Monday, December 29, 2008

Last Week's Most Interesting

First of, Happy Holiday to you all. With the Christmas just left and the New Year coming soon, it is a rather bad thing to release any new product, thus the market is being real quiet (at least till CES 2009). However, I was reminded that Future Sonics is planning to release more of the same Atrio series, now with more colors to choose from. It seems FS had already announced the news two months ago but I never did remember about it. Since I got nothing really interesting to tell you, I thought maybe we can have a look at the new color combos and ask ourselves, do we really need that many colors variation of the same IEM?
  • Driver unit: mg5pro™ dynamic transducer
  • Frequency Response: 18Hz~20 kHz
  • Impedance: 32 ohm
  • Sensitivity: 112dB @ 30 Hz / 1 mW
  • Plug: 3.5mm
  • Cable length: 1.3m quietcables™ II

Saturday, December 27, 2008

[Quick Impression] iBasso T4

I just got the iBasso T4 amplifier which is designed for to pair with IEM (though you can used it with bigger headphone if you like). Last few years iBasso has made itself a name as The bang for the bucks in portable amp market. Naturally I am quite interested in getting one of their lower model to try out with my IEM.

I am by no mean an amp guy so here is a quick impression of the new T4 in comparison with FiiO E5, which is my main on-the-go portable amp at the moment. The source is iriver clix2's headphone-out on 80% volume. Music of choice are various album ripped as >256kbps LAME mp3 or WMA. The earphone of choice is Head-Direct RE0.

In very rough and subjective term, I'll say E5 is about 70% of a T4. The main improvements are bigger soundstage, slightly better instruments separation, slightly better treble and better bass (fuller, warmer body) if you switch both to bass mode. In comparison, E5 sounds more mid centric while T4 is better on extending to both end.

Regarding hiss, I chose to use UM2 for the test. For E5, hiss is most noticeable in max volume, and decreases to none as the volume approaching minimum setting (about less than 1/4 of total). For T4 in low gain with lowest volume, a constant hiss is detected but the volume is very low, roughly the same as E5's hiss on 1/4 volume setting (which is when E5 just starts to hiss). For T4 in high gain with lowest volume, the level of hiss about about E5's hiss b/w 1/2~3/5 volume. The good news is, T4's hiss doesn't increase a lot even when the volume is turn to max. The increase of hiss b/w lowest and highest volume is perhaps less than 50% of that in lowest setting. [EDIT] For those who wonder, the hiss test mentioned above were carried out without the source plugged in.

In picture, FiiO E3, E5, Travagan's Colors (dogbone), and T4.

Spec:
4ch Architecture Design
Gain and Bass Booster switches
ALPS Potentiometer
Stainless Steel Case With Chrome Color Anodized Finish
Rechargeable Li-Polymer Battery with integrated charging system
Charging is accomplished with either the USB cable or AC adapter
Up to 24 hours of play time
Measures 64.5L x 37W x 10H (mm), and weighs only 29g

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

[Preview] LEAR Le01

I was just being offered a chance to review a pair of freshly out-of-China IEM called the Le01, made by a new company called LEAR. The IEM is currently on its way to me and hopefully I will received by the weekend (or early next week at most). The interesting bit about this IEM is it received quite a few good reviews on some early adapters as being a great bass heavy IEM with good value of money. I guess we will see how well it actually turns out in a few days. For now, please allow me to share the spec with you all.
  • Driver unit: 10.7mm dynamic transducer
  • Frequency Response: 10Hz~26 kHz
  • Impedance: 20 ohm
  • Sensitivity: 112dB/mW at 1 kHz
  • Rated Power: 10mW
  • Max power: 40mW
  • Plug: 3.5mm
  • Cable length: 1.3m
  • 3 pairs of single silicone flange ear-tips (2 small, 2 medium, 2 large), and 1 pair of bi-flanges ear-tips. 1 shirt clip.
[UPDATE] Just got the Le01 from the delivery man and I already gave it a listen. So far the sound quality has really impressed me. It is another one of those IEM with high value factor. I was told the SQ will improve after 100hrs of burn-in and this is what I am doing currently. The full review can be expected before the end of next week (hopefully). here is a teaser's shot:


[UPDATE AGAIN] The review is ready. Click here to read.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Last Week's Most Interesting

With the rest of the world (okay, mainly just audiophiles' forum) still arguing whether Westone 3, Sennheiser IE8, UE Triple.fi 10 or Shure SE530 (or ...fill in the name you like...) is the current best universal IEM in the market, my attention switched to China as there was a new IEM being released in their local market last week. The thing about Chinese headphone is they never really make much name oversea (and usually limits to audiophiles' community), but don't let that fools you. The truth is we have seen many high quality headphones coming out of China over the last few years, and the trend will very likely to continue for a while.

Cyclone PR2, the second IEM under the Cyclone brand name. This IEM (along with its elder brother, the PR1, released early this year) is manufactured by the same company which made the Storm amp. Unfortunately it is unlikely we will see it being sold oversea as the company seems to limit its business to the China local market (as are many good headphone companies in China). MSRP RMB380 (*roughly US$55.60).
  • Driver unit: 11mm dynamic transducer
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz~22 kHz
  • Impedance: 24 ohm
  • Sensitivity: 104dB/mW at 1 kHz
  • Rated Power: 10mW
  • Max power: 40mW
  • Plug: 3.5mm
  • Cable length: 1.3m
  • 3 pairs of single silicone flange ear-tips (2 small, 2 medium, 2 large), Foam ear-tip and bi-flanges ear-tips.
  • Optional resistance cable (51 ohms) for extra sound quality.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Reading the Baseline

What is the first thing you look for in a review? How do you know a comment is not biased? Here is what you need to learn to extract from everything you read: the baseline. A baseline is the minimum standard in every articles, reviews and comments. It is often not in plain sight and hard to find. However, it can also be in plain sight and still difficult to notice.

The truth is, everyone is biased and only way to be unbiased is not having a mind of your own. The real difference lies in how biased a person is and the degree its affects the person's opinion. Thus finding and reading into a person's baseline is often a shortcut for better understanding. If this isn't hard enough, sometime finding your own baseline can be even more difficult. Prejudice being a natural part of our thinking process is often what we don't realize the most. We don't like to believe it exists but often it plays a big role on how we read into our own world.

Here are two graphs consist of test results from amp A and B. Consider that the black line representing the original frequency response curve and the colored line representing the amplified signal's frequency response curve, which graph do you think is better? A or B?
If your answer is either one of them, you'll be wrong. Taking the black line as baseline, both amplified signal are able to match the original signal in very linear fashion across the whole spectrum, thus both are equally good. What you want to pay attention to the graph is whether the signal is colored (bumped up or down) or not, not how flat or curve the line is.

Are you reading the right baseline?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Last Week's Most Interesting

Not much happened last week in the IEM world, at least nothing seriously interesting. However, one IEM does seem to bring more attention, the NuForce NE-8 (and its headset brother NE-7M, but I am not that interested in headset). Nuforce is known as an amplifier manufacturer, but not much else, thus rises the question of how good their IEM can be. Well, from the look of it, I would make an educated guess that this IEM is probably OEM'ed by another company under NuForce's spec. It is a popular trend these days to have your own line of headphone with out the actual need of investing into facility for making headphone. Just gives a call to China and you will find plenty of quality OEM companies with decent headphone design waiting for buyer.

NuForce NE-8, from the amplifier company NuForce. It has been released for a few weeks now but only recently the supply seems to become more stable. MSRP US$69.00

  • Driver unit: 9mm
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz~22 kHz
  • Impedance: 12 ohm
  • Sensitivity: 98+/-3dB/mW at 1 kHz
  • Rated Power: 2mW
  • Max power: 20mW
  • Plug: 3.5mm
  • weight: 10g
  • 3 pairs of single flange ear-tips (2 small, 2 medium, 2 large)
  • Carrying case

Saturday, December 13, 2008

FiiO E5, the BIG little amp.

