December 2, 2011

Random Rant of the day: The (audio) Journey so far.....

Disclaimer: This is a very self centered, self pitying long rant. Read at your own peril. I'd be surprised if anybody even completes it.

A Realization

It's been a while since I have written anything on audio. The reason for this long break is I am currently in the middle of a self imposed rehab from IEM addiction. It's a little more than 2 years since I started taking this hobby seriously. Especially starting from July of last year, my wallet has shrunk at a faster rate than it can fatten as my search for audio nirvana continued unabated. 12 months later, I stopped the train wreck to take stock of what I've done. I had 9 players, 46 IEMs, 4-5 headphones, 4 ear buds and so on. It was not shocking if that's what you expected me to say here. It was all, well, logical. Clip+ was my primary player, but I needed my old Creative Zen V Plus and Nanite N2 for burning in IEMs. Cowon S9 and iPod Touch 3G did the same thing, but instead of day long burn-in followed by nightly charging, they did weekends since they could do 18 hrs+, especially the Cowon. It may seem a little too much, but it was not unusual for me to have 4-5 new IEMs at the same time. There was a point when I had heard a new IEM  (bought or loaned) for every week of the last several months (9, if I remember correctly).

The Salvation

Facts always hit hard. When I figured out that I had spent a little more than the cost of an entry level custom on buying earphone cases, tips, cables and other accessories, I knew the time had come to step back and do something about it.

I started selling everything I hated at first, followed by what I relatively liked less, then except the ones I liked. Review samples were easy as I gifted them away with my age old Creative Zen V Plus for peanuts ($18 shipped total for Zen V+, XCited, BeB and few others I forgot). Some were very hard to sell, some sold too easy when I thought otherwise. When it was all said and done, there were plenty of surprises hiding even for me. For instance, it was unthinkable that I would retain something like a lowly Xears XB120 almost till the end. Even after the number has plunged to 13 (including Atrio MG7 which is listed for sale), I have retained Eterna over many other technically superior IEMs. For all my love of lesser known brands, the end result is a little curious mix of 'consumer' and 'head-fi' brands. JVC is the only brand with two IEMs. Sony, Earsonics, Audio-Technica, Etymotic, Ultimate Ears, Phonak, Panasonic, Sunrise Audio, Fischer Audio round up the rest. I am not sure whether to call Brookstone a "brand"; also considering it's retained mostly for the mic, it may not even count. What's missing? Hifiman as also Xears - two brands with most representation in my inventory once. For sometime now, I've found it hard to shift between my top tier IEMs and the IEMs at Tier-III and below in my ranking list and it shows in their representation in the dirty dozen.

In the beginning...

It's difficult for most people to justify 46 IEMs (and 15+ loaner IEMs do not count). I am sure many in head-fi have owned at least that much or more. But, I doubt if they had everything at the same time. Probably clieOS and Joker were the only ones to exceed my 'collection' (Don't think dfkt owns everything in his list).

Being in India has it's special curse. There's no wide variety of shops to go out and try headphones or IEMs. You do not even have access to most. If you want a well-known brand IEM like Shure, Sennheiser, UE with warranty, you need to pay exorbitant MSRP. Import duties are high at 27%. Shipping is sometimes more than the cost of the item. This is not just true of India, but several countries. To top it, Chinese eBay sellers routinely put India on the exception list making me lose the best deals in cheap earphone cases. The odds did bother me in the beginning. But, I knew my way around soon. Like many regular online shoppers, I've bought audio related things from most parts of the globe - used or new.

There was a time I had a hard time understanding "mids". Then by the time I had a vague understanding of something, several more questions were ready - what is this fucking sub-bass these guys are talking about? what the hell is sound stage? and so on. This was interesting, something to learn afresh. And unlike predicting the stock market prices, the result of an over-glowing review can be verified with your own ears - more hands on. Just as I set targets for everything, I aimed for writing at least one review, however bad within the next couple of years. I probably ended up writing much more. It must be said that I am not the bright type. I needed to hear things myself to learn the terms. It took a long time to get to a stage where I knew enough to attempt a review or something like that. The enthusiasm marched on once I got some feedback for my "reviews". I just wanted to do more and more.

