Moondrop Variations Review - More Than Just Another Variation?
It’s your friendly Moondrop aficionado back with another review. This time I’ll be taking a look at the Moondrop Variations, the company’s first tribrid IEM (1DD/2BA/2EST) that’ll set you back $520. As the name Variations might imply, the Moondrop Variations is essentially a tweaked version of the immensely popular Blessing 2 Dusk, which is a tweaked version of the original Blessing 2, which is a tweaked version of the original Blessing. Yeah. Props to Moondrop for at least naming their IEM aptly. But variations of the same sound only get you so far, and this is something that Moondrop’s detractors are all too happy to point out. Does the Variations actually present an upgrade over it’s peers? Read on to find out.
This unit was provided for review by Shenzhen Audio and was loaned to me by Super*Review. Thank you! As usual, all thoughts and opinions expressed in this review are my own to the best of my ability.
Source & Drivability
All critical listening was done off of an iBasso DX300 and iPhone X using lossless files. The Variations is about as difficult to drive as the Blessing IEMs; it'll require more juice, but you shouldn't have any trouble driving it to sufficient loudness even off portable sources. I found about 32/100 on the DX300 and 40/100 on the Apple dongle to be about right for me (~70dB).
Love it or hate it (or just don’t care), this is a Moondrop IEM; hence, we are blessed with some anime waifu goodies and packaging. As for the actual accessories you’ll receive with the Variations, they go like the following:
3x pairs silicone eartips (s/m/l)
3x pairs foam eartips (s/m/l)
Spare filters & tweezers
2-pin 0.78mm cable
2.5mm/4.4mm adapters for the cable
The Variations itself sports a very similar build to its B2 counterparts. However, it has more of a dark charcoal hue to the 3D resin, which I don’t like as it picks up bodily oils more obviously (aside from looking somewhat tacky). The faceplate of the Variations is also made of stainless steel and sports a laser engraved, groove pattern. Just to be clear, these are not machined grooves, so unfortunately, you cannot file your nails on these shells. Why would anyone want to do that? Don’t ask me. For fit and comfort, these IEMs are on the larger side - the nozzles, in particular, are 6.5mm in diameter - so do be aware of that going in. I’ve personally not had issues with comfort and can usually wear them for about three hours without an issue.
The above measurement was taken off of an IEC-711 coupler. There is a resonance peak at roughly 8kHz. As such, measurements after this point should be not be considered entirely accurate.
Moondrop's tuning philosophy consists of what they call the VSDF target, which has two distinct baselines: the Harman target and the Diffuse Field target. The Variations clearly follows the former, Moondrop's interpretation of the Harman target. In fact, up until 1kHZ, the Variations basically matches the Harman 2019 IEM target to a T! But past 3kHz, Moondrop begins asserting their creative liberties. They've sloped off the upper-midrange to avoid shout, and they've pushed the treble forward more than the Harman 2019 IEM target. Suffice it to say the Variations has been very well tuned - heck, I'd say it's better than the target - so let's break down some of the differences between the Variations and its contemporaries.
Perhaps one of the most noticeable differences between the Variations and its B2 counterparts, at least for me, would be the bass texture. If you’re not familiar with this term, it mostly has to do with the fluidity of a bass response; a bass response’s ability to scale decibel gradations. When a driver does not scale these gradations properly, it will sound like what some might describe as “one-note”. The dynamic drivers used in the B2 lineup were tuned well, yes, but they were perplexingly dry and lacked texture. This has been rectified with the Variations. Stack on a completely Harman sub-bass shelf and even cleaner note definition than the B2 lineup, and suffice it to say the Variations has one heck of a bass response.
Tonally, the midrange hasn’t really changed too much from the B2 series, so I won’t get too in-depth. Here’s the Twitter review summary: It perceptively hits my neutral spot, but stay away if you dislike a leaner presentation with your vocals and want more richness. That aside, the most noticeable difference between the Variations and the B2 series for most listeners will probably be the treble. The B2 series uses a Knowles BA driver to handle the treble frequencies and, consequently, they have a noticeable amount of “grit” or what some might otherwise describe as BA timbre to their notes. The Variations has eschewed the Knowles drivers for two of the infamous Sonion electret drivers.
