Totally Dubbed and InEarSpace IEM Awards 2013
I combined my earphones expertise with my good friend Sonny from InEarSpace to provide you with an excellent guide for earphones!
I have been good friends with Chris (Totally Dubbed) now for quite a while and while we have always heard IEMs in a similar way, we have always had different preferences. I personally tend to lean towards a balanced sound signature with a natural decay and a wide soundstage. When I say I like balanced I do mean in the respect that I like pretty close to neutral but I do like just a slight bit extra bass and some rumble down low so it is not extremely anaemic although I do still enjoy the most neutral of earphones. We have given an award for what we feel is the best technical and enjoyable IEM in each price range and then added some others that we feel are honourable mentions. I feel this is a great collaboration of two reviewers and between the two of us I feel like we have covered a lot of ground and if you keep with this, you will end up with a very happy pair of ears.
I met Sonny a little while ago and we immediately clicked in terms of our assessments on certain earphones. What I love about Sonny is the fact that he and I are both honest and non-bias reviewers. We speak our minds, write about it and even make videos about the products. In terms of this collaboration, we thought it would be a great buyer’s guide for people out there looking for non-paid independent advice. The problem I find (and have made videos about in the past) is that often you find reviews out there that a company or a forum has created in order to drive up relations and sales for a certain audio company; in other words paid marketing. We both personally couldn’t care if someone buys or doesn’t buy an earphone; we just like the fact that we can recommend earphones to people across the world.
In terms of my preference in sound, I’m actually quite different from Sonny. I prefer a V shaped sound signature, with a lot of emphasis on the low end tones. With that said, I used to be an extreme basshead, but ever since I started owning and reviewing more BA earphones, I moved away from being an extreme basshead to someone who really appreciates mids. Thus something with a low end sub-bass rumble, mid-bass slam, decent mid range and excellent highs is my go-to earphone.
What’s interesting is that Sonny and I have both the same analysis when it comes to earphones, but we have our own sonic preferences thus leading us in owning completely different earphones.
I hope this guide shows you two ends of the spectrum and furthermore helps you with analysing your current earphones (if it is on the list or has been reviewed) and furthermore helps you towards a potential future purchase. I should mention that we have the earphones that we recommend under our respective names and furthermore have in bold and with a letter (R), our personal favourites within the respective ranges. We also added US prices, but this was simply a conversion rate from the UK prices. As we’re both UK / EU reviewers are prices are based from our area. Thus other parts of the world might find the respective earphones at a more expensive or cheaper rate. We thus added USD simply as a reference for American readers.
On another we would like to thank Kai (Chris’ website designer) for making us the awesome badges for this guide. Do check out his great website!
We should also mention that the pictures used for the products have been taken off Google Images. We felt that “official” pictures or professional pictures of the products (where available) were best to present the earphones.
Before getting into this guide, there are certain things that might have been mentioned that some people might not understand, so we thought it would be a good idea to have a mini-terminology list:
Sound & Frequencies:
-Sub-bass: Bass rumble, in full-blown subwoofers this is the bass that makes your desk rumble
-Mid-bass: Bass slam. The best way to describe it would be the bass that comes from a drummer on stage.
-Mids: The mid range frequency, the “in-between” of the low and high frequencies. This is everything from a range of instruments and vocals and can sometimes be split up again into the lower midrange that transits off of the bass and contains most male vocals and the higher mids that contain most female vocals and if boosted correctly can add a sense of clarity.
-Highs: The sparkle in your music (cymbals and high hats for example) comes from highs. The better the highs are, the more sparkle you’ll have. Sometimes you might be treated with too much high end frequencies, thus leading to sibilance. Also, a good extension of the highs can potentially lead to an airy sound.
-Soundstage: The performance of an earphone, if it were to be compared to speakers in a room and if the sound feels like it is in your head or managed to get out of your headspace. A wide soundstage will give you a feeling of being at a concert, whilst a very narrow soundstage will make it seem like the speakers are made for you, but with that you’ll lose the depth that is sometimes sought after in certain songs.
-Sibilance: The “hiss” noise or prolonged “Ss” found in certain earphones that have a spike at a certain high frequency. Sibilance isn’t exactly a bad thing, but when there’s too much of it, it becomes irritating and hard to enjoy your music.
