Review: Scosche IEM856md

If it seems a little weird for Scosche, a company known for car audio accessories, to be getting into the headphone biz — well, tell me then who’s not getting into the headphone biz. The fact that Scosche was one of the first to sell a hybrid IEM at least tells you they’re more serious than the guys who just buy generic dynamic IEMs from some Chinese supplier and slap their logo on them.

The $249 IEM856md comes with six different pairs of silicon tips: single- and double-flange, both in S, M, and L sizes. Chances are you’ll find one you like. It’s available in white or black. The slick, flat cable is as tangle-free as they get. The Apple-compatible inline mic and inline volume/play/pause control are separated for better voice quality. A generic zippered semi-hardshell case is included.

Lauren and I both found the IEM856md comfortable, but neither of us was thrilled with the sound. To me, it seemed intentionally hyped-up, the kind of audio aesthetic that can sound pretty good with hip-hop or heavy rock, but that doesn’t sound natural with much else.

Case in point: When I played “Bastille Day” from Rush’s All the World’s a Stage (which has a dramatically fuller, more kick-ass sound than the band’s better-known Moving Pictures-era stuff), the IEM856md sounded really good. The bottom end was satisfying, Alex Lifeson’s guitar had plenty of life and ambience, and Geddy Lee’s vocals sounded appropriately screechy. But when I played Steely Dan’s “Aja,” Donald Fagen sounded sort of like he was singing through a tin can, and I heard the same effect with the piano.

On much of the music I listened to, the IEM856md had that “someone’s jacking around with an EQ” sound that I’ve heard in some of the rapper-endorsed headphones we’ve tested. I’d get tons of deep bass, not much upper bass, a thin-sounding midrange, a big apparent peak in the low treble, etc. The response was uneven enough that I worried the ear tips weren’t sealing right (I tried both the double- and single-flange size-L tips), but pushing lightly in on the IEM856md’s earpieces didn’t change the tonal balance one bit. Usually I get a much fuller, more bass-heavy sound when I push in on the earpieces.

Lauren complained of a similar experience, saying that ,”If you don’t have the fit absolutely perfect, the bass is gone,” and calling the treble harsh.

I found that the IEM856md sounded better with my iPod touch than it did with my Motorola Droid Pro; with the Droid, which has an output impedance of 75 ohms compared to 1 ohm for the iPod, the IEM856md sounded brighter and got a little harsh.

Measurements

There’s nothing peculiar in the IEM856md’s frequency response. It has the usual broad boost in the bass, with a fairly high-Q (i.e., narrow) peak in the lower treble at 3 kHz and much smaller peaks at 6.2 and 8.3 kHz. This is the kind of response that tends to sound subjectively flat to most listeners. Increasing output impedance to 75 ohms to simulate the effect of using a low-quality source device reduces response in most of the range below 1 kHz by -1 to -2 dB, and boosts response at most frequencies above 1 kHz by +1 to +2 dB.

Measured using the medium double-flange tip, isolation is very good for an IEM, about -21 dB at 1 kHz, dropping below -40 dB at higher frequencies. Distortion at 100 dBA is essentially nonexistent, so these will definitely play loud if that’s what you want.

Impedance is super-low (and almost identical to the Audiofly AF78) running from 4.5 ohms in the bass to 16.5 ohms in the upper treble. Average sensitivity from 300 Hz to 10 kHz with a 1-watt signal at the rated 5 ohms impedance is very high at 110.1 dB; from 300 Hz to 6 kHz, it’s 112.0 dB.

Bottom Line

Like a lot of headphones tuned (apparently) for hip-hop and rock listeners, The IEM856md has an unnatural sound that we enjoyed only sporadically. I’m sure there are some listeners who’ll love it, but in our opinion, it’s not the kind of thing that someone with refined taste in audio is likely to dig.

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