main

IEMs

Zero1 Awards 2018 – Audio – Wired IEMs

December 6, 2018 — by Digit0

18-Zero1_Awards_Audio-Wired-IEMs_Dec2018_Campfire-Audio-Atlas-960x540.jpg

The last year in audio has been more about going wireless than anything else. We have a brand new ‘True Wireless’ category in this year’s Zero1 for those looking to ditch wires in all forms when it comes to IEMs. However, there’s a certain allure with wired earphones that is hard to ignore. In a direct comparison, it is hard to deny the edge that wired IEMs hold over their wireless counterparts.

Established brand names and newer players, have all been focussed on tweaking their technology to help you find the just right signature for your preference. Some are bringing more than a couple of drivers in a compact form factor at an affordable price, whereas others try to bring technologies usually reserved for over-ear headphones. Let’s jump straight into the best wired IEMs of 2018.

2018 Zero1 Award Winner: Campfire Audio Atlas

Campfire Audio is not a new name to the world of quality, boutique audio devices. So when the Atlas made its way into our test labs for this year’s Zero1 awards, we were excited. Sporting signature CA technology like the ADLC diaphragm, the Atlas hosts a pair of 10mm dynamic drivers. These drivers are packed inside a stainless steel enclosure that looks like something right out of a cyberpunk movie. With Beryllium / Copper MMCX connections on the Silver Litz cable, Campfire Audio quite evidently avoids all shortcuts to success with the Atlas.

The sound of the Campfire Audio Atlas is beyond anything we’ve experienced so far with wired IEMs. There’s a certain fullness to the overall sound that makes every type of music come alive. The driving force of the Atlas is its bass, with just the right amount of punch that eases you into the lows without sounding harsh. The mids on it are a thing of beauty, driving tracks like Adele’s Hello with a powerful finesse that just puts it a league ahead of its competition.

If we were to forcefully pry apart some minor chinks in the Atlas’ stainless steel armour of audio, it would be in the highs where there’s a tad bit too much brightness, but it still handles tracks with significant high-end density better than most other wired IEMs we’ve heard. The detailing and soundstaging on the Atlas is also par excellence, with tried and tested tracks like Hotel California revealing new musical information at its behest, and Bjork’s vocals on Hunter flowing smoothly through a precise cornucopia of instruments. The Atlas bags this year’s victory.

Runner-Up: Audeze LCDi4

With the entrance of Audeze in the portable IEM market, we expected the iSine 10 and 20 lineups to continue. However, Audeze decided to release a flagship IEM, the LCDi4, that features some technology that goes into the full-sized LCD4. This does give the i4 a higher level of performance than last year’s iSine, but it falls short of the Atlas on a couple of counts.

First, it is quite a chore to wear these units. Featuring a wider than usual trunk, which causes discomfort after a short period of usage. Additionally, due to the elongated trunk, the driver units stick out at a distance from your ear, with nearly no isolation. In the audio department, the LCDi4 is quite close to what we would call a neutral signature.

However, the sound was a little too laid back, lacking the oomph necessary on several tracks. A lot of people might actually prefer this over the Atlas if they’re sticklers for a flat sound and being able to configure their own signature, with the help of external DSPs and EQs. However, for us, that requirement acts against the i4’s case.

Best Buy: FiiO FH5

Coming in behind the Winner and the Runner-up, the FiiO FH5 definitely takes the cake in terms of pricing. Sporting a quad driver configuration with a 10mm dynamic driver for the lows, a single larger mid-range BA for the mids and a dual driver for the lower and upper treble, the FH5’s proficiency in audio shows through in its capable performance across the spectrum.

At its price point, the build quality, options in tips and the connectors available are at par with some of the uber expensive IEMs that have made it into our hands. Definitely a good choice for entering the world of high-end audio with IEMs.

IEMs

Zero1 Awards 2018 – Audio – Wireless IEMs

December 6, 2018 — by Digit0

19-Zero1_Awards_Audio-Wireless-IEMs_Dec2018_Beoplay-E6-960x540.jpg

Cutting the cord has been the way to go in audio this year. This needs a special mention for wireless IEMs this year which face stiff competition from wired IEMs. They offer better quality while true wireless IEMs on another taking portability to the next level. Wireless IEMs, with cords tying the two buds together or with a neckband design, have the responsibility of making both worlds meet and do so in a way that is impressive yet budget-friendly.

