Zero Audio Carbo Tenore ZH-DX200-CT


Earlier this year Vlad Savov at TheVerge posted a glowing review of the Zero Audio Carbo Tenore earbuds, so glowing in fact that it actually caused a price spike in these buds for a while. They’re back down to $38 on Amazon so I thought I’d give my two cents on these. TLDR: buy them.

First, the build quality. The Carbo Tenores are made in Japan, not China, so I would expect a high build quality. Indeed, they are very well built from quality materials but they seem somewhat delicate. The cable is very thin, with no strain relief.  There’s some cause for concern here as my previous favorite buds, the Xiaomi Pistons, died when the cable broke at the jack and that cable seemed much more substantial. The Tenore buds themselves are abnormally small and light, much smaller than most earbuds. They’re the only pair I’ve tried that are small enough to wear in bed, even laying on my side I don’t feel any pressure or discomfort. Microphonic noise is minimal for me, I can hear it if I touch the cable but it’s not bad at all. Sound isolation is very good, with the music off I can still hear the annoying Christmas carols playing in the coffee shop as I type this,  but anything at even a low volume is enough to block out the outside world.

So how’s the sound? Fantastic, especially at this price. Clear, detailed mids and highs, deep but not obtrusive bass. My main home-use headphones are the Philips SHP9500, an open back over-ear headphone that features terrific soundstage and detail, and these Tenores compare favorably in every way, and beat the Philips in bass.

I’m not going to make claims that the Carbo Tenores beat earbuds costing ten times as much, because frankly I’ve never tried anything costing that much and probably never will. But I can say that they’ve become my favorite earbuds, both for their terrific sound as well as comfort. If I had paid $100 I’d be just as satisfied, so the $38 price tag makes these a must buy.

Product link: Zero Audio Carbo Tenore ZH-DX200-CT at Amazon.

DragonFly Black Portable DAC – the perfect Christmas gift for budget audiophiles

I listen to a lot of cheap earbuds and headphones of varying quality but the one thing they all have in common is my audio source. Most of the time I’m listening to Spotify via my laptop or phone, admittedly not the high end lossless source most audiophiles would prefer. But realistically that’s how most people are getting their music today, or from iTunes, Tidal, YouTube, etc. We’re all listening to the headphone jack on our devices so we’re at the mercy of the built-in DAC, which converts the digital file to an analog sound wave our headphones can play. The problem here is the built-in DAC is built for mass market consumption, cost is a major factor and quality just has to be good enough. Improving this DAC can have  huge impact on your listening experience. There are any number of desktop DACs or “portable” DACs the size of a cigarette pack or larger, usually requiring their own power source or drawing too much power via USB to use on a cell phone. The Audioquest DragonFly looks to be the perfect solution for the mobile user, as well as for home use.

The DragonFly looks like a high quality thumb drive and connects to your USB port. All digital to analog processing is offloaded to the DragonFly and it’s high quality DAC chip. You can read all about the specs at the Audioquest site so I’ll spare you the details but suffice it to say it’s a much higher level of audio quality than any laptop or mobile phone. It couldn’t be easier to use, just plug into your USB port, plug your headphones in the other end and you’re all set. It just works.

But how is the sound? Fantastic. I was skeptical about dropping $99 on something that might not make much of a difference but I immediately noticed the improvement. Music just sounds more dynamic, fuller, more defined. There’s a vibrancy to the sound that I didn’t even know was missing. I went from being a skeptic to being convinced that these are a must have, especially if you plan on buying a nicer pair of headphones than the type we usually review here. You need a good sound source to get the most out of your headphones, and the power to drive them. The DragonFly series of DACs provide that source. I only tried the Black but there’s also a DragonFly Red for $199 that provides even more power for higher end headphones. I don’t think you can go wrong with either.

The DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red are available and in stock at Amazon. They’d make a great gift for anyone who’s into music.

iHip Deep Advanced Sound Design Earphones – Literally the worst

Utter shit

Utter shit

There are so many great options out there in the under $20 earphone market that it’s easy to forget how truly bad a cheap earphone can sound. Case in point: the iHip Deep Advanced Sound Design Earphone, assuming that’s the model name. It’s what’s on the box, along with the $5 price tag from Big Lots. Now, I normally don’t look to Big Lots for quality sound but I was in a pinch, stuck on a long, boring job where I forgot to bring one of my many pair of earphones. I had low expectations but I figured for 5 bucks I could at least listen to some podcasts. Well, they worked well enough to pass coherent audio but other than that, these things are utter shit.

