December 24, 2010

Listening to IEMs: My simple belief system

I am not born with golden ears. It took me a full 6-8 months and thousands of Indian Rupees to "get" the basic things about sound signature. It was an obsession that often was on the edge of addiction. I'd read somebody saying "forward mids" and I'd buy a headphone to understand what forward and mids are. Somebody says "Hippo VB does sub-bass well" and within weeks, I was listening to it understanding what was mid-bass, sub-bass etc., The more I read, the more intrigued I got, the more I bought. Of course, this is not possible or feasible for everybody. So, these are a few simple things I have come to understand:

  1. Unless you have experienced higher end IEMs, you simply cannot tell apart. All things from the cheap $5 ear phones to the $500 IEM produce the same music. What differentiates them is how they present the music.
  2. The most essential thing to do is Know Thyself. What do you prefer? What type of music you listen to? Does it require more bass? Do you like sharper treble or smoothened out, rolled off treble? How important are vocals to you? It takes some experimentation in buying a few low priced IEMs to figure out, if you are not clear. But knowing these things will save a lot of money in wasteful purchases in the long run.
  3. Some IEMs are instantly likable, but boring over time. Some take days, weeks, months to get used to, but are keepers. Never judge an IEM before your brain has a chance to adjust to it's signature.
  4. Our brains can adapt much more than you can admit / imagine. There's a thing called "burn-in" in the audiophile world. Few people swear by it, few don't believe it at all and I am still a cat on the wall. I've not found significant differences between a fresh IEM and an IEM which has 100-300 hours on it. The only two IEMs I initially hated and liked later on would be RE0 and Panasonic HJE900. If you shut me down in a dark room, straight-jacketed with a lowly Creative EP-630 for two days, I will initially hate it, then I'll start to think it does not sound that bad and by the time I come out, I'd not have any issues with how it sounds. Brain will discover bass in IEMs where it isn't, treble roll-offs won't bother you at all and vocal clarity won't be fussed over.
  5. In continuation, when in doubt, A-B. Audio memory is very illusive and subjective. Our brains are wired to fool us based on how we think. Most of these imaginations and hallucinations can be put to rest by not trusting our "idea" of how things sound, but by conducting a one-on-one between two IEMs without inhibitions.
  6. Beyond a price point, your money is subject to law of diminishing returns. At the time of writing, the sweet spot is $80 (Head-Direct RE0, Brainwavz M3). Today, we have $20-30 IEMs that sound good (Xears Bullet XB120, MEElectronics M6, Head-Direct RE2). It's not necessary to spend too much to get a good IEM these days. I've $10 IEMs and I have $400 (MSRP, not the price I paid) IEMs. If I line up $10, $20, $50, $80, $150 and $400 IEMs and listen to them, I can see why I prefer the $400 IEM over $10. But $150 IEM does not sound twice as good as the $80 one and the $400 IEM is nowhere close to 5X better than the $80 IEM.
  7. IEMs don't necessarily sound better because they are higher priced. There are cheaper IEMs that sound great and costlier IEMs that sound like crap. Choose according to your musical taste and sound signature preference, not by cost.
  8. Most differences are exaggerated. If there are two IEMs which sound very similar, but there are only subtle differences, say a little more bass, a bit more vocal clarity, the reviewer usually tends to stress the point. There are good & gifted reviewers and bad. Some will be able to address the differences without exaggerating them, while some others will make it sound like there's a huge difference.
  9. It's just not important what's being said, but also by whom. It takes sometime to find somebody who is a reviewer, has excellent knowledge and has similar preferences to yours. It also sometimes takes money and buying more IEMs just to see if your opinion matches his. If someone has a preference for warm, musical variety and you have a preference for analytical signature, you are not going to like his top ranked / well reviewed IEM. Similarly, your ears could disagree with what 95% of the crowd says. In these cases, trust your ears, not theirs.
  10. I am neither a musician nor a regular concert-goer. I am not involved in sound recording or mastering either. So, I don't exactly look for 'true reproduction of recorded sound' as some people do. My convoluted view of IEMs is that recording is akin to a composer's notes. IEMs are conductors, some crazy, some not so much, who interpret the notes.

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