ortofon e-Q8: Evolution Of A Masterpiece

The Sound

NOTE: the e-Q8 is a very difficult to drive earphone. You won’t get any bass out of it if you are using an older iPod, HiSound player, Cowon, Sony, or myriad headphone amps with low-current, high-Ω outputs. Check out Portaphile amps, or Vorzüge’s Vorzamp (review coming later this week). On the low end, the original iPod shuffle does the trick, and to a lesser extent, the Sansa Clip. On the high end, check out Mezzo Hifi modded AK100. I try to break it down here. iBasso’s DX90 reference audio player is an equally good choice. Each of these is able to coax the right amount of resolution and nuance from the e-Q8 to make it really stand out. And trust me, when this earphone stands out, it stands with the best earphones out there, at any price.

Assuming your output device is up to snuff, what the e-Q8 shoots at your ears your ears is phenomenal. The most phenomenal point is its bass, which kicks out an amazing sense of presence and lateral detail. Lacking is the attendant sound pressure. Bass is clean, thick, excellently textured, but never bounces around much in the ear. I don’t get it. I love it, but I don’t get it. It’s the sort of bass that really sounds like a fast full-size headphone dynamic driver, but doesn’t feel like it. Driven properly, it is similar to the e-Q7. But it goes a further step forward. Better detail, faster; it spits out stronger undercurrent. Both are fast, but e-Q8 is sweeter, more liquid, and somewhat more forgiving. But again, you won’t hear a decibel of it unless your source/amp can kick the requisite amounts of current into its load.

The e-Q8’s sound stage is wilder than the e-Q7’s, but there is less Z presence. Details splay wide. The 3D draw is wider, and more contrasty, but is neither overbearing nor scratchy. Highs are tangier, but high mids sing with mostly the same voice.

Alien to the e-Q8 are harsh transitions that glom your music of its silky, smooth, loveliness. The e-Q8 has the smoothest, politest transitions from bass straight through to upper mids of any heretofore ortofon earphone. And that is saying a lot. In fact, properly driven, it may offer the cleanliest transitions of any universal earphone I’ve ever heard. 

But it would be misleading to call the e-Q8 smooth or silky. Its transitions are perfectly silky, perfectly cohesive. It lacks the same chalky sound pressure in the lows for which the e-Q7 is lauded. Its high mids are less bulbous than either the e-Q7 or the e-Q5. And highs, while well extended, are elastic, and never scratchy. But the overall impression is first of speed and detail, second, of smoothness and silk. It is a fantastic marriage between the analytical and the fun. And, I think, the analytical wears the pants. (They are, of course, made of silk.)

e-Q8 manages to front speed, decay, and good, aggressive hard edges without the requisite harshness. Vocals and up are music as you hear them not music as interpreted to you

As you know, I own a number of high-end earphones. Some of them are totally awesome. Some are easy to drive. None, however, are as hard to drive as the e-Q8. Getting it to spit out anything but really smooth treble is pretty hard unless you have a system that kicks out stable current at insanely low Ω output. The other problem is that e-Q8 is extremely sensitive. Even if your amp kicks out the right amount of low-Ω current, it’s likely that it won’t be able to kick out a signal that is balanced in both left and right signals at comfortable listening levels. And it is guaranteed that you will hear noise from your system you never knew was possible. In fact, that last point is the single biggest argument for something like the Mezzo, whose noise output is practically null.

While e-Q8 won’t give you the fleshy impact of the Dita The Answer, it will keep up with every other of its laudable strengths. And, I think, it will keep up with your Roxannes, and S-EM6’s. Yes, e-Q8 is a single moving armature earphone, that when driven right, can kick the ass of pretty much anything.

There is one large gotcha, though. Whether it is due to systems unable to kick enough current to the e-Q8, or a problem with manufacturing quality control, it is clear that e-Q8 suffers problems with distortion. Read up about it at the e-Q8 thread at Headfi. My unit suffers no such buzzy buzz buzz. (I’m knocking on wood now.)

