Precog's IEM Reviews & Impressions

Hey all, I’ve been maintaining a similar thread on another forum for some time now, and some friends have asked me why don’t I have one here? So I decided I’d make one for those who want to follow along on this forum.

First impressions, reviews, and more will go here. I’ll be doing my best to provide my honest thoughts as I find my way in this rabbit-hole of a hobby. That being said, there’s no such thing as an “unbiased” review and I encourage you to read my thoughts below if you want a less conventional perspective.

CTRL+F to search for a specific model

Squiggles

Random thoughts:

How I Define Imaging

Reviews Index (in alphabetical order):

64 Audio Flagship Shootout: Nio, U12t, Tia Trio, U18t, Tia Fourte
64 Audio Nio: Hybrid Dark Horse
64 Audio tia Fourte: The Dynamic Savant
64 Audio tia Trio: Flagship Enigma
64 Audio U12t: The Consummate All-Rounder
64 Audio U18S: Yin to the Yang
Apple AirPods Pro
Audeze LCDi4: When Headphone Meets IEM
Bose Quiet Comfort Earbuds: How Do They Actually Sound?
Campfire Andromeda 2020: A Refreshing Update
Campfire Ara: “Ara Ara” Indeed
Campfire Dorado & Vega 2020
Campfire Solaris 2020: Eclipsed
DUNU DK-2001/3001
DUNU Luna
DUNU SA6: A New $550 Benchmark IEM?
DUNU Zen
Empire Ears Hero: Skewed Potential
Empire Ears Odin: Laying Claim to the Throne
Empire Ears Valkyrie
Empire Ears Valkyrie MK.II: Vibrant & Valiant
Empire Ears Wraith: Flagship Fatality
Etymotic ER2XR
Etymotic ER3XR (brief comparison to ER2XR)
Fearless Audio S8 Pro
Fearless Audio S8Z & Tequila
Kilobuck Shootout: What’s the Best IEM $1000 Can Buy?
Massdrop Noble X: A Tribute
Moondrop Blessing 2: Mid-Fi Paradigm Shifter
Moondrop x Crinacle Dusk: A Worthy Sucessor
Moondrop KXXS
Moondrop S8: Kilobuck Solution
Moondrop SSR
Noble Audio Kaiser Encore
Noble Audio Sultan: Sultan of What?
Periodic Audio Ti and Be: Mediocrity x Garbage
Prisma Audio Azul: When Less is More
qdc Anole VX: All In A Name
Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro: Audiophile Approved?
SeeAudio Yume: Yume Want To Hear This
SoftEars RSV: Hard to Love, Harder to Hate
Sony IER-Z1R: The Hybrid Behemoth
Sony IER-M9: The Kilobuck Benchmark
Sony MH755/750: Budget IEM Endgame
Tanchjim Darling: Dichotomy
Thieaudio Legacy 3
Thieaudio Legacy 4: Bright Ideas
Thieaudio Legacy 9
Thieaudio Monarch: Cut and Dry
Unique Melody MEST: Wonky Good Fun
Vision Ears Elysium
Vision Ears Erlkonig: Nothing But Vanilla
Vision Ears VE8

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To kick this off, I’ll port over a recent post on imaging I made:

How I Define Imaging (and thoughts on how the phenomenon occurs)

Like many terms slung around in the audio world, imaging has as many definitions as there are opinions: one won’t find a concrete definition of what it constitutes. Most already know that I don’t think most IEMs have good imaging. I’m not alone in this sentiment either, with many in my audio circle holding similar opinions. So here, I’ll try to outline what I am listening for when I assess imaging, and why the vast majority of IEMs - and even headphones - are mediocre for this characteristic of sound to my ears. Do understand that what I outline here is my interpretation only, and I’m always working to understand more about this stuff. Important terms are in bold.

First, I’m no expert, but I can tell you imaging is influenced a good deal by what tracks you’re listening to specifically. There are some tracks that are better for imaging than others by virtue of how they have been mastered. I will not explore this variable further, and assume that we are using the “best” tracks for imaging. Imaging itself can be broken down into several subsets. However, at its core, it is largely a reference to the extent to which a transducer is able to shape the perception of the “room” around the listener. So by extension, soundstage is a derivative of imaging and they are not distinct. Another subset of imaging that is commonly referred to is positional accuracy . This is simply the degree to which a transducer is able to localize instruments on the soundstage; then, the degree to which a listener can pinpoint them. This has overlap with layering , the space, or sense of physicality, between instruments on the stage. A headphone like the HD6XX, for example, has pretty terrible imaging despite it sounding reasonably “open” in terms of layering. Some will also wonder about terms like holographic or “3D” imaging. I dislike these phrases, and they’re slung around far too generously in my opinion. This is the perception with which instruments - usually percussive ones - “float” on the soundstage. By extension, this plays into soundstage height and the way an IEM shapes the walls of the stage. The IEMs that qualify as being holographic to me are the few and far between.

