In the world of high-end, high-accuracy in-ear monitors, Jerry Harvey is regarded as a both a pioneer and as a bit of a legend. Harvey’s work in this area began at Ultimate Ears—a company that he helped found and for which he created a number of custom-fit in-ear headphone designs that have come to be regarded as classics by the performance-minded musicians and audiophiles who know and love them. Eventually, though, Ultimate Ears was sold to Logitech, with the result that Harvey exited the audio arena for a time, only to return in 2009 as the leader of his new company: JH Audio.
JH Audio focuses on one thing only: building high-performance custom-fit in-ear monitors, and at the very top of the firm’s product pyramid resides the JH16 Pro ($1149). In a brief conversation with Harvey at the Can Jam Chicago 2010 earlier this year, I learned that the JH16 Pro embodies everything Mr. Harvey has learned over his long and successful career as a headphone designer. Despite its diminutive size, then, the JH16 Pro is chockfull of technology; it is a three-way, triple-bore in-ear monitor based on eight (!) miniature balanced-armature drivers (grouped as four low-frequency drivers, two midrange drivers, and two high-frequency drivers) said to offer “lower distortion, increased headroom and greater detail and accuracy.” In turn, the JH16 Pro claims the widest frequency response (10Hz – 20kHz) and the highest sensitivity rating (118dB @ 1 mW) of any of the JH Audio models. In short, the JH16 Pro is Jerry Harvey’s masterpiece.
Does the JH16 Pro’s sound quality live up to its “buzz?” In very many respects it does. I know that when I first received my JH Audio review samples, I found them simply revelatory—so much so that I found myself listening to them every chance that I got. Relative to even the best universal fit models I have tested, they offered superior noise isolation, with greater resolution and terrifically smooth, neutral tonal balance.
Part of my favorable reaction is simply due to the custom-fit format itself, which offers—I have discovered—terrific potential for coupling drive mechanisms to the wearer’s ears in an effective way while blocking out extraneous noise. But part of my reaction is also due to pure and simple design excellence on Jerry Harvey’s part; excellence that manifest itself in the way that Harvey gets the eight drivers of his JH16 Pro to sing with one common voice—something that, in practice, is much easier said than done. This review will explore both the concept of custom-fit in-ear models in general, and the particular performance attributes of one the JH16 Pro, which I regard as one of the best of their breed.
Consider this custom-fit in-ear monitor if: you want to go to the sonic “mountaintop” and are prepared to invest in what is certainly one of the finest (if not the finest) in-ear headphones on the planet. Positive qualities include excellent resolution, neutral tonal balance, and remarkable “cut-from-whole-cloth” sonic integrity. Sensitive and easy to drive, the JH16 Pro can be powered directly by an iPod, though to tap this monitor’s full potential you’ll need and want to use a great DAC and headphone amplifier.
Look further if: you want to do “due diligence” and thus to check out other top-tier custom fit options available. Some models to consider would include the Sensaphonics 2MAX and the Westone ES-5. Playback will be reviewing these and other custom-fit competitors in the future, but based on our listening experiences thus far, we think JH Audio’s JH16 Pro can stand tall in any company.
Ratings (compared to similarly-priced in-ear headphones)
• Tonal Balance: 10
• Clarity: 9.5
• Dynamics: 9.5
• Comfort/Fit: 10
• Sensitivity: 10
• Value: 9
• Custom-fit, solid acrylic earpieces provide noise isolation (-26 dB) audibly superior to that of any universal-fit in-ear model Playback has tested, plus a comfortable fit and terrific ease of insertion.
• Earpieces can be molded in any of 54 custom colors, where users can (in most cases) pick solid or translucent colors (translucent colors show the inner structural details of the headphones). External artwork can be applied to the earpieces for a modest $50 upcharge.
• High-quality signal cables are offered in either clear or black jackets in 18-inch, 48-inch, or 64-inch lengths.
• Passive three-way crossover
• Uses eight miniature balanced-armature drivers (four low-frequency drivers, two midrange drivers, and two high-frequency drivers).
• Triple bore design (where “bores” are outlet tubes for each of the three groups of drivers).
• Gold-plated mini-jack.
• Comes packed in a watertight “Otter Box” custom labeled with the owner’s name.
• Accessories include a cleaning tool (for removing ear wax from the bore tubes), and a felt drawstring pouch.
If, like me, much of your past listening experience has been gleaned through exposure to high-quality universal-fit in-ear headphones, then the jump to custom-fit in-ear ‘phones will likely prove a sonic revelation, for several good reasons.
First, there is the matter of noise isolation, which with most custom fit models—the JH16 Pro included—is dramatically superior to the best that universal-fit models can achieve. Interestingly, this difference isn’t something you can tell from a specifications page, since some universal-fit models claim isolation specs roughly as good as (if not better than) the -26 dB isolation figure specified for the JH Audio JH16 Pros. Instead, it’s a difference you can only appreciate through firsthand listening experiences. Under real-world conditions the JH Audios proved substantially quieter than their universal fit counterparts—and by not subtle margins. Frankly, you won’t believe how much residual noise there is, even in seemingly quiet rooms —until you hear a good set of custom-fit in-ear ‘phones such as the JH Audios make most if not all of that noise disappear. By creating extremely quiet backgrounds, the JH16 Pros also provide an environment in which you can hear what their driver’s are doing and fully appreciate the resolution and finesse the driver’s have on offer.
