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JH Audio Jolene: Beyond Thunderdome – A Custom In-Ear Monitor Review

DISCLAIMER: JH Audio provided me with the Jolene 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 JH Audio for their kindness and support. The article is as follows.

Categorically-known as the godfather of custom in-ear monitoring, the industry wouldn’t be where it is today – or here at all, even – without the wits of one Jerry Harvey. He originated the multi-driver custom in-ear all the way back in 1995, and he and his crew at JH Audio have only pushed the envelope further since; from time-aligned waveguides, to variable low-end responses and more. Gradually becoming more of an artist’s brand in the mid-2010’s, they quickly thrust themselves back into the spotlight through their exploits in CNC-machining and cosmetic design, often subject to envy and applause on enthusiast forums and social media. Now, completing their revival is Jerry’s latest, most complex and most hi-fi-tuned monitor yet: Weighing in at a staggering 4 DDs and 8 BAs, the Jolene is JH Audio at their true technical and musical bests.

JH Audio Jolene

  • Driver count: Four dynamic drivers and eight balanced-armature drivers
  • Impedance: 10Ω
  • Sensitivity: 114dB @ 1mW
  • Key feature(s) (if any): Freqphase, SoundrIVe, Acoustic Sound Chamber, Variable Bass Attenuator
  • Available form factor(s): Custom and universal acrylic IEMs
  • Price: $1799
  • Website: www.jhaudio.com

Packaging and Accessories

JH Audio’s roots in the pro-audio industry clearly shine through in their packaging: Clean, simple and fuss-free. They, for sure, aren’t targeting the same demographic a Vision Ears or a Rhapsodio, for example, might; no wooden boxes or rising platforms here. Rather, they’ve gone for a humble, black box with the company logo on top, finished with a personalised cardboard sleeve. I applaud these high-quality materials they’ve chosen, as well as how clearly they’ve established brand identity. But, at the end of the day, it has obviously been optimised for volume and efficiency over lavishness or style. So, collectors may come away a bit disappointed here. But, I reckon the artists among you won’t find it too big an issue at all.

Lifting this box’s magnetic latch open, you’ll find its cargo nicely-nestled in foam, which, by the way, is attached to a strap or pull tab, so you can pull it out for easier access into the box’s contents; an extremely-clever detail. Here, you’ll find the Jolene’s quick-start guide, a wax-cleaning tool, a small screwdriver for the variable bass pot, a Flygirl sticker, and the IEMs themselves stored inside its gorgeous, carbon-fibre case, which we’ll get into later. Returning to that guide, it’s one of the most in-depth I’ve seen yet; complete with images for each item. For me, the only accessories lacking here are a cleaning cloth and a cable tie. I’d love to see them become givens in the industry. But, those two aside, this is a very decent effort.

If you’ve ever owned or seen JH Audio’s Layla or Roxanne at any time in the past, the Jolene’s metal case may not feel like anything new to you. But, that doesn’t make it any less stunning-looking, rugged-feeling or outrageously-well-made. This JH case design is a classic for good reason. The exterior is made entirely of carbon fibre, then wrapped inside a brushed-metal ribcage. On this ribcage is a laser engraving of the owner’s name, as well as artwork emblazoned across the top. It wouldn’t surprise me if you could customise this with your order. And, holding this case closed are two incredibly-strong magnets that I’m confident won’t ever accidentally give. In raw ruggedness and heft, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Within the case, you’ll find your Jolene’s stored inside a small, velvet pouch. It’s a nice addition, but I find it crucial too, as it’ll cushion the IEMs against the sides of this case, which aren’t lined with foam like the floor and ceiling are. You’ll find a tiny desiccant pod as well, which’ll protect your monitors from all unwanted moisture. If I could find any negatives about the case, I’d probably cite the lack of a carabiner attachment. That’d make transporting it a bit more flexible. Unpolished carbon fibre also isn’t the smoothest material in the world, so you’ll hear a bit of noise as you open and close the case. It also isn’t the tallest case in the world, so you won’t be able to fit your DAP in here like you could on some Pelican’s cases. And, it’s not waterproof as well. But, those littler flaws aside, it is a near-ideal case to throw in any musician’s bag or tour kit. It’s got a very rockstar look that fits the JH brand brilliantly, and it’s a really robust add-on fit to house any set of IEMs.

