Review: IKKO OH1S – A Gem in the Rough

I couldn't resist the grey/purple color option.
I couldn’t resist the grey/purple color option.

Something brightly shines in the crowded field of IEMs.

Thank you to Rebecca at IKKO Audio for providing the IKKO OH1S Gems for review purposes.

Let’s be honest with each other. There are far too many companies pumping out inexplicably named IEMs these days to possibly keep track of them all. It’s near impossible to pick the good out from the awful, let alone from the merely average. Prices, build materials, driver composition, and sound quality are all over the map.

Chinese manufacturers have significantly changed the IEM market with a flood of new devices appearing every week. Many of these are entirely forgettable flavor-of-the-week models, inevitably supplanted by next week’s revised version featuring several more internal drivers or a different driver coating.

IKKO OH1S
Bottom Line

From their physical design to their refined sound signature, the Gems really do shine. Nope, they aren’t for bass-heads. Those folks need to move on and go buy the Obsidian. But for anyone looking for a more neutral and analytical sound signature, the Gems will provide all that they could want. The Gems provide a solid value proposition in the USD$100-$200 range.

What We Like
  • Lively and airy treble
  • Clarity without sacrificing smoothness
  • Unique, attractive, and high-quality construction and materials
  • Spacious and natural sound signature
  • Punchy and not over-cooked bass
  • Excellent included cable
What We Don't Like
  • I could not achieve a proper fit with the 6 pairs of silicone ear tips
  • Not for bass-heads
  • Odd storage pouch
  • Small size may create fit issues for some

 

Thankfully, there are a few stand-out manufacturers with a focus more on quality than quantity. IKKO is one such company that has captured my attention. With only a few available IEM models, each IKKO release is something different. None are carbon copies of other IEMs, and all stand on their own with unique sound signatures and construction.

IKKO consistently creates high-quality and great-sounding IEMs at affordable prices. What’s not to like?

The design of the Gems really stands out.
The design of the Gems really stands out.

I found the OH10 Obsidian to be a very pleasant surprise. They quickly became one of my go-to recommendations for the sub-$200 market, especially for anyone harboring inner bass-head tendencies. Now comes the OH1S Gems, promising a more balanced and neutral sound, and smaller and lighter construction than their larger, heavier, bass-focused predecessors.

By pricing the Gems in the same range as the OH10, is IKKO merely robbing Peter to pay Paul, and further diluting a crowded market with another same old same old IEM option? Or are they bringing a fresh, different, and welcome choice for consumers? Can they really hit another home run at their next turn at bat?

I can’t wait to find out!

Company Overview

IKKO (also listed as IKKO Audio, or Ikko Technology Co Limited) is a fairly new manufacturer of IEMs and related accessories. Located in Guangdong, China, their IEMs range from the sub USD$100 OH1 to near $1000 for the single dynamic driver OH7. A Bluetooth adapter, a couple of portable DAC/amps, and a replacement upgrade cable round out the current offerings.

According to the website, “IKKO aims to promote the new concept of “freedom” and high fidelity for music lovers” and to “touch music’s soul experience with higher quality and simplicity.” IKKO claims its focus is on both excellent ergonomic design and advanced tuning techniques.

“Based on a wide range of ergonomic design principles and simulation of wear test data, IKKO designs a high-quality product appearance and experience. IKKO’s ultimate pursuit of products is reflected in its requirements for all details… Ikko makes full use of sound technology and carefully polishes every detail in order to meet your high-quality requirements for sound quality.”
The manual and fox card are tucked into an envelope in the box.
The manual and fox card are tucked into an envelope in the box.

Technical Specifications

  • Form: IEMs
  • Drivers: 10mm deposited carbon nano dynamic coil driver + Knowles 33518 hybrid BA
  • Impedance (Ohm): 32 Ohms
  • Sensitivity (dB): 109dB
  • Frequency Response (Hz): 20 Hz – 40 KHz
  • Removable Cable: Y – 1.2m – high-purity single crystal copper, silver-plated
  • Source Jack: 3.5mm TRS
  • Cup/Shell Jack: MMCX
  • Mic: N
  • Weight (g): 10.5 g – both IEMs with M foam tips and no cable
  • Nozzle Size: 5.7mm
  • Housing: Resin, aluminum alloy
  • Colors: Blue, grey/purple
The IKKO packaging sure is quirky.
The IKKO packaging sure is quirky.

