Tuesday, March 17, 2015

[REVIEW] VE Asura and Zen

Prelude: A few weeks ago I was contacted by a mutual 3rd party on Head-fi regarding whether I will like to give some Chinese made high-Z earbuds a review. Immediately I recalled a review article I read awhile back in erji.net that comes with fairly high praise (and subsequently get knocked around a few times, see reason below). We don’t see a lot of high-Z earbuds around so I was fairly certain they should be the same things. I don’t keep high hope for earbuds these days but I am still an earbuds lover in heart, so I agreed to give them a look, and indeed they turn out to be the same model I saw earlier. They are made by a small Chinese company called VE (52VE.cn, with a Chinese name translated to ‘micro wing’). No sooner after I agreed, the news spread out on some Chinese forums, which in turn came back to HF, and I received some ‘friendly suggestion’ that, perhaps it might not be the best of idea to do a review on VE. It would seem that there are a lot of heated discussion (or controversy?) on whether VE is a genuine company or just a quick DIY job for money. Even more so is whether VE actually makes TOTL earbuds as they and their Chinese supporters have claimed. Different from the international market where IEM rules, earbuds still hold a high esteem among Chinese audiophiles and they really don’t mind paying for premium earbuds – mixed that with the fact that there are a lot of shady companies employing shill marketing tactic, it is understandable on why people are always skeptical and will act defensively when confronted with such a bold claim. If there is anything I learned from reading Chinese audiophiles forums over the years, it will be the bad ‘SNR’ that often ruins the days. You can never quite sure whether you are reading genuine impression, shill marketing, over-enthused writing or maybe some other types of hidden agenda. So I decided not to take things written on a those forums too seriously but instead let the products speak for themselves, which I kind of glad that I did. Nevertheless, I think a prelude is needed to shine some light on the unusual circumstances surrounding VE. Regardless of what have been said, it will be a mistake to dismiss VE – that much I am sure.


It said: "torture one-self, reject mediocrity, all for our sound."

Spec
Asura
Transducer: Open Dynamic
Sensitivity: 108dB
Frequency Response: 10Hz~25kHz
Impedance: 150ohm
Cable Length: 1.2m
MSRP: US$48

Zen

Transducer: Open Dynmanic
Sensitivity: -/-
Frequency Response: 20Hz~20kHz
Impedance: 320ohm
Cable Length: 1.2m
MSRP: US$112


Zen (left) and Asura (right)

Packaging, Accessories and Build Quality
The Zen and Asura comes in one single white box with no model name on the outside. I assume it is one of the ‘early bird’ pack for those who pre-ordered the Zen, which also get a free Asura. The 320ohm Zen is pretty much the flagship earbuds for VE, and Asura is the previous flagship. According to what I have read, Asura is more of a bang-for-buck model meant to be Hi-Fi yet not breaking the bank where Zen is meant to compete with other top-of-the-line earbuds in the market.

Accessories wise, there really are not a lot to talk about. Beside the decent hard case, all you’ll get are some foam pad. Then again, that’s pretty much the standard for most other earbuds, so nothing to complain about.

Build quality is decent. They are not Sennheiser MX895 so there isn’t any flashy metal or unique design to speak of. The earpiece housing is just the generic type, though the cable do look better than decent - with weaved cable on Asura and the straight silver cable on Zen. Can’t really say what is the material used though, as VE doesn’t list out detail spec on both models. Needless to say, I don’t think you should use them on rough situation (i.e. sport and such). Otherwise I don’t see a problem.

 
Asura


Zen

Sound Quality
It isn’t easy to describe the sound signature of Zen. If MX985 is about immersion and warm where TM7 is about lush and liveliness, then Zen will be about PRaT. If you don’t know about what PRaT means, well, it is basically the ‘toe-tapping’ factor in music. The kind of factor that makes a certain headphone more ‘danceable’ than other on the same music. One of the reason is perhaps Zen has one of the best bass impact and attack I have heard on any earbud. It is not purely a quantitative matter as Zen isn’t exactly what I’ll refer as bass heavy, but the transient is certainly excellent. The vocal range is actually slightly further away when compared to TM7 (and even more when compared to the very sweet MX985), though it holds on to its own and doesn’t sound thin at all. If anything, I’ll say Zen’s vocal range is still pretty good. It gives a sense of depth while still keep a good amount of texture. In contrast, I’ll say Yuin PK1 sounds much thinner in the mid-range. Treble is quite good as well. Not as sparkly as TM7 but I don’t sense any darkness or dullness either. Soundstage is somewhere between TM7 and MX985 - not the widest, but still above average.

Asura pretty much share the same sound signature as Zen, with a similar emphasis on PRaT, but feels a bit more compressed on overall dynamic and a bit grainier on the upper vocal. Still, it is good enough that I think it will give PK1 a good run for its money. One thing to note is that, because of the 320ohm vs. 150ohm impedance between the two earbuds, Asura can sound better than Zen when they are on weak source. For example, even though they are both loud enough on my Sony A15 (10mW @ 16ohm), I can definitely tell the Zen has lost its edge and feel rather lifeless. Asura on the other hand still rocks on. But once I have A15 feeding into iDSD micro (as DAC) and O2 (as amp), the situation reversed where Zen comes up on top. So a word of caution is to consider what kind of source you will be using with these two earbuds as it can kind of turn things around.

All and all, I’ll place Zen as one of the best three earbuds I current have, among TM7 and MX985. Asura on the other hand is just a few steps down, at the middle of my top ten list, perhaps right around where PK1 will be.


From left: MX985, TM7, Asura, and Zen.

Sum-up

I don’t usually get goosebump when listen to earbuds , but I do when I heard something that of exceptional quality. The last time I got one is from Blox TM7 some 2.5 years ago. Since then, I have picked up Hifiman EX100, Obique ES903, a few Dasetn, Sidy (also known as BGVP) DX1, some Tingo, Audio-Technica CM707, a very cool Chinese made Dual-Driver-Matrix based earbud and last but not least, the hybrid DUNU Alpha 1 – none is bad per se and a few are actually quite good, though they never approach the top-tier level – but then comes the Zen, and in fact Asura as well. I got two goosebump in a day and it is golden.

Now we just need someone to bring these out of China.

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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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