense of highs that are either overly prominent or that easily become edgy and brittle sounding. whose light-speed runs and trills the RE-262 handles with ease. One recording that shows these qualities to particularly good effect is violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn’s performance on the first movement of the Meyer Violin Concerto [Sony].com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . vibrant. here. for instance. as castanets and handclaps keep time in the background. sUMMinG Up HiFiMAN’s RE-262 is an excellent mid-priced earphone with a number of unexpected and unconventional design elements. What the RE-262’s do so well is to put the you in touch with the articulacy and liveliness of music without turning listening into a sterile technical exercise whose objective is to see which earphone can reproduce the most detail or carve the most abrupt transients. sharper crack of shoe heels striking the floor. what makes the movement work are its slower passages where the voice of the solo violin sings out sweetly and purely—at times sounding terrifically alone and exposed. it might be that the RE-262’s highs are just slightly softly or lightly balanced relative to the real thing. K2HD CD remaster of the Philips original]. I’m not talking about sloppy romanticism. Sound quality. For a good example of this. but without any of the downsides that treble detail sometimes implies: there is no tendency toward piercingly overblown highfrequency transients. is what makes the RE-262 sound like a higher-end model than its price would suggest. But when the recording is up to the task.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors the music really does live in the midrange. and life. as its highs are unfailingly graceful and smooth. I would not call it a showcase for violin pyrotechnics. the RE-262 can sound extremely detailed and revealing. albeit ever so slightly subdued. and the RE-262’s honor that fact with mids that are evenly balanced and that—more importantly— are rich in luscious tonal colors and textures.g. a handclap for the snap of a castanet or the harder. which includes the sound of flamenco dancers shoes reverberating within the recording space. which is always engaging and easy to enjoy for long-term listening sessions. more so than is the norm for this class. Even so. the RE-262 thrives on well-recorded treble material. no blare or glare in the critical upper midrange/lower treble region. and at a very reasonable price.
however. it’s uncommon for the heads of large companies to take such a personal. Three things caught my attention in this announcement. which led me to wonder if the products might be one and the same. and refinement. hands-on role in creating individual new products. the Turbines consistently “tell it like it is. First. Does the Turbine meet Lee’s ambitious goals? In many ways.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors MONSTER CABLE TuRBINE Chris Martens oward the end of 2008 Monster Cable announced the release of ambitious new in-ear headphones called the “Turbine In-Ear Speakers. development.” without injecting sonic editorial embellishments of their own. Next you’ll notice how overview Consider these headphones if: you know and love genuinely accurate sound. so I was eager to see how Lee’s brainchild would sound. Third. At CES 2009. I think it does. Second. these no-nonsense in-ear ‘phones can compete with models twice their price. Monster stated that the Turbines were “personally designed by (Monster CEO and founder) Noel Lee. The answer—as you’ll see if you read both reviews—is that they are actually quite different (though both have merit). T soniC CharaCter As is often the case with accomplished fullrange loudspeakers. or if you are the sort of person who enjoys “going deep” to savor the rich inner details and textures that can spell the difference between good recordings and great ones. the Turbines were announced with the same price as another new highperformance in-ear headphone from Monster (namely. 81 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. undergoing three years of rigorous research. and then spreads outwards from there to encompass high and low frequency extremes. Look elsewhere if: you seek headphones that add subtle (or perhaps not-so-subtle) sonic colorations calculated to appeal to specific tastes or sonic preferences. unforced clarity (sonic details unfold naturally without histrionics or artificial highlighting). the sonic goodness of the Turbine headphones starts right in the heart of the midrange (where most of the music is anchored). I was struck by Monster’s promise that the Turbines deliver sound comparable to that of “full-size high-end speakers”—a claim I’d ordinarily be inclined to discount as mere marketing hyperbole. Like faithful and factual news reporters.” Frankly.avguide. the Beats by Dre Tours reviewed elsewhere in this Guide).” priced at $150. or to note their easygoing. When you first put the Turbines on. you’re likely to notice how smooth and evenly balanced their midrange frequencies are. Noel Lee spoke convincingly of his desire to offer the Turbines as a means of making legitimate high-end sound accessible to a new generation of listeners who want portable solutions and who could not manage the costs or space requirements associated with traditional high-end loudspeakers. In many respects.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .
Selfproclaimed “Head Monster” Noel Lee has done music lovers everywhere a great favor in creating this product. The point I’m hoping to get across is that BottoM line Monster Cable’s Turbines are wonderfully versatile. you’d need to spend about twice as much (or maybe more). yet without applying false layers of treble “sheen” on top of high-frequency harmonics. yet small enough to adjust easily for an optimal fit. a vigorously loping electric bass. The Turbine’s compact. The Turbines were impressive on this track. while revealing layer upon layer of tonal colors and subtle points of emphasis in Winstone’s voice. In short.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . Though not cheap at $150. 82 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. The track has several key core sonic elements: the Turbines are versatile performers that can capture both the sound and “feel” of quite diverse types of music—perhaps their greatest strength. Crow’s own feisty and sometimes howling vocals. and refinement. almost melancholy sound of Gesing’s sax. MUsiCal eXaMple Let me use two recordings to illustrate the Turbines’ real-world performance.com CoMFort FaCtor/aCCessories The Turbines are very light and their soft silicone eartips (similar to those provided with Monster’s Beats by Dr. so that even the smallest details and textures are laid bare. the Turbine’s core sound is accurate. partly because they kept their composure when multiple.95 MONsTEr. But the good news is that they do get cables featuring the firm’s signature “MicroStrand” conductors arranged in a patented “Magnetic FluxTube” configuration. and so it is with British jazz vocalist Norma Winstone’s rendition of the Cole Porter song “Everytime We Say Goodbye” from Distances [ECM]. and fundamentally “honest.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors the Turbine’s bass provides rich yet taut and powerful foundational support for the music. raucous midrange voices performing at full song. llC. But as lovely though the Turbines can be on delicate material. metal housings (which are patterned after the beefy “Turbine” RCA jacks that Monster provides on many of its high-end audio cables) have a reassuringly solid feel and are said to help fight unwanted resonance. but in terms of accurate tonal balance the Turbines can compete with the best I’ve yet heard.avguide. ratinGs tonal balance clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 an absolutely enormous-sounding kick drum. nuanced voice. Unfortunately. Dre Tours) feel great and seal well. Sometimes the simplest recordings can be the most revealing. or its colorations are instantly exposed—a test the Turbines passed with flying colors. resolution. M. T L) and two sets of triple-flange “airlock” eartips (S. contemplative. The Turbine’s answered the call by nailing the reedy.” If you’re willing to spend twice what the Turbines cost (or more) you can—if you search carefully—find ‘phones that offer a little bit more detail.monstercable. they are worth every red cent. well balanced. and partly because they so effortlessly delineated the multiple. specs/prici ng Accessories: • hree pairs of round rubber eartips (S. the Turbines don’t get the cool new “tangle-free” signal cables Monster created for the Beats by Dre Tours ‘phones. Finally. you’ll find the Turbine’s highs are clear. well-balanced and accurate in-ear headphones. powerful bass instruments were holding forth at once. they also have sufficient grunt and moxie to hold their own on more fullbodied fare. two raw and grindingly distorted electric guitars. and reasonably detailed. while steering clear of pockets of boominess or bloated excess. L) • Carrying case Weight: Not specified sensitivity: Not specified price: $179. barking saxes applied mostly as accents and. The track opens with sparse instrumentation—just the sound of Klaus Gesing’s lilting sax and Winstone’s breathy. A good example would be their sound on “There Goes The Neighborhood” from Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions [A&M]. (415) 840-2000 www. The Turbines are a just-right size: big enough to grasp easily. In a recording like this one there is no place for a headphone to hide: it either gets the fundamentals right. to do better (and then only a little better). extended. of course.
gold-plated versions of the Turbines. comfortable to wear. Finally.95). consider the Turbine Pro Golds for their inherent comfort and noise isolation. ultra-wide bandwidth F driver for superior accuracy. some top competitors convey just a bit more lowlevel musical information. • rovides special heavy-duty cable strain P reliefs on each earpiece. nuance and textural finesse.avguide.” • ncorporates noticeably more substantial I signal cables featuring “MicroStrand conductors with ultra-low impedance for subtle detail and clear audio reproduction.” • omes with so-called Supertip ear tips C that appear slightly different in shape and consistency from the ear tips provided on the original Turbines. Since the Turbines have few shortcomings. which provides for one-time free replacement should they ever fail (even if you break them). this might lead you to ask: how different are the Pro Golds.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . which is billed as a product “designed for serious audiophiles and audio professionals. one of the better ‘phones we’ve heard at their price point. $299. promising “maximum sound isolation. Though it may seem like splitting hairs. more costly) models that one realizes that it’s possible to push the sonic performance envelope even further than the Turbines can go. inviting you to savor subtle inner details in the music. as I sometimes am. at CEDIA 2009. of course. look elsewhere if: you seek the very last word in sonic detail.” The signal cable features Monster’s patented “Magnetic FluxTube” construction (as also used in Monster’s audiophile interconnect cables). Specifically. They are generally well balanced. and their “sins” are mostly minor sins of omission. For me. it’s only in side-by-side comparison with even higher performance (and. this realization led to one key question: what might happen if Monster pulled out the stops to build an even higher-end in-ear headphone? No sooner had I posed the question than I discovered. 83 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. Monster Cable’s announcement of a new top-tier model called the Turbine Pro Gold (MSRP. the new model: • eatures a “low-mass. really? Monster Cable isn’t terribly forthcoming with detailed design information. but their basic description of the Turbine Pro Golds does give some hints.95). Excellent though the Turbine Pros are in each of these areas. the Turbine Pros Golds look for all the L world like deluxe. plus a more robust fitting where the main signal cable splits at overview Consider this headphone if: you like the basic sound of Monster’s $150 Turbines but would appreciated heightened levels of detail plus even more extended bass and treble frequency response. and expressive—in short. If you are skeptical.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors MONSTER CABLE TuRBINE PRO gOLD Chris Martens ong-term readers of Playback and those who downloaded free copies of the first Playback Headphone Buyer’s Guide know that we think quite highly of Monster Cable’s Turbine in-ear headphones (priced at $179. they nevertheless can be narrowly outperformed by some of the top competitors in their price class. Also consider the Turbine Pro Golds for their robust build quality and their outstanding warranty.” From the outside.
avguide. I’m drawing a very subtle distinction here.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors a Y-junction to provide cable runs to the left and right earpieces. Third. how do the Pro Golds compare with the best models in their class? I’ll address both questions in this review.95 MONsTEr llC (415) 840-2000 www. though perhaps shaded ever so slightly toward the warm side (that is. even if YOU break them. and you 84 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors would be mostly (though not entirely) correct in that assessment. While the Turbine Pros reveal most of the music most of the time. Based on what I’ve written thus far. I found their performance was in some respects narrowly surpassed by the best $300 models from competitors such as Klipsch and Sennheiser.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . across-the-board improvements. the Turbine Pro Golds really do take worthwhile steps forward from the Turbines. I found the Turbine Pros offered a very good measure of clarity. • ffers a beefy mini-jack connector with goldO plated contacts. it is fair to say that good fit = good www. letting you extract more worthwhile low-level information from your favorite recordings. they occasionally miss the very subtlest layers of low-level musical information—layers of information their strongest competitors are often able to retrieve. Finally. however. Two other tradeoffs. First. whereas several of their strongest competitors use somewhat cumbersome over-the-ear wire routing guides that can make it harder to adjust the ‘phones for a perfect fit. and one set of foam tips. tend to work in favor of the Pro Golds. two sets of Supertips. you might think the Pro Golds would be among the top-tier performers in its price class. Promising though these changes appear in theory. making it much easier to pick out high frequency harmonics and the elusive sense of “air” surrounding instruments. which is very much to their credit. On the one hand.com comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 soniC CharaCter If you compare the Turbine Pro Golds to the original Turbines you’ll be a very happy camper because the Gold models offer three welcome. the real question is how or if these ostensible improvements enhance the Turbine Pro Gold’s sound? And a good follow-up question would be. On the other hand. the Pro Golds are among the most comfortable and easy to adjust headphones in their class. which were no slouches in that department. plus additional coverage where Monster declares “we’re offering a one-time replacement of your Turbine Pros. it’s just that some competitors do even better than the Pro Golds do. ratinGs clarity dynamics (relative to comparably-priced headphones) tonal balance specs/prici ng Monster Cable Turbine pro In-Ear Headphones Accessories: three sets of single layer ear tips. Next. the more bass-prominent side) of strict neutrality. two sets of triple layer ear tips. they offer significantly higher levels of detail and resolution.” price: $299. the Pro Golds provide significantly more extended treble response. Weight: Not specified sensitivity: Not specified Impedance: Not specified Warranty: Limited lifetime warranty against manufacturing defects. Make no mistake: the Turbine Pro Golds are extremely good headphones that do a fine job of precisely reproducing transient and textural details in the music. plus two carry cases.monstercable. In side-by-side comparisons with competing headphones. but perhaps lacked that elusive “Nth degree” of resolving power and definition that can sometimes spell the difference between very good headphones and truly great ones. First. the Pros provide even deeper and more solid bass than the original Turbines. Granted. overall frequency response is very evenly balanced (also a great strength of the original Turbines). (With in-ear ‘phones.
Klipsch Custom 3 The Turbine Pro Gold is noticeably more comfortable to wear than the Custom 3. The Pro Golds do a wonderful job of catching the brassy bite of the horns swells while at the same time letting you hear and feel the locomotive like power and. Things get even better as the horn section enters. The tradeoff. Unlike lesser earphones. Comparison summary Differences between the Turbine Pro Golds and their top in-class competitors certainly are not large in an absolute sense. creating distracting “rustling” noises that sometimes get transmitted up to (and through) the Klipsch ear pieces. The Custom 3 is also somewhat more sensitive and therefore an easier load for iPods to drive.avguide. Sonically. Turbine pro gold vs. Second. offering up an even more vivid and intense presentation that reminded me of what it’s like to listen to microphone feeds directly through a recording console. Sonically. delivering superior highs. and the brilliant crash and closure of the high-hat. well. high-end loudspeaker systems. the explosive crack of the snare. The Pro Golds let you hear the plaintive power of Sara K’s voice and the strong and sure handed but never overblown performances of her veteran sidemen. more nuanced bass. and high-frequency musical lines at the same time. powerful bass. but the Custom 3 sounds even richer and more evocative. The track opens with a deep. In the past. Again. pop. the IE7’s have relatively large and somewhat awkwardly shaped earpieces and they use relatively stiff overthe-ear cable guides that can make proper adjustment tricky to achieve. however. of complicated and dynamically demanding material that requires the headphone to reproduce challenging bass. “traction” of the musical foundation that the rhythm section provides. while the ear pieces of the Custom 3’s are larger and incorporate an over-the-ear cable guide that is somewhat “fussy” to adjust properly. ker-swisssh” of three high-energy snare drum shots and a highhat thwack that together mark the launch of the body of the song. clothing. punchy. the Turbine Pro Gold offers extremely smooth frequency response with deep. but the Turbine Pro Golds are better still. If anything. Another differentiator is that the Pro Gold signal cable features a smooth jacket whereas the cable jacket of the Custom 3 is made of a roughtextured fabric that can scrape on your skin or 85 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors sound. Sennheiser IE7 The Turbine Pro Gold is substantially more comfortable to wear (and to adjust) that the IE7. But when heard through some of the Pro Gold’s top competitors that same track can—at its very best—take on deeper dimensions. pop. and slightly higher levels of openness and transparency—especially in the critical midrange. By comparison. giving you a more intimate. Turbine Pro Gold vs. so that the superior www. which some listeners might prefer. sharp “pop. doing a better job of capturing the subterranean punch of the bass. the original Turbines would have done a very nice job with this passage. the Turbine Pro Gold keeps its composure in the presence CoMpetitive CoMparison During my listening tests I compared the Turbine Pros against two of the strongest in-ear headphone I’ve heard in the $300 price class: the Klipsch Custom 3 (now discontinued. carrying the song’s melodic line above the prodigious grooves rumbling down below. while delivering exceptionally clear upper mids and highs. try a vigorous and well-recorded live jazz track such as “Shake Everything You Got” from Maceo Parkers Roots & Grooves [Heads Up]. rolling slap-bass groove that evolves against a backdrop of exuberant crowd noises until punctuated by the hard. the Turbine Pro Golds seem to revel in this kind of stuff—something that can’t be said of all competing phones. the Turbine Pro Gold’s slightly warmer than neutral tonal balance will. the Pro Gold has a somewhat darker tonal balance than the IE7. This is partly down to the fact that the Pro Golds are small and compact and feature what I would call “plug’n’play” wiring. and the Sennheiser IE7. up-closeand-personal view of the music. at least for some listeners. represent a better sonic compromise than the arguably more accurate but also slightly more lightly balanced sound of competing ‘phones.com MUsiCal eXaMples To hear many of the Turbine Pro Gold’s strengths in action at once. I found that the Pro Golds sounded very good—in many respects delivering sound quality reminiscent of high quality. is that IE7 does a more accurate and expressive job of capturing low level details and small shifts in dynamic emphasis. On very high resolution recordings. but a class leader in its day). some of its most accomplished competitors capture even more finely shaded textural and timbral details. plus taut and very well-defined bass. the difference is attributable to the Turbine Pro’s compact size and straightforward wiring. midrange. such as “I Can’t Stand the Rain” from Sara K’s Hell or High Water [Stockfisch SACD]. While the Turbine Pro Gold gets all the basic elements of music reproduction right. so that ease of adjustment is a big plus).
com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . The Monster Turbine Pro Goldss also come with two carrying cases. careful listening will also reveal that top competitors in the $300 price class do offer some small but worthwhile sonic advantages. offering greater detail and broader frequency response with rock solid bass. 86 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. adjustment for a good fit in your ear canals. and absolutely unbeatable warranty. the Turbine Pro Gold will win friends with its well-balanced sound. I found the new Supertip material to be very comfortable and sufficiently flexible to offer a good. one that is a particular handy pocket-sized pouch with a magnetic closure.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors ruggedness and comfort of the Pro Golds might tip the scales in their favor. The Turbine Pro Golds. two sets of triple layer ear tips. are ideally sized to allow easy inserting and BottoM line Monster Cable’s Turbine Pro Gold takes worthwhile steps forward from the firm’s already excellent Turbine. two sets of Supertips. and one set of foam tips. CoMFort FaCtor/aCCessories The Turbine Pro Golds come with a wide assortment of ear tips: three sets of single layer ear tips. Though not the last word in overall sonic resolution and refinement in its price class.avguide. However. superior comfort. airtight seal. much like the original Turbines.
and the more lifestyle-oriented Moderna Series (MS) models. tend to think that beauty is as beauty does. It’s easy to get a “pretty good” fit and decent performance with the PS 200s. so that each rubber eartip creates a truly airtight seal in your ear canals (the fit should be firm. but I would encourage you to set your sights higher than that.S. the PS 200s deliver very fine bass. and their overall tonal balance becomes more neutral and richer sounding. try pulling outward on the earpiece housings. the PS 200s should feel almost like swimmer’s earplugs do. More PS-series models have been added over time. All in all. Here in the U. When overview Consider these headphones if: you want a very revealing set of headphones that. I wanted to try the PS 200s partly out of pure curiosity.avguide. very gently. which employs over 12. Ltd. though. A nice extra is the PS 200’s cleverly designed carry case.000 people worldwide. this headphone’s plusses far outweigh its weaknesses. and also—this is important—try different positioning options until you achieve a P hiaton (pronounced “fee’ ah ton”) is a subsidiary of the very large South Korean consumer electronics firm Cresyn Company. Hint: when fitted properly. sound highly detailed and full-bodied. Once the fit is right. offering two families of products: the performance-oriented Primal Series (PS) models. I was drawn to Phiaton’s PS range. while I became more adept at fitting the ’phones to achieve a more airtight seal in my ear canals and thus enjoyed substantially better bass performance. Since I.. To test if the ’phones are properly fitted. I first learned of the PS 200 in a preChristmas 2008 press release and was intrigued by the product description I found. on a 24/7 basis (although at the expense of that occasional treble “burr” we mentioned above). Spend some time trying out the PS 200’s various sizes of silicone rubber eartips. Here’s how. Over time. but not oppressively so). Did Phiaton succeed? Read on to learn the answer.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . like many Playback readers.” and an Acoustic Impedance Control mechanism that “opens and closes holes on the rear side of the speaker unit” in order to improve bass response. the PS 200s initially struck me as sounding very clear. I wanted to find out if a relative newcomer could build in-ear headphones competitive with models from more established players such as Sennheiser and Shure. great fit and thus much better bass response. I felt the drivers loosened up and smoothed out somewhat (just as happens with some loudspeakers). “Dual Balanced Armature drivers with passive crossovers. which initially started with just two products—the PS 500 over-the-ear full-size headphone and the PS 200 in-ear- 87 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. The PS 200 incorporates decidedly highend design touches such as aluminum earpiece housings. for the most part. Phiaton has set its sights on the higherend headphone and iPod speaker system markets. per se. The only minor drawback is a very slight upper midrange/treble “burr” that occasionally puts an edge on certain sibilant or hard transient sounds. the PS 200 is a fine first effort from a promising newcomer. soniC CharaCter On first listen. but also a bit bright and lightly balanced. But on the whole.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors PHIATON PS 200 Chris Martens headphone ($249) that we’ll look at here. The PS 200s focus on delivering detail. Look further if: you prize frequency response smoothness over sonic detail. and lots of it.
BottoM line The PS 200 represents a strong first effort from a firm that plainly wants to make its mark in this marketplace. the word “Ask” sounds more like “Assssk. unlike some dual-armature designs I’ve heard. These headphones are well made and offer a detailed and full-bodied sound that will delight many listeners. the PS 200’s normal clarity temporarily transitions into a more harsh and hard-edged quality that’s more a curse than a blessing. however. ringing. ratinGs tonal balance clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 CoMFort FaCtor/aCCessories The PS 200s are very light and come close to matching the comfort standard set by our all-time comfort champs. voluptuous power of the lower melodic lines while cleanly reproducing the abrupt transient attack and soaring sustain of the high harmonics. yet smooth. M. a socket for the airline adapter. such as this album’s first track called “Risks & Missions. of the PS200s’ beautifully made aluminum earpiece housings make it easy to grasp and maneuver the ’phones to make on-the-fly adjustments to achieve a better fit. which indicates that Phiaton has definitely done its homework. in turn. The PS 200s bring so much clarity to the party that at times you might feel as if yours ears/brain have been “hard-wired” to the bass guitar’s pick-ups: it’s wonderful stuff. Through the Phiatons.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors you do this. The net effect is of hearing two instruments at once (though they are one and the same): one with the deep. Phiaton plainly comes from the “a place for everything and everything in its place” school of thought because the case provides a molded plastic tray with cutouts for each earpiece.” the PS 200s did a fine job of capturing the twin voices of Peer’s bass.” with the “s” sounds overwrought. the size and shape 88 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. single-flange rubber T ear tips (S. but when they do. the PS 200s would leap from good to great in an instant.” are based on lines played in the bass’s normal range interwoven with counterpoint lines played as very high frequency bass harmonics (created by lightly placing a fingertip from one hand against the string at a specific interval position and then lightly tapping or strumming the string with a fingertip from the other hand). Very nice. low voice of a normal bass guitar and the other with a surprisingly high. for example. If those could be resolved. L) • Airline adapter • Carrying case Weight: 5 grams (without cord) Sensitivity: 95dB Warranty: One year. even slightly abrasive. (866) 313-3203 www. To be fair. Bibb’s consonants sometimes take on a strident quality.” from Eric Bibb’s Get Onboard [Telarc]. One last point: be aware that these are very detailed-sounding headphones.com MUsiCal eXaMples The PS 200’s strengths are nicely revealed by master bass guitarist Dean Peer’s solo album Ucross [XLO Recordings. The tray. the Klipsch Image earphones.avguide. moments like these don’t come along very often. and one of the best-designed carry cases we’ve seen. Importantly.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . nailing the dark. and the whole tray—get this—serves as a spool on which you can wind up the signal cable (why aren’t all cases this well done?). they tend to put recordings under the sonic equivalent of a microscope. On “Risks & Missions. specs/prici ng Accessories: • hree pairs of round. The only performance drawback is—as noted above—a subtle rough spot in the upper midrange/treble response curve that can sometimes put a bit of an edge on certain notes. The PS 200s come with an airline adapter. indicating that there are no air leaks. three sets (and sizes) of silicone rubber eartips. glassy sheen that sounds a bit unnatural. On the song “If Our Hearts Ain’t In It. and for better or worse. The Phiatons would easily have qualified for a Playback Recommended rating but for those occasional slight touches of treble edginess we observed. powerful. the headphone’s dual drivers speak with one coherent voice.” About 1:22 into the song Bibb sings the line “Ask forgiveness for all our sins/and vow to change our ways…”—a line that should sound soulful and very clear.phiaton. Many of Peer’s compositions. you should feel a slight vacuum in your ear canals. With the PS 200s. But sometimes the Phiaton’s natural clarity can be marred by hints of edginess that make the ’phones sound momentarily bright. while cymbals and electric guitars occasionally exhibit an excessive degree of “bite. is wrapped in a durable canvas-covered outer shell that has a magnetic closure flap. chime-like voice. parts and labor Price: $249 pHIATON INC. positioning stubs for holding spare eartips. while the high-hats keeping time in the background take on a bright. re-mastered reissue].
