The last IEM in this review comes from Hifiman. The Hifiman RE-0 is currently being offered for $79 at Head-direct’s website and for its price, it is the cheapest IEM in this comparison. For those of you who haven’t heard about the RE-0 before, this may struck you as a cheaper and perhaps an inferior product to the Phonak and ER4. However, I will tell you that in terms of pure sound quality level, it is definitely in the same class as the two above.
One of the aspects of the sound that really stands out with the RE-0 is its treble presentation. The RE-0 does treble better and differently from many IEMs I have listened to. Maybe that is an understatement; I will say that the RE-0 does treble better than anything else I have heard under the $200 price mark, save for the ER4S, and maybe even better than the Triple.fi’s treble. The treble extension is just exceptional, matching the ER4 easily with great clarity, and unlike many, it does so without inducing listening fatigue. Because the lack of those wince-inducing peaks, you can hear the treble detail without having to wince every time the music goes high into the treble region.
It is not the same kind of heightened clarity you get out of the ER4. With the ER4, you feel as if your music is presented through a magnifying lens, making the sound sharper than the recording itself with very vivid details. The RE-0’s presentation of clarity is akin to looking at the bottom of a clear pond, not as sharper of a focus as the ER4, but many times feel a bit more natural. Both detailed, but in a different way. Also, with the RE-0, it is just a joy that each crash and scrape of instruments has an extra layer and decay behind them that is cut short with the ER4, though the vivid forward presentation of the ER4 is also addicting. The question of “better”, then, comes down to a question: do you want the extra treble decay of the RE-0, or do you want the ultra vivid treble of the ER4 with short decay.
In terms of transparency, I would say the RE-0 does things differently from the ER4. Out of a decent source, the RE-0 is neither warm nor cold. The relatively neutral nature of this IEM really helps when the music gets though, and the whole information in the music is presented more equally than the more colored and mid-oriented ER4 and Phonak. However, the ER4 still maintains an edge on a cleaner and blacker background laid behind the music. For my listening preference, I have yet to experience much listening fatigue with the RE-0, it is transparent while being very smooth. The Phonak and the ER4 sounded a bit peaky in comparison.
The mids and bass follow the general transparent character of the RE-0. The mids is different from the the other two IEMs in this review in that it doesn’t boost the upper mids area. Many headphones and earphones in the market tend to boost this area, to create a sensation of forwardness with vocals especially female voices. The RE-0’s upper mid presentation can be an issue if you are used to the forward mid-oriented sound like that of a Grado, but in my opinion, this presentation makes the RE-0 unique and in some songs, let me focus on other aspects beside the vocals. Bass response is solid and is definitely on the tight side. Though not as textured as the ER4, it extends farther down and complements the clean nature of the RE-0 sound. If there is anything average about the RE-0, it is perhaps the soundstage. Though instrument separation is great and positioning is decent, the soundstage is not very wide, and there is a sensation of three-blobs soundstage and not much airiness. The soundstage can sometimes hinder the great instrument separation of the RE-0 to shine through.
As good as the RE-0’s sound is, I don’t know its sound presentation will be suitable for all people. For listening on the go, it is almost too neutral to a fault. Many people like certain coloration to their music, and the RE-0 doesn’t offer many. The ER4 and the Phonak can make people weep; however, the relatively laid back presentation of the RE-0 that doesn’t push anything in front of you takes more time to appreciate. I personally like its presentation, but honestly, for myself who listen to some bass-driven music, I occasionally need a dose of bassy warmth of my DT531 just for a change. But for the current cheap price of $80, I might probably keep it as a second IEM to my Eterna, since it sounds different and great enough to warrant me keeping them. The RE-0 makes my Eterna sounded muddy, but there are also lots that the Eterna offers that the RE-0 doesn’t. I’m not going to compare the Eterna and the RE-0 here, since it’s almost like asking which flavor of ice cream I want today.
Looking at the three IEMs, although the ER4 still have the best sound isolation, its design, comfort, and microphonics makes it a bit of a dinosaur when compared to the RE-0 and Phonak. This IEM needs a better shell for its drivers, not the minor design update like what Etymotic has done with the HF5. However, based on pure sound quality only, I will pick the ER4S as my favorite of the three. For the wow effect and the kind of technicalities it projects, such as sharper transients and heightened sense of detail, clarity, speed, and instrument separation, it is hard to beat. But ultimately, the ER4S has some drawbacks like the short decay of the sound and its tendency to sound a bit clinical and tiring at times out of some sources.
The Phonak PFE is a very well designed IEM with the best comfort and form-factor here. Though it lacks bells and whistles of RE-0’s and ER4’s technicalities, it has a coherent and clear but very slightly creamy mid-oriented vocal sound, definitely worth a try for vocal lovers or Etymotic ER4 lovers looking for a smoother sound. I can’t wait for the new Perfect Bass version.
Last but not least, the RE-0 gives fine detail and admirable accuracy and neutrality not very common among most IEMs. At a mere price of $79, it competes with the ER4 and the Phonak, and it offers the best bang-for-the buck treble performance out of any headphones, earphones, and IEMs I have tried.
Gear used for the review:
Headphones: Etymotics ER4, Phonak PFE122, and Hifiman RE-0
Source: Nuforce uDAC, Ipod Nano 1st Gen
Amplifer: Nuforce uDAC