Things look promising on the higher end too. With better codecs coming into play on smartphones packing better hardware, IEMs have caught up with the trend and have packed in support for quite a few advanced codecs. As a result, wireless IEMs this year sound better than ever and form an interesting category for Zero1 awards. Let’s have a look at this year’s winner.

2018 Zero1 Award Winner: Beoplay E6

Bang and Olufsen need no introduction. The Beoplay E6 follows their signature design style and definitely looks and feels premium. The Beoplay E6 defies its size and makes quite a few tracks sound grander than you would expect from a wireless IEM by featuring sound that is big and full. The bass response is quite perfect, without any unnecessary overpowering.

While it doesn’t compare to the best that wired IEMs had to offer this year, it offers a great option to people who need to go wireless and don’t want to cut corners when it comes to build quality and audio performance. Coming back to the audio, the E6 also handles the mids exceptionally well. with powerful vocals in the high mids like those of Adele soaring amid the detailed instruments around it. The lower mids are also handled well.

Tracks like Choti Si Asha let the E6 showcase its ability to handle detail, with each individual instrument being reproduced accurately, with just the right amount of balance between warmth and brightness. The highs are also well rendered throughout the listening experience. The E6 allows you to fine-tune the sound but we went with its default performance which was enough to get it the top position.

Runner-Up: Sennheiser Momentum Free

Sennheiser’s Momentum series has a reputation to maintain and the Momentum Free it did not fail to impress. The Momentum Free held its own in our tests with most tracks that we could throw at it but it lagged a bit behind the E6 in terms of detail and soundstaging. On the lows, it packed an adequate punch but lost out on timbre, which was handled well by the E6.

The Momentum Free sounded much better on tracks that are quieter overall as compared to densely packed music. The overall sound can be described as warm, but with a sweetness that the Momentum lineup is known for.

Best Buy: Jays a-Six Wireless

Not winning material but the Jays a-Six is definitely going to strike a chord with fans of popular music. Its sound signature is considerably on the warm side. However, it also does justice to the rest of the spectrum, to the best of its abilities. The a-Six wireless is the Swedish audio house’s first wireless piece. The inexperience does show through when pitted against more capable counterparts.

However, there’s a significant price difference between them and the a-Six Wireless, which makes it an excellent choice in case you’re looking to get a good sounding pair of wireless headphones on a budget.

IEMs

Zero1 Awards 2018 – Audio – Truly Wireless IEMs

December 6, 2018 — by Digit0

20-Zero1_Awards_Audio-Truly-Wireless-IEMs_Dec2018_Beoplay-E8-960x540.jpg

The world of wireless audio has a seen a lot of action in 2018. Major headphone and earphone brands have gone wireless. However, there’s the true wireless category that has emerged from a progress in wireless technology to the point where absolutely no wires are needed for you to enjoy your music. It wouldn’t be too incorrect to give the Airpods credit where it’s due, but we’ve had entrants who’ve set up shop before them.

As with other wireless categories, there’s also a significant focus on True Wireless IEMs to include extraneous features. However, in our tests, only pure audio performance has been taken into account. So, let us kick off this brand new category in the Zero1 Awards!

2018 Zero1 Award Winner: Beoplay E8

B&O surprisingly managed to fit luxury into a pair of tiny truly wireless earbuds, in their new offering, the E8. Sporting a sleek and inconspicuous design, the E8 speaks of B&O’s years of experience in designing quality audio products. Each of the buds packs a 5.7mm dynamic driver that produces warm, lively and energetic sound. While the Beoplay E8 allows a number of configurations, we stuck to the default sound signature and weren’t disappointed.

The bass response depends on the fit you get but even with the defaults buds, our experience with the lows was exceptional. The mids are clear and forward, with Adele’s Hello sounding full. The highs are also handled quite well, avoiding shrillness in the upper ranges. The controls on the Beoplay E8 are quite handy, with the right-left earbuds being master-slave respectively. There is a certain amount of tapping required, but it doesn’t take too long to get the hang of it. Overall, the Beoplay E8 stands for the best truly wireless earbuds that (a lot of) money can buy.

