The Advanced Audiophile Goes Chi-Fi!: Reviews of Earphones Under $10!

“All I wanted was a pair of earphones for my cell. That’s it. It was only supposed to be that. Just one measly little pair of…”

Ok, so I’m taking a break from the World of Beltism to explore the World of Chi Fi, to get into some serious earphoning. (Don’t get excited, it’s only temporary). Here, I undertake a major, comprehensive, multi-product review of an array of VLPE’s (Very Low Priced Earphones!). aka “in-ear monitors”, aka “canalphones”. All of which can be ordered online for nothing more than a sawbuck (or the modique sum of $10 U.S. or less….).

Arguably, all the earphones and accessories in this article combined, still don’t add up to the cost of one good earphone. So, which is the better value? Perhaps this will help decide that…. I’ve had more serious eargear in the past, but I also get sick of getting them tangled in my bicycle spokes. Or other creative ways they can get broken. Now you may think that $10 u.s. is too low to be worth your while. But from what I’ve heard so far, I think on grounds of sound, it’s enough to satisfy about 70% of the earphone-using population. Add another $10-$20 to make “$20-$30 or less”, and I figure that should cover about 85% of the population’s SQ needs. Read on to see why.

 

List of Models Reviewed

In-Ear Monitors

 

Hangrui “Turbo”:$1

 

AKG “S9”: $1

 

Xiaomi “MI Piston 3, Huosai Ed.”: $5

 

 

Xiaomi “MI Piston 2”: $2

 


AWEI “Q9“: $5

 


KZ “EDR1“: $3.50

 

QKZ “DM7”:$6.50

 

KZ “HD9”: (“Stormtrooper”: $5.65 / “Darth Vader”: $3 / “Darth Vader with A Tie”: $2.75)

 


QKZ “DM1”: $3.75

 

KZ “ATE”: $8.88

 

MI “M2 Basic”: $0.75c

 


KZ “ZS3”: $10

 


KZ “ED7”: $4.50

 


KZ “ZSN”: $14.25

 

Sony “MH755:$6.71

 

Inpher “Fuqing B-2”: $4.50

 

Fonge “T01”: $2.30

 

 

QKZ “CK5”: $2.50

 

VPB “V11”: $1.00

 

 


QKZ “W1 Pro”: $5.50

 

 


KZ “ATR”: $5.00

 

Remax “610D”: $3

 

Fonge “FG002”: $5

 

UrbanFun “Hi-Fi” (Original BA/DD Hybrid): $22

 

Earbuds

Venture Electronics “Monk+”: $5

 

SeaHF “AWK-F64”: $6.71

 

Vido: $5.50

 

FAAEAL “Snow Lotus 1.0”: $11.00

 

RY4S “Original”: $7.14

 

QianYun “Qian39”: $5.50

 

Ty “Hi-Z HP-32”: $7.35

VE “Monk Lite”: $6

 

Edifier “H180”: $6

Fengru “DIY MX500”: $3.86

 

MRice “E100”: $4.81

 

Headroom “MS16”: $6

 

 


AWEI “ES10”: $3.50

 

 

The $1 Dollar Brigade: Lightning Round Reviews! (Or “6 Earphones In 6 Minutes”…)

 

The Hangrui “Turbo” Revisited: The Colour Test

 

Accessories

KZ Upgrade Cable

 

Reviews & Comparisons of Various Low-Cost Eartips & Earbud Foams

 

Review of MPow Wireless Bluetooth Earphone Adapter/Converter/Receiver Thingamajiggy

 

 

Additional Articles & Guides

 

 

The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: Earbuds vs. In-Ear Earphones (IEM’s)

 

 

The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: Tweaking Earbuds

 

 

The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: Earbud Accessories – Testing Earbud Foam Colours

 

 

The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: Hacking Earbuds

 

 

A Better Way To Wear Buds

 

 

The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: Tweaking IEM’s

 

 

The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: Burn-In

 

 

The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: Fake Earphones on eBay

 

 

The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: Shopping On AliExpress

 

 

The Advanced Audiophile Guide To: Eartips

 

 

The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: IEM Earphone Upgrade Cables

 

 

The Advanced Audiophile Guide To: Earphone Sound

 

 

Testing Styles of Fit: Down-the-Ear vs. Over-the-Ear

 

 

The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: The Objectivist Approach to Earphone Testing

 

 

Overall Review Project Conclusion

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Samsung G7 generics: The start of the journey. Sure, you can start here, but God help you if you end here!
V-Moda “Vibe”Price: $50 u.s.

Welcome to the World of Chi-Fi!

“Chi-Fi” is what the headgearphiles are calling the Chinese-branded IEM scene.  This is not a world where the old adage “you get what you pay for” applies, in any meaningful way. The earphone sector of the audio scene today breaks all the rules, AFAIC. And what can I say, the nihilist in me gets a warm feeling of personal satisfaction, whenever it sees a rule getting broken.

For example, the traditional name brands like Sony, Panasonic, JVC; that I have always come to rely on for quality in the budget earphone department, are pale imitations of what they once stood for, and no longer have any lustre to their names. As such, they appear overall to be inferior choices, in comparison with the so-called “Chi-Fi” brands. More often than not, the name brands just don’t compete as well with their nameless competitors. Not in terms of sound, build, value, or all three.

Most of the earphones I went for were sold under the brand names “KZ” or “QKZ”, because they are among the top brands that dominate the no-budget Chi-Fi segment of the IEM market. Makes sense, as they offer excellent value for the pittance paid. Speaking of names, there are such a dizzying array of “Chi-Fi” brands of earphones (ie. “Fonge”, “QKZ”, “KZ”, “UiiSii”, “QCY”, “Betron”, “Langsdom”, “MoreBlue”, “Plextone”, ad infinitum), that branding becomes essentially a meaningless exercise. The names usually sound like what the Chinese think American names sound like. Or drummed up by a contestant on the game show “Wheel of Fortune”, who didn’t want to invest in buying any extra vowels. That hardly inspires brand loyalty.

These companies even undercut their own branding! For example, no one can seem to quite figure out whether the brand “QKZ” (“Quality Knowledge Zenith”), is the parent company behind the more popular brand, “KZ” (“Knowledge Zenith”), or perhaps the reverse, or if they’re unrelated! Both produce similar but altogether different competing models. I imagine the employee paycheques for all these companies just reads “Shenzen Inc.”, as the payee. Heck, sometimes they don’t even bother with branding at all! I’ve also heard it said that getting addicted to “KZ” models, is a “thing”, in this community. If so then…. woohoo! For once, I’m on the curl of the wave!

For the record, unlike many other reviews you may see on such items, I’m not getting paid to write any of this. Or getting free earphones from anyone, out of the deal. My opinions therefore are without prejudice, and contain only my usual biases toward good sound, and good value. I will use my good and trusty “V-Moda Vibe” IEM’s, which I know well, as a basis of comparison for these models. So if I find anything that beats it in all respects, I’ll let you know!

Also, as none of this is sponsored, there are no “sponsored links” herein. So use whatever links you want, if you wish to order any of the models for yourself. I have nevertheless included links next to the listed price, of the models that I purchased. If people want to buy from the same source. I can think of two good reasons to do that; 1) I know how difficult it may be to locate some of these, and at a good price! 2) In some cases, my source may help establish whether an earphone is a fake or the genuine article. (ie. If I suspect it’s a fake, I’ll say so in the review).

n.b. All prices given are in U.S. dollars, and the models are being reviewed, more or less in the order they were received. As of this writing, most items reviewed were available, at the stores listed. Due to the mercurial nature of this market, this may very well be subject to change by the time you read this article. In fact, some of my sellers (or their wares) were already gone before completing the article. So in those cases, I could not use the original link to my purchase. I can only advise that if there’s something you want, get it sooner than later. Either the price will go up, which I see is already the case for many items featured here, or that model might be impossible to find (as is the case with the original “Monk” earphone from Venture Electronics).

Review Pending: n.b. Because it’s taken so many months to finish this article, I am releasing it in the wild, before completion. This means that if you are reading this note, not all models are in, yet. Those incomplete reviews will be marked as “REVIEW PENDING“.

The Lowdown: n.b. For those suffering from S.A.S.S., I include very brief encapsulations of the review of each model, at the end of the review. As this is an inadequate assessment, I do not recommend buying an earphone just off of this blurb. If you’re really interested in a particular model, I strongly suggest you read the entire review, however painful that might be. Because, e.g, sometimes, my assessment of the sound profile of an earphone changes entirely due to a change of eartips, and that may not make it to the “Conclusion” or “Lowdown” segments. In which case it will only be noted within the “Tweaking” section. Also, don’t miss the “Overall Review Project Conclusion” at the end of this article. That’s where I take an overview look at this review series, and make general observations that hopefully, may shed further light into these esoteric ear-baubles from China, and help you choose what’s more appropriate for your needs, if anything.

 


Hangrui “Turbo”
Price: $1 shipped
(eBay)

 Hangrui “Turbo” – “Yeah, that and a dollar will get you these earphones.”

I’ll start the review series with this really low end model, ‘cos they’re the first pair I received. I’m not sure of either the model or the brand name for these, as they’re too cheap to sport a model or a consistent name. I’ve seen them sold on AliExpress and eBay under the name “Hangrui”, and many other  names as well. “Hangrui” is just the name of one of the sellers, but as a point of reference, well call ’em the “Hangrui Turbo”. (The word “turbo” is often associated with this model, in various ad listings).

Hangrui “Turbo” – experimenting with different ear tips

One thing I can be sure of, is that they cost me nothing more than $1 U.S. dollar! Shipped! Worldwide! If that isn’t the best value in audio right there, I don’t know what is! Sure, it’s China… but last I checked, they also have to buy food in China to avoid starvation. So I still don’t know how they do it.

It cost me more than $1 just to get to the post office to mail an envelope! And another dollar to mail that envelope to next door, even if I put nothing in it! Not to mention that it costs me more than a dollar for the bubble envelope they are shipped in, and the time involved! Plus several more dollars to pay to track that envelope. It also costs at least a dollar to buy a pair of silicone eartips, or a 3.5mm connector!

Hangrui “Turbo” Mystery Model: “Punching above its weight wearing a fine set of brass knuckles”.

Yet whoever’s behind these $1 I.V.E.’s (Incredible Value Earphones), are distributing, molding, designing, producing shells, drivers, plugs, wires, ear tips and all that’s involved, plus shipping them to the other side of the world, often having to pay for tracking the package, plus whatever packaging is involved for the product or shipping, plus having to pay scores of employees involved in this process, plus middlemen like eBay sellers… (whew!)…. for one single dollar! Wait, did I mention the sound yet??

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Truthfully, if they didn’t even work at all, it would still be a miracle of modern capitalism, that these things can be shipped to your door from anywhere, for that price. We truly are spoiled children. But even more incredible? Not only do they work, they don’t look or sound anything like what you might expect a dollar investment in earphones to sound like. So let’s get started checking them out….

Fit & Finish

So what do you get for a dollar these days? How about a pair of stylish turbine-engine gunmetal-grey in-ear phones, with soft-touch silicone rubber wiring, that even includes a remote control with Pause/Play button, and shells that appear to be made of metal, instead of plastic?!

From an ID (Industrial Design) standpoint, they’re excellent. From an audio design standpoint, they’re interesting as well. See that hole in the centre of the back end? It’s a very tiny grill, that unlike many other Chi-Fi models (like KZ’s), actually functions as a grill! I tested this by covering it up with a finger and hearing a lot less sound coming out. This means the IEM is an open-end design, a design which purportedly offers a larger soundstage. The fact that the earpieces aren’t sealed, makes it even more surprising how much bass you can hear out of these little creatures.

Speaking of little, the earpieces are indeed very small. How small? Smaller and not much longer than the dark grey silicone ear tips that came with them (the white ones in the photo are substitutions, for the sake of experimentation). They’re the smallest earphones being reviewed here. This means the whole thing is very light, unobtrusive and discreet when installed in your ears, and the relatively tiny size should make it compatible with almost any ear. The silicone rubber wire is on the thin side (at this price point…). Because of the wire size, I have no confidence they will hold up, if you just throw them in a bag and are not careful handling them. But so far I have tossed them around a bit, used them nearly every day for a number of weeks, and no issues. The Pause/Play works on my iPhone and Android.

Sound Leakage: That little hole in the centre of the back of the earpiece is the vent port, and unlike what you find on many budget models, I can safely say that these are not fake grills! Cover those holes and the sound leaks far less. Leave them uncovered (as they should be), and they leak out about as much sound as an earbud! So, these are not suitable for libraries, or any place you do not wish to disturb others.

Sound

The sound is what blew me away, for the very fact that I knew they were $1 earphones! Given that fact, it was almost disorienting to hear, at times, either details in songs not heard before, or an almost holographic soundstage. That particular quality could be described as being in a rectangular room, where you can pinpoint elements of sound in specific locations. I’m talking remote areas of the stage, where you don’t expect them to come from. That’s not to say it has a really large soundstage, necessarily (it’s a bit larger than the head, roughly speaking). And admittedly, this 3D experience only occurred rarely, only a few times, when for whatever reason, all the audio stars were aligned in space. But again, the fact that an item flown in direct to me from China for no more than a dollar was able to give me that experience…

The AliExpress identity.

In terms of tonal balance, that aspect of the sound is also surprisingly good. They are far better balanced tonally, than many other models I’ve heard. Depending on how they are configured (vis a vis 3rd party eartips), they either don’t pump out rooms full of bass, or they can put out an unbelievable amount of bass, from such a small canister! Even with the stock tips, they’re not particularly lean in the bass dept. either. But bass is there when it’s there (you can follow underlying bass melodies), and not as boomy as you’d expect. It does not overrun the mids, and both the midrange and highs are never shrill, never fatiguing. The highs are rolled off a bit actually, which is one reason why the sound is not tiring.

The small KZ dome tips I used look like the red bore one pictured at the centre of this photo.

Tweaking: However, after experimenting with KZ Starline tips (Small), that gave a much better tonal balance by lightening up the bass a lot, and allowing the midrange to come to the fore. (Highs are still never a problem, with this one). And to my surprise, those Starline tips also made them sound far more costly, by improving resolution all around. With the KZ red-bore/grey shell dome-shaped tips (Small), the sound changed just as dramatically in the opposite direction. With these, there was an incredible amount of bass coming out of the earphones, and more incredibly, that bass was quite well defined! Moreover, resolution was improved right across the board, making earphones that already sounded like they cost 20 times more, sound like they cost 50 times more!

Listening to Be-Good Tanyas “Ship Out To Sea” with the Hangruis outfitted with sm. KZ red bore/grey tips and installed in my ears, I can not adequately describe in the Bard’s english how good this combo sounded at that moment. It left me wanting for nothing. It was liquid, musical, with powerful and well defined bass, tonally balanced and a very enjoyable listening experience overall.

Shootout: The Hangrui Turbo Colour Test: For the “sci-curious”, I test 2 more samples of different colour variations of the Hangrui Turbo, in the “$1 Dollar Brigade: Lightning Round Reviews” section. This, in order to determine if there are perceptible sound differences between them, and if so, which might prove to have the better sound.

Shootout: Turbo vs. V-Moda: Then I made the mistake of comparing this combo to the aforementioned “V-Modas” I had, with the very same KZ tips installed on both earphones. …And the Hangrui’s took the trophy home! If you listened closely, the V-Modas offered a certain sense of refinement over the Hangruis. But the Hangruis had it all over the Vibes in every other way. Their sound was immersive and large, where the Vibes were distant and smaller. Their bass was far more present and powerful than what the Vibes were doling out, and the whole experience was far more musically interesting on the Hangruis.

Shootout: Turbo vs. KZ ATE: Then I made the mistake of comparing the Hangrui Turbos to the KZ ATEs! The ATE’s were outfitted with the best tips I found for them; red bore KZ dome tips that came with the KZ EDR1 (pictured above). The Hangruis wore their stock dark grey wide-bore eartips. Now as for sound, while the Hangrui was muddier with less well-controlled bass, the ATE’s midrange sounded distant in comparison, with far less bass information. The Hangrui in this configuration, just made things more interesting to listen to. All for a total outlay of $2 shipped!

“Hangrui” earphones in Sweden

FYI, these are the earphones I used for the listening tests on my tweak; “The 1-Cent Tweak“. So I was going around the house, placing pennies on walls, window sills, the underside of freezer doors etc. Using nothing but a cell phone and these $1 earphones to determine the penny-related sonic characteristics of those household locations! I do find with their stock tips they are sensitive to in-ear placement. Meaning that they need to be well inserted into the ears, to achieve decent bass and sound. Otherwise, if loose, bass drops off dramatically, sound goes south.

In case anyone reading this wants to try them out, I’ve included the ad’s photo and seller identities from both eBay and AliExpress, to help track down this model. Finally, a search on the image is another way to track it down. Keep in mind, there’s no guarantee that another model that looks the same, even if it looks exactly the same, will sound the same!

Pro’s:

  • They’re a dollar!
  • They cost a dollar!!!
  • ONE DOLLAR!!!!
Cons:

  • Not quite the detail and resolution of $50 IEM’s.
  • A little bit on the warm, bassy side to be truly neutral and fully balanced. (This can be also be considered a “pro” however…).
  • Construction has held up, but not as robust as costlier models.

 

Conclusion: (Original Version): RECOMMENDED    (Modified Version): HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  I’m not sure I believe it myself, but the Hangrui Turbo’s, may in a certain way be more of a “giant killer”, than the KZ’s are reputed to be. I already have a lot more sophisticated earphones as of this writing, yet I keep remaining interested in returning to these nameless wonders. One of a million such models. They’re an IEM chameleon, performing the nifty trick of changing their character radically, depending on what tips you marry them with. I actually gave them away, then got a different pair around the same price,  then thought “what if those are not as good?”, then exchanged the Turbos’ to my giftee for a lovely new pair of KZ HD9’s! Finally, I got two more Hangrui Turbos in other colours (reviewed here if interested). It’s not that I don’t like the HD9’s, but these seem like they might have something special. An expressive midrange, a warm sound, a complete lack of stridency, a fairly neutral balance, a nice soundstage, a fit that disappears on you…

n.b. Even more observations on the capabilities of these deceptive little Turbo’s, can be found toward the end of this article, in “The Hangrui “Turbo” (Revisited)“. My extended test of various colour variations of the Hangrui “Turbo”! That exploration includes some minor modifications to the Turbo that transform the sound of this model in amazing ways!

“I can state that with the modifications outlined in the “Revisited” section below, and despite whatever technical limitations $1 may impose on an earphone, the Hangrui Turbo has remained one of the best earphones in my collection, for pure quality of sound.”

The Lowdown: The unbranded and uncelebrated “Hangrui Turbo(?)”, a nearly cost-free earphone of unknown origin and name, is light as air, and a surprisingly good all-rounder. An inoffensive top-end, some actual soundstage capabilities, and a well-balanced tonal character with more bass weight than expected, carries the day for the Hangrui Turbo. In its unmodified form, it may be muddier and lack the resolution of costlier models, but otherwise, has no significant flaws at this price. In its ‘modified’ state, I feel this particular black-wire version can take its place among the best sound profiles of all the earphones I’ve managed to collect in recent days. It comes well recommended.

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AKG S9
Price: $1 shipped (eBay)

 

These “AKG’s” were also one of the first buds I bought in this series of purchases. Everything I said about the “Hangrui” phones related to their value, applies to the AKG in spades! How so? Because these earphones also sold for $1 U.S. dollar, total! Shipped! From CHYNA! (Read that last word in the “Trumpian” voice, please).

If I stretch my imagination out a little, I can almost conceive of a situation where you could buy the “Hangrui” earphones for nothing more than $1, shipped… Perhaps the factory where they make them caught fire. They threw little packets of these “Hangrui” earphones out the window, where they could, to save out supply. Then someone knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone else who works for the Post Office in “CHYNA!“, and can slip the earphones into the stream and under the radar. No one says a thing, no one pays a thing and Bob’s your uncle. And that’s maybe how you can end up with the best smoke-scented earphones a dollar can buy.

But wait a minute, these are AKG’s**?!! This brand has been making quality headphones since I was a kid! I have AKG portable phones, and boy, they did not cost anywhere near one dollar! How is this even possible, to buy brand new AKG branded earphones for a dollar, packaged in bubble wrap envelopes and shipped all the way from CHYNA!?? How is it possible for the myriad of people involved to make a profit on this, even? Did we go back in time, but with our present tech? Perhaps it’s best not to ponder that question any further, and just count our blessings… while this crazy situation lasts!

**As I later learned… they’re not really AKG’s!  AKG was bought by Samsung, in a package deal that I think included Harmon Kardon, the Queen of England, and the Green Bay Packers. One can certainly say that Samsung have come a long, long way since their early days producing cheap rotary telephones. So, they’re actually Samsung earphones, that their newly acquired AKG “tuned” for Samsung, to be released with their Galaxy S9 phone.

Design and Build

Apparently, “secretly waterproof”?!

It’s an amazing thing, but despite the earpieces being made of plastic, these ‘phones are actually more solidly built than the unbranded $1 “Hangrui” model. I love the cable on this model. It isn’t just heavier gauge than the “Hangrui’s”,  but its sheathed in a braided fabric , reminiscent of what you might see on the “House of Marley” cans. This makes it really pleasant to the touch, difficult to tangle, easier to untangle, and with the right amount of stiffness. This housing protects the joint at the plug end. However, the wire leading from the Y-join that terminates at both earpieces does not have this insulation. It’s the usual silicone rubber, not much thicker than the thin “Hangrui” model. So the wire leading into the earpieces could conceivably cause a fault, if gentle care is not taken and it’s bent too sharply. The remote is slim, with a mic and two +/- volume buttons. The earpieces are hard plastic, and the pipes that hold the eartips are heavily angled. So, not like the “Hangrui” model, but much closer in design to the Xiaomi Piston 3 Huosai Edition. The ear tips are large, soft rubber silicone. You could actually wear this IEM in the “over-the-ear” style for better security, but the in-line mic won’t be useable, next to your ear.

Sound

As you might expect, the AKG sound nothing like the other $1 earphones in this test review. The first thing you’re hit with, is the bass. Then the second thing you’re hit with is…. the bass. Let me say, if you’re used to earphones anemic in this region, as is the case with most stock headphones you get with mobiles, it’s a welcome change. The bass can be described as boomy, and does bleed into the mids, with the usual result of colouring the mid-range. However, I’m not antithetical to this effect. Sure, it’s a coloured sound. In fact, the sound profile is relentlessly “dark”. As the listener, you have to be ok with that. But the end result is a sound that is extremely “unfatiguing”. Even more so than the “Hangrui” model (or any model I’ve tried so far).

With the comfort level way up there, this means you can use and wear the AKG S9’s all day and then some.  The mids are not the place to go looking for fine details, and the highs are rolled off as well. So while you won’t get sparkle, you can even play cheesy 80’s power-synth rock at loud volumes. Which I don’t recommend doing, but if you did, it won’t sound like cat claws on a chalkboard. Just warmth and more warmth, all the way going. And despite the boxy mids that suggest you’re in the low end of things, there were times when these modest earphones really, really shone, amid all the darkness. I’m talking soundstage that extends beyond the head, and a sweet, natural timbre and rich sonority on instruments like piano, violin, and so on. Moreover, after experimenting on the AKG’s by replacing the eartip with a very small and short (protruding but a mm beyond the nozzle) silicone eartips with a large bore, much of the overblown bass was gone. And though still rich in bass, the earphone became far better balanced!

Tweaking: I installed larger, thin silicone domes on the AKG S9, in place of the stock eartips. They felt like wearing a bulky sweater, but they made a better seal than the tips it came with. What it did to the sound, was quite the surprise. I reported that the AKG’s had a lot of bass, but with bloom. These foam tips firmed up that bass, and in the process, the mids and highs as well. I had zero complaints about the sound, after doing that. Even if it was “darker” still, and could be better. I could listen to that sound all day, on any song, without issues. For lesser bass, just use a shorter tip with a wide bore. This not only decreases excessive bass, it increases bass quality, which gets you more into the music, and creates a more balanced sound.

Turbo vs. AKG:

p.s. If you’re wondering whether I prefer these $1 buds over the Hangrui’s well… so am I! Because either can do things the other can’t. If I had to choose only between these two models, and I were to pick one as a “monitor”, it’d be the “Hangrui”. (Though the Hangrui can be bassy, the AKG is bassier; but also muddier and smoother). If I were to pick one as a so-called “daily driver”, where I just wanted the fun of listening to music and not analyze it, it’d be the AKG’s. But with their greater sense of refinement, the Hangrui Turbos sound like they cost more. However, the lines are less clear, after further eartip experimentation. I settled on brown wide-bore M-size silicone tips, and find I just don’t ‘miss’ the Turbos, when I hear the AKG’s now. (Both are sounding really good these days, even after most of the other models have come in!).

Fakespotting

Finally… are they fakes? Or did Samsung/AKG really make these? There’s a chance they may not, since anything “Samsung” makes, makes a good target for the fraudsters. But does it matter at this price and level of quality? It must not, since I bought 5 of them, to donate to others to try them out. Having said that, there are strong indications these are fakes of the genuine Samsung/AKG product. Those indications include reading reviews of the genuine article, where the sound profile is quite different (minimal bass, for example). As well, the genuines, while included free with the Galaxy S8 smartphone, sell separately for $100! Not $1!

Conclusion: RECOMMENDED

Compared to the KZ’s or pricier items, the AKG’s fall short in terms of resolution, as they will appear muddy and indistinct in sound, next to a higher class of IEM. They are not without their charm however, even in such a difficult juxtaposition. Their dark sweet character that all but ensures a fatigue-free experience, may be preferable to some, over the sharp biting highs of many KZ models.  All in all, the AKG’s sound better than they have a right to, to be honest, and seem even more durable than the Hangruis. Plus, they can keep up the pace well enough to almost be called “musical”! Wait, did I mention all this for one dollar?? Shipped?!

I guess in some ways….  it’s a good time to be in audio, guys.

The Lowdown: This “version” of the “AKG S9”, is another ambitious model that defies its price, over build and sound. Then again, I’ve seen it being sold for seventeen times what I paid, and under various monikers. Like the equally insanely-priced Hangrui, it may be found to be muddier overall, than those in the class above it. But it is fatigue-free, with more than its share of bass retrieval, no lack of midrange, dark highs and a sweet, engaging, “fun” sound. Tweaked, it’s possible to produce an amazing sound out of these, for the cost of a cup of coffee. Get one for everyone on your Christmas list, ‘cos this year, Santa’s gone “Chi-Fi”, baby!

 


Xiaomi Mi Piston 3 Huosai Edition (aka “Fresh” Edition)
Price: $5 shipped (eBay)

Xiaomi Mi Piston 3 – Huosai Edition

The Company: I love this company, “Xiaomi” (“jau-me“). They are truly the “Apple” of China. Of course, they didn’t rip off all their designs from Dieter Rams and other more talented people, then patent them, then call it their own, and then sue anyone who copies the designs they stole into bankruptcy. So true, they’re not exactly like “Apple”.

Under the brand “MI”, Xiaomi make excellent Android TV boxes, wifi routers, remotes, mice, cell phones, and just a ton of more products than Apple. Plus, their “Smartisan OS” is brilliant! So in this roundup, I had to try one of their earphones, see?

This is probably their lowest priced model at this time, and I was able to get it on eBay @ $5 U.S., shipped! Remember that price point, because on sound and build grounds, the Piston 3’s  can already be expected to be superior to the stock buds you get in Apple and Samsung cell phone products. For example, these are way better than the Samsung buds I started this article with, and those were about $3.50 apiece!

The Model: Xiaomi makes many models with the name “Piston” in it. It took forever to sort through the mess! You can find many sellers selling buds like Piston 3’s under numerous sub-model names (“Basic Edition”, “Youth Edition”, “Fresh Edition” etc), and they may not be the same, even with identical names. e.g. These have a round (not flat) cable, and a remote that’s angled at the top/bottom, not squared off. I’ve seen plenty “Piston 3″‘s called “Fresh Edition”, that were not the same as these.

Also, there’s a standard “Piston 3” that does not have the name “Edition” associated with it, looks nothing at all like this model of “Piston 3”. It’s also significantly different in price, as well as being superior in quality and sound to this cheaper variation. Thus, that model is considered the “real” Piston 3 (and of course, there are various incarnations of the “real Piston 3”, depending on the year released). So for the sake of clarity, my Piston 3’s featured here are officially named “Huosai Edition” (though you won’t see that name with most sellers!). Muddying the waters even further, are all the fake “Pistons” on the market, being they’re one of the more “faked” products made. Ahhh… what’s not to love about China?!

Fit & Finish

They’re a “MI'” product, so you can expect that design is going to be front and centre. Even though in this instance, Xiaomi didn’t design this themselves. It’s made for them by a company called “1More”. Which has plenty of other very nice models under their own brand name. Including a model called simply “Piston”, which is close in design and quality to this model, but priced higher.

The wire gauge here is nice for the price. Thicker for example than the (cheaper) AKG’s or “Hangrui” phones. It also has a more solid, rubbery feel to it. I don’t have the Apple buds on hand, but its probably comparably similar. I expect the wire to hold up reasonably well, and that’s irregardless of price. The remote has a mic, and single Play/Pause button. The Piston 3 Huosai stand out in regard to the shells being made of solid anodized aluminum (despite looking like plastic!). Gift a pair, and you can easily get away with claiming they cost ten times the price! 😉

Sound

As expected, they readily outperform the cheaper buds, like AKG/”Hangrui”/Samsung. At least in terms of resolution and soundstage. Haven’t lived with them for long yet, but what I did hear when properly inserted into the ear canal, was a well balanced sound. Neither highs, nor mids, nor lows stood out among the crowd; and at no time did I try to reach for an equalizer. (I don’t normally use equalizers with earphones anyway). To reach for criticism, while there was some degree of detail and everything well presented, sound kind of left me as “dry”. So my initial impression is that it could use a bit more “fun”. (The AKG’s for example, are less dry, and a more “fun” listen!). But for $5 shipped? Fuggedaboutit! They’re a surprisingly good quality item at that price. They look cool, they inhabit a cool brand, and I think they would likely make a good choice for most non-audiophile consumers. Even not-too-demanding audiophiles.

Fakespotting

Oh, one last thing…. are they fakes?? Not as far as I can tell, no! I checked the white “MI” box they came in. It appeared at least similar to what others received. I checked the “MI” tag fastened to the end of the cable. It’s an authenticity check with a Q-code. You scan it, and it should take you to the “MI” website. Some customers reported theirs went to a different site; ie. “Mijera.com”.  Some sellers state the tags on their Piston 3’s do not work outside China. Well, I’m outside China, and the tag sent me to the mi.com site saying it passed authenticity check! Then I thought they might be fakes because the rings at the end of the gold-plated plug were white. Most MI models showed black rings. Further research showed that “Fresh Edition” models, from legitimate MI seller sites, did show the white model as having white rings! I’m pretty satisfied they’re genuine. (Even if they weren’t, they hit well above their cost anyway!).

Conclusion: RECOMMENDED: The Piston 3 Huosai Edition may not be my favourite IEM at around this price (which would be the KZ HD9, at the moment). But they are neutral and inoffensive enough, and well built enough to be a good choice for many. Perhaps one of the better values in the Piston line.

The Lowdown: The Mi Piston 3 Huosai Edition offers an excellent build quality for its price, and a fairly neutral, if somewhat dry sound. It is sure to find appeal with many smartphone owners, as an upgrade to their stock buds.

The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: Fake Earphones on eBay

The Chinese, it should be said, are the world’s leading masters of fake products. They fake everything from beer to entire petrol stations. They’re even known to fake  baby infant formula and pharmaceuticals, wiping out dozens of innocent lives in the fallout. Its estimated that some 40% of products on “Taobao” (China’s eBay), are fakes. Welcome to China! “Lo-Gwei will be your guide. Have some happy bubble tea!”

Well, I hate to run afoul of popular opinion, but you actually can buy genuine original brand items on eBay. You just have to do some legwork to find out the “tells” of a fake product ad, in order to put the chances on your side. For example…

  • The word “for”. If you see “For Xiaomi” in the ad title or body, then it may be more likely to be a fake. For then, the seller can say “It’s for Xiaomi cell phone! Not a Xiaomi earphone!”. (But I’ve seen genuine articles with “For” in the ad’s title nonetheless).
  • On eBay, at the top of the body of the ad (somewhere in the middle of the page), is an official description of the article. In the “Brand” field, see if it gives the actual brand or says “Unbranded/Generic”. If the former, it’s probably genuine. If the latter, probably not. It may be a way out for the seller to claim he never sold it as an authentic article. But again, I’ve also seen genuine articles list the item as “Unbranded” in that field!
  • If the eBay seller’s pictures judiciously avoid showing the brand logo…. they’re probably hiding something!
  • Some sellers may actually state “not original” in the ad for the fake product. But that in small print, tucked away somewhere in the body of the ad, while pictures with the logo and brand name are plastered throughout the rest of it. So look for the logo, and search on terms like “100%”, “authentic”, “original”. However, even those terms are no guarantee they’re not fakes!

Fakes have been seen even on more reputable sites like Amazon and GearBest, and also China’s “AliExpress”. So unless you buy direct from the manufacture, which you can’t in many of these cases, don’t think you’re guaranteed against fakes. Of course, eBay and other sites are likely to offer refunds if you can show that they were sold as genuine, and evidence they are indeed fakes. I was successful in doing so, as mentioned below.  The price, I found, is probably the strongest indicator of authenticity. If research shows it normally sells for $25-30 but the ad is only asking $2 bucks… it’s probably a study in fakery! Which is a great lead-in to my next Xiaomi model…..

.


Xiaomi Piston 2
Price: $2 shipped (eBay)

Xiaomi Piston 2: All that but no bag of chips.

I told you in the Piston 3 review, there were a lot of “Piston” models, right? Well, this “Piston” is yet another model with the same name, that looks nothing like the one I reviewed. That’s because it’s one of the older versions of the “Piston” model, which came before. It held a lot of promise to me, as some reviewers preferred it to the “Piston 3” that came after.

Fit & Finish

These Piston 2’s come with silicone ear tips, and as with the Piston 3 Huosai Edition reviewed above, the earpiece shells are made entirely of metal. So is the 1/4″ plug, and the remote control unit. That’s already better than many name brand models that sell at a much higher price point, with earpieces made of plastic. However, the metal on the earpieces is not solid feeling and heavy, as on the Piston 3’s. It feels and looks like very cheap and light aluminium, on close inspection. In this case, the AKG’s plastic earpieces are actually more solid, I think.

The wire is that texturized fabric type that I like, as found on the AKG’s reviewed here. It is thinner than that of the AKG’s, but unlike the AKG’s, at least the covering is the same (but even thinner), on the wires leading to the earpieces. Overall, the entire unit feels light and cheap in the hand. It has an inline-remote with 3 buttons (pause/play, volume -/+), but the buttons are hard to click. Because the wire is not traditional rubber, I don’t see any obvious signs that the wire on this pair will fail easily and quickly, despite the low-end build. However, when I was replacing the ear tips with something better, the entire nozzle part of the earpiece came unglued. I don’t think it’s supposed to do that ❓  😕

Xiaomi Piston 2: Or are they?

Sound

As soon as I started these buds up, I found the sound to be really impressive. But not in a good way. For the impression they made, was more like “Wow, do these ever sound like shit warmed over!“. The only reason I say that, is because they sound like you have your head stuck in a toilet. They had qualities that drew out terms like  “tinny”, “muddy”, “slightly distorted”, and “out of phase”. That last one was a deal-breaker, if ever there was one.

Though the soundstage is small, it’s not quite mono. But it almost sounds like loudspeakers wired out of phase. To my ears, that is worse than mono. I tried fitting them with specialized eartips to see if that could render them palatable at least, but as they say, it doesn’t do to put lipstick on a pig.

Fakespotting

Oh yeah, these are definitely fakes! But that’s ok. At their asking price of $2U.S., I don’t consider it a loss, since I’m as curious to know what fake Piston 2’s might sound like, as much as the real Piston 2’s. I knew I was going to get some duds at this price level, and my goal was to see if I could find some gems as well. Everything is a learning experience! As I later discovered after getting these, the “real deal” is actually very hard to find now new, as the Piston 2 was discontinued long ago. But, it’s actually easy to find at the moment, if you don’t search on “Xiaomi”, and search instead on “1More” Piston 2. The company that actually makes the model, “1More”, re-released it under their brand. Oh, and it sells for about $30, not $2!

Conclusion: SO NOT RECOMMENDED. I wouldn’t gift them, either. At least not to anyone I liked. Not even to a child, since they won’t hold up in the hands of a child. Also, an adult. But let me add that overall, I still think they’re easily worth $2. If they were the only $2 earphones on the planet. Unfortunately, today, $2 is a pretty active price segment in the earphone market. There’s lots of competition, and the “Hangrui” and “AKG” phones I started this review with, could easily best these in every way, for even less! On the plus side… at least it does look quite a lot like the genuine article in the pictures on the eBay ad. (I had to find something nice to say, didn’t I?).

Pro: Looks like a million bucks.  Con: Sounds like a million farts.

 

The Lowdown: Avoid fake copies of the MI Piston 2, such as this one, unless you are a “fakes collector”. In which case, it should make a lovely addition to your collection. Place it right next to that “authentic” cheque from Donald Trump, made in China from genuine rubber, that you proudly won in an eBay auction.

AWEI Q9
Price: About $5 shipped (eBay)

AWEI “ES-Q9”

I did a “Wait, what??” when I saw these. “I CAN HAZ WOODBURGER??”. Yeah! Count me in!

The AWEI Q9 represents my first attempt to try a wood-bodied earphone, as well as an AWEI model. But do not confuse the brand “AWEI” with the old and well regarded Japanese “AIWA” brand. (But if you do, good, that’s what they’re hoping!). I’d say AWEI is a significant brand in Chi-Fi, and make some pretty decent models that can be found at equally crazy prices. But if I didn’t get more examples (like the “900i” model I was eyeing), it’s only because it seemed that comparably priced KZ and QKZ models, were from what I read, more likely to be a bit better in sound, if not build. Maybe if I do this again, I’ll try a few more AWEI’s.

Fit & Finish

AWEI Q9

The wire is about the same as the wire on the (fake) Piston 2’s. Though black in colour instead of brown, and  feeling a bit stiffer. So it has that braided textile feel I like. The wire leading to the earpieces is very slightly thicker than on the Piston 2’s. It comes with a clip to secure the wire to your clothing, and 3 pairs of silicone eartips. Small, medium (installed), and large. Without trying the other sizes, I found the ones installed to fit my ears better than any of the other earphones I had. It not only made a fairly tight fit, it stayed better in place, due to the slightly grippy quality of the silicone. Even the headphone plug, though made of cheap grade of metal, seemed to fit my iPhone a bit more securely than other models.

However, on just the second time I tried listening to them, the front of the earpiece came off one of the shells, when I was removing the eartip! 😯  Which was surprising, because I was actually expecting the back of the earpiece to come off. I saw that happen to a guy in a review video before ordering them. But after I got them, I found a blog review on the Q9’s where indeed, it was the front of the earpiece that came off, that time. Which in any case, didn’t stop the blogger from giving them a glowing recommendation, and selling them on his site! Well, at least that shows that AWEI is maintaining consistent quality in the production of the Q9. It’s too bad that that level of quality is poor. I going to assume they are not investing too much of the cost of the buds in the quality of the glue they are using to hold these things together. If any AWEI engineers are reading this, I have a suggestion for you: stop buying fake Crazy Glue from China. Ok then.

Unlike me, I’m sure most people will want to avoid this model, just knowing it has a reputation for falling apart. But I did cobble them back together with some hot glue, and that part of it has held up fine thus far. That’s a weak point to be sure, but the rest of the construction of these earphones is really not bad for the price I paid. (Which, as it turns out, was actually half the price I paid… When I complained about the earphones falling apart within minutes of use, the eBay seller agreed to cut the price by 50%! Woo-hoo! That’s two pairs of AKG’s and a fake “MI Basic” right there!).

Sound

The first word that came to mind upon the first listen (of “The Anyway Song” by Lullabye Baxter Trio) was, simply, “wow”. Because these earphones felt like they were leaning toward the cheap side, I was expecting the sound to reflect that. But I was taken aback when the bass kicked in. Didn’t even know there was that bass drum in this song! The soundstage was wider than expected. There were rough edges around the mid and high frequencies however, that suggested to me, these really need some breaking in. But off the bat, they were the best sounding earphones so far, that I had received for this review. That just means they beat these models; Samsung, AKG, Hangrui, fake Piston 2’s, real Piston 3 Huosai, etc. Compared to the “Hangruis” for example, a pair that I liked overall, the Q9’s have a larger, more open sound, and a more forward midrange. Even with their standard silicone eartips, the Hangrui’s have more bass response than these AWEI’s.

Remaining on my first impression, the bass on the AWEI’s was not overpowering, and could bring up sub-bass notes at times. They had a pretty balanced sound, which I would not describe as “dark”, as I would the AKG’s. They’re not exactly “warm sounding” either, despite presuming as much by the wood- bodied earpieces. Closer to “cold sounding”, but well balanced and detailed in the mids and highs, with relatively good bass quality at just the right amount.

However, on the second impression, ie. with pop music, they surprised me just as much as on the first impression. Except instead of “Wow, these are surprisingly good”, I was going “Wow, these are surprisingly awful!”. And on later listens, the bass seemed to be AWOL. While I appreciated the bass not crashing the midrange party, that doesn’t mean it can go off galavanting to leave the rest of the frequencies do all the work. Eartips can make all the difference here.

It became clear what those “rough edges” I first detected was all about. They were all about a stridency right across the entire midrange and highs, that made most music shrill to listen to. Tinny and fuzzy at times, it suggested the buds were feeling ill, with a spot of CDS (Cheap Driver Syndrome). And yet, those drivers exhibited genuinely superior qualities to what had come before.

This makes it clear to me that whatever influence the bamboo wood might be having on the sound, it’s not a good enough reason to get an earphone with the material! The driver is going to have a much greater influence than the body material. 

AWEI Q9: New & Improved model?

Putting Lipstick On An AWEI: The AWEI Q9’s got 4.9/5 stars out of 90 reviews on GearBest, and about the same on other sites. So I had to wonder why I am not getting better results, here. In fact, when I go back and read other reviews on this thing, it doesn’t even sound like we’re talking about the same earphones! For example!…

“With this unit I finally found a set of earbuds that I would use on a daily basis. The quality of audio is up to my standard. The detail is extraordinary for a set of earbuds at this price range. The bass is very solid and even sounding – not exaggerated at all. I was impressed that small details like extra percussion and vocal breaths were even being reproduced faithfully quite like with my studio speakers. These are certainly good enough for daily use and sound great. I will be giving them 4 out of 5 stars in this category.” – cheapearbuds.ca

I might just be able to agree with those findings…. if it weren’t for the fact that my brain feels like its under attack from the piercing mids and highs on this unit. That kind of peakiness just ruins the tonality of instruments. I also don’t know how it could be used as a “daily driver” by the commenter above, when the earpieces fell apart in my hands after 5 minutes, and the rubber cord reinforcement has come out of the earpiece, on one side. “Daily driver”?? They fell apart before I had them for a day, or drove them anywhere!

I noticed too that they don’t play particularly loud, despite being rated at 16ohms and 106db SPL. They go loud enough for me, but to achieve that, I have to go to max or near max on my Samsung phone. But since they did show some promise at the beginning….  I figure I would have to call in the “Mod Squad”, and just hack the bejeezus out of these things. Wanna hear about my tweak trials? Press on…

Operation Dulling the Knife: The Taming of the Bamboo

Step 1: I started with the obvious, changing the ear tips. What I discovered here is that you can change the sound to a considerable extent. What these models require, is an ear tip with a good seal. Also one that will fit its uncommonly large nozzle (some were a struggle to get on). What did not work so well, was the generic black memory foam tips I had on hand. They just muddled things up grossly, and as dark as it was, that steely sibilance was still filtering through. A pair of large, soft, generic white silicone tips had the surprising effect of reducing sibilance, after effecting a better seal. But that peaky sibilant character, that ruined the timbre of acoustic guitar (making strings sound like they were made of aluminum), remained, alas. I ended up going with a smallish pair of medium-sized white silicone tips. This provided a more balanced and neutral sound, though sibilance remained. That’s where Step 2 came in.

Step 2: This step consisted of removing the fabric screens that cover the black plastic nozzles in the earpieces, and stuffing something in the nozzle port. There is some room to do so, because the drivers are at the bottom of the port, which is otherwise hollow. I tried various bits n’ bobs, including blue-tak, Q-tip cotton, and acoustic foam (taken from the earpiece of an old headphone). a)Blue-tak: no b) Cotton: eh…. meh.  c) Acoustic foam…. ok I guess, if you don’t use too much! It seemed to provide the best filtering. But did it fix the sibilance problem once and for good? No, not really! On to Step 3!

Step 3: This step required a screwdriver, a hot glue gun, and a fair bit of courage. This is where I (carefully!) popped off the black front of the earpieces with the screwdriver, then stuffed the wooden body with acoustic foam (not too much!). Then glued it back together. Did it fix the problem? Hard to tell since the foam in the body, along with the foam in the nozzle, made everything so muffled, I reduced the quality to where it didn’t really matter at this point. So I reduced the foam in the nozzle, and that was indeed better.

So with some foam in the body, some foam in the nozzle, well-sealing ear tips, and about 48 hours of burn-in, the end result of “Operation Dulling the Knife” is that sibilance in the Q9 had decreased, and as expected, along with some detail (which could have been worse). The upshot being that all of this helped make the sound more musically engaging than before. But! There were still signs of some sibilance with vocals, and this could get particularly annoying with heavily produced tracks. Much of that was dealt with in Step 4…. (oh not again…).

Step 4: This is where I pulled out all the stops. I extended the burn-in sessions by 2 more days, for starters. Turns out, the burn-in wasn’t working that well, because it was just a pink sweep test. This time, I used a continual frequency sweep test, and made sure it didn’t even take a break to go to the bathroom! There’s a crisssiss of sssibilance with a pair of Q9’sss, and yesssss, it’ssssss an emergenssseeee!

Finally, that had a considerable impact on the entire frequency range. To be sure, the sound was still quite sibilant, but no longer screechy and painful on anything that had mids or highs! So on my behalf, go and tell any flat-earth myth-buyers you know, who insist that headphone burn-in has no effect, because, you know, “sCieNce!”, to come and see me about that!! I’ll lock those self-deluding nitwits into my patented “headphone-vice”, play a full frequency sweep for 48 hours straight, and we’ll see if it doesn’t affect their hearing afterward!

Step 5:  I did say there was still some sibilance remaining, so I did a simple hack of closing off the barrels of the Q9 earpieces with masking tape. Then I poked one tiny hole in the centre of each with a pin. So now the sound was at least not objectionable any longer. Now it had more bass, even though the bass was still a starving beggar bass. And that added bass made the sound more engaging, as much as palatable. But overall, the sound had a strange mix of a muffled quality, combined with a sprinkle of high-peak details. All I can say is…. I can’t wait for the better Chi-Fi models to come in already! Geeze Louise, where’s that postman gone to?!….

To be fair, if I paired the ears up with a neutral sounding player, ie. my iPhone, in a quiet environment where I did not listen loud, then the brightness exhibited by these buds could actually be an advantage at low volumes. And I still can’t say if maybe the “right” ear tips could render these ears palatable.  You might be thinking “Why would you want to? Haven’t you heard enough?“. Well, because the sound did exhibit some appealing qualities I did not get from the comparably-priced MI “Piston 3″‘s. Including some rather special moments, such as on Tom Waits “All The World Is Green” for example. Where these $5 finds were actually transmitting emotional content in that song! No other model I have, has conveyed this particular quality (yet).  But all in all, the bamboo’ed Q9 was something of a let-down, and the $1 “Hangrui” earphones were generally found to be more pleasant to listen to, despite the significant drop in detail.

Perhaps, and this is a big perhaps, if these can be fixed with a major burn-in, they might be keepers. But much as I would like to  😳 , I cannot recommend them. If only for the strident mids and highs alone. Still, I intend to burn them in bigly, and see if it is at all possible that they can be made to live up to the potential that I’ve heard from them, on occasion. They do after all, offer a glimpse into the many mid and high range details I am missing from “warmer sounding” earphones, and those that provide lesser soundstage separation.

All right, next pair, ding!…

Pro’s:

  • Widest soundstage of the group yet, along with detail and separation.
  • May be capable of occasionally transmitting emotional message, to where you start “feeling a little veklempt…”.
  • You can tell your crunchy eco-friends, these are made from a renewable resource, and also, “Panda-friendly” reg. tm.
Cons:

  • The mid and high range sounds a lot like slamming the lid of a suitcase on 9 starving kittens.
  • Quality Control could be better. Earpiece bodies may start to fall apart if looked at hard, or if they begin to feel emotionally neglected. Bring a toothpick and a bottle of glue before going out, and you should be good to go.

 

Conclusion: NOT RECOMMENDEDApart from the reasons described above, there is yet one more compelling reason why I can’t recommend this model. According to one review for the KZ ED4, the description of the ED4 sounds very similar to this model. The ED4 is described as “hyper-aggressive, with pros listed as “soundstage, detail, clarity, energy”; all of which I could say about the Q9’s. The ED4 review goes on to call it a “W-shaped tuning” (boosted sub-bass, dialed back mid-bass, forward mids, and prominent treble) – which again, could describe this model. The KZ ED4 however is much better built and costs but $1 more! D’oh!  😮

The Lowdown: The AWEI Q9 has some compelling attributes in the sound department, not commonly found in other models. But that may be overshadowed by its numerous and tenacious flaws, which cover both build and sound issues.

 

AWEI Q9
Price: About $5 shipped (eBay)

AWEI Q9: New & Improved model?

I did a “Wait, what??” when I saw these. “I CAN HAZ WOODBURGER??”. Yeah! Count me in! The AWEI Q9 represents my first attempt to try a wood-bodied earphone….

“Wait just a goldarn second!…. Isn’t this the very same earphone you just wrote a book-length review on, a minute ago??!!”

Ummm…. ‘technically’…. yes. But not really. But yes. Ok, let me explain…. these are the “new and improved” Q9’s that I am reviewing now. Everything I wrote above, mods and all, was written before the full 100+ hours of burn-in. What can I say, this final burn-in session, combined with the latest modifications to the earpieces, really changed the character of this earphone! Enough that I feel like I must review it anew, as though it wasn’t something that ever aggravated me to no end!

Tweaks: Before I get to the sound, I should document what changed, and how it was changed. Let’s recap: There are now small acoustic foam pieces squeezed inside those wooden barrel earpieces, with the earpieces sealed back up with glue. Inside the nozzle end is more acoustic foam, but a bit less than I inserted before (it goes right to the tip, and there is no filter screen. I think the filter screens, if there were any, fell off a long time ago…). After experimenting with various silicone eartips (all of which effect a different signature on the sound), I went with med-large clear soft and pliable silicone eartips, of the large-bore variety.

Sound

To start with, there is a great deal less detail and soundstage width, than when I began my experiences with the earphones. That’s to be expected with all the foam and burn-in. So it’s muddier, but still more detail than most stock buds. The biggest difference is that it is no longer objectionably sibilant. Even the most aggressive dance-oriented pop music is tolerable to listen to, when it was just painful before the burn-in. Traces of sibilance are still there, in the %5-%15 percent range, I’d say. They still give away some traces of their old character… ie. hardness and coarseness on the attack of some sounds, or at higher than moderate volumes. This might just go after further burn-in.

Conclusion: YOU MAKE THE CALL! Ok, so they sound more “normal” now, but, so what? 75 cent MI earphones are also tolerable, does that mean they’re worth buying? Well, if it was just that, I don’t think I would have added a “Part 2” to this review! The KZ EDR1’s still kill these on the basis of detail, soundstage, bass, treble extension, build quality, and just about everything. Plus, they cost less! So it doesn’t seem to make any sense to consider the AWEI’s any further. However… now that I can actually tolerate listening to them, I have a better idea of their underlying character. And I find the Q9’s are now more than just tolerable to listen to, but “fun” to listen to.

They must be, as I found I did not want to remove them, once the music got going. I even gave these to my SO for another listen. She’s the one who found them so horrifying, even after the first round of mods, she refused to listen for longer than 5 seconds! Now, the only thing she doesn’t like about them is the fit. She agreed they were more detailed than her stock earbuds. She also did not want to remove them, when asked to return them.

Timbres still aren’t as natural as the Monks, but as evidenced by the acoustic guitar on songs such as “Hang Me” (Oscar Isaac version), their tone is more natural and “tamed”, than the EDR1, and perhaps ATE. Their mids are a bit more forward than either the KZ EDR1’s or ATE’s. Their highs are recessed (now), and their bass volume is not bad. It does not feel intrusive, nor all that missing either. But nor is it controlled, with a wooly quality. No surprise there, with all the foam and all. Removing foam reduces this muffled quality, while increasing sibilance. While the soundstage is more recessed than the larger and more open soundstage on the EDR1, the midrange on the Q9 is more forward sounding. Also, the entire sound of the Q9 is more “liquid”, to use an audiophile term, while the EDR1 is more “dry”. And that “liquidity” and high midrange brightness are not traits typically found on the KZ models.

I later changed the acoustic foam I had stuffed the nozzles with, for cotton pulled from a facial cleansing pad (not too much). I topped that with just a tiny bit of acoustic foam. That seemed to make things a bit livelier.  In its present state with, the cotton/ foam tweak, the Q9 is less aggressive than the stock KZ ATE, ZS3, EDR1, ED7 etc. It is also more musically involving than any of those, even though it is tainted by muddiness and a bit of distortion, thanks to all that stuffing.

So despite the loss in detail and monitoring, I find myself favouring the Q9’s, over both KZ’s, when I needed to just listen for enjoyment, not analysis. They are also exceptionally light, and thus, comfortable to wear for prolonged periods, assuming you have no problem with in-ear types. Again, they have nothing over the Monks overall, but despite both sharing the same price sticker, that’s apples to oranges. I’m spoiled by the detail and quality behind the KZ’s at these ridiculously low prices. But the heavily modified Q9’s do more things right, than they do wrong. In a less competitive market, I’d say they’re more than worth the price. But that’s not the case, so… Given their quality control issues, I’d want to opt for something that also made music fun to listen to, but would likely last longer.

For more info on burn-in, click here for “The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: Burn-In”.

 


The Advanced Audiophile Guide To: EARBUDS vs. IN-EAR EARPHONES (IEM’s)

                                                     VE Monk earbuds, MX500 shell.

VS.

                                                        V-Moda Vibe, Inner-Ear Monitors.

 

I wasn’t going to “go there”, with earbuds. IEM’s are the “new thing”, and I thought they were widely believed to be superior to the more traditional type of earphone; known officially as “earbuds”. Especially when these earbuds featured here, look like something you would have seen used on a first-gen Sony Walkman in 1978. My how times have changed! My thinking changed when in my research on IEM’s, the name “VE Monk” kept coming up.

People were saying silly things, like how a pair of cheap-looking $5 earbuds could sound better than highly refined in-ear monitors! “Hahahaha!”, I thought. “You so fhonny!”. Just to prove they were all crazy, I threw a pair into my order for IEM’s. “And then after he heard the magical legendary earbud, he never looked at another IEM again for as long as he lived…“.

Perhaps not quite, but….  I am starting to grow quite fond of earbuds (that I started my earphone experiences with), all over again. If they are harder to find these days (and if you really think so, try looking on AliExpress!), it’s not because they can’t provide the sound quality of inner-ear monitors. The Monks alone show that for $5, a good earbud can wipe the floor with some very popular and well regarded IEMs. Not to mention, headphones as well! The only sound quality advantage some IEMs may have over buds is bass strength. Because of the way they couple to the ear.

The Vinyl v. CD Debate: Earphone Edition

I see this situation much like I did when digital CD’s took over from analogue LP’s. As anyone with a Linn or Ariston set-up at the time would tell you, early CD players were horrendous. However, they measured well (thus pleasing both robots and tech-guys who get off on specifications more than they do on what audiophiles call “sound quality”. Which according to the tech-geeks, is a hoax invented by the Chinese). Listening to those early CD players, was like having your ears stabbed with a hundred tiny knives, while a room full of marketing men show you spec sheets that are meant to convince your brain that you are not hearing what your flawed lying ears are telling you you’re hearing. “Look, the numbers don’t lie! CD’s have more dynamic range and frequency response, so they must sound better and be more accurate than LP’s! You’re just used to bad sound, and you need an analogue security blanket!“.

Well I bring it up, because there are a good many IEMs that sound like those early CD players. And for me, good Chi-Fi earbuds, like the VE Monks, more closely resemble analogue sources, than digital ones, in more ways than sound. ie. Buds fit more gently on your ears, creating a softly intimate contact. You know, like when you move the stylus on a fine turntable. While IEMs are practically digitally grafted into your hypothalamus gland, pumping noise directly into your brain. So, more like an alien worm stowaway on a doomed spaceship, that will be left with no human survivors once it reaches the home planet. Or likewise, an early digital CD player. And like those early CD players, the only reason IEMs have taken over the market, is because the marketeers have once again successfully convinced an ill-informed public, that IEMs are the new superior technology, and “earbuds are for losers”. (I think that was actually the marketing slogan for “Bose”, but don’t quote me on that).

Earbuds vs. Inner-Ear Monitors: A Question of Comfort

As mentioned, fit plays a large role in the question of preference. Some people just don’t like the feel of sticking things in their ears. Many IEM eartips tend to produce a constant feeling of pressure inside or against your ear canal, because of the fit and the air pressure within the ear pockets. This can be exacerbated, with the wrong eartips. But it is for these reasons that they are better for both sound leakage (blocking output) and sound isolation (blocking input).

Earbuds vs. Inner-Ear Monitors: A Question of Hygiene

This may not be considered or discussed all that much, and I understand why, but IEMs, aka in-ear “canalphones”, tend to dig into your ear wax. As a result, ear wax can get pushed further into your ear, blocking much of the sound quality you paid for, and requiring visits to an ear specialist for a cleaning, far more frequently. Also, IEM eartips can cause ear infections, if not washed regularly. Memory foam type eartips are not very washable, if at all. (They’re spongey, and what happens when you put a sponge in water? Anyone? Bueller? Anyone?).  You have to pinch-roll them before you insert them in your ears. In which case, you are then transferring grease and bacteria to the foams, that you’re going to be shoving into your ear. How do you not get an infection from all of this??

Plus, memory foam tips tend to break down every few months after regular use, leaving bits of foam debris guess where. Since earbuds just rest on the ear, instead of trying to dig a tunnel into the eardrum, they don’t go near the earwax. At worst, they might leave traces of dust or hair, picked up like a magnet by their foam covers, if they are not clean. Not much worse than earmuffs in the winter.

 Earbuds vs. Inner-Ear Monitors: A Question of Sound

Like speaker drivers tightly installed into wood cabinets, IEMs deliver sound to your eardrums more efficiently, sealed as they are within the ear canal. This can produce deeper bass response, for example. Earbuds OTOH, leak sound to outside of the ear, as they do not have this tight seal. This can produce weaker bass (all things being equal), but also, a more open and wider soundstage. Giving them a sound closer to headphones, for some listeners.

 Earbuds vs. Inner-Ear Monitors: Who Wins?

Thing is, you can find very good sounding examples with both technologies. I’m just afraid that too many of the “little people“, will be duped into thinking that earbuds are inferior. When in fact, they can sound better, cost less, be more durable, and most importantly, be lighter and more comfortable to wear for most people. The only group they may not find favour with, is the so-called “bassheads”. Anywayz… I was so impressed with the VE Monks reviewed below, that I went on a venture to add a whole bunch of other well-regarded earbud models, to add to my IEM reviews. Like the IEM-style earphones, the earbuds will be reviewed here in the order they are received. It’s a matter of preference what you choose, and until more models come in, I’m not entirely sure of my preference between IEMs and earbud style earphones. But regardless of which type I ultimately end up preferring, I will continue to maintain that IEMs can also be fun and exciting to listen to, and can create vast soundscapes inside and around your head. Sound considerations aside, IEMs have an added advantage of allowing you to listen in bed, at the library, or on public transportation… without disturbing others. Sometimes, this makes earbuds a deal-breaker. Like I’m doing, better to get both!

 

The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: Tweaking Earbuds

 

Silicone Samsung Eartip Tweak

One advantage to IEM’s, is that they have silicone eartips that funnel sound more directly into your eardrum. What if your earbuds could do that, though? They can! Those Samsung S6/S7 earbuds I started this all off with, have silicone “gel” style eartip covers for the Samsung earbuds, which have a tip that funnels into the ear. I tried fitting this on the VE Monk, and with some wrangling, it fits! Now, how does it change the sound, you wonder?….

Well,  as you might guess, the character of sound is very dependent on the location of that spout in, relation to your eardrum. Twisting it changes the sound a lot, twisting it just right gave the best balance of the sound. But regardless of positioning, the sound was an order removed, from the foam covers. Highs, not extended in the Monks, were ever more covered up. But something really magical happens here all the same…. The bass, and other frequencies, increase in resolution, with the liquid timbre associated with that. This for one means tighter, faster bass (though perhaps a bit less of it than with the foam). In turn, it creates a deeper connection with the music. Warning: it can be very addictive!

With the Samsung gel silicone eartips, my eyes went closed by themselves soon as the music came on, due to the connection created. I was more into the music, which makes these modified Monks even less suitable as a monitor. Still, with this mod, the Monks become the most musical sounding earphone I’ve heard to date. I don’t just mean in this group, either! Of course, technically, the sound is more “correct” with the foam covers. Fuller, more clarity and detail, still musical…. just not in the same category, as with.

Added benefits: With the Samsung eartips, the fit is more secure, because of the silicone is more grippy. It feels like I could be active, confident it won’t fall out easily. Moreover, the sound leakage is significantly reduced. Hardly anything is heard above the noise of a computer, when the tips are sealed. I would rate this for leakage 85/100 or higher. Or about 25-50% reduction in leakage, compared to the foam covers. Downside: The fit might with the thick silicone covers might not be suitable for some ears. Cost: $1 including shipping, for 5 pairs (black or white, your choice)!  

Option: Add another dollar, and you get 2 pairs of this “sports” model variation of the Samsung gel silicone eartip, pictured left. It adds a silicone hook that catches inside the ear, to keep the earbud in place during bungee jumping or rollercoaster rides! You can read a mini-review on these particular earbud hooks in: “The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: Earbud Accessories

 

Blue-Tak/Fun-Tak (Adhesive Putty) Tweak

The MX500 earbud shells typically have vent holes around the perimeter, near the edge. Blocking some of these can improve things.  Best of all, its reversible, so you can easily remove it if you prefer the sound without. The vents to block the MX500 shells are the middle ones on the outer edges. Here’s what that looks like:

The result on my VE Monk+ (with the white foam covers reinstalled): Sound was more open and transparent, like someone opened up the windows on it, and let a cool breeze come in. Soundstage seemed larger, where I expected it to be smaller. Bass has less impact but more definition and clarity around it, due to the lighter weight. However, returning to the original sound, I preferred that. I preferred the original bass weight and information, and the coherence of the original sound. It’s still a powerful tweak in a sense, because it gives you an option to change the spectrum, and that could come in a handy with, say, an earbud that you find too muddy and bassy. I’d prefer to tinker with that if I needed it, before toying with digital EQ’s.

Hacking Earbuds

Chi-Fi earbuds based around the venerable MX500 shell, tend to have one design deficiency: the tail end of the earpiece, where the wire comes out of it. Rather than have 3c worth of rubber reinforcement there, the wire is usually left to dangle from the earpiece (like with the VE Monks). The problem isn’t necessarily pulling on the wire and ripping it from its driver terminals. There is a knot in the wire inside the earpiece that is meant to prevent this from occurring. The problem is the wire is free to twist, and that can reach the soldering points on the driver. Causing the sound to cut out or stop completely.

I have one idea to help prevent that. A small dab of hot glue to cover the hole, and therefore secure the wire so it can’t twist inside the shell. It can also be cold glue, such as “shoe goo” product. However, you should test this first, by plugging the wire opening with Blu-tak (adhesive putty). Some earbud models have vents incorporated into the design, and blocking them may negatively affect the sound. Those vents may be in the tailpiece next to the hole where the wire exits. In that case, it may be ok to block the wire exit hole. In any case, blocking any hole in an earpiece can affect sound, and it should be tested before any permanent fixes are effected. n.b. Just adding glue or anything at all to a headphone will have some influence on the sound… but then, so will one of the wires ripping off from its driver terminal.

 

A Better Way To Wear Buds!

WAY #1

As I wrote in my review for the MRice “E100”, some prefer to wear the earbud sideways, if only for the way it sounds. It’s certainly doable, due to the shape of the “Earbell” E100. But some use this method with regular earbuds, and the benefits are no less outstanding! For example, when I wore the RY4S earbuds in this fashion, it sounded amazing! The sound was immersive, the bass got punchier but also, the notes now had space around them, definition increased greatly across the range, the once-dark midrange became totally open, the soundstage almost circled 180 degrees, the high end grew clear as a bell but not in the least bit strident….

It gave a sound not just better than what was normally heard on the RY4S, but one that was very hard to fault in any way.

One that didn’t really need improving on. No need to swap out drivers or cables, no need to buy the Gold Star edition, or plug the earbud into a class A tube amp,…. All it took was inserting the earbuds differently, with the driver facing forward! Here, I’ll show you what I mean!:

At exactly what angle you place it at depends on the earbud and your ears. You need to play around with the angle to get a secure fit in your ear, and you’ll probably need to remove the foam covers. You can try to angle it more downward if you can, but it may only stay in place at an upward angle, such as 900, pictured. Another way to do this, if it needs to be more secure, is to wrap the cable around your ear. Like so:

I talk more about the effects of wearing earphones around-the-ear in this guide.

 

WAY #2

Playing with the Qian39’s, I discovered this method worked well with those buds. It may be most suitable with small earbuds like the Qian’s, or it might also work with regular sized buds. The improvement in sound was quite something.

I start by inserting the earpieces in sideways, twisting them toward the front, and slowly turning the stems upward until they reach the ear notch, ensuring that they are sticking out from the ear, about 45d. It’s almost as the way you would normally insert earbuds, except instead of straight down, the stems will be angled up until touching the ear notch. And instead of fully facing the ear canal, the drivers (front of the earpiece) will lifted out at an angle. You start by digging the earpieces well inside the ears, then slowly rotating the stems upward and out (but not so far out that the drivers are facing North, as pictured above). You’ll know you’ve got it, when the sound goes dark and warm.

 

 


The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: Tweaking IEM’s

Testing Styles of Fit: Down-the-Ear vs. Over-the-Ear

When playing around with the KZ ED7, it occurred to me that it was so agile, I could wear it both ways an IEM is worn. Even though it isn’t designed to be worn around the ear. Same with the AKG S9, the EDR1, and many other down-the-ear models. This gave me the opportunity to answer a question that perhaps no other reviewer or audiophile would ask: which sounds better?! I decided that was something to be curious about. But first, what are the pros and cons?

  • Over-The-Ear: Earphone remains more secure, better for jogging.
  • Down-The-Ear: Earphone feels more natural, does not rub against ear cartilage.

Sound

Down-the-Ear —> Over-The-Ear

Over-the-ear allows for a more secure fit, while down the ear creates a bit of a looser seal with the eartip. This alone will change the sound. And it did. But not, what I had to conclude, for the better. Yes over-the-ear was better, in the sense of offering a wider soundstage and deeper, tighter bass. It was worse in that the sound was less natural overall, with more peaks in the mid and highs, that made the ED7 more irritating to listen to (that is, more than the ED7 already was). Wearing it over-the-ear also makes it a bit more irritating. In case you think the change might be due to a change in the angle after re-fitting the eartips, no. I repeated this test several times with the same result. It is IME, how the sound changes between the two different wearing styles.

Over-the-Ear —> Down-The-Ear

But is this exclusive to the ED7?  I seem to have read in some review that the ATE could be worn down-the-ear as well, if desired. Even though, again, it’s not designed for that. The results were… interesting. On a technical level, I didn’t like the change as much as with the ED7, as the mids seemed even more strident than normal. But, it was unmistakable that I was getting into the song more, as with the ED7. I could follow the rhythm better, as though the quickness had increased. On the second listen it was evident why. Dynamic contrasts were “normalized” when the ATE was worn over the ear, and so was mids and highs. These are thrown off balance when the ATE is worn downward. But… the lower region is another story. Bass was lighter and “righter” with more separation when worn down, allowing the listener to better follow bass rhythms.

It seems there are sonic as well as comfort advantages to wearing over-the-ear models like the ATE, ZS3 etc. in the downward fashion. But you might then require a change of eartips to pull it off. The tip has to create a secure fit by itself, since it has to hold the earpieces in place by the tip alone, which now sticks out more than usual. Plus it has to be comfy enough to wear in this fashion, for a length of time. In any case, you’ll soon find out whether your over-the-ear model can be worn down-the-ear. Models like the ATE and ZS3 may not be good candidates for this, as their earpieces will not sit correctly if the cable is not wrapped around the ear.

