Do earbuds still have a place in a world dominated with in-ears? Most folks look at earbuds as something that you get with a brand new Ipod and nothing more. And yet there is a small group of people that continue be faithful earbuds user, keeping track of every new development on high end earbuds. To them, there is something that you get with an earbud that you don’t get with an IEM. I think that any gear having with a considerable following is worth investigating, and so I set out to do this article.
When talking earbuds, the number one name that comes to mind is Yuin. Indeed, this Chinese company has single handedly created and sustained the demand for audiophile earbuds. I can confidently say that if not for Yuin, no audio conscious people would even be interested of listening to a pair of earbuds anymore. The Yuin brand and their PK line is so legendary, that I’ve yet to hear a single bad remark about their PK line, let alone their flagship PK-1 earbud. Now that’s a pretty amazing feat in a landscape where even $1,000 flagships are not free from faults. I don’t know if the PK-1 is really that good, or if people are too afraid to challenge the status quo on the PK-1, but I really have yet to hear one bad thing about the Yuin PK-1.
The fact is that the PK-1 has such a legendary aura around it that when another company releases a high end earbud, we can’t help but wonder how it’ll compare to the grand PK-1. So, here I am, with a Yuin PK-1, Blox TM-5, and the Sennheiser MX980, courtesy of my buddy Sem. And while this is far from the “ultimate” earbuds review (there’s probably a good number of other buds that I miss), I figure that the three is a good enough number for a solid comparison.
And now let’s move on to the review.
EARBUDS IN GENERAL
Wearing an earbud is like a two sided coin. We all know what it’s like to wear an earbud, thanks to the ubiquitous Ibuds. They are quite comfortable, they leak sound, they block no outside noise, they constantly fall out of your ear, all that bad stuff. What’s the other side of the coin? Well, for one, their leaky sound is probably what’s responsible for the refreshingly open sound. As open backed headphones are universally agreed to provide a superior feel over closed ones, the open sound of earbuds is like taking a fresh dose of air after listening to closed IEMs and tightly sealed customs. What’s more, they make pretty good office set ups. Unlike an IEM, they don’t isolate you socially, as you can take them off the ears as easily as putting them back on. Finally, I find that all three earbuds somehow have a sound that’s unfatiguing for long term listening sessions.
One of the “art” of listening to an earbud is how to get a good placement and positioning on your ears. A small tweak in the direction of the drivers will give you more bass, while turning it to the other way will give you a leaner sound. So this is going to be one big source of variable in people’s impressions of the sonics. For this review, I simply try to adjust the earbuds until I get the “best” sound on my ears.
Please don’t expect much from the Yuin and the Blox earbuds. The Blox is a little bit nicer than the Yuin, but both of them really looks like a generic earbud and far from the pricetag that they command. The black plastic looks drab, and the slightly stiff cable is reported to deteriorate after a term of prolonged use. The Sennheiser MX980 is the only one in this shootout that looks proper for a $200 earbuds, and with a good cable and a fancy metal look volume control to match.
YUIN PK-1 & SENNHEISER MX980
Listening to the Yuin and the MX980, I felt that the two seem to be build from the same basics. There is a small difference in terms of tonal balance, where the Yuin is more colored in the midrange and midbass and with a more relaxed treble and low bass, and the MX980 sounds like a more linear version of the same driver. The two are not alike, but they’re quite similar in their voicing. It’s like taking the same headphone and plugging them into two different amplifiers: one to a linear sounding solid state, the other to a more mellow and lush vacuum tube amp.
After more listening, the general impression that sticks in my head is this:
- The Yuin takes the tonality of an analog, vacuum tube system. It’s treble relaxed and soft, the mids sweet and lush, good punch on the midbass, and not so much low bass.
- The MX980 takes a more straightforward, solid state personality. A more sparkly treble, better clarity on the midrange, and a more linear bass to the low frequencies.
