We’re now well into the 2017 trade show season, and no matter the event, there are always plenty of new mics, speakers and headphones on display—the transducer category never gets tired. Here, we look into three head-worn listening devices I saw at Winter NAMM in January. Each company’s products offer new approaches; all are boundary stretchers for the participants.
Blue Microphone’s Ella is the company’s first high-end planar headphone; the iSINE20 is Audeze’s first one-size-fits-all, compact, planar in-ear headphone; and the Ultimate Ears 18+ Pro is UE’s top-of-the-line IEM in both features and price.
The test system for this review sources files at full bandwidth, or Apple Lossless files through the Audirvana Plus 2.6.6 player through an Emotiva Big Ego USB digital-to-analog converter. When listening, WiFi and Bluetooth were off, and I engaged Audirvana’s SysOptimizer’s options to disable Spotlight, Time Machine and detection of iDevices on USB.
BLUE ELLA HEADPHONES
Blue Ella headphones
Last year, Blue brought the Mo-Fi ($349.99) and Lola ($249.99) headphones to market, and this year brings three new models. Sadie is a Mo-Fi reboot ($399.99), Ella, reviewed here ($699.99), and the soon-to-be-released Satellite Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones. I reviewed the Mo-Fi last April in Mix, and they were spectacular in their ability to be both a consumer and pro headphone in the same go, which is no mean feat.
Ella has the same basic design as Mo-Fi with some tweaks. First, it’s just half an ounce heftier and beautifully done. All surfaces are top-notch with the same unique, spring-loaded headband design as the Mo-Fi, which is both comfortable and stylish. LEDs showing battery-powered operation and indicating charge is integrated into the Blue logo on the outside of the ear cups.
Ella’s main difference is a redesigned 250mW amplifier and 50mm x 50mm planar magnetic drivers. Like Mo-Fi, the removable cable fits deeply into the port at the bottom of the left ear-cup, which doubles as a three-way rotary switch for passive, amplified or bass-boosted listening. Unlike with the Mo-Fi, the new cables that come with Ella are covered in braided cloth. This moderately helps reduce cable-handling noise. The drawstring storage bag is not as nice as the bag that came with the Mo-Fi, which had a separate, inner cable pouch and magnetic clasp.
Included in Ella’s bag is a generously long cable with one end wired for Ella, and the other carrying an attached ⅛-inch universal stereo adapter. Also included is a separate ¼-inch adapter plug with an open end that confidently and deeply connects with the ⅛-inch plug should you need to take them into the studio. There is also a USB cable (Type A to Micro A) for connection directly to Ella for charging. I missed that Ella does not come with an AC-to-USB Type A female adapter for powering at an outlet.
Also onboard is a shorter cable for use with a phone with a ⅛-inch mini-plug. It has volume control, song start/stop buttons and an integral mic. I used Ella with my Samsung Galaxy S5 phone to call a friend, and he said I’d never sounded better on a call. However, the cable’s controls are iOS specific—on my S5, Ella’s buttons would not control volume or my audio player, but on an iPhone, they worked as you would expect. There is no Lightning cable option for Ella at this time.
The fit is comfortable, but I miss the increase/decrease tension adjustment found on the Mo-Fis, which have a firmer fit and thicker foam at the ear pad and top. I also found that Ella occasionally squeaked depending on the orientation of my head. This may relax over time and is masked when music is playing.
The audio reproduction from Ella is very good, albeit different depending on which of the three listening modes you choose. The transient response is punchy without being too forward (especially in passive mode), the bass is full, and high frequencies from percussion, cymbals and other bright elements are even and not overly emphasized. In passive mode, and more in the active mode they are forward in the 3-5kHz range, which tends to emphasize sibilance in vocals, hand percussion, snare and tom attack, and other elements. This would make them great for tracking with a band where there are a lot of room distractions outside the ear cups. The bass-boosted mode is too broad and obvious even at low volumes. Overall, Ella provides a pleasant listening experience, and like the Mo-Fi, they sound great and offer a transition between pro and casual listening in a comfortable, well-designed package.
COMPANY: Blue Microphones
PROS: Great sonic performance across the frequency range. Beautifully made and comfortable.
CONS: Fit is not as firm as the Mo-Fi. Ella occasionally squeaks, depending on head orientation
AUDEZE iSINE 20 IN-EAR
AUDEZE iSINE20 headphones
Audeze is no stranger to manufacturing great headphones, including the LCD and EL-8 over-ear, SINE on-ear, and now the iSINE in-ear series. All feature Audeze planar magnetic technology using diaphragms thinner than a human hair moved by their patented Fluxor Magnet Arrays, delivering near-zero distortion and incredible sound. I reviewed the EL-8s for Mix in April 2016 and loved them. I’ve also had the pleasure of hearing the company’s top-of-the-line LCD-4s; they deliver a unique and beautiful listening experience. How they fit all this tech into such a light and great-sounding product is remarkable.
