The first time I heard about JH Audio’s JH16 Pro, I was thinking “wow”. A pair of those in-ear monitors pack no less than sixteen drivers, or speakers if you like, into your ears. That’s right, eight drivers in each ear. Isn’t that just outrageous? How could they pack so many drivers into so tiny a space? Surely that’s completely overkill? Why would you ever need so many drivers?
Well, the JH16 Pro delivers serious awesomeness. Awesomeness that words could not do justice to describe. Awesomeness that could poison your ears and damage them forever, because you could not listen to anything else anymore. Awesomeness that cost US$1149. Oh, that’s right, another “wow”. How could a pair of headphones cost that much money?
The JH16 Pro is a custom in-ear headphone. The audiophile community refers to them as in-ear monitors (IEMs). If you are familiar with these things, skip the next two paragraphs. Otherwise, let me give you a quick primer.
Unlike the more common earbud headphones which sit in your outer ears, IEMs are designed to fit deeper and go right into your ear canals. IEMs offer superior noise isolation than earbud headphones. They also deliver better sound quality because the sounds go directly into your ear canals and they don’t have to compete with outside noises.
IEMs can be further subdivided into two categories: universals and customs. Universals are pieces you can buy off-the-shelf. They fit into your ear canals and seal off outside sounds by way of silicone sleeves or memory foam. Customs, on the other hand, are made and shaped to fit your ears perfectly, sealing off outside sounds. You can read more about IEMs from my In Search of the Best Headphones post.
Note: I don’t consider myself an audiophile, and audiophiles are certainly not the target audience for this post. Please spare me the oversimplification and some inaccuracies.
The sixteen balanced armature drivers of the JH16 Pro are split into a three-way configuration: a dual high driver, a dual mid driver, and a double dual bass driver in each earpiece. Yes, the tiny shell of each earpiece contains eight drivers and the passive three-way crossover. It’s quite amazing that so much technology can be crammed into so tiny a space.
Three separate tubes bring sound from the high, mid and bass drivers individually to the tip of the earpiece. This is designed to reduce phase differences messing up the music before it leaves the earpiece.
Peek into the bottom part of the earpiece below. You’ll be able to make out the dual highs (top), the dual mids (middle), and partially blurred double dual bass (bottom), as well as the individual tubes and very fine wires.
The barrage of drivers ensure that every part of the entire frequency spectrum is delivered accurately and precisely. The JH16 Pro is designed to be transparent, so that you hear your music exactly the way it was meant to be, without distortion, without colour.
The first time you put on the JH16 Pro and listen to it, you are going to be totally wowed. So completely awesome is the experience that you might even feel dizzy and wonder what’s happening to your ears. Alright, maybe that’s exaggerating things a little bit. But if you’ve not listened to any headphones other than those that came bundled with your mobile phone or music player, that’s just about what you’re going to experience.
The music that comes out of the JH16 Pro is so pure that you feel like you’re standing right in it. It is so mesmerizing that you feel, shall I say, a “call to action”.
Just imagine how it’s like when you’re standing in a live rock concert playing powerful upbeat music. You feel your body want to move, you want to swing your arms, you want to dance to the music, you want to hit an imaginary drum, you want to strum an air guitar. You don’t actually will your body to move, but somehow your body just moves on its own.
I am quite big on transparency. To give you an analogy using vision, imagine you are in a room, looking out through a window to an amazing beautiful countryside, lush greenery, flowers swaying in the wind. It’s a bright sunny day, the sky is particularly blue. A picture perfect moment. The window, even when closed, and you’ve got to look through the glass, doesn’t spoil the picture in anyway. That’s transparency.
In audio, transparency means you hear everything exactly as in the source. You hear every detail. Your headphones doesn’t block anything, or add its character. The headphone is completely invisible, in the audio sense.
The JH16 Pro does just that. Totally transparent. Some people feel that transparency may leave music production cold and, possibly, lacking energy. It’s too sterile. This, like many other aspects of listening, can be quite subjective and thus depends on individual preference. My preference is to have my music left alone.
The highs are crystal clear, crisp, and truly sparkle. There is no irritating sibilance, the sound characterized by pronouncing ‘s’ in words.
The mids are smooth, robust. Vocals come across clearly. You know the times when people like to configure ‘V’-shaped equalizer settings, because, well, you want good bass, good treble, and hope you don’t notice the missing middle? Well, everything is good in here, no need for the mids to shy away into the background.
The bass is delivered with an energetic punch, all the way down to the lowest frequencies, with great precision, crispness, clarity and tightness. I like a tight bass. This means the sounds start (speed) and stop (waterfall) with the audio signal, without missing sounds or adding sounds of its own.
You can’t simply turn up the bass frequencies with your equalizer to increase the bass punch. It’s not the same thing. Less capable headphones would sound distorted, muddy, or wobble, if you push them. Other slightly more capable headphones can be felt to be straining to deliver. The JH16 Pro, however, simply pours out the bass as if it were completely effortless. You can sense there is tremendous power, but it doesn’t have to flex its muscles to deliver.
Overall, there is so much clarity in the music that you might even hear new details in your music that you’ve not heard before. You’d feel like you’ve got to re-listen to your entire music collection all over again.
There are many more characteristics that I could talk about. Things like soundstage, for example. But I’ll just stop before I overwhelm you. The key takeaway is that the sound is in a totally different league from what you’re used to, if you’ve not experienced any quality IEMs.
Computer folks are familiar with this phrase: garbage in, garbage out. To get good music out of the JH16 Pro, you’ve got to feed it good music source. Your 128 kbps MP3 files are just not going to cut it. They may sound okay with your cheap headphones, but the JH16 Pro is going to amplify every defect in the source file and sound horrible. You’ve got to make sure all your source material are of good quality. Think lossless file formats, 256 kbps or 320 kbps formats.
It’s also important to remember that the player matters a lot too. I’m not saying you need to invest in expensive audio players or amplifiers. But quite likely the music player door gift you got at the last dinner party isn’t going to cut it. Neither do the direct integrated sound output of most computers.
A cheap USB DAC (digital to analog convertor) such as the Fiio E10 pictured above can be gotten for under $100, and deliver pretty good sound.
JH Audio, the company that makes the JH16 Pro, is a small company based in Floria, USA, was founded by Jerry Harvey in 2007. A professional sound engineer himself, Jerry invented a series of dual-driver custom IEMs when he was touring with the Van Halen band. He founded Ultimate Ears in 1995 to sell his custom IEMs. Logitech acquired the company in 2007, and while they retained the Ultimate Ears brand, was more focused on selling headphones for mass market. Today, you can find Ultimate Ears earbuds for less than $50.
There are several other outfits like JH Audio. Examples include Westone, 1964 Ears, and Unique Melody. There is quite a bite of variation in prices, and quality. The two might not even be correlated.
To make things worse, you can’t even try out or audition the headphones before you buy. That’s because they are custom made. It may be possible to find universal demo sets to audition. But bear in mind that they will never sound right until you’ve got a pair that’s specially made for you. It’ll be a leap of faith. There’s no going back.
Ready to taste your poison?