Also look further if you prize tonal balance that is strictly neutral (or at least nearly so). while a sharply angled inner section serves as a “waveguide” or 89 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. but the catch is that not everyone finds them comfortable. a motif first applied in the firm’s active noise-cancelling PS 20 NC model (also reviewed in this Guide) and in the standard PS 210 earphone. sound-tube that directs the driver’s output into the wearer’s ear canals. casual fit and feel of an earbud. the only catch. as the PS 210i exhibits a narrow (and thankfully not-tooobtrusive) band of upper midrange/lower treble emphasis.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors PHIATON PS 210i Chris Martens I n mid-2010. are light. as we all realize. is configured for use as a headset. in-ear ‘phones sound a lot better than standard earbuds do. too). an area where the PS 210i is less capable than some of its competitors. True in-ear headphones. and they are typically positioned entirely in the listeners’ outer ears. By design. promising much of the comfortable. of sorts. disc shaped structure that rests in the outer ear and that contains what Phiaton describes as a “Housing Damper. comfortable. Phiaton’s half in-ear PS 210i combines elements of both. Phiaton launched its unorthodox but award-winning “half in-ear” design for earphones. the housing damper acts as a mechanical buffer. there is a large-diameter. and small.” As best I can determine. Look to this earphone for a sound that is full-bodied. Look further if: You need high levels of sound isolation.avguide. is that tend to serve up pretty mediocre sound. At the juncture of the inner and outer sections of the PS 210i earpieces. as well. are designed to be inserted fairly deeply within the wearers’ ear canals where they rely upon an airtight seal in order to achieve optimal performance. As a rule. The outer section consists of an aluminum enclosure that houses the earphone’s driver. Traditional earbuds. between the driver overview Consider this product if: You want an affordable and very easyto-fit earphone that offers the easygoing usability of an earbud but the superior sound quality of an in-ear headphone (and that. and provides a tiny “Wave Guide damper”. oh-by-the-way. with wide-open mids and a good measure of articulacy. frankly. “half in-ear” design means that the PS 210i earpiece housing is conceptually divided into two sections. but with the substantially higher levels of sonic performance associated with full-on in-ear ‘phones. which is the subject of this review.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . on the other hand. That same basic architecture is also used in the PS 210i earphone/headset ($139). prodUCt ConCept From a technical standpoint.
Happily. once in place. part and labor price: $139 pHIATON COrpOrATION (949) 756-8918 www.2 grams (without cord) sensitivity: 98 dB (input power level not referenced) Impedance: 32 ohms Warranty: 1 year.). the Yurbud Yurtopias. Those two complaints hold that A) it’s unpleasant to put close-fitting objects in your ear canals in the first place. you’ll want to spend a bit of time deciding which of the four sizes of included eartips gives you the most comfortable fit and best seal. they tend to stay in place (unlike. The result is a joyous state of simplicity: you just pop the PS 210i’s in your ears. meaning they give the sensation that you have placed moderately firm rubber stoppers in your ears. even when properly sealed. Adding to the PS 210i’s appeal is the fact that it is also an iPhone/iPod-compatible headset fitted with a compact. and in two ways. Frankly. But listening tests will quickly convince you that the Phiaton’s featherweight fit in no way compromises its bass performance. M.g. ease oF Use With the PS 210i as with any traditional in-ear headphone. which can fall out of your ears if you happen to move too suddenly). many earphones feel somewhat like swimmer’s earplugs. carrying case Frequency response: 10Hz – 27kHz Weight: 8. inline mic/ remote module that provides a simple switch that provide call send/end or pause/play functions. in a subjective sense. the PS 210i’s fit lightly. it has the uncanny ability to provide a usable in-ear seal without. the PS 210i stands as one of the most comfortable.phiaton. While there might be better earphones for extremely active. But with that said.com enclosure and the waveguide tube. so that you may at first question whether the fit can possibly be “tight enough” for the earphones to work properly. they work without fuss or bother. which seem almost to “lock” in place in your outer ears).universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors complaints I’ve heard from listeners wary of in-ear headphones. Putting all these factors together. gently. When properly sealed. athletic listeners (e. L). and one that directly addresses two of the main ratinGs (relative to comparably-priced competition) tonal balance frequency extremes clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 90 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www.avguide. In contrast. and in a good way. But one other factor also helps the cause of user friendliness. Specifically. First. let me emphasize that the “feel” of the PS 210i is very different from that of most in-ear headphones. say. and you’re happy—end of story. and comfortably in your ear canals. S. and arguably specs/prici ng Phiaton PS 210i “Half In-Ear” Earphone/ Headset Accessories: Four pairs of silicone eartips (XS. so that the rubber eartips don’t have to.. and/or that B) it’s too much of a hassle to have to have to fine-tune the fit of the ‘phones to get a ‘just-right’ seal. the PS 210i earpieces are shaped so that. feeling as if it fits tightly at all.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . easy-to-use earphones we’ve tested (though another great one in this respect. the PS 210i tackles both objections head on. finicky “tweaking” adjustments. (I think this is because the large disc-shaped “housing dampers” mentioned above wind up carrying most of the weight of the earpieces. the PS 210i stays in position better than many competitors do. the PS 210i lets you achieve an adequate seal without having to make endless. boxstock Apple earbuds. Second. this is a huge point in the PS 210i’s favor from an ease-of-use standpoint.
” Color-coding is simpler and would work better. and clearsounding highs that are for the most part well balanced. Second.avguide. where in many respects the PS 210i comes across as a heavyweight. is Klipsch’s excellent but also considerably more expensive Image X10i). which reveals the gritty. yet plaintive and delicate the next. more articulate than they typically might. clear-eyed listeners in our offices commented that. and one of them might even be a plus for some listeners. which is a drawback for those listening in noisy environments. an unusually open-sounding midrange region. “those are just too small to read. a voice that can sound provocative and selfconfident in one moment. First. swirling sound of brushes sweeping over the textured snare drum head. the PS 210i offers decent but not great sound isolation. but a potential plus for those who want to maintain at least some sonic contact with the outside world. too. The track opens with a simple but very effective drum pattern (keyed by brushes on a snare) that accompanies an acoustic bass figure that starts with a vigorous low note that sustains for a long moment before the bass line begins to ascend. Drawbacks: there are only two minor drawbacks to the PS 210i design. so that it generally doesn’t upset the PS 210i’s otherwise appealing sound. this band of emphasis helps some recordings—making them sound clearer and 91 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . Interestingly. The PS 210i does a beautiful job with the acoustic bass as the earphone’s robust low end supplies just the right touch of weight and warmth to capture rhythmic swagger and punch that the bass brings to the song. but it also imparts just a hint of unwanted “edge” on others. The song opens with the lines. fine-lined letters “L” and “R”) are so tiny that even young. but that sound wonderfully articulate and www. I should mention. then. and that also lets you hear the distinctive “skin” sounds of the taut drumhead itself. The snare drum sounds great. let start by looking at the Phiaton’s performance on Holly Cole’s rendition of the Tom Wait’s classic “Jersey Girl” from Cole’s Temptation [Blue Note]. that the PS210i exhibits a fairly narrow band of extra emphasis that spans the transition region between the upper midrange and lower treble. To see how these characteristics play out with real-world musical material.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors the class leader. thanks to the PS 210i’s open midrange. very light) and the way it sounds. There is then a sharp contrast between the way the Phiaton feels (which is to say. is of an earphone that sounds full-bodied and whose wide-open mids make it quite engaging and engrossing to hear.com soniC CharaCter The PS 210i is defined by robust but not overblown mid-bass response. though. The good news is that this area of coloration is comparatively small in magnitude. But the real treat is hearing the sound of Holly Cole’s voice through the Phiatons. “’Got no time for the corner boys/down the street makin’ all that noise…”—lines that some earphones tend to slur just a bit. the left/right channel markings on the earpieces (which take of the form of small. The overall effect.
But the best part is the way PS 210i reproduces the deeper. For an example of this. more mature tonalities perfectly fit the lyric theme of “If”. the PS 210i simply sounds sumptuous. the crisp “pop” of the snare. believe me.” On that blistering “AAaaoooh baby” phrase as heard through the PS 210i. the PS 210i’s capture the taut “thwack” of the kick drum. Gracious and listenable? Not so much. try the song “If” from Joni Mitchell’s Shine [Hear Music]. I want to make sure I don’t leave you with the wrong impression. As the track plays. and on a majority of well-made recordings. “…take my baby to the carnival/well I’ll take you on all the rides…” But the earphone’s clarity isn’t limited to the midrange alone on this track. Better still. sUMMinG Up Phiaton’s half in-ear PS 210i is an eminently likeable earphone that combines some of the best aspects of earbuds and true in-ear headphones. Over the course of my listening tests. per se. the PS 210i even offers the convenience of headset functionality. Most of the time. you don’t know me at all. for example. say. While not ideal 92 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. The deep. while the drum kit also sounds terrific. as Mitchell—sounding a bit like the writer of the book of Proverbs—dispenses time-proven nuggets of wisdom and advice based on hardwon life lessons. Those darker. where the PS 210i does a great job of capturing the crystalline. Above. and the gentle shimmer of high-hats opening and closing. Blue. minor downsides. as the high-rend also contributes to an overall impression of openness and extension.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors intelligible through the PS 210i. try listening to “You Don’t Know Me At all” from Bettye LaVette’s The Scene of the Crime [Anti]. Going beyond sonic clarity. which is kind of a mixed blessing. you at times hear gentle rhythm accents added by a tambourine. “Oh. though. over time. this Phiaton is so easy to use and rewarding to hear that you’ll find yourself instinctively reaching for it to carry in your pocket (or handbag) for everyday use. but through the Phiatons that edge become more apparent than it normally would. for use in noisy environments. with the bass sounding appropriately dark and weighty through the Phiatons. if you think I’m gon’ come back when you call/AAaaoooh baby. I kept thinking to myself that the best catchphrase for this product might be this one: featherweight feel meets heavyweight sound. LaVette’s voice cuts like a blowtorch. I suggested that the PS 210i’s narrow band of upper midrange/lower treble emphasis sometimes had occasional. In particular. the Phiatons also show sufficient nuance to reveal the sly double entendre and humor implicit in Cole’s crooning voice as she tells us she plans to. Still. become darker and more richly textured than Mitchell’s youthful voice as heard on. at times becoming a little too cutting and strident for its own good. pay close attention to the line where LaVette sings. smokier undertones of Joni Mitchell’s mature voice—a voice that has. For a great example of this quality in action. high-pitched ringing of the instruments’ disc shaped zils. powerful sound of an electric bass and an acoustic drum kit anchors the song. Expressive? Yes. To hear what I mean. Now LaVette’s powerful and evocative R&B voice admittedly has a bit of a raw edge to begin with.avguide.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .
The spatial cues in music and harmonic signatures of instruments consist of very small signals. the signal processing circuitry is set up so that the headphones continue to work even if the Noise Blocker battery runs out of power. part of the focus of the active technology is on ease of use. in my experience.. The sensitivity is specified at 101 db. Look further if: Bass power and dynamic range are high priorities. Sensaphonics. My comfort reference is the Klipsch Image X10i among inear ‘phones. the PS 20s don’t have to have quite as tight a seal to the ear canal. if the noise in the environment is at. you’ll know that the level of noise reduction from in-ear headphones is not a given.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors PHIATON PS 20 NC Tom Martin I f you’ve read Playback Editor Chris Martens’ recent coverage of custommolded in-ear headphones (from JH Audio. 93 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www.g. the 125 Hz drone of an aircraft engine). you can see that there is room for even more silent backgrounds. With that thought in mind. and I’d say the PS 20s are about overview Consider this product if: Mid-range and treble clarity and smoothness are critical to you. and it has also been applied on occasion with in-ear ‘phones. with peaks rising well above that average level) and ideally you’d like the environment to have a background noise level of 30 db. This should allow the designer to create a more comfortable earphone. at least when compared with those models that create pressure points (a problem. and Ultimate Ears). The objective here isn’t silence for the sake of silence. Mask those with noise and you lose some of the magic. However testing showed that an iPhone could easily drive the PS 20 NC to satisfying volume levels and (gulp!) beyond. Phiaton claims that its Noise Blocker technology attenuates 95% of the external noise from the environment. which makes them appropriate for iPhones and the like. but with well-known brands quoting 30-40 db of noise reduction. 80 db (a reasonable number for the interior or an airplane or train. of course. I’d say that the comfort level of the PS 20 is well above average.avguide.. we’ve recently tested the Phiaton PS 20 NC in-ear headphones with active noisecancelling features. In our early testing. Westone. say. The impedance is 26 ohms. To put it numerically. The PS 20 NC is designed for use with mobile devices. This should allow great noise reduction and could also help tune the noise reduction to particularly difficult frequencies (e. ease oF Use The active-plus-passive noise cancelling approach is the one typically used by larger over-the-ear headphones. sounds. In addition. You probably won’t get that much. by relieving the earphones of the need prodUCt ConCept While most high-end in-ear headphones rely on mechanical noise isolation to block external for mechanical resistance to outside sounds. the Phiaton PS 20 NC in-ears also use electronic noise cancellation to do the job. With the PS 20 NC.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . then you need 50 db of noise reduction from your headphones. with some models in the excellent sounding Etymotic line). First. but with no input level.
That is a significant gain if the pure mechanical seal is about the same as with other in-ear headphones. For reasons we’ve covered elsewhere. as are ear tips of various sizes. and thus the Klipsch in-ear models are easier to insert. Hence my emphasis on the comfort gained with this approach. A small carrying pouch is also included. However.as comfortable. meaning they’d like some particular frequency band to be more emphasized. I like being able to insert the earphone and not have to play around with it to get the seal just right (to achieve both adequate bass and balanced sound between the left and right earpieces). especially in light of their price. though.15 ounces sensitivity: 101 dB (n/a input) Impedance: 26 ohms Warranty: Not specified price: $149 pHIATON COrpOrATION (949) 756-8918 www. or it can rest on a table next to you your source device. This advantage varies with the earphone we’re comparing against. They might also say they’d like a more “exciting” sound. First. they might say the two earphones basically sound the same. From about 300 Hz to 8kHz they sound pretty flat. as well as in an office setting. which is a bit more than you might need. I found the tips easy to insert in the ear canal. the signal cable is about six feet long. I tested the PS 20s using an iPhone 4 loaded with tracks ripped from CDs in Apple Lossless format.avguide.phiaton. The sound of the PS 20s could give the makers of high-end earphones fits. but not huge. which is a much greater achievement than might at first appear to be the case. but it is there. but you learn to deal with this. airline adapter Frequency response: 15 Hz – 22kHz Weight: 1. so the net result is about the same attenuation at the better non-custom in-ears. Relative to other earphones. I tested them in flight on an American Airlines flight. I’d say the seal with 94 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors the PS 20 NC is a little less attenuating. I’d say the impact is in the 6-9 db realm. of course. As a guess. so let’s get down to the sonic character on offer here. I found the noise reduction from the active circuitry to be appreciable. carrying pouch. the PS 20 NCs have a small electronics box in line with the signal cable. I can imagine two reactions. but the larger than average driver housings require some dexterity to maneuver around my ear lobes. Overall. the Moon Audio Silver Dragon LOD (Line Out Dock) cable and a NuForce Icon Mobile amplifier. Spend extra money and you can get some small improvements (small at least in the way most people think about it). For example. the bass performance of the PS 20s is somewhat less dependent on the exact seal one achieves against the ear canal. the PS 20s will do quite nicely. but at least this offers some flexibility. if you gave the PS 20s and a pair of $500 earphones to a friend. the oval shape of the Klipsch earpiece still distributes pressure more evenly. If musical accuracy is what you’re after.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . Once inserted. There is a secondary benefit of the electronic noise cancellation approach.com soniC CharaCter All of this doesn’t matter much if the sound isn’t accurate. the upper part of this range is a series of compromises ratinGs (relative to comparably-priced competition) tonal balance frequency extremes clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 www.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors 90% . This little box has a clip to go on your belt. specs/prici ng phiaton ps 20 NC In-Ear Headphones Accessories: 4 sizes of ear tips. Other than that. due to differences in ear shapes). the low-pressure seal is quite comfortable (your mileage may vary. because the PS 20s sound impressively good.
Which brings us to the question of value. These two items— reduced midbass and some dynamic edge— mean the PS 20s might not be ideal for power music and the like. But in strict terms two limitations stand out. I wouldn’t say the PS 20s are state-of-the-art here. While the bass could be stronger.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . but in a smooth way and with low apparent distortion. they’re comfortable. Note that lots of headphones don’t do low bass very well. but in practical terms they do quite well. These remarks have to be taken in the context of the intended market. are presented by the PS 20s with an open but not shrill sound. the PS 20s are also rather good at resolving low-level detail. but you wouldn’t use adjectives like ‘punchy’ or ‘solid’ to describe them. particularly if musical accuracy in the critical midrange is the goal. they sound very good. sUMMinG Up The Phiaton PS 20 NC offers a remarkably clear. and they can be driven by an iPod sans amplifier. of course. with all this goodness spilling over. But consider the facts: The PS 20s cost $149. The second imperfection is an occasional sense of edge or distortion on high level transients when the ‘phones are being pushed to rather high levels. there is enough energy that the PS 20s don’t sound too thin. Finally. First. though in absolute terms I’d like to have a bit more lower mid range and more midbass. they work better than many standard earphones on airplanes. Cymbals and other high frequency instruments are presented with admirable detail. the mid and low bass energy is rolled off. Because of the noise reduction circuitry. which. low distortion and musical sound with excellent comfort for a serious noise-cancelling in-ear headphone. though I think you would sense that mid and upper treble could have a touch more energy and refinement. the value equation here is quite good. especially for those whose musical taste runs to smaller bands and groups.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors that even the best headphones struggle to master. Female vocals. a particular challenge for headphones of all stripes. Above the mid-bass region. there are areas that I’ve characterized as strengths in the PS 20 but where the PS 20 is not the best available headphone if you have an unlimited budget. The net result of all this is that the PS 20s give you a very good ability to really hear “into” the music. like judgments about beauty. the Phiatons don’t sound bad. This strength is complimented by what sound like lowdistortion drivers that don’t muddy the sound. Above and below this band the Phiatons seem to roll off slowly. is ultimately up to you.avguide. This is important for a sense of a real acoustic environment as well as for articulating the particular beauty of certain instruments. So. That seems like the basic recipe for high value to me. so I’m simply saying that the PS 20 follows that common path. I’m pretty sure some people will find the balance at least a little light. 95 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. what’s the catch? Well. On my standard Jack Johnson electric bass test series—tracks 7-9 from On and On [UMVD Labels]. On music that really depends on bass power. So. It also works for those who object to boom and sizzle. musically there really isn’t one. the weight and air are notably diminished from the sound of a live mix. as I mentioned above. yielding good separation between instrumental lines. I was impressed with the PS 20. Overall this is what I’ve referred to in the past as an “n” shaped frequency response curve and it is desirable for those who find themselves wanting clarity and smoothness in equal doses.
our extensive knowledge now helps music lovers enjoy an exceptional listening experience. Phonak has extensive knowledge of the ear in terms of acoustics and of comfort. Phonak points out that the silicone tips “are washable and better for use during exercise. Phonak poses a rhetorical question that may be on many of your minds: “Why is Phonak producing earphones?” The company’s simple answer is this: “Thanks to decades of experience. which promise extremely high sound quality at mid-tier prices. As a case in point.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors PHONAK AuDéO PFE 122 Chris Martens N ewspapers seem to be full of ads from manufacturers touting highly sophisticated hearing aid products. prodUCt ConCept On its Web site. With our Audéo Perfect Fit Earphones. the PFE 122 also ships with a set of silicone ear guides that route the earphone’s signal cables up and over the wearer’s ears. making them the best choice for travel or use in noisy environments. First. the PFE 122 earpiece is designed to be easy to handle and to insert. which is the subject of this review. ships the PFE 122 with three sizes of silicone eartips along with a set of Comply-brand compressible foam eartips. versatile voicing options— not just one “signature sound. one of the world’s largest and most respected developers of hearing aid technologies and devices. you’ll need to spend a lot more. Phonak 96 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. in this price class. and are said ensure a overview Consider this product if: you want a well thought out and carefully executed mid-priced earphone/headset that—in virtually every important way— sounds so refined and sophisticated that it seems to belong in a different and higher price class. To get decisively better performance. the earpiece is also sized and shaped to comfortably fit a very wide range of users. Second. consider Phonak’s flagship Audéo PFE 122 in-ear headphone/headset ($179).” Look further if: Hey. The Swiss firm Phonak. has taken the plunge into our world. offering its family of Audéo Perfect Fit Earphones.” while the Comply tips “are better at filtering out ambient noise.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .avguide.” Phonak has addressed the comfort part of this equation in three specific ways. we’re hard pressed to come up with reasons why you would look further (although Etymotic Research’s excellent hf2 does provide worthy competition). yet it has been rare to see such firms leverage their considerable technical expertise to create headphones for music lovers—until now. so that wearers can quickly achieve a good seal between the PFE 122’s eartip and their ear canals. wait a minute.” Finally. Also consider the PFE 122 if you like the concept of an earphone that offers multiple.
com AUdÉOWOrld (866) 900-7174 www. The key point to bear in mind is that.s. Phonak 97 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors also provided a pack of Green filters so that I could evaluate all three types on a side-by-side basis. M.audeoworld. (800) 679-4871 www.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors “perfect fit and reduced cable noise. ratinGs (relative to comparably-priced competition) tonal balance frequency extremes clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 specs/prici ng Phonak Audéo PFE 122 In-Ear Headphone/Headset Accessories: Three pairs of silicone eartips (S. box of six audio filters (2 Grey filters/4 Black filters) with changing tool. Hearing differs significantly from one person to another. ease oF Use I found that. Cool. L). the PFE www. part and labor price: $179 pHONAK U. well-documented. and highly repeatable voicing options.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . digitally-controlled transducer). which gives Swiss-precision sound with the greatest comfort” (although the PFE 122 is a purely passive earphone—not a self-powered. which are said to “provide G stronger middle tones” (and that vie with the Black filters for most accurate sound overall).phonak. • rey filters. unlike any other earphone. and unlike standard earphones.” The PFE 122 ships with a set of Grey filters installed. the PFE 122’s use of passive audio filters that help shape the earphone’s response curves to match user’s tastes or ear characteristics. Audéo PFE allows you to select the filter that works best for you. offer what may be the most accurate tonal balance overall). But the influence of Phonak’s long experience in the hearing-aid marketplace can most definitely be seen in one very interesting design detail: namely. “The purpose of this filter is to provide you with the best quality sound that matches what you would hear naturally when not wearing ear tips. plus two pairs of Black filters. on paper. Phonak says the PFE 122 is indirectly based on its most advanced “digital hearing aid technology.avguide.” (Italics are mine). Phonak’s PFE 122 gives you three different.com phonak offers three color-coded types of passive audio filters: • lack filters. one pair of silicone over-the-ear cable guides. which are said to “provide G stronger bass while still maintaining highquality midrange. cleaning tool. exactly as advertised. carrying pouch Frequency response: 5Hz – 17kHz Weight: 15 grams sensitivity: 107 dB SP/1 mW Impedance: 32 ohms Warranty: 2 years. • reen filters. As Phonak points out. For purposes of this review. one pair of Comply foam eartips. which are said to “provide B stronger bass and treble” (and that.” With an eye toward addressing the “acoustics” part of the equation. but also comes with a filter changing tool and a filter pack that includes a spare set of Grey filters.
fine. but the way in which it handles them. One design touch that really helps here is the “leg”-shaped outer section of the Phonak earpiece. And when sophisticated combinations of transient sounds come along in the music. or “up close” musical presentation overall. Then. Good work. The only question users will need to settle for themselves is which of the PFE 122’s four different eartip options give the best overall fit and seal. however. yet also with an effortless and unforced quality that tells you the PFE 122’s aren’t www. and left to ring out and sustain or deftly damped and quieted. The next question to settle is which of Phonak’s three available passive audio filter options best matches the characteristics of your ears (and personal tastes). Clarity. But what is important is not just that the PFE 122 captures these details. below. users need to decide whether or not to use Phonak’s included silicone ear guides for the PFE 122’s signal cables. I felt the Phonak sounded much more like an earphone from the $300-and-above price class than it did a model selling for well under $200. green filters: Phonak’s Green filters. On the contrary. that many of core elements of the “Phonak sound” come shining through no matter which filters you choose—though the filters do of course influence the shape of the earphone’s frequency response curve. Note. but that isn’t what the Phonaks do at all. the Phonak’s handy built-in mic with call send/end switch enables the earphone to work beautifully as what is essentially a highfidelity headset. because transient sounds enable us to tell whether notes are played softly or aggressively. Black filters: I found that Phonak’s Black filters yielded an extremely clear. soniC CharaCter One of the first points to bear in mind about the PFE 122 is that. Office mates who assisted me in testing this aspect of the PFE 122 told me that the Phonak mic reproduced the sound grey filters: Although these were not my personal preference.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors 122 is unusually easy to handle and to insert. perhaps.com of my voice far more accurately and naturally than ordinary desk phone (or cell phone) handsets do. Below. the Phonak consistently surpasses expectations by rendering transients with speed and cat-quick agility. because they provided a relatively restrained touch of midrange-emphasis—one that many listeners might find to give a more vivid. the PFE 122’s let sonic details unfold in a perfectly natural. which provides a just-right amount of offset from the eartips (a point many designers overlook). and almost self-effacing way. as a way of solving problems with recordings that sound excessively bright or edgy. I could see how a case might also be made for Phonak’s optional Grey filters. Normally I find such cable guides to be more of a bother than a benefit. didn’t so much provide “stronger bass. it doesn’t have just one “sonic character. transparent. comfortable. They helped to keep potentially unruly signal cables under control while at the same time providing a flexible and silky-smooth fit.” but three distinctly different characters— depending on which sets of passive audio filters you choose to install. and fine-grained sound—sort of like the sonic equivalent of stepping up from a lowor medium-resolution digital camera to a very high-resolution model. though the Comply foam tips can also give excellent results (if.” but rather rolled off the PFE 122’s highs (and to some extent trimmed midrange response. they fit your ear canals well). without any hyper-dramatic “spotlighting” or fake edge enhancements. presented with a smooth or more vigorous touch. intense. I preferred the silicone eartips overall. focus. and that gives you a convenient structure to grasp as you snug the earphones into a comfortable position. and resolution: Phonak’s PFE 122 offers a remarkably open. too). thus yielding a considerably darker sound overall. So much vital information is (or at least should be) found at the beginnings and endings of individual notes. My description of other key aspects of the PFE 122’s sound is based on use of my preferred set of Black acoustic filters. I describe the effects of each of Phonak’s PFE filters under SONIC CHARACTER.avguide. contrary to what I expected on the basis of the description provided on the firm’s Web site. of course. as always. but Phonak’s ear guides proved an exception to this rule. that your perception of their sound might differ from mine). so that the results you might achieve with these earphones could vary depending on which sets of filters you decide to use. well-balanced and neutral sound—one I found very musically satisfying and suitable for enjoying many different types of musical material. 98 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . What I mean by this is that the PFE 122 effortlessly reproduced small. so that fitting the earphones to my ears was a snap. in terms of tonal balance. Some ‘phones create a false sense of detail through the expedient of exaggerated treble response. I’ll offer my observations on the sonic effects of each of the three available types of filters (though you should be aware. The Green filters might be appropriate in cases where listeners seek to use darker tonal balance as a means of compensating for low-frequency background noises or. Indeed. low-level textural details that tend to “fly beneath the radar” for most mid-$100 ‘phones. Finally. Phonak. Transient speed and delicacy: Transient response is another area where the PFE 122 sounds more expensive and sophisticated than its actual pricing would suggest.
