Audio: Listen to this article.
It’s not uncommon to read deep discussions across the audiophile interwebs about how to bring more young people into the world of high fidelity. Putting aside larger debates about insularity and condescension, it’s undeniable that cost is a huge stumbling block. Particularly in an era when — for better or worse — one can access a nearly every album ever recorded for a $10/month streaming subscription, the $450 necessary for a good headphone rig (HD 6XX + Modi + Magni), let alone the multiples of that required for a “budget” speaker setup, can provoke understandable sticker shock among the uninitiated.
That’s why the recent explosion of consumer-oriented IEMs should be celebrated by all audiophiles. As I’ve written before, IEMs offer perhaps the best path to high fidelity sound at a low price. (It’s likely no coincidence that popular IEM reviewers on YouTube look to be a solid two decades younger than most audiophile reviewers.)
That said, there are plenty of IEMs (at every price point) that don’t offer anything close to high fidelity sound. That’s why I’ve written two roundups, plus a bonus blog post, reviewing popular sub-$50 IEMs. I added a third comparative review looking at the two most critically lauded $200 IEMs. (Don’t worry, I’m going to start a spreadsheet on my blog to keep track of all of the reviewed IEMs in one place.) However, the gap between $50 and $200 is fairly large. If one’s internal reference price is set by that $50 IEM, there’s little doubt that a $200 is outside of the “zone of indifference.”
That brings me to this review, which looks at six IEMs that fall between $55 and $110 USD. This price range represents a more realistic step up the price ladder for someone who bought the $35 Kiwi Cadenza, which has consistently won my $50-and-under matchups (and has received praise from other reviewers, too).
The six new contenders, arranged by price, are:
- Truthear x Crinacle Zero: Red - $55 (Amazon)
- TRI x HBB Kai - $55 at the time of writing, normally $79 (Amazon)
- SIMGOT EA500 - $69 at the time of writing, normally $79 (Amazon, Linsoul)
- Truthear Hexa - $79 (Amazon)
- FiiO JD7 - $79 (Amazon)
- Kiwi Quartet - $109 (Amazon, Linsoul)
Each will be judged against the aforementioned Kiwi Cadenza, the reigning budget champ. Should an IEM best the Cadenza, I’ll then pit it against my favorite $200 IEM, the previously reviewed Moondrop Kato.
Truthear x Crinacle Zero: Red
I reviewed the original Truthear x Crinacle Zero in my first IEM roundup. The company’s partnership with popular IEM mega-reviewer Crinacle has helped to raise its profile, and it now offers a relatively informative English-language website.
Beyond Crinacle’s participation, the main selling point of the original Zero was its close compliance with the (somewhat controversial) Harman consumer preference-derived IEM frequency response curve. As one adherent to the Harman curve wrote in a review of the Zero, “Go and buy one of these! I don't care if you don't listen to IEMs normally. You want this IEM so you know what correct tonality is, when you listen with other transducers such as headphones and speakers. Think of it as the tuning fork that a musician uses! This IEM needs to be in your arsenal.”
However, my take on the Zero was decidedly less rapturous. The Zero sounded hugely V-shaped to my ears, with a piercing treble peak and bloated bass. I thought its technical performance was solid for the price, though I found it hard to provide a detailed analysis of traits like soundstage because the tuning was so egregiously unpleasant to my ears. Basically, I didn’t want to leave the Zero in my ears long enough to try to discover any potential strengths hidden beneath its poor tuning.
What made the Zero so interesting is that Crinacle is a well-known critic of Harman’s IEM preference curve. So the Zero was, in a way, an exercise in meeting a goal that its own creator didn’t believe in but which should (in theory) be popular with the public. In that sense, Crinacle achieved his goal. Harman’s supporters loved the Zero so much that many claimed it was effectively the best IEM money could buy, even though it cost only $50. That a reviewer like me, who prefers an (in my view) studio monitor-neutral sound, didn’t like the Zero was almost beside the point.
That said, I was happy to hear that Crinacle was releasing a modified version of the Zero that’s more aligned with his own personal tuning preferences. While I don’t always agree with Crinacle’s IEM rankings, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m much more likely to enjoy an IEM tuned to Crinacle’s preferences than to the Harman curve. This new version is known as the Zero: Red.
According to Crinacle, the voice coil and crossover of the Red have been tweaked from the original blue-colored Zero. Beyond affecting the tuning of the Red, these changes also have lowered the Zero’s distortion.
Like the original Zero, the Red sports two dynamic drivers: a 10 mm and a 7.8 mm LCP (liquid crystal polymer) diaphragm. The spec’d sensitivity is 117.5 dB, which is exactly the same as the original blue Zero. However, the Red’s impedance is 17.5 ohms, which is a bit higher than the original’s 10-ohm impedance.
Physically, the Red’s black resin shells are exactly the same as the original Zero, with the exception that original’s swirling cosmic blue faceplate has been replaced with a red faceplate whose pattern suggests a feather-like texture. As I wrote in my review of the original, the Zero’s resin body comes across as fairly premium for this price point. I love its build and its feel. The curvature of the body helps to keep it comfortable, even though it’s a relatively big IEM at (according to my digital caliper) 22 mm long by 19 mm high by 15 deep at its largest points. It’s light and well-designed enough to be comfortable on the outside of my ear. The only comfort complaint I can see some wearers having is that the lipped nozzle is a wide 6.6 mm. The Zero’s connectors are of the recessed two-pin variety, which I like for stability but limit aftermarket options slightly.
The Red comes in study packaging. Its outer manga-adorned sleeve slides off to reveal an inner box. Removing that cover exposes an upper section that holds the IEMs in molded foam and a lower section that includes a case and accessories. Those accessories are almost identical to the originals: a soft, button-snap carrying pouch; six pairs of decent silicone tips consisting of two bore sizes, each with S/M/L pairs; one pair of above-average foam tips; and a plastic-covered braided cable with a 3.5 mm plug. The one new addition to the Red’s accessories is a 10-ohm impedance adapter, which boosts the Red’s low end, beginning at less than 1 dB around 400 Hz and growing to around 3 dB in the sub-bass. The Red’s packaging also includes a warranty card, but I couldn’t ascertain the length of the warranty.
TRI x HBB Kai
TRI is one of those Chinese IEM companies that doesn’t seem to have much of an English online presence. It’s not clear to me whether it’s an independent company or a house brand for the retailer KeepHiFi. That said, also like the Red, the Kai’s main selling point is that it’s a collaboration with a popular reviewer, in this case Hawaii Bad Boy. In my first budget IEM roundup, I reviewed his collaboration with QKZ, but had somewhat mixed feelings about that IEM.
The Kai uses a single DLC (Diamond-like Carbon) dynamic driver. Its impedance is spec’d at 36 ohms and its sensitivity at 114 dB.
