There is a special place in most European Head-Fi’ers hearts for the global institution that is Canjam. Living in a country where trialling in ear monitors in most stores is prohibited on hygeine grounds, it is the one time of year where you can get to hear all of the new stuff from brands like Empire Ears and Dita, and try out all the weird and wonderful gear combinations that you could only afford with a sizeable lottery win burning a hole in your back pocket. This was my third visit to a Canjam (all in London so far), and once again it didn’t disappoint, with some excellent new products from existing brands and some surprising winners from companies I wasn’t expecting. I would like to extend a huge thanks to Ethan, Jude and all the other guys involved behind the scenes at both Canjam and Head-Fi for putting on another outstanding event – the sheer effort involved must be huge, so I tip my hat to you gents for arranging another hugely successful weekend.
For the sake of sanity, I’m going to break my impressions down by manufacturer. I have tried to use the same source (my trusty Sony ZX300) and the same test tracks on each piece, but that wasn’t always possible, so please bear that in mind. These are show impressions, so will be based on short listening periods in a loud environment, sometimes with tracks I’m not 100% familiar with. Please take them all with a pinch of salt.
Right: disclaimers out of the way, let’s get started…
StealthSonics were actually one of the brands I was most interested in seeing, after reading a little about their new range of IEMs and proprietary technology online. Turns out I didn’t have to wait long, as they were one of the main sponsors this year, so had their logo splashed all over the welcome bags and a nicely central location by the main entrance.
Even if they weren’t front and centre, their affable frontman Dindae Sheera would no doubt have caught my attention at some point. A big man with a bigger personality, I genuinely think there wasn’t a single person in the room he didn’t speak to at some point over the weekend!
Apart from being ultra-enthusiastic about their product line, Mr. Sheera also proved to be a very knowledgeable host, giving me a full background of the company and the science behind their product line. StealthSonics sprang to life from a hearing aid company called MyEar in Singapore, launched by a collection of audiologists and a genuine rocket scientist. Yes, you read that right – the other co founder actually worked for NASA at one point in his career, before turning to investment banking.
This unusual combination of ear specialists and engineering led to the creation of the current StealthSonics range, combining various ideas the company had on subjects as diverse as airflow management and in-ear canal resonance to produce a three-strong lineup of IEMs (at time of writing), with more models and innovations in the pipeline.
All three universal models share the same design and shell composition, with a rounded semi-custom style design based on the average of thousands of ear impressions. They also share the same tech, sporting ultra light shells made out of a rubberised “stealth material” they refer to in their marketing material as Komposit, some ultra-wide asymmetrical bores to help control the airflow into the ear and cancel out the standing waves that can occur with perfectly round delivery tubes, pressure venting tech in the shells to reduce listening fatigue and some funky looking faceplates with what looks like a small turbine in the middle, which is used to damp the resonance from the bass drivers. The custom models differ slightly, with StealthSonics using a worldwide network of approved audiology partners to take impressions up to the second bend of the inner ear, which promises to deliver the sound to within a few mm of your eardrum. Their customs also claim a whopping -37dB (or thereabouts) of noise attenuation, although I was obviously unable to test that at the show.
So, does all the technology actually sound good? The U2 (RRP $249) is the entry level for the range, offering a hybrid 1DD / 1 BA setup and the most “consumer” style tuning. Unfortunately due to time restrictions I didn’t have chance to demo that, so I will move straight on to the mid range model, the U4 (RRP $499).
The U4 is an all-BA setup, with one bespoke bass driver (an oversized BA which apparently took a fair bit of R&D to get right), one midrange BA and two BAs covering the high range. This model is pretty reminiscent of the U8 from 64 Audio for me, giving a seriously warm and plentiful bass kick and a rich, velvet smooth sound through the mids and treble, sounding almost like another hybrid. The tuning definitely errs more towards musical than analytical, and sounds particularly good with rock music. They manage the same sort of “smooth” as Empire Ears, where clarity isn’t sacrificed to take the edge off the notes. I played some of my usual test tracks through, and on something like “Stand Up” by Keb’ Mo, the U4 give an almost smoky quality to the veteran bluesman’s vocals, producing a very enjoyable rendition. Putting the stage and positional abilities to the test with “Better Man” by Leon Bridges, the U4 again perform well, giving an accurate placement of the various instruments around the room and a good sense of depth to the stage. Overall, I was pretty impressed with the performance for the asking price – these produce a warm, musical sound with plenty of clarity and technical precision to back it up, so I can see these becoming a popular model with the audiophile crowd in future.
