Details: Mid-range dynamic IEM from Jaben’s house brand, Hippo, boasting ‘Variable Bass’ technology
MSRP: $89 (manufacturer’s page)
Current Price: $79 from unclewilsons / $78 from jaben.com.au
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 32 Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 18-22k Hz | Cable: 4.3’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 5.5mm | Preferred tips: UE Single flanges
Wear Style: straight down or over-the-ear
Accessories (4/5) – Single-flange silicone tips (3 sizes), shirt clip, hard clamshell carrying case with wrist strap, and bass tuning ports (3 sets)
Build Quality (3.5/5) – Metal shells with screw-in bass ports in the rear and filterless nozzles. The cable is properly relieved and doesn’t tangle much but feels a bit cheap – sort of like the new Head-Direct cable found on the RE-ZERO and RE252. The L-plug is excellent
Isolation (3/5) – Quite decent for day-to-day use with well-sealing tips
Microphonics (3/5) – Rather bothersome when worn cord-down; average otherwise
Comfort (3.5/5) – The VBs are typical straight-barrel IEMS when it comes to fit but the housings aren’t small or rounded at the front, resulting in fairly shallow fit. The cord is rather flexible and wearing them over-the-ear is easy
Sound (7.7/10) – The Hippo VB gets its designation from the ‘Variable Bass’ tuning system, which consists of three interchangeable screw-in bass ports/plates that are fitted at the rear of the shells. The high-bass, medium-bass, and low-bass plates are marked with zero, two, and three white dots, respectively (and, unless I’m reading it wrong, the packaging actually has the markings listed backwards). The changes resulting from swapping the plates are small but noticeable. With the medium (two dot) plate, bass quantity is just a bit short of the Sennheiser IE8 (on minimum bass setting) and about on par with the Monster Turbine Pro Gold. Compared to the medium setting, the high-bass plate sounds a bit less controlled and slightly darker. The low-bass plate makes the sound brighter and seems to exacerbate the sibilance towards which the VB can be prone while offering no improvements in control or clarity over the medium plate. Needless to say, after initial testing I left the two-dot bass plate on for the duration of my listening.
With the medium tuning plate in place, the bass of the VB is nothing short of superb. It is well-textured, full-bodied, and extremely deep, matching the Future Sonics Atrios in extension and offering even better linearity. The sub-bass has great rumble and is very controlled – mid-bass bloat common to mid-range earphones with lots of bass is completely absent. As a result, the bass of the VB sounds rather different from that of midbass-heavy earphones like the Sennheiser CX300 – the VB offers plenty of sub-bass rumble with a bit of punch. The resulting sound is extremely layered and well-separated as opposed to the more blended and integrated sound offered by earphones like the FA Eterna and ViSang R03. The peculiar presentation is enjoyable in its own right but may surprise those expecting CX300-like midbass. Expectedly, midrange bleed is completely absent, giving way to clear and accurate mids. The midrange reminds me of the Head-Direct RE0 with less microdetail and overall refinement. It is controlled and detailed but tends to sound a tad thin and quite dry compared to the similarly-priced ViSang R03 and Fischer Audio Eterna. The midrange is quite adequate, but it’s neither a strength nor a weakness of the VB – the dryness, combined with the powerful subbass, does give the VB a certain garage band feel that works well with certain tracks but I think the more lush and liquid mids of the R03 and Eterna work better with bass-heavy earphones.
If the midrange of the VB reminds me of the RE0 in several ways, the treble is antithetical to that of Head-Direct’s mid-range heavyweight. Though very crisp and extended, it is fairly forward and quite aggressive. The earphones tend slightly towards sibilance, though the reports I’ve read seem somewhat exaggerated – compared to something like the Grado iGi or Klipsch S4, the sibilance of the VB is quite mild. However, the high end of the VB does lack the delicacy and refinement of the RE0s, instead appearing very edgy and a bit metallic. If I had to pin it down, the edgy nature of the VB’s treble reminds me of a certain lower-end Grado that had surprisingly hard treble – namely the older SR80.
As for presentation, the VBs do have a fairly wide soundstage with good separation but tend to stray little towards the extremes. They can portray both distance and intimacy but the Eterna does it better, and has a wider dynamic range to boot. Still, the overall sound of the VB is quite uncolored, which is usually a plus in my book, and the VB is less sensitive than the Eterna when it comes to source matching. Lastly, the unique balance of the VB aids in low volume listening as the bass detail, which is usually the first thing to go when the volume of a dynamic earphone is reduced, stays very strong with the VB even at low listening volumes.
Value (8.5/10) – Easily one of the top earphones in its price bracket, the Hippo VB offers a unique sound signature with unparalleled bass depth and sub-bass power, no mid-bass bloat, a crystal-clear but dry midrange, and extended but edgy treble. Listening to the VB is an intense experience and won’t suit everyone’s tastes – it is not the earphone to use while enjoying a glass of fine whiskey in front of the fireplace. For the same reason, the VB is not an easy earphone to recommend for hi-fi newcomers looking for bass-heavy sound – it has neither the warmth nor the thickness usually associated with fun and bassy sound. Both the ViSang R03 and FA Eterna fit the expectations of a fun-sounding IEM better and make better everyday companions for those who value isolation and durability. But for those in search of a raw and visceral sound with maximum bass depth, the VB is very hard to beat no matter the budget.
Pros: Deep bass, great clarity
Cons: Microphonics can be bothersome, strangely thick stock tips, mostly useless tuning system, edgy treble