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

ToTLMaddness_Photo_MainJohnsTesting

Photo Credit: Photo credit Cosmic Ears, many others on this page John Grandberg.

John Grandberg's Impressions
I used the following setup for the majority of my listening: Auraliti PK90 music server with NuForce LPS-1 power supply, Audiophilleo AP1 USB to SPDIF converter with PurePower battery power supply, Resonessence Labs Invicta DAC, and Violectric V200 amp with pre-gain settings at -12dB for blackest background and optimum volume control with these sensitive IEMs. For those who care, I used Cabledyne Reference AC cables plugged into a CablePro Revelation power strip, and Cabledyne Reference Silver interconnects and digital cables throughout the system.

Special note: Some of these CIEMs are models I've already written about at HeadFi. Whenever that's the case, I'll be more brief here and include a link to those in depth impressions. Some of those reviews are older so when I mention at the time something was "the best" it may no longer apply - I'll summarize my current feelings on this page.

JH13 Pro FreqPhase ($1099)
                                    Just to get this out of the way early, I was one of the few people who seemed less than blown away with the original JH13 model. At the time I was using the Westone ES3X and the LiveWires Trips which were both triple driver designs, and I just didn't see the huge improvement with doubling the driver count. I wouldn't say I disliked the JH13 but I was just a tad underwhelmed what with all the hype surrounding it. It sure was better than the top Ultimate Ears model though, which at the time was the UE11Pro (a design I really disliked).

Having established that, I wasn't sure if I could approach the new FreqPhase model with a completely open mind. My past JH13 experience, combined with my lack of understanding about why exactly the FreqPhase thing is supposed to be so great (something I still don't really get), made me somewhat apprehensive. Then the JH13FP arrived and holy smokes! I was blown away by the sound. Now this was something I could finally get excited about.

The first thing that hit my brain when listening to the JH13FP was the word "clarity". These things just ooze micro-detail, speed, accuracy, and all the other technical descriptions one can think of. They sound extremely open and transparent while not succumbing to the often used gimmick of being really bright to simulate more detail. For me the experience was like hearing the Stax SR-007 after messing around with various top Audio Technica, beyerdynamic, and Grado headphones. Sure, those all have certain strengths and whatnot, but their type of clarity tends to wear on me in the long term - after a while the sound turns annoying and I long for my smooth Audeze planars. The Stax SR-007 somehow manages to be far more clear sounding and far less abrasive at the same time. You just know, immediately, that it sound "right". The JH13FP has that same effect.

I really like the tonal balance of the JH13FP. It's not quite neutral but I don't think that's really the point. Bass is somewhat exaggerated but not overly so in my opinion. Mids are clear and neutral without becoming dry or seeming too analytical. Upper mids are somewhat "crisp" sounding but don't come across as being quite so aggressive as what I recall from the original version. Maybe they are roughly the same by volume but are more technically correct this time around so it isn't as offensive. The biggest thing for me though is the coherency between the different regions: 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 can't see anyone looking for an "audiophile" type sound signature being disappointed with these unless they prefer a more reserved bass presentation. If that's your thing you might have to look elsewhere because these things certainly kick hard.

Another aspect I really like is the soundstage presentation. No in-ear monitor will ever truly sound as spacious as an HD800 or Stax but these little FreqPhase IEMs sure sound big for IEMs. Along with the Heir Audio 8.A (which is spacious in a different way), these are probably the most expansive sounding IEMs I've yet heard, surpassing the already very well done Unique Melody models. Again, I wish I understood the whole FreqPhase technology more because it supposedly plays a part in this—Jerry Harvey would do well to put up a white paper on his website explaining in detail why exactly this is a "breakthrough technology".

Once again I'll admit to being somewhat skeptical before hearing them and yet being totally satisfied afterwards. Ultimately the JH13 FreqPhase deserves to be considered a top competitor in this field. I certainly wasn't expecting to be blown away but in the end that's exactly what happened.

Product page here.

Heir Audio 8.A ($1299)
                                    First things first, Heir Audio makes some of the best looking custom IEMs I've ever seen, full stop. My 8.A has carbon fiber faceplates with a red and black weave, and subtle Heir crown logos in what looks like silver foil. Very cool. The 8.A uses 8-drivers (per side) distributed as dual lows, dual mids, dual highs, and dual super highs through a 4-way crossover. Three sound tubes carry sound from the drivers to your ears—one dedicated to mids, one combining highs and super highs, and a "special" tube for lows with an internal diameter of less than one millimeter. Audiologist and Heir Audio founder John Moulton says this allows for more controlled bass response compared to having three identical tubes.

With a total of four high frequency drivers on board, you might think the 8.A would be on the bright side. Not so. Rather, the signature is very warm and smooth, with exaggerated bass and smooth, creamy highs. 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. I can see how someone might want more immediacy but for me, this arrangement really works. It has the most "headphone-like" presentation I've heard of any IEM. This is definitely a smoother and more easy going presentation compared to the JH13. It doesn't initially seem as exciting but it definitely grows on you.

Bass is definitely boosted beyond what anyone would consider neutral. The level of bass boost positions the 8.A as an alternative to the JH16 rather than the more balanced JH13. It's excellent bass though; deep, textured, and impactful, among the best I've ever heard from an IEM. It does carry into the midbass region more so than other bass heavy IEMs like the Unique Melody Merlin, making for a somewhat colored interpretation of whatever music you play. But damn if it isn't an incredibly fun coloration that I love to hear.

