CanJam London 2019, part one: fun with electrostatic hybrids (Jomo Audio, Empire Ears, Vision Ears, WAVAYA)

CanJam London is the biggest headphone and portable audio show put on in the UK every year. It is the highlight of the HeadFi enthusiasts calendar and something that I have attended since the inaugural CanJam London in 2015. This year was the 5th annual edition and it lived up to its billing. I’ll be dividing my coverage of the event in parts, with this first part a thematic look at electrostatic (e-stat) in-ear monitor (IEM) hybrids.

I recently reviewed the WAVAYA Octa, the first in-ear monitor to use four electrostatic drivers (released mid-2018).  I liked it, so I wanted to hear more of the hybrid electrostatic IEMs out there. All of the IEMs I listened to on the day shared the Sonion electrostatic drivers, but not all implemented them the same way and the drivers used for bass and mids varied across units, as did driver count. Coming in with the most drivers was the Empire Ears Wraith, sporting 11 drivers in an outlay of 7 balanced armatures (BA) and 4 electrostatic (e-stat) tweeters. With the least drivers was also an Empire Ears unit, the Valkyrie, with 1 dynamic driver (DD) for bass, 1 BA for mids, and 1 e-stat for treble (this is the only unit that had a single e-stat). Everything else was in between. Prices ranged between $1500 and $3500, and did not have a strong correlation to driver count.

Listening impressions were done in a show setting, without volume matching, so should be taken with a grain of salt. There are several of these units that I’d like to get in for review, but I’m sure I won’t be able to get all of them, not even on loan. On to the impressions!

Jomo Audio

I thoroughly enjoyed both tunings of the new Jomo Trinity tri-brid, brass and stainless steel. Both units have 1 dynamic driver for the bass (DD), 4 balanced armature (BA) for the mids, and a double electrostatic (e-stat) driver for treble. E-stats are tricky, as they require a ton of power to drive properly, which leads to all kinds of magic tricks needing to be pulled to get the levels right for each area of frequency response.

Jomo Audio Trinity Brass

The Trinity Brass gives me some good low-end power on Billy Cobham – Quadrant 4 (DSD64). The kick drum goes taekwondo on my solar plexus—ow! hurts so good. Bass guitar is on the warm side. The treble is well-defined with good resolution, but slightly distant—finding that balance with e-stats is hard. A quad e-stat might make it a little easier by increasing treble volume. Sonion has one in development that might come in the near future, and Joseph Mou is all over it.

Switching to Rebecca Pidgeon – Raven (24/88) gives me some really sweet and beautiful vocals. Female vocal enthusiasts should dig this sound based on this brief impression. Bass is north of neutral here, but the bass in this track doesn’t prepare me for what comes next on my bass test track, Yosi Horikawa – Wandering (16/44).

Oh, fudge my trousers—we’re a family friendly publication, sort of—that is some satisfying rumble on Wandering when the huge synth bass comes in. I didn’t know that this was a bass-head track until I reviewed the Stealthsonics U2, but now it’s in my rotation permanently. Dat bass has dumps like a truck, but with a well-defined and nicely textured shake (I don’t know if Jomo will want to be associated with this track, but they’ll have to deal with it).

Because I knew I’d be listening to some e-stat hybrids, I brought the world’s first to market quad e-stat hybrid, the WAVAYA Octa, to do some comparisons. The WAVAYA Octa has a more open and spacious sounding presentation compared to the Trinity Brass with clearer more immediately detailed sounding mids. The bass on the Octa has good texture, but it doesn’t come close to touching the satisfying rumble of the bass on the Trinity Brass. They are both bloody excellent and scratch different audiophile itches very effectively.

On Violent Femmes – American Music (16/44) vocals are warmer on the Trinity Brass and bass has a more groovy way about it, choogling nicely. Vocals are a touch less forward than the Octa and treble is further back.

The Trinity Brass would be near perfect if it had just a touch more treble. That would make the mids clearer and percussive instruments like cymbals better placed within the soundstage. As mentioned earlier, Joseph Mou, resident genius and mad scientist, is working on a quad e-stat tri-brid. I can’t wait to hear it. Please don’t make me wait! Also, please keep that pornographic bass. I hope to be recharged and ready by the time I get to hear the quad e-stat tri-brid.

Jomo Audio Trinity Stainless Steel (Trinity SS)

I like this one too.

