ToTL Madness! 24 Top-of-the-Line Custom In-Ear Monitors Reviewed by ljokerl


Photo Credit here and for most on this page: lJokerl

lJokerl's Impressions

I used a trio of reasonably-priced portable DAC/amp units for my listening impressions: the Fiio E7, iBasso D10, and Sunrise Audio Ray. These were chosen due to their overall good performance with sensitive in-ear monitors, reasonable prices, and good portability, plus my personal familiarty with them as my long-term test sources.

Westone Elite Series ES5
Base price: $950 | Driver configuration: 5 BA / 3-way crossover | Accessories: Large hard-shell carrying case, cleaning tool, cleaning cloth, bottle of Miracell ear lubricant

ToTLMaddness_Photo_JokerWestoneES5With more than five decades of industry experience and many "firsts" under their collective belt, the folks at Westone know their way around a custom earphone. The blend of comfort and convenience provided by the Flex-canal feature of the ES5 is just one indication of this. Flex-canal, a combination of hard acrylic shells and softer vinyl canals, provides the isolation of silicone with the superior customizability and ease of use of acrylic. The fit of the ES5 is my favorite in this lineup, but its strengths go far beyond that.

The sound signature of the ES5 is a logical progression from the company's universal-fit models. It offers plenty of bass and a slightly darker tone compared to reference earphones such as the Etymotic Research ER4 and JH Audio JH13 Pro.

The bass is ample in both quantity and quality—well-controlled and punchy. Extension is good, though the focus seems to fall more on the mid-bass region. This emphasis makes for a warmer overall tone, but nothing overwhelming. In sheer power and impact, the ES5 is similar to the Heir Audio 8.A. Such plentiful bass can often spell trouble but the ES5 is not at all bloated or overly thick-sounding. The midrange is prominent despite the plentiful bass and clarity is excellent. At the same time, the ES5 is not overly mid-forward and doesn't have the "shouty" upper midrange emphasis of the Sensaphonics 3MAX. The treble, likewise, is smooth, if noticeably laid-back near the top, providing a truly fatigue-free sound.

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. The JH13 Pro and Unique Melody Miracle boast better upper treble presence and a little more energy up top—a treble presentation more to my liking—but it is the combination of great clarity and smoothness that makes the ES5 really stand out for me.

Product page here.

Sensaphonics 3MAX
Base price: $1050 | Driver configuration: 3 BA / 2-way crossover | Accessories: Padded hard-shell Pelican case, shirt clip, cleaning tool, 1/4" adapter, soft carrying pouch

ToTLMaddness_Photo_JokerSensaphonics3MaxOne of the few custom manufacturers committed to using silicone shells, Sensaphonics maintains that the material offers advantages in fit, comfort, and noise isolation compared to more conventional acrylic. They aren't kidding - the 3MAX is extremely comfortable and its isolation is second only to the other silicone custom I have—the Spiral Ear 3-way Reference.

The 3MAX is the only earphone in this lineup to use coaxial connectors for its cables. This means most aftermarket custom earphone cables will not fit, but also allows cords for Shure and some Ultimate Ears universals to be used as reasonably-priced replacements. Finally, the Sensaphonics cable is said to resist oxidation better than other clear cords—a good thing as my JH13 cable is already turning green after a few months.

Despite the dual woofer design, the sound of the 3MAX seems more focused on the midrange, especially the upper midrange. The bass lacks neither extension nor punch, but there's just not much boost to it. The sound is on the thick side, so while the 3MAX is fairly neutral in tone, it doesn't sound analytical. Instead, it has a natural, if not very nuanced, sound that places vocals front and center in its presentation. No huge surprise there—Sensaphonics earphones are tuned in collaboration with mastering engineers and one of the company's goals is to encourage lower-volume listening, which is aided by prominent vocals.

The upper midrange emphasis of the 3MAX gives way to largely smooth treble. There is more treble energy than with the Westone ES5 but less than with the JH13 Pro. The presentation is not as spacious or airy as with some of the other units here—the 3MAX is a little on the intimate side of things and tends to position its sound more or less inside the listener's head.

