The Headphone List Find the best portable audio for your needs Sat, 16 Mar 2019 04:38:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Headphone List 32 32 Effect Audio Leonidas II Octa – The King’s Parade Sat, 16 Mar 2019 04:37:20 +0000 DISCLAIMER: Effect Audio provided the Leonidas II Octa in return for my honest opinion. I am not personally affiliated with the company in any way, nor do I receive any monetary rewards for a positive evaluation. I’d like to thank Effect Audio for their kindness and support. The review is as follows.

With the release of every 4-wire Effect Audio cable comes the same old question: “I wonder what an 8-wire variant would sound like?” And, Effect Audio have ceaselessly, unfailingly responded. Hot off the heels of their excellent Leonidas II, the Singaporean giants have gone and released the Octa variant as both a standalone product and an upgrade path for pre-existing owners. But, as we’ve seen with conductors in the past – including Effect Audio’s very own Lionheart – doubling wire count does not guarantee an objectively superior experience. As they say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” So, will the Octa echo the successes of the Bespoke Ares II and Thor II, or will it crumble under its original form’s own pedigree?

Effect Audio Leonidas II Octa

  • Wire composition: 26 AWG UPOCC Palladium-plated silver + Litz silver hybrid
  • Default configuration: 8-wire
  • Key feature(s) (if any): Palladium plating, UltraFlexi insulation
  • Price: $1888
  • Website:

Build and Accessories

According to Effect Audio, the Octa’s retail packaging will differ from the Leonidas II’s. Obviously, it’ll reflect the jump in price as well. However, the unit I was provided with did not come with said packaging, so I’m unable to include it in this review. Please refer to their social media pages for further information on the new packaging when it does come out.

Ergonomically, Effect Audio continue to impress. This Leonidas II maintains the original’s silky, smooth texture, resulting in a more supple, less-plasticky feel than all the other 8-wire conductors in my possession. Relative to the Bespoke Ares II or the Janus D, there seems to be less friction within each braid. This gives the Leonidas II Octa a wider, freer range of motion, as well as a reduced sense of density. In braiding consistency, excellence is pretty much a given for Effect Audio at this point. The runs are tightly, evenly wound, and the transitions between different braiding types are well-executed too. This is certainly the most comfortable 8-wire cable I’ve experienced – indicative of Effect Audio’s constant progress.

Hardware is another arena where Effect Audio have constantly upped their game. The Octa sports the same, chrome-accented hardware I covered in my Janus D and Leonidas II reviews. And, they look as gorgeous as ever. Again, the mirror finish is mesmerising, and the logos engraved directly onto the plugs ensure a clean and permanent aesthetic. The leather Y-split is as stunningly exotic as ever. The organic, sunburst finish contrasts the metal elements beautifully. And, it’s worth noting again that the Y-split is modular, which opens the door for further customisation in the future.

]]> 0 Nocturnal Audio Avalon – Shoot to Thrill Fri, 08 Mar 2019 17:09:26 +0000 DISCLAIMER: Nocturnal Audio provided me with a discounted price on the Avalon in return for my honest opinion. I am not personally affiliated with the company in any way, nor do I receive any monetary rewards for a positive evaluation. I’d like to thank Nocturnal Audio for their kindness and support. The review is as follows.

Nocturnal Audio is a custom in-ear and aftermarket cable manufacturer based in South-East Asia’s audiophile haven: Singapore. After honing their craft through years of reshell work, they began offering concoctions of their own in the sub-$1000 market: The 2-driver Gorham and the 4-driver Atlantis. Now, joining the two is the 3-driver Avalon – priced squarely in the $500 market and packed with their latest technological innovation: AEX technology. But, after the recent upswing in bang-for-the-buck in-ears with proprietary innards, can the Avalon perform and stand out from the crowd?

Nocturnal Audio Avalon

  • Driver count: Three balanced-armature drivers
  • Impedance: 12.5Ω @ 1kHz
  • Sensitivity: N/A
  • Key feature(s) (if any): AEX technology
  • Available form factor(s): Custom acrylic in-ear monitors
  • Price: S$679
  • Website:

Build and Accessories

The Avalon arrives in a Pelican-esque clamshell case – adorned simply with a Nocturnal Audio badge on top. It’s decidedly simple and unassuming; more at home in a musician’s tour case than a luxury jewellery store. It won’t make for an extravagant unboxing experience, but it’s certainly functional. Inside, you’ll find a modest set of accessories: A cleaning tool, a cable tie and a microfibre cloth. As I’ve stated multiple times in the past, this to me is the bare minimum for what constitutes a custom in-ear accessories package. But nevertheless, for the price range the Avalon resides in, it doesn’t miss any marks. Though, Nocturnal Audio should think about kicking it up a notch for their inevitably pricier products.

