During the pre-review back-and-forth with Jerry Harvey’s vaunted audiophile-focused lab — the flagship creation of which are the JH Audio JH16 Pro in-ear monitors being reviewed here — I asked them offhandedly how a set of IEMs with eight drivers in each ear (that’s right, almost unbelievably, eight tiny armatures and a crossover are cocooned within each earpiece) would compare with something akin to the single-driver-per-ear Etymotic hf2’s we liked so much. The answer came back: Don’t be daft.
Of course, I’m paraphrasing here, and the response was much more polite. And they’re right; all the audio wizardry stuffed into the behemoth, custom-molded earpieces really does elevate the sound of the JH16 Pros above that of the mass of earthly IEMs. The real question is whether or not their heavenly performance is enough to justify the 16’s stratospheric $1150 — required fitting for custom-molded earpieces not included — pricetag. The short answer: It is.
The 16s are an exercise in uncompromising performance. These bad boys are very strong in three main categories — sound, comfort and longevity; they say “you’ll take what we have to offer, and you’ll like it (and you will) — and the hell with anything else.”
The two most striking characteristics of the 16’s sound — and they really stand out — are its superb low-end flavor and its amazing ability to create a stereo effect. Bass is creamy rich and highly satisfying — far and away the smoothest, most powerful low-end of any IEM I’ve ever tested; no doubt the pair’s. Midrange is also smooth and never harsh. The 16s are undoubtedly biased toward the low end though, and this is apparent somewhat with the high-end; there were times, listening to the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 for instance, where I’d have to radically alter the equalizer in order to balance the highs with the booming bass. When adjusted though, the overall effect is spectacular.
The other thing — the set’s uncanny ability to create a fully-3D sonic landscape — seems almost even more impressive. Listening to holophonic examples (like the ones here) with another set of IEMs is interesting; listening to the same with the JH16s will make your hair stand on end.
At 26 dB, sound isolation from the rigid acrylic earpieces is good, and seems better than the figures would suggest — though of course not quite as good as many soft tips.
Despite their hugeness, the JH16s are the most comfortable earphones — of any kind — I’ve ever experienced. In fact, their mass may actually help; the earpieces rest on the lower edge of the earlobes (mine do, anyway), perhaps distributing the contact surface over a wider area, reducing potential hotspots. There’re also wire inserts above each earpiece that can be bent to fit around the ear, both improving fit and cable routing.
Since these IEMs cost more than some good cabinet speakers, one would hope they’d last a while. They should do better than that: The earpieces are cast in a hard acrylic that seems fairly difficult to damage (JH Audio warns against dropping them) and won’t yellow like silicon tips. Also, the cable that comes with the earpieces can be easily removed and replaced through JH Audio for a measly $35 if damaged.
But that’s it. The cable is infamous for its ability to tangle, and I was struck on several frustrated occasions by the idea that it was actually some sort of cruel joke. Because they’re so large, the earpieces seem to be more sensitive to movement, which tends to break the seal (which is pretty crucial with all IEMs) somewhat easily. And you want to a mic so you can use them to chat with? Don’t be an idiot.
So owning a set of JH16 Pros is probably like owning a Bugatti Veyron: Absolutely no-holds-barred, thrilling performance — but expensive, a bit of a chore to maintain and not the best solution for picking up groceries at the supermarket (anyone actually owning a Veyron may feel free to back me up on this, as it’s somewhat doubtfull we’ll get one of those to test anytime soon).
But like so many objects crafted to sit at the pinnacle of their domain, if you can afford them, the experience of the 16s are worth any inherent drawbacks. In the words of a certain hooky-playing, wisecracking teen: If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.