Packaging

True to the styling of the Obsidian packaging, the outer sleeve of the Gems box is adorned with a quirky painting of a girl listening to music. Rather than reusing the Obsidian’s ‘asteroids-and-foxes’ motif, this time she’s dancing along the roof of a nighttime cityscape surrounded by colorful pastel music notes and shapes. Thankfully, it’s cute, rather than sexualized or exploitive, and I find the whole presentation whimsical and somewhat endearing.

The inner box is a very different style than the outer sleeve.
The inner box is a very different style than the outer sleeve.

The black inner box is clean and professional-looking, and the final third box layer opens like a jewelry box with a magnetic closure. Inside, the IEMs and a decorative pin are snugged into a foam layer decorated with classy white on black drawings of the IEM internals.

Open the Gems is like discovering what is in the centre of a matrushka doll.
Open the Gems is like discovering what is in the centre of a matrushka doll.

Lift off the foam and you’ll discover an envelope containing the manual and a customer service card. Underneath are nine pairs of ear tips, another box containing the cable, and an unusual leatherette storage case.

In the box

The tiny Gems and golden pin.
The tiny Gems and golden pin.

The sheer number of ear tips included with the Gems is impressive and can likely be attributed to the unusual oval-shaped nozzles on the IEMs. While the foam tips are standard round-shaped versions (albeit quite short), all the silicone tips are longer and oval-shaped.

I did not have any luck with achieving a snug and comfortable fit with any of the silicone tips, so the sound quality was compromised when I tried them. The medium-sized foam tips fit my ears well and all listening and measurements were completed using these tips.

That is a healthy collection of included accessories.
That is a healthy collection of included accessories.
Traditionally-shaped round silicone tips, such as Spinfits, can be used on the Gems’ oval-shaped nozzles as long as they fit the 5.7mm diameter.

The same unusual brown leatherette storage pouch is included with both the Obsidian and the Gems. Sure, it’s big enough to comfortably store these tiny IEMs and their cable but it offers little in the way of protection, and the long leather tie to hold it shut is of questionable utility.

Cable

The OH1S come bundled with the IKKO CTU01 upgrade cable, available as an over USD$50 option for their other IEMs. IKKO describes it as a “high-purity single crystal copper silver-plated magnetic cable.” In practice, it’s a relatively thin but sturdy-feeling two-strand coil, with negligible microphonics.

Some will lament the move from 2-pin to MMCX connectors, but I find these particular ones to be of high quality and to firmly snap in and out.
I really like the upgrade cable included with the Gems.
I really like the upgrade cable included with the Gems.

The color of the cable is mostly dark grey, with red, blue, and silver conductors visible through the translucent rubber outer coating. The 3.5mm jack, y-split, and chin cinch are all constructed of hematite-colored metal and are svelte and streamlined. It’s not overtly flashy, but it’s a pretty great cable.

Design

While the Obsidian and the Gems share the same hammered exterior surface, the rest of the design couldn’t differ more from each other. The Gems are about half the size, and less than half the weight of the Obsidian. Gone is the all-metal construction, and in its place, the Gems are fabricated of resin and lightweight aluminum.

The Gems are very distinctively shaped and sized.
The Gems are very distinctively shaped and sized.

The blue colorway is a single shade all over, while the ‘grey’ option (which I have) combines a pearlescent purple resin contrasting attractively with the dark grey/black metal nozzle and faceplate layers.

Their triangular shape is ergonomic, however, fit may be an issue for some due to their very small size, requiring a good ear tip seal to hold them in place. Extremely small logos, R/L side indicators, and two vents are found on the aluminum sections.

Comfort

As mentioned, I had fit difficulties with the included silicone tips, but all was resolved when I moved over to the medium-sized foam tips. The usually shallow shape of the foam tips may actually be more comfortable than normal for those who tend to prefer silicone. The small size, combined with the lightweight cable make these some of the most comfortable IEMs I’ve tried, and remind me of my ancient tiny Shure IEMs.

Internals

Similar to the Obsidian, the Gems combine a single 10mm dynamic driver with a Knowles 33518 balanced armature. This time the dynamic driver is described as a “deposited carbon nano coil,” and the interior structure uses impressive-sounding Separating Vector Acoustic Systems (SVAS) technology. The SVAS cavity structure separates the drivers with a divider, and is intended to improve “the sound volume, reflection, and diffusion angles.”

