Headphones and Earphones
- Written by Don Disbennett
- Published on 09 June 2014
The Design of the Polk Audio Nue Voe In-Ear Headphones
The Nue Voe is made of hard polymer and comes in two colors, black and tortoise, the latter of which I find very unique and attractive. They come with an assortment of silicone, rubber and Comply foam (memory foam) ear tips, so it was pretty easy to find something that gave me a comfortable fit and a good seal for those important bass notes. The bundle also includes a soft cloth bag for transporting the ‘phones in luggage, pocket or backpack, although I would have preferred something a bit more solid to protect them from damage.
The Nue Voe feature a fairly unique design in that they have a hard plastic “loop” perpendicular to the direction of the nozzles. I have seen this on only a couple of other earphones; it is used to help locate and direct the nozzle so that sound is properly directed into the ear canal. The loop also helps to hold the earphone in place during movement, such as when exercising or even walking as it tends to “lock” the earphone in place. The loop is placed into the lower portion of the outside ear such that the upper half of the loop rests against the fold of the ear. I found after several hours of listening that the loop made the part of my ear where it rested slightly sore, but this was not enough to discourage me from using them again and did help them stay in place during my usage on my treadmill workouts.
The cables are made of a medium thickness black rubber (white on the tortoise model) with a slider at the Y to allow adjustment and for preventing tangles in storage. The cable is terminated with a 90 degree gold-plated plug and the right side of the Y contains a three-button controller and microphone compatible with I-devices only. Unfortunately, I do not own any I-devices, so I was unable to evaluate the effectiveness of this feature on the Nue Voe.
The other unusual aspect of the Nue Voe is that it is a balanced armature design, rather than the less expensive and more common dynamic driver found in many inexpensive earphones. One of the problems with a single armature design such as the Nue Voe is a lack of bass response, instead typically emphasizing the mid and/or high frequencies. The more common way to solve this problem is to simply add one or more additional balanced armature modules, much like adding additional drivers to a loudspeaker. In this method, one driver will handle only the bass frequencies and another will handle the mid’s while a third or fourth will handle higher frequencies. That solves the problem of poor bass response, but the cost of adding two or three additional armature modules quickly moves the earphone into the upper tiers of earphones, price-wise.
Instead of adding additional driver modules, Polk has adopted a clever and unique technique of modifying the mid-range and high frequency response of the driver using a passive network to lower the levels of these frequencies to more closely match the natural bass response of the balanced armature driver. Polk calls this technique “Polk Optimized Electro-acoustic Tuning” (P.O.E.T.). This certainly sounds like an interesting approach to offering a more balanced sound signature from a single balanced armature design. Does it work? We shall find out shortly, so don’t touch that dial!
Since I believe that most buyers of most in-ear monitors (earphones) will primarily be using them on-the-go, I spent most of my time listening to the Nue Voe’s with various portable devices of various levels of quality and output power. I began at the bottom of the totem pole, size-wise and power-wise using a Sansa Clip+ (8 GB) containing mostly higher quality WMA rips from CD’s and also a few resamples of hi-rez downloads from HDTracks. First up was Paul McCartney’s “Bluebird” from his Band On The Run album, down sampled from the 96/24 FLAC download. I compared this song via the Nue Voe and then a pair of MeElectronics 151A earphones, which also feature a single balanced armature design. The Nue Voe’s had a much warmer overall sound and Paul’s voice was quite mellow compared to the 151A’s.
The other striking difference was the volume level required for the two ‘phones. I had to turn the Clip+ to just one notch below maximum volume to reach a satisfying level, whereas with the 151A’s I had to drop the volume about three clicks to approximate the same volume level. It was obvious that the Nue Voe’s were not the best match for the Clip+ due to the limited amplifier power available. Further, the triangles in this tune were much more distinct and crisp sounding with the 151A’s and Paul’s vocals had a bit more presence and clarity as well.
