Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Headphone Shootout Part 2 - The In-Ear-Monitors

Part two of our Headphone Shootout covers In Ear Monitors, or IEM for short. Not everyone wants over the ear headphones. What many call earbuds have come a long way. Models covered today range from $50 to $639. Manufacturers and models include Yurbuds Ironman series, Sleek Audio SA One and Wireless kit, Altec Lansing Muzx Ultra MZX606, Beyerdynamic 101 iE, Ultimate Ears 700, Etymotic hf3, Audio-Technica ATH-CK99, and Westone 4.

Starting off with the Yurbuds Ironman Series, they are a basic earbud design with an MSRP of $50. What makes them unique is the rubber cover that goes over the earbud. They are designed for the Ironman, whether biking, running, or any other exercise, to stay in your ears. The rubber cover also funnels the sound into your ear. Construction is average, with average components. Included accessories include a carrying bag, and an extra set of rubber covers.

Specs and features include:
90 days warranty
Sweat proof
Water resistant
Frequency Response 20Hz-20kHz
Sensitivity 110dB/mW
Impedence 32ohms

Now turning to the listening test, they performed well. Fresh Aire II- Going To Another Place - had nice sounding strings. Flute had ok amount of air, although it was just a tad edgy at times. Piano sounded sufficiently natural. Sound was a tad thin overall. Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue - threw good sized soundstage and good imaging. Dynamics were ok, as was the resolution. Bass was a tad muddy. No Doubt- Hella Good - the Bass had good extension, and was nice and tight. Vocals sounded a tad thin. Was just a tad edgy and bright. Huey Lewis- Heart of Rock and Roll- had OK resolution in the drums. Vocals were ok. Sax sounded natural, as well as the harmonics. Metallica- Nothing Else Matters- the acoustic guitar was crisp sounding, with good resolution. Harmonics were good, as were the vocals.

Next up is the Sleek Audio SA One for $80 MSRP. Opening up the box, I was surprised with what was included! They are a small IEM with a Siam Rosewood body. The cables are also detachable from the rosewood body. A short in the cable is one of the highest reasons for IEMs going bad. I have seen $400 IEM's that do not have detachable cables. So kudos for Sleek Audio for including that feature, especially on a $80 model. But it does not stop there. There are a good amount of accessories including a semi-hard carrying case with an internal pocket, multiple eartips, and a pair of custom tuning treble tips. They are also wireless ready, using the Kleer wireless W-1 unit. This feature may be mostly the reason for needing to have a detachable cable. But having been victim to a short in the cable multiple times, I will take detachable cables any way I can get them. With everything included, that is a lot of bang for your buck. Fit and finish, and quality of construction and materials appears to be good.

Features and specs include:
•Siam Rosewood body
•Custom Wide Band Balanced Dynamic Driver with Custom Porting
•Wireless Hyrbid System
•Variable Equalization (VQ) System
•Included Accessories
Multipack Ear Tips
•Wearable in multiple positions
•Treble Tuning Ports
•Replaceable / Interchangeable Cables
•Carrying Case
•Standard Cable: 52 inches
•Impedance: 25 ohm
•Speaker Type: Ultra Wide Band Balanced Dynamic Driver with Custom Porting

Sleek Audio also provided their wireless accessory for the SA One. It comes with a dangle receiver, USB cable, and soft storage pouch. It is pretty simple to use. The dangle plugs into your source unit, such as an iPod. The receiver has two connection tips, which plugs into each of the IEM. It has a 10 meter range and provides CD quality sound. Battery life is listed at up to 10 hours, with a 3 hour charge time. Fit and finish was very good.

