This guide is intended as a list of things that I believe would make for a good Christmas present for someone in your life, someone who either loves music or someone who could do with the joy that good quality music listening can bring. This guide is going to be aimed at things not for yourself, so things are going to be a little bit generalist and with a little slant to “consumer” sounding things. It’s not intended for those who have heard a hundred headphones and earphones, that knows exactly what they like and what they don’t. With that in mind I will shortly being constructing a Christmas gift for yourself guide. That will be a little late but as I think many will receive gifts in the form of cash, these “for yourself” presents often are bought post the big day anyway.
1. RHA S500 (with or without the i) £30 (i for £40) or US$40 (i for $50)
The S500 is a little gem of an IEM, combining impeccable looks and it sounds great. Now I realise that in audiophile land it’s an el cheapo but its show stopping good in every department for the money. While it comes from a western brand you expect there to be a price premium, stuff from a Chinese brand you’ve never heard of is always better value right? The little S500 throws that idea out the window. Great looks, great sound, great value, great warranty, the only thing that’s not great about it is its global availability. Just now the i version is Apple shop exclusive. That does mean though if you’re in doubt you can likely go and see what one looks like in the flesh assuming you have an Apple shop nearby. Trust me they look fantastic. I cannot for one second imagine a partner or child getting a set of these and being unhappy about it, even by looks alone never mind how good they sound. I can see no good reason why anyone interested in audio shouldn’t grab a set or two of these for their loved ones, and then grab a set for themselves.
2. Trinity Audio Engineering Techne £35 or about US$53
You might be wondering at how the Techne has made it in here. When it launched it was about £60 if I recall but it has been slashed in price down to just £35 and so it scrapes into “stocking stuffer” pricing in my mind. It is a rather unusual earphone for most normal people.Just look at the shape of it, then it has filters, you can change them???? Yes you can change the bit that sticks in your ear with a tip on. You can unscrew them and swap them about to tailor how it sounds, dependant on your personal tastes. Clearly this puts it in the range of gifts for an older child or adult, one who can look after the filters. However with its customisability it lets the user grow in the audio tastes. Maybe they will start with the bassy one and over time experiment with a more reference like sound. The watch words for the Techne is its audio quality and its customisability. I’m sure that anybody that’s dipping their toes into the audiophile world would love to see a set of these on Christmas morning.
3. Xiaomi Piston 3 £8 or £13 depending on posting location, US$12.49 or US$20 similarly.
The Piston 3 is not the best IEM in the world but it’s maybe the best performance to price ratio’d earphone in the world. Frankly the price that Gearbest has them for is so cheap if I hadn’t been in contact with them for some time now I’d look at the price and assume they are fakes, they must be fakes right???? How can anything be a halfway decent product and be posted anywhere in the world for £8?!?!?!? I honestly have no idea. I can only assume Xiaomi are using these as loss leaders to gain brand familiarity in the West for their phones. They are rich and warm, so gooey and chocolatey, they are so easy on the ear with their big warm bass. So enjoyable and inoffensive a sound I can’t see anyone getting a pair of these and being displeased with them. They look nice and sound super comfortable. Oh and they are unbelievably, stupendously cheap. Seriously buy a dozen and give them out to all your friends and they’ll be awed by generosity, thinking you’ve spent a fortune and only you’ll know better.
There is so many to choose from that the three I went with may as well have been picked by the toss of a coin. I did put a great deal of thought in but frankly we are spoilt by an embarrassment of riches. In no particular order, if you can’t get the above or whatever…. The Brainwavz M1. It’s a little treble happy perhaps so maybe not be loved by all. The Trinity Audio Engineering Hyperion. It was going to make the cut until I saw the price of the Techne had been slashed. It’s tiny and fab. The Honor AM-12, again they awesome, stupid cheap but the Pistons just piped them. Oh and the now ancient Radiopaq Jazz if you can find a pair.
I’m willing to open up the wallet a little bit
1. HiFiMAN RE-400 US$80 or about £53
Simply put the 400 is with some ease, the best sounding IEM your money can get you for its stupid price of just US$80 or about £53. At that price nothing can come close to touching it. It’s not a sound for everyone, its by consumer standards very bass light. It’s also not the most gifty of IEM’s. It’s not a product that visually or to the touch scream quality. It is however the most amazingly good value product, any budding audiophile would be ecstatic to get a set I’m sure but a Beats fan, err probably not so much.