-DD earphones: Dynamic Driver earphones. Most earphones have DD drivers as they are cheaper to manufacture and produce the most bass due to them “moving air” with their diaphragms. DD earphones are generally known to be bass orientated and have a V shaped sound signature. They tend to have very impressive extension in both ends of the frequency spectrum.
-BA earphones: Balanced Armature earphones. BA drivers are used by more high-end companies to produce excellent mid and high range frequencies at extreme precision. The main problem with BA earphones is that they generally don’t produce good low end frequencies due to their size and the lack of air movement. These tend to have very delicate details and more neutral sound signatures but struggle with frequency extension. Companies often use multiple BA drivers to help remedy this.
-Hybrid earphones: A mix of any number of both dynamic and BA drivers.
-IEM: In-Ear-Monitor (also referred to as earphones).
-Over-the-Ear: This is when you loop the earphone’s wire over your ear. Most high-end companies have this design by default; however some wear their earphones like this to avoid microphonics (where the earphone was initially made to be used straight down).
-Straight down: Unlike the above, the earphone is worn normally and thus the wire that runs from the earphones goes straight down your ear.
-Microphonics: This is also known as cable noise. It’s when the cable rubs against your clothing and thus creates noise that resonates straight into your earphone, where it can be heard by your ear. It isn’t ever pleasant and usually comes down to the wire construction.
-Burn-in: The process of letting your earphone drivers adapt to the sound and start producing sound for the first time in their lives. A lot of people don’t believe in burn-in; however some people like us feel that it affects the sound ever so slightly.
Under £20 range:
(R) Monoprice 8320: £10 / $16
An excellent set of cheap earphones. Their main qualities are their mids and highs – however some people might find the highs a little bit sharp. Thus it won’t suit to everyone’s taste and furthermore it isn’t an earphone really known for having a deep bass. It is somewhat bass-light and doesn’t extend well in the low end frequencies. For people looking for a set of earphones that is tailors to R’n’B or Dance, this isn’t the earphone for you.
With that said, it does an excellent job for its very cheap price and can always be used as a backup pair if needs be.
On another note, these earphones do get tangled quite a lot due to their poor wire quality.
I thus award it the best under £20 earphone award:
(R) Sony MH1: £10 / $16
This was an IEM made by Sony Mobile that just so happened to have a lot of sound engineering go into it. This model originally sat way out of this price range but some drastic price drops allow you to pick it up from as low as £10 and for that price it sounds just phenomenal. The sound has a slight sub-bass focus but the overall focus and clarity of the unit performs very highly, you really will be impressed and if you’re on a budget, this is the best way to get a higher quality of sound. The only really annoyance with this is how annoying the J-Cable is that comes with it but if you like the sound you can invest in the re-cabled version that ZMF Audio in the USA do (obviously for a bit more money, but it could be a good upgrade path from these in the future). Sony Mobile has done a brilliant job here and is my easy pick for this price range.
Sonny thus awards it the best under £20 earphone award:
Under £60 range:
Ultimate Ears 350: £30 / $50
A great set of earphones that are relatively cheap, considering their good sound quality. They are edged towards bassheads as they have a good mid-bass slam and due to this also have a recessed midrange. Their highs are very good and thus give you a V shaped sound signature. The build quality of these earphones is also very good and they can also be found with a mic. The “vi” model is made for iDevices and the “vm” model is made for Android devices.
Sony MDR-EX510: £50 / $80
An earphone that had a lot to live up to, after the huge success of its younger brother the EX500. The EX510 replaces the EX500s and do so very well. In comparison to the EX500, the EX510s have a more controlled and tighter sounding low end. They also have a better midrange and furthermore have a better build quality than the EX500s. The EX510 can be described as a great all-rounder, despite me preferring the FA Consonance over the EX510s, as the Sony earphones have a little less emphasis on bass and more prominence in the mids. They have a great midrange, a good extension in the highs and furthermore a nice low end that extends reasonably well. Due to it being a Dynamic Driver it does suffer in the quality of the midrange, but at its given price point it is a great set of earphones to own.
