Audio: Listen to this article.
The last few years have been filled with encomiums to (and eulogies for) the “(Second) Golden Age of Television” that is said to have begun in 1999 with The Sopranos. Far more people pony up for an HBO Max subscription than for a nice pair of IEMs, so the state of the IEM marketplace isn’t going to inspire headlines. But there’s little doubt in my mind that audiophiles are living in the “Golden Age of IEMs.”
Like a Freaks and Geeks episode in a sea of Full House reruns, IEMs were once overlooked in the consumer audio marketplace. That’s changed in the past five (or so) years. While I’m not sure which model is the Mad Men of the Golden Age of IEMs, 64 Audio’s u12t probably has a good claim case for calling itself its Sopranos (or at least its X-Files). When the u12t was released, it stood head-and-shoulders above most competitors.
Today, audiophiles are faced with a bevy of quality IEM options. Just take a look at a “Best of the Year” IEM list from 2016 or 2017, then compare it one from the past few years. While there’s plenty of good stuff in former, it pales in comparison the latter whether judged by quality or quantity.
The downside of this Golden Age, though, is that it’s harder than ever to figure out which IEMs are deserving of audiophiles’ dollars and ears.
My previous IEM reviews have focused on budget models. That segment of the marketplace is awash is choice. Retailer Linsoul, for example, has 197 sub-$100 models in stock and an additional 113 below $250. But pickings get a little slimmer as price increase. Between $400 and $600, only 29 models are available. While no retailer stocks every brand, there’s no doubt that audiophiles have fewer choices at the higher rungs of the price ladder. At the same time, as the price goes up so too does the cost of picking the wrong model for one’s tastes.
In order to provide another data point for some well-known models and highlight some overlooked ones, this review will look at six IEMs in that half-kilobuck ($400 to $600) price range:
- EPZ 530 - $430 (AliExpress)
- Sound Rhyme DTE500 - $459 retail / $413 sale (Penon)
- Moondrop Variations - $520 retail / $442 sale (Amazon, Linsoul, Headphones.com)
- Thieaudio Oracle - $539 retail / $512 sale (Theiaudio, Linsoul)
- Yanyin Moonlight - $649 retail / $584 sale (Linsoul)
- Moondrop S8 - $699 retail / $594 sale (Linsoul, Audio 46)
Just like any consumer, I’m decidedly more discriminating when it comes to shelling out cash for a pricier IEM. So I did my research before buying. While the number of trustworthy measurements and reviews of each IEM listed above ranges from scant to abundant, I had good reason to expect that I’d enjoy each of the IEMs in this list.
But I’ve been let down by plenty of audio equipment that I expected to like. That’s especially true once I subjected the equipment to careful level-matched listening. Though it would be a stretch to say that I dislike any of these IEMs, I found myself surprised by the size of the differences between them and even more surprised by which one I liked best.
Before we get to my measurements and listening impressions, let’s talk about each IEM, from lowest price to highest:
Founded in 2008 and headquartered in Shenzhen, China, EPZ touts its “independent R&D team and production.” According to EPZ, “All EPZ earphones use high precision DLP-3D printed external and internal acoustic structures to provide an extremely comfortable wearing experience.” Despite being around for fifteen years, EPZ is still relatively unknown within the United States. While EPZ products are available on several sites, AliExpress seems to be the only English-language source for the EPZ 530. That’s where I first came across the 530. (Yes, AliExpress’s algorithm worked on me.) After finding promising measurements and some generally favorable reviews, I placed my order with some trepidation.
The 530 is a five BA (balanced armature) IEM. The bass is handled by two Sonion 38AM007 drivers, the midrange by a single Sonion 2389, and the treble by a Sonion ED05 and E50DT.
It’s spec’d at a 32-ohm impedance and a 115 dB sensitivity.
When the 530 arrived, I took succor in the fact that at least I hadn’t purchased an ugly IEM. The 530’s shell is stabilized wood with some type of resin coating on the outside. It comes in two colors, an orangish red and a grass green. My unit is beautiful. The wood grain is clearly visible through the stain, and a metallic “EPZ” is inlayed on the face of the shell. According to the company, the shell is “carved with [a] five-axis CNC” to create “an irregular cavity that fits most people’s auricles.” One component of this is a “shark fin” designed to fit the contour of the concha. At least for my anatomy, this design works perfectly. As I’ll explain later, the combination of the fin and the nozzle angle didn’t work quite as well with the fake concha of my miniDSP EARS measurement rig. But my real ears loved the feel of the 530. It’s light and comfortable. The 530’s three-hole nozzle is part of the EPZ’s body and posed no fit issues for me. Its connector is of the flush .78 mm two-pin variety, making it easy to swap after-market cables, though in the case of the 530, I doubt many users will feel the need to seek out a better cable.
That’s because the 530’s accessories are simply exquisite. The 530 comes in an EPZ-branded walnut box. While it’s certainly not on the level of, say, ZMF’s boutique wood cases, it’s impressive for a $430 IEM. Sliding the carboard sheath off of the box reveals a lid that lifts upward. The interior is lined with soft foam. The IEMs sit in precision-cut holes, while an excellent leather (or faux leather) flip-top box is found in a larger cutout below. The accessories found inside the case include six pairs of well-above-average tips (S/M/L in two types of silicone), a combination cable removal tool and cleaning crush, and the cable. Let’s talk about that cable, because it’s one of the nicest stock cables I’ve come across at any price point. According to the company, it’s a 16-core cable made of “8 strands of 5N single crystal copper plated with purse silver and 8 strands of gold, silver, copper, and palladium alloy wires.” Subjectively, it’s supple and not-too-heavy. The connectors seem to be of high quality, and it features a modular 2.5/3.5/4.4 mm plug.