The flagship of the range is the U9 (RRP $1099), which sports a 1 DD / 8 BA hybrid setup, with the DD covering bass, 4 BAs covering the mids and treble and 4 BAs covering the “super-tweeter” duties to give a rated extension up to 40kHz. The StealthSonics guys claim this is to allow a linear extension in the highs up past the normal range of human hearing (around the 20kHz mark for those with perfect ears), so they could avoid having to put in any emphasised “spikes” in the treble along the route. This approach should lead to less listening fatigue, and by all accounts, the U9 is a very smooth and easy listen.
Despite having 9 drivers crammed in, the shells feel almost as light as the U4, and are very comfortable to wear in the ear. In terms of sound, despite the DD driver, the U9 actually sounds a little less bassy than the U4 model, going for a more balanced tuning across the board. Stage size is quite expansive, but there is a noticeable uptick in precision and placement, with the U9 building a more solid mental image in the mind as music is playing. The sound is again pretty smooth and natural, with a richness to the mids and a nicely airy treble. The single DD does provide that classic DD thump down low, and a bit of genuine sub bass rumble, so these definitely aren’t bass-light.
Listening to some string instruments, the U9 gave a nice sense of delicacy to more intricate orchestral tracks, and a richness and texture to more vocal based music. I fired up one of my test tracks by Ray Lamontagne (“Trouble”) to try and get some more detailed notes, but unfortunately I enjoyed the rendition so much I ended up drifting off into the music rather than taking down a huge amount of notes! This is again a warm and musical sound (reminiscent of the 64 Audio “house sound” from the non-TIA models), but with a bit of added air in the upper mids and treble to open the sound out. The U9 left a pretty big impression on me, with a musical but very revealing presentation and some top notch technicalities. In fact, both models I listened to impressed me so much I made arrangements to leave the show with a pair of each, so will be putting up a proper review in due course, along with some more info from my chat with Mr Sheera.
These guys are definitely a brand to watch, and while they position themselves mainly as a musician’s brand (having recently landed the upcoming Pearl Jam tour as IEM supplier and working with Dave Rat of Ratsound, a legend in the front of house industry), there is enough interesting technology and just damn enjoyable sound in their three debut models to merit a listen if you ever get the chance. A note on their CIEMs, too – I was able to see an example of one of the team’s C9 customs, and the build quality is superb, with no air bubbles or blemishes visible. The shells are also as ultra-light as the universal models, so should be comfortable for extended wear.
Apart from IEMs, StealthSonics also have some other irons in the fire – they will soon be launching a range of silicone custome IEM sleeves to turn your universal IEM into a full custom model (I believe the name will be “Cosies”, but I may have that wrong). These will use the 2nd bend moulding that SS are using in their full CIEM manufacture, and a horn bore at the end to minimise resonance and distortion as the sound is delivered to your eardrum. They also have a Bluetooth module in development for their 2-pin IEMs which looks nicely designed, sporting a necklace/dongle style design and HD codec support.
On a final note, my favourite quote of the weekend came from their table: “We make IEMs with German engineering, American rocket science and Chinese pricing.”
After speaking with one new “touring” brand, I thought it made sense to have a word with the most famous touring brand currently out there, the legendary JH Audio. These guys shouldn’t need any introduction, with Mr Harvey’s Layla and Roxanne models sitting near the top of the multi-BA tree for almost 4 years now, and the Angie holding an almost unnatural affection for most audiophiles of a certain vintage. Add to this multiple patents like FreqPhase and their SoundrIVe quad-BA blocks and a dominant position in the touring IEM market, and these guys are a juggernaut in the modern IEM landscape. The table was pretty well subscribed all weekend, but I managed to grab some time to listen to a few models I hadn’t heard before, to see if the “rock” sound that JH are famous for would capture me as much as the Angie did when I first heard it.