Customisation and Signature Designs

For my money, JH Audio are currently king as far as cosmetic design is concerned. A brief glance at their Instagram page will show you the sheer breadth of looks they’re capable of. They’re one of very few in the industry who offer wood and wood-hybrid designs, courtesy of their in-house CNC mills. And, they’ve recently included metal faceplate inlays to their repertoire as well, which both the Jolene’s default designs feature. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that the materials and customisations will add-up towards the in-ear’s cost. So, you’ll be paying a pretty penny should you opt to go all-out.

Thankfully, going all-out won’t entirely be necessary, given the Jolene’s already-stunning default designs. They’re dubbed Jupiter and Hyper Black, and they feature solid pieces of CNC-milled acrylic resin with engraved metal plates on top. Mine have the latter design, and I adore the swirls they were able to capture within it. Plus, because they were CNC-cut from a block of resin, there’s a depth to the swirls that make the shells seem three-dimensional, compared to the surface swirls on your usual, UV-cured shells. So, again, without having to pay an extra dime, you’ll be getting absolute quality from JH.

If you do choose to stray from this Jolene’s free-of-charge designs, though, you needn’t look any further than JH’s online design tool. Unlike most other designers, this one features fully-rotatable 3D models, so you’ll be able to get a 360° look of your design. And, you’ll be able to get a great look at JH Audio’s Signature Designs as well. These are ones that, as said, make use of more exotic, often CNC-milled materials, and they’re the pricier of JH’s cosmetic offerings. But, they’re very customisable as well. If you want to make colour swaps to this signature design, incorporate imagery, etc., you’ll be able to discuss them fully with JH’s design team. And, they’ll even send you 3D renders of the design as well, so satisfaction is guaranteed. So, if you do choose to splurge on a fancier look for your JH custom, you will be in the safest hands possible.

Build and Fit

In terms of build and finish, you truly, truly can’t get much better than this. My Jolene’s are easily some of the most well-made, solid-feeling monitors I’ve owned to date. Much of that comes from the fact that it’s been CNC-milled from a solid block of resin, so you’ll see evenly thick walls all around the shells. JH even have a video online of them running over one of their customs with a car, and all that cracked was its lacquer. Durability should be the absolute least of your concerns. Speaking of lacquer, it’s been applied nicely on my set with an even lustre. And, every extra bit from the 7-pin connector, to the recessed bores, to the metal faceplate have all been machined cleanly too; neither an unpolished edge, nor a glue splotch in sight. You’d honestly be hard-pressed to find a more robust, well-made custom in-ear monitor on the market.

Fit, I think, is where the Jolene may end up a bit more contentious. Because of the sheer amount of parts JH have to stuff inside its chassis, the Jolene will end up much wider than your typical CIEM (i.e. they’ll stick much, much further out your ears). Now, this is much less of an issue compared to the universals that JH made in collaboration with Astell&Kern years ago. Those stuck out of the ear and weighed them down, because the only things keeping them there were a thin nozzle and a silicone ear tip. With a CIEM, much more of the shells will make contact with and lock onto the contours of the ear, so it won’t feel like they’re weighing you down and threatening to fall out. Still, though, if you have a problem with bigger customs, or you wanna do things like sleep with them in, these probably aren’t ideal. Otherwise, though, they fit nicely in the ear, with the shorter nozzles helping them feel less penetrative too. So, width concern aside, it’s standard fare for JH.

JH’s 7-pin Connector, Cable and Variable Bass Attenuator

The launch of the Layla AION also saw JH debut a brand-new, proprietary, 7-pin connector. It retains the full functionality of their previous 4-pin, with potential for more in the future, but it’s been completely revamped mechanically. There’s no longer a collar that screws into the monitor end. It now uses a click-on locking mechanism reminiscent of the mini-XLR or HIROSE connectors you’d get on headphones. They’re manufactured in Germany under incredibly tight tolerances, and it truly does show in the final product. They’re hands-down the most robust, secure-feeling connectors I’ve seen in an IEM. Cable rolling is as easy as a push or pull. Its tactile click is miles stronger than any MMCX I’ve used. And, features like the built-in O-ring make it sweat-proof too. So, while I can imagine frustration for cable enthusiasts that JH have again made a new standard to think about, it’s one I believe is very-near-flawless, and one ripe with potential for future features too.

