When I first learned the price of JH Audio's 16 PRO earphones, it was all I could do to not do a spit take. A THOUSAND DOLLARS? No, actually it was $1,149, but close enough. Could such a obscene price actually be worth it? The company was kind enough to send me a pair to find out.
First, full disclosure: Every pair of these earphones is customized to the shape of the owner's ear canals, so when I say "try out," it means JH Audio created a pair of earphones specifically for my ears. They also sent them with a rock-hard protective case emblazoned with the DVICE logo, which you can see in the gallery below. Cute.
JH Audio markets its earphones to audio pros — especially sound engineers. But after using them for over a month, I think they have appeal that goes beyond that niche group, assuming you have the cash to burn. These earphones are the best I've ever used in three key ways:
The first time I put on the earphones, I was surprised about how much they cut outside noise. I was on a busy New York City subway platform, and I could hear the music from my iPhone with shocking clarity, and at low volume. You usually have to go to an empty room (and turn off the air conditioning) to hear so precisely (JH Audio rates the noise isolation at –26 dB). Sure you could just buy headphones with active noise cancellation, but those have issues, too — namely bulkiness and the need for recharging. These fit in your pocket and are ready to go anytime.
The 16 PROs are said to be the only earphones in existence with
eight 16 drivers total, four eight for each ear. Most loudspeakers don't have nearly that many. They also have "precision-balanced armatures" and a "triple bore" design, meaning each set of frequencies gets to your eardrum via a different canal. Impressive.
The idea of putting this kind of audio technology in a pair of earphones may sound a little absurd, but think about it: portables like iPods and cellphones are the main way we listen music today. It makes complete sense to focus sound engineering on the way people actually listen to music. (One could argue that all that tech is pointless if all you're listening to is compressed music, but that's another debate.)
OK, all that stuff sounds great on a spec sheet, but do the damn things sound good? Yes. To get a feel for just how good, I ripped a ton of WAV files from various CDs of different music styles, paying close attention to individual instruments and especially bass. One of the albums was Radiohead's OK Computer, and all the complexity of "Paranoid Android" was in full force: I could hear every guitar pluck and every drum beat perfectly. The crescendo near the end, which can become quite smushed with lesser earbuds, came through with excellent clarity.
A couple of other examples: The horns, voices, drums, and other instruments on the fast-paced Mighty Mighty Bosstones tune "Sugar Free" were all discernable. During their solo, the horns felt particularly punchy, as if they were in the room with me. As for bass, I decided to really put the 16 PROs to the test, listening to recordings of plane engines from Round Sounds. A flyby of a Boeing B-29 and the startup of a Martin 404 engine gave plenty of kick. The 16 PROs kept all the revs and clicks nice and clear, even at high volumes (sorry, ears).
Speaking of volume, the extra bonus with these earphone is that you don't have to listen very loudly. A little sound goes a long way with these babies, and your portable's battery won't run down as quickly.
I was extremely gratified to finally — finally! — have a pair of earphones that don't just pop out or fall off my ears when I move my head suddenly. The individualized shells slip into the ear, and they stay there. It's actually a bit tricky to get them in your ear canal properly, but once they're in they just feel… right. The experience was slightly disconcerting at first (using them in public made me fear them getting pulled out suddenly), but once you start listening you're fine. To be fair, though, JH Audio is far from the first company to offer isomorphic earphones.
In my experience, the JH Audio 16 PROs are the best earbuds money can buy. If you value great sound — I mean really value it — these are the earphones you want. They give you fantastic sound and the tradeoffs are few. However, they do suffer from the problem that afflicts all small gadgetry with a high price tag: You'll constantly be terrified you're going to lose them.