iFi Audio iEMatch
In my testing, the iEMatch was a huge improvement in everyday use. I mostly use in-ears and most of my headphones are very efficient, too. Paired with the normal headphone output of the iPhone (R.I.P.), improvements were very noticeable and highly appreciated. Almost even more so with desktop amps that feature an analog volume control, like the Objective O2.
There are really no drawbacks unless your habit is to listen to music at very loud volumes and your headphones aren’t very sensitive. Very demanding users might be bummed that the little iFi won’t reach below 1 Ω OI, but then again this will probably be easy to accept for a clean and less hissy output. Andromeda users might want to try the ultra setting for arguably better tonality.
In the end, the iEMatch is only a small gadget. A small accessory. A cheap one, considering the investments we usually bring up for this hobby. This is a dead easy recommendation and I am sure it will find a safe place in your IEM case!
NF Audio NF6i
NF Audio caught me by surprise. Based on Chinese local reviews, I was already expecting a solid contender with an enjoyable sound. Obviously, one would expect a newcomer brand to punch the price very low. NF Audio did all that, but that is not even enough to describe the NF6i. This earphone is unique and just as enjoyable as many well-regarded TOTL CIEMs. The high frequencies performance is outstanding. The clarity matches that of an open vented design yet allows high isolation in a custom fit. All without fatigue or sibilance. The NF6i sound fresh and have a unique selling point.
The NF6i are not a new studio reference as their W-signature does not allow the most precise of monitoring across the frequency spectrum. The accurate mid-range floats like an island between present sub-bass and airy upper range. Overall, the NF6 are refined all-rounders that do not let any detail go amiss with any genre. It’s all there, plenty and balanced. They sound fun and hardly colored at the same time. They left me impressed.
Being able to place an order through a Chinese market only will understandably be a huge turn-off for most. But this is a product I advise to put on the watch-list. International dealers or a universal fit might be on their way; at least I hope so, for a more competitive market.
We are friends of magnetostatic headphones. We are particularly pleased if these are visually attractive and of high quality, without being punished with a lot of weight. It’s almost unbelievable when a headphone can do all of this and also fits into your hand luggage, yet still manages to play loudly and clean from almost any source.
The smaller deviations from a perfect frequency response give the headphones their individual character and we are pleased that these do not end in too much bass and highs – as is often the case with the competition. Instead, the Oppo PM-3 appear surprisingly mature and feel most comfortable with multi-layered and complex compositions.
Lake People Reference Series
The Lake People Reference Series is easily recommendable for headphile purists. DAC and amp sound very clean and linear without any flaws. Especially the amp impressed me. Aiming at the same sonic qualities as the pricier Violectric products, the Reference Series deserves its name in my humble opinion.
InEar ProPhile 8
Humble in its appearance, InEar yet again impresses with an amazing universal fit and great build quality. Sonically, the PP8 showcase incredible clarity, high speed, great attack, uncolored midrange and a transparent tuning like I have not experienced before. They’re not of the wowing kind that makes you hear things you haven’t heard before. Instead, they refine them in a very mature way. The room for improvement has become very, very small. Classifying the ProPhile 8 as the best jack of all trades would be an understatement.
The InEar ProPhile 8 is not only the company’s flagship, as of right now, it’s also the flagship of all of Germany’s in-ear monitoring systems. The ProPhile 8 is so impressive that I suggest dropping the number 8 altogether. This is the ProPhile! A masterpiece of an IEM with professional monitoring capabilities and also audiophile musical tuning, nearly regardless of personal preference thanks to the sound tuning switches. The only two groups that I do not see to match the target market are extreme bass heads and users that successfully calibrated their ears to the ER4 S.
Granted, the asking price of nearly 1.300 € is not low, but when has a reference ever been cheap? In the case of the ProPhile, due to it potentially almost achieving CIEM qualities, I can absolutely recommend it. I am sure, this is a monitor we will continue to hear about a lot!