It's features included:
•CD quality, lossless sound
•more than 10 hours of independent battery life
•4 people can listen to one audio stream
•60 feet of freedom
•Compatible with any device you can plug earphones into

Fresh Aire II- Going to Another Place- provided nice resolution and crispness in the percussion. The flute had nice air, and the piano was natural sounding. Drums were a tad muddy, not as well defined. Gershwin- Rhapsody in Blue- the clarinet had nice timbre. Soundstage and imaging were good, as well as dynamics. Overall a bit warm sounding. The bassoon had good texture. No Doubt- Hella Good, the bass was tight with good extension and good authority. The nice vocals were fairly smooth. The song came through with a good amount of energy. Huey Lewis- Heart of Rock and Roll, showed a nice sized soundstage, clear vocals that were pleasantly smooth. The natural sounding sax was a tad reserved. Metallica- Nothing Else Matters, acoustic guitar was nice and crisp sounding. Vocals were fairly smooth sounding, and nice bass extension in the drums. They also showed a good sized soundstage.

The SA Wireless adapter worked very well, and was easy to use. There is a cover that pops up to protect the small power switch and mini USB charging connector. When pushed in, it has a nice clean look. I was also happy to hear the same quality sound with the wireless adapter as I heard with the IEM's when using them corded. The sound was CD quality as advertised.

Altec Lansing has a history of producing excellent products, so I was excited to review their Muzx Ultra MZX606 IEM's. MSRP is $99. They are a tad on the large size, but appear well constructed. Quality of materials appears to be good, with a gold plated tip. I also liked the in-line volume control and microphone. Accessories include additional ear tips, and a soft velvet carrying case.

Their features and specs include:
Professional sound engineering from single balanced armature technology
• Unique cord design minimizes friction noise
SnugFit™ design for extreme comfort, delivers superior passive noise isolation
Inline remote and mic allows you to control compatible iPhone, iPod, and iPad models
• 8 piece fit kit with silicone tips for any ear (small, medium, large, and dual-flange)
• Compatible with other MP3 players
• Soft carry case included
-Spring loaded
-PVC suede
Speaker Balanced armature
Noise Isolation.............26 dB
Input Sensitivity...........105 dB SPL/mW @ 1 kHz
Impedance...................29 Ohms
Cable Length................46" 1.2m
Input Connector.............3.5mm gold plated
Frequency Response .........20 Hz – 20 kHz (10-dB)

Fresh Aire II- Going To Another Place- had nice and crisp strings, flute had a lot of air and nice resolution. Piano and drums were just a tad reserved. Gershwin- Rhapsody in Blue, threw a nice sized sound stage and provided nice imaging. Clarinet was really clean sounding with good pitch definition. Dynamics were very good. The piano sounded very natural. No Doubt- Hella Good, showed Good bass extension. The bass was also nice and tight. Vocals had nice timbre. Dynamics were again very good. This track has a lot of energy, and it was portrayed very well. Huey Lewis- Heart of Rock & Roll, the soundstage was again nice and big. Vocals were natural sounding. Sax was smooth sounding, very clean sounding. Metallica- Nothing Else Matters, the Acoustic guitar was nice and crisp, with good resolution in the vocals and nice pitch definition in the drums.

Next up is the Beyerdynamic DTX 101iE IEM. They are a small traditional designed IEM design, that is iPhone ready, and an MSRP of $99. The monitor is composed of metal, with a standard plastic cables, and a gold plated tip. Materials used were on par for it's price point, as well as it's fit and finish. It's accessories include 3 additional ear tips, and a softcase.

It's features and specs include:
• Crystal clear, striking sound
• Neodymium HD acoustic drivers
• Refined lightweight metal housing
• Soft case included
• With three different pairs of ear-pieces
Transducer type . . . . . . . . . . . . dynamic
Frequency response . . . . . . . . . . .10 – 23,000 Hz
Nominal impedance . . . . . . . . . . . 12 Ω
Sensitivity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102 dB Sound coupling to the ear in-ear

Cable length. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.2 m
Connector . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. mini stereo jack plug (3.5 mm)

Accessories . . . . . . . . . . . .. . soft case

Fresh Aire II- Going To Another Place, had nice and crisp, clean strings. Flute had a good amount of air. Sound was just a tad bright at times. Resolution was good. Gershwin- Rhapsody in Blue, had good sized soundstage and clean sounding clarinet and trumpet. The resolution and dynamics were very good. No Doubt- Hella Good, bass was tight with good extension, and played with good authority. They were very dynamic. Vocals were fairly smooth and played with a lot of energy. Huey Lewis- Heart of Rock & Roll, had a nice soundstage, with good vocals. Sax sounded natural. It also had good harmonics and dynamics. Metallica- Nothing Else Matters, acoustic guitar was clean sounding with good resolution. Bass extension in the drums were good. Vocals had good texture and timbre.

