Astrotec AX-60

There are 2 pieces of opening information required to help contextualise this review. Firstly, Astrotec may sound like a new name in the business, but they’ve actually been making headphones and earphones for many well-known brands for a long time and their standards of quality and build are very good.

The second thing to know is the difference between dynamic, balanced armature and hybrid design in-ear monitors (IEMs). These three types of earphone descriptors are based on the drivers (speakers) used inside the shell of the earphone. Dynamic drivers are very similar to what we’re used to seeing in full sized speakers. Balanced armatures (BAs) are a special driver originally designed for use in hearing aids. Hybrid refers to an IEM which combines both dynamic and BA drivers in the same shell to make a multi-driver IEM with the aim being to maximise on the benefits of each driver type and to circumvent the drawbacks of each driver. Sometimes it works a treat and sometimes it doesn’t…

Overview

Astrotec_AX60_S_large3The AX-60s are a 3 driver hybrid design using a dynamic driver for the bass (because this is where dynamics consistently out-perform regular BAs) and two BA drivers for the mid-range and treble. This makes sense because the BAs were originally designed to reproduce vocal frequencies in hearing aids so they tend to excel in the mid-range and treble areas.

  • Driver: 10mm Dynamic + Dual-Balanced Armature
  • Frequency response: 8 Hz – 28000 Hz
  • Sensitivity: 110 dB / 1mw (S.P.Lat 1KHz)
  • Impedance: 12 OHM
  • Cable: 1.2m +/-0.3m Galaxy cable
  • Connector: 3.5mm gold plated connector
  • Max input: 10 mW

Design & Comfort

The AX-60 shells are made entirely from aluminium which makes them look and feel very high quality. They feel like the premium product they’re meant to be. They are finished in dark grey or blue anodising which both look good.

I’m personally not a fan of the shape of the housing as I find they don’t sit particularly nicely in the ears, but they’re not uncomfortable – it just seems like they were designed on their own without consideration for how they might nestle into the ear of the listener. This doesn’t affect the comfort or listening experience in any way whatsoever, it’s just an aesthetic thing.

Cable

10110009The marketing info for the AX-60 claims that the cable is made using a range of special, high grade materials, but there’s no way to really know exactly what they are without pulling it apart (and I don’t think that would go down well when these are a loan pair for review).

What matters though is that the cable is supple and feels good. It’s terminated with a nice, slim but sturdy feeling metal headphone jack and the Y-split and cable cinch are made with the same metal and finish. The cable then is easily on par with the great look and feel of the housing materials and finish.

The cable connects to the housing with some rubber strain reliefs that look like they’re well up to the task of extended use, but the cables are non-detachable so for those who like to cable-tweak, this may not be the earphone for you.

Personally, I think an earphone with a high quality non-detachable cable (like the AX-60s and VSonic GR07s) is preferable to an earphone with a crappy quality detachable cable so to me the AX-60s are doing just fine in the cable department.

Accessories & Fit

When you open the AX-60 box you might think you’ve been duped because all you can see is a pair of earphones with the default silicon tips and a metal plate with some weird metal pieces screwed into it. Your first thought could easily be “Where’s the rest of it?”

Well don’t worry, the rest is hiding underneath the top layer of foam.

10110004Lifting up the top layer reveals the goodies below.

The AX-60s come with a nice metal tin which looks like it should contain mints or lollies, but instead holds a wide selection of tips including single and triple flange silicon options as well as foam tips similar to the Comply brand. There is also a pair of cable guides very similar to those supplied with the VSonic GR07s.

10110008I found the tip selection to be excellent, especially because the small size triple flanges actually fit me! That never happens so kudos to Astrotec for actually having truly small triple flanges rather than just medium and large like every other brand I’ve tried. The single flange silicon tips were also available in a nice range of sizes and are comfortable to use. I didn’t try the foam tips, but if you have any experience with Comply tips, these will be much the same.

In addition to the tin of tips, you’ll also find a nice little leather pouch for storing and carrying your AX-60s. The pouch looks and feels like it’s good quality, but I couldn’t say if it’s real leather or not (mainly because I don’t think it matters and didn’t take the time to work it out). What does matter is that it’s small, but appropriately sized for the earphones and would be a comfortable thing to carry around in your pocket.

Overall Comfort

The AX-60s are a comfortable earphone once you find the right tips and insertion methods, but I wouldn’t say they’re among the most comfortable I’ve used. To me they’re on par with the VSonic GR07 (I keep mentioning these, don’t I?) and other straight / barrel shaped IEMs I’ve tried. They don’t quite compare to the comfort of some of the more molded IEMs I’ve tried like the HiFiMan Re272 or  Shure SE535. Having said that, they’re not uncomfortable so if they sound as good as or better than the other slightly more molded earphones then I’d still choose these, but we’ll get to the sound shortly…

One final thing to mention is that these manage to cram a lot of technology into a small space and still manage to make it a comfortable earphone so that’s saying something. There aren’t a lot of hybrids around (but there are a few and the numbers are growing) and it seems to be a challenge to fit them into a good sized enclosure while maintaining both comfort and sound quality. For that reason alone, the AX-60s should be applauded.

