Auditory ascendance

We round up a selection of the latest earphones to find out which is the best.

ONKYO IE-HF300

"COMPARED TO THE COMPETITION THE IE-HF300 LOOKS BLAND AND UNINSPIRING."

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It wouldn't be hyperbole to classify in-ear headphones as the most commonly owned audio accessory around, thanks to how widespread devices like the iPod used to be, and now the all-dancing smartphone.

Onkyo's in-ear entry for this shootout is the IE-HF300, featuring a great deal of plastic in a look that can best be described as "industrial". Compared to the competition, the IE-HF300 looks bland and uninspiring. On the other hand, it is quite lightweight, and sports angled ear-tips to improve the fit. The earphones sit comfortably in the ear canal and provide a decent seal. We also liked the large and clearly visible markings denoting the left and right buds; no more fumbling around to figure out which goes where.

Onkyo does make some fuss in its marketing materials that the IE-HF300 comes with oxygen free copper (OFC) cables. A plus point is that the cables use MMCX connectors and can be removed and replaced. Otherwise, the IE-HF300 doesn't come with any other defining features.

Hardware-wise, the IE-HF300 is armed with 14.3mm drivers, which is on the larger end of the spectrum for drivers found in earphones. The earphones are rated for a nominal impedance of 32 Ohms, making it suitable for use with portable devices such as smartphones. It is strange then that they don't come with an inline remote control or microphone.

Sound test

Listening to Adele's Melt My Heart To Stone, the IE-HF300 displays a good warm tone. Prominent mids dominate but weak trebles result in lesser overall impact on the track. The reverb effect on the organ used in the track is also a bit too loose for our liking. Switching to Hotel California reveals a sub-par transient response. The shakers and alternate percussions used on the track sound off-colour.

The bass from the IE-HF300 follows in the steps of the trebles, lacking proper definition. The low frequency characteristics end up marring the listening experience of Elements of Life by Tiesto. The ambient mood of the track is captured but the extra instrumentation that bring the composition to life are missing.

DRIVER SIZE: 14.3mm

WEARING STYLE: In-Ear

FREQUENCY RESPONSE: 15Hz to 22,000Hz

IMPEDANCE: 32 Ohms

PRICE: $239

Next >> SONY XBA-H2

SONY XBA-H2

"THE H IN THE XBA-H2 STANDS FOR HYBRID."

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When it comes to earphones there are two major technologies that can be employed by manufacturers. On one hand we have dynamic drivers with their excellent low-frequency performance. On the other, there are balanced armature units known for their excellent transient response, natural tone and small size. Audio enthusiasts can now get the best of both worlds with the Sony XBA-H2 earphones.

The "H" in the XBA-H2 stands for "hybrid", which refers to the use of both a single dynamic driver and a balanced armature unit. Even though balanced armature units are roughly a quarter the size of dynamic drivers, the overall combo is larger in size than your average earbud. Sony has given the earphones a jeweled finish and once worn the ear-buds do look quite good.

While the XBA-H2 looks large, it is not perceptibly heavier than regular earphones. Slightly contoured, the ear-buds fi t nicely in to the listener's ears. The ear-tips, which come in different sizes, provide a good seal but it is not very tight. We found it adequate for the purposes of listening. However if you break into a jog to cross a road before the light changes for example, you may find the earphones slipping out.

All the regular features expected from a quality pair of earphones can be found on the Sony XBA-H2. The wires are removable, using MMCX connectors, and users can choose to swap out the standard issue cables for ones which sport an in-line, one button control pod with a microphone. The wires are also flat so as to reduce tangling.

Inside, you will find a 13.5mm dynamic driver as well, as a full range balanced armature unit. Sony hasn't revealed specifi cs of how audio duties are shared between the two, but we can say that having both in tandem produces impressive results; the XBA-H2 aspires to deliver a natural, neutral tone and succeeds on some counts.

