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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Exclusively Japanese's

Well, I thought I want to conclude year 2009 with one last news update. The two IEM mentioned here are both from Japan, and likely will be exclusive to the Japanese market (but not that you can't get someone to export them).

JVC announced the new flagship HA-FX700 just few days ago as the successor of the fairly successful, but aging HA-FX500, the first IEM with a wooden diaphragm. The new model will have an updated, larger wooden diaphragm (more like the cone of the diaphragm, actually). Estimated to hit the Japanese store at February 2010, it will cost somewhere around US$300 to US$350. Do expect to pay more if it ever makes its way out of Japan.

Radius Japan announced their new flagship IEM, the HP-TWF11, last month (I know, it is not really 'new' news anymore). A few interesting notes: First, it looks like the Sony MDR-EX700 - but that is not to say the golden/red color combo isn't more classy than the black Sony. Second, it has a really cool transducer. A single magnet, individual coiled dual diaphragms, two-ways dynamic transducer is not what you will find on your average IEM. In fact, no one ever uses two-ways dynamic transducer since Panasonic ceased its production over a decade ago. Unfortunately, like a lot of great gadgets in Japan, I doubt this IEM will ever be marketed oversea. Well, one can always dream.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!!

Happy Holidays to y'all! :)

Monday, December 21, 2009


Driver: 9mm Dynamic
Impedance: 12 Ω
Sensitivity: 97dB±2 dB / mW @ 1kHz
Frequency Response: 15Hz~22kHz
Plug: Gold-plated L-shaped mini plug
Weight: 8g
Cable: 1.2m

Packaging, Accessories and Build Quality
PL21 comes in a similar style packaging as PL50, differentiating both from the older generation of SoundMAGIC's IEM. If anything, they do look more upscale than their price tags suggested. Inside, there are four pair of silicone single flange eartips (S, M, L, XL) and three pair of foam tips (S, M, L), warranty card,  shirt clip, soft pouch and a pair of ear hook.

Build quality wise, PL21 is almost on par with PL50: the Y-splitter design is identical, but PL50 does have a slightly thicker cable and a similar but stronger mini plug. PL21's earpieces are similar to PL20, but smaller, prettier and have a slight angled nozzle.

Microphonics is about average on PL21, but the inclusion of shirt clip, ear hook and the angled nozzle make it easier to wear it over-the-ear which should ground any microphonics problem. Isolation is a tiny bit below average on the stock eartips, but better on the foam tips. I end up using Sony Hybrid clone (sourced from eBay) which gives a slightly better seal and isolation compared to the stock eartips. Overall, PL21 has one of the best build quality on all the $20-ish IEM I have seen.

Sound Quality
As usual, a minimum of 50 hours burn-in was carried out before the audition. As mentioned above, I used the Sony Hybrid clone eartips for the review. Though they are clone, the sonic signature is actually almost identical, which tend to absorb a tiny bit on the top end while gives a more solid bass, turning the sound slightly warmer and smoother. For PL21, it doesn't sound slightly less airy than the stock tips, but the gain on a more solid mid and bass performance due to a better seal is still an overall improvement IMO.

The overall sound signature is warm to slight dark, musical, smooth, and has a small emphasis on the mid. Bass extends very deep, does rumbling sub-bass better than any IEM of its class while retaining very good control. Quantitatively not a bass monster but it does show a good bass impact and body. Mid is full, a little forward and vocal is sweet, no sibilance to speak of. Treble has a decent extension but lacks sparkle to show fine detail. Soundstage is about average.

Well priced, well built, and a good sound - PL21 is one very solid IEM in the $20 range. As an overall package, perhaps it even rivals most of the sub-$40 options out there as one of the best all-arounder.

A quick sum up can be found here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

[REVIEW] Ortofon e-Q7

Before the review, I want to thank Ortofon Japan for loaning a pair of e-Q7 to me.

Driver: Single Balanced Armature
Frequency Response: 10Hz – 20kHz (+/- 3dB)
Sensitivity: 120dB SPL/mW
Impedance: 40 ohms
Maximum Rated Input Power: 5.0mW
Weight: 16.9g
Cable: 1.2m, Silver Plated 4N OFC.

Technical Prelude
When Ortofon first announced the e-Q7, the earphone is advertised as having a newly developed single magnetic pole, armature based large size transducer. In most other balanced armature (BA) transducer, the ‘arm’ where the miniature coil is resting on is placed between two magnets (this is the ‘balanced armature’ part). When electrical signal is applied the coil, the arm flexes back and forth according to the change of magnetic field and push an rod at the end of the arm. The rod transmits the motion to the miniature diaphragm and creates the sound. In contrast to BA, dynamic (moving coil) transducer’s coil is placed inside a single larger magnetic field (a rounded magnet). The motion of the coil is directly transmitted to the diaphragm since they are attached to each other. The different in construction reflects the differences in sonic characteristic: BA is often better at detail, speed and resolution, while dynamic is often better at mass and low frequency performance.