Sound Quality

As always the sound is what matters.

With a hybrid earphone you expect 2 things: great bass courtesy of the dynamic driver and smooth, detailed mids and highs courtesy of the BA drivers. Let’s step through the frequencies to see how the AX-60s performed.

Bass

10110003Wow! The AX-60s have some great bass… depending on the filter.

When you first open the box you’ll see a metal plate which holds 4 filters (2 pairs). The 2 sets have slightly different sized mesh in them so when they’re screwed into the bore of the AX-60s, they change the sound significantly. With the open mesh the bass is a bit sloppy and slow to my ears. It’s impressive in its mass and weight, but just a bit too bloated. Changing to the finer mesh produces a very different (an impressive) bass experience.

With the finer mesh installed, the bass from the AX-60s is impactful and detailed. It’s not as fast as the bass from some other IEMs I’ve tried, but none of those have the body and impact of the AX-60s so it’s a slight trade-off. In terms of what I prefer, I think I would choose the AX-60 as my bass presentation of choice. It produces bass which is much more on par with a full-sized headphone or speaker and that lends an extra degree of toe-tapping fun to the listening experience.

Texture in the bass is good and it never bleeds into the mids so the overall listening experience is very clean and detailed despite the powerful bass. What’s extra impressive is how deep the bass goes. While I was writing this review, Hail Mary by 2pac came up in my playlist and I couldn’t help but be impressed with the deep rumble in the bass. Despite the deep, authoritative rumble coming from the AX-60s’ dynamic drivers, the bass always remained behind the rest of the track where it belongs.

Mid-range

I’ve heard some people suggest the mids of the AX-60s might be a little recessed, but I never felt like I wanted more. Certainly the treble and bass are prominent, but mid details don’t suffer and vocals are clear and present.

I love a BA mid-range. It has a certain texture and clarity that you rarely hear from a dynamic driver. Listening to acoustic guitars on the AX-60 you can hear and feel the strum on each string. Although not quite as refined as the Unique Melody Miracles (which cost more than 2x the price of the AX-60), the mids remind me a lot of the Miracles in terms of detail and texture. Overally, the AX-60s sound very different to the Miracles so I’m only talking about the mids here.

Vocals are clean and present. They’re also natural and without any tilt towards dryness or creaminess. In short, I really like the mids from the AX-60s!

Treble

Astrotec_AX60_large4OK, here’s where it gets a little tricky. As with many BA setups, the AX-60s can tend towards a bit harsh on some treble notes, but they are also very dependent on the tips you choose. I found that open tips (i.e. with wider and shorter sound tubes) were much smoother to listen to. Narrower tips like Sony Hybrids caused the treble to spike to uncomfortable levels on certain frequencies and really detracted from the listening experience. Of the tips I tried, I would recommend sticking to the stock single flange tips or possibly the foam tips (which I didn’t try, but have past experiences with similar tips).

Once you get the right tips on the AX-60s they really sing, but they are still bordering on bright. Interestingly, the thing they most remind me of is the Beyerdynamic T1 or T90 headphones. I’m not saying they’re as good as the T1s / T90s, but that their treble is reminiscent of the high end Beyers because of a spike around the 10kHz mark and can sound a bit harsh on certain tracks / sources. The thing with this type of treble spike is that it also seems to reveal information in the music that I don’t hear on ‘phones without such spikes.

To describe the treble from the AX-60s I’m going to focus on the sound with the finer mesh tips installed. The treble is clean, crisp and detailed, but slightly boosted compared to the mids. You could describe the AX-60s as having a slightly “V” shaped sound. It makes for a dynamic sound, but may be fatiguing to some people and is why the tip selection and source selection is important. There is also the importance of “brain burn-in” because I found once I got used to the sound I really enjoyed it and actually missed it when I returned to the Miracles.

Cymbals, percussion and consonants (in vocals) are present and defined, but jut slightly raspy at times. I think any shortcomings in the treble are really only noticeable because of the outstanding quality of the bass and mid-range, and that means that the treble is actually still very good. Where the bass and mid-range are well above standard for the price of the AX-60s, I think the treble maybe falls just a hair short of what I expect at this pricepoint. Don’t be discouraged though because one small issue doesn’t necessarily destroy the whole experience.