(R) Fischer Audio Consonance: £50 / $80
One of my personal favourite earphones. The FA Consonance is very much like the EX510s, where they can be seen as an all-rounder. What’s very surprising is that extends well with its sub-bass frequencies and thus provides you with an overall better experience over the EX510s, if you’re listening to R’n’B, dance or any sort of music with a little prominence in the low end. The mids and highs are also very good, especially at their price range. They also come with an in-line mic that works on iDevices and newer Android phones (like the Galaxy S3, but not the Galaxy S1)
Their major downfall is their cable design, which is a little frail and causes microphonics. With that said, I’ve used and abused them and they have yet to break, furthermore the microphonics can be completely eliminated by inserting the earphones over-the-ear.
I thus award it the best under £60 earphone award:
Klipsch S4: £55 / $90
Klipsch is a well known brand for audio equipment. The S4 is their mid-range earphones, which I find to be one of their best earphones in their entire product line, especially due to its price. With that said, the S4’s won’t appeal to everyone due to them being edged towards mids and highs. Their low end is a little tamed and their highs can be a little too much on certain ears. Their midrange on the other hand is absolutely excellent, especially at their price point.
Overall, these are excellent earphones that are centred more towards mids and thus sacrifice in bass quantity.
Audio-Technica ATH-CKS77: £60 / $100
The CKS77s focus a lot on bass presence and bass quality, thus are a go-to earphone for bassheads. The CKS77’s bass quality is incredible, possibly one of the all-time greats in terms of bass quantity and quality. Their bass extension is almost unrivalled, even outside its price range. Thus making them a very boomy sounding earphone. Their mids are surprisingly not as recessed as one would expect, leaving you pleasantly surprised. Their highs are also very good and give you a nice sparkle in the high frequencies.
However, what lets them down more than anything is their build quality, more notably their microphonics. Due to the shape of the earphones, they cannot be worn over-the-ear, thus you are stuck with a straight down earphone cable.
(R) VSonic GR06: £35 / $55
Vsonic’s performance is something that has always been impressive and with this model you have a great vocal centric sound signature, with a nice warm bass and smooth treble in a great overall package. This really meshed well with me; both in quality and sound signature and you just wont believe what you’re hearing at such a low price. They also come with loads of tips and a nice pouch. However, the only downside is that the only UK is no longer selling them and thus you will now have to patiently wait for them to be shipped from Hong Kong via eBay.
Sonny thus awards it the best under £60 earphone award:
Steelseries Flux In-Ear: £35 / $55
When I had the opportunity to try these earphones I honestly did not expect too much considering these are from a gaming company and not a proven audio brand. However, they made a very clear sounding IEM that does lean slightly towards the lower frequencies and could be more up your street than Vsonic if bass is your thing.
Fischer Audio Silver Bullet: £35 / $55
If you’re into a combination of balance and soundstage then this model from budget kings Fischer Audio may be worth a look in. Really addictive sound with a wide soundstage and a pair of IEMs I found easy to enjoy. However you should be wary of the housing’s of the earphones as they are quite big and furthermore have a cable that can be a little annoying to use.
Under £150 range:
Phonak Audéo PFE 112/1 (discontinued but can still be found): £90 / $150
Phonak are known in the audio business for their hearing aids, but when they hit the in-earphone market, they made a huge impact. Unfortunately, for an unknown reason to most of us, they left the business. However, in their time of existence they made some of the best universal earphones out there. Thus I have marked this as discontinued, but the earphones can still be found. The deviation between the 112 and 111 is simply the colour deviation of the earphones.
The 112’s (I’ll stick to that number) are excellent however they are tailored for non-bass orientated music. This is due to them having single BA drivers, which in-turn doesn’t churn out enough bass. The PFE112s are thus very much tailored for classical music or music that has a lot of vocals, as they absolutely excel in their mids and highs. The best way to describe these would be: Analytical, precise and discrete.
To further add to their overall package, Phonak designed a very beautiful and lightweight earphone that can be worn and listened to for hours on end.