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The Eartip Placement Tweak

A new audio insight brought to you by The Advanced Audiophile!reg. tm.: I was testing the KZ ZSN’s with the (L) large KZ Starline dome tips. The eartips were fitted at the very end of the nozzles. (I sometimes do this to get a deeper insertion depth). I heard a sound far more resolving than the Sony MH755, or any other IEM here. One with no lack of clarity, detail, soundstage, the whole shebang. But it reminded me of the old “Snell” floorstanders. I could hear everything and everything was in its right place, yet the sound was boring as all get out. I couldn’t say why, because on a superficial level, it sounded fantastic.

Then I did the opposite, and pushed the eartips all the way back, as much as they would go, and refitted the earpieces. Night and day difference! Now, all that clarity, detail, soundstage, etc. was gone! But, in its place, a truly musical sound. One that kept me intensely engaged throughout the song, and one I did not think the ZSN was capable of. It’s a timing thing, see. That’s what it was all along!

All the various sounds a driver makes have to hit your eardrums at exactly the right time. Else your brain misses certain cues that tap into the rhythm of the music. (All music has rhythm; even acapella, fella). Though I discovered it here with the ZSN, I will bet this finding will likely apply in general to any and every IEM and eartip (though in specifics, success depends on the nozzle/eartip depth, diameter, etc). Put the eartip halfway on the nozzle, and you should get some kind of a balance between detail and ‘musicality’. (You can’t have both, in this case!). Or, if you prefer an analytical sound for critical listening, you place the eartip at the front edge. For a “fun listen”, you place it at the back.

Now go and apply what is learned!reg.tm.

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Improving Sound By Surgery or Massage. Your preference.
(The Plastic Tie Tweak)

 

Hangrui “Turbo” with P.W.B. Electronics Coloured Ring Tie hack.

Along the way, I discovered there isn’t just the usual audiophile interest in these low-cost IEM’s…  some earphiles even “mod” them, afterward, and dose guys are pretty serious about it. Their tinkering with the technology behind these earphones may include changing or removing their stuffing, filter screens, drilling holes into the shells, swapping out the drivers, reconstructing the entire earpieces out of another material, and even creating custom IEMs out of non-custom IEMs. All this to improve the sound, right….

But what if there was a better way? Hmmmm…. I read that and I think…  “If only the earphiles knew about Beltism!“. And then the devil on my shoulder says “No, that alone would change anything”. And he’s right, because improving sound via Beltism requires more than just knowledge of techniques and/or ordering appropriate devices (ie. coloured ring ties) from P.W.B. Electronics Inc. It requires at the very least, an open mind. I think I can report after some 20 years of debating audiophiles on the internet over the subject of advanced audio practices, most people do not have even that. Their loss indeed.

Nevertheless, I do have that option open to me (and I always will…), and I know it to be a far less invasive way of really improving the sound of earphone. As opposed to taking out the Black & Decker and threatening mutilation of your precious little earphone, if not your hand, with it. Notice the nearly invisible black plastic tie at the plug end of the Turbo’s pictured on the left? That’s what I’m talking about! That would be an example of the most effective way I know, of improving the sound of both IEMs and earbuds, without taking a drill to them, or upsetting some order of natural balance, by changing or replacing their components. To a much lesser degree, you have the cost-free Beltist techniques, such as the one that follows….

_______________________________________________________

DIY Hybrid Eartips

Though they are far less common, “hybrid” eartips exist, under brands like “Sony” and “Symbio”, that combine the qualities of memory foam and silicone. This of course, creates another sound that offers the fit and sound qualities of both types of materials. They’re good tips, I’m certain. The only problem is, at $15 a pair and such, the eartips cost more than the earphones I am reviewing.  Wouldn’t it be better to just make your own for less than a dollar? Yeah, I think so too. Let’s do this!… 😈

The first thing I did was find some silicone dome-shape tips I like. They were the “red bore” KZ brand domes I’ve mentioned in various reviews. Cost? About .50c / pair. The next was to find a pair of suitable memory foam eartips. Cost? About .33c / pair. I chose the cheap shiny black KZ-style cone shaped MF tips that I didn’t rate as highly, because they lack a rubber inner core. But that’s just it. I knew that lack of an inner core would make it much easier to fit on to the silicone tips. It looks like this:

LEFT: Filled DIY Hybrid. MIDDLE: Inverted silicone tip. RIGHT: Memory foam tip (cut to size).

 

Pen inserted in memory foam tip, with inverted silicone tip at end. Push the memory foam tip over the red bore of the silicone tip. Then pull the silicone flange over the memory foam tip, and align. Easy peasy!

 

LEFT: Hybrid tip. RIGHT: Silicone tip only.

 

LEFT: Hybrid tip. RIGHT: Hybrid tip. Job done, spend the $14 saved on a new pair of ‘phones!

 

Sound

I fitted my new DIY hybrid wide-bore tips to the KZ “ZSN”.  At first, I did not like the sound, and I knew something was wrong. I then switched the tips (right to left earpiece, left to right earpiece), and that did the trick. (It’s an energy thing, you wouldn’t understand.reg. tm.).

Let me start by saying, I guarantee you will not have the same sound that I am describing. Nor can I say what your result will be. Only that it is highly dependent on the silicone tips and the MF tips used, plus their sizes, etc. Not to mention the earphone it’s attached to. Keep that in mind! As I could have predicted, foam within the tips soften the sound, remove some air and some detail. However, the ZSN needs this, and are detailed enough to support it. If this was all it did, I would remove the foam additions. But it came with one big advantage: “PRAT”. The ZSN needs this even more, as it always leaned toward a ‘clinical’ sound. Which made for a boring experience, and might just be the reason I rarely reached for the ZSN, when it came time to listen to my portables.

Bass decreased a bit with these hybrid tips, which in part, helped align everything. To create a sound so balanced and “in tune”, it reminded me of the high end spring suspended turntables I used to spend hours “tuning”, to perfection. When you finally achieve that special “magical” tuning symbiosis on all 3 springs…. it sounds like these modded eartips! You go right past ‘bass, mids, treble’, and you just want to groove to the music, which flows like rapids.  All I know is I’m not removing these tips now, to avoid unmaking this sound. I’ve heard better “technical” results with other tips on the ZSN, but nothing has come close, in musical terms.

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The Big Chill
(The Freeze Tweak)

 

At the end of my shrill shrieky rope with the AWEI Q9, and throughout the entire process of trying to draw a reasonable sound from them, I completely forgot that I was a Beltist. That I could use my Beltist powers to fix the earphone! I repeat: First rule of Beltism: “A Beltist is never without options when it comes to improving sound.”. Newtonists have basically 2 options at their disposal, for fixing something like the shrilly AWEI…

  1. Stuff it with bits of earpad until you’ve killed off all the highs. For that’s the only way to eliminate the “bad highs”. If it now sounds like an old Philco TV set, tag it and bag it. You’re done.
  2. If that doesn’t work. oh well, time to buy a new earphone. There’s nothing else to be done….

Primitives! 🙄  In our little corner of the audiophile community we got lots of options here. Aside from all the treatments available that can be applied to earphones from “P.W.B. Electronics”, there are a few on my own Tweaks! page, that could apply. The one I had in mind for the AWEI Q9, was an old stand-by, the “Freeze Technique“. Heck, why not do a bunch of IEM’s at the same time? Pretty easy, and about the same time as it takes to do a burn-in. So all I did was pop each IEM into a zip-loc bag, place that at the bottom of my refrigerator’s freezer compartment, and the next day, wrap them each well in a towel, so they can thaw out very slowly over at least 8 hours time.

Result: I no longer can complain about shrillness coming off the Q9, even on the harshest music. In fact, it sounds less grating now than the stock KZ ATE. Likewise, all the IEMs and eartips I’ve frozen thus far have responded pretty well. Unlike the burn-in process, which mostly targets the tonal balance, everything gets better with the Freeze Technique. The Q9 and the other IEM’s get a higher class of resolution, which improves highs but also all other manner of things. While it did not turn the Q9 into a ZSN or anything like that, it did help to reduce that last layer of glass shards. A second freezing probably wouldn’t hurt either.

Of course, the more conventional modes of tweaks are dispersed throughout the IEM reviews, as necessary. For those who prefer to remain stuck in the past.  😛


Venture Electronics (VE) “Monk” Plus
Price: Just under $5 shipped (eBay)

Original VE “Monk” earbuds (not to be confused with “VE Monk+” or “VE Monk Lite”)

These are the first earbuds I bought for review. They have quite the reputation, as being the best $5 earphones you can get. If you call them “earphones” however, that’s debatable. Since as you can see in this article alone, the competition in the $5 bracket for Chi-Fi earphones is enormous, and replete with excellent offerings! But if you say “earbuds”…?

Well, it seems “earbuds” are considered old-fashioned, and indeed, this model is considered quaint and “retro” by some/many. I have a collection of earbuds from Sony, Panasonic, etc., and I still prefer the way they feel in the ear. But the IEM’s have the advantage in terms of bass response, sound leakage, etc. So I was very skeptical when I saw what they look like, after reading all this fuss over “VE Monks”. They look like earbuds they give you for free on the plane, after making a stopover in Denver. Or, let’s be honest, something that looks more like it belongs in a gumball machine. However, VE Monk produce serious audiophile offerings, and this price point was a departure for them. So that gave me pause. Enough to say, “well I sure don’t need them, but I sure have to try them, to see what the fuss was about!”

I was determined to get the original VE Monks (not the newer “Plus” version). That’s what my eBay ad indicated. I’d read fans saying they thought it was better than the plus version. However, when they came, the shells were translucent grey (pictured right). The VE Monks have opaque black shells (pictured above). While the Monk Lites have gold (and other colour) shells. Can anyone say “bait and switch?! I then learned that, I should pretty much abandon all hope of getting the original model, these days. They’re long since discontinued. There’s always the “Zen” model, which looks exactly like the Monk Pluses, save for a different colour wire. Oh, and the price. The Zen model costs about $150 more. Which, still isn’t anywhere near the cost of Venture Electronics $800+ IEMs.

Perhaps more colourful than their earpieces, is the founder of Venture Electronics, one “Wild Lee”. He puts out ads talking about how sexy the office secretary is, and tells potential customers who like “Beats by Dre.”, to basically f-off and not buy his earphones. (Ah, a man after my own heart….). In fact, he has been known to offer people a free pair of VE Monks, if they agree to go on YouTube and destroy a pair of “Beats” headphones. (It has to be authentic “Beats”, not fakes!). I mean how cool is that?! Not so cool of course, is the fact that you just destroyed a $200 pair of headphones, to get a free pair of $5 earbuds. Ah, millenials! Our best hope for the future of mankind! 🙄 aka The generation who’s phones are smarter than they are.

Speaking of pricey earphones, I found some owners comparing the Monks favourably to their $100+ IEM models. I even found an article that talks about the differences in sound with respect to the colours of the shells! Which are otherwise identical, if that’s not clear! The influence of colour on sound is something Peter Belt was discovering over 30 years ago, and I have done many experiments on such over the years myself. But to see it creeping into the mainstream? On an article about $5 earbuds? Hmmm…. Perhaps there’s hope for this crackpot society yet!

Venture Electronics “Monk Plus”

Fit & Finish

The VE Monk’s use the popular “Sennheiser MX500” casing… which means they look like a lot of other earbuds, including the Senn’s. In the photos, the cord does nothing to dissuade the notion that these are the same .50 cent earbuds you get on the plane with a sack of peanuts. In real life, it does not feel bottom end quality. It feels fairly sturdy, with a rubbery feel. It has the old-fashioned straight plug, as opposed to the L-shaped connectors.** In the ears, the earbud fits like a dream. It is way more comfortable than any in-ear type, and way less invasive. No gross earwax getting into the crevices of the earpiece components! And I say “dream”, because the earbuds are so light (you can see from the transparent casings they’re mostly hollow!), they hardly seem like they’re there. The excellent thin foam covers only add to the comfort.

**A Word About Connectors: I generally prefer the straight plugs when given the choice, for two reasons. The first reason is “Beltic”. Meaning I think that in relation to benevolent patterns of sound, energy fields are likely to travel “better” across a straight line, and this will likely have an effect on our perception of sound – giving the straight connector an audible edge. The second theory is closer to traditional physics, than quantum physics. If you get the wire caught on something, the straight wire will easily pull the cord out of its socket. You want that because if you get a wire with an L-connector (think “L-ocked connector”) caught… guess how much that raises the likelihood of permanently damaging the jack of a $600 player?

Sound

VE “Monk Plus”

When I got the VE Monk’s, I gave them over to my SO to listen to, before I did. She liked them. A lot. She said they sounded “more professional” (a reference to resolution no doubt), and “more stereo” (a reference to soundstaging). I saw her foot was tapping, and that did not happen with the AWEI Q9’s or AKG S9’s I had her listen to, just prior. She said the sound changed, depending on how you twist them in the ears.

When I listened to them, after but a few seconds, I knew right away these were one of the best earphones I had ever heard. I never thought the V-Moda’s would be bested this quickly (before any of the KZ’s ever came in!). But yes… regardless of whether they don’t resolve detail and soundstage as well, I prefer the VE Monks to my V-Moda Vibes.

My immediate impression was that the sound stage width was not very wide at all, it was mostly all in the head. But within that sonic picture?…. wow. 😯  This earbud, despite not actually looking like its worth more than $5 in the pictures, is really an audiophile’s dream! (“He said as he was frantically placing an order for spares, with the fear that the last examples available on the internet were being bought right then and there in the forefront of his mind…”).

Venture Electronics: The “Soup Nazi” of the earphone world.

There’s nothing artificial about this sound, either. Nothing stands out in it. Not the bass, nor the mids, nor the highs. It does not pump out bass like gasoline. Instead, it incorporates all elements into the sound, creating a rather well balanced sound. One that is perhaps too involving to have the term “neutral” applied to it. So if for example, you need the bass to dominate everything, these are not for you. But if you are seeking a rare melodic, tuneful bass in an earphone, then they are. Like the AWEI Q9’s I reported on, the Monk’s also went out of their way to transmit emotional qualities in the Tom Waits song “All the World Is Green”. Except they did a much better job of it.

It has barrelfuls of “PrAt”, making it a supremely musical experience to listen to, no matter what you put on. It resolves music so well, that it never sounds aggressive in either the lows, mids or highs. That is no mean feat, folks, let me tell you that. Other IEMs, like the AKG’s, solve that problem by simply covering over the mids and highs, and rolling them downward. The Monk’s fend off aggressivity by not being aggressive in the first place. By reproducing the individual textures of music the way a good audio product is supposed to.

To be sure, these are audiophile quality earphones. And not “accidental audiophile quality”. As in…

“Between the months of June and October, Philips put out this crazy-good earbud at a giveaway price, that has all the internet abuzz, calling them “Senn-killers”. Everyone at Philips was surprised at the brisk sales of this model. Especially the engineers that worked on it. “.

Actual ad copy from Venture Electronics.

Earphones that sound like this are not “accidental”. I discovered, quite happily, the Monks can take some amplification without distorting. This means, they can be compared to full-size cans. And I do think they are good enough to withstand comparison to any type of headphone; ie. electrostatic and audiophile-quality dynamic headphones (and I have examples of both). So long as you are not doing what many misguided gearheads do; which is to compare only specific components of sound, between one device and another.

Finally, these are not “monitors”, let alone “in-ear monitors”. They are the opposite of such. You would not use the word “transparent” to describe their sound, and they are not good at letting you hear subtle details, for monitoring purposes. No doubt, KZ’s will be better at this, making the Monk’s sound muffled in comparison. The “sweater” they wear (the foam covers) is probably contributing to this opaque character, even though VE specifically formulated the cell structure to be more open and yield a more transparent sound than the typical stock foam coverings. What the Monk’s excel at, is simply playing music. There are very, very few earbuds or earphones I’ve heard that even come close to doing what the Monk’s do effortlessly. What they don’t excel at, like all earbuds, is keeping sound in. So, some sound will leak at normal levels. I’m afraid they’re not the best choice for a library, a church, or a funeral.

All in all, I have nothing worth criticizing here, and that’s regardless of price. I can’t even try to nitpick elements of the sound, because it has everything I could ask for in an earphone sound. Wider soundstage perhaps, but that’s never been as important to me as the quality of musicality. Sadly, I have this sinking feeling that none of the other good models I ordered which haven’t come in yet, including all of the KZ’s, are going to be able to beat the audiophile qualities of the VE Monk’s sound. Because if as I suspect, it’s going to come down to a choice between a sweet, harmonious sound that is so musical, it resists clinical analysis, and something that more closely resembles a sonic troupe of singing and dancing monkeys and clowns…. guess which one I’ll end up preferring? (Hint: The answer is in the name of my site).

And yeah, they’re that good.

But too bad, they’re all sold out now, sorry! There are no more houses to rent in Tuscany! (“He said, in a maniaclly paranoid tone, thinking he’ll have to claw, bite and scratch his way to buying what just may well be the very last original VE Monks available in the free world….”).

Tweaking: I experiment with foams on the Monks, which I have moved to the guide “The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: Earbud Accessories“. It’s an important part of the Monk experience, so check it out by clicking on the link!

 

Conclusion: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED at any price. These are in a different class than anything that came before it – if not, after. In fact, I can’t even compare them to IEMs, as they’re more on par with the sound of audiophile grade headphones; ie. my Grados or my Beyers. According to VE’s own ad copy telling of how they designed it to sound like headphones (which I read after putting my thoughts down about this), that’s not an accident either.

In fact, the VE Monks are so good at their job, that they inspired me to throw out all of my old portable headphones and earbuds! Out to the trash went the Sennheiser PX-100’s, the Koss Sport-a-Pros, the AKG’s, and countless inferior earbuds. As well, any earphones/headphones that had a signal fault in one channel etc., and we’re on the “waiting to be repaired” list.  I figured, if the Monks sound better overall than those headphones, and they’re $5 bucks a pop… there’s no point in keeping or even repairing lesser units. With their colourful foams, they may not be the last word in comfort… but neither are any over-the-head headphones. Now, I’m not throwing my Grado’s out for example. But as for the portable headphones, I could not see any advantage any longer in using them, in light of this find.

With the Monks, I hear things in songs I’ve never heard before. I could stop right here in my quest for the best and be satisfied. But… I’ve already ordered all the others! Might as well review them! In terms of audiophile kit, it’s reminiscent of a class A amp, driving a Linn LP12 with Ittok and a Karma cartridge. What I might mean by that, is the quality of timbre. A drum kit sounds like a drum kit. A crash cymbal like a crash cymbal. Not a splashy in-your-face mess. So in regards to dynamic contrasts, the cymbals do not override the picture. They come out discreetly, but with true musical detail. For example, that crash cymbal hints at the metallic quality of the actual sound. So do acoustic guitar strings. Though the soundstage doesn’t seem particularly wide, it is solid. In good moments, you get the sense a band is playing in front of you. I can tell these things are going to be @#$%! hard to beat!

The Lowdown: The VE Monks are an earbud, but the best I’ve ever heard at this point, in its category. Neither bass monsters nor particularly bass-starved, with neither particularly forward nor reticent mids, they offer a balanced and detailed yet tireless sound. Topped with chocolate sprinkles, and a degree of resolution and dynamic contrasts, that used to be exclusive to the headphone world.

 


KZ EDR1
Price: $3.63 shipped (eBay)

KZ “EDR1”

These are literally my first KZ’s. After all this research and writing on these models, this represents my first chance to try out a KZ earphone, see what all the fuss is about! Shortly after ordering these, I noticed my eBay seller literally doubled the price of them. I wonder if it’s because he saw that I was ordering them, and figured they must be more valuable than he presumed, if “The Advanced Audiophile” is going to get involved with it? Food for thought. Anyway…

Did you notice the total price, shipped? It’s not a misprint. It’s a (literally) solid earphone, no less than “KZ quality”, at the price of a pack of crisps! The cord alone, used on most KZ models, is claimed to be 6 nines copper! I’m old enough to remember that if an audiophile wanted a cable made of a purity of 6 nines copper, that sorry S.O.B. had to go work in the copper mines at the crow of the rooster, stick his head in a thousand degree smelting furnace, and forge that 6-nines cable out of his own damn burnt and bloody hands. Or at least, he had to fork over a lot of dough to a hi-end boutique salesperson to get something like that. Now? “Just add 50 cents to the price”. This of course makes me rather skeptical of the claims of copper purity but…. even if it’s a false claim, just the fact that they would make that claim for an audio product that cost $3 dollars and .63 cents, is fascinating in itself. Colour me amazed and amused.

I chose to get the EDR1  because of its sound signature. I read that it was not heavy on the bass, and yet not harsh in the mids or highs. So I wanted to throw something into the mix that could potentially have a more balanced sound. One owner even compared the closely related EDR2 to two of his more expensive models, and said that it beats the $50 “Soundmagic 10C” in every way.

Sorting Out The KZ “ED/R” Series

KZ “EDR1”: Now Frankenstein-approved.
Betron “YSM1000″…. look familiar?

The EDR1 uses a copper driver, and that may be responsible for what some people are calling an “ED” series “house sound”. In a project statement page out of KZ’s “Infinite Wisdom Dept.”, they made the EDR1 look exactly like the EDR2 model, and also the “ED Special Edition” (“ED SE”) model. Both of which look almost identical to the “YSM-1000” model under the brand “Betron”.

Most KZ EDR1’s are black and gold, while most EDR2’s are silver-bodied. But I’ve seen ads where the reverse is true in both cases. Welcome to the world of Chi-Fi! So, with no markings to differentiate between them, from the pictures, it seems the only way you can tell them apart is by telepathy. And the reason I’m trying to sort out the details here, is because your seller might not know the difference either. You might run into listings that display an EDR-2 but selling an EDR-1, or vice versa. Or you might find something that looks exactly like one of these, but is not even labelled as an “EDR” anything.

KZ “EDR1” CME (Crappy Mic Edition)

I can’t say I know what all the differences are between the two visually identical models, since in the interest of industrial espionage I presume, this is not information KZ gives out to just any shlub off the street. Primarily, it appears to be one of tuning characteristics. e.g.  One reviewer says the “ED SE” has a lift in the treble, while the “EDR1” has a lift in the sub-bass with a bit of lift in the treble, and the “EDR2” is relatively neutral. He also says the “EDR1” sounds just like the “Rock Zircons”, a model I’m unfamiliar with. One commenter notes the EDR1 is made of an alloy, while the EDR2 appears to be a cheaper aluminum body.

KZ “EDR2”Or is it?….

Another commenter, who has most of the “ED” models and seems to know his business, says the EDR1/2 are far superior to the “ED SE”. Which he states has a different driver and vent hole configuration, and is nevertheless “light years” ahead of KZ’s “ED4” model. (Whew, that was close! I almost opted for an ED4 as well!). The drivers in the EDR1 are listed as “2nd generation, 18ohm 8mm upgraded driver”, while those in the identical-looking “ED SE” are said to contain a “7mm double-magnet imported Japanese 16ohm CCAW driver”.

In a further comparison between the “EDR1” and “EDR2” models, he goes on to say “the EDR1 is more v-shaped, have brighter treble with good clarity, and much better sub bass” and that “the EDR2 sounds similar to KZ’s “HDS3” model, but with more sub bass extension“. He adds that the EDR1’s natural background noise sounds cleaner and darker/quieter than the EDR2. (This could just be due to a reduction in HF response). To complete the picture, some other commenters say they find little difference between the seemingly identical “EDR1” and “EDR2” models.

“Feel free to go toss it”?? Come on KZ, they can’t be that bad??

However, another commenter who also owns both EDR1 and EDR2 models, says in a comparison between the two, that the “EDR1 are less bassy and slightly heavier in weight, with a longer body, and more substantial to handle“. And that he would choose the EDR1 if he had to. I think this comment may be why I chose to go with the EDR1 over its twin brother.

Overall, the consensus seems to be that the EDR1 is more “v-shaped” in its presentation (louder in the extremes of highs and lows), but “fatigue-free, warm and engaging”, while the EDR2 is more neutral sounding, in comparison. Which suggests it may be more unforgiving, given music prone to stridency. According to this commenter, you can crank up the EDR1 to “ear-bleeding levels” on an amplified source, without distortion! Not something I plan to try, since I only use IEM’s for portable listening.

Fit & Finish

KZ “EDR1”

As you may notice, the KZ “EDR1” uses the same wire as most other KZ models, and if you were to purchase it separately, that alone, is worth more than the cost of the entire item! It’s well made, lightweight, very soft to the touch, and has a bouncy, rubbery feel. Presumably to prevent tangling. Despite being on the thin side, it is a much better quality cable than any earphone reviewed prior to this. Good reinforcement termination at the plug and earpiece ends. They’re durable enough to have an “RY-CNAS 3454 quality certification” (whatever that means). In fact, in their advertising, KZ encourages you to “Feel free to go toss it“. They don’t specify whether they mean off a bridge overlooking a river, or out of a moving vehicle. But surely, if KZ are confident you can do that, then you can certainly at least “helicopter the hell out of them”, by swinging them around like Roger Daltry’s microphone. 

I also noticed the cable is longer than usual. Which could really be a plus for some folks, and a nuisance for others. Though the earpieces are not as small as the “Hangrui Turbo’s” reviewed above, they are still so small I would classify them as “cute”. They have a grill on the back that is apparently a “fake grill”, as they are sealed. They come with 3 sets of dome-shaped silicone eartips, which are a cut above low end generics. They give a feeling of pressure inside the ear canal, but I’m stating the obvious here, as that’s typical of all IEM type earphones.  That said, I found them quite secure and making a good seal. Once the small ones are in my ears, they don’t fall out when I shake my head. Perhaps because of the good seal, the cable is microphonic. Not an issue for me, especially with no microphone involved, but it is for some. 

Sound

There’s a lot to like about this IEM. I immediately got into the rhythm of the song, and was bouncing along to it very nicely. Basically saying, they allow you to enjoy the music! That may sound simplified, but I can’t say that of every earphone. Despite the great seal, there was not an abundance of bass; which I characterize as a plus. That means the sound picture was pretty well balanced. It was also detailed, but not “sparkly” in the high frequencies. One thing I could not overlook, was the tonality within that picture. The midrange had “glare” across it, and if compared to the Monks, a lack of refinement in the highs. The EDR1 however, has way more detail, HF extension and a larger soundstage than the Monks. The bass could be described as punchy, but dry and not deep enough for “bass freaks”. However, it can be too deep, for me. When this occurs, it’s because the midrange and high region are not forward-sounding. This may require pushing the volume up to get a good sense of what’s going on in the mids. You may get the midrange detail you seek, because of the clarity the IEM affords. But pushing the volume like that both increases bass, and stridency in the upper registers. Adding two new issues on your hands. I read one commenter saying that the mid and highs are somewhat reticent on low-powered devices, but that this ear sings when amped.

To avoid permanent hearing loss, do not pair these earphones with this player.

Another reviewer said of his of the KZ ED9’s: “The highs are just a bit too sharp for me, but it’s really not that bad.” And that immediately put to mind these ED1’s for me. Both the mids and highs (and the bass to some extent), are really not to my taste… but its really not that bad, “relatively speaking”. The glare did not do much to impede my enjoyment of the music, as did the pricier Q9! So I can’t say the highs were painfully piercing. But their stridency was an issue for me, as the upper mid peaks coloured the entire picture of sound. I could see there was some real quality in this insanely priced audio component, so it seemed like those issues could be fixed by a good burn-in, and/or a change of eartips. Because there is really a lot to like about this model.

Tweaking: It was all change when I swapped out the default tips for the smaller ones included in the box. The most annoying parts of the glare were “magically” reduced with the change of eartips, even if what remained, still significantly coloured the sound. The larger eartips did not have this effect. The smaller ones make a tighter seal in my ear, though slightly less comfortable to use, for that reason. “Tip-rolling” may fix the problem (but my orders of ear-tips haven’t come in yet, so….). Overall, the EDR1’s have good clarity, and you don’t get the feeling you’re missing much, as these can not be characterized as “muddy”. Tones lack sweetness of the better earphones, as well as the textures that help distinguish different sounds, due to the spotlight effect on the mids and highs. In this sense, it reminds me a bit too much of the unrefined sound of early 16-bit CD players.

When the ad for your earphone starts with “This time… It is doomed….” ….do you really need to read any more? Just BUY IT!!

Tweaking, Part 2 (THE UPDATE):  With all I have to do, I forgot about going that step further, and experimenting with tips that did not come in the box. And wouldn’t you know it, the KZ Star-lines I just received nearly change the whole damn character of the earphone!

The KZ “Star-lines” (see “The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: Eartips”) are a newer design of silicone eartips included on some models of KZ… but not on the EDR1’s. If you observe the picture on the left, you can see that the tips that come with the EDR1 (on the left), are more dome-shaped variety. The Star-lines are a darker grey and more cone-shaped type (at least in the small size pictured).

With the small Star-lines, that relentless sibilance was greatly reduced, and the IEM suddenly became quite “listenable”. As perfect a sound match as I thought the small Star-lines were, the medium-size Star-lines were even better! Now we’re talking! Dynamic contrasts changed, and sibilance was even more reduced (though traces of sibilance remain on this earphone, regardless of tip-rolling). Surprisingly, all sorts of sub-bass came out, mid-bass became stronger, and the whole bass region better defined than on the KZ HD9. Even more surprising, the earphone actually became musical (“enjoyable” if you will), to a certain extent! That’s a quality it did not have before, with the stock eartips of any size. Sibilance was not reduced at the loss of detail either. So now you have… musical, detail, sub-bass and stronger mid-bass – neither of which are dominating forces in the balance, and a large soundstage. For how much?? Less than $4 shipped? Are you kidding me?!

Tweaking, Part 3: In my single experience, the KZ EDR1 requires a good bit of prepping, before it can be ready for prime time. I would suggest at least 200 hours of burn-in at high vol., with a full range frequency sweep. This really helped tame some of the AWEI Q9’s harsh bite, I’m sure it can do something with the EDR1’s as well. The next thing to try is tip rolling. I subbed a pair of white (not clear) medium sized silicone eartips, the soft and supple type. This helped achieve a better balance. Of course, good ol’ EQ-ing can also change the tonal balance EQuasion here, even more so than tip rolling. But EQ? For me? “I don’t deal wit’ dat….”.

I would hack them, before I’d resort to artificial distortion-inducing equalization, however. Here’s how I did that:

  1. Gently remove red filter at top of the earpiece nozzle with a pin. Place it on a piece of wax paper or similar, to avoid removing the glue it contains.
  2. Gently stuff a small piece of acoustic foam (ie. as from an ear pad), cotton (from a facial pad), or fibrefill (as from a cushion) into the tube, using the dull end of the pin. Don’t overdo it.
  3. After testing, put the red filter back, using the working end of the pin or tweezers. You can simply place it over top of the nozzle hole, than fit it in with your finger (not too much).This went a long ways to taming all those rough edges. Yes, there was still some degree of sibilance, but at moderate volumes, tolerable (for the short-term anyway). Of course, some of the impressive HF detail was lost after this mod (ie. “sparkle”), but there’s still a lot left in lower frequencies. What’s gained however, is what’s lost, that is undesirable. A more moderate, listenable tonal balance results. It will leave you in disbelief as to how much you paid for this thing!

If you don’t have time to read this review, here’s the meat of it, minus the potatoes, served in a taco shell:

The KZ EDR1 is an IEM that “punches above its weight” (reg. tm. and yes, we will sue) and sounds like a $200 model. Providing that $200 model was hooked up to a stereo system, which included an ADC “Sound Shaper” equalizer. And that equalizer had its red LED-lit sliders all messed up by your 4 year old, because they, quote, “remind her of Christmas”. So she pushed up a couple of sliders in the lower frequencies, she might have inadvertently moved the midrange ones a tad down, and she definitely shot up a few of the sliders toward the right side of the spectrum equalizer. “There. It sounds more Christmas-y”, she says, with a satisfied smile. That’s all she knows about that, sorry.  🙁

 

Tweaking, Part 4 (LATEST/LAST UPDATE Part 2!): Further Tip-rolling

n.b. I am writing this as the last addition to this review, long after I wrote everything else in this review. I am not changing anything I wrote elsewhere in this review, even if these comments conflict with them a bit.

Double Flange Tips:  Unfortunately, I can’t try every earphone with every eartip I have for a review, because I would basically have to devote my entire life to this monster of an article. But it does happen that I have to do a reassessment of an earphone, because some new development, if not revelation, comes later. While I will hold off on “revelation”, I found the KZ EDR1’s with the unbranded double flange eartips I reviewed here (the good ones, not the bad ones!), was a killer combo.

In this set-up, I no longer had a single issue with the EDR1’s reproduction of mids and highs. Even under loud and aggressive rock music, it was never aggressive or sibilant, and less aggressive than the ATE, with the same eartips. On the contrary, with these tips, the EDR1 was darker, bassier than the ATE, with good definition and a wider soundstage. That soundstage was a little too far back for my taste, but you can’t have everything! Just to say, the EDR1 is not to be underestimated, it can compare to most everything here. The fact that its built like jewellery, with an all zinc alloy body that looks and feels like solid brass, puts it squarely in one of the top values, discussed in the “Overall Project Conclusion” at the end of this article.

Sony MH755 Orange Silicone Tips:  The tips that came with the MH755, which I found undesirable with their own earphone, are actually a good match for the EDR1 as well. They managed to pull a neat trick you can’t normally do on the EDR1: they make them “musical”. This has to do with the particular way they “bend” attack & decay measures. May not be accurate, but boy… it sure makes it engaging.

KZ Whirlwind Tips: These are the blue/clear wide-bore tips that KZ makes. I found they made an unusually good match with the EDR1’s, unlike any of the others tried. It created a balanced sound that, on a technical level, was less impressive than, say, the Sony tips. Well balanced, but, with neither bass nor highs. And that’s its strong suit. It was an extremely natural sound, where nothing stood out. Yet it had “PrAt” and was one of the best for clarity and critical analysis. A good combination of both those qualities, which is not typical. Fit was also very natural, in my ear.

 

Left: Stock EDR1 dome tips. Right: KZ Star-line cone tips, sm.

Shootout: EDR1 vs. ATE: Of course, if compared directly to the ATE model at twice its price, it will lose the race. The ATE model plays louder at the same volume, has a significantly larger soundstage, detail and separation. Resolution, as well. (So, e.g. more ‘air’ around instruments on the ATE version of events, plus more precise imaging).

The EDR1 has more bass than the ATE, and that allows you to hear a bit more of what’s going on in that region. But I prefer the ATE’s bass reproduction, as it is less intrusive and will likely be less fatiguing. Also, the EDR1 is less intrusive physically, as it is lighter than the ATE, and therefore more comfortable ear to wear, overall.

To blur the lines further, there were actually times where the EDR1 simply outperformed the ATE. Both IEMs were outfitted with the same M size KZ Starline tips. But on the Chesky audiophile test jazz track “Naturalness”, the EDR1 exhibited a more liquid sound, with better delineated textures. It simply won the contest, on this go. The ATE had the larger soundstage… but that soundstage had a haze across it, in comparison, sounding less natural. Sometimes this comes down to matching the right tip with the right nozzle. Sometimes it can even be a matter of how far the tip is installed on the nozzle! e.g. When I outfitted the ATE with the L size KZ Starline and replayed the Chesky track, it…. was still not quite as liquid as the experience with the EDR, but it won out nevertheless! In this case, the entire resolution increased, creating a larger stage with larger sounding instruments, and more nuances into their details. Creating a sound so captivating, I did not want to take them off. (Except I find the large size too intrusive by feel, to wear for prolonged periods).

Shootout: EDR1 vs. V-Moda Vibe: One could say the sound of the EDR1 leans more toward the clinical (digital), than what I call “musical” (analogue). Soundstage is decently large, and separation is good, with instruments occupying their own space. Match it with a warm sounding player and you should be good to go. Bass is relatively light but punchy, and sub-bass is there when called for, but otherwise not too intrusive. From what I’ve reviewed thus far, the only earphones they don’t top, are the Monks. Compared to my V-Moda Vibes, the EDR1’s throw open a much larger soundstage, with far more bass impact. That said, I prefer the V-Modas by far. They are superior at reproducing natural timbre, and are never sibilant and potentially fatiguing, like the EDR1’s. FWIW, my S.O. tried these and hated them, immediately. Both for their stridency (because she did not insert the eartips deeply), and she said it made an uncomfortable fit, when the (small) eartips were pushed too far in. I couldn’t really argue with either point. But that’s why it’s so necessary to do experimentation with eartips, with this model. Depending on what you have on hand, and your tastes, you may not necessarily succeed, either.

Conclusion: RECOMMENDED.  The EDR1 is a well-balanced, detailed IEM that may well be a go-to earphone for many people, and a damn site better than most stock earphones that come with phones. It would have gotten a lower rating had I not experimented with other types of eartips (I originally gave it “RECOMMEND WITH RESERVATIONS”). Now, I can lift off the reservations, if Star-lines or other good tips (ie. Spin-fits) are used. Because with that ‘tweak’, it’s pretty much impossible to beat at its price point!

It looks like KZ did the impossible, and stuffed $40 worth of quality into a $4 product. And given the “I-still-can’t-believe-it” price I paid, I realize that it would not be an exaggeration to say that the KZ EDR1 is the best value I have ever come across in my audio career!

Pros:

  • Good fit and finish, relatively well balanced sound and compact design, makes this IEM more than worth tweaking, to get a smoother sound in the upper ranges.
  • In comparison to newer sculpted, over-the-ear models, the EDR1’s basic cigar stub shape should not be undervalued. There are pleasant advantages to it.
Cons:

  • If the eartips are not changed, I found my copy of the ERD1’s plagued initially by sibilant and exaggerated peaks in the mid and high frequencies. Thus if and only if used in its stock configuration, then this model would not recommended by me.

 

Fakespotting

These KZ’s came in an official box, sealed with plastic and bar-coded. The quality is there, and I have no reason to believe they are inauthentic. In fact, I can not as of this writing, find any examples of any fake KZ’s. I think the reason the KZ’s are not faked, is likely because they are so cheap to begin with, it makes no economic sense to fake them. That and the fact that it appears KZ clones their own models, under such brands as “QKZ”!

The Lowdown: The KZ EDR1 offer an exemplary build quality for their price level. As well, a level of detail, resolution, bass quality, treble extension and soundstage width and imaging precision that belies their small price. They are a versatile and well-loved model, which some swear by, while others swear at. Their penchant for sibilance in the upper regions may be a deal-breaker for some, but with a bit of TLC and elbow grease, they have the potential to outshine many others in their price bracket.

KZ “ATE”
Price: $8.88 shipped (eBay)

KZ “ATE”
Audio-Technica “ATH-IM50”, $122.00 retail. Look familiar?

Though I didn’t receive it first, this model was my first choice from the KZ catalogue. It was well liked, and I settled on it because it had a near perfect score for sound leakage. As I intend to use them in bed as well, that’s important to me.

Cheap as they are in cost, IEM’s from “KZ” are just excellent products all around, for the price. They can and do compare to earphones costing many times their price. They are run by guys that (allegedly) used to work for Audio-Technica. They know Build, they gear the designs toward Sound, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence, some of their designs look a lot like A-T models (but thankfully, they don’t limit themselves to just ripping off Audio-Technica. They also rip Campfire, Sennheiser designs, etc.).

KZ tend to details like strain relief points, and cords that are not too thin or fragile. This is why I had my eye on KZ’s, more than any other brand in this price bracket. Note that there are numerous iterations of the “ATE” by now, including an earlier one in silver. Small modifications to each result in somewhat different sound pictures, so keep that in mind when reading reviews on them. This is the 5th generation of ATE under review.

Fit & Finish

I can see why they got 9.7/10 for sound leak prevention on Phonograph.net. The eartips create a good seal. Not just in the ear, but over the nozzle. To prevent leaking out the back end, and funnel the sound through your ear. However, I would not rate them that high for prevention of sound leaking, from what I heard. Perhaps 85/100. On moderate levels in a quiet room they should not be heard. But on loud levels, they will be heard a bit.

I wasn’t sure I’d like the default memory foam eartips on the ATE’s, as I have so far, preferred silicone tips. I’m fine with the silicone tips on the EDR1’s, but these are black memory foam. The black memory foam eartips I have experimented with (see #1 black memory foam tips), left a lot to be desired. But these tips feel smoother, and bounce back faster, I observed. In practice, they are far superior to the cheaper BMF’s. They do not feel like an otolaryngologist digging an instrument in your ear canal. They are quite comfortable to wear, and do a good job of isolating from outside noise.

The proper way to fit around-the-ear models like the ATE is to wrap the cord around your ear, placing the cord behind your ear, giving the cord a gentle tug as you then fit the earpiece into the correct angle. The weights on the cord just below your ear should help the cable to remain in place. You could wear them as you do the regular IEMs, with the cord hanging straight down… but you really can’t. Before buying any KZ’s I thought you could… but the earpieces are designed to fit properly when the cord is around the ear.  Also they’re actually more comfortable around the ears, sound better (less sibilant), fit better and more secure. If for whatever reason you need to wear them straight down, I advise you to get something else.

The ATE’s cables attach to the earpieces with what looks like a knurled brass knob that you unscrew to change out the cables. Don’t do this. They’re not removable! Or they might be if you try to unscrew the connection, but then you won’t be able to put them back. Look to other models, like the ZS3 or ZSN, if you want removable cables. n.b. As an audiophile, I’m not really a fan of removable cables. Sure, you have a chance to upgrade the wire, in that case. But… you’ve now introduced a certain degradation in the form of resistance; both electrical and in relation to BEF’s (Beltic Energy Fields). Which occurs at connection points of all objects; not just electrical. Now the question becomes… does the cable upgrade overcome the indirect connection design? If I were to guess, I’d say the potential improvements are probably less important than the potential degradation.

Sound

Unlike the MI’s, this one I was eager to test.  The ATE’s throw a large soundstage, that allows me to hear side melodies I had not ever noticed before. They’re earphones that take the time to ensure the musicians are sitting in their seats. As I write this, I’m not sure what I paid for them. So objectively speaking, they sound like earphones in the $50-$100 price bracket.

With the default memory foam tips fitted to the unit, they compare most to the EDR1’s I reviewed recently. The differences are:
The ATE have less bass impact, than the EDR1’s….thankfully! The ATE’s bass is never intrusive, but can reach sub-bass levels when called for. This creates a better balance, overall. However, the highs are too top heavy to quite maintain that balance (we’ll get to that!). The soundstaging is better, as well.

Though they share a quality of sibilance with the EDR1’s, which makes me wonder if this is a “KZ house sound”, the ATE’s degree of sibilance and peakiness in the upper mids is way less objectionable than the EDR1’s (in which that bud is way less objectionable than the Q9’s, etc. etc.). Clarity is high, but too high. Midrange tones are sharp, due to a peak somewhere in the mid/uppers. The bass is not always particularly well controlled, though relatively so, and it stays out of the way and shuts up when it needs to.

The midrange is not forward, but slightly reticent. Like a painting in a museum, you can only view from behind the rope. So despite the clarity, the mid/upper focus and their fairly neutral tonal character, they’re not the best things for monitoring. Unmodified with the stock eartips, it makes it harder to hear what’s going on with the vocals, and as I listen to my own vocal recording mixes on portable units, that’s something I particularly need to hear. It does however prevent too forward mixes from assaulting your eardrums. Also, the fairly neutral balance serves as a basis (once/if the sibilance is tamed), for listening to them all day, without sonic discomfort. If compared with KZ’s ZS3 model, the ATE puts the stage further back, but is not as extended nor as aggressive in the mids or highs.

 “Listening to the KZ ATE is like having the front row middle seat to an inviting concert. But you cheaped out, and so your tickets are in the balcony nosebleed section.

Tweaking: To deal with the persistent traces of sibilance: After burning in for 2-3 days straight did not do the job, finally, I experimented with changing the memory foam eartips for the dark grey silicone tips that come with this and other KZ models. The small dark grey dome-shaped tips sound pretty good (the large size may be better, depending on one’s ears), while the S-size in the more cone-shaped black “Starline” KZ tips produce a lighter but more “liquid” bass, with a more transparent sound picture. Downside, being those small cone tips feel like Q-tip cotton swabs in my ears. I also find medium-size Starline tips are quite good for the ATE, as they provide good balance between highs and lows. But they do not attenuate the ATE’s natural tendency toward a slightly sibilance on highs and mids. They are rivalled by the excellent sounding full red bore KZ tips in (M), but those are less comfortable for me to wear. However, they don’t muddy up the lows, or stress the highs and cause sibilance.

Basically, whatever makes a good seal in your ear (you’ll know when you can’t hear outside noises!), would likely be a good match for this earphone, as it has the potential to increase bass and reduce treble. This IEM is good, but needs as much “warmth” to the sound as it can get, in order to ‘sing’, and reduce its rough repro of high frequencies. With dark grey dome-shaped eartips installed and making good seal, I felt I could assess the true character of the IEM.

Now, I see why people like it, and say it’s balanced and detailed and neutral and all of that. Still, with the silicone tips, the midrange was either ruler flat or just below that. It was not as forward as I would have liked. The highs dominated the midrange more than the other way around. Though not sibilant, they were “tizzy”. They lacked the refinement of a VE Monk, for example (get used to me saying that because….). I’m not sure that further burn-in or ear-tips will change this quality. So I may well be finally hearing the limits of $8.88 U.S. here. Anyway, as comfortable as they are, I’m not going back to the KZ memory foam eartips.

Tweaking, Part 2 (THE UPDATE): A few days later, and I’m still finding, more than ever perhaps, that I don’t like the highs on this thing. To my ears, it brings to mind the phrase “murder treble”, that some use to describe a really aggressive high end. Even if it may not be as bad as what that phrase normally describes. I still have many eartips that haven’t come in yet, but I’ve gone through all the ones I do have, to try to fix this.

A wide bore tip was recommended with the ATE, but that did not help in my case. It put out less bass. It had the best balance of tone, so it was not bad. But that did not reduce the peaky upper mids/highs. Using a wide-bore successfully on the ATE might well depend both on what sort of player and what sort of ear you have. Perhaps the best I found so far for my ears, was the KZ dome-shaped dark grey tips, in M size. It brought out more bass (but also muddied the bass more), probably pushed the mids back even further, and the increase in bass tamed the highs a bit. But not enough.  Still, for me the (M) dark translucent grey dome-shaped tips from KZ, whether black-bore or red-bore, seem to come closest to an ideal balance, and are the most comfortable fit for me. But they’re not as clear in sound as some others I’ve tried.

The black generic memory foam tips (“#1”), actually tamed those peaks the most, and were the most sonically tolerable and comfortable to wear. But for one, they mess up the ATE’ss detail and soundstage. Note, I am not adverse to high frequencies per se. It’s just, they become a source of irritation to me when they’re poorly reproduced. The very same tips on the KZ ZS3 does not give issue, for the most part, because the ZS3 can better reproduce those frequencies. It also separates better and sounds livelier doing it.

The last type I tried successfully with the ATE, were double flange silicone tips. Properly inserted, they stay in place well, and they change the character of this IEM a lot. I even tested this with frequency sweeps, binaural recordings and hi-res audio. A lot of what was stridency turned into sharp detail. Most of the piercing elements grew tolerable. Songs with a lot of HF energy were still too much, but not painful. Bass could be heard at lower frequencies, and it got tighter. On songs that weren’t painfully bright, mids were not muddy and clarity was amazing! One of the best IEMs I have, in that sense. Showing the ATE could have a well behaved sense of tonal balance with these tips. And that if you can stand the peaks in the upper ranges, it makes a good monitor.

Conclusion: RECOMMENDED. The ATE’s offer bags of detail, and a more balanced tonality, over many other competitors; including other KZ models. But these are not as neutral as I thought they’d be, as the reviews I read suggested they would. Straight out of the box, they remain too sibilant for my taste, without modifying their sound. However, I am the “Advanced Audiophile” and “tweaking” is kind of my thing. The thing that I do. reg. tm.  So I have every confidence that I could massage their sound to suit, either with 100-200 hrs. of good burn-in, plus change of eartips perhaps, and maybe a light foam mod. Since the sibilance isn’t painfully bright, just ensuring they are well inserted into the ears helps already.  Once tamed, they are definitely something I could use as a “daily driver” reg. tm.. I think these are going to remain keepers, for me. I have a feeling they’ll be one of the better KZ’s that I run into.

I will also note that there are people that have modded the ATE like crazy. So much, that it’s own father wouldn’t recognize it any more. And they report that modded, it surpasses many of their costlier IEMs. So again, I remain certain the ATE’s upper end could be ‘fixed’ to my satisfaction. (Certainly, if I wanted to use EQ, that would do it). But, I do have other KZ’s now, such as the HD9, which when testing with the same tips, has no such problems. Namely, because it does not try to reproduce frequencies it can’t adequately reproduce, in the first place!

The LowdownThe comfortable KZ “ATE” is often used as a basis to judge other models, for equilibrium in the tonal area. It has a relatively neutral and detailed sound, with good balance of bass vs. other ranges. But also a somewhat reticent midrange and tizzy highs that can range from subdued, to sub-par and sibilant. The degree of which can depend on eartips, positioning, source material, time of day… etc. Perhaps a must for KZ collectors, but if neutrality is not your top priority, I would lean toward the KZ HD9 or ZS3, for a livelier outing.

 


MI “M2 Basic”
Price: $.74c shipped (eBay)

This is another “MI”-branded product from one of my favourite electronics companies, “Xiaomi”, and definitely the most basic model. It has the distinction of being the lowest priced earphone of the entire lot. A whopping .74 cents U.S., or $1 square in Canabuck currency. That includes packaging and shipping from China! I noticed that shortly after ordering, my seller relisted at the same price. Except now instead of free shipping, the shipping was $20U.S. Maybe it also comes with a free brick now, I didn’t ask. But in doing so, he is thereby turning this Crackerjack Box toy into a $21 earphone. We’re talking primo KZ territory, folks! Can it compete with $20-$25U.S. KZ models? Don’t be silly! The pictures already answer that!

That’s not what we’re here to find out. We’re here to find out how a “name” brand like a “MI” compares to its own, the unbranded $1 models. And speaking of brands, I figure at this price, they’re probably fakes. But fake or not, I was curious to see how a “MI” option would fare next to the Samsung earbuds, and the other El Cheapos in this review.

 

Fit & Finish

So what do you get for a grand total of .74 cents these days, including door-to-door delivery from China? How about a relatively solidly built earphone, with silicone eartips, sturdy siliconized rubber wire, and remote control (which does work on my iPhone), with play/pause and microphone, for answering phone calls. The weak point I can see, would be no reinforcement at the joint where the wire enters the earpiece. Oh, and one of the steel filters might came off the nozzle, when I pulled the eartips off. (Probably won’t change their sound much if it does, and it can maybe be glued back if you have the patience). I’d say the design and build is the primary strength of the MI Basic 2’s. Due to the small, hollow, sturdy plastic earpieces, these MI’s are the lightest of all the models yet. Because the stock clear med. size silicone eartips  (no others included) create a gentle but secure fit in the ear (mine, at least), it’s one of the most comfortable IEMs I have encountered. Might be a great starter choice for those who may not like IEM-style earphones.

Sound

After listening to the KZ EDR1’s, I almost dreaded having to go and listen to these. I was sure they were fakes and positive they cost under $1. What good could come of listening to them I wondered? However, I am here to take the slings, the arrows, and the bullets, that the rest of you are too cowardly (let’s admit it…), to take. So listen to the MI’s, I did!

On the very first notes of Sade’s “Tar Baby”, I was enthralled. Don’t get me wrong, the sound was horrible. Just as you might expect from a dollar’s worth of earphone. It sounded like the entire frequency range was shoved into a sausage casing, and being broadcast from inside of a cardboard toilet paper tube. There were no highs to speak of, and the bass was mostly missing from action as well. What’s left of course is the midrange, so at least there’s that. And if you like a strong emphasis on the midrange, you had a quite a bit of that in the lower mid frequencies. Giving it that precious “toilet paper tube” sound.

You can forget about any concept of ‘detail”, with these ears. They take a hatchet to any details in the musical picture. They make the Samsung stock earphones sound like high fidelity. Yet somehow, amid this lo-fi chi-fi squawk-box sound, the harmonics that did come through, managed to create hints of an engaging musical connection, that I did not get from most other models. The reason for the appeal, is the way that it pushes the midrange forward and brings tones to the fore, with a certain sweetness. This can be heard for example on the melody line in Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”, after the bridge “what’s there?…” comes in.

In this specific sense the MI gave better than the AWEI Q9. So, at least as far as first impressions go, it was, in a sense, “musical”. Accidentally, I’m quite sure. i don’t think that somewhere in Shenzen, there were a small board of Chinese directors going “How can we fake the cheapest MI’s at a production cost of pennies, but still give audiophiles a sense of that elusive ‘musicality’ quality they so love?”. first impressions go, it was, in a sense, “musical”. Accidentally, I’m quite sure. i don’t think that somewhere in Shenzen, there were a small board of Chinese directors going “How can we fake the cheapest MI’s at a production cost of pennies, but still give audiophiles a sense of that elusive ‘musicality’ quality they so love?”.

It’s like my momma always told me. “Life is like a box o’ earphones. You never know what yer gonna get.”

‘Course, momma never did think much of turnin’ boxes over to read the contents.

So what does it all mean? Well, it means that for your hard-earned “dollar”, you get an earphone that can be annoyingly lo-fi for some, especially if they have heard better. (Like, for example, $2 earphones). But I can see how someone can, in a limited way of course, fall in favour with this thing! This is kind of what makes audio equipment special. Every single different (and often same) piece of audio equipment, no matter what it is, has its own sonic signature. A combined collection of a great many sound characteristics.

Fakespotting:

Are they fakes? Yeah, I assume so! Without certified authentic MIs to compare to, I can’t say for certain. But given the cheap zip bag they came in, and the price, I think its safe to assume they are. At this price, I don’t really care, either.

Conclusion: NOT REALLY RECOMMENDED Let’s be clear, the $1 Hangrui’s sound like $1,000 earphones next to these $1 MI Fakes. The sound is “tin canny”, with that “cheap driver smell”, IYKWIM.  With the stock eartips, they perform a nifty magic trick, where the sound of the earphone appears to be coming from a telephone from 1973. This means a very narrow “in the centre of your head” soundstage, where things are squeezed in together like a ketchup packet. It can be characterized by a very “honky” midrange,  where almost all the detail you may hear is vocals.

So why am I still writing about these toy earphones? Because they’re a fun listen, super comfortable, and unfatiguing, due to the complete lack of sibilance (and high frequencies). And more significantly, because bass and some mid-tones are actually musical, due to the decay characteristics. It amounts to a lovely musical experience you get sometimes on some songs, such as Sinead O’Connor’s “Y Mas Gan” (with its sublime bass provided by no less than the legendary “Robbie Shakespeare”). But unless you change tips, that experience is punctuated by the aforementioned “honky upper mids”. I did try numerous tips, and the only that came close to almost eradicating that upper-mid peak, was the generic black memory foam tip discussed below in the Eartip notes. So I finally found an earphone this eartip was useful for! However, while it created a more balanced sound, it also killed those decay characteristics. Making the MI Basic 2 sound quite “ordinary” and completely not recommendable.

It occurs to me the fake MI Basic’s would be great earphones for a child, as they are super cheap, small, and seem quite sturdy and relatively durable. (Might require smaller eartips however). Also for podcast lovers in quiet environments, with such a forward midrange. Perhaps also for quirky people who don’t mind quirky sounding earphones, with a ton of colouration, but with a hint of appeal in midrange tones that may just make it a favourite! For most people however, it does not come recommended. This should not reflect on “MI” itself, as I don’t think they were at all behind this earphone I received.

Pro’s:

  • Cheaper than dirt.
  • They have a certain appeal to people like me, but their sound and build quality is far surpassed by equally insanely priced models; ie. the AKG, or Hangrui Turbo.
  • Finally, a pair of earphones you can give to your kid without worrying about them breaking it.
Con’s:

  • Peakiness in lower midrange may get annoying.
  • Warm sounding, but lack of both bass and HF.
  • Not better overall SQ than stock earphones, but on certain tones, they may be.

 

The Lowdown: The MI Basic 2 pretty much sounds like it costs. That’s not a compliment, btw.

 


KZ HD9 (“Storm Trooper Edition”, aka white, no mic)
Price: $5.65 shipped (eBay)

KZ “HD9“: Official IEM’s of the Star-Wars Stormtroopers

Believe it or not, I saw this model selling on eBay for about $2.75 u.s. shipped! If these things were any cheaper, KZ would be paying you to buy them. Even so, at the price I paid, the quality of the product is nothing short of astounding. From what I read, this model probably has the least appealing sound signatures out of the KZ models, I researched. Still, for the sake of trying out a variety of styles, I thought it was worth looking into. Besides, it has a cool, mod “Clockwork Orange-y” kind of look about it. A future outlook from the ’60’s meets Chinese hi-fi. What’s not to like about that?

Fit & Finish

Since they are close to the ATE in design, including the shape of the earpiece housing, much of what applies there for the build applies here.  Minor differences include the fact that the weights on the wire that help hold the wire in place by way of gravity are made of plastic instead of metal (brass?). Perhaps the somewhat lighter weight makes the cable a bit less organized, but I did not really notice a difference in the wearing of this model, compared with the ATE. I found it fits well in the ear with the stock tip and remains secure, like the ATE. Much of the time, it feels like its not even there. It is packaged in a tasteful, lovely dark cardboard box, and comes with 3 pairs of eartips. The nozzle the tips fit onto, is actually larger than the one on the costlier ZS3 model, I noted. The rubberized wire on the HD9 is about same as on EDR1. A hair thinner but stiffer. It is also claimed to be 6Nines OFC copper. Yeah, that’s right. For less than $3 shipped!

Sound

First Impressions: On the first notes of Tom Waits “Swordfishtrombones”, while the sound had not yet been turned up and just one earpiece installed, I noticed that these earphones boogie. It’s definitely not a dance song, but I was rockin’ to it just the same. Why would this be so? I believe the technical term for this, is it’s “boingyer”. Bass notes are a little springier/boingyer. Dare I say it, I like listening to this more than I do the ATE?! It isn’t just that it’s significantly warmer than the ATE. It’s that the bass is more melodic (see: “boingyer”). This gets you into the melody of the music more. And although the bass is softer, I can hear more bass melodies than on the ATE, because there is more of it. So far, there is not so much bass that it gives me a “bass headache”, as some bass-head IEMs might.

In a welcome change, sibilance is absolutely (finally!) no issue here! Though it was on the ATE, the EDR1, the Q9, and many others. I was starting to think sibilance was a “KZ house sound”. So I’m happy to report you do not need to put this thing through 4 days of burn-in to get something tolerable on the other end. Like the ATE and EDR1, the HD9 does not sport a particularly forward midrange. But thanks to a fairly large soundstage, the HD9 almost has the ability to produce HF details like the ATE. Except that the highs are definitely rolled off here… so the full character of those details gets lost. As its midrange is dark, thanks to bass bleed, and not as clear and expressive as on the ATE, it does not make a great monitor. You won’t get the kind of HF (or midrange or bass) detail you do on the ATE. No shimmer, no sparkle. The flipside to that, is you can listen to these all day without any fear of piercing or fatiguing highs. It’s a very smooth, mild sound… like a 70’s hi-fi kit. Think “wood veneer’.

Tip Rolling: Not a big fan of the HD9’s bass hump? Guess what? You can (almost) completely change their sonic character by switching tips! This is why, when you read a review on a pair of earphones, you do have to take into consideration what tips they are using. They don’t always say, either.

Memory Foam: I switched the stock silicone tips for the black memory foam ones that came fitted to the ATE’s. The very ones that I concluded in that review, did not compliment the sound of the ATE. Well, they do compliment these! With the memory foam tips, bass was less in your face, as there was less of it. And what was there was more controlled, too. Upper midrange was more opened up, though the midrange was still lacking detail, in ultimate terms. The high frequencies were also more prominent. Making the HD9 a lot closer to a balanced sound (and even more of a bargain, given its price!). See what I mean by almost completely changed character? The biggest trade-off in terms of sound, is that the ear was somewhat less musical than before, because the bass was less “boingier”. Also, these tips are easily obtainable on eBay or Ali as KZ foam tips.

KZ Whirlwind: I also found the blue KZ “whirlwind” tips (reviwed below) work very well with the HD9. Once again, transforming the sound of this earphone. Creating a very balanced sounding HD9, that is no longer characterized by heavy bass. With these tips, the HD9’s appear to rival the ATE’s in detail and openness. But with a sweeter, more appealing sound than the ATE.

KZ “HD9” ad courtesy of KZ: Now’s your chance to reach great heights of mediocrity!

Wide Bore Black Generics: What also worked well with the HD9, was the short, wide-bore, dark silicone tips you see in the picture above. Another eartip very sympathetic to the HD9, was a pair of medium-size soft thin brown silicone dome tips, with a small bore (which probably came off the fake Xiaomi Piston 2’s).  That changed the bass from boomy to tight, melodic and well defined, and the mids became more open, while the highs went from rolled off to detailed enough to where it could become slightly aggressive. More importantly, information wasn’t lost with this change. Resolution actually improved, and the sound became more involving. It’s probably not better to make a super tight seal in this case, for a more balanced sound.

Sound Leakage: They do indeed leak more sound to the outside world than do the ATE’s. This explains why the ATE’s were highly rated on Phonograph.net for not leaking sound. But I changed the eartips to the KZ memory foams that come with the ATE and guess what…. they leaked a lot less sound. Still, they leak more sound than the ATE’s with the same tips. So a change of tips helps here but…. some of it is due to the design. Not sure what in the design of both that would explain it, since both are sealed and roughly the same shape… but I did notice a very tiny pin-sized vent hole on the HD9’s near the nozzle.

Shootout: HD9 vs. ZS3: Having just received the KZ ZS3’s today, and having quickly named them as my favourite IEM so far, I was curious to see how they would compare to the HD9’s. Given all the buds I’ve listened to since, I almost forgot what they sounded like! To be sure I was giving this comparison a fair trial, I outfitted each IEM with the exact same tips (large dark grey dome-shaped silicone tips that come with the ZS3). I put on one of my favourite songs of all time, which I know very well and used throughout these tests.

Result: First thing I noted, was that the HD9 sounds better than I’ve ever heard it, with those tips. In fact, I find that everything sounds good on it.  The second thing I noted, and this is gonna sound weird but…. I preferred the HD9 over the current champ; the ZS3!  🙁   There is no way it should be better, it’s a sub-$3 earphone, for crying out loud!! With stock KZ tips! I know very well the ZS3 is superior, and in what ways. It throws a significantly larger soundstage, with extended everything, at a much higher resolution of reproduction. But despite all that, I found the HD9 was significantly more musical.

As before, I found myself connected to the emotional content of the music with this ear, which does not normally happen with the others. I could also hear ways the HD9 was better than the ZS3, on technical grounds. It was more “liquid” (and the ZS3 is not a “dry” sound, either). “Liquid” is not something you’re going to be able to see on a frequency response graph, btw. Which is usually the only attempt at objective measure in IEM reviews. And as to “liquid“, there was no contest here. On Van Morrison’s “T.B. Sheets” for example, the HD9 doesn’t “sub-bass” as I heard the ZS3 do on this track. But the HD9’s bass wasn’t just more solid than ZS3’s, but reproducing its character more accurately. Same with his harmonica. Midrange and highs had zero harshness, and a sweetness found perhaps in good audiophile Class A amplifiers, but not on the ZS3. The HD9 in comparison, also had more presence than the ZS3. Perhaps because of that, I was actually able to better follow a banjo melody playing in the background, than I was on the ZS3 – even though the ZS3 separates instruments better. And I was specifically looking out for that melody on both IEMs!

I’ve said this elsewhere about something else, but it applies here as well: The ZS3 has more detail, while the HD9 has more musical detail. I value the latter more. (e.g. The ‘boing’ sound coming off the drums on Adam & The Ant’s “Never Trust A Man With Egg On His Face” sounds more like the actual thing, than it did on the ZS3).

“Even if you hear less of it in one regard, music is simply more interesting to listen to on the HD9, all else equal.”

The ZS3 is a more open sound, the HD9 is a more relaxed and engaging one. So among the two, the ZS3 would be more suited to monitoring (some elements of the sound), the HD9 would be my go to for just listening to music. Probably for vocals, as well. My favourite IEM yet!

Fakespotting: The plug on mine does not say KZ, but I do think by the quality of sound alone, they are authentic.

Conclusion: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Unabashedly, I would indeed highly recommend this model. It was much better than I expected, from both the reviews and the price. So far, it’s better than any IEM I’ve heard at its price. Speaking of which, there are good reasons to get this model instead of the ATE, even though it does not reach that model’s level of detail, depth or soundstage. The box states “Adaption style: Pop rock dance light music“. Fair enough. It is most suitable for those seeking a somewhat darker, warmer sounding model (not as dark as the AKG and leagues above it). Although they become much better balanced when replacing their stock tips with the KZ foam tips (I now use the HD9 exclusively with the large dark grey KZ silicone dome tips). The HD9’s may lack openness and detail for critical listening. But they’re an IEM that is never offensive, never sibilant, and makes music enjoyable to listen to. A good all rounder for most people, including bass lovers, that don’t require the last word in detail.

 

Pros:

  • Smooth inoffensive character, that nevertheless sounds well above its price.
  • Inviting sound that is not muddy, yet never tiring or sibilant.
  • Equipped with the right eartips, as mentioned in the flash update, the HD9 doesn’t just “punch above its weight”. It lays to waste scores of musically inferior dead IEMs behind it, laughing in their wake.
Cons:

  • Lacking definition in bass region.
  • Lacks detail in the high frequencies

 

The Lowdown: The HD9 became one of my favourite KZ’s within the first handful of notes played. In a flash comparison to some of their other models, ie. the EDR1 or more popular ATE, the HD9 might sound somewhat muddy in contrast. However, it offers a sweetness and musicality lacking in those, and most other IEMs. It is characterized by strong bass tones, a prominent midrange and dark, untiring highs.

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KZ HD9 (“Darth Vader Edition”, aka black, no mic) – “The Blanco Y Negro Test” 
Price: $2.72 shipped (AliExpress)

KZ “HD9” Blanco Y Negro Test

As I discuss elsewhere in this review project, there is a forum that reported hearing differences in various “VE Monk” earbuds, where the only thing differentiating them was their colour! I also noticed that a popular earphone reviewer on YouTube, “TechmanZ”, insisted on the finding that different coloured headshells on the same earphones, sounded different. Of course, to Beltists, such as yours truly, this news wasn’t even new 30 years ago.

While I’ve done many tests on coloured items (to where I can name the characteristics of each colour, if I had to), can’t say as I’ve done same on earphones. So when I gave away my HD9’s, that afforded the perfect opportunity to replace them with the black model! It is the exact same model, the one without the remote control unit. Thus, this is not strictly a test of the KZ HD9, since I already did that above. Instead, it is a test to determine if there is a difference in the colour of an earphone. For there may be more than just aesthetic considerations to be made, when picking out a colour of earphone, where a variety of colours are available. I plan to conduct test of both earphones under the same conditions, so that hopefully, only the colour of the earpiece differs. I already know the sound quality of the HD9 is good enough, that it should be not difficult in the least to identify differences, if and where there are any.

Test

KZ “HD9” (Black)  Official IEM of Darth Vader.

The Set-Up: To start off with, I won’t do any silly ignorant things I’ve seen other reviewers do, that make me cringe. Like plug 2 earphones into separate headphone sockets on the same device, then switch between the 2. First off, the 2 jacks can exhibit changes in sound due to physical differences between the two jacks, due to manufacture, wear, oxidation, or whatever. Second, even if that weren’t the case, there are “Beltist” differences to be had between the jacks. Meaning, the physical location of a jack on an audio device will characterize its performance, to some extent. So the only way to do this, is to use the same jack, on the same device, with the same eartips, to test the HD9’s. Not only did I use the same type of eartips for both, I used the same eartips. There is already enough reasons for possible differences on the earphones, we don’t need to add to that.

The black HD9’s were new, the white HD9’s were not used much more than half dozen times. Maybe an hour or so, playing music. Neither IEM was modified or burned-in.

Results:

The black HD9 simply does not sound as good as my white model. Bummer.  🙁  Sound is a bit lower in volume, as well as resolution. The black HD9 sounds less liquid than the white one. In this way, it sounds like its moved closer to the sound of the KZ ATE. It’s still good, especially for $3!! But I don’t know if I would have gushed about the HD9 as much, had I received this pair instead of the white, during my initial review of it.

I’m left with the distinct impression this isn’t a black/white… this isn’t a colour difference. It feels more like a batch difference, an outgrowth of Chi-Fi manufacturing. I’m not going to buy a hundred HD9’s to offer a more scientific sample size on this issue. “Inconclusive”. I did order one more in black, with a remote. Perhaps that will let me know if and what difference the remote makes.

The Lowdown: As an addendum to the review on the HD9, this was only a test to see if a change in colour results in a change in sound. The answer is… inconclusive. There is a difference between the different coloured HD9’s, but it’s not obvious what the difference originates from, yet. The white one is better, in this instance.

