Friday, 5 June 2015

Alclair Audio Curve Review

Alclair Audio Curve Review

Thanks to Alclair for the sample.

First Impressions:  Hmm.  No nice box, is that normal?  Googling seems to suggest that it is, I suppose the company being mostly about customs which don’t really come in boxes.  Makes sense I guess, just seems weird.  Not that you need a box of course.  So you get a little case, quite nice, Westoneish in appearance.  Inside we have the Curve’s, a cleaning tool, and 2 pairs of Comply’s.  I’m thinking functional rather than fancy. 

In the ears they go and thank god they fit me well.  I was worried with their “unconventional” shape.  Music comes on and I’m rather impressed.  The lows seem particularly well extended for a BA, hmm how many are in these again?  Gosh these sound pretty good all across the spectrum.  Somewhere in my brain a neon sign is going off, flashing KC3 at me.  Hmm must pull those out but certainly these have a gently warmed smooth beauty to them.  Given that the no longer made KC3 (Klipsch Custom 3) has been one of my long term personal favourites it bodes well for the Curves.  An hour later and these are rapidly falling towards the “I could listen to all day long” category.  It’s not a thrill machine, it’s not wild or exciting but I’m falling for its sweeping and melodic nature.  I think we have a contender for the position of my personal favourite of the year. 

Source: FiiO E7/E9 combo, Hisoundaudio Studio V 3rd Anv., HiFiMAN HM-650, 1G Ipod Shuffle, Nexus 5 and Graham Slee Solo Ultra Linear.

Lows:  While I am most certainly no basshead, I’m not adverse to there being a little too much bass.  The bass here is clearly well elevated, well in both the sense that it’s significantly more but also in that its talented.  What I do find curious that it’s an all BA set up.  Sure in the olden days when you just couldn’t get small dynamics that were any good, to be audiophile grade you had to use balanced armatures, that’s just not true anymore though.  Today there are masses of dynamics that are excellent, not to mention the current wave of hybrids.  You know, dynamic for the lows and one or two BA’s for the rest. There is frankly a lot of bass.  It’s not especially BA like in its nature either, it’s relatively dynamic like in that it’s full bodied and reaches fairly deep.  There isn’t the inclination to be all, lightning fast punch and agility.  It’s rich and laid back.  If anything it’s all a fraction slow and weighty.  Flicking back and forth with the Curve, the KC3 and the IE7 the Curve is easily the weightiest of them and it is not even close. 

Playing around with the positioning it becomes clear to me that the mids and highs are being significantly muted where the Curves naturally sit in my ear, resulting in a very warm, dark, rich sound.  The bass in particular is abundant in a way I’m not sure I’ve really come across in a BA before, I thought in first impressions that the KC3 shared a sound signature, it does, but the Curves go much further in the lows.  They are BIG, pulling out the Momentum In-Ears they are about equal in quantity but the Senn’s bass is focused lower down, the Curve’s is more in the middle to upper bass ranges.  I wish I had an SE215 to compare it too, though I remember it being rather more flabby.  Soft for a BA the Curve may be but it still a BA.

Mids:  Lush.  Rich, smooth with a hint of darkness.  The mids on the whole aren’t especially forward, the bass likes to come out to play a little too often but….. you get a track with great vocals with reasonably sedate bass and they are good.  Slapping on “When You Believe” and it literally is shivers down the spine good.  It’s not the only track either, everything and anything that suits a very rich, creamy, slightly over thick vocal becomes just so sumptuous on the ear.  Erasure’s Union Street album is a symphony of melting, oozy almost dark, yet still milk chocolate.  If anyone is familiar with Hotel Chocolat, Supermilk 65 if you haven’t had it, buy a bar of that and it is the oral equivalent to the aural experience of the Curve.  I’m not sure chocolate is the best analogy though as my experience with American “chocolate” has, errr not been positive.  This is deeply smooth and achingly creamy.  It does it a little at the expense of clarity and air.  The most breathy of vocals are a little smothered.

Grown up me knows that this is not “neutral” nor is it even close.  It is much too warm, rich and darkly delicious.  So if you’re thinking it could be a “monitor”, well no.  In the sense that your little ears would happily hear it all day long and never grow tired then perhaps.  If you think you’re getting a non-flavoured midrange then think again. 

Highs:  Treble junkies, I suspect you have guessed by now that the Curve isn’t for you.  The Curve is moderately clear in the highs, it’s capable and nuanced.  In raw technical merits its pretty good.  In quantity though, it’s very muted in the uppers.  The Curve is all about the beautiful melange of notes coalescing to a velvety pile of scrummyness.  If you want a citrusy sharp bight to cut through at the top then go look elsewhere.  For me, being quite treble sensitive it’s perfect.  I love rich, warm IEM’s with tame treble.  I can still pick out the detail with some ease but I know that many haven’t the same acuity in the upper ranges that I do.  If you want treble and detail that stands clear you will be disappointed.  The treble is detailed but it is highly reticent to expose its fullest detail levels. 

The initial impacts do retain a BA like speed with a faint metallic edge before quickly rolling in to a more delicate and smooth dance.  It can’t shimmer as a good dynamic can but it’s fairly good in detail terms.  Still it’s a rather shy treble that many will find it too reticent and too diffuse for their tastes.  One plus though is that it’s very forgiving to meh mastering and bit rates.  Northern Kings “My Way” is actually enjoyable to hear with these despite the tracks terrible treble.