The new armature transducer in e-Q7 is, however, a different beast. If I have to sum it up in one word, I’ll call it a ‘hybrid’, or perhaps Grado has described it in a better term as “moving armature” (on their GR8, which features the same family of transducer). Imagine a dynamic transducer without the moving coil. Instead, the diaphragm is connected to a large armature placed in a single large magnetic field. Now you’ll have the best of both world – speed and resolution of balanced armature with the massive low-end found on dynamic transducer. Too good to be true? Perhaps not.

After over 20 years of trying to improve on old technologies in the field of IEM design, now we finally enter in a new era, with a new type of transducer.

A very detailed user manual (with both Japanese and English) is included. Only a small handful of IEM makers have well printed manual. A real shame actually.

Packaging, Accessories, and Build Quality
I am not sure whether it is because the e-Q7 is from Ortofon, or maybe because it is made in Japan (likely the combination of both), the packaging is just great. It just so happens that out of top three IEM packaging I have ever seen (Shure SE530, Sony MDR-EX700 and Ortofon e-Q7), two of them share the same Japanese origin.

Inside the box, you’ll find a hard paper box with velvet lining inside (the sort of box jeweler will use). Open the hard paper box up, the shiny metal ‘ortofon’ is almost too pretty to look at. The IEM itself is sitting at the bottom, just below the real leather hard case. It is elegant.

The other accessories are, three pair of eartips (S, M, L), 3 pairs of replacement filters, a filter removing tool, a pair of replacement filter locking rings, a pair of mid size Comply T400 foam tip. The nozzle size is that of typical UE style, which means finding after market eartips shouldn’t be a problem at all – not that you will need them as I find the included eartips to be soft and comfy, but isolation is slightly below average.

This is real leather case.

The earpieces are made out of aluminum, with an elongated design to serve as an acoustic chamber. Due to the length and weight, the earpiece will tend to lose its seal from time to time, especially if you wear it in hanging style and move a lot. However, it really doesn’t happen often enough to reach the level of annoyance. You can also wear it over-the-ear to avoid the issue once and for all.

The strain relief on the earpiece is semi-hard rubber, which retains a small degree of plasticity but it doesn’t flex much. The cable is ultra pure silver plated OFC. Interestingly, the cable has a two parts design. For the earpieces to the Y-splitter, it is your typical rubber wrapped wire. But from Y-splitter downward, it has an extra fabric sheath to reduce microphonics (and a side effect of extra rigidity). The design actually works really well. If there is one part I don’t like about the cable, it will be the strain relief on the mini plug. It is quite hard and doesn’t do much to relief stress. Unfortunately Ortofon doesn’t include a wire guide up from the Y-splitter, so there is nothing to hold the cable firmly if you want to wear the e-Q7 over-the-ear. The good news is the upper portion of the cable (without the fabric) is soft enough that you don’t need a wire guide to make the cable stays in place. But I would imagine a wire guide could be even better.

In sum, e-Q7 build quality is top notch, but there are still some minor areas that can be improved upon.

There is not obvious left and right marking, but there is an extra bump / dot on the left strain relief.

The two parts cable design, with fabric sheath on the lower end.

The filter is hold by a plastic ring.

Sound Quality
As always, the e-Q7 has been given a 50hrs+ burn-in before the review. Self-contained BA transducer often does not benefit much from the housing, as everything is sealed inside a tiny metal case. On the other hand, dynamic transducer is easily affected by both the design and material of the housing, which give more ‘tuning space’. Since the diaphragm of the e-Q7’s armature transducer has a closer resemblance to that of a dynamic transducer, an elongated housing is designed to be the acoustic chamber to help deepening the mid and bass body.

The overall sound signature is warm and mid focus, well suited for vocal lover. Treble is clean and smooth, though does roll off on the top end, but not more so than SE530 or UM2. Mid is full, focus and sweet, but not overpowering nor sibilant. Bass has good impact, body and extension, but no rumbling big bass. Soundstage is only average.

In many ways e-Q7 sounds like the midway of SE530 and UM2. It has a better mid performance than SE530 as it is totally sibilance-free yet retains most of the mid goodness of SE530 (which still has a tiny bit of sibilance), but it is not quite warm as UM2 (which is probably too warm from a neutral prospective). It also does not have quite as good a soundstage as SE530 because it doesn’t separate each layer as cleanly, yet it is still better than UM2.

What surprised me most are how much e-Q7 sounds like a dynamic transducer based IEM, yet has speed and resolution closer to that of a BA based IEM. One interesting thing to note is, like most dynamic transducer based IEM, e-Q7 needs a bit more volume to sound as its best – but remember not to crank the volume too high.

