JH Audio Jolene – dual dynamic duo

*build quality scored at a 4 due to the oxidation / deterioration of the original CIEM faceplate, and bears no relation to the Itsfit reshell

Acknowledgment

The Jolene I am reviewing were purchased from the original owner (thanks MVVRaz) as a CIEM. Given the freakishly straight ear canals of the previous recipient, it was possible for me to force fit the Jolene with a little help from a pair of Xelastec tips, so I listened to it for a few weeks in its “original” form before sending it to be reshelled by the expert team down at Itsfit Labs in Vietnam. They transformed the Jolene into a “custom universal” shell for me, but as far as I can tell, the sonic signature is exactly as I remember it from the original force-fitted custom.

I can’t guarantee that the two models are an exact match, or that the reshelled universal matches the universal Jolene exactly, but to my semi-trained ears the signature elements of the tuning are the same. I suspect that JH Audio’s proprietary FreqPhase tubing system has something to do with that, but please bear the above in mind when reading the rest of this review.

Introduction

If you like live music, you will have come across Jerry Harvey Audio, even if you have zero interest in headphones or any other form of audiophile gear. Put simply, they are arguably THE go to brand for touring musicians across the globe. In one of the recent Grammy award ceremonies, 11 out of 17 artists performing on the night were hooked up to a set of JH in ear monitors. This harks back to the brand’s origins in the mid 1980s, where the eponymous Jerry Harvey was working as an engineer for Van Helen. As the story goes, he was tasked with finding a better way to deliver audio to the band’s drummer (Alex Van Halen), and not being able to find a suitable solution “off the shelf”, was inspired to create the first two-way in ear monitoring solution.

Fast forward a few years and Ultimate Ears (Harvey’s first brand) was selling to audiophiles and stage musicians in sufficient quantities to attract the attention of electronics manufacturer Logitech, who bought Ultimate Ears for their portfolio. Fast forward another handful of years and Harvey was back (via a brief interlude designing in-cockpit audio systems for pilots) with another touring musician solution, and the modern day juggernaut JH Audio was born. Serving both the the audiophile and studio/stage market, the brand has earned a reputation for innovation with multiple patents and some unique designs, both sonically and aesthetically.

As with most industries associated with live touring, the last few years has been affected quite significantly by the global Covid-19 related shutdowns, with a lot of bands unable to hit the road. Rather than sit still, the engineers at JH used this as an opportunity to focus on making something aimed squarely at the audiophile market, packing in some pretty interesting technologies to go alongside the more “audiophile friendly” tuning and technical capabilities. Thus the Jolene was born.

“Original” Jolene CIEM design (pre re-shell)

Build

As this is a reshelled IEM, I can’t really comment on build too much. The original custom version I received was built like an absolute tank, with ultra-dense feeling shells and a real sense of solidity. As with all JH Audio custom designs, the body is visually stunning, and was as good as I’ve seen in terms of quality from a CIEM manufacturer. The original faceplate design requested by the previous owner was a little different, however. The actual design was again stunning, comprising of a metal “comedy mask / tragedy mask” design in copper on a background of some sort of quartz-like material, which was “raw” and exposed rather than being sealed under acrylic, adding a textured feel hen handling the IEMs. The metal work was done in their aged copper style, which is supposed to acquire a dull patina with age. Unfortunately, despite only being a couple of months old, when the CIEM arrived with me the “patina” of the metalwork looked more like rust than anything cosmetic.

I don’t know whether the faceplate is just meant to look like that or it was actually reacting with the gemstone layer underneath and oxidising, but safe to say either way it looked more like the IEM was deteriorating after being left out in the rain rather than a cool design feature. Very impressed with the style and customisation options on show here, but if it was my IEM purchase, I would probably have sent it back after about a week. To be fair to JH Audio, the faceplate was apparently a completely bespoke design, so this sort of “issue” probably won’t occur on their more popular faceplate designs.

The reshelled version from Itsfit lacks some of the original wow factor and solidity of the JH Audio body, but it fits like a glove (despite being universal), looks very appealing in a mixture of blue and a tinted abalone-style faceplate, and has even managed to preserve a little of the original design by using some of the cleaned up stone backing from the faceplate in the JH Audio flying lady logo on each shell. It’s pretty easy to find comments about the quality of Itsfit Labs reshell work across the main internat audio forums, so I won’t say anything else here but to agree with the general concensus – they are good.

Original CIEM design – note the oxidation around the copper trim and on the faceplate itself

Technical design

The Jolene is a 12-driver hybrid design with a 4-way crossover. The design is pretty unique to the current market, in that it uses a pair of 9.2mm dynamic drivers for the bass (20Hz to 400Hz), another pair of smaller 4.9mm dynamic drivers for the midrange (400Hz to 4kHz) and two quad-packs of balanced armatures for the upper mids (4kHz to 10kHz) and treble (10kHz up to 23kHz). Packing four dynamic drivers into a single in ear monitor is crazy enough, but the Jolene do this using JH Audio’s patented DOME design, whereby the paired drivers are placed in opposition to each other in a phase corrected enclosure, to create the same sound as a DD with a much larger diameter (in theory).

