US $1099 (www.jhaudio.com)
In my last in-ear headphone review, which was pretty much an unqualified rave, I noted that the next step up with headphones like these is going “custom”. In other words, taking the same, or even an upgraded version of the electronics in a product like the Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10 Pro and building them into a shell made specifically for your ears. The advantage of this approach is a (theoretically) perfect fit, and therefore better isolation and comfort. The disadvantage? Well, you’ve no doubt noted the price of these headphones above, and that pretty much sums it up. As with anything custom made, more time and higher costs are involved. Combine that with the fact that these are JH’s second from top of the line model, and you arrive at a four figure pair of ‘phones.
I had been wanting to try a pair of custom in-ear headphones for some time, but when I started reading online about the JH Audio headphones, including not only some rave reviews but some background on their pro audio and aviation background I was practically salivating and I asked the company for a review pair. JH Audio is named for its founder, Jerry Harvey who not only founded Ultimate Ears (he left the company in 2007) but started developing stage monitors for musicians back in 1995 while mixing live shows for Van Halen, kd lang, The Cult and many other bands. They agreed to a review, and off I went to visit an audiologist to have impressions made of my ears, a process which involves the doctor injecting a fast hardening silicone goo into your ear canals. Wait about a minute while it cures, pull em’ out, and voila, a detailed model of your ear up to the second bend of the ear canal. A little strange and briefly uncomfortable, but otherwise painless and quick. My visit cost US $60.00 and took all of twenty minutes.
Two weeks or so after sending JH Audio the impressions, lo and behold, a little box arrived containing the review samples. Befitting their “custom” status, JH Audio packs each pair in a sexy little Otter Box case (very tough, air and water tight) and even monograms your name on it. They also printed my initials on each of the earpieces, one blue, indicting left, and one in red, indicating right. Like some other brands of custom IEMs the JH’s can be ordered in a variety of styles and colors, either to blend in with your ears or to make an artistic statement. I went with clear, which allows a nice view of the headphones’ innards and doesn’t draw too much attention.
As for those miniature electronic innards, they consist mainly of “proprietary precision balanced armatures” with six (!) individual transducers: two for low frequencies, two for mids and two for highs. Being a three-way system, like a high performance loudspeaker, a crossover is needed, so one is built into each earpiece. As with a three-way loudspeaker, the goal is to reduce the demands on individual transducers (drivers) by limiting the range of frequencies they’re required to reproduce. When well implemented the result is wider and flatter frequency response, greater coherence, and higher power handling. JH Audio’s top of the line in-ear monitor, the brand new JH 16 Pro uses eight individual drivers and costs US $1149.
Frequency response is typically impressive at 10Hz to 20KHz as is sensitivity at 119 dB. Impedance is rated at 28 Ohms. Like most in-ear designs, the 13’s are exquisitely sensitive and easy to drive, placing light demands on headphone amplifiers and helping squeeze the maximum battery life out of portable music players.
Even the cable is carefully thought out. At first it seems a little flimsy, but it doesn’t take long to appreciate the fact that the light, supple, braided cable is highly resistant to microphonics (a big issue with headphones that seal your ear canal – you’re going to hear every tiny vibration, including your own chewing and breathing) and bends effortlessly around the back of your ears. It’s also detachable, and, therefore, replaceable, which seems pretty much essential in a pair of headphones that cost more than a lot of great loudspeakers.
Of course, all of the above would be a waste of words, time and a considerable sum of money if the JH 13 Pro’s didn’t sound good. In fact, for a cool grand, they’d better sound quite a bit better than good, I’d say. Upon learning, however, that Jerry Harvey had not only founded Ultimate Ears, but designed their headphones until 2007, I had few concerns that the 13’s would fail to impress.
Impressive is putting it mildly. The short story is that the 13’s sound very much like the Ultimate Ears Triple.fi 10 Pro’s, except that they’re better in every meaningful way, right across the board. The pro audio heritage is certainly audible, and perhaps “professional” is the defining sonic characteristic of these headphones. And do not take this to mean that that these headphones are somehow boring, or clinical, or bland, or utilitarian. They are none of these things. They are professional in the sense that they are transparent and accurate in a way that is truly rare in consumer audio products. These headphones are like having a pair of absolutely top-notch professional monitors (think Genelec, Dynaudio Acoustics, PMC) installed in your head. And, since they’re in your head, there’s no listening room to screw up the sound either. No first reflections, no standing waves, no modes, no suckouts, no humps, no rattles, and no complaints from the neighbours. Sound reproduction doesn’t get a great deal simpler, or purer, than this.
