Fantastic stock cable, Excellent fit and isolation, Well-balanced, Super tight and defined bass with tasteful sub-bass boost, Refined treble, Highly transparent tone throughout, Very sharp imaging, Great separation
Deep fit may be uncomfortable for some, Thinner midrange makes them a little track sensitive, Tip/fit depth sensitive
With its exceptionally solid fit, class-leading cable and balanced sound that doesn’t sacrifice bass extension and power, Nostalgia Audio have created one of the most versatile IEMs in its price class.
Nostalgia Audio are a new kid on the block but that doesn’t mean they lack experience or talent. The company is situated in Hong Kong and is the passion project of 3 passionate audio enthusiasts and professional – Adrian, Artanis and Bernie. The company serves as a response to the increasing inflation seen in the audiophile market. They do so by leveraging the scale of multiple larger companies for each component; coordinating to achieve a high-quality product at a reasonable price that may not otherwise be possible for a smaller company. While the company began with custom cables, the Benbulbin is their first IEM – and an ambitious one at that. This is a high-end 5-driver hybrid earphone featuring an 11mm Ti-coated DD for the bass, 2x mid BA and 2x BA tweeters. This is woven together with a 3-way crossover and 3-bore design alongside Polish 3D-printed shells with wooden faceplates.
The Benbulbin retails for $899 USD. You can read more about it and treat yourself to a unit here
I would like to thank Bernie and Adrian from Nostalgia Audio very much their quick communication and for reaching out and providing me with the Benbulbin 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.
- Drivers: 1x Ti-Coated DD, 2x Mid BA, 2x High BA
- Crossover: 3-way, 3 Bore
- Frequency Response: 10Hz – 19kHz
- Impedance: 11 Ohms
- Isolation: -26dB
Behind the Design
The Benbulbin targets a neutral/reference sound by implementing a 5-hybrid driver setup. Bass is covered by a titanium coated DD. Titanium has the highest strength to weight of any metal, meaning a very light yet strong diaphragm can be achieved. While not as stiff as Beryllium, Titanium coated drivers bring real benefits to transient response, lower distortion and higher overall detail retrieval.
3D Printed Shell
Nostalgia Audio utilise Polish 3D printed shells to achieve not only a high level of aesthetic quality, but also to permit a better ergonomic experience. In addition, the granular changes permit by 3D printing have enabled the company to modify the acoustics surrounding each driver to optimise the frequency response.
Also included is Nostalgia Audio’s own Prelude custom cable. These are hand crafted in Japan and implement a 4-wire square braid with 26AWG high-purity silver plated copper conductors. It assumes a Type 4 Litz design featuring a damping core to reduce vibrations, reduce resistance and reduce skin and proximity effect relative to non-Litz wires. The Prelude retails for approx. $150 USD, adding value to the overall package.
Where usually I am accustomed to a relatively sparse unboxing from newer brands, the Benbulbin provided a surprisingly complete and comprehensive unboxing experience. I would say this is indicative that this is a serious venture for the company given there must have been a fair amount of outlay to realise this. Removing the satin outer sleeve reveals a large hard box. Inside are laser cut inlets for the earphones, case and tips. The earphones ship with a lovely green leather magnetic case that complements the faceplate design. As far as ear tips go, the Benbulbin comes with 3 pairs of generic silicone tips with an additional box of Azla Xelastec tips and Dekoni washable foam tips. A cleaning tool is also provided in order to maintain performance over time. Overall, a pleasing and comprehensive selection. Arguably, Final E tips would have better complemented the Benbulbin’s brighter sound signature though the Xelastec tips do offer a unique sound and reliable fit.
Design and Fit –
The Benbulbin is a curious earphone to look at, undoubtedly handsome with a colourful artistic flair imbued by its stained wooden faceplates that offer a unique pattern for each set. This is delightfully contrasted by a piano black acrylic complexion enabled by the Polish 3D-printing process. Relative to class-leaders in this regard, the Benbulbin does have a few rough joins around the faceplate and some undulations that signify this is a hand-finished product. Nonetheless, nothing harms the fit or comfort in any way, just don’t expect machine perfect precision with the finish.