Reviews - The long and short of it

Most people would think reviews are glorified pamphlets for the product, which in most cases is unfortunately true. On the other side, writing reviews is not easy. It's easy for anybody to claim that it's "THA BEST UNDER $200" - watch the capitals, that's a shout, bad Internet etiquette. Claiming is always easy, proving? very difficult. You see, for someone to say that it is "THA BEST", it is necessary to have heard and compared what is considered the best under $200. Over enthusiasm is always misleading, but it's also bloody infectious and will catch on fast. Look at every head-fi FOTM - same story! Coming to the point, the comparison part is the most royal pain in the ass if you want to remain objective. Remaining unbiased is difficult and also boring. There needs to be a method to the madness without which you are lost. That's why you need benchmarks - a champion for every category, a price range - something that the IEM under evaluation needs to beat to become the best.

How do you compare? Same source, same song, SPL matched, quick A:B? That tells you relative strengths and weaknesses. But try A:B:A, it is much better as it will bring out what's better as well as what's lacking in both. But that is just one part of the equation. It's not just bass to bass, mids to mids that determines everything, you need to know the IEM stand alone as well. Some IEMs are under-whelming when listening by themselves, but can surprise you in a good way as soon as you start comparing. Some of them don't do as well if you begin to compare (SM3 is notorious for that), but it's simply the "bestest" when listening stand-alone. Some of them take time to appreciate, some of them wear off sooner or later. Only some of them make you forget about analyzing and start enjoying music (FX700, EX-1000).

Whenever I wrote a review, a proper one at that, it took a very long time. It took me a couple of months to come up with my GR07 review. I would listen to it in isolation, do an IEM medley (listen to one IEM with Clip+ on shuffle until I feel it's time to change, note down how I think where each one ranks at the end of it all). I'd also do quick A:Bs. Then I'd stop listening altogether to purge everything - my bias, auditory memory, my prejudices for and against the IEM and try to start everything fresh again. My worst review probably has to be BeB "Red" because at that time, every one of my reference IEMs was with my friend (you know who you are).

One of the charms of becoming a reviewer is of course, review sample. There was one time when I longed for something to fall on my lap. It did not until I had spent way beyond my imagination to buy everything I wanted to hear. Samples can be very tempting as it comes free of cost. That's the perk. But then, you are committed. It's not just the manufacturer samples I am talking about, but also loaners from friends. Commitments need to be met, but I am the last fellow on earth to meet or even like commitments. My sample donors had to be patient (Lendmeurears and Xcited sample). Some came out quickly, but not positively (MEElectronics who instead of being put off by my M31 review sent me A151 saying that it might be better suited for my tastes). But there was the strain. At one time, I posted 4 reviews in as many days. They had been in preparation at various stages and I had to simultaneously work on them all. It's easy to do it a couple of times, but quickly becomes tiring. At one stage, I knew I did not have the near infinite resources to keep the engine running forever (Joker and clieOS have to do it all the time) and it was my cue to vanish (even though I was not that visible in the first place) totally for my own good. The whole experience was a royal pain in the ass and I don't think I am going back in a hurry. I consciously decided that RE272 sample loaner would be my last review for sometime to come and have stuck to it so far.

At a few points in this timeline, my intent was not to "listen" to an IEM any more, but to "hear" it, compare it, review it, add one more to the conquered list, make the list longer. That comes with a cost - I had to keep most of my IEMs because some of them were benchmarks for one part (SQ) or the other (Value for money) and you never knew which one would end up being the similar signature IEM. There was one sane philosopher who shall remain unnamed that cautioned about falling under the weight of it all (You know who you are). What I knew made me a target of messages from a few who thought I knew something, but then there's always something new to learn from the most unexpected of people, some terms you don't understand at all and then out of the blue you suddenly do - I am a perma-noob and the term "little" would be a bit too much to describe what I know.

Post Script: Sources

Sometimes, you need to turn everything around on it's head to get back to where you were. For me, the culprit was Clip+. Since I used it for all my reviews, I was tuned to 'hear' with it - analyze than be amazed by the music. I consciously shifted to a new source, the bricky QA350 which is direct opposite of Clip+ in terms of power, size, ease of use, features, format support, hell! even display size. The brick saved my life. In the beginning, I found it very difficult to go from the sound of Clip+ to QA350 and found faults with it. With time, my brain adapted and now I find it difficult to go back to Clip+. After I bought the UHA-6S, it's even worse - I've not used Clip+ in a while never mind exercising with a brick stack. I was so fond of bricks that I went ahead and bought the thick, old, scratched screen, dirtiest cable I've used, slowest source I have (pants) iPod Video 5G 80GB. All this makes QA350 "audiophile" and Clip+ "that crappy budget player"? Come on! all I need is lot more travel where the compactness of Clip+ works in it's favor. A few days alone, I'd find QA350 "bright and loud". Stupid thing this brain is!

