[Disclaimer: This set was given to me by Linsoul Audio in exchange for an unbiased review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.]
[Note: while I tend to favor aftermarket eartips, for review purposes all evaluations will be made using the stock eartips. The medium, wide-bore tips were selected for fit as well as to match for comparisons against the original Olina.]
[Other preamble: While I tested the set across several pieces of equipment, my evaluation notes will be based on my experience listening and comparing from a FiiO M11 for consistency.]
My early impressions of the set have all been positive. Looking at the set in isolation, it’s a solid performer for the money and a worthy investment. Compared to the original Olina, the SE could be considered “just” a refinement – but it’s clear-cut enough that I would recommend it hands-down over the original for anyone deciding between them.
For those who already own the original Olina, it’s a more budget-focused decision: Are you a collector in the hobby who enjoys refinements over time and regularly cycles IEMs? I’d recommend these for sure. But if the original Olina and the $100 price point is your intended flagship/endgame set, it’s more of a toss-up: If you’ve already spent time adjusting/modding your original and enjoy what you have, chances are you should stick with it or seek variety in pursuing different sets around the same price. If the Olina already captures exactly what you want from an IEM, but the top end is just a bit too spicy for your taste (or you are averse to tweaking/EQ/mods and want improved out-of-the-box sound), then the SE makes for a nice upgrade/replacement.
And now the long-winded stuff:
Starting with a bunch of qualifiers that I’m sure everyone enjoys reading…
- My thoughts here are first-impressions only: I have had this set in my possession for 5 days and my brain functions on, “deliberately slow old person,” time. I usually form my opinion of a set over weeks to months before even daring to make recommendations; so this is new territory for me.
- I’m not a proponent of burn-in being highly influential to the sound of IEMs (unless you count brain burn-in), nor upgrade cables making a sonic difference beyond, “working correctly vs. not”. The relatively short review turnaround and using the stock cable mitigates these points somewhat, but I wanted to knock that statement out early as some will see this as a dealbreaker for my review credibility – just trying to save you some time.
- I don’t have access to any super-fancy evaluation equipment, but used a pink noise track to ensure a level as consistent to 80dB as possible.
- With limited time to listen to the SE on its own, I had to sacrifice spending large chunks of time comparing them to other IEMs – much as I might have liked to. Therefore, the only significant comparison I have is to my original Olina though I’ll try to mention a few other sets in passing.
Owners of the original Olina will note an incredibly similar package for the SE. Those who are new to either set will find the IEMs, stock cable, 2 sets of eartips (S/M/L in wide and narrow bore), and a generous number of replacement filters. The eartips aren’t my favorites for stability, but I have picky ears when it comes to eartips and long-term comfort – most should be able to find a fit. The cable is identical to that packaged with the original Olina (or I can’t tell the difference) and remains well behaved with minimal memory-holding kinks, low microphonics, and wraps up well. (I’ve seen a few scattered reports about the cable tangling, but I personally “broadcast/roadie” wrap my cables and haven’t had this issue.)
The shells themselves have a near-identical appearance to the original Olina in terms of shape, though the design has changed from the original’s “smoky” faceplate to that of a sea turtle/hibiscus. It may be worth noting that the new design makes the cap of the shell ever so slightly flatter/thinner than the original. It’s a very minor change to the thickness of the IEM, but as a side-sleeper who does occasionally wear IEMs to sleep; every little bit helps.
Given how new I am to this particular IEM, it’s tough to really drill down into sound nuances without constantly changing my mind or qualifying each statement. Instead, I’ll keep it to some general statements that have felt consistent to me.
Overall the sound in terms of tuning/technicalities is good. Quite good, in fact. That may sound like an underwhelming approval, but part of the reason is that I find the Olina SE to be a very versatile, well-rounded performer. For the past 4-5 days I’ve used this IEM across everything from desktop stacks to an older phone with a native headphone jack; and from critical listening to Zoom conference calls. While one could say that it doesn’t seem to scale much with gear, the positive take is that it presents itself with solid consistency.
The last set I had which reminded me of this was the Tinhifi T4. It didn’t particularly “wow” me in any specific way, but managed to be a solid performer across everything I’d throw at it – turning into a reliable, everyday carry for me. The Olina SE looks to comfortably fill a similar role (and I personally think it does constitute an upgrade from the T4).
Bass hits with a bit of added emphasis, but notably reduced from some of the other HBB collabs. This is perfect for me as I seem to be one of a relatively rare few who experiences “bass fatigue”. Even if I enjoy added bass slam and texture, I’ll get a headache after 20-30 minutes at medium-high levels. The Olina SE sits below this threshold for me and makes for enjoyable long-term listening.