Soundstage:  There would seem to be distinct distance zones.  Vocals on the whole are beautifully intimate and direct.  Instrumentation seems to be on a layer a bit further out.  Highs and bass both seem to be on a level even further out.  This lends to the faint delicacy of the treble but makes the bass seem like its coming of you from a distant wall of subwoofers.  It’s a really interesting layering effect that adds to the overall instrument separation.  Everything quite separate yet still being well integrated and coherent.  I can’t help but wonder how the dual BA’s are set up here.  I don’t think there is a crossover between them.

Fit:  There is no mistaking from even a cursory glance at the Curve without noticing its somewhat atypical shape.  I admit I had reservations about its weird shape.  However it went in my ear, it fit me great, not just great but for all intents perfectly.  I know I’ve said before that because something works for me that it may not for all, looking at it, I cannot possibly imagine that everyone will get along as well with it as I have.  They just can’t, cannot possibly fit everyone perfectly.  I have yet to read of anyone having a problem with them but surely someone will eventually.

Comfort:  Fit and comfort go hand in hand.  If the fit sucks then things can get uncomfortable but…… they fit me perfectly and so they in terms of comfort they were perfect.  I will admit that they did feel a little weird in the ear.  The way they fill the whole of my inner ear is rather curious feeling.  They are however completely comfortable.  There is no way on earth that everyone will be the same but hey, fact is for me they were awesome.

Aesthetics:  I kinda love the look of them.  Weird they are, for sure but there is something I find curiously appealing about them.  Plus it doesn’t hurt I’m a sucker for silvery cables.  Though there is one odd point, why the grey plastic backing and not make them all clear? 

Microphonics:  None really.  I got the foot fall resonances that you get with a sealed IEM that’s fairly shallow fitting.  Though there was no cable noise so it’s pretty much all as you would expect.

Amped/Unamped:   They worked pretty well out of any old source.  They however very much enjoyed getting more power thrown their way.  Everything snapped up and grew more defined.  Detail levels were high even out of the crappy Nexus 5 but the dynamics and instrument separation were sooooooooooo much nicer out of the Solo Ultra.  I intellectually accept and am aware that the differences are not huge but if you have a Curve I would want to amp it as it just feels that much more alive and vigorous.   It still sounds very nice out of a phone but you know, its just plain better when driven well.  Although I should note that out of the softly warm Iphone they were distinctly softer than out of the snappy Lumia 735.  Warm IEM suits colder dap better, shocker.

Isolation:  While the isolation isn’t the most of any BA IEM ever, it’s a sealed BA IEM so the isolation beats pretty much every dynamic based IEM out there.  Being a bit of a shallow fit it’s a bit less than is usual but it’s still plenty.

Cable:  Not only is it highly flexible, braided and then with a transparent plastic sheath.  It would seem that the Curve is supposed to come with the cable in black but given to buy the black and “clear” cables cost the same I assume they could come with the silvery one if you ask Alclair.

Build Quality:  Very nice as best I can tell.  The cable I especially like, I’m a bit of a fan of braided and I love its silver then transparent coating effect. Only time can ever be the final arbiter but it looks all very nicely stuck together.

Accessories:  Erm, a case, a karabiner and a 3 pairs of Comply’s.  Actually it’s all a very curious bundle.  Alclair are primarily a custom’s maker so there really wouldn’t be a “box” as there is no generic product.  So these come like a custom would, in its little case in a cardboard box.  It seemed so unusual at first but then seemed so eminently obvious I wondered why everyone doesn’t do it that way.

Value:  They retail at US$250 which today is apparently £161.  That puts them at the upper end of what I think of as the secondary tier of IEM’s.  Does that mean they are “better” than others at this tear?  Nope, it does not.  So in raw money for sound quality these are not the best you can get but I so don’t care.  These are all about enjoyment for me and I have hugely enjoyed my time with them.  Their sound signature is just about perfect for me, okay so they’re a too bassy but a big bass IEM that isolates at BA levels?  From memory that’s SE215 territory and while I can’t A/B them these should stand well above the Shure’s in audio quality.  These sound like a bassy IE7 or KC3 but neither are practical, the IE7 offers negligible isolation and the KC3 (if you could even find one) had the worst cable in history.  The Curve is very easy to live with, practical yet retaining a delectable bassy rich gooeyness. 

Conclusion:  When I do the conscientious A/B’ing of things, the Curve and others I deem to be in a similar realm I find that they Curves are just too bassy.  They out bass the KC3 and IE7, neither of which were known for being bass light.  They have a sound signature that offers a richly warm envelope in which to explore music, at a slow and relaxing pace.  Then the audio world found new, cheap dual BA’s like the DBA-02 which were all about the “detail” and hurling it at you.  Something that was so dazzling and cutting, like a crystal decanter exploding in your face.  Some loved that brutality, I did not.  Then we graduated to the age of the “hybrid” where you get a dynamic in for the bass and let a BA or two do the mids and highs.  Often you get a pretty V shaped sound as is easy to dazzle first timers with.  Again that is not something as a rule I love.  If something is too wild or too dazzling I find them exhausting.  My ears can’t stand too much of a roller-coaster ride before they need to have a little rest.

