2021 #3—Spring Update— Nio & IER M9 added and IER Z1R Revisited
This list is just a reflection of my personal experience and preferences—it is by no means meant to be an objective appraisal of any IEMs’ value or worth.
What I am after, with the listening experience, is emotional involvement. All other factors-- technical proficiency, perceived tonal accuracy, neutrality etc.-- are secondary for me. That’s not to say that those factors don’t play a role—but for me they are simply the means to the desired end of emotional engagement.
Different brands each seem to have a distinct “house sound” or general tuning philosophy that resonates with different people in different ways. To use an analogy, I enjoy both Star Trek and Star Wars, but Star Wars strikes a deeper chord with me…not because it’s any better than Star Trek, but because it resonates more with me internally. I similarly connect with Campfire Audio IEMs in a way that I just don’t, or haven’t yet with, say, any 64 Audio IEMs I have heard. This does not mean I think Campfire is objectively “better”-- I just that happen to vibe more with their products and general aesthetic. I know there are many for whom the reverse is true however, as they say, YMMV.
The more time I spend in this hobby and the more IEMs I hear the less I feel inclined to break an IEM down into its constituent parts—bass, mids, treble, technicalities etc. More important to me than individual factors are how they all play together and coalesce into the overall gestalt of an IEM’s presentation. For example, on paper the Elysium’s bass seems like a deal breaker…but in the context of the signature on the whole it’s absolutely perfect and, in retrospect, somewhat revolutionary.
I’m not sure if this is a controversial topic or what (though knowing this hobby’s propensity for drama, it probably is in some quarters) but I am a very big believer in sources and synergies. As I’ve said before imho good synergy can add a kilobuck or two to the perceived quality of your setup—and it could just as easily reduce even the best IEM to a steaming pile of crap. As such I like to assess an IEM when I perceive it at its best—so all my comments will assume the best possible circumstances under which I have heard it. I know, for example, Andromeda can be source sensitive, but for the sake of this list, I’m not taking that under consideration.
This list is a living breathing thing—some days all my IEMs sound great, sometimes nothing sounds right. Tastes and perceptions can evolve and change in time, not to mention sources and circumstances.
Tolerance and requirements for bass is a lot like spicy food—everyone has their limits and needs. The top 3 spots on my list are all taken by IEMs routinely criticized as “bass light”—this is just a personal inclination and I respect the fact that many others may not connect as well with those IEMs for that reason. YMMV, and all that.
I’ve had the good fortune to own/demo many wonderful IEMs-- and this is pretty much just a list of my most memorable/favorites. Everything on this list I consider very good to great.
On with the list:
1) Vision Ears Elysium => This IEM jumped to the top of my list in December and shows no signs of going anywhere any time soon. It’s not perfect-- no IEM is-- but it excels at natural and lifelike instrumental timbre and is peerless (in terms of IEMs, in my experience) at facilitating an intimacy between the listener and the music. It accomplishes by drawing them in with its seductive, open and organic mid-range coupled with a natural, clear and detailed treble . Pairs brilliantly with my Shanling M8. Elysium review here.
2) Campfire Audio Solaris SE/OG => Dynamic, engaging, spacious, impeccably balanced, layered and staged. This IEM has from the moment I first heard one, struck a chord with me. Of the last two years for all but about 4 months of these two Solari were my main IEM—not losing their status no matter how many other great IEMs I tried. The Solaris’ winning feature is, to my ears, its superb balance of so many factors—it’s just technical enough, just impactful enough, just sparkly enough, and so on, that is a tremendously versatile IEM that works well, and manages to excite no matter what I throw at it. Ultimately what I love about it is its ability to draw you in to the whole of the musical tapestry, leaving you content to perceive as a unity and less inclined to break everything down into bass, treble, technicalities ect. The SE in particular is notable for its more “sure footedness” and character of the mid-range…though you do seem to lose a bit of character and sparkle in the highs in the OG…tit for tat. Male vocals in particular are incredible on this IEM-- moreso than even the Ely (which still wins the day for female vocals). (Here is a 4-way shootout I did with the SE Solaris, VE8, u12t and Legend X.)
3) Campfire Audio Andromeda 2020/MW10 => Imho Andro does two things very very well. The first is present music within a holographic, highly coherent 3-d like stage. The second thing it does is draw the listener into the midrange, or emotional centre of the music-- this is why I feel it moves and touches people like few other IEMs seem to. 2020 and MW10 both have their own unique character—with the MW10 sacrificing a bit of the staging magic for a more robust low end presence—but fundamentally share the same DNA. For someone looking for a “do everything” IEM that is immersive, inoffensive, and engaging it’s hard to think of a better recommendation than the Andromeda…it puts many, much more expensive IEMs to shame
4) Sony IER Z1R => My relationship with this IEM has been tumultuous to say the least. When I owned one two summers ago I ran it through a Cayin n6ii + A01 with Spiral Dot tips. I noted the superb bass and treble but struggled with fit, fatigue, bass clouded mids and the highs and lows not playing well with my ears. Listening to it now, through the Shanling M8, which cleans up, polishes, and solidifies the bass considerably, and with Sedna Tips that hold I comfortably in my ears for long sessions…and the listening experience has been very much transformed for me. The only reason it’s at number 5 is that given the mild-v it presents I do find the bass can be a touch distracting sometimes and such it lacks the sort of balance I prefer overall and that I find in the above IEMs. It must also be noted that the bass the Z1R puts out through the Shanling M8 is the best bass presentation I’ve ever heard in a personal setup. It’s absolutely breathtaking-- I’m listening to it right now and it’s making me want to curl up in a warm blanket of Z1R bass and forget about the world for a while.
