CanJam London 2019, part two: a tour of IEMs (InEar, oBravo, Acoustune, HiFiMAN, 64 Audio, FiiO)

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 second part covering the rest of the in-ear monitors (IEMs) that I listened to this year. The final part on Monday will cover headphones. If you want to read all about e-stat in-ear hybrids, go have a read of Part One of the CanJam London 2019 coverage.

InEar

InEar is a German IEM company with aMy blog-mate, Jackpot77 told me InEar were really good, so I came over to check them out. I’ve long been interested in the StageDiver (SD) series and have seen them for sale when I’ve been looking for exchange rate bargains on Thomann.de. I’ve noted their fit based on tons of ear models, the fact that they make in-ears in two sizes to accomodate small ears (that really awesome), interesting take on wooden designs, user replaceable filters (cheap and easy), and a reputation for good sound, but until this year I hadn’t stopped by to listen. All of the InEar line-up come with a hard Pelican case. These cases are impact resistant and watertight, they are a great friggin’ case. I listened to the SD series and the  SD4, the SD5, and the ProPhile 8 (PP8) in that order.

SD-4 (€779)

The SD-4 comes standard in a two tone design that InEar calls green metallic, which is basically a forest green on black kind of finish, it looks the best of the three models that I listened to. InEar’s IEMs come standard with 4 sets of SpinFit tips of the CP100 variety.

Listening to Macy Gray – The Heart (24/192, binaural), I find the stand-up bass a touch on the lean side with an emphasis in the lower midbass. Plucked bass strings haven’t had their raspiness tuned down, as I’ve observed on another IEM at the show. I found the treble to have good speed on this track, but found the tone to be slightly hard and extra-metallic on cymbals. Macy’s vocals sound like they get a touch of added warmth to them, which is not unpleasant.

Switching to Billy Cobham – Quadrant 4 (DSD64) the cymbals retain the good speed found on The Heart, but also retain the hardness and have some excess splash to the sound. Kick and snare drum are nice and tight, as is the guitar. These have an overall good tuning, with one noticeable flaw in the treble.

It is worth noting that my observations on the SD4 were done with the stock SpinFit tips, which have faded out of favour for me. I didn’t make another trip to the stand to test out Final E-type tips with the SD-4 after I listened to the rest of the line-up using them.

SD-5 (€1039)

Still with the SpinFits, I put the anthracite silver coloured SD-5 in my ear, and it is wonderful. Immediately on Quadrant 4, I can hear better cymbal crashes, with a more natural tonality. Bass is really satisfying on these when I throw on Yosi Horikawa – Wandering (16/44). Mmm nice texture.

I take them out of my ear to tell the InEar representative, Oliver, how good the bass sounds. When I put them back in, I’m not getting the same sound, which tells me that seal with the SpinFits might not be ideal on these, a bit fiddly maybe. So I switched over to Final E-Type, and boy am I glad I did. For the rest of my listening session at InEar it’s all E-Type. Not only was the seal more consistent, but the seal was better giving me consistent powerful bass. I throw down some more Wandering and am reminded of dynamic drivers that I’ve listened to earlier. The bass is deep and rumbling. It has power and depth that you can feel and which is totally unexpected out of a five balanced armature set-up.

The tuning of these is W-shaped, which I think might be becoming my favourite tuning. The vocals have a nice sweetness on Regina Spektor – Field Below (16/44). Pianos and violins are nicely rendered too,  with a beautiful timbre.

ProPhile-8 (€1499)

The ProPhile-8 that I’m listening to has what looks like an olive wood finish, which is advertised on the InEar website for the StageDiver series, but not for the PP8. This is the first one that I’m listening to that uses wood for the body. The body is made of wood that looks like it has been impregnated with acrylic and then covered in lacquer, this should make them tough and durable. The PP8 has 4 possible sound signatures, but does this at a price much lower than the Vision Ears Erlkonig (it also isn’t quite as elite as the Erlkonig). The PP8 has two switches, one for bass, and one for treble that can be switched. I’ll be exploring some of the differences.

No switches engaged

The mids on the PP8 sound a touch smoother and softer than the SD5. Vocals are soft and silky on Field Below and piano has less edge to it, which sounds immediately more forgiving than you expect from the reference unit in the InEar line-up. On Wandering, the default bass is a touch lower in amplitude than the SD5 without the same rumbling quality.

Bass engaged

Engaging the bass switch makes Wandering sound better, but it still isn’t getting me as much as the SD5. Those are just addictive.