A phrase that I use quite often in my writing is center image . Like the phrase implies, this is the field of sound that comes from dead center in front of a listener. Within the context of headphones and IEMs, it is a psychoacoustic illusion that comes from the perception of having two channels in conjunction. There are many IEMs that may have center image, but that cannot project it. This is most obvious to me when focusing on the positioning of vocals on the stage. Transducers that are able to project the center image create what I perceive as soundstage depth. So you can imagine that most IEMs that I have heard do not have much - or have at all - soundstage depth. Hell, even many headphones I’ve heard do not have soundstage depth. The HD800S (the lauded king of soundstage by the way) is a prime example; vocals sound like they are coming - positionally - from inside my head. In general, I would say I put a strong priority on center image when assessing imaging.

Some will wonder about the correlation between imaging and frequency response. There is definitely a strong one, particularly with respect to treble. In my experience, no IEM that has had good imaging has had poor treble extension. But the opposite does not hold true; I have heard many IEMs with excellent treble extension and unremarkable imaging. So what accounts for this distinction?

First, I want to plug an excellent point brought up by luisdent after I made this post, and that is our expectation of what constitutes a real-life, listening environment. In real-life, there are “reverb trails, room ambiance, positional precision, etc. When extension suffers, our ears can tell something is off. We hear high frequencies in room ambiance that we may not realize, and all instruments have interactions at that region and others as well. This allows the realism of the recording to come through which is heard as amazing depth or soundstage”. That aside, it can be hard to say due to confounding variables. For example, standouts in imaging like the Andromeda 2020, Tia Trio, and Tia Fourte all make use of acoustic chambers. But with the likes of IEMs like the U12T and the Ikko OH10, we can isolate some of these variables. I suspect “good” imaging with these IEMs occurs not necessarily due to sheer extension, but rather due to the contrast between their post-10kHZ dips and ~15kHz peaks. This lends to unique treble reverb and, by extension, to the way the stage is imaged. Similarly, dips in frequency response can lend to the perception of more open staging. The most obvious way this is achieved is by dipping 3-4kHz to make the upper-midrange sound more distant, thus increasing perceived depth. Most of my favorite IEMs tend to make use of this tuning trick.

I want to stress that this is neither intended to be an authoritative post on imaging, nor need it apply to how you personally perceive imaging. This is simply how I understand it, and hopefully, this helps explain why I think very few transducers have good imaging overall.

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Elysian Acoustic Labs Annihilator Impressions

This is an IEM that most people will probably not be familiar with, so I’ll lend some quick background. Elysian Acoustic Labs is a Malaysian-based, one-man-brand. The Annihilator is the crown jewel of their lineup, a tribrid sporting 1DD/4BA/2EST that clocks in at roughly $3700 USD. Yes, it’s very expensive. And also hard to find: Elysian Acoustic Labs has an arduous ordering process for international customers, and it doesn’t help that they experienced a flood awhile back which put a stopper on production altogether. That hasn’t stopped word of mouth from reaching my ears, though, with many listeners (listeners with opinions I actually respect, to be clear) calling it one of the best IEMs they’ve heard. Still, I’d given up hope of ever hearing the Annihilator, so imagine my shock when the Redditor who sent me the Hidition Violet casually mentioned he’d sent along another IEM as a surprise. In fact, to my knowledge, I’m currently the lone man in the US who’s heard an Annihilator! But that’s enough chit-chat: How does the Annihilator actually sound?

Well, in short? It sounds freaking amazing, and it (mostly) lives up to the hype that surrounds it. One of the first things you’ll notice listening to the Annihilator is that it takes a considerable amount of power to drive. That’s a good thing, and it means that the other drivers - specifically the DD and BAs - have been dampened to match the EST drivers’ much lower sensitivity. In general, the Annihilator sports what I would consider a mild-V shape; it is a more colored, incredibly quick and engaging sound.

But surprisingly, the bass on the Annihilator is not really a selling point to my ears. I hear a healthy mid-bass tilt which lends to a considerable amount of punch. It sounds quite impressive out of the gate, especially because I’ve mainly been rocking my U12T for the past couple weeks. Closer listening, however, presents a couple of issues. The Annihilator’s bass sounds…dry. Almost static, really, in a compressed fashion that I’ve often associated with cheaper DD offerings like the Moondrop Blessing 2. It’s unmistakably DD bass - even good by most metrics - but for the price the Annihilator commands, I would expect nothing less than the best. Ultimately, it’s nothing more than adequate and squeaks by with passing marks to my ears; points off for driver flex too. But it’s all uphill from here. The quicker speed and upwards-compression of the Annihilator’s bass serve to mask some of the transition into the midrange BAs. And what beautiful work has been done with the midrange. The lower-midrange is slightly scooped, followed by a largely upper-midrange oriented tuning. Midrange notes are thin, yes, but they don’t sound shouty to my ears. The slight tonal quirks are a small price to pay for the sheer clarity and resolution that the Annihilator’s midrange has. Midrange decay is clean, largely devoid of grain similar to what I hear with the UM MEST.

