Pai Audio DM1 Hybrid IEM Review

INTRODUCTION

A lot of the time it is easy as a reviewer to spend a lot of time in the mid to high end IEM market, and forget that there is a very vibrant and highly competitive sub-$100 market. Typically in my experience, most earphones in this price range have what I would consider to be a more “consumer tuned” rather than audiophile tuned sound signature. Usually this means a coloured sound signature, and a tendency toward an elevated lower end. Alex from Pai Audio approached me recently, and asked if I’d like to check out some of their new offerings. I said yes (as I had been previously impressed by their MR3), so she sent me their DM1 dual hybrid. At USD $55 on AliExpress, the DM1 is listed at a very attractive price point. Lets put it through its paces.

ABOUT PAI AUDIO

Pai Audio was formed in September 2014. They are a small company but dynamic and growing. Their catalogue has now grown to include cables, ear-buds, and a range of dynamic, BA and hybrid IEMs numbering more than a dozen and ranging from budget friendly sub $100 through to their $530 multi-BA DR8. Within these categories are options for personalisation with colour and style. In their own words, Pai Audio specialise in the manufacturing of high-end earphones, and their small team has assembled some top designers from their national audio field for research and development.

They are based in Shenzhen China, and have a growing on-line presence including a website, Twitter feed and Facebook presence. When I asked Alex in the past for a little more information she actually sent a catalogue which included independent audits of their facilities, and even photos of their facilities and testing equipment. Its really nice to see a relatively new company going about things with a great deal of focus on getting everything right from the outset, and not cutting any corners on QC and follow up testing.

We have gained a great amount of recognition in digital, computer and earphone field since our 3.14 series products were launched. The company’s business concept is “Top quality exchange for best reputation”, the concept follows our faith “Customers’ need comes first” when we provide clients with excellent products and after-sale service.

DISCLAIMER

The Pai Audio DM1 that I’m reviewing today was provided to me freely as a review sample. Alex have asked me to keep it for my personal use, or for follow up comparisons, and I thank them for this. The retail price at time of review is ~ USD 55.

PREAMBLE

If you haven’t read any of my reviews, I suggest starting here, as it will give you an insight into my known preferences and bias.

For the purposes of this review – I used the Pai Audio DM1 straight from the headphone-out socket of many of my portables, but predominantly the X5iii, X7ii, M6, M9, X7ii, and my iPhone. I did not generally further amp them (I did test them with my FiiO Q1ii, E17K, and xDuoo XP-2), as IMO they do not benefit greatly from additional amplification (YMMV and it may depend on your source). In the time I have spent with the DM1, I have noticed no change to the overall sonic presentation (break-in).

This is a purely subjective review – my gear, my ears, and my experience. Please take it all with a grain of salt – especially if it does not match your own experience.

THE PACKAGE

The Pai Audio DM1 arrived in a small plastic cube case measuring ~ 85mm x 85mm x 50mm). The case is “no frills”, but functional and consists of a foam inner (holding the IEMs and cable), a thin printed internal surround (with info on the earphones), and a small pack of silicone tips and shirt clip. There is no carry case.

The full accessory package includes:

  • 1 pair Pai Audio DM1 IEMs
  • 1 x 3.5mm MMCX stereo cable
  • 2 sets of white silicone ear tips (L/M)
  • 2 sets of grey silicone ear tips (M/S)
  • 1 set of red/grey silicone ear tips (M)
  • 1 shirt clip

The tips are fairly basic, and have a stem similar to the standard Sony ear-tips. Unfortunately none of the silicone tips fit my “goofy” ear canals, but I prefer after market tips anyway.

THE TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

MEASUREMENTS

The graphs I use are generated using the Vibro Veritas coupler and ARTA software. Ken Ball (ALO/Campfire) graciously provided me with measurement data which I have used to recalibrate my Veritas so that it mimics an IEC 711 measurement standard (Ken uses two separate BK ear simulators, we measured the same set of IEMs, and I built my calibration curve from shared data). I do not claim that this data is 100% accurate, but it is very consistent, and is as close as I can get to the IEC 711 standard on my budget. I suspect it is slightly down at around 9-10 kHz, and tend to dip slightly at sub bass with foam tips), but seems reasonably accurate through the rest of the spectrum.

