Optoma let me spend some time with their NuForce HEM8 high resolution in-ear headphones. I paired the headphones with their uDAC3 digital to analog converter (DAC) and also checked out their more budget-priced NE800M in-ear headphones. The HEM8 pair retails for $500, which is a startling amount of cash for tiny little speakers you stick in your ears.
Part of me would like to report that there’s absolutely no reason to pay that much for in-ear monitors, but the HEM8 headphones make a strong case that you really do get a lot more for your money if you’ve got that much to spend. They sound incredible.
You get your choice of silicone or Comply foam tips that offer better noise isolation. There’s a cable with a microphone and and inline remote and a second oxygen-free copper (OFC) and silver cable for better audio performance (which they deliver). There’s a sealed plastic case for all your parts and a zip-up carry case.
The earbuds are separate units that you can swap out with either cable (and easily replace a cable if you ever need a new one). For everyone who’s not into the arcane engineering language of high-end audio, the important thing to know is that each earpiece has four individual drivers. 4+4 drivers = HEM8. NuForce also makes HEM6 (3+3), HEM4 (2+2) and HEM2 (1+1) models. This is where mobile audio starts getting into high-end territory. The detail is spectacular and the bass is strong without turning the rest of the frequencies to mud like most bass-boosted headphones.
These are well-made headphones, but they’re not really what you want to wear to the gym. They’re for serious listening. If you spend more than a couple of hours a day playing music through headphones, the fact that they don’t cause ear fatigue could make them worth the investment.
Once you’ve committed to high-end headphones, you need to get a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) if you’re listening from a laptop. They plug into your USB port and highjack your computer’s terrible sound card and improves the audio conversion. No matter what kinds of laptop you own, you need one of these if you listen to music from your computer. NuForce makes the uDAC3, which retails for around $100.
You either plug in your headphones to the front of the device and turn it on and control the volume with the knob on the front (the uDAC3 draws power from your USB port). It has analog and digital outputs on the back side so you can also use it with a home system.
A good DAC makes an enormous difference no matter what kind of headphones you’re using. The uDAC3 is a good one, but you should take a look at a Dragonfly or a Cambridge Audio DACMagic XS if you can spend a bit more money.
If you’re looking for something in a more affordable price range, the NE800m in-ear headphones sell for around $99. They feature a carbon-fiber chassis and are both sturdy and super-light. I have been wearing these to the gym and they seem likely to hold up well (even if the super-thin cables seem a bit too thin at the stress points). The sound nozzle is made of brass instead of aluminum or whatever indeterminate hodgepodge that goes into cheap “metal” headphones and the brass seems to make a difference in the sound quality.
You get the same two kinds of foam and silicone earbuds that come with the HEM8 headphones. There’s an inline control and microphone. The NE800M headphones are a great deal for $100. They don’t compare to the HEM8 model, but they’re way better than the ones that come with your phone and they sound better than most anything else I’ve heard at this price.
NuForce is also selling a NE800M/uDAC3 bundle on Amazon for about $127. That’s a fantastic deal. If you just think you want a DAC, it’s worth chipping in the extra $27 for a pair of these headphones.