Rapid Reaction: Astell&Kern x JH Audio Layla

Layla is the latest and greatest entry into what Jerry Harvey has dubbed his ‘Siren Series’ of in-ear monitor offerings, named after women featured in famous rock songs. As the flagship of the series, JH Audio markets her as a mastering reference tool. Bass-adjustable, Layla comes equipped with a cable integrated with an adjustable bass potentiometer capable of adding an additional thirteen decibels of bass at 60 Hz. Layla also boasts 4th order crossovers (an industry first as claimed by JH Audio), patented FreqPhase tuning, stainless steel waveguides, and three sets of proprietary quad-stacked balanced armatures (for a total of twelve). After a successful previous venture, JH Audio now co-ops the universal model with Astell&Kern. To top off the mystique, Layla weighs in at a hefty $2,500. Welcome to insanity!

Today, I had opportunity to experience that very craziness when I sat down for an extended listen of a friend’s universal-fit Layla. I was able to use my own gear with my songs, which included an iPhone 5s, Astell&Kern AK240, and Charles Altmann’s Tera-Player stacked with a Cypher Labs Picollo portable amp. I also brought along my Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor as a baseline from which to judge my impressions.

Design, Build Quality, Fit & Ergonomics

Let’s start with the physical, and there’s no way around it — the only way to describe Layla’s dimensions and appearance is to characterize her as a BBW. She’s absolutely huge (but quite attractive). When first trying to fit Layla in my ear, it was quite disconcerting; I couldn’t tell if I had the IEM twisted in place or not. Layla sticks so far out from your ear that you cannot use, by feel, any part of your ear anatomy as reference for proper fit. After a few moments of fiddling back and forth, I was finally able to get a proper seal. Although at no point was Layla ever uncomfortable, it was always disconcerting as it just felt awkward having something so large sticking out of my ear.

Physically, Layla is quite a nice looking IEM if you can get over the size and bulbous shape. The shell is fully fabricated from carbon fiber with an eye-catching, iridescent, rainbow-colored ring around the faceplate. One faceplate is branded with the Astell&Kern ‘A‘ and the other with the winged lady of JH Audio. The cable is very robust and thick, but surprisingly flexible. The bass pot, while fairly large, is quite easy to master. Perhaps the only real blemish I noticed was a bit of an unclean finish to the carbon fiber at the tip of the nozzle around the triple-bore stainless steel waveguide.

Sound

Soundwise, Layla is pretty neutral. At 7:30, the lowest setting on the bass pot, Layla has just a hair less bass than does my UERM. Bass at 9 o’clock gets pretty darn close to the UERM — so close in fact, I found Layla at its lower bass settings to have a slight sub-bass roll-off in the deepest registers similar to that of the UERM. Although Layla does seem perhaps a hair stronger at 30 Hz it’s otherwise very, very similar to the UERM when the bass pot is kept low. I found the UERM’s bass to keep up in both texture and definition — an impressive feat for a single bass driver (albeit a large one) as opposed to the quad stack of the Layla. Definitely, Layla’s bass is very good; well-controlled and best of all, neutral and natural at the lower and lowest of settings.

The treble on Layla is simply fantastic. Is it perfectly flat? A resounding ‘no’, but when has an IEM ever possessed perfectly flat treble? Certainly none that I’ve heard. Using a tone generator, I was able to detect a large treble peak around 7 kHz and another minor treble peak at 8.5 kHz. After that, there’s a fairly broad dip until it comes back at 11 kHz, with good extended response beyond 14 kHz. Overall, Layla is a little less airy as compared to the UERM, but it has great sparkle with a bit more weight to it. I very much enjoyed the timbre and extension of the Layla treble as it’s combined with realistic weight.

However, if Layla‘s bass was very good and treble simply fantastic, then I’d have to label the midrange as somewhat disappointing. I found the Layla midrange to be oddly veiled and honky. I joked with my friend that it was like Myles Kennedy was singing through a toilet paper roll. Here, I found the UERM to handily outperform the Layla in both transparency and midrange resolution. I did find a sizable dip around 1.5 kHz and I’m betting this may be contributing to my perception of slight veil.

I’ve read many rave about Layla‘s soundstage, or head stage, to be incredibly huge and to exceed many full size headphones. I, however, did not find this to be the case. With the bass at its lowest setting, and up to about half past 10 o’clock, I do find Layla‘s presentation to be nice and wide — definitely well above average but also definitely not the widest I’ve heard. The Tralucent Audio 1Plus2 (read Mr. T’s review here) still wears that crown. As you move the bass pot even higher and towards its max, I find staging to decrease in width and to increase in both height and depth. I suspect phase is playing a part in this perception, as I believe Layla‘s phase coherency to be better when there is less resistance at play. As the bass increases, resistance is decreasing and improving phase response, which provides better coherence, center image and staging height. As more resistance is used to lower the bass, and subsequently improve frequency response accuracy, I detected a hit to coherency. So much so, that I thought my UERM had better coherency to the Layla at its lowest bass settings. I also found my UERM to sound more open overall, with wider and airier staging than that of the Layla at any bass setting.

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, I really liked the Layla. It’s able to accomplish a natural sounding, reference-quality frequency response that appeals to my neutral leaning preferences. Major pluses are its tunable bass, class leading treble, and overall frequency response. Minuses are the overly tubby housings, veiled midrange, and the bass pot size/placement.

I find its value to be seriously questionable, however, especially against an equally reference performer in the UERM, which can be had well under $1,000 if purchased at trade shows, discount sites like Massdrop, or any other way one might find to acquire a discount.

If anything, the Layla has me more excited to try the lower-priced, lower driver count Angie. If Angie can pull off very similar treble to the Layla but with an even more transparent and involving midrange, it might certainly be headed right up my alley. I’ve been told Angie’s housings are a bit smaller than the Layla, and that, as well as its price being less than half that of the Layla, certainly makes for an intriguing package.

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