Benchmark DAC3 HGC
£2,349.00 is not cheap. I will not lie, I was anxious at first, especially in regards to the slightly less expensive competition. But Benchmark did not fail me. The converted sound is rich in dynamics, crystal clear and completely transparent. Looking at the complete package, the DAC3 (HGC) offers everything one would need. It would be a shame to only use it as a desktop DAC to amp headphones.
Despite its rather small appearance, the DAC3 deserves to be a hifi stereo’s main centerpiece. Dual analog, dual optical, dual coax and a USB input with native DSD support accompany dual headphone, dual unbalanced and 3-pin balanced outputs. The optional – but highly recommended – remote control top off the audiophile consumer’s dream. If the Benchmark DAC3 fits your budget, this is a really good recommendation.
beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro
The DT 1990 PRO is an entirely different headphone to what I was expecting based on my experience with the DT990. In a way, we have a double-edged sword that shows a weakness for every strength. Based on the reference build quality, beautiful design and great comfort, I was hoping the DT1990 could secretly turn out to be the company’s flagship and single-handedly rise against the competition.
The bass performance is absolutely great for a dynamic driver. Beyerdynamic’s implementation of their Tesla design also shows technical prowess. The DT1990 PRO kick fast, woo with speed and attack and top it off with great separation and fine details. However, some recordings tend to sound thin and a little fatiguing due to the upper midrange. In that case, the user shall be advised to install the B pads.
I have no doubt that when used in a professional environment for recording or mastering, the outcome will sound great too. No faults of the source audio will go unnoticed with the 1990 while still allowing a relatively neutral tuning. This is a solid studio recommendation.
Etymotic ER4 XR
Wow, what a positive surprise by Etymotic. In the past, I have forced myself several times to like the ER4 but it simply never worked out. As a result, I ignored the Etymotic brand for a while comforting myself “it is simply not for you.”
Those days are gone now. I have finally become a fan! A little bit more bass is all it took for the ER4 family to make the important step to jump from neutral to natural sounding and follow the contemporary trend. For a universal daily-driver IEM, I would wish there were a solution to better avoid microphonics of the cable and to play louder from an average source. Nonetheless, build quality is superb and the sonic performance is great. This is an easy recommendation for any aspiring audiophile.
1More E1001 Triple-Driver
I have been very harsh on the E1001 in this review. I tend to forget that even though it’s a company’s flagship, they’re still budget priced IEM. When I see them on the table laying around, I just think what a gorgeous set of earphones they are. I pick them up and they feel great in the hands too. I just want them to be perfect! And probably they come too close, that’s why I am nitpicking a lot. All my criticism is arguably invalid considering the asked price.
Even all criticism considered, these earphones absolutely shine with Pop music. It’s a great tuning that is not neutral but engaging and awfully fun most of the time, yet not colored enough to annoy true audiophiles. Nevertheless, I do think that a small re-tuning (lowering bass quantity, straightening mids, retuning treble) could make these an even bigger success in the audiophile community. Not to mention what would happen if they replaced the plastic part with wood…
For me, the E1001 by 1More is the perfect set of backup earphones to always carry in your pocket. Definitely good enough to get you through the day, beautiful to look at too. Sometimes they made me think that pulling out my custom IEMs isn’t worth it, this will do just fine.
RME ADI-2 Pro
I highly recommend making use of the ADI-2 Pro’s functions. Now, I fully support hifi purists and sometimes all I want is to listen to vinyl with no DAC or whatsoever involved.
But ironing out an Oppo PM-3 via EQ, adding a minimum of crossfeed and choosing NOS DA filter results in a very different experience – one that I can fully recommend after using for several days straight. It is more than a gimmick to toy around with all the DSP effects – in my opinion, it really is added value!
