The Headphone List Find the best portable audio for your needs Sun, 13 Jan 2019 19:34:53 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Headphone List 32 32 MrSpeakers ETHER 2 – Life In Colour Wed, 02 Jan 2019 17:44:54 +0000 DISCLAIMER: SLT Technologies (MrSpeakers’ distributor in Indonesia) loaned me the ETHER 2 in exchange for my honest opinion. I will send the headphone back following the review. I am not personally affiliated with the companies in any way, nor do I receive any monetary rewards for a positive evaluation. I’d like to thank SLT Technologies and MrSpeakers for their kindness and support. The review is as follows.

MrSpeakers is a headphone manufacturer I’ve had the pleasure of knowing since their humble beginnings. Founder Dan Clarke initially started the business by jumping on the Fostex T50RP mod-fest. The resulting Mad Dogs, Alpha Dogs and Alpha Prime (which I still own to this day) became widely known as the best-sounding of them all. He’s since gone on to develop immensely successful product lines infused with his own technologies, including the ETHER and AEON families.

But, if one were to ask Dan what his most meaningful creation was, his answer would probably be VOCE. MrSpeakers’ bid into the electrostatic space, the VOCE also inspired many of Dan’s most recent innovations – including TrueFlow. It’s no surprise then, that MrSpeakers’ latest flagship bears a striking resemblance; a dark twin, almost. Dressed in a slick matte black, Dan premiered the ETHER 2 at RMAF 2018 – the culmination of everything Mad Dogs to VOCE in the flesh.

MrSpeaker ETHER 2

Driver type: Planar magnetic
Impedance: 16Ω
Sensitivity: N/A
Key feature(s) (if any): V-Planar technology, TrueFlow technology, VIVO cable
Available form factor(s): Full-sized, circumaural headphones
Price: $1999.99

Build and Accessories

The ETHER 2 I’m reviewing is a demo unit from SLT Technologies, so I received it without its retail packaging. Regardless, it does come with the company’s signature, heavy-duty, clamshell case – equipped with a zipper, fabric-lined walls and moulded structures to keep the headphones stationary in transport. There’s also a net-like compartment to store cables and accessories. It’s a clever deterrent against the connectors bouncing around and scratching the headphones too.

For a flagship at its price, one wouldn’t be slighted for wanting more in the accessory department. Perhaps a cleaning cloth or MrSpeakers’ signature tuning pads could’ve been nice touches. But, they do offer a special edition with a signed display case and headphone stand at a $500 premium. So, I at least appreciate the option they’ve given for a less costly, streamlined variant of the product. And, those who want more luxury with their flagship can have their cake as well.

It’s clear however that Dan and co. did not cheap out on the headphones whatsoever. The ETHER 2 sports an all-metal design and a carbon fibre driver baffle – ensuring durability and longevity. The headband’s received a redesign – now more net- or web-like. This reduces the contact area between the material and the head, so the top of the head remains breathable and cool. Although one might criticise this change for weight, that should be the least of your concerns. MrSpeakers’ ETHER 2 is the lightest flagship I’ve ever used. At 289 grams, it’s surely an industry benchmark. Finally, the headphones are finished in matte black for a sleek aesthetic, with zero chips or squeaky bits to speak of – pure class.

The company’s fantastic NiTinol headband makes a welcome return, allowing the headphones to contort unrecognisably before returning to their original shape. This ensures the headphones don’t produce any extra pressure or strain, and maintains the headband’s lifespan as well. For smaller heads, the webbed inner-headband can easily be adjusted to fit your needs. But, for larger heads like mine, there isn’t as much leeway. My noggin certainly stretches the headphones to their near-limits, and it would’ve been nice to see a greater degree of customisation on that end of the spectrum. The synthetic protein leather ear pads, while plush, are a tad low-profile as well. But, I’m sure this specific girth was chosen for sound, and the pads as they are are extremely plush, gorgeously made and breathable too – no complaints there.

V-Planar and TrueFlow Technology

V-Planar technology is something Dan Clarke developed in conjunction with the Alpha Prime. In essence, Dan argued that a flat, planar driver would not be able to vibrate uniformly along a flat plane. Because of the material’s inelasticity, the diaphragm would actually bow as the audio signal rocked it back and forth. What V-Planar technology does is introduce deep, v-shaped creases along the driver’s surface. So – especially in larger excursions – the driver would be able to expand and contract as needed with zero strain to the material. Dan claims an increase in dynamics, high-end extension and measurably lower distortion, along with the diaphragm’s ability to push more air at lower frequencies.

Animations courtesy of MrSpeakers

TrueFlow technology was developed much more recently. While developing the VOCE and investigating the differences between electrostatic and planar magnetic headphones, Dan discovered a flaw in the latter’s design. Planar magnetic headphones – as the name indicates – require the presence of a thick magnet array on at least one side of the driver. The inherent shape of those magnet arrays often impede the movement of air – and therefore, sound waves – from the diaphragm to the listener’s ear. They’d have to make right-angled turns, which introduce diffractions and reflections, i.e. distortion. What TrueFlow does is introduce perforated waveguides in those magnet arrays to smoothen the flow of air as much as possible and dampen any refractions – resulting in superior resolution, dynamics and frequency extension.

Images courtesy of MrSpeakers

VIVO Cable

Dan and co. have absolutely made huge strides as far as cables are concerned. The all-new, silver-plated-OFHC-copper VIVO cable is a far cry from the ETHER 1.0’s stiff, coarse and unwieldy DUM cable. Ergonomically, the former is infinitely smoother, softer and more pliable. There’s perhaps a touch more thickness and weight, but it’s barely consequential.

Once again, MrSpeakers have employed their excellent HIROSE connectors – my favourite in terms of security and ease-of-use. The woven, cloth-like insulation heavily resembles the AEON Flow’s stock cables. But again, the VIVO cables are a hair thicker. Sonically, I wasn’t able to compare the VIVO cable against them because of termination differences. But as seen in the Synergy section, with the VIVO cable is as good as the ETHER 2 gets – compellingly transparent performance.

Page 1: Introduction
Page 2: Sound Impressions and General Recommendations
Page 3: Synergy
Page 4: Select Comparisons and Verdict

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JH Audio Layla Fri, 28 Dec 2018 10:59:37 +0000 I would like to thank JH Audio for providing Layla in return for my honest opinion.

