Personal Favorites for 2022
Bringing my thread back from the dead for an update to this. It’s been
almost a year over two years almost three years to the day since I purchased my first real IEM, and wow, what a ride it’s been. I still fondly recall thinking to myself, “Dang. Why’s this stuff so expensive? And who drops $500, much less upwards of $2000 on an IEM?!” not too long ago. Well, the results have been…surprising, to say the least. Never could I have imagined that I’d get to hear half the stuff that I have ( 60+ 200+ 300+IEMs at this point!), get to know so many fellow hobbyists, land a gig for my hobby, or fly across the world, solo, to cover an audio show.
Some will observe that the list has seen something of a shift for 2022. In past years, there has been a decent number of more “budget” oriented IEMs on the list, or IEMs under $500. However, this year, these IEMs have all been eschewed but for one $300 IEM. I think this simply reflects my current thoughts on the state of the market, especially as a reviewer. Yes, these types of budget IEMs have come a long way and some present tremendous value. But simultaneously, I find it hard to ignore the feeling that they have become increasingly homogenous in sound and become a race to the bottom. Something like that…well, it doesn’t excite me. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that IEMs should stray entirely off the beaten path. And I’m certainly not saying you need to spend exorbitantly to hear good sound! But these days, I do find myself more excited by IEMs that challenge the status quo and do so tastefully, which is something that usually comes with a higher price tag attached. And hey, I make no claims that this list is any way objective. The IEMs are not ranked by technicalities, tonality, order, or anything of the sort specifically. They’re just the IEMs that I think give me the most satisfaction at this point in time, so let’s get to it.
64 Audio U12t
You already knew this would be making the list for the third year in a row, and it shows no signs of being knocked either. The U12t masterfully walks the line between colored yet mostly balanced. The 2-5kHz dip to the upper-midrange, in conjunction with the mid and upper-treble contrast, begets an unprecedented sense of soundstage depth. Intangibly, the U12t remains a top performer. While I don’t think the U12t is the most uber-crisp IEM - there’s a certain softness to its attack transients - the U12t’s macrodynamic contrast and sense of layering are top-notch. There’s not much else that hasn’t been said before, but make no mistake that the U12t is still one of the best BA IEMs on the market, if not the best BA IEM on the market. It likewise remains my top recommendation, the perennial flagship benchmark, whenever I’m asked which flagship IEM I’d buy.
DUNU SA6 / Ultra
This is getting added back after I removed it some time ago. The SA6 follows a QDC-inspired tuning, but it couldn’t be more different when it comes to the intangibles. It has more bass texture than the QDC IEMs and a wet, slightly soft characteristic to its transients that’s a whole lot more reminiscent of the U12t. The SA6, then, is expectedly one of the better offenders of BA timbre. The SA6 has a few minor tuning grievances like its ever-so-slightly uneven upper-midrange and treble response. Staging and layering on the SA6 are also honestly nothing special, for which the Ultra version improves upon these issues marginally. But damn, it’s just such a well-rounded set overall, one that I slap on and find myself getting lost in the music.
Elysian Acoustic Labs Diva
Step aside, Annihilator 2021. The Diva is my new go-to out of the Elysian lineup. It’s definitely not as technical as the Annihilator (or even the Gaea for that matter), but I find the Diva’s tuning to be more palatable for extended listening. In this vein, the Diva’s sound is incredibly flexible due to an integrated bass dial which allows for three distinct tunings. However, the common denominator that shines through is a slightly sharpened characteristic to notes, in a glossy manner, without delving into harshness. This phenomenon is thanks to a number of fine-tuning adjustments: an incredibly clean sub-bass shelf, an emphasized but controlled upper-midrange, and sharp dampening at the usual 8kHz resonance before the treble comes back up. There’s no question that the Diva merits its price and then some; the real question is whether you’re willing to play the waiting game for this excellent IEM.
7th Acoustics Supernova
This IEM was certainly a pleasant surprise given that it hails from an obscure boutique brand in Indonesia. I will disclose that my initial excitement over it has already begun cooling, but it stands that this might be one of the most well-tuned sets on the market. The Supernova’s midrange tonality is bordering on impeccable with a slight bias to male vocals and instruments like bass guitar. There are also zero peaks, zero valleys in the entirety of its frequency response which translates to effortless volume cranking and incredible timbre (yes, arguably better than a DD to my ears) and coherency. It would be hard to believe that this is a six BA setup if it weren’t for the slightly weak bass impact. Speaking of which, the usual caveats that come with these types of tunings also apply: not exciting enough, needs more resolution, needs more upper-treble zing. But you might just stop caring after a couple hours with these in your ears.
Moondrop B2: Dusk
What happens when you put the tuning of the already-good B2 into more capable hands? Well, you get the Dusk tuned by the (in)famous IEM reviewer Crinacle. The tonal balance of the Dusk is nothing short of exceptional with a terrific sub-bass shelf and balanced, slightly thicker midrange. There are few IEMs under a grand that top how well this thing’s been tuned. Expectedly, the intangibles remain the bottleneck to what is an otherwise terrific IEM. While the Dusk maintains much of what made B2 great, the Dusk’s bass is un-characteristically dry for a DD, and its imaging isn’t quite as good as its brother. Still, it cleans up a lot of the BA timbre, and if the B2 was “nothing tops this under $300 good,” suffice it to say the Dusk remains in a class of its own at this price point.
Symphonium Audio Helios
The Helios has a squeaky-clean tonality with some of the best treble that I’ve heard; it’s nearly linear up to the limits of my hearing without any egregious peaks or valleys. But the Helios is by no means analytical either. Whether by virtue of the longer than average tubing being used or that excellent treble response, imaging is slightly out-of-head and triggers the “behind the ears” effect that only the most holographic IEMs deliver. “BA” timbre is present - I don’t think that the Helios has a “lifelike” presentation relative to, say, the ThieAudio Monarch MKII - but there is a great sense of vibrancy to transients and the Helios is at least above-average in the bass department. The only real point of contention with this IEM would be the chunky shells.
Photo credit: Den-Fi
It’s not an IEM, but out of the numerous headphones that I got to hear this year, this is the only one that really stood out to me. The PhilPhone is a modded headphone that meshes an Audio Technica housing with a Foster bio-dynamic driver. It follows that the PhilPhone’s bass response is nothing short of breathtaking. It delivers slam, dynamics, and reverb for days. Perhaps even more impressive is just how much EQ you can slap on the bass without it distorting. Outside of this, the tonality of the PhilPhone is solid but not mind-blowing. The biggest issue would probably be a few peaks in the upper-treble which lend to a brighter treble response. Regardless, I can say that this is the only headphone that I have interest in owning at this point in time. The PhilPhone also has solid detail and imaging, certainly nothing that would leave me wanting for its price point.
(I didn’t hear a single headphone that I thought I’d want to own again this year btw, so the Philphone stays)
(12/15/20) Removed SA6 for Dusk, updated Nio description
(4/09/21) Removed Nio (lack of resolution)
(8/03/21) Removed KXXS for Hana 2021, added back SA6
(12/23/21) Removed Andro 2020 for Symphonium Helios, removed IER-Z1R for Elysian Annihilator, added PhilPhone and honorable mentions
(11/26/22) Removed last year’s honorable mentions, removed Elysian Annihilator, removed Tanchjim Hana 2021, added Elysian Diva, added 7A Supernova