First up was their 10-BA TOTL touring model, the JH16 v2 Pro. Like most JH models, this IEM sports their tunable bass potentiometer on the cable, so I set the pots between 2 and 3pm and set to work. This monitor was designed to give plenty of headroom and energy for a live performance, and that comes through pretty clearly when you listen, with the JH16 kicking out a warm but lively sound, with a mild V shape to the tuning (depending on how much you crank up the bass).
The soundstage itself isn’t huge in dimension, but instruments are placed quite precisely on the stage, with a black background and nice sense of depth. The actual instrumentation and note size sounds large in the space, but after coming straight from a listening session with the Legend X from Empire Ears, it stuck me as a little less precise. The bass is warm and full, but as it is an all-BA affair, lacks a little in slam and physical impact, with that classic BA sense of speed and texture but no real physical thud in the ears. Cranking up “Starlight” by Slash, the JH16 provides a very engaging listen, taking a little edge off the opening harmonics and wailing vocals without blunting the sound. This is definitely an IEM that will be easy to listen to for extended periods, with a fairly warm tuning without a huge amount of air in the mids. Top end extension is pretty good, but again, treble feels more pure than sparkling.
Giving “Better Man” by Leon Bridges a go, the proportions of the room came through clearly, although the stage didn’t sound cavernous like it can on some IEMs. Positioning was excellent, however, allowing me to hear my way around the various instruments in the recording room. Overall, I was impressed with the general tuning here, and while the mild V may leave the vocals a little far back for some, I think the sense of energy and anima the JH16 manages will provide enough for fans of rock music to get their teeth into.
Next up was the Lola (RRP $1599), the 8-driver hybrid model from the series with a unique dual 4.9mm pair of DDs set in opposing configuration (called D.O.M.E) covering the midrange, with a pair of BAs covering the bass and the remainder of the drivers taking care of the treble. In tone, they feel a little lighter and more laid back than the JH16, with less of a warm tone and an airier feel to the sound. Guitars and other midrange instruments sound fantastic, with a true to life timbre and great sense of musicality. They aren’t the most resolving IEMs I have heard in this sort of price bracket, so won’t appeal to the detail freaks out there, but I don’t think that is the sort of market JH are going for here. The Lola is a very “Safe” musical tuning, that trades tone for ultimate detail and texture. One last thing to note – the universal shells look absolutely stunning, and are quite possibly the best looking universal IEMs I have seen.
The Roxanne was the next model that was free to listen to – it is back to an all-BA setup here, with 12 BAs being split three ways between low, mid and high frequencies. It is known as the “musical” one of the original siren series, and this comes through in a very warm and buttery sounding IEM, with plenty of bass and a surprising amount of impact and snap for an all-BA setup. Playing “Bad Rain” by Slash, the overall tone was thick and dark sounding, with a richness that adds weight to the music, but can rob some of the air from the stage in the process. This isn’t to say the Roxanne sounds overly congested, as it actually sounded a little more spacious than the Lola in terms of stage dimensions to my ears, and presented a better feeling of depth and three-dimensionality in the music played. The shells on the Roxanne are pretty big, and stick out of the ears a little further than the other two models, so not for the faint of heart (or ear), but they were surprisingly comfortable and stable once fitted. This is definitely an IEM for people who like their music thick and chocolate rich, but still with a splash to technical prowess.
I couldn’t leave the table without trying the Layla – this IEM was until recently the most expensive universal IEM being sold on the market at around $2800 (a tag that has now been captured by the Vision Ears Erlkonig and the oBravo hybrid series), and it has held on near the top of the tree for a number of years since its original release. It gives a sound that is clearer and more resolving than the other JH models, with a sound whioch is detailed but not forensic. It seems to achieve this resolution by giving a sense of clarity around each note, rather than accentuating the edges of the notes to artificially sharpen the sound. It is as if the notes are sitting in their own little area of sonic blackness, allowing the listener to pick out subtle details with no effort. They aren’t the most detailed IEM I have ever heard (that honour still goes to the EE Zeus-XR), but they are definitely in the upper tier.
