When I began my exploration of the high-end in-ear headphone market about six years ago, it was dominated by IEMs using balanced armature (BA) drivers. Most of these used two or more balanced armatures per earpiece, along with a crossover circuit to help utilize each driver to its fullest potential (see here for a brief intro to earphone crossovers). Only a couple of manufacturers – Sennheiser, for instance – insisted on using dynamic drivers in their flagship products.
Long before that, an idea that balanced armature earphones have trouble providing good bass impact whereas dynamic drivers couldn’t match the clarity of BA setups was born. Even in those days there were both balanced armature earphones with plentiful bass and dynamic earphones that were flat and accurate, but they were more the exception than the rule, and so the generalization stuck.
Nearly a decade ago, Ultimate Ears decided that combining a dynamic driver and a balanced armature in one earphone was a good idea. This “hybrid” setup, consisting of a dynamic driver and at least one balanced armature, was seen as capable – at least in theory – to capitalize on the strengths of both technologies. The Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 5EB was released in 2005, using a crossover to send the lower frequencies to a 13.5mm dynamic driver and the mids and treble to a balanced armature. “EB” stands for “Extended Bass”, and this first hybrid certainly did provide ear-quaking bass response.
The hybrid revival and current trend started years later with AKG’s flagship K3003 model, which became the first 3-way hybrid earphone at a rather hefty $1300 price. The K3003 was released in 2012 and combined a single dynamic driver at the rear of its cylindrical housing with a dual balanced armature (Knowles TWFK) unit mounted in the nozzle.
At least a dozen hybrid earphones have been released in the years since. The race was on to create a top-tier hybrid earphone without the massive price tag.
In addition to my original 2012 review of the AKG K3003, I’ve covered the Dunu DN-1000 triple-driver hybrid earphone, giving it a strong recommendation and including it in my 2014 IEM buyers guide earlier this year. Now, there is a new crop of hybrid IEMs, four of which get a spot in this write-up – the Sony XBA-H3, Fidue A83, T-Peos Altone200, and Dunu’s new DN-2000.
The T-Peos Altone200 doesn’t quite have the presentation of the three more expensive models – the Dunu, Sony, and Fidue are all at the top of their game with luxurious packaging designed to cover their massive $250+ price tags. Based on the older H-100, which is as luxurious as anything else in its price range, it seems T-Peos simply chose to keep things basic with the Altone200 in order to deliver it to the consumer at the lowest possible price, which is fine by me.
The included accessories are likewise very impressive between the three pricier models and toned down to the bare essentials with the Altone200. Worth pointing out are the spare headset cable included with the Sony XBA-H3, the otter-box style carrying case of the A83, and the extremely extensive fit kit of the DN-2000.
The Dunu’s fit kit includes a ton of eartips, a set of eartip spacers (also present on the DN-1000 model), as well as brand new fittings installed using a retention arm on the side of the housing and designed to keep the earphones in the ear more securely. The eartip spacers position IEM housing farther out of the ear and have an effect on sound, similarly to what is normally accomplished with tip rolling. This allows dozens of different combinations for the fit and sound, a tinkerer’s dream.
The full accessory list for the earphones is as follows:
Sony XBA-H3: single-flange “Sony Hybrid” silicone tips (3 sizes), foam-stuffed Sony Hybrid silicone tips (4 sizes), stereo audio cable, headset cable with mic + 1-button remote, and zippered carrying case
Dunu DN-2000: Single-flange wide-channel (3 sizes), single-flange narrow-channel (3 sizes), and bi-flange (3 sizes) silicone tips, foam tips, eartip spacer set (6 pairs in 3 sizes), ear fins (2 pairs), ear stabilizers (2 pairs), shirt clip, ¼” adapter, airline adapter, cleaning cloth, pair of cable guides, crushproof metal carrying case, and integrated cable wrap
Fidue A83: single-flange (3 sizes) and bi-flange (2 sizes) silicone tips, foam tips, 6.3mm adapter, airline adapter, otterbox-style crush-resistant carrying case
Altone200: single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), foam tips, shirt clip, and zippered carrying pouch
The build quality is on a very high level between all of the earphones. Two of them – the Fidue A83 and Sony XBA-H3 – have user-replaceable cables (both with MMCX connectors), but all four are well-made. The detachable cables on the Sony and Fidue are interesting because both companies slightly modified the connectors to stop them from rotating – something I found annoying with early MMCX earphones such as the Shure SE535. Fidue does this using an extra pin on the outside of the plug, which results in the A83’s cable being incompatible with other MMCX earphones. Other manufacturers’ cables will still work on the A83, though. The XBA-H3 has its connector recessed into the housing but will still work with some aftermarket cables.
