Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Headphone Shootout Part 2: The IEM's

Next up are the In-Ear Monitors. We have some great models, starting with the Jabra Sport Wireless+ $100 MSRP. The Om Audio Inearpeace 2-way IEM has $199 MSRP, followed by the Audio-Technica IM03 3-way with an MSRP of $399. Last but not least is the custom Westone ES50 5-way with MSRP starting at $999 ($1299 as reviewed).

The Jabra Sport Wireless+ is designed to give a huge bang for the buck! Not only is it wireless, but it has you protected against any workout environment, other than a pool. It's IPX4 rating is rated to protect against dust and rain. It also has a built-in FM Tuner, so you don't have to use a separate player such as a cell phone.

Features and Specs:

  • Connectivity

    • Wireless Technology: Bluetooth
      Supports Bluetooth™ for wireless connectivity
    • Bluetooth version: 3.0
      Supports Bluetooth® version 3.0
    • AVRCP: Yes
      You can control your music from this device when it's streaming from another device, such as your mobile phone
    • Music Streaming: Yes
      Device can stream music from a source, such as a Smartphone, Bluetooth enabled laptop, tablet, or MP3 player
  • Microphone

    • Microphone Type: Omni Directional/noise filter
      Enhances call clarity by eliminating background noise from the office.
    • Mute function: Yes
      Mute gives you the option to mute/unmute the microphone directly on the device
  • Battery & Power

    • Talk Time: Up to 4 hours
      Talk Time is the maximum time you can talk before a device runs out of power
    • Standby Time: Up to 120 hour(s)
      Standby Time is the maximum time a device can remain powered on
  • Design

    • Wearing Style: Behind-the-ear
      Behind-the-ear wearing style
    • Ear Cushion Type:
      • Large (L) sized ear gels
      • Medium (M) sized ear gels
      • Small (S) sized ear gels

Opening the box revealed a well protected product, in custom molded foam. Also included are the owners manual, soft bag, USB charging cable, and multiple sized rubber ear tips. Construction was mostly made of plastic with some rubber. Quality of materials used as well as the fit and finish was very good.  MSRP of $99 is quite aggressive for an IPX4 rated wireless product.  A good portion of the cost will have gone into those features.  I'm sure they won't sound as good as $100 headphones, but you will be getting a lot more bang for your buck.

In Fresh Aire: Creatures of Levania the flute was clean and the bass had ok extension but did not play with much authority. Although that was mostly due to the fact that I had a hard time getting a good seal. The strings were nice and crisp.  Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue had natural sounding clarinet with woodiness that was just barely discernible.  Imaging was good as was the soundstage, and they were sufficiently dynamic.  In Junior Wells: Why Are People Like That, vocals were natural, and the harmonica was clean with nice harmonics.  The percussion was fairly dynamic.  Justin Timberlake: Sexyback, vocals were natural and dynamic with good imaging, texture, and resolution.  Holding in the monitor so I got a better seal, the bass had good extension and played with authority.

The IEM's from OM Audio are quite unique. Most IEM's use dynamic drivers, which have potentially excellent bass response. Higher priced models use balanced armature drivers, which have excellent mids and highs performance. Better performing models use multiple balanced armature drivers. One for the lows and one for the highs. But they still use balanced armature drivers, including for the lows. Here Om Audio goes unconventional, but what makes sense. They use a balanced armature for the mids and highs, and a dynamic driver for the lows.

Features and specs:
Driver One (highs/mids)Balanced Armature
Driver Two (bass)Coiled Bass Driver
Driver Diameter10mm
Frequency Response20Hz to 20kHz
Sensitivity101dB / 126mV @1kHz
Impedance118dB/V at 1kHz
Mic/controlsIn-line controls w/mic
ColorsBlack, White

They came in an attractive box with photo of the product with it's features and specs. Included are instructions on how to use the in-line controls, a hard zippered case and additional sized eartips. Materials used are mostly plastic. Fit and finish and quality of construction is quite good.

 Fresh Aire: Creatures of Levania had good bass extension, air in the flute, and good resolution.  Imaging was also quite good, as was the size of the soundstage.  Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue had a bigger soundstage and better imaging than expected. Clarinet sounded smooth and the piano sounded natural.  Horns weren't too brassy.  Junior Wells: Why Are People Like That, vocals wounded very natural with nice harmonics.  The harmonica sounded really clean with good dynamics, very crisp, with good resolution. Justin Timberlake: Sexyback, was very dynamic.  Vocals were clean with good texture, although just a smidge on the bright side.  Bass had good impact and played with authority.

The ATH-IM03 is part of Audio-Technica's professional series. The design and quality support it. The IM03 uses balanced armatures, and employ a 3-way design. There are separate drivers for the lows, mids and highs.

Features and specs:
  • 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

  • Includes a case, silicone earpieces (S/M/L) and Comply™ foam earpieces (M)

  •  Tuning circuitry in the exclusive triple balanced armature drivers divides and distributes audio signal for an ideal, accurate sound reproduction

  • TypeTriple Balanced Armature Driver
    Frequency Response18 - 18,000 Hz
    Maximum Input Power3 mW
    Sensitivity108 dB/mW
    Impedance34 ohms
    Weight8 g
    CableDetachable 1.2 m, Y-type
    Connector3.5 mm (1/8") gold-plated stereo mini-plug, L-type
    Accessories IncludedCase, silicone earpieces (S/M/L), Comply™ foam earpieces (M)

    Packaging is very attractive, with photos of the device, with it's features and specs. The IEM's were well protected in custom foam molding. Also included were owners manual, hard zippered carry case, and additional sized eartips. Construction was mostly made of plastic. Quality of materials used were excellent, as was the fit and finish. I really liked the clear smoked plastic used, so you could see the internal components of the IEM's.

