Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The HiFiMAN RE-300h: An Unexpected IEM

== Intro ==



TL;DR: Smooth-sounding with just that little extra bass punch, the HiFiMAN RE-300h offers a matured sound in a diminutive package.

First of all, I just want to sincerely thank Peter and the guys over at HiFiMAN for giving me the opportunity to review their new RE-300 IEMs. I would like to clarify that I am neither affiliated with HiFiMAN or any of its staff, nor am I being compensated in any way by writing this review (aside from being provided the review sample). All opinions expressed in the following are strictly my own unless otherwise specified. YMMV.

Well, it’s been exactly 365 days since I wrote my review of the Xiaomi Pistons 2.0, which I could say was the review that started all of this. Over those 365 days, there have been some crazy goings on both personally and internationally. And now, after that full year, I’m going to come back to writing a budget IEM from a popular Chinese manufacturer. No, it’s not Xiaomi.

HiFiMAN is very well known in the audiophile community, and was (before FiiO) probably the only popular audio gear manufacturer based in China. They’re mostly known for their popular planar magnetic (or orthodynamic) headphones such as the HE-400, HE-560, and the extremely hard-to-drive HE-6. But they’ve also made equally popular IEMs, albeit on a smaller scale, like their RE0, RE-400, and now, the RE-300. The question now left to be answered is – will you stuff stockings with these? Read on and find out.

== Aesthetics ==

Packaging, Accessories


The RE-300h comes in a very small and simple transparent plastic box, draped in a minimalistic black and white colour scheme. As I said earlier, the box is transparent, which allows you to see the IEMs and its right-angled connector. On the back are a list of its features and specifications. It’s very simple, and very much something I would like to see in a headphone store. Inside you have an instruction manual, a spare pair of eartips (yes, just one), a shirt clip, and some replacement filters. Now, I don’t know why they included replacement filters onto an IEM with filters that would take some coercion to take out, but they proved useful in replacing the filters on IEMs I took filters out of (like my Brainwavz R3). Sure, the package is a little scant (especially the eartips), but it’s really nothing I’m complaining about.


Design, Build, Microphonics


At first, the RE-300h looks rather flimsy with its all-plastic build and extremely diminutive size (it’s slightly smaller than the M9 Classic). However, closer inspection reveals they’re much tougher than they look. The tiny teardrop-shaped housings are built out of very solid plastic, and are just large enough to fit a tiny 8.5mm driver in there. One thing of note is how the housings are completely sealed – there are no bass ports or anything that would allow air into the housing chamber. Now, I’ve no physics degree, so I can’t really explain how that works, so let’s leave it at that. The cable is also similarly strong, is remarkably supple and very easy to manage. The Y-split and the right angled jack are created with a tough plastic, and look decently relieved. Overall it feels pretty solid, and should hold up to regular everyday use. A little complaint I have about the build is that the housing strain reliefs are a little flimsy and could use a more solid one. Also, the L and R markings came off completely during my time reviewing and burning them in. Not very good if you don’t remember which is which.


Another thing of note is that this RE-300 I’m reviewing is the RE-300h. HiFiMAN released three different versions of the RE-300 for different uses: the 300i (for iOS) with an iDevice-compatible remote, the 300a (for Android) with an Android-compatible remote, and the 300h with an OCC cable without a remote. Now, for those of you non-audiophiles, you probably have no idea what OCC is, but let’s just say they’re better than standard OFC (Oxygen Free Copper) cables, which are the current standard. Another notable difference between the versions are how they’re tuned. They say the remote-included versions are tuned for the consumer crowd, while this h version is tuned for the audiophile crowd. Now, I don’t have both remote and non-remote versions to have a say in any of that, so let’s just leave it there and move on.


Fit, Comfort, Isolation

Despite a lot of praise in the audiophile community about how well they fit, how comfortable they are, I felt all of that praise is pretty exaggerated. Though I do concur that they are pretty comfortable, their fit with the stock eartips leaves a lot to be desired. Their seal is incomplete and allows some air to leak through, which although that may be a good thing when you’re out and about, it detracts from the overall sound quality. The fit is even worse when you wear them straight down. And don’t even get me started on the isolation supposedly being “like earplugs.”

But in retrospect, most of the praise does become slightly warranted after changing out the eartips. Now, in this case, they do provide pretty great all around aspects in this section. Again, the isolation isn’t earplug-like, but the seal is pretty great with the right eartips and they isolate pretty well. In the end, however, assuming this is your first purchase of an IEM and you have no other eartips to replace the stock ones with, you’re going to have to spend a couple extra bucks to make the most of the fit of the RE-300.


