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.
I have either owned or tried every Head-Direct / Hifiman IEM released so far. When I first heard the RE262 a few months back, I was very impressed despite the fact that their tuning was far off my usual signature preferences. I held off buying RE262 since there were little murmurs about RE272 in the works. I thought of RE262 as an upgrade to RE1 and I imagined that RE272 would be a faithful upgrade to RE252. I expected RE272 to retain RE262's sound stage, dynamics with better extension at both ends, add more airiness and detail and lose the thickness. Did RE272 meet those expectations?
Packing, Accessories, Build Quality
One of the minor things that interested me when I signed up for this review program is - don't laugh - the case. My RE262 loaner is the unbalanced version which was bundled with HM-602 and did not have this Jewel box style case. The case sure looks classy next to my very old RE0 plastic case and even puts my large Sony EX-1000 carry case to shame on the looks front. But, both the Hifiman case and Sony "carry" case are just too big for my liking and my storage space. I would have preferred a normal packing and a slightly smaller zipper carry case, but that's just me.
This is my first experience with a balanced Hifiman IEM. RE272 comes with three cables - the black TRRS to unbalanced TRS adapter for straight-down style wearing, the white Left-Right reversed unbalanced adapter for wearing over the ears and another TRRS to TRRS adapter. The good news is I could use RE272 without any adapters directly out of Cowon S9, but I don't think it qualifies as "balanced". My other players need one of the TRS adapters to produce sound out of both channels.
The other accessories should now be familiar to anyone who has ever bought a Hifiman IEM (same old, same old) - three size of single flanges (or mono flange according to the spec sheet), two sizes of bi-flanges (Medium and Large), 10 filters and a shirt clip. The minor difference this time is that the large bi-flange is the 'bass mod' bi-flange mentioned here. An ear guide would have been a nice addition to go along with the reverse phase adapter. But then, one step at a time, I guess.
Hifiman/HD has never been about the looks. So they don't pose a threat to the similarly priced e-Q5's better looks and build quality. Except for the beefed up Y-Split and the glossier look of the shells, RE272 is otherwise identical to the RE-262 loaner pair I have. The chin slider is a little tight, but it eases up with time (This is the second time I have been loaned the RE262 in the space of 6 months and it had a similarly tight chin slider the first time). I am no cable expert, but if the cable is similar to the one used in RE262, I'd use a ear guide when wearing over the ear, because my loaner RE262 is stiff near the housing probably due to interaction with sweat.
Isolation, Microphonics, Comfort
RE272 provides good, but not great isolation, similar to RE262. Microphonics are present when worn straight-down, but as usual, disappear when worn over the ear. While they don't exactly disappear like GR07 or the tiny ECCI PR401, RE272 is very comfortable to wear, especially in over the ear configuration.
Driver: 9 mm Neodymium magnet driver
Impedance: 20Ω ± 10%
Sensitivity: 103dB / mW
Rated Input: 10mW
Maximum Input: 30mW
Frequency Response: 15 Hz to 22KHz
After my initial hour of listening, I burned in RE272 for approximately 70 more hours before listening again. I would roughly estimate that this review loaner has close to 125 hours by the time I wrote majority of the impressions. I tried RE272 out of many sources - Clip+, Cowon S9, Sony E353, QA350 Mod V2 and rarely used iBasso T3 and Arrow 3G amplifiers in conjunction with them. For a vast majority of the time, I used the reverse phase adapter and Medium sized single flange. Most of the comparisons were done with QA350, Cowon S9 and Clip+ - in that order.
Out of most sources, RE272 required a similar volume level as Sony EX-1000 or AT CK10. RE262 would require a few more notches (or an amp) and RE-ZERO and FX700 require lesser volume. For example, I can use RE262 at -17db on my Rockboxed Clip+ and I normally use RE272 at -23. FX700 can be listened to at -33 and RE-ZERO at -30.
