Mini Gear Guide: In-Ear Monitors

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In two previous round-ups I’ve taken a look at headphones and source gear that could transition from mixing in hotel rooms to studio sessions, offering on-the-go performance but showing best at a console. So for my final two gear installments of 2016 I’m concentrating on some in-ear monitors that are truly transit and stage friendly.

In-ear monitors -- whether shallow insertion, deeply seated or custom molded -- should never be confused with earbuds, which have done audio no favors. Apple iconic white iDevice accessories have played their part in the brickwall wars, thanks to the need to compensate for frequencies lost to subpar drivers and the outside world, whereas quality in-ear monitors provide isolation, deliver energy/accuracy and absorb activity.

Some in-ear monitors are tuned as linear, others lush, but all good ones should offer efficient, effortless playback in pocketable form. They’ll never have the soundstage of a full-sized open-backed headphone (though pioneering designs such as the Audeze iSine, which I have yet to hear, are working toward narrowing that gap). However, the PRaT (pace, rhythm and timing) factor and overall balance of in-ear monitors continue to grow even as some form factors shrink.

For this write-up I tested relatively new $100 - $600 models paired with wide-ranging genres and resolutions running off everything from an iPhone to digital audio players priced $399 to $2,499, as well as some previously featured amps including the Oppo HA-2SE and Schiit Audio Jotunheim. Quality of source is always a factor, as is low output impedance, but deep repositories of power are not required to assure critical, convincing response.

V-Moda has long been a manufacturer recognized for its stylized look and sound. The company’s beloved Crossfade M-100 has been adopted as the headphone of choice by well over a third of DJ Mag’s Top 100 because of its military-grade durability and ability to deliver powerful but not bloated bass. The option to purchase customized panels for the earcups also appealed to brand-minded DJs, as well as rabid fans of EDM, metal and other logo-rich genres that benefit from percussive attack and cleanly chiseled, non-fatiguing treble. For club gigs or any basshead seeking form and function, the M-100 has always been hard to beat in the sub-$200 price range (especially when equipped with the optional, comfort-boosting XL memory-foam pads).

You can’t spend every minute hugging the subwoofers, however, so in 2015 V-Moda jumped back into smartphone-friendly in-ear monitors for the first time in years and introduced the $179.99 Zn, a high-energy low-profile transportable that lets you take the club with you. A zinc housing (hence the name) boasts an 8mm driver and custom acoustic filters to deliver 2 - 25,000 Hz frequency response at 16 ohm impedance, tipped somewhat toward the warm (bassy) end of the spectrum while remaining distortion free.

Despite being far smaller than the M-100’s 50mm drivers, the Zn is its big brother encapsulated in terms of low-end slam, with smooth, musical midrange and treble that emerges when called for then rolls off before any bite. It’s what you might call a V-shaped signature, but with enough organic midrange to assure vocals aren’t lost between impactful, never mushy bass and lively top end. All dependent on getting the appropriate seal, of course, but that’s not difficult considering the four sizes of eartips provided (not to mention all the third-party options, such as SpinFit and Comply, that match the Zn’s nozzle). The Zn is a great way to preview bass-driven tracks before playing them to an audience, or just to get an idea of where a radio-friendly mix sits between flat and fat.

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The Zn would not be the only V-Moda in-ear reveal, however, as 2016 saw the release of the $100 Forza and $130 Forza Metallo, a pair of ultra-compacts sporting 5.8mm neodymium drivers that far exceeded any expectations I had for such micro monitors to manage density and definition.

These vibrant, versatile in-ears differ in their housing materials -- plastic versus aircraft-grade metal (again, note the name) -- but not so much in their sound. So, while I think the Metallo body does temper some resonant and delivery a minutely more etched response, it’s not so night and day that the choice between them isn’t mostly based on aesthetics and durability (the lead going to the Metallo). Both versions also inherit something from the headphone line that skipped the Zn, and that’s a personalization factor: you can purchase 3-D printed caps in a variety of shapes and materials (and prices), if having a rose, lion, etc., protruding from your ear is your bag.

As I’m more concerned about what’s going in my ear rather than sticking out, I’ll say I was wowed by the Hi-Res-certified 20 - 40,000 Hz these deliver. The sound is the most neutral of the V-Moda portfolio, nudged conservatively, unobtrusively in the bass. This really only shows itself as an extension of the recording itself, rather than the coloration some mass market brands infuse. Controlled midrange and coherent treble add to a linear balance that’s far beyond the price point.