The balanced armature 4-driver “blocks” are configured in another JH Audio patented design called SoundrIVe, where the drivers are bunched together in blocks of four and run in parallel to increase overall headroom. The whole design is then tied together using the last JH patent on display (known as FREQPhase), which uses different lengths of tubing for the pathway from each set of drivers to the IEM nozzle, correcting for the different speed of each of the frequency ranges to ensure that all audio signals arrive at the ear within 0.01s of each other. This ensures that the audio is perfectly “in phase”, which apparently allows for a more realistic presentation and sense of imaging.

The last unusual piece of technology involved in this in-ear is the variable bass potentiometer housed in the cable (the “bass pot”). This has been standard on pretty much all JH Audio custom models since the release of models like the JH16, Layla and Roxanne, and allows the listener to dial in differing amounts of bass (between 0dB and 12-15dB depending on the model) by turning the dial on a small plastic control block built in o the cable. You can tune left and right channels separately, as there is a dial for each – unfortunately as this is an analogue tuning mechanism it is sometimes difficult to get both sides matched correctly if you are selecting a setting in between 0 and maximum. Luckily, the Jolene is designed to run with the bass at “full blast”, so that was less of an issue than I expected, as I just pushed both pots all the way up to maximum and left them there. All listening impressions below were done with the bass output at this setting.

(Internal driver design diagram courtesy of JH Audio website)

Initial impressions on sound

The overall tune of this IEM is a fairly balanced W shape to my ears, with plenty of substance in the sub bass that slopes down into a slightly less bodied mid bass before pushing upwards in quantity again through the mids before relaxing slightly for one final push into the upper treble. Even though I am running the Jolene at full bore, it is not a bass-dominant signature – it has enough body to keep people satisfied but definitely no huge excess of dBs down low. Texture is plentiful, but if you are looking for room shaking sub or mid bass slam that knocks your fillings down the back of your throat, this will not be the IEM for you, despite the multiple dynamic drivers powering everything.

The bass gives the Jolene as slight tinge of warmth to the tonality, but it isn’t a hugely warm sounding monitor, erring more towards energetic and clean than thick and chunky. There is an element of control and tautness to the low end that keeps it from bleeding upwards, keeping things feeling very precise and crisp for a dynamic driver setup (even if there are two of them in play).

Moving up to the mids, they are positioned somewhere between stage neutral and stage forward, the Jolene painting a big sonic picture but not a distant one. Vocals in particular push forward towards the listener, not quite as “pressed up against the front of your skull” as some of their other models like the vocal-centric (and soon to be retired) Angie but definitely not recessed. Tonality is not that warm but still decidedly analogue, giving a nice sense of roundness and a realistic body to guitar and piano based instrumentation, which both sound phenomenal on the Jolene. There is a nice sense of bite to the edges of notes, with the Jolene sporting some impressive clarity and resolution throughout the range. This isn’t a detail monster style of tune, but there is definitely more than enough macro and micro detail floating in the mix to remind you that you are listening to a flagship-level in ear.

Treble is clean and clear, extending up beyond my meagre hearing capacity without any appreciable roll off. It isn’t sharp, but there is a little more crispness and crystallisation in the upper frequencies compared to those beneath. Cymbals shimmer and sizzle, and room sounds embellish the background of your favourite tracks with a gentle presence. Resolution is most noticeable here, with the Jolene definitely pulling a ton of small details out of the busiest of tracks.

The crisp but shimmery treble also contributes to the open feel to the staging – for a closed in-ear with four dynamic drivers populating the lower frequency ranges, the Jolene has an impressively spacious feel to the staging, extending up and out in all directions, with note reverbs and trails floating off into the ether rather than feeling constrained by the imaginary listening room inside your ears.

The Jolene is the most “audiophile” tuning I’ve heard from a JH Audio model yet. It gives more subtle colouration to songs than the reference-tuned Layla, but steers clear of going “full stage” and adding too much warmth or body like the Roxanne. It clearly prioritises both soundstage and clarity, pulling an image out from the music that is both impressive and precise, with a similarly impressive sense of resolution.

Bass

Diving into the low end in more detail, the first thing that strikes you is the sense of balance. On initial listen, the Jolene can come across as quite light in terms of bass quantity and presence, without some of the beefy thickness that other models in the JH stable can possess. That initial perception fades away once you play some tracks with a substantial sub or low mid bass presence in the mix – with the right track, the twin DDs on the Jolene jump into life and provide a taut but powerful low end thump. “Disc Wars” by Daft Punk builds up from a subdued intro into a powerful combination of pulsing sub-bass and orchestral timpani, the Jolene capturing the scale and sweep of the low frequencies well. The sub bass isn’t as present or dominating in this track as it can be with some more traditionally basshead IEMs like the IMR Acoustics range or the usual contenders from Campfire Audio, but it still generates enough of a thrum in the ear to give the track the requisite solidity and weight.

Similarly on “C.L.U.” from the same soundtrack, the sweeping orchestral movement that kicks in from around the 1:20 mark hits hard and dynamically in the ear, with plenty of weight. The emphasis is on dynamics rather than sheer weight or quantity, with the Jolene injecting real energy and scale into the music as a result.

