Thursday, March 31, 2016

2016 Annual Headphone Shootout Part 1 The IEM's

March Madness is in full force, which means it is time for our annual Headphone Shootout. We have 3 categories, which consist of in-ear, over-the-ear, and wireless. And as usual we have products form great manufacturers, namely Audiofly, Audio-Technica, Blue, JBL, Kenwood, Kingston, Klipsch, Massive Audio, Monster, and Westone.

This year they range in prices from $80 to $600. With March Madness the teams are bracketed by seeds based on performance. Typically the lower seeds beat the higher seeds, but there can be surprises. With headphones, they are priced based on performance. But there can be some surprises as well.

This year we are starting with the in-ear models. They start with the Klipsch XR8I Hybrid for $279, Audio-Technica ATH-IMO2, Westone Am Pro 30 for $439, Klipsch X20i for $549, and Audiofly AF180 for $599. They all feature balanced armature drives, most of them have multiple balanced armature drivers, except for the Klipsch XR8i Hybrid. The Klipsch XR8i is a hybrid design with a full range balanced armature, and a second dynamic driver that is tuned as a dedicated subwoofer, which I am particularly excited for!

The 1st Klipsch IEM is the XR8I Hybrid, which I am particularly excited about. I tend to be a bit of a bass head, so I like a lot of bass. They showed these off at CES, and we jumped at the opportunity when Klipsch wanted these included in our annual shootout. What makes the Klipsch XR8I Hybrid so special is the dedicated subwoofer driver in each IEM.  They feature a full range balanced armature, then a dedicated subwoofer driver!

Features and specs:
  • KG-2365 AcuPass(R) Two-Way Hybrid Driver
  • KG-065 Dynamic Woofer
  • KG-723 Balanced Armature Tweeter
  • Die-Cast Zinc and Co-Molded Elastomer Housing
  • Patented Oval Ear Tips (4 Different Pairs)
  • Three-Button Remote + Mic
  • Carrying Case + Clothing Clip
  • 1 Year Warranty
The Klipsch XR8I came in a nice looking clear plastic box so you can see the IEM on a plastic display in the box. The Klipsch XR8I was mostly made of plastic, with some aluminum in the molded housing. Quality of materials used was very good, as was the build quality and fit and finish. They appeared in hand to be a well made product. Also included was the owners' manual, carry case, and extra ear tips. I loved the little holder for the additional eartips. It was a little plastic piece, almost like a credit card, with little stubs to hold the extra eartips. There is also an in-line mic and controls to use with your smartphone.

The real question though is how do they sound.  This year, we included some tunes to really test the bass.  And with the recent passing of David Bowie, we thought we would honor him a little bit and include one of his songs.  So while the Klipsch XR8I looks impressive, as the saying goes, the truth is in the pudding.  And with that said, it's time for some aural tasting.

With David Bowie: Let's Dance, the bass was deep with a lot of authority! They threw a nice big soundstage. Drums had nice dynamics, knocker sounded natural, and vocals had nice texture.  Journey: Don't Stop Believing, the keyboard sounded natural, with smooth vocals and nice resolution. Kick drum had good depth. Also Sprach Zarathustra, it had excellent ultra low bass extension that played with a lot of authority! Horns were smooth sounding. Nice resolution in the tympani. Junior Wells: Why are People Like That, had nice texture in the vocals. Bass guitar had excellent depth and authority. Harmonica was dynamic.  Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, the clarinet sounded natural, as did the piano. There was nice texture and resolution in the bassoon. Tympani had nice low end extension. Brass was really clean sounding.  

The overall sound was smooth, just a tad on the warm side, with good resolution and excellent bass response!  It's the closest headphone I have heard that sounds like a home or car stereo system with a subwoofer.  Klipsch knocked this one out of the park in terms of bass response. And when it comes to the fit, it looks like Klipsch has an unfair advantage.  With some features, it's easy to think it's just hype and no real advantage.  But with the oval was not just hype!  They helped make for a really easy fit, for both sound quality and comfort!

Audio-Technica is known for their great headphones that give good bang for your buck. And here we have their ATH-IM02 IEM. They are part of their professional series, so no built-in mic. These are designed just for listening. They feature a 2-way design with detachable cable.