Another well known brand for high quality headphones is Ultimate Ears. Included in the shootout is the Ultimate Ears 700. They are very small in size, especially when you take into account that each monitor includes the two balanced armature drivers. There is a balances armature driver for the highs, and one for the lows. MSRP is listed at $150. Build quality, materials used, and fit and finish appear to be on par for that price point. The monitor housing and cables is made of plastic. The tip is gold plated. Accessories include a plastic carrying case, airplane adapter, and five additional sets of eartips.

Features and specs include:
Type: In-ear
Frequency response: 20Hz–20 kHz
Impedance: 40 Ohms, 1 kHz
Sensitivity: 113 dB SPL/mW at 1kHz
Weight: 0.41 ounces (11.6 grams)
Noise isolation: 26 dB
Cable length: 46 inches (116.8 cm)
Input connector: 1/8 inch (3.5 mm)

Fresh Aire II- Going To Another Place, had very crisp strings, flute had a lot of air. Resolution was very good. Piano was natural sounding. Gershwin- Rhapsody in Blue, had a nice big soundstage with good imaging. Clarinet was nice and clean with good resolution. Piano was again natural sounding. The bassoon had good texture and nice dynamics. No Doubt- Hella Good, showed nice bass extension, and did so with good authority. Vocals were clean, but a tad bright and edgy. They were very dynamic with a lot of energy. Huey Lewis- Heart of Rock & Roll, threw a nice big soundstage, and clean vocals. The sax was smooth and the drums were nice and tight, as well as being very dynamic. Metallica- Nothing Else Matters, the acoustic guitar was very crisp and clean with a lot of resolution. Vocals were smooth with good resolution as well. Percussion was also crisp and very dynamic.

Etymotic Research provided an impressive pair of IEM's with their hf3. They are a small single balanced armature design with an MSRP of $179. Build quality is good. The cable was a soft plastic, and the monitors also had a soft plastic/rubbery coated finish that looked nice. The tip was gold plated, and I also liked the in-line 3-button control and mic for use with your iPhone. Accessories included a tie clip, 3 additional ear tips, extra set of filters, and a filter remover tool. Materials used, and fit and finish was also high quality. I also liked the soft neoprene carrying case with a built-in pocket.

Features and specs include:
Made For: iPod touch (2nd, 3rd and 4th generation) iPod classic iPod nano (4th, 5th and 6th generation) iPod shuffle (3rd and 4th generation) iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 iPad The remote and mic are supported only by iPod nano (4th, 5th and 6th generation), iPod classic (120GB, 160GB only), iPod touch (2nd, 3rd and 4th generation), iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, and iPad. The remote is supported by iPod shuffle (3rd and 4th generation). Audio is supported by all iPod models. Requires latest iPod software.
Frequency Response 20 Hz - 15 kHz
Accuracy Score 85%
Transducers High-performance balanced armature
Noise Isolation 35-42 dB
Impedance (@1 kHz)16 Ohms
Sensitivity (@1 kHz) SPL at 0.1V105 dB
Maximum Output (SPL)120 dB

