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Tuesday, June 30, 2009


First, I want to thanks Tony @ SoundMAGIC for offering me the chance to review the PL-50. I first got wind of a balanced armature based SoundMAGIC few weeks ago when I came across a pre-order page on another forum. There wasn't a lot of info back then to made out how well this IEM are going be. Plus, SoundMAGIC usually like to operate under the radar, making it difficult to tell what kind of product they are planning for. I have been in contact with Tony since last year when the PL-30 was on hot sale, basically asking questions and getting detail of their flagship at the time. Personally I am not that excited when I received my PL-30. It sounds quite good as a sub-$50 IEM for sure, but I could never get a seal good enough for me to use it in long term. Instead, I take a liking to their PL20 and PL11 offering simply because of better fit. As I always say, you are going to get a good sound only after you get a good fit.

For those who don't know anything about SoundMAGIC, they not only make their own line of headphone, but also are the OEM supplier of several well known headphone brands around the world (Beyerdynamic for an example).

The case is about twice as thick as PL11/20's case, but much better looking.

Driver: Single Balanced Armature Transducer
Sensitivity: 109 +/-2 dB SPL @ 1 kHz
Impedance: 55.5 +/- 15% Ohm @ 1 kHz
Frequency Response: 15Hz - 22 kHz
Cord: 1.20m
Plug: Gold-Plated Stereo 3.5mm Mini-Plug

Packaging, Accessories, and Build Quality
PL-50 spots a very classy packaging - the best I have seen on any Chinese brand so far. The general foot print of the box is still quite small, but thicker on the side to accommodate a hard case (as the same kind found only on SoundMAGIC previous flagship, the PL-30). By opening the side windows, you can take a peek on the IEM itself (with the mid sized foam tips) and 4 pair of different sized silicone single flange eartips (S, M , L, XL). Inside the box, you will find the warranty card and a hard case in the back compartment with 2 silicone ear hooks and two more foam tips (S, L). Now you should take note that the foam tips are actually smaller in size compared to similar foam tips offered by other manufacturers. What I mean is, the large sized foam tips is actually about the same size as a mid sized Shure black foam (olive). Also, they are more rubbery than normal foam. The good news is, these foam actually have a inner tubing (as opposite to the cheaper type that has no inner tubing).

The nozzle on the earpeice is slightly larger in diameter than typical Shure or Westone and has a bump close to the base to hold the eartips in place more firmly (those who own Philips SHE9850 will know the design). That said, Shure olive can fit in but it is very tight - so tight that I won't recommend even trying (as you might break the nozzle when trying to remove). Comply T100 fits too, but it is also a tight fit (just not as tight as olive). If you are seeking aftermarket replacement eartips, here are some that I have tried and work quite well: Shure grey flex sleeve, Sony hybrid replacement silicone eartips, tri-flanges, big bi-flange, and JAYS's replacement eartips (including their foam tips). In all, I will recommend JAYS eartips as the eartips of choice for replacement, but not their foam tips since it exposes too much of the nozzle opening for earwax. For those who are looking a long term foam solution, I will recommend you to try my Olive-on-Jays mod, which works very well and give optimum comfort, grip and easy access for future eartips replacement / exchange.

As far as I can tell, the earpiece itself is plastic and it is extremely light. It finished with a dark blue metallic coating which is very classy to look at. The fit is close to phenomenal - I dare said PL-50 is almost as good as my Westone UM2, which is renowned for its fit. The strain relief is color coated for left/right channels. The cable in use is similar to those found on NuForce NE-7M, soft but generally strong and don't have memory effect or tangle easily. The Y-splitter and the mini jack look very well built. I especially like how the mini jack is designed for iPhone yet still remains very practical- much more elegant than the solution Shure has on its SE530. The inclusion of ear hook is a good plus though the cable is quite easy to use in over-the-ear style without the hook, which of course also help eliminate any microphonics issue. If you are wearing PL-50 in a more or less stationary position (such as in front of desk), you can plug it in upside-down / hanging position. It still works very well but there will be a bit of microphonics issue if you start to move around. Overall, I am very please with the quality of PL-50.