Next I listened to “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen’s album of the same name. This was from a resampled FLAC rip of the CD. Once again, the volume difference was very obvious, although I favored Bruce's vocals through the Nue Voe’s. In this case his rather coarse voice was a bit too much so with the 151A’s. The drums were also quite different in that the 151A’s had more initial attack, but less of the fullness and therefore I slightly favored the Nue Voe’s reproduction of them. So out of the two songs played on the Clip+, I preferred the sound of one on the 151A’s and one on the Nue Voe’s, although some might like to play Springsteen a bit louder than the Clip+ could muster with the Polk earphones.
I proceeded to listen to a number of additional tracks directly from my laptop and came to the conclusion that overall, on most songs, I really preferred the warmer sound of the Polk’s to the MEElectronics, despite better detail in the mid-range and treble by the later. The problem was that the 151A’s were just really lacking in bass and at times vocals were so clearly defined that they sounded almost artificial, especially when compared to the more organic sound of the Polk’s. I think my “ideal” earphone would sound something like 70% of the Nue Voe and 30% of the 151A’s sound, but for day in, day out listening, I prefer the sound of the Nue Voe’s.
In an effort to see how the Nue Voe’s would work with a variety of portable devices, I then moved on to my Samsung Galaxy SIII smartphone, streaming music from the Amazon Cloud as well as my small collection of music in the cloud, recently purchased from Murfie (www.murfie.com). I started off by listening to a great album by Dire Straits, “Brothers in Arms”. I listened to the entire album and found that the Nue Voe really complimented Mark Knopfler’s smooth and mellow voice. The Samsung provided reasonable volume for the Nue Voe, but, again, was only a few clicks away from its maximum volume. Still it did provide a very decent volume against the relatively quiet background in my work office. The sound was warm, but I was able to hear brushes on cymbals quite clearly, so that the bass never covered up or obscured the mid’s or highs.
Next I listened to Linda Ronstadt’s new album, “Duets”, pairing her with a variety of male and female vocalists. Again, I listened to the entire album and it sounded very good and Ronstadt’s voice sounded just as I expected, having listened to her for many years singing many different types of music from pop to standards from the 40’s with Nelson Riddle’s orchestra to traditional Mexican “canciones” she heard as a child. The Nue Voe’s worked very well with vocals, both males and females, giving them a mellow, organic sound that sounded, well, human!
Finally, I moved on to the “big guns” in terms of a very high quality portable playback system (Acer netbook with SSD drive running JRiver Media Center 19) playing through my favorite portable usb DAC (Audioengine D1) and playing high resolution music. First up, was Cat Stevens venerable album, “Tea for the Tillerman”(96/24 bit HDTracks download) and listening to his “Where Do the Children Play” his guitar was full and impactful and gave me that “you are there” experience we all strive for, but so often fail to achieve in our music listening. This was followed by one of Steven’s best-known songs, “Wild World” and, again, the sound was so full and dynamic that I felt transported to the recording studio listening through the control room monitors. This is quite an accomplishment for a pair of reasonably priced in-ear monitors!
Moving from pop to some high resolution jazz, I listened to a wonderful 96/24 bit download recorded by speaker legend Paul Klipsch direct to his two track open reel deck at 15 ips. The artists are the Joe Holland Quartet (Klipsch Vol. II, part 1, High Definition Tape Transfers) playing the song “Jammin’ the Blues” and this really sounded stunning over the Nue Voe’s. This recording was done long before the invention of Pro Tools and the loudness wars and is one of the best examples of what a truly great recording can sound like when heard through a high quality playback system. The drums on this recording, both the snares and the toms are very much in evidence and I heard all of the impact and the delicacy of these instruments through the Nue Voe earphones. Also, the clarinet and the upright bass, which were apparently not as closely miked as the drums, were very clear and sounded quite realistic. Every note on this song came through the DAC/earphone combination with stunning clarity and presence.