Linsoul reached out to me asking if I wanted to review the Kiwi Ears Orchestra Lite and for a second I hemmed and hawed about if I wanted to write about "another IEF-Neutral-ish IEM" but then I took a step back and thought about it. This is an IEM that probably is tuned competently for a reasonable amount of money. That should be enough to be excited about this product. My first "nice" headphone purchase back in 2005 had three IEMs in the running: the Shure E2C, Ultimate Ears Super.fi 3, and Etytmotic ER6i. It wasn't these three because they were known brands, it was these three because they were basically the only options. Westone had the UM1, but cost almost double and, after eventually owning one, sucked.
Fast forward...a few years and we've reached the point where we've actually reached the point where we can argue we have too many options. I'll admit this review won't be like many of the Orchestra Lite reviews because I haven't kept up with this price range of IEMs. The volatility and release schedule of the <$500 IEM market is such that buying every new product would end up costing me as much as reviewing flagship headphones, so I do have to rely on the generosity of shops like Linsoul to send things for review. This makes this review interesting because I intuitively feel more comfortable being harsh on something I didn't spend my own money on. But honestly, for $250, I don't have much to complain about. I certainly have things to take issue with, which will be listed below, but I'm gobsmacked that something I actually have to focus to critique is affordable enough I don't feel guilty talking about how much I like it.
The Orchestra Lite is an 8 balanced armature, 3-way crossover design from Kiwi Ears, a relatively new brand distributed by Linsoul. This is meant to be a "lite" version of the higher end Orchestra (obviously) but retains a similar 8 BA design and general FR. The unit I received has a blue faceplate with white feathering. It's an attractive design and the shell is pleasantly lacking in bubbles, an issue my Campfire Audio Trifecta had. The Orchestra Lite also comes with an array of tips and a nice, flexible braided copper cable.
The setups used for this review are a Samsung S21FE with UAPP connected to a Fiio Q7 and that same phone connected to a Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo and ALO Continental V2. The Continental emphasized overtones in a way I really didn't like with the Orchestra Lite so I mostly used the Q7. Something I noticed with the Q7 is that it seems to give bass extra heft, dip upper mids, and help with treble extension, so this may be worth taking into account when reading this review.
The Symphonium Helios and Subtonic STORM redefined what "BA bass" can be like, because while they used balanced armatures for bass, they have among the most realistic bass reproductions I've heard in an IEM. I wasn't expecting to be wowed in the same way with the Orchestra Lite's all-BA design but they really are just okay with bass impact. The bass uses vented balanced armatures and they provide bass quantity, but they do seem to lack decay. They do a better job than the BA designs of yore, like the Shure SE535, but powerful they are not. Still, there is a touch of noticeable decay keeping me from being fully annoyed.
The general tilt of the bass seems to be a ~3-4dB rise starting around 200Hz on down, which isn't massive compared to many modern IEMs, but I never found it to be lacking in quantity. This actually is close to my ideal bass quantity in an all-arounder IEM, as it's enough to make bassy music interesting, but doesn't overwhelm vocal music.
If there's one major weak spot with the Orchestra Lite, it's that their midrange timbre does sound noticeably artificial. Horns are lacking the fullness I would expect to hear from them, despite the Orchestra Lite not having any tonal deficiencies that would cause this. Possibly, this is due to a combination of lack of dynamics with decay cutting just too short, leading to an artificial, almost synthesized character.
However, in the grand scheme of things, this is less destructive to sound than FR strangeness. The Orchestra Lite seems to follow the traditional IEM tuning following the rise of pinna gain without much drama. It's overall unobjectionable, which for many people is a good thing. If the timbre isn't enough to cause an issue, the Orchestra Lite doesn't have any other glaring problems in its midrange.
Lately, I've been spoiled by IEMs that extend well into the air, so I was bracing myself for a severe lack of air with the Orchestra Lite. It does seem to lack that last bit of extension, but it doesn't sound veiled and closed in. While I never forget I'm using an IEM as it does lack in spaciousness, it's a far cry from what I've used growing up.
Low treble has a slight sense of unevenness and grit to it, but for non-treble-heavy music, I wasn't bothered by it. For cymbal-heavy music, I did wince a few times though. Mid treble is less dramatic than low treble.
Talking about technical ability with IEMs feels like cheating at times. IEMs are able to isolate the listener from any outside noise, making quiet sounds much easier to hear.
The Orchestra Lite does seem to omit details like decay and dynamic range, but the isolation does help crowd whispers become more audible. Unfortunately, the Orchestra Lite does not always have the resolution to help make those same whispers become more intelligible.
Overall though, I don't feel like I give up as much using this versus, say, a Sennheiser HD560S, so I'd consider that a win.
Using the Orchestra Lite has been sobering; if I'd started my journey using something that sounded as competent as the Orchestra Lite, I don't know if I would have bothered diving in as deep as I have into my headphone systems. While the release of all these same-ish measuring IEMs can be argued as boring, the value in having very solid sound accessible to people who can't afford to spend thousands of dollars on audio is quite a feat.
I can't give any opinion on how these compare against anything that's been released in the past two years in this price range, but from my memory of the Moondrop Blessing 2 Dusk, I actually think the Orchestra Lite sounds less wooly and less artificial, for less money. Considering I had to nitpick to point out the above issues, I do think the Orchestra Lite is a nice, safe recommendation for someone who doesn't know what they are looking for but don't think they want a colored sound signature.
Though I'm not an IEM-focused user, knowing just how much we have progressed since I've started has me thinking about how spoiled we are. We now have so many options that seem "good" that I've seen quite a few people complain about how the market has become boring, wanting more "interesting" options.
I do think there is a place for very colored IEMs, especially in the tiers where people are less price sensitive and can afford to fund weird experimental sound signatures, but I really do think it's a marvel that for less than $300, Kiwi Ears has released an IEM that I don't just tolerate, but am quite happy with. It's certainly not replacing my desktop setup, but I will gladly keep these in my work backpack to use...when I forget to charge my AirPod Pros.