Phiaton Single Balanced Armature Earphones

After spending the better part of a decade listening to headphones and earphones from every part of the performance spectrum, I’ve gotten pretty good at telling the zeroes from the heroes.

I normally separate all new headphones I receive into three piles after a couple of listens: those I want to evaluate fully; those I probably won’t pick up again; and those which have potential, but don’t strike me as “best in class” candidates. I use this last set for A:B comparisons where relevant, as well as other “backup” IEM duties, and can easily put hundreds of hours on them.

The Phiaton MS100BA is one such earphone, which I’ve been using on an off for the better part of two years. I always thought it was rather decent and recommended it occasionally for those seeking a reasonably-priced IEM with balanced sound, but recently have found myself regarding it more and more as one of the best “bang per buck” sets in my collection.

There are a few reasons for this. First, as often happens with consumer electronics, the selling price of the MS100BA has dropped since these earphones were launched, settling at around $50 in US online retail. Second, I’ve built up an extensive library of A:B comparisons between the MS100BA and other IEMs. In almost all of these the Phiaton came in as the less expensive (and less acclaimed) underdog, and still managed to impress me in one way or another.

Last but not least, the headphone market as a whole has experienced a shift favorable to the MS100BA. Although the total number of brands and their offerings continues to increase year after year, one of the recent trends has seen reasonably-priced balanced armature (BA) earphones going out of favor, with manufacturers opting for lower-cost dynamic drivers. This has cut down on competition for the MS100BA, increasing its value in the context of the market at large and making it one of the best low/mid-tier earphones money can buy.

Design
I’ve always thought Phiaton’s designs to be handsome in an understated way, and while the MS100BA is a bit flashier than some of its predecessors, it retains a familiar aesthetic appeal. The “turbine” visual theme of some of the company’s past IEMs is gone, replaced with more conventional machined aluminum housings—a change for the better, in my opinion. The gunmetal-colored shells are finely textured, a nice detail that makes the MS100BA a bit more pleasant to the touch.

Additional attention to detail also shows in the cable, which has a texture similar to the housings and boasts an oval cross-section meant to reduce tangling, acting as a sort of hybrid between a conventional (round) and a flat cable. It works, keeping the cable straighter than expected, though microphonics (the noise transmitted to the earpieces when the cable is jostled) are higher than average. Wearing the cable up and over the ear solves that problem.

Phiaton_MS100BA_Photo_Tips

The MS100BA is not heavy on additional features—there’s an inline mic with a single-button remote for basic operations with both Apple and Android devices (those that still have a headphone jack, at least), a soft pouch, and four pairs of silicone eartips. Noise isolation is average, while comfort is good thanks to the light weight and slim profile of the earphones.

There are tons of in-ear earphones on the market, and it’s become difficult for any particular design to stand out. Dozens of sets can match the MS100BA in comfort and noise isolation, offer the same accessories, and maybe can even outlast it in daily use. What they don’t offer is the sound of Phiaton’s balanced armature driver.

Sound
Phiaton, while not a name familiar to all, is far from a newcomer in the world of high-end headphones. Part of Seoul-based Cresyn Corporation, Phiaton has been in the headphone business for about a decade. One of the company’s first launches back in 2008 was a high-end balanced armature in-ear monitor, the PS200, which was based on the now-legendary Knowles TWFK driver. The MS100BA, however, is claimed to use an all-new balanced armature driver designed and built in-house by Cresyn.

The tiny size and high precision movement of BA drivers makes them more difficult to manufacture compared to the more common moving coil (dynamic) drivers found in most headphones and earphones. The world’s two best-known manufacturers of BA drivers—Knowles and Sonion—produce the vast majority of BA drivers used in universal and custom-fit in-ear monitors. There are exceptions, such as Sony’s use of in-house BA drivers for their hybrid earphones, but they are few and far between. This makes Phiaton’s in-house design of the driver in the MS100BA all the more impressive.

