NiceHCK N3: Shows Promise
Today we’re checking out an interesting new earphone from NiceHCK, the N3.
NiceHCK is an online retailer that started developing earphones and other products under their own brand, conveniently named NiceHCK. They have recently seen a massive jump in popularity in online forums thanks to what feels like a big push to get their products into the hands of reviewers. I was given the opportunity recently to check out their triple hybrid, the P3, and really enjoyed it. With an attractive design, a full accessory kit, and a unique signature that pushed vocals to the forefront, it was a quality product and made for an enjoyable listen.
The N3 we’re looking at today is a hybrid too. However, instead of the usual dynamic driver plus balanced armature setup that is so very common, the N3 tries something new; a dynamic driver, piezoelectric ceramic driver setup.
While the N3 doesn’t nail the fundamentals for me, it is an interesting product that I hope NiceHCK continue to develop and eventually perfect. The potential is there for something great. Let’s take a closer look.
Thanks to Jim with NiceHCK for arranging a sample of the N3 for the purposes of this review. The thoughts here are my own subjective opinions based on time spent listening to the N3. They do not represent NiceHCK or any other entity. At the time of writing the N3 retailed for 59.00 USD. You can check it out on AliExpress or Amazon.
Despite it’s high impedance the N3 isn’t particularly difficult to drive thanks to it being reasonably sensitive. That said, amping and/or source with a strong output is suggested to get the most out of the piezoelectric tweeter which sounds especially tizzy through something like your average smartphone or a budget DAP like the Ruizu X02. I also recommend pairing it with something neutral to warm since the N3 is quite bright and upper mid forward. My preferred pairings were the HIFIMAN Megamini or F.Audio S1 which could run the N3 ampless with no issues. I also used it with my TEAC HA-501 desktop amp, a ZiShan DSD or my LG G6 running source duty.
I listen primarily to various EDM sub-genres (liquid drum and bass, breakbeat, drumstep, etc.), hip hop, and classic rock. My preferences for earphone tuning are quite relaxed and as such their is no one signature I look for. The HiFiMAN RE800, Brainwavz B400, and Massdrop x MeeAudio Planamic are examples of earphones with wildly varied signatures that are enjoyable for different reasons. I generally listen at very low volumes, so keep this in mind when perusing my thoughts on how an earphone sounds.
- Driver: 10mm carbon nanotube dynamic + Piezoelectric ceramic tweeter
- Frequency: 20-22,000Hz
- Sensitivity: 100dB
- Impedance: 55ohms
Packaging and Accessories:
The N3’s packaging follows the current trend of a white, sleeved cardboard box. The front of the sleeve displays a digital rendering of the earphone along with the usual branding and model information. Flipping to the back you find the specifications listed in three languages. Sliding off the sheath sees the interior items protected by a clear plastic sheet under which the N3’s ear pieces are on full display, safely nestled into a foam cutout. In a separate Nice HCK branded cardboard box are the accessories. In all you get:
- N3 earphones
- MMCX silver plated copper cable (1.2m ± 3cm)
- White single flange silicone tips (s/m/l)
- Green single flange tips (m, preinstalled)
Overall the nice packaging provides a satisfying unboxing experience. It looks good, is easy to open, and doesn’t generate a ton of waste. The accessory kit is lacking though, especially after reviewing the less expensive P3. No case, no foam tips, no bi-flange, all of which were included with the P3.
Build, Comfort, and Isolation:
The N3’s machined aluminum alloy shells are very well put together and more than acceptable for the price. The surface is very smooth with slight marks from the machining process visible on the face around the edges of the recession that contains the laser etched NiceHCK logo. Seams are visible but not intrusive. On the inner side you find small protrusions to help lock the ear piece into the outer ear, as well as a small vent the helps reduced the mild driver flex. L and R markings are also in place to ensure you know which side is which. Metal grills are neatly installed inside each nozzle to prevent dirt and gunk from getting inside and hindering driver performance. Lastly, the MMCX ports found up top are flush with the housing which offers protection from bends since the plugs sit flush with the housing. The N3 is nicely built, without question.