I do not claim that the measurements are in any way more accurate than anyone else’s, but they have been proven to be consistent and I think they should be enough to give a reasonable idea of response – especially if you’ve followed any of my other reviews. When measuring I usually always use crystal foam tips (medium bore opening) – and the reason I use them is for very consistent seal and placement depth in the coupler. I use the same amp (E11K) for all my measurements – and output is under 1 ohm.

The graphs are provided merely as a point of discussion, and later in the review I’ve included comparisons to other IEMs for similar reference. Channel matching is extremely good (almost perfect) over the entire frequency range.

BUILD

The Pai Audio DM1 has a cartridge style outer shell combined with a vertical arm which quite cleverly doubles as an MMCX socket receptacle, and also forms an ergonomic ear shape (slotting nicely into the concha and resting inside and against the anti-helix. The main body has a diameter of 11mm, depth of 10mm, and is nicely rounded. The body and nozzle is made of an aluminium alloy. The nozzle is angled nicely forward and is 5-6mm in length. The nozzle diameter is 5mm and has a generous lip, as well as a mesh wax guard. Adjacent to the nozzle (on the internal side) is a dynamic driver port or vent. There are no identifying marks on the body.

Circling the body is a very smooth and nicely shaped polycarbonate arm which forms the ergonomic ear shaping, and also houses the standard MMCX socket. The socket is gold plated and very firm with the included cable (the build feels very solid).

The DM1 comes with a very nice single ended replaceable cable. It consists of a copper twisted pair in a flexible TPU sheath above the y-split, and this is combined to a twisted quad below the y-split. The DM1 cable has preformed ear-loops – which I find really comfortable and work well. One issue is that the L/R indicators are very difficult to see (red/blue markings for L/R would be an improvement). The Y-split is clear TPU and there is a very good cinch included. The right angled 3.5mm jack is metal, and the cable has very good strain relief. To be honest, I would not normally expect this quality of able on an IEM at this price point, although it is prone to tangling if not spooled properly. The cable also has low microphonics – essentially non-existent when using the cinch.

Internally the DM1 uses a hybrid driver system. Bass is handled by a 10mm dynamic driver, and the mids and highs by a single balanced armature driver.

Overall, this is a well built and presented IEM.

FIT / COMFORT / ISOLATION

Internal and external isolation is very good for a ported Hybrid IEM. It does ultimately depend on tip choice and seal. I would rate the passive isolation as above average and usable on public transport.

Fit and comfort thoughts are very subjective, and will vary from person to person. My experience has been one of complete satisfaction. The DM1 has been designed for a completely ergonomic fit. For me they are perfect, sitting just below flush with my outer ear, and basically disappear within a few seconds of wearing (I could forget they are in). I have slept with them intact, and woken hours later with them still there and no discomfort. The lack of hard edges and the smooth internal finish contribute to an extremely positive experience. The DM1 is designed to only be used cable over ear.

The DM1 has a good lip on the nozzle. I’ve tried Spiral Dots, Spin-fits, Ostry tuning tips and Sony Isolation tips – all fit easily and are secure. The best combination of seal and comfort for me has been with stretched Shure Olive foam tips).

SOUND QUALITY

Most of the testing at this point was done with my FiiO M6, no EQ, and the Shure foam tips. I used the M6 simply because paired they gave me a very transparent window to the music with low impedance, and more than enough power. It was also the sort of device users of the DM1 may gravitate to. There was no EQ engaged.

For the record – on most tracks, the volume level on the M6 was around 35-40/120 (depending on the track) which was giving me an average SPL around 65-75 dB. Tracks used were across a variety of genres – and can be viewed in this list.

While testing I constantly switched with my reference pair (Alclair Curve + E17K with +4 bass) to give me a good reference base-line.

Relativities

Sub-bass – Elevated with very good extension and easily audible rumble (Lorde’s “Royals). There is some bleed (both sub and mid-bass) into the mid-range. Both sub and mid-bass tend to dominate, and the overall tonality has a lot of warmth.

Mid-bass – elevated with good impact, and similar dominance to the sub-bass. The bass timbre and definition is slightly loose, but I suspect that’s more to do with quantity rather than the quality, as with less bass dominant tracks the definition and transient response is actually quite good. Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” showed plenty of thump, and sounded pretty good – until I switched to the adjusted Curve (for reference) – and on switching back, the DM1 clearly have a very warm tilt to the frequency response. Its easy to get used to the default signature and not notice how really warm/dark the overall tonality is.