Runner-Up: Bragi The Dash Pro

With the Headphone and the Dash, Bragi made a lot of noise (pun intended) in the world of truly wireless audio. The Dash Pro was released to make up for the drawbacks of the Dash and it almost fulfills that goal. Packing a ton of features, this was also the most satisfying of the lot in terms of connectivity and usability. The touch interface is a dream to use with most controls on the right earbud and a couple on the left.

We experienced no issues whatsoever in our usage period. When it comes to the audio, the Dash Pro does a fairly good job of staying true and clear across genres but falls short of the clarity offered by the E8. There’s a slight bias towards the lows and they come across as muddled. Overall, the sound lacks a bit of power and impact.

Best Buy: Jabra Elite Active 65t

The Elite Active 65t sport a number of upgrades and changes when compared to its predecessor. For starters, the finish is slightly more rugged and the build comes with an IP56 rating. The sound that these buds can generate is clearly superior at its price point. There’s a certain amount of treble boost which works in its favour, and the deep and punchy bass response with the appropriate seal is also handled with just the right amount of power.

The Elite Active 65t has ditched the heart rate sensor of the Elite 65t resulting in a sleeker design that is more focused on being usable and sounding great. Where this headphone is surprisingly impressive is detail reproduction. Music across genres sounds crisp and well detailed. Overall, the Jabra Elite Active 65t is a solid pick that works on the few drawbacks of the Elite 65t and augments itself with a wide range of features.

IEMs

Zero1 Awards 2017 – Audio – Wireless IEMs

December 13, 2017 — by Digit0

13-Zero1_Awards_Wireless-IEMs_Dec2017_RHA-MA750-Wireless-960x540.jpg

This category makes its debut in this year’s Zero1 awards. Wireless in-ears moved from proof-of-concept to mainstream availability about two years ago, but despite making in-roads, offerings in the space have always been short of stellar. You had a few nice models cropping up every now and then like the Jaybird X2 or the Sennheiser Momentum In-Ear wireless, but most serious audio giants have so far shied away from jumping into the category. This year saw many audio manufacturers coming out with high-end offerings in this space. In the running this year we had the RHA MA750 Wireless, V-MODA Forza Metallo Wireless, EOZ One, and the Degauss Labs Vice. Some of these were announced last year or showcased at events like CES but were properly launched only this year with wide-scale availability. We would have liked to have units like the Beyerdynamic Byron BT or Sennheiser HD 1 to be put into the running but we didn’t get those units either because they haven’t been officially launched in India or because review units weren’t available. Either ways the four models that did stand out from everything we’ve received this year, represent a good cross section of the high-end in-ear market.

2017 Zero1 Award Winner: The RHA MA750 Wireless

RHA MA750 Wireless

The RHA MA750 Wireless is a solid performer both in terms of battery life as well as audio quality. It manages to deliver rich detail in the higher end of the spectrum while maintaining decent mids. It does seem to be lacking in lows, but the dip isn’t a huge deviation from neutral. The texture and representation is very upfront and while the separation isn’t comparable to the best wired in-ears out there, it’s still superlative for a Bluetooth headset that costs roughly `12k. The housings, although made of moulded metal (something RHA is known for) isn’t heavy at all. This is because the battery has been moved to the thick band which goes behind your neck. The wire leading up to the earpiece stiffens up a bit making a sort of around-the-ear support which makes for a very comfortable fit.
Zero1 is all about performance chops which the 750 Wireless has oodles of, but some of the nifty features on the RHA MA750 do deserve a mention. Take for instance the super simple NFC pairing, or push button battery meter voice prompt. In summary, while the RHA 750 is not better than super-high end wired in-ears they are definitely comparable to and sometimes better than wired IEMs in its price category.