The Curve I really didn’t ever need to take a break from.  The bass is a smidge too much but it’s excellently controlled, not giving into that dynamic pitfall of bloating.  BA’s do bass better than any dynamic.  Dynamics are slower, fatter, more flabby and have a tendency to bloom.  BA’s stay tight, solid (sometimes too solid) and are always speedy.  The reason they don’t get used all the time is they just can’t move as much air as a dynamic.  So I do wonder at what Alclair have done here.  I wonder if both BA’s are contributing to the lows and only one crosses over to play the uppers?  Could the bassy one be one of the so called “moving armature’s” rather than a normal BA?  I can’t figure out what they have done but I’m convinced there is some low end sorcery at work.  I just don’t know what.

So often I come down to a simple, have I loved the item in question.  In this case the Curve’s.  The answer to that is yes, a slightly caveated yes but a great big yes.  These are fantastic things and I’ve had them for ages, oh god I’ve had them since March.  I know I like to spend longer than most with things for reviewing but come on, that’s 3 months.  These are so good in the mids and the bass, so tame in the highs that my ears could just revel in their lusciousness and never grow tired.  Maybe a smidge less bass but otherwise these are perfect for me.  I do pause for a moment to look at the word “monitor” in their description, hmm yeah but no but yeah. No.

If anything I like these too much.  Their sound signature is practically perfect as far as my heart is concerned.  Head says too much bass but frankly it can shut the hell up.  This is good, BA bass, nimbly articulate yet with such a fullness yet….. it doesn’t move so much air it makes me queasy.  Oh hell yes!!!  Dual BA IEM’s that aren’t lobbing crystal clays*(see bottom) at you before they explode showering you with razor sharp shards.  (Yes DBA-02 I’m looking at you.)  A dual BA that can pick up the baton from where the KC3’s left off.  It had been one of my, long-time favourite IEM’s and the Curve I like more in practically every way.  I don’t have a single “favourite” IEM as I have too many and they all do different things but the Curve sure as is right up there.  Plain and simply put, I love it, I love it bucket loads!!!

*It was brought to my attention that clays are not something widely immediately known.  Clays are the flying disc’s used for clay pigeon shooting.  I had assumed everyone knew they were called clays, apparently they don’t.

Alclair Audio Curve Quick Review

Alclair Audio Curve Quick Review

Thanks to Alclair for the sample.

Brief:  Alclairs not custom, not monitor.

Price:  US$250 or about £163 before HMRC gets you.

Specification:  Err, it’s a dual BA.

Accessories:  Err, a little case, a carabineer and 3 pairs of Comply’s

Build Quality:  Very nice.  Cable is very nice, jack is too and the buds look nicely finished.  Plus they have a removable cables if you do manage to kill them.

Isolation:  Very good.  They are BA’s so while they aren’t Ety’s they are easily good enough for long flights or a daily Tube commute.  Learn to use your eyes when out or you’ll get yourself run over sharpish.

Comfort/Fit:  Given their shape I’m sure they can’t work for everyone.  They just can’t.  However for me they were pretty awesome.  Perfect fitting and could wear them all day long with no issue.

Aesthetics:  Weird, I like them.  A bit action seeking but I’m okay with that.

Sound:  I love these. Love them, LOVE THEM !!!!!!!!  They are marketed as “monitors” erm, yeah but no, they really aren’t monitors.  They are rather light in the treble, way boosted in the bass and have stunning mids.  I mean if the bass was dialled waaaaaaaaaaay back I could think them monitors, like the SE420.  As they stand their bass is way too big to called monitors but from a purely personal point of view, this is not something I’m having a problem with.  The bass, huge yes but its BA bass, not dynamic, flabbing all over the place bass.  Sure for a BA it’s a little less taut than the most nimble but the trade-off is its so gorgeously smooth, with just the faintest hint of softness.  It’s so billowy and flawing and sumptuous like a cascade of gently melted chocolate.  Bloody good chocolate too!  The bass and the mids are just glorious wonders.  The mids are on the chocolatey side, a little rich for breathy artists perhaps.  The treble too, while retaining great amounts of detail it isn’t readily thrown in your face.  It’s rather reserved like a faint citrus note swirling in that chocolatey molten goodness.  It’s there but subtle so you may not instantly have it fully articulated before you.  Like Susan Wong’s version of “Umbrella” it’s all about the subtlety.  Heading to more vigorous stuff and the large but still BA bass means it can ratchet things up to thumping levels and still dance on a pin head.  It can roar out you with its big warm mass of sonic yumminess.  Dark weighty bass, mids rich and superbly articulate with a light sprinkling of treble to top things off.

Value:  Easily my fav in production dual BA.  Isolates superbly and has gobs of incredibly talented bass, with creamy lush mids.  Whats not to love?  I’d pay it in an instant.

Pro’s:   BASS.  Mids are just glorious.  Super easy on the ear treble.

Con’s:  Bass really is a bit over much.  Treble light for some.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

SoundMAGIC E50 / E50S Review

SoundMAGIC E50 / E50S Review

Thanks to Hifiheadphones for the sample.

First Impressions:  It’s been a good long while since I’ve had a new SoundMAGIC in.  The last was the tiny little PL-50, which to not put too fine a point on it, I loved.  It was highly midcentric and its mids were just so buttery and creamy for something so cheap.  The E50S in my head has a lot to live up to.  Opening the box and its all seems nice, curious that the window is on the back.  Inside we find a little case, inside it are all the bits.  Tips, a pair of Comply’s, a shirt clip and something else.  A short cable/ adapter that says “Adapter for computer” eh?  Oh!  It’s so you can use their mic with a computer that has separate jacks for in and out!!!  How come no one else has ever done this???  Okay so I’m not going to make use of it but still, I like it a lot, shows someone’s put some real thought into the package.