Sound Quality
As a standard procedure, I burnt PL-50 in for 50 hrs fore the review. Some of you might think it is a complete waste of time, but not this time. There is a small degree of noticeable change in sound quality in the first few hours (<>
On my O.J. mod'ed Shure olive tips, the overall sound signature is warm, smooth, full sounding mid with rather sweet male vocal performance. Bass is on the leaner side but still adequate, definitely not what I'll describe as bass shy, but more like below average. Mid is full and take dominance over the whole sound signature (in a good way). Male vocal sounds pretty sweet but female vocal doesn't have as much detail since the upper mid and treble is rather smooth without any peaks or highlight. There are some degree of detail but lacks sparkle, thus not much fine detail to speak of (and no sibilance if that is what concerns you). Analytical listeners need not apply. Isolation is rated at -20dB, which is about correct with the default foam tips and quite consistent with the mod'ed olive tips. That is about average on my scale. Soundstage is also about average with the foam tip.

On the stock silicone single flange eartips, the mid is not as full and leans a little more toward the neutral side, giving a slightly more revealing sound that tends to better suited on female vocal. However, the overall sound signature still remains warm and smooth. Soundstage is also better and airier with the silicone stock, but the isolation is probably 1~2 dB less. Not a major drop but noticeable in comparison.

In sum, PL-50 has a rather 'popular' sound signature. Not bassy nor bass-shy, not bright nor too dull - plus a mid that tend to work fairly well in most genre of music.

So how does PL-50's SQ compares to SoundMAGIC previous flagship PL-30? In short, there is no competition. PL-30 is a good sub-$50 budget class IEM, but in my opinion PL-50 has very well reached the top of entry class IEM, which is a class above PL-30.

SoundMAGIC has always been a good choice for those in tight budget, their new flagship is no exception. If you went out and bought a pair of balanced armature (BA) transducers on your own then fit them into an housing, I doubt you can even get half decent sound with mere $55 of budget. BA based IEM have always been criticized for their price, but SoundMAGIC PL-50 has absolutely pushed the limit... the only question left is, have you have your wallet ready yet? Do expect this to cast an even bigger storm than PL-30!!!

You can read the quick sum up here.

Monday, June 29, 2009

[Sonic Diamond™] HifiMan RE0

Sonic Diamond™ is a rating I give to what I believe to be the absolute best valued IEM in the market. So far, this title has never been given to any IEM though some come quite close. Well, that is about to change now, even if it is only going to last during thissummer.. Head-Direct RE0, or now known as HifiMan RE0 by Head-Direct, is having a summer sale promotion, smashing the usual close-to-$200 price tag to a mere $99 (and comes with a free FiiO E3). This is a deal you don't want to miss out. Want to know more about RE0? Read my review over at Head-fi (beware that Head-Direct has updated the cable to fabric 'knit' type since the review has posted over 6 months ago).

Driver unit: 9mm Dynamic
Impedance: 64 OHM
Sensitivity: 100dB/1mW
Rate input: 10mw
Max. input: 30mw
Frequency response: 15Hz ~ 22KHz

Saturday, June 27, 2009

[REVIEW²] alpha + beta Brainwavz

First, wanna thanks Raz @ MP4 Nation for giving me the chance to review the beta Brainwaz. Since the alpha Brainwaz is included with the sample of beta, I thought I'll review it as well. Keep in mind that both IEM are in OEM package, and beta hasn't received its final packaging yet, so you should expect better packaging and more accessories after its official launch, which I guess is pretty soon (estimated to be early July).

user posted image

alpha Brainwavz
As the first generation Brainwavz, MP4 Nation's aims alpha as the cure of the common stock-earbud-syndrome. For that, they decided to work with well known Chinese manufacturer to introduce some of the best-bang-of-the-bucks models in China to the rest of the world under MP4 nation's own 'Brainwavz' brand name. Long story shorts, that is how alpha comes to life.