My Avalon came in Nocturnal Audio’s Abstract Swirl shell design; incorporating a trio of blue, black and gold. On top are blue stabilised wood faceplates with silver artwork engraved. In terms of design, this is definitely one of my favourites. The three colours while blended together are still distinctly recognisable. The textures on the faceplates match the shells perfectly. And, lacquer is illustriously even all around. Fit-wise, I don’t have any complaints. The contouring perhaps isn’t the smoothest I’ve experienced, but this is an in-ear that remains comfortable for hours on end, regardless. The horn bores on both sides aren’t the cleanest I’ve seen either. But again, these are very minor nitpicks beside high, high praise.

AEX Tuning Technology

AEX tuning technology is a fusion of electronic and acoustic tuning developed by Nocturnal Audio. The aim is to produce quicker high-frequency transients, as well as a deeper bass response. The former is accomplished with a specially-selected solid capacitor, while the latter makes use of a specially-designed resistor network. The acoustic portion of this manifests in the form of the bass driver’s sound tube. It’s apparently been specially tweaked in order to improve speed and reduce decay. As we proceed to Sound Impressions on the next page, we’ll soon see how effectively AEX technology functions in the bigger picture (hint: it definitely performs), as well as my likes and dislikes in regards to its effects.

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Simgot EM3 Review – Razzle Dazzle Tue, 05 Mar 2019 01:34:33 +0000 Pros – 

Outstanding vocal clarity, Very clean tone, Great separation, Comfortable

Cons – 

Bright background can be polarising, Mediocre noise isolation

Verdict – 

The EM3 offers the technical performance missing from the EN700 series and constructs a revealing yet musical image upon a solid technical foundation.

Introduction –

It seems there’s a new ChiFi audio manufacturer every other day and certainly, those that keep up with social media can become overwhelmed within the modern audio scene with the sheer number of releases. Simgot did not have such a graceful start, in fact, their first earphone was not well-received. Despite this, they took constructive feedback and developed the unpopular EN700 into a highly successful line of earphones with the later Bass and Pro.

Recently, they have been hard at work expanding their product line-up with the all-new EM series and even a planar magnetic headphone down the line. The EM3 represents their midrange offering that features a 3 hybrid driver configuration. It adopts a considerably smaller housing than the EN700 earphones in addition to a substantially different tuning, substituting warmth and body with clarity and energy. This earphone is reminiscent of Japanese style tuning with a Chi-Fi twist.

Disclaimer –

I would like to thank Simgot very much for their quick communication and for providing me with the EM3 for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the earphones free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.

Accessories –


The EM3 is well packaged with a sleeve covering a hard box. Inside are the earphones, a beautiful magnetic faux leather carrying case and two cards containing 3 pairs of tips each. The two sets of tips offer different sounds, one being bass orientated, the other more balanced. In addition, Simgot provides a cleaning tool.

Design –

As aforementioned, the EM3 strikes as a substantially more compact earphone than its predecessor. Similarly, it adopts a predominately plastic housing with metal accents that retain a fairly premium feel while drastically decreasing weight. They are also shapelier with smooth edges that should permit a comfortable fit with a wider range of ears.


The EM3 is a very slim earphone that doesn’t protrude excessively from the ear. It has a medium fit depth on behalf of long nozzles that are ergonomically angled. Despite producing a strong seal and a stable fit, they produce just average noise isolation, though it is improved over the EN700 earphone, possibly due to venting for the dynamic driver. Still, with an over-ear fit, increased fit depth and lighter housings, the EM3 is considerably more stable in the ear than the EN700 earphones, especially during active use.


Up top is a 2-pin 0.78mm removable cable system. The included unit is of high quality just like the unit included with the EN700 Pro. It has 6N OCC silver-plated copper internals and a kevlar jacket that still manages to remain supple. Though orientation is easily discerned from the shape of the housings Simgot’s choice to colour right blue and left red may can confuse on first use. Otherwise, the keyed connectors are solid and the cable is supple and tangle-resistant. It is well-relieved and has a premium straight, case-friendly 3.5mm plug.

]]> 1 Hidizs MS4 Review – Grande Thu, 21 Feb 2019 02:19:13 +0000 Pros –

Excellent build quality and cable, Engaging W-shaped tuning, Open high-end, Flexible connectivity

Cons –

Somewhat muddy bass, Brighter background can be polarising

Verdict –

Though not perfectly balanced and a touch muddy down low, the MS4 has a grand, open and engaging sound with great detail retrieval and glossy vocals.

