I have recently gotten a hold of the Panasonic RP-HJE900 Zirconia IEM. Yes, it is Panasonic, not some other boring brands like Sennheiser or Shure. An IEM coming from a manufacturer of air cons, garbage recyclers, refrigerators, and fax machines doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, does it? However, before you laugh and throw air con jokes, I just found out that Panasonic has been manufacturing audio equipment for quite a while under the brand Technics, a well-known DJ and studio brand. It is still interesting that they decided to go with the Panasonic brand though. Beside the retro RP-HTX7, I really can’t remember any other Panasonic branded headphones. Maybe this shiny little thing is indeed special.
Questionable brand choice aside, it started out well. Panasonic has hit a home run with the HJE900’s build quality. With driver enclosure made of Zirconia, supposedly an ingredient of faux diamond, the body of the Panny seems indestructible and scratch-resistant even if it is to be run over by a car. The detachable cable comes with metal enclosed connectors, a nice and beautiful touch. It is shiny and seems about as durable as any universal IEMs I have come across. My non-audiophile friends commented on how solid the HJE900 looks and feels, certainly more than the $90 U.S. market price suggests. Ergonomics is less than ideal though, the rather shallow fit combined with long stalks makes it a bit hard to get consistent seal, especially with the bad supplied tips. Panasonic should have included double flange tips with this. When you do get a seal, the Panasonic fits more like the CX300 or Sony EX71SL earbuds, and doesn’t isolate like most IEMs do. I settled with UE700 tips and modified Shure Olives for this review.
The Panasonic took me by surprise with its sound, and not in a good way. My reaction was that it simply didn’t sound very good. Panasonic has completely thrown the rule book of sound tuning out of the window, tried to rewrite it, and I thought it failed miserably. I expect a lot of people who are used to the norm of mid-oriented sound signature like Sennheiser, Grado, and Shure will have problems enjoying the Panasonic for the first time they listen to it.
It’s hard to liken the Panasonic’s sound to any other IEM or headphone I can remember, so let’s first talk about its sound aspect one by one. The first thing that caught my attention was its bass. Powerful, but at the same time fairly well controlled. Extension is nice when pushed, but they usually don’t flaunt it. Talking in terms of frequency balance, it’s a different breed from bassmonsters like the Hippo VB and the Eterna. The Panny bumps its mid and upper bass area, giving a lot of warm weight to the sound, showing its power constantly but doesn’t really bloom like the Eterna (thick midbass), or rumble your brain like the VB (sub-bass). The Panny has bass presence, but it is hard to say that they are straight bass monsters as they lack the full-frontal smack to qualify. They also lack the bass texture of better IEMs. Still, you get a great bass that you can actually feel with a fairly good control at this price range.
The upper bass bump permeates the overall theme of the Panasonic’s sound, giving instruments warmish tone, weight and presence. This gives a nice tactile feel to instruments that play in the lower register. I just wish it is dialed down a little as sometimes instruments can sound a bit boxy. By itself, the upper bass is not much of a problem; however, this also leads to the biggest aspect that I don’t like about the Panasonic. The Panasonic has a laid back upper treble and less than stellar upper treble clarity. This is a bad synergy with the bumped upper bass as the combination effectively kills the air that gives sheen and airy quality to many instruments and vocal. Vocals also sound as if the singer has a slight cold. If you want upper treble clarity, stay away from the Panasonic. Lower treble is fine though, more on that later.
People say that music lies in the midrange. In terms of frequency balance, the midrange itself is fairly flat. Although it can be overwhelmed a bit by the bumped upper bass, it is not recessed much, unlike the Hippo VB. The upper midrange/lower treble on the other hand, is quite forward, just exactly what most mainstream listeners like. Unfortunately, there are some peaks in that area that gets aggravated with bad recordings. The problem increases when you play the music loud. In general, most of my recordings are fine with the Panny, so the peaks are not bothering me much. This is not a constantly bright IEM like the REO and Hippo VB, just be aware that it is not the smoothest in the treble region.
The more interesting take lies on Panasonic’s midrange color. Midrange color has always been a subjective thing, but I feel that the Panny’s midrange lacks a vivid color that I am used to, such as in the signature midranges of AKG, Stax, Sennheisers, Shures, Grados, Phonak, vintage orthos and others. I honestly believe these brands’ ‘coloration’ brings life to the vocals in my music. The Panasonic midrange color in a way it is more flat and not as vivid from track to track, with warmth courtesy of the bumped up upper bass. I was tempted to use the word ‘robotic’ as that is what I feel about the Panasonic on my vocal recordings. However, I think midrange color is very subjective. One person’s cold can be perceived as neutral and spot on by another. Just be aware that the Panasonic’s midrange although not recessed, is rather forgettable, unlike many headphones today which are very very midrange oriented (HD650, HD600, K501).
Enough with the polarizing aspects. I think soundstaging and imaging is something that most people can appreciate about the Panny. For a sub $100 IEM, the Panasonic is one of the best in these two areas. They do not exactly offer an instant perception of a big soundstage ala Custom 3. The soundscape is not the blackest either, and is quite small as what you can expect from most IEMs. However, instruments are precisely defined, felt very tactile and have a clear form in the soundscape, while keeping in mind that they still lack a bit of air and openness of the venue. You can actually imagine the instrument emanating the sound, not just the sound itself. Localization of instrument is quite good and accurate, and you get a good sense of the stage the musicians are performing on.
If the review sounds back on forth between the negatives and positives, that really is what I have been experiencing with the Panasonic. It has been up and down in enjoyment and satisfaction for me. While widely respected high end IEMs and headphones manufacturers (Audeze, Hifiman, Sennheiser, JH, and Stax Omega2) seem to diverge on a certain ground rules on frequency balance tuning, instead of following the tried and true formula, the Panasonic just rewrote the book altogether on how an IEM should be tuned. This is a different sounding IEM from most, out of the usual sound signature norm of the more established companies. Crazy? I think they are, as I tend to better enjoy the sound coming out of the more traditionally tuned $30 Brainwaz M1. The Zirconia are also not giant killers by any mean. They can’t match the overall clarity, texture, and transient snap of more competent IEMs (the cheapest being the DBA-02). Still, if they tone down the upper bass bump and bring out more upper treble transparency, the Panasonic can easily be the top sub-$100 IEM I have listened to.
– One of the best build quality. All-metal connectors. Driver housing virtually scratch resistant
– Detachable cable
– Great tactile bass with good control. You can actually feel the music
– Great imaging and soundstage positioning for the price
– Short cable, unusable for walking about if you put your DAP in your jeans pocket
– Frequency balance not for everyone
– Love it or hate it midrange. Vocals sound as if the singer has a slight cold
– Lack of upper treble clarity, air, and openness
Gears used for review:
Source: HRT Music Streamer MS2+, Ipod Nano 1st Gen, Samsung YP-M1
Headphones/IEMs: Panasonic RP-HJE900, Fischer Audio Eterna, Brainwavz M1, Stax SR-404