Okay another label, “Switch right position for your smartphone” eh?  Oh another how come no one else has done this????  The mic has a little switch on it, the back of the label tells position A is for Iphones, Blackberry, HTC, Samsung Galaxy (later models) and B for Nokia, Samsung, Sony Xperia and Corby.  Err Corby?  Is that some Chinese phone maker SoundMAGIC has a relationship with?  (I googled them but I could find nothing.)

In the ears, hmmm sound alright, mellow, pretty evenly balanced.  Pretty good clarity.  I think this could make for a good all-rounder.  Mids are nice but no PL-50.  Nicer sound staging though.  Hmm let’s see what 100 hours burn in does.

Source: FiiO E7/E9 combo, Hisoundaudio Studio V 3rd Anv., HiFiMAN HM-650, 1G Ipod Shuffle, Nexus 5 and Graham Slee Solo Ultra Linear.

Lows:  Smooth, gently controlled and moderate.  When it comes to bass output these are staying true to a more middling sound signature.  No rampant midbass, no ridiculous elevation of the lower bass flabbing all over the place.  Such a grown up and civilised sound.  Listening to John Steven’s album, “Red” and I’m just falling into the music.  Bass melodic and balanced so carefully, reaching down nicely letting you sculpt the bottom end, smoothly and softly.  It’s so peaceful and demure.  Slapping on that “Selfie” song and the bass kicks it up a notch or three.  It’s quite vigorous and rambunctious as the song demands but there is still an air of reticent maturity.  It reminds me a bit of B&W speakers.  Yes they are articulately capable of doing anything but….. it isn’t what they are meant for, they deserve better, something with a bit more melodic mastery.  Like using a good scotch to just get smashed with.  Yes it will get you wasted but that’s not really what it’s for and to do so would be somewhat of a waste.

Quantitatively there is a moderately boosted overall bass level.  It reaches a little more in the upper bass ranges, and then slowly declines so that in the lower bass depths it fades away politely. It is all cleanly controlled and smoothly mellow.  It’s very much to my tastes.

Mids:  Oh, dilemma.  Do I pull out the PL-50’s or not?  I want to, I really do but I know there is no way the E50 can match them.  The PL-50 is rather sad smile sound signature, the E50 is far more flat in comparison.  Nevertheless it is a hair mid centric which is great for all sorts of vocals.  It’s not particularly flavoured like its sibling was, no particular creaminess or butteryness.  Neither are they particularly dry and airy vocally.  Thus they are rather good at the entire vocal spectrum.  Whereas the PL-50 was a specialist, the E50 feels more generally capable of dealing with anything thrown its way.  Nora to Cydi Lauper, Dido to Des’ree, Krall woman to Aguilera.  Each of them sound excellent, middling in tonality so while neither sound their absolute best, all were beautifully rendered.  Clarity wise I did want a hair more, like the PL-50, but I loved that thing.  The E50 has sacrificed a touch for the more even-handed balance and fullness in the lower end.

Quantitatively, these are a hair mid centric.  Just a fraction but given so many are V shaped these comparatively will feel very middy to some ears.  If you love vocals these will do you well while still giving you a fairly hearty low end.

Highs:  Hmm they are okay.  They have a nice little initial impact then the shimmery trail is done well.  Still I found that they are both a little reticent and a little gritty.  Reticent is absolutely fine by me as I find prolific treble exhausting.  Still what is here, maybe it’s that the mids are so well done I’m expecting the treble to be as good and its simply is not.  It’s not that its bad but it can’t quite keep up with the skill of the mids and the bass.  Julie London thus was amazing, only recordings such as hers that have practically no treble so the mid and low end capabilities where shown off to their fullest.  Owl City’s “Rugs From Me To You” was a bit of a brittle wash towards the end.  It’s not the best quality treble to start with but the E50 does it no favours.  The likes of Eric Hutchinson’s “You Don’t Have Believe Me” with its little tambourine shaking away, its cleanly noticeable without being abrasive but more notably it’s the rest of the track that shines on the E50.

In raw quantity term the highs are a bit behind the mids and a slight tad behind the bass too.  Only a little bitty but as they are less skilful than the mids and bass I’m just fine with that placement.

Soundstage:  Fairly full.  Like being in a good sized room, height and width were reasonable and about equal to each other.  There is a definite closed nature to the room but it’s a soft, comforting room.  Gently, comfortably warm with reclining cinema seats.  Distance is not far but given the quality of the vocals a hint of sound staging intimacy is hardly a bad thing.  Instrument separation is a bit so so but then the lows and mids sound so very well integrated.

Fit:  Excellent.  Closed dynamics or not, I stuck on the Comply’s then shoved in my ears.  That was, as they say, that.

Comfort:  Likewise with the comfort it was both great and effortless.  Granted I loved wearing them down somewhat less as that way things always tug at my ears.  Worn up was easy to do and rectified the tugging issue.

Cable:  It would appear to be braided with a black sheath over it.  Sturdy to the touch and highly flexible.  It didn’t love staying curled up though.  Smooth and non-clothes catching.

Isolation:  For a dynamic, yes it’s quite good.  Nothing particularly exceptional so it’s in the category of fine for normal use.  Walking about, on a bus but not something I’d pick for the Tube or flights.  Naturally it’s easily sufficient to make you road kill if you don’t use your eyes when crossing.

