Tuesday, April 30, 2013

2013 Headphone Shootout Part 2: The IEM's

It is now time for part 2 of our Headphone Shootout – the IEM’s. This year we have some great models, from a conservative $65 MSRP, to an elite $1000 MSRP. IEM’s are In-Ear-Monitors, and they are much better than the ultra cheap earbuds that came with your cell phone or MP3 player. The brands covered today include Outdoor Research, Audiofly, Monster, RBH, Westone, and ACS.
As mentioned in part one of the shootout, we do this around the time of March Madness. We figure with basketball teams duking it out, let’s get some headphones duking it out with each other. There are no brackets here, just price points. And manufacturers typically get it right at the price points. But just like there is in March Madness, where a lower bracket takes out an upper bracket, a lower priced IEM could perform better than an upper priced model. Let's find out.

First up is a pair of IEM’s from Outdoor Technology called Tags. The Tags are actually a wireless system using Bluetooth. At an $65 MSRP, that is a great value!

Features and specs:

-Rechargeable lithium-ion battery
-Pause and playback automatically when receiving calls
-Mini USB connector included for charging via USB port
-Skip songs and control volume
-Plus type: 8 pin mini USB
-Operating distance: up to 30 feet
-Operating time: Talk- 6 hours/Play music: 5 hours
-Standby time: 120
-Driver size: 8mm
-Impedance: 16 ohms
-Sound pressure level: 104db
-Frequency response: 10Hz-20000Hz
-Normal Input power: 2mW
-Max input power: 4mW
-THD:  (Total Harmonic Distortion): less than .5% 

The Outdoor Research Tags come in a plastic package, so you can see the product. Included is a charging cable, additional ear tips and a soft storage bag. Quality of materials, as well as fit and finish were good. The earbuds had a soft plastic finish. The buttons had a good feel to them. So far I am impressed at their price point.

First up in the listening was Brunson Brothers: Fleace Movae.  Trumpets sounded crisp and clean, and just a tad bright.  Percussion was also fairly crisp.  Bass had good output, and was a bit muddy.  Fresh Aire II: Going to Another Place, the acoustic guitars and percussion were crisp.  The piano sounded fairly natural.  The flute however while it sounded ok, did not have much air.  And the bass had good output, but was a bit muddy.  Steve Miller Band: Swingtown, had fairly crisp percussion.  Bass guitar had nice output and depth, but again was a bit muddy.  Vocals sounded natural.  No Doubt: Hellagood, was dynamic in the percussion.  Bass had very good output and extension.  Vocals were clean but a tad bright.  These are wireless bluetooth earbuds and there was no 3.5mm jack.  So they can only be used with a source unit with bluetooth.  And reliability could vary depending on your source unit.  I used my laptop, and while it worked well when I was close, the music would cut out when I got over 10 feet away.  But again, that could vary based on what your source unit it and it's performance.

Next up is a pair of Audiofly AF56. Audiofly is a fairly new company out of Australia, and are doing some good things with IEM’s. The AF56’s are a traditional IEM design with in-line mic. They also feature a cloth cable.  MSRP is $100.

Features and specs:

-Machined anodized alloy bezel with precision laser cut venting for acoustic optimization
-Elongated one piece thermoplastic housing
-Custom voiced 11mm dynamic driver
-Cable strain relief with right hand braille marker
-Streamlined sound port to minimize sound eddies
-High grade silicon tips for a customized fit
-Magnet Type: Neodymium
-Frequency Range: 18-20KHz
-Cable Length: 1.2m
-Plug Type: 3.5mm gold plated
-Impedance: 16 Ohms
-Sensitivity: 118dB at 1kHz 

The Audiofly AF56 come in a printed plastic packaging. They came with an owner's manual, additional ear tips, and a storage tin. Quality of materials and fit and finish were good. I liked the cloth cable.

Brunson Brothers: Fleace Movae, percussion was crisp, trumpets were smooth, bass was deep, and the resolution and imaging was good.  Fresh Aire II: Going to Another Place showed very crisp guitars.  The flute had a lot of air.  The soundstage was quite large.  Imaging was very good.  Drums had very good depth and impact.  $100 headphones should not sound this good.  Steve Miller Band: Swingtown, provided crisp cymbals, and the piano sounded natural.  Vocals were smooth with nice timbre, and the guitar was very accurate.  No Doubt: Hellagood was very dynamic in the percussion.  Bass had very good extension and played tight with a lot of authority.  Vocals were very natural sounding.  Not only did they sound great, but with the design they fit great and was easy to put in.

