A Successful Revision
- Great equilibrium, balance and timbre.
- Warm, harmonious, smooth and euphonic tuning.
- Remarkable extension, especially in the low end, for a single BA.
- It’s capable of supporting volume and thick bass, without distortion.
- Very expressive and descriptive midrange.
- Good accessories and large zipped case.
- Ergonomics and passive isolation.
- Minimal weight.
- The treble may be too soft and the tuning may be slightly dark, depending on personal taste.
- Coming from a specialist cable brand, such an element could be superior.
- The top end is muted.
Link to the Store
By now, many enthusiasts are familiar with the portable audio retailer Penon Audio. As a specialist shop, it has tested countless products, so it’s not unreasonable to think that it might have a clear idea of what good headphones should sound like. The second step is to put this knowledge into practice and start designing new products, under his own name. Actually, I don’t know if the way Penon has gone about launching its own models resembles the mini-story I’ve told. However, the end result is the same.
As a brand, Penon has specialised in creating cables, adapters and IEMS. And almost all of their products are mid to high-end. Their first model was launched in 2017, the BS1 Earbuds. The model I’m going to analyse in this review is the Penon Sphere. It is a single Balanced Armature, inside a resin capsule, with a semi-custom ergonomic shape. Its profile is balanced, with fast bass, smooth vocals and airy treble. That’s what is emphasised in the description. Personally, I would like to add, by way of introduction, that the Sphere are a warm IEMS with a surprisingly good tendency in the low end. The bass response is very extensive for a simple BA, even more so when you consider that the treble reaches the air zone with plenty of headroom. The rest of the characteristics will be explained in the following review.
- Driver Type: Single Balanced Armature.
- Frequency Response: 20 Hz – 20 kHz
- Sensitivity: 118dB/1mW
- Impedance: 6 Ω @ 1 kHz
- Passive Noise Reduction: 26dB
- Jack Connector: SE 3.5mm
- Capsule Connection Type: 2Pin 0.78mm
- Cable Length: 1.2M
The Penon Sphere comes in a medium sized box, whose dimensions are 130x102x59mm. Their colours are blue and red/orange. On the front side you can read Penon in the centre, next to their logo, in gold ink, on a blue background. On the back is a short presentation of the brand, as well as the model specifications and the company’s contact details. All this, in white ink, also on a blue background. On one side, on the short side, there is a realistic photo of the capsules. After opening the box by lifting it upwards, you can see a blue case, made of imitation leather, with a golden zip. It is almost rectangular, its corners are rounded, it has a good height and in its centre is the logo and brand name in gold lettering. It is encased in dense black foam rubber. Underneath is a brown pouch, also in imitation leather, but sturdier. It has a clip and closes like an envelope. Inside the pouch are all the accessories. In brief, they are as follows:
- The two Penon Sphere capsules.
- One 4-strand black braided cable, with 3.5mm SE jack plug and 2Pin 0.78mm interface.
- Three pairs of white silicone tips, sizes SxMxL, wide channel.
- Three pairs of black silicone tips, blue core, sizes SxMxL, medium channel.
- One pair of foam tips, size medium/large.
- Metal clothes pin.
- Cleaning brush/fork tool.
- Blue leather case with zip.
- Brown leather pouch with clip.
The outer presentation is austere, but, in reality, no more is needed. The zippered case is spacious and great for storing IEMS at home. Perhaps it’s too big to use for transport. That’s what the other leather bag is for, but this one is a bit more cramped as it’s flat. The metal clip is not very common and I welcome the presence of a cleaning tool, with brush and fork.
Sober and simple, but very useful and coherent.