An exploded view of the internals of the Gems. (From: amazon.com)
An exploded view of the internals of the Gems. (From: amazon.com)

IKKO OH1S Sound

The Gems are a fairly standard 32 Ohms of impedance and 109 dB of sensitivity, so they are able to be driven adequately from the standard Apple 3.5mm dongle. Of course, a higher-end source is preferred, and the Gems seem capable of outputting all the fidelity that they are given.

The vast majority of my listening was done with my iPhone paired to the IKKO Zerda ITM01 portable DAC/amp and my portable rig comprised of a Hidizs AP 80 Pro DAP and a Chord Mojo.
The Gems plugged into the IKKO Zerda DAC/amp.
The Gems plugged into the IKKO Zerda DAC/amp.

Despite their diminutive stature, the Gems deliver the impression of a remarkably spacious soundstage for a pair of IEMs at this price point. Likely due to their clear and articulate nature, instrument separation and spatial location are well conveyed. The Gems tend towards a leaner and more analytical presentation, especially when compared to the Obsidian.

Let’s be clear. The Gems do not sound like the Obsidian, and if you buy them expecting the same experience, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Instead, the Gems stand on their own.

These are not a bass-boosted pair of IEMs, and they impart an impressive level of clarity and coherence. Thankfully, the Gems do this without all-too-common unpleasantly harsh-sounding peakiness and remain natural and fairly smooth throughout the audible frequency range. I don’t consider them recessed, nor bass-light, rather I hear their tuning as more neutral and flat, without being too sterile for enjoyment.

IKKO Gems frequency response graph as measured on a IEC 603118-4 compliant occluded ear simulator (OES).
IKKO Gems frequency response graph as measured on a IEC 603118-4 compliant occluded ear simulator (OES).

Bass

The Gems are able to deliver a punchy low-end, although no one will accuse them of being bass-heavy. When the music calls for it, they provide the goods to nod your head or tap your toes. All the while they remain clear, fast, and snappy sounding. It’s an engaging sound signature that reminds me of the experience of listening to good monitor speakers, rather than massive subwoofers.

The bass is there, it’s just not boosted in the mix.

Midrange

Music transitions smoothly into the midrange, with no unnatural bumps or dips. Vocals and instruments take a more dominant position in the mix as they aren’t being upstaged by a boosted bass section. Things sound smooth, clear, and well defined, with a moderately intimate presentation.

Those looking for the warmest sounding mids may be left wanting for a bit more, as the performance is more neutral, leaning towards sharp and clear and not rounded-off or thick. This isn’t to say that the Gems sound thin. Somehow, they walk the line between weight and lightness and do a good job presenting the music in a natural-sounding manner.

The transition between the dynamic driver and the balanced armature is notable only for its transparency and is essentially unnoticeable.

Treble

It’s fair to categorize the Gems as a somewhat bright-sounding pair of IEMs. Although brightness can sometimes indicate fatiguing sibilance, the Gems manage to avoid that trap and sound sweet and articulate. The high-end extension is quite good, bestowing an airy and lively personality.

Moving the focus from the low-end to the treble regions is what differentiates the sound signatures between the Obsidian and the Gems. What’s remarkable is how well IKKO sustained the regions that were not the primary focus. With the Obsidian, the tamer treble maintains enough presence to ensure clarity, and with the Gems, the low-end magnitude is sufficient to balance out the far more resolving and open upper registers.

All the elevated treble energy remains restrained and smooth, so the Gems shine without too much sizzle.

Where to Buy

Conclusion

How do you make a gem shine? You polish it. More and more, until you achieve a beautiful and deep luster. That same level of care and polish is evident in the IKKO Gems. From their physical design to their refined sound signature, the Gems really do shine.

The Gems really are gems!
The Gems really are gems!

Nope, they aren’t for bass-heads. Those folks need to move on and go buy the Obsidian. But for anyone looking for a more neutral and analytical sound signature, the Gems will provide all that they could want.

The silicone ear tips are a miss for me, and I’ll just continue to overlook the strange storage case. However, the excellent cable and foam ear tips more than make up for these shortcomings, and the Gems provide a solid value proposition in the USD$100-$200 range.

Between the Obsidian and now the Gems, I’m sold on what IKKO brings to the table. They’re producing high-quality and unique IEMs that don’t deserve to get lost in the ocean of bland alternatives. The OH1S Gems should be on the radar of anyone looking for IEMs in this price range.

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