Rhines Custom Monitors — Stage Series

Disclaimer: These impressions were made using demo units of Rhines Custom Monitors, which may not fully reflect the actual sound of a fully custom-molded monitor. The demo units were graciously loaned to CYMBACAVUM by JM-Plus Electronics in Taipei, the Taiwan/Japan area retail partner for Rhines.

Still feeling a bit hungover from the World Cup? Missing all the winning ways of the Germans? Well, we’ve got some more German wares coming your way in the form of Rhines Custom Monitors!

Guess what? They’re winners too!

You may have heard of Rhines. Then again, you’ve probably heard more about Compact MonitorsCompact Monitors was a longtime stalwart in the European professional audio community. The founders, Felix Reinsch and Marcel Schoenen, worked together on custom in-ear monitors for over six years before deciding to go splitsville in 2013.

The fallout was two separate companies, in the form of Rhines Custom Monitors for Reinsch and Vision Ears (VE) for Schoenen. They agreed to share the preexisting Stage product line and mutually service the sizeable throng of extant Compact Monitors clients, but would develop their own unique products going forth.

As the Cold War is long over, I won’t make any wall references. Besides, VE and Rhines aren’t in Berlin — they’re in Cologne (Köln). Unlike the southern Bavarian center of Munich (home of the famous yearly high-end show), Cologne (and its neighboring Bonn) accommodates the major river flow of the Rhine and has been a western center of cultural relevance since the Roman times.

It is there where Felix Reinsch has been working on custom-molded earpieces since 1999 (before the inception of Compact Monitors in 2006) and hence on marketing material Rhines likes to extend its history back to before the turn of the millenium.

This is a considerable amount of history for one person in such a nascent industry; after all, even Jerry Harvey only began his in-ear monitoring revolution with Ultimate Ears in 1997. It’s safe to say Reinsch is every bit the grizzled veteran. He lays claim to the acoustic design for all of the Stage series monitor models and continues to push forward to this day.

In that sense, Rhines Custom Monitors carries on much of the same self-assured confidence as its proprietor.

IMG_0016a_mini
The Rhines Stage series of custom in-ear monitors is impeccably built from bottom to top.

Build Quality

All the demo units were delightfully very well constructed. It’s difficult to say whether Rhines‘ build quality is truly better than that of any of the other brands, but it goes without saying that the shells in the demo units I tried are all essentially bubble-free and possess good transparency and luster where warranted. Even though the Stage models are all constructed with a unique, recessed bell design at the output, the shells are durably made and do not hint at brittleness at all.

One other remarkable thing is how incredibly tight the cable sockets are. They are by far the tightest two-pin design I’ve encountered and require quite a bit of elbow grease to loosen.

Rookie & Stage 2

The Rookie and Stage 2 are both two-way, dual driver designs — as far as I know, they even use the same drivers — but while the Rookie and Stage 2 might not appear too different from the surface, the two are quite different.

Unlike the Stage 2, the Rookie is a single output bore design and is more like a design similar to an universal-fit monitor like the Westone UM2. On the other hand, the Stage 2 uses two separate output bores with separate acoustic filtering, making for a more advanced acoustic design.

The differences in acoustic design are clearly reflected in the sound. The Stage 2 has a V-shaped, mildly warm sound somewhat reminiscent of an Ultimate Ears UE5 Pro, but with a deeper soundstage presentation. Vocals are slightly recessed but hold admirable accuracy in spite of its lack of forwardness.

The Rookie, while still enjoyable, has a more brittle sounding low end; the normally robust and powerful CI woofer is reduced to something with much less punch (perhaps the result of resistive underdamping). The merger of two drivers also created an odd treble spike that existed regardless of how shallowly or deeply I wore the Rookie.

The Stage 2 -- basic but enjoyable.
The Stage 2 — basic but enjoyable.

Stage 3

There’s a comprehensive review (link) out for the Stage 3 by CIEM superstar average_joe of head-fi and The Headphone List, so I’m not going to say too much about it (read the review, it’s long and detailed, with many different comparisons); while the Stage 3 is designed for a neutral response, it does in fact possess some color, though it’s done in very good taste, emphasizing the low and high ends in a very pleasant manner.