Build Quality:  Everything would appear to be well constructed.  The cable is nice to the touch.  The jack is sturdy and it’s angled at 45 degrees so less likely to get cable break there.  It does have a mic which adds a weak point and the uber unusual phone type switch.  To me it feels and looks fine but having never seen anything like it before I no frame of comparison.  Buds feel nice and solid.

Aesthetic:  So so.  The E50 is quite plain and nondescript.  I certainly don’t have any negative feelings about its looks, its clean, plain grey I find pleasant but….. it’s just pleasant. 

Phone Use:  Well.  The E50 has the most curious of things on it, a little switch that tells you where to set it for different devices.  A is for Iphones, Blackberriy, HTC, Samsung Galaxy (later models) and B for Nokia, Samsung, Sony Xperia and Corby.  Don’t ask what or who Corby is, I have no idea and Google didn’t either.  Anyway, Nexus 5 all went well, music was good, play/pause/skip button worked fine.  I was heard fine.  Iphone 5, music worked, play/pause/skip button worked and I too was heard well.  Nokia 735, oh that’s not right, that’s not right at all.  I switched it to B but music’s only coming out one ear.  Hmm, switch to A and bingo it’s working.  Hmm call comes in and the play/pause/skip buttons answers the call and all is well.  Err maybe B is just for old Nokia’s? 

Amped/Unamped:  Well there wasn’t so much a huge difference depending on power but there was from sources.  Out of the Solo the bass was highly firm and mids were excellent.  A fair jump up on what the mediocre Nexus 5 could muster.  It was adequate but lacking in dynamics and life.  The Iphone 5 though, things radically warmed up.  Much more rich and warm, a bit smeary in the midbass region and the bass got a bit wallowy.  Then the 735 it added a touch of V shaped firmness.  A weirdly dramatic difference between the Iphone and the 735, bizarrely and significantly different sounds.  I wouldn’t say it was bad out of the 5, just over soft whereas the 735 was vastly more “assertive” about things.  How curiously weird.   Otherwise no, they don’t really need an amp.  They do improve but not so much it’s going to change your world unless you’re looking for a sound signature nudging.

Accessories:  A heap of tips, a pair of Comply’s, a nice little case and the most curious of cables/adapters for splitting the mic out to its own 3.5mm jack.  (So you can use it for earphones and mic for a computer.)  I rather love the cable/adapter thing.  I realise its something I’d never actually use but I love that someone thought of it.

Value:  For £50 or the £45 the non mic’d version are, being a SoundMAGIC it’s a fairly safe bet that they sound not simply good but excellent.  So long as you keep them away from an Iphone, they really do sound excellent.  Personally I’d have major trouble paying for these over the stunning PL-50’s but these are much more of a general crowd pleaser.  They still shine in the midrange, one of the most pleasant and talented in the midrange but still with some low end talent too.   The E50 doesn’t wow you, but it’s such a sophisticated sound for a rather meagre price tag.  Something you could melt into.  I do wonder how many might want that level, the more sophisticated sound signature without being willing to jump in at a higher price point?  Maybe the E50 is the affordable taster IEM for a more mature acoustic balance?

Conclusion:  The E50S, I don’t love it, its biggest problem for me are that it edges so close to my favoured sound signature and that it edges towards its sibling.  For me the PL-50 is at this price the untouched mid-head king.  However the major complaint people had about the PL-50 was that it couldn’t move enough air for them and as a result they were much too bass light.  The E50 is striking a bit of a balance then.  It’s got a little bit forward mids, creamy and articulate.  Yet it’s a dynamic at its core so more air moves.  That bass, particularly the midbass region is far more full sounding.  If the PL-50 were Nora, these are more Jack Johnson.  If you are familiar with them you’ll get what I mean.

 I know I am being too hard on them for not being as PL-50 like as I want them to be, they aren’t trying to be their siblings.  The E50 is aiming at a more balanced, more mainstream suitable sound while retaining something of the mid-range that makes me love the PL-50 so.  The E50 borrows little dashes from the ECCI PR401 and the Brainwavz M3 and so it’s a bit of a jack of all trades and not quite managing to be a true master of any.  I’m one of those people who has dozens of IEM’s to choose from so I personally, don’t really need a more capable generalist.  The E50 is a generalist, a little bit middy generalist but for sure its still a generalist.  It’s highly capable in every tonal aspect and can quite deftly turn its hand to any genre you care to throw its way. 

So should you buy one?  My heart isn’t being bowled over but I recognise that the E50 is an excellent value proposition.  It really can do everything quite well.  The mids in particular are good, closely followed by the bass.  It’s just so unspectacular though, which isn’t a bad thing, it just makes for unexciting writing.  The E50 is the sort of thing you could comfortably have as your only IEM, use it each, every day, day in day out like you might a Ford Mondeo.  It not the world’s most exciting ride but it’s a hearty, solid performer that should give you years of pleasant rides.  The E50 will do Nora and it’ll do Taylor Swift and then do Northern Kings, all without skipping a beat.  It will, without a doubt, give you a good, solid performance each and every time you pick them up, no matter what phone you have or whatever your taste in music.

SoundMAGIC E50 / E50S Quick Review

SoundMAGIC E50 / E50S Quick Review

Thanks to Hifiheadphones for the sample.

Brief:  A middy generalist.