On American Music I like the vocal tuning better on the Trinity SS. It’s leaner with less warmth, which gives a bit more balance to the sound. On Wandering the Trinity SS doesn’t get the same sub-bass rumble that the Trinity Brass gives me. I want an IEM that combines the two.

The e-stat pair in the Trinity SS is giving me nice speed on Quadrant 4. Fills are fantastic on the drums. Bass guitar has nice depth and texture to the notes. On the Trinity SS I could use a bit more emotion in the guitars; the Trinity Brass delivers this emotion.

I can’t decide which version of the Trinity I like more, as both have immensely satisfying presentations. Mids are more neutral on the Trinity SS and treble energy is more balanced, but the Trinity Brass is more fun. The Trinity Brass is so much fun. At the moment, I think that the Trinity Brass scratches an itch that I’m not getting scratched enough. Comparatively, the WAVAYA Octa sounds cold in comparison, but it has a lot more treble energy and an addictive upper mids tuning that I like. None of the current crop of e-stat hybrids are perfect, but all are satisfying in their own way.

Joseph Mou is a fricking genius.

Empire Ears

Not content to let Jomo Audio to be the only company at CanJam London 2019 with two e-stat tri-brids, Empire Ears came equipped with the new Valkyrie and the Wraith. The Wraith is one of only two IEMs, that I know of, that are currently available with 4 e-stat tweeters. Unlike WAVAYA’s Octa and Penta, Empire Ears modded Sonion’s e-stats, so there is nobody using the Sonion drivers in the way that Empire Ears is, they call it EIVEC (Empire Intelligent Variable Electrostatic Control) and it’s designed to make the e-stat drivers blend seamlessly with the rest of their tri-brid elements.

Empire Ears Valkyrie

The Valkyrie is a lively little tri-brid with a single e-stat—Sonion doesn’t make a single e-stat, which means that Dean Vang has gone all Dr. Frankenstein on a Sonion e-stat pair to greater effect and less mortality or has sourced an previously unknown e-stat set-up—followed by a BA driver for the mids, and the Weapon IX DD powering the bass. In a change from their standards, they come with an Effect Audio Eros II cable instead of an Ares II. I’ve been excited to listen to this ever since I heard about it. Let’s go.

On Billy Cobham – Quadrant 4 the sound is super punchy. These suckers have more energy than a toddler on a pixie stick high. I find myself enjoying this, but am curious if the enjoyment is sustainable. I wonder if a cable switch to a less bright cable than the Eros II might be something to calm down some of the brightness, but I didn’t check whilst there—foolish error! I hope I get more time with this hot little number to fix that. I asked Empire Ears’ own, Josh, about the Ares II and Ares II+ and he said he likes them a little better.

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The signature of the Valkyrie comes off really balanced on Violent Femmes – American Music (16/44). Gordon Gano’s vocal comes out clear and instruments in the stage have great separation. The sound is less balanced sounding on Yosi Horikawa – Wandering (16/44, binaural). The upper mids and treble are a bit elevated, which may lead to fatigue. Bass doesn’t have the deep down rumble of the Jomo Trinity Brass, but it’s still satisfying.

The Valkyrie doesn’t sweeten Macy Gray’s voice on The Heart and there is a nice airiness. Bass is big and round. String raspiness heard on plucking that usually comes through isn’t there on stand-up bass. This probably means that there is a dip somewhere between 2.5kHz and 4kHz in the frequency response.

The WAVAYA Octa is more refined, less vivacious and more easy going. It doesn’t feel like any part of the spectrum is potentially in excess.

Empire Ears Wraith

The Empire Ears Wraith is the second quad e-stat hybrid to come to market, after only the WAVAYA Octa, released in mid-2018. The Wraith has 4 e-stat drivers, but it isn’t just 2 pairs of Sonion e-stats, like the Octa, Dean Vang has done some mad scientist stuff in here with a proprietary re-configuring of the e-stat drivers. The driver count for the Wraith is as follows: 4 e-stats, 7 proprietary Empire BA (2 Low, 3 Mid, 2 High and 4 e-stat drivers (I’m guessing the same Sonions that everyone else is using). They have a 4Ω impedance at 1kHz, which is insane. The Wraith are very easy to drive, astoundingly easy compared to other e-stat hybrids. After the Valkyrie and Octa, I had to turn down the volume quite a bit on my QP2R.

