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

Select Comparisons

JH Audio Layla ($2199)

Against JH’s flagship Layla, the Jolene is a leaner, more dynamic, more contrast-driven in-ear. The Layla is a more lush in-ear with a fuller, more organic upper-bass-to-lower-midrange; deeper-steeped in warmth or smoke. And, the Jolene has a more prominent top-end as well, especially up in the air frequencies. As a result, it’s got a more open sound with more headroom, and its instruments are further separated as well. The Layla’s delivery tends to be more intimate – romantic – by comparison. This is most palpable in the centre-images, where the lead instrument will usually come off closer to you on the Layla, and a touch further away on the Jolene. Spatially, I’d say the Layla keeps up, but that focus on the periphery on the Jolene does hand it the perceivably bigger image, which is only exacerbated by the openness, airiness and clarity.

The tonal and textural differences are incredibly apparent between the two as well. You’ll hear a slightly mushier, slightly less tactile feel on the Layla, albeit a more uniform one, given the all-BA design. Everything seems to breathe at the same pace. Whereas, you’ll get a more exciting, vibrant sound with a wider array of textures on the Jolene. That is not to imply it’s disjointed or incoherent. I’d say it’s an apt representation of the different tones real-life instruments have too. Still, in sheer linearity, I’d have to hand the tonal edge to the Layla. The Jolene, as previously discussed, does exhibit that upper-bass dip that affects the weight, warmth or fundamentals of certain instruments. So, if you want something more analog and relaxed, the Layla is more ideal. Whereas, the Jolene packs a stronger, more textured punch in its taller, airier arena.

JH Audio Lola ($1599)

Listening to the Lola and Jolene back-to-back, you can quite clearly hear the progression Jerry Harvey has made from the former to the latter. It should not be a surprise that they’re rather similar in the mids, considering the fact that they have a near-identical config there. But, as you may have guessed, the big differences lie in their extremes. Most obvious of all, the Jolene has airier, cleaner, more extended highs. Where the Lola may have had a hair more low-treble zing than high-treble air, the Jolene nails the balance better to me. You won’t get transients that feel slightly tapered in the final octaves. Notes breathe better, which translates to a more open snare drum, cymbals resolved down to the tails, etc. And, this also lends the Jolene a cleaner, crisper low-end, which – now DD-powered – has more of a visceral thwack to it than the Lola’s.

What the Lola has over the Jolene, then, is the ability to be a bit sweeter and more seductive-sounding. With tracks such as Laura Fygi’s Vincent or Jaime Woods’s How Love’s Made, the Lola can be intimate. It’s allowed to be the modest, smoky, jazz lounge that those songs need. Whereas, the Jolene, again, has more of this big, stadium-filling sound, where smaller arrangements can sound… small. So, when it comes to letting lighter, simpler mixes bloom with vintage, analog warmth, I’d hand the edge to the Lola. And, in a contest of space and power, the win goes to the Jolene. So, given the Lola’s fatter, warmer-sounding, less-staccato presentation and the Jolene’s cleaner, more textured sound, they’d actually complement more than they’d compete. So, as a Lola complement with more scope, clarity and headroom, the Jolene is a great shout.

Empire Ears ODIN ($3399)

The Jolene and ODIN are both immensely-resolving, immensely-spacious in-ears mainly separated by how they treat the midrange. The former’s approach is more level-headed and even-split between its lower- and upper-mids. But, it’s also a tad more relaxed – more distantly-positioned – as a whole. The ODIN has the more present upper-midrange with larger-spanning, more intimate-sounding vocals that feel closer to the ear. Singers take a few steps forward, which also imbues them with more projection. But, with certain recordings, that can also place them ahead of the ensemble. On Diana Krall and Michael Bublé’s rendition of Alone Again (Naturally), vocals sound larger and closer than the strings just behind them. They’re on level ground on the Jolene, lending it the more even, spherical soundscape. Bublé also sounds a bit denser on the track, because of the Jolene’s more substantial low-mids. But, again, he’ll also sit further back, so it is a give-and-take.

This comes down to a difference in the treble as well. The ODIN slightly shelves its upper-treble, which adds a bit of glow and saturation its midrange. The Jolene’s more present high-highs lend it a more open, airy space overall, and it tops the instruments within – whether it be vocals, guitars, cymbals, etc. – with a crisper bite as well; a harder edge. This gives the Jolene an edge in separation for me too, even though the two are fairly even when it comes to resolution. Its tweeters do well tonally, but the ODIN still has the silkier top-end to me, that more seamlessly disappears into the background. Down bottom, I feel it’s a tale of two styles. The ODIN has a looser, more radiant presentation by comparison, while the Jolene’s mid-bass dip gives it a tighter, more rumble-heavy lower-end. Bass lines sound cleaner, tauter and more polished on the latter, while the former adds more meat or grime. If you crave more personality, size and life from your bass, this ODIN’s is more suitable, while the Jolene’s is more for the analyst or the engineer, but with the potential to rumble like heck too.

