Facing down personal prejudices is odd. Sometimes it is painful. Prior to 2005, I thought that serial composters smelled like old banana peels. Now, I turn grass clippings and vegetable garbage in a Hasselblad shipping crate repurposed for composting. And, for years, I had this thing against earphones and headphones with top end roll offs. Then I discovered the AudioFly AF78, and earphone that in retrospect, I am forced to call my red pill.
The HEM2 is another, perhaps more refined, wake up call. Its engine is a single Knowled balanced armature, whose gentle high end and thick low end shake long held stereotypes. Smooth. Refined. Addictive within those criteria.
HEM2 comes in a tasteful box that, at first deadlift, is as heavy as a pair of Doc Martens. Its layout is simple, illustrative, and non-geeky. The product explanation, however, is straight out of Google Translate.
“Reference class high-resolution earphones with balanced armature drivers“ really should be “High-resolution reference-level balanced armature earphones“, as neither reference class nor high-resolution come free of speakers or drivers. Whatever. Clumsy marketing spiels do not unmake otherwise great designs.
Bad engineering and poor product compatibility, however, do. In my opinion, the HEM series’s biggest engineering weakness is that it isn’t cable-compatible with Primo, Nuforce’s erstwhile flagship earphone. Whereas Primo utilises MMCX connectors, HEM4 and HEM6, HEM2 attach via Westone-style two-pin coaxial connectors whose slippery hilts are bastards to push on and pull off of HEM earphones. If you invested in MMCX cables for Primo, you’re hosed. Even if you didn’t, you’re kind of hosed anyway. HEM series can be plugged into after-market two-pin cables, but it is designed to work with cables wearing supportive metal turtlenecks. Its mounting flange sticks out, with makes it easy for turtleneck-less pins to bend. Even if you have turtlenecked cables, there’s no guarantee that they will work with HEM earphones.
HEM2 comes with two cables, one of which is great. The great one sports an easy-to-reach pause/play button housed in an aluminium barrel. Its stress reliefs, neck slider, heat shrink, and plug, are rough and tumble sturdy. It’s only barely microphonic, and is barely susceptible to the deleterious effects of sweat and body oil. Hire a strong man. Play tug of war. The cable should hold together well. With the exception of its terribly slippery turtleneck, it is one of my favourite stock cables. The other cable comprises four strands, utilises the same handsome, utilitarian plug, and fails miserably any degree of tugging. Its neck cinch moves too easily, and feels cheep, though its simple y-split is comfy. My daughter grabbed a channel and pulled. I felt the cable stretch. Previously, I knew that it was cheap. But I had no idea how cheap. I’m not a strong guy and with barely any pressure, I snapped below and above the y-split with little effort. In fact, I was able to snap the same cable multiple times despite diminishing grip purchase.
It is a disgrace of a cable at any price and should not be included in the HEM series.
Otherwise, the HEM2 is decently made. It is super light, fits flush, and its metallic lustre is attractive, though picks up small nicks and scars with relative ease. By the way, Lexan™ is just a brand name for a type of polycarbonate trademarked in the 1960s. Pushing it in marketing is a bunch of hot air. But Nuforce do just that on the back of the box. To be fair, Astell&Kern do the same thing, bragging that some of their players are made of Duralumin, which is one of the earliest lightweight aluminium alloys viable on the mass market. Bloviate.
Back to the HEM2. It isolates well and comes with a great accessory package. A Pelican-style case protects everything. Inside it is a nylon tote pouch. Inside that are fourteen earpieces, two of which are Comply. The rest are sturdy silicon ear pieces that don’t jive with my ears, but may with yours. The pictures I took are gross for the reason that I am most comfortable using Shure yellow foams and my foams are now three years old.
The HEM2 is mildly sensitive. At home, I’m comfortable listening to classic New Order through Ryuzoh-modified AK100 at a volume of 29, which would be the upper limit with which I’m comfortable listening to my Ultrasone IQ on the train. It reveals only a little of the AK100’s relatively high levels of hiss and none through the iPhone 6, iPod nano 7G, and similarly noiseless players. This is a great balance. Through most of my favourite earphones, the AK100’s hiss is annoying. HEM2 helps me enjoy the music.
It is my opinion that the HEM2 sounds nigh on perfect – that is, if Nuforce were aiming for a foot-tapping sound with soft highs. Mids jump out and are balanced by high-pressure but mildly soft-edged bass. Crazy that a single armature earphone renders the yawningly deep opening seconds to Markus Schulz’s Mainstage with good detail if not absolute, metallic edge. Bass forward attack edges blur, fractionally softening synthetic lows. But the transition to mids is super smooth and phase perfect. In modern trance, bass bursts in just above the shoulders and dies in quick succession. Turn up the BPM and it is cleanly delineated, but again, fractionally soft-edged, which is a boon to both trip-hop and trance. It keeps perfect pace with both melodic and with hard industrial dubstep, but its lack of hard edge isn’t best attuned to the latter. To a thirty six year-old Nathan, this style of bass is right on.
Like bass forward edges, male vocal forward edges are fractionally blurred, but to amazing effect in post-punk and synth pop, but which removes some of the atmospheric feeling of space from live productions. For this reason, I don’t recommend HEM2 for concert rock fans, but do for small ensemble live jazz. Female vocals are warm, smooth, and sultry.
The HEM2 puts out a wide-ish stage anchored around the shoulders. There isn’t a load of z-axis detail, and the y-axis stops up below the chin and forehead. It expands about twenty centimetres beyond the ears. Instruments are separated well but air between them is humid. Its the sort of stage you get from a number of mid-centric dynamic earphones. The HEM2’s stage is more detailed than a typical ‘wall of sound’ wide-but-not-deep earphone, with decent between-frequency contrast and edge, but which doesn’t provide much 3D detail at all.
The HEM2’s highs are mildly rolled off, but crisp and expand wide around the head. I can’t imagine anyone calling them sibilant. Despite pushing wide, they’re not the sort of highs that provide much stereo detail or texture. Which is to say: if you’re a hardcore trance addict, addicted to alienating stages founded on the humps of crisp, extended, detailed highs, and fast bass, the HEM2 is probably not for you. It’s for a cross-genre music lover, whose spatial and stage character emphasise studio rather than live performances.
I recommend the HEM2 to people who like mildly warm sound signatures, but who, in the pursuit of atmosphere, won’t give up speedy bass. If you like the AF78, but want harder bass edges and smoother transitions, HEM2 is a great option. Sure, it’s not as z-axis detailed, nor does its bass throb as much, but it’s compelling otherwise.
With the exception of one of the worst pack-in cables I’ve ever used, and awkward cable mounting flanges, the HEM2 is a powerful, memorable earphone whose foot-tapping signature is right on. It fits flush and stays put. Its ergonomic design is comfy. It comes with sturdy Pelican-style case and loads of ear pieces. It gives up bass quality and quantity you’d be silly to expect from a single armature earphone. And it does so with no ill effect on mids or highs.
I’d love to say ‘well done’, but the HEM2’s horrible cable and awkward mounting flange, not to mention incompatibility with Primo, really grate my best intentions. It sounds very nice. The rest is a bizarre love triangle of the brilliant and ridiculous.