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Hands-on with the L-Acoustic Contour XO IEMs
Hands-on with the L-Acoustic Contour XO IEMs IBTimes / Jeff Li

The current main technologies in the in-ear monitors (IEMs) scene is mainly split down between balanced armatures and dynamic drivers. The trend for legacy companies like Sennheiser and Sony is to continue developing state-of-the-art dynamic drivers, making them articulate tones that are not only natural, but detailed. On the other hand, newer earphone makers are resorting to balanced armatures while making up for the analytical sound characteristics with hybrid drivers like a separate dynamic driver, or electro-static drivers.

Then you have audio wizards like Jerry Harvey, the inventor of multi-drive IEMs who is able to make use of proprietary balanced armatures in a way that pushes its limit to performance beyond what should be possible. With proprietary features from JH Audio like the 7-pin connectors and adjustable bass attenuators, adding that to L-Acoustics' expertise as the pioneer of line source array speakers, what sort of an in-ear monitor is the Contour XO? Let's dive in to find out.


Sophisticated and Robust Design

Made for rockers, JH Audio IEMs usually come with some expected aesthetic spunk. The Contour XO, however, carries more of the sophistication and understated look of L-Acoustics branding.

The unadorned shell was an intentional choice by the sound system company, as the IEMs carries its signature professional loudspeaker color, in Pantone 426 C dark gray brown. Simple as it may be, the milled resin shell acts as a perfect backdrop for the L-Acoustics gold logo, which also matches with the brass ring on the locking mechanism for the cable connector.


The resin shell of the Contour XO initially seems fairly large - which is to be expected as it contains 10 balanced armature in each earpiece. But when I inserted them properly in my ears, they fit perfectly for me. I went for the silicone tips for its durability but the package actually includes Comply foam tips as well, which can provide even better sound isolation.


Serious Hardware for the Road

Matching the robust resin shell of the L-Acoustics Contour XO is the matching hardware which carries the infamous JH Audio branding.

If you are unaware, Jerry Harvey - the pioneer of the In-Ear Monitors has, from the get-go, made them for stage musicians. Therefore the IEM company has always been on the mission to provide not only the best quality, but also the toughest and strongest hardware that can take a beating. Inadvertently, this also makes these IEMs perfect as earphones to travel with, thanks to how rugged and durable they are.

It's no surprise then that the braided Silver-plated DCC litz wire cable is one of the most substantial cables I've seen on earphones, with the thickest part of the cable almost 5 mm in diameter.


At the earpiece end, the cable terminates with the 7-pin iridium connector. These are sweat proof, military-grade, and are on a completely different level from the typical MMCX, two-pin connector, or even UE's new IPX connectors. These German made connectors do not need any screw-tight action - like the previous generation 4-pin connectors - but are push fitted with a sophisticated mechanism that even incorporates an o-ring seal that isolates the connection from sweat and moisture.


To match the strength of the connector, the Y-splitter, audio jack and bass attenuator are also made with tough looking plastic that I have confidence won't be taking on much wear and tear anytime soon. The strain-relief on each of these components look like they are off-studio overhead headphones, and again gives me confidence that they will extend the lifespan of these earphones.


Last but not least, the L-Acoustics Contour XO comes with a unibody metal case that is so well made, you can use it as a bell because it resonates so well. When the IEMs are in, and the two halves are screwed shut, it's safe to say that nothing in daily commute will ever damage the precious earphones inside. It looks like something that can stop a bullet, or be driven over and still live to tell the tale.


3-Way Crossover and 10 Balanced Armature Tuned for Studio and Beyond

Now that we know that the Contour XO will have a long lifecycle, we must ask the all-important question: is it worth preserving that long? How does it sound? The first time I tried them out, I was immediately impressed by the clarity of the sound they were producing.

In terms of frequency response, the Contour XO aims more for the 'neutral sound' than for the Harmon Curve. Which is reflected on In-Ear Fidelity's measurements, which match more to the IEM Neutral Target.

But don't mistake this neutrality with dullness, because these IEMs capture amazing nuance and texture, presenting it in one of the best soundstages I've heard in a closed in-ear earphone. This was especially surprising because I used to swear by balanced cables, but the single-ended 3.5 mm jack on the Contour XO blew my expectations out of the water. I suspect the 7-pin connectors have something to do with this.


Even without a balanced connection I'm able to get a soundstage that is as wide as the Sennheiser IE900 with a 4.4 mm balanced cable - which was my previous reference for best soundstaging on an IEM. The IE900 does leave more room in comparison, imaging a larger open space. The Contour XO, however, fills the space up. Instead of arranging the various instruments in a circle, it feels more like the instruments are lined-up, and all the sounds are hitting me at the same time. I attribute this effect to the JH Audio freqphase technology, which works surprisingly similarly to L-Acoustics' line source array speakers - both designed so that different frequency sounds can reach the ear at the same time, in synchronized phase.

Thanks to the excellent soundstage, clear presentation of all frequencies and beautiful texturing that lets me hear minute details, the Contour XO is great for mixing, recording, as well as just for enjoying immersive music.


Bass Attenuation for Clean, Powerful Low-end

One of the reasons why the Contour XO is not merely another reference headphone is because of the JH Audio bass attenuator. The technology allows a very clean boost of bass for up to 15 dB, without affecting the mids and highs at all. The clean low-end boost has in fact been measured by In-Ear Fidelity.

The bass on the Contour XO can be described as a well damped bass drum: tight and punchy, as opposed to the 'fat' bass tone from dynamic drivers. The attenuators increase the presence of the bass without making the bass drown out any of the other frequencies.

Though for hardcore bass heads, you won't be getting massive bass off these IEMs. Because of how balanced everything is, the 15 db bass boost is just right to get a satisfying amount of low-end. I found myself leaving the attenuators on the maximum 5 o'clock position permanently and enjoying 99% of all the music that I listen to.

Versatility in music genres

Whenever I was asked to recommend the best IEMs by friends, I've always had to answer the question with another question: What music genre do you listen to the most? With TOTL earphones and DAC/AMP pairings, the only difference is in characteristics that would suit different music.

However, having the Contour XO on hand for the last 3 weeks, I found myself enjoying all sorts of genres of music with them. Classical music sounds well defined and immersive on them, while grittiness on distorted guitar and rim shorts in rock albums can be felt. I enjoy hearing many small details that I've not previously noticed on pop and electronic music, and being able to capture cymbal sizzles and snare brushes, jazz and funk - they are also covered.


Final Verdict

For those who know L-Acoustics and JH Audio, the collaboration makes a whole lot of sense. Both companies have an obsession with synchronization of sound frequencies to provide the most immersive listening experience. Through working with JH Audio though, for the first time L-Acoustics brings this listening experience from concert arenas down to a personal level.


The resulting product, the Contour XO is a sophisticated and professional looking IEM, which carries all the JH Audio hardware that were made to be rockstar-proof, while equipped with reference use, neutral sound signature that suits pretty much all genres of music. This is a TOTL IEM that all music enthusiasts should consider, especially business travelers who want something that has an understated look with overreaching performance. We're pleased to award the L-Acoustics Contour XO with the IBTimes Best Products badge.

You can check out the L-Acoustics Contour XO on their official website.

Sam is a production engineer turned tech writer who specializes in seeking out gadgets that enhances productivity while still looking sharp. This is a contribution to an ongoing IBTimes review series on gadgets for Business Travelers.