JH Audio JH16 Pro in-ear monitors
"Good grief, has he lost his hearing?"
It was the distant past, a time so long ago that the M in MTV stood for Music, and I was watching a David Bowie concert on TV. The svelte singer was wearing what I took to be hearing aids.
Yes, I knowthere are some things better not admitted. Yes, I now know DB was not sporting hearing aids. Yes, I now know they were in-ear monitors (IEMs). And JH Audio's Jerry Harvey pioneered their use so that performing musicians no longer had to put up with a mono wodge of rubbish sound from the usual wedge-shaped stage monitor speakers.
Jerry was touring with the band Van Halen as a monitor engineer when drummer Alex Van Halen asked him for in-ear monitors. Jerry developed the first two-way, custom-fit, in-ear monitors in 1995, and eventually started his own company, Ultimate Ears, to design and manufacture IEMs. I favorably reviewed the Ultimate Ears UE-5c ($600; since renamed the 5 Pro) in December 2004, but by the time I reviewed the top UE model, the 18 Pro ($1350), in December 2010, Jerry had been forced out and Ultimate Ears was sold to Logitech.
But you can't keep a good man down. Jerry Harvey returned to his passion with a new company, JH Audio, and a new range of IEMs. The top of the line is the JH16 Pro ($1149). Unlike the three-way Ultimate Ears 18 Pro, which uses six balanced armatures, the three-way JH16 Pro uses no fewer than eight balanced armatures: a dual-armature driver each for the treble and midrange, and two dual-armature drivers for the bass. These communicate to the user's inner ear canal and eardrum via three tubes in the IEM's molded body. (The less-expensive JH Audio 13 Pro costs $1099 and uses six balanced armatures.)
Like all IEMs, the JH Audio Pro models require that impressions be taken of the listener's inner ears by an audiologist; the complementary molds are used to form the bodies of the headphones, which are inserted in the ear canals, sealing off the outside world. (A list of preferred audiologists can be found here.) The low-frequency performance will depend on the effectiveness of the seal, which is why it is important to have the molds taken with care. And I find that, as with the Ultimate Ears 18 Pros, it takes a few minutes for the JH16 Pros to get a good seal in my ears, presumably because the IEM's housing expands slightly as it warms to body temperature.
But even when the IEMs were fully warmed up, they never got uncomfortable. Just before this issue went to press, I took part, via phone, in a strategic planning conference that lasted more than four hours. The JH16 Pros were in my ears all that time, driven by my iPhone, and never outstayed their welcome.
Before I received my review samples of the JH16 Pro, CNET's Steve Guttenberg warned me that I'd better like bass. Well, I do. When I'm mixing my own recordings, such as Attention Screen's new Takes Flight at Yamaha (CD, Stereophile STPH021-2), I always boost the bottom octave of the bass guitar by a few dB to give the instrument more of an appropriately phat character. As much as I adore the playing of the late Jaco Pastorius, he went for more of a midrange-dominant sound; although this laid bare his extraordinary articulation on his fretless Fender Jazz bass, I always wished for a bit more energy in the lows. And listening to Joni Mitchell's live Shadows and Light (ripped as ALAC files from HDCD, Asylum 704-2) through the JH16 Pros, that's what I got: articulation and clarity, but with just enough more bottom-octave weight to complete the musical experience to my taste.
This was with my iPod Classic 160GB driving the JH16s directly; with the battery-powered Ray Samuels Emmeline The Tomahawk headphone amplifier intermediating, there was, if anything, slightly more low-bass energy, but the articulation was even more stunning. Phil Lesh's bass lines in "The Eleven," from the Grateful Dead's Live Dead (ALAC, ripped from CD, Warner Bros.), simply soared. When I played the 1/3-octave bass warble tones from Editor's Choice (AIFF file, ripped from CD, Stereophile STPH016-2), the tones remained clean and easily audible down to the 25Hz band, without the usual earbud bane of high distortion at high levels of low frequencies.
The danger of somewhat larger-than-life lows is that they will blur the attack of bass drums, turning what should be a propulsive thud into a laggardly boom. The JH16 Pros avoided this problem: The leading edges of Steve Jordan's kick drum in the slow blues "Out of My Mind," from the concert video Where the Light Is: John Mayer Live in Los Angeles (ALAC, ripped from DVD, Sony 722727), drove the music forward without blending into the sound of Pino Palladino's Fender P-Basseven with the iPod driving the IEMs directly, which was a little less controlled overall than with the separate headphone amp. Palladino plays on this track with his thumb while damping the strings at the bridge with the fleshy part of his palm, and his bass had some of the visceral impact it has through full-range speakersbut without, of course, the usual excitation of the listener's body by the soundfield.
I had commented, in my review of the UE 18 Pros, on the impressive combination of midrange smoothness and clarity those IEMs offered. In direct comparison with the JH16 Proas direct as it could be with the need to unscrew one pair of IEMs, insert the other, then make sure the seal was tightthe JH Audios were as smooth but, if anything, offered an even more detailed view of the soundstage. For example, the woodland soundscape at the start of Andreas Vollenweider's "Behind the GardensBehind the WallUnder the Tree," from the CD of the same title (ALAC file, ripped from the original 1985 Swiss CD, not the compressed 2005 reissue), was wide and deep, with the sound of the pheasant startled by the rippling intro of Vollenweider's harp coming from way outside the right side of my head. The hummy bass register of the processed harp on this recording benefited from the JH16 Pro's big-hearted bass. By comparison, the Ultimate Ears didn't want to give quite as much in the bass. And while there was more low bass evident with the JH16s driven by the Ray Samuels The Tomahawk, the headphone amp dried up the upper bass compared with the iPod Classic, which let the music's phat flag fly a little more effectively.
Yes, the JH16 Pro offers extended, generous low frequencies. But it manages to do so without booming or blurring, and it emphasizes music's magnificence in a most satisfying way. Yes, the JH16 Pro is expensive, but it has become my constant companionboth on my commute, where its sound isolation proves a boon, and at home, when I need to cocoon myself with my music. Once you've heard a high-end IEM like the JH16 Pro, there's no going back to earbuds.