Last July was an eventful month for this reviewer. I got to see firsthand how custom earphones are made by craftspeople who are experts in what they do. And I got to take delivery of my own pair of custom Jerry Harvey JH/13 PROs. But before I delve into this review, a little history is in order.
Jerry Harvey may not be a household name, but he should be. Because in the mid-’90s, he saw a solution to a need in the performing arts business and seized upon it, almost singlehandedly creating an entire industry. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s people like Jerry Harvey who make this country what it is.
If you’ve noticed the earphones worn by performers on TV or in live shows, you’re seeing the genius of in-ear monitors. Back in the mid-’90s, Jerry was working for the rock group Van Halen as their sound engineer when the drummer, Alex Van Halen, complained about not being able to hear what he needed to hear while on stage. So Jerry decided to try and do something about it: He developed an earphone using components from hearing aids and custom molded them for Alex. The benefits were immediate and dramatic. And it didn’t take long before other rock performers heard about this new earphone and offered to pay Jerry to make them some. And so the company Ultimate Ears was born. Quickly, Jerry Harvey and company dominated a market they pretty much invented.
Fast forward to the late ‘90s when Jerry sold Ultimate Ears. Being an avid pilot, he – once again – saw a need and filled it. He started manufacturing aviation headsets for pilots. Well, it didn’t take long for word to get out that Jerry was busy and performers started asking for custom earphones from the master. He couldn’t say no, and JH Audio was the result.
Which brings us to my trip to their factory last July. I call it a factory, but it’s really a converted airplane hangar at a small, country airport hiding out in the middle of Florida. When I arrived, I immediately realized how friendly and unpretentious the people were. They even share space with Jerry’s airplane. Well, it is a hangar.
The family atmosphere was also plainly evident. I was welcomed and given a tour by Jerry’s wife and also, his daughter. I had molds made of my inner ears that became the template for getting that one-of-a-kind fit that only customs have. The vast majority of orders are made from molds made by audiologists from around the world. JH Audio’s customers range from the very famous to mere mortals. My ear impressions however, were made in-house.
Although I didn’t witness my own earphones being made (that takes one to two weeks), I got to see how intricate the whole process is from beginning to end. I saw how they’re made to order with special colors and/or logos engraved and handpainted on the surface. I saw tiny – and I mean tiny - speakers placed inside the shells. Seeing them being assembled was a bit surreal. Heck, even upon leaving, I had to look both ways for aircraft taking off or landing because I had to drive – on the runway! Surreal indeed.
So, fast forward a week or so and I drove back out to the hangar (and looking out for aircraft again) to pick up a pair of clear JH/13 PROs. I chose clear, because I think all the tiny electronics in the earpieces look really cool. I could have had their top-of-the-line 16 PROs, but I preferred the 13 PROs instead. Here’s why: When I visited that first day, I listened to a sample unit of the 13 PROs connected to my iPod, which was playing a song I was quite familiar with. The song just happened to have a lot of bass punch to it. When I switched to the 16 PROs while listening to that same song. I almost fell out of my chair. The 16 PROs were so much louder and had a lot more bottom end than the 13 PROs did. I was immediately blown away. However, I know my tastes. Over hours of listening, I much prefer a more neutral sound to one with killer bass. Maybe it’s my age, but as impressive as the 16 PROs were, I just knew I would prefer the 13 PROs over time. And for me, anyway, I was correct in that choice.
Let’s talk about these neutral-sounding JH/13 PRO in-ear monitors. The 13 PROs have six speakers. Six. For each ear. Until you’ve used custom made earphones, you haven’t really experienced music the way it was meant to be heard. You haven’t been this close to what the performer – either on stage or in the studio – wanted you to hear. There is no way a foam-tipped universal-sized earphone can encompass you in sound the way customs can. Yeah, they can come really, really close and there are some universals I would recommend without hesitation, but customs are in a whole other league.
To insert into your ear, you just twist them a bit. They “snap” right into place and the world disappears. It’s eerie. The thin cord is braided and fits over the ear, both of which cut down on microphonics, that distracting noise that comes from tapping or brushing the cord against your clothes. The cord is also replaceable. It tightly plugs into both earphone shells. So if the cord frays or becomes damaged in any way, just swap it out. The 13 PROs come with a personalized, clear Otterbox 1000 case that is crushproof, waterproof and even floats. The case provides about as much protection as humanly possible. Also included is a cleaning tool and a velour drawstring bag.