After living with them and buying them, I was hard pressed to imagine an in-ear headphone more transparent, more open, and just simply cleaner or clearer sounding than the UE Triple.fi’s. The 13’s are that headphone. The transparency is breathtaking. Well recorded vocals are spine-tinglingly present and realistic (“Rouky” from Ali Farke Toure’s The Source was a perfect example of this – positively eerie in its intimacy). The kind of realism that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up is an accomplishment in its own right, but doing that amid the clatter of the F train at 8:30 in the morning is something else entirely. Spooky good. Midrange definition and texture are pretty much state of the art, with gorgeous tonal color and vibrancy and a level of detail that is truly a new personal benchmark. Intimate really is the theme here, with fully fleshed out voices rendered with startling immediacy, speed and honesty. The sound may not be as airy or spacious as good pair of open-backed cans like my Sennheiser HD-650’s (and I don’t think any in ear headphone is ever going to sound “airy”), and with that immediacy and up front presentation they could never be accused of sounding laid-back, but damned if they aren’t just incredibly compelling.
At the top end the 13’s manage to better the Triple.fi’s again, providing more detail and going about it with greater finesse and smoothness. They even manage to convey more spatial information and air, which has never been the strong suit of in-ear designs. On more than one occasion a recording with a sound coming suddenly from hard left or right has made me spin my head in response, much to the amusement, no doubt, of the commuters around me. Soundstage and ambient information in general is still mostly restricted to the confines of your head, but they do a better job of conveying acoustic space than any other in-ear I’ve heard.
And then, of course, there’s the bass. In-ear headphones have big advantages in this department, and the 13’s take advantage of them better than any headphone I’ve ever heard. If you truly want to hear exactly what’s happening in the lower octaves of a recording, with no embellishment, warming up, drying out, humping, bumping, thumping, right down to the depths of what a human ear can perceive, the 13’s can deliver. In this sense they truly could be an invaluable mixing tool since they eliminate so many variables from the equation of producing great bass. To get bottom end of this accuracy and quality in a room with loudspeakers, takes not only great loudspeakers, great amplification, but the rarest, most elusive, most overlooked factor of all: great acoustics. You could spend a hundred grand and still not get there. These headphones simply eat the densest, deepest, most tortuous, woofer-busting bottom end for breakfast, unraveling it all and laying it bare right between your ears. All that’s missing is the ruffling of your pant legs. Electronic music on the 13’s is a true joy. The latest records from Massive Attack (Heligoland), the Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’s (It’s Blitz), Caribou (Swim), and Charlotte Gainsbourg (IRM) sounded like they were made to be heard this way. Cohesive, utterly coherent, perfectly controlled, incredibly detailed, blindingly fast and unfailingly honest bottom end that starts and stops on a dime. Zero bloat. No overhang. It’s true, you don’t feel it in the air the way you do with loudspeakers, a phenomenon which can even be a bit disconcerting at first, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it any better.
I listened to the 13’s mostly via my iPod classic (30 gb) using uncompressed AIFF files ripped on my Mac with a great little program called XLD (more on this little gem in the future), but also on my old Powerbook G4 via the Echo Audio Indigo soundcard and on both my laptops via the Headroom Total BitHead USB DAC/ headphone amp. Back and forth comparisons with the Triple.Fi 10 Pro’s confirmed the incredible openness of the 13’s, the Ultimate Ears ‘phones sounding a little thicker, richer, warmer, darker, a little fatter in the bottom end, and a little less refined overall. As with the rest of their sonic presentation the 13’s go for utter accuracy and sheer depth in terms of bottom end presentation and it’s possible some users will find them a little lean in the bass department, prefering a slightly fatter, flabbier sound. I’m not among them, but perhaps I would be if I listened to more hip-hop.
Comparisons with my Sennheiser HD-650’s were instructive too, if not particularly surprising. The 650’s are capable of the same kind of translucence, detail, and openness, but the presentation is completely different. Where the 13’s are ultra-present and up front, the Sennheisers are airy, spacious and very laid back by comparison. The bottom end is there too on the 650’s, but it’s not as bold and assertive as with the 13’s. The Senns are also incredibly forgiving and flattering, capable of making almost anything sound good. Yes, they can certainly reveal flaws in equipment or recordings, but they have an uncanny way of de-emphasizing them and making everything sound sweet. The JH Audio headphones, however, will tell you in painstaking detail what’s going on upstream, for better or worse. If you’ve got low bitrate music files on your iPod, you’re going to notice with these headphones. Again, think (very) high end professional monitor.
Ultimately, they’re completely different headphones for different purposes, which provide very different sonic experiences. The big complement to the JH Audio 13’s is, however, is that while the experience is different, it’s just as satisfying, just as musical, and just as involving. Considering the HD series from Sennheiser are widely considered some of the best headphones on the planet, that’s pretty high praise.
Having this level of fidelity happening inside your head; inhabiting your very own high definition, mobile aural bubble, on your way to work or sitting on a plane or simply sitting on your couch, the rest of the audible world kept completely at bay, more than justifies the cost of these headphones. The JH Audio 13 Pro’s are perhaps the ultimate in intimate, personal, high-end sound, an audiophile’s traveling dream. A true benchmark for in-ear headphones. Highly recommended.
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