Features and specs:
  • Exclusive dual balanced armature drivers for pure sound reproduction
  • Specially designed to fit and seal within the user’s ear for ultimate in-ear monitoring
  • Detachable cables with formable wire improves fit and adds convenience
  • Horn-shaped conductor pipe, the “Acoustic Horn,” reduces acoustic radiation resistance
  • Includes a case, silicone earpieces (S/M/L) and Comply™ foam earpieces (M)
Dual Balanced Armature Driver
Frequency Response
20 - 16,000 Hz
Maximum Input Power
3 mW
113 dB/mW
36 ohms
5 g
Detachable 1.2 m, Y-type
3.5 mm (1/8") gold-plated stereo mini-plug, L-type
Accessories Included
Case, silicone earpieces (S/M/L), Comply™ foam earpieces (M)

They came in an attractive color printed box, with photos of the IEM, and their specs. They came well protected, in custom molding holding them secure in place. They were constructed of mostly plastic with some metal. The quality of materials used as well as the fit and finish were very good. You could tell this was part of their professional series, and it showed. Included in the box was the owners' manual, hard zippered carry case, and extra sized eartips. The carry case has a pocket on the inside as well, to hold your extra tips.

I'm impressed with the look, design, and quality of the Audio-Technica ATH-IM02.  The cables are good quality, are bendable at the top to help you get a good fit around your ear.  The cables are detachable, so if you get a short, you only have to replace the cable.  I also like the smoke housing so you can see the internal components.  But now it's time to hear how they sound!

David Bowie: Let's Dance, the drums had good depth and dynamics, with some authority. They threw a nice big soundstage, with good imaging. Percussion was very dynamic. Vocals were very natural. Journey: Don't Stop Believing, the keyboard sounded natural, vocals were smooth with good resolution and texture. Imaging was nice. Drums were dynamic with crisp cymbals. Also Sprach Zarathustra, it had sufficient low end extension that could be heard, very smooth bass and very nice resolution in the tympani.  Junior Wells: Why are People Like That, had nice resolution in the vocals, harmonica was crisp and clean with great dynamics. Very good details in the percussion. Bass guitar had good low end extension. Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, the clarinet sounded really natural with good resolution. Piano sounded natural. Brass was really rich and smooth without being too brassy. Bassoon had good texture. They threw a good sized soundstage and had very good imaging as well.  Overall, you could definitely hear the resolution that two balanced armature drivers provide.  The sound was really crisp and clean with very good resolution and was just barely on the bright side overall. 

The Westone Am Pro 30 is a brand new model that is actually not yet available, but soon will be within the next month or so. Westone makes some excellent IEM's and have been included in our annual shootout in years past. They jumped at the opportunity to be included again this year, but they did not have a final product with packaging, so a final engineering sample was provided with no packaging. They did promise that the engineering sample provided will sound just the same as the final retail product, but look a tad different than the final product that ships. Although comparing what was provided to the look in the photo on Westone's website product page, the look is really close! So when you see our photos, the final product will look just a tad different, if you look really closely.  I had to study it for a few minutes to find the extremely small difference.  They looked like a final product to me!

Features and specs:
·          Westone True-Fit Technology: 50+ years experience with in-ear applications has yielded a low-profile, lightweight, universal earpiece which delivers maximum comfort and in-ear coupling for dynamic transfer of sound.
·          Balanced Aramture Driver: Westone’s balanced armature drivers are significantly more compact and efficient than traditional dynamic drivers. By combining multiple balanced armature drivers with sophisticated crossover networks, Westone monitors provide enhanced sonic detail and frequency range that extends well beyond typical in-ear solutions.
·          MMCX Audio™ Connecter: Designed specifically for musicians’ monitors, our audio connector ensures a reliable connection every time.
·          Patent Pending SLED™ Technology: Combines your ambient surroundings with your monitor signal with no compromise to the frequency response.
·          TRU™ Audio Filter: Allows you to fully experience your performance—hear your band, your fans, and everything else.
·          Designed & Assembled in the USA: Meticulously built by a staff of dedicated artisans and lab techs based in the USA, Westone’s products exhibit a level of craftsmanship that truly embodies America’s rich history of handmade artistry.
Sensitivity: 124 dB SPL @ 1 mW
Frequency Response: 20 Hz - 18 kHz
Impedance: 56 ohms @ 1 kHz
Passive Noise Attenuation: 25dB
Driver: Three balanced armature drivers with three-way crossover.
Cable: MMCX Audio™ Connection.

The Westone Am Pro 30 came shipped in one of their water resistant hard cases for protection. Also included were some difference sized ear tips, and wax tool. Materials used in the construction was mostly plastic. Quality of materials used was very good, as was the fit and finish. It's the quality I have come to expect from Westone.  And I liked the cables being detachable. Westone has for as long as I have been working with them, provided a stellar product.  The Westone Am Pro 30 is designed around the professional musician performing on-stage, so there is no in-line mic or controls for your smartphone. And this is a product they are very excited about, so I couldn't wait to review them.  So let's hear how they sound.