Normally I am not too much into amp. Lets face it, amp is really something you want to avoid in a portable setup. They are generally bulky, heavy and difficult to carry around. (not to mention most decent portable amps are quite pricey). More than often, if you open an expensive amp and have a look inside, you will be totally turned off by it and start questioning yourself why you paid so much money for it. Well, amp, like every things in the audiophiles' world, has an bigger than life value price tag. After all, you are paying for the SQ (which is hard to judge for its value) rather than the actual manufacturing cost. It is totally understandable if you want to carry a brick size portable rig with you all the time on-the-go to get the absolute best SQ all the way, but I am more interested in being lighter/smaller even if the setup might not be the best sounding of all. My philosophy is simple - I am not listening to the gears but the music. As long as my setup has decent sound, I am more than happy to exchange the extra weight for convenience. That is why I always keep an interest in cheaper, smaller amp in the market. Surprisingly, there really ain't that many choices out there.

Early this year, FiiO, a small Chinese electronic company that specializes in making accessories for portable music player, released a small amp (or volume booster if you like) called E3. Although the sale figure in main land China was never particularly good (due to various reasons), E3 soon made its way to eBay and speared like wild fire. The absent of competitor in the same price range makes E3 the king of its domain. The three things that make E3 a really good accessory to have are 1) it is cheap, often less than US$10. 2) it is small, no bigger than a pack of gum. 3) it has a permanent bass boost function, bigger bass is almost always better in the general consumers' ears. With the success of E3, FiiO soon realized that the overseas portable amp market is much bigger than they previously thought. Not too long after that, a newer, better amp debuted the E5 was in development.

I first learned about E5 development on FiiO forum. As my interest on E5 grew, I got into contact with FiiO and started to provide feedback from an user's standpoint (as part of the early E5 sampling group). Now as E5 was finally released into the market since last week, I can honestly say it is really a wonderful gadget to have.

E5 isn't really an audiophiles' gear - It is meant for practicality. It will not be the best sounding amp you will ever try (perhaps even far from it), but what it provides is an BIG price / performance ratio in a tiny package that is hard to beat. For US$25 (or less) each, I doubt you can find anything able to match its features. Whether you are a newbie looking for an beginner amp or an old bird looking for a more portable solution, take a look at E5 - you might be surprised as well.

Features
●Power switch
●Electronic volume control
●Selectable Flat and bass boost mode
●Built-in Rechargeable battery (20 hours playtime at normal volume)
●Mini USB charger port
●With a built-in metal clip


Specifications
Output Power: 150 mW (16 ohms Loaded) / 12 mW (300 ohms Loaded)
Signal to Noise Ratio: >= 95 dB (A Weight)
Distortion: < 0.009% (10 mW) Frequency Response: 10 Hz - 100 kHz Suitable Headphone Impedance: 16 ohms - 300 ohms Weight: 30g Power Supply: build-in 200mAh rechargeable battery Dimensions: 44.2mm x 38 mm x 12.6 mm



Sound solution:
Pre-amp: OPA2338UA From Texas Instruments
Power-amp: TPA6130A From Texas Instruments


Main Accessory
1 x 15cm 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable

1 x 80cm 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable
1 x 60cm USB-A to mini USB cable

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

To Amp, or Not To Amp?

That of course is the big question for many amateur IEM users - the question of whether a portable headphone amplifier will do your portable rig some good, especially in the case of pairing it with an IEM.

The following is what I see as a simple guideline on what you should expect from an amp. Read through it and try to answer the question in the end before deciding whether an amp is indeed what you are looking for as the missing chain in searching for better sound quality.

A portable amp serves two general functions: 1) To replace the standard, lower in quality amplifying circuit in most portable music player in order to improve the overall sound quality. and 2) To provide enough 'juice' to audiophile's headphones which usually are much more demanding than most music player can handle. There are other purposes for using an amp, but I consider them to be minor and we won't discuss them here.

So why do we want to replace the internal amplification of our portable player? It is because most of them are designed for portability in mind thus the circuit must be compensated in both the size and material, resulting in an amplification circuit that are usually only good enough for basic task but inadequate for producing high quality sound. To totally avoid the internal amplification circuit, the usual method is to re-route the signal from the DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter, the chip that converts digital data to analog sound before the amplification takes place) to an external amplifier via a line-out port/jack/dock (i.e. the line-out-dock, or LOD, for iPod user). A real line-out signal is what known as the 'purest', unmodified, uncolored analog signal. But the fact is, most if not all portable player on the market doesn't really have a real line-out. Instead, they deploy a pseudo line-out by re-routing an signal from the amplifying circuit in maximum volume, mimicking the stronger, higher output power of a real line-out. For those who don't know about it, one of those player is your regular iPod (*see note 1). This is why a few years back, a group of people start to modify iPod and sell it as 'iMod', an iPod that has its real line-out signal re-routed to its port so the user can use it with an external amplifier to avoid the what they believe to be an unacceptable internal amplification circuit. As for those who can't afford the high price tag of the iMod, you just have to stick to the so called 'tempted' pseudo line-out of your iPod. Essentially you are just feeding an glorified headphone-out signal in close to maximum volume / output power to your portable amp. You often find people commenting that external amp must be used with a line-out signal or there will be no point - of course, they seldom consider the fact that their line-out signal isn't a real line-out at all. Instead, the tendency for audiophiles taking their idea to a religious level often blind them from seeing the truth. You as the reader must learn the simple fact that audiophiles, including me, are not always correct and you shall never take our advice as it is.

Now we move to the second objective for portable amplification: Providing more power to drive the high impedance, low sensitivity headphone (or more relevant to our discussion, IEM and earbuds). As we discussed before, portable player are generally compensated in their internal amplification, which means the power they can provide is very limited and unsuitable for difficult-to-drive earphones. In the audiophiles' world, we like to say that the earphone is 'underpowered'. The chance is, most of you who are reading this article probably don't have an high impedance, low sensitivity earphone that really required an amplifier to sound at its best. Many of you just want to get an amp because you got advice somewhere from someone who claims that portable amp is the best thing that happens in the portable player's world and you are not hearing high quality music unless you put an amp to the back of your portable player. What actually is closer to the truth is, amplifier is one of those thing that generally add very little value to the overall sound. It is the kind of thing you want to pay attention to until you got your source and headphone right so they can be benefited by amplification. If you are still using a sub$50 or $150 (or even a $300) IEM or earbuds, the chance is you will not notice too much improvement from amping, at least not really worth the hundreds of dollars you paid for a well known portable amp currently in the market. I have seen people using easy to drive IEM like the Shure SE530 or the Ultimate Ears Triple.fi 10 Pro with iPod and an amp even bigger than the iPod on-the-go. For your average users, the setup might seen unpractical and often it is. Most IEM in the market are very sensitivity and easy drove by an portable player (and usually it is how they are designed to be), adding an amp to squeeze out the last 3% to 5% of sound quality should be the least of your concern when you can get more obvious improvement from headphone or source upgrade (or even by getting better music bitrates). You should consider an amp when you know your headphone is difficult to drive (which will benefit most from amping), or else the return will not be as dramatic as you wish it to be.

Is it ideal to amp signal from headphone-out? Probably not, but one has to make do with the equipments at hands. Is it really important to amp a sensitive earphone even though it is fine by headphone-out? Definitely not, but I can assure you some people will think differently. The art of balancing portability, practicality and music enjoyment is what important here. You must ask yourself one simple questions: 'Is it really necessary?'

If you still can't figure out the answer at this point, I'll suggest you start by using a smaller, cheaper amp. Either a Cmoy amp from eBay or something like a FiiO E5 should keep your wallet intact while providing a taste of portable amp. Just remember: Music enjoyment is from the heart, not from the gears.

