One could build a compelling argument that Etymotic’s flagship ER-4P earphone was the first truly great high-performance earphone (and some would contend that it is still the gold standard against which other upper-end earphones should be judged). But a lot has happened since the ER-4P first arrived on the scene many years ago, so that high performance earphones are now much more commonplace than they once were, with listeners of all ages getting into the act.
Ah, but therein lies the rub. Many children (especially those in kindergarten, elementary school, or perhaps middle school) love earphones, but lack the knowledge and/or self-restraint needed in order make wise choices and thus to listen at sensible (i.e., non-self-destructive) volume levels. Etymotic Research, which has more than a few concerned audiologists on staff, decided to tackle the problem head-on by release a new set of youth-oriented earphones, called the ETY-Kids Safe Listening Earphones, which by design “will not exceed safe listening levels.” In fact, Etymotic says that, “even at the maximum volume setting on portable players, kids can listen safely for up to four hours per day.” Two models are offered: the EK5 ($49) or the 3-button remote-equipped EK3 ($79), both of which are said to maintain the “exceptional sound quality” for which Etymotics earphones are known.
Yet another high-end speaker manufacturer, this time the French firm Focal, has thrown its hat into the high-performance headphone ring. Focal’s new Spirit One headphone ($279), which was first shown in the US in prototype form at CEDIA 2011, is now ready for prime time. The Spirit One is an over-the-ear design that will ship with an Apple-compatible 3-button remote equipped signal cord, an airline adapter, a ¼-inch phone jack adapter, an Android adapter, and a padded case. As is typical of Focal products, the overall fit and finish of the Spirit One are exquisite, and the entire design has—on numerous subtle levels—been optimized for superb fit and wearer comfort.
Unlike many headphones at its general price level, the Spirit One proved more than sensitive enough to be driven directly from an iPod or iPhone. But what struck me as being even more unusual is the fact that the Spirit One tends, for reasons I’m not sure I fully understand, to sound better when powered straight from an iPod than when powered by any sort of outboard amp (including the very, very good reference amp I carry with me when I travel). Watch for an upcoming Playback review of the Spirit One.
The Chinese firm HiFiMAN made a big splash at CES by releasing four highly significant new products at once.
First up was the HiFiMAN Express HM-101 portable USB sound card ($39). The HM-101 is a very small, matchbox-sized, USB-powered, USB sound card with both line-level and headphone outputs. The tiny HM-101 is based on a PCM 2702E DAC and TDA-1308 headphone amp device. The concept behind this and other “HiFiMAN Express”-branded products is to offer unexpectedly high sound quality at exceptionally low prices—prices rivaling those normally seen on obscure “no-name” house brand products found at big-box retail stores.