And we haven’t even gotten to the best part. The Annihilator is lauded, above all else, for its implementation of the EST drivers. I’m happy to confirm that the Annihilator makes most other EST implementations I’ve heard thus far a laughing stock. Indeed, I’ve generally associated ESTs with a softer, almost mushy characteristic. But the Annihilator makes clear that the driver is capable of so much more. In fact, I’m reminded a good deal of the sharper transient attack that the ESR MK.II’s treble exhibits - not that the ESR MK.II’s treble is remotely in the same realm, of course. The Annihilator’s treble is bright, no doubt. However, because it’s smooth and linear, it’s also not fatiguing; we see here one of the many benefits of tuning with precision. And gosh, the treble response of the Annihilator is quick, possibly the quickest I’ve heard, handling the treble rollercoaster that is Girls Generations “Into the New World” with deft precision. Stack on superb extension and you have one of the best treble responses in the game. Now, I don’t think the Annihilator quite knocks the IER-Z1R for that incredible transient hardness and treble reverb, but…it easily competes as a whole, and there can be no shame in that.

Technicalities on the Annihilator are generally top-notch. Dynamics are uncompressed with a good sense of macrodynamic punch and contrast. Staging is surprisingly out-out-of-head, particularly in terms of width, despite the more forward presentation. Of course, I’d like more soundstage depth, but it’s a worthy sacrifice for the Annihilator’s resolution. Indeed, on first listen, I told myself, “Damn, this thing is resolving”. A short while later, I found myself asking, “Is this the most resolving IEM I’ve heard?”. Really . And again, I cannot emphasize the importance of proper treble reproduction here. The speed of the Annihilator’s ESTs means that it picks up any and every minutia in a track. Likewise, the excessive amounts of treble air lend to the perception of more “open” staging; the Annihilator’s layering chops are among the best. No critiques you say? Not quite. Expectedly, the biggest issue would be coherency. The Annihilator has excellent transient response and speed all-round, but there is what I can only describe as a “rawness” to the Annihilator’s presentation that I can’t ignore; it lacks those last legs of refinement. I suspect timbre - so consistency of decay - is where something like the EE Odin might have it beat.

Now, I’ve made it clear in the past that I don’t care very much for multi-kilobuck IEMs. I simply wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending IEMs like this. But best of the best status goes a long way, and there’s little question that the Annihilator has its place among the stars in the IEM world. The Annihilator, then, is a testament to David vs. Goliath. That a one-man team can swoop in and show all the big names in the IEM world how its done, create something that plays at the top, is the beauty of this hobby. And even more ridiculous? More than a year after its release, the Annihilator remains the best EST implementation I’ve heard by a good margin. Established brands better step up their game lest they wish to be annihilated by upstart brands like this.

Score: 9/10

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Excellent review @Precogvision. Very interesting iem’s I would love to hear these and see how they measure up againt my Odin’s.

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Hidition Violet Impressions

Time for a quick write-up of another rare IEM. This is South Korean maker Hidition’s 11BA flagship that will run you $3300.

Spoiler alert: The Violet is pretty great, but some ways off world-class. It follows a U-shaped tuning, the most distinctive part of which is its bass response. The Violet’s bass response is characterized by a clean, pronounced sub-bass lift that I can only describe as fun. Still, the Violet’s bass intangibles are where it really makes its mark. Most will know of my appreciation for the U12t’s BA bass, and if I didn’t know better, I’d be inclined to say the Violet uses the same drivers for the bass. The Violet has that slightly brushed quality to transient attack with exemplary macrodynamic ability, slam, and even a tad more thickness than the U12t. Admittedly, between the two for bass, I’d lean toward the Violet; it’s a benchmark setter for BA IEMs. The midrange of the Violet is flat throughout the lower-midrange, and then there is a minor upper-midrange suppression not unlike the U12t. It’s good, but I do feel that the Violet takes it a step too far here, particularly in the degree with which the pinna compensation has been pulled-down. It’s basically the complete opposite of how the Viento approached the upper-midrange. However, the Violet comes back to the Hidition “sound” in the treble. The Violet has good amounts of energy in the mid-treble, lending the Violet to a much more colored presentation. I enjoy this treble response, and the cherry on top is that it displays none of the dirty resonance that the Hidition Viento did.

Speaking of the Viento, the drivers the Violet’s using have to be completely different. Decay is fairly clean, more reminiscent of your typical BA monitor. I think I would say the Violet’s transients skew toward the middle in speed not unlike the U12t, perhaps a smidge faster. As a whole, the Violet’s certainly decently technical. But here’s the problem: It’s not really as resolving as I think it should be. The recession to the pinna compensation makes the Violet come off as somewhat dull; the treble sparkle isn’t sufficient to offset this perception. The staging and layering ability of the Violet are also not as good as the U12t’s, much less something like the Annihilator. In fact, I can’t help but find the Violet’s imaging chops somewhat unremarkable; they’re certainly not bad, but “not bad” doesn’t cut it for $3300. Macrodynamics, again, are a case of “it’s not bad,” but “hmm, I think this could be better”.

