Can it seriously already be the holiday time of year again? I wonder if Einstein’s Theory of Relativity took into account a person’s age, because I swear, the older I get, the faster the years go by.
If you’ve got a friend or loved one who’s into audio products, or if you yourself are trying to make up your mind as to which items you want to put on your wish-list for this gift-giving holiday season, then this little guide should help to make your decision a little easier.
2018 actually turned out to be a pretty exciting year in the world of portable and high-end audio products as we got to see a ton of new products launch along with refreshes of older models. So, this is a list of items that I felt stood out to me and ones I feel represent good value for money. We’ll just briefly discuss some price-points and then go through the ups and downs of each item.
Sub-$100: FiiO M3K
Starting off in the sub-$100 bracket we’ve got FiiO’s newly-released M3K.
The M3K is a refresh of their first mini player, the M3. The M3K, though, is a larger device, but also a much better designed device, especially if we consider the software. The original M3 was great in terms of its size, but the software was a major let-down and just overall felt extremely half-baked.This new model is far more refined and it shares a lot of design elements form the X1 2nd Gen. Although the software still isn’t as well thought-out as I would like, overall it’s a great little device considering that it only costs $70 (excluding shipping and applicable taxes, of course).I don’t think calling the M3K a basic music player is quite fair, as it definitely doesn’t feel that way, and that’s the thing that stands out the most for me with this device. The build quality really is very good. But, there really aren’t any bells and whistles either. There’s not even any Bluetooth…it really is just a stand-alone music player. The navigation is also a bit on the unintuitive side, but not something that you wouldn’t be able to get used to either.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer a great deal of power, so it’s best left for more sensitive and low impedance headphones and IEMs. Given the price, the M3K is a well-built, yet affordable gift that is perfectly suited to the holiday.
$100-200: Shanling M0 & FiiO M7
Next up, coming in at $110 we’ve got Shanling’s M0. This is what seems to be the worlds smallest Hi-Res music player, but that doesn’t mean that it lacks features. In fact, this is probably the most value-packed item I have ever reviewed.We’re getting a decent little touch screen, Bluetooth 4.1 which includes being able to both transmit and receive LDAC formats, it can act as a USB DAC for you computer, and it’s capable of delivering up to 80mW of power. Now, that’s not exactly super powerful, but it’s more than enough for the vast majority of IEMs out there. Honestly, for the price, you’re not going to be able to do better. Heck, even other players that cost twice as much as the M0 often don’t pack in this many features, so the fact that Shanling were able to do this in such a tiny package is truly remarkable.The other advantage of the M0 is that it simplifies things. On this gift guide I was going to include devices like the uBTR, BTR1K and BTR3 from FiiO, as well as the ES100 from EarStudio…but the M0 just kills those devices off, rendering them pointless. The M0 essentially does everything they do, but then gives you a full-on stand-alone music player as well. What’s more, the M0 only costs around $40 more than the BTR3 and only $10 more than the ES100. That’s a no-brainer if I ever saw one.
Moving on up to the $200 price-point there’s FiiO’s M7. This is a well-built, albeit a bit of a quirky device. It’s got a touch screen and features FiiO’s deeply customised and slimmed-down version of Android which works quite well. However, the M7 has a serious lack of power, and so, like the M3K, it’s best left to be used with sensitive IEMs. So, whilst it’s a nice device to use, my pick would definitely be to go with the M0 instead. As it’s a far more compact and feature-rich device whilst costing nearly half of what the M7 does. The only advantage of the M7, really, is that it’ll give you almost double the playback time on a single charge.To complicate things even further, FiiO announced just a few days ago that the next player they will release is called the M6.Now, what makes this device particularly interesting is that it’s smaller than the M7, uses a better quality IPS display, has built-in WiFi for over-the-air updates and compatibility with numerous streaming apps, and it offers almost as much power as the M0. And yet, despite all of those improvements over the M7, the M6 will still cost you $50 less than the M7.