The MS100BA leverages the capabilities of an armature-type driver with a clear sound and good overall balance. By and large, budget earphones tend to overemphasize bass and treble for what is sometimes referred to as a “v-shaped” sound profile, which is also akin to a “Rock” or “Loudness” EQ setting. This can make the sound lively and exciting while also masking potential quality deficiencies in the midrange, where the human ear happens to be very sensitive.

The Phiaton MS100BA does the opposite, with strong, prominent mids, tight bass, and moderate treble quantity. For instance the 1MORE Triple-Driver In-Ears, which have made quite a splash on the consumer side of the headphone market recently, sound much more “v-shaped” when pitted against the MS100BA, with mids that are significantly more recessed, poorer clarity, and a warmer, bassier tone that makes the Phiaton unit seem quite neutral in contrast.

The more balanced sound is not as universally appealing to the general consumer, but the MS100BA compromises a bit by trading off a little quality for more mid-bass quantity when compared to more traditional audiophile single BA sets—Etymotics, for example.

The MS100BA is also not as bright as many inexpensive BA-based earphones can be—there’s plenty of presence in the upper midrange and treble, but generally the Phiaton stops short of harshness. Compared to higher-end sets it lacks some refinement but is reasonably (and for the price, amazingly) close. Throughout my extensive A:B comparisons, I never once felt that the MS100BA was left completely in the dust. For example the Klipsch X12, which is also a single balanced armature design, benefits from deeper bass, thicker/warmer mids, and smoother/more refined treble, but on the whole fails to justify a cost 6-7 times higher than that of the Phiaton.

Compared to the Audio-Technica IM02, a high value-for-money dual-BA musicians’ monitor (that usually runs at least $150), the MS100BA is still surprisingly capable. It lags behind in clarity, with the mids appearing more muffled, and soundstaging, where the IM02 boasts better layering and superior depth. The Phiaton gets ahead a bit in bass impact, however, and has slightly crisper and more well-defined treble, which tends to be a little soft with the Audio-Technica model.

I also dug out a classic ~$100 single BA from the “golden days” of single-BA monitors, the MEElectronics A161P. Here too, the MS100BA is able to smooth out some of the analytical edge of the previous-gen BA earphone while keeping up (or nearly keeping up) in all the important ways. It’s smoother, warmer in tone, and has a fuller, more fleshed-out low end. It’s less fatiguing and arguably more natural. The A161P’s bass is more linear, its sub-bass is more well-defined, and it has a clearer, crisper presentation buts its treble is less natural, its mids lack some of the warmth of the MS100BA, and the overall sound is thinner.

The HiFiMan RE-400, my long-term sub-$100 recommendation for balanced/mid-focused sound, performs about on-par with the Phiaton. The HiFiMan is a little more mid-centric, a little clearer in the midrange, and has smoother treble that is more refined, but also makes the overall sound a bit dull. The MS100BA has slightly more impactful bass with less obvious sub-bass roll-off compared to the RE-400, as well as crisper treble and slightly more convincing soundstaging. Overall, these two are close enough in sound quality that it’s hard to put one over the other purely in sound, but the RE-400 also doesn’t have a great track record for durability and can’t touch some of the low prices I’ve seen for the Phiaton earphones.

What Phiaton created with the MS100BA is a well-tuned BA monitor that’s both likable and easy to live with, seemingly tuned to produce decent mid-bass from a single BA while also maintaining good clarity. It’s not even very sensitive, unlike the A161P, IM02, and many other BA earphones past and present, and won’t hiss terribly if it ends up being used with a computer or other poorly-optimized source.

Phiaton_MS100BA_Photo_Last

Wrap-up
The audiophile world is prone to “flavors of the month”, with the newest releases nearly always lauded as great strides forward—so much so that it can be difficult to keep up. As a result, some manufacturers adopt short product cycles, special editions, and other ways of showing continuous improvement.