The detailing is allied to a holographic sense of positioning, with each instrument and vocalist being placed in exact locations on the stage, again wrapped with their own cloak of black sonic background to play against. This sense of realism helps add an emotional heft to tracks like “Adam” by Gregg Allman that is simply beautiful – playing this track on the Layla gives a tone to Allman’s voice that drips with genuine emotion, carrying the listener into the track and away from the technicalities into the heart of the song.
More generally, the Layla presents its music on a big stage, with headroom approaching that of an over-ear headphone in terms of the way the music seems to push outside the confines of your head when you listen. The low end is a little north of neutral with the bass pot set between 2 and 3, but not to the level of the Roxanne, adding some warmth but not a huge level of bass to proceedings. Mids and highs are somewhere between natural and neutral, with exemplary extension and a fair dollop of delicacy in the high ranges. There is absolutely no harshness to speak of, but this doesn’t come at the cost of any sort of veil, with the Layla feeling crystal clear in the ear. This IEM occasionally gets characterised as a little bland or too flat to be engaging, but I don’t hear that – this is just a natural window of the music, and it certainly did well enough for me to see why it genuinely deserves a TOTL tag. I will say that the shells are even bigger again than the Roxanne though, so you really need to be happy with a large pair of plugs stucking out of your ears to enjoy the look this IEM gives off. When the sound is this good though, that’s a small price to pay.
InEar are a German IEM company specialising in universal IEMs that fit just about as well as most customs. They were another brand I’d never actually heard before, so I was very intrigued to see what sort of tuning they were going for, and just how good the fit actually is.
I trialled three models, the SD4, SD5 and Prophile-8 (their current flagship). The SD4 is a 4-BA model with a V-shaped tuning. The bass has a little more than neutral quantity on a downward slope from sub to mid, and a scooped out midrange which sounded a little hollow to me, raising back up again as it moves into the treble. They are a very clear sounding IEM, with plenty of fine detail being presented across the board. There is a sharpness to the edge of notes that gives plenty of crunch to rock guitar, but not too much actual body to the sound. Despite this lack of body, the SD4 still manages to sound quite warm, with an averagely wide and deep stage and a nicely textured bass, carrying more emphasis on the sub frequencies. The sharpness is noticeable but not icepick bad, being able to handle “Whiskey And You” by Chris Stapleton and “My Kind Of Love” by Emile Sande with edge but not a great deal of unpleasantness.
Moving on to their newest model, the SD5 was up next. This IEM comes in the traditional acrylic housing, and also as a world’s first full wood shell, According to the reps from InEar, the wooden housing shouldn’t make a huge difference to the tonality of the sound as the drivers are all-BA, but they have found that users vary on this topic, with some reporting a warmer tone. Whether this can be put down to simple expectation bias, psychoacoustics or just one of those unmeasurable effects on sound we have yet to quantify, who knows, but worth bearing in mid when you are choosing between the shells.
The SD5 is a 5 driver (as the number implies), and has more of a W shaped sound compared to the SD4, with a more forward vocal range. It also has more midbass quantity than the SD4, balancing out the sub and mid frequencies in the low end a little better. “Bad Rain” by Slash absolutely growls on these, with a surprising kick to the bass drum for a balanced armature as well. Despite the extra bass the overall tone is still warm, but more of a warm-neutral, so not too overpowering. Vocals carry a sweetness to both male and female voices that is quite enjoyable, and with a more upfront position, these are pretty good for vocal-centric genres. That intimacy does rob the SD5 of a little of the sense of depth and space that the SD4 is able to create with its more distant midrange, so if you aren’t a fan of up close and personal sound, this may not be the best IEM for you. Another standout track on these was “Stand Up” by Keb’ Mo, with the vocals being rendered with great texture and a very musical feel.
Last up was their current flagship, the Prophile-8. This is a tunable 8-driver model, with switches to adjust the bass and treble tuning. This is touted as a neutral flagship, and with the switches off, it is just that. There is a linearity to the sound right through the frequency range, but despite that, the Prophile are still a surprisingly engaging listen. Bass still manages to give a decent presence, and a very good feel of texture. Guitars sound clean and clear, with a medium note weight and neutral stage position – everything sounds clear and fresh, with bags of detail and good space around the notes.
