The Angie IEM Astell and Kern’s New Frontier

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Introduction

Among many custom in-ear monitor enthusiasts the name Jerry Harvey has become something of a legend. The story of how he got his start in the industry is the stuff that dreams are made of. It started innocently enough, one day a very young Jerry was driving along in his pristine red Trans Am when a complete stranger (who happened to be a promoter for Contemporary Productions) pulls him over. The reason? “Hey kid, Sammy Hagar is playing Busch Stadium on Saturday and we need your car so he can drive it on stage for one of his songs. Let us use your car and you can watch the show and meet Sammy.”

Needless to say Harvey, being the average music crazy teen we all once were, immediately agreed. That chance meeting would be the first of a series of opportunistic events (later meeting David Lee Roth, becoming a roadie, becoming a concert sound engineer, and creating his very first custom monitor for Alex Van Halen from bits and pieces of hearing aids) that would lead Jerry Harvey to form Ultimate Ears. The fairy tale would come crashing down around its founder when Ultimate Ears would later be taken over and become a subsidiary company of the mega corp Logitech. Not one to give up, Harvey would leave Ultimate Ears, taking many of the people he had personally chosen when creating the company, and would form JH Audio.

JH Audio is a company that has been one of the leaders in innovating acoustic design and, unlike many others, hasn’t been content to wrest on its laurels and enjoy past glory. JH Audio was the first to do dual stacked armature drivers (dual low, dual mid, and dual high) and were granted a patent for the invention of the dual high frequency canal system. They were also the first to do quad stacked armatures, were the first to implement active crossover technology and hold the patents to prove it, and with the creation of the JH3A, they developed the patent pending inverse active crossover. They also have a patent pending on the FreqPhase wave guide which is a system designed to time and phase align the output in multi-armature IEMs. In short, love him or hate him, if it wasn’t for Jerry Harvey and his company I dare say the world of custom in-ear monitors would be very different.

 

Late in 2013 Jerry Harvey would make an announcement that would signal a new chapter for his company and serve notice to competitors and consumers alike, JH Audio was branching out and entering the universal IEM market. The announcement would center on a new universal in-ear christened the Roxanne ($1299 USD) which would be the beginning of the Siren Series. The Siren Series is a product line of in-ear monitors that would be offered in both universal and custom form and are named after famous rock songs, usually about women. Although product launch was rocky, due to long production wait times and early back orders, the wrinkles would eventually be ironed out and the Roxanne would go on to become a hit among the public. As well received as the Roxanne was JH Audio wasn’t finished. Recently, in partnership with Astell & Kern, Jerry Harvey would once again turn heads by introducing the sisters of Roxanne, the new Siren Series flagship Layla ($2499 USD), and the little sister of the product lineup, the Angie ($1099 USD). Like the Roxanne both the Layla and the Angie will be offered in universal and custom form. The universals are currently being offered exclusively through Astell & Kern and its partner distributors while the custom versions, for a nominal extra fee, are slated to be available via JH Audio and their partner distributors sometime in the first quarter of 2015.

Although the Angie and the Layla belong to the same product lineup as the Roxanne, under the hood, neither of them share any similarities to its eldest sister. Both Layla and Angie are a complete overhaul and roll-out of new JH Audio IEM technology with newly designed balanced armatures, a more complex dampening scheme to control unwanted resonance, and a completely new designed crossover technology called fourth order crossovers. The idea behind all of this was to voice two monitors that were flat and capable of being called true reference mastering monitors when their bass potentiometers are turned down to zero.

Just to get it out of the way and avoid any misconceptions, while the Roxanne and the Layla are named after rock songs involving women the Angie isn’t. She’s named after a 1973 Rolling Stones tune that was written by Keith Richards with the help of Mick Jagger. While the song on first listen comes across as an acoustic ballad involving love loss Keith Richards has claimed in his autobiography that the name Angie was a pseudonym for heroin, and that the song was about his attempt to quit his heroin habit while detoxing in Switzerland.