It’s unclear at this point whether or not the M6 will hit the markets just before or after the holidays, so it might be worthwhile to hold-out on buying the M7. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the M7 really isn’t worth buying at all anymore, not since the introduction of the M0 and now the M6. But, of course, it’s always best to wait a little while after the initial release of a product to see how many software bugs are present first, or if there are any other widely reported issues.
As far as true bang-for-buck value is concerned, a battle between the M0 and M6 is going to be really tough, and it seems that it’s mostly going to come down to a person’s preference in size as the M0 can feel perhaps just too small at times, and whether or not you’d need direct access to streaming services.
$300-$500: FiiO M9, iBasso DX150, & Astell&Kern AK70 MKII
OK, moving further up the pricing ladder we’ve got another recently-released device from FiiO, the M9.
The M9 is a direct replacement for FiiO’s old X3-series of devices, and, to me, feels like a better device than the X5 3rd Gen as well.What we get here is a very well-made device that offers both a 3.5mm single-ended and a 2.5mm balanced output along with a dual-DAC chip setup. Unfortunately, we do only get a single card slot, but we do gain WiFi. On the software-front we have FiiO’s custom Android OS which seems to be the same as what’s found on the M7 and upcoming M6, which means that we’ve also got access to a number of streaming services such as Spotify, ROON, Deezer, and a couple of others. Access to such services are great around the holiday time as it’s always convenient to just call up a precomposed holiday playlist of all your favourite festive tunes.But, once the M6 comes out it’ll be interesting to see how it compares to the M9. But, for now, of all of FiiO’s devices, my favourite is the M9.
At the $500 price-point iBasso has the fantastic DX150. Now, this is a pretty large device, but the sound it delivers is fantastic. Couple that with the same modular-design as the far more expensive DX200, and what you get is a pretty versatile device. In fact, iBasso announced just a few days ago that their next amp module for the DX150 and DX200 will be called the AMP9, and it will feature Nutube technology, which will bring vacuum-tube-like sound to those devices, which is quite exciting.iBasso’s approach to using Android on their devices is a bit different to what FiiO is doing now, and so you’ve got much more flexibility in terms of installing apps since you’ve got access to a full version of the Android OS. There were some initial software issues with this device, but apparently those have now been ironed out through various software updates. However, Bluetooth is unfortunately a bit of a let-down here. iBasso stated that both the DX150 and the DX200 will be getting LDAC compatibility once the devices are upgraded to Android 8.1 Oreo, but those updates are still in the works.
So, if what you’re looking for is just a great sounding-device at around the $500 mark and you don’t have any particular need for versatility or the latest Bluetooth formats, then the DX150 is a really great choice.
Likewise, also at around the $500 mark is the AK70 MKII from Astell&Kern. This is a premium-built device that comes with a premium price-tag relative to its overall bang-for buck value.Astell&Kern create some of the best-built and striking designs out there, but when we consider the overall feature-list, then they can seem a bit over-priced.
But still, still if you don’t want or need a ton of features and instead want a premium build quality along with a well designed and stable user interface, then Astell&Kern is a great choice. Opening up a gift box and seeing one of these is sure to make anyone’s holiday one to remember.
$500+: FiiO X7 MKII
And finally the last DAP on this list is going to be FiiO’s X7 Mark II. This is their current flagship and is priced at around $650. This device offers you a full flavour of Android, so you can pretty much install any compatible app.The X7 Mark II also has a modular design like the DX150 and DX200, and it also sounds great.
However, apparently due to the 32-bit limitation of the CPU used, the X7 Mark II will never be able to get an update to Android Oreo, and so will not get compatibility with the LDAC Bluetooth format either. This is a real shame is it means that there won’t be much future development for the device, at least not in terms of the software anyways.
Again, if all you need is a high-quality stand-alone player, then the X7 Mark II is another good choice. But, personally, if I were to pick between the X7 and the DX150, I think I’d lean more towards the DX150.