The Stage 3 is an old-school, throwback design that harkens the likeness of the venerable Ultimate Ears UE10 Pro. By twinning the output of its large CI woofers, the Stage 3 is able to extend the driver’s performance out to the midrange, leaving the tweeter mostly for mid-high and treble duties. The result is a warm midrange, but will preserve an overall neutral tone, and some aforementioned low and high emphasis.

The most important aspect to bring up about the Stage 3 is that it is the first model of the Stage lineup that I feel gains that unique “forward projection” of a deep soundstage presentation that I hear from Rhines‘ higher end models. There’s a smidgen of that presentation in the Stage 2, but it’s subtle. In the Stage 3 (and each of the subsequent higher-end models), the effect is much more pronounced.

IMG_0037a_mini
You can’t go wrong with the Stage 3 — it’s neutrally voiced by with just a little bit of emphasis all around.

Stage 4 & Stage 4U

The Stage 4 is a departure from the Stage 2 and Stage 3, tuned to be warmer and mid-bassier than its two little brothers. It is the most enveloping of the Stage monitors, blanketing everything with a distinct warmth.

The Stage 4 is still somewhat mid-forward, but clarity lags behind both the Stage 3 and Stage 2. In this sense, the Stage 4 is perhaps the most colored offering that Rhines provides. For the design of the Stage 4, it’s fairly clear that the overarching goal was maximum depth and impact — boost the bass undertones as well as the vocal fundamentals, and hear it all wrap you up in a warm swath of music.

To be honest, the Stage 4 isn’t my pick of the litter. While I can appreciate its particular strengths and understand why certain people might like it, I prefer a highly transparent and accurate midrange, which unfortunately has been somewhat washed out by the low and low-mid boost. It’s a good thing I got to try the Stage 4U.

The Stage 4U (“Unicorn“) was a design variant of the Stage 4 shelved during development when Compact Monitors opted for a warmer, more impactful signature. It originated as the Stage 4 “Flat”, an evolution of the Stage 3 signature; that moniker will give you an idea of what the 4U is like. It makes its return as a Japan/Taiwan exclusive for Rhines‘ retail partner JM-Plus Electronics in Taipei, and is reserved only for unicorn chasers of a flat stage sound.

Presentation-wise, the Stage 4 and 4U are about as far away from each other as two get. The 4U gets about as much (or less) bass impact as the Stage 3 with more emphasis on the sub-bass, while the Stage 4 is quite forward in mid-bass quantity. Forward projection of the midrange is about the same, but the 4U sounds much clearer.

To me, the Stage 4U feels like a consummate vocal monitor — it possesses very accurate, almost savant-like mids with great detail levels and an overwhelming sense of forward projection. The vocalist is front and center and you must listen.

It also tends to sound a little dry, and while it images quite well, doesn’t impart a lot of space to its presentation. Detail lovers will certainly enjoy the 4U‘s monitoring qualities, however, and it probably surpasses the Stage 3 as a neutral-leaning model.

IMG_0045c_mini
The Stage 4 and Stage 4U (a Taiwan/Japan exclusive) are voiced quite differently.

Stage 5

Finally, we get to the Stage 5. Released just this year, the Stage 5 comes hot on the heels of Vision Ears‘ offering of the VE6 XControl, giving each company a new flagship model in the post-Compact Monitors era.

Rhines‘ own product description paints the Stage 5 as so:

“With 5 drivers maxed to their full potential, the Stage 5 offers the greatest extension of the series. The highs offer a silky smooth presentation without peaks, that allow never before experienced airiness and separation within a big sound stage. The low end is bottomless and accurate and transitions smoothly into breathtakingly precise mids.”

While I wouldn’t be quite as florid with my rhetoric regarding the Stage 5, the description isn’t too far from the truth when everything is pared down to its basic tenets. Signature-wise, the Stage 5 probably is most like the Stage 2 — a U-shaped presentation with some warmth in the midrange — but in reality, the Stage 5 is unlike any of the Stage models that came before it.