(R) VSonic GR07 MK2: £110 / $180
The VSonic GR07 MK2 received a lot of praise across the internet and when I finally got my hands on them, I knew immediately why. These earphones are truly magnificent; they hit all the frequencies very well in a flat type of signature. Their highs are very well extended and their mids are sublime, however a lot of people might find that their bass is neither well extended nor very present. This is indeed their major flaw, as they don’t have much emphasis on the mid-bass or sub-bass frequencies. The GR07 MK2’s are really intended for those looking for a flat frequency response throughout the range. If you’re looking for a tonally capable and precise sounding earphone the GR07 MK2’s are a clear contender, however if you expect a fun sounding earphone with a good bass slam, the GR07 MK2’s shouldn’t be on your list of earphones to buy. With that said, I couldn’t help but recommend these seeing as they can appeal to a huge market. Thus, despite being earphones that I don’t actively use (due to my music taste and sound preference), they are indeed earphones that I would gladly use with a smile on my face, as not only can I EQ them to tailor to my taste but the VSonic’s are also capable enough earphones to give me a low end response that I crave via an amp (such as paired with the DigiZoid ZO2).
I thus award it the best under £150 earphone award:
Fischer Audio DBA-02 mk II: £120 / $200
There was a lot of praise for the previous DBA-02’s and when Fischer Audio announced the DBA-02 mk II’s there was a lot of excitement around audio forums. There was good reason behind this and that’s because the DBA-02 got an excellent reputation for having excellent mids and highs. The DBA-02 MK II’s really expanded the qualities that its younger brother attained.
The DBA-02 MK II’s concentrate on mids and highs; however have absolutely no bass impact. Their low end extension is completely lost and their mid-bass slam is not very present. Thus the MK II’s will disappoint people looking for an earphone that suits music with bass, however for those looking for an earphone that’s absolutely excellent in the mid and high frequencies, these FA earphones really should be your top priority. I should also mention that these do have a little sibilance at louder volumes and/or with certain audio sources, thus they can be seen as picky earphones.
(R) HiFiMAN RE-400: £70 / $115
These IEMs need little introducing. They punch so far above their price tag it is unbelievable. This is why my sub £150 pick at just £70. They have great balance along with an abundance of detail and these IEMs never fail to impress me. The biggest technical flaw is its ability to reach deep in the lows and if you’re someone who wants too feel the bass then other options may be better for you. Other than that, I found very little to complain about. HiFiMAN seriously can make great things without slapping on a big price tag. You really do need to try these.
Sonny thus awards it the best under £150 earphone award:
Final Audio Design Heaven II: £90 / $150
Slightly different tonal balanced to the RE-400 and just a bit of different take on a balanced sound signature. Although I do have to say the RE-400 do tend to be just a bit better this is still an IEM that is much better than its measly price tag and also feels like a real premium product as you should expect from a product that comes from Japan. If you prefer more treble, then this is my pick for you in this price category (not that this is bright, just a bit more so than the RE-400).
Widing ME-10EL: £140 / $230
My last pick is if you don’t fancy something that is balanced in signature (although this does come packing a balanced headphone jack). This starts to boom in the mid-bass and keeps boosting into the sub-bass. I love this IEM for musicality and when I need something to get me pumped in the gym, this is IEM I choose to use. Although the bass is very powerful the other frequencies are not weak in the slightest. I have directly compared this to the much more expensive Sennheiser IE800 and they are VERY similar, so maybe that explains a bit more about how good this is.
Under £250 range:
Ultimate Ears Triple Fi 10 (discontinued but can still be found): £170 / $280
The UE TF10 is a great earphone that delivers low end rumble to a BA driver earphone. The TF10 became notably popular when it could be found on Amazon black Friday deals (mainly in America, which came in at $100 / £60). Thus a lot of people started owning them. I had the pleasure of having them for a little while and really did appreciate their qualities, despite having a few traits too.
The main quality of the TF10 is their deep sub-bass. The TF10’s mid-bass is also very good due to the fact that you have three drivers helping it produce some low end frequencies. Their highs are also reasonably well extended and do make your music sparkle. However the major flaws of these earphones come in a few parts:
First of all their ergonomics have much to be desired. I called them the “Frankenstein earphones”, due to their shape and how they stick out of your ears. In fact for any sort of movement you might do with your earphones on-the-go, I really wouldn’t suggest the TF10 due to the simple principle of you getting a lot of wind noise coming in.