Staging & Imaging

10110013I absolutely love how these things image! They have a really spacious presentation that is beyond any other earphone I’ve tried, except possibly the Miracles. It’s not that they create a massive soundstage, although it’s larger than average for an IEM. Where the AX-60s excel is the space in between all the instruments. Every sound is separated and placed in the soundstage perfectly. None of the instruments blend together and all have their own space and character.

If I had to nit-pick regarding the staging and imaging it’d be to say that the instruments can sometimes sound like their on their own. A guitar in my left ear sounds like it was recorded separately from the rest of the music rather than being a coherent part of the whole picture. I think the AX-60s might place the mids just a bit too far forward in these cases, but it doesn’t happen often and can actually be quite fun and engaging to hear things presented differently. It’s not ideal for critical listening and accuracy, but it’s doesn’t detract from enjoyment and is all about how you use the earphones.

I mentioned the stage being spacious, but not huge. Just to clarfiy, the stage doesn’t extend very far forward, but has plenty of space from left to right and a reasonable sense of height for an IEM.

Summary

10110005The AX-60s aren’t a perfect IEM from a technical / accuracy standpoint, but they are brilliant fun and great value. They do everything very well and excel as a fun, dynamic listen. Don’t buy them if your goal is analytical accuracy, but definitely take a listen if you’re looking for an engaging musical experience with outstanding, but well-controlled bass (using the right filters of course)

At the time of writing, Noisy Motel, who lent me this loan pair, are selling the AX-60 for $399 (AUD). At that price, there are few other earphones I would choose over the AX-60 (if any). Others I would consider are the HiFiMan Re-400 which is cheaper, but will not even begin to match the bass performance of the AX-60. I also haven’t tried the new design of the HiFiMan earphones so don’t know if they would match the comfort I came to enjoy with the Re-272s and one of the reasons I loved the HiFiMan earphones.

Having owned other comparable earphones costing more and less than the AX-60s I can comfortably say that I would choose the AX-60s over the Shure SE535 Limited Edition, the VSonic GR07 MkII, and the Fischer DBA-02.

The AX-60s sit in an interesting spot in the market where they’re priced above some of the most popular IEM models, but less than high end IEMs and customs. For the money, I think they’re very good value as a venture into higher end sound without pricetag approaching $1000. They don’t match the performance of earphones approaching $1000, but I believe they are better value than the other earphones I’ve heard in the midrange $300-$500 range.

If you have a chance, take a listen to the AX-60s, but make sure you try them with an open-bore tip (i.e. not Sony Hybrids) and give them a bit of time to adjust to their dynamic sound if you’re coming from something more subdued. Oh, and don’t expect them to be an analytical, mastering earphone because they’re not. They are fun, exciting and enjoyable, and to me that makes for a great listen when I’m on the go. To me, these are the best earphone I’ve heard (under $400) to get my foot tapping and head bobbing.

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VSonic GR07 MkII

For a few years now I’ve been intrigued by the VSonic GR07, but buying it in Australia had been tricky. Thankfully, there are now a number of local vendors selling the GR07 and I finally have the pleasure of owning a pair. I bought these as a stand-in while my Unique Melody Miracles are away for a refit and it’s saying something that I’m not overly missing the Miracles – the GR07s are not better than the Miracles, but for $250 vs $1000, they are an incredible buy given the performance they offer.

Overview

The VSonic GR07s have been around for a while now with the MkII version the more recent iteration. The GR07s have somewhat of a cult following for their price-to-performance ratio. Here are the specs you get for around $250:

  • Driver:  Dynamic
  • Sensitivity:  105dB
  • Frequency range:  7Hz – 30,000Hz
  • Impedance:  50 ohms

As always, specifications need to be taken with a grain of salt until viewed in the context of actual auditioning, but the first thing I liked about the GR07s was their 50 ohm impedance. 50 ohms is a really nice mid-range impedance which normally means the head / earphones will happily perform with most sources.

Design, Accessories & Quality

GR07 - accessoriesThe GR07 MkII arrive in a nice looking cream and bronze packaging which nicely displays the square housing of the GR07s. Inside you will find bucket loads of different tips – mostly single-flange silicon tips, but with some foam-filled and twin flange versions as well. There is also a single pair of Comply foam tips in medium size. There is also a carry pouch and ear guides for the over-ear section of the cable in lieu of in-built memory wire.

Simply stated, the GR07s are some of the most abundantly accessorised IEMs you will ever open.

Everything feels fairly high quality with the possible exception of the pouch, but that’s of minimum concern. The tips are admittedly direct copies of the Sony Hybrid tips, but they seem to be a good copy and are comfortable.

The included ear guides are a great idea as an alternative to memory wire in the IEM cable itself, but I have to wonder if they could have been made a little less bulky. I would probably choose to use them were they not so chunky. I have to admit to feeling a bit embarrassed to be seen in public with them on. As a result, I wear the GR07s with no cable guide and they are mostly fine with the exception of times that I move with any real vigour.

