Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Xiaomi Hybrid: Limit Break

Intro



Before I begin, I would like to sincerely thank George at Gearbest.com for providing the Xiaomi Hybrid you see in this review in exchange for my honest opinion. Please note that I am neither affiliated with Gearbest or any of its staff, nor am I being paid to write this review. All opinions expressed in this review are my own unless otherwise specified, and all photos in this review were taken by me. Finally, please take my following opinions with a grain of salt. Thanks!

Not long after the release of the Pistons 3.0, everyone on the Pistons threads – myself included – was surprised to hear news about a new IEM from Xiaomi. Immediately the “first responders” set up shop and gathered scraps of info quickly, and this new IEM was dubbed the Pistons 4.0 – at least, until the translations came out. No, this is a brand-spanking new IEM from the smartphone manufacturer featuring a hybrid dual driver design at the same price the entire Pistons line was sold at -- $16, or CNY 99. That, in and of itself, is a crazy – and risky – feat to pull off.

The question is – did Xiaomi pull it off right? Find out after the jump.



== Aesthetics ==

Packaging, Accessories

Selling a dual-driver design at a $20 price point is outright insane. At that point, profit margins are already so low you probably won’t notice there’s even any profit from this. Trying to sell one with the same stuff the Pistons 3.0 had and still making a noticeable profit, however, is outright impossible –even Xiaomi seems to acknowledge that. As such, they had to make compromises. And what other place would be so easy to cut costs on than the packaging?

To summarise, Xiaomi eschewed the fancy plastic case and neat silicone earphone holder of the Pistons line in favour of a package made almost entirely out of cardboard. As much of a disappointment as it is, it really isn’t that much of a big deal unless you have a pressing need to store the Hybrids when not in use. Even then, the cardboard “case” of the Hybrids seem to do an equally effective job (at least until the cardboard is crushed at some point). If the Hybrids are your first serious IEM purchase, you’d probably be using them as your main IEM, so again, the lack of a proper case isn’t that big of a deal.

(As a side note, believe it or not, the Hybrid can fit in the Pistons 3.0’s silicone case. We’ll cover why in a bit.)


Design, Build, Microphonics

Design-wise the Xiaomi Hybrid is actually quite similar to the Pistons 3.0 released before it. Their new housings and Y-split aside, the two IEMs share the same remote/mic unit, the same angled nozzles, the same cable, and the same straight connector. The only difference between the aforementioned parts is a colour change, as you can see in the image to the right. These design similarities allow Xiaomi to reduce manufacturing costs by using the same parts from an earlier design, and also allow the Hybrid to fit in the 3.0’s silicone case as I mentioned earlier.

On that note, the similarities between the two Xiaomi IEMs in design also translate to similarities in build. As such, I don’t think one would be disappointed in the build of the Hybrids here – they’re about as durable as one could expect of a $20 IEM. The cable still has that Kevlar (or whatever fabric it is) below the Y-split, so expect cable noise similar to the Pistons 3. However, considering the fact that the Hybrid takes from most of the components of the 3.0, I’m a little confused as to why they decided to make an entirely new Y-split in its place – it’s really little more than a tiny, flimsy rubber square (in comparison to the metal-housed Y-split of the Pistons 3.0). In the end, though, it’s still the end user that determines how long an IEM lasts. Care for it well and it should last.


Fit, Comfort, Isolation

The Hybrid, again having taken from its predecessor’s design, also has similar fit characteristics to the Pistons 3.0. The fit is similarly straightforward, and also quite comfortable. They are mainly worn straight-down, so cable noise might be an issue, but you can wear them around the ear with a little practice (same goes for the Pistons 3.0). The Hybrid doesn’t seem to employ the dual damping system for the Pistons 2.0 and 3.0, so less airflow is permitted through the housing and, as such, better passive isolation compared to the aforementioned IEMs.


== Sound ==

Specs


Headphone Type
Closed-back in-ear monitor
Driver Type
1x dynamic, 1x balanced armature
Frequency Response
20 – 20,000 Hz
Rated Input Power
5 mW
Sensitivity
101 dB
Impedance
32 Ω
Weight
N/A
Cable
1.25m (~4’) Kevlar-reinforced cable
Connector
3.5mm (1/8”) straight TRRS connector
Accessories
4x sets silicone eartips (XS/S/M/L)


Equipment, Burn-in

The source equipment used in this review is a fifth-generation iPod Touch and an iPad 3 directly running the Xiaomi Hybrid, and a PC running iTunes 12 and Foobar2k powering the Hybrid through a Schiit Fulla DAC/Amp. The EQ apps used in their respective test is TuneShell on iOS and Electri-Q on the PC. The eartips used on the Hybrid are the included medium size eartips. The list of the test tracks I listen to while reviewing the Hybrid can be found here, although I will include links to specific songs in the review for a more direct point of reference.