Note 1: Post 5.5G iPod models do have a direct line-out (via LOD) based on Apple's own DAC chip. It is still arguable whether it sounds better than iMod, but it is said to be the best , clearest line-out signal across all generation of iPod.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Last Week's Most Interesting

Although not as exciting as the week before, last week we did see some 'interesting' IEM being released. First, of course, is the lower priced dual drives IEM from Apple. Most of the current dual drivers in the market are priced over US$100 (generally in the region of US$150), which means Apple's IEM already on a good start by giving more bang for the bucks. The real question is of course how well it will sound. After all, an IEM value is set by its sound quality, not by the number of transducer. Another interesting observation is this IEM comes with a mic (on its in-line control), yet it is not compatible with iPhone (as Apple claimed). So the mic is for iPod only? Weird! Beside the low price, the most noticeable feature on Apple's IEM is the removable metal mesh on the nozzle. Most IEM with metal mesh have no easy way for cleaning up in the case of earwax clogging, Apple's new design might be the answer for those who don't take time cleaning their ears and their 'phone. Second IEM in my list of most interesting IEM of the week is Dr. Dre's Monster's Beats Tour IEM. I am not much of a MonsterCable fan (or any expensive cable in the matter) and certainly not feeling fond to the idea of marketing headphone by celebrity association - Getting a good sound is what its counts. Putting someone's name on the packaging wouldn't make a headphone sounds any better. What really interested me about this IEM is the ribbon style cable. If it works as Monster's advertised, than perhaps there is something good in this IEM to look forward to.

Apple In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic, the first balanced armature based headphone from Apple. It has dual transducer on each side in a two-ways configuration. It comes with an in-line controller and mic but not compatible with iPhone... go figure. MSRP US$79.
  • Drivers: Custom two-way balanced armature (woofer and tweeter in each earpiece)
  • Frequency response: 5Hz to 21kHz
  • Impedance (at 100Hz): 23 ohms
  • Sensitivity (at 100Hz): 109 dB SPL/mW
  • Cable length: 1065 mm from audio jack to splitter; 330 mm to earpiece
  • Weight: 0.4 ounce (10.2 grams)
  • Four-conductor 3.5 mm audio jack

Monster Beats by Dr. Dre Tour In-Ear Headphone, the second headphone in the Beats by Dr. Dre series from Monster, the company that is famous for its MonsterCable brand. There isn't any detail spec on this IEM. Consider it is made by Monster and bearing the name of Dr. Dre, do you really need to know the spec? MSRP US$150.
  • Cable length: 3.94 ft./1.2 m
  • Weight: 0.71 oz./20 g
  • Carrying case
  • Three pairs of standard Monster-designed eartips
  • Two pairs of different-sized triple-layer "Airlocks" tri-flanges eartips

Friday, December 5, 2008

Neutral vs. Natural: A Thought.

The question of finding a 'neutral/natural' sounding IEM* usually comes up in many forums in regular interval (*this probably applies to all headphone as well). While the question might seems very easy to answer, I often find it to be anything but simple. Reason? I just can't agree that 'neutral' and 'natural' being used interchangeably to describe the same kind of sound - well, at least not in the IEM world. So what do 'neutral' and 'natural' mean to me and why do such similar terms affect your path on finding the right sound? These all go back to the root of headphone design and the fundamental of what makes headphone so different from loud speaker that most of us are more familiar with.

To understand this topic, you need to understand some essential differences between loud speaker and headphone. A reputable loud speaker manufacturer usually like to advertise their product for having a flat frequency response (FR). The important of having a flat FR is that it means the speaker won't add or subtract sound from the amplifier's signal. It will just sound as what it is intended to sound like. In the case of a non-flat FR, the speaker is said to 'color' the sound by increasing or decreasing the sound pressure level on certain region (i.e. extra bass or treble that is not supposed to be there). People who are into Hi-Fi usually like to avoid coloration as much as possible. After all, they want high fidelity, not high fiddle-ity. Here is where neutral meets natural: The speaker is said to be neutral (flat) sounding when there isn't any coloration (non-flat FR), which means it is also most truthful to the recording thus it is closest to what sounding natural. In the headphone world, however, neutral does not equal to natural. When you use speaker, the sound travels through the room, interacting with the wall, furnitures, your body, and your outer ears before reaching your eardrum. Every interaction during the process affects the final FR you hear, meaning it is not likely that the FR measured in your ear canal will be as flat as the FR of the speaker . If the FR is not longer flat, why do we called it natural sounding? That's because interaction is part of the natural process of how sound travels through space. When using headphone (especially IEM), many of those interaction do not take place. If headphone has a flat FR, you will probably hear a flat FR, which is not normally what you will hear when you are listening to speaker. To compensate, headphone manufacturers will tuned the FR of their headphone so it will better resemble the FR after the speaker's sound travels through the room. A common example will be the extra bass response most headphones have. lower bass note are often felt by the skin and heard by the ears at the same time, so the impression of hearing low bass note is a mixture of auditorial and tactile sensation. Since headphone transducer are much smaller (and move much less air), headphone user often 'not feeling' enough bass when the FR is flat. To compensate, headphone manufactures give their headphone an extra bass response so more air is moved and the user can better 'feel' the bass note as they would like when they are using speaker . This is why coloration is more favorable than being neutral (flat FR), thus coloration is what sounding more natural to the users, not flat, neutral FR.

So what kind of FR actually sounds more natural to an IEM user? There isn't a clear, straight answer I can give you. To add to the complex issue of what kind of tuning results in a more natural sound, we still have to consider the fact that each of us hears thing differently - we all have our very own FR curve due to aging and hearing damage accumulated over time. When you add the difference in musical taste to the big mix, there is impossible to tell what would sound most natural to you. However, there is one thing we can be sure of: Neutral and natural are not created equally in the IEM world.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

[Review] Maximo iM-390

I was contacted by Andrew @ Maximo Product a few weeks ago and asked if I would be interested in reviewing one of their current iMetal series IEM, the iM-390. Naturally I won't pass out any chance to review an IEM I never experienced before. For those of you who are not familiar with Maximo, their core business is making accessories for consumer-electronic products and IEM is just one of many things they made. Now there are quite a few companies like Maximo out there that manufacture/sell accessories including headphone under one generic brand. Generally speaking, serious headphone users (including me) tend to ignore those brand. The reason is simple: most of those companies know nothing about how to make a good sounding headphone. They treat headphone like cable or dock - as long as it works, it is good enough. They probably think that most consumers won't notice any difference anyway, and perhaps they are right. After all, those companies are in the accessories business, not the headphone business. It strikes me odd that Maximo is interested in getting a review of their product. Obviously Maximo have good confidence in their IEM and are willing to prove themselves to be more than just-another-accessories-maker.

[Specifications]
• Frequency response: 18Hz-22KHz
• Sensitivity (1KHz, 0.1V): > 100dB
• Maximum SPL output: >120dB

[Features]
• Lightweight aluminum alloy body
• High-fidelity 9mm neodymium drivers
• 3 pairs/sizes (L,M,S) of eartips
• Gold-plated 3.5mm stereo plug
• 2.5mm and air travel plug adapters
• 2-ft extension cable
• Premium carrying case
• Lifetime warranty

MSRP:US$39.99

Packaging, Accessories and Build Quality
The iM-390 comes in a hard plastic seal, not my favorite but it is typical of IEM of its price range. In it, you will find a treasure box of goodies. Besides the IEM, you will find three set of different sized single flange eartips, an small extension cable, one airplane adapter and one 2.5mm adapter and a hard carrying case. It is apparent that Maximo is paying a lot of attention to detail. The extension cable is really light and well made. Though it is a bit on the short side (I'll prefer it to be 3-ft instead), it is one of the best extension cable I have ever seen. What made it so great is its light weight and light build. It is barely noticeable when used. The other thing that worth noticing is the high quality hardcase. It resembles Shure's hardcase, except it is more refined. Instead of only having limited space for the IEM itself like the Shure's, Maximo's hardcase has extra space for putting the two adapters inside and it can still be closed with ease.

The earpiece itself are made entirely of aluminum alloy with the brand and L/R lasered on it. The downside is there isn't a stress relief on the earpeice. Instead there is a ball shaped extra metal piece to guide the cable. One extra interesting thing is the Y-splitting junction on the cable is much further down than normal IEM but no wire guide is included to allow the user to control the length. Though there are some very minor issue, I think the iM-390 is really good in overall build quality. iM-390 also comes with a lifetime warranty, which is rare in the headphone market in general.