The cable quality on both the A83 and XBA-H3 is fantastic, with the stock cables being well-made, flexible, and very resistant to microphonics. The Dunu DN-2000, while lacking detachable cables, is still extremely solid, like all things Dunu. Both the DN-2000 and the T-Peos unit utilize more conventional TPE cables. The lightweight aluminum T-Peos, with its thinner cables and more generic hardware, once again comes out a hair behind the others, but with the price difference factored in it is impossible to fault. Happily, no driver flex is present on any of the units.
There is a fair bit of variation when it comes to noise isolation. It is highest with the Dunu DN-2000, followed closely by the Altone200 and then the A83. With its large size and fitment that keeps most of the earphone outside the ear, the XBA-H3 simply wasn’t designed to maximize noise isolation. Like Sony’s previous flagship, the MDR-EX1000, it is an IEM best-suited for home use.
With cable noise (microphonics), things are back to normal – the pricier Sony, Dunu, and Fidue models have none or almost none, whereas the Altone200 is a little more susceptible, but easily tamed with over-the-ear wear.
Comfort will vary widely depending on the fit of the eartips, the listener’s ear shape/size, and other factors. The Sony XBA-H3 may be big and bulky, but it is lightweight and very comfortable in the ear, utilizing a rather thick memory wire section that is both soft and flexible.
The DN-2000 is rather large for a straight-barrel earphone, and the heaviest of the bunch, but comes with the most ear fittings including 10 pairs of eartips, eartip spacers to take the housing further out of the ear, and two different types of rubber retainers designed to keep the earphones from falling out. Still, the DN-2000 would not be my first pick for smaller-sized ears.
The Altone200 also uses a straight-barrel housings but is more lightweight and has a slimmer profile, making it more comfortable. For listeners who are used to conventional straight-barrel earphones, the Altone200 is pretty much guaranteed to work. It has a very basic eartip selection that should nonetheless suffice for most.
The A83 is the only one of the four with an ergonomic-type housing design. It’s not a small earphone, but the shape manages the size pretty well, reminding me of the Sennheiser IE7. The A83 is worn over the ear and the cable has a memory wire section.
Reference sources: HiFiMan HM-901 w/IEM card, OPPO HA-1
Other sources: Fiio E7, Cowon J3, LG Nexus 5
Sony XBA-H3 ($325)
Sony’s triple-driver hybrid stands out from the others by foregoing the use of a crossover circuit to split frequency ranges between the drivers. Instead, it uses a similar scheme to Sony’s Balanced Armature models, allowing the tuning of the drivers to act as a “natural” crossover of sorts. The 16mm dynamic driver pumps out the bass and a pair of armatures – one of them full-range and the other a specially designed “super tweeter” – handle the rest.
The XBA-H3 is the warmest of all the triple-driver hybrids I’ve tried, with bass that is deep and powerful. The low end towers over the midrange and at times causes slight veiling. The H3 has a very lush and full-bodied note presentation. It also sounds very coherent – perhaps due to the lack of crossovers. The treble, as presented by the super tweeter, is very smooth and refined without sounding overly dark – an impressive feat. The H3 is the most forgiving of the bunch, yet its top end is natural and well-extended. It is also quite spacious, with an open presentation that sounds very natural. Sensitivity is fairly low, however, and a higher input volume is required to reach listening levels.
Sony XBA-H3 vs Dunu DN-2000
The XBA-H3 is warmer, darker, and a little bassier in the conventional sense compared to the Dunu DN-2000. The DN-2000 has more deep bass, however, and its low end usually has more slam and rumble. The sub-bass emphasis of the DN-2000 is rather unusual, and the lack of matching strong mid-bass and overall fullness can give the impression of a mild disconnect between the bass and mids when compared to the hyper-coherent XBA-H3.