The value proposition of Phonak’s PFE 122’s is compounded further still by their clever passive audio filters. What’s also fascinating is to hear how the PFE 122’s convey a sense of space within the soundstage. the gentle shimmer of cymbals. voicing options that can be tailored to fit the characteristics of your ear and/or your personal listening tastes.universal-fit earphones $100–$300 go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up | custom-fit in-ear monitors having to work hard to deliver their transient magic. These observations document desirable sonic qualities that would be welcome in earphones priced well above $300. or even more). meaning that Phonak’s PFE 122 is a legitimate bargain. listen to the beautifully recorded title track from Paquito D’Rivera’s Portraits of Cuba [Chesky]. *Granted. soft backing chords from a piano. which give users three different voicing options to choose from— options few* if any other earphones offer. namely. Summing up To say we are favorably impressed by the Phonak PFE 122 would be a gross understatement. but I would say those controls offer a much narrower window of adjustment than Phonak’s versatile voicing filters do. Sennheiser’s expensive IE8 flagship in-ear ‘phones do provide user-adjustable bass-level trimming controls. which are easily heard through these ‘phones. showing how some instruments are positioned more distantly from the microphone array (but perhaps closer to the walls of the recording venue). but are really remarkable for a model that sells for a much more accessible $179. This lovely jazz recording features a sizzling Latin rhythm section where you’ll get a chance to savor the distinctive “thuuump” of congas. here. and the voices of a myriad of drums—all joining forces to establish a fast. listeners can use the timing and tonal aspects of reverberant sounds. while others are obviously closer to the mic array and thus sound a bit more “alive” and immediate. to judge the overall size and acoustic properties of the recording space. This is one of the best midpriced in-ear headphones we’ve ever heard. What is impressive is the manner in which the Phonaks keep the timbres and dynamic envelopes of the various instruments separate and distinct—so that each instrumental voice sounds believable and true to itself.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . the bouncy snap of a wood block keeping time. adding a heightened sense of realism.avguide. but typically they do so only at much higher price points (think in terms of models costing nearly twice what the Phonaks do. Enthusiastically recommended. And because the Phonaks offer such high levels of resolution. 99 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. energetic pulse for the song against which Rivera and his fellow horn section players can present solo lines or occasional soaring ensemble swells. and one whose three versatile types of passive audio filters give you something no other headphone does. To appreciate what I mean. Can really expensive universal-fit in-ear headphones surpass the PFE 122 in this area of performance? They can.
com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .Playback univErsal-fit EarphonEs $300 and up 100 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www.avguide.
While the X10i is extremely good in these areas. the X10i carries the exact same list price as its predecessors: $349. Now. overview Consider this combination headset/ earphone if: you want a headset that offers the desirable combination of a rich. full-bodied sound with a good measure of top-to-bottom clarity. but I soon discovered that they delivered a big. as yet. smallest. full-range “balanced micro driver” (i. and most comfortable in-ear headphones on the planet (qualities enhanced by Klipsch’s signature. however. Note. the X10i uses a single. The Absolute Sound. the world has moved forward so that a few of today’s best in-ear models (one example would be the Monster Turbine Pro Copper Editions) have raised the performance bar higher still (though they do not. iPod touch or iPad. thus creating the new Klipsch Image X10i.avguide. which is based on an Apple chip and promises a wide array of functions—especially when used with the iPhone 3GS/4 or the latest generation iPod nano. patent pending oval eartips). Interestingly. that original Image model has been renamed as the Image X10 and it has given rise to an entire Klipsch product family of lower-priced Image models.. and focus. In the years since. As was the case with the original Image and Image X10. and sonic purity. flagship Image in-ear headphone. nuance.99.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . classic. too. look further if: you seek the Nth degree of resolution. offer the X10i’s iPod/iPhone-friendly features). I was so impressed by the performance of the Images that I nominated them for a Golden Ear award in our sister publication. clarity. I wanted to try the Image X10i. When the review samples arrived. Especially consider the X10i if you want one of the lightest. 101 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. Klipsch has updated the Image X10 model by giving it a tiny. making this a good choice for iPhone/iPod owners. a balanced armaturetype driver)—a design approach that the X10i shares in common with other high performance in-ear headphones such as the Etymotic Research ER-4P.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors KLIPSCH IMAgE X10I Chris Martens k lipsch first entered the headphone market roughly four years ago and the very first model I tried was the firm’s original. inline remote control/microphone module geared to address the needs of iPod and iPhone owners. partly to see how its sound compared with the original 2007 Image model as well as with other modern day competitors. I also wanted to check out the X10i’s 3-button remote control/mic system.e. despite its newfound iPod/iPhone-compatible features. well-focused sound and were amazingly comfortable. the tiny ‘phones seemed almost impossibly small and light. that the X10i’s 3-button remote/microphone module works exactly as advertised.
smallest. however. it means you don’t need to “talk down” into the mic. Sony]. • nbound calls: When an inbound call is I received. Klipsch adds that. iPod nano (4th and 5th generation). Music automatically mutes and pauses for an incoming call. • ccording to Klipsch the Image X10i is “fully A compatible with the Apple VoiceOver feature on the third generation iPod shuffle. Klipsch’s Image S4i.avguide. This is a superior place to put the microphone and. the X10i (like the S4i) does not place its in-line microphone on either the left or right earpiece cable. but exactly the opposite is the case. “the remote is supported by iPod shuffle (3rd generation).klipsch. airtight seal—and with it. below.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors FeatUres • ingle full-range “balanced micro driver” S (balanced armature motor assembly) • n-line microphone module provides a I multifunction play/pause control button (which doubles as a send/end button when handling phone calls). restrained or “petite” sound. call recipients reported that I sounded much more like myself with the X10i in use than when using my iPhone’s normal mic or other headsets I had tested in the past. pressing the play/pause button once allows the listener to answer the call. which allows you to hear the name of the playlist. Insert the X10i’s (using the eartip size that best fits you).5 grams sensitivity: 110 dB SPL/mW Impedance: 50 ohms Warranty: Two years. Also compatible with VOIP.” • rguably the lightest. Requires latest iPod software. INC. though some might find it just slightly tilted toward the “warmth” end of the audio spectrum.” • omes with Klipsch’s patent-pending oval C eartips. you might think it would produce a tiny. iPod Classic (120 GB). smooth. and iPod touch (2nd generation). most A comfortable in-ear headphone that money can buy. Audio is supported by all iPod models. try the following adjustment tip that Klipsch recommends. MacBook Pro and Mac Pro (2009 models). and audio recording applications.com 102 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . as Klipsch points out (and I verified in my user tests). the X10i possesses a certain effortless richness that makes its sound immediately accessible and easy to enjoy for hours at a time. Pressing the button again disconnects the call and allows music to resume. pressing the play/ pause button once causes music playback to pause. (800)-KLIPSCH www. in my experience. I’ve alluded to the fact that the X10i’s single balanced-armature design gives it desirable qualities of focus and sonic purity. are hallmarks of well-executed single balanced armature designs. song or artist with just the press of a button. which are said to “naturally fit the contours—or mimic the shape—of your ear canals.99 KlIpsCH grOUp. say. as listed under the COMFORT FACTOR/ACCESSORIES section. Pressing the button again allows music playback to resume. Listen closely to Ma’s bowing changes and especially to his beautiful dynamic swells.” A Klipsch representative pointed out that the X10i is also compatible with the iPad. Unlike many of the headsets Playback has tested. This technique helps the eartips flare out in your ear canal to achieve a comfortable. During test phone calls. MUsiCal eXaMple Above. try listening to the Yo-Yo Ma performance of Massenet’s Méditation from Thaïs [The Essential Yo-Yo Ma. “the remote and mic are supported only by iPhone 3GS/4. then gently rotate the headphone body (and eartip) left and right a few degrees and then slightly pull it backward just a bit. the X10i’s midrange is evenly balanced and offers fine levels of detail and focus—qualities that. Pressing the button three times in rapid succession causes the iPhone or iPod touch to skip backward to the previous track. instead. parts and labor price: $349. • eadset/remote control compatibility factors: H According to Klipsch. fullbodied sound with generally ample bass and excellent natural clarity.com comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 soniC CharaCter Given the X10i’s diminutive size. More so than many in-ear headphones. iChat. Important note: for best bass response. • istening to music on a modern iPod/iPhone: L When listening to music. ratinGs clarity dynamics (compared to similarly-priced in-ear headphones) tonal balance specs/prici ng Klipsch X10i earphone/headset Frequency response: 5Hz – 19kHz Weight: 10. www. In turn. Mic and call/ music button control features (are) functional with 1st generation iPhones and iPhone 3G. but rather provides a 360 degree mic in a central position on the headphone yoke where the left and right earpiece cable join. MacBook. Volume Controls are not compatible with 1st generation iPhone 3G. optimal bass response. Tonal balance is nearly neutral. To hear those qualities in action. Skype. though it is not the last word in absolute bass or treble extension (at least not relative to the strongest competitors now on the market). Pressing the button twice in rapid succession causes the iPhone or iPod touch to skip forward to the next track.” • ccessories: the X10i comes with an A extensive set of accessories. There is little if any of the midrange forwardness you might hear in. The X10i produces a big.
360-degree mic seems to work a touch better than the Etymotic’s side-positioned mic.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . comparisons between the X10i and two competitors—one priced below and one priced above the X10: the Etymotic Research hf2 headset ($X179) and the Monster Cable Turbine Pro Copper Edition ($399). makes this track so special. you’ll hear much (though perhaps not quite all) of the depth of Wooten’s electric bass and the even deeper “thwup” of occasional kick drum accents. the X10i’s mid-bass articulacy is exemplary. the X10i rewards the listener with excellent midrange detail. and varying degrees of reverb and other processing tricks are selectively applied. highly detailed and yet never cold or analytical–sounding presentation of the performance. www. but they are tricky to fit properly). you’ll hear plenty of delicate mid. giving the song a decidedly flamboyant. Etymotic research hf2 Headset ($179) • he X10i very narrowly edges out the T Etymotic headset in terms of overall clarity and focus. • oth the Klipsch and Etymotic models B proved effective as headsets (their remote control functions are essentially identical). Ma’s cello sounds like a cello (not—as some earphones tend to make it sound—like a viola). harmonically rich. though it misses out on just a touch of the high-frequency reverberant information that can. plus the surehanded intricacy of his fingering techniques. The X10i also does a good job with bass instruments. Imogen Heap’s voice is very closely mic’d on this track.avguide. But that said. A good example would be Imogen Heap’s “Bad Body Double” from Eclipse [RCA]. Through the X10i’s. X10i vs. it is worthwhile to try a track that is rich in high frequency details and reverberant information to see what the X10i can do.g. Here. as you can verify by putting on tracks such as “The Lesson” or “Sifu” from bassist Victor Wooten’s Palmystery [Heads Up]. golden. under ideal circumstances. • he Etymotic comes with a good mix of T types of eartips. more full-bodied sound (attributable in part to Klipsch’s superior elliptical eartips). While a few competing in-ear phones (e. CoMpetitve analysis To give you a picture that shows how the X10i fits into the broader headphone market. Finally. and offers a somewhat warmer. including the distinct. with a rich. techno 103 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors edge. but I think the Klipsch’s centrally positioned. I found the Klipsch eartips were substantially more comfortable and much easier to fit (the Etymotic hf2’s can also achieve very good sound. I offer below.. On either track.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors and you’ll discover that the X10i gives you a vibrant. But perhaps even more importantly.and upper-bass details. while the Klipsch comes only with three differently sized set of elliptical tips. “ringing” sound of Wooten’s round-wound bass guitar strings on sustained notes. richer. the Sennheiser IE 8 and Monster Turbine Pro Copper Editions) can go a bit lower and with greater authority. woody tonality that’s full of energy and life. Capturing the warmth of music is one of the things the X10i does best.
Personally. a 104 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. CoMFort FaCtor/aCCessories The X10i come with three sets (S. the Turbine Pro Copper raises the bar for detail. One thing I did notice is that the shape of Klipsch’s oval eartip design appears to have changed just a bit relative to the original 2007 version (the earlier models were slightly shallower but also more widely flared than the 2010-and-beyond versions). full-bodied sound with very good levels of detail and sonic purity. • onster’s Turbine Pro Copper Editions ($399) M are slightly more expensive than the X10i.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors • he Etymotic headset ($179) costs T significantly less than the X10i. a clothing clip. though the 2010 design gives an even more “weightless” feel in the ear canal. Guest listeners often commented that the Klipsch’s were night/day different from and better than competing in-ear headphones in terms of ease of insertion and long-term comfort. Even so. the SuperTips do tend to feel a bit stiff. even more perfectly neutral tonal balance than the X10i does. a pair (S/M) of double-flange oval eartips. I’d like to see Klipsch bring back the more widely flared shape because it made for superior noise isolation and better bass. while the Turbine Pro Copper comes with a broad variety of types of eartips. cleaning tool.avguide. an airline adapter. though. M. comfort. in T a strict textbook sense. but would recommend Monster’s SuperTips for their superior overall sound and isolation properties (but note. few can match its all around mix of convenience. and mini-jackto-phone-jack adapter. with—at the limits—even greater extension at both frequency extremes. L) of single-flange oval eartips. I found the original 2007 shape gave a slightly better in-ear seal. making the X10i sound slightly softly focused by comparison. resolution. Klipsch’s oval eartips are the most comfortable Playback has ever tested. X10i vs. I would give the Klipsch eartips the nod for comfort and ease of insertion. yet that offers a big. which some listeners may find uncomfortable). The X10i also makes a fine headset/remote control for owners of contemporary iPhones and iPods. • he Image X10i provides Klipsch’s patentT pending oval eartips. Monster Cable Turbine pro Copper Edition ($399) • he Turbine Pro Copper headphones offer. and coherency.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . including five different sizes of Monster’s new double-layer gel-type SuperTips. While some of today’s top inear models may narrowly edge the X10i in terms of absolute sonic performance. and a magnetic claspequipped leather carrying pouch. • he X10i provides headset functionality T whereas the Turbine Pro Copper Edition does not. More importantly. BottoM line The Image X10i is a true flagship-class inear headphone that is incredibly small and comfortable. versatility and sound quality.
is their exceptional sonic resolution. while appealing in theory. remarkable purity and coherency. If you had to sum up the Copper Edition’s performance in one word. In a recent conversation with Monster founder Noel Lee. detail.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors MONSTER CABLE TuRBINE PRO COPPER EDITION Chris Martens onster Cable’s Turbine Pro Copper Edition headphones ($399. Both the Miles Davis Tributes and the Copper Editions use single. and exceptional levels of resolution. Given this. since Lee believes that multi-driver in-ear headphones. but rather to point out that they are all about being accurate and revealing. the top two slots in the Monster Cable lineup. This isn’t to say the Copper Editions are not relaxing or smooth. 105 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. but they are based on different technology and sound considerably different from their siblings. the Miles Davis Tribute model offers a subtle touch of midrange emphasis (intended. to complement classic jazz recording of the late ‘50’s and mid‘60’s). sometimes conveying more musical information (sometimes pleasant. but sometimes not) than the listener might have bargained for. detail.avguide. Astute readers will surely want to know which are the superior performers. in a very subtle way. which also use a single driver to cover most overview Consider this in-ear headphone if: you seek an in-ear headphone that arguably does all things well (actually.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . tend to have audible problems with driver blending and thus with overall sonic coherency. That’s one key question I’ll attempt to answer in this review. whereas the Turbine Pro Copper Edition offers a more nearly textbook-flat (or neutral) frequency response curve. and focus. exceptionally well). In fact. along with Monster’s Miles Davis Tribute earphones. it was not too surprising to find that Lee likened the sound of the Copper Editions to that of hyper-revealing electrostatic loudspeakers (such as the MartinLogan CLX).” These ‘phones draw you right into the center of the music as few others can. the defining characteristic that distinguishes both of these two top-tier Monster models from their Monster siblings and from other would-be competitors. The Turbine Pro Copper Editions headphones offer neutral tonal balance. look further if: you prefer headphones that give you a somewhat more distant and relaxed perspective on the music—or that emphasize smoothness at the expense of losing small amounts of sonic detail. that word might be “immediacy. As I mentioned in my earlier Miles Davis Tribute review. and focus. I gleaned some insights into the key differences between the Miles M Davis model and the similar but definitely not identical Turbine Pro Copper Editions. the Turbine Pro Copper Editions or the Miles Davis Tribute models. the Copper Editions claim. Despite the fact that the products share similar technology and overall appearance Noel Lee asserted that they do not sound exactly the same. By design.99) may look similar to the firm’s Turbine and Turbine Pro Gold models. full-range drivers.
gel-type SuperTips (see my notes under the COMFORT/ ACCESSORIES section. though. the Copper Editions reveal the high frequency air between instruments. To my way of thinking. is a question I’ll try to tackle in this review.monstercable. Highs are fine-grained. really. If there is any catch. let the listening begin. Good work. by way of analogy. its voice was captured with a kind of crystalline clarity that fully exposed the instrument’s evocative and at times plaintive sound. you may want to try Monster’s new double-layer. powerful. Monster Cable. was the way the Copper Editions captured the almost subliminal “clicks” of the bassoon’s valves opening and closing. first starting out with the second movement of David Chesky’s “Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra” [Chesky/Symphony Orchestra of the Norrlands Opera. plus additional coverage where Monster offers a one-time replacement of your Miles Davis Tribute ‘phones. to say the least. revealing and immediate in their impact. if your tastes are like mine and if you are by nature inquisitive. Bass performance is taut. not just to a handful of genres. It’s a heady experience. sounded spot on. the bassoon plays in its upper register. power. then you know that Lee’s performance claim is a very ambitious one. too. effortlessly reproducing subtle reverberant sounds and spatial cues in music. When the bassoon entered. The Chesky piece starts slowly. and overall impact. albeit a benign one). the more you come to trust and appreciate their “what-you-hear-is-what-you-get” honesty. for example. you may find the resolving power of the Copper Editions downright addicting. this characteristic unequivocally makes the Copper Editions preferable to the admittedly excellent Miles Davis Tribute models. because the exact nature of small edges and textural details suddenly becomes clear and explicit. The overall effect is to make the Copper Editions seem more informative.95 MONsTEr llC (415) 840-2000 www. But.avguide. This is. Much like the Miles Davis Tribute models.” price: $399.com soniC CharaCter Listening through the Turbine Pro Copper Edition headphones is a little like looking at an ordinary household object through the lens of a microscope. just to experience their grandeur. At first. What was truly impressive. it is that the Copper Editions also bring the same scrutiny to notso-fine recordings. ratinGs (relative to comparably-priced headphones) tonal balance frequency extremes clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 specs/prici ng Monster Cable Turbine pro Copper Edition In-Ear Headphones Accessories: See above Weight: Not specified sensitivity: Not specified Impedance: Not specified Warranty: Limited lifetime warranty against manufacturing defects. What floored me about the Copper Edition’s performance was its almost eerie quality of precision and focus. sounding almost forlorn and mournful. Can a set of $400 in-ear headphones really go toeto-toe with multi-thousand dollar world-class loudspeakers? That. as did the subtle reed noises and tubular body resonances of the bassoon. becoming plain as day.com 106 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . and purity. With that thought in mind. punctuated by almost funereal bells chiming in the background. textbook neutrality. competing headphone sounding “closed in” or even slightly rolled off by comparison. If you’ve ever heard a pair of statement class electrostats in action. “even if YOU break them. and nicely capturing the “decay trails” you might hear as individual notes ring out for a moment and then fade to silence. SACD]. and deeply extended—though to hear the Copper Editions at their very best. This means you can put on very delicate pieces at one moment. precisely the same kind of heightened focus and resolution that the Copper Editions bring to fine audio recordings. The longer you listen to and live with the Copper Edition headphones. smooth and also well extended in a way that can leave some MUsiCal eXaMples One of the pleasures of very accurate headphones like the Copper Editions is that they can do justice to virtually any type of music. I tried just such a sequence with the Copper Editions. the Copper Edition’s midrange is gently pulled back to a level that closely approximates ideal. The broad middle of the midrange is where the Copper Editions sound significantly different from the Miles Davis models. but then it gradually works its way downward toward its lower register—becoming more forceful and throaty-sounding as it descends. Bowing changes for the strings. or the whisper-quiet sound of the bassoonist’s fingers flying over the surfaces www. here. Chesky. integrity. Where the Miles Davis models provide—by design—a gentle touch of midrange emphasis (which some might rightly consider to be a coloration.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors of the audio spectrum. and then fire up blockbuster pieces a moment later. while details that were at the limits of acuity for the naked eye suddenly snap into focus. below). with a somber and haunting string passage that sets the mood. just to savor their inner detail and subtleties.
Research suggests. • onal balance between the headphones is T 107 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . however. First off. and their double-layer. or $549. and significantly more comfortable for long term use than the Copper Editions. • artips: The Klipsch headphones come E with patent-pending elliptical eartips said to more closely mirror the real-world shape of human ear canals. both designs leverage similar S strengths in terms of high resolution and sonic purity. which provides one-time free replacement of the phones “even if YOU break them.” Turbine Pro Copper Edition vs. where the Copper Editions do not. and a more taut and focused presentation overall. the Copper Editions offer better (and also more accurate) extension at both frequency extremes. however. By comparison. and come with a useful array of eartips.99 with the option. and Neil Young’s sidemen created a powerful sound very much like that achieved by some of Elvis’ own more rollicking bands from the past. I next put on “He Was The King” from Neil Young’s Prairie Wind [Reprise]. and for his backing singers. • he Turbine Pro Copper Editions carry T Monster’s unbeatable “lifetime” warranty. where you’ll hear a rock-solid rhythm section. and Sennheiser IE 8.99. while the Copper Editions simply nailed the sustained “crying/ singing” voice of the pedal steel guitar. I soon discovered. The Copper Editions effortlessly revealed the cocky edge that Young brought to the song. It’s the Copper Edition’s special ability to dig beneath the surfaces and textures of note to expose underlying emotional themes that makes it so special and compelling.com CoMpetitive CoMparison Let me compare the Turbine Pro Copper Editions to three strong competitors: the Klipsch Image Image X10i. had a kind of “journey-to-the-center-of-theearth” depth and power. Through the Monster ‘phones. though the range of standard eartip options offered by Monster is much more elaborate. Shure SE 530. but with the Image X10i offering a slightly warmer. energy and drive of the band. • oth headphones are compact and B comfortable. Monster Cable Turbine pro Copper Edition vs. there is no dodging the fact that the Image X10i’s are smaller. I think the Copper Editions enjoys a clear-cut edge in terms of retrieving even finer levels of detail. “darker” cast than the Copper Editions. few earphones and not many high-end loudspeakers can offer this level of focus. • he Image X10i provides headset functions T with a built-in iPod/iPhone remote. That said. lighter. Shure SE 530 • he Shure SE 530’s retail for $499.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors of the instrument. Frankly. however. Monster Cable has done considerable research into the sonic effects of various eartip materials and configurations. that the street www. while the Copper Editions are less expensive. There’s a lot going on in the track. And thanks to their superior resolution. pedal steel guitar and Young’s own howling harmonica—all serving as a foundation for Young’s penetrating yet insouciant vocals. the elliptical eartips work like a charm. • onically. explosive horns. The track is an homage to Elvis Presley. To try something a bit more raucous and less contemplative. But the biggest treat of all was Young’s voice.avguide. gel-type Super Tips are hands down the best sounding eartips we’ve yet tried.99 without T the push-to-hear control option. Klipsch Image X10i • he Klipsch Image X10i’s retail for about T $349 while the Copper Editions are slightly more expensive at $399. selling for $399. the Monsters let me hear the subtly and expertly interleaved lines of Young’s team of female backing vocalists. generally similar. while also showing off his sly humor. the bass guitar. On the other hand. Similarly. That said. all the while emphasizing the strength and depth of Young’s (and the bands’ ) sincere admiration for Presley and his achievements. I was wowed by Copper Edition’s ability to capture the sheer vitality. while snare and kick drum had terrific clarity and punch that pushed the track forward with inexorable force. itself.99. the horns had a beautifully appropriate brassy bite.