Very briefly, RE272 is a bass light, detailed, transparent IEM with good mid-range and good treble. To me, it seems to be tuned to wow you and I am not sure it succeeded so far with everybody. I've seen comparisons being drawn to Etymotic ER4S and based on what I've read, I can easily see shades of Ety on the sound signature. Unfortunately, the only Etymotic I have actually listened turns out to be the MC5. It would be unfair to call RE272 an Ety inspired Hifiman based on that. MC5 just plays sound, not music according to these rusted iron ears and I don't even consider it as one of the better IEMs in the sub-$100 range. With such a generous bias against MC5, I would just say that RE272 thankfully sounds more like a Hifiman than an Ety.
Before I even begin my rants, to my ears and for my preferences, RE272 is not the best I've heard, but clearly among the better ones I've heard so far. That out of the way, let's get back to RE272.
The bass of RE272 surprised me as a throwback to the bass light Hifiman era (RE2, RE1, RE0). Test tones below 40Hz could not be heard at normal listening volumes. The bass has similar extension with slightly longer decay compared to RE262, but it fails to present a well filled note and lacks quantity. While I do not want RE272 to fulfill my closet bass-head craving, I would have liked a tighter, textured bass at least like XCape v1 or even Hifiman's own RE-ZERO. Many times, I felt it produced a 'thud' than a drum (across sources). There are times when I felt RE272 had some bass, but a switch to any of my other IEMs would prove that the recording in fact has much more bass than RE272 cared to produce. Even CK10 has more quantity (despite the shorter decay) with bass heavy recordings, which is surprising. This effectively means that GR07 would seem like a mid-bass bloated bass monster and FX700 would be plain unbearable when you move from RE272 during A:B. RE262, while not a bass monster by itself has a better textured, rounded bass. I only wish RE272's bass was tuned somewhat like EX1000, which is slowly becoming one of my favorite low-ends, putting a smile on my face most times with their refined character. One can always use EQ / Arrow 3G with bass boost to add bass. But, I am more a fan of 'If it is too much, EQ' than 'If it ain't there, EQ'. As a footnote to this section - No! I could not get a good fit with the large 'bass mod' bi-flanges. So, I don't know whether it succeeds in adding bass.
The mid range of 272 is slightly distant, but does not lose clarity. There is some emphasis around 2Khz which helps vocals to have better presence. The upper mid range is very slightly boosted, but there's no spike to speak of near the lower treble range keeping RE272 free of sibilance. The mid range is warm, lush, detailed and by and large, engaging for those who like this sort of detailed sound. It is better textured next to EX-1000 and CK10, but not as well as GR07. RE262 feels too thick and slow in comparison. Both GR07 and RE262 are more intimate sounding when compared to RE272. While on it's own, RE272 is good with vocals, it fails to convey the emotion like EX-1000 and I suppose that's one of the side effects of a hyper-active mid range tuning. On the other hand, where EX-1000 "romanticizes", RE272 does not, lending a good hand with guitar strings. As with bass, FX700 is again the most difficult in this set to switch to. Since not much time was on hand, I chose to skip FX700 from any further comparisons than adjusting my ears continually between them.
Unlike Hifiman's previous flagship, RE272 is a bit treble happy. The treble is airy, crisp, detailed, extended, though it does not approach the sparkle, aggression or the forwardness of CK10 or DBA-02. It's not such a bad thing, since relatively speaking, CK10 sounds shrill with it's 10Khz peak and DBA-02 is just aggressive. Once given time to adjust, my pumpkin size treble head prefers DBA-02 and CK10.
One of the first things you note with RE272 is it's speed, slightly short of BAs and the clarity. Sound stage size on RE272 is good, but RE262 still has the edge in portraying sounds a little 'out of the head' so to speak. The presentation on RE272 in someways is similar to EX-1000 - distant mids, more left to right than rear to front placement. CK10 is able to present precise placement within the sound stage better. EX-1000, which does not differ that much with respect to size of sound stage, is able to portray sense of space and air much better with slightly better separation.