For all my fellow romantics, I have recently found new love. Her name is Layla, and she has pronounced curves in all the right places; a deep-reaching and profoundly impactful bass, followed by a glorious rise in the midrange. Layla is subtle but sensuous, smooth yet powerful.

My personal encounter with Layla came at the dawn of my audiophile career. I have grown content with what I have at my disposal, and the desire to try new products has subdued. However, when my local store in Amsterdam (Hifisolutions) announced they had obtained the Jerry Harvey Audio (JHA) lineup, I was intrigued as their products had always eluded me in the past years.

A few companies have staked their claim in the rise and development of the (customized) in-ear market, and have probably been instrumental in their own way throughout the process. But there is little doubt that Jerry Harvey sits at the absolute epicenter of the history of it all, and has been a primordial factor in its evolution – the story of Jerry Harvey’s first creation of a pair of in-ears for the band van Halen should be common knowledge for anyone with vested interest in this hobby.

Even so, Jerry Harvey wasn’t just influential in the conceptual phase of the in-ear industry – in later years he continued to push the envelope. Shortly after I first embarked on my portable audio adventures, they released Roxanne, and later Layla; to the best of my knowledge, the first in-ear with 12 drivers on each side. It seemed like a massive leap forward at the time. Indeed, Roxanne and Layla’s configurations quite sparked the imagination of the audiophile collective at the time.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Layla has never been retuned or updated since its initial release. Modifications were made concerning the universal shells, but the sound itself was not altered. However, this does not stem from a lack of effort or time – JHA simply believes that Layla remains competitive with respect to the competition, and a finished product does not require continuous updating.


After getting in contact with JHA, I was subjected to the full ‘JHA experience’. The first step was a skype session with customer service to get general information about JHA, which is normally used to help customers choose the right monitor for their specific needs, and address any questions. The following step was creating a design, which among others entailed several emails with the art director – as with the skype session, part of their standard service.

I was initially browsing through their standard options, but the JHA team stressed they wanted to make something absolutely unique. The one thing that caught my eye was a shell body of wood. As a I wanted a sort of forest-inspired color combination, they interlaced the wood with green-colored resin in a honey comb design. The result is spectacular, and without a doubt the highlight in my collection. The craftsmanship is simply impeccable, both in terms of fit and finish; trust me when I say pictures barely do it justice.

The universal versions of Layla and Roxanne gained a reputation for being among the largest in the business. Fortunately, the custom version of Layla is not exorbitant in size. It’s still a bit larger than average when compared to others, but it doesn’t stick out as much as the universal when worn. At the top of the shell JHA of course utilizes their own 4-pin cable connector system due to their variable bass port. The system works excellently, allowing each user to fine-tune according to their preference. The downside however is that cable-rolling audiophiles as myself cannot swap cables.

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e-earphone Japan – Featuring Impressions from FitEar, FAudio, Rhapsodio and more! Mon, 24 Dec 2018 10:43:58 +0000 Introduction

e-earphone is Japan’s premier portable audio chain. With five outlets spanned across Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, they’ve near-single-handedly provided the nation with a world’s worth of headphones, in-ear monitors, digital audio players and accessories. During my most recent trip to Japan, I visited both of e-earphone‘s flagship stores in Tokyo and Osaka, and auditioned a wealth of in-ear monitors. Read on to discover what the Land of the Rising Sun (and beyond) had to offer.

Page 1: About e-earphonee-earphone‘s Custom IEM Specialty Store
Page 2: FitEar
Page 3: Rhapsodio, LEAR and FlipEars
Page 4: FAudio
Page 5: ACS Custom and Astell&Kern/JHAudio
Page 6: Kumitate Lab and Sony Just Ear

About e-earphone

As mentioned in the introduction, e-earphone is Japan’s go-to portable audio hotspot. Despite a near-equal split between more affordable, mainstream brands (like Bose, Nakamichi and Audio-Technica) and artisan, niche entries (like STAX, Ocharaku and HIFIMAN) the store maintains a constant influx of consumers young and old. Throughout my multiple visits, the store was constantly packed with all sorts of audiophiles auditioning classic and cutting-edge products alike.

Unlike audio retail stores I’ve seen in Singapore and Indonesia – where demo units are typically kept behind glass doors or plastic cupboards – e-earphone proudly displays their entire arsenal of products on makeshift stands for people to freely audition to their heart’s content. I believe the constant disproportion between store employees and visitors to be the main cause of this, but it does make way for creative marketing as far as those stands are concerned. And of course, every detachable in-ear or headphone is sternly secured – albeit, crudely – to their posts to avoid tomfoolery of any kind.

Their flagship store in Akihabara is actually split into two separate units. One is on the 4th floor of a commercial building which houses headphones, amplifiers, sources and universal IEMs. The second unit is in a storefront a minute’s walk away, which is where their all their custom IEMs are located – we’ll come back to this later. The former unit is far larger, more fully-staffed and crowded as well. Alongside rows and rows of in-ears, players and headphones, they also sell a myriad of accessories – like cases, screen protectors, dehumidifiers and carrying pouches from a wide variety of brands.

e-earphone also cater to a rich, thriving segment of the Japanese audio market: Second-hand products. Stores like Fujiya Avic basically make a living off of used products, and so do e-earphone. Their website houses a detailed inventory of their second-hand items with photos, descriptions, where they’re available, etc. Here, you can see the used-headphone shelf littered with high-end flagships looking for a new owner, with the used-DAP-and-accessories section right next to it.

e-earphone‘s Custom IEM Specialty Store

e-earphone‘s custom in-ear store is located at street level – far more compact and intimate than the main unit.

Two staffers man the shop at all times. Unlike the main store, the demo units in the specialty outlet are locked in glass cabinets that only employees can access. Auditioning and purchasing in-ear monitors require their constant assistance.

As one might expected, e-earphone‘s custom IEM inventory is packed with brands from all across the globe – the total number being 30! Hailing from the US are Empire Ears, JHAudio, 64Audio, Westone, Ultimate Ears and Sensaphonics. South-East Asia is represented massively by HUM, Unique Melody, Lark Studio, Jomo Audio, AAW and many more. Of course, one shouldn’t exclude the Japanese brands on display too, including FitEar, Kumitate Lab and Canal Works.

