Review: JH Audio JH16 Pro Custom In-Ear Monitor
Despite the fact that we've had access to some of the very best and most expensive canalphones ever developed, we've never believed or suggested that dollars alone are a proxy for audio quality. To the contrary, most audio equipment is subject to the law of diminishing returns: at some point, spending extra money tends to lead to such modest improvements that average people would never care. JH Audio's JH16 Pro ($1,149) is an exception to that general rule. While these are amongst the priciest canalphones ever made, these little earpieces are pretty close to magical, outperforming their closest and more expensive rival, Ultimate Ears' earlier 12-driver UE 18 Pro. Thanks to an all but insane array of 16 speakers inside of two earpieces, JH16 Pro performs songs with the sort of instantly engaging, full-spectrum detail that the most critical audiophiles will find enrapturing -- sonic resolution that even average users would appreciate, even if they wouldn't be able to fully explain what's going on.
Because these earphones will look familiar to some people, it’s worth mentioning a few details about their heritage, particularly given that the JH Audio name mightn’t initially ring a bell. JH Audio is a relatively young earphone manufacturer started by industry veteran and Ultimate Ears founder Jerry Harvey, who is now competing directly with the custom-fit division of his former company. So it’s no coincidence that JH16 Pro looks almost identical to the custom earphones Ultimate Ears sells—like fancy transparent hearing aids with tiny electronic components inside—down to the clear hard plastic shells that have been branded with your initials and a custom serial number. Peek inside and you’ll see tiny silver boxes holding balanced armature drivers, tied together by almost microscopic wires. Apart from JH Audio’s flying angel logos on the sides of the earpieces, you’d be hard-pressed to tell JH16 Pro apart from most of the UE series of custom-fit earphones.
JH Audio even uses similar detachable, transparent metal cabling and oversized headphone plugs—the same ones that were used on earlier Ultimate Ears custom earphones, and more recently were replaced by UE with newer versions. It bears mention that JH Audio’s plug isn’t compatible with original-generation iPhones and doesn’t work particularly well with most Apple device cases; similarly, the braided cables feel thin and delicate. These small points—and the very simple inking of JH Audio’s logos, compared with the metallic UE logos sometimes used by Ultimate Ears—are the only things that could really stand to be improved in the earphones themselves.
Since every pair of JH16 Pros are custom made to fit your individual ears and no one else’s, your purchase must begin with the same sort of custom fitting process required for the Ultimate Ears custom lineup. You have to pay a visit to an audiologist and have special “impressions” of your ear canals made using a quick-drying caulk-like material, a process that takes roughly 15 minutes from start to finish, only around 5 minutes of which is required for setting time. Once the impressions are made, you need to send them in a small box to JH Audio, which uses them to make the hard plastic shells that hold the little speakers. Between the audiologist visit and shipping, you can expect to pay around $35 above the price of the earphones, and wait for a week or two before the JH16 Pro arrives. Just like Ultimate Ears’ custom-fit earphones, the hard plastic shells fill your middle and outer ear canals, providing 26 decibels of passive noise isolation—enough to make you unable to hear someone talking in the room right behind you.
One thing stood out as a major difference between our first JH Audio and Ultimate Ears experiences: the JH16 Pro fit perfectly right out of the box, whereas our first Ultimate Ears unit years ago required a little factory reworking and thus a delay. (Since your impressions are kept on file at each company, you needn’t go through the process again for replacements or upgrades.) And though the JH16 Pro’s not quite as well-appointed with frills as a comparable pair of Ultimate Ears—JH Audio bundles them only with a lightly customized OtterBox hard carrying case, a generic velvet soft pouch, and a cleaning tool—we did like that the JH Audio box was so much more compact than the oversized roadie case UE ships with its custom earphones. That said, UE’s twin aluminum boxes are classier pack-ins for expensive accessories, and both companies could stand to improve their pack-ins.