Lower mid-range – recessed compared to bass. Both male and female vocal fundamentals are still very good. Can get a little swamped by the sub and mid-bass in more bass heavy tracks. Overall weight and timbre are good.

Upper mid-range – There is a slow and shallow rise from the lower mid-range to a peak at 2 kHz, then a relatively extended progression to the lower treble. The transition from lower to upper-mids is cohesive, and there is enough presence to provide both detail and presence. There is some euphony with female vocals.

Lower treble – has very good extension. It is also quite linear with no real peak at 7 kHz, but has a strong peak at 9-10 kHz which does provide a lot of air, but also a little sizzle (and resulting brittleness). Its a pity really, as had this been less obtrusive, I think the overall tonality may have been better.

Upper treble – extends quite well with some decent “air”, but is difficult to capture properly on my measurement rig, and with my “aged” hearing I no longer notice much over 12 kHz anyway.

Overall this is quite a “V” or “U” shaped monitor with an emphasis on bass and also has some treble brilliance.

Resolution / Detail / Clarity

Clarity overall can be good, but can be masked somewhat by the elevated sub and mid-bass. Micro details are there but at times you need to listen quite hard to discern them.

Cymbal hits have reasonable clarity and presence and aren’t over-emphasised. They do sit back in the overall mix, especially if a track has a strong bass guitar. Cymbal decay is OK, and does trail off after the cymbal strike (as long as its not masked). There is some semblance of heat or sizzle with some notes.

Sound-stage, Imaging

Directional queues are good – relatively clear (but does depend on the level of masking / bass quantity in the track). Presentation of stage is just outside the periphery of my head space with binaural tracks, so averagely expansive for an IEM.

With the live recording of Loreena McKennitt’s “Dante’s Prayer”, the applause section is a good test for width and depth (the sound of the audience flowing around me). Width of stage is a little wider than overall depth, but still gives a reasonable presentation.

“Let it Rain” (Amanda Marshall) gave a nice three dimensional feel (the way the track is miked) with good guitar and vocal presence. There was sibilance with Amanda’s vocals – and it should be easily noticeable because its in the recording. When the bass guitar kicked in, quite a bit of the sibilance was masked.

Strengths

  • Impact of both sub and mid-bass (may suit those with bass heavy preferences).
  • Reasonably expansive sense of stage
  • Good for both female and male vocals.
  • Nicely euphonic upper mid-range

Weaknesses

  • Quantity of the bass dominates and can mask other frequencies
  • Upper treble has a big peak which can be sharp

AMPLIFICATION REQUIREMENTS

The Pai Audio DM1 doesn’t need amplification for overall volume – but because its impedance is quite low (only 8 ohms), a source with an output impedance of around 0-1 ohms (to meet damping requirements) should make the best match.

With my iPhone SE around 30-35% volume is more than enough with most tracks, and the FiiOs are generally at around 35-40/120 single ended. I also tried the DM1 with the Q1ii, E17K and XP-2, but noticed no real differences in dynamics on any of the additionally amped sources.

RESPONSE TO EQ?

My preference is very much for a more balanced (reference) sound, so for me it was a matter of reducing the sub and mid-bass, correspondingly reducing the upper-mids slightly, and nulling the peak at 9-10 kHz. This time I couldn’t easily use the M6, so instead switched to my iPhone SE and the Equaliser app’s parametric EQ. I’ve taken a screen shot of the rough curve I used, and for my personal tastes this was quite an improvement. But for most people they’ll likely enjoy the default base enhanced sound, although some may find that upper treble peak problematic.

COMPARISON WITH OTHER IEMS

These comparisons were all done with the M6, (no EQ) – and volume matched using a calibrated SPL meter and fixed 1kHz test tone first. For this series of tests I’ve tried to stick to relatively current IEMs in similar price brackets. I’ve used The Simgot Meeture MT3, FiiO FH1, FA1 and Brainwavz M100 (all sub $100 earphones).

This is pretty subjective, but the graphs do show relativity against the other IEMs for reference.

Pai Audio DM1 ($55) vs Simgot Meeture MT3 ($70)

Build fit and comfort

The Simgot MT3 is a single DD vs the Pai DM1 dual hybrid. Both have an ergonomic design with the MT3 having a polycarbonate shell vs the aluminium alloy of the DM1. Both have extremely well made replaceable cables – with the MT3 cable being slightly more pliable and less prone to tangling. In this comparison, MT3 takes the points for cable and comfort, while the DM1 for overall build.

