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 -

  • When I wrote my review of RE1 back in the day, I had not been exposed to this many IEMs. I don't exactly remember how many I had, but looking at this post, it could be 13. Now I've heard 4 times as much.
  • It was, at that time, among the longest reviews I attempted (~ 3500 words), but I've doubled the word count with my recent GR07 and RE-262 reviews.
  • I was proud of running frequency sweeps for the first time, which has stayed back as a habit.
  • Reading back the review, it seems too verbose now. That has more to do with my even worse understanding of audiophile jargon back then. But, it had a little 'life'. Of late, I use lot more jargon, but they feel a bit dry for sure.
  • I was very much oriented towards an analytical, bright signature and did not care much about bass. On my worst day, I probably would have settled with an IEM that sounded balanced. Now, I have SM3, which is neither transparent nor bright at the top of my rankings. I've also taken a liking to bass heavy IEMs and have learned to appreciate bass. My strict analytical leanings have given way to appreciating things like timbre (there goes that dreaded "T" word again!), texture, vocals etc.,
  • I've started listening at much lower volumes now.
  • I was a bit excited with every new IEM I tried back then. These days I suspect I've developed dopamine deficiency. Getting excited has become rare and the instances are far and few between.
  • Last but not the least, I did not have Arrow 3G back then (and also iPod Touch 3G, Nanite N2, but that's irrelevant as far as this review goes)
So, what's the point? Just a personal mission to check out whether ignorance was indeed bliss or whether hearing more IEMs, liking a wider variety of signatures and knowing a few more words of audiophile lingo makes me see RE1 in a different light.

As before, thanks to haraakiri for the loaner.

Build Quality, Accessories, Microphonics and Isolation

The RE1 comes with the cloth cable. It has a right angled plug, which has decent strain relief. The plug of course reminds me of the cheap gold plated plugs I find on eBay. The cable has cord cinch and a shirt clip is included as well, which should help with microphonics. The accessories include the hifiman usuals - 3 pairs of single flanges, 2 pairs of bi-flanges, shirt clip and filters. I used the medium size bi-flange tips from RE0 for this review.

I observe microphonics above Y-split when worn straight down, but nothing much when I try my usual over the ear fashion. Isolation is good.

Sound Signature

With Clip+

Last time, I had used words like "Headphone like" to describe the sound stage, but the right word would be "Open sounding". Currently, I am using RE1 at -19 to -15 on the Clip+, a far cry from last time when I set Clip+ at -17 and passed it through iBasso T3 (+7 dB, Vol: 8). This is now adequate for me even for Classical music. It is important to understand that different recordings have different volume levels. Classical recordings usually have a high dynamic range and can sound "low", while modern recordings have a very highly (sometimes unbearably) compressed dynamic range which results in songs being louder (Metallica's album from 80's vs "Death Magnetic", for example). So, when comparing volume levels, it's important to compare for the same songs.

I ran the same frequency tone files and sweeps and came out with the same results. It amazes me even now. RE1 has one of the weirdest frequency responses I've seen so far. Be aware that this is how I perceive it. There's absolutely not much going on below 50Hz or even till 100Hz, 600-1600 Hz is a little alright before dipping again. There's another slight bump around 3-5Khz. Treble could be rolled off as well. But, I don't want to speculate about extension here.

Since I've learned to fiddle with Rockbox EQ since last time, I came up with the following settings:

70   +5.5    0.7
  400   +2.0    1.0
 3400   +1.0    1.3
 8000   +0.5    2.0
10000   +3.0    0.7
Even with this setting, I don't hear any bass with Massive Attack's"Tear Drop". The treble isn't doing much either.

It sounds the same as last time - rolled-off bass, great mids which are placed a bit distant and sparkle-less treble which feels recessed. The mids sound sweet alright, but timbre is off. I tried Agalloch's first track of "Marrow of the Spirit", which features Cello along with the sound of stream and birds. FX700 manages to put me right up there. None of my other IEMs do, RE1 does worse in this regard. Let's see how it does with Isis, a band I seem to enjoy with wide sound stage IEMs. Due to the complete lack of bass, the "big sound" feel is missing. Imaging and separation seem alright, but it does not have the depth and definition that FX700 so beautifully provides.

