In 2013 JH Audio announced the Siren Series of in-ear monitors, with each piece named after a famous rock song about women. Roxanne was the first, with sisters Layla and Angie joining thereafter, and Rosie being the latest addition to the growing lineup. Priced at a prohibitive $2499 USD, Layla is the most expensive of the bunch, and also the most pricey universal iem in the world at the time of its release – until the even more expensive Layla 2 donned in an all titanium housing succeeded it that is. Welcome to insanity.
There is no doubt that Layla embodies the cynical truism “welcome to head fi, sorry about your wallet” with frightening accuracy. But label shock aside, does it measure up to its wallet crushing price tag?
Packaging, Accessories and Aesthetics
Being a collaborative offering in collaboration with Astell & Kern (“AK”), the omnipresent Korean ultra-luxury (read: ultra expensive) hi-res DAP (read: Digital Audio Player) phenomenon as of late, the packaging is decked out with a carbon fiber case, an assortment of Comply and silicone tips, a mini screwdriver for tuning the variable bass from 0 to +13dB, and a miniscule manual.
Layla is a big girl, in both form and sound, but let’s focus on physicality first. She is currently the largest pair of universal IEMs on planet earth, and is naturally not kind to small ears. The IEMs protrude out far, and are very prone to coming loose due to the head-heaviness, especially when on-the-move. However, the nozzles go deep enough that with some tight over-the-ear cable hooking, medium SpinFit tips and a lot of manual nudging, I managed to get it reasonably snug. But if you’re on the move, the Layla may wriggle itself free even when tightly fastened, making it a mediocre choice for outdoor use. This first generation universal model sports burnt titanium bezels that are rainbow-esque in color, and which varies from unit to unit. I have gone through three separate units (reason included below) and the third one had an amazing azure lake blue with a shiny sheen to it. Unfortunately my ownership for that particular pair lasted all but five minutes before I ended up with the current unit (photographed here) with a more mundanely even range of colors. Lastly, the bezels are matched with carbon fiber weaved shells and faceplates (with the two companies’ logos printed upon them.
To extract maximum performance from such a colossal investment, I went ‘all in’ and paired the Layla with the plusSound X8 Gold Plated Silver Litz cable. It is meticulously made, but almost rope-like in thickness. Together with the gargantuan housing of the Layla, the combo is the very antithesis of portability, thus I relegated the Layla to home listening, often running it balanced out of the AK380 or the AK380 Amp. I also listen to it out of the Chord Mojo with a 3.5mm to 2.5mm converter jack.
A few notes on the build quality. On the second day of ownership I noticed the left faceplate of my brand new toy to be sitting unevenly and not flush with the bezel. I exchanged for a second unit, which had very questionable printing of the AK logo. The bores and nozzles also suffered from some sort of degradation with the black plastic melting off into small bits. This was eventually brought back for RMA, which took about 6 weeks (there was a weird policy stipulating RMA items must be sent back to Korea first then to JH Audio), and the first replacement I got at the distributor had a dead-on-arrival driver failure on one side, so they checked the warehouse and fished out another stock, which ended up being my current review unit.
As you can see, it’s not perfect either. The winged JH lady’s placement is disproportionately high and the AK logo too low, when both should be centered onto the guitar pick-shaped faceplate. Recently I had the opportunity to meet Andy Reagan, president of JH Audio at the HK High End Audio Visual Expo and asked him about this, he merely stated that each of these IEMs were handmade and will vary somewhat in aesthetics and that what mattered was that the sound is impressive. Despite showing some understanding of this explanation, I can’t shake the feeling that a supposedly luxury product at a luxury price point should have more demanding quality control standards. Something like the burnt titanium bezel having a unique blend of color for each piece is perfectly fine, but wildly differing logo placements is much harder to condone. Being handmade is not an excuse for inconsistency.
On to some specifications:
|Driver Configuration||Custom-made Balanced Armature Driver [12 balanced armatures per side]
Powered by soundrIVe technology: Quad low, Quad Mid and Quad High balanced armature drivers per side
Variable bass output, adjustable from cable; user controlled low frequency drivers with the adjustable bass (0 – +13db). Frequency ranges from flat bass response up to +13db (10 Hz to 100 Hz.)
|Crossover||Integrated 4th Order crossover|
|Sound Bores||Triple Bore with Stainless Steel Tubing|
|Frequency Response||10Hz to 23kHz|
|Input Sensitivity||117dB @ 1mW|
|Input connector||3.5mm gold plated
With its 12 drivers and complex system of 4th order crossovers, JH Audio claims that it is the most complex crossover system ever to be integrated in an IEM. What 4th order crossover filters do is basically integrate the low and high pass filters of multi-driver systems to make it sound like an all pass filter and hence provide a seamless listening experience. In addition, their FreqPhase technology is designed to counter any phase issues that may occur in a multi-driver system through the use of either varying lengths of the tubing that connect from the BA drivers to the nozzles as well as an acoustical timer system.
Firing up the Layla for the first time was not a subtle experience. It was truly of epic proportions and epiphany-inducing, and in my time of ownership I have never heard anything else like it. These eargasmic moments-of-truth are few and far between, but when stumbled upon, grip you by the throat and make sure you never forget. For me they absolutely define some of the highlights of this hobby.