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KZ HD9 (“Darth Vader with a Tie Edition” aka Black, with In-Line Remote)
Price: $2.77 shipped (AliExpress)

Because, hey, why not? To help support or discount the findings of the “Blanco Y Negro” test above, I got a third HD9, so I can check the sound of another sample. At $2.30 u.s., you really can’t have too many HD9’s, can you? This is not just a test of the two different colours (white v. black), but it will be a test between the two black HD9’s, to see what, if any, difference having an in-line remote has on the sound.

Fit & Finish

I do believe is the first KZ I try with a microphone. It’s a good design. Solid body and minimalist design, with just one large button. The button doesn’t produce a tactile feedback (no ‘click’ sound), but nevertheless, has a good rebound and is not mushy feeling. It works on my iPhone, where two clicks advance the track, and one long click brings up Siri. Still, even though I think its well made, I read comments from owners saying the KZ’s that did not last x years, was their mic’ed versions. So don’t expect the mic version on any IEM to last as long as the no mic.

“Q. Siri, what’s the best $3 earphone I can buy?”

“Siri: You’re holding it, sir.”


Sound

FWIW, this is an analysis of the KZ HD9 with mic, on its own merits.

I used the stock eartips that were fitted on the unit, pushing them back a bit for better fit, so that the earpieces were nice and flush with my ears. From the first notes (of Metric’s “Rock Me Now”), the HD9 sounds cool! No nonsense. No “drumstick on the brain” sound. Warm and darkish, lacking ultimate detail. But a really comforting sound, that still has that “KZ detail” under the darkened haze. Plus a quality of image placement that has no business being in a $3 earphone. I do have to wonder if the black colour influences the darkness… Needless to say, this sounds absolutely nothing like $3!

Separation is not best, so it can sound a touch rough during harmonies, when things get more complicated. It produces a nice flow, that keeps you engaged as a listener. That’s the main reason I like the HD9 over the ATE, and some other KZ’s. In its stock form, this is an earphone I could take on the road with me, and know I’ll have no aggressivity issues later, with any tunes. At the same time, I can’t expect a lot of clarity. At least not with these eartips.

Black HD9 No Mic vs. Black HD9 With Mic

What influence the mic has on the sound, if any, is what possessed me to get the mic’ed version in the first place (since I have little use for it anyway). This test will attempt to answer that question. I did a series of tests actually, with different eartips. Starting with M-size KZ Starline tips, then L-size wide-bore double flange tips, and finally, red-bore dome-shape KZ silicone tips. The latter were my favourites, in this test, for their revealing character. My final remarks are based on them.

KZ HD9 No Mic: The sound of the No Mic version was good, but the resolution was about 25% less, in comparison with the mic’ed ver. This means the soundstage was a bit smaller and also flatter, a bit less detail, less of a listen-in quality. I did detect a bit better quality of timbre on the no mic, but I could not really say whether this was due to the nagging “odd/even rule”. A sort of repeating ‘inverted sound’ after each trial, which affects that quality, among others. I should also add that since I did numerous tests with 3 different tips, the listening session was affected by what I might term the “Repeat Rule”. I’m sure I’ve referred to it in other articles here. This is another natural phenomenon, where the sound just degrades overall, incrementally so, each time you repeat the listening tests. It “resets” itself if you pause 20 minutes or so, before resuming tests, and you get your full quality back, more or less.

Conclusion: Again, I don’t think this was a mic difference. If anything, the addition of the mic should have degraded the sound, not improved it. As its one more factor of resistance in the signal path. And very possibly it does. As I’m sure the colour has an influence on the sound as well. But it appears to my ears and judgment, that the production differences trumps both of these factors. It would also help explain why the mic version is somewhat better than the no mic, and why there was generally no perceived degradation on the mic version.

KZ HD9 White, No Mic: Again, using the very same red-bore KZ domes as I employed with the other two models, I carefully adjusted the tips for fit, and listened. This was significantly different in sound than either black version. Both significantly better, significantly worse. The “better” in its resolution, the “worse” in a somewhat “out of phase” quality, I did not like. I readjusted the tips, and that quality remained. I was starting to wonder what was happening, since I never heard this quality on the HD9 before. I readjusted the tips a third time, and that fixed it! Ok, so now it was simply “better”! More resolution means a larger stage, bass was punchier and more solid than the black no mic edition. If there was anything worse at all, I might say it seemed about 1-5% less transparent than the BNM (Black, No Mic). This could easily be the difference of a slight displacement of an eartip or other.

Conclusion: Clearly, my preference of the lot is for the White no mic HD9. Is this due to the colour or lack of microphone/controller? Again, I don’t think so. You spin the wheel, and you either get lucky, or you don’t get as lucky. But in any colour or controller variation, the HD9 is a splendiferous IEM, and at $3 or less, trust me, you’re lucky if you own one! They all sound good, to some degree or other, and far, far better than their selling price would suggest.

 

Tweaking: Tip-rolling

To the BNM HD9, I fitted the what are fast becoming my favourite eartips. The “good” even-layered (wide bore) M-size  double flange eartips I reviewed elsewhere. The HD9’s are super-comfy with these tips. The resulting sound was… wow! Beautiful! It’s like it took everything I didn’t like about the sound and corrected it! Bass was now better defined; more “liquid”. Upper mids opened up more, but were not aggressive. Soundstage got wider. I dare say, for most ears, it won’t even be necessary to look any further, than this quality of sound.  I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard a sound this “right”. Especially on a difficult song I use frequently as a test, because it’s such a tricky song! Especially impressive, given that I’ve only started using it, and it has not been burned in at all yet. I don’t know why, but I seem to be hearing a bit of new information on very familiar songs. Ones I’ve heard with many of the other models. I can also hear my own vocals in recording mixes, and some sub-bass, at times.

The Lowdown: The black KZ HD9 with mic and double-flange eartips produced for me a really smooth, really engaging, natural sound. A fairly balanced one I might add, with neither too much highs or too much lows. When compared with the no mic edition I first acquired, I found this to be better (probably due to production inconsistencies). HEARTILY RECOMMENDED with the stock eartips, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED with the wide-dome double-flange, or the red wide-bore KZ dome-shape silicone tips.

KZ ZS3
Price: About $10 shipped (eBay)

KZ “ZS3” with stock (L) black-bore eartips

Sound unheard, this model was one of, if not my top choice for KZ ‘phones in its price range, at this time. From what I read, it sounded like it would be worse on sound leakage than the ATE, but a bit more interesting than that model, soundwise. There may also be models in the current KZ line considered superior, such as the KZ5 or the KZE. But reading or viewing the various reviews on the models I didn’t get, it seems there was always something about the sound signatures of each of the other models I investigated, that I didn’t think I would like as much, next to what I had read of the ZS3.

Fit & Finish

KZ “ZS3” with stock red-bore (M) eartips.

The most important difference between the ZS3 and it’s close cousin, the ATE, is that the wire is detachable here. Every other reviewer seems to see only positives with this configuration, but I don’t. One negative, is that there will be some signal degradation, due to the indirect connection. It’s mostly positives however, as this means that while the KZ’s use a proprietary connection (and it can be different for different models), you can still find plenty of different upgrade cables, specifically for the ZS3. ie. Including audiophile sounding silver and OFC designs, at non-audiophile prices! (reviewed here).

There is even an after-market cable available that transforms the ZS3 into a wireless bluetooth model. (But I’ll also be reviewing a Bluetooth headphone receiver adapter that makes that little accessory quite optional!). The main selling point of the detachable cable, is that you can easily swap the earphone cable if it gets damaged. But note too, that the cost of a good aftermarket cable is about, if not more, than the cost of the ZS3’s! So I didn’t get another cable for that reason. I got it just to see how it changes the sound!

Let’s start with the stock rubber cable it comes with. It’s about as thin in diameter as the ATE cable, but has a bit of a different feel; stiffer and “grippier”, and more rubbery. Feels like it will be harder to tangle up. It’s also a different colour. A tasteful blue-grey. It uses “memory wire” instead of the ATE’s brass weights on the cable, to hold the wire in place around the ear. The memory wire is not the same as on the HD9 model. It’s dark rather than clear, and stiffer when bent. The wire is inserted into the earpieces via a bi-pin assembly. I’m not entirely sure how secure this friction-fit design is, but I would have preferred to see a threaded interface, to be on the safe side.

The difference in over-the-ear systems should not be glossed over. Some prefer the ATE/HD9 system of weights. The memory wire is a bit heavier and more cumbersome, than the absence of such on the ATE. If that wire is not carefully bent around the ear, it can begin to rub against the ear, glasses, etc. No possibility of this happening with the ATE.  While the ZS3 system, offers a more secure fit than no “memory wire”, and may be a better choice for physical activities, I found that in some situations; ie. whilst lying in bed, the memory wire gets in the way of a good fit. It can actually prevent the eartips from remaining properly inserted in the ears. Again, this may be dependent on what you are doing while wearing the ZS3’s. Note that the softer ‘memory wire’ on the OFC upgrade cable reviewed below, is unlikely to exhibit this problem.

You could also conceivably do away with the ZS3’s memory wiren system entirely, providing you are able to split and cut its sheathing, and remove it, without cutting the signal wire underneath. This may be a case of easier said than done.

There is an “L” stamped on one of the earpiece wires; and that clues you in on which wire goes into which earpiece (the earpieces are also marked with script, as to left and right). The “L” should face the top (ceiling) when inserted into the plugs on the earpiece. The earpieces are shaped differently than the ATE, to form a better fit inside the ear. They are basically the same housing as the InEar “StageDiver” series of IEM earphones (which, depending on the model, starts at around $375 U.S.!).

Left: KZ ZS3 red-bore (M) Tip. Right: KZ EDR1? red-bore Tip.

This housing alone, means you will not confuse this model with the ATE model. For not only are the shape of the earpieces different, the eartips are different, the cable is different, and the way it attaches is different as well. Getting the earpiece installed in the ear was awkward at first, for me. The memory wires were not formed yet to direct the earpieces properly in the ear. So I fitted the earpieces first, then gently tugged on the wire below, and carefully shaped the memory wire around the ear, leaving the rest of the wire to dangle downward behind the ear. Of course once this is done, it is custom moulded to your ear, and you don’t really need to do the same again.

The resulting fit (with the default M eartips that were already on it), felt more secure than either the over-the-ear HD9’s or ATE’s. Feels like I could play squash, and at the same time, listen to women’s tennis on TV on the smartphone, without these things ever falling out. When the memory wire is properly shaped, comfort is good.  Getting a good fit is key, because the ZS3 can just ruin your supper otherwise. So, fit the eartip first. Then rotate the angle of the earpiece (so that pointy end fits with the pointy groove of your ear), then loop the wire tightly around ear.

At this moment of breaking open the box, I don’t remember how much I paid for them (or the ATEs), but the ZS3 feels and looks like a significantly more expensive model, than the ATE. It comes with the usual 3 pairs of eartips, but not the same ones as the ATE. The ZS3’s come fitted with M-size red bore dome-shaped eartips (see pics in this review). But the other two sizes are a bit different. They are black-bore dark grey dome-shaped tips. They are not the KZ “Star-lines”, seen on the ATE and some other models. I’ll be doing this review with 2 of the 3 pairs of eartips it comes with.

Sound Leakage: I devised a new test for sound leakage. Instead of blocking sound output at the eartip end, I removed the eartips and blocked the nozzle itself by pressing hard against it with my fingers, and holding the earpieces up close to my ears, to gauge the relative sound output of each model. This way, it takes the eartip out of the equation. Under this condition, I was surprised to find that the ZS3, when pressing hard on the nozzle with fingers showed less output than the KZ ATE! My initial preference was for the ZS3, and I only bought the ATE because Phonograph.net said it has one of the least sound leakage ratings (9.75/10) of any model! So anyway, it appears the ZS3 are at least as good or better than the ATE, in terms of leaking sound. (Remember, this is also a function of the eartips you use).

Sound

First impressions: First, two things I noticed on the first notes of the first song were; 1) more transparency and detail than the ATEs, and 2) a weird lack of coherence. Like an “out of phase” sound, most notable in the bass dept. As though the eartips weren’t making a good seal, or L/R were mixed around. I tested for left/right channel balance without taking the ears off. It was correct. I then tested for polarity…. it was not correct!  🙁  This was not happy news! In my mind’s eye, I could already see myself struggling to try to explain to both my seller and eBay, that the KZ ZS3 I was sent was defective, because it was wired out of phase… “and oh… what’s ‘phase’? Well, you see, when negative and positive polarities are not properly aligned, they create…. Oh, just forget about it. I just now remembered it actually sounds perfectly fine, thank you for the transaction!…”.

KZ “ZS3” with stock (M) red-bore eartips.

Well, what else was there to do? I know I got the L/R wires correctly hooked up to their respective earpieces! But wait… was there another way to…. yes! I flipped over the “R” wire and finally spotted on “R” on that side! I had inserted the “R” wire the wrong way ‘round, because I thought only the left wire was marked! Because of the way the wires came shaped, I did not notice the right side did have an “R” marking. Still, I consider this a design flaw on the part of KZ! Like with USB connectors, if they design the cable right, it should not be possible to insert the connectors any wrong way!

Once I flipped the wire to insert it into the right side earpiece with the “R” facing up, I knew immediately and without hearing anything, that I had solved the problem without the rigamarole of ordering another ZS3! That’s because I could feel tension relaxing. Once installed correctly, I redid the phase tests, and yes indeed, they sounded correct! Whew, dodged a bullet! On to see what this really sounds like, now!….

Second impressions: Oh no, it sounds terrible! {Holds earpieces in ear}. No wait, it sounds great! {Removes hands from earpieces}. Sorry, I mean terrible! {Holds earpieces in again}. But really great!!  ….Ok, enough of that! I think it’s becoming clear the default eartips are too big for my ear! Don’t even think of testing an IEM until it makes a good seal! Fortunately, when I fitted the ZS3’s with the small dark dome-shape silicone tips they came with, they made a great seal. So good it blocked off a lot of outside noise. For comparison during this round of tests, the ATE’s were fitted with S-size red-bore/brown silicone tips.  So under these upgraded condition, my revised first impression was…

ZS3, fitted with small dark, black-bore, dome-shaped silicone eartips they come with, playing pop/rock tracks: 

“Done”; Frazey Ford: “Wow! Bass is a -driving beast-, but melodic! Suprisingly, not at the cost of midrange clarity. Touch of sharpness in the mids, which are not particularly shy. But thankfully, highs are somewhat rolled off, giving the whole thing a smoother more tolerable character. Musically, ZS3 is more communicative than the ATE. I was coming close to tearing up, during the listen! That did not happen before. I wasn’t sure I would but… so far, and as far as this song is concerned… I love this earphone! I am easily able to hear what I am doing in the midrange (my vocals are recorded on the track). But at the same time, I was so not bored listening to it, that it was not easy to put my mixing engineer cap on and analyze the recording, if I needed to! In this sense, and only this sense, the ideal monitor it does not make. I could experiment with other tips and change the sound I’m sure. But with the stock dark grey tips, the sound is so good I don’t see any reason to bother, this time.

“Sisters of the Moon”; Fleetwood Mac: Bass on the intro showed detail in the reverb, with the right amount of weight. Highs/mids were crisp, but not piercing or sibilant . Upper mid/lower high end can be a touch, a ‘smidgeon’ harsh. Another way of saying they lack refinement on timbre. But this quality is shared by the vast majority of budget IEMs, and appears less so on the ZS3 than the ATE’s. So I could understand if listening to HF-rich sounds for hours with these eartips, it might become fatiguing. But it was not in any short term sense. This might also be reduced by burn-in (as I’ve only had them a few minutes at this point!).

On this test, it’s evident the ZS3’s are clearly superior to the ATE’s. The ATE’s appeared to have considerable clarity next to the others, when I got them. But now they seem almost muddy in comparison to the ZS3. With respect to bass on the ATE, there is not just less of it, but it gets lost in the mix, in comparison with the ZS3. However, while the ATE’s exhibit less clarity than the ZS3’s in this particular set-up, they are smoother. Due to the somewhat more reserved highs and mids. Under these conditions, it should make them less fatiguing over long hours of listening. But I am just damning them with faint praise!

Left: KZ ZS3 (M) Tip. Right: KZ EDR1? Tip.

Tweaking

Tip Rolling Part 1:

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, everything changes when you change the tips. The only way to truly get a handle on what the ZS3 was, was to compare the two IEMs. And the only meaningful way to compare the two, was to use exactly the same eartips on both. That last statement is an important point. For both eartips I was using, looked very similar. Both were dome-shaped brown silicone tips with red bores ((M) on the ZS3 and (M?S?) on the ATE). Except the ones that came with the ZS3 had bores that were thicker, plus the silicone domes were a slightly thicker gauge, as you can see in the photos supplied. As it happens, under test the red-bore ZS3 tips proved to sound infinitely better than the ones I used on the ATE (which I believe came with the KZ EDR1 model)!

When fitted to the ATE’s, in comparison to the red-bore EDR1? tips I was using for them, I found the red-bore tips that came with the ZS3 sound very well balanced and well suited to the ATE’s. On the ATE’s, they gave me more controlled bass, with notes I could better follow. But not in the copious amounts offered on the ZS3’s. The ZS3 eartips also threw open a wider soundstage on the ATE’s, with more detail in the mids and highs, and a top end that was neither “shrieky”, nor warm.  And to be sure, those red-bore ZS3 tips were too big for my ears when fully inserted and making good seal. But I suffered for the sake of sound reg. tm. , to finish this test!

ZS3 vs ATE: both fitted with the (M) red-bore dome-shaped silicone eartip (pictured below, left), playing audiophile jazz: 

Left: KZ ZS3 (M) Tip. Right: KZ EDR1? Tip.

“Naturalness”; Chesky Audiophile Jazz Sampler:  The eartips were hard to get in but made a very tight seal once in…. and once the jazz played, there was no contest! The fat lady sang, and all of that. Compared to what I heard on the ATE’s, the ZS3’s in this configuration threw a much larger soundstage than anything ever heard on the ATE. The ZS3’s bass reached lower depths, while the sound of a saxophone was much closer to its natural timbre. Cymbals were muted (as they should be), not splashy and exaggerated. Piano was richer, fuller, more rounded and more natural sounding, without that exaggerated peak you so often get, when testing piano sound. The highs (ie. percussion) was slightly dull in its overtones, because of the high end roll-off on this earphone.

But I liked this, because it made for a very untiring sound. One that, I might add, had ample bass, that was always well controlled. It doesn’t seem like a particularly exaggerated bass, as I feared, but more of an extended bass. With these adroit IEM’s, if there’s bass on the track, you probably won’t miss it. If there isn’t, you probably will. Again, depending on how they’re configured etc., tone and colour might be off a bit. Probably due to a touch of peakinesss in the upper mids. Soundstageing is good, and if the recording is, you can easily locate instruments within their own space.

In short, in terms of the ZS3’s tonal signature, I had nothing to criticize here! With this particular music, it did everything that I could have asked it to, without committing the crime of supplying “too much of a good thing”. It doesn’t really “bass up” what isn’t there, and because it’s so well-behaved, I don’t feel at risk of getting a “bass headache” (as some sloppier ‘phones will do).

Comparing both the ATE and ZS3 with the same ZS3 eartips on the same jazz track, the ZS3 bounced along a bit better (think “PRAT”), and the end of the song came before I knew it. That’s always a good sign.  The ATE’s, in contrast, had both muddier bass and highs. However,  I would not describe the sound of either earphone as “extremely engaging”, on this track with these particular eartips. I felt the ZS3 at least, was at the threshold of “engaging”.  Perhaps because of the ZS3’s HE rolloff, and also the good degree of resolution, I could listen to this sound all day without issue. If it were not for these painful M-size red-bore eartips! As it stood, I was not able to tolerate the eartips any longer than the test song itself.  😳

Tweaking Part 2: A SOUND REVELATION!

I had nothing short of a revelation, listening to the ZS3 in bed last night. It didn’t just transform into a completely different IEM, as has sometimes happened during this review project, when I changed tips, etc. It transformed into the very best sound I have yet heard out of an IEM! And I’m including the ZSN here!

First, the sound:

The sound was perfect! Not only was I not able to pick out flaws, as it rolled along, I had no inclination to pick out flaws. This phenomenon does occur on occasion, where a sound is so musical (engaging), you don’t feel to analyze it. But this was not what I’d describe as a musical sound. Captivating, yes. But an “emotional connection” wasn’t its thing. So you could analyze the sound while enjoying it. I’ll do just that…

Starting with the bass…. I now know what people mean when they describe an IEM as having an “addictive bass”. That’s what it seemed like. The bass wasn’t just stronger than ever before, but it showed up every time it was needed. It was informational, not just boom-boom-boom. It gave me bass notes I had never heard before, on songs I’d heard hundreds of times before. Yet it was never too much. Just felt like “this is where all the missing bass went!”, that I never knew I was missing.

Midrange: Just as with the bass and highs, nothing stood out in this region either. It wasn’t shouty, nor did it seem particularly forward.  And yet, I was clearly able to hear my own vocals on my recordings, better than I ever had before. This means it was separating elements in the midrange to a greater degree. If one thing stood out, it’s the thing that didn’t. No matter how loud it got, I never had a trace of sibilance on vocals. On the contrary, the notes were rounded, not sharp. I never thought I would hear that from a KZ! What I thought was a KZ “house sound” of sharp treble and mids because of limited resolution at these price points, turns out to be not necessarily the case.

Highs: Highs were perfect (for me), like the other 2 ranges. They were warm and yet detailed. Not totally rolled off, but perhaps not as ‘sparkly’ as some might prefer. I like the highs, and I think if they were more extended and “shiny”, it would be tiring after a while.

I was not just hearing new information in every song that I listened to, I was hearing them in new dynamic perspectives. Presented in ways that I never knew existed. It was more like hearing a top Grado audiophile headphone sound, with a tube amp on the back end.

So What Changed?!:

  1. The Fit: I actually had a hard time figuring that out, at first. When I wore the ZS3’s to bed, the sound was actually awful. Lots of highs, little bass, aggressive as usual, for KZ’s. Of course I tried fiddling with the earpieces best I could, but it didn’t get me to the ‘revelatory sound’. Not until a little later. So a few corkscrew twists later with the earpiece, and dug the M-size tips in much as I could, tightening the memory wire around the ear tight as I could, laid my head on the pillow. Then came the revelatory sound change! I soon found the reason why IEMs sometimes sound far better in bed, then they do when I’m testing them at my desk….If I have the left side of my head on the pillow, the eartip makes a better seal because of pressure of the pillow against it. On the right side, its not as good. But it’s still not the same fit as when you’re standing up, on account of gravity holding the angle in. Does this account for the incredible change in sound? No. It does account for a significant part of it, however. I could clearly hear that sound changing, as I shifted my head on the pillow, releasing part of the eartip seal.
  2. The Cable: I was using the KZ OFC Copper brown cable I bought for $3.  Which I thought was terrible, at first, and was not going to recommend! Turns out that with the right fit, it can be superior to the stock grey cable (in some ways…).

The Takeaway: I’ve said in these reviews many times the importance of making a good seal. Even that may not be enough! You have to make a deep seal, a pressured seal. This should certainly be achievable without having to wear the IEM in bed! Large tips perhaps, double flange perahps, I’m not sure how to recreate that sound yet, as I have more experimentation to perform. I am sensitive to tips that are too invasive, but I didn’t feel that the fit was much of a problem, last night.

Finally, the cable plays a significant role in the sound of any IEM, don’t let any tech-geek tell you otherwise. I know that anyone I know would be more than happy with the sound of nothing more than the KZ ZS3, if it always sounded like it did last night!

Tip Rolling, Part 2:

I later found the perfect eartips (for me) for the ZS3’s. They are the large dark grey dome-shaped tips with the black bores (not the Starline type). I do believe they come with the ZS3, but since I threw all my tips into one box…. They are far more comfortable for me, than the M red-bore tips mentioned above. They give a “closed-in” feeling, but they create a decent seal without pressure, on my ears. They also create a sound that for me, is absolutely flawless. Anything less, and you are just not getting what the ZS3 can do. With these tips, they go into sub-bass territory, and well defined at that, but without the bass messing up anything. Highs are no longer hashy, as they are on some tips with this earphone, nor are they covered over. Yet no sibilance or annoyances at all. Detail is not lost at all either, and midrange has plenty of it. As it stands, they’re not just the best sounding IEM I’ve reviewed yet, I predict this sound is going to be hard to beat, in all respects.

Tip Rolling, Part 3 (LATEST AND LAST UPDATE ON EARTIPS!): It’s been a month or two since I last read or updated this review on the ZS3, so having forgotten my findings on what the best eartips were, I went through my collection again to find the most suitable models. Which is good, as I had the benefit of further experience (read: expertise) with tip-rolling. I found more than other models, the ZS3 requires rather specific types of eartips, and if not, the IEM can sound absolutely dreadful. (ie. zingy highs that don’t let up, and may have you reaching for the Tylenol before too long!).

The eartip should be large and/or have a long bore. The bore should also be narrow. I’ll get to that later. The reason for the long bore/large head is because the ZS3 shell is pretty bulky. If the eartip does not extend out far enough from the shell, the tip won’t make good contact/seal within your ear. This means that while I usually wear an M size tip, I had to stick to L (large) tips. Of course, there’s a wide variation of tip sizes and shapes within the “L” designation, so that’s not enough. For example, the double flange eartips that worked so well with models like the Sony MH755, actually don’t work at all with the ZS3. They’re too short (too narrow a profile).

The reason for the narrow bore, is because you need to place the eartip at just the right point on the nozzle. That point will be between the very front edge of the nozzle and the very back edge, as far as the tip will go. As with most IEMs, but the ZS3 in particular due to its design, the distance to place the eartip on the nozzle is to be determined by how well the earpiece sits against your ear. The earpieces should go in deeply enough to make a good seal with the eartip, but not too deep, as to interfere with the ZS3’s memory wire. In which case, it will pop out of your ear and make a bad fit. If the bore is too wide for the nozzle, then the eartip won’t stay on the location you’ve determined, and thus the IEM won’t fit properly, and thus you’ll have to ensure you are well stocked with pain killers in your pharmacy. Or the eartip might even stay behind in your ear when you take the earpieces out.

I’ll make the long story shorter by saying I found just 4 eartip models in my growing collection that worked with this IEM in my ears. Coincidentally, all were either from KZ or very similar to KZ. When tested for sound, only 2 eartips were left in the race, as comfort had to take top priority with this IEM. They were the KZ Starline tips (L), and the KZ dark grey black-bore dome shape tips (L). A close call, but the KZ dark grey black-bore dome tips won the race. Both had the better characteristics of the bunch, when it came to taming the ZS3’s mids/highs, and adding much needed quality of ‘musicality’ to the mix. The dark grey black bore KZ dome tips provided the best bass definition, and still had good pace/rhythm qualities. These were the ones I settled on…. until….. I changed my mind and decided to go with the large KZ Starlines! The reason I switched, is because after using the dark grey domes in bed, I found they didn’t want to stay in my ears all that well, whilst laying on my side. The Starlines are a bit cone shaped with a grippy rubber, and stay in a bit better.

VERY LAST UPDATE!: ….And after the KZ Starlines… I tried a bunch more tips, and finally! ended up going with the “Unbranded White Wide-Bore Tips” reviewed here. They are your typical cheap generic soft silicone tips, about M-size wide bores, while the KZ brand Starlines are what I’d call “medium bores”. They appear to have nothing special going for them but…. I thought the colour might be something. So I tested a pair in white, and another pair in black (about 99% identical in shape and size to the white).

It’s not all that interesting or novel to me that I heard differences between the two colours of eartips. But the character of the differences was interesting. The white tips sound absolutely great, very natural, very balanced, never aggressive. I used Paul Simon’s “Can’t Run But” as a test track. And out of all the eartips I tried, those white generic silicone wide-bores created the most accurate bass melody (and percussion) on that track. And I know this track well, as I played it a lot on my vinyl system.

The white wide-bores sounded closest in the bass, to what I remember hearing it on vinyl. Each time I switched to the black bores however, interestingly, while being very similar overall, the bass and rest of the sound was almost inverted. Kind of the opposite of “natural”. I’m sticking with these white tips, and hoping their relatively small size won’t cause fit issues in the future.

Finally, I did find that large memory foam tips worked really well with the ZS3, in terms of a physical match with the ZS3 hardware, and sound. In terms of attacking the ZS3’s tendency toward stridency, it did the best job of the bunch. However, I could not stand wearing them for more than 20 seconds! The M size didn’t provide enough grip (which the ZS3 really needs on account of its memory wire system, and the shell problem mentioned), and the L size felt like I was turning my ears into stuffed cabbages.  🙁

 

A New KZ ZS3:

KZ “ZS3E” Limited Edition, with silver-plated upgrade cable.

UPDATE (Latest variation: ZS3E): At the moment, there is a red-only “ZS3E” “Limited Edition” recently released, and available on eBay, Ali, etc. Recent enough that I can find no reviews on it, outside of Thailand. Although KZ often updates their models, it may be more of a revised edition of the “ZS4”, than an update on the “ZS3”. It utilizes an 8mm DD driver and is said to have “better/more bass” and “better but not necessarily more highs”. I can’t confirm, as I have no immediate plans of getting it (though I did consider it….). I can confirm it comes with the silver-plated upgrade cable, which itself is about $8us. So at about $10u.s. shipped, it looks to be a great value. But as always, I would say the upgrades are not necessarily a guarantee it will sound better overall, than a regular ZS3.

UPGRADE CABLE: Be sure to check out my review of the KZ OFC Copper Upgrade cable for the ZS3 in “The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: IEM Earphone Upgrade Cables“!

Conclusion: HEARTILY RECOMMENDED.  There is absolutely nothing in that sound of the ZS3 that would even remotely suggest you’re listening to $10 worth of earphones! Putting the VE Monks aside (apples to oranges), the ZS3’s are easily the best earphones I’ve received so far. Now that I see the prices for each, there is a difference of about $1 between the ATE and the ZS3! It certainly doesn’t look or sound like $1’s difference, either.

That said, the ZS3 could potentially sound kind of horrible (e.g. aggressive), if not properly setup and installed. But I can vouch for the fact that it can sound detailed and punchy, without any sharpness or harshness. So if you experience that, it’s because its not set up right, and not making a good seal at the tip. n.b. The memory wire can work against itself, if the angle of the earpiece or position of the tips on the nozzle are not right. For this reason, I can not recommend this IEM for use in bed. The interaction between the memory wire system and a pillow pressing against it, almost always ensured that I would lose my difficult-to-obtain seal on the ZS3, no matter what eartips I use. This could be rectified by buying a 3rd party upgrade wire, such as the TRN or the KZ-branded wires (see section on upgrade wires).

Given this, I have a hard time imagining why someone would opt for the ATE over the ZS3. But I’ll try… Perhaps they might find that the ATE is more “balanced”, as having less of a roll-off toward the high end of the spectrum. Perhaps they don’t want as much bass, as the ZS3 provides (even if it’s more informative than aggressive). Perhaps they prefer the ATE’s over-the-ear wiring system of quaint little brass-coloured weights. For me, the ZS3 is simply a “better listen” than the ATE. It’s more expressive, it’s warmer and less tiring, has a way wider soundstage, yet still has plenty of mid and high detail. Moreover, the ZS3 reaches down into the pits of hell to bring you musical bass notes, yet does not seem to spill any of that bass into the midrange. And I can hear more of what’s going on in that midrange than I can on the ATE. (Perhaps too much, as the ATE’s reserved character can be less aggressive in the mids and highs). Maybe in the days that come I may find something the ATE really does better that I like, but so far… I’m not seeing it.

So anyway…. anyone want to buy a slightly used KZ ATE?

Pros:

  • Doesn’t sound anything like a $10 earphone I’ve ever heard.
  • With a good seal, sound is almost warm, almost sweet, almost musical, and informative in both bass and mid regions. Peaky highs are never an issue, peaky upper mids may slightly be, depending on eartips used.
  • Good clarity, separation, soundstage.
  • The ZS3 model achieves the hallmark of a truly exceptional product: (almost) hard to criticize at any price.
Cons:

  • Some might want more HF extension (‘sparkle’ in the highs)… but that may increase sibilance/fatigue
  • Some might feel the set-up is too secure, the memory wire too restrictive. I do not, and believe the over-the-ear fitting system to be functional and well thought out.

 

The Lowdown: Upon the first few notes, it’s evident to me that the ZS3 enters a higher class of IEM than the KZ ATE, ATR, HD9, EDR1, and all other KZ and similar models here. It has a larger soundstage, more detail and separation, tighter and more extended bass capabilities, more clarity in the midrange and extended highs. It’s also well-balanced and livelier than those other models, and makes a great “daily driver” listen, for the earphone aficionado. It’s not perfect, with respect to its somewhat aggressive highs or memory wire fit, but closer to it than some.

 


VE Monk “Lite”
Price: $6 shipped (eBay)

VE Monk “Lite”

Today was a good day for the Chi-Phile. I received both the KZ ZS3 and the VE Monk Lites today. Two of the more anticipated earphones in this review project.

The VE Monk “Lite” is not the cheaper version of the now legendary “VE Monk/Plus”, it cost the same. But it may be the one with less calories. Because it is skinnier and has a smaller diameter earpiece, as well as a lower impedance (4o ohms, to the Monk+ 64 ohms). In gold and black, it looks a lot nicer as well, I must say.

The drivers must also be different, as the sound profile is not quite the same. This user comment gives one reason of why I chose to get a different VE Monk:

“While the Monk Plus tend to be a bit warm, the Monk Lite 40 ohm tend to be bright. They don’t forego any bass, but they tend to focus more on midrange and on the upper part of it. It seems to me like they are also clearer and offer better technical ability.”

 

Fit & Finish

VE Monk “Lite”: Sounds great. Less filling.

I picked this model not simply because it was a different variation of the VE Monk that I had not heard yet, but I got it for my “SO”. Who is very, very picky about earphones. She does not like in-ear monitors, and does not like traditional earbuds either! Says they hurt her ear and are uncomfortable. She only likes the Samsung earbud (and only the one that came with the G7), because it has a tip that bends toward the ear without going in it. Or the wired Apple earbud that is shaped like the Apple “AirPods”, and quite different than the traditional earbud design. This “Lite” model however, is said to be friendlier to people who can’t wear MX500-type earbuds, on account of the shape of their ears. It has a smaller, flatter profile.

The wire appears to be the same as used on the VE Monk+. The headshells are not. The heads have a slimmer profile, the diameter of the earpiece is a bit smaller, and the tail has a different curve to it, than the chunky plastic MX500 shells used on the Monk Plus. It comes with 8 coloured foam covers, same as Monk+ . Without the foams, the fit is very comfortable in my ear, and the tail doesn’t get anywhere near it. It’s a hell of a contrast, after wearing the KZ ZS3 IEM’s, with the stock medium red-bore tips that feel like a torture device in my ear. I feel confident about wearing these Monk Lites all night in bed, without issue. Also, the grills here are metal, but plastic on the Monk+. I have no doubt if everything else was equal, that alone, will change the sound. I just don’t know how, yet!

 

Sound

VE Monk “Lite”

Right from the first few notes, I was entranced by the sound of the VE Monk Lites. They took my breath away. Similar to my first encounter with the Monk+, just fell in love with the earbuds all over again. I also just came off a terrific introductory meeting with the ZS3; a powerful, dramatic, expressive earphone. But the VE Monk Lite, like the Monk+, are just incomparable to IEMs. The sound they are capable of producing is very very different than IEM sound, just in a different league. My eyes closed shut on the very first notes of the music and stayed that way throughout. This is what audiophiles call “musicality”. None of the IEM’s had this effect on me. Though they are quite musical in their own right, I’m not even sure the Monk Pluses had that effect either!

My first impressions of the sound of the Lite earbud itself, is almost… nothing. It’s coherent like crazy, and no part of the range stands out. Not bass, not mids, not treble. That makes it sound very neutral and balanced. But It doesn’t help that that earbud has such a musical sound, as it makes it harder to break down separate components like that, for analysis. In this initial impression, drawing purely from memory of the “Plus” model, the Lite appears to have a wider soundstage. It’s doing a phenomenal job of separating backup singers, and bringing their harmonies out into public view.

The Lite sounds more refined, more costlier than the Plus. But less lively. It produces a very untiring sound. Like the Plus, that comes in part by not exaggerating or extending highs too much, partly by reproducing tones more accurately in the first place. This makes for a bud that may lack sparkle with the foams on, but still has detail, without much aggressive bite in the mids and highs. Also like the Plus, it has less “detail detail” than the KZ’s, such as the ZS3. But like the Plus, it has more musical detail. (That may only make sense to advanced audiophiles, sorry!).

Bass is lightweight, as are the highs. Kind of reminds me of a classic British bookshelf speaker, with a polite treble and a small woofer. JPW Minis, maybe? That’s a compliment, because whatever their shortcomings, what you did hear in those little budget audiophile loudspeakers, was really nice.

n.b. I only listened to the Lites here with the foams on, as I presume that is how they would normally be used. I expect removing the foams to enhance detail and air, at the cost of other factors. Also, my comparisons between both models,  were at the same volume. So that I continue to test sound, and not impedance. But given the 40ohm and 116db sensitivity ratings (vs. 64ohm for the Plus), I was  surprised to find the Lite was not louder than the Plus, and in fact, probably a bit less loud on my iPhone.

VE Monk “Plus” vs “Lite”

Ok, so now I finally get to hear the differences between these two, which I was so curious about. Because I couldn’t really be sure what was what, from the reviews I read. Not with one person saying the Lites were better, another saying Pluses were, and a third saying can he go home, because his feet ache.

VE Monk “Plus”:

The two buds have quite a different sound, actually. The Plus has a darker sound overall, and a  “whiter” tone across the mids and highs. Brighter, yes, but that’s just part of it. It has a more liquid and upfront sound, that is also more closed in, with respect to soundstage. More. Standup bass sounds like a standup bass. You feel the bass more, than with the Lites. Which are, well… “Lite” in every way!

VE Monk “Lite”:

The “Lite” has a more transparent and detailed sound. Far less bass. For example, the Lite does not have the fullness of standup bass notes as shown on the Plus, and has less bass detail. So with respect to bass, I can get into it less. But you can hear more of what’s going on in the picture with the Lites, due to the wider soundstage. However, the Lite has less forward mids, and for that reason, it may be harder to make out some midrange detail (ie. vocals) over the Plus.

The Monk Lites have a very relaxed sound. Less lively than the Plus, and dryer. Instruments have less distinction between them, and are set further away. I’d say the Lites come closer in character to an electrostatic headphone, but of course, without their speed and transient attack.

For monitoring purposes, it would seem the Lite may be the better choice overall, on account of its ability to separate the elements. However, I found that’s not always the case. Sometimes the Plus gave me more insight into what was happening in bass, midrange and highs, depending on the song. But if the Lite has some monitor qualities, I should stress that it’s extremely nice to listen to as well. That’s its strong suit in fact! The Plus is a livelier listen, the Lite is a more relaxed listen.  So perhaps the Lite might be the better choice for classical and opera. Or any music where a clean midrange (but not necessarily a forward one) and separation are key, and bass weight is not important. The Plus being more suited for rock/pop, and perhaps neither for bass-heavy EDM, or sound system dub-style reggae!

Another consideration, is the Lite may be the only choice for smaller ears! And though it can’t be everything to all, believe me when I say, it’s a hell of a lot to some!

As to which is more engaging with the listener, aka ‘musical’,  as with the monitor qualities, sometimes it’s the Lite version, despite how nice the Plus sounds overall. But sometimes its the Plus, depending on what’s going on with the sound. So far, even though it’s dryer and less lively, I seem to naturally listen longer into songs with the Lite, than with the Plus.

Conclusion: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Well, those crazy mofos at Venture Electronics did it again. Only, they threw everyone for a loop, because they did not just do an “espresso coloured Monk Plus in a fancier cage”. They went in a completely different direction, as this does not sound anything like the Monk Plus. Except in terms of overall sound quality. The VE Monk Lite is a very pleasant earbud in all senses; fit and sound. But if I only had one to pick, it would be the Plus. Except I’ve heard both, I would want both, and at these prices, it’d be silly not to have both!  When the boys of the VE Monk clan start going back on their medication regime, who knows how much longer us audiophiles will have, to buy these phenomenal sounding earbuds at these prices?

Pros:

  • Undoubtedly the most transparent and well balanced $5 earbud in history.
  • Incredble soundstage width, wider than the Plus version.
  • Fit is extremely comfortable, perhaps suitable for all ears.
  • Pulls the neat trick of feeling, looking and sounding more expensive than the Plus, already a high weight-puncher, without costing any more.
Cons:

  • Bass is anemic, yet… so the sound is so balanced it does not feel lacking all that much (provided you’re not a “basshead”). Still, perhaps not ideal for bass-centric music.
  • A dryer but more expansive sound than the Monk/Plus, and may bring out details the latter cannot.
  • Relaxed sound may be too relaxed for some?

 

The Lowdown: Rather than sounding like a slightly improved version of the Monk+, the Monk Lite is a beast of a different colour. It shares the Monk+ high standard of quality. Which includes a degree of resolution, tonal balance and dynamic contrasts far above the asking price. While it offers a greater sense of refinement over the Plus, and a bit of a wider soundstage, that comes at the cost of some of its predecessor’s level of engagement.

 


KZ “ED7” (Mini size)
Price: $4.50 shipped (eBay)

KZ “ED7”

I read a review on these where the reviewer talked about this model having an “analogue” sound. After reading that word, and the word “bamboo”, I didn’t care what else he wrote! I had already ordered the “AWEI Q9” by this point, because it also has a wood barrel shell. But I hadn’t received them yet. So I was already firmly sold on the idea of wood in the path of the acoustics. Doesn’t really matter where the wood is, actually. I know from my own audio experiments with wood; ie. bamboo cutting boards under audio components, that wood is an excellent material wrt audio sound. And there was no way the material was not going to have an effect on the sound. In an earpiece, wood tends to absorb stray energy (acoustic waves), while harder materials like metal and plastic tends to reflect it. Think of how important the cabinet of a loudspeaker is, on the sound. Would you want a speaker box made of metal or plastic? I have examples of both, and they’re both awful!

KZ “ED7” – big brother, little brother

Atypically, this model comes in 2 sizes. A “Standard” (larger) barrel, and a smaller “Mini” (this relates to the body, not the ear tips). I couldn’t decide whether to order the Standard or the Mini, so I got one of each. Because I read the Standard has the wider soundstage, the Mini has a more forward sound, and I can appreciate both! UPDATE: Nope, looks like I’ll only be reviewing the Mini! The seller cancelled my order for the Standard, because he (allegedly) ran out!  🙁

Fit & Finish

KZ “ED7”

The ED7’s come in the very nice little black cardboard box with purple lettering the HD9’s are shipped in. Included in the box are a velcro wrap and 2 pairs of black-bored dome-shaped tips, plus the same (M) size already fitted on the earphones. Similar to the tips coming with the ZS3 and other KZ models. The ED7 Mini has a very narrow diameter nozzle (3mm), so larger tips; ie. 4.5mm-5mm may not fit. The earphones are “mini” size, but they’re even smaller in person than the photos allude to. The wire and connectors are the same as you would find on the KZ EDR1, and compared to the bamboo-shelled AWEI Q9’s that I bought for a bit more than the ED7, the build quality of wires and earpieces here are far superior. But inferior to the EDR1, which has a brass(?) nozzle, not plastic. Sound may be another matter, note.

Sound Leakage: I did some later tests on leakage, and was quite surprised to find that the ED7 leaks sound about as well or better than the ATE! Which is supreme at not leaking sound! You would not think so, looking at the size of the grill on the back (which could be fake…). This makes the ED7 an excellent choice for quiet environments. With a good sealing eartip, at even moderately loud volumes, I find the ED7 can’t be heard by someone next to you. For that alone, it just pushed itself way up the ranks, here!

Sound

KZ “ED7”: Officially endorsed by Kung-Fu Panda.

With the default (M) tips it came with fitted, I first put on my old stand-by, the Chesky Audiophile Jazz track “Naturalness”. Which tells me immediately a lot about the performance of an earphone. I was not disappointed by anything I heard. Sound was detailed, well balanced, with a white/bright character, and controlled bass, that played a more subtle role than a ZS3 etc. Piano notes were not too ‘tinkly’ (suggesting no large peaks in the mids), but not considerably rounded, either (suggesting a lack of upper bass richness). Cymbal work was detailed, without being too aggressive (indicating a lack of high-end peaks). Stand-up bass notes were well delineated, but lacked a bit of body and fullness. There was nothing unpleasant about that detail here, note. Soundstage was ok, but not nearly large as the ZS3, for example. The sound overall reminded me not of an analogue record deck, as one reviewer suggested, but of a budget-class audiophile CD player. The “Rotel” of earphones?

On pop and other styles of music, that entire character I heard transferred over. But now I could see into it a little further. It is arguably “well-balanced”, since there isn’t an overpowering bass or high end. Midrange clarity is good, and not too recessed. I can make out some of the vocal details I need to, when I am in “monitor mode”. That “crispiness” (peaks) in the upper mids carries over into this style of music as well. Crisp enough to indicate there might be some borderline sibilance on some tracks, that I haven’t caught yet. That is not a “wood” sound, so it reveals to me again, as in the case of the Q9, the material of the shell is not a good indicator of what the final sound will be. Wood suggests “warm”, whereas the ED7 tends to leave me cold, and uninvolved with the music. Perhaps it’s closest competitor is the KZ EDR1. (n.b.. Read the “Tweaking” section below! This initial assessment above, changes quite a bit, by the end of it….). So here goes….

 

Shootout: EDR1 vs. ED7: 

ED7: It’s been a while I’ve heard the EDR1, but if I were to go guessing on memory alone, I would say I like the ED7 so far, a bit more. But now I will compare them both with the very same eartips, to keep things on an even footing. For this test, I switched to the smaller eartips included with the ED7, as I think that size suits me better.

Now with the smaller eartips making a better seal, this changes the character again… Reducing a lot of that “crispness” I talked about, and adding much weight to the bass. But it made that mushier, as well. Nevertheless, on a song like AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell”, a song I particularly chose for its “annoyance factor”, sound could become a bit of a screechy mess on the chorus at louder volumes.

I then switched to the KZ red-bore tips from the ZS3 package. As mentioned in the review for the ZS3, they were painfully large when fully inserted, but they impressed me soundwise. No less so here on the ED7. Now, with this superior in-ear seal, soundstage on Michelle Shocked’s “When I Grow Up” got wider, bass more controlled in both quality and volume, and midrange was more controlled as well. As for “Highway to Hell”, it was just far better. Bass solid without being mushy, midrange clearer without being (as) shrieky, and the chorus I talked about was far more tolerable. But still a bit on the “shrieky” side, again, suggesting a peak somewhere in the upper mids. The separation is not good enough to avoid a “noisy chorus” effect. Now I’m wondering if I might have preferred the larger size version of this IEM!

EDR1: Soundstage is larger on the EDR1 than the ED7, using the same ZS3 red-bore tips. Bass is more solid and present. Mids are more recessed, but the sound is more refined overall, and less “shrieky”, making mids more tolerable.  The EDR1 is also better balanced, but more greyish in tone (meaning individual instruments are harder to make out than on the ED7, as though every instrument was made of the same material). The EDR1 is more pleasant to listen to, but at reduced sound levels,  the ED7 is a bit better for monitoring (analysis) and could also be called ‘livelier’.

ED7: The ED7 is more “top heavy”, but that makes it more open in the mid/high region. It’s just that it gets too congested too quickly, on anything but sparse music. In this way, it reminds me of the sound signature of the AWEI Q9. (Which in its modified state is now actually less shrieky than the ED7). But that brings to mind the fact that I can do the same with this model, by inserting a bit of foam in the nozzle to tame the mid/upper mid peaks. That will only make the limited soundstage worse, however, and will degrade a couple of other things.

Now with both IEMs tested with the same great full red bore (M) KZ dome tips (as seen on EDR1 on left), I could do a fair comparison.

EDR1: Much larger soundstage, way more bass & sub-bass, more detail. Quite neutral sounding, overall, but not shy in the bass.

ED7: Shy in the bass, and shy in everything, in comparison with the EDR1. The ED7 has a “whiter” sound (no kidding, with less bass), and feels light. Both physically, and in terms of sound. It’s smaller, lighter, more transparent, with a more forward midrange (though not terribly forward, in general). All of which reminded me of the AWEI Q9.

But I found myself preferring the sound of the ED7 over the EDR1! It was what eargears might call “a more fun listen”. That usually refers to bass heavy earphones, whereas the ED7 was decidedly light and cool. But perhaps because of its lack of heaviness, it sounds “faster”, in a sense. I found myself getting into the music more with the ED7. Even though there is still some relatively smaller degrees of an aggressive upper end tending toward aggressivity. (Which I feel can be eradicated if you have a good source; ie. DAP/DAC etc).

The EDR1 is more refined though, there’s that. The EDR1 also sounds like it cost a lot more, not around the same price!

Shootout: ED7 vs. ATE:

I also tried the ED7, at around the same time as I was playing around with the ATE again. Testing both with the same variety of tips. While the ED7 is firmly on the “OK” category, I could not find much of anything more interesting about it, over the ATE. More forward mids, yes. Fit, yes. It feels like air, in comparison with the already comfortable ATE. Even when the ED7 is worn around-the-ear. (See the Testing Styles of Fit: Down-the-Ear vs. Over-the-Ear for more info). That said, if paired with the right tip that reduces its upper mid stridency, it feels like it would be a very nice bud to go out and about with, and use all day. I can’t quite say that about all the “sport models”.

ED7 vs. ZSN??

I was all relaxed in bed, listening to my KZ ZSN, outfitted with the KZ OFC brown copper upgrade cable, when….. song after song, I could not make out my vocals well, on the recordings. I got up, grabbed a bunch of earphones with me, went back, and the first one I tried was the KZ ED7. Voila! It’s more forward rendering allowed me to hear more of my vocal performance, than the far more resolving ZSN. I write this not to say the ED7 is “better” than the ZSN. But to say, there is no “one size fits all” model here, or elsewhere. Perhaps that’s why people collect these things like bottle caps. As each earphone has a different personality, some can be expected to fit what you’re listening to better than others.

ED7 Over-The_Ear

In that same session described above, though the ED7 was better at letting me hear vocals than the ZSN, it was still quite muddy, in comparison, despite fitting the eartips best I could. So I tried it over-the-ear style, as the ZSN fits. Well that practically changed the earphone’s sound entirely! This allowed me to get a better angle of insertion with the eartips. Everything improved. Gone was the muddiness, replaced by a very open and transparent sound. Bass was much improved in both quantity and depth, and also definition. Despite opening the window on the top end of the range, I did not perceive the harshness I initially associated with the ED7. Just a slight touch of hardness at the top, if nitpicking. For further info, see the guide at the end of this article, entitled: Testing Styles of Fit: Down-the-Ear vs. Over-the-Ear

Tweaking:

Good news to report on the ED7 front! They went from something I was kind of disappointed in, to something I’m glad I bought! The changes are indeed transformational, in this case. Here’s where they start….

  1. Several days of burn-in. This time, I wasn’t fooling around. As I did not seem to be getting anywhere with the FR sweep burn-in, I used plain music. Specifically, Esthero (chillax, bro….). Then with the EQ on, I lowered the first three registers, and raised every other band (the higher frequencies) to max. Then the volume to max! And yes, it was loud. (This was all wrapped in a towel, to muffle the noise). I wouldn’t do this with a $500 CIEM. n.b. This is a bit risky, as you’re supposed to use a moderate volume. Who risks nothing however, gains nothing. I gained a very listenable IEM after a few days of continuous “Esthero-burn”. Where once this IEM was woefully sibilant, I tested it with my most sibilance-producing player and song. It passed.
  2. Experimentation with different music playing apps. Guess what, they (of course!) don’t sound the same. With EQ off in both cases, I found the native Samsung music app was less aggressive in the upper regions than the “Poweramp” app.
  3. Tip Rolling. Best tips I found for them was the dome-shaped full red bore tips from KZ (The ones where you can partially see the red bore at the top of the eartip). This was a major change and improvement from the soft brown silicone Piston 2 dome tips I was using. But whatever makes a good seal for you. 
  4. LATEST/LAST UPDATE: I’m sure the red-bore KZ tips mentioned in point #3 are great. But further and more recent experiments with eartips, show that the orange silicone flat-dome tips (L) that came with the Sony MH755‘s are an excellent match for the ED7 (even though I felt they were no good on the MH755!). The fact that they have a narrow bore really helps here.But better than those, were the unbranded Sony/AKG black silicone colored-bore rubber eartips (L size, blue-bores), reviewed here. Besides being one of the few I have that fit the ED7, they brought the ED7 over the line, to something that really smacked of good ol’ audiophile-grade “high fidelity”. From something that was easily bested by the KZ EDR1, to something that probably won’t be “easily bested” by anything here!  A sound I couldn’t find any flaws worth describing, because it was all high points. They included precise imaging, wide soundstage, highs both present and with great definition of timbre, lows with good definition too, no aggressivity in the mids or upper mids. A sound that drew you in due to resolution, not just euphonic colourations!Gave me a new found appreciation of the ED7 on the whole. And this is after receiving most of the IEMs I am going to receive.  Despite being an IEM I admit, I was far from impressed by in the beginning. I expect to be using the ED7 more often, in future listenings.

Final Result: ED7 is a player now, baby!

 

Pros:

  • Good clarity and detail
  • Fairly forward midrange is definitely one of its strong suits.
  • One of the most unique looking IEMs in its price range. “Bamboo” earphones… always a conversation starter!
  • Fairly well balanced.
  • Decently resolved bass, not too much of it.
  • Extremely compact and light. Fits in ear no muss no fuss.
Cons:

  • Sound overall lacks separation and width, compared to some other KZ models.
  • Sounds a bit on the thin side
  • Traces of sibilance in the mid/upper mids, but nothing particularly ‘piercing’
  • Reminiscent of a 16-bit CD sound, so could use some analogue-style warmth
  • Did not feel particularly connected/engaged with the music, here. Not considerably with the EDR1 either, but perhaps a bit more.

 

Conclusion: RECOMMENDED. I wasn’t very impressed with the ED7 “Mini” in my initial encounters with it, as I had higher hopes for this. Over the weeks however, it is slowly growing to be one of my favourites. Because it isn’t shy in the midrange, at times, it has shown more appeal for me than the KZ EDR1, and if you read my account above, even the ZSN! This model barely got a recommendation from me in my first draft of this conclusion, but now I can heartily recommend it. Mind, this comes after several days of burn-in, and eartip rolling (best were M size blue-bore silicone dome-shapes, see eartip guide). It was just too “shrieky” (yelling to be noticed?), at the onset. Hence all the re-writes in this sloppy review! But I have heard the ED7 at its best, and it can be quite an appealing number.

Bass is just there… light and refined, and I have no quarrel with it. Not overdone, but not missing either. Soundstaging is credible. As well, it’s hard to believe I’m able to hear things I’ve never heard in songs I’ve heard all my life, in a $5 earphone. However, even with all the modding, if you feed it complex arrangements like “Queen”, with their 1,000 vocal overdubs, that’s where you will start to hear the limitations of the ED7 Mini. Too much in the mix can very well sound like a distorted, jumbled mess on this model, because of its technical limitations in regard to separation, and resolution. (The ED7 regular size might handle this better). Even with all these earphones coming in, I’m seriously considering getting another of these ED7’s for backup, before they’re gone!

“You can’t get blood out of this stone, or a grand soundstage, but you can get a fun listen, with above-average clarity in the midrange section. “

In short, with proper care and feeding, the ED7’s offer a tonally well-balanced sound, more clarity at lower volume levels, and come with some characteristics that are more appealing, than what the otherwise higher calibre EDR1 can deliver. What I see here is a very unique looking earphone, built to a fine standard, sold at an incredibly modest price, that could be a fan favourite, with some ‘lovin’. Such as a few days of burn-in, eartip change or a foam-in-nozzle mod.  Why bother? Because it is very light and comfortable to wear, cool looking, and has the foundation of a good listen. Plus, (finally!), a midrange that is not reticent.  To be clear, it sits well above the SQ of cheapo buds like the MI Basic, AKG S9, Hangrui and the equally priced Inpher Fuqing B-2.  It is perhaps more fairly comparable in both design and sonic personality, to the also wood-bodied AWEI Q9.

The Lowdown: The ED7 has striking looks, and with its aggressive top end, highs to match. As it is a flyweight in the bass department, it may sound too shrill and piercing on some sources. Particularly if care is not taken with eartips, to provide a good seal. Similar in both shape and cost to the KZ EDR1, the ED7 is significantly smaller and lighter, and may be more appealing on those fronts. The ED7 also has a more forward midrange resulting in a slightly livelier sound, but is otherwise bested by the EDR1 on several counts; including bass, soundstage width and resolution. It can also be looped over-the-ear, for better sound and security.

 


Inpher Fuqing B-2
Price: $4.50 shipped (AliExpress)

Inpher “Fuqing B2”

I thought I was done with this after the QianYun….. but then I stumbled upon a Chi-Fi model I hadn’t yet purchased…. It is the “Inpher Fuqing Q9”. I figured with a name like that… it’s got to be good!  And at $4.50US shipped, how can I not try it out??  “Inpher” is not exactly a household name (even in China). So even in the Chi-Fi community, this model, like the QianYun Q39, is kind of a “sleeper”. You won’t find too much info on Inpher earphones, but the reviews on this model do raise an eyebrow. To quote one review, here’s what got me interested in having a listen to it, in part:

“The Inpher FUQING B-2 have a strong and energetic bass that does an excellent job to add warmth and fun to every song. At the same time the quantity and intensity of mid-bass and sub-bass is very balanced, they are able to provided great punch and depth without recessing mids and highs. Mids and vocals are nicely warm and smooth, lower mids are mediumly recessed but not too much.” – The Phonograph.net

Inpher “Fuqing B-2”

IEM’s with “v-shaped” signature, that have bass in your face and zingy treble are all over the place. But IEM’s with good midrange qualities are much harder to come by, in my experience. So therein lies the appeal. This was not available on eBay, so I had to get it off of the Chinese eBay store, “AliExpress”.  There is another  nearly identical Inpher model called the “T-50”, which may confuse buyers because it may be sold as the “Fuqing” model, with no “B-2” designation. The difference is the “T-50” has an inline remote (and no decent reviews found). I presume the T-50 has the same parts, but I paid a bit more to get this well reviewed “B2” model without remote, to ensure the best sound quality. I’m sorry, but there is no way a wire terminating to and through a PC board with cheap plastic switches in the path is not going to have an effect on the sound quality!

Fit & Finish

Inpher “Fuqing B-2”, unopened.

I ordered the model with the red wire and black earpieces, out of several choices. In person, the earpieces anyway, don’t look anywhere near as good as the photos of the Inpher B-2’s suggest. Too many fake 3D computer-drawn models of consumer electronics products like IEMs, rather than real photographs, is a big problem these days. They’re also smaller than they look… about a few mm longer than the tiny Hangrui Turbos. The earpieces are indeed metal, but look and weigh like plastic. Nowhere near the quality of the metal EDR1 earpieces. The black part is metal, while the silver part is aluminum, of a very cheap, light grade. There are a couple of rough burrs on the metal, indicating a bit of a rushed, low-end production.

The thin metal filters at the end of the nozzles both came off, when I changed tips. This occurs with all too many budget IEMs (MI Basic, AWEI Q9, etc.), but has not happened yet with KZ’s. I’m not sure if/how it might change the sound to have a missing screen filter, but, they’re hard to put back and keep in place, if they come off easily in the first place. The wire is lightweight, as is the entire earphone, but otherwise I think the silicone rubber insulation is fine. It does not tangle easily. The eartips are cheap as well. Only one pair included, and they are thin dome-shapes. Similar to what comes with some KZ models, but not on par with quality. If you look at the prices of some of the KZ models I’m reviewing here, and find they are equivalent to the Inpher’s, you’ll see what I am getting at. The eartips don’t make a good seal, but at least they and the whole assembly is lightweight and comfortable. But, enough with the deceptive build quality. I’m sure this poor introduction with the Inpher B-2’s will all be forgotten once I go to test them for sound!  😀

Sound

Inpher “Fuqing B-2”: Perhaps not as good as their name suggests.

Ok, first impressions with stock eartips were not good. 🙁  Second impressions with KZ red-bore tips? Not good either. 🙁 🙁  I’m immediately struck by a decidedly tin can quality, that remains in some form or other, through numerous tip-changes. Not as tin-canny as the MI Basic 2, but certainly reminiscent of that model. Highs are rolled off, but I consider that a plus, as this IEM never gets objectionably harsh. However, its mids are of poor quality, with a sound that seems slightly distorted, and muddy overall. Bass is also muddy and indistinct, although more solid than the Hangrui, for what that’s worth. Again, compared to the Hangrui, the B2 has a significantly darker sound, with perhaps a bit larger presentation. They also play louder at the same volume, than the Hangrui.

I’m disappointed in this purchase (and one of the rare few occurrences of this so far), considering that I had better aspirations for them, given their review on “phonograph.net”. That review talked about “some piercing highs”, and at no point did I perceive anything at all as “piercing”. So I wondered for a second, if I got “fake” Inpher Fuqing B-2’s? Which led to the immediate answer; “Who in the hell would fake Inpher Fuqing B-2’s?? Would it be the same person who would produce a black market bootleg Rick Astley album?”. So I don’t know. They say “Fuqing” on the plug, and they came in a white crispy zip-bag. Phonograph.net describes them coming in such a zip-bag, but that the bag is branded. Mine was not, just plain white. Of course, that doesn’t mean Inpher or the Ali seller didn’t just switch to a cheaper bag design. So other than that, I have no reason to think earbuds of this calibre would necessarily be shipped in a box, or any other reason that these might be fakes. Even though they sound like they could be fakes of a better known brand.

Hmm… maybe now I understand that name a bit better. For all I know, Inpher might having varying levels of quality, or, it should also be considered that this is what the “Fuqing B-2’s” sound like. I’m inclined to go with the former, though. I read this comment about the B-2 from a Russian buyer: “Mixed the original plug no lettering!!! Original Super!!!!! Compare with sennheiser that cost of 2000 rubles”. What Vladov here is saying, is that he was sent 2 pairs of B-2’s, and one did not have the name “Fuqing” on the plug. The one that did not have the brand stamp, sounded like a Sennheiser earphone of around $35-$40 retail. The other one sounded like rat droppings. However, the one that I got did have the brand stamp on the plug (you can see it in my photo), and so did the one that garnered such a glowing review in “Phonograph.net”. So that itself is not “the tell”. Perhaps they should just call it the “Russian Roulette B-2”? You puts your money down,  you spins the wheel, you take yer chances on whether you get sent the “good” Inpher B-2. Like the one they sent to Phonograph.net. Or the bad B-2. Like the one they sent to me.

Conclusion: NOT RECOMMENDED. In a word, NO. I would choose these over the fake “MI 2 Basic’s”, but that’s not saying much. The Phonograph.net review that incited me to purchase them claimed it was one of the best-selling IEMs on AliExpress, which is why I got them. But there was nothing I heard here to suggest that. The fact that I gave them away to a guest never to see them again, less than 15 minutes after receiving them in the post, pretty much says it all right there. I’d say it’s “not bad” for $1.50. Which is what I thought the B-2 cost when I saw it for the first time!  But now that I see this cost almost as much as a VE Monk Lite… all I can think is, “darn…. I coulda had a V-Lite!”.

The Lowdown: The Inpher Fuqing B-2 has/had one good thing going for it; it is neither shrill, piercing, or otherwise aggressive in its presentation. Unfortunately, that is about the only good quality worth mentioning. It suffers from mediocre sound quality overall, making your favourite artists sound like they’re playing live from inside grandma’s tin bucket. Thus it can be said in the context of this article, that the Inpher Fuqing B-2 “punches below its weight”. reg. tm. . I gave it away to a young millennial, who was thrilled about the spontaneous gift, and called to thank me, saying it was so much better than her stock smartphone buds. The kiss of death, that is.

QKZ DM7, Special Edition (gold-plated housing) 
Price: $6.50 shipped (eBay)

QKZ “DM7”

It’s an amazing thing to witness, but the Chinese are so good at fakery, they even clone themselves! Or so it would seem. For how do you explain the existence of “QKZ”, which happens to stand for “Quality Knowledge Zenith”? Say, doesn’t that ring a bell? Doesn’t the name for the company “KZ” stand for “Knowledge Zenith”? Does that imply “KZ” aren’t quality, and this company “QKZ” does their job better? Not from what I’ve been reading…. QKZ rebrand models from “KZ”, “Tennemak” and others. Some are saying “QKZ” is the parent company to KZ (where “KZ” is just a sub-brand of theirs), and uses parts culled from various KZ models, to cobble together Frankenstinian designs they put out under ‘QKZ’.

I have no evidence of that other than someone’s opinion however, and I point out that others have disagreed with it. I didn’t even find myself agreeing with some of QKZ’s quality critics, even before buying any for myself, as it sure looked like exaggerations.  Obviously if I had, I would not have bought any! At any rate, Quality Control is not a primary consideration for me, at this price point. Besides, with a few QKZ models on the way, it’s something I’ll be able to determine for myself.

Fonge “D06” model. Look familiar?

Speaking of “cloning themselves”, these QKZ DM7’s look exactly like the KZ’s now discontinued “ED10” model, but with a thicker cable and minus the “M” logo on the back of the earpiece! But like the brand name, I’m sure that’s just a coincidence…  It appears however, that QKZ did not clone the KZ ED10. Instead, they cloned the Fonge brand’s D06″ model. “M” logo and all. Now whether KZ copied “QKZ” or “Fonge”, that I can’t say. Though I couldn’t find much to be said about the DM7, what I could find often had the word “sleeper” written all over it. For example, take a gander at this quote excerpt from one new owner of the DM7:

WHAT DID THEY EVEN PUT IN THERE?!?!?!?! It’s as if I LITERALLY have a subwoofer stuffed right into my ears!!!!! But for real, that sub-bass is an absolute monster and is able to strike the lowest frequencies that I could possibly even hear/feel. …Definitely hands down the most potent bass response I’ve ever heard from an IEM. As you could tell, I’ve never gotten so excited from an IEM for quite a long time, that’s how amazing the ED10 is. – NeonHD 100+ Head-Fier.

When I saw that it was also characterized as having controlled bass and highs, upfront mids, a balanced sound, a “very fun sound” and $6.50 shipped, that cinched it for me! Also…. did you notice, “gold plated housing”?? Wow. 😯  I could just melt this thing, and make hundreds of dollars, by selling off the gold material!

Fit & Finish

KZ “ED10”. Look familiar??

This model has one of the widest nozzles seen on an IEM. That alone might explain the hellish levels of sub-bass reported.

Build quality is tops at this price level. I say that, because the grey ribbed wire looks and feels a lot like the one on my Urbanfun Hi-Fi, a $30 earphone. It even has a Y-split piece and angled connector that are both reminiscent of the Urbanfun. It has a microphone switch reminiscent of a KZ earphone (nice tactile feedback). The earpieces are a smoky grey solid metal with a high gloss finish. The eartips are the wide-bore KZ whirlwind model. The default tips may be a bit big for some ears, but the kit comes with two more sizes, including small ones. All in all, the build quality is one of the best here, below the Urbanfun. As with the QKZ DM1’s, the left side is the one with the mic controller.

Sound

First Impressions: First impressions on the sound were a bit of a surprise. Surprise, because they were sorely lacking bass, making for a decidedly top-heavy sound. Not only was there no reported “‘sub-bass”, there wasn’t even bass-bass. But the highs ,while relatively detailed, were not piercing, though. And the mid/treble present was well defined; including what bass could be heard. The thing is, I presently don’t know if this is what it sounds like, or if I got thrown a dud DM7, or if this is what it sounds like with these eartips. 🙁 For the latter, I can at least nail that one down…..

Tweaking:

Tweaking involved getting rid of the (otherwise fine) eartips, and trying something I was well familiar with: the even-layered double flange eartips that I use with the Urbanfun and the QKZ DM1. The end result was.. surprising. Surprising, because it didn’t transform the sound as expected. There was still an unnerving lack of bass. Such an unbalanced sound, that it was hard to assess the sound signature of this earphone. All I knew is that it had “hints of quality” in it. Like the favoured DM1, but possibly better.

Although I had already adjusted it in my ear many ways, I tried some more ways. Tilting the earpieces up, down, around, digging them into my ear, etc. I managed to get more bass, until it at least hinted of a balanced sound. But no miracles here. These earphones left a lot of bass to be desired. And they left me on the fence, I’m afraid.

QKZ DM7 vs. QKZ DM1

The obvious comparison. The DM1 has become the earphone I use the most, so the DM7 has a lot to live up to, in such a comparison. And a quick comparison shows the obvious: the DM1 is darker, warmer, bassier, because the DM7 is such a bass lightweight. However, as I suspected, the DM7 has a certain edge in SQ over the DM1. The DM7 has a larger stage, more separation and consequently, clarity (these are, of course, not “Urbanfun Hi-Fi” levels of detail). And yet I easily prefer to listen to the DM1 without a second thought about it.