Cable 4 ft with 3.5 mm plug
User Replaceable ACCU•Filters™
Warranty2 years

Fresh Aire II- Going To Another Place, gave very crisp and clean strings with a lot of resolution. Flute had a lot of air. Piano was very natural sounding. Harmonics were very good. The were very musical! Gershwin- Rhapsody In Blue, threw a nice big soundstage, and nice woodiness in the clarinet. Imaging was great, as well as the dynamics. Resolution was also very good, as was the texture of the bassoon. No Doubt- Hella Good, the bass was tight with good extension and authority. Stefani sounded nice and sultry in her vocals, without being too bright or edgy. All the energy came through very well undistorted, with good dynamics. Huey Lewis- Heart of Rock & Roll, yielded a nice big soundstage and imaging. Vocals were clean. Drums were nice and tight. Not only was it clean sounding, it was also quite smooth as well. Sax sounded natural. Metallica- Nothing Else Matters, the acoustic guitar was really crisp and clean with lots of resolution without being bright. Nice harmonics in the vocals and nice extension in the kick drum.

Having worked with their excellent quality products before, I was excited to have the Audio Technica ATH-CKM99 IEM's included in our annual headphone shootout. Their tradition appears to continue with these. They are an off-angle design using a dynamic driver and $229.95 MSRP. Build quality and materials used were very good. The cable was a soft plastic with gold plated tip. The monitor itself is plastic and polished titanium. Accessories include an extension cable, 3 additional pairs of eartips, a microfiber polishing cloth for the polished titanium monitor ends, and a nice semi-hard carrying case.

Features and specs include:
Newly developed hybrid metal structure and acoustic damper design deliver pure & clear audio High-quality canal earphones in a titanium and stainless housing Comfortable, ideal-fit earpieces provide maximum noise isolation and prevent sound leakage. Gold-plated mini-plug for exceptional corrosion resistance, superb conductivity and low noise Includes pouch, interchangeable ear tips (XS/S/M/L), 2’ extension cord, cleaning cloth Type
Dynamic Driver Diameter 14 mm
Frequency Response 5 - 28,000 Hz
Maximum Input Power 200 mW
Sensitivity 104 dB/mW
Impedance 16 ohms
Weight 10 g
Cable 0.6 m
Y-type Connector 3.5 mm (1/8") mini-stereo, gold-plated

Accessories Included Pouch, 0.6 m extension cord, ear tips (XS/S/M/L), cleaning cloth

Fresh Aire II- Going To Another Place, gave very good resolution. Strings were really crisp and clean. The flute had a lot of air and definition to it. The bass was tight and came through with a lot of authority. Gershwin- Rhapsody in Blue, the clarinet sounded nice and woody with a lot of texture. The soundstage was very big. Imaging was very good, and the dynamics were excellent. Resolution was also excellent. The bassoon had excellent texture. No Doubt- Hella Good, the bass was nice and tight with good extension and played with lots of authority. Stefani was smooth in her vocals, but was a tad bright. Dynamics were excellent. Huey Lewis- Heart or Rock & Roll, the bass was tight, and really dynamic. Vocals were clean. The sax sounded very natural, and smooth. It also threw a big soundstage. Percussion was also crisp and clean with a lot of resolution. Metallica- Bothing Else Matters, the acoustic guitar very clean. It also threw a nice sized soundstage. Vocals came through very clean, with good texture and timbre. It's bass was nice and tight with the kick drum and had good extension.

