Spider Realvoice Review and Comparison – UPDATED

Introduction

First, I’d like to thank the folks at Spider for providing a sample of the Realvoice earphones for review.

Spider Cable is on a mission, a mission to make the best in ear monitors below $100. In recent years, that has become quite the challenge, due to the stiff competition that has arisen in this price range from manufacturers such as MEElectronics, HiFiMan and Etymotic. HiFiMan’s RE0 earphones are considered by many to be the reigning champions of their price bracket, even amongst the now crowded sub-$100 field.

To challenge HiFiMan, Spider Cable has developed their Realvoice in ear monitors, which are claimed to deliver the best vocal and all-around performance in their price range. With that in mind, does Spider Cable’s plucky newcomer have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with the RE0? Read on to find out…

Packaging and Accessories

The Spider Realvoice IEMs come packaged in a relatively large and handsome box with a very nice, eye-catching design. The box does what it needs to do in a pleasing fashion that I was impressed with. It’s not often you find such lavish packaging in this price range.

Moving on, the included accessories are, for the most part, what you’d expect. You have a set of four pairs of eartips, ranging from the standard small, medium and large single flange silicone tips to a nice pair of small biflange tips, around the size of those included in MEElectronics CW31 earphones. A small, leather (or most likely leatherette) clamshell carrying case emblazoned with the Spider logo is also included along with a small carabiner clip, a shirt clip and a five-track Nik & Sam reference CD, which is a nice addition.

Design and Build Quality

Spider designed the housing of these IEMs around a 12.5mm driver, and because of the large size of the driver, mounted them vertically, similar to Sony’s EX line of in ear monitors. This design gives the Realvoice IEMs a funky and easily recognizable visual style, and they are certainly visually striking. The hard plastic shells are chromed and highly reflective, as you can see in the pictures and should turn heads, should you be walking down the street with them.

Here’s where things fell apart for me. Initially, I thought the Realvoice IEMs were well built and durable, with hard plastic shells and thick, durable feeling cable but sadly, I was mistaken. Now, I can’t vouch for the overall build quality of this product on a grand scale but my experience with them has been disappointing because the right channel suddenly died after a little over a week or so, seemingly for no reason.

I was flabbergasted. This has only happened to me once before and never with a pair of earphones in this price range or higher. Understandably, I’m disappointed with the build quality of the Spider Realvoice IEMs, especially since I cared for them as well as I do any other pair of earphones in my collection, from my $15 V-Moda Vibes to my $200 Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10s.

UPDATE 9/2/2011:

I was provided a replacement set of earphones from the final production run, which isolated and fixed the defect that caused my earphones to die. In the following days and weeks of testing, the replacement pair has held up to frequent usage and has not been subject to any of the problems that plagued the first review sample. Read on for my updated impressions on my new set of Realvoice IEMs here.

Comfort and Isolation

Looking at them for the first time, I didn’t think the Realvoices would be a comfortable fit for my ears with their vertical design but I was pleasantly surprised to find that they are actually quite comfortable. I preferred using small Sony Hybrid tips with them but the medium, small and biflange tips worked well in my tests and were quite comfortable. There’s a tiny bit of driver flex but it was mostly a non-issue for me.

In terms of isolation, these are slightly below average for a dynamic IEM, likely due to the large vent situated on the underside of the driver but the isolation was adequate for my usage.

Sound Quality

Burn in: These IEMs were given upwards of 50 hours of time to burn in prior to evaluation.

The first time I listened to the Realvoice earphones, I was taken in by their sound quality. These earphones have a warm and inviting sound signature that is likely to be appealing to a wide range of listeners. Starting at the lows, the bass is deep, textured and very full. Bass lovers should be very happy with these IEMs. Sure, these don’t pump out massive quantities of bass like the MEElectronics SP51 or M31 but it also remains more controlled, for the most part. I say “for the most part” because there are some instances of bass bleed on tracks that feature heavy amounts of it but this isn’t a big problem. Extension is impressive, as I could hear and feel 30 KHz tones rumbling in my ears.

Clearly, the midrange was the focus of the designers at Spider, as is evidenced by the packaging and the name of the IEMs themselves and the work they’ve put into these has paid off considerably as I can say that the Realvoice earphones offer one of the most engaging midrange presentations you’re likely to find in the sub $100 price bracket. What makes these so darned easy to listen to and enjoy is the smoothness and lushness offered by the Realvoice IEMs.  It’s full without being bloated and lush without sounding sloppy or heavy-handed. It just sounds good. Now, there’s a warmth and thickness present in the midrange which does manage to occlude some of the finer details when compared directly with another earphone such as the RE0. Spider’s IEMs do manage to render highly impressive vocals and I was quite impressed when I listened to the reference CD included in the package as well as some of my favorite vocal performers.

The high end is noticeably laid back in comparison to the midrange and bass, delivering a thoroughly non fatiguing listen in my tests. Detail and clarity are far from bad but people who love the shimmer and sparkle of chimes may be disappointed. Sibilance is nowhere to be found even to my somewhat sensitive ears, which is a very good thing that some earphones in this price range have trouble with.