2. Trinity Audio Engineering Delta £60 or about US$90
Starting life at £90 it was good value then, having been slashed it rockets up the value league. Were also starting to get in the realm of fancy, the Delta has not just one dynamic driver like most people will be used to but is more like a typical speaker. You see it has a big woofer and a second driver, acting as a tweeter. In this case that drive is of the Balanced Armature type. You don’t need to know how they work, they do and their awesome. Then you get the same filter altering abilities as was on the Techne. For little, little money you are getting some proper audiophile quality and a heap of customisability too. It’s simply a great introductory IEM to the audiophile world and it’s got a bass capability to keep pretty much anyone happy too.
3. RHA MA-750 £80 or £90 for the i version or US$120 and US$130 respectively.
RHA again you say, yeah I know, they are having a good year, what can I say. They were in last year’s guide two. Some things haven’t changed, they still sound wonderful, good general crowd pleasers with audiophile pretensions. Then you look at the things, RHA know how to make an awesome first impression with their packaging which is something you want in a gift. They are, as they say, the complete package.
4. Sennheiser Momentum In-Ears £80 or US$95
Another return from last years, they like the 750 above, they were awesome, they still are awesome. These are getting rather “consumer” sounding but they are still pushing audiophile quality along with that load of bass. They look great, their packaging is lovely and it is the kinda thing that makes a stellar first impression, which is just what you want from a gift. It’s a solid choice that I can’t see anyone being displeased at receiving.
There are so many things that could have made the list but didn’t. The most notable is the GR07 but while it sounds fab its packaging doesn’t really say gift to me. Same for the PL-50, which I personally love but it’s not something that would please everyone. The Brainwavz M3, the S3, and my own favourite, the R3. That embarrassment of riches thing again.
N.B. I have a confession, I would have included the Echobox Finder X1 but my lateness means this guide is going up after their “get before Christmas” deadline. It will be featuring in the impending “how to best part with all my Post Christmas Cash” article or however it’ll be titled.
Okay let’s get the credit cards out
1. Alclair Curve US$249 or about £159
These for me have been my highlight of the year. They are serious beasts that take what you can do with a dual BA set up and they have run with it. The v1 of the Curve (I’m still hoping they keep alive) was a true successor the Klipsch Custom 3.The v2 is what I think the Westone UM3x should have been. These are capable in every way acoustically and have nothing in which I can fault them for. Sure their box is a little Spartan but as soon as the recipient hears them they will know they have a serious bit of kit here. Their Spartan box in my mind only emphasises their professional origins. Oh and they look super funky.
2. RHA T20 £180 or for the i £190 or US$240 and US$250 respectively
I swear they haven’t paid me but yeah another RHA. What can I say, they make good stuff and they present it bloody well. That presentation is what tips them over the line as when you give a gift, you want the damn thing to look great don’t you and there aren’t many who I’ve seen do nicer. Oh, and yeah the T20’s are amazeballs good too. They look freekin’ stunning, they have customisable filters, a steal tip holder, are made from injection moulded steel oh and did I mention they sound amazeballs?
3. Dunu DN-2000 £205 or US$260
Another survivor from last year’s list. The DN-2000 is one of the best IEM’s that your wallet can get you. They sound flawless and they look pretty good too. They come in a nice bundle with every accessory you could think of and a great case. It can do pretty much everything and still have a bass capability that would please any typical consumer too.
Once more there are so many that could have been included but with the growing word count things need to be cut. There are a raft of amazingly good things around this pricing level, Sennheisers IE80, Shure SE-535, Westone UM3 pro 30. They all don’t get in because I’ve not heard them, I’ve heard their largely identical siblings (IE8, SE-530, UM3x) but if I’ve not heard it it’s not a contender.
I want to pretend I’m Princess Leia
1. Sennheiser HD600 / HD650 £220 or US$300 / £225 or US$380
These are the archetypal big can, they are where the Princess Leia look originated I’m sure too. Both have been around since the dawn of time, they were lauded on their release and they are still recognised as among the best and best-loved headphones out there. They are relaxed and enjoyable to listen too, the HD600 maybe the lighter sounding to the warmer 650 but both are a pleasing, smooth and unaggressive listen. Unless your name is Grado I can’t see anyone being displeased with getting a pair of these under the tree.
