This post contains yet another set of short impressions on some of the many IEMs that have hit my desk in the past month. These are either noteworthy sets that are not near the top of my queue yet or IEMs that I’ve listened to but don’t plan to review at all for one reason or another. More of these IEM mini-reviews will appear on the Brief Impressions page as they are written up.[divider]
I always do a short comparative listen with everything that comes my way, which determines what is or isn’t worth reviewing. I have fairly relaxed standards for budget sets but anything costing $100 or more should at the very least be competitive with my two $50 benchmarks – the Sony MH1C and VSonic VSD1S. More expensive sets are expected to compete with the HiFiMan RE-400 ($99) and VSonic GR07 ($179) monitors.
These notes are based on brief listening impressions done over the course of a few evenings.
T-Peos Tank (est. $40)
The first of three new budget IEMs from Korea-based T-Peos, the Tank is a dynamic-driver earphone with an enhanced-bass sound signature. True to its name, the Tank feels quite sturdy, with a metal housing, narrow flat cables (which I prefer to conventional flat cables), and a well-relieved L-plug. The Tank also boasts an inline mic with a 1-button remote. It’s comfortable, too, with the 8mm driver permitting a slim and compact housing design.
The sound of the Tank is very enjoyable – it’s an enhanced-bass earphone with a warm tonal character. It has significantly more bass than the VSonic VSD1 but a hair less than the Sony MH1C (especially in the sub-bass region). Its mids manage to avoid veiling quite well, though, and don’t sound as recessed as those of the Sonys. Clarity is very good, beating out similarly-priced heavy-hitters such as the VSonic GR02 Bass Edition and Soundmagic E10. There is a tiny bit of elevation somewhere in the lower treble region, which is shared by all three of these new T-Peos sets and can sometimes result in mild sibilance, but overall the Tank is quite composed. The presentation is good, not great, as expected in the price range. The heavy bass hurts the imaging a touch compared to the less bassy Popular model.
Overall, the Tank appears to be a great option for the money – there aren’t many sub-$50 sets that perform on this level, and fewer still also boast headset functionality and sturdy construction. This one will get a full review later on.
Note: All of these T-Peos sets are pretty new so international availability is not great at this point, but this should change as they grow in popularity.
T-Peos Popular (est. $40)
The Popular is similar to the Tank in both price and construction. It, too, uses 8mm dynamic drivers but delivers a more balanced sound. Like the Tank, the Popular has slim metal housings, though their shape is more reminiscent of the pricier H-100 model. It has the same narrow flat cable as the Tank but lacks the mic/remote component.
The Popular differs most from the Tank in sound signature, having a less dominant low end and a slightly more neutral sound. Its bass is excellent – not as enhanced as that of the Tank, but not light by any means. Bass impact is only a hair below the VSonic VSD1S but its less recessed mids help the Popular sound a touch clearer than the VSonic set. Compared to the Astrotec AM-800, the T-Peos Popular has more bass impact but a less v-shaped signature overall, while the AM-800 has a wider, more spacious presentation. The VSonic GR02 Bass Edition has more bass and greater midrange recession, as well as a more sibilant top end than the Popular.
At the top, the Popular has a similar character to the Tank, with a treble peak or two resulting in a sound that is a touch harsher than I would like, especially at higher volumes. This is more noticeable with the Popular than the Tank thanks to its less bassy sound signature. Despite this, the Popular is my favorite of the three T-Peos sets with the clearest, most neutral sound signature. I wish it was a touch smoother from the upper midrange through the treble but that doesn’t stop it from being an extremely competitive $40 IEM. The popular will get a review alongside the bassier Tank.
The Spider is the newest of the T-Peos sets – so new, in fact, that I couldn’t find any trace of it online. Its colorful metal housings feature an engraved Spider design with a silkscreened spiderweb on the top of the earphones holding the respective Left/Right markings. The Spider is similar in size and shape to the Tank and Popular but has a conventional round cable instead of a flat one. A headset version of the Spider will be available as well.
The sound of the Spider is again bass-heavy, more similar in bass impact to the Tank than the Popular. It sounds a little more boomy, though. At the top, it has the harshness of the Popular but without the superior balance and clarity, which makes the similar treble character of the Spider seem a little more excessive. Unless the price of the Spider ends up lower compared to the Popular and especially the Tank, which has a similar sound signature, I don’t expect it to be recommended over those two.
Accidentally Extraordinary Bamboo Earbuds ($30)
In an industry where every manufacturer wants to underline its know-how, “Accidentally Extraordinary” is sort of an odd name. Good thing we don’t judge earphones on name alone.