Sometimes with Clip+, RE272 tends to get congested during complex passages. Though it does not sound as worse with QA350, it still is not as enveloping or provide great sense of space. I don't find the RE272's dynamic range to be anything great next to EX-1000 or RE262, but it is slightly better than GR07. The story is similar with that dreaded "T" word that shall not be spoken about (until a few lines down). Many times during the A:B, EX-1000 and CK10 make RE272 sound a bit dull. I think it's a combination of dynamic range, faster decay of notes, better clarity and more articulate presentation of note on the other two. If I had more time, I'd have tried to figure it out better.
Brief thoughts about RE272 vs Other IEMs
Other than brief comparisons, here's how I feel about RE272 vs others in an overall sense. I am not saying "better" or something absurd like "night and day" or "wipe the floor with", just that I prefer one IEM over another and try to figure out some reasons why. Because technically, I feel on balance, most of the IEMs compared here are more or less in the same zone. It is our own preferences and more importantly, priorities that decide which we end up liking better.
I have italicized the IEM name and my conclusion to make it easier for those with tired eyes.
How different is it to RE0? Considering that my RE0 is 18 months old, it could be V1. I'm not sure how different RE0 v4 is. But then, I can only compare what I have. Be assured that it has hundreds of hours on it since it was my primary IEM for months before I got the PFE and later on, RE-ZERO (both of which I prefer over RE0). Is RE272 better? Much better to my ears. It improves on sound stage, texture, bass impact and quality, treble quality and tonality compared to the thin sounding RE0 (Did I just list almost everything? :p) To make it clear, the score is RE272 - ding, RE0 - pfft. (RE272 easily).
Is it a much better RE252? Since I have sold my RE252 sometime back, that's a hard question to answer. But, trusting whatever is left of the fragile audio memory, I'd have to say technically RE272 is better with more details and a better sound stage. But, I still think I would have found RE252 more balanced of the two and they would sound different enough to co-exist (Not sure, but likely better overall).
Funny! RE262's tuning is not in line with my normal sound preferences - mid-range focus with not so much of highs. On paper, RE272 scores a home run with it's thinner, treble happy, faster and detail oriented tuning. But still, I could not bring myself to enjoy 272 as much as 262. In many instances during A:B, I found myself ending with RE262 in my ears for a longer time than warranted. I'd put it down to the dynamic range and layering of RE262 more than the thick, liquid mids of the 262. Technically, I'll put RE272 slightly ahead, but I somehow still like the RE262 (On par).
Is it better than GR07? To me, yes. First off, the sibilance which I still hate with many of my recordings (across genres) is not present with 272. Though it lacks bass, texture of notes and the intimacy, it more than makes up for it with it's treble, slightly better dynamics and sound stage (RE272 is preferred)
I can easily see someone preferring 272 over CK10 - it's after all more coherent, not as ear piercing in treble, warmer, better with vocals, not sibilant, not as busy and not as 'lifeless'. But, for me, the other things CK10 does right - the precise placement, the overall balance, a bit more clarity, those tiny nuances it's speed and BA decay brings out and of course, it's forward treble (once I go through a period of adjustment) makes me favor CK10 by a little margin (CK10 slightly preferred).