Up top, the earphone employs 0.78mm 2-pin connectors. The cable is sensational, among the best I’ve seen included with any IEM. It is one of the most compliant cables I’ve felt with absolutely zero memory and minimal microphonic noise. The smooth, transparent jacket coils easily for storage and is highly tangle resistant. It has robust yet case-friendly metal connectors backed up by high-purity SPC conductors in a Type 4 Litz geometry. The pre-moulded ear guides are also well-shaped and very comfortable, forming a very strong first impression regarding fit and finish throughout. I would be glad had I paid retail for this cable, the quality is excellent.
Fit & Isolation –
While the shells are shapely, they are also large and elongated. As the height and length of the earphones is not too large, they don’t form hotspots with the outer ear albeit they do protrude quite a bit as a result of their depth. The elongated nozzles and narrow profile mean the earphones provide an especially deep fit and I found sizing down tips here to provide the best experience. Prioritising a deep fit, Nostalgia Audio are able to create a more consistent sound amongst various listeners if at the cost of some comfort relative to a shallower fitting design.
Accordingly, they never quite disappear in the ear, though I did find the nozzle to be well-shaped and nicely angled. In turn, the Benbulbin provided me with a consistent seal and a very stable, locked-in fit. Driver flex also isn’t apparent and wearing pressure is reduced to a large extent by the vented design. The strong seal and deep fit rewards with very strong passive noise isolation and an exceptionally locked-in fit. Despite the presence of faceplate port, there is minimal wind noise and isolation is easily sufficient for commute and even air travel.
Testing Methodology: Measured using Arta via IEC 711 coupler to Startech external sound card. 7-9KHz peaks may be artefacts/emphasised due to my measurement setup, less so with deep fit. Measurements besides channel balance are volume matched at 1KHz. Fit depth normalised to my best abilities to reduce coupler resonance. Still, due to these factors, my measurements may not accurately reflect the earphone or measurements taken by others. I gave the Benbulbin 100hrs of burn-in to ensure maximum performance prior to subjective breakdown.
Nostalgia Audio’s marketing is scarce and brief, but in conversation with Adrian, he did mention that the Benbulbin targets a reference sound. It appears in measurement to be a bass-boosted DF neutral curve with a few key changes in the midrange itself. Sub-bass has obviously been brought forward with a wideband cut applied through the upper-bass/lower midrange retaining a clean tone. In addition, pinna gain has been cut by a few dB and the 4kHz region has been brought forward. The lower-treble is then tapered off more aggressively, imbuing a smoother articulation while leaving a small 6kHz bump to retain detail presence.
In turn, it doesn’t come across quite as linear as earphones following the DF neutral and Harman curves more closely, but has a very similar overall balance and character. Technically, the Benbulbin glimpses true stars in the high-end domain such as the Campfire Audio Andromeda or Fir Audio VxV, but falls just short of them in return for a more balanced and linear tonality. Few would doubt this is a high-end design in either regard. On a side note, for my personal preferences, the Final E-tips offered the best synergy, slightly improving midrange coherence and providing a more defined bass response. These were used for the sound analysis below.
The Benbulbin offers a sub-bass focused low-end with a progressive cut through the mid-bass into a slightly recessed upper-bass/lower-midrange. It’s a moderate boost over your usual reference earphone but nothing that overly upsets the tone or timbre. Extension is what you would expect from a good DD implementation, providing clearly more slam and a more defined rumble than any BA monitor. While there are more aggressive, harder-hitting DD implementations out there, what this earphone excels more at is providing good depth and dynamics paired with excellent tightness and detail retrieval. The tuning showcases superb cleanliness too, mitigating boom and muddiness without missing body. Warmth is a touch diminished, however, as the sub-bass increases note body, the net result is a tonally transparent, faithful voicing that I can see few having complaints with unless you want more overt emphasis.