The ear guides aren’t required for sitting, walking, laying in bed, etc. but I would not recommend trying to go for a run or any similar exercise without the use of the ear guides. It’s your choice then as to how much your self-respect outweighs your desire for great sound! (Note: I’m over-exaggerating the embarrassment factor here. It’s not dreadfully embarrassing, but it’s also not ideal)

Cable Quality

The marketing of the GR07s says that the internals of the wire are silver which is a really nice feature if it’s true. There is obviously no way of knowing if it is short of pulling apart the earphones and there is the chance that it’s silver-plated copper that’s been lost in translation, but it does a fine job and the outside of the cable is excellent – it feels supple, smooth, and of good durable quality. I do wonder how the cable will hold up under continued use, but more-so because of the way the cable exits the earphone housing.

The cables exit the housings on an angle and out of a relatively small strain relief.

Based on the age of this model (this part has remained essentially unchanged in the mkII version), I can only assume that this isn’t a weakness of the earphones, but it’s one of those things that can only be measured in the fullness of time.

Housings and Fit

GR07 - nozzleThe housings of the GR07s are square! Not exactly an ergonomic shape so you might wonder how comfortable they can be.

Getting the IEMs inserted comfortably is easy given the massive range of tips available and the nifty angled nozzle which rotates on a ball joint within the housing (see right). I have to admit to finding the adjustability of the nozzles fairly useless, but figure that it could be helpful for some depending on the unique anatomy of everyone’s ears. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s not a selling feature from my perspective.

Once inserted properly, the square housings have no impact on comfort because they don’t really come in contact with the ear itself. Perhaps that’s where the nozzle comes into play – ensuring that the square housing sits away from the ear – but for me it is a challenge to get the housing to touch my ear so I again find the adjustable nozzles a bit redundant.

After a while listening to the GR07s, I tend to find them moderately uncomfortable no matter how I insert them or what tips I use. My right ear (which is usually my non-troublesome ear) starts to feel like there’s pressure on the front of the ear canal where the little flap of cartilage protrudes. No amount of adjustment seems to prevent this sense of pressure and it limits my enjoyment of the GR07s to around 1-2 hours at the absolute most within any sitting, but more towards the hour mark than the 2 hour mark. By 2 hours I find my ear has become quite sore and will remain sensitive to the GR07s if I try to use them again that day.

I have begun to wonder if the discomfort is caused by the diameter and length of the GR07’s nozzles as my other IEMs like the SE535s and RE-272s have shorter or narrower nozzles. With my narrow ear canals, this might be the problem.

It is important to realise here that your ears and mine are inevitably completely different so please judge the fit for yourself before crossing the GR07s off your list. It would be a shame to miss out on the sound they present.

EDIT: After further extended use, either my ears have adjusted or I’ve found a good fit. The GR07s are now perfectly comfortable for extended periods so don’t despair if it takes you a while to find the right fit for comfort and enjoyment!

The All-Important Sound!

This is always where the rubber meets the road.

GR07 (1)The GR07s have a good reputation and it’s well-deserved. Their sound is generally balanced and neutral. They don’t offer any significant “colour” to the music you play, but instead just provide the music as per the recording. Some might want some extra bass, extra warmth, or extra treble, but to me the GR07’s sound style is just right.

This is actually one of the more difficult reviews I’ve written because the sound of the GR07 doesn’t excel or fall short in any particular area – it’s just on the mark across the board. This makes it pretty dull to write about, but really nice to listen to.

Highs

The top end of the GR07s is clean and clear. They start off a little harsh out of the box, but after some listening time or burn-in they settle into a really nice groove.  There is a nice amount of breath and air in the sound and the details are crisp, clean and present, but are rarely too forward or bright. Percussion and incidental sounds (e.g. the sounds of fingers on guitar strings and frets) are really nicely textured and detailed, but again don’t overshadow anything else.

Because the highs are accurate and clear, a recording with harsh top end will sound harsh through the GR07s, but this is not a knock on them – it’s actually them doing their job perfectly.

Mids

The mids in the GR07 aren’t spectacularly smooth or obvious like some other IEMs / headphones like the SE535s or HD650s, but they’re well placed and clean. Once again, you’ll hear exactly what the album producer meant you to hear. Vocals are well-placed and well-balanced. Voices and instruments have texture and depth. Once again, a perfect performance in terms of neutrality and balance.

Bass

The GR07s have deceptive bass. On one track you’ll think they’re bass shy and then you’ll get something bassy and realise they’re very capable in the bass department. Listening to a 20Hz to 20kHz sweep tone, it’s quite impressive how much rumble they produce very early in the range.

