Why I’m Rushing This Review Out The Door
I normally spend a good number of hours, spread over many days, writing posts, especially reviews, for this site. I’ve never felt a lot of time pressure to “crank out posts,” as manifested in the generally leisurely pace of new posts on Steve’s Audio Blog.
I’m making an exception here, though, because the terrific product I’m reviewing today is currently on sale for less than half its normal retail price, direct from the manufacturer, and I want as many of you as possible to get in on this deal before it vanishes.
The KEF M200
I’d been looking for a reasonably priced IEM that could serve as both my everyday and “end game” earphone. I wanted something with an even, un-hyped treble, good imaging, large soundstage, realistic midrange tonality and substantial but not overpowering low end “grunt” when called for.
I wouldn’t have considered the M200 if not for its enthusiastic inclusion, both this year and last, among the recommended IEM’s in Head-fi.org’s annual Buyer’s Guide. (Scroll down this page to see Head-fi Editor Jude Mansilla’s assessment of the M200.) The description of the M200’s virtues in the Buyer’s Guide checked all my preference boxes, and I managed to score an open-box pair on Amazon.com for around $100.
I was also intrigued by the M200 due to my roots in high end home audio. KEF is a long established and deeply respected high end speaker manufacturer from the UK. Their stratospherically priced Blade and Muon floor standing speakers are widely considered two of the best out there, and their budget (by insane high end audio standards) and petite LS50 stand mount monitor has sold by the bucket-full since its introduction several years ago garnered ecstatic reviews in the audio press.
Without repeating a bunch of descriptive information that you can read on the M200 product page, suffice it to say that the M200 sports two, cleverly mounted dynamic drivers per housing: a bass driver and a mid-high driver. The treble driver is closest to the ear and the bass driver lives in its own chamber to the rear, with ports that deliver the low end around the treble driver and into the nozzle. The housing is made of feather-weight aluminum. This is a good choice because, as all the M200 reviews point out, the housings are fairly large, so a denser material might have yielded an uncomfortably heavy earpiece.
The M200’s also sport a distinctive, rubbery ear hook on each unit. The rubber material has some sort of inner core that holds its shape, allowing you to get a secure fit with the ear hook behind your upper ear. Although the wires hang down from the M200, the ear hook effectively serves the same “anchoring” function as a behind-the-ear cable arrangement does for IEM’s meant to be worn in a “cable up” position.
There’s a bit of a learning curve to getting a good fit with the M200. You put the tip into your ear with one hand, tug on your earlobe or the top of the ear with the other to open up the ear canal, and once the tip is inserted, you rotate the housing toward the back of the head until the hook rests against the ear. KEF America has even provided an instructional video on YouTube to show how it’s done:
The ear hooks help to secure the housings. This is a GOOD THING, especially because the nozzles of the M200 are unusually wide and might be prone to falling out of the ear without the ear hooks.
My pair, which was probably from older stock, only came with silicone rubber ear tips in three sizes; newer stock comes with Comply tips, too. But I must give customer service kudos to KEF America, here: when I wrote to them to ask where I could purchase the right size Comply tips, they sent me some for free. Nice!
Just a note on tips: due to their somewhat gummy surface texture, the Comply tips I got from KEF did provide a more secure, this-will-never-slip-out fit than the silicone tips, but I found that they also rolled off the high end and dulled the overall sound. I’ve stuck with the silicone tips ever since.
The M200’s include a nice microphone and remote control attached to the right channel cable. It’ll take your incoming calls and control an iPod or iPhone with volume, track skipping and play/pause.
Oh, and speaking of the cable, I’m happy to report that microphonics (the amplification of any rubbing between the cable and your clothing, etc.) is almost non-existent here. Hurrah!
The M200’s have a balanced and superbly fatigue-free sonic signature. The upper end is smooth and even, without any trace of the upper-midrange spike that – while in many other earphones masquerading as “transparency” or “detail” – can easily render some inherently lively recordings, especially rock and hop-hop, painfully unlistenable. The M200 top end sounds extended and airy without being overly bright. The all-important midrange, where most of our music lives, including vocals, sounds just right to my ears, present but not overemphasized. The bass is slightly boosted, but so well controlled that there’s no muddying of the higher frequencies by an overzealous bass hump. In other words, rumbling, cavernous bass response is there when you need it, but it never feels phony or obnoxious.
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, one of my bass response test tracks is Steely Dan’s Negative Girl from their Two Against Nature CD. The M200’s are the only earphones I’ve yet auditioned (including several that sell for a great deal more money) that completely nail the very, very low notes played on a 5-string electric bass guitar in the opening bars of that jazzy track. It’s pretty thrilling to hear this done right. Also, all the synth bass grunt of Lorde’s Pure Heroine, especially on the hit track Royals, sounds as thunderous as it should.
Imaging with the M200’s is precise and the soundstage, if the material warrants it, is HUGE. To offer one familiar yet obscure example,
take Edwin Starr’s great, angry howl of a Vietnam era protest song, War:
“War / Good God, y’all… / What is it good for? / Absolutely NOTHING!”
During each chorus, someone’s totally killing it with some very flashy tambourine work in the right channel. On the M200’s, that tambourine is located way, way off to the right, clear as can be. It makes me grin.
I could say a lot more about the M200’s sound, but I’ll simply repeat that there is zero fatigue factor with these lovely IEM’s. It’s trite to say so, but I can listen for hours and not tire of the sound.
Alas, nothing’s perfect. Here’s my list of caveats and (minor) disappointments:
- The M200’s come with a very sturdy zippered hard case (not pictured). It’s great for storage, but far too big to fit in a pocket or purse. I’d like to see something more pocket friendly included in the package.
- Isolation from outside noise is, for whatever reason, only “okay,” even with a good seal. This isn’t a deal breaker for me, but it’s worth noting if, say, you regularly use your cans on noisy commuter trains and really need the ultimate in noise reduction.
- Fit: I’m fine with the fit of the M200’s, but be aware that, at least from the reviews I’ve read, that’s not true for everyone. As I mentioned earlier, the diameter of the nozzle is unusually wide, and the use of the ear hooks takes some getting used to. Get a good seal with the ear canal and these will transport you to sonic bliss. Get a crappy seal and you ‘ll never hear what the M200’s can really do. Also as mentioned earlier, the Comply tips will make it easier to achieve a stable, slip-resistant fit, but at the possible expense of high end extension.
- “Driver flex:” this phenomenon – a clicking noise sometimes heard when you insert the tip into the ear canal – is caused by the dynamic driver flexing as air pressure equalizes. Some people find it annoying, and the M200’s sometimes exhibit this behavior on insertion. It doesn’t trouble me, but I thought I’d mention it.
I adore my M200’s. They make music come alive. They’re the closest thing I’ve heard to what I imagine it would be like to hang a pair of high-end home loudspeakers on both sides of my head. And considering how high the prices of the best IEM’s have climbed, they are a stone cold bargain at their US $200 asking price.
But wait, there’s more:
ON SALE NOW!
From now through December 31, 2016, while supplies last, you can “steal” the M200’s for (drum roll…) US $69! Holy cow, folks, that’s the deal of a lifetime! I jumped on board and bought a second pair to have in case mine get lost or damaged. Here’s the sale page at Kef America. Click now or lose out!
That’s it for this review.
As always, be kind to others and enjoy your music!