and a very extensive set of eartips (including five sizes of gel-type. Do make a point of trying Monster’s very special dual-layer. owners also receive a special Monster Cable headphone test/ demonstration CD. three sizes of conventional rubber eartips. Once you find the right fit. Turbine Pro Copper vs. Research suggests. where Turbine Pro Copper Edition adherents contend that its single-driver design eliminates any possibility of driver-to-driver textural discontinuities. though the Copper Editions do sound just slightly more extended at the frequency extremes (though this is a subtle difference that some listeners might not notice at first). however. • oth headphones offer an excellent array B of eartips. while music lovers who want their sonic details be presented with absolutely uncanny smoothness might possibly prefer the IE 8s. As a special perk. note that ultra-high levels of transparency and detail are not necessarily what all listeners are looking for (one man’s “excellent resolution” can be another man’s “too much information”). Sennheiser IE 8 • he Sennheiser IE 8’s retail for $449. detail and focus will probably gravitate toward the Copper Editions. where the Copper Editions do not. • he Shure is a two-way. while others might not feel the difference. 108 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. is significant. • oth designs offer very high degrees of B purity and coherency. Some users are perfectly comfortable with over-the-ear cable routing. the Copper Editions metal earpiece housings. which provides a variety of test tones and an assortment of musical selections spanning a number of genres. By comparison. full-range driver. and for this reason Monster provides an assortment of Super Tips in very finely graduated sizes. • gain. the Copper Editions benefit from the fact that they do not require over-the-ear cable routing. Take the time to find the exact right fit for best results. They are among the most comfortable in-ear headphones I’ve tried. • he IE 8 offers a user adjustable “sound T tuning” feature. BottoM line Let me come right out and say it: Monster Cable’s Turbine Pro Copper Edition headphones are one of the three finest “universal fit” in-ear ‘phones I’ve ever heard. gel-type Super Tips. terrific dynamic expressiveness. My sense is that the Monster headphone is fully the equal of the Shure in terms of accurate tonal balance. can seem a bit “chunky” at times. and a ¼-inch phone jack adapter. The Copper Editions are compact and easy to position for a good fit.99. and one pair each of conventional triple-flange eartips and foam eartips). that the street price for the IE 8’s may well be lower than that of the Copper Editions. T while the Copper Editions sell for $399. T whereas the Copper Editions feature a single. the Copper Editions could be an ideal choice for you. you may find these eartips offer sonic performance second to none. is that the Super Tips are a bit stiffer in consistency than some silicone rubber tips. If you want headphone that can show what’s really in your recordings and that present their findings with a powerful and addictive quality of immediacy. While I think the Shures handle driver blending as well or better than any other multi-driver in-ear headphones on the market. One small caveat. if any. however. • onal balance for the IE 8’s and Copper T Editions is similar. but that it also offers slightly higher levels of resolution as well as an elusive quality of “cut from whole cloth” sonic integrity from top to bottom. Some listeners may find the Monster’s offer superior sonic purity to the Shures (I do). In an absolute sense. a shirt clip (to keep the signal cable from flopping around loose). the compact Copper Editions O are easier to fit and more comfortable for very long listening sessions than the somewhat more awkwardly shaped IE 8’s. while others find it uncomfortable and annoying. though they are not quite the equal of our alltime comfort champs—the Klipsch Image X10i. and they are personal favorites of mine (I would certainly put them on my short list for “desert island” earphones). I would say that the sheer purity of a good single-driver design is tough to beat.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors price for the SE 530’s may well be lower than that of the Copper Editions. Monster’s unique warranty gives O added peace of mind. Monster’s unique warranty gives A added peace of mind. • n the whole. though I would say the edge goes to the Copper Editions.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . • nce again. • he SE 530’s route signal cables up and over T the ear. gel-type Super Tips are among the most sonically effective I’ve yet heard. They offer excellent resolution. That said. Listeners who crave resolution. five sizes of foamtype.avguide. multi-layers Super Tips. double-layer Super Tips. Shure proponents argue that the three-driver design allows for driver specialization/optimization by frequency range. natural.95. though their somewhat stiff consistency means not all users will find them comfortable for long term listening session. CoMFort FaCtor/aCCessories Monster’s Turbine Pro Copper earphones come with two carrying cases (a flip-top magnetic closure case in suede. • he Shure’s greatest strength is rich. high-performance. however. though compact. three-driver design. Also included in the package is a disclike rubber eartip carrier with spaces for up to six pairs of eartips (the carrier looks a little the cylinder of a classic six-shot revolver). and a neutral sound that I’ve come to prize for its unfailing openness and honesty. though the IE 8’s are helped by the fact that their earpieces are very light. Monster’s dual-layer. and both require considerable trial-and-error experimentation to find out which eartips work best for a given user. T and thoroughly neutral tonal balance coupled with a good measure of resolution and detail. where the Copper Editions do not. and a springclasp pocket pouch). In part.
Also consider this headphone if you would enjoy a distinctive and functionally appealing piece of Miles Davis memorabilia. When I asked about this. Naturally. exactly. in simple terms. Monster Cable founder Noel Lee told me that while the two products share similar technology they do not sound exactly the same. Kind of Blue. these memorabilia touches contribute to price of the Miles Davis Tribute earphones. By design. look further if: you like the general concept of the Miles Davis headphones. What. To complete the package.” the Miles Davis Tribute models aim to dig deeper into the essence of good recordings than many of their competitors do. on the yoke of the their signal cable. and generally neutral tonal balance. But that said. 2-disc CD set commemorating the 50th anniversary of the release of Davis’ jazz masterpiece. When I first encountered the Miles Davis model. on the earpieces of the headphones. the Miles Davis Tribute headphones comes with a copy of Columbia’s Legacy Edition.avguide. gentle band of midrange emphasis that complements many styles of music (including—not surprisingly. the Miles Davis Tribute model offers a subtle touch of midrange emphasis. since it also serves as a collector’s item targeted toward those who cherish the musical legacy of Miles Davis.95 (by comparison.com will already know that Monster’s Miles Davis Tribute headphones are. Monster’s Turbine Pro Copper Edition headphones sell for $399. and so on). on the housing of their 3. With this end in mind.5mm connector plug. however. but that deliberately provides a subtle. but would prefer a model whose frequency response curve does not include the MDT’s light touch of midrange emphasis.95). If you are looking for more nearly textbook-neutral response. it occurred to me that they might in essence be a re-badged (but functionally identical) version of the Turbine Pro Copper Edition ‘phones. qualifies them to claim these two top spots? The answer. a bit of price shopping reveals that the overview Consider this in-ear headphone if: you seek an in-ear headphone that offers good sensitivity. too).universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors MONSTER CABLE MILES DAvIS TRIBuTE Chris Martens P layback readers who follow my blog series on AVguide. whereas the Turbine Pro Copper Edition offers a more nearly textbook-flat (or neutral) frequency response curve. Billed as “the ultimate jazz experience headphones.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . and they even come with a special display case made to look like a miniature replica of Miles Davis’ trumpet case. classic jazz recording from the late 1950s and early ‘60’s). 109 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. the Mile Davis Tribute ‘phones prominently display Miles Davis’ signature (for example. along with their sibling models the Turbine Pro Copper Edition ‘phones. the Monster Cable Turbine Pro Copper Edition will be more to your liking (and a bit less expensive. Anyone interested in the Miles Davis Tribute model will quickly grasp that it is more than a headphone. very high levels of resolution. the top two models in the Monster Cable lineup. is that they offer greatly heightened levels of resolution—not just relative to other Monster Cable models but also with respect to most other in-ear headphones on the market. which retail for $499.
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street price of the Miles Davis Tribute model is only about $40 higher than that of the Turbine Pro Coppers, so that if you prefer the sound of the Miles Davis ‘phones, there’s no good reason to let the price differential stand in your way. In this review, I hope to give you a clear picture of the sound qualities that make the Miles Davis model so special, and that differentiates it from the Turbine Pro Copper Edition. just a bit “dark” or even slightly rolled off by comparison. More than many high quality in-ear headphones, the Miles Davis Tribute models reveal the high frequency air between instruments, the subtle reverberant sounds that reveal the acoustic qualities of recording spaces, and the “decay trails” of individual notes. At first listen, you might (depending upon your past listening experiences) find the Tributes seem a little bit bright, though I think the actual case is that they are not so much “bright” as they are informative and revealing. The broad middle of the midrange is where the Tributes really come alive, and it is where—by design—they offer a very, very gentle touch of midrange emphasis. While this characteristic may represent a mild, calculated departure from strict textbook neutrality, it is also a quality that complements many styles of recorded music (especially early generation jazz recordings). To put these remarks in context, though, let me add that the midrangeforwardness of the Miles Davis Tributes is so subtle and carefully judged that these ‘phones actually wind up being more accurate than some competing models ostensibly designed for “ruler flat” response. offering a beautiful if somewhat “zoomedin” view of Coltrane’s soaring and evocative saxophone sound, which was amplified, in a sense, by the Monster’s ability to capture Coltrane’s mouthpiece, reed and breathing sounds, which made the performance all the more expressive. I was also struck by the sheer amount and depth of low-level sonic information the MDT’s were able retrieve as they reproduced the sound of Coltrane’s quartet members playing alongside him. In particular, the Mile Davis Tributes did a great job of capturing the taut, dry “skin sound” of the snare drum keeping time, or the silvery treble overtones and gradual decay of cymbal notes ringing out into the room. If I had to sum up the unique qualitative flavor of the Miles Davis Tributes in one word, the word I would choose would be “intimacy.” These headphones pull you in close to the performance, giving you the sensation of being to able to listen to the music from a privileged, “insider’s” point of view. But so that I don’t leave you with the wrong impression, let me also mention that the Miles Davis Tributes are good for types of music quite different from jazz, so that it can fairly be said that these ‘phones will—when the occasion arises—boogie and rock with the best of them. For proof of this, try listening to a potent, down’n’dirty track such as “Mustang Sally” from the soundtrack album from the film The Commitments [MCA]. For those not familiar with the film, director Alan Parker crafts a story where a group of rough-andtumble Irish musicians decide to form a band
Monster Cable Miles davis Tribute In-Ear Headphones Accessories: See above Weight: Not specified sensitivity: Not specified Impedance: Not specified Warranty: Limited lifetime warranty against manufacturing defects, plus additional coverage where Monster offers a one-time replacement of your Miles Davis Tribute ‘phones, “even if YOU break them.” price: $499.95 MONsTEr llC (415) 840-2000 www.monstercable.com
If I might use an optical analogy, let me say that listening through the Miles Davis Tribute headphones is a little like looking at a very finely detailed photograph through the lens of a high-quality magnifying glass. Suddenly, small details and textures that seemed almost in focus beforehand become explicit, crystal clear and easy to see. It’s a heady experience, actually, since there can be (and often are) those moments where you hear new elements or aspects of recordings for the first time— even those you thought you knew quite well. The feeling is a bit like finding hidden treasure. Bass performance is taut, solid and well extended—provided, that is, that you find a set of eartips that seal well. I achieved best results using Monster’s new doublelayer, gel-type SuperTips (but see my notes under COMFORT/ACCESSORIES, below, for comments on using the SuperTips). Highs are silvery, smooth and also well extended in a way that can leave some competing headphone models sounding
(relative to comparably-priced headphones)
By way of checking out Monster’s claim that the Miles Davis Tributes offer “the ultimate jazz experience headphones,” I put on “Dear Lord” from disc 4 of John Coltrane’s The Classic Quartet: The Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings to see what I might learn. The results were very impressive, with the MDT’s
comfort/fit sensitivity value
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
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dedicated to appreciation (and reinterpretation) of classic American R&B and blues material. Parker chose to cast real musicians in the lead roles, which gives the film (and the music) an incredibly authentic, high-energy feel. From the moment the track starts, the Miles Davis Tributes latch on to the song’s harddriving bass guitar and drum rhythm lines with a powerful iron grip, while simultaneously rendering each gritty texture and detail in lead singer Andrew Strong’s full-bodied and lovably gravelly voice. The Monster’s don’t so much play the groove; they become the groove in a way that makes listeners want to get up and move. Again, there’s that quality of musical intimacy—the sense of being able to hear and then become engaged with the music in much the way that musicians themselves do. Are there ever moments where the Miles Davis Tribute’s midrange forwardness becomes problematic? I found the midrange emphasis so subtle that it was rarely bothersome, though there were moments—on solo piano material or certain songs featuring female vocalist, for example—where the MDT’s tended to shine a slightly too bright spotlight on the instruments at hand. But as I say this, I’m keenly aware that this “slightly too bright spotlight” has a definite appeal all its own, so that it can potentially be just the sonic quality certain listeners have been yearning for. of the Monster headphones. • Bass performance: both headphones are capable of very good bass performance, but where the Etymotics tends more toward the taut and lean (some would say “overly lean”) end of the spectrum, the MDT’s bass is effortlessly powerful and full-bodied, yet still very tightly controlled. I think typical listeners would find the MDT’s bass superior overall— and much easier to achieve (see comments on eartips, below). • Both headphones come with an extensive set of eartips designed to accommodate a broad range of ear sizes and shapes, as well as user preferences. The Etymotic’s eartips can be a bit finicky and difficult to fit, whereas the Monster’s double-layer gel-type SuperTips were relatively easy to fit (in part because they come in five sizes) and offer the difficultto-achieve combination of comfort, excellent isolation, and terrific bass response. • The Miles Davis Tributes carry Monster’s unbeatable “lifetime” warranty, which provides one-time free replacement of the phones “even if YOU break them.” Miles Davis Tribute vs. Klipsch Image X10i • The Klipsch Image X10i’s retail for $349.99 while the Miles Davis Tributes are considerably more expensive. • The Image X10i serves both as a headphone and as an iPhone-compatible headset, where the Miles Davis Tributes are headphones, only. The X10i inline microphone module incorporates a 3-button remote control for use with newer generation iPods. • Both the X10i’s and Miles Davis Tribute models emphasize resolution and detail (or sonic purity), though their tonal balance is significantly different. In terms of absolute resolution, the Miles Davis Tributes go even further than the X10i’s do, though the difference is not terribly large. On the whole, the Miles Davis Tributes have a somewhat brighter, more midrange-forward sound, whereas the Image X10i’s have a slightly warmer, darker, and more “euphonic” tonal balance. • The X10i is, hands down, the lightest and most comfortable in-ear headphone we have tested, and its patent-pending elliptical eartips are remarkably effective. In contrast, Monster’s double-layer, gel-type SuperTips may enjoy a slight performance edge, though their somewhat stiffer composition makes them slightly less comfortable and also somewhat more difficult to fit than the Klipsch elliptical tips. • The Monster ‘phones offer a superior warranty, and appear more robustly built than the X10i. Miles Davis Tribute vs. Shure SE 530 • The Shure SE 530’s retail for $499.99 without the push-to-hear control option, or $549.99 with the option, meaning they are roughly the same price as the Miles Davis Tributes. • The Shure is a two-way, three-driver design, whereas the Miles Davis Tributes feature a single, high-performance, full-range driver. Shure proponents argue that the threedriver design allows for driver specialization/ optimization by frequency range, where Miles Davis Tribute adherents contend that its single-driver design eliminates any possibility
Let me compare the Miles Davis Tribute headphones relative to three worthy competitors: the Etymotics ER-4P, the Klipsch Image X10i, and the Shure SE 530. Miles Davis Tribute vs. Etymotics ER-4P • The Etymotics ER-4P’s retail for $299 while the Miles Davis Tributes are considerably more expensive. • Sonically, both designs offer similar strengths in terms of their high resolution and sheer sonic purity. That said, however, I think the Mile Davis model enjoys a noticeable edge in terms of retrieving even finer levels of detail. • Interestingly, Monster’s Noel Lee told me that he greatly admires the Etymotic ER-4 series headphones, and used them as one of his competitive benchmarks during development
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of driver-to-driver textural discontinuities. My experience has been that the Shures handle driver blending as well or better than any other multi-driver in-ear headphones I’ve tried. That said, however, the sheer purity of a good single-driver design is tough to beat. Some listeners may find the Monster’s MDT’s (much like its Turbine Pro Copper Edition ‘phones) delivers greater sonic purity than the Shures do. • The Shure’s greatest strength is rich, natural, and thoroughly neutral tonal balance coupled with a good measure of resolution and detail. Compared to the Miles Davis Tributes, I would say the Shure’s enjoy an edge in terms of overall neutrality (though the difference is not a large one), but that the Monster headphone offers higher levels of resolution and super sonic integrity and coherency overall. • The SE 530’s are designed to route signal cables up and over the ears, where the Miles Davis ‘phones do not. Some users are comfortable with over-the-ear cable routing schemes, while others find wires over the ears to be uncomfortable and distracting. • Again, Monster’s unique warranty gives added peace of mind. Performance-oriented Accessories: • Multiple eartips, including standard singleflange rubber eartips (sizes S, M, L); multi-flange rubber eartips (sizes S, L); compressible foam eartips (sizes S, L); and dual-layer, gel-tip SuperTips (sizes S, S/M, M, M/L, and L). Odds are that you will find one or more of these eartip options a comfortable fit. The size and shape of the Miles Davis Tribute earpieces makes it easy to insert the ‘phones in your ear canals and to achieve a good fit. • Important Note: For best sonic results, I would encourage listeners to try each of the five sizes of the double-layer, gel-type SuperTips, which I think offer the greatest performance potential overall. One caveat to note, though, is that the outer shells of the SuperTips are a bit stiffer and a little less resilient than most traditional silicone rubber eartips, making the SuperTips more “fit sensitive” than most. You’ll want to take some extra time to experiment until you find a “just right” fit in order to hear the SuperTips at their best. • “Revolver”-type eartip carrier with spaces for six pairs of eartips. • Detachable garment clip (to keep the signal cable from flopping loosely). • Two daily-use headphone cases, one a fliptop case with a magnetic closure hasp, and one a squeeze-to-open pocket pouch with a spring clasp. Collector’s Item Accessories: • Headphone display case designed as a miniature replica of Miles Davis’ trumpet case
(you could conceivably use this in day-to-day applications, but it’s really too nice for that; instead, I think it makes a better desktop conversation piece.). • Columbia Legacy Edition 2-disc CD set commemorating the 50th anniversary of the release of Kind of Blue. Features outtakes from the Kind of Blue recording sessions, plus addition live performance material.
Monster’s Miles Davis Tributes are not only cool collector’s items, but also genuinely excellent headphones that offer tons of resolution, plenty of dynamic expressiveness, and a generally neutral sound that is, by design, presented with a gentle touch of midrange emphasis. Only you can decide whether the voicing of the MDT’s will conform to your own musical tastes and preferences, but either way I think most listeners could agree that this headphone presents music with rare evocative power and
The Miles David Tribute headphones come with two groups of accessories, one geared for performance and the other geared toward enhancing the product’s appeal as a collector’s item.
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which aim for the very highest levels of performance. but treble response is skewed slightly to the bright side of neutrality.sennheiserusa. (860) 434-9190 www. German-made product to be: crisp. But high percussion. potent “pop” of Miller’s lowest slapped notes (man. which sing with a prolonged “Mwaaahh” that’s incredibly evocative. are crisp but a little too forward—a characteristic some will love. focused. the IE models were just beginning to appear on the market. Strengths include relatively high sensitivity (which helps give an energetic. sheen. and a percussion battery. Some perceive the forward-sounding highs as enhancing clarity. The earphone is also quite sensitive and easy to drive. ratinGs tonal balance clairy dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 BottoM line The IE 7s are superb high-end earbuds that are fully competitive with other top models in this price class. and clear. though very clear. but not all. fullbodied sound). Highs are clean and clear. and some guest listeners gave up before ever experiencing a really good fit (meaning they missed out on the IE 7’s potentially superb bass response). thus producing great bass. evenly weighted midrange. so we were fortunate to obtain a sample of the IE 7. so plan on experimenting for best results. but others not so much. excellent bass. piano. When this review was written. cable clip (for securing the cable to garments). can the IE 7s ever go low). so that it produces a big sound that is dynamically alive. The Sennheiser’s strengths for the most part complement the track perfectly. With this headphone more than most in its cleass.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .com T the IE 7 sound a bit thin or even “bass shy. while others feel they make running through a stiff. I found the IE 7s quite tricky to position so as to achieve a good seal. All the intricate inner textures of the synth are exposed as is the characteristically round tone and unmistakably Caribbean voice of the steel drum. precise.” which isn’t actually the case. and two-piece hardshell case with magnetic closure. but at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show the firm announced its ambitious new line of IE-series in-ear headphones. specs/prici ng Accessories: Three sets each of singleflange and double-flange rubber eartips (sizes S. M. Highs. This characteristic complements some material. the IE 7 offers a clear. and L). while also revealing the almost vocal quality of sustained bass notes. bendable tube that doubles as an custom-fit ear clip. We’re pleased to report that it’s everything you might expect a top-tier. the next-to-the-top model in the range. capturing the dark. Weight: 14 grams sensitivity: 120dB/mW price: $389. MUsiCal eXaMple On the title track of Marcus Miller’s The Sun Don’t Lie [Pra Records]. wellbalanced midrange.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors SENNHEISER IE 7 Chris Martens he German firm Sennheiser has long been known for producing excellent lower-cost earbuds such as the CX300 covered in Playback’s very first “Killer Earbud” survey.avguide. as noted.95 sENNHEIsEr ElECTrONIC COrp. you need to keep experimenting with eartips and positioning until they seal well. soniC CharaCter Like the best of its competitors in this price class. and beautifully built. CoMFort FaCtor The IE 7s are quite light. two sets of bell-shaped foam eartips (size S and L). with cables 113 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. has a bit of excess sizzle. highly transparent sound. steel drum. cleaning tool. Fit can be a bit finicky. you’ll hear Miller on a Fender Jazz bass guitar ably supported by synthesizers. with an earpiece design that requires you to route earpiece cables up and over your ears. Tonal balance is reasonably neutral and characterized by tight and robust (but not overblown) bass. and smooth. and bite that—though undeniably exciting—sounds a little larger than life.
universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors SENNHEISER IE 8 Chris Martens S ennheiser’s IE 8 ($449. and focus. complete with finely graduated adjustment markings (so that you can experiment and easily repeat settings that work best for you). Each of the IE 8’s earpieces provides a small. the IE 7 offered—deliberately—slightly brighter or more “treble rich” tonal balance overall. 114 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. the IE8 not only offers a very satisfying core sound. look further if: you find the IE 8’s oblong earpieces somewhat uncomfortable or hard to fit (the only way to know this is to try a pair and see what you think). and an uncanny quality of sonic smoothness. Here’s how the IE8’s “Sound Tuning” feature works. the booth guide explained that while the second-to-the-topof-the-line IE 7s and top-of-the-line IE 8s were both intended as top-tier performers. I can think of only one other—the Phonak PFE 122—that provides the feature). there may be one or two competitors that can narrowly edge it out. Note.avguide.95) is the firm’s flagship in-ear headphone and it’s a product I’ve wanted to hear ever since I got an introduction the IE8 and IE7 models at a Sennheiser tradeshow booth well over a year ago. This is why I’ve dubbed the IE8 the “Flexible Flagship.” Unlike most top-tier models. recessed frequency-response adjustment screw. if you’ll pardon the pun).com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . too. When the screws overview Consider this in-ear headphone if: you want a headphone that does all things well. At the time. that while the IE 8 offers very fine resolution. combining accurate tonal balance. while the IE8 offered more neutral voicing (which is always music to my ears. but also offers its owners a range of “sound tuning” options that in particular affect the headphone’s bass balance. off the top of my head. Also look at the IE 8 if you like the idea of the headphone’s user adjustable “sound tuning” feature. detail. very good levels of detail and resolution. But what I didn’t realize during that initial booth tour was that the IE 8 actually offers user adjustable voicing—a feature not commonly seen in in-ear headphones (in fact.
neutral tonal balance. but I found that the low bass performance of the IE 8’s absolutely falls apart if there are air leaks of any kind). warmer cast. the headphone takes on a darker.sennheiserusa. Weight: 15 grams with cable (5 grams without cable) sensitivity: Not specified (maximum output. and knowing this I put on the virtuoso pianist Joel Fan’s West of the Sun—Music of the Americas [Reference Recordings]. And once you do find eartips that seal properly it’s “fasten your seatbelts” time.com 115 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . and generally therefore extremely revealing headphones. but I’m glad that they did. but interestingly they give the subjective impression of adjusting the “tilt” or slope of the headphone’s entire response curve. As you’ll discover in a moment. deeper. First and foremost. however. When you switch to the IE 8’s from most other in-ear ‘phones (even quite good ones). graphic detail. so that there should be a solution for just about everyone. frequency response measurements are as flat (or neutral) as possible. Where other headphones might vaguely hint or suggest at what’s going on in the mix. My advice: just declare yourself a “professional music listener” and then go give the IE 8’s a try. but rather lists them among the firm’s “Professional Headphones. Happily. the IE 8 offers smooth.95 sENNHEIsEr ElECTrONICs COrpOrATION 1 Enterprise Drive Old Lyme.com periods of time. Third.” (though I certainly think it ought to). while with the screws turned the other way. But. More so than many in-ear ‘phones. the IE 8’s seem extremely sensitive to wearers achieving a truly airtight seal between the ‘phones and their ear canals (actually. toward maximum bass emphasis. represent the absolute crème de la crème within today’s market (but note that this review was written prior to the arrival of the Shure SE535 or the Westone TrueFit 4 —Editor). I focused in particular www. as bits and pieces of the overall musical tapestry suddenly snap into fine focus in ways they might not have done before. the IE 8’s are highly detailed and ratinGs tonal balance frequency extremes clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 specs/prici ng Sennheiser IE 8 In-Ear Headphones Accessories: See above. however. well extended. I’m not quite sure how Sennheiser pulled this off. Frankly. In this key area of performance. comes a sonic characteristic that doesn’t always prove compatible with high levels of resolution and detail: namely. No matter your preference. the Sennheisers come with an extremely broad array of eartips for users to try. soniC CharaCter The IE 8 is defined by three main sonic characteristics.” Go figure. What distinguishes the IE 8 from its competitors. I feel that the IE 8 takes its place among an elite group of three so-called “universal fit” (as opposed to custom fit) inear headphones that. Somewhat unusually. 125 dB SPL) Impedance: 16 Ohms Warranty: 2 years price: $449. Sennheiser lets you dial in more bass emphasis by turning the screws in the clockwise direction (more rotation = more bass emphasis). at least at first. In a general sense. In contrast. CT 06371 (860) 434-9190 www. though. for me. yet somehow manage to stop just short of becoming edgy or obnoxious. the “sound tuning” adjustment screws affect only bass balance. Second. an overarching quality of smoothness that makes the IE 8’s relaxing to listen to over long MUsiCal eXaMples In some respects there is nothing quite so revealing of an audio component’s sonic potential as a good solo piano recording. it is typical to be struck by just how much more musical information the IE 8’s are able to capture or resolve.avguide. The other two headphones in my select “group of three” are the Shure SE 530 (which will be superseded later this year by the new SE535) and the Monster Cable Turbine Pro Copper Edition. this means that listening sessions with the flagship Sennheisers take on a quality of discovery. because some listeners perceive measurably flat response as being a bit bass-shy. As you turn the screws toward the full-neutral position. the IE 8’s wade right in and show you what’s happening in explicit. most other ‘phones that reveal as much detail as the IE 8’s do tend also to expose rough edges in the music in sometimes unpleasant ways. I think a big part of the IE8’s appeal—apart from its strong core performance—is that fact that it provides a mechanism for catering to a broad spectrum of listener tastes and preferences.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors are turned full counter-clockwise. the headphone sounds brighter and a perhaps a bit more open through the midrange. is its unique “sound tuning” feature. the Sennheiser Web site does not list the IE 8’s among its “Audiophile Headphones. all in-ear ‘phones are like this to a degree. which allows users to dial-in precise amounts of additional bass output either to suit their listening tastes or to help the headphones adapt to environments where excessive low-frequency background noise is present. the IE 8’s pursue detail and resolution with real gusto. since the IE8’s offer absolutely stupendous bass response—response so deep and powerful that some might find it a little overpowering.