First of all, the build quality is as cheap as it gets. The cord is a flimsy, shiny kind of plastic. The cans are a cheap metal, painted black with the thinnest black rubber tips. The overall feeling is like something you’d get out of a box of cereal. Sound quality is the worst I’ve ever heard. Tinny, distant, attenuated, no bass at all and very little mids. Vocals sound like they’re behind a wall of pillows. The best thing I can say about them is there’s some degree of separation between instruments and there’s at least some stereo imaging.  The sound on these is so shitty it’s actually nerve wracking, it’s the kind of thing we should be using in Guantanamo to get information out of captured terrorists. It sounds like the speaker on a 1970’s portable black and white television, played through a mid-90s flip phone, amplified by a paper cone.

However, the question remains: Are they worth the $5? Compared to some of the decent options available on Aliexpress and Amazon for under $10? Hell no. But if you’re in a pinch, where the option is 8 hours of silence while doing a mind numbing task, then I have to say yes, they’re worth buying. Just do yourself a favor and set fire to them at the end of the day. Your ears and sanity are at stake.

Rock Zircon: Great clarity and fun sound in a budget IEM

Rock ZirconAfter reading a stellar, 5 star review of the Rock Zircon IEMs at Audiobudget.com I knew I had to try a pair. I immediately ordered a pair from AliExpress, at the ridiculously low price of $10.99, with free shipping. 10 days later I was tearing open the box and put them to work with Rage Against the Machine’s Take The Power Back. From the very first bass drum hit I knew the Rock Zircon’s would be fun. A nice, full, impactful bass for sure but once the guitars and vocals kicked in I was pleasantly surprised at the level of detail and wide soundstage. The highs are there too, but not overly harsh or painful.

Next up was the New York Philharmonic recording of Verdi’s Dies Irae, one of the most power and dramatic classical works. Here too I felt the impact of the bass drums, the instruments and vocals were clear and sharp and the Zircon’s.

Curious as to just how good the bass is on these things, I tried them with Late Night Tip by Three 6 Mafia. The constant bass rumble was powerful and clear but at the same time the vocals and snare hits were sharp and clear. Very impressive for such a cheap IEM! How about the ridiculous Bassgasm (Ultimate Woofer Test) by Techmaster P.E.B.? This song is so insanely bass heavy that it’s basically unlistenable, seemingly made for car audio subwoofer competitions. But the Zircons handle the insane bass with aplomb, to the point where it feels like the bass is scrambling my brain from the inside.

While the Zircons provide a lot of fun, accurate bass the higher ranges don’t seem to be colored by it. An a capella track like Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner sounds completely clear and natural, every nuance of her voice can be heard, right down to the almost imperceptible sounds of wetness on the lips. A guitar heavy track like AC/DC’s Touch To Much sounds properly clear and bombastic, right up the threshold of bearable volume. The one weakness here is the cymbal crashes sound a touch washed out, not quite as clear and sharp as they could be. But again, for 10 bucks that’s a very minor quibble.

The build quality seems pretty good on the Zircons. They have a nice braided cable that doesn’t snag or tangle easily. The buds themselves are a little funky looking with their tapered shape but they’re fairly small and comfortable, I’ve had no problems listening for several hours. Due to the small size they do tend to move around a little but I suspect that if you used some compressible foam tips it would alleviate that issue.

The Rock Zircons are my new favorite IEMs, I even prefer them to my Shure SE215s that cost nearly 10 times as much. The sound is nearly as good and the Zircons are much easier to slip in and take off, and the cable is lighter and easier to deal with. You really can’t go wrong with these things. Amazon has them for $16.88 with free Prime shipping, in some places it’s even free next day shipping. I think they’re the best IEM for under $20, give them a try.

 

 

 

How to get the best fit for your IEMs

I recently tried a highly reviewed IEM and was appalled at the poor sound. Hollow, tinny, no bass, they were awful. But they had such good reviews from a wide variety of users. How could this be? Poor fit. I was using the rolled foam tips, which should give the best seal but in this case the tips were too narrow  for my ear canal and didn’t give me a good seal. I switched to the rubber tips and the IEMs came alive with rich, full sound.

When researching IEMs you’ll often see isolated poor reviews of otherwise highly rated IEMs. This is usually chalked up to individual variation and tastes but I suspect there are often fitment issues at the root of it. I briefly considered writing a guide to IEM fitment but there’s none better than The Headphone List’s excellent guide:

 

1) Is your earphone designed to have the cable go down, go over-the-ear, or either?  I have seen people wear over-the-ear earphones with the cable down resulting in a horrible experience.  The packaging and/or product page should show the proper wear style.  Also, make sure to follow the left/right markings.

 

It seems a basic point but many people aren’t aware that there’s more than one way to wear the cords and that some IEMs are designed for the cord to route up, over and behind the ear. There’s a lot of good info there so head over and check it out.

