Shure SE846

I’ve been threatening this review for a while now, having had the SE846s in my possession for a number of months. The reason for the delay is not the normal busy-ness or range of other gear requiring reviews. No, the reason for the delay is that it has taken me some time to fully appreciate the SE846s for everything they are and can be. I have been through phases of awe, doubt, wonder, and hesitation with more time spent in awe and wonder, but enough doubt and hesitation that I wanted to be sure that my opinion didn’t swing the other way in time.

Well here we are now with a pair of SE846s in my ears, my mind completely made up on them and a blank page ready for audio-induced ramblings. Let’s go!

Overview

Shure SE846The Shure SE846 is Shure’s flagship IEM, sitting a step higher than the older, but still ongoing SE535. The SE846 sits significantly higher in price though at around $1000-1200 depending on where you shop and where you live. There are differing opinions about the SE846’s value compared to the SE535, but that comes down to two things: what you value in sound reproduction and which filter you use in the 846s, but I’ll get to that. Suffice to say for now, the 846s come three pairs of filters to tailor the sound to your tastes.

Read the rest of this review over at the new Passion for Sound site. It’s sexier and has lots of great new content coming soon!

 

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Audiofly AF180

SAMSUNG CSCEver wondered what happens when you let musicians design an earphone? No, not branding exercises like Beats, Marley, or certain AKG models, but musicians having an actual say in the design and sound of the earphones – in fact  in this case it’s musicians owning and running the company making the earphones.

Well what you get is something practical, sexy, comfortable, and never-endingly enjoyable to listen to. Meet the AF180 from Audiofly…

To read this review please head over to the new Passion for Sound site. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content on the way.

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.

Unique Melody Miracles

The Unique Melody Miracles are a custom-moulded in-ear-monitor (or CIEM). There are many manufacturers making CIEMs – some cheaper, some more expensive. The Miracles are the top-of-the-line option from Unique Melody. I chose the Miracles after much research into these other options:

  • JH Audio JH13
  • JH Audio JH16
  • Heir 8.A

Deciding to buy custom in-ears is a big decision. They’re expensive (but completely worth it), take a while to make, require a trip to an audiologist, and have lower resale value due to their custom-moulded nature. There’s also the chance that they won’t fit properly the first time around. For any lover of music, custom IEMs are a very worthwhile investment, but one that you need to make knowing the process that awaits…

Overview

Miracle boxThe UM Miracles are a 6-driver, 3-way design meaning that they use a total of 6 individual speaker units (called balanced armatures) inside each earpiece. The 6 drivers are combined in a 3-way configuration meaning that they are paired up to produce bass, mid-range, and treble (2 per frequency range). They are designed to produce a fairly neutral sound (i.e. no specific emphasis on any frequency range). Specifications are:

  • Frequency range: 18 Hz – 19 kHz
  • Impedance: 15.9 ohm
  • Sensitivity: 114 dB SPL

PresentationThey arrive in a beautiful package and with a hard case, metal warranty card, and glass cube paperweight. It’s an impressive presentation. Admittedly, I don’t think many people will find use for the paperweight, but it’s beautiful and you can always just leave it in the box. Mine’s serving as a weight on the base of my headphone stand so it’s both purposeful and beautiful. The Miracles are supplied with the same cable as most other CIEMs on the market, the Westone Epic cable. It’s thin and supple with a nice right-angled jack to connect to your source units. Although not a world-beater by any stretch, it’s a perfectly serviceable cable, but there may be some longevity issues due to it’s thin design from what I have heard.

The Process

Miracles0011 When you order any CIEMs there are a few steps to go through regardless of which brand and model you choose. For this part of the review, I am referring to all brands and models, not just the Miracles.

Design – decide on the colours and inserts you want for the tips, shells, and faceplates of your CIEMs. Most CIEM manufacturer sites have designer pages to help you choose. This is a big decision because once it’s done, you can’t change it without the time and expense of remoulding (basically having them remade f rom scratch). It’s a good idea to check around on forums and different manufacturers’ sites for images of CIEMs to see what looks good to you.

Impressions – next you’re off to the audiologist for them to take moulds of your ear canals and outer ear. This step takes about 30 minutes and is a little weird-feeling, but pretty straight forward.

