Friday, April 16, 2010

Headphone Shoot-out Part 2: The IEM's

It is now time for Part 2 of the Headphone Shoot-out. For those who read part 1, the shoot-out was divided into two parts, Part one was for the six over the ear headphones. Part two is for the final six that are IEM’s. The models being reviewed here are the Audio-Technica ATH-CKM50A for $99, the Rockford Fosgate Punch Plugs for $99, Ultimate Ears SuperFi 5 for $169, Westone 2 for $249, Sennheiser IE7 for $369, and Westone 3 $399. Most of the models are close to the $200 range and up. But again, in the spirit of March Madness I included a couple in the lower brackets. The audio listening portion includes the same arsenal used in Part one. They include Bachbusters: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Eagles: Easy Peaceful Feeling, Blue Smith: Raindance, Fresh Aire I: Chocolate Fudge, Future Sex: SexyBack, Rip It Up: You Spin Me Round, Star Wars Trilogy: Throne Room and Finale, Very Best of Erich Kunzel: Sing, Sing, Sing, and Bass Meckanic: Sonic Overload for the test tones. And now, on with Part two of our big dance.
First off is Audio-Technica’s ATH-CKM50A. The fit and finish was on par for its price point. Materials and built quality is good, with extra tips and a leather carrying bag that has interior pockets for the accessories. I liked the off-angle design for a more secured fit in your ears. There was also an extension cable that proved very useful.
The Eagles showed natural vocals with ok resolution and depth. I also enjoyed to crisp guitar stringing. FutureSex had nice output with the bass extension being pretty clean. Vocals were good sounding with good pitch definition. Rip It Up was nice with tight bass extension that was also pretty clean, good resolution, and also good vocals. Erich Kunzel showcased nice sounding clarinet, crisp percussion, and nice dynamics on the trumpet solo, but the tympanis sounded a little muddy. Bass dropped off at around 23hz, and usable to around 18hz. All in all, they are good sounding IEM’s that are accurately priced.

Up next is Rockford Fosgate’s Punch Plugs. If you know anything about Rockford Fosgate, what first comes to mind is their high quality car audio Punch subwoofers and amplifiers. They wanted the Punch Plugs to have their Punch sonic signature, so they designed them from the ground up and designed a proprietary large 15mm dynamic driver. The design of the plugs, while large for the driver, also inserts at an angle for a better fit. The cable is a tangle free design and looks more like a narrow ribbon, as it is about twice as wide as a typical cable. The design works well. It also comes with a nice zippered hard case with an interior pocket to hold the extra tips. The build quality and materials used are also good. With the Punch Plugs, you get a lot for your money.
I was pleased to hear the attempt to include the Rockford Fosgate Punch Sonic Signature was a success. As a Rockford Fosgate user for approximately 20 years, I tend to like a lot of bass. Rain Dance had a nice rich sax tone, the drum sounded natural with nice harmonics and low level pitch definition. SexyBack had a wide sound stage, great bass extension with plenty of Punch. Natural sounding vocals had good pitch. Justin sounded pretty good. You Spin Me Round gave very clean bass beats with lots of punch, good vocals, and clean sounding. Sing, Sing, Sing threw a wide sound stage, crisp percussion and good pitch definition in the bass strings. The clarinet was clean sounding. There was nice imaging with the trumpet and was very controlled even when wailing. Drop off was around 23hz and usable to around 15hz. I was very impressed with these Punch Plugs, which sounded more like double their price point and closer to the Ultimate Ears.
Next in line is the Ultimate Ears SuperFi 5’s. Construction quality and materials were good. Even though the monitors are not angled, they fit well. The cabling was nice with a gold plated tip. Also included were extra tips, wax loop and a plastic carrying case.

Bachbusters was very clean sounding. The bass did not seem to extend with quite as much authority as I like. The crescendo was just slightly muddy. The Eagles guitars were nice and crisp, and the natural vocals were a tad warm. There was nice resolution and they were fairly smooth sounding. On Blue Smith the sax was smooth sounding, had a wide soundstage, and nice harmonics. The sound was crisp, and the natural sounding drums had good resolution. Rip It Up had ok bass extension but was lacking in authority. It was clean sounding, provided crisp mid and upper harmonics and good resolution. There was lots of synthesizer work going on, and I could hear it all cleanly. Bass dropped off at around 28hz and usable to around 19hz.

