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Moondrop Starfield Review - Best budget in-ear headphones?

Review written by Andrew Park (@resolve)

Review unit provided by Shenzhen Audio.

Introduction

I normally gravitate more towards high end audio products, given that I've been in this hobby for so many years. It can sometimes be difficult to get excited about products that come in at much lower price tags than I might personally be willing to spend. But at the same time, it's crucially important to recognize and praise standout performers that shake up their respective price brackets. Moondrop have been making waves in just about every price category they've entered into, with their budget-friendly Starfield coming in at a mere $110. Going into this review, my only experience with Moondrop IEMs had been of the exceptional Blessing 2 that I tried at CanJam NYC 2020. While I only spent a few minutes with it, it was so good that I was eager to learn more about the brand and excited to get a chance to evaluate some of their products.

Coincidentally, Shenzhen Audio reached out to me to see if I could evaluate the entry-level Starfield. Knowing that this was a very popular IEM, I went into this review with the question of whether or not it's one of these groundbreaking price-to-performance benchmark products that we should all be paying attention to. In the end, I hope to have answered it.

Specs

  • Driver: Carbon Nanotube diaphragm- 10mm Dual cavity dynamic driver
  • Detachable cable standard: 24AWG Litz 4N OFC
  • Interface: 0.78 2pin
  • Sensitivity: 122dB/Vrms(@1khz) 
  • Impedance: 32Ω±15% (@1khz)
  • Frequency response: 10Hz-36000 Hz (free field. 1/4 inch MIC)
  • Effective frequency response: 20Hz-20000 Hz (IEC60318-4)

Sources

Build, Design & Comfort

The Moondrop Starfield is one of the best looking IEMs I've come across. It has a sleek dark blue look with a slight magenta tinge to it, accented by a shimmering gloss that fits appropriately with the moniker 'Starfield' - as if it were a snapshot of the night sky itself. It also feels fairly solid, although there have been some reports of paint flaking off over time. My suspicion is that this will likely depend on how well they're taken care of, so it might be a good idea to put a foam divider into the small round case that it comes with to prevent the two earpieces from touching.

The Starfield's cable is tangle-free and easy to use, with the earpieces using the 2-pin connector style. Importantly it's also light and not stiff so it doesn't get stuck by holding its shape the way many other IEMs and headphones often do.

Because each earpiece is lightweight and on the small to medium side I find them to be very comfortable. Thankfully there's also no hiss when plugging them into a wide range of different sources. Overall this is one of the easiest to use pieces of audiophile equipment I've come across.

Score: 9/10

Performance

The Moondrop Starfield uses a dynamic driver with a 'carbon nanotube' coating. Typically dynamic drivers are used in higher-end hybrid design IEMs to handle bass frequencies due to their high excursion characteristics. This helps impart an improved sense of 'punch' and slam to the music - better than what typical balanced armature drivers are able to do. In the Starfield's case, however, the single dynamic driver's diaphragm makes use of this carbon nanotube technology to improve stiffness and rigidity for better detail retrieval ability and to reproduce higher frequencies as well.

In theory, this allows the IEM to extend much better in the treble than typical dynamic drivers otherwise would. This also means that a preference for improved dynamic slam and impact doesn't necessarily incur the detail and resolution trade-offs that would otherwise accompany the use of a single dynamic driver to handle the entire frequency range.

Detail Retrieval

For detail retrieval, I hear the best image clarity and detail representation in the Starfield's lower midrange. In fact, I find this to be easily the best representation of lower midrange detail in any entry-level IEM so far. With that said, this is still recognizably an entry-level IEM, and its detail limitations show up in the treble. But I do think this is quite a bit better than what would be found in typical dynamic driver IEMs, even if it's not quite on the level of multi-balanced armature driver IEMs that come in around $200. It's a sacrifice I'd be willing to make, partially due to the frequency response as well, which I discuss later on.

Score: 8.5/10

Speed & Dynamics

Because the Starfield uses a dynamic driver, it's able to do an excellent job of giving that sense of slam and impact that I mentioned. It's maybe not quite on the level of the high-end hybrid designs that allocate the dynamic driver exclusively for bass frequencies, but it's still very good - especially for its price range. The Starfield is also impressively tight and well-controlled, in spite of its bass emphasis. This aids with instrument separation, sense of speed and immediacy, and overall cleanliness of the sound.

Score: 9/10

Soundstage & Imaging

For soundstage and imaging, the Starfield takes a step back. Immediately this sounds like more of a two dimensional image to me. Lateral definition is good and it has an appropriate amount of distance to it, however the center image is a bit "in my head". But more importantly, the stage lacks a strong sense of depth. I think this is where the limitation for single driver IEMs starts to show up, especially ones at entry-level pricepoints. So relative to its $110 price tag I don't think the Starfield's stage is all that much to complain about, and it gains some ground back by having excellent instrument separation and distinction - noticeably better than the competition. This is especially evident once again in the lower midrange where I think the Starfield's dynamic driver shines most brightly.