Sound Rhyme DTE500
There’s very little information to be found, at least on English-language sites, about Sound Rhyme. Based on some detective work by Head-Fi user AmericanSpirit, it seems that Sound Rhyme was founded in 2017 and is based in Xiamen, China. The only English-language retailer for Sound Rhyme products is Penon Audio. I’ve purchased several products, including the DTE500, from Penon. Everything has arrived quickly and as expected. The site also has a pretty nice free add-on program for orders that meet certain price thresholds.
The DTE500 is a four-driver “tribrid” IEM featuring 2 EST (electrostatic drivers), 2 BA, and one DD (dynamic driver). The low frequencies are handled by the DD, which “us[es] three layers of composite film, driven by [an] N50 NdFeb magnet.” The lower mids are handled by a Sonion 2300 BA, while the upper mids are handled by a Knowles ES30095 BA. The most interesting part of the DTE500’s design (and a big part of the reason why I decided to click the “buy” button) is its treble implementation. It features two Sonion EST65 drivers with Empire Ears’ EIVEC wide-area electrostatic driver transformer.
The DTE500 is spec’d at a 17-ohm impedance and a 112 dB sensitivity.
Its shell is a 3D-printed polished resin. It comes in two colors, silver and gold. The body has a dappled metallic sparkle, which tends to make the DTE500 look like its carved out of quartz (silver) or amber (gold). Its face plate has the company name inlayed in silver below the outer coating. Physically, its contoured body isn’t all that different from the pseudo-custom style of many IEMS, including the EPZ 530. The DTE500 has a similar concha fin, but its nozzle is less angled that the 530’s, which made measuring the DTE500 easier. The DTE500’s nozzle is part of its body and terminates in three sound holes. Its input is flush .78 mm two-pin. Throughout months of frequent usage, I found the DTE500 to be light and supremely comfortable. The only negative (if one can even call it that) that I’ve encountered is occasionally driver flex (or “crinkle”) if I don’t pull up on my ear when inserting. That’s because the DTE500 doesn’t have a vent, so pushing the IEM in your ear will exert inward pressure on the driver, much like blowing on a speaker cone. I’ve experienced this in other IEMs, as well as planar-driver headphones. From experience and reading about it, I don’t think this is a cause for concern. To wit, it didn’t stop me from buying a second DTE500. (But I’m getting ahead of myself.)
The DTE500’s packaging and accessories are a bit less impressive than the 530’s, but are still above-average for the price. The DTE500 comes a sturdy flip-open cardboard box. The upper half is molded foam and holds the IEMs. The bottom of the package holds a blue box, which contains the case and other accessories. The case is a Sound Rhyme-branded brown faux-leather flip-top case that closes magnetically. While it’s not necessary the best-looking case, it’s highly functional, providing enough room for the IEMs and cable without detaching the two. It’s also very sturdy and should provide good impact protection for the DTE500. The included tips (three silicone pairs and two foam pairs) are above-average quality. Like the 530, the DTE500’s best accessory is the cable. According to the company, it’s a “single crystal copper plated thick silver cable” with “48 cores in each core” and “6 strands 0.06X7 0.1X1 coaxial twisted Litz structure weave.” Not being a cable aficionado, I can’t tell you what all of that means. What I can tell you is that it’s pleasing to the eyes and the skin, and the connectors seem to be solidly made. Like the 530’s, it’s modular cable that can be fitted with 2.5/3.5/4.4 mm plugs.
Founded in 2015 and based in Chengdu, China, Moondrop scarcely needs an introduction to IEM audiophiles. According to the company, “MOONDROP has become a by word for superb performance and unique design. The company’s products are sold in more than 30 provinces and regions in China, and through trade channels in North America, Europe and other countries. The award-winning MOONDROP brand is especially popular in South Korea, Japan and other Asian regions.”
One of Moondrop’s mostly widely-reviewed and widely-measured IEMs, the Variations is five-driver tribrid featuring a single “10mm liquid crystal diaphragm composite copper inner cavity dynamic driver” for the bass, two “Softears-D-Mid-B deeply customized” BA drivers for the mids, and two Sonion EST drivers for the highs.
The Variations is spec’d at a 15.2-ohm impedance and a 116 dB sensitivity.
Its shell consists of two parts. The majority of the body is “skin-friendly frosted-texture” resin. The faceplate is stainless steel with an etched Variations logo and cube-style pattern. Like both the 530 and DTE500, the Variations’ resin portion is contoured with a concha fin, its three-hole nozzle is part of the resin body, and its input is flush .78 mm two-pin. While the Variations is a bit heavier than either of the aforementioned IEMs, I had no issues with comfort even during long listening sessions.
The Variations’ packaging and accessories are excellent, as I’ve come to expect from Moondrop’s products. The large flip-top cardboard packaging is sheathed in an anime-clad slip-cover. (Okay, I could do without the anime.) Inside are six tips (three silicone, three foam) of above-average quality in a plastic case, optional filters to prevent earwax from entering the sound holds, a case, and the cable. Them case is an impressive hard-sided faux-leather flip-top that, unlike most cases, is oriented vertically. The inside is spacious, providing plenty of room for the IEMs, cable, and probably quite a few other accessories. The included cable is made of “PCC coaxial single crystal copper.” Like the other IEMs above, it’s modular and the user can swap between 2.5/3.5/4.4 mm right-angle plugs. In terms of looks and feel, I’d say it’s roughly the same quality as the DTE500’s cable.