I have to admit to occasionally wishing for a touch more bass than the GR07s offer, but I think that’s more a reflection of the mastering of a lot of music more-so than the design of the earphones. Without fail, when a track is well mastered and produced, the GR07s produce really nice, clean, textured bass. They are capable of a good level of impact and punch as well as some rumble. Not on par with full-size headphones of course, but very respectable for an IEM.

Presentation

The presentation of the GR07s is fantastic. Instruments are well separated and defined. The stage is clearly laid out inside your “headspace” and extends well in all directions. The presentation definitely improves over time with the GR07s though, so don’t judge them straight out of the box, and give them a good 100 hours before expecting their best.

The GR07’s stage isn’t massive (in IEM terms) like the HiFiMan Re272s, but I find myself coming back to the GR07s because they have a more enjoyable sound overall. The Re272s create incredible space and separation between each instrument, but their lack of warmth and bass impact means I don’t feel the music as much. I’m much better able to groove with a track played through the GR07s and the difference in staging and separation is not enough to return to the Re272s.

As I said a little earlier, the GR07s just do everything really, really well. There’s nothing to complain about and no characteristic  that stands out above the rest. That’s a good thing in my experience because when something stands out it also leaves you wanting more elsewhere. The GR07s just don’t have that problem – I’m always left satisfied by their sound and presentation. Sure, some more bass can be fun as I said before, but it would also muddy the waters in terms of the detail and staging. No, the GR07s have it exactly right for what they aim to provide.

One small side note here. The GR07s perform beautifully with every source I’ve attached them to, but really came alive when driven from a full-sized amp (Audio-gd NFB-5.2 in my case). Nothing in their specs suggest that they need high quality amplification, but there’s absolutely no doubt that they benefit!

Summary

For the money, there are very few options that can compete with the Vsonic GR07 Mk2 for the crown as a neutral sounding and highly enjoyable IEM. The Re272s are a contender, but are let down by their lack of bass which can render them a little soul-less at times. The Gr07s provide exactly the right amount of everything and would be a great choice for anyone considering a non-custom IEM at any level. They very comfortably compete with much more expensive IEMs like the Shure SE535 and are not even that far behind custom IEMs in terms of their balance, quality presentation and refinement. It’s also a bonus that they sport a 50 impedance because they’re far less picky about the source than many other IEMs including the SE535s and Re272s.

Tralucent T1

I’ve been sitting on this review for a while now, but it’s worked out better for everyone involved because I’ve had time to truly appreciate this little packet of awesomeness called the T1 from Tralucent Audio.

The T1 is a portable amplifier designed for use with various source units such as iPods, Walkmans, Cowon players, Sansa players, etc. The T1 is normally priced at $250 (US dollars I think) and is specially priced at $229 at the time of this blog post. That pricing places it below well-known and well-loved  amplifiers like the Graham Slee Voyager, Meier Audio Corda 2 Stepdance, and Pico Slim. I’m not going to do a direct comparison because I don’t currently have access to all of these models without blowing a lot of $$$, but can assure you that the T1 definitely holds its own in this company and many users of both the T1 and the amps listed above report preferences towards the T1.

Overview

T1 Full Kit

The T1 with its accessories

The specs of the T1 aren’t published on the website so I can’t give you exact measurements, but I can tell you that the power output is easily ample to drive full size cans like the Sennheiser HD650s and it has enough dynamic range and control to also work effectively at lower volumes with sensitive IEMs like the Shure SE535s and Unique Melody Miracles (or other sensitive customs)

The T1 comes with a nice array of pieces including:

  • High quality 3.5mm to 3.5mm interconnect cable (middle)
  • 2 elastic bands (grey and black)
  • A USB charging cable (bottom right)
  • A 9V rechargeable battery (not pictured)

T1 Front PanelThe design of the T1 is very simple. The front panel houses a volume knob, input socket (closest to the volume knob), output socket, and blue power LED to show you when the amplifier is switched on.

The back panel houses the red charging LED and the mini-USB socket used for charging. Although micro-USB is becoming more and more common, most people will likely T1 Back Panelstill have devices with both so finding a spare micro-USB cable (or ten) shouldn’t be too hard and of course there’s one provided in the box with the T1.

Size

E11 & T1 Piggyback

Fiio E11 (top) and Tralucent T1 (bottom)

The T1 is a compact portable amplifier, but is not quite as small as some others on the market. As you can see in this image, the footprint of the T1 is about the same as the Fiio E11, but the T1 is about twice as thick.

It’s easily worth the extra cost of real estate when compared to the sound of an amp like the E11 as the T1 far outperforms it’s slimmer cousin.

E11 & T1The overall dimensions of the T1 (not including the volume knob or switches) are: 88mm x 50mm x 21mm

The T1 fits really nicely behind my full-sized iPods. It makes it basically impossible to put the rig into your pocket, but the T1 + iPod bundle sits nicely in the hand without too much trouble.

