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

ToTLMaddness_Photo_TyllsTesting

Tyll Hertsens' Impressions
I need to get something off my chest:

[rant]One of my biggest gripes in this category of headphone is that custom IEMs are a bit behind the times when it comes to the connectors on these headphones. There are very few of these headphones that I can use directly out of my Droid or iPhone due to the Otterbox Defender cases I religiously use. The connector end of these cables is just too big to get into the hole in the case and seat properly in the player's jack. I think it's time for CIEM makers to come into the 21st century and use cables with smaller plug bodies. [/rant]

Alrighty, on with my listening tests. I primarily used a HeadRoom Max Balanced Amp with USB input from my MacBook running Amarra. I did some listening with my Galaxy S3 and iPhone 4 through a V-Moda Vamp Veza (which is very nice, by the way), but felt it was best to use the best amp I could for listening evaluations.

Westone ES5 ($950)
ToTLMaddness_Photo_WestoneES5I liked the thin, flexible black cable that comes with the Westone ES5, but I was giddy with joy when I saw that the 90 degree connector had a small body and was able to be used directly out of my phones. The ES5 came in a 7" x 4 1/2" x 2" Pelican case, which is much too big for pocket transport and did not have a smaller pouch for day to day transport and storage purposes. It did come with a cleaning cloth, cleaning tool, desiccant container, and, very thoughtfully, a small bottle of Miracell ProEar lubricant, which I used to slick up my ears and CIEMs for super-comfy insertion. That stuff is worth its weight in gold in a test like this where I inserted and removed CIEMs dozens of, if not a few hundred, times.

The Westone ES5 took me quite by surprise. This was not only among the most pleasing in sonic balance, it was also terrifically punchy and dynamic sounding. Bass weight and extension was very good; midrange and low treble were just slightly forward; upper treble was tastefully more rolled-off than perfectly neutral to my ears. While I was blown away by the JH13Pro, I came to the conclusion the that neutrality with a slightly rolled off top made the Westone ES5 my favorite of the bunch. I would recommend the Westone ES5 as the best CIEM for most audio professionals.

Product page here.

Jerry Harvey Audio JH13Pro ($1099)
ToTLMaddness_Photo_JH13FPThough the cable is slightly thicker than the Miracle and ES5, it remained very nicely flexible and tangle-free...though the 90 degree plug won't fit into my encased portable players. However! I do see that JH Audio is offering a replacement cable with remote/mic and small bodied plug! Yippee! Also included was a small Otterbox water-proof case that will easily fit in a briefcase or backpack pocket, a cleaning tool, and some Comply SoftWrap tip cushions.

I was immediately struck by the clarity and coherence of the JH13Pro. Jerry Harvey claims to have had a break-though moment last year regarding the time alignment of the balanced armature drivers in these cans, and by golly I certainly think he's onto something. The JH13 is the most coherent, best imaging CIEM I've had the pleasure of hearing. I found the bass slightly too overemphasized, sometimes seeming to overshadow the mids somewhat. Mids were very clearly rendered if laid back, and from the upper-mids to the top of the treble spectrum the JH13Pro was blissfully spectacular in every way. Though I slightly preferred the tonal balance and punch of the Westone ES5, the coherent clarity and imaging of the JH13Pro's and simultaneous thump was immensely attractive.

Product page here.

Unique Melody Miracle ($950)
ToTLMaddness_Photo_UMMiracleI liked the thin, lightweight cable on the Miracle, but it uses the same plug as the JH13FP, which can be difficult to use with phones in cases. Cables are connectorized at the earpieces and are replaceable. Quite an unusual set of accessories with this headphone including: QA measurement datasheet from manufacture; a roughly 5cm glass cube paperweight; a metal 'business card' with serial number, date of manufacture, and warranty period; a jewelery type clamshell carry case (no clasp for secure closure); a pair of attenuator ear plugs (very nice, thanks!); a cleaning tool; and a couple of brochures. Fit and comfort was quite good.