Introduction –

Hidizs are one of the original Chi-Fi DAP manufacturers. They had a somewhat tumultuous start but quickly gained momentum, coming to produce some of the most compelling and competitive products in the current market. In turn, Hidizs introduce the Mermaid series of in-ear earphones, the single dynamic driver MS1 and the more sophisticated MS4, a 4-driver hybrid with in-house 10.4mm dual magnet dynamic driver.

The MS4 comes in at a lower-midrange price of $299 USD and is available for just over $200 to backers of their Kickstarted campaign. This puts them in direct competition with the new wave of ChiFi top hits. Nonetheless, Hidizs come well-armed, with the MS4 sporting a premium design and accessory set in addition to the option of bundling with USB-C and wireless cables, an innovative advance for smartphone listeners. You can read more about the MS4 here and see their campaign here.

Disclaimer –

I would like to thank Kevin from Hidizs very much for his quick communication and for providing me with the MS4 for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the earphones free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.

Accessories –


Also included are 4 sets of eartips in small, medium and large. Each has its own sound, balanced are equipped from factory with the option to install foam, bass and vocal tips for a warmer or brighter sound in addition to a different fit. Bundles also include a USB-C or Bluetooth cable.

Design –

The MS4 is a medium/large sized earphone shaped similarly to the Fiio FH5. It is ergonomic with protruding nozzles that enable a deeper fit. Slight bolstering of the rear housing provides additional stability and comfort around the anti-helix of the ear. The housings are entirely aluminium with an even finish and eye-catching texture. They are almost satin with greater lustre than most aluminium in-ears.


The faceplates join seamlessly with gold accents that match the metal nozzles. The faceplates have a brushed metal aesthetic with gold Hidizs branding and gloss finish on top. The earphones are attractive and provide a positive impression of great solidity, they should withstand daily use and abuse well.

They fit nicely, medium to deep with smaller sized ear tips due to the shape of their nozzles. They protrude a fair amount from the ear but didn’t rub or produce hotspots during my testing despite their size. Isolation is surprisingly good for a hybrid, certainly above average but still not comparable to a fully-sealed armature earphone. Still, they easily suffice for public transport, especially with their bold low-end tuning.


Up top, the earphones implement un-recessed 0.78mm connectors that enable the cable to be replaced or upgraded. The stock cable is terrific, incredibly supple and compliant with zero memory and minimal microphonics. It has case friendly connectors, adequate strain relief and premium metal terminations. The pre-formed earguides are comfortable and well-shaped. Hidizs also offer a USB-C cable with in-built DAC in addition to a Bluetooth cable that can be purchased separately or in a bundle.

Their USB-C cable is quite impressive with a low output impedance and a high maximum volume. It has a slightly more V-shaped sound to my ear, especially bringing out the highs. Though it is thinner than the stock cable, it is a very strong and modestly priced option for smartphone users without a headphone jack such as myself. It worked flawlessly with my Google Pixel 3.

]]> 0 Vision Ears VE6XC – Cirque de Soul’eil Tue, 19 Feb 2019 20:06:37 +0000 DISCLAIMER: Vision Ears provided me with the VE6XC in return for my honest opinion. I am not personally affiliated with the company in any way, nor do I receive any monetary rewards for a positive evaluation. I’d like to thank Vision Ears for their kindness and support. The review is as follows.

Vision Ears is an in-ear manufacturer based in Cologne, Germany. Like many of their compatriots in the automobile industry, they’ve garnered massive acclaim from enthusiasts and press worldwide by virtue of performance, build and customer service; offering some of the best-sounding and best-looking in-ear monitors today. Although most currently associate Vision Ears with their ultra-premium Erlkönig – a thirteen-driver, four-signature monster – we’ll be looking today at what can be considered an Erlkönig Jr.: The venerable VE6XC with six drivers and two switchable signatures. Nearly five years after its initial launch in 2014, can Vision Ears’ former top-of-the-line truly stand the test of time?

Vision Ears VE6XC

Driver count: Six balanced-armature drivers
Impedance: 20Ω @ 1kHz
Sensitivity: 122dB @ 1mW
Key feature(s) (if any): Two switchable signatures via the XControl switch system
Available form factor(s): Custom acrylic in-ear monitor
Price: €1930

Build and Accessories

The Vision Ears unboxing experience is truly in a league of its own. Encasing the company’s all-black metal box is purple crepe paper with a signed, handwritten note from company founder Amin Karimpour; welcoming you to the VE family. I think it’s a gorgeous personal touch, showcasing an attention to detail that extends far beyond the in-ears alone. And, the sheer number of them I’ve seen shared on social media goes to show how a little bit of charm can go a long way.