American Music has a little bit extra nasal tone on Gordan Gano’s voice and the vocals come across a touch shouty. Instrument decay has an almost squared-off feeling to it, as compared to a rounded or sloping decay. It doesn’t sound quite natural on this track.

Comparing to the WAVAYA Octa, the Wraith sounds a bit over-exposed. The Octa has better balance. Stage width is also improved on the Octa.

The Wraith has a strange stage. It’s almost like the weight of the stage is focused in the middle and then dissipates at the edges, with lower volume and therefore further perceived depth at the edges. I am getting good stage height with the Wraith. My blog mate and another blogger who came to the table had similar experiences with the stage, so I don’t think this is just me. I don’t know if this is a fit or source issue, but all three of us used different sources, so I’m inclined to think it is either a problem with fit (which would be new) or a problem with the tuning. Maybe the cable just isn’t the right one for the Wraith.

The bass presentation on the Wraith is similar to the Valkyrie, but those bass plucks show up with some raspiness coming off the strings (which is good). On wooden percussion instruments there is a lot more energy, which can actually be a bit grating. Overall, the tuning of the Wraith doesn’t work for me. The Valkyrie is a better all-around performer, and I preferred every other e-stat hybrid to it. Maybe it’s fit, maybe it’s a problem with the demo unit—I had a bad experience with a 64 Audio U18t two years ago—but there was something wonky about the tuning to me. At $3500, what I heard didn’t compete on price or sound with the Jomo Trinity ($2800), the Vision Ears Elysium ($3200) or the WAVAYA Octa ($1600). The WAVAYA Octa might be the best value in high-end IEMs right now.

Vision Ears

I only came to Vision Ears to listen to one thing, their new e-stat tri-brid, the Elysium. I listened to and loved the Erlkönig last year  alongside some of their other offerings. Vision Ears have made their e-stat in-ear different than everybody else; it has: 1 BA for the bass, 1 DD with a special guide they call HALC (High-Precision Acoustic Leveling Chamber) for the mids, and 2 e-stat tweeters for the highs. I can only think of one IEM that uses BA for bass, and a dynamic driver for mids, the Jerry Harvey Lola. I wasn’t into the Lola, I love the Elysium. The HALC is a 3D-printed acoustic filter that had to be made of a certain compound because there needed to be very fine holes, and that compound is green. The Vision Ears display unit uses the green HALC to good visual effect in a crystal clear shell that shows you all the drivers in their glory. The shell was small and comfortable and looks like a winner. The cable is a gorgeous silver number and it was comfortable.

I started this beauty out with Natalie Merchant – Carnival (24-96). The bass had some nice groove going. Natalie’s vocals are bang on. The depth of the stage is well laid out with a nice balanced presentation. Moving to another female vocalist and some big stand-up bass, Macy Gray – The Heart (24/192), I get some nice big basse with a bit of emphasis on the stand-up bass fundamental. Bass is a touch warm, but not too much. Percussion has a nice shimmer and detail and the rest of the treble tuning gives a good stage.

On Yosi Horikawa – Wandering (16/44) the bass extension is good, but not a huge visceral growl like what I got with the Jomo Trinity Brass but it still has good texture. The stage has very good space on this binaural track with probably the most natural sounding stage of the e-stat hybrids that I listened to for the first time at CanJam London 2019 (Jomo Trinity SS, Jomo Trinity B, Empire Ears Valkyrie, and Empire Ears Wraith).

Up to this point, I haven’t noted that I’ve been listening to the Questyle QP2R and haven’t experienced any hiss. Nice.

When comparing to the Octa, the Octa has more airy mids and wider soundstage but isn’t as impactful. On The Heart the Octa gets a bit more fine detail and impact in the guitar plucks when the pick hits the string than the Elysium. The Elysium gets better groove on the bass but the treble on the Octa is slightly better. Listening to Quadrant 4 the resolution and speed of the two is basically identical, which is kind of expected—they are using the same Sonion drivers for treble, just a different quantity of them.

E-stat hybrid snap judgements

I liked all of the e-stat hybrids I listened to except the Empire Ears Wraith. Each offered a different flavour to the others. The most neutral and balanced sounding ones were the Vision Ears Elysium and the WAVAYA Octa. The most energetic was the Empire Ears Valkyrie. The best bass was easily the Jomo Trinity Brass. The best treble was on the WAVAYA Octa. For mids, I’d need a lot more listening time. Same thing goes for soundstage. The best value is the WAVAYA Octa, with the Empire Ears Valkyrie close behind.

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