Sticking with sub-bass, “Why So Serious?’ By Hans Zimmer (Dark Knight OST) is up next. The pulsating heartbeat movement that defines the track (3:30 onwards) is rendered reasonably well by the Jolene – there is more of an emphasis on the upper area of each pulse rather than the lowest sub frequencies, so while is is clearly present, the Jolene doesn’t dig to the real low ends of this track with quite the authority or volume as some of the bassier IEMs in my current collection. Again, nothing wrong with the power or scale of the music, but if you are looking for an absolute sub-bass beast, this IEM (while being no slouch) won’t quite get you to the top of that particular hill.

Moving up the frequency charts, mid bass is punchy and tight, carrying the weight from the upper parts of the sub bass to give a firm foundation to instruments like cello or electric bass guitar. Slapping on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” from the criminally under-rated (in my opinion anyway) “If I Can Dream” collaboration between Elvis Presley and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the bass guitar that underpins the song is taut but liquid smooth and nimble. It sits underneath the orchestration a little , but provides a deep richness to the underneath of each bass note. There is plenty of texture and definition, but it isn’t overly analytical despite the tightness either. In a lot of ways, this is the perfect definition of “Goldilocks” bass – enough body not to sound thin or anaemic, but enough control and tightness to avoid blooming outwards and filling the areas around it with too much warmth or any sonic mud.

Firing up “Bad Rain” by Slash, the grunt of the Jolene is obvious. The bass line is down and dirty, with an aggressive, textured sound and a good sense of weight underneath the individual notes. It is a “deep” sounding bass – it’s not necessarily the fattest or thickest in the main body of the notes, but there is a heft and detail to the bass guitar as it snarls that is very enjoyable. The kick drums that accompany the intro pack just enough slam to sound physical, but again don’t go overboard into ultra-visceral territory.

Overall, the bass on the Jolene is very capable, both technically and musically. It gives a solid and highly textured foundation to the music, with plenty of resolution and a great sense of control and tightness. Even at full blast on the bass dials this isn’t an IEM that would fall into the bracket of “basshead” tuning, but it definitely has enough weight and quality to keep most listeners more than happy.

Mids

Moving up to the midrange, these are again serviced by a pair of opposing 4.9mm dynamic drivers in Mr Harvey’s patented D.O.M.E. setup for the low-mids, and a quad-BA block in Harvey’s other patented SoundrIVe design covering the high mids. The midrange DD drivers may be smaller in diameter, but provide that natural sense of decay and physicality that you only get from a good dynamic driver. The tonality of the Jolene is clean rather than thick or particularly warm, so even though it does sound quite organic, this isn’t an overly romantic or heavily coloured midrange. Bass bleed is non-existent, so while there is a slight hint of warmth coming through from the lower registers into the main tuning, it certainly isn’t a dark or stuffy sort of sound JH are going for here.

Tonality and timbre is fairly true to life, capturing the richness of vocalists like Chris Stapleton and giving an almost analogue ‘sheen’ to the sound without adding any sense of veil, which is a tricky balancing act. In fact, despite the highly resolving nature of the midrange, JH have done an excellent job steering clear of any overt harshness or sibilance. Readers of previous reviews of mine (hi Mum!) will know that one of my favourite test tracks for midrange heat or sharpness is “Whiskey And You” by the country troubadour mentioned above. The Jolene handles this with ease, painting plenty of space around each of the plucked acoustic guitar notes and giving Stapleton’s gravelly roar just enough weight to sound convincing but avoiding the unpleasant harshness that can appear around the 1:47 mark on less forgiving monitors as he gets into full flow. It sounds raw but not ragged, and keeps the track on the right side of musical without detracting from the details that float around the sparsely populated soundstage.

Staying with the harshness and sibilance testers, “Starlight” by Slash and Myles Kennedy. The opening guitar part sounds crystalline and dissonant (as it should), but again the Jolene manages to paint it with enough of a shine it doesn’t grate in the ear. Slash has previously gone on record that the midrange provided by the Lola (the first JH model to use the dual “D.O.M.E” DD midrange setup) is the most realistic he’s ever heard, and I have to say that this statement holds true for me with the Jolene. Guitars (both electric and acoustic) just sound right. No excessive fatness or razor sharp etching, just plenty of natural resolution on the parts that should be sharp, and a reassuring weight and tone on the parts that’s shouldn’t.

Speed isn’t an issue in the mids either, despite being an all-DD affair. The jolene can deal with uptempo guitar-based numbers like “World On Fire” or “Shadow Life” by the same duo without breaking a sweat, the staccato rhythms and crunching stop-on-a-sixpence riffs remaining crisply defined throughout, with no hint of congestion. Ditto for “Coming Home” by the prog supergroup Sons Of Apollo, which sounds damn fine through these IEMs but can turn into a beefy mishmash of instrumentation on less capable monitors. This is a sound that is closer to crunch than chug with electric guitar, trading a little weight for some serious bite when called for – I have heard fatter and thicker sounding in ears n the midrange, but they generally don’t keep up for pace with the snappy delivery of the Jolene dual drivers here.