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Driver: Single 8mm Dynamic
Sensitivity: 100dB SPL @ 1 kHz
Impedance: 20Ohm @ 1 kHz
Frequency Response: 15Hz - 28 kHz
Cord: 1.26m
Rated Power: 10mW
Max Input Power: 30mW
Plug: Gold-Plated Stereo 3.5mm Mini-Plug

Packaging, Accessories, and Build Quality
alpha comes with a no thrill, OEM-like packaging with three set of different sized single flange eartips, probably similar to the bundle package comes with MP4 Natin's own brand of PMP. Since it is very much a budget oriented IEM, I guess there isn't anything to complain about. For similar price, you will find SoundMAGIC offering better packaging and accessories. Build quality wise however, alpha seems to be stronger and more durable. Microphonics is slightly worst than average, but nothing too terrible that an extra shirt clip won't fit. Isolation is average. Decent for daily use but not for the noisiest of situation

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Sound Quality
I gave alpha a 100 hrs burn-in before the auditioning, but I couldn't say in definite that it improves the sound quality. Maybe the are some changes, but probably not very obvious.

alpha's sound signatures are on the warm to slightly dark side. Big bass, heavy mid, and not very detail on the treble but still have a tiny bit of sparkle. Despite the fact that the overall sound feels slightly congested due to the heavy mid, the bass actually has quite a good resolution and texture to it. Vocal is pretty forward and dominant. Upper treble rolls off early. No sibilance to speak of. Soundstage is small due to the lack of fine detail and airiness. Overall, alpha Brainwavz is slightly dark with a very mid and bass centric, fun and more personal sound

For about US$14~16, alpha Brainwavz is in the same line of fire as the SoundMAGIC PL11 and PL20. PL20 is good on detail but lean on bass while PL11 is more bass oriented. Both has better soundstage and detail than alpha. However, alpha has better bass performance and sweeter vocal. SQ wise, I consider them to be just about the same. It is definitely one for the basshead with small budget.


beta Brainwavz
beta comes not as a replacement of alpha, but more of an evolution. If I am not mistaken, this pair of IEM is also from a Chinese IEM maker. Those who are in China might have seen a very similar IEM on the street or over the shop counter. Nevertheless. MP4 Nation is giving the IEM an updated look and a new set of accessories for its international debut.

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Driver: Single 11mm Dynamic
Sensitivity: 110dB SPL @ 1 kHz
Impedance: 24Ohm +/- 10%@ 1 kHz
Frequency Response: 8Hz - 28 kHz
Cord: 1.20m
Rated Power: 10mW
Max Input Power: 40mW
Plug: Gold-Plated Stereo 3.5mm Mini-Plug

Packaging, Accessories, and Build Quality
Like the alpha, beta also came in a pretty OEM looking packaging - but no need to worry here, as final version will have a box and a few more accessories. The final version will have a pair of orange cone silicone eartips, a pair of translucent white cone eartips, a pair of big bi-flanges, a pair of orange foam eartips, shirt clip, a fish bone shaped cable winder, a pair of removable metal mesh and a soft pouch by Mofi. A few things worth noting: 1) beside the foam tip, none of the other eartips can be considered for small ear canal and 2) The Mofi pouch is actually quite good.

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beta's nozzle diameter and length are a bit of the odd side. Diameter wise, it is larger than those found on Shure or Westone, but smaller than the UE. If you want to use aftermarket eartips, you can use Shure's eartips if you don't use the metal mesh. If you do have the metal mesh on, you can use a tight fitting UE style eartips like the Sony hybrid replacement eartips, but not the loosely fitted genuine UE eartips. For foam tips replacement, I can fit a Comply T100 on beta when the metal mesh is off. So you wonder what is the big deal about those metal mesh? They are actually used for sound tuning instead of earwax stopper. More on this later.