Getting more granular, the note presentation is agile and controlled with a slightly smooth over aggressive texture. This is because attack isn’t too aggressive, there isn’t a heap of pressure nor long lingering texture here, but rather a quick, tight impact at the very bottom prioritising snappy timing. Notes decay a touch faster than your average DD thereafter, contributing to excellent mid-bass definition and separation. Dynamics remain strong as well if not being outstanding, and this earphone likely won’t appeal to those wanting huge bass energy as a result. However, this isn’t a light footed sound either, as the sub-bass boost reinforces lows with a hearty yet very well-controlled rumble and slam. While I have found many sub-bass emphasized earphones to have diminished separation, due to the tightness and clean upper-bass tuning, this is actually a strong point here; the mid-bass showcases excellent definition and detail retrieval. The Benbulbin has a tight, snappy note presentation and a clean, satisfying tuning that is a pleasure to listen to.
I will preface this analysis by stating that the following comments will be relative to Harman-target IEMs from which the Benbulbin manages to sound reminiscent at a basic level while introducing its own distinct character. The midrange is immediately highly defined, resolving fine textures in instruments and vocals immensely well, whilst retaining a natural voicing and timbre. The tone is dead neutral and note body is somewhat thin. Despite this, the earphone avoids intensity due to its reduced pinna gain and minimal sharpness with its smooth articulation, managing to be more forgiving than most as a result. Separation, definition and clarity have all been enhanced via a wide-band upper-bass/lower-midrange cut paired with a small 4kHz bump. Secondly, the 3kHz region responsible for pinna gain has been toned down as has the lower-treble, redeeming smoothness and avoiding over-forwardness. What remains is excellent tri-frequency balance and vocals in almost perfect harmony with instruments. As the sound has become slightly more upper-midrange biased, female vocals do tend to steal some spotlight and can sound a little bright and breathy on some tracks, if never becoming excessively intimate or peaky. Furthermore, a small centre-midrange hump ensures that male vocals never become overshadowed.
With my preferred Final E-tips, this imbalance is less apparent and they address the thinness to some extent as well by enhancing upper-midrange density – albeit, coherence remains reduced due to the lower-mid cut. While I would have preferred a more body, the Benbulbin is not a harsh, sibilant or hollow sound whilst epitomising tonal cleanliness and clarity. It also isn’t an earphone I consider overtly smooth or warm, but does come across as a little smoother and more refined than the average Harman earphone due to its toned down top-end. The smoother articulation especially takes intensity out of the sound, meaning that though female vocals are a little forward, they are never sharp, sibilant or metallic. That said, due to the uptick of upper-midrange quantity don’t expect huge coherence or a richly bodied presentation here; zero extension and openness have been sacrificed in the pursuit of a more forgiving sound. I do also acknowledge that many listeners enjoy having a more prominent female vocal but even if you don’t, I think most would be impressed by the Benbulbin’s midrange timbre and resolving power, especially with the right ear tips. It is a good solution for those that find Harman earphones a bit vocal-forward and shouty albeit some brightness in the upper-midrange has been introduced in return. This means you must pay particular attention to fit depth and tip selection. Once dialled in, the Benbulbin delivers a strong performance in essentially every regard.
The top-end is slightly smooth but in good coordination with the bass and midrange in terms of quantity, upholding its trend of excellent balance. It is defined by an impressively linear foreground with only a very small 6k bump, a dark background and subsequent rise in the upper-treble. Unfortunately, with E-tips, the 6k region becomes a bit more pronounced which can make treble sound just a little brittle. However, it isn’t a treble-forward earphone by any stretch, remaining smooth and clean relative to most competitors. This tuning has allowed Nostalgia Audio to achieve a revealing sound in the midrange whilst avoiding intensity and fatigue over longer listening. Treble itself is well-detailed and extended too. I’m not hearing the space and sparkle one would on a TOTL monitor, but definitely a stong performance suitable for the price. While treble is a touch laid-back, it is well-voiced with a keen note attack and a clean transient response that permits strong fine detail retrieval.