Founded in 2019, ThieAudio is a house brand of well-known Shenzhen-based retailer Linsoul. According to Linsoul, “The goal of THIEAUDIO was to serve as a creative platform for gathering the best teams of engineers to inspire revolutionary audio products for audiophiles and professionals alike. For each project, we hand select the most innovative and renown engineers in his or her field to oversee the design, engineering, and manufacturing of the products.” Especially given that it’s only been around for four years, ThieAudio’s been enormously successful. Several of its IEMs, including the Monarch MKII (which I’ll be reviewing in the near future), find themselves sitting near the top of various “best of” lists.
The Oracle is five-driver tribrid that utilizes a single 10mm polycarbonate dynamic driver for the lows, two Knowles DFK BA drivers for the mids, and two Sonion EST drivers for the highs. According to ThieAudio, “The Oracle was designed with professional studio use in mind and is tuned as proper monitors.”
It’s spec’d at a 32-ohm impedance and a 106 dB sensitivity.
The Oracle’s resin shell is solid black with the exception of a beautifully iridescent faceplate that also features the ThieAudio logo inlayed in silver. The only other markings on the Oracle are the model name printed in gold on the inner shell, as well as left (blue)/right (red)-coded vents on the rear. Like several of the above IEMs, the Oracle’s shell is highly contoured to the ear, including a concha fin. Unlike those IEMs, the Oracle sports lipped metal nozzle that terminates in a mesh grille. Its input is flush .78 mm two-pin. While the Oracle’s body is on the larger side, it’s light and comfortable.
The Oracle is packaged in a sturdy magnetic-flip top cardboard box with an outer sheath. Inside, the IEMs are snugly fitted into molded foam. A lower compartment holds the included case and accessories. The case is Pelican-style plastic hard case lined with foam. It’s likely that the Oracle could survive a multi-story drop in this case. My only criticism is that I wish it were a bit taller. The included cable uses “Litz 5N OCC 100 wire x 4 core Silver Plated Wire.” It’s of comparable quality to the cable included with the DTE500, though a bit stiffer. More recent ThieAudio products, such as the Monarch MKII, have included a modular fabric-covered cable. Personally, I prefer the one included with the Oracle. The fabric cable is gorgeous but a bit too heavy. The only downside of the Oracle’s cable is that it’s not modular. Buyers can choose between 2.5, 3.5, and 4.4 mm terminations, with the first of those including 3.5 and 4.4 mm adapters. The tips included with the Oracle deserve special mention. While the pair of including silicone tips are of middling quality, the three foam pairs are Tripowin Spiral Groove Memory Foam Eartips. I really love these tips. The foam is slow-rebound. So the trick is to compress them, insert them into your ears, then hold them there for a second as the foam expands. They isolate better than any tips I’ve used. The foam also has a slightly shiny outer coating that improves durability. Most importantly, they sound great. Whether due to the type of foam used or the grooved inner tube, the Tripowins seem to smooth out peaky treble, which has made them a key tip in my IEM toolkit.
There’s not much information available on the English-language interwebs about the Fuzhou, China-based IEM company Yanyin. But it’s become relatively well-known among IEM enthusiasts in recent years for both its own designs and a recent collaboration with popular YouTuber Hawaii Bad Boy.
The Moonlight is a seven-driver tribrid featuring a 10mm biodynamic driver, four Knowles BA drivers, and two Sonion EST drivers.
It’s spec’d at a 8-ohm impedance and a 118 dB sensitivity.
Physically, the Moonlight utilizes a contoured resin shell. The black shell is hand-painted with flecks of various colors to resemble the night sky. The right faceplate has Yanyin’s interlocking box logo inlaid over the stars on the faceplate, while the left faceplate has the model name inlaid. The rear of the shell has L/R and the serial number etched in gold, while the black includes left (blue)/right (red)-coded vents like the Oracle’s. The metal nozzle, which terminates in a mesh grille, has an edged ridge midway down the nozzle to hold tips in place. This is a different strategy from the somewhat more common flat-edged lip used on the Oracle. Both have their pros and cons, but I’ve found that Yanyin’s approach allows for compatibility with a larger variety of tips. The Moonlight’s input is the same flush two-pin .78 mm style as the other IEMs under review here. Overall, I have to say that the Moonlight is the best looking IEM of this bunch, at least in my opinion. They’re also incredibly light and comfortable.
The Moonlight comes in a small, nondescript cardboard box. But inside is my favorite IEM case. Ever. It’s a hard-sized zippered case resembling a small suitcase. The outside is light-blue faux-leather. The top has purple and grey faux leather accents, the Yanyin logo, and a silver model-specific plate. The inside is covered in black faux fur, with a molded area designed to keep each IEM shell apart from both other and the cable. I love how its laid out. While I adore this case, it’s big. Folks who want to transport their IEMs in a clothes pocket would do better with any of the other cases mentioned in this review. However, for at-home storage and safety, the Moonlight’s case is the best. Beyond the case, the Moonlight includes a cable that’s my second favorite behind the EPZ’s, only because it lacks the latter’s modular plug design. According to the company, it’s “made of 4 strands of Litz structure, graphene wrapped with silver-plated cable.” It’s stylish, soft, and pliable. The Moonlight also comes with three pairs of average-quality silicone tips, a 1/4-inch adapter, an airplane jack adapter, and a microfiber bag.
