Yep, it’s another earbud, and this one might be the most famous earbud outside of the ones that come with an iPhone. The VE Monk+ are made by Venture Electronics, the baby of Wild Lee, as he’s known on Facebook. Venture Electronics has quite a following because Lee tells it how he sees it and he makes stuff that sounds good with a minimum amount of advertising puffery, and a complete lack of weasel words. He’s refreshing. He’ll also kick your butt verbally if you talk trash on his turf.
I was introduced to Wild Lee by nmatheis, a cool dude in his own right who also introduced me to Shanling, another good company. Further further disclosure, my buddy Aornic is the UK distributor for Venture Electronics, so even though I bought these red Monks off of Massdrop, the link below is to my bud’s UK amazon shop. You can also buy direct from Venture Electronics, but I like supporting local businesses from time to time. Your money, your choice.
So you might go into this thinking that I’m biased for this earbud that can be had for as little as $5 for just a basic one without the EX-pack (a must for me). I’m not. I’ve never really been a fan of earbuds, but I’m willing to try out stuff that others like even if the fit is generally maddening to me. I’m going to keep this in the tradition of Wild Lee’s straight talk. No BS here. I’ll tell you what I like. I’ll tell you what sucks. I’ll also tell you that this is probably one of the better values in the world of Head-Fi at $5, if the fit with the normal stuff is right for you.
$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 ANQ Distribution, or 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)
- KZ ZSA ($19.99 from Linsoul)
- Geek Wold GK3 ($19.99 from Amazon or Linsoul)
*I’ve included earbuds. My blog, my rules. I know there’s a difference.
Unboxing / Functionality
First things first, there is no box. These come in a baggy. After multiple lost or stolen electronic devices containing photos, I have no idea where my initial photos of the baggy these come in is, so I’ve stolen an image from the interwebs, complete with link to the review.
Maybe I’m just sick in the head, but I think there’s something dirty there. I’m reading between the lines and the naked Wild Lee cartoon. Might just be me, but seems a little crack of something showing there. He also calls them the best 5USD “Trap” ever. Use Google.
Inside the basic package there are 4 sets of low density covers. These never seem to fit very well for me. I’m always having them fall out of my ear, or constantly having to readjust them. Because of fit, bass performance for me is often not what it is for other folks, I think.
The EX Pack includes two sets of silicone wings to affix into your ears, some plastic rubber rings in black and white (better grip than bare plastic earbud), thick donut rings, thin foams and thick foams. Pic stolen from Head-Fi below. I have to confess that the EX Pack I got was from Wild Lee, I didn’t buy it.
I view the EX Pack as an essential add-on, as my fit struggles with the earbuds are mostly solved by the small silicone wings. Problem is, I probably like the sound most with the donut rings. The sound is still good with the wings, just a bit harder and brighter. The EX Pack gives a lot of fit and sound modification options, I’d make sure you get it. The stock covers just aren’t as good.
The build quality is actually pretty good for the price, the shell is a light-weight plastic. The cable has reasonably good girth. There’s a chin slider and a flexible lightweight y-split. I wouldn’t stand on it, and I wish that these were packaged more sensibly.
Lee, for the love of Pete, sell these with a case and the EX Pack.You can still put a silly wrapper on them, but give it a retail hook-hole.
These monks have had over 40 hours of playback, just because I’ve had them for so long, not because I was trying to bias early impressions. When I got these, I didn’t expect to do any reviewing. I just wanted to see what the hype was all about. As will be my norm, my listening impressions are out of the HiBy R3 and the LG V30. Both of them drive the 64Ω Monk+ with plenty of power. The HiBy R3 does need to be in high gain to reach my standard listening level with the Monk+.
- Good width and depth on Blue Oyster Cult – (Don’t Fear) The Reaper. Cowbell comes through well. Guiro (I think that’s what it is) doesn’t quite have as much definition as I’d like or as I’ve heard recently (not in the shootout).
- On Metallica – Master of Puppets the energy is a bit relaxed, lower mids/midbass could use a bit more power. The low energy level in the midbass might be intentional as Lee proposes these as the anti-Beats and basically tells where Beats fans can shove it on his website. Beats is famous for a way overemphasised midbass that bleeds all over the mids like a fresh musical murder victim.
- There is some delightful sweetness and huge space on Norah Jones – Feelin the Same Way. The left to right stage is really excellent with good definition at the far edges. It gets outside my ears. Nice stage.
- Stand-up bass has more development in the lower octaves than in the midbass as is evident during Macy Gray – Annabelle. There’s a little dip in the midbass that makes it a little uneven on stand-up bass notes. This also pulls Macy Gray’s voice back a touch.
- Upper mids really sing on these, which means they do a beautiful job rendering Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. There is beautiful delicacy to the delivery. The shimmer of the cymbals in the track is also well-captured as are harder strikes, with attack and decay sounding very natural. Piano is rendered exceptionally too. These don’t sound like something that can be had for a fiver.
- One of the best spacial tracks I have is Michael Jackson – Billie Jean. The soundstage is big in all dimensions. On the Monk+ I’m getting the width and decent height, but the depth isn’t really showing how Michael is placed in the stage because the depth is insufficient for this task.
- Sibilance is not a problem with these at all. Neither do they enhance sibilance on Rush – The Trees nor do they kill it. In fact these do a beautiful job on the track. They love Geddy Lee’s voice and give nice body to Neil Peart’s drums. They do amplify a bit of underlying noise on the track. There is a subtle hiss on this track that is always noticeable, but more noticeable on the Monk+ during the offending parts of the track.
- Overall, the sound is a version of reference tuning. It doesn’t overemphasize anything. It has a touch of emphasis in the upper mids and lower treble which sweetens vocals and highlights details and stage space. These aren’t overly dry or overly rich.
- These live up to their billing as ‘the best bang for your buck you’ll ever hear’. At $5 to $10 these are an absolute no-brainer. You can also get these in balanced varieties, which is pretty nice and gives a better chance that they will be fully driven. They still might not be in the top three under $25 for me, because of other factors: no isolation, difficult fit, poor packaging and lack of a case.