Bass and treble engaged

Increasing the treble improves the mids by giving them better focus. The details are better defined and the sound becomes more vibrant. The defining edges of the piano notes in Field Below are improved. The sound doesn’t tilt towards cold, as Regina Spektor’s vocal retains some vocal warmth.

I turn on Animals as Leaders – Ka$cade (16/44) to test how these handle a fast and dirty track. They do a remarkable job handling the chaos and many simultaneous tones in a small stage that the track throws at you. If I had to adjust anything, I’d turn down the midbass just a hair. The PP8 is really good.

Line-up favourite

I feel like I need to review the SD5. It really stuck out to me as a proud accomplishment. That bass is incredible, and I love how the vocal tuning turned out. I really want to review these.

oBravo & K.Studio

I came to the oBravo stand to hear the final tuning of the Cupid. I’d already had a listen to the pre-production tuning of the Cupid and it was good. The final tuning is better. On the pre-production tuning there was a bit of extra energy in the 3-4kHz region. First off, I try the included ‘cyclone’ stock silicone tips. Just like with my trial of the pre-production unit, I can’t get the kind of seal that I like, so I switch over to the Dekoni tips that I preferred on the pre-production unit. Yeah… that’s much better.

David Teng (The Man at oBravo) showed me the modifications to the frequency response from the pre-production and it is exactly what I expected. More bass, less in the 3-4kHz. It’s a good modification. I love these.

Treble and bass extension rock on Wandering. There is a delicate sound to Macy Gray’s vocal in The Heart and I’m getting nice quality cymbal shimmer and full-bodied stand-up bass. The speed on Quadrant 4 is keeping up well with cymbal taps. Yes – Soundchaser is presented to good speed across the spectrum. Speed is excellent. These absolutely do not sound like a £249 ($269) IEM. These are the full package.

If these have one limitation, it’s that they don’t give you the traditional massive soundstage of oBravo ERIB and EAMT series in-ears. The resolve well what is in the stage, but they don’t expand out to huge dimensions. This isn’t unexpected given the number of drivers and the small closed case these have vs. the semi-open setup using vented wood on most of the oBravo units.

Also at the oBravo stand was Mr. Vattana Prasertnasung, the first Thai entrepreneur to produce custom cables for the UK market through his K.studio business. He brought along some special cables, ranging in cost from $150 to over $1000. I tried out the Khunpol 8-Braid copper with the oBravo Cupid. On The Heart, Macy Gray’s vocals seems to sound a touch warmer  and a little wider staged than the stock cable with the Cupid. Any other differences between the cables would be hard to pick out in the loud show environment. It’s also pretty hard to do this with cables in general, as switching speed runs right up against our audio memory. I do like the aesthetics of the Khunpol 8-braid copper a bit more than the stock oBravo cable. The oBravo clearly uses a pre-twisted length of cable and then untwists above the y-split. The full hand-braided look of the Khunpol is superior. I think that oBravo should upgrade the production process of their cable. It won’t effect sound as it can be the same wire, but it will be more pleasing aesthetically, at least to me.

Acoustune

First off, I take my hat off to the design crew at Acoustune. These Japanese wizards have created their own unique style with their industrial looks. IMR Acoustics looks like a clear copy of Acoustune’s aesthetics. Also, those cables, my oh my are they gorgeous. They are big and bold looking while retaining a nice softness to the outers that keeps them comfortable in spite of their prodigious sound. In my experience on cables, bigger wire guage means better sound stage and detail refinement, but I’ll not be able to test that because they use a proprietary modification of the MMCX connector that was developed by Pentaconn, one of the leading manufacturers of the 4.4mm connector. I honestly don’t think this will be a problem, as these cables are likely all that you’ll need, unless you are cuckoo for balanced operation. As an aside to speak some truth, balanced outputs sound the same as single-ended outputs on the same DAC/Amp or standalone amp most of the time if volume is matched and the circuit supplying both balanced and single-ended outputs is the same—most amps have one circuit that serves both balanced and single-ended now—most people are just hearing louder volume and thinking it sounds better. We are built to like loud.

HS1695Ti

First off, I love the industrial design and the titanium nitride golden appearance. The cable is one of the new delightfully beefy cables mentioned above. You can see the copper rope in the background of the image below. The capsule of the Acoustune HS1695Ti has a crosshatched roughly-hewn look that I expect actually takes a bit of work to create. It looks like something made by a designer jeweler or watchmaker, not an IEM manufacturer. Good show, Acoustune.