In this case, there really isn’t a case of “better” as the two earbuds will be better for one music and less so for another. The Yuin has a permanent warmth and sweetness embedded in the sound, and it’ll give that coloration regardless of the recording. In this case, the Sennheiser clearly departs from its usual mellow and warm sound that we often associate the brand with. It has a more articulate sound, more linear presentation, and although it would sound dryer in comparison to the Yuin, it really is not a dry headphone and is quite musical by itself.
The Sennheiser is more flexible to follow changes in the recording, as it does not imparts a strong coloration on the recording. When you play a warm recording like Jazz in the Pawnshop, it will sound warm, and when you play another recording like Radiohead, it will also represent a brighter and more up-to-pace presentation. In that sense, I can recommend the Sennheiser as it has a better ability to keep pace to a wider range of music, where the Yuin is more reserved for slower and mellower vocal, jazz, and audiophile stuff. And yet, looking from the other guy’s perspective, the warm and analog sound of the Yuin does have a very strong appeal on its own. The voicing is slightly mellower and more romantic, and it really hits the right pleasure spots in the brain with the right music. I guess we’re back with something like a solid state versus vacuum tube, or analog versus digital debate.
On one hand, I’m leaning more with the Yuin as I’m just constantly drawn to its mids and smoother treble more than the MX980′s more articulate, linear sound. But on the other side, on if I’m playing rock recordings, the lack of low bass in the Yuin is a big downside that constantly left me wanting for a more weighty sound. On the other hand, the MX980 doesn’t quite have the sweeter sound of the Yuin, but in a way is more complete the sound presentation. While you can’t expect an earth shattering lows with earbuds, the MX980 has more weight down in the bass than the Yuin, and it works much better with the majority of mainstream recordings than the Yuin does. But as people prefer one type of an amplifier over the other, so is the choice between the Yuin and the MX980 would be down to mostly music preference.
If I can pick on both earphones, and I can definitely do that, these are the areas that I would pick on:
- The Sennheiser’s treble, while more sparkly, lacks the smoothness and finesse of the Yuin’s. Treble decay is very natural without being overly long on the Yuin, where the Sennheiser has a more abrupt decay.
- The Yuin’s midrange, while very warm and sweet and full, lacks the articulation of the Senn’s.
- The Sennheiser’s soundstage is slightly wider, but the Yuin has a far better depth, making for a significantly larger soundstage feel overall.
The Blox TM-5 is tuned and is voiced quite different than the two earphones that I won’t make the mistake of mixing it with the Yuin/Senn. The voicing is darker on the TM-5, while it also improves the bass performance tremendously in comparison to the Yuin and the Senn. In fact one of the weak points of earbuds are bass performance, as you can never get a good seal with the canals. The TM-5, however, is the best in terms of bass among the three. The bass is very good for an earbud: controlled, good articulation, good low bass with good slam. The articulation of the bass and the thump factor really draws you back to the bass, over and over again. Plugged in to a good desktop amp like the Grace, the TM-5 sounds like something Audez’e might’ve come up with if they decide to build an earbud.
The Blox doesn’t stop with just the bass. Soundstage performance is quite ahead of the Yuin and even more of the Sennheiser. Here, the Blox shows itself to be in a different league compared to the other two. What can I say, even bigger soundstage, a darker background, a deeper depth. It’s amazing to see how Blox has pushed the limits of soundstage reproduction within its tiny, generic black housing.
The thing with the Blox is that it has a mini LCD-2 like tonal balance that makes it the best earbud to rock with rock music, progressive, electronic, and anything fast-paced and needing a good beat. The Blox definitely have the best PRaT of the three, something that matches quite well with my music. The Yuin is too light on the bass to play these musics, and while the Sennheiser is better, the Blox is the best of them all. The dark signature is perfect for the hot treble recordings, and the bass is there to complete the score.
Of course, every earbuds have their own weaknesses, and in the case of the Blox, the midrange and the treble is less impressive than the Yuin or the Sennheiser. The dark presentation is not very ideal for low level listening with acoustic tracks, as it becomes hard to hear the detail on the instruments. At normal listening volumes, however, it’s evident than the detail is there, and in no less quantity than the other two buds.