Monster Cable makes some excellent products as I have seen from their more premium headphones. I was excited to have their DNA IEM's included, which are at a more modest $110 MSRP. They are standard IEM design with in-line mic and controls. But being a Monster product, they are anything but standard.

Features and specs:

In-ear design

In-line controls.

Flat, tangle-resistant ControlTalk cord

5 pairs of multiple-size ear tips

Warranty Terms - Parts: 1 year
Warranty Terms - Labor: 1 year
Sound Isolating: No
Warranty Term - Parts: 1 year
Color: Black/Satin Chrome 

As Monster has with their other headphone products, the Monster DNA IEM’s came in attractive packaging with a good presentation. Lifting up the cloth tab showed the IEM’s, a small velvet like storage bag, several sets of different sized ear tips, as well as owner's manual. Quality of materials as well as fit and finish were very good. The white soft plastic cable was of a tangle free design. The gloss white housings looked elegant and well put together. The button had a good feel.

Brunson Brothers: Fleace Movae had nice resolution in the percussion and acoustic guitar.  Trumpets were very clean and smooth without being too brassy.  Bass had good extension with sufficient output.  Fresh Aire II: Going to Another Place had very good resolution in the guitars.  The flute had good air.  The drums had good impact and depth, including dynamics.  Low level harmonics were quite good.  Steve Miller Band: Swingtown, the cymbals were crisp.  They also had nice low end extension in the bass.  Vocals portrayed good texture.  No Doubt: Hellagood, the percussion was crisp and dynamic.  Bass had good punch and authority.  Vocals were quite natural sounding and projected some nice harmonics.

RBH is well known for their excellent home speakers, and rightfully so with their superior products. Now they are selling headphones. Included in this year's shootout is a pair of their EP2 IEM’s.  The EP2 features an aluminum housing, and is the model with the in-line mic and controls.  With an MSRP of $179, they appear to be aggressively priced.

Features and specs:

-Driver Size:  13mm Dynamic Dome
-Impedance:  16 Ohms
-Frequency Range:  14Hz-18KHz
-Sensitivity:  101dB
-Noise Isolation:  16dB w/ Comply™ Foam Tips
-Input:  3.5mm Mini-jack
-Cable Length:  1.2m
-Color:  Black/Silver 

The RBH EP2’s came in elegant looking black box with custom cutout foam to hold the IEM’s and storage case.   Also included were owners manual, sticker, leather storage case, and additional ear tips. The quality of materials as well as the fit and finish were very good. I liked the aluminum construction in the housing as well as the mic and switch housing. The cloth covered cable was also very nice.

Brunson Brothers: Fleace Movae had a very crisp and clean sound.  Trumpets were smooth and not too brassy.  Resolution was very good with a pleasantly large soundstage and good imaging. Bass extension was also low.  Fresh Aire II: Going to Another Place, was very crisp and clean in the acoustic guitar.  Resolution was very good, with a refined sound.  The flute had good air.  Piano was natural sounding.  Imaging was also very good.  Steve Miller Band: Swingtown, had very crisp cymbals.  Bass had great depth and played with authority.  Vocals were smooth with nice texture.  Imaging was also very good.  No Doubt: Hellagood, had very good dynamics in the percussion.  The bass had nice impact and gave it freely.  Vocals had a lot of energy, very good resolution, and was just a tad on the bright side.
Westone is a premium IEM manufacturer, and have been for many years.  They first began by manufacturing and selling hearing aids. Now they sell premium and custom IEM’s, and have been doing that for years as well. They sell both single and multiple driver models.  They provided the UM3X RC and 4R. The UM3X RC is the top of the line in their Universal Monitor Series, which are handmade and designed for the performing artist.  The 4R is part of their Universal Personal Listening series, and is designed for the serious audiophile. First up is their UM3X RC, with a $575 MSRP.

 Features and specs:
-Triple Balanced Armature Drivers Earphone With Passive Crossover
- 25 db Ambient Noise Reduction
- Removable 50" Stereo "Y" Cord
-3.5mm Stereo Jack
-Sensitivity:  124dB @ 1mW
-Frequency Response:  12Hz - 18kHz
-Impedance:  56 ohms @ 1kHz

The Westone UM3X RC came in a nice printed box which included photos of the product and it’s specs. I really likes the small window so you could look in and see the product. The Westone UM3X RC came with owner's manual, multiple sized ear tips, wax loop, and cloth case with an internal pocket. The materials used as well as the fit and finish are excellent. From the plastic housing to the cables and connections, the quality was excellent. And I really liked the clear plastic housing, so you can see the internal components. It was really cool!