Europe is also a huge player in Japan’s custom in-ear scene. Custom Art, Lime Ears and Vision Ears’ products seemed to be what most people wanted to audition most. The latter of the three had their own row of open demos for the public to try, which certainly boosted their appeal. On the left side of the frame, you can also see the wide array of accessories the store had to offer. They ranged from a mix of stock cables, to wireless upgrade cables, desiccant, pouches and more.

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Elegance and Thoughtfulness – A Review of the Light Harmonic Stella Mon, 17 Dec 2018 00:17:09 +0000

LH provided Stella on loan for the purpose of my honest review, for good or ill.

Stella sells for $1,299

When I contacted Light Harmonic, I knew there was controversy surrounding Stella, but I didn’t quite appreciate the full weight of the situation. When I posted some early impressions on the forums, however, I realized I had stepped into a war zone.

Not only did the understandably angry folk attack me, but I was also warned, by a number of reviewers I respect, not to go down this road. That it would not be worth it.

Now, as a reviewer for The Headphone List, my articles represent more than myself. And since it’s not just my reputation on the line here, I owed it to the team to hear them out on the matter.

I won’t pretend it was unanimous, but support for this review was overwhelming. Even our DoctorJazz was for it, who by rights ought to be one of the pitchfork-carrying LH protesters.

Pinky was approached with an offer to review the new LH Labs, and, not knowing the crowd funding history and other controversies LH Labs had generated, he agreed to do it. When he mentioned it on Head Fi there was the usual response LH Labs triggers, namely incredible anger (totally understandable, as “investors“ hadn’t received their gear more than 4 years after the offers). In the light of the outpouring of emotion, Pinky ran it by the other THL staff members. As one who had sunk close to $10k on various projects, I certainly understand the animosity towards them; I’ve alternated between sadness and anger over the whole affair myself. However, my (not unbiased) take is that there was never an intention to defraud-overstated promises, bad management, bad decisions, yes, but if the intent was to take the money and run, they forgot to run. It seems to me the new product should stand or fall on its merits… All the issues associated with the company are out there (check any LH Labs Head Fi thread), and certainly should be taken into consideration when deciding on an order. Furthermore, while I haven’t heard it, initial buzz is that it does seem the LH Labs crew have actually come up with a good sounding product, and if it helps their bottom line, that would be a cash flow to the company that COULD HELP THEM COMPLETE AND SHIP THE CROWD FUNDED GEAR THEY OWE!
Of course, I understand bitter supporters having a different take, but that’s how I see it.

Furthermore, here is an update from Ken Bell…

If you’re scratching your heard right now, confused by all this, Google is your friend. I have no intention of turning my review into a Tell All report on the Company’s history. Though I suspect the comment section will soon yield a treasure trove of gossip. For myself, I read everything, from both sides of the argument, and found not a single shred of evidence to back up the claims levied against Stella. In fact, the only people who offered actual evidence to support their case, was Light Harmonic.

My stance on all this is simple. I don’t claim to know what happened with any certainty. Innocent until proven guilty. Always. I believe in that for the Courts, and in public opinion. Furthermore, I strongly believe mismanagement of past failures should have no relevance on whether or not I review a new product. If this were a pre-order, or another Crowdfunding project, I would feel differently. Their history would be of utmost relevance. But Stella exists, and is in-stock right now. Which means the only pertinent information is whether or not Stella is good. And if it is good, I want the community to know about it. That is, as I see it, my only real duty as a reviewer.

So let’s get into that, shall we?

Stella is constructed of sturdy metal, with interesting angels and geometric symmetries, taking inspiration from their famous Da Vinci DAC and the artwork of Vincent van Gogh. A copper alloy was used for the front housing, as part of the tuning. Along the back plate of the internals, there’s a hexagon pattern to eliminate unwanted resonances.

The image from their website makes it look like a hexagon fractal. I’m not sure how much of that is real, and how much is artist’s rendering. But it’s cool, regardless.

Stella is a hybrid, utilizing a 9mm beryllium Dynamic Driver and dual Balanced Armatures. Considering the marketing, I’d say LHL is quite proud of their crossovers, diffusers, and other innovations. There seems to be a lot of fine technology to help set Stella apart.

A truly unique carry case is included, hand-crafted, and of the highest quality. The cable, which is a high-purity copper with silver plating, is super light, supple, and comfortable. Both a Single-Ended and a Balanced cable is provided, which is very nice indeed.

Ergonomics are decent with Stella. Insertion depth is good and she sits well. However, I would not call this the most comfortable IEM. While there are no weird edges or sharp ridges, Stella is of a fairly geometric design and clashes a bit with the organic contours of your ear. I find I need to make regular adjustments to how it sits to hinter the slow development of hot spots. If I keep on it, I can enjoy a good four hours of music before it grows painful.

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An Inner View – Ryosuke Ito | Kumitate Lab Fri, 14 Dec 2018 17:21:15 +0000 Introduction

Welcome to the very first instalment of An Inner View – a programme where I interview companies across the globe and offer you an inside look at their thoughts on the industry, the hottest trends, upcoming launches and more! Kicking off the series is none other than Mr. Ryosuke Ito – the man behind one of Japan’s most critically-acclaimed in-ear brands: Kumitate Lab. Ito-san was kind enough to participate during my recent trip to Tokyo in what eventually became an over-one-hour-long interview. Read on to discover the history behind Kumitate Lab, his thoughts on modern vs. traditional techniques, and his all new 5-driver Focus, which may or may not have been designed by him…? This is An Inner View.

Page 1: Introduction, From Humble Beginnings, The Team and Early Days…
Page 2: Honing Your Craft, A Dynamic Shift…
Page 3: Market Influences and the Professionals, Growing Pains, Raden..
Page 4: Modern vs. Traditional, The Focus by… Who?, The Future and Closing
Page 5: Kumitate Lab’s Focus – Brief Impressions

From Humble Beginnings…

Hello Ito-san, it’s an honor to meet the man behind one of the most successful custom in-ear brands in Japan right now. Can you talk a bit about the history of Kumitate Lab?

We started Kumitate Lab in 2013; 5 years ago. My interest in IEMs as a hobby started 7 years ago. I used UE’s TF10 and it was my first time purchasing such a high-priced IEM – of course, not anymore these days. I used the TF10 for one year, but suddenly it broke. There was a defect with the connector. So instead of sending it back, I found Unique Melody, who had a service to reshell the TF10. I made impressions, sent them over to Unique Melody, and they became my very first custom IEMs.