And that’s really the Violet’s biggest problem: The U12t exists. Sure, it’s got some selling points against the U12t, and I’d imagine those who want a more colored sound might even gravitate toward the Violet. But looking at the big picture? The U12t is simply more balanced and technical. It’s even harder to make an argument for the Violet when Hidition’s tried to establish it in another price tier altogether. In essence, this is an excellent IEM, one that I definitely prefer over the Viento (it doesn’t hurt that the Violet’s fit is more agreeable), but make no mistake that I think better can be had for less.

Score: 7/10

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AK SE200 Impressions

Okay, I’m on something of a content hot streak haha. I received this and the SA700 from Headphones.com so that I have some more reference points for when the SE180 (the release has been delayed) arrives. The SE200 is a pretty interesting little DAP. It combines two separate types of chips so that a listener can go between them at the switch of a jack. Surprise, surprise, but I dislike gimmicks like this. I dislike the uber-sharp edges of this DAP. I dislike how they’ve tried to force you to purchase their very expensive case to mitigate said edges. I dislike the UI and sluggishness of AK’s stripped software. All in the name of “innovation,” though, right? …right? The selling point here, then, is that the two DACs utilized in the SE200 are essentially yin and yang.

Edit: So looking at the manual, it says that the left side is the AKM chip and on the right side is the ESS chip. This is not what I hear, and I actually wrote the following impressions without checking which is which. Sooo yeah. Either I’m wrong, the manual is wrong, or the chips have been swapped in some models. It seems there are varying opinions.

On the left side, you have the ES9068AS. I believe this is the first ESS chip that I’ve heard. Unsurprisingly, this sounds quite different from the AK sound I’m used to; it has a “Hi-Fi” sound in a manner not dissimilar to the qdc Anole VX. Bass is tight and clean. The frequencies that follow sound pushed forward for max clarity; the midrange’s transient attack is highly transparent, and this is why I say something like the DX300 sounds like it has slightly blunted midrange transients. Treble, however, sounds jutted forward and slightly brighter than it should. Perhaps this is the infamous Sabre glare I hear so much about. Dynamic contrast is acceptable, but there’s a lack of weight to the way dynamic swings are articulated. Staging is fairly unremarkable; a quick A/B with my DX300 shows that the DX300 is considerably wider and presents a more open stage. The main problem with this side would probably be that none of it sounds particularly natural. It all sounds quite cold, bright, and etched in decay. Still, I think this is my preferred side.

Now to the right is the AKM AK4499EQ. I’ve always been on the fence about what I’d call the AK “house-sound”. On this side, the Andro 2020 sounds like a regression to the Andro 2019 minus the treble sparkle; everything is quite warm and congested. Before someone asks, yes, it hisses audibly too. At least the SE200 is not as bad as the SP1000M. Midrange transient attack has seen a noticeable step in the right direction, and the SE200’s AKM side is slightly more resolving than the SP1000M. The AKM chip presents a sound that leans more textured in decay than it does smooth or etched. I suppose my biggest issue with this whole sound is that it seems strangely forced. There is what I can only describe as a lack of authenticity to the timbre here, like everything from the midrange and up has been intentionally muted for a smoother, darker listen. More forgiving ears might call it “velvety”. It is quite distinctive - I could probably A/B between these two chips reliably. Unfortunately, I don’t think I agree with this tuning philosophy.

At the end of the day, I want to make clear that this is mostly just me being a picky asshole. There’s nothing wrong about the SE200 sound-wise, and it presents a sound that I think most would be impressed with. Heck, if my only DAP was still the DX160, I probably would’ve been just as floored as when I first heard the SP1000M. The SE200 is all about fostering synergy. It presents two distinct sounds, one of which will probably work better with a given IEM; I just wish it had something in-between.

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Astell&Kern SE180 Impressions

Demo showed up last week, but I’ve been too enamored with the new speakers to give it much time till today. Ignoring the build entirely, let’s just talk about the sound. For reference, this SE180 has the ESS module (the only one currently available). Critical listening was mainly done with my U12T. For sensitivity-related concerns, the SE200 hisses with the Andro 2020 like all of the other AK DAPs.

The SE180 has a dark, downwards-sloping sound signature that tries to emulate the “velvety” character of AK’s other DAPs. Tonally, fine, I get it: this is their jam. What is dislike, then, is how soulless the SE180 sounds. Decay and transients are overly plasticky and thin; most of the AK DAPs at least sound quite rich and thick in the notes if not at all natural. As it is, the SE180 has a perplexing amalgamation of contrasting tonality and intangibles. This is in the sense that one generally expects a more plasticky, etched sound to correspond to a brighter-leaning signature. What you have here is like, I don’t know, a thin, gray blanket smothered over the timbre. The “usual” AK sound to my ears is more like a thick, dark black one. Sorry for the crappy analogies. Staging, like the other AK DAPS, is generally on the smaller side, and the SE180 lacks dynamic range and pushes oh-so-limply into dynamic swings. We’re not talking bad overall…but for $1500?