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(left: no mesh)

Beta appears to be well built. The wire is pretty soft yet seems to be strong. The nozzle of the earpiece is made out of aluminum alloy, individual marked with serial number (for QC and warranty, if I am not mistaken). The metal mesh can be screwed on or off based on the user preference. There is also an one inch transparent sleeve over the cable where it meet the earpiece, protecting the weakest part for wear and tear. Microphonics is very good while isolation is average. Overall, I think the build quality has vastly excessed its asking price. The finished version is said to have even better looking.

Sound Quality
As suggested by MP4 Nation, I burnt the beta in for 100 hrs before the auditioning. Like the alpha, I didn't notice any major change in sound quality.

beta's sound signature with the metal mesh is balanced but on the warm, smooth side. Bass extends quite further down but lacks big body or impact. Mid is full and warm. Treble performs well, capable of showing a good degree of fine detail. Soundstage is about average. Without the metal mesh, bass definition suffers a bit while the upper mid and treble become more forward, brighter with more fine detail. Soundstage is also very slightly more airy.

In sum, beta with the mesh has a well balanced sound without any major strength or weakness. Its sonic characteristics resemble that of CrossRoads Woody 2, but in a lesser form. Without the mesh, beta becomes brighter sounding.

On a side note, my beta also comes with a FiiO E5 as part of the bundle. Personally, I find beta to be just fine without amping, but pairing with the E5 can gives you more bass if that is what you crave for, since beta is more on the balanced side instead of the alpha's big bass side. For the least, I don't find any synergy issue between them both.

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beta is an major upgrade from the alpha, both on build and sound quality wise. People with tight budget will not be disappointed by the beta, especially consider it high performance / price ratio. It is one of those IEM that are fully capable on taking down many other that have double or even triple the price tag. Those who are looking for the best bang for the bucks should put this one high on your list of consideration.

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For a quick sum up on both IEM, read this.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

[REVIEW] Maximo iM-590

Right about the end of last year, Andrew @ Maximo Product contacted me asking if I would like to have a listen to the demo unit of their upcoming flagship IEM and perhaps give some opinions, naturally I agreed. To cut things short, it was one of those IEM I really like in first listening but couldn't tell anyone due to confidential agreement. That IEM was later announced at CES2009 as iM-590. Since I had reviewed iM-590's little brother, the iM-390, right about the same time, I have high expectation for iM590's debut. Personally, I think iM590 is taking Maximo to a higher level as a headphone manufacturer, separating them (SQ wise) from only offering consumer grade products to a more serious audiophile market - that kind of remind me a comment I made 6 months ago on iM-390's review which still holds true today: "Obviously Maximo have good confidence in their IEM and are willing to prove themselves to be more than just-another-accessories-maker."

That said, let get into the real topic.

• Earphone drivers: 9mm neodymium
• Frequency response: 12Hz-22KHz
• Sensitivity (1KHz, 0.1V): >100dB
• Maximum SPL output: >120dB
• Impedance: 17ohm (estimated)

• 4 sizes of proprietary eartips (S, M, L, XL)
• 2.5mm stereo plug adapter
• Airline dual-plug adapter
• 2-ft extension cable
• Shirt clip
• Carrying case
• User guide
• 2 year warranty

Packaging, Accessories and Build Quality
The packaging on iM-590 is a genuine improvement over the old iM-390 blister pack. Nothing is sealed hard so there is no need to cut around. Definitely one of the best packaged sub$100 IEM in the market. Needless to say, you will find pretty much all the goodies in front of your eyes as soon as you opened the front cover. The only thing missing is the extra large eartips which hide inside the hard case. AsI had commented before (on iM-390's review), the included case is one of the best quality hard case included with any IEM.

The eartips themselves are Maximo's proprietary design - kind of like fusing the two 'skirts' of a bi-flanges into one continuous piece and shortening the inner tubing at the same time. This new 'fused' flange places the transducer closer to the ear while using part of the earpiece housing as the flange's support to form a second seal, giving a tighter fit without resolving to a significantly deeper insertion (like normal bi- / tri-flanges). Overall I find the design to be comfortable. One of the plus side is the short nozzle will still take UE style aftermarket silicone eartips that has a tigher inner tubing (Sony hybrid for an example), but you can't use Comply T400 or loosely fitted eartips on it anymore. The nozzle is simply too shallow to have the proper grip needed for those eartips.

