XTZ doesn’t have the same illustrious past of some other audio companies but in the time it has been around, the Swedish based company has established a reputation for ignoring convention in the pursuit of high performance. Their range of speakers includes designs with ribbon tweeters and ceramic drivers at price points where such things are almost unheard of. As well as speakers, they have also produced a range of electronics and sophisticated room correction tools.
These last two product categories are important in the context of their latest product offering. Earphones and headphones continued to constitute pretty much the only area of ‘good’ news in sales terms that the industry has seen in recent years and XTZ has entered the market to join the party. The Earphone 12 is like many other XTZ products- entirely conventional in enough ways to be recognisable but different to almost anything else on the market in some critical areas. The expertise in room correction has been applied directly to the business of sounding good inside your head. When you buy a pair of Earphone 12’s, you can also download an ap for you iDevice that directly applies DSP correction to them. Can XTZ use this technology to cause a bit of an upset?
The Earphone 12 is an in ear monitor type design. At £70 it sits at an interesting price point where designs with balanced armatures start to become available but where designs that make use of more conventional dynamic drivers are also routinely on sale. There are pros and cons to both approaches which mainly come down to armatures being superior to dynamic drivers in terms of their treble performance and dynamic drivers offering superior low end performance. The XTZ is a dynamic driver design which is an interesting decision in light of XTZ’s use of more exotic drivers in their box loudspeakers but getting the best out of armatures is not easy and this does represent a more sensible choice in some respects.
The drivers themselves are an 8.6mm design made from the “PET” plastic that crops up in other XTZ designs and backed up by a neodymium magnet assembly. This is a fairly hefty driver for an earphone and should ensure that the Earphone 12 doesn’t lack for bass weight with XTZ claiming a response down to 18Hz. The driver itself is placed relatively close to the protective grill assembly- more of which later.
This is all relatively ordinary but the Earphone 12 takes a bit of a trip into the unknown at this point. The XTZ comes with a free ap available from the Apple ap store. This uses correction developed from Dirac Research who have been developing EQ solutions for a number of luxury brands including Bentley and BMW. Measurements have been taken at ear point and the ap then applies direct processing in the digital domain to replicate this in the real world. Select the ap and the various options for correction are made available on a single home screen and your iTunes library is made available to listen to.
So far so good but the catch is that on an iDevice, the iPod section is just one of a number of other applications that you could potentially want to use Earphones on- on my phone there are thirteen other applications that are at least partially dependent on the earphones. I am sure that XTZ probably have had their hands tied somewhat and almost certainly aren’t allowed to have the DSP ap run as a background EQ for everything on the iDevice (although there are programs in the ap store that claim to do just this). As it stands, the premise of the Earphone 12 is an exceptionally clever piece of kit- right up until the point where you step outside the design envelope.
The rest of the design is impressively clever however and shows the trademark XTZ attention to detail. The housings of the Earphone 12 are relatively large and include a full 90 degree moulding rather than the more commonplace cylindrical housing that most of the competition use. The housings themselves are made of plastic that has been finished in chrome. The result is visually impressive without being overly ‘blingy.’ The only element of the design that is confusing is that although the Earphone 12 will really only work at its best with an iDevice, there is no cord remote or mic for greater control.
There are some clever touches though. The cord is a flat ribbon type affair that has a reduced ability to torque and twist into a knot. This is further aided by (as far as I know) a unique feature of the XTZ is that the rear of the housings are magnetised. Place them anywhere near one another and they will snap together further reducing the ability of the cord to tangle. This is an extremely simple but exceptionally effective method of simplifying the storage of the XTZ’s and one that other companies might want to look at.
I am less convinced by the changeable rubber fittings though. XTZ supplies three different sized fittings but all of them have one feature in common. To match the elegant line of the housings they are straight sided and the result is very handsome. It is not however truly comfortable. I could not get a very snug fit with any of the three sizes supplied and eventually I gave up and substituted a pair of more conventional domes from another source. This reduced the amount of noise leakage and vastly increased the comfort levels. Obviously you can buy aftermarket domes but this isn’t really an ideal situation because doing so reduces the distance between the driver grill and the eardrum and as mentioned previously, the driver is very close to the grill.
Overall this is a clever piece of design though. This is a well built and well thought out pair of earphones. There are some useful supplied extras and it is clear from the moment you unpack them, that XTZ has put a great deal of thought into the Earphone 12 and the design has much to offer.
The physical units were supplied some time before the ap went live on the ap store. This meant that I used the Earphone 12 as a ‘normal’ earphone for some considerable time before switching them over to DSP control. I used my iPhone 4, iPad 3 and Lenovo ThinkPad as sources and tried a variety of material across iTunes, Spotify, iPlayer and YouTube as well as lossless audio from Songbird and connecting them directly to a Naim SuperNait amplifier.