Ortofon e-Q7 is by far the best single BA based IEM I have ever heard, placing it alongside with some of the best multi-ways universal IEM in the market. This proves again that more transducer is not the only answer to the question of better sound quality, even in the world of balanced armature.

Multi-ways IEM beware: This is only just the beginning. With e-Q7 doing so well, I would imagine the future generation of this new BA will be even better.

Ortofon e-Q7 can be acquired in Japan for about ¥24100 (roughly US$270) from reputable dealer, but unfortunately international price is often higher.

Last but not least, a pictorial comparison between e-Q7 and TF10 (with shure olive).

A quick sum up can be found here.

Friday, December 11, 2009

FiiO E7 + E9 News Update

A black edition FiiO E1 will be released on the next batch.

Here is the new rendering of E7: Along with some inner hardware changes and the face lift, the new casing is also slimmer than the previous prototype showed before.

Below is the proposed E9 prototype. Basically it is desktop amp with an iPod / FiiO dock integration. You can either 1) dock you iPod / iPhone on E9 and feed it the line-out, 2) dock the E7 and give E9 the USB DAC function (E7 will feed line level signal from E7 DAC directly back to E9 amp section). You can think of E7 as E9's DAC module.) or 3) Feed E9 a line-in analog signal, just like most other desktop amp. E9 will also feature a better, newly design amp section that is different from E7. E9 is scheduled for early 2010.

[EDIT] 12/11/09 - More photos update from FiiO. The E7 shown here will be very close to the final version (I was told the final version will be better looking). Also, the will only be black color model (anodized aluminum housing). The buttons are full metal with highly polished glossy surface. So far the included accessories will be 1) decent quality 20cm 3.5mm-to-3.5mm interconnecting cable (not shown here), 2) soft pouch with velvet-like surface (similar to those in picture, but mod'ed for the amp) 3) rubber band (also similar to the one on the E5 in picture, but mod'ed) and 4) a good quality 120cm USB cable.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

[REVIEW] Hippo Shroom and VB

Before the review, I want to thank Uncle Wilson @ Jaben for the samples.

Hippo Shroom - Clean Sound in Miniature

Driver: Single 6mm Dynamic
Sensitivity: 95dB + 4 SPL / mW
Impedance: 16Ohm @ 1 kHz
Frequency Response: 10Hz - 20 kHz
Cord: 1.25m
Plug: Gold-Plated Stereo 3.5mm Mini-Plug
Weight: 0.8g

Packaging, Accessories, and Build Quality
Compared to other models of the same line, Shroom's packaging is definitely more shiny and psychedelic. Inside, you will find the IEM itself, a synthetic leather soft pouch (like that of NuForce NE-7M), three pair of different sized black eartips (small, mid, large) and three pair of different sized red/blue colored eartips - very shroomy indeed.

One of the first things you would probably notice is how small the actual earpieces are. The general shape resembles that of CrossRoads' Quattro, but smaller in diameter. In fact, the dynamic transducer used in Shroom is 1mm smaller in diameter compared to that of Quattro's. Also, the transducer is designed to be in the front of the nozzle (which is larger in diameter than the earpiece housing) for a more 'intimate' sound, but we will leave that discussion for later. Isolation wise, I find it to be above average and good enough for fairly noisy environment. Microphonics is just about average. You will want to find a shirt clip to go with it.

The mini plug is of an interesting design, kind of like old UE design but more rounded and smaller. I like the design but I wish the strain relief can be longer and more flexible.

One of the main features on Shroom is its transducer placement, which almost at the tip of the nozzle. As a result, the eartips used are specially made for Shroom to accommodate the extra wide nozzle, which means the possibility of aftermarket eartips replacement is out-of-question. The good news is, the eartips themselves is pretty good in quality. But due to the nozzle diameter, I would suspect people with very small ear canal size will probably have a hard time getting a comfortable fit. The design also introduces a new problem, earwax and dust accumulation. While it is not uncommon to see earwax buildup on the nozzle on any IEM, the more exposed Shroom transducer (sitting just behind the mesh / vent) is more vulnerable to such a problem. You will require cleaning it out the mesh / vent regular with a needle to make sure there won't be any obstruction - not a particularly hard thing to do but it must be done.

Overall, the build quality is similar to the latest CrossRoads MylarOne or he previously reviewed Hippo Boom. Decent, not the best there is but neither is it bad. It is not designed for rough use so some caring will be needed in order for it to last a long time.

Shroom and Quattro, both without eartips. Shroom has the transducer on the tips / nozzle while Quattro's is inside the housing.

Sound Quality
As usual, I gave the Shroom a standard 50hrs minimum burn-in before the review (like I did with all IEM I reviewed). Since there is not possible to use any other eartips and there seems to be no sonic difference b/w the black and colored eartips, I ended up using the stock black midsized eartips for the review.