However, the ability to make products with staying power should be appreciated just as much, if not more. One of my favorite headphones, the Sennheiser HD600, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and still sounding fantastic. Meanwhile, many of my all-time favorite IEMs have been discontinued, sometimes with no replacement and sometimes with inferior follow-ups.

As a reviewer I, for lack of a better word, slept on the Phiaton MS100BA for the better part of two years. Maybe that points to a flaw in my methodology, or maybe just the opposite—in the current market, the MS100BA represents one of the best values available, but I don’t believe that was the case two years ago. Regardless, I sure do hope Phiaton sees fit to keep it around for at least a few more.

COMPANY INFO
Phiaton Corporation
18662 MacArthur Blvd, STE 405
Irvine, California 92612
info@phiaton.com

COMMENTS
wiinippongamer's picture

Come on guy. Also, how sensitive are they to insertion depth, as in, how much does the sound change with different insertion depths?

GREQ's picture
wiinippongamer's picture

That 6khz peak, not good. Only advantage these would have over a similarly priced dynamic driver IEM is the isolation.

wiinippongamer's picture

Also high distortion

Jim Tavegia's picture

I have loved these for over 2 years for all of $99 from a Stereophile comment a while back.

GREQ's picture

There are other IEMs like the Sennheiser Momentum with a similar peak, which has no obvious detrimental affect to the overall tonality.

This level of distortion is also probably nothing to worry about when the square-waves are looking pretty decent.

You can't tell how it's going to sound just from measurements.

berita poltik's picture

i have this one
and still use it.
love it

Berita Politik | Berita Terkini | Berita Unik

Impulse's picture

Might pick it up as an upgrade to my beater pair (Xiaomi Pistons 2/3), should be a bit more balanced...

wiinippongamer's picture

The pistons should sound better than these when EQ'd though

BigDave72's picture

I have all 3 pistons (I think there is three...) and they do not sound as good. Thanks Tyll, just recently got these and really appreciating them. Easily run from my Letv x600 phone as well as my ibasso dx50. Neutralish sound, with some smoothness. Would not call this a bassy iem but the bass is nice. Cheers!

yeahthatguy's picture

I actually bought these based solely on this review. $39.99 from Amazon.
I mostly bought them for an upcoming trip I'll be taking and I wanted an inexpensive set, that is still musically satisfying, to take along so I wouldn't have to drag a full size set with me.
I must say that when I first put them in my ears I was a bit disappointed. They were a bit too aggressive in the upper mids for me. But I gave them a chance and now that they have broken in for a few days they have loosened up(or I have loosened up...lol)I must say that I'm very pleased with them.
They sound good on my cell phone playing mp3s and they actually sound excellent on my budget desktop setup playing flacs(Audioquest Dragonfly Black, Little Dot 1+ rolled with vintage Western Electric tubes).

Of course there are things to gripe about but for $39.99 these are an amazing value and good way to get a sonically satisfying set to take along when you don't want to lug your good full size cans along.
Thanks for the recommendation!

samsun's picture

I have enjoyed reading many of the articles and posts contained on the website, keep up the good work and hope to read some more interesting content in the future.
3ds emulator.

gibtg's picture

Juding from the measurements I assume these use the same or a very similar driver to the "Legend" by House of Marley. Street price on these is a bit lower than the Marleys though!

lafaard's picture

How does this compare to the $40 Marshall Mode?

That earbud got almost no attention at $100, but now it's $40 and it looks like it might be discontinued soon. I love my Marshalls so much. They have a warm & smooth sound without any treble spikes. They also have an awesome fit, with a nice mic & clip solution and the wire feels nice and springy. They might not be the most detailed earbuds for the price, but they do so many things well that I couldn't care less.

gemmoglock's picture

It will be nice if you could do a comparison with the Brainwavz B100 single BA or the Marshall Mode DD. Thanks for the review!

X