The build of the Kai is superb. Its shell is “aviation-grade 7-series aluminum alloy.” The rear of the body is polished gold, while the faceplate is one-third gold and two-thirds blue, raising to a soft point in the center. Essentially, the Kai looks like a lower-end Moondrop Illumination, which isn’t an insult given that the Kai is less than one-tenth of the Illumination’s price. In terms of size, the Kai is approximately 22.5 by 18 by 13 (length/height/depth). The Kai’s one-piece aluminum rear includes the nozzle, which terminates in a perforated grill and sports a substantial lip for tip traction. The nozzle is 6.1 mm at its widest point, so it’s not particularly slim, but it’s not nearly as large as the Zero’s. Overall, I had no complaints about the Kai’s comfort. Finally, the Kai uses a recessed two-pin connector.
The Kai comes in a small nondescript box, but — like the Kai’s build — the include accessories that punch well above the Kai’s price point. The Kai includes a very nice satchel-style brown leather case that frankly bests some that come with $500-plus IEMs. The included silver-plated oxygen-free copper cable with a 3.5 mm plug also feels premium at this price point, matching the TinHifi T2 DLC’s cable as perhaps my favorite cable in the sub-$100 IEM range. Even better, its hardware matches the polished gold aluminum of the Kai’s body. Finally, the Kai’s package includes six pairs of average silicone tips, a brush, and a polishing cloth.
While it remains to be seen (err… heard) how the Kai sounds, in terms of style, build, and accessories, it’s going to be hard to find an IEM that tops the Kai at anywhere near this price.
Founded in 2015, the Shenzen-based Simgot feels poised to follow companies like Moondrop and FiiO in becoming one of the most well-established Chinese IEM brands in the U.S. With a detailed English-language site and a discernable design style, Simgot clearly is striving to create a brand identity. To that end, Simgot offers its own one-year warranty on its IEMs at a time when many other IEM companies (explicitly or implicitly) leave buyers to rely on each retailer’s warranty.
The EA500 is based around a single 10 mm DLC dynamic driver. The company provides quite a bit of information about the EA500’s development on its website. According to Simgot, the EA500’s “dual-magnetic-circuit and dual-cavity driver” is the result of trickle-down technology from its flagship EA2000 IEM. The EA500’s impedance is spec’d at 16 ohms and its sensitivity at 123-124 dB.
The EA500’s build impresses at this price point. The entire body is a solid metal alloy polished to a shiny silver. The outer shell is completely smooth, with only a small Simgot logo. The inner shell is curved in two tiers for comfort, and both a hex screw for assembly and a small vent are cleverly hidden in a small recessed area above a Left/Right label. The shell’s dimensions are roughly 21.5 by 16.5 by 13 mm (length/height/depth). The angled metal nozzle is 5.6 mm at its widest point. It’s also removable. The EA500’s packaging includes two options, which are threaded and smoothly screw into the body. As illustrated with graphs on Simgot’s website and the back of the product box, the blue nozzle tilts the response towards the treble, while the red nozzle tilts it towards the bass. The differences aren’t overly dramatic, but they’re definitely noticeable. I strongly preferred the red nozzle and used it for my review. As I wrote in my listening notes, “The EA500’s comfort is off the charts. Disappears in your ear. A ‘forget you’re wearing IEMs’ feel.” Finally, the EA500 uses a recessed two-pin connector.
The EA500’s packaging is excellent for an $80 IEM. A removable outer sleeve slides off to reveal an inner box, which is covered with a flap. Below the flap, the IEMs are tucked into recessed slots, while the accessories are housed in a separate removable box. Those accessories are similarly impressive. Besides the aforementioned nozzles, the EA500 includes an unbranded solid-sided zipper case, a silver-plated OFC two-pin cable with a 3.5 mm plug that would be at home on an IEM several times the EA500’s price, and three pairs of average quality silicone tips. Overall, the EA500 presents like a luxury IEM.
The second Truthear IEM under review, the Hexa is a hybrid IEM with a single dynamic driver and three balanced armatures. The 10 mm dynamic is responsible for bass, while the mids and highs are divided between the three BA drivers. It’s spec’d at a 20.5 ohm impedance and 120 dB sensitivity.
The Hexa’s shell is made from “medical-grade high-transparency resin” created with a DLP 3D printer. Its matte finish is smooth and comfortable. The outer shell is flat, with a small angled portion at the bottom containing the company’s name and small assembly screw. The inner half is smoothly shaped to conform to the outer ear. The shell’s dimensions are approximately 23.5 by 17.5 by 12.5 mm (length/height/depth). The nozzle is of a piece with the inner half. It doesn’t include a lip, but does widen slightly towards the edge, which at 6.3 mm wide is only slightly smaller than the Red’s hefty nozzle. As is common in multi-driver IEMs, the nozzle terminates in three holes. Finally, like the Red, the connector is a recessed two-pin.
The Hexa’s box and accessories are identical to the Red’s, except that it does not include an impedance adapter. Given that the Hexa costs approximately 50 percent more than the Red, it’s a little disappointing that the Hexa’s accessories aren’t a bit better, too.
Founded way back in 2007, FiiO’s stated ambition is to “raise the reputation of ‘Made in China.’” It’s hard to argue that FiiO hasn’t achieved that goal. FiiO’s consistently stylist products have become almost ubiquitous, particularly in the IEM and portable hi-fi market. Some fifteen years into the company’s existence, I doubt that many western consumers even realize it’s a Chinese company. Like the EA500, the JD7 comes with a one-year warranty from FiiO in addition to whatever the retailer may provide.
The JD7 is based around a single 10 mm dynamic driver with a PU gasket and a polymer diaphragm. According to the company, the JD7’s driver features “an internal and external magnetic circuits setup that greatly improves magnetic flux density so that the driver can push more air for a more effortless sound.” The JD7 is billed by FiiO as following the Harman IEM curve — though, as we’ll see, FiiO’s interpretation of that curve is quite different from Truthear’s. The JD7’s impedance is spec’d at 32 ohms and its sensitivity at 108 dB.
As noted above, both the Kai and the EA500 feature impressive builds. But the JD7 may top them both. The JD7’s shell is made of injection-molded 316L stainless steel. The shell’s outer faceplate is round and tapers outward towards the center. It’s perforated by a three-pronged vent that reminds me of the Flux Capacitor from Back to the Future. Within the vent is blue-tinted perforated metal, giving the JD7 a nice bit of eye-catching flair. The inner shell is a single piece of polished steel. It tapers towards an attached angled nozzle on the top half of the shell. The nozzle includes a small lip, which is 5.9 mm at its widest point. The JD7 uses MMCX connectors, which allow for the cable to swivel, though there’s debate about whether they’re as durable as two-pin connectors. Fortunately, the JD7 includes an “MMCX assist tool” to aid in separating the connectors, and the included case is plenty large enough that there’s no reason to detach the cable before putting the IEMs away. The shell’s overall dimensions are approximately 20 mm 15.5 by 13 mm (length/height/depth), making it the smallest IEM under review. Perhaps because of that, the JD7 is incredibly comfortable even over long listening sessions.