Important note!!! When having your impressions taken, be sure to stay completely still and looking straight ahead (you might want to choose a spot on the wall to stare at for the whole time). Different companies recommend different mouth positions (i.e. open, closed, wide open, open & closed) so you may find variation in the instructions. Many audiologists will have bite blocks you can use to hold your mouth still in an open position. I found for the Miracles that a bit block around 1.5cm thick worked best.  Importantly, the audiologist may forget to instruct you thoroughly so make sure you remind yourself of the steps provided by your CIEM company and stick to them or it could be a painful wait as you send your brand new CIEMs back to be redone.

Waiting – Once you send your completed impressions / moulds to the CIEM manufacturer, you’re in for a bit of a wait. It varies between manufacturers, but is always multiple weeks. In some cases though it can extend out to 6+ weeks so be prepared. It is a long time to be waiting for something so special to you, but it’s completely worth it.

2012-12-07 16.34.22Receiving – The day does come eventually after what seems like forever. You open the packaging and excitedly try to put your new toys in your ears. Please note that a couple of things happen at this time:

  1. They feel weird, difficult and uncomfortable to put in at first – this passes as you get more practiced
  2. They feel weird and possibly a little uncomfortable even when they’re properly inserted – this will settle down in most cases. Allow a couple of weeks or at least some extended listening sessions for your ears to adjust to having a foreign object inside the canal
  3. There is a chance they won’t fit properly and that the seal will be incomplete or will break easily. Don’t decide immediately while everything feels new and strange. Let your ears get used to the sensation and fit before deciding to return them for a refit because it’s another big decision that may require another trip to the audiologist and another long wait.

Hopefully, they fit first time around and you can just get on with enjoying them! When they do fit, here’s what you can expect from the Miracles. From here on, I am talking only about the Miracles and your experiences with other CIEMs may vary dramatically depending on the brand and model.

Build Quality & Design

The Miracles are made by Unique Melody, one of the more prominent custom manufacturers in the market along with Ultimate Ears (UE), Heir Audio and JH Audio to name a few. The Miracles are beautifully made and well finished. There are a pair of tiny dimples in the faceplate of my left earpiece, but they’re only visible under the right lighting and at a certain angle so really not worth worrying about. All-in-all the Miracles arrive beautifully finished and without any bubbles, cracks, seams, or any other significant flaws in the acrylic. They feel sturdy and solid.

FacesAs you can see from the images, I chose to get red and blue shells (right and left respectively) with purple faceplates on both. I asked for the silver Unique Melody insert which is a free addition, and I had them keep the tips clear. There is absolutely no benefit with the clear tips and in hindsight I have no idea why I did this!? It’s not bad, but serves no purpose and doesn’t look any better – maybe I just wanted to maximise my customisation…

Metal tubeDepending on the colours chosen, you can see the wiring and drivers inside the shells as well as the small metal pipe in the bass tube (see image to right). This can be cool, but realistically there’s not a lot to see.

Other than seeing your choice of colours and inserts come to life, the design is quite straightforward. It’s an exact replica of the space inside your ear canal and outer ear moulded in acrylic and with a bunch of miniature drivers inside. I’m not suggesting it’s an easy achievement from Unique Melody – there’s a lot of design and technology built into a small space, but the end result is a solid, moulded piece of acrylic that’s deceptively simple on the outside.

Fit

Being custom moulded, the Miracles (or any CIEM) should fit beautifully and comfortably, but it’s possible that the moulds made by your audiologist could be imperfect. If that’s the case, you may have an experience like I did at first where the seal breaks on one (or both) sides during certain movements. For me, the seal on the right would break anytime I looked down (e.g. to read a book or look at my laptop), or if I tilted my head to the right (e.g. leaning against the wall of the train while trying to relax listening to music). It can be very off-putting and take you straight out of the music.

The good news is that a good mould will result in an incredibly comfortable CIEM. Now that they’re fixed and fitting properly, I can easily wear the Miracles for hours on end with no discomfort. Along with comfort, the perfect fit and seal means that, once the music is playing, the rest of the world disappears – isolation of sound is extreme. Loud sounds like alarms, announcements on trains / in airports are still audible, but background noise just ceases to exist.

