It’s incredible to think that I got into this hobby only a little more than a year ago. Since then, I’ve been incredibly lucky to demo a number – OK, more like a ton – of IEMs, way more than I ever thought I would, and even land a job writing about what I love doing. Here, I’ll be going through my personal favorites (left-to-right, top-to-bottom) with some quick excerpts and nothing too in-depth. I have full reviews to most of these too, and you can click the name of the IEM to be redirected. They are not ranked by order or anything of the sort.
What happens when you put the tuning of the already-good B2 into more capable hands? Well, you get the Dusk tuned by (in)famous IEM reviewer Crinacle. The tonal balance of the Dusk is nothing short of exceptional with a terrific sub-bass shelf and balanced, slightly thicker midrange. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, under a grand – hell, maybe even in the flagship arena – that tops how well this thing’s been tuned. Expectedly, the intangibles remain the bottleneck to what is an otherwise terrific IEM. While the Dusk maintains much of what made B2 great, the Dusk’s bass is uncharacteristically dry for a DD, and macrodynamic ability is sluggish relative to its brother, the original B2. Still, it cleans up a lot of the BA timbre, and if the B2 was “nothing tops this under $300 good,” suffice it to say the Dusk is in a class of its own at this price point.
It’s been too long since I’ve listened to the IER-Z1R, but it’s making the list anyways. The IER-Z1R’s tuning is something of a mild V-shape. The bass, damn, is hands-down the best bass I’ve heard in an IEM. The transients are exceptionally dense, and sheer dynamic slam, texturing, it’s all there – perhaps even more notably, never bloating. The midrange and treble of the IER-Z1R don’t fare as well in retrospect, though. There is an unpleasant grittiness and dip to the lower-midrange, and the IER-Z1R’s treble is characterized by heavy amounts of lower-treble impact which can get fatiguing over extended listening. So yeah, not the most well-tuned IEM in my opinion. Indeed, what really carries the IER-Z1R into top-tier status is its intangibles. Despite transient attack being skewed to the slower side of things, there is a certain density to the IER-Z1R’s transients which makes it seem incredibly resolving (it’s not, by the way). And the overall presentation, oh my. There’s just something incredible about the way the IER-Z1R images – I’m inclined to say its mostly soundstage height, which most IEMs lack – that simply makes you feel like a king. You either like the IER-Z1R or you don’t; if you do, you’d better hope that your ears are deemed worthy cuz it’s a chonker.
While the Nio doesn’t quite graph like the U12t on paper, intangibly they share a lot of the same traits from 64 Audio’s signature imaging to the soft, easy-on-the-ears transient attack. The main allure of the Nio, though, is its DD subwoofer. It’s not the cleanest – in fact it’s almost downright dirty – but it’s the good, raw kind of dirty that comes from a juicy subbass shelf. The Nio’s midrange is thick, and the treble more laidback if not well-extended. This has some consequences such as sheer resolution taking a hit, and the Nio struggling with layering at times. Of course, that’s where the MX module comes in, as much as it’s really not to my preferences. The MX module brings the 5kHz peak to the forefront by virtue of less sub-bass, making the Nio more fatiguing than the shift in tonal balance might suggest. The staging, however, opens up a good deal and macro-detail in the midrange shines through thanks to the leaner note weight. And to this effect, while the Nio’s not the most coherent or technical IEM at the flagship level, it’s a solid IEM that I think many will appreciate given its flexibility with the Apex modules.
While this IEM doesn’t see as much ear time from me these days, I’ll always have a soft spot for it. The KXXS follows a Harman-esque tuning with a good deal of subbass, an upper-midrange emphasis, and a fairly subdued treble response. It can come off a bit bright, and my own preferences have shifted from 3kHz ear gains, but make no mistake that the KXXS is a very pleasing IEM tonally. Technical performance is fairly middling, perhaps decent for its price-bracket. The KXXS has a certain pillowy-ness to its transient attack that, in tandem with the more rolled-off treble, can lend to a warmer, less-engaging listen. But that’s of no ill consequence; I enjoy the timbral coloration plus DD timbre a good deal. The KXXS, KXXX, Starfield, whatever. They all sound nigh identical (although you do get slighted with the waifu packaging on the Starfield), and the KXXS is one of the best all-rounders money can buy under $200.
It’s no U12t and I can’t speak for previous iterations of the Andromeda, but the Andromeda 2020, at least, is a standout IEM in the kilobuck bracket. The tonality is something of a W-shape with a similar 2kHz ear gain and subsequent 2-5kHz dip as the U12t. I didn’t appreciate the treble enough when I had the Andromeda 2020; it’s some of the most crisp and well-extended treble out there. I would, however, cut some of that lower-midrange presence which exhibits a poor juxtaposition between overly thick and hollow contrasted to the dipped upper-midrange and BA timbre. And along these lines, intangibly, the Andromeda 2020 falls prey to many common BA IEM pitfalls: Textureless and anemic bass, generally compressed macrodynamics, and static microdynamics in the midrange. But the imaging, oh man, it’s to die for. The Andromeda 2020 is one of the few, truly holographic IEMs, and coupled with its sheer ability to diffuse the image and stellar layering chops, makes for my favorite kilobuck IEM. Campfire may get a lot of crap, but you won’t hear me saying this IEM is anything short of excellent.
Yeah, you already knew this would be making the list. The U12t follows what would be pretty close to my ideal target curve: a strong sub-bass emphasis, a linear midrange, and an easy-on-the-ears yet superbly extended treble response. The 2-5kHz dip to the upper-midrange is my favorite part of the tuning, begetting an unprecedented sense of depth I’ve not heard in another IEM; the U12t excels at projecting the center image, making it feel like the vocalist is actually there in front of you. Intangibly, the U12t also knows no equal to my ears. While I don’t think the U12t is the most uber-crisp IEM, as there’s a certain softness to its transient attack, the U12t’s macrodynamic ability, layering, and BA bass are all top-notch. There’s not much else that hasn’t been said before, but make no mistake that the U12t is one of the best, if not the best, BA IEMs on the market if only by virtue of how well-rounded it is. It likewise remains my top recommendation whenever I get asked which flagship IEM I’d buy.