Once the wrapping paper is removed, the gift inside is revealed: Vision Ears’ signature tank of a vault with a gorgeous matte finish and a classy metallic latch. For this review, I decided to take advantage of the case’s customisability and engraved my icon and signature where the company logo usually sits. This typically comes at a €32 premium. I think they’ve done a marvellous job realising the design I sent them. In fact, the case as a whole is immaculately finished with smooth geometries, zero loose joints and seamless integration between the metal and non-metal components. Even if it comes across closer resembling a jewellery case than a no-nonsense storage unit, I don’t see the fault in a touch of flair.

Moving on to accessories, Vision Ears do not cease to impress. All of their monitors come with a full suite of extras: A user’s guide, a microfibre cloth, a carrying pouch, cleaning spray, two pieces of desiccant, a 1/4″ adapter, a cleaning tool and – to top it all off – a shiny VE sticker. The vault even has magnet-sealed compartments to store them all. Amongst the plethora of in-ears in my collection, this is certainly the most well-stocked accessories package I’ve yet encountered.

Then, we get to the monitors themselves. Exuding German chic in spades, the VE6XC is one of the most well-built in-ears in my arsenal to date. The shells are acrylic-filled, so they aren’t the clearest I’ve encountered transparency-wise. But regardless, they display outstanding consistency in thickness, smoothness and sheen. Obviously, that translates to fit too. The VE6XC sits somewhat uniquely in the ear, locking onto the anti-tragus and the top of the concha; rather than the bowl. But once inserted, the in-ears easily balance security and comfort – neither a rough edge nor a hot spot in sight.

Cosmetically, the monitors are nothing short of gorgeous. Out of the 32 shell colours and 68 faceplate options available for you to choose, I opted for Smokey Grey shells, Champagne Purple faceplates and silver metallic logos. With the myriad of designs Vision Ears are capable of, it wasn’t easy. But, their excellent web designer does allow you to experiment with endless combinations until you find the one for you. Although the top dog here is still JHAudio’s fully three-dimensional interface, Vision Ears still rank high in the two-dimensional domain; along with Empire Ears, Custom Art and 64Audio.


XControl is what Vision Ears call their analog switch system installed onto the VE6XC’s faceplates. It allows the user to choose between two signatures: X1 and X2. The X1 setting is more bass-emphasised. Its low-end is punchier and warmer, and its stage is more saturated as well. The X2 is the more neutral and balanced setting. It’s ideal for listeners who prefer a more laid-back, refined and open listening experience, as well as professional work. The switches themselves are of high quality. And, Vision Ears have done an excellent job ensuring there aren’t any traces of glue on or around them. Though, it’s worth noting that the company’s signature mirror faceplates are incompatible with the XControl system.

]]> 6 Focal presents its new closed flagship: Stellia Sat, 16 Feb 2019 16:27:55 +0000 Disclaimer: the Focal Stellia was on loan for a brief period of time.

My hi-fi interests have always been strictly confined to IEMs for purely practical reasons, but I did make a brief foray into the grand world of headphones last year when I started visiting my local store Hifi Solutions on a regular basis. But the final trigger to immerse myself in the segment was the pressing recommendation of a friend to try the Focal Utopia: a relatively new headphone at the time, with high aspirations for a spot among ‘the best’. I borrowed it for a while and found his enthusiasm to be justified, which was mirrored in my brief review of Utopia.

When Rick (from Hifi Solutions) informed me if Focal wanted to gauge my interest to write an introductory piece for their new headphone I was initially hesitant, since I consider myself semi-officially retired. But the mention of a new co-flagship from Focal was sufficient to put a foot back in the door, so I let my curiosity get the best of me. Spoiler alert: once again, I was not disappointed.

Focal touts a high-tech beryllium driver for its performance, while its design speaks for itself – opinions might differ, but I find the cognac brown combinations particularly elegantly styled. Back when I tried Utopia, one of its most important features that convinced me to give it a shot was its efficiency – it could be sufficiently driven by DAPs. Stellia again has a low impedance of 35Ω, and can indeed be driven by DAPs. I can attest this isn’t just a claim that relates to volume rather than actual sound quality, as I used both a SPL Phonitor X as well as my A&K SP1000 and Lotoo Paw Gold Touch to drive it to satisfaction.