The Forza/Forza Metallo don’t push the same amount of air and swagger as the Zn, but they are more crisp, spacious and resolute than they have any business being. They make themselves known while feeling barely there, and top my picks for affordable, uncluttered, comfortable and immediate listening pleasure. Also, the Forza/Forza Metallo come with three sizes of soft silicone “fins” that help them stabilize and lock into place within your ear, so if you’re genuinely running through airports or arenas you won’t suffer a sonic or physical dropout. They’re sweat-resistant, too.

While the Zn, and to some extent the Forza/Forza Metallo, are great for giving you the sensation of standing on or around a stage -- and offer calling features, etc. for multitaskers -- the $199 Future Sonics Spectrum Series G10 is a monitor for those seeking purity and a pedigree that comes from live sound.

Produced by pioneers of the in-ear stage monitor sector, the G10 is a highly isolating, securely anchored, jaw-wobbling universal in-ear for those not quite ready to splurge a minimum of three to four times as much on customs (though molded silicone tips are available for those seeking a hybrid solution). Worn with the cords up over the ear or hanging down under the chin, the matte grey-coated metal shells, equipped with stock triple-flange tips, produce 18 Hz - 20,000 Hz in a style that emphasizes feel and familiarity rather than brittle accuracy.

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The G10 is the successor of a model known for its dominant sub-bass, and the new proprietary 10mm vented dynamic voice coil loses none of that seismic capacity while establishing a new benchmark for mid-bass throb and throttle. Being a generation of stage monitor, the G10 has midrange that’s transparent -- not forward but also not lost in the cavernous bass. Treble, meanwhile, is polite. The overall soundstage is broad and taut, and percussion benefits greatly from the clean punch.

The intent of the G10 is to have you in a concert hall, not a control room. There is an honest quality to the textures, with no intrusive spikes or harsh sparkles. The G10 is a sturdy, resolving option that excels at presenting and surviving the rigors of live music, especially rock, jazz, folk and even hip-hop (though EDM and metal could do with a bit more attack). Whether plugged into an iPhone, belt pack or FOH board, the G10 efficiently lets you follow visceral ripples and feel air pressure with poise.

If you are inclined to go all-in on a custom monitor, a new model from constantly innovating JH Audio has lowered the price of entry with its new $599 JH3X Pro model (the cost of ear canal molds from a qualified audiologist not included). Assuming a proper fit, a custom in-ear monitor will provide unrivaled, unadulterated listening whether on a commute or in front of a crowd.

Like Future Sonics, JH Audio has long been an in-ear monitor trailblazer, outfitting major touring artists then seeing their audience expand to audiophiles and engineers. Future Sonics, however, has always evolved a product line featuring a single, crossover-free dynamic driver (a dime-sized speaker cone), producing appropriate effervescence, speed, accuracy and decay. JH, meanwhile, designs around balanced armatures -- enclosures featuring delicate plates that pivot between magnetic coils, manipulating a diaphragm that displaces air (and therefore sound) out of a nozzle. This allows for amazing extension and instrument separation, but risks a lack of consonance unless expertly implemented (something JH achieves).

With balanced armatures -- which were invented in the 1920s and became the dominant technology of hearing aids as they were miniaturized over the decades -- a manufacturer has myriad size and membrane material options for tuning frequency range and output level. Some in-ear monitors feature a single, full-frequency armature, while many are set up in arrays of armatures dedicated to specific ranges (typically low/mid/high) in the spectrum.

In recent years JH Audio has been on the leading edge of an armatures race that saw more and more little receivers captured in custom-fit acrylic earpieces. The top model I personally have -- the $1,745 Roxanne -- contains 12 armatures per ear, and it offers the width, depth and drive of a full-sized headphone in a way that never fails to impress. The JH3X (in yet another instance of appropriate naming convention) features just three armatures, one for each band, but these feature proprietary technologies that have trickled down from the company’s increasingly expansive universal-fit Performance (as opposed to performer) series.

Taking those advances and putting them into a roadworthy, stage dive-friendly kit, the JH3X is an extremely analog-sounding monitor. Whereas many balanced armatures produce tendrils so clinical they threaten to be piercing, the two-way dual-bore JH3X has an amazing liquid midrange and low-end rumble that take centerstage. Forgiving treble adds appropriate contours, but doesn’t chase the fastest transients. Instead of harvesting metallic, gleaming details, the JH3X goes for harmonic overtones and a dynamic thickness. To avoid phase shift, JH implements what it called FreqPhase -- sound tubes of varying lengths paired to specific armature impulses -- to assure all frequencies hit the ear at the same time. The JH3X is an in-ear monitor that lets you focus on timing and musicality, performing fluently regardless of device pairing.

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