Of course, you could end up spending a ton more on various other devices such as the DX200, AK300, and the Cayin N8 (just to name a few), but really, where the sweet-spot lies in terms of outright value is with the devices costing around or under $500. Whilst those costing more can often lack some of the features of the more affordable products, what you usually get is simply a more refined design and/or build quality and some slight improvements in the sound here and there. But, in all honesty, the sonic and build quality gap between the premium and the more affordable devices is constantly shrinking; so much so that it really doesn’t seem like a major advantage in favour of the premium-priced products anymore.
If you’d prefer to instead use an external DAC device with your smartphone rather than a dedicated music player, then there are a couple of options out there for you.
Sub-$100: FiiO i1
The i1 is FiiO’s answer to Apple doing away with the headphone jack. Simply put, it’s a very compact digital to analogue converter that has a lightning connection on one end and a 3.5mm audio jack on the other end. It also has some inline controls.Of course, because of its tiny size, the i1 simply won’t be able to provide you with a great deal of power, so using any headphones or IEMs other than super sensitive ones isn’t really going to be an option for you. But, if you’re happy with the sound of the earphones that were included with your previous phone and you’d like to continue using them, then the i1 could work well for you. At a price-point of $40 it also won’t break the bank, perfect for the holiday season, especially if the person was also gifted an iPhone.
$100-200: FiiO Q1 Mark II & iFi Nano iDSD Black Label
Stepping up to the $100 mark we’ve got another FiiO product in the form of the Q1 Mark II. Compared to the i1, the Q1 Mark II is what I’d call more of a proper external DAC device. It’s capable of delivering a fair amount more power than what something like the i1 can, and it also sports both a single-ended and a 2.5mm balanced connection. You’re also given the option of 2 levels of gain as well as a dedicated bass boost switch. You can also use it as an external sound card for your computer, or you could opt to bypass the digital to analogue conversion stage all together and simply use it as an amplifier.
Unfortunately, the Q1 Mark II is more catered towards iOS users, so compatibility of Android devices is hit or miss.
Now, if you’d like to go a little further, for a mere $200 iFi has given us the fantastic little Nano iDSD Black Label. In terms of overall dimensions, it’s about half the size of its bigger brother, the Micro iDSD Black Label, but it does offer some of the same features.Like the Q1 Mark II, the Nano iDSD Black Label offers you a choice of a single-ended 3.5mm output, as well as a balanced output. However, in this instance it’s also a 3.5mm connection, not the more common 2.5mm variety. Again, we’re getting a substantial boost in available power, which makes this device considerably more versatile in terms of which headphones it is able to drive. But, instead of getting the more useful bass boost switch, we are instead given a switch that’ll allow you to toggle between 2 different digital filters.
One of my favourite features on iFi’s devices is the full-sized USB connection. This just makes things so much easier in terms of connectivity as it means you can simple use a regular OTG cable in the case of android, and a standard camera-connection-kit cable in the case of an iOS device.
$200-500: FiiO Q5, iFi xDSD, & Chord Mojo
The $200 to $500 range is where I find to be the real sweet-spot on terms of overall bang for buck value for portable DAC devices.
First we’ve got the $350 Q5 from FiiO. This device is quite interesting as we’re getting that same modal design as what could be found on FiiO’s flagship X7-series of portable players. You also get Bluetooth 4.2 with APTX compatibility, but unfortunately no love for the LDAC format.Overall the Q5 looks and feels like a premium device, and that modular design means that you can somewhat change the sound character when using various amp modules, but more important is that it gives you the ability to increase the amount of available power.
Another advantage of the Q5 over something like the Q1 Mark II and the Nano iDSD Black Label is that you’re not limited to just USB input, but you can also connect a digital COAX or Optical connection to the device.
Jumping up to a price of $400 is the xDSD from iFi. Here you’re getting a device that, yes, looks a bit odd. Some will love it, whilst others will like it very little. But, as a performer, it’s an incredible device. It offers some truly excellent sound quality and can provide quite a substantial amount of power. In fact, it’s rated to output nearly double the amount of power of the standard AM3A amp module that’s included with the Q5. In addition, there’s also a bass boost function as well as a 3D+ function which aims to artificially increase the perceived sound stage. As with the Q5, we also get the option to connect the xDSD to a device via a USB, a COAX, or an Optical connection. As far as Bluetooth is concerned, we do get compatibility with AptX, but none for LDAC.