It’s pretty safe to say that if your main music fare is guitar based rock or acoustic music, the Jolene will be an easy recommendation – I’ve personally not heard much in the market at the moment that gets the balance of tonality, technicality and musicality just right in the same way that these do.

Switching to some more acoustic fare, “Since You Were Mine” by the Shinedown duo of Smith & Myers sounds fantastic, with the sparse piano notes echoing slightly in the ear and resolving plenty of tiny details around the strike of the hammers and the creak of the keys. The vocal has just enough rasp to be engaging, but blends beautifully with the piano and string accompaniment to give a clean but emotionally engaging rendition. Whether it’s the accuracy of the timbre or the phase-mastery of the Freqphase tech I’m not sure, but the Jolene does a great job of sounding “real” with traditional instruments and voices, which definitely adds to the engagement factor.

Vocals are slightly forward on the stage, and the Jolene does a good job of pulling the micro-detail out without becoming distracting – you can almost picture Leona Lewis shaping the words of “Run” , but it doesn’t pull you out of the heart of the music. Lewis’ voice is crystal clear throughout the track, but stays away from harshness or stridency, and capturing the dynamic shifts as she drops back down from her dog-bothering falsetto to the breathy final notes of the song. The Jolene copes equally well with busier vocal tracks, taking the gospel chorus of “High Note” by Mavis Staples and pulling the individual voices just far enough apart to be discernable, but not far enough apart that you lose the blending. Again, I have heard IEMs in the top tier that pull this track further apart in terms of the individual layers, but the Jolene strikes a good balance here between technicality and musicality.

The midrange is probably the area that really catches the attention with these IEMs. It’s subtly warm and inviting enough to be an easy listen, but technically adept enough to trade blows with the current industry flagships without coming off second best. I have heard the previous model (Lola) that used the dual 4.9mm mid-driver design, and the Jolene is an obvious step up for me. The addition of the quad-BA block handling the high-mids/treble transition blends perfectly to provide the best of both worlds, adding subtle nuance and detail to the gorgeous analogue tone that pervades throughout. This is a midrange that is just difficult to find an objective fault with. I’d go as far as to say that even if the Jolene doesn’t match your own personal preferences, it would be a harsh critic indeed who could find a serious flaw or fault with this presentation.

Treble

As mentioned in the initial summary, treble is crisp and clean with a lightness of touch and delicacy to the presentation. This isn’t a screaming hot IEM, but it isn’t rolled off or shy in the upper registers either – if the track you are listening to has high end information, you will hear it on the Jolene. The ubiquitous quad-BA “SoundrIVe” driver pack is at work again here, but tuned to focus more on extension and articulation of the high notes, leading to a sound that isn’t emphasised but is definitely very present.

Tone follows on from the midrange, with a very analogue and organic feel, not showing any lack of coherence as the driver technology switches across to an all-armature affair. Violins and cymbals both sound true to life, with the cymbals in particular having a nice splash and realistic decay – the notes strike snappily then fade away naturally, not lingering too long or zinging in the ear then deadening like they have been cut off mid-reverb.

Trying out some orchestral music, “Killing In The Name Of” from the David Garrett classical covers album called Rock Revolution has plenty of high violin, which the Jolene paints as quite delicate in terms of size, but still feeling rounded. The tuning actually reminds me of the better tuned EST hybrids currently on the market, with a certain effortlessness to the upper end that doesn’t sacrifice body or weight for delicacy. The armature design isn’t quite up to the speed of an all-electrostatic setup, but we are definitely talking fine margins here.

The stage presentation helps in this regard, with the Jolene putting treble notes in plenty of imaginary space, so that the music doesn’t feel constrained or “walled in” to a particular space, and allows the various cymbal splashes and other treble denizens to inhabit their own space in the upper end of the stage. The hi-hat work that underpins the rhythm of “Go” by The Chemical Brothers is high and prominent, with excellent clarity and realism. It doesn’t overpower the track, but cuts cleanly through the fat bass underneath. It is supported by a swirling synth break in the chorus high sweeps from left to right, and again that feels light and crisp.

In summary, the Jolene sports very good extension and a surefooted but not excessive treble, with lots of resolution. It’s neither too sharp or too smooth, with no hint of roll off but no hint of darkness either. It’s isn’t necessarily the most romantic or organic sort of sound, but what it does possess in spades is a sense of realism. There is a reason JH Audio have stuck with their four-driver armature quad-packs for so long – ESTs, planar drivers and magnetostats might have been making the headlines in high end IEM design over the last few years, but the Jolene is working proof that sound quality is about implementation as much as innovation.

