Another Panasonic RP-RHE900 Review
Naturally this will almost certainly repeat stuff that’s been mentioned in other reviews (not to mention dfkt‘s excellent and exhaustive review). And, on that note, despite being an audiophile, I’m not techie minded, so there’ll be no mention of ohms, impedence or anything like that. For that sort of stuff, head on over to dfkt‘s review.
And apologies for the lack of photos – I’m, shall we say, between cameras at the moment…
Early initial thoughts on these, with the following caveats:
I haven’t burnt them in properly yet;
I have not tested them on my usual walk to work, which takes in busy main roads and a bustling train station;
I’ve tested them on an iAudio X5 which has all but bricked – audio files keep getting corrupted so they intermittently sound like a skipping CD, and Rockbox will no longer work or install on the player (this is a problem with the player, NOT Rockbox). When I had the X5 Rockboxed, I spent a lot of time fine tuning the audio levels and settings, which ended up being impossible to replicate in the JetEffect software. Basically, my source now sounds very different from what I’ve been used to for the last five or so years. As it stands, I’m not gonna bother setting the X5’s levels to neutral and flat for the test – I never listen to stuff at those levels, so instead I leave the sound setting as they were – custom EQ with everything maxed to 12, maximum bass, maximum 3D surround and zero MP3 enhance. On that basis…
A quick note about me as a listener – I am an awkward customer who does everything wrong with audio. Despite being a medium level audiophile, I acknowledge that. I like EVERYTHING (lows, mids and highs) to be up close and set to max to the point where they’re nearly fighting each other, but at the same time I don’t want them to bleed into a noisy mess – I still like space between the vocals and individual instruments. This is why I’ve always stuck with iRivers and Cowon players, because the iRivers could and the Cowon’s can handle this ridiculous audio situation I set with ease. This is also how I decide if a set of ‘phones is good for me or not – if they can’t handle that, then out the door they go. My previous ‘phones (Sennheiser CX55) seemed to have been built with idiots like me in mind – with flat EQ they sounded hollow and distant, but with everything on max they boomed and crashed spectacularly, whilst maintaining impressive separation and spacing between each level. I would go so far as saying they put you IN the concert hall or studio. Shame about the crappy build quality…
First impressions/what’s in the box –
They look amazing. The zirconia casing, whether you think it’s a gimmick or not, makes them better looking than 90% of other buds on the market. Even some of those ultra high-end custom IEMs look dreadful to me (although, I appreciate, in their case it’s all about sound and fit and nothing else). They feel nice and weighty and seem completely resistant to tangling, thanks to the thicker grade covering on the cables. Many people say that the cord length is a problem but, as a diminutive 5’ 6andabit” and as someone who generally keeps my player in my jacket pocket, this is not a problem for me. Accessories are slim – three soft silicon tips (small, medium and large) and a half decent, if not at all protective, carry pouch. Otherwise, extras are non-existent. The box mine came in had a Real Rip-off Price tag of £199.99. I paid £89.99 (brand new). Not the cheapest they’ve been available for in the last couple of years, but certainly the cheapest currently available in the UK (general prices are in excess of £100 and the official UK Panasonic online shop is currently selling them for over £200!).
Build quality –
Exceptional. I’ve owned and used about twenty different sets of buds over the years, most of them in the mid and upper-mid price range (I have very little experience with buds that continuously retain a cost in excess of £100) and these Pannys are, without a doubt, the most durable feeling ‘phones I’ve ever used. Not that I particularly want to put any possible bulletproof capabilities to the test, but one imagines that these can easily brush off accidental tugs from a player’s headphone jack, drops to the floor, or careless tangles (not that these things tangle easily, mind). Unlike my previous Sennheiser CX55s (which, as with most other Sennheisers, developed the usual loose connection in a relatively short amount of time), the Pannys feel like they will last and last. Obviously the fact that the cable is replaceable is a massive and all too rare bonus at this price level. Whilst I hope that I’ll never have to take advantage of this feature, it’s nevertheless a comfort to have it there. Microphonics are there, but only minimally so, certainly nowhere near as bad as most Sennheisers. The barrel shaped metal Y splitter helps lessen microphonics further and keeps a firm grip on wherever on the cable it’s set.