 

Conclusion: NOT RECOMMENDED (WITH RESERVATIONS)

I don’t know what to conclude, honestly. Because I have a strong feeling I got a bad egg, not a proper set of DM7’s. All the reviews I read about its superb bass response suggests that. I have no way of proving this of course, without at least ordering another pair or two from another source. But as these took me so long to get that I’ve since lost interest in the earphone project, I have no plans to make a third attempt to get DM7’s. Or for that matter, any of the other similar earphones mentioned above, sold under different brand and model names, that this model is based off of.

I will say there is a lot to like here. There’s a clarity, full treble, neutral mids, width of soundstage and general detail of sound that belie the asking price. There’s a solid, smart design and construction that could make this a daily driver. So maybe it’s worth getting for some, if you get luckier than me, and indeed “normal” DM7’s sound more balanced. Some might say I shouldn’t be prepared to assess them before x hours of burn-in. But to that I say, none of the others required burn-in to produce bass. I mark this review of the QKZ DM7; TBD. (To Be Determined).

 


Remax “610D” 
Price:$7.78 shipped (eBay)

When my QKZ DM7 failed to arrive at the end of a long journey… ordering this guy, helped ease the pain! (At least for an hour, until I ordered a 2nd QKZ DM7…).

I had my eye on the “Remaxes” for some time. As I did “UiiSii”, “Boarseman” and a few other less-ventured brands, that nevertheless make an effort on the quality and design fronts. But, never quite hopped on board the Remax train, until now. Remax make so many colourful, unusual designs that offer a lot of build value for the dollar spent, it’s hard to keep up. Though they sound like the name of a real estate agency, “Remax” actually make a large line of products. Covering everything from fashion to technology. Although yeah, they can fix you up with hot properties along the coast, if you have a hankering for that. Just ask for “Al”. They appear to be based in Hong Kong, with offices in Miami, Florida.

The “610D” model, is one of their hottest, if the internet is anything to go by. Here are a couple of quotes that might help explain why I gravitated toward it:

“Just natural and musical, full bodied drums and a nice air around everything giving the feeling of a much more expensive headphone. And again we have Remax pushing the value envelope and getting a rewarding sound signature which seems to entertain for hours on end. Most of us already know that this price point is flooded with thin, non interesting consumer IEMs revealing boxy sounding drums and a weak sound-stage. Having the Remax RM610D perform like it does almost becomes like a great hidden secret. Few reviews out there don’t help matters either. To keep all this in reality, this IEM still would be considered warm and dark in contrast to a pure flat signature, though there is just enough detail everywhere and a forward character which keeps the whole thing interesting and fun.” – “Redcarmoose”, 15,000+ Head-Fier.

Fit & Finish

The Remax 610D is one of the more impressive kits here. It comes in an Apple-quality, reusable, slidable-drawer style cardboard box, complete with authenticity tags. Which holds; three pairs of clear silicone tips in three sizes, a vinyl carrying pouch, a legible, non-Chinglish instruction manual, and a quality control inspection card.

The build quality of the earphone itself is very comparable to a Xiaomi product. Such as the “MI Piston 3 Huosai Edition”, I reviewed earlier. More so, the “MI Piston 3 Youth Edition”. Which has a similar feeling flat noodle cable, and similarly angled earpieces (though not open back as the Remax). Even a comparable price. This “MI” quality extends to the rest of the earphone. The alloy earpieces and 3.5mm connector are the same sort of metal used in the MI Piston 3 Huosai edition I reviewed, while the in-line remote is plastic. Buttons on the remote have a very good feedback. Before listening, I found the fit makes an unusually good seal on the default (M) dome tips. They have white rubber bores and are not as cheap as they look. By the texture of the silicone, they grip well.

The in-line remote works great, tested on my iPhone. It has volume +/1, three presses of the Pause/Play button plays the preceding song, two presses plays the next, 1 press puts it into pause.

Energy: With the ‘phone fitted in my ears and no signal passing through, I read the energy as roughly “neutral”. That is to say, not too anxiety-inducing; but not too relaxing, either.

Sound

First Impressions: It sounds very much like what I’d expect of a Xiaomi product. I don’t know if that will be taken as a compliment or criticism. But I mean it as a compliment. Same sort of sound signature I recall of the MI Piston 3 Huosai, but perhaps a larger soundstage.

Overall, the sound is clean, open, well balanced, and thus far, not the slightest bit aggressive in the upper reaches. Highs are slightly muted, so they won’t have the extended detail you get from, for example, the Sony MH755. I did my litmus test for aggressivity in the upper mids, using Metric’s “Rock Me Now”. There is a drumstick whacked against a rim throughout, as a driving beat, and on many IEMs which have peaks in this area…. it comes across as an auditory form of Chinese water torture. I was relieved to find this was not the case, here. (Not unless you change the eartips…).

The rhythm was good, I could get into the song. At no time was I bored by the sound. My initial feeling told me this was not an ideal choice for analytical listening**. But though it leans on the warm side, nor was it overly warm. Instead, its good for “general listening”. Or what I call an “all-rounder”.

Separation was good. Soundstage was better than average at this price, and I found that I was able to hear my own vocal mix recordings, better than most earphones. So, actually, it really does have some (limited?) qualities for critical listening.  No part of the tonal balance drew attention to itself; including the bass. Meaning there wasn’t obviously too much, or obviously not enough.

Sound overall was a tiny bit on the dry sound, but fairly balanced in terms of dry/wet quality of timbre. (To put it simply, the more “wet” or “liquid” a sound is, the more it represents the shape of the original sound. This is in reference to attack/decay characteristics here; which give form to notes. Thus a ‘dry’ sound is short on decay. “Wet/liquid” types of sound, render as more “musical” to the ‘ear’). Bass had decent definition and punch. Meaning some models reviewed here were better for definition and punch; others worse.

Sound Leakage: The back vents are not fake. When covered, sound is reduced somewhat. Even when both nozzles and backs are covered, there is still some leakage. More than the KZ “ATE” for comparison. I’d give it a 6.8/10 for leakage.

Tweaking:

Though the stock tips are good, I had to see what else the Remax can do, and how the stock tips affect the sound. Of course, it was all change after trying different tips. I’ll spare you all the gory details, and just name some of the better choices of eartips I liked with the Remax 610D (all of which have been mentioned in this article, in or out of their own reviews): black “Sony/AKG” (M/L), orange Sony “MH755” stock tips (M), (L) KZ “Starlines” (L), double flange wide bore (S), (grey Einsear T2 wide bore stock tips (M).

I thought wide bores would be a good match, to ease up on the dryness factor. But none that I had were a good fit in the ear. The angle and length of the nozzle limit the tip selection somewhat, making the IEM more suitable with larger flanges. The SonyAKG, both M and L, worked well at reducing the dryness factor, and bringing some more colour in. The M fit me better and gave the best balance between bass and highs. Very much like a higher end version of the stock tips. A tiny bit less bass perhaps, but that bass had better definition. So did mids and highs, and sibilance was also reduced. If I gave numbered ratings, I’d have to bump up the rating of this earphone with these tips. For while the 610D  is not the best of this bunch, it’s listener fan base is now larger.

But…. in the end, the Sony/AKG tips didn’t pass the “Rock Me Now” ‘drumstick on the brain’ test. So they had to go! Compared to the stock Remax tips (in M), the large size KZ Starlines had more resolution, larger, deeper bass, with a more open midrange and better definition overall. And they did ok  on the “Rock Me Now” test. But I felt one layer removed from the music, and I don’t want blankets over my music. Guess what I ended up going with? Wait for it….. wait for it….

…The default M stock eartips, that were originally installed on the earphones to begin with! Yup. They were the only thing I found so far, that passed the “Rock Me Now” drumstick test with pain-free colours, whilst not smoothing out the mids and highs into Blandville territory. Correctly installed, they had the most open low end and mids, and the least sibilance. In fact, I tested for this last aspect using Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust”.  I never liked this song, but I heard one earphone reviewer saying it’s the best test for sibilance. It may indeed be a good tool for that, but in actuality, it was nothing challenging for the Remax, as configured! Some of own vocal mixes were a much more revealing test of sibilance.

The trick to getting the sound was, I had to make one small but big adjustment. The tips had to be centred on the nozzle, about midway. Their exact location depends on one’s ears, and it will likely be different for each ear (as positioning is affected by ear wax, ear canal sizes, etc). It is a matter of positioning the eartip on the nozzle so that the tip fits perfectly in the ear, does not stick out too much, nor inserted in too deeply. With a perfect fit adjustment, it sits right, feels right, and sound is the best. If you don’t yet know what that feels like, with practice adjusting the tip at various points around the middle of nozzle, you will. (This ‘tip’ applies to any IEM, btw).

However, if’n you don’t care about the sound being correct, then this tip applies to this and any IEM as well: For a more engaging listen, push the tips all the way bak ton the nozzle. For a more detailed, transparent experience, place them at the edge of the front lip.

Blue-Tak Mod

I mention above that the grills on the 610 are not fake. When I attempted to stick a dollop of Blue-Take adhesive putty over them and then remove it, the grills came with. So you can see the hole in the centre of the back of the earpiece, showing they really are vented at the back. But they really ought not to be!

For when I blocked them good with Blue-Tak, I had a hard time figuring out what might have degraded by doing so. Was there less “air” around the elements? Perhaps. But I did observe plenty of detail across the highs could be heard. Even if the upper mids might be considered a wee bit on the dark side, at times. Was the soundstage smaller? If it was, it wasn’t obvious. Let’s put it this way. There was absolutely nothing gone that I missed, after doing the Blue-Tak mod. And what had been gained was quite evident. Did it “transform” the sound of the Remax, no. But it made everything better; including some of the things I had issues with. This tweak, to my mind, finally makes the Remax 610D “an (audiophile) contender”. Something that can compete with some of the better models I purchased, and  already has a design advantage over them.

It’s a bit difficult to assess all the changes with this mod, because I could only do a single A/B test. Not back and forth, as the tweak itself doesn’t invite that sort of thing.  What I can say I heard, was timbre was improved all around. Making things more accurate, making the sound significantly more engaging, making the high end smoother and less fatiguing. The additional balance it brought in tonality was very welcome. I quite liked the way bass was presented after this mod. Where I expected more bass, there may be less. But if so, that ‘less’ was just perfect, to me. Supportive, better defined, and naturally integrated with the rest of the range. It never drew attention to itself, for any reason. Though I did not really go for the Blue-Tak mod on the VE Monk, I’d classify this one as a ‘no-brainer’. Stock M eartips and 1g of Blue-Tak (and nothing else needed), and you have a really good looking and sounding pair of IEMs, at a sing-song price! Although it has yet to arrive, I would not be surprised if these modded Remax’s will give the Urbanfun’s a run for their money at less than a third the cost!

 

Amplified

Ok, I sincerely doubt anyone would be using these earphones to monitor or do vocal recordings with… But nonetheless, it might be worth mentioning, that this particular model is incompatible with my Mac, for that purpose. I made a recent observation that any IEM with a built in mic controller causes my Mac to switch the audio input to “external” mic, reading the earphone as a mic, and switching off the internal mic (though this can be overcome by the use of an adapter). I found the Remax great as a monitor, for my DAW. Unlike many other IEMs, it did not sound like a distorted mess, under such conditions. But when used to record vocals, it created a ‘robotic voice’ effect, (due to latency feedback issues). I then tested the Hangrui Turbo, which also has a built-in mic, and it sounded quite fine when recording vocals. No “robot voice” effect.  This may just mean the Remax does better when used as the mic for calls (it may be more sensitive), but I did not test this feature.

Conclusion: RECOMMENDED.

While the unmodified Remax 610D doesn’t give me an ‘audiophile orgasm’, I think it also makes a good choice in a very “Xiaomi way”. Meaning(!), it’s a good choice for ‘average ears’, looking for a basic all-rounder. One that won’t give you a bass headache, or for that matter, a treble-induced migraine. It has an above average soundstage size and imaging, a decent amount of detail, a well balanced quantity of bass, and openness in the mids and highs. The Blue-Tacked Remax 610D (see “Tweaking”) however… is a very pleasant listen, and picky as I am, with a sound I could not reproach. A beautifully balanced sound, played out how I like it. One with just enough ‘liquidity’ to keep things engaging. One that doesn’t draw attention to itself, due to some flaw or other. And one that never gets aggressive and tiring. The Remax 610D are also pretty comfortable.

Given all of that, I think they would make a good on-the-go earphone; such as for the gym, jogging, on the way to work etc. (But not for quiet-only environments). They can be thrown into a bag or purse with little issue, as the flat noodle cable makes them easy to untangle. The connectors are not going anywhere, and the strain reliefs are similar to Xiaomis. Meaning(!), very well designed.

On good recordings, the 610D creates a realistic soundscape, maintaining a soundstage that has front to back depth, and elements coming in and out of the picture, in all manner of places. It can reach down into bass depths, when the bass cues are there, but is otherwise not a “basshead” type of model. It’s one of the rare models that can sound better with its stock tips than third party choices.

If I go nitpicking, it may show a bit of sibilance, and this effect is somewhat dependent on the tips and their adjustment. It is still nowhere near annoying, aggravating or aggressive. It just creates a bit of a sharper than normal sound on some frequencies, around the female vocal range. More nitpickings, might point to a dryness in the quality of timbre (a characteristic also shared with the MI Piston 3 Huosai, and other models). The “Hangrui Turbo” for example, has a more ‘liquid’ timbre. But this too can be helped by “tip-rolling”, as mentioned in the Tweaking section above.


The Lowdown: I found the Remax 610D very comparable, in both sound and design, with the Xiaomi MI Piston 3 Huosai (see review). It presents a sound profile few will object to. Perhaps because of its open-back design, it offers a fairly large soundstage, with good depth and imaging, and enough midrange detail for limited critical listening sessions. It is not extended at either end (highs or lows), but nor is it too dark or too light in the bass loafers. Rather, it’s more balanced in its presentation, than anything.  On the audiophile front, I’d say that while the Remax may not be the last word in high fidelity, mainly due to its somewhat dry sound character, I think it would make a good candidate for tweaking. With its rugged design, it appears to be one of the more “useable” budget IEMs for general and outdoor use. 

QKZ DM1  
Price:$2.96 shipped (AliExpress)

This QKZ “DM1” was trumpeted as “one of the most sold earphones on AliExpress” by a phonograph.net review. That must be saying something, because they have like a million and a half different earphone models on Ali.  The review goes on to describe the sound as having warm mids not reduced by the punchy deep bass, and well resolved highs without harshness. What more could anyone ask for, for less than $3?? Crumpets and tea, to be served at noon? This sounded to me like something definitely worth checking out!

 

Fit & Finish

Coming in three colours, I chose to get the black. What I found appealing about the DM1 is its form factor. The design is used by a ton of other IEMs as well, such as the KZ EDR1, the Hangrui Turbo, etc. A small, simple, short, barrel shape with the straight down cable. It just works so well in so many situations, and is a lot less fiddly when you need to get “earphoned” in a hurry.

I love the build and design on these. The wire is not what I expected. It is related to the one on the Headroom MS16 (reviewed), with clear tubing (made of TPE) over coloured insulated wire, that has a smooth vinyl feel. But they’re not quite the same. The QKZ’s clear tubing is so well integrated, you don’t see it as a separate element. The wire is also nearly twice the thickness of the MS16’s. Perhaps partly because of this, the wire is stiffer than that of the MS16. Which makes it even more resistant to tangling. In fact, it untangles itself a bit, when you bend it.

The thicker part feels durable, and as you can see on nearby pics, advertised as such. It’s half as thin going from the Y-split to the earpieces, but still, much sturdier than regular silicone rubber, such as on the AKG etc. The earpieces are cold and hard; genuine metal. Not that dirt cheap Hiperdeal aluminum, either! Much more like the “Urbanfun” earpieces, though not as large or as heavy. The Y-split piece and the 3.5mm connector is also solid metal. Not plastic made to look like metal, such as on the equally priced Fonge T01. Given it comes in a storage box with 2 tips, this is quite something. The remote is plastic, but the button has a solid feedback. There are 3 different-sized pairs of wide-bore black silicone eartips. The default M ones fit right off, and make a good seal, shutting out noise. So I will be using the stock choice for my listening tests.

“Hi-Res Audio”: I note that the DM1’s are the first and only pair here to carry the “Hi-Res Audio” logo on the packaging. Which means they are certified to work with high-resolution audio sources. What does this mean for you, the consumer? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.  At this price, they’re probably not even authorized to place that logo on the box, and just thought, “Why not? We’re China!”. Even if they were authorized and paid in full for use of the logo, it would still mean nothing. Rather than some assurance of quality, the “Hi-Res Audio” mark on an earphone package only guarantees that it says “Hi-Res Audio” on the package.

Sound

I have to say, I warmed up to the sound of the DM1’s immediately. The bass was punchy and prominent, mids clear and highs only a bit rolled off, while still retaining enough detail. While sometimes the sound stage did not seem that wide, other occasions depicted it as clear and large, with elements in their own space, and a KZ level of detail. Most surprising to me was how well I could make out my own vocals, in my own recording mixes. Certainly more than the KZ HD9 (w/mic), I had been testing just prior. Since most of the earphones reviewed don’t reveal this information well at all , I didn’t expect the DM1 to do so. It wasn’t even obvious why it would. This capability would seem to be triggered by an earphone with exemplary soundstage separation, detail or really forward mids containing no bass bleed. Neither are qualities I would automatically ascribe to the DM1.

If I have any complaints to lay down, and this is nitpicking, I would cite a bit of dryness. Which comes off as lacking richness in the mids. Kind of like a sheet of rice paper over the sound. But that’s not to indicate darkness. (This may be due to the eartips). The dryness does not mean it’s a boring listen. As I found the DM1’s had a “fun listen” quality, that kept me engaged. It’s not aggressive at all in these upper areas either, unlike many KZ’s I found.

Tweaking: Tip-Rolling

Good as the default M tips are, they don’t produce a perfectly balanced sound, being a bit hazy in the highs. So I experimented just a bit to see what else the QKZ’s can do. I found that different eartips bring out qualities of sound I never thought I’d hear in this $3 earphone. For example, the large size eartips that came with the QKZ. Which at first, didn’t bowl me over. But after I custom-adjusted them for each ear, with the eartips positioned at slightly different location on each nozzle (to compensate for the different insertion depths in each ear), then things really came into focus! I heard an earphone that could easily have convinced me it was 10 times its price. Mids and highs opened out to a new level of unexaggerated clarity, as bass decreased, but gave better definition and balance. The confirmation that this was no parlour trick, was the fact that my connection to the music increased such that I listened for much longer than I normally would have. It was a lot like focusing a camera lens, where everything was blurrier before.

Speaking of “blurry”, the grey wide-dome silicone eartips that came with the Einsear T2 definitely gave the sound the most blurry effect. So, poor definition. Despite this however, I found them to be the most engaging, of those I tested. It shows at the very least, the DM1 can be a musical number, if you want it to be.

The even-layered, wide-bore black double flange eartips (reviewed), were also a great match for the DM1’s. They created a less solid and punchy bass than the M size stock wide-bore eartips. But that bass achieved better balance and definition, with the highs opening up, and the sound increasing in both resolution and perceived value. These are the tips I am sticking with for this model.

Let me summarize by saying, if the QKZ DM1’s don’t rock your boat, because of some perceived flaw or other, you’re probably wearing them wrong. Because these can do pretty much everything, save for extreme bass or highs. It’s just a matter of fitting in the right eartips, and making sure those eartips are each inserted at the right depth, for a perfect seal in either ear.

But wait, what if I’m over-selling it, simply because it’s been a long time since I’ve heard a great example of an IEM in the QKZ’s price class? Ok then, let’s see to it!….

Shootout: KZ EDR1 vs. QKZ DM1

The obvious contender to beat the QKZ DM1, is the near-legendary KZ EDR1. (We’re talking a confirmed true KZ EDR1. Not an EDR2, EDSE, QKZ DM6 or Betron Y100!). Both IEM’s are priced about the same, have similar designs, are built to an excellent standard of quality, and feature 100% metal earpieces. Both hit well above their price points, knocking out much costlier models with a single punch. The only difference is, the KZ has a well known reputation. The QKZ does not! But I have no dog in this fight, so I promise to Listen Without Prejudice!(reg. tm.) Let the most worthy giant-killer win!

Build: Just for comparative purposes, the KZ EDR1’s have slightly heavier earpieces than the DM1’s, and overall, a bit longer. Their wire is about 3″ longer, but for the most part, visibly thinner than the DM1 wire (due to its insulation, no doubt). Test will be done with the same eartips on both (DM1 stock L size).

Sound:

KZ EDR1: Well colour me green and call me a pickle! The KZ are much better than I recalled. They seem to kung-fu the QKZ to death with the first blow. The KZ’s are much louder at the same volume, so no contest there. They have a fuller, larger soundstage, punchier bass, more separation and the associated detail.  Motherf…. you mean I just ordered a DM1 yesterday, when I could have had another EDR1 for the same $$?? 😯 Damn you, aural memory!  👿

“Come on QKZ, get up!! Stop bleeding all over my rugs, at least. They’re not Scotchguarded! It’s your turn now, so fight back! All I can say is, you’d better do better in Round 2, or I’m gonna turn you into shoelaces!”

“Yeah, this looks strong enough for shoelaces, in a pinch!”

Round 2:

Ok, so this is how it went down… First, I changed gloves (I mean eartips) on both fighters (I mean earphones). The large stock DM1 eartips keep funnelling out when inserted, because of the size and how soft the material is. This makes it difficult to ensure that both earphones have a good seal. The double-flange tips don’t have this issue, so I re-did all tests using them.

QKZ DM1: Ok, that’s more like it! Now I see why I liked you in the first place! Compared to the KZ, the QKZ has a smaller soundstage, set further away. For this reason and others, the KZ has a 150 watt halogen spotlight on the picture, while the QKZ is dimmer task lighting. But boy… the QKZ sounds more refined. With a delicious, juicy, liquid bass and all, the QKZ makes me feel better. It’s more inviting, more engaging, less like noise. It has blacker blacks, richer, deeper sound colours, and the timbre of instruments sounds more realistic. Piano sounds like you have a piano playing in your head. I confirm it is less sensitive, and thus has lower output at the same volume as the KZ. But less than I initially thought, hearing the EDR1’s.

I guess the winner comes down to whichever of the above qualities you value. If it helps, the EDR1’s might be better for critical listening, the DM1’s better for listening listening.

Damn. I should order a third!   :mrgreen:

 

Shootout: QKZ DM1 (Black) vs. QKZ DM1 (Grey)

By now, I’ve ordered a second DM1 in Grey. Which begs the usual question… do they sound the same, and if not, why? Having heard the new grey copy alone, I still can’t answer that, as I haven’t compared this version to anything. So first, these are my initial impressions of the grey DM1, before the benefit of comparison:

QKZ DM1 (Grey): It’s been a number of days I haven’t played with the (black) QKZ DM1, so I’m kind of rediscovering the DM1 model, after receiving some newer models. My first impression after a minute of listening to this grey version, with the stock pre-installed KZ-type M dome tips, was that the sound was “pretty okay”. It’s the eartips that bothered me most. They felt a little too “stuffy” in my ear. I tried the grey wide bore tips that came with the Einsear T2, but settled on the unbranded double-flange even-layered black silicone M-size wide-bore tips (reviewed below). This really opened things up in the mids and highs, brought more and better defined bass. I took the earphones with me to bed, and had a more serious listen, with the double flange tips.

My immediate thoughts were, that I have absolutely no criticism on the sound of these. Perhaps more so, than the QKZ CK5 that recently made such an impression on me. Usually, something in the sound isn’t right. But for my ears, nothing wasn’t right. Sub-bass seemed to have gone A.W.O.L., but I didn’t miss it. And then it showed up on Sarah McLachlan’s “Fumbling Toward Ecstasy”. Not only could sub-bass melodies be clearly heard, but mid-bass as well. And I had not heard the sub-bass melodies before, despite decades of familiarity with the track. So while the DM1 couldn’t be called “bassy”, the bass wasn’t absent. It was more evident than some other models, and it was sweet and controlled. It was just enough to call it a “balanced” sound, and “a satisfying amount”. On songs that were typically top-heavy, with little bass and too much treble, I was still able to hear the bass melodies. More importantly, the treble-rich environment was not overwhelming the sound, as it often did. Nor did it accomplish this by simply being absent. The highs are a bit rolled off compared to some, but plenty there to hear detail, in this area. Yet they never got aggressive.

The mids are one of the best things about the DM1. I could hear my vocal mixes possibly better than any other model here. The soundstage is wide, but weirdly, “flat”. It seems like the images have a ruler-height. Whatever, it’s nothing that interferes with my enjoyment of the music. In fact, the sound of piano on Kate Bush’s “And Dream Of Sheep”, without the benefit of direct comparison, was the best rendition of piano that I can ever recall hearing, on any of the earphones here. It had the right tone, sparkle, and the weight of the lower registers, on the piano. I can certainly recall the Urbanfun HF being more refined… but this sound seems to offer things it doesn’t. For example, I had to wonder why, song after song, I heard some new details on the grey DM1, in songs I had been listening to for decades. Including some I had heard on other models reviewed here. Clearly, I’m going to have to start doing some direct comparisons,  because something doesn’t sound right!…

QKZ DM1 (Black) vs. QKZ DM1 (Grey) 

This first comparison, will be to see if there are colour-based and/or batch differences, between the two different colours of QKZ DM1. Of course, I tested them using the very same pair of double flange wide-bore tips on each DM1.

Sound: Well I’ll be damned (again)! The black DM1’s come across as far more musical, than the grey. And I really liked the grey (though I never found them terribly musical). The grey DM1’s appeared to have better separation and distinction between sounds. Overall, they both had the same “house sound”; so could be called “similar”. On the second test, after removing and replacing eartips, both sounded less musical, and it wasn’t quite the same experience that go round. (Forces of natural degradation….). But I would conclude with the same findings; black is more musical, grey is more detailed. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. I’ll be choosing the black as my primary DM1, the grey as the backup. Again, I would need to listen to a significant number of samples to be able to say with any confidence, whether the differences are due to colour, batch production, or bit of both. As for now, I would lean toward getting the black, if only one. Just in case it is the colour.

 

Shootout: QKZ DM1 (Grey) vs. Urbanfun Hi-Fi

Unfortunately, I made the regrettable mistake of comparing the $3 grey QKZ DM1’s to the best of this lot; the $30 Urbanfun Hi-Fi’s. And damn if the DM1’s aren’t better! I used the very same double-flange tips, the same “Fumbling Toward Ecstasy” track, and the difference was night and day, to be sure. The Urbanfun’s were indistinct, in comparison. The DM1’s were clear, with a forward midrange, while the Urbanfun’s sounded lost in a foggy mist. The DM1’s bass was punchy, and dug deeper. So too the mids and highs; both of which were more extended than the Urbanfun. That sub-bass melody was blurry on the Urbanfun, while musical and well defined on the DM1. Just everything could be heard better on the DM1 and it was easier to get into the music. That doesn’t mean everything was better, of course. The Urbanfun presented a larger soundstage, albeit more set back, and its reproduction of instruments was certainly more refined. Just not more defined. Not that the DM1 was fatiguing, but the Urbanfun had a “smoother” sound, you feel you could listen to for hours. But that’s the “foggy mist” doing that.

Well I may have paid ten times more for a less revealing earphone, but at least the Urbanfun has a nicer feeling wire. Although now that I compare the two, the DM1’s is just slightly thicker. Awww geez!  🙁

QKZ DM1 vs. QKZ CK5

A test of two three dollar titans; QKZ’s DM1 vs. CK5, can be found: here.

Fakespotting

As popular as the QKZ DM1 is, you’d think it’d be ripe for cloning. And it is. I’ve seen it under numerous names, but otherwise 100% identical. ….Or are they? The one I bought on eBay never arrived for some reason, so I can’t say! But as for the one I then purchased on AliExpress…. it’s very hard to tell what you are ordering there, when you are ordering a QKZ DM1. Let me give you a clue about that….  this was the model specification sheet in the Ali ad I ordered mine from. Notice the “CK5” model designation in the title?:

QKZ “DM1” Retail Edition

Keeping It Real

….Now look at the “model number” under the “Features” section. It says DM1!! So. Is it an “Original QKZ CK5”, or a DM1, you can expect to receive? The CK5 is an over-the-ear model (to be reviewed here as well!), and the photos in the ad clearly show a DM1.  I figure the fact that it does say “QKZ” and “DM1” within the ad, and shows photos of a DM1, is enough to make a case with Ali if it isn’t a QKZ DM1. But even so, are you getting the so-called “retail version”, which includes the original QKZ box and accessories? Or just a bubble bag? No indication of either, in this seller’s ad, and not even customer feedback that might give a clue. But it’s that way, only because my seller is a moron, who doesn’t know how to sell things. (Retail box editions normally cost more on sites like Ali. So if you are including the original packaging… mentioning it in the ad is a strong selling point!). I figured it out like this….

The photo above showing the specifications was found verbatim in numerous QKZ DM1 ads on AliExpress. All under different seller stores. I don’t know what they’re playing at, but it’s like a “QKZ mafia”, where they are all selling from the same supply of goods, using the same pictures and totally erroneous specifications (such as “bluetooth” capability… which it does not have!). And so, in another seller’s QKZ DM1 ad, sporting the same specifications, there was one single piece of customer feedback. Luckily, that customer uploaded a photo of his DM1 on arrival, and it showed it in the original black QKZ plastic carrying box. e.g. “retail version”. That suggests every seller on Ali who’s ad matches the photo above, should be providing the customer with a brand new, sealed, legitimate QKZ retail version of the DM1. So “should” any seller that shows the retail edition box in their ad. Now that we’ve learned how to spot a legit QKZ DM1, here’s how to spot a non-legit copy….

NOT the Real McCoy.

Finding The Fakes

There are copies of the DM1 on Ali, even cheaper than what I purchased. Is there a catch? Kind of… look for the word “QKZ” and also “DM1”. Some sellers may have “DM1” but not “QKZ”. When I scope them out, neither “QKZ” nor “DM1” is in the specifications. Just a different “house” brand name. Nor is there any photo of the retail box. In the title of those ads, you may find the name “M&J” (“Melody & Journey”). Here’s where it gets tricky….

If I follow the dots, “Melody & Journey” appears to be a sub-brand of “VPB” (originally “Very Poor Buds”, but they later added IEM’s to their portfolio). Who’s earphones I reviewed in the “1$ Dollar Bonanza” section. So under the name “M&J”, VPB appears to be selling identical copies of the QKZ DM1. But:

  1. A trip to the comment section of one of the M&J ads shows a customer photo of the actual earphones, and they come in a bubble bag with “M&J” across it. Not a QKZ retail box.
  2. A keen eye on the photos, shows red banding on the gold 3.5mm phono plug. Photos of the QKZ DM1 retail box kit show black banding on the phono plug. Plus, two white stripes on the plug’s collar, that are not seen on the “M&J” editions of the DM1. Also, “M&J” versions come in colours (such as the champagne colour illustrated in the photo right), that do not exist in the QKZ DM1 universe.

Hence, these “Melody & Journey” bubble-packed versions of the QKZ DM1 are either fakes, or there is some sort of distribution deal perhaps, where they are allowed to “clone” the QKZ model. After all, QKZ themselves sell copies of earphones from other brands, such as “Fonge” and “Plextone”, under their “QKZ” house brand. Who knows why, but it’s all very confusing to the (Western) consumer! Just make sure, if you order any QKZ’s, they come in that black plastic retail box shown in the photos.

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Conclusion: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The QKZ DM1’s knock it out of the park, as far as I’m concerned. That can be confirmed by the fact that the first thing I did the next day was buy another pair as a spare. I may not run out of earphones until the next century or so, but these DM1’s have value far beyond their silly $3 initiation price. If I had been tasked to tune a $3 IEM to my taste, this I’m sure is just what it would sound like. And if the DM1’s had been my first purchase, I might have ended my quest right then and there, satisfied with what I had. Of course, it would have been a lot less fun, to not have made the entire journey. Over my later experiments with different eartips, I’ve heard the DM1 create a much larger soundscape than I initially thought possible. One that had solid dimensions of front, back and height. and could bring out subtle details across the frequency ranges.

I’ve also heard it sound fairly awful, if the eartips are not in right. In which case, they may exhibit a lack of bass (and they’re not that bassy to begin with), which then makes the mids and highs slightly aggressive, for the first time. A poor installation can also create a jumble of distorted noise, when the music gets heavy, loud and full. n.b. Don’t be prepared to write off the DM1’s, until you’ve really heard them at their proper best! When right, the bass is not lacking, and the upper mids come in clear, when present.

The Lowdown: Right out of the box, the DM1 impress, with a good seal and a balanced smooth sound – if a bit too smooth. They can really open up with a change of eartips (I recommend large wide-bore double flange tips). Creating a sound with a level of transparency, definition, resolution of timbre, and detail well above the incredible $3 asking price. Speaking of which, they give the KZ EDR1 a serious run for the money, and all but trounce the previous giant-killer, the KZ HD9, in almost all ways. The QKZ DM1 is truly a jack of all trades; possessing qualities that make it both a good critical listen, as well as a “fun listen”. Add the fact that they are comfortable, lightweight, built like they’re ten times the price and yet cheap as chips, and before you know it, you’ve got a “giant-killer” on your hands, friend.

Fonge “FG002” 
Price: $4.82 shipped (AliExpress)

“The S600 came out of nowhere and shocked me by being an overachiever in almost every way. Build quality is stellar, the in-line remote and microphone are much better than they have any right to be, and they even bring forth a surprisingly competent and fun sound, though it is one that is very bass heavy.” – ‘B9Scrambler’ , 5,000+ Head-Fier with 7,000+ likes!

 

I got interested in these, mainly on the strength of the recommendations and review of one single “Head-Fi” member. Which is not typical, as I like to rely on multiple reviews or comments where I can. But that recommendation was so hearty and consistent that…. well, on the heels of ordering two other IEM’s, might as well go for the trifecta. Plus, I could not find much on it elsewhere… save a for nice little review on the old “Aproear” site; where they gave the MoreBlue “DM8” a rare 8.5/10.

Wait, did I say the “MoreBlue DM8”? Oh yeah, that’s right. In effect, that Head-Fi member did not recommend the “Fonge FG002”, but his review was based off the “YHC S600”. However, the review is two years old, and a thorough Google search turned up nothing on the market by “YHC”. I don’t get discouraged easily, fortunately. I thought… “Where have I seen these waffle-cone shaped earphones before?….”. Turns out, the YHC S600 appears to have morphed under numerous brand and model names over time.

They were made under the “QKZ” brand as the “QF2”. (But that doesn’t exist any longer either!). The YHC is also the same earphone as the “MoreBlue DM8”, which is the same as the “Fonge FG002”. All of which copied their design from the Shure “E2” IEM. Who can say if all these variants sound the same as the original “YHC S600”, recommended on Head-Fi? But as there can be sound variations under the very same brand and model, for $5, I won’t worry about that! I’ll work on the assumption it is the same “YHC” earphone recommended by “B9Scrambler”, “Aproear”, and others.

Another thing that’s a bit different, is that these are supposedly “unapologetically bassy” earphones. Lately, I’ve been steering toward mild quantities of bass, as all too often, I find the bass mucks up the midrange. And midrange is king, where I live. But when I read one commenter saying the midrange was “natural”, that and 5 bucks was all it took. Much as I yearn for clarity in the mids, I do like bass and warm-sounding cans.

 

Fit & Finish

One other thing that drew me to the FG002, is the nozzle. It’s unusually long, on this model. That means it fits more deeply in the ear. This has implications for both sound quality levels, and sound leakage levels. Despite the cone shape, this model is also said to be excellent for sleeping on your side with, so as I often use IEM’s in bed, that was another appealing factor. Indeed, the build quality is better than it has a right to be, at this price.

Fit in ear is good, and the earphones overall are quite comfortable. Unlike the UiiSii  HM7, the wire here has a bit of memory effect.

Sound

First Impressions: The first few notes were a good experience. My initial impresions are of a relaxed, warm, but open sound. None of the usual head drill sound.

The bass is prominent and well defined, but not necessarily overdone. That is to say, I’m fine with the amount of bass here. However, the sound itself might not be. It is decidedly on the warm side of “warm”. I suspect bleeding of the bass range into the midrange and highs. It is not that the mids and highs are covered up. Just that they seem not quite as open and detailed as they could be, on some other models. This observation depends on the song, however. For example, on Aretha Franklin’s “Baby, I love You”‘, the Fonge sounds near perfect, for bass, mids and highs. There’s a bit of razor sharpness on the leading edges of the horn section, but otherwise, the highs are not extended on this model. Slightly rolled off, it’d be fair to say. The plus side of this, makes the earphone easier to listen to, overall. Mids are good enough to hear my vocals in recording mixes.

That I would say, is one of the better qualities of the Fonge, and the bass is its strongest suit. It is above average in quantity, and pretty good in quality. Plus I can hear sub-bass, missed on most models. Timbre is pretty good as well, and this is related to how ‘musical’ the device sounds. It is not the most musical, and hardly the least. That means I can ‘bop’ to the music, but it won’t easily create emotional connections.

TWEAKING:

Switching out the KZ-whirlwind type eartips, I installed a pair of short, wide bore black soft silicone unbranded generic eartips. Changing to these tips pretty much changes the review. (sigh) Well no, not everything. The good definition this model is capable of can still be heard. I tested with James Brown “I Feel Good”‘ (what can I say, i’m into 60’s r&b at the moment…). It takes on this sound profile: the sublime bass line in Brown’s song is now definitely less stronger than it was.  But its actually better, in the sense of being better defined. Now the sound is more musical, and I immediately close my eyes and I am into the rhythm of the music. The mids and highs open up too, as evidenced by the horn section in this song. In short, I prefer these tips with this earphone, though e.g. double flanges, which I haven’t tried yet, might be even better.

Shootout: Fonge “FG002” vs. Fonge “T01”

This, you can say, is a natural comparison. You can read in my review how I loved the Fonge T01. Is the FG002 even better? On the one hand, there is every indication that it should be, given the higher price. On the other, the T01 is hard to beat, and has been judged  better than many IEMs several times its price. Everybody quiet, this is going to be a tense stand-off! Players, take your places, it’s Fonge vs. Fonge.

” It’s set, point, match for the FG002. The ball is in T01’s court, Fonge takes a swing and….”

 

Conclusion: The Fonge FG002 are a hard to find model, these days.  They come with KZ style small/mid bore eartips. But with the wide bore tips, it opens up. What you get is a less bassier but less muddier sound, with punch when needed. In addition, surprising definition at the price, and a good level of transparency. Without the benefit of direct comparisons (time is tight, sorry), I’d say off the bat it gives my favoured QKZ CK1 a run for its for money in some areas, and is probably better than the QKZ CK5/Fonge T01. As far as I can tell in the time I’ve used it, employing only two eartip variations, its only limitation is its level of musicality. And thats a bit of a nitpick, I think. That’s not to say its a boring listen. Just that I’d want it to be more musical, like some other models I’ve heard. What that means in practical terms is hard to say. It could be served well by an increase in soundstage, midrange prominence, timbre, ‘liquidity’. In short, I am happy with the purchase. It is one of the better models I’ve found.

The Lowdown: The Fonge FG002 are a comfortable pair of ears (read: earphones), offering a fairly well defined and balanced sound, with a talent for digging a bit further into the bass region. (Though they are not “‘super bass” canalphones, from my experience). They nevertheless offer plenty of insight into the mids and to a degree, the highs as well. With a slight roll off in that upper region, and their inherent comfort and light weight, they benefit as being untiring over lengthy listening sessions. They are among the better ones I’ve heard, and come easily recommended.

SeaHF AWK-F64 (64 ohms)
Price: $6.71 shipped (AliExpress)

“Seahf”is a brand of the company “AWK”, that produces many “garage hi-fi hacker DIY”-type earbuds and IEMs under different names or for other manufacturers (The “Ty” bud featured in this review page being one of them). All with an ear toward good sound, that defies their low cost. Comments from users like the following, cause me to put the SeaHF down as a must-have:

This is where the Seahf stand out, they are a details beast that will surely impress a lot of earbuds lover, high are fowards but not unbalanced, they are part of an overall pushed treble soundsignature and they aren’t congested with complex tracks that have lot of instrument or sound in it. I see this as a balanced sound signature with a not too agressive brightness that give a very exciting sound presentation, high have decay and texture to it and make micro details easy to find out of an average soundstage.” – Nymphonomaniac, 1,500+ Head-Fier

 

Fit & Finish

Fit: …Was good. In terms of feel in the ear, the SeaHF had the best fit between the  Vido, the Headroom MS16, the VE Monks and this. Not sure why, since three of those look exactly the same, but they did.

As compared with the “Vido” earbud (below), which I received in the same box as the SeaHF, this one looks and feels like a more “premium” product. Starting with the fact that it comes with a protective carrying case, and 8-10 pairs of foams (even including 2 pairs of donut foams). While the Vido comes in a poly zip bag that’s not even resealable. Plus zero foams.

The wire on the SeaHF is a good 4″ longer than the Vido at the shortest end, and a better quality as well. The same sort of quality sturdy rubber retro-grade wire found on the VE Monk+. The headshells may look like the same as the Vido in another colour, but no. They’re a sturdier feeling plastic, and you can hear this in the lower pitch made when both earbuds are rapped against a desk. The L-shaped connector jack is also much sturdier made than the straight one on the Vido. As I discovered, the foams that come with the SeaHF are the best I have ever heard; and that includes the famous VE Monk “audiophile quality” earbud foams. (See “Tweaking” section below).

Just as with the Vido’s, there’s nothing that says “audiophile” about these plain vanilla basement-edition SeaHF’s. They look just like disposable earbuds at 34 cents. But you can tell straight away, by the included donut foams, that whoever is behind this earbud (the “Bug Guys”?), isn’t just “All about that yuan”. They’re doing this for the love of good sound, as well! That, my friends… is an honourable thing.

Sound

First Impressions: The first notes did not spell “musical”, which was quite the contrast, next to my experience with the Vido. The SeaHF introduced itself as very analytical… but not in a boring way.
The dynamics were not as strong as I’ve heard on other premium budget buds like the VE Monk, etc. It conveyed a “small” sound to me, at first, but that slowly improved…. almost as if it was taking time to open up. Indeed, my eyes started closing by themselves, only after about two minutes into the music. Upon which that small sound, the soundstage, seems to have gotten larger, with a nice depth to it. In any case, it should not be ignored, as it has an advantage over some of the other earbud models under review.

The volume was not the best at my normal volume, but I could get it loud enough on my smartphone by going to max, or near there. This is (allegedly) a 64ohm bud, so I kind of expected it wouldn’t be the most power sensitive.  The bass is not “thumpy”, and some bass details will go missing, because it does not get low enough. But it does have some bass. Almost enough to hold its own on that end of things. But because the bass end is not all present and accounted for, the overall balance can suffer a little. The midrange does it’s part, too. I wouldn’t say the mids are really forward, but about in line with the highs. Which are not too forward either, and above that of the bass region. It all makes for a profile that is a bit cool, but smooth.

To characterize the midrange, Lindsay Buckingham’s screechy guitar on “Sister”, was not as screechy as it gets on more “peaky” earphones, such as so many of the KZ IEMs. But it was more screechy than on the “Vido”; a rather warm earbud. The sound of the SeaHF’s top end, while not aggressive, is more detailed than that of the Vido, and many others. You can listen into the music here, more than you can on the Vido. Or if memory serves, the VE Monk. e.g. You can hear some more vocal details, because of a superior degree of separation (soundstage), not because of superior resolution. So if for no other reason, I could see myself easily enjoying listening to music on this earbud.

Tweaking: I experiment with foams on the SeaHF, which I have moved to the guide “The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: Earbud Accessories“. It’s an important part of the SeaHF experience, so check it out by clicking on the link!

Conclusion: RECOMMENDED.

If it sounds like I’m disappointed with the SeaHF AWK F64 in this review, I’m not. It’s a lot better than most of my IEM’s. The SeaHF, as heard on my smartphone, is kind of underwhelming at first. But this bud grows on you, and for me, that took only one to two minutes for at least some of that to happen. They ain’t no replacement for the VE Monks, ho no. But they are a very nice compliment to them.

For example, if I wanted a very listenable earbud as a monitor, these would do significantly better than the VE Monks, as recording monitor buds. I know. I laid down vocals with the SeaHF F64, and they really helped me nail them down! Here, in an amplified environment, there is no lack of bass. Any more, and it would be a problem to my monitoring tasks. They serve the purpose by going wider and less muddier than the Monks+, and that allows me to better hear what I’m doing, under recording and mixing conditions. For that alone, they’re way worth it to me!

The LowdownThe SeaHF F64 is a smooth sounding bud with a subtle bass response, subtle but detailed top end, relatively detailed and well balanced midrange. It feels like a more refined earbud than either the VE Monk original, VE Monk+ or VE Monk Lite. And because of its 64ohm origins, it shines even brighter under an amplified set up, such as a home or portable amp, or high powered DAP. Where it comes into its own, in terms of a refined, balanced sound, and may be of more benefit there than the 32ohm buds. Not that it absolutely requires that, as I was able to get decent volumes off a smartphone, even if I found it a little bit bass-starved and less well balanced on that kind of device (but YMMV). As a recording monitor, the SeaHF F64 is one of the best, if not the best, earphones in this list.

 


Vido (32ohms)
Price: $3.50 shipped (AliExpress)

The Vido’s are on the lower end of the price scale, among the under-$10 earbuds, and yet they keep coming up in discussions of earbuds that are “as good or better than the VE Monks”. For example, one user writes about the Vido’s:

“Sounds like the original Monk in my ear. Doesn’t give you ear fatigue and very comfortable for prolonged usage. These sound amazing, period. A very fun sounding headphone, with plenty of detail and resolving power. On par with the Monk+. I was in awe when I put them on. Bass is deep and controlled, treble is crisp and present. Mids are smooth and are not compromised by the bass at all. Soundstage is on par with Monk+. Vido is a winner, and where it lacks in accessories and the terrible, terrible J-cable, the Vido is a bud that I wholeheartedly recommend anyone try. If it were only a bit more comfortable (i.e. used a different shell), I would likely choose this as the best budget earbud of them all. It pairs with nearly every genre of music, and is a great all-rounder for on the go listening.” -“Warm and Bassy”, Redditor

See now why they made the list? I wanted the original Monk, not the Monk+ I received, because that’s the one that many Chi-Fiers favoured over the re-do. That Monk is bye-bye now however, as I missed the slow boat from China a long time ago! (Well, I did see one used copy of the original VE Monk on eBay today @ $100 u.s…. which kind of defeats the purpose of a $5 earbud!).

“So what did you expect for $3.50, a wooden crate?”.

Fit& Finish

Finish

I could see why the Vido’s were as low priced as they were. They came in the very same box as the SeaHF I received (who knew it was the same seller? Not me!). But they were packed in a non-resealable zip-loc poly bag, while the SeaHF were packed in a zippered earphone case, like the MS16’s. The Vido’s came with no foams. Not just no extra foams, but no foams on the earpieces either! Thankfully, the SeaHF’S have plenty of foams.

The packaging extends to build, as well. In the photos, both Vido and SeaHF appear to have identical looking MX500 headshells and wire.  Mmmm…. not so. The Vido’s wire is definitely thinner and cheaper than the SeaHF’s wire, which feels more rubbery. The SeaHF’s wire is without kinks in it, as shipped. The Vido’s had all kinds of kinks in the wire, I had to straighten out. Though the earpieces on the Video do look identical, the SEAHF’s plastic feels a bit tougher, and sounds a bit lower when rapped against the desk. Also, one of the earpieces on the Vido had a small chip of “paint” missing (as can be seen in the photos), showing brown underneath. Welcome to budget Chi-Fi! If the product arrives at your door and works on both channels, then you’re already one of the fortunate ones.

Unlike most of the MX500 buds, the Vido has what’s known as a “J-cable”. Some people don’t like this, but I usually don’t mind. Gets the cord out of the way, as you wrap it around the back of your head, instead of down your front. I should add that there are many variations of the Vido sold on Ali, and I don’t know that they are all shipped the same fashion as I got mine.

Fit

The fit with foams is good,  and secure. I can feel no bumps or anything.

Sound

First Impressions: First the bad… the Vido sounds at first like what you might imagine a $3 earphone to sound like, as compared to the MS16, RY4S, both VE Monks, my Sony earbuds from the 90’s, etc. Well, I guess they “kind of” sound like the Headroom MS16’s. If you wrap the MS16’s earpieces in toilet paper and duct tape, for a few revolutions. Compared to the Headroom’s, Vido’s have a smaller soundstage size and less detail. Not just in the mids and highs, but in the bass as well. They simply don’t resolve the signal as well as the MS16’s. Let alone the Monks, RY4S etc. Their attack is soft-edged, their dynamics compressed. They seem to do better at moderate volumes, as long as it’s not too loud. Then it gets rough a bit, with hints of stress at louder levels, ie. resolution getting worse. Sound-wise, they do however beat those damned fake $1.99 “Samsung” earbuds, though. Also the “Samsong’s” and even the “Samsing’s”.

Now the good… this may be the best earphone yet. 8-O. My eyes shut almost immediately, and didn’t open again until the song was over. And the song was over before I knew it, and that doesn’t happen often but when it does… it’s a very good sign. The next song was no different. While my brain bumped against the Vido’s technical limitations of sound reproduction, as my feet were stomping, my soul didn’t care. Where, it seemed, every other earphone rendered Lindsay Buckingham’s guitar solo as shrill noise, sometimes unbearably so, the Vido reproduced it as a sweet sound, and really, really musical. And because the sound is so coherent, its hard to divvy it up as bass/mid/treble. My brain does not naturally want to do that. But, to better understand things, ok…

I’ll say that with the black full foam covers, there is no sparkle at all. Highs are quite subdued. For this reason, mid or upper harshness is completely nonexistent. Mid-range is about even with the other two, but details get lost. So because of the lack of detail and separation, the Vido is not the most ideal as a monitor for vocals and such (although I can still make out my vocals in the mix, on this thing). Bass is punchy enough but with less slap than the MS16, and more bloom n’ boom… not so well defined. Regardless, on a deeper level, the low end is hypnotizing. Perhaps it’s what people refer to as “addictive bass”. It isn’t just the bass that’s addictive either, but some other elements as well. For example, with other earbuds I might be trying to determine how far the bass goes, or whether the upper mids are artificial or whether the highs are accurate… with this earbud, I’m just singing to the song instead!

Tweaking: This earbud practically screams for a cable upgrade. And good cables for such can be had quite cheaply on AliExpress. But personally, I wouldn’t go there. I would be too concerned about messing with the timing values, and degrading its best advantage. That je ne sais PRAT. I did however experiment with foams on the Vido, details of which I have moved to the guide “The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: Earbud Accessories“. It’s an important part of the Vido experience, so check it out by clicking on the link!

Conclusion: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.   Q. Can a three dollar and fitty’ cent earphone sound better than all of the KZ IEM’s combined? Well I have to write the standard disclaimer explaining that audio sound is a subjective affair and (ahem… yes. Yes it can….). The Vido pulls a nifty memory trick, by reminding me of my old Linn Axis. For if ever there was an earphone that gave a vinyl “analogue sound”, it’s the Vido. And I don’t just mean it sounds like a turntable because it has a warm tonality, as some people like to define “vinyl sound”. It sounds like a turntable in many other respects too. The thickness of the mids, the full body thwack sound a drumstick makes crashing against a steel rim, the fat but melodic bass registers, a full and heavy soundstage presentation, rich vocals and harmonics, muted highs that are nevertheless well resolved, but never overblown. With the Vido, I practically expect to hear scratchy surface noise at the start of every digital music file that I play.

As I write this, I don’t even remember how much I paid for these, but if it’s under $30 or so, it’s worth every cent. (Wait… $3?? Are you sure about that?? Can you check again?). I think this is another rare case of an “accidental audiophile” product. Some might call it “muddy”, but I would call it “musical”. And I really doubt whoever’s behind these, even understands “musical” as I understand “musical”. So I say, whether this is accidental or not…. if you know what audiophiles mean by “musical”, don’t hesitate to order at least one of these Vido’s for your “bud-ing” collection! Sorry but, this yet another one that you’re gonna have to wrench out of my cold dead hands, you mother 👿 ….With this earbud, I feel like Gollum, stroking the Vido in a cave, where I’ve cut myself off from the world, and calling it “my precioussssss….”. Yeah, it’s that special!  :mrgreen:

….”One earbud to rule them all”.

The Lowdown: The Vido reflects certain characteristics of its unusually low entry price. A weak J-cable, no accessories, and a sound that’s like me; a bit rough around the edges. It’s a somewhat less refined and detailed sound than its other Monk-class brethren, and some hints that amplification might not be its BFF. But make no mistake, as per sound it does swim in “Monk” waters, approaching some of the qualities of the VE Monk, if to a lesser extent. Where it excels, perhaps above all entries heard in the VE Monk earbud class, including the Monks, is in its ability to grab the listener and place that listener in the middle of the music, while everything else melts away. With a sweet, balanced, hypnotic sound. Yes, as someone else before me has said, the Vido is a “winner”. Do note that a search for “Vido” on Ali will turn up many variations, and I can’t say what they all sound like. Except for the one being reviewed just below….


Unbranded Generic “Vido”? In White – aka “The Vido Colour Test” 
Price: $1.80 shipped (AliExpress)

This earbud sells under the absolutely stupid title of “High Quality Sport Flat Head Plug Earphone 3.5mm In Ear Dynamic Bass Earbuds HIFI Headset for Xiomi Xiaomi Samsung iPhone”. Notice the name “Vido” in there? Me neither. Of course, it has absolutely nothing to do with Xiaomi or Samsung phones, and there’s no such brand as “Xiomi”. It’s also not a “headset”, nor a “sport” model. But who cares, right?

Well, if you’re trying to figure out whether it is a “Vido” earbud or not, you might. Especially when there is every indication that it is. I went over the photos in the ad with a magnifying glass. Looking at the plugs, the wire, the shells, the wire entry point, the grills… they all look exactly like my Vido, in the photos. They even come in the same colours. Also, if you look carefully at one of the photos in the ad, the earpiece has “Vido” stamped on it! But in the other photo, it’s blank! Welcome to China!! 👿

How do you figure anything out, in all this Chi-Fi mess?! You would think that a seller would want to make an effort to identify what the heck he is selling, if only to distinguish himself from the 3 billion other Chinese sellers, selling the same sort of thing. To make matters worse, the seller I bought this earbud from, clearly goes under various names on AliExpress. Such as “SZKoston”, “Shenzhen Koston”, “Shenzhen KST”. Oh great, he’s in competition with himself. 🙄

Literally speaking, because the very same “Vido-ish” earbuds I was shopping, were sold by the very same seller, under various different prices! The prices ranged from about $1 or so difference, down to one single penny’s worth of difference! Why??! What explains this?! I could not figure out what they were playing at. Do they price it depending on how the managing director feels at that moment? How do they expect their customers to choose among the various “Vidos” they offer, which all look the same but cost different?!

Well believe it or not, I found myself choosing based on the amount and quality of the reviews on the various ads. But reviews are kind of meaningless on AliExpress! The specs for all these “Vido-y” earbuds were no help either. They were all the same (32 ohms), none said “Vido”. The one thing I did notice that was different among them, was a non-descript model number. But nothing to indicate what, if anything, made the product different from one model number to another. Maybe it could have just been a reference to the batch number.

All this to say that… I think these are Vido’s I am reviewing! I can’t be entirely sure. No matter. After the magical experience with the first set of Vido’s, I wanted a back up pair. I saw many models that looked just like my Vido’s on Ali, and of course, I wondered if the price was a meaningful factor in all of this. After all, all of the “Vidoesque” models on Ali had at least some good reviews. For example, this one, in the ad for this Vido-variation:

Hey, if an anonymous buyer on a Chinese consumer products site known for its high rate of professionally faked reviews says the unnamed product is “%100 recommended”, that’s good enough for me! Of course, he said it was 97% recommended... well I’d have to think about it.

So anyway, I was curious to see if differences could be heard in this unbranded “Vido-ly” earbud, and if they might be due to….

  1. The fact that it doesn’t say Vido” on the stem, or might have a different driver?
  2. The fact that it has an in-line remote.
  3. The fact that it is a different colour.

Knowing what I know about audio, any or all three of those factors, if not more, could result in an earbud that sounds different from my marked, black & blue Vido, reviewed above. I’m interested in finding out, and if you are too…. welcome to the “Vido-like Colour Test”!

 

Fit & Finish:

Yup. These are “Vido’s” I’m reviewing! As you can see in the photo, they are branded as “Vido”. Yet they cost ‘significantly’ less so…. it remains to be seen/heard as to why that is. There is not much to say about fit and finish here. What I wrote in the ‘regular’ Vido review applies… just in white! Same asymetrical J-wire, same headshells, same tiny gold-plated plug, same silver poly bag packaging… just in all white. One small difference… they come with white neoprene-like foam covers. The black Vido’s at twice the cost, had no foam covers! Call me biased (but we all are…), but I don’t expect these to sound very good. At least not as much as the more reputable black Vido’s. I just don’t see how they can be, for $1.80 shipped (the cost of a small carton of milk), and still make a profit!

Energy:

I fitted the earbuds with their included white foams, as I don’t ever plan to listen to them without. Once inserted, I “listened to them via their ‘Beltic’ energy”. The feel was decent. No particularly prominent states of anxiety were produced by the Vidos of unknown origin. The feel was a bit better even, when they were plugged into the player (without playing anything).  Well, a good sign I guess?!

Sound:

Wow.  😯 This is a Vido! Ladies and gentlemen… I think we found a new extreme budget winner!

Well that was unexpected…. I would first describe the sound in general as liquid, with “juicy bass”. The soundstage as decent but “smallish”. There’s a relative lack of detail, so these won’t be on anyone’s list for critical listening. There’s very little if any ‘sparkle’ (which means it is rolled off in the highs), but there is still some upper mid and high end detail. Not completely rolled off, but ‘dark-ish’. For this reason, in part, it is never harsh, even on the most aggressive songs. On the contrary, it is very musical, with strong mid-bass. Everything I just wrote, was the same observations I remember making about the black Vido. So is there a difference? We’ll see!…

For on their own and at their price, these white ‘generic’ Vidos can compare to any of the earphones in this review project, no joke. What’s the priciest? The ZSN? These are more musical, by a long shot. What’s the most reputable? The VE Monk? These are still more musical. And probably have better reproduction of timbre, and certainly stronger bass. (Monks are better in other areas of course). When listening to Mark Knopfler’s “Beryl”, I couldn’t stand it. It hits overdrive. It was just too good. I might even say it was a more intense experience than when I saw Knopfler performing this song live! Much as I liked the Fonge T01’s recently reviewed, I wouldn’t trade them for these. To be quite honest, if these white Vido’s were the first and last pair of earphones I bought in this review project, I’d be perfectly satisfied at that. Yeah, I know I said that about the Monks but… it applies to these even more!

 

Shootout: Vido White vs. Video Black

So if the only difference between the black-wire Vido (with blue earpiece) and the all-white Vido is the colour (assuming that’s true), then this test will attempt to answer the question as to which colour, if any, sounds better.

Right away, the blue-black Vido has a larger sound, that’s somewhat more open and detailed. But “attention!”  (that’s the French “attention”). They’re not as “sharp”. Not a reference to highs here, but to transient attack. Because of this, they don’t give proper outlines to instruments as do the white Vidos, where the leading edge note starts and stops. This affects bass, mids and treble. Lacking this rendition of attack, it becomes harder to follow and take in the musical information. This in essence makes listening to music more boring, and then you wonder what’s on the news.

None of this makes much sense in the context of the fact that I wrote in my review for the black Vidos that they were the most musical buds to date. Well, all I can say is either they are less so now, for whatever reason, or less in comparison with the white model. Could it be because the black-blue Vidos are less new? (True, but they weren’t burned in or anything, and really not used much. A couple of hours maybe, vs. a few minutes). Could the differences be due to the fact that they have different white foams (VE Monk foams I believe)? That might account for some differences, but I doubt foams would affect information retrieval like this, such as becoming more detailed, with a larger soundstage.

Still, even if most people would look at the size of the soundstage and say the black Vidos are ‘better’, no. I follow what the music says to me and it says it prefers the white Vidos. They sound like a well-tuned turntable, but sporting a cartridge that has a roll off in the upper end. On Peter von Poehl’s “Going To Where the Tea Trees Are”, with the white Vido’s, the sax solo has body and is beautifully woody and warm. Not so much the ‘black’ Vidos.

I don’t know if the sound of the blue-black Vidos can be modified to better compete, but as it stands, I prefer the white Vidos. However, I don’t really feel this was a white v black test either. Not with as many model numbers as this white ‘Vido’ has. To me there are clearly differences that go beyond differences in foams, even though the two Vidos do seem to share a “house sound”. But that likely means all the great many Vidos to be had out there on AliExpress, probably all sound different to some degree.

B&W Test Conclusion: At first, I didn’t think that $1.80’s worth of earphones would come close to the black Vido’s. So I had originally lumped these in with the basement-level “$1 Dollar Brigade” speed test round-up of earphones. I took them out of there because they were about .50 cents too pricey for that series. Then I didn’t think they would equal the sound of the black Vidos, I so loved. Next, I sure didn’t foresee that they would or could beat them in sound. Which they appear to do, on most counts. Not that you’d really go wrong with either of these.

Conclusion: VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Yeah, I’m trotting out a white tiger here. A most rare “VERY HIGHLY”, which has not been seen before in these parts. That’s because this white Vido has it all wrapped up, pretty much. A rich, musical, engaging sound, with a complete tonal balance. At a price that even the homeless, school teachers and waitresses can afford. It is surely, the Volkswagen of earphones. Something that could only have come out of a socialist regime of keen listeners; “The People’s Republic of Earphone”.

Needless to say, these things don’t sound anything like what you’d imagine $1.80 earphones sound like. I have litz-wire Sony buds that cost 20x this, and these kill them in a blink. They can also run rings around the ubiquitous Apple earbuds. Then chop them to bits with a sushi knife. For this reason, these white Vido’s strike me as really good all-rounders for the general public.  They have enough bass, enough warmth, they don’t have recessed mids, they never get harsh, they’re light and (for me, for now), comfortable.

The Lowdown: Rather than being “fakes” of the blue Vidos I reviewed, as I feared they would be, these are “Vido” branded earbuds (though they show as unbranded in the seller’s ad!), appearing to be made by “Vido”. (Whoever that may be). Moreover, they sound slightly smaller than blue Vidos I paid a little more for, but even more musical with even better reproduction of timbre. On the whole, they provide a rich and full, if slightly dark sound, that while not the last word in detail, really conveys the essence of music rather well. These I believe will be well liked by most people, including many audiophiles. They combine a decent level of build with a remarkable level of sound quality at an astonishing price, that is less than the cost of shipping normally associated with such earphones. For those reasons, the white Vido’s deserve the very high recommendation given.

(n.b. This rating and review only applies to the specific Vido model linked to at the top of this review, next to the price. While there is no guarantee that even buying another one from the very same ad I’ve linked will sound exactly the same, it’s almost a guarantee that buying another white Vido from another seller, or even from another ad with the same seller, will probably sound different. This is because my seller has numerous white Vidos, all with different prices and different model numbers, shown in the specifications! So no one can say if they all sound the same, or what the different models of white Vido sound like, among each other).

 


FAAEAL Snow Lotus 1.0 (64ohms, new style connector)
Price: $11.00 shipped (AliExpress)

FAAEAL Snow Lotus 1.0: The professional pest exterminator’s choice of earphones.

“FAAEAL”  aka “FAREAL” aka “Five Mountain Star Earbud”, originally had their well-regarded earbuds made by “SeaHF”. Which is the brainchild of legendary earbud monks, known simply as “The Bug Guys”. And it came before the VE Monk. The low-cost hi-end MX500-type earbud to which all other buds below $50 must be compared. Which btw, “The Bug Guys” also made.

Rumour has it, Bug Guys make all of their earbuds in a temple atop Mount Sagamartha (more popularly known as “Mount Everest”), during lulls of boredom between moments of silent prayer.  Also, they have a sideline extermination business, I think. (The margins are very tight on these cheap earbuds, you know).

I realize that if you include the shipping, I’m $1 over my $10 limit. I could easily have stayed within the limit, had I ordered FAAEAL’s “Iris” 1.0/2.0 model. The “Iris” looks similar, but with rubber wire. However, I could not find anything informative about the sound of the FAAEAL Iris, I don’t know why. There are a ton of obscure and unreviewed models based on the MX500 shell on AliExpress, that I could have opted for, “sight unseen”. But I decided it’s better to stick to the main roads, where there are lights. So you don’t crash into things, or end up with a tin-can earphone.

FAAEAL Snow Lotus 2.0: The one to get if you’re getting only one.

Most of the talk of the low-end FAAEALS were centered around the “Snow Lotus” model. But note, this is the 1.0 model, and there’s a 2.0 that currently hits above the $10 limit (pictured right). However, this 1.0 is the newer 1.0, as it does have the new style connector, with a knurled grip. There is also an in-between model, the “1.0+”. It is distinguished by a non-braided cable, and by the “plus” designation, might be expected to sound a bit better. That version may no longer be available.

Some of the comments that convinced me to hit the GO button on the FAAEAL, included:

“Snow Lotus 1.0 would be my suggestion. Large soundstage, warm and natural signature, great detail. My favourite of all my phones, including some costing 20x more. – “Willber”, 500+ Head-Fi’er

20 times the cost of the FAAEAL? Let’s see, that would be approximately…. $200. What, they’re only just better than $200 earphones? Not enough! Let’s see if we can do better….

“I’ve had some Snow Lotus’s ($10) for a week, using at least a few hours a day. My other daily driver is a KSE1200 which I’ve had since Sept and some CA Andromedas while out and about for the past couple years. Out of my mojo they are decidedly a hifi listen, as in I’m happy listening to these for hours and don’t feel the need to grab the others. The others are clearly a step above but nowhere close to what the cost would suggest, and I could see some preferring these to something like the Andromedas simply based on the tuning or BA vs. dynamic tonality.” “Bobeau”, 2,400+ Head-Fi’er.

Ok, let’s see… the Shure “KSE1200” are $2,000 IEM’s, divided by about $10…. yeah ok, that’ll do, I’ll buy them! If I can find a pair of earbuds for $10 that compare to $2,000 earphones, I’d call that a “good start”, wouldn’t you? And sure, I could see someone preferring the $10 FAAEAL Snow Lotus earbuds to the $1,500 Campfire Andromeda IEM’s, couldn’t you?

Ohm-Ratings: n.b. There is a 32-ohm version of this, and despite planning to use it with just a smartphone (which usually prefers lower impedance), I got the 64ohm version for specific reasons. Being that the VE Monk is a 64ohm, and its one of the loudest buds I have. Suggesting my cells have no problem driving 64’s, (so long as the sensitivity is above 100). And I am of the mind that the higher the ohms, the more refined the sound. (The windings are thinner and longer, hence….). All things being equal, of course. Higher ohm-rated earbuds (ie. there is a 150-ohm version of the FAAEAL’s, and even a 300-ohm version), do sound better than the lower-rated ones. They also cost much more, because of the complications of producing the delicate windings.  But at those levels of sensitivity, unless (perhaps) you have a high-impedance mode on your smartphone, expect that 150 ohm+ buds absolutely have to be driven by an amp – portable or stationary.

Fit & Finish

The FAAEAL Snow Lotus 1.0 comes with a generous array of goodies, at this “premium” price. (That’s “premium” for ultra low-budget Chi-Fi!). It comes in a box with a legible manual, and included are; 2 packages of foam covers, red and black, with the red containing 2 pairs of full foams and the black, 1 pair of donuts, 1 pair of full foams. Nice! They appear to be good quality. So is the heavy grey velveteen pouch that is offered, for storage on-the-go.

The Snow Lotus has a braided copper cable, similar to what I’ve seen on TRN or KZ upgrade cables. I’ve said in my reviews of upgrade cables, that in practical terms, this is an excellent cable all around. Does not tangle, for one. The earpieces are solid and appear to be the same as the SeaHF’s. The metal connectors are also solid steel, including the splitter at the Y-joint. Arguably, this is a better cable than seen on the VE Monk+, but as its nearly twice the cost, it should be!

Foam Covers: I started my listening session with no foams, but I prefer foams for comfort. I won’t ever use earbuds without them anyway, it risks a skin rash. So I held both red foams and black foams to the earpieces, to determine (by feel), which had the best “energy”. From there, I chose the black foams, for the session. (If you read my guide on ear foams, you’ll know that you can use different colour foams, ie. red or white, and change the FAAEAL’s sound).

 

Sound

First Impressions: I noticed from the first notes, the sound almost has no character. It’s just there. It’s just very natural. Without or without the foams.

It took a minute for the sound to pull me in, but once it did, it felt musical. Before long, I was totally engaged with the music. Not quite the intensity of the Vidos, but somewhere in between. Listening a bit further in, I could see one reason for the natural sound. It’s character profile was ‘Dark’. I could not make out my vocals well in the mix. Which tells me this is not suitable as a monitor, and won’t offer bags of detail. However, the screechy parts never get screechy on this earphone! No matter what. Both the highs, the mids, the upper mids… all tamed in this regard.

