The best way to describe the xMEMS experience is that it is absolutely and unapologetically clear. You hear exactly what everything going on in a mix sounds like, with virtually no color coming from the drivers themselves. It’s totally liberating, but it can immediately bring out bad mixes (anything with an unbalanced midrange, weird panning, or too much treble). You might hate the way some old favorite records translate into headphones with such clarity. I found some mixes to be incredibly awful through such a clear window.
Clearly, the characteristics of the drivers, their speed and separation, are exaggerated to the highest degree in this pair of custom-milled titanium earphones and the specially designed amp. What scares hi-fi enthusiasts is that I’ve also demoed pre-production samples of much more affordable headphones with the xMEMS drivers inside, and they sound very close to that GOOD. The drivers are naturally flat up to the top of the frequency spectrum, meaning they can be easily tuned by manufacturers using equalization and acoustic design.
xMEMS earphones require no more power than traditional earphone drivers, so they essentially fit into any existing pair on the market as long as the form factor and impedance allow. (These headphones operate on an inverse impedance curve compared to normal drivers, and the iFi amp has a special DC bias to power them.) It’s a small change, a trade-off for such excellent, repeatable sound, and Who can, the people at xMEMS assure me that they will be easily integrated into headphones and dongles given the existing power restrictions. The company makes a tiny 1.9mm x 1.9mm chip that can easily power its drivers.
The robustness of the drivers is another big plus. These can be treated like total crap and still sound good, depending on the company. The masochists at xMEMS proudly claim that they have made them very hot, cold and wet, and put them through a complete wash and dry cycle, and the drivers always come back perfectly to spec. The joys of solidity.
The future of headphones?
The best part about xMEMS driver technology? It doesn’t seem like a mirage on the horizon so much as a plane quickly coming in to land. Creative, a brand that has long been at the forefront of audio technology and makes some pretty decent wireless headphones itself, will bring two pairs of xMEMS-based headphones to market for less than $200 before the end of the year. ‘year.
Singularity’s high-end headphones (the ones I listen to) already exist and are for sale, as are another pair of Soranik ($1,200). The company continues to innovate and create new and better drivers, like the new Cypress it announced recently. I expect many brands, especially in the high-end headphone space, to follow suit as soon as they spend time with the technology.
The new speakers may not be much cheaper than previous dynamic or balanced armature options (the company claims they are more expensive than dynamic drivers, about the same as high-end balanced armature drivers range), but they make up for that with ease of manufacturing, the fact that they don’t need to be sorted by humans or matched, and of course, the fact that they create such incredible sound. The folks at xMEMS point out that MEMS microphone technology is still slightly more expensive than previous technology used in cell phones, but remains the market leader due to the many advantages it offers in a macro sense.
Between innovations like this new solid-state driver technology and the latest Qualcomm chipsets for wireless headphones meaning lossless audio transmission and Wi-Fi-based streaming, this is shaping up to be a very exciting decade for headphones. In 10 years, maybe we’ll listen again the original AirPods (7/10, WIRED review) and I think they sound like an AM radio. As someone who loves making music as much as listening to it, I can’t wait for everyone to enjoy such a realistic musical performance at affordable prices.