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.

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 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.

●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

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 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.

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

• 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


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.

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.

*(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 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)

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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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