One point I should mention is that while custom-fit in-ear ‘phones offer characteristically better noise-isolation that universal-fit models, there are meaningful differences between the amounts of noise isolation achieved by different brands of custom fit earpieces. Having compared the JH Audios to several other top-tier custom-fit models (see Competitive Analysis, below), their noise isolation is very good, but not the best that can be achieved.
Second, the JH16 Pro’s offer wonderfully neutral and accurate voicing and tonal balance—an area where they are at least the equals of the best in-ear models I’ve heard thus far. There is always a sense of evenhandedness and proportion about the JH16 Pro’s sound, so that no one segment of the audio spectrum is emphasized at the expense of another. Instead, the JH16 Pros are remarkably honest transducers that steadfastly refuse to “punch up” one frequency band or another in ways that might seem exciting at first, but that ultimately don’t sound quite right. Long after the short-term thrill of more “colorful” but less accurate headphones has faded the neutrality of the JH16 Pros remains a gift that keeps on giving, making these headphones a more satisfying choice for long-term listening.
Third, the JH Audios offer excellent overall resolution and detail, so that they invite you to explore the inner “nooks and crannies” of well-made recordings. But unlike many in-ear headphones that offer detail at the expense of a somewhat glassy, bright or overly forward sound, the JH16 Pros are instead revealing in a delightfully natural and unforced way. Details just “happen” with these headphones; they never take dominance over the fundamentals of the sound. Frankly, I can think of only a handful of full-size ‘phones that offer as much (or in a few cases more) resolution than the JH16 Pros, but most of them are large, open-back designs that offer little if any isolation from background noise. In contrast, the JH16 Pros serve up a consistently detailed sound even when used in relatively “hostile,” noisy environments.
One beautiful jazz track that shows off many of the JH16 Pro’s strengths is “Le Temps Passe” from Michel Jonasz’ Le Fabuleuse Histoire De Mister Swing [EMI]. This is a well recorded track that gives both instruments and the singer’s voice a rich, intimate quality that the JH Audio’s seem uniquely well-qualified to reproduce. Listen to the sparse percussion with which the track opens and note the dry, taut “skin sounds” of the drums, and the way the JH16 Pros capture the rich, reverberant sound of their notes interacting with the acoustics of the recording space. Then, pay close attention to the synth voices that enter, some of which produce positively subterranean bass. The low-end power of the JH16 Pros is much in evidence on those synth notes, but so, too, is their tautness and control. Low frequency notes are potent and deeply extended, but never loose, overblown, or out of control.
Next drink in the shimmer of a cymbal “tree” that is struck, so that notes show a delicate, sparkling clarity—almost like sunlight reflecting off the rippled surface of a pool. As the cymbals ring, you might be struck, as I was, by the JH Audio’s ability to serve up very high levels of inner detail, but in a gentle and unforced way, without any of the artificial “spotlighting” or etching that some headphones impose. Finally, note the way that the JH16 Pro’s deftly handle the subtle inflections and unusual vibrato effects of Jonasz’ voice (which, on this track, might briefly conjure up the mental image of a male vocalist “channeling” the spirit or overall feel of some of the late Edith Piaf’s vocals). At its best, Jonasz’ voice, like Piaf’s, is not so much about sounds, per se, but rather about the emotions behind the sounds—something the JH16 Pro’s make abundantly clear.
“Le Temps Passe” is a fascinating track in that is starts simple, with almost minimalist instrumentation, and then gradually adds layer upon layer until the instrumentation becomes comparatively complex. Where some headphones tend to become flummoxed and to sound congested when serious musical complexity comes along, the JH16 Pro simply revel in it, always maintaining clarity and composure, and demonstrating a wonderful ability to delineate individual musical threads within the broader musical tapestry. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect it was this very capability that Jerry Harvey had in mind when giving his JH16 Pros such elaborate, multi-driver arrays (again, two drivers for the highs, two for the mids, and four for the bas—in each earpiece). By distributing the musical workload across a multitude of drive units Harvey ensures that no one driver ever gets overtaxed—in the process giving the overall musical presentation a relaxed, effortless quality you can both hear and feel.
To give you an idea of how the JH16 Pro compares to other top-tier custom-fit in-ear monitors, I discuss its performance relative to two leading competitors: the Sensaphonics 2MAX ($850) and the Westone ES-5 ($950).
JH16 Pro vs. Sensaphonics 2MAX ($850)
• The JH16 Pro costs roughly $300 more than the Sensaphonics 2MAX.
• The JH16 Pro is a three-way, 8-driver design, where the 2MAX is a two-way, 2-driver design.