 

Packaging

Upon purchasing the Angie you’ll immediately notice she comes impeccably packaged in a sturdy black cardboard display case with the Astell & Kern logo embossed on the top of the lid. Upon removing the display cases protective sleeve and opening the box you’ll find the Angie itself displayed on the underside of the lid while all the little extras are conveniently stored away inside the heart of the box. When you gently pull out the grey and black Jerry Harvey cardboard insert and open it you’ll find inside 5 pairs of ear tips of various sizes and description, a small screwdriver for tuning the IEMs bass potentiometer, an earwax cleaning tool, and an owner’s manual. Underneath the cardboard insert is a circular red and white metal carry case. Inside the case is a spare IEM cable, all Siren Series IEMs come with two detachable cables, a 3.5mm unbalanced TRS and a 2.5mm balanced TRRS cable, the perfect cables for AK players. Also, all Sirens come with cables with a built in bass potentiometer designed to tweak the sound to the listeners taste. I’m not one to rave over packaging but I had to admit, the overall look and attention to detail in the products presentation is impressive.

 

Form Factor

The Angie is an 8-driver (dual drivers for low frequencies, dual drivers for mid frequencies, quad drivers for high frequencies) in-ear monitor, and is the entry level model of the Siren Series product line. She has a frequency response range of 10 hz to 23 hz and a sensitivity rating of 117 db @ 1 mW with an impedance of 17 ohms.

The Angie housings are a red and black affair, and are hand fashioned from Kevlar. The faceplate insert is carbon fiber with the Astell & Kern insignia on the left housing and the JH Audio insignia on the right housing, both insignia are in red. The bezel is machined aluminum. Because Kevlar is used on the housings Angie is surprisingly light, albeit, the housings still look huge when inserted into the wearer’s ear. Remarkably though, fit was quite easy to attain even though the IEMs large housings had a nasty tendency to jut out, reminding me of the bolts on Frankenstein’s Monster. The cable locking mechanism is a 4-pin cable connection with a machined aluminum locking collar which I have to admit works very well and makes it quite easy to swap cables out.

The two supplied cables are a quad braided design that is subtle to the touch. Memory or lack thereof, is the best I’ve encountered. Microphonics, also the best I’ve had the good fortune to handle. The Y-splits are small, light, and unobtrusive with strong strain reliefs that are neither too beefy nor too piddly. The strain relief on the collars where the cables plugs into the housings is also quite robust. Going down to the bottom end of the cables, both cables have right angle plugs, with one being a 3.5mm unbalanced TRS and the other being a 2.5mm balanced TRRS jack. Again, strain relief is impeccable. A few inches above the plugs are located the bass boost potentiometers. Although the potentiometers are easily the heaviest hardware on the Angie cables the added weight is negligible and doesn’t annoy the user with a lot of swinging to and fro due to it being located so near to the plug. The potentiometers are well constructed with its white screws being firm enough to not move while wearing the IEM but loose enough to easily dial in ones bass preference with no fuss.

The supplied carrying case is a circular red with white lettering machined laser engraved aluminum carrying case. Although on the heavy side, the carrying case is small enough for on the go storage and sturdy enough to easily protect the Angie from any hard knocks or long falls. Matter of fact, the IEM fits quite snuggly inside the case with little fuss.

Overall, the fit, finish, polish, choice of materials, and pristine look of the Angie is above reproach and is easily one of the best manufactured universal IEMs I’ve had the pleasure of handling.

Sound Impressions

The following sound impressions were noted using the Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor (UERM) as a benchmark. DAPs used were the iPhone5, iPod Classic, AK120, CalyxM, and for giggles, the NuForce uDAC-3 was also used as a desktop alternative. Please note, the Angie, due to its sensitivity, is not the type of IEM I would class as amp dependent. But, due to its revealing nature a good source and audio chain should be utilized at all times in order to fully enjoy her capabilities. Source material used was a mixture of 16 bit/44.1kHz and 24 bit/192kHz either streamed via Tidal or played via my laptop/DAPs. Some of the source material used for evaluation was 24-bit binaural recordings along with albums such as: RAM by Daft Punk, Jazz at the Pawnshop, the Avatar Soundtrack, DJ Kicks by Kruder and Dorfmeister, Fleetwood Mac Greatest Hits, Free by Office Of Strategic Influence, Stoa by Nik Bartsch Ronin, and Up Close by Ottomar Liebert & Luna Negra. Please note, most final audio impressions were arrived at while listening to Angie with zero bass boost.