Given that I just discussed Moondrop in my Variations summary above, I’ll jump right into how the S8’s features, specs, and accessories.
The S8 is, as the name implies, an eight-driver all-BA IEM. Moondrop decided to use three different brands for the eight BAs, and the company’s reasoning is explained at length on the S8’s product page. (Kudos to Moondrop for a great website.) In a nutshell, the S8 uses two Sonion drivers for the low end, four customized Softears drivers for the mids, and two Knowles drivers for the highs.
The S8 is spec’d at a 16-ohm impedance and a 122 dB sensitivity.
I love the look of the S8. Its molded resin shell is clear, allowing for a glimpse at the S8’s driver array and copper wiring. The faceplate is clear around the edges. A silver metallic raindrop with a die-cut S8 logo sits in the center. The S8’s body is smooth and heavily contoured, with a mild concha fin. Its unibody nozzle terminates in three sound bores. Like the other IEMs under review, the S8’s input is a flush .78 mm two-pin. Despite having eight drivers, the S8’s body is modest, and even with the weight of those drivers, the S8 remained comfortable over long listening sessions. Indeed, the S8 has a “barely there” quality due to how well they conform to my ears. (Your ears, needless to say, may be different.)
The S8 comes in a sturdy Moondrop-branded black cardboard box. Inside, a smaller box with various accessories sits on the left, while a grey leather (or very convincing faux leather) case sits on the right. Like a significantly smaller version of the Yanyin’s case, the S8’s case looks like a small suitcase. I’d categorize the case as semi-rigid and of high quality. The S8’s 6N oxygen-free copper cable is superb. True, it’s not modular. But it is relatively thin and pliable, has a nice right-angle plug, and it’s clear coating and connectors show an attention to detail when it comes to matching the IEMs’ style. While I have nothing but good things to say about the case and cable, the S8’s additional accessories are modest: an airplane adapter and five pairs of average-quality tips.
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. A great, growing source of measurements is the Squiglink database. For popular IEMs like the S8, one can find a dozen unique measurements. However, I want to present my own comparative measurements of all of the IEMs under review — despite some misgivings about a few, which I’ll explain below.
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 is to try to get a consistent insertion depth across all of the IEMs and to take repeated measurements until the results are repeatable and present 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.
I’m beginning to see the limitation of the EARS when it comes to IEM measurements, though. I encountered some serious frustrations in getting consistent plausible measurements for a few of the IEMs in this review. The EPZ 530’s combination of an angled nozzle and large “shark fin” did not play nice with the EARS’ unnaturally stiff concha and unrealistic canal. My measurements of the 530 show a steep drop in the sub-bass, for example, that’s doesn’t comport with what I’m hearing and is not present in any other measurements of the 530. Moreover, the EARS have never very accurate for in the treble region, and this is especially true for IEMs. Because of this, I have an IEC-711 Clone Coupler on order, and I may migrate to that setup for IEMs in the near future.
For now, I’ll reiterate my disclaimer about these measurements, especially the 530’s.
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 compare each IEM’s decibel output as measured by the EARS:
- Variations – 81
- Oracle – 82
- S8 – 83
- DTE500 – 88
- EPZ 530 – 90
- Moonlight – 91
The main takeaway from the above is not to put too much stock in impedance and sensitivity specs when considering which IEM will be the easiest to drive in practice. From my subjective sense of which IEMs need the most power to reach my normal listening level, though, I’m not surprised at this ordering. The two Moondrop IEMs seem to be the most power-hungry, while the Moonlight is by far the easiest to drive. Also, the Moonlight, 530, and DTE500 can all coax hiss from certain amplifiers, while it’s uncommon to encounter hiss on the S8, Oracle, and Variations.
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 IEMs above look like plotted on the same graph and aligned at 500 Hz:
While I’d heavily discount any significant differences the EARS show in the upper-reaches of the treble, the measurements show the Variations to be the most V-shaped IEM, which definitely aligns with what I heard. In some ways, the S8 is a much flatter take on the Variations’ V-shape. It lacks the Variations’ mid-bass “tuck” and displays less energy in the 1 kHz region. The Moonlight’s signature, for its part, is on the flatter end of things with a dip in the 2 to 4 kHz region. Subjectively, I considered it a bright-neutral, but non-fatiguing, IEM. That tracks with the moderate bass response, linear mids, and restrained lower treble shown by the measurements. The DTE500’s response isn’t too far off from the Moonlight’s, except that it has notably more mid-to-upper bass. I’m also sure there are significant differences in the upper-treble, but I can’t claim that the EARS rig is capturing that correctly.
Both the Oracle and the 530 are a bit harder to describe. Subjectively, the Oracle sounds less V-shaped and brighter than the Variations. However, while the measurements show the two to have some similarities, the 1 to 4 kHz area suggests the Variations should sound brighter. So chalk this up to how differing bass levels impact perception of treble and, perhaps, the importance of the upper-treble area that the EARS doesn’t capture accurately (but suggests the Oracle may, indeed, have more energy up there). The 530 is just… quirky. I don’t know how much of this is due to the measurement issues mentioned above or genuine tuning differences. Regardless, don’t discount the 530 because of what my EARS are showing.
