ToTL Madness! 24 Top-of-the-Line Custom In-Ear Monitors Reviewed Wall of Fame
Jerry Harvey Audio JH13Pro FreqPhase ($1099)
When I heard the generic fit version of the new FreqPhased JH13Pro at RMAF last year, the hair on the back on my neck stood on end. I'd simply never heard anything so transparent in a headphone. I'm a big fan of time-aligned speakers, and have noticed in the past that multi-BA (balanced armature) driver IEMs seem to have problems with time alignment. It came as no surprise to me that Jerry had recently figured out the problem (he's kind of brilliant when it comes to these kinds of things) and reincarnated the JH13Pro now with the FreqPhase moniker. It's a revolution in CIEM design and it's effect is astonishingly obvious. I'll let the words of the reviewers speak for the experience.
"It all feels like one organic sound in a way that only the best multi-way speakers do. Very few IEMs can manage this trick, and it leads to a deeply convincing timbre and a feeling of great insight into the program material."
"I'll leave it to the more technical-minded to judge these claims—all I know is that the JH13 Pro Freqphase sounds absolutely fantastic to me. It is tight, balanced, and impossibly clear. I love this freaking earphone."
"The transient speed of the Freqphase was a revelation, it was what I imagined all CIEMs would sound like from when I started with the UE10s. Now it was there. The Freqphase delivers uber resolution/clarity..."
"Jerry Harvey took a fantastic headphone and eked out that last 10%. And the thing about that last 10% is that it seems to make a 100% difference. Sometimes when you mess with a good thing, bad things happen. Not here."
"I was immediately stuck by the clarity and coherence of the JH13Pro. Jerry Harvey claims to have had a break-though moment last year regarding the time alignment of the balanced armature drivers in these cans, and, by golly, I certainly think he's onto something. The JH13 is the most coherent, best imaging CIEM I've had the pleasure of hearing."
The JH13Pro is outstanding due to its spectacular imaging and coherent sound. It has a somewhat emphasized bass and treble response for a fun, slightly "V" shaped response. A clear consensus among the writers that this is the best-in-class ToTL CIEM, though because of it's not perfectly neutral signature, matters of taste and application may warrant an alternate choice.
And now, in no particular order...
Westone ES5 ($950)
This marvelously dynamic CIEM has excellent neutrality, though a slightly relaxed treble response. Its acrylic/vinyl hybrid design makes this the most comfortable of WoF candidates (though individual fitment will certainly play a strong roll on a case-by-case basis). The polite treble and comfort makes these a great candidate for people who expect to regularly use them for long periods of time.
"In terms of sound, the ES5 is very easy to like. It's got a hint of warmth and a smoothness to the top end which makes it one of the more forgiving IEMs in this bunch, while at the same time not seeming overly dark."
"The fit of the ES5 is my favorite in this lineup, but its strengths go far beyond that. Overall, the ES5 provides a good sense of space with solid imaging ability, and its mids and bass are pretty much spot-on in terms of what I look for in a warmer, punchier type of earphone."
"One of the more comfortable CIEMs I own. Nice balance with warm mids, sweet highs, wide-open imaging, and the bass speed/punch is first rate. I love the bass on my Bob Marley albums with this headphone. The leading edge pulse is so freakin' tight, no sloppy bottom goings-on here."
"The ES5 is smoooooth. That's right, with 5 "Os". The ES5 is one of those headphones where you forget that an hour has passed and that you've listened to the entire album instead of the one song as you'd planned. The presentation is exceedingly well balanced and I noticed no listening fatigue whatsoever. I can easily recommend it and can see how some might prefer it's very slightly more relaxed presentation."
"The Westone ES5 took me quite by surprise. This was not only among the most pleasing in sonic balance, it was also terrifically punchy and dynamic sounding. Overall, I liked the Westone ES5 very much and could easily live with them as my daily CIEM."
While mastering engineers might prefer the clarity of the JH13Pro, I think most audio professionals would end up prefering the Westone ES5 for its neutrality and fatigue-free punchy sound. Add in the comfort of the hybrid acrylic/nylon design, and you've got a headphone you can wear all day long. I'd also recommend these for rock fans, all that punch without an annoying treble will deliver hours of fatigue-free head-banging.
Unique Melody Miracle ($950)
With marvelous clarity like JH13, but without the emphasized bass response, the Unique Melody Miracle is great for acoustic music of all types. Jazz and Classical listeners will find these excellent. The JH13 will provide better coherence and imaging, but at times may be slightly too bassy for some purists.
"The sound signature of the Miracle encompasses a spacious, laid-back presentation, tight bass, and clean, prominent treble. The midrange is a bit laid back, smooth, and clear. The sparkle is well-measured and the overall sound is crisp, yet coherent. The Miracle presents a realistic, slightly distanced soundstage with imaging and instrument separation that lag just behind the JH13 Pro."
"I enjoyed the sound of the Unique Melody Miracle quite a bit. I felt the tonal balance overall was quite neutral with just a bit of additional mid-treble sparkle and a slight lack of bass. The Miracle sounded polite and airy, and would be a good choice for classical and acoustic music listeners."
Heir Audio 8.A ($1299)
The Pride-of-Ownership King! Exquisite good looks can be a real treat, but impeccable finish makes for excellent comfort as well. Warm, juicy sound provides an immersive experience. Emphasized bass is great for movies and loud environments, and relaxed treble makes long listening sessions a pleasure. A really fine traveler's headphone. Bassheads will love this one, too.
"First things first, Heir Audio makes some of the best looking custom IEMs I've ever seen, full stop. Top end extension is excellent but this isn't what I'd call a sparkly IEM - it just presents everything in a smooth, laid back way, without being recessed in the least. It's quite a trick. Mids are similarly relaxed, but don't come across as being the least bit slow or muddy. Bass is definitely boosted beyond what anyone would consider neutral. But damn if it isn't an incredibly fun coloration that I love to hear. If you fancy a smooth, rich sound with bass that seems felt rather than merely heard, the 8.A may be the custom for you."
"There's a reason the Heir logo wears a crown—these earphones have some serious class. The 8.A I have is the undisputed champion of fit and finish. Overall, it provides a warm but very smooth and cohesive audio experience with great bass. It delivers all of the musical nuances without pushing them on the listener for a rich sound that's fantastically well-suited for easy listening. Fit for a King indeed."
ToTL Madness Video
I did a little capsule video to get the attention of my YouTube subscribers for the article here. Nothing new, but I figured I'd drop it in here for one last taste of ToTL CIEM goodness. Enjoy!