If I had to attribute a weakness to each of the Stage models, it’d be the lack of openness of soundstage. They all have decent depth and layering to their respective presentations, but all somewhat lack a wide-open feel one gets with something like the Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor. The Stage 5 has no issue with that — it is without a doubt spacious and wide, and is therefore a substantial departure from the Rhines/VE Stage monitor house sound.

It’s possible that this newfound openness is attributed to the Knowles dual tweeter used in the Stage 5. Interestingly, while these drivers usually sound somewhat peaky, on the Stage 5, despite being fairly bright up top, it is remarkably smooth in its highs — no jarring treble resonances anywhere. And this smoothness is achieved with a demo model, no less! I was quite surprised. It turns out they weren’t lying in their product description!

The Stage 5 is also the most detailed of all the Stage models, including the Stage 4U. I say this not only on account of the fact that the Stage 5 has more perceived treble than any of its predecessors, but also because its midrange is incredibly detailed. Tonally, the Stage 4U‘s midrange is probably more accurate, but the Stage 5 imparts just as much detail while simultaneously being a tad warmer, but with some added salt and pepper up top in the treble region.

Bass on the Stage 5 is elevated above neutral, but well within the realm of reason, somewhat like the JH Audio JH13 FreqPhase. Certainly, the bass cannot be considered heavy, but will hit hard when the occasion calls for some impact.

From bottom to top, the Stage 5 is a very well-conceived custom in-ear monitor, and one worthy of being Rhines‘ flagship. In fact, I’ve essentially committed to purchasing a pair once I have the requisite funds for one. At 1379 €, the Stage 5 is certainly one of the more pricey custom in-ear monitors around, but it does earn its keep with top-level technical performance.

IMG_0051a_mini
With excitement, details, and a large soundstage, the Stage 5 is a worthy flagship for the Rhines Custom Monitors product line.

Concluding Statements

Over the course of four days or so, I found the Rhines demos for the most part very pleasant to listen to.  FR-wise, except for the warm and dark-ish Stage 4, I liked the others all quite a bit. In the end, I found myself reaching for the Stage 3, Stage 4U, and Stage 5 the most.

With regard to details, I found the 4U and 5 to be most detailed. The 4U possesses almost a savant-like focus on the midrange and possesses neutrality comparable to the Stage 3, but with greater transparency in the mids. At the top of the food chain, the 5 is designed for more razzmatazz while retaining a lot of detail.

If the 4U is the evolution of the 3, then the 5 is the evolution of the 2, but perhaps that’d be simplifying things a bit too much. The Stage 5 is really a mix of the fun U-shaped signature and slight midrange warmth of the Stage 2 with the accuracy and focused forward projection of the Stage 3 and 4U.

Is the Stage 5 worthy of being a flagship? Absolutely. Will everyone love it? I can picture some preferring the 3, actually, as it’s a bit less etched, smoother, and less highly strung in the treble, but no one can deny the Stage 5‘s technical prowess.

It became apparent from a mere couple of days of listening to these demo units of the Stage series of Rhines Custom Monitors that their pièce de résistance is forward projection. As you move up the Stage ladder, the vocal image gets increasingly well-defined and projected to the front. Felix Reinsch knows what’s up — for music, regardless of whether you’re the drummer or the engineer, the singer is still the focus, and needs to be isolated away from everything else.

On the flipside, with the recessed bell horn design, the trend is that everything always tends to sound a bit intimate and less open-ended. The Stage 5 seems to have taken away this primary disadvantage and put it closer to models from other brands, while retaining the distinctive vocal-forward Stage signature.

The only question for me now is how to accrue the funds necessary for a Stage 5. It’s not just the flagship that is expensive — none of the entire Stage lineup can be considered as a value proposition. However, people with the means to afford a Rhines monitor may just find the experience quite fulfilling!

Advertisements

13 Comments Add yours

  1. What a great article. And you managed to talk hi-end portable without going florid. Excellent. I have only tried SD-3, which is a pretty nice phone.

