Forum member JxK generously loaned me his fresh pair of Ecci PR401 in-ear phones. There’s a bit of hubbub surrounding these phones at the moment – seemingly they’re quite the bang for the buck. Of course there are more than a few other good phones in that price range, so it’s always interesting to see how such underdogs rank in the grand scheme of things.
Ecci, like many other IEM retailers (Hippo, Fischer, Radius, MEElectronics, etc), rebrands Chinese OEM phones, and maybe adds a little custom tuning to the drivers. The PR401 are their top of the line model at the moment, they go for around $75.
I don’t know much more about the retailer, other than the brand was called “Storm” before changing their name to Ecci, and that they also sell portable headphone amps. Be that as it may, one Rebecca Black song says more than a thousand words, so let’s get on with their sonic evaluation.
- Ecci PR401 Specs
- Driver: dynamic
- Frequency response: N/A (?)
- Impedance: 32 Ohm
- Sensitivity: 103 dB @ 3 kHz (?)
- Cable: 120cm flat ribbon cable, Y-style, 3.5mm angled gold-plated plug
- Accessories: semi-hard zipper case, 3 pairs of silicone ear tips (S/M/L), shirt clip
The PR401 come with the usual semi-hard neoprene case with zipper, which is always nice to have. Inside the case there are two mesh compartments to store the spare ear tips and the shirt clip.
The ear tips are the average variety of thin silicone tips that come with 90% of all IEMs nowadays. Ecci went with the regular 5mm diameter nozzle on their PR401, so most other quality ear tips will fit as well – Sony Hybrid, Phonak PFE, or Ultimate Ears Super.Fi tips being some of the better choices. They also work well with various brands of foam tips – their clarity and resolution doesn’t suffer much from using Comply tips or Shure Olives.
Build quality of the PR401 is more or less average for Chinese IEMs. Not great, but nothing to complain about either. Well, the strain reliefs on the ear buds seem a bit iffy, but I’ve seen much worse. Also, the protective plastic mesh on one nozzle was dented right out of the box.
The ear buds themselves are made entirely of aluminum. On their back the company logo, model number and the R/L indicators are laser etched into the black anodized metal. There is a small pressure ventilation hole in the middle, which doesn’t seem to affect isolation much. Isolation is about average – same as most other in-ear phones. The ear buds are very low profile – they don’t stick out of the ears at all, they are perfect for sleeping with them in the ears, or using them while wearing a beanie or similar tight fitting melon cover.
On to the not so great part of the PR401’s construction – the cable. It’s a current fad to use flat ribbon cables in IEM designs. Monster/Beats do it, Final Audio do it, and lots of other brands are jumping on that flat cable band wagon as well. The justification for ribbon cables (besides being ‘new’ and ‘cool’ looking) is that they should tangle less than regular cables. This is not the case at all, in my experience with three pairs of flat cable IEMs so far. They tangle just as much as any other cable and they’re harder to untangle, even. Furthermore, flat cables are stiffer, transmit more cable noise, and are harder to wear looped over the ears. Only you can prevent the misuse of flat cables, think of the children etc, etc.
Nevertheless, the PR401 can be worn with the cables looped over the ears, which improves their cable microphonics a lot. Worn with the cable hanging down, their cable noise is pretty bad. The 3.5mm angled plug is fine on the PR401, and so is the molded strain relief that secures the ribbon cable. Length of the cable is just about right for portable use, and so are their other electrical characteristics. Their impedance is high enough to not hiss overly much with portable players, and they go loud enough to work well even with weaker sources.
Another positive thing to mention is that the PR401 aren’t susceptible to wind noise at all. While phones like the Sony EX1000 are almost rendered useless in windy weather, due to their design, the PR401 won’t mind being used in the perimeter of an average strength tornado or blizzard. Even the pressure vent at the back is no issue; they stay dead quiet, no matter what atmospheric anomaly.
I gave the PR401 about three days of ‘burn in’ time (so JxK doesn’t have to do it), letting them play various kinds of music in shuffle mode. Out of the box they did sound quite a bit sharp and sibilant to my ears, but that settled down after a few hours.
All in all, Ecci managed to create a pleasing and precise sounding IEM with the PR401. For $75 they’re a rather clear and detailed phone, while still retaining enough bass to keep things interesting, some loudness contour that isn’t overbearing. Their clarity could almost be compared to the Head-Direct RE0 with some easier to reproduce kinds of music, while the perceived frequency response resembles the Hippo 10 or foam-modded Panasonic HJE900 with slightly less bass, give or take a few.