Secondly, the stock cable isn’t that great. A lot of people on the internet changed the stock cable to a custom made cable. The set of TF10 I managed to listen to and have for a little while came with 3 different cables. When I compared the differences and reviewed the TF10 I wouldn’t have enjoyed listening to the UE’s with their stock cable. The stock cable just left the earphones dull sounding and gave it a huge V shaped sound signature. However with a custom (very expensive) cable, the TF10 came to life with the V shaped signature sounding more like a flat sounding signature, as there was a lot more emphasis on the mids. The problem with a custom cable is that often the cable would cost more than the earphone itself, moving the earphones in a completely different price bracket and with that having more competition against other earphones that simply dethrone these very easily.
Thus the final point comes to the V shaped signature of the TF10s. They are extremely V shaped with a stock cable and thus shouldn’t be considered as an analytical or precise earphone, far from it in fact. They should be considered as fun sounding earphones. If you can find the TF10 on the internet for a reasonably cheap price, where you can stand its ergonomics and V shaped sound signature, then these earphones should definitely be a go-to earphone.
I also thought to write a little about it, as I felt that all this information was vital in presenting the earphones properly. They aren’t everyone’s favourites, but they sure do cater for a good majority of consumers out there.
(R) Fischer Audio TBA-04: £180 / $300
The TBA-04’s are extremely new to the market and only a handful of people have actually heard them, let alone reviewed them. Funnily enough both myself and Sonny have heard them and both of us recommend it in the under £250 range. The reasoning is quite simple: It’s an excellent progression from the DBA-02 MK II’s and brings lovely neutrality to your music. These earphones like the DBA-02 MK II’s shouldn’t really be seen as bass heavy earphones. Despite doing much better in bass than the non-existent DBA-02 MK II’s bass, they still are shy and lack bass presence and extension. Overall, these earphones are an excellent choice for people looking for a neutral sounding earphone. They have a natural tone, great overall packaging and accessories and are reasonably cheap for what they offer.
I thus award it the best under £250 earphone award:
Ortofon EQ-5: £160 / $260
A slightly warm and perhaps even hot sounding IEM that with age shows it is still a great IEM that has picked up a lot of fans in its lifetime. Using a moving armature instead of your standard balanced armature it combines properties of both a standard BA and a dynamic driver so it moves air, to produce good low end tones whilst still being extremely detailed.
Fischer Audio TBA-04: £180 / $300
A really solid IEM that has a forward midrange and is clear from top to bottom but does not have the best extension on either side, especially in the deep lows where it will not be providing any slam or rumble. That being said if you have not heard a good IEM before this will impress right off the bat.
(R) Ocharaku FLAT 4 SUI – £250 / $410
This is one very special IEM. It has a magical sound signature with great detail and an amazing soundstage. It is worth noting how this is a revealing earphone, thus if you’re not giving it a great quality source it will tear your music to pieces. This is an IEM that ticks a lot of boxes and its sound is very unique indeed, I have not heard anything else quite like it. It packs deep bass, an airy midrange and a strong treble that can be a bit bright at times but is crystal clear.
Sonny thus awards it the best under £250 earphone award:
Under £500 range:
Shure Se535: £280 / $460
I wasn’t a big fan of the SE535, however I feel that it should be mentioned here due to their excellent mids and highs. My personal annoyance with the SE535 is that they really lacked bass quality and quantity, especially for their price. However, their mids and highs were excellent – these earphones are really designed for those that look for earphones which have a big presence in the mids and highs (almost designed for earphones that are built for on-stage use). I feel the SE535 was Shure’s way of converting an on-stage monitor for personal listening. This can work for some people and prove to be popular, however for other listeners it might prove to be earphones that are just a bit too tonally focused on the mids and highs.
(R) Phonak Audéo PFE 232 (discontinued but can still be found): £330 / $540
My favourite earphones I’ve ever come across. The PFE112 left me disappointed in the low end frequencies and thus when I got the PFE232s I was a little worried at what I would hear. I was very much surprised what a second BA driver did, as these have only 2 BA drivers (I mention this as a lot of the earphones in its range have 3 or 4 BA drivers). The PFE232 retained the excellent mids and highs from their younger brothers (and even added a little refinement to it), but completely blew me away with their low end frequency, something I was not expecting from a BA driver. The only other BA universal driver earphone to have done that to me were the TF10. However the TF10’s really failed majorly in the mids, whereas the PFE232 on the other hand really delivered beautiful mids and highs.