And finally, we’ve got the little Mojo from Chord. To be frank, the Mojo has pretty much become the benchmark for portable, small-sized DAC devices in terms of audio quality. Sitting at a price of around $500, it’s not cheap by any stretch, but it is also Chord’s most affordable and arguable most value-packed device. It can provide more power than what the xDSD can, and it’s even got two 3.5mm headphone jacks for when 2 people want to listen simultaneously.However, unfortunately, that’s where things end for the Mojo. Despite being the costliest device in this price-range, it’s got practically zero bells and whistles. There’s no Bluetooth, no selectable digital filters, no modular amp modules, not even a bass boost function. Although, I should add that the Mojo was initially released at a time when those features weren’t as common as they are now. If you need those features you could always get the Poly, which is purpose-built to give the Mojo various wireless capabilities along with an external storage slot, but the Poly costs even more than what the Mojo does; so that kinda defeats the whole point of getting a great value product.
$500-1000: iFi Micro iDSD Black Label
In the $500 to $1000 range the only device I could really recommend would be the Micro iDSD Black Label from iFi. This is of course not the only device available in this range, but it’s one a picked to be my personal device simply because of how many features it packs in.
Like the Mojo, the Micro Black Label was released before Bluetooth really became a common thing for these types of devices, so there’s no Bluetooth here either, but everything else we get is great.
For me, the best thing about the Micro Black Label from a versatility perspective is just how competent it is as either a desktop or a portable unit. Yes, it’s a pretty large device, so it’s not exactly the most convenient device to use for portability, but it can be used portably, nonetheless.
Moreover, it can deliver up to a crazy 4000mW of power, which is a ton more than any of these other portable devices.For desktop use the RCA outputs and preamp switch also allows you to hook the Micro Black Label up to a set of powered external speakers such as a pair of studio monitors.
Couple that with the exceptional sound quality, and what you get with the Micro Black Label is pretty much the perfect balance between a portable and desktop device, especially considering the price when compared to other similar products.
$1000+: Chord Qutest, Chord Hugo 2, iFi Pro iDSD
Once you cross over that $1000 boundary the waters can become quite murky. There are a lot of choices, and so it can become extremely difficult to make an informed decision based on what will work best for you and what will give you the best bang for your buck. Just 3 examples to mention would be the Qutest and Hugo 2 from Chord, as well as the Pro iDSD from iFi.
The Qutest will set you back somewhere in the region of around $2000 depending on your region. It truly is an excellent sounding DAC, but it also is just a standalone DAC, and so you’ll need to keep in mind that you’d require an additional amplifier if you want to use it with a set of headphones. Feature-wise it’s also pretty lacking, especially when you start comparing it to the competition. But, if you don’t particularly care for bells and whistles, then the Qutest is a fantastic no-frills option.
Next we should consider the Hugo 2. What’s truly great about Chord’s Hugo-line is that, like the iFi Micro iDSD Black Label, it can be used portably, as well as an incredible desktop device as well.No, the Hugo 2 doesn’t have nearly as much power as the Black Label, but you do get Bluetooth, including compatibility with the AptX format. The Hugo will set you back anywhere between $2000 and $2700, and that depends entirely on which region you’re buying it from, rather than some kind of spec difference.
