“Why Berlin?”, asked The American tentatively, somewhat bemused as to why anyone would trade the easy-living of sub-tropical Australia for the ice-cold of Eastern Germany.
Such swiftly administered climate change has immediate implications for personal audio gear choices. Hot weather demands nothing but IEMs. Step below 20C and full size headphones pull into view. Knock another 15C off the mercury and we reach for a hat. If it covers the ears, that means a return to IEMs.
As the sun goes down, the temperature drops hard on a bitingly cold Berlin evening. I pull a woollen hat from my pocket. It demands that the Sony MDR-1000X come off. In their place go a pair of Jerry Harvey-designed in-ear monitors (IEMs) tipped with Comply.
JH Audio manufacturer custom in-ear monitors for some of the world’s most well-known musicians and those same IEM models are available as universal fit versions via a collaboration with kings of the DAP hill, Astell&Kern.
A hat part-covering my ears and the Rosie being more physically bulbous than IEMs from Campfire Audio or Noble Audio, Rosie’s fit is stabilised by the headware – an unforeseen but most welcome benefit.
Rosie is the entry-point into A&K/JH Audio’s Full Metal Jacketed Siren Series, introduced at last December’s e-earphone Potafes in Tokyo. Each model pulls its name from a well-known rock song female. From top to bottom: Layla, Roxanne, Angie and Rosie.
“A Whole Lotta Rosie” by the Bon Scott-fronted incarnation of Australia’s AC/DC is this IEM’s jumping off point. The American – she knows it well. She also claims that she’s not an audiophile. “I’m a music lover”, she weakly protests. Fine – but then why does she covet IEMs by Noble Audio, Campfire Audio, Westone and Dita? I remind my American friend that there ain’t nothing wrong with gear lust if it improves the listening experience.
Playing devil’s advocate on behalf of the mass market, The American cheekily raises an eyebrow at Rosie’s price: US$999. My response appealed to her other interest: food. Would The American expect to dine at a hatted restaurant for convenience food money? Of course not. A nod of agreement is reluctantly tossed in my direction.
Over Ramen, I explain Rosie’s feature set from an audiophile perspective. Rosie takes its design cues from the an earlier Jerry Harvey model, the JH13. That means a sextet of custom balanced armature drivers – 2 x low, 2 x mid, 2 x high plus a 4th order crossover network – but this time housed in a two-piece body cut from solid aluminium, the cap anodised with copper.
Being a member of the Siren Series, JH Audio have applied their in-house developed ‘FreqPhase’ stainless steel tube waveguide to Rosie’s three bore output. This reportedly ensures all frequencies arrive at the ear drum simultaneously; that the bass doesn’t lag or the top end doesn’t get ahead of itself.
So – why Berlin? One inspiration for this hard left turn on life was David Bowie. He moved to West Berlin in 1976 to shake off the hangers on of the Los Angeles scene and to rid himself of an addiction to drugs, one that is startlingly obvious to anyone who has seen Alan Yentob’s Cracked Actor BBC documentary.
Three minutes walk from Potsdamer Platz, I stand for a short while in front of Hansa Studios where 1977’s Low was recorded. It’s the first album from what has come to be known as Bowie’s ‘Berlin Trilogy’* [see footnote 1]. Stood out front of a somewhat anonymous looking building – no signs or plaques – I listen to an off-lined Tidal stream of Low on a Sony NW-ZX2 which in turn feeds the JH Audio Rosie. There’s nothing quite like being there.
Low is a thin-sounding, synth-drenched record, especially its largely instrumental second side. Drums are brittle and guitars and vocals are heavily processed. Presumably, this is what Hansa Studios and its 500ft proximity to the Berlin Wall drew from Bowie, Brian Eno and producer Tony Visconti at the time.
The album’s more meagre acoustic mass is even more pronounced on the 1999 remaster that lingers on streaming services. Thankfully, the Rosie IEMs don’t keep the listener hanging on to a threadbare sounding record; these IEMs’ emphasise connective tissue and in doing so flesh out Low’s ghostly skeleton. We get more meat to chew on.
With this comes JH Audio’s party trick – its cable features in-line bass adjustment. Up to 10db can be added with the turn of a small screwdriver (supplied), which I elect to carry inside Rosie’s cylindrical carry tub – an all metal, screw-top affair that will easily withstand a tumble down a flight of concrete stairs. I found this out the hard way at Zoologischer Garten’s U-Bahn station. No damage whatsoever to the IEMs themselves but the metal tub now wears scuff marks.
A (matched) quarter turn on each channel’s rotary subtly elevates bass (10Hz – 100Hz) presence for a fuller, richer sounding presentation. In other words, this is low frequency attenuation that travels with the earphone itself and so holds back the dryness on Berlin-era Bowie whether streamed from a Sony Walkman or an iPhone.