Since the main value in frequency response measurements is providing relative comparisons, I also want to show each IEM under review against two previously reviewed affordable benchmarks: the KiwiEars Cadenza and the Moondrop Kato.
Going in order of price, the EPZ 530’s tuning definitely diverges from both the Cadenza’s and the Kato’s, even if I’m not quite convinced that the EARS are representing the 530 accurately:
The thicker mid-bass shown in the graph definitely matches with what I’m hearing from the 530 as are the midrange focus and more relaxed treble.
Moving on to the Sound Rhyme DTE500, I think the graph captures what I like about this IEM:
Given that I consider both the Cadenza and Kato to be within the margin of error of what sounds “neutral” to my ears, I’m not surprised that the DTE500 also sounds pretty neutral to me. It has a healthy amount of bass, though less than the level suggested by the Harman preference curve, which sounds boomy to my ears. What’s interesting about the DTE500’s tuning, though, is that it has less energy in the upper midrange, where our ears tend to be extra sensitive. It makes up for that with greater treble extension, though (as stated above) the EARS is definitely not capturing the specifics of the upper-treble accurately. As my subjective impressions — which were completed before these measurements were taken — will show, I think this tuning tradeoff produces a non-fatiguing listen that doesn’t sacrifice detail.
The Moondrop Variations is, in some ways, the anti-DTE500. Its low end is much more Harman-aligned. To reduce bloat from its ample low bass, it has less upper-bass and lower-mids than either the Kato or Cadenza. It also has a ton of energy in the 1 to 2 kHz area. Hence my V-shape characterization above. It has a smack-you-in-the-face “wow” factor, and at times both its sub-bass and upper-mids can be too much for my ears. That said, I think it’s a very refined version of this tuning.
As noted earlier, the Thieaudio Oracle’s tuning shares some characteristics with the Variations’:
While its overall level of bass is much lower than the Variations’, the Oracle is also tuned with a “tuck” in the 100 to 300 Hz range. It has more energy than either the Cadenza or the Kato in the sensitive 1-ish kHz area. The combination of the mid-bass tuck and the upper-mid bump makes the Oracle subjectively the “thinnest” sounding IEM of this group, at least to my ears.
The Yanyin Moonlight pulls some of the same tricks as the DTE500 but with its own flavor:
The Moonlight’s low end is very linear. It does deviate from the likes of the Kato (and, especially, the DTE500) with its very modest reduction in upper-bass energy. It shares the DTE500’s more relaxed 2 to 4 kHz area, but has a bit more energy around 1 kHz, placing it between the Kato and Cadenza in that area. Overall, the Moonlight falls within my “neutral” margin of error.
The Moondrop S8 is, as noted above, a slightly flatter version of the Variations’ tuning:
It has ample sub-bass, but not quite as much as the Variations does. Same with the 1 to 2 kHz bump. It also has a smoother transition from bass to mids with less of the aforementioned “tuck.” Like the DTE500 or Moonlight, I’d say that the S8 falls comfortably within the range of what I consider to be “neutral.” (Yes, I think neutral frequency response is a range, not a single target — especially for headphones and IEMs.)
Given that six IEMs are under review, I’m going to employ a head-to-head comparison in the style of my TBVOs. I’ll begin with the two lowest-priced units, with one winner moving on to the next round until only two units are left. When appropriate, I’ll put an eliminated unit back into the mix to see if it’s actually superior to the “loser” in a given round. All IEMs were evaluated level-matched.
The first round pits the EPZ 530 against the Sound Rhyme DTE500. For the first audition track, I selected the Elvis Costello-produced “Tempted” from the MFSL CD of Squeeze’s East Side Story. The immediate difference in these two IEMs is that the 530 is the “warmer” one thanks to its tamer treble. It can’t be classified as a “bassy” IEM, though, because it does has a sub-bass roll-off, even if the graph above subjectively exaggerates its size. The roll-off seems to work to the 530’s advantage, though, by preventing the low end from exacerbating the effects of its relaxed treble. The 530’s rendering of John Bentley’s track-defining bassline is fairly nimble with good string articulation thanks to the 530’s extended upper-treble. However, the 530’s polite lower-treble noticeably reduces the reverb on both Gilson Lavis’s spacious snare and Paul Carrack’s pleading vocal. As strong as the EPZ 530 is for its price, it’s no match for the Sound Rhyme. The DTE500 just plain resolves better, on both macro and micro levels, and not just because it has more energy in the “presence” region of the lower-treble. The DTE500 doesn’t just feature crisper transients, it’s also airier and more spacious. The overtones on every instrument are more nuanced through the DTE500. You can discern evert detail in the decay of Lavis’s snare. Its bass is just as agile, too, but hits harder than the 530’s thanks to its lower reach.
For my next audition track, I selected “Weather with You” from the deluxe edition of Crowded House’s Tchad Blake-engineered and Mitchell Froom-produced Woodface album. “Weather With You” opens with a percussive panoply supporting the song’s signature sitar-esque electric guitar riff. Among other elements, a reverb-laden woodblock sits in the center of the mix, a tambourine is panned far right, and a deep-mic’d acoustic guitar is panned far left, where it competes with the occasional keyboard flourish. Through good equipment, these elements should have their own sonic space and sound timbrally accurate. The EPZ renders the tambourine with nuance and realism, but there’s no doubt that it’s lacking a bit of bite. In general, the transients on the percussion and bass sounds slightly rounded, which has the effect of making the low end feel just a bit flabby. The DTE500, though, nails both the tambourine on the right and the acoustic guitar on the left. Nitpicking, I could see some listeners arguing that both lean too far towards strings and zills, rather than the body and frame, due to its somewhat unique upper-mids/lower-treble profile. However, to my ears the trade-off is worth it. The entire soundstage has great depth, while each instrument and voice are rendered three-dimensionally. It’s especially easy to distinguish the Finn brothers’ overlapping vocals on the DTE500. Meanwhile, Nick Seymour’s bass sounds very full and slightly rounded without a hint of bloat.