The foreground is flattered, with minimal peaking and resonance permitting a well-bodied and textured response. The middle-treble trough does mean decay, cymbals especially, can sound a bit dampened with a slightly muted shimmer. This contributes to a more grounded and foreground focussed presentation. Despite this, air and openness aren’t lacking with the lift in the upper-treble working to good effect alongside strong if not outlandish extension. The Benbulbin has good, not great background detail retrieval and ample extension to realise such a tuning. However, still don’t expect huge amounts of top-octave sparkle or energy here, it is working more to the benefit its spatial characteristics rather than creating huge audible micro-detail. While the Benbulbin isn’t a technical wonder, it is a clearly good performer in a strong price-class and is tonally refined to boot.
I really enjoy the soundstage performance of the Benbulbin too, and the performance here secures its spot as a competitive option in the high-end market. While not as spacious as Campfire Audio’s high-end monitors, it has a good balance between depth and width and expands beyond the head in both axis. I would put it about on par with something like the Soft Ears RSV, itself a strong performer. As vocals aren’t too forward, however, its sense of space is often exacerbated, maximising the use of its space. Imaging is very sharp, however, one thing to note is that I’ve found the performance here to be very fit dependent. Sizing down tips from medium to small allowed a deeper fit and noticeably sharper, more accurate imaging.
Due to the more conservative treble tuning, it isn’t especially holographic nor diffuse, but of respectable dimension and impressive organisation. Treble has quick transients and sharp if not highlighted directional cues. Localisation is pinpoint accurate, and the earphone has a good ability to position front to back in addition to left and right, besting most competitors. Layering also impresses, it does have higher contrast between foreground and background but individual layers also appear well-delineated and defined, especially in the midrange. Separation is a highlight too, especially with regards to its low-end. Small details shine through and are easily perceived by the listener.
The Benbulbin has a very low 11 ohm impedance and un-specified sensitivity though from testing I would gather that it is into the 110dB range making this an efficient and sensitive earphone.
Output Impedance Sensitivity
Switching between the Shanling M2X (1-ohm) and Hiby R6 (10-ohms) revealed that the Benbulbin is affected by output impedance similar to most hybrid/multi-driver earphones, albeit, the difference wasn’t as large as on some competitors. I noted a diminished top-end on the Hiby, forming a more L-shaped signature. While bass was similarly voiced on both, the midrange was smoother and more laid-back on the Hiby. Similarly, treble was notably blunted. It remained listenable, and a source with a single-digit output impedance like my Xperia 5 II rewarded with a perfectly enjoyable experience. Still, a low output impedance source is ideal to extract the best balance from this earphone. Users sensitive to highs may consider impedance adaptors to smooth off the top end to some degree.
The Benbulbin achieves a fine balance, being efficient but not overly sensitive. Switching between Shanling M2X and my desktop Topping 30 Pro stack revealed a more robust, dynamic bass, sub-bass especially and notably improved soundstage depth. While it remained a quick, tighter performer on the Shanling, the desktop source was more textured and defined in the bass with a noticably more authoritative slam at the very bottom. In addition, treble had a bit more body, being wispier on the Shanling. That said, a powerful source is definitely not required given that bass is already tight and well separated. In addition, on volume setting 0, zero hiss was audible on the Shanling M2X, where some more sensitive IEMs can reveal noise when the amp circuit is active.
Suggested Pair Ups
The Benbulbin is not source agnostic like some competitors but is relatively easy to drive given that most modern sources would satisfy its criteria. This earphone doesn’t require much driving power, nor a perfectly dark noise floor. Its tuning means it tolerates lower driving power well as definition remains strong even when driver control is not ideal. The main concern would be a lower output impedance, even a few ohms is fine and may even be preferred by some as it reduces brightness and increases smoothness. With regards to source tonality, this obviously most applies if it has a low output impedance or else other colouration will be introduced. The Benbulbin benefits from a slightly warmer source as it gives the midrange a bit more body.