I’m aware you started out as a DIY-er with your own blog.

Yes! That was just a hobby for my friends and I. Sometimes, friends would ask me to reshell their custom IEMs, so I created the service, and that was my first step to creating my own custom IEMs.

How long did the informal reshelling service last before you officially launched Kumitate Lab?

I think it was around 4 to 6 months.

Wow, that’s quite fast!

Yes! It was just one year between me starting the hobby and starting the business.

What made you want to transition your hobby into a business? Did you just happen to really enjoy it?

Well, joy is one of the reasons. But, another reason is because I had to buy materials from suppliers. Sometimes, they wouldn’t let me because it was for personal use. They told me I had to start a company to purchase the materials, so I did!

How interesting! So, like drivers for example?

Yes! Especially Sonion drivers, because their distributor in Japan wouldn’t allow any sales for personal consumer use.

That’s very interesting! I’ve never heard of a manufacturer having to start a business out of circumstance.

Yes, yes, this is me being honest. (laughs)

The Team and Early Days…

Who’re the people behind Kumitate Lab?

When we were just establishing, it was only me. Six months later, Mr. Yamazaki joined. He’s famous on Twitter. (laughs) He was the first member of Kumitate Lab, but he’s now working at Sony. Our second member Sasaki-san joined in 2014, and we recently hired a part-timer as well.

How involved are they in the production process?

Well, they only handle packaging. I still build all of the earphones; from impression trimming, to building, to finishing.

NOTE: Upon publishing the article, I unfortunately discovered that Ito-san’s answer above was lost in translation and – therefore – incorrect. In reality, packaging and shipping are handled by the part-timer, while the IEM-building process is divided between Ito-san and Sasaki-san. Ito-san trims the impressions, creates the silicone cast and lacquers the in-ears himself, while the tasks of shell-making and parts installation are divided between him and Sasaki-san. The subsequent times I or Ito-san mention building IEMs himself, he’s referring to impressions-shaping and finishing. I’d like to express my most sincere apologies for any inconveniences caused, and I’d like to thank Ito-san for kindly following up with the correction.

Wow, that’s amazing! It must be an insanely personal process to you. Do you think you’ll ever trust anyone else to build your monitors?

It is very personal to me. Keeping the quality of the product is a difficult thing, especially when you use outside help. I want to not only keep my quality, but improve it also. I can only do that by building all monitors myself.

I see, so you’re maintaining your high standards whilst practicing at the same time as well.

Yes, I really enjoy the process of building IEMs.

I can see that. More of an artform than a business, don’t you think?

I think so.

What was the very first product you released as Kumitate Lab?

I believe it was the KL-Sanka, and then the KL-Akara. Do you know them?

Ah yes, the ones with many flavours: Sanka Mk.B, Sanka Mk.K, etc.


Can you talk about the inspiration behind the Sanka?

It used two large, bass-sound balanced armatures and one tiny tweeter; very orthodox. But, with very standard BAs, we also used unique techniques – like using armature tubes for the tweeter, special ventilation, etc. We took part in the Fujiya Avic show in May, 2014 – our first time at an exhibition – and the KL-Sanka was very popular there. We gained many of our first customers there.

How much time was there between the reshelling service and the birth of the Sanka?

Well, when we started Kumitate Lab, the reshelling service and the KL-Sanka were both already available. But, most of our orders were for the reshelling service, because there were no reviews of the KL-Sanka. This changed when we brought the KL-Sanka to the Fujiya Avic Show and people heard it for the very first time.

Do you know how many reshelling orders you eventually received? Is there a number?

(laughs) Uhm… I think over 100. When I started the reshelling service, I had over 40 orders within just two months. And, I had to do them all just by myself!

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Empire Ears Phantom Review – The Hero We Deserve Wed, 05 Dec 2018 04:09:28 +0000 Pros – 

Coherent, layered and wholly resolved midrange, Very wide soundstage, Dynamic bass

Cons – 

Intimate depth, Doesn’t provide a lot of treble energy or sparkle, Bulky uni housings

Verdict – 

The Phantom is the daily flagship, free of fatigue and always hiding a new nuance in plain sight for the listener to discover.

Introduction –

It seemed like yesterday when Empire Ears first flooded onto the scene, an applauded reception to a new exciting manufacturer ready to compete with the best. Their flagship Zeus pleased the ear of many, paving the way for the immensely popular Olympus line-up. The Legend-X and Phantom represent the continuation of Empire Ears, showcasing both innovation and a heavy appreciation of the traditional. And where the Zeus aimed for balance, their two new flagships sit comfortably on either side of that baseline.

Before heading into the review, an apology is in order. Those wanting tales of an enveloping soundstage, bass that resonates to the listener’s core and timbre adhesive with its verisimilitude will be disappointed. This is not that review. I spent 6 months living with the Phantom to provide a comprehensive long-term review and the most cohesive words I could muster. This review will be honest and down to earth. You can read more about the Phantom and buy one for yourself here.


Disclaimer –

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


Accessories –


Like many flagships, the Phantom makes a strong first impression with its unboxing. A black EE hard box opens to reveal a microfiber cloth and two soft pouches of varying size. Most notable is the inclusion of a pelican style hard case with metal faceplate engraved with the buyer’s name.


Inside is the Phantom in addition to one of Effect Audio’s ARES II custom cables. Also included are 5 pairs of Final Audio E-tips in various sizes. This ensures a strong seal and a comfortable fit.


Design –

Empire Ear’s universal housings have come a long way, but there’s still work to be done when it comes to shaping. They have a plastic construction that feels light but also subjectively insubstantial for the asking price. That said, the finish is smooth with perfectly even surfaces and a complete lack of seams. Gold logos adorn each faceplate, lavishly complimenting their piano black colour scheme.


The Phantom is a very thick earphone that protrudes quite far from the ear. That said, it isn’t too large with regards to width and height so it fits quite comfortably. Still, the rear angle could be slightly smoother, and it tended to produce mild discomfort for me during longer listening; most buyers will want to opt for the custom-fit option.  The nozzles protrude slightly and a small anti-helix protrusion aids stability. Unfortunately, the nozzle is very smooth and tips do tend to slide off, even the smaller bore E-tips included in the box.