Service

I’m writing this now so as not to leave a bad “after-taste” at the end of the review. The service I received from UM Australia (aka ACustoms) ranged from exceptional to really poor. Communication was inconsistent and sometimes inaccurate, and the first proposed solution to a fit issue I had resulted in a 4-5 week wait (from memory) with no joy at the end and another 6-7 week wait after that. I can’t speak to the reasons for the inconsistencies and there may be short-term issues, but it has definitely left me feeling like I won’t use their services again which is a shame because individually, everyone but 1 person I dealt with was really friendly and helpful in terms of their attitudes. It’s just a shame that their systems and processes seem to let down the overall experience. What makes it even more of a shame is how truly brilliant the product is. It’s a prestige, top-end item that fulfils all that it promises and deserves to be supported with an equivalent standard of customer service.

Sound

Shells & Tips - bottomIn the end this is what really matters and the Miracles do not disappoint! First impressions of these are that they deliver perfect sound across the entire frequency range. There’s plenty of detail without any fatiguing sibilance or harshness. There’s plenty of bass without any excess rumble or flab, and the midrange is solid and present without becoming thick and creamy or too dry and raspy.

Pairing

The Miracles, like most multiple balanced armature IEMs are a bit picky about the device they’re paired with. Combined with a great source with low output impedance (<1 ohm ideally), they really sing, but you may find a slight loss of bass and increase in top-end when used with non-ideal devices. For example, I find they don’t pair perfectly with my desktop amp (Audio-gd NFB-5.2), iPod, or mobile phone, but are great with my portable amp (Tralucent T1). I’m still undecided about how well they pair with my USB DAC, the AudioQuest Dragonfly because on paper they are a match, but I hear a little bit of harshness when paired directly with the Dragonfly (i.e. not via an amplifier).

Bass

The bass from the Miracles is a revelation. It’s solid, full and punchy – much more so than I ever expected from an earphone. The Miracles manage to be punchy and tight while also having all the body and rumble you could need unless you’re a major basshead. Of course, as I’ve already touched on, this will depend on the source driving them. A poor pairing will strip the bass out of the Miracles, but that’s on the source, not the Miracles. They are absolutely up to the task of producing any bass I’ve ever heard in a recording and I’m yet to be disappointed by them when paired with the right source.

Mids

Miracles0009The mids of the Miracles are subtle in a good way. With the stock cable (more on that later), the mids are well-placed and present, but not emphasised or forward like some high-end IEMs (e.g. Shure SE535). Vocals and instrumentals won’t jump out at you or get lost behind the rest of the music – they’re just there, right where they should be.

Those coming from very warm, lush earphones or headphones may find the Miracles a bit lean at first, but to me they are just beautifully balanced rather than lean or analytical.

Highs

The highs on the Miracles are quite surprising. There’s nice brightness and oodles of detail, but it never seems to get harsh. Even with poor recordings, the Miracle seems to present the music tastefully and never hacks up your eardrums with sibilance and harshness. Yes, they will absolutely shine a light on any shortcomings in the recording, but they’re not ruthless like other headphones I’ve tried.

Presentation

This is where the Miracles really shine. So far they do everything exactly as I expected, but it’s their presentation that really blows me away again and again.

Shells & Tips - sideThe Miracles manage to create a large, deep, and tall soundstage between your ears which stretches from ear to ear and from the top of your head down to your jaw. I am often blown away when I feel a guitar strumming in one ear – yes, I said feel, not hear. Somehow, they present not just sound, but texture and sensations which are rarely experienced when listening to earphones, let alone headphones.

Instrument placement is perfect – clean, separate, and unforced. You don’t have to think about where instruments are placed, you just know. The experience is similar to my first “wow” moment with the Shure SE535s and yet so much better. It’s like you can mentally walk around between the band members and explore the stage with them. It only gets better with a change of cable…

Summary (Part 1)

For around $1000 you expect a massive amount from these little nuggets of acrylic and I think you’d be hard-pressed to be disappointed. Unless you have very specific tastes in sound signature (i.e. you like gobs of bass or an extremely lean, analytical experience) the Miracles should tick all the boxes.

If you’re buying them, be sure of a few things:

  1. You have the patience to wait
  2. You have a source or amp with <1 ohm output impedance
  3. You’re ready to disappear from the world for a while as you get completely absorbed in music you thought you already knew like the back of your hand

There are other great CIEMs out there, and the new JH13 packs some recent technology which may actually make it better than the Miracle while being comparable in sound signature so do your research before buying, but rest assured if you settle on the Miracles – they are an epic audio experience in a very small, extremely comfortable package.