Price:  £50 for the mic’d S or £45 for the non mic’d.  (or about US$76 or US$69 respectively)

Specification:  Driver: Dynamic, 10mm, Neodymium, Frequency range: 15Hz - 22kHz, Impedance: 51Ω, Sensitivity: 102dB, Maximum input power: 20mW, Cable: 1.2m, Connector: 3.5mm, 60-degree angled jack, gold-plated, Weight: 13g

Accessories:  3 pairs dome shaped silicone eartips (S/M/L), 3 pairs flat silicone eartips (S/M/L), 1 pair Double Flange silicone eartips (M), 1 pair Comply foam tips, Skype/VOIP adaptor, Cable clip, Hard carrying case

Build Quality:  Very Nice.  Feels and looks nicely finished, I rather like braided then sheathed cables, nicely detailed buds too.

Isolation:  Pretty reasonable.  Not Tube or long flight level but be fine for most normal uses.  With the Comply’s on it’s towards the upper side of what you get from dynamics.  That means you need to keep your eyes open for killer traffic.

Comfort/Fit:  Very good on both fronts.  A fairly ordinary shape and moderate weight.  I wore up but if you wear down, I found the mic (like they usually do) would catch on my collar and that’s irritating on the ear.  Worn up it didn’t happen.

Aesthetics:  Pleasant.  Much like their sonics, pleasant, amenable, on the nicer side of ordinary but not attention grabbing.

Sound:  Very pleasant.  It is a bit on the middy side for some but that I personally rather like.  By rather I mean quite a lot.  It’s also a bit elevated in the bass making for an overall all quite rich, warm sound.  Smooth, mellow and rich.  I could easily listen to it all day long without issue and let them just melt away into the background.  No attention grabbing, slap you in the face, PAY ATTENTION TO ME!!!!!!  IEM’s here.  It’s all very nice.  The treble is a little on the genteel, again that’s fine by me.  So much niceness and pleasantness.  An acoustic warm, milky, gently smooth coffee.  A thrill machine this is not.  It is, well, it is just nice.  Vocals are lovingly rendered and the bass it quite articulate and pleasant.  Pleasant, pleasant, pleasant and if case you were in any doubt, pleasant.  Lol, when you get something as just nice as this it makes it had to say things about it.  It is very nice to listen to and it can turn it hand to anything, offering a highly competent and pleasant listen.  I could listen to music from it all day and you never really hear the E50 parting its own feelings to the subject.  It’s a pleasantly enjoyable IEM to listen to no matter what you play on if or what you play it from.  Pleasantly unobtrusive.

Value:  Nice.  It’s a goodly pleasant generalist with a bit of a mid centric talent.  Should also be able to perform exemplary from any phone you pair it with too.  It’s as nice value as it sounds nice.  I do love the computer compatible cable though.

Pro’s:   Nice.  Pleasantly pleasant. Mids are particularly nice.

Con’s:  If you want a rambunctious party beast, this is not it.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Over-Ear Review

Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Over-Ear Review

Thanks to Sennheiser for the sample.

First Impressions:  For an over ear it looks like a pretty compact box.  Getting inside and seeing the case, it too looks rather smaller than I would expect.  I suppose they’re going to be folded up.  I can’t see why anyone would want over ears to be particularly portable but hey ho.  Inside the case then inside the baggy.  Really???  Have I missed something???  There is only one cable?  Not that it’s really a complaint per say but given the little on ear one came with two it seems weird that the bigger one should not.  I suppose its more practical to not include things you may not want, if you do you can buy them yourself.

Anyway, on the ears they go and they almost immediately strike me as less overtly warm than the other two.  Not that they aren’t warm, just these seem to have a bit better clarity.   Hmm maybe it’s the edged leather earpads are simply not giving as lacks a fit as the soft felt ones of the On.  These seem to be more resolving though, hmmm.  There is something that I can’t quite put my finger on.  These seem to have more upper brightness, hmmm, well let’s throw 100 or so hours burn in at them and see what happens.

Source: FiiO E7/E9 combo, Hisoundaudio Studio V 3rd Anv., HiFiMAN HM-650, 1G Ipod Shuffle, Nexus 5 and Graham Slee Solo Ultra Linear.

Lows:  Right away when critically listening it becomes apparent that when you put the Over 2.0 (the names are going to start killing me) next to the On 1.0 that the bass is much more impactful.  The On-Ear and the In were both more a soft, mellow, richly warm bass.  I can’t say how much is a tuning difference verses just getting a more closed environment.  The bass here is so much less soft and forgiving, closer to what I think of as the normal Senn house sound rather than the mellower Momentum signature.  Not that either is “better” than the other, just different.  I suspect part is that these being more costly are more audiophile aimed at rather than the more mainstream.  Personally, I’d rather it was a little more wallowy, here it feels like it’s trying to go ever faster to show off how brutally agile it can be.  Like a Bentley tearing round a racetrack, yes yes I get it, you’re very capable and agile for your size but calm down, please.  Yes I know you can punch me in head and stay hard a rock but I find myself being saddened they aren’t a little more soft and mellow. 

If you plug them into a more portable, lower powered device then it does change, things get a bit more ill-defined and soften.  The bass and highs both significantly calm down.  The bass becoming softer so perhaps it’s just that they are aimed at being used portably.  That when DAP driven they frankly become a lot more richly warm.  Frankly, its a lot more like what I expected from them and I find myself liking them more when poorly driven.  Sure you lose some extension but it’s still okay but it’s a trade I’m happy to make.

