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."
John Grandberg

"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."
lJokerl

"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..."
Steve Guttenberg

"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."
Dinny FitzPatrick

"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."
Tyll Hertsens

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)
ToTLMaddness_Photo_WestoneES5This 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."
John Grandberg

"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."
lJokerl

"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."
Steve Guttenberg

"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."
Dinny FitzPatrick

"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."
Tyll Hertsens

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)
ToTLMaddness_Photo_UMMiracleWith 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."
lJokerl

"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."
Tyll Hertsens

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."
John Grandberg

"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."
lJokerl

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!

COMMENTS
Deviltooth's picture

Thank-you very much for an article comparing interesting products the rest of us can't casually test.  CIEMs are the most difficult entity in the portable audio world; most of us with a strong interest have to rely on reviews and quality reviews are usually few and far between.

I'm now leaning towards one of JH Audio's offerings.  I primarily listen to electronic music, emphasis on vocal trance, but also use my cans for movies and other musical genres.

Is the consensus that the JH13 provies a lot of bass and the JH16 becomes unrealistic or unbalanced except for a bass head?  Does the additional bass smear the mids and highs (lost detail)?

 

Dinny FitzPatrick's picture

Yours is a good question. While I think the JH13 provides the right amount of bass, I wouldn't say it's a lot.  The JH16 provides a lot of bass, but it doesn't quite smear the mids and highs, imo.  Instead, it simply overshadows them in some instances.  I don't think the JH16 is suitable only for a basshead because it is more balanced than that.  It is a noticeable tilt.  Not unrealistic, but accentuated.  I think the JH16 is a blast, but it gets fatiguing for me before the JH13.

 

Based on your post, (though I would be interested to know what other gear you'll be using with them) I think the safe bet is the JH13.  I don't think you will be dissatisfied with the amount of bass and you will ensure that your mids and highs get equal attention.  However, you also might consider contacting JHAudio about the decision.  They (and the other manufacturers) know these are not cheap and that it's a big financial commitment, so they want you to be happy.  My experience with JHAudio is that they'll be honest with you and try to get you the phone that will make you happiest.

Deviltooth's picture

At the moment I'm using CT-500 Elite customs (Clear Tune Monitors) out of a Fiio E17 dac/amp.  The reason I'm interested in other customs is not because the CT-500 are bad, quite the opposite, they're so damn good (and such a leap over any universal I've heard) that I'm wondering how much better (or different) it can get.

I'd love it if someone with the CT-500 could compare them to JH Audio's offerings.  I want a CIEM that can raise the bar even higher.

I'm also open to upgrading my dac and amp provided both remain portable.  It would be great if Inner Fidelity did a round up of the best options for CIEMs.

boosiecollins's picture

I am planning to upgrade from my W4s to my first pair of customs sometime next week, so this article was incredibly helpful! Great work.

I'm basically in the same boat as Deviltooth. I think I'm going to go with one of JH Audio's CIEMs, and before I read this, I was planning to go with the JH16s. I'm not a basshead by any means, but I do primarly listen to rock. I listen to a decent amount of classical too though. I mostly use IEMs when traveling, so usually I don't go through the hassel of lugging an amp around.

My questions now is, will I be able to get a decent bass responce from the JH13s for when I'm listening to bassier music, even if I use them unamped? Given that the JH13's were the consensus favorite, I will probably go with those unless an amp is necessary to reap the benefits these CIEMs provide.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

It became a cultural meme developed by the lovable curmmudgens over on Head-Case.org to when asked whether X headphone and Y amp would be a good portable rig to answer, "JH13 and an iPhone FTMFW!"

Multi-driver BA headphones have wild impedance swings, and their frequency responce can be compromised by driving them directly from the potentially higher output impedance from portable devices. But care need be taken when trying to make that upgrade as some portable amplifiers have somewhat unacceptably high output impedances, and the problem may not be completely erradicated.

Bottom line: I think you should try it without an amp initially to see how you fair. Once accuston to using the CIEM directly out of your device, see if you can borrow an amp from someone for a bit of play time to see if the added encumberace of an amp is worth the improvement for you.

ednaz's picture

I've spent much of my life as a three to five day a week traveller, with two to four flights a week, so an enormous amount of my music listening is through headphones or earphones.  While I've tried a lot of noise cancelling headsets, none of them ever seemed very good to me.  I stumbled onto Etymotic a long time ago and there's always a set of their earphones in my briefcase - I have several different models, sometimes I'm in the mood for one sound signature over another -  but I could never resolve the tension between a good seal and comfort. 

I got my first set of customs - Westone ES5 - a couple years ago, and I should have done it way long ago. The comfort is astonishing.  The noise seal isn't as good as Ety with the triple flange (which is what I wear when I need noise suppression) And the sound quality - I agree with all the reviewers.  In fact the single downside of the ES5 is that it's driven me away from compressed files to lossless, and to more elaborate and costly sources.