This ruler flat neutrality does make the Prophile a more analytical rather than emotional listen for me – playing “Song For Adam” again, Allman’s vocals have a beautiful texture but it doesn’t quite tug at the heart strings like the song should. The blending in the vocals between Browne and Allman in this track is beautifully rendered, but again, leaves you on the outside admiring the technicalities rather than on the inside of the music. The detail level and resolution is top tier, so these aren’t an IEM that will be very forgiving to poorly recorded music – they are pretty ruthless.
Playing with the switches does add a few dB to the bass or treble ranges, leaving you with an uber-detailed V-shape if both are switched on. Personally, I think the extra bass actually detracts from the main selling point of the Prophile-8, which is that amazing neutrality – not 100% my cup of tea, but I was surprised at how much a proper neutral signature could actually be enjoyable, so if your tastes err towards the Etymotic side of the street, these may be worth looking into.
One last point to mention is the incredible shell design and build quality of all the SD (and Prophile) models. The shells fit almost as well as my full custom IEMs, locking firmly into place in the outer ear and giving a level of isolation it’s difficutl to get without going custom. These shells come in two sizes, so should fit both men and women – the only downside for me was that the fit was almost TOO good, creating a vacuum seal so tight I almost lost a silicon tip to the inner ear when trying to take them out.
Jomo Audio are another brand I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing before, despite reading a lot about them. Their stall was manned by my Jomo himself Joseph Mou, who proved to be quite an engaging and informative host. Jomo are another brand that haven’t traditionally lined up 100% with my listening preferences (I tend towards a more musical and darker tuning in most scenarios), so I really wanted to try some of their new range to see if the recent direction taken with the Haka single-BA and the hybrid models would sit better with my own tastes.
Firstly, a comment on the IEM designs: they are some of the nicest looking universals I have ever seen. The craftsmanship and multi-coloured designs on the demo models was top drawer, and really make an impression. The pseudo-custom shell design is also very comfortable in the ear, sealing well and feeling very comfortable with the right size tips.
Their new range is called the Melange series, debuting with two models, the Deux and the Quatre. Both models are hybrid designs, incorporating a proprietary filter system called ACU (Airflow Control Unit) which alters the volume of air behind the driver in the DD driver chamber. According to the Jomo marketing blurb, this allows precise modelling of the sound signature to take into account variances in the chamber volume that can occur in the larger CIEM shells compared to their universal counterparts. In practice, these screw in filters will allow the user to adjust the bass and DD response by changing the dimensions of the chamber.
The Quatre (RRP around £1100 at current exchange rates) is their four driver hybrid, in a classic 1xDD 3xBA configuration. It comes with four tuning filters, which will affect the lower end and midrange. With the “musical” filter in place and some double flange tips, the Quatre spits out a smooth sound, with a good bass presence and a warm tone. It is mildly V-shaped, with the vocals sitting a little further back than the bass in the soundstage and sounding quite laid back in character. Stage size isn’t huge, and the L/R separation is also reasonably close to the ears rather than pushing way out of the head on the X-axis. Playing “Trouble” by Ray Lamontagne, the instruments sit just at the periphery of the head, rather than far outside the ears as they can on some IEMs. The acoustic guitar on this track is very delicately rendered, highlighting the technical proficiency of the four drivers in use, so while the Quatre may not win the driver war against current flagship level IEMs, it is definitely a high level performer. Detail level through the mids and treble is high, with a good sense of resolution and clarity through the more congested tracks in my collection.
Giving the bass a workout, “Bad Rain” by Slash hits with a nice thud on the kick drum, but feels a little soft and pillowy rather than visceral and slamming. The mid-bass is also nicely elevated, giving a tasteful mid-bass “thumb” that isn’t as snappy as the EE hybrid X series in presentation, but feels a little more laid back and relaxing in tone as a result. SUb bass is present and accounted for, making short work of “Heaven” by Emile Sande, and giving “Palladio” by Escala some nice heft in the low notes. The bass presence tends to fill the stage with warm air, and while this does a good job at smoothing over the rough and sibilant edges on some of my test tracks, it can rob the presentation of a little air as a result. This seems to be a bit of a deviation from the ultra-clear and neutral sound Jomo have made their name with, so like the StageDiver series above, the heavier bass filters are definitely for those who prefer a warmer sound sig. It should be noted I didn’t try any of the leaner tuning filters, so these may let a little air out of the room with the more bass-shy tunings.