While FiiO’s outer packaging is relatively nondescript, the included accessories are the best of all off the IEMs under review. The JD7 includes a FiiO-branded, Pelican-style plastic hard case with a transparent lid. While this type of case isn’t the easiest for sliding into a pocket, it’s by far my favorite style of case when it comes to actually protecting the IEM. Likewise, the JD7’s cable is my favorite of the bunch. While, like some of the others, its wire is silver-plated copper, the cover has a silky matte finish the minimizes microphonics. Its hardware is tactilely and visually attractive, and its plug is a right-angle 3.5 mm. The JD7 includes a whopping seven pairs of tips: three pairs (S/M/L) of average-quality clear silicone tips, one pair of excellent foam tips, and three (S/M/L) pairs of FiiO’s branded HS18 tips. The latter deserve special mention, because they’re the best tips included with any of the IEMs reviewed here. With thick-but-pliable inner tubing and ultra-thin matte umbrellas, these HS18 tips are equivalent to quality aftermarket silicone tips that would cost $10-$20 for a pack of three. So I consider them a real value when included with an $80 IEM. Finally, as noted above, the JD7 includes a tool to help remove the MMCX connectors.
The Quartet is the latest addition to Kiwi’s small-but-growing IEM lineup. Associated with the popular China-based audio retailer Linsoul, Kiwi says its IEMs are designed “with musicians and studio engineers particularly in mind.” Kiwi IEMs come with Linsoul’s one-year warranty and (in my experience) responsive customer service.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the IEM’s name, the Quartet features four drivers: two dynamic and two balanced armature. According to Linsoul’s site, the Quartet uses “innovative double 10mm titanium diaphragms drivers, each independently driven by dual magnetic circuits, for extremely well extended sub-bass kicks” and “custom balanced armature drivers tuned to fit the Quartet's dynamic drivers for crisp and clean tone, detailed highs without shrillness or fatigue.” The dynamic drivers handle the low end. According to Linsoul, “the dynamic drivers were crossed over using a passive low-pass network at 350Hz to allow plenty of rich and thick bass, while the mids from 350-1kHz were tuned to be completely flat.” Meanwhile, the BA drivers cover the upper half of the frequency spectrum. Continuing the company’s description, “The Quartet features a custom mid-high frequency balanced armature and a custom ultra-high tweeter balanced armature drivers. These drivers were modified to fit the balance of the new dynamic drivers by a tuned venting system to provide more airflow. Following Kiwi Ears’ tradition, the balanced armatures are passively tuned to fit our in-house target curvature for the mids and trebles.”
The Quartet’s tuning is described as “neutral studio monitors, but with sub-bass and bass emphasis beginning at 350Hz.” Unique among the IEMs under review, the Quartet includes two tuning switches, allowing for four unique tuning combinations. This addition of switches lets the Quartet to appeal to a more diverse array of sonic tastes. The possible downside of this, of course, is that every added component adds an additional potential failure point. However, I’m pleased to say that two of the four combinations struck me as excellent, and I’m guessing that a third will appeal to many other listeners. So, unlike some IEMs with tuning switches, Kiwi has provided usable options with the Quartet’s switches.
The Quartet is spec’d at a 32 ohm impedance and 110 dB sensitivity.
Physically, the Quartet feels like a logical step up from the Cadenza. Its shell is molded and polished medical-grade resin, which creates the impression that the Quartet’s shell is a single piece. Cosmetically, the Quartet is black with swirled sparkly purple. At 22.5 by 17.5 by 17 (length/height/depth), the Quartet is one of the bigger IEMs under review. That isn’t a shock, given that more drivers require more space. However, because it’s all-resin, the Quartet’s body is very light and comfortable. The face of the Quartet is flat, with rounding towards the edges, and features an embedded silver KiwiEars logo. The aforementioned switches are located on the back edge of the Quartet, while the rear is highly contoured. The attached resin nozzle features a lip towards the end, which is 6.4 mm at its widest point. The only potential comfort issue for some users may be that the nozzle is fairly shallow, though the semi-custom style of the Quartet’s shell means that it tapers quite a bit before the nozzle itself begins.
The Quartet’s packaging features a branded outer sleeve, which slides off to reveal a sturdy inner box. Lifting that lid, the purchaser is greeted by the IEMs housed in molded foam. Below that is a Kiwi-branded semi-rigid zipper case, which contains the IEM cable and nine (yes, nine) pairs of silicone tips: three (S/M/L) clear, three (S/M/L) black, and three (S/M/L) with a colored stem and translucent grey umbrella. The latter style is by far the nicest of the three options, even if they’re not quite up to the standards of good aftermarket tips. The soft and pliable silver-plated OFC cable isn’t my favorite of the IEMs under review, but its quality is solid and certainly aligns with what I want from a $110 IEM. The biggest step up from the previously reviewed (and beloved) Cadenza is the included hard case. Again, while it’s not the best case of the IEMS under review, it’s more than enough to serve its purpose.
Measurements of these IEMs can be found elsewhere, and potential buyers are always encouraged to consult multiple data points rather than trusting any one measurement. However, I wanted to present my own comparative measurements of all of the IEMs under review.
These measurements were taken with my MiniDSP EARS fixture. I calibrated my EARS with an IEM-adjusted version of Marv from SBAF’s compensation curve, where a perceptually flat frequency response is represented by a flat line. It’s also worth noting that because the EARS don’t have a properly modeled ear canal, doing IEM measurements with it can be tricky. My strategy was to try to get a consistent insertion depth across all of the IEMs and to take repeated measurements until the results were repeatable and presented each IEM in the most favorable light. I used Tin’s light blue memory foam tips for all of these measurements, because they seem to work best with the EARS’ quixotic canal.
In order to get a sense of the practical differences in drivability and make it easier for me to do level-matched listening comparisons, I used pink noise to bring the Kiwi Cadenza up to the EARS’ recommended 84 dB baseline, then measured the other IEMs’ output:
- Truthear Red – 80 (without the 10-ohm impedance adapter)
- Cadenza – 84
- Truthear Hexa – 84.5
- FiiO JD7 – 86.5
- Kiwi Quartet – 86.5 (with switches set to off/off)
- TRI x HBB Kai – 88
- SIMGOT EA500 – 89
The Red is the hardest to drive of the IEMs under review by a significant margin, while the EA500 and Kai are the easiest.
What about overall frequency response?
Even though I have my reservations about the industry standard of normalizing measurements to 500 Hz, here’s what the headphones above – now including all four switch options for the Quartet – look like plotted on the same graph and aligned at 500 Hz:
This graph is kind of a mess. First, as I’ve noted before, it’s worth taking everything above 10 kHz with a grain of salt, especially on the EARS. Second, this graph doesn’t really represent how each IEM sounded to me subjectively. For example, aligning at 500 Hz makes it appear that the Kiwi Quartet’s tuning switches have no impact on that IEM’s bass response, which isn’t how I perceive that IEM. That said, isn’t “flat bass with a boosted treble” just another way of saying “boosted bass with a flat treble”? It really just depends on which part of the frequency spectrum one wants to hold constant.