But note my choice of the word “infamous”. Most will know of my vehement dislike for these drivers. To illustrate, here’s a few notable IEMs that I’ve called out in the past for their poor implementation of the Sonion ESTATs:
Empire Ears Wraith ($3500)
Jomo Audio Trinity Brass ($2800)
Noble Audio Sultan ($3000)
Oriolus Traillii ($6000)
MMR Thummim ($4500)
qdc Anole V14 ($3000)
Rhapsodio Zombie MK.II ($1600)
Tansio Mirai Spark ($1500)
...yeah, the list goes on, but I think you get the idea. I generally don’t like them. Heck, I didn’t even like Moondrop’s last attempt, the Solis, at using them.
Well, color me surprised to find that the Variation’s treble response is actually pretty darn decent. The Variations noticeably extends further than the B2 lineup, eschews the timbral inconsistency in the treble, and best of all? It doesn’t sound completely soft and blunted. Now, it clearly doesn't stack up to the likes of the Elysian Annihilator, but I have to admit: This is one of the few EST implementations that I can live with.
I’ve already talked a lot about the B2 lineup, so how about we frame the Variation's technical performance within the context of some of the competition? In the Variation’s ballpark, you have stuff like the following:
The Variations is actually in somewhat of a strange spot; you can see that most of the comparisons here will set you back a couple hundred dollars more. Unfortunately, I also haven’t heard the younger brothers to the Thieaudio line-up yet, the Oracle or Excalibur, but I’m not sure if it matters. Why? If you’re asking me, the Variations is already on par with the older brothers for technicalities! A/B-ing the Variations with the Clairvoyance made clear that the Variations is a small step ahead in resolution and detail. And while I no longer have a Monarch on-hand, I believe the Variations and Monarch are about par for sheer resolution. I never found the Monarch to be a particularly detailed IEM either (at least for a sense of internal, true detail), and I’m inclined to say the Variations actually has an edge in imaging.
Now then, is the Variations better for technicalities than it’s older brother, the S8? If you're asking me...no. I’d still maintain that the S8 is one of the most technical IEMs (if not the most technical IEM!) in its price bracket. For raw detail, resolution, and layering, the S8 is a small step ahead of the Variations. An even more noticeable gap presents itself in terms of coherency; the Variations sounds slightly “raw” for lack of a better word, like its various drivers aren’t completely in sync. This is pretty normal for a hybrid IEM; driver types are being mixed-and-matched, so you'll inevitably have small differences in transient attack and decay. I don't think most people will notice this without some critical listening, but it's only fair to put it out there.
All told? The Variations is a pretty sweet IEM. Something Moondrop has always been very good about is not just being consistent, but also improving upon their existing designs. I think that the Variations is a great example within the context of the B2 Dusk. That said, if you already own the Dusk and are looking for an upgrade, then I don’t think this is the right path. The slight upgrade in bass texture and treble extension is not worth the extra $200. But say you don’t own one, or are just looking for a very solid, $500 tribrid IEM? Then you'd be hard-pressed to go wrong with the Variations.
- Aimer - Hakuchuumu
- David Nail - Let It Rain
- Everglow - DUN DUN
- Girls’ Generation - Galaxy Supernova
- Illenium - Broken Ones
- Joe Nichols - Sunny and 75
- Keith Urban - Defying Gravity (2009)
- Keiichi Okabe - Weight of the World (NieR:Automata Original Soundtrack)
- Sabai - Million Days
- Sawano Hiroyuki - Best of Vocal Works Remastered (2020)
- Taeyeon - My Voice (2017)
- Tiffany - I Just Wanna Dance
Buy the Moondrop Variations for the best available price.
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