Suffice it to say I’m not sold. And if I had to purchase an AK DAP, I would definitely drop the extra coin for the SE200 over this. At least the SE200 has flagship-worthy sound, which I think is a whole lot more questionable here. Crossing my fingers for the other modules AK is supposed to put out for this DAP. The usual disclaimers apply: I hear minor differences between DAPs, it actually sounds fine in isolation despite all my nitpicking, and your mileage might vary. Oh yeah, let me know if you guys want scoring for DAPs too…

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I don’t think I know of any reviewer that has worked as hard as you to understand and indulge in the hobby so quickly. Excellent work and thank you :+1:

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Precog’s Budget IEM (Sub-$200) Picks

Those who have followed my reviews for some time will know that I tend to mainly cover IEMs on the more pricey end of the spectrum. In this vein, I freely admit that I do have some bias against budget IEMs. It’s just a fact that more expensive IEMs tend to sound better; therefore, they entertain my interest more. Tend, meaning not always, OK? Trust me, I’ve heard my share of flagship fatalities and my not-so-flattering reviews are proof of that.

But that’s just one reason why I don’t cover budget IEMs often. Really, the biggest problem with budget IEMs is that they’re a dime a dozen. The ones that make enough of an impression - much less a good impression - for me to take note are few and far between. Still, let there be no mistake: There are budget IEMs that slip through the chinks in my jaded paradigm and meet, sometimes exceed, my lofty expectations. I’ve even had the pleasure of adding many of these IEMs to my own collection. So in this write-up, I want to share the rare sub-$200 IEMs that I give my stamp of approval to.

To keep things interesting, I’ll rank my choices from my least favorite to my favorite. Hopefully, that’ll keep you reading (although you can skip to the end just to spite me if you’d like). Of course, here are some disclaimers. There are no set metrics for my rankings other than subjective preference. And before I get the “Why didn’t (insert X IEM here) make the list?” questions, there’s one of two reasons: 1) I didn’t like it and, trust me, I don’t like a lot of IEMs, or 2) I simply haven’t heard it yet.

#10 Moondrop SSR: It’s got no bass, it’s ridiculously midrange forward thanks to no less than 13dB of pinna compensation, and it’s got something of a mid-treble suckout that graphs don’t reflect. On the basis of tonality, I definitely can’t stand how lean and shouty the SSR is. But it’s also got some of the best technicalities that $50 can buy. One of the first things one might notice about the SSR is its transient speed. It is snappier than any other IEM I’ve heard in its price range. Layering on the SSR is also a standout with an ample sense of space between instruments; imaging as a whole benefits. If you have ears of steel or are just a sucker for weeb tuning, the SSR is an IEM you’re going to want to put on the list.

#9 Thieaudio Legacy 4: This is an IEM that doesn’t pull the punches. It’s bright, forward, and with an emphasis on sheer clarity. The dynamic driver being used on the L4 is a significant step up from one in the L3 and L5 (yes, if you’re asking me the L4 is actually better than the L5). Now personally, I don’t like this IEM. I think it has too much upper-midrange and the lower-treble comes off as abrasive; consequently, it quickly becomes fatiguing for my ears. But those who want a more in-your-face listen with a solid technical foundation will want to check out the L4.

#8 Final Audio E500: The cheapest earphone Final Audio makes and, if you ask me, ironically their best sounding (indeed, I’d handily take this over their $2000 flagship IEM). Bass is mid-bass emphasized for a good sense of punch without getting out of control. In a very un-Final Audio like fashion, the midrange isn’t a shouty mess and sounds, well, simply neutral. Treble is fairly soft; this is a darker IEM in general, but it won’t fatigue. If you’ve no luck finding a Sony MH755, or desire yourself a more neutral option, then you can do no wrong with the Final Audio E500. Cop yourself some of those Final Type-E eartips while you’re at it because they’re handy for taming IEMs not as well-tuned as this one is.

#7 Tin Audio T4: I haven’t been the biggest fan of most Tin IEMs I’ve heard - from memes like the P2 to the perplexing regression to the common denominator that was the T5 - but I do have a healthy appreciation for this one. The T4 plays to Tin’s roots, following the neutral-style tuning that won them the hearts of many audiophiles. It’s a leaner presentation to be sure, but no less a solid one. Technicalities are about what you’d expect for the price; that is to say, again, simply solid. You might be wondering where the T2 is on this list. After all, many would consider that IEM to be a budget benchmark. Well, I didn’t like it. It sounded very un-resolving and mediocre, neutral-tuning for $50 be damned.

#6 SeeAudio Yume: The Yume is an instance of one hand giveth and the other taketh away. On that latter hand, the Yume’s just not very resolving. Notes are slightly blunted and mushy; for imaging, I’m inclined to say the Yume’s actually below average for its price point. On the former hand, the tonality here is class-leading. It’s neutral with bass boost; a clean, sub-bass oriented shelf. The midrange rises into the pinna compensation and slopes off from the upper-midrange beautifully, and there’s just an extra bit of spice in the mid-treble to keep things from getting too stale. Sure, some might still find the Yume boring, but you won’t find anyone saying it’s bad. Stack on excellent fit, and you have a well-rounded IEM for those desiring ease of listening over all else. Heck, the Yume plays with a lot of kilobuck stuff for tonality.