FiR Audio M5 ($2900)

FiR Audio’s M5 is a more forward-sounding in-ear than the Jolene, mostly due to its more vibrant high-mids and its fuller upper-bass. Instruments sound more intimate, they’re more saturated, and they’re less afraid to intermix. It will, though, also dip – like the Jolene with its upper-bass – to create headroom, but it does so in its lower-mids instead. This results in notes that have warmth and smoke around them, but are, themselves, a hair lighter-sounding and less substantial than those on the Jolene. The latter’s vocals have a chestier, denser foundation to them, while the M5’s simply have more of a shadow around them, if that makes sense. The Jolene’s bottom-end kicks harder as well, especially with its dial turned to full. So, the Jolene’s quad-DDs lend it the more tactile, powerful tone, while the M5 prefers agility, articulation and attack.

Technically, I get a more holographic, surround sound sensation out of the Jolene, but that’s also because its instruments more so line the periphery of its stage. The M5’s got a more intimate, centre-image-centric presentation by contrast. The former’s notes have more grit and texture to them too, as alluded above, while the latter’s sense of detail relies on being heard more than being felt. So, when it comes to percussion, I feel impact translates a lot more realistically on the Jolene, while FiR’s M5 will sound sweeter (or lusher) with vocals; a safer choice for a genre like pop. Speaking of impact, the JH in-ear is also the more transparent of the two here. It can go from flat to explosive depending on the mix, while FiR’s M5 will treat tracks with a mostly-even hand. Instruments will sound saturated, yet rounded; again, a nice, safe choice for library hopping, for example. So, these are two different IEMs, with very different presentations of music for different listeners.

Vision Ears EXT (€2650)

In a somewhat similar way to FiR’s M5, Vision Ears’ EXT and the Jolene largely differ in where they choose their dips. The former’s got a fuller mid-to-upper-bass and lighter low-to-centre-mids, while the latter possesses the reverse. So, vocals and guitars will have a slightly lighter tone, but with more warmth around them, on the EXT. Whereas, the Jolene’s notes will have more chest and girth to them, but with little smoke between them. They differ up top as well. The EXT’s attacks are largely rooted in its mid-treble, which lends transients that crisp edge, but without as much of that bright, glitzy tizz. The Jolene has more presence around 5-6kHz, so cymbals have more of that metallic sheen. And, it’ll be less compatible with hotly-made tracks too. Down low, the two similarly flex their DD muscles, but the Jolene has more of a sub-bass tilt.

Those tuning decisions down low result in both in-ears having different bass-to-mid relationships as well. The EXT’s bass almost feeds into its midrange, adding that muscle and warmth described above. Whereas, the Jolene’s sub-bass tilt and high-bass dip means there’s more of a jolt when the bass does come in; more of a contrast. That is, again, more ideal on drums and dynamic as a whole, but at the cost of full, tonal linearity. In backdrop blackness, I’d tip it slightly towards the Jolene. Its notes tend to have that little bit more contrast against its background. Whereas, when it comes to showcasing texture and tactility – making instruments feel like they’re physically there – the EXT has the advantage. Then, in imaging, I find this Jolene’s soundstage a touch taller, while the EXT has a tad more specificity with where it places its instruments.

Verdict

Four DDs, eight BAs and countless patents full, JH Audio’s Jolene is a monster of an IEM. And, that manifests in a number of ways. Physically, it’s the largest custom in my collection. Cosmetically, it’s the most robustly-built and tricked-out CIEM I’ve had too. And, sonically, it delivers a massive, visceral, chest-thumping sound capable of rivalling the industry’s most- lavish flagships. It surely isn’t without its faults. Warm, silky, intimate arrest is not its forte. Its bass curve may not appeal to all either. If you can live with those colourations, though, what you have on your hands is arguably Jerry Harvey’s most ambitious, innovative and technically-impressive in-ear to date. Like a luthier desperate to prove he’d rather perish than rest on his laurels, the man continues to invent in the very space he created, and, with how he’s pricing the IEMs, ensure that it’s still reasonably accessible too. JH Audio’s Jolene to me – flaws and all – is a celebration of technological wit, visual flair, competitive pricing and just rockstar-level sound, which I hope, if anything, will make waves like any flagship should.

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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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