That is not to say that without digital manipulation the output is weak. Absolutely not! The DAC and amp section are absolute beasts out of the box. The amp is dead silent, low on noise, extremely gracile when feeding sensitive in-ear monitors, but also powerful enough to heat up an HE-6 – unbalanced! Simply put, it is a stunner that declassed my Chord Hugo and continued to amaze me on a daily basis. The dual output with memory function is pure genius. I can always reserve one output for IEMs with low gain and have the other ready for full-size planar magnetics.
Of course, the ADI-2 Pro is a wet dream for comparing headphones and quickly checking how a little less bass could increase clarity. How could Headfonics not fall in love!?
You could go ahead and ignore all settings and still have a formidable audio chain with great dynamics, high resolution, and amazing matchability. But if you know that you will ignore the ADC and all the DSP functions altogether, you can find some systems that might punch even harder for the money. As my comparison in the Lake People Reference Series review shows, there is a slightly better performance to be found at the same price point, but this is nitpicking.
Even in a raw state, RME has delivered a formidable DAC/amp combo that is worth more than the asking price. But in the end, once you’ve gotten used to all the corrections DSP allows, it is nearly impossible to go back. This is a game changer, even for pure music listening!
I like to label myself as an audiophile but my interest in product design keeps me wanting more. If a headphone looks like a DIY project, I don’t care how good it sounds. Best example would be an HE-6 – with its heavy weight and lack of comfort, it’s not a complete package for me.
I am absolutely on line with KEF. The M400 might not be a hifi revelation, but they also never intended to be. I would consider the M400 as some of the best looking and most comfortable on-ear headphones yet.
They’re damn great companions for short travels or a quick music fix down on the street. All they need is your smartphone’s output and they will sound simply good. Not having any flaws is a great achievement.
The new 6V2 is the flagship of Jomo Audio’s Signature series, an audiophile category next to the Pro Audio series. As I already hinted, the Jomo6 V2 is not necessarily a v-shaped monitor. Bass elevation is modest and mostly impresses with sub-bass rather than forward slam. With mids being well separated and airy, I can absolutely deal with a hint of coloration. Same goes for the smooth treble that does preserve a little sparkle but overall plays it very safe. It’s a tuning that does not want to stress the listener but also tries to be neutral in the most enjoyable way.
The great weight of fundamentals and soft treble – though with good air – derivate from what a usual reference monitor would reproduce (presumably including the Jomo6R). But it all comes together nicely and allows the music to really pull you in. It might just be in the details, but it is the details that turn a monitor that could have been analytical into pure musicality without fatigue. Picking up on the kitchen reference earlier, I am happy to say the dish served on this plate is very delicious!
The Jomo6 V2 are great all-rounders that impress with a big soundstage and do well with any genre. The bass does extremely well with movies too and I recommend the Jomo6 V2 to users that are looking for a good all-rounder with multiple applications and sources.
The Bit Opus #1
In some details my review reads quite negatively. However, this should not affect the conclusion. The player has some minor weaknesses, which should not deceive the overall summary. I just want to avoid that people will purchase the Opus #1 and afterwards complain to me about smaller issues.
Once the music is neatly stored, either on folders or perfectly tagged, you have a relatively pretty player that delivers clean power to headphones. It does not distort anything and does not create any superficial wow experience – in a positive way. In addition, the battery finally lasts really long and does not need to be charged twice over the weekend.
Final Sonorous III
Though previously not too familiar with the brand, I have developed strong sympathy for Final over the past days. Headphones don’t have to be portable and if you need a closed pair that reminds you of a speaker setup, the Sonorous III might be right up your alley. I find them to be competitively priced just below the 400 $/€ price tag. Build quality and choice of materials is great, even though I strongly suggest to invest a few bucks into other ear pads. (I hear Shure SRH1540’s pads are compatible.)
Noontec Zoro II HD
Finally, I have some mixed feelings about the Noontec Zoro II HD. I like the tuning of the driver a lot and the overall sound performance is quite good. But I feel like the Zoro II absolutely want to stand next to Beats to look better. There is a gap in build quality but that is to be expected at a 100% price difference. Overall, Noontec reminds me of Instagram girls that only upload selfies with their less attractive female friends. The range of competitors is far bigger and if you raise your budget just a little bit, you will have a much stronger pool of competitors.