Soundstage, Separation and Layering

i perceive the Jolene staging as wide and deep, sitting a few cm outside of the ears and pushing forward a little in front of the eyes. It isn’t open-back headphone massive, but it is definitely on the large side for an IEM. This is backed up with a larger than average note size, with the Jolene presenting a picture that is both broad in scale and large in presentation. Guitars and vocals just sound closer and “bigger” in my head than a lot of the IEMs I own – it’s a trick that Campfire Audio do well with models like the Atlas, and makes music very enjoyable for me. The shape of the stage approaches spherical, with just a shade less depth from front to back that it sports laterally. Height is another impressive aspect, with the large sounds and precise placement in three dimensions putting cymbals at the top of the drum kit and bass drum slightly lower down, helping piece the sonic image together in an almost holographic manner.

Imaging has always been a traditional high point of the JH Audio in ear range, and the Jolene doesn’t deviate from that pattern. It has some of the most precise spatial imaging I’ve ever heard in an IEM, placing instruments and voices in an ultra-specific position in the soundstage, each occupying their own specific part of the sonic landscape. As a result, cues like the footsteps that open “Thriller” by Michael Jackson track clearly across the stage in your ears, and tracks like “Trouble” by Ray Lamontagne positioning the drums and bass in areas of the stage so different you could imagine they had fallen out with each other that morning.

Layering and separation is at a similar level, with the tecbnical capability and clarity of the Jolene allowing the listener to pul apart individual strands of vocal from tightly packed gospel choruses, or hear subtle inflections on a guitar in a “wall of noise” style rock track without straining.

Overall, not too much more to say here – the Jolene performs to a very high level in pretty much all aspects here.

Synergy and power requirements

The Jolene isn’t the most picky of IEMs, and is reasonably efficient, so you won’t need a nuclear power plant to run it. That said, the resolution and slightly more neutral tuning work best for me on a source with a little bit of inherent warmth like the DX300/Amp11 or the tube output of the N3 Pro. The Jolene sounds impressively physical on the M17, but loses a hint of that warmth that really plays on the analogue tonality in the lower end and midrange.

Bottom line – if you underpower this IEM it will still sound OK (my modded Sony NW-A55 getting it to sing quite nicely is proof of that), but moving four dynamic drivers works best with a little bit more current and voltage to my ears. Similarly, if you want a crisper and more analytical flavour, plug into something cold, but if you want to double down on that dynamic goodness then something that is a little heavier on the low end and naturally a bit warmer will make for a very enjoyable pairing.

Tip choice

I usually include a section on tip choice here, but as this is a reshelled IEM and the majority of users will be going custom anyway, all I can say is that from my experience, wide bore tips seem to suit my particular Jolene best. The Xelastec or Crystal ear tips from AZLA are my current go-tos on this IEM, but Spiral Dots (the original design) also sound pretty good. I didn’t like foam tips for my personal preference, as I feel it takes away a little of the high end clarity with no useful trade off.

(Picture taken from JH Audio website – package contents for CIEM correct at time of posting)

Comparisons

All comparisons were done using both the Ibasso DX300 with stock amp (11Mk2) on high gain and/or the Fiio M17 in medium gain setting. All IEMs compared against were run volume-matched (via my MiniEARS DSP rig) and using a single ended cable (or BAL to SE pigtail for the Balmung).

Fender Thirteen-6 – (c. $1500, 1xDD 6xHDBA hybrid)

The Fender Thirteen-6 has been the top tier model in Fender’s pro in-ear monitor lineup until the recent launch of its successor the Mix Pro from this year’s “Producer Series” of in ears. It is a hybrid design, with a 13.6mm dynamic driver handling the lows and 6 “hybrid dynamic” balanced armature drivers broken into par for mids, highs and super-highs. It is designed and tuned with stage musicians in mind, carrying a VERY stage friendly sound (read: bassy and warm with forward mids and a veiled upper midrange and treble area). Being frank, if you AREN’T a touring musician, the baseline tuning for these IEMs really isn’t much to write home about, and certainly doesn’t fit the pricetag in terms of clarity or just general enjoyment.

However, it turns out that the high density dynamic driver and the unusual “hybrid dynamic balanced armature” drivers (no, there is no useful info anywhere on the internet to confirm what that actually means in terms of design) are actually very capable indeed when a little EQ is applied. In fact, given that these are heavily coloured in-ear monitors to begin with, I have to say that the drivers take EQ as well as anything I have ever heard, including the Audeze iSine or i3/i4 series. This means that with a bit of judicious tweaking from the AutoEQ database of EQ settings, you are able to turn the Thirteen-6 from a stage monitor into something a little closer to a more traditional audiophile Harman curve tuning. I deliberately use the words “a little closer”, as while the AutoEQ settings drastically up the clarity and resolution, there is way more bass than you would usually find in a strict Harman tuning. All comparisons have been done with the AutoEQ settings applied, as this is how I listen to the Thirteen-6 in day to day use.

Starting with the bass, the Fender have a LOT more bass presence than the Jolene. As articulated in the main part of the review, Jolene is not a bass-light monitor, but the Fender harks back to some of the original Aurisonics bass cannons of yesteryear. It is quite frankly brutal in the low end, with huge quantity of both sub and mid bass (as you would expect from a DD that is almost 14mm in diameter). In terms of tightness and control, the Fender puts up a reasonable fight, but can’t quite match the tautness and snap of the dual-DD setup employed by the JH Audio model. Detail and texture is similar between the two, with the Jolene having a slight edge in terms of ultimate resolution, but certainly not night and day. The Thirteen-6 sound the grander of the two IEMs in the low range as a result, so this is more of a battle of preference than a strict better / worse scenario. If you like your low end detailed but fat with a a capital P H A T and capable of slamming like a pro wrestler, the EQ’d Fender model has both the raw power and technical capability to make it an easy choice. If you like your low end muscular but technical and just a little over natural, the Jolene trots out an easy winner here.