David Bowie: Let's Dance, the bass had nice punch, plenty of depth, as well as good authority. Percussion was crisp and dynamic. The knocker sounded woody and natural, with large soundstage and very good imaging. Nice texture in vocals. Journey: Don't Stop Believing, the keyboard sounded very natural, vocals were smooth with lots of resolution and textures. Cymbals were crisp and very dynamic. Kick drum had nice low end extension. Also Sprach Zarathustra, had nice low end extension that played deep with authority. Brass was very smooth without being too brassy. Very good dynamics and resolution in the tympani. Junior Wells: Why are People Like That, revealed nice sounding vocals with depth and harmonics. Bass guitar played deep and with some authority, harmonica so dynamic it sounded like I was right there, and the percussion was crisp. Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, the clarinet had excellent tone, with resolution good enough you could hear the woodiness and the breathing technique. Piano sounded very natural. They threw a big soundstage, and imaging was excellent. Percussion was crisp and clean. Brass was very smooth and dynamic without being overly brassy. Bassoon had nice texture. 

The sound in all was extremely neutral, with lots of resolution, and good bass depth and authority.  And the SLED Technology worked! For musicians on a tight budget...this is for you! I'm not sure that they helped give a bigger soundstage the way open back over the ear headphones typically sound.  But it was pretty cool being able to hear some of what is going on around you, in your environment.

Next is Klipsch's 2nd entry into our shootout, the Klipsch X20i. In addition to wanting their X8RI included, they also wanted this model, their top of the line, included. And I can see why. The X20i is part of their Reference series, and their top of the line, for good reason. While it is only a 2 way model at their $549 price point, the way that they designed integrated the two balanced armature drivers is supposed to bring stellar sound.

Features and specs:
  • KG-2625 AcuPass(R) Two-Way Driver
  • KG-926T Balanced Armature Woofer
  • KG-125B Balanced Armature Super Tweeter
  • Stainless Steel Construction
  • Super-Slim Oval Ear Tips
  • Interchangeable Cables
  • Advanced Three-Button Remote + Mic 

The Klipsch X20i came shipped in a nice box with a paper sleeve with photos and specs for the IEM. The sleeve wrapped around a very cool wooden box, that is held shut with magnets, which gave a very elegant touch and feel. This is clearly their flagship model! Opening the box revealed the IEM, owners' manual, a leather case with magnets to hold it closed, and one of the credit card sized plastic eartip holders. The quality of the materials used was very good, comprising of some molded aluminum, and plastic. The quality of construction as well as the fit and finish was equally impressive. 

The Klipsch X20i seemed to do everything right.  The cables were very high quality, comprised of twisted strands inside a plastic sheath.  There is an in-line mic and controls for your smartphone.  The cables are also detachable, and the way they do so I think is a bit more durable.

David Bowie: Let's Dance, bass had good depth and authority, percussion was crisp and dynamic. Knocker sounded woody and showed a wide soundstage. Very nice resolution in the cymbal. Vocals had nice detail and smoothness. Journey: Don't Stop Believing, the keyboard sounded extremely natural, vocals were smooth like honey with lots of resolution and texture. Percussion had crisp cymbals and nice low end extension in the kick drum. Also Sprach Zarathustra, revealed good low end extension with lots of authority. The silky smooth brass wasn't too brassy. Very good resolution in the tympani.  Junior Wells: Why are People Like That, the vocals were extremely natural and smooth, harmonica was dynamic and provided a musical experience that has to be heard to be appreciated. The resolution provided was life like. Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, provided excellent clarinet tone, and lots of resolution so you could hear the breathing technique, with air and woodiness of the reed. Piano sounded extremely natural. Brass was as smooth as honey with excellent dynamics without coloration. Bassoon had amazing texture. Low level harmonics was very nice, as was the imaging and large soundstage.

The overall sound was more refined, just a bit warm, and so silky smooth!  And I loved the level of resolution that they provide! The housing is actually very small. So if you have small ears, they are much easier to get a great fit!  And for those not so small ears, they have larger sized eartips to help you get the right fit.  I could not believe the level of sound provided by 2-way monitors!!!

Last but not least is the Audio Fly AF180. The AF180 is also one of Audiofly's top of the line products, and it shows just as well. Having reviewed their products for a few years now, I at first was impressed with the sound of Audiofly's products. They always seem to give a big bang for the buck. But I soon came to learn that's the way these Aussie's roll. They like giving value to their customers. So when given the opportunity to see if the AF180 continues in the tradition, We naturally jumped on it!