With the potentiometer tuned down to zero the Angie sounds flat from top to bottom, think neutral. The midrange is dry and at times can boarder on lean based on the source material that is played. When compared to the UERM midrange, the Angie is the flatter sounding of the two but not necessarily the most resolving nor detailed. While Angie is no slouch in detail retrieval the UERM is the CIEM that is able to dig deeper in micro detail retrieval, especially in the lower midrange. For whatever reason the lower midrange can at times sound almost veiled when compared to the more wide open UERM lower midrange. Also, aided by its slightly quicker and cleaner note decay, the UERM is the more aggressive IEM. Even so, the Angie midrange isn’t without its own strengths. While I’ve always ranked the vocal presentation on the UERM as excellent, Angie is able to raise the bar with vocals that are, smoother, less forced, and more tonally correct. In comparison, vocals on the UERM can sound overly sweet and at times forced and shouty.

The high frequencies of the Angie were a surprise for me. With 4 drivers allotted towards the Angie high frequency presentation I expected my UERM to be outright stomped on and embarrassed, not so. Again, the Angie was the flatter, drier sounding of the two IEMs. Her highs were also the more extended sounding of the two with the UERM rolling off sooner. Even so, the UERM had the more energy in all the right spots and, again, quicker note decay. Clarity wise, it was a tough call for me and I thought that both the upper registers of these IEMs sounded clean, open and airy. While the Angie may have been the more detailed and controlled in the high frequencies with its 4 balanced armatures, the UERM, with its far fewer balanced armatures and older technology, didn’t lag very far behind.

The bass of both the UERM and Angie are birds of a similar feather. Both IEMs have quick, detailed, controlled and punchy bass that avoid bloat. The big difference between the two is the UERM seems to extend a bit deeper and has a slight bit more of a mid-bass hump. (I know, using the words mid bass hump and UERM in the same sentence sounds preposterous to most UERM owners). Bring the JH Audio bass potentiometer into the equation though and things become a little more interesting. According to Harvey himself, bass can be attenuated or dialed up to +10 dB at 60 Hz. For me, when I clock up the settings of the potentiometer to around 9, maybe just shy of 10, both Angie and the UERM begin to sound very similar to one another, albeit, the UERM still seems to extend a wee bit more in its sub bass.

Truthfully, anything past 10 or 11 o’clock on the Angie bass potentiometer was too much bass for me. Although, at first, I found it rather fun dialing the bass boost setting back and forth, experimenting with different gear and music to see what could be accomplished, I quickly lost interest after a few days and found myself clocking in the bass to where I generally liked it. The dial was  either flat or maybe adding a 2 to 3 dB boost depending on source and forgetting about it.

Sound staging for both IEMs was very similar. While I’ve heard far bigger soundstages on other IEMs both the UERM and Angie could be classed as mid-sized bordering on large with the proper source. Although depth was quite exemplary on the UERM the Angie seemed to have just that little more extra depth on its Z axis which gave it a slight edge in 3D layering and slightly better instrument separation. In contrast, the UERM as an overall package, while bested in certain areas of sound staging was still able to give the slightly better cleaner and crisper overall image when overly busy music where lots of PRAT was demanded and in the end sounded like the more balanced IEM.

Conclusion

When Jerry Harvey set out to create the Angie and Layla his mission was to create two potent sounding IEM’s that were capable of being used as tools for studio mixing. Although the Angie isn’t without its flaws (what piece of gear isn’t?), I can honestly say he accomplished what he set out to do. As an added bonus, the Angie, as well as all the other Sirens in the lineup, can be tweaked in the low frequencies to the listeners preference, making them that much more capable and not only a tool but also a fun sounding IEM. Also, as an overall package, the workmanship of the Angie’s form factor is a masterpiece to behold that puts many other top tier IEMs to shame. It is also a testament of what can happen when a company uses its head and designs for the wear and tear of everyday real world use while proving that well-built doesn’t mean an IEM has to look ugly. If you have 1099 USD burning a hole in your pocket and are in the market for an IEM the Angie is worth serious consideration and shouldn’t disappoint.

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