One extra thing that worths mentioning is the design of the cable slider + shirt clip combo. For your choice, you get to use them normally or combine them together.

Overalll, the build quality is quite good and consistent with their previous products. The cable is the fabric sleeved 'knit' type - extra soft and generally less microphonics but sometime they will tangle if you didn't store it correctly. All of the plastic pieces (Y-splitter, strain reliefs) are actually the same kind silicone that made up the eartips. I'll think a more conventional hard rubber type could provide better contrast and give a classier look but it doesn't really matter function wise. The white version which I review is 'fully' white - for those who are a bit scare of dust and dirt, you might want to get the black version instead.

Sound Quality
I burnt iM-590 in for 50 hrs but didn't really notice any significant change in sound quality. Like iM-390, the impedance is not listed on the official spec but I did a quick measurement and it turns out to be about 17ohm, which means iM-590 is quite easy-to-drive and no need for amping. Isolation is by far the biggest weakness of iM-590. The fused tips themselves are not quite as isolating as normal single flange which means isolation is slightly worst than single flange shallow inserted IEM like the CX300 or EP-630 [See note 1]. There is also a bit of wind noise in windy condition since there is a vent underneath the earpiece, but not bad enough to consider as a turn down. Though still decent for daily use, you might need to invest in a pair of Sony hybrid eartips (EPEX10A) for noisy environment, granted that it will never be anywhere close to as isolated as a pair of Etymotic.

iM-590 is on the analytical side but still quite balanced overall. Bass is not particularly strong and a bit roll off at the most bottom end (40Hz and below) but it has good attack, control and presence overall. Upper mid / lower treble is a bit more forward, Etymotic-like but not as piercing. Pretty good on vocal most of the time but there is a tiny bit of harshness on brighter recording. Treble is well presented and quite detail but not the best I have heard. Soundstage is above average, airy and specious especially in term of depth. In sum, iM590 is a well balanced, detail sounding IEM.

Though not the best sub$100 IEM I have heard, iM-590's overall sound quality is well above its asking price of US$60. Coupled with the fact that it comes with a wide range of accessories and a good 2 yrs warranty, it is hard to not consider iM590 as one of the best sub$100 IEM package around.

You can read the quick sum up here.

Note 1: You can try this simple mod to improve the stock eartips isolation. Click for larger picture.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Last Week's Most Interesting

I came across some info regarding this IEM last week, the RSS Roland's RH-PM5. This is Roland first and only IEM, designed to be used on-stage for monitoring purpose. You are probably thinking what I am thinking: Yes, this baby looks too gorgeous for stage-only usage. Unfortunately, this is kind of a difficult-to-get IEM. There ain't many places that carry this in store as Roland is marketing it toward pro-audio use. Plus the MSRP of around US$280 isn't really cheap for a single balanced armature IEM.

Transducer: balanced armature
Sensitivity: 104db @ 1mW
Frequency Response: 20 Hz – 16,000 Hz
Inpedance: 32ohm
Connector: 1/8″ (3.5mm) gold plated
Cable: 2.2m OFC wires

Denon annouced a new top-end IEM for their current line-up, the AH-C710. It looks much more ergonomically desiged than their current top-end, the AH-C751. There really isn't much information about this new IEM beside these: it has a 11.5mm dynamic transducer and a new 'optimized' housing. MSRP is expected to be US$230.

SoundMAGIC, one of my favorite budget IEM maker, is releasing its very first balanced armature based IEM into the market, debuted as PL-50. Hopefully I might get a pair to review soon. I am not sure about its MSRP at the moment, but Hong Kong dealer is selling it at around $70.