== Sound ==

Specs


Headphone Type
Closed-back in-ear monitor (straight-down, around-the-ear)
Driver Type
1x 8.5mm dynamic, neodymium magnet
Frequency Response
15 Hz – 22,000 Hz
Max. Input Power
N/A
Sensitivity
108 dB @ 1 mW @ 1 kHz
Impedance
16 ± 3.2 Ω
Weight
N/A
Cable
Round OCC cable
Connector
3.5 mm (1/8”) gold-plated TRRS right-angle connector
Accessories
Shirt clip
1 set clear white silicone ear tips (M)
5 pairs replacement ear filters


Equipment, Burn-in

The source equipment being used during the review is my iPod Touch and my PC, both running the RE-300h directly. The amp used in the test is a Yamaha RX-V359 speaker receiver through its headphone-out. The apps being used for the EQ test is EQu for the iPod and Electri-Q for the PC. As always, a list of my test tracks are located here for reference.

As per review protocol, the RE-300h has been burned in for at least 100 hours prior to the writing of this review. The eartips used throughout the review are the Brainwavz bi-flange tips. Over burn-in there seems to be no change in the sound quality, positive or otherwise. Now that we’ve got all that cleared up, let’s get right down to the sound!


Sound Quality


The first time I put these on and played some music through them (after getting a proper seal with non-stock tips), I noticed their soundstage. It sounded really, really airy. Almost like the IEMs have some sort of echo DSP built into them. Is this a good thing? Kinda. Though that air is a huge plus to a lot of recordings, it also has its downsides. Let’s listen in.

The bass performance of the RE-300 surprised me, to be honest. During first listen, I didn’t really notice it first, but after spending more time with it, I came to know just how much power these tiny IEMs are putting out. They’re most certainly capable of pleasing these ears with EDM tracks, and I could even go so far as to call them basshead-friendly. Despite that, they’re equally capable of pulling back when the music doesn’t call for them – and that, to me, is an ability a lot of bass-heavy IEMs lack. They have pretty good extension, too – although I would’ve gone for a little more emphasis on the sub-bass rather than the mid-bass. It also happens to be pretty quick and accurate, despite it bleeding a noticeable amount into the midrange. Overall I find not much fault (if at all) here, whether I’m listening to Knife Party or Antonio Vivaldi.



Now, the midrange – the midrange of the RE-300h is, for me, a bit of a love-hate relationship. It’s got a pretty warm tilt, great clarity, and a rich sweetness to it that I can’t really put my finger on. The airy soundstage also seems to be caused by the midrange – by way or a peak around the 1 kHz range. Now, to a lot of ears, this probably won’t be much of problem, but it does get irritating to these ears at times. They also tend to be rather thick (kinda like honey) – although it’s not too noticeable to these ears for me to complain about them. As for the treble, there’s nothing much I could talk about that’s really noteworthy. They’re rather smooth and a little on the laid-back side, but is bright enough to not sound dark in any way.

The presentation, though, is something I simply can’t bring myself to leave out in this review. It’s really impressive, especially how it just works with anything I put these through – music, games, movies, you name it.

On Second Thought: The soundstage of the RE-300h, with more extensive listening sessions, isn't actually as big as I'd initially thought. Yes, it's still pretty airy for an IEM like this, but its presentation is honestly pretty intimate from these much later listening sessions. But even so, the instrument separation is still excellent, and just works with anything without complaint.


Gaming, Movies

I game pretty extensively during my free time, and I always keep whatever I’m reviewing in my ears when I do. So far, the RE-300 strikes a pretty good balance between ‘fun’ and ‘competitive,’ with a nice low-end bringing some extra weight behind every explosion, and great overall clarity to bring a bit of a competitive edge. My personal movie experience tells the same tale, with a very nice balance of clarity vs. bass – technically it has a touch more bass over clarity, but to these ears, that’s just about perfect.


EQ, Amping

The RE-300h is fairly responsive to EQ, responding well to a slight dip in the lower midrange and a step up in the treble. However, I’m honestly pretty satisfied with what these IEMs bring to the table from square one, so to me, EQ isn’t needed. Amplification performs as expected – cleaning up the mid and upper bass, and smoothing the whole signature out for an overall better listening experience. The differences aren’t significant, but they’re noticeable – but it’s not worth getting an amp to use with these.


