I’m always surprised at headphone companies’ efforts to make super-stylish in-ear monitors. ’Cause who’s gonna stare into some stranger’s ears on the subway? Personally, I’d never buy an IEM for its looks unless it had an image of Bandit on the side. But I have to admit Phiaton’s new Moderna MS 200 looks pretty cool with its carbon fiber sides and red cables and accents.
At $149 list, the MS 200 is Phiaton’s shot at making a more high-end IEM. It’s almost double the price of the company’s base model, the $79 PS 20, and it uses the same “half-in-ear” design, with large 14.3mm drivers in a disc-shaped enclosure that partially occludes your ear canals to increase isolation from outside sounds. So besides the carbon fiber, why the price difference?
From Phiaton’s website, I gather the difference is partly because of tuning. The MS 200 has dual acoustical chambers with dampers in front of the driver and atop the carbon fiber enclosure. Like the PS 20, the MS 200 comes with silicon tips in four sizes, practically assuring a good fit. It also comes with two extra sets of tips: RightFit silicon tips (similar to the ones included with Bluetooth headsets) and Comply foam tips. A unique cylindrical carrying case looks cool but isn’t pocket-friendly.
I’ve been a big fan of Phiaton’s other half-in-ear IEMs, but I’ve had lots of time to get used to them. Our West Coast headphone listening panelists haven’t been as enthusiastic because their exposure to any one headphone is usually limited, but they’re finally getting used to the design. . . and starting to like it.
L.A. jazz musician Will Huff, auditioning the MS 200 using his iPhone, found that Casey Abrams' version of “Nature Boy” sounded incredibly spacious through the MS 200. “The soundstage is huge,” he enthused. “It’s like going from someone’s living room to the Greek Theatre. The effect is a little exaggerated, but it works well.” Will also liked the tonal balance and found the MS 200 very comfortable to wear.
Voice actress Lauren Dragan found the MS 200 better than average, compared to most of the IEMs we test. She found the half-in-ear design “Not half bad.” (A pretty high compliment coming from her.) “It handles complex music, like Muse’s ‘I Belong to You,’ well. The articulation at high frequencies is decent. The highs might be a little too hot but overall I like it.”
When I dropped the MS 200 and a few other IEMs into my briefcase for a quick trip to Texas, I found myself listening to the others because I had to but the MS 200 because I wanted to. Listening to jazz singer Sue Matthews’ rendition of “I Fall In Love Too Easily” told me Will’s assessment of the soundstage was dead-on. Matthews’ voice and the accompanying piano and cymbals sounded like they were in a large (and really good-sounding) performance space — not quite Carnegie Hall, but more like the great-sounding stages at my alma mater’s world-famous music school. The MS 200’s ambience was just as kind to Rush’s colossal-sounding “Red Barchetta,” and the big 14.3mm drivers gave extra dynamic heft to Geddy Lee’s bass and Neil Peart’s kick drum.
I later compared the MS 200 to Phiaton’s PS210 BTNC noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphone, which has been my constant traveling companion since I reviewed it several months ago. While the PS210 BTNC sounds pretty much like Phiaton’s other IEMs, the MS 200 definitely sounds different. While the mids are similar, the MS 200’s high frequencies sound emphasized, which increased the perceived sonic detail but also increased sibilance a bit when I played Led Zeppelin’s “Dancing Days.” On the same tune, John Paul Jones’ electric bass sounded fatter but softer through the MS 200, and tighter and more defined through the PS210 BTNC.
Overall, I somewhat prefer the sound of the PS210 BTNC, but the difference is probably a matter of opinion. I like ’em both a lot.
To measure the MS 200’s performance, I used a G.R.A.S. Type RA0045 ear simulator, a Clio FW audio analyzer, a laptop computer running TrueRTA software with an M-Audio MobilePre USB audio interface, and a Musical Fidelity V-Can headphone amplifier. I used the second-largest of the supplied silicon tips, which fit the ear simulator best. I inserted and reinserted each earpiece several times, and settled on a position for each that gave the most representative result.
The MS 200’s frequency response measurement is pretty standard-looking for an IEM. It has mild response peaks at 2 and 7 kHz, the latter of which might be responsible for our perception of the MS 200 as sounding slightly bright. Adding 70 ohms output impedance to the V-Can’s 5-ohm output impedance to simulate the effects of using a typical low-quality headphone amp has no effect on frequency response — no surprise considering the MS 200’s nearly flat 32-ohm impedance measurement.
Total harmonic distortion (THD) at 100 dBA is below 1% at frequencies above 100 Hz, and rises to just 3.5% at 20 Hz. Isolation is typical for an IEM, but the half-in-ear design’s benefits don’t come into play with the RA0045 coupler, so actual isolation is probably better. (I’m wearing the MS 200 as I write this, sitting about 10 feet from a blaring TV, and I can barely hear it.)
Average sensitivity with a 1 mW signal at 32 ohms rated impedance is very high: 112.4 dB from 300 Hz to 10 kHz, 113.1 dB from 300 Hz to 6 kHz.
The Moderna MS 200 is a cool-looking (if you care about that) and great-sounding (and you'd better care about that) in-ear headphone. At $149 list price, it’s not cheap, but the snazzy design and excellent performance make it a solid contender in its price range.
Brent Butterworth and Geoff Morrison combine their years of gear testing and knowledge in one überblog of irreverence and techiness.
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