Brunson Brothers: Fleace Movae provided excellent resolution.  Trumpets were extremely clean, and the percussion was very crisp.  They threw a large soundstage with precise imaging.  Piano was also very natural.  Fresh Aire II: Going to Another Place, the sound was so crisp and clean, with layers of resolution.  I loved being able to hear the transition of the strings as they were initially plucked and begin to subside.  The soundstage was large and imaging was dead on!  Dynamics were also excellent and drums had nice impact.  Steve Miller Band: Swingtown, had excellent resolution in the percussion as well as guitar.  Vocals were so life-like, I thought I was there in the recording studio.  Bass played with authority and great extension.  The piano and guitar was very dynamic.  No Doubt: Hellagood, percussion was extremely clean and dynamic.  Bass had nice extension and played with authority.  Vocals had excellent texture.  The resolution was amazing!

Next up is the Westone 4R. They are similar in design to the UM3X RC. The 4R’s do not have the clear plastic housing as the UM3X RC. Although the 4Rs do have a 4 driver design, with 2 bass driver instead of the one in the UM3X RC. They have a MSRP of $710.

Features and specs:

-Four Balanced Armature Drivers Earphone With Passive Crossover
-3.5mm Stereo Jack
-Sensitivity:  118dB @ 1mW
-Frequency Response:  10Hz - 18kHz
-Impedance:  31 ohms @ 1kHz Sensitivity: 118 dB SPL @ 1Mw
Frequency Response: 10Hz - 18kHz
Impedance: 31 ohms @ 1kHz
Driver: Four balanced armature drivers
Cable: EPIC removable cable
Features: Crush resistant travel case, assorted eartips, 1/8” to 1/4” adapter, inline volume attenuator and wax loop for cleaningSensitivity: 118 dB SPL @ 1Mw
Frequency Response: 10Hz - 18kHz
Impedance: 31 ohms @ 1kHz
Driver: Four balanced armature drivers
Cable: EPIC removable cable
Features: Crush resistant travel case, assorted eartips, 1/8” to 1/4” adapter, inline volume attenuator and wax loop for cleaning

Just like the UM3X RC, the packaging was an attractive box with photos and specs. Also included was the owner's manual on CD, multiple sized ear tips, was loop, and case. Only the case for the 4Rs is a water tight hard plastic case. And just like the UM3X RC, the materials used and fit and finish were excellent. Like they also have a detachable cable, which I am a huge fan of. The 4R’s are quite the investment, and a short in the cable can now be easily replaced.

Brunson Brothers: Fleace Movae, was very crisp and clean in the trumpets as well as the percussion.  They threw a very big soundstage with precise imaging.  And again the piano sounded natural.  Fresh Aire II: Going to Another Place, showed superb resolution.  The guitar was crisp and clean.  They use multiple different acoustic guitars.  Distinguishing the different ones as they play was easy.  But to hear the different nuances, like the decay of the guitar string after it is plucked, or the air being blown across the flute, was breathtaking!  Imaging was exact!  Steve Miller Band: Swingtown, had percussion that was crisp and clean, and bass that had good extension and played with authority.  Vocals were smooth, with excellent timbre.  The soundstage was quite large and imaging was excellent No Doubt: Hellagood, had percussion that was again crisp and clean and very dynamic.  The bass had good extension and played with authority.  Although I must admit that while it had good output, I was expecting a bit more with two bass drivers.  Stefani's vocals were nice and sultry.

Last but not least is the ACS T1. ACS is a company the focuses on IEM’s for the prosumer /audiophile, and professional musicians. In fact they have quite the list of endorsers, from some huge names such as Phil Collins, Pink Floyd, Radiohead and U2, to name just a few. When it comes to IEM’s it doesn’t get any better than custom made just for you. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase party like a rock star? With the ACS T1’s you can listen like one.

Features and specs:
-Active Drivers:   3
-Build Material:   40 Shore Silicone with SterileTouch
-Mold Type:         Full Concha
-Cable Type:         Kevlar reinforced with anti-friction sheath
-Standard cable:  Translucent
-Standard color:   Clear
-Connector:          3.5mm gold plated molded
-Standard cable exit:   Top (over the ear)
-Frequency response:   16Hz - 20kHz
-Noise isolation:   26db
-Impedance:         17 Ohms
-Items included:   Carry pouch, personalized rugged case, wax pick, care and usage instructions, comfort     cream, step-up 1/4" jack connector adaptor

The ACS T1’s came in a hard plastic watertight case, with a custom tag and your name on it. They are after all custom made for you. Also included is the owner's manual, wax loop, cream and leather case. The quality of materials and the fit and finish were excellent. They use a medical grade silicone, and standard color is clear so you can see the individual components. With being able to see the components, coolness factor went way up. With an MSRP of $1000, you do get what you pay for. And you will be happy that they have detachable cables.

