Now I know, some of you have looked at the picture and the product that I’m doing impressions for this week and have gone: “that’s not an IEM, that’s an earbud!” I regret to inform you that there is a substantial proportion of the population that thinks that any in ear speaker is an earbud, whether it goes in your canal or just in your ear. So I decided that I’d include some earbuds, mostly because when this kicked off, I already had the VE Monk with EX pack on hand, and the Penon Earbud. After this got started, Penon Audio sent me the TY Hi-Z HP-32, which at $7.98 is the least expensive entry. The VE Monk can be had for less, but not as it will be configured for this shootout.
$25 IEM shootout pre-amble
One of the coolest phenomenons in audio right now is the big improvements moving forward in the budget sector. $100 headphones can and do compete with $400 headphones, and $25 headphones sometimes compete with $200 headphones. It’s a great time to be an audiophile, even if your budget isn’t as large as you’d like it to be.
In this $25 IEM shootout series I’ll post a new set of impressions every Wednesday until I’ve done them all. Then I’ll select my top 3 from the list. After I’ve selected my top 3, I’ll do a post ranking the remaining units and giving them our trademark visual ratings. Finally, a post will compare the top 3 IEMs under $25 that I have in my possession. If any manufacturers want to send additional under $25 units that they think might rank before I’ve done my ranking posts, I’ll add them in.
Here are our contestants:
- Penon IEM v2 ($19.90, from Penon Audio)
- Penon Earbud ($19.90, from Penon Audio)
- VE Monk Plus ($10, with ex-pack, from veclan.com)
- ADV S2000 ($24.99, from amazon.com)
- Alpha & Delta D2M ($25, from Alpha & Delta or Lendmeurears.com)
- KZ ZST ($19.99 with mic, from amazon.com)
- KZ ED12 ($19.99 with mic, from amazon.com)
- Hypersense HEX02 ($25, from Penon Audio)
- Fiio F1 ($14.99, from amazon.com)
- Hidizs EP3 ($19.90, from Penon Audio)
- TY Hi-Z HP-32 ($7.98, from Penon Audio)
*I’ve included earbuds. My blog, my rules. I know there’s a difference.
Unboxing / Functionality
The unboxing experience is simple. It’s a plain white box with plain black graphics. It looks like it is made to hang in gas stations or in TK Maxx (TJ Maxx in the USA), a bargain store of product seconds. Inside the box are two plastic zip baggies. I actually really like this setup. It makes for easy storage of unused components later. Inside one baggie are the accessories and in the other are the earbuds.
Inside the accessories bag are eight ear cushions and a shirt clip. The cushions all look to be the same thickness. Four are the donut variety with a hole in the middle, and four don’t have a hole. The shirt clip is standard variety.
The cable is a good size. The strain relief on the jack is really well done. That said, these aren’t going to be terribly durable. The capsule, and the standard earbud neck are not confidence inspiring in the quality of plastic. These are basic, and one shouldn’t expect more build quality than this for under $10.
I’ve personally never gotten along well with the fit of earbuds, which is why I don’t really review them. That said, when you are talking about under $25 bargains, earbuds are quite often in that picture. I’ll list some general pros and cons for earbuds below:
Pros: soundstage usually outranks comparably priced IEMs and higher, easy to upgrade cable with a bit of soldering, quite frequently bargains
Cons: they will be at best an imperfect fit for most ears and at worst impossible to wear for others, seal is non-existent so you will hear lots of outside world, fall out the ear easily with movement, bass response depends highly on security of fit
For this time round the impressions, I have a new competitor for my source. I just got an LG V30, and it is an excellent source, though it’s probably not terribly representative of the phone that many would choose. It’s audio is far better than it’s camera. Impressions here are all with the LG V30. I didn’t burn the earbuds in.
- Nice open stage, good airy sound. Height is average, and it has decent depth, especially at the price. Width is okay. Instrument separation is good within the stage.
- A little bit of extra emphasis on sounds like snare drum, wood and snap kind of sounds. At the same time, they have a somewhat thin sound. I’d guess there are some narrow peaks in this range of the frequency response.
- Bass tends to be a little light for me, probably due to insecure fit.
- Good detail resolution during busy tracks like Animals as Leaders – Ka$cade. The instruments get their own space and it is well resolved with speed not a problem.
- Female vocals are really good. Natalie Merchant – Carnival has a nice clarity and a touch of sweetness. Stevie Nicks on Fleetwood Mac – Dreams is really nice too. A lot of headphones thicken up her voice.
- The separation between the three vocals during the refrain is small. Stevie Nicks stands out on Dreams but the other two are almost on top of each other.
- Guitars on Carnival sound really tight and well-defined. Good resolution.
- Regina Spector – Fidelity has nice air and sweetness to her voice. The tambourine is a touch thin as do the cymbal taps. The cymbal taps are a touch forward.
- Similar to Fidelity the cymbal presentation on Daft Punk – Fragments of Time is a bit thin, forward, and extra crisp
- On 2Pac – God Bless the Dead the bass texture is there, but fit makes it a little bit back. If I press in the buds I get more bass quantity. Similar to other observations, there is some emphasis where snappy percussion lives. I think this is around 4khz.
- On Outkast – Sorry Ms. Jackson vocals are just a touch back, but are tonally intact.
- Nice delineation of the treble stage on Kraftwerk – Kometenmelodie2 during the intro. The sharpness of the treble notes is there, but doesn’t bloom or go overboard. I usually get a little bloom on this, so I’d actually take this as treble being tuned down slightly where that sharp peak is.
- Overall the sound quality is good. The extra emphasis on snappy percussion can be distracting, as can the tight peaks found in other parts of the upper registers. Female vocals are especially strong with nice sweetness. Bass is fit dependent. For $7.98, I’m willing to accept some flaws. We’ll see if the distracting percussion wears too thin for me in the final comparisons, after these have some burn-in.
The TY Hi-Z HP-32 were provided by Penon Audio. I do not have to return them but I am not free to sell or give them away. I have not been compensated for this content. The opinions represented here are my own, honest opinions.