There are a few things about the Layla that is inimitable:
The soundstage is staggeringly large. It is easily the widest, tallest, and deepest soundstage I have ever experienced in an in-ear monitor, and which rivals some non-TOTL open back headphones. It is at the same time very full-sounding, and you get that feeling of sound permeating the furthest spheres of your brain. People who are not familiar with this sound will easily get sensory overload – an overwhelming presentation of all frequencies being served to you on a plate at the same time. Beware, those unfamiliar with this galore of data (read: Martin) may experience dizziness and even nausea. I, however, abuse this to the fullest extent, picking tracks that build up to an arena scale, and fully bask in a wall of sound that envelops and fills every nook and cranny in my head. The layering and refinement are also exceptional, allowing one to be inundated in a tiered ocean of sonic explosion. Throw on something like Amber Rubarth’s Tundra showcases the pinpoint accuracy of the instrumental positioning, with the percussions having incredible depth and every shifting distance of the drums being surgically discernable. The overall imagery is as wide as it is tall and deep, a stretchy expanse of sonic landscape that is tangibly multi-dimensional, with real estate for each individual instruments to occupy its very own space, as well as leaving room for lots of air to surround them. Tuning in to some classic Bossa Nova numbers like Desafinado will have you tapping your feet to the Samba beats in no time. The massive soundstage and plethora of details make for excellent PRAT (pace, rhythm and timing) that enlivens large ensemble tracks especially well. Truly awesome stuff here.
Being so numerous in driver count means Layla handles the entire audio frequency range quite handily. Coming from the Shure SE846 and the Noble K10, the intimacy lifted, the sound opened up and stretched in all directions in a fit of liberation, and Layla sings with its signature effortlessness. The tuning is flat in the sense that no particular frequency range stands out. It goes without saying that highs, mids and lows are all very full and well extended, packing an abundance of information. On the vocal front, the flexing of the throat, the smacking of the lips, the sips of air in between lyrical phrases, are all put under the microscope with utmost scrutiny. I can visualise the shape of the singer’s mouth more easily than with any other earphone. Notes are very thick and full-bodied, vocals are luscious, warm, and liquid. Texture of both human vocals and instruments are gorgeously rendered, and are as profound as they are rich. As a result, string instruments such as violins and cello are very moving and compelling, conveying melancholy with masterful virtuosity. Diana Krall’s contralto voice in Desperado has the most analogue, ‘tubey’ quality of the IEMs I own, while Andrea Bocelli’s Champagne is equally golden. Layla really flexes its 12 drivers muscle and bold tuning in well-recorded, spacious tracks, where she showcases her formidable soundstage, impeccable imaging and instrument positioning with peerless aplomb.
Layla is marketed as Jerry Harvey’s first studio reference monitor, a change in direction to the marque’s usual ‘rock and roll’ stage monitor tuning. With the variable bass tuned all the way down, it keeps true to its mission and remains flat and dry, but tune up the bass to 2’o clock and a dosage of warmth rushes in. It is however still very linear, and presents all three frequencies with undiscriminating evenness. Too flat and too even, in fact. The truth is Layla just doesn’t sound as good as something like the Shure SE846 and Noble K10 for general pop, rock and electronic, which generally benefits from some elevation, or a bit of forward something tuning. On Sasha’s remix of Grand National’s Talk Amongst Yourselves, the dramatic entrance of the bassline is too flat to conjure up the sense of being in a club. Rock tracks like Saosin’s Voices are unnaturally pulled horizontally and end up sounding peculiar because the tight energy is dispersed and the immediacy and urgency are scattered. It is also brutally unforgiving of lesser recordings. Augustana’s Meet You There hisses with sibilance at every turn and From First To Last’s Emily is bereft of any endearment. Layla’s sound is very deliberately studio monitoring and decidedly ‘Hi-Fi’. For some this would be exactly what they need, a sonic palate cleanser with a relatively neutral presentation. But for a person with more eclectic tastes like me, it is far too limiting as to what it can play well, and often times leaves me emotionally stunted and joyless.
Owing to its selective excellence, the Layla is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it boasts a world-class soundstage and is truly outstanding in Hi-Fi and large ensemble pieces; but at the same time it is not nearly as musical with more pedestrian tracks (I mean who really wants to listen to flat electronica and rock?). This means I rarely reach for it instead of my versatile (and more comfortable) Noble K10s. Build quality and quality control are questionable as well. Having my Layla spent more time in RMA than actual listening also left a bitter taste in my mouth. In the end, I couldn’t justify keeping something of this price and using it so scarcely, and will sadly be bidding it farewell.
Taking into consideration all factors as a whole, I find the Layla to be of poor value and having a low cost performance ratio. For those who are seeking a mixing and mastering tool, the Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered will serve you just as well for a third of the cost, and those who cannot fathom parting with this ridiculous amount of dough but still crave a similar experience should check out the the Layla’s little sister Angie. I am only able to recommend the Layla if you are truly unable to live without the esoteric, one-of-a-kind sound that the Layla so uniquely offers. Perhaps the Layla 2, with its second generation all titanium body, cap and sound bores, will provide for a slightly more comfortable experience. Or perhaps just be patient and wait for the Matilda, or Genevieve, or whatever, at $5000. I hear having two kidneys is overrated anyway.