Sound impressions

Stellia did not require a lot of time to impress – within minutes, I was smitten. A driving factor for the quick appreciation was probably my familiarity with and fondness of Utopia. For Stellia builds forth on the path Utopia set out – it doesn’t try to differentiate itself from Utopia with an all-new signature. Rather, Focal kept the primary components that made Utopia so exciting – its high resolution and mid- and upper-mid tuning – while making a relatively minor, but essential tweak to its treble. For Stellia boasts an excellent treble extension, but Focal has managed to keep the treble range on the whole fairly linear. Accordingly, the treble sounds remarkably clear and present, but without un unnatural sense of brightness. Clarity without sharpness, alongside an elegantly timed decay.

The result is a smoother and more refined version of Utopia, with an excellent tonal balance. Utopia is a fantastic headphone, exciting even. But its sense of excitement is partially derived from its 10 KHz treble peak, which can potentially make it a bit too much for some people. Stellia provides the same level of resolution and precision of imaging, but doesn’t rely on an upper treble peak to push detail in your face. At the same time, it maintains a similar tonal balance in its midrange tuning.

Honestly, its tone is among the very best I’ve heard so far, IEM or headphone. One might be inclined to label it as ‘neutral’, but previous headphones that have been attributed that definition wouldn’t do it justice. A key ingredient is the upper-mid tuning, which imbues the presentation with a similar beauty as Utopia. It isn’t warm, it isn’t bright, and it definitely isn’t sterile: it’s lively and engaging, but without the treble edginess that often feels as a mandatory requirement for a sense of energy – this is a tuning that is clearly designed to bring out the best of the midrange. It resonates with a transparent sound that is more on the stimulating side, but the treble is less distracting.

Similar to Utopia, a characteristic 2 KHz bump boosts Stellia’s vocal presentation. It’s not an enlarged vocal image in terms of size, but they are incredibly focused. Stellia’s vocals are clearly articulated, and claim a central position within the stage. This way they remain the centerpiece of the ensemble, while their moderate size effectively leaves enough room for the rest of the instruments. Accordingly, both the instruments and vocal share a similar sense of presence and weight. Often a disbalance occurs when vocals are especially enlarged, usually driven by an enhanced mid-bass.

Stellia’s bass however provides an engaging sense of impact, without its mid-bass influencing either the tone or transparency. It’s a fairly tight, but rounded bass with a typical dynamic driver’s sub-bass weight. In overall quantity it might be considered ‘average’ or ‘neutral’, but due to its excellent bottom-end extension the bass quantity does not need to be high to create a thoroughly engaging impact. Better yet, the moderate quantity benefits the transparency and separation, without sacrificing on enjoyment. There’s an uplifting sense of energy fueling the impact of the music, without overpowering it. But it is simply very well controlled, allowing the resolving power of the midrange to shine through.

The soundstage is probably roughly average in dimensions, and reminiscent of Utopia in both dimensions and quality despite being a closed variant. I am going off memory here so there will undoubtedly be some differences, although I doubt they are defining. While it isn’t the largest stage on the market, the space itself is highly defined due to the stability of the background blackness and high resolution. As a result, it conveys a sense that every instrument is given the whole opportunity to manifest itself in its natural form, without interference from the other components. Again, the controlled bass plays an instrumental role to create this perfect sense of separation. The combined result is a precise image, which an overarching feel of musicality due to its engaging tone.


Clearly, I am pretty enamored with Stellia. The combination between its tonal balance and performance is simply stellar. Stellia sounds thoroughly engaging, presenting a sound that feels true and natural despite it not being particularly warm. Stellia will be staking a claim to be among the best closed headphones currently on offer, and I can’t imagine it not finding its place there rapidly.

I’ve listened to a fair share of headphones by now, but I’ve never felt a strong temptation to consider one. Due to my on-the-go listening,
I have always been a strict IEM user. But if there was ever a headphone that could convert me, this might just be the one. Simply because the incremental step in quality from an IEM is significantly worth it – in terms of both resolution and tuning I haven’t heard an IEM that can rival it.

Focal Stellia
MRSP: $3000

Focal Website | Stellia

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Master and Dynamic MW07 Review – True Win Stereo Sun, 10 Feb 2019 13:12:11 +0000 Pros –

Reliable wireless connection, Excellent build quality and fit, Bold, exciting yet tight sound

Cons –

Very sculpted midrange, Below average noise isolation, Mediocre call quality

Verdict –

In a market bustling with futuristic, almost over-designed products, the MW07 delivers a simple yet focussed approach that ends up being just as usable and ever more practical.

Introduction –

Master and Dynamic are a younger audio company that nonetheless carry themselves with experience and expertise. This has been repeatedly demonstrated with their quality headphone offerings and, more recently, in-ears and Bluetooth speakers. They have also demonstrated their adaptability with the launch of some innovative models such as the MW50 that can function as both an on and over-ear headphone.