Based out of Oakland, CA, AE is yet another company combining aluminum with wood from renewable sources in their headphone designs. Their first in-ear earphone, the $30 Bamboo is not the most refined-looking wooden earphone I’ve seen, but then it is less expensive than the likes of the Astrotec AM-800 and Thinksound TS01. The finish of the wood is a little rough and the overall design lacks the polish of the Astrotec and Thinksound sets, as well as the lovely-looking Meze model covered below. The raised L/R indicators, which are found on the strain reliefs, are a little too small for my liking and there’s some cable noise present as well. A 1-button remote and microphone are included.
The sound of the AE Bamboo is alright – the mids are forward and quite attention-grabbing. There is a good amount of bass but extension isn’t great, so it doesn’t quite have the depth of the T-Peos sets covered above. The presentation also appears quite flat, with the in-your-face mids and lack of bass reach resulting in somewhat constrained dynamics. Next to higher-end sets, the Bamboo is also lacking in clarity and all-around refinement.
I compared it to the Fidue A63, which is a mid-forward IEM done right, and found the AE Bamboo lacking in both bass depth and impact. The A63 sounds way more balanced overall and has a more dynamic sound with better layering. With the Bamboo, the mids are pushed too far forward and the whole thing ends up sounding flat. However, the lightweight, rounded housings of the Bamboo are much more comfortable in the ear compared to the metal A63.
I also compared the Bamboo to Monoprice’s 8320 (MEP-933) model, an entry-level set that has received a lot of praise for its balanced and clarity, and which is one of the few entry-level sets with forward mids. The Bamboo is bassier, muddier, darker, and sounds less natural than the 8320. The Monoprice unit, in comparison, lacks bass and offers even poorer subbass presence, but sounds a lot clearer.
All that said, there’s not really a lot of competition as far as budget mid-forward sets so if that’s what you’re after the Accidentally Extraordinary Bamboo might be worth a closer look. It won’t get a full review here, though.
Meze 11 Deco ($79)
Romania-based Meze specializes in wooden headphones and earphones that look amazing both in pictures and in person. The 11 Deco model is a beautiful wood-and-aluminum design – in terms of look and feel it is on a completely different level from the wooden AE buds covered above. The flared design looks good in the ear and is quite comfortable to wear. In addition to three sets of eartips and mic/1-button remote, the package includes a white carrying case – perhaps not the most practical color, but very nice-looking indeed.
Unfortunately the good news stops there – listening to the Meze I found none of the promised clarity and balance, in their place a boatload of bass. The bass extends very deep but is too boomy for the overall sound to be more than just OK. I compared the Meze to the Nuforce NE-700X, a similarly-priced set that also has too much bass for my liking but sounds quite good overall. Surprisingly, even next to the Nuforce the Meze 11 Deco sounded too bassy and lacked a good chunk of clarity and resolution.
I also pitted the 11 Deco against the RHA MA350, another bass-heavy earphone that I recommend often. This was a much closer match-up than with the Nuforce unit, but the less expensive RHA still sounds better to me – clearer and more natural. The Meze has more midbass, which is what seems to be responsible for its lack of refinement even compared to other bass-heavy IEMs. I’ll go ahead and skip reviewing this IEM.
NarMoo R1M ($30)
A new headphone manufacturer based out of Southern California, NarMoo has just released their first earphone – the R1M. The main feature of the R1M is the sound adjustment system with interchangeable tuning screws/ports. This concept, and even the color coding of the screws, should be familiar to owners of the MEElectronics SP51.
The R1M looks to be the next generation of earphones with interchangeable ports, with ports that are nice and large in contrast to similar designs I’ve seen in the past. The earphones boast a sturdy flat cable and inline mic/remote, and come with a very spacious carrying case. They are larger and heavier than the other sets so far in this lineup, but still fit me fairly well.
The sound tuning of the R1M follows the scheme of the MEElectronics SP51 – the black ports are the bassiest by far, followed by the darker silver (metallic) ones and the light silver ones with a small gap between them. The light silver ports are the most balanced. With the black ports in place the sound should be suitable for bass fans on a budget but was too boomy for me. With the metallic and silver ports the bass is much more manageable – not quite as tight as that of my pricier VSonic VSD1S benchmark, but close. The R1M also sounded a little dark in tone and edgy in the lower treble compared to the VSonics but impressed me with great clarity and a good sense of space.
