THL has undergone quite a few changes this year, but our collective passion for portable audio remains high. With that our team has rounded up the items that have impressed them most over the course of the year. Whether you are shopping for yourself or another, this short guide highlights some of the best headphones and portable audio gear we’ve tried in 2017.
Final E2000 In-Ear Monitors (contributed by Ryan Soo): The E2000 from Final Audio offers an engaging yet tastefully balanced sound with a surprising amount of detail on top. Due to their semi-open nature, they don’t isolate especially well but produce a spacious soundstage and an immersive listen. The earphones feature a solid aluminium build and a supple albeit thin cable with small housings and innovative flexible ear tips, creating a comfortable fit. Full THL review
Shozy Hibiki In-Ear Monitors (contributed by Ryan Soo): Shozy’s latest in-ear impresses through its striking authentic carbon fibre construction and stable over-ear fit. It sports a bright yet revealing sound with plenty of speed and punch. The highlight of this earphone is its excellent noise isolation and removable cable made in conjunction with AAW. The cable has a practical remote/mic and can be swapped out by the user in the event of damage. Read full review
Penon BS1 Earbuds (contributed by Ryan Soo): With a warm, smooth and slightly darker sound combined with a perfectly comfortable fit, the BS1 can be listened to for hours on end. Its open form factor permits some situational awareness and a grand soundstage presentation. In addition, the earbud possesses solid aluminium housings and a very supple, well-built cable. This is a standout performer within the form factor. Full THL review
Advanced Sound Model 3 (contributed by Ryan Soo): Genuinely compelling wireless earphones can be hard to find south of several hundred dollars. That makes the $80 Model 3 quite outstanding; it is an earphone that features a super secure, isolating design combined with an innovative necklace-style wireless implementation. The Model 3 is a sleek earphone and features a removable cable, enabling it to run from a wired connection as well. Most importantly, its sound is engaging and detailed with a warm, lush low-end mated to a smooth midrange and crisp high-frequency presentation. The Model 3 is incredibly flexible and comprehensive for its modest asking price.
$100 – $250
Rose Mini 2 In-Ear Monitors (contributed by Ryan Soo): The Mini 2 is a dual balanced armature earphone within a minute form factor. It has an incredibly linear, balanced sound that reveals nuances like few others around this price. It also sounds very naturally voiced with great detailing and transience. The unique design is perfectly comfortable while remaining isolating and stable due to an over-ear fit. Rose also include a nice braided MMCX removable cable that is supple and can be replaced in the event of damage. Full THL review
Current price: $109 from Penon Audio
Simgot EN700 Pro In-Ear Monitors (contributed by Ryan Soo): Simgot took the best of the EN700 Bass and addressed almost all of its shortcomings. There is certainly no shortage of well-performing in-ears, yet the EN700 Pro stands out through its eye-catching metal build, excellent 8-core cable and warm, detailed sound. The EN700 Pro is an incredibly natural and spacious sounding earphone for Simgot’s asking price, with great comfort and design to top it off. Full THL review
Avara Custom AV2 Custom In-Ear Monitors (Contributed by Deezel): The AV2 is a 2-driver monitor from Indonesian company, Avara Custom. Although they’ve only been operational for a few months, the AV2 proves their dedication to both value and quality. From 3D-printed shells to mechanical watch parts, their cosmetic options are endless. Sonically, the AV2 is one of the most transparent 2-driver IEMs I’ve heard. Separation, vocal clarity and dynamics all thrive with neither thinness not fatigue. A mightily impressive IEM for those who prefer jazz, classical and other vocal-oriented genres, the AV2 – at its price – is one of the strongest must-buys of the season. Full THL review
Effect Audio x Music Sanctuary Eos IEM Upgrade Cable (Contributed by Deezel): The Eos is a collaborative effort from Singapore’s portable audio specialists. Fusing Effect Audio’s award-winning copper Litz wires with hand-selected Japanese componentry, the Eos represents the pinnacle of entry-level cables today. Although copper cables have become associated with modifiers like “warm”, “rich” and “tube-like”, the Eos was tuned with a penchant for technical performance; displaying excellent treble extension, separation and finesse with any IEM it’s attached to. If sparkle, spatial resolution and authority are the qualities you’re after, the Eos is a stunning sonic performer with the ergonomics and aesthetics to back it up; an instant upgrade waiting to happen. Full THL review
$250 – 500