    Fresh Aire: Creatures of Levania provided bass with excellent low end extension and definition.  Imaging was very good, and the flute had excellent resolution and air.  Strings were clean and smooth.  Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue revealed a clean clarinet with good texture.  Brass was sooth without being too brassy.  Cymbals were crisp, and the piano sounded natural.  Imaging was excellent as was the large soundstage.   Junior Wells: Why Are People Like That, yielded natural smooth vocals with great texture and harmonics.  Piano sounded natural.  The harmonica was clean and dynamic, and imagine was spot on.  Bass guitar had nice extension and played with authority.  Justin Timberlake: Sexyback, bass had excellent low end extension with great impact and authority.  Imaging was very good, with natural vocals that provided excellent harmonics, and very dynamic.

    Last but not least is the Westone ES50. These are actually custom IEM's. This means that you get an appointment with an audiologist. Once you put in your order. The audiologist will make custom moldings of your ears. To get the best sound, you need a good seal. That's the reason you get extra sets of ear tips with IEM's. That way you can find one that gives a good fit for you. Usually, at least one of the tips included will work well. But not always. And that's the best thing about custom IEM's like the Westone ES50's. There's no need to mess with different tips, and play with them to get a good seal. Since they are custom made for your ears, you know you will get a good fit.

    Features and specs:
    Five-Driver Balanced Armature Technology - Uses 1 bass, 2 mid-range and 2 high frequency drivers for the most accurate reproduction in a custom in-ear monitor.
    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
    - Flex-canal body delivers maximum comfort and in-ear coupling for dynamic transfer of sound.
    Sensitivity: 120 dB @ 1mW
    Frequency response: 8 Hz - 20 kHz
    Impedance: 20 ohms @ 1kHz
    Driver: Five balanced armature drivers with a passive three-way crossover
    Deluxe monitor case, cleaning tool, desiccant drying compound, cleaning cloth, bottle of Oto-Ease, users manual and 1-year warranty.
    3-Way Crossover:
    Splits the audio signal into separate frequency bands that can be separately routed to each micro driver. Each driver is optimized for a particular frequency range delivering to you a balanced, dynamic sound.
    MSRP: $999.99

    There was no printed box for the Westone ES50's. Just a regular brown box. They are shipped to your door in. Opening the box showed wrapped in bubble wrap was the orange water resistant hard case. Opening the hard case revealed the custom IEM's, along with owners manual, microfiber cloth, wax loop, and a small tube of comfort gel. Quality of materials used was excellent, from the IEM's to the cables. And I really liked being able to see into the monitors to see all the internal components. MSRP starts at $999 without any customizations. But there are multiple customizations you can select from, from color, to end cap and laser etchings. I went with Ice Blue color and Pacifica abalone shell faceplate, for a total of $1299.  I absolutely LOVE the look.  Not only do they fit perfect for me, they look amazing as well!

    Fresh Aire: Creatures of Levania, bass had excellent depth and played with authority.  The flute had excellent air and phenomenal resolution, being able to not only make out the tonguing but the musicians technique as well.  With the strings you could actually hear the texture of the bow.  Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, clarinet was clean and natural, with so much resolution you could hear the tonguing and breathing technique.  Imaging was spot on, and the soundstage was huge with great presence and ambiance.  Bari clarinet had nice texture and the piano sounded natural.   Brass was smooth.  The dynamics and volume of a full orchestra was conveyed with zero loss in all it's resolution.  Junior Wells: Why Are People Like That, vocals were extremely natural with layers of texture.  Harmonica was so clean and dynamic, I thought I was in the recording studio.  Imaging was about perfect and the resolution has to be heard to be believed.  Justin Timberlake: Sexyback, bass was tight yet deep, with lots of authority.  The Westone ES50 uses five balanced armature drivers, two for the highs, two for the mids, and one for the lows.  I was not expecting this performance from a balanced armature, let alone only one when the other frequencies have two drivers each. Dynamics were excellent.  Vocals were natural sounding, smooth, with excellent imaging.

    Performance was about on par with what I was expecting at their price points.  The Jabra sounded a bit better than expected, given they are also wireless and water resistant.  The OM Audio sounded a tad on the bright side in the overall sound, and did not have quite the bass performance I was expecting from a dynamic driver being used for the lows.  But the amount of detail, imaging, and size of soundstage was better than expected, giving a big bang for the buck.  The Audio-Technica with a 3-way balanced armatures sounded amazing, and had an overall sound that was a tad warm and very smooth.  You could definitely hear what the extra money gets you.  The Westone ES50 was more neutral in the overall tone of the sound, and was also very smooth, with a level of definition and presence that has to be heard to believed!  And there is just something too cool about having custom headphones.  I think Ferris Bueller said it best with "if you have the means, I highly recommend it!" Based on their design, features, quality, and performance, the Jabra Sport Wireless+ has earned our Value Award, the OM Audio Inearpeace has earned our Recommended, the Audio-Technica ATH-IM03 has earned our Highly Recommended Award, and the Westone ES50 has earned our Editor's Choice Award.  For more info and complete specs, check out their website at www.audio-technica.com, www.jabra.com, www.om-audio.com, and www.westone.com.  And Happy listening!