Features and specs:
Passive crossover splits the audio signal and routes it to the appropriate driver
Quad drivers: 4 balanced armature drivers
Audioflex™ SL Cable: low profile for stage
Mouldable over-ear cable
Selection of high grade silicon and COMPLY™ Premium Earphone Tips
Driver configuration: Four balanced armature drivers with crossover 
Frequency range: 15-25kHz 
Sensitivity: 108dB at 1 kHz 
Impedance: 18 Ohms
Cable length: 1.6m / 64” 
Plug type: 3.5mm gold plated, right-angle format

The Audiofly AF180 came in a great looking printed box with photos and specs of the AF180. They came well protected. Materials used in the construction was mostly plastic, but quality of materials is very good, as is the fit and finish. I loved the sexy look of the stone blue housing. These are towards the top of the line for Audiofly, and it shows in the quality of the product. Audiofly may be fairly new to the headphone industry, but they were quick to establish them as a serious contender with quality products. Also included was a nice leather carry case, owners' manual, wax loop, and multiple sets of difference size and style eartips.

I was seeing things I was used to see from Audiofly.  The top of the cable is molded to help give a better fit around your ears.  The cables were high quality with cloth cover. And as stated before, the gloss stone blue of the housing was pretty sexy looking.  I couldn't wait to hear how they sound!

David Bowie: Let's Dance, the bass had good low end extension and played with authority. Percussion and cymbals were very crisp and clean and dynamic. Vocals had a lot of resolution and texture. Knocker sounded woody and threw a wide soundstage with great imaging. Journey: Don't Stop Believing, the keyboard sounded extremely natural, vocals were extremely smooth with tons of resolution to reveal lots of texture and timbre. I loved the harmonics, and lack of coloration. Percussion was crisp and clean with good depth in kick drum. Also Sprach Zarathustra, yielded nice low end extension that played with very good authority. Horns were smooth like honey with lots of resolution without being to brassy. Excellent resolution and dynamics in the tympani. Junior Wells: Why are People Like That, vocals were smooth and very detailed, bass guitar had excellent depth and authority as did the kick drum. Percussion was crisp and clean. Harmonica was extremely life like and detailed. Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, the clarinet was extremely detailed with good air, with so much resolution you could easily hear the breathing technique and woodiness. Piano had nice harmonics. The bassoon had excellent texture and depth. Soundstage was very big and imaging was spot on.

The Audiofly AF180 performed extremely well.  Using four balanced armature drivers, the resolution and detail they provided was closer than I expected to custom models I have reviewed in the past.  The highs were crisp and clean, mids were warm and smooth, and the bass played deep with lots of authority.  And the sound was overall very neutral.  I couldn't help getting lost in the music, going on to listen to more of my favorite tracks.  The sound was so good I got goosebumps!

All of the IEM models in this years shootout performed very well.  They were also all made very well.  So no matter what you sound preferences, they are all made well to provide years of service.  The Klipsch XR8I provided a detail I would expect from a single balanced armature.  The sound was overall smooth, a bit warm in signature.  And with the built-in subwoofer driver, it played deeper and with more bass output than any of the other IEMs.  The Audio-Technica ATH-IM02 takes the detail and resolution to the next level with incorporating dual balanced armature drivers, while lacking in the bass output of the Klipsch XR8I.  They also feature detachable cables.  Overall sound signature is a just a tad bright and provides very good resolution. Next are Westone Am Pro 30, and they up the ante even more, providing three balance armature drivers.  The level of detail, imaging, and soundstage are exceptional, which I have also learned is signature Westone.  I also liked their SLED technology, which allowed you to somewhat hear what is going on around you, and that feature could make it perfect for you.  Next up is the Klipsch X20i, with is their top of the line model, and it shows.  They performed some serious magic to get sound this good from a 2-way balanced armature driver system!  It's dual balanced armature drivers provided a lifelike sound that was silky smooth, refined, and a bit warm.  And with it's small size, if you have small ears, they could be just what you have been looking for.  Last but not least is the Audiofly AF180, with it's quad balanced armature drivers.  They had an overall neutral sound, and provided an aural bliss that must be heard to be believed.  And surprisingly the bass performance in depth and output was 2nd only to the Klipsch XR8I.  Based on their design, features, quality, and performance, the Klipsch XR8I and Audio-Technica ATH-IM02 has earned our Highly Recommended Award. The Westone Am Pro 30, Klipsch X20i, and Audiofly AF180 have earned our Editor's Choice Award.  For more info and complete specs, check out their website at,,, and