Ultimately the Heir 8.A is a very enjoyable IEM that doesn't pretend to be for everyone. Those seeking a neutral presentation should look elsewhere. But 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.

Product page here.

Heir 6.A LE ($1099, discontinued)
                                    This is a model I get asked about frequently so I figure I should discuss it briefly, despite it no longer being for sale. Long story short: Dr. Moulton designed this model based on drivers he had available from Knowles Acoustics, one of two major manufacturers of balanced armature units used by virtually all custom IEM companies. Once Heir was officially launched, Knowles advised him he wouldn't be able to re-order the drivers used for low frequency reproduction. He had enough stock on hand to make roughly a dozen sets but after that the supply couldn't be replenished. Bummer.

The 6.A LE remains one of my favorite custom IEMs. It's a 6 driver design with a somewhat unusual configuration - 4 drivers on lows, one for mids, and one for highs. It shares the same tiny-diameter sound tube for lows as used on the 8.A. Despite having quad drivers on bass duty, this is not an overly bassy design. The boost is roughly on par with that of the JH13 which to my ears is slightly above neutral and just about perfect for a wide variety of music. Mids and highs are neutral to the point of sometimes sounding dull compared to JH13, but in terms of technicalities the 6.A LE is right up there with the best.

My 6.A LE is one of the most stunning custom IEM designs I've yet seen. It makes my 8.A seem tame in comparison: the faceplate is hand carved amboyna burl wood with an inlay made of gold carbon fiber. The rest of the shells are a cool bluish green color with gold dust sprinkles throughout. It sounds garish based on the description but in reality it's very attractive and less obnoxious than you might think.

I hate to rub it in since the 6.A is no longer for sale, but this is one killer sounding CIEM. It was my overall favorite for a while though is now matched or even exceeded by a few models, at least in some ways. I bring this up to basically say this: at some point, Dr. Moulton will design a replacement for this model. When he does, if it is anywhere near as good as the original, it will be something to watch out for.

In-depth review here.

Heir 4.A ($699)
ToTLMaddness_Photo_JohnHeir4AThe good news is that Heir does offer something similar to the 6.A, and it costs less too. The 4.A is a quad driver design with dual lows, single mid, single high. It offers a similar overall sound to the 6.A though somewhat less refined and with a lighter bass response, but it's similar enough to fill the gap in their lineup.

Despite being a "budget" model compared to the 8.A and 6.A, the 4.A still qualifies as a high-level IEM in my book. The sound is definitely better than any of the old school flagships like the Ultimate Ears UE11pro. It's clean and neutral with a bit of smoothness to the upper mids, making for a fatigue-free sound signature. Bass is punchy and hits deep, though is comparatively more restrained than either of my other Heir models. It isn't quite so resolving as the 6.A or some other top models, but detail levels are nothing to sneeze at. Overall this is a very good attempt at making a reasonably priced higher-end CIEM that works well with most music and is likely to satisfy most listeners.

Heir does make a universal version of the 4.A called the 4.Ai. I've had both to compare directly and while I found the 4.Ai to sound pretty good, it wasn't a very close contest—the real custom version sounded significantly better to my ears. The 4.Ai somehow managed to be more dull in the upper mids and less clear overall, despite using the same drivers and crossover. This goes to show that custom IEMs can have an inherent advantage over universals even when the same components are used. Don't get me wrong, the 4.Ai is good for the price, but the 4.A is definitely worth the extra money. As a great well rounded IEM that costs less than many of the others in this roundup, the Heir 4.A is highly recommended even if it isn't quite the highest performance model in the group.

Product page here.

Sensaphonics 3MAX ($1050)
                                    Sensaphonics is something of a unique company compared to the other "old school" custom IEM companies like Ultimate Ears and Westone. They don't offer universal IEMs. They don't make a big deal of the popular musicians who use their customs (though plenty of very well known artists certainly do). They don't often submit their IEMs for pro reviews. They don't make a huge variety of models to choose from. And a key difference: They use soft silicone shells rather than acrylic. Their selection tops out with a triple driver design rather than five or six or eight like other brands. I'm not sure if that's a specific attribute of using silicone but I'd guess it might be since ACS and some others who also use silicone are in the same boat. Then again, Spiral Ears uses silicone and offers up to five drivers so maybe I'm wrong. The downside to silicone is a lack of customization—some limited color and art can be done but nothing as complex as their acrylic counterparts.

Sensaphonics has other unique things going for them as well, their cable is very different in both design and connection. Instead of the typical braided design with the two pin connector like most others use, Sensaphonics uses a thicker cable which is somewhat less flexible but also seems far more sturdy. It has a thick clear jacket which means it shouldn't turn green—a problem faced by virtually every other stock cable of the silver variety. This Sensaphonics cable appears to be the exception to that rule and mine is still completely green-free after months of heavy use—no other stock silver cable has ever managed that. Custom IEMs with silicone shells traditionally feature hard wired connections but Sensaphonics uses a clever system for detaching the cable. It seems based on the Shure connection style but slides deep into a recessed spot in the shell for what appears to be a very robust connection. With all the musicians using Sensaphonics customs I imagine durability is very good indeed.