The Westone 2’s are a true two-way design, with dual balanced armatures. Build quality and materials are excellent, and evidenced with a little quality control slip that was initialed and dated. Accessories include an in-line volume control, ¼” adapter, wax loop and brush, and a multitude of different sized and styled tips. The zippered hard case has an interior pocket, and even a metal S clip for convenience.
Blue Smith was very smooth sounding, had excellent detail and resolution in the drums. It gave a wide sound stage. The sax was very smooth sounding; the tambourine was very crisp and dynamic. Fresh Aire I sounded amazing, with lots of resolution. There were a lot of instruments at work and they all came forward loud and clear, crisp, clean and natural. The bass however was subdued, missing some oomph. With FutureSex the bass extension was ok, but lacked that punch. They were extremely dynamic, just a tad bright. There was good pitch resolution in the vocals and was quite transparent. Star Wars Trilogy had excellent imaging, large sound stage, tons of resolution, and smooth strings. They gave me goose bumps. Even the xylophone came through nice and clear. The dual balanced armature design does tend to give a cleaner, more accurate, more dynamic and more refined sound. But unlike a traditional dynamic driver design, the bass while does have depth lacks punch. The test tones supported it with drop off at around 30hz and usable to 18hz.

The Sennheiser IE7 proved to be an excellent product. The packaging was nothing short of first class, with molded foam inserts in a metal carrying case. The materials and quality of construction was also excellent. They feature a single dynamic driver with a ported design. Accessories include additional tips, loop, and ear clips.
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor showed a large soundstage, was very clean and fairly smooth sounding. Bass extension was nice with good authority. Rain Dance was very smooth sounding, with great resolution. The crisp sax sounded amazing and the drums showed great low level dynamics. SexyBack had good bass extension with nice authority in the beats. Vocals had excellent vocal transparency and harmonics. Sing, Sing, Sing had nice imaging and great tymphony pitch definition. The clarinet was very natural sounding and the trumpet was very crisp and clean sounding. Sonic overload test tones showed drop off around 24hz with useable output down to around 17hz. Overall, the sound was more refined. It had a smooth sound, but appeared to be so at the slight expense of resolution.
Last but not least is the Westone 3. Build quality and materials were identical to the Westone 2- very high. The included accessories are identical. The only difference between the two models is the true 3-way design of the Westone 3. Instead of a woofer and tweeter as in the Westone 2, the Westone 3 has a tweeter, midrange and woofer in its balanced armature drivers.
Bachbusters had the same amazing sound as the Westone 2’s, just elevated to a higher level. It showed cleaner midrange, and better bass output. Blue Smith had a very smooth sax; midrange seemed a touch cleaner and smoother then the Westone 2’s. There was a touch more resolution and increased dynamics. Star Wars Trilogy sounded amazing, with every instrument being able to be heard. The xylophone sounded extra sharp, with amazing resolution on the strings. Erich Kunzel had excellent dynamics and resolution. At times the highs showed just a hint of edginess. The sound stage was large; imaging was excellent, with great pitch definition with the drums. Bass drop off was at around 23hz and usable to around 16hz.
As in March Madness, the bracketing generally gives you an idea of how teams will compete. Product pricing can give you that general idea. That being said, I was pleasantly surprised by the Rockford Fosgate Punch Plugs. With their specially designed 15mm drivers to incorporate their signature Punch sound, they delivered in spades. All listening was done on my IPod Classic 120 GB with the songs in Lossless format for no compression and the EQ turned off. When turning the EQ on and set to Bass Booster and the volume cranked up, none of the other models handled extreme punch like the Punch Plugs. I expected that may be the case. But I was pleasantly surprised by how they sounded with everything else. They were not as smooth sounding, not as refined and not as much resolution as the Sennheiser IE7’s, which were also a single dynamic drive design. That being said, the IE7’s also impressed me with the sound accomplished with a dynamic driver. It lacked some of the dynamics and cleaner sound of a multiple driver system as the Westone products, but the difference was not dramatic. The Ultimate Ear SuperFi 5’s were also impressive in the sound they achieved in a single balanced armature design. It was close to the bass response of the Westone 3, which had a dedicated woofer. I would love to hear how something higher up their line sounds like, in a multiple driver monitor. And while I like my bass heavy, the Westone 2 and 3 when listening to one of my favorite tracks from the Star Wars Trilogy: Throne Room and Finale, they both gave me goose bumps. Kudos to you! I’d have to say the winner of these products would go to the Westone 3, and the punch Plugs being my second favorite. The rest are right close behind. All are excellent sounding. If only there was a Westone 4 that had the drivers of the Westone 3, with a dedicated dynamic driver design as a subwoofer. If you are in the market for a good quality IEM, all of these products deserve some attention. For more info and complete specs, check out their websites at:,,,, and