If the Hugo 2 happens to cost towards the upper end of that $2K to $2.7K spectrum, then the Pro iDSD from iFi might be a better choice. In fact, if you don’t need the device to be portable in any way, then the Pro iDSD would outright be the better device to get as you actually do get quite a lot for its $2500 price-tag.The versatility and options you get with the Po iDSD is where the value lies. Again, its an incredible sounding device, and you can even use it as a network streamer over your WiFi network. There’s no Bluetooth though, unfortunately. But, you can also choose if you want to use it as a stand-alone DAC device, or you can use it’s built-in headphone amplifier as well, which is more powerful than the one in the Hugo 2. And, speaking of the headphone amp, the Pro iDSD also has built in vacuum tube circuitry which would allow you to add some tubey magic if you wanted to. There are also RCA and even XLR outputs on the back, and, if you really wanted to, you could insert a microSD card on the back and truly make the Pro iDSD a total stand-alone device. The fact that this device also has an actual display also immediately makes it a more intuitive device to use as compared to the more simplistic colour-coded scheme used by Chord in the Mojo, Qutest, and Hugo.
Overall, I’d say that the Pro iDSD would be my personal ultimate device, at least when considering the other products on this list. There’s just so much packed into it.
Ok, let’s now deal with the other side of the chain, the devices that do the final conversion of electrical energy into sound energy.
Sub-$100: Audio-Technica M40X
The M40X is definitely one of my all-time favourite headphones simply because of how much you get in terms of sound versus how much you pay. They usually come with a price-tag of $99, but you can often find them for less than that at various online retailers.The M40X is considered to be a studio monitor set of headphones, and for good reason. They produce a remarkably accurate sound, one which you can rely on as being faithful to the signal going into it. No, they’re not going to blow you away with super deep bass or insanely crispy highs, but what it lacks in refinement it makes up for in overall bang-for-buck value.
They’re constructed entirely out of plastic, so I can’t say that they feel premium, but they don’t feel like a set of cheapo headphones that’ll give out on you in a few weeks or months.
$200-400: Audio Technica MSR7, Sennheiser HD6xx, HiFiMAN HE400S, & Sony WH-1000XM2
Jumping to within the $200 to $300 category, we’ve got a couple of great choices.
The MSR7 from Audio-Technica is one of those headphones that measures incredibly well. It adds very little distortion to the signal and has a very good impulse response to go along with it. In terms of the overall sonic character, they are a little too much on the bright side of the spectrum for my personal taste, but not so much so that I would call them sibilant. Again, measurements don’t lie, the MSR7 gives you pretty much exactly what it is fed, it’s just a little lacking in the bass department which causes an overall brighter character. The build-quality is also very good for this price range and they really do feel more expensive than what the price-tag would suggest. Comfort-wise they can be a bit clampy, but you can stretch that out pretty easily.
Moving along, we’ve got something that’s somewhat of a staple in the audiophile world..well, sort of. The HD6XX is the Massdrop edition of the ever popular HD650. The design and sound signature was tweaked a bit, but for the most part it’s essentially the same thing as the HD650. For many people the HD650 is a proven benchmark when it comes to great quality open-back designs. However, it’s also important to keep in mind that the HD6xx will be a little more power-hungry than your usual run-of-the-mill headphones, so it’s best to keep the amplification requirements in mind for them. But then again, they don’t require nearly as much power as something like HiFiMAN’s HE6-series.
Speaking of HiFiMAN, their HE400S is also a really great value proposition. They were originally priced at $300, but prices have dipped to a little over $200 now. The thing about the HE400S is that they sound fairly good out of the box, but to really get the most of them you really ought to swap out the pads. Not only are the stock pads not doing the sound any favours, but they tend to fall apart and just feel rather uncomfortable.
Many people have told great tales of success when using the Brainwavz HM5 earpads, and I personally found the Focus earpads from HiFiMAN to do a fantastic job too. Upgrading the pads really does increase the sub-bass frequencies rather nicely, which we can see on a frequency response graph.
As far as the build quality is concerned, the HE400S is made almost entirely out of plastic, but it didn’t feel quite as skimpy as I had anticipated. No, it still doesn’t feel premium, but no too bad given the price-tag.
Lastly, we’ve got the 1000XM2 from Sony. These originally had a price of $350, but with the introduction of the 1000XM3 the M2 has dropped to around $230. For this price I’d say that they are a steal of a deal. Not only do you get some great noise-cancellation technology, but the wireless sound quality and the comfort is excellent.
