American JH Audio are said to deliver one of the best in-ear monitors to market and for good reason. Owner Jerry Harvey started it all and therefore is rightfully considered the grand daddy of CIEM. The story on how it all began is a case of need being the mother of invention. Harvey was working as Van Halen’s sound engineer. This famous band was established by two brothers, Eddie and Alex. Soon trouble arose. Being exposed to intense on-stage SPL during concerts, Alex was rapidly losing his hearing. Not being able to hear would obviously shortchange his career. What was needed was a terrific earphone with extreme noise isolation. Jerry Harvey tinkered for several months before creating what at the time was a radical solution. He put balanced armature drivers inside an acrylic shell fitted perfectly to Alex Van Halen’s ears. That's how the first 2-way CIEM was born. Back then it outgrew the expectations of both Jerry and Alex. Shortly the entire rock star industry learnt about it and bands like SkidRow and Guns N' Roses waited on getting theirs made. Demand was huge but our inventor all alone at first. Yet the whole situation was most promising and very profitable. The rest is history.

That's exactly how Ultimate Ears started in 1995. At first their subcontractor was Westone. The UE partners didn't yet have the necessary contacts to handle demand without a full-scale operation of their own. The collaboration with Westone got them started. By 2001 Harvey and Westone parted way. Word is that it got messy and had lawyers involved. Then Logitech acquired Ultimate Ears. This launched the current era for Jerry Harvey. JH Audio was the result, a company that is under his exclusive control to do what he does best without corporate oversight. On a side note, not too many audio enthusiasts are aware that Westone manufacture began with healthcare and military products. Universal and personalized earphones came much later. Today Westone—which Ron Morgan founded in 1959 in Colorado—has become nearly synonymous with CIEM. Until 2011 they remained a family-owned business. Then a private equity firm bought them out.

If Jerry Harvey invented the CIEM category, Westone put him on the map. As a result, Ultimate Ears became the best-known maker of CIEM in the world. But not too many years ago, things changed drastically. Today the category has many new competitors and initially very steep prices have reduced significantly. These days nearly every firm has entry-level products and several models above it. CIEM can be bought direct or via resellers in Japan, Taiwan, China, USA and Europe. Today’s list of players exceeds a baker’s dozen. The customer benefits with more choices and lower pricing. As always, the fiercer the competition, the higher press innovation and progress to stay abreast. Yet some things remain unchanged. The crown jewel CIEM remain awfully expensive, more than ever in fact. For instance, Noble Audio’s top Prestige Kaiser 10 gets a whopping $2'899 depending on finish. JH Audio’s Layla flagship wants $2'595.  These are products based on 10 and 12 balanced armature drivers per channel. Wicked! Just so, other makers avoid the escalating how-many-drivers warfare. Some feel that similar results are possible with fewer micro speakers, hence less complex constructions. Multi-driver units need potentially troublesome passive crossovers which create new challenges. Fewer drivers mean fewer issues. In the end, it's the sound which rules, not how many drivers got you there. Germany’s V5 is far simpler than the two American flagships but it remains a costly product – not Layla or Kaiser 10 intense but still €1’399. Add portable sources about to crack the €4’000 glass ceiling and it’s obvious how portable audio is flexing its muscle to become ever more upscale.

Build quality. The VE5 is a 5-driver four-way which breaks down into 1 x highs, 1 x highs and mids, 2 x mids, 1 x lows. The mid-centric focus is apparent. All drivers are managed with a 4-way crossover, sound comes out of two bores but blends into a bigger one before hitting the ear canal. Impedance is 21Ω/1kHz and SPL efficiency is 122dB from a 1mW signal. The product itself is made out of an acrylic shell. Possible variations are very generous. A customer may separately assign shell and face plate colouring. Nearly all possible colours are intensely shaded and may be translucent, semi-translucent or solid. The face plate can be made of many different wood species or carbon-fibre. From there special requests may involve Swarowski jewelry, 3D printing or other complications. For a price, Vision Ears will meet all doable demands. That’s intrinsic to the heavily personalized CIEM business. It applies to earphones what Harley Davidson have always been about with motorcycles..

My pick for the VE5 look was a solid black shell with blond wooden faceplate. Unboxing greeted me with a perfectly scratch-free surface. In the past I often opted for translucent CIEM bodies for the sake of photographing their innards. Having already done eight reviews in that fashion, I eventually grew bored with translucent. For the VE5 I wanted a wooden cover to see how it’d turn out, never mind that this look has become extremely popular of late. Asking for engraving was solely for comparison purposes. Having had the very same artwork embedded in prior CIEM from competitors made it easy to see who retrieved the most detail and lustre.