Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Canalphone Comparison

I recently posted this comparison of some popular canalphones on head-fi.org. I figured I'd post it here too. There are a few updates in this version.

Hey everyone. I've been getting some PMs today about my comparison between the new JVC HA-FX66 to the HA-FX33 Marshmallow, HA-FX55, and HP-FX77 so I figured I'd do some listening and write up a mini comparison. I no longer own the FX77 so I will limit myself to a few comments just for reference. I will also include a bit on the Panasonic RP-HJE300. Even though I no longer own them I was pretty impressed so I figure I'll bring them in from memory.

The canalphones in this comparison range in price from $20-$75 but I figured I'd include them all and then anyone interested can choose the best option within their price range.

My test rig is an iRiver H120 with Rockbox. I listened to mostly .flac files but mixed in some 320kbps mp3s. I did not use an amp although if there is any interest I can try specific earphones with my T2. For this review I listened exclusively to Porcupine Tree. I listened to studio albums and the XMII album to mix things up a bit.

Here goes. I'll start with the Marshmallows and work my way from there.

I found the FX33 to be a very comfortable earphone. They are also very solidly built and provide decent isolation. Their downside becomes apparent, however, when you start to listen to them. The first thing you notice is the bass. These little canalphones sure pack a large sound for the money. Unfortunately, while the low end is there in quantity it lacks impact - which detracts from the music. The midrange has decent presence but lacks purity. There is little treble to speak of. The FX33 is a good earphone for use in bed since they are comfortable, strong, and don't stick out of your ear. Plus, even if they break it is not much of a loss. Other than when falling asleep I really don't get much use out of them.

Parallel to the FX33 in JVC's lineup is the FX55. They also cost about $20 and are the polar opposite in terms of sound. The FX55 is the only 'phone in this comparison for which I did not use the stock tips. For anyone who tried these and dismissed them, do yourself a favor and try 'em again with the tips from nearly any other canalphone. (CX300, EX71, etc) The difference is just night and day. The FX55 was my primary earphone for over a year and survived some rough treatment including a trip to China.
Directly out of the package they are not much to look at and don't sound all that great. The treble has a nice airiness but the midrange is recessed and there is very little bass presence or impact. After a fair amount of burn in and a switch away from the stock tips these really open up. The high frequency presentation remains their best aspect but the FX55 also has a very clean midrange sound. While bass is not their strongest suit, it has just enough emphasis and feeling. Of the four JVC earphones in this comparison the FX55 is my definite favorite.

The HA-FX66 falls right between the FX33 and FX55 in terms of sound. They do not have an emphasis on any particular area but are pleasant overall. I personally feel that they lack flavor and fail to involve me in the music since there is a lack of feeling in the treble and bass. They are certainly a decent at about $35 but I feel that a cheap earphone should be a bit more fun. They are very comfortable and the "air cushion" is a big plus. The build quality feels nice and I like the wide variety of tips and the included hard case. Cable length is a bit of an issue since it is a bit too short to use on its own but too long to be perfect for a standard extension when used with a DAP in your pocket.

Next comes the FX77, which I no longer own. I really don't have much to say about these. I found them fatiguing and their sound was really subpar considering that they cost almost double the price of the FX33 or 55. The only possibly decent aspect of their sound is the bass which had a fuller sound than any of JVC's other offerings. Otherwise, I felt they were really nothing special and passed them on after about a week.

I'll keep going with canalphones I no longer own and move on to the Panasonic RP-HJE300. I picked these up on a whim in J&R this summer for $20 and was quite impressed. They reminded me of the FX55 in terms of sound and are a very good value. Their design is more akin to the Sony EX90 and FX66 and I found that they fit comfortably in my ears. They sounded good right out of the box and did not need much burn in. They provide the least isolation of all the canalphones in this writeup and you will have to turn up the volume in noisy areas. They also come with a fuzzy carrying pouch and an extension cord.
My only problem with the HJE300 is that I felt my first pair sounded better than the second pair I bought. (This is probably all just in my head.)

This leads to the Panasonic RP-HJE500 - my second favorite canalphone in this comparison and also second to most expensive at ~$60. The HJE500 takes everything I like about the HJE300 and improves on it. They really have a very similar sound signature but the 500's treble just has more extension and purity. The low end has more "oomph" without becoming overbearing. Overall they just have a more natural sound. The only problems I have with them is a slightly veiled midrange. They are much better sounding than any other canalphone mentioned thus far in this comparison but I am not sure if I feel they are worth the asking price.
The housing is constructed of aluminum and looks really, really nice. I have not put them through any harsh use or bedtime listening but they seem as if they would hold up nicely.

And now - finally - on to the Audio Technica ATH-CK7. These are the most expensive canalphones in this group (~$75) but also my favorites by far. There is just something special about the CK7 and a well burned in pair must be heard to be believed. They excel in areas usually reserved for far more expensive iems such as bass impact, sparkling treble and instrument separation. Listening to rock or metal is a real treat on the CK7 since heavy bass does not detract from the airy treble and vise versa. Guitars also have a nice Grado-like sound and with surprising presence and a forward presentation. The soundstage is nothing special but you can still place instruments very well. The CK7 is often compared to the Etymotic er6i thanks to its purity but in my opinion the CK7 excels above the er6i in every aspect but isolation. The sound just has so much more feeling.
They are the most solid feeling canalphone I have ever tried and the titanium housing is akin to a little tank.

There is really much more to be said about the CK7 but I've already written lots of descriptions all over the forum and I'm getting tired so I'll wrap things up here.

Thanks for listening!

Audio Technica ATH-CK7


Anonymous said...

Allow me the first one to thank you!
I have been debating which headphone to buy for a few days now, and your reviews helped a great extent. I ended up purchasing the Panasonic RP-HJE500, and I must say I am quite pleased. Great reviews!

AnGeLiCbOrIs said...

Awesome! I'm happy I was able to help.