The PFE232’s thus really do well in every single aspect. They are my favourite universal earphones I’ve ever come across. Excellent mids (despite being a little recessed with other sub £500 earphones), excellent highs and more than anything, a spectacular low end with sub-bass that shines through.
I thus award it the best under £500 earphone award:
(R) HiFiMAN RE-600: £330 / $540
HiFiMAN do it again, they really do know how to make an IEM. This is a very similar balanced signature to their cheaper model, but we are treated to more detail and generally better technical abilities. The bass also managed to reach deeper and have some more feel to it. It also comes in two version with one being single ended and the other being balanced like mine for use with their own DAPs (they have 3 models that feature balanced outputs). If you want a small IEM that has great bandwidth, detail and does not overdo any frequency range then this is my choice for you.
Sonny thus awards it the best under £500 earphone award:
Westone W40: £400 / $655
This is perhaps one of the most comfortable IEM I have ever owned and it is also very well built. The sound is on the warm and thick side of the spectrum, but the detail is produces is still pretty impressive. The biggest let down is the lack of both sub-bass and the high extension. This is a very solid package and whiles not the best sounding in the price range, when factoring everything in it is a very solid choice indeed.
Rhapsodio RDB+ V1 Mini: £430 / $700
This is a stellar IEM that has a dynamic driver to give a strong deep bass response and then a classic Knowles TWFK for a detailed midrange and treble. This was very close in being my top pick but does have some colouration to it and thus the treble can get a touch sibilant if pairing with a bright source or amp.
Price Not an Object – Universal IEMs:
Earsonics S-EM6: £670 / $1100
One of the first 6 driver universals from the French based EarSonic and while the sound was certainly good enough to warrant a mention, I cannot say it was a tough decision between the 1plus2 and this. You can however expect great isolation with these.
(R) Tralucent 1plus2: £1000+ / $1640+ (Cable Dependent)
This is really a technical achievement. While the drivers are very similar to much cheaper models on paper, the sound is not even close with these really blowing most earphones I’ve tried out of the water. The soundstage is the biggest on any universal IEM I’ve tried, the bass is close to perfection and while you could say the midrange is a little bit recessed(still very clear and extremely detailed) this is actually there to add realism and make the soundstage more correct. The scary bit is that I have only heard it with the cheapest cable option (the stock silver cable) and reports are that when you choose a better cable, that’s tuned for the 1plus2, you get an improved sound. The only thing is that they don’t have the best isolation and they can sometimes slip a seal so they are more of a home use or sitting down IEM. Thus it isn’t something I would recommend when going on a run, that being said I would not want to be on the run with something this expensive.
Sonny thus awards it the best over £500 earphone award:
Price Not an Object – Custom IEMs:
Lear LCM-5: £700 / $1145
This is my reference earphones for all the earphones that I own. I have heard it been outdone in its technical abilities and more so in its musicality, but when it comes down to something that is neutral, this can easily be classed as a true reference monitor. That’s the reason why it justifies a mention in this guide.
(R) JH 13 Freq Phase: £950 / $1550
Although I have only heard a universal demo of this model, it is currently the best thing I have ever put in my ears. Everything is extremely detailed and tight, the midrange is excellent and the bass does have some grunt and depth to it. 6 drivers come together like one and the overall sound is mind blowing and really justifies why Jerry Harvey is not only the original CIEM maker but also why he is known as the master at it.
Sonny thus awards it the best over £500 earphone award:
Ultimate Ears PRM: £1200 / $2000 (Not Yet Available in the UK)
I have only tried a universal model of this as well; however found it a very cool concept by Ultimate Ears, allowing you to tune your CIEM to your own personal taste, with a special tuning box that comes with the earphones. That being said knowing the amount of bass to increase could really get the deep bass to show in great form. However, this was amazingly detailed with a beautiful soundstage and imaging.
Hope this guide helps you guys!