The iSINE series consists of three models, the iSINE10, iSINE20 (reviewed here), and the iSINEVR for use with virtual reality goggles. The iSINE20 comes in a slick plastic display box with a flip-top magnetic lid. Inside are the drivers mounted on a removable plastic and foam block, multiple bags of accessories, a cloth and leather carrying case with a magnetic flip-over clasp, and one of two cables. You can order an iOS Lightning cable compatible with the latest iOS iPad, iPid, or iPhone offering DSP and a controller/app, or a standard ⅛-inch cable compatible with a multitude of devices.
Accessories include three rubber ear tips for different ear-canal fit preferences, four pairs of plastic over-ear and in-ear guides that hold the drivers in place, and a cleaning tool. The ear tips and guides take some careful wrestling to put in place on the driver, but the pieces are solidly made and fit tightly. I’d like to see some more ear tip size options included—even the largest tip was not quite tight enough for my ear. The left/right split at the other end of the ⅛-inch plug fits tightly into the drivers and are clearly marked L and R, so there’s no question that your stereo connection is set up properly.
With listening products that fit inside your ear there is always a trick to learning how to get them on, in and comfortable. I chose the larger mount that hooks over the ear and it worked great. The trick with the oddly shaped iSINE20 is to put the ear tip lightly in place, then rotate them forward. Then, slide the end of the ear mount over the top of the ear and rotate them back until they sit perfectly over the ear. Once in place with the ear tip pushed tighter into the ear, they are so light and comfortable you forget you’re wearing them. Not being custom, the fit of the ear tip is critical to the experience. I chose the widest option, and it worked perfectly. The fit was sealed enough that the low end was even and full. Even when shaking my head, the iSINE20 stayed put. Cable handling noise is slight and acceptable.
The sound is remarkable for an earbud. The frequency balance is good, the low end is punchy and full, and the top end crisp without being overbearing. I think with a larger ear tip that I could fit tighter into my ear, the sonics would improve. These would be incredible with a custom fit option. The planar drivers are open-back, so ambient noise is apparent. For casual listening when you need to know what’s going on around you, these are perfect—like listening with great speakers that freely move around with you. Audeze is a company that never fails to surprise with its unique design, sonic integrity and outside-the-box thinking. The iSINE20 is another product that fits this description perfectly.
PROS: An unparalleled listening experience from an earbud. Comfortable fit.
CONS: Ear tip fit is critical to a great experience; only three sizes are included.
ULTIMATE EARS 18+ PRO IEMS
Ultimate Ears 18+ Pro
Ultimate Ears is a company with big plans for IEMs. The company was first to use digital ear scanning, freely offering it at their booths at the last two Winter NAMM shows. Once you are scanned, your files remain in UE’s database should you decide to buy their custom products. This is a major savings over the older method of paying an audiologist to fill your ears with goop and making reverse impressions that only last two or three times before they have to be redone. I previously reviewed the UE Pro Reference, then the Pro Reference Remastered IEMs. The 18+ PROs fall under the company’s new audiophile series of products.
The 18+ PROs use six proprietary balanced armatures divided into four frequency bands, with two True Tone drivers dedicated to the highs. They are decidedly larger than the Capitol Remastered units but still fit into the hockey-puck sized, sturdy metal container that comes with a cleaning tool. UE has dropped the reward system on the box for this go-around, which was a nice way to get your IEMs back should you lose them.
Other features include a twisted pair of cables that feed each ear-piece and is then braided to make the run down to the ⅛-inch connector. Cable handling noise is minimal. Other features include a midrange bandpass filter, staggered highpass filters, and a four-way mixed crossover designed to separate electrical load on each balanced armature. From the manual: “The patented triple bore sound channels keep the lows, mids, and highs separate until they interact with your eardrum.” The micro science here is beyond me. How they fit all this into a package that fits so perfectly inside the human ear is miraculous. Like other custom IEMs, the isolation is -26 dB, which is what separates them from the pack. No headphone or consumer earbud can accomplish this.
Listening with the 18+ PRO is luxurious. Like the UE Pro Reference Remastered IEMs, they are well-balanced across the frequency range, although a bit more forward in the bottom end. As a reference for panning, there is nothing better. The stereo picture comes alive both from the isolation and proximity to the ear drum. Transients are crisp, quick and well-defined, the bottom end is full and punchy, and the top end clean without being brash or overly bright. The low-end presence below 100 Hz is slight, but enough that I would trust UE Pro Remastered more for mixing. That said, the 18+ Pro is an excellent IEM that provides an unparalleled listening experience.
COMPANY: Ultimate Ears
PRODUCT: 18+ Pro
PROS: Beautiful in-ear listening. Well-made. Cable has incredibly low handling noise.
CONS: Slightly more forward in the low end than UE Pro Reference Remastered.