Moving up to the midrange, the IEMs start to diverge a little more. The midrange on the Fender is comparatively leaner and more distant than the Jolene, pulling a little further back behind the bass compared to the more neutral to forward position of the Jolene’s dual-DD driven sound. Without EQ the Fender is considerably thicker and more forward, but tends towards being too warm and slightly muffled as a result – the “cut” in frequency applied by AutoEQ has the effect of sharpening up the detail and clarity of the midrange quite considerably by sucking a lot of the warmth out.

Resolution wise, the Fender can trade blows with the Jolene – the proprietary balanced armatures that Fender are using are very detailed, and it spits out plenty of micro and macro details into the mix. It sounds a little more aggressive than the smoother but still highly resolving Jolene, with more of a BA “edge” to notes compared to the more liquid and organic tone of the JH model. Both IEMs (unsurprisingly) excel with guitar based music, with the Jolene offering more weight and “chug” to proceedings with heavy rock, compared to the more angular and biting edge to riffs that the Fender pushes through. Neither monitor harsh, but the adjusted Thirteen-6 is a lot closer to harshness or sibilance in genera.l.

Moving up to the treble, and this is probably the weakest area of the Fender model before EQ is applied, with a classic “stage roll off” killing a lot of the air and detail. Pushing the EQ sliders WAAAAY up in the high treble brings all that detail crashing back, with the Fender again holding its own pretty well against the Jolene. The Fender is hotter and thinner than the JH model, with a more aggressive edge to the upper end that treads the line between sparkle and heat. In contrast, the jolene is ultra-crisp but still smooth and extended, with zero harshness. It’s fair to say the Jolene is capable of competing with any of the top tier IEMs I’ve heard to date when it comes to treble reproduction, so while the Fender is more than capable, for me the Jolene offers the more balanced and resolving tuning here.

Staging is fairly similar between both – the large low end on the 13-6 leading to a broad sonic landscape. It’s not as deep as the Jolene, but both IEMs are definitely on the bigger side of things. Layering and separation are decent on the Fender, but not quite up to the same standard as the Jolene.

One thing to note about the packaging – the Fender has the best packaging I have ever come across on an audio product. Utterly impractical, weighing a couple of kilos and about the same size as a shoebox for a pair of Shaquille O’Neal’ s shoes, but still awesome. They even include a bulletproof Nanuk hard case, lots of proprietary SureSeal tips (think the original version of Xelastec if you haven’t come across them before), a Fender guitar pick and a signed Polaroid of the technician who built the IEMs. The different areas of the box have half-cm thick plexiglass inserts separating them. The thing is just ludicrous, and fit for something you sell to Middle Eastern royalty. If packaging is your thing, Fender have really gone to town here.

Overall, the two IEMs are shooting for different markets. The Thirteen-6 in stock form is for stage use only, and in its EQ’d form is a V-shaped basshead audiophile’s dream, as long as they don’t mind a splash of heat up top and thinning mids. The Jolene paints a much more balanced picture, with (a little) more resolution, better timbre and technical aspects and an overall less polarising sound. Unless you prioritise bass over all else and don’t mind your ultra-detail served hot and spicy, the Jolene is the easy recommendation here.

MMR Balmung (c. $2600, 12 x BA)

The Balmung is a 12 balanced armature model from the mad scientists over at Metal Magic Research, the Singapore-based manufacturer run by JOMO Audio founder Jospeh Mou. As at the time of writing, the Balmung is considered a co-flagship of the current MMR series, and is their most driver-heavy model.

In terms of design, the Balmung is a twelve balanced armature design, utilising MMR’s proprietary internal tuning chamber technology to control the phase and coherency of the multi driver setup and shape the sonics to the desired output. Staying with design, the Balmung is an all-metal design – I’m deliberately not comparing the Jolene to other IEMs in this section due to the fact it is a reshell of the original custom, but it has to be mentioned that the Balmung is simply one of the most complex and beautiful looking in ear monitors I have ever come across. The faceplate is based on the mythical sword of the same name, with intricate 3D metalwork that makes it look more like a Crusader’s shield from the Middle Ages than an earphone faceplate. It is simply stunning, and for my money will win a head to head against pretty much any other IEM out there at the moment.