I first saw the concept of placing the transducer as close as possible to the eardrum on one of JVC low end 'bi-metal' series. The elimination of most of the front housing and nozzle were claimed to help reducing any unwanted reverberation. In that sense, it is probably fairly effective on Shroom. Its sound, in short, is very clean and transparent.

The overall sound signature of Shroom is between neutral and balanced, but still remains largely neutral and analytical. Treble is well extended with good sparkle and resolution, but it will occasionally sound a little bit sibilant on brightest note. The mid is well presented too. Vocal is clean and a bit upfront, but not full nor sweet and can sound a little lean at time. Bass has good speed and decent impact, but not excessive in quantity. It also rolls off more significantly on the lowest part of the sub-bass region. So basshead needs not apply. Soundstage is above average, airy and transparent with good decay.

Clean, transparent, and analytical sound is where Shroom's strengths lie, but in a sense it can be too lean for those who prefer a warmer, sweeter vocal or big bass. Shroom is more in line with ADDIEM's sound signature, but slightly better on overall performance. I consider the overall SQ to be about the same as iM-590 - just that iM-590 has better bass and mid while Shroom is better at treble and transparentness.


Hippo VB - Customizable Fun

Driver: Single 10mm Dynamic
Sensitivity: 105dB + 4 SPL / mW
Impedance: 32Ohm @ 1 kHz
Frequency Response: 18Hz - 22 kHz
Cord: 1.30m
Rated Power: 2mW
Max Input Power: 10mW
Plug: Gold-Plated Stereo 3.5mm Mini-Plug
Variable Bass Tuning

Packaging, Accessories, and Build Quality
VB's packaging is similar to that of Hippo Boom, just black paper box. Inside, you will find the IEM itself, a hardcase, a shirt clip, three pair of different sized eartips and of course, the three pair of bass tuning plates. Despite the printing on the paper box, the bass tuning plates are marked wrongly / in reverse. Instead of no dot representing the weakest of bass, it is actually the strongest, and so on.

The hardcase is pretty decent in quality, which is expectable since Hippo started as a headphone case brand. The earpieces resemble that of the Denon C700 series, but with rear exchangeable bass plate. The nozzle is filter-less. The main housing is made out of anodized aluminum which has a solid feel and weight to it. The bass tuning plates concept is similar to that of Quattro's, but improved in the sense that VB's bass plate has rubber o-ring to hold the plate in place so it won't get unscrewed accidentally.

The only complaint I have is about the stock eartips, which have a rather springier inner core that isn't as soft as it should have been. It is just not as comfortable as normal single flange. I end up swapping them with the regular Audio-Technica style single flange which is much comfier in my ear. Isolation wise (on the swapped eartips), the two dotted mid bass plate is about average. The dot-less big bass plate is slightly below average since it turns the IEM into a full opened-back design, while the triple dots small bass plate give above average isolation. Microphonics issue is decent.

Overall, I find the build quality to be slightly better than Shroom due to the more robust design, but it is still not the kind of headphone that you can / should abuse.

Sound Quality
Like Shroom, I gave VB a standard 50hrs minimum burn-in before the review (like I did with all IEM I reviewed). The eartips of choice, as mentioned above, is a pair of generic Audio-Technica style single flange due to comfort issue.

The overall sound signature of VB is lively and on the warm side. On the triple dotted / small bass plate, bass has a decent impact but less in quantity and more toward neutrality. Mid and treble are drier and brighter. Soundstage is also noticeably narrower. On the two dotted / mid bass plate, bass has a very good body and depth, especially on the mid-bass region (and it does go down deep). Mid and treble have better resolution due to better airiness which also give a better soundstage. This by far is the best sounding bass plate. On the dot-less / big bass plate, bass is noticeably more boomy and much warmer, which in term floors over the detail and mud up the mid, treble and soundstage.

Regardless of which kind bass plates, the treble does get sibilant from time to time on brighter music (except it is less noticeable in big bass plate due to the excessive warm muddiness). I listened to VB under a quick frequency sweep and it performs surprisingly well from top to bottom, but there are a few spikes on the upper region which probably is the reason of the sibilance issue. As a result, sometime there can be too many sparkles in the treble which sounds too 'busy'. However, the sibilance is not to the level of annoyance as long as you keep the volume to a reasonable level. Shroom has a better control on treble in comparison.

In many ways VB sounds like the CrossRoads Woody 2 without the wood lushness, while tuned more toward a livelier, focus sound signature (and no doubt both have been benefited from the larger dynamic transducer). It might have minor issue here and there, but VB has outperformed its price tag. For those who enjoy a warm, musical, and lively sound, VB is a great sub-$100 option.

A quick sum up can be found here.

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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