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EARNiNE EN120: "Ninety-NiNE Red Ballons" - [Review] 🇬🇧

Vorwort:

Während es schier unzählige Firmen gibt, die dynamische Treiber für In-Ears herstellen, existieren weltweit nur eine Handvoll Hersteller, die sich der Produktion von Balanced Armature Treibern gewidmet haben. Die bekanntesten unter ihnen sind wohl Knowles und Sonion, zwei Namen, die man als Technik-interessierter Audio-Enthusiast schon mal gehört haben sollte.

TSST, kurz für „Toshiba Samsung Storage Technology“, ein Joint Venture der beiden namensgebenden Firmen, entwickelt und produziert ebenfalls eigene Balanced Armature Treiber, die „WBA“, kurz für „Wide Balanced Armature“, genannt werden und Treiber sind, die besonders gut für eine sehr breitbandige Abdeckung des Frequenzspektrums geeignet sein sollen.




EARNiNE ist eine Tochterfirma von TSST und nutzt jene eigens entwickelten und produzierten Balanced Armature Treiber in ihren In-Ears.
Ein neues Modell von EARNiNE ist der EN120, ein Single-BA In-Ear, den ich mir in diesem englischsprachigen Review ausführlich angehört und angesehen habe.



Introduction:

The TSST (Toshiba Samsung Storage Technology) used to be a joint venture company active in Korea and Japan that owned the brand “EARNiNE” who used to offer two Balanced Armature in-ears, the EN1 and EN2. Both featured Balanced Armature drivers that were developed, designed and built in-house and called “WBA” (“Wide Balanced Armature”).
However, the mother company, TSST Korea, eventually went bankrupt.

Fast forward several months, according to a representative of EARNiNE, some of the employees who were involved in the BA and earphone design moved to TSST Japan, and the EARNiNE brand was (fortunately) revived.
While they kept offering the EN1 and EN2, they didn’t stop the development, and so they just recently introduced a new single-BA in-ear, also featuring a WBA driver, that was developed, designed and built in-house as well, calling it “EN120”.

Fast forward some more weeks, I now have an EN120 with me for review.
How does it sound? And how does it perform? Let’s find it out!


Before I move on with my review, I would like to thank Tony Song who graciously provided a sample of the EARNiNE EN120 free of charge for the purpose of an (as always) honest, unbiased and unpaid review without any constraints. I would also like to thank Sean from EARNiNE who was very helpful regarding my questions.


Technical Specifications:

Price (the original estimated MSRP was $80 – 100): JPY5480 in Japan; likely more for the international market
Driver Type: Balanced Armature
Drivers per Side: 1
Frequency Response: 20 Hz – 20 kHz
Sensitivity: 104 dB +/-3 dB @ 1 kHz
Impedance: 22 Ohms +/- 20% @ 1 kHz


Delivery Content:

The packaging is certainly not the most impressive and rather standard for the price range.


The photos (including an exploded drawing) on the package’s outside and the information on it (in Japanese, Korean and English), as well as the magnetic front flap that unveils a plastic window with the in-ears sitting behind it, are rather nice though.


Inside, all you will find are the in-ears, three pairs of silicone tips and a manual.
While a carrying case would have been really nice, I can understand why EARNiNE decided against it since it is no standard accessory in the range of sub-$100 in-ears, however it would have certainly been a very useful accessory.


Looks, Feels, Build Quality:

The EN120 features a design that has not that much in common with the EN1 or EN2 anymore, but instead resembles the more traditional piston shape while still using aluminium housings.


The housings are made of chromed metal and shiny, however not as reflective as a mirror. What’s really nice is that the cylinder’s edges are rounded and therefore appear more premium.
An etched EARNiNE logo can be found on either shell, as well as a small side indicator (that is located at the cable’s entrance). Those side indicators are quite difficult to see in the dark, but easy to spot in daylight. Nonetheless an additional, coloured side-indicator on at least one side, just like Logitech/Ultimate Ears did with the UE900S’s cable, would have been a nice addition.

