GENERAL COMPARISONS WITH IN-EARS
In the old days, one of the thing that people constantly praise the PK-1 for is its soundstage, though now I’ve discovered that the MX980 and the TM-5 are also pretty phenomenal with the soundstage. The earphones can really make you forget that you’re only wearing a tiny earbud. They won’t give you the precise, dead black background, and vast soundstage that you get from IEMs such as the JH16Pro, or even the Etymotic ER4. But some impressions between the PK-1 and some IEMs have generally favored the PK-1 in terms of soundstage performance. I think the loose fit of the earbuds and the open sound characteristics is mostly what’s attributing to the sense of full-size headphone like soundstage with these earbuds. Having an open sound can sort of trick you into thinking that the soundstage is bigger than it really is. Having an open sound also gives an impression of a more airy sound even for studio recordings. And in this sense, the earbuds presents the listener with a more consistent, spacious sound, whereas a precise but fully sealed IEM like the ER4 or the JH customs more accurately reflect the ambiance as captured in the recording.
In a sense, the earbuds give you a more speaker like presentation in the sense that they are more airy and open sounding. Going back to the JH customs, I can’t help but noticing the closed-in and sealed presentation, despite the huge and much more accurate soundstage. I remember some people friends telling me that they can’t live with the ER4 due to the lack of soundstage, while I’ve always thought that the ER4 has one of the best soundstage presentation around. Again, in this case, the more accurate IEMs becomes a more faithful representation of the recording, in which they give you a closed ambiance when the recording was taken in a fully sealed studio room. The earbuds can never quite give me the zoomed-in, fully engaged presentation of the IEMs, but while they are somewhat “looser” and less accurate in this sense, they do give a generally more open and spacious soundstage irregardless of the recording.
As I was comparing the earbuds to the 8-driver JH16, the question of single versus multi driver arises once more. Speaker guys are always on this sort of discussions, one full range driver versus multi driver speaker set ups. As with full size headphones which mostly comes with one driver per side, the earbuds does present the music with a greater sense of coherence which is the signature of full-range speakers. They may not handle each frequency as well as with a multi-driver IEM, but the sense of coherence in the frequency range is indeed very present.
One thing that I’ve heard many times with the PK-1 is that you need a good amplifier to really hear what it’s capable of. For most mainstream recording that tend to be mastered at a higher volume level, I find that the Ipod is powerful enough to blast it to volume levels that make my ears hurt. So, in that sense, the gain level is quite sufficient, and I also don’t think that the current demands of these earbuds to be something so high than an Ipod can’t handle.
When I move to a good portable amplifier like the Pico Slim, ALO Rx, or SR-71a, obviously the sound is improved. In that sense the PK-1 is no different than any other headphone or even portables that I’ve tried. Given a good driver quality, even headphones like the PX100 and the V-Jays improve with amplification. Among the three, I do find that the PK-1, the HR-1 and the Blox TM-5 to improve the most with quality amplification, while I’ll be happy to use the MX980 and the A8 right out of an Ipod (as it’s also easier to drive than the Blox or the PK-1).
I’ve tried the earphones with many different amplifiers, up to the Burson HA-160D and the Grace m902, just to see how well they scale. I’d probably say that a good portable amplifier is good enough for these buds, with the Pico Slim being my favorite amp for pairing with the Yuin and the Blox.
The Yuin PK1 is a legendary earbud, and I do think that its sonic performance clearly deserves the legendary performance. However, I don’t think it’s quite fitting to be the “King of Earbuds”, in a way that it’s one earbud to rule them all kind of thing. Perhaps the lack of low bass and PRaT is its biggest weakness, as it simply doesn’t do rock well enough. As it is, the Yuin makes for the best jazz, vocal (especially with an RSA Mustang), and acoustics earbuds among the three.
The Blox’s tuning is fitting for a totally different genre than the Yuin, and is excellent for rock, electronic, and I also enjoyed it for classical as it just gives the best soundstage performance of the three and a proper weight and slam that’s very important in symphonies.
The Sennheiser MX980 is less of a specialist than the previous two. It doesn’t have the midrange of the Yuin or the Bass of the Blox. But in a way it also has the widest genre bandwith, and is the best all-rounder of the three. It’s not dark like the Blox, and it’s also a better bass performer than the Yuin.
For most people, the $200 pricetag of these generic looking black earbuds would probably sound like a big ripoff price. Even the cable build looks no different from the generic $5 earbuds that you can get on electronic stores. They simply don’t inspire too much confidence in them. The Sennheiser simply is much superior in terms of build quality, employing fancy materials, even up to the inline volume control. For some reason, however, I doubt if the looks and build quality will really direct the purchases toward the Sennheiser. I think the cult surrounding earphones are quite niche by itself, and people who decides to put $200 into an earbud would probably be basing their purchase based on the sonic credentials.
Update: Addition of the Bang & Olufsen A8 and Crossroads HR-1
BANG & OLUFSEN A8
The A8 from Bang & Olufsen is normally not considered an audiophile option by the headphone crowd. It’s been in the market for a few years now, and yet the stylish A8 has never joined the rank of “legendary” earbuds such as the Yuin PK-1 or the Crossroads HR-1. Since a unit was sent to me by Anton, I thought it’ll be good to include it in the comparison just to see where things stand.