Sensaphonics was also kind enough to send along their unique dB Check volume meter. With it in line between my player and the 3MAX, I was able to see my listening levels in decibels. It gives a real time reading as well as an average over time, and even lists the maximum time recommended for those levels by NIOSH and OSHA (who use different standards, NIOSH being more current). It's interesting to see how I listen; sometimes, depending on my mood and of course the music involved, the low 80dB range seems quite loud. Other times I found myself cranking it well into the 90dB range and even hitting over 100dB once in a while. At that level, NIOSH recommends listening for 15 minutes or less to avoid any hearing damage. Which isn't really a problem for me, but it makes me wonder how many folks out there listen at those levels or beyond for sustained periods of time. Armed with this knowledge, I now tend to be more conservative with my volume settings. I find that I quickly became accustomed to it and don't miss the extra volume one bit—which was surely the goal of Sensaphonics when they came up with this device.

Let's talk about fit and comfort for a minute. With a good fit, acrylic custom IEMs are exceedingly comfortable, so much so that one can easily wear them for many hours without issue. And yet I find that silicone is even more comfortable. How can this be? The main difference comes down to movement. If I sit totally still and just listen, the acrylic is just as good. But acrylic is solid and can't account for small movements generated when I open my mouth or smile or even just look around. And I can be more of an "active" listener so this is a good thing. The soft silicone of the 3MAX bends with my ear canals to continue the effortless comfort and facilitate head bobbing and other movements. So despite inserting deeper into my canals than any of my other customs, and having a "tighter" fit overall, I still find the 3MAX supremely comfortable. Isolation seems very good as well, though interestingly it seems to attenuate some frequencies better and some worse than acrylic models. So it's very good but maybe not completely superior in every way.

Now for the sound, which was somewhat difficult for me. Upon first receiving the 3MAX I thought they sounded unimpressive—rolled off up top and somewhat unrefined. Then I listened further and decided they were actually very good—punchy and focused. Now I've settled to a happy medium where I like them but don't quite love them. Despite these being presented as mostly flat except for the bass bump, in practice I found the 3MAX to be among the more colored sounding models in this group. I'm not sure if this is by design or simply a byproduct of the lower driver count and 2-way crossover. Bass is definitely punchy as advertised, but lacks the sub bass extension of other models. The top end seems rolled off, having less extension and sparkle than I anticipated. These seem very focused on the midrange which I guess makes sense considering their stage-monitor roots, and I can certainly understand how they would be more effective for that purpose than some of these other models. Surprisingly, vocals do not come across as being very forward; they actually seem placed back a tad in the mix, whether male or female. Still, they seem reasonably clear overall, and I appreciate the lack of sibilance in most situations. I did notice the 3MAX as being more sensitive than average, and producing hiss on a lot of equipment. It also did far better when used with a quality setup rather than a simple iPod.

The 3MAX has a sound that doesn't necessarily compare well in quick A/B sessions, but does grow on me over time as I listen exclusively. The best analogy I can think of is that they bring to mind a certain class of speakers using a single full range driver - think Lowther and Fostex in DIY designs, or commercial offerings from Omega and many others. To my ears these generally share similar characteristics and all can sound great with things like solo violin, or acoustic guitar, or general singer/songwriter type stuff, but they tend to be less impressive with Pink Floyd or Metallica or Daft Punk. The Sensaphonics 3MAX is along those same lines: an imperfect sound that in the right context (or for the right listener?) can be very enjoyable despite any flaws. Again, for some people these might just "click" and be the best choice of this entire bunch—they already achieve that in terms of fit and comfort. And for stage performers, some of the limitations might actually become benefits.

Product page here.

Westone ES5 ($950)
                                    The ES5 launched in 2010 to overtake Westone's popular ES3X as the flagship of the lineup. It uses a relatively unusual three-way configuration—dual drivers for highs, dual mids, and a single, rather large low frequency unit. This is contrary to most competitors who use dual drivers across the board. Yet in terms of size the single low frequency driver unit in the ES5 is larger than many of the dual drivers used by competitors. And in terms of sound the lows do not disappoint one bit.

Construction of the ES5, like the ES3X and other Westone customs before it, is rather unique in that it's made of two different materials. The main shell portion is acrylic but the tip section is done in a heat sensitive vinyl material. At room temperatures it feels just like hard acrylic but with a rougher texture. Once inserted in the ear for a few minutes, it warms up and becomes somewhat pliable - not as flexible as silicone but more capable of shifting and bending than hard acrylic. The result is very good isolation and a comfortable fit that is likely more tolerant of minor fit issues compared to other brands. I definitely like the fit I get with my set, which makes it easy to forget I'm even wearing them. My particular set also has a very low profile compared to my other customs - it protrudes less from my ear, making it more suitable for use while sleeping (which I occasionally do, though it's probably not recommended). I can't say if that's a characteristic of the ES5 in general or just my particular build.

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. I hear definite shades of Audeze here as opposed to a Sennheiser or Audio Technica or any other "house sound". This is interesting to me because it's a departure from what I recall of the ES3X which was a bit more edgy up top. Despite having some warmth and smoothness to it, the ES5 still comes across as fairly well balanced overall. If Westone added more top end focus I might actually not like it as much; the signature here just seems to "fit" for lack of a better phrase, and more treble energy might take away some of the charm. Like the Audeze models, perhaps my favorite aspect of the ES5 is the bass slam. While not being as prominent as the Heir 8.A or Unique Melody Merlin, the ES5 is definitely up there with the best in terms of quality. And it keeps it very clean, not intruding into the midrange area. The Unique Melody Merlin in particular has more sub-bass impact but the ES5 remains very pleasing. It's probably enough for most, though true bassheads will want to look elsewhere for a more exaggerated signature.