Construction and Design
The Penon Sphere are IEMS with a Single Balanced Armature inside a dark resin capsule. The material is not completely opaque and, although it is dark, something is visible inside: some small wires and a good-sized BA driver. It is not located in the mouthpiece, but rather between the outer face of the capsules and the beginning of the mouthpiece neck. A small tube appears to emerge from the BA emitter hole and leads to the outside of the mouthpiece. Thus, the nozzle is a simple orifice that is not covered by a grid. A whitish coating can be seen on the inside. The shape of the nozzle is not straight, but more like a ring that narrows at the neck and widens again on the way to the inner body of the capsule. It has a semi-custom, ergonomic shape. Although there are parts inside that seem to be empty, i.e. between the 2Pin 0.78mm connection and the driver, the capsule has a good medium size. I think it could be a bit more compact. The inner side is characterised by the ergonomic shape of the side protrusion and the neck of the mouthpiece: all these parts are very rounded and stubby. The 2Pin connections are integrated inside the body of the capsule, located at the apex where the protrusion is located, closest to the outer face. This face has that typical African continent shape, sharper at its lower apex. The left capsule reads PENON, in blue letters, which are slightly below the surface. The right capsule reads SPHERE.
The cable consists of 4 knotted strands. It has a 3.5mm SE angled jack plug, gold plated. It is a classic cylinder with a spring-loaded elbow to protect the cable and its coupling. The splitter piece is a small, narrow, elongated cylinder with a smooth rubber sleeve that protects the cable at the cable entry. The pin is a small piece of translucent plastic with two holes, one for each channel. The cables, on their way to the 2Pin connectors, have a translucent, over-ear, coating/guide. The connector is black plastic, slightly curved, of traditional shape, narrower at the part close to the cable. There is a letter inscribed on each pin, indicating the channel, plus two highlighted dots near the cable. The pins protrude gold-plated on a rectangular piece, slightly smaller than the connector body.
The weight of the capsules is minimal, but the construction feels solid, sober, functional, yet pleasant. Perhaps, a relatively large capsule for a single BA is striking. Actually, this section is in line with the packaging: functionality and practicality, rather than any experimentation that might go wrong. I would have liked a more eye-catching cable, more, coming from a brand expert in cables: a silver-plated cable, perhaps?
Adjustment and Ergonomics
The fit goes somewhat beyond that of a semi-custom universal capsule. Its nozzle has a stubby shape that is not particularly long, but its diameter allows for a shallow to medium insertion. The minimal weight and ergonomic shape offer a certain freedom inside the bell, favouring a small oscillation of the capsules once they are in place, something that, perhaps, has an influence on the final sound obtained. When an optimum fit is achieved with the most suitable tips (in my case, as is almost always the case, the large foam-filled tips that I make myself), the isolation is above average, achieving a remarkable level of immersion.
The wheel is not being invented, but the use of this capsule achieves very good results that are undoubtedly effective and desirable.
It is impressive to see the frequency response of the Penon Sphere. The only part I find weaker is the air area. But, in reality, there are many IEMS with dynamic drivers that have a similar response in the upper treble, so I don’t find it problematic. Who wants to listen to treble above 15khz? Or, rather, who can hear them?
The Sphere’s profile could be defined as balanced and warm. With a fairly linear low end that glides very smoothly into the midrange, the balance feels backed up by an upper midrange tuned to match, so as not to lose harmony. There’s an undeniable sense of warmth to be felt the first time you use them. That means a very full sound in the mids and also a big surprise in the low end. I must admit that, at first, it is difficult to get into the sound of the Sphere. That sense of closeness and warmth gives me a slight feeling of darkness. It is a personal reaction, but, once inside the sound, both the proximity and the coherence of the sound offer an intimate, pleasant and highly musical feeling that remains in the memory.
