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.

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 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 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 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:

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.



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.



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


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.


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