Soft Ears RSV ($729): The RSV is a tough model to beat, another very well-rounded performer. Sonically, both surprise in their similarity, the RSV being a little more detailed in the treble, the Benbulbin more resolving and extended in the bass. The RSV has a slightly bolder bass note presentation as its sub-bass boost continues further into the mid-bass, the Benbulbin is cleaner and extends further with its hybrid design. It has a more defined rumble and a slightly more accurate timbre to my ears, while the RSV is a bit more defined and full in the mid-bass with faster decay. The RSV has a smoother transition into its midrange. While both are tonally neutral, the RSV has a bit more body and better balance between male and female vocals. Note definition and separation are slightly higher on the Benbulbin due to its thinner note structure.
The RSV sounds a touch more even and accurate here, the Benbulbin having a slight revealing character. However, this is well counteracted by the Benbulbin’s smoother top-end that means it isn’t so sharp and less prone to intensity despite being thinner. This makes the Benbulbin a bit more forgiving in general. This character is further enhanced by the Benbulbin’s slightly smoother and more laid-back top-end. The RSV has a more present and slightly more linear foreground though both have similar foreground detail retrieval. The Benbulbin has a little less ringing and shimmer, sounding cleaner with a darker background. Meanwhile, the RSV has more air and resolves just a bit more background detail that the Benbulbin smooths over. Despite this, both offer similar soundstage dimensions and similarly sharp imaging.
GAudio Nair (759 CHF): A neutral-target 3 BA earphone with a very accurate timbre throughout. The Nair doesn’t glimpse the sub-bass extension and power of the Benbulbin. It has far less extension albeit a nice, quick punch in the mid-bass. While it is fast, flat and defined, the Benbulbin is just as clean and far more dynamic and genre versatile. The midrange and lower-treble are both more even on the Nair. In turn, it comes across as more linear and evenly-metered. It has more body and a slightly more natural voicing. The Benbulbin has a notable leg up on definition and it has greater clarity. It has better separation at the cost of coherence.
The Benbulbin has a smoother articulation that somewhat balances out its thinner body and enhanced clarity. The Nair has a more even lower-treble with a bit more body and texture. Despite this, the Benbulbin comes across as a bit more detailed here and also more separated. Both have a darker background, the Benbulbin has more headroom and background detail retrieval. It soundstage is noticably larger, wider especially. While both have sharp imaging, the Benbulbin’s presentation is a lot more layered, adding dimension and organisation.
Oriveti O800 ($799): The O800 is more similar than measurements may suggest with a similar balance and overall voicing. It has a bit more warmth in the mid-bass but also a deep-bass focus followed by a wideband upper-bass/lower-mid cut. With its all-BA setup, it doesn’t have the same sub-bass power and pressure as the Benbulbin. It is a bit fuller and quicker in the mid-bass, redeeming more fine detail here at the expense of texture and dynamics. Both are well-separated and defined that said, the Benbulbin has a cleaner tonality. Both have a tonally clean, sligthly thinner midrange with smooth articulation, the O800 is a bit more vocal-forward but also has a bit more warmth and power stemming from its bass.
The O800, despite this, has more texture and definition in its midrange. It is more vocal-focused but not less natural in its voicing. The Benbulbin is a bit cleaner and also more linear and balanced. The Benbulbin also has a bit more lower-treble energy and better fine detail retrieval here too. The O800 has a lick more headroom and background detail retrieval though both are dark and clean above with minimal sparkle. The O800 has a slightly larger soundstage with more depth especially while the Benbulbin offers sharper imaging and slightly better separation.
Fir Audio VxV ($999): The VxV offers a pseudo reference style tuning but is ultimately tuned more for musical enjoyment than sheer accuracy. The VxV offers similar balance with a lick of upper-mid forwardness, however, a much different voicing. Its bass is similarly well-extended but with less sub-bass pressure, rather, it is fuller in the mid and upper-bass. In turn, its bass is more robust and more textured, reigned in by more aggressive note attack. The Benbulbin is cleaner and more accurate with higher mid-bass definition. It is a bit tighter in its impact but not quite as articulate, despite its more neutral tuning. The VxV also has a more coloured midrange. It isn’t quite as natural in voicing, but coloured in tasteful measure.