Score: 8/10

Timbre

The nice thing about using a dynamic driver is that you don't get any of the dreaded "balanced armature timbre". For anyone unaware, this is a sort of metallic smearing or straining effect that plagues many multi-BA driver IEMs - even ones that cost over $1000. In some cases this effect can even obscure detail and other technical qualities. The Starfield also doesn't exhibit any perceptible artificial character either that might be imparted by the diaphragm material. And because it doesn't exhibit any of these problems, I have to give it close to top marks for timbre. I think it could sound ever so slightly more natural, but that has more to do with frequency response and tonality than anything else.

Score: 9/10

Tonality

At the moment I'm unable to publish measurements for IEMs due to my current measurement rig's lack of ear-canal shaping of any kind. There's an outer ear pinna, but it doesn't correctly take the ear canal and ear drum gain factors into consideration, and while the compensation attempts to account for this, it's even less accurate. So rather than mislead anyone with speculative measurements, I'll limit this review to how I hear the Moondrop Starfield subjectively. I'm currently looking into better methods of measuring IEMs to provide a more accurate picture in the future.

Thankfully, as far as I'm aware, Moondrop IEMs are generally tuned the Harman target, which means there's a bit of bass emphasis and it has a bit more of a clockwise tilted frequency response (think more relaxed in the treble). For me, I quite like the Starfield's bass shelf. I often find that with more typically 'diffuse field' tuned IEMs, bass tones can get lost in the ambient noise floor that's created by the seal blocking sounds from the world around me.

Moving into the mids, there's nothing out of balance for the most part, nothing sounds muffled or muted. The upper midrange around 2-3khz sounds like it has a bit of an emphasis relative to the frequency ranges above this area, and so it can occasionally sound a bit shouty and throw off guitar tones a bit. But I don't think this is all that noticeable for most recordings. This likely has more to do with 4-7khz being slightly more relaxed, and so you notice the upper midrange forwardness a bit more.

And speaking of the treble, it's not sibilant or fatiguing in any way, and then the energy comes back up above the consonant range beyond 10khz with an exceptional amount of air and resolution. This is perhaps the most surprising part about the Moondrop Starfield - the fact that it's able to be so well extended in the treble without any roll-off, while using a dynamic driver, is all very impressive. Once again, you do start to hear the Starfield's detail limitations in the treble, but I imagine that the use of the cabon nanotube diaphragm (and its increase to diaphragm stiffness) helps accurately reproduce those upper frequencies. It gives the Starfield an extra sense of resolution that, while not as technically 'detailed' as the lower midrange, is still very welcome.

When it comes to IEMs, I have to be a bit more scrutinizing when it comes to scoring tonality and frequency response because not everyone has the ability to use an Astell & Kern SR15 or similar digital audio player that has a built-in EQ system to change the way something sounds when on the go. I think if the upper midrange balance for the Moondrop Starfield has been just a bit better, it would have gotten an even higher score, however, I also haven't yet heard anything at the $110 price range that has a better frequency response and tonality. Maybe that does exist and I just haven't found it yet, but there are also numerous IEMs over the thousand dollar mark that the Moondrop Starfield sounds better than as a result of its excellent tonality as well.

Score: 8.5/10

Comparisons

Brainwavz B400

Coming in at a similar price, the B400 is uses four balanced armature drivers, and to me this imparts slightly better detail retrieval for the treble proper, however the B400 also rolls off in the treble a bit, while the Starfield doesn't. Additionally, the Starfield has much better slam and dynamic impact in the bass, as well a better sense of speed and control - especially for the lower midrange. I think I'd take the Starfield over the B400 for this reason alone.

iBasso IT01s

The IT01s has a much more 'V-shaped' tonality to it, making it perhaps the better choice for EDM or any music that benefits from that more 'fun' sound. But I don't hear any substantial benefit to technical ability over the Starfield that stands out, apart from maybe the soundstage. I think if anyone wants something with a bit more energy in the treble proper, rather than the more relaxed 4-7khz range of the Starfield, the IT01s may be the better choice. But then again it's also a bit more expensive.

Conclusion

With the Starfield, it's clear that Moondrop has paid very close attention to both tonality and technical performance. For anyone considering an IEM under $200, the Starfield should probably be somewhere near the top of that list. For me, at the moment it's somewhat of a benchmark performer at the entry level price bracket. In fact, I keep asking myself if there's any other singular audio product that I'd rather put $110 towards - if I were to only buy one item and that's all I had available to spend - and therefore I absolutely recommend the Moondrop Starfield without hesitation.

Weighted Score: 8.6/10

-Andrew Park (@resolve)

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Check out the video review here:

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Join the discussion about Moondrop IEMs at "The HEADPHONE Community".

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