Battery Life and Charging

The T1 reaches a full charge in a few hours using USB power and this charge lasts for ages. I’ve successfully used the T1 for about a week of normal use without charging. (That means using it on the 1 hour journey to and from work, plus some incidental listening.) It’s easy to expect it to cover any of your listening needs without interruptions for charging – full days of listening, days of commuting, listening while travelling, etc. I can’t see a fully charged battery failing to see you through in any circumstances.

You can also use the T1 while it’s connected to power. It uses a smart power system that will divert the USB power directly to the amplification circuit when plugged in so you can use it without draining the battery. When I tried this from my computer (which has noticeably  noisy USB ports), the amp was unlistenable due to the noise being conveyed. I have heard that the amp works better of mains-powered USB chargers, but haven’t tried this so can’t comment. For me, most listening with the T1 is away from a power source so it’s battery power all the way.

Sound Quality

Tralucent T1 trans“Finally!” you say.

Yes, this is what really matters and the T1 doesn’t disappoint.

Out of the box, the T1 is a little bit underwhelming. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t amaze…

…and that’s why god invented burning-in.

Burn-In

After an overnight burn-in (leaving it connected to headphones and my iPod on shuffle), the T1 grew into its skin and sounded wonderful.

The T1 continued to improve over the following days of use and reached its peak after a week or so of use. I’ve heard 200 hours suggested as the ideal burn-in period for the T1 to reach its full potential. This may be true, but it sounded great after just one night and steadily improved after that, but I wouldn’t wait until the 200 hour mark – just start enjoying it and let it improve.

The Finished Sound

Once burnt-in, the sound of the T1 is exceptional. It’s very neutral and uncoloured – giving you the music as it was recorded and without any significant emphasis.

The T1 reproduces outstanding bass and I was initially unsure if there was a very slight emphasis here or if it just did a better job than some of the other devices I was used to. After extended listening my belief is that it just does a great job of producing and controlling accurate bass reproduction*. It gets the best out of the headphones/earphones connected, but doesn’t seem to add anything to the source material. I haven’t heard bass added to any tracks that I know are light on bass.

*More on this in a later section about IEMs.

In addition to its brilliant bass reproduction, the other area of excellence for the T1 is its staging and transparency.

The T1 produces no audible hiss even at levels above normal listening volume. This means that the music comes at you from a completely blank backdrop and allows every subtle nuance of the recording to come through. The result is a compelling listening experience where there is a beautiful, big and deep stage created. All of the sounds are placed exactly where they should be and the space around each instrument and performer is clearly audible.

The thing I love most about the T1 is its ability to simply enhance the ability of your headphones or earphones in recreating the music. It doesn’t get involved in the reproduction, it just supports and drives your phones to perfection.

Full-Size Cans

0cb728f9_Sennheiser20HD650

I bought the T1 to drive my Shure SE535s, HiFi Man Re272s and Unique Melody Miracles, but I thought I’d also try it out with my HD650s.

The T1 does a great job with the 650s. It’s not able to recreate the dynamics and presence of a mains-powered desktop amp, but it still manages to make the HD650s sound great (subjectively, I’d say around 75-80% of their potential). The soundstage is good and reproduction across the frequency range remains accurate and enjoyable.

The T1 runs at around 40-50% volume to effectively drive the HD650s (depending on the input used).

IEMs

SE535 LE

The low impedance of many IEMs makes them a difficult proposition for many amplifiers and portable devices. A low impedance earphone is actually harder to control than high impedance headphones.

One of the measures used by many to determine the synergy between sources / amplifiers and headphones / earphones is the 1/8 rule. Basically, they want the impedance of the output from the device to be no more than 1/8 of the headphone’s / earphone’s impedance. I don’t know it the 1/8 rule is truly a good measure, but the key is there – the bigger the difference between the source and headphone impedance the better.

IEMs like the Shure SE535s and various customs have impedance around 16 ohms which is very low in the world of headphones. This means finding a source / amp with output impedance that’s very low and the T1 fits the bill.

The T1 has an output impedance of around 0.1-0.2 ohms so you can literally pair it with anything! (From an impedance matching perspective at least)

The result of this brilliantly low output impedance is the T1’s awesome control. The T1 has the ability to exert perfect control over the drivers in your IEMs and the result is punchy and powerful bass without any bloat. By removing bloat, the texture of the bass line can really shine and you get to experience the magic across the full frequency range of your music.

Summary

All-in-all, the Tralucent T1 is an amazing amplifier for the money. It’s not flashy or full of features, but instead offers a clean and open presentation of all your music with the ability to pair seamlessly and effectively with any of your earphones / headphones.

For the dollars you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything that comes close to the T1 and it would be very easy to argue that you won’t beat it at almost any price point. Other more expensive portable amps are probably just as good as the T1, but it will be hard to find one that is head and shoulders above the T1 even for more money.