Bass on the PR401 is a curious matter. It shows no midbass hump that would veil the midrange in any way, but it doesn’t seem to go down to the very lowest octave as well. It is an often nicely textured bass, but sometimes it’s a bit loose, not overly well controlled. It does soup up the music if the genre demands it – like Dubstep or Dancehall Reggae – but it works equally well with orchestral music or movie scores. It’s not an exciting bass with tight punch and long decays, as found on the best dynamic driver IEMs (FX700, EX1000, DDM, etc), but it gets the job done quite well – certainly better than on many other cheapo IEMs.
Midrange is a bit of a ‘dry’ sounding affair – again, not much timbre or specific euphonic tonality – luckily it’s still resulting in very good instrument separation. The mids are slightly recessed compared to the bass and treble, but not in a blatantly obvious way – what I hear sounds like a very natural frequency response to my ears. It’s neither a ‘lean’ (Phonak PFE, RE0) midrange, nor a ‘fat’ one (SM3, IE8) – it’s just about right. The PR401 don’t crap out much with dense music, but they certainly aren’t the most resolving when a 120-piece orchestra or a Death Metal band is going full blast. Of course they render solo instruments or trios/quartets well, tiny details and all. They’re certainly good all-rounders, fit for many music genres.
Treble is nice and sparkly, yet it’s barely ever sibilant, as many inexpensive phones with non-recessed treble unfortunately are in their upper registers. Same behavior as their bass, the treble doesn’t really seem to go up all that high – but in general I don’t feel that anything is missing to enjoy any kind of music. Treble sounds to me as the liveliest part of the PR401’s frequency range, I wish the midrange would show an equal level of ‘excitement’. While the aforementioned Hippo 10 sound a bit grainy in the treble, the PR401 are more refined, more or less on par with foam-modded HJE900.
Stereo imaging is about average on the PR401. They do seem to portray a soundstage that is slightly wider than the physical dimensions of the phones suggest, but I don’t really hear any dimensionality, forward- or upward projection. As already said, instrument separation is quite good, so that sure makes up for any lack of ‘virtual surround’.
Time to mention the weakest point of the PR401: their dynamic range. Dynamics are nothing special on the PR401, they do sound rather flat most of the time – certainly a part of the issue why I find their midrange a bit ‘dry’ sounding. They’re not overly punchy or able to deliver the proverbial ‘oomph’ that some music needs. Switching between the PR401 and the Hippo 10 or HJE900 gives quite a different experience – the latter two sure deliver quite some additional excitement and liveliness for most recordings. The PR401 are nowhere near as boring sounding as, say, the Etymotic MC5, but they could be a lot less lethargic sounding in that aspect, for my taste.
Despite their lack of dynamic range, I do perceive them as fairly ‘fast’ phones, with good attack speeds and transient response on quick notes, drums, and the like. It’s a bit of a paradox, but it makes them sound more engaging with less dense, percussive music. Their good treble response sure helps here as well.
Now this review might sound a bit overly critical – the PR401 are only $75 after all, cut them some slack, will you? – but seeing as they generated quite a bit of hype and some overly favorable reviews, I’d rather rank them up in the grand scheme of things, for reality check’s sake. My conclusion is that they are nice phones for the money, but I wouldn’t pay a higher price for them. Giant killers they are not, but they are fine entry level IEMs.
They do some things well – clarity, natural frequency response – and they lack in other aspects – dynamic range, timbre. They are more or less on par with the Hippo 10 (that cost about the same). They both have their weaknesses and strengths – Hippo 10 have better dynamic range and deeper bass, PR401 have better clarity and more refined treble. However, comparing the PR401 to the Panasonic HJE900 (which could be had for an $80 discount price some time ago) shows that the Pannies play in a whole other league of audio quality already. Sure, I could have compared the PR401 to some much higher priced IEMs, as I already mentioned the likes of the FX700 or EX1000 above, but that would be unrealistic. So I leave it at phones that are in the same price range, more or less.
Don’t get me wrong – the Ecci PR401 are certainly among the better sub-$100 phones out there, and I would recommend them for their clarity with not too dense kinds of music, for their pleasing bass and treble, for their stealthy low profile housing, and for their comfortable fit. I am a sucker for good dynamics and lush, euphonic sound, though – so the PR401 aren’t exactly the right ones for my taste. All ears are different though – so maybe they are the right ones for yours.
- Natural frequency response, good non-intrusive bass, pleasing treble
- Comfortable, low profile housing
- Lacking dynamic range, somewhat dry sound
- Flat ribbon cable, microphonic and tangle-prone