Using the small size supplied tips (I usually make do with the tips that come with ‘phones) I get a comfortable fit and a nice seal. I went into the kitchen whilst the microwave, washing machine, tumble drier, oven and its extract fan were all on at the same time (we have a 19 month old daughter and sometimes everything with a plug has to be going ten to the dozen all in one go). Although I could hear all this in the background, it was only a vague ambient rumble and wasn’t distracting from the audio. Isolation was better with the medium tips, but they felt uncomfortable and made the audio sound more distant. The large tips would not even stay in (I have small ears, so they never do). In terms of external bleed, considering these are closed, I was surprised by how much sound leaked from them to the outside world whilst in use (thanks to my wife working as assistant), but this doesn’t seem to detract from what comes through the ‘phones themselves.
Test music (ripped from CDs and encoded at Ogg 160kbps – due to the sheer amount of music I have that I listen to, I’m unable to have everything much higher than that, but I find Ogg at 160 is not too dissimilar from the original CD/WAV file, without any of the compression sibilance you get with MP3 at anything less than 224), tactically picked for certain specifics (lots of Genesis here – my favourite band and the music I am most familiar with, from original vinyl, through cassette, original CD release, minidisc and right up to the most recent remasters):
Starless by King Crimson, from Mainz 1974 Official Bootleg – my go-to bass tester. The Fripp-Bruford-Wetton-Cross KC line-up had one of the most aggressive and up-front rhythm sections of any band at the time, and by the time they did this gig in mid-74 the bass and drums had practically become the lead instruments (poor David Cross, on mellotron and violin, could barely be heard in concert after late 1973). This recording, despite being touted as a bootleg released from KC’s own archives, is about as good as ANY live recording gets, let alone one from the mid 70s. Crystal clear, atmospheric, loud, spacial, sounds like it was recorded yesterday on top end state of the art equipment – it’s like the best professional soundboard/stage mic/audience tape matrix you’ve ever heard. This live version of Starless climaxes in a euphoric cacophony rarely matched by any band, with John Wetton and Bill Bruford threatening to break any speakers attached to the source.
The Cinema Show by Genesis, from the live album Seconds Out (first remaster) – arguably one of the greatest live albums of all time in terms of performance and song content (and a marked upward shift in the band’s musicality and technical virtuosity), Seconds Out has nevertheless always suffered from being quite a distant and clinical recording. I picked this remaster over the original CD release thanks to the better mix and separation of instruments, whilst still having some of those distant properties (which were subsequently improved in the recent Genesis box sets, but it still needs to be matrixed with audience or stage mic recordings to add some atmosphere to the whole thing), to see if the Pannys could bring everything to life a bit more without having to increase the volume. The CX55s managed pretty well with this, but still required a bit of volume change to really sweeten everything.
Blood on the Rooftops by Genesis, from Wind & Wuthering (first remaster) – whilst most of this first round of Genesis remasters were pretty good, three albums in particular were barely improved – Trespass, And Then There Were Three and this one. Again, as with Seconds Out, the more recent box set remaster is a huge improvement again, but with this remaster everything just sounds a bit flat and quiet. Blood on the Rooftops starts with a delicate nylon strung acoustic guitar intro, before vocals and 8 string bass come in, and finally sweeping mellotron and drums. Apart from being an amazing song, it builds nicely with each layer being added one at a time, which is a good test for any ‘phones, particularly if it can be made to sound warmer.
Home by the Sea by Genesis, from The Way We Walk Volume 2 – The Longs (original release) – this one was such a good recording and master first time round that they didn’t bother remastering it for the most recent box set. The middle instrumental section, featuring both drummers doing lots of heavy and intricate tom-tom and bass drum work, is the real test here – how well can you pick out Phil Collins’ machine gun drumming as distinct from Chester Thompson’s cannons? Can you hear the point in the song where Tony Banks appears to be generating three different atmospheres on the keyboard at the same time? Can you separate Daryl Stuermer playing that fast repeating bass line, from Mike Rutherford’s monstrous bass pedals?