The shells and in-ears appear well-built and premium.


Despite the quite entry-level-targeted price, EARNiNE decided to go with a high quality cable for the EN120. Unlike most rather sticky, often not very flexible cables one usually finds in this price range, the EN120’s cable consists of three twisted conductors below the y-splitter and two twisted conductors per side above it – wherefore it is identical to the cables usually used in the professional and premium sector. A chin-slider is present, too.
The cable is very flexible, not sticky at all and, as already mentioned, very nice.
One can find an EARNiNE logo on the 3.5 mm plug’s metallic coating as well, however in contrast to the logos found on the shells, it is metal-injected instead of etched.

The used silicone tips are nicely soft and don’t appear like regular off-the-shelf tips.


Comfort, Isolation:

Due to the cylindrical shape and small footprint, pretty much everyone should be able to get a really good fit and seal with the EN120.

The housings’ shape also makes it possible to wear the EN120 either with the cable around the ears or, more traditionally, straight down. The first, which is also the more professional method, makes microphonics (cable noise) disappear pretty much entirely.

Not much surprisingly due to the closed shells, noise isolation is on a nicely high level.


Sound:

My main sources for listening were the iBasso DX200 and Stoner Acoustics UD125.

I only used the included silicone tips (largest size) for listening, evaluations and comparisons.

Tonality:

People searching for a typical consumer-oriented sound signature should look away immediately – because that’s what the EN120 will definitely not give them. Instead, it aims for a neutral sound signature (and by neutral, I really mean neutral and flat, as in mostly diffuse-field neutral).

Compared to an in-ear that is diffuse-field flat in the lows, such as the Etymotic ER-4S/SR, the EN120 has got around 3 dB more low-frequency quantity, which means that it has got pretty much the same amount of bass as the also quite neutral Ultimate Ears Reference Monitors and a bit less than the Etymotic ER-4XR.
Extension into the sub-bass is not lacking but as the EARNiNE is quite neutral in the lows, it will logically not have the same impact and slam as other in-ears.

The mids are neutral and flat. The presence range, unlike Etymotic’s in-ears, has no moderate lift wherefore the EN120 won’t be as critical with non-ideally mastered recordings, however just like the UERM that have a comparable midrange timbre, it will be more critical and revealing than many other in-ears that have a more forgiving, somewhat recessed presence range.

The highs are perceived to be a bit more on the brighter side – which is mainly due to a peak/overshoot between 6 and 7 kHz, which is the in-ear’s only tuning flaw. This peak does two things: 1) it accentuates male singer’s overtones, giving them a slightly leaner and airier “afterglow”/colouration, and 2) gives cymbals and ride cymbals a more direct, more metallic and somewhat sharp attack and also accentuates violins as well as some electronically generated sounds. Usually, despite it is at least 5 dB too strong, it won’t be perceived as too bothersome (as long as you are not rather treble-sensitive in general) or unpleasant, but can be a bit too sharp with some electronically generated sounds. Inserting the in-ears deeper into one’s ears should help a little though.
It doesn’t make the treble sound unpleasant but is responsible for an overall slightly more treble-driven perception of the sound.

Above that, the highs are neutral again, with a (slightly lesser) peak around 12 kHz and good extension up until 14 kHz.

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So to summarise how the EN120 sounds, I would just mostly write down what I had written in my initial impressions: balanced, clear, clean, really nicely neutral sound with a somewhat bright touch around probably 6 kHz.

Resolution:

The EN120 doesn’t fully have the “character” of an inexpensive single-BA in-ear, however it does have an excellent coherency that you would expect from it.
Unlike other inexpensive single-BA in-ears that appear subjectively more mid-focussed even though they don’t lack bass and treble extension at all, the EN120 sounds more “complete” in comparison – not really like a typical inexpensive single-BA in-ear (not entirely different but you hear that it it’s not the same character).