But how does it sound? The first thing I did was switch tips. The stock tips didn’t work too well with my ears, but my Spiral Dot M-L worked perfect. On Ka$cade there is good note weight across the whole frequency spectrum. The mids are speedy. Unfortunately, the treble sounds a bit thin. When moving on to Natalie Merchant – Carnival (24/96), Natalie’s vocals sound a bit back in the stage and I’m still getting thin sounding cymbals.

I want some energy, so I throw on Rage Against the Machine – Take The Power Back (16/44). I get some good impact on bass guitar and kick drum. The mids, though, they need more energy. They sound too relaxed and easy going on this track. Where is my energy? In search of a different energy, I switch to Norah Jones – Feeling the Same Way and it has the same problem as Rage Against the Machine. I’m just not getting enough mids energy from these to give a rec. They are beautiful, but sound decidedly average.

Acoustune HS1655Cu

These are relaxed also, but in a rich and satisfying way. On Feeling the Same Way Norah’s vocal is smooth and silky and dripping with emotional power. The bass is lingering, with a decay that is a touch slow, giving a romantic feeling to the sound.

On Yosi Horikawa – Wandering the deep bass rumbles beautifully with just a little bit of  of slope downward at the very bottom end of the sub-bass giving a big but rounded bass presentation. I get a nice open sound to the treble without it ever venturing into territory even remotely adjacent to anything that could be considered sharp. The sound is organic, but without any of the excess warmth sometimes associated with this description. These strike a nice balance, indeed. I want more time with them.

HS1650Cu

On Wandering the bass on the HS1650Cu goes bigger in the deeper depths of the sub-bass than the HS1655Cu, but it doesn’t have the same level of texture and resolution at those depths as the HS1655Cu. The mids are also a touch further back, giving a less balanced sound. These tuning differences will make it so some will be fans of both for the differences. I like both myself.

The Trees by Rush delivers some nice groovy bass on the HS1650Cu. I dig it. Tweeting birds are done nicely and cymbals have a nice crash. The treble isn’t completely representative, though. Taps on the cymbals are a touch fast relative to the decay exhibited on cymbal strikes. I understand that taps should be shorter, but these feel a touch shorter than I’d expect. The vocals on the HS1650Cu are slightly darkened and relaxed but remain clear.

Both the HS1655Cu and the HS1650Cu impressed me. My blogmate bought the HS1650Cu at the show. I think that was a good purchase.

HiFiMAN

I’ll be coming up in the Jade 2 loaner tour, so I decided to skip on that. The Susvara is already in my home setup, so I skipped that. There were some not to market yet wireless goodies, which I did not skip. Mark of HiFiMAN and formerly the reviewer extraordinaire on Head-Fi (mark2410) had two TWS prototypes—the TWS600 is not the last TWS they will make—and an LDAC enabled Bluetooth version of the Ananda. I had a listen.

There are no pics of the TWS prototypes and the innards will change some. They’ll get better amplification and different DAC and BT chips. The current TWS600 only does SBC and AAC, which is alright, but as folks in the TWS600 thread have pointed out people want AptX, even if it doesn’t matter a lick for sound quality beyond AAC. If people are complaining about no LDAC, AptX HD, etc… please stop. In a TWS, one IEM transmits to the other, and it isn’t possible currently to both receive and transmit LDAC, according to Mark at HiFiMAN. I imagine that AptX HD has similar limitations. So reviews complaining about this are missing the point. I checked devices produced by KZ, Astrotec and TFZ and all three TWS products used SBC/AAC. HiFiMAN shouldn’t be criticised for this as it is a current limitation of the technology.

On to sound! One of the TWS prototypes sounded like it was just made for female vocals. It has elevated upper mids and crisply defined space in the stage. It was pretty pleasant sounding. This is the one that Mark has claimed as his daily driver. The other one bore a striking resemblance to the RE2000 tuning (who knows, maybe that’s the driver in there), but without enough power to properly drive it. It was as delicious as the RE2000 (gold).