Given how similar their products look and are in numerous other ways, it’s not a surprise that where JH Audio most seriously challenges Ultimate Ears is in the audio department. With UE 18 Pro, Ultimate Ears packed a then industry-leading six drivers into each earpiece, using two sets of midrange drivers, two sets of high-frequency drivers, and two sets of low-frequency drivers with a three-way passive crossover system. Consequently, as we said in our review last year, “everything just sounds silky—songs that fade in feel as if they’re sweeping gently into your ears, and as a listener, you have the ability to refocus your attention at any given moment to any part of the song that might interest you.” There were no serious deficiencies in the UE 18 Pro, apart from UE’s decision to keep the bass levels judicious, which we liked but noted that serious bassheads might object to.
On paper, JH16 Pro is exactly the earphone to resolve that issue. Though it starts with a similar array of two high-frequency drivers, two midrange drivers, and two low-frequency drivers with a three-way crossover, JH Audio has upped the ante by adding two more low-frequency drivers per ear, which could conceivably be used for feats similar to what Ultimate Ears tried with the similarly-priced UE 11 Pro—an earlier custom model that used an added low-end driver to go way too far in the bass department. But that’s not what’s happened here. Instead, the difference between UE 18 Pro and JH16 Pro is akin to giving the same task to a team of 6 Ultimate Ears speakers and 8 very similar JH Audio speakers. JH Audio is basically just using its extra drivers to increase accuracy rather than boom in the bass department.
Generally speaking, highs and mids sound extremely similar between these models: JH16 Pro’s renditions of tracks are as silky smooth as described above for the UE 18 Pro, only with a tiny hint of extra treble, enhancing JH16 Pro’s ability to deliver the sort of occasionally staggering resolving power that can make or break certain audio recordings. Listen to the remastered Beatles albums and you’ll be able to clearly hear the audio engineers switching channels. Play 128kbps tracks that were described as “CD quality” only a few years ago, and you’ll vividly hear the sort of clipping and distortion that differentiates low-bitrate audio from lightly or uncompressed peers. With 320kbps or lossless tracks, every high clap, each breath a singer takes, a lingering twang from the strum of a guitar, and even previously unnoticed jingles in the background of your favorite track will become obvious if you want to hear them. A recording engineer could use JH16 Pro to master the cleanest tracks ever created; a researcher could rely upon these earpieces to discover the most obscure of flaws. Yet you can just as easily relax and find yourself completely engrossed by your music, listening for hours at a time. During our testing, we’ve been in each of these scenarios, and found JH16 Pro’s performance to be just wonderful regardless of the type of music we were listening to.
What about the bass? Well, instead of having two speakers share responsibility for recreating low-end sounds, JH16 Pro lets four speakers work together to handle the same load, and by “same,” we mean “same.” Despite those extra drivers, JH16 Pro doesn’t blast or flood your eardrums with added bass—unlike the UE-11 Pro, it doesn’t sound as if someone has added a subwoofer and turned it up too high. Instead, JH16 Pro further smooths out the low end, reducing the distortion caused by even challenging synthesized bass sounds. We threw some of our most challenging, bass-heavy sample tracks at both earphones, and while both did an excellent job of performing the rich, low tones, JH16 Pro’s renditions were just a little cleaner, and enhanced by the aforementioned hint of extra sparkle in the highs.
If we had to choose one word to describe JH16 Pro’s overall performance, it would be “unparalleled.” While the differences between JH16 Pro and UE 18 Pro aren’t massive, we’d definitely pick the former over the latter at the same price—yet that’s thankfully not necessary. By offering JH16 Pro for $200 less than Ultimate Ears’ flagship model, JH Audio has created the sort of aggressive competition the high-end canalphone market hasn’t seen in years. No one’s going to consider an $1,149 earphone to be cheap, and yes, there’s still a little room for JH Audio to improve on the frills here; the company has clearly put more effort into what’s inside of its earphones than what’s attached to them or packaged in the box. But there’s no doubt in our minds that the overall sonic bang for the buck delivered here is as impressive as we’ve seen at this price point. If you’re looking for a price no object canalphone, your short list should start here.