Post Script: IEMs

The most difficult thing in life is to strike that right balance - too much and you have too many worries, too less and you never have enough. Right now, dozen is the magic number which provides enough variety. Tomorrow, it could be 4 or 24, who knows? After getting down to a dozen IEMs (I always pack the IEM once listed for sale and don't use it at all, so MG7 does not count), there's so less confusion. Stopping the reviews was one of the best things I did - no more timelines, no more A:B, no pressure, no bloody critical listening - nothing. Most of my listening these days centers around iPod Video -> LO -> UHA-6S. Arrow 3G, the poor thing, was largely sidelined for so long. Now that I am using QA350 + UHA-6S for some mandatory "burn in", I am forced to use Arrow as the amplifier with iPod. Not that any IEM needs an amplifier, but the headphone out of iPod Video 5G sounds just plain wrong with some of them (high source output impedance and low impedance IEMs do not match - ask FXT90).

I've used my dirty dozen IEMs one for each of my listening sessions. My listening is mostly in the background and I don't kill the joy by making it a routine to listen every day. It's like watching a movie, assembling a PC, wasting a whole Sunday reading head-fi - each need their specific moods to trigger the action. Right now, it's FX700's turn, yesterday it was SM3's, tomorrow or next weekend, it could be HF2. Someday, I would get back to writing reviews, may be very soon. But for now, it's time to remain sane and run through my NOS habit of listening to just the damn music.

August 24, 2011

Hifiman RE-272 Reviewed


First off, thanks to Hifiman for choosing me to be part of the review tour. Thanks also to mukulymn for loaning me his RE262 for an extended time.

But, the IEM couldn't have chosen a busier week to arrive. I could not spend as much time as I wanted with the review sample. I am not as half as gifted as many when it comes to writing descriptions and using appropriate terms. Usually, when I choose to write the occasional review, I go through different modes of comparison and periods of staying away from IEMs so that I can purge all that fragile memory and take a fresh perspective on the IEM (and ones in comparison). Since I did not have that luxury in a compressed time frame, I had to squeeze in as much comparison as I could and be satisfied with an 'on the surface' impression. But, that doesn't stop me from making this opinion piece lengthy. So, please remain patient while I take you on a long subjective, opinionated blabber.

August 6, 2011

Review: Sunrise Audio XCited


Thanks to Lend Me Ur Ears for the review sample.

Unusually, Sunrise Audio did not get my attention last year with their IEM (XCape v1), but with their ear buds, especially the AS-Charm. I am more an IEM addict than an ear bud enthusiast and hence did not buy any of them. Actually, at that time, I was least interested in XCape v1 (RE0 with case, warmth and bass? pass...). When my interest in XCape v1 finally piqued, it had been discontinued. With that curiosity about the sound of Sunrise IEMs still at the back of my mind, I could not pass up the opportunity, when a chance came up for reviewing one of Sunrise Audio's latest offerings, "XCited".

June 24, 2011

Head-Direct RE1: Revisited


Sometimes, you want to go back and look at the past - in this case, the reviews I did. One of the past reviews that caught my eye was that of RE1. Here's a review, which at that time was my first attempt to break off from one liner reviews and explore a bit on the 'wild side'. While I wouldn't dare say that I've honed the fine skills in the art of reviewing, I'll say I've learned a few more things compared to last year. I still have much to read, to learn and  to observe before I can even feel nice about my own reviews. That has not happened yet and may not, ever. But, it's a long path crossed from then to now. Let's see some highlights -

June 23, 2011

Quick Review: Monster Turbine and Nuforce NE-7m

First off thanks to haraakiri for arranging this loaner.

Monster Turbine


I was always intrigued by these Monster Turbine series IEMs, which unlike their ridiculously overpriced cables (or their fugly associations with celebrities like Justina) are well received in head-fi. So when an opportunity presented itself to try out Monster Turbine, their most basic version of the series, I accepted gladly. Little did I know that within that time constraint, I'd work on my monstrously (pun intended) long GR07 review or that most of my $50-100 IEMs would be out on loan. Instead of keeping the listening pleasure to myself, I thought I'd do a quick write-up with whatever limited resources (time, comparison IEMs) I've got. So, this is not a complete review, but just a quick listening impression based on the few hours I've managed to spend time with MT.

June 10, 2011

VSonic GR07: Exquisitely Balanced


In a self destructing way, I justify every IEM purchase with a rational reason. When GR07 appeared on the head-fi scene, my little IEM wearing red devil woke up and said "Let there be a stage monitor!" and there it was - after a few clicks at Lendmeurears and Paypal, I had the bulging large pack of VSonics at my door. Is the IEM devil right in destroying my finances to the tune of $155? The answer lies at the end of a wall of words (and I mean it - including comparison to 7 other IEMs, a little over 7,000 words).