Dusk by Genesis, from Trespass (first remaster) – although being a massive improvement on the original album, the first remaster of Trespass is still not brilliant, mainly thanks to the limited funds and poor equipment used when it was originally recorded. Even the original master tapes sound rubbish by all accounts and this is the Genesis album that was “recorded on a two track console, in a damp cardboard box, with one mono mic covering the whole band”. Dusk is the most delicate song on the album, with lots of beautiful 12 string, light percussion, soft flute and harmony vocals. On most ‘phones there’s practically no space or separation and everything sounds like it’s on the mids. A simple and delicate song, which is a tricky test.
Burning Rope by Genesis, from And Then There Were Three (first remaster) – whilst not the worst sounding Genesis remaster (see above), ATTWT is by far the worst remaster (of the first batch) overall, in that it actually sounds worse than the original CD release, which is a shame as it’s one of my favourite patchy albums of all time. This release contains everything I loathe in sound – no bass, tinny, flat, cold, distant, quiet. At least the original CD release had a warm feel to it. The big question with any song from this album in a ‘phone test is – can the ‘phones being tested polish a turd?
Cruising for Burgers by Frank Zappa, from Live in New York (first remaster) – from the first expanded double CD release. A pretty good sounding CD considering it came from the relatively early days of CD remastering. As with most albums from the late 80s/early 90s batch of FZ remasters, this is chock full of overdubs, and whether you can pick these out signals a good ‘phone. The reason for choosing this song in particular is that it features all 12 members of the band, often playing AT THE SAME TIME. That’s 12 different instruments, including brass and wind, in a heavily electrified rock song. So can you hear each instrument, or is that a bridge too far?
Solid Air by John Martyn, from Solid Air (second remaster) – purely for the ‘phones’ ability to pick up on the atmospherics of the song, and that loud double bass, often lost behind Martyn’s deep toned slurring delivery.
The Lee Shore by David Crosby, from Four Way Street by Crosby, Stills and Nash – I once heard this (on vinyl) on an acquaintance’s near-£10000 valve system. I’ve heard nothing like it since – the echoes round the Fillmore of Crosby’s voice and guitar, the occasional shuffle and cough from the audience, the underlying (and VERY subtle) microphone buzz. I’ve NEVER heard any of those things in any ‘phones I’ve tried it with. Now, that could be down to the differences between the vinyl and the CD, but I’ll still listen out for it.
Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, from Bitches Brew (second remaster) – this song contains two electric pianos, acoustic and electric bass, two drummers, two percussionists and three wind instruments. It’s a (for then) unique mix of acoustic and electric instruments. This remaster is a fine mix in itself, but good ‘phones can easily pick out the nuances between each set of instrumentation. It’s also a good test of that huge bass.
On Reflection by Gentle Giant, from Live at the BBC 1978 – a standard recording taken from a BBC videotaped broadcast for the Whistle Test, the song moves from delicate madrigal style playing (with violin, cello, vibes and recorder) into a more rocking instrumental second half. It also features complex harmony vocals in different time signatures, so it moves through several styles in the space of just a few minutes. Good test for speed response.
The W S Walcott Medicine Show by The Band, from Rock of Ages (remaster) – another album and song that features an electrified band with brass in tow. This (expanded) remaster is a million times better than the original CD release, but it still sounds like it’s been recorded from a distance. The best ‘phones I’ve used have brought everything up close and made it more prominent, highlighting the brass instrumental break towards the end of the song.
Time by Pink Floyd, from Dark Side of the Moon (first remaster) – good ‘phones replicate the original vinyl version’s quadraphonic soundstage to a degree, the best ‘phones I’ve used have sent the clocks and alarms in the opening to the song flying gloriously around my head.
Hope She’ll Be Happier by Bill Withers, from Live at Carnegie Hall (remaster) – this song features what has to be Withers’ all-time greatest vocal performance, but the real test here is the awesome sonics to be found in Carnegie Hall. Assuming the recording is good enough to begin with, decent ‘phones should pick up the atmosphere and space within the hall, with well mic’d vocals having lots of pleasing subtle reverb.