The Hybrids have been burned-in for at least 50 hours prior to this review, most of which comprised of direct listening sessions. Over that period I noted some changes, which I will explain in further detail below.

With everything else said and done, let’s get to the sound.


Sound Quality



Bass:
The Hybrid’s dynamic driver starts off strong with an impactful low-end reminiscent of the Pistons 2.0, but with control more akin to that of the 3.0. Its more restricted venting system allows for better passive isolation, allowing you to hear its great sub-bass extension (Wiz Khalifa – On My Level). Its strength also contributes to the Hybrid’s warm midrange tonality, giving lower octaves a heavier, more viscous response. Similar to the 2.0, I found the Hybrid’s bass to be a little overbearing and excessively thick at times (Coldplay – Magic), but it’s not the worst I’ve ever heard (although from an “audiophile” standpoint, it does come quite close).


Midrange:
What really piqued my interest in the Hybrid was how the drivers would handle the midrange and treble. But to be honest, when I listened to them straight out of the box, I was not impressed. For me, they just didn’t have the presence that allowed it to shine through any genre of music as the 3.0 was capable of. I mean, sure, they don’t sound particularly bad, but there was just something…missing in the vocals and the instruments in the music that I wasn’t able to put my finger on at first.


Treble:
But then it hit me. The Hybrids weren’t off in the midrange; they were off in the treble. To sum things up without wasting too much time, the treble frequencies of the Xiaomi Hybrid were tuned to have as little sibilance as possible. No, really, they have practically no sibilance from what I’m hearing. Though having little sibilance is a good thing, there is what they call too much of a good thing. This is what they call too much of a good thing.

I have read other impressions of the Hybrids from other owners of the IEM on the primary Head-Fi thread, and a few of them seem to report not much “detail” on these Hybrids. To be honest, this intrigues me a bit, as in my opinion treble “quantity” doesn’t outright mean treble “detail”. Okay, yes, it doesn’t have that much treble detail as far as I can hear, but once I put it up against the other Xiaomi earphones I found they all have similar levels of detail retrieval, or at least, as my ears tell me.

In the end, though, the treble dip in the sibilance region still confuses me. This never existed in the old Pistons line, which leads me to think something – or someone – made a suggestion to the tuning that made the Hybrid sound the way it does. Could it be that Luca Bignardi dude that Xiaomi was said to hire according to their official page? All signs seem to point to him. Whoever he is, I think he’s made it clear to himself and to the entire audiophile community that he does not know how to tune a headphone (well, either that or he just has a weird way of hearing things.


Soundstage/Presentation:
Being a more closed-back IEM compared to the rest of Xiaomi’s manufactured earphones, their soundstage sounds more compressed and restricted in comparison to the airier presentation of, say, the Pistons 2 and 3. Their spatial imaging is decent, but nothing here stands out.


Genre Proficiency:
The overall signature of the Hybrid leans towards a rather dark, bass-heavy sound signature. It doesn’t offer anything special midrange-wise, so you won’t find them to do much justice to acoustic recordings (Yiruma – Indigo, Coeur de Pirate – Off to Sleep). They are, however, clear enough to make electronic genres sound pretty good (Televisor – Deya, 7 Minutes Dead – Sidewinder).


Summary:
Overall the Xiaomi Hybrid does not impress me sound-wise. I mean, the Hybrids have pretty controlled bass and a decently clear midrange, but their unusual treble tuning has vocals sounding rather off in my opinion. I know I don’t have any experience with hybrid earphones as of this writing, but I don’t think the Hybrids sound like hybrids – in fact, I think the guys behind the IEM could’ve just left it a single dynamic and it’d probably sound just as good (or as bad, whichever opinion you have). I just don’t think they bring any more to the table than the Pistons 2.0 and 3.0 already do.


Other Media

My conclusion in this section is the same as that of the main Sound Quality section – the Xiaomi Hybrids sound decent, but nothing about them makes me really want to listen more. For gaming, their rather dark-tilted signature doesn’t really prove helpful. However, I did like how the Hybrids played along with movies. The bass is explosive enough to match that of a half-decent cinema, and all in all it really isn’t all that bad, so a bit of a “meh” here for me.


EQ & Amp Response

Being an IEM with a 101 dB sensitivity figure, it’s clear they’re designed to work with weaker-powered devices – such as mobile devices – without any fuss. On that note, they don’t seem to improve much with amplification – at least, when I give them the extra power output from my Schiit Fulla. EQ, however, seems to work quite effectively on the Hybrids. With a little tweaking, one can manage to compensate for the treble dip in the Hybrids and bring back the upper registers it’s supposed to have. With that they actually start to sound more like the Pistons follow-up we’ve all been waiting for. But considering the fact that this is after compensation, it’s still a little disappointing to say the least.