Sound test

Adele's Melt My Heart To Stone is reproduced with the singer's emotion coming across. Instrumentation, the reverb organ in particular, is accurately captured with its warmth and lushness intact. Switching over to Hotel California, the percussive instruments and shakers have great timbre which we suspect is due to the balanced armature unit. On Elements of Life by Tiesto however the dynamic driver probably kicks in to provide the power and impact necessary for the low ends for this particular track.

Unfortunately though, the XBA-H2 has a tendency to sound hollow at times. The middle frequencies do not assert themselves on Hotel California as much as they should. Seeing that mids form the meat of most audio tracks, after prolonged usage the Sony earphones tend to sound slightly anemic.

DRIVER SIZE: 13.5mm Dynamic, Balanced Armature Unit

WEARING STYLE: In-Ear

FREQUENCY RESPONSE: 4Hz to 25,000Hz

IMPEDANCE: 40 Ohms

PRICE: $338

Next >> SHURE SE215 SPECIAL EDITION

SHURE SE215 SPECIAL EDITION

"LIVELY, BRIGHT, VIBRANT AND DYNAMIC."

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The Shure SE215 Special Edition earphones are an upgraded and improved version of the older Shure SE215 earphones. A primary change is in aesthetics, with the SE215 Special Edition featuring translucent blue ear-buds and a dark grey cable.

The design and wearing style of the SE215 Special Edition is quite unique, it might take a while before you get used to it. The ear-buds are knotted to provide sound isolation, while the cables are stiff and meant to go up and over the user's ears. While highend in-ears are typically custom designed according the shape of the listener's ears in order to provide the perfect seal for the ear canal, the SE215 Special Edition aren't tailormade, yet follow similar design principles. The fit is snug and quite comfortable once you fi nd your own personal resting sweet spot.

The cables on the other hand are an entirely different matter. Made from durable Kevlar, the stiffness means they're difficult to adjust, which makes the act of looping them over the ears particularly difficult. The stiffness also reduces overall comfort, which is disappointing because we loved the fit of the sound-isolating ear-buds. Thankfully, if you are willing to shell out some extra cash, the wires are attached via MMCX connectors and can be replaced with those of your choosing.

Shure equips the SE215 Special Edition with what they call microdrivers. The earphones have a low impedance of just 20 Ohms and have a stated frequency response of 21 Hz to 17,500 Hz. There is no in-line remote control or microphone bundled either.

Sound test

Starting off with Melt My Heart To Stone, Adele's unique voice is delivered with great presence. On Hotel California, the rustle of the shakers and the alternate percussion strikes are crisp and also display excellent timbre. Fully showing off its versatility when handling the upper registers, the SE215 Special Edition also handles the sharp attack of Buckethead's guitar notes on Sail On Soothsayer with aplomb. Lively, bright, vibrant and dynamic the SE215 Special Edition earphones are a complete joy to use.

DRIVER SIZE: Micro-drivers

WEARING STYLE: In-Ear

FREQUENCY RESPONSE: 21 Hz to 17,500 Hz

IMPEDANCE: 20 Ohms

PRICE: $219

Next >> KEF M200

KEF M200

" THE DEDICATED 10MM LF DRIVER DOES ITS JOB."

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The aesthetics of the English-made KEF M200 are sophisticated and elegant, with a housing constructed from aluminium that lends a well-constructed feel when handled.

Like the Shure SE215 Special Edition, the M200 has a unique wearing style. The earphones come with KEF's Secure Arm which is a flexible rubber wing that loops around the ear of the user, easily keeping the ear-tips in place. While it takes a little getting used to, the Secure Arm works quite well. While we would classify the fit as comfortable with a good seal, the M200 is a little larger than most, and thus users with smaller ears may have issues with fit.