The clarity of the DN-2000 wins out by a bit, but it’s extremely impressive that the darker, smoother-sounding XBA-H3 keeps up as well as it does. The DN-2000 is more v-shaped overall and sounds brighter, with more treble sparkle. Remarkably, its treble quality is competitive with the XBA-H3 and quite high up there overall. It can be hotter than the XBA-H3, but only when necessary in order to stay accurate. The XBA-H3 has a more laid-back presentation than the DN-2000 but otherwise keeps up pretty well in terms of soundstage size.
Sony XBA-H3 vs Fidue A83
Compared to the XBA-H3, the Fidue A83 boasts a brighter tonal character and sound that’s more balanced overall. The XBA-H3 has more bass impact at the expense of more bass boom. The A83 is less mid-bassy and therefore both lighter and more controlled at the low end. The mids of the A83 are slightly clearer, but also thinner. The XBA-H3 has a more full-bodied sound but also sounds a little more veiled/muffled in the midrange. The Sony is smoother, too, while the A83 is brighter and less forgiving. Surprisingly, the A83 has a slightly more spacious presentation than the Sony unit, which is already very impressive in this regard.
Dunu DN-2000 ($315)
12/27/2014: full review of the DN-2000 has been posted here.
Dunu and T-Peos both have one advantage over the others in this lineup – they have tested the water with previous hybrid earphone releases. I’m a big fan of the Dunu DN-1000 – it does what a hybrid earphone should, combining very robust bass with clear mids and treble. Happily, the DN-2000 improves on the formula, delivering a sound that is more spacious and unconstrained. It creates a wider, airier sonic image that makes the DN-1000 – itself no slouch in the soundstaging department – sound intimate and a touch congested. Part of the reason the DN-2000 is able to do this is a slight decrease in bass emphasis – its sound is more balanced than that of the lower-end model.
The DN-2000 is by no means lacking in bass, however, delivering good punch and excellent extension. The mids are more prominent than those of the DN-1000 and in better balance with the low end, giving the newer earphone even better clarity and intelligibility. The treble of the DN-2000 is nicely extended and just as sparkly as that of the DN-1000 but seems to be a touch more refined. There’s enough top-end presence to convey the energy of cymbals, but the new model is slightly more tolerant of harshness and sibilance due to smoother lower highs, teetering on the right side of what I would call “unforgiving”.
In the grand scheme of things, the DN-2000 is a winner, an earphone that can go toe to toe with any other in clarity while delivering deep, controlled bass and without going overboard in the treble region.
Dunu DN-2000 vs Fidue A83
The A83 and DN-2000 are quite close in both performance and sound signature when compared to the others tested here. They differ most in presentation, with the A83 having a more out-of-the-head sound and appearing a little more distant and diffuse. It is slightly more balanced than the DN-2000, with a less colored tonal character. The Fidue set is also a bit more coherent, likely because the bass is less emphasized, especially in the sub-bass region, and therefore “disconnects” less from the rest of the sound. While the mids of the A83 are not recessed, they are slightly lacking in the way of crispness. The A83 also tends to be a little more revealing of sibilance, falling between the DN-1000 and the smoother DN-2000 in this regard.
Dunu DN-2000 vs Altone200
The Altone200 is an impressive earphone, especially considering the much lower cost, but lacks in the way of refinement compared to both the DN-2000 and A83. The DN-2000 is a little warmer and more balanced than the Altone200, largely due to its fuller midrange. The more v-shaped Altone2000 has bass that seems more impactful and digs deeper. Bass rumble is more impressive with the T-Peos and stands out more next to its thinner, more recessed midrange. Clarity of the T-Peos unit is very impressive, augmented by the brighter treble. The DN-2000 can usually keep up with the Altone200 in clarity, but only barely. Up top, the T-Peos is a little hotter through the upper mids and lower treble while the DN-2000 is smoother and more forgiving.
Fidue A83 ($349)
11/17/2014: full review of the A83 has been posted here.
Improving on the design – and the sound – of the dynamic-driver A81 model, the Fidue A83 is a balanced-sounding earphone with good bass impact. The A83 has a very unique presentation, with impressive width and depth and a somewhat diffuse sound. Aside from the warm and smooth XBA-H3, it is the least v-shaped of the hybrid earphones I’ve tried. To this end, it also benefited from a tip switch – the best results for me were with a pair of “short” double-flanges from Sennheiser.