I enjoyed the sound of the Unique Melody Miracle quite a bit. I felt the tonal balance overall was quite neutral with just a bit of additional mid-treble sparkle and a slight lack of bass. Imaging was very good but couldn't quite keep up with the JH13FP. Dynamics were good, but I wouldn't characterize these as punchy sounding.

Here's the thing though, these things really sang. Second only in my mind to the JH13Pro, there was a lovely clarity in the mids and treble that was both natural and articulate. The Miracle is a very nice choice for classical and acoustic music listeners.

Product page here.

Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor UERM ($999)
ToTLMaddness_Photo_UERMThe cable on UE headphones is slightly thicker than that of most CIEMs I tested, but is no less flexible or tangle-free than thiner cabled models. Cables can be removed from earpieces. The plug is more slender than the JH, UM, Sensaphonics, and Aurasonics, and does just fit into my phones. Accesories are a bit slim with the UE headphones including a rather bullky 6.5" x 4.5" x 1.5" aluminum carry case, and a cleaning tool. Optionally available are a smaller aluminum carry case, and an iPhone compatible cable with remote and mic.

Desinged with input from recording engineers at Capitol Records, Ultimate Ears claims the UERM is designed to be as flat as possible...and I have to say they've achieved that to a very close degree. They are a surprisingly neutral headphone. While the bass level is good, I do find them a little loose sounding and lacking in punch. In the mid-treble there seems to be a bit of extra zazz to the sound, giving them a slightly aggressive nature. I wouldn't call them harsh, though. I suspect that these indeed would be very good headphones for audio professionals as they are so neutral and do readily lay bare the treble region where sound problems may occur, but their slightly aggressive nature may tire audio enthusiasts.

Product page here.

Ultimate Ears UE18 ($1350)
ToTLMaddness_Photo_UE18The cable on UE headphones is slightly thicker than that of most CIEMs I tested, but is no less flexible or tangle-free than thiner cabled models. Cables can be removed from earpieces. The plug is more slender than the JH, UM, Sensaphonics, and Aurasonics, and does just fit into my phones. Accesories are a bit slim with the UE headphones including a rather bullky 6.5" x 4.5" x 1.5" aluminum carry case, and a cleaning tool. Optionally available are a smaller aluminum carry case, and an iPhone compatible cable with remote and mic.

The Ultimate Ear UE18 sounded a little muffled to me, seemingly lacking a bit in the presence region of the upper-mids/low-treble. Mid-treble remains nicely placed, with upper-treble a bit withdrawn, but still pretty good and without harshness. Bass weight and extension is good, but lacks some tightness and punch; overall a bit wooly and, with the withdrawn presence region, adds to the sense of being slightly muffled sounding. Overall dynamics are okay, but image depth and specificity is a bit poor.

Product page here.

Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor UEPRM ($2000)
ToTLMaddness_Photo_UEPRMSee UE18 above for physical info.

The UEPRM is quite unique, when you order one you first have to spend time listening with the equalizer box which allows you to select the levels of the bass, mid-range, and treble for your own personal desires. At RMAF last year I spent about a half hour setting the levels I thought I'd prefer. A little extra bass, and a little less treble were my choices. Now, having spent some time listening to the UEPRM I "designed", I have to say I think I did a poor job.

Comparing my selection against the UERM, for example, I felt my UEPRM was overly warm with a significantly muted treble. The mids sound shouty and hard compared to other UE cans. Had I not had all the other CIEMs to compare, I certainly would have enjoyed my UEPRMs, but being able to go back and forth between better balanced earphones has me thinking that it's simply not a good idea to try to tune your own headphones---it's just so easy to follow your sense in the moment and get lead astray. Okay, maybe it was doing in show conditions—it would have been easier in an audiologists office—or maybe I'm just too excitable when diddling with knobs, but it didn't turn out as well for me as I would like. My fault, certainly.

Here's the good news, Ultimate Ears knows this can happen, and they're happy to preform an addition retweek if you've screwed the pooch on the first go round—like I did. But it gave me pause, getting to twiddle the knobs yourself costs you about an extra $1000 And with some of the exceptionally good sounding CIEMs in this article and their variety of sound signatures, I'm not sure it's worth the extra grand. If you do want to do it though, I suggest you spend a lot of time with an equalizer using very familiar music to EQ various headphones to get used to it before you go.