Last, but not least, is the Westone 4, with a MSRP of $639. The MSRP also gives you a huge clue at what you are going to get. The Westone 4's are on the large size, but it is for a good reason. They are a design that uses 4 balanced armature drivers and a 3 way passive crossover network in each monitor. It features 1 high frequency driver, 1 midrange driver, and 2 low frequency drivers. They sound like my type of IEM. Construction materials and fit and finish was very good. The cable was a thin twisted pair plastic cable with gold plated tip. The monitors were glossy black plastic, and everything seemed put together well. Included accessories included a 1/4" adapter, extension cable with in-line volume control, cleaning tool and wax loop, 9 additional sets of eartips, and really nice zippered hard case with an internal pocket and spring loaded clip. Yes, you read right. It includes 9 additional set of eartips in the form of foam, soft plastic and not as soft plastic tips. They appearently wanted to make sure you had the best tip that would give you the best seal. Kudos! Also instead of just an owners manual, it comes with a CD. The CD includes user guides, how-to-videos, product info, supplemental info and warranty. Kudos again!
Features and specs include:
Micro-Driver Balanced Armature Technology -
Ultra-accurate four-driver system for the most dynamic sound available in a universal fit earphone.
Westone EPIC Cable - Ultra supple braided design insures comfort and resists tangles -
Robust bifurcation w/slide adjustment keeps cord in place during activity -
Over-the-ear cable design offers superior in-ear comfort and isolation from mechanical cable noise
Westone True-Fit Technology - 50 years experience with in-ear applications has yield optimum ergonomics and fit -
True -Fit sound port delivers maximum comfort and in-ear coupling for dynamic transfer of sound.
Sensitivity: 118 dB SPL @ 1kHz
Frequency Response: 10Hz - 18kHz
Impedance: 31 ohms @ 1kHz
Driver: Four balanced armature drivers
Cable: Westone EPIC cable
MSRP: $639.00
Features: Crush resistant travel case, assorted eartips, 1/8” to 1/4” adapter, inline volume attenuator and wax loop for cleaning

Fresh Aire II- Going To Another Place, showed a big soundstage and excellent imaging. The strings were crisp and clean, and flute had a lot of air. The resolution was phenomenal. Pitch definition in the drums was very good, and had good authority. The sound was very smooth, transparent, refined, and very musical! Gershwin- Rhapsody In Blue, the soundstage was huge, and it had nice depth as well. The clarinet was nice and woody with good texture. The piano was natural. The texture of the bassoon was excellent. Dynamics were also very good. The resolution and definition was excellent. No Doubt- Hella Good, its bass was tight with excellent extension and authority. The sultry voice of Stefani was nice and smooth without being bright or edgy. This track has a lot of energy, and it all came though admirably! Huey Lewis- Heart of Rock & Roll, had excellent authority in the bass. Vocals were clean, as well as the percussion and Sax. I actually got lost in the music and had to remind myself to pay attention for the review. Metallica- Nothing Else Matters, the acoustic guitar was clean and smooth. The vocals were also very smooth with nice texture. I heard sounds I hadn't heard before, with it's excellent resolution.

With March Madness, teams are put into seeds and ranked according to perfomance. Here the products are similarly seeded, in the form of an MSRP. I think the great products reviewed here did very well, and were priced pretty accurately based on their performance. And just like March madness, there were a few products that that surprised me. The SA One surprised me with their performance, design, and what you got for your money. As such they receive our Value Award.

Both the Altec lansing and Beyerdynamic models performed well and has earned our Recommended Award. While the Ultimate Ears were a bit edgy at times, and didn't have the bass output that I like, the dual balanced armature design did provide a clean sound with a lot of resolution and detail. They too have earned our Recommended Award.

The next surprise comes in the form of the Etymotic Research hf3, and Audio Technica ATH-CKM99. The Etymotic hf3 employed a single balanced armature driver, and was surprised by it's performance. Balanced armature designs traditionally do not have very good bass output, hence why we have multiple driver designs. But do not tell Etymotic that. They got good bass performance out of their hf3. And the Audio Technica ATH-CK99 uses a dynamic type driver, which typically does not have the same resolution and clean sound as balanced armature driver. But the Audio Technica ATH-CK99 provided all the above. Both the Etymotic hf3 and Audio Technica ATH-CK99 earn our Highly Recommended Award.

Last but not least is the Westone 4. The employment of 4 balanced armature drivers and a passive crossover network gave a sound that was crisp, clean, smooth, refined, and just ...Wow! The Westone 4 has earned our Editor's Choice Award. Congrats to all for some excellent products! For more info and complete specs, check out their websites at www.yurbuds.com, www.sleek-audio.com, www.alteclansing.com, www.beyerdynamic.com, www.ultimateears.com, www.etymotic.com, www.audio-technica.com, and www.westone.com.