Soundstaging ability was decent, though not exceptional, while bass notes had body, and were “musical”. That’s because the bud was resolving timbre pretty well, relatively speaking. I mean I’ve heard better, even if I’m not sure where. But this is an extra-important quality in any audio device. I would go so far as to say it has a bit more mid bass than some other earbuds I’ve tested. Which certainly makes for a warm sound. It does not go low enough to be boomy, so it’s no sub-bass bomb. Is any earbud?

Shootout: VE Monk+ (black stock full foams) vs. FAAEAL Snow Lotus 1.0 (black stock full foams):

It’a a difference of night and day, against the VE Monk+. The VE Monk+ is many octaves lighter in the bass dept. Almost as though it’s giving only half the music. However, not quite. While the FAAEAL digs deep into the bass regions, the Monk is reproducing a part of the range the FAAEAL is not. Somewhere between the upper mids and the lower highs. So, a sax for example, is thinner on the Monk. While on the FAAEAL it has more body, but is too warm, without its inherent ‘shine’. I prefer the FAAEALS version between the two, but ideally, a mix of both!

The FAAEAL is more musical. Bass may seem faster or tighter on the Monk, but that’s because it’s lighter. So is the FAAEAL a “Monk Killer”, a phrase I’ve often heard being applied to these many “DIY MX500-shell” earbuds? For me, I think so. Yeah. I’m not gonna replace it with the Monk+ but… if I get my Monks caught in my bicycle spokes… I won’t cry about it either! Not if I still have the FAAEAL. Put that in the context of enjoying music. Not monitoring. I realize that if I need to analyze vocals, the Monks will be a bit better for that but… I have others, ie. IEMs, that are far more suited as monitors than either.

Tweaking: There are limited ways you can tailor the sound of an earbud like this, without performing major invasive surgery. Like replacing the drivers, filters, shells, wire, connectors, etc. Apart from tweaking the earbud with Belt treatments from PWB Electronics, the colour of the ear foams is about the only non-invasive option available to most people. (Who don’t even believe the Belt treatments can make a difference, because they weren’t told in school that it’s possible!).

Foams: What I’m getting at, is that for those that don’t like the sort of dark warmth I was getting from my experience with them, and want an easy low-cost solution, the FAAEAL’s might open up a bit, by changing the colour of the foams. I’m not interested in testing different colour foams on this model, as I’ve already done that on a few others, in my guide on earbud foams. I’m putting it out there as a possibility, anyway, for those that want more detail in the mids and highs. Another option, is trying out the black donut foams, they come with. I found the donut foams did indeed open the window somewhat on the mids and highs. But there is still no sparkle, the top highs are rolled off, and equal amount of warmth is lost. Thus I much prefer the full foams.

Upgrade: I would be concerned about messing with the lovely low end, if I went to the 2.0 version of this earbud. Because I’ll take more musical bass over faster bass, if it comes to that. That said, the Snow Louts 2.0 is said to have “super clear highs”, as well as “addictive bass” by one owner. So it might be just the thing to balance things out, here.

Conclusion: HEARTILY RECOMMENDED.  The FAAEAL Snow Lotus 1.0 earbud is a no nonsense, no frills, no harshness, no fatigue, no thin midrange, and also no air, no sparkle earbud. The sound character of my “Class A amp” kept coming up in my mind, for some reason… “warm and musical”, that’s it. It feels like it can play music, where other earbuds need a bit more time to learn their instrument! I was writing this review while listening to it, and it was difficult to concentrate on the writing! Some might want more resolving power than this. The SeaHF AWK F-64 has a bit more, as one example. But it does not have the FAAEAL’s coherence, nor its bass performance, nor its rich tonal balance. This and a steaming mug of hot chocolate, is the perfect antidote for the winter blues!

The Lowdown: Tested with their included black full foam covers and using my iPhone as source, the 64-ohm FAAEAL Snow Lotus 1.0 is marked by a very warm, even sound that on first impression seems so natural and well balanced, you may not notice how dark it really is. It can be called “the answer for those who think the VE Monk+’s lack bass or are too “treble-y”. Either way, the FAAEAL SL1’s character under the conditions tested, make for an earbud very appealing to those who favour a refined, but musical sound for their $11, and an enjoyable experience that can be listened to all day without fear of fatigue.

 


RY4S (Original Model, 32ohms)
Price: $7.14 shipped (AliExpress)

RY4S (Original Version, as reviewed)

EMX500 Options: The “RY4S” (from “RYgmr” Store), is considered to be a variant of the “DIY EMX500” earbud. Of which there are a great many variants. (“EMX500” is a reference to the use of Sennheiser MX500 headshells used in these Chi-Fi earbuds. While “DIY” is a reference to the sort of hacking that goes on into making them. They take a shell from here, cable from there, design a driver…. Next thing you know, you’ve got an earbud and a cottage industry business).

I was torn between the RY4S and one of the many variants of the “DIY EMX500” out there, because some preferred the EMX500 and some preferred the RY4S. It comes down to “Who’s opinion do I trust the most, to give me the straight goods?”. And well, I chose the RY4S, because those who preferred it, seemed to have a better handle on things than those who didn’t. Very subjective, I know! But you’re not going to get the goods on an audio product staring all day at frequency response graphs either, brother.

The reason to get an EMX500 variant was because I kept hearing that it was a “fun” earbud to listen to. Also, a “VE Monk-killer”. Then again, all of these earbuds I review, are thought by one someone or another to be “Monk-killers”! The phrase “Monk-killer”, is even in the title of some of EMX500 bud listings on Ali!.

So my standards were a bit different for this one.  I didn’t care if it did not uphold standards of neutrality. I was not looking for an analytical sound, here. I was shooting for “fun”, warm, musical, coloured okay…. so long as it was involving. Comments I read about the regular/original RY4S, like this one, invited me to pick it out of the crowd:

These things sound great. Nice deep bass but still a balanced and fairly open sound overall. Better SQ than the Monk+ imho. Cable is nice too.

RYgmr “RY4S”: Updated “UE cable” edition.

Cable Options: The RY4S model most people are referring to in their comments, when they say it’s one of the best earbuds under $50, is the updated “UE cable” version (pic on right –>).  That variation uses a twisty, solid-core looking cable, with metal fixtures. It’s said to have a bit more tighter bass, wider soundstage and detail than the one I got. So it was another tough decision, but I stuck with the original version, for a couple of reasons. 1) I wasn’t sure about the cable. I’ve made solid-core IC’s and speaker cable in the past, and I found that stranded wire was better, in terms of overall cohesiveness. So I expected my version to be less detailed, but, (hopefully), more rhythmically coherent. 2) This version was well under the $10 limit I gave myself for these reviews, the UE version was not! I’m guessing most listeners without such an artificial limit imposed, would probably favour the UE version. Hope that helps!

Fit & Finish

Accessories: The RYgmr “RY4s” comes with half a dozen foam covers (4 black, 2 red), none fitted. Also, a small clip for tying the wire to your clothing, all shipped in a nice little carton.

Finish: As with the Monks, build quality on the RY4S is well above the notion of “cheap”. Plastic on the earpiece has a good feel to it. Just a bit more solid and thicker than the Monk. The wire is very different to the Monk of course, but very reminiscent of the KZ’s wire. Better even, because it’s less rubbery and bouncy, but a bit smaller in diameter. It’s also about 4″ longer than the Monk’s wire. It terminates in a solid L-shaped gold-plated connector. If there’s a possible weak link in the design, it would be the absence of any visible strain relief connection where the wire enters the headshell. But then, no MX500 earbud I’ve seen has this either, for some reason.

Fit: The RY4S have a bit of a different feel in my ear than the VE Monk+’s. Even though they seem to be very similar in size and shape. There really is not much of a difference here, and after making the switch a few times, I’d give the slight edge of comfort to the RY4S.

Sound

With the introduction of the RY4s into my life, I’m starting to further entrench the idea sparked by the VE Monk, that the audiophile in me prefers the sound of earbuds to IEMs. Though both have their merits, once again. But these earbuds I’ve been hearing lately, can definitely carry the prestigious “audiophile quality” label. More so than the Sony’s, JVC’s, Panasonic etc. earbuds in my past. I just can’t say that at all, about all the IEMs.

First Impressions: I listened to them briefly without foams, but it neither sounded nor felt right. So my review will be with foams fitted (both black). Upon the very first notes, the first thing these buds said to me was, “Am I a Monk?”. The answer that came back, was: “I am not a Monk, but I can definitely play in the same league”. I’m not entirely sure of the differences between the two, without actually returning to the Monks to have a look-see.

But before I do that, these are my first impressions of the RY4S on their own: They rock. Or they boogie. Whatever your beat is, they keep the beat and allow you to move along with it. Like the Monks, they have some top end detail. But unlike so many IEMs, none of that range ever assaults the eardrums, regardless of what you feed it. The highs are subtle, but not absent. The midrange is clear and open, but not as forward as the Monk’s. The bottom end may have a bit more warmth to it, as compared with what I recall of the Monks.

RYgmr “RY4S”. (VE Monks hiding under the bed not pictured).

Bass here is delicious. Punchy, but “boingy” as well. Another way of saying bass has definition. Soundstage is wide, with enough separation between instruments, that allows me to hear some sounds not often heard. Plus, it really plays music so much better than any of the IEMs I’ve been playing with lately! (Yeah, even the beloved HD9, sadly). I had a hard time taking them off, for this reason. Midrange is not reticent, nor aggressive in any way, thankfully, but lacks transparency. So they’re better for just “gettin’ down with the fonk”, as I cannot really use them as a monitor.

Someone said the KZ ED7’s sound like analogue? Girl?, please! These are what reminds me of an analogue turntable. The warm black and brown colour scheme, combined with the equally warm analoguish sound.

Sound Leakage: Is high. To be expected with buds, but perhaps even more than with the Monks. So no, you can’t use them in a library.

Shootout: RYgmr “RY4s” vs. Venture Electronics “Monk Plus”

What I really want to know, is how do they compare with the VE Monk Plus? I bought them with this and this question only, in mind. So I tested both head-to-head, with foam covers on, and the short answer is….  in terms of overall colouration, the Monk+ sound leans toward the upper mids, while the RY4S sound leans toward the lower mids. Or in another sense, the Monk+ has a more intimate, in-your-face sound, with a more halogen colouration. The RY4S, is further out and gives off an incandescent colouration. Soundstage on the Monks is more forward, making vocals a bit clearer. Sounds wrt transient attacks are “thicker” on the Monk, if that makes any sense to anyone. Also, the Monks don’t play as loud at the same volume, as the RY4S. I had to raise the volume, in order to fairly compare the two buds. But even with the volume raised, the Monks still don’t have the resolving power of the RY4S’s. Despite that, the Monk’s can be perceived as more transparent, at certain times.

Next to the Monks, the RY4S are like tokin’ on a Cali bud… they’re more laid back in their presentation. Due to that, they can come off as more natural and balanced. Indeed, on well recorded jazz, I’d say the RY4S do sound less coloured, as they give the saxophone a warm tone. Whereas the Monk does a more credible job of giving body to the instrument (this is where “thicker” comes in…). The warmth coming off the sax on the RY4S version shows up as a lack of “tinkle” and “sparkle”, when the piano comes in. But even though the upper half of the notes on the piano are missing, it makes for a very untiring experience, I would add. The whole listening experience on the Ry4S basically mirrors its black and brown colour scheme. Very relaxed, laid back, natural, very warm, yet detailed and open. The UE cable upgrade for this bud may make the highs sparkle a bit more. But I can’t say what it will do for the pace, or the lows. Donut foams is probably the answer, here. If I had to rate the two right now, I still like the Monk, but I’d probably rate the RY4S a bit higher overall.

Tweaking: I experiment with foams on the RY4S, which I have moved to the guide “The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: Earbud Accessories“. It’s an important part of the RY4S experience, so check it out by clicking on the link!

Conclusion: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  I ended up concurring with at least some of the things I read about the RY4S in comments and reviews. So in that sense, it didn’t surprise me. In the sense of being better than my much-loved Monk+ however, it did. e.g. When switching over to the Monk, I was surprised to find the Monk’s have a smaller soundstage. I was not surprised to find they have much less bass impact than the RY4S, since I recall reading that beforehand.

To say the RY4S are “worth every penny” is to damn them with faint praise. The RY4S deliver a sound far and well above their net worth. They sound more expensive than the Monks, in fact. I still don’t know if I’d call them “Monk Killers”. But at the very least, they’re definitely “Monk Terrorizers”. If they didn’t quite manage to “kill” the VE Monk at the end of this conclusive set of trials, they showed they could certainly send them to the ICU ward at the nearest hospital for a long, long duration.

While I don’t necessarily expect everyone to be able to hear the differences that different colours of earbud foam covers make, especially if they already have ideological barriers against the very notion set in, the sound the two earbuds make on their own is not close. Not to anyone with a working pair of ears. But each kept edging out the other on various fronts, during the various coloured foam trials. So I feel the result of that contest showed the two buds to be close enough to almost be considered “six of one, one half dozen of the other”. Ergo… pick your poison! If clarity, body and intimate presence are your drink of choice, get the Monks (even if they are not the last word on clarity and transparency). If bass, resolution and separation of instruments is more to your taste, then get the RY4S. And if “PrAt” is where it’s at for you…. both do good on that front as well. Monk+ might do a bit better there, but I’d have to check that again to be sure.

n.b. To ensure best sound, make sure these (or any earbuds with black/dark shells), are outfitted with white foam covers! Oh and btw, the RY4S don’t come with white foams! You can get an accessory foam pack for the Monks, which have at least two high quality white foams included. I haven’t checked but it may be possible to obtain generic foams in white as well.

The Lowdown: The RYgmr “RY4S”, one of many variants of the “EMX500” models, is an exemplary earphone that starts up where the VE Monk+ left off. Or gave up, if you prefer. For about $2 more than the Monk at present, you get an earbud with a distinctly warm, almost tube-like character, that excels at simply playing music for the pleasure. One that throws open a wide soundstage, complete with depth and height and micro-dynamics. Add to that tons of well-resolved bass detail, balanced (but relatively opaque) mids, untiring highs, and an overall level of sophistication and refinement in an ear-speaker that makes a mockery of its retail selling price. It is the earphone most worthy of the label “audiophile-grade”, that I have reviewed here thus far.

 


QianYun Qian39
Price: $5.50 shipped (AliExpress)

QianYun “Qian39”

This was (supposed to be…) the last earphone I order for this review project, and I was thinking by this time, “Gee, I need another earphone like I need a hole in the head”. But I got it anyway because…. I didn’t have this model yet!! Hell, I’d never even heard of this brand at all. I’m not the only one. Apparently, “QianYun” is such a small company, they only have 4 models to their name. This is one of them. And it only sold some 2,000 units. But…. among the elite crowd in the Chi-Fi community, probably none of which who have less than 20 earphones to their name…. the “Qian39” is or was quite popular, I assure you. For good reason….

The temptation of course, is to compare it to the VE Monk’s. Especially since the headshells look to be exactly like the VE Monk Lite, in another colour. Both are earbuds, and both can be had for around $5 U.S. And I already had a VE Monk on the way so… why do I need this, exactly??

Well, when I saw one reviewer, who has an entire website solely dedicated to reviewing earphones, claiming it to be the best earbud in its price range…. that got my attention. Then when I saw buyers of the Qian39’s comparing some aspects of the sound to their $150U.S. earbuds, with their QianYun’s winning out…. boy, that really got my attention. And then came the superlatives…. Phrases and words like “natural midrange”, “tonally accurate”, “organic”, “wide soundstage”, “clarity without fatigue”, “warm but detailed”, “best with acoustic jazz, pop, R&B…”, and “some of the best mids I’ve heard coming from earbuds”. These were not words I usually find associated with low budget earphones of any type. How can you read customer comments like the following, and not instantly fall in love with these earphones?

“After playing a few songs,  I found out that Qian39 style is warm sound. Its features is the warm human voice , delicate and melodious. Like waking up in the lazy afternoon. Soft and beautiful. Midrange is superb.  Treble is o.k. Bass is loose and flexible but depth in the low frequencies not so much when compared to Qian 25.”

Of course, it seemed everyone who knew of the QianYun’s knew of the VE Monks as well… and preferred the Qian39’s over the ‘legendary’ VE Monks! So that’s why I needed two of the same. Then the question became…. which QianYun model? For there is an upgraded model to this one, the “Qian69”. It runs for about $11, and looks a bit less cheaper too.

Most of the reviews were on the more popular Qian39, but from the little I could find, the Qian69 also got excellent commentaries and reviews…. in some cases better than their little brother. It seemed both were highly regarded, with the Qian69 having a wider soundstage and a bit better resolution or detail, while the Qian39 having more bass.

But I checked the comments, and the word “organic”, which I liked so much, was associated with the Qian39! Another thing that made me choose the ’39 for analysis, was that there were a lot of comments saying it was very comfortable, and one reviewer finding the Qian69 slightly less comfortable, saying that the earpieces seemed a bit larger. Not everyone agreed with him, he added, but if there’s a chance the Qian39’s are more comfortable to wear, than that was appealing to me. Because I’m sure I’ll end up giving them to my SO, and she has small “girly ears”. So now on to the actual review!

Fit & Finish

QianYun go the extra distance here, when it comes to presentation. Their excellent presentation makes it seem like they’ve got something important to share. I mean, for a $5.50 earbud…. they come shipped in a sturdy cardboard box, within which is bubble wrap. Which is then wrapped around a really lovely hinged silver metal container (with a Chinese symbol embossed on the front). It serves both to protect the earbuds during shipping, and store the earbuds when not in use. Inside the container is two full layers of high density sponge, and included there, are a single pair of black earbud foams and of course, the earbud. This shipment can fall out of a plane and land on your doorstep, and it would be just fine!

Finish:

There’s not much to say about the fit and finish of the earbud. Other than they very closely resemble the VE Monk Lite shells, but the rubber wire is not near the quality and diameter of the Monks. So I don’t like how thin it is, and I would have gladly paid more for something that at least feels more durable. On the plus side, it has a small diameter straight plug, which I like. This type of plug is much less likely to interfere with my cell phone case, as the L-plugs often do. I don’t like having to remove the various layers of my cell phone case and leave it vulnerable, every time I listen to music!

Fit:

Although the QianYun’s look just like the VE Monk Lite’s, held side by side, the Qian’s earpiece appears to be a bit smaller. I tried the Monk Lite in one ear, the Qian39 in the other. It’s amazing how the difference of something like 1mm make! The Qian was a more snug and secure fit, with the already smaller Monk Lite shell feeling a bit bulky in comparison. So these are the best for small ears, and indeed, the smallest earbuds I have.

Sound

From the first first notes, I could see why this was a well-loved earbud. It has a lovely sound, that’s very easy to listen to. It never gets aggressive, never gets “screechy”, has a “tasty mid-bass”, and is musical to boot.  Not as intensely musical, as my initial experience with the “Vido’s” gave me. But a “medium degree of musicality”. Which is nice too! (Don’t want to get whiplash…).

The other thing I noticed is, they have a relatively ‘small sound’, much like the earbud itself. The soundstage is mostly in the head, not outside of it. It sounds a bit compressed with it comes to music with complex arrangements, because the soundstage is not wide enough to resolve the separate elements. While it’s not necessarily reticent, the midrange appears to suffer a bit as well, from the compression effect. I can hear a limitation on how far midrange notes ring out. The same limitation of dynamics affects detail, of course. This is really not a bud for monitoring. I can’t make out my vocals well in the mix, so I would not use this bud for that purpose.  It also sounds a bit thin, because the bass lacks emphasis (weight). So, not what I would call a “punchy bass”. But I did call it a “tasty bass”. It has possibly the most musical bass of all the earbuds I reviewed.

Tweaking: I found a better way to hear the Qian39’s, and it improved the sound quite a lot! To where I now quite like this model. (n.b. I developed this technique with the Qian39’s, but it is also mentioned elsewhere in the “Edifier” review, and in the guide “A Better Way To Wear Earbuds”).

I start by inserting the earpieces in sideways, twisting them toward the front, and slowly turning the stems (aka ‘tailpipe’) upward until they reach the ear notch, ensuring that they are sticking out from the ear, about 45d. It’s almost as the way you would normally insert earbuds, except instead of straight down, the stems will be angled up until touching the ear notch. And instead of the stems hugging the side of your face, they will be flared out about 45 degrees. You start by digging the earpieces well inside the ears, then slowly rotating the stems upward and out (but not so far out that the drivers are facing North). You’ll know you’ve got it, when the sound goes dark and warm. I have no problem getting the earpieces to stay in, at this angle – even when I move my head.

If done right, sibilance and harshness will be a thing of the past. The connection to the music will be much stronger, and soundstage, larger. Actually, the Qian’s are amazing under this condition! A solid, powerful, musical bass, with just enough highs to let you know they’re there, but not enough to cause any discomfort. I could listen to this sound all day… all week even!

Conclusion: RECOMMENDED.  For me, the QianYun “Qian39” turned out to be not quite what was expected, going by all the comments I read on the model, across various discussion groups.  Again, for me (*under regular non-tweaked conditions), it did not have the monstrous bass or excellent soundstage, I might have read about. As always, I do have to wonder if my copy is the same as the earlier versions others received and wrote about. It does fit some of the criteria mentioned in other reviews, however. And despite its limitations, which I hope I’ve described well enough here, the Qian39 has a lot going for it. Does it offer anything that the other super-budget-buds here don’t have? I would say, yes. Adding, that it doesn’t cost much to discover what those qualities are, for yourself!

For one, it seems like a great marriage for a lower-end player, like a cell phone. The tiny straight plug already helps in that regard, to pierce through smartphone casings. For another, the comments were right about one thing; it’s a “fun listen”. While (my copy) shouldn’t impress anyone with its soundstaging or detail retrieval, it is musically more interesting than many of the other models I’ve received. Somewhere between “liquid” and “dry” I would say, but closer to “liquid”. It does “coherence” well, as nothing stands out, in the sonic picture. No one part of the frequency range overwhelms the other. For those reasons and more, I would call the Qian39 a tonally well balanced, good all-rounder, if you can accept its limitations.

Trying not to sound like a host on a shopping network TV channel, I have to say, the Qian39 makes a lovely gift! Particularly for a woman, as they are well suited for smaller female ears. With the foams, they fit super well and securely in mine, and they already come in a nice gift box. Naturally, I am gifting them to my S.O., who does not like the fit of larger buds!

The Lowdown: The QianYun Qian39 is a smaller than average size earbud, which I found to have a light touch on bass and soundstage size. But a good tonal balance overall, and a respectable ability to engage the listener. They never get shouty or aggressive, which makes them pleasant to listen to. Are they “Monk Killers”? Perhaps not. But compared head-to-head, while their stage is somewhat smaller, they do have better definition (more ‘liquid’) than the Monk+. Making them more musical, with greater clarity in the high end. Wait…. maybe they are Monk killers??

 


KZ “ZSN”
Price: About $14.25 U.S shipped (eBay)

KZ “ZSN” in black.
KZ “ZSN” Or, “How to pack $140 worth of IEM into $14”.

Squeezing One More Passenger Into the Cab

This was the last model I ordered for this review project (or so I thought…). And by the time I did, I still had not heard any KZ yet, despite having ordered several of them! In fact, most of the better earphones in this review had not come in yet. So keep that in mind, when I tell you that I had to go on sound profiles, or what I read of them anyway, to judge which models to get.

By the time I ordered this, I was sure I didn’t want another “bass boss” canalphone. With an improvement on what was already a superb build quality, the new “ZSN” did promise to have one of the least “v-shaped” and most neutral sound signatures in the KZ line-up. Thus, it seemed to be a good value, overall. It also seemed to be a step forward in IEM technology, if that matters (though generally speaking, it usually doesn’t, in audio). However, I did have to break my $10 rule a bit, to try out this model! I’m justifying it like this: The ZSN is $10us, the shipping is $4.25!

Hybrid Goodness

The technology behind the ZSN model is more than impressive, at this price.  It is a dual dynamic driver (DD) hybrid model, featuring titanium** film diaphragm drivers, and a 30095 customized balanced armature (BA). Hence the “hybrid” label, since that’s two different driver technologies in one casing. Specs indicate: 20hz-40kh FR, and 104db sensitivity. (**Oh no! The graphene diaphragm upgrade came out 5 minutes ago! My titanium diaphragm is garbage now!)

KZ “Star-Line” silicone ear tips. Good eartips seen on numerous KZ models. Extras can be purchased separately on AliExpress, if needed.

The “punching above its weight” expression applies more than anything, to the fit and finish of the KZ “ZSN”. It sports a metal (aluminum) faceplate on the body, with a transparent lower half. It’s much smaller than it appears in the pictures, by the way! It gets high marks for comfort, despite looking like it was made for a robot extra working on a “Transformers” movie. When situated in the ear, it has a flat shape, that makes it easy to rest your head on a pillow. That’s a plus for me, because I often wear these in bed.

Like the ZS3 model, the cord is removable. The wire design itself has been improved from previous models (it now looks like the aftermarket upgrade cables you can buy!), making it less likely to tangle, and the connector design that fits the cable to the earpieces has been made more secure. As usual, I chose to get the model without the in-line remote control gadget. So my ZSN will probably sound a bit better because of it, and I will have no issues to report about the in-line remote!

Winning The Value Stakes

I have to take a step back and say that, typically, KZ offers quite a nice package for a model at this price. When you consider the packaging, the accessories, the quality of the housing, the technology inside it, the quality of the cable, the quality of the three pairs of nice “star-line design silicone tips”, and the entire kit and kaboodle shipped to your door for $10u.s. + $4  shipping? It’s an amazing value, to be sure! I’m sure in the past, I’ve paid more than this just for a headphone extension cord! So the value is there, and then some. The only question is, which colour to get? Before you choose, read on!

The Controversy of Colour

KZ “ZSN”, Queen of England, edition.

Well known among Beltists, is that when Peter Belt started the “Beltism” phase of his audio engineer career, where he discovered the scientific phenomenon of what we now call “Beltism”, one of the first incidents leading to that discovery, was the discovery that different colours (say of wire), affected the sound in different ways. My own experiments agree, and for that reason, I often choose “black” as my preferred colour of headphone/earphone, where I have a choice. It’s not my preferred colour from a design perspective. But from a sound perspective, all things being equal, black or dark colours is

likely to sound best. For the KZ “ZSN” however, I’m making an exception to that!

One member of the “Head-Fi” forum noted that KZ changed the design a bit on the Silver/Purple model. The cables are a bit thicker and lighter in colour (which you can see in the pictures), than the other two models. He claims that the wiring for the Silver/Purple model offers a bit less bass, making the sound a bit flatter across the range. This possibility appealed to me, since I was after a neutral-sounding model this time, as I mentioned. So I chose the Silver/Purple model! (It costs a few pennies more btw, so… tough decision to make!). I could certainly do without the Missy Elliott “bling bling” look of the wire and earpieces of this colour choice. Not my style. But, the advanced audiophile must suffer for sound!

“Details decides product’s quality”? Say, even KZ knows about the effects of colour on perception of sound!
KZ “ZSN” in cyan, and silver/purple. Note differences in wire design!

Fit & Finish

The Wire

The ZSN comes with some new design features not seen on previous models. The wire, for example. I love the wire on this model. They get it right here, as I can find no issue with it. It’s like the OFC Upgrade wire I reviewed for the ZS3… but not.

It’s light, it’s flexible, its strong… and most importantly, does not tangle. There is a memory wire piece that goes around the ear, unlike the ATE/ATR etc. But it’s not the same as that on the ZS3. It’s softer and ‘bounces back’, rather than allowing you to shape it. This is because it appears to go completely without the metal wire, inside the ZS3 memory wire sleeve. So you can’t shape it to fit exactly the way you want, but as you’ll see, that may not be necessary.

There are markings to indicate R/L  on the side of the wire connectors, near the pins. But unlike the ZS3, no markings to indicate which earpiece should go left or right. However, the pin assemblies on the earpieces are in different places, which clues you in on which is which. If you look at the photo, you can see how left and right goes. Correctly fitted, the L/R markings will be facing the outside, as on the ZS3.

Left: LEFT earpiece. Right: RIGHT earpiece.

The Tips

The M eartips fitted on the unit by default look like the dark grey slightly translucent dome tips that come with the ZS3. But they’re not. They appear rounder, with a larger bore and are opaque black, with the material more ‘grippy’ (also more dust collecting). I prefer these. I think they are an improvement, if only because they grip better. However, included are 3 separate pairs of “Starline” tips,  and those are not the same as the ones that come fitted. I would preferred that the extras were like the fitted ones, as I don’t even know how or where to get those. There is still a feeling of a bit of pressure with the default M eartips in my ear. But that is a complaint of IEM’s for me, not this one. Also, it appears to dissipate somewhat after a while.

Sound

Wire supplied with black/cyan colours of ZSN. Which also happens to look just like the KZ OFC Copper Cable for the ZS3.
“ZSN” by Beyoncé

First Impressions: On the first notes, I found the sound of the ZSN to be clean and sharp, and not plagued by sibilance. Highs were more accurately reproduced than the ZS3, as the resolution was roughly twice that of the ZS3. So was the soundstage about twice the size. Although I found it a touch hard in the mid-section, it was also more musical than the ZS3. And I did something I thought I’d never see myself do: groove to a KZ earphone!

The sound just gels better than the other KZ’s I got. The bass is not intrusive. The mids are neither forward nor reticent,  but a bit hard at loud volumes. It lacks sweetness. The dynamics are well balanced.

The highs are nicely ‘filtered’. Meaning, they feel slightly rolled off, but in a good way. They do not overpower, yet for the most part, they are there. You don’t miss much high end detail. Bass is very well balanced. Not “punchy” necessarily. Which in this case is good, because it does not draw attention to itself. But when called upon to, it can do bass, and that bass has good definition and form.
So while it does not lack bass by any stretch, it does not swamp you with bass either. If you’re one of those “bassheads” I’ve been hearing about… move on, dude!

Wire supplied with silver/purple ZSN.

Upper mids leave a taste of shrillness, because the mids and highs still don’t quite have the refinement they need, to avoid that. Then again, these are brand new drivers, and that may be helped by burn-in. But I haven’t tried that yet. Still, it’s worth noting this is never a problem with the MX500 buds @$5 I’ve been testing out (though this IEM offers far more detail). It appears to be more inherent to the technology behind IEMs. Like the whole vinyl vs. CD thing! (CD’s always had to work at sounding natural, which good record decks did effortlessly). Something tells me I should not have chosen the purple model, but the all black version instead. I’m thinking perhaps a ‘darker’ colour would have offered a better calibrated upper

midrange tone, if less detail overall, but that remains to be heard.

In overall terms, the KZ “ZSN” is a strange combo of analytical and musical. For example, I am typing this out while I am testing the IEM. I couldn’t easily do that with a truly musical earphone. For example, the RY4S with the white foams and 90degree mod! At the same time, I am aware that I am more engaged with the music with this model, than with all the other KZ’s.

For this reason and all the others listed, this KZ is the best one I have received, and the best one I will have, for this review series. Another $15 bucks very well spent!

 

Tweaking: Tip-Rolling with the ZSN

Double Flange Eartips: Do note, this sub-section was written long after everything in this review was sewn up. This means I have a forward perspective on it, and that has to include the fact that there are some things I may have written criticizing the ZSN’s sound, that no longer quite apply…. if e.g., you apply double flanges to them! The double flange eartips, such as what I reviewed in the eartips section, were amazingly good with the ZSN. Creating a beautifully balanced sound, with still no lack of clarity and detail, yet very low to no sibilance, well defined, fast bass, and quite engaging to boot.

I would add that due to the ZSN’s level of resolution, it would seem that every eartip I tried, totally changes the sound profile of this earphone! So far, in my never-ending efforts to achieve a balanced and engaging sound, the double flanges topped the bill, out of the lot. That was until!….

KZ Red-Bore Dome Silicone Eartips: I mentioned how good these are in some reviews. I just never realized until now, that they may be the best ones I have. While they look a lot like the red-bore grey-brown dome tips reviewed in the Eartip section below… they are not quite them, in look, feel or sound. The only obvious difference with the KZ’s, is that you see the colour of the red bore from the top of the eartip (all others, you see it only below the flange). They weren’t just better than the generic coloured-bore dome-shaped silicone tips, they were better than the double flange!

Using Tom Wait’s “Clap Hands” as the test track, these proved to have a bit better timbre on the ZSN than the double-flange, and most neutral balance between lows, mids and highs. More importantly, the ZSN became positively musical, once these were installed! No other tip had quite that effect, and I did not normally associate the quality of musicality with the ZSN. Thus, unless something better comes along, and I doubt it, I am settling on these eartips for the ZSN. The problem is… I’m not sure where they came from, at this point! If memory serves, I assume they are KZ’s, and they probably were the M default tips that came installed on the ZS3 earphone, with the other two sizes using a slightly different style of eartip (black bores). The ZSN was an earphone I found myself rarely reaching for since doing the review… but not any longer!

 

Shootout: ZSN vs. ZS3

Later tests comparing the ZSN with the ZS3, with various cables, revealed further information about both earphones. In short, the ZSN, as good as it is, did not come out of that series of listens, unscathed by the ZS3. Here’s how that went…

KZ OFC Copper Upgrade Cable on ZSN with black smooth dome KZ eartips

ZSN Stock Cable: Eartips installed were always the same KZ (M) smooth black with black-bore domes that came with the ZSN (seen on right). In all trials, I made sure the “memory wire” on all cables was as secure as I could get it, and the eartips as deep as I could fit them. Cable for the ZSN, was the stock that came with it, unless otherwise specified. Song was Mac’s “Sister of the Moon”. (Something I might put on when I want to quickly and easily target hardness in the upper ranges, and it also zeroes in on bass/mid performance). After comparing this with a recent test of the ZS3 (with the KZ Copper OFC upgrade cable), I could clearly hear a hardness across all frequencies on the ZSN, not heard on the ZS3. Not even on the ZS3 with the stock grey cable. This quality, and I touched on it earlier in this review, made the ZSN a bit harder to tolerate.

KZ OFC Copper Upgrade Cable: Installing the KZ OFC brown copper cable on the ZSN (which I got for the ZS3), reduced this hardness quite a bit. But as the cymbal work shows on this song, the upper mids were still harsher than the same cable on the ZS3. This shows the hardness is coming partly from the pink copper cable, partly from the ZSN’s tonal qualities.

ZS3 Stock Grey Cable: The ZS3’s stock cable, surprisingly, was even less hard in the upper mids, when used with the ZSN.  But only specifically in those upper registers I was listening for, where the cymbals were. In the rest of the mid and upper ranges, it was brighter than the the brown copper OFC upgrade cable, and “tizzier” (think “sizzling steak”). Also, the stock ZS3 cable on the ZSN was kind of awful-sounding, in comparison with the OFC cable I got finished trying. Despite having a larger soundstage and more detail, the soundstaging and dynamic perspectives were just all messed up. Making for a rather “blah”* sound experience (*technical term). This cable does perform better on the ZSN from what I heard, but more or less retains the same overall character profile on that model.

ZSN Pink Copper Stock Cable: This cable might be good paired with another IEM, perhaps with less peaks in the upper registers. But with the purple version of the ZSN, I feel it exacerbates an already existing problem. If you have hearing loss over, say, 6-8khz, maybe this won’t be a problem for you.  As for me, I might at some point be able to smooth things over with eartip experimentation, or just wait for a good copper cable for the ZSN to come out on the market.

In summation: The ZSN is roughly twice the earphone the ZS3 wishes it was. But if you get beyond the (literal) glitz and glamour of this IEM, its harder attack dynamics, comparatively with the ZS3, also leaves a hard shell across the frequency range. One that may not be that mellow cup of coffee you’re after. Maybe the all-black colour edition of the ZSN might tone that down, at the cost of some detail extrapolation. (I’m only edu-guessing here!). The ZS3 also seemed a bit less ‘analytical’ in its character, when closely compared with the ZSN. Perhaps because of a more forward/smaller soundstage. So it seems entirely possible, that some might find the ZS3 a bit more enjoyable to listen to, over the technically superior ZSN. Others will certainly appreciate the fact that ZSN offers up more of what is in the recording itself.

Conclusion: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Man, let me tell you, they got a lot right with this model. It doesn’t just reproduce sounds like so many IEM’s I’ve heard. It is also pretty competent at playing music. It gives a natural presentation on the sound stage, and you don’t feel like its hiding much of anything from you, save for some top end sparkle.

The ZSN may not have proven to be completely to my taste, but I quite like the balance of interplay between bass, mids and treble on this one. Two things I’d want more or less of, if I could have it: (even) higher resolution and a more forward midrange, or whatever gets me closer to hearing more midrange detail. Plus a slightly less harsh midrange, and upper end. That’s almost nitpicking though, that is. Wait… what’s the price on this guy, again??

With the ZSN, KZ is climbing ever more toward perfection. Keep in mind, I have not heard the better, costlier models they have made, so that comment is based on my limited experience with them. Although I should add, I’ve seen plenty of criticism of even the top models from KZ. They seem to draw polarized opinions. This model seems to be unanimously praised, however, making many “best of” lists out there. So here’s the down-low….

The Lowdown: The KZ “ZSN” can be characterized by a fine and fair sense of tonal balance, soundstaging, no real lack of detail, and as if all that wasn’t enough, it is overall more musically engaging as well than other KZ models tested. It can display a hard side to the mids and upper mids at loud volumes with the default eartips. But never sibilant or piercing, IME. If you only want one KZ, and this fits your budget, you can probably ignore the other ones here. There may be some KZ models here that do this or that better, yes. But there are no KZ models I’ve reviewed that does everything better than this one. I’m sure many agree with me when I say that the ZSN is a big leap forward, as to the level of sound and build quality that can be obtained in an IEM of its price class.

 


Edifier “H180”
Price: $5.90 shipped (AliExpress)

Like the “RY4S”, this one was intended to be a deviation from the monitor-sound tuning characteristic. IOW, a “fun sound” full range earbud, that made no apologies for any colourations it may have. So, not looking for foie de gras here, I just wanted a good down-home burger and fries. (Completely forgetting that I’m a vegetarian….).  The “Edifier H180” is a look-alike, but not sound-alike, to the “Philips SHE3800” earbud.

Yet despite all this shady fakery goings-on, both the Edifier and Philips variant of this model, have garnered great reputations themselves, in the Chi-Fi community.  Some prefer the SHE3800 to the Edifier, some prefer the Edifier. I chose this one because I just like the name “Edifier”. It sounds to me like a combination of “satisfaction” and “edification”. A winning combo, if I ever heard one. Also, because it was said to have neutral mids, detailed highs and kick-ass bass. It won 4.3 stars out of 1,500 reviews on Amazon. The “Edifier” brand also has a higher priced “H185” model, but for some reason, it’s not as well regarded as this one. For comparative purposes:

” The H180 is quite a bit different from the SHE3800. The H180 is a better all-rounder in my opinion. It has a more balanced sound signature and more energy in the upper registers. It is still what most would describe as a “fun” sound. I really like the H180. See this post if you want to see measurements I took comparing the H180 and SHE3800. ” – Commenter #1

vs.

” I did a quick A/B between the H180 and SHE3800 before opening it up. since i have several other SHE3800. Well, the H180 was simply horrible in comparison to the SHE3800. Sounded really, really REALLY bad. The SHE3800 is a godly bud.” – Commenter #2

I can only hope Commenter #2 is either wrong, or hopefully, insane. If not, I have to consider that I may have gone with the wrong bud.

“Philips SHE3800 and Edifier H180 sound almost the same as far as I can tell so don’t bother buying H180 if you already have SHE3800. Though H180’s cable is very soft and longer than the SHE3800.” – Commenter #3

Oh no, now I’m really conflicted!  😮

“Really? That’s incredible. Some people on here told me otherwise so I bought a pair. I guess I wasted my money. Oh wells. I’m not a fan of SHE3800, it sounds like H180’s are much better.” – Commenter #4, in response to Commenter #3.

Super conflicted, here!  👿

“Well that impression was out of the box. After burning them in for a few hours H180 sounded clearer and has more controlled bass. Now I prefer H180 over SHE3800 but they still share the similar signature.” – Commenter #5 in response to Commenter #4.

Ok, just stop talking about these earbuds, guys!!  👿 👿 👿

Fit & Finish

Finish

Packaging is good, as it came in a commercial plastic box package, rather than the usual non-descript poly zip bag. But the build quality of the earphone itself is about on par with the QianYun “Qian39”. Which is to say, it does not exactly inspire confidence. The wire is about the same, but slightly worse. The Edifier’s wire is a bit looser, thinner, and less rubbery than the Qian’s. It’s also longer, and longer than most at 4’4″, end to end. The wire leaves a single exit hole in the tailpipe, with more play in that rather large hole, than with the Qian. So with the wire’s room for movement, and no reinforcement at this exit joint (there never is with these sort of buds), it’s not obviously what is resisting the wire from pulling off the driver. A knot in the wire, I presume, larger than the exit hole.

To me, that’s not enough to convince me this will be durable, in the long run. This, I think, would be a good candidate for a premium re-wire, if you’re into that. Otherwise, if I mod it and glue that wire in place at the exit hole as a form of reinforcement, then it appears I may be blocking it’s only vent hole. And that will affect the sound quality for sure. Just putting that out there, FWIW. I am now just remembering that I think I read some previous comments about the H180 not being a strong choice in the build dept. OTOH, I don’t think people are buying these to hand down to their grandchildren.

Fit

Like the VE Monk Lite, the Edifier was said to be tops in comfort for those with small ear issues. Because it’s a little smaller and flatter than the MX500 shell, typical of the Chi-Fi DIY-style earbud design. But the earpieces of the Edifier H180 are noticeably larger than those of the Qian, while the tailpipe is much longer. Longer than the MX500 buds, also. That ought to explain why the bass was said to be plentiful in this model. I found the fit good, but not quite as good as that of Qian39. Which seems to have the best fit, for my ears.

Sound

When first testing an earphone, I often find myself often using a song in my playlist, The Style Council’s “Shout To The Top!”, to give initial impression. From the first few seconds, it immediately signals an earphone’s mid and upper end character to me. It said good things to me about the Edifier, straight away. With its sharp, classical instrumentation, this song gets very aggressive, very fast on earphones that lack the ability to convey upper frequencies in a stately manner. At louder volumes, it can be downright torturous.

No such experience here. The H180 did much better than many earphones, particularly KZ’s, in resolving “Shout To The Top!”, without getting too “shouty” about it. The manufacturer seems to have made a conscious effort to avoid this model from getting aggressive, in the higher frequencies. If it does not offend on this song, it likely will not on anything. It does not avoid this by simply rolling off the high end, either. What it does is much harder to accomplish than that! There is still high end detail, save for the tail end of the highs. There may not be a lot of ‘sparkle’, at the very top, but there should be some.

The second thing I noticed, was the size of the soundstage. It was much larger than that of the Qian39, I had recently trialed, and first heard the day before. Third thing; certain sounds, certain instruments, when struck, had a ‘toy quality’ to the sound. What I was hearing, I propose, was the sound of the plastic shells vibrating in sympathy with the driver. I’m sure very few people will notice this, and even less bothered by it.

About the bass, was this the one that people kept touting as having an amazing bass response, I wondered? Because I was expecting it to, and it does not. No matter how I swivel the earpieces, it seems. So there is no solid, punchy low end, for me. Nor is it so light in sound, that the entire sound seems to have moved to only occupy rooms on the upper floor levels. It’s not the most refined sound quality I’ve heard, mind. Not quite as “liquified” as the Qian39, but more so than the VE Monk+. Related to that, it’s not quite as “fun a listen” as the Qian either, but with its increased separation and detail, more suitable as a monitor than that model.

Temperature-wise, I wouldn’t characterize the sound as “warm”, nor as “cold”. Somewhere in between, but leaning toward warmish. While it has that soundstage and detail, it lacks clarity (but not presence) in midrange tones. Think of a light veil on the mid and upper range. With the foams on (I did not test with them off), acoustic guitars didn’t have any of the metallic edge when plucked. And the soundstage size, note, does not reflect all dimensions. Here, while it is relatively wide, it sounds compressed from the top (so, short instead of high). But thankfully, not too distant. Pretty much a front row seat. In fact, the soundstage is more up front than SeaHF, but in terms of resolution, not nearly as refined. I much prefer the SeaHF overall.

Tweaking: (Or, The Edifier H180 Review; Part Two!)

Tailpiece Rolling: I was about to conclude that this is the first “good” earbud I don’t quite jibe with. Not even sure why, but every time I switched to this one from another bud, I felt like I was getting sick when this one was installed! Maybe it was the American-size peanut butter and jam sandwich I just had earlier. But then… why every time I switched to the Edifier, did I start to feel slight nausea?? Then, a funny thing happened…. (Not funny “haha”).

Seconds before deciding I didn’t want this one, and would give it away to the first political conservative to cross my path…. I played around some more, with the positioning in my ears. Swiveling the earpieces much more forward than normal (with the stems aligned with my ear notch, which is at about 8 o’clock). Well it seems I had not played around enough with the positioning the first time, because the next thing I knew, that changed (almost!) everything, in my experience with the Edifier H180! No more wimpy bass. Bass went much more solid. Detail retrieval was greater. The sound had more cowbell! I mean “liquidity”. And tonally, it was much better balanced. Not to mention more engaging and interesting to listen to.

I have to say, this is not typical. Sound should be good with the stems pointing downward. And even for “Beltist reasons”, that is how the stems should be worn! (This may have to do with how the drivers were installed, I haven’t cracked it open to see). It also sounds much better all ways, when you hold the earpieces in with your finger. But forget that. That means I’ll never be able to ride a unicycle again!  Conceivably, someone with larger ear canals may have a better go of it. Not that they’re large. Just that their shells are a bit bulbous (relative to flatter heads),  and a larger ear cavity alters the fit and the sound of an earbud.

Foam Rolling:

The thing that kept swimming around in the back of my mind, during my initial experiences with the Edifier H180 is… maybe the foams are no good? Though the H180’s were “good for the price” certainly, it seemed like they should be a lot better, and maybe the foams they came with were a limitation. So I removed the stock black foams from the earpieces, and just touched the earpieces to them, to determine their energy signature. It did not feel good. It was a night and day difference of energy feedback, after I just touched the Monk foams to the Edifier earpieces. So I knew going in, the Monk foams were going to sound better. And once installed on the earpieces, they did. Among other differences, the Monk foams were larger than the Edifier foams. This means the Edifier foams will be thinner, when stretched over the earpiece. Another, is that the Monk foams are a simply better sounding material.

After switching to the black VE Monk foams, the H180 gave significantly better results. Including a more open soundstage and fuller bass. But despite the increase in bass and mid-bass notes, making it far more balanced, I’m still not hearing an awesome amount of bass, here. There’s enough to make it a player in the game, yes. But not enough for me to call it a “warm sounding bud”. It also still has a bit of a “cheap sound” after taste. Possibly, this is the shells? Regardless, the SeaHF’s, as one point of comparison, are going to offer a much more refined sound.

Nagging Doubts

At this point, after trying every viable angle position for the earpieces and getting the best out of that, after trying different brand and colour of foams, I still had some minor “issues” with the Edifier H180. That feeling I described as a slight “nausea” at the onset, still wouldn’t quite go away. As an “Advanced Audiophile”, I’m quite sensitive to “these things”. But I can’t always know what “stray misguided energy patterns” are causing me to feel ill at ease when wearing the Edifier H180’s. I just know that even if it was barely perceptible, there was definitely something amiss. With earphones, this only occurred once before in life (which I detailed in one of my reviews here). And it was solved by simply switching the left/right foams around. Switching the foams on the Edifier left/right or for other foams, did not quite eradicate this uneasy feeling. I removed the foams entirely, to try to pinpoint the problem. But it was still there.

I know, because when I wear the Edifiers in my ears with no foams on, and no music playing, that ‘touch of anxiety’ is still present and accounted for. But every time I switched to the Qian39’s, again just wearing them with no music playing, big difference! I felt calm and relaxed with the Qian’s installed. This suggests to me that wherever the problem lies, its in the manufacturing stage. I can’t find or change it without tearing everything apart, and even that’s no guarantee. So for me, it’s a “Yo, heave-ho!” for the Edifier H180.

Regardless of their sound, I can’t wear anything that will increase natural tension levels, enough that I become conscious of it! Again, this is an “Advanced Audiophile” problem. I doubt there is anyone else in the world, that will wear these and have that same reaction to them. Which doesn’t mean to say no one else is affected by it! Everyone wearing them will be affected by what I am feeling from the Edifier’s. Only, in a conscious context, that will just occur on a purely auditory level, for them. Even so, it won’t manifest itself in any obvious way, that someone can isolate and identify. As an example, I gave these to my S.O., though I had ordered them for myself. And she loved the sound of them! Best earphones she’s had to date. I call that a win-win!

 

Conclusion: RECOMMENDEDHmm…. So you might be wondering… how can I “rec” a pair of earphones I bought for myself, but gave away within an hour of opening the package, because I couldn’t get past the fact that they literally made me sick?? Easy. The Advanced Audiophile is nothing, if not objective! :mrgreen: Obviously, I am not recommending them for myself, I’ve already got a pair! And if you read the review above, you probably know I wouldn’t buy them again – for myself. Instead, I am considering their worth to others, based on how I believe they will regard them, based off my experience with them.

And in that regard, the Edifier H180’s are kind of a “party pleaser” type of earbud. They bring to the party a… large room, for one (it does not have a tall ceiling, so you in the basketball shorts… yeah, I’m talking to you!  Watch your head, mate!).  Plenty of lighting, so you can see (and hear) what’s going on, in the background. (So, no fooling around, you two! I’ve got my eyes on you 😯 ). And while they were supposed to bring in a stack of Marshalls for the bassheads in the crowd, they only managed to snag a pair of JBL bookshelf speakers. So there is enough bass there for support (more if you install good foam covers), but it’s not going to fill the room. Toasters, dub-masters, hip-hoppers and those who crave that “heavy-heavy monster sound”, might want to look away. And you’re right in the middle of the party with these, as they don’t put any walls between you and the action.

In comparison, their Chinese compadres, the “Qian39’s”, have a smaller sound. One more set back, darker, even muddier, it could be said. But if I had to choose, I would definitely take the 39’s, because despite their flaws, they’re still better. ie. They have a better defined and more musical sound.

Which begs the question I begged in the Qian39 review. Namely, “Does this earbud do something the others don’t?”. For the Qian39, which didn’t quite bowl me over either, the answer was still “yes”. It’s strength was in the “liquidity” of its sound; a reference to how well it resolves the timbre of instruments and voices. However, I can’t really answer same for the Edifier’s, it would seem. They do some things better than some buds. Including their superiority to the Qian39’s on some fronts, as I’ve detailed in this review. But without comparing them to every earbud I reviewed, I can’t see, hear or think of anything the Edifier’s do that none of the others can.

Perhaps their strength, is in the sum of their parts. The fact that they’re a decent all-arounder, and probably won’t leave too many people wanting for too much. At least, not for $5.50, which they are easily worth! But, again without the benefit of direct comparison, I doubt very much they’re the best I’ve reviewed for “all-arounding”! (See “Overall Conclusions” section for other suggestions). Still, they’re an easy recommendation at this price, and I can’t imagine many people having serious issues with the Edifier H180’s. As for their longevity… I wouldn’t bet the farm on it! (Don’t buy them for that).

The Lowdown The Edifier H180 are definitely more impressive on sound quality than they are on build. They offer a balanced sound, which includes a good smattering of all three FR dividers; bass, mid, treble, presenting a fairly equal share of all three. For me, the bass was supportive, but just that. Not authoritative, or particularly insightful, as the Qian’s could be. I found the midrange forward, as was the soundstage it occupies. The treble being only a bit rolled off, relatively, making the whole thing easy enough to listen to, while still offering a decent amount of detail. On my player, there’s just a touch of hardness on some treble rich content at louder volumes (and like everything, this is very dependent on the sound of your player). But no sibilance I can hear.

Before they begin to give of their best, they may need to be positioned properly, as recommended. I also highly recommend changing their inferior foams for black/white or red VE Monk foams, or others of good quality, before getting down to business. Especially as my more favorable final comments are based on the sound of the Edifier’s with black VE Monk foams. In my brief but concentrated time with them, I felt the cheap stock foams held the Edifier back, and left them sounding more average than above. For related reasons, the H180’s seem like a good choice to practice your re-cabling skills.

THE 180 DEGREE UPDATE:

Oh no, it all changed again!! I had a totally different experience with the Edifier H180… enough to dismiss just about everything written about it above! That was all carefully conceived, so I have no intention of just erasing it all! Arrrgh! I hate it when this happens! Ok, here’s the story guys….

Giving them one last final listen (with the intention of comparing them to the Monk’s), I played around some more with the position of the H180’s in my ear. And on the second attempt at this, every aspect of the sound just aligned perfectly! I listened to it with all kinds of well recorded music and now…. geez, it’s a different earbud again! With a unique sound, and with almost no reference to what went on before! Here is how I would describe the “All New Edifier H180”:

  • If there’s still “energy issues” that cause ill feelings as I mentioned… I don’t quite consciously perceive them now.
  • Generally speaking, the sound is that of a well-tuned LP12 (we’re talking coherence brother, not resolution!)
  • Where the bass quality was a bit on the boomy side before, now it’s… absolutely perfect. That is, within the mechanical limitations of this earbud. By that, I mean I don’t notice it as a separate entity, any longer. It’s just right, for whatever the music offers.
  • That quality of “musicality” I talk about occasionally, has changed. That’s probably the greatest change. It’s not an intense “Vido” like musicality. Instead, it’s a “perfect-degree of engagement”. You’re not looking at your watch, wondering when the song will be over. Nor are you bouncing off the walls, because the music is so intense. It’s absolutely perfect, I find!
  • Bass, mids and highs are one. One with everything. Yes, like a Buddhist monk. 🙂
  • It’s not a “dazzler”. It’s not that kind of sound, I’m getting right now. It’s not a “Wow, I’ve got 15 balanced armatures… and that’s just in the nozzle! You can hear the smoke on Jim Kelton’s breath with these things!” sound.  The sound is working so well as a coherent force, it’s even hard to analyze. But if I had to… mids and highs are not detailed… a bit less so than before. You might say the highs lowered somewhat, the bass got raised, the mids got sandwiched a bit in the process… and yet it just all works so damn well, from a musical perspective, no one is complaining!
  • I might describe the tonality of the sound as “super smooth”, with bass that is present, but soft and not powerful.
  • I’m writing this as I am listening to them, and its hard to concentrate. Which says a lot right there!
  • To say that I like this sound better than what I’ve heard from the VE Monks in the past, is understating things. It’s also way better than the Qian’s now, even if not quite as liquid. It’s more musically accurate.
  • This is easily one of the most pleasing, if not the most pleasing sound, I’ve heard lately (ever?) from an earbud.

Whew! I think that’ll do it. The only problem is, I’m afraid to move an inch now, for fear of misaligning the earpieces and losing this phenomenal sound!

I don’t know if I will even get this sound back! Because I don’t know exactly what I did differently! I know it sounds silly… As in “Why didn’t you just attempt to install them properly before making me read all of that!?”.  Well… I thought I had! I tried all kinds of position, as I described. They weren’t that different among them. None of them even hinted that this sort of sound was possible from the earbud! Hence, my premature conclusion.

To be clear, this sound is not one of those that will make me go through all of my songs and hear new things I hadn’t before. It isn’t a detail-oriented sound. But it can give me musical experiences I have not had before on my songs. And to make it even clearer… this is not a sound I have experienced from any of these earbuds. It is a “good cartridge in perfect alignment” sound. In this respect, it kind of makes all the other earbuds sound like lesser beings. Like their “cartridges aren’t in alignment”! Maybe that is the key? Maybe, it isn’t just the stems that need to be aligned just right (they are presently parallel to my ear notch and just below the top of it). Maybe it’s the angle of the drivers.

{AA, this is an earbud review, not an autobiography! Edit this now!! – Editor}

So anyway…. I’m almost hesitant to say this, for fear I will again make the mistake of coming to a premature conclusion but… before I finish, I have to say, these Edifier H180’s, at this very moment, with their earpieces positioned however they are positioned!!…. are my favourite earbuds. I know this simply by the fact that I can’t stop listening to them, and don’t want to take them off!

I mean, wow. 😯  That’s quite a distance from 35 minutes ago, when I wrote that I could not stand the Edifiers, and was giving them away for good!

Conclusion: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED?: Well, I did it again. Mother Superior jumped the gun, and gave a barely passing grade to what may prove to be my favourite sounding earbud of all time. (VE Monk”?? Mmmm? What’s that?). All from a change of a mm or two, in positioning. This, after having written that positioning is important with these! Now I have no choice but to upgrade the recommendation! With the caveat that… they may not deserve a high recommendation (which I don’t make easily). Because  you may well not achieve the sound that I am presently hearing from these things. Hell, I may not achieve that sound once I take them off!

But the fact that I know what I am hearing and I know that what I am hearing is possible on the Edifiher H180, well… I can only put that into perspective as a “high recommendation”. To say that this is simply a “fun listen”, is to diminish the quality of this sound, and its significance to the art and enjoyment of listening to music reproductions. If the goal is to hear everything in the room, this won’t do it. But if the goal is to hear music as it is meant to be heard… this comes hell-a-close to everything else I have heard thus far; IEM or earbud.

Sorry for this mess of a review! And the glut of exclamation remarks in the latter half!!!!! Not to mention the overuse of italics!!!!

p.s. I finally took the earphones out of my ears (I had to… can’t wear them in the shower!). So as to the question of can I get this sound back? The answer so far is… “not sure”! After playing again with the angle of the stem as well as the angle of the earpieces, I have yet to re-create that beautiful “one with everything” sound. Perhaps I came not far from it, and at least I know what to look for!

You will know you have it when… the bass is soft, dark, warm and mushy (but try not to think of the bass as “fresh dog poop”, because you know, that’s just gross! Hey, I said don’t think of fresh, steaming dog poop! Please! Stop it! Oh no, now you’ve got me picturing fresh dog poop! 😮 ). The mids and highs are both warm, like the bass, with no shiny “edge” to them. No sibilance. Nothing like that sounds possible, when the sound is this “right”.  Soundstage-fans will be heartbroken, because the soundstage is almost mono-ish (because of how everything kind of meets toward the middle). Though it remains a normal width, when the cues are there.

The Lowdown Sorry but… by the end of things, the “Sound” portion of the review doesn’t fully apply any longer. The first “Conclusion” section doesn’t either. Nor the first “Lowdown“. (I didn’t remove them, because they may still apply! Read all, for an explanation!). On the up side, everything that follows that, that is to say the latter part of this review, is still good! 😉 As painful as it may be, you’re probably better reading the whole review, if you’ve heard of the Edifier’s, and/or you’re at all serious about buying a pair. They kind of took me by surprise at the very end of this, and I honestly have no idea what the experience may be for you. I don’t know whether I will even be able to fully replicate mine, at some future time!

MAKING LIGHTNING STRIKE TWICE: p.s  To that point… after a few failed tries, I had a few more successful tries! So it appears it may be possible to recreate, ‘on command’, the on-target sound I gushed about earlier. Some tries may have come within the vicinity, without really reaching that special sound, some tries may have overshot it and done better! One sign that you might be in that place is, the darker and warmer the sound, the closer you are. So in the following lines,  I’ll try to detail various means I tried of getting there…

  1. Flared out:
    This is actually a trick I discovered with the Qian39, but it should apply to almost any earbud. The final position the earpieces will be in, is with the stems (aka ‘tailpipe’) right up at the top of the ear notch. But instead of sticking to the side of your face, they are flared outward, about (45 degrees).I get there by inserting the earpieces in sideways, twisting them toward the front, and slowly turning the stems upward until they reach the ear notch, ensuring that they are sticking out from the ear, about 45d.
  2. Ear Notch Level: This was my first attempt at recreating “the sound”. I started by inserting the earpieces normally, with the stems straight down. Then I push in and then downward on the earpieces, and keeping pressure, slowly twist them upward, so the stems are parallel with the ear notch (about 8 o’clock). The difference with the above, is that the stems are flat against your face, not sticking out. (BTW, when I tried simply inserting them so the stems are at the ear notch, or even playing with the driver angle, nothing particularly special came of it!).
  3. Another possible way of entry to that special sound, is to start by inserting the earpieces with the front face (the drivers) facing North (in front of you). Then digging them in a bit, and slowly twisting them until the front of the earpieces face the normal direction (toward the inside of your ears). Again, carefully and slowly twisting the stems upward, so they are parallel to the ear notch (8 o’clock).Good luck! 😀  If I ever figure out a consistent, repeatable way to get this sound back, I’ll let you know!

 


Headroom “MS16”
Original Ad Title: Desxz MS16 Earphones Headphones HIFI Stereo Bass with Mic Sports Headset Noise Canceling for iPhone 4 5 5S Xiaomi Phone sony”
Price: $5.90 shipped (AliExpress)

Just when I thought it was safe to go back on the internet…. I find another earbud I haven’t got yet. I figured it was necessary to help complete the collection, as this model has an unusual design (referred in some ads as an “ie800” design). But there are a number of budget earbuds on the market under various names, including one by “1More” @ 3x the price, that share this type of earpiece design.

Some of the MS16’s unusual traits include the large round shape of the earpiece. Or the fact that the stem is narrow and placed well away from the front end, helping it clear the ear for better comfort. Also, that the grill on the back end is not fake. It is truly an open design, with sound emanating from that grill. Which apart from limiting its use in public spaces, is said to create a more spacious soundstage.

This model was said to be super comfortable to some people who have problems with buds or IEMs. Some others didn’t agree. I’m determined to see who’s right!  :mrgreen:  The thing that appealed to me the most about the Headroom MS16, was the promise of the midrange. I read that its ‘mid-centric’, with perhaps a peak in the upper mid-range. If it can help sort out vocals for me without being annoying, then that’s good enough for $6, AFAIC. To quote one “Redditor”:

” The MS16, however, is the sort of headphone I’d listen to because I want to, not because I have to. As mentioned above, you can barely feel a thing wearing them, and combine that with it’s excellent sound, soundstage, imaging and detail retrieval, it feels as though I was wearing very comfortable over-ears. ” -“Jayyeanne”, Reddit.

“RM305” by “Remax”. Any resemblance to earphones living or dead is purely coincidental.

Fit & Finish

Finish:

The Headroom MS16’s really are built to a great standard of quality, for the asking price. The housings are all metal, aluminum, including the stems, thankfully. The connector and remote control both metal. Unfortunately, there appears to be no version made without the remote. And I’ve read reports of people saying the remote was screwy on this thing, with their device. The wire is atypical, but actually comparable to the one on the RY04. Which is that it has blue insulation, but a clear coat insulation over top of that… giving it that “gel” look. Some consumers complained they don’t like that the colour doesn’t match the earpieces. It’s all good to me. I’d be more concerned about the sound of the colour, rather than the contrast it makes with the earpiece.

At first take, dangling the MS16, it felt a bit light and cheap. But I got to appreciate the quality more, as I handled it further. Build-wise, I’d say it’s comparable to a Xiaomi product. The solid feel of the aluminum earpieces reminds me quite a bit of those on the MI Piston 3 Husoai’s. The feel of the in-line remote and connector feel less solid, but are metal all the same. When I scrape a fingernail across it, the white perimeter around the front of the earpiece feels like it could be ceramic, rather than plastic?! The front grill of the earpiece is metal of course, unlike all the MX500 earbuds.

The gel wire is interesting, as I’ve not had an earphone with this yet. It looks like a blue piece of liquorice cable, such that you could eat it. It feels slick and slippery, not sticky, like the KZ cables. Perhaps for this reason, it does not appear like the “tangly” type at all. Very well done! I would have liked to see a bit larger reinforcement where it meets the connector at the end of it. The grills on the back of the earpieces change sound when I cover them (sound gets “canny”), proving they’re not fake. No doubt they have an influence on how open the sound gets.

Fit:

In my ears, without foams, the fit is good. It may get colder in the winter time, and its just a small detail, but I think the feel of the anodized aluminum is a bit better (smoother) than the feel of chunky plastic.

Accessories

The Headroom MS16 comes with a few pairs of white foam earbud covers, and is shipped in a protective carry-case. Love that last gratuity, as I was going to order me some of these! I had already established that they are the perfect design for a container for keeping your precious under $10 earphones from damage, during transport.

On view, foams on this thing are great. My new favourite earbud foams. First, they’re white, unusually. Which happens to be my new favourite earbud foam colour (for black earbuds, anyway). Next, they appear to be made of neoprene.. Some type of material that is stronger, softer, and thinner than even the foams that come with the VE Monks. I wish I knew where to get these separately! Fit is in a way more comfortable with the foams on, and I might add, more winter-friendly!  (**Update: I won’t be doing that. See the earbud foam guide, where I compare the sound of the MS16 foams with the VE Monks and others, and offer tips on the best foams for the MS16).

In-line Remote: Unusually, the remote has three buttons, plus a mic. Two for -/+ volume, and the third is a multi-function button. I tested the in-line remote, because of reports from some commenters, that it prevented them from using the earphones. I did not have any such problems when tested on one of my Samsung smartphones. The volume buttons worked okay, and on the multi-function button, one press is pause, a second press, play. While depressing the button for a few seconds brings up the Search function on my Android device.

 

Sound

First Impressions:

Sound without foams: First notes were kind of surprising. On the one hand, it seemed to have a “cheap sound” behind the palate, so to speak. “Cheap” as in “$11 cheap” (not $1 or $5…). On the other hand, in another aspect, it was way better than any of the KZ IEM’s I’d been listening to lately. Like a 7-Up on a hot summer day. “Refreshingly good”. I guess one reason is that I had gotten used to how IEM’s sound, and this looks like an IEM. But it’s really an earbud, and it reminded me of the sound a quality earbud can make. No zingy highs, no aggravating mids. Even if its not the last word in “detail”. Right away, I thought I could see why people liked this model. The song I was listening to had the line “it out to be right” in the lyrics. That’s exactly what this earbud sound made me think. It’s not too much of this or too little of that. It’s just a “right” sound. Not quite the same as a “correct” sound, but I planned to put some white socks on the MS16’s and get down to some serious listening business!

First thing I tried was Fleetwood Mac’s “Sister of the Moon”. Which tells me right away a lot of what I need to know about an earphone sound; bass, mids, soundstage, harshness, treble, etc. Especially with how it compares to others, since I’ve used it as a litmus test on the other models.

The first pleasant discovery, was that it was a musical experience. That is to say, musical bass, not just sounds that are meant to resemble music, as I hear on so many IEM’s. There was not as much detail and air as I have heard on IEM’s (ie. the ATE), and the soundstage could use some widening up, in comparison with the KZ’s. So in this sense, it was not the most expressive mid-section, comparatively speaking, because of less separation between sounds than I’ve heard in some other models. But as a musical experience, it was much more enjoyable to listen to than those more detailed IEM’s. I was connecting with the music in a way I often don’t, on the IEM’s. The song was over before I knew it, which is always a good sign.

Bass notes are there, but not there. What I mean by that, is the bass here is completely supportive, and not distinct, in and of itself. Not even to call attention to itself, by showing its lack. So for me on my smartphone, the bass levels were ok, but it’s not by any means a bass-monster earphone. Nor is this a top-heavy earphone, where everything has just been piled up toward the higher frequencies. The highs don’t get that high, on the MS16. Yet, it’s not a totally dark sound. They still exhibit some detail, and are never tiring or piercing, like on so many KZ’s.

I could see the sound possibly getting distorted under amplification, but I didn’t test for that. I did test the grills, however. As I suspected, if I block the grills it turns into a 50c squawkbox. But if this is the one I read in a review where the reviewer said it can’t be used in bed, then no. I put my palm right up against the earpiece, and it did not block the sound. You really have to press a finger to the grill, to hear a significant change.

Oh, and a piano sounds like a piano! Jesus, finally! After all these rinky-dinky murder-treble IEM’s that make piano keys that sound like they’re made of razor shards…. The only thing missing in the MS16’s rendition of this vitally significant instrument in audio, is a bit more bass authority to round off the note, and make it sound more full and complete.  Perhaps there’s a way to get more bass out of…. oh wait, I almost forgot! The sideways mod!

I explain in the review for the “MRice” earbud, how people have inserted them sideways, for improved sound. Both earbuds have a similar shape, but… nope. Can’t do side mod here! It keeps slipping out of my ear, no matter how I insert it. Up, down, over the ear, down the ear… The shape of the “earbell” is just too large, I think. And not too comfortable, because it’s not rounded at the end, like the MRice. But if I hold it in… wow! Twice the SQ, easily.

Tweaking:I experiment with foams on the Headroom MS16, which I have moved to the guide “The Advanced Audiophile’s Guide To: Earbud Accessories“. It’s an important part of the MS16 experience, so check it out by clicking on the link!