Product page here.

Altec Lansing ACS A3 ($999)
ToTLMaddness_Photo_AltecLansingACSA3One of the two soft silicon CIEMs I tested, I found the Altec Lansing ACS A3 very, very comfortable. The cable is a more traditional insulated design, which I found a little less flexible and having more memory than most other cables in the test. It's not that it would tangle, but rather its rubbery nature prevented it from laying flat or staying put. I did like the slim 90-degree angle connector, however, that easily fit in through cases. Cables are permanently attached to the earpieces. Comes with a deck of cards sized hard case and a smaller zippered pouch.

I heard the Altec ACS A3 as being a little too strong in the lower-mid-range and mid-treble, which made for a headphone that sounded both a little warm and woolly, and a little aggressive at times. Bass had good tightness and extension with plenty of slam, but treble lacked air and a sense of space. Boy, I wish these sounded a little bit better because the comfort was spectacular compared to the acrylic bodied CIEMs.

Product page here.

Sensaphonics 3MAX ($1050)
ToTLMaddness_Photo_Sensaphonics3MaxThis is another soft silicon CIEM that is remarkably comfortable. I comes with a 6" x 4" x 2" Pelican case, and a small zippered pouch. The 4' cables are rather thicker and stiffer than other CIEMs tested, and has a coaxial connector at the earpiece similar to the Shure cables, which can rotate for a fine tuned fit over the ears. The 90-degree angle plug is a bit bulky.

I found the Sensaphonics 3MAX to have a strong upper mid-range response that gave then a forward sounding signature. An audiophile might call them somewhat shouty, but here's the thing: These headphones are not for audiophiles. These headphones are for stage performers. You gotta be able to hear the beat and the music, and you've got to be able to do it every night. They can't be fatiguing or damaging to your ears. Who knows what kind of crappy mixer you might be plugged into, so you don't want an earpiece thats bright or harsh. The 3MAX is nice and soft on top, and does a fine job rendering through the mid-range so other sounds are readily apparent, making it a good can for playing along.

And performers might be jumping all over the place. The 3MAX will be significantly more comfortable and significantly more likely to maintain a seal in those conditions. The better seal will provide the ability to reduce on-stage noise and listening levels for better intelligibility and hearing protection—if your ears are how you earn your money it's a good feeling to know they'll be healthy. The thicker cable might be a bit cumbersome for personal listening, but does seem more durable, and that may be an important factor for some performers. I've gotta give the Sensaphonics a strong "Stuff We Like" for performers who need to wear an earpiece on stage regularly, especially if they're active at all. Exceptions would be those who actually needed really good audio fidelity to perform, where I would recommend the Westone ES5.

Product page here.

Aurisonics AS-2 ($799)
ToTLMaddness_Photo_AurisonicsAS2The Aurisonics AS-2 is the only hybrid design of CIEMs I reviewed having a 15mm dynamic driver and twin balanced armature tweeters. The cable is exactly like the JH13Pro cables. The AS-2 comes in medium sized Otterbox case, and has a small velour carry pouch as well.

One unusual feature with these CIEMs is a tunable bass port. I did have to spend quite a bit of time twiddling with this adjustment as it's quite sensitive and makes a very large change in bass and low-mids when adjusted.

Once I got what I felt was the best adjustment, I still found these cans remain uneven in response. The bass sounded loose and confused, and lacked extension into the lowest octave. The mid-range was fair, but tended toward a warm tilt that continued into the treble in an ever steepening roll-off. To be truthful, I found these so poor sounding I almost didn't include them in the review. The lack of high frequency response is so severe I thought for a while that the tweeters might not even be hooked up, but I could equalize the upper treble into existence so I doubt that's the case. There is a chance that there is a problem with this set; I will return them to Aurisonics for inspection. If it turn out they were faulty, I will listen to replacement pair and report back hear and in a monthly update.

Product page here.

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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