I also got custom ear molds for my Etys and besides being significantly more comfortable now - all silicone - the sound quality actually improved.  There are a number of types of music that I like better on the Etys, and they are very kind to compressed music.  I hope you'll include custom-fit Etys in your budget earphone review.

As to Aurisonics - I have a set of custom AS-2, and while I don't agree with the review that they're poor sounding, they aren't all rounders.  I find them wonderful with folk, and what I call "alternative folk" (Mumford and Sons, Lumineers, etc.) They're nice with combo jazz and Latin jazz.  I think they image very well with that type of music, and the heavier bass sounds good, and clean, in those situaitons, they sound small concert hall-ish.  However, I find that when music gets dense and complex, as symphonic music does, they get muddy and indistinct all across the range.  I find they also don't do any favors to rock or pop music, where the mix is already bass heavy they seem to get floppy and muddy bass.  I wish they were more all-rounders, but I'm quite happy with them for a range of music.

I tell all my fellow road warriors that they owe themselves a set of CIEMs.  Better sound than noise cancelling headphones, smaller and easier to carry, and comfortable enough to put on in New York and take off in Hong Kong.  Now I have an article I can point them to, to help them make their choices.

Dinny FitzPatrick's picture

I totally agree that Road Warriors should skip that dance with noise-cancelers and go right to custom IEMs.  It's one of those few things that, while expensive, really delivers and can make an actual difference between a nightmare of a flight and an acceptable experience.

Road Warrior treat thyself!

Jazz Casual's picture

I value listening impressions and these reviews are consistent enough to be regarded as useful. Nice work fellas.     

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Thanks mate.

Limp's picture

Good job, folks.

I'm a bit bummed to see that the ACS T1 didn't fare any better, but I still think it's at the top of my list. The IEM will by design be used in sub-optimal listening environments, hence I value comfort and sound isolation a great deal more than accurate sound reproduction.

BTW, Tyll. That midband inconsistency in the T1, did you try amending it with some EQ?

John Grandberg's picture

I don't have the ACS but I will say this: context is very important here. If I hadn't compared these directly, I wouldn't have as many negative things to say about some of them. It's like hearing an HD600 and thinking it's nicely detailed, until you later hear an HD800 which gives you a new perspective. Doesn't mean the HD600 is suddenly bad. 

Also I think you hit on something there - comfort and isolation are sometimes more important than pure SQ. Gotta choose according to your usage. 

paul's picture

I am not hard on things. I buy a quality product and it tends to last. I own several pairs of full sized headphones that are 20 years old. They still look and sound great.

Over the years I have purchased at least 15 pairs of in-ear monitors. None of my IEM's experience more than moderate use. Nonetheless, I have sent back for repair pairs of Ety 4's, UE 10's and Shure 500's.

In-Ear Monitors would have to become much more reliable before I would spend a thousand dollars to buy a pair.

Dinny FitzPatrick's picture

How many of the 15 pairs of IEMs were customs?  The reason I ask is that I also have owned a bunch of IEMs and notice a distinct difference in build quality between most universal fit IEMs and the custom IEMs I've owned.  All the customs I have owned have been pretty tough.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

...but I've never had a problem damaging my CIEMs.  Replaceable cables make them a pretty bomb-proof purchase. I'd say the biggest risk is forgetting them on the plane, can't tell you how many times I've heard of that happening.

paul's picture

Sorry for any confusion. None of my IEM's were custom. 

I would add that Shure, in particular, was very nice. I returned my old 500's with a check for $85.00 (?) and they sent me a brand new pair of SE535's. The Ety's cost $175.00 to replace. The UE 10's have still to be sent in.

Never lost a pair of the good ones .... Yet!

Dinny FitzPatrick's picture

When you say UE 10, do you mean the triple.fi 10 pro?  (The UE 10 was a custom model.)  I had build issues with each of the tf10p I've purchased. 

The custom models we are talking about here are generally much tougher than universals.  I have heard of instances of the acrylic cracking and crossovers getting dislodged, but, at least anectdotally, the failure rate seems to be far less.  If others have different experiences with their CIEMs, please share as this would be good info to have.

paul's picture

They are the triple.fi 10 pro. I did the "test" as outlined on the UE website and I believe the problem is the cord.

They are still in my draw waiting to be sent for repair. The reason for the delay, they are the least comfortable of all my IEM's.

Can't Win!

br777's picture

First of all AWESOME reviews.   Great idea, great execution.  Just awesome.

I've owned UM miracles, I currently own westone es5's and as another reference point I also owned lcd2 rev 2's for a long time.