Though the DTE500’s out to a sizable lead, I realized that I needed to throw Haim’s “Falling” at it to test how it would handle a loud-and-busy track. The first cut from Haim’s debut album, Days Are Gone, is a decidedly modern mix and mastering with lots of elements at both extremes of the sonic spectrum. Specifically, I zeroed in on the song’s dense chorus, which can come across as bloated and chaotic on poor equipment. The 530 does a nice job of separating the Haim sisters’ voices. But it doesn’t allow the listener to easily isolate elements like the deep-mixed handclaps. Its treble sounds a bit too sanded-down, and while its low end is fairly agile in initial attack, its decay can be a bit slow, which creates a little flabbiness. Interestingly, “Falling” also exposes a hint of boxiness in the 530’s presentation, which is perhaps to be expected given how the 530 handles the lower midrange region. Turning to the Sound Rhyme, the difference is drastic. Again, the DTE500’s deep soundstage helps to separate elements, which allows the mix to work. The vocals are distinct, the hand claps are lifelike, and the keyboard sparkles. Everything just works.
The final test in the 530 versus DTE500 round is “Anna Begins” from the MFSL CD of the Counting Crows’ August and Everything After, easily one of the best-sounding albums of the 1990s thanks to T-Bone Burnett’s production and Pat McCarthy and Scott Litt’s mixing. Steve Bowman’s drums have tremendous three-dimensionality and tonal nuance through the DTE500, sounding a bit boxier and more simplified through the 530. Adam Duritz’s voice is realistic and clearly separated from the center-mixed kick and snare through the DTE500 but comes off a bit too throaty with the 530. Other elements, such as the bass and organ, are likewise less nuanced and separable through the EPZ, too.
The EPZ 530 is a well-executed multi-BA IEM with a relaxed presence region and subdued sub-bass but more-than-competent technicalities. However, it can’t compete with the Sound Rhyme DTE500’s three-dimensional nuance and raw detail retrieval.
That means the second round matchup pits the DTE500 against the well-regarded Moondrop Variations. Keeping with the trend of starting the next round with the last track of the previous round, I level-matched the Variations to the DTE500, cued up “Anna Begins,” and hit play. Immediately I was struck by the Variations’ in-your-face presentation. Bowman’s snare stages closer and has more snap through the Variations. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, though. Subjectively, this up-front flavor stems not just from the Variations’ more aggressive upper-midrange/lower-treble region but also from the fact that the Variations seems oversimplify the snare’s sound. The rich complexity heard through the DTE500 is now gone. The same is true for the kick. It sounds three-dimensional through the DTE500 and one-dimensional through the Variations, which provides a powerful initial thump but less complex decay. The other effect of the Variations’ sub-bass and upper-mid/lower-treble boosts is that it presents a much more dynamic listen than the DTE500 in a macro sense. The DTE500 is no slouch in that department, either, but its modest sub-bass roll-off and more reserved 1 to 4 kHz region means that it’ll never convey dynamic swings as aggressively as the Variations does. The Variations is simply one of the most macrodynamic IEMs I’ve ever heard. It also offers hyper-sharp detail, in the sense of clearly delineating the various elements in a mix. Yet as its lackluster retrieval of the nuances of Bowman’s kit suggest, the Variations is far behind the DTE500 when it comes to microdynamics and microdetails — those little gradations in volume and tonality that convey a sense of realism. The DTE500 has them in spades.
Given the Variations’ particular strengths and weaknesses, I was curious to hear how it would reproduce Haim’s “Falling.” Its advantage in sub-bass is immediately apparent during the intro’s massive EDM booms. Moving on to the chorus, the Variations handles the busy mix without grating and allows the listener to separate its various elements. On the other hand, it again feels as though the Variations is oversimplifying things relative to the DTE500. The Variations may deliver the rumble on the suburb electric bass in “Falling” but tonally it’s a bit more one-note. The aforementioned deep-mixed handclaps are not only less detailed through the Variations but they’re also less apparent — despite the fact that the Variations stages flatter than the DTE500. That’s because in a dense mix like this, the Variations tends to overdraw the large elements and overlook the smaller ones.
The Variations fared even worse with Crowded House’s “Weather With You.” Its microdetail and microdynamic deficits relative to the DTE500 were obvious. That’s not to say the Variations does a bad job of handling the intricacies of “Weather.” In casual listening, I’d never found it particularly lacking. Instead, I’d been struck by the Variations’ undeniable macrodynamic power and sharply drawn transients. However, this level-matched comparison exposed a certain artificiality to the Variations’ timbral reproduction that was hard to ignore once it came to my attention.