#5 Samsung Galaxy Buds: Hey, nobody said this list was limited to just wired IEMs. And trust me, these actually sound pretty darn good. This is the first Harman-tuned IEM on this list; perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise considering Samsung owns Harman International. The Buds have good sub-bass, an upper-midrange emphasis, and quite a lot of lower-treble. Yeah, you might also not like the scooped lower-midrange, but as a whole? There’s little to complain about here. Technicalities are more or less a case of “it’s a TWS,” but I’ve heard much, much worse. And the timbre is surprisingly good for a TWS. Don’t go for the Buds+ unless you really need that extra battery life - because if you’re asking me, they don’t sound quite as good.

#4 Ikko OH10: Probably the least safe recommendation on this list. Do not, and I repeat, do not consider buying this IEM unless you enjoy a decidedly “Asian” sound-signature with an emphasis on the bass and upper-midrange regions accordingly. The bass tactility on the OH10 is definitely some of the better I’ve heard in this price range. But perhaps the most surprising part about the Ikko OH10 would be that it has the best treble extension of any IEM on this list. It peaks strongly for air at 15kHz with a good amount of zing; as a result, imaging is quite impressive too. However, whether you can hear that high up or not is another concern entirely. So hey, just don’t shoot the messenger if this IEM ends up sounding quite dark to you.

#3 Sony MH755: Sony doesn’t make these anymore, but if you can find a legit one, you’ve got yourself one of the best IEMs for bass under $500. I’m not kidding by the way. The MH755 follows the Harman target very closely. It’s got recessed lower-mids, a shouty upper-midrange, and way too much lower-treble, so it might come off as fatiguing for some listeners. The bass, however, is to die for. It’s got healthy amounts of both sub-bass and mid-bass, and for sheer slam and texture, there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, in its price bracket that comes close. It doesn’t hurt that it also has technicalities comparable to a lot of the better sub-$200 IEMs. If you feel like you didn’t get your money’s worth here, let’s just say you got a fake (I’m kidding, but I wouldn’t be surprised).

#2 Moondrop Aria: The Aria, KXXS, KXXX, or the Starfield, it doesn’t matter. Once you’ve heard one of them, you’ve more or less heard them all. The Aria’s just the cheapest, latest instance of Moondrop undercutting themselves again. And who are we to complain? The Aria follows a tuning that’s not dissimilar to Harman, but it takes on more warmth and is generally a whole lot easier-on-the-ears. It’s not the most resolving IEM in its price bracket (it’s actually slower in the transients and doesn’t layer as well as its younger brother, the SSR). However, timbre is oh-so-pleasing and natural; this IEM’s certainly not lacking in that icky, musical buzzword. This is one of my favorite sub-$100 IEMs, one I can just pop-in and enjoy for hours on end.

#1 Etymotic ER2XR: So you want what is objectively the best IEM that $200 can buy? Then this is the IEM to look at. The ER2XR follows Etymotic’s interpretation of the classic Diffuse Field tuning. And if you’re asking me, it’s better. The overall sound here is a reference-oriented one with a touch of “oomph” down-low. Bass is lacking texture, but is quite clean with adequate slam. Some might find the ER2XR’s midrange slightly upper-midrange forward; however, I’ve never found it shouty. It has good technicalities too, probably the best I’ve heard under $200. The ER2XR’s biggest weaknesses would be its darker treble response and narrow imaging. Oh, and the fit. The nasty, nasty fit that you’d better hope you can live with for a price-to-performance ratio so good that it’s almost unfair.

And there you have it - ten IEMs that I give my stamp of approval to. Of course, you can see that I don’t like all of these IEMs. Some of these IEMs made the list out of respect, or simply because I wanted to meet a requisite of ten IEMs on the list. I think some words of parting are also warranted here. While I might not make budget IEMs the focus of my content, there is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying budget IEMs. I firmly believe that there is something for everyone in this hobby; likewise, it’s not hard to empathize with the thrill of the chase and stumbling upon that rare gem.

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Nice ranking. Now I look forward to sub-$500 and sub-$1000 lists also :wink:

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This is really great work as always @Precogvision.

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Some Thoughts on Lossless SQ

Recently, Apple Music announced the release of lossless music which is big news for us audiophiles. I know I myself was pretty excited when the feature showed up on my iPhone a few days ago! But lossless music sucks up lots of space and bandwidth. And let’s be honest: Can you actually tell the difference between lossy and lossless? Of course, it’s easy to say you hear a difference between track file A & B when it’s sighted. But placebo is very real. So what better way to find out for certain than taking on a few nasty ABX tests? You know, just the thing that would have most audiophiles tails tucked, running away? Well, that’s exactly what I decided to do for fun.

Here’s the first test I ran. I could definitely discern an audible difference here; scoring a 9/10 has a p-value of less than 1% which is well within the realm of statistical significance. In order to pass this test, I focused on only one section of the song; specifically, the part where it explodes into loudness at about a minute in. I ignored pretty much everything else when I was doing the test.

