$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 ($9.99, from Penon Audio)
- Penon Earbud ($9.99, 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.
The Penon Earbud was supplied by Penon Audio. I don’t have to return them. The perspective here is my own. I haven’t been compensated for my opinion.
Unboxing / Functionality
There really isn’t anything to say here. I received the Penon Earbud as a throw in with another item that I was going to review, but ended up being defective (nothing famous, it was a DIY DAP). They were inside a case for the DIY DAP, in a plastic baggie. I don’t know if this is how they would normally come packaged, but I somehow doubt it. If they come packaged like the Penon IEM, they have elite packaging for the price. If they come in a plastic baggie, that packaging sucks, but then again, they have to be bought with other stuff, so might not matter.
The strain relief on the jack is good, should be sturdy. The strain relief by the buds is less convincing. The housings are made of equally unconvincing plastic. They look like $9.99. We’ll see how they sound.
The Penon IEM came with instructions to burn-in for 100-200 hours, which I’ve gotten from companies before (looking at you Shozy Zero), and ended up ignoring. Usually when companies tell you something needs that long burn-in it’s because they want you to get used to the sound, or they expect you to do stupid burn-in. When I burn-in, I do smart burn-in, a combination of pink-white-brown noise a glide tone and digital silence for about 48 hours. I’ve not yet run into a driver that needed longer than that.
As with other IEMs in this $25 shootout, I’m going to listen to these unburned. If they sound horrible. I’ll do my burn-in method and get that into the impressions right off. here we go. No burn in. Sources are HiBy R3 and LG V30.
- Sound a bit artificial out of the V30
- Lack treble extension. Sound a bit stuffy. Need some air.
- Bass way down
- Switch to HiBy R3 and get better sound on T. Rex – Mambo Sun. However, switching to Beach Boys – Sloop John B shows that treble extension isn’t where it should be still, and bass is slightly depressed and not full sounding. The overall sound is a bit veiled here starting out.
- These aren’t sounding very lifelike
- Burn-in made a substantial difference on the Penon IEM. We’ll try it again here.
Over 100 hours burn-in
I did over 100 hours of burn-in using white noise, brown noise, pink noise, a 1 minute glide tone and digital silence. This is my normal burn-in cocktail. It doesn’t overtax drivers if done at a pretty normal listening volume, and it usually does the job within two days.
- The mids cleared up on burn-in, but there are still problems with the treble and bass for me.
- These still don’t work terribly well on the LG V30. They sit in a zone that makes the High gain mode not engage and they require want more power than low gain delivers.
- Giving Mambo Sun another run. That’s better. Marc Bolan’s voice has it’s nice sweetness and texture, but is a touch distant. Kick drum is also distant distant. The stage has good width and some depth to it.
- The Penon Earbuds take a bit of juice to drive. They sound better in high gain on the HiBy R3.
- On Stevie Wonder – You Are The Sunshine Of My Life cymbal sounds a touch thin with a harder metallic sound rather than a polished metallic shimmer. This is probably due to extra emphasis on the leading edge of cymbal strikes and taps and less decay than natural. Bass lacks the richness it should have, and the Lani Groves’ lead in the intro lacks some fullness.
- As with other tracks, impact is a bit soft, bass a bit back of neutral and treble a touch hard on The Beach Boys – Sloop John B. The presentation of the mids is pretty decent, and while sounding a little sharp, the glockenspiel is still pleasing. The stage has lots of air and presents a picture that feels pretty big. Some of this big picture is due to there being artificial space between bass and vocals. The width is quite good for under $10.
- On God Only Knows the jingle bells sound perfectly on point and vocals sound excellent. These are a great match for male vocals that register just a little bit higher. I’m missing some bass power here too. The character of the bass is good, but it might be that I’m never going to get a fit that allows the bass to be anything but recessed on earbuds. Those with different shaped ears may not have this problem with earbuds. I do really like what these sound like on this track.
- The cannon fire effect of the drum on The Beats, Man – Babies Broken Beaks is muted and thinner. Needs more power. The crunch and growl of the guitars is generally well presented, but it feels like it gets a little jumbled.
- In a single word, I’d describe the sound of the Penon Earbuds as ‘lean.’ There are areas in all three major regions of the frequency response where they sound thin. Bass and midbass are most evident, but it also feels like the second half of cymbal strikes are missing and female vocals need more body.
- These are not better than other comparable earbuds that I’ve heard in this range (VE Monk+ and TY Hi-Z HP-32). If you are debating getting a Penon IEM add-on, I’d suggest getting the Penon IEM rather than the Penon Earbud.