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.