The Conclusion

I first plugged my e-Q8 into an iPod nano 1G, and then an iRiver AK100. Later I used it with an iRiver AK240. Every single time, I thought: where’s the bass? Why did ortofon ‘upgrade’ the e-Q7 with something as gutless as this? Enter the Portaphile and the Mezzo HiFi. Enter the bass. Enter the ultimately smooth transitions, the space, the liquid highs. When everything was set up in its favor, the e-Q8 is a damn fine earphone. It is in fact, one of the finest-sounding earphones I have ever had in my ears. If only it ditched the textile cable. If only it was less sensitive and didn’t require a heavenly system to sound its best. 

If only that buzzing question: “Is there really a quality control issue?” didn’t plague the current narrative. And yet, I’m convinced that, when all things are properly ordered, the e-Q8 is one of the finest earphones on the planet at any price.

3.6/5 - (9 votes)

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Back before he became the main photographer for bunches of audio magazines and stuff, Nathan was fiddling with pretty cool audio gear all day long at TouchMyApps. He loves Depeche Mode, trance, colonial hip-hop, and raisins. Sometimes, he gets to listening. Sometimes, he gets to shooting. Usually he's got a smile on his face. Always, he's got a whisky in his prehensile grip.

31 Comments

  • Reply July 15, 2014

    L.

    Those look awful comfort wise. Huge!

    • Reply July 15, 2014

      ohm image

      They are incredibly comfortable. Try them. I’ve met no one that doesn’t like the way they fit. They may dislike HOW they sit in the ear, but the way they feel is great. And the ear pads are the softest, most luxurious silicon pads.

  • Reply July 15, 2014

    George Lai

    I still think the 05 is the bargain in the group but I agree with you 100% on the tips.

    • Reply July 15, 2014

      ohm image

      You are right. But that’s never a question. The e-Q5 is a GREAT deal, offering pretty much the sound of the e-Q7 (some differences seem to apply) in a no-frills body and a way better (subjective, but I think I’m on track) cable.

    • Reply July 15, 2014

      EraserXIV

      e-Q5 is a hidden gem and it’s unfortunate it’s not more popular. I’ve owned several pairs of e-Q7s and e-Q5s, selling them in search of “greener pastures”. After a long journey and spending upwards of $500+, to this day I still reminisce about them. Although I learned a lot on the journey, I am thinking I should pull a LeBron and just “come home” (to the e-Q5s that is).

  • Reply July 15, 2014

    George Lai

    I bought 5 of them.

    The ear tips that is. Ha Ha.

    • Reply July 16, 2014

      ohm image

      Not five e-Q8? You know, this may be the first time that you and I have 100% agreed on fit. Congrats are in order.

  • Reply July 15, 2014

    Fabian Blache III

    The RSA Shadow with its digital volume control will drive the heck out of these earphones. And it will remain channel balanced at the even lowest listening levels.

    • Reply July 16, 2014

      ohm image

      It very may well. I haven’t heard the Shadow with the e-Q8, though I’d love to. Ray rarely makes poor amps.

  • Reply July 15, 2014

    dalethorn

    This is a great example of what I like in reviews here – not just the good news, but caveats and gotchas too – just in case.

    • Reply July 16, 2014

      ohm image

      Of course, we are all looking for earphones without gotchas or caveats. And to be honest, wouldn’t it be great if an earphone could be designed to sound great from so-so sources? This one truly is hard to get great sound out of, which is a shame. But when you do, it is tip top.

      • Reply July 16, 2014

        dalethorn

        The main worry I share with a lot of people is budget. A lot of budding audiophiles really stretch to squeeze out the best sound they can with as little money as possible, so those reviews that cover those limitations really well are a big help to people on a budget.

        • Reply July 16, 2014

          ohm image

          Damn, I’m 90% satisfied with an iPod shuffle 1G and the e-Q8 or Grado GR10. Hiss is the main concern there. If someone can bring out a great small player with no hiss and performance/sound like the original Shuffle… hello king.

  • Reply October 7, 2014

    Vicente Tomas

    After I read the review, I felt an urge to also buy a pair of ortofon ear tips as well. My only problem is I can’t find them. What website carries them?

    • Reply October 16, 2014

      ohm image

      I think you can find them at Musica Acoustics. (Link’s at the top.)

      • Reply October 16, 2014

        Vicente Tomas

        Yey! Thank you for the response :D.