The other IEM in the Melange series is the Deux, a single DD / single BA hybrid, again with the tunable low end response. This retails for around half the price (c. £550 at the Canjam show price). This was set up with the balanced filter when I listened, so by default will sound a little more neutral than the Quatre with the bassier filter fitted.
The first thing I noticed was that the Deux are a little harder to drive than their 4-driver brethren, requiring a little more juice from my ZX300 to reach the same volume levels. The tone was more neutral than the Quatre, with a nice natural tone to the vocal presentation. Despite the more neutral leanings, the sound isn’t sterile or flat – this is helped by the laid back, almost gentle presentation of the vocals. Playing “And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind” from the recent Elvis collaboration with the Royal Philharmonic, the track almost turns into a bedtime lullaby it’s so silky smooth in the ear.
Sub bass is more polite than the Quatre, but still shares the same pillowy sort of softness in the low end. The tuning was more of a gentle U shape, with laid back vocals and a slightly elevated sub bass and treble. Despite being a little recessed, the Deux still manages to capture emotion pretty well, giving a soulful rendition of “Song For Adam”. There is a little less clarity on show with the dual driver model, with a similar sort of stage size but slightly less black space between instruments, slightly blurring the finer microdetails in some of my favourite tracks together.
The last model I tried was the current flagship, the Flamenco, which starts at around £1600 depending on what customisation options you choose. This is an all BA setup, sporting 11 balanced armatures in a 5 crossover setup, with switches to toggle additional bass or treble. I mainly listened with both tuning switches down, in the “flat” configuration. This is Jomo’s take on reference, and while it is pretty flat, it isn’t lifeless, with a gently musical flavour. The clarity is pretty eye-opening – I think the Flamenco can genuinely be described as a detail monster, with a grasp on micro detail and clarity that leave a lot of TOTL iems I have heard feeling a little fuzzy. Listening to something like “And The Grass Won’t Pay No Mind” from the Elvis / Royal Philharmonic album becomes a festival of tiny little inflections and nuance, with an effortless sense of clarity. This is achieved in part through a neutral to thin note thickness, so these definitely aren’t a meaty or chunky sounding IEM, so lovers of a fat sound will probably need to look elsewhere.
These were one of the surprises of the weekend for me – despite being close to neutral in both tone and weight (which are two things I don’t usually find myself going for), there is a laid back musicality that seems to run through the Flamenco that becomes very enjoyable. The room sounds and sense of positioning in “Better Man” by Leon Bridges sounds small but real in the ear, playing out in front of you with laser-like precision.
Jacking the bass switch up adds a few dB extra oomph in the low end, which is still barely more than neutral, so it isn’t a huge difference. Playing “Better Man” again, there seems to be a slightly deeper feel to the soundstage now, and the horns feel a little thicker and rounder in the ear. Similarly for “Stand Up” by Keb’ Mo, the bass takes a nice uptick, and the bottom edge of Keb’ Mo’s buttery vocals sounds a little fatter and smoother. Like the Prophile-8, I’m not sure that the bass boost will be that appealing to the sort of reference-head audience Jomo seem to be shooting for here, but it does allow a little bit if flexibility with the tuning. As the Flamenco had a decent amount of treble for me already, I didn’t experiment with the treble boost.
The last notes I took were on the soundstage, which is fairly average in size, and not overly deep in the “flat” configuration, gaining a little bit on the Z-axis when the bass is bumped up. This is balanced by the smaller note size and precise positioning of the music to leave a stage that still feels quite spacious, with a good lateral spread in the ears from left to right. Overall, I left impressed with the Jomo lineup, both in terms of sound and craftsmanship. I think the tuning options are useful to cater for a broader audience, and while the sound will never be truly appealing for those looking for a hyper-energetic or bassy signature, there is definitely a little something special in the tuning here.
Coming in Part 2: Empire Ears, Meze Audio, 64 Audio, AKG, Dita and Fiio