Compared to the JH13FP, the ES5 is less high-strung. More casual. It's certainly not slow but I'd say it doesn't quite have that hyper-involved feeling. If the JH13FP is a sonic scalpel cutting with precision, the ES5 is an expensive knife in the hands of a skilled chef. It's still got a very important job but also a different attitude to the whole situation. Neither is wrong and either would probably appeal to most people but in the end your taste will determine the best match.

Overall I like the ES5 very much. It's like someone took the Heir 8.A with its low frequency capabilities and velvety top end, mixed it with a JH13FP for a more forward midrange presentation and technical accuracy, and then added the super comfy vinyl tips as a bonus. Factor in the price which is somewhat lower than the other big name flagships, and you've got yourself a very compelling custom IEM.

Product page here.

Frogbeats C4 (£595, currently ~$913)
ToTLMaddness_Photo_JohnFrogBeatsC4The three-way, quad driver C4 is not technically the top model from Frogbeats. That honor goes to the five driver C5 which is tuned for enhanced bass. The C4 is supposedly the most neutral and accurate model in the lineup, and was chosen by owner David Annez to represent Frogbeats in this article. Based on price, driver array, and performance, I'd say the C4 does in fact belong in this elite group.

When I heard the C4 described as being supremely neutral, I wasn't sure what to expect. Everyone has a different interpretation of what neutral really sounds like. Turns out I don't really hear the C4 as strictly neutral, but more like "neutral-ish". To my ears the bass is somewhat more prominent than something like an Etymotic ER4 which also claims supposed neutrality. But by no means is this bloated, overdone bass, and for some people it might actually be too reserved...but those looking for that really light touch in the vein of Etymotic might be a bit overwhelmed. In terms of quality the lows are detailed and clean, with texture and refinement befitting a flagship design. They seem very similar to the JH13 in terms of bass levels—that is to say, slightly north of neutral. But they can also come across as bass-light depending on the music being played, which of course means the C4 is mostly just reporting honestly about what's in the recording.

And that's one of the things I like about the Frogbeats C4, it's very adaptable to different types of music. A lot of IEMs, even very good IEMs that I really enjoy, leave their own sonic fingerprint in whatever they play. For example, some models tend to make every recording sound better than it really is due to having a warm and smooth nature. The result can be breathtaking but after a while it can feel like listening to that specific IEM rather than listening to music. The C4 on the other hand will scale incredibly high with well done recordings while sounding like garbage with bad ones.

Mids and highs on the C4 are again "neutral-ish", with what I'd call a slight bit of smoothness in the upper mids. It's enough to mitigate sibilance to a moderate degree but again, this is not the best choice to make terrible recordings seem acceptable. Top end is clear and extended though not as airy as the JH13Pro or Unique Melody Merlin. Imaging is accurate enough though a little hazy compared to the best in this class, and the overall soundstage seems appropriately spacious if not massive.

My final thought is that this is a good sounding custom IEM and does indeed belong with this group of top-level IEMs. It may not have the same level of technical brilliance as the Miracle or JH13FP but it's still very satisfying. Despite not being the best in any one area, its general tuning is among the most versatile of the whole group.

Product page here.

Cosmic Ears BA4 ($420)
ToTLMaddness_Photo_JohnCosmicBA4Cosmic Ears actually has several higher models in the works - the BA5 and BA6. But neither is quite ready to go yet so at the moment this BA4 is the latest and greatest. It's based on new drivers from Sonion - so new in fact that Cosmic Ears only had some evaluation samples and not a regular stock. But they were gracious enough to send me their first set. It came with a decent cable (which should fit iPhone cases if that's an issue for you) but Cosmic Ears has some redesigned cables coming soon. This particular set uses their unique "Steampunk" design, which as you can see has bits of stuff in the faceplate that looks like the guts of a watch. It's very well executed, especially for a company who originally set out to focus on low prices at the expense of aesthetics. As the name implies, the BA4 is a four driver design, again having "the usual" 3-way configuration like most other quad driver models.

The BA4 is, in simple terms, brutally accurate, and could definitely meet some definitions of "neutral". Not neutral in the JH13 way where we just mean "not as boosted as the JH16", but neutral in the same way UIltimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors claim to be, and in the same way most Etymotic models actually are. Fast, tight bass with good extension but extremely modest volume. Flat, unromantic mids that don't particularly flatter the average vocalist. Extended but well controlled highs which can be splashy with mediocre recordings but sound much more refined with better material. While the Frogbeats, JH13FP, Heir 4.A, and Miracle all claim some degree of neutral performance, the BA4 is probably the one more people would choose as fitting their definition of the word—even if they don't particularly care for that type of signature. I've heard a lot of talk about this IEM or that IEM being the logical upgrade to the classic Etymotic ER4 models, but this is one of the few IEM's I've heard that actually lives up to that claim.

The BA4 is definitely not for everyone though—the folks at Cosmic Ears would be the fist to admit this. The lows are just not very prominent which results in a less punchy sound than anything in this comparison. After listening to one of the others and switching to the BA4, it seems a bit nasally and thin until my ears adjust to it. It also has a rather direct feel to it, being less spacious in its presentation. Imaging is exceptionally accurate though, and I think the somewhat closed in presentation actually works in its favor as a true monitor. Still, the BA4 isn't so fun to use with rock or pop music. It just isn't dynamic enough. In addition, the BA4 seems to be more difficult to drive than most other IEMs, and definitely benefits from quality amplification.