Value

The Xiaomi Hybrids retail for $16 dollars, or 99 CNY – the same price the Pistons 2 and 3 before it retailed for. Now, that’s not a bad price per se – but when you consider its price bracket, now oversaturated and overrun by “hype of the year” and “flavour of the month” IEMs, you really can’t consider the Hybrids to have that high of a price-to-performance ratio. And what really made the Pistons 2 and 3 the budget hits they were – their secret to success – was just that – their insane value for the money. At the low, low price of $16 dollars, you could get an accommodating IEM that does what it needs to and doesn’t leave you hanging (unless you’re a veteran audiophile or just picky). At that same price, you can also get one of the hype-of-the-year brand-less Chinese IEMs that provide high performance, but at the cost of severe reliability issues.


Comparison

Versus Xiaomi Pistons 3.0 ($16):
The Pistons 3.0 is, by far, one of my favourite IEMs; there’s no doubt about that. There’s also no doubt that it completely defeats the Hybrid in all aspects. Build-wise the Hybrid is worrying in certain aspects. Sound-wise they really just can’t keep up. To be honest, I’m a little dismayed. I mean, considering the fact that the Hybrids have two drivers at their disposal, you’d expect them to sound phenomenal.


Versus Xiaomi Pistons 2.0 ($16):
Early impressions from other reviewers pointed to the hybrids being a sort of sound-wise “middle ground” between the more balanced 3.0 and the bass-heavy 2.0. But now that I have the Hybrids for myself I can’t bring myself to say that anymore. These Hybrids are an entirely different monster…and not in a good way. The treble dip still bothers my ears to no end, and the bass, though fine, doesn’t really help in the IEM’s overall sound. The Pistons 2.0, at least, sounds much more coherent and natural (if you can call it that).


== Conclusion ==



In the end, I can’t bring myself to recommend the Xiaomi Hybrid to anyone. They just don’t provide the level of performance you’d expect from a hybrid follow-up to the great-sounding Pistons 3.0, instead sounding more like an experimental prototype than anything. I will admit, though, it is a respectable effort by Xiaomi to break the price limits and provide a hybrid IEM design at a sub-$20 price point – and that is insane. But even then, it still just doesn’t sound that good.


Category
Score
Comment
Packaging, Accessories
6.5/10
Same accessories as in the Pistons 3.0, but the all-cardboard packaging is a little disappointing compared to the old fancy plastic case.
Design, Build, Microphonics
7/10
Build is pretty average for a Xiaomi IEM, with the Hybrid taking most of its components from its predecessor. The Y-split is a little worrying, however.
Fit, Comfort, Isolation
7.5/10
The Hybrid employs a closed-back design, which offers better isolation compared to the Pistons line. Its fit, however, is similar to the Pistons 3.0, which may or may not be a good thing.
Bass
7/10
Solid and impactful, it aims to please the consumer listener, but it’s not exactly “great” by any “audiophile” standards.
Midrange
7/10
Its midrange is actually quite clear for what it is, but a treble dip in the tuning makes a lot of instruments sound off.
Treble
5/10
The treble is the game changer in the Xiaomi Hybrid – but not the good kind.
Presentation
6.5/10
Pretty good across the board, but don’t expect anything better than the other Xiaomi earphones.
Gaming, Movies
6.5/10
See above.
EQ Response
7/10
They sounded pretty darn good after applying frequency compensation.
Value
6/10
See below.
Total
6.6/10
Overall I really can’t recommend the Xiaomi Hybrid, what with their underwhelming sound quality that doesn’t live up to the performance of its predecessors.


Suggestions for Improvement

Improve the tuning.
Kick out the one responsible for the treble dip.


Shout-Outs, Gallery

Again I would like to sincerely thank George at Gearbest.com for providing the sample unit of the Xiaomi Hybrid you see in this review. You could check out the rest of the images I took during the shoot here (link unavailable), and you could check out some more of my reviews here.
This has been thatBeatsguy of DB Headphones; thanks for reading!


Changelog









3 comments:

  1. Compared to Pistion 2 in ear headphones, did you feel any improvement in bass response?

    ReplyDelete
  2. If by "improved" you mean "more quantity," then no, it's a bit more of the opposite. However, if by improvement you mean an actual, bottom-line improvement, no, I can't say it's that much better (if at all).

    ~ tbg

    ReplyDelete
  3. I as well feel xiaomi has stepped backwards with this model. in fact, a few steps back. Perfect example of additional drivers not equalling more performance.

    ReplyDelete