For fun, here’s what these IEMs look like normalized to 100 Hz:
What about 2 kHz?
Are any of the above perfect? No. But it’s worth examining the measurements from multiple perspectives.
Taken together, a few insights provided by the graphs that align with my subjective impressions are:
- The Red’s W-shape, which is accentuated by the dip in the 200 Hz mid/upper-bass region, is unique among the IEMs under review.
- The Quintet with the bass switch on is the bassiest IEM under review, though the stock JD7 isn’t far behind. That said, as noted below, insertion depth will impact the subjective level of bass for both of these IEMs, and the graphs alone don’t tell about the quality of that bass.
- The Simgot EA500 is either the brightest or the most neutral IEM in the mix, depending on one’s preferences.
Before moving on to perhaps more informative measurements, it’s worth singling out a few of the IEMs that seemed particularly (in)sensitive to insertion depth on the EARS. Both the FiiO JD7 and the Kiwi Quartet’s bass response, for example, varied significantly depending on how far they were inserted into the EARS’ canal. Subjectively, the EARS rig seemed to exaggerate this variation, but I did notice it subjectively, albeit to a lesser extent than what the EARS showed. On the other hand, both the TRI x HBB Kai and the SIMGOT EA500 were virtually impervious to changes in positioning and depth. There are, of course, pros and cons to an IEM being (in)sensitive to changes in insertion depth. IEMs with responses that vary by depth can lead to different users having wildly different impressions of the same IEM. That said, a savvy user can leverage this variation to tune that IEM to their tastes by picking tips that allow for more or less depth. On the other hand, IEMs that measure consistently are more likely to sound the same to most users, but that also means that if one doesn’t like the sound of that IEMs, there are fewer opportunities to tweak its response using different tips.
Since the Kiwi Cadenza is the reigning sub-$50 IEM champ, let’s take a look at how each of the IEMs under review compare to the Cadenza — for better or worse, normalized to 500 Hz — before I reveal my subjective takes on each IEM.
This is a perfect example of the pitfalls of normalizing to 500 Hz when comparing IEMs with two very different tunings. I’m not sure how much this graph tells us besides “these IEMs will sound very different.”
For the curious, here’s what the Red looks like compared to the original Zero, according to the EARS:
Putting aside both Zero models’ somewhat unique tuning, we can definitely see that Crinacle’s description of the changes made to the Red are accurate. Both the low bass and the treble have been tamed, making the Red less V-shaped than the original Zero. Note that, like the sensitivity data above, I have chosen not to use the Red’s impendence adapter, which simply makes its bass more like the original Zeros (thereby making the Red sound worse, in this reviewer’s opinion).
Based on this graph, I’d characterize the Hexa as gently downward sloping, whereas the Cadenza is either (depending one’s reference point) either a mild-V or neutral with a bass boost.
Wow. Even keeping in mind all of the normal cautions about normalization and insertion depth, it’s interesting to note how similarly these two IEMs measure when I try to keep those variables consistent. Could the JD7 be a step up from the Cadenza for those who like the latter’s frequency response?
Given the Quartet’s switch options, let’s first take a look at the effect of the switches. For the graph below, I left the Quartet inserted in the EARS rig and gently flipped the switches without moving the Quartet. Nor did I adjust the volume. So this is what the switches do to the IEM given a constant voltage. The switches are named from left-to-right when looking at the switches, with the up position labeled “on.”
Aha. Kiwi is essentially normalizing the Quartet to 2 kHz, with each switch affecting the energy above or below it.
What happens if we keep that 2 kHz normalization, but add in the Cadenza?
Based on this normalization, the Quartet with its switches in the Off/Off positions comes closest to the Cadenza’s tuning, deviating only in that the Quartet has a bit more mid-bass and upper-mids/lower-treble energy. With the exception of the 3.5 kHz range, though, the differences are all about 1 dB or less. Like the JD7, the Quartet with its switches off looks like it could provide a step up for those who like the Cadenza’s tuning.
For completeness’s sake, here’s what the above graph looks like normalized to 500 Hz:
A different vantage point, but one that doesn’t change the fact that the Quartet in the Off/Off position comes closest to the Cadenza’s tuning. (It’s no coincidence that this was by far my favorite setting for the Quartet.)
TRI x HBB Kai
Okay. Here we have another potential contender for those who like the Cadenza’s tuning. The Kai’s main deviation from the Cadenza comes in the same 3.5 kHz where the Quartet in its Off/Off setting differed from the Cadenza.
Based on this graph, the EA500 appears to have about 5 dB less low end than the Cadenza, and maybe 2-3 dB more energy in the upper-mids/lower-treble region.
“Neutral” IEM Roundup
For my own edification, I wanted to put the three IEMs under review that come closest to the Cadenza’s tuning on the same graph. For fun, I also added the Moondrop Kato to the mix:
In this reviewer’s humble opinion, these IEMs all represent various shades of “neutral” tuning, at least based on their measurements. That doesn’t mean, of course, that subjectively these IEMs are equally neutral or equally good.
Speaking of subjective impressions…
For my subjective listening, I used my (previously reviewed) Matrix X-SABRE Pro (XSP) DAC and my Benchmark HPA4 amp. The latter allows for precise volume adjustment so that I can level-match the IEMs using the above pink noise data. I used Moondrop’s excellent Spring Tips for my critical listening sessions because I think that they subjectively present each IEM in the best light. Specifically, they seal well and leave little distance between the end of the nozzle and the tip’s opening. Depending on the width of each IEM’s nozzle, I used either the small or the medium size Spring tips. Regardless, the goal was to get the IEM as deep in my ear as possible to minimize insertion depth differences and present each IEM in the fairest light possible.
I chose two primary test tracks for my listening. My first primary track is “Maggie May,” from the 2018 Japanese CD reissue of Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story. The second is the hi-resolution version of “Falling” from HAIM’s 2013 album, Days Are Gone. As in previous reviews, I chose these two tracks their range of instrumentation, mix complexity, and compression.
To get a baseline, I started by jotting down my impressions of each song through the Kiwi Cadenza. As I cycled through the IEMs under review, I returned to the Cadenza as an aural palette cleanser, then toggled back-and-forth between the Cadenza and the IEM being evaluated.
Unlike previous reviews, where I talked about both audition tracks together, in this review I’m going to provide my impressions of each IEM’s rendering of “Maggie May” then “Falling.”
“Maggie May” Audition
To begin, I’d like to quote my impressions of how “Maggie May” sounds through the KiwiEars Cadenza:
Through the Cadenza, “Henry” — the nickname for Martin Quittenton’s unaccompanied acoustic guitar piece that begins “Maggie May” — sounds balanced and lifelike. The Cadenza resolves well enough that you can even hear some tape print-through before the mandolin enters to begin “Maggie May” proper. When Stewart starts singing, there’s some unmistakable compression on his voice, which tends to accentuate his natural rasp. Ian McLagan’s organ, which is buried deep in the mix, is clearly audible and creates a nice sense of front-to-back depth. Micky Waller’s drums, which are mixed far left, sound tonally accurate, and the Cadenza conveys a nice sense of the Morgan Studios’ ambiance. Ronnie Wood’s walking, almost meandering, electric bass in the right channel is somewhat difficult to hear but has good string articulation. Meanwhile, Wood’s DI-sounding electric guitar solo has good clarity. Finally, Pete Sears’s celesta has nice sparkle, but doesn’t seem to bright or over-accentuated.