  • Reply November 29, 2014

    Ford

    Hi. Now I’m really interested in this thing. I will use it on the go with my phone and a small DAC/amp.
    If I use it with AQ Dragonfly 1.2, will I hear the awesomeness of the e-Q8?
    Or do you know any small DAC/AMP that csn drive the e-Q8 to its full potential?

    • Reply December 5, 2014

      ohm image

      I’ve not used the AQ Dragonfly 1,2, so I can’t recommend the combination. I am not well-versed with tiny DAC/amp units. hope that maybe Lieven or someone can help out.

  • Reply December 8, 2014

    ehab

    so are they smooth ar edgy overall and how forgiving are they

    • Reply December 8, 2014

      ohm image

      If you have the right player/amp with high-current low-impedance output, they are detailed, smooth, and have lovely bass. If not, no bass at all, a bit edgy, and overall miserable.

      • Reply December 8, 2014

        ehab

        how about a p-51 mustang

        • Reply December 8, 2014

          ohm image

          I neither own the P-t1, nor have I used it long enough to have any helpful opinion on it. I’m sorry.

      • Reply December 8, 2014

        ehab

        i have a p-51 mustang which i believe can drive them properly but the real problem is my ex1000’s which from the review that i read seem to be quite similar to the ortofon’s and i really don’t want two expensive iem’s with a similar signature any thoughts about that

        • Reply December 8, 2014

          ohm image

          I’m sorry to disappoint, but I don’t own the EX1000 earphones, either. I have no idea if the P-51 is capable of supplying enough current to the e-q8 to provide perfect resolution.

          • Reply December 8, 2014

            ehab

            well thanck you anyway

  • Reply December 10, 2014

    adam

    i was planing on getting the roxannes based on your review on them, you got me at ” It may well be the smoothest, most midrange-resolving earphone on the planet right now” so in which aspect do the e-q8’s keep up, resolution or refinement i don’t really care if they were on par in detail but if they were as smooth and refined it wouldn’t make any sense for me to go with the roxannes, i would appreciate if you can clear things up for me

    • Reply December 27, 2014

      ohm image

      The Roxanne earphones are smoother in the mid section, for sure. But properly amped, the e-Q8 is the biggest bargain (fit, build quality, sound) of anything. If and only if they are properly driven do they sound good. I’d go so far as to say that the Roxanne is easier to drive in order to sound good.

      If you don’t have the proper equipment, the e-Q8 is edgy, harsh, and ridiculous. When not, it is smoothly detailed, clear, and beautiful. But comparing a custom-cum-universal to a universal is difficult on many fronts. Soundwise, it’s a preference thing. But fit/money/utility, etc., is really hard to draw lines.

  • Reply August 15, 2017

    Syracuse

    Interestingly enough I have a Vorzuge Pure II and Mojo as dac section. I would love to have an in-ear that nails electronic sound like Trance and ambient but also holds its own listening to film music and pretty much everything else. Would the Ortofon E-Q8 be more interesting or the Grado GR10i? They are in the same budget but since you love them both so much I would like to know which one ultimately soundwise has your preference and which one would be more suited to me. I’ll never have a chance to hear either one of them. Thanks Nathan.

    • Reply August 15, 2017

      ohm image

      Hey man, glad to see we share interest in the same music. We’re a small bunch in the audiophile world. I love the E-Q8, but its problem is that it is so cool and flat that getting bass or midrange warmth from it requires either a NOC-sounding dap/amp or a good EQ. It is my favourite Ortofon earphone, but it is love it or leave it.

      The GR10 (mine is 2nd gen pre-e) is brilliant from the get go but similar enough to enjoy the brilliantly smooth transitions and speed, but with added bass power and overall meatier mids. It is my recommendation.

  • Reply August 15, 2017

    Syracuse

    I meant Grado GR10e

  • Reply August 15, 2017

    Syracuse

    Thanks Nathan. I’ve had a suspicion.

    I have a Harmony 8.2 that you can’t fault for much but it’s not what I want when listening to electronic sounds. I want something au contraire to the 8.2 that is ofcourse not going to better but rather complement it when listening to certain genres. And I want more treble, discovered after the 8.2 that I can take more treble than I thought.

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