The period where I was in possession of the Earphone 12 but the ap had yet to be released was spent using them in an entirely conventional manner. The overall impression was fairly positive. Once I had made the substitution to a curved dome, I was able to get a good fit and this combined with the relatively light weight of the housings means that wearing the Earphone 12 for long periods isn’t a problem. Literally the only gripe I could level at them is the ‘Y’ shaped section of the cord is rather short so has a habit of brushing against the side of your face.
Running without the Dirac DSP, the Earphone 12 should be seen as a well implemented dynamic driver earphone. The bass response is strong, detailed and impressively controlled. The decision to use a relatively large driver has resulted in a pair of earphones that can present a realistic portrayal of bass in its many forms. As well as the thud of a kick drum, the swell of the string section of an orchestra or a bass guitar is equally well captured. Much as I generally prefer armature designs, there are some clear advantages to using a dynamic driver in some cases.
In the upper registers though, the balance is redressed slightly. The XTZ is comparatively well sorted but there are still limitations compared to a well sorted armature design. There is a sense that the top end is slightly rolled off and there is a fairly pronounced mid band hump that makes certain pieces of music sound slightly congested. The result is still perfectly listenable but spending an extra £20 on a pair of Shure SE215’s would result in a more balanced performance. The Earphone 12 is competitive for the price but other designs do have some performance advantages.
The sensitivity is impressive however. The XTZ doesn’t need a huge amount of power to go impressively loud and there is practically no sense of hardening or distortion even under considerable provocation. As I mentioned earlier, the supplied fittings leak a fairly large amount of sound but this dropped off considerably once I changed the buds over.
The DSP ap is free and found- logically enough- under ‘XTZ.’ Once installed, it serves two purposes. The first is an interface for the Dirac DSP control. This is not user customisable and is effectively an on/off setting. There is additionally a ‘Boost 1’ function that acts as a sort of EQ boost. The second is the access point to your music as found in the ‘Music’ category of your iDevice. You can search for music by artist, album, songs and playlists. Access is quick, seamless and almost exactly the same as the standard ap.
Switching on the DSP for the first time is surprising for two reasons. The first is that the changes the DIRAC processing actually implements is not that pronounced. The second is that despite this, they are unquestionably effective. I had been listening to John Powell’s fantastic score for The Bourne Identity before installing the software and the midrange hump had been pronounced and very noticeable. Engage the DSP control and the effect is unambiguous. The hump is immediately reduced and the result is cleaner, faster and easier to listen to.
A longer listening session reveals that the DSP software is a very fine example of the genre. It is entirely unobtrusive but unquestionably effective. The positive aspects of the XTZ are still entirely present and correct. The bass remains tight, deep and entertaining but it is now paired with a midrange and treble that is much more competitive with armature designs. Across a wide variety of music, the XTZ simply sounds cohesive and together and with anything that makes use of that excellent bass response, it really is a lot of fun to listen to.
You can have too much of a good thing though. The ‘Boost’ function is impressively subtle for something called ‘Boost’ but can still sound somewhat boisterous when activated and for most listening I simply engaged the DSP and left the boost switched off. It is a nice enough option to have but it might have been more effective still to have a few DSP settings for a bit of fine tuning.
A bigger problem than the lack of DSP options is the lack of DSP full stop when you stop listening to music stored via iTunes. The moment you switch over to Spotify or iPlayer radio, the Earphone 12 loses that fantastic signal processing and takes it right back to the start. I don’t have any data for the breakdown of listening that people carry out with an iPhone or iPad and can only speak for myself but the ratio of hours spend listening to Spotify compared to the iPhone ap is getting on for ten to one. For me at least, I would be buying a pair of earphones that only performed at their best for about 10% of the time.
- Excellent performance with DSP engaged
- Clever and well thought out design
- Good build
- Application of DSP is limited
- Supplied earbuds aren't very comfortable
- No iPhone mic or control
XTZ Earphone 12 Review
The Earphone 12 is a classic XTZ product in that it is a very well thought out solution to the challenges of designing cost effective earphones. The clever details like the magnetised backs and ribbon cord are little things that make a big difference to the user experience day to day. More importantly, the DSP software works brilliantly. With it engaged, the Earphone 12 is one of the very best dynamic driver earphones that I have had the privilege to use.
The problem is that the Earphone 12 only reaches these performance heights under certain circumstances. Firstly, you may well need to find yourself a replacement pair of earbuds for them to be truly comfortable. Next, you to be an Apple customer to have the DSP software function. Finally, you need to listen to music as stored on your ‘iPod’ ap to use the DSP software. Without this, you really won’t be getting anywhere near what the Earphone 12 can do. If you fulfil these criteria, it is an unconditional bargain. If you don’t, this is a great technical exercise that is hopefully going to have a wider influence on the earphone market.
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