Ironically the Zoro II HD perform better with sophisticated tracks in which a more hifi-orientated presentation makes sense. But those people that value this kind of sound usually not opt for glossy plastic headphones. I am very interested to see what Noontec can do if they actually try to create a new design and if they use better materials. I am putting this brand on my watch list and so should you!
Following my short paragraph on flaws, I have to stress that the Chord Hugo DAC and head-amp is an absolute killer device. But you already knew that because people have probably been telling you that for a while now. It’s the Swiss army knife among portable DACs and it has an incredible headphone output (well, three) as well. Build quality is superb, too. But most of all, the sound is very truthful to the source with an organic and realistic feel like I have rarely felt. The crossfeed network is implemented perfectly and overall Hugo is capable to put many home set-ups to shame while neatly fitting into most pockets. This is reference material!
Musical Fidelity MF-200
For one, I just really like how these look. It’s a humble and unique design with exquisite details and phenomenal finish. Headphones shouldn’t be about fashion, but it really doesn’t hurt if they look and feel great. Secondly, I appreciate that Musical Fidelity decided not to throw another warm and smooth headphone on the market. It’s hard to keep up already and fresh and energetic sound signatures have become rare. In my opinion, the MF200 excel with Classical and Jazz music in a silent environment. Resolution and separation absolutely justify the price tag. Though I do think the MF200’s lower treble can be a bit edgy and the bass lacks rumble with Pop and Rock.
There are too many smartphones to generalize, but the iPhone 6 proved to be a good source and match already. I am sure there will be many options for Android too; especially if you want to make use of the headset.
Everyone should draw a conclusion for themselves. Objective evaluation is not easy and I have tried to highlight both positive and negative aspects equally. The final verdict might be different for every user.
Personally, I like the self-confident but modestly inconspicuous appearance of the M. An ergonomically slightly unwieldy brick, which does not stand out with flashy design but instead clings to a tasteful appearance.
After a few start-up difficulties and getting used to the handling, it won a lot of sympathy. If you just want to enjoy music, then the Calyx M is simply top notch! And does anything else even matter?
Sennheiser IE 800
I like the Sennheiser IE 800. I like *easy* earphones that you just put into your ears without a lot of fiddling around to quickly enjoy music. With a high-quality appearance and a beautiful carrying case, I’m all in! You hardly notice the earphones when worn and they play incredibly airy, not even challenged with detailed reproduction of the recorded sound. Elsewhere I wrote that music resembles toys, as the instruments shrink in your head. And yet the miniature cabinet produces an incredibly powerful bass that might distract but not overshadows the rest of the spectrum. At low volume, the deficiencies I encountered are negligible (although I also suspect personal misfortune regarding channel imbalance).
Ultimately, I can also understand the price for 699 €, although I think there is better value to be had.
InEar StageDiver 2 & 3
The clean and easy performance from upper bass all the way to the high frequencies with great extension deliver the best sonic performances with Classical, Acoustic, Vocal and instrumental music I have heard recently below the high-end customs mark. As a downside, you will have to use an EQ to get some rumble but even then the driver proves to be capable. You do get some kickbass and the bass is fast enough to punch but it definitely takes a backseat.
Separation and soundstage are simply incredible and the large acrylic shell does feature top-of-the line high-end custom crossover technology. I was wary at first, but there is no denying this is an improvement over regular small universals.
Add amazing build quality and comfort and you have a new reference for on-stage monitoring. The price is very worth it, even from a hifi enthusiast’s perspective.
The StageDiver 3 is a fun earphone. A very good one at that. No, actually, per design it is a precise tool for on-stage musicians that need the bass to come out clearly. The tonality is warm, but also smooth and easy to get into. This is a high level custom in a universal housing that knows how to impress by technicality.
It does not have the best timbre, but within this price range it features incredible soundstage and resolution.