Quantitatively there is a lot of bass.  Even by typical Senn standards its abundant and being close too just emphasises its power, volume and weight.  For me its pushing my tolerance limits when playing back bassy pop. 

Mids:  Very broad, a little dry (though a warm source warms them nicely) with a lot of clarity.  I might go so far to say they are a bit W shaped.  I’m as ever all for more mid’s but for a Senn it’s a bit unusual,  I found myself hunting out middy tracks, being highly impressed and pleased with their capabilities.  This feels so much more grown up than the In-Ears, so much more open explicitness to vocals.  Sure a bit dry but so expressive and with a breathy, lingering fade away.    It all feels much more like the traditional Senn mid-range but with a bit of a dial up.  So broad, dry, clear and clean towards the point of losing liquidity.  Its, just not what I expected at all.  I find myself getting randomly lost in tracks.  I don’t know why.  There is just something so captivating at its dry yet lingering vocals that makes them sound so distinctly separate and clear.  Even in tracks you would never think of, like Scissor Sister’s The Secret Life Of Letter’s” there is just something that’s captivating my attention in its vocals.  They shouldn’t be, the vocals aren’t particularly great but I can’t for some reason hit the skip track button.  There is some gentle loneliness and lingering sadness that I’ve really never noticed before.  A certain hollow emptiness that the dry, yet so clean, vocals seem so isolated.  Cyndi Lauper’s “At Last “ album is a melancholic lingering sup that has some Dickensian bleakness.  Grey and dimmed. 

In quantity terms, they’re quite a bit, there is a bit of an upper vocal peak but in general vocals feel quite abundant for a Senn.  It all works very well, particularly with vocals that suit a more dry presentation.  Strings naturally sound highly clear if at the expense of a little warmth.  They are dry and crisp.  Guitars pluck wonderfully well.

Highs:  As is the more traditional Senn sound, there is a spike up top and these hold true to that.  These have a highly, very highly competently capable treble on them.  Personally I’d not object if it got dialled down.  Not just pin sharp at times but medical grade hypodermic needle sharp.  When you throw power at the Over-Ears 2.0 they have a refined explosion of shimmer.  Yes I know at first glance that sound contradictory but it’s true.  Each little pin point of dazzle is so teeny tiny that in itself is not berating but they just explode all over with a million tiny points of sparkle.  Like throwing a fistful of diamonds into the beam of a spotlight.  This mountain of shimmer is glorious in genteel albums (li e the said Cyndi Lauper one) it is all so delicate that the tiny point of light dance across the stage like a fistful of glitter or the light from a mirror ball.  In that mostly dark environment it’s a beautifully complimentary point of light.

If you should be so foolish as to power it well and throw horribly mastered, brutally metallic edged and abundant treble then you well be savaged.  Even reasonably mastered such as Owl City’s “Cave In” it has such an abundance of treble, paired up with face punching bass it certainly makes an impression.  For a 2 min demo in a shop, wow, it will blow your balls off.  However if I had to hear it constantly, it would be my idea of hell. Sooooo much WAAAAAA!!!!!

Soundstage:  Symphonically scaled.  Huge sounding and surrounding for a closed but a little so so in distance.  Vocals like to stay pretty up near the front which is fine, bass is rather further back and the treble seems to move from halfway towards the bass in distance to right up with the vocals.  Instrument separation is partially clean with its somewhat W shaped sound signature.  Still, it’s nicely integrated too which is nice, of course it helps it’s all one driver doing it all.

Fit:  I know some had fit issues with the 1.0 version.  One of the most notable changes therefore was the pads changing.  These are no longer rounded but flat edged and I believe a tiny bit bigger.  I honestly can’t say I thought the pads were especially big but they did manage to fully surround my ears, only just.  Therefore they rested only on my head.  That was that for me. 

Comfort:  Well aside from the warm ear you get with closed cans these were perfect for me.  They were desperately close to not making it all the way round my ears but they do manage it.  I really couldn’t fault them but I know that others have.  They aren’t huge which I think is an attempted careful trade-off between making an over the ear yet them still being relatively portable.

Cable:  Did I get just the one cable?  The On-Ears got two.  Sure I know I said you don’t really need two, the mic one works fine in everything anyway but still…… it just seems a weird omission.  The cable is a reasonably nice one, the mic feels really quite good quality.  Anyway the cables are removable so replaceable, like I think all headphones should be.

Isolation:  Rather good actually, it’s not BA IEM level but it’s very close to that of the In-Ears.  Personally I would feel like a **** wandering around with these on my head, out and about but you could.  Indeed I presume Sennheiser intends that you do, what with the phone compatible cable.  They would sufficiently block out most noise and you shouldn’t be too irritating to those near you with these playing.  If you do decide to wear them out, remember to keep an eye out for traffic as they will block most if not all of it out.

Build Quality:  They are excellent.  Traditionally solid and despite the folding hinge, they still feel extremely well put together.  Likewise the finish on them is first class all the way.  To my eye they are impeccable.

Aesthetic:  I got the Ivory one.  Why is there an Ivory rather than white?  Not that you can see them when you’re wearing them anyway.  Actually I think I’d prefer Ivory to white, its visually softer.  It’s all fairly pleasant, mature and civilised looking.

Phone Use:  Nexus 5, it worked but I was told I was a bit muffled.  Lumia 735 all worked very well and call quality was pretty good I was told.  Iphone 5, well it worked perfectly and I was told of the 3 it was the best call quality.  So why the mic would work better with it than the others, pffftt I have not a clue, it could have been purely coincidental.  I was just happy that everything worked with all three.  Particularly the skip track and volume controls so I was a happy bunny.