Cable Changes

The detachable cable of the Miracles means that you can easily swap the stock cable for a massive range of custom options made of all different exotic metals and combinations. The socket used on the Miracles is common to most CIEM brands so it’s easy to find alternatives. Do be aware though that the Miracles use a recessed socket and not all cables will fit the recess even though they may use the same 2-pin design. Just double-check before laying down your dough.

Miracles0013So far I’ve tried a couple of different cables with the Miracles, a silver cable which I think was from Chris_Himself from Headphonelounge (on Head-Fi.org). I bought it second hand so I am not completely sure. The sound with the silver cable was good, but brightened the signature of the Miracles more than I like. Some people would love it, but it wasn’t for me.

I bought the silver cable while I was waiting for the beast pictured to the right. It’s the DHC Symbiote SE Litz from Double Helix Cables and it’s an amazing piece of cable engineering, so much so that I’ll be doing a dedicated review of it soon.

In terms of its impact on the sound, the Symbiote SE Litz delivers essentially the same signature as the stock cable, but somehow does everything better. Every sound is smoother, cleaner, fuller, more detailed and better. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I can’t describe it any better. There’s no individual element of the sound which jumps out to me, but everything is undeniably better.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the impact those improvements have on the listening experience. After swapping to the DHC cable, I was listening to the same tracks I always have on my portable player (a selection of my favourites list of around 4000 tracks, all of which I know well) and noticed that I was listening to and hearing the lyrics of songs I’d never really paid attention to before.

It’s not like the DHC cable emphasised the midrange to make vocals more prominent – it just made everything so coherent and organic that it became like sitting at a live gig or recording session where all of the individual sounds came together perfectly and naturally making it easy to hear everything and take in the entire musical canvas.

The DHC cables require a significant outlay and there are a couple of pointers I’ll cover in the separate review (mainly the large size of the stock plug). They also have a long lead time because they’re handmade to order, but I am extremely comfortable recommending the Symbiote SE Litz cable with the Miracles as one of the most perfect pairings I’ve ever experienced. It won’t wow you upfront like the brightness and detail of silver cables might, but will continuously improve your listening experience and keep the Miracles silky, smooth, detailed, and incredible.

Summary (Part 2)

I’m really excited to continue using the Miracle + Symbiote combination and look forward to hearing my music in all new ways as I keep sifting through my collection. In future I’ll be trying some other CIEMs I think, but will be amazed to find anything more than subtle, incremental changes to performance. For now, I am comfortable saying that the Miracles + Symbiote are the greatest personal audio experience I have found so far (i.e. better than any headphones I’ve used as yet). The fact that you can take them anywhere you go is a massive bonus.

No doubt there are better products and combinations to be found out there, but I really can’t see it coming for the same money or less. If you’re looking to spend $1000-2000 on a great portable (or even home) earphone solution, these are a great option. The Miracles alone are around $1000 depending on the design options you choose and you can always choose to add the cable later for that extra little upgrade. The cable I bought was a big outlay, but worth every cent. Keep your eye out for the review…

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.

Sennheiser HD650

For a while now I’ve been enjoying great sound from a few different headphones. The problem with great sound though is that every time you get better equipment in one area, it makes you want to upgrade in other areas. That’s been the result of my purchase of the HFI-680s and then, more-so, the Shure SE535 LEs.

I loved my Audio Technica ATH-AD900s, but it was time for them to find a loving new home and for me to return to Sennheiser, a brand I’d previously sworn off due to some poor experiences at the lower end of their range.

I was offered the HD650s by a good friend of mine who is very knowledgeable in the world of head-fi. In addition to the stock 650s, he also had an after market cable for them. The cable is custom-made with silver-plated copper. There are plenty of options available on eBay and from companies like Cardas and Toxic Cables. Custom cables will generally set you back a couple of hundred dollars on top of the cost of the headphones, but they are often worth the cost.

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.

