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Hear it all: JH Audio Roxanne in-ear headphones

Yes, it's expensive, but the best gear always is.

Jerry Harvey pioneered high-performance, custom molded in-ear headphones 20 years ago. They were initially designed for musicians as in-ear stage monitors, and Harvey amassed a huge base of musician customers such as Alicia Keys, Bruno Mars, Linkin Park, the Rolling Stones, Van Halen and many more. Jerry Harvey and his company, JH Audio, continues to push performance boundaries and he has earned a number of patents for in-ear design technology. Speaking as an audiophile, JH Audio's Roxanne is the best sounding in-ear design I've heard.

The JH Audio Roxanne headphones JH Audio

JH Audio offers two versions of the headphone, a universal fit model, and a custom one that's molded to fit your ear canals. In order to buy the custom version, you'll need to first visit a local audiologist to have them take "impressions" of your ear canals. Fees vary, but these typically run between $50 and $100. One very significant advantage of custom-molded in-ear headphones is they provide superior isolation from external noise compared with universal-fit headphones. The Roxanne has 12 balanced armature drivers -- four bass, four midrange, and four high-frequency drivers, and a three-way crossover -- in each earpiece. Both Roxanne models have user-replaceable cables, and the headphones impedance is rated at 15 Ohms, which is much lower than average. JH Audio headphones are all made in the US.

I love that the Roxanne has a variable bass output that provides a 15-decibel range via left and right channel controls mounted in the cable. I started listening to the Roxanne with the controls at the minimum settings, and felt the bass was nicely balanced, but as I nudged up the bass I liked what I was hearing, and settled on having the controls turned up more than halfway. So there was a lot of bass, but it was so clear and well-defined it never turned thick or bloated. If you crave bass, Roxanne's big bottom will blow you away.

Audiophiles like to toss around the word "transparency" to describe high levels of clarity to the sound of their components, speakers, and headphones, and now I'm going to do it with the Roxanne. Its transparency exceeds all other in-ear headphones I've heard, and I've heard most of the world's best in-ear headphones. The other top performers seem a little dull and drab after I spent some time with the Roxannes in my ears.

For this review, I put aside my iPod Classic and did the bulk of my listening with the best-sounding portable player I have, the Hifiman HM-901. Comparing the Shure SE846 in-ears with the Roxanne didn't take much time. The SE846 is awfully good, and its bass oomph was terrific, but the Roxanne delved deeper into Bjork's new "Vulnicura" album, which I have as a high-resolution 96/24 file. There was more space around Bjork's vocals, and the strings sounded more present on the Roxanne; the SE846 put more distance between my ears and the music. I also tried listening to Roxanne with a PonoPlayer, but it softened transparency and reined in the dynamics, so I returned to the HM-901.

Comparing one of my old reference in-ear headphones, the JH Audio JH13 with the Roxanne told a similar story. Listening to Amy Winehouse singing "The Girl From Ipanema," the JH13 foreshortened soundstage depth and space relative to what I was getting from Roxanne. That headphone sound slightly more open, less stuck inside my head than my other in-ear headphones.

Soft-to-loud dynamics are also state-of-the-art, Roxanne lets more of the contrasts come through, so drums and percussion instruments sound more realistic. You feel like these headphones aren't holding anything back. With my old White Stripes albums, Meg White's drums are so much more powerful through the Roxannes, so when Meg is pounding away I really feel it.

Even so, I'd still give the nod to the best full-size, over-the-ear headphones like the Audeze LCD-X for producing more open and spacious sound than any in-ear headphone, including the Roxanne. Bass is another area where the over-the-ear headphones outpace in-ears, but as far as in-ears go, the Roxanne's bass power and definition are state-of-the-art. The LCD X is a very large headphone, so it's nowhere as portable as the Roxanne.

The universal-fit JH Audio Roxanne retails for $1,299, while the custom model I tested goes for $1,649. I said at the top of this review the Roxanne is the best sounding in-ear design I've heard. But JH Audio has a new top-of-the-line model, the Layla, coming soon. That model has different drivers and crossover networks than the Roxanne -- it's a completely different design. Layla is also more expensive: it's $2,499, and it doesn't replace the Roxanne in the line. The JH Audio custom line starts with the $399 JH5 Pro.