Phil Gartell, owner of Cosmic Ears, tells me he tuned this model based on feedback from various local performers who he works with. Apparently he had a choice of two dampers for the sound tube handling low frequencies. Based on artist feedback he chose the damper resulting in lighter bass. I advised him the other option may have been better, and he seemed to agree. So moving forward these might be ever so slightly more appropriate for regular listening as opposed to their current ruthless nature. But even as is, I can see a market for them, there's a group of people who favor this sound as heard in models from Etymotics and some Audio Technica IEMs. And the price is low enough where it's less of an obstacle than other top customs. With the different filter these seem like an easy recommendation for people who like that sort of sound—as long as you know what you're getting in to.

Product page here.

Unique Melody Merlin ($799)
                                    The Merlin is among the rare breed of hybrid custom IEMs, of which there are only a few, and the Merlin was one of the very first. The dynamic driver for lows requires a small port in the shell which, in my particular set, leads to reduced isolation. I seem to be in the minority though as many other users have stated their isolation as on par with other, non-vented custom IEMs. So I'm not sure what that's all about. For their part Unique Melody claims identical isolation so perhaps mine is just a fluke. Which is fine because I rarely use them outdoors anyway.

As you can read in my in-depth review, my particular Merlin is different from others in that it was a prototype model. It has less bass boost than the final design. This makes perfect sense from a marketing perspective, if the Merlin is barely distinguishable from the more expensive Miracle, then it does little to justify its existence, and also steals sales from the more expensive option. By bumping the lows to basshead levels, Unique Melody created a truly unique product that stands alone in their lineup. I also had a final version and found it pretty good but in the end I liked the balance of my prototype better. But I won't go on about it since it isn't really a normal product. You can read my full review, and email UM to see if it's still available if that interests you.

As for the "normal" version, I'd say it's a really great sounding IEM for fans of big bass and exciting, almost zingy upper midrange. It's the kind of sound that for me works best in small doses of 30 minutes or less, but is very enjoyable in the process, especially with certain music—I'm thinking electronic stuff, hip hop, and even most pop/rock. It wouldn't be my first choice for classical but that's what the Miracle is for anyway. And the $799 price is relatively low in this group which makes the Merlin a solid buy.

Product page here.

Lear LCM-5 (est. $887)
ToTLMaddness_Photo_LearLCM5A relatively unknown company compared to Ultimate Ears and the like, Lear is very impressive with their build quality. I've got a dual driver LCM-2b in addition to the LCM-5 and both have exceedingly high build quality, up there with the best I've seen. Their cable is different than most, being somewhat prone to tangling but its lack of memory wire could be appealing to some users - especially those with glasses. Worth mentioning is the fact that the LCM-5 is among the more sensitive IEMs out there so it demands a very low noise system.

The LCM-5 uses a similar driver configuration as the Westone ES5. The main difference is that it uses triple bores all the way out to the canal tip, while the ES5 combines lows and mids into a single bore at some point inside the shell. Despite these similarities the LCM-5 has a different type of sound, its tonal balance is vaguely similar to the JH13FP though it sounds more airy and more dry in the mids. The LCM-5 is very fast, and presents vocals in a forward manner which makes this a great choice for folk and singer/songwriter fare. There's a focus on the leading edges compared to the JH13FP which makes it seem like the more detail oriented model. It probably also helps that the lows are a bit more restrained, though still somewhat boosted above true neutrality. As has been the case in many of these comparisons, the JH13Pro model seems technically superior by a small degree but the LCM-5 comes closer than most.

The lows are a point of contention with me. Though not in the least bit poor by general standards, and very satisfying when taken on their own, they could be a little tighter compared to several others here. This highlights just how lofty the standard is in this group—otherwise satisfying bass reproduction comes off as a bit loose compared to the JH13FP or ES5 or Unique Melody models. It has nice impact and slam but could use more articulation and texture. Overall the LCM-5 is still very satisfying and the bass "issue" isn't really in issue for the most part, it's just me picking nits.

Lear has a cool trick up their sleeve with something they call the Monitor Sound Tuned Adapter. It's around $115 shipped and is basically a short cable with an inline network of resistors and capacitors specifically designed to tweak the LCM-5. It raises impedance to around 180 ohms and drops sensitivity as well, allowing the LCM-5 to be used with tube amps which would otherwise be unsuitable for IEMs. The total effect is one of a somewhat brighter, more flat sound (as the word "Monitor" implies) and it's a fun add-on to get more use from the IEMs. This unique feature makes the relatively affordable (in this group) LCM-5 an interesting option.

My in-depth review on Head-Fi here.

Product page here.

Unique Melody Platform Pure 6
                                    I've deliberately saved the most complicated for last. The Unique Melody Platform Pure 6 is more than a mere custom IEM, it's an entire system. One half of the design is the IEMs themselves which feature 6 drivers in the typical dual-low/dual-mid/dual-high configuration. But look inside the shells and you might notice something unusual: no crossover. Instead of the passive resistors and capacitors found in all the other designs here, the Platform Pure 6 is an active design, meaning it requires special amplification. Hence the matching box which makes up the other half of the system.

Much like an active monitor speaker where each woofer and tweeter gets a dedicated amp, the Platform Pure 6 has separate amplification for lows, mids, and highs, with a DSP sending each set of drivers the specific frequency range it needs to reproduce. This all takes place inside the "box" which is essentially a portable DAC and amp box in one. The implication here is that superior fidelity is achieved by removing the passive crossover network which is often considered a bottleneck. But does it actually succeed? We'll see.