Once properly fitted. Listeners who crave resolution. note that ultra-high levels of transparency and detail are not necessarily what all listeners are looking for (one man’s “superb detail” can be another man’s “more information than I bargained for”).avguide. • he IE 8 offers detachable/replaceable signal T cables where the SE 530 does not (though Shure’s next-generation SE 535—slated for release later this year—will incorporate this feature). definition and—most impressively—unfailing smoothness. though their somewhat stiff consistency means they may not be the last word in wearer comfort. The Sennheisers rendered individual piano notes cleanly and sweetly. On the other hand. For the Piazzolla piece. the mood and overall sound of the piano abruptly changed. lilting. the Copper Editions benefit from the fact that they do not require over-the-ear cable routing. but also the power. But at all times. • he IE 8 offers a user adjustable “sound T tuning” feature where the SE 530 does not.95. listeners will appreciate and enjoy the Sennheiser’s exquisite mix of clarity. so that notes (and their accompanying harmonics) seemed almost to explode outward and upward from the bottom of the piano’s soundboard. • onal balance for the IE 8’s and Copper T Editions is similar. Op. In an absolute sense. the SE 530 is easier to fit owing to the fact that its earpieces are smaller and more smoothly shaped (in contrast. the IE 8 does allow dialing-in additional bass should the circumstances warrant. • oth designs offer very high degrees of purity B and coherency. the IE 8 arguably enjoys a narrow edge in overall sonic purity and coherency. Fan’s performance of Astor Piazzolla’s moody “Preludes (3) for Piano: no 2. angular quality. Monster Cable Turbine pro Copper Edition • he Copper Editions retail for $399. and that the two products are similarly priced. detail and focus will probably gravitate toward the Copper Editions. gel-type Super Tips are among the most sonically effective eartips I’ve yet heard. • onal balance for both headphones is similar. Monster’s dual-layer. Shure SE530 • he SE 530 lists for between $499. On the whole. though when push comes to shove I would say the edge goes to the Copper Editions.99 and T $549. It’s that latter quality that make you want to keep listening to the IE 8’s long after other headphones would have become tiresome. which will please some listeners but frustrate others. Of course. 22: Allegro marcato. the IE 8 earpieces are somewhat large and more angular so that its creased edges can and sometimes do come into contact with ear surfaces). My point is that the IE 8’s have the delicacy and subtlety to show the almost dreamlike inner workings of the Piazzolla piece. though. Flora’s Game. • n the whole. Fan pulled forth a fluid. advantage in terms of optimizing drivers to cover specific portions of the audio spectrum. ethereal way—so that the music seemed almost to be floating on a cushion of air.95. and drive to do justice to the Ginastera Sonata. while the IE 8 retails for $449. The IE 8 does not offer such an option. Through the IE 8’s the effect was almost that of hearing the soundtrack of a dance sequence from a beautiful yet also haunting dream. though the Copper Editions do sound just slightly more extended at the frequency extremes (though this is a subtle difference that some listeners might not notice at first). muscle. T at least when the IE 8 is left in its default bass output setting. mysterious sound from the piano tinged with a touch of melancholy. Research suggests. however. clarity. 1. the compact Copper Editions O are easier to fit and more comfortable for very long listening sessions than the somewhat more awkwardly shaped IE 8’s. punchy. Research shows that street pricing for both models falls significantly below retail pricing.99. where the Copper Editions do not. Sennheiser IE 8 vs. and both require considerable trial-and-error experimentation to find out which eartips work best for a given user.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors on two tracks: first.99. so that users should plan on spending time experimenting to find which tips work best for them. the Shure SE 530 and Monster Cable Turbine Pro Copper Edition. Then. however. that the street price for the IE 8’s may well be lower than that of the Copper Editions. strident edge on the Ginastera piece. • oth headphones offer an excellent array B of eartips. taking on a vigorous. Milonga Prelude” and then his rendition of the muscular first movement of Albert Ginastera’s “Sonata for Piano No. That said.” What made this listening experience so informative was hearing the dramatically different voicings and overall emotional cast that Fan brought to each piece. when Fan transitioned to the Ginastera composition. while music lovers who want their sonic details be presented with absolutely uncanny smoothness will likely prefer the IE 8s. • oth headphones use over-the-ear cable B routing schemes. though the IE 8’s are helped www. • he IE 8 offers a user adjustable “sound T tuning” feature. • oth headphones come with extensive set B of eartips. T while the IE 8’s retail for $449. Where many headphones would have taken on a harsh.com CoMpetitive CoMparisons Let me provide comparisons to show how Sennheiser’s IE 8 stacks up relative to two of its closest competitors. but without—and this is very important—so much as a trace of edginess and glare. the IE 8’s simply drew a deep breath and then burst forth at full song. Sennheiser IE 8 vs. In part. • he SE 530 offers a handy PTH (Push-toT Hear) module as an option that allows users to momentarily turn down the music and instead to hear natural room sounds (via an inline mic) at the push of a button. • he SE 530 is a three-driver design T which proponents say gives the Shure an 116 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . long term comfort between the two headphones is comparable. while allowing the dynamic envelopes of individual passages to ebb and flow in a gentle.
www. • set of seven (!) user instruction manuals in A various languages.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors along by the fact that the IE 8 earpieces are featherweight designs. equipped with O a detachable. foam-lined carrying case for O the IE8’s. while another contains their hard-plastic carrying case plus accessories. Personally. In contrast. three sets of dual-flange or “lamellar” tips (sizes S. L) and two pairs of “mushroom form” tips (sizes S. 117 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . • ne hard-shell. • ne cable clip (for holding the signal cable to O a garment so that it doesn’t flop around). the Copper Edition’s solid metal earpiece housings. two pairs of foam rubber tips (sizes S. very high levels of sonic coherency and purity. I would say the IE 8 offers good but not great levels of comfort. with a built-in winding spool for the signal cables. so I elected not to use them. unlike the IE7.avguide. and a chamber where you can insert an included dry salt pad that draws moisture away from the IE 8’s. including English. and so on). • ne pair of snap-on. L). more comfortable). can feel a bit “weighty” at times. Second. holders for two spare sets of eartips. Inside the packing case you’ll find: • ne pair of IE 8 headphones. There are two main reasons for this improvement. CoMFort FaCtor/aCCessories The Sennheiser IE 8 come in a neat rectangular packing case with a flip-open lid and a multilevel series of foam packing trays within (one level contains the headphones. however. plus storage areas for a few necessary accessories. L). and exceptional smoothness. I found the ear-hooks a bit cumbersome. But for many users. the IE 8 provides flexible and. It offers the terrific combination of neutral tonal balance. built-in. user-replaceable signal cord. M. I found the IE 8’s noticeably easier to fit and more comfortable to wear than the IE 7 models I’ve previously reviewed. L). snap-on rubber ear hooks if you so desire. a cool “silica gel” chamber that helps wick moisture away from the ‘phones when they’re not in use. replaceable signal cables that can be equipped with soft.com An appealing detail is Sennheiser’s beefy hard-shell carrying case. • large assortment of eartips including three A sets of standard rubber tips (sizes S. T but the Copper Editions come with an unbeatable limited lifetime free replacement warranty—even if users are responsible for breaking the headphones. though compact. and a tough outer shell that offers meaningful protection for these expensive beauties when you are on the go. BottoM line Sennheisers IE 8 is one of the three finest “universal fit” in-ear headphones I’ve ever heard. which uses a stiff. should the need arise. so that it takes some time to figure out how to get at the contents. primarily because its earpieces are relatively large and angularly shaped—at least in comparison to some other top-tier headphones such as the Klipsch Image X10i or the Monster Cable Turbine Pro Copper Edition. which makes the IE 8 a truly flexible flagship that can adapt to fit its owners’ tastes and preferences. M. a clamp that holds the included cleaning/”sound tuning” adjustment tool. over-the-ear cable guide. which neatly provides a place for you to coil up the IE 8’s signal cables. the IE 8’s earpieces seem smaller and better shaped than the IE 7’s peculiarly sharp-edged earpieces. • he IE 8 carries a superb two-year warranty. First. soft rubber ear hooks O (designed to make the IE 8’s. but the good news is the IE 8 design leaves the choice to you. In an absolute sense. themselves. the pièce de résistance will be Sennheiser’s distinctive “sound tuning” feature. One word of caution: the packing case fits together a bit like a challenging children’s puzzle. Patience is the order of the day. which are designed for over-the-ear cable routing. Both of those compact designs are more relaxing to wear for long periods of time.
universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors SHuRE SE535 Chris Martens I f you polled a group of high-end headphone aficionados to ask which universal-fit in-ear headphones they regarded most highly as performance icons. or if you prefer an in-ear model that offers neutral voicing coupled with almost hyper-precise rendition of low-level sonic details (in which case you’ll want to hear Monster’s Turbine Pro Copper Edition ‘phones). greater treble extension. the new SE535 is significantly more comfortable to wear thanks to new user-replaceable signal cables that plug into the SE535 earpiece assemblies. The SE535. comes a lot closer to the ideal of being a true. how does the SE535 differ from the SE530. does it sound different and better than its predecessor? At first glance differences between the SE530 and the SE535 appear subtle. making it much easier to obtain a comfortable fit. however. of course. which is the subject of this review. First off. gold-plated. user-replaceable signal cable. First. Or at least it would have done so until quite recently. plug-andsocket type connectors.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . given that Shure has now opted to replace its well-loved flagship with the new SE535 ($549). This leads us. but it also allows the earpieces to swivel on the ends of the cables. But frankly. On the old 530’s. The SE535 uses the very same two-way architecture and triple balanced-armature driver array (with two vented bass drivers and one treble driver) as in the SE530. “one size fits all” design. the stiff lead wires tended to dictate terms to the user. but with one very significant difference.avguide. 118 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. helping to facilitate a comfortable fit—a welcome change. the SE535 is so good in so many areas that it belongs on the short list for any serious listener—and for all the right reasons. The internal shape overview Consider this in-ear headphone if: you seek an in-ear headphone that does everything that made Shure’s original SE530 famous. What’s more. sadly. the SE535. features a detachable. The SE535’s cables can now swivel on its earpieces. meaning the headphone felt comfortable for some wearers but rubbed others (quite literally) the wrong way. and second. Lead wires for the left and right earpieces attach via small. to ask several key questions. is surprisingly easy to do with any earphone). and that produces wider soundstages. but in a model that exhibits newfound openness and transparency. look further if: you require a flagship-class in-ear headphone that allows userconfigurable bass tuning (in which case you’ll want to check out the Sennheiser IE 8). unlike the original 530. but after you experience the 535 and live with it for a while they come to seem quite significant. I’m betting that Shure’s venerable SE530 would appear near the top of the list. only better. In the SE535 you’ll find smooth and evenly balanced tonal response (already a strength of the old 530). Not only does this arrangement allow users to buy new cables should they ever accidentally break a wire (which.
Academy of St. Unlike the original 530. and even greater high-frequency extension. with angular string passages adding commentary up above. full-bodied sonorities. they do an unusually convincing job with the low brass and low woodwind instruments— 119 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . On paper these might sound like small changes. the SE535 now reproduces high-frequency harmonic information and treble transient and textural details much more effectively. rich. First. The “Plump Jack Overture” (the title is an allusion to the Shakespearian character Falstaff) starts with an abrupt series of concert bass drum thwacks counterbalanced with low brass and low woodwind outbursts. Pentatone SACD]. (847) 600-2000 www. but in that brief span of time it provides a delightful and quite athletic orchestral workout that is a tough test for any headphone. and the SE535’s nailed its ringing overtones with a just-right touch of lingering shimmer that seemed to float on the air for a delicious few seconds. the SE535’s greatest strength is its smooth. incremental improvement in the SE535—essentially taking what was already a very strong design and making it better. Put all these changes together and you have an in-ear headphone that does everything the SE530 could do. so that to go further might be to risk taking things over the top. which the SE535’s most certainly are. This composition is roughly twelve minutes long.avguide. Next. Together.” has been substantially revised to allow noticeably more extended treble response and wider perceived soundstaging. giving the headphone a notably more spacious. for example.com soniC CharaCter As was the case with the original SE530. that “purity/clarity gap” has essentially been closed (and then some). Rather than going for a huge increase in treble output. With the SE535. the SE535 seemed almost to revel in handling the sound of these instruments. which could easily have done more harm than good. the SE535’s standard accessory set is somewhat different than the SE530’s. Without losing any of the strengths that made the SE530 so good. one treble driver) Accessories: See above Frequency response: 18Hz – 19 kHz Weight: 1 oz.com instruments that pose problems for many headphones. but MUsiCal eXaMple To appreciate the SE535’s overall balance and smooth frequency response. which Shure terms the “acoustic network. The opening section is a real head-turner provided your headphones are up to the task. those bedrock Shure virtues are now coupled with newly improved measures of treble extension. sensitivity: 119dB/mW Impedance: 36 Ohms Warranty: 2 years. But thanks to the SE535’s revamped acoustic network. Getty’s dramatic orchestration calls for a simple chime to sound. I think many listeners will appreciate the “first. But apart from handling these “power” instruments well. neutrally-voiced.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors and layout of the SE535 earpiece housing. At one point. might still wish for a bit more transient speed. they do of fine job of capturing the weight and slam of the massive bass drum thwacks without breaking a sweat. and that takes meaningful steps forward both sonically and in terms of usability and wearer comfort. throaty. But instead. however. these qualities give the SE535’s a presentation that is at once engaging and detailed. Finally. The original SE530 was often quite rightly praised for its smoothness and neutrality. opensounding and detailed presentation overall. the SE535’s showed real finesse later in the overture as they caught the incisive yet never edgy or www. but in reality they alter the entire character of the SE535’s midrange and treble response. focus and clarity. Shure wisely opted to go for a judicious. ratinGs (relative to comparably-priced headphones) tonal balance frequency extremes clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 specs/prici ng Shure SE535 In-Ear Headphones Type: 2-way. openness and transparency. both very attractive (our samples were the bronze versions). some of which have trouble rendering their deep.shure. only better. listen to it on a wide-range orchestral piece such as the Gordon Getty’s “Plump Jack Overture” from Orchestral Works by Gordon Getty [Sir Neville Mariner. the SE535 can turn on a dime to exhibit great clarity and delicacy when required. giving them the full. Let me expand on this point for a moment. do no harm” decisions that Shure’s engineers have made in creating the SE535. parts and labor price: $549 sHUrE INC. the SE535 comes in two cool new colors: clear or metallic bronze. triple balanced-armaturetype drivers (two vented bass drivers. the fact is that the new SE535 offers significantly expanded performance envelopes in all three areas. even in its heyday it was possible to find inear headphones such as the Etymotics ER-4P that seemed to edge out the then top-of-theline of Shure ‘phones in terms of sonic purity. yet also warm and relaxed. yet without—and this is the real stroke of genius here—sounding overtly bright in any way. round tonality they require. more tightly defined treble textures. While fans of detail and definition. and natural-sounding tonal balance. and I admit I am one. Similarly. Martin in the Fields.
” Shure SE535 vs. However. • he SE535’s carry Shure’s excellent 2 T year warranty. and both come with an unusually broad and useful array of eartips. the Shure emphasizes O a smooth. Specifically.and low-frequency sounds. given that the IE 8’s—when heard in a quiet environment— tend to sound best with their bass controls set in the “Flat” position. • n terms of tonal balance the two models are I fairly evenly matched. these qualities give the SE535’s a presentation that is at once engaging and yet relaxed. while the T Copper Editions retail for significantly less— $399. plus a plethora of accessories. on the one hand. though there are some differences worth noting. Some listeners might question whether adjustable sound tuning is really a useful feature in the first place. the SE535 comes with: • sturdy. In comparison. the SE535 offers what some listeners will likely consider a more livable compromise between smoothness and warmth. • n airline adapter. whether the music calls for big explosive dynamics.avguide.95. In the past. where Turbine Pro Copper Edition adherents contend that its single-driver design eliminates any possibility of driver-to-driver textural discontinuities. high-performance. whereas the Copper Editions feature a single. • onal balance for the IE 8’s and SE535’s is T similar (at least when the IE 8’s bass tuning control is set in the “Flat” position).” In contrast. CoMpetitive CoMparison Let me compare the SE535 versus two of its closest competitors: the Monster Turbine Pro Copper Edition and Sennheiser IE 8. where the SE535’s do not. with highs that sound natural and clear—though not overly prominent. full-range driver. while T the Sennheiser IE 8’s retail for $449. For those uncomfortable with the sound of the Copper Editions. which provides one-time free replacement of the phones “even if YOU break them. while others feel strongly that the Copper Editions impart almost “too much information” and thus tend to impose an undesirably intense listening experience. that the sound of the Copper Editions tends to be a double-edged sword of sorts. the CoMFort FaCtor/aCCessories Shure’s SE535’s arrive in a brushed aluminum packing case which contains the earphones themselves. Shure tends to sound slightly warmer through the midrange and a touch more full-bodied in the mid-bass. and the ability to deliver still quite generous amounts of detail and resolution on the other. In general. That said I felt the SE535 did an excellent job of integrating the output of its multiple driver array. Shure proponents argue that the three-driver design allows for driver specialization/optimization by frequency range. openness and transparency. I would have said the Copper Editions were noticeably more comfortable than the original SE530s. thanks to the SE535’s new detachable/swiveling cabling arrangement.99. Again. • elative to the SE530. Note. “do-all” quality is a big part of the appeal of Shure’s new flagship model. the highs of the IE 8 tend to sound extremely extended. yet silky smooth. • n the whole. the Monster tends to be more assertive and “up front” in reproducing subtle transient sounds and lowlevel details. Sennheiser IE 8 • he MSRP of the Shure SE535 is $549. • oth headphones are compact and B comfortable. Shure SE535 vs. where the Monsters can sound exceptionally lifelike (at least on good recordings). but the Turbine Pro Copper Editions carry Monster’s unbeatable “lifetime” warranty. M and L). the Copper Editions are slightly leaner-sounding through the midrange and mid-bass. though you may find you need to do considerable trial-and-error experimentation with either model to find out which eartips work best for you. the SE535 is easier to fit and O more comfortable for very long listening sessions than the somewhat more awkwardly shaped IE 8’s.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors strident sound of rapid violin bowing changes. fabric covered clamshell-type case A with a zipper closure. • variety of eartips (or “sleeves. though the SE535 offers a somewhat smoother and more coherent sound overall. but also a tiny bit “dry” or “wiry. the SE535 has R taken significant steps forward in terms of improving treble extension. • n the whole. or delicate treble details. above. • ike its predecessor the SE530. though not necessarily classleading. Even so. Now. A www. amounts of sonic detail. natural sound blessed with generous. the SE535’s new signal cable design works wonders here. the SE535’s highs consistently sound revealing. three pairs of bell-shaped “Soft Foam” sleeves (sizes S. • The IE 8 offers a user adjustable “sound tuning” feature. and L). Some listeners enjoy the sense of heightened resolution and focus the Monsters convey.” as Shure A calls them) including one pair of cylindrical compressible foam sleeves. As mentioned under SONIC CHARACTER. but offers even better extension at both frequency extremes—especially in the upper treble region. Monster Cable Turbine Pro Copper Edition • he MSRP of the Shure is $549. I’d call the comfort factor contest a draw. critical listeners may find the Copper Editions enjoy a narrow but clear-cut edge in terms of retrieving fine layers of low-level detail. powerful yet also tuneful mid. My point is that the SE535 is a very wellrounded performer that is rarely if ever caught off guard. • oth headphones offer an excellent array of B eartips. By comparison. the SE535 L is a two-way.com 120 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . and the delicate ripple of trilled flute passages. if you do much listening in environments where there is a lot of low-frequency noise present. three pairs of pliable rubber “Soft Flex” sleeves (sizes S. you’ll come to appreciate the fact that the IE 8’s allow you to temporarily dial-up their bass balance to help overcome background noise. and one pair of triple-flange sleeves. In contrast. This refined. three-driver design. however. M.
In short. the new SE535 takes subtle yet sonically significant steps forward in terms of improved openness. treble extension. • An inline volume control. The SE535’s are compact and easy to position for a good fit. which happens from time to time).com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . BottoM line Building upon the rock-solid platform of Shure’s classic SE530 in-ear headphone.avguide. detachable signal cables make them much more comfortable than the original SE530’s. and • A cleaning tool. and their swiveling. and as such I count it as a surefire winner. 121 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. It is also much more comfortable to wear and offers the convenience of user replaceable signal cables (meaning you won’t be out of action for long even if—heaven forbid—you should happen to break a cable. the SE535 is nothing less than a flagship reborn. transparency and soundstaging.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors • A mini-jack-to-1/4-inch-phone plug adapter.
com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . in-ear headphone. and hardshell carrying case. the TripleFi 10’s tend toward a slightly “romantic” presentation that is satisfyingly rich in tonal colors. the TripleFi 10’s also sounded lovely on Chris Jones’s guitar and dobro accompaniment. gravelly textures that are so characteristic of his sound. since it is one of only two three-way earphones in this group (the other is Westone’s TrueFit 4). so it is never a problem to find a set that fits and seals well. specs/prici ng Accessories: Three sets each of silicone single-flange eartips (sizes S. Overall. SACD]. custom-fit earclip that worked well for me but that some might find a bit too stiff for optimal comfort. and high-frequency drivers—all fitted into an enclosure smaller than the tip of your pinkie finger. The track starts with a concert bass drum figure that emulates the clank of heavy factory machinery. such as Steve Strauss’s cover of the classic Springsteen song “Youngstown. though they tended to smooth over some of the gritty. although they rounded off the very highest guitar and dobro harmonics. The resulting sound was rich and pleasingly romantic. smoothness and dynamics. Though we liked Ultimate Ears’ UE600’s (also reviewed in this Guide) quite well.com CoMFort FaCtor The TripleFi 10’s are light earbuds whose earpiece cables are routed up and over the listener’s ears. ratinGs tonal balance clairy dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Y ou could argue the Ultimate Ear’s TripleFi 10 is one of the most technically advanced designs of any earphone in this (or any) Guide. offering more evenly balanced frequency response. universal-fit.ultimateears. They also did a good job with Straus’s evocative baritone voice. But does this technical prowess translate into great sound? BottoM line The TripleFi 10 is Ultimate Ears’ bestperforming. Ultimate Ears plans to drop the dualflange eartips and instead to supply two sets of foam eartips. ¼” jack adaptor. the TripleFi 10’s are even better.99 UlTIMATE EArs (866) 837-7734 www. though it falls just short of achieving the elusive “Nth” degree of transparency and cohesiveness that some audiophiles might crave. and a more nuanced sound overall. one set each of universal-fit dual-flange eartips and foam eartips.avguide. Ultimate Ears provides a broad selection of various types of eartips. Weight: 17 grams sensitivity: 117 db/mW price: $399. MUsiCal eXaMple The TripleFi 10 is at its best on full-range audiophile recordings. and L).” from Just Like Love [Stockfisch. and it is a top tier performer in terms of frequency response. and suppressed the sense of high-frequency “air” I expected to hear. midrange. well as any earbuds I’ve heard. smooth frequency 122 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. slightly more extended highs. but they offer the offsetting benefit of arguably superior smoothness. But the overriding impression these headphones create is that they are well balanced and deliver a hearty and engaging sound. A reinforced section of the cable acts as a moldable. miniature bass. 26” extension cable. and the TripleFi 10’s nailed the deep. At higher frequencies the TripleFi 10’s convey slightly less low-level sonic information than some competing models do. but came up just a bit short in terms of transparency and detail. lingering “thwacks” of that drum as soniC CharaCter The TripleFi 10’s offer broad. That’s right: The TripleFi 10 features separate. Two of the TripleFi 10’s particular strengths are exceptionally good noise isolation and overarching smoothness—especially through the critical midrange. level attenuator.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors uLTIMATE EARS TRIPLEFI 10 Chris Martens response with a light touch of very low bass emphasis and—way up high—a barely perceptible hint of treble roll-off. On the same track. M. Note: Later this year.