Now let’s see how “Maggie May” sounds through the Truthear Red, paying particular attention to how its presentation differs from the Cadenza’s. (As a reminder, these impressions were made after using the pink noise measurements above to level-match the two IEMs.) Through the Red, “Henry” isn’t egregiously off-balance, though it was simultaneously a bit boxy and tubby. Usually these flaws are incongruent, since the former usually results from a low-mid boost and the latter comes from a low-bass boost. However, both of these tendencies only have meaning in relation to the other frequencies. So these two tendencies would only really reveal themselves simultaneously if there’s a cut in the mid-to-upper bass region. Sure enough, that’s exactly what the Red’s measurements show. My initial resolution impressions were similarly mixed. I could hear the tape print-through, but not very clearly. As “Maggie May” progressed, I appreciated that the treble didn’t have the “ice pick” quality that made the original Zero almost unlistenable. However, when combined with the treble cut, the Red’s boosted sub-bass and absent mid-bass caused all of the acoustic instruments in “Maggie May” to tilt towards the body and away from the strings. Both Stewart’s voice and McLagan’s organ were pushed back into the mix on the Red, with the latter almost disappearing. Turning my attention to Waller’s drums in the left channel, I appreciated the thump from his kick drum. However, most of the natural room reverberation I could hear through the Cadenza was gone, while Waller’s snare came across as too bassy and lacking in snap. Wood’s bassline was likewise visceral but amorphous and inarticulate. In general, the Red struggled to make sense of the more complex passages on “Maggie May,” even though the track isn’t exactly a dense mix. Perhaps the best recorded portion of all of “Maggie May” is Ray Jackson mandolins, particularly during the delicately overdubbed solo near the track’s end. Unfortunately, while this section sounds balanced and lifelike through the Cadenza, it has a very “scooped” sound through the Red. Both sonically and in the soundstage, Jackson’s mandolins seem to lack a center.
The Red is an improvement over the original Zero. But it’s not nearly enough of an improvement to provide any real competition to the Cadenza. I tried five or six different types of tips on the Red, hoping to figure out exactly what laudatory reviewers were hearing. But nothing did much to improve the Red’s frequency response or overall resolving capability. Perhaps bassheads would prefer the Red to the Cadenza, but I doubt that even that’s true for most.
The second Truthear IEM in this roundup, the Hexa, is up next. The first thing I noticed is that “Henry” sounds more tonally correct than it did through the Red, with a better balance between the strings and the body. Each note’s decay seems to last a bit longer through the Hexa. The print-through is clearly audible, too. The Hexa is a clear step up from the Red in terms of resolution. When the band kicks in, I write in my notes, “Hexa seems to a bit more artful execution of what Red is going for.” The Hexa has good front-to-back depth and solid width. I can hear an hear McLagan’s organ again. Turning my attention to the drums, the kick has nice low-end heft and the snare isn’t dully or boxy as it was through the Red. That said, while I’d pick the Hexa over the Red without a moment’s hesitation, the Hexa still can’t compete with the Cadenza. The Hexa’s dynamics are, at best, on par, or with the Cadenza’s. While Waller’s kit’s frequency balance is solid, the Hexa seems to struggle conveying microdetails that create realism. It’s a bit “one note.” Small flourishes and decays that should be tonally distinct sound alike. Stewart’s vocals come across as somewhat muffled, with a back-of-the throat quality. Wood’s bass is nimbler than on Red, but not as nimble as through the Cadenza. It’s also harder to separate the various instruments and overdubs during the closing mandolin solo.
The Hexa trounces the Red, but it’s just not in the same ballpark as the Cadenza.
Turning to the Fiio JD7, as “Henry” begins, I’m immediately impressed by its crispness. Tonal balance from the treble down to the mid-bass feels excellent. However, the mid-bass and below seems slightly exaggerated, with the lowest notes on Quittenton’s acoustic lingering just a bit too long. The print-through before the band enters is abundantly clear. As I survey Stewart’s voice and the various instruments in the mix, it’s clear that the JD7 goes toe-to-toe with the Cadenza in terms of overall resolution. In fact, I’d go so far to say that the JD7 out-resolves the Cadenza. Specifically, the leading edges of transients is are crisper through the JD7 and a bit fuzzier on Cadenza. The JD7 stages closer than the Cadenza but projects a soundstage that is both wider and deeper than the Cadenza’s. The result is a very enveloping and immersive listening experience. Waller’s kit sounds fantastic, with excellent room ambiance and great thump on the kick. The snare might have a bit too much low end but not outside of the normal range. McLagan’s organ sounds the best of all the IEMs tested thus far, in part because the JD7’s deep stage makes it easy to separate elements that occupy the same horizontal space in the mix. Despite the fact that the organ and Stewart’s voice are both mixed to the center, the additional resolution on the organ doesn’t detract from Stewart’s vocal. Instead, Stewart’s voice sounds even more realistic through the JD7. Wood’s bass offers very nice string articulation, which helps to compensate for the small bit of sub-bass boom that’s still detectable through the JD7 on “Maggie May.” Ray Jackson’s mandolins during the track’s closing lean a bit too much towards the strings versus the body for my taste. But (again) it’s very easy to separate each element during this part of the song, even easier than through the Cadenza.
The JD7 is a superb IEM for the price. While I’d prefer a touch less low bass, this extra thump does help to provide a taste of the visceral impact of a subwoofer than some listeners miss when using IEMs. In terms of technicalities, the JD7 surpasses the Cadenza. The JD7 also has that ineffable immersive quality in spades. It easy to lose yourself in the music when listening to the JD7.
Now it’s time to take the Kiwi Quartet for a test drive. Given my enthusiasm for the Kiwi Cadenza, my expectations for the Quartet — particularly at three times the Cadenza’s price —are high. Can the Quartet deliver?