Conclusion: RECOMMENDED. With its inoffensive, untiring, balanced and almost warm sound, I could see the Headroom MS16 as an earphone pleasing a lot of people, both in terms of fit and sound. At least as long as they’re not using them as monitors. In terms of high fidelity, it can’t quite deliver the goods like the VE Monks do. The Monk’s have more musical detail, but the MS16 has more high end detail than the smoky top end of the Monks. They’re also brighter, more open and with a more forward soundstage, than the Monks. So I could see someone preferring the Headroom’s. Which are also more comfortable than any IEM, as well as the Monks, for some ears. Unlike most of the KZ’s, I could see myself going all day with this. Quite happy to have come across it, and I thank all of those that wrote reviews that fished me into buying it. No names…. there are not many of you, so you know who you are! 😉

The Lowdown: The Headroom MS16’s are a uniquely designed, comfortable and literally slick-looking earbud type earphone. They feature solid metal earpieces, and are indeed pretty neutral and well balanced, as other reviews have said. They have a bright, open sound with a forward-looking soundstage, and a “polite”, light bass, that is never intrusive, but also won’t inform you of all that’s happening in the lower regions. The mids are about level, while the top end is slightly rounded off, but still fairly detailed. Which all makes for a sound somewhere between warm and cool. Most importantly, they do a good job of not drawing attention to themselves for the most part, and have a more engaging sound than many other models of earphones they can be compared with. The Headroom MS16’s provide a good alternative to the MX500-style earbuds.

TY “Hi-Z” HP-32 (32 ohm)
Price: $7.34 shipped (AliExpress)

 The Ty “Hi-Z” name kept coming up wherever discussions of VE Monk-killers were seen. I did not get the impression that it was really a “Monk-killer”. But that it might do some things better, some things worse. Of course, I had to find out what those things were!

Some of the user comments that led me to shortlist it, included this one:

A common comparison for the TY Hi-Z HP-32 is the VE Monk+, as they are almost identical in total price. Sound signature wise, these two are different. The HP-32 is deeper and smoother, while the Monk + has a slightly closer to neutral sound and a touch more detail. The Monk + has left me wanting a touch more sub-bass, while the HP-32 has enough lows to keep things fun. “.

…As well as this user’s comparison with the Monks…

“Overall, the sound signatures on both are excellent for earbuds. The VE MONKS has a totally digital sound to them –like hearing a digital amplifier through your favourite speakers, while the TY Hi-Z’s has an analog sound to them –like hearing a tube amplifier with your favourite speakers, as well.”

Fit & Finish

Of course the Hi-Z looks like the cheap giveaway buds you get with brandless $5 MP3 players. But I think with the introduction of the VE Monk+, we can safely dismiss those visual prejudices now. Although this uses the Monk’s MX500 shell, it’s billed as a “flat head” design. So it appears to deviate a bit from the norm, allowing for a possibly more comfortable fit for smaller ears. This is the “L-shaped” plug version, and I should add that my research notes that I wrote to myself, specifically instructed me not to get the “L-shaped plug” version. The straight plug edition was said to have the better sound. The problem is, it doesn’t exist anymore.

Accessories

I splurged and paid about 65 cents extra for the full “retail packaging” option. Not just because it comes with the specialized “donut foams” (regular foams with a hole in the centre), but with what one reviewer quite modestly described as a “revolution in earbuds”. Yes, those two black silicone ear hooks, you see in the picture. For some reason, I could not find generic earbud versions of these sold separately. Only ones made for the Apple or other earbuds and IEMs. They are supposed to offer a more secure fit in your ear, with the silicone hook secured around the inside of your ear lobes. They can stretch to fit any earbud, so I don’t know why I can’t find them sold separately!

Exterior shot of the legendary earbud monk temple, known as “Aiweike”.

The Ty Hi-Z HP 32’s are made by “Shenzen Aiweike Technology Co. Ltd.” (aka “AWK”). The same people responsible for the “SeaHF AWK F-64” earbud reviewed here. Thus, they come shipped in the same nice beige cardboard box as the SeaHF, with the great protective zippered case, 8pcs of black earbud foam covers (4 donuts, and 4 full), plus a shirt clip.

If you were to purchase these items separately, the excellent protective earbud case is at least $1.50, shipped. The earbud hooks, if you could buy them, would be $1.00 minimum. The foams can’t be purchased separately, at least as far as I know, outside of China. But a small package of good quality foams, including donuts and fulls from VE Monk, are about $7, shipped. Do the math. You’re basically getting the earphone for free, here! If it works at all, that’s already a bonus!

Ty “Hi-Z“: Full retail pack with donut foams and the “revolutionary” ear hooks. 65c extra.

Finish

So as a yardstick, the quality of the wiring here is, above Vido, and on par with SeaHF. It is as far as I can tell, the same wire. The headshells also look the same. Notice how “look” is italicized, though? Yeah, I’m not sure they are, that’s why. They don’t feel the same. The stems feel a bit more narrow, and the earpieces feel smaller, and thus, more secure in my ears. Not just as compared with the SeaHF, but as compared with any of the MX500 shell earbuds I’m reviewing. More than any of the MX500ers, it almost feels like I’m not wearing any earphone. I thought I might be imagining it, but every time I fitted the Ty Hi-Z, no matter which foams were installed, I found it fits a bit more snugly than the others. (n.b. On actual comparison, the Ty’s earpiece does appear to be a slightly smaller diameter than that of the VE Monk). So, off to a good start, then.

n.b. I review the “revolutionary ear hooks” for the Ty Hi-Z’s in the “The Advanced Audiophile Guide To: Earbud Accessories

 

Sound

First Impressions: My very first impressions, was that of a relatively small soundstage, lack of bass (but what is there is controlled), volume levels are a bit lower than average, with overall resolution not as high as on the FAAEAL or the SeaHF… but! Bass is tighter than those, and the highs, while edgy, are not rolled off like on the FAAEAL. Detailed, but not sibilant.  Just a bit too sharp. This however appears to have a certain advantage…. I can hear my vocals in my recording mixes, better than any other earbud or perhaps, earphone (in its stock configuration).  This means, for me, it should be good for doing recordings. It may even be more suitable for use as a monitor earphone, than any of the other models.

The Ty does not come across on these first impressions, as having the musicality of the Vido or the FAAEAL … the quality that draws you in. It did not have this quality at any moment. Not even the first moments, when that connection is usually strongest. And yet, I was never bored with it. So it is not a purely clinical sound. I found myself getting into the experience more physically, than emotionally. Even so, the physical component wasn’t intense either. Again, despite this, it’s still an enjoyable sound. Even if it keeps me engaged on a more surface level.

I note that this is the sound from a smartphone, and it could well be a different earbud under amplification, or different players. I am not saying this to make excuses for the Ty Hi-Z, just to say something nice about it! I have no regrets about getting it. It really is a Monk-class earbud. (Which signifies that on audiophile terms, it blows most IEMs anywhere near its price, right out of the water). It’s got the punchiness of an IEM, even if it may not have the bass depth. With the full foams on, it kind of sounds like earbuds that don’t have foams on.**

It has a fairly fast sound too, starting and stopping transients quickly. This would be one thing that differentiates it from more common earbuds and earphones. Soundstage is set back a bit because of its size, but has good back to back depth, and this slight distance in no way affects clarity in the mids. I like the midrange on this, due to the details I’m able to pick out. I feel the Ty Hi-Z is ripe for some tweaking, because of its brightness and lack of bass depth, and worthwhile for its inherent quality of sound. It could probably benefit from a burn, or a freeze.

“God blessed”? That may be a little hyperbolic. I’m sure God did not “bless” these earphones. It’s probably more reasonable to simply say that God gave them a passing grade.

Amp’ed:

I think the Ty-Z shines more when amplified. Here, bass gets weight, gets punchier and fills up the sound picture, creating a better sense of balance. Detail comes out, and you get a truer picture of the earphone’s character. But that sharp attack in mids and highs can still be heard, though it is reduced. Still, it has musical detail.

Tweaking: ** (I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was getting at something here!). I realized at some point that “what if the sound I was hearing, was due to the Ty’s black stock foams I had installed?”

I changed to the full black SeaHF stock foams, and it was almost a brand new earbud!

The change of foams had corrected almost every complaint I had, in my earlier encounters with the Ty Hi-Z HP 32! Now there was not just more bass, but it was a more liquid sound (think more “reverb” or “decay” on the notes). Soundstage moved up closer a bit, so the midrange and highs had more presence. It was also a fuller, and more engaging sound. Still a little too hard-edged in the higher ranges, hence “almost” there. (This less appealing quality remained throughout foam changes, amplification, etc).

n.b. When I compared the stock Ty foams I was using to the SeaHF foams, I could see the Ty’s were thinner. I may have been using what are called “thin foams”. Unlike the “hollow” donut foams, these full foams are usually packaged with regular (thicker) foams. I wasn’t sure if the Ty Hi-Z’s come with both thin and thick foams (as I had mixed them up before confirming!). I just know they all looked very flat to start off with. So I’m working on the assumption that both foams are on the thin side, and that to hear the earbuds at their full and balanced potential, a change of foams is needed (say, to the VE Monk foams). Thin foams are fine used on bassy buds, like the “Qian25”, which this is not! Donut foams of course, will be worse.

N-e-wayzzz… now the Ty Hi-Z moves up the ranks, don’cha know. Now it can be more fairly and directly compared with the best earbuds I have received. So why don’t we do that?! I’ll do a quick comparison next to the VE Monk Plus, since that’s the one most people are likely to know, as a point of reference.

VE Monk+ (black stock Monk full foams) vs. Ty Hi-Z HP-32 (black SeaHF full foams)

VE Monk: At this particular point in time, the VE Monk has a wonderfully warm sound, super smooth, very listenable, very ‘unfatiguing’, with good presence. Bass is punchy, but a bit on the muddy side. Sound is fairly dark, and it could easily be argued, too dark and muddy (but then, this is what makes it so smooth and easy to listen to).

Ty Hi-Z HP-32: So hearing the Ty Hi-Z right after the Monk, was like upgrading your amplifier to a significantly costlier model. By that, I mean a pretty significant bump in resolution, soundstage size (width & depth), more detail revealed, way more mid and upper range clarity, and more control and definition in the bass. But it had less punch in the bass than the Monk, and less mid-bass as well, plus what appears to be peaks somewhere in the lower upper mids. (What I keep calling a “hard edge” to the upper half of the range. Not to be confused with the quality of “sibilance”).

Conclusion: RECOMMENDED. The Ty Hi-Z may not be quite a Monk killer, but its definitely in the “Monk Killer class”, and highly price-competitive. Good as it is, I can’t quite use it to replace my VE Monk+. I prefer the warmth offered by the VE Monk+, the fatter bass punch (as opposed to the extra-lean ground beef offered by the Ty Hi-Z), and the way the Monk handles harmonies. As for the VE Monk’s sounding more like “digital” and the Ty Hi-Z sounding more like “analogue”, as alleged… I’d say yes, if you switch those descriptions around. For it’s the exact opposite, for me.

That said, I find the Ty Hi-Z quite spectacular for one good reason: I am able to hear my own vocal recording mixes on this earbud, more than any other I can recall trying. Although I think it can be considered a bit on the “clinical” side, relatively speaking, there were times when the sound was just hypnotic… I had forgotten to analyze it, as it just floated along, until the tune was over before I knew it. So while I hesitate to use the term “musical”, as that has a particular meaning for me wrt audio, the Hi-Z can and does hold my interest, during a listen.

At lower volumes, the Hi-Z will probably out-dance a lot of its competition, due to its agile speed and clarity. In fact, because of the Ty’s lightness in bass extension and high performance in all three ranges, you will hear all kinds of details you would not on buds like the FAAEAL, the Vido, or the VE Monk+. (It’s probably more comparable in character to the “SeaHF AWK F-64”, but I have not compared them side by side). By the same token, rubbing ice on your skin is a welcome treatment in the middle of summer. Not so much in the dead of winter. So whether you fancy the Ty over a warmer presentation like the Monk+, may depend on how cold it gets where you are in the world…  😛

Speaking of which, I can see why they’re so popular in their native China. They make a very good introduction to budget Chi-Fi earbuds. Gift a pair of these to someone unfamiliar with how good this price class has gotten, and I predict they will never stop thanking you. In no time at all, you’ll be known around the office as the “earphone super-hero”!  :mrgreen:

The Lowdown: The Ty Hi-Z HP-32 is another exemplary budget earbud from Shenzen Aiweke Technology. Who produce a number of audiophile-quality earbuds at chemist shop prices, under various brands and models (including the “SeaHF AWK F-64”, reviewed). The Ty Hi-Z has a rather clear, balanced sound, with an emphasis on detail, mid and upper range clarity, well controlled bass, lean mid-bass, and limited bass authority. It also has a great fit, as it appears to be a tiny bit smaller than the typical MX500 headshell. However, from my experience with it, it only becomes a proper sounding earbud if thicker quality foam covers are used (such as those borrowed from a SeaHF bud, or bought from HieGi, RYgmr, or VE Monk on AliExpress, eBay, etc.). All taken, the Ty Hi-Z HP-32 is a better value than the VE Monk+, if you go for the fully accessorized package, if not a better sounding earbud overall.

 


KZ “ATR” -REVIEW PENDING – AWAITING ARRIVAL 
Price: $5.20 shipped (AliExpress  eBay)

KZ “ATR”

So the story here remains the same. One commenter says the highs on the ATR are smoother than the ATE. Next guy comes along, says no, it’s the opposite. Another says the ATR has better mids. Then I hear it’s the ATE with the better mids. One says the ATR’s soundstage is further back, the other says it’s the ATE’s. And another who says he can’t hear a bit of difference between the two. And so on and so on it goes!

So I said, “Enough! I need another low budget earphone like I need a hole in the head, but I gotta settle this one way or another!”. So I got the ATR, not expecting I’ll use it much. But as another backup just in case, but mostly, out of the curiosity of wanting to see how it may be differ from my ATE. Thus, I somehow had to get the ATR, even after ordering over 2 dozen earphones and having several KZ models that were slated to be far better, and thinking I was done with this project. Plus, I kind of fell out of favour with the ATE, one of my first KZ’s. But I still like the form factor. Due to the gentler wiring system, it can be more comfortable to wear, especially in bed.

Fit & Finish

The ATR has the same design as the ATE, but a little cheaper. Rather than the ATE’s brass pendants for example, it has the HD9’s plastic pendants. The cable may be a hair thinner. But I admit, one thing that pushed me toward getting it, was the fact that the earpiece is not translucent, like the ATE, but solid black. The Beltist in me says; “That’s probably a good thing, where energy fields are concerned”.

Also, I found a great review on YouTube from Arnold Schwarzenegger, that compares the ATE to the ATR, using a high-tech earphone analyzer device:

 

The Lowdown: The ATR is the close cousin to the KZ “ATE”, coming out just afterward. It would be easy to say, if you’re an opera fan, get the ATE. If you’re a football fan, get the ATR. But that wouldn’t make too much sense.

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Fonge T01 
Price: $2.30 shipped (eBay)

A funny thing happened on the way to ordering the KZ ATR. I came across comparisons of the ATR to this model, the Fonge T01 (also found under the brand name “QKZ” as the “CK5” model, reviewed below). They may not have quite the same tuning, or quality, but both are said to be “fun” listens. Then I saw a video showing the quality of the Fonge product. Then I had a look at the price. Then back at the video. Then the price again…. and I said… “I’ve got to see what that’s about!”. Even if Fonge just stuffed the shells with half-chewed gummy bears, this is already an incredible value at this price! Because for one, just the cable on it looks to be the same silver-plated cable found on an “Ultimate Ears” IEMs, that cost 30 times the Fonge!

 

The Fonge “T01”. Sorry, I mean the “Sunorm SE-950”. Not to be confused with the Fonge “T01”.

Fit & Finish

Y’ever go to the carnival, and find one o’ those grabby claw machines, where you try to pull out a plastic dinosaur egg from under a pile of junk, and if you get lucky, inside it is a nifty colourful toy? Well, this Fonge T01 not only looks like it could fit inside one of those eggs, but that it belongs in there. But don’t let the fact that it looks like a 25c claw machine toy put you off. That’s just looks! Still, I could do without the bright blue gel earpieces that look like Tide pods, and the shiny white-gel liquorice candy wire.

It all may look ‘toyish’, but build-wise, the T01 is really a remarkably good design, for its price. And no wonder, Fonge had the good sense to steal it off the “Sunorm SE-950” (pictured left). Thankfully, the concept of “patent law” hasn’t yet caught up with China. It doesn’t have that fancy silver-plated “UE” cable I spoke about after all. Instead, it appears to be the same twisted pair wire found on the “MemT X5” IEM, which retails for about $21us. And for which “Phonograph.net” said of that wire “It is solidly built and looks like it could last a long time”. So yes, I agree. The wire is still very nicely made, with no obvious weak points I can see. Though the MS16 is the closest, I don’t think I have anything quite like it. It’s pretty thin but feels sturdy. It has a slippery, rubbery and almost greasy feel to it. It’s really white wire in a transparent coating. It actually has memory wire tubing up top, for an over-the-ear fit. Since its just pre-formed tubing (like with the KZ ZSN but in a cheaper version), the fit system is darn comfortable. Unlike some of the metal memory wire systems.

“MemT X5”. (Copyright on wire design not applicable in China).

The 3.5mm plug is red-banded, but thankfully, not gold plated. The plug’s housing even appears to be metal, but don’t be fooled, it’s likely plastic.  The in-line mic controller looks cheap, but the buttons have a nice tactile feel. And guess what, it has a volume slider! That’s already unusual, even more so that it’s a resistor-type limiter. Meaning it does not control the volume on your phone or player, it lowers the volume of the earphone itself. This detail makes it compatible with any player. Yes, even the original Sony Walkman from 1975, if you intend to use it with that! Though the play/pause and volume were indeed compatible with my iPhone. (I didn’t test it on any of my Androids, but if it works on iPhone, it should work on that).

The earpieces are phenomenal, for this price! They’re not chunky Russian-style affairs, as one might assume. They’re sculpted, ergonomic, translucent and perilously close to the KZ ZS3 design. Moreover, as they have ZS3 connecting plugs at the end, they appear to be detachable! I mean come on, have you ever seen an IEM with a detachable wire for less than $3?! Me neither. That’s because they’re not detachable. But I’ve seen YouTube reviewers try to remove the cables on these and all I can do is helplessly scream at the computer screen…. ‘No, they’re not detachable, you idiot! Yer just gonna break ’em!! Are you listening, hello?!! Is this thing on??

Those detachable-looking non-detachable connectors do not have the usual “L” or “R” markings to identify the channels. I guess “Fonge” forgot that people usually have two ears, and they’re placed on different sides of the head. Or maybe it would have cost too much to emboss “L” and “R” in them, I don’t know. The controller is in the middle, not on one of the wires leading to the earpiece. So you won’t get any clue there. But as with the ZS3, because of the design, they’ll only fit correctly when in the correct ear. If say, you have to twist the earpiece around the pre-formed memory wire when you fit the wire so it trails off the back of the ear, then you know you have it in the wrong ear.

There was only one set of eartips included in my shipment. M size red-bore domes, similar to what  you find stock on some KZ models. They feel a little bulky, so they’re not really comfortable for me to wear for any length of time. But they fit my ears perfectly, and make a right good seal. Though these tips also make a good seal on the KZ HD9, I get a better seal when they’re fitted to the Fonge. Which means the Fonge makes a great seal. All of it is shipped in a plain zip-loc bag, so… no frills at this price! I love it when all the money goes into the product. Well, let’s fire up the ol’ dynamic driver and see what this baby can do!…

Sound

“The fact that I heard the Fonge T01 right after the initial test for the Einsear T2 (before experimenting with eartips etc.), is not good. Not for the Einsear, anyway. “

In short, the Fonge T01 has an excellent sound. Not just an excellent sound for a $2.30 cent IEM, but an excellent sound. They get pretty much everything right, for me. No small feat by any means! This includes bass that is strong and supportive, but not where the “smell of bass permeates everything”. In other words, they’re just on the warm side of balanced. With the stock eartips, they provide an “incandescent sound”. A warm-ish sound, where the highs are there but rolled off somewhat. This assures they will not be tiring to listen to. The mids are thankfully not aggressive, and only on the shriekiest of tracks do I hear a bit of hardness, due I believe to the limitations of the driver quality. I mean, I have to go looking for that, it doesn’t find me.

It also includes “liquidity”, which is astonishing at this price! That quality of accurate timbre and the engagement it provides, is really the T01’s ace in the hole. It’s found in very few of the IEM’s here, and is not IMO, a KZ strong suit. Indeed, it is the reason I found myself immediately closing my eyes and being drawn into the music, with the Fonge. I don’t know if that has ever happened with the KZ ATE, for example. It has a decent, but not incredibly large soundstage size, which is set back just a bit, and good image placement.

Looking for flaws to recount, all I could really find is a small soundstage relative to its big brother competition, and the lack of detail and separation that that entails. It might mean the T01 won’t make an ideal monitor for critical analysis, but it’s not the worst I’ve heard in that regard either. I guess there are limitations to what $2 worth of earphones can buy you, after all. I like that OOTB, it does not need correcting (unlike the T2). Although I would still change the eartips, to something more comfortable for me.

Sound Leak: Surprisingly, the sound leakage is low. Less leaking than on the Einsear T2. This I would say, is a good candidate for bed. For the sound leakage, and for the fact that it lies flat when in your ear.

n.b.: T2 v. T01: I don’t meant to suggest, following what I wrote at the top of this section, the T01 is better than the Einsear, which I tested just prior to this.  I wrote that when I discovered the sound of the T01 was better than the T2, but before I discovered the T2 was much much better than what was originally determined! As I explained in the review for the T2. The T2 for one, has a much higher level of resolution. But without comparing them side by side, the T01 provides a warmer and perhaps more ‘liquid’ sound.

n.b.: KZ ZSN v. T01: Would you believe it if I told you the $2.30 T01 was better than the $20 KZ ZSN? I wouldn’t either. And it isn’t. Except it is. Let me explain!…

One time, I was listening to the ZSN right after hearing the T01. And I found the T01 to have much, much fuller bass, and a more liquid sound. That liquid sound once again, meant the T01 was more musically engaging than the ZSN. Three things to note about this;

  1. These are the only qualities I would say without reservation, were better.
  2. It was a casual ‘test’. So I did not ensure they both had the same eartips, to remove that from the equasion. The T01 had white generic wide-bore silicone tips. The ZSN had generic black wide-bore double-flange tips.
  3. Because it was just casual listening, I don’t think the ZSN’s were properly and well engaged in my ear. At least I assume they weren’t, because I’ve heard them perform better in the past. Even so, the ZSN won’t completely eradicate the advantages I found, in comparing them with the T01. High praise indeed, as the ZSN’s are, “on paper”, the best earphone of this project.

Shootout: Fonge T01 vs. KZ HD9

As I sit here, I am almost afraid of pitting the Fonge T01 against my beloved KZ HDR! I no… I can’t! It will shatter my world to pieces! Buy the Fonge T01 if you wan’t, I don’t care! Just keep it away from any and all of my KZ HDR’s! Yeah, even the lousy black one with the mic! And if it’s better, I don’t wanna know!  👿

Ok, I don’t want to have to do this but…. it would kill me not to find out as it would to find out, which is the better buy.  I used the T01’s eartips for both IEM’s, and Metric’s “Rock Me Now” as the test song. With Emily Haines as my guide, how can I go wrong? The end result is that, as I had feared, the Fonge “gives strong competition” to the KZ HDR. Which is another way of saying it wipes up the floor with it.  🙁  But don’t close the lights just yet, read on! Details are your friend! The T01 has the larger soundstage, more detail, firmer bass (indicating superior timbral resolution), greater separation, and it grooves quite nicely, if that weren’t enough. For most people, that will do it straight away, every time. Not for the Advanced Audiophile, note!

There was still something that said to me I would probably be happier with my white HD9, in the long run, had I to choose. To be sure, it gives a warmer sound, which some will read as “more coloured”. But there is something in that warmth in the HD9 that makes it more appealing, makes me a more happier listener. This was intended to be a brief test comparison, because I’m afraid I just don’t have the time to spend on something like this, to convey just what it might be, by doing a lot of back and forths.

I can only say that for now, under these test conditions, the HD9 was a bit more satisfying, musically. If it were a lunch I was testing, then I’d feel fuller at the end of the meal after ordering the HD9. Note, none of this applies to the black HD9, which I evaluated just prior to testing the white. The black HD9 does not have the same sense of warmth and ‘musicality’ as the white sample I have, as I discuss elsewhere. The black does exhibit a bit more detail and clarity than the white version. The black HD9 does not however, IMO, beat the T01 in any sense that I can easily determine. Frankly, at these prices, I would just get both and donate the one I like least as a prize at the local Bingo hall. You’ll make someone’s nana happy, so we’ll call it a win-win.

 

Tweaking

My comments throughout this review, including the Conclusion sections, have been based on the very efficient red-bore dome tips that came with it. But they’re not very comfortable, so half the fun is seeing where I can take the T01’s with different eartips. The one’s I settled on are cheap, soft, floppy generic wide-bore white silicone tips in M size. Wow, they make a difference. Seems like they quintupled the cost, because they pretty much took away traces of muddiness. This firmed up the bass, brought out mid/high highlights, and melodies that made me groove to the music that much more. A good balance of things. Interestingly, I tried large black ones of the very same type, and they did not open up the mids etc. like the whites. After installing tips like these, read some reviews on the T01 that say it’s too warm, and you’ll go… “What is he talking about??“.

After installing tips like these, you can even say that about mine, on the part where I say these are not ideal for critical listening! On the contrary, after hearing my recording mixes with these wide-bore tips, I found I can make out my vocals better than most of the models I’ve used so far. With that little development, it’s harder now to find anything significant to criticize about the sound of the T01’s, irregardless of price.

So yeah, basically, with these earphones and the right tips and for about $3 dollars and 50 cents, you are rockin‘!

n.b. I add a few more observations about my experiences with adding the Einsear T2 stock eartips, to the Fonge T01’s, in the “About Tip-Rolling” sub-section of my “Overall Conclusion” summary, for this project.

Conclusion: STRONGLY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED**. There, how does that look? Ok, I hesitate to give the Fonge T01 a “HIGHLY RECOMMENDED”, only because it doesn’t quite meet the level of resolution as some of the other IEM’s and earbuds reviewed, that nevertheless, did not necessarily get “HIGHLY RECOMMENDED” ratings. However, for anywhere near its price range, it can certainly befit a “HIGHLY RECOMMENDED” rating.

**Sorry. I wrote this conclusion before tip-rolling! After a prolonged listening session with alternative tips and the slight reassessment that follows, I think with a careful change of tips, the Fonge T01’s can, at least on qualities that matter most, hold their own against most of the models that have come in, so far. So I do believe I will still sleep peacefully, after giving them a “HIGHLY RECOMMENDED” rating. See “Tweaking” section!

The Lowdown: Without looking at the price tag, and ignoring the fact that it looks like it came out of a gum-ball machine, the Fonge T01 distinguishes itself as a smooth sailor. A sound that right off the bat provides just enough bass, midrange, highs, detail, imaging and soundstage to be convincing, without leaving you feeling like anything is too off balance. Though fans of either deep bass or sparkly treble might not get their fix here, the whole thing comes together in a neat little package that provides a surprising sense of engagement with the music. Due in part to relatively accurate reproduction of timbre. All without the usual side effect of a mid or high end that is too shouty and aggressive. Though I wouldn’t say it’s completely exempt from this effect, depending on a few factors, but then few IEM’s I’ve tested are.

Change the default tips to wide bores, as described in the “Tweaking” section, and these IEMs immediately get more balanced, and better than they have a right to be. If you start looking at earphones that hover around $1 dollar mark, it’s a major leap to go from most of them, to this. At an incredibly low total outlay of $2.30, a build quality not much worse than 10x its price, and a sound quality that might give IEM’s 20x its price a run for their money, I would be inclined to say the Fonge T01 offers the best Q2P (Quality-To-Price) ratio of any earphone reviewed here thus far. No minor accomplishment, that. Given it’s Chi-Fi we’re talking about, and the high value returns on these products. To be firmly classified under the “no-brainer” category.

.


QKZ “CK5”   
Price: $2.50 shipped (AliExpress)

In my review above for the Fonge “T01”, I mention that the QKZ “CK5” is basically a re-branding of the T01. So this is a ‘special’ review that may not be testing a ‘different’ model per se, but what the differences between two similar models might or might not reveal about the universe, and everything in it.

As you can read in the review for the Fonge, I was so impressed by it, I had to get a back up (before they dry up…). I read some comments about the “iffy” build quality of these models, even though I see and have had no issues myself. You never know, so this guy is just insurance against that guy. But if we’re getting a back up of the Fonge… why not get the QKZ version? It will answer the question that I’m sure is on many people’s minds…. is there a difference between the two?

QKZ’s newest model, known simply as “The Masochist”. It explodes in your ear after 2 minutes of insertion. It brings pain. You go crazy. You throw it out. Everybody’s happy. Now selling @ the low low price of $4.99.

I know from my experience with the Edifier H180 and the Philips SHE3800 earbuds, or even the black and the white KZ HD9 IEM’s, that two earphones can look exactly alike, and sound quite to very different. I can already see differences visually, between this “rebranded” QKZ model, and the Fonge. First, it has a different logo on the earpieces.  Then, the colour of the connector (gold instead of silver). There’s also the fact that I specifically ordered it in red, because the Fonge is blue. If nothing else, experiments I’ve detailed with earbud foams show that the colour makes a difference in the sound. And I don’t know about you, but I am curious to know what, if any, those differences might be.

Sound Leakage: With a pair of KZ M Starline tips, secured on the nozzle far as they’ll go, at about 70% vol, the sound leakage here is incredibly low. At 70% vol I can barely hear they are working, when they are a few inches from your ear. 8.75-9/10 for leakage. With wide bore tips, leakage is significant. (n.b… If I remove my finger from the open end of the tips; plenty of sound. If i cover them, almost silent.)

 

Fit & Finish

Well, unlike some of the photos of the CK5 that show a different controller, etc., the QKZ CK5 I received has wire and controller that looks exactly like the Fonge T01. Only visual difference really, is the colour and logo.

Another reason to get the QKZ CK5 instead of the Fonge T01, is for the extra goodies it comes with. Typical of QKZ’s, is a nice sealable hard plastic storage container that stores and protects the earphone very well, during travel. Another is a full set of eartips (the Fonge only came with one pair), and lastly, earhooks (removable silicone hook-shaped memory wire tubing). This can be installed on any earphone to create a memory wire system, and I was already curious to try these, to see if they’re more comfortable than the metal memory wire systems. All well worth the .20c extra paid!

Earhooks: The earhooks feel like they’re made of dead gummy bears, and are comfortable to wear. Though not as much as wearing the earphones without them, of course. The earphones already come with a clear, pre-shaped tubing to help shape them around the ear. The earhooks however, make it all more secure. Not sure if they’re necessary, since they don’t fall out. But perhaps during a lot of physical activity, it would help. The only question is, do they affect the sound? I thought they might, and in fact, after an a/b test, I find they do. Things are a bit less well defined. I just can’t say without further testing, if this is due to the tips or natural fluctuations in sound.

Fit: The fit is quite nice. With the default M dome tips, it fits flush and locks out sound quite well.

 

Sound

I started off the session with a track I had been using a lot lately, in tests on models such as the QKZ DM1, UiiSii HM7, Sony MH755, etc. This CK5 version sounded better than what I remember of those other renditions. The bass, for example, was so well defined, it had nuances I did not hear in the others. Highs might not have been quite as well defined, but were certainly present, and not in any unwanted manner. Most of all, it was musical. I was really getting into the track.

In terms of timbre, it truly is the Audio Note Ongaku of $3 earphones. (But I’ll leave you, dear reader, to figure out what that means, :mrgreen: !). If it isn’t actually the very best example of timbre in this entire series, it is up there among the best. I am including those terribly good Monk-class earbuds in this assessment, btw. Good reproduction of timbre, of course, is the key to the musical kingdom. It gives you the “fun listen” component. It transmits the emotional messages. It doesn’t make the brain struggle so hard to realize it is listening to the sound of musical instruments. Plus it washes your dirty laundry and punches your parking ticket.

TWEAKING: Eartips

Double-Layer:  The default tips kind of suck, creating a muddy sound. Double-flange tips are much better, as expected. The drumstick in the opening of Metric’s “Rock Me Now” is on the verge of harshness, but otherwise ok. Bass with these tips are deeper and better defined. Sound is more open, but piano lacks sparkle, still.

Einsear T2 tips: If you read the review on the Einsear, you’ll see I wasn’t enamoured with the eartips they came with. Somehow, on the CK5, I am getting really amazing sound out of this little thing, with the M-size grey, silicone, demi-cone wide-bore T2 tips. They gave texture and nuance to the elements of sound, and a delicate sweetness that translates into a “light musicality”. I don’t know what beats this sound in my burgeoning collection, but, it’s just too good for the entry fee. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, with IEMs, eartips make all the difference in the world!

KZ Starlines: A not bad sound was acheived with the KZ Starline tips. Timbre was not quite as good as the Double Flange or the Einsear T2, and bass was not quite as well defined. But the sound was a bit punchier and clarity was still pretty good (better than with the T2 tips), without being too much. Not my fave, but it passes muster.

 

QKZ “CK5” (Red) vs Fonge “T01” (Blue)

Now, the moment of truth…. is this the very same earphone as the Fonge T01, as it looks to be? Remember, they could be using different drivers or other components internally, externally, or they could just be stamping their logo on it. (Tips used for test were the M-size double flange type).

As compared with the CK5, the Fonge had more controlled, focused, better bass, but an otherwise similar sound. The CK5 had a sharper, ‘zingier’ sound. It seems more like a batch production difference, than say, a driver difference. For this reason, I can’t say 100% the Fonge sounds better than the QKZ. Because if its a batch difference, maybe another CK5 can sound better than another T01.

n.b. Disturbing a perfect analysis here, is the fact that there are natural “Beltist’ phenom that creates audible differences, each time I redo the test. Piercing through that, across the Fonge sounding worse the next session than the first go, I can still tell that the Fonge is not as sharp sounding.

 

Conclusion: What can I say, I love listening to the QKZ CK5 and the Fonge T01. It gets everything right, for me. And I’m a picky listener. It gets the lows right; well defined but not overbearing. It gets the mids right; forward, prominent, clear, expressive, and somehow, it’s one of the best earphones I’ve erecieved for monitoring my vocal mixes. Which is actually my toughest test for an earphone! Finally, for me anyway, the highs are great. They’re more “hint of highs”, because they’re not super extended, like the Sony or UiiSii. But unlike those, they are entirely free from sibilance and never ever tiring, no matter what.

Does that mean they’re the best earphones on the planet, regardless of price? Yes. That’s exactly what it means. Sorry, I mean “no, don’t be silly”. If I compare them to costlier phones, say ten times the price, then certain limitations are magnified. The soundstage is… humble. (read: small-ish). A lot of the times, the sound is mostly in the head, rather than around it. Imaging isn’t as precise as on, say the UiiSii. On some songs, I felt I could hear some distortion… but since they’re my recordings, that could very well be the recordings. Still, I wouldn’t expect them to play loud under amplified condition without some distortion. They can get a tiny bit rough in the upper mids on loud passages. Not aggressively so. Just kind of like you have an EQ on. Even though I don’t normally test with an EQ.

 


MRice E100 
Price: $4.81 shipped (AliExpress)

If you just read the 3-star rated Amazon page for the “MRice E100”, with all the sucky reviews, you would not get the impression you had landed on anything special whatsoever. On AliExpress, it just gets lost in the swarm of 10 zillion other earphones. It pays to read further, however. This has to be the most controversial earphone of the entire lot. I chose this because of its unique design, eye-opening reviews, and because it looks great. It even won an “IF Design” award, whatever that is….

But I really didn’t know about this one. The disparity among opinions on the E100 is absolutely insane. 1-star reviews on Amazon for sound quality, while some commenters on Head-Fi compared it to $1,000 headphones! And yeah, I meant to say headphones. All over the internet, it was like that. The opinions ranged from “Shit, utter shit”, to others saying it was the best earbud they’d ever heard. One audiophile review site said the soundstage it produced was equivalent in size to his $1,000 JH16 custom IEM’s! Adding that in overall terms, the E100 sounds almost identical to his $250 Sony 1R headphones, more airy than his $1,500 JH16 Pro custom IEM’s, and makes his Sennheiser MX985 earbud  (currently available on Amazon for $1,000), sound “bland and lifeless”. Some said the build quality was absolutely amazing for the price, well above expectation. Others said it sucked giant bags of eggs, and broke in their hands.

MRice “E100”, white, no mic.

Has it got your attention yet?  🙂

MRice E100: The Origin Story

There’s a huge backstory around this model, which I will only touch on briefly, here. The earbud was originally made by a company called “Baldoor Chintek”, and sold as the “Baldoor Earbell E100”. It was also seen on Amazon as both the “GranVela Earbell E100”, and as the “Chintek RJ Baldoor E100”, and simply the “Mrice E100”. I’ve seen it sold on Amazon India as the “GENERIC Mrice E100”, with the brand named as “Baldoor”, and the model name as “MRice E100”. It was said that a company called “MRice” ‘successfully’ cloned the “Baldoor” product. (I don’t know how much of this is legal, but then, it is China we’re talking about..). Some of the good reviews are covering the “Baldoor” version, some the “MRice”. But it’s also called the “Baldoor MRice”, as some owners received the product branded with both names!

MRice “E100”

The reason for all the controversy, can be explained by one Head-Fi’er, who complained to MRice that only 2-3 out of about 40 samples of his Baldoor E100 had the amazing sound he had come to love. He said all the rest were awful, in comparison. He sent them one of the good samples, so they could identify the driver and continue using that driver’s source for the model. They never sent it or communicated back. To make matters more confusing, some enthusiasts segment the E100 into 3 versions; Mark 1/Mark 2/Mark 3. It’s not clear if any one of them is the “good” version, or if getting the holy-grail version of the E100 was always going to be a crapshoot.

For those reasons, I kept wavering between “No way am I getting near this thing!” to “Gotta get it! I gotta!!“, depending on what I was reading at the moment. Even though I knew if I did, I’d be taking a risk on getting a dud. But how bad could that dud be? Ok, I read one commenter saying the new stock on Ali is not as good (except maybe Mk.3??….). But if the “good” E100 compares to $1,000 earphones…. I really don’t mind if the one I get is as good as, say… $300 earphones?!  😉  I was too curious by now, not to take a risk on checking them out. Especially since they cost less on Ali than the cost of your time reading this intro!  😈  Also, one reviewer said about buying the E100, that one would be “stupid not to, at the price”. I took that as a personal challenge. After all, I don’t want to be called “stupid” by a stranger on the internet, do I?? So two months later, here we are, with a brand new “MmmmRice E100” in my possession.

Fit & Finish

With its bullhorn/bell shaped earpiece, it’s easy to notice the MRice E100 looks like a close cousin to the Headroom MS16, reviewed here. The E100 however, was chosen for a few unique features. It is said to have the smallest shell of any earbud. (I had my SO in mind when choosing it). This in fact, may be one of the reasons for all the controversy. Which yes, even extends to the fit of the device!

Sideways, cord around-the-ear.
Sideways, cord down.

For some, this earpiece is one of the most comfortable they’ve ever tried. For others, they can’t stand wearing it for more than an hour or so. The foam plays a central role here. Some may have given the earbud terrible reviews, because they were using it without the included foams, and it did not create a good seal. In which case, a foam-less E100 might sound “awful”, in ways that are aligned with at least some of the negative comments seen. It will also be more likely to not fit larger ears without the foams, because of its size. It’s diminutive size may still not work for some people with the foams, so I can’t say. Also, some people have been wearing the bell-shaped earpieces sideways, with the driver end facing north (see pics), to improve both fit and sound (without foams, in this case). In fact, some of the glowing opinions you read on this are based on that type of fitting. This effective method can also be used with regular earbuds, which prompted me to write a sub-article here entitled; “A Better Way To Wear Buds“.

“Look, I know it’s your first week on the job, but again, try to remember… boxes DON’T go through the tiny mail slot!”.
MRice “E100” with all the fixin’s.

Another reason I was curious about the E100, is because even in just the photos, it really looks to be made well above what you’d expected for $5 of earphone! The wire is not only much thicker than earphones of this price range, it is triangular in shape, even if it appears flat in some photos. A patented design, apparently, which may be unique to this model. That’s said to help the tangling issue greatly, and reportedly, it does. The connector is large, and also a unique design. Though one Amazon reviewer complained about the plastic connector shell coming unglued.

Unlike the Headroom MS16, the E100 is one of the very few earbuds that does not have a tail piece, coming down from the headshell. The wire is the tail piece. I quite like that, as wire is softer and more flexible than metal or plastic, if ever it is in the way of your ear lobes. This and the bell shaped back end of the earpiece makes wearing the device sideways in your ear, that much more viable.

MRice “E100” with complimentary foam covers.

Finish:

The E100 came to me in a commercial retail box. Included were 2 pairs of neoprene-ish peach-fuzz velvety feeling foam covers. Comparable to those that came with the Headroom MS16. Except these are a unique beige colour, and one of the pairs is donut foams. A very nice touch! Speaking of which, the entire thing is packaged in a reusable, closable clear vinyl travel bag. Without the benefit of hearing them yet, I have to say, on presentation, the MRice E100 gives above average value for the selling price. And one benefit… no in-line remote on this version! (You did not have this option with the MS16).

MRice “E100” in polyvinyl bag with QC and warranty cards.

The cord used is something else. It is similar to both the texture and rubbery feel of an elastic, but without the springback. Actually, it’s not unlike some turntable drive belts I’ve come across. It is indeed the most tangle-free wire of all the earphones tested. In fact, all in all, I would go so far as to say it’s the best earphone wire of any tested, and my favourite type.

Furthermore, just from an industrial design perspective, the MRice E100 is the Porsche-Carrera of the earphone world. With its triangular housing pieces and gracefully bell-shaped earpieces, a really nice looking design. Atypically, the MRice E100 comes with both a warranty card, and a quality control certification card. It may not mean too much in the real world, but that does give some confidence that they stand behind their production quality.

Fit: Fitting the earpieces straight in, without foams… really nice fit. They stay in place really well, and are super comfortable. I think, more comfortable in my ears, than any other earbud tested. Naturally it feels a bit more stuffed with the foams on, but again, they stay in very well and remain pretty comfortable.

Energy: In terms of their Beltic “energy”, there were no weird/bad energy vibes, like I had with the Philips SHE3800 yesterday (see review). A pretty neutral feel, which only got a bit worse when plugged into my player!

Sound

The infamous RJ Baldoor Chintek MRice GranVela Consuela Maria Jose Margarita Nino Pinta Santa Maria Pepito “E100”.

First Impressions:

E100 Without Foams: Ok, the moment of truth. Did I get lucky? Did I get a sample of the E100 that inspired comparisons to $1,000 earphones, or did I get a dud? It seems more like I bought a lottery scratch ticket than an earphone! The answer is….

The E100’s sound without foams was… wow. It was “wow”! I was listening at a lower than normal volume, because the E100’s don’t play as loud at the same volume as most of the others. But still, what I heard was a very very natural sound. No part of it stood out. Which meant it was very well balanced, tonally. I also noticed, right off, a “musical” quality. Which the Headroom MS16 as I recall, wasn’t that strong in. While the MRice’s could easily be listened to without foams, I will stop here and go put some socks on them. This is how most buds are and should normally be heard.

E100’s With Foams: Much as I liked the similarly-designed Headroom M16’s, I prefer these E100’s. Within no time, my eyes were closing shut, music was getting into my head, and during some  climactic moments in the music, I was getting the shivers. All these are signs that point to “Musicality-ville”. Tickets to Musicality-ville normally don’t sell for $5 bucks, btw.

The bass parts here were well integrated and defined, though not powerful. To nitpick, mids could get a tiny bit shrill in some cases, but for a rare change, that shrillness was welcome! It is absolutely not aggressive, and could also be viewed as “extra clarity”. In fact, the sound as a whole was never once sibilant, or piercing. Highs are not peaky or extended enough to be piercing. I say “nothing stands out”, because both highs and lows are not extended, and neither are the mids. This gives the sound a natural wholeness and balance, across the spectrum. I do wish more earphones had a nice natural balance, like this.

Let’s get to the weaknesses: I have to go searching a bit for them, really, but the two biggest are resolution and detail. The soundstage is relatively small, and feels smaller than what I recall of the MS16’s. Given their price point and all, they have limitations in their ability to resolve information at higher levels. Meaning they are not detailed enough for purposes such as monitoring, and may struggle with separating elements in complex recordings. It seems I am sometimes hearing just a bit of distortion around the bass at louder volumes. This became far more evident when plugged into my computer, and using the E100’s for monitoring recordings.

Under this scenario, the MRice broke up at normal amplified volumes, causing most of the details to become lost in a haze of harmonic distortion. Ok so let’s get this straight…  they’re strictly straight up portable player ‘phones, ‘kay?! Do they look like recording monitors, you tell me?!

Shootout: Headroom M16 vs. MRice E100

Makes sense to compare the MRice E100 to the Headroom MS16, since they both share a lot of similar features. So I did a brief comparison. And though it had been a while since I heard the MS16, the differences were basically what I thought. The MS16 had a much larger soundstage, but the E100’s had a more musical and ‘liquid’ sound. Again, I prefer the MRice, for sound. I think it will be no different comparing the MRice to the VE Monk+, in only in this regard. Even the Monk’s, from my recollection, don’t quite meet the resolution of timbre, the MRice offers.

Well… I guess it’s better than “Earphones are like a box o’ chocolates…”.

Tweaking:

Sideways-fit: To follow what I wrote above about how some people are wearing these sideways, the MRice E100 are one of the few earphones you comfortably fit sideways. (See the “Fit” section for details). Just don’t adjust them while playing music, because the driver tends to “crinkle” upon adjustment (from the pressure), and it may not be healthy to pass a signal through it when that’s happening.

Worn sideways, as expected, they sound like another earphone entirely. Soundstage opens up greatly, and the sound is lighter, because detail is much more abundant. Yet bass is better, more open and defined. Which all sounds great, except they are not nearly as secure in this position. You might only be able to achieve it sitting quietly in a chair, and not moving! YMMV.

 

MRice “E100”

Conclusion: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The E100 endeared itself to me rather quickly, both on observation and play. I can’t really use them to monitor my own mixes, for their lack of detail, but I can use them to get a lot of pleasure just listening to music.. They are, as is said, a “fun listen”. Like a good book, they were hard to put down! On aggressive music, they are not. Not at the cost of mid or high end detail either. That is no mean feat in itself, as for example, most KZ’s I’ve heard can’t overcome this problem.

The E100’s do “liquid” sound, which few of the earphones featured here can achieve. That is one of their strong qualities. They may not have as much of a refined “audiophile” sound, as some of the Monk-class MX500 buds can offer, and can sound muddy in comparison. However, if they are worn sideways, as described in this review and elsewhere, then they can surpass other Monk-class buds. Also, the MX500 (aka “Monk-class”) buds all seem to have some part of the sound that stops them from being perfectly neutral and balanced. Be that too much bass, not enough, too dark a high end, too shy a midrange, etc. Not so the MRice.

But let’s be clear, I don’t feel the MRice E100 lives up to all of the hype surrounding them, that I read about on the way here! Frankly, I don’t know what could, at $5! So I can’t imagine how these could compare in any way, to any ‘phones hovering anywhere near $1,000. At least, not the version that I bought. In but one sense, they betray their low price, with their limitations in definition. But don’t drive them too hard, and they certainly sound like they cost a lot more than $5 bucks! In their ability to convey the musical message… yes, that I could see might win over many costlier models. Earphones, any audio devices really, that are engaging due to timbral accuracy… are not a dime a dozen, believe me.

WITH RESERVATIONS?:

I was going to add “WITH RESERVATIONS” to my recommendation, but only for one simple reason: given the disparity in the net-wide comments on this model, I really can’t guarantee you get the same quality E100 as what I received. Especially if you don’t get it from the same source. So while I don’t know if there are sources out there selling better editions of the E100, than what I got. I can at least say my review is based on the source linked in the title of it!

I also don’t know if the next E100 sent out by my seller will sound exactly the same! For example, this same seller, “Eson Team Store”, sells on another ad page the exact same MRice E100 for about $3 more! I checked and both models have the exact same designation, same colour choices, same type (no mic), same accessories, same warranty card! Do they charge less for mine because it is older stock? Who knows, but if so, that may be a plus in this case! So while I can’t know if it is or isn’t as good as the original “Baldoor-Chintek E100” model that “eargear sluts” raved about “back in the day”…. I can say I am very happy with the purchase, and would buy another in a New York minute.

The Lowdown: The MRice E100 does everything right, where I’m concerned. It’s unusually well designed, looks great, light in weight, with a build quality and warranty card that both inspire confidence. It has a supremely comfortable fit, with or without foams, that seems well suited for smaller ears. It offers a natural sound, with an excellent tonal balance and sense of involvement. Its weaker points are the limited detail and soundstage, the weaker than average output, and a sensitivity to loud volume levels. (It breaks up under amplification, in my case). At this price point, you can do “different”… but you can’t really do “better”.

.


FENGRU “DIY MX500” 
Price: $3.86 shipped (AliExpress)

Hacking A Path Through The MX500 Jungle

The whole idea behind what “MX500” stands for confuses even me. And I’m not alone on that. All I can do is try to shine a bit of light in its general direction… Again, “MX500” is what is called the type of shell used for this and many other Chi-Fi earbuds, like the VE Monks. But it’s also the name designated to many models of earbuds, because it uses that shell. And “FENGRU” is just the seller’s name. It’s anyone’s guess as to who actually makes these. To make things even more baffling for the consumer, sellers on AliExpress add not only their own brand to the designation (ie. “FENGRU”, “WOOEASY” “NICEHCK”, etc.), but they vary the descriptor. e.g. The full title in the ad for this earbud was “New FENGRU CMX500 DIY MX500 In-ear Flat Head Plug DIY Earphone HiFi Bass Earbuds DJ Earbuds Heavy Bass Sound Quality With Mic“. So which is it? An “MX500”? A “DIY MX500”? A “CMX500”? A “GMX500”? An “EMX500”?? And since when do DJ’s use earbuds??? Enough already! I give up!  🙁

My concerns here are shared by the headgear audio community, as everyone is confused as to what is what in the “MX500 soup” on Ali, and which are the ones to go for. It is of no help at all, that it’s difficult to find any comments on this  Fengru MX500 variation, and the only review I could find on it was a YouTube video. But that was only an unboxing video. In a language so foreign I couldn’t even name it, let alone understand a word of it. But great, at least now I know what the box looks like.

In fact, in yet another TAA world exclusive, this is likely to be the only English language review you find on this version of the Fengru DIY MX500, on the internet! Which is precisely why I avoided getting a straight “MX500”-tagged earbud… until the last minute. I prefer to do my gambling in Las Vegas, not Shenzen. I only got this because I made the mistake of letting my SO listen to my newly acquired Ry4S. After which she commandeered it from me!  👿  This would do as a sub, because a “regular” type of “DIY MX500” earbud was the last one on my shortlist, of earphones I had designated to check out.

Because of all these variations, when you read someone praising the MX500, you have to know which one they are talking about. Some complained about receiving an MX500 variation (ie. “EMX500”, with red shells and a twisty white cable) and saying it sounded awful. The variations can have different cables, where some look like the typical black rubber wire on the VE Monk+, some look like the brown twisty wire on ZS3 OFC Upgrade cable, some look like this basic-KZ looking one on the Fengru!

Aside from the sound differences different types of wire make, or simply colours of the same looking wire, they might have different drivers in the headshells. Even if the shells all look the same. Certainly the connectors can be different, and that too affects the sound. I chose the MOR model. The one with the black headshells, straight brown wire and my (usually) preferred straight connector, made of metal. But most enthusiasts go for the fancier twisty wire versions (at about 2x the cost or more of this version). I don’t naturally assume the twisties are better than this, but I can certainly concede that they could be.

Fit & Finish

For a product priced at the incredibly modest sum of $3.86 u.s., you can be certain this model holds a high level of fit and finish. It has had a wire upgrade, and the wire alone would sell for more than the total price. The shells are the same as on models that cost several hundred dollars, from Venture Electronics. The metal fixings alone could easily run you the total cost, if bought separately. So even if it does not work at all, it’s already a good value! The cable might be used to fix or upgrade a Monk, for example. I figure there’s gotta be a reason why it’s so cheap (in cost), and maybe that mystery will be solved in the listening test…

Finish:

The Fengru MX500 comes as shown on the left, in plain zippy bag, with 3 pairs of foam covers, in the good ol’ red, white and blue. Cool! The foams are the tight-structure synthetic neoprene-ish type. Not the more open cell and nice sounding VE Monk/FAAEAL type. Consider this reading the sound portion of this review. My listening tests will be based on the original foams, but it implies you can improve the sound by getting some of the aforementioned better foam covers; ie. from Monk or RYgmr. It has a single button inline-remote, alas. I don’t recall if there was an option to forego that.

Ooooh, I like the cable quite a lot on this guy. It appears to be very closely related to the one on the RY4S. While feeling like it might have some silicone material, it doesn’t feel sticky and stick to itself, like the silicone rubber KZ’s. Visually, it looks nice, while remaining understated. It does not try to look like a snake, for example! And although it was shipped in a small bag, unlike most other cables, it had zero kinks and knots in it when extended! Also, I did not have to stretch it on a tube, as I often have to do, to work out the curls and straighten the wire out. That means, this wire is unlikely to tangle. It’s not a large diameter, but it feels very solid and very light. While I have yet to see it after weeks of use, it sure seems like it might be the perfect cable?! The connector is premium, too. Solid metal, knurled at the end.

Fit:

Fit was your typical MX500 bud. Which means “ok”, but not as ok as say, the MRice E100. Still, no issues for me.

Energy: I installed them in my ears without connecting the plug to anything, just to get a “feel” for them, before listening. As I did with the MRice, the Philips, etc. The energy was good. In terms of “Beltic energy”, I felt relatively relaxed with them fitted in my ears. I should note that I used the same method of “energy feedback” to determine which foams to install. Doing so by placing the earpieces on each set of coloured foams, and reading the energy “tea leaves” from that. (Much faster and easier than doing listening tests that “normies”, who can only listen with their ears, have to go through!). White gave the best results. So it can be expected to sound the best with these shells.

Sound

First thing I noticed was a lack of “punch”. The Fengru’s sense of dynamics weren’t as hard-hitting as they could be (on drum beats etc.). The words “Heavy Bass” and “DJ” were the farthest thing from my mind.  Next thing that came to mind, was a squashed soundstage. Kind of like looking at the band playing through the rear window of a black gangster getaway car from a James Cagney flick. But while the soundstage seemed squashed in height, it was not in width. It was plenty wide. The distance was also notable. Though some elements in the music seemed fairly close up, most of it was set a bit aback. But not too much. If you don’t have a front row seat, you had a second or third row. Some people like it when there’s some distance, as it allows you to take in more of the picture.

The next thing I noticed however, was that it may be, at least in some ways, the best earbud I have.  😯 It keeps the beat like nothing I recall hearing, in this review series. The fact that this thing was musical, was unmistakable. Even more musical than MRice E-100, I tested in the moments prior. But whether it was more or less musical than the MX500-shelled “Vido”, exemplary in this area, was the question in my mind. (There was no question to the fact that it was a more refined sound than the Vido). The Fengru, like the Vido, was intensely musical. But not like the Vido. Not the same sort of intensity. Though not as physically powerful in intensity (meaning ie. I wasn’t convulsing in response to the music!), it’s one that drew me even more deeply into the music, than the Vido did. And I was tapping my feet intensely, rhythmically, and perfectly in time. (Yes, these are all direct responses to specific sound signatures like this). Like the Vido, and the first time I heard the VE Monks, etc., afterward, I couldn’t just describe it as a “listen”, but as an “experience”.

In terms of timbre, (that quality that helps you distinguish one instrument from another), it ain’t the best. Nor is it the worst, or all that bad here, either. It’s just that like many devices, it’s adding its own colouration, to the sounds of the musical instruments. This could, for example, be due to a reticence or even a peak, in some frequencies. In terms of tonality, the Fengru MX500 lacks a bit of clarity in mids, and sparkle in the highs. Bass is not impactful. But like the MRice, the fact that its extended in none of the three ranges, really means it’s pretty evenly balanced in all three! It makes for a natural sound, so long as you don’t expect any part of it to show up to the party with whizzers and party hats.

Shootout: Vido vs. Fengru

Though from memory, I’m sure the RY4S are better, the Fengru seem to be in the same ballpark as those. I don’t know whether to compare the Fengru MX500 to the RY4S or the Vido, as it appears to be a combination of the two. So why don’t we just pit the Fengru’s against both of them….

Vidos, surprisingly, show much more accurate timbre, a fuller sound, more upfront stage-wise (but more narrow soundstaging), more bass, more treble, and maybe a more forward mid. But Fengru keeps pace better. The Vido has a bit of an icier sound tonally, while the Fengru is more transparent and clear. This, and the increased separation, makes the Fengru more suitable for musical analysis. But FWIW, as musical as the Vidos are, I have more of a tendency to forget I’m doing a listening test, when with the Fengru. So it can’t really be considered an ‘analytical’ sound, either.

All in all, I have to say… they’re quite close, in relative terms. Every time one bud moves up in the race in one area, the other moves up past it, and they continue on this way! I think if I was pressed to buy only one, it’d have to be the Vido. M. Vido has a more ‘correct’, full, rich, balanced sound — on the surface of things. But at this price, I wouldn’t have to choose! Both are mighty interesting earbuds. Neither beats the VE Monk+…. and both beat the VE Monk+! Depending, again, on the qualities being compared!

Shootout: Fengru Vs. RY4S

This contest was over in a matter of seconds for me. The Ry4S was superior, significantly so I’d say, in just about every way, to the Fengru MX500. Except one. Can you guess what that is? Uh-huh. It’s that ‘heady’ kind of deep ‘musicality’ I spoke of earlier. It makes me want to dance when the Fengru is playing, and it makes me forget what time it is, and where I am in the song. I’m too wrapped up in the music, and its over before I know it. You can call this a “timing” thing. Otherwise, while I can say this is a clear and definite ‘thing’ that the Fengru has over the RY4S, or any of the other earphones in this review series for that matter, I cannot easily say exactly what in the sound is responsible for it. (The sound is just not at a resolution high enough to be able to dig into it and try to find out). Again, if I had to choose, I would take the RY4S over the Fengru. As with the Vido, which has little sonic relation to the RY4S, the RY4S has far better timbral accuracy, making everything sound more real. But since the MX500 is so terribly engaging and $4… there’s still no reason to choose!

 

Conclusion: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. I reserve the designation “HIGHLY RECOMMENDED”, for models that excel above their equally priced peers, offer excellent value, and hopefully, don’t leave you wanting for much, if anything. The Fengru MX500 checks all three boxes. Keep in mind, I do these reviews in two parts. An initial write-up, after researching the model, and the completion that usually comes much later, after receiving the product. So I did most of the review not remembering, and thus not knowing the price of the earphone. I did a bit of a double take when I looked it up again!

When you consider that $3.86 is less than the cost of a replacement stock earbud for a smartphone, and that this earbud will cream anything that comes with a smartphone…. well, that’s a no-brainer, isn’t it. The regular version with the black rubber VE Monk style cable and non-metallic connector is even less, at $3 shipped! BTW, I got the black shelled version, but in retrospect, I think the red-shells might have sounded better!

The Lowdown: The Fengru MX500, straight brown silicone rubber wire edition with black shells and white foams, is both sonically and physically, a relative to the RYgmr “RY4s” bud, the “Vido”, and no doubt a few others. Including the many variations of “DIY MX500” earbuds on Ali. Each of which nevertheless come with an array of unique sonic qualities.  The Fengru’s prime features, include a relatively refined sound with a wide soundstage, a balanced tonality (with no generous offering of either bass, mids or treble), and the best sense of “PrAt” of the entire bunch. It all makes for a highly engaging sound; aka “a fun listen”. One that will never seem shrill or aggressive. Combine that with enough detail to perhaps consider using them as monitors, and a fine quality level of construction, and you can see why this model made it to the top of my favourites in no time. At its price, and many times that, this is going to be one damn hard earbud to beat! C’mon, Fengru me!  😎 

“Philips” “SHE3800”
$5.50 shipped (AliExpress)

Philips: Multi-talented master craftsmen of both rotary shavers and earphones.

The Argument Against Buying the Philips SHE3800

Everything about this deal is sketchy. Let’s start with the fact that I made my decision not to get this model, after ordering the “Edifier H180”. I knew there was supposed to be a difference between the two, but the difference seemed negligible. Then there’s the fact that Philips does not officially list a “SHE3800”. Actually, if you search that on eBay, it’s an IEM! Not an earbud. Apparently, the existence of this earphone is more of an “homage” to the Dutch company “Philips”, courtesy of the Chinese. Who inspired the lovely term, “Shanghaied”. A Chi-Fi glomming if you will, of the fine reputation the European Philips company built over the past 50 years or so. And very possibly a world first, even for the Chinese: a fake earphone of a fake earphone! Something very Inception-esque about that.

Philips “SHE3800” in its original zip-lock shipping bag with correctly spelled package label. Trying hard to look inconspicuously like an “Original Genuine 100% Philips” non-Chi-Fi product.

Then there’s the store I bought it from on Ali. The “Philips Authorization Store” (Previously known as the “Philips We No Make Fake Store”). Who insist to every 1-star commenter that these are “100% genuine Philips”. Great name for a store that doesn’t sell Philips fakes though, isn’t it? Strange though that this model doesn’t appear to be sold outside of Chinese trading sites like AliExpress. Sure, there is a “Philips SHE3800” on Amazon. But again, it’s an IEM!! I’ve seen more than a fair share of complaints against this “Authorized Philips Store” on Ali. Citing fake Philips products, and ie. shipping the mic’ed model, when the no-mic’ed model was desired. (I figured out their little trick…. you have to click the 3rd option: a plain yellow box, that offers no description of what that option is, on a desktop computer. On the AliExpress mobile app however, it brings up a text line that says it’s the no-mic version in black!).

Some people who ordered this off one site or another, received a headshell mistakenly marked “Philps”. Yeah, I kind of doubt the real Philips would send those out the door like that! That model, is said to not have the “good sound”. In fact, the real core of this “sketchy” venture appears to be in the fact that, like the MRice E100 situation, you don’t necessarily know which “iteration” of the fake Philips SHE3800 you’re going to get. Are you feeling lucky, punk? Well? Are you? Then hey! You just might get the “good” SHE3800! If not… {insert ‘sad trombone’ sound effect here}. Even if you did get the “good” SHE3800, remember… it’s not really a “Philips” product, with its implied manufacturing quality. So there were many reports of this lasting a month, a week, until sundown…..

The Argument For Buying the Philips SHE3800

Philips “SHE3800”, Chi-Fi version.

Obviously, I did my homework! I didn’t choose this randomly, for its good looks. Wherever it is talked about, it carries with it a hell of a reputation. Even by very well seasoned “earphone masters”. Some of them put it above the VE Monk, no small praise indeed. When the comments are positive on this model, and they are not always so, those comments are pretty consistent. The unassuming Philips SHE3800 doesn’t just “punch above its weight”. It kicks the competition in the genital area, and just dirty-fights like a crazy feline on Fentanol.

No one quite knows why, since by all accounts, this cheap Chinese bud should sound like garbage revisited. But there are too many accounts of its stupendous performance by too many people, to palm it off as coincidence. It appears that it is, what I once described as, “accidentally high-end”. Most comments talk about its bass that goes on for days, a huge soundstage, a very warm, very well balanced, very good midrange, natural, energetic, untiring, “fun” listen. But e.g., far from the warmly coloured mush that was the “MI Basic 2”.

But is it worth getting, if you’re already getting the Philips clone of the fake Philips, the “Edifier H180”? After all, one Head-Fi’er said he heard both, and couldn’t tell them apart. But then later… he could, after burn-in?! One showed FR graphs, that showed some clear differences between the two models, in ‘objective’ terms.  Others who’d heard both said there were differences, for sure. But some said not much, others seemed to describe the differences as huge. There were clear preferences for one model or the other. Problem being, this wasn’t consistent either! Some called the SHE3800 a “Godly bud”. Others said it was awful, and preferred the Edifier H180!

Philips “SHE3800”

After a while, I started to realize the two buds, and their respective manufacturers, share nothing in common (even the wire on each has a different feel). Other than the fact that the Edifier uses the same Philips headshell. So there’s no reason to expect they should be the same, or even slightly different. The driver will make more of a difference than the shell, and its doubtful they use the same. There was some consistency in the comments about how each sounds, to note that the Edifier was said to be more balanced, the Philips to be more bassy (second only to the supposedly legendary bud, the “Sony MDR-E808+”, according to one). With both being a “fun listen”, over an analytical one.

So I knew this pick was going to be mucho-coloured, going in. And I read enough to suggest that it would after all, be different enough to the Edifier, to be worth checking out. Also, I felt that if I was ever going to do that, it had better be soon. My Spidey senses were telling me this unusual “Philps” model was going up in price, down in availability, and may soon enter the “unobtainium” class. Like the original VE Monk. With it, I expect slightly muddy mids, humpy mid-bass, a rolled off treble, oodles of bass, and hopefully, some indescribable quality that makes all the deviations from balance and neutrality, worthwhile.

That being true, the question I’m seeking to answer, is whether I will like all that? It seems this has the potential to be a ‘love-it-or-hate-it’ type of earphone. Like a laughter-inducing hand-knit sweater your grandma gave you at Christmas, that you wear just because it makes you feel warm and good all over. The final trigger for me that sent me to the BUY button, was reading one commenter from Vietnam, saying that this bud was the best he’d ever heard for zen bowl and meditation music. And I quote…..

” The vibrating bass feels like a vibrating vibration in the chest, abdomen, back (but with energy), spreading all over space (like 3D), making the entire body vibrate. Dynamic, very good for meditation intention and subconsciously programmable, long listening, relaxing, energetic, long-range variation of long, smooth music. ” – tranchung, re:Philips SHE3800, Head-Fi.org

…And yes, he is actually talking about an earbud, not an orgasm. The only sketchy part about that, is that I don’t ever listen to zen bowl and meditation music. But maybe now will be a good time to start, when I get the Philips? Also, I figured that with all this sketchiness going on, there’s a pretty good chance of being disappointed, and maybe, just maybe, this one will be so bad, that it will finally put a dead stop to the frightening growth of my newly acquired earphone addiction. Let’s hope so! :mrgreen: And if turns out to be a dud… well, there’s always a good chance it will live up to its sketchy build quality, die within a week, and I won’t have to suffer it for long.  😐

Fit & Finish

Well it’s nice to see they got the spelling of the “Philips” name right, on the packaging. A good sign I suppose, as that is not always the case. Nothing much to say about the fit or finish that wasn’t said in the review for the Edifier H180. Build-wise, this is essentially the same earphone. Same rubbery cable and earpieces. Foams may or may not be different. There is one black pair included. They are not VE Monk quality or anything. Texture-wise, they’re nice and ok. They have a neoprene-ish synthetic feel, they stretch thinly, and offer a grippy feel. Which holds the shells in place in the ear.  Note, I said “texture-wise”, because I held the foams on their own, in my hand, they did not give me a good energy feedback. That’s why I suggest they are not foams of the Monk-class quality. Fit-wise, fit is good.

Sound

Before listening to the Philips SHE3800, I got bad vibes. I took a moment to feel its energy while positioned in my ear, before running any signal through it. And it did not feel not that great. Not like how the SeaHF, Monks etc. would feel in my ear, in terms of the ‘Beltic’ energy they give. n.b. “Feeling” with me, has always correlated in some fashion with the subsequent sound, once a listening test is underway. This to say, I am not getting a good pre-first impression here!

First Impressions:

What a disappointment. This will be my first and last impression of this earbud. I’m kind of pissed actually, because this sound is definitely not what I signed up for!  😡 Not what I waited a month and a half for either. Basically, it sounds like petrol station buds. Not quite as bad as the fake “MI Basic 2” or the VPB “S13’s”. But bad. It sounds like “cheap”, if “cheap” is a sound. Nothing stands out in this sound, really, because it’s too poor for that. It’s a sound characterized by a very small soundstage, no bass, no treble, and almost no midrange either. Sound is fairly distant, hollow, everything is muddy, nothing is distinct, and it’s all salted with a sprinkle of distortion from the anomalous vibrations of the cheap-ass drivers they stuffed the shells with. It might be fair to say it sounds like $5, if $5 didn’t already buy you great sounding buds like the VE Monks today. It would be fair to say it sounds like $1 earbuds. But not Hangrui Turbo $1 earbuds. More like $1 VPB $1 earbuds. Which is not a compliment, but a fairly accurate statement.

The best thing I can say about this Philips SHE3800, is that it is an absolutely inoffensive sound. There is not enough mids or highs to achieve a piercing quality. It might even be possible to imagine that someone totally unfamiliar with quality sound in earbuds, might find nothing wrong with them. Now that’s damning it with faint praise, I hope….

…Because nothing says “100% original” like a link to the “samsung.com.cn” website under the Philips brand name.

