For some time my audiophile friend and fellow in-ear headphone enthusiast Atul Kanagat, who is now a VP for Stratetic Planning with Harman International, has been encouraging me/Playback to explore custom-fit in-ear monitors. His reasoning has been that custom in-ear monitors offer the highest levels of performance that in-ear headphones thus far achieved, and would therefore appeal to me and to Playback readers. Well, I’m pleased to say I finally took Atul’s advice and—on the occasion of attending Can Jam Chicago 2010 this past June—began making arrangements to review a series of top-tier in-ear monitors, starting with models from JH Audio, Sensaphonics, and Westone.The first units to arrive at Playback’s offices were the flagship JH16 PRO’s ($1149) from JH Audio and right from the outset these remarkable in-ear monitors proved real eye-openers, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. But lest I get ahead of myself, let me first supply a bit of background on JH Audio.
Apopka, FL-based JH Audio is led by Jerry Harvey, who was one of the founders of Ultimate Ears and also one of the first designers (if not the first designer) to develop and refine the concept of custom in-ear music monitors. As many of you know, Harvey’s first firm, Ultimate Ears, makes two line of products: a very high quality series of universal-fit in-ear headphones (several of which have been reviewed by Playback in the past), and a range of well-regarded custom in-ear monitors. Eventually, Ultimate Ears was sold to Logitech and Harvey stepped back from designing in-ear monitors until 2009, when he returned as the chief product architect for his new company, JH Audio.
Unlike Ultimate Ears, JH Audio focuses exclusively on custom fit monitors both for pro music and, interestingly, for aviation applications. The music-minded portion of JH’s product line comprises seven models in all: three 2-way in-ear monitors (starting with the JH5 PRO at $399) and four 3-way monitors (starting with the JH10X3 PRO at $799). At the very top of the pyramid is the JH16 PRO ($1149), whose technical details are very impressive.
The JH16 PRO is—no, I am not making this up—an eight-driver, 3-way, triple bore in-ear monitor with claimed frequency response of 10Hz -20kHz, input sensitivity of 118dB @ 1mW, nominal impedance of 18 Ohms, and noise isolation rated at -26dB. All the drivers in the JH16 PRO are proprietary precision balanced-armature units, and they are arranged so that two drivers cover the treble range, two cover the midrange, and four cover the bass range.
For those of you unfamiliar with custom in-ear monitors, or uncertain as to how to go about acquiring a set, let me provide some basic background information that I hope will prove helpful. The general concept behind any custom in-ear monitor is to provide a very high-performance in-ear headphone whose housing, or earpiece, is custom-molded to fit the exact contours of the owner’s ear. To this end, the owner-to-be must arrange for a set of ear molds or “impressions” to be taken—typically through a local audiologist authorized to work with the monitor manufacturer. In my case, I had the good fortune to meet up with the JH Audio team at Can Jam and to have my ear impressions taken on site by members of the JH Audio staff. However, I’ve also gone the audiologist route in getting ear molds made in order to try other brands of in-ear monitors, so that I can give you a picture of how the process works.
First, you’ll want to make sure your ear canals are clean before you have impressions taken, since any kind of waxy build-up can potentially affect the quality of the molds. When you visit the audiologist, a technician will inspect your ears, explain the overall process, and then begin by inserting small, felt-like textile plugs in your ears. Once the plugs are installed, the technician will carefully squirt a very thick, liquid foam material into your ears. The material fills every little nook, cranny and curvature of your ears and of the ear canal, but will not touch your eardrum surfaces (because it is blocked by the plugs inserted earlier). Within a few minutes, the liquid cures into a solid (but still quite flexible) state, at which point the technician will gently remove the newly created molds, along with the textile plugs, from your ears. Voila! That’s all there is to it. Prices for the mold-making services can range all over the map, but my local audiologist charges about $50/pair. Your mileage may vary.
JH Audio (or any other in-ear monitor maker) uses the ear impressions to create casting molds from which the earpiece shells of your new monitors will be made. Different manufacturers use different materials and construction approaches for their earpiece housings and these are, as it turns out, highly significant both from a sonic perspective and in terms of ease of use. JH Audio makes its earpieces from a smooth, polished solid acrylic material that is available in a wide range of colors, with options for adding custom artwork on the outside of the earpiece shell. My set are done up in a translucent green color, with the Playback logo on one side, and the JH Audio logo on the other. Inside each earpiece there is a chamber that houses the drivers and crossover components, with a set of slender tubes (or “bores”) that channel sound outward through the ear canal tip of the earpiece.
One advantage of JH Audio’s acrylic earpieces, I have discovered, is that they are very easy to grasp and to insert properly (whereas some competing models take a bit more finagling and trial-and-error adjustment to seat correctly). With the JH16 PRO’s, you just tip the earpieces forward a bit, then rotate them backward until—kerplop!—they snap comfortably into place. How’s the resulting noise isolation? It’s pretty darned amazing for newcomers to the custom-fit world— better, in my experience, than can be achieved with even the best universal-fit in-ear headphones, yielding backgrounds that are even quieter than those achieved by active noise cancelling headphones. Think about that for a minute.
So how do the JH16 PRO’s sound? In a word, I found them “revelatory,” and on several different levels. First, as mentioned above, they give excellent noise isolation. Second, and Jerry Harvey’s long experience in the field really shows here, they have an amazingly complete and coherent sound; I don’t know exactly how Harvey does its, but he gets the JH16 PRO’s eight (count ‘em) separate drivers to sing with one coherent voice. Third, the JH16 PRO’s offer wonderfully neutral tonal balance, which I regard as one of their greatest strengths. In short, the JH16 PRO’s have taken me straight to the uppermost level of in-ear headphone performance. When I do the full Playback review of the JH16 PRO a few weeks from now, I’ll provide detailed comments to show how it compares with the other top-tier custom in-ear models I’m now evaluating. But I can tell you right now that the JH16 PRO’s deserve to be finalists on anyone’s shopping list, if no-excuses performance is what you seek.
Are custom-fit in-ear monitors worth the steep price premium they command vis-à-vis universal fit models? If the monitors in question are the JH16 PRO’s, the answer is an unqualified “Yes.” They ain’t cheap, but they’re definitely worth the moolah if you can afford the entry price.