In this vein, the MW07 also represents innovation as one of the first audio-focussed true wireless in-ear earphones on the market. It is priced at $299 placing it alongside other premium offerings from Sennheiser and Bang & Olufsen. M&D’s model offers their signature rock-solid build quality in addition to eye-pleasing design and what I would consider to be one of their best sounds yet. You can read more about the MW07 here.

Disclaimer –

I would like to thank Andrew from Master & Dynamic very much for his quick communication and for providing me with the MW07 for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the earphones free of cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.

Unboxing –


The MW07 has a premium unboxing that reinforces its premium status. Inside a cleanly designed sleeve is a hard box containing the earphones and gorgeous stainless steel charging case. Also included are 3 pairs of silicone ear tips in addition to two sizes of wing fit stabilisers. Master and Dynamic provide a nice fabric sheathed USB-C charging cable in addition to a canvas pouch for the charging case to prevent scratches during transit. The ear tips are quite unique with a funnel bore and thick stem that grant them a rather unique sound as opposed to other silicone tips. As such, I found the stock tips to pair best with the MW07 in terms of sound.

Design –

The MW07 honours Master & Dynamic’s legacy with the same solid build quality and striking design as their past products. Like other TWS designs, the earpieces are light though M&D’s BOM creates a substantially sturdier feel than competing models, even premium offerings from B&O and Sennheiser. This can be attributed to their hand finished acetate faceplates and use of dense, textured plastics in addition to a high level of finish with smoothly formed edges and clean joins.


Another interesting attribute of these earphones is their fit. The entire inner housing is surrounded by a silicone cover with small fins that lock into the anti-helix. This provides additional grip and stability in the ear in addition to enhancing comfort by providing a softer feel in the ear. For my ears, the fins did create a mild hotspot at the back of my ear, however, they were more comfortable to me than the larger Momentum TWS and E8. Also, take into account that they do remain comfortable for the 3.5hrs of battery life that the earpieces offer.


It should also be noted that the MW07’s have IPX4 water resistance meaning they are protected from splashing water from any direction. This makes them suitable for gym and commute on hotter days. Unfortunately, the earphones have one issue that compromises their versatility to an extent which is their below average noise isolation. This is somewhat counteracted by their stronger bass that remains punchy even in noisy environments, however, I did find myself listening at higher volumes and missing details that more isolating competitors provided when out and about.

Usability –

]]> 1 Empire Ears Phantom – The New Classic Fri, 08 Feb 2019 17:04:17 +0000 DISCLAIMER: Empire Ears provided me with a discounted price on the Phantom in return for my honest opinion. I am not personally affiliated with the company in any way, nor do I receive any monetary rewards for a positive evaluation. I’d like to thank Empire Ears for their kindness and support. The review is as follows.

Empire Ears are on their way to becoming a household name. The family-run enterprise – formerly known as EarWerkz – have been putting out hits for years, including the venerable Legend-R average_joe reviewed in 2015. But, they’ve only recently broken into the mainstream with their statement piece behemoth; the 14-driver, switch-clad Zeus-XR. Looking to ride that momentum into the proverbial sunset, Empire Ears have taken 2018 by storm, putting out two brand new lines of in-ears tuned with a think-tank-like collective of industry pros. Headlining the EP (Empire Professional) line is the Phantom: A revelation in tonal transparency; one of the most natural, sophisticated and refined in-ears I’ve ever heard.

Empire Ears Phantom

  • Driver count: Five balanced-armature drivers
  • Impedance: 10Ω @ 1kHz
  • Sensitivity: 117dB @ 1kHz, 1mW
  • Key feature(s) (if any): synX crossover technology, A.R.C. technology, proprietary balanced-armature drivers
  • Available form factor(s): Custom and universal acrylic IEMs
  • Price: $1799
  • Website:

Build and Accessories

Among the myriad of in-ears I’ve reviewed over the past year, Empire Ears clearly have the best-packaged ones of them all. The Phantom comes in an uber classy, onyx black box – complete with the company’s Bentley-like logo glimmering on top and a magnetic strip lining the latch below. Lifting the lid reveals a quick start guide, small and large fabric pouches, a branded micro-fibre cloth and Empire Ears’ personalised Aegis case. Within the case are the in-ears themselves, the default Effect Audio Ares II cable and an included cleaning tool securely set within foam cut-outs. Although I wouldn’t mind replacing one of the pouches for a mini semi-hard case, this is surely a package as complete as I’ve ever seen one.