Conclusion: NOT RECOMMENDED.  I don’t know what to say in a final word about the Philips SHE3800. For me to arrive at a “NOT RECOMMENDED” rating for the Philips SHE3800, feels like I am providing a false conclusion, while at the same time, trying to provide an honest one. Because this, I am certain, is not the SHE3800 talked about in all of the glowing comments all over the net. Headphone experts on forums like “Head-Fi” and “Reddit” etc., will not wax pretty and gush all over this model, despite the commonly held knowledge that it is not an official Philips (EU) product, if it weren’t worthy of the praise.

Yet there is no way their comments match up with what I heard. And this time, I don’t have the channels mixed up, I don’t have the wires on backwards, I don’t have the wrong eartips. I didn’t misread the instruction manual. There is no way to ‘massage’ what I heard somehow, into a good sound. It’s not a matter of changing foams here, it’s a matter of changing drivers. It sounds like they installed the same drivers from a pair of pink “Hello Kitty” earphones. However, adding foam to the driver cavity might help with the ‘hollow’ sound that I picked up on. (IIRC, this could be one of those models that are really hard to open up though, on account of over-zealous gluing).

Getting Satisfaction….

In fact, I was so disappointed, I asked for a refund from the seller. Which I don’t normally do (I certainly didn’t in the case of the disappointing “Inpher B2” I got on Ali for example, or any of the “MI’s”, that were clearly fakes). But I was convinced I received a fake, or at least a sub-par product, when I was expecting the real deal or a quality product. After a few hiccups, the seller was sympathetic and agreed to a full refund  “as soon as possible” via Paypal, (though I only expected a partial refund, and I would have been ok with that, on principle). I thought that was kind of screwy, since I never paid by Paypal, and Ali doesn’t even accept that.

I was even more suspicious about this seller when after a week, it never came, and my Buyer Protection time was running out. So I opened a dispute. The seller again promised to refund, via Paypal, if I closed my dispute. More red flags raised here. The seller assured me I had many days to reopen the dispute, if they didn’t come through. Now bells and alarms were going off, along with the red flags. Ali recommended to me not to close the dispute, and I read reports of people getting screwed out of a resolution by AliExpress themselves, because they closed a dispute. But Ali still conceded that I could reopen it again, so long as it was within the Buyer Protection period (though even Sherlock Holmes couldn’t find out how to determine when that period expires!).

On top of which, in the seller’s “official” response to the dispute I opened, they responded by rejecting my photo as evidence of my complaint. (I guess it’s my problem for not figuring out how to prove crappy hollow fake sound in a photo!). They insisted that their earphones were genuine Philips, and that they had authorization papers from Philips to sell them. So while one member of their team is assuring me I will receive a refund if I close the dispute, another of their team is telling me to go f off, and that I’m obviously lying to make a quick $5 bucks… How very reassuring! So what did I do? I dutifully closed the dispute.

Oh yeah, I could have insisted they refund me first, but a few reasons I didn’t…

  1.  I read that Ali sellers are penalized for losing disputes. This may be why they insisted I close it first.
  2. Knowing that Ali sides with sellers more than Western consumer product sites do, I knew I had less evidence on my side than the seller did. How do you win a complaint that earphones sound like fakes, irregardless of whether they are? Hope for a critical audiophile judge? I had little doubt the seller has authorization papers to show Ali they had the rights to the name. (That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re “legit” legit. Again, they or their supplier could just be stuffing cheap drivers in Philips shells).
  3. I did it as a “thought experiment”. I was very curious to see how this very suspicious seller, who reeked of the scent of scammer, would play it. Even though the earphone was useless to me, since it didn’t cost much to begin with, I was more interested in knowing the ending of this game the seller was playing with me, than I was concerned about losing the case. And what came of it? The very next day, the seller refunded me.  8-OI still don’t think they ever planned to, and were hoping I would let the BP time period run out. The rules on Ali are so convoluted, this probably happens a lot. But once I opened a dispute, they managed to get to their “Paypal machine” lickety split, and send along the refund they’d promised nearly two weeks earlier. Sure, it didn’t include the shipping, but it was the principle of the thing that mattered to me. So I was happy, and gave them a + feedback, for honouring their commitment in the end. End of story, hope you learned something!reg. tm.

The question remains…. where are the sources of the “good” Philips SHE3800’s? Or is my seller a legitimate source and I just got a lemon sample?Well I can’t say as I know where all those people who glowed about how great the Philips SHE3800 earbuds are were getting their samples from.
There was another site that sold this model at a really low price, “FastTech”. But I read that they were “fake fakes”, and gave poor sound. That’s why I avoided ordering from that site, and chose AliExpress!

The bottom-line is: unless you can confirm the source from someone who reports they have actual good-sounding SHE3800’s, I would stay away from this model entirely. Actually, this could have happened with any number of models; such as the “MRice E100”, the “Sony MH755”, etc. You often hear of an earphone that builds up a well deserved hype reputation a while back, but the newer productions have changed and don’t hold a candle to the ones that were reputable.

The Lowdown: “Mediocre” has a new name. It is “Philips SHE3800”.  Somehow, these buds from AliExpress managed to stuff $2 worth of sound into $5.50’s worth of earphone. They are well known to be “fake Philips” buds, but they were reputed to be surprisingly good fakes! Not surprisingly bad fakes. In spite of a relatively low price, this Philips SHE3800 is probably the first pair I receive that sounds like it cost less than it does. Read the review for details.

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Einsear T2 
$11 shipped (AliExpress)

Einsear “T2”

The KZ’s are mostly known for having consumer-friendly “v-shaped sound profiles”, that are rich with a smattering of heavy bass gravy, and either warm or bright highs. So I wanted to add something leaner to the mix. Something as neutral as I could find, without it ending up cold and flat, like yesterday’s pizza. And since I had to stay within my self-imposed artificial guidelines of $10u.s, that was the most difficult leg of this Chi-Fi journey! (Sure the T2 cost a total of $11, but I still consider this model just under budget. Since it’s too good a price, I throw in $1 extra for the tip).

My research led me toward one “Einsear T2”, in blue-grey. Not to be confused with the excellent and much pricier $50 “Tin Audio T2”. Or to be confused, since some owners of both say they compare well to the popular Tin Audio model! As well as to Tin Audio “T515” and the KZ “ZS6”, both of which cost several times more.  Info on the obscure Chinese brand “Einsear” was hard to find. But numerous reviews and comments from owners said it “punched above its weight”, to use a well-worn expression. It did not follow the typical budget IEM “v-shape” pattern. The Einsear is said to be mostly neutral, with a peak in the upper mid’s and lower bass. You can also read owners comparing the Einsear favourably, to their “Sennheiser Momentum’s”. Which are $300 headphones. And although comments on it may be relatively few, there are also overwhelmingly positive. For instance…

“Just want to give a shout out to einsear T2. After spending Lot of time with tin audio and the hifiman, i am listening to the cheap einsear T2 today. And that 10$ gem is truly incredible. With a good fit It resolves well from the bottom to the end. With a eq this can be a bass beast for Bass driven music. Without, It also has a incredible balanced presence. It’s a 10$ phone with awesome mids that often lacks in much pricier iem’s. I can’t stop recommending them. The mids and details remember me the Tin audio often, really. The einsear with a little eq in bass is sooo fun. Without the eq they are perfecly balanced to. And the details are always present and never harsh. Best 10$ iem i have ever heard.” – paulindss, 500+ Head-Fier.

“Many less obsessive folks would have trouble justifying spending more once they hear these.” – Einsear T2 review, “The Provocative Ear”

“Compared to the KZ ED3, KZ ED9, KZ ATE, KZ ZS6, Rock Zircon, Uiisii HM7, Swing IE800, and many many other ~$10 chi-fi, the Einsear T2 beats them all in terms of mids. …The low-mids of the T2 are rich, full of abundance and have lots of body and resonance to it. Much more rich and lush than the likes of say the KZ ED9, which sounds harsh and thin.” – “NeonHD”, Redditor

 

Fit & Finish

Everything prim and proper. Well packed and protected, including warranty card and tracking with signature, on this shipment.
That and a penny will get you the Einsear T2’s”.

If the Einsear T2 looks a little too much like a relative of the “Inpher Fuqing B-2”, that’s where the similarity ends. Where the latter felt like it was made out of recycled soda pop cans, the Einsear IEM’s metal parts feel much more robust and well made.

Actually, it much more closely resembles the design of the Hangrui Turbo, at a significantly higher level of build quality. Though the Hangrui’s may sport metal earpieces, in part (still not 100% sure…), these are also a metal/plastic construction, but with the aluminum metal much stronger and more robust. The in-line remote is also metal, with a mic on one side and…. well, I had a devil of a time figuring out where the play/pause button was! Very clever, the entire piece is the play/pause button! Works well too, on my iPhone. The back of the box says there are 3 tips included, but in my shipment, there was only the tips installed on the earphones. It looks like they neglected to pack the additional tips at the factory. So that was a bit of a disappointment. (UPDATE: If you read the tweaking section; it doesn’t really matter that there are stock tips missing!). Still, the M tips installed fit my ears OK.

I love the cord on this thing. It can really be called a ‘cord’ too. It feels like rope. Similar to ropes that hold eyeglasses around your neck. Although being braided fabric with a textile feel, like the AKG S9 and others, but this one is smooth as silk, and much more flexible. Not to mention thinner and lighter. Yet it feels durable all the same, as well as easy to untangle. Really nice thing to have on a daily, and it seems to go perfectly with the small, light earpieces. I should also add, it’s a good-looking earphone! All three available colour schemes are nice on the Einsear T2. No doubt, that had a subliminal influence on the buy. Einsear classed it up by adding a silky soft black branded storage bag, sealed by drawstring. I’m not sure, but I think it’s made of recycled yoga pants.

 

Sound

First Impressions:

At med. volumes, a very smooth nondescript sound, is my immediate first impression. Nothing stands out, other than the fact that it’s a very smooth nondescript sound. The centre of the soundstage seems small, while the stage itself seems wide? I’m not sure what I’m hearing here; maybe a squashed soundstage (short in height). There is a touch of roughness in the higher frequencies. This does not yet translate to piercing mids or highs, however. “Smooth” is still an apt description.

In regards to the review quote I included at the beginning, that said it was perfectly balanced with the stock tips, I found that not to be the case. Nor the promised bass that was talked about. There’s like… no “punch” at all in the bass, but mid bass is not really absent. Sub bass perhaps… so far, it does not feel like it can do sub bass. I get this nagging feeling like something is holding back the sound, like it’s stuck in a girdle or something. Even when I push up the volume, I still get that feeling. Like something is preventing it from being immersive, in its presentation. Overall, it sounds a little “cheap”. But I won’t put a price on “cheap” because earphones like the VE Monk+ sound like they cost ten times this, and they cost $5 bucks. It is, at present, the opposite of a “full” sound, and I’m thinking maybe it’s a burn-in issue… Imaging is really not bad, but bass is dry. Not what they call ‘elastic’ (which if I’m not mistaken, is what I call “liquid”).

That dryness interferes with musicality, because it’s not a sound I’d immediately call “musical”. I remember reading one commenter talking about how he wasn’t impressed by his T2, calling it “boring”. I can now see what he meant. I think it can fairly be described like that, OOTB. And the reason is because the shape of notes is not full and rich. Missing the character that shapes voices and instruments, things tend to sound the same; ie. boring. A dry unmusical sound might seem to make it perfect for monitoring use. But… I don’t know that the T2 is ideal for that either. It does not seem detailed enough, at least in this initial familiarization.


Upon further listening, I find they have a ‘cold’ sound profile. Reminiscent of the AWEI Q9’s. They can also get a bit sibilant, to a certain degree, with some tracks. In contrast, the $1 Hangrui Turbo’s are not cold, not sibilant, quite warm, quite bassier, and more inviting to listen to.  With music that provokes these qualities, the T2’s could sound somewhat harsh in the mid/upper range, with the grey stock eartips – but nothing painful.

With respect to detail, I note that it does not have the resolution of a KZ “ZSN”. Roughly that of a KZ “ATE”. But resolution isn’t everything, mind. It’s still less aggressive than the ATE. Of course, the louder you go on the volume, the worse the aggressivity gets. At medium levels however, that aggressivity becomes clarity and detail. So generally speaking, I’d say these IEMs do better at moderate levels.

It sounds like I hate the T2, but I don’t. True, it is not yet endearing itself to me as one of my top faves, as I expected it to right off the bat, and I am certainly not signing up to order a backup. But nor is it one of the worst. Far from it. It is eminently listenable.  That should not be underestimated. I can’t say the same about most, if not all my KZ’s! This indeed is why I wanted to try other brands.

If anything, the T2 sounds more like an earbud. I can hear details like tape noise during the quiet beginning of Carmel’s “Nothing Good”. Which I had not noticed before, despite hearing it a zillion times. That might not be so impressive if this was an IEM extended in the mids or highs… but it’s not. There is detail in the treble, but not ‘sparkle’ in high tones. And this lack of sheen and shimmer across the mids and highs might also provoke a “boring” reaction. I also hear a bit of sub bass on this song that I don’t recall hearing before. So it seems it can do (some) sub bass!

 

Shootout: KZ “ATE” vs. Einsear “T2”

KZ ATE: I always imagined the Einsear as being wayyyyy above the KZ ATE ‘class’. But now that I actually compare the prices, it’s only about $2 difference! So yeah, I think it is “fair to compare”. Listening to the T2 initially, didn’t seem all that different to listening to the ATE. So while doing so, I was wondering how the ATE would compare in soundstage size (and maybe imaging), since they’re both competent at that. Weight, I know… the Einsear weighs a fraction of the ATE! I fitted both with the very same pair of green-bore med. dome-shaped “for Skullcandy” ear tips (reviewed). I then put on Kate Bush’s “Houdini” (a track which quickly and easily shows me what’s what in vocals, mid/sub-bass, mids, timbre, highs, imaging, timbre, etc.), and I went to town….

Initial impressions: The ATE has a ‘cleaner’ sound. There are a ton of differences, such as soundstaging, etc…. I don’t know if I’ll be able to catch them all. The ATE shows quite a bit of sibilance, and a kind of lemony-ice tonality. Not quite white, but more of a “warmish icyness”.

Einsear T2:

Initial Impressions: Phew! The T2 was better! I was getting nervous there, because I really thought the ATE was likely to beat it! Perhaps more importantly, is the realization that I was listening to the T2 “backwards” all this time!! The ATE is marked for L/R, so there is no way I’m going to wear them wrong. There is a cymbal that pans across the stage at the beginning of “Houdini”. It went the other way on the T2! Which means I was wearing them wrong. They are not marked for L/R. So I naturally assumed the in-line mic is on the right, like every other earphone in the world. But no, it’s on the left with this model!

It seems, this changes everything. Because now, with these eartips and fitted the right way round, I quite like the T2! Not only was it superior to the ATE in every single way, on this song, there was nothing I could even think to want to change. Using the very same eartips, the T2 had a larger and closer sound picture than the ATE. It revealed the tape hiss on the track, not heard on the ATE. Its resolution was definitely higher, and more “liquid”. It even had more bass, and a rounded bass at that! It had more detail in mids and highs, and was not plagued by sibilance this time. While the ATE was.

Winner: Einsear T2

Shootout: Einsear “T2” vs. Sony “MH755”

As an informal addition, I am adding a second brief comparison to this review, because I took the opportunity to compare the Einsear to the Sony MH755, using the same eartips on both (in one test, red-bore KZ dome silicones, in another, double-flange tips). Read the review on the Sony for an idea of how good it is/can be. This is not a meaningless comparison; both IEMs can be represented among the best of this series.

The overall impression I was left with, was that while both were excellent performers, the Sony had a more “immediate” and “immersive” sound (not to mention more detailed), while at the same time, a more “crude” in sound than the Einsear. The Einsear had a ‘cooler’ and more relaxing sound. Though the Sony gave much pause, I preferred the Einsear’s more refined presentation.

 

Tweaking

I add a “First Impressions” sub-section to the “Sound” section for good reason. To stress the fact that I am giving my immediate and initial impression (sometimes the most important), suggesting by the title that it can sometimes all change, on later listens. There can a great deal of difference in the sound of an earphone going from point A to point Z. Especially if you change eartips along the way. I am not saying I managed to completely transform the sound of the Einsear T2. But I am saying that it is quite malleable, when fitted with other eartips. And that, frankly, its stock eartips suck and should be tossed on arrival. How do I know? Well, read the below about experiments with other eartips!….

KZ Blue Whirlwind wide bore tips: So I don’t know if Einsear owners know this… but the “boring” quality can more or less be ironed out, with a change of eartips, believe it or not. The KZ Whirlwind’s proved to be a pretty good match, in the silicone variety. (Which makes me think “Spinfit” tips would probably be an even better match). I fitted the M size blue Whirlwinds, which rendered the cable more microphonic. A good sign that it was making a good seal! I then switched software players on my iPhone from El Mediocre “iTunes” to the excellent “Teac” player (big difference just there). From there, the bigger complaints about the dryness, ‘shriekiness’ and ‘boringness’ were not gone… but greatly reduced, with this effective combo. There was still some hardness in the mids, heard on such tunes as Aretha Franklin’s “A Natural Woman”. But not enough to think it might not dissipate after a good burn in.

KZ black Starline tips: These were… eh…. not bad but not great. Roughly… “eh”.

Sony/XBR black small bore tips: The Sony/XBR tips (reviewed elsewhere here), reduced the mild aggressivity in the mids. But also the timbral accuracy and liveliness in general. This tells me a) These otherwise excellent tips are not good for everything and b) You have to be very careful what you choose with this T2 model, as it is not good with everything.

KZ red narrow bore Domes: These tips tame the mids somewhat, but boom up the bass. They’re a nope.

T-200 black rubber bore memory foam : These, as expected, staved off the more aggressive peaks in the upper ranges, but shaved off upper range details and softened attack. Creating a more musical but mushy sound, that lacks clarity and constrains tone.

KZ black small bore grey domes (M): A good choice for introducing bass and getting rid of most, if not all the harshness and perhaps sibilance. However, at the expensive of clarity.

coloured med-bore unbranded dome tips (aka “4.5mm S/M/L Silicone Ear Pads”): These coloured bore dome tips (similar to red-bore KZ’s) added more “colour” to the sound. Making ie. violins sound a bit sweeter, bass a bit more generous, sound a bit less boring.  But they did not fix all the problems I had with the T2, and seemed to reduce the soundstage size, and other ill-desired side effects.

coloured med green-bore unbranded dome tips (aka “Silicone EARBUD Tips For Skullcandy” reviewed here): These are the tips I am going with for now, to install on my Einsear T2. They’re not the best sounding, nor are they the most destructive to the sound. They’re not bad for sound, but more importantly, they came across as the most musical, without letting too much of the inherent harsh qualities through.

Double-flange wide-bore black silicone tips:  It seems that every time I marry double-flange eartips with something, I get surprising results. It may be why I’ve eventually settled on these double layer eartips for some of my favourite IEMs, like the KZ ZSN, Sony MH755, Hangrui Turbo, etc. So, its certainly the case with the Einsear as well.

To get the most out of the Einsear, you really have to use the best tips. Without doing a back-to-back against every other eartip I tested, the double-flanges are the ones I’m sticking with for the T2. When fitted deeply to my ear to make a good seal, they bring the IEM so far from my original interaction with it, it’s not the same experience. Without getting into the nitty gritty, the sound these tips can create with the T2 is beyond reproach. Unless you’re a basshead, in which case, I would say the bass is not “punchy”. But it’s not weak either, it can still do a full bass. Everything else in the sound image is perfect for me.

When I heard it last night for an hour or so, this eartip/IEM combination seemed to offer a unique soundstage perspective. A certain way of placing images in the soundstage, that I don’t recall hearing on any other earphone I have. Even some musical details came out on occasion, on familiar tracks that I did not recall hearing before. This includes my own vocals in recording mixes, that happen to be in fact, the most difficult thing to reproduce on earphones, in my experience. So far, the Einsear/double-flange combo was the first earphone to allow me to hear some of that, on certain tracks.

Winner: Unbranded Double-Flange silicone eartips (see review in Eartips Section below)

n.b. I add a few more observations about my experiences with the Einsear T2 stock eartips, in the “About Tip-Rolling” sub-section of my “Overall Conclusion” summary, for this project.

Conclusion: STRONGLY RECOMMENDED.  This was originally a “RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS” conclusion. That assessment was with the original eartips, and the earphones plugged in with the earpieces in the wrong earholes! (The mic goes on the left! Who knew! Probably me! But I obviously forgot that I had already read that somewhere about the T2! Well I think it was the T2!).

Now, I am straddling the fence on a “HIGH RECOMMENDATION”. My how things change in 20 minutes, eh? I reserve that conclusion only for the very best. But I must say, the T2, properly configured, beats out most of the IEMs here. Not for its technical prowess (the KZ ZSN still has more resolution than probably anything near its price). But for sheer “listenability”. The ZSN can often be a shrieky nightmare, and unlistenable to me.

After revisiting some of the songs I initially tested, it was not the same experience at all. Where once it was harsh and hard, the sound now was clear and detailed, better resolved, and did not make me wince once. Even when it was sharp, ie. the crack of a drumstick on a rim, that came off as just sharp. Not painful.  In the midst of all these KZ’s, its almost refreshing to hear high end detail without paying the cost of having your head drilled by the sound. Or needing to mush up the sound with foam tips. Moreover, the T2 became more musical, and not at all boring. Like a good book, I had trouble putting it down, to continue this review.

As the T2 was a disappointment at first, I now had to cut out some of the negative assessments, that were no longer relevant in this review. While leaving the rest of those from my initial testing, because they were honest, and judging from some of the comments I read from some owners, may reflect their experiences. (See, it pays to read the entire review!). Now, after a proper fitting, listening to my demo of Kate Bush’s “Houdini” on the T2 was a real pleasure. Good earbuds are a dime a dozen (almost literally). But there aren’t that many I can truly call good IEMs. The T2 I think, is one of them.

It has enough detail and soundstage size, that I sometimes find myself hearing subtle elements in familiar songs I was not conscious of before. Given its size and shape, the T2 almost feels and sounds like a much higher end version of the Hangrui Turbo! (The Turbo’s are a lot muddier and less detailed). Its stock eartips certainly leave something to be desired, and can bring out undesirable qualities of sibilance and harshness. So this IEM needs careful matching of alternatives, before it can be properly assessed. In terms of comfort and usability, the T2 rates high. These IEMs are thin, light, flexible, and when fitted, hardly feel they are there.

With my usual prophetic insight, I wrote in an earlier draft of this review, that I suspect the Einsear T2 might become one of my favourites over time. Now I’m certain of it.  :mrgreen:

 

The Lowdown: I admittedly soured on the Einsear T2 initially, and did not feel like it deserved all the hype it got. But after finding the right eartips (which is key to good sound on this model), and more importantly, the correct channel identification, it proved to be a beast of another stripe entirely. Finally solving the mystery for me of why it was so well liked. With those small but significant changes, it instantly surpassed most, if not all, the IEMs here to date (not all are in yet, note!)

The Einsear T2’s appeal comes in the form of a truly balanced sound. So naturally cohesive, it defies you to separate it into bass/mid/treble elements. It feels neither like it lacks any of these three elements, nor has an overabundance of any of them. Although it provides enough detail and extension in the upper ranges, it suffers only from a bit of sharpness in that area, on some songs, due to some mild upper-mid peakiness. Its bass character is not powerful or generous, but not intrusive either, and more of the supportive variety.

Some of the T2’s other strengths include clarity, detail, imaging, soundstage size and even, to a certain extent, that elusive quality of ‘musicality’. I found myself really being drawn into the music at times. While not the loudest earphone around, the Einsear is one of the lightest and most comfortable, and could serve as a “daily driver” for many.  Ideally, I suggest it be partnered with a high quality source, such as a lossless DAP player (even portable tube amp), because it is revealing enough to take advantage of higher quality sources. I’d say all that’s not bad for $11 bucks shipped to your door, wouldn’t you?

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QKZ “W1 Pro”  -REVIEW PENDING – AWAITING ARRIVAL 
$5.50us, shipped (eBay)

Given that I picked up the W1 Pro after I had received the ZSN and many other models I knew to be superior, apart from an obvious and growing addiction for Chinese takeout earphones (“I’ll have the QKZ combo for two with a side order of Plextone please!”), it made little sense to get this. But as it was only $5.50 u.s., it made little sense not to! I guess I was trying to make up for the disappointment that was the “Inpher B-2”, following a review in Phonograph.net that steered me in the wrong direction.

So anyway, what actually prompted me to get the W1 Pro, was a review I recently read on the earphone review site, “Phonograph.net”. (No phonograph reviews though, I checked….). Where they gave it a very high overall score of 8.5/10. What stuck out for me was the midrange analysis. They said it was unusually mid-forward, and it wasn’t too difficult to find other comments praising the W1 Pro (for its price point), and confirming the midrange bias. That quality is not that common in a market filled to the brim with so-called “v-shaped” IEM’s. (If only there was an inverse “V” in the alphabet, I might find a lot more IEM’s to like!). So I thought it was worth trying, as anything that might help me hear vocal details at medium volumes, is going to be alright in my book.

A number of people were singling out this model as one of the best in the no-budget (under $10) category. It’s been compared favourably to a $25us model by “Brainwavz”, but for sound, it appears more in competition with the venerable KZ “ATR”, also reviewed here. The W1 Pro is about the same size and shape, and like the ATR, it’s considered to be just shy of neutral. e.g. Reviews say it can be rather ‘impolite’ in the high frequencies at loud volumes. I’m hoping I can tame that with a careful selection of eartips. This model has been updated since its introduction, and some newer ones with the updated memory wire are said to be more bassy and less well balanced. Not being familiar with prior models, I’m not sure which one I have. Finally, it’s been reported that with a modification requiring drilling a hole into the body, some have turned it into something that sounds like a $100 IEM! I may not go there but… you never know.   😉

Fit & Finish

Fit:

Another thing that stands out with the W1 Pro, is its build quality. Just the cable alone is worth the cost of this! It’s the same one used on the “LZ A2S”, a $62u.s. IEM! All who come across it consider it one of the best on any low budget IEM. Good feel, thickness, free of microphonics, tangling, etc. It’s even detachable!

An unusual quality on a $5 dollar IEM to be sure, as even the KZ’s don’t have that at this price level. The fact that its detachable isn’t necessarily a plus here, as it apparently uses a DC connector. Not the more common MMCX or KZ standard**. So it seems you can’t actually buy a separate replacement cable. You have to buy another IME that uses the same cable. In which case, I say, why not just buy another W1 pro?? It’s the cost of a replacement cable anyway?! (**I later read in a QKZ ad, that it uses an MMCX connection. So I remain uncertain of the connection type, as assuming the ad is correct, it may have changed over time). One reviewer pointed out a possible advantage: he was doing the dishes, got the cord stuck on something, and it yanked out of the earpiece. A non-detachable cable would have ruined the IEM!

Finish:

The W1 Pro comes shipped in a plastic container that both protects the contents and serves as a carry-case for the earphone. Wish all of them did that!  It comes with 4 eartips, which also appear to be of good quality; large and substantial. However, they are often blamed for anomalies in the sound (ie. no bass). Which commenters say is greatly rectified by a change of eartips. So extra eartips may be a necessity on this unit. We’ll soon see!

Venenatis nam, iaculis. Auctor tempus taciti nibh, urna ligula risus bibendum at consequat. Sociis mus sociosqu pellentesque pulvinar. Etiam sagittis porttitor sagittis Hac, condimentum elementum ante diam taciti aliquet ultrices praesent donec. Curabitur semper. Interdum venenatis cum tempus magnis quam tortor montes enim etiam nostra netus tortor felis tempus bibendum vitae Lectus dis lacinia velit ipsum diam, enim. Purus, ultricies tincidunt placerat senectus dui massa felis potenti curae; magnis. Taciti, risus. Conubia nibh ad Commodo Malesuada venenatis elit blandit fusce aliquam justo maecenas porta blandit phasellus per vel. Non Lobortis id dictum vivamus aenean, cras porta curae; a hac elementum tincidunt amet justo nec porta morbi condimentum est placerat pretium. Ultrices placerat ultrices dolor donec quam natoque potenti proin litora, phasellus est natoque inceptos eros.

 

Sound

Faucibus netus hendrerit facilisi malesuada curabitur et nascetur nibh interdum pede Sed hendrerit dapibus dictum vivamus nec imperdiet. Enim nonummy amet eget. Malesuada arcu duis orci montes interdum imperdiet. Iaculis. Sociosqu rutrum nibh aenean, nisl parturient et nulla aliquet. Congue. Viverra in semper per lorem nisl etiam etiam. Scelerisque quis ullamcorper posuere platea. Interdum taciti viverra elementum ornare eros sociis donec lobortis mi vel. Nam imperdiet dui vulputate tortor, quis vulputate nam ridiculus tempor ipsum lacinia nisi ornare imperdiet a neque, suspendisse augue elementum iaculis eros pellentesque convallis nunc dapibus, orci nostra. Conubia. Pretium eros. Massa nostra ipsum. Vitae fringilla, nam tempor ultrices lectus. Est consectetuer semper habitant, facilisis varius molestie pretium sodales tincidunt porttitor est, nec. Nostra suscipit ligula primis egestas penatibus, tellus netus imperdiet sapien interdum.

Venenatis nam, iaculis. Auctor tempus taciti nibh, urna ligula risus bibendum at consequat. Sociis mus sociosqu pellentesque pulvinar. Etiam sagittis porttitor sagittis Hac, condimentum elementum ante diam taciti aliquet ultrices praesent donec. Curabitur semper. Interdum venenatis cum tempus magnis quam tortor montes enim etiam nostra netus tortor felis tempus bibendum vitae Lectus dis lacinia velit ipsum diam, enim. Purus, ultricies tincidunt placerat senectus dui massa felis potenti curae; magnis. Taciti, risus. Conubia nibh ad Commodo Malesuada venenatis elit blandit fusce aliquam justo maecenas porta blandit phasellus per vel. Non Lobortis id dictum vivamus aenean, cras porta curae; a hac elementum tincidunt amet justo nec porta morbi condimentum est placerat pretium. Ultrices placerat ultrices dolor donec quam natoque potenti proin litora, phasellus est natoque inceptos eros.

Elit. Quis placerat integer, tincidunt nisi primis platea aliquet cum massa elit nam in enim dictum fringilla in nec aptent neque parturient dictumst gravida luctus convallis ad lorem, adipiscing cras rhoncus. Consequat curae; proin class phasellus consequat. Pretium netus suspendisse tristique donec natoque risus. Placerat habitant porta malesuada, neque commodo metus. Fringilla At eros duis dignissim imperdiet vestibulum aliquet justo cubilia sociosqu adipiscing. Pellentesque litora Dictumst ipsum fames dapibus senectus nam at. Odio nulla quam cras mattis hendrerit ultrices volutpat rhoncus metus maecenas egestas iaculis placerat curabitur. Nec posuere. Phasellus tellus dictumst ante. Lacus eu est, eget. Quisque molestie nascetur class a consequat curae; consectetuer nostra tortor gravida accumsan odio malesuada. Senectus. Porta magnis. Lorem. Luctus rhoncus lacus praesent elementum egestas primis cubilia faucibus semper hendrerit, interdum elit viverra. Feugiat iaculis egestas primis.

Interdum aenean senectus consequat volutpat hymenaeos ornare, tincidunt. Magna rutrum. Nisl habitasse quisque faucibus rutrum ridiculus accumsan ultrices egestas Felis. Nostra, volutpat. Porttitor. Ante nisi nisi amet in ante conubia. Et risus interdum scelerisque conubia, nulla convallis iaculis dolor nascetur orci felis curae; amet sociosqu per et penatibus fusce nulla pede luctus gravida vulputate parturient faucibus nullam ultricies Praesent metus gravida tempor conubia etiam.

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Sony MH755 
$6.71 (eBay)

So this is it, friends. This model will mark the last earphone I buy for this project.** And I promised myself that if I get another, I will voluntarily join “SHERPA” (Stereo Headphone & Earphone Rehab Program for Audiophiles). While I was minding my own beeswax, not looking for busy new buzz talk on any more good n’ cheap canalphones I had not yet bought… I stumbled across this obscure “Sony” model, that totally flew under my radar all this time. (**Never mind. This was written 5 earphones ago. FWIW, I was convinced. Because I really thought I meant it at the time…..).

Technically, it’s not “Chi-Fi”, any longer. “Ji-Fi” perhaps? Well, actually it’s probably more Chinese than Japanese, since it is made in China. I don’t know why, but I somehow found this tiny cheap looking little Sony earphone on a personal blog of all things, with an entire university thesis written up on it. Complete with every frequency response chart imaginable. The scary part is…. it wasn’t even the only one! I honestly cannot recall in all of my research for this review project, reading more in-depth and technical information about an earphone, than this one.

Which begs the question… why?? It’s a weird little J-cable IEM, with an ultra short 60-80cm cable, which came out around 2012 or earlier, ie. over seven years ago! It wasn’t even meant to be sold at the retail level! It’s a throwaway little earphone Sony designed for their bluetooth receivers and later, some Xperia smartphones. Which was included with those devices. In other words, it was only “sold” as free!

Well, I know what attracted me to it. It certainly wasn’t the IEM Professor’s claim that it nearly replicates the precious “Harman Target” (if you’ve got 4 hours to spend on studying the characteristics of an $8 earphone, inquire about that. It’s fascinating I’m sure….). It was the design. I’m kind of what you’d call a “design geek”, and I really dug the ID (Industrial Design) of this earphone. From the clean lines, to the concave earpiece back, to the stubby L-connector…. A throwback to the glory days when Sony produced some of the top examples of industrial design, in their audio gear.

Then when I started to research it for sound, well!….  That opened up a whole can of “happy worms”! For example, here’s what some others found attractive about the MH755:

  • “‘FreeWheelinAudioLuv’: ” Absolutely agree. For the cost, they are a no-brainer, and the sound is so far ahead of anything in the $5.00-$50.00 range. You need to start hitting the $70.00 and above level to start pulling even. IMHO. If only the treble was a tad more extended, but it’s still crisp and no sibilance at all.”, Head-Fi
  • Fuyu: ” They are very competent in all areas. Soundstage is good, though they have an outstanding ability to seperate instruments. Very coherent sounding, maybe only lacking in some treble extention. For 5-10$? Unbeatable. “, Head-Fi
  • FreeWheelinAudioLuv: ” Yes! Totally agree. If not for the slightly rolled off treble, these would most certainly overtake all but my IE800 and FW01 in performance, but they are smooth sounding to a fault, with polite highs. “, Head-Fi
  • Scaven: “Holy crap, just received my Sony MH755’s which I paid $10 for, they sound better than both the Kanas Pro and Tansio Mirai TSMR-3’s to me.”, Head-Fi
  • Exavolt: “I don’t care if it’s fake, but it trumps all my sub $100 chifi. It’s closer to the Kanas (Pro) than to something like Tin Audio T2 or KB100. Detail retrieval is comparable to Kanas which makes T2 vocals sound muddy in comparison. Compared to Kanas, MH755’s timbre is less natural (but still better than T2), sub-bass is bigger (even after the vent mod) and a bit slower, mids is thinner and the imaging and layering is flatter (2D-ish). With better shell and replacable cable, they should be sold at $100 – $120. “, Head-Fi

By the way… Scaven’s “Moondrop Kanas Pro” and “Tansio Mirai TSMR-3’s” are $180u.s. and $190u.s., respectively. While the “Sennheiser IE800” and “JVC HA-FW01” that FreeWheelinAudioLuv compares the MH755’s to, are earphones that cost £300 ($400u.s.) and $450u.s. Exavolt’s “BQEYZ KB100” and his phenomenally popular “Tin Audio T2” IEMs, for which he says the Sony’s are better at timbre and detail retrieval, are $50 u.s. each. I see a pattern emerging….

The MH755’s sound quality has also been compared by headgearphiles with such classic and highly regarded earphones as the “Etymotic ER4PT” ($450.00 u.s.!) and the Sennheiser HD650 ($400 u.s.!). The Senn’s are headphones, by the way!​ Just to remind you, the Sony’s are earphones, and they are the cost of a parking meter fare, during lunch hour. They look like they’re made by Fisher-Price, and they come in at least 3 different colours of the sorbet rainbow. All of which look very delicious, I might add.

In case you think opinions comparing the Sony’s to models that cost hundreds of times their price is relegated to the loons on Head-Fi, I found one video of an experienced YouTube earphone reviewer, who gushes on in detail for 15 minutes straight about these earphones. Comparing them to the also-hyped and very highly regarded “iBasso T01’s”, selling at around $100.00 u.s. And speaking of very delicious, I present as an aperitif to my ‘relatively brief little’ review, some delectable quote excerpts from the in-depth review of Head-Fier “Yuriv” (who spent a year with the earphone, before writing his review), who explains the allure of the MH755:

Low-cost and low-risk alternatives to the MH755: There are many inexpensive IEMs that follow a different target curve, and they have their many fans. But I don’t know anything dirt cheap that sounds like an MH755 out of the box, especially a good one with less bass. My problem with the MH755 is the risk of getting a fake when you order online. Even if you get a genuine unit, you still might get a sample with an obscene amount of bass. What are the alternatives?

…Somehow, with the MH755, Sony came up with a smooth frequency response that closely follows Harman’s latest crowd-pleasing target. (That is, if you consider a sample with less bass.) The performance doesn’t end there. It plays loud with low distortion, and it doesn’t suffer from a compressed dynamic range when playing back at high volume. The Sony MH755 shows what’s possible from a dirt-cheap IEM. It puts to shame many, many products that cost several times its price.” – Yuriv, Head-Fi

“Check out those spec curves, ladies! Aren’t they just scrumptious?!!”

 

Some might be put off by the short cable (60cm on one side, 80cm on the other), or the fact it is the asymmetrical type, or that it has no mic option. For them, there is the Sony MH750 earphone. Which is identical to the MH755 but has a normal length cable, with mic. I would avoid this one. It is measured to have more bass boost, and no one seems to like it as much.

Fit & Finish

So with the product in hand now, it’s a bit underwhelming, in light of all the hoopla surrounding this model. In other words, it doesn’t look like something to write home about.

The wire, as mentioned, is an asymetrical J-wire design, with a very short length (about 12″ from the Y-split). This is because it was designed to be used with an external bluetooth adapter, with its own wire. So this earphone may not be for everyone, for that reason. Either it requires you keep your player up high, as in a shirt pocket or an armband, or you get an extension cord.

The wire has a nice, soft, premium matte rubber feel. But the pieces leading to the earpieces are pretty thin. Though the piece leading from the Y-split to the plug is twice as thick as that. A plug with a nice design and very shiny gold plating, I would add. The earpieces are small. Quite small. Even shorter than those on the Hangrui Turbo, but wider. They have a vent at the top, which some people like to tinker with (see pic below). The stem that protrudes from the earpieces is tiny, but fortunately, rubber, not breakalicious plastic. There are six eartips included; S,M,L, in your choice of lovely all mod cons colours.

Sound

Initial Impressions:

My immediate first impression with the sound of the Sony MH755 was “wow!”….

…. where the hell’s the bass?? I just came off of reviewing the white Vido @ $1.80, using the same song and talk about night and day! The Vido is a bass sh!thouse next to this! Even the recently reviewed Einsear T2 far surpasses this in bass power. So obviously, though the default M eartips I’m using are very comfortable, I’m going to have to swap them for ones with a better seal, in order to have a more legitimate understanding of the sound this can provide. That’ll come later. For now, I’ll continue reviewing with the stock eartips that were already installed.

….They feel very lightweight, not just in the bass dept. but in the dept. dept. I mean, in everything. I know it isn’t that cheaply built, but its so light and small, it feels like I’m stuffing 5 cents worth of plastic in my ears, and not much else! Also, the fact that I’m still writing this while listening, means its not very musical, no. Ok, I think I’ll stop here. Not what I was expecting, to say the least! And no point in soldiering on with these eartips. It’s just an awful sound. There really is no bass at all here! It’s all about that treble! So it’s more annoying than anything. However, I can say without going any further, I am nevertheless not getting a sound like $1 bubblegum machine earbuds; ie. the MI Basic 2, or the VPB S13. Despite the Mickey Mouse sound, I can already see why these might be well regarded. They exhibit an order of detail, at least in the upper ranges, that is out of the ordinary for this price class. Let’s find some suitable eartips and hopefully get a better sense of what it’s like!…

Sound Leakage: On the aspect of leaking sound, the MH755’s are… wow. Possibly better than the KZ ATE’s. At 75-80% volume, when I cover the eartips, I can almost hear nothing. Not from a foot away but from a few inches from my ears. When I cover the eartips and the vents? Pretty much nothing. That alone means these will never be far from my bed.

Tweaking: Tip Rolling

The problem is obvious. The stock eartips are on the slippery side, and don’t stay in well. But the earpieces are so small, that the stem is very short.  So it’s not that easy to find tips that will stay in. Though I’m most suited for M, the larger orange ones it comes with are better. But I’m sure I can do better on my own.

KZ Starline

After trying several domes that still did not feel secure on account of the short nozzle, I found the L size KZ Starline tips to fit better. Their black silicone is a bit grippier, and their cone shape helps get a deeper insertion. Thus, they provided more bass than the KZ domes. But that bass wasn’t the tightest, and they took the sound off-balance. e.g. Making some other minor changes I didn’t like as much as what I’d heard previously. No matter, I will use this for now as it provides a more fuller sound, and continue the test….

…Well, if these sound better than $450 earphones…. all I can say to that is, they re not making $450 earphones like they used to. It’s kind of a bland white-bread sound. That must be its attraction to some, I guess. By “bland”, I mean its not just neutral in tonal balance. It’s restrained in dynamics. As though Sony put a dynamics compressor in there. And knowing how badly Sony wants to avoid hearing loss lawsuits, I wouldn’t be that surprised to hear they did.  😕 (That’s a joke, BTW). In addition to restrained dynamics, unlike the white Vido’s I recently took a crack at, the MH755’s are quite on the dry side. This restrains not dynamics this time, but musicality. I would not be recommending these for a “fun listen”. More of a critical listen. But you know, that’s cool too. Earphones good at critical analysis are really hard to come by!  But are these really good for that anyway??….

Mids are about neutral in their projection, but compared to most other IEMs I’ve heard, have an “open window fresh air-ness” to them. But I find them limited in their ability to make out my vocals in my recording mixes. This seems due to distortion, which in this case, is another way of saying I think the tiny drivers have build quality limits and don’t like being pushed too hard. (I think I will test these later under amplified conditions to see if that’s really the case). In other songs, my vocals do come out pretty well, which I would say is above average. This may be because those songs are more sparse and not stressing dynamics. Yes, I think it’s about time to change tips again….

T-200 Memory Foams

For the time being and until I know better, it would seem that the rubber-core memory foam eartips (such as reviewed here in the eartips section), are the most suitable for these tiny tiny nozzles. They remain pretty secure on the nozzle despite its minimal length, and from there, provide enough insertion depth, along with their ‘compression magic’, to hold the earpieces in place well and provide a decent seal. It’s just that I don’t think memory foam tips are generally as good as silicone, for maintaining a neutral tone. Like their material, MF tips create a ‘mushy sound’, that robs the entire spectrum of definition. Which is the fabric that makes up the character of instruments and voices, allowing your brain to follow them along.

I chose the L(arge) size of the T-200 generic MF tips, to better keep the earpieces in place (not easy, since the short cord makes it so that they get pulled downward more readily). And because I am stuffing this much foam in my ears, bass got fuller than the silicone Starlines, and as the sound gets fuller, the ‘special qualities’ of the MH755’s come into better focus. For example, the piano on Everything But The Girl’s “Hang Out The Flags” was quite impressive. It gave a full and very natural tone, with a precision far above the earphone’s price point, and a very wide soundstage. I get the sense that these are the best earphones in this collection, in at least one sense or another. Why, because I’m hearing details not heard in others. And it’s probably the size of the soundstage, giving that impression. While it does not appear particularly high or deep, it does appear wiiiide. With good imaging, separation, and natural placement of images.

Sony “MH755” with T-200 unbranded memory foam eartips.

Still, at least with these MF eartips, treble tones are not right, and I’m still not sure how much of that is the MH755’s doing. There must be some peaks somewhere here. But despite the fact that its producing hard, inaccurate tones on mids and highs, there is still a very natural feel to the music in general, on this model. It makes for a very easy listening experience, that makes you want to listen… but unusually, not because it’s musically engaging. I don’t know, is “analytically engaging” a ‘thing’? If so, it’s the first time I’ve come across that quality!

To be sure, they need work. They have rough edges, like hints of distortion during dynamic pieces, dryness, and the slight peaky sound on mids and highs that render them a bit unappealing. Though the sound is not aggressive, and this is one IEM that is not shy in the mids or highs. If it doesn’t have the most extended HF of the models tested, and it probably does, its definitely in the top three. Unlike KZ’s however, it does it without sticking sound needles in your ears.

Further Tip-Rolling:

Not satisfied with the MF (memory foam) tips, I had to revisit the eartip issue again. Here are some further observations made….

Memory Foam (L) vs. KZ Starline (L): In the end, I prefer the large KZ Starlines over the foams. Much clearer, more precise sound.

KZ Starline (L) vs. Sony MH755 stock orange eartips (L): The fit of the L stock MH755 tips is not bad, once you play with it. Though the Starlines stay in a bit better, due to their formulation. The Starlines are superior in sound, with more precision and clarity. Yet… the orange L stock tips surprisingly… proved to be more musical. Better conveying the emotional content of the music. Making the MH755 sound musical for the first time, go figure!

Sony/AKG/Sennheiser Unbranded Eartips (L): Notice how all the tips I’m testing are (L) large size? Yeah. So anyway, when I first tried these tips advertised for Sony’s (see review), they had the least bass of anything. I wasn’t ready to give up, since they were my last hope! I had tried everything else that could work, in my collection of hundreds of tips. I pushed them out so that they were just barely on the edge of the nozzle, to provide a deeper insertion, and had another go. Well, the bass was better, still not that strong but… yeah, wow! Now the sound was better than anything I’d heard. And I do mean anything I’d heard. On any of the IEM’s.

It was an extremely natural sound, and for that reason, hard to even say what improved, as nothing stands out. Except the wimpy bass, to a small degree. Though on some songs, there was a decent amplitude of bass… it may depend on the frequency. This time the IEM did not draw any attention to itself, and just presented a very balanced and detailed sound on the order of…. well… I could now see why people might be comparing the MH755 to models that cost hundreds of $$$. Much of the disagreements I had with the sound prior had disappeared… though not completely. Albeit reduced, I could still detect a bit of hardness across mids and highs that must involve some FR peakiness. Though never piercing, it does not quite render timbral colours accurately, and I could imagine it might get a bit shrill on some songs. Though it didn’t on what I tested.

At this point, the Sony/AKG’s won the contest, but then had their trophy taken away. Because in the end, after in-field use, they proved to have too much difficulty staying in my ears. The problem is the tips will wriggle their way out. This compromises insertion depth, which significantly compromises SQ. Can anyone say, “where dat bass at?”. They’re either not large enough or don’t couple well enough to the ear canal, to hold these tiny earpieces.

In comparison, the large KZ Starlines have no such problem staying in my ears. Already, the combo of the L Starlines and the vent mod below, spells “g-i-a-n-t  k-i-l-l-e-r”, outperforming most items in this series.

Double Flange/Layer Eartips (L): These are the “good” wide-bore double flanges (flanges of equal-sized layers), reviewed in the eartips section, specifically the Large size. (Large eartips are necessary with the Sony’s, due to the small earpieces. The eartips must hold themselves, and the earphones, well in your ear; as the earphones won’t accomplish this on their own).

So far, these tips have been good for everything, and the Sony MH755’s were no exception. Listening to Tom Waits “Clap Hands” during the test, was a religious experience. I can’t say as I’ve heard a sound quite like it, in any earphone. Nothing stood out. Not highs, lows or mids. But it all had a very ‘magical’ kind of flow. That roped you into the music, and made it sound as natural as rainfall. To be fair, this is how audio should sound. With this combo at that time, there is no point in getting into details like mid/bass/treble characteristics. Does that make the Sony the best of the bunch? No. ‘Fraid not. But, I would say it can be considered the best here in some areas, yes. (Those areas do not include bass depth, once again!).

More than any of the others, they give that much needed bass boost to the Sony’s, providing (mostly mid) bass all over the place. (I’m not sure yet if the MH755 even does sub-bass….).. At the same time, totally eliminating that hard sharpness I talked about, at the expense of just a bit of clarity, airiness and detail. Which they still have plenty of, even if reduced. They stay in the ear quite well, surprisingly, on account of the double flange design. The only problem is, the Large double flange eartips don’t make a tight fit on the narrow nozzles of the Sony’s (which I’m guessing are 4mm diameter). But as yet, they have not come off when the earpieces were removed from the ear.

Unbranded Red-Bore Dome Silicone Eartips (S): NO LESS THAN A SONIC REVELATION!

(n.b. This UPDATE is being added long after I wrote the rest of this review. Sorry, but chronologically speaking, it supersedes everything else written!).

Ahem.  😐 I know I’ve spoken of a sonic “revelation” elsewhere (in the overall project conclusion section), in conjunction with the KZ ZS3, if not one or two others. A “revelation” is where I experience something I have not before, but in a very significant manner. Partially, it would include a new “plateau” of sound quality, that reveals new information about every song heard. This one is a ‘revelation’ of a higher order than the KZ experience, or any other here.

It starts with installing the generic wide-bore (red coloured bore) silicone eartips (pictured left), the source of which I cannot identify %100. I just know they are Small-size wide-bores, measuring 4.5mm at the exit hole, and not the KZ brand red-bores (that I felt worked very well on the Sony nevertheless). They are probably those reviewed below; identified as ” Silicone Eartips Earbud For Moving Iron In-Ear Headphone Earphone”. They require a bit of twisting to secure in my ear, but once done, they appear to seal “ok-well”. The (S) size is significant here, because prior to this, I had concluded that “L” size work best with the Sony, due to their minuscule earpieces.

The second change was to remove the vent mod tweak (below). The listening session started out in bed, listening to the Sony’s with the aforementioned “good” double-flange eartips. The best I had found up until then. Good as it was, something about the sound was nagging me… the eartip wasn’t coupling with my ear very well, or not enough bass, perhaps. So I grabbed my bag of assorted wide-bore silicone dome tips, and picked out these red ones. The resulting combination, was a sound of a quality not heard before. Not just in comparison to the other earphones in this review project (including, yes, the VE Monks and all other Monk-class earbuds)…. but in comparison to even my headphones!  😯

Yeah, it was scary-good. The unique quality of this earphone with those eartips at that point in time, was in what audiophiles call its “speed”. “Speed” is a term referring to how fast an audio device responds to changes in the signal. This earphone/those tips, was giving me a level of responsiveness that $5,000 audio components I’ve had, could not reproduce as well! This is why I can say it sounded better in this regard, than I have ever recalled hearing from any earphone or headphone. The other reason I can say that, is because I did not simply hear new details in old music I knew very well. But every single song, was a mini-revelation unto itself. For every single song, presented itself in a  new way, from A to Z, from Start to Finish.

Again, wrt “quickness”, the balance between attack and decay on transients, was IME, perfect. Because of this, you could hear a pin drop, in a song, such was the clarity in the recording and its presentation of detail. I heard recording mixes, where my vocals were overdubbed five times over, with fifteen more voices in addition, to the mix. And for the first time, I could hear every one of them. On other songs, some vocal arrangements were still hard to make out, depending on the way it was mixed. On every song, new musical details. The tunefulness of bass, the melodies of bass, the shimmer of high range cymbals, the correct metallic sound of acoustic guitar strings, along with the woodiness of the instrument’s body…. it was all present and accounted for.

Clearly, this was a kind of “speed” you would normally pay hundreds $$$ for, if not more. So now I could see why some earphiles compared this model to IEMs costing in that range. (Just not sure why it didn’t come out like this before, with all that tip-rolling I did!). In fact, it left open the question of “Q. How could it be better?”. For it seemed in most ways that count, there was no “better”. No matter the cost. You had perfect treble extension, without any of the associated anomalies and harshness in mids and highs, that you often get with extended treble. All due to the excellent control and speed involved. “Sparkle” yes, but like costlier audiophile-grade buds, things never got to the “piercing” stage. The only things I could see that could still leave room for improvement under this “revelatory sound”, was bass/sub-bass power/depth, and soundstage size. But given the crisp, clean, pin-drop detail it did provide, the vented MH755 wasn’t exactly screaming for a wider soundstage. And more bass could mean the mids take a quality hit, as is often the case with bassier buds. Still, it did leave something to be desired in that area.

Finally… how do these eartips compare to the others I have tested and reviewed with this earphone? I don’t know, you tell me! All I know, is that I am not taking off the red-bore tips, unless I absolutely have to. So I can’t do such comparisons, even if its to better understand what is going on. The reason has to do with “decoupling energy fields”, and such things you wouldn’t understand, and I don’t care to explain! 😈 Suffice to say, speaking from experience, if you ever get a sound like this that knocks you off your feet, don’t change a thing. Don’t even leave your socks on the floor afterward!  😆  For removing the tips is pretty much a guarantee that you won’t get the exact same sound back, once they’re returned.

Winner: Unbranded wide (red) bore dome-shape silicone eartips (“Silicone Eartips Earbud For Moving Iron In-Ear Headphone Earphone”). After installing these, removing the vent mod and having a long hard listen, the first thing I did the next day is buy another pair of MH755’s. Think Pink!

 

Einsear “T2” with Sony/AKG/Senn eartips, fitted on the extreme edge of the nozzles. You may be able to see the tip on the right side, tilted a bit toward the right, back end. This provided a better fit when inserted.

Shootout: Sony MH755 vs. Einsear T2

Einsear T2:

I fitted the Einsears with the same black Sony/AKG tips mentioned. I should say that, as I suspected, the sound of an IEM is highly dependent on how the tip is fitted. When I first tested the T2 with those tips, I found by surprise, it had less bass than the MH755! I knew that couldn’t be right, so I played some more with the fitting. In both trials, the eartips on the T2’s were fitted as far to the front edge of the nozzle as they could go. But in the second trial, I really tried to place it as much on the edge as I could without falling off. This meant the angle was not straight on one side (see pic left). It was an upper angle, but this offered a better fit. This better fit changed the sound of the T2 a hell of a lot! It’s the best I’ve heard of the T2. Now there was bags of bass everywhere, and the sound was larger, warmer, more detailed etc. Proving the T2 is really an excellent performer! I have zero issues with the sound under this setup, and it is under this setup I endeavoured to compare it to the MH755….

Something about the Einsear feels more natural and relaxed. It may not be more than the fact that is more comfortable, with its long, slender, flexible, braided fabric wire, and better ear fit. Frankly, I don’t know why Sony felt they had to make the earpieces and nozzles so small? Are there are a lot of little 4-year olds, running around demanding bluetooth capability?

n.b. I briefly discuss another series of comparative tests between these two IEMs, in the review for the Einsear T2.

Sony MH755: Again, with the Sony/AKG eartips fitted on the edge for best insertion, the Sony’s sounded to me as they did before during the main test. That is; detailed, with a higher degree of resolution, separation and clarity than that offered by the T2, and a drier but faster bass. Albeit one much less prominent and present. I still liked the T2, sorry!

Winner: Tie.

It was, typically, difficult to do such comparisons, because of how much the sound can change due to the fitting of the eartips. Even though I used the very same set of eartips for both models, placing them both at the edge of the nozzle, exactly how they were placed, at exactly what angle they sat at, could significantly change the sound for each. On the Sony’s for example, I could place the tips on the edge, but if I did not use a very light touch when inserting them, too bad, the tips get pushed down the nozzle, and no longer make as good a seal. Degrading the sound, as well as creating a different sound than what I heard before, making my job as a reviewer that much more trying. It was consistently more difficult to get the Sony to fill out the bass and add warmth with eartip tinkering, so maybe that is the way it sounds.

I feel the shootout ends in a tie, because what advantages the Sony had, were upset by the better qualities offered by the Einsear. e.g. The Sony threw out a wider soundstage and displayed striking detail, when listening to the strings plucked by Ron Sexsmith’s acoustic guitar on “Speaking With The Angel”. But the Einsear had it all over the Sony when it came to bass, warmth, body, timbre, ‘liquidness’ and flow. This could be heard on Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Got No”, or the jazz track off the Chesky Audiophile Sampler record. Let’s put it this way: most average people would probably be better off with the T2, whilst “detail freaks” (hey, it’s better than being called “detail dorks” yes?), will be better suited with the Sony. In that sense, the Sony offers better value, because what it does, don’t normally come this cheap. Not in this universe, anyway.

KZ “ZSN” in black.Shootout: KZ ZSN vs. Sony MH755

Dare I? The ZSN was supposed to be the budget-busting beauty of the bunch. The ‘755 is supposed to be the poor little IEM that comfortably socializes with the millionaire IEM’s on an exclusive IEM cruise yacht. Let’s put them in a cage with no holds barred, and let ’em fight to the death until only one crawls out!…..

Ok, game over. ZSN wins. Happy? Surprised? Apathetic? Well FWIW, I was. Surprised that is. The Sony was on a roll, picking up steam fast, and mowing down everything in its path. So I thought it would easily outdo the ZSN, given how refined and agile it was. As I learned, it’s only agile and refined with other IEMs of its class. In reality, it really has no business hanging out with millionaires. Or just IEM’s with a net worth in the hundred$.

Head-to-head, the ZSN runs rings around it. Yeah, no contest. It’s like…. hmmm.. I wanna say twice the resolution of the Sony? Somewhere close to that, I’d say. While the Sony has a wide soundstage, the ZSN sets a stage so large, it almost feels like you’re in the middle of it. And the music is taking place around you. So the ZSN is much larger, much louder, presenting much more detail and form to the shape of instruments and voices. I haven’t ruled out the idea that the ‘755 is better in certain regards, but I’ll leave to others to figure out what they are.

In a quick comparison with the KZ ATE using the same eartips (where I only compared how well I can hear my vocal mixes), it’s also not a given that the ‘755 is master of the ATE, either. Even if the Sony is superior in some ways, the ATE holds its own quite well against it, thank you very much. This perhaps says more about how good the ATE is, than the Sony.

Sony “MH755” with “vent mod” (tape covering vent). Hop on board the bass train folks…

Tweaking Part 2: The Vent Mod

I had heard about an easy mod involving covering up the vent hole on the MH755 earpieces. I don’t recall any specifics about what that’s supposed to do to the sound, but I will attempt to describe it here. My method was to use a cut piece of adhesive metallic label (the kind used to tag items for security shopping systems. So I guess that means I’ll get nabbed every time I go into Best-Buy wearing these things).

n.b. I won’t be able to get a really good handle on the differences, because I can’t (read: won’t) do a series of A/B back and forths with this type of test. It’s just an “A” and a “B” here. 

Sound: The sound really firms up with the vent hole covered. This projects it more and makes it appear louder. The sound has more body, richness and warmth; which does a favour to the saxophone on the jazz tune I tested! For all these reasons and more, I also found the sound decidedly more engaging. A quality the MH755 surely lacked. That hardness that I spoke about in the body of the review? Pretty much gone, as far as I can tell. So, only good news? You wish!

I rarely find an “improvement” in audio that doesn’t degrade something else. But what’s missing…. well, definitely “airiness”, and the “lightness” the sound had. That’s greatly reduced. The soundstage appears somewhat reduced as well, in connection with that. Perhaps some delicate micro-detail will be diminished, I expect. And though the mid-bass has definitely increased, it’s also slowed down a pace. The sound isn’t quite as agile and ‘fast on its feet’ as it originally seemed to be.

None of that matters as much to me, as what has improved. This IEM was in dire need of warmth, bass, and the reduction of sharpness in the upper end is another welcome change. I intend to keep the tape on, from here on in.

UPDATE: Vent Mod Addendum

In a comparison with the Einsear T2 in that IEM’s review, I talk about how the main advantage to the T2, is that it is not as “crude” in sound, as the Sony MH755. How the Sony is more “immediate” and “immersive”. It then occurred to me, all of these qualities may be due to the vent modification I had made! In short, it was.

Removing the vent mod (after using it for days), eliminated the “crudeness” to the sound, that made the Sony, for me, a bit “hard” to tolerate. (“Hard” in quotes because the sound was “hard”-er!). It was also smaller and closer in soundstaging. The end result of removing the vent mod, is of course, less bass as I mentioned. And the bass remaining is softer, as well as ‘weaker’. But! That bass has better definition and balance, and more importantly, the interplay of dynamics and micro-dynamics in the sound picture is fundamentally more natural. It can not be underestimated how important this quality is, to the accurate reproduction of music. I’m quite certain the “revelation” with the unbranded red-bore S tips I speak of above, would not have been possible without removing the vent mod.

However, the experience of music reproduction is certainly a subjective affair, so if you’ve heard the easy to implement vent mod, and prefer the addition of bass the extra clarity you get from a closer soundstage, that remains your choice.

Under Amplification

Earlier in the review, I talked about how the sound seemed to distort, and hinted at signs of stress under more complex arrangements. This prompts a test where amplification is involved, to see if this is really a problem, or just “something of the moment”. Specifically, I plugged it into my computer, listening to recording mixes I had done, and even did some vocals, using the Sony’s as the monitoring “headphones”. I’m happy to report that it does not break up under amplified conditions (as, say, the MRice E100 does). It should be good-to-go for any DAP player, as an example. While not the worst in this regard, it’s not the best for my recording needs however, as it has a total lack of bass under the conditions I had them in, and is all zingy mids and highs here. But then, that is sadly the case with many other IEMs (ie. KZ’s) I have tried, in this set-up. Earbuds often tend to be better here, for some reason.

Fakespotting: If you’re looking for “the catch”, on how a $7 earphone can be compared to models that cost several hundred dollars, it’s this: you may not be able to buy it.

At least, not a genuine one. If you’ll recall, I said they initiated production on them years ago, and only for specific bluetooth and smartphone devices. Since then, the market got flooded with fake MH755’s. Oh yeah. I know what you’re thinking. “Why would anyone bother to fake a short-corded earphone, worth less than $10, that came free with a Sony handset??”. Ah. The Ever-Engimatic Chinese… If they could fake the moon, they would. Then blow it up and sell off the pieces for a $1… Perhaps they faked the MH755 because of the spike in sales, from all the internet buzz around it? Who knows… but sellers on Taobao know…. they have seen faked MH755’s from some of their competitors. They even posted pictures of them:

And you can tell the above MH755 is a fake, because it says in Chinese on the bottom left, “THIS IS BULLSHIT!”.

Others have measured marked frequency response differences between genuines and fakes. Reportedly, there are two ways of assuring yourself of a genuine Sony MH755. One is begging someone who has the Sony bluetooth player or Xperia it came with, to give it to you. The other, is to buy them wholesale, from resellers. The only problem there is, you’ll need to end up buying more than you need. This is the minimum order…..

…and if you want another colour than “turquoise”, be prepared to move into a larger home.

Fortunately, there are sellers who’ve purchased new/old stock, and individual samples of the MH755 can be bought from them. eBay, AliExpress, Eardio, Amazon, and many other local and international websites, still carry one version or other of the MH755. The question is, which version? Genuine? Fake? For the sound quality, it has been reported, is dependent on which version you get. Some versions offer too much bass, some less. (All versions are said to have a boost in the sub-bass, however).

I refused to buy these on AliExpress, because I don’t trust the sellers there not to sell me fakes, and I don’t trust AliExpress to have my back, if they do. It was quite difficult to sort out this mess, and find a seller known to sell the genuine article, and willing to ship it to me. There are reports of buyers getting fakes from sellers on eBay citing the article as “genuine”, “authentic”, “100% not bullshit” etc. So much for words, eh! So who do you trust? Don’t assume, as some do, that if you pay $1 more, you’re assured of a genuine product. You’re not even more assured.

Plug tag on my MH755. Serial here matches other serial numbers.

The seller I settled on just happened to have the cheapest price on eBay, if not the entire internet, at this time (see link in title of this review). Plus, he’s shipping from Australia (not China), has a fast shipping schedule of 2-3 weeks (instead of 2-3 months, from China), and ships within 1 day of payment. Add to that it says it’s a genuine Sony product in the ad, the seller has about 240,000 feedbacks, with a miraculous 99.8% positive feedback rating! As a seller on eBay once, even I could not maintain a 99.8% feedback, let alone on a quarter of a million sales! There are just too many malcontents in the world to achieve that!

 

My MH755 serial tags. Number on wire matches number on bag. AUTHENTICITY PASSED!

My seller hits all the right buttons for a genuine match:

  1. The cable has the L-connector plug, not the straight connector. This suggests it is an older model. We want the older model, because of reports that the newer iterations are not as good.
  2. The IEM is white. There are black versions, and most of those, are reported to be fakes.
  3. The photo in his ad (right) shows 3 different colours of the model, and the wires have the tags attached. All 3 tags have legit-looking serial numbers, and are different (I checked).
  4. There is a “ghost number”, which is the year/week code, written on the wire tag in translucent print, which indicates legitimacy. In the photo above left, you can see it as a large number “13”, to the right of the Model no. This is from “1334”, which is my abbreviated serial no. That means in production date code;  “34th week of 2013”.
  5. I have in the past succeeded in getting a refund for fake earphones on eBay. Hence I feel there may be a better chance at doing so here than on some other sites. If you are in the U.S. this seller (spassear) is reported to be selling genuine, if in the U.K., this seller (mini-coin28) is reported as genuine. If I’m not mistaken, my seller (simplecom), is international.

Authenticity Check:

Newer versions of the MH755 have a straight connector (to be avoided) and no tag on the cord.

One way to see check if your copy of the MH755 is it is authentic, is to look at the date and serial number, at 3 locations in the packaged item. All 3 locations should contain the same 4-digit segment of the number that indicates: 1) year of manufacture + 2) week of manufacture.  e.g. the number “1336” shows a year date of “2013”, a week date of “36”. It should be indicated as the first 4 numbers of the serial number, and in the other 2 locations (the wrapping and the cable).

Fortunately, my seller has sold me a legitimate MH755. You can see proof of this in the photos I have provided in this section. My serial starts with “1334”, and that is printed on the wire tag as well as the bag it came in. All other characteristics I’ve talked about here check out on this sample, and confirm its legitimacy.

Another test is “ghost number” stamping. You can see in the photo on the left translucent numbering printed to the right of the model number. Hard to fake, that.

 

Sony MH755 mod detailing converting the IEM to a detachable MMCX cable model. (Click on photo for larger size).

Tweaking

I guess with any “popular underground cult earphone”, there’s bound to be some tweaking involved. Indeed, I’ve found numerous articles commenting on tweaks people have made to the MH755. We’re talking far more than the usual “tip rolling”. They consist of less invasive tactics, such as sealing up all the cracks and openings around the earpiece to change the bass qualities. To more invasive procedures that involve opening up the earpieces, and removing or inserting foam pieces, or even desoldering the wire from the drivers to change to a better grade of cable. I don’t know if I want to risk taking a scalpel to mine, but if you’re the sort of hobbyist who would, and you want to change/improve the sound, here’s a few ways that can be done….

Foam Tweak: Removing the foam from the nozzle (aka “output tube”) attached to the earpieces, which the eartip fits on. Or alternatively, adding foam in the centre of the eartip. (Removing foam from the nozzle requires using a sharp pin, to lift the edge of the black nylon nozzle filter, pick out the foam plug underneath, and re-stick the black nylon filter back onto the nozzle). Reportedly, the main difference from removing the nozzle foam is tighter and clearer bass, with less softening/smoothing of the sound. (You can pretty much assume this for any IEM).

 

Final Shootout: Sony MH755 vs Sony MH755 (pink)

 

 

 

Conclusion: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, WITH RESERVATIONS. This was originally just “RECOMMENDED”. But that was before I started experimenting with the Sony/AKG tips. So it falls somewhere between “RECOMMENDED” and “HIGHLY RECOMMENDED”. The “RESERVATION” being that it was only with the Sony/AKG tip, and only when that was installed right on the edge of the nozzle, that I felt the Sony MH755 might well live up to its on-line hype. I still don’t know what tips work really well with it, that you don’t have to just barely fit to the nozzle. Something with a long bore and wide head, to start with. The KZ Starlines came in second in that regard… but another world behind the Sony/AKG’s, in my opinion. Other reasons to add the “RESERVATIONS” caveat, might include the stumpy wire bit, the “Where’s Waldo?” style bass section (that you have to really go searching for), and the mids and highs that can take you sailing through choppy waters. Though never too aggressive or shouty, they lack sweetness and accurate timbre. The sound could be a total wipeout, with the wrong tips and a shallow insertion.

I do hope people are reading more than the conclusion on this, because the MH755 doesn’t offer its fruit so readily. I included the false starts in this review, so that you get a sense of this. To be sure, the Sony MH755 are certainly a different tuning, making them quite unusual when placed in the framework of all the other models here. Is this the so-called “Harman Target” sound, I don’t know? But I know that they’re an “important” IEM, if that comment is understood.

