Different passions for different folks
Don’t bother reading this review if you’re not absolutely passionate about audio, because you’ll never understand how we can heap so much praise on a set of headphones that cost $1,100. Actually, headphones isn’t accurate; the JH|13 Pros are custom-manufactured in-ear monitors. And they’re better than great sex. Well, almost.
The $1,100 price tag isn’t entirely accurate, either. Since each pair is not only made to order, but to fit your ears and no one else’s, you’ll need to pay an audiologist to create custom molds of your ear canals; this will drain an additional $50 to $150 from your wallet. And you might find the fitting experience uncomfortable or even downright painful. Trust us, it’s all worth it.
Jerry Harvey—the JH in JH Audio—got his start as the tour engineer for Van Halen, and that’s where he came up with the idea of headphones that fit inside your ear versus on the sides of your head, blocking ambient noise so that all you hear is what’s coming through the cables. Harvey went on to co-found Ultimate Ears, which Logitech acquired some time after he left.
To be honest, we were skeptical of Harvey’s claims when he came by the office to demo the JH|13 Pros. “Each monitor has two low-frequency drivers, two mid-ranges, and two high-frequency drivers,” he said. “There’s a three-way crossover and twin bores,” he explained as he showed us his demo unit, fabricated in clear plastic so we could see the components nestled inside. “Right,” we thought to ourselves, “but the diaphragms are only so big and can move only so much air whether there are six drivers or just one.” Then Harvey fitted expanding foam tips on the demo unit and squeezed them into our ears. The demo unit delivered a surprisingly good seal, and our skepticism began to diminish after we listened to a couple of tracks. The bass response was remarkable. “Ready for a custom pair?” Harvey asked. “Oh yeah,” we said. “Sign us up.”
Lisa Tannenbaum, an audiologist from Musician’s Hearing Services in San Francisco, paid us a visit a week later to create our molds. She shoved a putty-like silicone impression material (vinyl polysiloxane, to be specific) deep into each ear canal, just shy of our ear drums—a surprisingly uncomfortable experience, but maybe we’re just wimps. She pulled out the finished impressions about 10 minutes later and shiped them to JH Audio.
You can choose the color of your monitors from a wide and wild palette; we chose transparent so we could photograph the drivers inside. Our custom-fit monitors arrived a few weeks later in a personalized, water-tight Otter Box case. We slipped them into our ears and the background noise of the office disappeared instantly.
Our JH|13 Pros came with an 18-inch braided cable, which is suitable for listening to a digital media player, but you can specify a 48- or even 64-inch cable when you place your order. And since the cables plug into sockets in the shells, you can order cables of different lengths (or replacements, in the event of a mishap). Purchased separately, the 18-inch cable costs $28, the 48-inch cable goes for $32, and the 64-inch cable runs $34.
We’ve been spending a lot of time listening to tracks encoded in 24-bit, 48kHz FLAC that we’ve purchased from Bowers & Wilkins’ Society of Sound subscription music service, so we couldn’t wait to pump some of that through the JH|13 Pros. “Gainako,” a track from the Justin Adams, Juldeh Camara collaboration The Afrobilly Sessions was first up. Adams opens this song opens with a brief acoustic guitar flourish and quickly transitions into a laid-back groove driven by Camara’s lilting vocals and virtuoso performance on the ritti, an African single-string fiddle. The JH|13 Pros delivered superb definition throughout—and when the song was over, we couldn’t wait to listen to it again.
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the JH13 Pros’ low-frequency prowess, but they can handle the highs with equal aplomb. We discovered that by listening to yet another track encoded in 24-bit/48kHz FLAC, “Checkpoint Charlie,” from Syriana’s Ten Days In Bilad Al Sham. Syriana is a trio consisting of qanum master Abdullah Chhadeh (the qanum is an Arabic dulcimer), Irish double-bassist Bernard O’Neill, and Greek-English guitarist Nick Page.
Listening to headphones for extended periods can lead to ear fatigue, causing you to increasingly turn up the volume as you chase the same perception you had when you first started listening. This was never a problem with the JH|13 Pros, even after a solid day of listening with just a break for lunch; our ears always felt fresh and the monitors themselves consistently felt comfortable in our ears.
Car buffs will drop $2,000 for new wheels for their ride without batting an eye. A well-heeled mountain biker wouldn’t give a second thought to dropping $1,800 on a new bike. Avid fly fishers might spoil themselves by spending $1,500 on a high-end rod. Different folks have different passions. They also have different budgets, and the $1,100 price tag puts the JH|13 Pro out of many folks’ reach. But if you have the dough—and music passion or profession—the mind-blowing performance of these custom-made in-ear monitors fully justifies their lofty price tag.