Oriveti New Primacy In-Ear Monitors (contributed by Ryan Soo): The New Primacy is an excellent all-rounder featuring a hardy aluminium build, ultra-comfortable over-ear fit, and removable 8-core cable. They deliver an incredibly balanced sound with a hint of extra bass body and treble crispness. Their midrange is smooth and their treble detailed but non-fatiguing. The New Primacy offers minimal compromise at an attainable price point. Full THL review
Meze 99 Classics Closed-Back Portable Headphones (Contributed by Pinky_Powers): The Meze 99 Classics are my favorite closed-back headphones. There’s something about the balance of deep, booming warmth, supreme vocal clarity, and sparkly highs that gets me every time. I have far more expensive open-back headphones, but when I take the 99C to work with me, I fall madly in love with these mid-range cans all over again. It doesn’t hurt matters they are also wonderfully comfortable and some of the most attractive things ever crafted by humans. Full THL review
Shanling M3s Digital Audio Player (Contributed by Pinky_Powers): The Shanling M3s may not quite match the Cayin N5II, but at this price, I’ll take it. The sound quality is a significant step up from any of the lesser players I’ve tested, and it’s jammed full of cool hardware. 2.5mm balanced out. Bluetooth input and output. HiByLink. Not to forget, a light, small chassis. The M3s is a joyous little player I love to take out with me. Full THL review
Cayin N5II Digital Audio Player (Contributed by Pinky_Powers): The Cayin N5II wins Pinky’s award for best mid-tier DAP. This neutral-warm audio player renders clean, exquisitely refined music. You’ll lose yourself in the spacious soundstage, and marvel at the depth and layering. The N5II is gorgeous and feature rich. 2X SD slots. 2.5mm balanced out. Bluetooth, WiFi. And most importantly, a volume wheel.
Astell&Kern AK70 Digital Audio Player (Contributed by Deezel): The Astell&Kern AK70 is the cream of the crop as far as mid-tier DAPs are concerned. Fusing AK’s highly-acclaimed user interface and sonic performance with astounding portability, the AK70 is the epitome of porta-fi. It sports a sound signature that strays away from reference and embraces musicality, warmth and fun. It isn’t the most transparent player, nor is it the most neutral. But, for its price, functionality and form factor, it’s pretty much as good as it gets. The Astell&Kern AK70 is the best ergonomics-first player I’ve ever encountered; a true crowd-pleaser that fits in the palm of your hand.
Flares Pro (contributed by Ryan Soo): Cloaked in brushed titanium and sporting the latest and greatest in wireless innovation, the Flares Pro sounds exceptionally good; not just for a wireless earphone and not just for its price range. The earphones boast a vivid and highly resolving sound with tight yet visceral bass set to revealing and incredibly detailed highs. Furthermore, the Pro has the best wireless implementation on the market with APT-X support and a custom balanced wireless module creating a perfectly clean sound that bests most wired connections. The earphones also implement a removable cable from the y-split down and thoroughly impress with their ergonomics. If price is no object, wireless earphones don’t get better than this! Full THL review
Custom Art FIBAE 2 Custom In-Ear Monitors (Contributed by Deezel): The Custom Art FIBAE 2 is another 2-driver CIEM that threatens its pricier competitors with superb sound for both its price and driver configuration. Sporting a darker and more v-shaped signature, the FIBAE 2 is a monitor that takes top-flight dynamism to the intermediate-level. The FIBAE 2 is an IEM that has it all; whether it’s a roaring sub-bass for dance, a rich midrange for voices, or an articulate treble for detail. Add to that Custom Art’s FIBAE technology – which retains the IEM’s signature regardless of source – and you have yourself one cracker of a Christmas gift. Full THL review
Empire Ears Spartan IV Custom In-Ear Monitors (Contributed by Pinky_Powers): The Empire Ears Spartan IV is the finest earphone I’ve heard under $1500. I use it on a regular basis, and it never fails to wow me. Balance is the mission statement. Spartan delivers an effortless, natural sound that perfectly captures the air and power of a live performance. It’s simultaneously clear and warm, with killer lows, fabulous highs, vocals that bring you right to the concert, and excellent extension at both ends. Get these, and you’ll ponder why there’s an upper tier at all. Full THL review
MrSpeakers Aeon Flow Open Full-Size Headphones (Contributed by Deezel): The MrSpeakers Aeon Flow Open is a headphone I’ve only recently been able to hear, but it’s a headphone I loved as soon as I hit play. The Aeon is a product of several things done exceptionally well. Combining the best traits of well-regarded headphones – like the Sennheiser HD650’s timbral accuracy, the HD800S’s clarity and separation and the Focal Elear’s dynamic punch – the Aeon Flow Open thrives on its balance of technical performance and musical allure. If you’re looking for a flagship-class headphone with outstanding value, drivability and comfort, the Aeon Flow Open is an absolute no-brainer.
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