Interestingly, unlike the rest of the earphones compared here, KEF does include an in-line, remote control pod and built-in microphone with the M200. The control pod is specifically compatible with the iPhone and other Apple products. The buttons are quite flush with the surface and somewhat hard to press, while the control pod features some rather sharp angular edges.

The M200 earphones are equipped with KEF's Dual Driver setup, comprising of a 5.5mm neodymium driver and a 10mm driver. The former handles middle and high frequencies, while the low frequencies are handled by the latter. The middle and high frequency driver is placed to accommodate a port from the bass chamber so that the combined output can be delivered to the ear canal.

A shining characteristic of the M200's performance is its impressive and spacious soundstage, with the listener able to easily discern between left and right channels. The dedicated 10mm LF driver does its job, and with great impact.

Sound test

When tasked with handling Top 40s fare, like Melt My Heart To Stone by Adele, the earphones do a good job. But when asked to reproduce more complex compositions, like the acoustic arrangement of Hotel California by The Eagles, the M200 misses the mark, unable to carry any emotion.

DRIVER SIZE: 5.5mm and 10mm dual drivers

WEARING STYLE: In-Ear

FREQUENCY RESPONSE: 20Hz to 20,000Hz

IMPEDANCE: 12 Ohms

PRICE: $299

Next >> Specifications comparison

Specifications

MODELOnkyo IE-HF300Sony XBA-H2 Shure SE215 Special Edition KEF M200
DRIVER 14.3mm13.5mm + Balanced ArmatureMicro-driver5.5mm + 10mm
WEARING STYLEIn-earIn-earIn-earIn-ear
FREQUENCY RESPONSE15Hz to 22,000Hz4Hz to 25,000Hz21Hz to 17,500Hz20Hz to 20,000Hz
IMPEDANCE32 Ohms40 Ohms20 Ohms12 Ohms
SENSITIVITY105dB106dB107dB94dB
REMOVABLE CABLEYes (MMCX connector)Yes (MMCX connector)Yes (MMCX connector)No
CABLE TYPEOxygen Free CableOxygen Free CableN.AN.A
CABLE LENGTH1.20m1.20m1.16m1.20m
REMOTE CONTROL PODNoYesNoYes
CONNECTOR3.5mm3.5mm3.5mm3.5mm
MICROPHONE NoYesNoYes
PRICE  $239$338$219$299

Just the Tip

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Not only does a decent seal help with noise isolation, but it also allows the sound from the earphones to fully develop.

When it comes to ear-tips, there are two to consider in terms of material: Silicon and foam. Silicon ear-tips, due to the nature of the material, feel more natural, are usually quite comfortable, and readily available in different sizes. Foam ear-tips on the other hand feel a bit unnatural, but they offer great seals.

Next >> And the Best Earphones is...

And the Best Earphones is...

SHURE SE215 SPECIAL EDITION

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When it came to audio performance, the SE215 Special Edition stood a cut above the rest. They displayed great proficiency across the entire spectrum of audio. The excellent seal of the earphones ensures good noise isolation, also helping bass in terms of impact and power. The trebles are versatile switching from a warm tone to delivering crystalline clarity as required. Best of all, the SE215 Special Edition is also the most affordable of the bunch.

KEF M200

Despite being KEF's first shot at producing earphones, the M200 certainly looks like a great deal of thought was put into its design with the Secure Arm and Dual Drivers. There's lots of raw potential here, though ultimately let down by middling transient response.

SONY XBA-H2

Sony must be commended for the innovative XBA-H2. The earphones feature a dynamic driver and a balanced armature unit. In theory both the technologies should cover each other's deficiencies; in practice they do so, but to a limited degree. While the tone of the product aspires to neutrality, a hollow ring to the mids means that it comes across as anemic after extended use.

ONKYO IE-HF300

The IE-HF300 featured decidedly average performance. Strong mids help it deliver most tracks adequately, but with not much finesse. The lack of quality sound combined with a lack of features worth shouting about mean that this set ends up forgettable.

 

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