The provided Aegis case is a touring musician’s dream. A black, fine-textured finish shrouds the enclosure, topped with an engraved, aluminium faceplate and two tenaciously robust clasps. Density and weight throughout the vault suggests a great degree of durability, without sacrificing look or feel. The one complaint I’ve heard online is the narrow profile, which may inadvertently cause pressure on the in-ear monitors when mispositioned. A face-down seating position is required. But overall, Empire Ears’ Aegis case possesses a suaveness that all but telegraphs the quality sitting within.

When customising your Empire Ears custom in-ear monitor, you’re given the option of 29 shell colours (21 standard and 8 glitter) and a whopping 62 faceplates. The latter consists of the 29 colours that are available in shell form, in addition to multi-coloured swirls, wood, carbon fibre and multi-coloured graphics – almost like vinyl on a race car. On top of that, you’re also given the option of adding Empire Ears’ logo in gold or silver, a field of Swarovski crystals or your own custom artwork that you can submit on their online designer. Although the tool isn’t as sophisticated as JHAudio’s (which allows the user to rotate the designs in a 3D space), it’s on an equal plane as those from 64Audio, Custom Art and Vision Ears.

In terms of build, cosmetics, comfort and isolation, the Phantom ticks all boxes with ease. My personal pair came in onyx black with carbon fibre faceplates and gold emblems; emulating the class and luxury a high-end in-ear monitor should. And, nowhere is that more clearly reflected (besides in sound, of course) than in finish. The monitors are evenly and illustriously lacquered with neither a bubble nor a rough edge in sight. Even the horn bores – notoriously difficult areas to get clean – are flawlessly structured with utmost finesse. In the ear, they’re vanishingly comfortable – balancing pressure and ergonomics better than a large majority of my collection – and they isolate very sufficiently as well.

Finally, as mentioned, Empire Ears includes Effect Audio’s acclaimed Ares II wire as the in-ear’s stock cable. Relative to other Effect Audio cables I’ve owned, the braiding isn’t as uniform and silky – probably so because the’ve had to keep up with massive demand. But, they still exude infinitely more quality than most stock options in the industry today.


synX is a proprietary crossover system developed in-house by Empire Ears, which they claim designates more individual audio bands per driver than any other crossover technology currently in existence. In essence, it splits the load across more transducers, so that they possess more headroom and – therefore – lower distortion. This is especially true when you wish to apply any form of EQ. You’re allowed more leeway to push certain frequencies before the drivers begin to operate outside of their comfort zones. This is useful for me as a sound engineer, if I were required to use EQ for – say – a mixing console with sub-optimal output impedance, a specifically coloured audio player, etc. In addition, Empire Ears claim synX improves stereo separation, phase response and SNR, through handpicked resistors, capacitors and filters.

Image courtesy of Empire Ears

A.R.C. Technology

A.R.C. (Anti-Resonance Compound) technology is comprised of two separate parts existing inside and outside of the balanced-armature drivers. The first is ferrofluid that they’ve implanted between the magnets and the armatures within the drivers. What this does is dampen the driver sufficiently, such that it removes any unwanted distortions, peaks and vibrations, whilst maintaining a crisp, clear sound. This also eliminates the need for a damper in the sound tube. The second part is a proprietary coating that they spray on every component of the IEM – including the drivers, crossovers, tubes and shells – to add solidity; acting as – again – a damper to remove any resonances that may render them out-of-phase. Empire Ears claim increased clarity, deeper bass and an overall more efficient monitor as a result of A.R.C.

Image courtesy of Empire Ears

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Dark Yearnings – A Review of the Shanling M5s Tue, 05 Feb 2019 00:44:36 +0000 ::Disclaimer::
Shanling provided the M5s free of charge for the purpose of my honest review, for good or ill.

The M5s sells for $409
Shanling on Amazon

I’ve reviewed the M3, and the M3s, and the M0. All fine products. I especially favored the M3s, finding it beyond sufficient for the price. But I couldn’t get my hands on the original M5. Only recently did I get the chance to sit and listen to it for a while, during the last Coffee & Gear get together I had with Lynn Miller (aka ngoshawk). Long had he spoke of the beautiful musicality of that player, and I discovered for myself he did not overstate things.

So when Shanling asked if I wanted to review the new and improved M5s, I jumped at the opportunity.

With a simple yet elegant design aesthetic, and eminently pocketable dimensions, the Shanling M5s has the foundation of a perfect DAP. The volume wheel sits close to the chassis, and is rounded and sloped, which makes it unlikely to get caught on anything. Smooth, firm clicks give you a sense of quality, and the lack of wiggle gives you confidence in its lifespan.