Audio-gd NFB-5.2 DAC/Amp

For a while now I’ve been using a Creative X-Fi USB soundcard as my quality DAC and amplifier and it’s done an amazing job, but as a USB-powered amp, it was never going to shine with any truly high quality headphones. And so it came to pass that I decided on my first step into the realm of dedicated headphone amplifiers – the Audio-gd NFB-5.2

I decided on the NFB-5.2 because it is a combination digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) and headphone amplifier. Reviews I read seemed good and it was available from the great crew at Addicted to Audio where I buy a bunch of my stuff (often with their wise advice).

Specifications

Signal to noise ratio:  119dB
Output power:  3500mW @ 25 ohm – 150mW @ 600 ohm
Output impedance:  2 ohm (headphone out)
Sampling support: 44.1kHz – 192kHz (16-bit or 24-bit)
Inputs:  Optical, Coaxial, USB

I’ll review the NFB-5.2 in 3 stages: first a quick overview, then the DAC, and then the amp.

Overview

The front panel of the Audio-gd NFB-5.2The NFB-5.2 is quite simple and that’s good. On the front of the unit is:

  • A power button (left)
  • Volume control (right)
  • 6mm stereo headphone socket with a securing system to keep the plug in place
  • Simple, 4 character, blue display
  • 4 control switches (under the display)

All of the buttons and the volume knob are brushed metal and the case of the unit is also all metal. It’s not super heavy, but seems very well built.

The 4 buttons under the display allow you to select different options.

Button 1: Filter

The “Filter” button lets you select from a number of filters used to remove unnecessary frequencies from the DAC output. It’s generally not something that you’ll notice in the sound and is used more to remove subtle digital artefacts and noise from the signal. I played around a bit and now leave my NFB-5.2 set to filter #6 which has creates an output that looks like this:

A graph showing the effect of filter #6

Filter #6 frequency response chart

As you can see, it only starts to affect the sound at around 20kHz and above – all frequencies which are beyond normal human hearing limits, but it should help to clean up the overall signal.

There’s a full listing of the possible filter options here.

Button 2: DAC/HP

This button has 4 options. Options 1 & 2 activate the headphone amplifier output either without (option 1) or with (option 2) the OP amp. Options 3 & 4 activate the RCA line outs on the back of the NFB-5.2 and allow you to use it as just a DAC with a separate dedicated amplifier. Once again the two options are for the OP amp being used or not used.

The OP Amp

The OP amp (OPA) is modular circuit that can colour the sound to suit individual tastes. Audio-gd supply the NFB-5.2 with their OPA-2134 model, but you can buy 3 different options as aftermarket (or custom) options. The 3 other OPAs offer neutral sound, warm sound, or dynamic sound. I hope to review the OPAs separately in the future.

In relation to the OPA-2134 that comes standard, my feeling is that it’s better left switched off. Engaging the OPA using setting 2 or 4 of the DAC/HP switch results in a flatter sound with less depth and a weaker sound stage. There’s really no improvement that I can discern.

Button 3: Gain

A very simple option here: “high” or “low”. The “high” option apparently adds a 12dB boost across the range (from the DAC, not the amp). When I’ve used high gain, the sound seems to become a bit edgy when compared to the equivalent volume on low gain. I’m sticking to the low gain option, but others might like the extra energy delivered by the high gain.

Button 4: Input

3 options here: USB, Optical or Coaxial. Very simple.

All work the same although I have read claims of slight sound variations between the 3 inputs. As I don’t have a source with all three outputs I can’t do a fair comparison.

NFB-5.2 DAC Stage

The DAC in the NFB-5.2 is really nice. I’ve run my Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 3 speakers using the line out of the NFB-5.2 and the sound is beautifully clean, well-layered with plenty of separation between instruments and creates a stunning sound stage through the BeoLab 3’s acoustic lenses.

As I’ve already explained, the filter system is a nice feature for those who are more technically inclined, but once it’s set you’ll probably not think about it ever again so essentially the NFB-5.2 DAC stage is a set-and-forget affair and it does a fine job.

The TE8802 Chip

The NFB-5.2 is an upgraded version of the NFB-5. The only difference (according to what I’ve read) is the inclusion of the TE8802 USB chip. The TE8802 allows for asynchronous transfer… yeah, I didn’t understand either!

What all this really means is that the NFB-5.2 should be less susceptible to minor issues with errors created by the USB chip in your computer slowing down or running inconsistently. In short, it’s a minor upgrade that’s nice to have, but likely won’t be a game changer.