Purchasing a custom IEM from ACS is quite the experience. Once ordered, you will need to be custom fitted by a local Audiologist. In their office, they will inject silicone into each ear. The silicone takes around 5 minutes or so to harder, then it can be pullout out of your ear. These molds are then sent to ACS. About 4 weeks or so later, your custom IEM’s will arrive.  And once received, you won't be able to stop yourself from studying the components thru the clear medical grade silicone.  You can see the small red wire going from the insanely small PCB that contains the crossovers, to the 3 individual drivers. There are also the sound tubes that travel from the balanced armature drivers, to the exterior, which also have in-line acoustic filters.  How it was all made and fits together really is something to behold.  Sliding them in my ears....the fit was perfect.  And I must admit, it was very nice to not have to deal with trying on eartip after eartip, to find one with the perfect fit, or maybe just the best fit out of the eartips provided.

Brunson Brothers: Fleace Movae, was extremely crisp and clean in the percussion.  The trumpets sounded natural without being too brassy.  The resolution was phenomenal, being able to hear each and every individual 32nd note of the Flamenco guitar rifts by Struntz and Fara.  Fresh Aire II: Going to Another Place had amazing resolution in the acoustic guitars, just like with the Westone IEMs, being able to hear the fine subtle details, like the decay or fading of the guitar strings after they are plucked.  And being able to hear the breath of the flutist as they blow across the mouthpiece is just amazing.  The soundstage was also life-like, not just huge.  The imaging was exact, and harmonics were stellar.  It gave me goosebumps it sounded so good!  Steve Miller Band: Swingtown, the percussion was crisp and tight.  The piano sounded natural.  Vocals were silky smooth like the finest Swiss chocolates, and quite transparent, showing excellent timbre and texture!  Soundstage was again large with precise imaging.  It felt like I was right there in the recording studio with the band.  No Doubt: Hellagood, percussion was extremely dynamic.  The bass had great depth and punch with real impact.  Stefani's vocals were just sexy.

This year's group of IEM's was a nice one.  The Outdoor Research bluetooth wireless IEM's gave a nice sound.  Bluetooth performance was sketchy based on use with my laptop, and they sounded about what you would expect at their price point.  The real surprise for me was the Audiofly's AF-56.  The were built well and fit great and sounded much better than $100 should.  Not as good as the RBH EP2's, but much better than their price point.  And what I would call a bracket beater.  The Monster DNA as usual provided a great presentation and product, with a great sound for the money.  And I also liked the aluminum design of the RBH EP2.  They had a nice refined sound with a lot of resolution and impactful bass for a single driver.

The big surprise was going from those IEM's to the more ultra premium and multiple drivers of the Westone UMX3 and 4R's.  The difference was like difference between looking through a perfectly clean window, and a filthy one.  Yes, it was that big of a difference!  I had to force myself to stay focused, because I was enjoying the music so much and getting caught up in it.  These were songs I have listened to for a LONG time, yet I was provided subtle nuances in the music that I had not noticed before!  I guess that is probably the best compliment that I could give.....getting lost in the music, and helping us feel like it is a new experience.

The same can be said of the ACS T1's.  Getting caught up in the music, hearing new subtleties, I loved every minute they were in my ears.  Only with the ACS T1's, the experience was just a tad better.  It was like going from looking thru a perfectly clean window, to looking with the window rolled down and not in your way.  And having them custom molded and specially made just for you....how cool is that?!  Most guys like stereo gear and electronics.  Want to know what to get the guy that has everything?  ACS Custom IEM's!

This years group of IEM's was again quite good.  Based on their design, features, quality, and performance, the Audiofly AF56 and Monster DNA's have won our Recommended Award.  The RBH EP2 has earned our Highly Recommended Award.  And the Westone UMX3 & 4R, and ACS T1 has earned our Editor's Choice.  Although if we had a higher award, like an Editor's Choice Diamond Award, the ACS T1's would have gotten it, and the Westone's would have been really close.  For more info and complete specs, check out their websites at www.outdoorreaserch.com, www.audiofly.com, www.monstercable.com, www.rbhsound.com, www.westone.com, and www.acscustom.com.