HiFiMan Re-272

OK, let’s get it out of the way… yes, the name “HiFiMan” doesn’t inspire confidence. So much so that a friend of mine refused to buy their products because the name sounded like a cheap knock-off brand. If you haven’t heard of HiFiMan before, don’t be put off by the name – it is a great brand that continues to pump out some amazingly priced products that outperform vastly more expensive products from other manufacturers.

To read this review, please head over to the new Passion for Sound website. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content. Don’t worry, the link will take you straight to this article.

Bose IE2

There’s a lot of bad press from the “high-end” audio community towards Bose and although I would agree that Bose isn’t my choice for home music listening, they make brilliant home theatre systems that are near impossible to beat from a “bang-for-buck” and simplicity perspective.Bose IE2 earphones in their original packaging

That got me thinking, are their earphones and headphones really that bad? I’ve read a lot of hot debate on Head-Fi about Bose ear/headphones and didn’t know what to trust. A friend of mine who works for Bose was kind enough to share his IE2 earphones with me to test out.

Despite my friend working at Bose, I can assure you that this is an unbiased review. There are no strings attached and my single purpose on this blog is to share my impressions of different products and how enjoyable (or otherwise) they make our music.

To read this review, please head over to the new Passion for Sound website. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content. Don’t worry, the link will take you straight to this article.

Super Sounding IEM Shootout

Today’s post is about 2 very different in-ear monitors (IEMs) (i.e. canal phones or earphones that go inside your ear like an earplug). They are very different in technology, slightly different in sound style, very different in looks, extremely different in price, but very similar in quality. So which one’s better for you? Let’s find out…

Our contestants are the Shure SE535 Limited Edition and the HiFiMan Re272

Dressed in red, the Shure SE535 Limited Edition

Dressed in black, the HiFiMan Re272

Both of these IEMs are recognised as offering brilliant sound quality, but they do it very differently. The Shures use 3 drivers per earphone. Yes, there are 3 tiny speakers in each of those red casings! The drivers are a balanced armature type. Don’t worry if you don’t know what that means – I didn’t either until I spent some quality time with Google. In essence, the balanced armatures are a delicate and sensitive system to push the air that makes sound. They are very good at picking up subtle details in sound, but can sound a bit thin at times and without the warmth of the alternative system. The alternative system is dynamic drivers. These are exactly what we’re all used to seeing in our home theatre systems or car stereos. They have good presence and warmth, but are sometimes less sensitive. The Re272s use just 1 dynamic driver per ear, but don’t be fooled by the 1 vs 3 matchup – dynamics and balanced armatures bring very different characteristics so it’s not won or loss based on this matchup.

I want you to know that I have not planned the order or results of this shootout – I am writing, reviewing and scoring as I go so you are experiencing the comparison exactly as I am and the results will be as much a surprise to me as to you! I’ll score each section out of a possible 10 points for each phone.

Let’s look at the all-important dollar…

The Shure Se535s will set you back around AU$400-500. That places them right up near the top of the pile for non-custom IEMs. There are only a few mainstream brands (e.g. Westone) that charge more for an IEM that doesn’t require an audiologist to make moulds of your ear.

At nearly $500, the 535s may be instantly knocked out of contention for some, but read on because you might find some good news waiting for you.

The Re272s are much more affordable at around AU$250 making them still expensive compared to some alternatives, but there is very little (if anything) for less money that will sound as good.

So far it’s Re272: 8, SE535: 5

Usability & Comfort

Both headphones can be worn with the cords going over the ear, but only the 272s can have the cord straight down. Although it’s fiddly to get used to running the cord over your ear, I find the benefits definitely worthwhile. Wearing the cord over your ear means little or no noise is transmitted through the cable to your ear and it also means that if you snag the cable on something, it doesn’t put pressure directly on the fragile joints where the cable meets the earphone.

Both earphones come with a range of tips, but the 535s have a few more options (including foam tips). In the end, I’m using non-standard tips with both: Comply foams on the 535s and Sony Hybrid tips on the 272s. The range of options supplied with the 535s is offset by the small size tube which can make using aftermarket tips a bit tricky. The 272s are slightly larger than some others, but seem to fit most standard tips I’ve tried.

Both earphones are really comfortable so it’s a draw here… Still Re272: 8 + 8 = 16, SE535: 5 + 8 = 13

Isolation

One of the key benefits of IEMs is their ability to block outside noise. The 535s excel here because of their use of balanced armature technology which is happy in a completely sealed shell. The dynamic drivers in the Re272s need a small vent and therefore allow a tiny bit of sound to come in. I also find that the fit of the 535s helps to keep them snug and keep a secure seal. Using both on a noisy train or airplane, you can definitely hear the difference and it means you either have to go louder with the 272s or lose details in the sound so it’s a win to the 535s for isolation.