It’s also a fully-sealed IEM with an ear-filling design. It has a medium-deep fit depending on the ear-tip and its light-weight benefits stability. Isolation is very strong and can be further enhanced with foam or custom tips such as those from Custom Art. Few earphones isolate quite as much, even with the aforementioned custom tips, making these a great choice for frequent travellers.


A non-recessed 0.78mm removable cable completes the experience. The Phantom comes with Effect Audio’s ARES II, a renowned custom cable that is sturdily built. The cable’s fit and finish is gorgeous with a genuine Oyaide right-angle plug and signature carbon-fibre y-split. Pre-formed ear guides provide a more comfortable experience than memory wire on top. This cable makes the Phantom easier to live with and its beefy construction grants peace of mind during daily use, a great addition!


Next Page: Sound & Synergy

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Campfire Audio Cascade Cloth Pads Review Mon, 03 Dec 2018 03:34:50 +0000 Pros – 

More balanced sound, More linear bass, Larger soundstage, Enhanced breathability

Cons – 

Reduced bass control, Slightly scratchy feel before wearing in, Female vocals can sound a touch raspier

Verdict – 

The cloth pads are a revelation for those wanting greater balance and tonal accuracy while retaining the excellent qualities of the Cascade’s beryllium dynamic drivers.

Introduction –

The Cascade represents Campfire’s first foray into headphones and boy was it executed with great success! This beryllium driver headphone is premium, dynamic, extended and richly voiced. However, for some, the Cascade was perhaps too much of a good thing, its low-end posing issues with its emphasis on great impact over perfect balance.

Several months after its release, Campfire have introduced a pair of aftermarket cloth ear pads that promise a different sound and enhanced breathability. They come in at a reasonable $39 USD and can be easily swapped using the magnetic attachment system of the Cascade. You can read more about the pads and purchase a pair for yourself here.


Disclaimer –

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


Design –

The Cloth pads are shaped identically to the lambskin leather pads that ship with the Cascade, however, as their name suggests, they are coated in a porous neoprene-like fabric instead. The padding is also revised, adopting sponge over the memory foam of the originals so they don’t quite mould to the head like the originals.


During wear, the cloth pads also do not offer the same smooth, supple feel as lambskin leather, they’re actually a touch scratchy. That said, they do soften over time and aren’t at all uncomfortable, they just don’t disappear like the stock pads. This does come in handy during warmer days and prolonged listening sessions where the cloth pads offer immense breathability that the originals can’t match.


As the dimensions remain the same, users who achieve a comfortable fit with the leather pads should experience no issues here. Isolation is slightly reduced as the porous pads don’t offer the same kind of seal though stability remains similar and the headphones remain suitable for general commute as well. These pads definitely don’t exude the same opulent qualities as the stock pads by nature of their BOM, though they do successfully scratch their intended itch.


Sound –

Tonality –

It’s in listening that the Cloth pads make the most sense, offering a more balanced sound through attenuation of the bass in addition to bolstering detail presence. They don’t touch the midrange too much, however, mids are affected as a by-product of changes elsewhere. The cloth pads offer a generally cleaner sound with a more neutral tone.


Bass –

Bass is most changed and strikes as sounding more even with more defined notes. It is less present overall, a prime contributor towards the cloth pad’s more balanced sound in general. Sub-bass extension is reduced a touch, lacking the visceral slam of the better sealing leather pads. Most notably, the pads attenuate the headphone’s notable mid-bass hump. As mid-bass no longer holds as much focus, the headphones sound appreciably more linear, coherent and less bloated. Control actually comes across as slightly reduced with slightly longer decay and hazier edged transients. Still, bass speed remains admirable and reduction in note focus is counteracted by reduced mid-bass presence that provides a cleaner tone and greater separation and definition regardless.


Mids –


By comparison, the midrange sounds considerably less affected though by bringing down the bass, vocals sound more prominent. This is most notable with regards to male vocals that sound more present and slightly cleaner; where the lambskin pads cast a subtle warmth over the midrange. The level to which it occurs is a matter of preference though both sound natural enough to my ear. Upper-mids are, for my tastes, slightly compromised. Similar to the lower-mids, female vocals sound a touch more present with the cloth pads, however, they also sound thinner and less realistic in timbre. This is mostly a result of the cloth pad’s lower-treble emphasis that slightly thins out body and results in some over-articulated, exacerbated by reduced midrange warmth. However, clarity is subjectively improved and some will undoubtedly enjoy a glossier sound if at the cost of body and smoothness.


Highs –

As aforementioned, lower-treble is noticeably more pronounced on the cloth pads. It does not become enhanced to a bothersome degree nor does treble become sharp, metallic or fatiguing. Rather, detail presence is bolstered and foreground instrumentation becomes slightly crisper. Actual detail retrieval is similar though the cloth pads can create the impression of a more nuanced sound as they bring details more to the fore. Those valuing timbre will still appreciate the stock pads as they offer a more natural treble instrument reconstruction. Still, the appeal of the cloth pads is their clarity and attack. Meanwhile, middle and upper-treble remain very similar. The cloth pads do sound more open, however, this is mostly as a result of reduced low-end warmth than accentuation of the higher frequencies. As such, they achieve said openness without increasing fatigue.


Soundstage –

The cloth pads offer a slightly more open, expansive stage in all dimensions. As the Cascade is quite a powerful sounding headphone, they also do so without sounding diffuse. The pads also benefit from heightened separation. Though bass is not quite as concise, by reducing note size through reduced warmth and mid-bass emphasis, each note is granted more space. This complements increases in dimensions and with the cloth pads installed, the Cascade is a truly grand sounding headphone.


Verdict –


There are undoubtedly some facets of the stock pads that I adore; chiefly, their lavish feel on the head, concise bass and lightly warm, musical midrange. By comparison, the cloth pads are simple in construction and they don’t bring the same immediate feel of quality and comfort. Still, when it comes to listening, the cloth pads are a revelation for those wanting greater balance and tonal accuracy while retaining the excellent qualities of the Cascade’s beryllium dynamic drivers. They remain a V-shaped headphone with big bass and a more vibrant treble, however, the increased vocal presence and less dominant mid-bass are very welcome. In conjunction with the 4-included tuning filters, these cost-effective pads make the Cascade an impressively versatile headphone.