I have to repeat once again that the presence of the low end in the Sphere is surprising, as well as its sonority. It is clear that it is difficult for a Single BA to provide a realistic low end timbre. But these Penon’s are certainly committed to it. I can’t deny that, in the pure tone test, the sonority of the very low frequency tones is coloured. But this happens even in the best families, so it’s just a matter of course. It is clear that any self-respecting bass lover would not choose these IEMS to enjoy his bass-heavy music. But the rest of you won’t mind the bass-heavy presence of the Sphere. The bass is unsurprisingly not very deep because its travel to the LFOs is somewhat limited. They have a tendency to be heard rather than felt and don’t move much air. This limits the physical sensation and forcefulness of a muscular low end. On the other hand, it is worth noting how well this single BA is able to reproduce bass without distortion when the volume is turned up too high. This means that the BA is clearly well dimensioned in this respect. The punch is peculiar, it is fast and decays evenly, it sounds clear and is agile. It even shows signs of rubberiness, which is very noticeable and brings it closer to the real thing. Although, it’s true that the texture is not very expressive and has more smoothness than emotion. The best part of the bass is in the centre, this is where the relationship between presence, power and naturalness is maximised. If the music focuses on this point, this is where the Sphere reveals the surprise I’m talking about, showing punch and personality. At this point, the layering and recreation of planes is coherent, showing precision in the recreation of tones. Really, a commendable effort for a Single BA.
The driver finds much more freedom to recreate the midrange and this is where the Sphere does the rest. It is clear that the weight of the bass helps the midrange to have a warmth, which translates into a very natural, highly expressive and precise range. Without being an analytical sound, the level of resolution is high, but at the same time very harmonious and musical. Everything contributes to conveying realism, and the timbre feels consistent and with a point of warmth. Everything starts with a motif, translates and returns to the same beginning. It’s the vicious circle that the Sphere generates in this range. You hardly feel any dip and the range moves between very few dB’s of difference, something that implies the great balance and equilibrium that this model possesses. In addition, the Sphere has been tuned with the necessary competence so that there is not even a hint of muddiness. Although the body is generous and fleshy at this stage, it is not too dense, nor does it take up more space than it should. The notes in this part are presented with air and a level of resolution capable of expanding the sound so that everything fits, but without escaping, maintaining the musicality, but demonstrating a great descriptive level. It sounds simple: the voices are expressed with an ability to detect the pronunciation of the words, even air and lip smacks, but without it feeling exaggerated, or too explicit. This virtue makes them very well suited to styles with vocals and few instruments, as they have the potential to reproduce these elements very completely, faithfully and naturally. And there’s no denying the abilities for other styles either, the Sphere is also very effective with faster and more dynamic genres. This is where the driver’s speed, quickness and ability to separate are demonstrated. In this sense, the dexterity to shred all the sounds of the range, isolating them, exposing them with naturalness and euphony, is evident. The upper midrange helps greatly in keeping everything in relation and maintaining coherence. Its projection is just right so that the warmth is not lost and the necessary clarity is felt so that the sound remains open, without becoming dark. I can’t deny that, at first, the Sphere’s tuning can be striking, because it departs from the current trend of emancipated mid-highs in search of a forced level of clarity. These Penon’s don’t need any such gimmicks to shine and bring a good sense of light, transparency, space and detail, but without all this being completely obvious. A guy with character.
The Sphere’s treble is, of course, in keeping with the rest of the sound: balanced and measured. Just as there is nothing out of tune within their tuning, the high end is unswerving in its compliance with this premise and stays within a coherent smoothness. Admittedly, the beginning shows a little character, something that provides a slight sparkle, but its elevation remains within the narrow range of the overall variation of the entire chart, up to this point. It is also true that it is easier to stand out slightly on a flat than on a rough surface. And this is how the treble works. In any other tuning, the high end might be sparse. In the Sphere, it is convenient, meticulous, pleasant and serviceable. It’s not a bright sound, but it’s not blunt either, even if it’s a little hard to get into the light sunset that the Spheres propose.
The extension is sufficient to the audible extreme, although the last octave is the one that comes across as the most cramped. This can affect the overall airy feel of the sound and reveals that more velvety, nuanced feel that the rest of the spectrum possesses.