As a point of contrast, the Mele (another HBB collab) carries more emphasis and arguably superior bass texture to the Olina/Olina SE. The added mid-bass of the Mele makes songs like, “Patient Number 9 – Ozzy Osbourne,” more pleasing – giving realistic texture to the moment the bassist kicks in (00:42). I prefer the bass from the Mele for tracks with a more classic rock mix such as this…but it still wears on me over time and limits my listening sessions – even when I decrease the volume to compensate. So yes, I lose a bit of that bass texture and slam with the Olina SE; but the accuracy in relation to the tuning is still quite good and has enough of a bump to be enjoyable to listen to – as opposed to a purely “reference” sound.
Mids are nicely balanced…and I don’t have a ton to add to this statement. Nicely balanced is exactly what I want and exactly what the Olina SE is delivering to me. Vocalists sound clean and clear without fading into the mix or stepping out in an overly-prominent fashion. I’ve heard fancy, multi-driver units that manage layering and separation better, but there’s definitely something to be said for cohesion.
This isn’t to say that the Olina SE falls short on mids articulation. My benchmark here is, “Mechanical Heart – Really Slow Motion,” (03:42). There’s some type of percussive bongo/conga/djembe playing as an orchestral swell kicks in and it transitions from a rhythm pattern to a percussive roll during this swell. It can be very difficult to catch this moment and only adequately detailed sets tend to pick it up – which the Olina SE manages. While I’d fall short from saying that the SE is any sort of detail/imaging monster; the stage is still presented very accurately and well.
To toss out another comparison here, I did some brief A/B testing against the Moondrop Aria Snow and found that – while both sounded good and had pleasing mid-tuning – the Olina SE pulled ahead in terms of timbre and image. I’m probably not the best person to try and articulate technicalities, but my best guess for what I’m observing here is: both sets are tuned well, but I think I’m hearing the difference between a well-tuned driver hitting its limitations (Aria Snow) vs. a well-tuned driver that still has some room to flex (Olina SE…see “flexing” funny because it’s a CNT driver and the rigidity is actually…right, moving on).
Treble time, and here is where I’ll finally bring up comparisons to the original Olina. I don’t know if graphs would indicate otherwise, but this is where I get the most distinctive difference between the original Olina and the revised SE – and it’s quite significant to my ear. For context: I was excited for the original Olina, bought it shortly after release, and have generally enjoyed my time listening to the set.
However, even as someone who isn’t overly treble-sensitive, I could easily find moments in songs where the Olina brushed right up against sibilance and could become downright harsh on the rare track or two. One reference I use is, “Blind – Hollywood Principle,” (02:15) when the male vocalist starts. There are a lot of hard “s” sounds here that can quickly become fatiguing and the original Olina brushed right up against this mark. More commonly, this slightly peaky treble would result in the top end of many songs – especially those with busy percussion – starting to blend together and giving the perception of the upper register having a bit of “static/white noise” atop everything. (I should mention here that while I am aware of the “double-filter/shortbus” mod, I’ve never done this myself – so these comparisons are being made on an as-is Olina.)
The effect of this was that the original Olina failed to be a relaxing listen. I enjoyed it…but was always on guard for a surprise peak. (Anyone who’s ever used a sound/song as a wake alarm who then hears that sound out of context – along with the surge of adrenaline that probably follows – will have the gist of what I’m referring to.) The Olina SE completely addresses this problem for me with the treble registers playing clearly and perceptibly more “clean” than the original’s efforts. It’s entirely possible that you sacrifice a bit of the perceived soundstage or detail from the original, but it’s well worth the tradeoff for me; and makes the Olina SE a solid IEM for both a fun and relaxing listen.
And…that might be exactly the statement for me to end on. The Olina SE is a refinement to the original that addresses the slightly peaky treble response and brings the set into focus as an effective all-rounder for just about everything I throw at it. Aggressive metal, harsh synth, classic rock, smooth and contemporary jazz, some orchestral compositions, chillhop, and even a bit of acapella. The SE remained an enjoyable listen throughout and never made me red-flag any listening situations to avoid. Yes, this means it lacks the specialization of some sets; and no, it probably won’t be replacing anyone’s [insert your favorite well-regarded, high-priced IEM example here] any time soon. But it absolutely deserves credit for being positioned well in terms of price-to-performance and easily supplants my original Olina for a spot in my regular rotation. This is still a relatively early impression so time will tell, but from prior experience it wouldn’t surprise me to find that this set maintains its staying power moving forward.