Here’s the third test I ran using MP3 320 vs. FLAC 24/48. I actually failed the second test using these same files, getting only 6/10 correct. Even getting 7/10 correct only corresponds to a p-value of 0.11 (using a straight binomial pdf calculation) which most would not deem statistically significant. In the future, I might be able to score higher (as I was suffering from listener fatigue at this point), but it stands that I was mostly acting on gut instinct for these comparisons.

Finally, after taking a break, here’s another track I tried playing with. The files are 24-bit FLAC and MP3 320 respectively. Once upon a time - unblinded - I could have sworn I heard a noticeable difference between the two tracks. But as you can see, I might as well have been guessing at the beginning! Up until test #7, I actually got more wrong (way more LOL) than I did correct. Why is that? Simply put, my approach was wrong. I was trying to discern a difference in clarity using Taeyeon’s vocals. Unfortunately, it’s actually very difficult to pick up a difference in sheer note clarity, particularly in the midrange. Recognizing that I couldn’t discern a difference using her vocals, I switched up my approach. You can see that my score steadily picks up starting from #8 - in fact, I get 7/8 correct after this point! So what changed? Well, like the Sawano Hiroyuki track, I started listening for loudness. An MP3 file’s dynamic range is more compressed, so - listening carefully - it came off just a hint louder on the MP3 in the beginning.

The Verdict

You can see that the differences I used to pick up on differences between the files mainly came down to one thing: dynamic range. If you want to pass one of these tests, it’s mostly going to come down to listening for stuff like noise floor, peak loudness, and reverb trails. Honestly, I don’t think (the vast majority of) people can even tell the difference between MP3 320 and FLAC based off of sheer note clarity. I’m certainly not able to. And you know what’s even crazier? These are cherry-picked songs, songs that I have listened to hundreds, if not thousands, of times. If I was taking a test like this under duress, or using tracks I was not familiar with, I highly doubt I would pass. For better or worse, the audible differences between lossy and lossless are teeny-tiny, to the extent of which they’re pretty much negligible for most people. Don’t even get me started on lossless vs. 24-bit or MQA, oh boy.

Now, am I going to stop using lossless files? Hell no. Just like anyone else, I’m a fat sucker for FOMO. I don’t want to know that I’m getting something lesser if I could have better. And hey, if I do hear a difference sighted - even if it’s just that juicy placebo - I still heard a difference, right? That said, I still wanted to put it out there that ABX tests like this are a great way of keeping things in check the next time you think you hear a “huge” difference. They’re way more difficult to pass than you’d think, and even if many of us don’t like them, they could probably help us save a ton of money.

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Etymotic EVO Impressions

Hey guys, the EVO demo unit arrived today. As usual, I’m going to eschew from commentary on the physical aspects. I think others will cover those much more in-depth than I care to. The only thing I will comment on is the cable. It is the thinnest cable I have seen on an IEM; I really hope this gets an update because it tangles like mad. Listening impressions are from about an hour of listening off of my DX300.

https://precog.squig.link/?share=Etymotic_EVO

As expected from Etymotic, EVO’s tuning is pretty competent; it falls close to what we’ve seen from Etymotic’s other IEMs. Bass is somewhere between the ER4XR and ER2XR in terms of quantity. It’s solid, clean BA bass. This is a reference-oriented IEM, so most will be familiar with the flat lower-midrange contrasted to an elevated upper-midrange. This results in leaner notes and a more upfront presentation, but should sound quite transparent. The weakest point of EVO’s tuning is the treble response. I had to run a couple sine-sweeps to confirm what I was hearing. In this case, I think the graph mostly depicts what I observed. You have a peak at 8kHz in the mid-treble, a dip after this point from roughly 10-14kHz, and then an aggressive rise to 15-16kHz. However, the amplitude of 15-16kHz is not high relative to the lower-treble. So while it’s fairly noticeable in a sine sweep, the EVO generally comes off lacking air. Not a bad tuning overall, but I think some of Etymotic’s other stuff has the EVO beat in this department.

For technicalities though, the EVO is probably the best of its brethren. It handily out-resolves my ER2XR and sounded about par with the Moondrop Blessing 2 - for resolution at least - from a brief comparison. Imaging is a small step forward from the other Etymotic IEMs; otherwise, the EVO seems to maintain the compressed center-image (therefore, lack of depth) that I noted on the ER3XR and ER4XR. Surprisingly, I want to say the EVO has pretty good dynamic contrast. It doesn’t sound as flat as the ER4XR does from memory. If you’re sensitive to BA timbre, you’ll want to avoid the EVO. It’s got quite a lot of grit.

Good stuff overall, I think. Whether the EVO’s $500 solid is more up for debate, as the market is just so competitive these days. I’ll refrain from dropping a score for now to avoid shell-shocking any new readers to the thread, but I think most can guess where I’d place it.

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How’s the insertion depth/comfort?

I’m using the double flanges, and it seems to be OK. I actually don’t think it goes quite as deep as the normal Ety design. Might take some getting used to if you’ve not tried an Ety before!