Link: The Headphone List Earphone Fit Guide

KZ ATE – The best budget headphones?

KA ZAT IEMsThere’s a lot of talk right now about the KZ family of IEMs, specifically the KZ ATE. I recently received a pair and have them under evaluation for a future review. I’ll give you a preview: they’re fantastic and live up to all the hype.

KZ is Knowledge Zenith, a Chinese earphone manufacturer making a name for themselves with some outstanding budget IEMs. Most reviews praise them not only for their excellent sound but much higher than expected build quality in the under $20 (and even under $10!) market.

Reddit user RMCPhoto gives them a very good review here:

Bottom line: 3.5/5 Great build quality, solid isolation, and distortion free analytical sound suitable for electronic genres. While the sound is crisp and clear it is not delicate and can be fatiguing. Good budget buy – no regrets.

I’ll have a review of the KZ ATE up soon. In the meantime, you can purchase them for a low as $9.19 at the Official KZ store on Aliexpress or on Amazon for slightly more. I paid $15.90 and had them in two days via Amazon Prime.

Shure SE215: The Starting Point

Shure SE215 - photo courtesy of shure.comSince my goal with this blog is to document the bargains and giant-killers coming out China, I think it’s important to set a baseline. Something to compare the low priced Chi Fi offerings to. My favorite IEMs over the last few years have been the Shure SE215, so it’s as good a place as any to start.

I’m not going to delve into packaging or accessories since I bought them several years ago at Fry’s, but I will comment on the durability and build quality. These are a very strongly built IEM. The cord is a thick rubber, and it’s detachable so you can order a replacement if anything should happen to it. In the four years I’ve had them, I haven’t had a single problem. The rubber is still intact, no cracking or crumbling. The rollable foam ear plugs still have plenty of spring and work just fine.

Fit
The SE215s use and around-the-ear style fit, requiring the cord to be wrapped up and around, rather than hanging down. They also use a compressing foam tip, you need to roll it and insert it, like a noise-protection ear plug. This results in outstanding sound isolation, making them great for travel but you need to be careful if you’re out running or cycling, you absolutely won’t hear car horns, sirens, etc. Despite the size and somewhat fussy fit, they’re actually quite comfortable, I can even lay on my side and not feel much pressure on the ear. The downside is that if you’re in a setting where people will be interrupting you, it’s a bit of a pain to remove and reinsert them.

Sound
I want to state right off the bat that I’m no audiophile, just someone who enjoys music and wants it to sound good. I don’t hold to the belief that a completely neutral headphone is the best. Sound is highly subjective, not just in preference but also in perception. I listen to a variety of styles, mostly on Spotify and my own mp3 and FLAC collection straight out of a Dell XPS13 laptop or OnePlus One phone.

Listening notes:
Take The Power Back – Rage Against The Machine
The opening bass drum has a satisfying thump and the bass guitar has a satisfying plunk. Vocals and guitar work are strong and clear. However, the cymbals near the end could be brighter.

Killer Queen – Queen
This song is a real showcase of vocal and guitar overdubbing that the SE215s handle well. The drums aren’t as prominent as the RATM song but they can be felt in a tasteful way. The multiple guitar tracks are all distinct and clear and don’t blend together. Once again, the highs aren’t quite there, lacking just a little sparkle and clarity.

Dance Of The Yi People – Liu Fang
This is traditional Chinese folk music, played on a pipa, a sort of Chinese lute. The track features some extremely fast picking as well as lower drone notes. The SE215s really shine on this track, every note is clear and well defined, as is the faint sound of the musician’s breathing in the silent passages.

Axel F – Harold Faltermeyer
Synths are clear and bright. Bass notes have a slight thump, drums have a nice snap. The clicking sounds are sharp and dance around clearly. While this song has some high notes it doesn’t really have the kind of ringing sounds from cymbals or a triangle so the lack of sparkle isn’t as noticeable.

Saturday Night (Is The Loneliest Night Of The Week) – Frank Sinatra (FLAC)
The opening horn blast is loud and brassy but the individual notes are still discernible, they don’t blend into a smeared mess. This is one song where slightly rolled off highs might be a good thing, those horns could blow out an eardrum. Frank’s vocals sound great here, front and center and easily separated from the many instruments chugging away.

Conclusion
The Shure SE215s are a solid performer at $99 retail. The overall sound is well rounded, with a pleasing combination of slight bass boost and roll off in the highs. I can and have used them for hours at a time, and the sound isolation is outstanding. They aren’t the absolute pinnacle of IEM design but they set a high mark for our Chi Fi competitors. We’ll see if they can measure up.