At $1050, the 3MAX may seem expensive for a "mere" triple-driver but it is a pretty good earphone, though perhaps more so for musicians than casual listeners. And if the starting price seems like a bargain, Sensaphonics will fit handcrafted 14k gold faceplates to spice up the plain silicone shells, for a price.

Product page here.

JH Audio JH13 Pro Freqphase
Base price: $1099 | Driver configuration: 6 BA / 3-way crossover | Accessories: Otterbox 1000 hard-shell carrying case, drawstring pouch, Comply Soft Wraps

ToTLMaddness_Photo_JokerJH13FPA staple of the audiophile scene since its release in 2009, the JH13 Pro has recently undergone an update dubbed "Freqphase". All of JH Audio's flagship models are currently shipping with the Freqphase tweak, which ensures phase coherency by delivering all frequencies to the ear at once.

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. The bass is quick and extended, with a few decibels of boost and the ability to offer a good amount of punch when necessary. The JH13 can sound as lean and quick as an Etymotic Research earphone one moment, and crank out beats with some serious authority the next. The great dynamics and transparency carry over to all aspects of its sound—in addition to good bass control, the JH13 boasts unbelievable clarity and resolution.

The mids are in good balance with the rest of the sound and expose every nuance of the recording with great definition. The treble is equally prominent but not at all harsh or sibilant. The earphone sounds airy and has superb instrument separation and stereo imaging. The sum sound is crisp and accurate without missing out on the enjoyment factor, especially for those who don't need much bass boost to tap their toes. Of course it doesn't hurt that the earphone suits my listening preferences, but I've spent many hours with these and I'm still struggling to find anything that mildly displeases me. I love this freaking earphone.

Product page here.

Heir Audio 8.A
Base price: $1299 | Driver configuration: 8 BA / 4-way crossover | Accessories: Padded hard-shell carrying case and cleaning tool

ToTLMaddness_Photo_JokerHeir8AThere'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, with a look and feel that are simply on another level compared to the rest of my monitors. The artwork is unique and very well-done, combining a wooden faceplate with translucent brown housings and gold flecks throughout the shells. The 8.A even feels like it glides into the ear more effortlessly than my other customs due to the extra-smooth finish. This unit has a unique cable, too—one Heir Audio calls the Magnus 1. It is braided, not simply twisted like other multi-strand cables, and features metal connectors instead of plastic ones. Unique, and again very impressive in terms of construction.

The sound of the 8.A is best described as "lush"—it is warm, smooth, and very musical. The bass is strong, similar in impact to the Westone ES5 but thicker and fuller-sounding. Bass depth is superb, with the 4-way crossover covering the entire frequency spectrum very well. The midrange is not as forward as that of the ES5 but still has good presence. The warm tonality and high note thickness may make the 8.A sound a little veiled compared to sets like the JH13 Pro, but the earphones are still plenty detailed in a relaxed, non-fatiguing way. This theme continues into the treble, which is soft and polite. The Westone ES5, which has more upper midrange presence, rolls off quicker than the 8.A at the top but otherwise is similarly smooth and refined. The presentation, likewise, is well-rounded and the 8.A is among the more spacious-sounding earphones here.

Overall, the Heir Audio 8.A 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. Plus, it is one of only two earphones here that comes with a 2-year warranty. Fit for a King indeed.

Product page here.

Unique Melody Miracle
Base price: $950 | Driver configuration: 6 BA / 3-way crossover | Accessories: Storage box and cleaning tool

ToTLMaddness_Photo_JokerUMMiracleI've owned the Miracle for several years now and have always found its sound very coherent and effortless. Turns out my aging Miracle still performs rather well when pitted against today's top customs. Moreover, the fit and finish of my unit—which have held up beautifully—compete with all but the Heir Audio 8, and the 2-year warranty is again matched only by Heir.

The sound signature of the Miracle encompasses a spacious, laid-back presentation, tight bass, and clean, prominent treble. The low end extends well and is quite flat, with no discernible mid-bass hump, resulting in slightly tighter bass than with the Westone ES5 and Heir 8.A. It offers more bass presence compared to the Etymotic Research ER4 but is slightly less boosted than JHAudio's JH13 Pro.