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My Thoughts on Macro-dynamics​

Here’s a fun audiophile buzzword: macro-dynamics . I’m sure some have come across the word in my writing before. But if you’ve ever wondered what I’m talking about, or why I think this is such an important aspect of sound reproduction, then this post is for you. As a disclaimer, please don’t consider this an authoritative post on the topic. This is simply my interpretation of what I’m hearing based on personal experience and what I’ve read.

First, let’s establish what "dynamics” are in music. I often see this word mistaken for the equivalent of how hard a transducer slams (or just thrown around as some sort of catch-all term for bass); however, the word really has a quite different meaning! Dynamics are the variations in loudness in a given track. It’s probably no more complicated than what you’re already thinking. A “dynamic swing” is simply a transition between a decibel peak (loud section) and valley (quiet section), or vice versa. Then as the prefix “macro” implies, macro-dynamics are large-scale swings. They encompass a song exploding into loudness or suddenly shifting into a quiet section; of course, these decibel shifts can also occur more gradually (crescendo vs. decrescendo). On the other hand, micro-dynamics are more intimate swings, so the nuance of individual instrument lines and, say, vocal inflections. I won’t be covering micro-dynamics further in this post, as that’s a post for another time.

Thus, we’ve established a foundation for what macro-dynamics are. More specifically, though, macro-dynamics can be further broken down into two subsets to my ears: contrast and weight .

Dynamic contrast is likely the term most readers will be familiar with. This is simply the extent to which a transducer is able to scale the difference between a track’s peak loudness and minimum amplitude. Of course, not every transducer is able to do this well. Some transducers sound like they’re always on peak loudness, some skew in the opposite direction, and some don’t seem to go either way entirely! The end result is what I refer to as dynamic compression. Only a transducer that does none of the above - that is, scales decibel gradations high, low, and in the middle - can be considered to have good dynamic contrast. A pro tip if you want to find out for yourself? A hallmark of a transducer with good dynamic contrast is one where you find yourself turning up the volume on quiet sections of tracks and, conversely, turning down the volume on louder parts of tracks.

Arguably even more important, though, is the weight of a transducer. And unfortunately, this is where things get more wishy-washy and I’ll exit the scope of some of the definitions I outlined earlier. That aside, this quality is most obvious if you have ever listened to a two-channel system. It encompasses not only the force with which a transducer articulates dynamic swings - what some might describe as macrodynamic punch - but also a general sense of pressure, gravity , to the cadence and background of a track. Macro-dynamic weight and the aforementioned contrast do not always go hand-in-hand. I have heard many transducers with good dynamic contrast, but poor weight, and vice versa. And of course, this will also depend on the mastering of the tracks themselves you’re listening to. I find that frequency response can aid in this perception of weight - generally with more bass - but it is not mandatory. When I listen to my Genelec speakers, for example, their frequency response is near flat (and they roll-off in the bass); yet, they have a terrific sense of macrodynamic weight. I want to be clear that this sense of weight is different from a sense of attack immediacy which some associate with good macrodynamic punch; to the contrary, most faster transducers I’ve heard do not do this quality well. Nor is it the same as “note-weight,” the thickness or thinness of notes. Nowadays, weight tends to be the more important (and more difficult to describe) of the two metrics for me.

Speaking of which, why should macro-dynamics matter to you? Well, if you can’t hear dynamics to start with, then I wouldn’t worry about it. And I don’t say this to be patronizing! I genuinely think it saves you a lot of hassle. But I think most people can start to pick up on this stuff given close listening. It’s definitely something that I’ve gotten better at discerning over time. And I think for many listeners, macro-dynamics are what dictate engagement factor. When macro-dynamics have been done justice, drops seem to hit harder, the chorus is imbued with more emotion, and generally, you find yourself on the edge of your seat for what will come next in a song. Sure, it’s a cliche, but music sounds alive . On the opposite end of the spectrum, what if you just want to kick back and relax? That’s (one heck of) an easier requisite to meet; nonetheless, you again see the importance of macro-dynamics (rather, lack thereof, in this instance).

Overall, I hope this lends some more background to a term that I use frequently in my writing, and thanks for reading another so-called “philosophy” post from yours truly.

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Man, I’ve almost pulled the trigger on this one many times to be lured away by another sexy girl. Most recently, the ANOLE v14. Previously, the Odin. I know that the U12t is one of your favs, but given I have the tia Fourte’s, not sure. Would you go Violet, U12t or Viento or even Annihilator? I have a friend who swears by the Viento. I prefer IEM’s that feel like they are part of my head, zero fatigue, immersive imaging, and bright resolution.

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Hi Michael, between the four you listed, I would still go for the U12t. It makes the Violet redundant, plus it has Apex technology which alleviates listener fatigue. However, the Annihilator is essentially the opposite flavor of the U12t with a much brighter, more forward presentation - a good IEM to consider if you’re looking for that. However, that doesn’t go hand-in-hand with zero fatigue as much. If you are going to purchase the Viento, I would recommend the CIEM. The universal is difficult to get a fit with because it was designed to mimic the CIEM as closely as possible. If you do not get an ideal fit, the upper-midrange and treble will sound sibilant.

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Tremendously useful post @Precogvision. This is a really useful post. Thank you.

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