Enter the Temple of Monk, embrace the Spirit of Asura, reach the Ultimate Zen! – Overview of the latest VE earbuds.
PROS: excellent value, durable build, warm natural detailed sound, updated “Plus” design and sound tuning
CONS: earbuds fit is not for everyone, no isolation (typical of earbuds).
The manufacturer website: https://www.veclan.com/ve_eng_index (now accepting PayPal)
Product links: Monk+ (https://www.veclan.com/engappliance_sel_one?eng_ApplianceVo.eac_id=4), Asura 2.0 (https://www.veclan.com/engappliance_sel_one?eng_ApplianceVo.eac_id=5), Zen 2.0 (https://www.veclan.com/engappliance_sel_one?eng_ApplianceVo.eac_id=3).
The product was provided to me free of charge for the review purpose in exchange for my honest opinion.
Venture Electronics (VE) specializes in making earbuds, and earbuds are not my cup of tea, or cup of coffee, or whatever drink I’m in a mood for. So why am I writing about the latest set of their earpieces? Because I enjoy their sound, to the point where I even forget that my ear anatomy is not friendly with earbud shell design (lack of nozzle to stick in my ears). I did come across a few earbuds in the past, but none of them impressed me since I couldn’t get a good fit/seal which affected the sound, especially the low end performance. I also noticed that most of them had a similar generic design.
That was exactly the reason why I almost turned down the review of the original Zen, but so glad I moved forward with that opportunity because they restored my faith in earbuds after I heard how great they sound. I’m not gonna lie and tell you I use them every day. But some of you probably noticed that I use Zen in all of my DAP and usb DAC/amp reviews. They are unique because of their 320 ohm impedance and require a good driving source to make them shine. It’s a challenge I’m always looking forward to in my testing, and it also gives me an opportunity to spend more listening time with them.
But the main focus of this review is not Zen or Asura, both of which I still plan to talk about in my write up, it’s about the little mighty Monk – $5 earbud sensation. Lee, the driving force behind VE, is a genius when it comes to marketing of his products. Who can resist a pair of $5 earbuds? They are cheap enough to be considered disposable, and they utilize a generic design which never going to make you question if the deal is too good to be true. Not until you put Monks in your ears, you will realize that these earbuds are not about the looks but rather about the sound. You will be hooked on it and will be craving to hear how other more expensive VE earbuds scale up in sound quality. But for now let’s start with a Monk+.
Monk+ (a.k.a. Monk 2.0)
Spec: 64 ohm, 112 dB, 18-22.5kHz, $5
There is nothing to talk about the packaging because it’s a $5 pair of earbuds, and to keep the cost down you get it as is without any official packaging box. As a matter of fact, they are durable enough to wrap around and throw in your pocket without a need for a headphone case. I’m not just saying that because they are cheap and could be tossed around, Monks are actually well built and can withstand some abuse. Plus the chord is on a thicker side, but still flexible, and will not tangle as easily.
If you want a case or a shirt clip or extra accessories, you can always get it for a few bucks on ebay or aliexpress. But there is one set of accessories that was actually included, 4 pairs of foam ear-sleeves – 2 pairs in red and 2 in blue. Foam material seems to be stretchable and durable, no worries it will rip easily, and I like the bi-color design because Monk’s L/R side marking is very hard to see so I used red/blue foamies combo for Right/Left id. My only suggestion is that in addition to 2 pairs with fully enclosed sleeves, offer one more pair with a punched out “donut” design.
The cable has a straight 3.5mm gold plated headphone jack with a nice strain relief. I personally prefer right angled connector, but it makes sense with Monk+ to offer it as is because more expensive Asura and Zen with their angled connectors will be considered as an upgrade. You also have a small slim y-cable splitter and a decent chin slider. The cable has a nice rubbery shielding, and overall feels durable.
The shell housing of the Monk+ have the same basic design as majority of other generic earbuds, and that also includes Asura and Zen. You have a typical round shallow earpiece where the dynamic driver is placed under a plastic shielding cap with numerous venting holes, and a long tubular neck piece where the wires go through to the driver. Due to a small size of earpiece, typically it’s better to hold on to this “neck” for a more comfortable handling of earpieces in and out of your ears. But regardless of the similarity in the design, the Monk+ was upgraded with a semi-transparent material, only leaving the driver cover in solid black.