The JH/13 PROs are made up of what JH Audio calls proprietary precision-balanced armatures. Armatures are what you usually find in more expensive earphones, such as Shure, Klipsch, Ultimate Ears and Westone to name just a few. There are advantages to this design, the chief one being accuracy. But armatures are also brutally accurate, so if it’s garbage in, it’s garbage out. If you have lower bit-rate files, chances are you will be disappointed.
Historically, armatures are also deficient in the bass department: however a lot of that is overcome by splitting armatures into specific frequency areas, much like a traditional loudspeaker, with highs, mids and bass combined with integrated crossovers. Which is exactly how the JH/13 PROs are designed. Except that JH Audio doubled it. So each earpiece contains dual high, dual mid and dual low armatures. And they sound as impressive as the specs read.
One of the reasons they sound so spectacular is they have, well, six speakers per ear. So, how do you think they sound? I’m sorry for being flippant, but for what these cost, they had better deliver the moon. They do, and then some. There is also the seal that you can only get with customs. Without that seal, it doesn’t matter how good earphones are. They are going to sound like absolute … well, let’s just say not good.
The JH/13 PROs gave me an excuse to listen to Brian Eno’s new album, “Small Craft on a Milk Sea.” Eno is one of those artists that has kept up with production techniques through the years. You may or may not like how his music has evolved, but you can’t argue with the pristeen quality to his later works. The song “Paleosonic” is a study in percussive anarchy that holds together. It almost sounds binaural, in that you can place (in your head) exactly where each instrument is located, and you are in the center. The quieter “Written, Forgotten” shows off the bass of the 13 PROs, but the midsare also in full force here. That’s why I chose these over the 16 PROs. The bass is strong, but doesn’t sound out of context, which happens a lot on Eno’s newer pieces if your earphones accentuate the bass.
One thing that became apparent to me was that the 13 PROs work their magic better on newer recordings. One of my favorite live performances is “Break Song,” from the Vanilla Fudge album “Near the Beginning.” This 23–minute opus features my favorite drum solo (remember those?) by Carmine Appice. While I could appreciate an improved clarity separating the bass and cymbals, the mix was still a bit too muddy, and this 35-plus-year old recording didn’t move me like it used to.
“The Dangling Conversation” from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” fares better as an older recording. This melancholy of this remastered version shines like a dark jewel. There is also a subtle cymbal sound in the right speaker that is not that noticeable on lesser earphones. Its these little things in different songs that add up to the overall experience of the 13 PROs.
I have a high resolution converted FLAC of George Thorogood’s “Who Do You Love” from the “Move It on Over” album. I’m very familiar with the power of Thorogood’s Bo Diddley guitar riffs on this song. But now, it has a life of its own. The thundering drumming and blistering guitar playing rips into your brain and you can’t help but smile. It’s songs like this that the 13 PROs were made for.
Once again, I was glad I went with the more neutral 13 PROs while listening to Imelda May’s “Johnny Got a Boom Boom”. The upright bass playing is pushed right to the front in all it’s glory while May snarls her trademark rockabilly growl all over it. The attack of the bass plucking is sharp and distinct with no fuzziness. You get the benefits of a 50s genre recorded in a range unattainable back when rockabilly was king. I think on the 16 PROs, the added emphasis on bass would have done me in.
One good test of how quickly the 13 PROs can recover is Kraftwerk’s “Geiger Counter” and “Radioactivity” from the album “Radioactivity.” The electronically false Geiger counter thump attacks speed up as the song progresses with no delay in between. As the song blends into “Radioactivity,” a synth wash fills in the emptiness without drowning out that relentless thumping. For fans of the fathers of electonica, it’s pure bliss.
I’ve listened to the 13 PROs using an iPod, iPhone, straight out of an audio port on a mac and finally through a port built in a pair of external speakers that have their own digital audio converter. The speakers with the DAC offered the best sound, but it was subtle. The iPod alone drives the 13 PROs just fine.
What will keep 99 percent of the people from buying earphones like the JH PROs come down to one thing only: price. These aren’t just expensive. They’re crazy expensive. But this review is not about the average Joe’s quest for earphones he can tool around in. This review is about earphones that professionals use when their trained ears depend on it – earphones that audiophiles use to judge all other earphones against. Earphones that spare no expense to get it right. The holy grail of earphones. And there lies the frustration I have with these earphones. The JH Audio/PRO 13s are so good, so personal and so expensive that only a handful of people will ever know the joy that can be had from custom earphones of this calibre. And that’s frustrating.