Transducer: 6.5mm balanced armature
Sensitivity: 109 +/- 2 db @ 1mW
Frequency Response: 15 Hz – 22,000 Hz
Inpedance: 55ohm +/- 15%
Connector: 3.5mm gold plated
Cable length: 1.2m

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Last Week's Most Interesting

Ortofon, the Danish turntable cartridges maker, announced the company first IEM, model e-Q7, in Japan. It will feature a newly developed balanced armature (BA) transducer that is larger (in size) than conventional BA drive and has only one magnetic pole (a normal BA drive works between two poles). It will hit Japanese stores in July with a expected MSRP of just under US$300.

Transducer: balanced armature
Sensitivity: 119db @ 1mV
Frequency Response: 10 Hz – 20,000 Hz (-4dB); 20~16,000Hz (±3dB)
Connector: 1/8″ (3.5mm) gold plated
Cable: Silver plated OFC

MP4 Nation, a Hong Kong based PMP company / distributor, is releasing a new IEM called 'Beta' under own IEM brand name of 'Brainwavz'. It is the company's 2nd IEM under the same brand. They are sending me a pair for review, hopefully I will receive it in a week or two (so stay tuned!). The actual stock is expected to be shipped out at July with MSRP US$34.50 but they are currently having a presale promamtion with an introductary price of US$27.50.

Transducer: 11mm Dynamic
Sensitivity: 110db @ 1mW
Frequency Response: 8 Hz – 28,000 Hz
Impedance: 24 ohms +/- 10% at 1 kHz noise
Rated Input power 10mW
Maximum Input power 40mW
Connector: 1/8″ (3.5mm) gold plated
Cable Length: 1.3m

Four months after the introduction of the original Turbine, Monster is secretly cooking up a newer, 'better' IEM called the Turbine Pro. Not much info at this point but we know the price: MSRP US$250, a $100 jump from the original Turbine. The street price will probably be lower (as in the case of Turbine). Anyway, you can have a look at the new Turbine Pro here (or imagine the old Turbine got gold plated).

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Last Week's Most Interesting

Sony announced several ANC (Active Noise Canceling) headphones last week and the one that caught my eyes is their latest flagship ANC IEM called MDR-NC300D. It features an selectable 'artificial intelligent' controlled NC circuit that claims to do a better job than all ANC IEM out there. The fact is, most (if not all) ANC IEM in the current market sound very uninspiring. What interesting about the NC300D is the spec of the transducer - it closely resembles Sony current flagship IEM, MDR-EX700. If it indeed is sharing EX700's transducer, then perhaps NC300D won't sound half bad. Of course, its sound quality still remains to be judged. MSRP in Japan is just over US$310, you should expect more when it hits the international market.

Oh, by the way, doesn't it looks gorgeous?

Driver: Single 16mm Dynamic
Sensitivity: 103 SPL @ 1 kHz
Impedance: 16Ohm @ 1 kHz
Frequency Response: 6Hz - 24 kHz
Rated Power: 100mW
Battery: Single AAA (20hrs usage)
ANC: -18dB SPL

Monday, June 1, 2009

Last Week's Most Interesting

By the time you read this, CanJam '09, the international Head-Fi meet at L.A., should be over. As far as IEM goes, the biggest news is probably the return of Jerry Harvey to the custom IEM business. In case you are wondering who Jerry is: He is the co-founder and ex-CTO of Ultimate Ears. After leaving UE around mid 2007, Jerry started his own little business on custom molded airplane headset - Now, he is back to making more awesome custom IEM. His new company, Jerry Harvey Audio, just announced the JH 13 Pro, a three-ways six-receivers custom IEM, on CanJam '09, joining 4 other models that have been previously announced. Hits this link to find out more detail. JH13 Pro will run you about US$1100 plus a trip to your audiologist and the fee for ear mold.

Music Valley is a brand new IEM company in the market. I got a chance to listen to their first offering, the Silver Prologue One (SP1), and I am quite impressed. It is simply a very solid entry class IEM. You can read one of its review here. MSRP US$80.

Driver: Single 11mm Dynamic
Sensitivity: >107 SPL @ 1 kHz
Impedance: 39Ohm @ 1 kHz
Frequency Response: 10Hz - 26 kHz
Rated Power: 10mW

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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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