The Cloth Pads can be purchased from Campfire Audio for $39 USD. I am not affiliated with Campfire Audio and receive no earnings from purchases through this link.

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Rhapsodio Eden – Clearwater’s Revival Fri, 30 Nov 2018 06:27:44 +0000 DISCLAIMER: My colleague flinkenick loaned me his Eden review unit for the purposes of this article. You can check out his thorough review of the Eden – complete with notes on build as well as comprehensive comparisons – here. My review is as follows.

Rhapsodio is a custom in-ear and aftermarket cable manufacturer world-renowned for unending experimentation and equal ambition. From 9-driver hybrids to 20-driver customs, Rhapsodio founder Sammy has never been known as a business type – rather, a mad professor of sorts living off of the fireworks display he calls a product line. Limited runs, refreshes and one-offs are commonplace for the Hong Kong firm, but in my eyes, that only makes their mainstays all the more special. Enter: Eden. The Eden is Rhapsodio’s new flagship comprised of a single dynamic driver – Sammy’s clear weapon of choice. Tuned for a crystalline and pure signature, this is a TOTL that sells on performance and personality.

Rhapsodio Eden

  • Driver count: One 10mm dynamic driver
  • Impedance: N/A
  • Sensitivity: N/A
  • Key feature(s) (if any): N/A
  • Available form factor(s): Custom and universal platinum-plated silver in-ear monitor
  • Price: $2000
  • Website:,

Sound Impressions

The Eden carries a strikingly clear tone, though with zero hallmarks of a crisp, clean, clarity-focused signature. This is because its crystalline nature comes from bass attenuation, rather than treble accentuation. In fact, the Eden’s top-end is kept relatively linear, because there’s minimal warmth for it to combat. On the other hand, instruments never come across lean. There’s a roundedness and body to its timbre – especially in the midrange – that maintains density and coherence. Although notes don’t hold the most weight, they’re always physically convincing. Expectedly then, the Eden builds a clean, open, proportionally-even stage with a natural sense of air – neither brightly harmonic nor richly warm.

In expansion, I’d call the stage average, but left-right separation is especially strong – and imaging is moderately precise as well – because of the attenuated low-end. Tonally, the Eden precariously rides the line of neutral, whilst borrowing elements from either end of the spectrum. Heavier instruments like upright basses or male baritones sometimes lack the authority and resonance that lend them their gravitas – sounding too light and airy. On the other hand, pianos and violins excel because of the Eden’s bell-like clarity. Tone is a give-and-take with these sorts of instruments, but ultimately, all of them share a unifying quality that I can simply call pure – crystal clear, yet wholesome and even across the board.

But, as neutral as it is, the Eden’s low-end is quality. Despite its quantity (and the absence of warmth), the bass is full – probably so because of the diaphragm’s dynamic nature. It may border on unmoving, but solidity is high and coherency is excellent as well. Clearly, the entire low-end had been calmed rather than select parts. So, the Eden still pumps like a singular piston – however shy that piston may be. Energy is mildly concentrated around the mid- and upper-bass for a neutral tone. This lends itself well to the clarity of kick drums, where you can visualise the skin as the beater strikes. Swift decay further adds to this, solidifying the bass as a light cherry on top, rather than the spongy foundation below.

The Eden’s midrange is smooth, engaging and surprisingly wholesome. A rise across 2-4kHz gives instruments a rich, almost saturated presence. Higher-pitched pianos and female vocals are particularly engrossing. The Eden balances the fullness and clarity of these two extremely effectively. There’s neither the thinness from the pursuit of detail, nor the bloat of mid-bass warmth. Again, a sense of purity runs through these elements to enchanting effect. However, not all instruments were treated equal in tone. Heavier strings or horns may lack warmth and weight. But, the wholesomeness of the midrange does prevent any notion of leanness. In transparency and resolution, the Eden fares fine for a flagship. Rather than technical performance, the midrange impacts by engagement – a full-bodied, musical and clear display.

The Eden’s treble is unique in that its contributions toward clarity are rather minor. Its lower-treble is articulate indeed, but its defining hallmarks are linearity and cleanliness – rather than any real attempt at emphasising crispness or air. On the plus side, the top-end comes across smooth and effortless. The region as a whole is inoffensive, rounded and ever-so-slightly warm. Extension is relatively average – and so is its transparency, concurrently – but calmness down low renders the treble crystalline nonetheless. Notes are on the thicker side, but sufficient articulation and swift, refined decay preserve that sense of attack. Cymbals and hi-hats won’t necessarily sound all that exciting, but violins and chimes exude elegance. Again, an out-and-out technical performer it is not, but it concludes the Eden’s signature with aplomb.

General Recommendations

The Eden’s pure, crystalline signature yields a unique listening experience that hybridises thick engagement and cleanliness. If the following traits pique your interest, the Eden will prove an excellent flagship for you to consider:

A balance of rich saturation and crystalline clarity: Because of the Eden’s unique approach towards transparency, it’s able to maintain both cleanliness and body in the midrange. This is ideal when listening to instruments like acoustic pianos, flutes and violins, where both bell-like clarity and note weight are important in accurately producing the instrument.

Minimal low-end quantity: The Eden is as neutral as it gets. It truly goes to great lengths to let the midrange and treble shine. If you listen mostly to classical or acoustic music with little regard for bass quantity, the Eden will serve you well.

A smooth, superbly linear treble: But, that doesn’t mean the Eden’s shrill or thin either. Its clean, unobtrusive low-end allows the treble to assume a smooth and linear profile as well. There are truly no noticeably peaks on the Eden’s top-end, neither are there any apparent dips. It’s a smooth, forgiving yet crystalline treble that’ll serve detail with little effort.

But, the Eden’s decidedly bass-less signature does leave the following caveats to be considered. If the three traits below are criteria of high priority when considering your next flagship in-ear monitor, the Eden may not be your cup of tea:

Any amount of low-end warmth or visceral impact: This is the Eden’s greatest Achilles’ heel. In an effort to maintain both clarity and midrange density, it’s had to compromise heavily on bass response. Even audiophiles adverse to low-end energy will most probably have to adapt to the Eden’s presentation. I’d like to think it’s an acquired taste – and it does have situational benefits as far as realism is concerned – but anyone with an inkling for impact would not enjoy Eden.