This makes Monk+ look more premium and less generic, especially when wearing bi-color foam sleeves. And speaking of those, I actually preferred wearing Monks with foamies because it enhanced the fit with an extra seal (more bass) and helped keeping them secure in my ears. Also, I liked how instead of their website, previously printed on original Monk, now you have slightly pixilated “Monk” printed on Monk+. I just wish moving forward VE adds some kind of an ID bump on the right earpiece for a blind ID, otherwise I can’t easily feel the difference between L/R just by sliding my finger.
Monk vs Monk+
The fit (Monk+, similar to Asura and Zen)
Since a number of people already have the original Monk, let me start with a baseline of its sound to correlate the improvements as I hear with Monk+.
The original Monk has a well balanced, smooth, clear sound signature with a neutral tonality. Due to its fit and corresponding seal, I don’t hear as much sub-bass (unless I push and hold them into my ears), it’s more rolled off, though I can still hear a quality low end extension, just with not too much of sub-bass quantity. Mid-bass has a nice snappy punch without too much exaggeration, well controlled without spilling into mids. Lower mids have a good body, though a little more toward the leaner side. Upper mids are smooth and organic, and still clean and detailed, not super detailed but surprisingly good. Treble is clear, detailed, with a good definition and some airiness, not too bright or sibilant. Soundstage width is expanded above average, and it also has a decent depth and height.
Now stepping up to Monk+, I hear the sound gaining a little more body, making tonality a little warmer and more natural while still retaining the same sound signature. I hear the bass being a little bit tighter and more articulate, lower mids gaining a little more body, upper mids being more organic and with some improvement in retrieval of details, treble is smoother, with a little less airiness, and more control. There is an improvement in transparency, and in general the sound is tighter and smoother. Soundstage has the same width, but I hear a little less depth making sound more intimate.
There are not too many earbuds in this price category to use for comparison, though next to FiiO’s latest EM3, I hear Monk as being more transparent, with a cleaner sound, less sub-bass and a faster mid-bass punch, lower mids are leaner, upper mids are as smooth and a little more detailed, and treble has a little more sparkle, and slightly better definition with a touch more airiness.
Also, Monk+ steps all over the original Apple earphones which in comparison are less detailed and have a more congested sound, not as tight bass, and narrower soundstage.
Spec: 150 ohm, 110 dB, 17-23kHz, $78
I don’t remember if I received the original Asura in the past, Lee was always generous with his review samples, but I can’t find it so just going to describe Asura 2.0 as I hear it. Since Asura is positioned as a more premium design, VE stepped it up to a right angled headphone jack connector, and the driver cover cap is being semi-transparent gray instead of all black, and the rest of the shell is semi-transparent just like in Monk+. Also, it comes with more accessories including a clamshell case, different foam sleeve covers, and even sport stabilizer fins in two sizes. Though fins helped in keeping Asura secure in my ears, it didn’t help with a seal so I went back to bi-colored foam sleeves.
I used Asura 2.0 with foam sleeves and hear them as having a little less sub-bass (it’s all seal dependent where my ears are not earbud friendly) and an average mid-bass speed, though still packing a nice punch. Also, I hear that the bass spills a little bit into the mids, adding more body to the sound where I hear a little thicker lower mids which in my opinion take away some transparency while adding more lushness and smoothness to the sound. Upper mids are clear and detailed, and slightly boosted, but still smooth to my ears, delivering an excellent vocal performance (both male and female). Treble is clear, detailed smooth, non-sibilant.
When it comes to soundstage and layering/separation, I think Asura does well, but not pushing it too far above the average. With more emphasis on upper mids and overall sound being a little laidback and relaxed, Asura 2.0 performs great with vocal tracks but not as much with tracks that require a stronger bass punch or crispier treble. Also, even so we are stepping up now to 150 ohm impedance, I had no issues driving these from any of my low power sources, including some portable audio players and even my smartphone.