Presentation wise, the Realvoice is a bit dark with its laid back highs and prominent bass and midrange but Spider did a good job keeping them from sounding too dark. The soundstage is nicely spacious and enveloping, and positioning is done well. These are a great match for Apple’s current generation of iPod Touches, and I enjoyed using these quite a bit with my iPod Touch, which is my go-to music player when I’m away from my desk.

Comparison With HiFiMan RE0

When I was selected to review these, I was asked to compare them directly with the HiFiMan RE0 I currently have in my collection, to see if Spider’s claim of having the best earphones in the sub $100 bracket is true.

The Realvoice earphones have the advantage in terms of bass, at least to me. Their weightier and more powerful bass is more often preferable for a number of genres. Now, the RE0s have been criticized as being bass light (bordering on outright deficiency) but really, they have nice extension and detail but lack that satisfying punch and body that many mainstream music lovers are accustomed to. That said, I still can’t give this round to the RE0, as the increased bass presence of the Realvoice IEMs combined with impressive sub bass rumble and overall detail won me over during my listening.

The midrange is where the Realvoice earphones shine so it’s no surprise that they compete very strongly with the RE0 in that regard. The RE0’s midrange is slightly recessed and is clearly not the focus of the sound signature, like it was for the Realvoice IEMs. That said, this is not a runaway victory for the Spider’s IEM as the RE0, while lacking a bit in fullness, exhibits impressive detail, clarity and smoothness. True enough, the RE0s lack an edge to really make them an engaging listen that the Realvoice IEMs have, they are no slouch in presenting a mostly neutral sound signature. The problem with “neutral” is that many people consider it synonymous with “boring” and in that respect, I imagine that many users will find the RE0 lacking in comparison to the Realvoice, especially about the vocals.

In terms of high end presence and presentation, this is an easy round to call. The RE0 is known for its superb treble presentation and because of that, takes an easy win in that respect. The Realvoice isn’t bad in comparison to the RE0, it just lacks the energy, crispness and transparency the RE0 delivers in spades. Now, personally, I don’t mind that, because it makes these a non-fatiguing and relaxing listen but the strange thing about the RE0, even considering its nearly boundless treble energy and extension, is that it presents it very smoothly and is also devoid of sibilance. The two sound signatures offered by the RE0 and Realvoice are quite opposite, as the RE0 goes for brightness (without being sibilant), airiness and neutrality while the Realvoice is dark, warm, full and surprisingly spacious.

As far as which one is the better pick, well, that depends on your preferences. I like earphones that I can listen to without EQ, if need be and in many cases, I find myself using EQ either to bump the bass up a tad on some earphones to bring them in line with my listening preferences or cut down on sibilance in the 7 – 10KHz range. With the Spider Realvoice, I do neither of these things. They just sound great out of anything I use them with, especially my 4th gen iPod Touch. When I listen to the RE0 I usually EQ up the bass a bit but that’s it but I find that they’re good enough to listen to flat and sound great with whatever I’m listening to at the moment. I will say that the RE0 bests the Realvoice in terms of pure detail which can sometimes sound a bit fuzzy out of the Realvoice but the differences are usually only apparent in head to head listening tests.

Conclusion

When I first listened to these, I imagined I’d be singing their praises when it came time to sit down and write out this review but, due to my pair failing in less than two weeks, I can’t. I take care of my IEMs and I have treated the Realvoice earphones with as much care and concern as I’ve shown every other pair of moderately priced IEMs I own. Obviously, even if a sample is provided by the manufacturer, I want to ensure that they last (especially if I enjoy them, as was the case here) but sometimes, even my best efforts can’t protect against all defects. I’m not sure what happened that caused the right channel to suddenly go dead but I am quite disappointed that it did happen, all the same.

So, this review will have to end on something of a sour note. As much as I enjoyed the sound quality and functionality the earphones offered in the form of the three-button remote and microphone, both of which worked well in my testing with my 4th generation iPod Touch, I can’t recommend something that doesn’t last. My HiFiMan RE0s have seen more punishment and abuse than the Realvoice earphones and they’re still ticking a year and a half after I bought them and because of that, not to mention their oh so good sound quality and lower price, they get my recommendation in this comparison.

But, I understand that my experiences may not be typical and I may have just received a defective unit. Shit happens, I know. So, with that in mind, I’m not going to simply condemn them entirely. The Realvoice IEMs deliver impressive sound quality, with their deep, powerful bass, smooth and full midrange and laid back but still well detailed high end. While I don’t think they are quite up to the RE0 standard, they are certainly very competent performers that were actually more enjoyable for me than the RE0s in some genres such as Electronic, Hip-Hop and Pop. I imagine iPhone users will be quite pleased with the three-button remote and microphone, which delivers good sounding audio on both ends of the call.

If you’re looking for a pair of earphones to use on the go, particularly with an iPhone or another recent smartphone, the Spider Realvoice IEMs may be for you. I can’t recommend them in terms of build quality but the sound they pump out is great for the price. So, if you’re into the type of warm, smooth and mid-centric sound the Realvoices provide, you might want to pick them up but be warned that you may find yourself sending them in for repairs sooner than you’d anticipated.

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