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JH Audio JH-3A: The $1,748 earbud

To advance the state of the art of in-ear headphones, JH Audio developed the first portable amplifier-headphone system. You've never heard anything like it.

The JH Audio JH-3A amplifier and headphone system JH Audio

Sound-quality advances in headphone design show no sign of slowing down, and even old names like Philips and Sony are getting serious about making great-sounding headphones. Sadly, those brands aren't attempting to make anything that could be compared with the world's best, like the JH-3A headphone/amplifier system, from JH Audio.

That company's founder and designer, Jerry Harvey, started building in-ear monitors for rock bands in 1995. He counts Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys, Aerosmith, Foreigner, and Linkin Park as customers. Harvey is currently with the Van Halen tour--the band uses his 'phones onstage--and Harvey uses their feedback to improve his designs.

The JH-3A is an amplifier/in-ear headphone system, with analog and digital inputs with up to 24-bit resolution and 96kHz sampling rates. I've used portable headphone amplifiers before, and they can sound great with all types of headphones, but the JH-3A takes in-ear headphone performance to another level.

When it was introduced two years ago the JH16 was the world's first eight-driver, three-way in-ear headphone. It takes 5 hours to build and test each pair of JH16 headphones in the company's Florida factory. Each one is a unique hand-built creation, based on the customer's custom ear molds made by a local audiologist. That helps ensure a perfect fit, and a high degree of isolation from external noise.

Now, with the dedicated battery-powered amplifier and redesigned JH16, the system's digital signal processor phase-aligns and equalizes the headphone drivers to produce flat frequency response. The frequency response can also be custom fine-tuned to compensate for its owner's moderate hearing losses! Connectivity features include a 3.5mm input for the 96kHz/24-bit digital-to-analog converter, while the USB input handles 48kHz/16-bit, and there's also a 3.5mm line-level analog input. The amp's front panel has a bass control, so you can add up to 11 db of bass boost. The JH-3A amp/headphone system is sold with a two-year parts-and-labor warranty. The amplifier measures a tidy 1 inch by 2.8 inches by 5 inches.

I didn't care for the sound via the JH-3A's USB input, so I mostly listened with my iPod Classic. The JH-3A is a portable system, after all, so that's how I used it. I also watched a few movies with my Oppo BDP-95 Blu-ray player, but you could also use a tablet or phone.

Audeze LCD-2 full-size headphones Audeze

The sound is significantly cleaner and lower in distortion than any in-ear headphone I've ever heard. I can hear "deeper" into the recordings, and at quieter volume, so there's no need to play music loud to hear the detail; it's fully developed at very soft volume levels. On Ernst Reijseger's brilliant soundtrack album from "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," the spatial qualities of the mix are extraordinary. I hear the musicians breathing as they play; I feel as if there's nothing separating my ears from the session's microphones.

I've listened to Rosanne Cash's "10 Song Demo" album on countless headphones and speakers, but it never sounded as real before. The incredibly close sound of her voice and guitar is intimate and thrilling, and the level of detail is astonishing, but with good recordings the JH-3A's sound is never harsh or grating.

When I watched the "Contagion" DVD, the JH-3A put me in the action. The film stars Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, and they do their best to confront a virus that threatens the entire human race. The sheer intimacy of the sound mix was thrilling; I was so much more aware of the film's quieter details, like the air circulation system of the hospital's operating room and the hushed murmurs in the large stadium where the emergency teams house huge numbers of infected patients. The soundtrack was strictly stereo, but the sounds in the flashback scenes in a crowded casino seemed to come from all around my head.

The JH-3A is, without question the best-sounding set of in-ear headphones I've heard to date, but how does it compare with the best full-size headphones? To find out I plugged-in the latest version of the Audeze LCD-2 headphones ($945) and a Schiit Audio Lyr headphone amp ($449) and Halide Design HD digital-to-analog converter ($550). I will separately review the Lyr and HD DAC here on the Audiophiliac in the near future.

In that system the LCD-2 had a brighter and livelier tonal balance, but the JH-3A conveyed power in a more visceral way. That was, mind you, with the JH-3A's bass control at its minimum setting; turning it up didn't muddy the bass, there was just more of it. In any case, the deep bass goes deeper, and bass definition is better than the LCD-2 mated with the Lyr amplifier (I've achieved better overall sound with the LCD-2 with much more expensive power amps). My goal here was to keep the prices of the two systems nearly equal. The full-size headphones' imaging was more open and transparent. I don't think there's a clear winner, but I imagine the two will be used in very different ways. The JH-3A is a portable system, and the Audeze LCD-2 is more of a stay-at-home or studio design. It's a large, bulky set of headphones. So it really depends on how you intend to use it more than which is better.

That said, I can't get over how the JH-3A does what it does, this level of performance has never been available before in a portable package. The JH-3A headphones/amplifier system retails for $1,748.