Stage fullness or saturation: A side-effect to the Eden’s neutral low-end is the fullness of the stage. Without bass warmth occupying its designated portion of the track, the stage may feel empty and nonchalant. With more acoustic music – where emotion is delivered through lyricism and micro-dynamics – this isn’t much of an issue. But, it can be; elsewhere.

Top-of-the-line stage definition and transparency: Despite its clarity, the Eden’s transparency is inhibited by top-end extension. For a flagship, stage definition and openness are rather average. So, if you’re after transparency driven by detail, nuance and stage expansion – rather than tone or timbre – the Eden would probably not be your cup of tea.

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Deep Streams and High-Flown Kestrels – A Review of the iBasso IT04 Wed, 28 Nov 2018 02:25:50 +0000

iBasso provided the IT04 free of charge for the purpose of my honest review, for good or ill.

The IT04 sells for $499 MSRP
iBasso on Amazon


Ah, the IT04. I was interested in this back when it was supposed to be wood. I saw a picture of their prototype, many moons ago, inspiring me to reach out to iBasso for the first time. Since then, I’ve reviewed a handful of their wares, becoming a true fan. Indeed, iBasso is one of the best, in my estimation.

It took a while for the official release of the IT04. Oh, how the forums cried for it! But of course, iBasso never puts out a product until it is good and ready.

Finally, the IT04 is released!

The build on this thing is exquisite. Sturdy, robust construction, tight fit and design. The shell is of a beautiful piano black finish, with a carbon fiber faceplate to add texture and contrast. All of this is seamless, with no ridges or sharp corners. IT04 is an IEM which looks great, and should hold up well for a long time to come.

The IT04 utilizes a quad driver setup. Three balances armatures, and a special Tesla and Graphene dynamic driver, which was first seen in the IT01. The frequency response is stellar: 5hz-40khz.

Considering this is iBasso’s new flagship IEM, they went all out on the cable. The CB12s is an 8-strand silver and silver-plated copper, terminated for 2.5mm Balanced, and one of the most comfortable cables I’ve ever used. There are no earhooks or heatshrink, and yet the cable is so supple, it drapes behind the ear and stays put. Simply outstanding work!

I only wish the IEM itself were as comfortable. My experience is when universals stray too close to custom territory, trouble ensures. You narrow the range of ears which can accommodate your monitors. I suspect the average Asian will find them nigh unto perfect for their anatomy. Now, while my ears do okay with the IT04, after a few hours, that custom-esque contour starts to hurt around the Fossa/Antihelix area. For those first two hours, though, things are great.

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Jomo Audio Trinity – The Prologue Thu, 22 Nov 2018 18:17:28 +0000 DISCLAIMER: Jomo Audio loaned me the Trinity in return for my honest opinion. I will send the unit back following this article. I am not personally affiliated with the company in any way, nor do I receive any monetary rewards for a positive evaluation. My first impressions of the Trinity as follows.

Mere weeks away from its conclusion, 2018 is shaping up to be a monumental year for the in-ear audio industry. We’ve witnessed the hybrid resurgence, the birth of miniature electrostats, the outbreak of proprietary BAs, advancements in acoustics, and so much more. What better way then, to end the year than with a product that does all of them at once? Enter Joseph Mou’s Trinity: A 7-driver flagship comprised of 3 distinct driver technologies, configured in a phase-correct array and finished with an acoustically-affected bore – all within a single shell. Let’s cut to the chase: How does it sound?

Jomo Audio Trinity

  • Driver count: One dynamic driver, four balanced-armature drivers and two electrostatic drivers
  • Impedance: 30Ω @ 1kHz
  • Sensitivity: N/A
  • Key feature(s) (if any): CSU (Cross-Sync Uniphase) crossover network
  • Available form factor(s): Custom and universal acrylic IEM
  • Price: S$3799 (UIEM); TBA (CIEM)
  • Website:

Sound Impressions*

The Trinity is a stunning technical performer. Having long been jaded by the tonal sacrifices manufacturers often make to push detail and stage expansion to arbitrary limits, the Trinity is the first piece since 64Audio’s Tia Fourté to have me wholly entranced by the vast, corporeal and intricately detailed soundscape it convincingly transports me to. But more importantly, everything it achieves feels entirely deserved – there aren’t any egregious tonal aberrations, no diffuseness and minimal artificiality. The Trinity never comes across forcing its technical merits. Everything was done with musicality, long-term engagement and tonal balance in mind; making its feats all the more outstanding at the end of the day.

The Trinity flaunts a remarkable stage, expanding beyond the confines of the head – grand and theatre-like in scale. But again, more impressive is how genuine the volume feels. Instruments in the rearmost row – heck, even echoes bouncing off chapel walls in Chesky Records’ binaural rendition of When the Saints Go Marchin’ In – maintain full integrity; gaining the same corporeal there-ness as the crucial centre-image. In Sam Smith’s One Day at a Time, there’s as much tension and resonance in the string plucks at the bottom of the mix, as there is in Smith’s breathtaking vibrato at the very top. It’s a combination of macro- and micro-dynamics that gifts the Trinity its striking transparency and riveting realism.

Unfortunately, it’s small shortcomings in tone that threaten to take it away. Despite the balance it expertly maintains in the bass and midrange – which we’ll discuss later – the Trinity’s middle-treble may come across too energetic at first listen, especially to audiophiles who prefer a warmer, more laid-back and more organic signature. Transients sound a dB or two louder than they should, because of a brighter 7-10kHz range. But, this is something listeners can certainly adapt to. Someone like me who prefers an in-ear as laid-back as the JHAudio Layla or as rich as the Empire Ears Phantom can fully transition into the Trinity within a track or two. Fans of the Campfire Audio Andromeda or the 64Audio A18t may not need to adapt at all. So, whether as a matter of preference or a question of realism, it’s certainly case-by-case.

The Trinity’s low-end is dynamically-driven and clearly so; extension and physicality impress. Although that may seem like a given considering the tech at play, this is a crucial because of the Trinity’s relaxed mid-bass. There’s a clear sub-bass bias, drooping before plateau-ing around 300-500Hz. On one hand, bassheads may not be happy with the Trinity’s modest low-end body. But conversely, the stage is kept remarkably clean and the low-end never distracts. Thankfully, the reverse is true as well. Because the bass is so solid, it never makes its presence or authority unknown. Even in slower tracks – like the aforementioned Sam Smith tune – when the bass guitar kicks in to accompany the vocalist’s entrancing melody, the sheer resonance of the instrument (and the driver) is spine-tingling. The same goes for the drop in Sabrina Claudio’s uptempo Don’t Let Me Down. Indeed, the low-end may not be wild as some crave, but it never, ever lets down.