even if the TrueFit 4 is not quite able to challenge Westone’s top-tier custom-fit monitor for absolute sonic supremacy*. we think. you’ll eventually need to step up to a full-blown custom-fit inear monitor. but for hundreds of dollars less. To get those things. Note. that the TrueFit is easy to insert. www. But be aware that custom-fit monitors. resolution. too. comfortable to wear. But having looked at and listened to things from both sides of the universal-fit vs. with reluctance on the part of listeners part toward the idea of having custom ear-mold impressions taken (a process that admittedly looks a bit scary and feels weird for first-timers. but that actually doesn’t hurt a bit).avguide. But. and part has to do with price (since custom-fit monitors typically cost a lot more than even the most expensive universal-fit models). custom-fit divide. yet at a much more manageable price point. and noise isolation. Part of this has to do. cost significantly more and are by definition less flexible (because they’re designed to fit one and only one listener).com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . In simple terms.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors WESTONE TRuEFIT 4 Chris Martens P layback greatly admires Westone’s superb ES5 custom-fit in-ear monitors (reviewed elsewhere in this Guide). intimate. though it does not quite equal. but we also understand that some music lovers would prefer to go with universal-fit in-ear ‘phones rather than going down the custom-fit path. look further if: you want the highest possible levels of sonic detail. Does it succeed? I think it certainly comes very close. the performance of today’s finest custom-fit in-ear monitors. it easily earns bragging rights as one of the finest—if not the finest—universal-fit earphones available on 123 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors overview Consider this in-ear headphone if: you value well-balanced performance and an earphone that does all things well. and vivid sonic presentation that rivals. its mission is to come as close as possible to the sound quality of the firm’s top-tier custom-fit models. The Westone TrueFit 4 ($449) is the world first three-way. Look at the TrueFit 4 if you want a universal-fit model that offers the kind of powerful. we’re still left with one key question: can anybody build a universal-fit earphone whose sonic sophistication seriously rivals that of today’s greatest custom-fit in-ear monitors? Interestingly. and as such is one of the—if not the—most sophisticated universal-fit earphones ever created. and can be fitted out (via interchangeable eartips) for use by a wide variety of listeners (something no custom-fit monitor can claim). great though they can be. four-driver. Westone may have an answer for us all. universal-fit in-ear headphone.
anCillary eQUipMent Most of my listening tests for this review were conducted using an iPod Classic loaded with lossless files. Odds are that one (or more) of the eartip options will work beautifully for you. (800) 525-5071 www. it also manages to serve up a welcome touch of treble smoothness. and one high frequency driver per earpiece). Westone representatives have pointed out that while both their ES-series and TrueFit-series products aim for accuracy. the TrueFit 4’s noise isolation. with signals routed through www. the A TrueFit 4 comes with a useful set of other accessories including a well-made travel case. One area of the audio spectrum that the TrueFit 4 handles particularly well is the potentially tricky upper midrange/lower treble region—a region many earphones get wrong. and here’s why. one could make a strong argument that. one midrange. insert. whose articulation and vividness place it near the top of the universal-fit class. • itted with Westone EPIC signal cables. brittle or overly bright. nevertheless falls a little short of the performance that. ratinGs (relative to comparably-priced headphones) tonal balance frequency extremes clarity dynamics comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 specs/prici ng Westone TrueFit 4 Universal-Fit In-Ear Headphones Type: Three-way. which we regard as an intelligent design compromise that actually helps the headphone sound more accurate in environments where there is lowfrequency noise present (which. Similarly. the Sennheiser IE8. but without paying the inevitable custom-fit price. the TrueFit 4 is easily one of the three or four best universal-fit earphones Playback has ever tested (the others are the Monster Turbine Pro Copper Edition. four-driver. One further benefit of the TrueFit shape is that it naturally lends itself to over-the-ear cable routing. four-driver universal-fit inear headphone driver Complement: Four balanced armature-type drivers (two woofers.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors the planet.” • hares the same basic earpiece shell design S as used on Westone’s TrueFit 3 earphone. but not at the expense of sounding dull or rolled off. Perhaps the only slight deviation from strict textbook accuracy would be a very subtle hint of bass emphasis. they are targeted toward extremely different markets and end-users. the ES models are built with very high output capabilities and with the needs of stage performers in mind. consider the TrueFit 4. which really does push the limits of universal-fit technology. say. Thus. T universal-fit earphone. though very good as universal-fit earphones go. a highly articulate sound overall. Specifically. below. First. • ses four balanced armature-type drivers U (two bass drivers. Westone’s nearly twice as expensive ES5 custom-fit monitors can deliver. a line attenuator.and small-scale dynamic contrasts. is most environments). But good though the TrueFit 4’s tonal balance is. the TrueFit 4 is the most well rounded performer of the bunch. Similarly. a cleaning tool. * Actually. F which Westone describes as “a supple braided design (that) insures comfort and resists tangles. and excellent handling of both large. one tweeter) Accessories: See above Frequency response: 10Hz – 18 kHz Weight: Not specified sensitivity: 118dB/mW Impedance: 31 Ohms Warranty: 1 year. Though Westone does not particularly tout this feature.com soniC CharaCter The TrueFit 4 is among the most accurately balanced in-ear headphones Playback has yet sampled. What is more. the fact is that the TrueFit shell shape is ergonomically designed so that it A) is very to handle. is not as good as the isolation afforded by custom-fit designs (nor should we expect it to be. including good transient speed. and the Shure SE535). But let’s put things in perspective.com 124 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . What the TrueFit 4 manages to do is to sound articulate and well extended. Put these qualities together and you wind up with a FeatUres • he world’s first three-way. and adjust. The TrueFit 4 actually offers a well-integrated package of sonic virtues. Does this mean the TrueFit 4 is truly the equal of custom-fit monitors? Not exactly. • part from its extensive eartip collection. with all factors considered. come to think of it. its greatest strengths may lie in other more qualitative aspects of sound reproduction. while the TrueFit models are geared more for listening to recorded music (though Playback has discovered that the ES5 also works exceptionally well for that application). given the huge price differentials involved). sound that is remarkably vivid and vibrant—the very words I would use to describe the sound of many good custom-fit in-ear monitors.avguide. and a ¼” phone jack adapter. • omes with an excellent and extensive C collection of eartips. yet without becoming edgy. high levels of resolution and detail. as detailed under COMFORT FACTOR & ACCESSORIES. one midrange drive. parts and labor price: $449 MSRP WEsTONE lABOrATOrIEs INC. and B) seems to fit the natural curvature of most wearer’s outer ears. if you want a big taste of what custom-fit sound is about. the TrueFit 4’s sound.westonemusicproducts.
The mix. Later on. obviously. which is juxtaposed against Bush’s sometimes delicate and ethereal. About the only thing lacking was that elusive. is that the TrueFit 4’s engage the listener both with tonal qualities and with constantly shifting points of dynamic emphasis. heavily syncopated.” On these lines. and openness that can—through the very best headphones (whether in-ear or full-size)—let the sounds of the high percussion instruments take on a life of their own.avguide. focus. but with a distinctly modern twist in the form of a driving. I got similarly good results when playing another revealing (and. features a lot of textures and tonalities being pushed forward at once. “Joanni. Still other tests involved CDs and SACDs played through a Musical Fidelity kW SACD player. Additional listening involved lossless digital files played from Windows PC though a Furutech GT2 USB cable to a NuForce Icon HDP USB DAC/headphone amplifier. sometimes not). so it makes a formidable workout for any headphone. 125 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . while at the same time doing a good job with the sparkle and shimmer of high percussion accent notes. Nth degree of treble definition. and contains numerous rich www. but without lapsing into unwarranted rawness. sonically demanding) audiophile favorite. the Westones follow right along. The TrueFit 4’s did a fine job with the track. “I Could Eat Your Words” from Patricia Barber’s Verse [Blue Note]. as on the lead-in line of the song’s chorus. But what was really impressive was the way the Westones handled Bush’s deceptively difficult-to-reproduce voice. starting with their ability to capture the deep. Bush works down into her lower register. plunging “thwoomp” of the low percussion notes that set the song’s pulse. and eerily propulsive instrumental theme (carried by both high and low percussion. with signals routed through Rega Couple interconnects to a Burson Audio HA160 headphone amplifier (sometimes used with Burson Audio’s AB-160 tube buffer.com MUsiCal eXaMples A test track that has been in heavy rotation on my iPod for the past several months is “Joanni” from Kate Bush’s Aerial [Sony]. letting it soar without adding any overwrought edges of their own. where Bush soars up high to sing. but sometimes earthy and almost guttural vocals. The song can be viewed as a hymn of sort to Joan of Arc. revealing the surprising depth and punch of Bush’s lower-pitched lines. My point. While this track has been overused for audio demos. strings. belting out lines with a forceful touch of earthy grit as she sings. Joanni wears a golden cross/She looks so beautiful/With her armor on.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors a Moon Audio Silver Dragon LOD (line out dock) cable to an ALO Audio Rx MkII portable headphone amplifier. “Whoooo’s that girl?” But happily the Westones nailed this line. here. in its way. and a variety of other instrumental flavorings). namely. in the process doing much to convey the life and energy of the music. it is undeniably well recorded. with notes lingering on the air long after notes have been struck. The trick is that it is easy to overdo the upper register of her voice.
we provide a comparison to two of its nearest and strongest competitors: the Monster Turbine Pro Copper Edition and the Shure SE 535. and articulation on the other. for me) with their special Monster double-layer. The Westones really caught the energy.99. • hat tips the comfort scales in favor of the W Westones is their unusually comfortable overthe-ear cable routing and EPIC cable. plaintive trumpet solo that’s presented about two-thirds of the way through the song. which keeps listeners coming back for more. The Copper Editions. the TrueFit 4 extracts a smooth. “I could eat your words…” Once that line is launched. a taut and well-controlled presentation. and excellent extension at both frequency extremes—especially in the upper treble region.” then adds after a brief. while also revealing the subtle.” Thus. holding the song on course while giving Barber’s voice and piano the freedom to move forward in more adventurous. in turn. but they don’t have the fullest measure of shimmer and highfrequency “air”—qualities that the more costly Westone ES5 custom-fit monitors easily reveal. which are extremely comfortable. “…and teacher I want you tonight. The song opens with Barber’s solo voice half-singing/half-speaking a measured introduction. while Barber’s voice takes on a noticeably darker. high-performance. Westone TrueFit 4 vs. geltype SuperTips. as they should. but others find a bit overbearing. It’s an intimate moment (or at any rate is supposed to be). while also highlighting its darker. The catch. with only open chords on a piano for accompaniment. What’s interesting is the way that the bass serves as a both a rhythmic engine and as a “sea anchor” of sorts. As I’ve mentioned above. seductive shift in Barber’s vocals and piano lines.avguide. But this minor drawback notwithstanding. beautifully rendering the softer and breathier qualities in Barber’s voice. letting you hear the latent (but here carefully restrained) power inherent in the instrument. though. pregnant pause. neutrality. the Westone tends to sound slightly warmer. is that Monster’s SuperTips sound terrific. which help to suppress noise that might other wise be transmitted via the cable. where the Monsters can sound exceptionally lifelike (at least on good recordings). the TrueFit 4 offers a still richly detailed but perhaps more livable compromise. but with superior definition. Some listeners enjoy the sense of heightened resolution and focus that the Monsters convey. sounded best (again. and unfailingly vibrant sound that is complemented by generous amounts of sonic detail and articulation. while offering good extension. where Turbine Pro Copper Edition adherents would say that the Copper’s single-driver design eliminates any possibility of driver-to-driver textural discontinuities. the two earphones I essentially offer competing interpretations of sonic neutrality. the Westone emphasizes O a smooth. By comparison. and sultry-sounding quality. and both come with a broad and useful array of eartips. textures. As was the case with the Kate Bush track referenced above. and natural warmth on the one hand. four-driver T design. while others feel strongly that the Copper Editions can be almost “hyper-analytical” and thus impose an undesirably intense listening experience. Monster Turbine pro Copper Edition • he MSRP of the TrueFit 4 is $449. • oth earphones are compact and B comfortable. delicate quality in Barber’s voice that is perhaps not so clearly presented on many of her other recordings. fullrange driver. the TrueFit 4’s gave an otherwise wonderfully accurate and emotionally engaging presentation on this song. the Westones did a very good but not quite great job with treble textures on “I Could Eat Your Words. For those uncomfortable with the sound of the Copper Editions. the Westones let you clearly hear the sounds of the percussionist’s brushes sweeping over the textured snare drum head. well-integrated sound from its sophisticated multiple driver array. By comparison.universal-fit earphones $300 and up go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors sonic treasures—if your earphones are up to the task. the TrueFit 4’s “secret weapon” is its uncannily vivid and vibrant sound. These arguments notwithstanding. depth. • n the whole. a growling and highly evocative acoustic bass lines joins. but tend to feel a little stiff and thus can be tricky to fit—at least at first. critical listeners may find the Copper Editions enjoy a narrow but clear-cut edge in terms of retrieving fine layers of low-level detail. exploratory ways. and gentle forcefulness of the bass. while the T Copper Editions retail for somewhat less— $399. But a special treat comes in the form of a haunting. the Monster tends to be more assertive and “up front” in reproducing subtle transient sounds and low-level details— qualities that some listeners love. that the sound of the Copper Editions tends to be a double-edged sword of sorts. detail. The Westones did very nicely on these opening passages. • n terms of tonal balance. which are at once jazzy-sounding. openness. www. the sound of the horn is incredibly exposed in the mix. and the Westone does it full justice. more somber qualities. no doubt contend that the three-way/fourdriver design allows for driver specialization/ optimization by frequency range. yet tinged with hints of melancholy. By comparison. while the Copper Editions may at first seem slightly leanersounding. however. while letting the piano chords ring out and sustain. In general. but not necessarily for you) with their “bulb-shaped” soft rubber eartips. Note. natural.com CoMpetitive CoMparison To give reader an idea of how the TrueFit 4 stacks up against other top-tier universal-fit earphones. showing a lilting. smoother and more full-bodied. Westone proponents would 126 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . more overtly seductive. • he TrueFit 4 is a three-way. I found the Westone’s worked best (for me. When that delicious moment arrives. But the whole personality of the song shifts gears as Barber sings. whereas the Copper Editions feature a single. • he TrueFit 4 strikes a truly wonderful T balance between smoothness.
universal-fit earphones $300 and up
go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | custom-fit in-ear monitors
the Monster’s signal cable is very beefy and sounds great (what else would you expect from Monster?), but tends to transmit some noise. • he TrueFit 4’s carry Westone’s 1-year T warranty, while the Turbine Pro Copper Editions carry Monster’s unbeatable “lifetime” warranty, which provides one-time free replacement of the phones “even if YOU break them.” Westone TrueFit 4 vs. Shure SE535 • he MSRP of the TrueFit 4 is $449, while the T Shure’s retail for considerably more—$549. • he TrueFit 4 is a three-way, four-driver T design, while the SE535 is a two-way, threedriver design. Both earphones do a good job of smoothly integrating output from their multi-driver arrays, though I would say the TrueFit 4 achieves a more articulate sound overall. • n terms of tonal balance the two models I are fairly evenly matched, though I think the Westones achieve superior treble extension while still maintaining a desirable degree of treble smoothness. Both earphones offer a welcome touch of natural warmth (linked in both cases, I think, to a subtle touch of bass emphasis), but with the Shure exhibiting perhaps a touch more midrange emphasis. • oth earphones emphasize a smooth, B natural sound with decent (indeed generous) amounts of sonic detail, but I think the Westones achieve finer levels of overall resolution and transparency, with a top end that sounds noticeably more open and airy. But the Westone’s sound is really defined pairs of compressible foam tips (sizes M and L), three pairs of “bulb-shaped” gray rubber tips (sizes S, M, and L), and three pairs of “bell-shaped” silicone tips. • Cleaning tool. • Line attenuator. • 3.5mm mini-jack to ¼” phone jack adapter. • turdy fabric shell travel case with zipper S closure and a patented Westone carabinerstyle belt clip. As discussed above, the TrueFit 4 is easy to handle, insert, and adjust thanks to the inherently ergonomic design of its earpiece shell (a design also shared with Westones’ TrueFit 3 model). Not only is the TrueFit 4 comfortable to wear for long periods of time, but its design and EPIC cables also help to suppress noise that might other wise be transmitted through the cable into the earpieces.
Westone’s TrueFit 4 is very well balanced performer that does most things extremely well, and whose few performance compromises take the form of relatively minor sins of omission. This is without a doubt one of the finest universal-fit earphones on the planet, whose greatest strengths are an accurate and inherently vivid and vibrant sound. For those unwilling or unable to take the plunge into the world of custom-fit in-ear monitors, the universal-fit TrueFit 4 may well be the next best thing.
and differentiated by its inherent qualities of sonic vividness and vibrancy, which really help bring the music to life. • oth earphones are compact and B comfortable, and both come with broad, useful array of eartips. The comfort factor contest is pretty much a draw; the TrueFit feature a well thought out earpiece shell design and Westone’s cool EPIC signal cables, while the SE535’s benefit from Shure’s absolutely ingenious swiveling (and,
please note, user-replaceable) signal cable design. • he TrueFit 4’s carry Westone’s 1-year T warranty, while the SE535’s carry Shure’s excellent 2-year warranty.
The Westone TrueFit 4’s include the following accessories: • artips: one pair of triple-flange tips, two E
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Playback Custom-fit in-Ear monitors
128 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors
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custom-fit in-ear monitors
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JH AuDIO JH16 PRO
Consider this custom-fit in-ear monitor if: you want to go to the sonic “mountaintop” and are prepared to invest in what is certainly one of the finest (if not the finest) inear headphones on the planet. Positive qualities include excellent resolution, neutral tonal balance, and remarkable “cut-from-wholecloth” sonic integrity. Sensitive and easy to drive, the JH16 Pro can be powered directly by an iPod, though to tap this monitor’s full potential you’ll need and want to use a great DAC and headphone amplifier. look further if: you want to do “due diligence” and thus to check out other top-tier custom fit options available. Some models to consider would include the Sensaphonics 2MAX and the Westone ES5. Playback will be reviewing these and other customfit competitors in the future, but based on our listening experiences thus far, we think JH Audio’s JH16 Pro can stand tall in any company.
n the world of high-end, high-accuracy inear monitors, Jerry Harvey is regarded as a both a pioneer and as a bit of a legend. Harvey’s work in this area began at Ultimate Ears—a company that he helped found and for which he created a number of custom-fit in-ear headphone designs that have come to be regarded as classics by the performanceminded musicians and audiophiles who know and love them. Eventually, though, Ultimate Ears was sold to Logitech, with the result that Harvey exited the audio arena for a time, only to return in 2009 as the leader of his new company: JH Audio. JH Audio focuses on one thing only: building high-performance custom-fit in-ear monitors, and at the very top of the firm’s product pyramid resides the JH16 Pro ($1149). In a brief conversation with Harvey at the Can Jam Chicago 2010, I learned that the JH16 Pro embodies everything Mr. Harvey has learned over his long and successful career as a headphone designer. Despite its diminutive size, then, the JH16 Pro is chockfull of technology; it is a three-way, triple-bore in-ear monitor based on eight (!) miniature
129 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors
TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs
• arpieces can be molded in any of 54 E custom colors. the JH16 Pro is Jerry Harvey’s masterpiece. Does the JH16 Pro’s sound quality live up to its “buzz?” In very many respects it does. • omes packed in a watertight “Otter Box” C custom labeled with the owner’s name.jhaudio. where users can (in most cases) pick solid or translucent colors (translucent colors show the inner structural details of the headphones). parts and labor price: $1149 JH AUdIO (866) 485-9111 www. which with most custom fit models—the JH16 Pro included—is dramatically superior to the best that universal-fit models can achieve. • riple bore design (where “bores” are outlet T tubes for each of the three groups of drivers). two midrange drivers. • Passive three-way crossover • ses eight miniature balanced-armature U drivers (four low-frequency drivers. External artwork can be applied to the earpieces for a modest $50 upcharge. there is the matter of noise isolation. increased headroom and greater detail and accuracy. with greater resolution and terrifically smooth. or 64-inch lengths. since some universal-fit models claim isolation specs soniC CharaCter If. 8-driver (balanced armature). • igh-quality signal cables are offered in H either clear or black jackets in 18-inch. then the jump to custom-fit in-ear ‘phones will likely prove a sonic revelation.custom-fit in-ear monitors go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up balanced-armature drivers (grouped as four low-frequency drivers. Relative to even the best universal fit models I have tested. I found them simply revelatory—so much so that I found myself listening to them every chance that I got. Interestingly. much of your past listening experience has been gleaned through exposure to high-quality universal-fit in-ear headphones. like me. I know that when I first received my JH Audio review samples. ratinGs clarity dynamics (compared to similarly-priced in-ear headphones) tonal balance specs/prici ng JH Audio JH16 pro custom-fit in-ear monitor Type: Three-way. triple-bore. FeatUres • ustom-fit. But part of my reaction is also due to pure and simple design excellence on Jerry Harvey’s part. they offered superior noise isolation. Part of my favorable reaction is simply due to the custom-fit format itself. solid acrylic earpieces provide C noise isolation (-26 dB) audibly superior to that of any universal-fit in-ear model Playback has tested. 48inch.com 130 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . excellence that manifest itself in the way that Harvey gets the eight drivers of his JH16 Pro to sing with one common voice— something that. and two high-frequency drivers). custom-fit in-ear headphones Accessories: Otter Box custom labeled with owner’s name. felt drawstring carrying pouch. • ccessories include a cleaning tool (for A removing ear wax from the bore tubes). and the particular performance attributes of the JH16 Pro. the JH16 Pro claims the widest frequency response (10Hz – 20kHz) and the highest sensitivity rating (118dB @ 1 mW) of any of the JH Audio models. JH16 Pro with earpieces molded in the owner’s choice of custom colors (see JH Audio web site for options). which I regard as one of the best of their breed.” In turn. two midrange drivers.com comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 First. for several good reasons. This review will explore both the concept of custom-fit in-ear models in general. which offers—I have discovered—terrific potential for coupling drive mechanisms to the wearer’s ears in an effective way while blocking out extraneous noise. in practice. plus a comfortable fit and terrific ease of insertion. this difference isn’t something you can tell from a specifications page.avguide. and two high-frequency drivers) said to offer “lower distortion. cleaning tool. is much easier said than done. www. Frequency response: 10Hz – 20kHz Weight: Not specified sensitivity: 118 dB SPL/mW Impedance: 18 ohms Warranty: 2 years. neutral tonal balance. In short. and a felt drawstring pouch. • Gold-plated mini-jack.
with almost minimalist instrumentation. Frankly. even in seemingly quiet rooms—until. so that notes show a delicate. openback designs that offer little if any isolation from background noise.custom-fit in-ear monitors go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up roughly as good as (if not better than) the -26 dB isolation figure specified for the JH Audio JH16 Pros. but never loose. you might be struck. Frankly. and the way the JH16 Pros capture the rich. Instead. might briefly conjure up the mental image of a male vocalist “channeling” the spirit or overall feel of some of the late Edith Piaf’s vocals). that is. below). Low frequency notes are potent and deeply extended. Under real-world conditions the JH Audios proved substantially quieter than their universal fit counterparts—and by not subtle margins. taut “skin sounds” of the drums. “Le Temps Passe” is a fascinating track in that is starts simple. but in a gentle and unforced way. One point I should mention is that while custom-fit in-ear ‘phones offer characteristically better noise-isolation that universal-fit models. At its best. the JH16 Pro’s offer wonderfully neutral and accurate voicing and tonal balance—an area where they are at least the equals of the best in-ear models I’ve heard thus far. Long after the short-term thrill of more “colorful” but less accurate headphones has faded the neutrality of the JH16 Pros remains a gift that keeps on giving. the JH16 Pros also provide an environment in which you can hear what their driver’s are doing and fully appreciate the resolution and finesse on offer. the JH16 Pros serve up a consistently detailed sound even when used in relatively “hostile. the JH Audios offer excellent overall resolution and detail. making these headphones a more satisfying choice for longterm listening. There is always a sense of evenhandedness and proportion about the JH16 Pro’s sound. By creating extremely quiet backgrounds. too. is their tautness and control. Finally. per se. so that no one segment of the audio spectrum is emphasized at the expense of another. on this track.avguide. you hear a good set of custom-fit in-ear ‘phones such as the JH Audios make most if not all of that noise disappear. it’s a difference you can only appreciate through firsthand listening experiences. the JH16 Pros are instead revealing in a delightfully natural and unforced way. Details just “happen” with these headphones. so that they invite you to explore the inner “nooks and crannies” of well-made recordings. pay close attention to the synth voices that enter. bright or overly forward sound. but rather about the emotions behind the sounds—something the JH16 Pro’s make abundantly clear. and then gradually adds www. reverberant sound of their notes interacting with the acoustics of the recording space. Instead. As the cymbals ring. qualified to reproduce. there are meaningful differences between the amounts of noise isolation achieved by different brands of custom fit earpieces. Having compared the JH Audios to several other top-tier custom-fit models (see Competitive Analysis. Listen to the sparse percussion with which the track opens and note the dry. the JH16 Pros are remarkably honest transducers that steadfastly refuse to “punch up” one frequency band or another in ways that might seem exciting at first.” noisy environments. but most of them are large. Second. intimate quality that the JH Audio’s seem uniquely well131 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . without any of the artificial “spotlighting” or etching that some headphones impose. some of which produce positively subterranean bass. their noise isolation is very good.com MUsiCal eXaMples One beautiful jazz track that shows off many of the JH16 Pro’s strengths is “Le Temps Passe” from Michel Jonasz’ Le Fabuleuse Histoire De Mister Swing [EMI]. overblown. but that ultimately don’t sound quite right. sparkling clarity—almost like sunlight reflecting off the rippled surface of a pool. I can think of only a handful of full-size ‘phones that offer as much (or in a few cases more) resolution than the JH16 Pros. you won’t believe how much residual noise there is. The low-end power of the JH16 Pros is much in evidence on those synth notes. but so. Jonasz’ voice. Next drink in the shimmer of a cymbal “tree” that is struck. is not so much about sounds. This is a well recorded track that gives both instruments and the singer’s voice a rich. In contrast. by the JH Audio’s ability to serve up very high levels of inner detail. as I was. note the way that the JH16 Pro’s deftly handle the subtle inflections and unusual vibrato effects of Jonasz’ voice (which. or out of control. but not the best that can be achieved. Third. they never take dominance over the fundamentals of the sound. Then. like Piaf’s. But unlike many in-ear headphones that offer detail at the expense of a somewhat glassy.