I’ve heard rumblings about the cable being mediocre, but I don’t agree. It actually reminds me of one of of my favourite cables which can be found on the Penon BS1 Experience and Light T2. While reminiscent, it is not quite as good due to some persistent bends that refuse to straighten out. Otherwise, the cable is plenty flexible, resists tangles, and is generally quite easy to manage. It like it. The hardware is solid too with a stylish metal, 90 degree angled jack with an extension to accommodate cell phone and media player cases. The y-split and chin cinch are metal too, and branded with the NiceHCK and N3 designations. Leading up to the earpieces are preformed ear guides, not memory wire. The shape and level of stiffness holds the cable in place very well, even when I’m shaking my head around like a maniac. Cable noise isn’t an issue either. The MMCX plugs are made from a stiff rubber, and curved to lets the cable move naturally around the ear. I have nothing against this cable and think it’s a perfectly suitable pairing for the N3.
Comfort is top tier with the N3. Despite the odd shape it fits naturally and being so light, pretty much disappears for me. The absence of any sharp angles or edges even lets me lie on my side with them in place. Now, they are on the long side being a low profile design, so I can see them not fitting well in ears with a small external auditory canal. Otherwise, these are very nice to wear for long periods, for me at least. As always, your mileage may vary.
Isolation is actually quite good. I was surprised at how well external noise was tamed, from the snicking of my keyboard to cars driving by. I didn’t have to raise the volume much at all in the local Tim Horton’s to drown out those around me either. Pretty impressive for a shallow insertion, ventilated earphone.
Tips: The N3 is quite tip sensitive. I found that small bore tips, like those included, brought up the mid-bass a bit too much for my liking, and exacerbated the treble splashiness. Moving to a wide bore set, like the bi-flange pair sets that come with the ADVANCED M4 helps a lot. It evens out the bass and cleans up the treble slightly. I used the bi-flange set for my testing.
When the N3 first arrived I ran it through a frequency sweep and it was immediately apparent that it was a roller coaster. Onto the “burn station” it went for the prescribed 100-200 hours of burn in. Despite this, while the N3 has its strengths it unfortunately comes across quite disjointed with the dynamic and piezoelectric driver fighting each other.
Treble in particular is a mixed bag. Lower treble is greatly emphasized giving the N3 a gritty, unnatural sound that can be quite harsh. This is exacerbated by how loose and splashy the presentation is. Cymbals are a wall of noise and lack any sense of definition. More often than not, individual strikes meld into each other as noticed on Run The Jewel’s “Get It” and King Crimson’s “Cat Food” (live version sounds especially nasty), especially if performed in quick succession. The decay seems unnaturally slow. As we enter the upper treble there is a huge dip in emphasis followed by a fairly sharp rise. This means the N3 shows sparkle and shimmer on some instruments while others are dull and lifeless, and/or less audible than they should be so they get lost in the mix. It all sounds very uneven, and to my ears unpleasant.
The mid-range sees similar issues with a huge upper mid spike that makes vocals shouty and inconsistent. Sibilance is also a problem. Running it with Jessie J’s “Bang Bang”, vocals overshadow the beats and Nicki comes across overly nasal which is a big no no. It’s not all bad though with the digitized guitars on Calyx & TeeBee’s “Long Gone” sounding crisp and full. Calyx’s vocals work too with his dense tone being a touch leaner than it should, but still reasonably full-bodied and satisfactorily textured. Timbre, unfortunately, comes across way off with most instruments sounding light and unnatural. The pianos in Muse’s “Exogenesis Symphony Part 2” lacks weight and feel too far back in the mix. Bellamy’s voice is also too forward early on, and as the tracks picks up around 2 minutes is overshadowed by all the extra instruments that show up making the track a wall of noise.
At least the N3’s bass is good, right? Well, it’s okay. Extension is decent with the opening thump on The Prodigy’s “Thunder” displaying an appropriate level of visceral feedback, though the deep tone in the opening of Kavinski’s “Solli” is nearly absent. Mid-bass isn’t the most impactful but produces a decent thump on Evil Nine’s “Crooked”. Texturing is lacking with notes that should be very dynamic and grungy feeling overly smooth and sterile, something I was not expecting from a carbon nanotube dynamic. JVC’s application of this driver is much more detailed and crisp, from the budget friendly FX40 to the dual-dynamic FXT90.