The midrange is a bit laid back, smooth, and clear. It occupies a happy medium, appearing neither thick and wooly nor overly lean. It is detailed but not in a forward, aggressive manner. Instead, everything sounds natural and effortless, though the detail and texture are certainly still all there. The treble emphasis of the Miracle balances the earphone out nicely. 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 but are still excellent compared to universal-fit earphones and other customs.

Overall, I find the signature of the Miracle to be extremely pleasing—well-balanced and crisp, but slightly laid-back in presentation. It's a versatile sound suited for a variety of listeners, and one that is as impressive today as it was two years ago.

Product page here.

Spiral Ear SE 3-way Reference
Base price: € 595 (est. $780) | Driver configuration: 3 BA / 3-way crossover | Accessories: Cleaning tool and zippered carrying case w/detachable lanyard

ToTLMaddness_Photo_JokerSpiralEarSE3Spiral Ear specializes in silicone customs and defaults to a musician fit—molds that extend to the second bend of the ear canal. As a result, the filled silicone shells of the 3-way Reference isolate external noise better than any of my other earphones, without sacrificing comfort. With detachable cables available at additional cost, the only potential downside of the silicone shells is the limited number of customization options compared to acrylic.

Most notable in the sound of the 3-way Reference is the bass, which has great body and is capable of producing more impact than any other armature-based earphone I've heard. It is well-extended and tends to be thick and weighty, which gives the 3-way its uniquely tactile and powerful bass presentation. The midrange is smooth and rich without sounding excessively warm. Indeed, for the amount of bass the Spiral Ear can produce, the mids are surprisingly clean. They sound natural and pleasant, much like a good dynamic-driver earphone, but some of the finer detail is obscured compared to the JH13 Pro.

The treble is likewise smooth and non-fatiguing. It is clear but lacks some sparkle and energy next to other high-end earphones, likely tuned that way to prevent fatigue over long listening sessions. As a result, the 3-way has a darker tone and can sound a bit dull at lower volumes. The presentation of the 3-way Reference gives a good sense of space but provides a less open sound more akin to the Sensaphonics 3MAX than the UM Miracle or JH13 Pro. Separation is decent enough however, and dynamics are excellent.

Overall, the 3-way Reference eschews the more analytical tendencies of many other BA-based earphones and its smooth, powerful, and full-bodied bass response is something that defies all BA stereotypes. This is the one custom monitor potentially suitable for serious bassheads, and it offers great comfort and colossal noise isolation to boot.

Product page here.

Lime Ears LE3 and LE3B
Base price: 529€ (est. $690) | Driver configuration: 3 BA / 3-way crossover | Accessories: Hard-shell carrying case and tube of ear lubricant

ToTLMaddness_Photo_JokerLimeEarsLE3BLime Ears has only been operational for several months but already the company is posing a dilemma for its customers by offering two different configurations of their triple-driver flagship. The standard LE3 provides a balanced and neutral sound that greatly impresses for its reasonable (by TOTL custom standards) price. The LE3B is an alternate tuning meant to supply more bass kick and is built by request only at this time.

Functionally and aesthetically, the earphones are identical, with the same customization options and accessories. The cables of the Lime Ears are very different from the cords on my other customs—smooth and free of cable noise, but prone to the memory effect (a tendency to always restore to the same shape).

In terms of sound, the two models have many similarities—as they should, using identical drivers and all. The LE3B delivers on its promise of extra bass, putting out perhaps the best combination of quantity and quality I've heard out of a single bass driver. In this regard the LE3B competes with the pricier Westone ES5, even offering a bit more sub-bass presence. Compared to the LE3, the warmer and bassier LE3B boasts not only more punch but also less roll-off while the extra bass impact and depth lend it a richer, more dynamic sound.

ToTLMaddness_Photo_JokerLimeEarsLE3The LE3, on the other hand, is quite balanced across the spectrum, with the more controlled, less prominent bass resulting in a cooler tone and cleaner mids compared to the LE3B. The difference in overall clarity is small between the two and the treble on both units is very similar - smooth but not rolled-off. Considering the price gap, I would call the LE3 a JH13-lite—it has a similar, if a little less nuanced, clean and neutral sound. The LE3B, with its big bass and slightly more dynamic presentation, is more akin to a leaner Heir 8.A.

