The general concept
One of the downsides of being an IEM enthusiast and amateur reviewer is an ever growing collection of in-ear gear, and only two ears to listen to it with. While pondering the gear mountain that was building up in my man-cave after a few frosty beverages, I set to working out the best way of thinning out my ridiculous collection down to a more manageable (and more to the point listenable) amount.
I don’t know if it was the old MTV reruns on in the background, the compulsive reading of @flinckenick’s TOTL IEM Shootout thread on Head-Fi / The Headphone List (excellent reading if you haven’t come across it yet) or just the beverages I had consumed up to that point, but an idea struck me: what would happen if my collection fought it out, old-fashioned pistols at dawn style.
Emboldened by this ridiculous idea but being far too lazy (and far too untalented) to do something like @Flinckenick, I decided to set up a good old fashioned deathmatch instead. The format would be simple, drawing IEMs out of a hat (or more correctly a large packing case) and pitting them against each other in a straight up knockout format to see which one came out on top, and which ones would be gracing the stockings of relatives come Christmas time or the listings of eBay a little sooner.
Rules of the competition
This will be a straight knockout completion, with the winning IEMs moving through to the next round, and the losing IEM being eliminated from the contest. Scores quoted in the comparisons are subjective, and will be affected by the relative perception bias of the difference between the two. In plainer English, when comparing the two sets of earphones, if one is much worse than the other then the better IEM will have comparatively higher scores. This therefore means that the overall score for an IEM may change from round to round, depending on what it is competing against.
For a fuller explanation of how this will work and the full draw, please see the below link:
Audio Primacy Sub £1000 IEM Deathmatch – Picture Gallery and Rules (Updated)
Quarter-Final 1: JH Rosie vs CustomArt 9-driver (custom design)
This is an unusual battle, as the guys at CustomArt have really lived up to their name with the 9-driver IEM I am putting up against the Rosie, creating a one-off piece tuned to mimic the legendary Hifiman HE-500 in CIEM form for a previous owner (not myself) and coming into my possession as a reshell. Both IEMs have a great sense of clarity and balance across the frequency ranges, so it seemed like a good matchup to see if 6 drives and a handful for patents from the JH Audio / Astell & Kern hit machine can overpower the additional 3 drivers and custom fit of the CustomArt creation.
Build and ergonomics
This is quite an unfair contest in some respects, with the CustomArt 9-driver (herein referred to as the 9D for simplicity’s sake) has the benefit of a fully custom moulded acrylic shell, fitting my inner ear like a glove (well, it would if we wore gloves on our ears). The Rosie is quite small by JH Audio standards, but despite only packing 6 balanced armatures compared to the 9 in the 9D, actually has a larger metal shell and a similar sized nozzle length, which is a hallmark of the JH Audio FreqPhase technology.
In terms of comfort, the Rosie are actually surprisingly comfy, the inner surface of the solid aluminium shell fitting nicely into the ear and being held firmly in place by the deep insertion of the nozzle (when using foam tips) and the sturdy 4-pin connector holding them over your ears. Simply put, however, as long as you can deal with the intrusive insertion that comes with all custom in-ears, it is nigh on impossible for a universal monitor to beat a CIEM for both security of fit and overall comfort, with the 9D locking into place in my ears and presenting a perfect seal every time with no need for adjustment no matter what I am up to.
Build quality is split quite evenly, with the Rosie feeling sturdier and better made due to the all-metal shell and clever screw threading cable mechanism, and looking excellent with the design accents and carbon fibre faceplates. The CustomArt takes the aesthetics (in a marginal call) due to the exotic zebrawood faceplate design and how they look when worn, but feel slightly less “premium” in the hand due to the comparative lightness of the shell. In terms of wearing comfort, despite the fact the Rosie is a universal, both IEMs disappear into the ear for extended listening periods. Overall, if you can deal with the larger profile of the shells on the Rosie, it keeps up very well with the fully custom design of the CustomArt.
Score – Rosie (8), CustomArt (9)
The Rosie has an adjustable bass dial on the standard Moon Audio cable, so is technically capable of more bass than the 9D. In my preferred configuration, the Rosie is set between 1 and 2pm on the dial, giving just slightly less bass than the 9D – I feel that this gives the best overall balance to the Rosie’s overall tuning.
In terms of depth, both IEMs dig deep, with the 9D having a little more oomph down in the sub-bass due to the use of three BA drivers for various parts of the lower frequency range. It also carries plenty of detail, keeping up with the Rosie in terms of technical prowess and actually pulling ahead slightly in terms of warmth and emotion. Both IEMs have a classically “BA” style of bass, with the emphasis on speed and texture over a huge physical impact (which isn’t often possible due to the lack of moving air) – the 9D just has a slightly more musical tilt to the lower end tuning than the Rosie with its more reference tuned leanings. The addition of a couple of notches on the bass dial doesn’t help in this regards, ramping up the bass quantity and slightly warming the overall sound, but not enough to compensate for the unbalancing effect it then has on the rest of the tuning (for me, anyway).