The sound is quite likable, and the tonal balance is quite good, bearing more similarities to the MX980 and the PK1, rather than the extremely warm HR-1 or the dark sounding TM-5. I can see how the mainstream crowd will be able to appreciated the A8 due to its clean sound and forward signature. The midrange area is consistently forward, regardless of the recording, and it becomes a signature character of the A8. This can be nice at times, but also often time the midrange, especially upper mids can be overly forward for pop or rock recordings, and I can’t help but having to listen to the A8 at a lower volume level. The sound is very clean and grainless, something that I don’t find on the other buds. I’m not talking clarity or transparency here, but rather the lack of grain in the sound that gives a very clear impression of the sound. For this reason the A8 doesn’t quite need to boost the treble levels to give an impression of clarity, and in fact, the treble levels is quite okay for a majority of different recordings (though the upper mid isn’t, as I mentioned earlier).
One of the most noticeable deficiencies of the A8 is that I don’t a linear enough frequency curve at the upper treble and lower bass ends. Making a comparison with the MX980, for instance, the Sennheiser have more low bass presence that “completes” the lower end body, and also the same on the upper frequencies which gives you the cymbal crashes, the air and the ambiance in the music.
Although the A8 boasts a forward midrange, it doesn’t have the sweetness of the PK1 or even the MX980. The mids also sound congested often times, and is not as well articulated as the PK1 or the MX980. The overall instrument separation and soundstage size on the A8 are also not as good as on the MX980 and the PK1. Finally, the timbre is a little off when you compared it to the MX980, PK1, and the TM5, and it’s very noticeable once you start playing live instrument recordings.
I can say that the A8 is actually pretty well developed, if you consider that B&O was probably targeting the product for the average consumer base. The solid build quality is definitely the best in this comparison, and really puts all the other chinese offering to shame. The solid rubber-wrapped metal hanger and the modern minimalistic design is a very strong plus on the A8. And finally, the A8’s well balanced and grainless sound does a good job of giving the average Joe a small taste of what a proper hi-fi sound would be like.
From what I’ve heard, the now discontinued Crossroads HR-1 is quite legendary in the earbuds circle. And somehow, due to its being discontinued and there aren’t a lot of HR-1 around, it has somewhat earned a higher legendary status than the Yuin PK-1.
Upon receiving the HR-1 from Anton, I noticed that the housing has an identical shape, notches and holes with the Yuin PK-1. Most very probably the two comes from the same OEM company in China. The HR-1, however is finished in a nicer glossy paint which looks good compared to the flat-black Yuin. There is also an addition of a red and blue marking for easier identification of the right and left side. The cable is a soft multi-braid cable similar to the Westone cables, and is much softer and flexible than the PK-1’s. At the end of the cable, the HR-1 is terminated with an angled 3.5mm jack, again this is more user-friendly than the straight jack of the PK-1.
The voice is somewhat similar to the PK-1 that I really believe the two were manufactured by the same company, but with a different spec on the driver, cable, and perhaps also the housing. The tonal balance, however, is quite different than the PK-1, as the HR-1 is significantly more mids oriented and warmer sounding than the PK-1. Treble presence has been attenuated quite significantly on the HR-1, resulting in an almost never offensive treble, regardless of the recording quality. I can see that the HR-1 is an attempt to tune the PK-1 sound in a way that it would blend well with the majority of treble happy recordings these days.
I think the super-warm and treble attenuation of the HR-1 is quite controversial. For one, I find the HR-1 to be the most demanding of a good amplifier compared to all the other buds in this comparison, even the PK-1. Unamped and direct from a portable player, the sound is muffled and very unimpressive technically. However, when plugged in to a good portable amp, in this case I’m using the Pico Slim, the HR-1 transform itself quite tremendously. The soundstage becomes very big and comparable to the size of the PK-1 soundstage, amped. For some reason, perhaps due to the mid-centric tonality of the HR-1, the soundstage have an impression of being deeper than the PK-1’s soundstage. Also, the midrange opens up considerably, and the detail on the treble and the low bass also improves. There tonal balance is still the same mid-centric sound as if unamped, but I don’t find the HR-1 to be muffled or muddy as I did when unamped.
So the HR-1 transforms to a totally different earphone when properly amped. But the tonal balance is still the same, and most people will need to re-adjust their ears to be able to appreciate the HR-1’s sound. What I truly like about the HR-1 is how the treble always remains unoffensive on many different recordings, but the extreme colorations make it hard for me to recommend it to people, unless I know them to be a fan of a mid-centric presentation.
Gears used for review:
Earbuds: Yuin PK-1, Sennheiser MX980, Blox TM-5
Amplifiers: Pico Slim, ALO Rx, RSA Shadow, RSA SR-71a, Grace m902, Burson HA-160D
Source: Ipod Classic, Hifiman HM-601 & 602, Onkyo ND-S1 dock