The T-Peos Popular covered above also made for a good comparison to the R1M, boasting a little more bass compared to the NarMoo’s silver ports and a brighter sound. The NarMoo had a better sense of space , though, and the two were closely matched in all other areas.
It’s a little early to say for sure just where these will land on the value scale, but for $30 they have promise – I’ll pick them up again later on.
Astrotec AX35 ($80)
The AX35 is Astrotec’s BA + single dynamic hybrid, utilizing a Knowles ED driver and competing with the likes of the T-Peos H-100 and Dunu DN-900. It looks very polished with solid-feeling metal housings and a similar cable to the one I liked on the Astrotec AM-90, albeit outfitted with metal hardware that matches the aesthetic of the earphones.
The construction of the earphone itself is excellent but the lid of the tin case that came with my AX35 is a bit loose. Not a big deal and doesn’t make it any less crush-resistant, but just something to watch out for when using the case.
Unlike all of the sets above, the AX35 had no trouble when pitted against the VSonic VSD1S, putting out a slightly brighter but also clearer sound with a wider presentation. The more mid-bassy VSD1S had a warmer tonal character but gave a up a little too much clarity in exchange compared to the AX35.
I also compared the AX35 against T-Peos’ pricier H-100 hybrid. The H-100 has a very unique sound signature – the AX35 should be significantly less polarizing among listeners. It sounds fuller and has more bass than the H-100, albeit with a little more bass bloat as well. The H-100 sounds thinner and more scooped-out in the midrange, appearing a little clearer but also less natural from a tonal standpoint. The AX35 sounds more natural and its presentation is less distant with better depth/layering. Its treble is a little less forgiving, but I’ll give it some more time before passing the final verdict on that.
Compared to the HiFiMan RE-400 and VSonic GR07, the AX35 sounds more v-shaped overall. It has greater bass quantity, especially compared to the RE-400, but gives up a bit of tightness and sounds slightly more veiled in the midrange. The HiFiMan unit sounds significantly more mid-centric and smoother at the top end while the GR07 is only a touch more refined than the AX35 up top.
Overall, the AX35 has a lot going for it considering the $80 retail price. Time will tell how it compares to the Dunu DN-900, but it will definitely get a full review in the near future.
Olasonic Flat-4 Nami ($499)
The Flat-4 Nami is a dual-dynamic earphone built for Olasonic by Japanese Hi-Fi house Ocharaku. It utilizes a patented “sound pipe”, which is clearly visible in the design of the earphone, in an attempt to eliminate the 6kHz ear canal resonance that is common with in-ear earphones. Technically-inclined readers can find the US patent for this technology here. The twin 10mm drivers of the Flat-4 are oriented back-to-back, with the “sound pipe” connecting the chamber in front of the rear driver to the primary sound tube just before the nozzle.
The Flat-4 is a high-end earphone almost an order of magnitude more expensive than anything else here. Nonetheless its accessory pack, as sometimes tends to be the case with these limited-run Japanese earphones, is scant at best, featuring a spacious tin carrying case (thankfully, unlike the one included with the Astrotec AX35, this one stays closed) and two sets of Comply foamies. The earphones are fairly large and stick out of the ear when worn, but are surprisingly lightweight and with the included Comply eartips were very comfortable. They sound good with a shallow insertion and the slight nozzle angle should be enough for the ergonomics to work with most ears.
The Flat-4 Nami provided the most detailed and clear sound among the earphones tested here by a wide margin. Its strengths so far seem to be superb clarity and very controlled bass with excellent extension. I expected greater bass quantity after reading the manufacturer’s claims, but the Nami is not very heavy at the bottom end. Overall its sound is v-shaped, not so much because the midrange is recessed but more because the upper midrange and especially treble carry quite a bit of emphasis.
The Nami should work great with warmer sources and is a treat at lower listening volumes, which aren’t difficult to find as it is not a very sensitive earphone. At higher volumes the treble emphasis can cause it to sound harsh, though it seems to avoid sibilance pretty well, perhaps as a result of the target 6kHz reduction.
Compared to the VSonic GR07, the Nami sounded brighter and had tighter bass. At the listening volumes I found myself gravitating towards, the GR07 actually sounded warmer and a little more impactful, but also more mid-recessed and a touch veiled in comparison. The sibilance of the GR07 was also quite prominent next to the Flat-4.
Jury’s still out on how the Flat-4 will perform in the grand scheme of things, but its bright signature is certainly very unique on the US in-ear market and both the clarity and bass control are commendable.
More of these IEM mini-reviews will appear on the Brief Impressions page as they are written up.
Questions or comments? Leave them below.