The JH16 Pros offer noticeably better noise isolation that any www.custom-fit in-ear monitors go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up layer upon layer until the instrumentation becomes comparatively complex. • he JH16 Pro is a three-way. JH16 Pro vs. Sensaphonics 2MAX ($850) • he JH16 Pro costs roughly $300 more than T the Sensaphonics 2MAX. Indeed. • esolution levels between the two monitors R are comparable. T where the 2MAX is a two-way. Note. effortless quality you can both hear and feel. however. that the 2MAX’s offer exceptional noise isolation so that they manage to achieve—thanks to their ultra-quiet backgrounds—appealing qualities of sonic intensity and focus. I found the voicing of the JH16 Pro to O be more evenly and neutrally balanced than that of the 2MAX.avguide. two for the mids. per se. the JH Audio earpieces lend themselves to an insertion process where you gently rotate the JH16 Pro earpieces until they “snap” into position. bass and highs. but rather struck me as offering judicious touches of dramatic emphasis. where JH Audio uses solid acrylic earpieces. but I suspect it was this very capability that Jerry Harvey had in mind when giving his JH16 Pros such elaborate. • verall. By distributing the musical workload across a multitude of drive units Harvey ensures that no one driver ever gets overtaxed—in the process giving the overall musical presentation a relaxed. always maintaining clarity and composure. though I would give the nod to the JH16 Pro’s by a narrow margin. and demonstrating a wonderful ability to delineate individual musical threads within the broader musical tapestry. By comparison. Where some headphones tend to become flummoxed and to sound congested when serious musical complexity comes along. two drivers for the highs. which some listeners might prefer. The JH16 Pro comes as 132 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . and four for the bass—in each earpiece). the JH16 Pro simply revel in it. close as any in-ear headphone I’ve heard to achieving ideally neutral tonal balance. • ne of the biggest differentiators between O the JH16 Pro and the 2MAX involves the construction of their custom-molded earpieces. 8-driver design. The difference in feel is significant. with beautiful integration and balance between mids (where most of the music lives). I discuss its performance relative to two leading competitors: the Sensaphonics 2MAX ($850) and the Westone ES-5 ($950). while Sensaphonics uses soft-gel silicone earpieces. These “regions of emphasis” in the 2MAX typically did not register as overt colorations. • he JH16 Pro’s solid.com CoMpetitve analysis To give you an idea of how the JH16 Pro compares to other top-tier custom-fit in-ear monitors. multidriver arrays (again. 2-driver design. achieving a very good seal and an extremely comfortable fit in the process. the 2MAX offers two subtle regions of emphasis—one in the mid-bass and the other in the upper midrange/lower treble region. smooth acrylic T earpieces make them extremely easy to insert. I can’t say for sure.
where the JH16 Pros sound unfailingly smooth. To achieve an optimal fit. we think the JH16 Pro represents the sonic “mountaintop” among in-ear headphones. • ne of the biggest differentiators between O the JH16 Pro and the ES5 involves the construction of their custom-molded earpieces. the seamless coherency of the sound achieved by their eight balanced-armature drivers. • he ES5 earpieces in a sense “split the T difference” between the JH Audio and Sensaphonics earpiece designs. • esolution levels between the JJ16 Pro’s and R ES5’s are comparable. • he JH16 Pro is a three-way. On the one hand. and it looks and feels the part of a true flagship product. but the end result is very comfortable. By comparison.avguide. while also offering some if not all of the superior noise isolation characteristics that the Sensaphonics’ soft-gel silicone earpieces provide. As the Westone earpieces come up to temperature. JH16 Pro vs. their tips become semiflexible and thus conform to the shape of the ear canal to achieve a better seal. it definitely is if the monitors in question are the JH16 Pros. While this prominence can impart a sense of superior clarity. “soft-feel” material for the portion of the earpiece that inserts into the ear canal. Though they are undeniably expensive. BottoM line The JH16 Pro is the finest in-ear monitor that Jerry Harvey has ever designed. The resulting fit can seem disconcertingly tight at first.custom-fit in-ear monitors go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up of the universal-fit in-ear ‘phones I’ve tried. vocalists. though some other custom-fit ‘phones that can achieve even better levels of noise isolation. and then press—gently but quite firmly—over the ear canal area to get the earpieces to seal correctly. • he 2MAX’s soft-gel silicone earpieces T take a bit more effort to fit correctly (in part because the 2MAX earpieces fit quite deeply within the ear canal). T where the ES5 is a three-way. 5-driver design. the JH16 Pros provide an audio experience that not even today’s best universal-fit in-ear headphones can hope to equal. the Westones have the easy-toinsert qualities of the all-acrylic JH Audio earpieces. Westone ES5 ($950) • he JH16 Pro costs roughly $200 more than T the Westone ES5. you must first rotate the 2MAX earpieces into approximately the correct position. The JH Audio uses solid acrylic earpieces. 8-driver design. which is saying a mouthful when you look back at some of the groundbreaking products that he designed while at Ultimate Ears. the tradeoff is that the Westones can occasionally sound “spitty” on hard upper midrange transient sounds. and transients sound slightly more prominent in the mix. thermally sensitive. Is it worth taking the plunge to invest in good set of custom-fit in-ear monitors? Yes. while the level of noise isolation achieved by the 2MAX’s is spectacularly good—better than that achieved by any other headphone (regardless of type) that Playback has tested thus far. The two qualities that make the JH16 Pros most special are the overall smoothness and neutrality of their tonal balance coupled with www. you’ll need a very good DAC and headphone amplifier to realize the full scope of the sonic benefits the JH Audio ‘phones provide. Though the JH16 Pro is sensitive enough to be driven directly from an iPod. • he voicing of the JH16 Pro is somewhat T more smoothly and neutrally balanced than that of the ES5. the ES5 exhibits a gentle region of upper midrange emphasis that tends to make certain midrange instruments. while Westone uses a combination of solid acrylic material for the main bodies of their earpieces they also use a separate. For now.com 133 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .
As a result. As you might expect. As is the case with great loudspeakers whose sonic excellence derives in part from superior enclosures. Sensaphonics forms its earpieces from a flexible material called soft-gel. But frankly.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . which Dr. exactly.custom-fit in-ear monitors go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up SENSAPHONICS 2MAX Chris Martens or a company whose primary products are custom-fit in-ear monitors. The 2MAX does show very slightly elevated response both in the mid-bass and upper-midrange/lower-treble regions. In contrast. change facial expressions. and—here’s that word again—intimate than competing monitors that you might willingly overlook its minor deviations from strict tonal neutrality. acrylic earpieces are often deliberately made just slightly undersize (and are also subtly smoothed overview Consider this custom-fit in-ear monitor if: you would like what is without a doubt one of the quietest headphones on the planet (regardless of type). but that will help protect your hearing so that you can continue to savor music for years to come. These folks not only want to build in-ear monitors that sound great in the here and now. But how. does Sensaphonics convert its stated goal of “hearing conservation” into practical reality? To seek answers. more focused. First off. Sensaphonics has a somewhat unusual name. the 2MAX can be used successfully in noisy environments where other monitors would be far less enjoyable (because they would allow too much background noise to seep through). I requested a review sample of the firm’s 2MAX inear monitors ($850). adding a subtle touch of dramatic emphasis that complements most types of music. Michael Santucci. the firm’s full name is Sensaphonics Hearing Conservation. soft-gel silicone earpieces are firm enough to hold a precise shape. According to Dr. the Sensaphonics 2MAX inear monitor offers superior earpieces that block out more noise than most competing monitors can. yet have enough flexibility or “give” to accommodate the natural flexing of the wearer’s ear canal and pinna (flexing that occurs naturally when listeners move their heads. soft-gel silicone is considerably more difficult to work with than acrylic from a manufacturing standpoint. recommended as his firm’s most neutrally voiced and therefore most accuratesounding model. the 2MAX sounds so much clearer. in turn letting you hear more musical details and nuances for a breathtakingly intimate and focused listening experience. hard acrylic earpieces are rigid and do not flex. 134 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. or open or close their jaws. Inc. whereas most of its competitors form earpieces from relatively rigid acrylic materials (or in some instances from a hybrid combination of acrylic and softer materials).—a moniker that tells you a lot about the firm’s core values.). The short answer to the question regarding hearing conservation is that the company builds the custom-fit earpieces for all of its in-ear monitors using different materials and techniques than most of its competitors employ—all with an eye F toward providing superior noise isolation. but it offers compelling benefits that make a profound difference for the earphone wearer. cold-cure silicone. Santucci and to Sensaphonics production team members I spoke with. the head of Sensaphonics. etc. look further if: you require absolutely dead-neutral tonal balance.avguide. indeed.
a 1/8-inch – 1/4-inch adapter. (Other more complicated and costly models in the lineup are geared primarily for use as stage monitors worn by performing musicians. as I have. there are a number of collateral benefits to having what audiophiles might call a reduced “noise floor. Though the 2MAX is neither the most expensive nor—on paper—the most elaborate of Sensaphonic’s various customfit in-ear monitors. First. where the 2MAX is quite simply the best performing headphone (of any type) that we’ve yet tested. • igh-quality. Thus. that they come as a revelation. Second. soft-gel silicone also does a very good job of damping unwanted vibration and thus helps block mechanically induced noise. a shirt clip (mounted on the signal cable). P • ses two high-quality miniature balancedU armature type drivers. there is the matter of noise isolation. Frequency response: 20Hz – 16kHz Weight: 1 ounce sensitivity: 105 dB SPL @ 0. the sense of quiet they bring reminds me somewhat of what it is like to visit an ultra-quiet anechoic chamber in an acoustics laboratory. If you ever have a chance to buy and try a set of Sensaphonics ‘phones you may find. it is—along with its sister model the 2X-S—the firm’s most neutrally voiced and most accurately balanced model. are made at exactly the size of the user’s ear-mold impressions. Finally. 2-driver (balanced armature). (877) 848-1714 (toll-free) www. and a fabric carrying pouch soniC CharaCter Much like the JH Audio JH16 Pro in-ear monitors reviewed elsewhere in this Guide. soft-gel silicone earpieces C provide superb noise isolation (up to -37 dB).). ratinGs clarity dynamics (compared to similarly-priced in-ear headphones) tonal balance specs/prici ng sensaphonics 2MAX custom-fit in-ear monitor Type: Two-way. First. shirt clip. let me reiterate one key point I mentioned above. price: $850 sENsApHONICs HEArINg CONsErvATION. but also to accommodate flexing of the ear. The case interior provides well-padded chambers both for the monitors and for accessories. so that they do a downright amazing job of blocking out noise. fabric carrying pouch. minimum Warranty: 1 year. and 1/8-inch –1/4-inch adapter. custom-fit in-ear monitors Accessories: Clear hard shell Pelican road case custom labeled with the owner’s name (case provides a fully-padded interior). partly in the interest of wearer comfort. Note that the 2MAX provides backgrounds said to be as much as -10dB quieter that those afforded by competing monitors. which makes the 2MAX the quietest headphone Playback has ever tested— regardless of type. on the other hand. • ccessories include a cleaning tool (for A removing ear wax from the monitor’s bore tubes). cleaning tool. parts and labor. the ultra-quiet backgrounds they provide make them seem much more sensitive than their specifications would suggest. noises that in other earphones might be transmitted up through the signal cables and into the earpieces tend to be minimized in the Sensaphonics ‘phones. the Sensaphonics earpieces give you an opportunity to really hear clearly what the 2MAX’s two balanced armature-type drive units are doing. and they extend more deeply into the ear canal than most.” By helping to push noise levels to extremely low levels. which is—trust us on this one—a very significant difference. Third. this is one instance where you have an opportunity to spend less but to get more— assuming your primary intent is to listen to recorded music. Although the rated sensitivity of the 2MAX is not as high as that of some competing in-ear monitors.avguide. one further upshot of having quiet backgrounds is that listeners instinctively tend to use lower volume levels. Sensaphonics earpieces. and they can do so without any sense of quashing dynamics or of “missing out” on part of the music.sensaphonics. field replaceable signal cable H fitted with a gold-plated mini-jack and offered in 52-inch or optional 60-inch lengths. INC. You might never realize just how much noise you put up with on a daily basis until the Sensaphonics monitors come along and make most of that noise go away. • assive two-way crossover.custom-fit in-ear monitors go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up in shape). to picture how dramatic the effects of the 2MAX earpieces really are. and that you suddenly thrust your head beneath the surface www. • omes packed in a clear hard shell Pelican C road case that is custom labeled with the owner’s name. Happily. Let me give you two analogies to help explain what wearing the 2MAX monitors is really like. the Sensaphonics 2MAX monitors offer a quite substantial jump upward in performance relative to even the finest universal-fit in-ear monitors we have tested thus far.1 Volt Impedance: 23 ohms. the Sensaphonics earpieces achieve a firm yet very comfortable fit and create a more perfect seal in the ear. As a result. While it takes a bit of work to get the soft-gel earpieces properly inserted/fitted. imagine you are visiting a recreational swimming pool where there is lots of outdoor activity and background noise.com 135 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .com comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 FeatUres • ustom-fit. Finally.
In fact. and the delicacy and penetrating clarity of Bush’s voice—all at the same time. the 2MAX’s really came into their own.” meaning that these characteristics tend not to registers as “colorations” at all. the 2MAX’s judicious bit of response curve shaping tends to help the music carry through despite whatever residual noise may penetrate the Sensaphonics earpieces (good though soft-gel is at blocking out noise.” When you switch back and forth between the 2MAX and competing in-ear headphones. the two qualities travel together. in truth. giving you an up-close-and-personal view of individual instrumental and vocal lines as they unfold. life and drama that are so much a part of music listening. addressing CoMpetitve analysis To show you how the 2MAX compares to other www. But my point is the 2MAX’s characteristics work. even though the 2MAX does provide a touch of upper-midrange/lower-treble boost.” Initially. To hear what I mean. the two I would choose are “intimacy” and “focus. so that we become aware of it (and are certain of its presence) right from the outset. Suzie. MUsiCal eXaMples I’ve spoken about the 2MAX’s compelling characteristics of sonic intimacy and focus. very slightly rolled-off. edginess that occasionally afflicts other “highly detailed” headphones. Over time. like the dynamic ‘Joanni. The sheer depth and potency of the bass and the more muscular “pop” of the drums were very impressive. it appears against a deep. that if you do listen in very noisy environments (for instance. try the track “Joanni. the sound of the nearby birds morphs—very subtly and almost subliminally at first—so that embedded within the chirping sounds we slowly begin to recognize an almost human voice. you may be struck—as I often was—by a sense that the 2MAX draws you into closer contact with the music.custom-fit in-ear monitors go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up of the water. and can hear how the voice gradually becomes clearer. it emphatically does not sound edgy or overly bright. to help convey the sense of energy. Note. delicate. evanescent details. yet they in no way disrupted or overran the purity and clarity of Bush’s vocals. sharp relief. which are much more present with us than we typically realize (even in seemingly “quiet” rooms). some does manage to push through). But within a few bars Bush introduces a powerful. Don’t go home. chanting repeatedly. Given some of the 2MAX’s tonal variations. the 2MAX’s sheer clarity and explicitness becomes addictive. If I had to give you just two words to help summarize the overall sound of the Sensaphonics 2MAX monitors. this leads to a best-oftwo worlds scenario. deep. suddenly vanish so that we’re left only with very low-levels of residual noise.com 136 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . as described above. and what residual noise does remain becomes far less penetrating and distracting. within the interior of small regional commuter jets and the like). one in the mid-bass and the other in the upper-midrange/lower treble region. deepplunging bass line while dialing the intensity of the percussion pattern way up. Second. so that one nearly experiences withdrawal symptoms when reverting back to using less revealing earphones. the 2MAX’s extreme highs are very smooth and. In practice. at which point the song’s energy level blasts right through the roof. glassy. let me observe again that putting on the 2MAX monitors is a bit like paying a visit to an anechoic chamber in a lab. The track opens with a wash of nature sounds—birds chirping in trees in the distance. the 2MAX’s help you grasp the fact that reduced noise and increased sonic resolution and detail are in reality two sides of the same coin. and in a sense more insistent as the chant continues. we can’t really be sure whether we’ve actually heard a voice or simply imagined one. yet is never plagued with the somewhat brittle. more explicit. it can also carry itself with purposeful and charismatic touches of punch and swagger when the need arises. too. A child’s voice begins to narrate. When the music comes on through the 2MAX.avguide. a huge portion of the background noise is blocked out. and to hear those qualities in action. The voicing of the 2MAX. but rather serve to add a gentle touch of dramatic impact complementary to most genres of music. as mentioned in our introduction above. But when the loping bass line arrived and the percussion section became more vigorous and insistent. What caught my ear was the way the 2MAX’s simultaneously caught the taut skin-sounds of the drums. “Don’t go home. One important point I should mention is that. taking the musical bit in their teeth and running with it. The operative word here is “subtle.’ a hymn to Joan of Arc. Immediately. the sweetness of the opening wash of strings. where the 2MAX sounds lively. But good though the 2MAX can be with small. But not so with the 2MAX in play. “…the day was full of birds … it sounds like they’re saying a word…” And as this happens. it would probably be fair to say the Sensaphonics monitors very subtly enhanced the perceived power of the low-frequency instruments. not just on this track but on many others. if anything. syncopated percussion pattern (featuring conventional drums and congas) with strings carrying the melody and Bush’s almost ethereal voice soaring high overhead. but then focuses in on one group of birds (or what initially seems like a group of birds) chirping rhythmically and at a slightly lower pitch from close at hand. it makes the gradual unfolding of the voice plain as day. while the 2MAX’s gentle dab of upper-midrange/lower-treble emphasis no doubt helped Bush’s vocals to stay front and center in the mix. Of this album critic John Diliberto has written “…many of the songs attain more epic proportions. try listening to the brief track “Prelude” from Kate Bush’s Aerial [Sony].” Through some headphones this effect is so subtle that it more or less gets lost or swallowed up by background noise. More than most in-ear headphones. involves two subtle regions of emphasis. comfortably silent background so that its intricacies and contours stand out in crisp. dark. Background noises. her Mummy and Daddy and saying. Suzie. engaging and richly detailed.” also from Kate Bush’s Aerial. loping. the song is propelled forward by a dark.
Though the 2MAX does offer a bit of mid-bass and upper-midrange/lower-treble emphasis these deviations from strict textbook neutrality are relatively minor. though at the expense of an occasionally “spitty” sound on certain hardedged upper midrange transient sounds. however. But again. the ES5’s offer upper treble that is noticeably clearer and more extended than that of the 2MAX’s do. 2MAX vs. Quieter backgrounds. • esolution levels between the two monitors R are comparable. but if you listen carefully certain key differences do appear. the 2MAX offers subtle A touches of tonal emphasis both in the midbass and in the upper midrange/lower treble region. • he 2MAX is a two-way. and more engaging monitor. 2-driver design. helping to give the 2MAX a signature sound that is intimate and beautifully focused. though I would very narrowly give the edge to the ES5. while the Westone earpieces use a combination of solid acrylic material coupled with a separate. that the 2MAX’s exceptional noise isolation enables them to provide appealing qualities of sonic intimacy and focus. The resulting fit can seem disconcertingly tight at first. note that the 2MAX’s ultra-quiet backgrounds give the Sensaphonics’ monitors qualities of intimacy and focus that are tough to beat. achieving a very good seal and a comfortable fit in the process. the 2MAX offers listeners a clear. • ne of the biggest differentiators between O the 2MAX and the JH16 Pro involves the construction of their custom-molded earpieces. • s mentioned above. 5-driver design. First. On the whole. and drama of live music. translate into more detailed and nuanced sound. straightforward insertion process where you gently rotate the JH16 Pro earpieces until they seem almost to “snap” into position. I’ve chosen to compare its performance with that of two leading competitors: the JH Audio JH16 Pro ($1149) and the Westone ES-5 ($950). then. On the one hand. while also offering some (though not all) of the superior noise isolation characteristics that the Sensaphonics’ softgel silicone earpieces provide. While the JH16 Pro can and does handily outperform any universal-fit in-ear headphone in terms of noise isolation. their tips become semi-flexible and thus conform to the shape of the ear canal to achieve a better seal. the JH Audio earpieces B lend themselves to a simple. T where the ES-5 is a three-way. Westone ES5 ($950) • he 2MAX costs $100 less than the Westone T ES5. Neutrality is one of the JH16 Pro’s greatest strengths. BottoM line The Sensaphonics 2MAX in-ear monitor offers the best noise isolation and therefore the quietest backgrounds of any headphone Playback has tested thus far.custom-fit in-ear monitors go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up top-tier custom-fit in-ear monitors. while the ES5 is the more accurate monitor and one that offers a certain pristine purity and clarity—especially at higher frequencies. • he ES5 earpieces in a sense “split the T difference” between the Sensaphonics and JH Audio earpiece designs. The 2MAX features Sensaphonics’ signature soft-gel silicone earpieces. and then press—gently but quite firmly—over the ear canal area to get the earpieces to seal correctly. • he 2MAX is a comparatively simple twoT way. JH Audio JH16 pro ($1149) • he 2MAX costs roughly $300 less than the T JH16 Pro. you must first rotate the 2MAX earpieces into approximately the correct position. though in an absolute sense I would give the nod to the JH16 Pro’s. As the Westone earpieces come up to temperature. and the difference in feel and overall functionality is significant. Overall. thermally sensitive. while the level of noise isolation achieved by the 2MAX’s is spectacularly good—better than that achieved by any other headphone (regardless of type) that Playback has tested thus far. I think many listeners might find the 2MAX the warmer. instead offering and even subtler region of broad midrange emphasis that tends to make certain midrange instruments. vocalists. Sensaphonics uses soft-gel silicone earpieces while JH Audio uses solid acrylic earpieces. 2-driver design. the ES5 exhibits somewhat less mid-bass boost than the 2MAX. offering a judicious touch of dramatic emphasis that some listeners might prefer. the voicing of the 2MAX and A of the ES5 seems pretty similar. • he 2MAX’s soft-gel silicone earpieces take T a bit more effort to fit correctly than the JH16 Pro’s acrylic earpieces do (in part because the 2MAX earpieces fit quite deeply within the ear canal). • y comparison. smooth sound that is intensely engaging and that does a great job of conveying the energy. • esolution levels between the 2MAX’s and R ES-5’s are comparable. “snapinto-position” qualities of the all-acrylic JH Audio earpieces.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . and transients sound just a hair more prominent in the mix. but perhaps stronger mid-to-low bass. Note. sensaphonics 2MAX vs. By comparison.avguide. but the end result is very comfortable. life. whereas the JH16 Pro is a three-way. • t first glance. 8-driver design. in turn. • ne of the biggest differentiators between O the 2MAX and the ES5 involves the construction of their custom-molded earpieces. the ES5 has less of an upper-midrange/lower-treble rise than the 2MAX. the 2MAX gives even quieter backgrounds. the Westones have the easy-to-insert. the voicing of the JH16 Pro is somewhat more evenly and neutrally balanced than that of the 2MAX. 137 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. Finally. more dramatic. “soft-feel” material for the portion of the earpiece that inserts into the ear canal. Second. To achieve an optimal fit.
in-ear monitors since 1995. in order to develop the optimally flat. the In-Ear Reference Monitors were designed from the ground up with just one goal in mind: sonic accuracy. The IERM’s are also very quiet and comfortable to wear for long periods of time look further if: you require the most detailed sounding in-ear monitors available (both Westone’s ES5 and the JH Audio JH16 PROs offer stiff competition.custom-fit in-ear monitors go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up uLTIMATE EARS IN-EAR REFERENCE MONITORS Chris Martens overview Consider this custom-fit in-ear monitor if: you have always wanted in-ear monitors that for the most part honestly reveal how recordings actually sound. neutral. without introducing questionable sonic embellishments. U ltimate Ears has been making high-quality. Ultimate Ears chose to collaborate with the engineering staff at Capitol Studios (of Capitol Records fame). Note. Here’s why. UE’s In Ear Reference Monitor is tough to beat. here). that the IERM’s response can sound very subtly rolled off up near the top of the top octave (which spans the range from 10 kHz to 20 kHz). The IERM’s are—as is so often the case with really fine audio components—sonic chameleons. enhancements. too. or “sweeteners” of any kind. but rather take on the tonal colors of the individual recordings you choose to play. without injecting interesting but inaccurate colorations of their own. meaning they don’t really have a signature sound of their own. or the highest degree of noise-isolation possible (where the Sensaphonics 2MAX is our reigning class leader). In short. but I would argue their new In-Ear Reference Monitors are the firm’s most significant product to date. While other in-ear monitors offer admittedly colorful response curves that may have a certain charm all their own (but that ultimately are not as accurate as they could be). and uncolored response curves that were required. 138 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www.avguide. Where many in-ear monitors are designed primarily for performing musicians and thus have response curves designed to cut through the din of (sometimes exceedingly loud) onstage performances. But for overall balance and the sheer smoothness of its response curve. In approaching the IERM design. Ultimate Ears’ IERM’s are designed to serve as a transparent conduit for the music at hand—a design goal we think most Playback readers will instinctively appreciate and applaud. the IERM’s were designed to provide ruler flat frequency response whose objective is to show you precisely how your favorite recordings really sound.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . customfit. meaning the IERM doesn’t necessarily capture the elusive sense of “air” surrounding instruments as effectively as some competitors do.