Observing a warm sound, which can be presented slightly dark, the feeling of width of the scene is singular. The near-excellent level of separation and good definition allow this to be the case. And, although the sense of depth is not very high, the presentation of the sound is relatively wide and well resolved. It has effective laterality, providing a good stereo feel. Height is on a par with depth, generating a sound beyond intimate perception. It is true that the vocals, because of their closeness, offer this sense of proximity, but the rest of the instrumentation allows the soundstage to expand, so that it never feels compressed or overwhelming.
On the other hand, the musicality, the warmth and the softness, form that common thread that limits a superior sharpness. In this way, the perception of the background between notes is not as discernible, making it more complex to observe a dark or quieter core.
The power of resolution is high, although it is also relative: there are elements, such as the voices or the instruments in the middle zone, which are capable of being described with a great expressive level. But, on the other hand, there are more minor details that seem to hide behind this opulence. So I could categorise the level of detail as selective: excellent in some situations, more normal in others.
Rose Mini2 MKII 2.0
I don’t have other Single BAs in the price range of the Penon Sphere, but the most appropriate Full BA for comparison is the Rose Mini2 MKII 2.0. This model uses two BA drivers, but that does not imply that it is better. The size is tiny, but so are the drivers. The first thing you notice is that the low end doesn’t hold up to the Sphere and is not able to withstand the same level of bass and volume stress that the Penon can. The Rose’s are more delicate and should be used with care, not suitable for thick, prominent or aggressive bass. Distortion can occur, even if the volume is not too high. As I say, the Sphere are much more tolerant and can withstand this kind of situation much better.
Both IEMS are quite balanced. The Rose is even more linear up to the upper-mids. The Sphere has more presence in the lows and is slightly superior in the upper-mids. However, the Rose breaks the balance in the treble, being clearly more prominent and extended. There is a clear upper level of brightness that splashes detail in a different way. The Sphere’s mids are more complete, natural, full and dense. In contrast, the Rose’s are thinner, clearly leaner. I prefer the more analogue timbre of the Sphere. But there is more sparkle in the Rose, something that also brings some problems: the sibilance is more perceptible, while there is no trace of it in the Penon. Again, the level of detail and nuance is also selective on the Rose. You could say that the two models are complementary in this respect, one has what I miss in the other and vice versa. It is clear that the Rose has a more prominent top end, but this is not always a good thing. Although this part is superior to the Sphere, it is not perfect and I wouldn’t insert it, as is, in the Penon. The high end of the Rose makes them lose a bit of coherence and balance, because it gets to bite more than it should, and this is not always pleasant. But it is also true that the sound appreciates the treble boost of the Mini2s. This aspect gives them a cleaner sound, with a slightly better feeling in terms of separation and transparency, a more concrete and clearer sound. The Penon’s gain in depth, while also offering a more dynamic and powerful sound. In this way the soundstage is different on both IEMS, flatter on the Rose, but more transparent. While the Sphere has more body, density and a bit more three-dimensional volume.
I can’t help but think that the Penon Sphere is a real surprise. How something as simple as a Single BA can provide such a complex sound. It’s certainly not easy, and this is where tuning plays a key role. The Sphere is a balanced and warm IEMS, with a brash and present low end, lush mids and smooth highs. The result is a very coherent and balanced sound, with a full, dynamic, very representative, evocative, natural and descriptive midrange. The timbre is very good and although at first it is difficult to get into the sound of these Penon, because of its distinction, once you get used to it, the hours fly by. A model to keep in mind, to complete our collection.
Sources Used During the Analysis
- Earmen Colibri.
- Earmen Sparrow.
- xDuoo Link2 BAL.
- Hidizs S9 Pro.
- E1DA #9038D.
- HiBy R3 Pro.
- Hidizs AP80 PRO-X.
- Burson Audio Playmate.
- S.M.S.L Sanskrit 10th MKII + iFi ZEN CAN.