Ear Gear Staff Picks: Austin

  Updated July 5, 2024

About Me

My journey into headphones began in 2014 with the purchase of my first “audiophile-grade” headphones, the HiFiMan HE-400i.  While the initial curiosity was satisfied, I quickly wanted to dive deeper into the hobby and explore what else was out there.  In the decade since, I’ve been very fortunate to try dozens of headphones from a plethora of companies, shaping my tastes to where they are now.  My regular listening habits include modern electronic from the likes of Flume, Disclosure, and KAYTRANADA, along with late 90’s and early 2000’s rock from Pearl Jam, Audioslave, and Foo Fighters.  I generally prefer a warmer sound signature, though soundstage and texture are two things I always appreciate.


Full disclaimer: This is an opinion post. There are no facts to see here. No one has paid us to write this piece, nor do we receive compensation from the various headphone manufacturers mentioned herein. We will not use referral links, and will not accept guest posts or other forms of favors from third-parties.


Headphones (full-size)

Entry-Level: Beyerdynamic DT-880 PRO ($179.99)

While on the higher end of what could be considered entry-level, the cost is absolutely worth it for me.  Even with some of the best cans on the market at my disposal, I often find myself coming back to the DT-880 on days where I want a clear, non-fatiguing headphone I can wear for hours at a time.  The 250g weight, coupled with an excellent set of earpads and headband, makes for a headphone that almost disappears on your head.  As with almost every set I enjoy, these are very open, so they’re not particularly office-friendly, which is certainly something to keep in mind if you’ll be leaving the house with them.  If you want to take the 880s to another level, ZMF offers several variants of upgrade pads to tune the sound signature and comfort to your own liking.  I currently use the Lambskin Solid pad on my pair, which really livens up the bottom end and creates a far stronger seal over stock.  You can find said pads here.


Mid-Tier: Focal Elear (~$400)

The Elear was my second set of enthusiast headphones, a purchase that was triggered by my first session with another Focal family member, the Clear.  While the Elear was priced a good bit lower than the Clear at launch, it certainly didn’t give up any of the Clear’s positive qualities as a result.  The Elear is a mostly neutral headphone, but it does trade a small amount of performance in the higher frequencies for more playful bass extension than the Clear.  I find this to strike a great balance for most of what I listen to, as the Clear can sound a bit sterile at times, compared to the more playful nature of the Elear’s lows.  Once again, a common upgrade for both models is the addition of ZMF pads, further taming the high end and slightly pulling up the lows.  Those pads can be found here.  In the years since, the Elear has plummeted quite a bit in price, usually landing around $400 in very good condition.  Sales are typically all over the place, so keep an eye out for pricing trends and try to shop around.


Top-of-the-Line: ZMF Vérité Open ($2,499.99)

I‘m very grateful to have spent years listening to some really fantastic headphones, including most of the ZMF lineup.  The Vérité seems to be the one I always go back to, becoming my own personal benchmark for what makes a highly immersive and accurate, yet playful headphone.  The beryllium driver in Vérité manages to be insanely fast and detailed, while not coming across as too resolving or fatiguing, a combo which provides an incredibly immersive and full-bodied presence, especially with both male and female vocals.  To top it all off, the quality of construction, customer service, and bespoke qualities of every set truly make Vérité feel worth every single penny.

In Ear Monitors (IEMs)

Entry-Level: Truthear x Crinacle Zero:RED ($54.99)

The Zero:RED was my first foray back into IEMs after a pretty lengthy hiatus, so my past impressions of what a value IEM could achieve were a little outdated.  My last IEM was the Rose Hybrid 7, a 1DD+1BA $125 offering from the now defunct Chinese manufacturer Rose back in 2018.  At the time, I absolutely fell in love with how much punch they created from such a small package, albeit at the expense of a pretty uncontrolled extension from the dynamic driver.  Fast forward to now, the Zero:RED absolutely blows the 7 out of the water at almost a third of the price.  Bass extension can definitely be a little overwhelming with some genres, but it’s able to keep a tidy high end response in contrast, leading to a super impressive value proposition.  Included with the Zero:RED is also a 10 ohm adapter, so you can play with the tonality even further.


Mid-Tier: Kiwi Ears Quartet ($109)

Within five minutes of my first demo of the Kiwi Ears quartet, I’d purchased a set and messaged John Seaber, founder of JDS Labs, encouraging him to order a pair ASAP.  Several things stood out to me almost immediately, the two biggest being comfort and tonality.  The Quartet was clearly designed to fit a real person’s ear, matching the general ridges and valleys in most people’s ears.  Seriously, I’ve worn these things for greater than four hours at a time with not a hint of discomfort.  Obviously your mileage may vary, but this is one of only two IEMs that seem to accommodate both mine and John’s ears, with mine being more in line with a “medium-sized” ear, and his on the far smaller end of the range.  The Quartet is equipped with two DIP switches per unit, controlling response of the low and high drivers, a feature I was pretty surprised to see at this price point.  Whether you’re a basshead, prefer a neutral sound, or love treble, you can dial these to suit your preferences.

Top-of-the-Line: 64 Audio U4s ($1,099.99)

For as long as I’ve been in this hobby, IEMs have always been a compromise when compared to headphones.  You must trade something for the portability and convenience.  This sentiment has generally been true in my experience, even with my favorite sets.  The Quartet initially blew me away for its technical abilities at the $100 price point, but given the choice, I’m still taking 80% of enthusiast level headphones over them.  When I finally had the chance to try the U4s at AXPONA 2024, it was a complete paradigm shift.  From insanely punchy but incredibly well controlled bass, to outstanding vocal clarity, all the way through to its amazing technicality up high without fatigue, the U4s seriously rivals a lot of full-size headphones in the same price bracket.  The inclusion of different filters, known as APEX Modules, allows you to add more or less noise isolation, thus leading to varying levels of warmth and bass response.  The filters behave more linearly than expected, which means you aren’t necessarily going to completely blow out other aspects of an otherwise beautifully tuned response.  To address the biggest hurdle for most, yes, the price is high.  However, the U4s may be the best example of ‘buy once, cry once’ in the IEM space at this moment.  No matter the genre, your own personal taste, or desire for a purely neutral IEM, the U4s is likely to fill the void.

One thought on “Ear Gear Staff Picks: Austin”

  1. Wow, those headphones are pretty solid choices! Especially the Verite!

    I recently tried the Arya stealth and quickly found out it wasn’t for me. The best headphones I own are Ollo Audio S5X. These are flat, in a good way, and sound fantastic to my ears! I pair them with The Element 3 MK. 2 and it sounds glorious. I highly encourage you guys to try a pair of the Ollo Audio S5X as well!

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