Sound stage with the N3 is great with it producing a wide open feeling with excellent width and slightly less impressive depth. With the right tracks it absolutely shines. However… toss a busy track at the N3 and it doesn’t do so well. The closing jazz explosion of King Crimson’s “Starless and Bible Black” completely overwhelms the N3 where it closes in and becomes mighty congested with instruments blending together into a dense, burnt, over-seasoned chilli. With something more straightforward, such as Infected Mushroom’s “Avratz” the N3 retains an open feel, layers are well defined, and individual elements nicely separated.
Overall the N3 is a swing and a miss to my ears. The treble presentation is uneven, splashy, and routinely sounds tizzy and confused. There are glimpses of brilliance in the mid-range with some vocalists sounding quite good, but the odd timbre and generally shouty nature more often than not ruins a track. The bass is fine with decent impact and satisfactory extension that really only feels like it is lacking every once in a while. Clarity and detail isn’t particularly outstanding or class leading either which would have made me more forgiving of some of the other issues. The biggest qualm I have though is that the tonality between the piezoelectric and dynamic drivers is just so very different. The dynamic has a much warmer, more organic presentation that contrasts heavily with the piezoelectric’s cold, dry tone. They simply don’t sound like they belong together which leaves the N3 sounding disjointed and confused. The general tune is the other major qualm I’ve got with the N3. It took a while to put a finger on what it reminded me off, but eventually it clicked; the RHA CL2. Looking towards measurements, I can see why. Unfortunately for the N3, it doesn’t benefit from being a single driver and the cohesiveness that comes with it. The CL2’s oddities can mostly be EQ’d out, something I was not able to manage with the N3.
I wanted to like the N3, I really did. The first time I heard a ceramic driver in the RHA CL1 I was blown away by the crispness and detail it provided. Given the price difference I was not expecting the N3 to perform up to that level, but I didn’t think it was unreasonable to expect something a little more impressive than your average dynamic driver or balanced armature. But alas, it was not to be.
In summary, the N3 is nicely packaged with a sub-par accessory kit. It is beautifully built with a nice cable, is comfortable to wear for long periods, and it isolates surprisingly well for a shallow fit, vented design. While the driver tech is nice to see and should move the budget segment forward as other brands take note, in the N3 the application is lacking and feels unfinished or at least underdeveloped. At this point I’d say to keep an eye on the tech and wait to see if NiceHCK revisits the piezoelectric design with a future product. They’ve got the right idea in doing something different, but the N3 just doesn’t warrant serious consideration in it’s current form. I’d personally recommend picking up the P3 over the N3. It’s cheaper, has a more consistent and enjoyable tune, and you get a slew of accessories. It is a much better value in my opinion.
That said, if you’re interested anyway and have some cash to spare, maybe you’ll get more enjoyment out of the N3 than I did? A number of members in the Head-fi community are certainly enjoying theirs, so maybe you would too.
Thanks for reading!
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
Some Test Tunes:
Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid (Album)
Hail Mary Mallon – Are You Going to Eat That? (Album)
King Crimson – Lark’s Tongues in Aspic (Album)
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black (Track)
Supertramp – Crime of the Century (Album)
Infected Mushroom – Legend of the Black Shawarma (Album)
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach (Album)
Massive Attack – Mezzanine (Album)
Fleetwood Mac – Rumors (Album)
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels (Album)
The Prodigy – The Day is My Enemy (Album)
Tobacco – F****d Up Friends (Album)
Felt – Felt 2 (A Tribute to Lisa Bonet) (Album)
Michael Jackson – Thriller (Album)
The Crystal Method – Grace (feat. LeAnn Rimes) (Track)
Jidenna – Long Live the Chief (Track)
Skrillex – Ragga Bomb (Track)
Big Grams – Run for Your Life (Track)
Funkadelic – Maggot Brain (Track)
Aesop Rock – Fishtales (Track)