Running score: Re272: 16 + 6 = 22, SE535: 13 + 9 = 22

Flexibility

The SE535s are crazily sensitive. While this gives them the ability to delivery incredible details, it also makes them susceptible to poor source quality. They often produce background hiss from poor source units (i.e. amplifiers and players) and can be quite uncomfortable to use for listening to low quality sound such as radio and podcasts. The Re272s are still very revealing and can border on uncomfortable for my favourite podcasts, but they’re a step ahead of the 535s here and are my earphone of choice for low quality sources.

Re272: 22 + 8 = 30, SE535: 22 + 6 = 28

Build Quality

Both IEMs appear well-built and are both made from plastic so no major advantage there. The 535s have a slightly better feel to them and look sexy whereas the 272s could be cheap plastic painted to look nice – it’s hard to know. I definitely trust the 535s more than the 272s based on the feel of them alone, but only time will tell. If I have to choose to give an edge to one over the other, I have to choose the 535s not just for their look and feel, but also for their detachable cable and quality of cable (although that opens a whole other topic which I’ll need to cover shortly).

Re272: 30 + 8 = 38, SE535: 28 +9 = 37

Sound Quality

The all important question! In a case like this where it’s hard to separate the 2 options (except by price), sound becomes everything. It’s not like one of them is ridiculously uncomfortable or brings some fatal flaw so sound is the deciding factor.

The Re272s jump to mind first so let’s discuss their sound. The sound from the 272s is almost flawless – they do nothing wrong, but they also don’t excel anywhere. The sound is neutral without any specific emphasis and instruments are clearly spread out and placed clearly in the soundstage. There is texture to the sound and some energy to the sound, but the bass lacks some fullness and punch. Without EQing (which I’m avoiding purely to keep this shootout a consistent approach), the 272s occasionally leave me wanting more oomph.

The SE535s bring better bass impact and slightly better layering and texturing of sound. You can get lost in the sound of the 535s more so than the 272s, but the placement of the sound is slightly clumsy because of a slight emphasis on mid-range frequencies. On some tracks, you can hear the whole band perfectly laid out before you, but on other tracks it can sound like the band is all clustered together when it shouldn’t be (i.e. the issue is the earphones, not the recording).

So, based on the sound qualities, it is very hard to split the 2, but I think the seductive qualities of the 535s and being able to get lost in the sound leads me to reach for the 535s first (unless it’s for poor quality sources).

Re272: 38 + 8 = 46, SE535: 37 + 8 = 45

There’s one final thing to mention before I give an overall final score. The detachable cable supplied with the SE535s means that you can replace it with a range of aftermarket options. I was fortunate to have a friend in Hong Kong send me an aftermarket cable to try out (thanks Gavin!!) Despite having good results with hifi cables, I was sceptical of the power of a cable change on headphones, but was SO wrong!! The cable completely transformed the SE535s (you can read about it in my review of the SE535s). With the Baldur Mk2 cable attached, the SE535s move head and shoulders above the Re272s, but the total price increases by about AU$140 for the cable so I have to update the price scoring too.

Price adjusted scores with aftermarket cable for SE535:

Re272: 46, SE535: 35 + 1045

So the Re272s win the shootout when we consider all different characteristics and even the aftermarket cable… but part of me is unsatisfied with the result because I know that I always reach for the SE535s first. The reason I’m not satisfied is that I own both now so the price is no longer an issue and that changes everything. Let’s look at the scores again without the price element…

Final, money-no-object scores:

Re272: 46 – 8 = 38, SE535: 45 – 3 = 42

Conclusions

If you’re on a budget that won’t allow $500+ for IEMs (including aftermarket cable) then the Re272s are exceptional value and quality, but may need a slight dose of bass from your EQ. You’ll need to go a long way and spend a decent amount more money to get equivalent or better sound quality.

If budget isn’t such a concern and you can save up the $$$ or consider purchasing the aftermarket cable later, then the SE535s are simply amazing. They’re probably not perfect, but they are one of the most amazing audio experiences I’ve had for less than $30,000 and that’s saying a lot!!

One final note…

I forgot to write this before publishing, hence why it’s tacked on at the end.

The Re272s are able to run in a fully balanced setup. This means finding an amp that I can test them on which is why I can’t comment now. It also means that most people will use them with a standard common ground setup (i.e. both earphones have a signal cable and an earth wire going to them. The earth wires join up into one before they connect to the source unit) which makes the above comparison more relevant to the majority.

In theory (and from what I’ve read), the balanced configuration does significantly improve the sound, but will also require the purchase of a high quality amplifier which will increase the total cost to equal or more than the Shure SE535s with aftermarket cable so it’ll be an interesting comparison. I’ll post more when I can test the 272s with a balanced setup.