Now, I specifically mention the sound quality in wireless, because when using wired they just sound mediocre, really. This most likely comes down to Sony’s DSP used, but whatever it is, the fact is that they sound great when used in wireless. Add in the awesome battery-life of up to 30 hours for wireless playback and you’re left with an exceptional product.
$500-1000: Sennheiser HD660S, HiFiMAN Sundara, & Audeze LCD2C
Between the $500 and $1000 price-points we’ve got another entry from Sennheiser in the form of the HD660S.
This is the successor to the HD650 that I’ve previously mentioned, and it comes with a new design and some new drivers. It’s still got an all-plastic build, and, if I’m honest, doesn’t feel as premium as I think headphones that cost $500 should. But, for the most part, you’re paying for sound quality here, not so much for build quality. Personally, I’d still opt for the HD650 instead, or even better for the HD6xx. There’s just some edginess in the upper frequencies with the HD660S that I couldn’t find myself getting along with. The HD650, on the other hand, had a smoother sound, and as a result I found myself experiencing considerably less fatigue during longer listening sessions. But of course, my preference is not necessarily the same as your preference. So, if you’ve heard the HD650 but wanted a bit more presence in the upper registers, then the HD660S is a great option.
Another contender at the $500 point would be the HiFiMAN Sundara. Here HiFiMAN have really stepped up their game with reference to the design and quality of materials used. As is the case with most of HiFiMAN’s headphones, the Sundara also uses planar-magnetic drivers, and the overall tuning stays very true to the HiFiMAN house sound. There are a few peaks here and there in the upper frequencies of the response curve, but nothing so problematic that would make me consider them to be an inherent flaw. And again, if you like the overall signature of HiFiMAN’s more affordable headphones, such as the HE400S, then the Sundara is a definite step up in terms of overall sound quality and tonality. The response curve is just flatter, and we’re also seeing substantially more presence in the sub-bass region.
And finally, I would also consider the LCD2C from Audeze. These do jump up in price to around $800 or so, but there’s something that Audeze’s don’t have nearly as much of as HiFiMAN, and that’s quality control issues. HiFiMAN pretty much have a reputation for quality control issues, whereas Audeze seems to have a better handle on this.The LCD2C also feature planar-magnetic drivers and a response curve that flatter and overall smoother than that of the Sundara. But it does dip quite severely after the 1kHz mark, which means that it can at times sound a little off to me. It misses out on that metallic shimmer effect of cymbals, for example. Overall I’d say the LCD2C is great of you prefer a smoother, perhaps even somewhat laid-back signature. But, if you’re looking for better detail retrieval, then the LCD2C will leave you wanting.
The next and final category are IEMs. Over the last couple of years this segment of the market has absolutely exploded with dozens of new models coming out each year. As is the case with headphones, and any other aspect of this hobby, IEMs can vary greatly in price.
$50-100: MEE M6 Pro 2nd Gen & FiiO FH1
The M6 Pro 2nd Gen from MEE Audio comes in at a price of just $50, but it is absolutely one of my favourite value propositions out there. For this price you just get so much. It sounds really good and you get a couple of accessories thrown in too. As the name suggests, this is the 2nd iteration of the M6 Pro, and compared to the first generation this new model has a couple of key improvements. Most important is the sound quality and tonal character. Whilst the original already had a pretty good sound for the price, this revised version offers a considerably smoother and more refined response. The sound signature isn’t quite as v-shaped, and those shouty high frequencies of the original have been toned down nicely.
The physical shape has also been improved and the entire shell now sits with somewhat of a negative profile with the ear, making it much more comfortable if you wanted to lie down on your side while still having the IEMs in your ear.
The only real negative about these is that the cable connection does not use a more universal connector such as an MMCX or 2-pin. This means that you’d have a real tough time upgrading the cable or swapping it out for something form a third-party vendor. But, other than that, the M6 Pro 2nd Gen really is an outstanding bit of kit, and one that I see myself recommending time and time again. This is another one of those really affordable but high-quality products that are great for the holiday season. MEE Audio also has a fantastic lifetime replacement policy whereby you can purchase a replacement pair for half price should you accidentally break or even lose them.