When the Levee Breaks by Led Zepp, from IV (first remaster, AKA the “fake” remaster) – simple test, this one – can you make out John Bonham’s squeaky bass drum pedal? Easy with even poor ‘phones on the most recent (proper) remaster and the original CD release, but with this first “remaster”, all they did was match all the levels to neutral and increase the master volume slightly, leading to a bit of an audio mess where everything bleeds into everything else.
Join the Band by Little Feat, from Waiting for Columbus (second remaster) – it starts with Lowell George in his dressing room saying “roll the tape, roll the tape”. It then follows the Feat as they make their way to the stage and start singing this traditional song. Building harmony vocals, and increasing noise from the audience as the band gets closer to the stage, the song moves from almost complete silence to white noise in less than two minutes. How well can the quiet subtleties and screaming be handled?
Selections from a Bo Diddley best of compilation – recorded in numerous studios, with numerous equipment, this album contains songs which covers forty-odd years’ worth of studio and instrument technology, ranging from shitty single-booth and reel-to-reel stuff, up to digital multitrack. A good comparison of recording quality through the ages.
Okay, sound –
Immediate impressions – hmmmm. All sounds a bit……flat and empty. Hell, quiet even. My opening gambit of King Crimson’s Starless sounds like I’ve changed the EQ to neutral and turned the bass enhancer off. Bill Bruford’s drums are still clipped, but his bass drum (normally sounding like a low-register explosion) and John Wetton’s bass come across as a bit wimpy. Let’s try Genesis and Cinema Show. Nice fluid delicate sound with the gentle opening – one six string electric, one twelve string electric and one twelve string acoustic, all playing together, and Phil Collins’ soft mid 70s voice. Really good separation and you can actually hear Collins’ saliva at some points. Never heard that before. Moving into the instrumental second half when the band cuts loose, Bill Bruford (again) and Phil Collins both have their drums tuned quite high (being more reminiscent of 50s sounding drums than was typical for the 70s), so they both sound like machine guns firing against each other. But they seem to be lost in the mids. Oh dear, I’ve read about those recessed mids. I didn’t factor in the high tuning that Phil tended to have from the mid 70s on, which would naturally move the drums from the low/low-mid range to mid/upper-mid range. At some points the tom-tom rolls and snare hits I’d become so familiar with in the past are almost completely lost behind the keyboards and electric twelve string. However, Mike Rutherford’s bass pedals are coming through, but not with the rumble they should. It still sounds quite clinical too and I still need to increase the volume for a better soundstage. But it’s early days – let’s roll into Blood on the Rooftops. WOW. During the solo acoustic guitar opening, you can really hear Steve Hackett’s fingers scraping on the (nylon) strings and you can hear the reverb from the wood body of the guitar. And then Mike Rutherford comes in on eight string acoustic bass, which sounds wonderfully boomy without taking away from the upper register acoustics. Phil’s voice sounds a little bit distant – it’s those recessed mids again. Keyboards and drums come in – woah, that bright treble is gonna take some getting used to. I might even have to tone it down a notch or two on the EQ. But it’s not shrill – there’s no sibiliance that I can detect. It’s just much more present than I’ve been used to. Okay, let’s move on to Home by the Sea, specifically the instrumental section (Second Home by the Sea). This thing was savage live. Phil’s using an amazing sounding custom Noble & Cooley drum kit for this tour, which is naturally tuned much lower than his usual Gretsch kits. It’s much closer in sound to Chester Thompson’s enormous Pearl set than before, so the two are almost competing, but Phil’s drums are still machine guns compared to Chester’s cannons. I can individually make out the two when they start playing together, so that’s good. I get to the section where all sonic hell breaks loose – a very fast repeating bass line (which can’t be played with a pick, so it’s a lot softer in the mix) being played by Daryl Stuermer, whilst Mike Rutherford is taking on triple duties with those massive bass pedals and lead and rhythm guitar. Tony Banks has some real high-register stuff going on with that Korg – often lost or muddied with most ‘phones. Thanks to this bright treble, though, it’s there. And then some. But it’s still lacking the fullness of bass my old CX55s kicked out. Dusk now. It sounds new and fresh…ish. Naturally it still sounds like it’s been recorded in a damp cardboard box located a mile away from the mic, but every little nuance is there. Peter Gabriel’s voice, still in its pre molasses-thick stage, has been nicely brought to the front a bit, but the rest is still quite neutrally balanced and distant. But I’ll blame it on the recording in this instance. Burning Rope, now, on their worst sounding album. The fact this thing came out with “remaster” written on it is a joke and is probably flouting some trade description act. Oh dear – it still sounds thin, flat, tinny, quiet and distant. Again, I’m gonna blame the recording. Turns out that, no, you cannot polish a turd.