I began my critical listening with the Quartet’s switches in the Off/Off position. Casual listening had already told me that this default setting was closest to neutral, and my subsequent EARS measurements would confirm this. With this setting, the Quartet sounds like a “Super Cadenza” in the best sense possible. As I wrote in my notes, “Everything is just a little more sharply focused though the Quartet.” Quittenton’s opening acoustic sounds comparatively veiled through the Cadenza. Transients are more sharply defined with the Quartet and decays last longer. The tape print-through is the most noticeable of any IEM under review. As the band kicks in, the Quartet’s staging comes into view. While the Cadenza stages from a few rows back with an even depth from left to right, the Quartet provides a closer, more wraparound presentation similar to the aforementioned JD7. Its depth is likewise more like the JD7’s than the Cadenza’s, which is to say deeper. Waller’s drum kit in left channel has great room sound and superb tonal balance. The kick perhaps doesn’t have that last bit of thump that I felt through the JD7, but it surpasses the Cadenza in that regard (and, remember, the bass switch is off). Wood’s bass in the right channel is nimble and nuanced. It doesn’t get as lost in the mix as it does through the Cadenza, and it’s as nuanced as through the JD7, though with a bit less bloat. The Quartet’s presentation of McLagan’s organ is on par with the JD7’s. The other elements in the mix, such as Pete Sears’s celeste and Jackson’s mandolins, have a tonal balance and clarity that surpasses the Cadenza’s. Stringed instruments have just a bit more bite through the Cadenza than through the Quartet, but the Quartet strikes a better balance between strings and body than the JD7 did. Stewart’s voice seems a touch more sibilant through the Quartet than through the Cadenza, but it doesn’t become grating. I suspect that this difference has as much to do with the Quartet’s superior dynamics as with differences in treble response. Like every element in the mix, Stewart’s vocals sound less compressed through the Quartet than through the Cadenza. Indeed, I’d venture to say that Quartet sounds like the most dynamic IEM under review. Perhaps most importantly, the Quartet never gets overwhelmed in complex passages.
What about the other tuning options? Listening with the switches moved to Off/On adds a bit of body to the acoustic guitar and cuts the sibilance on Stewart’s voice a bit. While I still feel as though the Off/Off setting is closet overall to the Cadenza’s response, the Off/On setting may be a bit more Cadenza-like in the upper-mids. Specifically, it seems like the Off/On setting reduces the Quartet’s slight V-shape. As a result, though, you lose a bit of the Off/Off setting’s dynamic “wow” factor. Ultimately, it’s a question of tradeoffs, and I’m happy to have this additional tuning option, especially because it doesn’t seem to necessitate any sacrifices in overall resolution. The On/On setting a bit too dark and subdued for my tastes. It makes for a relaxing, but not especially resolving, listen. However, I can imagine some listeners enjoying this option. Finally, On/Off simply sounds too dark. This is the setting for treble-sensitive bassheads.
Even though I entered with high expectations for the Quartet, it handily exceeded them. Its staging, dynamics, and overall resolution easily surpass the Cadenza’s, and at least three of the four tuning options align with what I’d consider to be shades of neutral, though I still strongly prefer Off/Off. It also equals or exceeds the JD7 in every sonic category.
Next up is the TRI x HBB Kai. Beginning with “Henry,” the Kai showcases an excellent tonal balance that’s very similar to the Cadenza’s, albeit with a bit more low end. However, its transients aren’t nearly as clear as the JD7’s or the Quartet’s. The Kai’s overall resolution is solid, with the print through coming through clearly. The room sound on Waller’s drums is natural, the snare is balanced, and the kick has better thump than through the Cadenza. Stewart’s voice sounds about as detailed as it does through the Cadenza, and the Kai’s overall dynamics seem very similar to the Cadenza’s, though not as good as the JD7’s or the Quartet’s. In other areas, though, the Kai clearly falls behind the Cadenza. Its stage is narrow, and it does a poor job of separating instruments. Wood’s bass comes across as indistinct and veiled, while McLagan’s organ is amorphously located. Simply put, while the Kai does a nice job on either solo’d elements or ones mixed front and center — such as Stewart’s voice or Wood’s electric guitar solo — elements that are mixed off to the sides, particularly during complex passages, simply get lost.
While the Kai is far from a bad IEM, it just doesn’t sound as good as the Cadenza, let alone the JD7 or Quartet on “Maggie May.”
The EA500 is the final IEM to face the “Maggie May” test. As Quittenton’s acoustic begins, it’s clear that the EA500 is tilted towards the treble, though it still stays within the range of what I’d consider to be a bright-normal tuning. Relative to the Cadenza, the EA500 accentuates the room sound and “air” on the recording. Like the JD7 and Quartet, the EA500 also offers more transient bite than the comparatively indistinct Cadenza. The tape print-through is incredibly crisp. When the band enters, I take notice of the EA500’s staging, which is very close, moderately wide, and moderately deep. Waller’s kit sounds balanced, from the kick thump to the snare crack. Wood’s bass likewise has nice mix of heft and nuance. Both of these point to the EA500’s overall resolving ability. That said, the EA500’s main issue is its lack of soundstage depth. It tends to smash instruments together, whereas the Cadenza – and, especially, the JD7 and Quartet – create a lot more sonic space around each element in the mix. However, the EA500’s overall resolution helps to mitigate this. Despite the EA500’s shallow staging, McLagan’s organ is much more discernable than it was through the Kai. Through the midpoint of “Maggie May,” the EA500’s bright tilt hasn’t seemed to impact the tonality of any instruments. That changes a bit with Jackson’s mandolins, which come across as every-so-slightly honky.
Overall, the EA500 performs well on “Maggie May.” In terms of raw detail, the EA500 wrings more out of the recording than the Cadenza does. But the Cadenza’s overall tonal balance and, in particular, staging exceeds the EA500’s.
In terms of complexity, dynamics, and instrumentation, HAIM’s “Falling” is a very different recording than “Maggie May” and presents each IEM with a unique set of challenges.
“Falling” begins with a barrage of drums and bass that seems to mix the live and the synthesized. This sonic wash has good thump and detail through the Cadenza. When Danielle Haim begins her double-tracked lead vocal, the Cadenza does a nice job of separating her vocals from the various elements of the backing track. When the band enters, the Cadenza somewhat underplays the dynamic swing. However, it does an excellent job of highlighting the various details in the dense mix, such as the palm-muted electric guitar in the right channel. The various microdetails and inflections in Danielle’s lead vocal are conveyed solidly by the Cadenza. When the complexity increases mid-song, the Cadenza is able to hold things together, in part because its relatively deep soundstage creates space around elements, such as the swirling synthesizers, which otherwise might get lost in the mix.
Does the Truthear Red acquit itself any better on “Falling” than on “Maggie May”? In short, no. The Red’s full sub-bass is appreciated during the opening percussive blast, but the Red’s missing mid-bass causes some of the individual elements to sound boxy compared to the Cadenza’s more neutral reproduction. The Red is able to separate Danielle’s left/right-panned double-tracked lead vocal, but both the Red’s somewhat narrow soundstage and its lack of upper-treble “air” somewhat undercuts the effects of this mixing choice. Beyond this, Danielle’s vocals lack nuance through the Red. Her various vocal inflections tend to get reduced to generic sibilance. Especially when combined with the Red’s narrow, shallow soundstage, the Red’s tendency to flatten tonal differences prevents it from making sense of the more complex passages that occur later in “Falling.” As I wrote in my notes, the Red makes a “mess” of the dense instrumentation in the second half of the track. While it’s not as if the Cadenza is a champ at separating complex passages, the Red nonetheless pales in comparison. Finally, while (as noted above) the Red definitely tames the original Zero’s treble peak, I still found myself wanting to turn down the Red below its level-matched volume because its treble could become grating when rendering the gated drums on “Falling.”