The cable they’re attached to is an 8-wire SPC Litz cable, and it’s one of the better stock cables I’ve seen. It has pliancy on par with the ones that come with Vision Ears’ flagships, for example. And, it’s tastefully-topped with brand logos too, so I applaud JH for putting in the proper effort. I only have a couple qualms here. The blue and red paint on the inside of the 7-pin connectors (to indicate left and right) will rub off. Even though it’d still be very difficult to get them wrong otherwise, I still would’ve liked better finishing here just for quality’s sake. Secondly, the cable does use memory wire, which is fairly universally despised. Having said that, though, after trying a 7-pin cable without memory wire, I will admit that it makes the larger Jolene a hair comfier to wear. But, if you surely want it gone, you can always ask JH to get rid of it at check-out.

Finally, we have this last component, which is JH’s classic bass pot. What it is is a variable resistor attached to the in-ear’s woofers, which allows the user to customise the in-ear’s bass response. With the new cable, though, JH have also shrunk the pot by a good margin. It’s barely larger than the dials themselves, and it even has a semi-cylindrical shape to further reduce the footprint. It’s also been finished with much, much more quality. The injection-moulded plastic body has been replaced with a smooth, slightly-rubbery, unibody frame, with a sleek, anodised finish. And, it’s been topped with clearer metering as well for more precise adjustments. The only improvement left to make here would perhaps be a better way to turn those dials than a small screwdriver. But, this aside, I, again, applaud JH for continuing to refine their innovations.

Freqphase Waveguide

The Freqphase waveguide is probably Jerry Harvey’s most recognisable innovation, dating all the way back to his JH13 Pro in 2012. It’s a concept based on getting the low, mid and high frequencies – all travelling at different speeds – to arrive at the eardrum at the same time, so they won’t fall out of alignment and cause phase issues. These issues can create peaks or valleys in the monitor’s frequency response. And, it can hurt imaging precision and separation as well. Below’s a video from JH Audio’s YouTube channel fully-detailing how this Freqphase waveguide works, presented by Jerry Harvey himself:

As Jerry explains in the video, the answer JH have come up with is to give the low, mid and high drivers each sound tubes of different lengths, so the signals they fire arrive at the ear within 1/100th of a millisecond of each other. Again, it’s what gives JH’s customs the imaging they’re renowned for. And, it’s also especially crucial for a hybrid earphone like the Jolene.

SoundrIVe Technology

SoundrIVe Technology refers to JH Audio’s proprietary quad-drivers; small balanced armatures in clusters of four, wired in parallel. The Jolene has two clusters for its top-end, and the reason for the four drivers is maximising headroom. When a single driver is pushed by a load, you’ll hear distortion at higher volumes. Having a cluster of four do it instead effectively quarters this impedance, so JH monitors, through SoundrIVe, will be able to achieve much higher SPLs without distortion.

Acoustic Sound Chamber

The Acoustic Sound Chamber is an innovation that first premiered with the Layla AION. It’s a more practical feature, which slightly recesses the end of the sound tubes. What this does is prevent too much sweat or wax from entering the bore. It also removes this need for excessive cleaning, extending your IEM’s longevity, and making it more maintenance-free too.

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ABOUT AUTHOR

Deezel

Deezel

Church-boy by day and audio-obsessee by night, Daniel Lesmana’s world revolves around the rhythms and melodies we lovingly call: Music. When he’s not behind a console mixing live for a congregation of thousands, engineering records in a studio environment, or making noise behind a drum set, you’ll find him on his laptop analysing audio gear with fervor and glee. Now a specialist in custom IEMs, cables and full-sized headphones, he’s looking to bring his unique sensibilities - as both an enthusiast and a professional - into the reviewer’s space; a place where no man has gone before.

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