JH Audio 16 Pro in-ear headphone, worth $1,149?

The ultra-performance in-ear headphone wars are heating up, and now we have a new winner, the JH Audio 16 Pro. Rock stars rely on them, and JH Audio would love to custom build a set for you.

JH Audio

Jerry Harvey got into the headphone business by making in-ear monitors for just a few musician friends, and went on to build headphones for hundreds of bands, and now counts Mary J. Blige, Godsmack, Guns 'N' Roses, Alicia Keys, Eddie Vedder, and the Glee Live Tour as customers.

Harvey pioneered two-way (bass/treble) in-ear designs in 1995, and later the first three-way (bass, mid, treble) in-ear monitors. Harvey's multiple driver designs produce less distortion and increase dynamic range compared with conventional single-driver headphones, which include all of the standard headphones from Etymotic, Monster, Skullcandy, Sony, etc. The JH16 Pro I'm reviewing here is the world's first eight-driver, three-way in-ear headphone, and its sound is revelatory.

I reviewed the JH Audio's 13 Pro in-ear headphones last year in this blog, and the JH16 shares a lot of the same technology, but the big difference is in the bass. The JH16 has four low-frequency drivers (the JH13 uses two), two midrange, and two high-frequency drivers--for a total of eight drivers per channel. Both headphones feature "balanced armature" drivers, which are proprietary to JH Audio, and they're designed by Jerry Harvey.

The sound is addicting; once you've gotten used to hearing this kind of uber resolution, it's hard to go back to merely excellent in-ear headphones like my old Etymotic ER-4P ($300). I haven't heard any of Etymotic's latest designs, but the ER-4P now sounds small, cramped, and hopelessly outclassed by the JH16. Can't afford $1,149? JH Audio offers a range of custom in-ear models; prices start at $399 for the JH 5 Pro.

The JH16 is super efficient, so it can play louder, a lot louder than most headphones while being driven by iPhones, iPods, and Zunes' puny built-in headphone amplifiers.

Each JH16 is a unique hand-built creation, based on custom ear molds. The company's Web site has a list of recommended audiologists who make the molds (for around $100). Building a JH16 is a labor-intensive process; each headphone takes five hours to complete and test in the company's factory in Florida.

Some of the JH16's astonishing clarity can be attributed to its highly effective ear canal seal--it's much, much better than universal in-ear designs--so with the JH16 you hear so much less sound from the world outside. That's a really big deal; you can listen at a MUCH lower volume since you're no longer trying to block out external sound with music. In that sense the JH16 is easier on your ears than any earbud, noise-canceling or in-ear, non-custom-molded headphone you've ever heard.

One night a few weeks ago I was standing on a New York City subway platform when a deranged homeless man started screaming his guts out three feet away from me, and I didn't hear him! He was facing away from me, but then I noticed that everyone else on the platform started to walk away! If you want the best possible noise isolation, you need custom, molded to your ears headphones.

The JH16's prodigious bass "masks" or overcomes the low-frequency noise you're surrounded by on trains, planes, and buses. So even in the noisiest environments, the JH16 lets you hear what's going on in the bass, midrange, and treble with unprecedented clarity. Then again, when you consider they were designed for musicians, who really need to hear the mix in an even louder environment--the concert stage--the JH16's clarity should come as no surprise.

The JH16's super flexible, 48-inch-long braided cable is user-replaceable, so you'll never have to send the headphone back to JH Audio to repair the cable. The cable is less "microphonic" than any in-ear cable I've ever used, so you don't hear the cable rubbing against your clothes; that's nice. The one downside to the cable's flexibility was that it had a tendency to tangle when I stored the headphone in my pocket.

The JH16 tells me more about what's going on in the deepest bass than any headphone I've ever used. Its ability to resolve fine gradations of bass detail, pitch, and texture are nothing short of amazing. That's not to say you feel the bass in your gut the way you do with big speakers or subwoofers, the JH16's bass is confined to your ears; bass from speakers and subwoofers is more of a whole body experience.

The JH16 has more bass than the JH13, and when I'm listening at home I prefer the JH13's smoother bass balance. On the NYC subway I prefer the JH16; there the extra bass sounds better, maybe because it's easier to hear what's going on in the bass. I loved the way JH16 resolves dynamics; when the drummer is gently caressing the skins, or wailing on them, you hear it. That's something few headphones ever get right; the JH16's dynamic freedom is state of the art for headphones.

I next compared the JH16 to its prime competitor: the UE 18 Pro in-ear headphone ($1,350). From the outside the two designs look nearly identical, after all, they're both custom, molded-to-my-ears headphones, but the sonic signatures are quite different.

The UE18 is a great-sounding unit and very easy to listen to for hours on end. The JH16 by comparison is more immediate, with significantly better, deeper, and more powerful bass. But it's not just a matter of more bass; the quality, texture, and nuance are better with the JH16. The sound is more visceral, dynamic jolts kick harder. Vocals have more presence, and treble is clearer.

Soundstage width and spaciousness varied a lot from recording to recording. That's as it should be; the recordings are wildly different, and the JH16 faithfully reveals the differences better than any other in-ear I've heard. But in-ear designs, all of them, are nowhere as open as the best full-size, over-the-ear headphones. At home I'll stick with full-size headphones; for on-the-go listening you can't beat custom-molded in-ear headphones.

Granted, $1,149 is a lot of money, a lot more than most people would ever dream of spending on a set of headphones. Then again I'm not sure why anybody spends more than $20 for a watch, but there are hundreds of companies making watches that sell for many hundreds or tens of thousands of dollars. They don't keep better time than a $20 Casio, but somebody's buying them.

The same logic holds true for all luxury markets--like clothes, cars, boats, houses--the best stuff seems wildly expensive, to people who never buy those sorts of products. A Ferrari may be 10 times the price of a Mini Cooper, but it's not 10 times, or even three times faster. The JH16 is expensive, but it totally clobbers the sound of the best $300 in-ears on the market.

The JH16 was designed for musicians, music industry professionals, and audiophiles who need to hear every detail in the sound. If music is really important to you, and you can afford it, the JH16 is the one to buy.

 

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