The box itself is roughly as large as a mid-sized portable amp. It can accept an analog signal via 1/8" input as well as digital signals in the form of USB, Toslink, or coaxial SPDIF. It's best to keep things in the digital domain if at all possible, as the analog signal path requires an extra step of A to D conversion in order to process the signal, with a small but noticeable penalty being charged in overall resolution. I even tried feeding it with a high-end DAC but it made no difference; the best way to use this device is with a digital source. That's fine for using at home, but portable use is another matter. Not many portable DAPs feature digital outputs from which to feed the PP6. That's not really the fault of Unique Melody but it does need to be taken into consideration. Personally I've been using a little-known unit called the iHiFi 960 which has an optical output and works very well.

I opened the case and spotted a fairly complex design where (unfortunately) most chips have their markings obscured. The only thing left intact is the USB receiver which is a TAS1020B from Texas Instruments. I used USB Prober to confirm my suspicion—the TAS1020B is working in adaptive mode, probably with the stock firmware. This results in a cap at 24-bit/96kHz which is in line with the SPDIF inputs. Aside from that there are quite a few opamps in use but I don't know what models they are.

Worth noting is the cable which is far thicker than any others in this group. A regular CIEM cable simply carries signal and ground. The PP6 cable needs separate lines for the lows, mids, and highs, plus ground for a total of 4 strands to each earpiece. That means the main cable section before the Y split has 8 strands total. It's a rather bulky cable and there's not really any way around it. My particular cable has the braid starting to unravel a bit in the area near each IEM. I thought it was just me, but UM says they have a redesigned cable coming in the next few weeks to address this problem. I'll post updates when I receive that one.

Now for the sound, which was a very mixed bag for me. On one hand, the PP6 is brilliant in many ways: extremely clear, very open sounding, very precise imaging. In these areas it may be the best I've heard from any IEM. I no longer have their Miracle model but from memory I'd say the PP6 is noticeably improved which is impressive because the Miracle is certainly no slouch. Surprisingly, the PP6 is not what I'd call analytical, but has a somewhat bassy signature which is very well done on the whole. It doesn't hit quite as low as some other CIEMs driven by a high end setup but it's still plenty satisfying. The top end is nice and airy with just a hint of harshness on occasion, which I'd say is typical of the energetic Unique Melody house sound. It's very well done overall and competitive with other top customs as driven by my rather expensive setup. I'll say it again, the Unique Melody Platform Pure 6 is one of the best custom IEMs I've heard, in several different areas of performance.

So why don't I love it? The problem for me is the little things which detract from the experience. First, there's a loud thump on power up/power down. It's loud enough to be more than just a mild annoyance. Then there's the background noise which is a constant presence. At this price range I'd expect an inky black background and the PP6 just doesn't do it. Granted, a lot of portable amps do far worse than this, and some people probably wouldn't mind...but I do. With tri-amplification and active circuitry I can see why noise is a factor but as an end user I don't really think that understanding makes it any less annoying. Next is the volume, which comes on too strong, too quickly, resulting in difficulty making fine adjustments. Volume is loud by 10 or 11 o'clock on the dial meaning you really only have a very small window to work within. It's so "hot" that I had trouble dialing in a really low volume for late night listening; it seemed to go from medium to off with no transition in between. The experience is akin to using a high gain desktop amp with sensitive IEMs. But this box was made specifically for this IEM only so I see no reason why it shouldn't have a smooth, wide response through the entire range. The volume seems handled in the digital domain and I can't help but think they are throwing away some resolution by forcing it to run at such low levels.

My last gripe has to do with the bass boost which is activated from a 3-position switch on the front panel. I love the concept but not the execution. At the lowest setting these are still somewhat boosted, being roughly in line with the JH13FP or Heir 6.A LE. I rather enjoy the signature but it would make more sense to start from neutral and work your way up. And in practice, I find the two bass boost settings largely unusable. On medium and especially on high it causes bleeding into the midbass and generally mucks up the otherwise clean performance. This is a feature I was really excited about which makes it all the more disappointing to see it implemented poorly.

I realize it's a bit unfair to compare the little black PP6 box to my $8,000 worth of gear driving the other IEMs. But based on the pricing, one could assemble any number of nice custom IEM based systems for the same amount. I'm thinking of the JH13FP or Westone ES5 or Unique Melody's own Miracle, combined with something like the Anedio D2 DAC ($1470) with integrated headphone amp. Or go for separates with something like a Resonessence Labs Concero ($599) and Lake People G109 (around $500). Either way the price would be roughly similar to the PP6 and performance would approach the same level, falling short in some ways but surpassing the PP6 in others. It wouldn't be portable but you'd have a a nice DAC complete with modern asynchronous USB and enough amplification to drive most other headphones too. UM does have a cable coming soon which has an inline passive filter enabling their IEM portion to be used with a normal amp. That will be very interesting to hear - which of the good parts of the PP6 are due to the active system, and which are just inherent in the IEM itself? I'll update when I have the cable in hand.

Ultimately we can view the Platform Pure 6 in one of two ways: The first is to call it a beta release, not quite ready for prime time. The operational quirks certainly support that line of thinking. The other attitude we can take is to consider it a very impressive debut with a few kinks to work out. I imagine it won't be too hard for them to kill the thump, tweak the volume range, and redo the bass boost to focus only on the 20Hz to 120Hz range (give or take), making it actually useful. I'm not sure how difficult it will be to deal with the hiss but it could probably be reduced somewhat if not completely eliminated. That product would still be expensive at $2280 but would be something I could more easily recommend as a sort of end-game purchase. As it stands I have a hard time recommending the system based on the price. The Miracle just makes a lot more sense at this point.