• Overall, I found the voicing of the JH16 Pro to be more evenly and neutrally balanced than that of the 2MAX. The JH16 Pro comes as close as any in-ear headphone I’ve heard to achieving ideally neutral tonal balance, with beautiful integration and balance between mids (where most of the music lives), bass and highs. By comparison, the 2MAX offers two subtle regions of emphasis—one in the mid-bass and the other in the upper midrange/lower treble region. These “regions of emphasis” in the 2MAX typically did not register as overt colorations, per se, but rather struck me as offering judicious touches of dramatic emphasis, which some listeners might prefer.
• Resolution levels between the two monitors are comparable, though I would give the nod to the JH16 Pro’s by a narrow margin. Note, however, that the 2MAX’s offer exceptional noise isolation so that they manage to achieve—thanks to their ultra-quiet backgrounds—appealing qualities of sonic intensity and focus.
• One of the biggest differentiators between the JH16 Pro and the 2MAX involves the construction of their custom-molded earpieces, where JH Audio uses solid acrylic earpieces, while Sensaphonics uses soft-gel silicone earpieces. The difference in feel is significant.
• The JH16 Pro solid, smooth acrylic earpieces make them extremely easy to insert. Indeed, the JH Audio earpieces lend themselves to an insertion process where you gently rotate the JH16 Pro earpieces until they “snap” into position, achieving a very good seal and an extremely comfortable fit in the process. The JH16 Pros offer noticeably better noise isolation that any of the universal-fit in-ear ‘phones I’ve tried, though some other custom-fit ‘phones that can achieve even better levels of noise isolation.
• The 2MAX’s soft-gel silicone earpieces take a bit more effort to fit correctly (in part because the 2MAX earpieces fit quite deeply within the ear canal). To achieve an optimal fit, you must first rotate the 2MAX earpieces into approximately the correct position, and then press—gently but quite firmly—over the ear canal area to get the earpieces to seal correctly. The resulting fit can seem disconcertingly tight at first, but the end result is very comfortable, while the level of noise isolation achieved by the 2MAX’s is spectacularly good—better than that achieved by any other headphone (regardless of type) that Playback has tested thus far.
JH16 Pro vs. Westone ES-5 ($950)
• The JH16 Pro costs roughly $200 more than the Westone ES-5.
• The JH16 Pro is a three-way, 8-driver design, where the ES-5 is a three-way, 5-driver design.
• The voicing of the JH16 Pro is somewhat more smoothly and neutrally balanced than that of the ES-5. By comparison, the ES-5 exhibits a gentle region of upper midrange emphasis that tends to make certain midrange instruments, vocalists, and transients sound slightly more prominent in the mix. While this prominence can impart a sense of superior clarity, the tradeoff is that the Westones can occasionally sound “spitty” on hard upper midrange transient sounds, where the JH16 Pros sound unfailingly smooth.
• Resolution levels between the JJ16 Pro’s and ES-5’s are comparable.
• One of the biggest differentiators between the JH16 Pro and the ES-5 involves the construction of their custom-molded earpieces. The JH Audio uses solid acrylic earpieces, while Westone uses a combination of solid acrylic material for the main bodies of their earpieces they also use a separate, thermally sensitive, “soft-feel” material for the portion of the earpiece that inserts into the ear canal. As the Westone earpieces come up to temperature, their tips become semi-flexible and thus conform to the shape of the ear canal to achieve a better seal.
• The ES-5 earpieces in a sense “split the difference” between the JH Audio and Sensaphonics earpiece designs. On the one hand, the Westones have the easy-to-insert qualities of the all-acrylic JH Audio earpieces, while also offering some if not all) of the superior noise isolation characteristics that the Sensaphonics’ soft-gel silicone earpieces provide.
The JH16 Pro is the finest in-ear monitor that Jerry Harvey has ever designed, which is saying a mouthful when you look back at some of the groundbreaking products that he designed while at Ultimate Ears, and it looks and feels the part of a true flagship product. The two qualities that make the JH16 Pros most special are the overall smoothness and neutrality of their tonal balance coupled with the seamless coherency of the sound achieved by their eight balanced-armature drivers.
Though the JH16 Pro is sensitive enough to be driven directly from an iPod, you’ll need a very good DAC and headphone amplifier to realize the full scope of the sonic benefits the JH Audio ‘phones provide. Is it worth taking the plunge to invest in good set of custom-fit in-ear monitors? Yes, it definitely is if the monitors in question are the JH16 Pros. Though they are undeniably expensive, the JH16 Pros provide an audio experience that not even today’s best universal-fit in-ear headphones can hope to equal. For now, we think the JH16 Pro represents the sonic “mountaintop” among in-ear headphones.
SPECS & PRICING
JH Audio JH16 Pro custom-fit in-ear monitor
Type: Three-way, 8-driver (balanced armature), triple-bore, custom-fit in-ear headphones
Accessories: Otter Box custom labeled with owner’s name, JH16 Pro with earpieces molded in the owner’s choice of custom colors (see JH Audio web site for options), felt drawstring carrying pouch, cleaning tool.
Frequency response: 10Hz – 20kHz
Weight: Not specified
Sensitivity: 118 dB SPL/mW
Impedance: 18 ohms
Warranty: 2 years, parts and labor