Since the DTE500 so resoundingly bested the Variations, I decided to bring the EPZ 530 back into the mix. Comparing it against the Variations on “Weather” emphasized each IEM’s strengths and weaknesses. The Variations handily bested the EPZ 530 in macrodynamics. It also has better bass extension and control than the 530, which sounds a bit amorphous in comparison. However, the 530 edged out the Variations in realism and depth. The aforementioned left-mixed acoustic guitar and right-mixed tambourine were more three-dimensional and tonally accurate through the 530. So, while I consider the DTE500 a clear step up from both the EPZ 530 and the Moondrop Variations, the latter two are more evenly matched, depending on what traits one prioritizes. Personally, while I wish the 530 had more sub-bass, I think I prefer it to the Variations due to my predilection for microdetail. But overall the Variations’ deviations from a neutral tuning are probably smaller than the 530’s. The Variations’ are also deviations that many listeners are likely to perceive as “hi-fi.”
Next up is the Thieaudio Oracle, which faces the best-thus-far Sound Rhyme DTE500. Returning to Crowded House’s “Weather With You” after level-matching these two IEMs, the first trait that jumps out at me is that the Oracle is an undeniably brighter-leaning IEM. Among other ways, this extra treble energy manifests itself in more prominent reverb trails. However, this depth-enhancing effect is counteracted by the Oracle’s close staging. At the other end of the spectrum, the Oracle’s bass feels leaner but also flabbier than the DTE500’s. For its part, the DTE500 continues to impress me with its smooth treble and excellent microdetail. Elements such as the Finns’ harmonies are more lifelike through the DTE500.
For the next audition track, I decided to incorporate “Bali Run” from the 2011 24/96 remaster of Fourplay’s 1991 self-titled debut. “Bali Run” is a dense, intricate instrumental that mixes traditional jazz instrumentation with synthesizers. It came to my attention as part of the Berklee “Critical Listening” course I took a few years ago, and it’s stayed in my audition track mix ever since. Moving back and forth between the Oracle and DTE500 and replaying the same short segments of “Bali Run,” I again noticed that the Oracle’s bass sounded more than a bit indistinct compared to the DTE500’s. While the Oracle’s high-end emphasis gives Lee Ritenour’s electric guitar nice sparkle, it struggled to extract the same level of detail as the DTE500. Through the DTE, I could easily identify the pickup switch position on Ritenour’s Stratocaster, which sounded as though it was being transmuted directly from the amplifier to the microphone to my ears. Meanwhile, Bob James’s keyboard simply gets lost in the mix through the Oracle, despite being crystal clear through the DTE500.
With another relatively easy win for the DTE500, I again reintroduced the EPZ 530. Just as with the Variations, while the 530 remains somewhat imperfect in the frequency response department, it outclassed the Oracle in depth and detail. So despite being eliminated by the DTE500 early on in this single-elimination review, don’t sleep on the 530’s virtues.
Moving on to the Yanyin Moonlight, I knew immediately it would prove to be stiffer competition for the DTE500. Putting “Bali Run” on again, I noted the Moonlight’s even frequency response. While I’m sure that some listeners would prefer more low-bass thump, to my ears the Moonlight sounds impressively neutral. Judged on its own, it was hard to find fault with anything about the Moonlight’s presentation. Ritenour’s electric had more realism than through the Oracle, James’s keyboard came through clearly, while Nathan East’s bass possessed nice articulation. The Moonlight’s soundstage is both deep and wide, providing for nice separation between the elements in this busy mix. That said, the DTE500 exceeded the Moonlight in virtually every category, even if not as handily as it bested previous contenders. Perhaps the only characteristic which presented a clear tradeoff between the two is high-end extension. The Moonlight undeniably has more, though it comes at the expense of low-end heft and overall microdetail.
Cueing up “Anna Begins,” the nearly isolated drum kit at the beginning of the track underscored the DTE500’s advantage at the lower end of the spectrum. While I personally wouldn’t characterize the Moonlight as unpleasantly bass-light, there’s no question that it lacks the DTE500’s authority. Overall, the Moonlight comes very close to DTE500’s level of detail and nuance, though it’s doesn’t quite get there. Especially on elements like Duritz’s voice and the organ buried in the far-right of the mix, the DTE500 just convey’s more three-dimensionality and microdetail. (Is this sounding familiar yet?)
While the DTE500 holds a modest edge over the Moonlight, I wanted to see how it fared with Haim’s “Falling.” While the Moonlight’s low end may be on the lean slight, it’s also incredibly nimble, a necessity when navigating “Falling.” Its extended treble is smooth enough to avoid become piercing or grating, and its neutral midrange and ample stage does a nice job of separating the Haims’ voices. That said, elements like the pulsing triangle during the guitar solo remain much more discernable and lifelike through the DTE500, which also equals or surpasses the Moonlight in the aforementioned characteristics and adds a more forceful low end.
In short, the Moonlight is neutral and technically adept. But it can’t quite compete with the unexpected juggernaut of the DTE500. Instead, I’d characterize it as a brighter EPZ 530 with a much more even frequency response. That’s because in terms of technicalities, the Moonlight and 530 are very competitively matched.
The final entrant is the formidable Moondrop S8, which regularly finds itself near the top of popular reviewers’ IEM rankings. Can it finally top the dark horse DTE500? I decided to open the ultimate round with “Anna Begins” and its immaculately recorded opening drums. While I’ve never considered the DTE500 to be bass-light, there’s no question that the S8 hits harder. More than mere quantity, the S8’s low end dynamics are so rock-solid, so much so that it makes the Sound Rhyme’s bass seem a bit uncontrolled by comparison. The S8 also nearly equals the DTE500’s rendering of Bowman’s drums, in both macro- and microdetail. Specifically, this is the first time one of the IEMs under review has presented the decay of Bowman’s snare with a timbral nuance that equals the DTE500’s rendering. Turning to a later segment of “Anna Begins,” I again focused on Duritz’s voice. Through the DTE500, it has a three-dimensionality that’s been lacking on the other IEMs. But now the S8 joins the DTE500 in that rarefied club.