The one thing I hope Maximo will include in their future IEM is the bi-flanges.



I like the jack/socket design on the cable of both iM-390 and (especially ) the extension cable. They are light and small and they don't get into the way like most other extensions do.

This is most definitely one of the best hard case I have seen for IEM. Maximo has done a well job here.










Sound Quality
I used my iriver clix2 in the all important sound quality check, mainly playing high quality ripped LAME MP3 or WMA VBR music. One thing that doesn't get mentioned in iM-390 spec is its impedance, which is around 16 ohms if my measurement is correct. The low impedance means it is fairly easy to drive and no amp is required. Noise isolation is about as typical as other IEM that utilized single flange eartips (i.e. CX300, EP-630, etc). It is adequate for daily use but probably not going to be enough in a really loud environment. Cable noise (microphonics) is also about typical of its kind, acceptable but nothing spectacular to comment about.

iM-390 spots a warmish, energetic sound with focuses on the mid and bass section. Treble is a bit roll off but there are still enough sparkles. It does not have a highly detail sound but should be enough to satisfy non-analytical listener. Mid is full and slightly forward sounding especially on the vocal section makes it good for most Pop and Rock music. Bass is strong and impactful without losing control or becomes over bloated. It should be enough even if you are a basshead. Soundstage is about average but with a sense of airiness in it. Overall, it is a musical sounding IEM that suits most common genre of music.


Conclusion
With a sound quality that are above most budget class IEM, good build quality, and an assortment of accessories (includes a great looking and functioning case) plus a lifetime warranty, I think it is hard for me not to recommend iM-390 to you. If you are looking for an basic model IEM for casual usage or thinking about a decent sounding IEM as a backup pair for your more expensive main portable rig, I think Maximo iM-390 is definitely worthy as an serious consideration.

Sum-up
*(see below)
Variation: N/A
Transducer: Single 9mm dynamic transducer
Spec: 16Ω (@1kHz) | 18Hz~ 22kHz | >100dB SPL
Cord Style: Y-cord, 1.10m.
Mini Jack Style: Gold-plated straight style, Light build.
Eartips Used: Stock single flanges
Packaging: ★★★★ (good packaging, but nothing spectacular)
Build Quality: ★★★★☆ (very solid quality, but I would like to see a wire guide)
Accessories: ★★★★★ (A lot of goodies for the price)
Isolation: ★★★ (typical for IEM in similar design)
Microphonics: ★★★ (again, typical)
Comfort: ★★★★★ (single flanged IEM is usually quite comfortable)
Soundstage: ★★★ (average)
Sound Quality: ★★☆ (Warm, energetic, musical but doesn't have a lot of detail. Good vocal and bass response suitable for most genre of music. Very good for IEM in its price range.)
Value: ★★★★☆ (Solid build, great accessories, and decent sound make this IEM a real keeper)
Remark: Not many IEM in the sub-$50 category are capable of doing everything right. More than often they have some kind of major short coming that lower their overall value. I am happy to say iM-390 isn't one of those. I am quite impressed by the solid performance and value of iM-390, especially since it isn't from a dedicated audio brand. If you have only $40 to spend on IEM, this one should be in your list of consideration.

*see my multiple IEM review to understand how the rating system work.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Last Week's Most Interesting

Last week probably marked the most important week of the year for all IEM user: the highly anticipated, long overdue Westone 3 has finally been released to the market at the 28th of November. For those who didn't keep track of thing, Westone 3 was first announced at January 2007, which means it took almost 2 years for Westone to actually bring the prototype to live. During all these time, Westone had shown and all0wed people to demo the prototype on multiple meetings. Needless to say, the impression seems to overwhelmingly positive. In any case, the impression fueled hype is now over and the IEM will be judged more openly by the public eyes ears. With more and more reviews being posted all over the world, we shall soon to see whether Westone 3 will become the stuff of what legend is made of or not. Perhaps it will even set a new standard of what to be known as 'the best of universal IEM.' I am sure Westone's main competitors like UE and Shure is keeping an close eye. The question is, would they do anything about it? I certainly hope so.

Other IEM that make their debut in the last week or so are the s-JAYS from JAYS@Sweden and Audéo PFE (“Perfect Fit Earphones”) by Phonak@Swiss. The s-JAYS utilizes a kind of rounded (instead of the more common box-shaped) balanced armatures transducer named 'Siren' which I believe is made by Knowles, one of the largest balanced armature transducer manufacturer in the world. On the other hand, the Audéo PFE from Phonak has a single drived, sideway mounting balanced armatures transducer that seem to resemble the TopFire transducer on UE's new Super.fi 5. Just proves that you can't keep a good idea all to yourself.

Westone 3, the first true universal IEM that deploys three balanced armature transducers with a three-way crossover network. MSRP US$399.

  • Driver: Triple balanced armature
  • Sensitivity: 107 dB SPL
  • Frequency response: 20 Hz -18 kHz
  • Impedance: 30 ohms
  • Driver: Three balanced armature
  • Features: Soft padded travel case, ten different eartips, and wax loop for cleaning.
  • Standard Color: Black
Phonak Audéo PFE, the first attempt from the hearing aid maker to break into the IEM market. MSRP US$139.



  • Driver: Single balanced armature
  • Sensitivity: 107 dB @ 1 mW
  • Frequency range: 5 Hz – 17 kHz
  • Impedance: 32 Ohm @ 1 kHz
  • Cable: 110 cm / 3.6 ft (Y-style), straight 3.5 mm gold-plated plug, microphone (optional)
  • Accessories: Carrying case, silicon tips (S/M/L), Comply foam tips (M), cleaning tool, acoustic filters, silicon ear guides
s-JAYS, a new offering from JAYS that targeted at the lower end IEM market. It comes with an unconventional 'Siren' transducer (and the earpiece design looks rather interesting). Strange enough, I can only find it on JAYS' UK website. MSRP £64.97.
  • Drive: Single SIREN balanced armature
  • Sensitivity: 113 dB SPL @ 1 kHz
  • Frequency range: 20Hz - 20 kHz
  • Impedance; 69 Ohm @ 1 kHz
  • Cord: L 0.60 m (~24 inch) + 0.90 m (~35 inch) extension cord, W 2/1.5 mm (0.079/0.059 inch)
  • Weight: 10 grams (0.35 oz)
  • Plug: Gold-Plated Stereo Mini-Plug 3.5 mm (1.8 in)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Past Review: Multiple IEM Shoot out.

This a big multiple IEM comparison / review thread that I started at Head-fi almost half a year ago. It began with only 12 IEM and was intended to do the impossible: To rank all the IEM I have in a more or less logical sense. I have reviewed multiple IEM before this thread on Head-fi but I was always wanting to put them all together and give people a clear picture when they go head to head with each other. A little more than 5 months later, the number of IEM increased to 18 and it becomes obvious to me that the original rating system was stretched beyond what it was designed for. As a result, I decided to stop adding new IEM into this review and I am currently in the proccess of developing a new system that will better reflect the finer detail in the review. Take note that the rating in the review were based on comparison between the 18 IEM. It was not an absolute score and there might be better or worst IEM out there that are simply not included in this review.

[Important] This review is on subjective term. YMMV.

Reviewing gears: Sony D-EJ1000 PCDP’s line-out to Practical Device’s XM3 portable amp with AD8620 opamp installed.

Reviewing CD: Custom made by ripping songs to FLAC than normalized/burnt via Nero9. Two songs with compression artifact included (CD → wma/mp3 → CD).

