Please forgive the long preamble, but I would like to thank Jim Park, founder and owner of TGXEAR, not only for sending me review samples of his brilliant earbuds, but also for being so kind and generous with his time, discussing everything from sound profiles to fit to future products. Jim was also very open to my feedback, good and bad, and didn’t shy away from answering some of my awkward questions. Before I put on my ‘objective’ reviewer’s hat, I’d like to suggest that anyone who’s interested in audio excellence as a hobby look up Jim and his creations…even if earbuds aren’t your thing.
Earbuds. Just that word reeks of cheap and cheerful plastic toys that plug into a phone and play music without any of the baggage us ‘audiophiles’ bring to the hobby.
The last earbuds I bought, a few years back now, was a set called X6 from an obscure Chinese manufacturer, Yincrow. They cost me all of $6; in fact, just the shipping cost more than twice that. I bought three sets, one as a gift, another as a spare, and I still have both my sets somewhere.
The only reason I bought them was to hear for myself if the ‘hype’ about the ‘biggest bass in an earbud’ was true – incidentally it was, and I quite enjoyed the many hours spent casually listening to these not-so-tiny, not-so-comfy, but impressively bassy music makers that cost me less than two cups of coffee.
So, the moral of the story, in case I need to spell it out, is that until very recently, my opinion of earbuds was not particularly evolved, to say the least.
Then a strange thing happened. One of the active members of my portable audio community circle started getting kudos for – get this – making his own earbuds. I didn’t think much of it at the start (see above for possible reasons why my interest wasn’t piqued), but over time, I started reading mumblings from other active members about the quality of said buds.
Quiet whispers soon became open topics of conversation, and suddenly TGXEAR– Jim’s company – was making some serious noise I couldn’t ignore. I decided to set my biases aside, pinged Jim, and within weeks had a new set of his most well-known bud, Serratus, sitting on my desk. Serratus was soon joined by Ripples, along with a variation of Serratus and another model, Tantalus.
For the past few months, I’ve been building up my knowledge – and familiarity – with Jim’s family of buds, and with each passing week, the idea that these not-inexpensive but still comparatively cheap creations were becoming serious contenders for ear time with IEMs that cost ten or more times as much. It didn’t make sense to me, and in some ways still doesn’t, but in this review, I’ll hopefully distill some of the reasons why I no longer consider earbuds the third-class citizens of the audio world.
The story of TGXEAR is the story of Jim Park. I don’t know Jim very well, other than anecdotally through fellow enthusiasts, and from a number of conversations we’ve had by text, living on opposite sides of the planet as we do. The best way to describe Jim (and by extension his one-man company) would probably be in his own words:
I am many things – a visual artist, a classically trained musician, an acoustic engineer, an audiophile – but I am first and foremost, a lover of music. TGXEAR is an idea 30 years in the making, born from a deep desire to develop personal audio systems that satisfy my high standards. My products offer balanced sound signatures, life-like timbre, and an immersive sense of space. Every one of my products is hand assembled and tuned by me in Vancouver, Canada, and undergoes strict quality control so that it lasts and delivers an audio experience that you will not forget.
My takeaways from that are that Jim is a classical music enthusiast (I believe he plays the violin in a better-than-amateur capacity), but also someone smart and handy enough to literally make his own music-making devices for personal enjoyment. There’s nothing quite like enthusiasts making toys for like-minded enthusiasts, and that’s what TGXEAR is ultimately about.
There are several obvious signs that the earbuds Jim sent me are nothing like the dime-a-dozen Chi-Fi cheapies that make up almost the entire earbud subculture as I know it. For one, they use quality parts: sapphire and bio-cellulose drivers, silver and graphene cables; heck they come standard with 4.4mm balanced connectors.
A quick glance at the specs will also tell you that 100 and 300-ohm drivers aren’t something you’d find in your average phone-friendly transducer; these buds demand serious power from serious audio sources, and reward that power with expert tuning that leaves nothing to chance.
Of the sets I was sent, the two standouts are unquestionably Serratus and Ripples, and so this review will focus exclusively on those sets. TGXEAR markets variations of these sets, along with other sets – including newer designs like Alpha and a 700-ohm Beryllium behemoth called Totem – that generally hover around the oh-so-affordable $200 price bracket.
Continue to packaging, design and comfort…