The Lowdown: The Sony MH755’s under any conditions, appear to have a weak bass quality, that goes from decently supportive to missing in action (depending on what tips are used and how they’re installed). But under the right conditions (read this entire unredacted review to find out how difficult this was for me to achieve!), they can sound absolutely stunning. At their best, they have a transparency, speed, detail and soundstage that is reminiscent of electrostatic cans, and that you might not even find on $1k IEMs. Not to be missed, if you’re an audiophile. But under less than ideal conditions (ie. wrong tips or improperly installed ones), they might give an inaccurate timbre that renders sound colours in the upper end a bit too sharp and sibilant at times.

That said, they avoid shouty aggressiveness, under all conditions. A lesson the KZ’s could learn from. They need to be carefully matched with tips (see review), as their stock tips leave much to be desired. If that’s successful, then you might find they excel at being neutral and balanced. Though they’re not exactly a good fit for Mr. & Mrs. Joe Average, I eventually ended up joining those aboard the MH755 hype train. The Sony MH755 do come across as giant-killers, far outweighing their diminutive size and price. But unless you have a really short neck and torso, you may not want to order these without an additional extension cable.

.


URBANFUN “Hi-Fi” (Original BA/DD Hybrid)
Original Title: “AK Original URBANFUN Hybrid Unit 1BA With 1DD In-ear Earphone 3.5MM HiFi Bass Noise Cancelling Headset With Mic Free Shipping”
Price: $22.25 (AliExpress)

URBANFUN “Hi-Fi”: Original model. Green with red band.

Before ordering these, I had no intention of getting them. Or any more earphones, for that matter! The URBANFUN’s came into my field of view for most of the duration of this review series. I just never bit. Maybe because it was slightly more than twice the artificial limit of $10 u.s. I gave myself (which I broke anyway with the ZSN and a couple of others!). But maybe it was because these are the ugliest things I’ve seen, since Donald Trump in golf shorts. I guess it’s like being the guardian at a children’s nursery. At some point eventually, you’re gonna have to get your nose out of your book, stop ignoring the screaming and the noise, and have a look at what all these damn kids pulling on your leg are trying to tell you.

And they’re certainly not trying to say “Wow, don’t I look like a million bucks?!”. The URBANFUN Hi-Fi’s look like $3 dollar earphones, to be specific. In photos, they very much appear to resemble the QKZ DM1, for which I paid less than that. Moreover, the URBANFUNs have that garish “Razor X – Alienware” look, so popular with the kiddies. If there’s anything more loathsome to me in technology design than the “gamer look”, I have yet to come across it. “Glo-worm green” is not a colour, people. I’s a chemical!

And somehow, they even managed to give the earphones a name as stupid as the look they chose. Boldly stamping that name on the outside of the earpieces, in case anyone missed your lack of taste. Ok, so if going out, I might have to wear these under an all-season ski cap or something. On top of being fugly, I heard tell the latest versions feel kind of cheap, and the in-line mic is not optional. So why on earth did I get it, after rejecting it the 37 times I’ve seen it mentioned in the last 3 months?? Read on. I promise the story gets more interesting….

Reasons To Be Cheerful

It’s not for nothing I’ve seen it mentioned so many times, during my research, of course. They were seen recommended by everyone from virgin headgearphiles, to the hardest of hard-core eargear-heads. The ones that never walk out of the house with less than five earphones around their neck. (All of which are ten times the cost of this guy). But that’s just it. I’ve seen these enthusiasts compare the URBANFUN “Hi-Fi” to $500 headphones! So perhaps if I’d kept it to under $10 this time, it would only have compared to $250 headphones? I’ve also seen it frequently regarded as being one of the best IEMs under $100 Not under $25, under $100. At some point, I just had to take serious notice of this thing!

When I learned of its character profile, is when I started taking serious notice of this dumb-looking earphone. Many of the terms used to describe its sound, ticked a lot of boxes for me. And few of those words, scared me off. For example, its widely held as one of the most neutral sounding IEMs anywhere near the price. You would not think so to look at it, but it’s not considered by any means to be a bass monster. Which is a strange bit of marketing to create an earphone with a totally flat, neutral audiophile tuning, that’s marketed as having a “studio monitor sound”, but design it to appeal to the Beats and Skullcandy crowd. Somebody really screwed the pooch on this one. So again, though it looks like it would have a cheap sound that’s muddy and lacking detail; reports say quite the opposite. How about this review excerpt for example….

” The sound the Urbanfun Hifi’s are delivering is amazing. They are delivering a ‘studio-monitor’ sound, that provide the most accurate and un-coloured representation of sound as possible. The accuracy of the sound you can find back in all the frequency levels in the sound. The bass is really punchy and detailed, providing a very good representation of the intended bass in a song. As other earphones, can be bassy and over-represent the bass, the Urbanfun Hifi is focused on delivering an accurate bass as possible.

The part that I love the most about the Urbanfun Hifi’s is the delivering of the mid’s and high’s. The frequency range between the mid’s and the high’s is being delivered on such a high level, it sound’s like all details between these ranges are delivered to accurate, without leaving any sounds on a certain frequency level. It provides instruments and vocals, really detailed and smooth. In vocals you are able to hear the mid’s and high’s at the same time, whereas other earphones may only be producing the mid’s of a vocal. The high’s are of a great level, able to deliver the high’s really crispy, without being sibilance. The mid’s and high’s are one of the best, if it isn’t the best, I heard in earphones.

The Urbanfun Hifi claimed the throne.  9.2/10
“Urbanfun HiFi Review: There’s a New King in Town.”, The Earphone King

Before deciding on it, I pitted them against many competitors in its price category, just to be sure I was selecting the best choice for this occasion. The URBANFUN’s competition included, but wasn’t limited to; the MEMT X5s, Rock Zircon, Boarseman KR25D, E-MI CI880, Vivo xe800, Magaosi K3, Takstar INGPING, BossHiFi B3, DZAT DF-10, OKCSC ZX1, LZ Z03A, Kailuhong Y1, iHaper S001, etc. Guess which model won out over all the rest?

It was a long road to get to being sure that the URBANFUN Hi-Fi was going to the one I settle on, for the last of this review series**. It grew much longer when I discovered there were many, almost identical variations of the URBANFUN. And each one sounded different than the other! That story is so involved, that I am continuing it toward the end of this review. Just know that understanding the model variations, will be an important consideration, if you have plans on also getting an URBANFUN by the end of this! **(Surely you know the drill by now… this too was nowhere near the last earphone I ordered…).

 

Fit & Finish

Right off, I would call this the best build quality of the bunch. But then, I suppose that should be expected, as it’s the costliest of the bunch. The earpieces are small, and look to be about the size and form of those on the QKZ DM1. But the metal here is much more solid, a bit heavier, and extends almost out to the tip (so too, the DM1). The wire employed is my new favourite wire design. Pretty clever, actually. In that it’s good ol’ transparent plastic tubing (over black insulated inner core). This means the exterior is not sticky, a la KZ, very flexible, and almost untangles itself. It appears to be less microphonic as well.

The stems at the earpieces are a bit flexible, indicating they won’t break easily. There is a convenient velcro strap on the wire to help manage the storage. This is the first model I review that includes a cable slider on the wire to adjust the split between the two channels. From the looks of things, the wires that enter and exit the connector at the Y-split are not going anywhere. The 3.5mm plug is very solid, with a very nice angled design (which departs from the original design of the “Hi-Fi” model), and some serious strain relief. The strain relief joint is very stiff, so the wire will not be bending at that end. The eartips are very soft but decent quality wide-bore black domes. They make a great seal and the M-size are very comfortable to me once in. There are 2 more sizes included.  There is a well made zippered protective storage case included, that has a carbon fibre design on the outside, and isn’t it Urbanfun that the garish toxic monkey-vomit green is repeated on the case?

So far so good!

Sound Leakage: The “Hi-Fi” is not the quietest IEM I’ve heard, even if I expected it to be, from the design. I’d give it perhaps 7.25/10 for leakage. At about 80% volume, in a quiet room with the stock-tipped earpieces a few inches from my head, I can hear enough to make out the track playing.

Energy: Installed in my ears with the sound off, the energy feeedback I’m getting is good. It feels neutral. Not anxious and not ‘heavy’, which suggests it’s going to be ‘musical’, and at least decent sounding.

Sound

Initial Impressions: Ah, now I know what the energy was trying to tell me!! I heard good things from the very start, including a great sense of flow. It definitely comes off as a higher class of IEM, as the presentation of the soundscape is different than any other IEM I’ve reviewed. You get a front row seat to the show, but that seat appears to be in a proscenium situated just above the musicians, looking down. While much of the action often seems to occur in the centre of the head, unlike a cheap listen, other sounds will occur far off to the sides or back from that position. As though the main players took centre stage, and told the peripheral players to stand a good distance from them. So in fact, this earphone is capable of producing a wiiiiide soundstage. Wider than any of the other models I’ve heard. This can clearly be heard in the way it separates elements. As for the soundstage projection, I might almost describe it as somewhere between close up, and a distance away. Although I usually prefer close up projections, I did not feel it was too far away, either.

The dynamics ramp up from a smaller point, to a larger point, than heard previously. Hence, it could be said it has greater dynamic range. The soundstage is wider than ever before, and more elements within it can be heard. Those elements (instruments, voices and other sounds) have more space between and around them. As to the question of detail, it leapfrogs the KZ ZSN. The previous champ here, for detail.

Now if I go looking for flaws, I find a kind of ‘protective haze’ over the sound. As though it were behind glass. It reduces that bit of ‘sparkle’ off of the edge of piano notes and cymbals…. which personally I am fine with, as it means no long-term listener fatigue. And because of it, the sound never ever gets shrill, and its certainly not sibilant. On the other end, the bass is interesting in that…. it’s not as present, as you might expect. It is what I’d call not a “strong” bass, but a “supportive” bass. In any case, whatever bass may be lacking, like the highs, is not missed, by me. Keep in mind, that the details of tonality I’m stating are often an artifact of the eartips used, and this part of the profile will change with eartips. So I’m sure you could change eartips and get more detail in the high end, if necessary. So with that, let’s see what wide-bore double-flange eartips will do…..

Tweaking: Tip-Rolling

After a few days of hearing the Urbanfuns, I decided that I couldn’t live with their stock eartips after all. That ‘haze’ I spoke about left me feeling cheated out of the natural brightness of the mids and highs. To these, I fitted a pair of L-size even-layered wide-bore double flange tips. So as expected, much of that haze lifted, the mids and highs opened up, and I could hear more detail in this area. But not at no cost. The sound was a touch drier in this configuration, and that ultimate sparkle on piano notes still felt suppressed. This might be rectified by trying tips such as the Sony/AKG reviewed here. In any regard, the UHF lends well to tip experimentation, due to its level of resolution.

Authenticity: After taking 3 hours to read all I wrote (below) on how to spot fakes, while I am reasonably certain this is not a ‘fake’ (and it was purchased from a reputable seller), I’m still not 100% sure that this is the original “Hi-Fi” model! I wonder how it can be, since they ‘upgraded’ the original HFI a long time ago. Plus, as you can see by my own photos, the angled connector is different. Since all the other models described here have fully straight connectors, this is the first time I see this type of connector, in all of my research on it! If I go by the sonic descriptions of the model variations I posted below, there are stronger indicators that I have the original dual hybrid Hi-Fi. At this point, my guess is that while I don’t believe it’s a ‘fake’ Urbanfun, I would not be surprised if its somewhat different in sound than the original production of the “Hi-Fi”. But as far as I can tell, its probably the closest to that original production model (all the hype was built upon…), you can obtain today.

 

Shootout: Einsear T2 vs. URBANFUN “Hi-Fi

Since I have seen these two compared to each other as being very close, the natural inclination is to test that out, and maybe see whether it was even worth it for me to get the URBANFUN, after I had already ordered the Einsear!

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The History and Model Variations of the URBANFUN “Hi-Fi”

The URBANFUN Hi-Fi has been riding the “hype train” for at least 4 years now. Most of the reviews and glowing reports of this model, were based on the original “Hi-Fi”. That original model, it has been reported, may be either difficult or impossible to find,  at the time of this writing. “URBANFUN” change the design specs. They just didn’t advertise it too much. You won’t find any such info on the only website I’ve seen linked to them, as it only shows a single page in Chinese. That can’t be translated….

The original URBANFUN Hi-FI was known as a “hybrid” design; namely an architecture that incorporates a “balanced armature” (BA) driver, with a traditional dynamic driver (DD) behind it. (The original DD diaphragm was not beryllium coated). This is normally a more expensive configuration than an IEM with just a dynamic driver. Except, URBANFUN supplanted the very successful “Hi-Fi” model, with a “Mk. II” version, where they made some design changes to the cord, etc. (Not for the better). Alongside that, came a single DD version, using a beryllium driver. It sells for no less than the original BA/DD version, and most likely more.

There are enough variations and confusion resulting from this, to make your head spin. Here is a table to help sort some of it out at a glance:

Urbanfun
Model: “Hi-Fi” (Original)

  • Cables: Light grey, with ribbed pattern along the length, covered by clear silicone. (Appears identical to Fengru “MX500” earbud cable). Quality: decently solid and sturdy.
  • Earpiece colour: Black (green band), Green (usually silver band) – (anodized)
  • Drivers: BA/DD (Hybrid)
Urbanfun
Model: “Hi-Fi” (Mk. II) (#BM3)
Cables: Medium grey. Flat colour, no pattern.  Quality: Thinner diam. than original. Significantly less sturdy.
Earpiece colour: Black (green band), Green (red/gold? band). Also “colourfun” colours: white, red, yellow, orange (ceramic paint)
Drivers: BA/Beryllium DD (Hybrid)
Urbanfun
Model: Beryllium (#BM2)
Cables: Black. Flat colour, no pattern.  Quality: Does not appear to quite match the quality of the original light grey ‘textured’ cables.
Earpiece colour: Black (green band), Green (red/gold? band). Also “colourfun” colours: white, red, yellow, orange (ceramic paint)
Drivers: DD (Beryllium)

 

ADDITIONAL MODELS

Urbanfun
Model#: BM1
n.b. I’ve only seen this model on one seller’s Urbanfun Hi-Fi ad on AliExpress, so I’m not sure of its official name. It looks close enough to the “Hi-FI” model, but not quite. At the rear of the earpieces, instead of being round, it has a pinched-in design (to aid in gripping the sides). It only came in white & gold, and sold for a bit less. It’s most likely a single beryllium DD driver, if its even beryllium.
Urbanfun
Model: “Popu Lady”: This is another model almost no one talks about. Again, it roughly resembles the “Hi-Fi” model, but the back is convex, instead of flat, with a vent hole in the centre. It only appears in white and champagne; and is marketed toward women. (It is apparently a single DD beryllium driver, tuned for women, with less “sharp frequencies”). It sells for a bit less than the “Hi-Fi” model.

 

SPOTLIGHT SELECTION

There are numerous models of the Urban Hi-Fi as mentioned, and each model has different sound and physical characteristics. This section should help clear up most of the differences, so you can make an informed decision.

URBANFUN “Hi-Fi”: Original model. Green with red band.
URBANFUN “Hi-Fi”: Mk. II?

Original “Hi-Fi” Hybrid Version (Dual BA/DD Driver)

Pictured left is the original model “Hi-Fi”. Note the black ribbing on the silver-coloured wire (click on picture for a close-up view). That’s the best indication that this is the original version, the one with the BA/DD hybrid driver system. Another ‘tell’, is the deep dark green colour of the earpieces. That’s from the original version. Now, assuming I’m not mistaken (I could be on this point….), the one pictured on the right, with the lighter green shell, appears to be a later edition (possibly the “Mk. II”). (n.b. Any URBANFUN that is not black or green, is definitely not related to the original “Hi-Fi” version).

Sound: Here’s where it matters. There’s the original “Hi-Fi”, and then there are later variations that either have BA/Beryllium DD drivers, or just Beryllium DD drivers.

The original “Hi-Fi” model, is what the URBANFUN’s stellar reputation, situated at the top of many/most best-of budget Chi-Fi lists, was built upon. But some prefer the sound of the models that followed; ie. the Beryllium. So read carefully!

Volume-wise, the original “Hi-Fi” is reported to be significantly lower in sound output, than the single DD driver Beryllium version that came after. Sound-wise, the dual-driver “Hi-Fi” is reported to have somewhat better separation of detail, less ‘warmth’/more ‘neutrality’ in the bass region. A thinner mid-range, that tends to favour female vocals over male, and a weaker sub-bass. This weaker sub-bass, making everything leaner, could produce a sound for some, on some types of music, that tilts too much toward the upper ranges, at louder volumes. So its entirely possible that one model plays better at loud volumes, with another playing better at lower volumes.

URBANFUN “Hi-Fi”: Single DD Beryllium version.

Beryllium “Hi-Fi” Version (Single (DD) Driver)

Pictured left is the single dynamic beryllium driver variation. It sells for about the same as the hybrid, maybe slightly less. One thing is, that because it has no balanced armature (found on all pricier IEMs), it cost less to produce. You would think that alone is a deal-killer. But here’s another way the URBANFUN breaks some of the established rules!….

Despite the profound difference in driver design, many people who’ve heard both, claim they sound the same! Of course, we’ll leave them out of the conversation, because with a different driver system, there is no way that’s going to be true. So I was only interested in hearing from those who’d heard both and did find differences. Still, its worth mentioning that URBANFUN seems to have worked diligently at closing the sound gap between these different models.

One notable difference reported in reviews, is that the Beryllium model is much louder than the original. This makes it ideal for those who intend to pair the UF’s with a smartphone, for example. But does it sound as good?

Sound: The Beryllium model is reported to be less neutral, with more mid-upper bass than the original. A bit more forward midrange. A bit more warmth on lower mid vocals (from a bit of bass bleed). Perhaps a slightly more congested soundstage, and somewhat less detail in the picture. This makes it more of a “commercial/popular” type of tuning, as opposed to a more “clinical/studio monitor” type tuning. The Beryllium model is also said to have a more cohesive sound, and better on rhythmic music; ie. pop/rock. With the Original model shining brighter on quiet music, like classical and jazz.

” Selçuk, I have both versions. The hybrid version is more detailed but the beryllium version is significantly louder and easier to drive. If you ask me, you should buy the beryllium version. I absolutely recommend the beryllium version because it is cheaper and louder. ” – Tung Tiryaki

In his own words, here is but one example of an owner of both models (Hybrid and Single Driver Beryllium), describing his interpretation of how they sound:

” I did some A/B testing a couple months ago when I still had both (my girlfriend stole my hybrids and then my first T2) and overall, the Beryllium is warmer with thicker/more forward mids and more mid-bass. Vocals on the Beryllium were more intimate and evenly represented too. The Hybrids, from what I remember, felt thinner in the midrange with an unevenness in vocals that favored female vocals over male. I felt like they were more lively and energetic because of that upper-mid boost. They sorta had that BA sound. I also believe they both had an identical treble and sub-bass. I still love both and found myself switching between both frequently because they have their own strengths.” – ‘Lodestar’, Head-Fi

 

To make matters more complicated, there are at least 3 versions of the dual driver “Hybrid” URBANFUN.

  1. The original “Hi-Fi”.
  2. The Mk. 2 “Hi-Fi”
  3. The “Colourfun” (models in colours not green or black). Which allegedly comes in both dual and single (beryllium) driver versions. But I’ve only seen the “Colourfuns” (white/orange/red/yellow) with my own eyes in a single DD-Beryl edition.

 

Mk. II “Hi-Fi” Hybrid Version (BA + Beryllium DD Driver)

Pictured on the left, is the Mark II, hybrid. Like the Original “Hi-Fi”, it has both a BA and DD driver. But its DD driver is beryllium. (Not to be confused with the single-driver beryllium model!).  It is distinguished by a flat grey cable, instead of the original hybrid’s light grey ‘ribbed’ cable, or the single driver Beryllium’s black cable. The cable of the Mk. II is thinner, and the cable relief and microphone are said to be slightly less well finished, than that of the other newer models.

As for the sound difference between the original and the MK.II… you’ll have to research that on your own! I couldn’t sort it out, with all the variations out there, and the difficulty of finding information on the audible differences between the new and the old hybrid Hi-Fi’s. Of course, if you prefer the Original version and its not available any more…. I presume there should be less differences between this Hybrid Beryllium MK. II and the original Hi-Fi hybrid, than there are between the Original Hi-Fi and the single driver Beryllium. If I had to guess, I’d say the new Hybrid Hi-Fi probably has a sonic profile closer to the single-DD Beryllium model, than to the old Hi-Fi.

My Choice, As Example

Myself, I had a heck of a time deciding on which version to get. Normally, I try to get the original version, if there are variants. Since that’s the one the reputation is based off of. And indeed, that’s what I set out to do with the URBANFUN. But in this case, it’s not so cut and dry. If the reports are correct, the original is better in some areas, worse in others than the models that followed. After researching those differences between the variations, I decided the best version for me would probably be the black-cabled single-driver “Beryllium” version.

The reasons including the fact that its much louder, and most suitable for smartphones. Which is what I mostly saw myself using it with. Another strong reason being, that the mids of the Beryllium are (said to be) a bit more forward, and more even across male and female. Since vocals are important to me, this is of great appeal. I also liked the fact that the single-driver Beryllium was said to be more cohesive, and better for pop/rock, and other rhythmic forms of music. Mostly what I listen to, since I am not a fan of classical, for example. So after stuffing all these criteria into the ol’ skull machine,  I decided to go with the Original hybrid “Hi-Fi” model, in black.

“Wait, what??….”.

Yeah, I don’t know what I was thinking either! Oh now I remember. My reasoning for going with the Original, was that I felt I had earphones that offered warmth, coherence, and went well with pop etc. I did not, however, have a lot of good IEM candidates for critical listening, such as reviewing recording mixes on my portables. The neutral-ish Einsear T2 slated for review here, might also be perfectly suitable for that. But it hasn’t arrived yet. Actually, I’ve seen the T2 compared with the URBANFUN Hi-Fi, as being six of one, a half dozen of the other. Which made me wonder if I needed the URBANFUN at all for critical listening sessions? I get the impression, or rather I hope, the URBANFUN is a superior sound, but we’ll see.

Reading what I pasted above, I’m no longer quite sure the Original “Hi-Fi” model is my best bet for monitoring, since it’s apparently a bit less forward in the mids, and less even across it. But if it has less mid-bass bleed, and a bit more separation, then that can certainly help to distinguish vocal mixes. Of course it’s hard to say which is best for monitoring, without having them both to test. FWIW, I also didn’t like the idea that the cable on the new Hybrid is thinner. (Not after my Qian39’s are dead after 1 week because the connector snapped off the wire, when it got snagged!). Does not matter much what an earphone sounds like, if that earphone goes south because of a manufacturing weakness, does it.

 

Look familiar?

Buying the URBANFUN on AliExpress

Here’s where we get to the fun part! After carefully selecting which sound you want to settle in with, you then have to try to figure out what the misleading mother$#@%?!’s on “AliExpress” are going to ship you, after you send in your payment! This is why it must have been called “URBANFUN”!

Nearly every ad for the URBANFUN on Ali shows photos of both models, described above, in the body of the ad! I’ve seen many comments from buyers that show they did not know what they were buying, or what they even had after they got it. So how do you know what the ad is trying to sell you?

One indication would be to look at the title. Does it have “BA/DD” or just “Beryllium”? It could have both those terms! If so, the question becomes, does it have both those terms in the title legitimately, or illegitimately??  Because “BA/DD+Beryllium” could refer to the newer Mk.II model (grey wire), which has both a BA driver and a Beryllium DD driver. Or it could be the seller’s ad is offering both the single driver Beryllium model, and the non-Beryllium Original Hybrid model (BA/DD). Or the seller could just be selling the single driver Beryllium (black wire), and he has no Hybrid on offer. I’ve seen ads where the seller’s title indicates a Mk.II Beryllium Hybrid, but the ad’s body shows photos of 3 different UF model, with three different types of wires, and two different drive technologies!

You could bypass the title and go straight to the ad’s photos to see what model the seller is offering. And good luck! Some sellers I’ve seen show photos of the Original Hi-Fi in the ad, as well as the MK. II version, as well as the single driver Beryllium version, and also the “Colourfun” coloured variations for good measure. Plus models no one’s ever seen before with zero information about them in the ad (not even a model name).  All in the same ad. Even if the ad is only selling a single model in two colour variations.

With some of these ads, not only do you not know what model you’re going to get, you also don’t know what accessories its going to come with. I’ve seen ads that show photos of the “extra” package that came with the Original Hi-Fi. It was beautiful. Nice large box, full of eartips, clips, metal tin container with extra coloured eartips, etc. etc. Then a photo of the cheaper “standard” box the Original Hi-Fi used to come with. Less fancy, no metal tin, less goodies. Except these two photos are in the same ad. And it’s not like there was any option in the ad to choose whether you want the “standard” kit or the “extra”. So which package could you expect to get with this seller? Neither of them. I don’t even think those types of packaging kits are sent out any longer by URBANFUN. It’s just a small box now, with a green/black round zippered carrying case.

It appears that most of the sellers on Ali are too “back woods” to realize they are advertising conflicting models, features and specs (something that leaves them at risk of obligatory returns and refunds to buyers!). Of course, the other theory is they’re doing it on purpose, for nefarious reasons. I’ve read of one frustrated URBANFUN buyer who said he tried to contact a seller on Ali to ask what model was being shipped, and the seller replied with… wait for it…….. “No thanks“. I can only guess the seller might have thought the buyer was trying to sell him an URBANFUN.

URBANFUN “Hi-Fi”: Original Hybrid Version
URBANFUN “Hi-Fi”: Original Hybrid Version

Still, it may be a means to protect yourself, to ask the AE seller in advance what exactly he plans to ship out, and what exactly you expect to receive. Maybe you can use that convo as proof if the right item is not received. Still, its an incredible hassle no one wants, when you have to wait a month or two, for something you didn’t want. Ali might well demand you pay for shipping back to the seller, before any refunds take place. So one thing that could help here, is to see what other buyers received from the seller. If available, this can be found in the “Reviews” section, where buyers post photos of the items they receive. Looking at the pictures on either side of this paragraph, you can see these are the photos buyers posted in the Reviews section on Ali of the actual URBANFUNs received, purchased from my seller (AK Audio Store).

Notice the silver wire with black ribbing, and the colour and shape of the in-line mic? This differentiates it from the “Mk. II”. hybrid, with the flat grey cable. Even more so from the black-wired single-beryllium driver model. BTW, “AK Audio Store” is one of the best known sources of Chi-Fi models. I paid a bit more for my Hi-Fi Hybrid to get it from this store, because they have been on Ali for 5 years, had a 99.1% rating, 300 +reviews of the product, and customer photos. The other store selling a bit cheaper, had been on for 9 months, a 89.5%, 0 reviews and 0 photos!  (This tells me that at some point, Ali sided with the seller once again, and quiched all of his bad reviews, just to do him a solid! You don’t get a store on Ali for 9 months, with an 89.5% seller rating, selling URBANFUNs and somehow, no one ever posted a review of anything you sold!).

The Which Is Which? Switcheroo

URBANFUN “Hi-Fi” Hybrid Mk. II version
URBANFUN “Hi-FI” Original Ver.

Now let’s see what you’ve learned! One confused buyer on Head-Fi forums, asked whether the URBANFUN he got is an original, or a later revised edition. The picture he posted of his model is on the left. Pictured on the right, is the one his ad featured. See the difference? The picture on the left shows a solid flat grey wire, with light green earpieces, indicating he got a “Mk. II” Hi-Fi hybrid. The one in the seller’s ad on the right shows a different wire. A silver, black ribbed affair, indicating the original version. The seller’s ad only describes his product as a “100% URBANFUN” model. There is only one model, only one colour to choose from in his ad. All of the photos in this seller’s ad shows the model you see on the right. Hence, we can conclude from this that the seller is marketing the original model in his ad, but shipping the revised Mk. II, with the BA+Beryllium DD.


~~~~~~~ End of Spotlight Selection ~~~~~~~

Conclusion: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Dare I say, particularly before they are all in, this one’s the best of the bunch. It took only a few seconds of listening for me to realize that, and seal the deal. Following which, I concluded that this is about all the earphone I need, or will need. It has helped me hear old songs in a new way.

Normally, I listen to a song, and pause to write my impressions. But my eyes closed by themselves in no time, and this time, I did not want to stop listening. So I wrote the sound part of this review with my eyes closed while listening to the Urbanfun. Good thing I’m a touch typist! But that should say something about how engaging it is. Is the bass “boingy”? No. Not really. Nor does it need to be. Is the sound as transparent as the Sony MH755? No. Nor does it need to be. Is timbre as liquid as even the one dollar VPB “QC31”? Perhaps not. Nor does it need to be. Do I need the KZ ZSN, if it does some things better? No, not either!

Even if it does not do everything as well as some aspects of other models, the Urbanfun Hi-Fi is still the real deal, the complete package.

This model leaves me wanting for nothing. It has great separation, a transparent soundstage that sounds open and boundless. Like a theatre-in-the-round at an open air concert. It doesn’t exactly cram your earhole full o’ bass, but at no time did I think about the bass. Including its lack. That’s what balance and coherence does for you.

I don’t like to compartmentalize music, as most earheads seem to do. By that, I mean break it down to its FR components; bass/mid/trebles (yes, I’ve done that in these reviews… but for others, not myself!). I would posit that if you do, then perhaps you’ll find some things to criticize with the Urbanfun. Perhaps some will say it lacks sub-bass, it doesn’t vibrate the skull, or it doesn’t reproduce frequencies that squirrels can respond to. And I would agree. It’s not a great earphone for squirrels. Or those with 64” subs embedded in the trunk of their jacked up low-rider. But for those who like a beautifully balanced and immersive no-nonsense sound, you’ve come to the right place.

Finally, I wish I could end the series with this review. It would make a good ending, since this is the best I’ve heard yet, in overall terms. Alas, I’ve a few more models that have yet to come in, over the next 2 months.

The Lowdown: The poorly named “Urbanfun” gets all the basics right, and I can’t say that about a lot of earphones I’ve heard. Especially when botoxed bass appears to be a ‘trend’, in these superficial days of ours. It might be said the “Urbanfun Hi-Fi” is the “Einsear T2” on steroids. It has a ton of hype trailing behind it, and I’m just here to say that yeah, it’s worth the hype. With a balanced, detailed, untiring and yet consistently engaging sound, it does everything right and gets little wrong. Though it has more detail than the KZ ZSN, it doesn’t make a show of it. Thus it might be said, “detail + coherence”. With its durability, comfort, good seal, long and strong cord, strong connector, versatile and fatigue-free sound profile, it is an excellent choice as a so-called “daily driver”.

.


UiiSii “HM7” 
$6.00 (AliExpress)

I have a funny feeling I may have said this before, but I think this will mark the last earphone I obtain for this review series (reg. tm.). I’ve known about the UiiSii HM7 throughout these months of research and testing, but I kept wavering back and forth on getting it. If you read as much as I did on it, you’d know why! Having acquired the Einsear T2 and the Sony MH755 by now, the first and foremost question in anyone’s mind would be, what could the HM7 possibly offer, in the face of these equally tiny budget powerhouses? No seriously, do you know? I was hoping you might be able to help tell me. Or at least explain why I ordered this thing?? Anyway, where was I…

I guess because I was mighty intrigued by “UiiSii” (“we-see”) offerings, and have long-since wanted to try the brand out. Their IEM’s always have an unusual, unique design, and what seems to be very good build and/or sound quality, for very budget prices. For starters, how about solid metal earpieces, in a $6 model?  I was initially going to try their “C200” model (aka “Rock Y1”, aka “Fighting Bird” model”). But there wasn’t as much info on the sound of that one. Other than the usual “good for the price” nonsense. The “HM7” on the other hand… well, this is or was a very popular model. Perhaps the most, out of many.

Some said it could produce a “3D holographic soundstage”. Reviews and review sites often gave it high ratings. “Phonograph.net” an 8.3/10 rating, “The Earphone King” site an 8.7/10,  “Audiobudget” site gave it the highest “Awarded” rating and a 4.5/5. While “AProEar” site, gave it an eye-opening 8.3/10 rating! (Those reviewers are really hard on earphones, so….). This gushing review excerpt might help explain the buzz around the UiiSii HM7:

” First impression ; this one sounds very aggressive but fun. Everything are there. The tight and thumping bass, clear vocal, sparklingly bright treble without any sibilance. Details are abundance but not as details as sony XBA10 or EX650. The closest earphone that has this kind of sound signature is Jvc-ha-fxt90. Yes you read it right. It almost sounds like the mighty FXT90. All for $6.5 USD. Excellent price to sound ratio? This is totally beyond that. As if they have managed to squeeze in both FXT90 driver into such tiny housing. I am not sure you want to believe it or not but for the whole day of trying out earphone in Low Yat Plaza, this UiiSii HM7 has managed to beat all the above mentioned earphone including my own earphone that I brought together today, the king of sub 20 himself, Boarseman CX98.  ….If you prefer something extremely cheap with maximum sound quality possible, this is it. Probably nothing can beat it in pure sound quality within sub 20 price range.”   – “Azim Akbar”, Head-Fi.

The “mighty” JVC “HA-FXT90” Azim is comparing the HM7 to, had a retail price of about $200-$300! Thing is, every time I read some insanely positive comment about the HM7’s, and think “Damn, I’ve got to get this thing!“, I read something alarmingly negative, that makes me go “Damn, I better stay far away from this thing!“. Which extinguishes its appeal to me, like a cigarette butt.

e.g. The “Earphone King” review says it has no bass, while the “Phonograph.net” review says it has too much bass! So I guess it’s got it all! Clearly, this is the perfect IEM for those who don’t like a lot of bass, and for those who like to be smacked in the face with gobs of it! According to various other commenters, it’s also the perfect earphone for those who like mids that are “slightly recessed”, and/or “nice and forward”. Likewise, some commenters have said it has piercing treble, and others pooh-poohed that critique. Some reviewers say it has no sibilance, others say it might. I’ve read some commenters say they hate the sound of it, and others that say it’s the best earphone they’ve had.

You won’t find any greater consensus on its build quality either. If you visit one of the seller pages on Amazon for the HM7, you find a spotty report of dodgy build quality. But for as many buyers saying it fell apart or crapped out on them after a week, three months or a year, you have many others talking about how great the build quality is, and how reliable it is! Many even who liked it so much, they bought another unit even after the first crapped out on them! By the same token, I’ve seen reviewers withdraw their recommendations for the HM7, due to later failures, after publication. Other reviewers seemed to have no such problems with it.

In the end, I went for the somewhat controversial HM7 because of the form factor, and lack of an open back. It looks to have very tiny earpieces, like the Hangrui Turbo and Sony MH755. That and the sealed design, would suggest they would be great for sleeping, or just wearing long term, at most any location. I was warned by some not to get it if “you’re treble sensitive”. I figure I must be, if I go by my own reviews. But I reasoned that if it’s piercing, maybe I can fix it with an eartip tweak. And yeah, for $8, I’ll take the reliability risk! Maybe it will last anyway, because I’m not 12 years old, and so long as I don’t take earphones out of the house (and I don’t intend to with these), I’m not rough on them.

Fit & Finish

First off, I like the looks and colour of this design. Like the other UiiSii’s, it appears to be unique to UiiSii. The earpiece design is nicely rounded, thus no sharp edges to disturb fragile ear cartilage. They are rather small, about 1mm smaller than the diminutive Hangrui Turbo earpieces. Like the QKZ DM1’s and the KZ EDR1, the earpieces are entirely metal, including the nozzle. (Some IEMs have plastic nozzles bound to metal earpieces). The inner walls of the default silicone tips that come pre-installed, are coloured to match the primary colour of the earphone. Nice touch, but the two other pairs of tips are a bit more cheaply made, and totally clear silicone. As for fit, the M pre-installed eartips really stay in, and make a tight seal. Possibly too tight, it could be tiring over time (UPDATE: It doesn’t appear to be an issue, you get used to it).

The wire on this puppy is very good. It looks like KZ’s, with its clear silicone sheathing showing multi-coloured twisted signal cable. But it feels quite different. Where the KZ wire is sticky, this one is silky smooth – much better. it has a certain degree of stiffness that resists tangling. It also has a perfume smell, as reported. But it’s not bubble-gum or lavender scented, as I’d read. Its more of a smoky grape scent. It actually smells like a nice perfume, and so I personally don’t find it obtrusive. Normally, you need to have it right up close to smell it, and my S.O. did not smell anything when I held it close to her nose and asked her to smell. I did however smell it sometimes, when it was a few inches away. A bit gimmicky it might be argued, but I would conclude it’s a nice touch, and makes it easy to tell which earphone you are selecting in pitch black darkness. Apparently, it’s said to dissipate after a time.

The 3.5mm earphone connector and connector that joins the earpiece wire at the Y-split are both made metal, and the in-line controller also appears to be. That controller’s single push button has a nice clicky feedback, and works fine on an iPhone; pausing and advancing tracks.

Sound Leakage: …Was not that great. I’d give it a score of about 6.75 – 7.0 for sound leakage.

Sound

The first thing I notice is a light and comfortable fit, and the second is a wide soundstage. Wider than many others I’ve heard. This might be why it’s such a well-regarded model. I’m not sure if I’m hearing much more than $6 worth of soundstage, but I can say the Awei Q9’s and MI Piston 3 @ $5, the Inpher B-2 @ $4.50, and most other models tested, don’t have this wide a soundstage. It does not quite pass my tricky “Rock Me Now” test, however.

The drumstick beating against the metal rim of the drum is a bit harder than I would like to hear. The bass is well controlled, but pretty weak. Sibilance is a bit pronounced. On Cibelle’s “Green Grass”, the HM7 presents a large, open, airy soundstage, with the instruments dancing around your head. While I haven’t yet heard “holographic” quality, precise imaging and soundstaging is definitely its strong suit.

I also often use “The Flesh Failures” (“The Fifth Dimension” version), because it’s a great test for both highs and associated sibilance, and at the same time, lows (and musicality). Both due to its particularly melodic bass line throughout the track.  Congestion too, since there are a lot of voices and brass in the latter half of this song, that a device has to separate to avoid producing a wall of painful noise. I was grooving to it, which is a good sign. Thanks to the great soundstaging, it wasn’t the jumbled mess it might be with cheaper units. Still, I feel the HM7 did not excel at this test. The delicious bass guitar melody wasn’t warm, nor deep, and got a bit lost, in the weak bass output. Some sibilance could be heard, and the brass arrangement was ‘zingy’. Making it a bit hard, though not intolerable, to listen to.

The Phonograph.net review on the UiiSii HM7 talked about “sibilance”, and for once, they were right! Bravo Phonograph.net! You’re the broken clock that gets it right twice a day. [insert thumbs-up emoji here]. You totally borked it however, when you said it had “too much bass”! This thing wouldn’t have “too much bass” if you taped them to the inside of Beats phones. When read in stark contrast, the “sibilance” criticism sounds like a deal breaker. But at least for now, I do not find the ssslight ssssibilance on ssssome ssssongss, to be a deal breaker.

Here is the problem with the UiiSii HM7 in a neat little package: the tone is off. It’s tilted toward the upper reaches. This issue is not just due to a lack of bass, but peaking in the mid/upper range; more specifically 2.5-4khz. While it isn’t peaky enough, or at the right frequency to create an intolerably shrill sound (as some KZ’s do), that elevated pitch does colour everything heard. So for example, drumsticks, saxophone, acoustic guitar strings, male vocals etc., are all higher pitched than what’s natural. And you get your exaggerated s’s (aka “sibilance”). I’ve tried enough eartips to be sure this is a characteristic that will not easily be shaken off. With tip-rolling, you can play around with aspects of it, sure. Reduce this, increase that. But listen long enough, the issue remains to some degree.

I know that this is what some parts of some of the reviews were trying to warn me about. Which at least confirms that I have an authentic HM7 on my hands! (“Woo-hoo”?). And indeed, I heard those warnings. I just regarded the UiiSii like an ambitious woman regards a new boyfriend. “Sure, he’s got flaws but… that’s okay. I’ll nag them right out!”. I’m not sure if even I can tame the UiiSii to suit, by way of ambitious nagging tweaking. Maybe there’s some vent holes I can cover, some foam I can add, or some serious burn-in will settle down the sibilance, and harshness on loud passages. Hard to say, I’ve only had them a few hours thus far.

I’m not so disturbed by what I already expected though. It’s the other comments people wrote about the HM7, that I find baffling. “Tight and thumping bass”… “Bass-heads will love this one…”; are you kidding me? Sometimes the bass could sound a bit punchy and okay-ish, and yes it could be described as “tight”. But most of the time, it was a bit, if not sorely lacking. Irregardless of tips used or their insertion depth in the ear and on the nozzle. How about “they compare to $200-$300 IEMs”? Really? How much and particularly what do you have to smoke, before you arrive at that conclusion? Nothing I heard yet, suggests that. Their wide soundstage might… if it weren’t for the fact that the $6 Sony MH755’s also have a very wide soundstage, if not wider. And more bass. In fact, the $1 Hangrui Turbo, which I much prefer listening to over the HM7’s, have far more bass than either of them. That’s probably not a good sign for a $6 earphone.

“Sparklingly bright treble without sibilance” is also not how I would describe my experience with the HM7. No eartip I tried, quite eliminated the sibilance. And while it could be described as “bright”, it can’t be described as “sparklingly bright”. Not by my definition, anyway. “Sparkling” to me, is ie. the decaying shimmer of wind chimes when struck. It’s the edge that gives acoustic guitar strings their metallic ‘flavour’. This can’t do that, because that “sparkle” depends on a “liquid” type of sound. The HM7 is more of a “dry” sound, that has too short a decay for true ‘sparkle’. Or for that matter, what they term ‘melodic bass’. It’s not very dry, mind, but it’s not what I’d call “liquid”, either. And though it might be fair to describe the HM7’s as “detailed”, I would hesitate to add descriptors, such as “abundantly detailed”. The HM7’s have a misty veil over everything, impeding clarity, while the Sony’s are way more open, detailed, clear and transparent.

I found the HM7’s were not that good at sorting out my vocals in my recordings, either. My vocals sounded like they were recorded in the next room. It’s not due to that ‘veil’. It’s due more to the soundstage framing. Mids, if not the whole stage, is set back a bit. But now that I recall, monitoring vocals is kind of why I bought them. I thought with their light touch on bass, and their stated reputation for good vocal reproduction and extended highs, they would be good at revealing those vocals. Non, monsieur. Ce chien ne vas pas chasser.  😐

Shootout: UiiSii HM7 vs QKZ DM1

I wanted to compare the HM7 directly to other models that are very close to their selling price of $6. This puts it in competition with the Sony MH755, for example. Well, I did not need to compare those two, as I knew the Sony would wipe the floor with the HM7, and leave its remains for trash pick up on Monday. There was no doubt in my mind the same would happen with the Einsear T2 as well, though that one’s nearly twice as much anyway.

So instead…. I decided to pit it against the QKZ DM1, at half the price of the HM7. Ignore the difference in price, and you find they are pretty comparable. Both have all metal earpieces, right up to the nozzle. Both have metal plug connector housings, and similar construction details. The DM1 in fact, has a more robust wire. To make things equal in testing both these models, I used the very same pair of aforementioned medium-size wide-bore silicone eartips that came with the Urbanfun.

Simply put, no contest. The QKZ is more richer and more natural sound, as well as more balanced and more musical than the HM7. With the DM1, it was easy to listen through to the end of the test track, because of the connection it made. In comparison, the HM7 lacked clarity, and had not just less bass, but the edges of instruments were more defined on the QKZ. So for example, the plucking of guitar strings came through much better on the DM1, and so too the sound of the wooden body of an acoustic guitar from thumping it. I didn’t listen until the cows came home, so if the HM7 is in any particular sonic way superior to the DM1… there is nothing that could make me care much about that.

Tweaking: Vent Cover Mod

Similar to what I did with the Sony MH755, there is a small vent hole just south of where the wire enters the earpiece. It gets covered up with a tiny piece of strongly adhesive tape. This quick mod addressed many of my concerns with the wayward sound. The sibilance-prone Queen track “Killer Queen” was much improved. Things came into better focus as some of that mid veil lifted, bass was tighter and deeper, and more ample. It was not a miracle, though. It still has some sibilance, and a touch of roughness on loud passages. As a bonus, the vent reduced sound leakage, putting the IEM at more of an 8.0/10 for sound leakage.


Tweaking: EQ

Okay, I never do this. Using an EQ (spits on ground), is “cheating”, to say the least. I have not done this before for any earphone, in or out of this review project. Not even the sickly brain-piercing AWEI Q9. But this puppy needs it, and unlike the AWEI, it’s worth fixing up. I used the TEAC music player app for the EQ, pushing levels down around the 4-5k region, leaving the rest of the frequencies flat. Then, the entire spectrum got pushed down a bit below the default 0db level (as seen in pic on left), requiring me to raise the volume on the player to max to compensate.  This too was an important adjustment, as I found the reduction in distortion this triggered, to translate into a more musical sound. This all went quite a ways to making the UiiSii HM7 a much more tolerable listen.

 

Tweaking: Tip-Rolling

You wouldn’t believe how much eartip experimenting I did! I was certain good eartips would fix the persistent treble issues. I wrote out the results of my findings for each tip, but it just got silly-long. So I’ll just say that the tips I tested for the HM7 include, but are not limited to: Red (S) triple flange silicone tips, Double-flange (M) wide-bore black silicone tips, red wide-bore generic KZ-style silicone dome tips, KZ Starline tips (M & L sizes), Sony/AKG tips (M & L sizes), Blue-bore (M) generic dome tips, T200 Memory Foam (S/M/L, Grey & Black), KZ-brand (S) red bore dome tips, Grey (M) wide-bore Einsear T2 silicone tips, Brown (M) wide-bore Urbanfun silicone tips, All clear wide-bore UiiSii HM7 silicone tips, All clear generic silicone tips.

My conclusion after all of this tip-rolling was….

” Man, these are some challenging upper peaks to overcome! They’re laughing at everything I’m throwing at them. But! I still haven’t taken out the blowtorch. So a good long burn-in might shave the rest of the harsh edges off. Failing that, a straight razor…”

What these experiments confirmed to me is that wide-bore (4.5mm diam.) tips are what the HM7 prefers. Even if your ears don’t. They just produced a much more open and accurate sound. When picking out tips for this model, it’s helpful to keep in mind that they’re small enough to get lost in your ear. So your tips better be big. And fit well on the slightly larger than normal nozzle. It’s important to make sure they are well inserted in your ear by twisting them in, so they make a good seal. (Twisting too much can burn the ear and leave sores).  You really need a good seal with this model, or it really becomes intolerable. You should hear very little outside sounds, when properly fitted.

Guess which tips I finally settled on? You’re lookin’ at ’em! The default clear/brown wide-bore M-size silicone tips that came pre-installed on the HM7’s!! In other words, I did all that tip-rolling for nothing!  👿  But you couldn’t get here from where I started. First, I had to go through all of the above mentioned mods, before the stock tips made any sense. Next, I had to modify the eartips themselves! I did this by stuffing their bores with a bit of acoustic foam from an earphone pad. Emphasis on “a bit”, because stuffing the cavities full of foam resulted in a dead, dull sound.

With this mod, the stock M-size bi-coloured wide-bore clear silicone tips that came pre-installed on the HM7 were far and away superior to all other (non-modded) eartips tested. They offered true sound quality, and the most detail and definition. Then, with the addition of the EQ and vent mods, the sibilance issue was gone! Which had me stunned!  😯  I had spent hours trying to get rid of the sibilance, whilst never seeing success. Just a ssset of compromizis. Yet the foam-modified stock tips got rid of it. I tested this with the worst, most sibilance-prone tracks I had, and it was pretty much gone, along with much of the harshness.

 

Conclusion: RECOMMENDED

After an unforeseen tweaking session, I had to change the original rating from “RECOMMENDED / NOT RECOMMENDED” to just “RECOMMENDED”! The combination of modifications; EQing, vent mod, foam-in-eartip mod, forced a reassessment of the HM7. As I wrote above, I went into this knowing this model might prove to be too sibilant and “treble-heavy”, but not knowing if I would be able to fix it. It was only until the very last minute, when I decided to change back to the stock eartips, that I felt I finally succeeded at ‘fixing’ the HM7. Well, more or less! I could fathom there still might be some tracks (not yet heard), that exhibit a little bit of sibilance, or just too much poorly controlled treble energy. Now, there’s actually a little bit of muffled darkness across the mids, from the foam in the eartips. No matter, small adjustments to the foam can easily change this verdict to “too much treble”.

Removing the eartip foam entirely and trying to compensate by EQing out the highs has nowhere near the same effect.  The foam does more than just filter out the highs. It improves everything, including making the bass more solid. At no point was this more evident than playing Black Uhuru’s “Plastic Smile”, with the foam in place. There was so much sub-bass (more than mid bass), it was teetering on the verge of too much bass.

So what remains out of all this tweaking and EQ’ing, is actually not bad at all. There is still a good-sized soundstage. Still a decent amount of detail in the higher end. Still pretty well defined bass (and much more of it after the EQ and vent mod). Enough to vibrate the ol’ skull dome, how’s that? I would say post-modding, that its good characteristics are now greater than its once-glaring flaws. But some of those flaws remain, even throughout the three dozen eartip changes and equalizing. This includes the fact that it’s not now and I never found it to be a great choice for critical analysis of my vocal recordings (and not the worst, by far). The midrange is pulled back a bit, and not what I’d call “expressive”. I’m afraid the OOTB “QKZ DM1” is much better at this.

The UiiSii might still lean a bit toward some slight harshness if passages get too and screechy (though so far, it has passed this test). I am under no illusion that the EQualizer (which I intend to permanently accompany with this earphone), is not introducing musical distortions of its own. Regardless of what you think that picture of my equalizer settings is telling you. (For I heard the differences). The natural purity of the original sound is compromised when you use an equalizer. Any equalizer, virtual or physical.

In summary, I think my multi-modified UiiSii HM7 in its current state, is a good all-around option for simply listening to music, but not for any sort of critical analysis. Also, you can ‘groove’ to it, but it’s not the most musical model I’ve heard (…again, I hate to sound like a broken record, but the QKZ DM1 is more musical!).

So while I feel the (modified) HM7 may be worse than some other models listed here, and rather disappointing in the beginning, it is also better than others, in some ways. You might say it has more in common with the Einsear T2 than with the MI Piston 3.  It certainly has more bass than the Sony MH755, and probably more soundstage as well. In short, if you can forgive its flaws, there’s actually a lot to like here, in the UiiSii HM7.

e.g. Design-wise, it’s really my kind of earphone. Small, unobtrusive, and at least it strives for neutrality and balance. Even if it doesn’t quite achieve it, right off the bat. I am encouraged by this UiiSii and so, you might say, I am “UiiSii-curious”. So be sure to check out the review on my latest (and hopefully final!) acquisition, the UiiSii C100! For those that aren’t quite ready yet to put forth an investment of $6 bucks on a quality earphone!

 

The Lowdown: All the reviews I read on the UiiSii HM7 got it spot on. It’s both prone to sibilance, and also not sibilant. Plus it has tons of bass. Or bass that sounds like it went out on lunch break and never came back. Also, it’s both well-balanced, and way too harsh in the upper-mid treble area to be called ‘balanced’. It all depends on whether you are talking about the unmodified OOTB HM7, or the “Advanced Audiophile Special modified HM7″. (“You don’t know how lucky you are, boys…”).

In its currently modified state, which includes quick n’ dirty mods to eartips, earpieces and the use of an equalizer, my tricked out HM7 provides an above average sound quality for its price, and not much in the way of sound leakage to the outside world. One characterized by a very present and prominent bass. Slightly soft, but with otherwise good definition. Plus a lovely little decay, that rounds out the notes a bit. One where the highs are never ever tiring, and though present, a bit rolled off (or a bit too exaggerated, depending on how you install the foam!). One with good separation, where the soundstage is wide and images well, but you are sitting a few rows back of the stage. So the mids are there, but not very “present”.  In its unmodified state, it’s hard to ignore the naked HM7’s pitifully thin bass response, harsh upper mids, and marked degree of sibilance. One that is as persistent as graffiti on a New York subway train. Thus out-of-the-box  and untweaked, I simply can not recommend it (working on the assumption they all sound like mine). Due to its small earpieces, long cord and general comfort level, I think the HM7 could be well suited for someone’s “daily driver” earphone. Burn-in strongly recommended.


 

KOSTON Metal Hi-Fi Super Clear Bass Earphone
Original Title: “Original Metal HIFI Earphone Stereo Headsets Gaming Headset Noise Cancelling Earphones For All Smart Phones”
$1.53 U.S. (AliExpress)

We’ll call this “another brandless earphone I don’t know what to call”. Even Google won’t help me attach a brand name to it. Sold by many sellers on Ali and elsewhere, it is often, but not always, is identified with descriptors such as “metal”, “hi-fi”, “super” “clear bass”, etc. For the sake of sanity, I’ll refer to it as the “KOSTON”, in reference to the seller (“SZKOSTON”) on AliExpress. Even though there are many other sellers on Ali that are carrying it.

I can’t even claim I had any kind of reason to get it, except that it caught my attention on the way to the Mickey Mouse earphones. I think it’s the 4.8/5 rating on 302 votes that did it. Most of the comments that talked about the sound, had good things to say. Literally, because “good” is about all the detail you’re going to get, in an earphone comment on Ali. That and whether it has “bass” or not. (Sadly, audiophile illiteracy is a genuine plague on our world today!). So these were commented as both “good” and “bass”. Clear, but “not go so high”. I have to say, that sounds a lot to me like Frankenstein’s review of the “Hangrui Turbo”. (“Bass good. Fire bad!“). So given that, and the fact that it’s also an all-metal IEM with a decent looking build, I was curious to see how this might compare to my cherished Hangrui Turbo. Only one way to find out!…

Fit & Finish

One other thing I like about this model, is that it is one of the few IEMs in this class you can get without that annoying mic controller! No mic on this black wire version I chose, but for those for which this is an imperative, you can get it in a mic version too. The fact that it has no mic controller and no markings on the earpieces, makes it all but impossible to tell visually, which side is which. Fortunately, I have a track on my player that tests for left/right channel id.

When I first received these, the package was so thin, I was sure it was a shipment of eartips. When I opened the bubble bag, I was sure I had received the Hangrui Turbo. (I was expecting one, but in pink. Not in the gunmetal grey colour that I already had). On closer inspection, I saw it was not a Turbo but the “KOSTON”!  In effect, I wrote most of this review, including the sound portion, without knowing the name of this model, how much it cost, and I had even forgotten that I ever ordered it!

But I can say that for all intents and purposes, in both wire and earpieces, this model is very comparable to the build of the gunmetal colour Hangrui Turbo. If anything, the earpieces feel just a tiny bit better. They are slightly larger, heavier and less cheap feeling  than those on the Turbo. It may in fact by made by the same company. I notice the plug is almost the same, and the Y-splitter is exactly the same. So the question to ask is, does it sound as good as the Turbo?

Sound Leakage: Because it isn’t an open back design, like the Hangrui Turbo, you would expect it to leak less sound that that model, and indeed it does. With the openings covered up, the KOSTON is about as quiet as it gets with IEMs. Score one point in its favour.

Sound

Initial impressions: With stock eartips, the sound was pleasant enough. A relatively balanced sound with no painful noises or frequencies whatsoever. A decent degree of soundstaging, not too set back, and otherwise, nothing much stood out. That’s both good and bad. While the sound certainly did not annoy me, it did not wow me either.

In fact, I could hear its limitations right away. They did not suggest that this was as good as the Hangrui Turbo, even though I have not heard the Turbo in quite a while. Holding it back, was a tiny bit of a “canny” flavour to the sound, and a lack of body in the bass. Even if it wasn’t terrible in terms of definition.  My Metric “Rock Me Now” test track, indicated that there was not going to be a problem with ‘boosty’ spikes in the mids or upper mids. On the contrary, on its stock eartips, while its not quite rolled off in the highs to be called “dark”, there isn’t a lot of detail going on here. And this is enough assessment with the stock eartips. I have the feeling these earphones can do better with more suitable eartips. It certainly did better with the red-bore KZ type dome tips. But for the rest of this review, I’ll be comparing the KOSTON the Hangrui Turbo, and using the same even-layer double-flange eartips on both earphone models.

 

Shootout: KOSTON vs. Hangrui TURBO

As expected, the sound was more impressive with the double flange eartips. I could finally hear some bass response, but it was simply not as deep as the Turbo. Occasionally, bit of sibilance on vocals could be heard on one of the tracks. (Not entirely sure if its the track or the earphones). I found the volume level on the KOSTON to be significantly less loud than Hangrui Turbo. So that meant they could not be compared at the same volume levels. On louder levels, the KOSTON came across as a bit more open than the Hangrui Turbo, but it could get ‘shouty’ at louder volumes and produce some unwanted high end distortion on congested tracks.

One thing that kind of bothered me was this somewhat nagging feeling that the sound had a slight “out of your head” quality. It might be said this “OOYH” quality is reminiscent, though not related, to the “OOP” (Out Of Phase) sound characteristic. It is in phase, but… sounds lack a certain edge or body that say they are “present”, and can be felt as heard. It might also be sort of described as a slightly “echo-y” quality.

Conclusion: RECOMMENDED.  For the price, the KOSTON “Super Clear Bass Whatever Give It A $#%@! Name Already, Guys!” passes muster. Meaning, it is overwhelmingly average. Meaning, it’s not bad enough to fail a recommendation, but not good enough to be recommended over models like the “Hangrui” Turbo. So why recommend it at all? A few small reasons….

Frankly, it looks great. Better than the Turbo. It’s built great, for the price. Again, better than the Turbo. No cheap plasti-metal here. It has no mic controller. A plus in terms of durability. It has no more sound leakage the the KZ ATE; a definite plus in terms of not disturbing your sleep partner.  Though limited in detail, its fairly expressive in the midrange. I think I hear a bit more clarity here than on the Turbo. That may just be because it has less bass than the Turbo, and that will inevitably create less muddiness in the mids. However, it doesn’t do timbre as well as the Turbo, though its not the worst here at that either. Also, its just a tiny bit rough sounding… at louder volumes especially. Kind of like a burred edge of aluminum that needs polishing. Maybe burn-in would help perfect that, but I wouldn’t count on it.

The Lowdown: The KOSTON “Super Clear Bass Insert Your Own Descriptors Here” is a decent affair, that you simply can’t complain about at the given asking price. It features a balanced and fairly open, relatively transparent sound, with a respectable sound-stage size and clarity. Where it trips up, is in suffering flaws that are heard in much worse degrees, on some of the poorest models of this review group. Specifically, hints of distortion, sibilance, tin-can and “out of your head” qualities were heard, at various moments. But, witnessing these unwanted characteristics might also be somewhat dependent on the eartips used or the music being played. Nonetheless, I won’t mince words: While the KOSTON is not bad in and of itself, for sound, I definitely prefer the “Hangrui Turbo”, which can be had a the same price. So can the AKG S6, and without the benefit of direct comparison, I’m edu-guessing that’s probably a better sound as well. Right now, I would not give the KOSTON a 4.8/5, as the AliExpress customers averaged. 3.5/5 seems about right. 

 


The $1 One Dollar Brigade: Lightning Round Reviews! (Or “6 Earphones In 6 Minutes”…)

Just for fun (because there certainly ain’t no profit in this….), I thought I might as well tack on a bunch of quick flash reviews at the end here, from buys made at the 11th hour of this project. This covers a group of faceless, nameless, zero-budget, almost-free earphones, purchased for about $1 single dollar u.s. total, including shipping all the way from China. Any cheaper, and you’ll be the one making a profit, friend! I got lucky many weeks ago, with the “AKG” and the “Hangrui Turbo”. Could lightning strike twice at the same place? And if it does… will my final fate come from being hit by a bolt of lightning? ‘Cos that’d be a cool way to go, I think.  😈

n.b. I bought these earphones not for myself, but for colleagues, well-wishers, acquaintances, clowns I meet on the street, buskers who play music I don’t like, tips for snooty waiters, rude cab drivers, anyone from the Trump family, and the usual “3rd tier friends and sad relations”. IEMs are included, but there’s an emphasis on earbuds, because “normies” often don’t like to deal with sticking tiny marshmallows in their ears.

I’ll try to be quick about it, because I know there’s not as much interest in this price class of earphones on either side of the screen. Also, if the “Hiperdeal D30” I already received is any indication, I don’t expect to find many gems here. But any gems? Well, at the price they’re going for, that might be interesting?!….

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Hiperdeal “D30”
Original Ad Title: “Metal Stereo Headphone Bass Earphone Sport Headset Hand Free Earbuds With Mic”
Price: $1 shipped (eBay)

Hiperdeal “D30” (unbranded, actually)

The deal is, I gave away the lovely “Hangrui Turbo” to a friend who liked the sound and fit. Since I liked it so much, I had to replace it in my newly minted earphone collection. But…. instead of replacing it with same, I decided it’d be more fun to try another one, to see if it could stand up!

Like the Hangrui once again… this model can’t afford a name! The ad’s non-descript title lists it as “Metal Stereo Headphone Bass Earphone Sport Headset Hand Free Earbuds With Mic”. Of course, it sells on Ali under other many names, such as “HIPERDEAL High Quality In Ear Mobile Universal 3.5mm In-Ear Stereo Earbuds Earphone With Micphone Music Sports D30 Jan15”. For the purposes of this review, we’ll pretend the brand and model is “Hiperdeal D30”. Even though those names mean nothing to Google or anyone else. While I paid $1 for it, I’ve also seen the same thing selling for more than $13! “Relative value” seems to mean nothing, on the Internet.

The HIPERDEAL D30 got 4.8 starts out of 5 in nearly 300 reviews on AliExpress. But I think they may be all written by Russian bots. Although I’ve read some credible comments, I have serious trust issues with the review system on AliExpress. Nearly everything seems to get between 4.5-5 stars. So this may be the only coherent review you find on the internet, for this model! Ooooh, lucky you! One comment on AliExpress said of the Hiperdeal D30’s; “Sound like a bucket sitting“. And sorry, I don’t know what that means any more than you do. But let’s find out if it sounds like a bucket sitting!

Fit & Finish

HIPERDEAL “D30”: “Earphone so good, we dont bother spell name correklee!”.

Although it sells at the same ridiculous $1 price shipped, the “Hiperdeal” appears to be built to a better standard than the Hangrui Turbo. e.g. Where the Hangrui has rubber wire, this has sturdier, thicker braided knitted cable. I like this type of wire for its look, feel and resistance to tangling. But notice how the word “appears” in the preceding sentence, appears to be italicized? You can bet there’s a reason for that. While it looks all the business in the photos, the Hiperdeal “D30” feels a lot cheaper than it looks. The earpieces that I thought were metal, each part is made of chromed plastic. The whole affair feels really cheap and lightweight. You get the impression that if they could make the 3.5mm connector plastic, they would have. The wire leading into the in-line controller is not fixed (as with the QKZ DM1 etc.), so its free to be torn out. (Which after a a few weeks it almost is).

The stock eartips are unusually, wide bores. They fit perfectly in my ears and stay secure. The braided cord is soft, with a nice feel. The connector at the end feels cheap, and the cable is microphonic. Which to me is a good sign! It means the seal is good, at the eartips. However, the D30 is noteworthy for being the first earphone that does not work with my Samsung smartphone. At all. Without a case on. I fully insert the plug, even hold it pushed in, and the phone does not register anything inserted in the jack. Fortunately, the iPhone has a better jack, and it’s no problem getting it to work on that device.

 

Sound

I would describe the D30’s tonal balance as an inverted “U” shape. Imagine only the middle sliders on an equalizer raised. So, no bass, no treble, and a “honky” midrange. They sound as cheap as the earpieces feel. I would probably rate the sound and build quality above the MI Basic 2 and slightly above the fake MI Piston 2’s. But it’s not anywhere near that of the Hangrui Turbo’s, which I was hoping these would equal or better!

They can keep the beat, and I like that they have a very forward mid. But that’s useless without any capability for detail, and no matter. They sound like you’re listening out of a tin can, and that’s just not tolerable for me. Now, the question is…. who do I hate enough to give these to? Someone I will never see again, perhaps? That would be a good start.  😈

Tweaking: I told myself that I won’t bother with tip rolling here, because it won’t fix what’s fundamentally wrong with the IEM, a one-cent driver. But I was curious just the same to see what that would do. I tried KZ coloured-bore silicone domes, and the black wide bore silicone tips, reviewed here (which look quite similar to the D30’s defaults). That “tin can” effect was pretty much wiped away with the domes. So it was more an effect of the stock tips, combined with the IEM.  The black memory foam tips were the best at upgrading the sound… to at least something that sounds like $2. But of course, this IEM still sounds like you’ve got $2 worth of crap on your hands!

Conclusion: NOT RECOMMENDED. Yeah, sorry for wasting everyone’s time with this.  🙁

The Lowdown: Perhaps it is best to consider the Hiperdeal D30 as a half-decent pair of silicone  eartips for a somewhat elevated price of $1…. with a free good-for-the-garbage earphone included.[/color-box

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VPB “S13” (aka “QC-31”) Earpod-Style Earbud 
Ad Title: “VPB S13 Earphone Super Bass Microphone in ear 3.5mm For iphone 6 6s xiaomi for Mobile phone”
$1 shipped, (AliExpress)

Ok, this may not be of interest to anyone… I admit it was barely of interest to me. I don’t claim any “special properties” with this earbud, and it’s not the darling of anyone on Head-Fi.org either. Just one of a nameless google of buds on AliExpress. One that’s a replica of an Apple “Earpod” type earbud, obviously. I got it because some people I know prefer the Apple earpod shape, and can comfortably wear little else.

It actually seems to have a brand; “VPB”. If you want to see how far a dollar will go today, buy one of their earphones. “VPB” seem to be the kings of $1 earphones on AliExpress. That’s $1 shipped to your door, everything included! They all look super-nice. In fact, VPB have so many interesting looking models of earbuds and IEMs, I could have done this entire series with $1 as the limit!

 

On the back of the package it comes in, is the famous “COMPANY DECLARATION”. Which states, in part:

“Experience, we are demanding production and sales of each product”.

I think that’s very righteous of them, to insist that all their products be produced, and also sold. Perhaps VPB would not be as successful a company, if they did not demand at least those two conditions be met. Who knows? In a related thought, it would seem that even today, English translators are about as popular in China as potatoes and principles.

 

Fit & Finish

Fit:

It says in the ad for this model, and I quote:

“Premium Sound Quality: Earphones has forged in premium anodized aluminum for rugged durability while preventing the unwelcome buzz of plastic headphones. The balance between clear, clean treble and deep bass delivers a rich audio experience for all music genres. “

…Which is total BS. “Forged“?? Like in fire, by a rarified master class of earphone craftsmen, born into the trade? “In premium anodized aluminum“, really?? Hello?? This thing is made of plastic! Just as it looks in the photo in that little gummy bear bag it comes in! It is a plastic headphone! But I don’t know… maybe at these rock-bottom prices, they can’t be arsed to change the script for different models.  🙄

I do think Apple’s design with the Airbud is a brilliant one, and I don’t know why more manufacturers don’t riff off of it. If you’ll note, the driver fires into the intertragic notch, just like the “sideways earbud mod” does. Which has proven to have a hyperdrive effect on SQ!

Finish:

The build quality is pretty decent, for $1’s worth of earphone. At least to the wire part. I find it to be about as thick and rubbery as I would expect on a much costlier Xiaomi Piston 3 model. The in-line remote less so, but at least on an Android phone, it does work (single push – pause/play. three pushes – forward track). The earpieces betray their price, however. Clink them together, and they make that “cheap plastic knock” sound. The finish around the seam is a little rough (needing to be scraped with a fingernail), and you can see around the seam that joins the two halves of the shell they don’t make a perfect seal.  But that’s all stuff and nonsense, if the sound is alright. The sound is what counts, after all…..

Sound

….but unfortunately, the sound is crap as well. 🙁   And that’s a direct quote from my S.O., that is. I believe the exact question she asked was; “Why are they so crappy??“. And if she thinks an earphone is crappy, you can be sure, that that earphone is Crap-py.

So, no diamond in the rough here, I’m afraid. The VPB QC-31 sounds like complimentary airliner buds. The kind of earphones you kick yourself for, for forgetting to bring your own earphones on the plane.

Speaking of “planes”, everything you play on this earphone sounds like it was recorded in an airplane washroom. Mind, it’s not really as bad as the MI Basic Fake 2. Nor does it commit the heinous crime of sounding out of phase, like the fake Piston 2’s did, nor does it suffer from a too-distant midrange. And there is no top end to speak of here, and so, nothing at all offensive or tiring in the sound. But it’s too low-res to be of any use to me. I can’t say it would be ideal for podcasts or radio either, as muddy as it is.

Conclusion: NOT RECOMMENDED  Almost as if the VPB’s were trying desperately to keep their name off the “recommended” list, one of the earpiece shells broke after a week’s use. I wouldn’t slag off the entire VPB brand because of this, however. I’ve since seen VPB IEMs (V11), for about the same price as these, that look to be far better quality; both build and sound. They have over 4.8 stars in over 800 reviews, many praising the sound!