CD Tracks: [ Love Song - Sara Bareille / Have You Met Miss Jones? – Robbie Williams / Come Away with Me – Norah Jones / I Was Doing Alright – Diana Krall / Nostalgia – Yanni (Yanni Live At the Acropolis) / Not Of This Earth - Robbie Williams / Red Hot – Vanessa-Mea / Maneater – Nelly Furtado (artifact) / 1234 – Feist (artifact) ]

Rating: From one star (★, lowest rating) to five stars (★★★★★, highest rating), including half a star (☆). Criteria include [Packaging / Build Quality / Accessories / Isolation / Microphonics / Comfort / Soundstage / Sound Quality / Value] Note: The rating is based on comparison b/w the IEM listed below and not on absolute term. There might be better / worst IEM that are not listed in this review.

★★★★★-The best
★★★★---Really good
★★★-----Average
★★-------Just OK
★---------Not worth it

IEM have all been burnt-in thoroughly and will be reviewed in chronological order of purchase date:

Shure E3c (2004)

Variation: E3g, SCL3
Transducer: Single Balanced Armature
Spec: 26Ω (@1kHz) | 25Hz~ 18kHz | 115dB SPL | 28g
Cord Style: Y-cord, 1.41m~ 1.57m.
Mini Jack Style: Gold plated L style, heavy build.
Eartips Used: Shure Gary Soft Flex
Packaging: ★★★★★
Build Quality: ★★★★★ (heavily build)
Accessories: ★★★★☆ (everything you need is included)
Isolation: ★★★★
Microphonics: ★★ (earbud style) | ★★★★ (over-the-ear style)
Comfort: ★★★ (thick cable is too heavy, plus no memory cable)
Soundstage: ★★☆
Sound Quality: ★★★ (warm, but bass and treble are lacking)
Value: ★★★ (not the best sounding for its price)
Remark: With sound quality of an entry class IEM, E3c does nothing spectacularly good but comes with a higher-than-competitor’s price. A solid choice 4 yrs ago, but not anymore. The thick cable is quite a burden to use on any wearing style.

Etymotic ER6i (2005)

Variation: Black and white models with different accessories
Transducer: Single Balanced Armature
Spec: 16Ω (@1kHz) | 50Hz~ 16kHz | 108dB SPL | <28g
Cord Style: Y-cord, 1.40m
Mini Jack Style: Gold plated straight style, light build. (Black model is L plug).
Eartips Used: Tri-flanges
Packaging: ★★★★☆
Build Quality: ★★★★ (light build)
Accessories: ★★★★ (included pouch offers little protection)
Isolation: ★★★★★ (-36dB!!!)
Microphonics: ★★★ (earbud style) | ★★★★★ (w/ shirt clip)
Comfort: ★★★★ (light to wear, but deep inserting eartips)
Soundstage: ★★ (one of Ety’s weak point]
Sound Quality: ★★★ (analytical, bass light and flat sound but offers great detail)
Value: ★★★★ (cheap street price and great sound when used with foam)
Remark: One of the main competitors with E3c when it was released. Street price is low now which makes it a good choice as entry class IEM. With Shure Black Foam sleeve, the bass problem can be improved. Thin cable but it will harden up in time result in more microphonics.

Creative EP-630 (2006)

Variation: Black and white color, EP-635 (lanyard style).
Transducer: Single 8mm Dynamic
Spec: 16Ω (@1kHz) | 6Hz~ 23kHz | 106dB SPL | 9g
Cord Style: Y-cord, 1.20m
Mini Jack Style: Gold plated straight style, light build.
Eartips Used: Single flange
Packaging: ★★★
Build Quality: ★★★★ (light build)
Accessories: ★★☆ (nothing but different size eartips)
Isolation: ★★★
Microphonics: ★★★
Comfort: ★★★★★
Soundstage: ★★★
Sound Quality: ★★ (warm, muddy bass without much treble)
Value: ★★☆ (cheap price so there is nothing to expect)
Remark: Except for comfort, there is nothing especially good on EP-630. However with price so low, how can one expect it to sound good? It will serve okay as a cheap backup, but not really a good choice for SQ.

Sennheiser CX300 (2006)

Variation: n/a.
Transducer: Single Dynamic
Spec: 16Ω (@1kHz) | 18Hz~ 21kHz | 112dB SPL | 9g
Cord Style: J-cord, 1.20m
Mini Jack Style: Gold plated L style, normal build.
Eartips Used: Single flange
Packaging: ★★★
Build Quality: ★★★★ (light build)
Accessories: ★★☆ (nothing but different size eartips)
Isolation: ★★★
Microphonics: ★★★
Comfort: ★★★★★
Soundstage: ★★★☆
Sound Quality: ★★☆ (warm, bloated bass)
Value: ★★★ (Get it for cheap than it is a slightly better choice than EP-630)
Remark: The bloated bass is the biggest weakness of CX300. The official price is also too high (however, this seems to be very common among Sennheiser’s low end products). With the current low street price, it is a reasonable good backup option.

Altec Lansing ‘InMontioniM716 (2007)

Variation: n/a.
Transducer: Single Balanced Armature
Spec: User selectable HD / Bass mode on inline volume control pod
Cord Style: Y-cord, 1.40m
Mini Jack Style: Gold plated L style, light build.
Eartips Used: Tri-flanges
Packaging: ★★★★
Build Quality: ★★★★
Accessories: ★★★★☆ (Included case is balky, but functional)
Isolation: ★★★★☆
Microphonics: ★★ (w/o clip) | ★★★★ (w/ clip)
Comfort: ★★★ (not the best to wear because of the inline volume pod)
Soundstage: ★★ (HD mode) | ★★☆ (Bass mod)
Sound Quality: ★★★★ (Analytical and flat sounding, Bass mode adds a bit warmness)
Value: ★★★☆ (One of the best bargain when you find it cheap. Only downside is the fact that it is out of production, so don’t expect warranty for long)
Remark: One of the best values in IEM market as dealers are clearing their stock with ultra low price. The volume pod can be mod'ed to give an even better SQ closer to than of ER4P. However, don’t expect Altec Lansing to honor the warranty once you mod it. Will sound really great if you amp it.

CrossRoads MylarOne X3 (2007)

Variation: n/a.
Transducer: Single Dynamic
Spec: n/a
Cord Style: Y-cord, 1.20m
Mini Jack Style: Gold plated straight style, light build.
Eartips Used: UE style bi-flange
Packaging: ★★ (very simple package)
Build Quality: ★★☆ (light build, need good care to last)
Accessories: ★★★★☆ (A lot compare to its price)
Isolation: ★★★
Microphonics: ★★ (w/o clip) | ★★★★ (w/ clip)
Comfort: ★★★★☆
Soundstage: ★★★☆
Sound Quality: ★★☆ (balance, a bit bass light, but good detail)
Value: ★★★★ (Cheaper than EP-630 on local price, yet better than CX300)
Remark: Despite the build quality isn’t really good, X3 sounds like a pair of less refine ER6i, and you can’t beat it for the low price and a good solid warranty.
(See in-depth review here and modification over at Head-fi.org)

Sleek Audio SA6 (2008)

Variation: n/a.
Transducer: Single Balanced Armature with Custom Porting
Spec: 50Ω (@1kHz) | 110dB SPL
Cord Style: Y-cord, 1.15m, Replaceable
Mini Jack Style: Gold plated L style, heavy build.
Eartips Used: bi-flanges
Packaging: ★★★☆
Build Quality: ★★★☆ (there are still room for improvement, but overly good)
Accessories: ★★★★☆ (Included case isn’t very functional)
Isolation: ★★★★★
Microphonics: ★★★ (earbud style) | ★★★★★ (over-the-ear style)
Comfort: ★★★★☆ (one of the most comfortable deep inserting IEM)
Soundstage: ★★★★ (w/ Bass+ port)
Sound Quality: ★★★★☆ (warm, mid centric with some of the best vocal but doesn’t lack bass or treble)
Value: ★★★★ (For $250, I'll expect a bit more) | ★★★★★ (Fantastic new price!)
Remark: SA6 is a great example of how single BA transducer can sound great. Though the overall quality (both on sound and build) isn’t the best yet (when considering its price), I believe there is still room for improvement as SA6 is the first IEM for Sleek Audio. The custom porting (VQ system) works well. For people who love a warm, full, detail yet musical sound, SA6 just might be the one for you. [UPDATE] To me, SA6 is on the warm side, but not dark. The mid has a full body that is especially good with vocal. The treble (T++ port) reaches quite far and gives enough detail to show some sparkle but not to a point of fatiguing. Bass (on B+ port, pin hole mod) is accurate and fast, though not the best or biggest impact I heard and lack a good resolution on depth, it seems to well suit the full mid. The soundstage is better than most but not the best I heard. All and all, SA6 presents a very musical sound that can easily make most music more engaging. I'll say SA6's sound signature is a combination of all the nice characteristics I'll be looking for in a pair of IEM. As of why it falls short of being the best is because, though SA6 is really good sounding, it can still be a bit congesting on busy passage. I think it is because SA6 still lacks the best resolution and the body of sound to be ranked as the best. [UPDATED EDIT] With the new price of $200, SA6 are now one of the best value IEM in the market IMO.
(See in-depth review here and modification over at Head-fi.org)