How about DBA-02? DBA-02, somehow sounds more calmer than CK10 with QA350. Except for scoring over RE272 in separation, linear crisp treble and the sweet coloration of the mid range, I can't make a strong case for DBA-02. It's dynamic range is compressed and leaner sounding than RE272. I like both for different reasons, but RE272 edges slightly ahead here. (RE272 slightly preferred)
Now to the one IEM I ignored during most of this A:B:C due to the difference in approach, FX700. While moving from RE272 to FX700, it appears thick, bloated in bass, heavily unbalanced with distant vocals. But, on adjusting to it and coming back to RE272, FX700 sounds "grand" with much better ability to throw sonic cues around the head and not to forget, that nice timbre. It is an apple to orange comparison indeed. But for longer term listening, the airy, open, V-shaped FX700 is a better yang for the yin of my EX-1000 than RE272 (Too different. In my inventory, FX700 is a better choice than RE272)
Another IEM which feels strange when moving from RE272/CK10/EX-1000 trio would be SM3 v1. RE272 is clear, light-weight, warm, transparent and does not feel as strange and dark as SM3. Of course, SM3 is a mysterious IEM which does come back into reckoning once you stop comparing and that largely has to do with that polarizing, enveloping sound stage. Anyone preferring normal presentation should easily prefer RE272 here. (No meaningful comparison done)
How about flagship vs flagship- RE272 vs Sony EX-1000? I'd say I prefer the Sony by a margin. EX-1000 is not perfect - that slightly mellow/romantic presentation comes in the way of aggressive music, though it goes well with Classical or Jazz like no other. EX-1000 has a better dynamic range, much better bass, better timbre, quicker decay of notes and spaciousness. To sum it up, I'd say EX-1000 strikes me as something very effortless, refined, classy whereas RE272 is a bit hyper-active and trying to prove a point (EX-1000 easily preferred).
Is it as good as a top-tier custom or better than an unspecified custom? Please wait while I save up and buy one first. Then, we'll talk.
Short Note on Sources
QA350 Mod V2 arrived on the same day as RE272. For those who believe in source burn-in, fear not! I used it to burn-in a headphone for 106 hours before listening. While it's portability and usability leaves a lot to be desired (which is subject for another thread altogether), there are some silver linings. According to Clark Chen, it has an output impedance of 0.2 ohm. It is a very powerful source with rated output of 500mW @ 16 ohms. I was worried that I may not be able to use IEMs with it due to the usual analog pot channel imbalance. Luckily, the imbalance disappears a little short of 7 o'clock enabling me to use IEMs.
Just so that we are clear, do I think source makes a huge difference? IMO, IEM still makes the most difference and source has a subtle, but important role to play.
I did not have much time to A:B:C the sources, so I am going to just put down my thoughts on a few things I observed. Of all the sources, I liked the cleaner, clearer, powerful, balanced and well bodied QLS QA350 v2 the best with RE272. While I can't say that sound stage expanded infinitely, the whole presentation gets an uplift with more body, weight and slightly better separation. The mid range does not feel as distant either. Compared to the QLS, Cowon S9 sounds thin with not so clean a sound stage. S9 also seems to accentuate sibilance a bit though it could not make RE272 sibilant. Sony E353, whose battery never seems to die is a better match with it's mid range warmth. Clip+ is not as warm, but lush in the mid range. I'd say QA350 and Sony E353 were a better match with RE272 for my ears. I wish I had more time to say something concrete, but I'd just speculate that RE272 would fare well with sources that have some power, warm & better textured. I'd just extrapolate it a bit and think that Hifiman's own sources could be a nice match to RE272 giving it what it needs while taking away a slight bit of that treble.
Value For Money
An argument can be made for RE-272 as e-Q5 and DDM-2 ask you to shell out a similar price even though they don't perform exceedingly well over some of the $150 IEMs. One can even point out the premium which Sony EX-1000 and the ridiculously over-priced FADs demand. I don't defend or justify the $400 I paid for EX-1000, based on which RE272 should be a 'bargain'. Rather than argue in favor of over-pricing and justify the $250 price tag of RE272, I would be much happier with a $175-200 price tag.
Is RE272 suitable for you?
So, who should not be interested in Hifiman RE272? In short, those who want bass / forward mid range / polite treble / serene smoothness / something "musical" / something "fun" / sound stage that feels like an open stadium. Unless you are looking for a dynamic IEM which does details well and don't mind the low bass quantity, not so attractive looks, slightly hefty price tag, two piece cable, yes! you are in RE272 territory.
Am too bored to write one. So, draw your own conclusion about RE272.