Value

The HiFiMAN RE-300h retails for about $50 on their official website, Head-Direct. If I were me, would I buy them? If I went on others’ impressions alone in buying this pair, I probably wouldn’t – they pinpoint too many unpleasing aspects that simply make them turn away. But now – now that I’ve been given the chance to review them, one-on-one – I would most certainly buy a pair. No wait, not just one – I’d probably buy even three to give to a couple of people. To these ears, they sound really smooth, really sweet, that I’m having a hard time putting them down. And add that on top of a satisfying bass punch, and you have a winner.


Comparison

Versus Brainwavz S0 ($50)

This comparison is honestly something that could easily be ignored, since I think you guys already know who wins here. Both are pretty smooth-sounding IEMs with an affinity for EDM. However, with a direct A/B comparison, the S0 shows off its dark side with more mellowed-out treble and more emphasized bass. The midrange is also a lot thicker and warmer on the S0 than it is on the more balanced RE-300h. Like I said, we all know who wins in this face-off.


Versus Xiaomi Pistons 2.0 ($16)
Exactly one year ago, I dubbed the Xiaomi Pistons “the ultimate earphones under $20.” Even now, I feel they still live up to that name, but is quantity more than quality? Let’s find out.

The two IEMs have highly differing sound signatures – the Pistons being the fun, consumer-oriented, bass-heavy IEM, and the RE-300h being the smoother, more audiophile IEM. To these ears, the RE-300h easily wins with an overall more balanced sound, but for the price of this IEM you could buy two of the Pistons with some change to spare. The RE-300h also manages to sound better with more genres than the Pistons can, and like I said, they’re just all-around better. But to stuff stockings with one of these IEMs is going to be difficult. With the RE-300h, you can give one person the gift of “real” audiophile sound, but you can reach twice as many people with the Pistons, albeit just not really “audiophile”-sounding.

  == Conclusion ==

The HiFiMAN RE-300 is a winner, really. They don’t seem to have much in the way of technical prowess, but they make up for that with a smooth, sweet sound signature that simply works. To answer my earlier question about stuffing stockings with these IEMs, to that I say it’s hard for me not to stuff stockings with these, even if you don’t have the cash to give two people this gift of audiophile sound.


Category
Score
Comment
Packaging, Accessories
7/10
The RE-300h comes in a very simple retail packaging, like what you would expect to see at a regular consumer store. For $50, though, the accessories are pretty scant.
Design, Build, Microphonics
6.5/10
These IEMs are built remarkably well, although their diminutive housings are rather fragile. They aren’t lookers by any means, but the cable feels great.
Fit, Comfort, Isolation
7/10
Most of the praise surrounding the RE-300’s fit, comfort, and isolation comes from using aftermarket eartips. Otherwise, they don’t really deliver much, so you better start tip rolling.
Microphone
N/A

Bass
7/10
The RE-300h gives out pretty hard bass, which should satisfy most EDM lovers. However, it isn’t very cleanly done, and bleeds a good amount into the midrange.
Midrange
7.5/10
The midrange is warm, but very sweet to listen to. It sometimes irritates my ears, but others probably won’t have a problem with it.
Treble
7/10
The treble is laid-back, yes, but just enough that the overall sound signature doesn’t go dark.
Presentation
7/10
The RE-300h has a pretty airy soundstage despite its very small housing. It presents instruments and vocals in a sweet, intimate manner, and its excellent separation really brings the music to life.
Gaming
7/10
These IEMs, to me, strike an almost perfect balance between ‘competitive’ and ‘fun’. It’s practically a Jab-N’-Go for your sonic needs.
Movies
7/10
The RE-300h plays movies the same way it plays everything else – with a smooth, dynamic sound signature that rolls with the punches and does just what it needs to.
EQ, Amping
7/10
They respond to EQ fairly well, and will pretty much do anything to tell it to do. Amping them gives them a much cleaner, smoother sound signature, which makes for a more pleasing music experience.
Value
7/10
For $50, I don’t see why you shouldn’t buy the RE-300h if the sound signature happens to be your cup of tea.
Total
7.1/10
The HiFiMAN RE-300h is a pretty solid competitor in its price range if you’re looking for a great all-rounder that does everything right.

Shout-Outs, Gallery

Again, I just want to thank Peter at HiFiMAN for giving me the opportunity to review these fantastic IEMs. I’ve had a lot of fun reviewing these IEMs, and though I did consider pushing it back another week, I couldn’t bring myself to let a review of a great IEM go off-schedule. So, I did everything I could to make it to the deadline, which just so happens to be today. Whew!

Anyways, all of the pictures taken during the review can be seen here. Well, now it’s time for me to get back to my Christmas Eve preparations. This is thatBeatsguy signing off; thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas, everyone!


Changelog

12/24/2014: Changed a little something.

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