Head-Direct’s RE2 (2008)

Variation: n/a.
Transducer: 9mm Single Dynamic
Spec: 32Ω (@1kHz) | 103dB SPL | 20Hz ~ 18KHZ
Cord Style: Y-cord, 0.90m.
Mini Jack Style: Gold plated straight style, very light build.
Eartips Used: Big bi-flanges
Packaging: n/a (sampling package)
Build Quality: ★★★★ (solid but nothing spectacular)
Accessories: ★★★☆ (a shirt clip will be nice)
Isolation: ★★★☆ (semi-open design but doesn’t leak sound)
Microphonics: ★★★ (earbud style)
Comfort: ★★★★★
Soundstage: ★★★★☆
Sound Quality: ★★★☆ (analytical and flat, light on bass, clearly a step up from ER6i and approaching the amped iM716)
Value: ★★★★★ (what can a man ask for with such a low price of $99?)
Remark: RE2 sounds like a more refine ER6i. Though not pumping out a lot of bass, the great detail should be more than enough considered it is only $99. The included big bi-flanges really do their job well. Better soundstage and not need for amping make it a better choice over iM716. The only downside is the short cable (plus the included extension cable is quite heavy). [EDIT] Good synergy with FiiO E3, so try them both together if you get a chance.
(See in-depth review here over at Head-fi.org)

Head-Direct’s RE1 (2008)

Variation: n/a.
Transducer: 9mm Single Dynamic
Spec: 150Ω (@1kHz) | 103dB SPL | 20Hz ~ 18KHZ
Cord Style: Y-cord, 0.90m.
Mini Jack Style: Gold plated straight style, very light build.
Eartips Used: Big bi-flanges
Packaging: n/a (sampling package)
Build Quality: ★★★★ (solid but nothing spectacular)
Accessories: ★★★☆ (a shirt clip will be nice)
Isolation: ★★★☆ (semi-open design but doesn’t leak sound)
Microphonics: ★★★ (earbud style)
Comfort: ★★★★★
Soundstage: ★★★★★ (the best soundstage when amped)
Sound Quality: ★★★★☆ (slightly dark but very smooth and forgiving, must be amped well to reveal its potential. One of the best dynamic I ever heard).
Value: ★★★★☆ (Not getting 5 stars after factor in the price for an amp, but still quite a great deal)
Remark: With a fast and detail amp, RE1 can sound amazingly great, putting it next to some of the best universal IEM in the market. Even after factoring in the price of reasonably good amp (~$150), I still think it is a good deal. If you already have a good amp, than there is no reason why you shouldn’t consider getting a pair of RE1. Mind you the slightly dark SQ means it is not the ultra detail IEM you are looking for. However, It is perfect for those who want a smooth and laid back sounding IEM that you can listen for hours and feel no fatigue at all. Note that RE1 has the same short cable as RE2.
(See in-depth review here over at Head-fi.org)

Ultimate Ears’ Triple.fi 10 Pro (2008)

Variation: n/a.
Transducer: Triple Balanced Armature in two ways configuration
Spec: 32Ω (@1kHz) | 10Hz~ 17kHz | 117dB SPL | 16g
Cord Style: Y-cord, 1.10m. Memory cable. Replaceable.
Mini Jack Style: Gold plated L style, heavy build.
Eartips Used: Mod’ed Shure Black Foam
Packaging: ★★★★☆
Build Quality: ★★★★★
Accessories: ★★★★☆ (Included foam are trash)
Isolation: ★★★★ (-26dB, better with foam eartips)
Microphonics: ★★★★★ (over-the-ear style)
Comfort: ★★★☆ (won’t work if you have really small ear canal. Big earpiece)
Soundstage: ★★★★☆ (very good, but not the best. Great instrument separation)
Sound Quality: ★★★★★ (very balance and airy, a slight harshness on treble but fixable by foam).
Value: ★★★★☆ (Not getting 5 stars because I am expecting everything to be perfect but it is not, see remark)
Remark: If you can get a good fit, there is no doubt that TF10 has one of the best SQ in universal IEM. I’ll like to think that I am paying a premier price because everything is best in its class, but it just isn’t so. The foam tips included are basically trash as one of them broke apart even before I fully inserted it onto the IEM, and the other one is even worst as the foam is glued to the silicone tube on the wrong side (the smooth side should be facing the eardrum but it is not). They should have asked Comply to produce the foam instead of making some sub-par accessories themselves. [UPDATE] Cheer for UE cause they do listen to their customer, and now all UE's products seems to be shipped with Comply!

Sony MDR-EX700SL (2008)

Variation: MDR-EX700LP (one piece cable)
Transducer: Single 16mm Dynamic
Spec: 16Ω (@1kHz) | 4Hz~ 28kHz | 108dB SPL | 7g
Cord Style: J-cord. Two pieces, 0.50m + 1.00m (LP model has one piece cable)
Mini Jack Style: Gold plated L style, light build.
Eartips Used: Single flange
Packaging: ★★★★★ (One of the nicest looking package on IEM)
Build Quality: ★★★★☆ (cable tangles too easily).
Accessories: ★★★★☆ (excellent case and tips but shirt clip needed!)
Isolation: ★★ (around -20dB, the second worst of all)
Microphonics: ★★★★ (earbud style)
Comfort: ★★★★☆ (quite comfortable despite the size)
Soundstage: ★★★★ (good soundstage, but a bit lack in depth / not airy enough)
Sound Quality: ★★★★☆ (balance, too much harshness on treble not even T400 can fix, good bass, slightly recessed mid in comparison).
Value: ★★★★ (Overall nice package, but SQ isn’t there yet)
Remark: If you even want to sell people a two piece cabal IEM, you better included a shirt clip. Despite using really light material (aluminum, magnesium), the combined cable is still fairly heavy and annoying. Once I put a clip on it, I realize it won’t fit the case anymore (not that the SL model fits well before). Beside the missing clip and harshness, some of the major downside include the easily tangle cable, very little isolation, plus comfortable but easily damage eartips. Sony has made an effort to create a worthy high class IEM, but it isn’t at the top yet. If you want to get EX700, get the LP model (one piece cable) instead. [EDIT] After a lengthy burn-in (~150hrs), the harsh treble seems to quiet down a bit (2~3dB maybe?) to a slightly more tolerable level (but still harsh in general).

