You are Goldilocks entering the home of the three bears. “A little bit too firm” won’t do. “A little bit too hot” won’t do. Only “just right” will do. Of course, while Goldilocks liked everything in the middle – not too hot and not too cold, not too soft and not too hard – you might be Papa Bear: you want a firm bed, hot porridge, and IEMs with bass for days (everyone knows that bears love bass). Or maybe you’re none of them: you want a soft bed, medium porridge, and an impossibly articulate and clear earphone.
Today we’re going to look at the pinnacle of uncompromised engineering, detail, craftsmanship, and quality. Every one of these IEMs has a powerful, unique sound that is “just right” for some listeners. Let’s find the sound that’s right for you.
Having just added Empire Ears to our lineup, we were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Legend X at our office for days before it arrived, and it was well worth the wait. The somewhat minimalist lightweight design belies the beast inside. The Legend X delivers thick juicy bass, but remains clear throughout with a good amount of mids and clear highs. There’s a palpable power and energy to the Legend X.
If a man wearing AirPods were to ask me, “Why would you spend thousands of dollars on earphones?” the Solaris is the first thing I would pull out as a response. It features amazing craftsmanship with a sound that’s balanced and natural throughout with a warm round bass. The Solaris is also incredibly accessible. Some headphones are tuned for the trained ears of audiophiles, but the Solaris is a headphone that bridges the gap with a tuning and design that almost anyone can love.
While the minimalist design didn’t jump out of our headphone case at me, the engineering and audio design did. This is the headphone for Goldilocks. The bass? Just right. Mids? Also just right. Treble? Just... right. The U12t feels perfectly balanced, yet remains powerful and exciting. Cymbals sizzle, bass rumbles, vocals soar. It hits all the notes with clarity and precision.
The Final A8000 is balanced, clear, and transparent. Every clash of the cymbals, every nuance of the vibrato in a guitar or violin. The A8000 may not be as exciting as some of the other offerings in its price point, but it felt the most “real” – like I was hearing everything exactly as it was originally intended.
The Noble Khan is the definition of a bright and articulate headphone. If you love the emotional delivery that perfectly accentuated clear highs can provide, the Khan is what you need. The Khan’s dynamic response ensures that you hear every high and low, and it’s soundstage puts the performers right in front of you.
The DAC/Amp Combos
The Hugo 2 is a big step up from the more portable Mojo. On the outside, it’s built from the same aircraft grade aluminum as the Mojo, but it’s a bit larger and features a small window where you can see the DAC’s motherboard. Inside it uses 49,152 filter taps to provide an incredible degree of filtering on a digital signal (for comparison, an off-the-shelf DAC chip might have about 100 taps). The Hugo 2 also provides an improved user experience, multiple inputs, an adjustable hi/mid/low crossfeed, and a remote control for added freedom.
The Astell&Kern SP2000 was built with the goal of making the absolute pinnacle digital audio player. It uses dual AK4499EQ DACs to maximize the audio resolution and an amplification stage built from the ground up for the SP2000. Boasting 512GB of internal storage (with an SD card slot to expand the storage), it can hold hundreds of hours of high resolution audio. The visuals and build quality also impress. It has a stunning design with either the copper or stainless steel body (the stainless steel version is also available in a black finish), and has a bit of heft to go with it.
Steve’s Final Thoughts
Every morning I grind the precise amount of fresh coffee beans from a small boutique roaster, and do a slow pour-over to make my perfect cup of black coffee. Sometimes I brew it for a friend and he takes it a little stronger with a drop of cream. My dad likes it in the drip coffee maker – and a little bit weaker than I prefer. Are any of them a bad cup of coffee? Not at all. Building your endgame is a bit like brewing your coffee. It’s hard to even give a “top combo” because I can barely decide which I love the most.
As far as IEMs... I like my coffee strong and black, and I like my headphones natural and bassy. So without further ado, here is my personal ranking along with what I loved about each:
- Campfire Audio Solaris: clear and balanced, with a warm, round bass and just the right touch of sub-bass
- Empire Ears Legend X: beastly bass, but still precise in the middle and even a little airy up top
- FInal Audio A8000: accurate, natural, and transparent
- 64 Audio U12t: everything is just right, nothing feels missing or overly accentuated
- Noble Khan: amazing treble, incredible dynamics and soundstage for an IEM
As far as a DAC/amp from this article, your choice will likely be a matter of how you listen to music, with the SP2000 being the integrated portable choice, and the Hugo 2 being the choice for more stationary systems with multiple components (and can be “kind of portable”).