Product page here.

My Conclusions
I'm impressed by this group as a whole. The various models sound distinctly different from one another, yet I end up liking most of them...so much so that I'll often reach for one of these instead of my HD800 or SR-007 or LCD-2. Yep, they are that good. I definitely feel that progress has been made since just a few years back when the UE11pro was considered state of the art.

I'm hard pressed to choose an absolute favorite, but I can easily group them together into classes.

  • My favorites are the Westone ES5, the JH13 FreqPhase, and the Heir Audio 8.A. I greatly enjoy all three, each for a different reason, and consider them all to be state of the art.
  • My next grouping is the Lear LCM-5, Heir 4.A, and Frogbeats C4. These are all real nice - they fall short of the best in some area or other, but are still very capable IEMs that I can happily recommend.
  • Next comes the UM Merlin and Cosmic Ears BA4 - each is a specialist in one area and extremely compelling if that's your preference. But neither has complete all around appeal.
  • Finally we have the Sensaphonics 3MAX and the UM PP6. I really tried hard to love these but I simply couldn't. Both have some appealing strengths but also some weaknesses which make them difficult to recommend without some careful consideration. I still respect both companies for their efforts though - not standing out in a field of very strong competitors is nothing to be ashamed of.

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!

Magrart's picture

Hi Tyll,

Two questions:

Which pair did you choose for your flight to Munich?

Are any of the non-custom (in ear) options close to the custom performance? 

 

Thanks and have a nice trip.

Cheers

Magrart

Tyll Hertsens's picture

...the JH13 and ES5.

I like the Shure SE535, I'd say they're close to the performance of many of the above reviewed cans.  

eke2k6's picture

Tyll, something HAS to be wrong with your AS-2. I'm listening to mine right now, and there's no lack of treble, even compared to the HD600 ot ER4S

Remember the dynamic drivers themselves are full range, so an EQ would still raise the treble quantity of the dynamic if the tweeters were malfunctioning.

I heard that you weren't even planning to send it in. That's a shame.

 

 

 

 

John Grandberg's picture

Tyll specifically mentioned sending them back for inspection, and posting a follow up if it turns out there was a malfunction. He's been all over the place for shows lately so may not have had time to send it in, but it will definitely happen at some point. 

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Don't know where that rumor started, but I will be sending them back in for inspection.

EvTH's picture

I was sitting in the living room one day, TV on and all, and decided to try something out.
Plugged my JH16s into my ears and threw on a pair of NC headphones (AT ANC-9). The TV went silent. Really, really silent.

Don't know if anybody else has given that a try?

Tyll Hertsens's picture

...I've heard of people doing this before. I'm quite sure it works well. 

Samuel's picture

Hi,

Thanks for this wonderful writeup! I was waiting for something like this. I've never gone into customs so far. Contemplating, but the stakes are high. I just needed something more to form a better picture before taking the plunge. After some reading, I have narrowed down to the ES5, Miracle, and maybe the JH13 Pro FP. I listen to a handful of genres. To name a few from them are people like Stacey Kent, Rebecca Pidgeon, Olivia Ong, Maroon 5, Michael Buble, some contemporary artistes, and some instrumentals like Bob Acri, Kevin Kern, and some church choir like the albums Cantate Domino and Now The Green Blade Riseth.

To give a rough idea of my listening perception, I have the K3003 and several other IEMs and headphones like the UE400, Fidelio S2, Sony EX-90, HD600/650/800, Q701 etc. These are some of my favorites. Points to note is I felt Q701's bass is on the lower side. It has lots of treble/detail but never sounds peaky/overwhelming. HD800 mids can be a tad bright/shrill, same goes to the S2. HD600/650 are very enjoyable just that the dip somewhere in the treble can make it sound abit unnatural. I love the EX-90's bass and overall presentation. UE400 is cheap but defying price-performance ratio this is my current favorite for a pleasant forget-yourself all-rounder minus the sheer technical abilities. Bass quantity is similar to the EX-90 which I like. It has the best fit among my universals too.

As for K3003, I love the fidelity of the sound, very "hifi" sounding. My ideal amount of bass, which is a tad lesser than EX-90/UE400 (would like it better controlled), lovely natural vocals and overall mids presentation (although I would still prefer the Senn IE800's mids). I don't find it bright as what I've read around, but that's probably where my threshold is, nothing more (I can't stand the shrill from my EX-600). Treble can sound a tad hot at times.

My portable setup includes direct-out from Sony A865 player, or line out to O2(JDS Labs), or sometimes straight from iPhone 5 playing... ok, MP3 :). Desktop setup includes Marantz CD6004 as CD transport and also as a USB feeder for... ok, again, MP3, coax out to Musical Fidelity M1DAC and to the M1HPA.

I would like to know, how would the ES5/Miracle/JH13FP compare to say the K3003? Main concerns for the comparisons are bass/treble quantity, body/fullness, mids "shrill-ability", timbre, and any other worthy points to note. I like the sound to be full bodied with abit of bottom weight, and that's why I have failed so far in finding love in cheaper BA IEMs like UE600/700, TDK BA200 etc. The "hollow-ness" and lack of bass just doesn't click for me.

Sorry for the long post. Looking forward to your advice. Thank you!