Jumping up to the $75 price-point there is the FiiO FH1. This is another one of my favourites from FiiO. Whilst the sound character isn’t quite to my liking, it’s not something that I’d call offensive either. It’s got a bassy, warm, and likeable signature. It might lack some refinement, but it doesn’t try to overdo anything in particular either. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to directly compare the FH1 to the M6 Pro 2nd Gen, so I’m not sure which one I’d personally rather pick. But, if my memory serves me, I remember the FH1 as having slightly more bass presence.
As far as the build is concerned, the FH1 does have a bit more of a premium feel compared to the M6 Pro 2nd Gen, so the increase in price is justified, I feel.
$100-200: FiiO F9 & MEE Pinnacle P1
In the $100 to $200 bracket the FiiO F9 and MEE Audio Pinnacle P1 comes to mind for me.
At $100 the F9 is a pretty decent set of IEMs, but they do need some slight EQ tweaking to really shine for me. The problem here is that there is a sharp treble peak that can make them sound quite harsh at times. Dropping the EQ level at around the 8kHz point really does tone them down and make them sound pretty darn good. But, of course, if you use a device that doesn’t allow you to EQ them, then the standard sound can become quite fatiguing quite fast.
Next up there’s the Pinnacle P1 form MEE Audio. These can be found for between $175 and $200 and they’ve become my person favourite IEMs that I use on a daily basis. Now, they’re not going to be for everyone as they don’t have that deep rumbling bass that you might want, but what it does have is a fantastically balanced and coherent sound. For a set of IEMs they offer a pretty wide sound stage, and, despite the fact that it’s only got a single dynamic driver, instrument separation is also excellent.
What’s really striking about these is the presentation of the packaging. The whole thing just feels so premium and well thought-out. You really feel like you got your money’s worth.
$200-500: FiiO FH5 & Shure SE535
Heading up to between $200 and $500 there’s the FiiO FH5 and the Shure SE535.
The FH5 is FiiO’s current flagship model and it really does look and feel like an incredibly well-built and designed product. When it comes to the sound, I’m not particularly a fan and I found that it really needed some EQ tweaking to be more to my liking. But, if you prefer a somewhat darker and more bass prominent sound, then the FH5 might suit you perfectly. The build-quality alone already commands a higher price-tag, so if the sound signature happens to be to your liking too, well then, I think you’ll be extremely happy with them.
The Shure SE535, I must confess, I’ve only heard once, and I did like what I heard. But I don’t feel that I was able to listen to them for long enough to really be able to give a detailed analysis on their character or how they compare to other products. So, for what it’s worth, I’ll just say that they offered a nice, warm, yet balanced sound that I got along with instantly. I do think the $450 to $500 price is a bit steep, especially considering that the body is made out of plastic, but they did sound really good to me. They also measure incredibly well according to the InnerFidelity measurements.
$1000+: InEar ProPhile 8
If I had to pick some kind of ‘money no object’ set of IEMs, then it would without a doubt be the ProPhile 8 from InEar. These come with a price-tag of $1500, which is steep by any sane person’s standards, but they are also an incredible-sounding product, the best in ears that I’ve heard to date.The fit is a little awkward, as they do stick out a fair amount, but they weren’t uncomfortable during longer listening sessions. What makes them even sweeter is the ability to change their sound character by flicking some switches. This gives you the choice of increasing the bass or increasing the highs, or increasing both if you’re looking for a more v-shaped signature.
It’s a lot of money to spend on a set of universal-fit IEMs, but they’re good enough that it would probably also be the last set that you’d ever need to buy, assuming that they would outlast you, of course. Once you start listening to them, you might just find yourself missing the entire holiday as you drift away into a blissful state of awesomeness.
Well, that brings us to the end of this little gift guide. I hope you’ve found this useful and that it’ll help make your purchasing decisions easier. There are more in-depth reviews for most of the listed items on Samma3a, so just follow the links.