Okay, that’s enough of Genesis for now, let’s go crazy with Cruising for Burgers. I can pick all the instruments out pretty well, but I don’t think I can hear the overdubs. I know where they come in, but I can’t actually hear them. Everything seems to be in the mids, as well – bass and treble don’t seem to be too separate from everything else. But the Pannys are keeping up with the ferocious speed of the song – there’s no lag anywhere. Interesting. Okay, moving back to quieter things, Solid Air. Okay, there’s that big booming acoustic bass again, but this time Martyn’s voice doesn’t interfere with it. These Pannys are obviously very relaxed and at home with acoustic music. And so it is with The Lee Shore – not quite up to the standards of that pricy valve equipment, but considering we’re dealing with a digital recording and earphones which cost about £9910 less, this sounds incredible. I think I can actually make out that David Crosby is using his Guild acoustic guitar (the familiar slight buzz on the sixth string)! You can hear the echo around the Fillmore. And Crosby’s and Graham Nash’s vocal harmonies are sweet as a nut. These Pannys are definitely go-to acoustic ‘phones. Let’s stick on some middle period Miles Davis and Bitches Brew – one of the first jazz songs where everything including the kitchen sink clatters away and ushers in a new form of music. The opening bassy drone sounds MASSIVE. Bass richness seems to be improving now whilst retaining the pleasing boom, and the treble seems to be easing a touch (although it could just be I’ve quickly got used to the brightness). Moving into the middle section with rolling drums and frantic electric pianos, it’s all meshing nicely. It’s an all encompassing cohesive sound, rather than the usual eye squinting mess that a lot of ‘phones (including my previous CX55s) chuck out.
I’ve only been using them for an hour or so, so the burn-in seems to be happening apace. I wonder if the full-on assault of KC’s Starless and Genesis’ Home by the Sea hurried things along a tad? Must go back to them again in a bit.
Gentle Giant’s On Reflection now – the familiar 70s BBC Whistle Test buzz is quite apparent. With the opening, the high register acoustic instruments sound lush, underpinned by flowing cello. The Pannys have changed a typical flat BBC recording into the concert happening in your ears. Considering the instruments being played in the first half of the song all fall within the treble range, they don’t bleed into each other and there’s still absolutely no sibilance to be heard. The second half instrumental part of the song rocks it up a bit and everything shifts to the mid range, with upper chord bass and highly tuned drums. The mids are definitely getting warmer now and there’s a lot of precision, but they still seem a bit recessed. Onto some good ol’ time rock and roll now with The Band’s W S Walcott Medicine Show, which briefly dips into Dixieland jazz territory with some swingin’ brass. The Pannys do a good job of bringing everything forward without having to increase the volume, and the horns are nicely separated – something not handled particularly well by most earphones. The Floyd’s Time now – man, it’s LOUD. Those alarms sound like they’re inside my brain and the roto-toms are bouncing around like they do on the best vinyl quadraphonic mixes. Nice. It even makes Nick Mason sound like a more-than competent drummer – to paraphrase John Lennon’s Ringo joke, Mason isn’t the best drummer in the world and isn’t even the best drummer in Pink Floyd! (Actually, in Floyd’s case, that’s true cos Dave Gilmour is much better behind the kit than Mason) Dave Gilmour’s wonderful guitar solo flies and the bright treble really gives it some hair-raising properties. Mids are good again – things are definitely gelling more now and the burn-in must be happening as I listen, cos they already sound like a completely different beast than just over an hour ago.