Runner Up: Degauss Labs Vice

Handmade by a relatively small Swedish brand, the Vice certainly looks the part. It exudes the kind of simplicity and charm which comes out of form following function (and not the other way around). Unlike the RHA MA750 Wireless which is more or less neutral, the Vice is far from it. In fact, the Vice seems to follow the “v” type of sound signature which has extreme highs and the lower end is bumped up. It’s the kind of curve you find on the “rock” preset on your DSP or equalizer. The Degauss Labs Vice uses batteries made by Varta which have a small footprint and yet manage to deliver decent battery life. The batteries are small enough to be clubbed into the driver housing and not make the ear pieces too heavy or bulky.
In terms of pure audio performance, it’s a shade below the overall well rounded sound offered by the 750 Wireless. But if you are a metal or bass aficionado you might actually prefer the Vice over the 750. Especially considering it is cheaper. The Vice isn’t available in Indian online stores as yet, but considering the number of KZ units being ordered lately, it shouldn’t be out of the ordinary for Indian audiophiles to place orders directly from Sweden.

IEMs

Zero1 Awards 2017 – Audio – Wired IEMs

December 13, 2017 — by Digit0

12-Zero1_Awards_Audio_Wired-IEMs_Dec2017_Noble-Audio-Kaiser-Encore-960x540.jpg

There are an insane number of audio manufacturers out there (both mainstream as well as niche) that make IEMs of great repute. From the mainstream guys like Sennheiser to boutique houses like Grado, you have a multitude of stellar IEMs launching year after the year. The thing with audio equipment is that obsolescence isn’t really a thing like it is with other categories. There’s no faster chip, or more memory that needs to be added to audio products. They’re all analog devices at the core. And despite all the “Hi-Res” logos and “THX” certifications that newly released models might slap onto their boxes, a good in-ear launched a few years ago would still hold its own against something launched today. Think about it, would say an Etymotic ER4 bought a couple of years ago be any less awesome sounding than a modern day flagship launched only last year? Not necessarily. That being said, this doesn’t mean there’s no scope for innovation in this space. This year saw some great in-ears being launched, some great refreshes in the high end segment and even the introduction of new technologies. So without further ado let’s look at what the very best this year had to offer.

2017 Zero1 Award Winner: Noble Audio Kaiser Encore

Noble Audio Kaiser Encore

Housing 10 balanced armature drivers on either side, the Kaiser Encore is an incredible sounding headphone. It is by far the best in-ear we have ever tested. Not only is it spectacularly accurate but one of the things that immediately strikes you is the incredible separation it is able to deliver. Every instrument is clear and crisp and every note just strikingly well represented. The bass does feel like it’s been tweaked to be a wee bit above flat, but it’s nowhere near overpowering. The dynamic range is fabulous – every sound from the lightest touch of a cymbal to the pluck of a thick string bass all just flows through like you are right there. The details, the texture and even the sibilance is beautiful and rich. Nuances on old favourite test tracks like the good old Hotel California studio recording or Dream Theater’s Learning to Live that were previously never noticed just jumped out clear as daylight. To draw comparisons we brought out our 2013 Zero1 runner up – the UE900. While the four driver UE900 can certainly hold its own, the Kaiser Encore is just decidedly superior. The UE900 didn’t do as well in high-instrument density scenarios. We also benchmarked it against the JH Audio Roxanne. The bass extension on those was quite refreshing but the Kaiser again proved to be the more sweeter sounding alternative. The Kaiser Encore is surprisingly sensitive and incredibly easy to drive – though its performance scales rapidly with the kind of source you are using.

Runner up: Audeze iSine 10

This is another great in-ear sporting a brand new driver technology. Well not exactly brand new but in the world of in-ears it’s certainly a first. The sound signature on the iSine 10 is quite unique. Expansive is one way to describe it. Hard hitting bass sounds like kick drums or even snares sound incredibly natural on the iSine 10. They are a beautiful sounding pair but one that isn’t devoid of a few strange niggles. The large protruding magnets of the planar driver increase the bulk (although they do lend it a futuristic look). The biggest problem however was the fact that the insertion tube on the ear pieces is not the standard one found on regular in-ears; it’s fatter. Several Digit reviewers tried them out and couldn’t help but experience a bit of discomfort because of the fat stalk. In their own right, these are an incredible sounding pair of in-ears and if it wasn’t for the super-high end monster listed above, the Audeze iSine10 could’ve easily bagged itself the Zero1 Award.