Overall, while I preferred the LE3B with pop, hip-hop, and electronic music as well as on a handful of classic rock tracks that benefit from its added warmth, I would give the technical nod to the flatter LE3—and applaud the value for money of both.

Product page here.

Hidition NT 6
Base price: 1,188,000 KRW (est. $1060) | Driver configuration: 6 BA / 4-way crossover | Accessories: Custom carrying case, cleaning tool, cleaning cloth

ToTLMaddness_Photo_JokerHiditionNT6Hidition's 4-way, 6-driver flagship earphone is a standout in both sound and design. My unit was built with a musician fit, extending to the second bend of the ear canal, and as a result isolates more than my other acrylic customs. The finish is unique as well—underneath the logo is one of the many mother of pearl faceplates offered by Hidition. Other exotic materials such as carbon fiber are also available, along with a slew of shell colors.

The cable of the NT6 is braided like that of the Heir Audio 8.A, and then covered in heatshrink tubing for extra protection. Combine that with angled connectors and a metal Palics plug and you have a very durable cable. However, it is prone to the memory effect, maintaining its shape after being coiled up for storage, and carries a small amount of microphonics (cord contact noise) during any sort of active use.

The sound of the NT 6 impresses most with its bell-like clarity. The bass is linear, with a slight bump in the sub-bass region. It's a little leaner than the JH13 Pro but extremely tight and controlled, resulting in great accuracy and high resolution. The lack of significant bass boost is a little surprising considering the triple bass drivers of the NT 6, but the low end is punchy when it needs to be and I wouldn't give up its precision for extra slam.

The midrange is flat and impresses with its impeccable clarity and detail. The earphone is actually very well-balanced—perhaps more so than any other I've heard - aside from an upper treble peak, which gives it a characteristically brighter, cooler tone. While the NT 6 is not very forgiving of harsh and sibilant recordings, the emphasis falls above the 4-8 kHz range where sibilance usually originates, so it still sounds very smooth and pleasant most of the time. Treble extension is superb as well.

The tight, clean sound does wonders for the presentation of the earphones, allowing for a spacious soundstage and excellent imaging. This is really the ideal earphone for those who want to avoid any and all bass bloat and prefer a leaner sound with a slightly brighter tone. It reminds me of a vastly superior Ultimate Ears 700, and that's not a bad thing at all.

Product page here.

My Conclusions
The nine high-end custom earphones I tested really run the gamut in terms of sound signature, and while a few stood out as my favorites, there is definitely something here for everyone. The Heir Audio 8.A, for example is tops for a warm, smooth, and thick sound with fantastic bass depth and refined, but not prominent, treble. It is pricy, no doubt, but what you're getting is as much a work of art as it is an earphone.

For similarly impactful low end with more midrange presence and a leaner note presentation, look no further than the Westone ES5. Its punchy bass and clear midrange were very impressive, as was the fantastic fit and comfort of the vinyl canals. The silicone-shelled Spiral Ear SE 3-way offered the highest noise isolation coupled with the most powerful bass and a dynamic presentation. Purchase only if you don't mind being completely isolated from your surroundings.

Fans of more balanced signatures will enjoy the UM Miracle, JH13 Pro Freqphase, and Lime Ears LE3. The UM Miracle is the one to choose for a more relaxed presentation—it lacks the bass emphasis of the Westone and Heir sets but sounds clean, dynamic, and coherent. The JHAudio JH13 Pro was my biggest eye-opener, delivering clarity and resolution unlike anything else I've heard. It effortlessly produces extremely nuanced and refined sound complete with fantastic instrument separation and imaging. Finally, the Lime Ears LE3 provides a similarly neutral and balanced sound at a fraction of the JH13's price. Along with its bassier LE3B sibling, the LE3 is a strong performer, and its lowest as-tested price is just icing on the cake.

Lastly, the Hidition NT 6 pursues a uniquely bright sound signature with crystal clarity and impeccably tight bass. It still manages to sound musical and involving, however, and sacrifices nothing in the way of imaging and dynamics, coming in as one of my personal favorites.

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