UnityIsPower's picture

Did you ever get a replacement set? Try the universal ASG version? Could someone let you borrow the ASg-2's?

Sérgio's picture

No sabía por qué algunos audífonos costaban tanto, era por esto! su alta fidelidad con el sonido o por dios!

Dan Thomas's picture

Dear Inner Fidelity, I know this article is a few months old now but I hope you still see this comment.

First off - thanks for such a comprehensive review. It was just what I was looking for as I prepare to enter the world of CIEM's... It's a little bit of a shame that I'm entering this world "right at the top of the tree" but I was going to end up there at some point so why not save myself the inbetween steps...:-) That said, do you have any idea when the budget CIEM review will be coming out as I know many friends that would be very interested in this???

Second - I'm hoping you can give me just that last little bit of guidance/input when it comes to chosing from one of these 3: JH13, JH16 or ES5...

I would consider myself toward the audiophile end of the music listening spectrum. I have simple setup of an SACD player hooked up to Simaudio i5 amp and B&W 804s speakers. I listen to all genres of music but lean heavily towards electronic music (all the way from chilled out ambient to banging drum and bass). However, a key element to what I listen to is the (preferably high) production qualities of the recordings.

My 'mobile listening' is confined to my Samsung Galaxy S2 or S3 at the moment but I am looking into the wonders of the various portable DAC's and amps out there, not to mention the lovely looking AK120...

I am going to 'audition' the JH13's and JH16's this Saturday (5 days from now) but alas, as I'm in the UK, no one seems to have the ES5's for me to listen to. (Is Westone in the process of re-vamping their product range? A shop here indicated that 'could' be the case.) I know you've been asked this many times previously but can you help me with my decision making??? I love crisp high fidelity (erring towards JH13's) but I also love my bass (JH16's or ES5's). Is it fair to compare these last two? Once I'm amped will the 13's be all I could want/need?

Many, many thanks if you can give me a response before this weekend and thanks again for the article and site.

Dan

Tyll Hertsens's picture

While my personal preference is for the ES5, I tend to think most would prefer the JH13.  I'd stay away from the JH16 unless you consider yourself a serious basshead, the JH13 has plenty of bass.  Also the seriously terrific coherence of the JH13 is compelling. If I couldn't have both, I'd be very torn between the two, and might opt for the JH13 and live with the slightly brighter and bassier presentation because the imaging is so spectacular. 

Dan Thomas's picture

Thanks for your quick response. I look forward to listening to them this weekend. Shame about the lack of ES5 but I'm sure I'll live...

Do you have any idea when budget CIEM review will be showing?

Thanks again and keep up the great work.

John Grandberg's picture

With Tyll that JH13 is probably the best choice, given your stated preferences. 

Nate is working on the budget CIEM article. Had some delays due to the constant changing lineup inherent in this segment. But I believe he has it mostly worked out and is on to the listening phase now. Should be a good read, there are a lot of good choices in the lower price ranges. 

djcarpentier's picture

hello all. i'm an edm lover (electronic dance music) but i do enjoy many other genres, edm just gets the most headtime. I value clarity and neutrality with excellent extension on both ends. i don't want anything rounded off or emphasized. 

i've been leaning towards the jh13fp. can anyone here make me change my mind or suggest equal offerings? i have read very extensively about ciems and i do realize its very subjective. all opinions are welcome

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Unless you want enhanced bass response where the JH16 or Heir might be better. But the JH13 bass is strong and well extended, so I won't try to talk you out of it.

drm870's picture

I am glad to see (from Mr. Grandberg's last comment) that the article for budget-priced CIEMs is still forthcoming. Any ETA, or perhaps just a hint of what's to come?

Trae Edwards's picture

Looks like the Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors are still the choice for Studio mixing and mastering. Am I correct? Thank you all for the great info..

coldassault's picture

My apologies for reviving a two year old thread, but it's still a stellar piece of information and a hell of a job. Kudo's!
I am quite puzzled however why two reviewers used the V-Moda Vamp Verza. I bumped into Tyll's review of the Verza. The one thing that stood out were the reservations he made for IEMs, especially balanced armature (impedance swings) as the Verza has a high output impedance. This is exactly the review where I didn't expect the Verza as a source/amp. Can Mr. Tyll Hertsens or Steve Guttenberg please comment on that? Thank you!

stone-eye's picture

Still a great article that reinforces my desire for the JH13s. I wonder though, after 2 years have you heard any CIEMs that knock the JH13s off top spot?

I've heard a lot of good things about the Noble Kaiser K-10s especially with coherancy across the spectrum - something the JH freqphase was supposed to be master of. Have you heard these and if so how do they compare for you? Thanks!

stone-eye's picture

Have just found your review for the Kaiser 10s. I listen almost exclusively to metal, but a wide range from the heaviest and fastest to the slowest and softest (not really metal but generally done by metal bands) so I think i will stick with getting the JH13s.

Have you tried any replacement cables for the JH13s? If so which if any would you recommend?

ktbugg's picture

Hi, thank you so much for this amazing project... what a thoughtful and creative offering, and so very helpful, and dang you must be having so much FUN.
I am new to this world... trying to find myself the best IEMs ever that I will love and love.. i appreciate quality sound so much and my ears are very sensitive
Well, so i thought custom seems a really good option. It seems though that the customs require an amplifier? I am a very active person and will be using my earphones on the move, while doing projects and going for walks etc. So attaching an amplifier to myself will not be an option..
Am i perceiving this correctly? Any recommendations?
Thank so much

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