JAYS q-Jays (2008)

Variation: Black and white models. q-Jays LE (red and blue models)
Transducer: Dual Balanced Armature
Spec: 39Ω (@1kHz) | 20Hz~ 20kHz | 95dB SPL | 8g
Cord Style: Y-cord. Two pieces, 0.60m + 0.90m
Mini Jack Style: Gold plated L style, light build.
Eartips Used: Single flange
Packaging: ★★★★☆ (One of the nicest looking package on IEM)
Build Quality: ★★★★★ (solid European's quality).
Accessories: ★★★★☆ (excellent accessories only let down by not functional case and not shirt clip)
Isolation: ★★★★
Microphonics: ★★★ (earbud style) | ★★★★ (over-the-ear style)
Comfort: ★★★☆ (where is the shirt clip when you need one?) | ★★★★☆ (w/ my O.J. mod, see remark).
Soundstage: ★★★☆ (fair soundstage)
Sound Quality: ★★★★ (slightly warm, very slight harshness on treble, excellent bass on quantity and quality).
Value: ★★★★☆ (solid package for a mid class IEM)
Remark: Though might not be the best sounding IEM in its price range (close though), the extra goodies that come with the package do proof q-Jays to have an excellent value for the money. The two downsides are 1) the included case won’t fit the IEM with extension cable (without putting a lot of stress on the cable) and 2) why won’t JAYS includes a shirt clip for a two pieces cable? See also my Olive-on-Jays mod over at Head-fi.org.

Sony MDR-EX85SL (2008)

Variation: MDR-EX85LP (one piece cable)
Transducer: Single 13.5mm Dynamic
Spec: 16Ω (@1kHz) | 5Hz~ 24kHz | 105dB SPL | 6g
Cord Style: J-cord. Two pieces, 0.50m + 1.00m
Mini Jack Style: Gold plated L style, normal build.
Eartips Used: Single flange
Packaging: N/A (OEM package)
Build Quality: ★★★★ (Nothing special)
Accessories: ★★★☆ (Still looking for the same old shirt clip)
Isolation: ★★★
Microphonics: ★★★
Comfort: ★★★★ (Weird angle of the earpiece)
Soundstage: ★★★ (fair soundstage)
Sound Quality: ★★☆ (warm, not particularly detail but acceptable, slightly muddy mid, bass lacks depth and quality)
Value: ★★★ (Low street price gives it a fair value)
Remark: EX85 is about the same level as CX300 in SQ, but different in sonic character. CX300 has bloated bass and treble while lacks good body mid; EX85 has good mid but lacks good detail and bass depth. Like the CX300, it can serve as a good backup pair since the street price is reasonable, but it isn't 'monitor' level SQ like Sony claims.

Shure SE530 (2008)

Variation: SE530PTH (with extra Push-To-Talk unit)
Transducer: Triple Balanced Armature in two ways configuration
Spec: 36Ω (@1kHz) | 18Hz~ 19kHz | 119dB SPL | 29g
Cord Style: Y-cord, Two pieces, 0.45 + 0.91m
Mini Jack Style: Gold plated straight style, heavy build.
Eartips Used: Shure Black Foam
Packaging: ★★★★★ (aluminum box is really nice)
Build Quality: ★★★★☆ (loose connection in less than a week of action, lemon replaced)
Accessories: ★★★★★ (olive is good, attenuator is a plus)
Isolation: ★★★★★
Microphonics: ★★★★★ (over-the-ear style)
Comfort: ★★★★☆ (heavily built cable isn't particularly comfortable, plus there is no memory cable to hold the cable in place)
Soundstage: ★★★★ (good, but not the best. Slight improvement when using silicones eartip)
Sound Quality: ★★★★☆ (Slightly on the warm side with good, solid and full mid and bass, a bit dark sounding if used from a warm source, slightly roll off treble but improved when amped; On the plus side, SE530 is slightly more forgiving on low bitrate music).
Value: ★★★★ (More expensive than TF10, but doesn't offer more of anything)
Remark: Does SE530 sounds good? I guess the answer is 'Yes'. Does it sound better than TF10? My instinct tells me 'No'. The reason is, SE530 sounds so 'conservative' (if you can describe it that way) that it lacks surprise of any kind. It seems to have a very solid sound characteristic but the lack of spark always leaves me wanting for more. I guess most people will find SE530's sound pretty easy going, but I think I'll prefer a sound that carries more excitement in it. Perhaps I am just not too fond of Shure's house sound? One thing that worths noticing is, despite the fact that most IEM sound very 'intimate' (that is, not resembling a big can), SE530 does carry a more or less 'big can' feel in its sound character. On extra note, SE530 could easily be the most comfortable IEM in the batch, but I just wish Shure could include memory wire on the cable which would have made wearing it a lot more easier.

CrossRoads MylarOne Bijou 3 (2008)

Variation: Various colors
Transducer: Single 9mm Dynamic
Spec: 16Ω (@1kHz) | 20Hz ~ 22kHz | 95 + 4 dB SPL | 2mW (10mW Max)
Cord Style: Y-cord, 1.40m
Mini Jack Style: Gold plated L style, light build.
Eartips Used: UE style bi-flange
Packaging: ★★★☆ (improved since previous version)
Build Quality: ★★★★ (Good build, significant improvement with aluminum earpieces, proper strain relief, and stronger cable )
Accessories: ★★★★☆ (A lot compare to its price, still a CrossRoads strong point)
Isolation: ★★★
Microphonics: ★★ (w/o clip) | ★★★★ (w/ clip)
Comfort: ★★★★☆
Soundstage: ★★★ (slightly less airy thus less soundstage)
Sound Quality: ★★☆ (warm and fun sounding, lower midrange hump around 200Hz ~ 250Hz, but decent detail. Slightly better than CX300 but not on the level of X3 yet)
Value: ★★★★ (Same price as the X3i, still cheaper than EP-630 or CX300 in local price. Factoring in the improved build quality and accessories, it still holds better value than the cheaper CX300 (in U.S.))
Remark: First, the Bijou 3 needs a lot of burn-in. You should burn it in for at least 50hrs before even attends to listen to it. Serious audition will be better scheduled after 100hrs. With out proper burn in, Bijou 3 can sound very muddy with uncontrolled mid bass and roll off high. Second, although the build quality has shown significant improvement, the sound quality does not (show improvement as significant). In fact, one can argue whether it is an improvement on SQ, or perhaps it is a change of sound characteristic as the old MylarOne sounds quite different from the current Bijou 3 (from analytical to fun sounding). Personally, I do prefer the more analytical sound of the old X3. Those of you who find Bijou 3 lower midrange hump muddy up the sound can try to EQ the 200Hz ~ 250Hz region down a bit. The end result is a more balanced sound that has better controlled treble and very slightly deeper bass than CX300.

Westone UM2 (2008)

Variation: Black and translucent.
Transducer: Dual balanced armature
Spec: 27Ω (@1kHz) | 20Hz~ 18kHz | 119dB SPL | 30g
Cord Style: Y-cord. Braided. 1.30m
Mini Jack Style: Gold plated L style, heavy build.
Eartips Used: Stock Comply P-series slim foam tips
Packaging: ★★★★ (Nothing spectacular here)
Build Quality: ★★★★★ (Solid. The cable might seem fragile at first but actually well constructed)
Accessories: ★★★★☆ (Lacks silicone tips. Comply tips are good but silicone tips should be included)
Isolation: ★★★★☆ (Excellent isolation, close to the best)
Microphonics: ★★★★★ (Close to no microphonics at all. Braided cable works very well)
Comfort: ★★★★★ (Definitely one of the most comfort IEM there is. The soft cable is a big plus!)
Soundstage: ★★★☆ (Fair. The warm and forward mid reduces airiness, results in smaller soundstage)
Sound Quality: ★★★★☆ (By far the warmest IEM among all the top end IEM. Very mid centric, like SA6 w/ stronger bass response, but doesn't sparkle as much on treble and less airy, very slightly harsh)
Value: ★★★★ (As a dual driver, UM2 has SQ that can rival those triple drivers, but there are newer, cheaper dual driver on the market that come with better accessories. For the price I paid, it kind of makes me wish for more)
Remark: UM2 spots a very warm, very musical sound signature. Slightly stronger bass than SE530 (mostly because of more mid-bass), with a more forward, fuller mid but less treble detail. Though warm, there is a bit of highlight on the 6~8kHz region resulting in slight harshness, which actually prevents it from sounding too dark despites the fact that it sounds less detail than SE530 (especially on the upper treble). Because of the much forward mid, soundstage actually suffered a bit as the sense of airiness is greatly reduced. Depends on your listening preference, UM2 can be good or bad. It certainly isn't for those who are looking for balance, neutral, cold or analytical sound. However, If you like your music warm and full, UM2 could be the treat you are looking for. If sound signature is a scale, I will place TF10 on one end, SE530 very close to the middle, and UM2 at the other end.