Just want to point out that one should never underestimate the power of the equalizer.

My es-5's are currently the only headphones i own.  I got rid of everything else.  Why? because they respond amazingly to eq.  I am extremely picky about how my headphones sound, and have chased neutral for years through various sets.  I found that the es-5's did not sound so great out of the box (relatively speaking of course), to me the mid bass bloated out the mids and highs. but now that I have found eq settings I like I am AMAZED at how good they sound.  At one point I had them sounding very similar to my lcd-2's.  so much so that i sold the lcd-2's cause i wasnt using them anymore.

on the other hand the UM miracles just would not shape up now matter how I eq'd them.

for me its as simple as rockboxed clip zip and a pair of es-5's and i can dial in pretty much any sound I like.  No amp required.  No high end dap necessary.  This is something to consider especially when buying customs.  The stock sound is not the end of the line.  Even if you dont want to use an amp.

coreying's picture

I had owned the UE10 Pro's since Jan 2006, but I upgraded to the JH16 Pro about 2 months ago.What a HUGE difference.

I mostly listen to Progressive Rock and Metal, but also listen to everything from classical to jazz to whatever. I would not at all consider myself a "bass head", actually, I dislike over-emphasised bass.

To me, the JH16 Pro is somewhat like the Sennheiser HD650, in that the HD650 has "emphasised bass" compared to the HD600.

Last month I swapped the stock JH16 cable to the Moon Audio Silver Dragon v1 IEM cable: http://www.moon-audio.com/audio-cables/moon-audio-headphone-cables/moon-...

It has very impressively opened up the sound of the JH16 to me. No longer does the bass seem emphasised because the mid and high is more open.

I guess that adding custom cabling to this review would've made the scope even more wildly large. However, I'd love to hear some of the reviewers thoughts on the JH16 after the addition of the Moon Audio Silver Dragon v1 IEM cable.

elfary's picture

In my (short) experience sources with less than 2 ohms output impedance drive fine most balanced armature iems.

In between  2 and 5 ohms of output impedance the impedance swings of the iem can be trickier and audible.

Doing the math with some of my idevices and iems that's the fr deviation from 0-10000Hz:

iP4S + SE420 = 0'46

iP4S + UM3x = 0'52

iP4S + SE535 = 1'05

 

iP5 + SE420 = 0'69

iP5 + UM3x = 0'91

iP5 + SE535 = 1'77

 

Classic + SE420 = 1'15

Classic + UM3x = 1'34

Classic + SE535 = 2'49

 

iT5 + SE420 = 0'18

iT5 + UM3x = 0'22

iT5 + SE535 = 0'46

 

iPhone 4S Output Impedance is 1'8

iPhone 5 Output Impedance is 3'3

iPod Classic Output Impedance is 5

iPod Touch 5 Output Impedance is 0'75

 

As for smartphones go i think that an iPhone 4S is the best option for balanced armature iems (Along with iPhone 4 which has less than 1 ohm). iPhone 5 was  above 2 ohms and i got rid of it because of that.

HeadphoneAddict's picture

Strangely, I posted the above subject and my custom IEM impressions here at 2:32AM on 5/5/13 and the post is gone, but it was comment #487495.  Anyway, I saved a copy and I'm reposting it below now:

 

I also own numerous custom IEM, starting out with Livewires T1 dual driver customs in 2007 that sounded similar to a Grado RS-1 and beat out all my universal IEM except the Westone 3 and Westone 4 that came out later.  I added the Freqshow 3-driver (bass bleed into mids) and Alien Ears 3-driver (piercing painful treble), which I did not like at all.  I even converted my Shure SE-530 into customs, which made them slightly sibilant but similar to the Livewires.

 

Then I got the ES3X in early 2009 and I was just blown away.  They were simply stunning in their transparency and clarity vs any of my other IEM.  At the time I couldn't name a single dynamic headphone that could match the ES3X performance.  I took them with me to CanJam 2009, where I listened to demo of the new JH Audio JH13 Pro and demo of the UE 11 Pro.  I was impressed enough with the demos that I acquired a set of each, and did a large "Flagship Custom IEM Review" at Head-Fi forums. 

 

The JH13Pro won out slightly over the ES3X in that review, where I thought the JH Audio reminded me more of a Stax SR-007 and the ES3X were closer to the signature and performance of the Sennheiser HD800.  The UE11Pro were a bit more picky about how they were amplified, and many times they would have their huge bass quantity bleed over into the mids if the amp had a high output impedance.  Often they would simply overwhelm you with the mid-bass quantity unless it was classic rock recorded back in the 70's (Pink Floyd, Led Zepelin, AC/DC, etc).

