Pioneer CH3: Big Up Yourself

Greetings!

Today we’re checking out one of the more inexpensive earphones in Pioneer’s stable, the CH3.

Micro drivers 6mm and smaller hold a special place in this hobby for me. One of my first unabashed loves, the HA-FXH30 from JVC, mounts single titanium-coated 6mm dynamics in each nozzle and to this day remains one of my favourite products because it balances detail, clarity, control, sound stage, and bass depth so well, all while retaining a certain warmth and natural timbre through the midrange. It also looks pretty damn awesome. Its legendary relative, the HA-FXT90, manages most of the same from a dual carbon nano-tube 6mm dynamic setup that has been copied to death ever since, and is another product that I still hold in high regard after all these years. The CH3 hearkens back to these “glory days,” showing us that mainstream Japanese brands have still got it where it counts, and that you don’t have to sell a kidney to afford it.

What I Hear As is fairly common with inexpensive earphones, the CH3 has a mild v- or u-shaped signature. It has elevated treble and bass to add a bit of spunk to your tunes, though they aren’t extreme boosts that would go so far as to please the treble and/or bassheads of the world. Instead it gives the CH3 a jack-of-all-trades appeal, meaning it works well with everything, failing to specialize at anything in particular. For me, such a tune is ideal for products at this price range since it works with a wide variety of musical genres and means I don’t have to worry about carrying multiple earphones with me on my travels. I can take just one and know I’ll have a good experience. When treating the CH3 as an everyday carry (EDC), such an earphone is hard to best.

One aspect of the tune that helps make the CH3 a successful EDC is the treble. It is lively without being harsh, able to cut through noise while avoiding overpowering quiet moments. It has just enough upper treble energy to give chimes and cymbals some shimmer and sass, but not so much as to become piercing. Lower treble is neatly elevated giving notes excellent definition and detail, which retaining control in busy moments. As as result I found it almost as equally pleasing with poorly recorded and fairly low-fi material (ex. Aesop Rock’s earliest album ‘Float’) as I did with well-mastered, high quality tunes (ex. Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’). Being that this is such a small driver, you get the benefits of quick decay and transients at the expense of distortion when you start to crank the volume, though you shouldn’t be listening that loud anyway if you value long term hearing.

Given the size of the CH3’s drivers, I wasn’t entirely expecting the authoritative bass it was able to output. Tossing on some EDM like Diplo & Autoerotique’s “Waist Time” I couldn’t help but smile at the punchy, well-controlled thuds being piped into my ears. Mid-bass does take most of the focus, thankfully without sounding bloated or bleeding into the mids, with sub-bass being present but rolling off somewhere between what you’d expect from a bassy balanced armature and your typical 8mm dynamic. Texturing is fairly average with the most grungy of notes from bands like The Prodigy and Tobacco coming across smoother than they should. The majority of tracks are properly represented, however.

I really enjoyed the CH3’s natural sounding, timbre rich midrange. While slightly dipped, vocals and instruments sit forward enough to share centre stage with the rest of the tune. Clarity is quite good, helped along by the well weighted presentation, and I never found myself having to second guess what I was hearing when attempting to decipher lyrics, something I have only recently started doing. In the past I’ve been all about the beats and how cohesive the complete track was, for the most part ignoring what the artist was saying and letting the vocals blend in as just another instrument. Weird, I know, but the message just wasn’t that important. While I find the note thickness here just fine, I’m sure there will be some that find the CH3 on the lean side. Keep that in mind if you prefer products that have a warm, thick, almost soupy presentation.

One thing I have always enjoyed about micro-dynamics is their unique sound stage presentation, and not because they are so wide and deep, able to portray this vast soundscape that completely immerses you. No, it’s somewhat the opposite. Wide the CH3’s stage is quite wide and will toss sounds well past each side of your head, the rest of the stage is focused and somewhat condensed. This shows off the CH3’s good imaging qualities with clear channel-to-channel movement, free of dead zones, but also highlights it’s fairly average layering and separation qualities. Elements of extremely dense tracks risk blending, especially at high volumes, though I’m not going to knock the CH3 too much here because the performance is still more than acceptable for a sub 100 CAD product.

Compared To A Peer

Final Audio E2000 (49.00 CAD): The E2000 is easily one of my favourite iems under 50 USD, if not my favourite. Why? It looks good, fits beautifully, and has a warm, refined sound signature that doesn’t skim on bass, detail, or sound stage. Compared to the CH3, the E2000 has the upper hand, depending on your sound preferences. While the CH3 is the more balanced of the two making the E2000’s upper ranges seem a little too laid back, it gives up mid-range clarity and depth of sound resulting in the E2000 sounding like a much larger, more grandiose earphone. On the same tracks the E2000 sounds that much more flamboyant and expensive, even though it’s not. Unless you straight up find the E2000 to warm and/or too bassy, I see no reason to choose the CH3 over it.

JVC HA-FXH30 (72.35 CAD): Anyone who has followed my content over the years already knows how I feel about the FXH30; it’s about as close to being my perfect iem as it gets. I love the design and the sound, and if I were to be stuck with only one iem, it would certainly be fighting for that prestigious spot. Compared to the CH3 the FXH30 is more v-shaped with bigger bass and more vibrant treble. Mid-range presence on the two is similar with the FXH30 coming across slightly more robust and weighty. It has the edge in clarity and texture too, all through the range. They are quite similar in sound stage presentation with the FXH30 showing slightly greater depth and height.

