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JH Audio in-ear headphones: Worth $1,099?

If you have ears, prepare to open them now. Even when compared with the top contenders for the world's best full-size, over-the-ear headphones, and the JH Audio JH 13 Pro in-ear headphone holds its own.

The hand-built JH 13 Pro in-ear headphone. Steve Guttenberg

If you have ears, prepare to open them now.

I've just reviewed a bunch of contenders for the world's best full-size, over-the-ear headphone: Audio Technica ATH-W5000, Denon AH-D7000, Grado PS-1000, Sennheiser HD 800, Stax SR-007Mk2, and Ultrasone Edition 8 headphones--and all boast higher MSRPs than the JH Audio JH 13 Pro in-ear headphone.

Sure, full-size headphones can be used with iPods and MP3 players with varying degrees of success, but they're a lot more of a hassle to lug around than the JH 13 Pro. Honestly, I prefer the sound and comfort of over-the-ear models compared with in-ear headphones. Then again, the JH 13 Pro is a very different type of in-ear design, it uses six drivers--two woofers, two midranges, and two tweeters--to lower distortion compared with other in-ear designs. It's a difference I can hear.

The JH 13 Pro's resolution of fine detail is extraordinary, drums sound more realistic than I've heard from any other type of headphone. The JH 13 Pro is "fast," cymbals' shimmer and sparkle the way they do in real life, and when a drummer whacks his sticks against the drums' metal rims, the sound is more realistic. Dynamic oomph and slam are the best I've heard from an in-ear headphone.

The JH 13 Pro's bass goes deeper than any in-ear headphone to date, but it's the way these headphones decode palpable bass textures that's highly addictive. Electric, acoustic, and keyboard basses sound more different from each other with the JH 13 Pro. Switching over to Monster's excellent new Turbine Pro Gold in-ear headphone ($299) is startling, the Turbines sound mushy and muddled by comparison. The Monster has more mid-bass fullness, which some listeners may prefer. I do not.

The JH 13 Pro's midrange clarity is radically better than any in-ear 'phones I've used to date. Its bass, midrange, and treble are better balanced and accurate than what I'm used to from in-ear designs.

My old reference in-ear Etymotic ER-4P ($299) headphones are still a truly great design, but it sounds awfully thin and dynamically squashed next to the JH 13 Pro. The new headphone's dynamics are so much more visceral than any previous in-ear I've heard, including Jerry Harvey's legendary Ultimate Ears UE-10 headphones. Jerry Harvey is the "JH" of JH Audio.

The JH 13 Pro is a 28-ohm design and it can play nice and loud with iPods and MP3 players. I also played it at home, with a Head Direct tube headphone amplifier, and the sound, especially the bass, was significantly better than what I heard with my iPod.

The JH 13 Pro's superthin cable didn't make any noise when it rubbed against my clothing, and it wasn't prone to tangling and it is user replaceable. That's not the case with any standard, universal fit in-ear headphone I know of; when those cables break, you either toss the 'phone, or pay for a repair.

Forget about noise reduction headphones, the JH 13 Pro's noise isolation is so good I didn't hear a New York City subway train pull into the station! I swear I was completely unaware of its arrival (my back was facing the train). It's not a fair comparison to "universal" in-ear designs, the JH 13 Pro's earpieces are derived from custom molds of my ear canals, so they produce a superior seal than with any off-the-rack ear tip.

Each JH 13 Pro is custom built using molds of your ears made by an audiologist, that's something you pay for on your own (depending on where you live, it can cost between $50 and $150), and send the ear molds to JH Audio.

JH Audio only builds custom in-ear headphones and prices start at $399 for the JH 5 Pro. Every JH Audio headphone is hand built and tested in Apopka, Florida. And if you ever need service, it is handled by the same people who built the headphones in the first place.

Are the JH 13 Pros worth $1,099? In my opinion, absolutely yes. And when you factor in the headphones long-term durability, it's a little easier to rationalize investing in a set of great sounding, very expensive headphones. I think you can expect to get at least 10 years of use out of the JH 13 Pros.

Jerry Harvey has been building custom in-ear monitor headphones for rock bands since 1995. He counts the Rolling Stones, Creed, The Cult, Aerosmith, Foreigner, and Linkin Park as customers. He founded Ultimate Ears in 1997 and designed all of its headphones to 2007.

The technology differences between in-ear and over-the-ear headphones are vast, and I will cover that story in a future Audiophiliac.