Moving on to sound, the Balmung is tuned quite surprisingly for a “flagship” model, in that it is unashamedly musical and very coloured, eschewing neutrality for the sort of musical W-shape that companies like Campfire Audio love to play with. Starting with the bass, the Balmung actually sports a pretty hefty low end for an all-armature model, packing a bit more quantity than the Jolene, even with the bass pots fully open. The Balmung bass centres more towards mid than sub, but there is still a decent sense of sub bass extension. It lacks a little of the visceral impact that the Jolene dynamic drivers can bring, but fills out the low end of the soundscape a little more in terms of overall volume. Listening to something like “Why So Serious?” from The Dark Knight OST, the buildup to the drop at the 3:00 mark sounds cleaner and clearer on the Jolene, but fuller on the Balmung. Similarly, the sub-only heartbeat type murmur that kicks in from around 3:30 sounds more physically “present” and a little more obvious on the Jolene, with the Balmung pushing less air and vibrations at the listener. This is easier to hear on “Go’ by The Chemical Brothers, with the Jolene offering considerably more slam factor to the sub bass breaks on the track. You can’t beat physics in this instance – two dynamic drivers will always move more air than a handful of balanced armatures.

Moving up to mid bass, the Jolene is definitely leaner in quantity than the Balmung. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” from the Elvis / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra collaboration definitely souds fatter on the Balmung. In terms of detailing, both monitors are definitely flagship tier, but the Balmung souds a little more subtle in terms of showing its resolution here, with the comparatively leaner Jolene mid-bass allowing more of the texture of the notes to come through. The Balmung is also slightly warmer as a result, with the mid bass emphasis adding a colouration that seeps upwards through the rest of the sound.

As mentioned, both are absolute top-tier technically, so either monitor is able to scratch that detail and clarity itch, so it really depends on preference to pull these apart. Jolene provides more audible texture and a leaner, more physical rendition, with the Balmung rendering the low end in a louder, slightly “fatter” way, giving more weight to bass guitars and synth notes. Both choices work for me in the context of the rest of the respective IEM tunings, so I don’t have a clear favourite.

Mids are slightly more forward on the Balmung, the MMR model painting instruments and vocals a little closer on the stage to the listener. Both IEMs go for a slightly analogue and romantic “sheen” to the presentation, with the Balmung again providing a slightly fatter sound it’s more warmth to the stage and the Jolene going for a textured, more physical approach that is leaner in body and colder in tone. There isn’t much to split the models here – detail is pretty much a tie, with the Balmung providing a more “rounded” rendition of tracks like “Three Chords” by Goodbye June compared to the more raw and emotive version replayed by the Jolene.

The only area where there is a notable difference in the mids to me is in terms of timbre and tonality; the Jolene gives guitars and voices a warm glow that is still slightly stylised but at the same time pretty true to life. Guitars and voices sound raw and more importantly real, with the Jolene definitely able to eke out a stronger emotional connection to some of my favourite test tracks.

Treble is where the two models diverge slightly, with the Jolene painting a crisper and more prominent treble note than the more slightly smoother Balmung. Neither model are treble cannons, but the Jolene packs a little extra zip into the hi hats on “Go” by The Chemical Brothers, with the Balmung following a similar theme and sounding more weighted. Given I have the usual hearing for a man in his 40s who has been to plenty of live gigs in my mid-spent youth, I won’t talk too much about treble extension apart from to say that the Jolene “feels” like the more extended of these two in-ears, with no noticeable roll off as the frequencies rise. In comparisons, the Balmung feels more reserved and a little less open here as the Hz keep climbing.

In terms of soundstage, the Jolene feels deeper than the Balmung, with a similar lateral extension. Both IEMs stage on the large to very large side, so again, not a huge amount to discern between them here apart from the relatively flatter spread of instruments on the Balmung, and the larger instrument size on the Balmung (as in voices and guitars sound “bigger” on the MMR model, which is in part due to the perception of closer proximity). Imaging is pinpoint precise on both, and separation also operates at a similarly high level. At flagship level it’s usually pretty difficult to pick up glaring differences in technical capability, and these two IEMs are a great example.

Overall, these two IEMs have plenty to recommend them, and very little to definitively separate them either technically or tuning wise. If you prefer a more romantic and thicker sound with more mid-bass, Balmung is the recommendation. If timbre is important to you and you prefer a more textured and slightly cooler sound with more physical grunt and slam, Jolene wins out there. For everything else, either model will suit most genres or musical tastes.

IMR Acoustics Avalon – (c. $1200, 1xDD, 2 x Bone Conduction, 2 x EST hybrid)

The Avalon are the first flagship model released by boutique British IEM maker IMR Acoustics in their “Pro” series. They are a triple hybrid design, packing in one 11mm ADLC / CNT dynamic driver, two bone conduction motors and a dual EST pack from Sonion. The Avalon also sport the standard IMR tuning nozzle system for tweaking the output, consisting of a two part filter nozzle that can be swapped out. There are 8 “base” filters for adjusting the relative amount of bass produced (via different sized bass ports drilled into the filter tube) and 6 different screw in tips that attach to the nozzles that act as subtractive filters for the mids and treble. in combination, there are close to 50 different tuning combinations available, which allow tweaking the IEM from a relatively flat and neutral sound to a bass-heavy V shape.

As I am a big fan of the IMR “house sound” which leans towards the bassier and more musical end of the tuning spectrum, this comparison is done with the black nozzle (maximum bass output) and the blue filter tip (minimum treble attenuation) to give the Avalon a balanced but bass sound profile that sits somewhere around a shallow W.