Compatibility

The NFB-5.2 worked perfectly with my laptop running Windows 7 (64-bit) and MediaMonkey as my media player. The Audio-gd drivers, combined with the TE8802 chip allow the NFB-5.2 to work all the way up to 192kHz/24-bit. After doing some reading, I believe there’s no real benefit (and possibly some disadvantages) to using 192kHz output sampling so after testing that it worked, I reverted to 96kHz sound and it’s brilliant!

It’s worth noting that ASIO drivers seem to give the best sound and best compatibility with the NFB-5.2. I started out using WASAPI drivers, but they created some nasty cracks and pops from the computer (not the NFB-5.2’s error) and the sound seemed better when using ASIO.

NFB-5.2 Amp Stage

The amplifier in the NFB-5.2 is probably slightly weaker than the DAC. Where the DAC seems to be beautifully clean and crisp, the amp strikes me as just a touch soft around the edges. Perhaps it’s just a warm sound signature when I prefer a more analytical sound in general. There is also a hum that’s audible through my Shure SE535 LE in-ear monitors, but read on because that’s not necessarily a bad sign.

Power

The NFB-5.2 has plenty of grunt. I’ve just received my new Sennheiser HD650s (thanks Gavin!!) and the NFB-5.2 volume control only just clears 50% (on low gain) to drive the 300ohm HD650s. There are very few (if any) conventional headphones that the NFB-5.2 couldn’t drive. Obviously there will be much more expensive amps that will sound better, but it’s got the power.

Noise

This is a tricky one. With the 300ohm HD650s, the NFB-5.2 sounds pitch black – no noticeable noise. On more sensitive cans like the Audio Technica AD900s, there is some hiss when you turn the volume right up (>75%), but none at normal listening volumes. From this perspective, the NFB-5.2 is nice and clean.

What put me off slightly here is the noise I heard when I connected my Shure SE535 LEs. The Shures are hyper sensitive (119dB SPL/mW) and this showed up a background hum from the amplifier. The NFB-5.2 is listed with a 119dB signal to noise ratio so there’s a good chance the SE535 is picking up the end of the NFB-5.2’s quality control limits and that’s OK – it’s not meant for driving hyper-sensitive IEMs. The main reason for my concern was that the hum isn’t balanced – it is louder in the left channel. That might not mean anything, but I look forward to testing the SE535s on another NFB-5.2 next time I visit Addicted to Audio. Maybe the right channel on my unit is just slightly cleaner than Audio-gd’s quality control standards, but I’m keen to make sure there’s not an error somewhere in the circuitry of my amp.

NOTE: It’s important to note again here that an amp like the NFB-5.2 is not really designed to drive super sensitive, low impedance monitors like the SE535s so this isn’t a major flaw, but until I can test a few other similar amps, the unbalanced hum leaves a tiny doubt in my mind.

Control

The NFB-5.2 amp is really well controlled. My Ultrasone HFI-680s can be quite bassy and that can cause them to lose clarity and control if not well driven. The NFB-5.2 does a great job of tightening the bass and keeping it punchy and full.

I mentioned earlier that the NFB-5.2 amp seems slightly soft around the edges and while that is definitely the case, there is no doubt that it does an amazing job for the cost. It’s an incredibly good amp for the cost (especially when you get a great DAC built-in).

Overall Conclusion

Would I buy the NFB-5.2 again if I had my time over?

Absolutely!!

For less than US$400 plus shipping costs (about AU$480 here in Australia) you get a really nice DAC with a solid, powerful amp that will drive anything very well. The amp may tend towards being slightly warm, but it reveals detail well and definitely won’t create fatiguing edginess in the sound. Being able to bypass the amp in the future while maintaining the really nice DAC stage of the NFB-5.2 is a massive bonus!

The high gain mode seems to bring some unwanted distortion or edginess to the sound, but there’s so much power on tap that you don’t need to use it if you don’t want to.

Of course, there’s also the fact that you can buy different OP amps for around $40 each and modify the sound to your tastes. I look forward to trying these out and sharing some thoughts in a future blog post.

If you’re looking for a nice entry point into DACs and amps, the NFB-5.2 is an excellent option – well priced, clean, powerful and simple to use – I’d recommend it.

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.