In summary, the 9D feels slightly more enjoyable, but technically comparable to the excellent and crisp bass on display from the Rosie, so nudges ahead for my preferences here.
Score – Rosie (8), 9D (8.5)
This is the main area of deviation for me between these two IEMs, with the Rosie having a more recessed presentation here, the singer and midrange instruments feeling further away from the listener’s ear on stage than the more upfront staging of the 9D. In terms of the usual descriptors, the 9D feels like you are front row at a seated gig, the Rosie feels like you are somewhere further back from the stage in the middle of the auditorium. This affords a more “panoramic” feel to the presentation, but can lack engagement compared to the more up front CustomArt model.
The Rosie midrange feels less organic and more analytical in tone, lacking a little in emotion compared to the 9D, and sometimes feeling a little overshadowed by the instrumentation in the lower and higher frequency bands. The 9D has a slightly thicker note presentation, with the Rosie feeling a little thinner and clearer, but both having comparable retrieval of both foreground and background detail. The 9D is an IEM tuned for a more musically neutral but still slightly coloured take on things (a style that Campfire Audio are currently doing pretty well), whereas the Rosie feels far more linear when it comes to reproducing the music. The two IEMs are technically very well matched, with guitar and keyboards both sounding very realistic in timbre, with the Rosie pulling ahead in terms of realism and the 9D pulling forward slightly in terms of sheer enjoyment.
I think this section comes down to which I would enjoy more for an extended listening session to my favourite tracks rather than a review or critical listening session, and in that aspect, the CustomArt just takes it.
Score – Rosie (8), CustomArt (8.5)
The slightly warmer tuning of the 9D leaves the treble feeling a little smoother and less airy than the exceptionally clear and clean sounding Rosie. JH Audio have had various patents over the years around high frequency extension in their IEM series, and in this aspect, the Rosie does extend (excuse the pun) a little further in terms of quality and execution than the more rounded 9D, which exhibits a treble more in line with how the current CustomArt flagship Harmony 8.2 is described to be tuned. The highs on the Rosie shimmer effortlessly, and stay strong right to the uppermost extent of the frequency range that I can hear, whereas the 9D has a more noticeable roll off towards the top edge of my hearing.
This goes hand in hand with the overall tuning of the 9D, but if the 9D could somehow transport the excellent upper range of the Rosie into its otherwise supremely musical tuning landscape, that would truly be a sight to behold (behear?).
Score – Rosie (10), CustomArt (8)
Soundstage / separation
The Rosie has an excellent 3D presentation, placing instruments around the listener in a fairly large and spherical stage. The 9D has a slightly wider but more oval shaped staging, showing more extreme width compared to front-to-back stage depth. Instruments are easy to place through both monitors, with the Rosie holding a slight edge overall where it comes to picking out exactly where a sound is coming from. In contrast, the extra width of the 9D allows for a greater feeling of separation on tracks with sonic info that is hard-panned to the left or right of the soundscape, coming from slightly further outside your head in both directions.
As stated previously, in terms of stage position the Rosie takes a few steps back from the 9D, placing the listener in the middle of the auditorium as compared to the more front-row seats and larger instrument sizes offered by the CustomArt one-off. This actually plays more towards the 9D for my preferences, with the Rosie feeling a little too reserved on occasion, with the sound sitting just a hairs-breadth too far away for my brain to really grab hold of and engage with it in comparison to the larger-than-life sounding 9D.
Overall, both are very technically competent monitors, with the Rosie presenting a fully believable sonic presentation, fleshing out the position of each player and keeping the sounds distinct, but losing a little emotion in the process due to the distance to the listener. The 9D wins for me in terms of having a more enjoyable “feel” and closeness to the sound, and capable separation and layering via the 9-driver setup to keep the music distinct enough to compete with the more holographic but less engaging Rosie.
Score – Rosie (8.5), CustomArt (9)
This is a closer comparison that I originally anticipated, with the Rosie excelling technically but just losing out overall to the more “alive” sound of the CustomArt HE-500 clone. In terms of straight up technical achievement and a truly reference style sound, it is difficult to look past the Rosie, but for me it just lacks a little of the magic ingredient most commonly referred to as “soul” (or oregano if you are talking about pizza rather than headphones) to make listening to music as enjoyable as the CustomArt 9-driver. Music for me is as much primal as analytical, and the 9D just manages to drag me further into the sound than its more reserved counterpart. This is a good old fashioned slugger vs technical boxer showdown, and I’m throwing my money with the slugger to land the knockout blow for my ears.
Rosie (42.5), CustomArt (43)
Winner – CustomArt 9-driver
Up next: Campfire Audio Vega vs Cardas EM5813