Sound & Value

Both have similarity in their signatures, with both being a little bassy and V shaped. Where they differ is in the upper mid-range and lower treble. The MT3 has more upper mid-range bloom, and less upper treble. The DM1 has less upper mid-range and more upper treble. As a result the MT3 is a little smoother, but can also sound a little coloured in the mid-range. The DM1 is a little more balanced, but also sounds just a little warmer (less upper mid-range), but can be sharper in the treble. Both are variations on a similar theme and quite matched in overall value.

Pai Audio DM1 ($55) vs FiiO FH1 ($75)

Build, fit and comfort

Both IEMs have ergonomic shells and are very comfortable for long term listening. Both also have replaceable MMCX cables (the cable on the DM1 is better quality and fits firmer, but the FH1 includes a balanced cable also). The body on the FH1 is a poly carbonate vs the aluminium alloy of the DM1. Both are dual hybrids. The FH1 would be slightly more comfortable and includes a case, while the DM1 is better built.

Sound & Value

These are very similar sounding IEMs. Both have an extremely good mid-range, and are on the warm side of neutral. The FH1 has less overall mid-bass and it is quite noticeable. The DM1 has slightly more upper treble presence, and is warmer with more bass impact. The winner here will depend on your individual sonic preference. For a more balanced signature, the FH1 is a very good IEM in the sub $100 bracket. But if you like a slightly warmer IEM, then at $55 the DM1 is a very good choice.

Pai Audio DM1 ($55) vs Brainwavz M100 ($89)

Build fit and comfort

The M100 is a single dynamic vs the dual hybrid DM1. Both have shells made from aluminium alloy, but the M100 cable is fixed (not replaceable). The DM1 also wins on the comfort stakes – being more ergonomic. The M100 does have more accessories, including a carry case. Overall the DM1 is a better choice for both build and comfort though.

Sound & Value

I chose this comparison to contrast another bassy signatured IEM, but this time highlighting a very much overdone IEM. The M100 has far too much sub-bass which dominates and bleeds through the mids. It is muffled, very warm/dark, and very light on mid-range and treble, the pity is that the mid-range and treble is actually very well balanced, and with EQ these really shine. The DM1 in comparison are a lot more balanced and detailed, and sound quite bright in direct comparison (which they aren’t). Given the price difference and the significantly better signature, my preference would be the DM1.

Pai Audio DM1 ($55) vs FiiO FA1 ($99)

Build, fit and comfort

This pits a single BA (FA1) vs a dual hybrid (DM1). Both IEMs have ergonomic shells and again are very comfortable for long term listening. Both also have replaceable MMCX cables. The body on the FA1 is 3D printed resin vs the aluminium alloy of the DM1. I would put build quality and materials as similar, but the FA1 has better comfort, and isolation.

Sound & Value

Again there is some similarity with these two IEMs, but the differences (which are quite apparent) could be summed up in one word (balance). The FA has perfectly matching bass, mid-range and treble, and is clean, and clear without any peakiness or over-emphasis. The DM1 is bassier (the DD hits harder than the BA) and peakier in the treble. Both have very good mid-ranges. For my personal preference, I really enjoy the overall balance of the FA1 and would pay the premium. For those looking for more bass impact, and more of a V shaped sound, the DM1 is the better choice.

VALUE

This is quite an easy one. Although quite light on accessories, the DM1 does show a lot of value for the RRP of USD $55. Build is very good for the price range, and comfort is definitely up there comparatively. You can’t really fault the overall package, and if the upper treble gets a little peaky, a simple EQ can bring it down. Whilst not quite a “sonic diamond”, the DM1 is worth its asking price.

PAI AUDIO DM1 – SUMMARY

I have to admit to being quietly impressed with Pai’s DM1, and at $55 I think Pai have created a very competitive IEM which many are sure to love. Both build and comfort are very good, and the addition of a pretty good quality removable cable is a plus. The accessories are a bit sparse (no carry case) but at this price its not a big issue.

Sonically the DM1 is a somewhat V or U shaped IEM with enhanced bass, and a bit of a peak in the upper treble. The mid-range is very well articulated, but can be masked slightly with very bassy tracks. The DM1 is tonally quite warm overall, but has enough overall balance to be very enjoyable.

My thanks to Pai Audio and Alex for the chance to review the DM1.

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