Starting with the bass, the Avalon is a little more mid-focused than the Jolene, with the Jolene concentrating more on the deep sub bass. The Avalon is a little more balanced in the low end than the usual IMR house tuning, and this shows here, providing a more pronounced mid-bass “thumb” on tracks like “Duel” by Bond in comparison to the more downward sloping Jolene. Detail is similar between the two, with both retrieving flagship levels of texture and resolution but the Avalon pulling slightly more texture forward due to the more forward position of the bass on the stage (the Jolene feels comparatively “deeper” on this track, whereas the Avalon is more “in your face”).

“Figaro’s Whore” by Sons Of Apollo is a good tester for both IEMs in terms of rumble, with the Avalon coming out on top. Both produce a genuine feeling of vibration in the ear as the track blends into the follow on tune “Divine Addiction”, but the Avalon almost feels like it is physically buzzing in your head (I suspect this is due in part to the double dose of bone conduction drivers). The Avalon feels like it is more powerful and substantial in the bass here, but the difference is subtle rather than stark.

Moving up to mids and going back to the Bond track, the main violin refrain feels sharper and more vinegary on the Avalon, with a more pronounced rise into the high mids / low treble that emphasises both voices and overlapping instrumentation. In contrast, the positioning feels a little more neutral and the tonality a little less sharp on the Jolene. In terms of detail, the Jolene just edges ahead here, presenting notes in a slightly thicker fashion but with a shade more texture. That’s not to say the Avalon lacks for resolution (it definitely doesn’t), but it just loses out slightly to the tot tier clarity that the Jolene can provide.

Guitar and vocals sound great on both, with the Avalon again coming across slightly sharper and more vivid in presentation in its black/blue tuning configuration, which is something of a hallmark from IMR. It pushes things closer to sibilance or harshness if you are particularly susceptible to spikes in that particular range, but works beautifully for my own preference. Vocals are slightly more forward on the Avalon but a shade smaller in size than the Jolene, with both models doing a good job of resolving the small nuance and details in the gravelly delivery of Chris Robertson from Black stone Cherry on tracks like “Things My Father Said”. It takes a good IEM to make Mr Robertson’s unique gravel gargling paint stripper of a voice into something smooth enough to enjoy but still raw enough to keep all the emotion he packs in to each note, and both the Jolene and Avalon are capable of handling this with no issues.

Treble is slightly crisper on the Jolene, with the Avalon having plenty of ability thanks to the pairing of a dual-EST block and two bone conduction driver insider the chassis, but not packing the same sense of space and openness as the Jolene. Both extend up higher than I can hear, and neither can be called harsh, but the IMR favours a slightly more rolled off sort of tuning compared to the cleaner and more crystalline Jolene.S

Staging size is somewhat of a draw, with the Avalon probably edging slightly ahead of the already impressive Jolene in terms of overall perceived dimensions, but only marginally – both are very large sounding in ears. Imaging is also a draw, this time with the Jolene just having the slight edge, but again, not by much, with the IMR model being similarly precise in its allocation of musical interments and people to the stage. Layering and separation are again just shaded by the Jolene, but there really isn’t much in that either. Both are top tier in terms of performance across these aspects, with the Jolene just being a slight bit more top tier, as the phrase goes.

In summary, both of these IEMs are on my current daily rotation, and both for good reason. The Jolene is just that shade more refined and resolving in certain aspects of the sound, but that comes at a cost that is pretty much double that of the Avalon. The Avalon has the bonus of the flexible tuning system that allows you to take it anywhere from almost ruler flat, through treble cannon territory to a bassy W shape and almost anywhere in between – in that respect, you are far more likely to be able to find a configuration that “fits” your own preference if the OOTB tuning doesn’t rung the right bells. If money isn’t a concern, I’d lean to recommending the Jolene, but if you are on a tighter budget or just don’t want to pay the best part of a thousand on some marginal improvements across the board, the Avalon definitely won’t disappoint.

Final thoughts

The Jolene is a product of JH Audio shifting their focus from the traditional target audience of stage and recording musicians they know (and dominate) into the real high end audiophile space. As the first specifically “audiophile targeted” flagship from the brand, it’s a pretty impressive entry into the space. It is hugely resolving, realistic in both tone and overall balance and carries a subtle richness and power to complement the technicality. This is a serious shot across the bows for some of the boutique audio companies, and shows that there is plenty of mileage left in one of the original “legacy” brands when it comes to innovation. More importantly when it comes to creating a high performing and damn fine sounding in ear monitor, it shows a certain Mr. Jerry Harvey definitely hasn’t lost his touch.

Even if you aren’t a fan of custom in-ears, the only downside to this IEM is the relative scarcity of the universal version (I believe only 200 were produced in the initial run). Apart from that, unless you’re an unrepentant basshead who can’t live without a low end response fatter than Humpty Dumpty’s waistline or need your music warm and gooey rather than clean and clear, the Jolene is one of the easiest recommendations that can be made in the current TOTL audio landscape.

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