Amused to death with the Sony MDR EX-1000 IEM
When it comes to portable audio, it just doesn’t get much more portable than an IEM and a Ipod/Cowan/Sansa mp3 player. Even tethered to one of the small battery-powered headphone amps, we are talking about something that fits in a coat pocket. And if, like me, you commute 2 – 3 hours a day, anything that amuses during this “dead time” is a good thing.
Recent years have seen an explosion of new IEM’s upping the ante in sound quality (and price). So I decided to investigate what level of quality is attainable. I tried some of the low driver count Balanced Armature (BA) units such as the Etymotic Research ER-4 and a Shure 530 and Westone 3 and found them competent, but uninspiring.
So why not customs? To me, there is generally no way to hear them before you commit to them in full and suppressed resale value due to the need to re-shell (assuming the original manufacturer will even do this) if you decide to move on later. I also don’t like the idea of my ear being completely filled up and don’t think they would ultimately be comfortable (for me). So, at least for now, they are non-starters for me.
Hearing about the Sony EX-1000 with their large dynamic drivers made them a natural to test. The EX-1000 aren’t cheap, but not unreasonable, in the circa $400 street price range. They come nicely packed with a comprehensive assortment of tips, a shorter replacement cable and a nice leather carrying case. The magnesium driver housing is light but appears sturdy. There is a general sense of high quality and technology here with their 16mm drivers employing Neodymium magnets and Liquid Crystal Polymer Film diaphragms and their oxygen-free copper cables. I found them to be comfortable with the supplied ear-buds and easy to route for over ear cable routing.
The first listening impression is of a vivid, clean sound. The bass, while not as strong as devoted “bass heads” may prefer, is noteworthy for its sophistication and subjective lack of distortion (for an IEM). Treble is extended and generally smooth with a bit extra on top which fortunately manifests itself less as brightness than an enhanced sense of clarity. Certainly, it’s not forgiving of bad recordings. The midrange is quite good. Clean, yet lively and reasonably faithful to the unique texture and color of the individual instruments. Detail is good without being forcefully thrust at the listener. You can really hear this as Howard Hanson takes you through the instrumentation of his composition “Merry Mount” (The Composer and His Orchestra, Mercury). The extremes of dynamics here are also tracked pretty well without much in the way of compression or information loss as things get busy.
Beethoven’s Egmont Overture with Rene Leibowitz and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on an excellent Chesky release (originally a Kenneth Wilkenson recording) comes through both in its quiet moments and its riotous ending with its natural timbres (mostly) intact. The sound-field is excellent for an IEM, second in my experience only to the FAD 1610’s (review coming). The news is also good with popular music. Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” tricks and multitracks are there to be heard without fracturing the musical whole. Procol Harum’s atmospheric “A Salty Dog” is very well served here as well. The percussive new age-y sound of Conrad Praetzel’s “EnTrance” is evocative and enticing. For something a bit more hard-edged, the vocal and guitar pyrotechnics of Iggy and the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” inspire excited air play-along (guitar or drum as you prefer), just as you would hope.
Obviously, I like the EX-1000. They are one of the best overall IEM’s I have owned or heard in the moderate price range. I used my Sansa Fuze, my Cowan combo and my home system with Schiit Asgard amp all to good effect. The better the signal fed, the better the results, but the EX-1000/Sansa Fuse system was very worthy for its small size and the Sansa’s cost effectiveness.
Now, if you are a confirmed bass-head or find any sense of sibilance anathema, these may not be the phones for you. But for me, while they are certainly not perfect (the treble could be smoother yet and the sound-field even more expansive, etc.) they are quite good for their price class. And I still think there is something to be said for large dynamic IEM drivers…