The only other things I would say that as great as Z1R’s treble is it can be a touch metallic/sharp at times (something common to DD treble to my ears) and that it’s not quite as remarkable next to the e-stat treble of the Elysium…but this is minutia, both are great. Lastly, it has a definite sub-bass emphasis but it lacks some of the mid-bass oomph and punch that I love about IEMs like the Elysium and Solaris. Still, top marks overall. Sony has always been one of my favorite companies and I’m happy I finally really connected with this IEM. In terms of my perception of the Z1R’s place in the overall pantheon of things I would say that it’s presently the IEM in which the ideas of “fun sound” and “audiophile sensibilities” have been most optimized with respect to one another.
5) 64 Audio Nio => I’m really enjoying the Nio and flip back and forth between it and the Z1R with respect to their positioning on this list. This is the first 64 IEM I’ve really connected with. It has a definite bass emphasis, but not to the extent of the Sony—but its not quite as balanced as Andro/Solaris either and there is a certain sharpness at times (5K?) in a region of the mids/treble that can be a touch fatiguing—but this should be fixable via EQ. If I had to pick one of the two as my only IEM I’d probably go with the Nio as it’s a touch more versatile to my tastes…but right now I’m in the market for a more bass driven sound to compliment Elysium and the Z1R is appearing to be just what the Dr. ordered in my life right now. Stock cable is complete shite and my biggest “wtf” moment with respect to a cable at that price tier.
6) Vision Ears VE8 => The VE8 evokes a similar emotional response to the Andromeda and differs a wee bit in that they sacrifice a bit of space between notes/instruments for a lusher, slightly thicker sound. I could be happy with either of these ultimately, but the air and spaciousness of the Andro sound may win the day for me in a pinch.
7) Unique Melody MEST => Addicting sub-bass, peerless staging and technicalities relative to what I have heard, and an airy top end sparkle. Ultimately they are a little more “v-shaped” than I like and on the whole I prefer the more forward and organic mids and balanced sound of IEMs like the Andromeda and Solaris. The MEST can be absolutely spell-binding to listen to with its insane technical response, but behind the pyrotechnics and flash, it doesn’t quite draw me in emotionally like the first 4 on this list do. Here is a 3-way comparison I did with the MEST, Andromeda and Solaris SE.
8) Empire Ears Legend X => Bass cannon of the gods…peerless with genres like hip-hop and live funk, but not really an all-rounder-- the bass suffocates me as often as it rocks my world. In a sense the most notable thing about the Legend X is its midrange, specifically how it manages to be so present, bodied and detailed despite the insane bass. If you could get LX mids in something like the MEST the very earth might crack open due to the abundance of power and greatness that would generate. Please don’t tell me that’s what the Odin is as I have no plans (or means) to go there.
9) QDC Anole VX => My favorite bass from a BA set…a little fatiguing in the upper mids/lower treble…but that’s its only real drawback. Superbly detailed, resolving vibrant and (imho) highly engaging for the most part, though it can at times sound a little too analytic and sterile.
10) 64 Audio **u12t => I understand the love for these but I can’t relate to it. They’re technically very proficient, tonally very safe…but ultimately not very exciting (to me). I once likened the u12t and Andromeda to the “mars and venus” of IEMs…and I stand by this to some extent. Listening to the u12t is intellectually stimulating-- it lays bare and presents accurately all the elements of whatever you’re listening to, is gloriously detailed, and tonally capavble…but it all kind of falls flat for me and fails to evoke an emotional response. Conversely the Andromeda never fails to sweep me off my feet every time I listen to it. The u12t gets respect because it’s great at what it does, but it’s not for me.
11) Campfire Audio Atlas => Loads of fun but treble can be intense at times and didn’t really succeed as an all-rounder for me. As this list indicates pretty much everything I’ve owned since has bettered it. I should say though, that the Atlas presented a fun and bombastic sound that hasn’t quite been equaled by anything else I’ve come across, which is one of the reasons I’m really curious to hear Campfire’s new 2020 Dorado and Vega models.
12) Sony IER M9 => I wasn’t satisfied with my initial assessment of the M9 so I spent a couple more hours with it today and fiddled with it until I got a better fit and I got it to sound a lot better with my Sedna tips instead of the spiral dots I was using. It’s a rather pleasant an inoffensive sound-- would say something of a poor man’s u12t. It lacks the grand stage and dynamics of a Solaris or Z1R, the emotive sweep and seductive of a VE8, Andro or Elysium or the insane resolution and technicality of a VX-- it’s hard to fault per se, but it’s not the type of signature that draws me in and holds my attention.
13) CFA Andromeda Gold => Could have just been timing-- I first heard the Gold shortly after it was released and it didn’t really grab my attention. I heard it again a few days ago and it was the same thing. Maybe it’s just a timing thing and that if I heard this IEM under better circumstances I would feel differently about it…but it’s a classic case of an IEM that (for me) doesn’t really rate as there are many others on this list that (imho) do what it does, only better. Don’t let the ranking dissuade you though-- each IEM on this list is top tier and may be a dream come true for someone.
On the Radar: EE Odin (fantasy), Erlkonig (fantasy), Trailli (not even fantasy), CFA Dorado & Vega 2020, Volt, Luna, Jolene