The AM850 enter an extremely crowded market with an abundance of choices among sub-100$ priced IEMs. This is quite a challenge and for that Astrotec did well. The AM850 feature good build quality and an attractive design. The sound has an authoritative low-end with nicely tuned mids and highs. Ultimately, it is not enough to stand out as the single best choice, but nonetheless, they are a good addition to a pool of similarly priced IEMs.
InEar StageDiver 5
The InEar StageDiver 5 are technically easily the best of the series. In fact, I think the SD-5’s strengths even outperform the company’s reference flagship ProPhile 8 if linearity is not top priority. The tonality is extremely engaging and balanced at the same time and I can see some less experienced users thinking they are neutral. I have become a big fan of the midrange and I am surprised how easily my mind adapts to the signature.
But not only the sonic performance impresses. The StageDiver are still the most comfortable universal IEM series for my (German male) ears. The design allows a tight and deep fit and I don’t know anything that comes closer to an actual CIEM. For the first time, a small version is already available with the product launch.
Those striving for high-end audio can achieve further improvement by upgrading the cable and they also have the option of choosing real wood designs and an optional leather case to match the performance. Do not let the driver count fool you, this is a TOTL monitor!
RME ADI-2 DAC
I can’t think of any other desktop DAC/amp combo that would be easier to recommend in 2018. There is no magic involved in the RME ADI-2 DAC: no proprietary filters, no patented exclusive circuits, no unordinary connections and most importantly no voodoo buzz words. This is an extremely down-to-earth device that has just been given extreme thought, massive experience and great attention to detail. It’s not the supplier’s chip that makes a great device, it is how you use the tools.
The ADI-2 DAC is technically marvelous, regardless of whether you want to dive into the long feature list or not. I do recommend you do, though, because the equalizer with its many save slots, the customizable loudness function, the tight crossfeed, various DA filters and many controls to test your whole audio chain just keep on giving and giving. Despite the huge amount of functions, the software is extremely stable and hasn’t failed me once.
While the Phones output provides clean and linear amplification for even power hungry headphones, the new IEM output might just have reached a new reference level. Of course the device will work just as well as a standalone DAC in case you want to connect some warm tubes with the line-out. The channel-specific dual EQ or quick bass/treble adjustments can work wonders in a speaker setup.
I praised the RME ADI-2 Pro before and it proved to be a massive success. At 1.599 € (or 1.999 € for the black Anniversary Edition) it challenged competitive high-end products and it seems almost unfair that we now can get the same performance for a lot less, e.g. 999 €. Friends of high-fidelity, what are you waiting for?
At almost two thousand dollars, the qdc Gemini is not a steal. But for that, you not only get a very goodmonitor, but also the whole high-end experience: beautiful design, perfect fit, flawless production, a nice case, superior cable and the adequate packaging.
The tuning of the 8 BA receivers is done very delicately. The Gemini sound more musical than a reference tuning but they still provide overall great balance among bass, mids, and highs. They also scale very well with better equipment and I am interested to see how much I can push them in the future.
The bass switch is nothing I asked for, but surprisingly I use it a lot. Once I get on the tram, I subconsciously automatically flip the switch. When I arrive back home, I flip it back. Independent of the music genre, the sound is very saturated, melodic and easy to listen to, yet provides ample texture and great micro-details.
The qdc Gemini has been my daily driver for the past four weeks and they will surely continue to keep this spot for a while.
Westone UM-1 (2017)
The new Westone UM1 might not be the first choice for the full hifi experience with impressive extension on both ends, strong low-end rumble or airy treble. But what they do, they do very well.
Their presentation is positively mild with great potential for tweaking, but even without modifications, the homogenous frequency response does well in giving instruments and voices enough room to stand out on their own.
Westone provides a nice package with durable IEMs, a large selection of ear tips and the pro-feeling of higher priced monitors. If they had included a more useful pouch, the value would have been even higher. The new UM1 still prove to be a solid recommendation for musicians on a budget and I prefer them slightly over the current placeholders by Shure.
CanJam Europe 2017
As a true headphone aficionado, new announcements seldom fly past me. So truth be told, I had some spots on my list that I had prepared to fill out with impressions but I could not find many of the very new products.
CanJam Europe is not the single most important headphone show and unsurprisingly Asia is favored over Europe by international exhibitors. Nonetheless, there was much more shown than one could demo even in two full days.
The event is also closely connected to the headphone enthusiasts’ community and they reserved several tables in a corner for visitors to meet, share impressions and exchange gear. That is awesome even though I did not have time to stop by!
If you are interested in headphones, CanJam Europe is still the best local opportunity to compare a wide selection of gear. If you ever wanted to visit Berlin or live close by, the show continues to be worth a visit.
Audio Zenith PMx2
Audio Zenith asked me many times to enjoy the music while writing this review. That is exactly what I did! I enjoyed my time with the PMx2 a lot and eventually it even made me question the perception of warmth. At the end of the day, the PMx2 definitely had me convinced that their tuning is very enjoyable and natural with not a hint of fatigue. It’s all about music first and that’s where the PMx2 excel at.
Modifications are a subject on their own. No doubt the upgrades done with the PM2 are troublesome and the PMx2 are a further development toward high-end audio. However, I do think that Audio Zenith were a bit too aggressive in covering up Oppo’s base work of a good headphone. Less of those Audio Zenith stickers would have sufficed too. Perhaps something along the lines of “PM2 reworked by Audio Zenith“ could have worked too. But the point is that the team of A.Z. put a lot of work into the PMx2 and the outcome is definitely something to be proud of. This is a very refined product.
I can only recommend to check these out if they are available anywhere near you. Looking at the street prices, I think it might be easier to recommend to grab an Oppo PM2 as long as they are still available and then send them out for modification – this should be cheaper than paying full price for the PMx2. That is not saying they aren’t worth it, but it could make the investment even more worthwhile.
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.
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!