 

My only complaint with the JH13Pro was that there was a deep-bass hump that could sometimes sound like it was disconnected from the rest of the IEM sound, like I had a subwoofer in the corner that was not only turned up slightly too loud but also didn't reach up high enough to meet my mid-bass drivers in my main speakers.

 

Then I got the ES5 in the summer of 2010 and they took the top spot in my stable, with a smoother more laid back treble than the ES3X, and a richer warmer and more vivid midrange than my JH13Pro.  Bass Impact in the mid bass was excellent, and the bass seemed to be more coherent than with my jh13Pro, although it didn't seem to go as deep.  I still felt the JH13Pro were incredibly close as my second choice, but their mids were simply not quite as vivid and rich as the Westone's mids.

 

In late 2012 I picked up the JH16Pro FreqPhase, after being impressed with the new FreqPhase demos of both the JH13 and JH16 at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest.  These gave me the best of both worlds between the ES5 and the JH13Pro, with a little special sauce added.  The JH16Pro FreqPhase had the incredible bass impact and speed of the ES5, along with the warm rich mids of the ES5, combined with the extended silky smooth and sparkly treble of the JH13Pro, as well as the transparency and larger soundstage size of the JH13Pro.  The JH16Pro basically sounded more holographic and life-like than any IEM before them, even though that was only slightly ahead of my ES5 in performance.  

 

I don't have a JH13Pro FreqPhase to compare to my original JH13Pro, and with as happy as I am with the JH16Pro I have been hesitant to invest in a third set of JH13’s.  Yes, I have two pair of the original JH13Pro already, one for home and one for portable so I,d have a spare if one was lost.

 

Summary - In terms of sheer enjoyment, I could be happy with either the ES5 or the JH16Pro FreqPhase as my one and only daily use custom IEM.  These IEM could be my one and only headphones if I had to sell everything else to pay the bills.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Soory about the delete Larry, twas a glitch on our part. Thanks for your impressions!

n_maher's picture

Job well done, gents.  Thank you for putting in what had to be a heroic # of hours to review so many CIEMs and coordinate the entire article.  Simply amazing.

mward's picture

What a great resource for consumers. The lack of comparative reviews out there, the prohibitive price, and the difficulty of getting test headphones has made this such a hard category to shop in. Great, great work. Thanks to you guys and the manufacturers.

I was pretty much ready to pull the trigger in some JH13s, but I was still glad to get to read this first.

One question—Tyll's descriptions make the ES5 sound somewhat analogous to the Senn HD600/650. Is that an accurate comparison? Would there be an analogous comparison for the JH13?

DragonOwen85's picture

Will probably get my UM Merlin today, they will be my first customs (now I'm using Westone 4 in my portable rig, source is iBasso DX100)... after reading your review I now more prepared to the sound that I will hear from Merlin and I think that won't be the sound that fully satisfy my needs (using WooAudio WES and SR-009 combo at home, so my demands in terms of sound is quite high...)... but your article maked me think that Merlin/Miracle pair may be just what I need, so already planning to order Miracle if Merlin will fit my ears perfectly (then I won't need to do ear impressions and sending them to China (which is one of the main reasons why I didn't try ordering customs a long time ago...), because, as I understand, UM makes 3D-scans of ear impressions and storing them in their computer database)... So again thanks a lot for a great article, I now almost certain that will be ordering Miracles!

P.S. Also thanks for PP6 review, I was thinking of buying them instead of Miracles, but a lot of minor issues that you mentioned really helped me to make decision that I'm not ready to buy PP6 as they are now (considering the price of cource)...

John Grandberg's picture

Merlin is still a very enjoyable custom - don't get me wrong. I know several owners who remain thrilled by its performance and have no desire to add another to their collection. Then again, the Merlin/Miracle combo covers all the bases.... There are a few headfiers using that combo to very satisfying effect.

The PP6 just oozes with potential. If they can fix those little annoyances, it will indeed make for a compelling choice. Especially for the user who values portability. 

topher's picture

Would of liked to see some veteran impressions of the Frogbeats c5, mainly because im a custom virgin and one of the few people who own one, also its based on the ES5 configuration with a big Sonion bass driver (the biggest one they do in terms of SPL I believe). Must hide my wallet.

average_joe's picture

The custom IEM industry is growing at a very rapid rate, and this is a great summary review of a large assortment of manufacturers.  The more info people have before making a decision, the better decision they will be able to make!  If anyone is interested, I have reviewed some of the included CIEMs and others in detail here.

 

aj

Tyll Hertsens's picture

I was in a bit of a time bind getting ready for my trip to Munich so I never got around to doing a resource section at the end of the article, but your thread was on my mental list of worthy information.  Thanks for posting a link...highly recommended.

average_joe's picture

No problem, I understand time constraints, lol.  I am looking forward to future articles and updates on here, always a great read and worth my time!

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