It has a more accurate body, with a bit more foundation in the upper-bass and lower-mids. It has a very light warm tone and a dense, smooth upper midrange. The Benbulbin is quite a bit dryer in turn, it is cleaner tonally and more defined but also not quite as coherent and forgiving. The Benbulbin actually has a slightly more forward treble, albeit it is more linear. The VxV has a much thinner and more ethereal treble. However, it has notably improved fine detail retrieval and a lot more sparkle. The VxV has more air, more headroom and more background detail retrieval. The Benbulbin is more foreground focused but also has a better timbre and more defined layering. The Benbulbin has a slightly smaller but slightly more organised stage. Its localisation is sharper while the VxV is more holographic and multi-dimensional.
Campfire Andromeda 2020 ($1099): The Andro 2020 offers a notably warmer and sparklier presentation that is more obviously coloured. Its bass doesn’t extend as far but has good extension for a BA monitor. It has a much fuller, warmer voicing and more bass overall, set to a quicker decay. The Benbulbin extends better and has a much cleaner, more separated voicing. It has less bloat but also less punch though the Benbulbin is also much more dynamic. The Andro has a slightly more laid-back midrange with a warmer tone and fuller body. It has high clarity and is more articulate. The Benbulbin is much cleaner tonally and has a much thinner body. However, it also has as smoother articulation. Because it has better separation from the bass and less colouration, the Benbulbin comes across as much clearer and more defined without being much brighter.
The Andro has a crisper lower-treble and a brighter middle-treble on top. Both are similarly well-detailed in the foreground, despite the Benbulbin being smoother and more laid-back. However, the Andro has a lot more sparkle and micro-detail, pushing background details more to the fore. The Benbulbin isn’t as bright and has a darker, cleaner background. However, it also doesn’t have the same extension. The soundstage is a touch wider on the Andro and it has more depth too. The Ando’s imaging is more holographic due to its more obvious sparkle and energetic treble. However, the Andro doesn’t layer like the Benbulbin, having less contrast between its foreground and background.
It’s tough being a new company because there’s an implicit trust granted to companies who have been in the market for some years. I remember having nothing but scepticism of the first Moondrop releases but wouldn’t bat an eye recommending one of their models in the current day. Where does this attitude stem from? Likely the quick turnaround in the market combined with the staggering rate of progress in the cheaper price brackets especially that can quickly make a particular model obsolete. So where does Benbulbin stand? This is an earphone that almost matches class leaders in tonal refinement and does so on a capable hybrid platform, but falls just short of those one class up in terms of treble extension and micro-detail retrieval. This means for only slightly more outlay, you can get a noticeably more detailed and immersive in-ear monitor.
However, this does come at the cost of accuracy and, accordingly, the ability to provide a strong tonal and technical performance is what forms the Benbulbin’s raison d’etre. This is a well-rounded and minimal compromise package. I do believe that in pursuing its own identity, it does sacrifice the especially wide appeal of a true reference monitor. Specifically, I did find myself wanting more refinement in the upper-midrange and the dark background does mean you don’t get a whole lot of sparkle and micro-detail at the very top. However, if you enjoy a clear, balanced sound with a smoother treble, and don’t mind a little focus on female vocals, the Benbulbin is easy to like. With its exceptionally solid fit, class-leading cable and balanced sound that doesn’t sacrifice bass extension and power, Nostalgia Audio have created one of the most versatile IEMs in its price class.
The Benbulbin can be purchased from Nostalgia Audio for $899 USD at the time of review. I am not affiliated with Nostalgia Audio and receive no earnings from purchases through this link.
Track List –
AKMU – SAILING
Billy Joel – The Stranger
Cream – Wheels of Fire
Crush – Digital Lover
Daryl Hall & John Oates – Voices
Dire Straits – Communique
Dirty Loops – Next To You
Eagles – Hotel California
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
H.E.R – I Used To Know Her
Joji – Sanctuary
Kanye West – Ye
Radiohead – OK Computer
TALA – ain’t leavin` without you
The Beatles – Abbey Road
The weeknd – After Hours