Future Sonics Atrio M5 rev.2 (2008)

Variation: M8 (blue color earpiece)
Transducer: MG5pro™ single dynamic
Spec: 32Ω (@1kHz) | 18Hz~ 20kHz | 112dB SPL
Cord Style: Y-cord, 1.30m.
Mini Jack Style: Gold plated L style, light build.
Eartips Used: Stock EarFills sleeves
Packaging: ★★★★ (Nothing spectacular here)
Build Quality: ★★★★★ (Quite solid)
Accessories: ★★★★★ (The included case is larger than needed, but of good quality. Two packs of foam tips are a plus)
Isolation: ★★★★ (Better than average, but not among the best. isolation improves if using foam tips)
Microphonics: ★★★★ (earbud style. The QuietCables II works rather well)
Comfort: ★★★★ (The EarFills bi-flanges are not the easiest eartips to insert or remove)
Soundstage: ★★★☆ (Fair soundstage, lack in airiness which limits soundstage, strong upfront bass (or weak mid / treble, depend on your own view) distorts overall imaging)
Sound Quality: ★★★★ (Fun and slightly warm, monstrous bass with great depth but very slightly lacks in speed, quite forgiving, lacks in fine upper treble detail and close to sparkle-less)
Value: ★★★★★(The MSRP might be listed close to US$200 but the actual street price can be 1/3 lower. For that reason, Atrio has earn a spot as the top valuer)
Remark: It is not an opinion if someone tell you Atrio M5 / M8 is for basshead, it is the truth. It is hard to imagine an IEM is capable of kicking out so much bass in such great depth - that is you can also hear the sub-bass with decent frequency response. No IEM I heard of is ever close to push out half that of Atrio in the bass department. One of the best thing is, Atrio is able to pump bass out without muddy up the mid and retain enough treble detail to not sound dark, though it definitely isn't the detail sounding IEM people are looking for. Generally, I consider Atrio to be quite smooth sounding and not fatiguing, provides that you are into big bass. Atrio can be fatiguing if you can't accept big bass smashing into your head (as more than one occasion I actually feel my head is vibrating.) On extra note, Atrio requires a bit of burn-in to reach its final sound signature. I'll suggest 50 hrs as the minimum and 100hrs before any serious audition.

SoundMAGIC PL-30 (2008)

Variation: n/a
Transducer: Single 9mm Dynamic
Spec: 12Ω (@1kHz) | 20Hz~ 22kHz | 102+3dB SPL | 10g
Cord Style: Y-cord, 1.20m.
Mini Jack Style: Gold plated straight style, Light build.
Eartips Used: UE style bi-flanges.
Packaging: ★★★☆ (surprisingly well packaged for the price)
Build Quality: ★★★ (Okay build quality. Care needed to last, especially on the bass knob)
Accessories: ★★★★☆ (Good selection of eartips included, especially the Shure 'olive' style foam. Good thing that they also include a shirt clip)
Isolation: ★☆ (less than -20dB, the worst of all. Foam will improve isolation but will result in a darker sound signature)
Microphonics: ★★★★☆ (over-the-ear style, very little microphonics even w/o the shirt clip)
Comfort: ★★★★ (Good, but the cable doesn't particularly like to stay over-the-ear w/o a bit of persuasion)
Soundstage: ★★★★ (Airy sound with a good sense of space and separation)
Sound Quality: ★★☆ (Neutral sound w/ a bit of analytical quality, bass light but offers good detail. SQ is roughly on-par w/ Bijou3 but with an opposite presentation. Resemble the SQ of MylarOne X3 but w/ less bass. Quite seal and eartips dependent for achieving an ideal sound)
Value: ★★★★☆ (Capable of matching the performance of those which double in price and beating most, if not all, sub $50 IEM gives PL-30 a rather good value for money)
Remark: Before serious auditioning, a 24 hrs burn-in is recommended for the removal of the slight hint of harshness. If you can get them for less than $30, I'll say you have got yourself a good deal. Less than $20? Even better. However, paying such an low low price does come with its own downside (I have to wait for a month just to receive my $20 PL-30, and it will probably take all the patience in your life because the shipping update is pretty much not existed). At this point, you should have realized PL-30 isn't the Excalibur you are hoping for. It is not the magic cure if you are searching for better SQ. However, PL-30 does capable of rival most IEM around the $50 mark (and that's probably as far as it goes). Due to the earpieces' design, getting a good seal might require a bit of effort. A bad seal means PL-30 will turn from bass-light to bass-none. Using the foam, however, will darken PL-30 overall sound signature in exchange for more bass. Personally, I find the two different setting for bass knob to be quite subtle. The clear bass setting is slightly airier, while deep bass setting gives a bit of warmness to the overall tone. You will most likely get more result via EQing. For those who are looking for more bass w/o resolving to EQ, try FiiO E3 (the synergy is good, but there might be a hint of hiss depends on your DAP).


The Best SQ Ranking:
1) Triple.fi 10 Pro ★★★★★
2) Shure SE530 ★★★★☆
3) Westone UM2 ★★★★☆
4) Head-Direct’s RE1 (amped) ★★★★☆
5) Sleek Audio SA6 ★★★★☆
6) Sony MDR-EX700SL ★★★★☆
7) Future Sonics Atrio M5 ★★★★
8) JAYS q-Jays ★★★★
9) Altec Lansing iM716 (amped) ★★★☆
10) Head-Direct’s RE2 ★★★☆
11) Etymotic ER6i ★★★
12) Shure E3c ★★★
13) CrossRoads MylarOne X3 ★★☆
14) CrossRoads MylarOne Bijou 3 ★★☆
15) SoundMAGIC PL-30 ★★☆
16) Sennheiser CX300 ★★☆
17) Sony MDR-EX85SL ★★☆
18) Creative EP-630 ★★


The Best Value Ranking:
1) Head-Direct’s RE2 ★★★★★ | Sleek Audio SA6 ★★★★★ (New price)
2) Future Sonics Atrio M5 ★★★★★
3) Triple.fi 10 Pro ★★★★☆
4) JAYS q-Jays ★★★★☆
5) Head-Direct’s RE1 ★★★★☆
6) SoundMAGIC PL-30 ★★★★☆
7) Etymotic ER6i ★★★★
8) CrossRoads MylarOne X3 ★★★★
9) Shure SE530 ★★★★
10) CrossRoads MylarOne Bijou 3 ★★★★
11) Sleek Audio SA6 ★★★★ (old price)
12) Sony MDR-EX700SL ★★★★
13) Westone UM2 ★★★★
14) Altec Lansing iM716 ★★★☆
15) Shure E3c ★★★
16) Sennheiser CX300 ★★★
17) Sony MDR-EX85SL ★★★
18) Creative EP-630 ★★☆

Disclaimer: All trademarks and logos in the website belong to their respective owners. Beside getting free review samples, I don't work for or get paid by anyone to write anything on this website, or anywhere else in that matter. Also, free review samples are never sold for any financial gain. I do buy gears and review them, but for simplicity you (the reader) should always assume what I review is free sample in nature (and thus comes with all the bias). The website does have Google Ads and Amazon Associates enabled (which I have no direct control over their content) - though I don't write review for a living, nor does the ads generates enough money to cover my breakfast (in fact, not even one breakfast per week). Listening to music and playing with audio gears are purely hobby for me. In short, I am just an audiophiles who happens to have his own blog. Not a journalist who happens to be an audiophile. Oh, and excuse my writing as I am not a native English speaker and can't afford a proofreader. Also, just because I don't write in a negative tone doesn't mean I don't write down the negative aspect of a gear. Please read them carefully. Last but not least, please note that this site uses cookies to track visitors' number and page view.

Important: All postings are my own personal opinion only and should not be treated as absolute truth. I do get things wrong just like everyone else. Always do your own research!

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