Amped/Unamped:  I would say it’s a pretty mixed bag.  I suspect they have been made to cater to those using phones.  Duh you might say given it comes only with a mic’d cable.  The fact is there is a pretty significant difference between amped and unamped use.  Personally I found the more mellow unamped signature to be closer to what I preferred and what I felt to be more the “Momentum” sound too.  (The bigger the bass is the softer I like it to be.)  It was just softer, richer, more relaxed and easy to fall into.  Going to the Solo Ultra and it is as though they have just been given a fistful of stimulants then washed them down with a litre of Red Bull.  It was so much more energetic and sprightly.  Detail levels too picked up quite a bit but bar the extra detail, I’m not sure it was something I wanted to do.   Yes with more power they got “better” but unless your sticking to very sedate music I constantly preferred the unamped sound when encountering poppy, bouncy stuff.  I don’t know if intentional or not but I’d say it could therefore please both the “mainstream” and the audiophile customer.  Poppy tat will sound good out the sources likely to play it yet those listening to well recorded, well mastered stuff can get the benefits of a good amp too.

Accessories:  You get a little baggy and a sort of hardish case.  I think I’d have rathered the big case, the non-folding v1.0 got instead.  I suppose the hardish case is smaller and thus more suited to being carted about.

Value:  The RRP in the UK is a penny short of £270, in the US, $350 and in euro land €320.  However scooting a glance at the respective Rainforest sites shows me that .de will sell you a black pair for €245 which is a fair old saving, but wait, on the UK site they will sell you an Ivory pair for £180!!!  That’s practically a hundred quid off!!!  While over in Americaland the best I can see is US$350.  So just to be clear that means the cheapest place is the UK???? Its not every day that happens.  Granted it would seem only the Ivory is at that price, black being £260, but that sure as hell wouldn’t stop me grabbing a pair.  What matters is how they sound, if you don’t agree then you’re probably better off buying a pair of Beats anyway.  These are a very serious, very grown up and very capable headphone that can justify its normal RRP.  At that price they aren’t perfect, their all leather thing is a fashion statement not an acoustic necessity but with that discount, that’s a real click click and worry about telling the wife later kinda deal.

Conclusion:  They are a bit of a mixed bag.  It’s a pretty good bag, don’t get me wrong, but there are still a couple of niggles I have about the Over-Ears 2.0 (besides from writing the name out being a total bugger.)    The Momentum line I feel has been Sennheiser’s attempt to produce a “mainstream,” warm, rich flavoured offering.  The In-Ears certainly were like that, the On-Ears 1.0 were too.  The 2.0, that I have here anyway, isn’t quite in the same keeping as its kin.  It’s like Sennheiser have gone for a more consumer friendly sound but the engineer in them couldn’t stop themselves from tweaking the 2.0 back into more mature territory.  Maybe it’s just that the Over-Ears being so much more costly they have simply aimed them at the more purist market?  I can’t quite decide what I think they are doing with them and that’s why I feel  a bit mixed.  It can’t be everything to everyone, pick something and run with it.

However, do I like the Over-Ears?  Take a wild guess.  Yes, yes I most certainly do.  While they are quite tailorable with your source selection, not something I realise everyone can do, but I had lots of fun with it.  Change the source and it can take on a whole new face.  From the Lumia 735 is a brighter and cleaner, then swap to the Iphone 5, it mellowed out and warmed.  Sure too much power and the treble got too much and the bass got annoyingly punchy.  Well annoying to me, I bet my sister would love its potential brutality.  I liked that it could be so airy and delicate, rather than rich brown notes of its siblings, the Over was more of a darkened translucent grey.  I found that airy melancholic songs were just achingly languid and desolate.  It could conjure such an air of woeful despair in the most specular, unspectacular fashion.  “At Last” is just so, so good I have not the words.  “La Vie en Rose” and “If You Go Away” are just such a works of aural art.

Turning to more vigorously enthusiastic modern music and its harder, colder bass than I suspect was found in the v1.0 it leads to a more lively sound.  The punch and vigour certainly make it rather much quicker than its On-Ear brethren I have.  Snappy punchy, kick you in the face bass, when you drive it well.  Though for poor sources the punchy nature plays well firming things up.  Songs and sources that would otherwise conspire to be flabby heap of bass stays relatively hard.  Which I’m sure will appeal to those who think an Iphone is a good musical source.  They pair up well.  Yet I want to hurl all of the power at a big pair of cans but then it’s overwhelming for pop.  The bass is too potent and aggressive. The treble likewise gets much too showy for my tastes.  But and it’s a humungous but, when you power it well and stick to calm, it’s got a more cool, airy grace to it.  “Under The Pink” is a tremendous album to hear on them.

I like the Over-Ears 2.0.  On paper they are great and I find their sound signature, with their almost forward mids really works for me yet I still have a niggling mixed feeling about them.  Yes they sound great but they are expensive and moreover these are a high end “consumer” headphone.  I look at their price tag and immediately think you could get an HD600 for £200 or and HD650 for £250 and I can’t imagine any audiophile picking these over them.  The Momentum Over-Ears aren’t for audiophiles though, they are for the consumer who want’s headphones they can plug into their phone to use out and about.  Yet they want something that actually sounds seriously good too.  These fulfil that role admirably.