Like ballistic weapons and automobiles, the basic working principle in audio equipment has largely been the same for a long time. All improvements over the past few decades have been incremental at best, especially since there hasn't been any fundamental shift in the underlying technology. This means, we are used to having a clear idea of capabilities and limitations of any product within a given price range. Take the low-end IEM segment for example. Although the sub-Rs 1500 range is home to excellent offerings from JVC, SoundMAGIC and Sony, none of these alternatives are without their fair share of niggles. These are niggles that we have grown accustomed to, because what's gained in terms of value in a budget IEM invariably has to be balanced out with a compromise in audio fidelity. This was believed to be the norm—that is, until we got our mitts on Cowon's EM1 in-ear earphones.
The build quality and design is considerably better than what you pay for
The particular pair of earphones I have received for review sport an inline microphone for about Rs 400 extra over the plan vanilla version. Since both variants seem to sport the same driver, it's possible to have the same level of quality for Rs 800, provided you don't wish to trifle with a mic. Microphone or no microphone, the IEMs incorporate relatively large 10 mm dynamic drivers housed in a well-crafted plastic/rubber composite enclosure that looks gorgeous to boot. The IEMs have been crafted with better material quality and attention to detail than what would otherwise be offered at a pocket-friendly price of Rs 1200. The dual-tone finish in black and silver looks classy enough for the EM1 to pass off as more expensive earphones.
It's not all about good looks either. The driver enclosures exhibit a vented design that not only tightens the bass response, but also reduces the colouration of sound generally attributed to closed enclosures. The 1.2 m Y-cable features a flat, flexible construction found usually on premium earphones. The tangle-free cord has just the right length to reach your phone or PMP stashed away in your pocket or bag, without being overly long and difficult to manage. The EM1 sports an inline microphone located behind a solidly-built Play/Pause cum Call Answer button. The button bears a surprisingly positive tactile feedback of a mechanical switch. This sort of refinement and stellar build quality simply belies its budget pricing.
The assortment of silicone ear tips provided in small, medium and large sizes ensure a good enough seal for tight bass reproduction. However, as someone accustomed to the phenomenal mechanical dampening properties of the foam tips on the SoundMAGIC PL50 earphones, these silicone ear tips pale in their noise isolation capability. Although great deal of ambient noise does filter in with these IEMs, the performance is no better or worse than equivalent silicone tipped offerings. On the bright side, though, these earphones are extremely comfortable and can be worn for hours without any signs of discomfort. While we're on the subject of comfort, I found the convenient inline button quite handy for playing/pausing music on phones, whereas the Call Answer function means you don't have to whip your phone out of the pocket to answer calls.
The inline mic and Play/Pause-cum-Call Answer button are quite convenient
The EM1 will blow you away audio quality-wise, especially if you have restricted yourself to budget IEMs. It is so good, in fact, that even gents with deeper pockets owning low-to-mid-end offerings from MEElectronics (M21) and Brainwavz (M1) will be surprised with the earphones' authority, punch and accuracy. Most importantly, the EM1 offers an impeccable tonal balance that's hard to find even when you stretch your budget to Rs 2,000. The lows are deep and tight, while the highs don't roll off as soon as you'd expect from IEMs at this price range. The mids are clear as well, with no particular frequency being preponderant over another.
While it's unfair to expect the same sort of infrasonic tightness and authority as, say, more expensive headphones such as the Alessandro Grado MS1i (which I use as reference), the EM1 can go really lower down the octaves and still be surprisingly tight and fast for the price. This was evident in their faithful reproduction of the tabla in Duncan Sheik's sublime rendition of A Body Goes Down. The heavy percussion segment in ES Posthumus' Nara was rendered commendably without the tell-tale muddiness exhibited by cheaper earphones.
The highs may not have the shimmer evident in more expensive equipment, but the amount of detail the EM1s eke out of recordings is above par for their price. The mids are smooth and placed slightly forward in the soundstage, with the overall size of the soundstage falling on the average side. The imaging, however, is pretty spot on with a good amount of separation between the instruments. What I enjoyed the most about these earphones was the pleasing delivery of female vocals thanks to their impeccable tonal balance. Whether you listen to Jim Morrison, Joss Stone, Carla Lother, or Lara Fabian, the EM1s bring out the true beauty of all vocal ranges.
The EM1s sound better than they look
The only downside is that the relatively large drivers are a bit harder to drive for average PMPs and smartphones. However, that isn't a concern as these media players still have enough grunt to power them. Having said that, using a headphone amplifier indeed does make a palpable difference to the bass authority and slam provided by the earphones. At any rate, the IEMs sound brilliant without any amplification, so it's no harm done. This is a good thing because it would be foolish to expect users to spend extra on a headphone amplifier at this price point.
Whether you come from the low or mid-end IEMs, the EM1 should definitely impress the pants off you. Everything about the Cowon's performance, from timbre accuracy to soundstage and imaging, is several notches above what's available at its price. These are, by far, the best budget IEMs money can buy. In fact, the Cowon EM1's double whammy of unsurpassed performance and value makes it the benchmark in the budget IEM segment.