Clip+ -> Practical Devices TERSUS Cable -> Arrow 3G

I did not touch the impedance setting or the cross feed. I tried various gains, but 2 (of 3) seems acceptable. Bass requires 2 (max) as well. Otherwise, the bass note does not seem to be filled. That's quite a dip there. Mids gain clarity and resolution, a bit more forwardness. Treble, while not gaining sparkle or quantity, is able to present a bit more detail with Arrow. The whole presentation seems a little better. It is still a laid-back, bass light, dark IEM, but with these settings, it feels a bit more like a casual listening IEM for me.

PC (foobar + Eletri-Q posihfopit edition, ASIO) -> HRT Music Streamer II -> Maverick D1 TubeMagic (with Audio-GD Sun HDAM x 2)

Let's try this damn thing with a more powerful setup and better EQ. This is the first time I am using Electri-Q, so after some fiddling around, I arrived at something that is heavily V-Shaped (nearly +8dB at both ends and minor adjustments for other frequencies). I tried APC's "BreƱa" and Massive Attack's "Tear Drop". Again, very similar story here too - treble is a little more forward, shows some detail, but lacks sparkle completely. Bass, even after that massive amount of boost is just not filled. There is nothing in the sub-bass registers. And I thought it was good last time, probably because I had not gotten used to IEMs that portray bass better. My stand on EQ is that it is better to control excessive behavior than try and create something non-existent, which seems true, at least in this case.


For saving time, these comparisons will all be straight out of Clip+, without using EQ and SPL matched using my ears.

vs Fischer Audio Silver Bullet v2

There's no way SB will match the sheer sound stage size of RE1. SB indeed has a better, filled out bass. With bands like Isis, this bass actually pushes the vocals a bit more behind in SB, whereas RE1 does not have this issue. But, with other music, SB takes the lead. The mid range of both are good, but in different ways. RE1 is more on the neutral side of things while remaining lush and sweet sounding, whereas SB is warm and colored. RE1 has a thinner note when compared to a very slightly thicker note on SB. With treble, both could have the same extension, something I won't confirm or deny with my limited HF hearing. But, RE1 is a little more crisper and slightly more detailed, while SB is more forward with treble, but lacks the sharpness with cymbals, a little flabby. Both portray sense of space well, but RE1 clearly has the distinct advantage here due to it's imaging and excellent stage size. On the whole, SB sounds intimate compared to the RE1.

RE1: Excellent sound stage size, imaging, treble detail
SB: Bass, relative forwardness

vs JVC HA-FX700

I knew the result before I even pitted them. However, here's an IEM that makes RE1 look 'lean' in every department - looks, cost, speed, authority, imaging, details, roundness of note, bass quantity and quality, treble presentation, timbre. SPL matched, the lower mid range of RE1 is slightly forward, but FX700 somehow does not let it come in the way of engagement. At first, RE1's sound stage seems to be throwing sonic cues as wide and deep as FX700, but the trick is that RE1's stage is placed distant, which when brought forward would diminish the sense of space. However, FX700 fills all the space in and around and still manages to throw distance cues. My sole interest for this comparison was the sound stage size of both these IEMs. Otherwise, it's a no contest.

vs Xears Experience XE200Pro (Not burned-in, 10 mins of usage)

From one woodie to another. XE200 is an open sounding IEM with the annoying driver flex typical of Xears. The bass is perfect, falling right between SB and FX700 in terms of quantity with quickness, but without the bloat of the TD series. The mid range is warm with the characteristic thickness of note, but not colored. Vocals in XE200 are placed at a similar distance to RE1. The treble is good and in balance with the mids. Sound stage size of XE200 is somewhat similar to RE1 yielding only in the width department, but better filled with an energetic, balanced and intimate presentation, though it does portray distance well. RE1 has better sense of separation and a sweeter lower mid range. I ended up liking and listening to XE200 more.


The only reason I took up this assignment one more time was to check whether I would like an IEM that I immensely disliked. RE1 continues to remain one of those IEMs that gets on my nerves, primarily due to the way it de-emphasizes everything else in favor of the mid range. Due to this, it can be listened hours on end without any fatigue and would suit those who are primarily into vocal based music. However, music for me is hardly just about the all important mid range and sound stage size. I find myself enjoying something like a XE200 more than RE1. But, unlike last time, I did not mind RE1's lack of treble that much and I loved the mid range, but the complete absence of bass irritated me no end. I thought it would push up in my rankings, but that is not to be. Oh! well! Shure SE53X - we will never meet.


titus said...

So things dont change, I guess.

Eswar Santhosh said...

IEM would not change, perceptions and preferences do. But, in this case, even that was not enough :)