The Trinity’s midrange was structured with depth in mind, hallmarked by its neutral lower-midrange. Because of this, instruments are more articulative than they are harmonic or rich. Notes are neutral in size, but not in placement. Vocals have an upper-mid bias; vibrant, engaging and musical. But, because of how linearly it rises throughout 1-4kHz, they still come through with coherency, solidity and linearity – avoiding any sense of hollowness or plasticity. Consequently, the Trinity maintains a clear timbre with passable organicity. Boosting 300-500Hz would’ve given instruments a fuller, more complete structure, but it would’ve been at the cost of depth. Again, transparency and resolution is breathtaking as the stage expands far beyond the work area of the midrange. Every layer of every frequency range is revealed with utmost scrutiny, accenting the stage with galaxies of detail, with just enough warmth to keep it all pleasingly glued together.

Treble is where Trinity unleashes its main event: A swift, articulate and stunningly clear electrostatic experience. Unlike any driver technology I’ve encountered in the past – even heavily-modified variants like 64Audio’s tia drivers or Ultimate Ears’ True Tone drivers – Sonion’s twin engines deliver air and detail with unprecedented finesse. Remarkable speed and effortlessness allow transients to appear and vanish with neither a bright haze nor a brittle harmonic anywhere in sight – resulting in an airy, open and vast soundscape with near-zero fatigue. In addition, since the transient decides where you hear the note first, imaging precision is fantastic as well. Paired with CSU technology, spatial performance reaches the top of the heap with ease. I haven’t heard the spherical boundaries of the stage – especially the diagonals at 10′ and 2’o clock – and stereo separation this defined since the Tia Fourté and Vision Ears’ Erlkonig. Energy throughout 10-12kHz does give the Trinity a more neutral tone, but the benefits to technical performance are – pun, intended – crystal clear.

With all this in mind however, I must return to the brighter 7-10kHz range. With hotter music, you can begin to hear the slightest hint of a hard-edge to the initial transient. But fortunately, swift decay brings it to a swift end. Again, it’s a peak you can easily grow accustomed to – even if you prefer warmer sounds – but it’s a knack against the Trinity nonetheless.

vs. Alclair Audio’s Electro ($1499)

The Electro is the world’s first commercially-available custom IEM to implement Sonion’s dual electrostatic tweeters – the very same ones used in the Trinity – and the only other in-ear I’ve heard extensively with the technology. Although I was concerned the drivers would lead them to sound similar, I was relieved to find that they weren’t alike in several respects.

This is obviously most prevalent in the bass. The Electro carries a strictly flat-neutral bass. It’s transparent in the sense that it rises and falls according to the recording, which is ideal for use in the studio or live. But, this limits its musicality, especially with genres like EDM, pop and R&B. The Trinity’s low-end is a noticeable step-up from neutral – mostly so in the sub-bass. It then approaches neutral around the mid-bass, but there’s certainly enough rumble and slam to go around with all genres. The dynamic driver also gives the Trinity superior physicality and authority. Even if quantity isn’t particularly high, the solidity and grunt of the bass is as palpable as ever. The sub-bass bias gives the Trinity a visceral, textured low-end, while the Electro’s linear bass grants a natural, melodious tone ideal for mixing or for genres like jazz.

Compared to the Trinity’s neutral lower-midrange, the Electro has a fuller, richer and more harmonic response. Notes here aren’t as defined as on the Trinity, but vocalists – balladeers in particular – benefit from this heftier range. A sense of weight and drama accompany the songstress’s delivery, which then yields a more intimate, powerful and emotionally resonant performance. But, the Trinity compensates with micro-dynamic energy. Because its treble is more articulate and its lower-mids are further recessed, the Trinity maintains a blacker background and a more stable soundscape filled with clearer nuances and more prominent micro-details. This is what grants the Trinity its theatricality. The Electro will have the warmer timbre and superior structure too, but the Trinity simply outclasses it in transparency and definition.

Sourcing their strengths from the same source, the treble is where Trinity and Electro are most alike. As described above – and in my impressions of the Electro online – Sonion’s electrostatic drivers deliver the cleanest transients I’ve yet heard from any in-ear monitor. Treble notes appear, shimmer and disappear with uncanny speed. This means both in-ears sport excellent headroom and stable soundscapes. Where the Trinity departs is in articulation. It’s more crisp, energetic and sparkly than the softer, more linear Electro. This leads to the edge in detail, but it also gives the Trinity a brighter tone. The Electro has the more pleasing timbre by comparison, but the Trinity prevails in imaging precision. CSU technology gives it a more stable sphere enveloping the listener, superior definition at the diagonals (10′ and 2’o clock) and a blacker background. Although the Electro is more organic, the Trinity is unquestionably more technically-capable.

Consensus… For Now

The Trinity – to me – is an undeniable revelation. Since becoming a recording engineer and having my preferences shift towards timbral candor, I’ve abandoned the notion of sacrificing tone for detail – “Juvenile manhood-measuring contests!” I childishly thought. But, as any S$3800 flagship should, I’ve begun to question my creed. After long nights of work – as I lay Phantom and Layla to rest – I find myself giddy and agog; the Trinity calls with all its glorious flair. Track 1 plays and I instantly hear it: A middle-treble peak and a delicate lower-midrange. But alas, no wince! Neither a tick, nor a quiver nor a quail. “Who cares when you have all this detail?!” Because truly, this is what the Trinity reliably achieves: A rival to Fourté with fewer compromise, a foil to Erlkonig at a fraction of the cost, and a challenger to both with a custom form. Will this romance last? Only time will tell. But until that fateful hour comes past, Trinity has me under its evil spell…

*Note: The Trinity I have here is the stainless steel variant; denoting the nozzle material. A brass version is also available and carries its own distinct sound signature. Should I get the chance to audition it in the future, this article will be updated. Also, since the provided cable was single-ended – and to make sure I’m not bottlenecking the Trinity in any way – I’ve written these impressions with the most common aftermarket cable in the world today: Effect Audio’s Ares II terminated with a 4.4mm plug.


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