For this (cough) music lover, The Hold Steady were once the USA’s best indie rock band. The American agrees. She says they sound like an intoxicated, more boisterous Bruce Springsteen and they make her wanna drink beer and make out with boys. Oy vey.
Whilst Berlin’s high streets take their customary Sunday off trading, I’m off to the Victory Column (‘Siegessäule’). A brisk walk through biting air but brilliant sunshine calls for something less moody, more euphoric. I bust out second The Hold Steady album, Separation Sunday* [see footnote 2]. Almost all of its eleven songs are singalong songs and, in places, it’s an album to punch the sky to.
Separation Sunday also isn’t the best recording on the planet. When it’s an album we love, do we care? We might if better gear exposes guitars’ sharper edges and/or seems to tighten (metaphorical) hands around the lead singer’s throat.
Thankfully, JH Audio’s midrange meatiness and zing-free treble presence move us in the other direction — toward wanting to nudge the volume ever higher without fear of Craig Finn’s growl turning ugly or Tad Kubler’s guitar action becoming overly piercing.
The same could also be said of Bob Dylan’s harmonica on The “Real” Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert. The Rosie ensure it’s well behaved. Not once does it grate on our nerves or cause itchy teeth, even on “Mr. Tambourine Man”‘s more forceful harmonica work.
I relay these findings to The American. She wants to know how this entry level Siren Series model compare to Campfire Audio’s Andromeda (US$1099).
Rosie aren’t as airy as Campfire Audio’s range topper, whose brother-from-another-mother in the over-ear world might be the Sennheiser HD800S. The Rosie play it darker, more closed in. They are a better fit for the more ebullient top end pizzazz of the Chord Mojo. This UK DAC amp adds a little spice and citrus into JH Audio’s higher cocoa solid count.
In the spirit of clarification, I email a photo over to The American:
“Do you mean that the Rosie…are warmer?” asks The American. I do not. The Rosie wear that descriptor like an ill-fitting suit. ‘Understated neutrality’ is more appropriate terminology.
However, do not confuse this with ‘truer to the recording’. Impossible to know – I wasn’t there when Bowie, Visconti and Eno returned to Hansa to lay down Low’s Successor, ‘Heroes’. What I do know is that the Rosie save the 1999 remaster found on Spotify and Tidal from delivering its synthesiser-heavy second side as over-etched and and its more straightforward rock-n-rolling first side from sounding starved on tonal mass.
Rosie’s macro- and micro- dynamic thrusters are more reserved than those of the aforementioned Andromeda – which provide a faster, more hair-raising listening experience – but aren’t quite as subdued as Noble Audio’s (now discontinued) Savant which respond with better headstage depth.
Talking of which, Jerry Harvey’s more capacious earpieces, they super-size sound. The Rosie are more likely to satisfy the headphonista seeking out an earphone stand-in for a full size headphone – crucial for biting winters and/or head-broiling summers.
The American is on the phone. This time, she’s calling long distance. I break the introductory small talk with another reason for being in Berlin: its electronic music scene.
I can hear The American roll her eyes as she bemoans, “Yeah, like Berlin needs another techno-tout”. But for someone who cares about taking the sound of Thomas Fehlmann or Mouse on Mars to another level, Berlin provides a better chance of dodging audiophiles who would dismiss electronic music as mindless or, worse, “doof doof”. Electronic music is deeply entrenched in German culture. After all, this is the country that gave us Kraftwerk, Can and Neu!.
Heading back to Charlottenburg on the U-Bahn, Scuba’s Fabric 90 DJ mix draws out Rosie’s larger-than-life soundstaging coupled. These IEM’s more robust adiposity helps the forward momentum of the music match that of the train. This is off-kilter, technicolour techno rendered as big as a house. Four-four kicks come on as beachball big and with a just the right amount of medicine ball heft. Need more thump? Reach for the screwdriver and dial it in.
In JH Audio’s Rosie we have an all-rounder. One that won’t murder lesser quality recordings but will also render them larger than life. Nothing I play through the Rosie sounds pinched or curtailed. Other models – including those that comprise the remainder of JH Audio’s Siren Series – might offer better separation or more textural information or expose more nuance but for those you’ll likely need more cash. That we get so much for a sniff under a grand is quite the achievement.
Further information: JH Audio | Astell&Kern
Footnote 1: Only Low and ‘Heroes’ were recorded at Hansa Studios. Lodger was recorded in Switzerland.
Footnote 2: Separation Sunday was recently repressed to vinyl for the first time since its 2005 release.