Moving on to the Hexa, its rolled-off upper octaves become very apparent early in “Falling.” Everything from reverb trails to mouth sounds to percussive transients sound muffled through the Hexa. It’s very difficult, for example, to discern anything specific about the palm-muted electric guitar in the right channel, while the swirling synthesizer that enters at the 1:27 mark sounds positively low-fi. The Hexa doesn’t seem to struggle as much with complex passages as the Red did. But, as I wrote in my notes, this observation might have as much to do with the fact that “the Hexa was so muddled in prior passages that the change isn’t as abrupt.” In absolute resolution, the Hexa is miles behind the Cadenza during both simple and complex sections of “Falling.” The guitar solo and triangle around 2:20, for example, reveals cavernous differences in these two IEMs resolving ability.
Switching to the JD7, things improve considerably. The JD7’s elevated bass seems tighter on “Falling” than it did on “Maggie May,” perhaps because “Falling” emphasizes the sub-bass region much more than “Maggie May” does. The upshot is that the JD7 has a huge macro-dynamic advantage over the Cadenza on “Falling.” Focusing on the upper half of the frequency spectrum, the JD7’s clearly delineated transients render both the double-tracked vocals and the palm-muted guitar cleanly and clearly. Similarly, the aforementioned guitar solo sounds even more realistic than through the Cadenza, even if the JD7’s presentation of the triangle is a bit too thin. Overall, the JD7 has good “air” without sounding overly bright. Combined with its wide soundstage, this allows the JD7 to make better sense of the track’s complex passages than the Cadenza (and, certainly, the Red or Hexa) can. At the end of my listening notes, I wrote, “Again, just an awesome, enveloping IEM. I want to keep listening. The JD7 is arguably more resolving than Cadenza but without feeling as clinical. Is this as good as this song can sound on a $75-ish IEM?”
The JD7 has some serious competition when it comes to the Quartet, though. The Quartet (again, in the Off/Off position) has a similar level of sub-bass as the JD7, but it’s just a little more taught and controlled. Moreover, the Quartet’s extra upper-mids/lower-treble energy relative to the JD7 gives percussive transients a bit more of an edge, similar to the Cadenza’s presentation. The JD7’s treble is smoother but not as detailed as the Quartet’s. The aforementioned guitar solo sounds more realistic and nuanced through the Quartet than through either the Cadenza or JD7. The difference in the resolution of the triangle is even more dramatic. The other IEMs under review simply can’t compete with the Quartet’s microdetail and microdynamics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its hybrid multi-driver configuration, the Quartet handles the complex passages in “Falling” with aplomb, remaining very coherent even in the densest parts of the mix.
Whereas the Cadenza trounced the Kai on “Maggie May,” the latter does a bit better on “Falling.” The Kai showcases a good tonal balance and sense of air on “Falling” and may even reveal a bit more detail on the bass and drums than the Cadenza does. The Kai also tops the Cadenza in terms of macro-dynamic impact. However, elements that are placed deeper in the mix, such as the swirling keyboard, are less apparent through the Kai than through the Cadenza. And in the song’s dense second half, the Kai struggles — not as much as the Red but more than the Cadenza (let alone the JD7 or Quartet).
The EA500 is the final IEM under review in the “Falling” round. Even after adjusting my amp’s volume in-line with the level-matching data above, the Simgot feels much louder than the Cadenza on “Falling.” The seems to be mainly about the EA500’s more dramatic dynamic swings. The EA500’s treble tilt nicely accentuates the various types of reverb used throughout the mix on “Falling.” It also lends itself to good separation between elements placed far left and far right, such as Danielle’s double-tracked lead vocal. At the other end of the spectrum, the bass has nice texture but feels a bit slow compared to the Cadenza’s nimbler low end. Despite being a bright-leaning IEM, I also detected a bit of missing energy in the upper-mids/lower-treble that causes some of the percussive accents to feel a bit muted. The swirling keyboard also comes across as a little forward-staged and indistinct. Finally, when it comes to complex passages, the EA500 struggles modestly, not quite reaching the Cadenza’s level.
Enter the Kato
Prior to this review, the only IEM that I’ve reviewed that’s topped the $35 Kiwi Cadenza on sonics is the $189 Moondrop Kato. We can now add two more to that list: the $79 FiiO JD7 and $109 Kiwi Quartet. (The $69 SIMGOT EA500 deserves an honorable mention, falling just short of the Cadenza in terms of overall sound quality.)
This naturally raises the question of whether the JD7 or the Quartet can go toe-to-toe with the Kato. To adjudicate this, I decided to conduct a second round of listening using the same two songs. This round, I’ll compare the JD7, the Quartet, and the Kato against each other. Given the Kato’s prodigious reputation, this round will involve a higher level of scrutiny.
“Maggie May” Redux
Through the Kato, Quittenton’s acoustic showcase “Henry” is smooth and balanced. The opening acoustic strums of “Maggie May” have superb depth and resonance. The transient edges of each strum are incredibly clear without being glassy. Wood’s bass sounds round, supple, and delicate. Waller’s kit is presented realistically by the Kato with superb room reverb. The kick, however, doesn’t have that last bit of low-bass thump. Stewart’s voice is very crisp with nuanced articulation. McLagan’s organ stages a few paces behind Stewart but is incredibly three-dimensional. Overall, the Kato stages very close, with an almost in-the-studio feel. It curves in a bit on the extreme left/right and offers superb depth. As the song progresses, I note that, despite being a bright-neutral IEM, the Kato doesn’t render higher-register instruments tinny or grating. The celeste, for example, is cutting but smooth. In part, that’s because the Kato’s primary strength is its microdetail and microdynamic prowess. As a result, it does a superb job of delineating between each instrument’s tonality. Not only is the timbre of Wood’s treble-rolled, DI’d electric guitar distinct from that of Jackson’s mandolin but the Kato also makes small differences in mic’ing between the overdubbed mandolins readily apparent, helping to anchor them in place in the soundstage. This trait helps the listener hear distinct elements during complex passages, even if the single-driver Kato perhaps can’t separate dense mixes as well as some multi-driver IEMs.
Turning to the Quartet, “Henry” has excellent tonal balance. However, the Quartet portrays it with a bit less air and three-dimensionality than the Kato does. The Quartet’s treble is also slightly grainier than the Kato’s. In part, this is because the Kato is a bit more midrange-focused, while the Quartet is more V-shaped. But it’s also because Kato seems to resolve that last bit of realism. The Quartet presents similar level of macrodetail as the Kato, while the Kato exceeds it in microdetail. The aforementioned treble grain tends to slightly obscure small nuances in Stewart’s vocal, rendering it a bit more rounded and less clearly defined than through the Kato. McLagan’s organ, for its part, is tonally balanced but less three-dimensional. The same goes for Waller’s kit. On the other hand, the Quartet (even with its switches in the Off/Off position) provides the kick drum thump that the Kato lacks. As the mix becomes more complex, it seems at first blush that the Quartet doesn’t separate as well as the Kato does. The tonal differences between the overdubbed mandolins, for example, aren’t as clear through the Quartet. While this is partly due to the Kato’s microdetail edge, it’s also largely a question of how each IEM handles the mix. The Quartet presents a mix that’s congealed but not muddled. Those differences are there if you focus on them, but they’re not going to smack you in the face. The Kato, in contrast, tends to separate the mix into its constituent parts. The Quartet, in short, is less analytical than the Kato, which may be a con for engineers but a pro for average listeners.
