Srajan Ebaen
Financial interests: click here
Sources: Astell& Kern AK100 modified by Red Wine Audio, Apple 160GB iPod, iPad, Questyle QP1R, Soundaware Esther Pro, Samsung Galaxy, HP laptop
Headphones: Campfire Audio Lyra & Jupiter
Review component retail: $2'000

Carpe iem. Properly spelled in its long form, it's carpe diem quam minimum credula postero. That Latin aphorism advises us to seize the day and put little trust in tomorrow. Had its author lived in the 21st century, he might have spelled it like I did to mean, seize your inner-ear monitors and lock out the world. Yeah, a bit clumsy of an intro but it's gotten us to HifiMan's new flagship IEM in its gold-plated brass body powered by a nanofied dynamic driver.

Founder Fang Bian with his PH.D in chemistry and thesis in nano materials obviously won't violate company IP by disclosing what exact nano he coats their 9.2mm driver with or in what pattern. He simply feeds our imagination with the below six shapes and adds that, like 3D printing one layer at a time, they use multi patterns in successive coatings to significantly change the membrane's structural behaviour, hence sound. A full-range driver membrane moves >20'000 times/sec. plus undergoes bigger bass excursions to be exposed to deformational stresses. HifiMan's nano coating claims to combat those forces in an unusually effective way. Zu do something similar to their large 10.3" widebanders.

The RE2000 is far from HifiMan's first venture into the IEM segment. As this family tree shows, they've been at it for already a decade. But the RE2000 is first for featuring a non-captive thus removable wire harness. At its flagship positioning, ambitious users love to roll cables. In fact, they often won't consider acquisition if this option is absent. That's not unlike hi-end hifi and active speakers. Purist punters reject active boxes because they force upon them whatever amplification the manufacturers built in. Surely they (the punters) could and would do better. Right. The RE2000 too cover your righteousness so you will make 'em your choice. Capiche?

Actually, my contact at the factory inquired especially whether I planned on using any other cables. I most certainly did not. Quelle horreur. At $2'000, I expected not only a top-notch stock wire. I expected one that'd be an intrinsic part of the final product's voicing. With its silver-coated mono-crystal copper conductors sourced from one of the very few remaining mills which cast such wire, there'd be no holy roller second-guessing from me.

As an in-ear monitor, mobile ambitions are obviously paramount for the RE2000. Hence the responsive 103dB sensitivity spec. It'll go plenty loud even off a smartphone. Impedance is a friendly 60Ω, claimed response 5Hz-20kHz, weight 31.8g (13.8 for the monitors, 23 for the cable). As to what kind of rubbery tips, brushes and carrying pouch come with, I'd have to wait for actual delivery.

Those with runaway fears—that HifiMan's pricing keeps escalating—would, in the later part of 2017, see affordable HifiMan Bluetooth headphones, even miniature loudspeakers. The first part of 2017 was squarely dedicated to rolling out the $50'000 Shangri-La electrostatic flagship with 4 x 300B amplifier; the $6'000 Susvara planarmagnetic flagship with stealth-magnet array; and today's $2'000 RE2000 flagship IEM. With that, flagship harbour should be closed for the season.

The arms race. The trend for exotic IEMs has been multiple balanced armature drivers with up to 4-way crossovers; perhaps to distinguish them from the sameness of a single dynamic driver (what would be a basic two-way monitor in hifi where 'more serious' equates to 3-way and 4-way boxes). Or like the digital arms race with ever higher sample rates, state-of-the-art IEMs have played the numbers games with rising complexity. But not everywhere. Campfire Audio for example have ambitious in-ears with dynamic Beryllium or non-crystalline diamond drivers.

In a video interview with InnerFidelity's Tyll Hertsens at the 2017 Las Vegas CES, Fang explained the RE2000's sticker with "they sound very good". Hence they're positioned on performance and what it competes against. The same holds true for the Susvara and Shangri-La. Fang told me that his domestic market—which accounts for 40% of their global sales!—rates the Shangri-La superior to Sennheiser's ultra exclusive Orpheus 2. Hence his electrostat with valve amp is priced the same. HifiMan's success, of a mainland Chinese company selling in China, flies in the face of conventional wisdom where no prophet is worth a dime in his home country. Fang's secret might be precisely how he has positioned his brand's top models. For the RE2000, it doesn't mean a high driver count of six balanced armatures with four-way filters per channel. For the RE2000, it means a filterless exotic single driver not of Beryllium or diamond but with complex multi-layer patterns of nano coatings that are unobtainium elsewhere. For the enclosure, it means sonically advantageous brass. For cosmetics, it doesn't mean wood appliqué or carbon fibre but pure 24k gold. For removable cabling, it means a very strong 2-pole connector and costly mono-crystal conductors.

Without apologies, the RE2000 asks to be judged not on where it's from—no cheap PRC import here—but on how it sounds. Period. Which moves us right back at the very front door of audiophilia's church; with a difference. Legacy audiophiles cared little for appearance. Only the sound mattered. The RE2000 pays homage also to the jewelry aspect of mobile listening. Here smartphones come encrusted in precious stones and in-ear monitors are fashion statements which telegraph their wearer's taste, sophistication, income and social standing. Worn in the mall, the RE2000 hopes for reactions like "whoa, what are those?"