Does the S8’s presentation of “Anna Begins” have any weaknesses relative to the DTE500’s? Yes. While Bowman’s snare and Duritz’s voice sounds as refined through the S8 as through the DTE500, that’s not true of other elements in the mix, particularly acoustic instruments. The S8’s lower-treble presentation is more aggressive than the DTE500’s. That’s part of a high-end tuning that is in some ways the opposite of the DTE500’s. The S8 sounds much more forward in the 2 to 6 kHz upper-midrange and “presence” areas but seems to roll off a bit in higher “brilliance” region. The DTE500, on the other hand, sounds decidedly relaxed in the former and has greater extension in the latter. I tend to find the S8’s tuning to be a bit more in-your-face and the DTE500’s to be more nuanced. At least partly because of this, the S8’s depicts certain elements in the mix, such as the mandolin and electric guitar, more one-dimensionally, in terms of both timbre and space. Is this nitpicking? Sure. But we’re well into the splitting-hair territory with these excellent IEMs.
Moving on to “Weather With You,” I was impressed with the S8’s wide soundstage and raw detail retrieval. Elements like the right-panned tambourine were both easy to isolate and sounded realistic through the S8. That said, other elements, such as the Finn brothers’ vocals, still possessed a microdetail subtly through the DTE500 that the S8’s more overdrawn presentation lacked. On the low end, the S8 again seemed a bit more controlled, though not necessarily more resolving.
Switching to “Falling,” the S8’s superb staging and imaging allows the listen to almost deconstruct the track’s dense mix. Indeed, the S8 handles “Falling” better than any other IEM under review. In comparison, the DTE500’s rendering can feel a bit more congealed, if not necessarily uncontrolled. The DTE500’s edge in the upper end of the spectrum is still obvious, though. Despite its lower-treble peak, the S8 comes across as relatively dark on “Falling.” Due to its greater sense of “air,” the DTE500 presents elements like the deep-mixed triangle with more depth and realism. However, for perhaps the first time in this review, the DTE500 does not get a clear win. “Falling” sounds wonderful through the S8.
Cueing up “Bali Run,” the S8 yet again excels at dissecting the complex mix while also presenting each instrument with a realistic timbre. That said, the DTE500’s strengths are much more apparent on “Bali” than on “Falling.” The former’s more spacious and (yes, I’m going to say it) “audiophile-style” mix showcases DTE500’s microdetail and microdynamic edge in a way that the busy-and-loud mix of “Falling” couldn’t. The Sound Rhyme renders almost every element, especially Ritenour’s aggressive bends, with more textural fidelity. As on “Anna Begins,” the S8’s presentation is just a bit more one-dimensional, both spatially and tonally.
When I ordered the Sound Rhyme DTE500, I had no idea what to expect. As noted earlier, a nearly $500 outlay for a largely undiscussed IEM is more than a little risky. The few online reviews were positive, but I took them with large grains of salt. At this point in my audiophile journey, I’ve read plenty of rhapsodic reviews only to be underwhelmed (or worse) when I heard the actual product. So beyond being beyond pleasantly surprised at how great the DTE500 sounds to me, I don’t want the writer of a review that sets other buyers up for disappointment.
Thus, it’s with some deal of trepidation that I declare the DTE500 to be one of the best-sounding IEMs I’ve ever heard. Have I heard any above-$2k IEMs? No. But I own some of the IEMs that populate the “S-Tiers” of popular ranking lists, including the Monarch MKII and u12t. I won’t claim with confidence that the DTE500 bests those two, since I haven’t done any level-matched, quick-switch listening. But I’m going to investigate that in future reviews.
However, there’s no question that I prefer the DTE500 to all of the other IEMs under review. So, as with the Kiwi Cadenza earlier this year, I’m going to go to bat for the sonic quality of the DTE500, even though it has not (yet) received much attention from other reviewers.
That said, the DTE500’s tuning may not be to everyone’s tastes, even with its superb technicalities. Listeners who like more upper-mids/lower-treble energy may prefer the Moondrop S8’s more conventionally “hi-fi” tuning. Indeed, the S8 is definitely my second-favorite IEM under review. Audiophiles who want a lean-and-linear, more monitor-like IEM should pick up the Yanyin Moonlight, which also happens to have my favorite accessories of the IEMs under review. Both the S8 and Moonlight are high-quality, high-value IEMs — even if I don’t like them as much as the DTE500.
Those who prefer Harman Curve-tuned IEMs should consider the Moondrop Variations. While that particular tuning still isn’t my favorite, the Variations is a much more well-executed implementation than the previously reviewed ubiquitous (and much cheaper) TRUTHEAR x Crinacle Zero. That said, I’d take the technically alluring but quixotically tuned EPZ 530 over the Variations. That leaves the ThieAudio Oracle. Despite being a very good IEM in the grand scheme of things, the ThieAudio Oracle pulls up the rear in this review. Its tuning is not dissimilar to the Moonlight’s, but the Moonlight simply executes better across-the-board.
The DTE500, though? Wow. Yes, I bought a second pair. Really.
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. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.