$25 IEM shootout pre-amble
One of the coolest phenomenons in audio right now is the big improvements moving forward in the budget sector. $100 headphones can and do compete with $400 headphones, and $25 headphones sometimes compete with $200 headphones. It’s a great time to be an audiophile, even if your budget isn’t as large as you’d like it to be.
In this $25 IEM shootout series I’ll post a new set of impressions every Wednesday until I’ve done them all. Then I’ll select my top 3 from the list. After I’ve selected my top 3, I’ll do a post ranking the remaining units and giving them our trademark visual ratings. Finally, a post will compare the top 3 IEMs under $25 that I have in my possession. If any manufacturers want to send additional under $25 units that they think might rank before I’ve done my ranking posts, I’ll add them in.
Here are our contestants:
- Penon IEM v2 ($19.90, from Penon Audio)
- Penon Earbud ($19.90, from Penon Audio)
- VE Monk Plus ($10, with ex-pack, from veclan.com)
- ADV S2000 ($24.99, from amazon.com)
- Alpha & Delta D2M ($25, from Alpha & Delta or Lendmeurears.com)
- KZ ZST ($19.99 with mic, from amazon.com)
- KZ ED12 ($19.99 with mic, from amazon.com)
- Hypersense HEX02 ($25, from Penon Audio)
- Fiio F1 ($14.99, from amazon.com)
- Hidizs EP3 ($19.90, from Penon Audio)
- TY Hi-Z HP-32 ($7.98, from Penon Audio)
The FiiO F1 comes in a pretty standard retail box, picture on the front, specs on the back. This one comes with extra QR codes, oooh modern. I had a bit of difficulty getting the inner tray out of the box, as it is very tightly packed in. I actually ended up having to rip the top, which is why you don’t see a shot of the internals here.
The internal tray is made of good density white cardboard. At the top of the box there is an off-white foam insert where the IEMs and the in-line remote are displayed with wires behind the insert, along with the warranty card. The cable comes complete with a silicone cable wrap, nice. I like cable wraps a lot as they prevent tangling. I’ve seen very high end IEMs that don’t include a cable wrap. In the bottom of the internal tray there is a heavy card flap that conceals the semi-hard included case with 3 extra sets of silicone tips inside (S/M/L). Inclusion of a semi-hard case or hard case should be done by everyone. There really is no excuse for not spending the few extra pennies. Most members of the $50 shootout failed miserably at providing adequate cases.
The IEMs have a right angle jack that fits fine through cell phone cases. The strain relief on the jack is long and flexible and the housing is a dense plastic. It looks durable. There is some strain relief at the capsule (the actual IEM), but it isn’t terribly reassuring. The strain relief is internal to a plastic extension with a tiny nub sticking out at the end.
The capsules themselves are made of two pieces of plastic with a pronounced seam line. The nozzles are also made of plastic. The bore is wide. They don’t feel very tough. The included silicone tips have a wide bore and a very soft feel. The microphone is a 3 button variety encased in an aluminum housing, it’s very well built. Fit is comfortable enough in the ear. The medium tips are a bit on the larger side of medium.
As usual, I’ve not burned these in, so impressions may change for the final face-off. These are virginal, right out of the box. One advantage of this approach is everyone reading will know what the effect of burn-in is on these IEMs. I’ve seen no difference, and big differences in the two shootouts ($25 and $50). The source for listening will be the HiBy R3. I’d use a cell phone, like most people, but the volume control on my phone has 16 steps, and to quote Jeff Goldblum:
My phone (Asus Zenfone 3) has good audio quality, but without fine volume control, it is hard to hit a headphone’s sweet spot on volume and I’ll often listen a little too loud, which distorts impressions. I’ve chosen the HiBy R3 as the source because it has low output impedance and sounds good at a good price ($229). A Shanling M0 ($109) would probably be the ideal for the shootout, but I don’t have one.
Here’s the early sonic impressions:
- Mid-bass is forward on these. Overall signature in general is a bit forward, with delicate parts of tracks like Rush – La Villa Strangiato not really showing their full dynamic sweep. These kind of make dynamic tracks sound a bit brickwalled.
- Listening to Xiu Xiu – Clowne Towne the stage dimensions are pretty modest. Depth is not deep and width is decent. Instruments are pretty clear within the stage. It’s not bad for $15. The stage is basically square-faced with shorter depth than width or height. The single dynamic driver isn’t doing terribly here.
- Jamie Stewart’s voice is coming through pretty clear here, with a little bit of extra weight on the lower end.
- Overall presentation on Clowne Towne is bright, actually a bit too bright. It’s a bit strained. I’m getting a touch of ear fatigue. I think I’m sensitive to some treble spikes and the harmonics further on in the inaudible range. Treble produces more peak SPL than other frequencies in my experience.
- Macro details are produced well. Micro details don’t really emerge.
- Bass rolls off fairly early, which is apparent on the bass-line in Bob Dylan – Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again. The bass lacks in sub-bass energy and has elevated upper midbass. Lower mids have some thickening, too.
- The high notes of Kraftwerk – Kometenmelodie2 don’t have quite enough extension to reach the shrillness that the song produces on this particular vinyl rip but it’s pretty close. These do better here than on vocal led tracks. The drums are a bit boomie on the track.
- Bass on Leonard Cohen – Leaving The Table has little texture. It basically has what sounds like three represented frequencies and missing gradation in between. Tones are mostly accurately produced (except bass).
- The mids are slightly back of the midbass and the upper treble, but have added body, like there is a reinforced band of frequencies to add weight to Belle and Sebastian’s vocals.
- Instruments have strong emphasis on their fundamentals, but don’t do terribly well conveying their full harmonic structure.
- When listening to Belle and Sebastian the mids seem forced into a small area. The space behind lead vocals is squashed. It feels a bit unnatural. There is something off in the upper mids.
- There are no sibilance problems on Rush – The Trees, just the amount that should be there. There is that kind of forced sound on La Villa Strangiato too. The sound is a bit in your face.
The accessories are nicely done at this price, but I’m not too sure about the sound. We’ll see what they are like after burn-in.