2. Oppo Pm-3 £350 or US$400
Arguably the star product of the year. It’s a genuine bona fide planar that you can power off your phone. Not just that, it doesn’t suck being powered by your phone. Actually not only does in not suck but it sounds phenomenal. It’s a marvel of engineering. It’s so quick that despite being close it can do a convincingly good open, airy sound. There is nothing else I know of that is quite like it, seriously, planar speed but out of your phone!!!!! Anyone who gets one of these under the tree and isn’t ecstatic about it needs to be taken out and shot.
3. Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Over-Ears
There is a reason Senn are the kings of the headphone world. They have been doing it since the dinosaurs and thus have gotten pretty got at it. The Momentum line is their attempt at making a “consumer” friendly sounding range. They are all warmer and more bassy than they really should be but they know how to crowd please. Audiophile quality levels with a big and hearty bottom end. I’d wager even a hardened “Beats fan” would be pleased at getting a pair of these. Oh and they came in a bunch of colours so you have a fair degree of visual tailoring.
I’m Bill Gates and I want to spend all of the monies!
1. The HE-1000 US$3000 or £2200
This was without doubt the star of Canjam London this year, if there was a product that people were queuing up to get a hands on listen to, it was this. Not to denigrate other attendants but I’d bet that if attendees were given the choice of anything at the show they could take home with them it was this. The HE-1000 is beyond exquisite, it is for lack of a better word, perfection. If the Borg were after a headphone this is what they are looking for. Sure it’s a little wallet busting for most people but hey, compared to the lunatic Carrera marbled Orpheus 2 Sennheiser just launched it’s a tiny fraction. (Yeah the Orpheus 2 is US$55000, if ever there was a penis waving product it’s the Orpheus 2.) Now I don’t expect anyone to really think of the HE-1000 as a good value product, that would be silly. However, if you have more money than you know what to do with and want to buy someone an audio gift these are as fine as the human race can construct, I’ve heard nothing better and I’m not sure that I ever will.
2. JAYS q-JAYS 2.0 400 Euro’s or about £287 or US$433
They are expensive, I mean I got my v1.0 pair (in sea blue) for the steal price of £60. They usually went for about £120 if I remember correctly. So why the hell the jump, pretty huge jump too? Well now they are metal, have removable cables, oh and they retuned them a little. These are hands down the best dual BA out there. (Sorry CK10’s) They are so much better than what you would think they can be on paper. They defy logic if not the laws of physics. They also come in the most insanely “premium” packaging I’ve ever seen. You want an IEM gift that will make a good first impression, these say I love you and I’m showing you how much by using my wallet.
3. Graham Slee Solo Linear Ultra Diamond Edition £670 (US peeps should get sans VAT so I reckon about US$840)
Ohhh look, the first non ear/headphone option. So the Solo Ultra, I’m not writing out that full name repeatedly, is a headphone amp. Just an amp. You still need a source and a DAC to feed it so it’s just one component in the chain and it’s not exactly a cheap component either. However somethings in life, if you want the best you have to take the wallet ouch on the chin and just get over it. It’s a beautifully simplistic bit of kit, lacking even an on off switch (The pro audio background Graham hails from apparently doesn’t want things powering down or changing states.) It’s got 2 inputs, a switch to select which and a headphone out socket. Simple stuff but it sounds just wonderful. It positively drips in that lovingly hand crafted ambiance that you get buying from boutique outfits where everything that goes out the door has been a labour of love.
So that’s it folk’s. I know I haven’t covered everything, the big omission is DAP’s. That is in large part due to the way they are priced additionally as this is for gift’s, for other people, well so many use their phones. I’m just not completely sure that buying someone a DAP is always going to be an entirely welcome thing. Anyone who does want a separate DAP has probably a good idea of what they want. In short I’m just not sure it’s an awesome gift for others idea. Gift for yourself is a totally different story and they hence will be featuring when I get around to making that guide.
If you have any questions regarding any of the above or want to know why this and not that etc etc ask away and I’ll try and answer it for you.