Note: this post, originally written in 2020, was updated in 2022 with an addendum at the end
There's a growing niche of the audio industry featuring high-performance hardware by Chinese brands offered for prices well below those of comparable products in the States. These attractive prices are largely thanks to high-volume, low-margin production, and several manufacturers have garnered an impressive underground following on hi-fi forums and YouTube channels as a result. Even The Verge published an article about some last year, and it's exciting to see brands gain recognition based on the merits of their products, despite having no marketing, no retail presence, and understated packaging design.
I've been particularly intrigued by Chinese in-ear monitors (IEMs) since they showed up on my radar a few years ago. I tend to use earbuds while walking, cooking, or cleaning. It's easy to always have some in my pocket or my bag so I can listen to podcasts or music everywhere I go. I know I should consider enjoying my surroundings a little bit more, but sometimes it's just nice to add my own soundtrack to life.
For the past several years, I've purchased inexpensive Monoprice earbuds recommended by an old Lifehacker article. I would buy 3-4 pairs at a time and toss them whenever they started to fail, but this wastefulness sat poorly with me; I don't like to think of my electronics as so overtly disposable.
When the right earbud on my final set of Monoprice earbuds started cutting out a few weeks ago, I finally had my opportunity to explore some of these new, inexpensive offerings. I wanted an improved sound and build quality compared to the cheap earbuds I've been using all my life, and critically, I was looking for a modular solution where the cables are detachable from the monitors themselves, which is a consumer-friendly practice that makes replacing failing components trivially easy.
I did a little bit of research on reddit and hi-fi forums, and held my breath before venturing into the scary vortex of YouTube gear-centric channels to narrow down my options, and the conclusion I reached is true for most audio products today: we have multitudes of fantastic options available, it's difficult to make a bad choice, and it's easy to love nearly anything out there. Instead of succumbing to analysis paralysis and sinking too much time into over-optimizing, I decided to time-box my research, pick one model that was generally well-received, and move on.
Ultimately I settled on the Tin HiFi T2s for less than $50, and I added an extra cable to keep on hand for the future. These IEMs are firmly in the entry-level audiophile category, but there's really no shame in this — this is probably the point in the market with the most meaningful jump in the diminishing returns graph, shifting from commodity audio gear to hardware favored by enthusiasts who tend to be more discerning. From here, there are still gains to be made, but the audiophile community has a habit of obsessive optimization to the point where the pursuit of hardware can become a distraction from the actual listening, so for the time being, these are in the "precisely good enough" range for me, especially since I expect to primarily use them plugged into my iPhone, and with rumors of a completely portless iPhone model appearing in the next few years, "plugged into my iPhone" is a concept that might not be around forever.
My first-generation iPhone SE is showing its age and getting fussy with charging, and I've been patiently waiting for the iPhone 12 release. I fully expect my phone to lack 3.5mm headphone jack in just a few, short months. A lighting-to-3.5mm adapter should get me by for the next few years at least, but I don't have a plan for when that's no longer an option, and whether I'll want to find some wireless earbuds that seem suitable, go the Airpods route, or even eventually invest in a dedicated Digital Audio Player (DAP) (or old iOS device) to listen to Plex and perhaps podcasts. I remember the days when I would carry around a flip phone and an iPod, and it's almost amusing to think this cycle may come back around — but that's a problem for another day.
After a three-week long wait, the T2s arrived in my mailbox and I finally got to test them out.
In short, they matched all my criteria, and I'm fully content. They sound clean and have a solid build. I start to feel the right one against my ear after a few hours when wearing them in the orientation with the cable behind my ears (the stock cable has a plastic sleeve around the monitor ends to keep them bent in that shape), but I usually wind up using my cozy Hifiman HE4XX for long listening sessions, and I don't expect discomfort to be a problem for the short walks, dinner preps, or cleaning sprees for which I plan to use these.
I'm looking forward to reaching for these the next time I step out. Whenever that can happen again, anyway.
Update: A few months after this, my right monitor started developing a slightly quieter presence or would cut out with a spotty connection. It was covered by warranty, which is good, but requires some shipping back and forth to China, which isn't convenient. In the meantime I picked up some iBasso Audio IT00 monitors to get me by. Both monitors sound amazing, though, and assuming my defect was a fluke, you really could get basically any set of IEMs and be really happy with them.
It's been two years after I originally published this post, and I've changed my setup a few more times than I had hoped for, but I'm currently using a pair of Moondrop Aria IEMs after all my other IEMs failed.
My first pair of Tin HiFi T2s started cutting out about six months after wearing them daily, and I bought the iBasso IT00s in February 2021 to be my new daily monitors while sending the T2s back to China for a warranty replacement.The iBasso monitors were more comfortable and sounded better to my ear than the T2 monitors, but ultimately started cutting out at one of the terminals a few months into their life, too. I swapped to my warranty-replaced T2s, and…those developed the same problem a few months later.
I bought some open-box AirPods Pro in December 2021, which I enjoyed immensely for the convenience. The best quality of life improvements for me were being able to continue listen to podcasts and music while my phone was on a charger in the next room, having messages read to me while my hands were busy, having faster, better access to Siri (and the integrated mic for occasional phone calls), and perhaps most of all, just having wireless audio so I could watch episodes of Star Trek on my iPad or computer while moving around the kitchen. I also cut my own hair every couple of weeks, and I enjoyed being able to put on noise canceling to reduce the hum of my clippers.
The AirPods sounded reasonably good too, but the IEMs just sounded so much better, and support foam tips, which work better for me too. Needing to charge headphones is a chore I don't enjoy, and I don't like the idea of buying costly electronics whose life is limited by lithium-ion batteries, which stop reliably holding a charge after about 3 or 5 years (this is also one reason why I wear a mechanical watch in lieu of an Apple Watch). Ultimately, I gave the AirPods Pro away to a friend who would appreciate them more than me, and decided to try wired IEMs once more.
My previous IEMs all used the MMCX connector, which snaps into the IEM and allows them to spin freely radially. The connector would ultimately fail from a loose connection, unfortunately usually at the base of the IEM rather than the cable, itself. I was wondering if it were possible there were usage-related reasons for this to happen (perhaps I fell asleep with them in one time too many, for instance), but it's difficult to pin down. In any case, my track record with this connector was not good, so this next time around, I decided to try a monitor with the 2-pin connector, which unfortunately meant I would need to replace my existing MMCX cables. In July 2022, I bought Moondrop Aria monitors, and four months in those are still working perfectly with daily use.
As of last week, I'm on my third $9 Apple lightning-to-3.5mm adapter, though.
It's always something, isn't it?