The Bluetooth Ananda comes with something that I’ve been asking HiFiMAN to do for years (see my Susvara review), make a new case for their headphones. The new case is a nice looking synthetic fabric semi-hard case. The newer rounded style headset fits perfectly inside. I don’t think it will accommodate an HE1000 or Susvara form factor due to the width of the headband. I had a brief listen to the Ananda over LDAC and it sounded clear and remarkably good. It didn’t sound like Bluetooth. LDAC is exciting. There are some other cool features that Mark mentioned: USB DAC capability built into the headphone—just plug in USB-C and you are good to go—and a built in jack for a microphone for gamers and calls. The whole package looks pretty awesome. I’ve let Mark know that he should ensure that the microphone is top quality for gaming by getting in touch with the creator of the gaming headphone thread Mad Lust Envy’s Headphone Gaming Guide, Mad Lust Envy, on HeadFi. Having a badass headphone to use around the house with no audio quality sacrifice would really float my boat. It would just be pair to the HiBy R3 and enjoy. I’ve already asked Mark for a review unit to get in house when it’s ready for primetime.

64 Audio

So I’ve said in the past that the Tia Fourte was one of the most realistic representations of the experience of live music that you can put in your ear (CanJam London 2017 impressions). At that same show I had a weird-sounding experience with the U18t, so this year with a new limited edition darker sounding Tia Fourte Noir out, I thought it was a good time to have another listen. I started with the Noir.

Tia Fourte Noir

The Noir are bloody amazing on the coked out speed of Billy Cobham – Quadrant 4 (DSD64). The speed and energy of the drums on this track are just fantastic. It’s a great day.

tenor
From Lonely Island – Great Day

On further listening, I think the drums are a bit forward. Decay on the drums is very natural. Tonally these are spot on on this track, but they could probably use a little de-emphasis of the snare drum.  Listening to Wandering, the bass has good extension on these, but doesn’t have the addictive rumble of the Jomo Trinity Brass. Piano on Rebecca Pidgeon – Raven (24/88) the piano gentle sounding on the Noir with softened edges exhibited on the piano and on strings.

Tia Fourte (the original)

Percussion in Wandering is more rounded and less hard and snappy on the Tia Fourte. Bass is slightly less extended vs. the Noir. Neither of these accomplish a big addictive sub-bass rumble.

On Quadrant 4 the mids sound more organic on the Tia Fourte, less strident in places. The Noir has a bit more open sound on guitar with and a touch more upper mid energy alongside a touch more treble. The sound of the Tia Fourte on Rebecca Pidgeon – The Raven has a lovely sweetness and a nice holographic presentation.

Comparing Macy Gray – The Heart on the Tia Fourte Noir and the Fourte, the Noir has really nice cymbal shimmer and a round fulsome sounding bass. The Fourte has a slightly dryer vocal, giving more of Macy’s trademark raspiness. Bass sounds slightly more layered and well-defined on the Fourte.

I’d pick the Fourte more often than the Fourte Noir.

I also did a brief comparison to the U18t. I didn’t get the weird phasing issues I got in 2017, and I quite liked the U18t, but I’m still a Tia Fourte guy.

FiiO

BTR5

When I got to FiiO there were only a few minutes left in the show, and they were already tearing down. They had already sold their M11Pro (must not have further tweeks to make) that they had at the stand, so I didn’t get to listen to that. Instead I picked up and listened to their stupendously specced up FiiO BTR5. this little dongle can operate as a USB DAC or as a Bluetooth player with built in HiRes wireless codecs like AptX HD and basically everyone’s favourite wireless codec, LDAC. The DAC/Amp built in has enough juice to drive the WAVAYA Octa. It has a 32 step volume control, which is an improvement over the 16 step control standard to most Bluetooth headphones. It would be nice if the 64 step volume control step Shanling UP2 volume control was on every Bluetooth device.

My brief general impression is that the FiiO warmth to the sound signature is still present. The BTR5 also comes with good headspace and bass response. It is a nice little set-up. I should be reviewing the BTR5 in the future from HiFiGo, an online retailer.

FH7

On Wandering I get good, but not spectacular performance. The bass has some nice size, but isn’t hugely deep and textured. These are on the warmer side, but don’t sound too warmed up in the mids. Drums and other impactful instruments come through as expected: SNAPPY!

The vocal on Violent Femmes – American Music is smooth and warm. Percussion sounds punchy with chooglin’ (groovy!). These have a nice punchy sound with good refinement, but I don’t think they are world beaters. The vocals on Rebecca Pidgeon – The Raven are a better fit for the sound profile with the lower mids emphasis of the FH7 lending Rebecca some extra gravitas without sweetening or fattening the tone.

On Quadrant 4, the set-up can’t get fast enough. Cymbals sound a touch splashy, which causes some blending. These aren’t speed demons, but they will satisfy on bass for the most part. I hope that next year I’ll get more time to hang out with FiiO.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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