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.

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Audio Technica ATH-AD900 Review

Audio Technica ATH-AD900 open style headphones

Audio Technica ATH-AD900 open style headphones

The ATH-AD900s are a well-known headphone made in Japan. They’re recognised as a clean, accurate and possibly under-priced headphone. I very recently purchased a pair and they’ve really opened my eyes in a number of ways.

On first listen, the AD900s sounded a bit “thin” for my liking. I’m definitely not a bass-head, but I was worried I would miss the presence of a solid kick in the bass. As I’ve listened to the AD900s more and more I’ve actually found that I’m loving the clean and possibly slightly understated bass from these phones.

In my article about compressed audio I discussed the phenomenon of “masking”. Masking is what happens when a loud sound prevents us from hearing a quiet sound. I’d never thought about it in relation to speakers or headphones before, but I’m starting to think it plays a part in the detail of any reproduction device. I am hearing details in music with the AD900s that I’ve never heard through other high quality speakers and phones I’ve used. That’s not to say the AD900s are the best phones on the planet, but they are definitely very, very good. What makes them so good is their balance. Because the different frequencies are so nicely balanced, the bass doesn’t overshadow the mids and treble and vice versa. There’s no harshness in the top end to get in the way of the rest of the music and the vocals don’t jump out over and above the instrumentation. Everything is exactly where it belongs.

It’s probably important to note that the AD900s are an open style headphone which means that even though they cover your whole ear, they don’t cut out any sound from the world around you. It also means that people around you can hear what you’re listening to pretty clearly so they’re not a good choice for open offices or situations where others don’t want to hear your music.

Let’s look at the individual characteristics of the headphones:

Quick Specs

Speaker Driver : 53mm
Frequency Range : 5 – 35,000Hz
Power Handling : 700mW
Impedance : 35 ohms

Bass

Attack: The attack from the AD900s is beautiful, but understated. They’re a very sensitive earphone with a relatively high impedance which makes them very responsive (a bit like a powerful sports car with excellent breaks). They go fast when needed and stop just as quickly. The result to your ears is accuracy and energy. The AD900s sound exciting and lively at all frequencies and this means a good attack in the bass. During Wayman Tisdale’s “Take the Lord Along with You”, the bass is crisp and sharp with plenty of detail. There’s no muddiness or lag in the bass – it’s agile. However, there will be a lack of punch for some people and this means you don’t feel as much of the attack as you might like. The AD900s are probably more accurate than some of the more exciting earphones around, but that does mean they lack the up-front excitement created by the feeling of some good, hard-hitting bass.

Rating: 7.5 / 10

Mass: As you’ve probably already gathered, this could be the one weak point of the AD900s if you like bass, but this is where audio becomes such a personal affair. I love the fact that the AD900s are so realistic. If a track was recorded with lots of bass, the AD900s reproduce it, but they also shine a very bright light on tracks recorded without much bass. The result can be a slightly thin-sounding experience. Even though that’s more a reflection of the recording and engineering of the track, many headphones will lend a little extra bass to music and cover these shortcomings.

I tried listening to “Halftime” by Nas and there’s plenty of bass, but it’s not thumping on my eardrums like an angry neighbour. It’s very present, but not overpowering and I know some people enjoy the hard-hitting thump.

Rating: 5 / 10

Vocals / Mids

It’s almost difficult to review the mids and vocals from the AD900s because they’re exactly what they should be and perfectly balanced with everything else. They don’t stick out as a flat spot or a highlight. The mids and vocals are smooth, realistic and perfectly placed within the overall musical picture. There’s really nothing to report (in a good way) – they’re perfect.

Rating: 8.5 / 10

Detail

Wow. If only I could give them a 12 out of 10. Detail is the AD900’s party trick. Their accuracy and agility is simply awesome so you hear every tiny detail in all of your music. Even driven straight from an iPod (5th Generation), the accuracy is outstanding. The iPod has to run at nearly 100% volume, but there’s still a little headroom to turn it up if necessary and the quality is still excellent.

When listening to “Learn to Love” by Harry Connick, Jr. there are some minor riffs and fills from the backing orchestra and a Hammond organ. On other earphones I’ve used, these riffs tend to get lost in the mix, but on the AD900s you can hear even the subtlest textures and details within the backing instrumentation – it’s quite an experience.

One of the best things about the level of detail the AD900s provide is that the music is exciting and energetic. There are so many different sounds and textures going on that you can really explore the music’s twists and turns. Even tracks you used to find boring can surprise you with a new detail or texture you’ve never heard before. This is true in all music, but it’s particularly noticeable in classical music. Listening to “Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen, Op.20” and “Capriccio Italien Op. 45” is quite amazing as you hear every pluck and pop and squeak from every instrument in the orchestra. I’m not a classical fan as such, but I love hearing the odd orchestral track just to experience all the textures and details I can hear through the AD900s.

Rating: 8.9 / 10

Staging

Staging was what initially attracted me to the AD900s. Other reviews I’d read suggested that the AD900s offered a broad and detailed soundstage and they really do. If you close your eyes while listening to a well recorded piece of music, the sound seems to come from a space outside of the confines of your head and the headphones. All that space also means that it’s easy to separate where different sounds are coming from.

I use Capriccio Italien Op. 45 to test for staging and placement of sounds because there are lots of quiet moments with individual groups in the orchestra playing. The AD900s paint a perfect picture of the orchestra. You can hear exactly where the horn section is placed and you can hear that they’re further away from you than the strings. The french horns are slightly to the right while the oboes and clarinets are more centred, but still slightly to the left. The detail is beautifully clear. I have heard headphones with slightly better staging (like the Ultrasone Edition 8s), but the AD900s are still extremely good, especially for the price.

Rating: 8.5 / 10

Overall

For around $300 you’ll have a very hard time finding a better pair of headphones in terms of accuracy, staging and comfort. I regularly wear these headphones all day (literally) and actually miss them when I take them off because they are SO comfortable. I have a shaved head so there’s no hair to add padding for headphones and most become uncomfortable in time, but the AD900s are hands-down the most comfortable thing I’ve ever worn on my head (including hats and beanies)!

If you love bass from a variety of music, don’t jump at the AD900s until you’ve had a good listen to a range of tracks to see if the “realistic” bass is enough for you. If accuracy, detail and clarity is your thing, do yourself a favour and check these out. If you’re not sure what you like you should definitely give the AD900s a try, but make sure you listen to them for a little while on a range of tracks before making your mind up. Most of us aren’t used to the kind of unbiased sound they give and you may feel a little underwhelmed at first, but give them some time, close your eyes and explore the music a bit – you might be surprised.

All-in-all I just love these headphones and often find myself turning to these instead of high quality speaker setups. I love the accuracy, detail and intimacy of the sound. If you’re buying headphones and have around $300 to spend you should definitely check these out. Even if you’re spending significantly more than $300, take a listen to the ATH-AD900s because they will embarrass many more expensive models.

Overall Rating: 7 / 10

Additional Note: The model below the AD900s is the ATH-AD700 and although Audio Technica completely missed the mark on the colour scheme (purple and gold), they’re an excellent headphone. There is absolutely no doubt that the AD900s are significantly better and are worth the extra $$$. The build quality and sound quality are both upgraded on the AD900s, but check out the AD700s if the AD900s are more than you want to spend.