Overall, compared to the E2000 and FXH30, what the CH3 has going for it is balance. While it’s not as detailed as either of the above gems, and it doesn’t dig as deep in the low end, it presents a level of balance that you just don’t get with the other two. The CH3 does the best job of managing and juggling bass, mids, and treble levels within a similar soundscape. If that’s what you need, then it’s the best choice of the three. In my experience, the E2000 is probably the best one for most people. It’s small, comfy to wear, and its warmer more mellow sound seems to do a great job meeting most listeners needs. The FXH30 is much the same but with a more vibrant top end and a snappier, more energetic sound overall and is my personal pick. However, if I were given the opportunity to purchase the CH3 after having listened to either of the other two, I wouldn’t hesitate. It’s nearly as good and can be found at a much lower price.

In The Ear In my experience, earphones utilizing a micro driver setup have the potential to be exceptionally comfortable. When designing the earpiece to maximize the compact size of the driver inside, the resulting product can be minuscule in size, irrelevant in weight, and near perfect ergonomically since there is no need to compromise design to accommodate the driver. As a result, products like the AAW Q emerge. That entire canalphone is smaller than the average medium sized ear tip. Such a design is only possible with such a compact driver, such as a 6mm or smaller dynamic, or various styles of balanced armatures.

With the CH3, Pioneer has worked with their unique 5.5mm dynamic driver and crafted a very compact, bullet shaped iem that completely disappears in the ear thanks to its low weight and small footprint. The familiar bullet shape allows users to wear it equally comfortably cable up or down. Cable up is my preference as it reduces the pretty severe cable noise that is present when worn cable down. Despite the easy fitting nature of the CH3 and that it completely blocks the ear canal, isolation is well below what I expect from a product of this design. Using it at the call centre where I work, an increase in volume was needed to drown out the cacophony of noise surrounding me. Foam tips are highly recommended for users planning to listen to the CH3 in noisy areas, but don’t expect miracles.

While the CH3 is nicely built thanks to a fine attention to detail in terms of fit and finish, as well as the use of quality materials, it’s not the most robust thing I’ve come across in recent memory. It reminds me of products from other Japanese brands like JVC and Final Audio. Small, lightweight, durable enough housings saddled with very simple rubber sheathed cables that lack the visual flair and girth of similarly priced products bursting from the Chinese hi-fi scene. That said, the cable on the CH3 is a slight step down from it’s localized counterparts thanks to the extra grippyness of the sheath that has resulted in it catching on my clothing or objects in the environment. As such, the CH3 is constructed about how I would expect a product in this price range from a mainstream brand to be; good enough. Pioneer has nothing to prove, unlike the various no-name brands that have come to dominate the budget sector as of late, so they didn’t go overboard with bulky, durable materials, instead keeping with the lithe and compact ideals of a micro-dynamic.

In The Box The CH3 arrives in the sort of retail packaging you’d expect from a major brand. The compact black and white cardboard box has a hanger protruding out the top and features a very clean and mature design with clearly labelled brand and model information, as well as the obligatory image of the CH3’s earpieces. As seems to be the norm for most products in the current audio climate, a Hi-Res Audio logo is also present. Pulling at the magnetically sealed front surface reveals a plastic viewing window showing off the CH3 and inline mic module. Some basic product information can also be found, such as the use of a graphene coated diaphragm and aluminum housings. On the back of the package you find some more bullet points noting the use of tiny 5.5mm dynamic drivers and that an inline remote and mic is included. Cutting the security seals and digging into the package contents you find the fixed cable neatly wrapped and strapped with the earpieces, mic, and spare tips set within a plastic tray. There is also more documentation than you would expect for such an inexpensive, straightforward product. In all you get:

  • CH3 earphones
  • Single flange silicone eartips (s/m/l)
  • Manual

In line with other major brands, the budget-minded CH3 comes with a paltry set of accessories. Enough to get you going and nothin more. While I like the design of the packaging, this is very much a forgettable unboxing experience.

Final Thoughts The CH3 was brought to my attention by Jant71 over on Head-fi and I can’t thank him enough for it. At the time I bought it, there was next to no coverage outside of Japan (and even that was quite limited) so there was an element of risk to the purchase in that it could have been terrible. However, given the polished reputation of the CH9 and past experiences with home audio gear from Pioneer, and the low price, I wasn’t too worried. In the end, that lack of worry was justified since the CH3 is a fantastic little earphone.

The simple silver and black, aluminum and rubber design is as comfortable as it is attractive. The sound is fairly mainstream in tune but with a level of resolution and restraint I would expect from a product intended for a more mature and discerning audience. The CH3 isn’t for your Beats or Sony XB-loving teen, and probably wouldn’t survive a week in their hands anyway since its build quality isn’t particularly robust; think Final Audio EX000 Series or Zero Audio Carbo Tenore here. In the end it’s straight up a rock solid EDC for someone that wants a little more performance and balance out of a budget friendly in-ear. That Pioneer is a well-known brand with a good reputation certainly doesn’t hurt either.

Thanks for reading!

Disclaimer I purchased the CH3 from visions.ca with my own hard-earned cash monies. This review is composed of my own thoughts and opinions, uninfluenced by Pioneer or visions.ca. At the time of writing, the CH3 retailed for 59.99 CAD but was on sale for 34.00 CAD: https://www.visions.ca/catalogue/category/productresults.aspx?categoryId=726&brandId=63

**Note: I think they’re worth 59.99 CAD, despite having a fixed cable, but why pay that much when they routinely go on sale for ~25-35 CAD?**

Specifications

  • Drivers: 5.5mm dynamic driver with Graphene coated membrane
  • Impedance: 16Ω
  • Sensitivity: 102dB @ 1mW
  • Frequency Response: 8Hz – 40kHz

Devices used for testing Shanling M0, Periodic Audio Nickel, LG G6, Asus FX53V laptop, TEAC HA-501 desktop amp

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)

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