In this configuration the A83 has mids that are not as thin as those of the DN-2000 and Altone200. Bass quantity is the lowest of the earphones tested here, though still above what I consider flat or “neutral”. The midrange lacks just a bit of crispness compared to the others. The top end carries good energy and strikes a fine balance between sounding revealing and harsh – it is more smooth than, for example, the Dunu DN-1000. The A83 is the best bet for those who are worried about the warmth and bloat of the XBA-H3 being excessive but don’t want the more v-shaped sound of the DN-2000, DN-1000, and Altone200.
T-Peos Altone200 vs Fidue A83
The T-Peos Altone200 is close to the significantly more expensive Fidue A83 in performance, but differs in sound signature. With more bass and brighter treble, it is more v-shaped than the A83. The bass of the Altone200 digs deeper and delivers more of both impact and rumble. I can see the more colored sound of the Altone200 being preferable with some genres (such as EDM), thanks in large part to the juicy bass. The A83 is lighter on sub-bass, which makes its mid-bass appear a little more prominent in comparison. It sounds warmer, closer to neutral, and a little more natural from a tonal standpoint. The mids of the A83 are not as recessed while the Altone200 definitely has a thinner and more withdrawn midrange. The clarity of the T-Peos is much more striking, due in part to the greater thickness of the Fidue’s midrange. The Altone200 tends to be more sibilant than the A83, though the Fidue set is by no means smoothed-over.
T-Peos Altone200 ($145)
T-Peos’ new model is by far the most reasonably-priced triple-driver hybrid on the market. This can be seen in the rather more modest packaging and accessories compared even to the $200 Dunu DN-1000, but not in the sound. The tuning of the Altone200 reminds me of the T-Peos H-100, which had the same emphasis on bass and clarity with a bright, v-shaped signature. The H-100 arguably went a little too far with that tuning, and the Altone200 can be viewed as a more refined, better-balanced upgrade to it.
The signature is still v-shaped, but the bass is excellent in both quantity and quality. The midrange is a little thin and withdrawn, but not with the same severity as that of the H-100. Clarity and detail are impossible to fault, keeping up with any other universal monitor I’ve tried recently. The Dunu DN-1000, for instance, has a more full-bodied midrange but the Altone200 sounds clearer.
At the top, the Altone200 picks up some steam and tends to run on the bright side. The lower treble can be a little hot and unforgiving. The stock tips didn’t do much to help, but switing to Comply foamies helped a little. I still think the Altone200 sounds best at low-moderate volumes, though, as this tends to dampen the v-shaped sound but makes even more impressive the clarity, bass prowess, and overall intelligibility of the earphones. The presentation of the Altone200 is typical of a v-shaped earphone, but again better than most, with excellent width and good depth to its soundstage and a good amount of air.
The T-Peos Altone200 can currently only be ordered via email on Head-Fi here.
The latest crop of triple-driver hybrid earphones reveals a welcome trend – better and cheaper. The Dunu DN-2000, for example, gives the AKG K3003 a run for its money at 1/4 the price, and the Altone200 brings triple-driver hybrid earphones to the $150-and-under price bracket.
The challenges and goals, so far as I can tell, are: 1. coherency between the different drivers; 2. leveraging the bass of the dynamic driver without having it overwhelm the mids and highs; and 3. extracting the expected clarity and detail from the balanced armatures without losing note thickness and resorting to excessive brightness. The XBA-H3, for example, does a great job of 1. but lags behind the others when it comes to 2. With these criteria, my favorite is the Dunu DN-2000, followed by the Fidue A83. Both of these deliver reasonably balanced, clear sound with bass impact that easily beats most reference-class BA setups without muddying up the sound.
The Sony XBA-H3 has a very unique sound signature and is more of a consumer-oriented earphone. It provides a warm, smooth sound but impresses most with its treble quality. It doesn’t leverage the potential for clarity the way the Dunu or T-Peos sets do, possibly because it lacks a crossover circuit, but competes well with smoother-sounding multi-BA setups like the Westone 40 and EarSonics SM3. It is also the only one here with headset functionality.
The Altone200 from T-Peos is the most reasonably-priced triple-driver hybrid on the market, and definitely a bargain for the performance offered. With clarity and detail resolution on par with the $1300 K3003, the Altone200 is going to be a reference point for future generations of triple-driver hybrids.
Look for full reviews of all four earphones in the coming months.