    Like

  2. malifact says:

    The Stage 5 sounds very interesting and a significant improvement on the other earphones in the range. How does it sound with low-end sources?

    Like

    1. CYMBACAVUM says:

      What’s your definition of a “low-end source”?

      Like

      1. malifact says:

        A smartphone or a DAP like the Fiio X3

        Like

      2. CYMBACAVUM says:

        Those are high standards! In that case, it should perform very well.

        Like

  3. yuntingz says:

    Hello, Mr T. The Stage 4U sounds interesting. I read it is similar to FitEar MH334, but not sure if that is true. Can I ask some questions:

    1) Is it easy to drive? Will it sound okay using a high-end smartphone?

    2) Does it have enough bass for pop and RnB music?

    3) Is the presentation “intimate” (up-front) so that vocals are clear? Or does it have a more distant sound?

    Thank you.

    Like

    1. CYMBACAVUM says:

      (1) All custom IEMs should be easy to drive, meaning that they will easily achieve deafening sound pressure levels with very little voltage. However, most smartphones are not designed for sound quality, and when an audio device (load) is connected, either the frequency response loses linearity or THD and IMD increase significantly, or both. Currently, the best smartphones for audio are devices like the LG G3 and Apple iPhone 5S. Other models like the Meizu MX4 Pro, which have been designed with high-quality audio in mind, have not been released yet. Be mindful of usage characteristics, however. Do you mostly listen on the go (e.g. on the bus/subway), in a noisy environment (e.g. coffee shop), or a quiet one (e.g. library, home)? If you mostly listen to audio in the first two settings, then it really doesn’t matter what kind of source you use (if you listen at safe volumes), but if you listen in a very quiet environment and listen only to music (not simultaneously doing other things), then it’d be better if you use a portable amplifier along with the source, and preferably a portable DAC/amp so that D/A conversion is conducted by the dedicated audio device, rather than the phone.

      (2) This is a question that cannot be easily answered. Preferred bass quantities are subjective, and vary from person to person. One person’s “plenty of bass” is another’s “not enough”. However, the Stage 4U should have very good bass quality (i.e. good distortion properties and good extension). Thus, the bass quantity can easily be EQ’ed to personal tastes in case the native quantity of bass is lacking. At the same time, using EQ risks a loss of resolution and latitude.

      (3) Yes, vocals are up front and clear on the 4U. In fact, it is the most clarity-oriented model in the entire Stage product lineup.

      Like

      1. yuntingz says:

        Thank you for answering me and the very detailed answer. Actually I made a mistake for first question. I meant does Stage 4U produce hiss (spelling?) easily and is it sensitive with volume? I confuse with easy to drive. Also, I understand bass is subjective. I have heard “normal” Stage 4 and wanted to know does 4U have similar bass? Or is it more mellow sound and not so much attack?

        By the way, different topic but Meizu MX4 Pro does look like it will be a good smartphone for audiophile, although oh dear at “Retina Sound”.

        Like

      2. CYMBACAVUM says:

        In my recollection, no, it is not as sensitive to hiss as some others.

        The bass response of the 4U is very different from the 4. The 4U’s bass is much tighter and measured compared to the strong mid-bass of the 4.

        In terms of ADSR, Rhines Stage monitors tend to have similar characteristics in the low end; however, whereas the bass of the Stage 4 is loosest, the Stage 4U is probably the tightest, with emphasis closer to sub-bass than mid-bass.

        Like

  4. marcus says:

    Really good article about Rhines Customs. How does the Stage 4U (Unicorn) compare to the Vision Ears VE6 XControl? I read that the 4U is similar to one of the settings on the VE6 and I’m guessing it is the X2 setting.

    Like

    1. CYMBACAVUM says:

      Few, if any, have done a direct comparison between the two, so it’s difficult to say.

      Like

  5. Ivan says:

    Thanks for the good review.
    Have you any chance to test the Stage 7? I wish for an impression for this new flagship.

    Like

    1. CYMBACAVUM says:

      We had been discussing a review with Rhines, but due to time constraints, we haven’t pursued it.

      We’ll try our best to get into contact with them again later on when time permits.

      Like

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s