Where does the JD7 stand on “Maggie May”? Quittenton’s acoustic is more three-dimensional through the JD7 than through the Quartet but not as three-dimensional as through the Kato. The JD7 presents Waller’s kit with less room sound than the Kato does but with a level of slam closer to the Quartet’s. That said, the JD7 seems to lack the Quartet’s level of overall nuance and detail. The JD7’s treatment of Wood’s bass is a mixed bag. It has more front-to-back depth than through the Quartet and a similar level of heft. However, both the Quartet and the Kato provide sharper lines and better string articulation. Stuart’s voice comes across as a bit dynamically flat through the JD7 relative to either the Kato or Quartet but has good nuance. McLagan’s organ, for its part, doesn’t have as much resonance through the JD7, sounding a bit rolled off relative to the Quartet and, especially, the Kato. The tonal difference between DI’d guitar solo sounds similar to Quartet’s rendering, maybe a bit better, but not we good as through the Kato. Likewise, the tonal and depth differences between Jackson’s mandolins seem to be a smidge clearer through the JD7 than through the Quartet but not as clear through the Kato. Overall, the JD7 sounds closer to the Kato than to the Quartet in terms of tonal balance. However, it doesn’t resolve as well as the Kato. Indeed, I’d say the Quartet resolves better than the JD7. However, the JD7 still has that ineffable quality because it is, if anything, more congealed than the Quartet. The slight step back in resolution from the other two contenders isn’t as apparent as it might otherwise be due to the JD7’s overall seductive coherence. Even the JD7’s slightly flabby sub-bass helps to create that feeling by lending a visceral element to the low end that sounds more like full-range speakers than many IEMs.
The Kato lends a superb sense of front-to-back depth in the synthesized elements, percussion, and burbling bass that open “Falling.” Indeed, Este Haim’s funk- and dance-inflected bassline becomes the best part of the track through the Kato. Meanwhile, the palm-muted electric guitar in the right channel sounds properly chunky without lacking string articulation. The Kato makes it incredibly easy to separate Danielle’s tightly-layered vocal overdubs, all of which sound lifelike and three-dimensional. The Kato provides a good sense of air to the various reverbs used in the mix but without causing the trailing instrument decay to get overwhelmed. When the song gets busy, the Kato’s presentation can feel a bit chaotic but it’s overall coherent because its front-to-back depth creates space for the various overdubs. The chanting “falling” overdubs just before the guitar solo are spaced at various depths on the far left and far right. The Kato makes it easy to discern these small depth differences, creating a surround-sound effect. Speaking of the guitar solo, it’s very crisp and lifelike through the Kato, coming across like a well-recorded Fender tube amp. The triangle, which can easily get lost in the song’s dense second-half, cuts through the mix without sounding brittle or phony.
Moving on to the Quartet, its low-end advantage over the Kato is undeniable. This added heft helps to create some of the front-to-back depth on “Falling” that the Quartet lacked on “Maggie May.” The Quartet’s bass also feels tighter and faster than the Kato’s. Este’s bassline, though, doesn’t pop as much as through the Kato. It’s less three-dimensional and is missing the upper-mid/lower-treble energy necessary to showcase the fantastic string articulation. You feel the bassline more but don’t hear it as much. That said, the Quartet’s slightly darker treble helps some of the synthesized and acoustic drum parts sit better together in the mix. Again, congealed (Quartet) versus dissected (Kato). Despite this, the “falling” voices are nearly as surround-sounding through the Quartet as through the Kato. Likewise, the guitar solo sounds superb, just a little darker with less room reverb. The triangle comes through clearly, too, with a bit more body and a bit less shimmer than through the Kato — a trade that I suspect many people would prefer. While certain elements, like the bassline, just seem more discernible through the Kato, the Quartet manages the complexity of the dense ending mix much better than the Kato does. Is this the Quartet’s multi-driver advantage?
The JD7 doesn’t cleanly separate the opening drum elements as well as either Quartet or the Kato does. Tonally, the JD7 it presents this part of “Falling” more like the Kato does, just not to the same level or resolution. Este’s bassline, for example, is a bit more apparent and articulate through the JD7 than through the Quartet, but it still falls clearly behind the Kato. Indeed, on “Falling” it becomes clear that both the Kato and the Quartet are more detailed than the JD7. The swirling synths, buried handclaps, “falling” chants, and guitar solo are just not as nuanced and realistic through the JD7. When the mix gets complicated, the JD7 feels perhaps less chaotic than Kato but more chaotic than Quartet. That said, elements tend to blend together more through the JD7 than through the Kato or Quartet, making it harder to separate acoustic versus electric drum parts. Overall, the Quartet simply seems to handle dense mixes better than either the Kato or the JD7. The JD7 does have an advantage, though, on the overall depth of “Falling.” While individual elements in the mix sound flatter and less distinct through the JD7, its aforementioned speaker-like bass helps to give song an overall depth that’s hard to come by in IEMs.
Based solely on sound quality, both the JD7 and Quartet top the Cadenza. Do they top it in terms of value?
The JD7 and Quartet are, respectively, $34 and $74 more expensive than the $35 Cadenza. As I’ve written before, though, I think one needs to factor in the cost of a budget case and decent tips when buying the Cadenza. This brings the Cadenza’s total cost closer to $50, shaving $15 off those differences.
Factoring in build and accessories, I’m comfortable concluding that the JD7 is worth the extra cost over the Cadenza. I’d even go so far as to say that buyers willing to sacrifice just a bit in sound quality may even prefer the EA500 to the Cadenza thanks to the former’s superb build, comfort, and accessories.
What about the Quartet?
Even adding the cost of a case and better tips for the Cadenza, the Quartet is a little more than twice the price. However, the buyer is getting a lot of value for that added price. The Quartet isn’t just substantially better than the Cadenza, it also goes toe-to-toe with Kato, which is $80 more than the Quartet. While I still think the Kato bests the Quartet on sonics overall, the Quartet undeniably exceeds the Kato in certain areas, such as control over complex mixes and low-end prowess. Moreover, the Quartet provides buyers with four different sound profiles (two of which I found great, one very good, and the other usable).
The most budget-conscious buyers should still look to the Cadenza. But the JD7 is worth the extra $19 in this reviewer’s opinion, providing a clear step up from the Cadenza. Those who are willing to stretch their budget even further, though, shouldn’t hesitate to buy the Quartet, which sets a new standard in performance for a $100-ish IEM.
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Nature’s Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.