Onto Bill Withers’ powerhouse vocal and one of the most depressing songs ever written. Despite being a brilliant live album, Live at Carnegie Hall unfortunately has string overdubs which sound a bit out of place. Hope She’ll Be Happier should just be Bill on his own on piano and gentle acoustic guitar in the background – it’s all about his vocal, you see. With the strings, some of the impact of the song is taken away. Until now. Through the Pannys, Bill’s vocal is epic. It reverbs around the cavernous Carnegie’s space and you can hear every whimper of emotion from the appreciative audience as he belts out his most sustained vocal note. The strings are, annoyingly, still there, but now they don’t detract from the rest of the performance. I had to listen to this again immediately and felt like I was sat right in front of Bill. And the fabricated strings.
Rocking it back up with When the Levee Breaks. Yes, I can clearly hear Bonzo’s squeaky bass drum pedal. Actually, there’s a LOT of improvement on this song (and, as I then checked, the rest of the album) through the Pannys. Everything is still quite neutral, but there’s a lot more separation and space. I was also concerned that the Pannys’ bright treble would go crazy on this one, what with Robert Plant’s treated vocals and Jimmy Page’s phased guitar, and there might even be some unwelcome sibilance, but thankfully none of that happened – it seems that these ‘phones are immune to sibilance (must get some shitty late 90s manufactured pop to try!) A traditional song now, and one that was often used by Little Feat as their stage approaching procession. Starting off-stage, you can really hear all the ambient noises in the dressing room as the recording starts. A plectrum scraping acoustic guitar strings, footsteps along the corridor, approaching the stage and hearing the crowd go from a slight cheer in the distance to an ever increasing collection of screams, whilst the band take to the stage singing acapella, almost drowned out by the audience. This one minute and fifty second piece of off-the-cuff recording sounds AMAZING through the Pannys. The whole band sing in different ranges and you can hear what every single one of them is doing with their voice. Again, these ‘phones put you in the middle of it all.
After some fiddling, we’re approaching three hours of listening now. I’ve only just realised I’m not suffering from any ear fatigue, either from the tips or the audio – pretty impressive considering my usual day-to-day non-stop listening lasts for less than an hour.
Some Bo Diddley now (naturally pretty much every song has his name in the title and at some point or another makes reference to the fact that he liked the ladies and they, apparently, liked him), and a chance to test the Pannys’ handling of music through the ages. Very well, as it happens – the older recordings still sound old, but there’s a warmth to them that they probably haven’t had (to my ears and previous ‘phones) since the original vinyl releases. Mid period and later recordings fare even better and Bo’s 60s and 70s output sounds fresh – each instrument sounds clear, crisp (but not clinical crisp) and like it’s coming from its own dedicated speaker. Now that’s a new experience for me with IEMs! Further, with these recordings I can now make out that everything is sat where it should be – bass and drums down the bottom, piano and rhythm guitar in the mids, and Bo and his guitar in the uppers. Nice.
I need to let them burn in some more and revisit (and post an update) at a later date, but in the few hours I've used them so far they're growing on me. For treble lovers, there's certainly no better IEM's that I've heard and even bassheads are going to be well served. I'm still not 100% convinced about the mids, but I'm willing to let them burn in some more before I make a final judgement on that, and also before I make a judgement on whether or not they're worth the price tag in an audio sense.
Thanks--so sad that these superb buds have largely gone by the wayside (at least in the U.S.)--but, I guess that's why some people got such a steal of a deal on them! :)
There are a few around here in the UK still, but they are generally leftover stock and cost in excess of £120.
Since my review, though, they are no longer available from the UK Panny online shop, so stocks are definitely dwindling.
I think I was lucky to find an eBay merchant who had one new unopened set lying around, selling for a half decent price.
It'll be interesting comparing these to the sub £30 RHAs when they arrive in the next couple of days...
Like you, I also was fortunate, getting one of the last in the States from retailer J&R Music, at a super, liquidation-like price--indeed, an open-box item (with a fluorescent label on the box so attesting) that never had been taken out of the box. :) A superb IEM and deal.
Indeed. I hope they make a come back. Panasonic should start making them again. Nice write up, too.
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