Spec: 320 ohm, 106 dB, 15-23.5kHz, $148 3.5m TRS, $178 balanced with adapters, and up to $358 for Cardas Golden Selection cable
Sine I have reviewed the original Zen 1.0 in the past (all white plastic housing), I will start with a recap of my sound analysis and then move on to Zen 2.0 sound changes. In terms of a design, Zen 2.0 now has a more premium look with a semi-transparent shell and a new cable with a more premium red shielding – looks top notch! You get an assortment of foam ear sleeves, stabilizer fins, a premium hard shell case, and even a bonus Monk as an “accessory”. Furthermore, you also have an option of different cable terminations, and even a premium cable wire.
You can choose a regular 3.5mm TRS single ended termination with an angled 3.5mm gold plated connector. Or for additional $30 you can get a balanced version with adapters. The balanced version comes with two 3.5mm connectors which you can use with Pono or some Sony amps. A set of included adapters will give you connection to 2.5mm TRRS (A&K wiring), 3.5mm TRRS (HFM wiring), and 3.5mm TRS single ended. Perhaps it was an artifact of my balanced output sources, but I found imaging with those to be a bit distracting and preferred to use 3.5mm TRS single ended adapter instead. Either way, it’s really great to have a flexibility of different connections to try with different sources. There is also a 3rd cable option, but it uses a premium wire which adds over $200 on top of Zen 2.0 price. Maybe one of these days VE will consider a removable cable to make the design compatible with both wire up and down? Zen 3.0, perhaps?
I find Zen 1.0 to have a very detailed transparent smooth balanced sound. It has a great soundstage, definitely above the average in width and depth, maybe more width then depth. I wouldn’t say it has the best audiophile quality layering and separation, and perhaps the imaging doesn’t necessary standout with 3D placement. But it has a clear neutral tonality with a smooth sound that you can listen to non-stop for hours.
Low end is rather accurate with a fast and tight mid-bass punch and extended sub-bass depth. I hear a well controlled and snappy bass with a noticeable sub-bass rumble. Mids are the star of these earbuds. You will find a perfect smooth lower mids with a clean separation from the low end. Mids have a nice smooth body, and a very clear presentation. Upper mids sound very organic with an excellent retrieval of details. Both female and male vocals sound very natural and accurate. Treble has a great definition, clear and detailed but not too much airiness. It just flows smooth and transparent as an extension of upper mids, sharing the same characteristics.
To my ears, Zen 2.0 sound is more balanced, still detailed and transparent, but now the bass is tighter and more articulate, mids have a little more body and still have an excellent retrieval of details and great natural tonality, especially when it comes to vocals. Treble still has a great definition, detailed, but now has a little more airiness. Another change is in soundstage expansion, where I hear more width but a little less depth, making sound more intimate.
Just like with Zen 1.0, Zen 2.0 still has 320 ohm impedance which requires a little more juice to drive these earbuds to their full potential. Don’t expect them to shine straight from your smartphone. Yes, you can raise the volume to hear them, but you are not going to “feel” the quality of the sound.
Even so the original intent of this review was to focus on the latest Monk+ (Monk 2.0), I felt that Monk is like a stepping stone into the world of premium VE earbuds. Thus, it’s impossible to talk about this latest update without bringing up the next gen releases of Asura and Zen. I have reviewed a number of budget headphones in the past, but can’t think of too many in $5 range that can match the price/performance ratio of Monk+. When it comes to earbuds, FiiO’s latest EM3 is a good contender, though priced at $15; and with in-ear monitors you have $7 RX18 from Mee Audio as well as a handful of KZ releases in $15 price range. What surprised me the most with Monk+ is that Lee fine tuned the sound and updated the design with a more premium look, but the price remained the same.
I don’t have too many earbuds to make a more broad comparison in order to determine which one is at the top. What I do know is that thanks to iDevices the earbud style headphones became more acceptable around the world. I still see a lot of people with their little white earbuds listening to music, though sadly not realizing what they are missing. I’m sure many of them prefer not to stick anything down their ear canal and appreciate being aware of surrounding environment since earbuds don’t isolate as much. VE Monk+ can do all that, and improve the sound quality with its warm natural detailed signature for only $5. And once you ready to upgrade, Asura and Zen could be a worthy consideration for anybody, regardless if you are a beginner or an audiophile.