Resolution is a good bit higher when comparing the EN120 to several other convincing single-BA in-ears in its price range. Overall, EARNiNE’s most recent single-(W)BA in-ear is, when it comes to resolution, definitely closer to the Etymotic-territory than what it is actually selling for (however it doesn’t entirely reach Etymotic’s ER•4 series models’ resolution and is a round half a class behind).

The resolution distribution is really good – no area lacks behind, the speech intelligibility is high with small details rendered nicely, good separation in the highs and a tight and quick bass.

The only things the EN120 struggles with are the very low frequencies (real sub-bass (< 40 Hz) and lower midbass (~ 60 Hz)) where the in-ear lacks some definition and details. There really is no flaw in terms of tightness and speed in the sub-bass but when a recording goes really low, the sub-bass and lower midbass sound a bit undefined and almost one-noted.

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Summarised, one could say that you get more than you pay for.

Soundstage:

The EN120 manages to sound fairly spacious and open – a cramped or small soundstage is definitely not what the single-BA in-ear from EARNiNE delivers.
Width is surprisingly nice, along with a spatial depth presentation that has got about 60% of the width’s expansion, making the soundstage overall more oval than circular to my ears.

Separation and imaging are pretty good. There is some air between and around instruments, but not that much and not with the same precision as from spatially more precise multi-BA in-ear models.


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In Comparison with other In-Ears:

Etymotic ER-4XR (>>$):

The much more expensive Etymotic features replaceable cables while both in-ears are using metal housings. The Ety is however designed to go deeper into the ear canal.

The ER-4XR has got a bit more bass than the EARNiNE – around 2 dB to be precise wherefore it carries somewhat more weight and impact in comparison.
Midrange timbre is about comparable, but the Ety is even less forgiving with bad recordings due to its more forward presence area.
Unlike the Ety, the EN120 has got an emphasis around 6 kHz which makes its highs somewhat brighter and sometimes sharper. As a result, the ER-4XR features the more even, more realistic and more authentic treble response in comparison.

The Etymotic has got the better sub-bass definition and more details in the lower bass. Speed and tightness in the midbass and upper bass are where the EARNiNE is very slightly superior.
The Ety’s midrange is a bit more detailed and layered.
The Ety has got the somewhat cleaner treble separation.
Other than the lower bass, both in-ears are quite close in terms of detail retrieval while the ER-4XR is ultimately still superior by about half a class (maybe less).

The EARNiNE has got the slightly wider soundstage while the Ety’s is deeper and more circular.
The Ety manages to create a bit more air around and between instruments while imaging and soundstage separation are overall very close.

Brainwavz B150 (≈>$):

While the EN120 can be worn both with the cables guided around the ears as well as traditionally with the cables down, the B150 is strictly designed for the former, more professional wearing method. While the EARNiNE is using metal housings, the Brainwavz’ are manufactured from plastic and don’t feature the same cable quality.

The B150 is more pronounced in the bass and warmer in the lower midrange.
The B150 is warmer in the mids.
The B150 has got the more relaxed, recessed treble and more forgiving, somewhat recessed presence range.
I would describe the Brainwavz’ treble as a bit more natural.

The B150 has got the somewhat better sub-bass definition and texture – but other than that, it is the EARNiNE that is more advanced in terms of technical quality.
The EN120 has got the tighter and faster bass while the Brainwavz’ feels more dynamic due to the somewhat softer character. Both are similar in terms of control though.
The EARNiNE is more detailed and resolving in the midrange and treble.

The Brainwavz has got the deeper soundstage while the EARNiNE’s is wider and features a somewhat more precise separation and imaging.


Conclusion:

The EARNiNE EN120 is an inexpensive single-BA in-ear with a pretty neutral tuning that is slightly leaning towards the brighter side. It is also somewhat more resolving than what you would expect in for the price it retails for, and sounds quite spacious. The premium twisted cable is another nice touch to the overall package, even though no carrying case/pouch comes included.


While the in-ear is not perfect (sub-bass definition and sub-bass details could be better and treble-sensitive people might find the 6 kHz range a bit too pronounced/sharp), it certainly offers good sound, performance and value for the price.