Unfortunately, the tolerances on the wheel may be too sensitive. Even on firmware v2.1, when adjusting the volume, the DAP often reads the slight pressure exerted on the wheel as a depressing of its button function, which controls the display backlight. So you get a flickering of the screen as you turn the volume up or down. The M3s also developed significant issues with its wheel when used for navigation. I can’t even use the device anymore, it’s become so finicky. Perhaps this is an issue Shanling should focus on going forward.

Buttons on the other side of the DAP provide reassurances to Shanling’s workmanship. They stick out just enough to feel without looking, but not so much as to interfere with anything. And depressing them feels quite nice.

Now the screen is a low-res thing with unimpressive color accuracy. It’s not bad, and for a device of this nature, it’s perfectly adequate, but I’d be lying if I said it was a standout feature. Touchscreen functionality, however, is quite good, precise and responsive. I had no problem flying through the menus.

As for the internals, you get a robust implementation of dual AK4493EQ chips and a potent amp section. 130mW at 32Ω for the 3.5mm TRS single-ended output, and 300mW at 32Ω for the 2.5mm TRRS balanced. With Bluetooth, you get LDAC, aptX, and AAC. There’s WiFi with Over the Air (OTA) updates. While this feature failed miserably when tested, it’s nice to think it may one day work. The M5s supports all the major formats, including native DSD, which has become a standard now a-days. Hell, even Shanling’s cheap little M0 managed that. What an age of wonders we live in!

Holding true to Shanling’s legacy, their leather case is flawed. On the M3s, the holes for the headphone ports weren’t wide enough to accommodate every plug housing, and I had to make some cuts to get it to work. Then the M0 came with a hard leather shell-thing which I found inconceivably difficult to get off. So when I did, I left it off for good. The M5s has the best case yet. It’s easy to put on and take off. It fits snug, and looks sexy. Yet once again, the hole for the balanced headphone port is too narrow for a number of the industry’s biggest names in cable manufacturers, like Effect Audio and plusSound. Once again, I took some cutters to it.

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An Inner View – Piotr Granicki | Custom Art Thu, 31 Jan 2019 08:57:42 +0000 Introduction

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to An Inner View! This is a programme where I interview manufacturers across the globe and offer you an inside look at their thoughts on the industry, the hottest trends, upcoming launches and more! On today’s instalment, I talk to Custom Art’s very own Piotr Granicki. From his humble beginnings roaming DIY IEM threads on Head-Fi, he’s spent the past 7 years dominating the sub-$1000 space with state-of-the-art in-ears that don’t break the bank. And, if this episode is any indication, he’s only just beginning. Without further ado, this is An Inner View.

Page 1: Introduction, From Where We Left Off…
Page 2: Custom Art (Literally), FIBAE and Growth…
Page 3: The FIBAE Black, Acoustic Tuning…
Page 4: Past, Present and Future Technologies, Consumers Professionals and You…
Page 5: The FIBAE 4, Closing…

From Where We Left Off…

The history of Custom Art is pretty much public knowledge at this point. You’ve covered it in tons of interviews – including one with jelt2359 for his review of the original Harmony 8 Pro – so I’d like to know about more recent developments; say, from the past couple years.

How have your team grown? Who make up your team and what do they do?

Custom Art had started as a one-man-show with only me for the first year-and-a-half. After that, work started to pile up and I needed to delegate more and more work to other employees. There are currently 11 people involved in Custom Art’s operations, more than half of which is dedicated to production alone. We doubled our staff in 2018 and we plan on further expanding in 2019.

I noticed you’ve moved to a new lab as well. Does that mean new equipment?

Yes! We invested in 3D-printing with state-of-the-art, industrial, DLP printers and 3D scanners. We also upgraded some of our older equipment with newer and better ones. We’ve done all of that to speed up production whilst also improving quality.

It’s been a few months since you acquired the 3D printers. Have you transitioned any of your processes toward there?

Yes, we have already fully transitioned with silicone production to 3D. The Black series also will be a 3D-printed product. Some universal fit orders are also already 3D-printed. It’s a long learning curve, but we are getting there.

What advantages and/or disadvantages have you discovered with it so far?

Advantages are in production speed and fitting of the final product. It also allows customers to e-mail ear scans, rather than ship ear impressions. That saves time and cost of shipping.

For now, overall disadvantage is in inflexibility of visual design. The colour range is limited and the shell has to be single coloured.

A lot of ground has been covered regarding 3D-printing acrylic, but as an expert in the silicone realm as well, how has it been reacting to the new process(es)?

Great, actually! It removed a few steps from our production method, which translates to dramatically improved production speeds. It also improved the look of our IEMs.

Return to main page…

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