The IERM earpiece housings are therefore molded in clear acrylic with jetblack outer panels.” Excellent noise isolation was also a prime concern.avguide. and tweeter). In short. “consistent. midrange driver. From a technical standpoint. Output from the three drivers is directed through “dual acoustically tuned sound chambers” (which some competitors refer to as “bores. with the Capitol Studios logo displayed on the right earpiece and the signature “UE” logo on the left earpiece. the IERM has been given a distinctive look all its own—and one that reflects the product’s design heritage. parts and labor price: $999 UlTIMATE EArs BY lOgITECH (800) 589-6531 www. sensitivity: 112 dB @ 1 kHz. very close to the ideal of sonic neutrality. low-distortion” signal “ cable fitted with a gold-plated mini-jack. in-ear monitor that uses three high-performance balanced armature type drivers (serving as woofer. mini-jack to ¼-inch phone jack adapter. the IERM seems comparatively straightforward. low-profile. well-defined. so that you come away with the sense that the IERM’s have done a much better than average job of ironing out the small response curve bumps and dips that most other in-ear ‘phones exhibit. portable “buffer jack” cable. 1mW Impedance: 35 Ohms Warranty: 1 year. lowprofile.” Custom-fit earpieces are made of solid acrylic material. UE has gone all-out in the packaging I for the IERM’s. 3-driver (balanced armature). How do the In-Ear Reference Monitors sound? You’ll want to read the rest of this review for a detailed answer. and the IERM’s are fitted with “rugged. yet in no way artificially “pumped up. What words cannot easily express is how remarkably smooth the IERM’s response curve is. which are connected via a passive electronic crossover network. Frequency response: 5Hz – 20 kHz Weight: Not specified. earpieces feature outer shells C molded from solid acrylic. “our headphone uses a dual-bore design”) for what UE terms “the ultimate in separation. plus a padded chamber that conceals and protects the road case. Very tasteful. I say this because the IERM offers bass weighting that is accurate and highly realistic. • n fact. ratinGs clarity dynamics (compared to similarly-priced in-ear headphones) tonal balance specs/prici ng Ultimate Ears In-Ear reference Monitors Type: Three-way. custom-fit in-ear monitors Accessories: Hard shell road case (custom labeled with a padded interior). and deeply extended. In our view. cleaning tool.com 139 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . yet that www. It is a three-way. I found that the IERM’s bass was powerful. • ccessories include a cleaning tool (for A removing ear wax from the monitor’s bore tubes). As a cool detail touch. • Passive three-way crossover. whose earpieces typically would be offered in a rainbow-like array of custom colors. natural and revealing creating an accurate base line of pro audio reproduction that can be trusted by the professional recording engineer and producer no matter the environment. and they are very revealing. a gold-plated mini-jack to ¼-inch phone jack adapter. low-distortion” signal cables. the owner’s name is embossed on the outside of the road case. but suffice it to say the IERM’s are among the most neutral and evenly-balanced in-ear monitors we’ve yet heard. UE’s intent was to create a versatile and credible in-ear monitor that could reliably be used to monitor and mix recordings both in the studio and at live events—a goal that UE and Capitol collaborators say the IERM successfully meets. • istinctive In Ear Reference Monitor earpiece D design scheme calls for clear acrylic earpieces with black outer panels that proudly display the “UE” logo on one side and the “Capitol Studios” logo on the other.” as in the phrase. detail and clarity.” For those who are used to listening through earphones that do make deliberate attempt to add extra bass “oomph” the IERM will prove eye-opening. which arrive in a beautiful presentation case that contains the user’s manual.com comfort/fit sensitivity value 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 FeatUres • ustom-fit. soniC CharaCter The tonal balance of the IERM comes very. • hree high-quality miniature balancedT armature type drivers. and the fit is noticeably better than the norm in a field where the bar has already been set quite high.ultimateears. And the same qualities that make the IERM a good monitor are also sure to make it a favorite among audiophiles. • Rugged. it is to UE’s credit that the firm had the vision and open-mindedness necessary to think outside the box and to create this studio/ audiophile-grade product in the first place. with perhaps the only (extremely minor) deviation being a tendency to sound ever-so-slightly rolled off at the very highest frequencies. Unlike most other UE in-ear monitors. and a special “buffer jack” cable for use when plugging the IERM’s into portable devices.custom-fit in-ear monitors go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up According to Ultimate Ears the goal was to create an in-ear headphone so faithful to the input signals it is fed that its sonic character will be. • omes packed in a hard shell road case C whose interior provides well-padded chambers both for the monitors and for accessories.
simple rhythmic pattern played predominantly on the percussionist’s high-hats and snare drum. Still. while complicated instrumental lines and textures are cleanly presented and beautifully delineated. What makes the IERM so fun to use is the fact that the earpieces are easy to handle and seem simply to “snap” into place with a minimum of fuss and bother (whereas some earpieces can take a fair amount of work to insert correctly).” But through the Ultimate Ears IERM’s no such problems occur. As is often the case with Frisell’s projects. well balanced and neither overly prominent nor recessed. and three-dimensional— independent of what the other instruments are doing. then the good news is that it is a minor and subtractive error. serving up vocal and instrumental timbres that can.com 140 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page .” or textural and transient details quite as effectively as. Midrange frequencies are the IERM’s great glory. sweet. the IERM finds the straight and narrow path down the middle. which is far preferable to the alternative (excess brightness pretty much sets my teeth on edge). is a densely layered sound that. and definition on bass passages. Ultimate Ears did an absolutely masterful job of molding the custom-fit earpieces of my sample pair of IERM’s. Overall resolution levels are extremely good. showing you what was done well in the studio (or in the live recording venue). earthy growl of a syncopated acoustic bass line and a clear. While the IERM never sounds “dull” or unduly subdued. though both the Westone ES5 and JH Audio JH16 Pros offer very stiff competition and may offer even greater resolving power. while also serving up a heaping helping of comfort. but rather listen through them to learn what the recording is all about. Instead. and it’s obvious that UE has mastered both. display rich. so the music simply unfolds naturally without any need for embellishment. and somewhat chime-like signature sound of Frisell’s guitar take up the melody. www. Blue Note/ EMI]—a band in which eclectic guitarist Bill Frisell and his cohorts figure prominently. and always natural-sounding tonal colors. but also reporting any flaws they encounter. on most tracks. I’ve come to think that translating earmold impressions into great fitting custom earpieces is part science and part art. though only by a hair. it does not convey highfrequency harmonics. supplemented by the deep. there is real weight. power. Put on the track “Swamped” from Floratone and you’ll immediately hear the round. “air. the oneword description that repeatedly came to mind was this: authenticity. In short. complete.avguide. otherworldly melodies but also a variety of sometimes dark and brooding and sometimes light and ethereal textures and embellishments. vibrant. MUsiCal eXaMples One disk that highlights a number of the IERM’s strength is the eponymous jazz recording from Floratone [Floratone. As you come to trust the IERM’s overall tonal balance and sonic honesty. so that they achieved an excellent seal in my ear canals. And that’s the point: down low. the IERM will do exactly what the music tells it to do—no more and no less. on good recordings. through the IERM’s. runs a serious risk of turning into a complicated and incoherent sonic “mush. say. The result. if this characteristic represents a small deviation from the absolute sonic truth. so that each sounds full. listening carefully to vocal and instrumental material. As I spent time with the IERM’s. Instead. But the tradeoff is that no other inear monitor I’ve heard can top or even equal the effortless smoothness and overall balance of the IERM’s response curve. the beauty of Floratone not only hinges on angular. through some headphones and many loudspeaker systems. which is how things should be. What’s so pleasing about the IERM’s presentation on this track is that each instrument is given its due. since they are smooth. The IERM’s treble response is clear and extremely smooth. Over time.custom-fit in-ear monitors go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up holds plenty of bass “thwack” and “slam” in reserve for moments when the recording happens to call for those qualities. you’ll find yourself using them to assess recordings or audio components in the signal chain. pure. Nothing is compressed or exaggerated. the Westone ES5 does. though I thought there was a touch of roll-off at the very top of the audio spectrum. These monitors have an uncanny way of keeping faith with recordings. what you hear is what you get. In practice this means you don’t so much listen to the IERM’s.
enable it to reveal delicate low-level treble details a bit more effectively than the IERM does. the timbre’s of Carpenter’s voice. let me also mention that the ES5’s very subtle touches of tonal emphasis in in the upper midrange and lower treble bands. and second. though in an absolute sense the ES5 may enjoy a very narrow edge. but this time with the output of the guitar and bass channeled.avguide. as the bass drum and tom-toms on this track are very low pitched and tricky to reproduce well (indeed. Here. lilting. while Westone uses dual materials for the ES5 earpieces www. a different set of challenges arises. it’s worth putting on some material whose content is strongly midrange-centric. if only to hear how smooth and suave-sounding the IERM’s mid-band response really is. we hear the natural sound of the guitar and bass overlaid with effects that extend but also fundamentally alter the instruments’ natural voices. Come On (Columbia).com 141 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . however. But there is also one further sonic challenge. However. capturing both its high. • he IERM is a three-way. I’ll compare its performance with that of two leading competitors: the Westone ES5 ($950) and the JH Audio JH16 Pro ($1149). I would give the IERM the nod for overall neutrality and smoothness of its response curve. Ultimate Ears IERM vs. but also revealing its earthier. which are at once breathy sounding yet at the same time earthy and full-bodied. the voice of the lowest drum is positively subterranean). Finally. Thus. Two things are gripping about this track: first. Ultimate Ears has given the IERM’s solid acrylic earpieces. A good example would be “I Am a Town” from Mary-Chapin Carpenter’s Come On. The IERM’s do a great job with Carpenter’s voice. But add to this the bass (whose upper register sounds amazingly smooth and evocative) and you’ve got something truly stunning. on “Lousiana Lowboat”. and while effortlessly capturing the skin sounds of both the bass and tom-tom drum heads. you-are-there immediacy to the bass’ sound that is truly breathtaking (which is precisely why high-level accuracy is something worth pursuing). The inherent accuracy and clarity of the IERM’s make it easy to tell exactly where natural instrumental timbres leave off and the effectsdriven voicings begin. CoMpetitve analysis To show you how the IERM stacks up relative to other top-tier custom-fit in-ear monitors. Through the IERM’s. There is really no other way to put this but to say that the Reference Monitors make the bass sound about as vibrant and realistic-sounding as any headphone possibly can.custom-fit in-ear monitors go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up Later. in part. almost whispered breathy qualities. Westone ES5 • The IERM costs $49 more than the ES5. as we again hear Frisell’s guitar accompanied by drum kit and bass. • oth monitors are quite accurate in overall B tonal balance. lower registers. the IERM’s superior smoothness and top-to-bottom neutrality make it the more accurate transducer overall. • ne of the biggest differentiators between O the IERM and the ES5 involves the construction of their custom-molded earpieces. to really appreciate the benefits of the IERM. the IERM really shines as it wades right in and delivers shuddering. 5-driver design. However. through electronics effects boxes. the absolutely gorgeous voice of the acoustic bass (playing way up high in the cello or even viola range) that accompanies Carpenter’s voice throughout the song. which carry inflections reminiscent of Southern gospel. That said. • esolution levels between the two monitors R are very closely matched. there is a powerful. ultra low-frequency bass drum thwacks without skipping a beat. 3-driver design T whereas the ES5 is a three-way.
R low-level textural and transient details both monitors are good. which suggests to me that the earpieces may fit a bit more loosely than some competing custom-fit earpieces do. straightforward insertion process where you gently rotate the earpieces until they seem almost to “snap” into position. which I attribute to the fact that the JH16 Pro’s bass range response is pulled back ever-so-slightly vis-à-vis its midrange and treble response. JH Audio JH16 Pro • he IERM costs $150 less than the JH 16 Pro. achieving a very good seal and a comfortable fit in the process. the JH 16 Pro has been U Playback’s reigning neutrality champ. that the ES5’s soft-feel ear-canal sections. Although the manufacturers have taken different design approaches. I would say that Ultimate Ears’ In-Ear Reference Monitor is arguably the most accurate and neutral sounding in-ear monitor Playback has tested to date. but they do not offer the last word in noise isolation. Here’s how that comparison plays out. but the JH 16 Pro enjoys a narrow edge. Ultimate Ears IERM vs. both monitors offer excellent comfort and very good noise isolation. • esolution: In terms of ability to resolve fine. In turn. We might also mention that the IERM makes a very useful tool for those of us who work as equipment reviewers. while T the JH 16 Pro is a three-way. • he IERM offers powerful low bass and T remains almost perfectly balanced from the bottom end all the way up through the 142 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors midrange and lower treble regions. the IERM’s offer a subtly tighter fit (yet one that is still quite comfortable. Note. sonic honesty is one of those rare gifts that keeps on giving. which is a terrific achievement. with just a hint of top end roll-off. T • he IERM is a three-way. the JH16 Pro’s mids and highs therefore sound just a hair more prominent than its low-end does. 3-driver design. So good is the UE fit that I would rate it second only to the Sensaphonics 2MAX monitors in terms of noise isolation. and it’s a gift you can enjoy every single time you put a set of IERM’s in your ears and settle back to enjoy your favorite recordings. • he earpiece designs of the IERM and JH T 16 PRO are conceptually similar. because this trustworthy monitor makes it easy to assess what other components in the signal chain are doing. • n comparison with the IERM. www. That said. • p to this point. In our view. as both use solid acrylic earpiece designs. yield significantly better noise isolation and quieter backgrounds than most in-ear monitors can provide. Yet in terms of execution the IERM and JH 16 PRO earpieces are—at least in the case of my review samples—functionally different. which is most impressive. strictly speaking. which—once they warm up—conform to exact shape of the wearer’s ear canal. though a special-order. soft-silicon version boosts isolation to a whopping -32 dB). • f you consider the response curves of the I IERM and JH16 PRO side-by-side. in part because its extended but unexaggerated treble response makes details easy to discern. identical. so we were eager to compare the IERM to what we considered our gold standard.custom-fit in-ear monitors go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up (solid acrylic outer shells with thermallysensitive. My JH16 Rro’s are extremely easy to fit and remove (the best custom-fit models I’ve tried in this respect). but with perhaps not quite as powerful a deep low-end presentation as the IERM. • o which is the neutrality champ? I’d give the S nod to the IERM. though their voicing is not. the IERM sounds beautifully smooth and balanced. soft feel material for the ear-canal section). the JH16 Pro sounds nearly as smooth and equally well-balanced. BottoM line Recognizing that accuracy is at times an elusive goal. once you get them properly inserted) and concomitantly better noise isolation (UE claims -26 dB for the standard versions with acrylic housings. I should point out the IERM is probably “first among nearequals” in terms of overall comfort and ease of use. but just a touch more warmly balanced (because of its subtle treble roll-off).com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . but with a subtle touch of midrange/upper-midrange forwardness. The JH16 Pro’s treble response is beautifully extended and shows no signs of roll-off at all. though. In contrast. by the slightest of margins. yet without imposing any sort etched or artificially “spotlighted” sound. the JH16 Pro I also offers potent bass. • oth the IERM and ES5 earpieces afford a B simple. Both monitors offer excellent neutrality and overall balance.avguide. 8-driver design.
yet offers excellent noise-isolation thanks to inner earcanal section that is molded of a thermally sensitive. (and his wife Mickey). Indeed. What is the ES5 best at? The answer is balanced performance across all areas—a quality that fosters high levels of user satisfaction over time. Also consider the ES5 if you like the idea of a “best of two world’s” earpiece design that is easy to handle and insert. and unlike many other custom-fit monitors I have seen. soft-feel plastic material. Plainly. Without hesitation the Westone team members pointed me towards the then newly-released. $1149 JH Audio JH16 Pro. the ES5 is all about delivering a balanced mix of virtues. I think. which has caught the attention of a lot of listeners of late). Morgan first sought to create “better fitting customfit earpieces for the hearing instruments he sold as a Beltone representative. and plenty of resolution and textural delicacy. military. and somewhat smoother and more neutral voicing than the ultra-quiet Sensaphonics 2MAX. Westone was founded in 1959 by the late Ronald Morgan. Westone is a company that offers serious know-how involving “all things ear. and a broad range universal-fit and custom-fit in-ear headphone designed for personal and professional audio applications.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . look further if: you require absolutely dead-neutral tonal balance (where the JH Audio JH16 Pros and Ultimate Ears IERM’s enjoy a narrow edge). top-of-the-line professional Elite Series ES5 monitor. The ambitious ES5 ($950) is a three-way design that uses five balanced armature-type drivers and that promises to “deliver sound quality. to the eight driver-equipped.” In a very pragmatic sense Westone has been focused on building custom-fit in-ear products from the very beginning.avguide. so that it does all things well. a company representative recently pointed out to me that many key designers who now work for some of Westone’s best-known competitors actually got their starts in the industry while working with Westone (talk about having a long and influential history!). Westone uses solid acrylic for the outer shells of the earpieces. This past summer. the ES5 offers earpieces that are constructed of two quite different materials. Thinking that the ES5’s would make a review subject of interest to Playback readers. or the highest degree of noise-isolation possible (where the Sensaphonics 2MAX is the undisputed class leader). when Mr. though the company’s business has expanded over the past 51 years to embrace several distinct (though inter-related) families of products including hearing care and protection products. I immediately requested a pair for review. Sr.custom-fit in-ear monitors go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up WESTONE ES5 Chris Martens A ccording to a company background document.S. Interestingly. ultra high-isolation earpiece systems created for the U. which—though billed as a “monitor for performing artists”—is also said to be the firm’s premier high-end offering for critical listeners who prize “well-balanced” sound.” but their greatest strengths may be in the area of custom-fit in-ear monitors. 143 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. But consider this: the ES5 offers significantly better noise isolation than the ultra-neutral JH Audio JH16 Pro. very good overall accuracy with near-neutral tonal balance. Again. but then molds the inner ear canal sections overview Consider this custom-fit in-ear monitor if: you would like in-ear monitors that offer high sensitivity. I met with the Westone team at the Can-Jam Chicago 2010 event and asked them which model stood out as the company’s most accurate and most neutrally voiced in-ear headphones for critical music listening. clarity and response comparable to monitors with more drivers—at a much more affordable price” (an indirect reference.
and power. parts and labor. string squeaks. and as a contrasting backdrop.com CoMpetitve analysis To show you how the ES5 compares to other top-tier custom-fit in-ear monitors. Westone uses dual materials for the ES5 earpieces (solid acrylic outer shells with thermally-sensitive. and vial of Oto-Ease fluid.westone. bends notes in order to make the instrument “sing” in an almost human way. giving the Weston a noticeably more focused sound (especially when listening in any but the quietest environments). But the Qin is also a deceptively large instrument that. The ES5’s capture this aspect of the instrument. • he ES5 is a three-way. minimum Warranty: 1 year. too. conforming to the exact contours of your ear canals to create a highly effective and comfortable seal. But the musical “spices” that really help drive the track forward are a simple yet evocative acoustic guitar. desiccant pod (to keep the monitors dry). the acoustic bass and percussion instruments are what give the song its living. All of this sounds promising on paper. price: $950 WEsTONE (800) 525-5071 www. snare drum.custom-fit in-ear monitors go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up of the earpieces from a thermally-sensitive. With the ES5. soft feel material for www. and the quiet shimmer of the high-hats opening and closing. can also produce a surprisingly deep. rich. richness of Bibb’s voice stands out in sharp relief when heard alongside the much higher-pitched guitar lines floating above.avguide. no one aspect of the sound dominates over the others. the overall sound of the ensemble creates an overarching impression of just-right richness and completeness—an impression the ES5’s convey beautifully. But if the guitar and voice supply welcome contrasts. Though in an absolute sense the JH16 Pro’s may resolve finer details. Though the instrumentation is minimalist. doing an extraordinarily good job at moments where Roberts slides or 144 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs NeXT page . JH Audio JH16 Pro ($1149) • The ES5 costs $199 less than the JH16 Pro. a powerful but minimalist acoustic bass. which the ES5’s capture vividly and intimately. letting you hear the deep. cleaning tool. “soft-feel” plastic material. the rounder and more woodysounding thrum of the acoustic bass. put on “River Blues” from Eric Bibb’s Get On Board [Telarc Blues]. specs/prici ng Westone ES5 custom-fit in-ear monitor Type: Three-way. Frequency response: 8Hz – 20 kHz Weight: Not specified. the crisp snap of snare drum rim shots. Listen. even as they expose the subtler nuances of the instrument’s upper register (and associated high harmonics). I’ve chosen to compare its performance with that of two leading competitors: the JH Audio JH16 Pro ($1149) and the Sensaphonics 2MAX ($850). For a different take on the ES5’s sonic themes of delicacy. The guitar. balance— and the sonic richness and diversity it can express—is this monitor’s greatest strength. The ES5’s do a great job with the authoritative but not overblown thump of the kick drum. the ES5’s superior noise isolation provides offsetting benefits. the ES5 offers very subtle touches of tonal emphasis both in the mid-to-low bass and in the upper midrange/lower treble regions.com MUsiCal eXaMples To experience the treble delicacy I mentioned above. so that the dark. • ne of the biggest differentiators between O the ES5 and the JH16 Pro involves the construction of their custom-molded earpieces. dark fundamentals of the Qin’s lower-register notes. the inner ear-canal sections of the ES5’s don’t feel particularly soft when you first handle them (at room temperature). breathing pulse. full-bodied sound when the occasion arises. • oth monitors are quite accurate in overall B tonal balance. Why is this? I think it has much to do with the fact that while the ES5’s may not be spectacular class leaders in any one performance area. Frankly. they offer—in terms of sound quality and wearer comfort—one of the most balanced combination of virtues you are ever likely to find. where the ES5’s treat you to what feels like the sonic equivalent of a roller-coaster ride when you come to that first big drop. the song is built primarily around the warm. but once they warm up the earpieces tips soften considerably. On one hand. but will come to love over time. try listening to “Remote Stories” from Christopher Roberts’ Last Cicada Singing [Cold Blue]—a recording of solo performances by Roberts on a Chinese fretless instrument called the Qin. but how do the ES5’s work out in practice? Based on my experience with the ES5’s over the past several months. whereas the JH16 Pro is arguably more neutrally balanced (neutrality is arguably the JH16 Pro’s greatest strength). and the crystal clear sound of a kick drum. I would say they are a product audiophiles will like right off the bat. Westone ES5 vs. in particular. as the ES5’s show very clearly. serves as both a counterpoint to Bibb’s voice. However. sensitivity: 120 dB/mW Impedance: 20 ohms. instead. richly textured sound of Bibb’s voice. custom-fit in-ear monitor Accessories: Hard shell road case custom labeled with a padded interior). for all its apparent treble delicacy and refinement. 5-driver design. and high-hats keeping time. I’m told that one of the standing conventions for music performed on the Qin is that all elements of the sound—including fingering and plucking noises. as mentioned above. to the powerful. and even seemingly accidental harmonic overtones—are regarded as part of the music. yet without exaggeration. 5-driver (balanced armature). 8-driver design. So it is with Roberts’ performance on “Remote Stories” where the ES5’s reveal each small nuance of the sound. richness. • esolution levels between the two monitors R are very closely matched. resonant voice of the Qin when Roberts sharply bends notes downward in pitch. T whereas the JH16 Pro is a three-way.
which—once they warm up—conform to exact shape of the wearer’s ear canal. while also offering some (though not all) of the superior noise isolation characteristics that the Sensaphonics’ softgel silicone earpieces provide. What differentiates the ES5 and the JH16 Pro are the ES5’s soft-feel ear-canal sections. • ne of the biggest differentiators between O the ES5 and the 2MAX involves the construction of their custom-molded earpieces. It can take a few minutes for the Westone earpieces come up to temperature. the Westones have the easy-to-insert. • he ES5 also offers arguably superior low T bass performance than the 2MAX and noticeably clearer and more extended treble response.custom-fit in-ear monitors go to: universal-fit earphones under $100 | universal-fit earphones $100 – $300 | universal-fit earphones $300 and up the ear-canal section). The 2MAX’s ultraquiet backgrounds give the Sensaphonics’ monitors qualities of intimacy and focus that are tough to beat. “silvery” highs. • esolution levels between the 2MAX’s and R ES5’s are comparable. the voicing of the ES5 and A 2MAX seems similar. achieving a very good seal and a comfortable fit in the process. yielding significantly better noise isolation and quieter backgrounds that the JH16 Pro can provide. The only drawback I observed is that the ES5. • y contrast. thermally sensitive. Sensaphonics 2MAX ($850) • The ES5 costs $100 more than the 2MAX. which sound terrific. • he ES5 earpieces in a sense “split the T difference” between the Sensaphonics and JH Audio earpiece designs. however. • y comparison. BottoM line Westone’s ES5 is a remarkably well-balanced performer that offers near-neutral tonal balance. Westone ES5 vs. the 2MAX offers two regions of mild F sonic emphasis: a mild rise in the upper bass region and an also a mild rise in the uppermidrange and lower-treble region. at which point they achieve a better seal and a more comfortable fit. when pushed hard. • t first glance. the Westone earpieces use a combination of solid acrylic material coupled with a separate. best-in-class performer in any one area. the ES5 puts a strong bass foundation beneath the music. perhaps more dramatic sound that is highly engaging. but at the end of the day the 2MAX’s are Playback’s reigning noise isolation champs. straightforward insertion process where you gently rotate the earpieces until they seem almost to “snap” into position. though I would give the edge to the ES5. the ES5’s broad and well-judged combination of virtues is what makes it so appealing. As a result. • he bottom line is that the ES5 is the more T accurate monitor and one that offers a certain pristine purity and clarity—especially at higher frequencies.avguide. • he ES5 is a three-way. while JH Audio uses solid acrylic earpieces. which are supremely flexible and achieve an incredibly effective noise-isolation.com previous page TaBLe oF CoNTeNTs . 145 Playback Guide to earPhones & custom-fit in-ear monitors www. • irst. comfortable fit and very high levels of noise isolation. the 2MAX features B Sensaphonics’ signature cold-cure. 2-driver design. “snapinto-position” qualities of the all-acrylic JH Audio earpieces. On the one hand. One catch. can show an occasionally “spitty” sound on very hardedged upper midrange/treble transients. while T the 2MAX is a two-way. 5-driver design. while the 2MAX offers a somewhat warmer. • oth the ES5 and JH 16 Pro earpieces afford B a simple. the ES5 also offers some B emphasis in similar (though not identical) frequency bands—but a notably lighter touch of emphasis in both cases. is that it can be tricky at first to learn how to properly insert the somewhat rubbery-feeling Sensaphonic’s earpieces. “soft-feel” material for the portion of the earpiece that inserts into the ear canal. but careful listening reveals certain key differences. excellent focus and resolution. The difference in feel and overall functionality is significant. Though not necessarily a spectacular. As above. softgel silicone earpieces. while exhibiting exquisite. • oth monitors offer very quiet backgrounds B and better noise isolation than models that use solid acrylic earpiece.
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