Every year the budget IEM space explodes with new flavors of the month. It’s impossible to keep up with all of them. I won’t even try. So instead, here are my impressions of a few popular budget IEMs that you might be curious about.
Review units from Linsoul and Tin HiFi
Note that this is an impressions article, not a full review. An expanded “first look” rather than an in-depth analysis conducted over multiple days and dozens of listening hours. It will give you a good idea of my initial thoughts on these products but these may be subject to change with further ear time.
Source(s): Apple USB-C dongle
7Hz Salnotes Zero
In the eyes of many, the 7Hz Salnotes Zero is the budget IEM of the year. For just $20, you get one of the best tuned IEMs on the market, developed with guidance from well known community member Crinacle. Though technically speaking, it isn’t a collaboration product like the previous 7Hz Salnotes Dioko x Crinacle.
Frequency response of the 7Hz Salnotes Zero. Measurement taken with an IEC-711 clone microphone. Comparisons can only be made relative to other measurements taken by this specific microphone. A peak at about 8 – 10 kHz is likely an artifact of the measurement rig and may not exist as depicted here. Measurements above 8 kHz are not accurate. If possible, reference multiple measurements.
Seems familiar doesn’t it? A healthy amount of bass that tapers off into the lower mids, a generous helping of upper mids to bring vocal clarity, and a sloped off treble that retains some note definition but otherwise gets out of the way to prevent listening fatigue. Of course, looking at the graph is one thing. How does it sound?
As per usual with Crinacle collabs, the tonality is excellent. There’s a nice layer of coherence that comes with having great tonality and that’s no exception with the 7Hz Salnotes Zero. I’d consider this IEM to be balanced sounding.
For $20, the 7Hz Salnotes Zero is perfectly adequate. With emphasis on the perfectly. It’s hard to think of another product I would spend my first $20 on IEMs for if I’m looking for a balanced all-rounder. It’s like 7Hz looked at the IEM market and said “Let’s get Crinacle to help us make the ultimate inoffensive well-tuned IEM and we’ll price it at rock bottom to conquer market share through sheer price-to-performance”. Well, it worked. It’s nothing new under the sun but it doesn’t have to be.
Bass quality is fine. It thumps reasonably firmly with a decent rumble. I wish there was more treble brilliance. I hear the notes of the treble but there isn’t much life to them, like it’s there just for the sake of completion. The Zero’s greatest strength is its tonal coherence that leads to a commendable level of resolution. But as a whole, there’s something on a technical level that’s missing that I can’t exactly put my finger on. It’s missing an edge. While price doesn’t correlate with audio, I have a hard time seeing the Zero as anything more than $20. As such, perfectly adequate. Listening to the 7Hz Salnotes Zero is like eating plain white bread.
Kiwi Ears Cadenza
If there’s an IEM that might take the throne of best budget IEM of 2022, the Kiwi Ears Cadenza looked like it had the best shot. If you didn’t know, Kiwi Ears is not a new name. A year ago they released the Kiwi Ears Orchestra, a legitimate DUNU SA6 competitor. The creator of Kiwi Ears has had a hand in some of the most highly rated ChiFi IEMs in the market today, though I’m not at liberty to say more than that I think. All that said, the Kiwi Ears Cadenza does cost $35 so it’s already almost double the price of the Zero. Does it do anything better to warrant that 175% price differential?
The answer is yes and no. I found the Cadenza to have better bass and definitely has that “edge” the Zero was lacking. It doesn’t sound like eating plain white bread. But the tuning is a slight step back. It has more bass and less mid treble leading to a thickened sound. That said, a slight step back from the Zero’s tonality is still very good.
If you’re really strapped for cash, then get the Zero since it’s cheaper. Personally, despite a slightly worse tuning I enjoyed listening to the Cadenza more. It has that “edge” that makes it perform more than just its frequency response. It’s not easy to explain as on a technical level, it’s not like the Cadenza is really much better in its soundstage or imaging or resolution. It’s what makes this hobby interesting - even at budget prices there can be a preference for something beyond words.
Tin HiFi C2
Tin HiFi sent me their new C2 and C3 IEMs out of the blue. The Tin HiFi C2 Mech Warrior (yes, that is the name) costs $30 and is surprisingly good. Apparently it uses the MoonDrop Aria’s dynamic driver according to Tin HiFi. Here’s the graph.
The C2 is a bit more V-shaped than the previous IEMs in this article. Specifically, it fills in the 4 - 8 kHz region compared to the Cadenza while maintaining about the same level of bass. Because of this lower treble counterbalance, the C2 ends up sounding leaner and more balanced than the Cadenza which I like. Thus it ends up sounding more like the 7Hz Salnotes Zero, though a little more V-shaped with some treble stridency. Some might find it bright but I think it brings a treble brilliance that the Zero was missing. Interestingly, I don’t find it too sibilant or harsh in the treble despite what the graph might imply.
Here’s the graph comparison between the three. I think I would probably pick the C2 as my favorite but honestly, they’re all good. I’d probably say C2 >= Cadenza > Zero for my tastes. Zero has the best tonality but once again, it really lacks that “edge” to make it enjoyable beyond the audio equivalent of eating plain white bread.
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Tin HiFi C3
Finally, we have the Tin HiFi C3. At $50, it plays more in the $50-100 bracket rather than the $20-50. Here’s its graph.
And here’s a comparison to the Kiwi Ears Cadenza.
As you can see from the graphs, it’s quite similar to the Cadenza. I find it marginally less thick sounding with a bit more note definition. The treble is a little better balanced in its timbre for hats/cymbals and is smoother in its extension. Tin HiFi told me it also uses the same driver as the MoonDrop Aria and C2. Its technical ability is about on par for that. I slightly prefer the C3’s tonal balance to the Cadenza’s.
And there you have it, a small round-up of some budget IEMs. I can recommend all of them so get what’s in your budget. My pick is the C2 for its brighter tonal profile (which works great for my rock-heavy library) and price. While I said that the Cadenza and C2 were more enjoyable than the Zero for me, either way you go I think you’ll be pleased. A larger step up in price is the C3 which is a sidegrade to the Cadena and C2. My philosophy is to try not to scrutinize too hard on what the best choice is and just pick one as long as you think you might enjoy the tuning as I’ve described here (or what the graphs show). Without having all four in front of me to obsessively compare back and forth for the sake of this review, I wouldn’t even think twice about any of them. Spend the time enjoying your music. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to indulge in the final moments of Christmas carols.