(regardless of price)
Head pie Editor: Links fixed.
I remember the first time the Monk earbuds by Venture Electronics made some noise some two to three years ago. Audio peeps raised their eyebrows and were like, ‘lmao no way a pair of five-dollar earbuds that looks like those stock earphones you get with your mobile would sound good.’ And, of course, I’d say they were proven wrong.
I got my first pair when I won an online raffle at the King Rudi Facebook page. A pair of rare red Monk+. I tried it and I instantly understood what the fuss was about. I was accustomed to using IEMs at that time and trying the Monks was like going from using closed-back to open-back headphones. Like open-back headphones, isolation wasn’t the best. I only used em at home or in quiet cafés. I sometimes use em when walking a busy street so I’d be somewhat aware of my surroundings and I eventually learned the art of treating music coming out of the earbuds like they’re background music of me walking about. But also, like open-back headphones, the bass sounded more natural and the soundstage was unbelievable. And these were coming from a $5 pair.
Of course I can’t fail to mention that one time I sold my soul to Damon for a spare Monk+.
He had me print a contract, sent it to his Japan address, he sent a pair to my Philippine address, we were so deep into our own little inside joke, we kept referencing it on Head Pie and nobody gets it cos Head Pie sucks. And we lauugghheedd~
(Editors note* He cried internally at the loss of his precious Soul).
After my first two or five pairs of Monks (THEY CAME IN DIFFERENT COLOURS! And they were $5), down I went the rabbit hole. Following the success of Monks, other Chinese companies followed suit. Earbuds became the encompassing term for the form factor; some were sold for up to jizzillion bucks; some have drivers that have resistances up to 650 ohms (bought desktop amps for those); the shells came in different shapes for people having difficulties with achieving a snug fit; different foams have got different effects on sound; Justin Miner started the Earbuds Anonymous Facebook group (do join us, I’ll immediately accept your join request if you say our little secret password ‘dickbutts’); cables came in to play; some companies started selling drivers and other spare parts, and there are now huge DIY earbud scenes in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. There were some gems, some forgettable. I’ve owned and tried the lot, and here we are.
LET THE GAMES BENIGN~~~
HERE ARE TEN (Edit: twelve) EARBUDS YOU SHOULD TRY REGARDLESS OF PRICE! NUMBER 3 IS MI111IiiiInnddBlLl0OWING! DON’T FORGET TO HIT THAT SUBSCRIBE BUTTON!
Of course, here comes the disclaimer to set everyone's expectations… My opinion. Thanks
(In no particular order):
© WooEasy on their AliExpress page for EMXs-500
Its popularity arose when people were looking for something to replace their TY Hi-z 32 in the budget price range. Don’t get me wrong, Hi-z 32 is good. It’s got deep bass which, at that time, was hard to obtain from the form factor. But some people cited those dry mids and that 2kHz upper-mid peak as the Hi-z 32’s downsides. DIY MX500 a.k.a. EMX50 a.k.a. EMX500 was the answer. It’s got deep enough bass to satisfy people who aren’t total Squidwards, enough mid-upper-bass to keep things thumping and less aggressive upper mids. Pretty balanced sound to please everybody… for $10. One con of it is the microphonic cable but that was fixed with the EMXs-500 for an additional $5. Where to get:
Venture Electronics Zen 2.0/Zen Omega Edition ($150)
One question I ask myself when testing gears is, ‘is it doing something incredible?’ Yuin PK1 did that. Very wide soundstage, awesome detail retrieval, fantastic resolution. Just reading that you’d think PK1 is bright. But no. It’s got the smoothest, most ethereal mids you’ll ever hear. Hang on, this isn’t the PK1 entry. Oops. Throw in deep subbass into the mix. Soundstage, detail retrieval and resolution? Yes. Thick enough mids? Yes. The layering’s all F’d up right? Get a nice desktop amp, this one’s 320 ohms. Where to get:
Penon BS1 Official ($109)
© Penon Audio on their BS1 Official page
Deep enough subbass that I won’t die from anemia, fast bass, warm enough mids, carefully treading that dark-bright-borderline, ok layering and soundstage, ok resolution, just enough so I won’t feel like I’m missing anything. Everything’s just the right amount. That’s my idea of ‘neutral’. Been wet dreaming about this kind of sound balance for so long. And then came Penon BS1. It came, I came. It hit all the marks. The perfect mix. It’s Goldilocks swiping right so hard on Baby Bear’s Tinder profile. But why wasn’t I happy? Why did I find it boring? Then it hit me, ‘right! Neutral!’ And why did it make it on my list? One, after trying BS1, whenever I’m trying buds above 100 USD, I find myself asking, ‘is this better than BS1?’. It’s all give-and-take after this. Even though there’s that negative sentiment, I still think that sound balance and price-to-performance ratio peaked on this pair. If you’re looking for that one perfectly balanced bud, this might be it. So reason number two is, try it. This is the list of must-try earbuds after all. Reason number three: I’m pretentious. Where to get:
Made by Singapore-based DIY jedi Wong Kuan Wae. His line starts at around $200 and can go up to around $400 for the ones with fancy Japanese metal shells made by Kazuhiro Oya (shoutout!). I’ve tried the first few batches and what struck me was the hyperrealistic resolution. Then came the newer batches with improved subbass extension although the hypperrealism isn’t quite there anymore. Something different happened with the mids, though. Mids have become warmer which makes it quite as engaging as the old batch. And then I was lucky enough to try a pair with those fancy silver shells and needless to say, I was awestricken once more. Warm mids are there and the hypperrealism I fell in love with was back! It's those damned silver shells! But the one with plastic shells is ~$200! The one with silver shells is ~$400! Thinking about the price, I told myself, ‘I have to have the one with silver shells even if this is the only pair I’d get this year.’ So I did. Was the difference in sound minimal? Yes. Is it worth the difference in sound? If this is Wong then I don't want to be wight! Audiofools be paying premium for minimal difference in sound. Told Kuan Wae what I like with the models of Blur I liked and he made me a custom pair. The beauty of DIY custom earbuds. Where to get: hit Kuan Wae with a PM
TY Hi-Z 150s ($42-$45)
A bit divisive, these buds. A lot of people rushed to their keyboards to complain about 150s's thin and razor-sharp treble. I didn't hear that with my Schiit stack. Went to a local meet and then I realized how lucky I was with my desktop stack. Portable DAP’s? Nope. iFi Nano DSD Black Label? Nope. Schiit amps? Yes. Vorzuge VorzAmp? Yes. Little Dot tube amp? Nope. DarkVoice tube amp? Nope. Radsone Earstudio ES100 Bluetooth receiver? Yes. It was a learning experience. This pair is picky with its source. It’s the HD800 of earbuds. With the right source the 150s has deep bass, clean fast bass, superwide soundstage and great resolution. Mids still can sound a bit dry and analytical, but they’re fun. My go-to pop/funk/EDM buds. TY released 150TS which has darker upper-mids for those treble-sensitive people but the subbass doesn’t go as deep as 150s. In my opinion, the TY house sound peaked with the 150s. Where to get:
Sounds like EMX500 but warmer and a bit smoother on the trebs which made us think they have the same drivers. And they’re half the price. Easy to drive at 32 ohms and come with mic. Perfect for mobile use. There are reports that the cable ‘sweats’. Doesn’t play well with tropical humid weather. But hey, it’s five dollars. Where to get:
Rose Mojito ($260)
If you’re looking for the widest soundstage, this is it. Pretty balanced sound, too. With the right foams, it can sound warm while lessening it’s slightly bright sound. Soundstage, layering, imaging and resolution is its forte. It’s got dual drivers so the shells are bigger than your usual PK or MX500 shells. Fit for some people is its againstte. See what I did? Where to get:
Yuin PK1 ($135)/Stiks Audio VK1 Stygian (~$180)
PK1’s been around since the early 2010s but it’s still going strong for a reason. Like I said, PK1’s got that majestic analogue-sounding mids while having that soundstage only rivaled by the Mojitos. Like floating in marshmallow clouds. But in the early 2010s before the first version of Monk were around, earbuds aren’t known for having deep bass. Then enters Vic Hernandez whose sole life mission is to create buds that sounds like PK1 while having some of that oonf in the subbass region. And he did that with VK1 Stygian. Where to get PK1:
© Mark Amad and Kevin Nebres
Deep bass, warm, superb resolution and a bit south of the dark-bright-borderline. It’s 5 dollars and the only thing you can complain about is its packaging and build. Comes with thin J-cables so it’s the people’s favourite to be re-cabled. It’s sort of our Grados. Do cables make a difference? Let’s find out with these $5 pairs! Where to get:
Willsound/Kanzenoka Buds (~$35)
© Randall Ong
I thought I’d give Indonesia some love but I’m hard-pressed between Willsound and Kanzenoka buds. Just like Sugeng’s logo, they’re like the yin and yang of the Indo scene. Want deep bass and balanced sound? Get the Willsounds. Want more focus on the mids? Get the Kanzenokas. I recommend checking out Willsound MK1 and watching out for Sugeng’s new Me-Q line. Top-notch buds at the $30-40 range. Price-to-performance champs. Where to get dem Willsounds:
Where to get dem Kanzenokas: PM Sugeng Kanzenoka https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009464086519&ref=br_rs.
You’re favourite pair’s not on the list? Maybe it’s super rare and discontinued (shoutout to JVC/Victor, DoCoMo and Aiwa!). Maybe I haven’t tried em yet. Maybe I tried em and I didn't like em. Let's all chill and enjoy the music. *grabs mic* I belieevvee theee childdreenn aree ourr futurree~
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