May 8, 2011

Tale of two brands: Xears and Brainwavz - 11 IEMs compared


Xears is a German web site that sells IEMs (and now even MP3 players) under the Xears brand.  IEMs are also available through the ebay store 4Satisfaction Store.

For someone who has not heard about Xears through the reviews at Head-fi, it's easy to get confused with a garden variety of names, shapes and prices (apart from the long list of discontinued models both under the Xears name as well as Playaz Audio). One interesting fact that sets apart Xears IEMs is that they have no concept of fixed price. Web site and eBay store prices don't match at times and it's not that hard to see an IEM sell at €90 and €20 weeks apart. I've come to regard them as something akin to a small-cap stock whose prices fluctuate widely and wildly on a daily basis. As a result, it's tough to assign Value for money rating as you are valuing against a moving target. Luckily, most Xears IEMs can be had for $25-50 shipped at some point in their life.

Brainwavz is MP4Nation's line up of re-branded / re-tuned IEMs, mostly based on Visang R series. 

At the time of writing the long review (12th February, 2011), I owned five Xears IEMs and have the entire M series (Pro Alpha, M1, M2 and M3) available as loaners, but since then have bought Xears TDIII, Brainwavz M2 and obtained Brainwavz Alpha for free along with Nanite N2 player.But, I no longer have Pro Alpha and M1 for comparisons. Be warned! It is going to be an annoying long diatribe crossing 5,000 words. I will review the IEMs in the order of my preference.

January 19, 2011

Earsonics SM3 v1: Initial Imperssions

(This is an updated and re-written version of my original impressions thread at TechEnclave here)


14 months ago, I started on a wonderful and wallet thinning journey into the world of IEMs. December of 2010 was a milestone month in that journey. I got TF10, e-Q5, FX700 and last but not the least, Earsonics SM3 all delivered within weeks of each other. SM3 is of particular interest to me, since it has been hailed as the world's best universal IEM by some, which is not without strong disagreements from few others. The following is my own take on SM3. I urge any one who does not yawn after a few paras to read my disclaimer and guide to reading this review

January 18, 2011

A rough guide to reading my impressions

It's important not to overlook the most integral part of a review - the reviewer himself. This is my rough guide to understanding my reviews/impressions.

  1. This blog will never be anywhere near the level of the excellent and exhaustive IEM review thread by ljokerl on head-ficlieOS Signature wise concise review or dfkt's quick comparison on anythingbutipod. My purpose is simple: Have a place to record my rant and ramblings (uncensored) on IEMs.
  2. As with many things in life, my knowledge is acquired and hence not entirely free of influences from the helpful people of head-fi. I have a very similar preference to that of ljokerl, so don't be shocked if our pecking orders overlap a lot. Besides, his reviews have both helped me pick up some IEMs as well as save me from the dangerous mix of my curious mind and non-empty wallet. Like many others, I'm very thankful to ljokerl. I closely follow the critical, often controversial, but always exhaustive reviews of dfkt, though my signature preferences vary from his. Apart from these two, I regularly follow reviews of clieOS (especially his industry insider information and his quick help many a time), ever-easy-to-read mark2410 and posts of mvw2 (for pure technical views which help me expand), rawrster, james444 among many others. It would not be out of place to thank my fellow IEM connoisseurs on TechEnclave Audio Zone. It's the interactions with them over the course of the year that made me want to learn more and express about what I am hearing.
  3. I will make a simple promise. All my impressions will be honest based on what I hear and experience.
  4. I won't write "reviews" in this blog, even if I call them that. These are my subjective impressions of the IEM to the best of my knowledge at that point. Whatever you read in this blog should be taken as my personal opinion and nothing more. 
  5. I'm neither professional nor am I paid for doing this. So, my reviews won't be similarly structured or focused. The style and presentation will be all over the place. Since this is not within the realms of a forum and I don't have intentions to be politically correct, polite or perfect, I may cross the boundaries of G-rated reviews from time to time. But, I'll try to be decent and civilized.
  6. All stated opinion will be based on my knowledge and exposure at that point of time. For instance, until I got a taste of Hippo VB, I did not know what exactly sub-bass was. So, my reviews before that could not have looked at the bass extension aspect, but reviews from that point on will probably include them. I could possibly add comments / re-write previous reviews, but that's another story.