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Recalibrate your expectations of how good an in-ear headphone can sound

Jerry Harvey Audio's newly revised JH13 might be the world's most accurate sounding in-ear headphone.

I've been listening to Jerry Harvey's custom-molded in-ear headphones for years. The very first one, the UE10, was a game changer; in 2006 it was the best sounding in-ear headphone I'd heard. Now with his new Freqphase JH13 and JH16 in-ears, Harvey's done it again. The performance gains in clarity, detail, resolution, and stereo imaging are huge -- the adrenaline-pumping sound of the music you love over a set of Harvey's headphones can't be matched by any other in-ear 'phones.

The Jerry Harvey JH13 Freqphase in-ear headphone. Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Years before he made headphones, Harvey mixed stage monitor sound for Kiss, Van Halen, David Lee Roth, The Cult, KD Lang, Linkin Park, and many others, and that background led to his inventing the in-ear stage monitor/headphone. He founded Ultimate Ears, but now runs Jerry Harvey Audio. The man's passion for great sound knows no bounds, and he still makes time to hit the road. Harvey was on the Van Halen tour from January through June of 2012. Perfecting in-ear headphone design balanced with working with live music keep Harvey in the game.

The new $1,099 "Freqphase" JH13 and $1,149 JH16 headphones use the same types of balanced armature drivers that were in the older JH Audio models, but everything else has been redesigned. There's a new crossover network for the separate bass, midrange, and treble drivers, and the silicone tubes that direct the sound out to your ears are tuned in a new way. My photo comparing the old and new JH13 shows how different the two headphones are.

The new JH13 nails the sound of drums' dynamic attack and punch like no other in-ear I've tested. I don't spend a lot of time listening to very loud music, but I will say the Freqphase headphones sound amazing when cranked way up. The sound never turns harsh or aggressive. Listening at saner levels, the resolution is still quite extraordinary. Classical music was well served by the new headphones' sound.

The new JH13 (left), compared with the original JH13 (right). Steve Guttenberg/CNET

I'm hearing finer details of the mixes of favorite old recordings that I've heard hundreds of times, which makes the recordings sound fresher and sometimes better than I thought they were. The Freqphase JH16's sound is similar, but it has more low bass punch and impact than the JH13. The original JH16's bass could sometimes be overwhelming and too thick for my taste, but the new '16's bass definition is excellent.

I did the bulk of my listening for these tests with the headphones plugged into my iPod Classic, listening to Apple Lossless files. I also tried the Freqphase headphones with my ALO Rx-Mk3B portable headphone amp and AlgoRhythm Solo digital-to-analog converter. The gains in see-through transparency and sheer believability of the sound were impressive, but I didn't want to get side-tracked by what the separate amp and DAC brought to the sound, so I continued with just the iPod Classic.

Sure, the better universal-fit in-ear headphones, such as the $400 Ultimate Ears UE 900, which also use separate bass, midrange and treble balanced armature drivers can sound great. It's the best-sounding universal fit I've heard for the money, but it pales in comparison to the JH13. The UE 900 doesn't block external noise as effectively; it has limited dynamics and bass definition/power, and reduced high-frequency extension and "air" so the Black Keys' raunchy blues are scaled back. The JH13 lets the 'Keys rock out more; the difference is far from subtle. I still love the UE 900 and recommend it in its price point, but if you can afford a great custom like the JH13 or JH16 you won't be sorry.

JH Audio offers only headphones that are custom-molded to your ear canals -- they don't make universal-fit headphones. To have a set of customs made you need to first visit an audiologist to have "impressions" of your ear canals made and sent to JH Audio's factory in Apopka, Florida. Custom headphones block external noise better than universal-fit models, so you can turn down the volume when listening in noisy environments. Customs are as effective as battery-powered noise-canceling headphones, and sound better.

The JH13's sound is a revelation, but how does it compare with full-size audiophile headphones, like the $1,000 Sennheiser HD 700? The JH13 was really good, but the HD 700 was more relaxed, richer, fuller, and even more open sounding. Still, I'd never use the HD 700 in the subway, plugged into my iPod.

My $2,000 UE Personal Reference Monitors (PRM) were "designed" by me, and built with the equalization curves I selected. My PRMs sound absolutely amazing, but the JH13s' clarity and soundstage accuracy trumps those of the PRMs. Harvey knows a lot more about what it takes to make great sound than I do!

The JH13 and JH16 Freqphase in-ear headphones advance the state of the art. They're highly recommended.